Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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4 Travel Industry Changes Sure to Annoy You
November 20, 2014 --Flush with record profits and buoyed by predictions of clear skies ahead, the travel industry isn't content to maximize their financial take of our business travel. Now they insist on annoying the hell out of us, too.
How else can we describe the recent series of moves that the industry has made? The changes, some minor and some not, won't substantially increase the bottom line of any airline, hotel chain or car-rental firm. In fact, the extra cash that the policies will generate seems extraordinarily minimal. Yet each of the changes, individually and collectively, makes our business travel more difficult, more frustrating and substantially more complicated.
"It's textbook insult-to-injury stuff," fumed Richard Kellins, a Memphis-based business traveler who emailed me over the weekend after his preferred hotel chain changed its cancellation policy. "It's beyond annoying."
So return your seats to the full upright position, get out your expense accounts and prepare to be royally perturbed at what's coming next.
Onerous room-cancellation policies
Beginning on Jan. 1, the two largest U.S.-based hotel chains, Marriott and Hilton, will impose a minimum cancellation policy of at least 24 hours. In other words, make a reservation at one of the 8,000 Marriotts or Hiltons around the world and you'll pay a penalty of at least one night's room rate if you don't cancel 24 hours or more before your scheduled arrival.
At the moment, many hotels flying the flags of the dozens of Hilton and Marriott brands allow you to cancel at late as 6 p.m. local time on the day of arrival. Both chains offer many other types of room rates, of course, but the prices that carry no penalty for day-of-arrival cancellation are popular with business travelers because our plans change frequently. (Not to mention that airlines sometime cancel our flights and we can't arrive on the day we originally planned.) Now Hilton and Marriott are joining the much-smaller Hyatt chain in demanding at least 24 hours notice of a cancellation. And, of course, it gets worse: Any hotel in the Hilton or Marriott chain can impose even longer advance-notice rules as they see fit.
The logic behind this shift seems hazy and neither chain is talking about the switch. But the chance it'll make either chain much money is fairly low. On an average night, the American Hotel & Lodging Association says that almost four in 10 rooms go empty anyway. Except for some specific situations — gigantic trade shows or other events that fill up all of a city's hotels or small resorts during their respective high seasons — that means lodging chains aren't losing revenue by allowing business travelers to cancel reservations at the last minute. In fact, travelers who need the flexibility are likely to switch to chains (Starwood and InterContinental, for example) that will still permit them to cancel rooms at the last minute.
Bagging baggage transfers
The nation's airlines have squeezed about as much "ancillary revenue" as they can from charging for checked baggage. Now it seems they simply don't want to carry your bags at all if they can't slap a fee on them.
Starting next year, both American Airlines and United Airlines won't transfer your bag to many other carriers unless you are booked on a single ticket. Delta Air Lines and US Airways already have that policy. That'll mean a double whammy of checked-bag fees for business travelers.
The changes stem from a 2012 Department of Transportation regulation that limits baggage fees to a single charge on a one-way itinerary. So, for example, if you book a trip between two points using both United and American flights and tickets, those two airlines would have to share the revenue from a single baggage fee. But now by refusing to transfer your bags to another airline, you'll be required to collect your bags at an intermediate point and check them again with the second carrier. That'll mean two separate bag fees, neatly dodging the DOT restriction.
The only exception to this new game: bag transfers between carriers in an alliance like Oneworld, Star and SkyTeam. So check your airline's baggage policies carefully to see which carriers they'll play nice with going forward. Or, as I suggested last week, try to live a carry-on-only lifestyle.
We want more than revenue
United and Delta this year adopted revenue-based frequent flier programs and you earn points and elite status based on the amount of dollars you spend with the airline. Next year, both carriers will hike by 20 percent the minimum you must spend to earn elite status. Entry-level elite status will require $3,000 in annual spending (up from $2,500) and higher-tier status will require as much as $12,000 of "qualified" spending.
Fair enough. Airlines have the right to create the terms of their programs as they see fit. But if they now base their programs on revenue instead of miles, why do they continue to demand a minimum number of flights and/or miles flown in addition to the dollar spend? After all, if the revenue you contribute to an airline's bottom line is what counts, why does it matter how many miles or flights you fly?
The fees for paying tolls
Road tolls are a fact of American life even if you're not a business traveler. But car-rental firms have decided they'll charge you their own fee for driving on a toll road in one of their vehicles. And chances are they won't even bother to tell you about the extra fees. You'll only learn about it when a hefty additional charge is tacked on to your bill when you return your car.
As state agencies abandon cash tolls and traditional tollbooths and move to electronic collection measures such as E-Z Pass, car-rental firms are piling on the fees for renting their transponders. Worse, they often charge you for simply having the system even if you don't use it on toll road. There are numerous lawsuits against car-rental firms claiming usurious toll practices and business traveler Will Allen has written screeds about rental firms and their secret agreements with companies such as Plate Pass.
You can't always beat this, but a quick check of your rights is in order. If you live in a state that uses systems such as E-Z Pass, FasTrak, TxTag, SunPass, or I-Pass call your local service center and ask if you can use your own transponder in a rental car. That'll allow you to decline the car-rental firms' equipment and dodge their outrageous hidden fees.This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.