The Brancatelli File for 2018
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT JOE
Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He is also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer magazine and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He began his career as a business reporter and created JoeSentMe.com in the dark days after 9/11 while stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in Cold Spring, New York.
December 20: MY PLAYLIST FOR THE ROAD
Music always has been what drives me on the road. Keeps me sane. Calms me down. Ever since that month of Year of the Cat on United Airlines, however, I travel with my own music. These days, it's my personal version of "Every Record Ever Recorded" on a 2 Terabyte microSD card slipped into my smartphone.
December 13: WHAT I LEARNED ON THE ROAD THIS YEAR
When another year on the road ends, I convince myself that it's been a good year on the road if I've learned stuff. What did I learn this year? Elite status is worthless. Faddish luggage dies. The longest ultra-long-haul flights aren't working. Nobody gets lost anymore--and our phones are creepy stalkers.
December 7: FRENCH TOAST LEVEL STORM
It's not like we won't have more storms this season. But it's not even winter yet and we're having winter storms. Sadly, some of the same areas whacked by Hurricane Florence during the summer got the first taste of winter. More than a foot of snow fell in the Carolinas and parts of Virginia, areas that simply can't handle that much snow all at once. Or over the course of an entire winter season. Meanwhile, there were many reports of supermarket shelves being stripped of bread, eggs and milk. In other words, just like their friends above the Mason-Dixon Line, they crave French Toast during their snowstorms. Here is how we covered it.
December 6: NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...
U.S. airlines are whining about the Middle East carriers again. Airline CEOs are just odd. A small fix for the big Marriott hack. Shuffling bad employees to the hotel. The value of an untucked shirt. The last time I saw LaGuardia. The long walks at Austin. And a bunch of other (mostly) travel stuff that makes me snarky.
November 29: TIPPING TIP: GO BIG TO GET WHAT YOU WANT
Money talks, more money talks louder and it talks loudest to the underpaid travel-industry workers who can make our lives on the road easier, more comfortable and more productive. Consider a tip as a means to your end, not as a payoff for "good" service rendered. Here's how to do it.
November 15: CREDIT CARD SMASH-AND-GRAB TIME. AGAIN.
Airlines and credit card companies are desperate for you to take new cards. They've abandoned any concept of long-term loyalty or sane interaction. So smash your previous ideas of loyalty, grab their acquisition bonuses and use the miles and points to your benefit. No deep thinking about loyalty or strategy. Just tactics. They're offering. You should take and not look back. Here's what to take now.
November 8: WHY POLARIS IS UNITED'S DYING STAR
United Airlines management this week again cut service on its Polaris business class. This should come as no surprise since Polaris is a dying orphan star. It was conceived by one United boss known for idiotic cost-cutting, birthed too soon by the next as a desperate virtue-signal and bastardized by a third who never saw a passenger service flourish he couldn't kill with a spreadsheet.
November 1: BUSINESS TRAVEL RIGHT NOW
Nostalgia in business travel only ensures that you are doing it wrong. Business travel is always, eternally, about the next flight, the next hotel, the next meeting. Sticking to old ways is guaranteed to cost you money and time and it will destroy your peace and productivity.
October 25: NO NEW HOTEL CHAIN TOO STUPID
Hilton has a new brand, Motto, that promises benefits like an "elevated sleep experience," which I guess means that guests levitate over the bed and housekeeping magicians come in at night to pass rings over your body. With that as my guide, I invent my own new hotel brands. I think you'll find them useful additions to the lodging landscape.
October 18: SEVEN FAST FIXES FOR FREQUENT FLYER PROGRAMS
A new report from McKinsey is great at pinpointing the problem with modern frequent flyer plans: too many miles are chasing too few reward seats. But its solutions are puerile. I've cobbled together seven fast fixes that wouldn't cost the airlines much (or anything) and would allow us to feel better about how skewed the programs have become.
October 11: SINGAPORE AIRLINES' LONG HAULS TO NOWHERE
Five years after it abandoned nonstops to Los Angeles and New York, Singapore Airlines is back with a new plane that it says will make the flights financially feasible. But it will find that most business travelers have moved on and nonstops to Changi aren't economically, geographically or competitively as important as they once had been.
October 9: A KILLER STORM MISSES BUSINESS TRAVELERS, NOT FLORIDA
Love, Yeats once said, is a bitter mystery. So's life and the weather. Hurricane Michael smashed into the Florida Panhandle and ended its attack as the third most intense storm in American history. It caused at least $25 billion of damage just in the United States--and at least 72 deaths were attributed to Hurricane Michael. Yet the storm barely grazed our lives as business travelers. Because of its track--passing over the lightly used Panhandle airports--there was little travel disruption. In fact, had American Airlines planned better for the dregs of the storm at its Charlotte hub, Michael would have been just a blip on our radar. A bitter mystery indeed.
October 4: BAD LAW MAKES FOR WORSE AIRLINE SEATS
Congress unexpectedly this week passed a law requiring the FAA to set minimum standards for airline seats. Yippee, you say? Probably not. The FAA is the same agency that approved existing seats with as little as 28 inches of legroom. What makes you think they'd become consumer-friendly now? And do you really think they'd forced airlines to rip seats out of planes?
September 20: ANOTHER TALE OF FLIGHT CHRISTMAS
Even when there is a tale of an airline doing the right thing--in the no-duty-of-good-faith-and-fair-dealing frequent flyer arena, no less--the backstory is epically bizarre, the carrier's belated remedy is inexplicable and the details are, at best, woefully incomplete.
September 13: AT SEVENTEEN
Business travelers like us don't talk about 9/11. We have always made believe. Whattaya gonna do? What good is talking about it? We shrug our shoulders, think about something else. We ignore. We deny. And as the years have gone by, we've even forgotten that we've forgotten to talk about it.
Setember 10: A SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER--THEN FORGET
Unless you are a weather expert, there is no way to properly understand how three simultaneous storms--in the Caribbean, the Carolinas and Hawaii--happen. But happen they did and the worst of them, Florence, was a wowzer. It dropped feet of rain on low counties, closed more than a dozen airports and inconvenienced millions. Almost three dozen people were killed, most from flood waters. Thousands of flights were cancelled and about a dozen airports were closed for days. Here is how we covered it.
August 30: THE MICHAEL MATTHEWS READER
Michael Matthews made me laugh all the time. Whenever one of his columns dropped into my inbox, I knew there'd be jokes and joy. Even in 2011, when he first matter-of-factly told us he was gravely ill, he made me laugh. As I reviewed archives, I found a man dedicated to honest luxury and a hotelier game to try anything. Plus he was the man behind the Regent Hong Kong, which changed hotel lodgings forever.
August 23: NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...
Musings this week on travel topics great and small: the missing hooks in hotel bathrooms; the battle between Delta and the other airlines over the future of seatback monitors; the travel-obsessed Congressman who is dumber than he is corrupt--and he's really corrupt; and so much more.
August 11: A WEIRD AND SAD 'HIJACKING' AT SEA-TAC
It happened so fast--and then became so bizarre so quickly--that it was hard to see the "hijacking" of a commuter aircraft at Seattle-Tacoma airport as anything but an oddity. The troubled airline worker who snatched a plane while parked at a secure area came to a bad end: He crashed the aircraft into an island near the airport while cool and calm air traffic controllers tried vainly to talk him down safely. Sadly, the spectacle also played havoc with air and ground traffic while the spectacle played out live on television. Here is how we covered it.
August 9: A STOWAWAY IN THE SKY RETURNS TO THE AIR
Music has always been the soundtrack of our lives on the road. We have carried transistor radios and Walkmans and CD players and iPods. Now our sounds, like our lives, are on our phones. Through all the years and all the technologies, there has been Jonathan Schwartz, protector and promoter of the Great American Songbook. He's back with a streaming venture called The Jonathan Station.
August 2: PLAYING YOUR CARDS RIGHT, RIGHT NOW
Since loyalty is dead in travel and the airlines and hotels now treat every transaction as transactional, it's time to turn the metaphoric tables. Get a new credit card, score the increasingly large acquisition bonus, then get the next card for its bonus. This smash-and-grab strategy is the best and cheapest way to roll up masses of miles and points.
July 19: ON THE ROAD TO MONTENEGRO
I suddenly have a desire to fly to Montenegro, spend some money there and tell total strangers that America loves and respects the little nation on the Adriatic Coast. No U.S. carrier flies there, of course, but I can cash United MileagePlus miles to get to Podgorica (TGD), the capital. As travel writers often say, Montenegro is so small that you can start at its lovely beaches in the morning and be in the mountains by the afternoon.
July 12: MARRIOTT'S BAD DEAL FOR REAL TRAVELERS
Regardless of what you may have read about Marriott's new award chart, the news is not great. Not Delta or Hilton rub-your-face-in-it-bad, you understand, but not good at all. Of 27 properties selected by JoeSentMe members, 11 will cost more next year. Only five will cost less. The others are in the Twilight Zone of Marriott's new peak/off-peak chart, which could end up costing you as much as 25,000 points more each night.
July 6: ON THE PASSING OF A TRUTH-TELLER
Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, tent poles of what they now call the Marvel Universe, has died at 90. He was a genius at his craft, of course, but you'll also hear and read stories about Ditko's odd political and social beliefs, his peculiar working habits and his mania for privacy. But I worked with and talked with Steve and he's one of the reasons there's a JoeSentMe.com.
June 28: SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT
Summer's here and the time is right for about anything except deep discussion of life on the road. Yet there's something to talk about and little mysteries to figure out. Here's a summary of what we'll probably be discussing for the rest of the year: Delta's plan for Austin; Norwegian's chances of survival; oily realities and airfares; and the Supreme Court ruling on the Trump Travel Ban. But let's not talk about Heathrow.
June 21: NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...
Airlines spent the week virtue-signaling while they stranded thousands of flyers, cancelled thousands of flights and literally reduced service to cookie crumbs. The frequent flyer scams continue unabated. And lots of other thoughts about a very bizarre week on the road--and in the life of the nation.
June 14: WHAT'S THE POINT (AND MILES) OF IT ALL?
After a recent series of unfortunate and infuriating events, I'm wondering what the point--and the miles--is. The frequency game is now hopelessly rigged. Even if you find a way to beat the house using their stacked deck, they will fabricate a new ruse, tell you that you misunderstood the rules and deny you anything like the award they dangled.
May 24: SUMMER BUSINESS CLASS BARGAINS DISAPPEAR
I know what you're thinking: Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time to plan a summer vacation to Europe or Asia and score a great summer business class deal. Yeah, um, see, about that ... They're gone. Not sold-out gone. Gone as a concept. Getting a good summer deal to Europe or Asia now is a hard slog and prices are insane by the standard of just a few years ago.
May 17: DELTA LIES TO PROTECT EVEN LARGER LIES
You know how angry you get when an airline ticket agent or gate agent or a flight attendant straight up lies to you? Want to know where they get the moxie? Permit me to direct your attention to Ed Bastian, chief executive of Delta Air Lines. Crazy Eddie and other airline C-suiters are intellectual leaders of an industry that surfs on an all-too-obvious web of distortions, deceptions and disinformation.
May 10: LUGGAGE LUNACY
The luggage industry is a Babel of brands and a Potemkin village of choice. What's the "ideal" bag for you? How do I know? But I do have some thoughts about how you can find the right bag for your needs.
May 6: ONE OF THOSE WEEKS ON THE ROAD
It could be one of those weeks on the road, so I thought it wise to update you on several situations that could complicate our travel. Rail and aviation strikes in France, travel disruptions in Italy and the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in Hawaii will make for a tricky week of travel.
May 3: PRISONERS OF OUR OWN HOTEL DEVICES
Hate the games Marriott is playing with the combined Marriott and Starwood programs? Hate how Hyatt eviscerated its new plan? Hate the almost weekly devaluations at Hilton? I quote Hotel California: We are prisoners of our own device. And we can never leave. Unless, you know, we want to. And, really, we should want to. Some thoughts and details on alternate lodging chains.
April 19: MARRIOTT THINKS WE'RE STUPID
Ripping a chapter from the Delta SkyMiles bait-and-switch playbook, Marriott told us all this week that it thinks we are stupid, rubes ready for the plucking. Marriott's new combined frequency program not only does nothing for you unless you stay 50 nights a year, but Marriott won't even tell you about the huge devaluation buried in the award charts that it will not release.
April 5: HOW TO GET SOME SATISFACTION
Everybody has complaints. I've compiled these dozen tips for a great complaint letter after dozens of years helping business travelers get restitution for any number of travel industry foul-ups. I cannot guarantee 100 percent success, but follow this 12-step program and you'll turn most legitimate gripes into a satisfactory resolution.
March 22: THE HARD, FAST, SHAMELESS FALL OF BRITISH AIRWAYS
Want to understand how far and how fully British Airways has fallen since it pioneered lie-flat beds in business class in 1999? Take this simple quiz: Which carrier is BA better than in business class across the Atlantic? The answer will shock you--and explain why BA is only a good transatlantic buy at a deep, deep discount.
March 19: SPRING'S EXISTENTIAL STORM
After three Nor'easters in three weeks, spring arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. And along with it came a fourth winter storm. Go figure. It was big and dropped big, wet flakes from Boston to Washington. Airlines dumped thousands of flights and business travelers shrugged. Eventually you just become immune to these things. Meanwhile, things took a nasty turn in Europe, which was still suffering with its own bad weather. A general strike whacked the French air traffic control system at approximately the same time as a railroad strike and an Air France strike hit transportation options.
March 15: SHOULD YOU FLY NORWEGIAN'S PREMIUM CABIN? UM ...
Norwegian's premium cabin is much more than legacy carriers' premium economy, but much less than business class. So this is a fair conclusion: The less you pay, the more you will like the premium cabin. At $1,100 roundtrip, I give my flights a solid B. If I had paid the $2,200 walk-up price, however, I would grade on a tougher curve. Here's what you need to know, good and bad, about this disruptive product.
March 8: TRAVEL IS A WASTE OF TIME ... LITERALLY
Travel, my friends, is a waste of time. Literally. The entire process seems designed to make our lives less efficient, less convenient, less sensible, less fun and, yes, less interesting. Travel is now a schedule-busting, soul-crushing, spirit-killing, life-sapping waste of time.
March 3: SEVEN DAYS IN MARCH
After early January's "bomb cyclone" and mid-January's icy weather and snows, the weather was strangely quiescent. And as March approached, there was the giddy assumption that we had dodged the worst of the winter weather in the Northern Hemisphere. Best laid plans, I guess. Back-to-back storms in the MidAtlantic and Northeast in the first few days of March destroyed our travel options. Meanwhile, Western Europe was buried in rain, frozen over in frigid temperatures and then pounded with rain. They were even throwing snowballs at the Vatican. In other words, it was winter after all ...
March 1: ARMANI AND JULIET IN VERONA
All of the Italys--the fabulously ornate past, the effortlessly sleek present, the hopelessly romantic dream and the tourist-besotted reality--come together in Verona, a small city almost exactly halfway between Milan and Venice on the high-speed train line. And everything you need to know about all of the Italys can be found at a particular house on the Via Cappello.
February 22: NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...
American Airlines is winning the race to the bottom--and it doesn't want you to claim even their crappy seats as awards. ... A new Holiday Inn Express says its rooms mimic business class seats. ... Priceline's celebrity-studded ads apparently don't work as well as the more anonymous Booking.com campaign. ... For reasons known only to itself, Qatar Airways wants to challenge hopelessly overmatched Alitalia. And plenty of snark to end the month.
February 15: THE EXISTENTIAL CRISIS AT CATHAY PACIFIC
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific is one of the world's best carriers. But how does it make money and continue to offer legitimately premium service when coach seats to Asia sell for around $650, premium economy sells for less than coach cost a few years ago and business class fares are plunging? This is an existential question for business travelers in general and Cathay in specific. How it is answered will define how we travel for years to come.
February 8: RELEASE THE SNARK
It's been a weird week on the road and off it. Let's just concentrate on the wild stuff that happened on the road this week. Luckily, I have a complete supply of snark to guide you through it.
February 1: THE OFFICIAL 'CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE' COLUMN
Topic of today's lesson: Travel infrastructure and how nobody takes it seriously in America. Anything and everything related to transportation in this country is broken, about to break and/or being held together with spit, bailing wire and whatever industrial-strength binding agent Trump uses on his hair. No one wants to pay for it, plan for it or cares that airports, roads, seaports and railroads are uncompetitive and substandard.
January 25: AIRLINE SKYGODS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT. UNTIL THEY'RE NOT.
We business travelers--tin men and scarecrows, cowardly lions and Dorothys all--are usually too busy to laugh in the face of the airline SkyGods who are always right until they are wrong. But this week, given some epic airline asshattery, it is worth stopping for a moment and laughing heartily in their smug, fat faces.
January 18: (CREDIT) CARD TRICKS
Once upon a time, there were airlines. And hotels. And credit cards. Distinct. Separate. Each an empire to itself. Now? It is all a blob, a mix of push-and-pull and politics and clashing corporate egos and cultures. You can't talk about one without the other, can't judge value without weighing a forest of financial data and frequent travel patterns. Here's what to know now to protect yourself.
January 15: ICE STATION
In five months, Houston has suffered through a massive hurricane and three "snow events." But go ahead, continue to be a climate change denier. It's a good look as you cool your heels at an airport club trying to figure out why your flight to New Orleans was dumped due to icy runways. Meanwhile, a wide slice of the nation, from Texas to New England, experienced a nasty storm that dumped snow where it almost never snows and frigid temperatures in cities with pipes and homes without insulation. Here's how we dealt with this week's dystopia.
January 11: I PREDICT THIS COLUMN WILL BE WRONG
Here's the problem with beginning-of-the year prediction columns: If you can predict it, it's not news. It's the unpredictable that is genuinely newsworthy. News is what happens while you're predicting what the news will be. So here's the best I can do: I'll try to predict as far out of the box about life on the road in 2018 as possible. And I won't pick "chalk," as the old horseplayers would say.
January 3: METEOROLOGICALLY SPEAKING, A BOMB OF A STORM
It's pretty safe to say that business travelers never heard the terms "bomb cyclone" or "cyclogenesis" or "bombogenesis" before the storm that raked the entire Eastern Seaboard during the first week of 2018. From Florida (where temperatures dropped to the mid-30s and Tallahassee saw its first snow in more than 20 years) to New England (where streets flooded in Boston and regional snowfall hit 18 inches), transportation ground to a halt. Here is how we covered it.
These columns originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.
Copyright © 1993-2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.