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Travel tips from Condé Nast Traveler magazine's Wendy Perrin.
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September 24, 2006

Getting A Better Airline Seat

By Wendy Perrin

Question from reader Barbara of Crestview, Florida:

"I have the Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express Card and was not aware that it would help me get better seats until I read your April column. Who do I contact for these perks?"

In my April Perrin Report on the fine art of snagging the best seat in economy class, one of my final tips was this:

If you're still stuck with a bad seat and it's a long-haul flight, join the carrier's lounge club for the day.
This gives you access to the club's powerful ticket agents, who can move mountains when it comes to seat assignments. Some airlines, including American, Continental, and Delta, let you pay to use their lounges on the day you fly (prices typically range from $25 to $50). Of course, if you can afford an annual club membership, that's even better. These typically cost $300 to $400, but lately some affordable options have been floating around. I recently received a promotional offer to upgrade my Delta SkyMiles American Express card to a Platinum Delta AmEx. I succumbed for one reason and one reason only: It gives me free membership in Delta's Crown Room Club, which normally costs $300 but which I got for the $80 fee to upgrade the card. As I figure it, that $80 buys me a year's worth of good seat assignments on Continental, Delta, and Northwest: Because those airlines are alliance partners, club members get access to all three carriers' clubs.

So, to answer your question, Barbara, the card itself doesn't get you better seats.  It's membership in the Crown Room Club that can get you better seats on Delta (and, because it lets you use Continental's and Northwest's clubs, on those airlines too). Unfortunately, not everyone who has a Platinum Delta SkyMiles AmEx Card automatically gets Club membership. You get it--for one year--only if you upgraded your card based on a targeted promotional offer promising it.


September 01, 2006

Renting from Auto Europe

By Wendy Perrin

Of all the items in the Wendy's InBox section of The Perrin Report, my column in Conde Nast Traveler, the one that has sparked the most reader feedback is the one about Auto Europe that ran in the February 2006 issue:

"I plan to rent a car in Italy. Which agency would you recommend, and what hidden charges should I watch out for?
         Kimberly Kros, Scottsdale, Arizona

Wendy's reply: I often use Auto Europe, a wholesaler that rents vehicles from other companies' fleets, because its rates for cars with automatic transmission can be hundreds of dollars cheaper. In Europe, however, no matter which agency I use, I almost always encounter unexpected charges. I reserved a car through Auto Europe in Florence last fall, paying $710 in advance for an eight-day rental of a four-door Mercedes E280 compact from Europcar. When I returned the car to the lot at the Florence airport, there was no one on hand to provide a final receipt. About a month after I got home, I was billed a refueling fee of $43 for 3.2 gallons of gas--yet I had filled the tank myself just before dropping the car off. (My mother, who rented through Auto Europe at the Pisa airport last fall, had the same problem: Although she'd filled up just before returning the vehicle, she was hit with a $51 refueling charge.) When I called Auto Europe to dispute the charge, its agent said that she would remove it if I could provide my final gas receipt. Alas, I couldn't find it. She acknowledged that other travelers have suffered mystery gas charges, which is why the company's voucher advises keeping copies of gas receipts. 

Postscript: I heard from Kros after her trip and learned that she did indeed rent through Auto Europe. Although she was not billed for gas, she still incurred unexpected fees, which she disputed with American Express. It investigated and refunded the charges. The moral? Keep your final gas receipt, and pay with your AmEx."

After this anecdote was published, several readers wrote to me that the same thing had happened to them. One, however, shared some good news:

"We just came back from a three-week driving trip through Central and Eastern Europe. I booked the rental car through a service that I've used twice now and would recommend to anyone renting in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland: gemut.com. Andy Bestor there promises the best price and the best service. I comparison-shopped among Web sites, and, sure enough, his price was the lowest. We even got a free upgrade. Bestor uses the big-name rental agencies, charges no cancellation or change fees, and will handle any unexpected post-trip charges."
         Linda Libertucci, Redondo Beach, California

Yesterday I received another interesting e-mail:

"I use Auto Europe 15 to 20 times per year. Since the refueling thing seems to be a regular issue, I always charge the gas and attach the gas receipt to my copy of the rental contract. If an erroneous gas charge shows up on my credit-card statement, I have easy access to the gas receipt that always has the date and time on it, proving that I refilled just before returning the car. To get the gas charge refunded, it also helps to have the rental agent to whom you return the car write "FULL" on the contract.

My biggest recent problem was a tiny 1/4-inch scratch on my rental-car hubcap. I thoroughly check every inch of a car when picking it up but, honestly, I had never checked the hubcaps. Now I do! That unscrupulous agency said I had to replace the whole tire for $700! Fortunately, I took photos of the scratch and contacted AmEx, which removed the $700 charge. So be sure to check your hubcaps when you pick up an Auto Europe car."
 Liz Duffy, St. Thomas

Anyone else have Auto Europe advice to share? Please click on "Comments" and post it here.


August 24, 2006

Best Credit Cards for Earning Miles

By Wendy Perrin

A reader who saw my entry about squeezing more free flights out of frequent-flier miles posted this question:  Are there credit cards that let you accrue miles that can be used on a wide selection of flights and airlines with available award seats?

Yes.  Credit cards such as Capital One and American Express' Blue Sky let you redeem your points for any flight on any airline, any time.  But, as I wrote in my "Credit Card Makeover" column, these programs have a drawback:  The number of miles needed for a free ticket is based on the cost of the flight.  Say the domestic flight you want costs $400. This flight would cost you 25,000 miles through traditional mileage programs, but it would cost 60,000 miles through Capital One and 30,000 through Blue Sky.

My favorite mileage-earning card is the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card.  You can use your miles on any of 30 airlines (including all the major U.S. carriers).  There is certainly no guarantee that award seats will be available on the flight you want, but chances are you'll have enough airline and flight choices that you can find something that works.  PLUS you earn the equivalent of 1.25 miles per dollar spent.  AmEx gives you 1 point for each dollar, but when you go to Starwood to redeem your points for miles, Starwood throws in an extra 5,000 points for each 20,000 you redeem.  In other words, you get a 25,000-mile domestic roundtrip for only 20,000 points.


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