Upsold Down the River
Travel agents argue that upselling can in fact be good for their clients. "If we put customers in the absolute cheapest room at a hotel in the Caribbean, they're going to come back annoyed with us because they got the worst room at the resort," says William Caldwell, president of Caldwell Travel in Nashville, Tenn. "If we get them to spend a little more on a great room with a view, they'll come back happy."
Certainly, travelers want to know what the various options are, and what they cost. What you may not know is how the incentives work--and how they affect the pitch you'll hear.
Earlier this year, to give just one example, Marriott registered the 100,000th member of an online training program that teaches agents how to talk clients into buying spa treatments and other extras. Agents who complete the course see their commissions raised from 8 percent to 10 percent.
You can't really blame a company for trying to get its customers to spend more. But some agent programs involve underhanded price manipulations, and all the spin in the world won't make them look like good news for the consumer.
Last fall, Enterprise Rent-A-Car began registering agents for a special program in which client cars can be reserved at a discounted price and a 5 percent commission, or at a higher price and a commission of up to 15 percent. About 4,000 agencies have signed on, and there's no requirement to clue customers in.
With US Airways Vacations' Commission Choice program, agents can likewise receive larger commissions for packages sold at inflated rates. In the Travel Agents section of the company's website, a hypothetical Las Vegas booking demonstrates how, at a standard $300 price, the agent receives an 8 percent commission, or $24. By opting for Commission Choice and charging the customer $330, however, the agent receives 15 percent, or $49.50.
The website even acknowledges that there's something to be ashamed of: "Commission Choice was built so that the increase in price does not appear on either your customer's itinerary or their credit card. Your customer will only see one final package price."
A Guide to Flight Passes
Planning a trip with multiple flights can eat up your time, money, and patience. That's why flight passes seem so attractive: You buy several flights at the same time for a set price that's often cheaper than booking piecemeal. Cathay Pacific's All Asia Pass, for instance, includes airfare to Hong Kong from New York, L.A., San Francisco, Toronto, or Vancouver, as well as connecting flights to 18 Asian cities over the course of 21 days--all for $1,499. But air passes aren't as simple as they sound. Taxes might add hundreds to the advertised fare, and the booking process can be so difficult that you won't mind paying a travel agent to take over. (Cathay Pacific's passes are actually sold only via agents.) To figure out if one is right for you, consider the following. Idiosyncrasies Some passes, like Cathay Pacific's, include long-haul international flights in the purchase. Other passes strictly cover flights within a specified region. The Discover India Pass from Indian Airlines, for example, is good for unlimited flights within India for 7, 15, or 21 days, for $400, $630, and $895 respectively--but as for your flight from the U.S. to India, you're on your own. Prices, restrictions, and parameters for passes vary greatly. The Caribbean Air Pass from BWIA West Indies Airways (from $450) includes flights to eight Caribbean destinations over a span of 30 days, but prohibits backtracking--i.e., you're allowed to fly into each airport only once. Aerolineas Argentinas's South America Pass includes as many as 10 flights between Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, but pass prices are based on total mileage. One itinerary, hitting Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro, starts at just $550. The details on various flight passes can be found at bestfares.com (search "international air passes"); staralliance.com, which offers 11 passes around the world; and oneworld.com, which sells six passes. Low-fare competition With the African Airpass from Star Alliance, all flights are routed through Johannesburg. Nonstop flights on low-fare carriers such as Nationwide Airlines may be more convenient and cheaper. Because discount-carrier routes are so plentiful in Europe, flight passes there rarely make sense. Search for low-fare carriers by region on attitudetravel.com. Reservations Much of the appeal of an air pass is the idea of one-stop shopping. But you have to know exactly what you want: Unlike rail passes, which can be used without reservations, flight passes generally require that routes and dates be booked when you purchase. Extra costs and blackouts The Malaysia Airlines AccessAsia Pass starts at $1,399, but taxes raise it by $300-$500 depending on your itinerary. Also, if you want to add cities not included in the pass, like Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh City, for example, tack on at least $320. Sometimes pass prices are higher--or blacked out--during certain times of year. Cathay Pacific's pass is $350 extra for travel between May 19 and August 20 of 2006, and weekend flights add $100. Free stopovers How much flying will you really be doing? Cathay Pacific always allows free stopovers in Hong Kong, so if all you want to do is visit the airline's hub for a few days en route to Bali, as one possibility, a standard ticket will probably cost less than a pass. Availability Airlines often limit the number of seats that can be taken by flight passes; you can be shut out even if a flight isn't full. "If there are only one or two flights a day, your vacation can be dictated by availability," says Eva Robinson, a travel agent in Old Saybrook, Conn. Travel agents should know their way around this stuff, and typically charge $30 and up for their service. Change policies Most airlines prohibit changing destinations once a pass has been purchased, though they'll usually let you switch dates: Cathay Pacific charges $100, while Aerolineas Argentinas and BWIA charge $25. Pass holders on Indian Airlines can change dates for free, provided they don't exceed the number of travel days allowed. Frequent-flier miles Some passes, like the Star Alliance African Airpass, allow pass holders to earn miles, while others, such as Cathay Pacific's All Asia Pass, don't. In fact, Cathay Pacific won't even let frequent-flier members redeem miles when purchasing the pass. POPULAR FLIGHT PASSES AROUND THE GLOBE Pass: Aerolineas Argentinas South America Pass 800/333-0276, aerolineas.com.ar The Basics: Flights within South America priced by mileage, starting at $300 for up to 2,500 miles Heads Up: Date changes allowed for $25 Pass: Cathay Pacific All Asia Pass cathay-usa.com The Basics: Flight to Hong Kong and a choice of 18 Asian cities over 21 days, for $1,499 Heads Up: Join the free online club to save $200; booking through a travel agent is mandatory Pass: BWIA West Indies Airways Caribbean Pass 800/538-2942, bwee.com The Basics: Flights between eight Caribbean destinations, from $450 Heads Up: Destination changes for $25; no backtracking allowed Pass: Star Alliance African Airpass staralliance.com The Basics: Up to 10 flights in 17 sub-Saharan countries, at 15¢ per mile Heads Up: Only sold to passengers flying a Star Alliance partner into Africa
Travel to Cuba: Highlights
Hemingway's House Half the charm is just the drive out to his old home, Finca Vigia, and the view it commands of Havana. The house itself is showing the years of neglect, and you are not permitted inside. You are allowed, however, to look through the windows, but you'll be under constant surveillance. A squad of militant librarians hiss and snap their fingers at you if you even look like you may be thinking about looking closely at something. Here you'll also find the true original Pilar, Hemingway's fishing boat, despite the claims of some tackle shop in Fort Lauderdale to have the original. Cojimar A small fishing village just east of Havana, where Hemingway kept his boat, Pilar. This was the backdrop to his book The Old Man and the Sea, and, until recently, the home of Gregorio Fuentes, his boat captain. Many claim that Fuentes was also the inspiration for the protagonist in the book. Before he died, Fuentes was still available to talk about "Papa" and marlin fishing (he used to tell me that the big numbers of fish came in June but the biggest marlin were caught in September). The Terraza restaurant is right on the water and has some nice of photographs of Cojimar back in Hemingway's day. Playas del Este A beautiful beach, protected by sand dunes, and dotted with little ranchos where you can sit, listen to live music, and get a bite to eat with a cold beer. Heaven. Hire a gypsy cab in Havana and head out here to spend a great day. You'll need to sneak past the guards at the tunnel east of Havana (cigarettes and crumpled dollars at the ready!), but once you get past them, it's clear sailing. Your driver will park with all the other gypsy cabbies in a makeshift parking lot, where they'll spend the time comparing cars with the other drivers and taking a siesta. El Patio Located just off Plaza de la Catedral, this is another great spot for a cold drink and something to eat in the afternoon. Avoid the temptation to try the seafood and stick with the Cuban staples (chicken or pork chops). While it may not be the finest dining you will experience the atmosphere of the old city makes everything taste better. The owners usually have live music and will do their best to keep the beggars, as well as others trying to separate you from your money, at a distance. La Floridita It's touristy, it's overpriced, and the service is surly (especially the old guy with the glasses and all the goofy buttons on his vest), but after a day of walking around the amazing streets of Havana on a warm day, there's nothing, absolutely nothing on Earth, like a daiquiri at La Floridita. This was a favorite haunt of Hemingway, and there is even have a stool roped off in what was his favorite place to sit. Don't worry about having to decide what flavor of daiquiri you want because there's only one kind: a cool and zesty lemon. If you are thinking about getting a meal here, forget it. Have another daiquiri (one makes you lopsided anyway) and another bowl of salted plantains instead. Hotel Nacional If you too live by the adage "You can't put a price tag on a good time," then you'll want to make sure to stay at the Hotel Nacional. Once the playground of gangsters and movie stars, the Hotel Nacional is the culmination of everything you could imagine about the heyday of Cuba. With elegant gardens and stunning ocean views, the Hotel Nacional still attracts the "A" list of entertainers and international dignitaries. If you want to make sure you blend in with the other "stars," men should make sure to don their guayabera shirts and slacks (shorts are for little boys), and women should put on their finest summer dress. While money may not be plentiful in Cuba, it's no excuse for not dressing properly, especially when strolling through the lobby of the Hotel Nacional.
Travel to Cuba: Essentials
Arriving by Air The airport in Havana is not what you would call "visitor friendly." As a buddy of mine says, the motto is "security time is all the time." Once you arrive, you must pass through passport control. Despite what you may have heard about the Cubans not stamping U.S. passports, it's purely discretional. Just because you ask the inspector not to stamp your passport does not mean that he or she has to comply. Not that it makes much difference; if you think that Uncle Sam needs a stamp in your passport to know you were in Cuba, you are mistaken. There's a thing called a flight manifest, with which all airlines must comply. When you check in for any international flight your name and passport makes up that manifest, and that information is available to those who ask for it no matter where you may fly from. Why do you think that when there's a plane crash somewhere that they know the number of people aboard and their nationalities within minutes? Arriving in Havana on a tourist visa means that you are there on vacation. It used to be that all you had to do was tell the inspector the name of any hotel and he or she would let you pass. Recently, as part of the crackdown on private-home rentals, the Cubans have required that you have a voucher in hand for a hotel for each night you are going to be in Cuba. They even set up a desk in the airport for Havanatur, one of the official tour operators. If you do not have a hotel voucher for each night, before you are officially permitted to enter Cuba, you have to go to the Havanatur desk and pay for a hotel. The trick is to book a ticket for two or three nights, pick the cheapest hotel you can (not easy), and then change your ticket later for the true length of your stay. While you're in Havana many people will try to rent you a place to stay; unfortunately, the closer you get to the older part of Havana, the more likely the room is to be in a state of disrepair and in a cramped building. The best private rooms and homes are in the Miramar neighborhood, where the art deco homes of the 1930s and 1940s are more like museums than houses. Customs The customs inspectors in Havana are some of the most thorough on the planet. If they select you to have a baggage inspection they will search every bag, every pocket, and every container. They even search the seams of your luggage, so do not bring anything in you don't want anyone to find. I once traveled with a friend who had a small unmarked bottle of hydrogen peroxide. When officials asked what it was, he explained it could be used to gargle with if you had a sore throat. "So you can swallow this if you have to?" asked the inspector. "Why sure, I guess so," said my friend. "Swallow it then!" the inspector commanded. And my buddy did. People may tell you to bring medicine, tampons, chewing gum, clothes, etc., to give as gifts, but I have found that in Cuba three things are most sought after: the U.S. dollar, followed by the two other universal currencies, Marlboro cigarettes and Johnny Walker Red. Gypsy Cabs Having a private car in Cuba is rare. Often those who have cars are doctors, members of the Communist Party, or other professionals who work in some sort of high public function. Sometimes the driver of a gypsy cab (a car owner working as clandestine cabbie) is a doctor "on his way home" or a plain clothes policeman. Most likely, though, you will find the car was "borrowed" or "rented" from such a person. One thing is for certain: these private cars are not supposed to compete with the official taxis authorized by the government. Nonetheless, there is nothing like driving around Havana in the back of a '55 Dodge, and thankfully it's still tolerated to a perpetually fluctuating degree. I used to have a driver whom I would call to meet me at the airport, but that became too difficult for him (and expensive). We decided instead that I would just meet him a block away from where I was staying. He would park and then jack the car up as though he had a flat tire (a common trick) so the police would not hassle him for trying to pick up rides. Most gypsy cabs have windows with dark tint so no one can see inside. If you're stopped, it's good to have a couple of cigarettes and a couple of bucks folded up real small in your top pocket. The standard story is that you are from Miami on a familyvisit. The cigarettes and money are to make sure that your story is easier to swallow. If you can, try to hire a car for the day, and arrange the price up front. Make sure you haggle but don't grind the guy too bad; $50 a day is a good benchmark. If you plan on driving a lot, you may also be expected to pay for gas. Often the gas is locked in the trunk (to avoid theft), and taken out one gallon at a time, and put in a makeshift gas tank found under the hood.
For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, visiting Cuba for the first time will be something you will never forget. Cuba has its own unique smells, sounds, and rhythms. History surrounds you, and despite the lack of many the things that we Americans may consider vital, people in Cuba seems to live life a little more intensely than anyplace else. Leave your preconceptions at home, as well as your political opinions, and you are sure to experience something unique. Cuba is a country free of many of the things we associate with a modern society. What it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in art, music, dance, literature, and history. It is a living experiment on the human potential absent the capitalistic influences. As you travel there, you can judge for yourself how successful it's been at achieving these goals, but like most opinions in Cuba, your ideas are best kept to yourself. Another thing you will discover about traveling in Cuba is that "rules' seem to change each time you visit. What was permitted the last time is now illegal and what was illegal may now be tolerated at some level. Recommended Reading: You should not go to Cuba without having done a little research. There are two books I would recommend in order to get a better idea of the Cuba of today and yesterday. Dr. Roberto G. Fernandez's book, Raining Backwards, has some great observations about the exile community in a hilarious novel, published by Arte Publico Press. My personal favorite is the comment by one exile about the eggs in Cuba being so large in pre-Castro Cuba that they had to give the chickens C-sections. The other book I suggest is Mi Moto Fidel by Christopher P. Baker, which details the author's adventures riding his motorcycle throughout Cuba.