Frequent flyers and canceled-booking fees. Onsens ranked in Japan

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the April 2016 issue.
A common subject for painters — the watch tower of Edo Castle, part of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by David Tykol

Dear Globetrotter:
Welcome to the 482nd issue of ITN, your monthly foreign travel magazine.

We’re getting some informative emails and letters in response to our request ‘Tell us about a time when you submitted a claim — medical or nonmedical — to a travel insurance company and expected reimbursement but had your claim denied.’ We’re still accepting mail on that, as explained in the box on page 28.
Since ITN is all about travelers getting advice and recommendations from other travelers, here are a couple of information requests from two of our subscribers.
• Diane Robbins of Penfield, New York, wrote, “In a recent issue, I was reading an article about a world cruise and it got me thinking. I was wondering how these cruisers handle their medications, making sure they have enough for the entire cruise. I would like to hear from the readership on this.”
Those of you who are away from home for long periods, what preparations do you make for your supply of pills, etc.? Email editor@intl or write to Packing Prescriptions, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Include the address at which you receive ITN. Responses will be printed in a future issue.
• Wendy Bach of Minneapolis, Minnesota, wrote, “My husband and I are now 63 and in good health, and we want to chart out the active ‘this is the time to do it’ type of trips. We love hiking and biking and have taken bike tours. We haven’t done much of the big-group tours; we tend to plan our own itineraries and make our own arrangements.
“So here is my question for ITN readers: If you could design the ideal sequence of places to visit and experiences to have for our next 10 years, our really active years — considering what is best to see while we can go walking, hiking, biking, etc. — what countries and experiences would you put on the list, and how would you prioritize them?”
Have ideas for the Bachs? Share your suggestions on Active Years Travel Choices, c/o ITN (see address previously mentioned).

There’s something that ITN subscriber Gary Schaub of Walnut Creek, California, wants frequent flyers to be aware of.
Booked to return from Europe in October 2015 on an American Airlines flight from Zürich to Boston and continue home on a United Airlines flight from Boston to San Francisco, Gary and his wife canceled those bookings more than three months out and booked a direct flight home from Zürich to San Francisco on American Airlines.
Gary had purchased his United tickets using his United Airlines Mileage Plus miles. To “recredit” Mr. Schaub’s frequent-flyer miles to his account, United charged him two $200 service fees (one for each ticket awarded).
Gary wrote to ITN, “We believe that United’s fee is out of line and should be reduced, given that the airline would have several months to ‘resell’ the fare to another customer.”
In a letter to United, he also made the point (regarding tickets originally purchased with award miles, not with cash or a credit card), “In my review of the penalties for redepositing award tickets, I see that both of United’s major competitors, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have lowered their redeposit fees. For example, American Airlines charges only a $150 penalty on the first ticket and reduces the penalty to $25 on the second ticket.”
A United representative wrote back to Mr. Schaub, stating that the airline does incur costs when a traveler elects not to fly in a reserved seat and pointing out that a notice about the fee appears on its website as well as during the booking process. The notice states that if a traveler chooses to cancel a flight and redeposit miles back into his account, there will be a $200 fee and all previously incurred taxes and fees will be refunded.
In addition, if the traveler chooses to leave his tickets in the computer system as unused tickets, he will have one year from the date the tickets were issued to travel on a new itinerary, and when the new flights are booked, there will be a lower fee, $75, if the origin and destination airports remain the same (and he is booking 21 days or more prior to the date of travel) or there will be a fee of $100 if there are any changes (or he books fewer than 21 days before the travel date).
Additionally, United Mileage Plus Premier Silver, Gold and Platinum members have further-reduced fees for all cancellations and changes.
Advance notices aside, Gary wanted this message delivered: “Our hope is that other United Airlines Mileage Plus members will be aware of the penalties issued by the airline when canceling an award ticket.”
He added, “The published rate for our economy flight from Boston to San Francisco was $315 each ($630 for both of us), so it worked out that our penalty for recrediting the original award miles cost us 63% of the value of the cash fare.

Let’s relax for a moment.
In Japan, bathing in onsens (hot springs) has long been a staple of Japanese culture, as it is believed to improve one’s health. Onsens are also popular with foreign visitors looking for a taste of traditional Japan.
In late December, the largest travel service booking company in Japan, Rakuten Travel (, released its onsen popularity rankings for 2015.
Through Rakuten’s website, travelers can book rooms at more than 18,000 hotels in Japan as well as car rentals and cultural experiences. The top 20 onsen locations were determined based on the number of overnight stays booked from Nov. 1, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2015, at hotels and resorts in the cities where the onsen resorts are located.
The word “onsen” can refer to a specific hotel or spa or it can mean a group of hot springs in a particular area, usually within a single city. For these ratings, Rakuten used the latter definition, thus the rankings could include any resort within each area ranked.
For the time period mentioned, the onsens found to be the most popular were those in the city of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture in southeastern Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Atami’s popularity can be explained by its proximity to Tokyo (less than an hour away by train) and to the ocean.
The second-most popular onsens were those in Beppu, on Japan’s southernmost major island, Kyushu. These are, by water discharged, the second-largest hot springs in the world, after those in Yellowstone National Park in the US. However, unlike in Yellowstone, the onsens in Beppu are available for bathing. (Beppu actually contains eight major hot spring areas, historically known as the Eight Hells of Beppu.)
Ranking in third place were the onsens of Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture, centrally located on Honshu. The water in Kusatsu’s onsens originates at altitudes as high as 4,000 feet, and the town is known for its more traditional bathhouses and inns.
The rest of the onsens ranked fell in the following descending order: Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture; Kinugawa, also in Tochigi; Shirahama in Wakayama; Ito¯ in Shizuoka; Akiu in Miyagi; Dogo in Ehime; Gero in Gifu; Ikaho in Gunma; Yufuin in O¯ita; Arima in Hyogo; Yumoto in Fukushima; Echigo-Yuzawa in Niigata; Hida-Takayama in Gifu; Jozankei in Hokkaido; Hakone Yumoto in Kanagawa; Gora in Kanagawa, and Kami-Suwa in Nagano.
It’s important to remember, when visiting an onsen, that there are very specific rules of conduct to follow to ensure that you do not insult your hosts or ruin the bathing experience for other guests.
You are expected to wash yourself at provided cleaning stations before entering a bath, and the water you use to clean yourself is not to mix with the bath water.
Also, be aware that, traditionally, Japanese onsen bathers are nude. Taking anything but your birthday suit into the bath water — even a towel or washcloth — can be seen as dirtying the water, so wearing swim trunks would be seen as exceptionally rude.
While most onsens have separate bathing areas for men and women, some of the more traditional ones still have mixed-gender baths. If you are uncomfortable with this, inquire whether or not any gender-specific baths are available.
One other important piece of information that may affect some travelers — almost all onsens will not allow a person with tattoos to bathe. In Japan, tattoos are commonly associated with criminals and the Yakuza, an organized crime cartel. Because of this, many Japanese people are uncomfortable around tattoos, even if the person bearing one is clearly not a criminal.
At a few onsens, where it is understood that visitors from other countries do not follow the same customs, exceptions might be made. At some others, waterproof patches are available to place over smaller tattoos. Nevertheless, any guests with tattoos should not assume they will be allowed to bathe at an onsen.
For foreign visitors, advice on proper behavior plus maps to and reviews of onsens can be found at

Corrections and clarifications —
• Regarding the Travel Brief “Landslide in SE China,” about a deadly landslide in Shenzhen (Feb. ’16, pg. 18), subscribers Gordon Draper of Livonia, Michigan, and Al Podell of New York, New York, alerted us to an error. As Al wrote, “The landslide did not cover ‘over 380,000 square miles of land,’ which is nearly half again the size of Texas. I assume you meant square meters?”
Yes, square meters, not square miles.
• Theodore Liebersfeld of Boynton Beach, Florida, wrote, “I enjoyed the series of letters on ‘Cemeteries Worth a Visit’ (October 2015 through March 2016 issues). Indeed, cemeteries make for fascinating travel highlights because of their historical context as well as their creative and architectural significance.
“I noticed a minor error in the write-up on the Taukkyan War Cemetery (Feb. ’16, pg. 39). It states, ‘… located off Highway 1 in the township of Mingaladon, 17 kilometers north of the capital, Yangon.’ In fact, the capital of Myanmar is Naypyi­daw, moved there from Yangon in November 2005, though the official name wasn’t announced until March 27, 2006. Apparently, Naypyidaw is a secretive place.”
For the record, that error was made not by the writer but by ITN editors (starting with me).
• Edmund Deaton of San Diego, California, wrote, “In the March 2016 article ‘Walking Scotland’s John Muir Way,’ on page 7 the statement is made, ‘Wanting the wind at our backs, we chose to walk east to west.’ This should be ‘west to east’; the article does describe a walk west to east.”
Ed continued, “I have not walked the John Muir Way, but in 1999 I walked Wainwright’s coast-to-coast trail in England from the North Sea to the Irish Sea. We went east to west, with the wind in our faces.”
Kathy Wilhelm of Cary, North Carolina, wrote in about that directional error, too, and added, “Scotland’s John Muir Way might be an interesting option for those who find the Hadrian’s Wall Path too short.”
In that same article, written by Frank Cunningham, please note that credit for all of the photos should have been given to Stephanie Cunningham, Frank’s daughter. We’re sorry for that oversight, Stephanie.
• Kathy Wilhelm also requested clarification about another item. She wrote, “In the article on St. Petersburg (March ’16, pg. 18), I was surprised to read that a Russian visa could cost upward of $600. I don’t remember mine costing anything like that, but that was 12 years ago.”
A Russian visa can be purchased for less by going through the consulate directly, as the article’s author mentioned. (The Russian Consulate recommends applying in person at a designated Russian Visa Center, offices located in Washington, DC; New York, NY; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA, and Houston, TX. Applying there well before your planned departure, you will pay a $160 base fee plus a $33 processing fee.)
Nevertheless, the $600 figure can be reached in certain situations. For example, if you use a visa-processing agency, such as CIBT (used by the author), then, in addition to the visa’s base cost, you will be charged a fee for the agency’s service and fees for any extra services requested, such as obtaining the required letter of invitation (listed online by CIBT as costing $115), plus the costs for shipping and, if necessary, expedited processing.
Note that applying for a Russian visa by mail is no longer permitted.

We appreciated this note from Rosemary Buck of Laguna Niguel, California: “I really enjoy my copy of ITN every month. It’s my favorite travel resource.”
From Williamsburg, Virginia, Barbara McMahon wrote, “I am a longtime subscriber, having been turned on to this magazine many years ago by my hairdresser, who was a very adventurous traveler.
“One of the things I enjoy most is reading the stories of travelers who are fearless in their adventures and travel around the globe to very remote areas on their own. My husband and I did much independent travel when we were younger, but our adventures do not rival those of some other subscribers. I love ITN.”
And Rosemary McDaniel of Trenton, Florida, wrote, “Thank you for a great publication. This long-term subscriber appreciates all you do.”
Based on those comments, I think I’m safe in asserting that a subscription to ITN would make a great gift for anyone you know who enjoys international travel. A year’s worth costs only $2 per issue, and a 3-year subscription brings the price down to under a buck sixty per month. A pack of gum costs more. See page 9 for the numbers. And keep the letters coming.