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A Frequent Traveler’s Holiday Wish List

As I was compiling my holiday traveler’s wish list last week, my colleague Chris Elliott came out with a story on seven gifts we wish the airlines would give us, which so closely tracked my own list that I simply had to accept being scooped and move on.

However, my nascent list did include some presents from non-airline quadrants of the travel industry that merit checking twice. From car rental companies playing the hidden fee game to hotels stuffing us in dungeon-like rooms, here are some wrongs we wish travel companies would make right this holiday travel season.

Hotels: We would like information on which room we’ll get — and the ability to choose a different or better room at the time of booking.

On a visit to Seattle a couple of years ago, our family stayed in a highly regarded hotel that happens to have some highly unpleasant rooms. To wit, the rooms on the lower floors in the back of the hotel look out into an airshaft wall, which the hotel has tried to spruce up with a painting of a fake landscape. Additionally, the first floor of the hotel shares space with several retail stores — so shoppers are walking around in the hallway outside your hotel room.

After a couple of gloomy mornings in the room, I couldn’t wait to leave; it was like living in a castle, but with a room in the dungeon next to the servants’ quarters. Had I known we were headed for the dungeon, I would have booked us into the less well-regarded but definitely better lit Holiday Inn chain around the corner.

Of course, it is possible to change your room after arrival (see our Get the Best Hotel Room for ideas), but why can’t the hotels offer information on which room we’ll get before we arrive and find ourselves overlooking the alleyway? Even better, hotels should offer the ability to review and change your room location at the time of booking, much the way you can pick your seat on a flight.

In what other pre-purchased product do you have no idea where you are sitting/staying until you actually sit down? A movie theater is one; I can’t think of another. I sure can’t think of another that costs a couple hundred bucks or more. This should definitely be available at upscale and expensive hotels, particularly in urban settings or at hotels where one side of the hotel has views of, well, another side of the hotel.

Travel agents: We would like a service level that includes helping to bail us out when in a jam, no matter when it occurs.

As I have written previously, I have learned to use a travel agent for all but the most routine bookings. When traveling with my family (usually on complex itineraries), I use them exclusively, as they are able to burrow down to and plow through information and options not available to a regular Joe booking over the Web.

However, when those same delicate itineraries hit a bump, they can come apart like a tea tray falling down an airshaft (with thanks to Roger Angell for the image). If my agent is in her office, I can usually call for some help — but this doesn’t work so well on a Sunday night redeye when I’m trying to get back for work on Monday morning.

Were I able to call my agent on some kind of travel agent Batphone at any time, all the anxiety and wasted effort of trying to get satisfaction from a gate agent would be greatly diminished. Of course, travel agents could charge a fee for the service when used — which would discourage folks who just want to complain from calling — but it would be well worth it when you are really stuck.

Cruise lines: Please tell us clearly what is included, and what is not. Also, it would help to know more about your ports of call than the location of the duty-free diamond dealer.
The folks at our sister site, Cruise Critic, shared the following simple suggestions for cruise lines this holiday season.

First, please be more clear about what’s included in the fare vs. what extras we will have to pay for –because we all know that a cruise is definitely not all-inclusive. Extras include spa treatments, shore excursions, drinks, gratuities, specialty restaurant surcharges and more; it would be great to be able to figure this out back home, and not out at sea.

It would also be nice to have more guidance from the cruise lines when it comes to what to do in port –often the only info you get is a list of the ship-sponsored shore excursions plus a map to the nearest Diamonds International (which is probably partnered with your cruise line). Just a little bit more info would go a long way from making a great cruise into a great overall vacation, especially for those of us looking for more independent experiences.

Car rental companies: We would like transparent fees and pricing we can understand.

Folks complain endlessly about airfare pricing, but car rental pricing sometimes seems no more transparent and predictable. The airlines are pilloried for their practice of hiding surcharges until the last instant — something that car rental companies do as well — and it’s fairly common for car rental companies to tag on fees that almost equal the base rental rate.

Here’s an example. Just this morning I checked Expedia’s last-minute weekend car rental deals, one for Los Angeles, another for Phoenix. Both show a car rental from Friday at 11 a.m. to Monday at 11 a.m., a total of three 24-hour periods.

The Los Angeles rental had a base rate of $14/day for a total of $63.99.

The Phoenix rental was a few cents cheaper per day at $13.86, for a total of $81.30.

Huh? How does a $14/day rental cost almost $20 less than a $13.86/day rental for the same period? And that is without asking the question how three times $14 is $63.99, not $42, which you don’t need a calculator to figure out.

That brings us to the airline bugaboo of the year: fees and surcharges. But don’t think it’s only the airlines playing this game.

On the Phoenix reservation, the local fees add up quickly. There is a $5 airport access charge, sales tax, a $2.07 stadium surcharge (I guess pro sports teams in Arizona somehow deserve the tax dollars of a visitor from New Jersey) and a $6 vehicle licensing surcharge, whatever that is.

But the real clincher is the $18 customer facility charge. This is the fee they charge you for the privilege of being their customer, and is applied to every reservation made at the airport. We learned that this fee pays for the cost of a shuttle service to a new facility that has been built for all the rental car companies — so much for a free shuttle service!

As such, it really feels like part of the base rate masquerading as a surcharge, as is the popular practice these days. The airlines love this tactic as well, as this surcharge is completely safe from any fare sales — they could discount the base rate to a penny a day, but they’d still get those eighteen bucks.

This stuff adds up. On a recent three-day reservation I made, the base rate was $45.60, the taxes and fees $35.64 — almost half of the total expense. When I checked the one-day rate, the fees added up to a mere 15 cents less than the rental rate.

And then there are these so-called weekend rates. The problem here is that the definition of “weekend” varies; for example, a Friday to Monday rental qualifies for weekend rates, but a Saturday to Monday rental does not. While pricing out my rental, I discovered that a 24-hour Saturday to Sunday rental would cost me more than a 72-hour Friday to Monday rental. Where is the logic?

Additionally, common sense says that 24 hours with a rental car is one day, but if you book a 24-hour rental, and return your car an hour or two late, you will either be granted the grace period or perhaps be charged a small hourly rate. If you book a 26-hour rental, however, you will be charged for a full day’s additional rental.

And that’s not all. If you rent for several days, sometimes you are quoted a weekly rental that has a nice discount built in; sometimes you pay (more) by the day. What is the best way to get the weekly rate instead of the multiple day rate? Who knows; it appears to be different for every company and every booking Web site.

Arrgghhh! It’s like the airlines’ Saturday night stay requirement on steroids. My advice here, at least until the car rental companies grant our holiday wish for logical pricing: investigate your pickup and return time options when booking, as there may be savings that are entirely hidden from you. You probably want to try more than one booking site too.

While we’re making requests, we’d also like to ask for honest information on how far the rental office is from the airport. On my last trip to rent a car near Logan Airport, I thought the shuttle guy was kidnapping us.

And so ends my wish list for … ah, sorry, I can’t help myself. I have to weigh in on the one thing I would like to see from the airlines, even though Chris mentioned it as well. They can add on fees and call it a la carte pricing, they can overbook flights, they can continue their rude and devious ways — and they will — but there is one thing they can change that simply makes sense in a modern world. To wit:

Airlines: We would like sensible change and cancellation fees.

Is there any other product or service you can buy that is nonrefundable, nontransferable, non-resaleable, non-giftable, non- anything but go get in your seat and shut up? Let’s think about situations where you are buying a place to sit in some way for some reason — maybe concerts, movies, bus rides, train rides, hotels, car rentals, gift certificates to go parachuting. All of these you can either cancel or hand off to someone else. Not so your airline ticket, unless you want to pay an exorbitant change fee or simply forfeit the money.

Add to that all the requirements and penalties that come with advance purchase, and air travel really is the one thing in the world where you simply can’t change your mind or your plans. You buy it — you’d better use it.

Real life just doesn’t work that way. Say you break up with your significant other and want to ditch the tickets for your joint trip to London — too bad. You’re both on the plane, seated together, and if you don’t use the tickets, you’ll lose your money … or at least a few hundred dollars in fees. At least your U2 tickets you can dump on eBay UK.

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