Avoiding the traps of travel: myths v reality

I returned from a recent trip to Turkey with a new appreciation for the art of stepping around the trapdoors of travel.

Shuttling through several countries and airports was a wake-up call call on the myths vs. realities of international globe-trotting. Here's a quick rundown from the road:

Body scanners

Remember all the hoopla about the full-body scanners the Transportation Security Administration installed at US airports last year?

Myth: Passengers were told they had the choice to opt out, and walk through one of the old metal detectors instead. They were warned that if they did refuse the scanner, they'd be subject to an "enhanced' physical pat-down since the scanners are designed to detect all sorts of objects that might be hidden under clothes, not just metallic items.

The fear of being "groped" caused even a bigger furor than the initial resistance to the body scans.

Reality: I can't verify this, but it looks as if the TSA has backed off on several fronts. Signs posted at security checkpoints now say that those opting out "may" be subjected to a physical pat-down.

I opted out, and no one patted me down. Why? Probably because they were too busy patting down every second or third passenger who walked through the body scanners. Leave a pen, handkerchief or wallet in your pocket, and you get a body scan and a pat-down.

Shopping surcharge

Myth: Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is known for its spacious and well-organized SeeBuyFly duty-free shopping mall. It's the last place you'd expect to condone what amounts to a legal scam.

Reality: Some of the duty-free shops offer "Dynamic Currency Conversion." This is the practice of converting a credit-card transaction in euros to foreign currency for an additional fee - usually three per cent of the transaction amount (on top of the card issuer's foreign-transaction fee). Merchants extol dynamic currency conversion as a convenience to those who want to know the price in their home currency. Given that anyone with a calculator can easily figure that out, it's hard not to view this as anything more than a rip-off.

I've written about this many times, so how is it that I fell for it? I'd been awake since 2.30am when I bought a newspaper and two bags of licorice at Schiphol's AKO news shop, one of the airport's largest retailers.

When I handed my credit card to the clerk, she asked me if I'd like to pay in euros or US dollars. I said "dollars" without thinking. I looked at my receipt for $US11.35, and saw the three per cent surcharge added in and a note saying the "Cardholder has chosen to pay in USD."

The clerk had not mentioned the fee, as in "Would you like to pay in dollars? If so, it will cost you can extra three per cent." The receipt also noted that "My choice is final," meaning there was no going back and redoing the transaction in euros.

Weighing in

Myth: Don't assume that other countries will have the same domestic baggage rules as your own - even if you're not flying a budget airline. Qantas, for example, allows passengers to check in one piece of luggage of up two 23 kilograms on domestic flights at no extra charge.

Reality: Travellers to Europe should be aware of lower weight limits on checked bags for flights within the continent, especially on the discount airlines.

I weighed my bag before I left home to make sure it was within the 15-kilogram limit for three flights I booked within Turkey. Later in the trip, I shifted some contents to a small carry-on to make room for a few purchases.