Upmarket Watch

Greenbrier, De-Starred

For the past 38 years, West Virginia's 7,000-acre Greenbrier resort has been in the elite class of properties to earn five stars from Mobil Travel Guide. But last week, Mobil stripped away one star. Mobil won't say precisely why, but allows that two separate 1999 inspections concluded quality had dropped below first rate. "We're pretty finicky," said Mark Jacobson of Exxon Mobil.

Greenbrier President Ted Kleisner has launched a thorough review. "Mobil found something wrong and we're going to correct it," said he. "We're determined to get that star back."

Other area star reports: Loews L'Enfant Plaza hotel lost its four-star rating. Four D.C. restaurants--Lespinasse, Nora, Red Sage and Gerard's Place--earned four stars for the first time, and Kinkead's kept its foursome. Scandalized Greenbrier habituees may want to visit Virginia's Inn at Little Washington, now the area's only five-star property.

CRUISE NEWS

Stateroom Rage!

Just before New Year's several hundred passengers on Carnival's Paradise sailing spent their Nassau port call on the dock, picketing.

Why? Due to a mechanical problem, the ship canceled port calls in San Juan, St. Thomas, Virgin Gorda and Tortola, adding the Bahamas and Cozumel.

Itinerary changes are not uncommon and cruise lines have the right to make them. Few offer compensation. In this case, Carnival gave each cabin $100 shipboard credits and a 25 percent future cruise discount. But ill will among passengers, fueled partly by exorbitant (up to 200 percent) millennium premiums many had paid, launched a populist revolt.

"In a space of two or three days, a group of strangers was able to coalesce around natural leadership, cooperate with each other and make a difference," says Mark Rosenblit, a West Hartford, Conn., attorney and Paradise passenger. The group was able to gain a meeting with the captain. They raised nearly $300 to design pickets and fliers. Press conferences were organized in Miami and Nassau; 1,600 passengers (of 2,500 total) signed a petition demanding more compensation. An Internet site (www.starshiptravel.com/complaints.htm) keeps the protest alive.

Carnival won't cave. "Our objective when we have a problem is to make fair offers and provide fair options," says spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz.

Travel Explained

The Cost of Living Well

Dreading an upcoming red-eye to Munich, we decided to spend frequent-flier miles to upgrade to business class and enjoy 17 more inches of leg room, meals by celeb chef Jacques Pepin and a drink before takeoff. We found a United seat for $412 and prepared to add 20,000 miles.

Then we read the fine print.

To get that round-trip upgrade for 20,000 miles, we'd have to buy a "full-fare United economy seat," which, in this case, cost $880. If we'd part with 40,000 miles, a $662 "select" United economy fare would move us up. But for the $412 fare, no number of miles could upgrade us.

In other words, to upgrade with miles we'd have to pay either $250 or $450 more for our ticket--and, of course, lose the one or two "free" seats the miles could otherwise buy.

United's rules are not unusual. Most major carriers don't allow lowest economy fares to upgrade with miles. Frequent-flier expert Randy Petersen says that, for the rest of us, it's better to use those miles for "free" tickets--except on long trips.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

Cana-do

Air Canada is offering sale fares to cities throughout Canada. Sample round-trip fares from Washington: $199.80 to Montreal, $204.30 to Quebec City, $218.27 to Halifax and $396.55 to Calgary. You must purchase tickets by Tuesday. Travel must be completed by May 12.

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