Continental shows new transparency

As Washington policymakers continue to question the value of global airline alliances, Continental Airlines has shown them a benefit they most likely never suspected: increasing the transparency of sensitive data tightly held by many carriers.

That may not have been what Continental set out to do, but it’s a positive side effect. The very day it officially joined the Star Alliance last week, it uploaded on its Web site “award” seats made available by other alliance members, which its customers can book using Continental frequent-flier miles. It took “nine months of planning and implementation”…

Breezing through U.S. immigration

Going through U.S. immigration has never been easier. I’ve done it three times in less than a month, and not once did I wait in line, see an officer in a booth or have my passport stamped. Instead, I dealt with a rather cooperative kiosk for about a minute.

I’m not in the business of promoting products and services — let alone government initiatives — but the Department of Homeland Security’s new Global Entry program has truly changed my life. There is no reason why it can’t change yours, provided you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. All you need to do is go to the program’s Web site, fill out a relatively detailed online application form and pay a $100 fee…

United cuts advance domestic upgrades

If you’ve become accustomed to upgrading your domestic flights on United Airlines months in advance, the party will soon be over. The carrier is abandoning its current system of so-called confirmed upgrades in favor of the last-minute upgrades that are more popular in the U.S. industry.

United announced the change last week, although it’s not planning to implement it until spring. The current system apparently was confusing for some passengers, although I prefer to call it sophisticated and not at all difficult to master if you are a semi-frequent flier. However, that’s not why United is making the change. Rather, in trying to maximize revenue from selling first-class seats for cash, it will keep more of those seats open until just before departure…

Giving the bus another chance

When was the last time you took a bus instead of a plane or train? Until a week ago, it had been 12 years for me. I didn’t have fond memories from back then, so I reluctantly decided to give the bus another chance with a weekend trip to New York, and I’ll happily do it again.

There are at least three reasons why I avoided hopping back on a long-distance bus all those years: It’s slower than a plane, less comfortable than a train, and ground transportation doesn’t really excite me. The only advantage has always been the lower cost, but that wasn’t enough to entice me because if I planned well in advance, I could get a plane or train round-trip ticket from Washington to New York for $120. Even the additional airport-security measures after Sept. 11, 2001, failed to change my mind…

The ethics of travel blogs

Do travel blogs influence your decision-making when booking a trip? Does it make a difference to you whether an airline a blogger writes about has treated him to a free flight? When it comes to ethics, should readers be less strict with blogs than with the mainstream media?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs covering all aspects of travel — both from a business and leisure perspective. Most of them haven’t had a new post in months. As all initial enthusiasts eventually discover, maintaining a blog in any field is much more difficult than starting one. Many travel blogs are dominated by the author’s personal experiences on the road and feature numerous photographs of airplane seats, in-flight meals and hotel rooms…

Cancel trip, but don’t lose ticket

Have you ever had to cancel a planned trip and lose your nonrefundable plane ticket? Next time, you don’t actually have to lose the ticket. In most cases, even if it’s nonrefundable, its value — except for any penalties — can be applied toward another ticket, and not necessarily on the same airline.

The first and most important thing you need to do is cancel your original itinerary before your first flight takes off. If you don’t, you’ll really lose the ticket’s value. After cancellation, you have two options. You can either use the old ticket’s “residual value” — the total price minus the penalty — to purchase a new ticket if you have another trip coming up, or you can use that amount any time until one year from the date your original ticket was issued. You don’t have to travel by that date — just buy the new ticket…

Gay travel endures amid recession

The travel industry seems to be engaged in a curious courtship. Its targets are gay travelers. During a recession, they apparently are the one group that doesn’t change leisure habits too much, so airlines, hotels and tour operators are trying to win their business.

Courting gay customers is nothing new, of course. A few years ago, the creators of the popular Showtime series “Queer as Folk,” Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, told me that, during their research for an episode, they had discovered that gay Americans had hundreds of billions of dollars of disposable income. So the fight for shares of that income has been going on for a while — many airlines and booking engines have created dedicated pages on their Web sites for gay travel…

Candid Clinton off script overseas

BEIJING — So much for the “diplo-speak” U.S. officials usually offer on trips abroad. Newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton showed last week that she will not be constrained by diplomatic protocol or follow an official script and, so far, she seems to have the stature and celebrity to pull it off.

As she returns home Sunday from her first overseas trip since taking office, Mrs. Clinton leaves behind thousands of Asians thrilled to have met one of the world’s most famous and powerful women. At the same time, awaiting her in Washington are puzzled analysts, angry human rights activists and career diplomats not quite sure what to make of some of her comments.

Clinton weathers job’s long flights

Flying more than 22,000 miles in a week filled with dozens of official meetings, public events and media interviews didn’t seem to have taken a toll on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during her much-publicized trip to Asia. How does she do it?

I’ve been asked the same question about three of Mrs. Clinton’s predecessors I’ve traveled with — Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell and Madeleine K. Albright. My answer is always the same, but it’s not the queen-size pullout sofa in their plane’s private cabin, though having a real bed in the air certainly helps.

Fare sales often lost in translation

Why is it so difficult for major U.S. airlines to be upfront with their customers? Their practices of advertising fares and marketing services remind one of that mysterious “Twin Peaks” revelation, “The owls are not what they seem.”

Last month, I wrote about fake “direct” flights — two or more separate flights that are sold as one under the same number, but are operated on different aircraft and sometimes require changing terminals. That often sends unsuspecting passengers running across the airport to catch what they discover is a regular connection. Knowing that “direct” flights are not what they seem helps to avoid unpleasant surprises during a trip. To avoid such surprises before travel, you should also know that airfares, as advertised by the so-called legacy carriers, are not what they seem, either…