By Joe Brancatelli
October 14, 2010 -- Have you noticed how the notepads on the desks and nightstands of your hotel rooms are changing? They used to be little square things with the hotel's logo discreetly printed on the top and/or bottom.

Not anymore. These days, some have clever names--I see a lot of them marked "idea pad"--and they seem to come in all shapes and sizes with all manner of cutesy-poo sayings, logos and supposed brand-reinforcing markings.

Of course, I wouldn't have noticed this massive shift in lodging "design" if it wasn't for the fact that I'm a regular user of hotel-room notepads. I seem to get useful column fodder in those rare moments of hotel downtime. And they are much sturdier receptacles of my deep thoughts than cocktail napkins.

Want to know what I scribble on notepads? These bits of life on the road are direct results of memos I made to myself on hotel notepads.

The second round of the baseball playoffs start tomorrow night and they remind me of the old axiom: America's only contributions to world culture are jazz and baseball. But as a fellow who loves both--listening to Roy Eldridge eases the pain of being a Cleveland Indians fan--let me add a third: good, cheap hotels. Nobody does great cheap hotels like the U.S. of A.

Of course, there are grand hotels everywhere. I mean, who doesn't love the Lanesborough in London, the Peninsula in Hong Kong or the Taj Palace on the lake in Udaipur, India? You'll find lodging luxury everywhere: Africa, Latin America, Oceania, the Middle East. But good, consistent, cheap hotels? That, my friends, is a uniquely American concept.

Just about every American town of any size has a Hampton Inn, a Courtyard by Marriott or a Hilton Garden Inn. Hyatt Place properties are popping up everywhere now, too. You're guaranteed a good bed, a clean bathroom, working electronics, ice machines and elevators, heating and air conditioning and a decent cup of coffee. You can book them on the Web, you know what you're going to get and you know you'll get your money's worth and a good night's sleep. This is cultural genius.

I freely admit that good, cheap hotels aren't as ethereal as a piece of Mahler or a Hiroshige seascape. They aren't as enriching as a day at the Prado or a night at LaScala. Still, the world would be a much better place if it had good, cheap hotels like we make in America.

Come with me now to August, 2001, that blissfully simple time before 9/11, when everything seemed so innocent. Think I'm kidding? Here's what we were thinking about then.
   US Airways unveiled its Plan B revival strategy after the collapse of the United Airlines merger. I called it Plan B From Outer Space because it had the same slapdash, unintentionally hilarious quality as Plan 9 From Outer Space, the Ed Wood flick that is generally considered the worst movie ever made. Plan B was never heard of again.
   Northwest Airlines delayed the planned opening of its new Midfield Terminal at its Detroit/Metro hub by six weeks and called it an "on-time arrival." That linguistic arrogance got its own comeuppance: Northwest missed the new deadline, too, and had to open the terminal in the middle of the winter of 2002. Within days, it was a grimy, soiled mess because Northwest had outsourced janitorial services to an unqualified low bidder.
   Delta Air Lines retired the last of its once-mighty fleet of Lockheed Tri-Star L-1011s.
   Several hotel chains dropped the $1-$6 nightly energy surcharges they had imposed earlier in the year. Oil prices were about $28 a barrel then.
   California Senator Diane Feinstein wrote to seven airlines and asked them to impose an in-flight limit of two drinks per passenger.
   Los Angeles International Airport decided not to cover up the male nudes in the granite floor tiles of a newly renovated terminal.

The legacy carriers and their brain-dead defenders continually stress that coach fares today are lower on average than before deregulation in 1978. That's hogwash, of course. But even if it weren't, fares before and after 1978 have become an absurd game of apples and oranges.

What frequent flyers purchased then for their fare dollar bears no relation to what travelers pay today. Ever thought about what your fare dollar today doesn't cover that was once bundled into the price of an airline ticket? Here's a partial list of services you pay for now that once were included in the basic charge:
   We now pay as much as $25 to book a ticket on the telephone or buy one at the airport.
   You'll pay as much as $100 if you want a paper ticket, assuming that the airline even offers that service anymore. (Or that you'd want one.)
   Several airlines have tried charging for curbside check-in.
   Free meals in coach (such as they were) are gone. Buy a salad or a sandwich in-flight and you'll pay as much as $10.
   Many overseas carriers have eliminated free snacks and soft drinks on their domestic and short-haul flights. US Airways has tried it, too, although it abandoned the fee after pushback from flyers and its own flight attendants.
   Pillows and blanket are gone. You'll pay $7 if you want to buy a little comfort now.
   Free booze is gone in coach on many international flights. Five to seven bucks a pop, please.
   Remember free playing cards? Gone. I saw them for sale for $5 on a recent flight.
   Standby? Once free. Now around $25 for the privilege, but as high as $50 on some airlines.
   Fuel? Not necessarily included in the cost of a ticket. Some airlines charge as much as $150 in "fuel surcharges."
   Travel any day? Uh-uh. As well as the obvious fare differences, legacy carriers now charge as much as $50 for a "high demand day" surcharge.
   Seat assignments? Ostensibly free, of course. But if you want a "prime" or "premier" seat (as if such a thing actually exists in coach), be prepared pay as much as $75.
   Boarding? Again supposedly free, unless you want to board early and civilly. You could pay $10-$15 for that now.
   Checked bags? C'mon! The standard used to be three free and each could weigh as much as 70 pounds. Now the limit is 50 pounds even for the bags you must pay for (about $30 each for the first two, as much as $75 for a third). Overweight/oversize fees can be as high as $150 for each bag.
   Legroom? In the days before deregulation, seat pitch used to be 34 inches. Industry standard is 31 inches now and you'll find plenty in the 29-30-inch category.
   Ticket changes, once free, now generally cost $150 on domestic tickets and as much as $500 for an international flight.
   Although not yet common here, overseas carriers routinely charge passengers for the right to use a credit card to purchase tickets. Many that don't assess a "convenience charge" for the right to book the ticket. Here at home, both Spirit and Alligiant already play the "convenience charge" game.

Europe's "off-season" for travel begins next month and that conveniently dovetails with the availability of the 2011 models of some of the continent's finest cars. If you're thinking of heading overseas, then you might consider buying a vehicle while you're over there.

The advantages: You get to tool around Europe with the car you're going to own, you keep the cool European license plates, the manufacturer ships the car back to the states for you and--here's the big one--you may knock as much as 10 percent off U.S. sticker prices. These days, the best way to do overseas delivery is via a local dealer. In fact, with some manufacturers, you must do it through a dealer.

Not all Europeans offer a program. But those that do now post extensive details on the Web. The Volvo program is still probably the best known, no matter that Volvo is no longer in Swedish hands. Ford recently sold the brand to a Chinese company. (Its purported Swedish competitor, Saab, is out of the overseas delivery market now that the brand is owned by a small Dutch firm after a disastrous tenure in the GM family.) Three German carmakers--BMW, the fast-growing Audi and even stodgy Mercedes--have programs. So does Porsche, although it doesn't offer discounts and its new parent company, Volkswagen, doesn't play the overseas-delivery game.

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 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.