Using Resort Fees To Identify Opaque Hotels

One of the biggest scams that hotels are pulling lately is the addition of the “resort fee.” This odious practice started about 5 years ago in Las Vegas. It has now gotten so bad that even trucker motels charge resort fees. These days, it’s very difficult to find a room at all without paying them.

Think a truck stop motel doesn't charge resort fees? Think again.

Think a truck stop motel doesn’t charge resort fees? Think again. The Wild Wild West charges $11.19.

Unfortunately, resort fees are a double-whammy: room prices in Las Vegas have gone up–a lot! It now routinely costs over $300 per night at the better Strip properties over summer weekends. And this is the rate before resort fees, which at some properties add an additional $35.84 per night. When you consider that just a few years ago, you could get an entire room downtown for about the same as a resort fee on the Strip today, you can truly wrap your head around the extent of the madness.

Every summer, I attend DEF CON, which is the world’s largest hacker convention. I’m speaking at an event just beforehand, bSides Las Vegas, where I’m getting a $70 per night convention rate (where the usual $27 nightly resort fee is waived). However, Friday and Saturday nights are $110 per night, and I pretty much won’t ever spend over $100 per night for a hotel room. So this left me looking for a better deal. And at my usual favorite properties, there aren’t any.

The thing is, I needed to be in a particular part of town. You just don’t want to be that far away from DEF CON – the conference is really exhausting and a long commute after each day is more than most folks want to deal with. However, being away from The Strip is nice. My compromise over the last several years has been to stay in the UNLV area. It’s relatively close to The Strip, and I know my way around and (more or less) where everything is. Unfortunately the price of hotels in this area has steadily crept up as other people have discovered my secret, and prices are beginning to approach some areas of The Strip.

However, I have an ace up my sleeve. Although the list prices are up, bookings really aren’t in the part of town where I like to book. Most of the time, it’s not as busy as The Strip. So, while hotels in the area have high list prices, they offer a lot of discounts. Priceline and Hotwire both offer blind booking services where you don’t know the name of the hotel before you book. This can really suck if you pick the wrong property: I have had serious cases of “Hotwire regret” (and the same, although less often, with Priceline). In particular, Hotwire takes artistic license with star levels to the same extent as Expedia–which makes sense, because they’re actually owned by Expedia. And while star levels and resort fees may be a usual source of consumer pain, both of these things make it easier to find out the name of the hotel where you’ll be staying. It’s not 100% reliable but it certainly isn’t bad.

To identify a Priceline or Hotwire hotel, I usually start with BetterBidding. These folks attempt to unmask hotels by the amenities listed. While this method can work, it’s not 100% reliable. Properties in Las Vegas change their amenities around frequently, and the properties participating with Priceline and Hotwire also change frequently. You may find enough information to unmask a property here, but you should combine this data with additional information: the star level (if you’re booking on Hotwire) and the resort fee.

A current listing of hotel resort fees is here, and resort fees are disclosed (albeit in small print) on the booking page of Priceline and Hotwire. They don’t tell you the exact price down to the cent, but you can get a pretty good idea. A resort fee of “about $27” in the “East Of Strip – UNLV” area probably means that you’re looking at the Tuscany. Similarly, if no resort fee is listed, you have an even better idea given the shrinking number of properties not charging a resort fee.

Looking for my dates, I found a $74 per night rate listed on Hotwire in the UNLV area for a 2 1/2 star property including breakfast, parking, WiFi, and a free 24 hour shuttle to The Strip. Best of all, there was no resort fee. However, the amenities and star levels didn’t actually match up with anything listed on BetterBidding. However, in checking the area and the properties with no resort fee whatsoever and offering free breakfast that could reasonably be considered a 2 1/2 star, I thought there was a pretty good chance that I would land at either the Baymont Inn and Suites or the La Quinta.

Another fun trick with Hotwire is that there are often coupons you can find online that apply to hotels. I found one on RetailMeNot for $25 off a booking of $150 or more. I was able to offset most of the taxes and fees with the coupon (which worked, although only if you followed the instructions and booked using the Hotwire mobile app). Adding to the problem of fake low headline room rates in Las Vegas, booking sites add on taxes and booking fees at the end and these can jack up the actual price you pay by $25 or more. In this case, I ended up paying about $154 for 2 nights. And I got the LaQuinta, which is very close to Paris and Bally’s, so I’m happy with the result.

Did I really save the 54% Hotwire claimed? Yes, versus the highest rack rate the hotel lists. However, the actual price if you booked directly with the hotel is $99 per night, plus 12% tax. Nevertheless, I saved about $35 per night. That’s not a bad result, and I ended up in a property I’m happy with at a price that–while more than I like to spend–is just about the best weekend deal you can get for a decent room these days in Las Vegas.

 

Blazing Through Belgrade – Part 1

If you book award tickets between North America and Europe, you probably know how big of a challenge it can be to find transatlantic award availability. Getting over the water is the hardest part and you need to have a really high degree of flexibility on which gateway cities you use. Additionally, depending on availability, there might be no actual way to get to your final destination on a single award ticket.

Fortunately, when you’re flying intra-Europe, it’s generally not too expensive to just buy a ticket. Numerous low-cost carriers operate in the region and there’s usually a cheap way to get between European cities. After all, Europe is so small that it’s hard to find a flight longer than 3 hours in any given direction. So, this is how I ended up booking a ticket from Los Angeles to Istanbul via Frankfurt. Not many people want to fly to Istanbul from the US right now, so it’s turning out to be one of the best award gateways to Europe for this summer–if you can accept the SSSS risk. So, for my trip to Zagreb, I found an award flight to Istanbul on Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), and found a return flight from Milan on airBerlin. There wasn’t any actual award availability to anywhere in Croatia, though, so I had to fill the gap.

Croatia, unfortunately, isn’t one of those places where you can fly cheaply. The only low-cost carrier to serve Zagreb, easyJet, pulled out earlier this year. So, forget about catching a $50 hop on a low cost carrier from a European gateway city like you can to most places. Almost every flight I was looking at cost over $400, except for a flight on airSerbia with a 23-hour layover in Belgrade.

serbiabombedYeah, that. Belgrade. The city that was bombed by NATO. Most Americans have long forgotten this, but the scars of the Yugoslav civil war and the NATO bombing campaign are still visible all over the city. Although Serbia doesn’t require a visa for Americans to enter, it’s not a member of the European Union. It doesn’t recognize the borders of Kosovo, either. So, I honestly had to wonder just how warm a reception I could expect as an American in Belgrade. The NATO bombing campaign wasn’t that long ago–I was still in college then. There was also the matter of flying Air Serbia. It’s the former Yugoslav Airlines, marred by bankruptcy after being mired in over a decade of mismanagement.

I held my breath and booked the ticket. I just found it mentally impossible to justify paying $200 more, and the fare rules sealed the deal. Air Serbia has exceptionally flexible fare rules, so I was able to book an open jaw itinerary as a roundtrip rather than two point-to-point one-way itineraries. Air Serbia is also very flexible with changes, which was important because I was flying a hidden cities itinerary and these are super risky. If it turned out I couldn’t depart from Frankfurt as booked and planned, I could change my ticket and depart from Istanbul instead. The price was $218.30 and my itinerary would allow me nearly 23 hours in Belgrade on the outbound, plus a long afternoon in Belgrade on my return.

It was an uneventful flight on Lufthansa to Frankfurt. The service was efficient and entirely unremarkable–typically German. After arriving in Frankfurt, I found the Air Serbia check-in counter. It opens 3 hours before departure and I had a 6 hour layover, so I ended up dropping my bags at the luggage storage facility next door. It’s conveniently located, albeit expensive (the cost was about 15 euro to drop my bags for the day). I then hopped on the U-Bahn (fortunately I had a European chip and PIN card that worked on the ticket vending machine) and headed to central Frankfurt.

Frankfurter in Frankfurt

What’s a layover in Frankfurt without a frankfurter? It hit the spot!

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

Trees budding in the springtime sun

Trees budding in the springtime sun

It is a long flight from LA to Frankfurt and I was pretty tired from being on the road. I stretched out and napped on a park bench, soaking up the sun and enjoying the afternoon. Since a lot of not-obviously-homeless people were doing the same thing, I figured it was socially acceptable. It was bliss; sometimes the best things in life are free. Eventually, the time came to make my way back to the airport. I stopped at Starbucks for coffee, at a Chinese shop next door for some snacks, and hopped on the subway.

An uneventful trip back to the airport, and I retrieved my bag. I’d gotten back sooner than planned, and was about 2 hours early for my departure. By now, the Air Serbia counter was staffed. After meticulously weighing all of my bags and requiring me to shift items from one bag into another one (this was done for no good reason, it only served the purpose of hassling me), I was issued a boarding pass and my carry-on items were tagged. Almost no line at immigration, and I was thoroughly and efficiently stamped out of Germany (the immigration agent briefly quizzing me on why I was arriving and leaving on the same day, since I had booked two separate tickets on the itinerary). Once through, I proceeded to the gate area.

The gate used by Air Serbia in Frankfurt is all the way at the end of the international departures area, and you don’t actually clear security until the gate is open. Who opens the gate? The same people who run the check-in desk. And there is nowhere to sit until the gate area is opened. A lot of sour-faced people from the Balkans were standing around looking less than entirely amused, and there were a lot of screaming kids. So, since I had about an hour before boarding, I headed upstairs to a completely deserted transit lounge. Ever wonder what airport employees do in between flights when the terminal isn’t busy? A lot of napping and a lot of texting with their friends on the phone. Most of the employees seemed surprised that a passenger was there, but I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me.

Eventually, I made my way down to the gate. The outside area was even more crowded now, with people even more sour-faced and children crying. Eventually a security guard showed up, then another few trickled in, and they began preparing the gate. German security is Very Serious, with the supervisor first clearing all of the security guards through security. Still no Air Serbia employees yet, though. Those came about 5 minutes later, arriving on bicycles, the same people who had been operating the check-in counter! They actually had to be cleared through security as well, along with the flight crew who showed up exactly when the gate was opening, clearly being more aware than passengers of the actual boarding time.

The boarding process was a little chaotic, definitely not organized like the US or Singapore but more organized than Russia or China. I could see that it wasn’t a full flight, so even though I had a large carry-on bag, I didn’t worry too much about the mad boarding scramble. I slipped into the line in front of an inexperienced traveler, with about the closest that you’ll ever get to a nod and wink from the German gate staff, and boarded the plane. Next stop, Belgrade!

Off The Beaten Path In The Netherlands

I spent nearly a year living and studying in The Netherlands, and am often asked for advice on what to see and do there. The Netherlands (often incorrectly called Holland) has a lot to see for such a small country, and it’s easy to navigate. It’s also a terrific gateway to Europe, because there are a large number of flights (including on low-cost carriers) into Schiphol airport. Although Dutch people speak their own language, they’re very linguistically versatile. Nearly everyone speaks excellent English (younger people especially so), and they usually also speak German. So, The Netherlands is a great first country to visit in Europe–or a great first country to visit in general.

Dutch boat and canal

If you visit The Netherlands, you’ll probably end up on a boat at some point.

Unfortunately, none of this is really a secret. The Netherlands is one of the most-visited countries in Europe, and for good reason: it’s home to some of its most famous museums and attractions. During the tourist season, The Netherlands is besieged by visitors, not only from North America and Europe but also from Asia. For a small country with only 14 million residents, the top attractions can become very crowded indeed. And for some reason, even though there is no shortage of places to visit in The Netherlands, everyone seems to flock to the same ones.

As I sit in Weesp, having enjoyed an idyllic and beautiful fall Sunday in a picture postcard Dutch town with nary another visitor to be seen, I am amazed that more people don’t make it off the beaten path in The Netherlands. Haarlem, a very similar city, is besieged by throngs of tourists, the restaurants and shops charging inflated tourist prices. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Belgian beer in a sunny sidewalk cafe for a mere €4.50 this afternoon, while watching the locals enjoy the day in their boats.

Weesp sidewalk cafe

Sidewalk cafes in Weesp are every bit as nice, but just half the price of Haarlem

It’s not just idyllic country towns that are great to visit when you go off the beaten path. Every weekend, planeloads of visitors descend on Schiphol and head straight for the Red Light district in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a party, this is one place to go, but not the best place. Despite the marijuana and prostitution, it’s a pretty relaxed, organized and tame place. It’s really crowded though, with the high prices you would expect in a really popular area. Personally, I skip the Red Light District. As a guy with a fairly serious DJ hobby, I’m into electronic music, and the best music and parties are in the young, vibrant city of Utrecht. For half the price of an evening out in Amsterdam, you can see much better DJs and have a lot better time at an Utrecht dance party. It’s also a beautiful city, known as the “city of lights” in The Netherlands and famous for the elaborate light displays along its canals.

Utrecht City Of Lights

The party is at the end of this tunnel.

How about art? Everyone knows about the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, did you know that there’s an astonishingly large Van Gogh collection at a museum you have probably never heard of? I think the seldom-visited Kröller-Müller Museum in Gelderland is a lot better than the Van Gogh Museum, even though it’s less well-known. It also has an incredible sculpture garden. It’s best if you rent a car to get there, but if you do, you might just have the place to yourself.

One reason that many people don’t venture far from the beaten path is the perceived complexity of public transportation. However, in reality, Dutch public transportation is one of the easiest systems to use in the world. It’s really only complicated if you’re trying to pay cash or use a non-European bank card. The Netherlands has a unified transportation payment system called the OV-Chipkaart. It works in literally every bus, train, subway and tram in the country. All of them, everywhere. You can buy one at the NS train ticket sales counter at Schiphol, and it will make your life incredibly easier. Public transportation is relatively expensive in The Netherlands, so 50 euro goes fast! Reloading is easy with cash or a credit card at any train station with a ticket counter. You can also reload your OV-Chipkaart at ticket machines, but this only works reliably with a European credit card with chip and PIN.

OV-Chipkaart reader

Scan your OV-Chipkaart on the reader

Using the OV-Chipkaart is remarkably simple. Just scan it before (or as) you get into the bus, train, train or subway. When you leave, scan it again. You’re charged by distance, and the fares add up quickly. Transportation in The Netherlands is expensive! That’s why you see everyone riding a bicycle; you will pay to be lazy. Your account will need a minimum balance of 20 euro to board a NS Railways train (which is why it’s best to start with 50 euro on your card), but you usually don’t need any minimum balance to board a subway, tram or bus.

It actually gets even better than this. You only need one way to plan travel in The Netherlands: either the Web site or smartphone app 9292. You can easily plan a trip between any two locations in the country and all methods of public transportation are covered. You can even find out the cost in advance. Content is all available in both English and Dutch. Yes, it really is this easy. The best way to search is by postal code, if you have it. Note that every single address in The Netherlands has its own unique postal code.

Dutch weather

The weather can change suddenly, even if it’s nice where you just were. Bring an umbrella!

Are there more hidden gems in The Netherlands? Of course! Some of my other favorite cities are Groningen, Maastricht and Den Haag (The Hague). Each has a very different personality. Groningen is famous for squatter dwellings, warehouse parties and graffiti art. Maastricht has winding cobblestone streets where you can find an absolutely perfect cup of fine Dutch Espresso, sipping slowly and watching the world go by. And Den Haag is a rabbit’s warren of serendipitous discoveries, with some of the most interesting and unique shops in the country.

But I have really only scratched the surface. For such a small country, there is a lot to enjoy in The Netherlands. Take the train to a place you’ve never heard of, rent a bicycle (possible for a few euro at most train stations) and go explore! You might be amazed at what you find.