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United leads list of on-time U.S. airlines

The Free Press WV

Here are the government’s rankings of the leading U.S. airlines and their on-time performance for December.

The federal government counts a flight as on time if it arrives no more than 14 minutes behind schedule.

1. United Airlines, 84.6 percent

2. Delta Air Lines 83.5 percent

3. Alaska Airlines, 83.4 percent

4. Virgin America, 82.5 percent

5. American Airlines, 82.0 percent

6. Hawaiian Airlines, 80.8 percent

7. Spirit Airlines, 80.4 percent

8. Southwest Airlines, 79.1 percent

9. SkyWest Airlines, 76.5 percent

10. ExpressJet, 76.4 percent

11. Frontier Airlines, 75.8 percent

12. JetBlue Airways, 74.1 percent

Total for all covered airlines: 80.3 percent

Thinking about trying a cruise? Advice for first-timers

The Free Press WV

Honeymooners Zach and Alyssa Bynum of Louisville, Kentucky, had never been on an ocean cruise until last summer when they sailed aboard Celebrity Equinox.

They were immediately enamored with this shiny ship and impressed by the overall experience. They likely will cruise again.

“We enjoyed the atmosphere and experience, including the excursions and onboard activities,” said Zach Bynum. “We have definitely talked about doing another.”

After all, what’s not to like about cruising? Ocean views, exotic ports and beautiful ships with fine food, abundant activities and great entertainment.

Today’s ships are like floating cities, carrying thousands of passengers, and each year, new and bigger vessels are launched with ever more unique features. New ships offer everything from menus designed by celebrity chefs to sophisticated fitness centers and spas, kids’ clubs and recreation ranging from basketball to water slides to laser tag. Entertainment includes cabaret, dance clubs, blues clubs, Broadway shows, comedy and circus acts.

The Bynums booked their trip after talking with Zach’s grandmother, who’d cruised before. First-timers often book on the advice of family or friends, said Peter Giorgi, Celebrity Cruises’ chief marketing officer, and those first-timers frequently come back. “For someone to enjoy something so much that they can’t help but recommend it to their friends, family and loved ones is the greatest co-sign of all,” Giorgi said. “No amount of advertising dollars can buy that.”

Another Equinox passenger, Aaron Humphrey of Columbus, Ohio, was on his first cruise, too. “I was surprised by how much there is to do on the ship,” he said while basking on deck in the warm Caribbean sunshine during a lazy sailing day between ports. “I was hooked on a cruise within the first couple of hours.” His wife Megan, who’d cruised before, said they picked the trip because “we wanted to chill and eat some local food in places we hadn’t seen before, and we decided that a cruise was the best of both worlds. ”

But if you’ve never done it, the idea of a cruise might be daunting. Here are some tips for first-timers.

BOOKING

Choose cabins according to your finances. Inside cabins are cheapest, ocean view is next, then rooms with a balcony, and most expensive, suites. If prone to motion sickness, lower decks and cabins closest to ship’s center are the most stable. Peruse layouts online before picking a cabin and to familiarize yourself with the ship’s features.

Every cruise line has a different style. To book the right ship for you, experts recommend using a travel agent. It doesn’t cost extra and might save money, because agents often have access to deals.

PACKING, DEPARTURE AND BOARDING

Plan your wardrobe carefully, depending on itinerary and expected weather. Laundry and dry cleaning onboard are expensive.

The days of required formal wear — jackets, ties, evening gowns — at dinner are long gone, though some passengers will dress up.

Pack a power strip. Most cabins have only one or two outlets. Shampoo and soap are provided but you may bring your own — and there’s no size limit like there is for flying.

If you’re flying to your departure port, arrive a day ahead. If your flight is cancelled or delayed, you might miss the sailing.

Have reservation documents in hand when checking in at the terminal, along with required identification such as driver’s license or passport. Lines can be long as departure time nears.

A mandatory muster drill — where everyone reports to a deck for safety and evacuation information — is held shortly after departure.

It takes a few hours for luggage to be delivered to cabins.

Smoking on ships is restricted to certain areas and not allowed in cabins.

WHAT’S FREE, WHAT’S NOT

No need for cash onboard. Cruises provide plastic cards (like credit cards) to charge purchases to your account and also as ID for exiting and reboarding the ship at ports.

Meals in dining rooms, buffets and poolside are included with cruise fare, and you may order more than one main course or dessert. Specialty restaurants charge extra and often get booked up, so make reservations ahead.

Water, coffee, tea, juice and milk are free. Alcohol and soda are not, except for the most upscale cruise lines. Cruises sell daily or weeklong alcohol and soft drink packages that may save you money, depending on your drinking habits.

Shows, gyms, water parks and many other facilities and activities are free. Some fitness classes are free, some are not. Spa services are extra. On a budget? Avoid the casino and gift shop.

Using cellphones at sea, if service is available, is costly. Consider putting phones in airplane mode. Most ships offer Wi-Fi packages but they’re pricey, so you might wait to go online until you’re at a hotspot in port.

On top of your cruise fare, cruise lines usually suggest an amount to tip the staff, or automatically add daily tips to your bill for distribution among room stewards, wait staff and others. Tips are automatically added to alcohol.

EXCURSIONS

Shore excursions may be booked through the cruise line, or you can go off on your own in port or hire independent tour guides. Booking through the ship guarantees you will not be left behind if your tour is delayed for some reason. If you go off on your own and return late, the ship will leave without you.

Brazil offers e-visa to Americans in bid to increase tourism

The Free Press WV

Brazil is making it easier and cheaper for Americans to apply for a visa following a decline in the number of visitors from the U.S. in recent years.

Starting Thursday, Americans can complete the visa process completely online, instead of visiting a consulate or paying an expeditor to do so. The price of the visa will drop from $160 to $40.

The new e-visa program has already been put in place for Australians, Japanese and Canadians as part of Brazil’s efforts to attract more foreign tourists.

South America’s biggest country offers a wide variety of destinations for visitors, from eco-tourism in the Amazon rain forest to colonial towns built by the Portuguese to miles and miles of unspoiled beaches. Yet in 2016, Brazil welcomed fewer than 6.6 million foreigners, about half the number that traveled to the city-state of Singapore.

American visits have dropped in recent years. Their numbers fell from approximately 657,000 in 2014 to 576,000 in 2015. In 2016, the year Rio de Janeiro hosted the Olympics, the number fell further to approximately 570,000.

“The federal government for a long time didn’t understand the economic importance of tourism: no actions to promote destinations, no partnerships with operators to attract visitors, to diversify tourism,” Tourism Minister Marx Beltrao said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. “Tourism became part of the economic agenda just a year and a half ago.”

In addition to implementing the e-visa, Beltrao said the current administration is trying to make travel to and within Brazil cheaper by allowing increased foreign investment in domestic airlines. It is also hoping to quadruple the budget of Embratur, Brazil’s tourism board, and is working to overhaul its promotion strategy.

Brazil has very real challenges to confront, including high rates of violent crime in some areas, the steep cost of travelling within the country and repeated disease outbreaks. A Zika outbreak that began in 2015 put off many would-be travelers after the mosquito-borne virus was linked to severe birth defects. This year, a yellow fever outbreak is spreading just weeks before Carnival.

The World Health Organization now recommends foreigners visiting anywhere in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro states get a yellow fever vaccination before traveling, though Beltrao and other Brazilian officials have said urban areas are safe.

Good dog, bad dog ... Delta wants to know before you board

The Free Press WV

Delta Air Lines will soon require owners of service and support animals to provide more information before their animal can fly in the passenger cabin, including an assurance that it’s trained to behave itself.

The airline says complaints about animals biting or soiling plane cabins have nearly doubled since 2016.

Starting March 1, Delta will require owners to show proof of their animal’s health or vaccinations at least 48 hours before a flight.

Owners of psychiatric service animals and so-called emotional-support animals will need to sign a statement vouching that their animal can behave. But owners will be on the honor system — they won’t have to show, for example, that their dog graduated from obedience school.

The new requirements don’t apply to pets that stay in under-seat kennels during flights.

Delta’s policy change arrives with the number of animals in the cabin increasing.

John Laughter, the airline’s senior vice president of safety and security, said there are insufficient rules in place to screen animals for health and behavior issues. He said Delta sought a balance “that supports those customers with a legitimate need for these animals” while maintaining safety.

Delta’s new rules are aimed at two categories: service animals, which receive specific training to help blind or disabled passengers; and so-called emotional-support animals, which require no training at all. Both fly for free and are not required to be caged during the flight.

The emotional-support group has been growing rapidly, and it is the target of most of the new Delta procedures. Last June, a 70-pound dog flying as a support animal bit another passenger several times in the face on a Delta plane in Atlanta. The victim was hospitalized.

Federal regulators have interpreted a 1986 access-to-travel law to allow support animals in airplane cabins and in apartment buildings that do not allow pets. That has created a cottage industry of online companies that help people establish their pet as an emotional support animal. The classification spares the owner hefty airline charges.

Airlines must allow support animals in the cabin, although they can require owners to present a letter from a doctor or other medical provider who can vouch that the human traveler is helped by having the animal there. Delta will now ask to see those letters 48 hours in advance.

Delta, the second-biggest U.S. airline by revenue, said it transports about 700 service and support animals every day, nearly 250,000 per year. More than two-thirds are emotional-support animals. That does not include animals for which owners pay a fee to keep in a carrier under their seat during flights.

Although exact figures aren’t available, airline employees say dogs and cats are the most common animals on planes, but there have been sightings of pigs, snakes and turkeys too.

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