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"Express Weekends' pass discount test

"Imagine escaping this weekend," the letter started, "on the spur-of-the-moment, to a sunny Caribbean island _ at an unbelievably low rate. Without committing weeks in advance. Without adhering to a million restrictions. Just make one call, save and go." It was an invitation to join American Express' expanding program called Express Weekends, which promises to save members 20 percent to 50 percent off the lowest advertised prices on regularly scheduled flights.

Joining costs $75 a year for individuals, $135 for two (your traveling companion need not be the same person on each trip). Deals are announced in bi-weekly newsletters, each one offering about 15 mini-vacation opportunities here and abroad.

To give potential members a basis for comparison it offers the following examples of recent "unbelievable prices" on round-trip airfares from New York:

$240 to St. Thomas on Continental.

$78 to Boston on Northwest.

$239 to Los Angeles, $89 a night for a room at the Radisson Bel-Air Hotel, and $20 a day to rent a car.

Since I have seen numerous such offers in recent months _ some bestowing "unique" discounts that are routinely available to the average person _ I decided to put these rates to the test.

First, I called Continental airlines, and asked how cheaply I could fly to St. Thomas and back. A reservationist assured me that the best fare at the moment was $368. That's a $128 saving. So far so good.

Next, I called Northwest. The best fare between New York and Boston was $158.50 _ this time more than double the American Express fare quote. And to get it you had to book two weeks in advance.

Since American Express had not specified an airline for its Los Angeles trip, I tried three: Continental, American and United. Continental said that in November it could cost me $514 round trip _ if I booked more than 14 days in advance and booked within 24 hours. American and United could do it for $405 _ subject to availability and to my being able to adapt to an intricate schedule of late-night or early morning departures.

I also scanned the papers and noted New York-Los Angeles fares as low as $298. The Radisson told me that its best rate is about $130 a day. American Express was still ahead. As for the rental car, Budget locations at Los Angeles International Airport, among others, have pledged to beat anyone else's deal so I decided to bounce $20 a day off them. "It's a pretty low rate, but if we had cars available we'd do it," said a reservationist.

The bottom line in this little test _ and those you should run yourself on all such clubs _ is whether you will use the services enough to get back your initial outlay. It's most likely you will answer yes if you're a frequent traveler.

Keep in mind that a recession is unlikely to bring an end to travel bargains _ fuel increases or not.

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