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Sunday, September 2, 2007

DRIVE TIME

Taking License With the Law

Steve Lertora of Fort Washington had no problem renting a car in Spain using just his Maryland driver's license . He drove 1,400 miles without trouble. But while trying to return his vehicle to Euro Car, he got confused by signs around a construction site and turned the wrong way onto a one-way street.

The traffic officer who pulled him over said that without an International Driving Permit, required for foreign drivers in Spain and many other countries, Lertora couldn't drive another inch. The car was towed to an impound lot . Lertora was left standing on the street.

He called Euro Car and was told he was on his own, then dragged his luggage for six blocks before finding a taxi. He'll find out the cost for towing and retrieving the car from the impound lot when his credit card charge arrives.

It's natural but not safe to assume that a car rental company would inform you of such a critical rule. Check rules at http://www.travel.state.gov before leaving home. The site reveals licensing requirements and other important laws. For instance, the site warns that the fine in Spain for talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is more than $400 .

International Driving Permits are issued at AAA locations and through the National Automobile Club ( http://www.nationalautoclub.com/nonmember_services.htm) . They are accepted in more than 150 countries when accompanied by your state-issued license, cost $15 and are good for one year. Those international driver's licenses sold on the Web? Forget about 'em.

ROOM KEYS

The Real Deal

For three nights at the Hyatt Regency Jersey City , Laurine Thomas of Washington paid Orbitz $847.11 . On checking out, she asked to see her bill and noticed that Orbitz had paid Hyatt $679.59-- a whopping difference of $167.52.

"Obviously Orbitz deserves to charge a fee for its services, but a markup that large should be disclosed up front," Thomas wrote to CoGo. Her conclusion: She had grossly overpaid for the room .

Actually, probably not . Orbitz apparently made a very handy profit; you might even call it a windfall. But that doesn't mean Thomas could have gotten the room much cheaper elsewhere.

Here's how it works: Third parties such as Orbitz sometimes negotiate wholesale deals for a block of rooms in a hotel. But if that hotel brand promises that its Web site won't be beat on price -- as Hyatt promises -- then Orbitz couldn't pass on the deal, even if it wanted to, without destroying its relationship with Hyatt.

Hotel rates vary, and it's impossible to search now for the best deal Thomas could have gotten when she booked. But a look forward is enlightening. CoGo searched five sites for future dates at the hotel , choosing the same days of the week that Thomas stayed.

All five sites, including the hotel's Web site, quoted the exact same rates :$299 on Thursday, $219 on Friday, and $259 on Saturday. After adding taxes , Hyatt quoted a total of $885.78 . Expedia, Orbitz and Hotels.com combined taxes and fees to come up with a total of $913.60 -- suggesting that each added $27.82 as a fee . Travelocity, quoting a total of $906.06 , apparently added a fee of $10.28 .

In Thomas's case, the hotel "made an error by presenting the wholesale rate," said Orbitz spokesman Jim Cohn. He added that Orbitz guarantees the lowest rates, and that it's "unfortunate that a hotel employee confused the customer by showing them a rate that was not available online ." Orbitz is sending Thomas a voucher as a "gesture of goodwill."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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