Because travel sucks ... now more than ever.

aargh's blog

Mon, 2009/03/30 - 16:21 by aargh

The hotels have taken a page from the airlines' book:

I recently chose a no-frills room with my preferred hotel chain. Right as I completed the booking process, the hotel's website popped up an offer to go standby on a room upgrade. The upgrade prices were about halfway between the cost of a standard room (the type which I had booked) and the advertised cost of a premium room (say, an executive suite on a high floor).

To the hotel chain's credit, their website was quite open in explaining that the goal was to fill premium rooms that would otherwise go empty.

Not bad, I murmured. Similar to airline upgrades, I can either pay for a posh suite outright or, if I'm willing to take a gamble on my room, I can apply for a boost and roll the dice. A risk-free gamble at that, since I only pay if the upgrade goes through.

Hotels sometimes offer room upgrades upon checkin (for a fee, of course) if premium spots are available. So now the hotel simply enters the Internet age and extends the offer at booking time.

Start to disassemble this, though, and you see the twist:

That this time around, the hotel gets a chance to dance around upgrade standards and make a buck in the proces.

Let's say you book a standard room but, upon check-in, the hotel has no such rooms left. If there are nicer rooms available the hotel typically gives you a free boost into the premium space. They almost have to, since it's hardly your fault they ran out of what you'd asked for.

Now let's say you book a standard room again but this time you opt for the standby upgrade. You arrive, some premium rooms are free, and you and the hotel gleefully exchange some of your cash for their space.

So far you're still in the lead: you got your upgrade at a discount off the premium room's advertised price.

All this is fine and dandy unless the hotel is overbooked on standard rooms. Having ticked the box to go standby, you just opted out of a free upgrade.

Now this isn't a complete screw-job, mind you: you only lose out if the hotel was going to upgrade you anyway due to lack of other space, and how often that happens depends quite a bit on when and where you travel. Going standby puts you at the top of the list for room upgrades because, as you cede your standard room, someone else can fill it. So if you squint just right you'll see this as hotels prioritizing their upgrade list in the event of an overbooking.

Given the time to iron out the kinks, I think there's potential for this to work.

Or maybe not.

More on that next time.

Tue, 2009/03/17 - 12:05 by aargh

In a recent rant, I noted having seen several empty first-class seats on my flight. Having flown several times since then, I am comfortable saying this has become a trend.

Blame the downturn if you will, as there are certainly fewer business travellers and even fewer willing to pay full fee for a seat in front. Me, I find fault with AA's lack of business sense as they haven't been more aggressive in pushing people into those seats (for a fee, bien sur) at check-in time.

In his latest The Middle Seat column, Scott McCartney notes that American Airlines isn't the only company losing at this game.

For the most part I agree with the article so I won't recap it here.

What really caught my eye was the airlines' excuse for not offering last-minute discount upgrades: they fear angering those who paid full-price for a premium seat.


Airlines are hardly shy about their fare buckets schemes, which help explain why you and your seatmate paid different fares. They were equally not-quite-shy about implementing the Saturday-Night-Stay rule, which reminded business travellers that they were paying more simply because they had the means to do so. Airlines also had no problem charging fees for checked luggage even when it was demonstrated the fees weren't covering luggage any more.

To top it off, remember that some portion of the premium cabins paid for a coach seat and applied cash and/or miles ahead of time for a boost.

Given all that, who could possibly be angry (at least, angrier than usual) that the guy in the next seat paid less?

We know full well that getting an air fare is a less-glamorous Vegas scene: we place our bets according to how much we're willing to lose. Someone who pays full fare for a premium seat knows that, under some circumstances, the guy one seat over paid a tenth the price for a coach seat and used points to upgrade. Someone who tries to upgrade knows they may be outclassed at the last minute and end up back in steerage.

In the end -- whether they are truly "happy" or not -- we accept that we got the best situation we were willing to guarantee.

Econ 101 works again.

Speaking of economics, someone please give the airlines a lesson. It seems they're missing out.

The Middle Seat: "It's Never Been Easier to Leave Coach Behind"

Fri, 2009/02/06 - 12:43 by aargh

People are always on the hunt for a new inside scoop. It makes sense, really: whether you're sizing up produce at the grocer or a potential mate at a bar, the path is fraught with risk so you want to skip past any bad picks. Neither fruit nor people will come out and tell you they're no good, so you need a way to read them from afar.

In the finance realm a little secret will may you in trouble; but out in the real world it's simply a way to level the playing field when the odds are stacked against you. Such as when you're rating your hotel.

FT's Tyler Brûlé recently offered up his club sandwich gauge for hotels: if the place can't get the sandwich right, he says, chances are they're falling down elsewhere.

Works for me. For one, it's subtle. How many hotels will know you're using a stack of bread and meat as a crystal ball to their operations?

Second, the social science fans among you may recognize the Theory of Broken Windows, so you know it's sound reasoning. (In short: a system that explicitly tackles seemlingly small problems should, in theory, ward off larger ones.)

Third and most importantly, being a club sandwich afficionado myself, this was a tactic I'd have no trouble trying.

Being that I was in a hotel when I read the article, I went down to the restaurant to order up a meat-and-cheese indicator. Exchange rates aside, $30USD seemed steep for a sandwich. A quick look around told me it was also indicative of an establishment that thought a bit too much of itself and charged accordingly. (As though to drive the point home, my stay was less than pleasant due to staff who hinted that customers were too much of a bother.)

Nonetheless, Brûlé's column got me thinking about other such hotel indicators that are right under our noses. Here are a few of my favourites. Keep them under your hat, lest the hotels catch on:

The Disinfectant Indicator: Watch For Bodies. Has a budget-rate room ever greeted you with an overpowering wallop of household disinfectant? At first you're happy ("A place this cheap, and it's clean!") and then suspicious ("why the Lysol overdose? Did houskeeping haul out a corpse earlier?"). A short while later the natural aroma returns and you're trying very hard to convince yourself that it's just mildew. Yeh, mildew, that's it.

The Hanger Indicator: There Be Thieves Among Us. Every hotel anticipates some percentage of guests will be of the sticky-fingered variety. If your home on the road has bolted down the closet hangers, they're clearly saying they can't afford to replace any missing goods. This isn't necessarily a bad sign, however: I've only seen this in the more wallet-friendly places. Better they keep the prices low this way, than by cutting back on the clean sheets.

hangers in closet
what are your hotel's hangers telling you?

The Renovation Announcement Indicator: Thanks, You're Paying For It. It seems I can't escape hotels undergoing renovation. I herald the thought of self-improvement but question those who insist on throwing numbers in my face ... before the work has been completed. When the signs are posted before or during renovations, they're a snide way of reminding you: "enjoy it, dear customer, as you will cover the cost and then some."

The Free Mini-Bar Indicator: Sucker. I briefly mentioned this one in a previous rant. If your hotel has offered you "free" minibar access, well, you clearly paid too much. But you already knew that.

Fri, 2009/02/06 - 12:36 by aargh

(Where is my head? I was supposed to have shared this link with you more than a week ago ...)

Having read this, I will see AA's long-haul meal service in a new light.

"Virgin: the world's best passenger complaint letter?"

Sorry, I didn't write it. I just don't have that kind of talent. Nor have I experienced this bad an in-flight meal.

Sun, 2009/01/18 - 18:30 by aargh

Another strange beast you'll meet in the travel world is The Hotel Minibar. I don't even know how long the concept has been around, to be honest. I only recall having noticed them for the past decade or so. That may say more to my improved choice in hotels (brought on not by an improved pocketbook, but by frustration with the dodgy inns) than an indication of recent invention.

These Lilliputian iceboxes, stocked with equally Lilliputian drinks and goodies, are both friend and foe. Friend because it means you can get simple necessities such as a drink of water or a beer at 2AM when you're too weary (read: drunk) to face another human being for room service. Foe because the prices would make a convenience store clerk blush in shame. Even the toughest of tough would crumble if they had to look someone in the eye while asking 8EU for a drink of water.

They're also a gauge of the hotel, and in particular, your room: if the mini-bar is free, you are clearly paying too much. This is genius when you stop to think about it. You can invite your friends over and offer them a drink while you explain having paid 500EU per night for the room.

So imagine my surprise when, during a recent hotel stay, I decided to give the price list a gander. It would have made for choice lecture material in an introductory business or economics course:

Alcoholic beverages were listed first. Clearly you'll need a stiff drink when you see the prices for soft drinks and sweets, listed second and third. What stood out most, however, was the last item:

menu item: Pleasuremax Vibrations: Kit Preservatif + Vibreur

I realize the image may be a little small for some screens. The menu excerpt reads: "Pleasuremax Vibrations: Kit Preservatif + Vibreur". (Google it.) Specifically, it says there are two of them. Just in case one is insufficient. The old Doublemint Gum jingle comes to mind.

My inner businessman first noticed the distinct gap of whitespace between this item and the rest. Was this a way to indicate that it was not a comestible?

Next, ever the pragmatist, I wondered: it's in the fridge for crying out loud. Even if one were to want this, and want it badly enough the hotel would know about it, who the hell would want it served cold? (-and need I mention, this was in a city where such accoutrements were available in vending machines all over town?)

Finally, I felt a pang of sympathy for the hotel staff, specifically those who have to fill the empty spot with a fresh one every morning. Now I'm sure the cleaning crews have seen more than their fare share of oddities. Hotels are that odd mix of "home," where one does damned near anything, and "borrowed," where a stranger comes in every day and pokes around. So you must drink heavily to not consider what goes on in those tiny rooms.

But then I realized: it's not all bad. If the maid sees this item has been taken from the minibar, it's their sign to simply torch the room. Because at that point mere bleach will not do.

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