On 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
Ever 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
Do 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
The 2012 Summer Olympic Games are in full swing in London, and as is often the case during major events, prices for accommodations were sold at large premiums in the months leading up to the Games. But many hotels have seen less demand than they expected, prompting some to “discount” their inflated rates at the last minute in order to fill still-empty rooms.
According to the Press Association, some booking engines reported prices inflated as much as 300 percent over the past two months, but say rates have since fallen back to levels that are closer to the norm.
Over-inflated prices aren’t uncommon when major events come to town, such as Mardi Gras New Orleans or Venice‘s Carnevale, but when demand is lower than expected, prices do sometimes fall — leaving visitors who booked early feeling ripped off. So what’s a budget traveler to do to protect against price gouging when inflation is an issue?
1. Use sites like Tingo.com, which will credit your card accordingly if the price of your booked hotel room drops. (See Want a Hotel Refund? Yes. Please. to learn more about Tingo.)
2. Look into refundable rates, check cancellation policies and consider purchasing appropriate travel insurance in case you have buyer’s remorse after booking an expensive room. Whether you find a cheaper room elsewhere or just flat-out decide to forgo the entire trip, you’ll be more likely to get your money back.
3. Ditch the hotel. If hotels are out of your price range during certain special events, consider staying at a hostel, a bed and breakfast or someone’s home (also known as couch surfing). Vacation rentals are also another option, which can be less expensive and offer more homey comforts.
Have you ever overpaid for a hotel during a major world event? Leave your comments below.
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Tingo.com.
My brother — a total tech geek — recently posted a picture on Facebook of his hotel bedside table during a trip. It was cluttered with gadgets recharging via the power strip he packed. My other brother countered with a bedside shot of his own, a bottle of wine and a new wine opener that he obviously hadn’t yet mastered, as the cork was bobbing in the half-empty bottle. I was appalled — by the technophile brother’s pic, not the oenophile brother’s pic — until I realized I often travel with just about as many gadgets. My electronics and their accoutrements seem to swallow more than their fair share of my carry-on’s real estate.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if my hotel provided me with a recharging station, so I could at least leave power cords at home? Aloft properties, such as the one in Brooklyn, have a plug and play connectivity station that charges all your electronics in addition to linking to a 42-inch LCD TV. And according to CNN.com, the Ecclestone Square Hotel in central London features in-wall docking and charging points for your electronic devices.
The Opus Vancouver hotel goes one better: It provides guests with the use of an iPhone, as reported by USA Today. This is especially cool if you’d otherwise have to pay for international roaming fees on your own phone. Plus, the important numbers for the hotel (concierge or housekeeping) are already programmed in. And they wipe the iPhone clean when you check out to protect your privacy and security. The Opus also offers an iPad 2 in every room, loaded with an iPad virtual concierge.
The Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo lends iPods to guests. The devices at the Peninsula can guide guests on walking tours of the Imperial Gardens and other city sites.
You could also use these loaner devices to take photos and upload them to social media sites where your sibling will try to one-up you.
Would you prefer to use electronics supplied by your hotel, or would you never leave home without your own gear?
— written by Jodi Thompson
Imagine a booking site that anticipates your hotel preferences based solely on the type of computer you use. If this seems a bit absurd, you may want to take it up with Orbitz, which has begun using data-monitoring technology to direct Mac users to slightly more upscale (and expensive) hotels than those highlighted for PC users.
First reported by the Wall Street Journal, this practice is possible because retail sites can track whether visitors are coming in via Windows or other operating systems. They can even tell which sorts of devices — computer, iPad, Android, etc. — visitors are using.
According to the WSJ article, Orbitz’s analytics team has determined that Mac users spend an average of about 30 percent more per night than PC users on hotels booked through the site. So, although all Orbitz visitors have access to the same hotels at identical prices, Mac users are initially directed to view more expensive options.
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
My first thought was that it’s sort of like saying I’m more likely to prefer polka-dotted elephants to striped turtles because I drive a Volkswagen — the two are unrelated. On the other hand, there are statistics (including higher household income among Mac users) to back up the correlation.
All of this data tracking makes me wonder just how far the travel industry (or any industry, for that matter) will go in an effort to personalize content. I’m envisioning sites that direct iPad users to hotels that have iPod docking stations, and Windows XP (circa 2001) users being sent to deals for inexpensive chain hotels.
The Airport Security Checkpoint of the Future?
So, what do you think? Is this type of info-gathering a little too “Big Brother,” or do you think it’s just smart marketing? Share your thoughts below.
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
Four new Web sites claim to either save users bundles of money on hotels or match them to the right property based on a variety of personal parameters. IndependentTraveler.com fiddled around with the sites to see which ones are worth your time and which you shouldn’t bother with.
Show Me the Money
Less than a year old, BackBid.com gets hotels to bid on your business.
You start by already having a hotel reservation in a city. You enter your hotel reservation with dates of travel and competing hotels send you bids in an attempt to lure you away. Bids can be in the form of money-saving discounts or value-added services, like upgraded rooms, free breakfasts or parking fee waivers. If you like a bid, you can claim it; if you don’t, just keep your original reservation. Keep in mind, if you take a bidder up on their offer you’ll need to cancel your original reservation – beware of cancellation penalties!
Travelers without hotel reservations simply enter their travel plans to get bids from hotels in their city of choice.
BackBid claims to provide competitor rates that cover all U.S. cities, and plans to expand into other countries eventually.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: BackBid looks promising but we haven’t yet received a bid from a hotel. If bids are few and far between, the site won’t be around for too long. However, it costs only a few minutes of your time to give it a try. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get an offer you can’t refuse!
Want a Hotel Refund? Check This Web Site
Guestmob.com is another relatively new travel booking site, which claims to use algorithms to find deals up to 50 percent off Internet prices – what it calls the “magic price.” The catch: You don’t know which hotel you’re staying at until one to six days prior to check-in.
It’s not as dangerous as you might think since when you do a hotel search, the site returns one or more hotel collections composed of four to eight hotels, all of the same star ranking (as determined by Guestmob). If you decide to book a magic rate, you are guaranteed a stay in one of the hotels within the collection you chose. Additionally, if you find out what hotel you’re staying at and you don’t like it, you can cancel any reservation up to three days before your stay and get a full refund. Of course, if you don’t get your hotel notification before that three-day time period, you’re out of luck on the refund.
A quick search for Seattle for Aug. 9 to 18 returned two collections – one 3.5-star and one 4-star. The magic price for the 3.5-star collection was $160, while the magic price for the 4-star collection was $174. A comparison search on Hotwire for the four hotels in the 3.5-star collection came up with prices $17 to $85 higher.
The site currently only offers hotels in 20 U.S. cities.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: Because you’re not selecting a hotel completely blind, we see no reason not to give Guestmob a chance. The site does claim it offers deeper discounts to people who sign in via Facebook – thus sharing their travel plans with their Facebook friends. However, we didn’t test this, choosing to register via e-mail instead.
Get the Best Hotel Rate
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match
Still in its infancy, CasaHop.com is a social networking platform designed to aid people in finding homeswaps. Unlike other home exchange networks, CasaHop works through Facebook. So for the most part you’re networking with friends, family and friends of friends/family. The more public you’re willing to make your CasaHop profile, the broader the network you can exchange with.
Right now all you can do on the site is sign up via Facebook and enter information about your house, your neighborhood and your own vacation interests. The database and interactive community functions are scheduled to go live over the next few weeks.
In theory, by networking through Facebook, you’re avoiding swaps with “total” strangers. However, for those who are hesitant about sharing personal information on Facebook, CasaHop may not be right for you. In order for the site to work effectively you do need to enter a significant amount of personal information about your home and community, including photos.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: We’re leery of entering too much personal information, but for those who don’t mind, we say go for it.
A second match-making site, seriously in a beta testing phase, is simplehoney.com. This site claims to match users to accommodations based on their travel personality, assessed through a couple of short quizzes. But the site has so few hotels in its database that the matches seem a bit of a stretch right now.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: The jury’s out. According to the hotel matching page, they currently offer only hotel matches in California and Hawaii. But at the bottom of every search we’ve done, hotels in Vancouver and Nicaragua appear, which makes us think they’re throwing advertisers into the results. Another bad sign — while free at the moment, it says there will eventually be a one-time membership fee of $100. But for what? The two personality tests do offer a moment’s diversion, but for now we don’t think the site is worth your time.
What Not to Do at Your Hotel
— written by Dori Saltzman
Think you’re a picky hotel guest? “Hotel Impossible” host Anthony Melchiorri will give you a run for your money.
The new show, which airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET on the Travel Channel, follows roughly the same formula as popular restaurant renovation shows like Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” on FOX and Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible”: likable host swoops into failing establishment and uncovers all of the challenges holding it back from success — then attempts to turn it all around during a one-hour episode with a blend of tough love and humor.
Indeed, the recent episode we caught, featuring the Hotel Corpus Christi Bayfront in Corpus Christi, Texas, offered its fair share of laughs. After arriving at the hotel to find an unmanned check-in desk, Melchiorri took matters into his own hands — namely, a tree in the atrium that, when shaken, showered dust onto an already grungy carpet (“the only thing staying at this hotel is dirt!”). Other unpleasant discoveries were just around the corner during Melchiorri’s full inspection, including a head-scratching toilet paper shortage, dead roaches, a pigeon corpse by the rooftop pool and thousands of uninvited guests of the bacterial kind.
How to Find a Clean Hotel Room
Melchiorri also provided guidance to the hotel staff (after he finally found them), from the overwhelmed owner to a haphazard housekeeper who did such a poor job cleaning a toilet that Melchiorri asked her where he was expected to put his butt. All good stuff — but when Don Jones, the gentleman in charge of hotel marketing, announced his job title to be Intergalactic Ninja Sultan of Revenue Development, we knew for sure we’d be back for more episodes. You can catch some of the highlights from this one here.
Amid the comedy and gross-outs, interesting facts about the hotel industry do emerge. Did you know, for example, that hotels that offer room service generally charge more per night, and that by adding room service a property can expect to increase overall revenue by 10 percent? We also learned that a typical hotel allows 30 minutes per room for housecleaning; that’s a lot of manpower for a 199-room hotel.
Curious about how the hotel is faring post-intervention, we surfed over to TripAdvisor. Alas, the property’s reviews are still mixed, with a submission from just this week citing fruit flies and stains. But there’s a bright spot: Mr. Jones no longer appears to be identifying himself as a Ninja Sultan in his responses to guests.
5 Things You Should Never Do at a Hotel
— written by Melissa Paloti
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.
Earlier this week, IndependentTraveler.com’s own Ed Hewitt highlighted the myriad benefits of membership in a hotel rewards program, such as free stays, room upgrades and other perks. (See Seven Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program to get the scoop.) But for many independent travelers, there’s one major drawback: Who wants to stay in bland chain hotels all the time?
If you’re the type of globetrotter who seeks out cozy B&B’s, stylish boutique hotels or unique local properties, you don’t have to forgo hotel rewards programs. We’ve unearthed three intriguing loyalty programs that go beyond the usual Starwoods and Hyatts.
TabletHotels.com is a portal for boutique and luxury hotels around the world, many of them independently owned. The site’s loyalty program, Tablet Plus, offers complimentary upgrades, advance access to private sales, and fun extras like free cocktails and cooking classes at hundreds of participating hotels. Membership costs $195 a year.
Do You Prefer Chains or Independent Hotels?
An alliance of nearly 400 inns and B&B’s across North America, SelectRegistry.com offers a rewards program, called Golden Quill, that’s refreshingly simple: stay 12 nights, and get a reward certificate of $100 to be used toward your next stay at any Select Registry property. There’s no cost for the program, but you’ll need to accumulate your 12 nights within a two-year period to qualify for the $100 reward.
We’re cheating a little by including the Global Hotel Alliance in this list, since it’s a network of small luxury hotel chains (including Anantara, Omni and Pan Pacific) — but its rewards program is unlike most others in the world. The GHA Discovery program offers not free stays but unique local experiences, such as surfing lessons, spa treatments, after-hours access to museums or meet-and-greet sessions with local public figures. The more nights you stay, the more exclusive the experiences available to you. Membership, which is free, also includes more conventional loyalty perks such as free Wi-Fi, your choice of newspaper and room upgrades.
— written by Sarah Schlichter
How many of you rely on user-generated reviews to help pick a hotel or vacation rental? Virtual show of hands. That’s what we thought. And if a vacation rental owner’s property listing had bathroom pics showing only the porcelain spaces not dripping black mold, you might be inclined to tell the world, ex post tripso.
Not so fast.
According to a recent piece by veteran consumer travel writer Chris Elliott, “non-disparagement” clauses are seeping into vacation rental contracts as owners and management companies attempt to vigorously defend their reputations in a user-generated landscape. One scathing review, real or fake, can gut a small business, they say. Consumers aren’t the only ones who need protection.
Blow off the fine print and you could face a heavy fine, which a couple did recently for posting a negative review of an Arizona vacation rental on VRBO.com. Their rental contract said they needed consent from the owner or the owner’s rep, Progressive Management Concepts, to do so. Their credit card was hit with a punitive $500 fine. (The couple eventually agreed to take down the review and got their $500 back, plus $200 more.)
Finding a Vacation Rental
TJ Mahony, CEO and co-founder of IndependentTraveler.com sister site FlipKey, a vacation rental site, told us he hadn’t heard of this practice yet — but said, “In principle, we would never encourage nor support this.
“The overwhelmingly majority of vacation rental experiences are positive. Moreover, FlipKey and TripAdvisor offer extensive reputation management tools to help homeowners effectively manage their online reputation and address unreasonable claims.”
Mahony said he would personally never sign a contract including such a clause.
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
We agree. While there’s little doubt that fake, or at least disingenuous, reviews are a problem, forced confidentiality is not the solution. Online reviews are not some “vast buzzing, blooming confusion,” as travel icon Arthur Frommer recently told the Wall Street Journal. They’re one of many essential tools — which include, yes, guidebooks — used by the savvy traveler.
So, amid the fine print, there’s may be another question to ask when interviewing a vacation rental owner: Are you okay with consumer reviews?
— written by Dan Askin
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns FlipKey.