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Tips on Making Your Trips Trouble-Free

Thieves roam airports looking for laptop-lugging tourists. That man offering black-market peso rates is actually a policeman hoping to make an arrest. And, you have just discovered that the Frankfurt hotel you stayed in charged you more money to call home than for a night's lodging.

What's an unsuspecting tourist to do?

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Plenty, according to Rudy Maxa, a Washington-based reporter whose travel commentary, "The Savvy Traveler," is heard regularly on the National Public Radio show Marketplace. For almost every potential cloud over your vacation, there are steps you can take to either minimize the problem or eliminate it. Here are some of them:

Airport theft. Despite the efforts of airport police, theft has become a problem. Organized gangs frequent the airports trying to steal luggage or personal computers. Mr. Maxa's advice: keep everything you are carrying in sight or attached to you at all times. This includes that 30 seconds it takes to go through the security area of the airport. Laptop snatchers have been known to steal the computers right off the X-ray machine's conveyor belt. "Just keep your eye on it; usually you can see the end of the machine from the metal detector," counsels Maxa. Be wary if the person in front of you constantly sets off the metal detector, delaying your movements. Also, keep the laptop in between your legs or attached to you when using a pay phone. Thieves specialize in stealing from phone areas because travelers often lose sight of their luggage.

Pickpockets. Unfortunately, pickpockets have an uncanny ability to spot a tourist. To reduce the risk of getting your wallet swiped, be alert in crowded subways or marketplaces where you can get jostled. Use common sense: Don't wear a Rolex watch to the beach in Rio de Janeiro. Maxa advises photocopying everything in the wallet, as well as the first page of your passport, just in case your wallet does get stolen. Store the photocopy separately.

Hotel crime. Say you left the Rolex in the hotel room, and it's gone when you return from the beach. The hotel manager tries to convince you that it has simply been misplaced. Don't bite. Go to the local police station and file a report. You will need it for insurance purposes later. Use the hotel safe deposit box or safe if you have qualms about security.

Currency rates. Your travel mate has just returned with a yarn about selling dollars at a great premium above the posted exchange rate. Maxa's counsel: "Don't use a local black-market guy anywhere - you can get arrested." Instead, use your credit card as much as possible or an international bank teller machine. Credit-card companies usually give you better exchange rates than official money changers do. Call the credit-card company beforehand to find out if there any special codes you will need to use to access the machine.

Phone calls. Foreign hotels are often allowed to tack on hefty surcharges for overseas phone calls. Costs also soar when calls are connected by state-owned phone companies. There are alternatives. Maxa uses a telephone service by the name of Kallback. Most of the major phone companies have toll-free numbers to call to use their service and get better rates on overseas calls.

It can be important to plan ahead. For example, a divorced parent traveling with a child may need a notarized statement that the child can legally be on the trip. The idea is to anticipate problems so they don't disrupt a trip.

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