Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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What We Must Do Before 2015 Disappears
December 17, 2015 -- Your friends, family and work colleagues may have visions of sugar plums dancing in their holiday-addled heads, but most business travelers I know have more serious concerns as the days whittle down to a precious few. With only two weeks left in the year, we've still got work to do if we want to travel with the least amount of pain next year. So here's my business-travel to-do list that should be completed before the ball drops on 2016. Pay your taxes
In a rare moment of political comity this year, the House and Senate passed a transportation funding bill called the FAST Act. But since nothing in Washington is what it seems — the 1,300-page bill started as a veteran's insurance measure called the Hire More Heroes Act — there's an obscure clause that can make life difficult for more than a few business travelers. If you're a tax delinquent and the Internal Revenue Service has slapped you with a lien valued at $50,000 or more, the FAST Act empowers the Secretary of State to revoke your passport. If you don't have a passport and are in serious arrears to the IRS, the State Department probably won't issue one to you. Bottom line: Pay your taxes. One more quirk of the FAST Act: If you don't give the State Department your social security number, you won't get a passport. Federal law always required you to provide your social security number, but it previously limited the penalty to a $500 fine. Thanks to FAST, however, no social security number, no passport. Make book on new pages
Speaking of passports, December 31 is the last day you can add pages to yours. Beginning January 1, 2016, if your passport runs out of pages for visas and customs stamps, you'll have to apply for an entirely new booklet. The math is fairly simple. If you wish to hold onto your existing passport but fear the page limit, use Form DS-4085 to request 24-page expansion to supplement your current 28-page document. That request must be filed with the State Department by December 31. If, however, you want to apply for a new passport or a replacement document on or after January 1, use the appropriate form (DS-82 for renewals, DS-11 for new applications) and you'll receive an enlarged 52-page booklet. The fees? If you're a newbie, a first-time passport will cost $135. Renewals cost $110. If you want to add pages to your existing passport before December 31, the fee is $82. Check your driver's license
If you rely on your driver's license for identification at airport security checkpoints, check your wallet. The driver's licenses of several states do not meet the standards of REAL ID, which Homeland Security and the TSA will use to vet flyers effective January 1. Exactly which state documents don't pass muster is obscured by the bureaucratic doublespeak used by federal security agencies. The law imposing REAL ID is straightforward, but Homeland Security has issued so many exemptions, caveats and grace periods that it is difficult to offer definitive guidance. Five states — Arizona, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New York — have until recent weeks seemed at greatest risk for non-compliant documents. But the most recent "enforcement" data from Homeland Security seems to have winnowed the list down to just Minnesota— albeit with an endless series of qualifying asterisks and hashmarks for other states. Your best bet? Check the state of your state at the Homeland Security page. Most travelers will find their existing driver's licenses will be accepted for ID purposes for at least six more months. But if you're in a questionable state, emotionally or geographically, print out the relevant information and be prepared to present it to any TSA agents who haven't gotten the latest list of exemptions and exclusions. Running miles and mattresses
'Tis the season for mistletoe and holly for most Americans, but many of us will focus on mileage and mattress runs instead. Why? Many frequent travelers still need a few thousand miles or a few nights' stays to retain their elite status for 2016. I'm not a fan of mileage runs, but I understand the appeal of a quick, cheap trip to keep the flow of upgrades, perks and freebies coming for another year. Kristie Ackert, the sportswriter I profiled several columns ago, tells me she's doing a slightly roundabout New York-Los Angeles run right after Christmas to keep her elite status at American Airlines. She'll be on the ground at LAX just two hours before her return flight. Another traveler I know is going to China and back within 72 hours to keep his super-elite status with Delta Air Lines. And more than a few business travelers I know are taking advantage of super-cheap lodging rates between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve to pad their hotel accounts. Unless you're aiming for top-of-the-heap status with your airline or hotel, however, consider skipping the mileage or mattress run. Doing something extraordinary just to qualify at the lowest levels of the programs is a fool's errand — and, more importantly, you don't have to do it. Major airlines offer credit cards larded with most of the perks of lower-level status — free checked bags, priority boarding status--and the annual fee is cheaper than a ticket. Major hotel chains promote credit cards that include first-tier elite status as part of the benefits package. Many also come bundled with a free hotel night or two. Clone your status
One last thing on the to-do list: Consider cloning your existing elite status. If you're already an elite traveler with one airline or hotel chain, competitors want your business. Besides, if you examine your 2015 travel, you may find you're not enthused by the prospect of spending still another year with your current airline or hotel. The solution: a status match or a easy-to-achieve status challenge. Since you're such a frequent traveler, an airline or hotel will often be eager to offer you elite status as an inducement to switch your custom. Most any elite traveler is a valued commodity, of course, but top-level customers of Starwood hotels, which is being gobbled up by Marriott, are especially desirable this year. In recent weeks, both Hyatt and Hilton have been matching the Starwood Preferred Guest status of travelers worried about their perks when Marriott inevitably folds the Starwood Preferred Guest plan into Marriott Rewards.
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