That’s sick! 8 ways to avoid the bug

It’s virus season, and that means you’ll probably be enduring a lot more stories like these:

• Passengers on a recent 16-day Canary Islands cruise aboard Cunard’s brand new megaship Queen Victoria were infected by a norovirus-type bug whose symptoms included diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. The British press called it the “Curse of Camilla” in honor of the Duchess of Cornwall, who christened the vessel.

• Health officials recently confirmed 83 cases of a highly contagious stomach virus, also thought to be the norovirus, at Hilton Singer Island Resort in Palm Beach, Fla. There’s no word on the source of the contagion.
• An Iowa couple has sued Trostel’s Greenbriar Restaurant and Bar in Johnston, Iowa, after county officials determined the man who prepared the salad served at their wedding rehearsal dinner that night had stomach flu. Five members of the wedding party were rushed to the emergency room after dinner. The official cause was determined to be — you guessed it — norovirus.

Ahh, virus season. Never a shortage of gut-wrenching stories with which to shock you, dear readers.

But I don’t bring up these barf-fests in order to embarrass Cunard, Hilton or the owners of the Greenbriar, or to leave you feeling queasy and reluctant to travel anywhere, but to underscore the First “never-ever” of travel: Never forget to wash your hands.

Wash them real good. Health experts say you should lather up with a generous squirt of antibacterial soap, warm water and sing “Happy Birthday” all the way through — twice — to nuke the germs. Got that? Happy Birthday.

While we’re at it, here are eight other things you should never do when you’re traveling, courtesy of this column’s readers and the lessons current events have taught us:

1. Never order tea or coffee on a flight
The water your airline uses comes from municipal water stored in the aircraft’s water tank, according to my colleague, flight attendant James Wysong. A recent test by the Environmental Protection Agency found dangerous levels of bacteria on about 15 percent of planes. Better stick to bottled water.

2. Never eat what the natives don’t
Unless you’re Andrew Zimmern, the Travel Channel host who is on a quest to find the world’s most bizarre foods, this is a rule you’ll probably thank me for following. Stay away from fried fire beetles when you’re in Thailand (a man died several years ago after he consumed the poisonous insects). Ditto for blowfish. A woman in Mito, Japan died recently after the local fish market forgot to remove the poison. Why take your chances?

3. Never dine at a restaurant recommended by someone with fewer teeth than a two-year-old
That’s the advice of Randy McCleary, a project coordinator from Grand Rapids, Mich., which is a no-nonsense way of saying you shouldn’t ask for dining tips from someone you wouldn’t be comfortable sitting next to in a restaurant. They might recommend an establishment that is on the verge of being shut down by the health department.

4. Never fly in economy class
“The lack of leg room will bring your knee into your face — or the face of the person in front who leans his seat all the way back,” says Irvine, Calif.-based travel agent Tommie Imbernino. That can be hazardous to your health. Cramped seats raise your risk of developing a potentially fatal blood clot. A British parliamentary committee recently called for the minimum space between seats to be increased by at least two inches for health reasons. If you’re stuck in a small seat, don’t forget to get up and stretch. Your life could depend on it.

5. Never forget to sleep
That’s an easy thing to do when you’re jet lagged or excited about your vacation. But lack of sleep is thought to make you more susceptible to illness — not to mention a little loco. In one study of 350 soldiers who were deprived of sleep for 4 ½ days, more than two-thirds complained of auditory and visual hallucinations and seven men had to be removed from the study because of bizarre psychotic behaviors, according to the British Medical Association. Sleep deprivation may be the best explanation for what Fadhel al-Maliki, an Iraqi national living in the U.S., did last year when he inserted (kiddies, cover your eyes please) a magnet in his rectum before boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Officials discovered the (no peeking, kids) butt magnet, but after a thorough investigation, determined there was “never a threat.”

6. Never use the hotel bedspread
The thing that most people forget about their hotel is that someone slept in the bed before they did. And hotel beds — from the roadside motel to the five-star resort — can be a real germ confab. Bedbugs, cockroaches, infectious diseases — they’ve got it all. Bedspreads are a likely hideout, but so is the TV remote control and the phone. Esther Perica, a retired librarian Arlington Heights, Ill., takes it a step further. “I never sleep on the phone side of the bed,” she says. “That’s the most used spot of the bed.”

7. Never assume the weather will be fine (it could be your last mistake)
This can be particularly hazardous to your health in extreme weather, says James Little, a frequent traveler who used to live in a cold climate, and speaks from experience. “In winter, carry enough blankets, sleeping bags or outdoor clothing to survive a traffic jam of long duration, or a fuel outage,” he says. Confession time: I’ve made winter road trips in short sleeves, and this unfortunate couple made their final journey along a snowy road in eastern Utah last year. (“Assume nothing” is also one of the cardinal rules of journalism, and that I happen to be really bad at following — but more on that some other time.)

8. Never wait to call for help.
“If there is a disturbance outside your room, call 911 right away,” says Jim Daniel, a salesman based in Stockton, Calif. “The hotel staff wants to hush it up with as little fuss as possible, but you need to assure your own safety and that of other travelers. The local police will do that. Waiting for hotel security to do anything is usually a wasted effort.” He’s right. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken with hotel guests who have had a crime dismissed or covered up by hotel “security” — and I use that term loosely — while they were on vacation.

Staying healthy while you’re traveling really boils down to one thing: use your common sense. If you don’t have any — and really, there’s no shame in that — you might consider staying home, or traveling with someone who does.

Good grief! 3 tales of compassion-less customer service

Here at the travel industry’s unofficial complaints department, we count on having a day or two off, Good Friday being one of them. Not this year. Here are three recent stories of compassion-less customer service that arrived in the “in” box on what was supposed to be our “off” day.

“I can only give you ice.” The first report comes to us by way of reader Mike Emich, who flew from Greensboro to Hartford on Skybus recently. His plane sat on the taxiway more than three hours because of a mechanical problem. That proved to be plenty of time for the paid-on-commission Skybus crewmembers to generate more revenue for the airline.

The flight attendants where moving up and down the aisle selling food and drink. After two hours, a young boy next to me who did not have money asked her for something to drink. The attendant said, “I can only give you ice.”

Sigh. I understand the Skybus no-frills model, but even prisoners of war get water. Come on.

Dead? That’ll be $100, ma’am. Shirley Lantz was scheduled to fly from San Jose, Calif., to Bend, Ore., when her husband died just a day before her trip. She asked Alaska Airlines if she could get a refund on her ticket.

They said that I could use the ticket later but I would have to pay $100 more to travel. Is there any way that I could get a refund ? I am legally blind and have some difficulty using the telephone to contact the airline.

I asked Alaska repeatedly to help Lantz. Finally, yesterday, it agreed to a full refund. Common sense — not an inquiry from an ombudsman — should have guided the customer service agents at Alaska.

“Sir, there’s a rash on my legs.” Jeannette Haine just returned from Las Vegas. Just before she checked out of the Paris resort, she noticed little red bumps on her legs.

I thought I had hives until I mentioned this to my roommate. She developed the same rash after one night at the hotel. I called housekeeping and they promptly provided hypo-allergenic sheets for the maid to use on the beds. But the next morning we still had the red bumps.

Even though Haine filed a complaint, nothing was done. No compensation, no apology — nothing.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

So my friend flies back home, and on the plane she strikes up a conversation about the sheet problem with her seatmate. A woman two rows ahead hears this conversation, gets up and walks to my friend. She also has a rash on her legs and stayed at Ballys. As she is standing in the aisle, another woman hears the conversation and joins the group. She, too, developed a rash.

Her theory: all of these resorts use a central laundry facility. And something is not quite right at the cleaners. “Here’s my question,” she says. “What are they doing at this laundry? What’s being used on these sheets?”

Seems her resort should have responded with more than a “we’ll look into it” answer.

Got any stories of compassion-less customer service? Share them here.

Disabled? To the back of the plane!

When Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in 1955, she made history. When Randall Ulrich and his wife were instructed to move 11 rows back by a JetBlue flight attendant, did they have a similar case?

Maybe. Ulrich was on a recent flight from Sacramento, Calif., to New York. He had been assigned seats 11E and 11F.

Once my wife and I were seated in our seats, one of the flight attendants came up to us and told us that we would be required to move to different seats, at the back of the plane. I asked the flight attendant why this was so, and she responded that it was because I was deaf.

I am not deaf.

I told her that I was not deaf, and that I have normal hearing. She then proceeded to argue with me about whether or not I was deaf, and I assured her that I was not deaf and did not have any hearing problems whatsoever.

She then told me that I was seen signing with my wife in the waiting area before boarding, so I must be deaf. I told her again that I wasn’t deaf. She then asked me (quoting here): “So, what, you sign for fun? Is it a hobby?”

She then turned to my wife and her about her hearing, and my wife responded: “I’m hard of hearing.” The flight attendant responded: “Close enough. You’ll have to move to the back of the plane.”

Why on earth would JetBlue force two passengers to move to the back of the plane?

Because they were seated in an emergency exit row.

Under the Code of Federal Regulations, title 14, chapter I, part 121, subpart T, section 121.585, passengers are not permitted to sit in an exit row if …

(5) The person lacks sufficient aural capacity to hear and understand instructions shouted by flight attendants, without assistance beyond a hearing aid.

Here’s how JetBlue responded to Ulrich’s written complaint:

Dear Mr. Ulrich,

Thank you for contacting us regarding your first JetBlue experience. We appreciate the opportunity to respond to your comments and regret the delay in our reply.

JetBlue was founded on five Core Values including: Safety, Caring, Integrity, Passion and Fun. As crewmembers, we strive to embrace those values in all that we do as representatives of JetBlue. We regret that our Inflight crewmember failed to demonstrate her commitment to these values in her service to you.

By way of clarification it is up to the discretion of the Inflight crewmembers to determine whether or not an individual seated in the Emergency Exit Row is capable of responding in an emergency. However, these determinations ought to be made with sensitivity, respecting all diversities.

We have forwarded your comments to our Inflight Leadership Team who will internally address any retraining or disciplinary actions with our crewmembers.

Although we are unable to compensate you for your inconvenience, we have issued each of you an electronic voucher. Your voucher information is as follows: (deleted)

Randall, we value your feedback and hope that you and Lisa will afford us a future opportunity to welcome you onboard JetBlue.


Customer Commitment Crew
JetBlue Airways
Crewmember 52341

I think this could have been handled better by JetBlue. Specifically, the airline could have screened the passengers before they boarded to avoid this awkward situation. They didn’t, says Ulrich.

When I made the online reservations, I answered the questions that accompany being assigned to Exit Row seats. When I checked in at the airport by having my itinerary printout scanned (no complaints), I again answered the questions that accompany being assigned to those seats. When I boarded the plane, my boarding pass was checked off in the box marked “EXIT ROW”. No mention was made about sitting in this row, nor of the responsibilities of sitting in these seats.

But ultimately, JetBlue was correct in asking the couple to move. You don’t want someone who is hard of hearing seated in an emergency exit row. If something should happen, and a passenger were unable to follow instructions, it could put a lot of lives in danger.