First Class Travel

for . . . You?

It's rare we feel compelled to recommend a travel book, but we can't resist telling you about "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel: The Art of Cultivating Preferred Customer Status," by Joel L. Widzer (Travelers' Tales, 1999). If you can forgive the icky "join me in the rarefied world of luxury travel" patter at the front, you'll find that unusual high-end travel book aimed at, well . . . you. You, the not-quite-frequent flier who chases bargains, flies coach, gets the room overlooking the parking lot and regards first-class seats, executive lounges and room upgrades as the excesses of a culture inaccessible to mere mortals.

The guide makes a convincing case that even, well . . . you can enjoy a more dignified style of travel -- mainly by judiciously consolidating your travel business, however occasional and frugal, with a small universe of travel suppliers. Someone classified a Moderate Traveler -- who takes three to five air trips a year, spending around $2,100 -- can, by spending those dollars very carefully, get some of the same perks coveted by plutocrats everywhere. Hints: Never redeem your miles for a free ticket; pay the fee for a mile-earning credit card.

This is provocative stuff, counterintuitive to most self-respecting bargain travelers. (Note: If you take three trips a year or fewer, this book won't do you much good.) But if flying first or business class most of the time all year long sounds preferable to saving $350 on that "free" ticket to the in-laws' place, check it out.

But do remember to use your airline affinity credit card to pay. Hey, every mile matters.

Why 2K? Cont'd

The State Department has updated its Public Announcement about travel over the New Year. No big news, aside from the alarmingly explicit advice that, if you are traveling abroad and things go to hell, you should not expect refuge in the U.S. embassy or consulate. Those planning a year-end trip abroad anyway might want to go to http://travel.state.gov/ y2kca.html; at the bottom of the page, State supplies links to most countries' Y2K Web sites. This makes it easy to check the (alleged, claimed) preparedness of the country to which you're headed. Is your de-salination plant de-bugged? This is the place to look.

Cash for Trash

If you love cruising but are concerned about the industry's potential impact on the environment -- and wouldn't mind scoring a big cash award -- you may want to know about a little-known federal law. Under a provision of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, anyone who provides information -- photos, videotapes or other evidence -- that leads to a conviction in a case involving a cruise ship polluting the environment pockets up to half the criminal fine levied by Federal Court. A handsome bounty indeed.

Since the law was created in 1987, two responsible stewards of the environment have hit the jackpot. In 1993, a passenger on Princess Cruises' Regal Princess captured videotape of crew members chucking plastic bags of garbage over the side of the ship. He received $250,000 -- half the $500,000 fine paid by the cruise line. And last year, the assistant engineer on Holland America's S.S. Rotterdam informed the U.S. Coast Guard that his ship was discharging oily bilge waste in waters off the coast of Alaska. The whistle-blower got half the $1 million penalty.

So keep one eye open -- and your videocamera at hand -- while lounging on the Lido deck or taking a post-midnight buffet stroll. You might help save the planet -- and finance your next vacation.

U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center, 1-800-424-8802, www.nrc.uscg.mil.

You and A

The Euro Slump: What's In It For Me?

During the Travel section's weekly online chat (see box below right), a reader asked whether the recent slump in the price of the euro creates hot deals for U.S. travelers. We asked staff euro-logist Gary Lee to investigate. His report:

"The short answer: Yes, there are deals, but I would not call them hot. Compared to prices earlier in the year, you'll save about 10 percent on many things you encounter when you travel in Western Europe, from wurst in Hamburg to croissants in Lyon.

"Some background: The euro was introduced at the beginning of the year at the rate of .85 to the dollar. Since then, the euro-phoria has worn off, bringing the euro-dollar rate down about 10 percent, to a low of .98 per dollar a couple of weeks ago. (It's now around .94)] Although it won't be available in cash form for a couple of years, the euro is traded on international currency markets. The level at which it is valued determines the rate American travelers get for their dollars in France, Germany, Spain and the eight other European countries that have adopted the euro as their common currency.

"For travelers, the euro slump is not going to make, say, a Porsche suddenly affordable. But it will reduce the price of a bottle of Bordeaux wine by a few francs. Or take a typical dinner at a Paris bistro. Now it will cost around 450 francs rather than 500 francs -- or $72, rather than $79.

"So the euroslump is not strong enough to merit a special shopping trip to Milan or Brussels. But if you're going to Europe anyway, you should enjoy a nice 10 percent price break."

Travel Tip 107

Honor Thy Contract

The dream: "We wanted a European family vacation: Rent a car, drive through six countries, stop at B&Bs," writes tipster Richard Mower of Montgomery Village.

The problem: "Our son, 12, and daughter, 16, constantly fought. Could they share the back seat of the car without resorting to physical force for the duration of the trip? They could not promise!"

The solution: "We wrote a `Conditions of Behavior Contract.' The children signed. At the slightest disagreement, I flashed `The Contract.' It worked its magic! Now grown adults, they remember the wonderful trip and laugh about the contract. They've grown to appreciate each other."

How fiendishly adjudicatory! How very Washington! A Travel section T-shirt goes out to Mower for sharing his lawyerly idea. Want to win a shirt of your own? The fine print below is legally binding.

Travel tips (100 words or less) may be sent by e-mail (travtips@washpost.com); postcard (Travel Tips, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071); or fax (202-334-1069). Include your name, address and phone number. One tip per postcard or e-mail. Winners receive a Washington Post Travel section T-shirt. No purchase necessary. Tips submitted become property of The Washington Post, which may edit, publish, distribute and republish the information in any form, including paper and electronic media. Weekly winners are chosen on the basis of utility and novelty; decisions are made by the editors of The Washington Post Travel section and are final.

Report from Electroland

Continental Joins the Priceline Lineup. So?

News that Continental Airlines has agreed to join the four other domestic airlines in selling discounted tickets through Priceline.com -- the heavily promoted, consumer-unfriendly Web site that invites users to bid for seats on unspecified flights at unspecified times on unspecified carriers -- has raised some fears the move would be a blow to traditional airfare consolidators. Some reports said Continental would end relations with other consolidators -- the term for agents who sell deep-discount, no-frills airline tickets. This could jeopardize a market niche some budget flyers depend on -- and where consumers enjoy the advantage of learning what, when and where they'll fly before they buy.

Fear not, Continental tells us: "We will continue to work with many, many consolidators." Priceline.com is "simply another avenue" for moving seats that otherwise would fly vacant.

After a spotty start, Priceline is gathering not a critical, but a more significant mass of suppliers (America West, Delta, Northwest and TWA, plus Continental, and 19 foreign airlines). So what's the best way to use Priceline in the evolving world of cyber shopping?

Says Tom Parsons, publisher of Best Fares Discount Travel Magazine (and operator of a membership travel-discount service, in some ways a Priceline competitor): "Take the lowest fare you find [among] two or three traditional air fare consolidators, and then bid 20 to 30 percent below that on Priceline." If Priceline's claim that it "beats consolidator fares by 21 to 44" percent is true, you'll get a fare low enough to justify enduring the indignity of Priceline's no-frequent-flier-miles, buying-blind system.

If not, you'll fall back on a good consolidator deal for your flight -- and have some new insights into the validity of Priceline's claims.

-- John Briley

Back Story: Priceline acquires tickets like any consolidator, by agreeing to sell seats at a price agreed upon with the carrier. But instead of marking up the seats and retailing them, Priceline decides whether to accept or reject individual bids. To build the business, Priceline has sold some seats below cost. Delta Airlines is a minority stockholder.