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greenwich village apartment buildingsAirbnb, the social website that connects travelers with locals who are willing to rent out living spaces on a short-term basis, scored a big victory in New York last week. The back story: Nigel Warren, a New York-based Airbnb host who had rented out his bedroom while he himself was traveling, was fined $2,400 for violating local laws that make it illegal to rent out a home for less than 30 days.

This matter potentially had massive ramifications, not just for Airbnb but also for travelers, who have flocked to the site to find value-priced lodgings with a local feel and ambience, rather than high-priced hotels. Airbnb hosts rent out apartments, houses and spare rooms.

In support for Warren and other hosts in New York, Airbnb worked with Warren to appeal the fine. A clarification by the New York City Environmental Control Board was handed down last week. The ruling articulated that hosts can rent out rooms as long as a permanent occupant of the home is in residence (in Warren’s case, his roommate, who was also on the lease, was present).

“In the appeal, we and Nigel argued — and the appeal board now agrees — that under New York law as long as a permanent occupant is present during a stay, the stay does not violate New York’s short term rental laws,” wrote David Hantman, Airbnb’s Head of Global Public Policy, on the company’s blog.

Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals

The bottom line for New Yorkers: It’s still okay to rent out a spare room if you’re present at the time, and it’s still illegal to rent out an apartment that you don’t live in. But the news is that as long as some permanent occupant is there, even if you as the host are not, your rental is legal.

The battle’s not fully over yet in New York, as this new development does not protect those who rent out empty apartments. (There are currently more than 1,000 such listings on Airbnb.com.) Still, it’s a start — and Warren gets his fine refunded.

All eyes now turn to a similar battle now playing out in the Los Angeles community of Silver Lake. Stay tuned.

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

room serviceTwo recent announcements from the hotel and airline industries may signal new travel trends — neither of which is particularly a good sign for consumers.

In a move reminiscent of when airlines began cutting services, a handful of hotel companies have said they will be reducing or dropping room service. According to Fox News, the New York Hilton Midtown revealed it will be getting rid of room service, replacing it with a cafeteria-style eatery. The hotel blamed a decline in demand, but will undoubtedly be saving money with the move. Another New York City hotel following suit is the Grand Hyatt 42nd Street, which reduced room service hours. Outside of New York, the Hilton Hawaiian Village eliminated room service as well.

While I’m not a frequent room service customer, I do appreciate the option … especially if I have arrived at my destination late, feel grungy and am too tired to trudge out to the hotel’s restaurant.

Hidden Hotel Fees

And it’s not like it’s a free service the hotels are eliminating. Room service is notorious for being expensive, so if customers are willing to pay, I don’t really understand why hotels can’t always have it as an option.

Fortunately, not all hotels are jumping onto the bandwagon. A Marriott International, Inc., spokeswoman told Reuters the company has no plans to eliminate room service.

Going in the other direction (at least on the face of it), United Airlines is trying to make it easier for passengers to take advantage of all the “extra” services the line offers, like additional legroom and checked bags. The airline has launched two subscription services that enable fliers to pay one fee to get access to some of the services it normally charges extra for. For instance, from $349 a year you can get “free” checked bags on every flight you take. Or, from $499 a year, you can guarantee yourself an Economy Plus seat. For either subscription, you must select the region you’ll be flying in; the more destinations you want to include, the higher the price.

The subscription service is supposed to save passengers money in the long run. But you have to fly at least 14 times (or seven round trips) in order to start saving on checked bags, assuming you’re only checking one bag in North America.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The exact number of flights you need to start saving on Economy Plus seats is much more vague, as the pricing of those seats varies by travel distance and when you purchase them.

So unless you’re a very frequent flier within the United States and Canada who wants to check just one bag, you’re probably not going to save a dime by taking out a subscription. Instead, United will just make more money off of you.

It seems to me that’s exactly what both of these companies are trying to do: make more money and reduce expenses by eliminating traditional customer services or continually charging more for them.

And that’s an overall trend I’m not a fan of.

– written by Dori Saltzman

airport securityFollowing an outpouring of opposition from flight attendants and government officials, the Transportation Security Administration recently decided to scrap its plan to allow passengers to carry small knives (of 2.36 inches or less) once again on planes — a practice that’s been prohibited since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It got us thinking: while some travel-related policies are meant to keep us safe — like the in-cabin knife ban that has been upheld — there are others that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever for consumers. Below, we examine four of them.

Currency Conversion Charges
If you’ve ever used your credit card abroad and been hit with fees for currency conversion, you’re not alone. In some cases, the fees are a percentage of the amount charged — which can add up to a heck of a lot if you’re paying for something expensive like a hotel room. Does it really cost anything for card companies to convert the charges, or is it just one more way for them to make money?

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Airport Security Shoe Removal
If I’m wearing tall, cavernous boots that could hide a bomb or stilettos so high they might double as weaponry, I understand this rule; if I’m wearing flip-flops, I don’t. But wait! The TSA is making exceptions of late. If you’re really young or really old, you can leave your shoes on. As we all know, terrorists are only between the ages of 13 and 74.

Nontransferable Tickets
It’s a concept that’s so rigid it serves only to sell more seats on planes. Life happens, and, sure, airlines can accommodate changes … for the right price, of course. Spelled your name wrong during the booking process? Perhaps you’ll get a sympathetic ear on the phone, and you’ll be allowed to change it without too much of a hassle. Or maybe you’ll be forced to pay a change fee or, worse yet, rebook completely. But forget about simply switching the name on your companion ticket if your flaky friend decides she can’t accompany you on that expensive vacation after all.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Mandatory Extra Fees
Raise your hand if you’ve booked a hotel or a rental car for one price and been slapped with “mandatory extras” after the fact. I recently took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where the driving conditions are so perilous that I was forced to pay for insurance on my rental car, even though my insurance provider back in the U.S. had me covered. And let’s not forget about the time I went to Las Vegas with friends, only to be pummeled with a “resort fee” because — gasp! — our hotel had a pool (which, to be honest, is a standard amenity at any hotel worth its salt). Let’s get it straight: if something is “mandatory,” it’s not an “extra” — it’s part of the price.

Which travel policies do you think are silly, unfair or outdated? Post them in the comments.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

hotel front deskWhen booking a special offer at a hotel, perhaps you’re looking for added value — an extra night, free breakfast or a bonus amenity. Maybe it’s a special occasion warranting rose petals and restaurant reservations, and you splurge for the upgrade. But maybe the offer has very little to do with value, convenience or even relevance to your life. If you happen to be a recent divorcé named David with a book fetish, these packages just might be for you … or someone … somewhere (we’re not too sure).

Are You Named David? You Win!
Forget about the fine print — this deal is pretty straightforward. Anyone whose name does not begin with a “D” and end in “avid” need not apply. At the Hotel David in Florence (it’s all starting to make sense), you can save five percent on your stay if you share your namesake with the hotel. The promotion code at booking is — you guessed it — DAVID. The hotel claims to verify ID at check-in, so no David doubling!

“You Want What?” Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests

Because All You Need to Be Taken Seriously Is a Blow Dryer
At Swissotel Lima, a pretty specific package is offered entitled Traveling Business Woman Room. In a time of tech-dependent, travel-savvy CEO’s and businesswomen, you might be justified in assuming that special amenities for this package would include high-speed Internet access, availability of conferencing equipment, maybe even a dry-cleaning service. But who needs high-falutin’ technology when you have hair? According to the description of package inclusions, all a modern-age woman needs to succeed is soft pillows, “exclusive” bathroom amenities and a blowout. Ace that next big meeting with softness and style!

Just Finished Paying Off Your Divorce Lawyer? Celebrate with a Vacation!
Wedged somewhere between Romantic Experience and Honeymoon Package, you can find a gem of a getaway called Divorced: Renewal and Freedom at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, an all-inclusive Puerto Vallarta resort in Mexico. Their prescription for the death of a marriage includes a blend of sun, sand, spa treatments and plenty of cocktails. Whether you left him, she left you or you mutually needed a solo trip south of the border, self-renewing rituals and a night on the town are on the menu.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

Who Knew Naughty Librarians Were So … Naughty?
When you spend an intimate stay at the Library Hotel in New York City, there’s no need to cast literary aspirations aside with your clothes. The hotel’s special offers currently feature a tame Alice in Wonderland package with afternoon tea, a jazzier Great Gatsby package including a night of roaring 20’s, and a package based on a very widely read ancient text: the Kama Sutra. Book the Erotica package and along with your guide to love you will receive an adults-only kit including body dust, massage oil, bubble bath and a feather tickler. Happy reading!

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

bottled waterIn a world where being a green hotel often translates into simply asking guests to reuse towels, a new initiative by several hotel brands to eliminate bottled water has gotten our attention.

According to SustainableBusiness.com, a group of hotels and resorts including Virgin, Ritz-Carlton and Banyan Tree plan to reduce their use of plastic water bottles by filtering, bottling (in reusable glass bottles) and selling their own water.

One of the cool things about the project is not only that it will reduce the number of plastic bottles used by the hospitality companies, but also that a portion of the proceeds from the water sales will go to the nonprofit Whole World Water, whose main purpose is to bring clean drinking water to populations that don’t have it.

Virgin expects to eliminate more than 200,000 plastic bottles a year from its Necker Island Resort, Virgin founder Richard Branson wrote on his blog.

“With Whole World Water, we plan to stop use of almost all plastic bottles on Necker,” he wrote. “We’re aiming to reduce the amount of plastic at our other Virgin Limited Edition properties and our new Virgin Hotels.”

Green Travel Tips

The initiative is modeled on a system used by Soneva Resorts at its Maldives and Thailand properties since 2008. The resort’s founder, Sonu Shivdasani, also is a founding member of Whole World Water. The program has improved clean water access for more than 600,000 people, Shivdasani claims.

What we find particularly impressive is that so many competing companies are working together. For instance, Soneva Resorts is actually providing the seed money to get the project going. But it’s not a free ride for any of the companies; each has to pay $1,000 annually per participating property, plus install a water filtration and bottling system at each property.

Participating brands so far include Virgin Limited Edition, Virgin Hotels, Banyan Tree, Auberge du Soleil, Tao Restaurant Group, The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte, The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, JetWing Hotels, Dusit Hotels and Resorts, and The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu.

The initiative officially kicks off on March 22, World Water Day.

Top 10 Ecolodges and Green Hotels

What do you think of the initiative? Would you choose a hotel specifically because it’s participating? How would you feel about buying water filtered and bottled on-site?

– written by Dori Saltzman

cabinTripAdvisor announced the winners of its Travelers’ Choice awards for the best U.S. hotels today. Ten hotels in six categories received “top” honors, including top overall, top hotels for service, top small hotels and top bargains. As I was reading through the list, I was struck by two things. First, I haven’t been to a single one of the 60 hotels mentioned (maybe I need to get out more often) and second, when I tried to think of places I would add to the list, I could only think of two properties, neither of which I’d really describe as a hotel.

Now, I’ve been to plenty of hotels (small and large), and I’ve enjoyed myself at quite a few of them, but none that I would actually call a “hotel” stands out enough in my memory that I would consider putting them on any list of top hotels.

In my mind hotels are fairly institutional. They might be gorgeously landscaped or situated in the perfect place, but they’re all similarly laid out and have a similar feel.

Big-City B&B’s

Sure, bits and pieces stand out. The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa in California had the best-smelling skin lotion I’ve ever come across. And the Virginia Hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, had just the most comfortable porch for sipping drinks on a warm evening. But beyond that … eh, they were hotels.

The Soniat House in New Orleans is probably the nearest thing to a “hotel” that I’d put on a top list. Of course, the small 30-room guesthouse is more like a B&B or inn than a traditional hotel. Comprising three converted townhouses with flower-draped balconies, Soniat House exudes an unparalleled yesteryear atmosphere.

But my favorite U.S. place to stay is as un-hotel-like as a property can get. Called Wellspring, it’s a small, off-the-beaten-path collection of about 17 cottages, cabins and permanent tents located just outside Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. With names like the Three Bears’ Cottage, the Treehouse and Timbuktu, each cottage, cabin and tent is completely different. But all are cozy, calming and completely unforgettable.

Not Just for Backpackers: 9 Amazing Upscale Hostels

What about you? What have been your favorite “hotels”?

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

– written by Dori Saltzman

woman pillowsFrom advanced technology that alerts guests making a racket in the hallways to keep it down, to human monitors knocking on doors when the snoring gets too loud, two hotel chains in the U.K. are cracking down on noise.

Premier Inn is installing “ssshhh-o-meters” in 620 hotel locations, the Daily Mail reports, that will be triggered when a certain noise decibel level is exceeded. When triggered, the meters, installed in hotel corridors, will flash as a reminder to guests to lower their voices.

When the Hotel Guest Next Door Won’t Shut Up

Last year, Crowne Plaza began trialing a more low-tech way of ensuring guests have a quiet stay. According to Reuters, the chain launched “snore patrols” in six hotel locations in England, whose sole purpose is to wake up noisy sleepers in designated quiet zones.

According to the Reuters article, the job of the snore patrols is to listen for “offensive noises,” then knock on the door of offending guests. If a guest repeatedly snores too loudly, the hotel may ask him or her to move to a room outside of the quiet zone.

33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

The patrols can be found in hotels in London, Leeds and Manchester.

What do you think of the two systems? Do you think flashing hall lights will keep late night revelers quiet? And should snore patrols be picking on people who probably can’t help how loud they snore?

– written by Dori Saltzman

jetblue food truck new york cityOn top of decimating houses and deluging city streets, Hurricane Sandy temporarily upended what we travelers take for granted: the ability to hop in a car or plane and go. But while that “right” has been more or less restored for most, many New York and New Jersey residents are still reeling (yesterday’s nor’easter didn’t help matters). Thankfully, along with an outpouring of aid from individuals and the expected charitable heavyweights, a number of popular travel brands have jumped in to help, some leveraging their leisure offerings in creative ways.

Last week, non-legacy favorite JetBlue partnered with NYC food trucks to offer free meals and snacks to hard hit residents of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Hoboken. The airline says thousands of locals were offered bites from mobile purveyors of grilled cheese, pizza, Lebanese specialties and cupcakes. JetBlue is also matching all donations to the Red Cross up to $100,000, and touting frequent flier miles as a bonus incentive. Those who give can earn six TrueBlue points for every $1 they donate by November 30.

Sandy Response: Which Travel Companies Stood Out?

Hip “for rent by owner” site Airbnb has partnered with the city of New York in an effort to offer free housing for residents displaced by Sandy. Several hundred local hosts have offered up their couches and spare rooms. Airbnb uses a mutual verification process — owner and potential renter must meet virtually and the owner always has final approval. (Renters and rent-ees can be both be “reviewed” and Airbnb cautions never to rent unless you’re completely confident in the occupant.) Though no money is changing hands, hosts are still covered by Airbnb’s guarantee. For those who can afford to shell out a bit for their temporary digs, there’s also a list of “discounted for Sandy” spots.

Toilet Paper Tussle at the Airbnb: How I Survived a Homestay

American Airlines is using its Web space and social platforms to promote the efforts of the American Red Cross — and throwing in some bonus frequent flier miles for good measure. Through November 30, 2012, AAdvantage members can earn a one-time award of 250 AAdvantage bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more to the American Red Cross.

Have a favorite travel brand you think deserves kudos? Share it in the comments.

– written by Dan Askin

what people have forgotten at hotelsEver forgotten you were traveling with your mother and left her behind at the hotel after you checked out? How about your spouse? While you may have wanted to leave him or her behind, a poll by LastMinute.com of 500 hotels around the world found that these scenarios actually have happened.

In Prague a man left his wife behind – the hotel didn’t say if it was accidental or planned! And a hotel in Ireland reported a traveler forgot that his mother was with him and left without her.

Perhaps even odder are items left behind that someone probably shouldn’t have been traveling with in the first place. For instance, a man left behind snails in a Budapest hotel room. Maybe he was planning on asking the chef to cook him some escargot? Another guest, in a U.S. hotel, left behind $10,000 in cash.

Snails aren’t the only animal guests have left behind. A hotel in Washington discovered a customer had forgotten his snake, while a dog was left behind by its owner in a Milan hotel.

“You Want What?”: Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests

Another big “oops”: a police officer forgot his gun and badge in Las Vegas. I guess what goes to Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Of course, more commonly left behind are cell phone, camera and laptop chargers. Passports are another oft-forgotten item.

Reading about what other people have forgotten in their hotel rooms got me to thinking, what kinds of stuff have I left behind?

I’ve been pretty lucky. The worst thing I’ve forgotten was a favorite pair of black evening pants (which I still miss very much, by the way). But I remember a time, back when I was a kid, when my family discovered on the drive home from New England that my sister had left behind her beloved stuffed duck, Engineer. I don’t know how far from the hotel we had gotten, but we turned right around to go back and get him.

Finding Hotel Rooms: No Vacancy? No Problem

Overall, the writers here at IndependentTraveler.com are pretty good about remembering to check their hotel rooms before leaving. But a few of us learned this the hard way.

Adam Coulter, the senior editor at the U.K. office of our sister site CruiseCritic.com, recently left behind his iPod speakers, an electric toothbrush charger, a hooded sweater, several T-shirts and his swimsuit at a hotel in New Jersey.

Another CruiseCritic.co.uk staffer, Jamey Bergman, and his wife left their laptop behind in a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Luckily all turned out well as the hotel FedExed the computer to their final destination free of charge (though they still argue over whose fault it was).

What have you left behind in a hotel room?

– written by Dori Saltzman

Hotel InternetDo extra fees really impact a hotel guest’s stay? A new J.D. Power and Associates survey indicates that unwelcome fees may be more than just a small annoyance. In fact, extra fees, like bad customer service, put hotel guests in a negative frame of mind — never a good thing when it comes to measuring satisfaction.

According to the North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index study, the average guest satisfaction is at 757 (out of a possible high of 1,000). But guests who indicated they had received free Internet were more satisfied (775) than those who were charged for Internet (743).

It seems that for many guests, what they paid (or didn’t pay) for Wi-Fi may have colored their entire hotel stay.

So, if Internet was free, their overall hotel experience was better, almost as if free Internet came with rose-colored glasses — what a pretty carpet, isn’t that receptionist nice, what cute little shampoo bottles.

But for those forced to pay for their Internet usage, the hotel was simply a disappointment — the carpets seem faded, the receptionists aren’t helpful and they’d much rather have free Wi-Fi than stupid little shampoo bottles.

Okay, specific questions about the carpets, receptionists and shampoo bottles weren’t in the survey, but you know what I mean.

I hate paying for Internet at a hotel, especially if I’m being charged per hour or more than $20 for a day. It just puts me in a bad mood, and yeah, maybe I do suddenly “realize” that what I first thought of as a pretty aqua blue carpet is actually faded royal blue that hasn’t been replaced in years. And the woman at the hotel’s front desk who I thought was working hard to help another guest was actually simply ignoring me.

But at hotels where the Internet is free, I’m much more relaxed, happily surprised and willing to give the hotel more leeway. So what if I never use the hotel’s shampoo samples? How nice that the hotel isn’t stingy and offers that amenity, in addition (of course) to the free Internet.

It’s really just a matter of the hotel setting up my mood. Give me something I want (and quite frankly need) for free, and I’m happy. Make me pay for it, and you get a grumpy puss who’s looking for something to complain about.

It’s really not a new concept. That’s why customer service has always been important. Good customer service makes for happy customers, who see the rest of their experience through a positive lens. Bad customer service…

Let’s go back to the J.D. Power survey for a moment. Guests with a high opinion of a hotel’s staff have an overall satisfaction index of 841, while those with an average or low opinion of staff have overall satisfaction indexes of 673 and 570 respectively. That’s a pretty big difference, if you ask me.

So if good customer service is giving guests what they want, and the hotel amenity travelers want most is free Wi-Fi, we can’t help but wonder: Why do any hotels still insist on charging for the Internet?

Tips for Better Wi-Fi on the Road

Hidden Hotel Fees

Choosing a Hotel

– written by Dori Saltzman