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Top 5 cities that discriminate against travelers

Do you feel ripped off when you book a great hotel or car rental rate, but end up paying a final bill loaded up with taxes and fees? (That are used to fund things you’ll likely never use such as local stadiums or convention centers…)

The Global Business Travel Association has released the 2011 findings from its annual study of car rental, hotel and meal taxes in the top 50 U.S. travel destination cities- and the results might surprise you. For example, cities in Florida and California are cited as having the lowest taxes.

All taxes are not the same…some specifically target travelers, like Phoenix’s $2.50 rental car fee that goes to the “Maricopa County Stadium for debt retirement.” Or the 5% rental car tax imposed by San Antonio to fund “youth and amateur sports facilities.”

Cities with the lowest total tax burden ($20-$25 per day) in central city locations:

1.     Fort Lauderdale, FL

2.     Fort Myers, FL

3.     West Palm Beach, FL

4.     Detroit, MI

5.     Portland, OR

*12. San Jose ($23.69 per day)

*21. Oakland ($27.01 per day)

*24. San Francisco ($27.90 per day)

NOTE: The full list now includes many cities in California now that state sales tax has declined a full percentage point.

Cities with the highest total taxes (around $35 per day) on travelers are:

1.     Chicago, IL

2.     New York, NY

3.     Seattle, WA

4.     Boston, MA

5.     Kansas City, MO

Discriminatory travel taxes are those imposed specifically on travel services above and beyond general sales taxes (like the ones imposed on airport car rentals to fund local projects).

The U.S. cities with the lowest discriminatory travel tax rates are:

1.     Orange County, CA

2.     San Diego, CA

3.     San Jose, CA

4.     Burbank, CA

5.     Ontario, CA

Cities with the highest discriminatory  travel taxes (those that single out travelers):

1.     Portland, OR

2.     Boston, MA

3.     Minneapolis, MN

4.     New York, NY

5.     Chicago, IL

Do you have any examples of outrageous taxes you’ve been forced to pay recently? Do taxes that seem to discriminate against travelers encourage you to travel elsewhere, or do you just grumble and pay up? Please leave your comments below.



Trip Report: The London West Hollywood Hotel

The rooftop pool and cabanas at the London West Hollywood hotel.

The rooftop pool and cabanas at the London West Hollywood hotel.

In March I was in Los Angeles on business and extended my stay over the weekend at the London Hotel in West Hollywood which opened in 2009. I loved it. (So do a lot of others…it is currently ranked #1 among hotels in the area on TripAdvisor.)

In my mind, this hotel has all the elegance, class and comfort of LA’s well-known (and enormously expensive) west side grande dames combined with a hip design-forward factor you would expect at the W or the Standard. For example, all hotel hallways are sheathed in a voluptuous pale gray suede-like fabric that is “brushed” every day. (See photo below)

Rates run in the $300 range per night, but if you are staying longer than one night, you’ll want to pay a bit more for a room with one of those sweeping twinkling south-facing views of LA. (Disclosure: I was a guest of the hotel one night, and paid $300 for one night, during my two-day stay.)

The 200-room hotel, once known as the Bel Age, is located a block downhill from Sunset Boulevard (at San Vicente) in West Hollywood. It shares a parking lot with the infamous Viper Room. It’s got a sexy rooftop, cabana-ringed, glassed-in, pool area with a stunning 360-degree view that adds a fun, SoCal glam edge. There’s also a buzzy Gordon Ramsay restaurant on-site.

Three top features frequent travelers will appreciate: This is a luxury hotel that offers free high-speed Internet connections. It also serves up one of the most elaborate and varied complimentary breakfast buffets (including items like scones, smoked salmon, fresh fruit salads, quiche…see below) I’ve ever torn into. And all rooms are big, bright and over-sized…as a matter of fact, the hotel refers to all rooms as “suites.”

Come on along for the show:

Elegant entryway off San Vicente Blvd

Elegant entryway off San Vicente Blvd

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My roomy

My roomy “Vista Suite” with a view of West LA and Century City.

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All rooms have

All rooms have “floating beds” placed in the center of the room. All are pale green accented with unusual marble and bleached wood.

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Suede-like walls in every corridor-- note the vertical brushed grain and the fingerprints above the chair rail.

Suede-like walls in every corridor- note the vertical brushed grain and the fingerprints above the chair rail.

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The sumptuous breakfast buffet that's included in your room rate (along with free Wi-Fi)

The sumptuous breakfast buffet that’s included in your room rate (along with free Wi-Fi)

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Terrine of foie gras and toasted brioche with yuzu marmalade at Gordon Ramsay LA-- onsite at the London Hotel

Terrine of foie gras and toasted brioche with yuzu marmalade at Gordon Ramsay LA- onsite at the London Hotel

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Got suggestions, ideas, experiences or comments? Need help sorting out a travel dilemma? Send me an email!

Are you still paying for hotel Wi-Fi?

Ask any business traveler about his or her biggest travel-related gripes and you’ll undoubtedly find hotel fees for in-room Internet access near the top of the list.

As much as travelers (and travel writers) squawk about how wrong it feels to have to pay for something that has become as basic to a hotel stay as hot water, the hotel industry has resisted - especially at the high-end.

But I think we might have reached a tipping point in the war against these fees.

Last week global hotel giant Carlson launched a new loyalty program which offers its members free Internet access at all Radisson Hotels worldwide, and at all Carlson brands in the US. That’s nearly 1,100 hotels. And the only thing guests have to do is sign up for the program; no elite status required (details below).

Thorsten Kirschke, COO of Carlson Global, said he’d like to eventually see free Internet access for all guests at all Carlson hotels, and this is the first step in that direction. (Radisson hotels in Europe already offer free access to all guests.)

This move shows that the idea of free hotel Internet access is moving up the food chain to higher-tiered hotels and across entire hotel brand families.

Most of the world’s largest hotel families, such as Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott and Starwood, charge for Internet access at their upscale brands, but do not charge for it at their budget brands. Best Western was the first to offer free Internet access chain-wide in 2004. (The exception is elite level members of some hotel loyalty programs, who now get it free.)

In addition to Radisson’s move, smaller upscale hotel chains such as Fairmont, IHG’s Hotel Indigo, Hyatt’s Andaz, Kimpton (US) and Omni (US) have moved to free access. Two big standouts at the top of the hotel heap are the ultra-luxe Peninsula and Shangri-La brands; both offer free in-room Internet at all properties worldwide.

So we are getting there. Our cries about fees for Internet access seem to have reached hotel company boardrooms and change is in the air.

In the meantime, here’s some advice to consider on the topic of hotel room Internet access:

Free access does not always mean fast access and in too many cases, business travelers get what they pay for. Now that business travelers are using a lot more bandwidth - to watch movies, or send and receive large files - hotels with older systems can get overloaded and slow down fast. If having a fast Internet connection is crucial, call the hotel before you book and ask the front desk if they get a lot of complaints from guests about Internet connections or speed.

Frequent travelers who always need fast Internet access should consider USB sticks or cards for laptops that provide access to new 3G, 4G or other mobile broadband networks.

Some hotels have moved to a two-tier system. Basic, low bandwidth wi-fi (good enough to check email or browse the web) is free. If you want to watch movies or videos, or interact on social networking sites like Facebook, you’ll have to pay a fee for more bandwidth.

What about you? Are you getting it for free more often than not?

High biz travel prices with no end in sight

If you are waiting and wondering if business travel prices might fall…you might be in for a long wait.

This week American Express released its latest Business Travel Monitor (BTM) report for 2010 showing that airfare continued to climb in 2010 and is just 6 percent shy of the airfare highs of 2008. Also, domestic hotel rates were steady overall in 2010 while reaching their highest levels all year in the fourth quarter of 2010.

2011 has seen a strong start for airfare increases. The recent spikes in oil prices and the cut in capacity growth plans by airlines likely mean no end in sight for rising prices. Recent BTM data shows domestic airfare in January 2011 was up eight percent compared to January 2010.

Specifically:

·         Year-Over-Year Average Domestic Airfare Paid Increased 7 percent to $231 in 2010

·         Year-Over-Year Average International Airfare Paid Increased 7 percent to $1,795 in 2010

·         Year-Over-Year Average Domestic Hotel Booked Rates Paid Remained Flat at $152 in 2010

Additionally, American Express identified the five U.S. domestic markets with the highest hotel rate increases in Q4 2010 vs. Q4 2009, which are:

  • Las Vegas, NV (+12%) — rates really had no where to go but up!
  • Denver, CO (+5)
  • New York, NY (+5%) — high end hotel rates have jumped much more than this
  • Washington DC (+5%)
  • San Francisco, CA (+5) — great news for our local economy. Not such good news for visitors.

Top 10 predictions for BATs in 2011

(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

It’s that time of year again…when travel pundits and prognosticators do their best to gaze into the future and predict what may or may not happen in the big wide world of travel in the coming year.

Here are my top ten predictions for frequent travelers in 2011:

1-RISING PRICES. Business travel prices will continue to rise, but not enough to dampen renewed demand.

2-AIRFARE. Fares will continue to rise sharply, especially for flights between cities where only one or two legacy carriers operate. From the Bay Area, all you have to do is follow the route maps of Virgin America, Southwest and JetBlue to know where the deals are (or aren’t). Also, prepare for more fuel surcharges if oil hits $100 per barrel- it’s currently about $89 and rising.

3-TRAVEL DEALS. In terms of travel deals, there will be a wider gap between peak season and off-season prices. Those with flexibility to travel outside the peak travel dates will continue to find good deals and more short-term “flash” type sales. Those who must travel during peak periods will face sticker shock.

4-HOTEL RATES. Due to continued overcapacity, hotel rates should remain about the same or slightly up, on average, over the next year. Hotel rates in New York City will rise, but a steady supply of new hotels opening there should keep rate inflation to acceptable levels, especially among mid-tier properties.

5-FREE WI-FI. More upscale hotel chains will join their midscale counterparts to offer free in-room Wi-Fi. We’ll also see hoteliers pay more attention to bandwidth issues on their existing systems. What good is free Wi-Fi if it doesn’t work? In-flight Wi-Fi prices could moderate as Southwest’s $5 flat fee for inflight Wi-Fi expands to more flights.

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6-LONGER STAYS. Hotel chains will offer more loyalty program promotions designed to get travelers to increase the duration of their stays. (Such as “buy two nights, get the third free.”)

7-DRIVING VS. FLYING. Due to recent changes in security screening, the airport hassle factor could return, and more frequent travelers will consider driving instead of flying. The “five hour rule” might change to the “six hour rule.”

8-MOBILE DEVICES. We’ll see more focus on business travelers’ smart phones, which will soon be used to open hotel room doors and will be accepted as payment instead of credit cards. There will be more promotions designed to encourage the use of mobile devices to book and manage travel reservations

Old school Airfone

9-IN-FLIGHT PHONING. In-flight phone calling, now available on several non-U.S. airlines will become more prevalent and might even be considered by a domestic carrier. High per-call rates and peer pressure should keep abuse in check- remember those pricey GTE Airfones that no one ever used because they were too expensive? I expect the same with in-flight cell phone use.

10-MEETINGS & CONVENTIONS. More of us will attend large annual trade shows and conventions this year as pent up demand is released. Many companies banned non-essential travel over the last two years and business travelers are eager to get out of the office and re-establish face-to-face contact with customers and colleagues. However, I think small and medium-sized meetings will face more competition from virtual alternatives.

Traveling home for a feast? Read this first.

(that's my mom's sweet potato casserole.)
(that’s my mom’s sweet potato casserole!)

With Halloween and the election behind us, the next big calendar item is Thanksgiving. If you are hitting the roads or the skies later this month, read up. There’s plenty to know about the upcoming peak season:

FARES UP. In addition to the slew of new airline fees, airfares are higher this year. Farecompare.com reports that holiday airfares are up about 17 percent over last year. According to Travelocity, the average Thanksgiving season fare for domestic trips is running about $378 roundtrip this year. While that may seem high, consider this: Travelocity says that the average Christmas/New Years week fare this year is $457.

FORGET WEDNESDAY. The TUESDAY before Thanksgiving has emerged as one of the busiest travel days for of the peak Thanksgiving week- even busier than Wednesday.

FULL WEEK. In recent years, an increasing number of Americans are taking the full Thanksgiving week off. This means that you should expect the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving to be very busy.

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SUNDAY-MONDAY. The Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving will be the busiest travel days of the season. Sunday’s busy because that’s when everyone wants to get back home. Monday is busy because you’ve got business travelers headed back out for work on Monday morning along with the Thanksgiving laggards headed home. IMPORTANT: Expect big security line back ups on Monday morning; arrive early just in case.

PACKED FLIGHTS AND AIRPORTS. The Air Transport Association expects 24 million travelers during the 12-day Thanksgiving travel season. That’s up from 23 million last year. Despite the increased demand, airlines have been slow to un-park their planes (or buy new ones) so you should expect every flight to be full or even oversold.

DRIVING IT HOME. Despite the focus on air travel, the fact remains that 80 to 90 percent of all trips home for the holiday are by car. Good news: Gasoline is only a dime-per-gallon more expensive than this time last year. As always, traffic-averse drivers should try to avoid high-volume times such at Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and Sunday afternoon after.

SWEET SPOT. If you want to breeze through the holiday with little or no hassle, try to travel during the Thanksgiving sweet spot: Thursday, Friday and Saturday are the slowest travel days of the week. Smart drivers leave Thanksgiving morning and get back Saturday night. Three days with the family is plenty, right?

AIRLINE FEE FOR ALL. Despite all the media attention, infrequent travelers might be surprised by new airline fees for checked baggage this year. Here’s what you need to know:

>Only JetBlue and Southwest do not charge for the first checked bag. (JetBlue does charge for the second one; Southwest does not.)

>Only one airline, Spirit Air, charges for carry on bags. ($45 for bags that don’t fit under the seat.) Thankfully, Spirit Air does not fly to San Francisco!

>All other airlines charge $50 to $70 round trip per checked bag.

>Bags that are overweight or oversize are subject to crazy-high fees, so beware.

FAT STAT. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics says that airlines raked in a whopping $1.6 BILLION in checked baggage fees in just the first six months of this year! (This is a big reason airlines are finally, after years in the red, reporting profits this year.)

BAG FEE REBATE. Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and other hotels in the InterContinental Hotels Group will rebate $50 in checked baggage fees to those who spend two weekend nights with them. Kimpton Hotels is doing the same- but only if you are charged for a second bag.

SHIP BAGS. If you can’t fit everything into a carryon, consider shipping your bags. UPS and FEDEX stores are happy to ship your baggage, but you have to ship them 3-5 days ahead of time via ground, in order to beat the cost of airline fees. Also be aware that distance matters when you ship bags. The UPS Store tells me that a 35 lb. bag shipped via ground from San Francisco to Denver costs about $25; if you shipped the same bag all the way to Atlanta, it would cost close to $50.

LUMPY SOFA OR HOTEL?. One bright spot in the overcrowded, overpriced holiday season is that hotel rates can hit yearlong lows during Thanksgiving. This is especially true at hotels located in or near office parks that cater to business travelers. These properties are dead during holidays, so you can scoop up outstanding bargains. To get the most for your money check out the big spacious rooms (many as big as efficiency apartments) at so-called “extended stay” properties such as Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites or Homewood Suites.

DEAD WEEKS. If you have the flexibility to postpone Thanksgiving season trips, consider traveling during what are known in the travel industry as “dead weeks.” During the first two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January, crowds vanish and prices plummet. The main exception to this would be New York City- due to the shopping season, the first three weeks of December are the busiest and most expensive of the year.

Hotels roar back to life

IHG's Priority Club members now earn/burn points on the Vegas strip (Photo: Christopher Chan)

After a two years of big declines in occupancy, rates and optimism, the hotel industry seems to be roaring back to life.

>Just this week InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which includes giant brands like Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, reported that its occupancy was up 4 percent in the third quarter. It also announced big plans to move into the recovering Las Vegas market. (See below)

>Starwood’s CEO says that the chain’s occupancy rates are back now back at 2007 levels with rates in positive territory. (Westin, Sheraton and W Hotels fall under the Starwood umbrella.)

>Best Western reports that it sold 15 percent more room nights on its web site in September compared to the same time last year.

>Marriott’s feeling so confident about the future that this week it announced an ambitious plan to add 80,000 to 90,000 new rooms to its portfolio of brands over the next three years.

All that is great news for hotels, but not such great news for travelers- as a result of increasing demand, hotel rates are on the rise. Expedia reported today that hotel rates were up 4 percent in the third quarter.

Frequent travelers will feel pricing pressure most in big gateway cities such as New York where third quarter rates were up 12 percent according to STRGlobal. In San Francisco, rates were up about 7 percent; in Boston, they were up 6 percent.

Are you paying significantly more for hotels than you have in recent years? Leave your examples or comments below.

Now for a few more newsy nuggets from the hotel scene:

EARNING AND BURNING ON THE STRIP. Priority Club Rewards members should be pleased to know that they now have 7000 plush rooms on the Las Vegas strip where they can earn or redeem their hard-earned loyalty points.

This week InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) announced a new alliance with the Venetian and Palazzo that will, among other things, allow Priority Club members to book suites on the IHG web site, redeem a minimum of 40,000 points for a one-night stay, and earn points as if they were staying at any other IHG brand. (Stay tuned…this functionality is not yet available on its web site.) Until now, IHG had only a minor presence in Las Vegas with a handful of off-strip properties.

In a similar move, Marriott recently (and for the first time) announced that it too would make a splash on the strip by teaming up with the Cosmopolitan, which opens in the new City Center complex on December 15. Marriott Rewards members will have similar opportunities to earn and burn program points on the strip.

Surfboard's up at the front desk at Marriott's new EDITION hotel in Honolulu

Surfboard's up at the front desk at Marriott's new EDITION hotel in Honolulu

ALOHA MARRIOTT. Marriott introduced its new design-chic EDITION hotel in Honolulu earlier this month. (In the building that previously housed the Renaissance Ilikai Waikiki hotel near the Ala Moana Shopping Center.)

Marriott partnered with hotel design maven Ian Schrager to create the new EDITION brand, so guests can expect the highly stylized surroundings they may have experienced at Schrager’s other hotels that include the Delano in Miami, the Mondrian in LA, or the Gramercy Park or Royalton in NYC. This is the first EDITION hotel to open; Marriott says more will open in other “24-hour cities” over the next few years.

Pro: The Waikiki EDITION offers free high-speed internet access- unusual for an upscale hotel. Con: The hotel is located on Ala Moana Blvd across from a Marina and not on the beach- but from photos it does seem to have a super-sexy pool area.

Rates run in the $375 per night range, but can dip as low as $195 during promotional periods. Marriott Rewards members can redeem a minimum of 35,000 points for a one-night stay.

NYC hotels getting pricey and unusual

Minimalist stylings at NYC's new Andaz Fifth Avenue hotel

Like many frequent travelers, I’ve spent plenty of nights in New York City hotels over the years. When looking for a place to stay, I nearly always look for two key words: brand new.

I like new hotels for a couple of reasons: First, since I’m in the travel biz, I’m eager to see and experience the latest trends in hospitality. Second, since hotel rooms in Manhattan are nearly always occupied, they get worn out quickly. A brand new hotel will have little evidence that hundreds of others have spent the night in my room before I did. (Note: If you like new hotels, you’ve got to be somewhat forgiving when it comes to service—it takes a while for hotel staff to grow out of the “green” stage.)

Good news: When it comes to “brand new” in NYC, there’s plenty to choose from- this year alone, 33 new hotels will open, adding some 7,500 rooms to the market. Despite the increase in capacity, average rates in New York are climbing—up 12 percent in September year-over-year to an average $281 per night, according to STR Global

Last month I stopped by New York on my way back from London and checked out one of the more noteworthy newbies:  The Andaz - Fifth Avenue.

Hyatt has always been a reliably classy brand. But with its new Andaz boutique-style brand, it’s moved out of that cozy comfort zone and onto the cutting edge.

First off, the hotel is so new that the cab driver could not find it—exterior signage was minimal, and despite the hotel’s name, the front door is on 41st Street.

Entrance to Andaz Fifth Avenue is on 41st St.

When I walked in the lobby with my bags, there was no front desk. Instead, one of several cheerful black-clad “hosts” greeted me, tablet PC in hand. She asked me to have a seat at a bar stool and offered me a glass of complimentary wine or bottled water while she took my credit card info and checked me in.

Check in via tablet PC. No front desk

Then we were both off to my superior king room—yes, an escort to your room is part of the check in.

The room had several unusual touches that I’ve rarely seen before:

>Snacks, sodas and juices from the mini-bar are free.

>Free high-speed internet (unusual for an upscale hotel)

>A porcelain foot bath on the floor of the oversize shower stall. My host explained that it’s for feet that get weary and/or dirty after a day spent pounding the Big Apple’s gritty sidewalks. A nice touch considering there’s no tub in the bathroom.

A foot bath for weary feet

>Twelve-foot ceilings and expansive street views through windows that open (important for me). If your room is on the Fifth Ave side, you can peer over at the New York Public Library.

>Minimalism to the max: Those high ceilings make for a lot of blank wall space: the only wall adornment is a 42” HDTV. The desk is a long thin wooden table topped with only a phone. The all-white bed floats in the middle like a big marshmallow.

A spartan desk area with plenty of room to spread out

>Despite the room’s large size, there was no closet. Instead, clothes are stored in a chrome and glass armoire-ish box.

Glass and chrome "closet"

Finally, in another unusual twist, as I checked out, the host presented me with a white lacquer box, opened it, and asked me to chose a parting gift—a small gourmet brownie, small hand sanitizer, a tin of mints, a lollipop, or lip balm.

A parting gift at check out

Rates in November run from $435 to $535 a night. (Disclosure: The hotel comped my room for one night.)

Right now, there are Andaz hotels in NYC (Fifth Ave and Wall St), London, West Hollywood, and San Diego with several more in the pipeline.

Two other noteworthy newbies that I’ll be on the lookout for next time I’m in NYC: The InterContinental Times Square and the Chatwal.

For a list a ALL the brand new hotels opening in NYC this year, see the  Hotel Development Fact Sheet PDF

Use your cell phone as your hotel room key

How many times have you flown across the country, then rushed from the airport to your hotel only to find a long line and lengthy wait just to check in? (Seems to happen to me almost every time I go to Las Vegas…)

Two Holiday Inn hotels are now testing technology from a company called Openways that allows guests to bypass the front desk entirely, proceed straight to their rooms, and unlock the door using their cell phones. That’s pretty cool.

Here’s how it works: You make a hotel reservation by phone or online and provide your cell phone number. On the day you are scheduled to arrive, the hotel sends a message to your phone, including your room number. When you arrive at the hotel, you go directly to the door of your room and call a special toll free number. When it answers, it recognizes and validates your phone number, and responds with a tone. When you hear the tone, you place your phone over the door lock, and voila! Open sesame! It opens. (See video above, or go to IHG’s Innovation Center blog)

Beta tests started last month at two hotels, The Holiday Inn & Suites Chicago O’Hare Rosemont and The Holiday Inn Express Houston Downtown Convention Center. Based on the results of these tests, the service could roll out among other hotel brands under the IHG umbrella, which include InterContinental, Indigo and Crowne Plaza hotels, among others.

So what do you think? Would you be comfortable using a cell phone as a room key? Please leave your comments below.

A plethora of hotel program promos

(Photo: Nhanusek / Flickr)

Every fall, hotel companies roll out big bonuses for members of their frequent stay programs. They are hoping to lure in more business travelers who are out and about in force during this time. This year, with hotels still hurting, the offers are looking pretty generous. (If I don’t have your fave program listed below, stay tuned…nearly all big chains should have a fall promo in place by September 15. Most require you to register.)

>Starwood’s fall promo runs from September 8-December 15, offering double points if you stay up to nine nights during the period. SPG members get triple points if they stay at least 10 nights. (www.spg.com/everynightcounts)

>At Hyatt, you earn 10,000 Gold Passport points for every five nights stayed between September 15 and December 15. This 10K deal was leaked out early on several blogs last week, so there’s no link or registration page yet. But stay tuned to www.goldpassport.hyatt.com

>At Best Western, stay twice between September 12 and November 21 and you’ll earn double Rewards points. Book at Bestwestern.com and you get triple points. Register here

>Marriott hotels kicked off the slower fall travel season with a pretty nice offer: Stay twice between September 15 and January 15 and get one free night. Must pay with Visa. Details

Neither Hilton HHonors or IHG Priority Club have announced fall promos yet, but stay tuned…they should be out shortly. In the meantime, here’s a deal that should be music to the ears of non-elite air travelers forced to pay those dastardly new fees for checked bags. IHG Hotels (which include Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Staybridge Suites, Indigo among others) is offering to rebate $50 to travelers who book two or more weekend nights now through Dec 30. Must use Visa card to pay for your stay. Details.

NEW HYATT CARD. Hyatt has unveiled a new Chase card with some nice bennies: You get two free nights at any Hyatt worldwide with first purchase. You get three Gold Passport points for every dollar spent at Hyatt. And they’ve eliminated those pesky foreign transaction fees. Annual fee is $75. Details

ARE YOU INDEPENDENT? Do you love independent, non-chain, upscale or luxury hotels, but miss the free nights you earn with big chain frequent stay programs? A new program called Stash Hotel Rewards offers five points per dollar spent at over 80 hotels, like the Affinia Dumont hotel in Manhattan, or the hotel Andra in Seattle, two of my top picks in those cities. Stash estimates that the average traveler could earn one free night after about five stays. Here’s a current and rapidly expanding list of the hotels that participate in Stash. To get points, you must book directly with the hotel’s web site, not via third party channels. Worth a look! Details

PICK YOUR ROOM. Did you know that Hilton’s Homewood Suites now allow travelers to choose their exact room 36 hours prior to arrival? Now that’s something I’d like to see across the hotel industry! Details

MORE FREE WI-FI. Slowly but surely, hotel chains are getting the message that frequent travelers really REALLY want Wi-Fi charges included in their room rates. Hilton recently joined a trend among several chains by offering free Wi-Fi across ALL its brands to elite level members of its HHonors program. Details.

NICE IDEA! Hyatt’s new upscale Andaz chain offers partially free mini bars (alas, no booze…but still) Details. Have you stayed at an Andaz yet? If so, please leave your comments below.

Marina Sands: The pool is on the roof! (Photo: William Cho)

STARWOOD CARD FEE. The popular Starwood/Amex card recently hiked its annual fee for the second time in two years to $65. Still worth it? (Maybe they felt they were leaving money on the table considering Hyatt’s new card fee of $75 mentioned above…)

COOL POOL. Singapore may now have the coolest rooftop hotel infinity pool ever. You’ve gotta see these photos to believe your eyes. It’s located at the brand new Marina Sands hotel there.

HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING TRENDS. We recently posted an interesting item about certain Starwood hotels that offer guests 500 Starpoints for opting out of hotel housekeeping. We heard from many of you who thought that was a dandy idea. Now there’s more. Best Western says that when asked, about 40% of it’s guests now opt for limited or no housekeeping. Hmm. I sorta like the idea of having my room cleaned each day. I don’t necessarily need linens changed, but a quick clean up is nice. What about you? Leave your comments below.