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Last Week’s Cheers and Jeers

Cheers to the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General, which started an “audit” of airline frequent-flyer programs. The primary focus, apparently at the urging of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), is whether airlines are providing adequate disclosure of costs associated with supposedly “free” award travel, specifically including fuel surcharges. Those fuel and other “airline mandated” surcharges added to award trips aren’t just a minor annoyance; they’re a big scam: On a recent quote for a trip to London, they amounted to almost $1,000.

I sent a message to the IG office urging that the audit assess the other—and even bigger—abuse in frequent-flyer programs: inadequate allocations of seats to award travel at the lowest mileage levels. Airlines highlight those low mileage levels when they brag about the great “free” travel benefits available, but they seldom provide enough seats at those mileage levels to meet demand. The shortage is especially severe on popular routes and in international business class.

When an airline offers a promotional fare, DOT rules requires that it make an adequate number of seats available at the promotional price. Frequent flyers need the same sort of ruling on award seats.

Jeers to Marriott, which announced it will start placing “gratitude envelopes” for housekeeper tips in U.S. and Canadian hotel rooms. Apparently, about half of travelers tip housekeepers, and half don’t, and Marriott wants everybody to get in on the act. The likely motive is not altruistic; instead, I suspect it’s so the hotel chain can place housekeeping workers in a “tipped worker” category and thus pay them only $2.16 an hour (federal; higher in some states) rather than the statutory minimum wage.

This is a terrible development. Rampant tipping has morphed from annoyance to a scourge, especially for travelers. What U.S. and Canadian travelers need is less tipping, not more.

Cheers to the Whiteface Lodge in the Adirondacks for adopting “resort inclusive” pricing. No more $40 a day “resort” fee; the base price (plus tax) is all you have to pay.

To see any hotel resist the use of deceptive pricing is always welcome. But the Whiteface Lodge is a very upscale property, unlikely to be damaged by accurate, all-up prices in side-by-side online comparisons. Unfortunately, I see no evidence that hotels in ultra-price-competitive destinations, such as Hawaii and Las Vegas, are following this lead. Travelers still need the long-awaited action by the Federal Trade Commission to ban what it calls “drip pricing” outright.

Cheers to the Department of Homeland Security for its overture to several European countries about opening preclearance facilities. U.S. travelers have enjoyed preclearance at major Canadian airports, nearby islands, and Ireland for years, and it’s a great benefit: You go through U.S. customs and immigration procedures at your departure airport, where you have to arrive early and stand in several lines, anyway. When you get back to the United States, you arrive as a domestic passenger: Grab your bag and be on your way. So far, the Brits seem to be the most interested. Let’s hope they take up the idea: Preclearance is a win-win for everyone.

Cheers to the Scottish people for voting on independence—and to the British for permitting the vote and agreeing to accept its result. Not that I either supported or opposed separation; the cheers are for the fact that the Scots and Brits settled the issue calmly, in an election with a huge turnout, rather than with suicide bombers and AK47s. In so many other places around the world, folks who want to separate from other folks decide to settle the issue by killing and maiming each other and ruining both economies. Ukraine, Iraq, Palestine, Spain, the Kurdish areas, Chechnya, and the Balkans are just a few of the areas with separatist strife; even Ireland seems to be heating up a bit.

Visitors from North America are probably better off with the U.K. intact. The idea of border formalities at Hadrian’s Wall or the Motherwell railway station is off-putting.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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