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THE BIG BARGAIN FOR DEC. 27 - JAN. 10, 2013
Air Berlin: $499 Roundtrip to Europe This Winter--If You Can Find It
Let's just say Air Berlin, the Oneworld member that is Germany's No. 2 carrier, has a lot to learn about savvy fare promotions. It's got a doozy of a quick-hit deal: $499 roundtrip including all taxes for nonstop flights from New York to Berlin or Dusseldorf and connecting service throughout Europe. While the booking window is small (you must purchase seats by January 1), the travel window runs from January 14 to March 15. The problem? Lots of luck finding any information on the deal at the Air Berlin Web site. It's not listed anywhere, there's no promotional page and you'll have to peck around the airline's booking engine to see what you can find. Viel Glück! as they say around the Tiergarten...

THIS WEEK'S OTHER NOTABLE TRAVEL BARGAINS
Hertz: The Never-Ending Deal for Up to 3,400 Delta SkyMiles Per Rental
It takes a heap of promoting to make car rentals a rich source of airline miles these days. This Hertz offer might not exactly qualify, but it's much better than average. According to the promotion--available on rentals in North America, parts of Europe and the rest of the world--a one-day rental will net you a total of 600 SkyMiles. Medallion SkyMiles flyers will get a total of 700 miles for a one-day rental. The promo adds more bonuses for each additional day and tops out at 2,700 miles for a seven-day rental and 3,400 miles for a seven-day rental if you are a Medallion member. To qualify for the bonuses, you must reserve rentals by February 28 and pick up your car by May 31. And if this deal sounds familiar, it's because Hertz and Delta have been running variations on it for at least six months. Information: the Earn 3,400 miles or more page.

HOTEL FREQUENT-GUEST PROMOTIONS TO CONSIDER
Choice Hotels: Triple Points on Every Stay Up to 50,000 Points
If you're a player in Choice Privileges, the loyalty program that covers Choice chains such as Comfort, Quality, Cambria, Mainstay and EconoLodge, the plan is offering a fairly rich winter promotion: triple points on each stay until February 20. You can earn as many as 50,000 points during the promotional periods. Elite diamond and platinum members can also earn an additional 1,000 points per stay when they book directly at the ChoiceHotels.com site. Advance registration is required to participate, of course. Information: the 50,000 points page.

Le Méridien Hotels: Big Starpoints Bonuses at Eleven Properties
Starwood claims that it has reinvigorated Le Méridien, the hotel chain that once belonged to Air France. But Le Méridien lags far behind Starwood's other full-service chains like Westin, W and Sheraton. But the sparseness of Le Méridien's global footprint does require Starwood to promote harder. The current offer: a 1,000-point bonus on the first stay at participating Le Méridien properties and 2,000 bonus points for each additional stay. The earnings period runs through February 28, but the choices are limited. Only nine Le Méridien outposts in the United States and two in French Polynesia are playing. Advance registration by January 15 is required. Information: Starwood's Unlock Unlimited Earnings page.

Red Lion: Two Stays Before Late January Earn a Free Night
The Red Lion chain was once a respected Western regional hotel group, then it was a subsidiary of Hilton and now it's a struggling lodging operation in search of profit, a buyer, business-travel customers and an identity. Given the flux, it's no surprise that the chain is running a late fall/early winter deal that essentially gives you a free night after two paid stays. Technically, the offer is a 5,000-point bonus in the Red Lion R&R Club program for every stay until January 31. Since 10,000 points earns you a free room night at any Red Lion, however, that's the equivalent of a free night after every two stays. To score the deal, you must use promotion code MYRATE01. A one-day minimum advance booking restriction applies. Information: the Fall into Savings page.

NOTABLE GROUND-TRANSPORT DEALS
Hertz: A Small Rate for Really Small Cars for Long Weekends
Enterprise's $9.99-a-day weekend rate (see below) must have caught the attention of Hertz because Big Yellow is responding with a deal of its own. The Hertz offer is less flexible on cars--just economy or subcompact--and at a higher rate ($14.99 a day) than Enterprise. But it's more flexible on time: The Hertz offer is available starting as early as noon on Thursday and can be returned as late as Monday. Thursday and Friday rentals require a Friday-night keep, but you can also return it on Saturday or Sunday, something you can't do with Enterprise. So it's your call on which is the better rate. The Hertz deal is not available in Metropolitan New York or in Hawaii, but valid elsewhere in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Rentals at the $14.99 price are available until January 31. Information: the Hertz Weekender Special page.

Enterprise: $9.99 Weekend Special Rentals Are Back Until May
The strange operating hours of Enterprise Rent-a-Car--its "neighborhood" branches are closed on Saturday afternoon and Sunday--makes for great tactical rental opportunities. The chain offers rentals as low as $9.99 per day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday when you return the rental by Monday morning. (In practice, most locations have a drop box so you can return the car sooner.) Perhaps most amazing is that there always seem to be plenty of "subcompact" and "economy" cars available at the super-cheap rate. Want a larger vehicle?: "Intermediates" go for $14.99, "standards" for $17.99 and "full-size" cars for $19.99. The deal includes 100 miles per day, but does not include taxes. Incredibly, Enterprise's fine print warns that "for certain locations, rates of less than $9.99 may be available." The promotion is valid on weekend rentals from September 7 to May 22. Information: the Weekend Special page.

National Car Rental: The Mighty One Two Free Promotion Is Back Again
With the notable exception of Hyatt's moribund Faster Free Nights, National's One Two Free promotion is simply the richest thing on the planet for business travelers. In a nutshell, you get a free rental day after every pair of two-day midsize or larger rentals in the United States. The promotion period this time runs through January 31. About the only caveats are: You must be a member of National's Emerald Club and you must elect to receive National's promotional E-mail. There isn't even a cap on the number of free days you can earn and you can use the freebies between September 10 and June 16. You must register for the promotion.

GLOBAL AIRLINE DEALS TO PONDER
Alitalia: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like ... Easter
We haven't quite made it to Christmas Day yet and Alitalia has already posted its Easter-season sale in business class. Prices aren't stupendous--roundtrip fares start at $2,738 between New York and Rome--but that's no surprise given how many airlines have dropped flights or slashed frequencies to Italy in recent months. The outbound travel window for this sale is March 24 to April 5 westbound and March 30 to April 10 eastbound. And in case you don't have a 2013 calendar yet, Easter Sunday is March 31. Tickets must be purchased by February 7. Information: the Magnifica Class page.

British Airways: Age (or at Least an AARP Card) Has Its Privileges. Again.
Discounts for AARP members are standard in the travel industry--on the ground. But now AARP has cut a deal with British Airways, too. It isn't an opaque "percent off" or "special price" promo, either. It's a simple dollars-off deal on any fare you can find. As an AARP member, you'll receive $400 roundtrip off any first or business-class ticket. World Traveler Plus flyers receive $130 off roundtrips. There's even a deal for coach flyers: $65 off roundtrips. Discounts are valid for travel until March 31, 2014, if you book by October 31, 2013. And if the deal sounds familiar, that's because BA and AARP just ended a nearly identical offer for 2012 travel Information: the Save page.

Delta Air Lines: Cheap Domestic First-Class Upgrades for Holiday Travel
Delta Air Lines is doing something rare: Actively promoting cheap upgrades to its domestic first-class cabin. You almost never hear when an airline is offering cheap bump-ups, but Delta is marketing the program on its Web site and even showing prices. Samples: $79 from Atlanta to Chicago or New York to Tampa and $59 from Minneapolis to Chicago or Atlanta to Orlando. The upgrades are available at the time of ticket purchase for flights until January 5 and Delta says there are space- and capacity-controlled upgrades for flights within the 48 contiguous states and Canada. If you're a Delta elite flyer, you might be asking an obvious question: Are the for-sale upgrades coming out of your pool of complimentary status upgrades? The answer: Of course they are. Why would you even ask such a silly question? Do you really think any airline gives away stuff they think they can sell?

Alaska Airlines: Blast From the Frequent Flyer Program Past With Phone Miles
Once upon a time (uh-oh!), business travelers racked up big frequent flyer bonuses by aligning their airline with a long-distance phone company. Then we used to get miles when we lined up our cellphone provider and airline. At least for the time being, one airline (Alaska) and one mobile provider (T-Mobile, which announced a merger with MetroPCS this week) are bringing the good old days back. You'll earn 15,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles if you register and grab a T-Mobile line of service and a new smartphone. Even with the MetroPCS buy, T-Mobile is a distant fourth in the United States, but it's substantially cheaper than the other major players and works well overseas. The promotion runs until March 31. Information: the Switch to T-Mobile page.

Oneworld Alliance: Gigantic Bonuses on Some Transatlantic Flights This Fall
The Four Musketeers of the Oneworld Alliance--American Airlines, British Airways, BA's OpenSkies subsidiary and Iberia--have teamed up for another fall and early winter frequent flyer bonanza if you're willing to pay the right fares on transatlantic flights. The basic structure is this: Earn 15,000 miles or points for the first roundtrip, 35,000 for the second and 50,000 for the third and all subsequent roundtrips completed before January 31. You can choose either American AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios points. The catch? You must fly at what are essentially the full-fare, walk-up coach or first-class fares or the higher-priced business-class fares. That pretty much matches last year's promotion, but there is an added perk: Flights booked in W class--which is BA's World Traveler Plus and OpenSkies' Prem Plus premium-economy cabins--also qualify and that might be the financial sweet spot of this offer. Flights on all four carriers qualify when you book the appropriate fare category and register in advance. Information: the American Airlines The More You Fly page or the British Airways Unlimited bonus Avios page.

DISCOUNTS TO CUT YOUR HOTEL COSTS
Hilton: Amazingly Low Rates Around the World for End of-Year Stays
Hilton has posted what will be the last sale of the year. And, guess what? It's the best by far this year. The global chain is knocking as much as 50 percent off nightly rates at many hotels around the world when you stay before January 7. No advance purchase required, either. And while not every property has availability, those that do are offering startling bargains. Some nightly rates I've found: $99 in New York; 53 pounds in London; US$63 in Beijing; 89 euros in Dublin; $62 in San Francisco; US$52 in Kuala Lumpur; 83 euros in Barcelona; and $64 in Miami. The best deals are at full-service Hilton, Conrad, Waldorf-Astoria or DoubleTree properties, where the rates seem to be cut by the full 50 percent. The luxury Conrads are especially notable since I've found many of them offering rates below $150 a night. Discounts are lower (30 percent) at Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites. The only downside I've seen on the so-called Friends & Family Sale is in Asia, where many hotels are not offering rooms at the low rates. Information: the Offers page.

Swissôtel: 20 Percent Off Nightly Rates Through February
Lacking a global footprint, a compelling frequent-guest program connection or a robust North American presence, Swissôtel isn't as popular with U.S. travelers as it once was. But if you like the chain's 30 international properties, here's a tangible inducement to book them again: 20 percent off the best available rate until February 25. The catch? The nonrefundable rate requires a two-night minimum stay. Information: the Extended New Year Saver page.

Hilton: 40 Percent Off Any Weekend Anywhere in 2013--Unless It's Not
Hilton Hotels once ran a spectacular annual sale where you could book all of the following year's weekends for as much as 50 percent off the best rate. The advance-purchase rates required you to plan carefully, of course, but the deep discounts were certainly a worthy payoff. Over the years, however, Hilton watered down the deals even while widening the purchase window. This year, the so-called Any Weekend Anytime promotion is a convoluted mashup that not only requires advance booking for 2013 bargains, but also real savvy about whether you're getting a good enough deal to justify the advance payment. The top line on prices is that North and South America properties offer only 15 percent off and discounts elsewhere in the world (from 25-40 percent) are also reduced. The purchase-by and room-availability dates are so complicated that Hilton had to add color-coded calendars (see here) to explain it all. Which isn't to say that you can't still find a great deal, but you might want to check with your accountant first. Generally, rooms must be booked by January 31. Information: the Any Weekend Anywhere page.

Marriott: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like a Limited-Service Christmas
Marriott's limited-service brands--Residence Inn, Fairfield, SpringHill, TownePlace and Courtyard--have rolled out a holiday-rate promotion. U.S. and Canadian prices start at $59 a night and are available through January 5. Sample prices: $84 a night at the Residence Inn in Fairfax, Virginia; $99 at the Courtyard in San Ramon, California; $79 at the Courtyard in Omaha; $59 at the SpringHill Suites in Dallas/Addison; and $89 at the TownePlace in Renton, Washington. The applicable rate code is WBZ. And a sign of the current oil-boom times: Marriott properties in North Dakota are not participating. Information: the Especially for You page.

Ritz-Carlton: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like ... Coca-Cola
The trajectory of what counts as a "Christmas tradition" sure is interesting. The Christmas tree, Christmas lights and the Advent Calendar were invented by Germans. Santa Claus, or something like him, may go back to the Byzantines. Rudolph and his red nose is a pre-war creation brought to us by Montgomery Ward. The movie Die Hard brought us the Christmas Eve shoot-em-up. Carl Barks, the legendary Donald Duck impresario, probably inserted teddy bears into Christmas mythology. And if Coca-Coca is ever successfully insinuated into the holiday, credit the Ritz-Carlton. Specifically the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, the downtown five-star hotel that is starved for guests during the Thanksgiving-to-New Year period. Its solution? For several years running, a Holiday Dreams bundle. This year's package includes: overnight accommodations; American breakfast for two; ice skating and skate rentals; valet parking; and--ta-dah!--a pair of tickets to the World of Coca-Cola, one of those pay-to-visit corporate PR vehicles masquerading as a museum and tourist attraction. All this, and a chance to skew the Christmas season, can be yours for $229 a night between November 19 and January 27. Information: the Holiday Dreams package.

CARD SHARPS: GREAT CREDIT CARDS FOR TRAVEL
British Airways/Chase: The 100,000-Point Bonus for BA Visa Cards Is Back
Chase has revived its 100,000-point bonus for taking a British Airways-branded Visa card, but changes to the deal (and BA's frequency program) should give you pause. The structure of Chase's current offer: 50,000 Avios points after $1,000 of spending on the card within the first three months, 25,000 more points for spending $10,000 in the first year and then 25,000 additional points for the next $10,000 of first-year spending. Besides the card's other benefits (no foreign-transaction fees, onboard smart chip and earnings of 2.5 points for BA purchases and 1.5 points for everything else), there's the unique "household account" feature. That allows two people to pool earnings and each get 100,000-point bonuses to take cards. But BA radically overhauled (and overpriced) the best awards when it switched to the Avios moniker for its program last year. Add the huge fuel surcharges that BA tacks onto award seats and you may not find this card as valuable as it once was. The current promotion is due to last until February 27. The annual fee is $95. Information: the Visa Signature page.

Chase: Earn 50,000 Points With a Much Lower Minimum Spend
Chase doesn't talk enough about Ultimate Rewards and even less about UR's best benefit: 1-to-1 transfers of points to the frequency programs of United and Southwest airlines and Marriott, Hyatt and InterContinental hotels. The best way to rack up a lot of Ultimate Rewards points fast? Take the Chase Ink Bold, a charge card available in either Visa or Mastercard flavors. There's no annual fee for the first year and you'll earn 50,000 points after spending just $5,000 during the first three months. That's half the minimum-spend requirement in effect just a few weeks ago. The card's other cool benefits: no foreign-exchange fees, double points for spending at hotels and gasoline stations and five times the points on spending at office-supply stores, cellular or landline bills, Internet fees and cable-TV service. By the way, if you don't like charge cards, Chase offers the same deal on the Ink Plus credit card. Information: the Earn 50,000 bonus points page.

Hilton HHonors: The Price of Its Best Elite Level Is Now Just $95 a Year
Hilton continues to make a hash of its HHonors program by doing hidden devaluations and making unannounced changes to its terms and conditions. Hilton's latest assault has been on its top, or Diamond Level, HHonors guests. Diamonds are no longer offered suite upgrades and can no longer get a "diamond force," jargon for Hilton clearing award rooms when the freebie inventory is officially unavailable. That makes the Diamond Level hardly better than HHonors Gold, which normally requires 16 stays or 36 nights a year. Gold offers free Internet, room upgrades and continental breakfast. It's arguably Hilton's only decent elite level now. And guess what: You don't even have to stay at Hilton even once to achieve its best HHonors level. A new credit card from Citibank offers Gold Level HHonors status and the annual fee is just $95 a year. So here's the best lodging strategy ever: Take the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa, pay the $95 annual fee, get Gold Level--and then stay at Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt or other hotels so you can earn elite status there, too. Book a Hilton Family property only when there are no other options. You'll still get Gold Level treatment and all of your other paid stays will be earning elite status elsewhere. Information: the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card page.

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THE FINE PRINT Nobody pays their way onto this page. I post the deals solely for the benefit of members based on my perception of what is a great price or a terrific value. The prices do not include applicable taxes unless specifically stated. Assume there are weird restrictions and caveats I never thought to ask about. Unless otherwise stated, you should be able to book these deals at any travel agency or directly from the listed travel supplier. Never assume that these prices (or any price listed publicly) are the lowest that are available. You should always ask if there’s a cheaper price or better deal. Virtually everything is capacity controlled or subject to blackout days, based on availability and subject to abrupt change whenever they think they can squeeze us for a few extra bucks. Please do not suspend your inbred skepticism. Don’t blame me if these deals are sold out when you try to book at these prices, but do let me know if you think that we're being scammed. It's important to expose the fakers and phonies. -- Joe Brancatelli

This column is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.