How to Dodge Hotel Cancellation Fees


by Robert McGarvey


You read it here first. Last week, Joe Brancatelli dropped the bomb that Marriott (and Starwood) were switching to what appears o be a chainwide 48 hour cancellation policy.  Cancel after that deadline and you pay a penalty of one night’s rate.

In a statement, Marriott said: “Guests will now be required to cancel their room reservation by midnight 48 hours prior to arrival in order to avoid a fee.”

Marriott explained it was making the change because of more lax current policies -generally allowing cancellations up to 24 hours before – there have been “a significant number of unsold rooms.”

I admit, I started business travel when free same day cancellations were the norm. Usually up to 6 p.m. the day of arrival.  Some homes  might have nudged it up to 4 p.m.  Either way, hotels – at least the ones that catered to business travelers – understood that plans change, often at the last minute, and we need flexibility in our hotel bookings.

Airlines of course in effect sell flexibility. Tickets that don’t allow for changes are much cheaper.  But I have long believed that I should fly with tickets I can change, easily and at no cost, and that’s my policy unless a client wants the cheaper fare and accepts the consequences.

For years, resorts have imposed onerous cancellation policies. I have seen some that require a week’s advance notice.  But, arguably, vacations are planned farther in advance and usually won’t be changed at the last minute.

Regular rooms at regular hotels booked by business travelers are a different matter.  With many clients, a Heraclitean flux is the norm. Hotels generally understood that.  Until recently.

It was back in 2014 that Marriott instituted the 24 hour cancellation policy.

Now it is upping the ante.  It got away with the switch to 24 hours, now it is banking on acceptance of 48 hours.

Watch other hotel operators do likewise.

But you don’t have to take it.

I won’t.

Understand this: in a number of key business travel cities, hotel occupancies are running high. The most recent figures I saw for Manhattan pegged average occupancy at78%.  Numbers are similar for Boston and Washington DC.

In San Francisco occupancy averages over 80%.

On some nights just about every month at least some hotels will sell out.

That’s why you are seeing hotel trade magazine articles like “How to Walk Guests” – and, by the way, what that means is that you may have a reservation you cannot cancel without penalty but the hotel may still not have a room for you.

Know that there are services – Johnny Jet in a recent piece fingered Roomer and Cancelon as such services — that, for a fee, will help you unload hotel reservations you cannot use. That’s an option for some.

Personally, what I plan to do is to not make reservations until the last minute.

The math is on our side.  Yes, there are those rare sell out nights but mainly we will have lots of choice.  When it comes to flying from Phoenix to Atlanta I have a handful of palatable choices so the power is with the airlines.

Not so with hotels.  The numbers favor us.

I am looking at Hotel Tonight and in Phoenix tonight I can book the FOUND:RE ($123), the Hyatt Regency ($149), or the Kimpton Palomar ($172).  There are many more hotels with availability.

Maybe Phoenix is an unfair example. It will be 116F today and 120F tomorrow and, yes, the city is empty.

In San Francisco tonight, I can sleep at my standby, the Hotel Carlton, for $149. Or I could try the Petite Auberge for $155 on Nob Hill. There are at least six more acceptable options in Hotel Tonight.

In Manhattan, the picking are slimmer but I would not sleep on a plastic chair in Port Authority.  I’d book into 6 Columbus for $155 or maybe Yotel, where I have planned to stay for some years but never quite have, for $119.  The options are acceptable.

In Washington D,C, four Kimptons have availability in Hotel Tonight. Stay in the neighborhood you prefer.  Dupont Circle, downtown, and more.

In Boston, Hotel Tonight splashes many choices on my screen. Personally I’d go for The Verb at $184. How can I resist an active part of speech?

Yes, I understand that for some trips we want to be in a specific hotel.  In those cases, if the reasons are good enough, I will suck it up and reserve in advance. Usually that’s for a meeting or for proximity to a specific executive.

But in most of my travel usually I only am looking for a specific neighborhood – and judging by what I see on Hotel Tonight I will do fine with same day booking.

What if – shudder – everything is sold out and I need a room in Manhattan? I’d book in Jersey City or Brooklyn.

Bottomline: we don’t have to be pushed around by aggressive hotel cancellation policies. We can resist.

I know what I will do.




The Sabre Breach Ups Your Travel Insecurities


by Robert McGarvey


What now in terms of hotel guest insecurities?  Now that Sabre has disclosed a breach that may have impacted some 32,000 hotels that use the company’s data services.

This is bad. Potentially a lot worse than the many, many hotel breaches we have learned about over the past few years, at Trump through Mandarin.  That’s because those hotel breaches largely were confined to systems used in bars, restaurants and gift shops.  The prevention was simple: don’t used plastic at those establishments, in fact just don’t use those places at all and if you must, pay cash or sign the charges over to your room. Room-related systems, we had always heard, had not been compromised.

An exception was the recent Intercontinental Hotels breach where, it was acknowledged, reservations related data may have been hacked. IHC posted a widget for checking if hotels you have used were compromised.

That IHC breach is bad. The Sabre breach may be much worse.

Oddly, it’s gotten scant coverage in the consumer press and not a lot more in the trade press. Probably due to breach burnout.

But the Sabre breach has to be looked at closely.

Buried in Sabre’s recent 10-Q filing is this: “We are investigating an incident involving unauthorized access to payment information contained in a subset of hotel reservations processed through the Sabre Hospitality Solutions SynXis Central Reservation system. The unauthorized access has been shut off, and there is no evidence of continued unauthorized activity at this time. We have retained expert third-party advisors to assist in the investigation and are working with law enforcement. There is a risk that this investigation may reveal that PII, PCI (each as defined below), or other information may have been compromised. It is not possible at this time to determine whether we will incur, or to reasonably estimate the amount of, any liabilities in connection with this incident. We maintain insurance that covers certain aspects of our cyber risks, and we are working with our insurance carriers in this matter.”

PII data, btw, is “personally identifiable information,” meaning it potentially identifies you.

According to reporting by security blogger Brian Krebs, Sabre has said that the breach has been plugged and the situation is under control: “There is no reason to believe that any other Sabre systems beyond SynXis Central Reservations have been affected,” said Sabre in a note to its customers.

But here’s the rub: Sabre’s systems are used by literally thousands of hotels to manage guest reservations and payments. Airlines too use the systems.

Sabre has declined to share more details about the breach. Nobody knows exactly what data was lifted, for how long.

But a safe assumption is that if you have stayed in hotels and/or flown on commercial planes your payments data may now be in the hands of criminals. It may not be – because we know so few details of the hack – but caution and the hospitality industry’s track record suggests erring on the side of paranoia.

What should you do?

Start by monitoring charges, especially on the cards you use for travel expenses. Really read the monthly statements. Question anything that looks hinky.

Just stop using debit cards – ever – for travel related expenses. The protections just are not as good as they are for credit cards and, in most cases, getting wrongly used cash restored to your account can involve delays when a debit card is involved.  That can be a giant hassle when a mortgage or tax payment is due and the money just is not in your account yet.

Only use credit cards at hotels and with airlines.

More advice: it’s time to stop using hotel WiFi except for the most mundane tasks. If you want to check the Yankees’ score – and I’m with you on that – sure, use hotel WiFi for checking into ESPN.

But with anything that involves a password that matters to you, use your phone’s cellular data or use the phone to create a personal hotspot to power your laptop’s surfing.  Cellular data isn’t perfect but it is far, far safer than any public WiFi.

Also, use cash to pay at hotels wherever possible.  Hotels have shown their cybersecurity cannot be trusted – even if the hotel is doing its job, its vendors may not be.  Throwing a $10 bill on the bar for your draft beer won’t come back to haunt you.

Survey cybersecurity experts and many believe still more hotels will be breached.  Why?  Hard to say, except the obvious issue is that the industry has not invested in the systems and protections needed to keep guest data truly safe.

Just know this: you can’t trust hotels to keep your card data safe.  Act accordingly.

Stand Together to Fight Back Against Basic Economy Fares

By Robert McGarvey

More reports trickle in about employers that are requiring employees to purchase the so-called basic economy, barebones airfares that usually mean a middle seat, no overhead bin storage, and still less.  Word of advice: just say no.  Push back against that employer want and, honestly, it just is bad for business anyway.

I can’t see business travelers voluntarily opting for basic economy – right now I see the push coming from corporate bean counters and they know they won the fight to herd most of us into coach.

When I fly, it almost always is in coach. I don’t see clients that will spring for front of the plane seats and, although I initially grumbled, I have resigned myself to the inevitability of coach.  So did most other business travelers – which is why the bean counters triumphed.

But a line needs to be drawn against basic economy – even if the bean counters are eyeballing this as a new cost-cutting battleground.

Don’t say you can’t win this fight. You can.  Business travelers have won fights before, notably – in most cases – the right to keep rewards miles and spend them on personal travel.  As far back as the 1980s, some organizations tried to seize those miles . In 1990, the New York Times even ran a story headlined, “Most Employers Covet Frequent Flier Bonus Miles.”    

The dust up continues  today.but, frankly, most employers beat a retreat from this demand in the face of strong employee pushback. Acting as one just about all of us fought to keep the miles – and employers heard us.

Solidarity made the difference.

That same resistance can be harnessed to fight back against basic economy. I know many organizations require their people to use the cheapest available fare, or something very close to the cheapest.  That’s fine, in my mind, particularly when the employer tempers the requirement with common sense, mainly rooted in travel time.  It just is dumb to force an employee to buy a one stop flight from EWR to PHX even if the fare is $100 cheaper, possibly as much as one third less.

But that cheap flight also often is two or three hours longer.

It’s bad business to require business travelers to book flights with stops because they are cheaper.

It’s also bad business to require business travelers to fly basic economy.

I’m not the only naysayer. business travel blogger Joe Brancatelli recently said: “Basic Economy is not a new, cheaper fare that the three remaining legacy carriers have introduced. All they’re doing is taking their existing cheapest fare in a market, stripping out functionality and rebranding it.

You’re not saving any money if you buy Basic Economy. You’re just getting less than ever.”

Brancatelli is right.

Although the big carriers basic economy fares differ in nuances – Delta for instance allows an overhead bag, United doesn’t; American also bans overhead bin use, except for elites and holders of some AA credit cards – the bottomline is that there is no advance seat selection.

And you can’t upgrade seats, even with reward miles.

To me, what that does is eliminate the possibility of doing inflight work and – pretty much always – I work inflight.  I often use the time to write a blog, I frequently catch up on business reading, and I may, if I have splurged on WiFi, do email.  But comfortably doing such tasks requires – in my mind – an aisle seat,

I can’t imagine working from a middle seat.

I also can’t imagine not getting access to the overhead bin because it has been some years since I checked a bag and doing that adds maybe 30 minutes to a trip, time typically spent at a baggage carousel. Those are minutes I do not need to lose.

There also will be a bag check fee for many passengers and that naturally eats away at the savings that basic economy is supposed to deliver.

Tickets typically cannot be changed either and, for a business traveler, that may be a deal killer. Of course I have grumbled about change fees – who hasn’t, aside from Southwest passengers? But these basic economy fares often allow no change. Period.

There are more take-aways involved with basic economy. Some carriers – United for instance – don’t allow basic economy flights to count towards elite status.  American counts Basic Economy flights towards elite status, but elite qualifying miles are earned “at a reduced rate of 0.5 per mile/flight segment flown.”

For me, the elite status issues are no big deal – I have sworn off status for 2017 – but for many others this will be another deal killer.  

Add up the plusses – supposedly a cheaper fare – and the negatives and obviously the carriers have stacked basic economy to appeal no to business travelers but to leisure travelers who are determined to pay the least possible to fly.  

Just say no if orders come down to book basic economy to save the company a tiny amount of money money.  

And urge other business travelers to do likewise.

We have nothing to lose but the middle seats.

Hotel Tech Worth Applauding: Bunking with Alexa


By Robert McGarvey

Finally a hotel technology push – a big one – that is worth applauding. Wynn Las Vegas has announced that its 4748 rooms will be equipped with Amazon Echo, the voice driven answer machine, aka Alexa.

Much – most – hotel tech “innovation” leaves me bored or cranky.  It’s an industry that generally is at the rear of the curve when it comes to technology adoption and I point you to the silly in-room phones that hoteliers continue to talk about. No, I haven’t used one in a decade and can’t say I miss this.

Hoteliers also babble about robots which, I suppose, are okay but I have not personally seen one yet and can’t say I care. Ditto for beacons, which are the buzz in some quarters.

Alexa is a different matter. I have owned an Alexa since January 2015, and just recently installed a second, the diminutive Dot – in another room in my house. I don’t go a day without talking with the Echoes I own. Alexa has dramatically simplified my life and is a poster child for technology that works.

Here is why I am excited about what Wynn is doing: Let me take you back maybe five years when I checked into a Strip hotel.  I don’t name it not to protect the guilty but because I don’t remember which one. In Las Vegas I have no brand loyalty and generally stay close to whatever meeting brings me to town.

But Wynn may be winning me over to the Wynn brand with Echo because this solves a big problem for me.

Back in Las Vegas some years ago – I come back to the room late one night, the window’s drapes are to the sides, the lights of the Strip cascade into my darkened room. I have to close the drapes to sleep.  Honestly, it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to use the electronic system to close the things so that I could go to sleep.

In some rooms, too, in-room lighting is a mystery to me. Occasionally so is the thermostat.

Wynn Hotels plan to solve exactly that pain with its Echo installation.  The device will roll out with a limited range of skills but they are exactly what I want in a Strip hotel.  In a press release Steve Wynn said, “The ability to talk to your room is effortlessly convenient. In partnership with Amazon, becoming the first resort in the world in which guests can verbally control every aspect of lighting, temperature and the audio-visual components of a hotel room is yet another example of our leadership in the world of technology for the benefit of all of our guests.”

That’s a helluva tangled sentence but as I parse it, Wynn is saying you can ask his Echoes to close the drapes, turn lights on or off, raise or lower the temperature, probably control the TV.

And exactly those are the things that too often confuse me in Las Vegas rooms.

Wynn’s Alexa should also be able to handle the questions and tasks I throw at mine daily: What’s the weather? What time is it? Set an alarm for 6 a.m.. Give me a news update. Etc.

You can do the latter – much of it – with Siri, certainly with Google’s voice recognition tools. But neither of them can handle your in-room comfort and what matters more than opening/closing the drapes, setting the temperature and the limited range of Wynn specific skills enabled on his Echoes.

If I had to predict a hospitality tech trend for 2017 and beyond it is that we will see more voice activated devices in hotel rooms, at least those with somewhat sophisticated in-room equipment.  And probably the winner will be Dot, mainly because of the price point.  Amazon sticker s $50 – but I got mine for $25 (net), by combining various Amazon offers.

The big brother Echo costs $140. That’s what Wynn is installing.

Google Home costs $129. It’s doubtless a good device – Google voice rec works superbly on my Pixel phone, vastly better than Siri on an iPhone. But Amazon already has a vast user base and that’s a plus for any hotelier. Guests need no instruction with Echo.

Watch, too, as Wynn enables more skills – that’s my bet. Soon guests will be able to make restaurant reservations, book spa treatments, buy show tickets just by talking with their in-room assistant.  Program the device to know the room it is in, that connects to a credit card and right there commerce is enabled. Send the guest a confirming email and there’s some verification.  I’d use it.

Now if only hotels would finally eliminate the front desk check in routine, a process that is honestly unchanged in my 40 years of checking into hotels.  Okay, way back when, accounts were usually settled with cash, not credit cards, but really nothing else has changed.  For many years hoteliers have talked of eliminating the front desk check in.  I’m still waiting.

And you know what? Alexa already is Expedia enabled and, probably with some minor tweaks, Expedia could handle check-in, even issue an electronic key to my phone.

I’m ready. Are you?


Can You Hear Me Now at 30,000 Ft?

By Robert McGarvey

Voice calls are coming to airplanes – rather they are coming back.

Loud – protesting – voices are getting raised but, really, this is progress, baby, and it won’t be derailed by people with no memory of history.

First: here’s why I am convinced we will soon be permitted to make voice calls inflight.  The US Department of Transportation has issued a proposed rule to protect passengers “from being unwillingly exposed to voice calls on aircraft.”

DoT is not seeking a ban on such calls. Quite the contrary.  What DoT is seeking is “to require airlines and ticket agents to disclose in advance to consumers if the carrier operating their flight allows passengers to make voice calls using mobile wireless devices.”

The Federal Communications Commission, by the way, has sway over cellphones’ cellular radios and the FCC continues to ban voice calls inflight.

DoT is looking instead at WiFi calling – available via Skype, Google Voice, What’s App, many more apps, also T-Mobile and at least some other cellular carriers.  Said DoT: “As technologies advance, the cost of making voice calls may decrease and the quality of voice call service may increase.”

Meantime, the big air carriers have been pushing WiFi providers – mainly GoGo – to up their game.  There is every indication that will happen and, truth is, WiFi calling with What’s App, Skype, et. al. is not bandwidth intensive anyway.  Skype, for instance, says the minimum bandwidth for voice calling is 30kbps. It recommends 100kbps.  That is not a high hurdle.

DoT admitted that the last time it raised the topic of inflight voice calls – in 2014 – the people spoke and they weren’t happy.  “In February 2014, the Department had issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) regarding the use of mobile wireless devices for voice calls on commercial aircraft.  In response to the ANPRM, a substantial majority of individual commenters expressed opposition to voice calls on the grounds that they are disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.”

This ire puzzles me.  I recall getting a call from a business associate who was inflight in the mid 1980s.  He was using Airfone – the inflight system birthed by John Goeken, founder of MCI. It debuted in the early 1980s and was still in at least some planes until 2006.

Airfone never enjoyed much use.  We all saw the phones – usually in the seatback of the middle seat in coach; in every seatback up front. But high prices – in 2006 calls cost $3.99 plus $4.99 per minute – seemed to stall usage.

Publicist Richard Laermer in fact said the price of an Airfone call was why the service triggered few complaints. “With Airfone, it was so expensive you made it and hung up.”

He’s right. Airfone calls generally were minimalist.

Laermer said that won’t be so with WiFi calling.  “The Wifi calls are going to be ‘Hey. Hi. Just calling to see how you are.’ And that’s going to eat people up inside. It’s bad enough listening to someone drone on and on with their seatmate, but to listen to half a conversation will start a revolution in the air. I think this is a very bad idea. Coming from someone who travels every week…it’s going to cause people to start knocking phones out of people’s hands.”

San Diego PR executive Antoinette Kuritz said similar: “For many of us, plane time is time to read, relax, disconnect.  Others are prepping for the meetings to come when they land.  Then there are those who nap.  The chatter rampant cell phone use will allow makes all of that impossible.  We will be subjected to the often inane one-sided conversations of those who need to display their connectivity to others.”

I can’t disagree with those who wish phones would stay off planes.

But here’s the deal: Satellite phone calling already is available on at least some flights

Then, too, WiFi calling already is happening inflight. Yes, the air carriers and their WiFi providers seek to block access to the known WiFi calling services such as Skype. But the Internet is ever inventive and new services multiply like cockroaches in a New York tenement.  A whispered reality is that calling already is happening, maybe mainly in hushed tones inside a locked bathroom.

My belief: inflight calling will come to airplanes, probably by 2020, very possibly via captive services and with high tariffs involved.  It’s unlikely that carriers – who seek to shake a dime out of every passenger interaction – would let this opportunity pass.

Couldn’t it still be an annoyance? You bet. That’s why frequent flyer Andy Abramson has said for this to work, there will have to be guidelines monitoring when calls can be made and more. His list – which includes a ban on profanity – is here.

Abramson also wants no calling rows so those who want silence can find it.

Read Abramson’s suggestions because – bet on this – calling is coming to planes.

There might even be a plus in this for all of us, whether we personally make and receive calls at 30,000 ft. or not.  If enough revenue comes in from calling, the carriers just may – really – seek real upgrades in inflight WiFi.  And that is something I can applaud.