The Brancatelli File



April 25, 2002 -- Ever since my first business-travel experience in 1973--a disastrous road trip that ended with a blown transmission halfway to Buffalo and a sleepless night at a gas station listening endlessly to Neil Young's Harvest--I've kept a list of dos and don'ts for life on the road.

My list has some distinctly personal quirks--for example, I never stay at inns with less than 10 rooms and I never let a plant manager take me to the "best" restaurant in town--and I wouldn't expect you to understand their rationale. After all, I don't ask you to explain how you can drink that stinking, burnt potion they call coffee at airport outposts of the noxious Starbucks chain.

But I do have some solid, nearly universal rules for making a travel purchase. These particular dicta aren't written in stone--have you priced stone tablets lately? --and that's just as well. The absurdities of business travel require these Ten Commandments of Travel Buying to be reconsidered, rewritten and road-tested on a regular basis. Keep that important caveat in mind as I descend from Mount Columnist and impart these hard-won bits of wisdom.

This is my newest, and admittedly most cynical, guiding precept of travel buying. In its zeal to squeeze every last penny from every last business traveler and its panicky willingness to discount to the point of fiscal ruination for leisure travelers, the travel industry has tacitly admitted that its products have no real value. Airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars no longer have definitive, definable, explicable prices. So until and unless a new and rational pricing regimen is in place, a business traveler should assume that travel is worth only what he or she is willing to pay for it. The travel industry has turned pricing into a game and it make no apologies for trying to rip you off, so play the game hard and bash the their metaphorical heads in.

In this kind of surrealistic pricing environment, it stands to reason that the worst values in business travel are full-fare coach tickets on the mainline airlines and hotel "rack" or published rates. These are the travel industry's equivalent of "retail"--and no right-thinking business traveler should pay retail. In fact, the travel industry no longer even expects to sell at retail prices. By and large, retail prices now exist largely as a benchmark against which the travel industry can promote their discounted corporate rates and percentage-off "sales." If you're ever confronted by an itinerary that requires you to pay full fare for a coach seat or the rack rate for a hotel room, change your plans or cancel your trip.

Since retail prices are meaningless, travelers must negotiate their way to the best deals, and Caveat emptor should be your philosophy. Be especially wary of travel promotions: Never assume that a travel supplier is advertising its lowest price. In fact, as airlines and hotels develop narrowly targeted Internet distribution channels (see the Seventh Commandment), advertised nationwide sales are less and less likely to be the travel industry's showcase for its lowest prices.

Even in this Twilight Zone of pricing, cutting through the thicket of competing "deals" sometimes isn't as difficult as it seems. You can often secure a better price (especially at a hotel) simply by asking for it. Whenever you speak to a reservations clerk or travel agent, never make a purchase before bluntly asking, "Is this the lowest price available?" Once the agent responds, ask the obvious follow-up question: "Are you sure this is the lowest price you have?" You'll be surprised how often--and how far--prices drop when you ask those two questions in a firm, but polite, manner.

The travel industry controls (and I use that word advisedly) prices with "yield management," the increasingly convoluted and problematic computerized system that theoretically matches existing supply with historical demand at the highest price each traveler is supposedly willing to pay. To achieve this impossibly elusive balance, yield-management computers frequently change prices and regularly reallocate the number of airline seats, hotel rooms or rental cars available at each price level. So, when a reservations agent tells you a flight is "sold out," this does not necessarily mean that there are literally no more seats available. It often means only that there is no inventory available at that particular price at that exact moment. If you try a week, a day, or sometimes even an hour later, a seat may be available. Crudely put, you're trying to outguess a computer when you make a travel purchase, so be persistent.

Yield-management computers slice and dice the demand for travel so finely that prices now differ substantially depending on the date, the day of the week, and even the hour you travel. Shifting your travel plans by a few days, or even a few minutes, can mean substantial savings. Make certain you ask your travel agent or reservations clerk if the price would decline if you chose an alternate travel date or departure time.

In days of yore--"yore" essentially being anytime before the Internet--the travel industry dumped its excess capacity on "bucket shops" and "consolidators," shadowy and intentionally hard-to-find middlemen who resold travel at deeply discounted prices. In today's wired world, however, airlines and hotels merchandise excess supply via a dizzying array of Internet channels. All the major airlines and most leading hotel chains now offer Internet-only pricing, sometimes showcasing it on their own Web sites, other times "pushing" special offers into your E-mail. They also sell distressed inventory, albeit with bizarre restrictions and sometimes in a nameless, commodity fashion, to dozens of independent and quasi-independent Web storefronts. The bottom line: Never assume any single source will always offer the lowest price. Or, as Smokey Robinson once sang, "you better shop around."

The price you negotiate is rarely the final cost of your travel. Some extras, most notably government-mandated taxes and user fees, are annoyingly unavoidable. Others, such as the value-added levies in Europe and Canada, are refundable in certain circumstances. Still others, like extra-driver fees on car rentals and inflated phone charges at hotels, can be avoided altogether if you plan carefully. And, of course, there are the outright lies like the current airline fuel surcharge, which carriers unbundle from the quoted price in a vain attempt to convince you that the charge is a government-imposed fee. Then there are the fees you never even think about: the 2-to-5 percent fee the credit-card companies wrap into their foreign-exchange conversions; the concession recovery fee car-rental firms tack on to their rentals; and even the redeposit fees airlines impose when you return frequent-flyer miles to your account. Even the most vigilant buyer will be burned by a new fee from time to time. Consider it combat training. Make note of the surcharge and ask about it the next time around.

You're not crazy. In this psychotic pricing environment, the travel industry has targeted you, the business traveler, to pay more. In fact, they think you're dumb. They think you're so desperate to get where you want to go that you'll pay any price, no matter how outrageously high and demonstrably unfair. Knowing that you're the target of the industry's most rapacious pricing strategies should at least give you a small tactical advantage. The less willing you are to be what the travel industry euphemistically calls "price insensitive," the less power airlines and hotels have over you. And let me say this as tactlessly as I can: A price insensitive traveler is, by definition, a fool--and deserves to sit in the middle seat after paying a full-coach fare.

Finally, don't be obsessive. Or, more to the point: Don't be as crazy as the travel industry. Is finding the absolute lowest price the best use of your time? There's almost always a way to slice another $50 off the price of your airline ticket or $20 off the cost of your hotel room. But it's not worth it if you must squander an extra day tracking down the discount. Since travel pricing has lost contact with reality, the best deal in travel isn't necessarily the lowest price because there isn't a definable lowest price. The best deal is the price that logically balances a reasonable expenditure of your money and your time.

This column originally appeared at

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