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Say Goodnight Gogo
By Robert McGarvey
The news is what I did not do on my last three flights: I did not connect to Gogo, did not go online, and did not regret that I didn’t. In fact I exited the planes feeling better and smarter than if I had been online.
I have been compulsively going online inflight essentially since the service debuted. But I have been online with the Internet since 1985 (and had the 300 baud modem to prove it, even owned an acoustic coupler). I won’t stay at hotels with bad Internet – and yes there are still some – this is just part of my expectations wherever I go.
My inflight Internet addiction was abetted by a stack of free passes, acquired with the purchase of various Chromebooks. I rarely – maybe never – paid for inflight Internet access.
But now I am out of free Gogo passes and, faced with shelling out my own cash (as little as $16 for a day pass), I am keeping my wallet in my pocket and not signing in.
It’s not about the money. It’s about the speed, or lack thereof, of inflight Internet. I love this WIRED headline: “American Airlines Sues Gogo Over God-Awful Inflight Internet.”
Message boards are overrun with laments about Gogo. That just is fact.
American withdrew its suit but only after Gogo told the airline it could sign with a faster, better provider if it found one.
I am still waiting.
As are you, I’m sure.
But, meantime, I surrendered to the reality that the Gogo service sucks and so on a roundtrip to Las Vegas (short flights from Phoenix), I read the delightful The Millionaire and the Bard, about Henry Folger’s obsessive – but so important – collection of Shakespeare first folios and his later construction of a library to house his vast collection of Shakespeare related materials.
Yesterday on a flight from Phoenix to Newark, I read Get Carter, the noir British novel that spawned the Michael Caine film.
Call this throwback. Before I had Gogo – and the river of the emails it brought me inflight – I always packed good reading matter for a flight. And then I stopped. I began handling dozens of emails. I even responded – probably because I had the time – to emails I never would have answered had I been at my desk.
On the flight back to Phoenix I am considering my options for reading – and, fortunately, I have hundreds of unread books on my Kindle app on a Nexus tablet.
I don’t think I am alone. On the flight to Newark I looked at what other passengers were doing. Some were playing games on tablets or phones. Others were watching movies on tablets or laptops. Some were reading, on Kindles or tablets.
I did not seeing anyone connected to the Internet.
I’m sure some were – but just maybe the novelty has worn off and the thrill is gone. Five years ago it was fun to think, I am at 30,000 feet and sending this email. Now that seems so, well, compulsive.
When I land I find I am more relaxed and – at least after reading the Folger book – more thoughtful, than if I had waded through so many emails, most of which I honestly don’t need to read, no less respond to. But inflight I do both when I am connected. Snip the cord and I don’t miss it.
Will we pick up Internet usage if speeds improve? No question about that. When inflight speed rivals that of the typical home or office, we will flock back to it (or to it for those who have managed to ignore Gogo so far). Already, Virgin America has announced inflight WiFi speeds that rival home Internet.
Of course that is tempting.
Except maybe we shouldn’t succumb.
There may be other – compelling – reasons to avoid inflight connectivity besides slow speeds. Read this reporter’s chilling account of getting hacked while using Gogo. Is this possible? You bet. Any public WiFi – the kind found in hotels and also, apparently, inflight – is a hacker’s playground and Gogo, it turns out, recommends that if accessing sensitive stuff, always use a VPN, which may well impose even slower access speeds when connecting inflight.
Or maybe the simpler thing is, don’t go online inflight, not until both speed and security improve.
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.
Just Say No to Resort Fees: the FTC Now Is Back on the Attack
by Robert McGarvey
$2.04 billion. That is how much advocacy group Travelers United said was collected in resort fees in 2015. That is up 35% from 2014.
The breaking news: the FTC apparently has decided to renew its attack on resort fees. More on that below.
For now, feast on more bad news: 1,671 hotels and lodging sites in the U.S. charged resort fees, said Travelers United.
Said Travelers United, “The average mandatory resort fee reached $24.93 in October 2015 hotel listings online, a 30 percent increase over the $19.20 average resort fee of online listings in December 2014. Resort fees in Florida were highest, with an average of $28.63 across 549 hotel listings.”
Resort fees are also high in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Diego. But they show up in small towns, big cities, and where we may least expect them.
How in an era of minimal inflation can resort fees nudge up 30%? Because they can. Because no one is watching.
You know what you get for a resort fee: bupkis mainly. A newspaper you don’t want. Bad and insecure inhouse WiFi. Maybe local calling. Pool towels. A lot of stuff that, well, is what you might expect to see at a resort anyway or that you don’t likely want. (Do you ever use an inroom phone?)
Usually too free parking is in the package – but only if it’s parking nobody would happily pay for. That is, hotels in Manhattan and San Francisco won’t throw in parking – not when they can nick guests $50, sometimes higher, for it. But if it’s a suburban resort with a vast parking lot, sure, they will throw it in under the resort fee.
Guided hikes – not in the package usually. Ditto for classes led by experts (surcharged on a case by case basis). Cooking classes – forget about it.
A rule of thumb: the good stuff comes with a price tag. The rest is covered by the resort fee.
The only bright news here: the Federal Trade Commission is going after resorts that hide their resort fees. That’s a position flip flop. Last summer the FTC seemed to shrug and accept resort fees. Now it is back on the warpath and it is prodding Congress to consider legislation regarding resort fees.
Personally, we are not for or against resort fees. What we are against is hiding the fees and springing them on consumers as they check in (sometimes not until check out).
That is the real irritant. A hotel can charge whatever it feels the market will bear. That is the system.
But hotels cheat when they have a room rate and on top of that is a resort fee – usually upwards of $25 – that is presented as a kind of footnote. Go ahead, see if you can find it when making a reservation via mobile. Ditto with reservations via Online Travel Agencies (OTAs).
Hiding fees is just sneaky.
Hoteliers, as a group, present delusions when justifying resort fees. They will tell you everybody does it and they would be at a competitive disadvantage if they in fact built those charges into the room rate.
But everybody does not do it. The American Hotel and Lodging Association said that only about 7% of hotels charged resort fees, meaning 93% do not.
Some greedy hoteliers do it because it is a fast way to goose the black ink. Resort fees mean profits.
But my favorite is when hoteliers say that we – the consumers – like resort fees because it bundles in a lot of charges that otherwise we would have to pay for a la carte. Except some 87% of consumers have said they would be “less willing” to stay at a hotel that charges a resort fee. That does not sound like a whole lot of loving, does it?
Hoteliers also tell us resort fees represent real “value” because, if bought a la carte, the various things thrown into resort fees would cost more.
The fallacy there of course is that just about nobody would buy all the stuff covered by resort fees. Some might buy none at all – and those guests still are stuck with paying a fee for “amenities” they don’t want.
Can you dodge resort fees? Road warriors tell us they often do, simply by saying at check out that the fee had not been adequately disclosed. If there’s resistance, say you will complain to the FTC which already had begun investigating complaints about hidden resort fees….and actually file that complaint.
Does that always work? Nope. But all we can do is lift our voices in protest – and hope our complaints fall on sane ears.
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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.
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