Expedia offers ‘free’ cancellation, except for you

Susan Veazey took Expedia at its word when she booked her hotel room in New Orleans recently.

The online agency promoted a “free” cancellation, so Veazey figured she could make multiple reservations and then cancel the one she didn’t want.

She figured wrong — and now she’s stuck with several rooms she can’t use.

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Let’s set the Wi-Fi free now!

If it’s 2015, then why are hotel guests still doing something so ’90s, like paying extra for an Internet connection?

Charging for wireless access in the 21st century is as silly as it sounds. An Internet connection is so essential, many guests would sooner do without indoor plumbing, electricity or heat in their room. A 2014 survey by found Wi-Fi was the most desirable in-room amenity.
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Does “free” travel cost too much?

If you’ve ever been to a travel trade show, you’ve probably seen the freeloaders.

They prowl the floor in small packs, descending on the booths to claim everything that isn’t nailed down — pens, wrapped candy, four-color travel brochures.

Often, they walk by without saying “hi,” absorbing these giveaways with the efficiency of a shoplifter.
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In 2014, beware of the word “free”

Mega Pixel/Shutterstock
Mega Pixel/Shutterstock
How dumb do they think you are?

As the dust settled on the now-finished holiday shopping season, I couldn’t help but wonder. One study concluded it was one of the strongest seasons in recent memory, adding that more than seven shoppers said they plan to take advantage of “free shipping” offers, while nearly half expect “free” returns.

I nearly choked on my espresso when I read that. Did they just say “free”?

Right about now, half of you are saying to yourself: TANSTAAFL! That’s shorthand for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and you’re right, of course. Bonus points if you can tell me which Robert Heinlein book it’s from. (Yeah, I grew up reading sci-fi novels.)

The other half? “Grinch!” (Belatedly.) Or worse.
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There’s no such thing as “free” when you travel

Chase lied. United Airlines lied.

At least that’s how Marc Blumenthal sees it. When United offered him a United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which included a “free checked bag” for cardholders, it misrepresented the product in a significant way.

Blumenthal tried to get his “free” bag on his next United flight, but a gate agent insisted on charging him.

“I was told that in order to get the first checked bag free, I need to pay for the flight with the Chase credit card,” he says.
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Spring broke: 6 secrets for traveling free

The promise of a free vacation used to be such a predictable come-on from a shady timeshare salesman or a questionable travel club, that all but the most gullible travelers ignored it.

Not anymore.

Free isn’t just a legitimate goal for your next trip. It might be a realistic one, too.

Sure, the criminals pushing useless fractional ownerships and pyramid schemes are still out there, and you still have to beware of them. But Shannon Huffman Polson discovered that in a recessionary economy, you can score a free vacation, or something close to it.

For an upcoming trip to New Zealand with her husband, Polson is cashing in 80,000 airline miles (a free ticket) staying with friends (free accommodations) and hiking in the great outdoors (also free). When they aren’t staying in someone’s home, they’ll be camping (free). Polson, a former marketing executive who lives in Seattle, figures they’ll have to spring for a few nights at a hotel, so the trip won’t be totally free. “But we’ll be saving money while seeing the country,” she told me.

Polson is hardly alone. Travelers are no longer content with a bargain. Now they want everything free.

The travel industry knows it. The major American destinations didn’t wait for the National Bureau of Economic Research to declare the U.S. economy in a recession before releasing their lists of free things to do around town. Did you know, for example, that the Port of Houston Authority offers a free 90-minute cruise along the Houston Ship Channel? Or that The Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the top art museums in the country, always offers free admission?

Can travel companies do better? They’re trying. It all depends what your definition of “free” is. There’s an abundance of two-for-one offers, but they require that you spend money. For instance, as I write this, the Rosen Shingle Creek here in Orlando has an offer that lets you book four nights and stay an additional three nights for “free.” Likewise, the Orlando World Center Marriott offers the fourth night free when you book four nights.

If your concept of “free” is a little more flexible — and the travel industry thanks you in advance for that — then you can always burn some of those hard-earned award miles for your next vacation. You paid a lot of money to earn those points, of course. I asked my friends over at, who track mileage redemptions, if they’ve seen any uptick in the rates at which passengers are cashing in miles for award tickets and upgrades, and was told there’s “a definite interest” although it’s still too early to call it a full-fledged trend.

But let’s keep our old school definition of “free” for the purposes of this story. How do you travel without paying?

1. Reset your expectations
If you think you’ll visit a theme park, luxury hotel or cruise ship and not pay a dime, you might be disappointed. As a result, a lot of travelers have changed their vacation expectations, says travel expert Pauline Frommer. “There seems to be a different mindset governing the entire enterprise,” she told me. “People seem to be more interested in the destination — its cultural aspects, its attractions, its history — than obsessing over their hotel rooms, the hottest clubs or meal choices.” Of course, culture is relatively inexpensive when compared with indulgences like a spa visit or a gourmet meal. Some of it is even free.

2. Network with other freeloaders

The Internet is buzzing with forums and blogs dedicated to free travel opportunities. Those include sites such as Couchsurfing, which connects locals and travelers, and Global Freeloaders which helps you find free accommodations. “People on these sites open their homes to travelers who want to not only stay for free, but who also want to make connections in the places they are visiting,” says Susanna Zaraysky, author of the upcoming book “Travel Happy, Budget Low.” “It’s a great way to meet new people.” Zaraysky says she’s “couchsurfed” in Los Angeles, Chicago, Berlin, Frankfurt and is about to stay at a farmhouse in the countryside for nine days at zero cost.

3. Get a travel job
There are lots of jobs that let you travel without paying. You could join the legions of whiny business travelers, who have just about managed to suck all the fun out of traveling. Or you could become a whiny travel writer like me. My colleagues and I happily finish the job the road warriors started, and yes, some of them often don’t pay a dime. You could become a courier, a travel agent or a flight attendant, too. If none of those sound appealing — and I wouldn’t blame you if you said “no” to all of the above — then you might just organize a large group of people who want to travel. All you need is 30 people for a cruise or tour, and you travel free, according to Sharon Emerson, who by way of full disclosure is a travel agent but seems to like it.

4. Go to the park
You’d expect any story about “free” travel to include at least a mention of a state or national park. I don’t want to disappoint you. While it’s a fact that some parks are free, most aren’t. For example, last weekend we visited Canaveral National Seashore, one of the most pristine beaches on Florida’s east coast, and we paid $6 to drive in. It costs nothing to walk. But it was well worth the money, especially when compared to a theme park or a resort hotel. Plus, it made for some terrific snapshots of the kids. If you live in a state with many parks, you might consider investing in an annual pass. For just $43, I can buy a year of unlimited access to every Florida State Park, which is considerably less than what a lot of theme parks charge for a one-day admission.

5. Get a smarter phone
One of the biggest controllable travel expenses, particularly for anyone like me who obsessively checks his Facebook, Twitter and e-mail account, is the mobile phone. Add in overseas roaming charges, and you’re looking at taking out a second mortgage when you come home. It’s difficult to turn off your phone in an always-on world, but until the wireless companies are forced to stop charging usurious roaming fees, it’s best to power down your beloved handset. There are better ways to stay in touch. For example, Truphone is an application that allows you to make calls to other landlines, cell phones and send text messages to other phones using a Wi-Fi network. (There’s a charge for those calls, but calls to phones with Truphone accounts are free.) Or you can use a service like Skype to make free Internet-based phone calls from your computer.

6. Be creative
Francesca McLin’s cruises, from Puget Sound to the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda, have been on the house — or, in this particular case, the boat. How so? She signed up as a crewmember. “In terms of travel costs, chartering a sailboat in most parts of the world will cost more than $3,000 week, and $6,000 if you hire a captain,” says McLin, who runs a blog about free travel. “My trips as crew cost me less than $200 each, which went toward shared food expenses while onboard and fare back home.” Now, this kind of adventure is definitely not for someone like me who turns green on a seesaw. But McLin’s experience makes an important point to the bargain-finders among us. If we want something free, we have to look beyond the ads in the Sunday travel section.

You probably think I’ll wrap up this column by saying something cute about the best things in life being free. Except that’s not true for travel. You’ll still have to pay something to get there, and unless you eat at a soup kitchen, you’ll need to fork over a few bucks for food as well.

But it is true that our new focus on traveling for less has freed us from our enslavement to meaningless creature comforts and mindless amusements. And we may have a better vacation because of it.

US Airways backs down on $2 soft-drink charge

US Airways plans to announce tomorrow that it will bring complimentary sodas, juices, tea, water and coffee to its flights starting next month. Charging for soft drinks — particularly bottled water — was highly unpopular with many of its passengers.

Drinks haven’t been free in economy class since Aug. 1, when US Airways announced what it called a Business Model Transformation.

Here’s the letter US Airways’ Doug Parker has sent to employees:

Tomorrow morning we will make an announcement returning complimentary sodas, juices, tea, water and coffee to US Airways. The free beverage service will resume on March 1. This change reverses part of the a la carte business model we believe is right for our business and I’d like to explain why we made this decision.

When we launched the beverage purchase program in 2008 we knew it would generate additional revenue. From this perspective the program was very successful. What we didn’t know at the time, but later experienced, was that the cabin atmosphere would also improve with fewer carts in the aisles and shorter lines to the lavatories.

Today, while we remain firmly committed to the a la carte strategy – we also know it is a work in progress. We know customers don’t buy an airline ticket based on whether or not they will get a free soda onboard, but with US Airways being the only large network carrier to charge for drinks, we are at a disadvantage. More importantly, this difference in our service has become a focal point that detracts from all of the outstanding improvements in on-time performance and baggage handling that all of us have worked so hard to achieve over the past year.

We are not making this decision because the airline industry is now healthy. To the contrary, while oil prices have dropped, a global recession is having a material negative impact on industry revenues and our industry still needs business model changes as much as ever. Moving to an a la carte model has helped us build an airline that can withstand the uncontrollable factors that influence our industry and we need to keep trying new programs, like a la carte pricing. Frankly, it would have been a bigger risk for us not to have tried charging for drinks because innovation and a new business model are desperately needed.

In fact, we still expect to generate $400 to $500 million in 2009 from a la carte items like checked baggage fees, Choice Seats, and our new blanket and pillow offering – the US Airways Power-Nap Sack ™.

Aggressively managing our business by anticipating what our world may look like in the future is the cornerstone of our culture. In other words, we are always thinking differently about how we operate and are not afraid to take a chance on new ideas designed to provide career certainty and stability, great customer service and positive returns for our shareholders. It is also part of the reason we received a vote of confidence from our investors and business partners last fall when we raised close to $1 billion to help keep the airline strong.

We will be issuing a press release announcing this news early tomorrow morning, as well as posting it on Wings and theHub. Thank you for continuing to take care of our customers.

US Airways has done right by its customers today.

The coming dehydration crisis for airline passengers

Let’s fast-forward to Aug. 1, when US Airways begins to charge for soft drinks on its flights, including bottled water. How’s that going to go over?

Not very well. In fact, over the long term, depriving passengers of basic necessities like drinkable water could cost the carrier more than the revenue it will generate.

Let’s clear up a few things first.

The “free” water on the plane is city tapwater that’s been sitting in the tank for hours. It’s gross.

We can’t bring bottled water through a TSA screening area under the agency’s ineffective and widely misunderstood 3-1-1 rule. So you basically have to buy the airline’s water at $2 a bottle, which is a steep markup from the grocery store price.

If you’re a budget traveler, you could find yourself strapped in an economy class seat on a long flight with nothing to drink and no money to pay for essential water. And that, say passengers like James Hammett, can be extremely dangerous.

He ought to know. On a recent international flight, his sister became dehydrated and had to be treated by a doctor.

In the era of free drinks, she had not drunk enough to avoid this problem. If people start having to pay for water, their natural inclination is going to be to reduce their consumption. How long until the airlines start getting claims for reimbursement for doctor or hospital visits — or lawsuits?

I have no problem with charging passengers for sodas and fruit juices, nor do I think most passengers would mind paying for those items. But drinkable water? That ought to remain free.

Common sense tells you that. Alas, common sense appears to be in short supply.