Just Say No to Mandatory Gratuities


by Robert McGarvey


The CruiseCritic headline slapped me in the face:

Norwegian Cruise Line to Raise Gratuities

Hold on a second: how does a cruise line “raise” gratuities which, by definition, are volitional with the guest?  To belabor the obvious: that means I can tip, not tip, tip a lot, tip a little – it’s on me.

NCL apparently does not like any of that.  Its new policy, explained CruiseCritic, is that “fees for standard cabins and mini-suites will jump from $13.50 to $13.99 per passenger, per day, while cruisers in suites will be charged $16.99 per person, per day, up from $15.50. That amounts to a respective per- person increase of $3.43 or $10.43 per seven-night sailing.”

On Norwegian Sky, a beverage inclusive ship, passengers will get nicked for more: “cruisers in standard cabins and mini-suites will now pay $18.99 per person, per day, while those in suites will pay $21.99 per person, per day,” reported CruiseCritic.

On a 7 day cruise most NCL passengers will pay $118.83.  On Norwegian Sky, the tariff is $75.96 for most passengers, $87.96 for those in suites, on a 4 day cruise.

For a family of four on Sky, that tip amounts to $351.84 if they are in a suite on a 4 day cruise.

Doesn’t NCL get that tipping is supposed to be at my choice?  Sure it does. Kind of.  NCL told TravelMarket Report “the discretionary service charges can always be adjusted as guests wish. They simply need to visit guest services desk onboard.”

Note: that means you cannot just log into a website, look at your bill, and cross off the gratuity.  No. You have to do it in an in person meeting. On the ship. Using time you probably want to put into the fun activities people cruise to do.

It’s enough to make me scream in angry disbelief.

Understand I am on Danny Meyer’s side when it comes to tipping, which is that the right policy – for business, their employees, and the guests – is to eliminate tipping and reflect that in higher charges to guests.

I also know NCL is not alone in building tips into the bill presented to customers.  It has become common practice at many high level spas, for instance, and these are places that nick guests maybe $250 or $300 for a session – meaning the tip (often 20%) adds as much as $60 to the tab.

I am not for paying masseuses less, or waiters and waitresses, or bartenders, or barbers.  What I want is a system where the price presented to the patron includes adequate compensation for the server.

I also want transparency in pricing so the consumer knows the tariff going in.  I have the same problem with resort fees as I do with automatic gratuities – they aren’t adequately disclosed in the pricing info.

In most of our interactions – in grocery stores, with Google Express, on the subway, and down most of what we do – we don’t tip because it is not the norm.

In a subset of services – often involving hospitality – we frequently are expected to tip. I am no fan of the custom – I wish it would just stop and that employers would resolve to pay their own employees a fair wage.

But where I am supposed to tip I do.  I might not like how the game is played, but I do not want to stiff the worker.

I have tipped, every time, I have cruised and I have tipped generously by my standards.  Crew work hard, typically they are not well paid, and I want to reward their efforts – even if I wish their employers simply raised their paychecks.

I go along with the system. really I do.  Even with my grumbles about it.

But a line has to be drawn and a place to draw it is when businesses automatically add a tip to the bill and I have to take extra steps to void it.  That’s an imposition and it is wrong.

I also know that NCL is not alone in the cruise industry. Nowadays, many lines impose automatic gratuities – and also require the passenger take an extra step or two to change the amount or void it.

All wrong.

Note: I don’t even mind places that, acknowledging many of us are math challenged, show what a 20% tip is – but still leave it up to me to add it in, to add in a different amount, or to void the tip entirely.

My advice: just say no to automatically imposed gratuities. Do tip the workers. But tell their bosses that their attempt to force our hands is all wrong.

Terrorism: A Business Travel Fear? Really?


By Robert McGarvey

Terrorism has us shaking in our travel booties.  That’s the word from a recent poll by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) that pegged terrorism as the top worry by a large margin.

The Skift headline grabbed my eyes:

U.S. Business Travelers See Terrorism as Most-Important Concern.

I don’t believe it.  Most of the travelers I know are concerned about what they have always been concerned about – flight cancellations, bad weather, missed connections, oversold hotels (now back at some hotels in their pursuit of manna), and the consequences of missing those many birthdays and anniversaries that road warriors inevitably do miss.

Terrorism? Not so much and I say that despite all our eyes this week having been on the purported terrorist incident in London near Parliament.  

Understand, however, the reality is that this poll isn’t in fact looking at all concerns – just safety and security issues. The headline was a tad misleading.

Narrow the field to security concerns and GBTA said its poll of 798 travelers who had traveled on business at least four times in the past year, including one international trip, found 45% pegged terrorism as their top security/safety concern.  

Street crime was named by 15% as the chief worry. Illness by  13%.  Property crime 12%. Kidnapping 8%.

And about now we have to blow the whistle and say stop.

Fears are relative.

That’s why I don’t still buy that terrorism is the top worry, even when the field is narrowed to safety concerns.

It all depends on where you travel to.  Fly in and out of Singapore and Shanghai and quite probably kidnapping is not on your mind, and nor should it be.

Fly into Lagos and you had better be very concerned about kidnapping.  

Ditto parts of the Middle East, elsewhere in Africa, and parts of the Americas – all kidnapping hot spots.

Paris? Naw.

As for street crime, that too varies on the destination. If you are in Rio and aren’t concerned about street crime, that’s puzzling.

If you are in Munich, it’s not much of a worry, certainly not anything other than pickpockets.

As for illness I know travelers to India who work themselves into a state of anxiety worrying about gastrointestinal issues, and others who are going to the Caribbean who are very fearful of Zika. Justified in both instances. But I’ve never heard a visitor to Copenhagen fretting about illness.

It all depends upon the where.

That’s the problem with any poll that seeks to identify what has business travelers’ knickers in a knot.

It’s all so context dependent.

Don’t think I’m saying ignore terrorism.  In some parts of the planet it is a very real concern.

Maybe, too, wherever we go we need to think on terrorism and factor a terror thread into our travel planning – but how much we dwell on it will depend on many specifics.

Am I worried about terrorism when I am in New York? No.  Just as I am not especially worried in London and that is despite this week’s tragic incident.  

Would I be more concerned about terrorism in Tunis or Cairo or Istanbul? Yep.

Read the headlines is the first step in living in a world of terror.

Step 2 is, before going abroad, read the US State department travel advisories Because they are inherently politicized. I also will read the British Foreign Office advisories.  

Step 3: Be alert about where you stay and where you go.  In Belfast, during the years of intense terror, I visited often and never stayed in a high profile – expensive – hotel.  I bunked in low key places around Queen’s University, a neighborhood that had always been safe.

Personally I avoided the hotels preferred by big corporation business travelers.  

I also avoid large crowds wherever possible- it’s just a smart precaution.

Do likewise.

Step 4: Always have an evacuation plan in mind.  If your company has assistance resources available, know how to tap into them.  If the company doesn’t, know what your own plan is.  Don’t get caught by surprise and witless. Know your exit routes.

Was I worried about terrorism on my trips to Northern Ireland?  No.  Of course there were neighborhoods I avoided, especially after dark, there were things I would not do, but that’s just commonsense.

Commonsense in fact is my idea of the cure for a lot of travel anxieties.  Use it and your travels – generally – will be safe.

But here’s the money question what do you do if your boss tells you to catch the next plane to Algiers or Tegucigalpa? I can’t answer that for you.  I believe I would personally decline both trips unless there were very good reasons for going and a great plan for my safety.

You have to make your own call.

But word of advice: never worry about terrorism. Plan for it. Know how to deal with it.

But don’t gnash teeth.  That benefits only dentists.  


Just Say No to Congressional Regulation of Airplane Seats


By Robert McGarvey


Talk about a swampy idea.  A gaggle of Senators and Congressmen have joined together to support legislation, called SEAT,  that would set minimum seat sizes on commercial planes – and I struggle to come up with a kindly view of the why

The legislators also want a minimum space between rows of seats.

They say: “The SEAT Act would establish a minimum seat size on commercial airlines as well as a minimum distance between rows of seats to protect the safety and health of airline passengers.”

“Airline passengers are tired of being squeezed,” said Congressman Steve Cohen, one of the primary backers. “Shrinking seat sizes in airplanes isn’t just a matter of comfort but the safety and health of passengers as well. Planes need to be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency. In addition, doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who do not move their legs enough during longer flights. The safety and health of passengers must come before airline profits.”

Color me as anti.

Understand, I am not a small person, around 6’1”, 190 lbs., and – wherever possible – I have always sought to fly upfront for the greater space.  I have had my knees smashed by the seat in front of me, and I have also been unable to use a laptop because there just was not enough room.

I have written, with some favor, about the controversial gadget Knee Defender that prevents an airplane seat from reclining.  I have not used it myself but I understand those who do.

I have also written a number of times about DVT – deep vein thrombosis – and while I would not deem myself an expert on the condition, I take DVT seriously enough to pretty consistently get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour in a flight.  The first DVT story I recall writing was in 2003, the most recent was 2015.  

So, definitely, I am sympathetic to complaints that too snug airplane seats are potentially bad for our health.

I am also sympathetic to the claim that too snug seats are bad for safe and fast emergency exits from planes, another point made by the SEAT advocates.  

This is probably made all the worse by the obesity epidemic in which we find ourselves Too big people in too small seats is indeed a catastrophe in the making.

Generally, too, I am in the same Washington DC camp as Cohen and fellow SEAT backers Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Dianne Feinstein, Ed Markey, and more.

So why don’t I support SEAT?

Know that a very similar bill was introduced in the House and Senate last year. It was defeated.  But Cohen vowed to reintroduce it and here we are.  

Factor in the context that the US President is on record, often and loudly, opposing too much legislation – and it would not be hard to envision this president vetoing SEAT if it reached his desk.

Sure, shrinking seat size is an issue, as more airlines want to squeeze more of us into a small space.  Here’s a Telegraph round up, from 2010, of seat sizes.  If anything, seats today are smaller.

Here’s a 2016 round-up by the Independent.  

Meantime, BA recently indicated it planned to shrink seat pitch on many planes, in order to better compete with low priced rivals.  

All bad.

The legislators, in their press release, documented that if you think things are snugger in coach you’re right: “The average distance between rows of seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shrunk from 18 inches to about 16 ½.”

But a Congressionally mandated seating chart is madness.

What do we need instead of legislation? Loud, persistent voices complaining about too small seats – and just as important is putting our money where our mouths are. A for instance of the latter was a January JoeSentMe column by Chris Barnett, where he observed the advantages of a bus trip for an intra-California hop: “Seating on the two-year-old motorcoach was far more comfortable than any U.S. airline’s coach or premium economy class.”

Another, smart choice: drive instead of fly.  It may well be cheaper with today’s cheap gas prices.  It almost certainly will be more comfortable – and quite possibly no longer in time – than flying, particularly when it’s, say, a four hour drive from New York to Boston or to Washington DC.

Raise your voice if you want more space in economy.

And back it up with your wallet.

That’s how to wake up penny pinching airline executives.

Those execs already know the Cohen SEAT bill is DOA.  They won’t break into a nervous sweat over it. They’ll probably have a good chuckle about it.  

But if they hear enough anger from passengers – and if enough use their wallet power, now you may have gotten their attention.


What’s In My Wallet? And Yours?


What’s In My Wallet? And Yours?


By Robert McGarvey

The giant has awakened – and it has sweetened the perks that come with its Platinum Card.

Take that, upstarts.  

The question: are the upgrades good enough to keep American Express Platinum cardholders in the fold after a scheduled 20+ % fee increase kicks in later this year?

Either way, Amex had to do something. Indeed, this was a long overdue move on Amex’s part. Grumbles had grown that the card just was no longer worth the $450 annual fee, especially as it lost one airline club access privilege after another  and only Delta remains on board.

Club access probably had been the key Platinum card benefit so these losses were a big deal.

And that gave competitors room to maneuver.

The big buzz in high end credit cardholder circles for the past year has been about Chase’s Sapphire Reserve, with an annual fee of $450 and freebies ranging from $300 in annual travel credits to a 100,000 mile sign up bonus and good airport lounge access.  

A few hands also clapped about the Citi Prestige Card.

Along the way, Costco dumped Amex for Citi and, said some, this was a real blow to American Express. Don’t ask me. I have never been in a Costco and have no plans to – but I suppose that did matter to some Amex cardholders.

Here’s the money question: had my loyalty to Amex wavered as it lost benefits?  Note: I have been an Amex cardholder for 40 years, much of that the gold card but maybe 15  years ago I switched to Platinum. In recent years had I questioned if the Platinum Card continued to be worth the dough? You bet, especially when United and American yanked their clubs out of the mix (and before them, Continental pulled out in 2011) and that club access had been what kept me smiling, with both Amex and air travel.

Suddenly my questions about each rose.

But – even before the new wave of benefits – I still found enough to like in the Platinum Card.  Such as the Centurion Lounges, which I continue to believe are the best domestic airport lounges.  Amex also had added Priority Pass lounges a couple years ago (now a perk with the Chase card) and, by now, Amex insists its network  is the largest, comprising 1000+ lounges in 120 countries.  It’s not perfect but it is pretty good and once you have been in a Centurion Lounge you wish you had access to them wherever you traveled in the US.  

The club access now is as good as – probably better than – what they had when United and American were in the mix.  

There’s also a $200 annual airline fee credit for charges such as lounge access or checked bags and, yes, it genuinely works. I have bought a bottle of champagne and I have checked a locked bag with a handgun inside (fully disclosed at check in of course) and in both instances fees were reimbursed and with no teeth gnashing about my consumer choices.

I’ve also gotten the TSA Pre fee reimbursed by Amex.  Or go for Global Entry and Amex picks up that tab. One or the other, not both.

And gold status in the Hilton HHonors program. Ditto for Starwood and, since its merger, that means Marriott too.

There also is a concierge service, for help arranging restaurant reservations and such like.  Those who use it a lot like it a lot.

Did those perks add up to $450? In my mind, absolutely. I admit I never ran detailed calculations. But I was satisfied I was getting my money’s worth.

Now Amex is upping its perks.  Notably it is issuing 5X points on hotels booked via amextravel.com. That complements the existing 5X rewards on airfare purchased via that site.  

It says it has added enough airport lounges to have some 90 lounges in the US alone.  

It also is offering a $200 Uber credit, plus Uber VP status and, you know what, I confess I still haven’t used Uber but now I will.  Good for me, good for Uber, good for Amex.

The bad news is that Amex is bumping the Platinum Card annual fee from $450 to $550 – but I’ll keep it in my wallet.

Besides, this year Amex is replacing the plastic card with a metallic one and how cool is that?

I’m staying put. What about you?


Do You Need Trip Cancellation Insurance in the Age of Trump Travel?


By Robert McGarvey

Of course you don’t need to buy trip cancellation insurance on domestic travel – but we are in a new era when it comes to foreign policy and, suddenly, many travelers are asking if they should by it for trips abroad in the Age of Trump.

Mind you, I have never bought the stuff  in four decades of travel – always thought it superfluous, particularly for travelers who bought the right airfares and made very certain that hotel rooms could be canceled without penalty. For years I thought that was plenty circumspect on my part.

Things are very different today however.  Foreigners arriving on US soil sometimes are being treated with real suspicion by US immigration – and there is a tit for tat reality in international travel. If we are treating arrivals from France or China badly, expect the same for yourself when heading there.  

And maybe you decide you just don’t want the hassle.

The other, largely new issue is that whole parts of the globe may be crossed out as no go zones by the White House – and if you already have a trip planned to an impacted country you may want to rethink.

A particular flashpoint is Cuba, on the one hand a wildly popular go-to place, on the other it’s a place where President Trump has sometimes seemed to suggest that his administration may modify the Obama led warming up of relationships.

Here’s the bad news, however. Most trip insurance is no panacea in such cases.  That’s because it usually offers no coverage for cancellations triggered by shifting government policies.

But if you opt for a “change; for any reason” policy, you will probably get 50 to 75% of your expenditures refunded in the event changing US policy leads you to cancel a trip to Cuba.

It could be anyplace.  This definitely is about more than Cuba. Right now it is unclear what the Trump administration will do regarding many nations, from China to Egypt.  We have entered into an era of significant unpredictability and as travelers we need to prepare for the uncertainties in front of us.

That’s not easy. But is also why I find myself contemplating trip insurance.

A standard trip insurance policy costs 4 to 6% of the cost of the trip. That is, a $1000 vacation can be insured for $40 to $60, but those policies have lots of fine print and loopholes about what is insured and covered and what isn’t.  

Enter trip cancellation for any reason coverage which, for the most part, does what it says.  It costs about 50% more than a standard policy.

Is it worth the money? “If travel to Cuba is prohibited by the government, Cancel For Any Reason is the only benefit that can cover travelers to cancel their trips,” Jessica Harvey, an executive with travel insurance review site  Squaremouth, said.

Similar can be said about travel to just about anywhere.

Play by the rules, buy from a known provider, and very probably you will get some of your money returned if you decide to cancel, for any reason, from fears of terrorism to government policies that make you uneasy about travel to a particular place or maybe those policies make is very difficult to get there.

One other bit of bad news: cancel for any reason policies are not available to New Yorkers.  The New York Dept of Financial Services has said: “An insurer may not include ‘Cancel for Any Reason Waiver’ or ‘Change of Mind’ coverage in its travel insurance policies because such coverage is not insurance, nor is it necessarily or properly incidental to the kinds of insurance that an insurer is authorized to write in this state.”

I’m told no other state has followed New York’s lead.

Honestly, what I will do this year is nothing new regarding travel to western Europe – from Ireland to Austria I just don’t see significant changes coming out of the White House. And I won’t buy trip insurance.

What about Ukraine? Turkey? Even Morocco?

Color me uncertain.

There are dozens more countries in that uncertain bucket.

I just don’t know about our relationship with such nations and that uncertainty is exactly why if a trip to such places pops up on my calendar I very well may buy travel insurance with a cancel for any reason option.

That just maybe has become prudence 2017 style.