Hail Senator Markey: Tilting at Airline Fees

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By Robert McGarvey

 

Call Ed Markey the senator from La Mancha.  That is because he has launched an assault on airline fees, in legislation called the FAIR Fees Act, aka Forbid Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act.

 

The backdrop of course is that airlines are getting fat imposing niggling fees on passengers.  They pulled in over $5 billion in fees – for things like bag check – in just the first three quarters of 2015.

 

It sets a bad precedent too. Greedy hoteliers of course are racing to slap us in the face with resort fees – even when you are staying at, well, a resort. Or – worse – when you are staying at a city hotel with no obvious resort features. They really just want the $20 to $40 per day they believe they can squeeze out of us, mainly because they are envious of the airlines profits.

 

Markey of course is following in the footsteps of Senator Claire McCaskill who has been driving legislation to end resort fees.

 

Markey – cleverly – is trying to leverage debate off the present Senate discussions about reauthorizing the FAA.  Some pro-consumer language already has made its way into the bill (e.g., requiring airlines to refund baggage fees when the gear arrives late).

 

But Markey wants more. His legislation’s intent: if enacted it “prohibits airlines from imposing fees, including cancellation, change and bag fees, that are not reasonable and proportional to the costs of the services provided.” The legislation also directs the Department of Transportation to review any other fees charged by airlines.

 

Markey stated his case: “Airlines fees are as high as the planes passengers are traveling on, and it’s time to stop their rapid ascent. In recent years, fees and ticket prices have gone up despite the fact that gas prices and airline choices have gone down. Airlines should not be allowed to overcharge captive passengers just because they need to change their flight or have to check a couple of bags. There is no justification for charging consumers a $200 fee to resell a $150 ticket that was cancelled well in advance. The FAIR Fees Act puts a stop to this fee gouging and will help ensure passengers are flying the fair and friendly skies.”

 

The text of the bill is here.  

 

Note: Markey is not going after the ridiculous fees charged by airlines for bad food and drink in coach.  Or the anemic WiFi. At least not now.

 

The bill very specifically states its targets: “(1) any fee for a change or cancellation of a reservation for a flight in interstate air transportation; (2) any fee relating to checked baggage to be transported on a flight in interstate air transportation; and (3) any other fee imposed by an air carrier relating to a flight in interstate air transportation.”

 

Nor does the bill say airlines cannot charge for such things. Just that charges have to be reasonable.

 

Markey by the way is not alone. His co-sponsor is Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut. Said Blumenthal, “This measure will ground the soaring, gouging fees that contribute to airlines’ record profits and passengers’ rising pain. With all the frills of flying already gone, airlines are increasingly resorting to nickel and diming consumers with outrageous fees. These runaway charges are anti-consumerism at its worst – in some cases doubling passenger fares despite plummeting fuel costs and soaring airline profits. A parent who wants to sit with his young child, a customer who wants to check or carry on a bag, or have Wi-Fi, or a traveler who needs to change or cancel a reservation should not incur exorbitant, unnecessary fees on the whim of an airline.”

 

The National Consumers League has weighed in on Markey’s side.  Said the NCL: “Industry consolidation, cheap fuel, packed planes, and a never-ending list of fees have combined to drive airline industry profits to historic levels,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL executive director. “Now it’s time for the full Senate to step in and ensure that the industry’s profits are not coming at the expense of consumers’ safety and pocketbooks.”

 

Will this bill be enacted into law? Not likely with the present Congress. But come January 2017 things may look different.

 

We can also hope for – and push for – more transparency in pricing.  I don’t want to tell a resort it cannot charge $25 for pool towels.  But what pretty much all travelers object to are surprise, undisclosed fees.  

 

The same principle applies to airline fees. Can airlines charge for a ticket change? Sure. But be transparent and keep the upcharge nominal.  We’ll all be happier.

 

And won’t that be a change for airplane passengers.

 

5 Ways to Travel Safer in 2016

5 Ways to Travel Safer in 2016

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

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As a people we are busy crossing huge chunks of the world – just about all of the Continent – as simply too dangerous for 2016 travel.  Mistake.  The hunger for safety makes perfect sense of course, but there is no need to pull the blinds tight and declare the world a no go zone.

 

Five steps will make your travels safer.

 

And none of them involves crossing off Europe.

 

But some are hard and some – definitely – are new for 2016.

 

Such as?

 

Some countries are better at this than others.  You will hear from the optimists, “Belgium has to be a lot safer now.”  (Substitute name of the place of the latest atrocity.)  You won’t hear that from me.  When a country has utterly failed in its anti-terror and, in particular, when it has failed against predictable strikes, it will not raise its security performance to world class in a matter of short days. Nor weeks. Nor months.  It takes time to get good at security. London is very good but it has been at this for 40 years.  New York City is very good but it had 911 to deal with.

 

Don’t ask travel security people where they recommend not going. Most will mumble about North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a few other places you have no interest in visiting anyway.

 

Ask them instead: where won’t you personally go?

 

And also ask: where wouldn’t you let your 15 year old daughter go?

 

You will get interesting responses. One consultant told me he had crossed off Argentina and Brazil (due to crime, not terror).  Another said to avoid Bali.

 

The long way to get these insights is to pore over the State Dept. travel warnings and alerts. Tips are there, although often buried.  The same from the British Foreign Office is also worth a look.

 

Consider this about Belgium from the Foreign Office: “There is a high threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including on public transport and transport hubs and in other places visited by foreigners.

“Brussels hosts a number of international institutions (EU and NATO) and government and foreign embassy buildings which are sensitive locations.”

To me, that says stay away – and if you must go, steer clear of international government buildings.

Cross off the right countries to not visit and you will be that much safer.

In Europe now, to me that means avoid Belgium, France, Netherlands, and Bulgaria. Sorry. But that is how I read the tea leaves, at least right now.

 

Avoid public transit. I hate typing that. But it is clear that terrorists have identified mass transit – especially subways – as points of vulnerability.  

 

Buses are probably fine, although large bus depots are also high risk.

 

The safest way to get around: walk. It’s also good for your health and there is no better way to really see a city.

 

Watch for Patterns. In assessing real risk in a destination, don’t look for single incidents, hunt for patterns, that is, multiple terror incidents. See a pattern and you have a right to be creeped out.

 

Use Google News to search for terror incidents in any prospective destination.  See a pattern? A frequency? Don’t go.

 

Some experts point to Turkey and Bali as places where real patterns seem to be forming. That is not good news.

 

Stay in  modest hotels – or even better Airbnb.

 

Terrorists target hotels, especially branded, American upscale hotels.

 

That’s why there is greater safety in modest, locally owned properties.

 

But even better probably are accommodations found via Airbnb and similar sharing economy networks.

 

Bomb a five star hotel and there are headlines.

 

Another plus of local accommodations: there likely will be fewer Americans. That’s good because often we are in fact targets.

 

Get out of town.  Terror attacks have centered in big cities – occasionally at high end resorts – there is no interest in tiny towns.
Go there.  Not only will you get an authentic travel experience – I learned more about Ireland in a week in Donegal Town (population 2607) than I did in weeks in Dublin – but you are likely to be much safer, not just from terror but also street crime.

 

Don’t hide from Europe in 2016. Go. Just go with your eyes open.

The War on Resort Fees Gets Hotter

The War on Resort Fees Gets Hotter

 

by Robert McGarvey

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US Senator Claire McCaskill – the senior Senator from Missouri – is on your side.  She has introduced legislation that, if enacted into law, would put a fast end to sneaky, greedy resort fees that are ever more popular with hoteliers looking to goose their margins.

 

“It’s clear there’s a bait-and-switch going on when it comes to these hidden hotel fees, and consumers are paying the price,” said McCaskill, the former Chairman of the Consumer Protection Subcommittee, in a press statement. “What I heard from Missourians was clear—families who’ve saved for a well-deserved vacation are too often facing sticker shock when they’re slapped with their final bill. This legislation provides a commonsense solution, requiring hotels to be upfront about mandatory costs by including them in room rates.”

 

Understand, McCaskill is not saying the Senate should get involved in regulating hotel room rates.  Her beef is simple. When a hotel tells you the rate is $199, but at check out another $10 to $50 is slapped on in a resort fee, that practice is plain wrong, suggested McCaskill.

 

The FTC, last year, after some waffling on resort fees had asked Congress to take some definitive action.  The McCaskill bill is a step in that direction.

 

McCaskill’s bill, S 2599, has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

 

The language of the bill pulls no punches.  Pricing that does not disclose mandatory fees is “deceptive,” according to the bill.

 

That, by the way, is indisputable fact.  Imagine a restaurant where the menu says “hamburger, $4.99.” You are later given a bill that says $4.99 plus $3.00 “facility fee” to cover a dish, a napkin, silverware, and possible use of the lavatory.  Absurd? Indeed. But that is what hotels are doing with their resort fees.

 

What is especially irksome about them is the rampant lack of disclosure.  Try to find a resort fee when booking on mobile (which ever more of us do).  At check in, did the front desk advise you about the resort fee in clear, unmistakable language? It probably did not.

 

Worse: what is the logic of a hotel that clearly is a resort charging an extra fee for guests using the stuff that brought them to the place in the first instance? That’s swimming pools, towels, a fitness center, etc.

 

And know that at most resorts the good stuff – the premium hikes, tennis lessons, yoga with good teachers – well, all that comes with premium fees. It’s not included in the resort fee which, generally, includes a bunch of banal stuff that had always been free such as parking (at suburban resorts) and pool towels.  

 

What’s the probability McCaskill’s bill will become law?  In this fraught year it is perilous to make predictions.

 

But whether it becomes law or does not, the good news is that simply putting it in the hopper has warned the hotel industry that there are watchdogs who question resort fees.

 

Hoteliers will tell you – they have told me – that “no one complains about resort fees.” That is rubbish and McCaskill’s bill makes it clear there are antagonists.  

 

It also has to have empowered Federal Trade Commission mandarins who wanted a signal from Congress about resort fees. McCaskill’s bill is an unmistakable signal.

 

You don’t want to wait for Congressional action. That raises this sharp question: What can you do to fight back against resort fees?

 

Know that it is a tough fight in some towns – notably Las Vegas where ever more hotels charge ever more fees.  Even worse, usually what’s included in a Vegas resort fee is free local calling – I have never used the in-room phones in Vegas – and also WiFi which, if you have been on the Strip, you know is generally wretched.  I do not even use it to read newspapers.  I’ll bring up my own hotspot which is faster and more secure.  The Las Vegas resort fee generally delivers absolutely no value.

 

You can fight back.  Many travelers say they have ducked resort fees – in Las Vegas too – and even when they haven’t, they feel better because they protested.

 

Complain at checkout. Raise a stink. Insist the resort fee was not fully disclosed, either at booking or at check-in.  If you have not used any of the “amenities” covered by the resort fee, get specific.  Many hotels will fold at that point and void the charges.

 

Email the Federal Trade Commission.  They are said to be keeping files on resort fees. Help the files get thicker.

 

Email your US Senators, expressing support for McCaskill’s bill and urging them to do likewise.  It couldn’t hurt to also email your member of the House.

 

If the property won’t budge and forced you to pay a resort fee, put up a snarky review on TripAdvisor which has emerged as perhaps the single more important review site in travel.  Be clear, be honest, and in a few words explain why this property’s resort fee is a rip off.

 

Hit hotels in the pocketbooth and they just may retreat on resort fees.  But unless consumers raise a protest, they will continue to grab the money.  That is fact.

Just Say No To Hotel Cancellation Fees – Talking at You, Hilton

Just Say No To Hotel Cancellation Fees – Talking At You, Hilton

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

 

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Hilton acknowledges the obvious: we “hate” cancellation fees, said CEO Chris Nassetta in the company’s fourth quarter earnings call.  He quickly added: too bad.  The chain intends to keep charging such fees.

Said Nassetta: “I think what you will see us do…is different ways of pricing our products both short, long, lead and more and less flexibility. And to some extent not unlike what the airlines and other industries have done. What we want to do is make sure that on behalf of ourselves and our owners that we’re not tying up inventory unnecessarily without customers having to take any risk or have any cost.”

That means buckle up for more – and harsher – cancellation fees.

Expect the other big hotel companies to follow suit.

Fight back.

In the old, glory days of travel basically just about any hotel reservation could be cancelled, with no penalty, up to shortly before arrival (often 6 p.m. the night of arrival).

Not today.

Hilton for instance has imposed a hard cutoff of midnight before arrival – cancel later and you are on the hook for a day’s room rate.

The chain also has experimented with a $50 fee for any cancellation after booking – no matter how long in advance.

Some properties impose still longer cancellation lead times.

Marriott does likewise. Some of its properties impose a 72 hour cancellation notification to avoid penalty. Many have the midnight the night before deadline.

So does Starwood.  

Intercontinental, meantime, as been slapped with a class action suit triggered by its cancellation policies.

There is no logic behind such charges. Hoteliers see airlines doing similar and their envy and greed kick in and they want their cut of the easy money. That’s the totality of the “logic.”

For a business traveler in particular, these fees are toxic.  How often have I had trips cancelled the day before? Let me count the times. Even, sometimes, the same day.  

But hotels want the cancellation monies.  

They will get them if we don’t fight back.

I am looking at a resort in Northern Arizona and its cancellation policy is even more obnoxious: “Cancellations are accepted until 7 days prior to arrival. Cancels within 7 days will forfeit deposit,” which equates to one night’s fee, pushing $600 when tax and the resort fee are added in and, yep, you probably will be whacked for the resort fee even if you won’t set foot on the property.

Crazy? You bet.  But so profitable.

I have a foolproof way around ever paying a cancellation fee – and note: I never have.

Stop making reservations in advance.

The last time I went to New York – during the UN General Assembly hubbub, when just about every room in Manhattan is booked – I did not book until the morning I flew out. I used HotelTonight, got a lovely room at the Bryant Park Hotel, and I knew there was no doubt I would use it.

What if the hotel you want is full? Bet that it won’t be. Few hotels sell out, ever.  The odds are strongly in your favor.

Of course also have backup options. In the case of the UN General Assembly, I had a hotel in mind in Jersey City I had been meaning to try, also one in the Bronx, so I knew I would not sleep on a plastic bench at Port Authority.

In the case of the Arizona property there are two or three similar hotels – and, understand, the vast majority of hotel rooms are what economists call fungible, that is, there are essentially identical alternatives.  Don’t get hung up on a specific hotel and you can – safely – laugh at the cancellation fees.

Think about this. You are driving cross-country. You will stay in probably five or six motels along the way.  How many room nights do you reserve? Probably exactly none.  You drive until you are tiring, you see a sign you trust – Holiday Inn Express or maybe La Quinta or whatever – you pull in.  And you get a room.  How rare is it to see a sign saying there is no availability?

Right. It doesn’t happen often enough to worry about.

Will we do grievous damage to hotel revenue management programs if we all suddenly stop making reservations? Probably.  Their pricing will revert to to haphazard guesswork and they will complain.

But they have only themselves to blame.

They gave us no choice but to resolve to stop reserving rooms, except early the day of arrival.

Why don’t we do likewise with airlines? Two reasons. (1) Prices for last minute bookings are exorbitant; and (2) flights – increasingly – do sell out.  If we play chicken with the airlines, many times we will be the losers.

Not so hoteliers.  Most hotels rarely – never – sell out. When they do there are similar rooms nearby. And if anything room prices go down – never up – at the last minute.  Hoteliers have incentivized us to not reserve because they punish us when we do.  And they charge us less for last minute bookings.

That’s the smart way to travel in 2016.

On Tipping, Danny Meyer and Foxes

On Tipping and Danny Meyer – and Foxes

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

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When the fox tells you your idea for improving the lot of the chickens is a bad idea, that in fact it will make their lives worse, you have to know that you are heading in the right direction.

That’s how I feel when I hear the chorus of attacks on restaurateur Danny Meyer’s war on tipping which he in fact has now called “socialist.”

As for why Meyer wants to eliminate tips, he told CNBC this: “The tipping system is actually antithetical to creating a profession for people who really take their jobs seriously. You don’t tip your doctor if they do a good job; you don’t tip the airline pilot if the plane actually lands.”

Tipping, he added, is “demeaning.”

It’s not just Meyer. Most thoughtful people who have contemplated tipping have concluded it is a bad idea that fosters bad service.

Restaurateur Jay Porter in a Slate article said: “When we switched from tipping to a service charge, our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn’t feel taken for granted. In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system. The quality of our service also improved. In my observation, however, that wasn’t mainly because the servers were making more money (although that helped, too). Instead, our service improved principally because eliminating tips makes it easier to provide good service.”

Who is attacking also is interesting. It rarely is restaurant workersmost would take a job at a Danny Meyer restaurant in a heartbeat because Danny is known for treating his people well, in a business that generally treats them like disposable parts.

It also is not usually from Meyer’s fine dining competitors.  Most of them are probably mulling a similar policy anyway.

It definitely is not from people who know European restaurants because where I have dined on the Continent, generally service is included – and additional tips, such as they are, might be a Euro or two.  

And yet we hear that service will plummet in US restaurants if tipping is ended – and the irony is that the loudest voices chanting this are smalltime restaurant owner-operators.  The irony of course is you’d think managing service would be essential part of the ownership job but these owners, apparently, want to outsource waiter motivation to diners.

That is a ridiculous abdication of responsibility.

Besides, it does not work now and won’t work tomorrow.

Let me ask you this: when was the last time you were wowed by restaurant service, really blown away? I cannot remember the last time I was. Actually I can. It was maybe six years ago at Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. There were also really good times at Babbo, Del Posto, a few others. But I can count such nights on a pair of hands.

Mind you, I also cannot recall a time when the service was so horrendous that I wanted to stiff the server.  Usually it just is what it is. Adequate. Satisfactory.

Why cannot that be simply part of the meal experience – without the absurd dance of the tip at meal’s end.

Meyer — who incidentally is also taking on the challenge of making airline food edible in a deal with Delta, showing he is unafraid of La Mancha moments  – is saying it can and should be.

Some say waiter morale will plummet but, really….  Meyer, for instance, is raising wages and also menu prices (which went up 20+% at the Modern in Manhattan for instance).  What’s a waiter not to like?

Meyer also called tipping “socialist” – and, he explained, in most fine dining establishments tips are pooled and shared by servers.  Give Suzie a 100% tip on your birthday dinner because you want to share your wealth – and probably she will throw that generous tip into the pot and all will share equally.

So exactly how did your tip in fact directly reward good service?

The more I mull on the opposition to Meyer, the more I think a large part just is inertia, we all resist just about any change and in the case of US fine dining, we have lifetimes of calculating 15% or 20% at meal’s end and we are good at the math.

We just don’t want to change.

So why do some restaurant owners resist this? My guess is that causes are two-fold.  (a) They really do not know how to motivate their wait staff and they are hoping we, the diners, can do it for them.  (b) They already are getting pushback on too high prices at their tables and they are afraid that if they raise the tabs 20% diners will stay home.

They may be right about (b) – but that is their problem. It isn’t mine and it most certainly should not be the problem of the waiters and waitresses.

Rather than criticizing Meyer they might focus on motivating their own staff and impressing diners with the value for dollar of their offerings.

I suppose it’s easier for them to gnash their teeth than it is to address structural failings in their businesses.

I stand with Meyer on this.  Tipping makes no sense. It’s time to put a stop to it.  Now.