The Brancatelli File



April 2, 1994 -- Business travelers pay about the same daily rate to rent a car today as they did a decade ago. And we're not talking adjusted-for-inflation figures: If your daily corporate rate was $35 a day in 1984, there's a damned good chance it is within a few bucks of $35 now.

Unfortunately, that isn't necessarily good news. Competitive pressures have kept daily rates so low for so long that the car rental industry now generates profit only from a mind-numbing array of surprise fees and hidden charges.

For example, a weekly rate of $127.60 (about $18 a day) recently advertised by Dollar Rent A Car didn't include: geographic restrictions on the unlimited miles, fuel fees, additional driver charges, airport access fees, and taxes. Then, the ad warned, ''some additional charges may apply.''

Until recently, this penny-ante finagling has been a minor annoyance. But now the trend toward unbundled rental rates has taken a nasty and dangerous turn. Since there's nothing else to unbundle, rental firms have begun to eliminate insurance. Even absolute necessities like collision and liability coverage have been detached from the daily rate. Car rental firms now sell at least five different kinds of optional insurance, and most of the a la carte coverage was once bundled into the daily rate. Given this rental minefield, it's probably wise to check your rental coverage in two important areas:

COLLISION DAMAGE/LOSS DAMAGE (CDW/LDW). Car rental firms sell this for as much as $15 per day and it's not even insurance. It's a ''waiver'' that relieves you of financial liability for physical damage to the rental car. If you work for a large company you are probably safe because most corporate daily rates include CDW/LDW coverage. But if you are self-employed or work for a smaller firm, CDW is more troublesome.

Until last year, a driver's personal auto insurance routinely covered damage to rental cars. But some personal auto policies now specifically exclude coverage of a rental car used for business purposes. Others limit coverage to an annual total of 30 days. And at least two major insurance companies have eliminated CDW coverage completely. Some credit cards, including American Express and gold Visa and Mastercards, offer supplemental CDW if you pay for the rental with the card. But supplemental coverage is secondary, and that means the card issuer will only pay for damages not covered by your personal insurance. Diners Club is a notable exception: its CDW coverage is primary and supersedes your personal coverage.

SUPPLEMENTAL LIABILITY (SLI). Liability insurance covers damage a driver might do to other persons or property. Rental companies once included enough primary liability insurance in the daily rate to cover legal minimums. Now, however, the daily rate often includes only secondary liability, thus giving the rental firms a chance to sell you extra insurance for as much as $8 a day.

If you're a corporate renter, adequate liability is probably included in your rate. If not, the car rental firms' switch to secondary coverage means your personal insurance will be your first line of defense.

A salesman I know gets incredible airline and hotel discounts by posing as an accredited travel agent. How does one acquire the appropriate credentials without actually working as a travel agent?
Until recently, the travel industry turned a blind eye toward travelers who posed as travel agents to get the discounts extended as a courtesy to the travel-agent community. But an expose on national television and abuses by travel agents--many of whom were selling bogus credentials to their clients--has led to a crackdown by the nation's major airlines and hotels. Although discounts of as much as 75 percent extended to legitimate travel agents may look enticing, now is not the time to try to flout the rules.

My airline recently lost one of my checked bags and I got stiffed on the settlement. In fact, they paid me less than half the value of what they lost. Don't passengers have any rights?
Let's say your right to financial compensation is severely limited. In fact, domestic airlines are legally allowed to invoke a $1,250 ceiling on compensation. If you want more coverage for a checked bag, you could purchase ''excess valuation'' coverage from the airline, or coverage from a third-party source. But your best rule of thumb is never check necessities, valuable or irreplaceable items with an airline. That includes medical supplies, expensive watches and fine jewelry. And never check important papers or materials for a sales presentation.

Now that the new tax laws eliminate the deduction for club dues, is it still worthwhile to join an airline's network of airport club lounges?
That depends on you, but most frequent travelers swear by their club memberships. Annual costs are modest (about $150-200) and memberships usually give you private access to telephones, work space, copiers, computers and fax machines. A single three- or four-hour flight delay a year justifies the cost for most business travelers. If fees are really an issue, however, there are some options. Your travel agent may be able to get you passes for an occasional complimentary visit. And American Express Platinum Card holders receive access to the clubs operated by Northwest and Continental whenever they fly those carriers.

Like most business travelers, I fly in coach on every flight. Are all airline coach cabins equally cramped and uncomfortable, or do any carriers offer a better deal?
Several airlines do offer more generous seating in their coach cabins--and at competitive prices. Midwest Express, which operates its hub at Milwaukee's General Mitchell Field, flies single-class jets. Its leather seats are spacious and comfortable, and they are configured with just two seats on each side of the aisle. Kiwi International, based at Newark Airport, is also a one-class carrier. Its planes are configured with three seats on each side of the aisle, but Kiwi offers additional legroom at each seat and more space between rows. And TWA offers "Comfort Class" service on all domestic and international flights. Seats are configured three abreast, but with added space and legroom; seats on TWA's widebody jets also have footrests.

I entertain frequently on the road, but often in cities where I am not familiar with the better restaurants. Is there a simple way to get a good recommendation?
Traditionally, the best source of local dining information for business travelers has been a conscientious hotel concierge. But the Zagat Survey (800-333-3421), which has skyrocketed to popularity with its series of city dining guides, has taken the next logical step. It now publishes "America's Top Restaurants," a breast-pocket guidebook covering 34 major metropolitan areas. The book, which costs $12.95, offers thumbnail reviews of the food, decor and service at more than 900 restaurants.

Nothing irks me more than the time it takes me to pick up a rented car at an airport. Is there any way to shorten the process?
Join an "instant-rental" program operated by Hertz, Avis or National, the leading rental firms. For a small annual fee ($50-$75, depending on the company), instant rental programs allow you to go directly from your arrival gate to the door of your rental car without ever stopping at a counter, waiting on a line, or signing a rental agreement. At a major airport like Los Angeles International or Kennedy International in New York, an instant rental program can save a busy traveler about 45 minutes. One tip: American Express Platinum cardholders can join all three of the programs without a fee.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

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