Know Your Hotel’s Cancellation Policy

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Going, going, gone are the days when a business traveler can call a hotel and cancel a room for that night without penalty if the call is made by 6 p.m. Hoteliers have figured out they can monetize your booking even if you don’t want it by imposing arbitrary deadlines for cost free cancellation.

Worse, the policies are all over the map. Most hotels want 24 to 72 hours notice. I have seen some that insist on a week’s advance cancellation. There is no consistency or uniformity, often none even within a specific chain.

That has to be a major worry for many business travelers.

How often do you have a business trip cancelled the day before departure?  It happens. I’ve even have had cancellations on the day of! Not often but sometimes and, until now, I have been able to cancel hotel rooms without any penalties. (I also have always been able to cancel flights without penalty because I insist on booking fares that allow for that.)

Know that, below, we provide you with a cheat sheet that will help you know when your hotel’s deadline is for fee free cancellation.  Sometimes.  Not always because, again, there’s no real consistency. This isn’t a game rigged in our favor.

For starters, however, why have hotels overturned long established policy that allowed that fee free cancellation up to 6 p.m. the day of arrival? Hoteliers will tell you they can’t book rooms cancelled at the last minute. They also say a cancelled booking costs them money.

Rubbish.

A good travel agent, by the way, often can cancel a room with little notice and no penalty for a client. Meeting planners almost always can.

Why can they do it and you can’t?  Again: the hotelier wants to grab your dough whether you want the room or not.

The blunt fact is that – with or without your unwanted room – the typical hotel will have lots of empty rooms that night. The average hotel occupancy rate in the United States is 68%. On any given night one in three rooms goes unsold.

A different data set claims that in 2018 hotel occupancy hit a 30 year high when it reached 66.1%.

Anybody who tells you that if you had only cancelled your room earlier, then they could have sold it to another guest but your late cancellation costs them money is blowing smoke.

They don’t want to let you cancel scot-free because they hope to be able to shake some coins from your pockets.

Don’t let them.

A starting point is knowing what you are up against. Here is a chain by chain breakdown compiled by Travelmarket report:

  • Marriott – 48 hours. If you want to cancel a room for Wednesday night, do it by mid-day Monday to be safe.
  • Hilton – 48 hours. Some resorts impose a 72 hour cancellation policy. Always check when reserving.
  • Hyatt – 48 hours – except “some” ask for more notice. Again, always ask.
  • IHG – 24 hours at Holiday Inn, Candlewood Suites. Kimpton wants 48 hour notice.
  • Ritz-Carlton – 7 days notice of cancellation. That’s right. A week.
  • Fairmont – no set policy. Varies by property.

Frustrating? You bet. The bottomline is that it is incumbent on you to ask when booking.

Plenty more hotels now want cancellation penalties too. NYU professor Bjorn Hanson, who tracks hotel fee income, has said he sees many more hotels climbing on the cancellation fee bandwagon.  For the hotel this is essentially expense free income. An unccupied room that is paid for is pure profit.

No wonder hoteliers love this fee.

What’s a traveler to do?

My advice has been and remains: don’t book until the same day of travel.  No, you won’t have to sleep on a park bench. I have often checked availability in prime cities – Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC, New York – and always find availability at the last minute.

Always.

The HotelTonight app is your friend. Use it.

Or TripAdvisor. I just looked for a room in Chicago tonight and TripAdvisor said about 75% of its hotel inventory had availability.

Don’t some hotels sell out? You bet.  Very occasionally and not very often but some hotels do sell out. Many resorts definitely sell out for prime dates (good luck booking a July 4th stay in desirable Cape Cod even this early – many of the swankiest joints already have solid books of business).  And I don’t think I have ever found availability at Marriott Marquis adjacent to McCormick Place in Chicago so, sure, sometimes even meetings hotels fill up.

But I have always found rooms in Chicago. Just not in walking distance to McCormick Place.

Ditto San Francisco.

Etc.

So the prevailing rule is that if you hunt and if you have some flexibility, you will find a room and probably it will be convenient.

Paranoid? A day before travel – when that trip looks to be solid – check for rooms. If you fear scarcity, book then.  You will probably travel the next day and not have to worry about cancellation fees.

But to be really safe here’s the three part rule book: Just say no to hotel cancellation fees. Book on the day of travel.  Never pay a cancellation fee again.

 

The Priority Pass Restaurant Play

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

I like it. That’s my verdict on the Priority Pass  expansion into airport restaurants. Necessity doubtless mothered this invention and I’d had a healthy skepticism about it. But after a lunch stop at terminal 8 at JFK, where Bobby Van’s was my only club option, I’d give this gambit a qualified thumbs up.

Priority Pass comes as part of my Platinum card perks via Amex.  I don’t mentally calculate it as costing me anything. And at participating restaurants it antes up $28 ($56 with a covered guest).

The one hesitation about the Bobby Van’s stop: lunch cost me around $55 for two but that included a couple glasses of decent red apiece – a Rosenblum Zin along with a turkey club, a veggie burger, fries and finishing with coffees. Total tab, with tax and tip, around  $112. Priority pass ponied up $56, I covered the rest.

Yes, a typical visit to an airport club costs me nothing but I also rarely see anything worth eating and I typically drink only coffee because, again, there’s nothing I want and the coffee isn’t any good either.

This way I got a pleasant lunch, in a quiet venue.  It made me forget that I’ve avoided JFK  for over 20 years because I find everything about it painful.  I still don’t like going to JFK but at least in terminal 8 I’ve found an option I like.

Of course I also could have cut my out of pocket to around zero with more frugal ordering.  But it was noon, I was in pricey New York, so why not eat well before a cross country flight where I could skip the inflight food without listening to my stomach growl.  

So I am okay with the Bobby Van’s deal.  

And the restaurant got a visit from a first time customer who may well return.  It also presumably gets a few bucks from Priority Pass.

Will I always want to drop $50 on a lunch for two, or $25 just for me? Probably no. But, again, I don’t have to.  Doing this just with the $28 per head credit is possible. Just order accordingly.

Buy a burger, a beer, and toss down $5 in cash as a tip and you are good with this deal even at JFK.

Meantime,  back at the standard airport club, mainly I am seeing crowds. Just getting seated is a hassle.

That’s true also at the Amex Centurion lounge which still ranks as my airport fave if I can get in.

But overcrowding has become a staple at Centurion.  Sigh. Amex is also putting restrictions on entry. A perfect airline club is becoming less so.

Even when I can get into an airport club I often wonder why I bother. Last week at the Priority Pass club lounge at Phoenix terminal 4 I got in at no charge and managed to get the last seats but there was nothing worth eating.

Free is not always the best deal.

Priority Pass, apparently confronting a lack of available club spaces at airports, has decided to hunt for restaurant partners and I am hoping it works for all – Priority Pass, the restaurants, and of course the travelers.  Want more info about Priority Pass, its challenges and opportunities? Read Joe Brancatelli’s column on this – it gives the full scoop.

Face it, we need more options at airports. I had become so cynical, I had even begun extolling the virtue of scorning clubs and sitting amid the ordinary passengers, with a Starbucks latte in hand.  But maybe things aren’t quite so desperate.

Looking at the Priority Pass restaurant options, there are around two dozen, with more to come, they say.

Many are modest – Johnny Rockets at Syracuse airport, for instance. In those joints the Priority Pass credit should go far indeed.

At Barneys Beanery at LAX, $28 should get you the chili sampler and a beer. Add a$5 in cash for the tip and you are good.

Bottom line: check the Priority Pass app because you just may find fresh options at the airports you find yourself in.

 

Politics and Your Travels

 

By Robert Mcgarvey 

New research from the Chief Marketing Officer Council’s GeoBranding Center and AIG Travel slaps me in the face with the unexpected. Just 8% of us take politics, ethics, human rights, and prejudices into account when choosing a destination.

92% do not apparently give a fig about ethics or decency when picking a destination.

Color me shocked.

About one fourth of the planet consists of places I would not go due to politics – Tibet, Burma, Sudan, Syria, Honduras, Saudi Arabia among them.

Nor would I stay at a Trump hotel. I would not even go to a meeting in one.

I do not seek to impose my views on others. But they are my views and I try to live them.

Part of living them is knowing where I won’t go.

Where won’t you go?

My list doesn’t have to be yours. But we all need a list of where we won’t go. And we need to know why we won’t.

Some years ago, much of the world united in boycotting South Africa. That included travel.  And when the country changed, the boycott ceased.

Some need similar today, Why isn’t it happening?

Ethics are not the province of a political party or creed or nation. But ethics also are quite clear cut. There usually isn’t much doubt or indecision. Some place or somebody is good, or bad, and that is that.

As Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living and core to living an examined life has to be integrating ethics into our decisions.

There are some countries and places that just are wrong. And I don’t want to support them with my time, presence, or money.

Security, stability and friendliness of a location rank as important to 36% of us in making travel choices, although I admit to some puzzlement how so many more say they value stability and security than ethics.  

Safety matters, absolutely. I would not go to Pakistan not because it is too lacking in ethics but because it just is too dangerous for me.  Its ethics are borderline but I don’t want to go there because of the lack of safety. If it were safer I’d have to give a harder think to ethics. But I don’t have to.

More puzzlement is that many in this poll cited anxieties about dangers as a top detractor to travel.

But maybe dangers to others – because of ethnic, religious or political differences – just aren’t a worry to some.

Nearly 50% of travelers told the pollsters that the internet and device connectivity make travel better and I agree but part of that better, in my mind, is more knowledge.  Including knowledge about ethics and local conditions. 

34% say that loyalty programs and perks matter when making travel decisions and that suggests a cruel dictatorship with a lavish loyalty program just might be fine for many of us.

Socrates never said ethical decision making would be easy. And of course he died because of his stubborn determination to hold to an ethical code.

Plato, Socrates’ student, enumerated four virtues- wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. When it comes to judging a place, justice has to be a paramount factor. Countries without justice are not places I want to visit.

Good news may be found on the generational front. Many millennials are keenly set on doing travel that is more responsible, more environmentally sound and, yes, more ethical. There is plenty of evidence to support the belief that millennials are rewriting the travel rules for the better, for all of us.  Just look at the wave of resorts that have banned plastic straws, for instance, and there is no good reason to insist on plastic straws. But it is millennials to whom we owe thanks for getting them banned.

Maybe millennials will succeed too in bringing us all to a higher state of ethical travel.

We can all hope. 

How Much Free Time Is There on A Business Trip?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

A survey from Jos. A. Bank, the clothier, offers up some of the most insightful data about business travel that I can recall seeing – starting with how little free time we have on a trip.

Per Jos. A. Bank we get about two hours a day of free time – and we log 14 hour work days.  Which is pretty much my personal reality on business trips.

As for the free time it amounts to one hour, fifty-five minutes daily for exploring the city, networking, etc. The rest of the day is prescribed – meetings, meals, and the other activities that fill days on the road.

It’s a bleak picture.  But also spot on.

Color me surprised by the accuracy of this portrait and, no, I’ve never shopped at Jos. A. Bank.

But I devour data about business travel and most of it, much of the time seems fictitious.

Yes, Jos. A. Bank is shilling suits – the survey even served up silliness such as this quote attributed to company president Mary Beth Blake: “While traveling for business can yield some unexpected obstacles, the one thing you should be able to rely on is your suit.”

It also noted that we fret about our clothes on road. 57% of us, said Jos. A. Bank, “have trouble keeping their clothes and suits tidy and unwrinkled while on a trip.”

Uh, okay, sure. (And, nope, I can’t recall worrying about wrinkles on the road. But maybe I’m just a slob.)

Let’s move on because there are lots of other insights that are quite to the point.

46% of us complain about the hassles of dealing with airports.

39% worry about how to stay fit and healthy while traveling.

36% say living out of a suitcase is a challenge.

And 34% say they work longer/harder on the road.

All sounds smart to me. Especially the observation that we work longer/harder when we travel.  When I first started to travel on business, decades ago, business travel was a cake walk – and often we took off the day after we returned home, just to catch up with life on the homefront and nobody complained.  Today is a very different environment. We fly out Sunday night (on our own time!) and basically are on the move from 8 a.m. Monday until we get home, typically late at night. It’s a grind and it’s tiring.

Why do we put up with it?

Partly because it may be mandatory. Also because there are benefits, tangible plusses to going on the road.

As for the benefits of business travel, Jos. A. Bank reports that we said we like air miles (48%) and hotel loyalty points (53%).

But the biggest single benefit – 56% of us say so – is seeing a new place.

And 55% like meeting people face to face.

49% say they enjoy good food and drink on the road. They must travel in different company than I because to me the best meal I get on the road often is an egg sandwich at Starbucks.  I cannot recall the last good meal I had on a business trip and I am not complaining, just reporting reality. But, no, I don’t count hotel meeting food as “good.”

24% also said it “feels like a paid vacation” – and I really have to question that.  Or, maybe, these poor souls go on really miserable vacations.

As for what we do with the limited free time we have on the road, 77% of us say we try out local restaurants. 67% say they explore the city.

Sift the data and a take-away is that, indeed, business travel is every bit as rugged as we believe it to be.  Glamorous? Don’t jest.

But, somehow, when it’s done we have that sense of accomplishment. And it is deserved.  Very much so.  The data prove it.

Do You Know Where Your Travel Data Are?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

You are your data. That is today’s reality and, increasingly, travel and hospitality providers want your data by the bushel, in order, they suggest, to deliver better, more personalized services.

Do you trust them with your data?  

Of course we already do.  They have our credit card info, airlines have our Known Traveler Number or similar, airlines and hotels alike often have our passport numbers.

But they want more, lots more.

Some travelers are pushing back.  The 2018 IATA Global Passenger Survey found mounting unease on our parts.   Reported IATA: “65% of passengers are willing to share additional personal information (e.g. address of destination, travel purpose, picture) to speed up their processing at the airport vs 70% in 2017.”

Reported TNOOZ: “A drop of five percentage points in consumer confidence when it comes to how airlines and airports  manage their information is notable, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the majority of respondents still wanted to benefit from personalization.”

That is the reality. Fewer passengers today are eager to part with their personal data – but still a majority are ready to do so.

But when provoked we will pull the data plug. Facebook is a glaring case in point.  Pew elaborated: “Just over half of Facebook users ages 18 and older (54%) say they have adjusted their privacy settings in the past 12 months, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Around four-in-ten (42%) say they have taken a break from checking the platform for a period of several weeks or more, while around a quarter (26%) say they have deleted the Facebook app from their cellphone. All told, some 74% of Facebook users say they have taken at least one of these three actions in the past year.”

So users are striking back.

Sort of. 

But we are not necessarily targeting all users of our data.

That vagary arises in a reading of an Eater report on a coffee shop called Shiru that trades a free cup of java when a user tells a lot about him-or  herself. Said Eater: “The cafe, an offshoot of a Japanese chain now open in Providence, Rhode Island, mainly serves students from nearby Brown University. For each transaction, a cashier asks for customers’ names, birthdays, phone numbers, email addresses, majors, and professional interests before serving them their caffeine fix — no U.S. currency accepted (professors are allowed to pay for their drinks with cold hard cash, however).”

Eater elaborated: “Restaurants, be they independent fine dining restaurants or quick-service chains, have long tracked customer preferences via various methods (think of a savvy maitre’d who remembers a VIP customer’s birthday, or a server who automatically brings a patron’s favorite cocktail). But as the restaurant industry grows more competitive and sales growth has slowed, restaurants are resorting to new ways to remain competitive, and obsessively tracking data to figure out what exactly their customers want is a big part of that.”

We are complicit in this. Often.

There’s lots of confusion in the mix.  Reported TNOOZ: “A survey of over 2,000 British travelers, conducted by YouGov for Pegasystems, revealed that 73% of consumers would not be willing to give airlines more personal data for personalized services, while 43% wanted airlines to remember their personal interests and preferences when they travel.”

It’s hard to reconcile that divide.  Except to believe many of us are baffled about how our data are used.

Clarity comes down to simple questions.

How much data are you willing to part with?

In return for what?

There are more questions such as can you trust the company you are turning data over to, will they protect it? With whom will they share it?

My personal belief is that the data I share is no longer in my control and it may wind up in places I wish it hadn’t.

So I usually fill out loyalty program enrollment – which I may well want for the discounts – with bogus info, a bad phone number, for instance, and possibly an errant name.  

Lie to grocers and restaurants is my advice. If you can get the perks you want but part with no real data, what’s to lose?

I can’t do that on airline info, however, because I have to show ID to fly.

Really we are in a bind with airlines and, typically, too hotels which ask for a driver’s license or similar on check in.  

I’ve thought about buying a “novelty” driver’s license.  I’d need a credit card in that fake name too so the hassles mount. That could throw hotels off the scet however.

But we can – and should – limit what data we offer beyond the bare basics needed for a flight and a room.

And I will do that.

Will you?

 

Companies Jilting Basic Economy

 

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Time to applaud: research shows that an increasing number of organizations have turned their backs on basic economy fares.

Two years ago in this space we came out slugging against basic economy.  The basic scam is that, yes, the sticker price is less but because it delivers so much less, many travelers wind up paying more than if they had bought a more conventional economy fare in the first place.

Or their travels are filled with miseries.

My advice then was to urge travelers to push back against any organizational nudging them into basic economy.

I have not personally encountered that pressure and for this I applaud.

But I may not be alone.

I never thought business travelers would do anything but scorn basic economy. But it turns out I may have been too cynical about the corporate  response to it.

Encouraging news is that travel managers are recognizing that basic economy is a scam.  Research via the Global Business Travel Association and Airlines Reporting Corporation says this: “The study reveals a majority of travel programs (63 percent) never allow basic economy and even more (79 percent) configure their booking tool to hide basic economy fares when travelers are not authorized.”

Remember that if your organization wants to shove you into basic economy. Just say no. And stress that the majority of companies have vetoed its use.

That same research incidentally offered good news about business class fares: “Nine out of 10 (89 percent) [of managed travel programs] allow it occasionally and these policies commonly do so for lengthy flights, international flights or for senior executives.” So ask and ask again if you feel an upcoming flight should be in the front of the plane.

You just may hear OK.

All hope isn’t dashed if your program is among those that nix business class.  “Many travel programs are embracing premium economy fares, which provide extra legroom and other amenities such as early boarding. More than half (58 percent) of policies always or sometimes allow them and an additional 30 percent occasionally allow these fares,” said the research.

And premium economy is plush indeed compared to the alternatives.

The real show stopper however is the snubbing of basic economy and that’s because, over the past 15 or so years, many organizations seemingly have been in a race to see just how low they could get travel costs, and so hotel stays have slid down the value chain and so have airfares.

So my expectauons were accordingly bleak.

The formula, at the big three US carriers, is indeed grimly Dickensian.  At United, it’s a litany of no’s. No complimentary seat selection. No family or group seating.  No fullsize carryon bags unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member. Show up at the gate with a full size carryon and you pay the bag check fee plus a $25 gate check penalty. Exactly one personal carryon that fits under the seat is allowed.  No flight changes, no refunds.

And you board last.

Welcome to the friendly skies!

Delta and American are about as awful.

But just because something is bad doesn’t mean organizational bean counters won’t embrace it. It in fact seemed to me inevitable that, in many companies, basic economy and middle seat passage would become the norm.

Except this time they don’t appear to be.

“It’s not surprising to see many business travel programs shying away from basic economy fares,” said Michael W. McCormick, GBTA executive director and COO. “These fares pose a challenge for travel programs, creating difficulty for spend visibility and comparison shopping when add-ons are factored in. Additionally, travel buyers are increasingly factoring in traveler preference and convenience as they recognize the importance of their role in employee retention and recruitment in a strong economy with low unemployment.”

Bottomline: corporate bean counters are realizing that basic economy may seem cheaper – but often it isn’t.

According to Skift, too, many companies are even opening their wallets a thin crack. Said Skift: “When it comes to add-ons, most policies allow in-flight meals, Wi-Fi access, and extra checked bags.”

But 74% of travel programs do not reimburse for airline lounge access.

And 54% will not pay for early boarding.

But ask and you may get what you want.

Push back and, just maybe, the organizational masters will hear your complaints.  Business travelers travel to make their organizations money, it’s that simple. But wearing us down – on overcrowded flights, in too small seats – is no way to put a refreshed team on the ground.

Insist on that message and, at least sometimes, it will get heard.  Sometimes. 

Just raise the volume to try to make yours one of the ones that get that money spent on better business travel often returns dividends in happier employees.  

 

 

The Ever Changing Airlines’ Goal Posts for Elites

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Imagine you are playing a football game, you score a touchdown, and when next the ball is yours it seems the goal posts are 40 yards farther away.

Don’t imagine, experience a similar reality with airline loyalty programs.

Skift even ran with the analogy in its headline about United’s most recent changes: “United Airlines Moves the Goal Post for Earning Top-Tier Elite Status.”  

For some years, I’ve chided airline loyalty programs as essentially shell games, where the passenger mainly loses. That’s why I’ve suggested sidestepping the programs and getting the essential perks at no extra cost when using an airline branded credit card.  (I carry two and mull picking up a third.)

The latest slap in the face from United reminds me why I’ve decided not to play that game. For the 2019 program year, earning United top tier 1K status will require a $15,000 spend, up from the current $12,000. The mileage required remains the same at 100,000.

In making that move United is matching Delta. American is the last of the big three that retains a $12,000 spend for its executive platinum status.

Airlines are feeling the pain of rising crude oil costs – and at least some experts believe crude prices will double in the next year.  For airlines that’s a world of hurt on profits and those pains will be leveled on passengers, both elite and non elite.

But the maddening thing about the changing mileage and spend goal posts is that even the most loyal passengers feel the pains.

It’s arguable that the most loyal always feel the most pain precisely because of that loyalty which keeps them locked into a particular loyalty program and once you start playing the game you get hooked.

Even when it’s a game you can’t win.

At SFGATE.com, Chris McGinnis hypothesized that a reason United made this move – aside from the simple desire to match Delta – is that the group of qualifying flyers may have become “too large.”

He quoted Luc Bondar, head the MileagePlus program, as saying that United made the change because it wanted to be sure  “the value promise we promise to elite level members is one that we can deliver.”

One way to get there is to winnow the pack.

United also is fiddling with the upgrades earned by elites. It said on its website: “Currently, Premier members earn two Regional Premier Upgrades for every 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS and two Global Premier Upgrades for every 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS after reaching Premier 1K status. In 2019, Premier members will earn one Global Premier Upgrade for every 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS after reaching Premier 1K status, and will no longer earn additional Regional Premier Upgrades.”

Noted McGinnis about this change: “That’s good news for those who travel a lot internationally, but not so good for those who like to use regional upgrades to bump up to first from the back of the plane on domestic flights.”

Add it up and what do elites get? Less and less.  That is fact. Loyalty used to deliver a steady stream of upgraded seats and of course a sprinkling of free flights bought for miles.  I have flow to Rome, Berlin, many more places – highly desirable – using miles as my currency.

But the common complaint I hear today is that just are no available award flights on the routes travelers honestly want.

And seat upgrades are harder and harder to come by, mainly because airlines have decided to monetize those seats – selling them, sometimes at bargain prices, shortly before boarding.  

Puzzled about what’s going on here, really? At AirlineGeeks, contributor Thomas Pallini noted, “Even though they don’t realize it, airlines are not rewarding loyal travelers, they’re punishing regular travelers.”

Low level elite status increasingly resembles flying with no status perhaps 10 years ago.

That is why I suggest skipping loyalty and buying a credit card that delivers the perks you want such as early boarding and free checked bag.  

Fair enough, airlines want to reward their most profitable passengers.

For the rest of us what makes sense is stepping outside the system.

I’ll admit, at first it is disorienting to arrive at an airport without elite status.  But you get the hang of it, you do.

By now I’m content with my lot.

Are you?

 

 

Do You Know Who’s Stealing Your Airline Miles?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

The dark web is aflood with stolen airline miles for sale.  That’s the surprising punch to the face in a recent report from Comparitech.

The subhead delivers the message: “There’s a black market for your frequent flyer miles. Stolen frequent flyer accounts and rewards points are a hot commodity on the Dark Net.”

According to Javelin Strategy + Research, in 2017 11% of attacks on existing financial accounts were on loyalty programs. That’s up from 4% in 2016.

According to Barry Kirk, Vice President of Loyalty, Maritz Motivation Solutions, “Every sizable loyalty program was a victim of attempted fraud or hacking in 2017. Those who believe they weren’t simply haven’t paid attention.”

Maritz research says that 7% of us self identify as victims of program fraud.

Left unknown is how many of us are victims but haven’t realized it – probably because a little used account was pilfered.  If we do eventually return to that site, we may have forgotten what our miles total should be and just accept that, well, I must have emptied it out, I forget on what.

Headline winning breaches of loyalty programs are few.  The Hilton attack four years ago comes to mind.

In 2015 United and American admitted their programs had been hacked – but both were relatively small thefts. Some 10,000 accounts were said to be compromised at American, fewer at United.

Yet hackers are continually nibbling away at our stashes of miles and points.

A proof is that brisk dark web marketplace, reported by Comparitech, which observed: “On Dream Market, one of the largest black markets on the dark web, a single vendor sells reward points from over a dozen different airline reward programs, including Emirates Skywards, SkyMiles, and Asia Miles. Going by the handle @UpInTheAir, they sell a minimum of 100,000 points for the reward program of your choice, starting out at $884 as of time of writing (this was probably $1,000 originally, but Bitcoin price fluctuations caused it to go down).”

A rule of thumb is that miles are worth 1 to 2 cents apiece (of course smart shoppers can get significantly greater value and less astute shoppers will get lower returns).

On the dark web, however, the going rate, according to Comparitech, appears to be much lower – often as little as 1/10th of the typical value.

There’s a reason for that. Stolen miles probably will not get cashed in for flights, mainly because of ID issues.  So what are they good for?

Stuff.  

For instance, in 2017, Air Miles, a Canadian loyalty scheme, issued a warning that thieves were using miles to buy merchandise in stores that participate in the program.

In other cases, bolder crooks redeem miles for flights and then sell the travel on websites, often at huge discounts.  See a flight going for half what it’s worth and that’s a red flag for trouble ahead.

How do thieves get most of their stolen miles? Generally by hacking into individual accounts – meaning they figure out your user name and password, or they use a robot to try enough combinations until it stumbles into the proper formula.  It sounds labor intensive but, increasingly, it is automated.

Loyalty programs now are in a fast track mode to contain fraud. According to Maritz’ Kirk, “Until very recently, program fraud was only discussed in hushed tones or dismissed as a non-issue. Now all major loyalty agencies proudly promote their fraud protection tools and process.”

Even so, the burden is on you.  The miles and points are yours and that also means they are yours to safeguard.

How? That’s easy.  Comparitech offered a number of tips, including:

“Shred your boarding pass after a flight.
Never post a photo of your boarding pass online.
Use a strong and unique password for your frequent flyer account.
Monitor your account for suspicious activity.”

The last is crucial.  Make it a habit to stop into your loyalty accounts at least monthly.

And also make it a habit to change your passwords occasionally, certainly yearly.

One last bit of advice: just don’t use public wifi to access your loyalty accounts. Of course it’s tempting when you are sitting at the airport to put the time to use surfing your airline and hotel websites. Don’t. At least don’t on public wifi. Use a cellphone hotspot instead.

It’s up to you to protect your miles.  Know that and do it.

So Now Do You Trust TripAdvisor?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

TripAdvisor has brought out the megaphones, hired the brass band, and is busily proclaiming that its fraud team has made TripAdvisor reviews a safe place for us to find the information we need to book the right accommodations. It’s a story with a lot of fake reviews, even an arrest.

Should we break out the bubbly?  Maybe not yet.

TripAdvisor crowed online: “Back in 2015, our dedicated team of fraud investigators identified a new illegal business in Italy called PromoSalento that was offering to write fake reviews for hospitality businesses to boost their profile on TripAdvisor. Several Italian businesses forwarded the emails to us, which kick-started an investigation that would ultimately see the person behind PromoSalento sent to jail!”

Tnooz, a trade pub, reported on this outcome: “In June of this year, the Criminal Court of Lecce found the owner guilty of using a fake identity to commit fraud. He has been sentenced to 9 months in prison and will have to pay 8,000 euros in costs and damages.”

Posting fake reviews is in fact illegal in some of Europe.

Question: Is it illegal to pay for fake reviews in the US? It’s not clearly illegal although posting such reviews has and could result in litigation that would be expensive to fend off.

What I can say is that I have seen numerous solicitations to pay writers to create fake reviews. Rates, incidentally, are paltry – often $10 or under. Sometimes $5. 

But for the right writer – particularly in the right low cost country – $5 might be a decent wage for a few minutes work.

Often, too, I have spotted an avalanche of fake reviews posted by hotel staff or maybe their friends.  

TripAdvisor says they have their eyes open for this and they point to their detailed work to hunt down the Italian behind the paid reviews in his country. “Over the course of our investigation, our technical analysis identified and then either blocked or removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit reviews to the TripAdvisor site on hundreds of different properties.

“PromoSalento attempted to avoid our scrutiny by regularly changing their usernames and email addresses, but our fraud detection processes use a suite of advanced technologies to evaluate hundreds of review attributes such as IP addresses, browser types and even the screen resolution of a reviewer’s device. Based on that analysis, we were able to see a trail of digital and behavioral ‘breadcrumbs’ that led our team straight back to PromoSalento.”

Hold your applause.

What TripAdvisor did is good – that’s obvious – but it also did it to protect its core functionality.  A Gresham’s Law applies online where bad reviews drive out good and so TripAdvisor cannot allows its service to be overwhelmed by bad reviews.

Particularly not when it is all so blatant.

Just a few problems that lead me to be restrained in saluting TripAdvisor.

First, there are many ways to buy fake reviews that probably will sidestep algorithms that hunt for fraud – e.g., paying writers only when their review had been posted by them and gone live. That leaves no trail back to the buyer and, from what I hear, the market for fake reviews remains brisk.

Second, there are – to my eyes – obviously fake reviews generated internally that still pop up with regularity.  TripAdvisor doubtless has algorithms that hunt for fakes. But give a hotel employee a VPN and imagine how many reviews he/she can post.

TripAdvisor itself has warned hotel employees to cool it.  That tells you the problem is bad.

It gets worse, a lot worse.

The bigger problem: TripAdvisor itself has a history of deleting negative reviews that aren’t fake, anything but. They just stung hotel and restaurant employees who insisted they come down.  And they did. Some of those deleted reviews in fact alleged rapes by hotel employees.

That is information a potential guest very much would want to know.

TripAdvisor of course has said its corrected its behaviors, even putting in a badge notification for establishments that may have had allegation of rapes and assaults.

Is that good enough for you?

Know your rights. Congress last year passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act which makes it illegal to threaten to sue consumers or seek to penalize them financially for negative online reviews.  

The FTC has said it will slap companies that ignore the law.  

Personally I want more from the FTC.

But, mainly, I want more from TripAdvisor.  A reliable review site would be a very good thing in the fragmented hotel business – and a marvelous thing for those of us who travel internationally where, in many countries, independents are the only choices.  So there isn’t that same brand promise that guides us to many hotels in the US.

I want TripAdvisor to work.  

I’m just unconvinced that it does.

Ask me again in six months. TripAdvisor just has announced a massive shift into professional content and a move away from consumer created content.  Is that the answer?

Color me skeptical.  A lot of “professional” content is anything but. And these days it proliferates like kudzu. But ask anyway in six months because maybe my answer will be cheerier.

Or maybe not.

 

What Happens When TSA Mangles Your Bag?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

It’s a traveler’s nightmare. Something is stolen from your checked bag – it’s almost always the good stuff too such as jewelry or a slick camera – or maybe the bag and its content simply are demolished and what you retrieve at baggage claim is scrap.  Then what?

Surely you’ll be made whole, particularly when your gripe is with TSA, a federal agency, not an airline.

Hah.

An NJ.com story’s headline tells you what to expect: Good luck getting money from the TSA for your lost, damaged luggage.  

New data via Dorian Banutoiu – which looks at 16 years of claims, 2002-2017, is just as grim.  It shows that of 218,000 claims, 101,000 were denied, 9000 are pending, and 83,000 are marked paid.

The NJ.com research crunched data from only the 15 busiest airports – Newark included – and it found that: “Of the 34,127 claims filed at these airports from 2010 to 2017, almost 41 percent — or four out of every 10 requests — were denied. In contrast, about 26 percent were approved for payment or settled for a lesser amount. About 13 percent were under review, and the rest had been canceled.”

In the LA Times, reporter Hugo Martin – drawing on TSA data mainly from 2016 – concluded this: “Of the TSA claims that are resolved, 54% are denied, 24% are approved in full, 12% are settled for an amount less than what was requested and 10% are canceled or closed out for other reasons.”

Martin continued: “The most common items lost or damaged are bags, cases, purses, clothing, computers and accessories and jewelry.”

That’s right, the good stuff.  Nobody wants to take my 20 year-old LL Bean toiletry bag, please.

Martin added: “Jewelry, cash and camera equipment are the items rejected by the TSA at the highest rate, at least 70% of the time.”

The data also show that claims made at checkpoints are far more likely to be approved than are claims involving checked baggage.  That’s bad news because NJ.com data show that 75% of claims involve checked baggage. Just 24% are at checkpoints.

The average settlement amount over the past 16 years is $199.

Curiously, according to Travel Pulse, “If you are filing a claim, you are more likely to get repaid if you file it in the first half of the year, according to the data, which found that there was a lower average of payments approved in the second part of the year.”

NJ.com added: “Critics say the TSA takes an overly harsh approach, often claiming it can’t find evidence that it was responsible for the loss or damage. And the agency continues to deny the problem of theft at airports, they say, though there’s few other explanations for the losses.”

Theft, according to NJ.com, is the biggest issue: “About 60 percent of all the claims at these airports related to property loss.”

Some airports have so much theft that occasionally local police issue warnings, as happened not long ago at Orlando.  

Some grumbles about TSA are genuinely macabre, such as an NFL player’s complaint – with photos to prove his point – that TSA spilled his late mother’s ashes in his bag.  

Particularly interesting in the NJ.com data dump is its tally of which airports are most likely to see claims denied and the big winner – by far – is Las Vegas/McCarran where 56% of claims are denied.

The best airport for these matters is San Francisco where essentially all claims are approved.

Newark Airport, for what it’s worth, came in just behind San Francisco, approving roughly 65% of claims.

How not to become a victim? That’s easy. Never pack anything of value in checked baggage. Clothing, maybe. But jewelry, electronics, etc., nope, do not think about it. Carry it on. Or leave it at home.

Also, report any losses as soon as detected, ideally within 24 hours.  Procrastination will work against you.

Some passengers are also buying GPS trackers for their luggage – although there’s no clear connection between tracking a bag’s whereabouts and stopping theft of particular content.

The bad news of course is that, in coach, the battle for the overhead bin is as fierce as ever, as a USA Today headline shouted.  That forces many passengers to check bags and that triggers many possible miseries.

There is a cure. My advice regarding valuables is if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Personally I travel with an old Chromebook – not worth $100 – and if it went missing I’d shed no tears.  I bring no jewelry.  Nothing of any real value. Haven’t in some years.

Spartan? I suppose. But very, very practical in today’s travel marketplace.