The Best And Worst Of 2013
Travel Writer
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It’s Christmas Day as I write this column from a hotel room in Los Angeles. Outside, the weather outside is 85 degrees, and crowds are mobbing every public space that is open on the holiday: Rollerbladers whiz down the beach boardwalk, the Persian cafés are full of Muslim and Jewish families enjoying a free afternoon for tea and pastry, and nearly a month after Thanksgivukah, little blue-and-white Stars of David still dangle in the neighborhood fro-yo store. Just the right atmosphere to contemplate the best and worst travel experiences of 2013 (stay tuned next week for suggestions about the hottest Jewish destinations of 2014.)

1. Wi-Fi that is neither wi(reless) nor fi(delity). As I write this, the year is still 2013, which makes it an even 20 years since I opened my first e-mail account. So why, roughly 15 accounts later, is it still so difficult to check e-mail in a hotel?

I’ve had to crouch in a corner to get a signal, re-enter a passcode every 20 seconds, or hole up in the lobby — not to mention signals so weak you can brush and floss while a single page loads.

Then there was the arty boutique hotel in Milan where the clerk responded to my request for Internet by handing me a pile of cables to plug in for what he called “wee-fee.” Um, hello? What part of “wireless” involves wires?

2. Unfairly sneaky discount-airline fees. For some (mostly) European carriers, online check-in is less about streamlining the process — and more about squeezing extra cash from travelers with little recourse.

Most savvy flyers know you’re supposed to check somewhere in the 24 hours before your flight. But some discounters impose illogical timeframes that would catch any traveler off-guard, like a Ryanair policy last year that required me to check in during the week before the flight, up to the 24 hours beforehand, when online check-in was no longer available. By the time it occurs to you to log on, you’re slapped with an unavoidable fee. (That’s why Ryanair consistently ranks at the bottom of customer-satisfaction surveys, a richly deserved honor in my book.)

Or how about a Wizzair trip between Barcelona and Sofia last year? According to the website, online check-in was not available for that flight, so I checked in at Barcelona free of charge. But in Sofia for the return trip, my fellow travelers and I were all slapped with a 20-euro fee for checking in at the airport (which, incidentally, nearly doubled the cost of the ticket). The airline’s explanation: online check-in at that moment varied by airport, not by flight or route; it might be unavailable in one direction and mandatory in the other. This fact probably wouldn’t occur to most people — as was obvious from the general level of rage.

The most offensive aspect of these policies is that they are constantly changing. I fly most of the major European discounters with some degree of frequency, and just when I think I’m onto their tricks, the routine shifts and I end up shelling out what essentially amounts to a stupidity fee (since I’m not getting anything in exchange).

3. Motels that aren’t up to the prevailing amenity standards. At low-budget, no-frills European pensions and B&Bs, I expect to bring my own shampoo, hairdryer, tissues and so forth. But not in the U.S., where even the lowest-budget chains generally offer the basic amenities. Our prices — and standards — are higher.

So I was shocked to check into a Motel 6 recently for the same $80 or so that I’d spend at a Super 8 or Travelodge, and then find that the room came with no shampoo, no hairdryer, nothing. When the local standard includes these basics, you come to expect them, and it’s irritating to have to improvise basic hygiene at 11 p.m.

4. The U.S. Airways-American Airlines merger. As anyone who lives in a market served by a single airline knows, less competition means higher — often much higher — prices, and generally less choice about when and how to fly. In my lifetime, we’ve already lost Pan Am, TWA, Continental and Northwest — and transatlantic fares have gotten correspondingly outrageous.

More people fly more places today than ever before; we need more airlines, not fewer.

5. Let’s finish on a high note. I hadn’t flown JetBlue, our hometown New York airline, in a couple of years — and a recent flight made me understand why my parents refuse to fly any other carrier.

We pulled up to the curb at Boston’s’ Logan Airport and checked two bags in about two seconds, paying only $40 for the second bag. A wheelchair for an injured family member appeared without us even asking; we had reserved it online, but I’ve never seen one appear without a wait. The seats were roomy, the soft drinks flowed without my ever pulling out my wallet, and everyone was in a friendly mood when we arrived on time in L.A.

It was like flying in 1993. All travel should be as pleasant as it was back then — but please, with faster Wi-Fi!

Last Update:

01/02/2014 - 18:38
American Airlines, JetBlue, travel on a budget, US airways, WiFi

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I read with interest Hilary's comments about our merger. As spokesman for the new American Arlines (and a former TWA flight attendant, to boot!) I can tell you that more people are flying now, and with all the consolidation has occurred, yet fares are less than they were in 1978 when deregulation happend (when adjusted for inflation). All of that, including the demise of a number of bankrupt and failed carriers (Pan Am, Eastern, TWA, Midway, ATA, Laker ... there are literally dozens) that had fares in the market below the cost of providing the service. Even now, with fees and fares added together, and the cost of jet fuel (our buggest expense) at record highs, airlines will likely make a very modest profit -- in the 3-5% range (similar to grocery stores). Take out your IPhone to reply to this outrage, and you have supported a company that has a profit margin of between 50-65% for that phone and a cash hoarde in excess of $140B ... while airlines LOST more than $60B in the aftermath of 9-11. Where is the proportionate concern? So, Hilary ... appreciate your perspective, just know it 'flies' in the face of facts. And another good friend of mine, Jenny Dervin, works at JetBlue (she is also a former TWA person) ... so I certainly appreciate their solid competition too! Regardless, we hope to see you in the air again, soon, in this 100th year of commercial aviation. Sincerely, John McDonald, Spokesman, American Airlines.

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