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 The Brancatelli File

joe A GENERATION
OF TRAVEL TIPS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

May 27, 2004 -- Here's a modestly depressing thought: I turned 51 last weekend and that means I've been on the road for 33 years, which is one entire human generation.

I remember my first business trip in 1971, a (gulp!) generation ago, as if it were yesterday. It may also be the last time I saw my hair.

To give you an idea of exactly how long ago that is in frequent-flying years, consider the specifics of my first business trip: I flew an airline that no longer exists (Eastern Airlines), from a terminal that no longer exists (the boxy, now-demolished Eastern Terminal at Kennedy Airport), for a price that the airlines would deny ever existed (a $94 roundtrip "youth" fare to Atlanta).

But unlike a lot of road warriors, I really don't live in the past. I may remember the past--and my hair--but I don't live in it. Business travel changes too fast to live in the past. What worked a generation ago doesn't work today. What worked before 9/11 doesn't work today. Hell, what worked on the road yesterday afternoon doesn't work today.

What does work today? Here are some things I've been doing lately to make my life on the road easier. And I guarantee these tips and strategies are valid until at least Memorial Day.

BE PLUG COMPATIBLE The heaviest thing I carry these days is my laptop bag, but I've lightened my load by buying an ultra-slim, 3-pound portable and jettisoning the floppy drive, alligator clips and the acoustic coupler. However, I have added a three-pronged plug adapter and a telephone tap. Each is about the size of a D-cell battery, costs about $5 and can be found in a decent hardware store or electronics shop. The plug adapter offers a trio of three-pronged power receptacles; the phone tap offers five telephone outlets. Now I don't need to worry about whether hotels have upgraded their rooms to meet my computer needs. Two other additions: an RJ-11 telephone cord and an RJ-45 Ethernet cable, each in a flat, retractable plastic case. (The remaining encumbrance: the ridiculously large British adapter plug.)

PAY NOW, BITCH LATER Don't waste time trying to negotiate refunds, rebates or compensation when flight or hotel plans go awry. I pay whatever the airlines or hotels demand, then complain later. If they've really screwed up, I refuse to pay my credit card bill until they negotiate a reasonable credit. If I'm just looking for fair compensation--an upgrade, a discount coupon or whatever--I write a stiff, specific complaint letter with a reasonable, yet bluntly stated, request for recompense.

SKIP THE 'FREEBIE' 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 that the airlines use are almost always despicable places located miles from the airport. I've pre-programmed my cell phone with the reservation numbers for Hilton and Marriott because I know there's usually a Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden 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 and I will have a quick shuttle ride back to the airport the next morning.

AVOID WEEKEND FLYING I used to prefer flying on weekends because the nation's airports and airplanes were usually empty. Not anymore. Weekend Internet deals have flooded planes and airports with bargain-hunting travelers who have very little experience navigating airports and aircraft. I'm happy that they are getting such great deals. I just don't want to deal with them. So now I stay home and tend my garden on weekends and fly with the rest of my business-travel brethren on Friday and Sunday nights and Monday mornings.

RING FOR THE MAID Hotels are also crowded with Internet-driven weekend bargain hunters, but few hoteliers have adjusted their weekend staffing levels to deal with the crush. So when I'm required to work weekends and want my hotel room cleaned while I'm out, I call housekeeping and request it. If you don't call, your room may not be cleaned until well after 5 p.m.

AVOID HOTEL PHONES Picking up a guest-room telephone these days is like playing Russian roulette. You never know when you'll get your mind blown by a $5 local call or a $10, two-minute long-distance call. So I simply don't use hotel phones anymore. But cost isn't the only reason I use my cell phone. My cell phone has my voicemail on it and it's the only number I have to give out wherever I am on the road. And now that my current handset (a Motorola with a USB port) doubles as a computer modem, I almost never need the hotel phone system.

WORK THE AIRPORT I've adjusted to first-flight-in/last-flight-out day trips to destinations that my clients once considered far enough away for an overnight stay. I manage the day trips by avoiding the commute into the city and working at the airport whenever I can. All the big hubs have good airport hotels with acceptable restaurants and decent conference rooms. The airline clubs have conference rooms, too. I've found that if you're willing to fly into a town for a day, people are often willing to meet you at the airport to do business.

LET GO OF THE PAST 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. I've dumped my dual-time wristwatch (cell phones and laptops have clocks); my folding travel alarm clock (cell phones have alarm features); my stash of emergency road cash (there's always an ATM nearby); my portable short-wave radio (you can get what you need off the Net); my calculator (there's one on the laptop and the cell phone); my beloved, ultra-slim, ultra-sharp, Japanese-made scissors (a concession to airport security); and even lace-up shoes and sneakers (ditto).

If only I can remember where in Atlanta I left my hair. I'm sure it was somewhere around Hartsfield, near the old Flying Pig BBQ pit...

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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