Get your Netflix on hotel TV

(Image: Brian Cantoni / Flickr)

(Image: Brian Cantoni / Flickr)

Netflix in your hotel room? Since the streaming entertainment service Netflix has grown so fast and attracted so many subscribers, wouldn’t it be nice if you could access it while you’re away on business?

Marriott thinks so, and the hotel giant is currently testing the availability of Netflix and other streaming services like Pandora and Hulu in guest rooms at eight of its properties.

Still unknown: Whether Netflix access would come with a fee attached, and if so, how much.

TechCrunch opined, “The hospitality company says that it’s part of an effort to renew the idea of in-room entertainment, and if offering Netflix means we don’t have to sift through the glitchy, slow world of LodgeNet, it’s a win-win for the consumer.”

I think I’d rather just cuddle up on the hotel bed with my iPad to watch Netflix or other streaming services– but of course that is dependent on the mostly undependable wi-fi connection at most hotels.

Would you use Netflix or other streaming services in your hotel/ If so, how much would you pay for it?

Weekend Edition

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Flurry of new flights + Amex pickle + Delta in Dallas + Easy 1,000 HHonors points update

Spirit plans to make big inroads at ATL. But would you fly Spirit?

Spirit plans to make big inroads at ATL. But would you fly Spirit?

Flush with cheap fuel profits, airlines are rapidly expanding their footprints in cities across the U.S. To wit: 

Spirit grows at Atlanta, LAX. Two ultra-low-cost, fee-heavy airlines have new growth spurts coming up. Spirit Airlines is aiming to grab a bigger piece of the seemingly impenetrable Atlanta market from Delta and Southwest by adding nine new routes there. Keep in mind that Spirit offers a knee-numbing 28 inches of non-reclinable seat pitch– the least in the industry. Plus, you pay extra to carry on a bag or reserve an aisle or window. (See fee schedule here.)New flights include Cleveland, Las Vegas and Orlando starting May 7; Baltimore/Washington, Philadelphia and Tampa beginning June 18; Los Angeles as of August 20 and Boston and Ft. Myers starting September 10. (Will Delta and/or Southwest match those low fares? Hopefully they won’t match Spirit’s fees.) Spirit also announced two other new routes out of Los Angeles — Baltimore/Washington and Kansas City, both beginning July 9 …

WeekendEditionMeanwhile, Frontier Airlines said it will launch new seasonal service out of Philadelphia April 30 to Houston and Minneapolis. On April 14, Frontier will begin new Chicago O’Hare service to Los Angeles and Austin, followed by new non-stop beginning April 30 from ORD to San Francisco and Raleigh/Durham. Would you ever use an ultra-low-cost airline? Under what circumstances?

New routes: Southwest, AA, Delta. Southwest plans to add four new domestic routes on August 9, including Oakland-Columbus, Boston-Columbus, Orange County, Calif.-Portland and Washington Reagan National-Ft. Lauderdale … Subject to Transportation department approval, American Airlines plans to take over Alaska Airlines’ Los Angeles-Mexico City route on June 4, boosting frequencies from one to two a day, according to the trade journal Travel Weekly … Delta is set to launch daily service between Boston and Milwaukee June 5, using a two-class, 76-seat CRJ-900, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Predicting spring-summer airfares

Higher merchant fees help American Express fund popular benefits like Centurion Lounges (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Higher merchant fees help American Express fund popular benefits like Centurion Lounges (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

American Express in a pickle. Last week Amex lost its fight to prohibit merchants from encouraging customers to use other credit cards. The court ruling handed down this week means that merchants can now convince customers to use Visa or Mastercard plastic instead of Amex, something which was prohibited (and enforced) before. Why would a merchant want to do this? Because the fees American Express charges merchants are around twice as much as other cards. Amex has long been able to get away with this because it claims that it brings higher value customers to merchants, and uses the higher fees to fund the popular Membership Rewards program, and offers bennies like the popular Centurion lounges.

JetBlue offers The Wall Street Journal. A new partnership between JetBlue and The Wall Street Journal will give the airline’s passengers free unlimited access to the newspaper’s WSJ.com website content through the Fly-Fi Hub, JetBlue’s lineup of free media offerings via its in-flight Wi-Fi system to passengers’ personal electronic devices.

Court fight over Love gates. Southwest Airlines is going to federal court to challenge a Transportation Department advisory that essentially told Dallas airport officials to find some way to allow airlines currently using Love Field to keep using it. The airline in question is Delta, which is currently operating its DAL-Atlanta flights with a pair of gates subleased from United. However, United last month transferred those gates to Southwest, which has said only that it will let Delta keep using them through July 6.

IHG Rewards bonus + Kimpton purchase = interesting!

HOTELS

Just in time for SXSW the enormous new JW Marriott Austin (Rendering: Marriott)

Just in time for SXSW the enormous new JW Marriott Austin (Rendering: Marriott)

Austin’s biggest hotel opens. Marriott officials have cut the ribbon on the 1,012-room JW Marriott Austin, which they said is the city’s largest hotel — it takes up the whole block bounded by Second and Third streets, Brazos Street and Congress Avenue, within walking distance of the convention center and State Capitol. It has 112,000 square feet of event space and 42 meeting rooms, along with a fifth-floor pool deck and bar, three restaurants and a full-service Starbucks.

Best new credit cards for frequent travelers

Easy 1,000 HHonors points UPDATE. This week Hilton sent TravelSkills an announcement that the login process for all Hilton HHonors members was being updated. PIN numbers will no longer be accepted and members will have until March 25, 2015, to create a new password or update their existing password. It said that those who update the password by by March 8, 2015 get 1,000 bonus points as a thank you. BUT, since getting this, we’ve learned that there is a technical issue with this process right now and the deal has been put “on hold.” A Hilton confirmed to TravelSkills that the bonus will indeed come back as soon as the tech glitch is fixed. So standby.  Eventually (and hopefully) once the issue is resolved, you will log in to your Hilton HHonors account, then go to “personal information” to change your password.

Did you miss yesterday’s issue of our Weekend Edition? No probs! Here’s the link:

United changes + SFO Sky Club + Southwest devalues + New Virgin route + Beijing bird!

In Case You Missed It…

>Should airports restrict the sale of alcohol to passengers?

>Fortune magazine designates “most admired” travel-related companies.

>San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel will change hands next month.

>Planespotting: The 757 vs. 767.

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first three installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 757, 767 (latest)

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

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New hotels: Honolulu

Sunset mai tais and slack guitar at the Halekulani (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Sunset mai tais and slack guitar at the Halekulani (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

At TravelSkills, we love new hotels. They smell better, work better, feel better, and are usually bigger, brighter and hipper than others. But new can also have its downside: Construction noise, service issues, and/or locations in sketchy or “upcoming” neighborhoods. Some are so new that TripAdvisor reviews are scant compared to more established hotels. In an ongoing feature, TravelSkills reports on the newest hotels in the world’s most important cities. When we say “newest” we have certain criteria around that: The hotels have to be brand new or deeply renovated within the last few years, 3+ stars and appropriate venues for business travel.

On a recent quick business trip to Honolulu  I took a walk through Waikiki to check out the newest hotels fit for business travelers. (Okay, I did get to the beach once between appointments and had a sunset mai-tai at the always fabulous Halekulani pictured above.)

My first impression of Waikiki is that it has really cleaned up its act. It seemed overcrowded and a bit seedy last time I was there in 2012. While the improvement effort is working, the place is still clogged with fanny-packing vacationers, tour buses and hawkers– a good sign for the local economy. But a hassle for business travelers.

Related: 7 things to know about Hawaiian Air | Lanai: Billionaire’s work in progress

There are very few new-from-the-ground-up hotels in Honolulu…except for maybe the towering Trump hotel/condo structure, which opened in 2009 and the hotel seems permanently positioned at the top of Honolulu’s TripAdvisor rankings.  Most “new” hotels are massive refurbs of existing buildings that feel brand new and are great choices whether you are in town for work…play…or as is most likely, a little of both…

Poolside at the Modern Honolulu hotel- great for sunbathing or a power breakfast (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Poolside at the Modern Honolulu hotel- great for sunbathing or a power breakfast (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

ON THE EDGE. The best thing about the new 353-room Modern Honolulu is its location on the far western edge of Waikiki. The striking white, mid-century modern, 17-story hotel (opened in 2011) is the one closest to central Honolulu– a huge plus for business travelers with meetings downtown or at the nearby convention center.

The location also means that it is closest to the airport, which reduces transfer time in this notoriously traffic-clogged town. But you pay a price for that location—the hotel is not directly on the beach—instead it overlooks a marina, but the beach is a short, easy five-minute walk away.

The best rooms in the house are the two-room oceanfront suites facing the water—most have a walk-out veranda with big sliding glass doors that offer nice views and allow the trade winds to breeze through.

The other things I really liked about this hotel, which consistently ranks among the top two Honolulu hotels on TripAdvisor: Free, fast and easy wi-fi, desks that face windows instead of a wall, and big bright bathrooms bathed in terrazzo with walk in showers. There’s also a secluded, tranquil an adults-only pool—a rarity in this part of the world.

For entertaining, make a reservation at the hotel’s super-hip Morimoto Waikiki for some of the best sushi (and wagyu beef) in town, plus great views and people watching…it’s where President Obama dines when he’s in town. Room rates start at around $290 per night, based on the season, and thankfully there are no irritating “resort fees” which are common in Hawaii.

Hilton's brand new Hokulani Honolulu used to the the Ohana Islander hotel- but got a complete makeover (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Hilton’s brand new Hokulani Honolulu used to the the Ohana Islander hotel- but got a complete makeover (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

IN THE MIDDLE: Hilton’s new 143-room Hokulani Waikiki, which opened in February 2014, is a real find in the thick of things in Waikiki at the corner of busy Kalakaua Boulevard and Lewers Street. The hotel’s main entrance and lobby is on the second floor (up an escalator), which removes guests from the street level hubbub—the lobby’s big water feature adds to the modern, tranquil scene.

All rooms (which start at about $350 per night) in this 16-story building are brand new one-bedroom suites with hardwood floors, free, fast wi-fi, efficiency kitchens with refrigerators and cooktops and a microwave (great for longer stays). Bathrooms include separate walk in showers and big soaker tubs. For fresh air, most have sliding glass door access to shallow balconies.

There’s a big bright pool deck and bar on the roof with views down to the beach across the sprawling Waikiki Beach Walk development, which has redefined and enhanced this once somewhat seedy part of town.

Since it’s so new, the hotel has only garnered just over 100 reviews on TripAdvisor but already ranks #14 out of 82 Honolulu hotels. Best of all, you can earn or burn your HHonors points at the Hokulani—it’s the newest Hilton in town.

View from the recently refurbed Ali'i Tower at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. (Photo Chris McGinnis)

View from the recently refurbed Ali’i Tower at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. (Photo Chris McGinnis)

Speaking of Hilton, if you are a fan of the kitschy, crowded but supremely popular Hilton Hawaiian Village, you’ll be pleased to know that when I was there, foundations were being laid for at least two more towers. Right now, business travelers should opt to stay in the recently re-furbed Ali’i Tower— this original tower at the massive complex emerged from a major $26 million facelift in 2013 and feels like a brand new hotel.  Plus, it offers some of the best water views in the Village. (See above)

Disclosure: I was a guest of Hawaiian Airlines on this trip, which arranged a 2 night stay at the Modern.  

–Chris McGinnis

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Taxi usage down 65% + Newark, LAX upgrades + Plush transfers at DEN + TSA wait times decline

United's upgraded terminal at Newark could soon look a lot like this one-- which is Delta's a La Guardia. (Photo: OTG)

United’s upgraded terminal at Newark could soon look a lot like this one–> Delta’s Terminals C&D  at La Guardia. (Photo: OTG)

Terminal renovations at Newark. United Airlines is teaming up with OTG Management for a $120 million overhaul of Newark Liberty’s Terminal C over the next 18 months. UA’s hub terminal will get 55 new dining venues, and passengers will have free access to thousands of iPads “to track their flight, order from chef-created menus, and purchase travel amenities for delivery directly to their seat in the terminal while browsing the Internet,” United said. (This set up should sound very similar to Delta flyers who use New York La Guardia airport frequently– it’s the exact same concept.)

LAX upgrade. Meanwhile, LAX officials last week marked the groundbreaking for a $508 million makeover of Southwest’s Terminal 1 at that airport. It will get a new 12-lane security checkpoint, automated checked bag system, new and expanded dining and retail concessions; and relocation of the terminal entrances to the west end of the building.

Air France Update: Over the weekend, Air France pilots extended their crippling strike until Sept 26. The French carrier is flying about 40% of its flights.

SF Taxi biz down a whopping 65% (Photo: Athan / Flickr)

SF Taxi biz down a whopping 65% (Photo: Athan / Flickr)

Taxi usage in SF down 65%! Ride-finding apps like Uber and Lyft have become so popular in tech-savvy San Francisco (where Uber launched in 2009)  that the city’s traditional taxi business is in a downward spiral. A new report presented to city transportation officials said that the number of taxi trips in San Francisco has plummeted by 65 percent over the past 15 months. Have you switch away from cabs in favor of Uber, Lyft or other services in SF or elsewhere? Please leave your comments below. For me, I’m currently stuck in Las Vegas, a surprisingly non-Uber city, and feel lost without it! (Want $30 off your first Uber ride? Click here!)

Mercedes tarmac transfers at DEN. United’s best customers (Global First flyers and Global Services members) now have the opportunity for Mercedes-Benz SUV tarmac transfers to their connecting flights at Denver International. The service is already available at Chicago, Houston, Newark, San Francisco, LA and Dulles. (Something else that should be familiar to Delta’s ultra-elites who get tarmac transfers in Porsches.)

Runway closure at ATL. The northernmost runway at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson closed down last week for paving work that will continue through October 15. Four runways remain open, and because September and October are slow traffic months, “the runway closure is not expected to significantly affect flight traffic,” a spokesman said. However, TravelSkills reader RD begs to differ: On Sunday morning he wrote: “Just landed this morning at ATL and this is already creating a mess for arrivals. It added about 10 minutes to our taxi time.”

Inside the first class section of a United E175 (Embraer)

Inside the first class section of a United E175 (Embraer)

United adds more 76-seat jets. United Airlines is broadening its commitment to the Embraer 175 by ordering another 50 of the two-class, 76-seat aircraft for United Express, to be operated by a subsidiary of Republic Airways Holdings. The carrier is already taking delivery of its first batch of 70 E175s; the next 50 will come online from 2015 through 2017. The aircraft offer first class, Economy Plus and regular economy seats. Next year, United Express will start to remove 31 Q400 turboprops from its fleet. Last week, United Express started deploying the E175 at San Francisco, on the SFO-St Louis route; on October 26, it will put the planes on SFO-Austin, Dallas and Minneapolis flights.

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WestJet, Air Canada add bag fees. Canadian carrier WestJet, which flies to a number of U.S. cities and has code-sharing pacts with Delta and American, is ending its “first checked bag free” policy for passengers who buy its bottom-tier Econo fares. The new $25 fee for the first checked bag is effective for travel starting October 29. The carrier also launched a new WestJet Rewards tier program with three levels — teal, silver and gold — starting October 29; it’s based on spending rather than miles flown. In response, Air Canada — which already has a first-bag fee on transborder flights — said it would impose a similar $25 bag fee starting November 2 on domestic passengers traveling on its economy class Tango fares.

Routes: DL grows in Texas; Frontier comes to ORD. Delta Connection/Compass Airlines will begin four daily LAX-DFW flights on November 3; add a third daily LAX-Austin roundtrip November 2; and start twice-daily LAX-San Antonio flights April 7, 2015 … Frontier Airlines started flying out of Chicago O’Hare last week, with six flights a week to Washington Dulles.

So, what do you think of Spirit Airlines flamboyant new livery? Comments below, please! (Photo: Spirit)

So, what do you think of Spirit Airlines flamboyant new livery? Comments below, please! (Photo: Spirit)

AIRPORTS

TSA: Line times are down. The TSA says it is meeting its goal of getting all travelers through security after a wait of less than 20 minutes. From June through August of this year, the agency said, 99.6 percent of all travelers waited in security lines less than 20 minutes — and 99.98 percent of those in the expedited PreCheck lanes “moved through the checkpoint in less than 10 minutes.” And that’s with a total of 173 million persons screened during those summer months. Do TSA’s numbers about waiting times sound right to you, based on your experience?

SFO encourages networking, brainstorming. The newest public facility at San Francisco International is oddly called “#Converge@flySFO” — an 850-square-foot space in the International Terminal, boarding area G, on Level 3 near Gate G93. Equipped with tables, chairs, power outlets, Wi-Fi and a wall-sized white board with markers, “the space is designed to allow travelers to meet and exchange thoughts on technology, shared economies, and ideas that could make the world a better place,” a spokesman said. Persons who want to use it should post their topic, date and time via social media channels using the hashtag #Converge, and tagging @flySFO so the airport can repost it.

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

HOTELS

Marriott wants maids tipped. In thousands of Marriott hotel rooms across the group’s various brands, guests will soon start seeing envelopes encouraging them to tip their maid. Housekeeping workers reportedly receive tips less often than other hotel staff, and the company wants to make sure they’re not forgotten. It suggests $1 to $5 a night, depending on the room rate. We’d love to hear you sound off about hotel tipping and Marriott’s moves. Please leave your comments below.

In Case You Missed It…

>Nostalgia buffs can have dinner in a Pan Am 747.

>New airport concept: Park for free, rent your car while you’re away.

>Here’s a credit card for travelers with big bonuses and easy redemptions.

>Here’s how to find widebodies on domestic routes

–Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

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Hilton’s Conrad snags posh new London hotel

A room at the Conrad London hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

A room at the InterConti– soon-to-be Conrad London Westminster hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Hilton’s Conrad brand announced today that it will take over the InterContinental Westminster, which just opened in December 2012. The new Hilton Conrad London Westminster will make its debut in September.

The hotel has a central London location, service, and style business travelers require. It also has a handsome restaurant and bar with a type of food you would not expect to find across the pond.

While in the UK over the holidays in 2013, I checked in at the hotel for two nights.

The hotel is located in a quiet corner of London near Buckingham Palace (Chris McGinnis)

The hotel is located in a quiet corner of London near Buckingham Palace (Chris McGinnis)

>The 256-room hotel opened as an InterContinental in early December 2012 in a quiet, yet very central area of London, in between Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It’s next door to New Scotland Yard. It will become a Conrad this starting September 14 2014.

>The new hotel was built inside a group of 19th century buildings called the Queen Anne’s Chambers—so even though it looks traditional red-brick-London on the outside, everything inside is modern and brand new. As a matter of fact, when I was there, rooms on two floors of the hotel were still under construction.

>Room rates are currently pegged at about $450 per night in August, and since it will soon be part of Hilton,  you will be able to earn and burn HHonors points here.

The new InterContinental Westminster near Buckingham Palace. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The  InterContinental Westminster near Buckingham Palace will soon be the Hilton Conrad Westminster. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>This is one of the few luxury hotels in London that offers free wi-fi—and since the hotel is new, it has fat, fast pipes for quick and easy downloading, streaming, etc. (No word yet on whether Conrad will offer free wi-fi.)

>Rooms are decorated in a pale palette of blondes, beige and gold, with classy wood, leather, marble and chrome finishes, which keeps the rooms bright—a good thing since most windows in the low-slung (6 story) building look out to other buildings across alleyways and streets or into light wells.

>Bathrooms are big, modern and bright with separate tubs and showers. However, I was not a fan of the large, heavy, sliding doors separating the bathroom from the sleeping room. They seem awkwardly heavy, and not very soundproof, which can be important when more than one person is in the room.

>Its fresh-faced, young, and professional staff is energetic, highly trained– delays in opening the hotel meant more training time for employees.

A lovely, quiet parlour off the main lobby area. (Chris McGinnis)

A lovely, quiet parlour off the main lobby area. (Chris McGinnis)

>Since the hotel hopes to attract London’s political set, the lobby and common areas are all connected, and designed to see and be seen. For example, when you walk in to the chic limestone, sky-lit lobby, you can look through to Emmeline’s, an elegant tea and champagne bar, then through that to Blue Boar Smokehouse, the hotel restaurant and bar. (No word yet on if or how Conrad will change the restaurants.)

>Art and interior design are inspired by the hotel’s location. For example, carpet in the corridors sports an unusual fingerprint design (for the spooks in Scotland Yard next door). Most of the paintings and sculpture include characters from London’s rich political scene, past and present—for example, there are busts are Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and London’s blustery mayor, Boris Johnson.

>There’s a gym and fitness center in the basement.

Umm. Pulled pork on a silver platter at Blue Boar Restaurant & Bar. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Umm. Pulled pork on a silver platter at Blue Boar Restaurant & Bar. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>It felt a bit odd for me, someone who grew up in the BBQ-sauce-soaked South, to dine on smoke ribs, pulled pork, baked beans and cole slaw in London. But I did, and loved it! In typical British style, the, the BBQ at the hotel’s Blue Boar Smokehouse is served on (get this…) a silver platter. And in another hat tip to British tastes, the restaurant offers pulled lamb. Kudos to the chef Jon Ingram, who served up sweet, smoky and moist pulled pork, and spare ribs charred and spread with just the right amount of sauce. To finish, a classy finger bowl is provided to rinse sticky fingers.

>The Blue Boar Bar, with green leather love seats, plaid loungers, wooden floors and a full bar looked like it would be great fun with a crowd. But when we were there, parliamentarians were on Christmas break, so it was quiet.

>Overall, The InterContinental Westminster is a very nice, new hotel in a quiet corner of London. It will be interesting to watch how it transforms into a Conrad.

>The neighborhood around the hotel is a hotspot for new hotels… nearby you’ll find the St Ermin’s hotel and 41 Hotel both opened within the last year and both worth a look-see!

–Chris McGinnis

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Best & worst hotels, airports for Wi-Fi

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 12.17.32 PM

 

Free wi-fi is great, but you usually end up getting what you pay for, right? Well, maybe not, according to an interesting study by a Wefi, a mobile network management company.

According to the study, the hotel chains that offer the fastest wi-fi are in the budget and mid-priced category, with brands like Red Roof, Holiday Inn and Best Western leading the pack. These are also the brands that usually offer free wi-fi.

Those that offer the slowest wifi are primarily upscale or luxury brands. Hyatt, Marriott, Westin and Four Seasons rank near the bottom. Many of these upscale brands charge for wi-fi. Hilton appears to be the upscale chain with the fastest wifi.

I should point out that this is not an exhaustive study– several major brands do not appear at all. A Wefi spokesperson told TravelSkills that they studied wi-fi speeds at a minimum of 10 hotel locations per chain to determine the overall score– not a huge sample by any means. The following metrics are based on a 45-day average of Wi-Fi speeds for each location starting from April 1 to June 15, 2014.

Hotels Avg Bandwidth
Red Roof Inns  4.34
Sleep Inn  4.14
Ramada  3.69
Holiday Inn  3.68
Best Western  3.66
Aloft Hotels  3.42
Studio 6  3.22
Hilton  3.17
Quality Inns  3.15
4 Points by Sheraton  3.04
Comfort Inn  2.99
Candlewood Suites  2.69
Radisson  2.43
Clarion  2.42
Doubletree  2.32
Intercontinental  2.31
Wyndham hotels  2.05
Crowne plaza  1.92
Global hyatt  1.90
Marriott  1.70
Westin Hotels  1.65
Four Seasons  1.34
Motel 6  1.26
Airports avg bandwidth (mbps)
Detroit Metropolitan Airport, MI  4.63
Denver International Airport, CO  4.33
Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International FL  3.74
Los Angeles International Airport, CA  3.29
Washington Dulles International Airport, VA  3.09
Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, TX  2.88
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, WA  2.84
Houston George Bush Intercontinental TX  2.71
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, AZ  2.68
LaGuardia Airport, NY  2.67
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International GA  2.66
Boston Logan International Airport, MA  2.51
Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport  2.45
Las Vegas McCarran International Airport  2.41
San Francisco International Airport, CA  2.29
Nashville International Airport, TN  2.14
Baltimore-Washington International Airport  2.01
Chicago O’Hare International Airport, IL  1.88
John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY  1.79
Raleigh-Durham International Airport, NC  1.69
Orlando International Airport, FL  1.54
Miami International Airport, FL  1.37
Philadelphia International Airport, PA  1.18
Sacramento International Airport, CA  0.82

These results are interesting to me because, while I’m always grateful for the free wi-fi at less expensive hotel chains, I do usually feel like I’m getting what I pay for with slow (and sometimes no) speeds and balky connections. When faced with a free, but slow hotel room connection, I frequently think, “Jeez, I’d gladly pay for a better or faster connection.”

Airports are a mixed bag. Over the last year or so, I’ve been very impressed with the speed of the wi-fi at my home base airport at SFO, but it only ranks middle of the pack here. I’m glad to see Detroit at the top of the list– despite the city’s woes, its airport is awesome– one of the best hubs in the US as far as I’m concerned. As we reported here, Atlanta recently rolled out a brand new, reportedly very fast and free wi-fi network.

What about you? Do these findings mirror what you’ve found on the road? Please leave your comments below.

–Chris McGinnis

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!


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Biz Trip: Denver

The area in and around Denver's historic Union Station is the locus for a redevelopment boom downtown (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The area in and around Denver’s historic Union Station is the locus for a redevelopment boom downtown (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Even the most notorious nose-to-the-grindstone business traveler will have a difficult time not having fun in sunny, booming Denver, Colorado.

Its location near the geographic center of the US, a world-class airport and a rash of recent hotel developments in its pedestrian-friendly core have combined to make Denver an increasingly regular stop on the business travel circuit. Over the last three years a hotel building boom has added some 1,400 new rooms. For example, a brand new Marriott Renaissance just opened in the elegant, former Colorado National Bank Building downtown.

Also, the city’s diverse economy has weathered the recent economic storm better than most other major US cities. The Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation recently revised its forecast due to better-than-expected gains in employment, retail sales and applications for residential building permits.

Looking for the perfect souvenir from a biz trip to Denver? Check out the classic Rockmount Ranch Wear store downtown (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Looking for the perfect souvenir from a biz trip to Denver? Check out the classic Rockmount Ranch Wear store downtown (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Denver’s historic centre is in the middle of massive redevelopment in and around Union Station, which is located in the lower downtown area known among locals as “LoDo”. This year the Beaux Arts-style rail station is emerging as a new multi-modal transportation hub, with a 112-room hotel and an expansive indoor/outdoor dining and retail area. With nine new office buildings under construction within a few blocks, the end result will be an unusual mix of modern glass and steel alongside the area’s original red brick, iron, stone and timber buildings.

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Denver International Airport is considered one of the best airports in the world – and one of the least expensive. Stiff competition among low-fare carriers like Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines (along with the dominant United Airlines) has reduced average fares to and from Denver by about 28% over the last decade. Last year the airport added new long haul nonstops to and from Tokyo, Mexico City and Reykjavik.

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You’ll soon be able to take the train to the plane from downtown Denver. (Photo: RTD)

However, the airport’s distance from downtown – some 40 to 60 minutes by car or cab depending on traffic –  has long irritated visitors. That frustration will evaporate in 2016 when the new FasTracks East Rail Line will cut the duration of the 25-mile trip between downtown and the newly renovated Union Station to just 30 minutes. In the meantime, cab fares from the airport to downtown are set at $55.15 plus tip. Renting a car is another option, but be aware of steep fees if you plan to park at a downtown hotel.

Where should you stay in Denver? Dine? Entertain or spend a free afternoon? Read Chris’s entire BBC post here. But come back to TravelSkills to post your comments, observations, tips and advice! 

(Chris McGinnis’s post about Denver originally appeared on BBC.com in May 2013)

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Biz Trip: New York City

New Triplex Suites atop the New York Palace hotel have huge outdoor decks w Jacuzzis (Chris McGinnis)

New Triplex Suites atop the New York Palace hotel have huge outdoor decks w Jacuzzis (Chris McGinnis)

When it comes to business travel, New York City is on a roll. In 2013, the city hosted a record 54 million visitors, whose spending produced nearly $60 billion in economic impact.

While most business travelers have likely bedded down at hotels in the popular, central Midtown area, demand has prompted a hotel building boom across all five boroughs. Over the last year a slew of new, upscale options have come online in areas like the Upper West Side (NYLO hotel), Greenwich Village (The Jade Hotel), Brooklyn (Wythe Hotel) and Queens (Z Hotel). Meanwhile, the Herald Square area has seen an influx of mid-priced, brand name hotels such as Best Western PremierHilton Garden InnHoliday Inn Express and Marriott Courtyard, among others. Last winter Marriott opened two new hotels inside the same building: a 378-room Courtyardand a 261-room Residence Inn. The soaring steel and glass tower near the southwest corner of Central Park is the tallest hotel building in the western hemisphere. More than 5,000 rooms have been built in the last two years, and by the end of 2014 the city will have more than 100,000, reports NYC & Company, the city’s tourism organization.

While New York City is the US’ most frequented point of entry for international travellers, the airport customs and immigration process can be slow and frustrating, in part because the city’s largest airports, John F Kennedy International (JFK), Newark Liberty International andLaGuardia, are a mix of old and new. However, the arrival experience at New York City is improving. In May 2013, Delta Air Lines moved into a brand new $1.4 billion international terminal at JFK’s Terminal 4. In October, the airline rolled out new automated passport control kiosks in its customs and immigration hall, which helped cut the 35-minute average wait time in half.

Where should you stay in New York City? Dine? Entertain or spend a free afternoon? Read Chris’s entire BBC post here. But come back to TravelSkills to post your comments, observations, tips and advice! 

(Chris McGinnis’s post about New York City originally appeared on BBC.com in Dec 2013)
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Best and worst days for holiday trips

Holiday travel season usually mimics the peak summer travel season, which this year was very busy and very expensive, so I expect the same for the upcoming holiday season.

When’s the best time to buy airline tickets? Due to high demand, there simply are not any real airfare “deals” on the peak days around Christmas and New Year’s this year. Travelers who want the most convenient flights on their preferred airlines should book as soon as possible to get seats on those flights…otherwise they will likely be stuck paying the same high price for “dog flights” that depart super early or late, they’ll have to sit in those dreaded middle seats, or make several stops en route to their destinations. My favorite sites for shopping for air travel this year: Kayak.com and Routehappy.com.

Should I drive or fly this year? I always stick to the five-hour rule: If you can drive to your destination in five hours or less, it’s likely smarter to hit the road instead of the skies during the holidays. This is especially true for families traveling together. Good news this year is that gasoline prices are at their lowest in many years. One of my favorite new smartphone apps for driving trips is Waze, a GPS-based mapping tool that uses information provided by other drivers to help you avoid traffic, road hazards…and speed traps.

What are the best days for traveling this year? The good news about this year’s holiday season is that it is longer than usual with Christmas and New Year’s falling on Wednesdays– the full season will be over two weeks long, which means more wiggle room for travelers. (Compared to a season when Christmas and New Year’s both fall on say, Sunday, which makes for a much more compact, crowded and expensive season.) Smart travelers will depart on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and return on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day to avoid the biggest crowds and snag the lowest fares.

Are there any alternatives or hidden secrets to getting good deals this year? If you have the flexibility to travel during the slowest times of year, the so called “dead weeks” of early December and early January, you can save 50%-70% on airfare or hotels. For example, airfares to Europe can be remarkably inexpensive during winter months. The best sites to shop for these dead week deals: Hotwire.com, Priceline.com and TravelZoo.com. It’s also a good idea to check out airline or hotel social media streams on sites like Twitter or Facebook to look for short term, last minute sales.

Is now a good time to redeem points or miles for trips? It’s nearly impossible to use airline frequent flyer awards during the blacked out, heavily restricted peak holiday season. Instead of dealing with those frustrations, focus on your credit card points! For example, the when redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you are not subject to blackouts or other restrictions. If a seat is available on any airline, you can get it!

What about airline baggage fees? If possible, avoid checking bags during the holidays– the risk of your bag getting lost and ruining your trip is just too high. Try to learn to live out of a carry on. If you have too much for a carry on, ship your bags ahead of time, but do so at the “ground” rate at UPS, FEDEX or the Postal Service. Shipping a 25 lb bag via next-day or two-day express is just too expensive.

What’s a good way to avoid holiday travel stress? Always try to book nonstop flights because you double your chances of a delay or cancellation with a one stop flight, even though you might save a few bucks. Another stress-busting move: Consider staying over in a hotel when visiting families during the holidays– rates at new hotels like a locally owned Best Western in or near suburban office parks hit annual lows during holidays (due to the lack of business travelers), and facilities are usually new and nice. Having your own space at a hotel is a big relief for both the traveler and the host during the stressy holidays.

‘Tis the season for Holiday Travel and I’m pleased to announce that I’ve teamed up with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card to produce a series of travel tips and advice for those heading over the river and through the woods this year. 

Chris McGinnis 

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16 brand new must-see NYC hotels

A brand new Marriott Courtyard AND Residence  Inn open in this skyscraper near Central Park (Photo: Marriott)

A brand new Marriott Courtyard AND Residence Inn open in December in this skyscraper near the SW corner of Central Park (Photo: Marriott)

New hotels are sprouting up throughout New York City like mushrooms after a storm—New York has added more than 5,000 rooms in the last two years, and by the end of 2014, it will boast over 100,000, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism organization.

See my Google slideshow of new hotels here- photos and captions 

In December alone, Marriott will open two brand new hotels inside the same building: a 378-room Courtyard and a 261-room Residence Inn. The soaring steel and glass tower near the southwest corner of Central Park is now the tallest hotel building in the western hemisphere. Also in December, Hyatt opens the brand new-from-the-ground-up 487-room, 54-story Hyatt Times Square.

Check out the view from this room at the brand new Viceroy Hotel on 57th St. (Photo: Viceroy Hotel)

Check out the view from this room at the brand new Viceroy Hotel on 57th St. (Photo: Viceroy Hotel)

While heavy demand is keeping hotel prices high, many of Manhattans newest hotels are in the less expensive category—for example, in an area between the Empire State Building and Herald Square (just south of Times Square)… there is a concentration of brand new mid-priced, big brand hotels such as Best Western PremierHilton Garden InnHoliday Inn Express or Marriott Courtyard  (among others). These hotels offer relatively good deals, new (but small), modern rooms, free wi-fi, breakfast and points in your favorite hotel loyalty program– definitely worth checking out.

While most business travelers have likely spent the night at hotels in the popular, central Midtown or Times Square areas, demand has prompted a hotel building boom across all five boroughs of the city, providing a slew of brand new, upscale options in areas like the Upper West Side (NYLO hotel), Greenwich Village (The Jade Hotel) Brooklyn (Wythe Hotel) or Queens (Z Hotel).

Despite all the new construction, upscale hotels in NYC are expensive. It’s difficult to find a decent hotel room for less than $400 per night. Of course there are some times of year when rooms go for much less than that (like early January) but for the most part, you are going to have to part with a lot of cash for a nice room in NYC.

See my Google slideshow of new hotels here- photos and captions 

A few more highlights:

New Triplex Suites atop the New York Palace hotel have huge outdoor decks w Jacuzzis (Chris McGinnis)

New Triplex Suites atop the New York Palace hotel have huge outdoor decks w Jacuzzis (Chris McGinnis)

The opulent 909-room New York Palace hotel (on Madison Ave in Midtown) just completed a major $140 million re-do of all rooms and suites. Its triplex suites (see photo) are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in NYC. Wowza!

The mod, eclectic 178-room Hyatt Union Square opened in April 2013 one block south of Union Square Park on Fourth Ave and 13th St.

Hilton devotees should be pleased to know that  the new 463-suite Conrad New York hotel in Battery Park City (near Freedom Tower) took the place of the one time Embassy Suites in the same building. It’s now much more upscale, and full of downtown financial types from Wall Street or the Goldman Sachs building next door (which incidentally owns the hotel.)

The chic 240-room Viceroy New York opened in October 2013 on West 57th Street near Carnegie Hall– and right next door to the Parker Meridien.  The urbane 208-room Quin hotel opened down the street last earlier this month.

The new 60-room High Line Hotel (on the west side of town in Chelsea) is part of a mixed-use block that is part hotel, part Episcopal seminary and part residential building.

It’s fashionista central at the new 197-room Refinery Hotel, located in the garment district near Bryant Park.

See my Google slideshow of new hotels here- photos and captions 

Have you visited New York City recently? Where did you stay? Please leave your comments below

Chris McGinnis 

 

 


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Did I get it right about Atlanta?

Have you been inside the mode new Hyatt Atlanta Midtown hotel at 10th & Peachtree yet? (Chris McGinnis)

Have you been inside the mod new Hyatt Atlanta Midtown hotel at 10th & Peachtree yet? (Chris McGinnis)

As many TICKET readers may know, I wear a lot of hats in the travel biz… one of my roles is Business Travel Columnist for BBC… I write the monthly “BBC Business Trip” column which features what’s new, exciting, helpful or interesting about major business travel destinations around the world.

This month, I wrote about our home town, Atlanta and I’d like to hear what you all think… did I get it right? What did I leave out? What sort of advice would you give a business traveler headed to Atlanta for a few days? 

Here’s the introduction to my story… click on the links provided to read the whole thing. 

Business Trip Atlanta BBCLike its official symbol, the phoenix, Atlanta is rising from the ashes of the recent recession, maintaining its position as the commercial capital of the fast-growing southeastern US.

Over the last five years Atlanta has added a $1.4 billion international airport terminal, opened or renovated a slew of hotels, attracted additional national and regional business headquarters, and spurred development of once decaying downtown neighbourhoods with multimillion dollar mixed-use developments and parks.

Evidence of Atlanta’s comeback: overnight visitation was up 9% in 2012 compared to 2011, according to the city’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. In October 2013, Korean Air added daily 407-seat Airbus A380 nonstop flights between Atlanta and Seoul. The city ranked fourth in the US for meetings and conventions in 2012, after Orlando, Chicago and Las Vegas. Its surprisingly sophisticated and dynamic dining scene continues to enthuse visitors and locals alike – Atlantans dine out more often than New York or Chicago residents, and enjoy restaurant prices well below the national average, according to Zagat.

Most business travellers arriving in Atlanta will meet, eat and sleep somewhere along the north-south corridor, which starts in the city’s central core (downtown) and moves north to MidtownBuckhead and the sprawling Perimeter Centre/Dunwoody area, which has more office space than downtown. Stick close to this spine and you can get around easily by taxi or MARTA (the city’s rapid rail system).  But if business takes you into the tech-heavy northern suburbs such as Marietta, Alpharetta or Gwinnett County, a rental car is necessary to traverse the sprawl.

I wrote about the new mod new Hyatt in Midtown (a down to the studs revamp), the chic Le Meridien out by Perimeter Mall, the classy Mandarin Oriental near Lenox and the popular St Regis, Buckhead. For dining, I suggested The Optimist, King + Duke, KR Steakbar and the unusual new Gunshow. I suggested a walk or ride along the new Eastside Trail and Beltline, and talked a bit about southern manners.

Please take a read and let me know what I may have missed! What would YOU suggest to an international business traveler coming to ATL? (Leave your comments below) And use this as a resource to send out to colleagues coming into town.

Chris McGinnis 

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ATL ranks last + more Delta devaluations + 747 refurb complete + loaded guns

Tempting, yes. Healthy? Not so much. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Tempting, yes. Healthy? Not so much. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

ATLANTA AIRPORT FOOD RANKS LAST. First, the good news: Overall, airport fare has become a lot healthier in recent years… we’ve come a long way from those wizened wieners and dried out triangles of pizza from years gone by. According to a new study from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 76% of airport restaurants offer at least one cholesterol free, plant-based entrée such as salads, veggie soups, wraps or burgers—that’s up from just 57% in 2001. Now the bad news… all those yummy Chick-fil-a sandwiches with waffle fries, Varsity dogs and rings with F.O.s and IHOP pancakes have put our airport at the bottom of the list when it comes to healthy food. According to the study, only 51% of the restaurants at ATL offer at least one high-fiber, cholesterol free option. ATL has ranked last for the past three years. Airports in Denver, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles ranked first, with over 80% of restaurants offering healthy options. What’s your favorite restaurant or food stand at ATL? Does it offer anything “healthy?” Please leave your comments below.

One Flew South at ATL Concourse E has some healthy options (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

One Flew South at ATL Concourse E has some healthy options (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY FOOD? Here are some suggestions from the Physicians Committee for finding healthy food at ATL: Fresh Healthy Café (Concourse C) may be travelers best bet with fresh kale wraps, dairy- and gluten-free salads, mega berry smoothies, and spiced apple oatmeal bowls. Try cauliflower and parsnip soup, edamame, and garden mint sushi at One Flew South (Concourse E) or stop by D8 Grill for a black bean burger. Checkpoint Grill (Concourse T) offers fire-roasted tomato soup and a grilled Southern vegetable plate, overflowing with grilled asparagus, collard greens, and a side of sweet potato fries.

AWARD CHART CHANGES PART DEUX…Following United’s move last week to drastically increase mileage prices, Delta has taken the knife to its SkyMiles chart yet again. Despite already announced increases beginning June 1, 2014, Delta is raising rates for awards for travel on or after Feb. 1, 2014, clearly an opportunity Delta did not want to miss for snatching away more hard-earned miles. Take a peek and you’ll see increases on popular awards including low-level awards in first class to Hawaii (up 5K from 85,000 to 90,000 miles) and business class to the South Asian subcontinent (up 20K from 120,000 to 140,000 miles) and in low-level economy to Hawaii (up 5k from 40,000 to 45,000 miles), the Middle East (80,000 to 85,000 miles), and the South Asian subcontinent (80,000 to 85,000 miles). And if you are crazy enough to redeem high-level awards for business class travel, increases to Africa and most of Asia are also in place. These are additional increases set to take effect before the third devaluation in June. Confused yet? There are now THREE charts to muddle through: current, interim (Feb 1-May 31, 2014), and new. Good grief! Thoughts please at the bottom!

DOUBLE MILES FROM SEATTLE…Delta is really sinking its teeth into the Seattle market and is offering double miles AND double MQMs on all Delta-operated flights between SEA and Anchorage, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland, San Diego, and San Francisco. In what is direct, head-to-head competition with partner Alaska Airlines, this is certain to get some attention from local flyers. Even better, the promotion lasts until October 31, 2014. When was the last time you saw a year-round promotion? Maybe it’s time to move to Seattle! Register here

Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse spa at London Heathrow Terminal 2 (Josh Friedman)

Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse spa at London Heathrow Terminal 3 (Photo: Josh Friedman)

DELTA MAKES BIG LONDON CHANGES…In partnership with Virgin Atlantic, Delta is moving its JFK, Boston, and Seattle nonstops to terminal 3 at Heathrow beginning April 2, 2014. This is a big plus for passengers excited about using Virgin’s famous Clubhouse lounge. All other Delta flights will continue to operate from the newly-renovated-but-still-not-as-sexy terminal 4 including the nonstop flights to Atlanta. This may cause some initial confusion, and passengers connecting at Heathrow from other SkyTeam flights (a minority of travelers overall), will have to switch terminals. Delta is also adding a second nonstop from Heathrow to Detroit beginning June 1, 2014. Virgin and Delta are also re-timing some of their flights to spread out frequency on the London-New York route with a total of nine departures daily including departure every 30 minutes during the early evening peak from New York.

AMEX POINT TRANSFER BONUS. American Express is offering a 20% bonus on points transfers to partner British Airways through Dec 31… and a 30% bonus on transfers to Virgin Atlantic through Nov 30.

All of Delta's 747's now refurbed (Photo: Redlegsfan)

All of Delta’s 747’s now refurbed (Photo: Redlegsfan)

DELTA COMPLETES 747 REFURB…All of Delta’s 747s are now equipped with comfortable flat-bed seating in BusinessElite. With 16 747s in the fleet and a full schedule between the U.S. and Asia, it is no easy task to pull them aside for interior refitting. The main deck biz class features 1-2-1 seating in the main section with 1-1 seating upstairs and in the lower deck’s nose section. These aircraft also received new economy class upgrades with entertainment systems installed at all seats, which was a much-needed and, now appreciated, overhaul.

HILTON OFFERS DOUBLE MQMs…Earn 250 MQMs with every two-night qualifying stay at a Hilton family property between now and Dec. 13, 2013. Plus, you will receive double SkyMiles if you have opted to receive points and miles with your Hilton HHonors account. Click here to register.

TSA SETS NEW RECORD FOR GUNS FOUND; ATL #1…The total tally for guns found year-to-date in coat pockets or in carry-on bags at airports across the U.S. comes to more than 1,500. The majority of the guns were loaded, and a third of them even had a bullet in the chamber. Atlanta is still the number one airport for guns discovered at TSA checkpoints with 91 found so far this year. Plans are in place to increase the signage indicating that weapons are not allowed. Perhaps these people forget they have them with them? Or are they trying to prove a point? Or were they living in a cave for the past decade? What do you think?

EXPERTFLYER LOSES UPGRADE DATA…If you use ExpertFlyer.com to access upgrade data, both Delta and United have nixed some of this information from public view via the service. Both airlines prefer to keep this information private, but for Delta frequent flyers searching for certain upgrade availability, it was often the best way to find RU/OU classes (complimentary domestic and Caribbean/Central American upgrades). If you are a Medallion and buying a ticket within your upgrade window, Delta.com will still show if upgrade inventory is there, but ExpertFlyer gave this information in advance of the upgrade window. Luckily, the inventory for systemwide certificate or mileage upgrades (RP/OP) still shows on ExpertFlyer.

NEW FLAT-BED SEATS ON JFK-LAX…Delta is placing three Boeing 757 aircraft equipped with new Business Elite flat bed seats onto the premium JFK-LAX run beginning July 1, 2014. Tickets are now available for purchase. By 2015, all flights on this route will feature the flat bed seats up front. These aircraft are primarily used on long-haul flying to Europe and South America plus these premium transcontinental flights between JFK and LAX, SFO, and SEA. LAX will be the first to see officially these on the schedule; if you know your summer plans, the beds are open for booking!

Chris McGinnis & Ramsey Qubein

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ATL Valet Parking + IHOP + SkyMiles downgrade + 717 delay + Double miles + Hot Nuts

The first ever airport IHOP opened last month at ATL (Chris McGinnis)

The first ever airport IHOP opened last month at ATL (Chris McGinnis)

FIRST AIRPORT IHOP LOCATION OPENS IN ATLANTA…Need a maple or boysenberry syrup-drenched griddle before takeoff or a carb reload after landing? Well, ATL can now proudly proclaim that it is the first airport to offer an IHOP at its terminal. The restaurant is dubbed “IHOP Express,” and it’s open 24 hours a day. It’s located before security in the main terminal atrium with seating for 100. A “to go” section will be available for those that prefer their pancakes on the plane instead of having them in the restaurant to enjoy. IHOP says it plans to open other airport locations in the near future.

VALET PARKING ARRIVES AT ATL. Have you noticed the flurry of men and women in green blazers on the lower level passenger pick up areas at ATL? They are new parking valet attendants from GreenCoat Auto Concierge & Valet service. For $20 per day, you can now drive to the airport, leave your car with a GreenCoat at the terminal, and head off on your trip. The valet will drive your car to a secure, indoor, off-airport lot and park it. When you return, just call GreenCoat and let them know you’re coming, and an attendant will bring your car back to the airport terminal, hand it over to you, and you drive home. Nice! GreenCoat has just signed on as a sponsor of The TICKET so you’ll be hearing more about the service in coming months. Give it a try and let us know how it goes! NOTE: ADVANCE RESERVATIONS ARE REQUIRED. Special for TICKET readers: First timers get 1000 Delta SkyMiles! >>See ad…click on ad>>

Delta Boeing 717

DELTA BOEING 717 DELAYS DUE TO CERTIFICATION ISSUES…The Boeing 717s coming from AirTran to the Delta fleet were originally supposed to enter service in September, but snags with FAA certification of the aircraft have pushed the first flight into late October. (First flight to Newark was on Friday Oct 25) One of the problems that had arisen involved tray tables in the emergency exit rows, which needed to be reworked before approved. The rows were readjusted to accommodate for Delta’s Economy Comfort seating. The updated 717s will eventually replace many of Delta’s ancient DC-9s and cramped CRJs.

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SKY MILES AWARD BOOKING HOLDS BITE THE DUST…Delta quietly discontinued its policy for 48-hour courtesy holds on award bookings for elite members. This change was proposed to be a positive for customers since it will make more award space available rather than having it tied up in “holds” for customers. However, for many passengers, the reverse is true since it means that travelers will have to lock in their trip right away, and using the clunky delta.com reservation process makes that even more cumbersome since finding connecting flights on award partners and organizing hotels make things more complex. Just when you thought the Delta award booking process could not get more difficult, it got worse. If you don’t have free mileage redeposit as a Diamond or Platinum Medallion, how will this  change affect you? Please leave your comments below.

Progress on Delta's installation of flat bed seating

Progress on Delta’s installation of flat bed seating

MORE DELTA UPDATES:  Delta will soon add new flat bed business class seats on its 767-300 flights between ATL and Zurich. Currently 69% of Delta’s international fleet have lie-flat biz class seats. Delta’s once per week nonstops between ATL and Freeport, Bahamas starting Dec 19. Delta will test the waters in Haiti with a new nonstop 737 flight between ATL and Port-au-Prince starting next June, but the seasonal service will only run through August.

DELTA’S HOLIDAY SAFETY VIDEO. It’s not even Halloween yet! But with everyone already talking about the holiday travel season, Delta’s just released its new holiday themed pre-flight safety video. Check it out for a few cameos from familiar faces…and the same kinda cute ‘n corny antics from the current pre-flight video collection. Insiders say that Delta’s already working on a new round of in-flight safety videos…we’ve heard that some of Delta’s top brass ordered the update… stay tuned! What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

DOUBLE SOUTHWEST RAPID REWARDS POINTS…Between now and Nov. 21, Rapid Rewards members will receive double points on Southwest flights. To register for the promotion, visit www.southwest.com/nationwidedouble. New Southwest flights from ATL to Jacksonville, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Antonio crank up next April (replacing AirTran service), and sale fares as low as $99 one way are in place to kick off the new schedule. Travelers to or from San Juan can enjoy triple Rapid Rewards points for travel between now and Dec. 12 no matter what their destination or origination.

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No more hot nuts on Delta's overseas flights (Photo: SFO777/FlyerTalk)

No more hot nuts on Delta’s overseas flights (Photo: SFO777/FlyerTalk)

NO MORE HOT NUTS?…Delta has revamped Business Elite meal service again, and some customers may have strong feelings about the changes. In the new service, hot nuts have been eliminated from the cocktail service, and customers are pushed right into the appetizer along with their first drink. (However, packaged nuts are offered with pre-flight beverages before take off.) In addition, drinks and trays are delivered from an economy class-style cart cleverly disguised with a cloth to hide its industrial side. The soup and salad course are now served together. The overall change is meant to speed up meal service to allow for more sleeping time, which some customers may appreciate, but for others…the change could be perceived as a downgrade to the more robust offerings that the Business Elite brand was based upon when launched. What do you think about these changes? Have you noticed them yet? Please leave your comments below. 

AMERICAN EXPRESS CENTURION LOUNGE OPENS AT DFW…Following a recent opening in Las Vegas, Amex has opened another Centurion Lounge; this time, at Dallas-Fort Worth’s international terminal D. The airport lounge is swankier than most facilities in the U.S. because it features its own spa (offering 15-minute treatments to all entrants for free), more substantial food menus in partnership with Dean Fearing of Fearing’s restaurant in Dallas, signature cocktails by Jim Meehan, and concierge services that go beyond just airline issues to extend to destination assistance. The best news of all is that American Express Platinum (Note: NOT SkyMiles Platinum) cardholders now receive free access to the Centurion lounge system (previously, it was reserved only for Centurion or “black” cardholders). Access comes with two guests or one’s spouse and children and includes all Centurion lounges in the system including Las Vegas. Day passes for $50 are open to cardholders of other American Express cards. Our sister publication The B.A.T. reports that a new Centurion Lounge will open at San Francisco International next summer, located in United’s Terminal 3. (Delta, Southwest & AirTran fly out of Terminal 1)

$100 HOTEL ROOMS IN NYC? YEP. Anyone who has traveled to New York recently has felt the pain of some of the highest hotel rates in the country. But that will change during the cold dark weeks of early January. From Jan 3-12, you’ll find rates of $100, $200 and $300 available at a variety of properties, (many of which currently go for nearly $500 a night), so the savings can be substantial. For example, the popular Affinia Manhattan is going for $100 per night; the hip and brand new Refinery Hotel (garment district) and Jade hotel (Greenwich Village) are going for $200 per night. For $300 you can squeeze in the trendy new Thompson LES (Lower East Side) for $300. For a full listing of participating hotels and how to get the discount see this. 

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DELTA MOST PUNCTUAL U.S. AIRLINE IN SEPTEMBER…Would it surprise you to learn that Delta had the most on-time flights of any major U.S. airline in September? We here at The Ticket have been impressed with the smooth operation of our Delta flights over the past few months, and Delta’s 89.3 percent of on-time arrivals in September, according to FlightStats, is not surprising. On-time flights are defined as those that arrive within 15 minutes of schedule. Behind Delta was Alaska with 86.8 percent and Virgin America with 84.8 percent. Southwest had a poor showing with only 76.6 percent of its flights arriving on time in September. What have been your recent experiences?

DELTA DOUBLES UP TO SAO PAULO…Beginning in March 2014, Delta will place a second aircraft on the daily service rotation to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Like all other Sao Paulo flights, the second flight will feature full flat-bed seats in Business Elite and Economy Comfort seating in the main cabin. Delta secured the extra landing slot from the Brazilian authorities, and it is made even more beneficial for travelers thanks to the codeshare possibilities with Brazilian airline partner GOL

 

Ramsey Qubein & Chris McGinnis

*****

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Elements of Sky Priority for sale + Food at ATL + Southwest devalues + MQDs + PreCheck + SPG upgrades + Delta's Porsches

Summer's officially over and it's time to hit the road and skies again. (DickTay2000)

Summer’s officially over and it’s time to hit the road and skies again. (DickTay2000)

SOME SKY PRIORITY BENEFITS FOR SALE…Delta is putting elements of Sky Priority and other travel benefits up for sale for general SkyMiles members between now and Jan. 5. The cost is $199 and applies to up to eight additional travelers in the same record, which is an extraordinary value for a family or group of colleagues that travels together and checks luggage. Medallion members cannot purchase this benefit. The Smart Travel Pack, as Delta is calling it, includes one free checked bag per person, priority boarding, a discount for Economy Comfort seating (half off on domestic flights and 25 percent off on international flights), and access to preferred seating. The member that buys the package will also receive a benefit of 20 percent more SkyMiles. While it is good to see Delta making additional revenue, it could come at the expense of Medallion members who book tickets at the last minute since they may now have fewer preferred exit row and bulkhead seats to choose from…was that not the point of introducing the preferred seating in the first place? However, Medallions and first class passengers will probably still hold priority in boarding, but it certainly increases the percentage of people that have first crack at the overhead bins. Pretty much everyone has priority boarding these days! How do you feel about this move? Please leave your comments below.

UPDATE: Delta reached out to The TICKET this morning to respond to the above item stating: “The sale of Delta’s Smart Travel Pack does not diminish any benefits that a Sky Priority eligible customer would receive through their SkyMiles Medallion or front of cabin status. While certain elements similar to what customers receive through Sky Priority are offered in the Smart Travel Pack promotion, they are not the same. For example, Priority Boarding offered through this promotion comes after Sky Priority customers are invited to begin Delta’s boarding process.”

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 3.05.12 PMSOUTHWEST DEVALUES RAPID REWARDS. So it’s not just Delta devaluing its frequent flyer program. Southwest is jumping in the game, too. This week they sent out this friendly warning that the points required to redeem is lowest fare tickets would soon increase 15%: “We want to inform you of an upcoming change to the Rapid Rewards Program that will affect the number of points needed for reward travel. Wanna Get Away reward flight bookings made on or after March 31, 2014 will require 70 points per dollar. This is an increase from the 60 points per dollar currently required…We hope you understand that in order to continue providing these benefits, we must make changes to the Rapid Rewards Program from time to time.” Sound familiar? Do you understand? 

MQD TALLY NOW APPEARS AT DELTA.COM…The Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) amount, the total number of dollars you spend on qualifying Delta or partner airline tickets beginning with -006, now shows online in your profile. The breakdown also appears next to each flight segment along with your earned mileage. Remember taxes and most fees are not included in your MQD tally, which will be used as an additional measurement of attaining Medallion status in 2015. Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, the MQD minimums will need to be met in addition to MQMs for each level ($2,500 for Silver; $5,000 for Gold; $7,500 for Platinum; and $12,500 for Diamond). MQDs earned in 2013 do not count and do not carry over; they are simply listed now to get travelers used to the idea.

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New Chick-fil-a, PF Chang's and more now at ATL Concourse A (Getty)

New Chick-fil-a, PF Chang’s and more now at ATL Concourse A (Getty)

NEW FOOD COURT OPENS IN ATL CONCOURSE A…Hungry? Well, there is no better time to get your grub on than now. Terminal A at Hartsfield-Jackson has unveiled a new food court featuring several eateries including Boar’s Head Deli, Qdoba, Chick-fil-A, and Boardwalk Burgers and Piano Bar. Also recently opened on the same concourse is P.F. Chang’s China Bistro with seating for 190.

SOUTHWEST NO-SHOW NOW IN EFFECT. On Sept 13, Southwest’s new no-show policy went into effect. Customers who cancel a Wanna Get Away or Ding fare before departure can reuse their funds toward future travel without a change fee as in the past. Customers with other higher priced fully refundable fares either request a refund or hold funds for future travel. HOWEVER, if the ticket is not changed or canceled within 10 minutes of departure (no show), travelers lose the entire value of the ticket.

CHOOSE RENTAL CAR FROM PLANE? Yep. National Car Rental’s Emerald Club members will soon be able to fire up their phones when the plane touches down and using the new National smart phone app, choose among a real time display of available cars by make, model, even color. It’s sort of a virtual version of National’s popular Emerald Aisle where travelers who have reservations for a mid-sized or large car are allowed to choose any car on the lot. The new app will work at airports in Omaha, Richmond and Tulsa starting September 30 and National says it should be working at a total of 25 airports by the end of the year. Check out this video (above) of National’s Rob Connors explaining how it all works.

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TSA PRE-CHECK MORE THAN DOUBLES AIRPORT COUNT…The popular TSA Pre-Check program is expanding from the current 40 airports to an additional 60 by the end of the year. The list of new airports is extensive and a huge boost for travelers that are tired of enduring long lines. Not every concourse will have the expedited screening, but the list includes airports where at least one terminal will have it. Delta was the first airline to add the indicator on boarding passes alerting travelers as to whether or not they have been pre-selected. Southwest is planning to add TSA Pre-Check capability sometime later this year. Is it coming to an airport near you? Here’s the full list: http://www.tsa.gov/press/releases/2013/09/04/tsa-precheck-expands-60-additional-airports

NEW LAX TERMINAL OPENS. This week marks the long awaited opening of the new $1.9 billion Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. At 150,000 square feet, it’s half again as large as its dingy predecessor. The new curved-roof terminal we’ve all watched under construction in recent years is bathed in natural light, full of electronic art, mod furnishings, upscale dining and retail, new airline clubs and fantastic views of the tarmac and runways.  The terminal is still a work in progress– it won’t be fully opened until 2015. To see more, check out this slideshow from the LA Times.

STARWOOD PLATINUMS TO GET DELTA UPGRADES…Delta’s Crossover Rewards program has taken yet another step in its groundbreaking industry stride and given Starwood Platinum Elite members access to Delta’s first class cabin on domestic and Caribbean flights free of charge. Technically, though, the only people this will hurt is nonrevenue Delta employee flyers as Starwood Platinums would only clear after ALL Delta Medallions have cleared (unless the SPG Platinum member is a Medallion member). So it will not take away from Delta flyers’ access to free upgrades, but provides a nice boost to Starwood Platinums. Be sure to link your Starwood and Delta accounts here: https://www.delta.com/profile/spgLanding.action

Korean Air gets its official squirt at ATL (Photo: Atlanta Airport)

Korean Air gets its official squirt at ATL (Photo: Atlanta Airport)

AIRBUS A380 TOUCHES DOWN AT HARTSFIELD-JACKSON…The long-awaited arrival of Korean Air’s Airbus A380 has finally come. The first flight from Seoul Incheon touched down on August 31, but the official water cannon salute festivities did not occur until Sept. 6 due to the Labor Day weekend. Still, the excitement at the airport was tangible with numerous employees and support staff on the tarmac and in the terminal ready to greet the aircraft and snap plentiful photos. Did you know that the KAL A380 must dock at ATL’s Concourse E and not at the new $1.4 billion Terminal F? That’s a surprise to many. Delta flies nonstop to Seoul from Detroit and, just recently announced, Seattle, but Korean Air’s service is preferred by many travelers for its more attentive in-flight service and Korean-inspired meals including bibimbap and bulgogi. Korean Air also features both first and business class lie-flat beds and has fewer seats on board the entire aircraft (407 to be exact) than any other A380 operator. A duty-free showcase store displays goods for sale, and the Celestial Bar and lounge can be enjoyed by premium cabin passengers in-flight. The double-decker jumbo jet only operates three times a week (777s operate daily), but the A380 is expected to appear daily beginning in late October. Korean Air already flies A380s to Los Angeles and JFK, as well as to Hong Kong and Frankfurt. THE TICKET hopes to bring an in-flight report to readers in the coming months.

When customers are given a ride from one jetway to another, they are handed this card as a takeaway to thank them for flying with Delta and to find out more information about Porsche vehicles. (matthew-daniel.com)

When customers are given a ride from one jetway to another, they are handed this card as a takeaway to thank them for flying with Delta and to find out more information about Porsche vehicles. (matthew-daniel.com)

HAD THE PORSCHE TREATMENT YET?…Well, if you are a Diamond Medallion or high value customer and have not been picked up in a Porsche in Atlanta with a tight connection, you now have your chance in Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York, and Los Angeles. The service is never guaranteed, but is meant to surprise and delight customers on a tight connection. An agent holds a sign with your name on it in the jet way and whisks you down to the ramp and speeds you across the bustling tarmac traffic to your next flight. Want this kind of treatment? Well, travel on stormy days and spend a fortune! (Interesting to watch United mimic Delta’s move with jet way pick-ups in Houston by silver Mercedes-Benz.) Have you experienced the Porsche treatment?

delta 747FLY THE WHALE…Delta’s Boeing 747-400 aircraft typically fly international routes, but aviation geeks may have their chance to fly the “whale” on select domestic flights this fall. A Delta 747-400 is scheduled to fly Atlanta to Seattle on Nov. 30 and Seattle to Atlanta on Dec. 1. Also, the jumbo jet will fly one way from Atlanta to LAX on Jan. 5. Talk about excellent upgrade chances! Remember, Delta can change the schedule at any time, but for now these planes are on the schedule.

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JFK TERMINAL TWO GETS A FOOD UPGRADE…Delta is partnering with OTG, an airport food and beverage supplier, to enhance the dining options in JFK’s terminal 2. While most of the attention has been on the new terminal 4, the older terminal 2 continues to handle some domestic flights and regional jet operations. Customers will be able to place orders via iPads placed at seating areas if they wish from numerous eateries including Due Amici (Italian), BRKLYN Beer Garden, Shiso (Japanese), Croque Madame (French bistro), and Tagliare (New York-style pizza) among others.

A Nokia 820 used by Delta flight attendants (Photo: Delta)

A Nokia 820 used by Delta flight attendants (Photo: Delta)

FLIGHT ATTENDANTS GET NEW INFLIGHT SMART PHONES…Delta is providing all flight attendants with new handheld devices (Nokia Lumia 820) designed to allow them to more easily process in-flight payments. Now, swiping a credit card will happen in “almost” real time (whereas before transactions were only completed once the aircraft landed). The device also opens up new sales opportunities including allowing passengers the option to upgrade to an Economy Comfort seat in-flight. (Remember when AirTran pioneered this concept?) The device will prompt flight attendants the correct amount to charge, and the option will be rolled out progressively beginning with longer transcontinental and international flights. Flight attendants will also have the ability to issue coupons (bonus miles or coupons for future Delta flights) in the event of a service failure (faulty entertainment system, etc). The goal is that flight attendants will soon be able to access more information about passengers (destination, elite status, tight connections, etc) to provide better service in-flight.

NEW AIRBUS ORDER FOR DELTA…Forty new Airbus aircraft are on the books within the next decade including 30 Airbus A321 aircraft, which will be a new type never before flown by Delta. The aircraft will feature 20 first class seats, 22 Economy Comfort seats, and 148 economy seats. (Roughly the size of a 757) They will also feature Airbus’ new sharklet winglet designed to reduce fuel consumption. Ten Airbus A330-300 aircraft will supplement Delta’s growing fleet of the long-haul aircraft. These planes will be specially modified to carry additional payload giving them a longer range and permitting Delta the opportunity to open or grow markets across the Atlantic and the Pacific. In addition to Economy Comfort, the widebody A330s will also have 34 fully flat Business Elite seats. Deliveries of these aircraft are expected to begin in 2015.

DELTA BUMPS UP BAY AREA-LAX AGAIN. Earlier this summer, Delta announced that it would launch shuttle-style service with 12 flights each way between SFO and LAX. THis month it announced that it’s adding even more Embraer 175 flights for a total of 15 per day in each direction, starting as early as 6 am. It’s also now flying five times per day between San Jose and LAX. Fares range from $150 to about $400 roundtrip depending on how far in advance you book. (I’m jumping on one of these new Delta flights later this month, so stay tuned for a trip report!)

SOUTHWEST SHOWS ATLANTA SOME LUV…Southwest Airlines has become the Official Airline of the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. The museum, which will open next August following its relocation from Indiana to Georgia, is located next to the Omni Hotel at CNN Center. Southwest is also the official airline of the Atlanta Falcons.

Ramsey Qubein & Chris McGinnis

*****

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10 things about new Aloft hotels

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Over the last year, I’ve been hearing a lot about the new Aloft hotel brand from Starwood. Since I have not had the chance to sleep over in one yet, I asked for a tour of the Aloft San Francisco Airport, one of the three Aloft hotels in the Bay Area—all of which have opened in the last year. Currently there are no Aloft hotels in Atlanta… but one is slated to open downtown this winter.

With my camera and notepad I met up with hotel sales & marketing manager Janfred Agarao who showed me around the hotel located on Millbrae Ave just south of SFO.

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

Here’s what I saw and learned.

>The Aloft brand is billed as “A Vision of W Hotels” and it’s clear that the W is from where the new chain’s quirky and colorful spirit comes. The SFO property was the 62nd Aloft hotel to open—Starwood expects to have 80 by the end of this year. The other Bay Area locations the Aloft Silicon Valley, located in Newark, which used to be the old W Silicon Valley, and the Aloft Cupertino, near the Apple campus.)

>Most Aloft hotels are built new-from-the-ground-up, but this building started out in the 60’s as the Thunderbird Hotel (which starred in the film, Bullitt), and most recently was a Clarion hotel. Starwood came in and took the building down to the studs and added brand new space, so the look and feel is brand spanking new.

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>The six story Aloft at SFO opened last September with 252 rooms. Its average rate is about $239 per night. Occupancy is healthy—the hotel regularly sells out on midweek on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but struggles to fill up on weekends (which is when rates take a tumble to the $150 range).

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

>Most Aloft hotels are located in suburbs, near airports or on the fringes of major downtown areas. For example, New York City locations are in Harlem and in Brooklyn.

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>The lobby of the Aloft at SFO is big, bright and lively—the hotel calls it the “remix area” and there’s room for small groups to gather, communal tables, an unusual blue pool table, free wi-fi, and electrical outlets all over the place. Stationary iPads are available for browsing or making reservations via OpenTable. There are also two desktop computers and a printer.

>Food service is “grab and go” with a wide variety of snacks, such as prepared salads and sandwiches Butterfingers, trail mix or Doritos, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or It’s It bars are available for sale. Guests who want a full service meal can walk across the parking lot to the Westin hotel.

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>Agarao said that the busiest time in the lobby is morning and during happy hour, from 5-8 pm when there’s live acoustical music and discounts on snacks, beer and designer cocktails at the WXYZ bar– muddled watermelon martinis anyone?

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

>While Starwood is clearly trying to cater to a younger crowd with the Aloft brand, Agarao said guests generally range from 20 to 50 years old.

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>Beds in nearly every room at the Aloft are placed opposite the window instead of lining up along side it as they do in most hotel rooms. Good feng shui? Who knows? But rooms appear modern, comfortable and well appointed with Bliss bath products, coffee makers and quirky touches like retro-clocks.

>Rooms located on the hotel’s 6th floor offer excellent views of planes taking off and landing on SFO runways…a hypnotizing sight…and only minimal rumbles from jet blasts.

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

Have you stayed at an Aloft hotel yet? Let us know what you think! Please leave your comments below! 

Chris McGinnis

*****

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Do you trust hotel review sites? [Infographic]

Copenhagen's elegant Hotel D'Angleterre opens May 1 after a 2 year re-do (Chris McGinnis)

Copenhagen’s elegant Hotel D’Angleterre opens May 1 after a 2 year re-do (Chris McGinnis)

Nearly every traveler I know (including me) checks out hotels on TripAdvisor before making a booking. I’m sure you do, too. Right? The infographic below provides an interesting look at how travelers use the review sites and what makes them trustworthy. It also provides some tips on spotting “fake” reviews.

How do YOU feel about hotel review sites? Do you use them? Trust them? Other than TripAdvisor, which sites do you find most helpful?

Please leave your comments below!

HotelReviews-olery-infograph-FULL

Chris McGinnis

*****

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Big SkyMiles bonuses at hotels + Calculating Delta MQDs + Inheriting SkyMiles

PUBLIC hotel chicago

How about a nice 10,000 Skymiles bonus for a couple nights at the chic Public Hotel in Chicago? (Photo: Public Hotel)

BIG SKYMILES BONUSES FOR HOTEL BOOKINGS. Have you heard of RocketMiles? It’s a new hotel booking site (new since last November) that is offering unbelievably large mileage bonuses for bookings at a handful of high-end hotels in several major cities around the country. For example, it’s offering a whopping 9,500 SkyMiles bonus for a two night stay at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan in April; 10,000 SkyMiles for a two-night stay at Ian Schrager’s swanky new PUBLIC hotel in Chicago. How about 7,000 SkyMiles at the InterContinental San Francisco near Moscone Center? How do they do it? “Every property is selected and screened by our staff of experienced business travelers. Rocketmiles attracts the type of frequent travelers that our hotel providers are trying to reach, which is why they offer us rates with enough margin to bundle the rooms with incredible amounts of airline miles. It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Bjorn Larsen, one of RocketMiles’ founders contacted by The TICKET. We checked and found some of RocketMiles’s hotel rates mildly inflated compared to rates found on the hotel brand sites. For example, the RocketMiles rate at the InterConti San Francisco is $319 per night, but on IHG.com, it’s $284. So this might work best for “unmanaged” business travelers who simply have to submit a receipt to their client or company for reimbursement. Larsen contends that in a recent RocketMiles study, its rates were the same or lower than other online sites 85% of the time. Along with Delta SkyMiles, RocketMiles works with American AAdvantage, HawaiianMiles and United Mileage Plus. Check it out and let us know what you think.  Note: RocketMiles has a “refer a friend” offer on the site, and we signed up for it (and you can, too).  So if you make a booking from links posted here, we get 1000 miles. Come on and help us out! 

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TAXES & FEES…AND SURCHARGES. Delta’s new SkyMiles rules state that you’ll earn Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) on fare only—you will not earn it on the taxes and fees included in the ticket price. When we first dug into that new wrinkle, it looked ugly. For example, on a $1,149 coach fare between Atlanta and London in May, nearly half that– $644– is comprised of “taxes/carrier-imposed fees,” which made it look like you’d only earn 505 MQDs for that round trip.

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That seemed like a total rip off, so we asked Delta to confirm.

Thankfully, Delta told The TICKET that it’s only the government-imposed taxes and fees that don’t count as MQDs. Since “surcharges” are imposed by Delta, they do count toward MQDs. In the case of the $1,149 ticket to London, there’s a $458 “carrier imposed international surcharge.” So when you tack that on to the $505 base fare, you get $963—and 963 MQDs.

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Not great, but not as bad as we thought.

This means that the math used in this widely circulated CNN/Fortune/Money article about Medallion Qualification Dollars– which was sent to us by many alarmed TICKET readers– is not correct.

SKYMILES IN YOUR WILL? Here’s another reason to burn up those banked SkyMiles as soon as you can. Last month Delta quietly (and without any warning) changed its rules when it comes to passing your SkyMiles along to heirs when/if you die. The new rules state that as of March 2013 “miles may not be transferred…upon death.” Old rules allowed an executor to transfer miles to the accounts of heirs. Delta joins several other carriers that do not allow mileage transfers upon death. How do you get around this? First, those who are terminally ill should transfer miles to heirs as soon as possible. At a minimum, everyone should leave their SkyMiles account number and login information with someone who can redeem miles or make transfers in the event of their demise. Have you done this??

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*****

V4R8GNSJRTNA


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14 Amazin' Asian hotel pool views

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Over the last year or so, I’ve been making the trip across the big green Pacific a lot… and have seen some stunning, sparkling hotel pools along the way. Here’s a slideshow of the nicest ones I’ve seen. (All photos: Chris McGinnis)

I’m hoping this might help you all dream of warm tropical places after a long cold winter….

Happy Spring!

Let me know what you think about occasional slideshows like this….I travel a lot… and take a lot of photos. I’d like to share them here, but don’t want to bore my readers. So please provide some feedback about our slideshows below. Thanks!

Chris McGinnis

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Airline update: Delta, Southwest, ATL news

Having fun at the new Southwest Airlines Porch at Piedmont Park (Photo: Southwest Airlines)

SOUTHWEST PORCH AT PIEDMONT PARK. Southwest Airlines has just opened a “Southwest Porch” at Park Tavern overlooking the southeast corner of Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta. Visitors can relax in lounge chair, enjoy a beer or a snack, and take part in fun Southwest events and giveaways while taking in park and skyline views. Later this winter, they can watch ice skaters on the adjacent Southwest Rink. Southwest opened the Southwest Porch at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan in 2009—and it’s now a popular hangout with 3.5 stars on Yelp. Denver’s Southwest Porch at Skyline Park opened in September 2010 and has morphed into a seasonal operation called the Southwest Rink at Skyline Park. Last month, the Southwest Porch at Strauss Square opened in the Arts District in Dallas. Southwest, which arrived in ATL last February, now has 29 daily nonstop flights to 15 cities from Atlanta. Will any of you Delta die-hards stop by the Southwest porch for a beer and some brand building?

DELTA’S DOING JUST FINE. In its third quarter financials released today, Delta reported that it has $5.1 billion in cash on hand. Nice. It’s load factor for the quarter was a very packed 86.4%, slightly higher than last year. It’s still cutting capacity, though, stating it plans to cut 1-3% more in the fourth quarter, even after cutting out 2% in the third. We could only find one foreboding statement in this report, “However, we are in the process of implementing a $1 billion program of structural initiatives that we anticipate will generate significant savings in the second half of 2013, while maintaining the high quality product, network and operation we have built.” Hmm. “Structural initiatives.” What do you think that is? Please leave your comments below.

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RANKING TSA THEFT BY AIRPORT. Here’s an interesting story from ABC News, which obtained figures from the TSA via a Freedom of Information Act request, ranking airports based on the number of TSA employees fired for theft. No surprise that Miami came in numero uno with 29 firings, followed by New York-JFK (27) and Los Angeles-LAX (24). Atlanta took the #4 position with 17 firings. The idea to obtain the numbers on TSA firings was initially sparked by an investigative report showing how an iPad was planted and “lost” at airport security in Orlando, and then tracked to the home of a TSA officer.

Mt Rainer looms over Seattle (Photo: scsmith4 / Flickr)

SEATTLE GETS A BOOST. Seattle/Tacoma was an important gateway for Northwest and is now an important (and very profitable) gateway for Delta. At a recent event that included CEO Richard Anderson’s presence in Seattle (that’s how you know something is really important!), Delta announced major upgrades for its SEA-TAC gateway such as new Boeing 747-400 service to Tokyo (more seats compared to the current A-330), lie-flat Business Elite seats on all international flights including Seattle-Paris, Amsterdam and Osaka, an application to begin nonstop flights to Shanghai and Tokyo- Haneda (the latter switching from Detroit), and new upgraded transcon Business Elite service on the quartet of daily Seattle-JFK flights. This focus on the Seattle gateway shows that Delta is shifting focus away from Atlanta as its primary “Worldport.” In addition to its already strong JFK hub, the larger Delta is now taking advantage of market opportunities in all corners of the country.

DELTA-ALASKA AIR BENNIES. The major Seattle announcement put Delta’s Alaska Airlines codeshare partnership in the spotlight again. In case you didn’t know, Delta passengers get on upgrade waitlists for Alaska Airlines flights 24 hours before departure. All Alaska MVP elites will clear ahead of Delta flyers, but several TICKET readers report good success on upgrades on certain routes. Alaska elites can upgrade on Delta too, but only after all Delta Medallions have had a shot (yes, even suffering Silvers). Also, Sky Club members can access Alaska Board Room clubs in Seattle, Portland, Anchorage, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in conjunction with an Alaska flight. Be sure to take advantage of these perks!

EARNING DELTA MQMs. Running low on Medallion Qualification Miles as we approach the end of the year? Delta and Hilton have partnered up with a promotion allowing guests who stay at Hilton to earn 250 MQMs in addition to double miles. A two-night stay is required anytime between now and December 15, 2012. It is important to make sure your Hilton HHonors setting is switched to earning miles (some people have it switched to earning additional HHonors points instead). Sign up for the promotion here. Hertz is offering a similar 250 MQM promo for rentals of three days or longer—details here.

NEW AIRTRAN/CHASE CARD. When Southwest took over AirTran, it dumped Barclays as a card provider, and recently switched over to Chase to offer the new AirTran A+ Rewards Credit Card Get the new card and spend $1,000 in the first three months and you’ll receive 16 award credits and two upgrades to AirTran’s business class. The award credits equate to one free roundtrip—and the upgrades? Well, enjoy them while you can because (as revealed in a recent interview) business class is set to disappear completely by 2015. New AirTran/Chase cardholders get the $69 annual fee waived for the first year. Plus, cardholders get two credits at the end of every year they hold the card. Another nice perk: Cardholder credits are good for two years on AirTran vs just one for non-cardholders. Not bad—and don’t forget that credits can now be redeemed on AirTran or Southwest. (Note: Chase targeted certain members of A+ in September, offering whopping 32 credits for $2000 spend…the deal expired Oct 4. Did you get the offer?)

Opening day at the new iTravel store at ATL. (Photo: Myrna White)

APPLE DETHRONES BLACKBERRY AT ATL. Have you noticed that the Blackberry store near gate B-17 at ATL has turned into an Apple store? The new iTravel store (an Apple authorized re-seller) opened last month, offering a full array of Apple products…and experts on hand to answer any questions you may have about your new iPhone or iPad Mini or Mac.  Interesting: The US Patent Office recently awarded Apple ownership of a new concept called iTravel, which will eventually use Near Field Communications (NFC) so iPhones can be used as e-wallets or e-tickets—along the lines of Apple’s new Passbook application, which stores loyalty program credentials, airline boarding passes, etc in iPhones. Do you still use a Blackberry? Are you considering a switch to a new device? Which one?

NEW BANK AT ATL. Have you noticed all the construction by the old car rental counters at the top of the arrivals escalators at ATL’s main terminal? Word from airport officials is that the space will soon be a new Wells Fargo bank branch.

Airlines ranked by 2Q 2012 baggage fee revenue, dollars in thousands (000)

BIG ON BAG FEES. While most TICKET readers cringe at the thought of ever paying to check a bag on Delta (due to their elite status), it’s interesting to note that Delta leads the pack when it comes to bag fees. In the first half of this year, Delta collected nearly half a BILLION in bag fees—which are what keeps airlines in the black these days. While business travelers like to think it’s their high fares and loyalty that keep airlines afloat, the emergence of bag fees, which are primarily paid by INfrequent travelers, could be switching up that equation.

(Have you scored your 500 Delta SkyMiles bonus for using TICKET sponsor Peachy Airport Parking yet? Click here for the coupon!) 

MORE PARIS. With Delta’s recent transatlantic flight reductions, it’s increasingly likely that Europe-bound travelers will be making a stop at Paris CDG on the way to their final destination. Combined, Delta and Air France now offer four daily nonstops between ATL and Paris. Delta has announced it will add new nonstops to Paris from Newark and Boston. Charles de Gaulle Airport has recently expanded and enhanced its new S4 satellite terminal (slideshow) with big bright business class lounges and nicer gate areas, which should make even the most vociferous CDG-haters feel a little better about making transfers there. (Don’t forget that you can always transfer at Amsterdam Schipol on SkyTeam partner KLM.) With Europe racked by a recession, which is depressing demand for air travel, it’s likely going to be a while until we see the return of the raft of nonstops between ATL and smaller European cities. Bon voyage! UPDATE: Air France is expecting a strike on Oct 26– while it says it will transport all passengers, it also advises them to check for updates at www.airfrance.us

EUROPEAN ECONOMY COMFORT. Economy Comfort seats (similar to Delta’s) will be available on KLM’s Boeing 737 flights within Europe departing December 1 onwards. (EC was previously only available on KLM’s intercontinental flights.)  The carrier is reportedly considering the possibility of adding the roomier coach seats to its KLM Cityhopper fleet, too.

Do you know which brand new Chicago hotel is inside this wavy building?

BUSINESS TRIP. What are the top five hottest hotels and restaurants in Chicago…and what condiment should always be left OFF a Chicago-style hot dog? Do you know the names of the four brand new 5-star hotels that have opened in Toronto the last year? Take a peek at the latest in my BBC Business Trip series to learn the answers!

>Are you signed up for our Facebook page yet? We frequently break news on our Facebook page that eventually makes it into our monthly roundups. So if you want news when it happens, come on and get on our Facebook page.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. In a move that seems to foreshadow something interesting, the highly-reputed Etihad Airways (based in Abu Dhabi, UAE) along with Air Berlin have signed a partnership deal with Air France-KLM. The deal comes on the heels of Qatar Airways announcement that it plans to join the American Airlines-led Oneworld Alliance. This is especially interesting because until now, the three main Gulf carriers (Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar) were firm in their commitment to remain independent rather than hook up with global alliances. Qatar’s move may prompt the others to follow. For now, the partnership is strictly a codeshare agreement and not an opportunity for Delta/SkyTeam flyers to earn and burn miles—for now. But things change rapidly in the world of airline alliances, so sit tight and let’s see what happens… Have you flown a UAE-based airline yet? What did you think? Leave your comments below…

AN UNSAVORY MIX AT SKYCLUBS.  In recent years, TICKET readers have raved about the new array of sweet and savory snack mixes from Montego Bay to Mesa Rosa on offer at Sky Clubs. But those raves have turned to rants as club attendants have started to dump new mixes on top of the old, leading to stale snacks and random surprises like spicy cheese chips and crunchy corn kernels in an almond-cranberry nut mix. Noticed it?

AIRPORT WHEELCHAIR ABUSE? According to the New York Times, some sneaky travelers hoping to avoid airport security hassles are asking to be wheeled through airports and cutting in security lines in wheel chairs…even if they are not disabled. Here’s a snippet from the story: “Once cleared [at security], the woman suddenly sprang up from her wheelchair, hoisted two huge carry-on bags from the magnetometer’s conveyor belt and plopped back in the wheelchair. She gave a nod to the person pushing her, and they rolled off to the gate.” Hmm. Have you noticed this yet? Leave your comments below.

>Do you follow TICKET editor Chris McGinnis on Twitter? Every day I sift through all the business travel news out there and tweet items that I think would interest my readers most.

Silver Airways routes from ATL

SILVER AIRWAYS PICKS UP ATL ROUTES.  For years, Delta (like many other airlines) flew to smaller cities that were funded by the federal government as Essential Air Service (EAS) routes. This program guarantees that smaller communities get connections to the same global airline networks as larger cities– subsidized by the federal government. Delta recently decided to drop many of these routes on its own and forfeit the payments it was receiving from the government. Silver Airways has stepped in to offer new air service (using 19-34 seat propjets) to these communities from Atlanta including Tupelo, Hattiesburg, Meridian, and Greenville in Mississippi and Muscle Shoals in Alabama. Silver also serves Gainesville, Florida and Greenbrier Valley, WV from Atlanta. Have you flown Silver Air? What did you think? Please leave your comments below.

DELTA MUGS MILWAUKEE. Once the domain of Northwest and then AirTran, Delta is aggressively inserting itself into this important Midwest market by nabbing naming rights to its main convention center The Delta Center (formerly the Midwest Airlines Center). Delta’s name will also be added to the US Cellular Arena and Milwaukee Theatre.

OBRIGADO. Delta’s prolific “immediate help service” on Twitter now speaks Portuguese at @DeltaAjuda. Delta’s real-time customer service channel on Twitter is staffed during business hours from Monday through Friday, offering something other airlines lack. Have you used DeltaAssist or Ajuda to help solve a travel issue? What was your experience?

RECHARGE. Those popular recharging stations that have appeared at many airports like Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, JFK, Norfolk, Omaha, and Seattle are coming to even more airports. Four gates at Tokyo Narita have been upgraded and you’ll soon see the stations in: Anchorage, Austin, Denver, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston Intercontinental, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Ontario, CA, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Syracuse.

EASY 500+ SKYMILES BONUS. You gotta park at the airport anyway, so why not help out The TICKET, and our newest sponsor, Peachy Airport Parking, on your next trip? You’ll help yourself, too, since Peachy is offering TICKET readers 500 SkyMiles plus three SkyMiles per dollar spent. If you are tired of worrying about on-airport lot sellouts, long, dark walks to your car or the congested mess that is Camp Creek Parkway, just exit I-85 south at Sylvan Road, one mile north of the airport, and follow the signs to Peachy. Once there, you’ll find extra wide spaces in a secure, climate controlled indoor lot, afree car wash and a short two-minute shuttle ride to the airport. Daily rates are just $6.99 outdoor or$8.99 indoor. COME ON! Help keep The TICKET free by clicking on this link or on the ad to the right to learn more about ATL’s newest parking option. Note: You have to click on the link and print the page to get the SkyMiles! 

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AirTran 3-day sale kicks off fall travel season

AirTran and Southwest launched a 3-day fall fare sale– must book by Thursday! (Photo: AirTran)

Election-year uncertainty and a weak US economy combined with higher gasoline prices, airfare and hotel rates have not deterred American travelers this summer, and healthy demand should carry on into the fall months.

Even though summer does not officially end until September 21, the fall travel season starts this week and extends through mid-November when demand begins to rise in anticipation of a relatively early Thanksgiving (Thursday, November 22).

Business travel “season” also starts this week as executives head back out on the road after summer breaks to visit clients they missed over the summer, or to attend meetings and conventions, which peak during the fall months. While there will likely be fewer visitors from economically embattled Europe, healthy demand in the US and Canada, as well as an influx of visitors from Asia are helping to counterbalance that decline.

Best Western is not a publicly held company, so it’s the only major hotel player (2,000 hotels in US) that releases valuable forward-looking data. Looking ahead, its advance bookings in the US and Canada for September, October and November are up 10% compared to this time last year. Advance bookings at airport hotels in North America, where guests tend to be predominately business travelers, are up 18%. Similarly, advance bookings at hotels located in intown areas are up 13%.

Here’s my outlook for the fall months:

Airfare: As the price of a barrel of oil approaches $100 again, airlines are feeling the impact of rising fuel costs, and in August they raised fares across the board for the fifth time this year. However, during fall months, travel demand declines compared to peak summer travel season, so travelers can expect some relief from high fares in coming months. However, the days of broad across-the-board fares sales are long gone—so smart bargain-focused travelers need to keep their eyes peeled for sales of very short duration between specific markets instead. For example, AirTran and Southwest launched a three-day fare sale this week good for trips up until October 3 only– fares are quite good, i.e., $200 between ATL and Chicago-Midway’ $254 to Denver, many Florida and Southeastern cities for about $180. Delta has matched nearly all these fares.

In the second half of 2012, airlines will offer seven million fewer seats, and nearly 3% fewer departures than in 2011, according to The Boyd Group. These reductions in airline capacity (down some 11% since 2005), combined with steady demand on the part of consumers, means that airfares during peak holiday travel seasons (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years) should remain painfully high.

Advance bookings for fall are up 10% at Best Western hotels like this one near San Francsico Int’l (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

But as always, heavily discounted shoulder season fares in early November, early December or early January should be available for those with the flexibility to take advantage of them. Tip: If possible, schedule business trips to coincide with these dips in demand.

Hotel Prices: Due to steady demand, hotel prices are rising, but the increases are uneven across the US. For example, travelers can expect to see significantly higher rates in large coastal cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco or Seattle—especially during the fall months when meeting and conventions peak. However, rates in smaller, interior cities have remained mostly flat, or even declined in some cases. This variation means that average rates should increase less than 5% this fall. Tip: During fall months, travel suppliers reach out to business travelers with special deals and bonuses tied to their loyalty programs—keep an eye on blogs like The TICKET and program websites for the deals.

Gasoline Prices: The recent spike in gasoline prices is having minimal impact on travel plans in the US. In early June, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was $3.52. It then dipped to a low of about $3.30 in early July. By the end of August, it had increased rather dramatically to $3.72 according to the US Energy Administration. However, the price jump at the pump did little to keep Americans off the road for Labor Day—according to AAA, travel volume over the long holiday weekend was 3% higher than last year—up to the highest level since the recession began in late 2007. As demand for gasoline declines during Autumn, prices will hopefully decline, too.

Rental Car Prices: Rental car prices have remained mostly flat in recent years, but that could begin to change. This is due to consolidation in the industry, with only three major players left—Avis/Budget, Hertz (which purchased Dollar/Thrifty in August for $2.3 billion) and Enterprise (which now owns Alamo and National brands). Additionally, with airlines cutting service to smaller towns, demand for rental cars will increase as business travelers fly to the nearest airport, and then rent cars to drive to their appointments in smaller towns.

What about YOU? Are you planning to travel more, less or about the same amount this fall compared to last fall? Please leave your comments below. 

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Airline/Airport Update

TICKET reader DW sent us this photo showing a spelling error that needs fixin' at ATL's new International Travel Complex at Concourses E and F.

ATL’S NEW CONCOURSE F: As expected, travelers are experiencing a few kinks as ATL’s newest concourse makes its debut. In the midst of the hoopla surrounding the opening of ATL’s new International Concourse F, gripes we are hearing at The TICKET include the unusually LONG walk from Concourse E to Concourse F. Now, all Atlanta-bound passengers arriving at either Concourse E or F are funneled through customs and immigration at Concourse F. That means those arriving at Concourse E must walk from their arriving gate to the central spine, then hike the 1000 or so feet through the underground tunnel (or take a moving sidewalk) leading to immigration at Concourse F—the Plane Train is not an option. More evidence that the new terminal was built with a lot of thought for CONNECTING passengers—less so for Atlanta residents. What’s been YOUR experience at Concourse F? Please leave your comments below.

MORE ECONOMY COMFORT. Just in time for peak summer season, Delta’s entire mainline fleet and its Delta Connection planes with first class are now outfitted with Economy Comfort. On domestic flights, the extra four inches of legroom is a huge plus, and on international flights, the free cocktails are an added bonus. Zone 1 boarding is nice, too, especially on full flights. Until now, not all Delta planes offered Economy Comfort– and the seats were not available for sale until the entire fleet was upgraded. Now, non-Medallion travelers can purchase these extra legroom seats for $19-$99 depending on the length of the flight. Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallion members get these seats for free—Silvers get a 50% discount. Have you tried Economy Comfort yet? Would you pay extra for it? LET US KNOW. Leave comments below.

A famous AirTran 717... soon to be painted in Delta colors. (Photo: Willamormedia / Flickr)

DELTA / AIRTRAN DEAL. AirTran’s Boeing 717 fleet will not leave Atlanta as soon as expected. The slender jets will get some new paint and switch terminals to become part of Delta’s fleet beginning as soon as next year. The move is dependent on the ratification of a pilot’s contract that will allow them to fly the smaller jets. This fleet upgrade will lower the average age of Delta’s fleet by accelerating the retirement of its aging DC-9s. They will also replace many of the inefficient Delta Connection CRJ-200 aircraft. The 717 fits well between a regional jet and smaller mainline plane like the DC-9 allowing Delta to adjust aircraft to capacity and provide more first class seats (yay!) in certain markets. Delta will make the replacements on a capacity-neutral basis meaning that the retirement of CRJ-200s and DC-9s will be in line with the 717s based on the number of seats still available in the fleet.

FLY SOUTHWEST AIR TO LATIN AMERICA? Just today Southwest Airlines has obtained approval from the City of Houston to build a $100 million international hub at its Houston Hobby airport facilities. This means that ATL travelers will soon have a low cost option for flights south of the border via a connection in Houston. Flights could start as soon as 2015. It’s a move certain to ruffle the feathers of United and Delta which now pretty much own the US-Latin America market. Federal approval is still pending.

CLEAR Card COMING BACK? This month the CLEAR card began operations at all terminals at San Francisco International. Since the company was resuscitated by new investors in 2009, CLEAR has come back to only three airports: SFO, Orlando and Denver. Dallas is next on the list, although no firm date for installation of kiosks has been announced. We are hopeful for a return at ATL, but there is no strong indication that ATL is on CLEAR’s radar, for now at least. In case you don’t remember, CLEAR offers members access to special biometric-kiosk-controlled fast lanes at airport security for a $179 annual fee. It’s currently honoring any time left on previous memberships, and has a two-month free trial. 

NEW SUMMER SNACKS ON DELTA. New seasonal food-for-sale items aboard Delta mainline flights include Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia or vanilla ice cream, Blue Moon beer, and Tequila Avion. To kick off the new summer menus, Delta offered free chips and salsa and margaritas to passengers on select transcon flights over the Cinco de Mayo weekend. All of these items are available for purchase in the main cabin. Specialty beverages are complimentary in first class, but there’s still a charge for ice cream. Also making a comeback this summer for Caribbean and Latin American routes are the popular mojitos. Other new items on the EATS menu for the main cabin include a smoked turkey and egg salad sandwich on breakfast flights and basil pesto chicken sliders with asiago cheese on a pretzel roll. What are your favorite…or least favorite… Delta meals? Please leave your comments below.

 

Delta's new "Dine Up" meal-- Cost: $17.99. "Flavorful trio starts with thinly sliced salami, peppers, wedges of smoked Gouda and brie cheeses, fresh strawberries and red grapes. Alongside sliced seared beef tenderloin, with roasted bell peppers and cippolini onions, and grilled rosemary shrimp with fresh jicama slaw. Creamy horseradish sauce on the side. Served chilled."

DINE UP AT DELTA. Delta is testing “DineUp” a new concept allowing coach passengers to pre-buy premium meals online (up to 48 hours before flight time) on its transcon flights between New York City and California. The meals look tasty… and range in price from $12 to $20. If you end up with an upgrade, your meal will be delivered to your first class seat—no refunds. For now, DineUp is limited to NYC-CA flights but might expand. What do you think… would you dine up?

HOTEL BONUSES: Multiple Hyatt stays earn 4x or 5x Delta SkyMiles (2,500 max) bonuses between now and August 31. Marriott Rewards is offering one free night for every two paid stays between now and August 31. IHG’s Priority Club is offering 1000 bonus points or 200 bonus miles per night through September 3. Also, in a new twist, Priority Club now allows members to redeem points for digital downloads such as music, games or even foreign language lessons.

DELTA-SUNTRUST CHECK CARD. Yet another miles-earning opportunity is available with a new check card from SunTrust bank. As the only check card to earn SkyMiles, this is a great option for those who do not want to apply for a credit card. It comes with a $75 annual fee, but also gives applicants the opportunity to earn as many as 30,000 SkyMiles when they sign up. More details can be found here.

PRE-CHECK EXPANDS. Have you enjoyed TSA’s amazingly swift and convenient Pre-Check program at ATL’s south concourse entrypoint? Well, it is now available at Orlando and Portland (PDX) as well. Special pre-check lines are reserved for invited Delta Medallions and Global Entry members—they get to speed through security without removing liquids, laptops, and shoes. The TSA hopes to continue expanding this program across U.S. airports in the near future. Luckily, Atlanta (and Delta) were chosen to beta-test the concept, and as we know from fellow TICKET readers, it was a roaring success (see our post and reader comments here). But…do good things last forever? We are hearing that the program’s become so popular, that PreCheck lines at ATL are sometimes LONGER than others. Tell us about your recent experiences in the comments box below.

ALASKA AIRLINES UPGRADES. Flying out west? Don’t forget, when traveling on Alaska Airlines, you are eligible for Medallion upgrades to its first class cabin. While its MVP elites receive priority, the odds of scoring a premium seat on Alaska are much better. Many gate agents and passengers are still forgetting about this perk for Delta flyers, so do not forget to ask about it, as they sometimes do not process automatically. In a throwback to the glory days, Alaska even serves splits of champagne and full bottles of beer in first class with printed menus on transcon routes—including its single daily flight between ATL and Seattle.

DELTA AXES MORE ROUTES. The current economic roller coaster and a steady stream of gloomy news from Europe has Delta making adjustments to its long-haul flying schedule, axing routes like ATL-Accra, ATL-Monrovia and shifting routes like ATL-Milan and JFK-Athens, Nice, and Rome to seasonal (summer) service only. Overall, capacity across the Atlantic will be down 3-4% for 2012, more than Delta had originally planned. Delta is also reducing frequencies on many overseas routes with multiple daily flights. As reported in The TICKET earlier this year, Delta is yanking nonstops between ATL and: Copenhagen, Athens, Prague, Moscow, Tel Aviv and Shanghai.

MORE ON TIME AT ATL. Delta barely squeezed into the top ten list of on-time performance for North American airlines in April—it ranked #9, but ahead of many of the other major U.S. airlines like American, United or Southwest. In the airport category, Atlanta came in at #3 in on-time performance among the world’s major airports with 88.5 percent of flights arriving on time. Only US Airways’ hub in Charlotte had a better ranking among U.S. airports.

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4 fabulous 5-star hotels in London worth checking into

The view across the Thames from London’s new Corinthia Hotel– that pointy building surrounded by cranes in the background is The Shard, Europe’s newest, tallest building. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I love London for many reasons, most of which revolve around my career in the travel biz. To me, the city just feels like the center of the universe, so every time London calls, I answer!

The dynamic London hotel scene is endlessly fascinating. There is always plenty of experimentation, unusual quirks and something new or unusual to check out.

In preparation for the visitor onslaught brought on by they upcoming Summer Olympics, I recently took off across the pond for a peek at the London hotel scene, and found four fabulous new (or newly renovated) five-star properties worth checking into.

Even if you can’t spend the night, it’s worth stopping by their lively lobbies to have a drink and a gawk at the cool design, have a meal or just to sit and enjoy the outstanding people watching.

A two-ton, LED illuminated Baccarat crystal chandelier sparkles in the lobby of London’s brand new Corinthia Hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Corinthia Hotel London:

Wow! London’s not seen a stunner like this since the much anticipated re-opening of Fairmont’s Savoy Hotel in 2010. Just walking into the big, bright and airy lobby takes your breath away.

This magnificent 294-room newcomer is housed in a gorgeous, historic Victorian-era building that’s been so deeply renovated that it feels brand new. There’s none of the creaky floors, noisy plumbing or mustiness found in some of the capital’s finest grand dames. Rooms are modern, clean, and very big by London standards.

But it’s the big, bright, and buzzy lobby that really wowed me. In the center of the space is a soaring dome adorned with a giant, two-ton, globe-shaped Baccarat crystal chandelier composed of 1,001 grapefruit-sized crystal baubles—each illuminated from within with a tiny white LED light. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, it’s worth walking through the lobby just to see this gorgeous work. While you are at it, pop in for a meal at one of the hotel’s two popular restaurants, The Northall (traditional British fare with a fresh twist) or Massimo’s (Italian seafood).

The Corinthia also earns high marks from business travelers because it’s one of the few five-star London hotels that include high-speed wi-fi in the nightly rate. Another big selling point for Americans is its liberal no-restrictions check-in and check-out policy—if you are arriving on an early morning flight, just let the hotel know beforehand, and your room will be ready when you arrive—no interminable wait in the lobby while your room is made up

The imposing, yellow sandstone building in Whitehall previously housed Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Malta-based Corinthia Hotels reportedly bought the building and restored it to the tune of about $550 million. Construction began in 2008, and the hotel opened in April 2011. See www.corinthia.com/London

Hipster doormen in rolled jeans and flannels set the scene at London’s new bohemian chic Belgraves hotel

Belgraves

If your business is showbiz, fashion, tech, PR or advertising, the brand new Belgraves hotel is custom-made just for you. It’s the first British outpost of the popular NYC-based Thompson Hotels Group (which recently merged with SF-base Joie de Vivre hotels), and inserts a bit bohemian Americana to its buttoned-up Belgravia neighborhood near Sloane Square. The 85-room hotel, which opened on February 1, is located in the shell of the old Sheraton Belgravia hotel—but there’s nothing Sheraton about this place anymore.

American touches abound– Check out the jeans-and-flannel-clad hipster doormen, or the US flag art behind the front desk. The mid-century modern furnishings in the cozy lobby conversation nooks are straight out of Mad Men.

Comfy-mod rooms have smallish bay windows with plush jewel-toned velvet love seats, and big bright marble bathrooms with tubs that overlook a leafy square across the street. Nice touch: Bedside docking stations can accommodate either an iPad or iPhone. See http://www.thompsonhotels.com/hotels/london/belgraves

Spectacular city views from the glass-walled 10th floor spa atop London’s recently renovated Four Seasons Park Lane Hotel. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Four Seasons Park Lane

The Four Seasons on Park Lane oozes opulence as soon as you step out of your black London taxi in the porte cochere. Handsome doormen in knee length brown jackets and snappy English Trilby hats greet you by name (by sneaking a look at the tag on your bag). Well-heeled guests in finely tailored suits, Italian shoes and horn rimmed specs float through the lobby on their way to their rooms or to the hotel’s popular Amaranto restaurant.

Originally built in 1970, the hotel closed in 2008 for a complete makeover, and re-opened in January 2011. The sumptuous lobby is now bathed in sexy white streaked Italian black marble and mahogany paneling, trimmed in red leather and spritzed with hundreds of white orchids.

Room design is mostly masculine—reds, browns and wood paneling. Black leather covered desks. Light brown and orange wool tartan curtains, big walk in closets. There are even 32 rooms with working fireplaces.

During the recent re-do, the nine story, 217-room hotel got a tenth floor—housing a gorgeous light and airy spa, gym with views across Mayfair to the London Eye, the new Shard and the City. This aerie also serves as a day lounge where early arriving guests can set up shop while waiting for their rooms.

Nice: The hotel also has two big black Rolls-Royces on hand to shuttle guests to points within central London. See www.fourseasons.com/london/ Note: There are two Four Seasons in London—the other is located in Canary Wharf on the city’s eastern edge.

Gothic architecture looms over London’s fab new Renaissance St Pancras hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Renaissance St Pancras

When my cab pulled up to the front of this north-central London hotel, I felt like I was arriving at Hogwarts with its ominous clock tower, gothic arches, spires, red brick and wrought iron. The hotel is actually part of the London St Pancras International train station, built over 150 years ago, but redeveloped in the last decade.

The old hotel part of the station had fallen into disrepair, and was nearly demolished when developers swooped in and returned the space to its former glory as a very unique luxury hotel—unlike any Marriott-branded hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

For instance, developers transformed the station’s old iron and glass porte cochere into a lively, bright lobby area. The adjacent ticketing office is now a warm and clubby lobby restaurant and bar—packed with locals as well as passengers waiting to board the Eurostar trains that depart St Pancras for Paris or Brussels.

In addition to historic (and more expensive) “chambers” rooms in the old building, a modern Marriott-style 200-room wing was added out back— not as unique, but probably better suited for business travelers who prefer to spend most of their free time in public spaces and work in their rooms. See http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lonpr-st-pancras-renaissance-london-hotel

Disclosure: McGinnis was a guest of the house at some of the hotels mentioned in this post.


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Op-Ed: Will you give Southwest a try? I bet not.

 

Lining up to board a Southwest flight in Houston (Photo: Old Shoe Woman / Flickr)

Earlier this week, I wrote the following Op-Ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper asked me to write about what effect Southwest’s arrival in Atlanta would have on business travelers. My take? Most Atlanta business travelers are too heavily invested in SkyMiles and their “complex” relationship with Delta to give Southwest a try– so there won’t be that big of an effect.

Take a read and let us know if you agree…or not. (Here’s a link to the column on AJC.com)

Here goes:

Even with the exciting entry of a respected airline like Southwest Airlines, most frequent business travelers in Atlanta will continue to fly Delta Air Lines despite their complex relationship with our hometown carrier.

Atlanta business travelers love Delta for its deep southern roots. They appreciate being able to catch a Delta nonstop to just about every major city in the world, getting Porsche rides from the plane to the parking lot or relaxing in plush Sky Clubs.

But most of all, they love Delta for its SkyMiles program, and the dream of “free” travel and special recognition. Despite whining about the dearth of upgrades and difficulty finding award seats, they keep going back for more—and in fact go out of their way to earn those SkyMiles that they love and loath.

So for now, despite mixed feelings about Delta, frequent flyers in Atlanta will likely stick with it due to a mix of loyalty, inertia and fear of the unknown.

At the top of frequent flyers’ list of fears about Southwest is its so-called “cattle call” boarding process. Southwest does not allow advance seat selection. But those traveling on more expensive, less restricted tickets, elite level Rapid Rewards members and those who have paid an extra $10 “early bird” fee board first, and can lay claim to the best seats and overhead bin space.

But frequent flyers like the security of being able to choose their seat ahead of time. The boarding process at Delta is familiar, yet frustrating in Atlanta since so many elite-level passengers can skip to the front of the line, which feels like a cattle call. But at least there is no uncertainty around where they’ll be sitting—and frequent travelers don’t like uncertainty.

Then there’s the fear of getting on board a plane without wi-fi. While it’s aiming for fleet-wide wi-fi, Southwest has it on only 150 of 550 planes and makes no guarantees regarding availability. On the upside, wi-fi connections run a flat $5 per flight, regardless of flight length. But Atlanta-based business travelers have been spoiled by the availability of in-flight wi-fi on nearly 100% of Delta and AirTran flights. That certainty is increasingly important in our “always connected” business world.

Business travelers have plenty of other fears about straying over to Southwest: They fear starting off at the bottom rung at Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, which is based more on how much you spend than how many miles you fly. With Southwest’s intention of eliminating AirTran’s popular business class, they worry about losing the ability to upgrade (or afford) to fly at the front of the plane on long flights out west. Time-deprived executives will be irritated at the extra step of checking Southwest.com every time they want to do a complete fare comparison, since its fares are not listed anywhere else.

But despite those fears, the fast-growing population of more independent business travelers who are entrepreneurs, freelancers or those who work for small and mid-sized companies will be the early adopters of Southwest. They are the ones for whom Delta’s $150 fee to change a ticket comes right out of their wallet, or shrinking per diem. (Southwest does not charge change fees.) They are the independent sales reps who must travel with a couple of suitcases of samples and don’t want to pay Delta’s $120 fee to check two bags roundtrip. (No bag fees on Southwest.) The ones who just want quick, dependable and cheap transportation and don’t care much about airport lounges, lie-flat seats to London or what type of metallic card is in their wallet.

So Atlanta-based business travelers shouldn’t expect any major changes when Southwest arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson next week, especially those with an expense account to fall back on. But if you’re an independent, budget-focused, or an up-and-comer without a big investment in Delta SkyMiles, you’ll find a fresh new option to consider on your next flight.

Agree or disagree? Are you too invested in SkyMiles to give the new kid in town a go? Or will you welcome Southwest with open arms…and open wallet? Please leave your comments below!

 

 


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How to use your phone overseas- and not spend a fortune

(Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

Did you get a shiny new iPhone or smart phone for Christmas? Are you worried that it might cost you a fortune if you dare to turn it on overseas? In this guest post, longtime TICKET reader Jim Braude offers some excellent tips for staying connected when overseas– whether you use an iPhone or an Android device. Braude divides his time between Atlanta and Paris managing a delightful collection of guest apartments in both cities that he rents to travelers.

Learn From My Mistakes!

The first time I came here [to France] with my iPhone I didn’t pay attention to details or warnings, resulting in an $1800.00 bill after just two weeks. Now I’ve learned the tricks and happy to share them with you. — Jim Braude, ourhomeinparis.com

1 – Use the wi-fi! Most hotels and all of our apartments have unlimited wi-fi use. Of course, it makes sense to do as much data transfer as possible using the wi-fi network, as it’s the 3G that nails you if you go over your limit (see next point). More coffee houses are adding wi-fi too as a free perk, but be careful if non secured.

2 – AT&T has three features that greatly reduce the bill:

>Global messaging – 200 international text messages for 30.00

>International roaming – data – 125MB for $49.99 – this is greatly reduced recently. If you use it with ONAVO (see below) it’s more than enough for a once-an-hour check of emails for a full month.

>International roaming – voice – $5.99.   Cheaper long distance to the US.   But I use SKYPE when on wi-fi instead, which is even cheaper.

3 – SKYPE nothing beats Skype to Skype video calls, free and with the newer Macs you get really clear sound and picture.

4 – ONAVO is a free app for iPhone that compresses data and greatly reduces the amount of data transmission– it literally halves your incoming data bill.

5 – PHONE TAG – for $9.99/month.  I forward my incoming voice calls to my phonetag number, it then computer-generates a voice to email message, and sends me an email. This also makes it unnecessary to check voice mail which I prefer. It’s not perfect– occasionally the computer will make some odd choices in its translation from voice to text– but it includes an attachment of the actual voice message that you can listen to if needed as a back up.

6- CHANGE SETTINGS. Change how often your phone checks for email from every fifteen minutes to every hour during the day and change to MANUAL setting at night unless you have wi-fi setting and wi-fi remains on 24/7.

7- WHATSAPP – an almost free app (99 cents) for international texting, works great [across iPhone, Android and Nokia platforms].

8 – GET AN APARTMENT – when a homeowner gets cable service in France, it costs only 5 euros more per month for the owner to add unlimited free calling to the US or Canada from a fixed line.  Warning: some carriers do NOT allow free calls to mobile phones–only to fixed lines–  so confirm that first. And confirm whether the country you are calling is on the free list.  When you install cable (and wi-fi and phone) in your apartment, calls to the US and Canada are almost always free, from both both fixed line and mobile.

9 – PICKPOCKETS – the number one most stolen item in France is the iPhone. DO NOT leave it on a table top at a cafe. A young man covered mine with a newspaper as he asked me a question and took my iphone away in seconds, but I caught him in the act. Avoid using on the subway as you are alerting those around you that you are a prime target. Never leave your iphone in backpack or purse that is behind you rather in front of you.

Do you have any other money-saving or hassle-reducing tips on using your mobile phone overseas? If so, please leave your advice in the comments box below!

 

 


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Biz travel in 2012: My predictions

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It’s that time of year again, when travel pundits and prognosticators do their best to predict what may or may not happen in the coming year. Here’s what I see on the horizon for frequent travelers in Atlanta and around the worlds in 2012.

Apart from uncertainty about the eurozone, the global economy is slowly improving, meaning individuals and companies are likely to increase their budgets for both business and leisure travel. But just like improvements in the global economy, any expansion in travel budgets is going to be slow– very slow. Atlanta seems to be emerging from the great recession at a slower pace than many other US cities– but nonetheless, we are still traveling, still out there working hard and helping our companies recover.

Increased demand for travel in 2012 will mean higher prices for transportation, fuel, lodging and food, with the biggest jumps in fast-growing regions such as Asia, India and South America. Business travel to and from Japan should continue to improve, but leisure travel there will stay slow — forcing down rates for what has long been one of the most expensive countries in the world.

In the US, hotel prices will continue to increase in big coastal cities such as New York, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco where business is brisk, but will remain mostly flat in the heartland where economic recovery is slower. Airfares in the US are currently 10% to 20% higher than two years ago, and should remain high as airlines continue to reduce capacity, consolidate, or, like bankrupt American Airlines, shrink their way to profitability.

In Atlanta, Delta has already announced several cuts to its transatlantic schedule and AirTran/Southwest is trimming away at its domestic schedule from ATL and elsewhere. We are seeing some decent fare sales, but the restrictions around them make it tough for business travelers to use– for example, the current AirTran sale for January is only good for those who can travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

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With Europe’s economic woes, demand and prices for travel in the region could flatten, but this will not be by much. European companies are likely to crack down on extravagant spending by cutting back or eliminating business class air travel, enforcing the use of midrange hotels and asking travellers take trips by car or train instead of flying. In the unlikely event Greece reverts back to the drachma, prices could take a tumble there, opening up opportunities for bargain-focussed vacationers.

Click here on my BBC.com column for a full round up of what to expect regarding… Airfares, hotel rates, travel deals, gas prices, wi-fi, mobile and meetings & conventions…

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Cities that tax travelers most/least

Do you feel ripped off when you book a great hotel or car rental rate, but end up paying a final bill loaded up with taxes and fees? (That are used to fund things you’ll likely never use such as local stadiums or convention centers…)

The Global Business Travel Association has released the 2011 findings from its annual study of car rental, hotel and meal taxes in the top 50 U.S. travel destination cities– and the results might surprise you. For example, cities in Florida and California are cited as having the lowest taxes.

All taxes are not the same…some specifically target travelers, like Phoenix’s $2.50 rental car fee that goes to the “Maricopa County Stadium for debt retirement.” Or the 5% rental car tax imposed by San Antonio to fund “youth and amateur sports facilities.”

Cities with the lowest total tax burden ($20-$25 per day) in central city locations:

1.     Fort Lauderdale, FL

2.     Fort Myers, FL

3.     West Palm Beach, FL

4.     Detroit, MI

5.     Portland, OR

NOTE: The full list now includes many cities in California where the state sales tax recently declined a full percentage point.

Cities with the highest total taxes (around $35 per day) on travelers are:

1.     Chicago, IL

2.     New York, NY

3.     Seattle, WA

4.     Boston, MA

5.     Kansas City, MO

Discriminatory travel taxes are those imposed specifically on travel services above and beyond general sales taxes (like the ones imposed on airport car rentals to fund local projects).

The U.S. cities with the lowest discriminatory travel tax rates are:

1.     Orange County, CA

2.     San Diego, CA

3.     San Jose, CA

4.     Burbank, CA

5.     Ontario, CA

Cities with the highest discriminatory  travel taxes (those that single out travelers):

1.     Portland, OR

2.     Boston, MA

3.     Minneapolis, MN

4.     New York, NY

5.     Chicago, IL

Do you have any examples of outrageous taxes you’ve been forced to pay recently? Do taxes that seem to discriminate against travelers encourage you to travel elsewhere, or do you just grumble and pay up? Please leave your comments below.

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Trip Report: The London West Hollywood Hotel

The rooftop pool and cabanas at the London West Hollywood hotel.

The rooftop pool and cabanas at the London West Hollywood hotel.

In March I was in Los Angeles on business and extended my stay over the weekend at the London Hotel in West Hollywood which opened in 2009. I loved it. (So do a lot of others…it is currently ranked #1 among hotels in the area on TripAdvisor.)

In my mind, this hotel has all the elegance, class and comfort of LA’s well-known (and enormously expensive) west side grande dames combined with a hip design-forward factor you would expect at the W or the Standard. For example, all hotel hallways are sheathed in a voluptuous pale gray suede-like fabric that is “brushed” every day. (See photo below)

Rates run in the $300 range per night, but if you are staying longer than one night, you’ll want to pay a bit more for a room with one of those sweeping twinkling south-facing views of LA. (Disclosure: I was a guest of the hotel one night, and paid $300 for one night, during my two-day stay.)

The 200-room hotel, once known as the Bel Age, is located a block downhill from Sunset Boulevard (at San Vicente) in West Hollywood. It shares a parking lot with the infamous Viper Room. It’s got a sexy rooftop, cabana-ringed, glassed-in, pool area with a stunning 360-degree view that adds a fun, SoCal glam edge. There’s also a buzzy Gordon Ramsay restaurant on-site.

Three top features frequent travelers will appreciate: This is a luxury hotel that offers free high-speed Internet connections. It also serves up one of the most elaborate and varied complimentary breakfast buffets (including items like scones, smoked salmon, fresh fruit salads, quiche…see below) I’ve ever torn into. And all rooms are big, bright and over-sized…as a matter of fact, the hotel refers to all rooms as “suites.”

Come on along for the show and see all the pretty pictures! [Read more…]


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Smiling about Barcelona

The brand new W Barcelona hotel (Photo: Paco CT / Flickr)

Diverse, colorful, convenient Barcelona is one of those cities that always makes business travelers smile when they learn they have an assignment there.

If you are heading to Barcelona on business, or are wondering what’s so wonderful about the Spanish city, check out TICKET editor Chris McGinnis’ latest BBC.com post— he reveals his top picks for elegant or edgy hotels, offers suggestions for outings with colleagues and plenty of other secrets and advice.

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Still paying for hotel Wi-Fi?

Ask any business traveler about his or her biggest travel-related gripes and you’ll undoubtedly find hotel fees for in-room Internet access near the top of the list.

As much as travelers (and travel writers) squawk about how wrong it feels to have to pay for something that has become as basic to a hotel stay as hot water, the hotel industry has resisted – especially at the high-end.

But I think we might have reached a tipping point in the war against these fees.

Last week global hotel giant Carlson launched a new loyalty program which offers its members free Internet access at all Radisson Hotels worldwide, and at all Carlson brands in the US. That’s nearly 1,100 hotels. And the only thing guests have to do is sign up for the program; no elite status required (details below).

Thorsten Kirschke, COO of Carlson Global, said he’d like to eventually see free Internet access for all guests at all Carlson hotels, and this is the first step in that direction. (Radisson hotels in Europe already offer free access to all guests.)

This move shows that the idea of free hotel Internet access is moving up the food chain to higher-tiered hotels and across entire hotel brand families.

Most of the world’s largest hotel families, such as Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott and Starwood, charge for Internet access at their upscale brands, but do not charge for it at their budget brands. Best Western was the first to offer free Internet access chain-wide in 2004. (The exception is elite level members of some hotel loyalty programs, who now get it free.)

In addition to Radisson’s move, smaller upscale hotel chains such as Fairmont, IHG’s Hotel Indigo, Hyatt’s Andaz, Kimpton (US) and Omni (US) have moved to free access. Two big standouts at the top of the hotel heap are the ultra-luxe Peninsula and Shangri-La brands; both offer free in-room Internet at all properties worldwide.

So we are getting there. Our cries about fees for Internet access seem to have reached hotel company boardrooms and change is in the air.

In the meantime, here’s some advice to consider on the topic of hotel room Internet access:

Free access does not always mean fast access and in too many cases, business travelers get what they pay for. Now that business travelers are using a lot more bandwidth – to watch movies, or send and receive large files – hotels with older systems can get overloaded and slow down fast. If having a fast Internet connection is crucial, call the hotel before you book and ask the front desk if they get a lot of complaints from guests about Internet connections or speed.

Frequent travelers who always need fast Internet access should consider USB sticks or cards for laptops that provide access to new 3G, 4G or other mobile broadband networks.

Some hotels have moved to a two-tier system. Basic, low bandwidth wi-fi (good enough to check email or browse the web) is free. If you want to watch movies or videos, or interact on social networking sites like Facebook, you’ll have to pay a fee for more bandwidth.

What about you? Are you getting it for free more often than not?

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Spring>Summer travel outlook

Where are YOU going for summer vacation?

With winter blahs and collegiate spring break nearly behind us, it’s time for frequent travelers to start contemplating late spring and summer trips. Here are some things to consider:

Airfare: There’s no doubting that airfares are on the rise this year. Depending on whom you ask, average fares are up 10% to 20% over last year. This is due to three factors: rising demand, higher fuel costs, and a reduction in the number of seats flying.

  • Demand is up because the economy is improving. Business travelers are eager to get back out on the road and face-to-face with clients and colleagues they haven’t seen in a while. Among leisure travelers, there’s a lot of pent up demand for vacations getting released now that they are feeling more confident.
  • Fuel costs are up due to uncertainty in the Middle East and rising demand for oil as economies around the world recover from the recent global recession.
  • Frightened by the sudden rise in their fuel costs airlines have recently announced that they are cutting back expansion plans, and reducing capacity nearly across the board. When airlines reduce supply as consumers increase demand, basic economics means that prices are going to rise.

Buy now or wait? I suggest buying your airline tickets for spring and early summer travel now. Despite momentous events in Japan and throughout the Middle East, the global economy seems to be on an upward track, which means higher fares (see above). Airlines have increased fares almost ten times so far this year. Fuel surcharges are popping up everywhere. Shop around, and when you see a fare that feels right, book it, and don’t look back.

Airline Fees. Everyone loves piling on the airlines about the raft of “new fees” they are piling on customers. The only fees that really irritate me are: the $25 fee for the first checked bag and the $150 fee for changing a ticket, and the $25 fee for booking tickets using a human agent via phone. But most of those other “new fees” we are hearing about lately about are not fees at all. They are simply charges for new OPTIONAL products. For example, I’m happy to pay $13 for in-flight Internet access on a cross-country flight. I’ll gladly pay $8 for a clean pillow or blanket that no one else has used. On full flights, it’s sometimes worth it to pay for early boarding (something Atlantans might get used to once Southwest moves in). For longer flights, I am actually happy to have the option to pay more for a seat with more legroom– like Delta’s new “economy comfort” seats or AirTran’s business class.  I’m happy to pay for a healthy fresh in-flight snack than the awful plastic pressed chicken and rice we used to get “for free.”

Loyalty Programs: It’s too late now to redeem for summer trips at anything other than astronomic “full-fare” levels. But if you are thinking about a fall or holiday trip, now’s the time to lock in those dates. Big spenders should be on the lookout for huge mile or point bonus offers and new benefits from credit card companies as they battle for frequent flyers switching alliances due to airline mergers. Might be time to re-evaluate the plastic in your pocket.

Hotels: Hotel prices are not expected to increase as much as airline fares. . .but they are on the increase for the first time in several years. This is especially true in cities where rising demand from business travelers and leisure travelers is occurring, so expect to be shocked at hotel prices in big convention cities along the coasts such as New York, San Francisco or Boston, especially if there’s a large convention in town. Even long suffering Las Vegas has experienced recent gains in average hotel rate. Travelers will still find hotel deals in the heartland however– rates in cities like Chicago, Atlanta or Denver are still relatively flat. The best hotel deal is not always the one with the lowest rate– check on whether extras like parking, internet or breakfast are included or not.

Gasoline Prices: Americans will be paying close to $4 per gallon this summer, but I don’t think it’s going to keep people home. They’ll still take their driving vacations and business trips, but will look for other ways to cut back. They’ll take shorter trips, stay at less expensive hotels, dine out less often. But they are still going to go. I think we’ll see the emergence of special deals designed to assuage fear of high gas prices– during previous peaks in gas prices, hotels and resorts have made offers to pay for a tank of gas, for example. If gas prices remain stubbornly high, travelers should be on the lookout for these types of promos.

Timing and Flexibility: Did you know that there are certain days in July and August that now outrank Thanksgiving as the busiest air travel days of the year? With demand like that, you can always expect to pay top dollar during the peak season, which generally runs late June through late August. If you have the flexibility to book summer business or vacation trips in early June, or late August, you may still find a few deals.

Shoulder Season: Prices are even lower if you can travel during what’s known in the travel industry as “shoulder season.” Spring shoulder season runs from the week after Easter (April 24) until the week before Memorial Day weekend (May 28-30). Fall shoulder season starts in mid September and runs until early November. Travelers will find advance booking prices lower during these periods. Shoulder season is also a good time for those with flexible schedules to consult online booking sites for last minute deals, which are much more prevalent when demand is weak.

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Higher biz travel prices with no end in sight…

If you are waiting and wondering if business travel prices might fall…you might be in for a long wait.

This week American Express released its latest Business Travel Monitor (BTM) report for 2010 showing that airfare continued to climb in 2010 and is just 6 percent shy of the airfare highs of 2008. Also, domestic hotel rates were steady overall in 2010 while reaching their highest levels all year in the fourth quarter of 2010.

2011 has seen a strong start for airfare increases. The recent spikes in oil prices and the cut in capacity growth plans by airlines likely mean no end in sight for rising prices. Recent BTM data shows domestic airfare in January 2011 was up eight percent compared to January 2010.

Specifically:

·         Year-Over-Year Average Domestic Airfare Paid Increased 7 percent to $231 in 2010

·         Year-Over-Year Average International Airfare Paid Increased 7 percent to $1,795 in 2010

·         Year-Over-Year Average Domestic Hotel Booked Rates Paid Remained Flat at $152 in 2010

Additionally, American Express identified the five U.S. domestic markets with the highest hotel rate increases in Q4 2010 vs. Q4 2009, which are:

  • Las Vegas, NV (+12%) — rates really had no where to go but up!
  • New York, NY (+5%) — high end hotel rates have jumped much more than this
  • Washington DC (+5%)
  • San Francisco, CA (+5)

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Top 10 predictions for frequent travelers in 2011

(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)Happy Holidays! It’s that time of year again…when travel pundits and prognosticators do their best to gaze into the future and predict what may or may not happen in the big wide world of travel in the coming year.

Here are The TICKET’s top ten predictions for frequent travelers in 2011:

1-RISING PRICES. Business travel prices will continue to rise, but not enough to dampen renewed demand.

2-AIRFARE. Fares will continue to rise sharply, especially for flights between cities where only one or two legacy carriers operate. From Atlanta, all you have to do is follow the route map of AirTran (and soon, Southwest) to know where the deals are (or aren’t). We do not expect much change in AirTran operations in 2011– 2012 will be the big year for full integration with Southwest. Also, prepare for more fuel surcharges as oil nears $100 per barrel– it’s currently about $89 and rising.

3-TRAVEL DEALS. In terms of travel deals, there will be a wider gap between peak season and off-season prices. Those with flexibility to travel outside the peak travel dates will continue to find good deals and more short-term “flash” type sales. (Think Jetsetter or Sniqueaway) Those who must travel during peak periods will face sticker shock. (Peak periods generally run when school is out: Holidays, long weekends, July and August.)

 

4-HOTEL RATES. Due to continued overcapacity, hotel rates should remain about the same or slightly up, on average, over the next year. Hotel rates in New York City will rise, but a steady supply of new hotels opening there should keep rate inflation to acceptable levels, especially among mid-tier properties.

5-FREE WI-FI. More upscale hotel chains will join their midscale counterparts to offer free in-room Wi-Fi. We’ll also see hoteliers pay more attention to bandwidth issues on their existing systems. What good is free Wi-Fi if it doesn’t work? In-flight Wi-Fi prices could moderate as Southwest’s $5 flat fee for inflight Wi-Fi expands to more flights.

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6-LONGER STAYS. Hotel chains will offer more loyalty program promotions designed to get travelers to increase the duration of their stays. (Such as “buy two nights, get the third free.”)

7-DRIVING VS. FLYING. Due to recent changes in security screening, the airport hassle factor could return, and more frequent travelers will consider driving instead of flying. The “five hour rule” might change to the “six hour rule.”

8-MOBILE DEVICES. We’ll see more focus on business travelers’ smart phones, which will soon be used to open hotel room doors and will be accepted as payment instead of credit cards. There will be more promotions designed to encourage the use of mobile devices to book and manage travel reservations

Old school Airfone

9-IN-FLIGHT PHONING. In-flight phone calling, now available on several non-U.S. airlines will become more prevalent and might even be considered by a domestic carrier. High per-call rates and peer pressure should keep abuse in check– remember those pricey GTE Airfones that no one ever used because they were too expensive? I expect the same with in-flight cell phone use.

10-MEETINGS & CONVENTIONS. More of us will attend large annual trade shows and conventions this year as pent up demand is released. Many companies banned non-essential travel over the last two years and business travelers are eager to get out of the office and re-establish face-to-face contact with customers and colleagues. However, I think small and medium-sized meetings will face more competition from virtual alternatives.

(ONE EXTRA PREDICTION: 11- Better airline coverage in The TICKET! We’ve brought on a new airline correspondent, Ramsey Qubein! Ramsey,  a Diamond Medallion on Delta, has been enhancing our airline coverage with great insider news and tips over the last month. Stay tuned for more from him and The TICKET in 2011.)


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Traveling home for a feast? Read this first

(that's my mom's sweet potato casserole.)
(that’s my mom’s sweet potato casserole!)

With Halloween and the election behind us, the next big calendar item is Thanksgiving. If you are hitting the roads or the skies later this month, read up. There’s plenty to know about the upcoming peak season:

FARES UP. In addition to the slew of new airline fees, airfares are higher this year. Farecompare.com reports that holiday airfares are up about 17 percent over last year. According to Travelocity, the average Thanksgiving season fare for domestic trips is running about $378 roundtrip this year. While that may seem high, consider this: Travelocity says that the average Christmas/New Years week fare this year is $457.

FORGET WEDNESDAY. The TUESDAY before Thanksgiving has emerged as one of the busiest travel days for of the peak Thanksgiving week– even busier than Wednesday.

FULL WEEK. In recent years, an increasing number of Americans are taking the full Thanksgiving week off. This means that you should expect the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving to be very busy.

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SUNDAY-MONDAY. The Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving will be the busiest travel days of the season. Sunday’s busy because that’s when everyone wants to get back home. Monday is busy because you’ve got business travelers headed back out for work on Monday morning along with the Thanksgiving laggards headed home. IMPORTANT: Expect big security line back ups on Monday morning; arrive early just in case.

PACKED FLIGHTS AND AIRPORTS. The Air Transport Association expects 24 million travelers during the 12-day Thanksgiving travel season. That’s up from 23 million last year. Despite the increased demand, airlines have been slow to un-park their planes (or buy new ones) so you should expect every flight to be full or even oversold.

DRIVING IT HOME. Despite the focus on air travel, the fact remains that 80 to 90 percent of all trips home for the holiday are by car. Good news: Gasoline is only a dime-per-gallon more expensive than this time last year. As always, traffic-averse drivers should try to avoid high-volume times such at Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and Sunday afternoon after.

SWEET SPOT. If you want to breeze through the holiday with little or no hassle, try to travel during the Thanksgiving sweet spot: Thursday, Friday and Saturday are the slowest travel days of the week. Smart drivers leave Thanksgiving morning and get back Saturday night. Three days with the family is plenty, right?

AIRLINE FEE FOR ALL. Despite all the media attention, infrequent travelers might be surprised by new airline fees for checked baggage this year. Here’s what you need to know:

>Only JetBlue and Southwest do not charge for the first checked bag. (JetBlue does charge for the second one; Southwest does not.)

>Only one airline, Spirit Air, charges for carry on bags. ($45 for bags that don’t fit under the seat.)

>All other airlines charge $50 to $70 round trip per checked bag.

>Bags that are overweight or oversize are subject to crazy-high fees, so beware.

FAT STAT. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics says that airlines raked in a whopping $1.6 BILLION in checked baggage fees in just the first six months of this year! (This is a big reason airlines are finally, after years in the red, reporting profits this year.)

BAG FEE REBATE. Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and other hotels in the InterContinental Hotels Group will rebate $50 in checked baggage fees to those who spend two weekend nights with them. Kimpton Hotels is doing the same– but only if you are charged for a second bag.

SHIP BAGS. If you can’t fit everything into a carryon, consider shipping your bags. UPS and FEDEX stores are happy to ship your baggage, but you have to ship them 3-5 days ahead of time via ground, in order to beat the cost of airline fees. Also be aware that distance matters when you ship bags. The UPS Store tells me that a 35 lb. bag shipped via ground from Atlanta to Denver costs about $25; if you shipped the same bag all the way to San Francisco, it would cost close to $50.

LUMPY SOFA OR HOTEL?. One bright spot in the overcrowded, overpriced holiday season is that hotel rates can hit yearlong lows during Thanksgiving. This is especially true at hotels located in or near office parks that cater to business travelers. These properties are dead during holidays, so you can scoop up outstanding bargains. To get the most for your money check out the big spacious rooms (many as big as efficiency apartments) at so-called “extended stay” properties such as Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites or Homewood Suites.

DEAD WEEKS. If you have the flexibility to postpone Thanksgiving season trips, consider traveling during what are known in the travel industry as “dead weeks.” During the first two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January, crowds vanish and prices plummet. The main exception to this would be New York City– due to the shopping season, the first three weeks of December are the busiest and most expensive of the year.

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Hotels roaring back to life

IHG's Priority Club members now earn/burn points on the Vegas strip (Photo: Christopher Chan)

After a two years of big declines in occupancy, rates and optimism, the hotel industry seems to be roaring back to life.

>Just this week InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which includes giant brands like Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, reported that its occupancy was up 4 percent in the third quarter. It also announced big plans to move into the recovering Las Vegas market. (See below)

>Starwood’s CEO says that the chain’s occupancy rates are back now back at 2007 levels with rates in positive territory. (Westin, Sheraton and W Hotels fall under the Starwood umbrella.)

>Best Western reports that it sold 15 percent more room nights on its web site in September compared to the same time last year.

>Marriott’s feeling so confident about the future that this week it announced an ambitious plan to add 80,000 to 90,000 new rooms to its portfolio of brands over the next three years.

All that is great news for hotels, but not such great news for travelers– as a result of increasing demand, hotel rates are on the rise. Expedia reported today that hotel rates were up 4 percent in the third quarter.

Frequent travelers will feel pricing pressure most in big gateway cities such as New York where third quarter rates were up 12 percent according to STRGlobal. In San Francisco, rates were up about 7 percent; in Boston, they were up 6 percent.

Are you paying significantly more for hotels than you have in recent years? Leave your examples or comments below.

Now for a few more newsy nuggets from the hotel scene:

EARNING AND BURNING ON THE STRIP. Priority Club Rewards members should be pleased to know that they now have 7000 plush rooms on the Las Vegas strip where they can earn or redeem their hard-earned loyalty points.

This week InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) announced a new alliance with the Venetian and Palazzo that will, among other things, allow Priority Club members to book suites on the IHG web site, redeem a minimum of 40,000 points for a one-night stay, and earn points as if they were staying at any other IHG brand. (Stay tuned…this functionality is not yet available on its web site.) Until now, IHG had only a minor presence in Las Vegas with a handful of off-strip properties.

In a similar move, Marriott recently (and for the first time) announced that it too would make a splash on the strip by teaming up with the Cosmopolitan, which opens in the new City Center complex on December 15. Marriott Rewards members will have similar opportunities to earn and burn program points on the strip.

Surfboard's up at the front desk at Marriott's new EDITION hotel in Honolulu

Surfboard's up at the front desk at Marriott's new EDITION hotel in Honolulu

ALOHA MARRIOTT. Marriott introduced its new design-chic EDITION hotel in Honolulu earlier this month. (In the building that previously housed the Renaissance Ilikai Waikiki hotel near the Ala Moana Shopping Center.)

Marriott partnered with hotel design maven Ian Schrager to create the new EDITION brand, so guests can expect the highly stylized surroundings they may have experienced at Schrager’s other hotels that include the Delano in Miami, the Mondrian in LA, or the Gramercy Park or Royalton in NYC. This is the first EDITION hotel to open; Marriott says more will open in other “24-hour cities” over the next few years.

Pro: The Waikiki EDITION offers free high-speed internet access– unusual for an upscale hotel. Con: The hotel is located on Ala Moana Blvd across from a Marina and not on the beach– but from photos it does seem to have a super-sexy pool area.

Rates run in the $375 per night range, but can dip as low as $195 during promotional periods. Marriott Rewards members can redeem a minimum of 35,000 points for a one-night stay.

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NYC hotels getting pricey and unusual

Minimalist stylings at NYC's new Andaz Fifth Avenue hotel

Like many frequent travelers, I’ve spent plenty of nights in New York City hotels over the years. When looking for a place to stay, I nearly always look for two key words: brand new.

I like new hotels for a couple of reasons: First, since I’m in the travel biz, I’m eager to see and experience the latest trends in hospitality. Second, since hotel rooms in Manhattan are nearly always occupied, they get worn out quickly. A brand new hotel will have little evidence that hundreds of others have spent the night in my room before I did. (Note: If you like new hotels, you’ve got to be somewhat forgiving when it comes to service—it takes a while for hotel staff to grow out of the “green” stage.)

Good news: When it comes to “brand new” in NYC, there’s plenty to choose from– this year alone, 33 new hotels will open, adding some 7,500 rooms to the market. Despite the increase in capacity, average rates in New York are climbing—up 12 percent in September year-over-year to an average $281 per night, according to STR Global

Last month I stopped by New York on my way back from London and checked out one of the more noteworthy newbies: The Andaz – Fifth Avenue.

Hyatt has always been a reliably classy brand. But with its new Andaz boutique-style brand, it’s moved out of that cozy comfort zone and onto the cutting edge.  >>>there’s plenty more, plus a list of all the new hotels opening in NYC this year below the break!<<<

[Read more…]


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Bumping up your SkyMiles balance

(Photo: Friscocali / Flickr)

As the end of the year draws nigh, SkyMiles members are gunning to build up those mileage balances. Here are some promotions to help you do just that:

1>EARN MQM’s AT HILTON. We know that TICKET readers love those super-special Medallion Qualifying Miles or MQM’s that help speed up getting to elite status. This fall, Hilton’s helping out by offering MQMs and double miles to those who stay at any Hilton Family hotel two or more nights by December 10. You must register first.

2>25,000 SKYMILES FOR $500 SKYMALL PURCHASE. Through Friday, September 17, SkyMiles members who spend at least $500 at SkyMall will earn a whopping 25,000 bonus miles. This is a great deal if you have items (like electronics or massage chairs) on your shopping list anyway…and if you don’t mind slightly overpaying. (SkyMall prices are always slightly higher than elsewhere.) Details.

3>ALASKA AIRLINES DOUBLE. Those who fly Delta from Atlanta to the west coast and then connect to an Alaska Airlines flight will earn double bonus (not MQM) miles between now and November 15. For example, if you have a meeting in Seattle, fly Delta to San Francisco or Los Angeles, and then connect to an Alaska Air flight for the second leg to Seattle. Note: These are LONG flights, so the double miles really add up and could make the stopover worth your while. Do the math: ATL-LAX-ATL = 4000 miles x 2 = 8000 miles. LAX-SEA-LAX = 2000 miles x 2 = 4000 miles. So, a total of 12,000 miles plus your Medallion bonuses. Not bad! Register here.

4>DELTA + HAWAIIAN. SkyMiles members can now earn and burn SkyMiles on Hawaiian Airlines’s inter-island flights as a result of an expansion of the carriers’ code-sharing pact. This means you can buy a single Delta ticket from the mainland to Honolulu and then on to one of the 70 daily inter-island flights operated by Hawaiian Airlines between Honolulu and Kahului, Lihue, Kona and Hilo. Mahalo!

5>TRANSFER MEMBERSHIP REWARDS, GET 20% MORE SKYMILES. Periodically, Delta offers American Express Membership Rewards members a nice bonus when they transfer their points from Amex to Delta SkyMiles. Through September 30, that bonus stands at 20%. Details and registration.

6>DELTA TO OFFER SKYMILES DEBIT CARD. If you are a fan of debit cards and Delta’s Amex charge card offerings aren’t doing much for you, stay tuned for a flurry of new Delta/MasterCard debit card offers. Delta and MasterCard announced this week that they’ve teamed up to offer a debit card product that will extend debit cards beyond just SunTrust, the current sole provider of Delta debit cards.  But you won’t be able to get the card (or those nice sign up bonuses) on until they sign on with a local bank to issue it.

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Hotel News

(Photo: Nhanusek / Flickr)

IHG HOTELS PAYING BAG FEES. Here’s a deal that should be music to the ears of non-elite air travelers forced to pay those dastardly new fees for checked bags. IHG Hotels (which include Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Staybridge Suites, Indigo among others) is offering to rebate $50 to travelers who book two or more weekend nights now through Dec 30. Must use Visa card to pay for your stay. Details.

MARRIOTT FALL DEAL. Marriott hotels kicked off the slower fall travel season with a pretty nice offer: Stay twice between September 15 and January 15 and get one free night. Must pay with Visa. Details

NEW HYATT CARD. Hyatt has unveiled a new Chase card with some nice bennies: You get two free nights and any Hyatt worldwide with first purchase. You get three Gold Passport points for every dollar spent at Hyatt. And they’ve eliminated those pesky foreign transaction fees. Annual fee is $75. Details

ARE YOU INDEPENDENT? Do you love independent, non-chain, upscale or luxury hotels, but miss the free nights you earn with big chain frequent stay programs? A new program called Stash Hotel Rewards offers five points per dollar spent at over 80 hotels, like the Affinia Dumont hotel in Manhattan, or the hotel Andra in Seattle, two of your TICKET editor’s top picks in those cities. Stash estimates that the average traveler could earn one free night after about five stays. Here’s a current and rapidly expanding list of the hotels that participate in Stash. To get points, you must book directly with the hotel’s web site, not via third party channels. Worth a look! Details

PICK YOUR ROOM. Did you know that Hilton’s Homewood Suites now allow travelers to choose their exact room 36 hours prior to arrival? Now that’s something I’d like to see across the hotel industry! Details

MORE FREE WI-FI. Slowly but surely, hotel chains are getting the message that frequent travelers  really REALLY want Wi-Fi charges included in their room rates.  Hilton recently joined a trend among several chains by offering free Wi-Fi across ALL its brands to elite level members of its HHonors programDetails.

NICE IDEA! Hyatt’s new upscale Andaz chain offers free mini bars (alas, no booze…but still) Details. Have you stayed at an Andaz yet? If so, please leave your comments below.

STARWOOD CARD FEE. The popular Starwood/Amex card recently hiked its annual fee for the second time in two years to $65. Still worth it? (Maybe they felt they were leaving money on the table considering Hyatt’s new card fee of $75…)

COOL POOL. Singapore may now have the coolest rooftop hotel infinity pool ever. You’ve gotta see these photos to believe your eyes. It’s located at the brand new Marina Sands hotel there.

HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING TRENDS. We recently posted an interesting item about certain Starwood hotels that offer guests 500 Starpoints for opting out of hotel housekeeping. We heard from many of you who thought that was a dandy idea. Now there’s more. Best Western says that when asked, about 40% of it’s guests now opt for limited or no housekeeping. Hmm. I sorta like the idea of having my room cleaned each day. I don’t necessarily need linens changed, but a quick clean up is nice. What about you?  Leave your comments below.

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Is business travel back? You betcha! (see 2-min vid)

Last week I attended the National Business Travel Association convention and exposition in Houston, Texas. This is an annual gathering of about 6000 corporate travel buyers and sellers.

I attended the same conference last summer in San Diego, where the mood was a lot different. Last year, attendees were searching for ways to deal with “the new normal,” pondering which airline or hotel chain would file for bankruptcy next, and wondering if they’d still have their jobs and be back again for this year’s conference.

Check out my two-minute video from the trade show floor in Houston last week to learn how eight business insiders responded when I asked if business travel was back. Their answer was crystal clear.

At the conference, American Express released some statistics that back up the optimism you’ll see in my video. It reports that global business travel spending contracted 9 percent last year. But this year, it’s expected to grow 6 percent (for a total of $895 billion!); next year it will increase 8 percent, and then 9 percent in 2013.

How would YOU respond if I asked you the same question? Have you noticed much change from last year when it comes to your inclination to hit the roads and skies this year? Please leave your comments below.

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Hotel News

With the peak summer travel season right around the corner and plenty of TICKET readers busy planning their trips, we’ve put together an array news and tools to help you make the right decision. Happy planning!

CONSUMER REPORTS RATES HOTELS. There are all kinds of hotel ratings and rankings and lists out there…so many in fact, that I sorta glaze over when I read about them. However, when Consumer Reports ranks hotels, I prick up my ears. Its ratings are based on the experiences of nearly 28,000 CR readers regarding their hotel stays between January 2008 and April 2009. You’ve got to subscribe to the magazine for the full report (June 2010 issue), but here are a few nuggets: Ritz-Carlton (no surprise) placed at the top of the “Fanciest” category. For “luxury” hotels, Renaissance (Marriott) and Embassy Suites ranked highest, Sheraton lowest. In the “upscale” category, Homewood Suites (Hilton) came out at the top, Radisson at the bottom.  For moderate hotels, Drury Inn & Suites ranked highest and Howard Johnson ranked lowest. (Have you ever stayed at a Drury Inn?? If so, please leave a comment. I’m not familiar with this chain and I’m curious!) In the budget category, Microtel ranked best and America’s Best Value Inn ranked worst.

CR SAYS IT PAYS TO HAGGLE WITH HOTELS. From the article that accompanied the Consumer Reports hotel ranking: “Only 35 percent of respondents tried to negotiate for a better deal, but those who did were rewarded with a lower rate or room upgrade 80 percent of the time. That’s a slightly higher success rate than readers experienced in our 2006 survey. Those who called ahead to do their haggling were even more successful than those who tried to negotiate in person.” What’s your experience with haggling with hotels? Leave your comments below.

The Ellis on Peachtree

HOTEL INDUSTRY INSIDERS’ TOP PICKS FOR 2010. Since 2007 Expedia has produced the annual Insider’s Select List, an excellent resource for those blindly seeking a good hotel in an unknown city. Why do I like it? Because the selection is based on three factors: first, of course, it incorporates user reviews…but since user reviews are not always such a great gauge, they also include input from Expedia’s 400 local hotel market managers who know what’s hot and what’s not in their hometowns. They also use a value rating of each hotel, which compares the hotel’s average rate with that of comparable properties in the market. Combined, those three factors churn out some very reliable winners. In typical Expedia fashion, hotels are easily searchable by region, country and city. (In Atlanta, the top four hotels are: The Ellis on Peachtree, The Omni at CNN Center, the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead and the Ga. Tech Hotel and Conference Center in Midtown.) Disclosure: I  was editor of  Expedia Travel Trendwatch 2005-2009.

DESPERATELY SEEKING FREE WI-FI. It’s getting easier and easier to find free Wi-Fi at hotels these days as operators are finally tuning in to the fact that business travelers see it as a necessity and expect it to be included in the rate. But every now and then you get a big surprise when you have to pay $15 a day for the convenience. To help avoid that, the good folks over at hotelchatter.com have produced an exhaustive list of hotels with and without free Wi-Fi.

SPEAKING OF FREE WI-FI. Did you know that if you simply join frequent stay programs at Fairmont, Kimpton or Omni hotels you’ll get free Wi-Fi access? All you have to do is sign up. Other full-service brands such as Marriott, W (Starwood) and Hilton only offer free Wi-Fi to top-tier members of their programs.

SUMMER HOTEL BONUSES: The “Big Four” hotel chains have come out with their summer promotions and they are looking pretty good. Here’s a rundown:

>MARRIOTT: Marriott Rewards members earn a free night for every third stay at any of its 3200 hotels between June 1 and August 31. Marriott will also toss in a certificate for a $10/day discount on Hertz. Free stays are good through December 31 in Category 1-4 hotels only. Register here.

>MARRIOTT AND DELTA. SkyMiles members who stay at any of Marriott’s 3200 “participating” hotels worldwide between May 1 and September 6 will earn a whopping 5000 bonus SkyMiles beginning with the second stay. (Max: 60,000 miles) Register here.

>STARWOOD: Starwood is offering a free weekend (Fri, Sat or Sun) night after every three stays. However, Starwood’s earning window is earlier than Marriott’s: May 1-July 31. Free nights are good through December 19. What makes this a better offer, though, is that the free nights are good a ALL Starwood hotels in Categories 1-6 which even includes some of the pricey St Regis properties. Register here.

>PRIORITY CLUB (InterContinental): Members earn double Priority Club points OR airline miles OR up to $500 in gift cards starting with their second stay at any of the chain’s 4400 hotels worldwide. Good for stays from May 14 through August 31. Double points or miles awarded beginning with second qualifying stay. Gift cards are good at Best Buy, Home Depot, Target and others. Register here

>HILTON: According to a blog post by Hilton’s new CEO Chris Nassetta, all Hilton brands (3.500 hotels) will offer a “up to a 30% discount” plus free breakfast for stays between May 28 and September 6. (Details should be posted on Hilton.com site starting May 10.) Interesting aside: In the post, Nassetta points out that Hilton HHonors “enrollment from January to March 2010 were the highest enrollment levels for the program during those months within the last four years.” Why is that interesting? Because in January, Hilton increased its award redemption levels by about 25 percent, which got it a lambasting by travel media.

24 BRAND NEW HOTELS IN NEW YORK? You betcha. Check out this list and see how many you know of. Interesting to note how many of them are midscale and on the western side of the city.

  • The Standard New York (SEE PHOTO BELOW)  Full-Service 335 848 Washington Street Greenwich Village Jan 2009
  • Hilton Garden Inn Tribeca Select-Service 150 6 York Street Tribeca Jan 2009
  • Hotel Reserve Select-Service 116 20 Maiden Lane Financial District Jan 2009
  • Ace Hotel New York Full-Service 262 20 West 29th Street Chelsea Mar 2009
  • Fairfield Inn Manhattan/Times Square Limited-Service 244 330 West 40th Street Midtown West Mar 2009
  • Hilton Garden Inn – West 35th Street Select-Service 298 63 West 35th Street Garment District Mar 2009
  • Smyth Tribeca – A Thompson Hotel Boutique 100 85 West Broadway Tribeca Mar 2009
  • West 57th Street by Hilton Club Timeshare 161 102 West 57th Street Midtown West May 2009
  • Four Points by Sheraton Midtown Select-Service 244 326 West 40th Street Midtown West Jun 2009
  • Comfort Inn Manhattan Bridge Limited-Service 60 61-63 Chrystie Street Nolita Jun 2009
  • Hampton Inn Times Square South Limited-Service 184 337 West 39th Street Garment District Jul 2009
  • Holiday Inn Express Times Square Limited-Service 210 343 West 39th Street Garment District Jul 2009
  • Candlewood Suites Times Square Extended Stay 188 339 West 39th Street Garment District Jul 2009
  • Hotel Indigo Chelsea Select-Service 122 127 West 28th Street Chelsea Jul 2009
  • Doubletree New York – Chelsea Full-Service 237 128 West 29th Street Chelsea Jul 2009
  • Comfort Inn Midtown West Limited-Service 70 343 West 44th Street Midtown West Aug 2009
  • Ink48, a Kimpton Hotel Full-Service 222 653 11th Avenue Midtown West Sep 2009
  • Crosby Street Hotel Boutique 86 79 Crosby Street SoHo Oct 2009
  • Club Quarters World Trade Center Full-Service 421 140 Washington Street Financial District Nov 2009
  • The Strand Hotel Full-Service 177 33 West 37th Street Garment District Dec 2009
  • Fairfield Inn & Suites Manhattan Limited-Service 92 21 West 37th Street Garment District Dec 2009
  • Andaz New York – Wall Street Hotel + Condo 253 75 Wall Street Financial District Jan 2010
  • W NY-Downtown Hotel & Residences Hotel + Condo 217 123 Washington Street Financial District Feb 2010
  • The Distrikt Hotel – Ascend Collection Select-Service 155 342 West 40th Street Midtown West Feb 2010

Source: Hotelresource.com

The new Standard Hotel on the west side of Chelsea straddles the new High Line Trail (photo: C. McGinnis)

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A Big Bargain in the Bustle of Tokyo

In April, your TICKET editor was on a business trip to Asia and checked in at the new Best Western Shinjuku ASTINA Hotel in Tokyo. It’s currently the only Best Western in town and offers a great value to business travelers visiting one of the most expensive cities in the world.

A few unusual touches to see in the video below: Pajamas and buckwheat pillows, smoked trout and miso soup on the breakfast bar and heated toilet seats!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgONunfdG7U

(Disclosure: I contribute to Best Western’s travel blog at youmustbetrippin.com)


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Fares up, rates down as summer approaches

Good news for the travel industry is not always good news for bargain hunting frequent travelers.

Growing demand on the part of both leisure and business travelers means . . . you guessed it . . . higher prices. Those dirt-cheap deals the travel industry has used to keep us on the road and in the skies over the last couple years will get tougher to find in coming months.

Here’s why:

>FARES: In February, the average price to fly one mile in the U.S. increased 5 percent says the Air Transport Association. Fares are rising because airlines have been able to reduce their supply of seats by parking planes in the desert. Now that competition among travelers for the remaining seats is heating up, fares will rise accordingly.

>FEES: In addition to higher fares, airlines will continue to tack on extra fees to help firm up their mushy bottom lines. In January alone, airlines pulled in half a billion dollars in “ancillary revenue,” a term used to describe just about any airline charge other than fare [such as fees for baggage, ticket changes, upgrades, food, etc.],” said Kevin Chrissey, an airline analyst with UBS who was speaking at the Strategic Travel Symposium, a recent conference to which your TICKET editor was invited by the National Business Travel Association.

>AIRLINE GROWTH: Delta Air Lines, now the largest airline in the world, had to adjust its profit forecast for this quarter based on a 30+ percent jump in corporate travel volume and revenue in February. Also, Delta just announced that it’s jumping back into the hyper-competitive California Corridor with four daily round trips between SFO and LAX using both B737 and regional jets. It’s also adding a new shuttle service between New York and Chicago.

>SUMMER: It’s going to be a busy summer. Remember last summer nearly every flight was full and/or oversold? UBS’s Chrissey warned it could happen again this summer now that demand is rising along with the economic outlook. If you’ve got plans to fly on peak days (Memorial Day, July 4, most of August and Labor Day) you should start looking at fares now and go ahead and book.

>HOTEL GLUT: For hotels, it’s a bit of a different story. There’s been a huge boom in hotel construction over the last five years. For example, United’s Hemispheres magazine this month includes a colorful article about a handful of the 59 new hotels (yes, 59!) that have opened in NYC in the last 18 months. So, with a lot of extra supply out there, and only a slow return in demand, hotel rates should remain relatively flat over the next year.

>BOOKINGS UP: With all the great hotel deals out there, demand is starting to pop. For example, advance bookings at the Best Western chain were up 16.4 percent during the second week in March compared to the same time last year. (They were up over 6 percent for the month of February.) That’s significant considering Best Western’s the largest hotel chain in the world. Disclosure: I write a blog for Best Western.

>BUYER’S MARKET: The buyer’s market for hotel rooms should continue over the next year, said hotel analyst Bjorn Hanson at the symposium in New York. “For many years, I’ve advised consumers to call the hotel directly and ask for a lower rate, and they’d get one about 20 percent of the time. These days, they are getting a lower rate 50 percent of the time,” he said.

>RATES: To further illustrate his point, Hanson said that rates at luxury hotels in New York City were down a whopping 40 percent in 2009 compared to a high in 2006. And he referred to three different forecasts showing nationwide rate declines of 2-3 percent for 2010.

So folks, I’m eager to hear about your observations and plans for travel this year. Have you noticed that prices are increasing? Are you planning to travel more this year than last year? When do you plan to firm up your summer travel plans?

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Hotel News

SKIP HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING FOR POINTS OR DOLLARS? Guests at many Westin and Sheraton hotels can opt out of daily housekeeping in exchange for a $5 credit or 500 Starpoints. That seems like a good idea to me since my room remains mostly tidy when I’m traveling on business. It also has environmental benefits since less water and chemicals are used to clean the room. The Wall Street Journal points out that an average high-end hotel saves about $22 per room if the guest opts out of housekeeping. What do you think? Would you take a hotel up on an offer like this?

SHERATON MANHATTAN NO LONGER SHERATON. You might not be able to opt out of housekeeping at the Sheraton Manhattan, though. Starwood has announced that the hotel will loose its brand affiliation this spring due to it’s deteriorating quality. However, the Sheraton New York (across the street on the EAST side of 7th Ave) will keep its brand flag. (It always seemed a little weird to have two Sheratons so close to each other anyway…)

Updated room at the Best Western President Hotel near Times Sq- NYC

WHO KNEW IT WAS A BEST WESTERN? Check out my latest blog post on Best Western’s youmustbetrippin.com blog about the increasing number of Best Western hotels that may surprise you and make you say, “Wow! Who’da thunk THIS could be a Best Western?” I take a look at unusually cool BW hotels in San Francisco, Seoul, New York and Honolulu.

HOTEL BIZ IN BIND. Despite whispers of the return of business travelers, the hotel industry is still hurting. That’s because even as business travelers creep back, they are paying significantly lower rates. Evidence: IHG, the world’s largest hotel operator (Holiday Inn, InterConti, Crown Plaza, etc) said it’s revenue for 2009 was down 19% compared to 2008. However, the company said declines in January were less severe.

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Frequent Flyer / Frequent Stay News

WARNING: PAY SKYMILES CREDIT CARD BILL ON TIME. Or lose your miles. Starting this month, Delta/Amex/SkyMiles credit card holders who pay their bills late will forfeit miles earned during the pay period. To reinstate those miles, you’ll have to pay a $29 fee. (This policy has long been in effect on standard American Express cards, but it’s now imposed on co-branded cards, too.)

NEW SKYMILES CREDENTIALS AND MILEAGE ROLLOVER COMING. If you recently qualified for Medallion status for 2010, your shiny new credentials should be in your mailbox soon. Also, if you qualified for Medallion last year, but continued to earn MQM miles, those extra miles should have “rolled-over” into your account this month, giving you a nice head start of getting Medallion again next year. Other changes that come as part of the 2010 Medallion program go into effect on March 1.

SKYMILES MARKETPLACE. Tired of trying to unload miles for flights? Delta would like you to try to unload miles for other things, like hotel and car rental bookings, electronics, clothing and luggage at its new SkyMiles Marketplace. As usual with these merchandise-for-miles schemes, the prices seem very high compared to street prices, or when compared to the enormous value of a free round trip. For example, a Flip MinoHD Video camera is featured on the opening page of the marketplace for 38,200 miles. A frequent flyer mile is generally thought to be worth about 1.5 cents, so you’d be paying the equivalent of $573 for a camera that costs about $200 at Best Buy. A first class round trip award to Hawaii starts at 37,500 miles, and this $200 camera is going for MORE than that? I dunno…I think I’d stick with redeeming miles for award flights. It’s a value that can’t be beat (at least when you can find the award seats you want…) What do you think? Is the Marketplace worth it for you?? Leave your comments below.

BEST WESTERN MATCHING ELITE STATUS. Everyone knows about how airlines will match elite level status to poach frequent travelers from competitors. Now hotels are getting into the act as well. Just this week, Best Western announced that it would give elite status in the Best Western Rewards program to anyone who sends them their elite level credentials from another chain. Elite membership in the BW program offers members room upgrades, early/late check in/out, and earning bonuses. Details here: www.bestwesternstatusmatch.com (Disclosure: I write a blog for Best Western’s youmustbetrippin.com site.)

Wanna here what I’m saying on Twitter? Follow me! http://twitter.com/cjmcginnis

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Brand New Hotels of Note: NYC, Chicago, LA

Even though the hotel biz is having a tough time, new properties are still opening, so here are four hip brand-spenkin’ new hostelries that TICKET readers should know about:

NEW YORK: I had an outstanding stay earlier this winter at the brand new Hotel Indigo on W. 28th St near the Fashion Institute of Technology. The hotel is located in Chelsea on a block full of commercial florists which makes for a beautiful walk to or from the hotel. While the hotel is out of the bustle of midtown, there’s a subway stop a block from the hotel on 7th Ave where trains can get you up or downtown in a flash. What do I really like about this hotel? It’s brand new from the ground up—something you don’t see a lot of in NYC.  There’s free wi-fi. Only downside: Rooms on lower floors have poor views. Lowest rates in late March range from $175 to $200.

CHICAGO: We’ve not actually visited the brand new, ultra-glam Elysian hotel, but we’ve been hearing about it from TICKET readers and colleagues at Leading Hotels of the World. It’s all-new from the ground up which is nice in a town with a lot of old hotel stock.  While it’s new and has all the latest techie bells and whistles (flat screen TVs, free wi-fi, built in stereo speakers) it’s got old world touches like a cobblestone driveway, marble bathrooms, fireplaces, outdoor terraces and windows that open. In late March, rooms range from $300 to $600, putting it in competition with the likes of the Peninsula and Four Seasons. If nothing else, you must see it’s gorgeous  website. (PS: When in Chicago last week, my frequent-traveling mother Julia checked out the Elysian and gives it a big thumbs up.)

photo: Erik Oginski


LOS ANGELES PT 1: The brand new glitzy and glamorous W Hollywood Hotel opened last month in a new mixed use development in the heart of Tinseltown at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Guests are given star-studded treatment in true Hollywood fashion as they walk the plush “red carpet” to check in. As usual at any W Hotel, there’ll be a party in the lobby— here’s what an opening press release says: “Guests, residents and LA insiders can sip and socialize on the adjoining outdoor terrace and ground-floor lounge, featuring black tufted leather sofas, lounge chairs and a decadent backlit lobby bar crafted of glowing Onice Fantastico onyx.” Rates in late March start at about $220.

LOS ANGELES PT 2: The JW Marriott Hotel Los Angeles at L.A. LIVE officially opened Feb 17.  The long-awaited hotel is a cornerstone of the $2.5 billion L.A. LIVE sports, residential and entertainment district, located in downtown Los Angeles, across the street from the LA Convention Center and Staples Center. (Photo below) The 878-room property, which plans to be LEED-certified, shares space with the much smaller 123-room Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles (with a 4000 sq foot spa) in a unique 54-story tower. This is one of several new developments in the once-blighted downtown area that should help it shed some of its grittiness. Rates in late March at the J.W. start at $229. At the Ritz (opening next month), lowest rates are closer to $350.

photo: Marriott International

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Free Wi-Fi at Hotels Increasingly Common

Seems that the hotel industry is FINALLY hearing what business travelers have been screaming about for the last, oh, five years or so. They are getting around to making free Wi-Fi standard, instead of a pricey add-on, even at full-service brands that seem to be hold outs.

You’ll still get it free and easy at moderate brands like Best Western, Marriott Courtyard, Hampton or Holiday Inn. Mod new brands like Hyatt’s Andaz, InterConti’s Indigo and Starwood’s Aloft or Element offer it free.

But to get it from the posher players, there are hoops: for example, at Fairmont, Omni or Kimpton, you must first sign up for their (free) loyalty programs. Also, some larger companies with buying clout and good travel managers get free Wi-Fi as part of a negotiated rate with the hotel.

WARNING: This seems to be an almost exclusively American phenomenon as hotels, especially in big European capitals, continue their rapacious ways—charging $20-$40 per day for Wi-Fi.

What’s the most you’ve ever paid for Wi-Fi? Where did you pay it? Leave your comments below.

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Virtually Marriott

In an interesting move, Marriott has installed hi-def, hi-priced Cisco Telepresence Suites at two hotels in Bethesda, MD and New York City. (Your TICKET editor conducted an interview with a Cisco exec via Telepresence last year, and I must admit, it really did feel like we were in the same room—except for the eye contact, which was a little off-kilter. But still…)

Marriott is not stopping with two hotels. You’ll soon find Telepresence at Grosvenor House (London), a JW Marriott Hotel; JW Marriott Hong Kong; Renaissance Sao Paulo; JW Marriott San Francisco, JW Marriott Marquis Miami; Renaissance Washington, DC; Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway; and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Marriott with more to follow.

It’s ironic that a big travel industry player would jump on the virtual meetings bandwagon, but Marriott sees this as a new revenue stream, and we think they are on to something.

It sorta works like this: A small group of U.S. based businesspeople would travel to say, New York, and have a meeting via Telepresence with a group of colleagues in say, Hong Kong. The business people on both ends would save money, time and jetlag by not having to fly overseas. Marriott would still make money by housing execs traveling into New York and Hong Kong in addition to its percentage of the fees charged for usage of the suite. Everybody wins.

More info here.

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