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Changes are coming in 2015 for hotel guests. One will save travelers lots of money and another may cause a few headaches. The big chains, those megahotels that cater to business travelers during the week, are finally following the budget, side-of-the-road properties and offering free Wi-Fi. And, Starting Jan. 1, two of the largest hotel chains in the world are making it harder for travelers to cancel reservations.
Among the expected changes, free access to the Internet will affect the most guests. Possible savings of $10 to $15 a night can really add up over a weeklong vacation. But there are a few strings attached. The majority of chains will require guests to sign up for their free loyalty programs. Basically, if you share a little more personal information, they’ll let you surf the Web for free. At the beginning of 2014, InterContinental Hotels Group, the parent company of Holiday Inn, became the first major chain to offer free Internet to all members of its loyalty program. That’s a benefit that had been generally limited to frequent guests who have elite status. None of the competition followed until a few weeks ago when Marriott International announced that all members of its rewards program would get free, basic Wi-Fi starting Jan. 15 as long as they booked directly with the company. Elite members of Marriott Rewards will continue to get a faster, premium Internet service for free. The move is part of a long-term push by hotels to get guests to book through their own websites and call centers instead of services such as Orbitz and Expedia, to which they have to pay commissions. When Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide followed suit, it too had a similar change: free Internet starting Feb. 2 for anybody booking directly and complimentary premium service for elite members.
Hyatt Hotels Corp. was the next big chain to offer free Internet. Unlike the others, its product will be free starting in February no matter what. Guests won’t have to sign up for a club and can book through any channel they wish.
“Internet connectivity is no longer an amenity. It has become an integral part of travelers’ daily lives and a basic expectation,” said Kristine Rose, vice president of brands for Hyatt. “Travelers shouldn’t have to remember which brands or locations offer it for free or the strings attached to get it.”
Hilton Worldwide remains the biggest chain not to offer free Internet at all its properties. The savings can be substantial. For instance, the San Francisco Marriott Marquis charges $14.95 a night for Internet; the Sheraton Atlanta, $12.95 a night; and the Hyatt Regency Chicago charges anywhere from $9.95 to $39.95 a night, depending on the connection speed.
Not all of the expected changes will be good for travelers in 2015. Hilton and Marriott are rolling out new cancellation policies, forcing guests to abandon plans earlier. Many hotels let guests cancel as late as 6 p.m. on the night of arrival. That’s about to change. Both hotel chains will require guests to cancel by midnight the day before they arrive to avoid a cancellation fee, typically equal to one night’s room rate. Hilton and Marriott both justified the change saying it will make more rooms available for travelers needing last-minute accommodations. Some travelers have been making reservations long in advance for stays and then use last-minute deal apps from HotelTonight, Priceline and others to book cheap rooms hours before checking in and then cancel the original reservation. Hotels feel undercut and are left with unused rooms. This change, though not great for deal seekers, will help the hotels better manage inventory.
Airline food may be getting better according to recent study. When you are traveling 550 mph at 35,000 feet in the air, your food choices are pretty limited. The good news is that the overall trend in airline food is improving, with one of the world’s largest carriers making huge strides toward healthier food over the last year. That was the assessment from Charles Platkin, a public health expert at City University of New York School of Public Health who has been analyzing airline food for nearly 15 years. He released an annual ranking last week of airline food.“You are starting to see a major push forward,” he said. He found the biggest improvement at Delta Air Lines, which jumped from 8th out of 12 airlines in 2013 to second place this year, behind Virgin America. Delta introduced items from packaged food maker Luvo, including fruit and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and vegetables and hummus wraps for lunch and dinner. “When an airline like Delta makes a move like this, it’s a really big move that is going to start a trend,” he said. Low-cost airlines like Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit ranked at the bottom, with food choices so limited and unhealthy that Plotkin advised fliers on all three carriers to bring their own food.
How travel to Cuba may change
President Obama’s order on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years has many ramifications, including for travel. Many restrictions remain in place for Americans wanting to visit Cuba, but the order makes it easier for a number of prospective travelers.
Q. What impact will Wednesday’s announcement have on the number of Americans wanting to travel to Cuba?
A. It’s too early to tell. Many Americans clearly have a strong interest in traveling to Cuba. Citing Cuban government data. More than 90,000 Americans visited Cuba legally in 2012 and 2013 — more than twice the number that traveled (to Cuba) legally in 2008 — under people-to-people cultural exchanges. These exchanges, which require travelers to go with a licensed operator, were reinstituted by President Obama in 2011 to allow travel to Cuba for educational purposes, “not for down time on the beach,” said Steve Loucks, chief communications officer at the Plymouth, Minn.-based Travel Leaders Group. Mr. Loucks said he anticipates demand for these exchanges to continue to increase, especially after Wednesday’s announcement. “We are already feeling a great deal of demand from clients wanting to go to Cuba, because it has been off limits for over 50 years,” he said. “We now expect the number of bookings to Cuba to grow exponentially.”
Q. Does this mean travel agencies will start organizing more trips to Cuba?
A. In some cases, yes. In fact, some were trying to meet increased demand before Wednesday’s announcement. Last week, Tauck, a tour operator based in Norwalk, Conn., extended its eight-day people-to-people cultural journey to Cuba to 13 days with stops in five cities. “I think it’s a destination like no other,” said Katharine Bonner, vice president for river and small ship cruising at Tauck, who has taken five trips to Cuba in the last three years. Joe Diaz, co-founder of the travel and publishing company Afar Media, said he agreed with that description. “It is really something out of the 1950s,” he said. “That’s what makes Cuba special."
Q. Will getting a passport/visa become easier?
A. Mr. Diaz said he thinks so. “But it seems like leisure and tourist travel are still prohibited,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see what happens.” President Obama’s order will open up general licenses to travel for the following reasons, which previously required approval on a case-by-case basis:
Public performances, workshops and athletic competitions. Support for the Cuban people, including human rights work. Humanitarian work. Private foundations and institutes. Information dissemination.
Travel related to export of authorized products. But lifting all restrictions on travel, including for tourism, would require congressional approval.
Q. Will United States airlines start flying commercially to Cuba?
A. Possibly, but don’t head to Kennedy International Airport or O’Hare International Airport any time soon and expect to hop a commercial flight to Havana. Commercial service from the United States to the Cuban capital is “going to be down the road,” Mr. Loucks said. “Many airlines are already flying between Miami and Havana, but it’s more of a charter service. It’s essentially ferrying family members back and forth along with those on people-to-people exchanges.”
Q. What is the hotel room/accommodation situation in Cuba now?
A. “There is a lot, but at the high end there are only a couple of good properties,” Mr. Diaz said. “People don’t go to Cuba for the luxury — they go for the music, culture and arts scene.” But if Cuba opens up to American tourists and their penchant for luxury accommodations, “you’re going to see American hoteliers doing their best to find potential properties in Cuba,” Mr. Loucks said. “There are some standout properties there in Havana and some of the beach communities.”
Q. What will be the impact of travelers being able to use United States debit and credit cards in Cuba?
A: A positive one, Ms. Bonner said. “Being able to use credit cards will make it so much easier,” she said. “Right now you have to think in advance how much cash you need, and it can become quite an ordeal.”
The United States trade embargo is still in place, and will be until Congress says otherwise, but as a result of the administration’s policy shift, “licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined,” the White House said. That’s good news for Cuban cigar and rum aficionados returning to the United States.
Q. What are other changes American visitors to Cuba can expect?
A. The administration has said it will re-establish a United States Embassy in Havana, which could be widely embraced by American tour operators and visitors to Cuba. “Having a U.S. Embassy in a destination puts everyone’s mind at ease,” Ms. Bonner said. Getting connected to the Internet is another change that could be coming for visitors to the island. “Some hotels in Cuba don’t have Internet at all,” Ms. Bonner said. According to the White House, “Cuba has an Internet penetration of about 5 percent — one of the lowest rates in the world.” Changes by the administration could help Cuba strengthen its technological infrastructure. Ms. Bonner, though, said she is taking a wait-and-see approach with this and the other measures outlined on Wednesday.
The Transportation Department will decide in 2015 whether to keep a ban on voice communications on flights to, from and within the U.S.The rule, which was scheduled to be out this month, has been delayed and new rules are due in April. Based on individual comments the proposal received during a one-month period, the odds would seem to favor a ban on voice chatter: Of 1,700 comments filed by the public, 96% favored a ban, the DOT says. Airlines say the choice of whether to allow voice calls should be up to them, not government regulation. They note many airlines around the world successfully, and peacefully, allow voice calls. Some passengers now rely on the service and complain about when it isn’t available, they say.
The Federal Communications Commission already proposed dropping its ban on in-flight cellular use aboard airplanes equipped with technology to capture and relay cell signals. The FCC prohibited in-flight cellular use in 1991 because phones at 35,000 feet would hit hundreds of cellular towers simultaneously and lock up a huge amount of bandwidth. Now, the FCC says, there’s no technological reason to keep the ban. Still, the agency says it will wait for DOT to take action before it publishes its final rule. The European Commission approved in-flight voice cellphone calls in 2009. At least 21 airlines around the world offer in-flight voice service and report few problems. Passengers end up liking the convenience, and most just put phones on vibrate, then text and email.
Voice calling does appear to be growing. OnAir, a unit of Geneva-based technology firm SITA and the largest provider of in-flight phone service, says 21% of its usage on commercial flights is voice, up from 10% in early 2014. The rest is data and text messaging. The average voice call is shorter than two minutes, it says.
“Our experience is that it is a nonissue,” says Terry Daly, senior vice president for service delivery at Emirates, one of the airlines offering voice communications. Ambient noise in the cabin muffles most voice calls for surrounding passengers, he says. There has been far more opposition in the U.S. to phone calls on planes, even though some U.S. airlines offered phone service in the 1990s through very expensive handsets installed in seat backs.
A TripAdvisor survey of 4,300 respondents in June found 81% opposed allowing in-flight cellphone use. Many travelers say they fear not only the annoyance of having to listen to a seatmate’s personal conversation in close quarters, but also an increase in air-rage episodes. Planes have been diverted to unscheduled landings for far less, including passengers arguing over whether a seat can be reclined or overhead bin space. With people squeezed closer and closer together in coach cabins, flight attendants also have lobbied to ban calls to avoid passenger quarrels. A bill to prohibit voice communications during passenger flights made it out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but hasn’t gone beyond that. In September, 77 members of Congress also wrote to DOT supporting a ban.
“On planes, tap, don’t talk,” Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bill Shuster, one of the sponsors of the proposal, said in a statement. “In our day-to-day lives, when we find someone’s cellphone call to be too loud, too close or too personal, we can just walk away. At 30,000 feet, there’s nowhere else for an airline passenger to go.”
Airlines for America, the lobbying group for U.S. carriers, and the International Air Transport Association have both suggested to DOT that the marketplace should decide whether to offer voice communications on planes. Some carriers, including Delta Air Lines , have said they would prohibit voice calls even if they were allowed in the U.S. Delta says customer research shows frequent fliers believe it would be a disruption. Chief Executive Richard Anderson has said Delta would like to offer texting, email and other silent phone uses, gate to gate. Others have been noncommittal, saying that if customers end up wanting the service, they may provide it if allowed. Several airlines outside the U.S. also have chosen to ban calls even though they have the capability to allow them on some planes, including British Airways , Lufthansa , Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways.
OnAir and AeroMobile Communications Ltd. are two companies providing most in-flight voice service now. They say there have been few, if any, reported disputes over voice calls on airlines that allow them. Voice calls get charged at basic international roaming rates, which can be as high as $3 a minute or more, and are billed on your regular cellular monthly statement.
Airlines say there isn’t much revenue for them in voice calling, but they like offering it as a customer convenience. Many high-fare business travelers want to stay as connected as possible on long flights. Wi-Fi was once seen as a luxury on planes. But now some travelers consider it a prerequisite for booking a particular flight. Some airlines think voice-calling capabilities will be the same: If not available, customers may book other flights. James Hogan, chief executive of Etihad Airways, which has voice communications on some flights, says not many passengers use it. But some tell them they’re frustrated when they don’t have it. “You don’t hear chatter at all” when they’re on the phone, he says. “Not many people want to be surrounded by 30 people when they are having a loud conversation.”
Airlines around the world are one-upping each other on first-class perks. (WSJ] Business class has become what first class used to be—rows of big seats with attentive service and good food. That means first class has to be something really special to justify a higher price, which can be as much as 20 times what a coach ticket costs. On larger new planes capable of flying longer distances, airlines have more cabin space to play with for premium customers.
On Dec. 27, Etihad Airways is launching a 125-square-foot apartment called “The Residence” in the nose of its Airbus A380 superjumbo jets, staffed by a Savoy Hotel-trained personal butler. One person or a couple gets to order whatever they want to eat or drink, enjoy a living room with a 32-inch television, a private bathroom with a glass sink and shower and then retire to a bedroom, which also has a big-screen TV. They have complete privacy, never seen by other passengers or crew. The ticket price for one or two people is $20,000 one-way for the eight-hour flight between London and Abu Dhabi, Etihad’s home in the United Arab Emirates. Half of the flights to London are already booked through the middle of January. The Residence, built into the nose of the double-deck airplane, will start flying between Abu Dhabi and Sydney in May and New York before the end of next year. Passengers range from government officials to investment-firm executives to celebrities and some wealthy passengers who just want to celebrate an anniversary in style.
Lufthansa has put sleeping beds separate from seats in first class on its Boeing 747-400s. Seats that fold down into beds on some other aircraft get foam mattress toppers. Singapore Airlines has first-class suites on its A380s with large seats, separate foldout beds and sliding doors with window shades for privacy.
The divider between suites in the middle of the plane can be lowered for a couple to enjoy a double bed. Flight attendants can see over the top, however, and the suites aren’t soundproof. Singapore asks first-class passengers to keep things PG-rated out of respect to other passengers.
United and American, the only big U.S. carriers with international first-class service (Delta is all-business class on long international trips) have stepped up their first-class game a bit but are still far from offering enclosed suites. American’s Flagship Suites on Boeing 777-300ER international flights offer a seat that swivels and folds out into a 6-foot, 8-inch long bed, but without privacy doors.
Emirates’ A380s have two showers for first class. Passengers get a water allotment that lasts about five minutes at full pressure. A meter goes from green to amber to red as water is used. In all, passengers get about 20 minutes in the shower, and most don’t take that long.
The plane typically carries 132 gallons of drinkable water for shower use, which adds about 1,100 pounds in weight. That’s about the same as carrying five extra passengers and their baggage. “The cost is less than people think,” says Emirates Senior Vice President Hubert Frach. Emirates is developing new premium products, too, he says, noting there’s a limit on how much space his airline is willing to give customers. “We have to make money,” he says.
Etihad claims it will. The airline’s 10 upcoming A380s from Airbus will have 70 business-class seats on the upper deck, plus nine regular first-class cabins and the Residence. The new, regular first-class seats on the A380 will be ensconced behind sliding doors and will have 74% more space than a typical first-class cabin on Etihad.
Etihad already has a corps of flying chefs for first class. They start with chicken, meats and fish already seared on the ground, then cooked in the air. Enrico Nanchioli, a chef from Turin, Italy, who has worked restaurants in Switzerland, Germany, Brazil and Napa Valley, talks to passengers about what they want and then creates. “It’s like you have your own restaurant,” Mr. Nanchioli says. His proudest concoction: Arabic tiramisu. He uses cut up breakfast waffles, Arabic coffee, chocolate, dates and ice cream to make a layered dessert.
The three-room Residence is laid out in an area that’s been hard for airlines to use well on the upper deck of the A380, above the cockpit. The space is too narrow for regular seating, and some airlines have chosen to use it as a communal lounge, with a long couch on the plane’s sidewall. Others use it for showers or bathrooms.
Mr. Hogan says the area was essentially “dead space.” A seven-year development effort for the A380 led to the Residence, which the airline initially thought about calling the Penthouse. The Residence’s butlers, like the airline’s flying chefs, are trained as flight attendants, but have their own specific duties. Etihad sent 13 flight attendants, all trained as chefs or food and beverage managers, for three weeks of training in London by Savoy Hotel butlers. Before a flight they call or visit a passenger or his or her assistant to find out preferences like favorite drinks before takeoff, favorite colors, foods, magazines, newspapers and toiletries.
“If they want everything Chanel, it will be Chanel,” says Tomas Piroska, from Slovakia, who is one of Etihad’s butlers.
During the flight, the butler attends only to the Residence. (If there are no passengers in the Residence, the butler changes jackets and works in regular first class and business class.) From an iPad, the butler can make London dinner reservations in-flight. He or she can mend clothing, shine shoes, press shirts and arrange flowers. The Residence has Wedgwood china, Vera Wang crystal glass and a bed wide enough for two and 82 inches long, or enough to fit a 6-foot-10 passenger, with Egyptian cotton sheets. The shower works on a 4-minute cycle, but you can use as much water as you want. And breakfast in bed is routine.
The butler is the only crew member allowed to interact with Residence guests, and just like a hotel room, he or she knocks before opening the door to the apartment. An Etihad spokeswoman calls the Residence “the most private space in the sky, and we respect our guests’ privacy.”