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Urban travel legends

The myths and truths about hotels, key cards, and the secret airline code.
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Business travelers are a secretive, clannish lot, and we take perverse pride in knowing the picayune details of how life works on the road. If there’s an airline rule, we claim to know and maybe even understand it. A strange hotel policy? We feign indifference and insist we heard about it years ago.

Then there are those persistent factoids that can only be classified as Urban Travel Legends. They’re usually not true — or at least they haven’t been true for quite some time — yet they continue to clutter our database of travel knowledge. Here are several of the most enduring legends, along with some clear-eyed facts.

The airline secret code
The hardest-to-kill legend is the claim that you’ll receive special treatment from an airline only if you utter the secret code “Rule 240.” Whenever your flight is canceled or seriously delayed, the story goes, simply ask the gate agent to Rule 240 you, and the airline will magically place you, at no additional cost, on the next available flight of any other carrier flying the route.

The problem? There is no Rule 240, at least not anymore. Rule 240 was shorthand for an old Civil Aeronautics Board regulation that required airlines to immediately place you on another flight, regardless of the fare you originally paid or the carrier you originally booked. But the C.A.B. and its rules disappeared after the airlines were deregulated in 1978.

Today, carriers set their own rules, and they’re laid out in the “contract of carriage” buried in the fine print on airline Web sites. You agree to the contract when you buy a ticket, and most carriers have terms similar to the jargon imposed by Delta Air Lines. Delta’s contract promises nothing; it even specifically disavows its responsibly to place you on the flight with the date, time, and destination printed on your ticket. As for getting help if your flight is grounded, lots of luck. According to Delta, any assistance is “at our sole discretion.”

Why does the myth of Rule 240 — and the chimera of mandated federal travel assistance — persist? Airline legerdemain. At least three carriers — Delta, United and Northwest — call their proprietary contract terms Rule 240. This must be some sort of inside joke that amuses airline-contract lawyers.

Dress up and get upgraded
Dressing for success, at least for business travelers, is about snaring that elusive upgrade to first or business class. Far too many flyers cling to the belief that airlines give free upgrades to the folks who will look cool in a premium-class seat.

The truth, of course, is altogether different. For starters, airlines don’t give out free upgrades anymore. Thanks to frequent-flyer-program databases, carriers can easily identify their best, most profitable customers, and upgrades are awarded in fairly rigid compliance with the perks promised to that elite group. Plus, airlines have learned that upgrades to remaining premium-class seats can be sold at the gate moments before departure. (Depending on the route, upgrade fees range from $15 to $500 per flight.) So there’s no need for carriers to give seats away to anyone, let alone award them to flossy-looking budget flyers.

That being said, my friend Leonora was bumped up to business class last year because she had the right shoes. Leonora has a bad right hip and needs to fly in a coach seat with an aisle on her right. When she booked a flight to visit family in London, I called a friend at the airline and asked him to flag her request. He did — and also apparently marked her as a V.I.P. When Leonora appeared at the gate, the agent looked at her comfortable shoes and asked, “Do you have a pair of high heels?” Leonora produced a pair from her carry-on, slipped into them, and the gate agent proceeded to put her in the last available seat up front.

The hacked key card
Hotels have switched from traditional metal room keys to computerized plastic key cards, giving rise to a weird urban-travel legend. Paranoid travelers are concerned that hotels encrypt credit-card details on the magnetic stripe of the key cards; then, once a guest checks out and returns the key card to the front desk, unscrupulous hotel clerks hack the credit-card number and go on spending sprees.

Pure fantasy. Although hotels can encrypt your key card with credit-card information, they almost never do. And despite an endless series of “tips” in the last year, I’ve never seen a police report or legal documents that prove a person’s financial details were lifted from a hotel key card.

Not convinced? Then do what I do: Take the key card with you when you leave. No hotel in the world requires you to turn it in when you check out. I’ve never even been asked to do so. If you really want to worry about hotel key cards, consider this: If there’s a power failure, and the hotel doesn’t have back-up power, those electronic locks won’t always work, and you may be locked out of your room for the duration of the blackout. Unlike the key-card scam, this has actually been known to happen over the years.

The despicably dirty hotel
Of course, not every tale is a myth. Sadly, the one that claims hotel maids do terrible things while “cleaning” your room can be all too true. Hygiene standards at hotels are, frankly, in the toilet.

The exact shape of this rumor changes from time to time. One year, horrified guests whisper that maids are using water from the toilet to clean the mugs next to your in-room coffeemaker. Another year, someone will claim that black-light inspections of hotel duvets and bedspreads reveal colonies of germs and parasites. Travelers routinely swap tales of hotels plagued by bedbugs. Eventually some local television station, usually during a ratings period, will send its intrepid “investigative” team to uncover the despicable sanitary conditions at area hotels. (An Atlanta station’s recent exposé of how maids clean glassware is on YouTube.

Hotels in every price range underpay and overwork their housecleaning staff, who then take appalling, unsanitary shortcuts in order to get their work done. And that’s no surprise: Noted lodging consultant Michael Matthews once estimated that the average hotel maid “has just four seconds per square foot to clean a guest room and is paid half a cent per square foot for her labors.”

Makes you long for the days when hotels put cheap, disposable plastic glasses in your room, doesn’t it?

The fine print ...
A followup to my column about the hidden fees on overseas ATM transactions: Effective January 26, Citibank will now charge a 1 or 2 percent fee for using any overseas ATM, even those located in Citibank branches ... The British government has lifted the one-carry-on rule that hobbled travelers using London’s Heathrow Airport. The ban has also been lifted at London’s Stansted Airport and many other British airports. However, the one-bag rule remains in force at Gatwick and Luton, two other London-area airports.