Automobile Club offers travelers tips they can trust

Chances are that when you begin to plan a trip, you turn to the Internet.
If so, you are among the three out of four travelers who go online for travel information, according to research group PhoCusWright. You probably also check the ratings of hotels and restaurants, as 60 percent of all travelers do, according to YPB&R/ Yankelovich research.
But there are many opinions and ratings systems, so who do you trust?
There is one time-honored, consistent system that millions have come to depend upon: the AAA (Automobile Association of America) Diamond Ratings.
This decades-old system evaluates and rates 32,000 lodgings and 28,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
The properties must first qualify to be inspected. After being accepted, actual inspections are unannounced, and for hotels and motels, include an overnight stay, said Elaine Beno, spokesperson for the Auto Club of Southern California. Inspectors review and rate exteriors, grounds and public areas; room décor, ambiance and amenities; guest room bathrooms; housekeeping and maintenance; management; staff; and guest services.
Once the inspection is complete, properties receive a rating of one to five “diamonds.”
Less than 4 percent of all properties receive four diamonds, and less than 0.28 percent receive five.
“There aren’t that many programs that rate both restaurants and hotels because it’s expensive to be completely objective,” Beno said. “Other systems may or may not have the same needs and desires as you. One of the advantages to the AAA system is the standardization of the review.”
In San Diego County, only the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad and the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla received the 2009 Five Diamond Award.
In Orange County, the St. Regis Resort, Monarch Beach and the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, and the Montage Laguna Beach were among the winners.
Here is the AAA’s description of a five-diamond hotel:
“Properties reflect the characteristics of the ultimate in luxury and sophistication. Accommodations are first class. The physical attributes are extraordinary in every manner. The fundamental hallmarks at this level are providing meticulous service, exceeding guest expectations, and maintaining impeccable standards of excellence. Many personalized services and amenities provide an unmatched level of comfort.”
The Auto Club of Southern California, which has grown to 6 million members, “was founded in 1900, two years before the national AAA,” Beno said. “The original purpose was to help motorists travel and with the auto itself. In 1900, it was all dirt roads, and people maintained cars themselves. You had to be a do-it-yourself mechanic.”
The auto club and AAA first listed accommodations information in the early 1900s, “mostly to alert motorists where to find accommodations that were pretty scarce at the time.”
In 1937, during the Great Depression, the first field inspectors were hired to inspect hotels, motels and restaurants. A diamond was chosen as AAA’s rating symbol in 1977.
Leaving the country?
There has been a lot of confusion about what documents are needed to get back into the United States after visiting Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda. After much misinformation and various reprieves, here’s what is said to be the latest and final word: As of June 1, travelers returning to the United States from these areas are required to present a single document showing both citizenship and identity. This document may be either a conventional passport or the new U.S. Passport Card. The latter is a convenient, wallet-sized card that frequent border-crossers may want to use.
Information on cost and application is at www. travel.state.gov, or call (877) 487-2778.

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