Psychedelic new planes and summer surcharges

A special San Francisco edition of a SWISS A340. Groovy!

(Stay tuned for more about those new SWISS flights that begin on June 2. I just wanted to get that psychedelic San Francisco themed plane up on my blog for all to see! Can you believe they painted a plane just for us? For now, let’s take a look at summer travel.)


I’ve spent most of this week doing radio and TV interviews about summer travel trends. (Check ‘em out! Good Morning America. KCBS. Bloomberg/BusinessWeek.)

As usual, the stations want me to peel off a list of all the great travel deals out there.

But the reality is that nearly all the good airfare deals are gone. That’s right. If you want to travel during peak summer travel season, those dirt-cheap deals you might be hoping for are, well, dust in the wind.

Here are a few sound bites I’ve been tossing around:

>Over the course of this week, most major airlines raised fares $20 to $60 dollars round trip during the peak summer travel season, which runs from mid-June to mid-August. These are some of the most aggressive fare increases for peak summer travel season that I’ve ever seen.

>When airlines are aggressive like they’ve been this week, it means that it’s very clear to them that people are willing to pay higher fares. They would not raise fares if they were not confident we’d buy them.

>Airlines are calling these fare increases “surcharges” for technical reasons. However, when you are fare shopping online, those surcharges are already added into the fares you see and compare. Don’t get tripped up by semantics. Surcharges = fare increases.

>If you’ve been waiting around hoping you might luck into a great fare, I’m afraid your luck has run out. If you find a summer peak season fare that seems somewhat reasonable, book it now, because I’m afraid it’s only going to go up from here.

>People who last week may have found a pretty good fare but thought they would wait a week were greeted with surcharges this week. A fare that was $400 last week is $460 this week.

>Travelers have had a lot of cabin fever now because they’ve shunned vacations due to recent financial worries. If they did go out, they took shorter trips or they maybe stayed at less expensive hotels or they stayed with friends. But now the summer is here. They haven’t taken a vacation in a while and they’re ready to go. And they seem ready to pay more.

>Some lower prices: While airfares are up, hotel rates are on par with last summer (which means historic lows.) Also, after a year of sharp increases, rental car rates could be down as much as 15 percent compared to last summer. In addition, travelers headed to Europe will find that a stronger dollar will lead to lower prices.

>There are two windows of opportunity for good deals this summer. The first two weeks of June and the last two weeks of August. If you have the flexibility to travel during these windows, you’ll pay less than during the peak (roughly June 15-August 15).

>Other strategies for lower fares (but higher potential for hassles): Take a one-stop flight instead of a nonstop. Take an overnight flight or a very early or very late night flight or fly on an off-peak day. Monday and Tuesday are going to be the slowest days this summer- that’s when you are going to find those surcharges the smallest.

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$483 round trip all-in, SFO-Auckland

(Photo: griffs0000 / Flickr)

Air New Zealand is offering flash sale: $483 round trip SFO-Auckland incl. tax! Must travel late May-Early June. Book by May 14. This is as low as I’ve ever seen it. Interested? Act fast cuz the cheap seats are selling out.

NOTE: frequent flyer miles are not awarded on this fare.

http://www.airnewzealand.com/hot-deal-to-new-zealand

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SFO welcomes Air Berlin!

An Air Berlin A330-200 at SFO

San Francisco’s newest international airline, Air Berlin, touched down at SFO this afternoon.

I have not had a chance to fly Air Berlin so here’s what I have been able to pick up from a few online sources.

>Air Berlin is the second largest airline in Germany (after Lufthansa) and is considered Germany’s “low-cost” airline.

>Ironically, Air Berlin’s SFO flights don’t fly to/from Berlin. Instead, they fly to/from Dusseldorf, a wealthy and fashionable city on Germany’s western edge.

>Roundtrip coach fares for summer travel between SFO and Dusseldorf are running in the $1300 range according to a quick scan on Kayak.com. Round trip in business class is about $3400.

>Nonstop roundtrips between SFO and Dusseldorf (DUS) run just twice a week- on Wednesdays and Fridays- using an Airbus A330-200. The flight arrives SFO at about 1:20 pm and departs at about 3:20 pm (arriving in Dusseldorf at about 11:20 am the following day.)

>Coach seating on Air Berlin is tight. According to Seatguru.com, Air Berlin’s seat pitch in coach on the A330 is just 30 inches. (For comparison, Delta’s A330’s offer 31-33 inches.) There is no in-seat video entertainment. Movies play on overhead screens.

>Business class seats recline, but do not lie-flat.

>What do YOU know about Air Berlin? Please leave your comments below!


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Summer fares soar out of SFO

I’ve been predicting a busy, expensive summer when it comes to air travel for a few months now. That’s because airline capacity is down, but demand is increasing as the economy continues to strengthen. When you combine those two factors, the result is higher prices. Which is exactly where the airlines want us to be.

So now that it’s time for me to start booking my summer trips, it looks like those predictions of high prices are coming home to roost.

Here’s a sampling of what I’m looking at…and what you’ll find, too. Ouch!

$500 to New York City. I need to be in New York in early June to meet with a large international airline. I need to take a morning departure from here to arrive in New York in the evening. The cheapest midweek nonstop fare I can find is $513 on American. There are a few one-stops or red-eyes in the $400 range, but I’m not willing to do that for $100 in savings.

$520 to Boston. I’m taking a work/vacation trip to Massachusetts straddling the July 4 holiday weekend, which means peak prices, so there’s no getting around high fares- in this case $520 round trip on United. Again, I can get a slightly cheaper fare for a one-stop or red eye, but I’m not willing to take that much time out of my holiday to save less than $100.

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$380 to Atlanta. I own a rental house in Atlanta that I like to go check on each summer. The cheapest nonstop coach fare on AirTran in June is running $377. Delta wants $409. Not horrible, but I’ve paid as little as $220 on this route in recent years.

$450 to Houston. In August, the National Business Travel Association is having its annual convention in Houston. I try to hit this one up each year because it’s so important to my business. But that $450 fare is making me think twice. This might be a case where I’d be willing to take a one-stop flight on Frontier or Southwest where the lowest fare is running about $340.

$1500 to Europe. Since I’m going to Massachusetts for my summer vacation, I won’t be hitting Greece in August. But I still like to THINK about going to Greece in August (despite the recent unrest). But not this year. With airlines reducing frequencies across the Atlantic, and demand increasing, fares are soaring. The least expensive one-stop flight from SFO to Athens in mid-August is now $1520. It’s like that all over Europe this summer. London nonstops are already about $1200 round trip. Frankfurt nonstops are $1500 in August. If you find anything under $1000, book it now!

(Note: I did a quick scan of fares on Kayak.com on Tues. May 11. Fares will undoubtedly change…but I doubt they will decrease much!)

Where are YOU going this summer? Have you checked fares yet? Please leave a comment below and let us know what sort of fares you’re looking at.

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Tools for choosing the best hotel; big summer bonuses

With the peak summer travel season right around the corner and plenty of BAT readers busy planning their trips, we’ve put together an array news and tools to help you make the right decision. Happy planning!

CONSUMER REPORTS RATES HOTELS. There are all kinds of hotel ratings and rankings and lists out there…so many in fact, that I sorta glaze over when I read about them. However, when Consumer Reports ranks hotels, I prick up my ears. Its ratings are based on the experiences of nearly 28,000 CR readers regarding their hotel stays between January 2008 and April 2009. You’ve got to subscribe to the magazine for the full report (June 2010 issue), but here are a few nuggets: Ritz-Carlton (no surprise) placed at the top of the “Fanciest” category. For “luxury” hotels, Renaissance (Marriott) and Embassy Suites ranked highest, Sheraton lowest. In the “upscale” category, Homewood Suites (Hilton) came out at the top, Radisson at the bottom. For moderate hotels, Drury Inn & Suites ranked highest and Howard Johnson ranked lowest. (Have you ever stayed at a Drury Inn?? If so, please leave a comment. I’m not familiar with this chain and I’m curious!) In the budget category, Microtel ranked best and America’s Best Value Inn ranked worst.

CR SAYS IT PAYS TO HAGGLE WITH HOTELS. From the article that accompanied the Consumer Reports hotel ranking: “Only 35 percent of respondents tried to negotiate for a better deal, but those who did were rewarded with a lower rate or room upgrade 80 percent of the time. That’s a slightly higher success rate than readers experienced in our 2006 survey. Those who called ahead to do their haggling were even more successful than those who tried to negotiate in person.” What’s your experience with haggling with hotels? Leave your comments below.

HOTEL INDUSTRY INSIDERS’ TOP PICKS FOR 2010. Since 2007 Expedia has produced the annual Insider’s Select List, an excellent resource for those blindly seeking a good hotel in an unknown city. Why do I like it? Because the selection is based on three factors: first, of course, it incorporates user reviews…but since user reviews are not always such a great gauge, they also include input from Expedia’s 400 local hotel market managers who know what’s hot and what’s not in their hometowns. They also use a value rating of each hotel, which compares the hotel’s average rate with that of comparable properties in the market. Combined, those three factors churn out some very reliable winners. In typical Expedia fashion, hotels are easily searchable by region, country and city. Interesting: The #1 hotel in the U.S. is the Drury Inn in Indianapolis (there’s that Drury name again!) Second: Staybridge Suites Minneapolis/Bloomington and third, the EPIC Hotel (Kimpton) in Miami. Numero uno in California is the Avila La Fonda hotel in San Luis Obispo. Second is the Raffles L’Hermitage in Beverly Hills- see photo. (Disclosure: I was editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch 2005-2009.)

DESPERATELY SEEKING FREE WI-FI. It’s getting easier and easier to find free Wi-Fi at hotels these days as operators are finally tuning in to the fact that business travelers see it as a necessity and expect it to be included in the rate. But every now and then you get a big surprise when you have to pay $15 a day for the convenience. To help avoid that, the good folks over at hotelchatter.com have produced an exhaustive list of hotels with and without free Wi-Fi.

SPEAKING OF FREE WI-FI. Did you know that if you simply join frequent stay programs at Fairmont, Kimpton or Omni hotels you’ll get free Wi-Fi access? All you have to do is sign up. Other full-service brands such as Marriott, W (Starwood) and Hilton only offer free Wi-Fi to top-tier members of their programs.

SUMMER HOTEL BONUSES: The “Big Four” hotel chains have come out with their summer promotions and they are looking pretty good. Here’s a rundown:

  • MARRIOTT: Marriott Rewards members earn a free night for every third stay at any of its 3200 hotels between June 1 and August 31. Marriott will also toss in a certificate for a $10/day discount on Hertz. Free stays are good through December 31 in Category 1-4 hotels only. Register here.
  • STARWOOD: Starwood is offering a free weekend (Fri, Sat or Sun) night after every three stays. However, Starwood’s earning window is earlier than Marriott’s: May 1-July 31. Free nights are good through December 19. What makes this a better offer, though, is that the free nights are good a ALL Starwood hotels in Categories 1-6 which even includes some of the pricey St Regis properties. Register here.
  • PRIORITY CLUB (InterContinental): Members earn double Priority Club points OR airline miles OR up to $500 in gift cards starting with their second stay at any of the chain’s 4400 hotels worldwide. Good for stays from May 14 through August 31. Double points or miles awarded beginning with second qualifying stay. Gift cards are good at Best Buy, Home Depot, Target and others. Register here
  • HILTON: According to a blog post by Hilton’s new CEO Chris Nassetta, all Hilton brands (3.500 hotels) will offer a “up to a 30% discount” plus free breakfast for stays between May 28 and September 6. (Details should be posted on Hilton.com site starting May 10.) Interesting aside: In the post, Nassetta points out that Hilton HHonors “enrollment from January to March 2010 were the highest enrollment levels for the program during those months within the last four years.” Why is that interesting? Because in January, Hilton increased its award redemption levels by about 25 percent, which got it a lambasting by travel media.

24 BRAND NEW HOTELS IN NEW YORK? You betcha. Check out this list and see how many you know of. Interesting to note how many of them are midscale and on the western side of the city.

The Standard New York (SEE PHOTO BELOW) Full-Service 335 848 Washington Street Greenwich Village Jan 2009
Hilton Garden Inn Tribeca Select-Service 150 6 York Street Tribeca Jan 2009
Hotel Reserve Select-Service 116 20 Maiden Lane Financial District Jan 2009
Ace Hotel New York Full-Service 262 20 West 29th Street Chelsea Mar 2009
Fairfield Inn Manhattan/Times Square Limited-Service 244 330 West 40th Street Midtown West Mar 2009
Hilton Garden Inn - West 35th Street Select-Service 298 63 West 35th Street Garment District Mar 2009
Smyth Tribeca - A Thompson Hotel Boutique 100 85 West Broadway Tribeca Mar 2009
West 57th Street by Hilton Club Timeshare 161 102 West 57th Street Midtown West May 2009
Four Points by Sheraton Midtown Select-Service 244 326 West 40th Street Midtown West Jun 2009
Comfort Inn Manhattan Bridge Limited-Service 60 61-63 Chrystie Street Nolita Jun 2009
Hampton Inn Times Square South Limited-Service 184 337 West 39th Street Garment District Jul 2009
Holiday Inn Express Times Square Limited-Service 210 343 West 39th Street Garment District Jul 2009
Candlewood Suites Times Square Extended Stay 188 339 West 39th Street Garment District Jul 2009
Hotel Indigo Chelsea Select-Service 122 127 West 28th Street Chelsea Jul 2009
Doubletree New York - Chelsea Full-Service 237 128 West 29th Street Chelsea Jul 2009
Comfort Inn Midtown West Limited-Service 70 343 West 44th Street Midtown West Aug 2009
Ink48, a Kimpton Hotel Full-Service 222 653 11th Avenue Midtown West Sep 2009
Crosby Street Hotel Boutique 86 79 Crosby Street SoHo Oct 2009
Club Quarters World Trade Center Full-Service 421 140 Washington Street Financial District Nov 2009
The Strand Hotel Full-Service 177 33 West 37th Street Garment District Dec 2009
Fairfield Inn & Suites Manhattan Limited-Service 92 21 West 37th Street Garment District Dec 2009
Andaz New York - Wall Street Hotel + Condo 253 75 Wall Street Financial District Jan 2010
W NY-Downtown Hotel & Residences Hotel + Condo 217 123 Washington Street Financial District Feb 2010
The Distrikt Hotel - Ascend Collection Select-Service 155 342 West 40th Street Midtown West Feb 2010

Source: Hotelresource.com

The new Standard Hotel on the west side of Chelsea straddles the new High Line Trail (photo: C. McGinnis)

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What United + Continental means to YOU

The new United livery keeps the Continental look, but changes the name. (Photo: United Airlines)

United and Continental boards have approved a merger of the two carriers, which is expected to close in the fourth quarter of this year.

What does all this mean to Bay Area Travelers?

FARES: While consolidation and fewer competitors ultimately leads to higher prices, the reality is that Continental and United never really competed with each other out of Bay Area airports. And there are few routes from here that are dominated by the two. For example, nonstop flights between SFO and Houston on both United and Continental have always been expensive- expect them to stay that way. Those who want a deal on the route should consider a one-stop flight on low-fare carriers Southwest or Frontier.

FREQUENT FLYER PROGRAMS: Since it appears that United will be the surviving entity, Mileage Plus members should not expect any huge changes. If you’ve got any extra Continental OnePass miles lying around, those will be added to your Mileage Plus balance. Good news: OnePass has always been one of the best rated frequent flyer programs out there, so maybe Mileage Plus will cherry pick the good parts? Time will tell.

EARNING, BURNING MILES: Mileage Plus members already have access to the Continental network due to its recent inclusion in the Star Alliance, which added nice earning and burning opportunities where Continental is strong, such as in Mexico, Central and South America as well as the South Pacific (on Air Micronesia). See Continental Route Map.

ECONOMY PLUS: United is the only legacy carrier to offer its frequent flyers roomier coach class seats. Continental does not offer the equivalent of United’s Economy Plus seating (which I really appreciate on the long haul) so I hope the concept survives.

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P.S. FLIGHTS: I’m wondering if we’ll see those nice P.S. flights between SFO and New York-JFK shift to Newark where Continental has a large, efficient hub operation and better club space… at least nicer than United’s minor presence at JFK.

SFO AIRPORT: The combination of United and Continental will mean Continental will leave Concourse 1 and operations will move to United’s hub at Concourse 3, which will get even MORE crowded than it already is at peak times.

BRAGGADOCIO. SFO will also get bragging rights for being a hub of “the world’s largest airline” which will result when United and Continental merge. The new United will take that title away from the new Delta, which when it merged with Northwest, enjoyed a short life as the biggest player.

WHO NEXT? American and US Airways are likely entering a major flirtation stage at this point. They are the remaining two legacy airlines and will be dwarfed by the new United and new Delta.

More info from United on the merger here.

It’s a little early to tell, but here are my initial thoughts. I’d be eager to hear what you think about the merger and how it might affect your flying. Please leave your comments below.

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United + Continental deal is done.

(Crain’s) — United and Continental airlines have reached an agreement on a merger and expect to announce a deal by Monday, pending approval by their boards, a source briefed on the matter says.

United’s board is set to meet Friday to discuss the deal, the source told Crain’s, and Continental’s board is expected to vote Sunday.

A deal isn’t assured. Continental’s board voted down a merger with United two years ago in a Sunday afternoon vote.

But that seems less likely now. Then, the industry was headed into a recession, and United’s financials were deteriorating. Now, air travel is beginning to recover, and United is leading the way, enjoying the biggest gains in revenue among the traditional carriers.

Here’s the full story:

http://www.chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bin/news.pl?id=38032&ba=1

What are your thoughts on this big move?

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Ambien to blame for yesterday’s Delta diversion to Bangor?

(Photo: Zacharmstrong / Flicker)

Details are emerging from Bangor, Maine where a Delta flight from Paris bound for Atlanta was diverted yesterday due to a security threat.

Wire stories state that Derek Stansberry, a 27 year-old Air Force veteran, told federal air marshalls onboard the plane that he had bombs in his boots and laptop, that his passport was fake, and that he thought he was being followed.

He said that he had taken up to eight Ambien, but then changed his story and said he’d taken only one. (Ambien is a prescription sleep aid.) He also mentioned that he’d taken a Valium before the flight.

After Stansberry was removed from the plane in Bangor, the flight continued on to Atlanta, arriving three hours late.

All this makes me wonder about whether we should be taking hard drugs when we are up there flying across oceans, especially in light of heightened alertness to strange behavior brought on by the well-known Christmas Day “crotch bomber.”

Do you use prescription drugs to help you sleep on long flights? I’ve taken Ambien on overseas flights in the past with no side effects other than a bad hangover. (So bad, in fact, that I no longer use it.)

On a recent trip to Asia, I went the homeopathic route. I tried Jet Lag Formula ($20), an herbal concoction designed to help battle the ill effects associated with flying. I also followed the advice of Bill Ashton who runs the “StopJetLag” program ($35 per trip) out of Palo Alto, which (among other things) encourages the use of melatonin as a sleep aid in flight. I was surprised that I was able to get plenty of good quality sleep on flights in both directions. And jet lag was not nearly as bad as I’ve experienced on previous journeys, although I must say that it was a lot easier going over than coming back.

Have you ever used Ambien or other prescription drugs to help you sleep on transoceanic flights? Is it worth the risks? Have you ever had, or witnessed, strange behavior as a result of taking those drugs in flight?

Please leave your comments and experiences below.

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The best airports are in Asia. And at SFO.

High speed ferries depart Cathay Pacific's

With the recent opening of Hong Kong airport’s new state-of-the-art SkyPier (above), arriving passengers can now step off their plane, take a four-minute ride on an “automated people mover” to a the eastern side of the airport where they board hovercraft or high speed ferries for 30-90 minute voyages across the South China Sea to destinations such as Guangzhou, Macau and Shenzhen. Cathay Pacific calls Hong Kong International its “Superhub.”

Imagine what it would be like if you could land at SFO, then jump on a high speed ferry to the Embarcadero, or over to Oakland, or up to Wine Country?

Maybe one day…but for now, Asia’s got us beat when it comes to the world’s best airports.

Hong Kong is one of three “Five-Star” airports in the world according to SkyTrax, a well-respected international organization that ranks both airlines and airports based on surveys of thousands of frequent international business travelers from around the world.

For 2010, the only three airports to get “five star” status are Singapore-Changi, Seoul Incheon and Hong Kong Kong International. (Full report here)

However, note that our hometown airport SFO placed second in North America after Vancouver. SFO’s also the ONLY U.S. airport to place in the top 25 worldwide.

On a recent business trip to Asia, I flew through Seoul’s Incheon Airport on Korean Air and was VERY impressed. I made a two-minute video about that journey which included coverage of Incheon Airport. (See video below)

Have you ever flown through one of these “Five Star” airports? What did you think? How do they compare to SFO or other U.S. airports? Please leave your comments below.

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Big discounts on transpacific biz class (video)

Korean Air is offering super low business class fares (about $3600 roundtrip midweek) between SFO and Seoul- but you must act fast. The booking window for this deal closes on April 30.

This represents a great value since the lowest round trip transpac business class fares are normally in the $6000-$7000 range. It’s a great deal if you are going to Seoul or beyond, since KAL operates an outstanding hub at Seoul-Incheon with easy connections to cities across China and throughout Asia. Here are full details of the offer.

Earlier this month, Korean Air invited me to give its business (“Prestige”) class a try between SFO and Seoul. I made a short two-minute “Flight Check” video of my experience. Please take a look! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLWJN0-_Vuk

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New airline at SFO. Free Wi-Fi coming to SFO. And MORE!

LAN Boeing 767 (Photo: James J. Jenkins)

1> NEW NONSTOPS TO SOUTH AMERICA. LAN Airlines will launch 4x per week nonstop flights between San Francisco and Lima, Peru on July 1. The new Boeing 767 flights will be the ONLY nonstops between SFO and South America, so this is great news for those who don’t like to connect in LA or Dallas or Miami to get there. LAN is an outstanding carrier; by far the best in South America with a fleet of new planes and an excellent lie-flat business class seat. LAN has a code share on the route with American, so AAdvantage members can earn and burn miles on the flights. Details here

2> FREE WI-FI COMING TO SFO. The rumor has been floating around for a while, but today I got confirmation from airport officials that FREE Wi-Fi is tentatively scheduled for implementation at SFO in September. The official start date should be released in coming weeks. Woo-hoo!

3> HUGE BONUSES FOR TRANSCON TRIPS. Delta started it, now American and United have joined in on the bonus bonanza for frequent travelers between SFO (or LAX) and New York-JFK. The deals vary slightly, but the gist is this: Pay full fare round trip business class or first class and you get an eye-popping 50,000-mile bonus. Discounted business class and full fare economy round trips earn a 25,000-mile bonus. The cheap seats- lowest economy fares- don’t earn any special bonus on the routes. The bonuses can be earned an unlimited number of times through June 30. KEY: You must register for this promotion. Here are the links:

DELTA (NOTE: Delta’s “premium Economy class” is only premium in the sense that it costs more. It’s not equivalent to United’s Economy Plus which offers extra legroom.)

UNITED

AMERICAN

VIRGIN AMERICA: so far, there’s been no competitive response.

4> SOUTHWEST BONUS. Rapid Rewards members get one bonus credit per flight (for a total of two) through May 26. This means you can get a free Southwest ticket after just four round trips instead of the usual eight. More expensive Business Select fares earn even more. To get the bonus you must first register and book your trip online.

5> IPAD STAYS IN YOUR BAG. Thanks for all your comments on my recent post about wanting an iPad for business travel. I’ve still not bought one, but was nearly pushed off the fence when I read that the TSA will NOT require travelers to remove iPads from carry on luggage for scanning as it does for laptops.

6> HOTEL BOOM IN NYC. If you are like me and you LOVE a brand new hotel, especially in Manhattan, you’ll love this news: Twenty-one hotels opened in Manhattan in 2009. Thirty-two new hotels will open this year. Click here to see the full list. Speaking of NYC hotels, two W Hotels in NYC (The Court and the Tuscany, both on 39th St) have been sold to a London-based outfit called St Giles Hotels.

7> UNITED+US Airways? I just can’t see a whole lot of positives when two struggling carriers combine to form a much larger struggling carrier. I was sorta hoping that United would merge with Continental, which is considered by many to be near the top of the heap of “legacy” carriers in terms of good management. Well, in any case, airline merger rumors come and go as fast as Hollywood romances, so I’ll reserve further commentary or speculation until this one gets some legs.

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I think I want an iPad

Okay. Yes. I think I want one. Like everyone else the country, I was mesmerized when Steve Jobs introduced us to the iPad earlier this year. But I’m not ready to pre-order one. And I’m not willing to go wait in line for one. But I’m still very interested in getting one. Maybe. Why? As a frequent air traveler, I really do think this gadget could change my traveling life. Here are five reasons why:

1) It’s small enough for me to use in a coach seat. I love in-flight Wi-Fi and am a heavy user but only when I’m upgraded to a roomy seat up front or on the exit row. Have you tried to work on your laptop in coach lately? Nearly impossible. Since the iPad is about as big as a magazine (and I could cradle it in my arm like a magazine), I see it as a salvation and escape from the horrors of a tight coach seat.

2) It’s got 10 hours of battery life according to Apple. Not all airlines that offer in-flight Wi-Fi offer in-flight power plugs. That’s a big problem for me because my MacBook only gets 2-3 hours of battery life when I’m using Wi-Fi. So I pay the $13 for a 5-6 hour cross country flight, but only get to use it for about half that time. The iPad could solve that dilemma for me.

3) It’s light. It’s a “reader.” It’s got iBooks and magazines. I’m always tossing a stack of magazines and the book I’m reading into my carry on bag. You know what? Those magazines are HEAVY. Sometimes the book I’m reading is so fat that I rip it in half so it will fit in my bag. With an iPad I may not have to do that anymore. With it, I’d have access to zillions of books and magazines in a slim 1.5 lb package. It would also work well on day trips when I fly out in the morning and fly back at night and all I really need to do is scan email. If I had to do any heavy typing, I’d probably haul along the laptop, too.

4) It’s not a phone, but it does have Wi-Fi, an earphone/microphone jack and a microphone, so I can use it to communicate via Skype and even participate in VOIP conferences on planes. (I know I know, you are not supposed to be able to do this, but let’s be honest here…. people are easily getting around VOIP blocks on planes with Wi-Fi and chatting away in flight. Sometimes flight attendants will shut them down. Sometimes they just ignore it.)

5) It’s not tied to AT&T, so when I go overseas, I could buy a prepaid SIM card and get online with another network without paying outrageous roaming fees. But that might be a while off. The iPad has what’s known as a “micro SIM card” about half the size of a normal SIM, which is so new that it might be hard to buy overseas. For now at least. Nonetheless, I really don’t need 3G access anyway, because I’ll still have Wi-Fi which does not require a SIM.

So, that’s a list of “pros.” Can you all help me with any “cons?” Should I take the leap and say YES, drop $500+ and check this thing out? Or should I wait? Please help push me off the fence.

Let me know what you all are thinking about the iPad in the comments box below.

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Higher airfares, but lower hotel rates on the way

Good news for the travel industry is not always good news for bargain hunting frequent travelers.

Growing demand on the part of both leisure and business travelers means . . . you guessed it . . . higher prices. Those dirt-cheap deals the travel industry has used to keep us on the road and in the skies over the last couple years will get tougher to find in coming months.

Here’s why:

>FARES: In February, the average price to fly one mile in the U.S. increased 5 percent says the Air Transport Association. Fares are rising because airlines have been able to reduce their supply of seats by parking planes in the desert. Now that competition among travelers for the remaining seats is heating up, fares will rise accordingly.

>FEES: In addition to higher fares, airlines will continue to tack on extra fees to help firm up their mushy bottom lines. In January alone, airlines pulled in half a billion dollars in “ancillary revenue,” a term used to describe just about any airline charge other than fare [such as fees for baggage, ticket changes, upgrades, food, etc.],” said Kevin Chrissey, an airline analyst with UBS who was speaking at the Strategic Travel Symposium, a recent conference to which I was invited by the National Business Travel Association.

>AIRLINE GROWTH: Delta Air Lines, now the largest airline in the world, had to adjust its profit forecast for this quarter based on a 30+ percent jump in corporate travel volume and revenue in February. Also, Delta just announced that it’s jumping back into the hyper-competitive California Corridor with four daily round trips between SFO and LAX using both B737 and regional jets. Last week, Virgin America announced new flights from SFO to Toronto and Orlando starting later this year (but it’s dumping service to Orange County).

>SUMMER: It’s going to be a busy summer. Remember last summer nearly every flight was full and/or oversold? UBS’s Chrissey warned it could happen again this summer now that demand is rising along with the economic outlook. If you’ve got plans to fly on peak days (Memorial Day, July 4, most of August and Labor Day) you should start looking at fares now and go ahead and book.

>HOTEL GLUT: For hotels, it’s a bit of a different story. There’s been a huge boom in hotel construction over the last five years. For example, United’s Hemispheres magazine this month includes a colorful article about a handful of the snazziest of the 59 (yes, 59!) new hotels that have opened in NYC in the last 18 months. So, with a lot of extra supply out there, and only a slow return in demand, hotel rates should remain relatively flat over the next year.

>BOOKINGS UP: With all the great hotel deals out there, demand is starting to pop. For example, advance bookings at the Best Western chain were up 16.4 percent during the second week in March compared to the same time last year. (They were up over 6 percent for the month of February.) That’s significant considering Best Western’s the largest hotel chain in the world. Disclosure: I write a blog for Best Western.

>BUYER’S MARKET: The buyer’s market for hotel rooms should continue over the next year, said hotel analyst Bjorn Hanson at the symposium in New York. “For many years, I’ve advised consumers to call the hotel directly and ask for a lower rate, and they’d get one about 20 percent of the time. These days, they are getting a lower rate 50 percent of the time,” he said.

>RATES: To further illustrate his point, Hanson said that rates at luxury hotels in New York City were down a whopping 40 percent in 2009 compared to a high in 2006. And he referred to three different forecasts showing nationwide rate declines of 2-3 percent for 2010.

So folks, I’m eager to hear about your observations and plans for travel this year. Have you noticed that prices are increasing? Are you planning to travel more this year than last year? When do you plan to firm up your summer travel plans?

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British Airways strike grounds SFO flights (update)

A BA 747 at SFO. (Photo: Angeloangelo / Flickr)

UPDATE  Sunday March 21 1:15 pm. British Airways has told me that both departures from SFO to London will happen today (flights 284 and 286). One flight will arrive from London with passengers and depart with passengers (BA 287). Another (BA 285) will arrive from London with cargo only, but will depart for London with passengers (BA 286).

UPDATE: Sunday, March 21. British Airways contacted me to report that it has reinstated a single roundtrip flight (BA 287 and BA 286) between SFO and London-Heathrow today. They say that more workers than expected are showing up, so they are able to reinstate more flights than expected. No word yet on when BA’s second daily SFO-London flight (BA 284/285) will be reinstated.

SATURDAY: A strike at British Airways has grounded the carrier’s two daily flights between San Francisco International and London Heathrow.

According to BA’s web site, BA flights 285 and 287, which originate in London have been scrubbed today (Saturday), Sunday and Monday. From the BA website it appears that BA planes that are already here or in the air on their way here will operate today (Saturday) and fly back to London. But once there, they will be grounded.

It’s unknown now how the strike may affect flights after Monday.

If you are holding a BA ticket to London, here are your options:

  1. rebook your flight within one year (BA waives change fees)
  2. rebook your flight via another U.S. city where BA flights have NOT canceled (Note that flights from both LAX and PHX have canceled, too so not many options from SF).
  3. cancel your flight for a full refund
  4. call British Airways (1-800-247-9297- expect a long wait on hold!) or your travel agent and ask that they re-book you on another carrier.

Note: If you are currently booked to travel to London on another carrier (such as Virgin Atlantic or United which both offer nonstops to London from SFO) expect your flight to be VERY full. And expect the gate area to be rather angst ridden with lots of displaced BA passengers standing by and hoping to board your flight.

For more information and to monitor the situation, go to www.ba.com/strike

News around this strike is changing fast, so if you know more than I’ve been able to include here, or have updates, please add them in the comments section below.

Here’s BA CEO Willie Walsh with an apology and outlook (smart use of social media during a crisis!)

(Photo: Angeloangelo / Flickr)

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Flight from Hell? Gimme a break.

A Virgin America A320 (photo: Drewski2112/Flickr)

By now you’ve probably heard about the Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to New York-Kennedy that had to divert to another airport during a freak storm last Saturday evening.

In case you’ve not heard about it, here’s a digest: Virgin flight 404 departed LAX on time at 7:30 a.m., flew to the NYC area where it was scheduled to land at 3:30 p.m. But with a storm raging and JFK closed, the flight circled and was eventually ordered to land at Stewart Airport at about 5:30 p.m. to wait it out. The storm lasted longer than expected so bus transportation was arranged and passengers eventually made it to JFK by about 1 a.m.

Then, for the next few days, headlines blared about the HORROR! The NIGHTMARE! The STRANDING! The CRYING BABIES! The FORCED RATIONING! Another “FLIGHT FROM HELL!”

Oh, please. Gimme a break. And let’s all give Virgin America a big break here, too.  Here’s why:

Bad weather happens!

I’m getting the impression that many mainstream media writers and producers are not frequent travelers. They may not realize, like most grizzled veterans of the skies do, that bad weather and delays are part of the deal. Sure, they can slow you down and magnify your emotions. But they are not unexpected.

Blogger on board!

Did you know that there were eight other marooned planes at Stewart and hundreds of other planes parked and waiting at odd airports up and down the east coast on Saturday night?  JetBlue alone diverted six of its jets to Stewart Airport.

It just so happened that David Martin, the CEO of a social media web site that solicits visitors to “Show what you’re doing” was seated in first class with a web cam and Wi-Fi access. He’s since posted the 30+ media interviews he’s done about the incident, and publicly thanks CNN “for the one million people whack.”

I don’t blame the guy for taking this opportunity to boost hits on his site. Instead, I think the media outlets that took his story hook, line and sinker (and then sensationalized it) need to do a little soul searching.

I contacted Chris Elliott, the reader advocate at National Geographic Traveler magazine about this ordeal and he opined, “The way this story has played itself out in the mainstream media, you’d think Virgin America was solely responsible for the delay. You’d also think the airline wanted to imprison its passengers on a plane. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

TV Star on board!

There’s nothing like a little star power to jazz up a travel story and it just so happened that Dancing with the Stars judge Carrie Ann Inaba was seated next to Martin in first class.

Virgin staff did the best they could!

They allowed passengers two opportunities to get off the plane at Stewart if they wanted to. Twenty out of 126 did get off, and took cabs home. The others elected to stay on board.

They kept lavatories clean and operable. Live TV and Wi-Fi were available throughout the ordeal. They divvied up what food they had on board. Five cases of water were delivered to the aircraft.

They called police and had a passenger escorted off the plane when she became belligerent demanding cigarettes, vodka and medication.

It’s reported (although not captured in the aforementioned videos) that flight crew and passengers got a little snappy with each other. Um, hello? Human beings stuck in a tense and uncertain situation tend to get snappy and disagreeable. Babies cry. People get hungry and grumpy.  Uncomfortable, yes. Unusual? No.

Pilots provided personal updates.

From the online videos I’ve seen of the incident, I’m very impressed that the captain made the effort to exit the cockpit and stand at the front of the plane in full view of all the passengers to offer updates and announcements.

I have endured similar incidents throughout my career as a frequent traveler, and I’ve never seen a captain do that.  They typically stay in the cockpit with the door shut. Kudos to the pilots.

Passengers made it to JFK. For free!

In the end, the flight was scrubbed, passengers deplaned at about 10:30 p.m., buses where called in and everyone made it to JFK by about 1 a.m. A little worse for wear, but they got there. Even better, they got there for free. Virgin gave a full refund to everyone on board, plus a $100 certificate to use on a future flight. (Here’s a link to Virgin’s apology to passengers and its official report of the incident to the Dept. of Transportation.)

So I obviously think the whole ordeal was overblown.  What do you think about the whole affair?

RELATED: Virgin America announced today that it will add new nonstops from SFO to both Toronto and Orlando on August 19, but will shutter its nonstops between SFO and the “OC” (John Wayne Airport in Orange county) in May.

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