Should U.S. Soldiers be Allowed to Pass Through Airport Security Quicker Than Other Travelers?
Last week, the House of Representatives voted unanimously in favor of a preference system for the Armed Forces at public airports.
Earlier this year, when United joined its merger partner, Continental, in allowing uniformed military personnel to board planes first—before, even, first–class passengers, disabled passengers, and families with infants—the news sparked a passionate response on our blog, with most comments in favor of the measure.
Last week, the House of Representatives went a step further in helping to ease travel burdens for our servicemen. Members voted unanimously—404 to 0—to allow military travelers on official duty to move through airport security checks faster.
According to the chief sponsor of the bill, Representative Chip Cravaack of Minnesota, that could mean troops not having to remove their boots, belt buckles, military jackets, and medals. Soldiers could be moved to the front of the security line, or a separate line could be created. "The main emphasis is expediting troops through a security process that wasn't made for them," Cravaack told the Associated Press.
In the end, Homeland Security would establish the specific rules of the proposed preferential system. The legislation is now in the Senate. If it becomes law, the earliest recipients would most likely be troops returning home from Afghanistan in 2012, along with their family members, who also would get preferential treatment.
So far, the move has earned raves from travel–industry groups.
Already, the government has initiated a more intelligence–driven screening process for civilian passengers, allowing members of some frequent–flier programs to voluntarily register information about themselves ahead of time for expedited security screening. The new process is currently being tested at major airports in Atlanta, Detroit, Miami, and Dallas and will likely expand nation–wide in 2012.
Echoing these moves, some supporters of the new House bill are advocating for these new, eased airport–security screening privileges to extend to law enforcement officers and firefighters, too.
What do you think? Should policemen and firefighters be allowed to pass through airport security more quickly than other passengers, alongside members of the military?
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Hotels: What on Earth Are "Tax Recovery Charges?"
Travelers often pay "tax recovery charges" instead of taxes when booking a hotel room in the US through a major online travel agency like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity. What are these mysterious charges? Say you book a night's stay at a hotel through a major online travel agency, and you pay $100 plus "tax recovery charges" and service fees. The $100 rate includes a profit margin for the website, which is typically between 15 and 25 percent, according to Daniel Toja, CEO of Myhoteloutlet.com. For our example, we'll say that's the wholesale rate is $80, and the travel website adds on $20 to the price and charges you $100. The hotel then calculates a tax on the $80. That tax is passed on to you by the website. (By tax, I mean the whole grab bag of taxes and charges municipal and state governments slap on hotels, such as the "room tax" that some cities add.) Interestingly, the travel website typically doesn't pay municipal or state taxes on its $20 mark-up on the $80 room or on its service fee. What is the service fee? It's an effort to disguise the wholesale rate. Without it, anyone could look at the tax rate and the price paid and figure out what the wholesale rate is. But the service fee adds an element of mystery, confusing any competitor company trying to figure out how much a rival is discounting a room. What does that mean for you? Let's say four major travel websites are selling the same exact hotel for the same exact night for the same rate of $100. When you attempt to actually buy the room from each site, you may be surprised to discover that each site charges a different final bill: Expedia might charge $100 plus $20 in taxes and fees; Priceline might charge $25 in taxes and fees; Orbitz might charge $30 plus taxes and fees; and Travelocity might charge $35 in taxes and fees. How can the final bills vary so much? After all, the tax rate is the same in every case (6%), and the retail rate is the same ($100) for each site. The answer is simple: Changes in the service fee and the wholesale rate cause the final bills to vary among the sites. Hotels may have cut special deals with one website, offering deeper discounts. Or the website itself is running a sale to attract business. (By the way, in my example above, I don't mean to imply that Travelocity typically charges more in service fees than the other companies; I randomly selected companies and prices to illustrate how all of these companies charge varied service fees. No one company is known to charge more than the others consistently.) Complicating things even further, taxes are changing a lot lately. Sometimes governments might change taxes between the time you book the room and the time you actually stay. When you reserved a room in October, the tax rate may have been 6 percent, but by the time you check in for your stay in January, the tax may have risen to 7%. To prepare for possible changes in the rate, the company estimates what the tax will be (based on the current tax rate) and calls this estimate the "tax recovery charge." An Expedia spokesperson explained to me that, "generally without exception," when a change happens, the tax goes up, not down. When the tax rises, the hotel—not Expedia—makes up the difference on the customers' behalf. But what if the opposite situation happened? What if the tax rate actually dropped instead? Might Expedia keep any leftover the customer overpaid for "tax recovery charges"? A company spokesperson says: "Expedia never pockets any tax dollars... When this issue has been raised as a sideshow in the hotel occupancy tax litigation, every court who has looked at this baseless allegation has ruled in Expedia’s favor, finding that Expedia does not overcharge customers or pocket any tax dollars." The situation is the same with the other major online travel companies, according to spokespeople and previously issued public statements. They argue that because they are not hotels and do not "furnish" rooms to travelers, the hotel occupancy sales tax does not apply to them. There's one exception. New York City and New York State have explicitly changed their laws so that they also tax the money on the online travel company's mark-up and service fees. Expect other municipalities and states to copy that move. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Introducing the $450 Checked Bag Fee Can a Chain Hotel Pull Off Boutique-Style Amenities? Best Hotel Rate Guarantee Ever?
5 Ways Travelers Can Avoid Crowds This Holiday Season
Driving may be the number one mode of transportation over the holiday season, but that doesn't mean fliers will have the skies to themselves. Air travel is up seven percent from last year, according to Orbitz. As someone who loves traveling (but hates crowds), that wasn't exactly music to my ears. Fortunately, there are ways to get where you need to go without battling the suitcase-wielding masses (or grappling with road rage). Here are a few travel-editor-approved tricks for you: #1 Be smart about when you travel. Whether you're flying or driving, if you can travel on the holiday itself it's going to be cheaper and less hectic. If that's not possible, plan to arrive two days before (and to leave two days after) the holiday, since most folks will be making their trip the day immediately before and after the festivities. No matter when you're traveling, the earlier you can set out, the better. #2 Consider alternative airports. Taking the time to compare flights into nearby airports could save you money, time and hassle. For example, instead of flying into Dulles International Airport (IAD) in Washington, D.C. consider Baltimore Washington International (BWI) in Baltimore. It's smaller, less crowded, and flights there tend to be more affordable. Yes, it's about a 40-minute train ride outside the city, but the time and money you'll save at the check-in counter could be well worth it. #3 Book a non-stop flight. Every time your plane lands during peak travel times, the possibility of delays due to inclement weather or air-traffic congestion increases—and so do your odds of getting stuck with the unhappy masses. If a connection is necessary, try to fly through a southern hub, such as Dallas, Charlotte, or Phoenix, where you can at least eliminate weather as a problem. (A layover in Chicago, Detroit, or Minneapolis raises the probability of getting held up because of a storm.) #4 Airport parking lots get filled up around the holidays, so use public transportation. If you must drive, consider a private parking lot near the airport: They'll often shuttle you to and from the terminal, and they let you book in advance so you won't have to worry about finding a space. #5 If you're staying at a hotel, look into business hotels. Over the holidays, you'll find low rates (and fewer people) at classy city and suburban hotels that normally depend on business travelers. Families should consider all-suite hotels or long-stay hotels such as Homewood Suites and the Residence Inn, which have more room and good holiday prices. Hope this helps! If you have any other tips to add, please share them below! SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 7 Surprising Items That Trigger Airport Security 5 Credit Cards Every Traveler Should Consider 10 Most Useful Travel Websites
3 Most Intriguing New Facebook-Based Travel Tools
Thanks to Facebook, we're no longer six degrees of separation from everyone. We're now only four friends-of-friends away. In other words, most pairs of Facebook users are socially connected through four intermediate other Facebook users. How can travelers take advantage of this level of interconnectedness? Three new sites aim to help. Certainly anyone can use social networking site Facebook to post a status update asking friends and family for advice about a particular destination—and then wait for the responses to roll in. But nowadays, hundreds of messages clutter people's Facebook news feeds, so your message may get lost. Sometimes it helps to instead take a more targeted approach to tapping Facebook friends for travel tips. A few new Facebook applications aim to help travelers get the most travel advice and help out of the site without spamming their friends. Uptake: An easier way to ask for trip advice from your Facebook friends Earlier this month, Uptake, a travel information aggregation site, debuted a free tool for more easily sourcing travel advice from friends. Go to Uptake.com and sign in using your Facebook account username and password. You'll be then be invited to type in a destination name. With one click, Uptake will show you pictures of your friends that probably have travel advice about your destination, based on Uptake's scanning of their Facebook profiles. For example, when I type "London" into Uptake's search box, I find out that about a dozen of my friends know something about it. If you like, you can ask Uptake then to ask these selected friends about the destination by posting a question of your own wording directly on their Facebook walls—a technique that increases the chance of your friends actually seeing your message. InBed.me: A tool for choosing a hostel that has a crowd you'll feel comfortable with. Officially launching next week after a few weeks of beta testing, InBed.me is a new "social booking site" for 25,000 properties—hostels, beds, and couches—worldwide. Before budget-conscious travelers visit a city, they can visit InBed.me to check out the top hostels in each city according to other travelers. The site allows backpackers to do a little bit of screening to see who else will be at a hostel they're considering on booking. Facebook integration is a key part of the process, though you can use InBed.me without it. Using the site is straightforward: Enter a city to see listings of hostels and homes. Click through to see amenities, rates and online booking availability, a photo and profile of the host, and information on any other site users who may be visiting. Twigmore: Connect with locals at your destination, through friends, to get the inside scoop while planning your vacation. Earlier this week, Twigmore arrived as an app for Facebook. After a few months of testing, the tool claims to have built up a database of more than 1.7 million local contacts in over 38,000 cities around the world. The idea is that when you search for a destination, you can find locals on the ground who can offer you helpful advice. Booking a trip to Bangkok, for instance? Type "Bangkok" "India" into Twigmore, and it will reveal a friend of one of your Facebook friends who lives in the city—assuming that such a match exists. Check out their profile details to see if you share anything in common, such as music interests, and reach out for advice. What do you think of the new wave of social networking apps? Helpful, or do they create more "noise" and "spam"? SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Talking Travel on Facebook Can Cause Trouble New Sites Will Tell Other Hotel Guests Who You Are New Site Advises on How Not to Be a "Tourist"
What Makes Your Least Favorite Airport So Awful?
Perhaps the only thing more associated with Thanksgiving than turkeys and pilgrims is airport-induced rage. Hours of delays, lost luggage, and never-ending security lines can surely leave a bad taste in your mouth. A major part of your holiday happiness, therefore, can be tied to the airports through which you travel. If you're lucky enough to get a good one, flying can be a breeze: the sunny halls, central-hub design, and easy-to-navigate tram system at Tampa International Airport means I never have to worry about being a Thanksgiving Grinch on my way home for the holidays. But millions of other travelers aren't so lucky. CNN.com compiled a list this week of the most hated airports around the world, with reasons why each earned this dubious distinction: 10. São Paulo-Guarulhos International, São Paulo, Brazil: "just 41 percent of all flights leave on time" 9. Perth Airport, Perth, Australia: "a reviled pair of domestic terminals (home of two-hour taxi-line queues, atrocious check-in lines, overpopulated gates and meager lounges)" 8. Tribhuvan International, Kathmandu, Nepal: "primitive yet officious check-in procedure, starring a roulette wheel of underpaid security agents" 7. John F. Kennedy International, New York, United States: "a dim, surly, unbearably congested airport reeking with attitude and unapologetically long immigration lines" 6. Jomo Kenyatta International, Nairobi, Kenya: "cramped spaces; long lines; inadequate seating; frequent power outages; tiny washrooms hiding up several flights of stairs; shabby duty free shops; overpriced food outlets; and business class lounges worthy of a shelter in mid-city Los Angeles" 5. Ninoy Aquino International, Manila, Philippines: "ground crew strikes, unkempt conditions, soup kitchen-style lines that feed into more lines and an overall sense of futility" 4. ToncontÍ n International, Tegucigalpa, Honduras: "second most dangerous airport in the world" 3. London Heathrow, London, England: "long walks (or, more commonly, runs) between gates to a frenzied soundtrack of ‘last call' announcements" 2. Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, United States: "a dramatically undersized and moribund one with the architectural élan of a 1960s correctional facility" 1. Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Paris, France: "the baffling circular layout is worsened by warrens of tunnel-like structures, dismissive staff and seething travelers waiting forever in the wrong queue...the worst part may be this airport's aura of indifference to it all" More often than not, we don't hate an airport for something major, such as Tegucigalpa's spotty safety record. It can be the little things that bug us: long taxi lines, lengthy walking times between terminals, uncomfortable seats, too few outlets. What's your least favorite airport—and what makes it so terrible? SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Replace Heathrow? London Just Might Survey: Travelers Just Love Alternative Airports 5 Airport Innovations Worth Praising