The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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I Live to Serve: Your Questions, My Answers
February 16, 2017 -- My very brief career in talk radio--eight weeks hosting a show after a big-name celebrity from another era quit over a perceived slight--taught me a good lesson: My agenda probably isn't your agenda.
Before each of my shows, I'd write down an outline of the important topics to cover, the news to analyze, the interviews to conduct. I'd then walk into the studio, slap on the headphones, point to my producer on the other side of the glass--and take calls.
None of the calls were ever about what I was discussing, of course. The callers would want to know what week they should fly to X, which hotel to book in Y, what tour operator offered trips to Z. In other words, what mattered to them was all that mattered. Travel, as I've often said since, is essentially a selfish endeavor. Whether it's leisure or business, travelers only care about their own needs.
I try to remember that basic lesson as I put together this Web site in general and this column in particular. But I thought this week, especially, I'd focus solely on your concerns, shared via E-mail. If you're asking me about it via E-mail, other people probably want to know, too.
So here goes. Your questions. My answers. I live to serve.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE RAMPANT 'RESORT FEES' AT URBAN HOTELS?
Most of us have made an uneasy peace with those pesky add-on fees at beach properties and other fancy resorts. It's a nasty game of disguised price increases. Hotels and resorts quote a rate--and then add a mandatory "resort fee" for dubious perks like wonky WiFi, the newspaper delivery you never requested, access to an insanely overpriced spa or beach towels.
But the "resort fee" is migrating to urban properties, too. In some ways, they are even worse because they charge you extra for things that are otherwise free thanks to your hotel status or because of the hotel chain's brand standards. There's nothing like a hotel chain that promises "free WiFi," but then allows some of its properties to bundle a WiFi charge into an omnibus extra fee piled atop the nightly rate.
First thing to know about urban-hotel fees is that they are baloney. They are nothing but a hidden price hike. The second thing to know is that you need to look carefully to see if a non-resort property is somehow imposing a mandatory extra fee. That's why I won't make a hotel reservation on my smartphone. The fees sometimes get buried. If I'm looking on a phone screen, I may not see it. There's less chance of missing the agate-type mention of a fee if you're looking on a larger monitor and using a traditional Web site.
Last thing you need to know: Resist. Don't book an urban property that charges a mandatory extra fee for something that obviously should have been bundled in the nightly rate. And don't resist quietly. If you see a fee and that causes you to book away from a hotel, call the property and tell them that they lost your business. Don't go quietly into that lodging good night.
ARE DELTA SKYMILES REALLY THE WORST VALUE PROPOSITION?
It's a sad commentary when an airline can hide its award chart as Delta has done with SkyMiles and there still be a question as to whether another carrier is offering a worse value proposition. But American AAdvantage has become so niggling with award seats on its own aircraft that you could make a solid case that AAdvantage miles are now worth less than SkyMiles.
AAdvantage these days specializes in three infuriating practices: It is nearly impossible to get a restricted premium-class international award on an American Airlines flight. AAdvantage's online booking engine hides almost all of the award seats available on its international partners. Worst of all, AAdvantage charges outrageous surcharges on awards booked with international partners.
To take a common example, consider a restricted business class award to Europe. Often the only option on AA.com is on British Airways. The mileage cost (usually 115,000 miles roundtrip) is fair enough. But then come the surcharges, often as much as $1,000 roundtrip. No matter how many daily flights American offers to European destinations, you'll almost never find restricted class availability on its metal. (American doesn't put surcharges on awards on its flights.) Iberia never seems to appear. And finding an Air Berlin or Finnair seat is the frequent flyer equivalent of a unicorn. So suddenly you're looking at a cost of 115,000 miles and $1,000 in cash for a BA connection in London.
Given the current cost of advance-purchase business class, that means you're getting a paltry payout of as little as penny a mile. You're also being asked to pony up what can be as much as half the cost of an advance-purchase seat. And, beyond London, you're squeezed into BA's ignominious Club Europe business class, which literally offers less legroom (30 inches) than most U.S. coach classes.
In other words, there are times you're better off playing beach blanket bingo with SkyMles' hidden charts and guess-the-cost pricing than doing business with AAdvantage.
ISN'T UNITED ALREADY FLYING POLARIS BUSINESS CLASS?
Short answer: No. Longer answer: No, and they are hoping you--and the mainstream travel media--don't notice.
United late last year rolled out the "soft product" component of its new Polaris business class. That includes the food and beverage service and the pillows, blankets and such. It's flying now on all international routes. The new seat, however, is months, sometimes years, away.
In fact, United this week hosted a small gaggle of trade reporters, bloggers and a few analysts on a special one-off Polaris flight between Chicago and San Francisco. The Boeing 777-300ER United used is one of its only aircraft that actually has the new Polaris seatbeds. The verdict: Meh ...
The seats are fine for what they are, but they aren't substantively better than what other carriers are already flying. Worse, United is slow-walking their installation over five years. The best-liked features: a hand rail to help you move when the bed is fully flat and a decent-sized ledge to hold your personal technology.
As some of you have already experienced, the soft product gets substantially better reviews than the new chairs. Frequent travelers like the elaborate dessert cart, some have complimented the wine flights and everyone seems to like the blankets and pillows. So much so that United flight attendants now have been instructed to announce that you can't take pillow or blankets home with you. As the PA admonition reminds you: "We hope you enjoyed the pillows, blankets and bedding. Please make sure you leave these items on board."
Oh, by the way: United didn't put passengers back in coach on that special 777-300ER flight. The reason: Coach is stacked 10-across in a brutally tight 3x4x3 configuration. No one will like sitting there--and there won't be wine flights or dessert carts to dull the pain.
ARE TRAVEL AND POLITICS REALLY INDIVISIBLE?
It's been wonderful to get notes from you about our We the Travelers package. The vast majority of you enjoyed what we wrote, several took issue with intelligent counterpoints--and a few were just angry.
But some wondered if I couldn't just ignore politics altogether and focus only on travel. I should simply refer you back to my column about the realities or we could play this interactive game.
If you only want to talk travel, here are some travel-only facts: Passenger traffic on Turkish Airlines plunged by 12 percent in January compared to January, 2016. The plummet was far worse--17 percent--if you only consider international flights. Business class passenger numbers dropped 13.6 percent. And the lifeblood of Turkish Airlines' business--transfers from one international flight to another via its Istanbul hub--fell by 16.2 percent.
Does that work for you? Is that all you need to know? Just a bunch of numbers? Fine. We can end the column here and I've written a nice little travel item.
However, if you want context and to understand why this has happened, click here. But I warn you: The answer is politics.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.