United Affront

When earlier this month United Airlines (and then other carriers) cut commissions paid to travel agents for booking tickets, agencies threatened boycotts (refusing to sell United tickets) and protests (massing on the steps of Colorado's capitol). But the boycott, at least, has gone nowhere. This week we asked several local travel agencies for the "cheapest" nonstop fares from United-dominated Dulles to Los Angeles and San Francisco. All agents, unprompted, offered a full rundown of options, including United flights. "They are naughty," says Alice Phillips, an agent with American Express. "We don't like it but we will [book United flights]."

According to Matthew Upchurch, head of travel agency consortium API, in a few years agent commissions will be replaced entirely by"net fares." This system is more like conventional commerce, where retailers (travel agencies) buy merchandise (tickets) at wholesale prices and sell them to the public at whatever the market will bear. Meaning? A travel marketplace where the price you pay depends increasingly on where you make the purchase.

Ah, the French. . .

Peter Mayle: Not in Hell

"Peter Mayle is not a best-selling author," Robin Massee of the French Government Tourist Office jokingly told Washington journalists last week. "He works for us." He might as well--the author of three well-received books on Provence has probably done more than anyone to attract crowds to the sun-drenched region of southern France. To those who say he's done his job too well, attracting crowds and high prices to the area, the author begs to differ. "It's a nice story to say that it's all gone to hell, but it's not true. I'm still there." In fact, he confided, he's now renovating a house in the region, "in a secret location known only to a few million." His pick for a touring base? "Gordes [about 40 minutes from Avignon] is still very beautiful. Lot of restaurants. Though it's gotten busy . . . "


Goofy New Year

Resorts at Walt Disney World--who have claimed all year they were booked solid for the 2000 celebration--suddenly have New Year's package deals available at the Florida park. All arrangements require minimum stays of three to seven nights.

For a family of four staying Dec. 30-Jan. 2, the cheapest deal available totals $1,471 at the All-Star Music and Sports Resort, including breakfast and park passes. Similar packages at nicer resorts are $1,733-- at the Caribbean Beach, Port Orleans and Dixie Landing hotels--and $2,958 (the Polynesian). Reservations: 1-800-828-0228.

The Hotel Royal Plaza in Buena Vista, two miles from the Disney compound, also is showing availability at the turn of the year. A room for four starting Dec. 30 is $299 a night, including transportation to Disney World. Details: 1-800-248-7890. Six other nearby properties, including the Best Western and Courtyard by Marriott, also said they had rooms at New Year's.

Asked why so many vacancies surfaced so suddenly, a Disney spokesman said many of the reservations dated back to the 1980s--since which time people have changed their millennium plans or, maybe, died.

Bargain of the week

Last Chance for $99 . . .

You have until Wednesday to book the $99 coast-to-coast fares first offered by Southwest and matched by other airlines. The sale, good for BWI departures, slashed fares by as much as 50 percent; the fare to L.A., for example, is typically around $390, but is now about $209 round trip with taxes. You can travel on Southwest through March 31 with a seven-day advance purchase. United, US Airways, Delta and other airlines have matched the sale in most markets, but travel is often more restrictive. To get the $209 fare to L.A. on United or US Airways, you must complete travel by Feb. 24, purchase tickets 14 days in advance, and travel Tuesday or Wednesday.

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