A New Airfare Discounter Enters the Fray
An ambitious new membership-based travel site is taking on airlines, online travel agencies, and travel auctions. CFares (cfares.com) claims to find the lowest prices by searching multiple sources: databases of major airlines, wholesalers, travel aggregators such as Kayak, and booking engines such as Orbitz.
Register for free and you can search for flights on cFares, which will redirect you to the seller's own website to complete the transaction. However, you can get an additional discount if you become a "platinum" member for $50/year. Additionally, platinum members can name their own ticket price through a tool called cAgent, which allows you to see the airline and itinerary before you book your flight, unlike opaque bookings through sites such as Priceline. (If you're not already a platinum member, you can be upgraded at the time of purchase, and the $50 membership fee will be added to your auction purchase price.)
So how does cFares stack up against its competitors? We compared membership rates versus booking directly with a major airline or online travel agency. We requested price quotes for the same dates and itineraries to make sure we were comparing apples to apples. All prices include taxes and fees, unless otherwise noted.
Itinerary 1: A holiday cross-country flight
We searched for flights from New York City to Seattle during the December holidays. A platinum round-trip rate of $463 per person flying nonstop on Delta and returning nonstop on Continental was $126 less than the same itinerary booked through OneTravel.com, an online travel agency. A search of JetBlue's website turned up a round-trip price of $598 per person for the same dates and a slightly different itinerary.
Itinerary 2: A quick weekend getaway
We searched for weekend flights from Baltimore to Miami in January 2007. A platinum round-trip rate of $100 per person flying nonstop on American was $12 less than the same itinerary booked as a gold member through CheapTickets.com. Booking directly through American's website turned up a round-trip price of $109 per person for the same dates.
Itinerary 3: An international vacation
We searched for flights from Denver to London Gatwick in March 2007. A platinum round-trip rate of $297 plus tax per person flying on American with one stop each way was $34 less than the exact same itinerary booked directly through American's website.
The bottom line?
We like cFares' wide selection and transparent pricing. Although cFares doesn't search discount airline Southwest, cFares found lower prices in every instance. There are no special restrictions on airfares, and in most cases you still rack up your frequent-flier miles if you book flights through cFares. The only "gotcha" is that while you can book fares for friends and family members, everyone must be a platinum member to receive the deepest discount. For frequent fliers, the $50 yearly membership fee will easily pay for itself in a few flights. Even if you never buy a platinum membership, you can't lose by checking cFares' prices before booking a flight on another website.
Confessions Of... A Front-Desk Clerk
Anne Szeker was a front-desk clerk at a hotel in Shelton, Conn., from 2002 to 2004. Nod and sympathize The front desk is where everyone comes to complain. Sometimes, there's good reason: The pool is closed; someone threw up in the elevator; your room key card has deactivated; your room hasn't been cleaned; or you've been checked in to a room that already has guests in it. And then there are instances when guests are less reasonable, like the man who cursed at me for telling him he had to pay his entire bill--including the in-room movies his children had "accidentally" ordered. No matter what the situation, my approach always remains the same. I apologize sympathetically and calmly explain things from the hotel's perspective, even when what I really want to do is drop-kick the guest out to the curb. Better than TV The employees enjoy watching--and discussing--everything that goes on in the hotel. It's like an addictive soap opera that we love to chat about. Chances are we know why you're staying with us, whether it's for a vacation, wedding, or funeral. One weekend a guest is here with his wife; the next week he's back with his mistress. Then there are the guests who come in after too many cocktails and test out pick-up lines on whoever is behind the front desk. (And no, I'm not interested in your extra room key when my shift ends.) Third-party reservations Hotel managers can't stand it when guests reserve rooms through Expedia, Priceline, or any other booking engine, because after the Internet site takes its cut, the hotel barely makes a profit on the booking. As a result, guests who reserve directly with the hotel receive far better service. When things go wrong--we've run out of rooms with king-size beds, or the hotel is overbooked because some guests extended their stay--the manager's first question is, "Do we have any Internet reservations?" The folks who reserve through discount sites are at the bottom of the food chain. What you want to do is contact us directly and request the best price. I'm shocked when guests agree to the rack rate without a peep. The hotel is usually willing to give the discounted AAA or AARP membership price, even for guests who aren't members--so long as they book through the hotel, that is. The logbook Front-desk clerks keep a log to record all the noteworthy events that happen during their shifts. If a guest gets out of line, it goes in the book. Staffers stick together--wrong one of us, wrong all of us--so you can't expect to insult one employee and receive good treatment from another. One day our pool was closed, and a guest checking in decided to rip into one of the front-desk clerks. Later, the same guest called the front desk and reported that the Internet wasn't working in his room and that there was no refrigerator. "How weird," I replied, without looking into the situation further. "I'm terribly sorry. We don't have any other rooms." The truth is I want nothing more than to make my guests' stay pleasant--as long as they're willing to make my shift pleasant. We even have the ability to discount your room rate if things really go awry. So remember to smile as you walk by the front desk. It could be helpful if you need extra pillows at 2 A.M. If you're patient and have good manners, the hotel might even be able to find the room type you reserved through a booking engine.
Luggage tags are a smart idea now that we're checking bags again. Flight 001, the travel minichain that just opened outposts in Brooklyn and Berkeley, has cool ones. Flight001.com, $10 each. This extraordinarily light and flexible stainless-steel wallet, designed by Theo Stewart-Stand, is yet another good gift idea from MoMA Design Store. Momastore.org, $95. Moleskine is introducing a clever new line of City Notebooks, which come with maps and other info. Currently available for 12 European cities. Kikkerland.com (for stores), $17. Tigo's Mini Suede Colored Pencil Set holds pencils, a pad, and a sharpener in a tie-up package. Elsewares.com, $23. This three-foot-tall model of the Empire State Building is made with wooden pieces that link together without glue. Also available: the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Conran.com (search "puzzle"), $54. If we don't say it, who will? A one-year subscription to Budget Travel makes a great gift for anyone who loves to travel. BudgetTravelOnline.com, $12. The 2007 Hannah Travel Poster Calendar is a collection of 12 loose sheets celebrating the "Golden Age of Travel." Linneadesign.com, $28 ($37 with frame and gift wrap) . If you can't drink the water, then ice is out of the question--unless you bring your own! Ice Rocks are prepackaged freezable ice cubes. The CEO swears they'll be available this fall. Icerocks.com, $5 for 48 cubes. For her new book Monkey Portraits, photographer Jill Greenberg took a break from her usual subject--celebrities--to shoot something more sophisticated. Barnesandnoble.com, $25.
Baby Steps to Save the Earth
Everyone knows there are things they should--and shouldn't--do to help the environment. Even so, most people aren't going to completely avoid planes as a way of reducing greenhouse gases. Here are a few reasonable courses of action that every traveler can and should take. Unplug your appliances Many TVs, DVD players, microwave ovens, computers, cell-phone chargers, and other devices drain electricity even when they're not in use. Also, lower your thermostat before leaving for winter vacation, and make sure the air-conditioning is off while you're away in the summer. Turn the hot water heater down to its lowest setting--or shut it off completely, though that'll require you to relight the pilot light when you get home. Think about how you travel Takeoff and landing account for a large portion of the fuel use and emissions of flights, so go with direct flights when you can. If possible, take the train instead of a short-haul flight. If you're on a road trip with a group, squeeze into as few cars as possible. Forget disposable products Nix the single-use camera, as well as take-out meals with wasteful packaging and plastic utensils. Instead, choose sit-down restaurants or food from the local market. Bring reusable containers for water, coffee, and leftover food. Refilling a bottle at a water fountain is much more eco-considerate than buying water that's been shipped from France or Fiji or somewhere else far away. Think before you buy Rather than buying stuff that you'll use sparingly--tents, beach chairs, voltage converters--borrow them from friends. (And offer your gear to friends for their vacations.) At trip's end, give maps and guidebooks to other travelers, or leave them at the hotel for future guests. When shopping during your vacation, take a tote or backpack--people tend to reuse plastic bags a lot less while they're away from home. And remember that souvenirs that look kitschy and fun on the shelf often end up in a landfill. Eat with a conscience Think about where the food on the menu actually comes from. Ask your waiter what's local and choose something produced nearby over something that had to be trucked in. Treat your hotel room like it's your own house Turn the lights off when you leave, and while you're at it, turn off the air-conditioning, too. It may mean 10 minutes of being uncomfortable upon your return, but you'll survive. The fact that you're not paying the hotel's water bill is no reason to let the faucet run when brushing your teeth. Reuse your towel You don't wash your towels and sheets every day at home, right? (If you do, maybe you should reconsider.) You don't need them changed daily when traveling, either. Tell the hotel that you're fine using linens a few days in a row. In many hotels, it's understood that if you fold your towel and hang it neatly, housekeeping won't replace it. But just to make sure, let housekeeping know by calling the front desk or leaving a note. The detachable card at right should help get the message across. Ditch the car Walking, riding a bike, and taking public transportation are all better than riding in a car. With the money saved foregoing taxis and rental cars, book a nice hotel within walking distance of the sites you want to see. Use rechargeable gadgets They have less environmental impact than ones that require disposable (alkaline) batteries. Should a device go haywire, don't just toss it in the trash. Batteries contain toxic materials, so you should recycle them when you get home. For recycling locations, go to rbrc.org or earth911.org. If you have the option, choose a digital camera: You'll print only the photos you actually want, and they use fewer chemicals than film cameras. Speak up! Hotels, resorts, airlines, and tour companies actually do read comments left by customers. So take a moment to scribble your disappointment in the recycling program--or lack thereof. And by all means, encourage companies doing the right thing to keep up the good work.
Hotel Reward Clubs Get Personal
A few months ago, I had to go to the Big Island of Hawaii for a last-minute assignment. I called the Fairmont Orchid to book a room for that evening. When the reservation agent asked for my President's Club number, I told her I wasn't a member. After all, I'm rarely lucky enough to stay in such luxurious digs, and I assumed there was an annual fee or some other requirement. The agent informed me that the lowest of Fairmont's three-tier memberships is complimentary, adding, "There are several in-hotel benefits available on your first stay after enrolling." In two minutes I was enrolled. The agent then asked, "Now what room item preferences would you like?" Preferences? The agent explained that I could opt for down or foam pillows, and either a lightweight comforter or a heavy bedspread. I could also have a half-dozen beach towels in my room, she said--that way, I wouldn't have to grab one at the pool every time I hit the beach. All of my selections were in place when I arrived later that day. I've since learned that it's pretty much always a good idea to sign up for a hotel's rewards program--even if you're not planning on staying with the chain more than once. Most programs are free and easy to join, and the perks begin during your first visit. Members of programs from major hotel companies like Hilton, Starwood, and Marriott have access to express check-in and checkout, a daily newspaper delivered to their rooms, late checkout, and a choice of pillow and bed types. In addition to the usual extras, Hyatt Gold Passport members can use the gym for free and cash checks of up to $250 per stay. Fairmont members receive free high-speed Internet connections and, though I didn't have the chance to take the company up on it during my assignment on the Big Island, a complimentary shoe shine. Even economy-brand programs have their perks: Red Roof Inn's RediCard members are allowed to pay by check and to fax five pages at no charge, and a free USA Today arrives daily. In the hopes of differentiating their programs from others, hotel executives have been stepping up with bonuses that are increasingly personalized. Wyndham's ByRequest program boasts 2.6 million members, each of whom fills out a preference form when joining. Wyndham then tailors rooms to guests' specifications, including their choice of newspaper and pillow. All members also receive gifts on arrival: bottled water, a snack, and a beverage--depending on the guest's requests, that might mean Diet Coke and peanut M&Ms or fresh fruit and a small bottle of chardonnay. It may seem obvious to travelers, but when Wyndham was creating the program, it consulted focus groups and market research to find out that guests want "to be remembered with customized service, like foam pillows in their rooms if they're allergic to feathers," says Kevin Rupert, Wyndham's vice president of marketing and strategy. "Others want a snack and drink waiting for them." To varying degrees, many rewards clubs now let guests customize their stay. Hilton HHonors members choose in advance which bonus gift they'd prefer--either two bottles of water, free breakfast at the hotel restaurant, or 750 extra points. With the Marriott Rewards program, members who request so can always stay on the ground floor (or a high floor) and in a room with a refrigerator. Marriott hotel personnel are also trained to note members' habits in their files; as a result, guests sometimes receive extra towels without having to ask. Omni Hotels, which operates 40 luxury properties in North America, keeps a profile of preferences for each of its 500,000 Select Guest members. Among other benefits, members receive two complimentary beverages--their choice, of course--every morning while staying in the hotel. In September, Omni inaugurated a Sensational Wednesdays program, with weekly giveaways for members of its Select Guest club. So far the gifts have included the semiliquid chocolate Lava Bar, Archive aromatherapy soap, and Worry Stones, which you hold and rub for relaxation. The gifts may not exactly be personalized, but members sure aren't complaining. Check out the perks Fairmont President's Club Your choice of down or foam pillows, free shoe shine Hilton HHonors Pick a gift: free breakfast, two bottles of water, or 750 bonus points Hyatt Gold Passport Free use of the gym, late checkout, checks of up to $250 cashed Marriott Rewards In-room refrigerator, express check-in, choice of pillows Omni Select Guest Turndown service, two free morning beverages, special gifts like chocolate and aromatherapy soap Red Roof Inn RediCard Fax five pages for free, OK to pay by check, free newspaper Wyndham ByRequest Handwritten welcome note, choice of snack (candy, fruit, cookies) and beverage (beer, wine, soda)