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.

 

FlightCar: Sharing Economy Gone Horribly Wrong

If you’re a frequent traveler, you have likely encountered the sharing economy. Uber doesn’t actually own any cars or employ the drivers, but they move roughly as many people around every day as airlines. Airbnb doesn’t actually own any rooms, but they rent more rooms than many hotel chains. I’m generally an early adopter of technology (as you might expect given that I’m a startup founder), so I was eager to try another innovation in the sharing economy: FlightCar. Unfortunately, this proved to be a very expensive mistake.

When you see this company, run the other direction!

When you see this name, run!

FlightCar’s pitch is simple: park your car with them. You won’t pay for parking, they’ll drop you off and pick you up at the airport, and your car will be clean, fueled and waiting when you return. The catch? They can rent out your car to their customers while your car is with them. If they do, you’ll be paid 10 cents per mile driven. Easy, right? This seemed like a no-brainer when I took a recent trip to The Philippines, and needed to leave my car parked at LAX for a month. Nothing could have prepared me for the nightmare that ensued.

Just one problem: this isn’t my car!

When I arrived back at LAX after a long international trip, I had only one thing on my mind: pick up my car so I could get to my friend’s house and go to sleep. My connecting flight had been delayed for 3 1/2 hours in Seoul, so it was late and I was tired. I called the toll-free number for FlightCar and they dispatched a driver.

Eventually, I got a call from a guy who showed up in a creaky old Lincoln Town Car. He drove me in silence to the FlightCar office. I felt a vague sense of impending doom. “Did you see the photos I sent?” was the first question from the representative. “No, what happened?” I replied. “Follow me,” said the representative, taking me out into the parking lot to a scratched and damaged Nissan Versa. “There was an accident,” he said. “Well, just one problem,” I said. “This isn’t my car.”

I looked around the parking lot. My car was nowhere to be seen. “This…isn’t your car?” the representative repeated, slowly. “Yes, my car is a hatchback, this is a sedan,” I replied. “It definitely isn’t my car.” This kicked off a 3 hour long circus, whereupon my car was located in the hands of a renter in West Hollywood. Apparently, since it was the only car on the lot, FlightCar rented it out even though I was returning. They figured they’d pick up the pieces later. I’m not sure how often this happens (the representative wouldn’t say) but I wasn’t having it. I needed my car to embark on a cross-country trip the next day. Eventually, we arrived at a solution where we’d take the damaged Versa to the renter in West Hollywood, swap it there, and I’d retrieve my car. It wasn’t clean, and wasn’t full of gas. I paid to top up the tank (although FlightCar claims they’ll reimburse me). I signed off to receive my measly $97 in compensation for my car being driven nearly 1000 miles by 4 different renters. And I also signed off on the damage report.

The damage on to the lower part of your bumper and plastic shielding beneath your car are considered “Wear and Tear”

While being rented out for nearly every day of the past month, some damage had occurred to my vehicle. When I checked in my vehicle with FlightCar, they assured me that I would be covered if there was any damage, touting their $1,000,000 insurance policy. This is the same insurance policy that is liberally touted on their Web page. Unfortunately, there is fine print, and I was burned by it: Hundreds of dollars in damages to my car are not covered by FlightCar or my own insurance.

That insurance policy? Not so much.

That insurance policy? Not so much.

Just look at the damage that was caused to my car:

IMG_20160316_095219 IMG_20160316_095250 IMG_20160316_095308In case you’re wondering which of these damages is covered by FlightCar’s $1,000,000 insurance policy–the windshield rock chip or the massive paint scrapes and underskirt damage – it’s the rock chip. My own auto insurance is of no help either. Because my car was not operated by me and was being commercially used by FlightCar, my own insurance won’t pay to repair the damage either. I am left holding the bag. Here is FlightCar’s response to me:

Per our “Owner’s Terms” the damage on to the lower part of your bumper and plastic shielding beneath your car are considered “Wear and Tear”. As long as the damage is purely cosmetic.
 
We can, however, cover your windshield. I would need a picture of the chip or crack in your windshield to compare it to the photos we have on file. As soon as you send me that photo I can help you move forward with your claim.
 
 
Thank you,
 
Sayeed Shah
Resolutions Manager

Warning: Not all sharing economy companies are alike and participating in the sharing economy can end up costing you money.

Some companies, like airbnb, have your back. If an airbnb member damages your home, airbnb will take care of you. FlightCar, unfortunately, is hiding behind several pages of dense legalese that apparently say the exact opposite of both their advertising and their representatives.

Update: More than 2 months after I posted this, FlightCar’s new head of customer service reached out to me. We came to an agreement: FlightCar would repair my car to the condition it was in when I dropped it off, and I would update this blog post to say so. They held up their end of the bargain, so I’m holding up mine.

Don’t Get Conned By Chase: Read The Fine Print!

I like getting bonus miles to share a good deal with friends, and I don’t like fine print. Chase is offering some of both in their most recent refer-a-friend promo for the Rapid Rewards Visa that you may have signed up for when I offered it in November. Beware: you might not get the miles you expect for signing up your friends if Chase also offers you a referral bonus.

I received an offer in the mail last week offering me 5,000 miles for every person that I refer through June 30th. However, there is a lot of disturbing fine print so I called Chase today to confirm the details of the offer. What I found out was really disturbing and Chase may not honor the referral deal as clearly published. So, if you choose to participate in this program, it’s best to be fully aware of how it might bite you.

Changing Promotions

Chase can change the terms of the promotion at any time. So, although I received a refer-a-friend offer in the mail for up to 10 friends–and they even included 10 tear-off referral cards to share–my promotion was silently cut back! What did Chase do? They pared back the promotion to only allowing 6 referrals instead of 10, and this was done with no prior notification. I would never have known unless I called Chase and they told me that they did this. I would have done the work of selling 4 friends and readers on their card (which, to be clear, is actually a good deal) for no compensation whatsoever.

Calendar Year Can Clobber Your Points

Making matters worse, Chase only awards 50,000 referral points per calendar year. I completed 10 referrals in November and December. However, the points haven’t been credited to my account yet, and won’t be credited until sometime in 2016. Chase measures “calendar year” based on when they credit the points to your account, not based on when the referral was completed. So, if I participate in any referral programs in 2016 at all, I’ll be helping Chase sell credit cards, but I won’t actually get the referral bonus for doing so. If I hadn’t asked, I would have done a lot of work for nothing.

Calling Out Chase

Most travel bloggers won’t ever call out a bank for doing something wrong or questionable. After all, Chase pays good money for referrals, which is why most travel blogs are always going on and on about the Sapphire Preferred card (which, to be honest, just isn’t all that good). I’m not afraid to call out Chase, though–they’ve never paid me a dime. The refer-a-friend program is rife with exclusions and “gotcha” clauses and there’s simply no excuse for it. If Chase takes the referral, they should cough up the miles without any weaseling. After all, referring friends and readers doesn’t stop with them signing up for the card. It’s a lot of work! People come to me about any problems they have with the card, or any questions they have about the Rapid Rewards program in general.

What’s Next?

I still think that the Rapid Rewards Visa offer with 50,000 bonus points is a good deal (vs. their normal 25,000 bonus point offer, which isn’t good). However, the refer-a-friend program just isn’t credible. It’s just too rife with conditions, exclusions, and last-minute changes. If you’re going to participate, I recommend you call Chase every time to confirm the details before you make a referral. And given the amount of time this requires, you might prefer to avoid the program altogether.

Avoiding Rental Contract Tricks Abroad

Renting a car outside the United States can be a lot different than renting one within it. There are plenty of pitfalls that can trip you up and cost you extra. I just rented a car from a small, local company in Budapest and there were even more traps than usual. So, although the last thing that you may want to do after a long international flight is sit down and read the tiny print of a rental contract, it pays to go through it.

First, when you rent a car abroad, all of the normal stuff that you need to watch out for in the US applies. Be sure that you inspect the car for damage before you get in and drive off. Don’t believe anything the rental agent says about the damage not mattering–be sure that it’s carefully noted on the rental form. Also don’t be afraid to take a quick photo of the agent with the car, especially if there is visible damage. This will go a long way towards ensuring there are not arguments later.

Other things to watch out for are insurance scams and additional driver charges. Unless you rent with a rate that includes multiple drivers, you will probably have to pay extra for each driver. And then there’s insurance. It works differently abroad. In the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, all rental cars include both comprehensive and liability insurance. However, there is typically a 10% deductible and also an “excess,” which is an amount that you have to pay before any coverage kicks in. Many credit cards include insurance that will entirely cover any damages to the rental car, so you don’t need this coverage. However, this doesn’t typically stop rental car companies from trying to insinuate that the insurance is required, or that you will have problems using credit card insurance. There definitely can be insurance problems if you use a credit card, but these can be avoided by reviewing the coverage in advance. Note that all bets are off in Israel, Jamaica, Ireland and Northern Ireland where no credit cards offer coverage for rental cars.

However, some charges are out of left field. Have you ever taken a rental car to a car wash? Make sure that the contract doesn’t require it, and that there isn’t a car wash fee. In the contract, there was a 15 euro car wash fee, unless I washed the car myself! Since the car wasn’t actually clean when I rented it, I got the rental company to waive it, but I doubt they would have done so if I hadn’t asked up front. Additionally, there can be a border crossing fee. I needed to cross into Croatia from Hungary, and paid an additional 19 euro charge to do it. However, the vehicle was monitored via GPS, and if I hadn’t paid this, the rental car company would have fined me 150 euro as a penalty–and that charge is per border I crossed. In Europe, countries can be roughly the size of postage stamps, so this can add up in a hurry. Finally, there was an administration fee. If I had run up any tolls, traffic fines, or parking fines, these would all be individually billed with a 50 euro surcharge per item.

Read the fine print when you rent, and avoid nasty surcharges! There are few nice surprises when it comes to renting cars.

Reducing Rotten Resort Fees

One of the most evil and insidious creeping inventions of the hotel industry in recent years has been the “resort fee.” These originated in faraway tropical destinations but have spread to many destinations that you’d never consider to be resorts.

Typically a resort fee isn’t advertised as part of the base room rate. So, for example, at the Rio in Las Vegas (where I completed a recent stay) the room rate was advertised online at a low $37. It’s only after reading the fine print and adding up the charges that you see that the rate nearly doubles:

  • Room charge: $37.00
  • Tax: $4.44
  • Resort fee: $22.40
  • TOTAL: $63.84

Obviously, the $63.84 that you actually end up paying is considerably more than the $37.00 that is advertised. Even though the FTC has warned hotel operators against this type of deceptive “drip pricing,” the industry continues to advertise room rates that bear little relation to what you’re actually charged.

Picture of Rio Las Vegas

Resort fees sneakily cram $22.40/day onto your bill at the Rio

How can you fight back against resort fees? Make sure you actually get everything you pay for. Hotels will hold firm on charging a resort fee if the services that were promised are available (typically services that really ought to be free anyway such as access to the fitness center, local telephone calls and WiFi). However, you have a reasonable argument that the resort fee should be waived in the event that services weren’t available, particularly if you complained to the hotel and they failed to solve the problem. But this only works if you use all of the resort fee services so you can find problems with them before you’re charged.

In my case, once I arrived in the room, I began by trying to make a free local phone call. Often, the hotel phones don’t work well or even at all. The ancient telephone was essentially inoperable. Heavy scratching noises accompanied the audio and the microphone inside the handset had become unglued over the years so my speech was muffled and nearly inaudible to other parties. I called the front desk at the Rio, who immediately agreed there was a problem and assured me it would be corrected.

3 days later, at the end of the day, a technician finally showed up and replaced the phone. I could finally make free local phone calls. I asked the technician to note in my folio that there had been a maintenance issue with the phone, and it was replaced, “just to avoid any confusion about the phone in case they try to charge me for it.” He was happy to oblige. So, when I checked out, I was able to successfully challenge the resort fee because I didn’t receive all of the services I had paid for, and it was partially (proportionate to the number of days I was inconvenienced) waived. Remember, hotels stick to their guns on resort fees, so if you are able to get anything waived, it’s unusual. I was satisfied with the result.The next time you see that a hotel charges a resort fee, start figuring out how you might be able to get out of it. The more that resort fees become more trouble than they’re worth to hoteliers, the more likely they are to disappear.

 

Moscow Medical Mayhem

I have written before about flying Aeroflot, and how doing so can represent an incredible value versus the competition. This is particularly true traveling between Aeroflot destinations in Europe and Asia. Although Aeroflot codeshares on a number of flights, the best values are on flights where they offer their own service. However, as I have written before, there isn’t much help available along the way if anything goes wrong. You’ll pretty much have to wing it.

Picture of Aeroflot Airbus A319

Aeroflot Airbus A319, my aircraft from Zagreb to Moscow

I flew yesterday on Aeroflot from Zagreb to Beijing, and I’m pleased to report the service is still surprisingly good in economy class. The flight was on a combination of new, modern Airbus A319 and Boeing 777 aircraft. Service on the short-haul segment was similar to other full-service intra-European carriers. The seat pitch was comparable to other airlines and a pretty generous snack was served.

Seat pitch, Aeroflot A319

Seat pitch on the Aeroflot A319 was very reasonable.

Economy class Aeroflot meal.

Aeroflot cold snack, economy class. This was served on a 2 1/2 hour intra-European flight.

Overall, a very nice and pleasant flight and I didn’t have any problems. Those started after I landed in Russia. Shortly after arriving at Sheremetyevo one of my feet began itching like crazy, almost as if I had been bitten by an insect. I finally stopped at a comfortable part of the terminal to have a look, and was shocked to discover a sudden, extremely nasty infection literally eating a hole in the bottom of my foot! That explained the itching. I felt around the wound, squeezed it, and a nasty glop of bloody pus squirted out.

Great.

Obviously, I needed to immediately get this looked at, but I was stuck in a Moscow airport with no visa. This could get awfully interesting. I was in Terminal E and followed the signs to a First Aid room, which is adjacent to the capsule hotel and mother’s room (a free quiet room for nursing mothers).

Capsule hotel and mother's room, Sheremetyevo

Sheremetyevo First Aid is theoretically to the left of this door.

Unfortunately, First Aid only exists in theory. There is a sign posted on the door in Russian that includes an emergency contact number, and another sign in both English and Russian says “Pharmacy in terminal D near gate 28.” It looked like the pharmacy was my best bet, so I headed to Terminal D.

I eventually found the pharmacy, but all of the products were labeled in the Russian language and the pharmacist couldn’t speak English. Eventually, almost in desperation, I sat down, pulled off my disgusting and bloody sock, and squirted some more pus out of the wound in my foot. The pharmacist gave me what is quite possibly the iciest, coldest Russian look that ever was. She frowned, said “Antiseptic!” in a deep voice reminiscent of Natasha Fatale, and then immediately sprang into action pulling various stuff out of drawers. $30 worth of gauze and bandages and wrap and some gloopy antibiotic paste later (the prices seemed about 7 times what I’d pay in the US or anywhere in Europe outside of Norway) the pharmacist showed me what to do. First, squeeze the wound until nothing but a little blood and clear fluid was coming out. Next, apply Dettol a few times (which turned the itching into some serious stinging), and let it dry each time. Next, apply the gloopy paste. Finally, cover the whole thing with a bandage, and wrap the bandage in gauze to hold it in place. Through a now-familiar game of International Charades, I understood that I was to repeat the process, changing the bandages, 3 times every 2 hours. After that, it wasn’t clear what I should do, but that would at least get me as far as Beijing.

Somehow, all of this hadn’t killed my growing appetite. I hadn’t had lunch before boarding my flight in Zagreb, so I went to Burger King in Terminal E. In keeping with the inflated prices at the pharmacy, it cost me $21 for a simple meal. Sheremetyevo is definitely one of the most expensive airports in the world.

Burger King, Sheremetyevo Airport

The most expensive Burger King in the world?

Burger King meal pic

This simple meal cost me $21 at Sheremetyevo Airport

Lacking any better ideas, I followed the seemingly-sensible instructions from the Russian pharmacist during my flight to Beijing. Fortunately, they worked! After I landed in Beijing, the infection was basically gone and the wound had scabbed over. Medical emergency averted.

Double-Crossed By DoubleTree

On my current trip to Europe, I booked rooms with two different DoubleTree properties and have already had problems with both of them. I’m a pretty relaxed guy, and I usually am not the sort of person to complain too much (after all, I have flown around the world in Seat 31B).

What makes me write about a problem publicly? A broken laptop and an exotic “dynamic currency conversion” swindle, both perpetrated by the same hotel chain (DoubleTree by Hilton), occurring over two different properties, and in both cases, complete failure to solve the problem amicably after complaining about a perfectly reasonable issue privately and giving the property multiple chances to resolve the problem.

First, the broken laptop. After waiting 3 months for Fujitsu to repair my laptop (never buy a laptop from Fujitsu, their repair service is horrible), I got it back and it was repaired. In particular, I was pleased to note that they replaced the LCD. I used the laptop for a day with no problems, hopped on a plane, traveled to Rotterdam, continued to Amsterdam, and used the laptop just outside the DoubleTree Amsterdam (again with no problems) to verify the address of the Sixt rental car return facility (whose sign outside the hotel I had missed). Nothing was wrong with my laptop when I put it into my bag and handed it off to the bell desk.

When I got to my room, I took the laptop out of my bag, put it on the desk, opened it, and never turned it on. I was instead invited by my parents (who were traveling with me and staying in another room) to dinner. I ended up being busy the rest of my stay at the DoubleTree and never even plugged in my laptop. I put it away in my bag when I went to check out, and headed for the lounge. I needed to take care of some work so powered up my laptop, and imagine my surprise to see this:

Broken laptop display

Note the physical damage in the exact size and shape of the back of a broom handle, or a vacuum cleaner handle.

I immediately went to the front desk and showed the damage to the on-duty manager. However, she refused to take immediate responsibility or to arrange for repair of my laptop, instead saying that she would conduct an investigation. I gave the DoubleTree the benefit of the doubt, but naturally the results of the investigation are that the DoubleTree refuses to take responsibility. Apparently they believe that my laptop display broke on its own, or maybe it was damaged by space aliens. Either way, they will not be paying to repair it or assisting me any further.

I would maybe give DoubleTree the benefit of the doubt (“Please trust us…” their email said) if they didn’t completely rip me off (there is no more delicate way to put this) on another booking I made in London. The rate was advertised in pounds. However, I was billed in dollars at an unfavorable exchange rate (by the order of around 10%). This kind of “dynamic currency conversion” is a common swindle in the travel industry, but usually companies with whom you are doing business at least ask whether you want this. In my case, DoubleTree just went ahead and ripped me off with a bogus exchange rate, they didn’t give me the opportunity to opt out. I have gone back and forth with Hilton customer service a couple of times and the issue has not been resolved. Here is a snapshot of my credit card statement so you can see how this happened:

A transaction in GBP is circled.

A transaction in GBP is circled.

Hilton customer service blamed my bank for billing me in dollars, rather than pounds. However, my bank (Capital One) doesn’t have anything to do with the currency in which I was billed. You can see that on my statement, I bought a plane ticket from a UK-based travel agency and was properly billed in pounds, which was converted by Capital One to dollars (I use a Capital One card for foreign currency transactions because they do not charge a currency conversion fee). DoubleTree, as you can see, billed me an inflated price in dollars. It’s an outright rip-off. I never agreed to this.

If you are considering booking a stay with DoubleTree (or any Hilton property), or signing up for any Hilton credit cards, I suggest you seriously consider whether this is a good idea. I consider integrity very important in business, and to experience a breach of honesty and integrity at two separate DoubleTree properties is a pattern that seriously leads me to question my loyalty to Hilton.