A cheap sleep in San Francisco

Our expert offers tips on top budget hotels in San Francisco and Alsace, airlines' emergency ticket-fee waivers and Maine's coastal treasures.

Published July 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I'm planning a trip to San Francisco in August and would like to find a
hotel that won't break my budget. I've seen some hotels listed in the
under-$100 range, but I'm a little fearful of what I'll find. Are there any
sources you can recommend?

San Francisco does indeed have decent places to stay under $100 per night, but often they don't advertise widely and some concessions may be necessary, such as a shared bathroom.

There are a million guidebooks to the city, of course, but if I had to pick one for your purposes I'd turn to the recently published second edition of Lonely Planet's "San Francisco," by Tom Downs. Lonely Planet's U.S. office is across the bay in Oakland, and Downs lives in San Francisco. Guidebooks written about the publisher's own backyard tend to be pretty polished and accurate.

Add to that Lonely Planet's focus on independent travelers, and you get a nice range of budget, middle and top-end lodging choices, not just Sheratons and Marriotts. In the San Francisco book, there are a dozen budget hotels described in the Union Square area alone, and many more in the other parts of town.

It's also worth checking with one or more of the discount hotel brokers that book rooms in San Francisco, although they tend to provide better savings on moderate and expensive hotels. Among them are San Francisco Reservations, California Reservations, Quikbook and Central Reservation Service.

When using reservations services, ask about any booking or cancellation fees and consider how their rates compare with the hotels' own quotes.

The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau site has a search engine through which lodging can be priced, located and booked, including a category for rooms under $75. Contact numbers are provided, so you can call and quiz the front desk about its quality and character.

My daughter and I will be driving from Paris toward the Alsace in early July
and we need accommodations for one night about an hour west of
Strasbourg or the Alsatian Wine Route. Can you steer us toward mid-priced lodging?

If you can pin down where you plan to stop, several resources can help you find a suitable place, including a Hotels and Travel on the Net site for the Lorraine region west of Alsace. Besides listing a number of hotels in the area you're likely to stop in, it has links to local hotel directories.

The French Government Tourist Office site can lead you to regional information, including Lorraine and Alsace lodging and tourist services.

The FGTO also has a telephone hot line for obtaining specific information about travel throughout France: (410) 286-8310. Agents handle questioners who call Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (EDT).

France-bound travelers seeking moderately-priced lodging can dip into "An Insider's Guide to French Hotels $50-$90 a Night for Two," by Margo Classe, Wilson Publishing, about half the book is devoted to Paris, but there also is a section on Nancy that describes 15 hotels.

One other guidebook note: "The Michelin Green Guide to Alsace, Lorraine
and Champagne" has just been translated into English. You can find
retailers that carry Michelin guides by calling (800) 223-0987. The
Michelin site, by the way, has a
route-planning feature that supplies some basic information at no
charge. More extensive data is available if you subscribe at the site.

What's the rule on ticket-change fees when a passenger has to change flight plans because of a medical emergency? My in-laws and we were planning a little vacation. My father-in-law had a cancer relapse and had to change his flight plans. Consequently, we wanted to change our plans, but Delta would not waive a $75 reissue fee because they maintained it wasn't our medical emergency. Their reservationists said they had no discretion.

Airlines make their own rules on ticketing policies such as change fees -- and airlines can waive them when they want to. But it is very common for them to resist waiving the change fee in medical cases. In fact, I was surprised when the above correspondent said that Delta Air Lines agreed to waive the change fee for his ill father-in-law, because over the years I've heard many complaints from passengers who suffered medical emergencies -- even hospitalizations -- and their airlines still refused to give them a break on the fees.

This is just one way in which the airlines have earned the animosity of the flying public. In a similar vein, people find it beyond comprehension when they try to book a "grievance" or "compassion" fare to attend a funeral or visit a dying relative and find that the fare is still prohibitively expensive. One might argue that airlines are in business to make money and can't be expected to "give away" seats. Then again, they give seats away daily in the name of frequent flyer awards, which are intended to build customer loyalty. Might not giving people a break in hardship cases build customer loyalty as well?

Trying to head off congressional regulatory action, the airline industry on June 17 promised to do better, though there was no mention of ticket-change fees. Gerald Greenwald, chairman of United Airlines and of the Air Transport Association Executive Committee, said the airlines "have felt the whip from Congress, we've heard the bell ring from the flying public." He also said, "The commitment of the airlines to improve customer service is real."

Anyone trying to make headway with an airline should recall Greenwald's statements and quote them freely.

The ATA plan calls for each airline to assign a customer service representative to handle passenger complaints and ensure that all written complaints are responded to within 60 days.

I advised the person who posed the above question to call back Delta and speak with a supervisor or the airline's customer service department. He later e-mailed me that he had spoken to Delta's customer care department -- which finally agreed to waive the change fees for the rest of the family, upon documentation of the illness.

It's worth noting that the reservation agent never mentioned that corporate court of appeal, nor did a supervisor until asked about it.

I'm driving my son from New Jersey to Calais, Maine, for summer camp and we would like to take in the scenic Maine coastline. Can you suggest sources directing me to the not-to-miss sights?

The Maine coast offers gorgeous scenery and quaint towns, but research your trip well. Some of the most scenic routes require driving the length of the coastline's fingerlike peninsulas, which are great for dramatic effect but make for slow going if you're in a hurry to get somewhere.

A great guide for plotting scenic drives is a Reader's Digest book called "The Most Scenic Drives in America: 120 Spectacular Road Trips" (1997). One chapter is devoted to the Maine Coast, covering U.S. Route 1 from Brunswick to Ellsworth, with various side trips to such places as Popham Beach State Park, Boothbay Harbor, Pemaquid Point, Rockport, Camden (with its windjammer fleet) and the Penobscot Bay area.

There's much more to the Maine coast than just that section, of course, and the state spews out a wealth of drive-planning information via the Maine Office of Tourism and the Maine Publicity Bureau.

Moon Travel Handbooks publishes the "Maine Handbook," by Kathleen M. Brandes (1998), and the Insiders' Guide series includes books on "Maine's Mid-Coast" and "Maine's Southern Coast."

By Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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