Remember 'Hernando's Hideaway?' You had to 'knock three times and whisper low that you and I were sent by Joe.' I hope JoeSentMe.com will open some business-travel doors.

BEATING THE HOTELS AT THEIR OWN GAME
Despite recent and extremely modest rallies, the U.S. dollar remains at or near its record recent lows against many major foreign currencies. The parlous state of the greenback versus the euro (€1=US$1.30) gets most of the publicity, of course, but the no-longer-almighty dollar has also plunged against the Japanese yen (US$1=¥107), the British pound (£1=$1.90), the Swiss franc (US$1=CSF1.19), Australian (A$1=US$.77) and New Zealand (US$1=NZ$.72) dollars and even the chronically weak Canadian dollar (US$1=C$.80). All of which means that cashing your frequent-guest points for free hotel nights in international destinations would be a great idea this winter and spring. You might even claim American Express and Diners Club points as hotel rewards, too. Especially in Europe, the weak dollar is really beginning to inflate hotel costs. A guestroom that costs €200 a night in France, Spain, Germany or Italy would have cost you US$200 early last year, but this year the room rate calculates to about US$260 because of the dollar's decline. And that plunge doesn't even include year-to-year rate rises. Thankfully, major hotel chains have not raised their award requirements, so it's cheaper to pay for international stays in points rather than dollars. It's a great way to maximize the value of those points--and to husband your cash so that you can afford all those suddenly expensive international meals, taxi rides and souvenirs.

When an airline cancels my flight and announces it will put stranded passengers up in a hotel room for the night, I never wait on line for the free hotel voucher. The hotels and motels that the airlines use are almost always despicable and often disreputable places located miles from the airport. I've pre-programmed my cellphone with the toll-free reservation numbers for Hilton and Marriott because I know there's usually a Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn or Courtyard nearby. I get a room pronto and pay my own way. Sure, it costs a few bucks out of my own pocket. But I know that the room is clean, the shower works, the television gets CNN and ESPN, there'll be a decent (and sometimes free) breakfast the next morning and I will have a quick shuttle ride back to the airport. And you'll also be comfortably ensconced in your room an hour or so before the poor folks who waited on the endless line for a freebie of dubious value.

We've all been trained since childhood to think "hotel" or "motel" when the topic of lodgings arises. But unlike the clueless airline business, the lodging industry has become richer, more varied and more interesting in the last 20 years. You've now got many more options than a standard hotel or motel. For example, an all-suite chain such as Embassy Suites generally offers a two-room suite for the cost of a standard hotel room. That makes an all-suite property perfect for a two- or three-night stay. Need to be in one location even longer? Then consider a chain such as Residence Inn or Homewood Suites. They offer home-like accommodations with kitchens and living rooms and home-like amenities such as laundry facilities and convenience shops. They also offer free breakfasts and evening social events to help you feel less alone during a long stay. On the other hand, if you only need a clean bed, a good shower and a decent night's sleep before moving on, consider the so-called "focused-service" chains such as Holiday Inn Express, Courtyard or Hampton Inn. They've designed their services and room rates for short-stay guests. When you need all the traditional amenities--elegant restaurants for entertaining, cocktail lounges for relaxing, meeting rooms and ballrooms for business conclaves --that's when you need the traditional full-service hotel chains like Hilton, Westin, Hyatt and Marriott.

BEATING CAR-RENTAL FIRMS AT THEIR OWN GAME
Long before the airlines and hotels invented add-on fees and surcharges, the nation's big car-rental firms had perfected the odious practice. One of the most abusive car-rental extras: The price rental firms charge for gasoline to refill your vehicle when you return it with less than a full tank. The rapacious fee, which was recently renamed the "refueling and service charge," used to be pegged at slightly less than twice the price of gasoline purchased from any nearby gas station. But now the fee has gone into the economic stratosphere. Witness a rental I had in California. The contract stated that the refueling fee was an eye-popping, wallet-gouging $5.99 a gallon or--beware when a car-rental contract says "or"--a flat fee of 25 cents a mile. Naturally, I was late for my flight and didn't have time to gas up before returning the rental. The rental firm thus elected to charge me $59.50 for fuel--25 cents for each of the 238 miles I had driven. No matter that I returned the compact car with at least a quarter of a tank of gas and was only paying $36.99 a day for the vehicle itself. The moral of the tale: Always fill up before returning your rental car and always get a receipt for the gasoline in case some officious rental agent challenges your declaration that you've already refilled the tank.

Popularly known as CDW or LDW, the "collision damage" or "loss damage" waiver sold by car-rental firms isn't insurance at all. It's an agreement that relieves you of financial responsibility in the event of damage to or theft of the vehicle you rent. At $9 to $25 a day, this option is often unnecessary for renters. About 60 percent of automobile owners are already covered by their personal car insurance. Most others can add the waiver to their personal insurance for as little as $50 a year. Some credit cards also offer this waiver free if you charge your rental to the card. American Express and the gold and platinum versions of MasterCard and Visa cards offer what is called "secondary" coverage. In other words, it covers whatever damage your personal auto insurance doesn't pay. But Diners Club offers a "primary" form of car-rental coverage that substitutes for your personal auto insurance. That's why Diners Club is the best way to pay for a rental car.

Let's talk about frequent-travel programs. Click here for those tips.

joe JOE BRANCATELLI

ABOUT BRANCATELLI
Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means he helps media companies start, fix and reposition news-papers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT
All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2005 by Joe Brancatelli.

JoeSentMe is Copyright 2005 by Joe Brancatelli.