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.


Free Short-Term Parking At Phoenix and Sea Tac Airports!

One of the most irritating things about picking people up at the airport is the short-term parking gouge. My family owns homes in both the Seattle and Phoenix areas, and the problem is the same at both airports: the airport drive is hopelessly congested, eagle-eyed officers are poised and ready to write you a ticket for “waiting,” and short-term parking charges are ridiculous. In the past, more often than not, I have ended up in the short-term parking garage, paying $4 or more for a 20 minute entry.

No more. In both cities, there is a consolidated rental car facility. This facility offers a free shuttle to the airport, and at both facilities, you can park free for up to 2 hours. While the free parking is intended for people who need to do business in the rental car center, anyone can use it and anyone can ride the shuttles. This is a great place to pick up your friends (who can ride the free shuttle to the rental car facility in less time than it will take for you to battle traffic), and it’s also great if you need to visit the airport for some reason (for example, to pick up a delayed bag).

Sea-Tac Rental Car FacilityAt both facilities, you will not want to drive into the car return area. Follow the signs to visitor parking instead. At no charge, you can park for up to 2 hours (follow all airport signage in the event this has changed since the date of publication) and either wait for your friends or take the bus to the airport. I have found that using the facility saves time at Sea-Tac, although it usually takes a little extra time in Phoenix because the airport is both larger and farther away.

Enjoy the savings, and I’ll see you at the airport!

How To Save on Koh Samui Flights

If you’re coming from anywhere in Thailand, there are only two major airlines serving Koh Samui: Thai Airways (with a couple of flights a day) and Bangkok Airways (with the most flights). The very small Koh Samui airport is also at  capacity, with no room for budget carriers. Since the service is essentially a duopoly, and Koh Samui is a holiday destination frequented by foreigners, flight prices are steadily and predictably high. A really good domestic sale fare to Koh Samui is around $100 each way. More often, you’ll be paying $200 each way. For a 1-hour flight from Bangkok, the fares are astonishingly high.

Enter Nok Air who has come up with a fairly innovative solution. They don’t fly to Koh Samui, but you can fly to Surat Thani, the nearest place on the mainland. This is a destination served by many budget airlines and close to the island ferries. Nok Air sells a combination air/bus/boat ticket to Koh Samui. The travel time is considerably longer, but for all-in fares as low as $50, the extra time may be worth the savings.

Check in desk photo

Friendly check in desk for NOK Air in Surat Thani

I used the service today, and am writing from the Surat Thani airport. There is one big main ferry dock in Koh Samui, but several operators. The operator that Nok Air uses is called Lomprayah and you need to check in at their dock 30 minutes in advance. When you buy a ticket, it’s not clear exactly where you need to check in, but Lomprayah called me on the morning of my flight and reminded me that I should check in at the ferry dock, not at the airport. Apparently a lot of people go to the airport by mistake. It cost me 500 baht (about $18) for a taxi to the ferry dock; the other direction, you can use a minibus organized by Lomprayah and it will cost 200 baht to anywhere on the island.

The catamaran ride was fast and smooth, and took about 45 minutes. It arrives in a place about an hour’s drive from Surat Thani airport, at least at the speed the minibus driver went. He was driving at a breakneck speed and passing every other car on the road, the limiting factor in speed being the top speed of the vehicle, not any concern for safety on the driver’s part. After a hair-raising journey we arrived at the Surat Thani airport.

Surat Thani airport photo

Surat Thani airport is very small.

Unfortunately, Nok Air leaves a lot of room in the schedule for the boat/bus connection to the airport, and I had a 3 hour layover at the airport. There is really nothing to do at the airport, it’s very small and there are only a couple of concessions. However, the prices are surprisingly reasonable for airport concessions. I had an iced cappuccino and cheese toast for only about $5.

Nok Air is not a member of any airline alliance and they are a low cost carrier. This means they do all of the standard annoying things like setting unreasonably low luggage limits (15 kilograms) and charging $1.50 extra for credit card processing. Also, the fare inexplicably ends up being around $10 more than advertised no matter what you do. So, be sure to factor in the “drip pricing” when considering whether the savings are worthwhile. Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways don’t play these games so it’s easier to comparison shop.

It’s worth noting that many other low cost airlines fly between Surat Thani and other locations in Thailand, in particular AirAsia who has a very large number of flights. So, you could organize your own boat and bus itinerary from Koh Samui to the Surat Thani airport. Nok Air just makes it really convenient because they do it all for you, and the price is about the same as if you organize the same thing on your own.

How To Save Up To 80% On Flights Within China

One of the best ways to cover long distances in China is by flying. China has only a small number of domestic airlines and virtually no low cost carriers, but they do compete fiercely. However, if you book flights with in China on a Web site that isn’t based in China, you’re probably paying too much. This is because Chinese airlines typically publish only the regulated full “Y” fare for intra-China flights on foreign sites. These fares are published in the USD currency, which is a big clue that you’re probably looking at a higher price than you should. You will almost never see any discount fares published on foreign sites for intra-China flights. Here’s an example of a search on Orbitz for a one-way flight between Beijing and Kunming:

Screen shot of Orbitz fare

The Orbitz lowest fare from Beiing to Kunming

As you can see, there is very little variation between the different airlines. Full “Y” fares are regulated in China, so the only difference that you will typically see is in the taxes based on the routing you choose, and this is negligible.

However, what if I said you could book the very same flight for about 1/3 the price if you did something a little differently? I’m guessing you’d be interested. The key is to use a Chinese Web site to book the fare. These can offer discounts that simply aren’t available anywhere else. How big a discount? You can save up to 80% by booking with a Chinese Web site and paying in the RMB currency.

Of course, Chinese Web sites can be difficult to use. Many of them, such as Qunar, aren’t available in the English language and can’t accept any method of payment other than direct debit from a Chinese bank. Others, such as Ctrip, advertise fares that often aren’t actually available for booking, so you end up having to rebook over the phone at a higher fare. And finally, if sites actually allow you to book a fare and do accept foreign cards, there is often a 3% surcharge. Elong falls into this category.

If you are comfortable flying with Air China, their local Chinese site works best with non-Chinese credit cards, there is no surcharge for foreign credit cards, and their English-language Web page works relatively well. You even get a 10 RMB discount for booking online. Oddly enough, I can use their site just fine with my Capital One credit card, but it doesn’t work correctly with my Chinese-issued UnionPay credit card from ICBC. Air China is a member of StarAlliance and offers some form of mileage credit with most of their fares (note this is not the case with China Eastern and China Southern, which exclude most discount fares from any mileage earning with SkyTeam partners). The local sites for China Southern and China Eastern are there for you to try, but I have never successfully managed to book anything with them. As you can see, the fare is slightly more than 1/3 the price advertised on Orbitz (note that airfares in China do not include taxes and fuel surcharge, which adds 170 RMB to the total).

Screen shot of Air China booking page

Booking directly through Air China comes in around 1/3 the price.

If you find that booking tickets for domestic Chinese flights online is too much of a task, you’ll find offices of CITS and other travel agencies in many locations throughout Chinese cities. Most airlines also have a city ticket office. Online fares are usually a little cheaper than booking through an in-person travel agency or airline ticket office, but the savings usually amounts to about $5 (if even that). It can sometimes be cheaper to buy a ticket through a travel agency versus booking directly through the airline, because travel agencies often buy discount seats in bulk and resell them.

One final thing to note: the farther in advance you book Chinese domestic flights, the more they will usually cost! However, flights completely sell out very often, especially around holiday periods. If you wait until the last minute to book, you may find that there are no seats available at any price!

Bosnian Border Blitz

I have spent the last two weeks in Zagreb, Croatia. While most of my trip has been for business, I have had the opportunity for some personal travel as well. It’s about a month before the tourist season begins here in Croatia, so good deals are available on rental cars.

One of my favorite sites for booking discount rental cars in Europe is All the rates are prepaid and include basic insurance, so it’s relatively easy to avoid upsells. You can also see the rental car agency you’re using, which is different from sites like Priceline that don’t show you that. Better yet, the discounts they offer are sometimes astonishing, at 50% or less of the regular published price. Unfortunately, if you use Enterprise in Croatia, there is some fine print in the contract that is really limiting. They don’t allow you to travel to Serbia, Bosnia or Montenegro, all neighboring countries, unless you pay an additional 50 euro. This is simply a shakedown because the policy already includes coverage in these countries; they just won’t give you the insurance “green card” to prove it so you can’t get the car across the border. You can supposedly get around this by making a 10,000 euro deposit. I would have done this, but the Capital One credit card I used for this particular rental doesn’t have that large a limit (it’s irritating, because almost every other credit card I carry does).

I hate rental car scams and I hate being told I can’t go somewhere. I was determined to get to Bosnia, so I found a loophole. Dubrovnik, Croatia is an exclave and is only reachable via Bosnia through an area known as the “Neum corridor.” If you travel on this route, the Bosnian authorities do not require you to have a “green card” proof of insurance in order to cross. This presented an opportunity, so earlier this week, I made a Bosnian border blitz in order to experience a small slice of a rarely visited country.

The roads in Croatia are excellent, though expensive. It costs about $40 to travel from Zagreb to the Bosnian border. It’s easy to see why; the quality of the roads is similar to that in Switzerland and the route traverses some very challenging terrain. I passed through at least a dozen tunnels of varying length, some up to 2km long.

croatian highway

130km/hr across Croatia

The motorway route isn’t as spectacular as the old route along the coast (or so I’m told), but it was spectacular enough to me. Tall mountains tower over a stark arid scrubland, something that I didn’t expect to see in this part of the world. Roughly halfway, there is a mountain-crowned lake so spectacular that it would be a bustling national park in the United States, but appears to be a simple Croatian holiday village. Finally, I reached the border with Bosnia. A car in front of me was from Montenegro. The answers the driver gave were clearly unsatisfactory because, after a long delay, the car was directed aside and border guards started searching it very thoroughly. My experience was better. “Where are you going?” asked the officer. “Dubrovnik,” I said. “Only Dubrovnik?” he replied, to which I replied “Yes.” He asked “Why do you travel to Dubrovnik?” I replied “Because it is beautiful.” He handed back my passport, smiled, and said “In Dubrovnik the women are beautiful! Now talk to my colleague, he is Bosnian police.” I pulled forward to the next window, where a sour-faced guy scanned my passport into his computer. I asked whether it was possible to stamp my passport, and he handed back my passport saying “No. Now you go out.” I wasn’t interested in arguing the point, so I continued into Bosnia.

I had been warned by Croatians that the road would be terrible in Bosnia, but it wasn’t. One thing that I did think was very interesting was that the road signs had spray paint all over them, clearly obscuring something I couldn’t make out in the dark. However, the path to Dubrovnik was clearly marked. I drove into Neum, stopped at a restaurant for a bad and very expensive dinner where I got ripped off on the exchange rate, and then found an ATM to get some local currency, the Bosnian mark.

Bosnian marks worth about 40 euro.

Bosnian marks worth about 40 euro.

After my bad experience at dinner (don’t order the “Pirate Style Kebabs”), I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to finding a hotel. However, I was tired and wanted to find somewhere to stay. I drove past the largest hotel (which I assumed would be expensive), and eventually came across a small boutique 3-star hotel called the Hotel Villa Nova. The office wasn’t open but a sign in the window said “we are downstairs,” so I went downstairs and the owner came out. Yes, a room was available, but without breakfast because I would be the only guest. Accordingly, there would be a small discount. The price was 30 euros, would I like to see the room?

Yes, I wanted to see the room. Rooms in Dubrovnik cost at least 3 times that. I had a look and everything was very clean and exactly in order. The hotel caters to Swiss and German visitors, who have very high expectations when they travel. All of the facilities were exactly as I would expect for a 3 star hotel and you can even drink the tap water. My room had a very nice balcony, comfortable bed, and the wireless Internet worked well. Basically, it’s exactly what I would expect of a property that caters to very particular Swiss visitors and it was almost frighteningly clean. Best of all, a spectacular view awaited me in the morning.

Room with a view

Room with a view

After checking out, I went to the post office to mail postcards home, and then to the gas station to fill up the car. There are two gas stations in Neum, but the one closest to the center of town has the cheapest prices (by about 20 eurocents per gallon). Unfortunately they only take cash and they rip you off on exchange rates if you don’t pay in Bosnian marks. Fuel is about 30% less expensive in Bosnia than in Croatia, so I definitely wanted to take advantage. I used up the remainder of my Bosnian marks which got me to about 3/4 tank, but I figured that would be enough to get me to Dubrovnik (it was more than enough; I topped off the tank to 100% on my way back to Zagreb).

Heading south toward Dubrovnik, I noticed why there was spray paint on the road signs. The Bosnian government apparently uses both Roman script and Cyrillic (in a nod to the Bosnian Serbs). Cyrillic script is thoroughly unacceptable to the local population, who are ethnically Croatian, so every trace of Cyrillic has been meticulously blacked out throughout the entire Neum corridor. This part of Bosnia was not spared the violence of the Serbian-Croatian war in the early 1990s, and even physical scars remain. The psychological ones will take longer to heal.

bombed out building

Bombed out building, Neum waterfront

If you’re faced with unreasonable restrictions from your rental car company, consider a visit to Neum if you’d like a taste of Bosnia. It provides a very affordable alternative to expensive accommodations in Dubrovnik, and is only an hour away.

Save On High Speed Trains In Italy – There’s An App For That!

Italy, surprisingly, has a well-developed network of high speed trains. These aren’t quite as fast as the Chinese trains I was used to when living in Beijing, but they do reach 247KM/hr–a respectable speed. Most visitors just go to the train station and buy a ticket, but you can actually save money by buying your tickets in advance using a mobile phone app.

The app is called Italo Treno, and there is an English-language version available. Here is what the iPhone version looks like:

Italo Treno app screenshotJust search for your trip, and you’ll see a schedule with prices. If you buy your ticket a few days in advance, you can save 50% or more. For example, the train I took today from Florence to Rome cost 43€ when purchased today at the station, but the fare was only 20€ when purchased 3 days ago via the app.