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Free Hotel Wi-Fi, Branded Airfares, and Other Travel News You Should Know About

SmarterTravel

Major suppliers and third-party agencies continue to escalate the tug-of-war to “own” you as a customer. The prize in the tug-of-war is, of course, money.

Airline Fare “Brands”: Airlines are trying to “brand” their airfares depending on which extras each fare brand includes, and their websites present a menu of varied fare “brands” rather than just economy or first/business class. Of the big lines, American leads the pack, with its multilevel pricing scheme for domestic economy-class flights:

  • Choice, a bare-bones lowest-cost fare with no extras
  • Choice Essential, which adds one no-charge checked bag on each trip and “Group 1” boarding for an extra $58 round-trip
  • Choice Plus, which offers no change fees, 50 percent extra miles, no-charge same-day flight change and domestic flight standby, and a “premium beverage” on flights that serve alcohol for an extra $160 round-trip

More recently, Delta broke out a “basic economy” category that is completely nonrefundable and unchangeable, probably with more differentiation to come. Frontier has a similar set of options, as does Air Canada, and other lines will surely follow.

The problem here is that the only way to see all the brand options is to book through each line’s own website. A straightforward search on a metasearch engine such as Kayak or an online travel agency like Expedia returns only the bottom fare. But the online agents are adjusting. Expedia has announced it will start selling branded fares from “select airlines” starting in mid-2015, and the others will catch up as soon as they can.

Advantage: airlines, at least for now.

Hotel Wi-Fi: Most big mid-market and upscale chains have finally realized that “free” Wi-Fi has become a de-facto necessity for almost everyone who books a room, and travelers have concluded that high-price chains shouldn’t demand $15 a day or so for something budget chains regularly offer free. Last year, IHC (including Holiday Inn) announced no-charge Wi-Fi for all members of its loyalty program. Marriott followed with an offer of no-charge Wi-Fi, starting January 15, for Marriott Rewards members who book through the Marriott website, and elite members will get premium Wi-Fi. Starwood adopted the same plan, starting February 2. And Hyatt said that, starting in February, everyone will get no-charge Wi-Fi regardless of booking channel and loyalty status.

So far, no-charge Wi-Fi is confined to the lower-priced Hilton brands. But Best Western and most budget chains offer no-charge Wi-Fi to all comers as a matter of course. Smaller upscale chains and independents are also catching up to the trend, although you have to check each location to be sure—and some hotels claim their “resort fees,” excluded from the true rate, cover Wi-Fi. The big OTAs that specialize in hotels, such as Booking.com, typically indicate which hotels have no-charge Wi-Fi.

As no-charge Wi-Fi becomes virtually ubiquitous, many hotels will differentiate between base and extra-charge premium Wi-Fi. Base no-charge Wi-Fi, as I’ve encountered it, is OK for reading emails and browsing online, but far too slow for streaming video or games that require high data rates. Depending on how you want to use it, you may still have to pay for Wi-Fi, even where it’s supposedly “free.”

Advantage: loyalty programs. As long as any big chain limits “free” Wi-Fi to members of its loyalty program, join the program. Membership doesn’t cost anything, and some chains offer extra benefits along with Wi-Fi.

Rental-Car Insurance: Several big OTAs have started offering their own collision coverage for half or less than half the rental companies’ charges. But there’s a catch: What the OTAs offer isn’t the same “walk away from it” coverage that you get from the rental companies. Instead, if your rental car is damaged, the company charges you the full cost estimate, and you then have to make a claim on the OTA’s insurance for a refund. And you know how insurance companies are about claims.

Advantage: a draw. Rental companies win for “walk away” coverage; third-party plans for cost. You balance the risks.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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