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5 MONEY-SAVING TIPS FOR THE SUMMER
By Joe Brancatelli
May 29, 2013 --Now that we've made the metaphorical turn into the unofficial start of summer, business travelers can concentrate on a growing problem: the rising cost of being on the road.

Estimates vary, of course, but the upward creep of airfares, hotel rates and car-rental charges may be as high as 5 percent so far this year. Your experience may vary, too—travel prices are rising much faster in places like New York and San Francisco than in smaller, Midwest and Southern destinations—but very few travelers I speak to report that their costs are going down. And after several years of relative stability (if nothing else, Great Recessions tend to keep a lid on travel costs), even smaller price bumps are noticeable.

The solution? A renewed focus on keeping your costs down and making sure that you are not overpaying for what you need on the road. Here are five tips that might save you a few shekels this summer.

Chase down car-rental codes
The most outraged mail I receive from business travelers these days is after they've been quoted a triple-digit daily rate from a car-rental firm at a big-city airport. One example: the flier asked to pay $145 (plus taxes) for a day's use of a mid-size vehicle at Detroit/Metro Airport.

Rental costs are rising, but only a business traveler who's forgotten his or her corporate or other discount codes is being quoted such stratospheric rates. In a dozen recent test rentals, I found that daily rates can vary by as much as 65 percent based on whether I entered an appropriate discount code. So-called "open" or full-retail rates for rentals has always been inflated to make room for the discounts that car firms negotiate with corporations, affinity groups such as the AAA and AARP or other organizations, but the gap between the prices has clearly widened.

If you work for an organization of any size, make sure to check for its corporate discount before renting. If you run your own firm, call a few car-rental firms and discuss arranging your own discount plan. Google "car rental discount codes." You'll be surprised how many apply to you. Use a fare-compare site like Kayak.com to see side-by-side quotes from competing firms for a particular trip. The price range is dramatic. And if you don't care which rental chain you use, try Priceline and Hotwire. Their blind-booking options can cut your rental costs by 55 percent compared to published prices.

The (mini) bar is now open
Hotel-room minibars used to be the bęte noir of business travel expense reports. The prices that hotels charged for beverages and snacks was so rapacious that many big firms would refuse to reimburse the minibar expenses of their travelers. But the days of the $15 jar of cashews and $7 cans of Diet Coke are largely over. Even with those eye-watering prices, hotels couldn't make money on minibars because the cost of restocking them (not to mention the "shrinkage" when outraged travelers demanded fees be removed after a night of binging on costly cashews) was so high. A majority of hotels now leave the small, in-room fridges empty, a trend that even The Atlantic magazine has felt compelled to document.

The now-empty minibars offer a cost-saving opportunity for cost-conscious business travelers. To avoid the high price of room service—or succumbing to those $6 bottles of water that hotels now ostentatiously place in your room "for your convenience"—stock the bars yourself. Go to a nearby market or convenience store, pick up beverages and snacks you prefer and stash them in the empty minibar during your stay. The money you save—and the expense account you don't wreck—is your own.

Bring your own Wi-Fi
The battle between hotels that charge for Internet access and those that give it away free is more nuanced now. To accommodate our rapidly increasing demand for data (to stream movies and music, download huge files or do videoconferencing), more hotels than ever are moving to a two-tiered pricing system: A slower Internet speed (good enough for email retrieval and basic Web surfing) may be free, but robust, high-speed access may only be available for a hefty daily fee.

One solution: Bring your own Wi-Fi access. As major mobile operators roll out super-fast 4G networks nationwide, they also sell plans that allow you to turn your smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots. Like Verizon Wireless, they also sell mobile routers and other devices that create personal Wi-Fi bubbles. Even given the higher prices that the phone companies now charge for data access, bringing your own Wi-Fi is cheaper over a monthly basis than a hotel may charge for daily access. Another potential solution: Five major cable-TV providers have linked Wi-Fi networks under the admittedly uninventive rubric CableWiFi that allows you to access the Wi-Fi hotspots of a local cable company for free, just as if you're using your own cable Internet at home or in the office. (Look for the system called CableWiFi when your device is searching available networks.)

Sidestep the change fees
As an industry, U.S. airlines generated $2.5 billion in ticket-change fees last year. And earlier this spring, the major legacy airlines—Delta, United, American and US Airways—doubled down on that windfall by raising the domestic fee for most ticket changes to $200 from the previous $150.

There are three ways to sidestep the fees:

  • Don't change your plans after booking your travel, which might not always be practical.
  • Fly Southwest Airlines, which doesn't charge change fees. (A note: Southwest's AirTran Airways subsidiary does charge for changes.)
  • Look for fare structures that offer the right to make changes for a more reasonable price. JetBlue Airways last month adopted a fairly rational approach to changes: The earlier you adjust an itinerary, the less it costs. And if you make a change closer to departure, your fee is based on the price of the ticket. As a result, JetBlue's fees range from $75-$150 rather than $200. And American Airlines now bundles the right to make flight changes into its Your Choice fare options. The lowest fare (called Choice) will cost you $200 to change. But the Choice Essential fare, priced at $68 more, is free of change fees—and you get a free checked bag and priority boarding, too.

Do a card check
As explained last week, carrying the right airline-affiliated credit card can earn you quasi-elite status and thus free checked bags and priority boarding. Ditto for carrying the right hotel credit card, which may come with elite status and free perks like better rooms and breakfast. Check our recent list of how to get elite status (usually via the right credit card), which will certainly cut your costs as well as (marginally) improve your travel experience.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.