ANSWERS FOR TRICKY TRAVEL QUESTIONS
By Joe Brancatelli
May 21, 2009 -- Can you smell it? It's the sweet fragrance of a three-day weekend, complete with barbecues, picnics, some R&R and, best of all, no flying and no business travel.
But as much as we can savor this brief respite from life on the road, we also know that holiday functions make us curiosities and conversation pieces for the stay-at-home crowd. You know how it goes: "Look who's here! It's good old Sue (or Steve or Somini or Chen). He (or she) just got back from Toronto (or Tokyo or Tacoma or Houston)! Betcha they have an interesting story!"
Besides the annoyance factor and the fact that you would much prefer to talk about LeBron James or the Star Trek movie or the new Phil Woods album, there's the reality: How would you know what's going on? As I often say when someone asks me about some town I just visited: "Hey, the conference room was great…"
That said, I don't want you to be bombarded with travel questions during the weekend and have no facile answers. As a public service, let me predict some of the likely travel-related holiday questions you'll get and suggest some useful answers.
If someone at a Memorial Day BBQ walks up to you and says, "Hey, good to see you! Aren't you usually on the road?" I suggest you answer with statistics from IATA, the airline trade group. In March, travel fell 9.3 percent, following a 9.6 percent fall in February. But the decline in premium-class travel was even worse: down 19.2 percent, following a 21.1 percent fall in February and rapid monthly declines dating back to last August. Then grab another beer, find a chair and relish the opportunity to sit back and not worry about tomorrow's flight.
Some wiseguy who fancies himself a frequent traveler will invariably corner you near the baked beans and start spewing his theory about hotels and how he just scored a $99 a night suite on the beach in Maui … or Martha's Vineyard … or Mauritius. You should direct Mr. Big Suite to Michael Matthews' recent column on hotel cutbacks. Or, even better, bombard him with some specifics of the "standard changes" at a chain like InterContinental
Details of InterContinental's cuts have leaked out and the news is chilling: no overnight staffing of the front desk (at Candlewood Suites); a reduction in towels and other bathroom items (all brands); the end of morning coffee in the lobby (Holiday Inn and Hotel Indigo); reduction in the hours that hotels are staffed with bellmen (Crowne Plaza); reduction or elimination of restaurant hosts (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Express); the end of room-service lunch and even restaurants that serve lunch (Holiday Inn) and across-the-board reductions in the early-morning and late-night hours that the hotel restaurants operate. Then see if he'll fetch you another burger when he heads to the grill.
The party is sure to have its fare hounds, too. You know, they're the ones who corner you just as you're about to take a bite of corn and expect you to be able to give them the exact price they'll have to pay for their next flight. "You fly all the time," they say. "Can you tell me the cheapest fare so I can fly from Kankakee to Katmandu with my family next month? And how much would it be to upgrade to business class?"
After suggesting that they consult a good travel agent or surf to Orbitz and look it up themselves, make their eyes glaze over with some statistics. "You know," you can say, "I read some government statistics that said the average fare is highest in Cincinnati ($208.23) and that represents a 9 percent year-over-year increase. But the highest percentage increase in fares at costly airports was in Minneapolis, where prices jumped 15.7 percent, to $187.70, in the fourth quarter of last year compared to $162.17 in 2007. Both of those airports are fortress hubs for Delta and Northwest, you know. But don't think it's just the legacy carriers. Fares jumped 25.2 percent at Dallas/Love Field to $112.15 and 19.7 percent at Chicago/Midway to $127.54. Both of those airports are controlled by Southwest. So, trust me, the fares are always crazy."
It goes without saying that the conversation will inevitably swing around to terrorism, torture and the rear-guard action by former Vice President Dick Cheney against the Obama Administration. Some maroon will surely collar you by the lemonade and say something like: "You know, regardless of your politics, you have to admit Bush and Cheney kept you frequent flyers safe. As annoying as the airport security checks may be, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) has been doing its job."
You should probably respond like this: "Well, I don't want to talk politics, but remember that 9/11 happened on Bush's and Cheney's watch. And the Bush Administration initially opposed the creation of the TSA." Then try this: The FBI's handling of terrorist watch lists has been so shoddy since 9/11 that a new report from the Inspector General of the Justice Department says a third of the names it audited were outdated. Worse, at least 10 people legitimately on the terrorist list were allowed to enter the United States anyway. You might add that the TSA is giving up on its once-touted program to put bomb-sensing "puffer" machines at airport checkpoints. The TSA purchased 207 glass portals that shoot air blasts at passengers, but only 97 were ever deployed. They were mechanically unreliable and some had trouble detecting bombs. Taxpayer money wasted: about $37 million.
As you hurry away, perhaps hoping find a place to check the score of the basketball game, you'll be confronted by some clown who's sure to want you to "admit that President Obama is just what we needed to get a handle on this terrorist thing and that's gotta be great for you frequent flyers." I suggest you say something like: "You know, I'd feel much better about the President if he'd gotten around to appointing a TSA Administrator. It is 120 days since the Inauguration and you'd think he'd have had a minute to find someone capable of doing the job."
Finally, you'll also come face-to-face with the clueless type who wants to take a vacation and doesn't have an idea of where to go. "I've heard Spain is wonderful," this person will start. "But I was thinking this was the year to finally do Hawaii. But I hear there are great cruise deals out there, too. What do you think? Know a great deal I can't afford to pass up?"
This is actually the easiest question to answer. Sidle up close to the clueless one, slide your sunglasses down your nose and whisper conspiratorially: "Vegas. There are suites for $49 a night and 99-cent dinner buffets and you can get $5 tickets to the Wayne Newton show."
None of that may be true, but it's the answer they want to hear, so why fight it…
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, 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 © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.