TSA Watch: After Osama’s death, are screeners spreading confusion and fear?

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “TSA Watch,” a new weekly column about the federal agency charged with protecting America’s transportation systems. Why? Because no one else is.

The TSA’s response to Osama Bin Laden’s death last week couldn’t have been less clear — or more self-serving.

Here’s an event that many believed would directly affect the way people travel. They felt a prudent move would be to tighten security at airports, train stations and other public areas, for fear of a retaliatory attack by Al Qaeda.

Instead, the agency charged with protecting the nation’s transportation systems said nothing for several days, allowing us to speculate about our upcoming trips. Would we all be patted down at the airport? Stopped at a checkpoint on the bridge? Strip-searched before we boarded the subway?
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The Travel Troubleshooter: Is a ‘natural cause’ a pre-existing condition?

Question: I need your help with a travel insurance problem. We booked a trip to Cancun through Orbitz last year, and when we got to the last screen of the reservation, it offered us a travel insurance policy through Access America. We thought it would be a good idea to have insurance, so we bought it.

Afterwards, we received a document with the specifics of our policy. I didn’t read it because I didn’t anticipate having to make a claim. But I was wrong.

Shortly before our trip, my mother died unexpectedly. I called Orbitz, which referred me to the insurance company. An Access America representative told me to cancel the trip and suggested that I reschedule it. They promised they would “take care” of the claim.

A few weeks later, Access America denied my claim for $951, because my mother suffered from high blood pressure. The death certificate listed the cause of death as being from “natural causes.” I didn’t know a natural cause was a pre-existing medical condition. — Cheryl Ellis, Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Answer: My condolences on the loss of your mother. I agree with you that a “natural cause” isn’t a pre-existing condition, and I think Access America should have honored your claim.
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Priceline promised to bend the rules, but now it’s backtracking

Rules are rules, but what happens when a travel company promises it will bend them? That’s the question Rebekah Conlon wants to answer. Her rental car, booked through Priceline, was non-refundable and non-changeable, and she knew it.

But just before she arrived in Toronto to pick up the car, she got a troubling call. “A family member had passed away,” she says. “We had to abruptly change our travel plans.”

She continues,

I contacted Priceline within 10 minutes of when we were supposed to pick up the rental car and informed them of the death in the family. They said they would contact me with details about a refund.

Nice of Priceline to agree to bend the rules for her. But when Conlon followed up, Priceline backtracked.
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Now that’s what I call an ethical customer!

Behind the scenes, employees often grumble that their customers would do anything to get a deal. They justify their own misrepresentations by saying consumers lie, too.

But not all travelers are ethically challenged. Exhibit “A” is Jeff Peterson, who sent me a question yesterday that I’ve never been asked.
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Losing my faith on Shamu’s first weekend back on the job

For the same reason people go to a car race (to see a fiery crash) or a hockey game (bare-knuckled fight) Shamu Stadium was packed to the gills for the 12:30 p.m. show Sunday, on Shamu’s second day on the job after the unfortunate incident in which he killed his trainer. Everyone wanted to see if something would happen.

Nothing happened.

But then, if it did, you wouldn’t be reading about it here. The news would be splattered across the front page of
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A canceled room, but no refund

Question: I recently made a reservation on the Days Inn Web site for six nights at the Days Inn Barnwell, SC. My American Express card was charged $415.

Because of a death in my family that required me to travel to Oklahoma to attend the funeral, I called Days Inn and requested that my reservation be canceled. I was informed that online reservations could not be canceled and that my credit card would be charged — the reason for the cancellation request notwithstanding.

I sent an email to the corporate office using the Web site’s “Contact Us” feature, requesting a review. My Amex card was charged a few days later, and I received a call from a Days Inn customer service agent shortly after that, who informed me that nothing could be done to reverse the charge. Can you help me get a refund? — Art Wallace, Miami Beach, Fla.

Answer: Days Inn should have given you a refund, or at least allowed you to apply your $415 credit toward a future stay. But its “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude just doesn’t work for me.
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“I am fearful I will lose the money we worked so hard to save”

Michele Keller was all set to take a dream vacation to the Dominican Republic through Apple Vacations last year, when her significant other fell ill. After he took an unexpected turn for the worse, she learned that the insurance on her vacation didn’t cover her the way she though it would. Now she’s holding a voucher for a vacation she’s never likely to use.

Could this insurance mix-up have been prevented? And what exceptions, if any, do tour operators offer for customers who can’t travel because of illness — or death?

I’ve covered bogus travel insurance in the past on this site. But Keller’s insurance wasn’t fake; it just didn’t cover her the way she had hoped.
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No refund for passenger whose father dies — airline keeps the upgrade, too

unitedLook up the word “heartless” in the dictionary, and you’ll see a United Airlines plane. At least in Danny Chou’s book.

Chou recently experienced a family tragedy. Just two weeks before his wedding day, his father died unexpectedly. He had to postpone his wedding and honeymoon in order to take care of the funeral arrangements.

At a time like that, you would expect an airline to show some compassion — particularly if you can show it a death certificate. Wrong.
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Why are travel agents so defensive about one bad apple? Here’s a clue …

ishot-5I had to wonder what was wrong after numerous travel agents posted furious responses to today’s story about an agent that acted in an apparently unethical manner. Why were they being so defensive of a colleague who probably ought to be looking for another line of work?

The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, as presented in the American Society of Travel Agents’ 2008 outlook (PDF) offers an explanation: Travel agents are headed toward extinction. Their numbers have shrunk from 111,130 a decade ago to 85,580 in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available. What’s more, the government projects that the number of agents will remain flat through the middle of the next decade.

No wonder they’re upset. But they’re in good company.
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FAA official: “No mention whatsoever of the possibility that Billy Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt”

brownLaura Brown is the acting assistant administrator for communications at the Federal Aviation Administration. After the death of Billy Mays yesterday, she was quoted as saying the TV pitchman wasn’t wearing a seatbelt on a plane that made an emergency landing. I asked her about the interview and the importance of seatbelts.

Q: Over the weekend, there was speculation that Billy Mays had died because of injuries to his head during an emergency landing. However, a preliminary autopsy suggests the cause of death was heart disease. What does the FAA know about the incident?

Brown: We are investigating the landing because there was damage to the aircraft. As far as we know, no passengers reported any injury. News reports suggest doctors have tentatively determined Billy Mays’ death was unrelated to any occurrence on the US Airways aircraft.

Q: You were quoted by TMZ as saying Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. You’ve said the quote isn’t accurate. What did you tell the reporter?

Brown: All we told the reporter was that passengers are required to wear seatbelts during takeoff and landing. There was no mention whatsoever of the possibility that Billy Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt because there is no monitoring of seatbelt use on routine flights.

Q: Does the FAA know who is wearing a seatbelt and who isn’t?

Brown: No.

Q: What are the FAA rules about seatbelts on aircraft?

Brown: Airlines are required to turn on the “fasten seat belt” sign during any time the airplane is moving on the airport surface,  takeoff, landing, or any other time the pilot deems necessary. Each passenger is required by federal law to fasten his or her seatbelt when the “fasten seat belt” sign is illuminated. (Here’s the full rule.)

Q: Why is it important to wear a seatbelt on a plane?

Brown: An airplane seatbelt is a passengers’ best protection against any sudden or unexpected airplane movements. Turbulence  can occur unexpectedly and can even occur when the sky appears to be clear. Turbulence is a bumpy ride that can cause passengers who are not wearing their seat belts to be thrown from their seats without warning.  In nonfatal accidents, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to both airline passengers and flight attendants. Each year, approximately 58 people in the United States are injured by turbulence while not wearing their seat belts.

Q: Can you think of any recent examples of a passenger being seriously injured because her or she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt?

Brown: We we can tell you that from 1980 through June 2004, U.S. air carriers had 198 turbulence accidents resulting in 266 serious injuries and three fatalities. At least two of the three fatalities involved passengers who were not wearing their seat belts while the seat belt sign was illuminated.

Q: What are the penalties for not wearing a seatbelt?

Brown: A passenger who does not wear a seatbelt is vulnerable to injury if the airplane hits  unexpected turbulence. The FAA can impose a maximum fine of $25,000 if the passenger refuse to wear a seat belt and is deemed disruptive or unruly by the flight crew.

Q: Do you have any idea, based on enforcement actions, how often people do not wear their seatbelts, as required?

Brown: While  tracking actual seatbelt use would be difficult, the FAA requires the airlines to provide a safety briefing at the beginning of flight that highlights the importance of wearing your seat belt. The agency has also done outreach via a public education campaign on the importance of wearing seat belts to prevent turbulence-related injuries.

Q: Do you have any advice for airline passengers who are concerned about safety during takeoff and landing, and possibly being struck in the head by items from an overhead bin?

Brown: Stowage compartments must meet certain certification requirements as specified in FAA regulations. Cabin bins are designed to withstand typical forces in order to prevent luggage from falling out an onto passengers.

Billy Mays dies after US Airways flight — is there a link?

Billy_maysBelieve it or not, the latest celebrity death has a travel angle. TV pitchman Billy Mays, who was found dead in his Tampa home this morning, was a passenger on a US Airways flight yesterday. His son first reported the news on Twitter.

And here’s where things get a little weird.

The highly respected TV Newser blog connects the dots.

Mays was on board a US Airways flight yesterday that made an emergency landing in Tampa after its front tires blew out. It is unsure whether Mays’ death was related to the incident.

Here’s what’s known about the emergency landing, courtesy of the AP:

A Tampa International Airport spokeswoman says a runway was closed after a US Airways jet apparently blew its front tires while landing.

Airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan says no passengers or crew on flight 1241 from Philadelphia were hurt when the jet landed Saturday afternoon. The passengers were taken to a secure area and then released to claim their baggage.

The incident left debris on the runway.

Mays was quoted after the landing by a Tampa FOX affiliate:

All of a sudden as we hit you know it was just the hardest hit, all the things from the ceiling started dropping. It hit me on the head, but I got a hard head.

(TMZ is reporting that Mays wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.)

Mays also commented about the landing on Twitter.

Just had a close call landing in Tampa. The tires blew out upon landing. Stuck in the plane on the runway. You can always count on US Air.

A US Airways spokesman told CNN there were no reported passenger injuries from the flight, and that it would “cooperate fully” with authorities in the investigation.

Is TV Newser speculating that the stress caused by a blown out tire somehow killed him? Or that something hit him on the head, leading to an untimely, Natasha Richardsonesque death?

Sounds a little far-fetched to me. But in a week when death is very fashionable among celebs, I wouldn’t rule anything out.

Let’s wait for the autopsy.

Update (6/28, 4:33 p.m.): US Airways spokesman James Olson has responded to my inquiry:

Yes, I can confirm that [Billy Mays] was on flight 1241 from PHL to Tampa yesterday. We were obviously very sad to learn of Mr. Mays’ passing this morning and have him and his family in our thoughts and prayers today.

The 737-400 blew out its two front tires during its scheduled landing at TPA. There were no reports of injuries by any of the 138 passengers or 5 crew onboard.

I’m still waiting for my refund … and waiting … and waiting

Question: I’m having some refund trouble with an airline, and need your help. Last year I had to cancel a Lufthansa flight I had booked through Expedia because of a death in my family. The ticket cost $303. When I told my travel agency the reason for canceling the trip, it gave me a list of documentation necessary for a refund.

I called Lufthansa, and a representative told me they wouldn’t process a refund by phone. So I sent the necessary paperwork to both Lufthansa and Expedia.

Since then, I’ve followed up several times online and have re-faxed the documents to Lufthansa. To date, I have never received any response from Lufthansa — not even to acknowledge receipt of the documentation. Any advice? — Megan Gallardo, Podgorica, Montenegro

Answer: I think you’ve been more than patient with Lufthansa. The airline should either send you a refund or refuse to return your money. Not responding is not acceptable.

Most airline tickets are nonrefundable, but airlines sometimes make exceptions when there’s a death in the family. Your online agent would have recommended that you send a death certificate and a letter to the airline, explaining your circumstances.

Refunds can take a while. Airlines normally tell you to wait two to three credit card billing cycles, but a year isn’t unheard of. I’ve seen that a time or two.

Why the foot-dragging? Of all the explanations I’ve been offered — slow accountants, obsolete technology, or just corporate policy — the one that rings truest is this: airlines don’t want to part with the money.

I’m not sure that’s what happened in your case. Maybe Lufthansa didn’t have all of your paperwork. Maybe your letter went to the wrong department. Either way, the airline kept you waiting for a year. It shouldn’t have.

Was this preventable? Absolutely. You bought your ticket through an online travel agency, which should have done more than just give you an address for refunds. You might have applied a little pressure to Expedia to nudge Lufthansa about the status of your refund. That’s what good travel agents do for their clients.

You might have also considered sending a polite follow-up email to Expedia and Lufthansa to check on the status of your update after a few months. An online inquiry is fine, but if you aren’t getting through to anyone, I recommend escalating your case to a manager or an executive. Their e-mail addresses are not difficult to find.

If neither the agency nor the airline responded, you might have contacted your credit card company to initiate a dispute. (If your ticket was fully refundable, and your credit card company believes your airline is simply holding on to your money, it might have been and open-and-shut case.)

At my suggestion, you emailed Expedia one last time. It responded saying, “your request for refund is still in progress as of this time” and that there were no further updates on whether the request had been approved.

So I contacted the airline. Initially, the airline deferred to Expedia. But eventually it came through for you. Nearly a year and a half after you applied for it, Lufthansa issued a $303 refund.

Dealing with an unexpected death on the road: 6 tips

No one expects to come home in a casket.

But more Americans are. The number of claims made on death benefits by On Call International, a travel assistance service in Salem, N.H., has almost doubled in the last three years, rising from 125 claims in 2005 to 247 last year. Its numbers reflect a broader industry trend.

“More people are traveling,” says Jon Ansell, founding president of the US Travel Insurance Association, a trade group. “More people are dying.”

What’s killing them?

Internationally, traffic accidents top the list (about one-third of Americans killed overseas perished in a car wreck) followed by homicide (17 percent), and drowning (13 percent) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Roughly 6,000 Americans pass away while they’re overseas every year, but that number is believed to be low, since not every American death is reported to the government. By comparison to U.S. injury fatalities (not just travelers), road traffic crashes accounted for 27 percent of deaths, while homicide was at 11 percent and drowning at just 2 percent.

If you pass away while you’re on vacation, your family and loved ones could experience headaches that needlessly compound their grief. There’s extra paperwork, arrangements for the return of your remains, and often, an unplanned stay in a faraway place to bring you back home.

I know about that firsthand because my family recently experienced an unexpected death that involved travel. Here are six strategies for dealing with a death on the road — either yours or a loved one’s:

1. Get insurance.
Having an insurance policy can lessen — but certainly not eliminate — the stress of losing a loved one on vacation. I know that it’s a little macabre, but reviewing the death benefits on your policy is critically important. Make sure there are provisions for emergency assistance, return of remains and coverage for family members who will have to travel to wherever you die to claim your body. The State Department can offer some assistance to your family but they’ll still pay $10,000 or more to get your remains back home if you don’t have insurance coverage. “Coordinating the repatriation of the mortal remains can be complicated and time-consuming,” says Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for AIG Travel Guard.

2. Tell a friend you’ll be away.
Let a loved one know where you’ll be, and make sure they have all the paperwork necessary to claim your body. Phyllis Zimbler Miller, a novelist from Los Angeles, remembers one of her husband’s clients who passed away in his hotel while traveling to Italy. “It took the hotel days to figure out whom to contact,” she remembers. That prompted Miller’s husband, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, to begin advising his clients to carry information on who should be contacted in case of emergency. Incidentally, she adds, this might be a good time to get all of your paperwork in order. “If you die without appropriate estate planning documents, your heirs are in for a huge mess going through probate hell,” she adds.

3. Travel light.
Jo Myers, author of “Good to Go — The ABCs of Death and Dying for Baby Boomers and Their Parents,” says making pre-arrangements can be helpful when you die while you’re traveling. That way, your next of kin needs only make a call to the funeral home to start the process of returning you to your final resting place. Myers says if you’re traveling with a friend, that person can be named a personal representative, who would be authorized to make decisions and arrangements on your family’s behalf. For people who die while on vacation, direct cremation is a popular option, because it reduces some of the transportation expenses associated with the return of remains. “With proper documentation, remains may be taken on an airplane as a carry-on item,” she says. “Remains may also be mailed to survivors by cremation providers.”

4. Lean on someone.
If you’ve just lost a loved one on the road, find a support group. When Tara La Bouff’s brother died while he was in Kauai last year, they turned to his employer, US Airways. La Bouff’s brother was a pilot, and was reported missing while snorkeling. US Airways flew several family members to Hawaii to claim the body. “The family was there until we could fly home with him, and were graciously chaperoned the entire time by a team of airline staff,” she recalls. She says turning to the airline was the right move. “We all were amazed by the amount of support it provided,” she says. Many companies have insurance that covers their employees in the event of an accidental death — even when they’re off the clock. If nothing else, an employer can offer much-needed support in a time of need.

5. Take your time.
While handling the details of an autopsy or funeral can take several days, you have to also be patient with yourself as you process a death on the road. You need time, too. When the son of a friend was killed on a surfing vacation in Costa Rica, Bonnie Russell, a Web site publisher from San Diego, Calif., watched the family come together for a memorial service. “Putting together the service saved my friend’s sanity,” she remembers. It wasn’t the first time that she’s dealt with a death while traveling. “What’s needed is the critical time for the brain to process information,” she says, adding, “this takes anywhere from hours to days.” If a loved one has died while on vacation, give yourself an extra day or two to deal with the aftermath of an unexpected death.

6. Put the event into perspective.
Bonnie Arends lost her son, Greg, in a car accident five years ago. His twin, Steve, survived the crash, but was left in a semi-comatose state for six months and today lives with a brain injury that severely affects his speech. Arends was determined to help prevent the tragedy from repeating itself, so she became a spokeswoman for a survey of young drivers sponsored by State Farm that urges parents to be aware of what their kids are doing behind the wheel. “Vehicle crashes can happen in a split second,” she told me. “And from that moment on, life may never be the same again. We can never assume that it will happen to someone else and not us. We need to be proactive in doing all we can to instill good driving technique and habits into all young drivers.”

When a loved one dies while traveling, you can do everything right — including finding the right support group, giving yourself enough time to deal with the shock of losing a friend and making sure your papers are filled out — but still suffer needless pain in your pocketbook. Darryl Roberts, author of “Profits of Death,” says passing away while traveling can be costly. Often, too costly. “The process of using two homes and shipping the body will likely cause the cost to roughly double the norm,” he says.

All the more reason to be wary of come-ons by a funeral home, like buying a pricey “protective casket,” which strikes an emotional chord with most people, he says. As the surviving family member, you’re not just dealing with an industry you probably know nothing about; you’re also in a faraway place, trying to cope with different customs and maybe a different language.

Be careful not to get scammed.

Dead friends, destroyed homes and the other dreadful things we come home to

Castor probably died quickly. While I was away on assignment this weekend, our red-and-black striped Bengal cat chased a squirrel across the road in front of our house. A car hit him, crushing his skull.

Castor was more than a pet. He was part of the family.

He was my constant companion while I worked during the day. He was the friendliest, most affectionate cat I’ve ever known. I miss him terribly.

On the car ride back to Orlando, before facing the reality of a dead friend, it occurred to me that I’ve never covered an important aspect of travel: what you come home to.

Some years ago, my family and I returned from a vacation to find that our house had been burglarized. The perpetrators had apparently been stalking the house, waiting for us to leave. Coming home to a home that’s been looted is an awful thing. You feel violated and vulnerable.

But it could be worse. A British couple recently returned from a shopping trip to find that their pet tortoise had burned down their house. No kidding.

Last month, the Grahn family of Hugo, Minn., came back from a weekend trip to discover their house had been flattened by a tornado.

That puts Castor’s death into some perspective. I lost my cat. These people lost everything.

Laughing — and dying — in the face of danger

When it comes to travel, there’s adventurous and then there’s just plain asinine.

Take the deaths of seven Spanish tourists last summer at the hands of a suspected Al-Qaida suicide bomber. The horrific incident happened in a part of central Yemen known for its lawlessness, where about 100 foreigners have been kidnapped since the 1990s. What were these visitors doing there in the first place?

Believing perhaps that the terrorists had called it a day, two Belgians vacationed in Yemen again earlier this year. But they were wrong. When suspected Al-Qaida gunmen opened fire on them in Sanaa, they were among four people killed.

You don’t have to venture that far to meet your maker, of course. Just a few weeks ago, an Austrian tourist died after being repeatedly bitten by a shark while diving near the Bahamas. The sea had been baited with bloody fish parts to attract the predators, and the diver — who, it is prominently noted in the report, was a lawyer — was in open water without a cage or similar protection.

There’s always been a fine line between taking a calculated risk and foolishly gambling with your life. At a time when more tourists are coming home in caskets, that line is becoming increasingly faint. A vast majority of travelers know that shark diving with only a law degree for protection isn’t the smartest move. And vacationing in a Middle Eastern country known to be a hotbed of terrorist activity? Let me hear a Yemen.

But what do you tell the family of a woman sunbathing on her boat in the Florida Keys recently, who was killed when a stingray leaped from the water? No one saw that one coming. Was she taking her chances? How about the American who went zip-lining on the Caribbean island of Roatan, and plunged to her death? Was that too risky?

No one knows why random things like ray attacks and zip-line snaps happen. You would need a mathematician — or a theologian — to wager a guess. Why are more people taking their chances on vacation, even when you take chance out of the equation? The answer, say experts, is we don’t know danger when we see it anymore. We can’t tell the difference being brave and being stupid.

It’s almost as if visitors, and even authorities, are out of touch with reality. It took the recent murder of a 15-year-old British girl to finally get authorities to crack down on crime in the picturesque Indian state of Goa, where at least 126 foreign nationals have died in the past two years.

Put differently, I could have stood at the airport with signs that said, “Don’t Goa There!” No one would have paid attention.

“Many people are seeking authentic experiences,” explains Josh Calder, an analyst with Social Technologies, a Washington consulting firm. “And real danger delivers. Most thrill-seekers settle for simulated dangers such as bungee jumping, but there is a small minority that want actual peril.”

Calder ought to know. He recently went gorilla trekking near the Rwandan border, in a place where rebels killed tourists just a few years ago. But he took precautions, including bringing along guards armed with automatic rifles. “Also, we had knowledgeable people check the situation for us,” he says.

We live for thrills, according to surveys. And it isn’t just 20-something guys with Indiana Jones fantasies. A study (PDF) by Santa Fe, N.M.-based Xola Consulting found more young people and families are going for adventure-themed vacations, and they’re willing to go to the ends of the earth to get it. Literally.

“Traditional holiday destinations are changing,” says Richard Culver, the senior director of security services for the American division of International SOS. So are people’s perceptions of risk. Culver cites the example of whitewater rafting. “More people die white water rafting than whitewater kayaking,” he says. “But people feel safer in a raft because they are with others and it is a large flotation device. Therefore, they tend to take on bigger risks whereas in a kayak you’re more exposed and don’t feel as safe.”

That might go a long way to explaining the Spanish and Belgian tourists who reached the end of their road in Yemen. They were part of groups, and probably felt as if no one could hurt them. Same thing applies to the many people who visited Goa, and even the lawyer who was attacked by sharks. All of these dead tourists suppressed the little voice in their head that said, “That’s dangerous” with one that reassured them, “You’re part of a group. What could possibly go wrong?”

I expect to see more travelers murdered, blown up and eaten by undersea predators in the near future.

Why? A little bit of everything. More people are traveling. More people are traveling as a group — tours are an increasingly popular way to see a destination on the cheap. And more people are looking for a far-flung adventure.

For them, laughing in the face of danger may be a thrill. Dying isn’t.