The Brancatelli File for 1997

joe December 30: My 1998 Business-Travel Resolutions
If 1997 has proven anything, it is that the airlines think business travelers will put up with anything. In fact, the carriers now are so confident in our compliance and cowardice that American chief Robert Crandall was able to go to the National Press Club in Washington last month and belittle us. Weren't business fares too high and hadn't he heard the complaints, Crandall was asked. Crandall's answer, as recorded by Aviation Daily: "Part A, no. Part B, yes." In the face of that kind of unprecedented arrogance, frequent flyers must fight back.

December 23: A Simple Switch That's Easy to Stomach
I climbed on a Continental Airlines dinner flight earlier this month and know what I got to eat in coach? A turkey sandwich and an apple. And damned if I wasn't a bit annoyed. Suddenly, inexplicably, I missed the mystery meat, dilapidated veggies and plastic cutlery. The Continental meal service was everything I've been asking for--simple, edible and healthy--yet I was nostalgic for the literal and metaphoric tripe of airline meals past. Why was I somehow thinking a tasty, fresh sandwich was unfit dinner fare?

December 17: Controlling Hotel-Phone Fees
No two hotel chains have exactly the same policy when it comes to charging for telephone calls. Moreover, not every hotel in a chain adheres to the company's stated policy. And several large hotel groups don't even try to promulgate a nationwide phone policy. The confusion can wreak havoc on your travel budget, but it's safe to assume that billing a long-distance call to your hotel room is usually the most expensive option.

December 10: One Night, One Flight
It's one of the immutable rules of the road: Bad day, bad flight. But events on a recent Finnair flight have led Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer to rethink that rule. Join him on one extraordinary flight on one extraordinary night when everything went right and every flyer was happy.

December 2: Why the Carrying on About Carry-On Bags?
Carry-on bags are bad, we carry on too many of them and the airlines are cracking down, the media says. Or, to quote from the syndicated column of Ed Perkins, the usually level-headed editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter: "Why do travelers abuse carry-on? Those travelers are, in effect, saying to other travelers, 'My time is worth more than your time' or even 'My baggage is worth more than your life.' " Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And, Ed, please, come back to us.

November 18: Apple Makes the Airlines Look Good
Fellow flyers and computer users, allow me to introduce you to Apple, a company so devoid of ethics that it has stooped to measures even the nation's airlines would never consider. Apple has taken away something some of its customers already purchased. It hasn't just raised prices or imposed new charges or slashed the quality of its service. No, no, that's just airline stuff. Apple did the airline business one better: It actually revoked a service some customers have already purchased!

November 11: Our Man in Moscow
The 392-room Moscow Marriott Grand is so star-spangled American that the voice-mail system answers in the familiar AT&T Merlin voice. Everything is written in English, everyone speaks English and everything is priced in dollars. The telephones work flawlessly and even have dataports. The concierge floors share a dramatic, two-level lounge stocked with English-language newspapers, a regular supply of snacks and an espresso machine.

November 4: Should We Jump on the Rack?
Since we're so close to paying the rack rate at hotels these days, we might as well go over the top and pay the full rate. Why? Because several hotels have larded their rack rates with so many extra amenities that those rates are actually a better deal than the slightly discounted prices we're paying now.

October 28: Riding the Asian Currency Wave
Let me rummage around in my Big Box of Columnist Cliches and see if I have an appropriate bromide. Ah, here it is: Every currency cloud has a silver travel lining. So it is with the precipitous drop in Asia's currencies in recent months. The result has been a dramatic upswing in the buying power of the U.S. dollar. Here's how business travelers can profit from the turmoil.

October 21: Better by the Bundle: Travel Packages Save Time and Money
If the results of several recent tests are any indication, buyers of travel packages may be onto something extraordinary. They always save a substantial amount of time, are relieved of many mundane details and usually save a tidy sum of money. And shocking as it may sound, package travelers don't make all that many compromises.

October 14: Telephone Roulette
There is this image that I can't get out of my head: business travelers all over the world putting pay phones to their skulls and then pulling the triggers by dialing. It's sort of like Russian Roulette for frequent flyers. Pick up a phone in an airport or in a hotel room and then, without regard for our fiscal safety, punch in numbers on the keypad. Only later--when we get our phone bill or check out of our room--do we know if we've had our brains splattered all over our expense accounts.

October 7: Frankfurt's Advantage? It's an Airport That Works
Whenever the Faustian bargain of business travel becomes particularly difficult, I have learned that the fates restore my equanimity by routing me through Germany's Frankfurt Main Airport. More than any other place on the business-travel planet, Frankfurt Airport does its job. It gets you in and out in a flash. It is inconceivably efficient as a place to change planes. It is not the fortress hub of any one carrier. It is an extremely pleasant place to loiter. And it is actually near the city it serves.

September 30: Frank Talk From Frank Olson on Frequent-Flyer Programs
A speech that was never recorded was written by a guy that you may not know and delivered to a group that you needn't worry about, but it nevertheless signals the beginning of massive changes in your frequent-flyer programs. The speech in question was the handiwork of Frank Olson, the extremely low-profile chairman of Hertz, the car-rental giant. People listen when Olson talks and what he talked about a couple of weeks ago in front of a travel conference in London was the increasingly peculiar world of frequent-flyer plans.

September 23: The Advantage of Off-Season Travel
During the Presidents Day Weekend, while many travelers paid top dollar for sold-out flights to the crowded beaches of the Caribbean, a New York couple paid just $298 each to fly a nearly empty widebody jet to Italy. While other Americans paid the full rate for rooms at resorts in Arizona and California, the New Yorkers received a huge discount and complimentary breakfasts at Rome's five-star Grand Hotel. And while still other travelers waited in long lines at Florida's theme parks, the New Yorkers were virtually alone in Tuscany, free to investigate the twisty side streets of San Gimignano and Volterra, Italy. Welcome to the joy of traveling in off-peak periods.

September 16: Northwest Speaks. You Decide.
As virtually the only working journalist in America paid to voice his opinion about the state of business travel, I am nevertheless acutely aware of my other responsibility to you: to deliver useful information and pertinent data that allow you to form your own opinions about life on the road. Sometimes, however, the information I believe I am honor-bound to present is so fundamentally at odds with what I am convinced is the truth that I cannot reconcile the two. This is one such instance. I'm going to tell you what Northwest said about my recent column about declining standards at the airline. But I think you should know that I think they are lying.

September 8: Why We Hate the Airlines and Love Diet Coke
I pulled into the parking lot of a store and went in for a liter of Diet Coke. I picked up a bottle, looked at the $1.39 price tag and then came across a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke for 87 cents. So I paid my 87 cents, drank about half the bottle, then tossed it into a trash can. The Diet Coke police did not leap from behind the bushes, fish the bottle out of the trash can and insist I drink all two liters. They did not huffily demand that I pay the 52-cent difference between the 2-liter bottle and the one-liter bottle because I only drank one liter. They did not threaten never to sell me Diet Coke again. In other words, they didn't act like an airline when you use a back-to-back or hidden-city ticket, the aviation equivalent of buying a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke for less than a one-liter bottle.

September 2: Welcome to Hotel Babel
What, exactly, do we want hotels to provide in the way of in-room business amenities? Big desks where we can spread out our paperwork and maybe open up our laptop? Nice bright task lamps? A couple of phone lines? A great desk chair? Fax machines? In-room printers? Maybe even a whole computer workstation with Internet access? Speakerphones? Dataports? Voice mail? Paper clips? Sticky pads? A few Dilbert cartoons push-pinned to the wall? Not surprising for an industry that can't agree on where to put the power switches for table lamps, the nation's hoteliers can't agree on how to stock their so-called "business class" rooms.

August 25: Northwest Airlines Tanks
Northwest is now the worst major U.S. carrier in the sky. How bad? Bad enough for me to say don't fly Northwest if you can possibly avoid it. Fly any other option you can find. As recently as Wednesday, however, Northwest executive vice president Mike Levine insisted the airline was still "competitive." I say Northwest ain't competitive. I say it's broke and no business traveler should fly it until it's fixed.

August 19: Don't Be Dumb: Join the Club
This is a terrible admission to make even among fellow travelers, but I'll 'fess up anyway: The one place in the world where I feel most comfortable is in an airline club lounge. I feel comfortable in airport clubs because they make perfect sense. An airport club is the only place in the world where I know that I've made the right decision by being there. I mean, if the choice is a crowded airport bar or, heaven forfend, the general boarding area, then an airport club is a no-brainer. Choosing the relatively calm, comparatively commodious surroundings of an airport club makes me feel like the smartest man alive.

August 12: The Name of the Hotel Game
Before you can even begin to comprehend why Ritz-Carlton abandoned guests at four of its hotels in the middle of the night earlier this month, you have to accept one crucial fact about today's lodging industry: Everything you know about the hotel business is wrong. A hotel brand name should represent a recognizable set of products and services, a constant level of quality and property-by-property consistency, but the new hotel name game guarantees constant chaos.

August 5: Time to Light the Torches
If you ever for a moment let down your guard and started thinking that maybe the airlines aren't so bad, I give you this electronic and metaphorical slap upside your head: The typical fare paid by business travelers during the first six months of this year was 24 percent higher than during the first six months of 1996. Time for you electronic villagers to light the torches and march to the various headquarters of the Dr. Frankensteins who run the nation's major carriers.

July 29: Delta Goes From Worst to Next-to-Worst Up Front
Almost without exception, airlines constantly add all sorts of intriguing and comfortable bells and whistles to their C cabins. In fact, the major carriers routinely overhaul and rethink their business-class cabins and business-class service almost as often as they raise fares. And every airline that has introduced a new C-class package in recent years has dramatically raised the competitive bar. And now along comes Delta's new--and much advertised--business-class service to break our run of good luck. Once again, Delta Air Lines promises much and delivers very little.

July 21: TWA 800
How come, whenever I ask about TWA 800, airline executives obsess about the number of times their aircraft have been "targets" of military jets playing war games? How come everything about the last year, from the continued presence of the FBI to all the discredited witnesses, points to the fact that something is very, very wrong with the investigation of TWA Flight 800?

July 15: The High Stakes of Airline World War II
Did a chill run down the back of your spine last week? One should have, because the price gougers who run most of the nation's major airlines won another battle in their war against the low-fare carriers. I refer, of course, to the announcement of the ValuJet-AirTran merger, which came hard on the heels of the Western Pacific-Frontier and Pan Am-Carnival combinations, and the recent loss of carriers like Nations Air and JetTrain. The little guys who help keep fares fair are being swatted out of the skies. Again.

July 8: What's the (Power) Point of It All?
The logic of Empower points is undeniable: Since you're gonna use your laptop in flight, you might as well have the juice to power it. After all, nothing on earth is heavier than a 7-pound laptop with a dead battery--unless it is a carry-on bag loaded with enough batteries to keep a portable running during a transpacific flight. All you gotta do is climb on board, plug in your laptop and work your brains out. Uh-uh. Since business travel now imitates art--and art, in this case, being a Dilbert cartoon--there are all sorts of exasperating caveats.

June 22: Mr. Travel and the Summer-Travel Syndrome
When my old man finally gave up the six-day-a-week grind of retail, he retired to live the life of Mr. Travel. Like all too many travelers, however, my Dad is a prisoner of what my friend at British Airways calls the "school mentality." As kids, he explains "travelers had June, July and August off, so now as adults they tend to travel only in the summer or only when the schools have long holidays." Mr. Travel won't listen to me, but perhaps I can convince you: Don't go anywhere during the "peak season" if you can avoid it. You'll pay too much, receive too little, find yourself traveling cheek-by-jowl with other tourists and get the overworked locals at their worst possible moments.

June 15: Free Travel Information With Endless Promotions
As Americans gear up for their summer vacations, tourists will be searching for lots of basic travel information: where to stay, where to eat, what to do, where to shop and which attractions are available for visits and sightseeing. Some of the best sources of this simple information are the states themselves. Every state in the union now operates some sort of tax-supported visitor-information service that churns out a blizzard of promotional pamphlets, guidebooks, maps, events calendars and discount programs.

June 8: Push Your Way to Airline Discounts
Want to split for Cancun or California for a last-minute weekend getaway? You'll pay a hefty price for an airline ticket without a 14- or 30-day advance purchase and a Saturday-night stay. Unless, of course, you know about special Internet-only fares that the airlines dangle in front of Web watchers in hopes of filling their planes late in the game. How do you find these deals? Mostly they find you, using the World Wide Web's push mechanism.

June 1: How to Buy Trip-Cancellation Insurance
Your first question is simple enough: "Should I buy trip-cancellation/interruption insurance?" The answer is categorically "Yes," whenever you pay in advance for a costly cruise or a pricey tour package. Unfortunately, that's the only categorical answer about trip-cancellation insurance (TCI). All the questions you may ask--not to mention all the questions you don't even know you should be asking--have convoluted, equivocal and sometimes conflicting, answers. TCI, admits Edmund Cocco, president of a trip-cancellation firm called GlobalCare, is "the most crucial purchase a traveler can make, but it's also the most difficult to understand."

May 1: Going Over There? It's Cheaper This Summer
Planning to travel in Europe this summer? Congratulate yourself: You've not only made a great travel choice, you've also made an astute economic decision. Roaming the continent hasn't been this cheap in years. To what do we owe our good fortune? The rampaging U.S. dollar. Although it may never again be the Almighty Dollar of the 1950s, it's doing a darned good impersonation in 1997. The Almost Almighty Dollar has been gaining in value against major European currencies for months.

March 1: Car-Rental Prices: What You See Is Never What You Pay
Travelers visiting Florida this winter could rent an economy car for an advertised price of just $89 a week. That was not only a great deal--at $12.71 a day, a car cost less to rent than a home carpet-cleaning machine--but also a historical miracle: Rentals cost $64 a week in Florida in 1974, meaning prices have risen only $1.08 annually during the last 23 years. Of course, any traveler who's ever rented a car knows the truth behind that $89 miracle: No one ever pays the advertised price. After car-rental firms add their secret charges, counter clerks sell you their costly insurance packages, and governments collect their taxes renting a car usually costs two or three times the advertised price.

February 1: How to Buy a Package Without Getting Burned
About 600 New Yorkers recently learned a hard financial lesson about buying travel packages. After doling out more than $1.2 million for overseas travel arrangements, the travelers learned they had been fleeced by two brothers masquerading as legitimate tour operators. Unfortunately, those New Yorkers are part of a growing number of travelers who lose their money by doing business with flim-flam artists or even once-legitimate travel packagers who quietly close their doors and disappear into the night. And don't be smug: It can happen to you. Even the most experienced travelers sometimes make fundamental travel-buying mistakes.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.