The Brancatelli File



March 2, 1994 -- Airfares are skyrocketing again--unrestricted tickets were 34 percent higher last year compared to 1992--and many business travelers are trying to reduce their cost by slipping through loopholes in the airlines' complex pricing structure.

Desperate for pricing relief as their own corporate travel and entertainment budgets shrink, some savvy business travelers are exploiting a time-honored ticketing loophole called the ''hidden city'' fare. What's a hidden city? Say a business traveler needs to fly from Los Angeles to Dayton, Ohio. In late November, an unrestricted, one-way ticket between LAX and Dayton on USAir Flight 614 cost $619. However, USAir Flight 614 also continued to Columbus, Ohio. And thanks to a raging fare war in Columbus, USAir was charging just $339 for one-way, unrestricted ticket on Flight 614 if a traveler purchased a LAX-Dayton-Columbus itinerary.

Recognize the hidden-city gambit? A traveler could buy a ticket on USAir Flight 614 with Columbus as the listed destination, then get off the plane in Dayton--the hidden city that is the real destination--and pay $339 instead of $619.

The Columbus fare war also created hidden-city deals for other flights, too.

Going to Houston from Ontario, California? A one-way, unrestricted coach ticket in November cost $525 on Continental Airlines Flight 1198. But Flight 1198 continued to Columbus and Continental was charging just $251 for a one-way, unrestricted ticket for an Ontario-Houston-Columbus itinerary.

By now you should recognize the drill. Savvy travelers could have booked Flight 1198 to Columbus, then get off at Houston, the hidden city, and paid $251 instead of $525.

Of course, hidden-city fares are not a price-cutting panacea. For one thing, they are evanescent quirks in the pricing structure, difficult for the average business traveler to identify.

For another thing, they can be dangerous. All the major airlines insist hidden-city fares violate their ticketing rules. All say they will void the ticket of any traveler they catch using hidden-city fares. And travelers can't check luggage while using a hidden-city ticket. After all, booking a flight to Columbus with the intention of getting off in Dayton, but asking to have a bag checked only as far as Dayton, will alert the airline to the hidden-city gambit.

But using hidden-city fares is not illegal, says Mark Pestronk, a Washington-based specialist in travel law.

"Buyers have no duty of full disclosure," Pestronk says, and the simple act of buying and using a ticket with a hidden-city destination violates no law.

When I checked out of a hotel in London recently, I was charged more than $100 for a 10-minute telephone call back to the office. Why are transatlantic calls so expensive?
European telephone companies charge substantially higher per-minute rates for transatlantic calls than the major U.S. long-distance firms, but the real expense comes from the surcharges most hotels slap on calls made from their guest-room phones. European hotels are notorious for marking up guest-room calls, often by as much as 500 percent. One way to avoid the stiff surcharges is by using an AT&T service called USADirect. USADirect connects international travelers to an AT&T operator in the United States via a toll-free telephone number. Travelers can then complete their calls at AT&T's standard operator-assisted rate. Besides dramatically reducing the price of international calling, USADirect allows callers to talk to English-speaking operators at all times and to circumvent the confusing machinations of foreign telephone systems.

I recently had several hours between flights in Atlanta and walked into the Delta Crown Room. I showed my membership card, but was refused entry because I was not ticketed to fly on Delta Air Lines. What's going on?
Several airlines, including Delta, now demand more than an annual membership fee from travelers hoping to use their airport club lounges. Not only must you be a member, you also must to be ticketed to fly on that airline within 24 hours of when you hope to gain access to the club. Before joining any airline's network of airport clubs, check their rules carefully. Not only do access rules differ, so do club policies on the number of guests you are allowed to entertain at one time.

I'm a nervous flyer, so I often buy extra life insurance at the airport. Is it a good deal?
No, because your standard life insurance policy almost certainly covers you while traveling. And the prices charged by the airport insurance purveyors are outrageous. Even at $5 for a one-day policy, that's an annualized premium of more than $1,800!

I'm a nervous flyer, and dislike flying small prop planes when I could be sitting on a big jet. Is there any way to find out what type of plane the airline is using before I fly?
The computerized reservations systems used by all airline agents and most travel agents list the equipment used on each and every flight operated. Always alert your agent to the fact that you would prefer jet service whenever possible.

I always run into officious airline reservation clerks and car-rental agents who tell me I have no right to receive what I'm asking for. Is there a centralized resource to find out exactly what my rights are?
There is no government agency or officially sanctioned publication that details a business traveler's rights when on the road. But a new book, Travel Rights, may be the next best thing. It is a well-researched, clearly written handbook that offers excellent tips on how to handle airlines, hotels, airports, car-rental firms, credit cards and other travel-related matters. The pocket-sized guide costs $7.95 and is available from World Leisure Corporation (177 Paris Street, Boston, MA 02128; 617-569-1966).

Now that NAFTA has passed, I will need to do business in Mexico. What travel documents are required to enter the country?
Until April, business travelers were required to obtain a business visa before entering Mexico. But the Mexican government has loosened restrictions for business travelers who wish to stay for fewer than 30 days. A 30-day business card can be issued immediately for no fee by Mexican consulates, travel agents, tour operators, airlines, and officials at border crossing stations. Americans entering Mexico must also show proof of citizenship. A passport is best, of course, but a certified birth certificate, voter registration card with photo, or a naturalization certificate will also suffice.

When I received my credit-card statement this month, I noticed a hotel at which I stayed charged me an additional $15.50. I never signed a credit-card slip for such a charge, so how could this item appear on my statement?
Hotel accounting systems are notoriously slow, especially for charges made just before you check out. You may have signed a room-service check, charged a restaurant breakfast, made a mini-bar purchase, or even placed several last-second telephone calls that were not included on the bill you approved at check-out time. So the hotel processed another charge slip, marked it "signature on file," and charged your credit card. If you believe the additional charge is incorrect, call the hotel and request more information. If appropriate, request a credit. If you don't receive satisfaction from the hotel, call your credit-card company directly and demand the charge be removed.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

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