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 The Brancatelli File

joe LOOKING FOR THE SILVER
LINING ON THE ROAD


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

January 5, 2006 -- By any objective measure, life on the road in 2006 already stinks.

The weather has been awful, causing delays and cancellations across the nation. United Airlines melted down again on Tuesday when a computer glitch led to hundreds of delayed flights, thousands of annoyed passengers and millions of excuses from United executives. Independence Air folds tonight and it's always a tragedy when another carrier, even the dumbest one in American history, bites the dust. And I'm not sure that Amtrak's Silver Meteor from Orlando ever arrived in New York after its star-crossed, multi-day New Year's odyssey.

But I'm not prepared to give up on 2006 just five days into the year. You can't live your life on the road and be that pessimistic. No, I'm going to assume things are going to get better.

Besides, there is some good news out there. Honest. Consider the tidbits below. They are, admittedly, the metaphorical silver lining of a lousy first week. But they are better than nothing and it looks like we're going to need all the good karma we can find to survive the next 360 days.

HILTON PLUS HILTON MEANS MORE CHOICE
It would take a dozen columns to explain how and why Hilton Hotels Corporation, which essentially runs the Hilton Family of brands in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and Hilton International, the British firm that controls the Hilton name in the rest of the world, are separate legal and financial entities. Besides, it's all moot now that U.S. Hilton is buying Hilton International, which means the Hilton name will be under one corporate shelter for the first time in more than 40 years.

On the surface, Hilton plus Hilton doesn't mean much for business travelers. After all, in today's heated hotel environment, chains swapping locations and assets is run-of-the-mill stuff. But Hilton plus Hilton will have major implications for us, primarily because it will allow Hilton to expand its other hot brands--Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Embassy Suites, Homewood--around the world. How'd you like a nice, comfy Embassy Suites in Prague or Sao Paulo or Moscow? Doesn't an affordable new Hilton Garden Inn in Tokyo or Edinburgh or Hong Kong sound nice? And if you're headed overseas for an extended assignment, wouldn't you find it reassuring to know there might be the familiar perks of a Homewood Suites available?

With just one company in charge of the Hilton brands--the $5.7 billion deal is expected to be completed during the first quarter--Hilton will be poised to compete worldwide in all lodging segments with Marriott, InterContinental, Starwood and Hyatt. That will mean a greater choice of the hotel brands we prefer, more meaningful competition between the frequent-stay programs and, generally speaking, a better lodging environment around the world.

CARD TRICKS AT US AIRWAYS
I made my feelings about the declining value of frequent-flyer plans clear a few weeks back. But attention must be paid to the new affinity cards from US Airways and its latest credit card partner, Juniper Bank, a division of Britain's Barclays.

Announced Tuesday, the best of the new US Airways Dividend Miles cards offers some compelling perks: no annual fee for two years; a one-year bonus of three miles for every dollar spent on US Airways tickets and 1.5 miles for every other dollar spent on the card; 10,000 miles of credit toward elite status with a comparatively modest ($25,000) annual charge volume; and the right to use first-class and elite Dividend Miles check-in facilities at the airport.

But what's most interesting is the fact that Barclays, which paid more than $450 million to get the US Airways credit card business, is not the airline's only credit card partner. Bank of America, which issued both the America West FlightFund and US Airways cards before the merger, continues to have the right to issue Dividend Miles cards until the end of next year. BofA, which recently purchased a large card issuer called MBNA, is making a huge push in the credit card market. It won't want to lose either existing US Airways customers or America West customers, whose FlightFund credit cards will soon be useless from a mileage-earning standpoint. So play one bank-card supplier off against another to get the best deal. Bank of America will probably pitch you on a card that doesn't offer airline miles, but compare benefits and perks before blindly switching to new a Barclays-issued card.

A RARE MOMENT OF PRICE SANITY IN NEW YORK
The maniacal New York hotel market, which I discussed several columns ago, reached new heights of insanity toward the end of 2005. In November, for example, the average room rate in Manhattan was a mind-boggling $292 a night.

But January and February offer a momentary respite from New York's pricing madness. The European tourists have gone to warmer beach locations, business travel (save for a few hectic days around the Toy Fair in mid-February) is light and rooms are relatively cheap. One example: I found a $99-a-night rate next week at the perfectly decent Super 8 hotel in Midtown. And Quikbook.com, the excellent and reliable hotel consolidator, is offering a raft of four-star hotels for around $250 a night during the next two months.

Surprisingly, there's more good news. The 2006 New York Restaurant Week promotion is not only two weeks long (January 23-27 and January 30-February 3), it is packed with affordable goodies. During the citywide eatathon, about 200 restaurants will offer a three-course lunch for just $24.07 a person. Many of those same places will offer three-course dinners for only $35 a person. These are incredible bargains by New York standards.

Of course, there's always a fly in any New York ointment: You may not get to Manhattan in time to take advantage of the deals. According to government ratings released yesterday, New York's three major airports once again fell to the bottom of the on-time rankings. The worst in class: Newark, where only 60.6 percent of the flights arrived on-time. LaGuardia (61.6 percent) wasn't much better. Kennedy, where 73.4 percent of flights arrived on-time, was the best of the very sorry New York lot.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.