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 The Tactical Traveler

joe A BUSINESS-TRAVEL BRIEFING
FOR MAY 1, 1999


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

This week: Another fine-print credit card ripoff; still a few kinks in Starwood Preferred; the Boston-Washington Corridor shuffle; Delta's CEO bumps paying passengers for personal freebies; Lufthansa comes clean on World War II slave labor; and more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Another Fine-Print Ripoff
Any frequent flyer who's ever traveled overseas knows that exchanging and using foreign currency is the least efficient approach to commercial transactions. Credit and charge cards are the way to go: they are more convenient and you get the benefit of the "bank wholesale rate," which gives you up to a 10 percent rate advantage when foreign transactions are charged back in U.S. dollars. But no good deed goes unpunished. Many major card companies are quietly raising the conversion fee imposed when you make foreign-currency charges. Until recently, the universal fee was one percent of each transaction. But American Express will increase its fee for most customers in June to 2 percent. Also jumping on the ripoff bandwagon are banks issuing airline frequent-flyer Visa and MasterCards. For example: First Chicago, which handles the United Mileage Plus card, and Citigroup, which handles American AAdvantage cards, have both imposed a 3 percent fee. How do you find out if your credit- or charge-card company has raised its fee? You've got to pour through the annoying fine print on those "change of terms" statement stuffers. And while higher fees may not break your metaphoric bank--each one percent increase adds $10 to the cost of every $1,000 worth of foreign-currency charges--they are gouges. Credit-card executives privately admit the higher fees are not driven by increased cost, but by a desire to increase profits in an area they do not think card users will notice. How do you fight back? Use Diners Club, which has held its currency-conversion charge to 1 percent. Diners Club is as omnipresent overseas as American Express, so there's no problem using it where you would normally use your Amex card. And the Club Rewards program allows you to convert Club points into frequent-flyer miles of any major U.S. carriers, a benefit not offered by American Express Membership Rewards or any airline-specific credit card.

MILES & POINTS: Still a Few Bugs in the Starwood System
A few travelers have reported trouble claiming free stays via the new Starwood Preferred Guest plan, which promises totally unrestricted awards with no capacity controls or blackout dates. Hoyt Harper, head honcho of the 3-month old program, says he's had to handle "six or seven incidents" when participating Preferred Guest hotels denied travelers free rooms. "There's no way we're gonna accept hotels telling our travelers no," he says "If a room is available, you can get it as an award. Period." What happens if you are confronted with one of the bugs in the new system, which unites Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, Caesars, W and St. Regis Luxury Collection hotels in one frequent-guest plan? Harper says travelers should ask to speak to an awards-desk supervisor. Still can't claim an award when a participating hotel has an empty room? Send me an Email, and I'll send your situation along to Harper. "The problems have been isolated," he says, "but we want to know where they are. And we will fix them."

AIRPORT REPORT: The Boston-Washington Corridor Shuttle Shuffle
After years of limiting their seat-on-demand shuttle services to the Boston-New York/LaGuardia and LaGuardia-Washingon/National markets, Delta and USAirways are expanding. Into the mix will be flights from Washington/Dulles to LaGuardia and shuttle flights between Boston and Washington. On July 9, for example, the USAirways Shuttle will offer hourly flights between National and Boston. Within the next several months, USAirways Shuttle will also offer hourly flights between Washington/Dulles and Boston and Dulles and LaGuardia. USAirways is already offering these flights as either MetroJet or USAirways service, but the switch to the Shuttle moniker will bring standard Shuttle perks: walk-up pricing, designated gates, snacks, and free newspapers and other reading material. Fares on the new Shuttle routes should be interesting to watch. On the three existing Shuttle routes, prices are set at $197 one-way. But on the flights currently operating in the Dulles-LaGuardia market, walkup fares are lower, just $149. And Boston-Washington nonstops may be especially peculiar. Existing walk-up fares to National are now $288 one way, but just $118 to Dulles.

ON THE FLY: Business-Travel News You Need to Know
Eastwind Airlines is being scrutinized by federal and local officials after a series of complaints from customers about poor service, late or canceled flights and credit-card irregularities. The most serious incidents occurred April 10 when police were called to clear disgruntled passengers off an Eastwind flight that made an unscheduled stop at the airline's hub in Greensboro, North Carolina. Scott Thurston of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a doozy of a story: four first-class passengers on a Delta flight from Atlanta and Denver on March 4 were bumped back to coach to make room for the late-arriving children of Delta chief financial officer Warren Jenson. While the passengers were shipped back to coach and Jenson's three children and a friend were given the newly vacated first-class seats, the flight's departure was delayed 24 minutes. Jenson apologized and took "complete responsibility for what happened"--but only a week after Thurston's story appeared on April 17. In other words, he was sorry he got caught. Lufthansa, the German carrier, now admits it used forced slave labor during the Nazi regime. An airline spokeswoman said the airline will contribute German reparation funds to settle claims against companies which profited from Nazi-era industrial policies.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

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