Spy-ware warning for visitors to Xinjiang. Rush passports. Passengers' rights on Canada flights

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the September 2019 issue.

The Hartland Covered Bridge, built in 1901 and covered in 1921, is the world’s longest covered bridge, stretching 1,282 feet over the Saint John River in New Brunswick, Canada.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 523rd issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine. This is the public forum where you can send in your travel experiences, observations and opinions to be printed alongside those of your fellow subscribers. Unlike in online-only forums, however, in this public space the material undergoes fact-checking before being published.

Also, travel companies about whom complaints are written are each given an opportunity to provide a response. ITN has a long tradition of presenting differing viewpoints but without the rancor, victimizing or sensationalizing so commonly found in social media.

In all that we print, our goal is to provide accurate information that is of help or interest to travelers. And if you’re reading a sample copy for the first time, you’ll also notice that this magazine only covers destinations outside of the United States.

We dispense travel news as well, and there’s much to tell this month.

In early July, a team of investigative journalists from the New York Times and other publications revealed that Chinese border authorities have been installing a spy-ware app onto the smartphones of travelers entering Xinjiang overland from Central Asia. (Xinjiang, the westernmost province in China, is bordered by India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia.)

Xinjiang is home to the Uighur ethnic group, a Turkic people, most of whom practice Islam, in contrast to China’s state-sponsored atheism. The relationship between the central Chinese government and the Uighur is extremely tense, with the government cracking down on Uighur groups that are pushing for more autonomy or even independence.

When crossing into Xinjiang, visitors are required to hand over their smartphones to border guards. In some cases at least, those guards have been installing an app called Fengcai, a word which describes the act of bees collecting pollen.

This app searches through all of the information contained in a phone, including contacts, pictures, texts and call histories, ostensibly to look for images or texts related to Islam but also for things such as writings or photos of the Dalai Lama and, for reasons unknown, a particular song by a Japanese metal band.

The app completes this scan at the border, but, unless removed by the owner, it remains on the phone. According to the New York Times report, findings of researchers at the University of Toronto indicated that the app did not scan the phone again after the initial scan. However, Fengcai could still contain malicious code that could make the owner’s personal information vulnerable to intrusion.

A reminder — many a country requires that a visitor’s passport still be current at least six months from the date he or she exits that country, so remain aware of the expiration date on yours.

As for getting a new passport, having a name changed on one, replacing a passport that has been lost or stolen or getting one renewed, the US Department of State announced on June 1 that the processing time (not including shipping) would be increased to six to eight weeks from the previous four to six weeks due to a staffing shortage (Aug. ’19, pg. 4).

The State Department does provide an option for quicker service, with processing in three to four weeks, for an additional $60. However, for people who need passports right away, the company RushMyPassport, in conjuction with FedEx, is now working with the Department to offer faster turnarounds.

To have an application for a new or renewed passport processed in as little as 24 hours (again, not including shipping), all you need to do is go to a FedEx Office store or visit the website fedex.rushmypassport.com and fill out the application. (To find the nearest FedEx Office store location, visit www.fedex.com/en-us/office and click on “Locations,” then on “Find A Location.”)

Getting a passport this way is far from cheap. The State Department itself charges $170 for processing, and if you choose the new service’s fastest processing time, one business day, it will cost an additional $449.

Even the cheapest level of this service, with processing in eight to 10 business days, costs $119, and that does not include FedEx’s shipping fee or the amount of time it takes to have the passport delivered. (Delivery can take up to a week, depending on one’s location and the option chosen, the fastest being priority overnight delivery for up to $55.)

But if you’re in a pinch and need a new or renewed passport right away, the service offered by FedEx and RushMyPassport is now your best option.

Heading north, eh?

New passenger-protection laws went into effect in Canada on July 16 that give flyers more rights when they are denied boarding or their baggage is lost or damaged. These rules apply to any airline flying to or from a Canadian airport.

According to the rules, found at rppa-appr.ca, anyone involuntarily denied boarding due to a flight’s having been overbooked will be given compensation based on the length of the delay in getting to her or his destination. A delay of zero to six hours will result in an award of CAD900 (near $685), a delay of six to nine hours will net a flyer CAD1,800, and a delay of more than nine hours will result in compensation of CAD2,400.

This delay is counted only from the airport of origin to the next stop, not to the final destination if it is different. For example, with a Toronto-Chicago-Denver route, if a denied boarding in Toronto results in a passenger’s arriving in Chicago three hours late, causing her to have to rebook her flight to Denver, where she will now arrive eight hours late, the passenger would receive compensation only for the 3-hour delay.

As for compensation for lost or damaged baggage, a passenger can claim up to CAD2,100 for lost baggage. A bag is considered lost if it has not been delivered by the day after the airline had scheduled it to arrive, at which time the flyer can immediately file a claim. If the bag is subsequently delivered, she may still be eligible to receive some compensation.

Claims regarding damaged bags will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

These rules are the first step in a 2-step rollout. In December, regulations will be implemented regarding delayed and canceled flights. What the compensation would be for those had not been revealed as of press time, but it will be based on carrier size and length of delay.

As well, airlines flying to or from Canada will be required to get each passenger to her or his final destination in the same fare class that was purchased, even if it means booking her or him on another airline.

A CLARIFICATION

After announcing that it was ending the “People-to-People Travel” category of license for Americans traveling to Cuba, though it was still allowing travel under the “Support for the Cuban People Travel” category (as I reported last month), the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Treasury Department clarified that American visitors to Cuba are not restricted to lodging only in private homes (casas particulares) but can also still stay in hotels, so long as they are not on the list of establishments banned by the US Department of State because they are owned by the Cuban government or military.

Further, tour operators that were running tours to Cuba under the People-to-People license now are operating under the Support for the Cuban People license, and almost all are continuing to use hotels, just not establishments on the Cuba Restricted List (visit www.state.gov/cuba-sanctions/cuba-restricted-list).

In this issue, we’re printing a few letters from travelers who, for the most part, get by overseas just fine, thank you, without using smartphones, laptops or other high-tech personal devices.

They’re in the minority, however. In a report released by Phocuswright’s US Mobile Traveler, in 2017, two out of three US travelers shopped for or booked flights or hotels on a mobile device.

Also, curiously, people who used their smartphones to plan and book travel were more likely to take more trips and to spend more on travel.

For those of you who do have Internet access, in addition to the “Person to Person” section in this magazine, another place where travel questions can be answered directly (and, sometimes, more quickly) by other travelers is ITN’s Message Board, accessible from our home page, www.intltravelnews.com.

Nonsubscribers can read the conversations online, but they’re not allowed to participate in the discussions. Only ITN subscribers who have opened ITN Online accounts can post, and we’ve made that process easy. See the box on page 46 regarding setting up an ITN Online account (or read my step-by-step walk-through of the short process in my April 2019 column).

As soon as you’ve filled out the form, you’ll have immediate access to the Message Board, not to mention the full content of ITN’s website (something else with restrictions for nonsubscribers). The archives of articles and letters is great for trip-planning.

Sign up, if you haven’t yet, and see what you can discover!