JOE'S ULTIMATE BUSINESS-TRAVEL TIP SHEET
Every business traveler has a short list of "can't miss" tips: to get the best fare or an upgrade; of the best restaurants and best hotels; or the most reliable way to snare a quiet corner in your favorite airport club.
These are my 25 current best tips: about dealing with airlines, hotels and car-rental firms; about managing your frequent-travel plans; and how to maximize your productivity and comfort on the road. They are gleaned from more than 20 years of reporting about the ups and downs and traps of a life on the road. I hope you find these strategies and tactics useful. And I’m confident that they’ll save you time and money.
My current best airline and airport tips are below. Use the links on the left side under my ugly mug to find the tips for other categories. They'll open in a new window. -- Joe Brancatelli
BEATING THE AIRLINES AT THEIR OWN GAME
Airlines are notoriously unpredictable when it comes to launching fare sales. But they try to raise prices on a very precise schedule: only on a weekend. Why? Airlines are basically a bunch of pack rats and they don't like moving on their own. So one of them will raise their prices late on Thursday or early on Friday morning and then watch to see what the competition does over the weekend. If other airlines match, the price increase sticks. If other carriers don't match, however, the carrier that initiated the increase rescinds it before travel agencies open for business on Monday morning. This implicit fare signaling by airlines is nasty business--and proof of their idiotic herd mentality. But that pales in comparison to the hard-dollar costs to you: If you buy on the weekend, you're guaranteed to be the loser. Why? Because an airline won't refund the higher fare you may have paid even if the fare increase is abandoned on Monday morning.
Which carrier offers you the best shot at an empty middle seat in coach? The answer may surprise you. According to government filings, the major airline with 2004's lowest load factor--and, thus, the fewest filled seats and, one logically extrapolates, the most empty middle seats--was Southwest. It filled 69.5 percent of its seats in 2004, which means that the middle seat, at least on average, was almost never filled. Next best: AirTran Airways, with a 70.8 percent load factor. Another good choice if your goal is a little elbow room: Midwest Airlines, fka Midwest Express. The shrinking Milwaukee-based airline filled only 64.6 percent of its seats on average in 2004. The airline where you had the worst chance of finding the seat next to you empty? JetBlue Airways, which filled an astounding 83.2 percent of all the chairs it flew in 2004. The silver lining: Most JetBlue seats have a larger-than-industry-standard 34 inches of legroom. Next most-crowded airline? Northwest. With its 80.2 percent load factor in 2004, Northwest flyers almost never found an empty middle seat. Northwest's silver lining? The airline flies a huge number of aging DC-9 and MD-80 series aircraft. They are configured 2x3, which means Northwest flights have far fewer middle seats in the first place.
You'd think that airlines sharing codes would charge the same price for seats on their code-shared flights. Even in this era of wacky fares, you'd think that the same planes with the same service and the same seats would cost the same regardless of which carrier's name you've chosen to put on the ticket. Well, think again. Illogical as it sounds, each airline in a code-share arrangement sets its own fares. The inevitable result? Unfair fares and pricing chaos. One example: Book a roundtrip flight in business class between New York/Kennedy and Cairo on Air France and you'll pay $4,763.96 roundtrip. But call Delta Air Lines, which puts its "DL" code on Air France's Cairo flights, and Delta will charge you $5,465.73 for a roundtrip ticket. Same planes, same flights, same service, but a price difference of nearly $1,000. The lesson: Check the fares of both carriers before booking any code-shared flight.
Here's a sign of the times: If you try to curb-check your luggage and the Skycap turns you down, then be prepared for a "random screening" experience. According to several airline bosses I've recently debriefed, a rejection from a Skycap at the curb is an unmistakable sign that you've been flagged for intensive security screening at every step of the process. "Skycaps can't curb-check you if you've been chosen for extra screening," one insider explains. "They won't tell you that you've been chosen because they are not allowed to say, so they'll give you some vague excuse." So what do you do? There isn't much you can do except prepare yourself for being pulled aside at the gate for the annoying extra pat-down. While you wait for the inevitable, organize your carry-on bags and your clothing for the inspection. Put your keys, coins, phones and pens in a plastic sandwich bag and toss it in your carry-on. And be polite: Since you know the "random" check is coming, don't pout or whine. Just grin and bear it.
Transportation Department statistics show that flights scheduled to depart and arrive early in the day have the best overall on-time performance. Still, timeliness isn't the only reason to fly early in the day: If your selected flight is canceled, you'll have a better chance of being rebooked on a flight later in the day. Conversely, if you book an evening flight, you're not only subject to longer delays, you also may not get on another flight that day if your original one is canceled. By the way, you can get the hour-by-hour on-time performance of dozens of major airports in the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. The Transportation Department publication also reports on the on-time performance of major carriers at more than 30 airports.
Let's talk about hotels. Click here for those tips.
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