Chris & Queen Latifah talk holiday travel (VIDEO)

Queen Latifah called for holiday travel advice last week and we delivered!

She flew BAT editor Chris McGinnis down to LA (Delta Shuttle), met him at the airport with Mercedes SUV transfers, and put him up at the Hotel Palomar in Westwood for one night.

Chris McGinnis and Queen Latifah on the Queen Latifah Show set in Los Angeles

Chris McGinnis and Queen Latifah on the Queen Latifah Show set in Los Angeles

On show day, more limo transfers to the Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City for the taping of the seven-minute segment. The Queen provided my own private green room, with a small sofa, desk, snacks, bathroom. Other guests that day included Cloris Leachman and the Irish band Kodaline.

We taped the segment in front of a live audience from two first class airline seats in the middle of the set! the Queen was warm, personable and a LOT of fun (I expected no less!). Did you know that Queen Latifah’s real name is Dana Owens? That’s what everyone behind stage was calling her. (I just called her “your Majesty!)

Then a rush to LAX (thankfully the day before the incident at Terminal 3) and back to San Francisco.

What a fun day!

See part of the segment above…. or check out the show notes I sent prior to appearing on the show.

Holiday travel- Holiday travel season usually mimics the peak summer travel season, which this year was VERY busy and VERY expensive, so I expect the same for the upcoming holiday season

·         Best time to buy tickets- Due to high demand, there simply are not any “deals” on the peak days around Christmas and New Years this year. This year, travelers who want the most convenient flights on their preferred airlines need to book by Nov 10 to get seats on those flights…otherwise they will likely be stuck paying the same high price for “dog flights” that depart super early or late, middle seats, or multiple stops on non-preferred airlines. My favorite sites for booking air: Kayak.com and Routehappy.com

·         Alternative travel options that people don’t think about- If you have the flexibility to travel during the slowest times of year, the so called “dead weeks” of early December and early January, you can save 50-70% on airfare. Best sites for deadweek deals: Hotwire.com, TravelZoo. Another alternative is to consider staying over in a hotel when visiting families during the holidays– rates at new hotels in or near suburban office parks are at annual lows during holidays, and facilities are nice. Having your own space at a hotel is a big relief for both the traveler and the host during the stressy holidays.

·         Best days/times for traveling- Good news about this year’s holiday season is that it is LONGER than usual with Christmas and New Years falling on Wednesdays– the full season will be over two weeks long, which means more wiggle room for travelers. (Compared to a season when Xmas and New Years both fall on say, Sunday, which makes for a much more compact season)

·         Luggage issues– Do not check bags during the holidays. If you have too much for a carry on, ship ahead of time, but do so at the “ground” rate at UPS or FEDEX. Shipping overnight or two-day is too expensive.

·         Rewards. It’s nearly impossible to use airline frequent flyer awards during blacked out peak holiday season, so this is the time of year to focus on using credit card rewards such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards which do not have blackout dates. Also, hotel programs like Best Western Rewards offer non travel awards such as gift cards to big stores like Sears or Target that are perfect gifts

·         How to make holiday travel less stressful– see above– stay at a hotel instead of on the lumpy sofa bed of your relatives. Rates are dirt cheap during holiday season. Also, always try to book nonstop flights because you double your chances of a delay or cancellation with a one stop flight, even though you might save a few bucks.

Chris McGinnis 

And just in case you missed it, here’s what else you need to know about Bay Area Travel over the last month:

>New landing procedure at SFO should help w delays! Hallelujah!

>Big, bad United MileagePlus surprise 

>Virgin’s new Safety Dance

>Riding the Red Carpet Route to London! 

>Double Miles on United & Southwest

>$100 hotels in NYC 

>Two posh new lounges coming to SFO 

>Airline cat fight benefitting Bay Area Travelers 

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San Francisco to New York in 45 mins? Maybe

Since Elon Musk (the mind behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX) quipped about a new “hyperloop” high speed transportation system last week, futurists and techies have been abuzz about a new mode of transportation that could eclipse air travel one day—cutting travel time between San Francisco and New York to just 45 minutes, or between New York and Beijing to just two hours.

One company called ET3 is apparently working on a plan for “Evacuated Tube Transport” which is loosely based on pneumatic systems once used in banks, offices or hospitals (for those old enough to remember) to transport documents within buildings using capsules inserted into suction tubes.

(ET3/YouTube)

Six person capsules include luggage bays (ET3/YouTube)

ET3 says that its tubular network could transport 6-passenger, automobile-sized capsules up to 4,000 mph in a frictionless environment inside tubes using magnetic levitation. The company claims that ET3 can be built for a tenth of the cost of high speed rail, or a quarter of the cost of a freeway, and provide 50x more transportation per kilowatt than electric cars or trains. Tubes could be built along US interstates, could travel across Alaska to reach China or even go underwater.

(ET3)

Travel by tube? (ET3)

Is this the answer to carbon spewing aircraft…or how we’ll be traveling when we run out of fossil fuels? Who knows? But it’s certainly an interesting thought and likely something we’ll be hearing more about.

While Musk was short on details, he has described the technology as ”a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” He hinted that he might have more to say about it later this month.

How would you feel about a 45 minute hop to NYC for lunch? Should we be building a hyperloop instead of a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and LA? 

We’ve got a lot of catching up to do! Stay tuned for a “Catching up with Bay Area Travel News” issue later this week, which will include United’s new boarding procedures at SFO, Virgin’s new fast lane, the newest United Club, slow progress on new PS flights to NYC and much more! 

Chris McGinnis

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5 travel fees worth paying

The evening spread at the Park Royal on Pickering in Singapore is substantial. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The evening spread at the Park Royal on Pickering in Singapore is substantial. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The whole country seems to be making a collective groan when it comes to planning summer vacations.

And why not?

An early look at airfares (especially to Europe) shows some painful peak pricing, especially in July and early August. For example, nonstops from San Francisco International to cities such as London, Frankfurt and Paris are already running $1,400+ roundtrip. (And if you don’t book now, you’ll likely pay close to $2000 round trip later this summer.)

United made us all go bug-eyed when it announced that it was raising change fees on nonrefundable tickets to an egregious $200 last month. Our eyes popped even more when American, Delta and US Airways quickly matched the higher fee.

Then Frontier Airlines announced that it would begin charging $2 for in-flight beverages (including water) and $100 for gate-checked bags that don’t fit under the seat.

While I think that bag fees and change fees are rotten, the airlines love them—last year they collected nearly $6 billion in baggage and change fees alone. Fees, which now comprise nearly 30% of airline revenues,  are what’s been keeping them in the black in recent years.

But airlines aren’t the only ones playing fee-for-all. By now nearly every frequent traveler has been hit by a surprise “resort fee” or overpriced wi-fi fee at hotels. (Beware of those evil “per device” vs per room wi-fi fees, especially when traveling with others!) Rental car companies pile on all kinds of extra “concession” fees or hit us with obnoxiously high per-gallon fees when we don’t have time to fill up the car on the way back to the airport.

United Economy Plus seating usually provides enough room to work on laptops. (Photo: United)

United Economy Plus seating usually provides enough room to work on laptops. (Photo: United)

But all fees aren’t bad. As a matter of fact, I’m happy to pay fees that can truly improve my travel experience.

Here are five fees I don’t mind paying:

>Roomier seats. Elite level members of airline frequent flyer programs get free access to “premium economy” seats near the front of the cabin and by exit rows. However, non-elite travelers can pay a fee for access to these seats. Airlines determine such fees by the length of the flight and demand, and can range from $10 to $100. But on a long flight, a few extra inches can provide enough space to open up a laptop and be productive inflight. It can also make a big difference in comfort if you are tall like me, so it’s a fee I’ll pay when I have to.

>Early boarding. One of the most cherished benefits of elite status with airlines is the ability to board first and lay claim to overhead bin space. However, I spread my airline business around, and I’m not elite on every carrier I fly. So, for example, I’m happy to pay Southwest a $12.50 “Early Bird” fee to get me near the front of the boarding line—especially in the heat of the summer when planes are packed and overhead bin space scarce.

>Inflight wi-fi. When inflight wi-fi from Gogo or Row 44 works well (which seems increasingly rare), it’s definitely worth the fee to me, especially on transcontinental flights. This year, United is installing satellite-based wi-fi on its international fleet. It helps pass the time, keeps me productive and eliminates arriving at my destination to a full email box. $20 for a good connection on a five-hour flight? Sure. That’s money well spent to me.

Tip: To help sooth the sting of high fees, consider this: When you charge these travel related fees on credit cards linked to rewards programs, you are earning points you can use for free trips down the road. For example, with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, I earn two points per dollar spent on travel (including most fees). Eventually, all those charges will add up to points I can redeem to help cut the high cost of future trips.

Inside the nice new Club at LAS near the Virgin America gates at Las Vegas McCarran Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inside the nice new Club at LAS near the Virgin America gates at Las Vegas McCarran Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>Airport Club access. Have you ever been stuck in Chicago, Dallas, Houston or Atlanta during the summer thunderstorm season? Hordes of summer vacationers milling around…air conditioning systems straining to keep things cool…then the clouds roll in and gum up the works for hours. That’s the time it’s worth the $50 fee for a day pass to airport lounge. But get there early—once the lounge fills up, it’s open to members only. Also, be on the lookout for new non-airline, pay-to-play lounges such as The Club at SJC, Club at LAS (Las Vegas) or others like it– the per use fee is just $35 and definitely worth it during a long layover!

>Hotel Club Floor. When you know a trip is going to be all business all the time (and you don’t plan to get out much), a hotel club, executive or concierge floor is almost always worth the extra cost. When you pay the premium, you’ll likely get breakfast, snacks, booze (sometimes) and heavy hors d’oeuvres at night, free wi-fi, gym and business center access. Rooms are usually slightly larger and likely to be on upper floors offering better views. Plus, you can check in and out in the lounge and not have to wait in lines that can form in the hotel lobby. If I’m not planning to get out much, I’m usually happy to pay the premium of 20% or 30%.

Do you agree? Which travel fees seem most onerous to you? Which are you happy, even eager to pay? PLEASE leave your comments below. 

Chris McGinnis

HAVE YOU READ THE CURRENT ISSUE OF THE BAT: New 787 Dreamliner flight at SFO, Mileage Plus ranks highly, Sour Milk, SFO Airport Tiff, Virgin America loss, Tito’s vodka, dream of a new Terminal 1 at SFO.  Let’s catch up on Bay Area Travel news right now>>>

Disclosure: My company, Travel Skills Group, Inc, has a commercial relationship with Chase Card Services, which is mentioned in this post.

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A special charter to London for Bay Area techies

A screenshot from BA's UnGrounded campaign.

A screenshot from BA’s UnGrounded campaign.

When airlines hold press conferences, they usually want to show off how passengers can get a good night’s rest in a business class seat that converts to cozy flat bed. Or they will announce their latest celebrity chef-inspired meals or big seat back video screens to keep travelers entertained on long haul flights.

That was definitely not the case at a British Airways presser in downtown San Francisco last night.

In a total about face, BA’s press conference was all about how they are going to ask 100 big shot Bay Area and Silicon Valley innovators to work during an 11-hour, chartered Boeing 747 flight from SFO to London.

And as soon as they arrive, they’ll have to present their findings to a like-minded group of global thought leaders.

Huh?

BA called the presser at to announce UnGrounded a new “innovation lab in the sky” that is designed to get Silicon Valley thought leaders, entrepreneurs, VCs and academics together in the confines of a jumbo jet to help solve global problems.

UnGrounded is the evolution of a business networking concept BA launched during the dark days of 2009 called Face-to-Face, which brought together hundreds of entrepreneurs hoping to expand their businesses overseas on free networking flights to London. (See The BAT report about BA’s Face-to-Face flights here Below is a video shot during that 2009 flight).

“Great innovation only happens face-to-face and our airline facilitates that,” said BA’s EVP, Simon Talling-Smith.

The first UnGrounded flight will depart SFO on June 12. The 100 industry leaders onboard will be tasked with coming up with a platform to help match tech talent with tech opportunities around the world.

“The talent crunch is a real issue for companies in major tech hubs around the world. We need to give more people the opportunity to discover and be discovered,” said Amir Dossal, a special representative from the UN on hand at the event. He said the gap between tech talent and tech opportunity is widest in the “STEM” fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

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BA 747 at SFO (Photo: AngeloAngelo / Flickr)

BA 747 at SFO (Photo: AngeloAngelo / Flickr)

To come up with an innovative way to solve that problem, 100 thought leaders will be holed up on a big 747 that can hold up to 345 passengers. BA has hired Palo Alto’s well-known design firm IDEO to help orchestrate this very special flight—and get the job done.

To help them find and invite those 100 bright minds, BA tapped into the networks of several Bay Area big shots such as Leor Stern of Google, Gerald Brady of the Silicon Valley Bank, Celestine Johnson of Innovation Endeavors, Marguerite Gong Hancock of Stanford, Rhonda Abrams of The Planning Shop, Duncan Logan of RocketSpace, and Todd Lutwak at Andreesen Horowitz. BA has also partnered with the UN and the Decide Now Act (DNA) Summit in London.

I asked if there was any way my readers could apply to be one of the chosen few for this flight. The response was sort of a “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” The special 100 will be “hand selected and curated” by the UnGrounded Advisory Board. Or you could try explaining why you’d be perfect for this flight by sending an email to: ba.ungrounded@ba.com

Interested? Here’s more.

Chris McGinnis

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Spring travel could be pricey & dicey

Spring breakers hanging out at South Ponto Beach near San Diego. (Photo: BrutalSoCal / Flickr)

Spring breakers hanging out at South Ponto Beach near San Diego. (Photo: BrutalSoCal / Flickr)

Combine a long, cold winter, spiking gasoline prices, and an improving economy. Then fold in a very early Easter and you have the recipe for what could be a very crowded and expensive spring travel season. To avoid the highest prices and the possibility of sold out flights, hotels or rental cars, those planning March trips should make reservations as soon as possible– especially if headed to popular spring break destinations from the Bay Area such as Southern California, Arizona, Mexico, Hawaii, and Rocky Mountain ski resorts.

This year, the peak spring travel season will be compact–only about three weeks– beginning on Friday, March 8 and lasting until Monday April 1. Already, advance bookings for March at Best Western’s 2000+ hotels in the US are up 8.9% compared to this time last year.

Due to an unusually early Easter (Sunday, March 31), March is going to be a month when college students, families and business travelers converge on the nation’s airports, highways and hotels. Collegiate spring break will peak in mid-to-late-March during mid-semester break. Family spring break will peak during the last week of March when most elementary and high schools close prior to Easter weekend.

Rowdy spring breakers whoop it up in Mexico (Photo: EytonZ / Flickr)

Rowdy spring breakers whoop it up in Mexico (Photo: EytonZ / Flickr)

To avoid the biggest crowds at airports, try to avoid traveling on weekends during the peak collegiate spring break period–from roughly March 8 through April 1. If you are flying on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays during March, you’ll find airports in or near college campuses and warm weather destinations packed with vacationing students, creating longer lines at airport security. Also, beware of crowding and possible delays on highways and skyways on the days leading up to and shortly after Easter Sunday, March 31.

In addition, St Patrick’s Day falls smack in the middle of spring break on Sunday, March 17 this year. Travelers should expect extreme vigilance on the part of police and highway patrol when it comes to drinking and driving.

Peak spring break travel season should end on about Tuesday, April 2. From April 3 through May 23 there will be an earlier-than-normal “shoulder season”–of the best times of year to save money and avoid crowds–and one of the smartest times time to schedule business trips. During shoulder season, demand for travel (and prices) drops significantly from the highs you’ll see during the spring and summer peaks. (The summer travel season kicks off on Memorial Day–May 27– weekend.)

TIP: If you are a business traveler staying over in a resort or beachside area, ask for a quiet room away from the pool or other public areas, which may attract a rowdy spring break crowd.

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Airfares:
Since January 1, airlines attempted three across-the-board fare hikes. The first two failed. The jury is still out on whether or not the third one will stick. But don’t think that this means prices will not rise. Over the last several years, airlines have reduced the number of seats flying. At the same time, improvements in the economic outlook and consumer confidence are translating into more demand for air travel— and when you have high demand and limited supply, prices rise. Therefore, spring travelers should budget for higher airfares (up 5-10% compared to last year), and more fees.

TIP: To get the lowest fares, try to plan trips during non-peak times, such as April or May known as the “shoulder season.” Also, travelers who can travel mid-week–on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays are also more likely to find lower fares.

Hotels:
While demand for hotels is increasing, average rates have only crept up about 5% compared to this time last year. This should be a relief for travelers who are finding that they are spending more than they’d like to at the gas pump or when buying airline tickets.

Over the last two years, hotel rates have jumped the most in large coastal cities in the US such as Boston, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and Seattle. Rates in smaller, interior US cities remain about the same as this time last year.

Nonetheless, with the compact nature of this spring’s peak month of March, expect higher rates than normal, especially in popular warm-weather regions

Last Minute Deals:
Waiting around for last minute deals or flash sales rarely results in significant discounts during peak travel periods such as spring break.

Those who have their heart set on a specific destination in March should make reservations early in order to get the best deals. Waiting around for last minute deals is only advisable if you really don’t care where you go…you just want to get away.

On the other hand, waiting for a last minute deal makes much more sense if you plan to travel during periods of lighter demand, such as April or May, when travel providers are more likely to unload their excess inventory at big discount.

–Chris McGinnis

This item appeared first on Best Western’s youmustbetrippin.com blog for which I write.

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Top 10 happiest cities in the world

(Photo: Visions Photographiques / Flickr)

(Photo: Visions Photographiques / Flickr)

How often do you get to take a happy  trip to one of the top 10 happiest cities in the world?  The infographic below is based on a perception survey by GFK Custom Research, as well as factors like number of outdoor attractions, shopping centers, and cultural locations. 

Lucky for BATs…we live in the ONLY city in the US to make this list. Why leave? ;)

Which city do you feel should have made this list, but didn’t? Leave your comments below.

find-a-happy-place_5107f6cf94ac7

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Online travel experiences (infographic)

London hotel rates crash, flights half full…

London’s St Pancras International station… where Eurostar trains depart for Brussels and Paris. Will it fill to the gills? See below for my outlook…. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Yesterday I received an interesting missive about London from the folks at Hotwire– the giant SF-based “opaque” booking site– you know, the kind of site that won’t reveal the name of the provider until you pay. It’s also the kind of site hoteliers flock to when they are desperate to unload unsold inventory at big last-minute discounts.

This is one of many signals we are getting that the Olympics in London might be a big bust for local travel suppliers hoping to cash in big. Your humble BAT editor was working and living in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics and saw the same phenomenon– hotels raised rates to the sky, local residents renovated homes in the hopes of renting them out to the crush of visitors. Warehouses were converted into huge entertainment venues for visitors.

Then the Olympics came… but the swath of visitors did not. They were scared away by all the warnings ahead of time. Traffic in the city was non-existent. Locals telecommuted or used public transport as instructed. Many left town altogether. Visitors attended events, then returned to their hotels… to sleep, not party all night. Except for the Olympic venues, Atlanta was a ghost town during the ’96 Games.

I wonder if the same thing will happen in London? Based on what I’m hearing, it’s possible. First it was the unprecedented, nearly too-good-to-be-true fare sale offering SFO-London round trips for just $2008 in business class. My United flight to London in early August is half full according to the United web site– there are still 25 out of 49 business class seats available. Coach is less than 75% full. Just five out of 12 first class seats are taken.  This is PEAK summer travel season, folks!

Now this… from Hotwire: 

Hotels across London are offering discounts of up to 50% during the Summer Games. Many have overestimated demand, put their prices too high and are now left with unsold rooms just a few days before the Games are to begin.

These hotels are now offering up to 50% off on discount travel websites like Hotwire.com. Three star and above London hotels are available for under $154 due to lower-than-anticipated demand. Data from discount travel website Hotwire.com show hotel prices through the first half of the games are actually lower than earlier this year.

While many London hotels anticipated a flurry of business from the games, the reality is that the economy is soft, business and leisure travelers who aren’t traveling for the Games are avoiding the city, and even an event as big as the Games couldn’t fill all the rooms in London.

These factors have led hoteliers to turn to secret hotel website Hotwire.com as a safe place where they can discount last minute and fill rooms without tarnishing their brands, and they’ve created some surprising deals for travelers looking for a last minute trip.

Some of the best available hotel rates in Central London are:

  •        5-star hotel in Mayfair for $154 for the week of July 23, 2012
  •        4-star hotel in Westminster has $140 rates through the games and into September
  •        3 or 4-star hotels in Notting Hill-Bayswater for $70 in late July
  •        3 or 4-star hotels in London Docklands have rates ranging from $59-116 during mid to late July and August
  •        3-star hotels in Kensington-Earls Court for $120 in late July

EXTRA: Virgin America is offering a significant 20% discount for flights between August 28 and November 14. Note that this is an unpublished “private sale” (associated with guitar maker Fender) and requires you to sign up in order to receive the discount. Even better: It applies to one or two folks traveling together. To get the deal, you must book your trip by July 31. Sign up here.

20% off means that $400 round trip to New York in October will only cost you $320. So there. The BAT just saved you 80 bucks (or $160 if you plan to travel with a special someone)!  What to thank us? Then TELL YOUR FRIENDS about the BAT– tell them to subscribe just like you did!

What do you think will happen in London? Will it be a teaming kluster or a quaint and efficient European capital during the Games? Are you going? What do you expect? Please leave your comments below. 

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