Political ambassadorships hold at 30%

The middle of the summer is a good time to review the balance of political appointees vs. career diplomats in ambassadorial posts around the world. Not surprisingly, the familiar 30-percent quota for political appointments of the last several decades remains largely intact.

Actually, for some people, continuing the tradition of awarding presidential campaign contributors with embassies may be surprising, given President Obama’s promise to change the way Washington works during the 2008 election. However, as I wrote a year ago, reality set in soon after Obama took office. According to a list maintained by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the diplomats’ union, of all ambassadors Obama has nominated so far, about 40 percent are political appointees.

When an airfare sale is not quite a sale

How do airlines decide what fares qualify as “sales,” and why do they advertise certain fares, but not other, much lower ones? Why is United Airlines promoting a “sale” between Washington and Boston for $109 each way, when there are currently six published lower fares in that market, beginning with $49 each way?

For the most part, I don’t bother to figure out why airlines do certain things anymore. I just gather all the information I need about what they do and try to work with it — or around it. Years of watching fares have taught me not to fall for those “sales,” because in many cases, I can find a much lower price to the same destination, on the same dates and on the same carrier…

Clinton pulls off diplomatic rarity in Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week accomplished a diplomatic feat that her immediate predecessors tried but failed repeatedly to pull off: visiting South Korea, but skipping Japan and China on the same trip. It may sound immaterial, but defying protocol is a tricky thing in diplomacy, especially in Asia.

For years, I’ve been very amused when the State Department would send us in the traveling press corps a note about the secretary plans to visit just South Korea or just China or just Japan. Every time, I’d smirk and bet that he or she would end up going to all three countries — and I was right. That had become a tradition — the Japanese in particular considered it an affront to be ignored by their staunchest ally in favor of Seoul or Beijing.

British leader flies to DC commercially

British Prime Minister David Cameron surprised many this week by traveling to Washington for his first official White House visit since taking office on a commercial British Airways flight, instead of taking a dedicated plane, to save money. Now some Americans are wondering if U.S. officials could follow suit.

Having traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — over the last decade, I can see how commercial flying would save the State Department millions of dollars a year. However, it would also guarantee a logistical nightmare.

US Airways hears feedback, fixes website

US Airways has set a good example of listening to customer feedback and fixing a problem. In my case, there was added criticism in a newspaper column, but instead of complaining, the airline rolled up sleeves and started working.

In March, I wrote in my Washington Times column about its website’s inability to display many itineraries, even when booked directly with US Airways. At the time, spokeswoman Valerie Wunder at the company’s headquarters in Phoenix arranged a conference call with two in-house experts, who told me that the reason for the glitch was the site’s failure to recognize some foreign airport codes…

Avoiding luggage and other airline fees

A new survey by the Consumer Travel Alliance released this week found that luggage and other additional airline fees increase the average ticket price by up to 50 percent. The truth is, there is a relatively easy way to have most of those fees waived — if only travelers were better educated and more open-minded.

My impression during almost constant global travel for most of the last decade is that people think they know how to travel — but then they complain about being “scammed” by the airlines. My approach has been to learn as much as possible about rules, restrictions and fees, and then to look for ways to waive them and generally make the system work for me…

Hilton or Starwood? Not even a close call

How do you decide which hotel to choose in the city you are visiting if you want to redeem your points for a free night? I had to make that decision this month, and unlike in many similar situations, it wasn’t even a close call.

I usually start with the chains where I have top elite status — Hilton HHonors and Starwood. Hilton’s Diamond benefits are inferior to Starwood’s Platinum perks — Hilton doesn’t give you suite upgrades and free Internet. The only advantage with Hilton is that award stays count toward elite status, which is rather significant in my book…

Preserving upgrades in case of rebooking

Dealing with flight delays and cancellations is challenging enough for travelers, but for some of us it has an additional complication: How to preserve our upgrades in case of rebooking. My trip to Alaska this week provided a textbook example.

As experienced and creative as I might be in handling flight disruptions, the weather is always my worst enemy. I’ve rarely felt more helpless than I did in Denver on my way to Anchorage. My plane had diverted to Colorado Springs because of a thunderstorm, and my departure time kept being pushed back more times than I cared to count…

Who thought spying on U.S. was dead?

Many people, including famous ex-KGB spies, were shocked this week that Russia is still spying on the United States. Really? Did we forget that even Washington’s allies have been known to engage in such activities?

As I said in three radio and TV interviews, the real surprise in the latest case is that those people were willing to risk so much to gain so little. It appears that they sent no classified information or any other intelligence secrets to Moscow in the decade they operated. In fact, most of the information they were tasked with collecting can be obtained in perfectly legal ways.