The Brancatelli File



December 30, 1994 -- Here are this month's questions from you and answers from me.

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 pocked-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.

I dread flying to the big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles because their airports are so crowded. Isn't there any way to beat the congestion?
Many major airports are crowded because they function as connecting hubs for passengers who are en route to another destination. So if you're not making a connection, avoid flying into a city's primary airport, and concentrate on finding nearby alternatives. If your destination is Chicago, for example, bypass O'Hare and try Midway Airport. Going to San Francisco? Try the airport in nearby Oakland instead of San Francisco International. Rather than buck the crowds at Los Angeles International, try flying into the airports in Burbank, Long Beach or Orange County. If you're headed to New York, avoid LaGuardia and Kennedy, and see if the airports in Newark, Islip, White Plains, or even exurban Newburgh are more convenient. Many other cities, including Detroit, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston and Miami, also are served by more than one airport.

When I make reservations, the airline clerk always ask me for a "local contact number" in case they need to call about delays or cancellations. But they never do. Is there any way I can learn this information before I go to the airport?
Try FlightCall (900-786-8686). It gives up-to-the-minute data about departures and arrivals--including gate information--for flights in more than a dozen major U.S. business cities. The call costs 95 cents per minute, and the average call lasts about two minutes.

Despite the cost, I use inflight telephones a great deal. But I'm frustrated when someone tries to call me back and I'm still flying. Will there ever be ground-to-air calling services?
GTE Airfone (800-247-3663) was scheduled to launch a ground-to-air calling system this fall. Called GenStar, the service is supposed to be available on several hundred planes operated by major U.S. airlines before the end of the year. The business traveler will need to have an Aircall card with an identification number. Anyone hoping to call the traveler in flight will need to know his or her Aircall identification number in order to complete the connection. Ground-to-air calls will cost about $2.50 a minute, and there is an additional "set up" charge of $2 per flight.

I bought a new personal computer while traveling, then checked it as luggage on the flight home. The airline lost the computer and now refuses to pay for it. Isn't the airline required to reimburse me for lost luggage?
Yes and no. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to pay compensation of up to $1,250 per passenger for bags that are lost, damaged or delayed on a domestic flight. But there are certain exclusions, including computer equipment and other costly items. Although the airlines claim the list of excluded items is readily available at airport ticket counters, that is rarely the case. Worse yet, the ticket agents rarely know what is or isn't excluded from coverage. So never check anything other than clothing unless you've obtained the written list of excluded items in advance.

Whenever I'm calling from my hotel room, I avoid the high surcharges by billing my calls to my AT&T Calling Card. But I recently got an exorbitant phone bill for calling-card calls from a long-distance company other than AT&T. What happened?
A: Many hotels now have a new way to sock you with high phone fees. They use AT&T, MCI or Sprint for calls billed to your room, but use rapacious "alternate operator services" when you bill calls to your calling card. These so-called AOS firms then give a kickback to the hotel on every calling-card call. Using your calling card for hotel-room calls is no longer enough to avoid high phone fees. You now must use a special "access number" to reach your preferred long-distance carrier before using your calling card. Whenever you want to use your AT&T Calling Card, for example, make sure you call 800-CALL-ATT before dialing the telephone number. Dial 800-674-7000 for MCI or 800-877-8000 for Sprint.

Can I rent a car in one city and return it in another city for a reasonable price?
That depends on what you consider reasonable. Since these so-called "one-way" rentals are costly propositions for the car-rental firms, they charge higher than normal rates for the privilege of picking up a car in one city and returning it to another location. Some firms--most notably Hertz and Avis--have special daily rates for one-way rentals. Others--most notably Alamo--charge a "drop-off" on top of their normal daily rates. Whenever you want a one-way rental, however, make sure to shop around and compare the prices, including daily rates and applicable surcharges.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

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