Barnett on Business Travel



January 12, 1992 -- Figure this one out, travel fans.

America is deep in recession. Even the very rich are watching their nickels. Airlines are dying, yet ticket prices are climbing - another $20 in December on most coach fares. Big-city hotels are filing for bankruptcy, yet bigger, splashier ones are opening. And every month it seems like a new cruise line is heralding a maiden voyage.

And what are the savviest travelers doing as we enter the new year? No, they're not staying home. They're digging for deals.

Try budget hotels. Debbie Fields, a mother of five who travels two days every week overseeing the 500-store Mrs. Fields chocolate-chip cookie empire, doesn't check into posh hotels even though she could easily afford it.

"I only stay where I expect my people to stay," says Fields, who lives in Park City, Utah. "They're safe, small and the price is wonderful - about 50 bucks a night."

Fields avoids big hotels because she hates to pay $150 to sleep in a bed for six hours, wait in line at busy front desks or "walk forever" to get to her room.

Off the high-price track, "I push one elevator button and I'm in my room. Plus, there is coffee 24 hours a day, and orange juice, cereal and muffins free in the morning."

Take the shuttle. Corporate travel cost-cutter Jeanie Thompson-Smith, president of Topaz Enterprises in Portland, Ore., has a smart money- saving suggestion for car renters.

"When you arrive in your city late in the day, take the shuttle or public transportation to your hotel and rent your car the next morning or when you're ready to go," advises Thompson-Smith. "Too many travelers rent a car and let it sit in a parking lot until they need it."

The Topaz executive, who audits air fares for major corporations to make sure they're getting the lowest price, says frequent travelers who bunk in at the same hotel should try and negotiate what she calls "meal rates."

"Often a hotel in need of filling its rooms will give you a deal on meals," says Thompson-Smith. "If you don't ask, you don't get."

In tough times, it's always wise to make sure your travel agent knows you want the rock-bottom price every time you take off.

"Lots of times travelers assume they get the lowest fare, when maybe the agent is basing an offer on the traveler's affluence or standing in the community," she says.

What's more, after the travel agent quotes you the lowest fare, "Ask if they guarantee it," says Thompson-Smith. "That puts everyone on notice."

Go excursion rate. East Coast travelers on the Philadelphia-New York-Washington circuit should take the train, not the plane, and buy an excursion ticket rather than the Metroliner fare. That's the advice of veteran commuter James Johnston, president of Educational Advisory Services International and the former dean of admission of the Wharton Business School.

Ro und trip excursion from the City of Brotherly Love to the Big Apple is $47. A one-way ticket for the same trip on the Metroliner is $46.

Says Johnston, "It takes 15 minutes longer by excursion train, but you save half the price."

Dig for deals. Make your New Year's resolution to read the fine print in newspaper travel ads. David McKinney, president of Dynamic FAX of Rockford, Ill., almost choked when he was quoted $1,320-plus to fly from Chicago to Los Angeles and back on United or American.

By scanning the paper, he discovered that Southwest Airlines, known for its cheap fares, has a two-for-one deal that has been extended through Feb. 28. McKinney can jet to Los Angeles round-trip for $438, with a Saturday night stayover, and take his wife, Lori, along free.

If the couple traveled on one of the bigger carriers, the price tag for two tickets would have been $2,640.

Ask for discounts. Seasoned road warrior Martin Deutsch, president of OAG Travel Magazines, insists that any traveler - not just frequent travelers - can get 20 percent to 30 percent off a hotel room today just by shopping around.

"Hotels that charge $200 a night would rather get $160 a night if they have the room rather than lose the business, and you're not being chintzy or manipulative," says Deutsch. "It's a reality of the marketplace."

Look for hidden cities. OK, now we're going to take off the gloves. Paul L. Edwards, publisher of Travel Confidential, a $95-a-year New York City newsletter that unearths amazing bargains, says buying "hidden city" tickets is a smart way to save money. But it takes some sleuthing, and airlines aren't thrilled about this ploy.

Here's how it works: Edwards says the price of a New York to Chicago airline ticket is steeper than a New York to Kansas City via Chicago flight. By buying a "supersaver" ticket to Kansas City and simply getting off in Chicago, travelers can save two-thirds or more over the cost of a one-way ticket.

"And if I can sell the second coupon (for the Chicago to Kansas City leg of the journey), I'm really coming out OK."

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

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