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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR APRIL 20, 1998


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: The price isn't right at Priceline.com; beat the car-rental gas gambit; is the wild ride over for airline stocks; Radio Maxa; are E-tickets the real ticket; good hotels at great rates; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: The Price Isn't Right at Priceline.com
A national ad campaign has surely drawn your attention to Priceline (www.priceline.com), which promises to let you name your own price for airline tickets, new cars and home mortgages. The site claims it got more than one million visitors during its first week of operation earlier this month. It's not hard to understand why: Naming your own airfare is undeniably attractive, you can't help but love the site's simplicity, and even a neo-Luddite can fill out the forms. But Priceline.com officials aren't kidding when they say the buying service isn't meant for business travelers. Restrictions are onerous (no frequent-flyer miles and no choice of carrier, route, arrival or departure times) and clearly designed to weed us out. The price ain't right, either. I bid on a midweek New York-Chicago roundtrip and was foiled at four price points ($99, $119, $149, and $199), even though those fares were available through traditional ticket outlets to leisure travelers booking Saturday-stay, advance-purchase itineraries.

AT THE AIRPORT: Beat the Car-Rental Gas Gambit
Ferocious competition in the car-rental market forces rental firms to keep basic daily rental prices unreasonably low. Unfortunately, they try to boost their profits by hitting unwitting renters with outrageously priced fees and surcharges. The latest rapacious rip off: The price the rental firms charge to refill the gas tank when you return a car. At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, the major rental firms now charge about $3.70 a gallon. The nearest gasoline station, located three blocks from the return counters, charges 99.9 cents a gallon. The bottom line: Refill the gas tank before you return your rental car.

DOLLAR WATCH: Is The Wild Ride Over?
Since I report about the airlines, it is unethical for me to buy and sell their stock, but many business travelers I know invest. And even by Wall Street's current giddy standards, the airlines have paid handsome returns. Among the big winners during the last 12 months ending March 31: Alaska (up 111.5), Continental Class B (up 84.5), US Airways (up 202.6 percent) and commuter carriers such as Atlantic Coast (up 255.6 percent) and SkyWest (up 180.8 percent). But you might want to talk to your broker about the immediate future. Even during this period of record earnings, passenger load factors (the percent of seats the airlines fill) and/or yields (the amount the airlines earn per mile flown) are slipping at many carriers. That's a sure sign of difficult times to come and a warning that the airlines' wild upward ride may now be history.

CYBERTRAVELER: Catch a Ride on Air Maxa
Most travel coverage you see on television or hear on the radio is awful, but there is a shining light in this parade of broadcast drivel. Rudy Maxa's "Savvy Traveler" show airs on weekends on National Public Radio stations around the country and it is informative, insightful, and just plain fun to listen to. And Rudy's one of us, having hit the road for years as a business traveler, not a "travel writer." Check out the Savvy Traveler on Saturday at 3PM in New York (WNYC), Chicago (WBEZ), and Minneapolis-St. Paul (KNOW); at 5PM in Los Angeles (KUSC); at 1PM in Baltimore (WJHU) and Cleveland (WCPN); and other times on other NPR stations. Catch a ride on Air Maxa or visit the Web at http://www.savvytraveler.com.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Are E-Tickets the Ticket?
The question: Are business travelers using electronic tickets? For the answer, we checked in with Anna Adamo, manager of electronic markets at Continental Airlines. "Thirty five percent of our domestic sales are on an electronic ticket now," explains Adamo. "Our first customers were business travelers. It's only now that travelers on leisure trips are beginning to use electronic tickets." But if you've never used an electronic ticket before, it's okay to be afraid. "The first reaction is fear," admits Adamo. "Travelers get this receipt or just a reservation number and there is a moment of panic. But if we get the traveler to the E Ticket machine once, they're hooked."

THE WEEKLY WONDER: Good Hotels at Great Prices
You've got until May 31 to latch on to the "Spring Sale" rates at 26 Sofitel hotels in eight European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia). Nightly rates, which include breakfast, are grouped into four categories--$130, $150, $170, and $220--and vary by hotel. Sample rates: $220 at the Sofitel Venice compared to the usual $340 a night and $150 at the Sofitel Madrid instead of the standard $215 a night. For reservations, call 800-SOFITEL.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.