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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR JANUARY 16 TO JANUARY 23, 2003


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Beware the car-rental 'refueling' rip-off; Frontier adds a 'temporary' fuel surcharge; alternate carriers fill the gap in Las Vegas; airlines continue to expand international routes; Lufthansa tests in-flight E-mail and Internet access; US Airways backs off its $100 standby fee; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: The Big Car Rental Rip-Off
Long before airlines and hotels invented add-on fees and surcharges, the nation's car-rental firms had perfected the odious practice. One of the most abusive car-rental extra charges: The price for gasoline to refill your vehicle when you return it with less than a full tank. The rapacious fee, recently renamed the "refueling and service charge," used to be pegged at about twice the price of gasoline purchased from any nearby gas station. But now the fee has gone into the economic stratosphere. Witness a rental I had last month at Baltimore-Washington Airport. The contract stated that the refueling fee was an eye-popping $4.70 a gallon or--beware when a contract says "or"--a flat fee of 23.5 cents a mile. Naturally, I was late for my flight and didn't have time to gas up before returning the rental. The rental firm thus elected to charge me $40.89 for fuel (23.5 cents times the 174 miles I had driven). No matter that I returned the mid-size car with more than half a tank of gas and was only paying $21.99 a day for the vehicle itself (or $43.98 for the two-day rental). The moral of the tale: Always fill up before returning your rental and always get a receipt for the gasoline in case some officious rental agent challenges your declaration that you've already refilled the tank.

ALTERNATE ARRANGEMENTS: Frontier Adds a Fuel Surcharge
US Airways tried it just before the new year and failed, but now Denver-based Frontier Airlines is picking up the hoary idea: a fuel surcharge slapped on ticket prices. The airline says the $10 one-way fee is "temporary." It's a stupid idea when one of the Big, Sick Six try it and it's just as dumb an idea when one of the low-fare carriers does it. My suggestion: Book away from Frontier until it gets the message. ... Alternate airlines continue to expand in Las Vegas to pick up the mantle of fallen National Airlines. Spirit Airlines launched a daily Chicago/O'Hare-Las Vegas flight last month and JetBlue Airways added a second New York/Kennedy-Las Vegas flight last week. Starting February 9, Southwest Airlines adds two daily flights to Vegas from Chicago/Midway to augment its three existing daily roundtrips. Wichita gets Las Vegas nonstops on February 27 when Allegiant Air begins four weekly flights from Mid-Continent Airport. And beginning March 6, American Trans Air launches a daily flight between Las Vegas and St. Petersburg, Florida.

IN THE LOBBY: New--and Newly Reflagged--Hotels Sprout Up Everywhere
Bangkok, which already boasts a full range of luxury hotels, got another deluxe property this week. The 392-room Conrad Bangkok, part of Hilton's luxury division, has opened on Wireless Road in the All Seasons Place mixed-used development. The hotel has four restaurants and all guests receive chauffeur-driven airport transfers. ... Speaking of Hilton, it has converted the Sheraton Birmingham South in Alabama into the Hilton Birmingham Perimeter Park. ... Another Sheraton property, the Sheraton CityPlace in Palm Beach, Florida, will be converted to a Marriott now that the Marriott Family Trust has acquired the hotel. ... Joie de Vivre, which manages a collection of boutique hotels in San Francisco, has added three more properties, including the residential-style Hotel Drisco in the swanky Pacific Heights neighborhood.

INTERNATIONAL ITINERARY: A Whole Bunch More Overseas Flights
Let's take these chronologically. Northwest says it will add nonstop service from Memphis to Mexico City on February 13. ... US Airways is adding two Caribbean routes on March 15: Pittsburgh-Montego Bay and Boston-Cancun. ... KLM launches a daily nonstop between its Amsterdam hub and Casablanca on March 30. Northwest will code-share on the route, but there's no word if Paul Heinreid and Ingrid Bergman will now be booking away from that Air France flight to Lisbon. ... Qantas starts flying from Chicago/O'Hare on March 31. The Australian carrier will operate three flights a week to Melbourne via Los Angeles. ... American Airlines will offer summer flights from New York/Kennedy to Rome beginning May 1 and to Barcelona on June 15. The airline will fly B-767s configured with business and coach classes on the routes. ... Delta Air Lines will launch seasonal service between its Atlanta hub and Vancouver, British Columbia, beginning May 17.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Lufthansa has begun a two-month trial of in-flight E-mail and Internet service on Flights 418 and 419 between Washington/Dulles and its Frankfurt hub. British Airways begins a similar trial next month on a roundtrip between New York/Kennedy and its London/Heathrow hub. ... US Airways has backed of the draconian $100 charge for same-day standbys and adopted Delta's $25 model. To recap: American, United and Continental have abandoned the fee altogether and Northwest never tried to impose a charge. ... Hawaii's two inter-island carriers, Aloha and Hawaiian, have dropped their policy of selling pre-paid paper flight coupons. ... Hawthorn Suites, which used to be owned by Hyatt, has joined Hyatt's Gold Passport frequent-guest program. ... United Airlines is dropping service to Auckland, New Zealand, on March 30. Its Star Alliance partner, Air New Zealand, is adding several flights a week to pick up the perceived slack. Since last fall, United has also dropped service to Caracas, Venezuela; Santiago, Chile; and Dusseldorf, Germany. It ends flights to Milan, Italy, next week.

THE PARTING SHOT: What Are You Doing Weekends?
I prefer to stay home on weekends, but you have to admire the spirit (and the promotional moxie) that's gone into the new Hampton Weekends site. Besides attempting to lure you into booking a Hampton Inn property on a weekend, the site offers a nifty calendar of weekend festivals and events around the country.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.