The Winner's Circle

The Trends Affecting Business Travel in 2003

If you're a business traveler, you're a survivor. You've seen airlines, hotels and car rental companies come and go. You haven't let bankruptcies, the economic downturn or sky-high airfares keep you off the road. You flew after 9/11. Many of your colleagues gave up on travel a long time ago. Not you.

Here are the trends that will affect your next trip--plus the road warrior wisdom that will help you not just make it through another year, but also profit from it. Think of this as your very own roadmap for what's to come.

No Waivers, No Favors
The rules are changing for the jet set. Hard times in the airline industry are forcing the major carriers to impose new restrictions on you. They've added new ticketing fees and new charges on excess baggage and tightened their ticket re-use policies. What's different?

  • "Use it or lose it" tickets: Nonrefundable tickets came with a lot of loopholes before the industry downturn. If you were late for a flight, you could go standby for free. Miss a flight? You had up to a year to rebook. Now airlines want you to buy a more expensive ticket, so they're tightening those loopholes. If you're holding a nonrefundable ticket, you can rebook before the scheduled flight, but not after. Want to fly standby? It'll cost you $100 in some cases.
  • Pay for paper. Most major carriers now charge for an actual paper ticket. American Airlines, for example, bills $20 for a pulp pass. Ditto for Continental Airlines. These new fees aren't just a money grab; it costs an airline more to create and handle a paper ticket than an e-ticket.
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  • Bag limits. Gate agents now carry measuring tape, keep an eye on the scale and charge excess-baggage fees if warranted. At Continental, for instance, your check-in bags can't exceed 70 pounds or 62 "linear inches," calculated by adding height, width and length. Most airlines have unofficially adopted similar measures. Delta Airlines even charges $40 for checking a third bag.

Road warrior wisdom: Many smaller airlines, such as Southwest and JetBlue, haven't followed the majors' rule changes. If you want to get around the new restrictions, consider flying on these no-frills carriers.

Every Laptop for Itself
Looking for reimbursement for a damaged laptop? Take a number. When the federal government began supervising the screening of airline passengers in 2002, responsibility for carry-on items damaged by screeners transitioned from the airlines to the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA). So what happens when a screener breaks sensitive technology, like a laptop or a personal digital assistant, as you're passing through a checkpoint? There's a government claims office, but be forewarned: It can be slow to respond.

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In the first six months after the TSA took over security screening, it received 192 claims for damaged laptops. Only two were resolved. The TSA's Heather Rosenker says the agency is working to handle current claims--it's opened a toll-free consumer hotline at (866) 289-9673, for example--and it is trying to prevent future accidents by training new federal screeners on handling technology. But Rosenker admits that accidents do happen, and in a letter sent to travelers who file a complaint, TSA acknowledges that the claims process may take up to six months.

Road warrior wisdom: Leave your laptop at home if you can. Many hotels now offer business centers, often at no charge, where you can check e-mail and work on your presentation. You'll also go through the screening process faster.

Travelers Hit the "Delete" Button
Reformatting a laptop computer's hard drive is usually the last resort when a portable PC doesn't work. Not for business travelers. At a time when sensitive computer hardware is being run through airport X-ray machines, dropped and mishandled more often, hitting the "delete" button is frequently the first choice for troubleshooting.

"Travelers aren't waiting around to find out what the diagnoses is from a tech person back at the office," says Tom Coppola, a vice president for Connect Globally, an online mobile-computing store based in Longboat Key, Florida. "They're more and more empowered to make their own diagnosis now. And sometimes the cure is a little extreme."

Complete disk reformattings are up between 5 and 10 percent from a year ago, says Rebecca Patrascu, a technician for Novato, California, data-recovery company DriveSavers. "It's unfortunate," she says, "because frequently there are less radical alternatives, like data recovery or just updating the software drivers."

Road warrior wisdom: Most disk reformattings are overkill, according to the experts. The best safeguard against data loss is a reliable backup system--something many business travelers still lack.

Insisting on Insurance
Business travelers are buying more travel insurance than ever. Before the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, about 10 percent of travelers typically bought travel insurance. After 9/11, the industry average jumped to about 20 percent, insurers say.

Interest in insurance remains high today in part because of sustained terrorism fears and in part because of new airline rules that limit changes made to nonrefundable tickets. Road warriors worry that the new policies put their trips more at risk than ever.

There are three main types of travel insurance:

1. For business travelers, one of the most popular insurance options is the travel-cancellation policy, which typically costs 4.5 to 7 percent of the trip price. A cancellation policy helps you get your money back if you have to call your trip off. Most policies cover up to $50,000 per person.

2. Another policy, which became popular after the 9/11 attacks, is flight insurance, which starts at about $8 per flight. If you're killed on a plane, your beneficiaries will get about $250,000 worth of coverage.

3.Medical insurance policies, which range from $25 for a few days of coverage to annual policies in excess of $2,000, help pay overseas doctor bills that aren't included in your regular medical insurance. They also cover a medical evacuation, if needed. The coverage starts at about $50,000 for short trips and goes up to $1 million for a year.

Road warrior wisdom: Use what you've got before buying an insurance policy. Some homeowner or medical policies already cover parts of your trip, making extra insurance an unnecessary expense. Read those policies carefully before deciding what kind of coverage to buy.

A Surcharge on Your Rental Surcharge
As the car rental industry struggles to stay profitable, it continues to come up with innovative ways to separate you from your money. Here are three of the most common car rental "traps":

1. The price isn't always right. Whether you called a car rental company's toll-free number or booked your car online, the rate you're quoted may not be the price you'll pay. Why? Because other surcharges, such as airport concession fees, license charges and local taxes, are added to your bill when you settle up. There's almost nothing these companies won't charge for. The latest: a fee for airport security and an "air conditioning" surcharge.

2. Surprise! Insurance and gas are extra. Rental car agents are trained to sell optional insurance and fuel-purchase option plans. If you balk, they often try the hard sell, showing you pictures of damaged cars and asking "Do you really want to pay for that?" But if your auto insurance already covers it, you should resist.

3. Tricky contracts. Car rental companies love to point to the fine print when they drive up your final bill. "What, you didn't return your car with a full tank of gas? You'll have to pay for gas at quadruple the street price--it's in the contract. Did traffic hold you up on the way to the airport? Too bad, you have to pay for another day--it's in the contract." Never mind that it's unreasonable for us to be expected to read the contract from top to bottom before we drive away. Rental agencies know that.

Road warrior wisdom: Be aware of these tricks, and ask about any "surprise" surcharges before you rent your next car. And don't be afraid to use your preferred customer status as leverage to get the company to remove any unwanted charges from your final bill.

Christopher McGinnis is CNN Headline News' travel correspondent and the author of The Unofficial Business Traveler's Pocket Guide. Christopher Elliott is Entrepreneur's "Biz Travel" columnist.

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This article was originally published in the April 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Winner's Circle.

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