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Sensible Traveler

Alamo aims for .com touch

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / July 31, 2005

Alamo Rent A Car is trying to give customers a reason to book directly through the company's website, offering a 10 percent discount off the company's base rate to those who prepay at that time.

The offer comes with a catch: Alamo will assess a fee if the customer cancels or fails to show up. The fee is $25 if the cancellation occurs within 24 hours of the pickup time, $10 if it is done earlier.

Alamo officials stress that the prepay option is just that, an option. Customers still can choose to reserve a car and pay at the time of the rental, incurring no cancellation fee if they don't show up.

''It really is about driving people to our lowest-cost channel, Alamo.com," said Charles Pulley, a spokesman for Alamo, a division of Vanguard Car Rental USA.

What's unclear to me is whether the 10 percent prepay discount is worth the trade-off in flexibility. It's difficult to evaluate whether the 10 percent discount makes Alamo a bargain or merely brings the company's rates down into the moderate range.

On both Sidestep and Orbitz, websites that attempt to give you the universe of options for a specific car rental, Alamo's standard rates for a weeklong rental of a compact car in Orlando were generally in the middle to upper-middle of the pack. Applying the 10 percent discount to the base rates listed on those websites made Alamo a bit more competitive but not one of the lowest-priced options.

For example, Sidestep listed the base price of a weeklong Alamo rental as $163, or $206 with taxes and fees. Thrifty's base price was $107.60. Applying the 10 percent discount to the Alamo base price of $163, I figured I would pay a base price of about $147 with the Alamo prepay option.

When I went to Alamo's website, however, and checked the prepay option, the base price was listed as $120.70. The full price was $157, taxes and fees included. In other words, the savings with the prepay option appeared to be far more than 10 percent.

Pulley said he couldn't explain the pricing discrepancy between the Orbitz and Alamo websites, but urged consumers to always check the Alamo website because it guarantees the lowest rates on Alamo cars.

Pulley also disputed critiques of the Alamo prepay option that portray it as primarily an attempt to reduce the number of no-show customers. Car rental companies say as many as 30 percent of their reservations are no-shows, making it difficult to manage their fleet of cars and trucks properly.

''That isn't why we did it," Pulley said. ''We did this to . . . draw people to Alamo.com."

Northwest skycap feeNorthwest Airlines, following the lead of United Airlines, has started charging $2 a bag for skycap services at Boston's Logan International Airport.

One Northwest skycap, who asked not be identified, said the local subcontractor that employs him raised his hourly wage to $6.15 from $2.63 after the new fee was imposed, but says his total income has fallen as tips have tapered off.

The new skycap fees are catching on as struggling airlines try to cut their costs to the bone. The fees flow to the airline's skycap subcontractor, but the additional money allows the airline to reduce its payments to the subcontractor by a corresponding amount.

The fees end up putting the squeeze on travelers, who used to tip $2 a bag for skycap service but now are expected to pay $2 a bag plus a tip.

The Northwest skycap said passengers so far were continuing to use skycaps despite the new fee. However, he said, some customers have grumbled about paying $2 a bag just to have their bags brought into the airline counter for international flights.

American Airlines, the largest airline at Logan, has said it is also considering a similar skycap charge.

Contact Bruce Mohl at mohl@globe.com.

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