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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR MARCH 1, 1999


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Europe, only cheaper; big changes on travel websites; unfair fare restrictions; a very nice hotel in the Ninth in Paris; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Europe, Only Cheaper
After three years of record transatlantic traffic in their first- and business classes, major airlines have hit the metaphorical and financial wall. A breakneck expansion of capacity, coupled with an abrupt slowdown in passenger loads, has created a sudden surplus of premium-class seats on Europe routes. "January and February are always slow, but now all of 1999 looks weak," says one airline source. "We've been accustomed to filling every premium seat we put on a transatlantic flight. This year may be a disaster, however." How can you profit by this change of fortune? Expect a few publicly announced premium-class fare sales (Swissair launched a business-class promotion to Vienna last week), lots of special upgrade fares, two-for-one deals, companion fares (British Airways is using this ploy) and a full array of direct-mail private offers and frequent-flyer promotions. And don't forget to ask for an upgrade to the next class whenever you book a Europe flight.

CYBERTRAVELER: Upgrades and Updates
The sprawling new Starwood Preferred Guest plan has built its own website (http://www.preferredguest.com). Since the frequent-stay program was more than a month late to launch and still hasn't sent details and credentials to all its members, you may find the site useful, especially for researching basics information such as earnings opportunities and rewards. Preferred Guest is the joint program encompassing Sheraton, Westin, Luxury Collection, Four Points and W Hotels. ... Meanwhile, Northwest Airlines has upgraded and revamped its already formidable WorldWeb site (http://www.nwa.com). ... Delta Air Lines has finally gotten around to posting Internet weekend fares at its SkyLinks site (http://www.delta-air.com); Delta still doesn't offer weekly E-mailings of the fares, however. ... And the much-loved Byte magazine, one of the pioneers of the computer age, has been relaunched as Byte.com. Paul Schindler, a sharp-eyed observer of the digital scene, is the executive editor.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Unfair Fares
Whenever reporters ask airline executives about the inflated cost of an "unrestricted" ticket, the executives immediately bluster about flexibility. Full fares, they will always say, offer travelers the right to buy with no advance-purchase restrictions, they permit unlimited changes in reservations, and they allow full refunds without penalty. To paraphrase a current president, however, that depends on what your definition of flexibility is. For travelers looking to book from mid-December to mid-January, for example, airlines have slapped a string of restrictions on their purportedly "unrestricted" fares. Many domestic seats will require tickets to be purchased within 24 to 48 hours after reservation. Some full-fare international tickets will require a 14-day advance purchase. Most of the fares will also be nonrefundable. Airlines claim these restrictions on their unrestricted tickets are in place solely to manage the millennium travel rush, but this isn't the first time carriers have bastardized their full fares. In the weeks before the Northwest pilots strike last year, competing carriers slapped similar rules on unrestricted tickets in Northwest's major markets. So what good is a full-fare ticket when airlines blithely slap restrictions on them at any time they feel like flexing their pricing muscles? No good at all. Keep it in mind the next time you read an airline's explanation for why business travelers should pay more for tickets than leisure travelers.

THE WEEKLY WONDER: Very Nice in the Ninth
It may be better known as the home of the Pigalle, the Folies Berg¸re and the Dumas character whom Garbo transformed into Camille, but the Ninth Arrondissement in Paris is where France's banking and insurance industries are centered. If you're headed there, consider checking into the Millennium Commodore, which has reopened after a year-long renovation and restoration. The 163-room hotel at 12 Boulevard Haussmann has spacious, comfortable and blissfully quiet rooms, and each is stocked with the latest in business travel essentials: multi-line telephones with one-touch AT&T Direct access; voice mail and easy-access dataports; and even power receptacles that accommodate U.S. style plugs and power supplies. The four-star property also features modern meeting space, a business center, and a stylish brasserie. Published room rates start at 1,900 francs (about $327) a night, but the "Special Introductory Offer" is 1,450 francs (about $250) and includes: full breakfast, taxes, a bottle of wine, and a room upgrade. The package is valid until May 31 and can be booked by calling 800-465-6486.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

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