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 The Brancatelli File

joe MY FUNNY VALENTINES

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

February 14, 2002 -- This is Valentineís Day, and, by the columnistís code of currency, I have to start tossing Valentines around. But since you and I meet in this space to discuss the issues of the day in business travel, how in hell can we spit out Valentines? The travel industry treats us like a commodity. You donít send Valentines to people who treat you like soybean futures.

Thankfully, however, we have that wonderful song, My Funny Valentine, to guide us. Alone among sappy love themes, My Funny Valentine reminds you to celebrate love despite the flaws of your lover. And if you are smart enough and lucky enough to scare up the Chet Baker rendition, youíll find that My Funny Valentine is a sober, clear-eyed view of romance.

Like the lover in My Funny Valentine, the travel industry is laughable and unphotographable. And in that vein--loving despite all thatís wrong with your love object--allow me to fulfill the columnistís code of currency, and throw out My Funny Valentines to business travel.

EXTRA LEGROOM IN COACH ON AMERICAN American Airlines is extra bellicose and extra arrogant these days--in fact, the corporate bully in American seems to rise in direct proportion to its quarterly losses--but thereís no better way to go in the back of the bus. The extra legroom American has added at every chair makes flying coach bearable and modestly dignified. All other things being close to equal, when I must fly coach, I fly American.

GOOD, CHEAP HOTELS They say Americaís only enduring contributions to global culture are baseball and jazz. Allow me to add one more: the good, cheap hotel. America invented the concept of good, cheap lodgings and I defy you to get better value for money than the offerings at a run-of-the-mill Courtyard or Hampton Inn or Hilton Garden Inn. In the rest of the world, cheap hotels are just that: Old, often dilapidated, accommodations that remind you exactly how expensive it is to lodge in Paris or London or Tokyo or Frankfurt. In America, stepping down to a Wingate Inn or a Baymont isnít degrading, itís a celebration of what a good, targeted inexpensive hotel can be.

RANDY PETERSEN Where would we be without Randy Petersen? Heís a national treasure in a society that values frequent-travel points and miles almost as much as cash. Randy is the Alan Greenspan of frequency programs, except that Randy does it all with a smile. A lifetime ago, when I was covering the programs for Frequent Flyer magazine, I was able to offer readers a definitive guide to frequent-flyer plans in four pages of copy and charts. Now, with frequency programs more complicated than the income-tax code, Randy and Webflyer.com are our indefatigable, ever-cheerful guides to the unfathomable rules, regulations and quirks of frequent-travel plans.

INSTANT-RENTAL PROGRAMS Even in the eternal weirdness that is business-travel, car rentals are bizarre. A company hands you the keys to a $15,000, $20,000 or even $30,000 vehicle with very few questions asked. It charges less per day than the local hardware store charges to rent a home-carpet shampoo machine. Then it mucks up the whole experience with indecipherable contracts, infuriating ups and extras, and a rental process that is the modern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. But if youíre smart enough to get into an instant-rental plan--I use Hertz #1 Club Gold, but Avis Preferred and National Emerald Aisle have their adherents, too--car rental is a breeze. I spend less time getting a car these days than I do finding the power switch on the average hotel light fixture.

GLASER LUGGAGE Myron and Kari Glaser are obsessive people who never quite get the commercial part of their business right, but no one makes better luggage for frequent flyers. Glaser Design pieces are always a pleasing compromise between form and function. The quality and construction is extraordinary. And the prices, while higher than what the luggage-specialty stores charge for mass-market trash, are just a fraction of what the unctuous designers exact for their frivolous pieces. I can highly recommend the Glaser Travelerís Briefcase, which is featured at the skimpy Glaser Website; it is the perfect ďpersonal itemĒ of carry-on luggage for these post-9/11 times. When you call (415-552-3188), Myron, Kari or one of the Glaser staff will make excellent, personalized suggestions for briefcases, luggage and garment bags.

CHICAGO Think about it, fellow travelers. What American city is most, well, American? New York and Los Angeles are coastal worlds unto themselves. San Francisco, for all its charm, is unique, not representative. Atlanta is too new and too Southern. Dallas is too big and too Texan. Boston and Seattle are too insular. No, Chicago is Americaís city. Even when the winter is brutal, the city works. And the whole town strikes a decent balance between amenities for frequent flyers and just-for-locals style. There are enough sports and arts and culture and shopping and restaurants for all tastes. By big-city standards, prices are reasonable and the natives friendly. All in all, Chicago is about right. Itís even better if you can avoid McCormick Place.

BRITISH AIRWAYS PREMIUM CLASSES Day-to-day, flight-to-flight, destination-to-destination, no other airline does better than British Airways in its business- and first-class cabins. They were first with beds in first class, first with beds in business class and, years later, the rest of the industry is still playing catch-up. Is BA the perfect airline? Of course not. Is it always the best carrier to fly on a particular route? Certainly not. Are its prices to London in the premium classes outrageously high? Absolutely. But, overall, for most U.S. business travelers headed overseas and lucky enough to fly upfront, BA is the best combination of schedule, service and amenities. No other carrier comes close.

DINERS CLUB AIRPORT CLUB ACCESS Citigroup, which operates the U.S. Diners Club card franchise, seems intent on destroying the viability of Diners Club in the United States. But carrying a Diners Club comes with one amazing benefit: free access to dozens of airport clubs around the world. Itís the best free perk in the credit- and charge-card category and it more than makes up for the truly inept management of Citigroup.

MAGELLANíS In a world full of schlocky travel goods and indifferent service, there is the oasis that is Magellanís. Whether you use the companyís Website or call (800-962-4943), you will find high-quality travel gear, excellent selection, fair prices, and, above all, exquisite customer service. Iíve never spoken to a Magellanís sales agent who didnít seem knowledgeable about the products and genuinely interested in helping me find the right item. If the airlines ran half as well as Magellanís, every day on the road would be like Valentineís Day.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.