Friday, August 31, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Wifi At 500 Accor Hotels

Mercure Grand Hotel Seef
Earlier in the week, I wrote about the increase in the number of hotels now charging for Wifi access. Happy, Accor is bucking that trend!

Which shouldn't be surprising, as this hospitality conglomerate often goes its own way, offering high level amenities for reasonable prices at its Ibis, Mercure, Sofitel and Novotel Hotels.

The free wifi is expected to be rolled out at the chain's hotels in the Asia/Pacific region by the end of the year. No word yet on whether this freebie will soon extend to Accor's 4000-plus other properties.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Europe's Travelodge Has Great Deals for Winter. But Is It A Risk To Stay There

Debt restructuring.

It's not a term one associates with carefree holidays, is it? The European chain Travelodge's debt woes may dissuade some vacationers from booking.

Don't let them! This proud cheapskate has stayed at a number of the chain's properties over the years and have found, with one exception (in London), them to be tremendously friendly, clean and comfortable places to lodge.  In  two words: just fine.

And with the sorts of deals they periodically release, well, its often impossible to get rooms anywhere in the British Isles or Spain for anywhere near Travelodge's rates.

The company just released 20,000 rooms for sale at just 19 GBP (approximately $30). The sale goes through September 3, but having snagged their discounts in the past, my advice is to move quickly: the cheapest rooms often sell out in the first 48 hours. The lowest priced rooms will be in Spain, with a small uptick in price for the British Isles; dates of stay are for Jan 3, 2013 through March of that year. Click here for full info. 

As for the debt restructuring, it has been approved by a judge, and will include some 75 million GBP used to refurbish some of the chain's properties. So you might get, along with a great deal, a brand new room.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Princely Vacay, Pauper's Prices: Ireland in Winter

Eight years ago, when my older daughter was 5, we took a family vacation to Ireland. Veronica was then in the "princess stage" (parents, you know what I'm talking about), so she was over the moon when we told her we'd be staying in an actual castle on our last night. But when we arrived at the impressive Dromoland Manor, she burst into tears. She'd been enjoying Ireland so much she didn't want to leave. And she realized that arriving at the castle meant the adventure was nearly over.

Dromoland Castle
If today's deal had been around, we wouldn't have had the tears. Because it includes not just the spectacular Dromoland, but stays at Kilronan Castle (in Roscommon), Dunboyn Castle Hotel (just outside Dublin), and the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel (also near Dublin). All in all, 6-nights in regal beds.

Airfare from the US (NYC at the lowest rate) is thrown in as is in-country transportation in your own gilded, horse drawn carriage. Okay, that was for Veronica. Its actually a manual rental car, but you'll feel pretty special knowing that you've gotten all of the above for just $899, including taxes. A Waterford Crystal Factory tour is also included.

The deal is available from November through February, on select dates. To learn more, go to the Aer Lingus Store, by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Latest Hotel News

Guest satisfaction is down.The revenue from additional hotel fees is up.

Hmmm...could the two possibly be related?

According to NBC News (see above), the hotel industry is set to take in nearly $2 billion in additional fees, a figure that's up 5% over last year's take. Bjorn Hanson, a hotel expert and professor at NYU, is the man behind the figures. The uptick can be tied to both higher occupancy rates, and an increase in the number of hotels charging these fees (according to the American Hotels & Lodging Association 23% of hotels now charge for internet access, up from 19% in 2010).

Hanson offered cold comfort when he told reporters he didn't think the fees would go much higher, since the industry had run out of new things to charge for.

Oh ye of little faith! I have no doubt, Mr. Hanson, that someone in that vast industry will come up with another insidious fee, and soon. With $2 billion dollars above room rates as a payoff, the incentive is too great not to. Perhaps a fee for leaving your room service tray outside your door, rather than waiting for it to be cleaned out of your room? Or how about a fee to use the services of the concierge? Or a fee to use the elevator instead of the stairs? There are so many possibilities!

Several weeks ago, JD Powers and Associates released their latest study on customer satisfaction for hotels. After polling nearly 62,000 people they concluded the satisfaction is down overall since 2011. Internet and wifi access was a crucial issue for travelers.

The study also gave winners and losers, in a number of different categories from several types of luxury hotels to budget properties to extended stay lodgings. Here's how their findings broke down:

Hotel Chains with the Highest Ratings:
  • Luxury: The Ritz-Carlton (third consecutive year)
  • Upper Upscale: Omni Hotels & Resorts
  • Upscale: Hilton Garden Inn and SpringHill Suites (tie)
  • Mid-Scale Full Service: Holiday Inn (second consecutive year)
  • Mid-Scale Limited Service: Drury Hotels (seventh consecutive year)
  • Economy/Budget: Jameson Inn
  • Extended Stay: Homewood Suites (third consecutive year)
Hotels that came in below-average in satisfaction: 
  • Loews Hotels (Luxury segment)
  • Grand Hyatt / Park Hyatt Hotels (Luxury segment)
  • Intercontinental Hotels and Resorts (Luxury segment)
  • DoubleTree by Hilton (Upper Upscale)
  • Sheraton Hotels and Resorts (Upper Upscale)
  • Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts (Upscale)
  • Delta Hotels & Resorts (Upscale)
  • Four Points by Sheraton (Upscale)
  • Radisson (Upscale)
  • Clarion (Mid Scale Full Service)
  • Quality (Mid Scale Full Service)
  • Ramada Inn / Plaza (Mid Scale Full Service)
  • Howard Johnson Hotels / Plaza (Mid Scale Full Service)
  • AmericInn (Mid Scale Limited Service)
  • Sleep Inn (Mid Scale Limited Service)
  • Baymont Inn & Suites (Mid Scale Limited Service)
  • Comfort Inn (Mid Scale Limited Service)
  • Ramada Limited (Mid Scale Limited Service)
  • Americas Best Value Inn (Economy / Budget)
  • Rodeway Inn (Economy / Budget)
  • Knights Inn (Economy / Budget)
  • Homestead Studio Suites Hotel (Extended Stay)
  • Extended Stay America (Extended Stay)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tighten Your Seatbelts: Hertz Purchases Dollar Thrify

I used to rely on a handy little site called when I rented automobiles. It had two  features that made it far better than the competition: it applied discount codes to my reservation, garnering savings and it alerted me when the price dropped so that I could make a reservation at a lower rate.

Alas, little Autoslash proved too popular and effective. About six months ago, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Thrifty and the rest of the big boys in the world of car rentals stopped allowing Autoslash to process reservations on its site. Overnight it was rendered useless. Just now, I tried to search for a reservation at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and AutoSlash told me "Sorry, there are no cars available that fit your request".

No cars in the middle of oil country?!? Ah,  just an example of how invidious the monopoly on car rentals is today.

And its about to get worse: it was announced today that Hertz has purchased Dollar Thrifty for a  $2.3 billion dollars. That means that a mere three companies--Avis, Hertz and Enterprise--will control 95% of all the car rentals in the United States and a huge share of those made abroad.

The impact should go well beyond search results. With less competition, prices will invariably rise. That uptick, along with the growing trend of cities and states to add onerous taxes to airport and other rentals (passing on the tax burden to tourists), could put car rentals out of the range of some travelers.

Perhaps its time to revisit adequate funding for the expansion of Amtrak, dontcha think?

(For more on the merger, click here.)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Freebie Friday: Hooray for Hot Spots! Free Wifi From Boingo In Places You Might Not Expect

Subway stations in New York, malls in major cities, airports across the country--all are experiencing a heat wave this summer and it has nothing to do with global climate change. Boingo and Google have set up a number of free "Hot Spots" for Wifi across the country.

Click here to see the list of the Manhattan subway stations that are now connected. Service at these hotspots is free through September 7. Boingo says it will have wired 36 stations by the end of this year (including some of the blockbuster ones, like Times Square and Columbus Circle). It hopes to have all 277 New York City subway stations connected within five years.

New York City is also working to get wifi going above ground, having partnered with VanWagner Communications to turn phone booths into hot spots.

Boing has not released information on which malls it will be making free wifi zones, though it has told the press the 8 malls will be in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa. Apparently, all of this free wifi will be commercially sponsored.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Botswana Winner: A Luxury Safari Vacation For Less

For most, a safari means going out into the bush and staying in a well-appointed tent camp. But that's not the only way to do it. Those who chose the recently renovated, wonderfully situated Mowana Safari Lodge in Botswana get wildlife spottings galore, but also such civilized amenities as guestrooms with private bathroom and TV, a bar in which to watch the sun go down, a golf course and tennis courts, even wifi!

For folks who want this cushier sort of safari experience, long-established Africa specialist 2Afrika is holding a sale, and charging just $1699 per person for six nights at the lodge, two meals a day, all in-country transportation, a full-day excursion to Victoria Fall (in nearby Zimbabwe), all Chobe National Park entrance fees and 10 safari activities. Those can range from game drives to tiger fishing to bird watching expeditions to a safari river cruise.

The folks at 2Afrika can also arrange airfare (at approximately $1540, including taxes). For more information, click on the link above.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why You'll Now Need a Friend in China

In a puzzling move, the Chinese have recently made the process for getting a visa much more cumbersome. Applicants will now have to submit a round-trip ticket, evidence of a hotel reservation and, oddest of all, an invitation. That invite can come from a tour company, an "authorized tourism unit" or an individual residing in China.

This shouldn't affect those planning to take group tours. But independent travelers, those hardy souls who were just hoping to wing their China adventure, well, they're going to be stymied.

One has to wonder why the Chinese are doing this, at a time when travel to China is booming and tourism dollars pouring into the country? Is the "Middle Kingdom" returning to the strict surveillance of visitors that was common under Mao? Or was this some sort of rogue move by a Chinese official? Its hard to tell.

For more information on the new rules, click over to this Bloomberg article.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hotel Price Fixing? It May Not Just Be a UK Problem

About two weeks ago, I alerted you to a British lawsuit which claimed that many of the major, multinational online travel agencies were strong-arming hotels to fix prices (and not undercut the ones posted on these giant sites). 

It didn't take long for that issue to cross The Pond.

Today its being reported that a class action lawsuit has been filed in California accusing Expedia, Travelocity,, Hilton, Marriott, Starwood and Sheraton of colluding to fix prices. Steve Berman, a lawyer on the case told the press ""The reality is that these illegal price-parity agreements mean consumers see nothing but cosmetic differences and the same prices on every site."

As most of us have noticed in the past year, prices at hotels have been rapidly increasing in most destinations. The most common explanation has been an increase in the number of travelers hitting the road. But the emergence of these accusations points to other factors, as well.

I'll be watching these suits closely. And hotel rates. Will there be a corollary between the two? Only time will tell.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Air Travel: Cutting Us All Off At the Knees

Its not your imagination. The pitch--or distance--between economy seats has gotten even tighter in the last several months. A number of news outlets today are reporting that Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Canada's Westjet have added more seats, reducing the distance between the existing ones in order to do so. Southwest is claiming that passengers won't notice, since its more slimly padded seats give customers more knee room. Um, really?

In some cases (such as with United Airlines), the squeeze has to do with the new "Premium Economy" seats. In order to give passengers who pay more a few additional inches, they've had to reduce the allotted amount from the cheap seats. Sigh.

Which airline has the most tightly packed seating? No mystery, its that scion of consumer friendliness, Spirit Airlines which shaves an inch of the industry standard of 29 inches. Just to give you some perspective on how little room that is: the industry standard was 32 inches a decade ago.

What more is there to say except: AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Goodbye Potholes, Hello Jobs: $473 Million To Be Put Towards Transportation Infrastructure

Remember Sim City? The popular computer game revolving around the creation and upkeep of a city? Anyone who played it learned quickly that the fastest way to see your imaginary city fail was to neglect its infrastructure.

What holds true for that game also holds up in reality.  As the ancient Romans knew, civilizations need decent roads to thrive. Without that basic element (and the modern equivalent of roads: airports, ports and railways), business is stymied and communities become cut off from one another. The travel industry, which employs one out of every 11 adults in the US (by some estimates), is particularly dependent on the three R's: roads, rail and runways.

I'm glad to see that our President also understands the vital importance of transportation infrastructure. In a bold move today, he announced that nearly half a billion dollars in unused funds, set aside by Congress over the last decade, will be released to states to use in their transportation  projects. States will have to identify how they will use the money by October 1 in order to get the funding, which will support both new and ongoing projects.

To read the announcement from Secretary of the Department of Transportation Ray La Hood on this matter, click here. For a news item, giving more details on the move, click here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sorry Junior, The Free Ride Is Over: A Change to Cruise Pricing for Babies

Is that your toddler scarfing down thirds from the buffet line? Guess we should be blaming him for Norwegian Cruise Lines' recent decision to pull the plug on free, and very heavily discounted, cruises for the under-two set.

A spokesperson for Norwegian has confirmed to  that the line will no longer be offering free passage for babies aged 6 months to 2 years (younger babies were never permitted aboard). Instead, the same rates that apply to older children will apply, which means some slight discounting for up to two kids sharing the stateroom with two adults. Previous to this, babies traveled for free or for discounts of as much as 80% (it varied by ship and itinerary). 

In instituting this new policy, Norwegian will be adopting the industry standard. And disappointing a lot of new parents, one suspects.

Wah! Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ikea Hotels, Summer Weather Delays and Controversial Seating Policies Aloft

Today's travel news items all seems to revolve around upended expectations.

In Australia, the Twitterverse is abuzz with conversations about whether men should be allowed to sit next to unaccompanied minors on airplanes. The issue came to light when a firefighter was asked to exchange seats with a woman on a Virgin Australia flight, after being placed next to two unaccompanied young boys. The move made him feel like he was being accused of pedophilia, and his complaints were picked up and echoed widely on the internet. Instead of lauding Virgin's policy as common sense, most of the respondents are finding it discriminatory.

In response, Virgin Australia has promised to review its policies. Qantas, which has the same policy, is keeping mum at this point. For CNN's coverage of the issue, click here.

The next tidbit comes from do-it-yourself giant IKEA. The furniture chain has decided to take a cue from all the people napping on the beds in their showrooms and start a chain of affordable hotels . Executives have told Reuters that the chain is hoping to have 100 hotels built, in important cities across Europe in the next few years.The upended expectation here? That you won't have to build your own bed and night table before hitting the sack for the night. In fact, IKEA is saying that it won't even be using any of its furniture in the hotels. Huh? For the Reuters piece, click here.

And as weather always upends one's expectations, you may want to click over to this report on the fact that summer patterns can be as troublesome as winter storms, when it comes to airline delays. 2012, with its record heat waves and vicious thunderstorms, has been particularly problematic. Biggest snafu: the US Airways jet that got stuck, literally, on the tarmac in DC as its wheels had created too much of a dent in the hot asphalt.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

China Cheap, Part 10 (Or Is It 11?)

The deals for China just keep rolling across my desk. This latest one, however, is a bit different. Not only does it includes a river cruise (a tremendous plus) but its doable from either coast of the United States.

That's a new twist. Usually when we see great deals for China, they're geared towards Californians. But in this case, anybody who can fly out of New York City will also enjoy tremendous savings.

Sailing thru 3 Gorges
And with the addition of the river cruise, participants will get to see one of the greatest engineering wonders (or follies, depending on your point of view) of the 20th century: the Three Gorges Dam. A controversial project from the start, requiring the destruction of a half-dozen historic Chinese villages, the dam is now the largest power station in the world. Drifting through its massive locks, something I've been lucky enough to experience, is akin to seeing the world as an ant must. Its an awe-inspiring cruise, to put it mildly.

The seller of this package is long-established Gate1Travel and the price a mere $1599 for airfare (both from LAX or JFK), 9 nights of lodging, all meals, all sightseeing, all in-country transportation and entrance fees at all attractions. The package must be booked by August 20th to get this price; travel dates are in December and January.

Click on this link to learn all the details.

Monday, August 13, 2012

What Kind of Vacation Should You Take? It Might Depend on Your Age

Please excuse this blog-as-link today, but I have a new column out with King Features that deserves your attention.

It covers a topic that's almost never discussed in the travel press: how age influences travel decisions. In the piece, I discuss the specific age of the passengers who tend to do river cruises, guided tours, AirBnB stays, and more.

Click here to read the piece.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Holiday Inn Stays

Happy birthday to Holiday Inn, the very first motel chain in the world. It turns 60 this month.

In celebration, the chain will be giving away two free nights stay every day in August, 60 in all. To get one, participants have to share a Holiday Inn related story, photo or video on either the chain's Facebook page or on Twitter. USA Today gives the full details here.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

New Fees (Part 2): Now The Cruise Lines Are Getting in the Act

The airlines wracked up billions of dollars in 2011 by charging  fees for everything from baggage to seat selection to the use of blankets and pillows. 

But in doing so, the airlines' popularity ratings, according to the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index, fell to well below that of the major banks and even Time Warner Cable! That's pretty deep hatred they're engendering.

Still, extra income is a potent lure. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Carnival Cruise Lines has announced it is testing a new fee for its customers. For $49.95 per cabin customers will get priority seating at restaurants, quicker delivery of their bags to the cabin, the right to embark first and other perks.

In instituting this fee,  Carnival is tacitly admitting that not all is hunky dory for cruisers. Lines, delays, limited availability at restaurants--who wants to deal with those problems on vacation, the line is asking. And Carnival, by instituting a two-tier system, will be making these problems worse for those who don't ante up with this new service.

Which sounds like a recipe for deep dissatisfaction to me.

Right now,  the cruise industry has high levels of customer satisfaction. Cruisers are willing to ignore the lines because they know they're getting a lot for their money (cruising is, after all, one of the most affordable vacations available). And they're around a bunch of other people in the same position as they are, when they're waiting to board or hanging out at the pool in street clothes at the start of a cruise. There's a camaraderie to the experience. By pointing up the problems in cruising and creating divisions between passengers, these new fees are likely to undermine that customer satisfaction.

At this stage, Carnival is only testing the new fees on two boats. We'll have to wait and see if it becomes a fleet wide offering, and if other cruiselines try it as well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New "Fees"! Not From The Airlines, For Them

Karma? Perhaps.

News is out this week that two major airlines may be anteing up more cash than they'd like soon.

Spirit Airlines, famed for the abundance of its customer fees, is being hit with a lawsuit alleging they've disguised one of their extra fees as a governmental tax. The company has been charging something called a "passenger usage fee"--it can range from $8.99 to $16.99--without much explanation. Turns out, that fee is not a governmental one, but something Spirit uses to cover the extra costs associated with throwing airfare sales. A Miami firm has filed a class action lawsuit, alleging this fee does not offer any additional services, and therefore should be part of the airfare. By simply charging the fee, without explanation, Spirit makes it look like a government mandated cost, according to these consumer advocates, and that type of obfuscation is now against the law. You can read the complete piece here.

The other cash grab, since it involves safety issues, is a more disturbing one. According to Reuters, the Federal Aviation Association could be levying fines of over $150 million against American Airlines, for maintenance and oversight problems. Does this move point to real dangers over at American? Or is the feds' attempt to get the fines it deserves from an airline that's in bankruptcy, and is beholden to a lot of creditors? I'd say that's unclear at this juncture. To read that complete piece, click here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Just Back From London Where The Olympics Mean....

Getting through security at Heathrow took all of 5 minutes (instead of the usual half an hour).

 I got a seat every time I rode the Underground.

I stayed at a friend's apartment, but had I chosen to lodge in a hotel, I would have paid significantly less than I would have normally. More on that here.

Most importantly, I walked through crowds overbrimming with good cheer.

I stood at the side of the road, near Hampton Court Palace, and happily screamed my lungs out, hoping to give added encouragement to the awe-inspiring cyclists who were zooming past at the Olympic time trials. Though I didn't get into the Olympic Park (one needed advance tickets, purchased over the internet for that, I found out too late), I did stand on a bridge overlooking it, and drank up the anticipatory fun: more happy crowds, handlers encouraging everyone on their way in to "smile, smile, the sun is beaming down on you and your AT THE OLYMPICS", circus performers and drag queens dressed as 1940's nurses pushing prams filled with fake babies, a photo of the current Mayor of London's face taped over the baby doll's visage (a statement about the "Nanny State"?? Your guess is as good as mine).

Even without a ticket to a single Olympic event, I had the time of my life in London last week.

So the point of this blog is: don't believe the naysayers. Before EVERY Olympics, grouches go on TV to announce it will be a disaster. It almost never is.

And attending an Olympics event--no just being in the vicinity of The Games--is an extraordinary experience. An experience that should be added to the cliched bucket list, right alongside of "African Safaris", "Jerusalem" and "The Grand Canyon".

If you get the chance to hit an Olympics: go!!! It truly is an event you'll remember 'til the end of your days. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Spain Leads The Way In Fighting Airline Baggage Fees

Though it likely won't change Department of Transportation Ray LaHood's stance on fees (he's said publicly that the US Government has no right to regulate them), it was heartening to see one government pushing back against the airlines. Malaga, in Spain, is preparing a lawsuit against all the carriers that fly into its airport and charge baggage fees. The basis of the suit is the 1960 Air Navigation Law which states that a passenger's ticket covers both the carriage of the passenger and his  luggage.

The complete story is in England's Daily Telegraph.

In my fantasy, the lawsuit is so wildly popular that the government officials sponsoring it get enough campaign contributions to keep them in office for life. US politicians, hearing of this outcome, amend the Deregulation Act, which allows our airlines to charge what they please when they please, to one that's a hair more consumer friendly. Overnight, luggage fees disappear!

Well, I can dream can't I? Or perhaps it's time to move to Spain!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Freebie Fridays: Free Food Fests Around the US (Thanks to National Geo Traveler)

No, the illustrious magazine isn't sponsoring any gorge-athons. But it has compiled a nifty list of the festivals that are still free to the public to attend.

Many top food fests now charge an entrance fee as well as fees for the grub (boo hiss). Attend any of the ones National Geo has found and you can dine with your eyes (though you'll have to open your wallet if you actually want to swallow anything). Along with food for sale, many fests include cooking demonstrations and other food-oriented activities.
VT Maple Syrup is the focus of one free fest

Yes, there are a couple of fudges on the list, and not the chocolate kind. Its hard to think of ongoing markets, like Pike's in Seattle and the Union Square Market in NYC, as "festivals". But for the most part the list is a terrific resource for all your traveling foodies. Here's a link.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Hotel Price Fixing Online? A Scandal is Brewing in the UK (One That Involves Multi-National Firms)

Have you been paying more for your hotel than you should have? Possibly.

And that could be thanks to a number of large online travel agencies. Britain's Daily Telegraph is breaking the story that the government here is investigating whether Expedia, and other large travel companies strong-armed hotels into fixing prices, so that they wouldn't be undercut. According to investigators, hotels were told that if they posted prices different from what was posted on the major online sites, they'd be banned from these sites, a dangerous prospect for a small, unknown hotel.

For the complete story, click here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Very Nice Hotel Rooms Across the UK From Just 19 GBP

I'm writing this post from an English country hotel, all leather couches and excellent sausage-laden breakfasts, called Hartsfield Manor. It's the type of place one chooses in which to throw a wedding. In fact, that's why I'm here: my dear cousin Miranda is marrying a lovely chap named Keith.

Being in the right place at the right time has its perks: I just learned that the consortium that runs this hotel, and many other swank manor houses across the British Isles, is throwing a sale. Starting Thursday (Aug 2) and for just 24-hours, DeVere Venues will be selling rooms for just 19 GBP (approximately $29) per night. The promotion covers stays from October 14 through December 2, and stretches from Abingdon near Oxford, to Baronny Castle near Edinburgh.

I must remark that that price is quite remarkable, especially for lodgings of this quality. Yes, you can often get 19 GBP rooms at Travelodge. But that's a motel chain! These are distinguished, well-maintained, manor houses with fine sheets on the beds, deep bathtubs and grounds!

To learn more about the sale, click here.