State Department website lists where American travelers have died abroad

The LA Times recently linked to a tool on the US State Department website that allows you to search by date range and country to find out where around the world Americans have died of “non-natural” causes.

The information goes back to 2002. No names or details of the deaths are disclosed, they are only reported as suicide, drowning, drug-related, homicide, disaster, or vehicle, air or maritime accident, and listed according to date. The disclaimer on the site states that the stats may not be entirely accurate however, as they only represent those deaths disclosed to the State Department.

So can this tool tell you where you should or shouldn’t go based on your likelihood of drowning, getting into an accident, or being killed as a tourist there? Not really. Circumstances of the deaths are, of course, not disclosed and there is no distinction between expats or people who have lived in the country for many years and those who are tourists visiting on vacation.

Even countries with high numbers of deaths shouldn’t automatically be crossed off your list. Mexico, for example, lists 126 American deaths in 2009. 36 of those were homicides. Sounds like a big number, but not as big compared to the 2.6 million Americans who fly to Mexico every year. As the LA Times points out, “the odds overwhelmingly suggest that your vacation will be nonfatal.”

Airline secret societies

There’s a special type of membership level, but the airlines don’t want you to know about it … unless you’re dropping an easy $50,000 a year on full fare tickets with the same airline. The topic, which comes up from time to time, is in the headlines again thanks to the work of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

American Airlines is mentioned in the flick, but the carrier won’t talk about the subject itself. No details have been released on how to attain these levels of air travel greatness, except the obvious: you need to be a rich frequent traveler or control a company where a lot of people are on the road all the time. The perks of this secret society include fantastic upgrades, bat-phones to experienced agents who answer on the first ring, priority check-in, lounge access and airport escorts when you’re layover’s about to go under. Simply, it translates to real customer service, a rarity in this industry.

Status has become a commodity, with double miles bonuses and other tricks helping frequent flyers amp up their accounts faster, a side-effect of airlines looking to make their passengers as loyal as possible. Because of this, anyone who wants to be a real player — e.g., American’s ConciergeKey, Continental‘s Chairman’s Circle and United‘s Global Services — will have to pierce the inner circle.

Only 20,000 of United’s 1 million program members were allowed into United’s program, which requires 100,000 miles or 100 segments. Delta is the most secretive, with Executive Partner status, which has been replaced by Diamond Medallion level status, requiring 125,000 qualifying miles or 140 qualifying segments.

Okay, so you can figure out all the basic benefits — just like every other status, only faster and bigger and bitter. And then, it isn’t hard to let your mind wander to such upsides as confirming upgrades 120 hours in advance (instead of 100 hours). But, this only scratches the surface. Forrester Research reveals that airlines know which planes have the greatest VIP density and use this to assign gate priority. A Continental passenger and Chairman’s Circle member — who took more than 300 flights and traveled more than 400,000 miles (no bonus miles tucked in there) — was able to finagle some time on an MD-80 slight simulator, because the airline values his business.

See, it is possible to get some love from the airlines. You just have to be ready to spend an absolute fortune … and make the airline need you.



Are you planning a mileage run? Four reasons to rush to the airport

There are only a few weeks left in 2009, and frequent travelers across the country are staring more intently at their mileage statements than Santa does at the naughty/nice list. The stakes are high: miss the elite cutoff, and a year of upgrades, accelerated check-in and other perks disappear. For passengers who see gold or platinum status levels within reach, year-end “mileage runs” can make a great investment. Pay for a cheap flight, even if it is just for a night or a same-day return, and use this benefit for the next twelve months on upgrades and services that would cost a fortune otherwise.

With the low prices airlines are offering these days to bring passengers back into the cabin, the return on your investment in a “mileage run” is higher than ever. But, it’s not all to the flyer’s benefit … there’s an upside for the airlines, too. They get loyalty.

Randy Petersen, founder of, a website for frequent travelers, told USA Today, “Whenever someone doesn’t requalify for elite status, they become free agents. And in tough times, airlines don’t want to gamble that some of their best customers will leave.” He puts the number of elite-level passengers at 7.3 million of the 210 million passengers who belong to at least one loyalty program.

So, the airlines are rolling out the red carpet for mileage runners. Here are four mileage run deals to kick around with the end of the year approaching.

1. Through December 15, 2009, American, Continental and United are doubling the elite-qualifying miles they give their passengers. So, a shorter mileage run goes a little further.

2. In the middle of next year, Continental and Untied are going to give each other’s elite passengers unlimited upgrades (based on availability) on domestic flights — and premium coach seats, too. So, if you hit the right status on either airline this year, you’ll gain even more for your efforts.

3. Starting in the spring, Delta will let you roll over extra elite-qualifying miles and credits you don’t need to reach a status level to the next year. So, you don’t have to worry about starting from zero when January 1, 2011 rolls around.

4. Delta is also adding a new top level — diamond — that will include even better perks, including free Sky Club membership.

For the frequent business traveler, especially, reaching a high elite level involves so much more than bragging rights. It defines your lifestyle for the next year — from how early you need to get up on Monday morning to your mood when you get home Thursday or Friday night. But, there are better measures to watch than up-ticks in frequent flyer accounts. My friend and former coworker from the road warrior days put it best: “The only thing better [than accumulating airline and hotel status levels] is watching them expire.” Yeah, nothing tops getting off the road for a while when you live that life.

Odds are, you’ll be on a smaller plane

Airlines are using the little planes for longer runs, these days. According to the Las Vegas Sun, the average regional airline flight hit 461 miles in 2008, up profoundly from 274 miles in 2009. That’s an increase of 41 percent! This is an industry-wide trend, so shopping around isn’t likely to help you get a larger jet. The major carriers are relying on regional affiliates, so you’ll probably be out of luck. The regionals fly more than half the flights from some pretty hefty airports, including LaGuardia, O’Hare, Milwaukee, Raleigh and Memphis. And, these airlines account for 45% of the traffic at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International, the busiest airport in the United States.

American Airlines and United announced that they were adopting this approach back in September, particularly at airports such as Chicago and Denver. Delta has moved its Washington-to-New York shuttle to one of its regional carriers, as well.

[Via USA Today]

Seven travel-related things to be thankful for

While travel as the act of discovering a new place can be exhilarating and exciting, travel as the act of being in transit can be annoying and exhausting. Long lines, delays, rude people and all the frustrations that go along with moving large amounts of people from A to B can make the physical movement involved with travel something to really complain about. But this Thanksgiving, I wanted to take a step back and think about all the travel-related things that we do have to be thankful for.

I’m thankful for the airlines.
I know, I know, we spend a lot of time griping about all the things the airlines are doing wrong. They run late, they lose our luggage and they charge us extra for everything, but without them, traveling would be a completely different experience. Thanks to the airlines, we can leave home and arrive on the other side of the world within a day – a single day. That kind of immediate access to a far off country was unfathomable just a few decades ago. Back then undertaking a long-distance journey meant days, if not weeks spent on a train or a trans-Oceanic boat ride. And for all but the rich, that kind of travel was cramped, uncomfortable, dirty, and often dangerous. So I’m thankful for the airlines, for making long-distance travel quick, affordable and safe, and for allowing us to travel the world with relative ease.
I’m thankful for hardworking airline and airport staff.
I’m very grateful to airline staff, especially to the good pilots (you know, the ones who aren’t too drunk, crazy or horny to do their jobs) who do everything in their power to get us all to our destinations safely. I’m thankful for mechanics, baggage handlers and ground crew who work hard and are rarely recognized for it (Seriously, just think about the massive coordination it must require to sort, load and unload all that luggage and you’ll be surprised more isn’t lost). And I am very, very thankful for the cheerful flight attendants who probably put up with far too much crap from stressed and cranky fliers, yet still manage to serve my vodka and cranberry drinks promptly and with a smile.
I’m thankful that booze is still served on flights.
Chris Elliot may think it’s time to get rid of the booze on flights, but as a nervous flier, this girl needs a cocktail or two to help stay calm during rough flights. I’m even more thankful for the handful of carriers that still offer free drinks on international flights. You guys get my business over an airline that charges for drinks, every time.
I’m thankful for a job that allows me to travel
It’s easy to lament the high cost of traveling or that fact that we never seem to have enough vacation time to fulfill all our travel dreams. But the truth is, for most middle-class workers, travel is very attainable. With a little bit of penny pinching and some attention to the budget, most people can scrape together enough money for at least one vacation per year.
But for the thousands of Americans who are supporting a family on an income that is at or below the poverty line, no amount of “cutting back” will allow them to afford a week in Spain, let alone a weekend in Florida. So I am thankful that my husband and I are able to earn an income that allows us to explore the world.
I’m thankful for the internet.
Before the internet, booking a trip was a difficult process, one best left to the professionals. But the invention of the internet and its easy access to nearly unlimited information has changed the way we plan trips. Now anyone can go online, search for the best flight fares, book tickets, search for a hotel, check the reviews, and make reservations all with a few clicks.
And even though we complain when wi-fi isn’t free at hotels and airports, I’m still just grateful that it exists at all. With wireless internet, I can stay connected and get important work done while I am waiting in the airport terminal, at my hotel, and even while I am 35,000 feet in the air! The idea of being “location independent”, of working from anywhere remotely, was unheard of 10-15 years ago. Now thousands of people are able to explore the world and stay connected to their careers.

I’m thankful for my American passport.
As an American, I am free to go almost anywhere in the world knowing that in most cases (with the exceptions of North Korea, Cuba….and maybe Paris), I’ll be welcomed with open arms. People in many other countries aren’t so lucky. For people of many other countries the Visa process is a long, complicated and expensive one, one that usually ends in rejection. Would-be visitors are turned away from our (and other) borders every day. Because we fear they may be terrorists or because we wonder if they might not plan on ever leaving, we refuse to let them in. But it’s very rare that we ever hear of an American tourist being denied entry to another country. It’s one thing I take for granted, but I’m very thankful that I have the freedom to travel the world as I please.

I’m thankful for my husband and my home.
I enjoy traveling by myself and with friends, but I love traveling with my husband the most. So I am thankful that I not only have a person in my life who loves me and supports my travel habit, but who also loves to travel as a couple with me. And I am thankful that after I venture out into the world, I have a loving home to return to.

So today, and everyday, let’s remember all the little things we have to be thankful for!