The Brancatelli File



February 2, 1994 --Ever wonder why you need a travel agent? Just try booking yourself a flight between New York and Los Angeles, the nation's busiest skyway.

Nine different airlines fly the route and serve a total of nine airports in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. In November, there were no less than 333 different fares from which to choose; each fare had a unique--and often indecipherable--set of travel restrictions. And the price? You'd be booking a one-way ticket that cost as little as $159 or as much as $1,851.

Now that you understand why you need a travel agent, here are some tips to help you deal with one.

Travel agents make nothing unless they sell you something. Worse, you don't pay the agent's salary. A travel agent's compensation comes from commissions paid by airlines, hotels and car-rental firms. The higher the fare, the costlier the hotel room, the better the agent's commission. Like it or not--and, frankly, most agents don't--a travel agent works for the travel supplier, not you.

For better or worse, travel agents are near the bottom of the travel food chain. The standard commission is only 10 percent, thus ensuring that the average agent is chronically underpaid and often underappreciated. In fact, agents live and die on overrides and other commission incentives. Some airlines, for example, have been known to offer a 30 percent commission to boost sales on a particular flight. Keep that in mind the next time an agent is pushing a booking that doesn't seem to be your dream itinerary.

Even diligent travel agents don't know everything. In fact, a highly paid sales executive often knows more--and has experienced more--about the realities of a business trip than a travel agent. An agent's theoretical expertise usually ends where your practical experience begins. A travel agent surely knows the best way to book you into a Chicago hotel, but you're more likely to know which particular hotel is nearest to your client's office.

A travel agent will always work harder for a regular customer than for a stranger who only calls during a deep-discount fare war. The more of your travel business you give to an agent, the better the service. So rather than book your next overnight hotel stay or last-minute flight on your own, throw that business to your travel agent instead. You're building a relationship that will come in handy next time you're stuck in a blizzard at the Denver airport or are desperate for a good deal on a beachfront hotel next summer.

I've been leaving my laptop computer at home ever since the airlines cracked down on the use of computers inflight. But sometimes I need access to a computer on the road at the last minute. Does anyone rent computers to travelers?
Yes, but if you've got a laptop, your best bet is taking it along with you on every trip. On-the-road rentals are be costly and somewhat cumbersome to arrange. Moreover, rental computers are rarely the latest model and few come loaded with the software you're hoping to use. A company called PCR Personal Computer Rentals (800-922-8646) has franchises in 74 major U.S. cities and can arrange for a rental with 1-3 days advance notice. Same-day service is sometimes available. Rental prices average about $100 a day, the company says. If you need a computer in a hurry, check with the hotel concierge. Hotels can often supply basic personal computers on several hours notice.Daily rentals cost between $75 and $150. If your hotel has an on-site business center or ''club floors'' with an executive lounge, computers also may be available at those locations.

How long does it take to claim a frequent-flyer program award certificate?
Airlines such as United and Northwest automatically mail award certificates whenever a certain mileage level (usually 20,000 miles) is reached. Other airlines require as many as ten business days to process a request for an award certificate. Express delivery, which generally requires two or three business days, is usually available for a charge of about $50. And Delta Air Lines recently launched ''Rapid Redemption,'' a program which allows instant use of frequent-flyer awards and eliminates certificates entirely. Rapid Redemption service costs $60.

Do any airlines offer business-class service on domestic flights?
Business-class seating is available on some coast-to-coast nonstop flights operated by United, American, Delta and Continental Airlines. The transcontinental routes that most often have business-class service are New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco. But TWA is far and away the leader in domestic business class. TWA offers a business-class cabin on every domestic flight it operates with widebody jets such as the DC-10, the Boeing 747s and the Boeing 757.

I recently made a hotel reservation and received a confirmation number. But when I arrived at the hotel at around 9 p.m., the clerk at the front desk said the hotel was sold out and my reservation had been cancelled. What happened?
You didn't guarantee your reservation with a credit card. Hotels only hold reservations until 6 p.m. unless you agree to guarantee your stay to a major credit card. Next time you make a reservation at a hotel, be sure to give the clerk your credit-card number. But make sure you show up at the hotel: if you do not claim your room, you credit card will be charged for a one-night stay anyway. If you guarantee your reservation with a credit card and later find you cannot honor your reservation, be sure to call the hotel by 4 p.m.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

Copyright © 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.