After the Brussels Attacks, Should You Cancel Your European Vacation? – TheStreet http://bit.ly/1UOAria My reporting
6 Bargain European Destinations You Can Afford This Summer – @TheStreet http://bit.ly/1T4bD5N My reporting on faves such as Belfast
After Erin Andrews: How to Stay Safe in Hotels Now – @TheStreet http://bit.ly/1RM3eiq My reporting
The War on Resort Fees Gets Hotter
by Robert McGarvey
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.
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
by Robert McGarvey
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.
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).
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 and Danny Meyer – and Foxes
by Robert McGarvey
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 workers – most 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.
Will You Swap a Seat Upgrade for…a Free Drink in Economy?
by Robert McGarvey
Call it the latest slap in the face to airline elites. In a sign that seat upgrades and free flights are ever more unattainable – just look at how full every flight you take is — United and American have announced that they will begin giving free drinks and food to elites exiled to cheap seats in economy.
Sure, before you got free upgrades to business class just because of your elite status or, worse guess, you spent some miles and bought the upgrade. Now you don’t get either.
Enjoy the free drink.
United said this in unveiling the program: “One new way that we’re enhancing the inflight experience for our most frequent flyers is by offering MileagePlus members with Premier® 1K® status free alcoholic beverages and snacks in United Economy®. If you’re a member with Premier 1K status, you’ll receive one free alcoholic beverage and one free Choice Menu food item when traveling in United Economy on United- or United Express®-operated flights within North America and between Guam and Honolulu.”
A Sam Adams or a glass of red is $7.99 on United. A wrap and salad combo goes for $9.49.
American Airlines does similar. Said AA: “AAdvantage® Executive Platinum and ConciergeKeySM members traveling in the Main Cabin on board American Airlines and American Eagle® can enjoy a complimentary beverage from our standard alcoholic beverage selections as well as one snack. The snack includes any food item on our menu.”
Glass half full people are applauding all this as signs of a new airline generosity – but, really, how can they not be generous? Fuel has plummeted to prices not seen in years and capacity is at a stuffed like sardines into a can level.
So they throw us a bone and expect us not to yelp.
I have said before that airline miles are nearing null value. The food and drink freebies underline that the airlines are trying to distract us from the uselessness of miles by giving us a few overpriced and blah items.
Items that I don’t want. Do you?
I don’t recall the last time I paid for a drink on a plane. I may never have bought food and I’d stopped eating it back when it was still free.
I do like free flights, tho, and I am fond of spending miles for seat upgrades too.
It simply seems that now that is ever less likely to happen.
Add in program changes where ticket price paid – not miles flown – determines a ticket’s awards value and you have to know that the chances of redeeming miles for air travel get ever slimmer.
That is a reason why the airlines bombard us with offers to sell us stuff – merchandise – for miles. It also is why they are now throwing freebies at elites in economy – hoping those elites forget that just a very few years ago they almost always got upgraded to business class where drinks are free and plentiful and food too is free.
Some may call me cynical. They will point to breathless stories such as this one from Travel and Leisure that touts how miles and $5.60 bought a business class roundtrip to Ghana. I applaud the wise mileage game player who managed this.
But it reminds me of George Orwell’s prescient comments on lotteries in 1984. Wrote Orwell: ““The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made their living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being nonexistent persons.”
I am not saying nobody ever actually redeems miles for flights.
Just a lot less often than it used to.
And you have to wonder if now is the time to stop playing the game.
Unlimited Vacation Days: The Next Big Employee Benefit – TheStreet http://bit.ly/1SbTGCx My reporting
How Unsanitary Is Your Hotel Room
by Robert McGarvey
If you are reading this in a hotel room, my advice is to click to any other page. You are not in the right place to hear the news about how abundantly -wildly – unsanitary most hotel rooms are.
That’s the headline finding in a study conducted by the folks at travel app Travelmath. Called “Hotel Hygiene Exposed,” that is exactly what it does.
Note: I have been in independent, low budget hotels in tertiary cities where filth was obvious, from stained upholstery to cigarette burns in the rugs and rings in the toilet. But those are not the hotels Travelmath has in its sights. It takes aim at properties ranked 3 star and higher and what it found out nonetheless is disgusting.
Shockingly, in many categories, four and five star hotels are filthier than three stars, according to Travelmath.
First, this poor showing does not surprise me. My impression was that in the hotel recession of six or so years ago many hotels cut deeply into their housekeeping budgets. Housekeepers seemed fewer. They also showed up at ever odder hours (6 pm, for instance, when most of us are getting ready to go out for dinner). And they forgot to do stuff. How often have you found a cleaning rag left in a room, or a dirty towel?
Personally I felt compassion for the overworked – and underpaid – housekeepers. What I did not compute was how unsanitary hotel rooms have become. This is not just a matter of neatness. Health and hygiene are at stake.
Don’t blame the housekeepers, Blame their bosses.
In its study, Travelmath sent out investigators with swabs to collect what’s called colony forming units, that is, bacteria that multiply.
Here are CFU counts found across nine hotels:
- Bathroom counter – 1,288,817 CFU/sq. in.
- Remote control – 1,211,687 CFU/sq. in.
- Desk – 604,907 CFU/sq. in.
- Phone – 4,252 CFU/sq. in.
You would be right if you decide to never, again, touch a TV remote in a hotel room. I won’t. They are avoidable and they are disgusting.
I assume the phone count is comparatively low because who actually picks up an inroom phone anymore?
Travelmath then investigated whether a hotel’s star rating translates into a more sanitary room.
Hare are the CFU counts they found in a three star hotel:
Bathroom counter – 320,007 CFUs
Remote – 232,733 CFUs
Phone – 11.403 CFUs
Desk – 4687 CFUs
In a four star they found this:
Bathroom counter – 2,534,773 CFUs
Desk – 1,800,003 CFUs
Remote – 1,400,027
Phone – 137 CFUs
In a five star they found this:
Remote – 2,002,300 CFUs
Bathroom counter – 1,011, 670 CFUs
Desk – 40,030 CFUs
Phone – 1217 CFUs
The takeaways: avoid remotes everywhere and, the pricier the hotel, the safer the phone (probably the high-end guests do all calling on their mobiles).
Otherwise there is no obvious correlation between star ranking and cleanliness.
How bad are these results? Travelmath said: “Overall, according to the surfaces we tested, the average hotel room appears to be dirtier than a typical home, an airplane, and even a school.”
Travelmath added: “All germs are not created equal. For this study, we tested for the presence of various types of bacteria (including bacilli and cocci), yeast, and gram-positive rods (bacteria that cause various ailments, such as skin infections and pneumonia) and gram-negative rods (bacteria that cause respiratory and other infections).
“In three-star hotels, the remote control tended to harbor Bacillus spp, which could be associated with various infections, including respiratory and gastrointestinal. Additionally, tests revealed yeast present in the bathrooms in three-star hotels. In four-star hotels, Bacillus spp dominated on the remote and telephone. In five-star hotels, the brunt of bacteria were gram negative, though the phone was rife with gram-positive cocci.”
Travelmath advised: “Your best bet: During hotel stays, wash your hands frequently, disinfect surfaces before touching them, and steer clear of certain areas.”
If you must use the remote, my advice is bring a sanitary wipe and clean the thing first. A fast wipe of the bathroom counter with a wipe is smart. Ditto for the desktop.
Do I travel with wipes? I have not. But that will change. Hotel room cleaning is obviously something we need to take into our own hands and a few sanitary minutes ought to be plenty to sanitize a room that otherwise might be dangerous to our health.
Keeping Your Credit Card Safe in a Hotel: The How To’s – via @TheStreet http://bit.ly/1PzGm4d My reporting.