10 No-Nos for Smart Business Travelers

These two facts are driving the travel industry crazy, and should be concerning you, too: Business travel is on the rise…but companies are spending less money on their trips. How can that be? Easy. Business customers, like consumers, are demanding more for less. A 2004 Smith Barney study found that 68% of corporate travel managers said they expected their company’s 2005 travel budgets to exceed spending in 2004 by an average of 5%. But 37% of the responding companies also said they are redoubling their efforts to save money — among other things, by buying advance-purchase fares instead of more costly last-minute airline tickets. Translation: Your competitors are getting out there and making contact with customers — maybe your customers — and they’re not losing their shirt on it the way businesses were in the late 1990s, when buying overpriced business travel airfares and booking astronomical hotel rates was a standard practice.

The moral here: You should be showing the same determination to cut travel costs for your business. Here are traps to avoid that will help you save money on your next business trip. If you have a corporate travel policy, consider incorporating some of these suggestions — they’ll help stretch your travel dollar further.

1. Don’t pay full fare for your airline ticket. Never, ever, ever shell out the walk-up fare — that’s the unrestricted, full-fare coach class price — for an airline ticket. In the past, before low-fare carriers such as JetBlue and Independence Air rose to prominence, business travelers had no choice but to pay what an airline demanded. Not anymore. Switch your preferred carrier to a low-fare airline now. Estimated savings: 60-80% off airfare.

2. Don’t become a serious frequent-flier mileage collector. Loyalty points are the crack cocaine of the travel industry, so advising you to be a “casual” user is somewhat naïve. If at all possible, you should stop collecting rewards points now. But the system is what it is, and unless you want to find yourself overpaying for your airline tickets, hotel rooms or rental cars — and even taking unnecessary trips in order to qualify for elite status — pay no attention to the points that may be collecting in your portfolio. If you do, you could become a mileage addict. (Remember, there are close to 10 trillion unredeemed frequent-flier miles out there). Estimated savings: varies by amount of travel.

3. Don’t pay the rack rate for your hotel room. Hotels want you to pay the sticker price for a room (of course, they do). But do you go to a car dealer and pay asking price? No way. Logging on to the Internet can really pay off, particularly if you’re using one of the so-called “opaque” Web sites such as Priceline or Hotwire. (You pick the class of hotel, but not the specific property — and you don’t collect points.) But the savings can be terrific: Better than a traditional online agency, and better even than a hotel Web site, with its “best rate” guarantee. Estimated savings: about 40% off your hotel bill.

4. Don’t accept the key to your minibar. You know that the snacks and drinks in your minibar are marked up several hundred percent. You know that the moment you open the refrigerator, an alarm is probably going off somewhere in the hotel manager’s office (actually, in all seriousness, many minibars automatically charge your room if an item in it is simply moved). Solution: When the front-desk worker offers you a key, turn it down. Tell your employees they’ll never be reimbursed for anything from the rip-off minibar. Estimated savings: can be as high as $20 a day or more.

5. Don’t rent anything other than a matchbox car. Don’t worry; you won’t end up actually driving a subcompact car. The cheapo vehicles are the first to run out, and when they do, the car rental company is contractually obligated to put you in the next-highest class of car at no additional charge. However, if you rent a full-size vehicle, you’ll just end up paying a premium for something you would have either gotten for free or at a vastly reduced rate. (Rental agents will haggle with you over upgrade costs, but they’re usually empowered to give it to you free for the asking.) Estimated savings: up to $40 a day.

6. Don’t tip just because you feel guilty. Airport skycaps, waiters and hotel employees often leave you with the impression that you must subsidize their substandard wages, and that if you don’t, you’re being a tightwad. Truth is, they’ve chosen to work in the service profession and you don’t have to tip them unless they’ve performed quality service that’s tip-pable. A gratuity is earned, and you don’t have to walk around handing out money like candy while you’re away on business. Estimated savings: depends on the length of your trip.

7. Don’t buy the optional car rental insurance. Car-rental employees like to pressure you to buy their own insurance. They show you pictures of damaged cars and they tell you your insurance policy may not cover your rental if you’re in an accident. I’m not saying these employees are wrong. But you have to be smart. Find out what’s covered under your policy (normally, your credit card takes care of almost everything). And remember: These policies often account for a hefty portion of a car-rental company’s profits. So while these add-on insurance policies can be useful for you, they’re even more useful to the rental company. Specifically, its bottom line. Estimated savings: about $20 a day.

8. Don’t order room service or laundry. Both are woefully overpriced. Room service bills come with a service charge of between 10% and 15% (“for your convenience”). And you could buy new clothes cheaper than you could have your laundry cleaned. Talk about a rip-off. Instead, eat in a restaurant and visit a Laundromat. Some hotels have laundry facilities on premises that are far less expensive. Estimated savings: between $5 and $10 a day.

9. Don’t use a hotel phone. Don’t even think about picking up the in-room phone unless it’s ringing. Instead, use your cellular phone. Why? Hotels mark up the phone bill by 100% or more. Oh, and that “deal” with free local calls? Check the fine print, because sometimes, calls of more than 20 minutes — even local ones — get billed at a different rate. Estimated savings: about $5 a day.

10. Don’t pay for anything that you can get for free. That includes, but isn’t limited to, hotel shuttle buses (much better than a pricey cab), breakfast (many hotels offer complimentary meals), dinner (check out the concierge floor, where hors d’oeuvres are on the house) and entertainment (the in-flight TV is free on JetBlue and Song). Only the tourists pay, because they don’t know any better. Estimated savings: depends on length of trip.

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