Road Trips: Driven by the Airlines to Drive

 

rjmcgarvey01

Blame it on the airlines. Maybe the TSA too.  However it stacks up, lately I find myself doing a calculation I never thought I would do: is it just easier to drive?

In a few weeks I’m in Los Angeles and, from my Phoenix base. Google tells me that is 385 miles, maybe 5.5 hours driving.

Of course I could fly – about an hour.  Add in 90 minutes waiting at the airport. Plus 30 minutes to get there on the lightrail. Oh, and at least 30 minutes – more likely 60 – to get from LAX to my destination.  Call it four hours.

Yes, flying is faster (it may even be a little cheaper) but the sheer – monumental – unpleasantness of the flying experience in 2015 decides this.

In a few months I plan to go to Taos, NM – where I have some land and many personal ties – and I’ll drive that too, about 550 miles, 8 hours.  Of course getting to Taos involves flying into Albuquerque, then driving two and one-half hours (add in 30 minutes more, to rent a car).  Put in the flight, the airport time, the commute and that easily adds up to 5.5 hours  and that’s assuming best case scenarios.

But I have my limits. Obviously I have no plan to drive to San Francisco – 11 hours, 750 miles – or Dallas, 1050 miles, 15 hours. That’s out of my driving comfort zone except under duress.

But Las Vegas?  300 miles, 4.5 hours. You bet.

Ditto San Diego or Orange County.

My new rule of thumb: if I can easily and comfortable drive to a destination in one day (8 hours) I am behind the wheel.

If it’s longer – if need to put in a night in a highway motel (much as I like them) – probably I’ll fly.

The deciding factor: comfort.  

Years ago, maybe I calculated around money and if driving was cheaper I’d do it. Now it is simply about comfort, or lack thereof.

I just do not like much of anything about the flying experience these days.  I personally know and like a few TSAs, I have no gripe with them – but I do not like the probing and prying that’s involved in checking into a flight. That’s just the first on a list of gripes.

I fit fine in airplane seats, thank you very much, Dr. Atkins, but I still feel something approaching claustrophobia when I am crammed into a snug seat on a plane stuffed to capacity.

I dislike logging minutes in airports – except where there is a Centurion Lounge – and Phoenix Sky Harbor just is not on my like list.

I could go on but you know the drill because you fly too.

This drift away from flying is not all new.

I detected a shift in my sentiments as far back as five years ago when I found myself booking, first, a train trip from Newark NJ to Baltimore, then another train trip from Newark to Washington DC – even tho flying would have been a little cheaper and a lot faster. But I climbed aboard Amtrak and will again if the opportunity presents itself. It just is a more comfortable trip.

Really, what has happened is that – in their tireless quest for profits – airline executives have squeezed all the fun out of flying, at least for those of us who fly in back.  Upfront is a different world, I know, and bring me clients with generous expense allowances (as I had in bygone times) and I will probably sing the praises of first class, maybe even business class.

But there really is nothing to like about coach.

So it becomes a calculus of inconvenience and discomfort. There is no comfortable way to get from Phoenix to New York except to fly, that is plain.  Really long drives – and I have driven x-country twice in the past decade – are exercises in endurance.  

On shorter trips, however, my new philosophy is anything but flying.  

Now, if enough of us begin to think that way, well, flying would of course become attractive again. But I am not counting on that anytime soon.

Hoteliers: Stop Nickel and Diming Us!

Hoteliers: Stop Nickel and Diming Us!

by Robert McGarvey

 

rjmcgarvey01

The report out of NYU’s Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism is a 2×4 across a weary traveler’s forehead: “Following the 2014 record of $2.35 billion, total fees and surcharges collected by U.S. hotels are forecast to increase to another record level of $2.47 billion in 2015.”

I get it. Hoteliers are jealous of the profits wrought by airlines’ “ancillary fees” — totalling many billions in 2014, per research out of IdeaWorks and CarTrawler. Wrote Money Magazine:the largest three U.S. carriers (United, Delta, and the newly combined American and US Airways) racked up $13.7 billion in total ancillary revenue in 2014. Add in Southwest and the total goes to $15.6 billion.”

You know what? The airline fees don’t bother me that much because, mainly, I dodge them. I never check a bag.  I buy no food on board. I have a stack of free GoGo passes. I don’t fly the three carriers that charge for carryon (Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier).  I don’t buy alcoholic beverages in flight.  I don’t buy movies. Call me a skinflint but my credit card pretty much stays in my wallet at 30,000 ft.

I don’t even spend much money at airports which I have said generally ripoff passengers.

Hotels however get my goat, with an ever expanding list of fees. NYU’s Bjorn Hanson itemized a stultifying list of upcharges in his report:Examples of fees and surcharges include: resort or amenity fees, early departure fees, reservation cancellation fees, internet fees, telephone call surcharges, some business center fees (including charges for receiving faxes and sending/receiving overnight packages), room service delivery surcharges, mini-bar restocking fees, charges for in-room safes, automatic gratuities and surcharges, and baggage holding fees for guests leaving luggage with bell staff after checking out of a hotel but before departure, and charges for unattended parking. For groups there have been increased charges for bartenders and other staff at events, special charges for set-up and breakdown of meeting rooms, and administrative fees for master folio billing.”

These hotel fees just are harder to dodge and, sadly, they are spreading.

Even Hilton and Marriott have ended same day, free reservation cancellation.

Here’s a list of obnoxious hotel charges I put together last year.  Egregious things like early check in fees – the room is, obviously, empty, right? $5 to “restock” the mini bar, on top of the $10 you are nicked for the $2 candybar?

Resort fees have irritated me since I first heard of them and, really, $40 a day for pool towels, “free” activities, a newspaper I do not want and, oh, did I mention the invariably wretched hotel WiFi (which is why I usually use a personal hotspot).  

Hanson noted that resorts are getting ever more clever (or greedy?): “Other of the more recently introduced fees and surcharges include charging for unattended surface parking in suburban locations.”

Why would I pay extra to park in a large lot built for that purpose? I understand paying a stiff fee to park on the Upper East Side – but in Scottsdale? 

I am also hearing anecdotal commentary that more hotels are charging guests for taking stuff from the room – everything from the obvious (bathrobes) to the bizarre (toiletries – who charges for them?) Towels, ashtrays, bottle openers are also showing up as add on items on guests’ bills.   Note: if you have stories about these purloined item charges, tell me – rjmcgarvey@gmail.com. I want to document a story.

Here are the problems with the avalanche of fees:  (1) often they are hidden and, if not hidden, they are not exactly made clear.  Word of advice – if resort fees in particular are not plainly disclosed, decline to pay them. Check on a mobile device. (2) We have met the enemy and he is us.  If we don’t protest greedy, grasping, illogical hotel fees, we will see more of them. It’s that simple.
Draw your personal line – and don’t accept one fee beyond it. That is how travelers can – and must – fight back in 2015.

-30-

Note: I am also looking for cases where people believe a hotel or convention center blocked their WiFi and disabled their ability to create a personal hotspot. Email rjmcgarvey@gmail.com

The War Between Hotels and OTAs: We Win, Who Loses?

The New York Times has made it official: war is on between the big hotel groups and the online travel agencies (OTAs).  Let me tell you: there will be losers. But it won’t be us.

At least no time soon.

I cannot remember the last time I booked a flight at an OTA, mainly because United and American (nee USAir), the two carriers I generally fly, have well oiled websites that do pretty much everything I need to comfortably fly, on my terms. I track my frequent flyer miles, pick my seat, if I want, I may buy an upgrade with miles, and – sometimes – I have even bought bundled hotel nights at jaw dropping prices (because that hotel rate is “opaque,” meaning it evades the rate parity demands of the OTAs).  

Other than Las Vegas hotels, I also cannot remember the last time I booked directly with a hotel.  I am much more likely to use Expedia or HotelTonight, even Amazon Local, and, honestly, I’ve come to see hotel websites as garish eyesores populated with really bad images, worse copy, and balky booking engines that just weren’t worth the bother.

(I only go to Las Vegas for big meetings which have special rates and – usually – special booking sites.)

But now the big players – Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood – want to change my mind about the wisdom of booking directly with them and they just may be succeeding.

It’s about money of course. The OTAs nick the big chains maybe 15% on every booking and that is money they hate to part with. (The OTA rate has never been confirmed and it also varies from case to case. But multiple sources have whispered the 15% rate to me as a good average for the industry giants.)

Say it’s a $200 hotel room. That means $30 is in play – the hotel can afford to give me up to $30, just to get the direct booking and to spite the OTA. And that is exactly what they now are doing. Reported the New York Times: “major hotel chains are offering a host of benefits to lure travelers to book with them directly: digital check-in, free meals, Wi-Fi and even the ability to choose a specific room.”

You want free breakfast? Done. Upgraded WiFi, no charge? At your command.  Maybe bonus rewards points? Done.  

Some chains even are withholding loyalty points on rooms booked through OTAs and that is a direct shot in this bow.

Give this a few years and my bet is that most frequent traveler hotel bookings will have migrated to the big chains’ own websites and away from the OTAs. Besides saving OTA commissions they also will gain better – more direct – communication with guests and that makes them salivate. They definitely have skin in the game and will play accordingly.

We also will be winners because frankly we are being bribed. The hotel chains can see the prize- our direct loyalty – and they are grasping it. With free WiFi, drink coupons, whatever it takes.

Who stands to lose? Obviously the OTAs will see sales reduction but, to me, the blood on this track is likely to be that of independent hotels and very small hotel groups. For one thing: they are paying OTAs as much as 30% on every booking.  On a $200 room, perhaps $60 goes to the OTA. Ouch.

That number is unlikely to go down.

Independents lack negotiating clout and as the chains squeeze the OTAs the logical place for OTAs to squeeze is the independents. They are unlikely to lower that 30% rate.

For two: at the independent hotel websites I have looked at, the booking engines are creaking antiques, just bad code, and there is no clear path to tweaking them to offer me the amenities and upgrades that the chains are using as bribes. Independents also lack loyalty programs in most cases, too, so no bribes possible there.

For three – and probably case closed – independent hotel websites that I have looked at are plain wretched, many are much worse than the sites of big chains.  I have no idea who designs these sites but, probably, neither do the hotels that put them up. They are just Internet train wrecks, flecked with hyperbole, false claims, and lots of creepy shots of models.

A lot of independents also are addicted to their profits from resort fees – a personal hatred – and they are not eager to surrender those dollars.

Independents, too, at least many of them, just are slow to move.

But if they reading this, they just got their wake up call and let’s hope they are listening.

 

Hoteliers: Stop Torturing Us on TripAdvisor

Memo to hoteliers: stop polluting Tripadvisor with self-serving, self-centered hollow comments. Please.

I know reputation management firms advise hoteliers to respond to x% of TripAdvisor posts, both positive and negative. They point to data that allegedly draws a clear connection between hotel management posts and guests finding that engagement to be positive.

Not me. Not usually.

It’s hard to see anybody connecting with what management usually posts.

The other day I was reading reviews of a resort where many guests angrily complained about the slow, balky WiFi. In just about every case, a hotel functionary posted a comment to the effect that “our WiFi is excellent.” Except – quite obviously – it is not.

What happened there? After reading the management response, probably the initial posters are mad because their quite legitimate concerns are dismissed as wrong. They are depicted as somehow the cause of their own bad WiFi.

But even more to the point: how many prospective guests such as myself read the hotel response, have come to believe it false, and conclude that this hotel just is out of touch with the reality of its operational failings and also has no clue how irritating their comments are to many, many readers. Guests are not to blame for operational failures.

Another TripAdvisor plague: hotels that copy and paste the same boilerplate after just about every guest review and, inevitably, it is mindless swill. “Greetings from the shady side of the island where the surf is gentle and so are the breezes. Thank you for your comment. I have referred it to our operational team.”

One time that comment is ignorable. When it is on every page, many times, it’s logorrhea, just verbal diarrhea smearing the page.

Another favorite (not) line from hoteliers, typically in response to blisteringly negative reviews: “We hope you will give us another chance with a return visit so we will have the opportunity to make a better impression.”

In this case, that is in response to a long review that complained – loudly – about inadequate housekeeping, worn room finishings, mediocre food and more. That guest is not coming back and neither will TripAdvisor readers if the best the hotel can do is sigh and beg for another chance.

Mind you, I am all for a hotel using TripAdvisor as an adjunct to its customer service channels. Personally I am a lot more likely to post on Twitter, even TripAdvisor, than I am to air a complaint with hotel management. So, maybe, if the hotelier is swift and committed he/she can turn around a moment of my unhappiness that had been ventilated on a social channel.

But when the hotel clutters TripAdvisor with repetitious, pointless points – well, just stop it unless your underhanded goal is to drive readers off the site because you have concluded that those who read the many negative reviews just wouldn’t book. So better for you to have no readers at all.

Could a hotel do TripAdvisor right? Absolutely and a very few do. These are hoteliers who see the complaints as an opportunity to win back that irate customer – and also to show other guests and prospects that this is a hotel that genuinely cares. Be authentic, be real, be honest.

If many guests complain about the WiFi, guess what, the WiFi is a problem. Fix it. Don’t litter TripAdvisor with non-sequiturs. Just get the problem fixed.

I see some hotels really doing that. In reading a Phoenix hotel’s TripAdvisor page I noticed a couple reviewers complained that the well known restaurant was no longer as great as it had been. Then I noticed a comment from the GM where he acknowledged that and added that a new team was coming on board imminently, precisely to address those issues.

That’s impressive.

It’s also rare to see such honesty and energy.

Words of advice to hoteliers: Stop lying on TripAdvisor. Stop ignoring your hotel’s obvious failings. And really, please, stop polluting the pages with word after word of nonsensical posturing. That is no way to boost engagement, in fact it accomplishes the exact opposite: It drives guests and prospects away.

The Airline Club Wars

The last time I was in Newark Airport’s Terminal C I entered a United Club and there in front me me was a pulsating, vast sea of humanity. It took 10 minutes of hunting to find an empty seat and of course it was nowhere near an electrical outlet.

The WiFi was anemic but what do you expect? A packed roomful of travelers all wanted on.

When I was last in a USAir Club at Phoenix Sky Harbor it was much the same. I had to wait for a passenger to exit her chair before I could sit down and all I could manage was a cup of mediocre coffee.

I asked myself: really is this much better than being with the hoi polloi outside the club? I did not honestly think it was.  At least outside the clubs there are generally decent food choices and good coffee is easy to find in most airports. Are the concourses a hectic hurlyburly? Indeed but if the airline clubs are too, so what?

Personally I have found a better club solution – more on it momentarily.

First, however, know that United Airlines has now reshuffled the deck.  In an email that landed in my box on August 18 – header: United Club access changes – the carrier decreed: “To maintain and further improve the United Club experience, we’re announcing the following change to our program:

 

■   Effective August 18, 2016, a same-day boarding pass for all United Club customers, including members, will be required for United Club access.

The carrier continued with promises: “We’ve been working on a variety of improvements to our United Club program. To provide a more productive and relaxing experience, we’re investing more than $100 million in renovating existing locations and building new spaces with expanded seating areas, more power outlets and upgraded Wi-Fi. We’re also investing in a brand new complimentary food menu that you can now find at our hub locations across the U.S. and will be available soon at the rest of our locations.”

The United goal obviously is to cut down on some of the guests in its clubs and the carrot it is waving is a better club experience. It’s not alone.

Earlier, Delta had taken more aggressive steps.  It’s effectively eliminated free guests passes for most classes of membership ($29 fee applies) and it also has eliminated free access for most partner credit cardholders (who now are nicked $29 to get in).

Both those carriers – obviously – are seeking to improve the club experience by reducing the headcount.

This is not a new story. As long ago as 2013, Joe Sharkey wrote: “One result of the airlines’ scramble for extra revenue from their airport clubs is a free-for-all in lounge access — with mounting complaints from business travelers about crowded conditions in lounges.”

It really has only gotten worse.

American Airlines, at least for now, is leaving club access as is and in fact it recently extended free access to some Alaska Air passengers.

You know what? I don’t care what any of the airlines are doing and that is because I am all in – mainly because the carriers pushed me – with American Express’ Centurion Lounges, a free perk for Platinum Cardholders.  Really: Centurion lounge food is vastly superior to whatever airline club’s offer, drinks are free, the WiFi is fast, space is reasonably quiet and I have not seen it jammed yet.

The airlines of course forced Amex’s hand. For years I used the Platinum Card to get in free at Continental, and also Delta.  It’s now a no go at United (which absorbed Continental) and at Delta there’s now a $29 fee for guests. <UPDATED>

So Amex fired back with the Centurion Lounge and it is a winner. It really has outmaneuvered the airlines.

The only drawback? Clubs are not everywhere. So far they are in Las Vegas, Dallas Fort Worth, San Francisco, Miami, Laguardia, and there’s a smaller outpost at Seattle Tacoma.

The next opening is supposed to be Houston, early in 2016.

Me, I want one in Newark Airport, also LAX.

Where there isn’t a Centurion Lounge, often I have found free access to clubs via Priority Pass, another Amex Plat perk.  That’s been true recently in San Jose and Phoenix and, no, it’s not as swank as Centurion but these are quiet clubs with plenty of newspapers and decent coffee and WiFi.

So count me as just not caring what the airlines do. I am a satisfied Centurion Lounge user and where they aren’t, Amex has alternatives that (so far) work for me.  I may never set foot in an airline club again.

What Travelers Need from Hotels in 2015

So many hotels still disappoint. That’s the puzzlement. TripAdvisor is filled with rants about what ticks us off but hoteliers, many of them, seem to just shrug off the negative.

And often they don’t seem to care to know what we really want.

Let me simplify this because we really don’t need much to stay happy.

Personally, for instance, I don’t care if a hotel’s restaurants suck – most do – because I don’t plan to eat there anyway.

And much as I like a decent free breakfast – always available at the highway motels I favor on road trips – I don’t view the lack as a deal breaker.

Of course a lack of electrical outlets irks me – it’s a usual winner in the Hotel Pet Peeves Survey – but I would not call it a deal breaker. It is easy enough to pack a power strip.  But nowadays I usually travel only with four plug ins (two phones, an iPad, a laptop) and I can scrounge up enough outlets in just about every room (tho I often do unplug hotel stuff).

I am of course already on record about room features I am happy to have removed, room phones, minibar, and TVs high on the list.  

But there are deal breakers, things that hotels flub that I really cannot abide.

Such as? Here are four.

No good coffee in the morning.  I like it in inroom but, in Las Vegas, one gets used to traipsing down to Starbucks at 6 a.m. and, really, Howard Schultz pours a better cup than a K-Cup machine makes inroom.  Sure, Starbucks costs a few bucks – maybe $5 in Las Vegas – but let’s not pinch pennies. As long as good coffee is readily at hand, free or no, I am at one.

What irks me is when the only coffee is inroom, made with what looks to be a 20 year old drip machine that produces what a European friend of mine calls “American brown water.”

That is no way to start a day.

No Chip and PIN Credit Card Readers.  Hotels have been beset with credit card data breaches in recent years and very probably it will get worse after the October 1 EMV liability shift.   Frankly I am increasingly tempted to decline to hand over a credit card to a hotel; the risks are real. Whatever you do, don’t hand over a debit card at a hotel – the consumer protections in the event of a breach just are not as strong.  Bottomline: show me chip and PIN readers at the front desk and at any point of sale terminal and you have won me as a friend. Still be using magnetic stripe readers only and we won’t long remain pals; I just don’t trust you.

Note: accept Apple Pay and Google Wallet and that will be good enough for me for now.

Slow, bad hotel WiFi.  I don’t care if I can’t stream videos – it doesn’t have to be that fast – but there needs be usable hotel WiFi and it needs be free.  Yes, I have said don’t use hotel WiFi, it’s insecure and that is true.  Hotel WiFi is a cesspool of malware and eavesdroppers.

But it’s just the thing for reading Google News stories, surfing ESPN, and doing a lot of online research. Just do not enter any meaningful user IDs and passwords and, please, don’t think of online banking, checking a brokerage account or doing anything that involves money.

Your company says hotel WiFi is okay if you use their VPN? Take their word for it.  And use that VPN to hop into GMail and other password protected accounts.

But, believe me, unless the hotel WiFi is fast you are going to grow old using a VPN on it.

How do I do banking and the other sensitive stuff in hotel rooms? I use my phones to make a mobile hotspot.  That technology is much more secure than hotel WiFi.  Not perfect, no, but I feel safe enough using it. But I cannot create a hotspot if the hotel falls down on the final must have.

The ultimate deal breaker: No cellular.  There remain hotels that just don’t have working cellular and I am not talking remote Alaska fishing camps where of course there is no cellular. I’m talking northern Arizona, Las Vegas (outskirts), Vermont, to name three places I have personally confronted it.  

My advice: check out as soon as you encounter it.  Refuse to pay a cancellation fee if in fact the hotel did not fully disclose at the time of booking that it is in a cellular black hole.  Not having cellular is akin to not having airconditioning in the Sonoran desert summer. It just is unacceptable.

Here’s a business idea for a geek. Just as there is Hotel WiFi Test, somebody needs to erect a hotel cellphone test site so we know which hotels and resorts to blackball.

Those are my four dealbreakers. What are yours?

Readers: share your own deal breakers. All appropriate comments will be posted.

The Sabre Breach: How to Keep Your Travel Plans Private

The Sabre breach has to shake you. Apparently millions of hotel and airline bookings may have been hoovered out of the onetime American Airlines subsidiary, probably by the same gang of China state sponsored cybercriminals who are said to have been behind many other huge recent breaches at United, the US Office of Personnel Management, Anthem, and many more.

Exact details of the Sabre breach are, as always, sparse.   Said the company in a statement: “We recently learned of a cybersecurity incident, and we are conducting an investigation into it now. At this time, we are not aware that this incident has compromised sensitive protected information, such as credit card data or personally identifiable information, but our investigation is ongoing.”

American Airlines is apparently investigating if the hackers backed into the AA computers via Sabre. The two companies are said to share some computer infrastructure.

Even without the extra AA data, the Sabre data haul alone could be in the billions of travel records.  Then add in an apparent – and possibly huge breach of passenger records at United.  Almost certainly your information is in this very large mix.  Should you be worried?

What is obvious is that somebody – and most fingers point to China – is building an enormous database on America’s citizenry that comprises health records, employment records, personal details, and now quite possibly extensive travel records.

Nobody presently has any clue what the intent of the information gatherers is.  That has to make us all worry.

There also are obvious – deeply troubling – uses to a storehouse of travel plans. These records are gold to anybody who wants to track spies, suspected spies, handlers, and – say – M&A artists.

What can you do to protect the privacy of your travel data?  Not very much. That’s the sad truth.

But there are small steps we can take to conceal our flight and hotel plans.

In bygone years – pre 9/11 – many celebrities and even some ultra rich and executives routinely traveled under fake names.  They checked into hotels under pseudonyms and they flew under similar.

That just is not viable today, at least not for commercial air when the TSA demands positive ID and an airline ticket issued in the name on the ID.

Could a high-roller fool the system by buying a cheap SFO to LAX flight, showing that ticket and his/her real ID to TSA…then discarding that tickets and pulling out a ticket to Newark in the name of Daffy Duck?

Probably.  But for how long? And how many of us want to suffer the expense just to cover up our wanderings?

And it wouldn’t work at all for international travel.

For those who crave privacy, private planes are the only real option – and for many who want this privacy, the price is not a barrier.  When mum has to be the word, go private.

That’s one way to foil the breachers,

What about self-defense in hotels?

I cannot remember the last time I was not asked to produce a photo ID to check into a hotel. Why?

There apparently is no body of law requiring hotels in the US to verify a guest’s identity with a photo ID.

Of course, hotels – ever wary of credit card fraud – want to believe checking IDs will reduce fraud (has it? Of course not).

But that does not give them the right to demand I prove my identity to claim my bed. Or sometimes just to walk into the lobby.

Maybe we should all just stop playing along with the hotels’ identify demand – especially since there are no good reasons to believe hotels are good securers of our information (from ID to credit card data).

Just say no.

The only way to protect oneself from an unknown adversary who is sucking up as much information as he can is to get stingy about leaving traces of it, especially in places that do not need it – and, for me, in travel the obvious places that have no real need for a lot of identifying data is hotels.