Barnett on Business Travel



September 8, 1991 -- Toss the rate sheets out the window. Take off the white gloves. There has probably never been a better time to get out and go, especially if you have the nerve to haggle like a street merchant.

The entire travel industry is playing "Let's Make a Deal," but unlike the TV version, you don't have to be picked as a contestant.

Jump in. I just did.

When a friend thought $165 a night at the Chicago Hilton was too steep, I offered to help him find a bargain. I called Westin Hotel's toll-free central reservations line and swapped 10 seconds of pleasantries with the agent. Then I popped the question.

"What's your absolute rock-bottom rate for a nice room next Thursday at the Westin Chicago on Michigan Avenue?"

"You asked," she replied, "the magic question. I've got a beautiful $190 a night room for $94 a night."

I booked it on the spot for my friend, gleeful that I had just saved a hefty $96 in 90 seconds. But an executive with another large hotel organization told me I blew it. I could have gotten an even lower price.

Had I been wishy-washy - "Gee, let me think about it" - instead of pouncing on the $94 price, I probably would have been quoted what hotel insiders call the "let me put you on hold" rate. That's when the agent checks with the supervisor to see if a few more dollars can be shaved off the room price to land me. In tough times, hotel "res" agents are like marlin fishermen - they've got to reel in every bite.

Moral: Even when you get the lowest possible price today, never appear anxious. Chances are excellent you'll get it for even less.

Some deals today are actually steals. Little-known Homewood Suites, which caters to the so-called "long-stay" business traveler who wants something "homey," has a weekend package that includes a two-room suite with kitchenette and dining area, plus a Hertz compact car for $79 a night. Talk about a bargain. In some cities, a Hertz car alone fetches $79 a day by the time you pay all the taxes and little charges.

Homewood Suites aren't just in the boonies, either. There are locations in Dallas; Omaha, Neb.; Chicago; Indianapolis; and Boulder, Colo.

Plus, you don't even have to jump through verbal hoops with a central reservationist. I dialed 1-800-CALL HOME, and a friendly voice quoted me the package price. What's more, it comes with a money-back guarantee - Your Suite Assurance. Basically, it promises guests they will be "completely satisfied" with every aspect of their stay or the night's stay is free.

Still, you have to dig for deals. Jeanie Thompson-Smith, president of Topaz Enterprises, a Portland, Ore.-headquartered travel management firm hired by Fortune 500 companies like Walt Disney, Apple Computer and United Technologies is the Rambo of travel cost cutters.

Here's a smart, gutsy idea. If you work for a company that uses an outside travel agent that has special negotiated airfares for business travel, advises Thompson-Smith, "ask them to apply those discounted rates to your personal or pleasure travel." Can't hurt to ask and you'll probably get the cheaper fare.

Next, if your company isn't large enough to command negotiated air rates - a guaranteed number of passengers annually in exchange for a lower price - ask your travel agent if you can ride along on one of its negotiated rates.

"Some travel agencies," explains Thompson-Smith, "will throw all of their small corporate travel clients into one pot, assign one number, and get special negotiated rates with airlines and car rental companies. Not all travel agencies will do it, but it's worth asking for."

Why? Topaz Enterprises tracks rates, and for the second quarter of 1991, the average negotiated airfare was $226 vs. $341 for full coach. Plus, says Thompson-Smith, "you can get a negotiated fare at the last minute and it doesn't have a lot of restrictions."

Another money-saving strategy is to ask your travel agent to search the computer for an airline "promotional rate" between the cities you want to visit.

"These are the real rock-bottom fares - non-refundable and lots of restrictions," she says. But check out these costs. Topaz's rate-tracking system found the average promotional fare in the second quarter of 1991 is $33 one way vs. $131 for the average non-refundable fare. No, $33 is not a typographical error.

The big savings comes when you can book a promotional fare on an international flight. At the moment, Delta, Northwest, United and American are all launching new flights into London.

"London prices are falling down," quips Thompson-Smith. How far down? She says Delta and Northwest are quoting round-trip promotional fares of $428 from New York and Newark to London's Gatwick Airport. Again, let your travel agent search out these deals and steals.

Now here's a real money-saving tip, but you need a cooperative travel agent to pull it off. Thompson- Smith says "good agencies" will "break the fare" and reissue the return trip in local currency. This only works if you're going to a city where the currency is weak against the U.S. dollar.

There are risks, of course. While she says airlines will not refuse a broken-fare ticket, currency fluctuations around the world could result in your paying a surcharge on the flight home.

But, on the other hand, you may be entitled to a small refund. Just do your homework before you go.

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union.

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.