At first, the move by the French Government Tourist Office to charge for information calls from the public seemed outrageous. Every other city, state or nation with a tourism office that I've ever dealt with has answered questions over the phone for free. France, it appeared, might end up angering the very people it hoped to attract as visitors.
But now France's new information line, France on Call, has been in operation for almost a year. Callers who phone a 900 pay number, 900-990-0040, are charged 50 cents for every minute they are on the line. And are they angry? No, or at least not that French tourism officials have detected, says George L. Hern, a spokesman for the French tourist office New York. The reason is that the pay line has enabled the office to provide much better service.
"It's been an enormous success -- gigantic," says Hern, so much so that other European information offices are considering charging for information calls, among them Austria and Italy. However, none of the offices reached last week had progressed beyond studying the possibility.
"We'll see how the French do," says Simon O'Hanlon of the Irish Tourist Board in New York. "We think it's hard enough to get people to want travel information without them having to pay for it."
France's enthusiasm for the pay line stems from the fact that the revenue from France on Call has allowed the tourism office to double its peak-period information staff from seven to 14. And more incoming phone lines have been added. As a result, says Hern, the office can now handle four to five times more calls per day. In addition, callers now receive requested brochures, maps and other informational literature in seven to 10 days instead of the previous four to five weeks.
In the past, travelers phoning the New York tourism office in spring and summer found the old number constantly busy. The office could handle only about 200 to 300 calls a day. With the larger staff, says Hern, as many as 1,000 calls a day now can be taken. The 900 number has lightened demand on the regular line, 212-757-1125, which is still available to anyone not wishing to call the 900 number. Of course, there is a long distance charge for the regular number, and you may want to determine which number is cheapest for you.
The average length of a 900 call, says Hern, is about three minutes, or $1.50. No additional long-distance fee is imposed on 900 numbers. The calls are charged to your regular phone bill.
The new program ran into a couple of snags at the outset that generated a rash of complaints in the first few weeks, says Hern. The volume of calls was higher than expected, and busy signals resulted until more staff could be added. And initially the Washington, D.C., area did not have access to the 900 number, but this problem has been corrected.
The 900 number is in operation from mid-January to November. At other times, you can use the regular number. About 175,000 calls were received last year on the 900 line. Despite the volume, the pay line is not a money maker, Hern says. The income from France on Call about equals the cost of hiring the larger staff.
Whether other tourism offices, nationally or internationally, will begin charging for information calls is yet to be determined.
Among other European tourism offices, the Austrian Tourist Information Office in New York seems most interested in following France's lead. "We have been looking into the possibility," says spokeswoman Gabrielle Wolf. "We think it is something for the future." The Italian Government Tourist Office in New York says it still has the idea under consideration.
But Thor Jorgensen of the Scandinavian Tourist Board in New York is doubtful. "There was some talk about it. But if anything," he says, "we would like to have an 800 number." An 800 number is toll-free, but not all the five Scandinavian nations are willing to pay the cost of providing the service. Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands say they have considered a pay information line and rejected the idea, at least for now.
The telephone is, of course, a convenient resource when planning a trip. Among other new or expanding phone services, travelers can obtain:
Big lodging discounts in several major U.S. cities, including Washington, New York, Miami and San Francisco. The discounts are offered by independent reservation services that negotiate special rates at a variety of hotels.
Last-minute travel bargains, as advertised on a 900 pay line called Fastbreak Vacations.
Information from tour operators abroad using international toll-free 800 numbers, which are proliferating.
Lodging Discounts Scattered about the country are several lodging reservation services that promise both to book you a room and to do it -- in most cases -- at a price you couldn't obtain for yourself. They are able to offer discounts because they do a large volume of business with certain hotels and obtain special rates. For example, a service may be able to quote a hotel's low weekend rate for a stay any day of the week.
In addition, they keep alert to any discount packages a hotel may be promoting. And they often can aid in finding a room when every hotel in town says it is booked full.
Generally, a phone clerk will want to know where in the city you want to stay and the price you want to pay. Once you have picked a hotel that meets your criteria, the clerk will book the room and send a confirmation. There is no fee for the booking. The reservation services receive a commission from the hotels.
These firms are privately owned, and they should be distinguished from chamber of commerce-sponsored reservation services, which may book rooms in a specific resort community. The chamber organizations are a convenient way to find a place to stay -- especially if space is tight. However, the room rate that is quoted usually is the same as what you would get if you called the hotel on your own.
A traveler really has nothing to lose and a lot to gain by using one of the discount lodging services. Once a reservationist has booked a room, you can always call the hotel yourself to see if you can get a better rate. Even if you are quoted the very same rate, you at least have profited by any information the reservation service supplied to help in selecting a hotel.
Among the discount reservation services and the cities or areas they cover:
Capitol Reservations (Washington): Last year, Capitol Reservations booked 35,000 rooms, which, says director Thom Hall, "gave us a lot of buying power." Currently, he lists 40 hotels in Washington and in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs within the Capitol Beltway.
Hall caters to families, and most of the hotels are in the mid-price range. They include Holiday Inns, Days Inns and Embassy Suites. All the suburban hotels have easy access to Metro. "Most families don't want to spend $185 a night for a room," he says.
Washington-area residents may think they don't have much use for a local reservation service. But Hall can quote good weekend rates for a romantic weekend away from the youngsters. And he frequently gets calls from people who have friends coming in from out of town. These friends are looking for inside information on a reasonably priced place to stay. Congressional staffs on Capitol Hill turn to him for help in lodging constituents.
Hotel occupancy in Washington tends to be lower at this time of year, Hall says, and then picks up in March when the big conventions start coming to town. Meanwhile, he is able to offer a rate of $65 a night for a family of four at the Holiday Inn on Capitol Hill any day of the week until the end of February. The hotel is quoting a regular weekday rate of $91 a night.
Often Hall can negotiate extras for his customers, he says. Hotels with parking lots may provide free parking, and often a hotel will extend a Friday/Saturday weekend rate to include Sunday. For information: 800-847-4832 (800-VISIT-DC) and 202-452-1270.
Maryland Reservations Center (Maryland): Lou Ramsay of Annapolis lists 400 lodgings throughout the state of Maryland, among them hotels, motels, historic inns and bed-and-breakfast establishments. She promises to get "a rate as good or better than you can get on your own."
One of her challenges is to find rooms for customers who want to attend a big event such as the Annapolis Boat Show when lodging becomes scarce in the state capital. And she will help find an inn for a romantic getaway.
Among her current best-bargains are a rate of $29 a night for two people at a beach hotel in Ocean City, $39 at a newly redecorated guest house on Main Street in Annapolis and $59 for a good hotel at Baltimore's popular Inner Harbor. For information: 800-654-9303 or 301-263-9084.
Central Reservation Service (Miami, Orlando, New York, New Orleans): This firm is based in Miami, where it lists about 50 hotels -- many of them in the mid-price range, according to spokesman Joe Gutierrez. But it also offers discounts of 10 to 50 percent off regular rates at a number of hotels in Orlando, New York and New Orleans. Currently, rates in mid-town Manhattan begin at about $60 to $70 a night. For information: 800-950-0232 or 305-274-6832.
Express Hotel Reservations (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco): Operating out of Boulder, Colo., Express Hotel Reservations lists about 40 hotels in New York, 13 in Los Angeles and four in San Francisco. It promises to beat "a standard corporate rate," says spokeswoman Lynn Peterson, which typically translates into a savings of $20 to $50 a night off what you might get on your own. For information: 800-356-1123 or 303-440-8481.
San Francisco Reservations (San Francisco): As in Washington, hotel occupancies are low in San Francisco at this time of year and this means lots of bargains, says Eric Gustavson, a partner in San Francisco Reservations. His firm lists 235 hotels in the city, which is almost all of them. Discounts range from 15 to 50 percent off regular rates.
At the moment, Gustavson is quoting a rate for two people of $130 a night for a luxury hotel on Nob Hill. When a convention is in town, the same room goes for $265 a night. And he says he can place customers in a mid-price hotel at Fisherman's Wharf for $72 a night. For information: 800-677-1550 or 415-227-1500.
Last-Minute Bargains Tour operators and cruise lines often cut their rates when the departure date of a trip approaches. Acting as a clearinghouse, Fastbreak Vacations of Chicago gathers information about such last-minute discounts and makes it available on a 900 pay line, 900-990-3335. The cost is $1 a minute to hear the current listings, which are recorded.
If a cruise, tour or bargain air fare catches your interest, you call the number provided on the recording to book the trip -- usually the tour operator, cruise line or airline. Fastbreak does not sell tours; it only advertises them.
When you call, you are instructed to key in your telephone area code to get tour packages and air fares departing from the nearest airport. You can also indicate what part of the world you want to travel to and whether you are interested only in a bargain air fare, a tour package or a cruise. By quickly pinpointing your interests, you reduce the time spent on the phone and the cost.
At any one time, Fastbreak offers about 150 tour packages, 70 to 80 cruises and 70 air fare discounts, according to spokeswoman Debbie Kowalski. All have been discounted off the original price. The line is updated daily, if necessary, to include new packages and drop any that have sold out.
Last week, I phoned the 202 (Washington), 301 (Maryland) and 703 (Virginia) area codes and found only a couple of tours departing from local airports to Great Britain and none to the Caribbean, Mexico, South America or the South Pacific. Kowalski acknowledges that the number of listings in any area can vary substantially from month to month, depending on what Fastbreak has obtained.
I figure I was on the phone for about five minutes at a cost of $5 to get a series of nothing-available reports regarding tours. However, it probably took me a couple of minutes worth of time to get used to the system on the initial call, and I was making a general search for tours rather than looking for a tour to a specific destination.
In a way, you are taking a gamble. You may get lucky and find a great package at a bargain, and you may not. A better option might be to consult a travel agent about low-cost packages. A travel agent's services are free.
For information before you call: Fastbreak Vacations, 641 W. Lake St., Suite 201, Chicago, Ill. 60606.
Toll-Free to Britain Toll-free 800 numbers are expanding worldwide, and the travel industry increasingly is making them available to their customers.
Travel agents, tour operators and car rental companies in the United States subscribe to 800 numbers abroad so any customer with a problem overseas can call the home office toll free. And foreign tour companies are providing 800 numbers in the United States so customers in this country can call abroad to book a trip.
For example, the Alternative Travel Group of Oxford, England, which offers escorted hiking tours in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, advertises an 800 number in the United States that connects toll-free to its Oxford headquarters."
"It's been brilliant," says Philippa Farrow, one of the owners. "We're a long, long way from America, and it's reassuring to Americans that they can pick up the phone and ask any question. And they're not paying for it."
Many people are unaware they have made a transatlantic call. "It's difficult sometimes convincing them we're actually in Europe," says Farrow. "They are so amazed." Others call simply to ask, "Are you really in England? That's all I wanted to know."
Alternative Travel is one of Europe's leading hiking tour operators, offering dozens of departures throughout the year to Italy, France, Portugal and Spain. The volume of business enables the firm to afford the 800 line, which Farrow says is expensive. She estimates the cost at 6,000 to 8,000 British pounds annually, or about $11,000 to $15,000. For information: Alternative Travel Group, 800-527-5997.
Caribbean Link The Caribbean Hotel Association expects to operate a toll-free 800 lodging reservation number by the middle of June, according to John Bell, executive vice president. The number will be for use by travel agents only. The benefit to individual travelers: the system will enable agents to confirm room bookings throughout the Caribbean immediately, as they now do for airline tickets.
The association represents about 800 lodging properties in Bermuda, the Bahamas, most of the Caribbean islands south to Trinidad and Aruba, Cancun on the Mexican coast and several islands of Central America. About 400 of them are expected to be signed onto the program by the end of this year.
Bell says the association has been developing the reservation system for more than three years. He sees it as a way of letting travelers know what is available quickly. If one island shows heavy bookings, they can choose another where space is open when their vacation is scheduled.