The Eyes Have It: Cameras Are Spying on Travelers

By Robert McGarvey

On a May 5th United flight from San Diego to Houston, an unnamed female passenger in first class entered the bathroom where she noticed a blinking blue light. She did not know what it was but she took the device to the flight crew. United Corporate Security subsequently determined it was a video recording device.

Then, per a document compiled by the FBI, “After viewing the information on the device, a male was caught on video installing the device in the first class lavatory of this particular flight.”  Apparently the man’s face wasn’t visible but – using his clothing and also jewelry – an ID was made. The arrest of Choon Ping Lee, who works for Halliburton, an oil field service company, followed.  

Creeped out? Justifiably. But here’s the grim reality: throughout your travels, very probably you are being spied on.  In some cases it’s by state sponsored security forces. In other cases it’s by miscellaneous creeps, perverts, and miscreants.

Does it really matter who?  Is it more comforting to know the Chinese government has eavesdropping devices in your Beijing hotel room – which it probably does and it also probably has your cellphone tapped – than it is to know that your Airbnb host is a perv who has cameras in rooms?

Guess what, it’s nothing new. In 1983 I co-wrote a book called The Complete Spy, which detailed the hundreds of legally available devices that let ordinary citizens spy on their spouses, children, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, you name it.  A theme of the book was that our privacy was evaporating and we seemed uninterested in fighting back.  

It is much, much worse today.

You don’t have to be Erin Andrews to have your privacy robbed. But a take away from the Andrews caper is that a determined eavesdropper can – with few roadblocks – easily spy on us in hotels.  And spying in hotels is surprisingly common

There’s even a claim that a hidden camera was found in a cruise ship cabin.

Why would anyone want to spy on me or you? Who the hell knows.  

Some nation states spy compulsively.  The Soviet Union and East Germany did it routinely (and if you visited either, you were eavesdropped upon. This is beyond question).  Today, Russia ranks high among nations that eavesdrop on foreign visitors. But China does likewise (maybe even more so).  The Saudis do too. Ditto the Israelis.  But you also hear about the French, Singapore, and many, many more nations. It’s not just nation states however.

As for who else eavesdrops in hotels, it can be anything from a business competitor to a jealous spouse or a just plain weirdo.  Remember Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel, where he documents a motel owner who systematically spied on guests.

Don’t say it can’t happen where you are staying.  Especially not because spying has gotten easier.

What’s new today is that eavesdropping has become very cheap and very low skill.

Around $40 will buy you a perfectly good spy camera.

For a few extra bucks, you can get a camera disguised as a clock or a bluetooth speaker.

Such cameras are usually wireless and battery powered. It takes essentially no skill to set up a camera.  

That’s a scary difference. A generation ago, cameras were expensive but also high maintenance.  Now cameras are installed by dropping them in place and, very probably, forgetting about them. Who needs to retrieve something so cheap?

How can you fight back?  The good news is that self-defense detection weaponry too is proliferating.

Now for Spy vs. Spy. There is plenty of technology that says it can find hidden eavesdropping technology and that has a prima facie credibility in that these devices typically connect via wiFi and/or Bluetooth. A device, or app, that hunts for Bluetooth and WiFi in the immediate vicinity may well pinpoint a nearby camera.

Some also hunt for a glint from the lens of a hidden camera and they just may find them.

But they may not, too. The better, pricier eavesdropping tools are built to foil the cheap detectors.

Dial up the price of the detector to north of $50, or even better, north of $100 and your odds of finding spy gear escalate.

Experts also recommend an oldfashioned physical inspection. Look for what’s out of place – a blinking blue light in a United lavatory – and you’ll hit the bullseye without any tech.

But even with preventative steps, don’t count on having privacy wherever your travels take you.  For 40 years people have asked me what I do to avoid being spied upon. My answer has always been the same: nothing.  I assume I may be spied upon, I act accordingly, and if I am spied upon, so be it.

I really cannot think of any surer strategy. Especially not today.  

Practicing Flygskam in Phoenix – Really?

by Robert McGarvey

I am looking at my travel schedule and in September up pop a couple trips to Las Vegas. A trip to Santa Fe is also a definite maybe. Is it time for me to put up or shut up, to practice flygskam abstinence or just stay home?

In June I wrote – somewhat favorably – about flygskam aka flight shame, the Sweden born movement to scorn air travel that is fast trending across Europe. The core idea is that air travel is hideously polluting – and global warming is no joke. The ice is melting in the North Pole, South Pole, Greenland, you name it. And summer temps in Phoenix where I live crest ever higher (especially the daily lows which are higher and higher. It’s not unusual to walk out into 90+ weather at 6 a.m.) so for me global warming isn’t an academic issue. It’s in my face daily.

What can I do about it?

I can pollute less. Understand, I rarely drive and when I do it’s a 2017 BMW which runs very clean. Mainly I walk or take the light rail around town. Now I see a Washington Post piece headlined, “Europe’s flight-shame movement has travelers taking trains to save the planet.” I have to ask myself: what about me?

The Wapo story’s lead focused on one Johan Hilm, a Swede traveling from his home country to Austria. That’s a flight of about two hours. Mr. Hilm chose to take a combination of train, bus, and ferry in a journey that took more than 30 hours.

Explained the Wapo reporter, “one passenger’s share of the exhaust from a single flight can cancel out a year’s worth of Earth-friendly efforts.” He added: “so they are digging out their parents’ yellowing Europe-by-rail guidebooks and trading tips on the most convenient night train to Vienna. “

What about me?

A flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas is about 70 minutes, costs around $150, and, for me, the airport is maybe a 20 minute light rail ride from my door step which happens to be where the light rail stops. Talk about convenience. In a lifetime of flying I have never had it so good in terms of ease of airport access (and inside Sky Harbor is a well run place). That makes flying a slam dunk – except for the pollution and the global warming.

So I hunt online for a train and indeed there is one, also for around $150. There also are nine departures daily. Of course there are many more flights but with nine, a train departure will suit me.

But then there is the duration. The distance between Phoenix and Las Vegas is around 250 miles – the drive time is about four and one half hours. How long is a train ride? The quickest train is about 10 hours. The typical duration is 20 hours.

Read that again: 10 to 20 hours. For a trip you can make in a little over an hour by plane and under five hours in a car.

Is walking the only way left? That would take about 80 hours (plus sleeping and rest time).

But there is a flygskam style option: a bus. Trips take about five hours, there are nine departures daily, and price is around $25.

What about Santa Fe? Trains there take around 10 hours and cost about $135. A flight on American takes an hour and a half and a round trip costs under $200. A bus costs around $50 one way and the trip takes from 12 to 18 hours.

There indeed is the problem. Going full in with flygskam flight abstinence necessitates suffering. Standing up for the environment necessitates long flight alternatives that, at least with trains, often cost around the same.

The US is not alone in this. A UK Guardian writer recently noted, “Taking a flight from London to Edinburgh results in 193kg of CO2 emissions; opting for the train means you produce 24kg – that’s 87% less. But as I compared both prices and travel times for my journey, opting for air travel was not only quicker, it also cost much less. Later in the year I’d like to visit a friend in Barcelona: I can fly in November for £37; train travel is more than £250.”

Plainly we need more and better alternatives to planes if we in fact are going to use them. It is well and good to talk flygskam purity but until viable alternatives are on the table, only zealots will ditch air travel and cheers to them – sincerely – but I just am not sure I am ready for long, long train rides. I haven’t been on a long distance bus ride in maybe 45 years and can’t say I much liked it when I took them so I am not keen on that option.

Will I take the train to Las Vegas? Ask me later, I haven’t decided. And, frankly, I’m not quite sure how to explain to the client that the trip took many multiples longer and also cost the same as a flight. Maybe more. That just isn’t easy to justify.

But neither is contributing unnecessarily to global warming. There’s our dilemma. How do we get where we’re going while doing the least damage? How indeed.

Hoteliers: Time to Give Us Keyless Entry

By Robert McGarvey

How many ways have hotel key cards failed us. I remember a stay at a Berlin hotel where twice in the space of the first six hours I was a guest I needed to replace the key card.

I remember long, long walks in a Las Vegas casino hotel to get a new card.

Ditto in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC.

Key cards are failed technology. They just are unreliable.

And, worse, they can be hacked.

So is now the time – finally – when hoteliers will switch to room entry systems based on the cellphones we carry?

The New York Times believes just maybe. It related that “the number of hotels in the United States that have digital keys available rose from 6 percent in 2016 to 17 percent last year, according to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

Of course, there are quirks in the implementation.  According to the Times, “Some [hotels], including Hilton and Marriott, only allow a single phone to receive a key during a stay, and other guests in the room receive card keys. Like the card keys, the digital keys can be used to access elevators, fitness centers, parking garages and other common areas. Some mobile keys require the user to touch a button on their phone screen to unlock the door, while others require that the phone be held up to the lock.”

Basically however this is all quite simple. Some electronic innards are built into the room lock and the traveler uses Bluetooth to open the door. Easy.  

Why is this taking so long? Why are the implementations often so wonky?

Partly it’s our own fault.  Many of us just don’t want to use our phone to open our hotel rooms (also cruise ships and, for the record, my key card failed on the last cruise I took in October 2018).  

A recent YouGuv poll found that only 29% of us say they would prefer to access a hotel room wirelessly – which means that 71% are content with the status quo, that is, keycard entry.

If you are in that hold out group, feast on the vulnerabilities of key card systems. Researchers have shown that with a one minute hack and a $300 RFID card read/write tool most hotel key card systems can be hacked.  Pull a room card out of the trash, reprogram it and, bingo, you have a master key card that will open an estimated 500,000 to one million hotel locks around the world.  

Feel safe? Sure, that vulnerability may have been patched by now but know that there are other vulnerabilities, other hackers, and a growing acceptance of the reality that keycard entry systems just don’t measure up.

 

Keycards also fail – frequently and annoyingly.  It’s just poor technology.  I cannot remember the last time I spent more than a couple nights in a hotel and didn’t need a replacement card. For a one night business trip, sure, no probs.  But for anything longer they can be counted on to fail.

Nobody in the office space, where keycards took hold perhaps 50 years ago, believes keycards have a long future.   Some of course are using biometrics for entry and others are using phones. In that world, keycards are heading towards extinction.

So why aren’t hotels stampeding to put keycards in their past? Probably it comes down to money or, rather, the reluctance to spend it.  Hoteliers, and the hotel owners, just are skinflints when it comes to investing in this kind of upgrade.

That’s despite the fact that, as reported in Hotel Management, “Mobile keys are the safest form of guestroom entry in hotels today. Unlike plastic keycards that guests often leave within easy reach, which provide immediate access to the guestroom when stolen, mobile keys offer several layers of security.”

Then there are environmental benefits in getting rid of oldfashioned plastic keycards. Hilton for instance estimates a savings of 40 tons of plastic due to get use of its Digital Key app.

Another, huge plus of using the phone to open doors is that it just may eliminate the check in desk and almost certainly will end the long lines.  A guest who has a reservation can just sign in via the phone and walk straight to his/her room where the phone should open the door.

Sign me up.  

I have used a keyless system to open up and start my car for at least five years. No fails. How convenient.

I want it in hotel rooms too and I want it now.

How about you?

Upgrading the Airport Experience: A Fool’s Errand?

by Robert McGarvey

Delta has figured out that our airport experience genuinely sucks – and it says it wants to fix it. Are you optimistic?

Delta’s CFO, Paul Jacobson, is the bearer of these glad tidings. At a recent CNBC conference, Jacobson said, “I think the next area of competition in air travel is in the airport.”

He added: “How do you continue to streamline the on-the-ground experience. It is a big part of how passengers rate the experience.”

So true. Even with Priority Pass, Amex Platinum, Global Entry, and Diner’s Club along with a couple airline credit cards, I dread the airport experience. Where I live, Phoenix, it’s actually not that bad. I live 30 minutes away from PHX via lightrail, the security lines are predictable (and usually short), and it’s an airport where little seems to go awry. When a Centurion Lounge opens in 2020, life will indeed be good.

Delta, incidentally, already has a lounge at PHX. It’s gotten good ink – but count me a Centurion loyalist.

The problem is that I go to PHX to fly elsewhere and the other airports – such as EWR, JFK, DFW – are circles in Dante’s Inferno.

Enter Delta with a $12 billion war chest earmarked for airport upgrades – specifically at LaGuardia, LAX, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Atlanta.

Airlines nowadays are flush with cash and the big carriers seem persuaded they have upgraded the inflight experience as far as they can go, so what’s next on the fix it list? Airports are definitely a mess and indeed we do blame the carrier for our woeful airport experiences.

But is this fixable? By an airline?

Honestly, even clubs, the frequent traveler’s cure for airport misery, are rapidly deteriorating. Journalist Chris McGinnis recently filed a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that was headlined, Crowding pushes airport lounges to raise prices, limit access. The subhead was even gloomier: Finding respite from airport mobs getting tougher.

Wrote McGinnis, “due to their popularity, lounges are getting as crowded as airport terminals.” Club operators are deploying various strategies to better manage, indeed limit, access – but still the complaints grow that at many airports the clubs no longer count as sanctuaries.

I’ve even heard complaints that there was no place to sit in a Centurion, and no place to recharge a phone. Reports of overcrowding at Centurions are plentiful.

Of course club woes are just a symptom of what ails airports today. The short answer is just about everything.

The problem is known: the US just hasn’t opened a new airport in decades (Denver, 1995) and it hasn’t expanded airports to meet demand. Around a billion passengers clog US airports each year and that infrastructure was built to handle maybe half that passenger load. In boom times, like now, the limitations of the infrastructure become painfully obvious.

As far back as 2013, the Washington Post ran a story headlined: Reports say U.S. airports are dangerously close to capacity. Per the story: “Failure to invest in airports and the aviation system will ­result in a steady increase in airport congestion.”

Five US airports rank among the world’s busiest: Atlanta, LAX, DFW, Denver, Chicago O’Hare.

J. D. Power even ranks the country’s most hated airports. LaGuardia wins the prize, nosing out Newark.

What’s the solution? A massive airport instructure renewal plan is just about the only way out. According to the U.S. Travel Association, $130 billion is needed over the next four years for infrastructure involving airports.

Just about everything here is broken. We need more terminals, more runways, more parking spaces, more and better roads leading to the airports, more public transit to and from the airports.

China, by way of contrast, has 236 airports it will build by 2035. That will essentially double the nation’s airport capacity. China also is furiously building roads, bridges, and the rest.

The US, meantime, has made no progress in addressing an airport issue that most experts believe started perhaps thirty years ago. The problems aren’t new, they are years in the making, and what’s needed to do fixes is political will and investment dollars.

Which brings us back to Delta and its $12 billion upgrade fund. The carrier deserves applause – the other big carriers ought to pony up as well – but I just don’t see these efforts having the clout and the cash needed to make fundamental changes in our airports. Of course it’s all nice but nice won’t result in the changes we need.

We need a bold plan that aims to provide an airport infrastructure that will work at least through 2050. Call it a 30 year plan. Anything less just won’t do what we need.

Are any significant politicians showing support for bold air transportation initiatives? Not that I am aware of. That’s a shame.

The future of flying in the US is heading towards more gloom, more crowding, more hectic hours at airports. It doesn’t have to be that way. But until we mount a coherent, sweeping program that’s what we are likely to get.

Is This the End of Ripoff Hotel Resort Fees?


By Robert McGarvey

Washington, D.C. district attorney Karl A. Racine just dropped a bomb on Marriott International – and we all should applaud him.

The target of Racine’s ire: resort fees, charged by increasing numbers of hotels who have decided it is so easy to pick our pockets, they would be fools if they didn’t. So $20, maybe as much as $50 is slapped on our hotel room rates but those numbers don’t show up when we search in Expedia, Trivago, etc.

Resort fees can make a huge difference. Just this a.m. I looked at an Arizona hotel that had a summer special for Arizona residents only. The nightly rate: $224. In the fine print however I’m told there’s a $41 resort fee. That’s a nearly 20% bump.

A guess is that industrywide resort fees now put $2.7 billion, or more, in hoteliers’ pockets yearly.

Enter AG Racine.  “Marriott reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by deceiving consumers about the true price of its hotel rooms. Bait-and-switch advertising and deceptive pricing practices are illegal. With this lawsuit, we are seeking monetary relief for tens of thousands of District consumers who paid hidden resort fees and to force Marriott to be fully transparent about their prices so consumers can make informed decisions when booking hotel rooms.”

The lawsuit elaborated: “One key effect of this price deception is that consumers shopping for a hotel room on either Marriott’s website, or an online travel agency site (OTA) like Priceline or Expedia, are misled into believing a Marriott hotel room is cheaper than it actually is.”

Marriott of course has a different take.  In an interview on LinkedIn, CEO Arne Sorenson vigorously defended the fees.  He said: “You’ve got resort fees in hotels, baggage fees in airlines. None of us as consumers necessarily love it. What we’ve tried to do is be very transparent with disclosure.”

What absolute nonsense.  

Everytime we fly we have a choice – do we pay to check a bag or don’t we?  Personally I have never paid to check a bag. As in not once.

At many resorts the resort fee is inescapable.  Go ahead, try. Say: I don’t plan to swim in the pool, use your idiot gym, don’t want the junk newspaper, and am perfectly happy to be denied all that you bundle in it.

And I definitely don’t want the hotel WiFi which is dangerous to use.

Used to be a loud consumer could talk his/her way out of a resort fee at the check in desk. It has gotten much, much harder. Hotels are digging in their heels.

The greed multiplies. Now more hotels in urban areas are imposing “urban fees.”  According to the New York Times the Sofitel in Washington DC slaps guests with a $25 daily fee to cover “premium” Internet access, bottled water, yoga classes, and access to a bike share program. Many, many others are doing likewise.

Is there anything on that list you actually want? Or would use? Maybe the bottled water.

Some 55 hotels in San Francisco are reported to charge a resort or urban fee, for instance.

Back up a step. Is there real reason to believe now is a moment when resort and urban fees may in fact vanish?

I have written about resort fees for some years. Nothing changed except the fees got bigger and more resorts and hotels charged them.

Now things look different however.

According to Skift, “’The real takeaway from this lawsuit is to have an important jurisdiction file against a big company,’ said [NYU’s Bjorn] Hanson. ‘Other hotels will have to wait and see what happens, but other states and jurisdictions will feel that now is the time to go after them.’”

Hospitality lawyer Jim Butler notes this: “We have cautioned that consumer frustration over this issue is very high, and government agencies have periodically shown significant interest in jumping on a populist bandwagon. But today, it looks like the situation may have finally reached a turning point.”

What’s an individual hotel guest to do?  Act on what Hanson said. Write your state attorney general and urge him/her to follow in Washington, D.C.’s lead.  Handy list here.  Another list here.  

For an ambitious AG in a Democratic state, it’s an easy and sure way to grab headlines, win better name recognition, and get known as a consumer advocate. Goodby AG, hello governor.

Yes, hoteliers don’t like what they see coming. But it’s hard to have sympathy for folks who have been picking our pockets since perhaps 1997

Sign Off That Hotel WiFi Right Now!

by Robert McGarvey

If you are reading this on hotel WiFi, sign off now.  A new Bloomberg report underlines how porous hotel WiFi networks are. This is a long look at the problem and that’s good because it is a grim reality that savvy travelers need to know about.


Do you care if hackers have your credit card numbers, maybe passport info, possibly driver’s license details, hotel loyalty program log in and password, and probably more? Because they do. Because hotels do not care about your privacy. They just don’t.

Of course this week’s news is about airlines and breaches – specifically BA – and they have a sorry history of poor defense against hackers. Don’t get distracted however. Airlines are bad at this. But hotels are simply the worst.

Forgive me a Cassandra moment. I have been writing about how much hotel WiFi sucks for at least a decade. The stories are manifold and they always say the same: hackers long ago figured out that hotels have essentially no protections on their wifi networks so it is very much a wild west where an Internet caveat emptor prevails.

Except the odds are stacked against you: the hackers are very good at their work, which is stealing salable data.  Hotels are very bad at protecting our data. Hotel group after hotel group has fallen victim to hackers. TrumpHard Rock. Hilton. Marriott

Information security blogger Brian Krebs has reported that the Marriott (Starwood) breach involved 500 million of us.  

In a mea culpa, Marriott said: “The company has not finished identifying duplicate information in the database, but believes it contains information on up to approximately 500 million guests who made a reservation at a Starwood property.  For approximately 327 million of these guests, the information includes some combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest (“SPG”) account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date, and communication preferences.  For some, the information also includes payment card numbers and payment card expiration dates, but the payment card numbers were encrypted using Advanced Encryption Standard encryption (AES-128). There are two components needed to decrypt the payment card numbers, and at this point, Marriott has not been able to rule out the possibility that both were taken.  For the remaining guests, the information was limited to name and sometimes other data such as mailing address, email address, or other information.”

As for who hacked these hotels, nobody knows.  In many cases it doubtless is ordinary, common criminals.  In other cases, something else may be afoot. Noted Bloomberg: “Marriott hasn’t found any evidence of customer data showing up on dark-web marketplaces, CEO Arne Sorenson told a Senate committee hearing in March. That sounds like good news but may actually be bad. The lack of commercial intent indicated to security experts that the hack was carried out by a government, which might use the data to extrapolate information about politicians, intelligence assets, and business leaders.”

Yep.  The Chinese are believed to be voluminous acquirers of data. But the Russian aren’t slouches. Several European governments are in the game too.  And the US government increasingly is active. In that last case it is difficult to see a hack on a domestic company. But impossible? Not really.

Understand this: hotels are truly bad at protecting data. It’s an industrywide malady.  And hotels are lots worse than most other industries. Bloomberg posits a theory: “Hospitality companies long saw technology as antithetical to the human touch that represented good service. The industry’s admirable habit of promoting from the bottom up means it’s not uncommon to find IT executives who started their careers toting luggage. Former bellboys might understand how a hotel works better than a software engineer, but that doesn’t mean they understand network architecture.”

That rings true to me.

Bloomberg went on: “There’s also a structural issue. Companies such as Marriott and Hilton are responsible for securing brand-wide databases that store reservations and loyalty program information. But the task of protecting the electronic locks or guest Wi-Fi at an individual property falls on the investors who own the hotels. Many of them operate on thin margins and would rather spend money on things their customers actually see, such as new carpeting or state-of-the-art televisions.”

In the big chains the vast majority of hotels are owned by “asset holders” – everything from pension funds and big insurance companies to wealthy individuals.  They have to be persuaded to fund big ticket campaigns. And often they haven’t been.

The result in the hotel business is a patchwork of old, cruddy, unreliable technology.

But you do not have to be a victim. There is nothing we can do to strengthen the defenses around a hotel’s property management system, etc. But we can take steps to protect ourselves when it involves WiFi.

You have three options.  Definitely use them in hotels, but also in airports, coffee shops, and airport lounges. I don’t guarantee your safety but I promise you will be much, much safer than if you don’t take such steps.

O Create a personal hotspot with your cellphone and log in via it.  Cellular data is much, much more secure than is hotel network data. Not perfect. But good enough for most of us. This has been my go to for some years.

O Use VPN, a virtual private network.  There are known limitations to the security delivered by VPNs.  I personally no longer use one. But I know many companies require their traveling execs use a vpn and if that’s policy, it is much, much better than logging on naked to a hotel network.  

O Use Silo or a similar secure browser. The secure browser processes all web data inside a secure container so even if a user accesses malware it’s no harm, because the data won’t reach the user’s computer. Silo also encrypts traffic to shield it from prying eyes. A tool such as Silo offers more robust protection than do VPNs.  (Note: I have been paid by Silo’s developer for past work. That company had no involvement in this column and did not pay me for this.)

That’s three choices.  On your next hotel stay when you log into the Internet use one of the three and know that you will be a lot safer than the guests who log into the hotel’s computer. There is no excuse for not protecting yourself.  Not when you know just how perilous hotel networks are and will almost certainly remain.

Hotels, Bedbugs and You


by Robert McGarvey

A nasty secret about hotels is that a lot have bedbugs. I am talking five star hotels and hostels, dives and ultra luxury digs. Guests bring them. And they often leave them behind. To bite the next guest, suck some blood, and very probably crawl into a suitcase and come home with you. That last is a real threat. Most of us don’t notice a bedbug bite or two, or we think we nicked ourselves with something in the hotel bathroom.

Wrong. Sleep with bedbugs in a hotel and they are coming home with you.

If you like scary reading, click here for a roundup of TripAdvisor user complaints about bedbugs in hotels. You’ll get a sense of how global the issue is, both geographically but also economically. Staying only in luxe properties is no protection.

I have lived through a bedbug infestation in my home. It sucks. It cost $600 in exterminator fees to clear up. Plus a lot of sheets and blanket cleaning and washing. Along the way, there were many bites, some of which leave horrendous marks. The bites also are itchy and you just feel disgusting knowing you are an edible blood bank for who knows how many insects.

The cause of that infestation probably was a neighbor, not a hotel, but as our knowledge of bedbugs grew in that incident so did the realization that we had in fact been bitten by bedbugs in hotels in the past.

No surprise there. Hotels are fighting against what amount to a bedbug epidemic. It is not clear who is winning.

According to the New York Times, “A 2016 survey of 100 hotels in the United States, conducted by Orkin, a pest control company, found that 82 percent of them had been treated for bedbugs in the previous year. “

Personally I’m not troubled that 82% had been treated for bedbugs in the past year. I’m more troubled by the 18% that hadn’t been.

Conde Nast Traveler shouts: Bed bugs in hotels are on the rise.

Travelpulse says, Hotels are spending big money on bed bugs.

Exactly three states have laws that explicitly obligate a hotel to remove a bedbug ridden room from occupancy. That’s Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada.

That means the onus is on you to protect yourself from bedbugs.

Having been through a bedbug infestation once, I am determined not to bring back bugs from the hotels I stay in.

Consumer Reports outlines a self-defense program to take when entering a hotel room.

Step 1: Put your luggage in the bathroom or on a luggage rack. Probably they are free of bedbugs.

Step 2: Pull back the sheets and check the mattress and box spring for signs of bedbugs – they are visible to the naked eye. Keep your eyes peeled for “exoskeletons (casings that the bugs leave behind when they molt) and dark, rust-colored spots.” Those spots probably are dried blood, by the way.

Says CR: “If you see any telltale signs, tell hotel staff and ask for a new room, preferably in another part of the building.”

Personally, I would check out and decline to pay. But there’s no guarantee the hotel down the block doesn’t also have a bedbug problem so maybe I am spinning my own wheels.

You want a more meticulous inspection? Hotel Business content sponsored by ActiveGuard offers a multi-step program for hotel housekeeping to implement in a hunt for bedbugs. It’s detailed. And you’ll want to have a flashlight in hand. But if you want high confidence that your room is bedbug free, go with this six step program that looks at everything from the underside of the box spring to the edges of the headboard. The steps are here.

If you check out from a hotel after just one night you might not notice bug bites until you are on your way home. Often it’s an itch that first gets your attention. Then you notice the bites and you know you’ve been dinner for a bug. All’s not lost. You still can save yourself a home infestation. Put your clothes in the dryer for at least 30 minutes. Wash them if you wish but bedbugs can usually survive water. It’s the heat that kills them.

Should you complain to your hotel? Maybe, maybe not. There are many places to encounter bedbugs. Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix for instance. Also Kansas City International Airport. On airplanes too – Air India passengers have complained. They also show up in buses. And movie theaters often are said to be infested with bed bugs.

They even are said to show up on cruise ships.

If you are beginning to think they are everywhere, they are. And there are more infestations reported in summer, per the National Pest Management Association: “More than half of pest control professionals noted that they receive the most bed bug complaints during the summer, as increased travel during this time of the year may help spread bed bugs from vacation destinations to homes or even college lodgings to homes as students go on summer break.”

Inspect hotel rooms, always. Inspect your luggage when you get home. Ditto when cruising. Be wary of seating in airports, movie theaters, etc. Stay vigilant and bedbugs can be beaten.

Is This Room Service RIP?

By Robert McGarvey

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I come not to praise room service but to bury it. And maybe gleefully dance on its grave.

The Phocuswire headline said it plainly: Will food delivery apps eliminate the need for hotel room service?

I can only hope.

I am no fan of room service. As I write this I remember a room service breakfast for two at an Upper Eastside hotel that involved egg platters – cold and maybe $35 each; with cold toast; cold bacon stippled with congealed fat; coffee – $14 apiece for lukewarm java; plus tax and a mandatory room service charge. Around $150 total.

Did I mention the 40 minute wait?  That of course probably explains the tepid temperatures of the food and drink.

But the staggering thing is that a self described ultra luxury hotel would deliver such dreck to a guest’s room. And have the nerve to charge exorbitant prices.

Yeah, I should have gone to Starbucks, maybe a block away but I was lazy and – obviously – I was dumb.

And now Phocuswire tells me that just maybe I can forget about calling room service ever again.

Phocuswright, along with iSeatz, did a consumer survey – involving 800 of us – along with f & b pros to explore the pros and cons of room service and also third party delivery services.  It concluded: “The study found that travelers perceive both traditional room service and third-party food delivery platforms as providing ease and convenience, and overall satisfaction is similar with both options.

“But for room service, a notable issue for travelers is the perceived value – or lack thereof – in relation to the product received.”

You got that right about value, or lack thereof.

Yes, I’ve talked with senior hotel execs who tell me I don’t get it, that I don’t recognize that with room service every tray is in effect delivered twice – to the room, then back to the kitchen.  That adds expense, they tell me, and it also explains why often the food arrives cold.

In that vein, the report noted that many hotel executives want to stop room service. “Most hotels claim that they would prefer to eliminate the provision of room service if given the choice. However, most are currently obliged to maintain it, either because of guest expectations (particularly in luxury and, to a lesser degree, upmarket-properties), or because of brand requirements.”

The other factor that is holding back many hotels from shutting down room service is that we like it. Color me surprised by how many of us still use room service. Per the report, “Traditional room service remains a popular option for in-room dining, and is used by over two thirds (67%) of travelers.”

Oh, by the way, look online for room service menus at the hotels that you’ll be staying at in the next month.  You probably won’t find any. If you do, they will have glorious photos but no prices. I can’t say I don’t understand why hotel execs hide the prices. I’d be ashamed too.

But there now is a way out, that should please hotel execs and guests alike.  Suddenly food delivery services are an Internet unicorn. And hungry guests can get the food they desire.

Some hotels are partnering with food delivery services but who cares? This is the Internet wild west. Buy the food you want, where you want it. Worst case you’ll be forced to go down to the lobby to pick it up.  Big whoop. How many morning have I been forced in Strip hotels to go to the lobby for morning coffee at Starbucks.

You’ll eat better with the delivery services.

Look at Doordash. I’m thinking about a couple of iHop breakfast samplers – eggs, bacon, ham,  sausage, hashbrowns, pancakes. Priced at $12.50 apiece.  Throw in coffees, a tip, tax, delivery fee ($5.99) and you are still under $45. Where I am in Phoenix, you’ll get your food in under 40 minutes probably.  

Don’t like iHop?  There are dozens – probably hundreds – more restaurants to choose from.

Don’t like Doordash? Use Uber Eats.

Or Amazon Restaurants.

There are still other delivery services.

Some hotels are in fact partnering with specific delivery services and some guests say they prefer that — “The study found that two out of five respondents would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ use a food delivery service directly from a hotel if it was available,” reported Phocuswire.

I have no preference in that regard. I’ve used services to deliver directly to my apartment and am comfortable using the apps.

But if you’re not, very probably the hotel front desk will help you out in interfacing with a delivery service.

Hotel room service probably is going away, sooner rather than later.  And nobody will play the bagpipes at its passing.  

Flygskam: Why You Are Grounded

Words we don’t know may still bite us.  Meet Flygskam.  What language is it?  Swedish. And it means “flight shame.”

In Sweden today increasing numbers are ditching planes in favor of trains – even 15 hour trips such as Gothenburg to Lulea (1-½ hours by air).

They cite flight shame as the explanation.

Are they crazy?

Nope. Swedes are throwing flight shame in the faces of flyers and the hot button is how polluting planes are. A New York Times headline spelled it out: Flying Is Bad for the Planet.

The Times’ lede smacks you in the head: “Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.”

Don’t even ask about the airlines’ plastics problem. It’s huge and not shrinking.

What happens in Sweden doesn’t stay there. Know this: Flygskam is heading at you. If you haven’t heard displeased snickers about your frequent flying yet, you will – at the office, at the fitness club, at your community meetings. What had been a badge of honor – platinum elite status – is getting transformed into a badge of shame.

Environmentalism has caught up with frequent flying and it will exact its price.

The driving force behind Flygskam: Greta Thunberg, a 16 year-old Swedish school girl.  Don’t scoff. She and the movement she has launched will change how we travel – certainly how often we travel.

According to the South China Morning Post, “A recent survey conducted by WWF found that 23 percent of Swedes were opting out of air travel to reduce their impact on the climate, and 18 percent of those polled had chosen to take a train rather than fly. ‘Flygskam’ (‘flight shame’) has taken off on social media across Europe, as has the inversely correlated ‘tagskryt’ (‘train bragging’), and the phenomenon is making a difference on the ground.”

The Morning Post continued; “According to a recent Bloomberg report, Swedavia AB, which operates 10 Swedish airports, has seen year-on-year passenger numbers drop for seven consecutive months, while state train operator SJ moved a record 32 million people around the country last year.”

Rick Steves, the PBS travel guru, has acknowledged that flyers are “contributing to the destruction of our environment.”

In Europe, flygskam has spread beyond Sweden. The United Kingdom is a hotbed,

And “the Finnish have invented the word ‘lentohapea’, the Dutch say ‘vliegschaamte’ and the Germans ‘flugscham’, all referring to a feeling of shame around flying.”

An Instagram account that exists to shame boastful travel influencers about their gallivanting – #StayOnTheGround — has over 60,000 followers

Certainly Donald Trump believes climate change is hokum but he probably also has doubts that the Earth in fact is not flat and that the Moon is not made of cheese.  Nobody with the slightest familiarity with climate science doubts that in fact climate change is real and a corollary is that air travel is highly polluting – and much air travel also is not exactly necessary.

Which brings us back to flygskam and us.  The money question is this: what will you do about this at your end?

Me, I’ve already decided to eliminate air travel that can be easily eliminated. I have not modified my position. If a trip can be replaced with a phone call, I’m all in.

And a lot of business trips can be eliminated.

What about vacation travel?  This year I find myself planning vacation trips from where I live in Phoenix to San Francisco, Texas, northern New Mexico – and, yep, I see all happening in a car.

Can I go the next six months without once boarding a plane?  I’m not prepared to promise that. A family emergency could trigger a flight.  So could the right business proposition. I am not for hurting myself.

But I am for doing what I can do to save the environment and part of that is indeed eliminating superfluous air travel.

Are you down for likewise?

Or are you pinning on a “smygflyga” button?

That’s flying in secret of course.

And isn’t that a change? A generation ago we might have lied that we’d flown from LA to Vegas because driving seemed so lame.  But now we lie and say we drove.

Climates change. So do customs.  

For the environment let’s hope this change sticks.

Show Us Your Tweets Before Entering the US


By Robert McGarvey

The US government now has announced a policy where applicants for US visas are asked to disclose their social media handles. Apparently about 15 million foreign visitors will be impacted annually.

Would you disclose your Twitter, Facebook, and other accounts to a foreign government?

My Twitter account is @rjmcgarvey, ditto on Facebook, and I have never posted on Instagram, Snapchat, et. al. I have nothing to hide. But I do have questions about this new US information grab.

Is the US overreaching in its paranoia? Should what you post on social media figure into your ability to travel the world? And remember that others will follow the US policy – that is, many nations will start asking for social media handles on visa applications.

So US citizens too will be impacted.

Which brings us to the question: why did the US make this change?

According to TIME, the US explained this thusly: “National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

The free speech advocate inside me recoils at yet another government act that may stifle speech.

Even so, I have assumed for some years that the big governments – especially the US, China, possibly Russia – routinely sift through all social media postings.  I would also assume that many who post inflammatory stuff do so under pseudonyms. So a visa applicant might have a humdrum account on Twitter in his/her real name – and another account full of hideous nonsense under a fake name.  Which account would you guess he’d disclose on his visa application?

Is there any point to this new government intrusion?  Will demanding social media handles deliver anything of value?

Then, too, many millions of foreigners enter the US under a visa waiver program that allows passport holders from countries such as Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom to enter without a visa.  

In FY 2015, about 22 million came in under the visa waiver program (Japan was the leader with 3.7 million).  That’s half again more than will come in with a visa but that makes sense because most developed countries are in the waiver program (and in most cases US citizens do not need visas to enter these countries).

As for the new US demands, civil liberties folks are up in arms.  Per the New York Times, “This seems to be part and parcel of the same effort to have an extraordinary broad surveillance of citizens and noncitizens,” Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said of the latest development. “Given the scope of the surveillance efforts, it is hard to find a rational basis for the broad surveillance the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing for almost two years.”

Probably, too, this search won’t actually prevent any terrorism. A Washington Post story from a few years ago took up exactly this question and said, naw, it won’t work.  Why? The vast majority of posts are about the same old stuff – “Almost all were about traffic, celebrities or the weather. Discovering whether a visa applicant has ever voiced suspect opinions will require searching through acres of haystacks in the hopes of finding a few needles,” said the Post as it reviewed Ukrainian posts after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Note that timing. Even tho war was breaking out, the overwhelming majority of social posts were about the same old trivialities of everyday life.

Then, too, added the Post, the Internet is awash with hate speech – vide Trump’s Twitter account.  There’s a lot of bluster, a lot of ranting, and a lot of plain hate. That means “identifying suspicious social media activity cannot be conclusive without additional labor. Whittling hundreds of thousands of flagged accounts down to a manageable watchlist will be an expensive and time-consuming human effort, not the work of algorithms.”

So probably this is actually just a Washington DC witch hunt not worth the time and effort.