The Tactical Traveler



This week: Don't switch cell-phone carriers just yet; the kindness of strangers on the road; the dollar plummets on currency markets; United's Ted may be the airline industry's Edsel; the Le Meridien hotel chain implodes; a rash of major frequent-flyer program changes; graphic proof of the insanity of the Big Six fare structure; and much more.

COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: Don't Change Cell-Phone Carriers Just Yet
You'll be able to change cell-phone carriers and retain your existing mobile number beginning Monday (November 24). But the experts suggest you wait a few days--and maybe a few weeks--before making your move. "The system is going to be inundated with very unhappy customers immediately hoping to change suppliers," one telecom analyst told me this week. "And since most cellular-phone carriers are going to make it as difficult as legally possible to switch, you'd be crazy to try and do it in the first week or so." Some analysts suggest that as many as one-in-three number transfers will be denied thanks to a combination of technical difficulties and other factors. Portability, the industry term for switching carriers but keeping your number, "won't be as seamless or painless as people are hoping," another expert told me. "If I were interested in changing carriers, I'd wait until after the New Year. After the technical glitches are solved, the early jitters and the holiday rush are over, the process will go more smoothly."

CYBERTRAVELER: The Kindness of Strangers on the Road
I was anxious to get a copy of The Kindness of Strangers because I thought it was written by Don George, one of the truly original and creative thinkers on the topic of travel. Alas, the book was only edited by Don, but, you know, that's good, too. Don coaxed original stories of "the unexpected human connections that so often transform the experience of travel" from contributors such as Simon Winchester, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, restauranteur Alice Waters and more than a dozen others. Don even convinced the Dalai Lama to write the preface and Don himself wrote an insightful and uplifting introduction. I won't suggest this book would make a great gift (it would, of course) because I'll go further: Go out and get yourself a copy. In these depressing and uncertain travel times, The Kindness of Strangers is desperately needed succor for the traveler's battered soul.

DOLLAR WATCH: Oh, Woe is the Dollar (and Woe is Us)
The dollar is tanking around the world and that means it continues to get more and more expensive for U.S. travelers to afford hotel rooms, meals and even taxi rides overseas. Most notably, the euro is now worth about US$1.20. The euro's increase in recent weeks and months has been startling, but its run-up since its introduction as a street-level currency on January 1, 2002, has been alarming. Back then, a euro was only worth 90 cents. The dollar has also dropped sharply in Britain, where a pound is now worth about US$1.70. The dollar is down in Japan, too, where it only commands about 108. Down under, the Australian dollar is also rallying. A$1 now equals about 73 U.S. cents, a 15 percent increase in the last 90 days. Two years ago, the Aussie dollar was only worth about 48 U.S. cents.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Will United's Ted Be the Next Edsel?
After a half-dozen reconfigurations of its plans to launch another low-fare carrier, United unveiled Ted this week. First impression? Ted has a better-than-even chance to be the Edsel of the airline business. Why? Ted offers virtually nothing--not even low fares. For one thing, Ted, which will launch in February from Denver, won't have the enhanced coach legroom and at-seat, live-TV service that is now a standard offering of carriers such as JetBlue and Song. Instead, Ted will offer standard cramped coach seating for the masses and United's Economy Plus service for elite flyers. For in-flight entertainment, Ted will rely on standard overhead-cabin monitors showing taped fare. And Ted's simplified, six-price fare structure is no bargain. According to Aviation Daily, "fourteen-day sample restricted fares for seven markets...are 15 percent higher than [the] average fares in those markets in the second quarter." And Ted's one-way, walk-up fares, as high as $409 on the Denver-Fort Lauderdale route, are more expensive than Southwest and JetBlue prices wherever they compete. So what does Ted have? "Ted has a personality all its own," claims Sean Donahue, United's vice president of low-cost operations. "It's warm, friendly and casual. If this airplane could wink, it would." Oh...

IN THE LOBBY: Le Meridien Implodes
The apparently never-ending financial woes of the Le Meridien chain have become so acute that the chain seems well on the road to dissolution. A bail-out plan crafted by Hyatt hotels and Lehman Brothers has collapsed and the chain's 130 or so international properties are now for sale. The saga, which actually dates back a decade and involves several owners, also has a uniquely British twist. The sale of the chain will not include the 11 British hotels that have been flying the Le Meridien flag. Those properties, including the Waldorf and the Grosvenor House, are owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been independently searching for new management. The Waldorf was handed off to London-based Hilton International last week and Fairmont seems to be the front runner to manage the other 10 British hotels. ... One of the most bizarre sidebars of the Le Meridien tale, the management of the former Le Meridien New Orleans, has also been solved. As explained in a May edition of Tactical Traveler, Marriott has been running the property at 614 Canal Street as a JW Marriott. But that drew a lawsuit from the owners of the New Orleans branch of Ritz-Carlton (another Marriott brand). That suit has now been settled on undisclosed terms.

MILES & POINTS: Lots of Changes, Some Good and Some Bad
As the nation's airlines rush to get their frequent-flyer programs in shape for 2004, there has been a torrent of changes, some not so good. ... The good news comes from United Mileage Plus. It not only announced that all flown miles will continue to earn full elite credit, but that "class of service" bonus miles will also accrue elite credit. Specifically, the 50 percent first-class and 25 percent business-class bonuses will count toward elite status. Another perk:
Full-fare coach fares (Y and B) qualify for free, space-available upgrades. United has posted complete details on its Web site. ... The news is perhaps less encouraging at America West FlightFund. It will split its basic award level in two, charging 25,000 miles for flights over 750 miles and 15,000 miles for short-haul flights. It has also lowered the bonus miles awarded to elite flyers and eliminated the reduced-mile award perk for its Platinum-level members. ... Hertz has joined the AirTran A-Plus Rewards program. ... DinersClub card-holders who change DinersClub Reward points into United Mileage Plus miles before January 15 receive a 30 percent conversion bonus.

VERBATIM: Fare Chaos, in a Handy, Chart-Sized Package
If you want some insight into how completely chaotic the Big Six fare structure has become, check out the chart posted by Continental OnePass. It purports to explain who earns what in OnePass, but it also graphically exposes the bizarre nature of the Big Six pricing system. The chart shows five premier-class fare classes, the so-called "straight Y" full-fare coach class, six classes of discount coach and seven classes of deep-discount coach. Keep in mind that these 19 fare classes cover just three physical seats: coach, domestic first class and BusinessFirst premium class.

This column originally appeared at

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