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. -- 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.
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.
HOW TO MANAGE YOUR FREQUENT-TRAVEL PLANS
You shouldn't use American Express Membership Rewards points or Diners Club Rewards points for merchandise. Unless you are absolutely awash in frequent-flyer miles that you can't use, the very best value you'll get for your card points is premium-class airline seats via a conversion into frequent-flyer miles. Consider: Diners will give you a Bose Lifestyle 18 DVD Home Theater System in exchange for 166,000 Club Rewards points. Amex will give you the same Bose system for 200,000 Membership Rewards points. Bose doesn't discount, so you can take it to the mileage bank that the retail value of the system is $1,999. But those Club Rewards points can be converted to 166,000 Delta SkyMiles. With that cache, you can claim an unrestricted BusinessElite roundtrip from New York to Paris. The retail fare: $6,355. Those 200,000 Membership Rewards points work the same way.
In their rush to turn frequent-flyer programs into general marketing plans, the Big Six airlines have taken on a raft of shopping partners and both the airlines and the retailers seem intent on ripping off travelers. One salient example: the Continental OnePass program alliance with Calyx & Corolla, the flowers-by-courier service. The OnePass deal seems sweet: Earn 15 miles for every dollar spent when you follow a OnePass link and buy at the C&C Web site. But the OnePass link drives you to a rigged version of the Calyx & Corolla site. Only C&C's most expensive flower products--the bouquets bundled with ugly, overpriced vases--are listed on the site. And a "catalog quick order" function, which should permit you to buy C&C's more reasonably priced flowers-only products, has been disabled. Enter a valid code for a flowers-only bouquet and the OnePass version of the site spits out a phony error message. Of course, none of these games are played at C&C's public site, which lists the firm's entire inventory and happily processes the same "catalog quick order" codes that the OnePass-specific site rejects. In other words, if you want to shop smart at Calyx & Corolla, you can't have OnePass miles, too. The moral: When an airline frequent-flyer program drives you to a merchandise or service partner, be suspicious. Always check the price and selection you're shown against the offerings at the partner's general Web site.
Frequent-flyer plans stopped being about flying a long time ago. They're now "multi-sector travel and retail programs," says Steve Grosvald, who helped create the United Mileage Plus and the Continental OnePass plans. Mileage guru Randy Petersen says nearly 60 percent of all miles are now earned from non-flying sources such as credit cards, long-distance and wireless calling, retailers and dining. But change your buying patterns to earn the non-flying miles and you're in for a financial shock. One example: Charging $25,000 on a frequent-flyer credit card will earn you 25,000 miles, enough for a free, restricted domestic coach award. Use it to claim a Boston-Los Angeles roundtrip and you'll save about $300 at current fares. Pay back the $25,000 in charges over one year at the 13.99% interest that most affinity cards charge, however, and you'll ring up $1,934.72 in finance fees. Stretch the payments out over three years and you'll pay $5,755.50 in interest. Bottom line: Non-flight miles have value only if you earn them rationally. Never let the lure of so-called free miles induce you to pay more for a product or service. Never "roll over" your payments and pay interest charges on a credit card tied to a frequent-flyer plan. In fact, be wary of the price of anything that promises you "free" frequent-flyer miles.
It's a measure of how concerned business travelers are with their frequent-flyer mileage balances that the most popular new tools available on the Web is the Mileage Converter. This simple bit of brilliance not only calculates the conversion rate among frequent-flyer miles, frequent-stay points and Amex Membership Rewards and Diners Club Rewards points, it also tells you how to swap the credits. It even advises you of the most efficient method for doing the swap. But I must warn you: Virtually all inter-program conversions carry a heavy penalty, some higher than 50 percent of the miles that you are switching between plans. If you're truly worried about your US Airways, United, America West and Delta miles, you'd be better off cashing out rather than converting. And the safest way to cash out is to claim your award seats on international-airline partners for flights in the next six months or so. Once miles in a program are exchanged for a free trip on a partner carrier, the partner airline must honor the ticket even if the airline sponsoring the frequent-flyer plan has imploded in the interim.
More than 80 percent of all frequent-flyer awards are redeemed at the basic, restricted level. As advance-purchase domestic coach fares plummet, however, those 25,000-mile awards now have very limited cash value. Early, coast-to-coast flights were selling for as little as $158 roundtrip. Flights to Florida dropped as low as $138 roundtrip. Prices are higher in summer, of course, but advance-purchase coach fares are always dirt cheap these days. So the best payoff for travelers is claiming awards for premium-class tickets, especially on international flights. Those tickets are dramatically more costly and much less frequently discounted. One example: A restricted business-class ticket between New York and Rome on Continental recently cost about $3,250 and was available for 100,000 Continental OnePass miles. The comparative math is shocking: If it cost $158 to fly coast-to-coast in coach and 25,000 miles to claim that ticket for free, you realize a per-mile value of just six-tenths of a penny. A $3,250 business-class ticket to Europe that costs 100,000 miles to claim for free yields a value of more than 3 cents per mile. The bottom line: Use your frequent-flyer miles to claim premium-class, premium-priced tickets. Using miles for routine domestic coach tickets is a waste.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR LIFE ON THE ROAD
A flight delay, a cancellation or a security-inspired airport closure will wreck havoc with your entire itinerary, but it can be managed better if you plan ahead. For example: Program your mobile phone with the toll-free reservation numbers of your chosen airlines. If a disruption occurs, don't go back to the ticket counter. Just call the airline. The telephone agents can do almost anything the folks at the ticket counter can do. Programming your car-rental firm's toll-free number into the phone wouldn't hurt, either. You may find yourself stranded at an airport that's within driving distance of your final destination. Having the rental firm's number in your phone memory will save time and effort.
The fundamental flaw in complaint letters written by business travelers is that they do not specifically ask for tangible compensation. Writing a letter of complaint without asking for something specific is guaranteed to generate little more than a form letter and a form apology. Tell the airline, hotel or car-rental firm exactly what is required to make amends. But be reasonable. Have a sense of proportion. A one-hour flight delay doesn't entitle you to a ticket refund. A rude employee isn't grounds for a free hotel night. The punishment, so to speak, should fit the crime. Asking for hard cash is always dicey, although, sometimes, a refund is the only fair resolution. However, if you'd be happy with bonus miles or points, room or flight upgrades, or discount coupons, ask for them. If you're a truly frequent traveler, immediate elevation to the next level of elite status might be the best compensation of all.
If you can't resolve your complaint with an airline in any other way, you may have to sue them. But don't play in their legal ballpark. If you hire a lawyer and pursue your complaint through the usual civil-court channels, the airline will tie you up over jurisdictional issues for years. Why? Airlines claim they can only be sued in federal court. You can't beat them that way. Instead, play on your home turf: small-claims court. If you sue a carrier in the small-claims court of a county where the airline does business--you can sue them in any county where they maintain a sales office, ticket office or, of course, an airport presence--the airline will be compelled to respond. You risk nothing because you can represent yourself. On the other hand, the airline will have to send a high-priced executive or, more likely, a high-priced lawyer, to represent them. And they won't be able to fog the issue with legalities like jurisdiction. More often than not, the airline will try to negotiate a settlement with you before the small-claims court date. Even if they don't, you stand a decent chance of winning the day if your claim is valid. After all, small-claims judges and referees are customers, too…
Pay attention to the bags that you're checking. Note the brand name, size, color and style of each piece. Inside each bag you intend to check, place a sheet of paper with your name, your home telephone number, your mobile-phone number--and the locations and phone numbers of where you are staying on your trip. If your exterior tag is removed, the airline can track you down from the contact information you wisely stowed inside the bag. If you're headed overseas to a country where you don't speak the language, take Polaroid or digital photos of the bags and carry the pictures with you. A picture goes a long way toward breaking down the language barrier at a lost-luggage counter in an overseas airport.
For a quick trip, pack bags from bottom to top: heaviest items at the bottom of a bag, lightest items on top. That will minimize wrinkling. For an extended trip, however, pack according to itinerary: clothing for the last stop at the bottom, garments for each earlier stop layered on top. Underwear and socks can be stuffed inside your shoes and around the edges of the luggage. Items like slacks and ties can be loosely rolled to keep wrinkles away. Another way to lighten your load: Wear your heaviest shoes and bulkiest clothes on the day of departure so you won't have to pack them. And remember: The world is full of places where you can get overnight laundry and dry-cleaning service. Another useful tip: Limit your color palette and pack shoes, clothing and accessories that all complement each other. An item that you can wear with only one outfit isn't a good choice for a trip.
STRATEGIES AND TACTICS FOR ENLIGHTENED TRAVEL
It's one of the most durable evergreens of practical international travel: Always make a photocopy of your passport's photo page, your driver's license and other important travel documents. Then keep them in a safe (and separate) place while you're on the road. If you ever lose your passport or other crucial documents, the chestnut goes, you'll have paper backup to get quick, emergency replacements. But here's the 21st century twist: Rather than copy the documents and carry the paperwork around, scan them into your personal computer, then E-mail the scans to yourself. The documents are always safely tucked away in your mailbox and, if necessary, you can go to any computer with Internet access and quickly print out the scans. Pre-PC frequent flyers may find this an unnecessary complication. PC-Generation travelers know the scan strategy is a great way to avoid the paper chase. Those of us who straddle the Great Cyber Divide and move effortlessly between paper and electrons consider it six of one. Travel paranoids, of course, will do both.
For better and for worse, English is quickly becoming the world's universal language. But that does not give you linguistic license to be an Ugly American. Make a serious effort to speak and understand at least a few phrases of the local tongue. Wonderful cheat sheets and pocket-sized phrase books are available for every language. I use a series called Just Enough… because I like how it puts a language in conversational context and stresses phonetic pronunciation over grammatical perfection. You can surely find a phrasebook that organizes and explains a language in a way that appeals to you. You'll also be surprised how quickly you can absorb the conversational basics of almost any tongue when you're not being hectored by an obsessive high-school language teacher.
A clear-eyed and unsentimental view of how things have changed in the last generation is useful when it comes to jettisoning some things that were once considered "must have" road-warrior accoutrements. For example, I've dumped my dual-time wristwatch. Why? My mobile phone and my laptop both have clocks. Also gone: my folding travel alarm clock. Why? My mobile phone has an alarm feature. Also left behind: a stash of emergency road cash (There's always an ATM nearby.); my portable short-wave radio (I now get streaming radio from around the world off the Internet.); and my calculator (There's one on my laptop and my mobile phone.). And now I also leave behind my beloved, ultra-slim, ultra-sharp, Japanese-made scissors (a concession to airport security) and my lace-up shoes and sneakers (ditto).
Forget traveler's checks or converting dollars to euros or other currencies before you go overseas. The most cost-effective way to get cash is from ATMs at your destination. But make sure that you have your financial ducks in order. Make sure your banking card is accessible with a 4-digit numeric PIN because most overseas ATMs only use four digits and the keypads aren't alphanumeric. And have a clear understanding of what, if anything, your bank will charge for an overseas ATM withdrawal. If your bank charges you for overseas ATM access then, frankly, you're with the wrong bank or have the wrong kind of checking or savings account. And don't use cash for larger overseas purchases. Use your Visa or MasterCard, or, even better, your American Express card. You'll get the wholesale rate on the exchange. That can be as much as 10 percent better than the exchange rate for cash. Just watch the credit card's cross-border and transaction fees. Make sure that they don't exceed 2 or 3 percent. One final note: Never accept a credit-card charge denominated in dollars overseas. That's a relatively new trick and it's designed to rip you off. Always insist your credit-card charge be presented to you only in local currency.
Sometimes injuries or illnesses are so serious that travelers require emergency evacuation from where they are working. An evacuation could cost upwards of $50,000, travel insurers say, and few traditional health-insurance policies cover this contingency. Many specialty firms sell evacuation coverage separately or as part of more comprehensive travel-health policies. But there are hitches: The insurer usually decides if the medical facility at your destination is adequate and the insurer almost always decides if you should be evacuated and where you will be sent. But Medjet Assist specializes in medical-evacuation services. If you're hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, Medjet Assist will evacuate you to the hospital of your choice and cover all the costs. This on-demand policy sets Medjet Assist apart. Membership in Medjet Assist is available per trip (plans start at $75 a person for 7-day plans) or, more economically, on an annual basis ($205 for an individual or $325 for families).
These tips are presented as a courtesy by JoeSentMe.com, the noncommercial Web site for business travelers. They are Copyright © 2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. Absolutely no reuse or reproduction in any form or medium without express written permission. For reprint information, contact Joe Brancatelli at Joe@joesentme.com