Hotels and “Do Not Disturb.” “Smart luggage” restrictions. State Department warnings

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the March 2018 issue.

In the Western Sahara, the oasis city of Chinguetti, Mauritania, features the massive minaret of the 13th-century Chinguetti Mosque. Photo: © Sergey Mayorov/123rf

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 505th issue of your monthly foreign-travel and reader-participation magazine. And if you’re seeing a copy of ITN for the first time, step on board, have a seat and buckle up. You’re in for a ride.

What you’re about to experience are the adventures of people who have traveled to places outside of the United States and wanted to share what they found or learned.

Whether they prefer to travel independently, enjoy tours or go cruising, our subscribers are free to write about any and all aspects of travel as well as ask others for recommendations and advice.

If you get excited about travel, too, then see page 9 for how to subscribe, joining others who have been receiving this magazine now for decades, gleaning ideas and inspiration and sending in travel reports. Some of the most traveled people in the world contribute to this forum, and we want to hear from you, too.

Among other features you’ll find in each issue, you’ll also read travel-related news items. I’ve got a couple to start with right here.

The days of “Do Not Disturb” may be coming to an end.

In a change in policy at Hilton hotels, wherever a “Do Not Disturb” sign is hanging on a doorknob, room service is now required to slip a notice under the door letting the occupants know that if the sign should remain there for 24 hours, management may enter and inspect the room, regardless.

In addition, Wynn Resorts, which owns three casinos in Macau, China, instructed its staff to check on any room where a “Do Not Disturb” sign has been on the door for at least 12 hours.

And in December, the Walt Disney Company changed the “Do Not Disturb” signs at its resort in Orlando to read “Room Occupied” and notified guests that each room would now be inspected once every 24 hours, regardless of whether the sign is on the doorknob or not. Of course, before entering, any staff members would knock and announce themselves. 

Among Disney resorts, only the one in Orlando had swapped out its signs as of press time. However, the company said that this policy will eventually be implemented at all of its hotels. Whether the policy would apply on its cruise ships or not was not specified.

None of the hotel chains that have publicly changed their policies have explained why they have chosen to do so. One reason could be to try to prevent crimes from taking place, such as prostitution, drug use or, in extreme cases, planned violence, like the tragic mass shooting that was carried out from a Las Vegas hotel room on Oct. 1, 2017.

In truth, a “Do Not Disturb” sign has never been an actual barrier to entry by management or staff. Most hotel room occupancy contracts give employees the right to enter rooms for specific reasons, such as checking on the welfare of a guest or doing repairs or maintenance, but now, at the hotels named, at least, all rooms will be entered at least once every day or so, regardless of the occupants’ wishes.

Are you a traveler who is into the latest gadgets?

Travelers with “smart luggage” that contains nonremovable batteries will have to find new bags if they plan on flying with any of a growing list of airlines.

Smart luggage is luggage that has battery-powered features, such as GPS tracking hardware, so the bag can be found if it goes missing, or USB ports for recharging electronics. Typically, this type of luggage runs off of lithium-ion batteries, and these can overheat and catch fire under certain conditions. 

As of Jan. 15, smart luggage from which the batteries cannot be removed is banned from being checked onto any flights of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Australia. If the battery can be removed, the bag can be checked without the battery, which can be taken on board the plane in a carry-on. 

Carry-on bags that are “smart” must also have the ability to have their batteries removed, in case the bag has to be checked due to insufficient overhead space in the cabin of the plane.

Many other airlines around the world are considering a similar ban.

Lithium-ion batteries have been a concern for airlines for some time. Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones were banned from most airlines in November 2016 due to a manufacturing flaw in the batteries that caused them to regularly catch fire, even while not in use. (Samsung recalled all Galaxy Note 7 phones because they could not repair the flaw.) A similar ban was enacted on hoverboards, as their batteries showed a similar tendency. 

In March 2017, the US Department of Homeland Security briefly banned electronics larger than a cell phone from carry-on bags on flights from countries they deemed to have insufficient security procedures. However, airlines complained that having those electronics in the cargo hold was more dangerous due to the threat posed by lithium-ion batteries. That ban was rescinded on June 28 and replaced with new security guidelines. 

You’ll notice, at the end of this month’s “News Watch” section, that we no longer have a list of countries for which the US Department of State has issued Travel Warnings. That’s because, as I explained last month, the Department came to the conclusion that a blanket warning against travel to a country can be misleading. Instead, safety rankings of specific areas within a country will give a more precise picture of where it is safe, or unsafe, to travel.

The Department’s safety rankings are on a scale from 1 to 4. Travelers heading to an area ranked 1 should “Exercise normal precautions,” while a ranking of 4 advises “Do not travel (there).”

The new ranking system was launched in early January, and we have learned, for example, that the country of Mexico is currently ranked as a 2 (for crime) but that five states within Mexico — Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas — are each ranked 4.

One place new to the Department’s list is Antarctica, which is a 2 (for “environmental hazards posed by extreme and unpredictable weather”).

All countries are listed. Visit travel.state.gov and click on “Travel Advisories” at the top of the page.

CORRECTIONS to note —

• Kenneth W. Turja of Indialantic, Florida, wrote to me, “Contrary to what you wrote in the January 2018 issue — ‘Tourism to Cuba by US citizens has been illegal since 1963’ — from late 1977 to 1982, US citizens could travel freely to Cuba with no hassles and no permission from the Treasury Department necessary, provided they were not born in Cuba.

“From Aug. 18, 1978, until April 1982, my company, Tropicana Tours, operated tours/flights nonstop from Miami to Havana every Monday and Friday for all those not born in Cuba. Our tours did not have to be related to educational or religious enterprises or family visitations, and participants could be on their own if they so desired. My company arranged the visas.

“With our first departure in August 1978, I was proud to have operated the first Miami-Havana flight for tourists in 16 years.”

“The 5-year window was made possible thanks to President Jimmy Carter. Soon after Ronald Reagan took office, his administration stopped all travel to Cuba by US citizens without Treasury Department permission, unless they were Cuban born.”

“This historical footnote is almost never mentioned in articles about US citizens traveling to Cuba.”

• John Penisten of Hilo, Hawaii, wrote, “I’m writing re the story ‘A 42-day Journey Through the Islands of the South Pacific’ by Victor Antola (Feb. ’18, pg. 30). The article should have been titled “… Through the Pacific Islands,” as some of the island groups noted in the story are not in the South Pacific. The Philippines, Palau, Micronesia and the Northern Marianas are actually in the North Pacific.”

In this issue, we’re presenting subscribers’ responses to an information request from Carol Greene about extra-long tours. After being sent an advance copy of the compilation, Carol wrote, “Thank you so much for the information. It gave me impetus to seek out other tours, from the main cities into the countryside.

“And thank you for such a wonderful resource magazine. It is more than worth its weight in gold.”

Here are a couple more requests for info from ITN subscribers.

• Pat Ove of Aurora, Colorado, wrote, “Reading Stanley Mui’s article about his 10-day trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, for less than $1,000 (June ’17, pg. 44) brought back many happy memories of the $100-a-day trips my husband and I took for 20 years before age and mobility problems caught up to my husband. Using suggestions in a January 2010 ITN article, ‘Pinching Pennies in Paris,’ we once spent five days in Paris for less than $500 each, including hotel. Trips like this can be done! 

“This type of travel requires lots of research and planning, but it brings a sense of discovery and adventure plus interactions with friendly people all over the world as you figure out the local transportation network and find your own way, often in a language you don’t know.

“There must be many budget travelers reading ITN who are having exciting adventures discovering the world on $100 a day. I would love to read about their journeys. (For purposes of this information request, and considering inflation, perhaps the total of $100 per day should not include overseas airfare.)”

If you have information about visiting anyplace outside of the US for $100 per day or less (not including international airfare), tell us how you did it. Approximately when was your trip? What were your modes of travel? What sorts of accommodations did you use, and how did you go about finding them? What did you do for meals? What other budget-travel tricks of the trade can you provide?

Subscribers, email editor@intltravelnews.com or write to The World on $100 a Day, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. (Photos are welcome.) Include the address at which you receive ITN. Select responses will be printed in ITN.

• And I’m reprinting this request from Linda Beuret of Santa Barbara, California: “My husband, Peter, and I were very interested to read the letter ‘The Case for Do-it-yourself Travel’ by Robert Carrelli (Dec. ’17, pg. 27). We lived and worked in Europe for 12 years and did exactly as he says; we planned and organized our own trips, mostly driving throughout Europe.

“But now, at 79, we seem to do more tours, leaving the driving to others. Mr. Carrelli stated that, at 86, he still rents cars and drives on his vacations. I know that in some countries, such as Ireland, many agencies will not rent autos to persons over 75, and I am wondering if other travelers have found any difficulty renting autos anywhere else in Europe due to age.”

If you are a traveler of advanced years who has rented a vehicle outside of the US recently, particularly in Europe, please share your experiences. In which country were you not allowed to rent a vehicle because you were over an age limit? What were you told or what did you read? What was the limit? Approximately when (year) did this occur? What are other pertinent details? Did you find an alternative?

Email/write to Senior Drivers of Rental Cars, c/o ITN (see above), and include your mailing address.

This is the last month in which to send in your email or postcard with a list of the countries you visited last year (outside of your own). After March 31, we’re holding the drawings for prizes.

Knowing the places our readers are traveling to helps us in selecting items to print, and the data is also used to attract potential advertisers, which are important for keeping this magazine in the pink.

If you’re a subscriber, write to Where Were You in 2017?, and include your address.

I’ll announce the poll results and prize winners in the June issue. After I did that last year, Carla De Went of Grandville, Michigan, wrote, “I saw that none of your readers responded that they had traveled to Mauritania last year. Well, I wanted to let you know that I was in Mauritania in October of 2016, so someone DID go there! 

“We were a group of four traveling with Spiekermann Travel Service (Eastpointe, MI; 800/645-3233, www.mideasttrvl.com). Mauritania is a country of lovely, friendly people and unexpectedly varied scenery. I also traveled to northern Pakistan in May 2016 with Spiekermann, and that trip may have set the bar for memorable experiences and scenery. 

“Next year, you can be sure I’ll be responding to the ‘Where in the World?’ query in a timely manner.”

I checked. Carla emailed us her list this year on January 22. Get yours in!