Best Travel Tips for 2011
Published: December 2010
Essential travel tips to help navigate the globe.
“My $250 ticket to Las Vegas turned out to be more like $500, thanks to ancillary revenue fees.”
Most airlines studiously avoid the word surcharge, so they’ve come up with this phrase to describe the add-on fees that resulted in enormous profits ($23 billion!) for the industry last year. Ancillary revenue—from preferred seat selection, ticket changes, pillows and blankets, and other à la carte services—has become the holy grail of airline economics. Hotels, too, have been charging guests for such once-basic services as pool towels, in-room safes, early check-in, and even maid service. But change is on the horizon. 2011 is shaping up to be the battleground year for ancillary revenue as consumer rights advocates call for more transparency and the Department of Transportation hammers out new airline fare disclosure requirements that bring these unexpected fees out into the open.
T+L Tip: Until the DOT obliges airlines to be more transparent about fees, use TripAdvisor’s newly enhanced “fees estimator” function to see what the real cost of a ticket will be.
Contract of Carriage
“After my flight was canceled, I told the gate agent that he had to book me on the next flight, even on another airline, as stated in my ticket’s contract of carriage.”
Think of this as an airline’s official ticket rules. For the most part, airlines write these contracts as they see fit. But that may change as the DOT works on a new rule of its own, one that would require airlines to offer the lowest available fare, refund canceled tickets within 20 days, allow customers to cancel a reservation within 24 hours of purchase at no charge, and deliver mishandled luggage within 24 hours.
T+L Tip: When in doubt, ask an airline rep for a copy of the contract. They are required to give it to you.
“We missed the opera because the airline bumped us, so we’re using our denied-boarding compensation to take another trip...by train.”
Fully loaded flights have been another key to airlines’ newfound profitability, so expect bumping on oversold flights to be a fact of life this year. Know your rights: If you are bumped on a domestic flight, you must be compensated for the full one-way fare (up to $400) when you are rebooked on a plane that lands between one and two hours after your originally scheduled flight, or 200 percent of your fare (up to $800) if you land more than two hours later. Stay tuned, as the DOT is seeking to boost compensation limits to $650 and $1,300, respectively. Meanwhile, mergers may make it easier for airlines to rebook passengers as carriers gain more hubs, says George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com.
“I read a terrible e-complaint about that hotel. But was it true?”
A backlash is growing against the juggernaut of TripAdvisor and its pool of 40 million anonymous reviews. While many hotels actively solicit positive reviews from guests, the existence of vicious (and perhaps even fabricated) e-complaints on the site has led some to push back. The British company KwikChex, working with hundreds of hotels, is planning to sue the website for publishing what it calls “malicious and wholly unproven allegations,” including anonymous charges of filth, racism, and sexual assault. The website guestscan.co.uk has turned the tables completely, allowing hotels to rate unruly guests who may find themselves unwelcome at other hotels as a result. The message is clear: If you’re going to post an e-complaint, be truthful and fair.
“I geo-tagged a picture of that vintage Soviet coat I want for my birthday, in case you can’t find the stall at the Izmailovsky flea market.”
The process of embedding images, videos, tweets, notes, and other digital files with an exact geographic location, geo-tagging is becoming increasingly pervasive as mobile phones, apps, and even cameras offer the service. For travelers, the benefits include the ability to create travelogues effortlessly, search for images or files by location (or vice versa), and keep friends and family up-to-date. But the service has its drawbacks: Posting an image on Twitter with your exact location is catnip for potential robbers who are on the lookout for unattended houses. By all means geo-tag your pictures, but turn off public sharing of geographic information on apps and websites until you get home. On Twitter, make sure to disable location-sharing when posting a tweet.
“I snapped up cheap massages in Miami for the whole family on the group-buying site livingsocial.com. South Beach, here we come!”
If flash-sale websites were the darlings of the past couple of years, group-buying sites, which offer real-time, in-store deals based on a critical mass of customers, are shaping up to be this year’s favorites. The defining feature of this growing class of sites is a local focus: the spa-themed Wahanda offers up daily “mob deals” in five cities from London to New York City, while Groupon, LivingSocial, and the decidedly upscale Bloomspot focus on discounts in restaurants, boutiques, bars, gyms, and other stores and services in cities across the country. Some sales—like Wahanda’s daily wellness offerings—require a certain number of people to buy in, while others simply have time and availability limits.
T+L Tip: Download the mobile-phone apps of Groupon and LivingSocial to look for deals in cities you’re traveling to.
“Thanks to hotelization we had our Sex and the City moment and rented a brownstone apartment in the West Village for our trip to New York.”
Travelers in search of value and a neighborhood experience now have a wealth of choices among city apartments being offered as short-term vacation rentals, thanks to websites such as AirBnB, HomeAway, and TripAdvisor. Critics of hotelization claim the practice drives up rental costs for locals and makes affordable housing more scarce. Municipal governments in popular destinations such as New York City and San Francisco have taken note and are trying to rein the practice in. Nevertheless, expect the trend to continue: small-time landlords will likely fly under the radar of municipal enforcement intended to stop multiunit operations. Meanwhile, a stagnating real estate market means owners who would otherwise sell may prefer to bide their time playing hotelier.
T+L Tip: Worried that a listing looks too good to be true? HomeAway offers up to $10,000 payment protection in case a listing is misrepresented, gets double booked, or goes into foreclosure. AirBnB accepts payment on behalf of the landlord, so your host will never see your credit card.
“Thanks to my location-based loyalty program, I just earned one night free at the Viceroy Santa Monica.”
Restaurants, hotels, spas, museums, and tourist attractions are increasingly collaborating with location-based check-in services such as FourSquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places to offer incentives for the most loyal customers. Check in to certain Saks Fifth Avenue departments and you’ll receive free Bobbi Brown lip gloss and mascara. The concept is heading mainstream with online services such as Topguest, which gives you loyalty program points for checking in to a slew of hotel and travel-related companies. Current partners include the Standard, Wyndham, and Viceroy hotels, Virgin American, and even Blue Ribbon restaurants.
T+L Tip: If you’re not staying at a hotel, you can still use Topguest to rack up rewards at the property. Many hotels award points for eating at their restaurants or visiting their bars.
“Ever since I put a mobile-broadband hot spot in my car, my kids are angels on long trips.”
The astronomic rise in popularity of smart phones, tablets, and other Wi-Fi-enabled handheld devices has raised the stakes for mobile broadband, the general term for the high-speed data networks provided by cell phone carriers (loosely known as 3G and 4G) that let you access the Internet on the go. Smart phones, of course, have built-in access, but mobile broadband service is also available through PC-compatible USB devices or portable Wi-Fi hot spots. Certain phones (iPhones, BlackBerrys, and some Android phones) now allow a process called tethering, which uses the handset’s data connection to provide Internet access for a PC via USB or Bluetooth. The latest Android phones—Motorola Droid X for Verizon Wireless and the Samsung Galaxy Tab for Sprint, among others—take it a step further by letting you create portable Wi-Fi hot spots using their data connections.
“Between my JetBlue miles, Hyatt points, and Hertz #1 awards, I could go a week just living off my travel currency.”
Although frequent-flier miles are becoming more difficult to redeem, travelers have more opportunities than ever to earn and spend points at hotels, stores, and elsewhere. Ritz-Carlton, which long resisted the points game, has rolled out a new loyalty program in conjunction with such luxury brands as Vera Wang and Neiman Marcus, allowing guests to redeem points for a day of personalized shopping or makeup consultations. Hilton HHonors members can spend their points on experiences abroad such as falconing in England (75,000 points) or chocolate-making in the Netherlands (50,000 points). A sign that points have truly become currency: Marriott now lets its Elite Rewards members request anything they can imagine—from a round of golf at Pebble Beach to a diamond ring—and ask for the price in points.
T+L Tip: No matter where you’re staying, it never hurts to ask about a loyalty program prior to checking in. Select Registry, an association of B&B’s, awards $25 gift cards for every three nights spent at any of its member inns.