OUR ON-THE-ROAD AGONY
By Joe Brancatelli
September 4, 2014 --I've lost track of the number of times I have started a Seat 2B column or some other business-travel story with the declaration that life on the road stinks and it gets worse every day.
But I do admit that these do seem to be the worst of times. My email is overflowing with complaints from frequent travelers who I know tend to be sane, even-tempered and not notably persnickety. It seems that everyone's unhappy and spoiling for a fight.
What's particularly annoying right now? Here are five complaints about business travel I get all the time now. Where possible, I've added some thoughts about how to make things better.
The squabble for seat space
Yet the facts are clear, even if the New York Times won't see them. Leisure airlines that use non-reclining seats reduce legroom even more than traditional carriers, which consider 31 inches adequate. And not reclining your seat just because someone takes offense misinterprets the problem. Carriers slash legroom and seat width as a way to drive up profit and then they flat-out lie by claiming "slimline" seats make up the space difference.
The solution is equally clear: The Department of Transportation must ensure a minimum amount of legroom and seat width for coach passengers. The Food and Drug Administration has guidelines for transporting animals. Why do cattle and chickens have more protection than passengers?
The currency-conversion scam
But now business travelers are squawking about a related scam: The point-of-sale "dynamic currency conversion" (DCC) gimmick that allows hotels, restaurants and other merchants to offer you the "service" of presenting a bill in U.S. dollars instead of local currency. DCC is aimed at squeezing a few extra bucks from business travelers who think they've dodged the currency conversion trap by using a no-fee credit card.
"No matter what I do, my hotel chain defaults me to DCC whenever I stay overseas and that inflates my bill," complains one business traveler. "It's cheesy," yelps another, who got clipped in Paris when a high-end restaurant slipped him U.S.-domininated bill.
How much can DCC add to travel costs? Consider my experience at a Hong Kong hotel last month. At check out, I was presented a folio that offered the "convenience" of paying in U.S. dollars (615) instead of Hong Kong dollars (4,578). I chose Hong Kong dollars, of course, and when my credit card statement arrived, the bank had converted the hotel bill to US$590. In other words, had I let the hotel do the conversion at the point of sale, I'd have paid $25 more.
The solution: Make sure you use only credit cards that waive foreign-exchange fees. Then carefully scrutinize each bill you receive overseas. Reject any that aren't denominated in the local currency. If the merchant insists, push back. American Express, Visa and MasterCard all require merchants to bill in local currency at the customer's request.
Fees that aren't in the bag
But ticket-change fees make us crazy, especially since we frequently adjust our schedules to accommodate the vagaries of life on the road.
"Incredible rip," fumes Rita Elhannon, a frequent flier in Chicago. "I hate them with a passion," adds Bernard Britton, a business traveler based in Phoenix.
Mainline carriers now charge as much as $200 each time you change to a domestic ticket. Then you pay any fare difference, too. Want to adjust an international itinerary? That's as much as $400 plus any applicable fare upcharge.
Change fees are a bonanza for airlines. They take in almost as much in ticket-change and cancellation fees as from the more-publicized baggage charges. According to government statistics, airlines in 2013 collected $3.3 billion in baggage fees and $2.8 billion in change fees. And as with bag fees, change fees are free from federal ticket taxes, a fact the airline industry's trade organization ignores when it whines about the industry's tax burden.
Can you beat change fees? Maybe. Southwest Airlines doesn't charge them. Change fees are substantially lower than the industry standard on Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways. And American Airlines sells a fare category called Choice Plus that bundles ticket changes and other perks into a slightly higher price.
Bad news gets worse for small cities
The fix the big carriers envision will make matters worse in the months ahead. Rather than ensuring that their commuter carriers operate more efficiently, the big airlines will simply drop some flights. At United Airlines, for example, 8 percent of its current capacity is operated using aircraft with 50 or fewer seats. By the end of next year, United expects to cut the number to 5 percent. About 130 smaller regional jets will be replaced with just 70 larger aircraft, meaning many fewer flights to many fewer cities. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines are already actively pursuing similar programs to cut small-city flying.
The high cost of hotel connectivity
The fastest growing segment of the lodging industry is so-called "focused service" chains such as Hampton Inn, Hyatt Place and Holiday Inn Express. Almost all focused service chains offer free, basic Internet sufficient for email and web surfing. And if you choose to stay at a hotel that charges for Internet, there are easy workarounds. Carry a personal portable router or tether your smartphone to your laptop or tablet. And don't forget that many of the nation's cable operators have banded together to make their WiFi hotspot s available to each others' customers.
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 © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.