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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR JANUARY 4, 1999


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: The IRS lowers mileage allowances for car travel; a few glitches in the new Starwood frequent travel program; best new (thin) laptop; discounts on Japanese hotels and flights; and more.

COUNTER INTELLlGENCE: Faster and Cheaper
With gasoline prices dipping below a buck a gallon in some parts of the United States, the driving landscape has been dramatically changed. Travelers are permitted to drive at faster speeds than ever before--and the Internal Revenue Service has actually reduced the mileage allowance for business use of an automobile. Effective January 1, the IRS will permit business users to calculate driving costs at 31 cents a mile, a nearly unprecedented dip from last year's mark of 32.5 cents. The only other time the IRS reduced the mileage-reimbursement rate was in 1981, when it dropped to 19.5 cents from 1980's rate of 20 cents per mile. At the current 31 cent-a-mile peg, the IRS has rolled back the mileage allowance figures to the 1996 rate. Meanwhile, three years after the Federal government repealed its all-but-mandatory 55-mile-an-hour daytime speed limit, 49 states have increased their local limits. The sole holdout: Hawaii. The current high-speed pace setter: Montana, where the state Supreme Court struck down the state's unspecified "reasonable and proper" daytime standard. Montana had been using a common-sense test, allowing police officers to make a judgment on what was reasonable based on driving and traffic conditions. Late last month, however, the court overturned that rule, which mean drivers can no longer be cited for driving too fast during daylight hours. Montana does have specific night-time speed limits (65 for Interstates, 55 on two-lane roads).

CYBERTRAVELER How's the Weather?
How pervasive is cable television's Weather Channel? It's always on the monitors of every U.S. airport control center and traffic tower I visit. Business travelers without cable access can surf to the Weather Channel website (www.weather.com) for up-to-the-minute conditions and forecasts for major business cities around the world. The site recently added more non-weather information for frequent flyers, including a variety of practical data, useful statistics and other bits of necessary travel knowledge.

IN THE LOBBY: Chaos in Hotel Land
When Starwood announced last year that it would replace its Sheraton and Westin frequent-guest plans, Starwood executives envisioned a unique replacement worthy of challenging Marriott Rewards, which essentially permits travelers to earn points and claim awards at virtually all of the properties in Marriott's huge portfolio of brands. Unfortunately, all is not rosy inside the Starwood empire. The new program was supposed to launch January 1, but now the start date has been pushed back at least a month. And while the plan finally has a name--Starwood Preferred Guest--details remain a mystery. Starwood has yet to tell travelers how points will be accrued across the vast, disparately priced and geographically scattered network of Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, St. Regis/CIGA Luxury Collection, Ceasars and W properties. Redemption options haven't been announced, either. All of which is made more embarrassing since Starwood technically ended both the Westin Premier and Sheraton Club International programs on December 31. What's caused the chaos in hotel land? Starwood officials haven't been able to convince all the brand's various franchisees to go along with key details of the plan. "Hey, it took us months to settle on the name," one Starwood executive told me just before Christmas. "The details have been hell. Every franchisee wants something else, every regional manager thinks something else is crucial. None of them is looking at the big picture: it's a new year and we don't have a program to offer travelers."

JOE SENT ME: The Notebook of Choice
If a new portable computer is in your new year's plans, allow me to point you in the direction of the Sharp Actius A-150. It's the machine I've purchased after an exhaustive review of the leading contenders in the "super-light" category. Pioneered last summer by Sony's breakthrough 505 series, these super-slim models weigh less than three pounds, are only about an inch thick, and are shorter and narrower than an 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of paper. As I shopped, I compared the Sony, Toshiba's Portege 3015 and the Sharp Actius. Why choose the Sharp? A larger monitor (a brilliant, 11.3-inch LCD display) and a superior keyboard. Like the top-of-line Sony and Toshiba machines, the Actius has a metallic-alloy case, a Pentium chip running at 266MHz, 64Mb of memory, 56K modem, and a 4-gigabyte hard drive. All three machines feature external floppies, but Sharp ingeniously built a port replicator into its floppy casing. Like the other two, there is both a built-in rechargeable battery and an add-on, optional long-life battery. An external CD-ROM (connected via PC card) is a $300 option on all three machines. Speaking of price, the Actius costs more than either the comparably configured Sony or the Toshiba. The competitors generally sell for $1,999, but the Actius A-150 usually retails for $2,199, although an Internet reseller called Necx offers it at $2,099. By the way, Sharp's website (www.sharpusa.com) shows unusually detailed drawings and schematics on the Actius series.

THE WEEKLY WONDER: Japanese Discounts
The Japanese seem culturally averse to discounting, but the slack local economy and continuing fallout from the Asia contagion is changing some minds. At the Tokyu hotel chain (www.tokyuhotels.com), for example, standard rates have been slashed by as much as 40 percent at the group's 20 properties. The rates, which start at about US$100, are valid through March 31. Meanwhile, All Nippon's new "Visit Japan" fares are valid for travelers arriving on any international airline after February 1. Prices for any internal route is fixed at US$107 a segment, a deep discount off normal intra-Japan tariffs.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

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