The Brancatelli File



October 15, 1995 -- You probably think the best way to get a comfortable coach seat is to book early. Wrong. And you probably think that a routing with a single flight number means a nonstop flight. Wrong again. And you probably even think that nobody could undercut a hotel on the price of its own rooms. Wrong.

In fact, everything you know about business travel is probably wrong. But if you want to travel smarter, cheaper, and more comfortably, try implementing some of the tips below.

Watch what they do, not what they say Airlines don't mean what you think they mean when a reservations clerk tells you a flight is "sold out." It doesn't mean the airlines are out of seats, only that the airline has chosen not to sell you a seat at the price you requested at this particular time. This bizarre system is a computerized shell game called "yield management" and the airlines admit it is designed to ensure you pay the highest possible price for a seat. How do you beat the computers and find the cheap seats? Call back in an hour or the next day. The computer changes its mind all the time and constantly reallocates the number of seats its sells at a particular price.

The last shall be the most comfortable The most comfortable seats in the coach cabin on any aircraft are the rows adjacent to the plane's emergency exits. By federal regulation, seats in these so-called exit rows must have several extra inches of legroom. These seats are also desirable because they are quiet: federal regulations specifically bar children from sitting in exit-row seats. Unfortunately, airlines do not assign exit-row seats until 24 hours before flight time. The best way to get one? Choose your usual seat when you make your reservation, then call the airline on your departure day and asked to be reassigned to an exit-row seat.

The shortest distance between two points is only a nonstop Airline jargon is not only hideously confusing, it is downright inefficient for a traveling salesperson. If you want to fly from here to there via the fastest, most direct route, be sure to book only a nonstop flight. Oxymoronic as it sounds, direct flights aren't. They actually make one or more intermediate stops between your point of departure and your destination. Connecting flights are even worse: they require a change of aircraft somewhere between your origin and your destination. Worst of all, there are funnel or change of gauge flights. These aeronautic misanthropes carry a single flight number, but are actually connecting flights in numeric disguise. In other words, only nonstops are direct flights without connections or change of planes.

Pay no attention to the restrictions on the ticket In the Oz-like world of airlines, the wizards of pricing invented "nonrefundable" fares. Aimed at the airlines' least loyal customers (price-sensitive leisure travelers), non-refundable fares usually cost 50 or 60 percent less than the prices you pay. To keep you from taking advantage of nonrefundable fares, the pricing wizards load them down with restrictions, then claim the tickets are nonnegotiable, too. In truth, however, nonrefundable tickets are negotiable. Changes to flight times and departure dates, for example, can be implemented for a $50 fee. And you can fly standby for virtually any flight and pay no fee at all. No matter what the airlines imply, nonrefundable fares are often incredibly good deals for business travelers.

There is too a free lunch Frequent flyer programs can be a bonanza for business travelers, but only if you use them properly. The most important tip: Concentrate your miles on as few airlines as possible. For one thing, concentration of miles improves the value of the awards you can win. The combined value of two 25,000-mile awards from two different airlines, for example, is far less than the value of one 50,000-mile award. Besides, you must fly as much as 25,000 miles a year on the sponsoring airline to reach the programs' "elite levels," which offer special recognition and free or low-cost upgrades In other words, give one airline 25,000 miles of business and that airline gives you the star treatment. Spread that 25,000 miles of travel around on three different airlines and you're just another face in the crowd.

Groucho Marx was wrong Groucho didn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member, but you do--especially if it's one of the airline's club lounges at the airports. For less than $200 per year, club membership offers quiet retreats from the hurly burly of the nation's major airports. By the design standards of most airports, the clubs are plush hideaways and they are outfitted with work desks and telephones, overnight-mail services, computers, fax machines, conference rooms, clean restrooms and convivial bars. There's also a concierge to help you with your flights and tickets. If you don't want to make an annual commitment, some airlines allow you to purchase day passes for about $25.

You've got to talk the talk Airline gate agents don't respond well to abuse, but they do give better service to travelers who know what they're talking about. Never ask how long a departure delay is going to be. Instead, try asking "Where's the equipment?" The gate agent will then give you the real skinny: Where the airplane for your flight is located and how long it will take before it arrives at your gate.

Don't waste time, drop a dime Airports are sort of glorified limbos, and even savvy business travelers sometime feel cut off from the outside world. But don't be trapped by the no-man's land when there's a crisis. If a sudden storm delays your flight, or your airline cancels your itinerary, don't get in the long line at the ticket counter and wait your turn. There's a world outside the airport, so go to the nearest telephone and call your airline's reservation line. These phone agents are not in the midst of the airport's crisis, they aren't dealing with hordes of disgruntled, displaced travelers, and they can do anything an airport employee can do for you.

Yogi Berra was right It was the great Yogi who dismissed a local hot spot by suggesting that no one went there anymore because it was too crowded. The same can be said for the big "hub" airports in the nation's big cities. If you're headed for Chicago, why fly into O'Hare, which is crowded with travelers making connections to someplace else? Try Midway Airport instead. Going to New York? Skip LaGuardia and try Westchester, Newark, Newburgh, or Islip. Got a meeting in Los Angeles? Skip LAX and book a flight to Long Beach, Burbank, or Orange County Airport. Among the other major business cities with airport alternatives: San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, Miami and Tampa.

A hotel by any other name Once upon a time, there were two kinds of lodgings: hotels and motels. Now the industry is highly segmented and you'd be a fool not to take advantage of the diversity. If you're planning for a stay of more than two or three days, head for an "all-suite" property: You'll get a spacious suite for the price of a hotel room. Just need a clean bed for the night and a quick breakfast the next morning? Budget hotels do the job quite well--and many chains offer free local phone calls and free parking. If you've got a long trip planned, book an "extended stay" property: They offer fully functional apartments and neat spiffs like basketball courts and barbecues. Book a pricey, full-service hotel only when you need what it offers: room service, overnight dry cleaning, fancy restaurants and impressive public rooms.

They can get it for you wholesale On an average night in America, four out of ten hotel rooms go unsold. With that much excess inventory on their hands, hoteliers turn to "hotel consolidators," the industry equivalent of outlet stores. With virtually no restrictions or conditions, a hotel consolidator can secure you a room at the inn for about half the price the hotel itself charges. All the big cities have a local room consolidator, and two companies, Quikbook and the Hotel Reservation Network, offer nationwide service. If you must book a room direct, never call a chain hotel's toll-free reservation service. Call the hotel directly; they always offer lower rates than the reservation service.

If you're in the lobby, you're wasting time Hotel lobbies are black holes of productivity: There are more clerks doing less work, and more business travelers wasting more valuable sales time, than any other place in America. You can avoid lobbies, especially at check-in and check-out times. Join the hotel's frequent stay program: They're free and always offer expedited check-in and express check-out services. Even if you're not a member, there's hope. Many hotels offer fast check-out and bill reconciliation through the television set in your room. Video check-out is fast and, since you see the bill on your screen, up to date and accurate.

A dollar a day goes a long way No matter how much life changes, it's still wise to win friends and influence people. At a hotel, the friend you most want to win is the room maid. Tipping the maid a buck or two a day will insure that she's responsive to any immediate, last-minute needs you may have: an iron and ironing board, a few extra towels, or an additional pillow. Make sure you leave the tip each day rather than in one lump sum at the end of your stay.

Just say no, no, no, no Competition between car-rental firms has kept basic daily rates extraordinarily low, so the rental firms peddle an array of optional insurance packages and waivers in an attempt to turn a profit. Your company's contract with the car-rental firm--not to mention your personal car insurance--already covers most of the contingencies the optional products insure. You'll save as much as $20 a day on your car rental if you just say no to the purchase of any type of optional insurance. Continue to say no until the clerk at the counter gets tired of dragooning you.

A parking lot too far The car-rental industry is divided into a hierarchy: at the top, with the higher rates, are the "on-airport" firms; at the bottom, with lower rates, are the "off-airport" firms. As airports get larger, however, the difference between the on-airport and off-airport firms is narrowing. The on-airport firms still maintain counters inside the airport terminals, but the parking lots for their cars are often located on service roads at the far edge of the airport's grounds--just across the street from the parking lots of off-airport firms. Renting from an on-airport firm at the largest airports usually guarantees only two things: a higher price and a long ride to a parking lot that might just as well be off the airport.

Pay for the privileges Car-rental firms are relentless when it comes to pitching you the things you don't want, but they almost never try to sell you the services you do want. "Instant rental" services, for example, allow you to go directly from your arrival gate to your car without ever signing a contract or stopping at the rental counter. Considering that instant rentals all but eliminate the hassle of renting a car, the $75-a-year fee most companies charge is a bargain. And several firms now offer "valet return" service: For a small price, usually about $5 per rental, a rental company employee will drive you, your bags, and your rental car directly to your departure terminal. That means you don't need to unload your luggage and sample cases at the return lot, hoist them on to a shuttle bus, then unload them again at the departure terminal.

From here to mobility Most traveling salespeople now have a cellular phone. Then they make the mistake of leaving it home or using it only for outgoing calls. Take your cell phone everywhere you travel--and make sure people know how to reach you. Rather than giving out your hotel phone number--and then hoping the front desk won't garble or lose your message--give out your cell phone number. Don't give out the number of your company's branch office and then hope the local employees will know who you are and where to find you. Give your cell phone number instead. If you use it properly, your cell phone ensures you'll never be unreachable.

Life on the road leads to Fat City Ever wonder why you always gain weight on a business trip? Simple: If you're eating it on the road, it's probably loaded with fat. Nutrition experts suggest limiting your daily fat intake to 60 grams. Yet that tiny bag of peanuts you munch on the plane may have 10 grams of fat and the hot dog you wolf down at the airport in lieu of a real meal is loaded with 15 grams of fat. To avoid this orgy of evil, stuff your briefcase with low-fat snacks: pretzels, licorice, rice cakes, and fruit. At sit-down meals, choose vegetable salads--and skip the fatty dressings, bacon bits, and crumbles of cheese. When you're on the run, substitute a turkey sandwich for that fatty wiener, but make sure you replace the mayo (11 grams of fat per tablespoon) with mustard (it's fat free).

Don't think pink The best way to save time on the road is to avoid checking bags. Using only carry-on luggage means you'll be able to arrive later for your departing flight, then skip the long wait at baggage claim upon arrival. The best way to get your bags down to carry-on weight is to limit your wardrobe for each trip to coordinating colors and mix-and-match outfits. Some travelers wear only black, white or gray clothing on the road. If that's too monochromatic for you, at least skip the loud colors and exotic accessories that match only one outfit. And don't forget that many hotels offer same-day laundry and valet service, further reducing your need to carry too much clothing. Restricting yourself to carry-on bags also offers peace of mind: you needn't worry about your luggage being stolen from an airport's baggage-claim area.

The road shouldn't be like a box of chocolates Life may be like a box of chocolates, as Forrest Gump opines, but life on the road shouldn't mean never knowing what you're going to get. You can limit the variables with just a little preparation. Always have a pre-packed toiletries kit at the ready and restock it after every trip. That eliminates the mad scramble for a toothbrush or your favorite perfume an hour before departure. Put all your travel cards--frequent flyer memberships, club memberships, telephone calling cards--in a dedicated travel wallet. Have an "on the road" set of your personal imperatives: a running outfit and shoes if you're a jogger; a pair of back-up eyeglasses or contacts; or even your beloved book of poems or a Walkman and favorite music. Make sure all this gear is perpetually packed in your carry-on case.

My kingdom for a FedEx label! One of the most annoying facets of life on the road is not having ready access to the little things that mean a lot. Into the aforementioned carry-on bag, try packing the following bits of business paraphernalia: overnight-mail labels preprinted with your name and account number; an emergency kit of pre-packaged office supplies such as mini-stapler and scissors, paper clips, tape, ruler, and writing utensils; a tube of Krazy Glue, which is invaluable for everything from eyeglass repairs to instantly hemming a garment; and Swiss Army Knife.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

Copyright 1993-2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.