The Brancatelli File



December 30, 1995 -- I've just logged in from a business trip to Cyberspace--and, boy, are my fingers tired.

Okay, okay, maybe you don't like the joke. But, guess what: you may not like Cyberspace, either. While there's lots of travel data available on the World Wide Web and other provinces of the Internet, the blunt truth is that the quality and accessibility of that information is distressingly low. At least as far as travel is concerned, the Internet is a silicon slum of slyly disguised advertising, oddball anecdotes, and stale news and commentary siphoned from other media.

Among the biggest disappointments in Cyberspace are EAAsy Sabre and the OAG Electronic Edition, two services that allow business travelers and "net surfers" to book their own airline tickets and hotel reservations. In truth, both services predate the vaunted arrival of the Web by about a decade, and both have been used with some success by journalists, travel gurus, and even the odd computer-literate business traveler. But new-wave hackers looking for a charge will find these services extraordinarily befuddling and bewildering.

Want to book a simple ticket between Boston and Chicago using EAAsy Sabre or the OAG Electronic Edition? Besides having had to master a personal computer, overcome your modem's complexities, and tapped into the Internet or a commercial online service, you'll need to know a bunch of airport codes. ("BOS" stands for Logan Airport in Boston, of course, but Chicago's code are the more opaque: "ORD" for O'Hare International or "MDW" for Midway). Then you'll have to wade through 52 different fares ranging from $129 to $2,178 roundtrip. Then you'll need to know what differentiates fare code VE1WKN3X from K21X123N or BE21IP. And, finally, you'll have read and understand a virtual Tower of Babel of minimum-stay, advance-purchase and refund restrictions. Only then can book that ticket.

Or perhaps you'd like to try booking a seat on a flight between New York and Los Angeles, the nation's busiest route. Get ready for a mind-numbing, finger-banging menu of 301 fares, ranging from a too-good-to-be-true price of $129 roundtrip to a wallet-whopping $3,792.

In fairness, EAAsy Sabre and the OAG Electronic Edition are difficult to use because the nation's airline system is so convoluted. But that's the point: not only must you conquer a computer and a modem, booking a ticket in Cyberspace forces you to know all the bizarre machinations of the airlines' pricing mechanisms. Why not just call a good travel agent instead?

Save your computer for spreadsheets and word processors. And if you absolutely must cruise the Internet, look for something satisfying. Like cybersex--or the Selling magazine forum on Compuserve.

What's the outlook for travel prices in 1996? Is there any possibility that the cost of travel might actually decline?
Probably not. Airlines, hotels, and rental-car firms all weathered massive crises during early 1990s, and it is only during the last 18 months that they have been able to raise prices and turn profits. Expect that trend to continue throughout 1996. Runzheimer International, the travel-management consultants, predicts air-travel and car-rental costs in 1996 to rise by about 5 percent each. They expect lodging costs to jump around 7 percent. Meal costs will increase about 3 percent

My accountant says the Internal Revenue Service demands receipts for any travel-and-entertainment expense that exceeds $25. Is the threshold really that low?
The IRS imposed the $25 rule in 1962, and stoutly resisted any change during the ensuing generation. In October, however, the IRS abruptly announced new rules: T&E expenditures under $75 no longer need to be documented with receipts. This change of heart is certainly practical, but does not totally ameliorate a generation of paperwork neglect. Had the IRS wished to put expense accounts back on par with 1962, it would have raised the receipt threshold to about $125, which is how many dollars it now takes to match the 1962 buying power of $25.

I've tried for months to cash in some frequent-flyer miles for a free vacation ticket, but my airline keeps insisting no seats are available. Do I have any recourse?
Not really. The airlines are generally free to make as few or as many seats as they wish available to award winners. But there are a few ways to tip the balance in your favor. When claiming a domestic award, fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays rather than on the weekends. Internationally, book your seats at least three to six months in advance, but don't give up if you are locked out. If you can leave on a day or two's notice, the airline often makes more seats available for award winners when an international flight isn't filling up as fast as they had earlier expected. Lastly, forget about using awards during major holiday travel periods. At these times, the airlines don't have enough seats to sell, so they're not inclined to give any away.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

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