The Brancatelli File



October 1, 1993 -- The phone in your hotel room may look harmless, but it's a money machine in disguise. If you're not careful, a hotel-room phone can suck the life out of your expense account faster than you can dial 911.

The most egregious rip-offs occur at hotels that use "alternate-operator services" (AOS) instead of AT&T, MCI or Sprint for long-distance calls. AOS companies routinely charge four or five times more than AT&T, then kick a portion of the profits back to the hotels. It's a perfectly legal practice, but often means business travelers will be charged $7 or $8 for a $2 call.

Many larger hotels have abandoned AOS firms after protests from enraged guests. But returning to AT&T, MCI or Sprint hasn't necessarily lowered phone fees. At most hotels using the familiar long-distance companies, you'll be charged the higher, "operator-assisted" rate even if you place the call yourself. Many hotels then add 20-50 percent surcharges on top of that. That means you'll pay $3 or $4 for every $2 call.

How do you beat the hotels at their own phone game? It's not easy--and never be smug enough to think you're immune from a rip-off just because you carry a telephone calling card or have a toll-free access code from your long-distance company. Most hotels impose a surcharge of as much as $1 each time you make a calling-card or toll-free call from a guest-room phone.

To avoid the worst trap--hotels working with AOS firms--ask who handles the hotel's calls before making a reservation. If the clerk won't tell you the firm's name--or if the company is unfamiliar to you--chances are the phones are rigged. Book somewhere else.

But even if you're in a hotel using one of the Big Three long-distance companies, don't let down your guard. Hotels are required to place a printed list of phone charges in your room, but they've been known to post the list inside closets or on the back of nightstands. If you can't find the rate card, call the front desk before making a call.

If the hotel is charging rates you consider too high, go down to the lobby and use the pay phones there. If that's not practical, use the "chain-calling" feature of your calling card. Chain-calling allows you to make a series of calls without hanging up. It will also ensure you'll pay the hotel's surcharges only once.

Last suggestion: Refuse to pay any inflated phone bills when you check out. Hotel check-out clerks are often empowered to reduce or eliminate phone charges in order to avoid a confrontation in the lobby. You'd be surprised how quickly an embarrassed hotel will waive a fee for a knowledgeable guest who's complaining loudly enough so that his fellow travelers can hear all about his telephonic travails.

I recently booked what I thought was a British Airways flight to London. But when I arrived at the airport, I was directed to a USAir jet. What happened?

The USAir-British Airways shuffle is one of dozens of so-called "code-sharing" arrangements in effect around the world. Although critics find them just this side of bait-and-switch, code-share deals allow airlines to put their two-letter computer identifier code on flights operated by other carriers. The tactic is most commonly used when major jet airlines put their codes on flights operated by independent commuter carriers with small, prop-driven aircraft. But code-sharing is increasingly being used on international flights. Besides British Airways, USAir operates some flights under the code of All Nippon Airways. Continental has a similar deal with SAS Scandinavian. Northwest and KLM Royal Dutch operate flights for each other. And American Airlines puts its code on flights operated by Malev Hungarian Airlines and South African Airways. From the airlines' point of view, code-sharing deals allow them to claim they have flights to destinations they do not actually serve. Government regulations, such as they are, do require that code-sharing flights be disclosed on the computer systems your travel agent uses. So be sure to ask before you book.

After a day of wall-to-wall calls with no time for breakfast or lunch, I boarded a 6:45 P.M. flight expecting to be served dinner. But all I received were those ubiquitous bags of peanuts. Don't airlines serve real food anymore?

It could be argued that the airlines never served "real food," but, gastronomic sensibilities aside, traditional meal service is a fast-disappearing perk on domestic flights. After years of record losses, airlines are pinching pennies everywhere and food service is an easy target. Meals and snacks have disappeared on most flights of less than two hours duration. And the "window" when airlines offer a full meal during traditional dining hours has been drastically reduced. One example: United Airlines once served dinner on all five of its evening flights between Chicago and Washington. Now, however, only passengers on United's 5 P.M. departure receive a meal.

How come flight attendants are suddenly hassling me when I try to use my laptop computer?

Although the evidence is strictly circumstantial, airlines have become concerned that electronic emissions from laptop computers, CD players and even dictating equipment interfere with sensitive aircraft instruments. So most carriers have recently imposed restrictions on the uses of electronic devices during takeoffs, landings, and/or at altitudes below 10,000 feet. Check with your airline before departure about its current policy.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.