The government shutdown’s surprise effect on travelers

Orhan Kam/Shutterstock
Orhan Kam/Shutterstock
The government shutdown was supposed to be a non-event for travelers, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.

When a gridlocked Congress shuttered vast sections of the federal government on Oct. 1 and furloughed 800,000 workers, its decision touched tourists in unexpected ways, from abruptly canceling a camping trip in a national park to foiling a destination wedding. It drained visitors from popular attractions, causing hotel occupancy rates to plummet and hurting other travel-related businesses.

Along the way, many travelers have discovered the important — and often underappreciated — part that the federal government plays in travel.

Without the government, they learned, some of the most interesting parts of the travel industry simply wouldn’t exist. “People haven’t been as aware of the government’s role in travel,” says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
Continue reading…

No compensation for Air Force One delay?

Couperfield / Shutterstock.com
Couperfield / Shutterstock.com
Here’s a complaint you don’t see every day. It comes to us by way of Alex Johnston, who was flying from San Francisco to Charlottesville, Va., via Washington on United Airlines.

“We boarded our flight in San Francisco on time,” she remembers. “But shortly after beginning our taxi, the pilot announced that we would be delayed 45 minutes to an hour on the runway because Air Force One was in front of us, flying the same route, so we must wait and allow them the space and time they needed.”

Of course, there’s a good reason for keeping a minimum distance between Air Force One and other air traffic. There have been several close calls between the presidential aircraft and other planes in the past.
Continue reading…

Oops! Wrong inaugural rate at the Capitol Hill Hotel Washington D.C.

Faith James likes to think of herself as a “pretty savvy traveler” but when she planned to attend the presidential inauguration in Washington next month, she couldn’t have foreseen the trouble with the Capitol Hill Hotel Washington D.C.

I couldn’t have, either.

James is taking her 78-year-old mother up to DC to attend the festivities. They were lucky enough to get tickets from their congressman, but accommodations proved to be a little more difficult.
Continue reading…

Time to get political? Yes, and here’s how

Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren is running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts and across the country, the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken hold as a grassroots consumer movement. Of course, there’s also Ralph Nader, who has made two unsuccessful presidential bids.

Add it all up and you can’t help but wonder if the time has come for consumers to get political.

Before I give you the answer, let’s consider a few facts about how businesses influence the legislative process. Corporate America and other special interest groups, including unions and trade groups, spent a record $3.51 billion on lobbying in 2010, according to OpenSecrets.org, which is more than twice the $1.56 billion spent just a decade earlier. That’s a whole lotta money.
Continue reading…

Do travelers need new federal protections?

It’s not your imagination. Congress seems to be paying closer attention to travelers’ welfare.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the International Travelers Bill of Rights, proposed bipartisan legislation that would require online travel agencies to disclose information about the potential health and safety risks of overseas vacation destinations marketed on their sites. A week earlier, I covered the aggressive new tarmac-delay laws included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.
Continue reading…

Ridiculous or not? Hotels eye airline-like rebooking fees

I‘m always on the lookout for new fees, so when Katherine Walton emailed me about her recent stay at the Chateau Timberline, a hotel in Packwood, Wash., she had my attention.

Walton needed to cancel her reservation a day before her arrival.

“An agent told me they would charge a $100 fee – the price of one night,” she says. “So even if they are able to rebook the room I will not get a refund.”
Continue reading…

DC dance protest ends with arrests, cries of “This is a police state!”

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington is a popular tourist destination, but on this Memorial Day weekend, it was also the scene of a memorable protest that’s worth paying attention to.

A court recently ruled that expressive dancing was in a category with picketing, speech making, and marching – a banned activity at national memorials.

Several protesters decided to challenge the decision on Saturday afternoon with a protest organized through social media (here’s the Facebook page, the Twitter hashtag and blog.)
Continue reading…

Why is Travelocity “unable” to refund my ticket?

Question: I’m writing to you because of a really difficult situation that I have with Travelocity.

My girlfriend and I had a set of multi-destination tickets that we booked through the site. We called Travelocity to ask if we could change one of our flights from Chicago to Washington. An agent told me it would cost another $300. She was nice but her English was not all that great. I got a confirmation email, but without any numbers.

Instead of charging me $300, Travelocity billed me another $4,000. They re-issued all the flights again, including the transatlantic flight.

I’ve been on the phone with their agents for the past month or more, trying to get this fixed. Eventually, they told me that if I cancel the remaining flights I would get a refund, which I agreed to. The refund was to appear on my credit card in one to two billing cycles. I re-arranged my travel plans and bought the tickets I needed elsewhere.

However, I then received an e-mail that said Travelocity is “unable to refund” the money. I called to see what was happening, and several agents and supervisors said that the refund is no longer possible but that I can get credit for future purchases, provided that flights take place within a year. Do you have any advice? — Marko Grdesic, Madison, Wis.

Answer: Next time, don’t change your flights. Oh, who am I kidding? Plans change, and Travelocity should have been able to handle this request without sucking another $4,000 from your bank account.
Continue reading…

No wonder credit cards suck! Industry lobbyists are on track to set spending record this year

Anyone who thinks the government isn’t for sale in 2010 should take a look at the amount of money credit card companies have spent on lobbying. It hit a record last year, with nearly $36 million being spent, according to the site Opensecrets.org. If the trend continues, they’ll fork over even more this year.

No wonder credit cards continue to have gaping loopholes such as the one pointed out this morning by my MSNBC colleague Bob Sullivan. The lobbyists have been spending like pirates. So much for credit card reform.

It’s also worth noting where the money goes.
Continue reading…

A Washington power trip: Three branches, two days, one million tourists

Can you name the three branches of government?

“Uh, the executive, the legislative and the … judicious?” my eight-year-old son, Aren, guessed.

There was really only one way for him to learn. Two, actually. He could just memorize it, like I did (boring). Or we could show him.

On a blazing hot summer afternoon, we went with option “B.” We took him, his five-year-old brother Iden and three-year-old sister, Erysse, to Washington.
Continue reading…

Are Washington-area hotels profiteering from “historical moment”?

If you have a hotel reservation in Washington during the presidential inauguration, call your property now. Some hotels have been canceling rooms or changing their rules in an apparent effort to pump up their profits.

Here’s what happened to Laura Boyd, who made a reservation at the Washington Plaza Hotel last month through Bestfares.com.

I called twice subsequently to make sure those reservations were confirmed and was assured that they were. Then Bestfares.com called me and conferenced the call with the hotel. I was told the hotel would not honor those reservations and that someone released those rooms to the public in error.

Boyd was offered a “comparable” room 40 miles away, but she didn’t want to stay that far out of town. I contacted Bestfares.com and the hotel, and both denied they were responsible for the dropped reservation. The Washington Plaza Hotel blamed Utell, the hotel reservation system used by Bestfares. After more than a week of back-and-forth, the Washington Plaza Hotel agreed to offer Boyd a room closer to D.C.

This is hardly an isolated incident. On Nov. 6, Donnell Taylor made a reservation at the Admiral Fell Inn in Baltimore for the inauguration through Hotels.com.

We received a phone call from Hotels.com telling us our room had been canceled due to the property management wanting to get the room out at a higher price, so we were left without a room and no more rooms available in that area for the days that we wanted.

The man on the phone was very rude and hateful, he told us that president-elect Barack Obama wanted the rooms for people that was going to stay longer than what we were going to stay! I don’t understand how these people can do this and get by with what they’ve done to us.

I contacted the Admiral Fell Inn. Maria Gruzynski, a spokeswoman, sent the following response:

We are very sorry to hear that these guests had an unfavorable experience with The Admiral Fell Inn through our third party vendor, Hotels.com.

Due to the extreme interest in the inauguration of our next president, our hotel has been reserved to capacity and some reservations were taken in error from that Web site. Hotels.com is reaching out to these guests individually and they are offering them the option to either relocate their reservation or be refunded in full.

Additionally, The Admiral Fell Inn is following up with the Hotels.com Associate that actually responded to this guest to further understand the situation and once we have those details we will forward that information on to you as well.

In some cases, hotels are letting customers keep their rooms, but changing the terms of their reservation. That’s what happened to Tauna Batiste, who had reserved a room at the Hilton Garden Inn Solomons in Dowell, Md., for the inauguration. Here’s the letter she just received from the property.

Please accept this letter as official notification of our updated guarantee policy.

Due to the fact that your reservation is scheduled for such a “Historical Moment” in both U.S. and world history, we have had to implement a few changes to our guarantee policy.

The Hilton Garden Inn Solomons now requires payment in full (room and tax for each night of your stay) prior to your arrival to the property. This advance payment must be received by us no later than the close of business (5:00pm EST) on Friday, January 2, 2009 to secure your reservation.

You currently have a credit card on file to hold your room. This card will be processed for the full amount on January 2, 2009 unless you wish to send us the payment in the form of a cashier’s check (please make sure your confirmation number is written somewhere on the check). On January 2, 2009, if we have not received a cashier’s check and the credit card holding your room declines, your reservation will be cancelled.

Batiste wanted to know if changing the terms is legal. I can find nothing in the Code of Maryland Regulations that specifically forbids this practice. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Hotels should be honoring their reservations for the inauguration. Not profiteering from it.