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Catching up on Bay Area Travel News, Feb 24

FREE PARKING AT SFO? Last week a new service called FlightCar soft-launched an innovative new car sharing service at SFO. FlightCar lets people parking at the airport rent their vehicles out to other travelers. Every rental is insured up to $1 million, and every renter is pre-screened. Depending on the size, age and condition of your car, you can also make up to $10 per day in gas credits. (And you avoid having to pay for airport parking.) Airport valets are at SFO to pick up and drop off cars to renters. They even wash your car. If you are a renter, FlightCar valets meet you at the airport with your rental. Rates are about 30% less than what you’d pay the big guys like Hertz or Avis. Watch the video above to see how it works. Would you do this? Please leave your comments below!

NEW UNITED FLIGHT BONUSES. Remember last year when The BAT broke the news about United’s new flights from SFO to Paris and Taipei? Those inaugural flights are coming up soon, and United is offering mileage bonuses on both runs. To Paris (11,000 miles roundtrip), you’ll earn 50% to 100% bonus award miles for flights between April 11 and May 31. Register here. For Taipei (13,000 miles round trip), United is also offering 50% to 100% bonuses for flights between April 9 and June 30. Register here. (UPDATE 2-25-13: United has confirmed that dates for the launch of these flights has been affected by the grounding of the 787 Dreamliner. Tentative new start dates: SFO-Paris: April 26; SFO-Taipei: June 6.)

Chris McGinnis inspecting ANA's maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

BAT-man Chris McGinnis inspecting ANA’s maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

787 UPDATE: If you didn’t get a chance to jump on one of those shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliners when United had them at SFO, or when ANA was flying them from San Jose to Tokyo, it sounds like it might be a while until you get the chance to do so. United announced this week that it was dropping the 787 from its schedule through at least June, and has put off new routes set to use the plane, such as Denver-Tokyo. ANA announced today that it has canceled all 787 flights, including San Jose-Tokyo, through at least May 31.

STARWOOD SPG TEAMS WITH DELTA. Delta and Starwood have launched a unique new program called Crossover Rewards, which offers reciprocal benefits in both programs. This means that starting March 1, Starwood Preferred Guest elites get access to Priority lines when checking in and can board Delta flights early. Delta Diamond and Platinum Medallions will get elite level benefits in the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program, including 4 pm checkout, free internet, and one SkyMile per dollar spent on room rate in addition to Starpoints. They will also get one free check bag. Details and registration here:delta.com/crossoverrewards or spg.com/crossoverrewards. Insiders tell The BAT that a Starwood brand will team up with Delta later this spring with some trendy inflight amenities or other promotions. Have you flown Delta from the Bay Area recently? What did you think?

HILTON HHONORS DEVALUED: Effective March 28, Hilton HHonors will play under a new set of rules. Instead of the current seven award tiers, there will be 10. The highest tier will now require a whopping 95,000 points per night, up from just 50,000. You’ll pay more during high season, and less during low season. This is indicative of a travel industry trend I’ve been following—when paying with cash or with points, peak season prices are rising through the roof due to rising demand from travelers. The only way to get the best deals at rates that feel reasonable is to fly or stay during low or so-called “shoulder” seasons. How do you feel about this? Angry enough to dump Hilton and move to a competitor? Well, not so fast…This week Starwood rolled out its adjusted list of hotel award categories, with more hotels moving up than down—not as severe as Hilton’s, but still. Thoughts?

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Atop the shiny new $7 billion Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

SWEATY IN SINGAPORE. Your BAT editor recently traveled to Singapore to research and write his latest BBC Business Trip Column: Business Trip: Singapore. If you haven’t been there recently, check out this column to learn about the city’s newest hotels, hottest tables, and how those new casinos are affecting the local economy.

STREAMING MOVIES ON SOUTHWEST. Last week Southwest announced that it would offer more on demand TV and movies on all wi-fi equipped aircraft (75% of its fleet). Movies cost $5 per device. Wi-fi access (via Row 44) costs $8 per day. Most Southwest flights I take are so short that movies aren’t really an option. What do you think? Have you tried using Southwest’s in-flight Row 44 wi-fi product, which seems to get about as many complaints as the Gogo system used by other carriers? Please leave your comments below.

Harvey Milk San Francisco International Airport?

Harvey Milk San Francisco International Airport?

HARVEY MILK AIRPORT. Despite the lukewarm reaction to the idea (among BAT readers and others) the campaign to add Harvey Milk’s name to SFO continues. SFgate’s City Insider blog said, “Privately, politicos say they’ve heard from plenty of local constituents, including gay and lesbian residents, who like the brand name of SFO, don’t think it’s worth the cost, fear the embarrassment of losing at the ballot or just don’t think it’s worth getting worked up over either way.” The Harvey Milk Foundation has donated $4,500 to a campaign to get the measure on the November ballot, and there’s a slick new website promoting the cause. Have you voted in our poll yet? Please do!

How do you feel about renaming San Francisco International Airport?

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Please leave any additional comments you have about renaming SFO in the comments box below.

- Chris McGinnis

 

 

Catching up on Bay Area Travel news (Feb 10)

New fees on the way at Southwest Airlines (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

New fees on the way at Southwest Airlines (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here’s what Bay Area Travelers (BATs!) need to know this week….

United Mileage Plus in court. A federal judge has rejected United’s attempt to throw out a lawsuit accusing the world’s largest carrier of taking benefits away from some of its most loyal fliers. The suit claims United revoked Million Milers’ “Lifetime Premier Executive” status, which entitled them to favored treatment in bookings, seating priority and upgrades, and demoted them to lower-tier “Gold” status.

Superstorm Nemo forces airlines to waive fees. The giant snowstorm that swept through the Northeast this weekend forced airlines to waive change fees for travelers holding tickets for air travel through Monday Feb 11. United was the last major carrier to join the gang offering to waive the fees, and then had to expand the window for waivers from 8-9 Feb to 8-11 Feb. Remember, if your flight is canceled and you decide to not take a trip at all (instead of accepting the airlines’ offer to re-accommodate you on another flight) you can ask for a full refund.

Spring break could be pricey, dicey this year. An early Easter (Sunday, Mar 31), that cold winter back East, and an improving economy means that travelers should brace for an expensive and crowded Spring Break travel season this year. Whether you have business trip plans or beach trip plans, if you plan to travel during the last two weeks of March—you need to make reservations now… and plan to deal with crowds and high prices. Listen to BAT editor Chris McGinnis discuss this news on KCBS last Friday.

Earn Virgin Elevate points when dining out. Virgin announced a new partnership with Mogl, allowing Elevate members earn points for something we all do a lot of in the Bay Area—dine out. All you have to do is register your credit card with Mogl, and then dine out in participating restaurants (good selection in SF and other California cities) The offer’s a bit complicated, but why not sign up? Details here.

American + US Airways merger expected this week. It’s been a long time coming, but most industry watchers say that a merger between American Airlines and US Airways will finally be announced this week. Most expect the new airlines to be called American, but the new CEO will be US Airways current CEO Doug Parker. The airline will be based in Dallas. Since both American and US Airways have little presence in the Bay Area, the impact here will be negligible.

Winter hotel promos: Marriott’s Megamiles promo is back—you can earn double airlines miles for every stay through April 30. Stay at Best Western three times between now and April 14 and you’ll get a certificate for one free night good for those price spring or summer peak season stays later this year.

Fly American from the Bay to Hawaii? An enhanced codeshare agreement between American and Alaska Airlines will allow American to put its code and sell tickets on the 22 Alaska Airlines flights from the Bay to Hawaii. For those of you with big banks of unused AAdvantage miles with dreams of tropical paradise, now’s the time to redeem.

ANA Dreamliner cancellations at San Jose extended. Until the root cause of battery malfunctions and fires can be determined, the Dreamliner will not fly to San Jose (or anywhere.) While investigators seem to be making slow progress, ANA decided to go ahead and cancel Dreamliner flights all the way through March 30 (That’s nearly 10 weeks of no flights.) The BAT asked ANA why they don’t substitute another aircraft on the route, they said that they only have certification to fly the 787 on the route and that applying to use another aircraft could take weeks or months. In addition, ANA is likely having a tough time filling the holes in its schedule by the grounding of 17 of its aircraft, and for now, its easier to bus San Jose passengers up 101 to catch their flights at SFO.

New fees at Southwest. Southwest Airlines passengers who are used to not showing up for a flight and then requesting full credit for that flight for future use later are in for a surprise. Southwest says it will soon impose a no-show fee on cheaper restricted tickets if you don’t contact the airline and cancel your plans within 24 hours of flight time. Southwest’s “Early bird” check in fees have increased to $12.50 from $10. In addition, if you want to nab an open position in the first boarding group, Southwest now charges a $40 fee for that. In addition, the fee for oversized or overweight bags, or a third checked have increased from $50 to $75 each. Southwest still does not charge for the first or second checked bag…but industry scuttlebutt is that Southwest will likely join other carriers in charging bag fees starting next year.

Business class to Orange County. Did you know that AirTran flies daily a 2-class Boeing 737 (business and coach) with Gogo wi-fi between SFO and Orange County? Coach class roundtrip fares are in the $150 range, and business class is only $315. (The flight stops at SNA, then continues on to Cabo)

BAT headlines from this week:

10 things about Singapore Airlines A380 at SFO (Photos)

United maintains dominance at SFO

Virgin America CEO David Cush: Why San Jose?

 

 

 

Mormon-led Marriott joins push to dump DOMA

Marriott Marquis in downtown San Francisco

Marriott Marquis in downtown San Francisco

Have you heard? Mormon-led Marriott International is one of the first large US corporations to join an HRC coalition to repeal the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Here’s what Marriott’s David Rodriguez said about joining the coalition: “We are proud of our longstanding commitment to diversity, inclusion and equal treatment of all our employees within our benefits programs…Joining the business coalition for DOMA repeal affirms that commitment.”

In December, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has donated to pro-Proposition 8 groups,  re-joined Marriott’s board.

A story in the LA Times includes quotes from Bill Marriott on why he does not mix his personal views on marriage (man-woman only) with the operations of his business. “We have to take care of our people, regardless of their sexual orientation or anything else,” said Marriott in a recent interview. Bloomberg reports that 13 other large corporations, including San Jose-based eBay and Redwood City-based Electronic Arts have also joined the coalition. San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels has also joined in.

Does this change your mind about Marriott? Have you avoided staying at the various Marriott brands (such as Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott, Courtyard, Residence Inn) due to its deep connections to the Mormon Church? Please leave your comments below.

-Chris McGinnis

 

First look: London’s newest business class hotel

IMG_0762 IMG_0632 IMG_0676 IMG_0652 IMG_0708 IMG_0713 IMG_0627 IMG_0714 IMG_0712 IMG_0760 IMG_0651 IMG_0706 IMG_0756 IMG_0747 IMG_0662 IMG_0658 IMG_0745 IMG_0751 IMG_0750 IMG_0650
Centrally located smack between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey on a quiet bend in Broadway.
Porte cochere on Broadway, a quiet street through central London. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Modern, sky-lit check in desk surrounded by original art and sculpture.
More art near elevator banks at each floor.
Light, bright rooms in blonde wood, leather and gold.
Flat screen TVs hidden behind glass wall that double as mirrors.
Big bathrooms, with marble, separate tub and shower, Molton Brown products.
Views are limited to nearby streets and alleyways.
Nespresso machine in every room.
Politically-inspired art throughout the hotel
US-style electrical outlets-- no adaptor required.
Check out the fingerprints in the carpet.. New Scotland Yard is next door!
Young, energetic staff had extra training while waiting for hotel to open.
Umm. BBQ Ribs at Blue Boar Restaurant & Bar. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Politically inspired art in the Blue Boar Bar
The handsome Blue Boar Restaurant is the setting for breakfast and dinner.
Hat tip to the British palate: Pulled lamb!
Pulled pork on a silver platter.
A solution for sticky fingers
The hotel is steps away from sites like Westminster Abbey

 

The brand-spankin’-new InterContinental Westminster is London’s newest business class hotel, with the central location, service, and style business travelers require. It also has a handsome restaurant and bar with a type of food you would not expect to find across the pond.

While in the UK over the holidays, I checked in at the hotel for two nights. Take a spin through the slideshow above… then take a read through what you need to know here:

>The 256-room hotel opened in early December in a quiet, yet very central area of London, in between Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It’s next door to New Scotland Yard.

>The new hotel was built inside a group of 19th century buildings called the Queen Anne’s Chambers—so even though it looks traditional red-brick-London on the outside, everything inside is modern and brand new. As a matter of fact, when I was there, rooms on two floors of the hotel were still under construction.

>Room rates start at about $350 per night, and since its part of IHG, you can earn and burn Priority Club points here.

The new InterContinental Westminster near Buckingham Palace. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The new InterContinental Westminster near Buckingham Palace. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>This is one of the few luxury hotels in London that offers free wi-fi—and since the hotel is new, it has fat, fast pipes for quick and easy downloading, streaming, etc.

>Rooms are decorated in a pale palette of blondes, beige and gold, with classy wood, leather, marble and chrome finishes, which keeps the rooms bright—a good thing since most windows in the low-slung (6 story) building look out to other buildings across alleyways and streets or into light wells.

>Bathrooms are big, modern and bright with separate tubs and showers. However, I was not a fan of the large, heavy, sliding doors separating the bathroom from the sleeping room. They seem awkwardly heavy, and not very soundproof, which can be important when more than one person is in the room.

>Its fresh-faced, young, and professional staff is energetic, highly trained- delays in opening the hotel meant more training time for employees.

>Since the hotel hopes to attract London’s political set, the lobby and common areas are all connected, and designed to see and be seen. For example, when you walk in to the chic limestone, sky-lit lobby, you can look through to Emmeline’s, an elegant tea and champagne bar, then through that to Blue Boar Smokehouse, the hotel restaurant and bar.

>Art and interior design are inspired by the hotel’s location. For example, carpet in the corridors sports an unusual fingerprint design (for the spooks in Scotland Yard next door). Most of the paintings and sculpture include characters from London’s rich political scene, past and present—for example, there are busts are Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and London’s blustery mayor, Boris Johnson. (See slideshow above)

>Eventually, a gym and fitness center will open in the basement, but it was still under construction when I was there.

Umm. BBQ Ribs at Blue Boar Restaurant & Bar. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Umm. BBQ Ribs at Blue Boar Restaurant & Bar. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>It felt a bit odd for me, someone who grew up in the BBQ-sauce-soaked South, to dine on smoke ribs, pulled pork, baked beans and cole slaw in London. But I did, and loved it! In typical British style, the, the BBQ at the hotel’s Blue Boar Smokehouse is served on (get this…) a silver platter. And in another hat tip to British tastes, the restaurant offers pulled lamb. Kudos to the chef Jon Ingram, who served up sweet, smoky and moist pulled pork, and spare ribs charred and spread with just the right amount of sauce. To finish, a classy finger bowl is provided to rinse sticky fingers.

>The Blue Boar Bar, with green leather love seats, plaid loungers, wooden floors and a full bar looked like it would be great fun with a crowd. But when we were there, parliamentarians were on Christmas break, so it was quiet.

>Overall, The InterContinental Westminster is a very nice, new hotel in a quiet corner of London. However, it is not as grand and flashy, nor does it offer the expansive high-rise views (or high rates), as InterContinental’s big flagship hotel on Park Lane.

>The neighborhood around the hotel is a hotspot for new hotels… nearby you’ll find the St Ermin’s hotel and 41 Hotel both opened within the last year and both worth a look-see!

-Chris McGinnis

Cheapest time of year for Hawaii? (Infographic)

When is the cheapest time of year for trip to Hawaii? Right now! According to booking data from FlipKey, the average cost to book a vacation property in Hawaii is during September. October and November, when average rates plunge to just $135 per night. (There’s also a lull in late April/early May.)

Compare that to peak season in Hawaii (around Christmas or Valentine’s day) when average rates run closer to $400 per night. (FlipKey is an online booking site that connects home or apartment owners with those who would like to rent them- like Airbnb, Homeaway or VRBO.)

Airfare to Hawaii is currently at yearly lows, too. A quick scan on Kayak shows average roundtrip fares for trips in September, October and early November in the $300 range for one stop flights or about $350 for nonstops from all three Bay Area airports. In a few rare cases, you can find fares dipping below $300 at this time of year…but you have to be vigilant in checking almost daily and acting fast when fares drop.

Also, over the next few months United has plenty of 40,000 mile saver awards available for coach roundtrips between SFO and HNL and a handful of 100,000 mile saver awards for first class. (But with fares this low, I would suggest paying instead of redeeming.)

If you could jump on a plane to Hawaii in the next month or so, would you be more interested in renting an apartment or villa…or would you stick to the hotel routine? If you were traveling to Hawaii or elsewhere on a business trip, would you consider renting an house or apartment instead of a hotel? Why or why not? Leave your comments below. 

>Are you signed up for our Facebook page yet? We frequently break news on our Facebook page that eventually makes it into our weekly posts. So if you want travel news when it happens, come on and get social with the BAT on our Facebook page.  

FlipKey Travel Trends: Hawaii Infographic

FlipKey Travel Trends: Hawaii by vacation rentals site FlipKey.com

If you could jump on a plane to Hawaii in the next month or so, would you be more interested in renting an apartment or villa…or would you stick to the hotel routine? If you were traveling to Hawaii or elsewhere on a business trip, would you consider renting an house or apartment instead of a hotel? Why or why not? Leave your comments below. 

**DO YOU LIKE WHAT YOU ARE READING HERE? Help spread the word about The BAT! Forward this link to your frequent traveling colleagues, your travel agent, your corporate travel manager! We need new readers and will only get them from recommendations from readers like YOU! www.thebat-sf.com**

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Two exotic new hotels in Paris (Slideshow)

Earlier this month in Paris, I had a chance to swing by two of the city’s newest hotels: The W Paris- Opera and the Shangri-La.

Wow! The city of lights hotel scene has got it going on.

The W hotel is so new that the cab driver from the Gare du Nord did not know what I was talking about when I said,  ”S’il vous plaît me prendre à hotel W.” (Thank you, Triplingo!) I had to find the Google map on my mobile phone to show him the way.

This brand new 91-room hotel is located in the center of the city near the famous old Opera House. As in most W hotels, there’s always a scene in the lobby (spilling out onto the sidewalk in summer), with DJ’s, models, wannabe models and assorted poseurs. 

Rooms are small and unusually appointed… for example, there are stickers on the wall and pillows on beds with caricatures of famous French men and women. Throughout the hotel are walls of black enameled sheet metal punctured with holes through which lights sparkle— I was told this sparkle was supposed to represent the melding of New York and Paris.  In the less expensive rooms, bathrooms are separated from the room by a sink and mirror- not a wall or a door. This offers a bare minimum of privacy- the small, black-walled closet-like room for the toilet is separated from the rest of the room by only a sliding door. (See slideshow above) That’s no problem if you have the room to yourself… but not great if sharing with another.

On the upside, the hotel is brand new…and new is good in a popular city like Paris where much of the hotel stock is overused and outdated. Basic wi-fi is free. It has a super-convenient location in the center of the city with easy access to several metro lines. There’s a clean, bright fitness studio on the top floor. Speaking English is no problem, and the young, toned, well-coiffed  staff is eager to please— not a hint of French snootiness. High demand is keeping base rates this fall in the $500 per night range.

The chic new Shangri-La hotel opened in late 2010 and is giving established 5-star hotels like the Four Seasons Georges V or the Le Meurice the jitters. It took four years to restore this building- which was once the home of Napoleon’s grand nephew Roland Bonaparte- located in the Trocadero, a posh neighborhood of embassies and mansions between the Arc d’ Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower.

You’ll find a comfortable blend of Asian hospitality (hot tea delivered to rooms at check in, congee on the breakfast menu) and chic French design.  It’s not a huge hotel- only 81 rooms- about half of which offer dramatic views of the Eiffel Tower. Elegance like this does not come cheaply… room rates start at $900 per night. The Shangri-La suite in the penthouse fetches a cool $23,000 per night. (Flip through the slideshow above for a peek of this spectacular suite!)

And it’s not just the Shangri-La that is giving luxury hoteliers in Paris heartburn… a new Mandarin Oriental just opened near the Place Vendome this summer- just a few blocks away from the famous Paris Ritz hotel, which is closed for the next two years for a complete re-do.

What are your favorite Paris hotels? Please leave your comments below. 

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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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Messier at T1, new flights to Europe, UAL leaves OAK, PreCheck at SFO

(Photo: Rolling Thunder / Flickr)

MESSIER AT SFO T1. The BAT has learned that UAL has quietly expanded the list of cities it serves from Terminal 1 at SFO to at least two more than we reported in early June. This week we’ve heard from surprised readers on flights to or from Denver, Los Angeles LAX and Portland PDX using Terminal 1.  There’s little rhyme or reason…or transparency… about this from United, which makes the situation all the more frustrating. Just remember: If your boarding pass says gate 87 or 92A-F, United will tell you to enter at Terminal 3, go to the gate and take a shuttle bus under the airport to Terminal 1. But BAT readers know that if you have no luggage to check, you can enter directly at Terminal 1. If your plane arrives SFO at Terminal 1 and you have no checked bags, you exit at Terminal 1. If you have checked bags or a connecting flight, United will direct you to the shuttle for a ride back over to Terminal 3. Have you experienced this merry-go-round yet? If so, please leave your comments below.

UAL SEZ BUH-BYE OAKLAND. United took its very last flight out of Oakland on Sunday, June 4 with a flight to Denver. United had served Oakland for more than 75 years, and the airport gave the final flight a ceremonial spray from a fire truck. Over the years, Southwest has made its mark at OAK, and this undoubtedly had an influence on UAL’s declining fortunes there.

(Photo: Virgin America)

PORTLANDIA. Virgin America inaugurated new flights to Portland earlier this month—and celebrated by naming its newest A320 “Mount Hoodie.” Clever!

AIR FRANCE’S LARGEST LOUNGE. Fly to Paris much? Then you should check out this slideshow of Air France’s chic new business class lounge at Paris CDG—it’s the largest lounge in the system and open to business, first and SkyTeam partner passengers.

GIMME FREE WIFI. Seeking free hotel wifi? Silicon Valley based hotel booking site Room77 allows users to filter hotels by availability of free wi-fi. Smart!

STOLEN LAPTOPS. Some airports are worse than others when it comes to laptop theft. A recent study found that Atlanta-ATL is #1 for laptop theft in the US. SFO ranks fifth worst after Miami-MIA, Chicago-ORD, Orlando-MCO. Frankfurt is #1 outside the US.

MORE CLEAR. The CLEAR card, which is back at SFO with its popular expedited security screening service, expanded to Terminal E (serving UAL, Delta, Virgin, etc) at Dallas-Ft Worth airport last week. CLEAR is now available at all terminals at SFO. It’s also in operation at Denver and Orlando airports. If you had a CLEAR card in it’s previous life, whatever time you had left on it when the company shut down is now valid at SFO—so get bring your old card to SFO and give it a try. The service costs $179 per year.

Photo: Olivier Cabaret / Flickr

EURO-AIR. Are you aware of all the new airlines flying to Europe from the Bay Area? To make hay while the summer sun shines, airlines such as XL Airways (SFO-Paris CDG), Arkefly (OAK-Amsterdam AMS), Air Berlin (SFO-Dusseldorf) and Sata (OAK-Azores) now offer nonstops across the pond. All are offering roundtrip fares in the $1500 range—not much different than what you’ll currently find on more mainstream carriers. Note: These carriers do not offer daily service—it’s more like 1-3 times per week. Also, we don’t hear much about these carriers here since they are more focused on European business than US business—which becomes immediately evident when you try to search for fares on their balky websites.

EURO-CHEAPO? If those fares seem high, here’s some good news: The US dollar gaining rapidly on the euro, making trips across the pond a little easier on American wallets. Currently, you can buy a euro for about $1.25, and from the looks of this chart, it could be closed to $1.10 by this fall.

PRECHECK COMING TO SFO. Eventually. United has (finally) joined American and Delta as airline partners with TSA for it’s popular PreCheck expedited security screening program. However, United only has PreCheck at Chicago-ORD for now. The TSA’s western region spokesperson Nico Melendez told The BAT that while the agency expects to have PreCheck at SFO this year, there is still no formal date for introduction.

DELAY AT ANA FOR SJC. ANA has quietly pushed back the introduction of new nonstops between San Jose International and Tokyo using a new B787 Dreamliner into 2013. Last fall ANA said that service would start in 2012. Hmmm.

MORE BIZ CLASS ON UAL. United has revamped the first of 14 Boeing 767-300s with its new lie-flat business class seat—all facing forward, unlike the forward/rear facing seats on its B777s. United spokesperson Charles Hobart told The BAT that the newly configured 767’s won’t be flying internationally out of SFO but will be doing occasional domestic turns.

Bedroom at Las Alcobas, my fave hotel in Mexico City (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

MEXICO CITY. Got business in Mexico City? Check out my latest BBC Business Trip: Mexico City column for my take on latest, greatest and newest business class hotels, restaurants, airport lounges. Surprise: Mexico City has cut its pollution in half, and its downtown is safe, cosmopolitan and a lot of fun. Factoid: The city’s elevation is 7,200 feet—that’s 2,000 or so feet higher than Denver!

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4 fabulous new 5-star hotels in London worth checking into

The view across the Thames from London's new Corinthia Hotel-- that pointy building surrounded by cranes in the background is The Shard, Europe's newest, tallest building. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I love London for many reasons, most of which revolve around my career in the travel biz. To me, the city just feels like the center of the universe, so every time London calls, I answer!

The dynamic London hotel scene is endlessly fascinating. There is always plenty of experimentation, unusual quirks and something new or unusual to check out.

In preparation for the visitor onslaught brought on by they upcoming Summer Olympics, I recently took off across the pond for a peek at the London hotel scene, and found four fabulous new (or newly renovated) five-star properties worth checking into.

Even if you can’t spend the night, it’s worth stopping by their lively lobbies to have a drink and a gawk at the cool design, have a meal or just to sit and enjoy the outstanding people watching.

A two-ton, LED illuminated Baccarat crystal chandelier sparkles in the lobby of London's brand new Corinthia Hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Corinthia Hotel London:

Wow! London’s not seen a stunner like this since the much anticipated re-opening of Fairmont’s Savoy Hotel in 2010. Just walking into the big, bright and airy lobby takes your breath away.

This magnificent 294-room newcomer is housed in a gorgeous, historic Victorian-era building that’s been so deeply renovated that it feels brand new. There’s none of the creaky floors, noisy plumbing or mustiness found in some of the capital’s finest grand dames. Rooms are modern, clean, and very big by London standards.

But it’s the big, bright, and buzzy lobby that really wowed me. In the center of the space is a soaring dome adorned with a giant, two-ton, globe-shaped Baccarat crystal chandelier composed of 1,001 grapefruit-sized crystal baubles—each illuminated from within with a tiny white LED light. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, it’s worth walking through the lobby just to see this gorgeous work. While you are at it, pop in for a meal at one of the hotel’s two popular restaurants, The Northall (traditional British fare with a fresh twist) or Massimo’s (Italian seafood).

The Corinthia also earns high marks from business travelers because it’s one of the few five-star London hotels that include high-speed wi-fi in the nightly rate. Another big selling point for Americans is its liberal no-restrictions check-in and check-out policy—if you are arriving on an early morning flight, just let the hotel know beforehand, and your room will be ready when you arrive—no interminable wait in the lobby while your room is made up

The imposing, yellow sandstone building in Whitehall previously housed Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Malta-based Corinthia Hotels reportedly bought the building and restored it to the tune of about $550 million. Construction began in 2008, and the hotel opened in April 2011. See www.corinthia.com/London

 

Hipster doormen in rolled jeans and flannels set the scene at London's new bohemian chic Belgraves hotel

Belgraves

If your business is showbiz, fashion, tech, PR or advertising, the brand new Belgraves hotel is custom-made just for you. It’s the first British outpost of the popular NYC-based Thompson Hotels Group (which recently merged with SF-base Joie de Vivre hotels), and inserts a bit bohemian Americana to its buttoned-up Belgravia neighborhood near Sloane Square. The 85-room hotel, which opened on February 1, is located in the shell of the old Sheraton Belgravia hotel—but there’s nothing Sheraton about this place anymore.

American touches abound- Check out the jeans-and-flannel-clad hipster doormen, or the US flag art behind the front desk. The mid-century modern furnishings in the cozy lobby conversation nooks are straight out of Mad Men.

Comfy-mod rooms have smallish bay windows with plush jewel-toned velvet love seats, and big bright marble bathrooms with tubs that overlook a leafy square across the street. Nice touch: Bedside docking stations can accommodate either an iPad or iPhone. See http://www.thompsonhotels.com/hotels/london/belgraves

Spectacular city views from the glass-walled 10th floor spa atop London's recently renovated Four Seasons Park Lane Hotel. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Four Seasons Park Lane

The Four Seasons on Park Lane oozes opulence as soon as you step out of your black London taxi in the porte cochere. Handsome doormen in knee length brown jackets and snappy English Trilby hats greet you by name (by sneaking a look at the tag on your bag). Well-heeled guests in finely tailored suits, Italian shoes and horn rimmed specs float through the lobby on their way to their rooms or to the hotel’s popular Amaranto restaurant.

Originally built in 1970, the hotel closed in 2008 for a complete makeover, and re-opened in January 2011. The sumptuous lobby is now bathed in sexy white streaked Italian black marble and mahogany paneling, trimmed in red leather and spritzed with hundreds of white orchids.

Room design is mostly masculine—reds, browns and wood paneling. Black leather covered desks. Light brown and orange wool tartan curtains, big walk in closets. There are even 32 rooms with working fireplaces.

During the recent re-do, the nine story, 217-room hotel got a tenth floor—housing a gorgeous light and airy spa, gym with views across Mayfair to the London Eye, the new Shard and the City. This aerie also serves as a day lounge where early arriving guests can set up shop while waiting for their rooms.

Nice: The hotel also has two big black Rolls-Royces on hand to shuttle guests to points within central London. See www.fourseasons.com/london/ Note: There are two Four Seasons in London—the other is located in Canary Wharf on the city’s eastern edge.

Gothic architecture looms over London's fab new Renaissance St Pancras hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Renaissance St Pancras

When my cab pulled up to the front of this north-central London hotel, I felt like I was arriving at Hogwarts with its ominous clock tower, gothic arches, spires, red brick and wrought iron. The hotel is actually part of the London St Pancras International train station, built over 150 years ago, but redeveloped in the last decade.

The old hotel part of the station had fallen into disrepair, and was nearly demolished when developers swooped in and returned the space to its former glory as a very unique luxury hotel—unlike any Marriott-branded hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

For instance, developers transformed the station’s old iron and glass porte cochere into a lively, bright lobby area. The adjacent ticketing office is now a warm and clubby lobby restaurant and bar—packed with locals as well as passengers waiting to board the Eurostar trains that depart St Pancras for Paris or Brussels.

In addition to historic (and more expensive) “chambers” rooms in the old building, a modern Marriott-style 200-room wing was added out back— not as unique, but probably better suited for business travelers who prefer to spend most of their free time in public spaces and work in their rooms. See http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lonpr-st-pancras-renaissance-london-hotel

Disclosure: McGinnis was a guest of the house at some of the hotels mentioned in this post.

Paying up pays off for holiday trips

Why wait in a long holiday taxi queue? Reserve a car instead! (Photo: Enrico Salad / Flickr)

As the peak holiday travel season approaches, everyone’s looking for a deal or a steal. But the truth of the matter is that bargains are difficult to come by during the Thanksgiving and Christmas peak travel season.

And if you snag what you think is a bargain, you might end of  “getting what you pay for.”

As a matter of fact, paying a little more at this time of year usually translates into more peace of mind, more quality time with friends or family, and the increased likelihood of a low-hassle trip home for the holidays…. which is what we all want.

Here are six examples to illustrate what I mean:

 

1> Take a nonstop flight. While you might be tempted by the price of a one-stop flight, by choosing one, you are increasing your chances of a delay or cancellation by 100%! Why take that chance, especially if you are headed home for just a few days, and a delayed or canceled flight could spoil the entire trip?

Cost: $50 to $200 depending on flight length

Example: Flying during peak Christmas week between San Francisco and Atlanta, you’ll pay $660 for a six-hour one-stop journey on Frontier connecting in Denver. On the other hand, fly four hours nonstop on Delta or AirTran and the fare is $730- $70 more. Worth it to fly nonstop? I think so. (Fares checked Nov 13 for flights departing Dec 23, returning Dec 27 and are subject to change.)

 

2> Book your trip via a real, live travel agent. Most budget-conscious travelers shy away from travel agents who charge fees. But as the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) likes to say, “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.” Most travel agents can use their experience, connections and clout to help get you out of sticky situations, plus they’ve got knowledge and experience to offer you the best alternatives when or if you get stuck.

Cost: $20-$50 or negotiable

Example: ASTA’s motto surely rang true last year when a monster storm blew up the East Coast on Christmas day, stranding travelers across the country. Most of those who booked trips via travel agents were able to get through to them by phone and adjust travel plans faster than those who only had airline 800-numbers. (Note: Be sure the travel agent you choose has an after hours emergency number.)

 

Rooms dip as low as $80 over Xmas at a brand new Best Western near Dallas, TX

3> Stay at a hotel. Why burden the in-laws with the stress of houseguests during the already stressful holidays? Instead of bunking on that lumpy sofa bed or stuffy guest room, book a nearby hotel. Tip: Due to lack of demand from business travelers, most hotels are dirt-cheap during the holidays, especially those located in suburban office parks. Travel expert John DiScala, who edits the popular johnnyjet.com website suggests that the holidays are a great time to consider redeeming loyalty points for nicer hotel digs, saying, “For example, Hilton HHonors points can also now be used to upgrade an existing reservation to a premium room or suite at hotels worldwide, with no blackout dates.”

Cost: $50 to $100 per night, depending on location.

Example: A nice, newish Hilton Garden Inn in the northern Atlanta suburbs costs only $67 per night during Christmas week—but book it two weeks later when business travelers are back on the road and you’ll pay nearly twice that much- $127.

 

4> Review your charge card benefits. Most banks have added a slew of new benefits to charge cards in recent years to woo free-spending, credit-worthy frequent travelers, so you might be packing more power in your pocket than you know. While annual fees are higher for such cards, many now offer benefits that come in handy for holiday travel such as waived baggage fees, access to airport lounges, early boarding privileges, early check in/late check out or upgrades at hotels, concierge services and more.

Cost: $100-$500/year

Example: While the American Express Platinum card sounds expensive at $450/year, the benefits can pay off big time when it comes to peak travel season. For example, the card gets you out of the airport holiday mayhem and into 600 airport lounges (gratis) around the world, covers up to $200 airline fees from checked bags to in-flight food or cocktails, and Global Entry membership, which gets you to the front of the line US Customs and Immigration. For a $95 fee, the new Chase/United Explorer card offers early boarding, one free checked bag, and two United Club passes. Many high-end cards also offer concierge services that can help get you out of travel jams—worth a call if you get stuck!

 

Delta's roomier Economy Comfort seat now on SFO-JFK5> Book roomier airline seats. While you can always pay a lot more to sit in first class, you can now pay a little bit more, and get a more comfortable coach seat. During the busy, crowded holidays, that’s money well spent. While getting a few extra inches of room always helps, the real benefit of paying for a better economy seat is that you usually get to board early—with elite level flyers—which means you get first dibs on scarce overhead bin space.

Cost: Varies based on carrier and flight duration- $10-$100 per segment

Example: I frequently take advantage of last minute upgrades to Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select seats, which offer a few extra inches of legroom at exit rows and bulkheads, free in-flight food and booze, and early boarding privileges. While reserving a Main Cabin Select seat in advance can be expensive, cheaper last-minute upgrades (24 hours prior to flight) can make a good flight a great one. Delta recently added roomier “Economy Comfort” seating on transcon flights between SFO and New York City.

 

6> Hire a car service to/from the airport. There are lots of reasons why you should use a car service for a ride to or from the airport during the holidays. First, don’t burden friends or family with the chore of driving to the airport during rush hour traffic to pick you up or drop you off. Second, when arriving, you walk straight to your waiting car instead of waiting in those long, cold taxi queues at airports that form during peak holiday season.

Cost: 10%-20% more than cab fare

Example: Last month I was greeted by a taxicab queue at SFO at least 100 people deep after returning from a 15-hour flight from Dubai. Wish I had booked a car service! In New York, I always use the economical Dial 7 car service (212-777-7777) which costs $5 or $10 more than a cab, but offers a comfortable sedan ride to/from Manhattan versus the tight squeeze, bumpy ride, and possible wait for a NYC Taxi.

Where are YOU headed for the holidays? Please leave your comments below.