5 travel icons who should have a blog

The surprise news that the Transportation Security Administration started its own blog, which the travel blogosphere seems to still be recovering from, got me to thinking. Who else is out there who should be blogging — but isn’t?

Here’s my wish list:

Richard Branson, Virgin entrepreneur. He already has a well-trafficked fan blog. Why not give us the real thing?

Bob Dickinson, retired Carnival chief executive. No one know the cruise industry like Bob. But he’s also a sharp, funny guy who would immediately have a following in the blogosphere.

David Neeleman, JetBlue founder. He may be the best airline CEO ever, and now that he’s not calling the shots at JetBlue anymore, he would be free to speak his mind.

Ian Schrager, hotel god. He has a new chain, Edition, that he’s launching with Marriott, and let’s face it, he’s a larger-than-life character who would translate well in the blogosphere.

Norman Strickman, airline cop. Norm is the chief of consumer affairs at the Department of Transportation, and his insights into the airline industry would be valuable not only for passengers, but also for the airlines.

How about you? Which travel icon would you like to see start a blog?

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Can I get a refund for my flight to Kenya?

If you’re into the world’s most dangerous places, chances are Kenya’s at the top of your “must visit” list. The State Department has advised Americans to stay away from the violence-plagued East African country. So where does that leave people with nonrefundable airline tickets to Nairobi?

That’s what Richard Brooks wanted to know. Last November he booked a ticket on British Airways for a Feb. 1 flight from San Francisco to Kenya. “With the political turmoil in Kenya after the elections, I decided it was no longer safe for me to travel there and wanted to cancel the flight,” he says.

He continues:

I called British Airways and was notified that they were offering refunds for persons traveling up until Jan. 11, initially, which was then extended to Jan. 25. There is a travel warning for Kenya on the U.S. State Department Web site dated Jan. 11 which continues to Feb. 12. When I called the airline on Jan. 25 to find out if they had extended their policy for refunds, I was informed that their policy had instead been retracted. I therefore postponed the flight to Feb. 22, at least hoping to avoid losing the entire $1,400 I spent on the ticket.

But the situation in Kenya didn’t improve.

Today, I read in the newspaper that 19 people were burned to death in a town not far from Nairobi. I find it hard to believe that British Airways considers it safe to travel there despite the ongoing violence and the continued warnings from the State Department. I have contacted them numerous times, yet they stand by their policy. They have no way of contacting customer relations by phone and instead require contact by e-mail, which I have done and am awaiting a reply. I appreciate your advice.

I asked British Airways for its policy and reviewed Brooks’ itinerary. But I noticed a problem with the timing. The State Department issued its first travel warning Oct. 18, almost a full month before Brooks made his reservation. If there was a travel warning that the passenger should have been aware of, does British Airways still owe him a refund?

It would be a nice gesture, but I’m not sure if it’s not something I could ask British Airways to do.

Late yesterday, British Airways revised its Kenya policy:

Following a deterioration of the situation in Kenya, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have updated their advice for travel to Kenya. They are now advising against all but essential travel to parts of Kenya, including Nairobi.

Due to this change in advice, the options for customers due to travel to/from Nairobi have been re-instated for travel up to and including Friday 08 February 2008. As previously, the situation will be continually monitored and any updates communicated as appropriate.

Advice for customers

Customers holding a ticket who are due to travel to/from Nairobi up to and including Friday 08 February 2008 who want to change their travel plans or no longer wish to travel, are covered by the following options:

Rebook on a British Airways flight to the original destination

– On the closest available flight to the original flight, provided that a seat is available in the cabin originally booked or

At the passenger’s convenience:

– Up to 2 weeks after the original flight, provided a seat is available in the cabin originally booked

– Up to 2 weeks prior to the original flight, where applicable, provided a seat is available in the cabin originally booked

– At any time outside of the above periods, provided a seat is available in the same fare class and same cabin as originally booked

Conditions

a) Any changes to the booking (PNR) must take place no later than two weeks after the original flight.

b) The passenger will be booked into the same booking class, or where applicable, the lowest available class within the same cabin of travel.

c) Travel must be completed within ticket validity or within three months from the original flight, whichever is longer.

d) The return flight, if applicable, can be rebooked at the same time, and no extra fare is payable. Rebook on a British Airways flight to an alternative destination, with any additional fare to be paid by the customer

Conditions

a) Any changes to the booking (PNR) must take place no later than two weeks after the original flight.

b) Travel will be governed by the new fare rules.

Refund of the original British Airways flight, plus any parts of the journey not made which are on the same ticket as the original flight

– The refund will be provided to the original form of payment.

Brooks received a full refund.

Lesson learned: Always check the State Department site before booking a ticket to a country where security is iffy. Next time, British Airways might not be so generous.

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“Look at this list. Are you insane?”

Did your last car rental bill include a surcharge for vehicle registration, contracts or a security fee? Bob Baker’s did when he rented from Avis recently. So he asked.

Here’s what happened next.

I haven’t rented from Avis in a while, but I wanted to this time. I can’t believe the balls of Avis to expect me to pay their vehicle registration, a “security” fee and what the hell is a “contract fee”? and others. Look at this list. Are you insane?

Your Base Rate is for : 3 day(s) / unlimited mileage 617.97 USD
Car Information: Intermediate SUV Class
Pontiac Vibe or similar
Seats 5
Holds 2 large, 3 small Suitcases

Pricing
Base Rate: 617.97
Taxes & Surcharges:
Total Surcharges: 92.71
* 1.10% (Vehicle License Fee)
* $5.00 per day (Domestic Security Fee)
* $0.75 per day (Customer Contract Fee)
* 11.11% (Concession Recovery Fee)

Total Tax ( 7.000% ): 48.54
Mileage: Unlimited
Approximate Subtotal: 759.22 USD

Here’s Avis’ reply:

Hello Mr. Baker,

Thank you for contacting Avis Car Rental.

I apologize for any concerns, or confusion due to the different taxes, and surcharges that are imposed on the rental charges.

The taxes are required by the government bodies where the Avis is located. It may include state sales tax, county sales tax, or city sales tax. Locations within the same state may have different tax amounts because each county, or city may impose different tax rates.

Airport authorities charge concession fees to car rental companies who operate on airport property for use of its roadways, and facilities.

Thank you for choosing Avis

Josephus Daniels
Avis Customer Service E-Mail Dept.

Let me take a moment to point out that both parties could have done better with their initial letters. Baker’s note could have been more precise and polite — here are a few guidelines — but Avis shouldn’t have sent a form letter that didn’t address the question.

Here’s Baker’s response:

Hello Josephus Daniels,

You did not answer my question. I demand that you escalate this email to a higher source.

I did not ask about taxes or the 11.11% airport concession fee. I know all about them.

I asked about the other fees that Avis charges and keeps for themselves.

I want to know what these fees are:

Total Surcharges:
* 1.10% (Vehicle License Fee)
* $5.00 per day (Domestic Security Fee)
* $0.75 per day (Customer Contract Fee)

If you prefer I ask the State Attorney General instead, I will be happy to do so.

Thanks,

Bob Baker

Very good. Except for the threat to ask the attorney general. Copying the AG on the note would have probably been far more effective.

To which Avis said:

Dear Mr. Baker III,

Thank you for contacting Avis through www.avis.com.

We certainly do apologize that the initial response did not answer your questions for you. In regards to the surcharges that you have listed below the 1.10% vehicle license fee is assessed to license, $5.00 per day surcharge is in regards to the increase in security that is needed at the locations, and $0.75 customer contract fee is in regards to the fee for the processing of the contract. We are sorry if you feel that these are unneccessary charges however every customer is charged these and every rental car agency does assess surcharges.

If we can be of further assistance, please let us know.

Sincerely,

Sancha Adams
Avis E-Mail Customer Service
[email protected]

What kind of a nonsense answer is that?

Fact is, there’s no good explanation for why car rental companies bill you for security, contracts and registration fees, other than that they can. If this is their best defense of the fees, maybe it’s time for the state attorney general to take a hard look at these questionable surcharges.

25 Comments


‘Top off’ fee explained: “Everyone drives a little after filling the tank”

The travel community was outraged last week when my MSNBC.com colleague Bob Sullivan reported that Dollar had begun charging a $2 “top off” fee at certain locations. But why? No one has gotten a straight answer from the car rental agency, except a claim that the new fee was “not a widespread practice.”

Then Stuart Goodfellow picked up a Dollar car in Hartford, Conn.

“In the printout of the reservation it said, ‘All cars returned with full gas tanks will be charged a $2 top-off fee’,” he says. “When I got to the rental counter I asked about this charge. The agent said this Dollar agency was a franchise and the owners mandated the charge and it was not waiveable.”

Goodfellow asked why. “I told him the usual policy of most companies where a receipt from a nearby gas station will negate any surcharges,” he says.

“The reply I got was, ‘The owners know that everyone drives a little after filling the tank’,” he says.

“Well, duh!” adds Goodfellow. “Unless the car lot is right next to a gas station, that is always the case. When I left the car lot I drove past a huge Mobil station a whopping 0.8 miles down the street. Do I think the owners actually use that $2 to top off the tank, or does it go directly to the bottom line? I think you know what my answer is.”

Yes, I do.

It’s time for Dollar to drop this unconscionable fee.

14 Comments


Seasick! Cruise line quotes fare, refuses to honor it, then changes its mind

When it comes to cruising, the only back and forth that passengers expect is the motion under their feet when they’re at high sea. But Bernie Brocklehurst didn’t have to board Regent’s Paul Gauguin in order to get seasick — he just had to book the cruise. His experience is a cautionary tale for anyone booking a cruise, and for this ombudsman.

Brocklehurst shopped for his cruise online and found the perfect itinerary on the Regent Seven Seas Cruises site. His travel agent pulled up a $2,856 per person fare, which included a $100 shipboard credit.

When we went to confirm the reservation, we were told that the air special was only applicable to a $3,194 cruise price. The new price was $3,956.50 per person.

Was Brocklehurst experiencing a bait and switch?

My response: prices change. With all of the new fuel surcharges going into effect these days, I wasn’t surprised that Regent was renegotiating a price on its site. But since Brocklehurst hadn’t booked the cruise yet, my best recommendation was to find a different itinerary or another cruise.

But Brocklehurst and his agent pressed the point with Regent. Yesterday I heard back from him.

I just thought I’d let you know that Regent did honor the price, after all. They not only honored the price. They gave the “current” promotions too — a free category upgrade and $250 per person of ship board credit!

Lessons learned …

1) Work with a good travel agent.

2) Don’t take “no” for an answer — even if it comes from the Travel Troubleshooter.

2 Comments


Elliott’s E-Mail/January 29, 2008

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In this issue …

Primary travel sources
“I opened the suitcase only to be completely shocked, appalled and dismayed at what I found”
6 ways you can rescue the passenger rights revolution
Ask the Armchair Traveler: how do I not lose my luggage?
Travel blogs
How to reach yours truly
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FIRST | Random thoughts about the week in travel

Primary travel sources. Can we talk politics? This week’s MSNBC column talks about the dying passenger rights movement, and what you can do to revive it. There’s a “burning question” about the 2008 election and travel that you’ll want to answer. And there’s plenty more about corporate politics, blogging politics and the politics of the global reservation system. Safe travels!

Burning question … the politics of travel? You can’t turn on the TV or radio without hearing about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. But what’s in it for travelers? I would appreciate any deep thoughts on politics and travel, and your frank comments on which candidate would deliver for travelers. Send me and please don’t forget to include your full name, city and occupation.

Podcast debut! Ask the Armchair Traveler, my new videocast, debuts this week. Last week’s pilot episode drew more than 800 views, which means you liked it. But how do I make it better? Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Here’s this week’s episode on how to prevent your checked luggage from getting lost. If you want to be notified when the next podcast goes up, please subscribe to my YouTube channel — and don’t forget to rate the videos!

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BLAZIN’ HOT BLOG POST | What’s burning up my bandwidth this week?

“I opened the suitcase only to be completely shocked, appalled and dismayed at what I found” — When you check you luggage with an airline, you’re taking your chances. Air carriers lose or misplace roughly two bags per flight, and when your property is gone, there’s virtually no chance you’ll be reimbursed for the full value of your losses. JOIN THE DISCUSSION — leave your comment!

SIGHTINGS | Noted Elliott appearances online and offline

A mystery charge on a Madrid rental — What is “Super CDW” — and why is it on Richard Murai’s credit card bill after he rents a car from Alamo in Madrid? The car rental company’s Web site is less than clear about the fee, and Murai’s credit card company refuses to get involved. Is he stuck with the bill? (From The Troubleshooter)

6 ways you can rescue the passenger rights revolution — This Valentine’s Day marks the first anniversary of the passenger rights revolution. It will probably also be its last — unless you do something about it. (From MSNBC.com)

Elliott’s E-Mail is also underwritten by skoobadesign.com, designers and makers of some of the most acclaimed, innovative carrying cases and travel accessories for laptop computers and other tech gear. Skooba Design’s products have been named “best buy” by major independent consumer magazines, as well as leading technology, travel and general interest publications. Elliot’s E-Mail Subscribers get 20 percent off, plus free shipping (UPS Ground/48 States) on all Skooba Design orders of $50 or more. Just enter coupon code enter ELLIOTT20 at checkout. Some restrictions apply. Here are the details.

BLOGGED | New posts on Elliott’s Blog

Help! I’m stuck in London’s congestion pricing trap — Planning to rent a car during your next visit to the U.K.? Beware of big-time congestion charges. If you’re driving into London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., your vehicle will be docked £8 for the privilege of using the road. But Graham Morris ended up paying much more when his Alamo rental car passed through the congestion zone recently. Even after he asked his car rental company how to pay the fee. (From Elliott Blog)

Ask the Armchair Traveler: how do I not lose my luggage? — The Armchair Traveler reveals three secrets that will keep you from losing your checked luggage. This is the first episode of my new podcast. (From Elliott Blog)

And the award for best travel blog goes to … — Travel blogs are a lot like animated feature films before 2001, or for that matter, mathematics today. When it comes to the most prestigious awards, they get no respect. (From Elliott Blog)

Is Expedia censoring negative comments about its resorts? — Posting customer reviews on a travel site is often a double-edged sword. The information can help other travelers make a more informed decision — but it could also upset the airlines, cruise lines and hotels the online travel agency works with. At least one customer thinks agencies have quietly decided that if a review could potentially damage the relationship with a supplier, it gets zapped (a belief that many other travelers share). (From Elliott Blog) HOT POST!

10 best and worst airports for on-time departures — Take a bow, Chicago. Always-congested O’Hare was the worst major U.S. airport for on-time departures in 2007, according to recently released numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. You’ll never guess the nine runners-up. (From Elliott Blog)

EgyptAir to American passengers: “Bl*w me!” — A fare basis code is an alphanumeric sequence with information about your airline ticket. It contains everything from your class of service to the season in which it was booked (low vs. high season). And if you’re flying on EgyptAir, the fare basis also has a message for the American imperialists who are coming to Cairo: “Blow me!” (From Elliott Blog)

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FLASHBACK | A retrospective from the Elliott archives

Travel blogs. What’s not to like about them?

The 20 most inspiring travel blogs of 2007 — Which travel blogs inspire me to travel, and to write about it? I’ve already weighed in on the most influential blogs of the year and hotel blogs worth bookmarking. But a lot of you have asked me which sites I read just for the fun of it (in other words, because I think they’re really good). Here’s your answer — my very own list of travel blogs that inspire me. (From Elliott Blog)

8 hotel blogs worth bookmarking in 2008 — Before you ask — no, I’m not in the business of rating blogs. But I’m a panelist at the Historic Hotels of America annual meeting at the Don CeSar Beach Resort on St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., tomorrow, and have been asked to name some of the hotel bloggers that are worth following. (From Elliott Blog)

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Stay home! 4 days when you shouldn’t travel

You probably already know about Spring Break, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

That is, you know enough not to travel around those days. Scoring a frequent flier award ticket is pretty much impossible, hotels aren’t discounting their rooms, and you’ll probably pay full price for your rental car. Plus, it’s usually a tragic mess out there — long lines at the airport, dense traffic and frayed tempers.

But this isn’t another story about blackout dates.

This is a story about the other days you should stay home. Call it the ‘B’-list of blackouts.

For example, say you’re planning a Disney World vacation, but you’re not sure when to visit. If you’re an annual passholder (full disclosure: I am) you know that “blockout” dates are Dec. 22 to Jan. 4, March 15 to 28, and June 7 to Aug. 14. (Those dates are off limits to some seasonal passholders because the theme parks are so busy.)

So when’s the best time to see Mickey? Well, that’s a topic for another column, but I won’t make you wait until then. “Value season” runs from early January to mid-February, from mid-August to the end of September and the first three weeks in December. That’s when the crowds are thinner and the deals are more generous.

What other times should you stay off the road? Here are four other blackout days that aren’t as well known:

Conventional wisdom: steer clear of the party.
This year there are two places you absolutely don’t want to be unless you have to. Denver from Aug. 25 to 28 and Minneapolis/St. Paul from Sept. 1 to 4. Those cities are hosting the Democratic and Republic conventions, respectively. I’ve been in a host city during a political convention, and it’s absolutely insane. Tight security, throngs of delegates and protesters, and no way to find a table at a decent restaurant. Stay away — and avoid the airports too, even for a stopover.

But those aren’t the only blackout dates related to a special event. The 50th running of the Daytona 500 takes place Feb. 17th. I don’t even live in Daytona Beach, Fla. (I’m in Orlando) and I’m thinking of getting out of town. Don’t even think about renting a car — they’re taken that weekend. And stay away from the Orlando theme parks, unless your idea of family fun is to stand in a long line with a lot of rowdy NASCAR fans.

Mother nature knows best.
Hurricane season may run from June through November, but late summer and early fall is the peak of storm season. Mark those as blackout dates if you’re considering a trip to Florida, Louisiana, the Caribbean, or anywhere along the Atlantic coast of the United States, for that matter. Fall is wildfire season in parts of California. It’s a beautiful time of the year to visit the Golden State, but one spark and a strong Santa Ana wind can smoke out your vacation. The Midwest has tornadoes during the summer, and there can be intense thunderstorms just about anywhere in the United States. Winter blizzards can affect travel anytime between November and March unless you’re in parts of Florida or Texas.

In other words, you know when Mother Nature is likely to be in one of her moods. She could find you on Valentine’s Day, as she did to the passengers on scores of JetBlue Airways flights last year. Or at some random date — like, Dec. 29th, which is the day passenger rights activist Kate Hanni was trapped on an American Airlines flight at Austin International Airport for nine hours. The point is, you don’t know exactly when the weather will stop your trip cold, but nothing is stopping you from making an educated guess.

These blackout dates don’t have 24 hours.
‘B’-list blackout dates don’t always last 24 hours. Savvy travelers already know that there’s an ebb and flow of crowds. Everyone wants to make the morning flight, but the red-eye flights are less frenzied. Likewise, a hotel gets hopping around mid-morning to late afternoon when the previous evening’s guests check out and the next day’s guests arrive. Time your trips to coincide with the “down” period in these cycles, but don’t get too fancy. One of the most common tips I hear from travel “experts” who are asked how to avoid traffic is to hit the road during the early morning or late evening. Sounds like great advice, on the surface. But you have to wonder if these talking heads have a driver’s license or ever leave Manhattan, because the late morning or early evening is when a lot of construction crews like to block off a lane or two for road repairs.

How do get around that? Check the construction information along your chosen route. I always consult the Florida 511 Web site before I drive anywhere. It has links to ongoing construction projects, along with their hours. There’s also a national site operated by The Federal Highway Administration.

Three strikes and you’re … oh, you know the rest.
Sometimes it pays to follow the news. And I’m not just saying that because I’m in the news business. This summer there were labor problems at Northwest Airlines and this fall, at Air France. Of course, these days should top your travel blackout list, because no matter what an airline says, there’s probably going to be some kind of trouble. Northwest, for example, canceled hundreds of flights, leaving passengers stranded and at the carrier’s mercy (airline contracts do little to protect passengers in the event of a strike). Air France made some allowances during its strike, but many of its passengers were inconvenienced, all the same.

Keeping up with the news could prevent you from booking a ticket with a troubled carrier. And if you don’t want to read the news — after all, it’s pretty depressing — then find a good travel agent. A competent travel advisor will keep abreast of the news and warn you when an airline is headed for a strike. Sure, you’ll pay a booking fee — but would you rather be stuck in Detroit for a few days, or pay $30 extra for your ticket? Yeah, me too.

When you plan your next trip, think outside the blackout box. Stay on top of the news, keep an eye on the weather, question what the experts have to say and watch out for big parties.

If you don’t, your next big trip could be big trouble.

7 Comments