Archive for December, 2011

The Dirty Truth About Hotel Ratings

December 22nd, 2011 by Mariah

(BudgetTravel.com) — When Americans think of “five star” hotels, they conjure up images of on-site spas, white-gloved service, and pillow menus. That’s no surprise, given that the dominant rating systems in the U.S. are two of the most trust-worthy on the planet — Forbes and AAA.

In order to snag Forbes’s highest ratings, for example, a hotel’s staff must meet criteria such as greeting arriving guests curbside within 60 seconds and offering tasting samples to drinkers ordering wine by the glass.

In Italy, on the other hand, where the rating system is government owned and operated, all it takes to score five stars is a 24-hour reception desk, receptionists that speak three foreign languages, and double rooms starting at 172 square feet.

There are more scoring systems than most folks realize, and they vary from country to country (and, in some cases, from city to city). That said, most ratings fall into one of four main categories: those operated by private companies such as AAA, those run by hotel booking sites such as hotels.com, user-generated systems, and government-run agencies.

Bottom line: Consistency is an issue. In the past two years, several governments including Switzerland’s and Germany’s have overhauled their systems to be more uniform, and Brazil is following suit this year. Plus, in 2009, Europe’s Hotelstars Union launched with the goal of establishing common classification criteria across the EU.

Despite the improvements, figuring out which hotel will provide the best value can still feel like cracking the Da Vinci Code. To help you make the most informed decision possible, we scrutinized criteria across the globe to suss out the meaning behind the stars. No matter where you’re going, here is what you need to know before you book.

No. 1: Private-company rating systems

Verdict: Independent ownership, consistent criteria, and anonymous inspectors make companies like AAA and Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide reliable and unbiased.

Both AAA and Forbes have been rating hotels for more than half a century and provide regular, in-depth reports on what consumers can expect, from how many soaps in the bathroom to bedsheet thread counts. Every 12 to 18 months, for example, Forbes inspectors make incognito visits to up to 5,000 properties and complete a checklist of 525 questions: Are guests arriving in a taxi greeted curbside within 60 seconds? Does wine-by-the-glass service include a tasting sample?

Findings are relayed in a 110-page report. Five-star spots feature virtually flawless service — if you only eat the cantaloupe off the breakfast-buffet fruit tray, for example, expect extra melon delivered to your table. Diamonds are the currency in the AAA system, where inspectors pay unannounced visits to 32,000 North American properties annually and rank them on a scale from one diamond (lowest) to five. But even single-diamond hotels have standards: In order to be AAA-rated, properties must adhere to a basic set of benchmarks relating to cleanliness and management (bathrooms must have mini soaps, for example), but don’t expect a business center or even an elevator.

On the other hand, in five-diamond hotels you can bank on a full on-site spa, 24/7 room service, choice of pillow filling (pick from goose down, silk, cashmere), even a personal butler. Outside of the U.S., Australia is one of the few other countries in the world with a private rating system, which also happens to be called AAA. The system is operated by the Australian Automobile Association, an organization similar to (but not affiliated with) North America’s AAA.
No. 2: Hotel booking sites

Verdict: Online booking engines such as hotels.com use a combination of hired scouts and user ratings to review hotels, but generally reviewers aren’t anonymous and the standards vary by country and company. These ratings are best used in conjunction with other review sites.

Orbitz and Priceline each has its own rating system, though neither publishes their ratings criteria on their website. The standards vary by company and country — which means a hotel in London won’t necessarily be rated by the same criteria as one in New York City. (One major reason is the difference in room size between Europe and America; rooms tend to be smaller overseas, even in hotels that would otherwise score high marks.) Hotels.com, for example, stations employees on every continent but Antarctica to suss out properties. While these scouts aren’t anonymous — they actually work with hoteliers to improve hotels’ star ratings — 2 million unvetted consumer reviews provide another layer of feedback. Ratings are based on location, amenities, type of accommodation, and service.

No. 3: User-generated rating systems

Verdict: User ratings are more valuable en masse. The key is to focus on what the majority of reports seem to indicate about a property and to ignore extremely positive or negative reviews, which may be biased. Use these sites as a reference but not your sole reference.

User-generated sites are built on feedback from the masses: TripAdvisor, for example, features more than 50 million traveler reviews sounding off on nearly 495,000 hotels worldwide. While the company, which launched in 2000, bills itself as having “World’s most trusted travel advice,” the sheer volume of sources — and TripAdvisor’s inability to vet them all for accuracy — make these reviews something to take with a grain of salt. (A general rule is to ignore the ecstatically positive and totally negative reviews in favor of those in the middle.)

While the site has stringent guidelines (”reviews should contain only original content and no quoted material from other sources…we do not allow quoted material from personal email correspondence with a property manager”) and even has moderators to flag posts that seem fishy (like a hotelier giving his property rave reviews, for example), there’s no way to catch every questionable review. Even with the caveat, peer reviews can be helpful, as they’re often more detailed (”the room smelled of moldy hotel carpeting”) and straightforward (”the check-in staff was great, but the hotel was on a yucky street”) than those from third-party organizations or tourism boards.

No. 4: Government-run ratings systems

Verdict: Government-run ratings systems may be self-interested — the better a destination’s hotels, the more tourists it’ll draw — and unregulated by a third party. Proceed with caution, and always refer to at least one or two other sources.

Most European countries have their own government-produced ratings, as well as countries in Asia, South America, and Africa. (There’s no standardized system across Europe, but in 2009, an organization called the Hotelstars Union launched a drive to establish a common system across the EU. So far, 11 countries, including Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, are participating.) In Europe, reliability varies by country — the U.K.’s system is uniform across Great Britain and fairly trustworthy, though tourist authorities have toyed with the idea of including user reviews.

In France, on the other hand, ratings aren’t based on quality but on the presence of certain features (air-conditioning and bathroom facilities, for example). In Italy, a hotel can earn a single star just for changing the sheets on the beds once a week (don’t let the bedbugs bite!). Also low on the reliability scale: Asia, South America, and Africa, where national tourism boards have no standardized criteria or oversight.

FAA announces pilot fatigue rules

December 22nd, 2011 by Mariah

Washington (CNN) — The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday a sweeping final pilot fatigue rule governing how much time off commercial passenger pilots must have between work shifts, ensuring they have a longer opportunity for rest before they enter the cockpit.

The new rule sets a 10-hour minimum rest period prior to a flight duty period, a two-hour increase over the old rules. The new rule also mandates that a pilot must have an opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep within the 10-hour rest period.

The DOT said the proposal was science based, and would significantly increase public safety.

The final rule will take effect in two years, according to the FAA, to allow commercial passenger airline operators time to transition, rearrange schedules and indoctrinate pilots.

“This is a major safety achievement,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We made a promise to the traveling public that we would do everything possible to make sure pilots are rested when they get in the cockpit. This new rule raises the safety bar to prevent fatigue.”

LaHood disputed criticism the changes in the rule took a long time. “We wanted to make sure we got it right. We took time to listen to people. Every voice was heard,” LaHood said. “You can’t implement overnight. It takes time.”

“Every pilot has a personal responsibility to arrive at work fit for duty. This new rule gives pilots enough time to get the rest they really need to safely get passengers to their destinations,” said FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta.

It was a point echoed by Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida, who released a statement saying, “While the final rule provides improvement for aviation safety, pilots must take personal responsibility for coming to work rested and fit for duty. The government cannot put a chocolate on every one of their pillows and tuck them in at night.”

The FAA said it “expects pilots and airlines to take joint responsibility when considering if a pilot is fit for duty, including fatigue resulting from pre-duty activities such as commuting. At the beginning of each flight segment, a pilot is required to affirmatively state his or her fitness for duty. If a pilot reports he or she is fatigued and unfit for duty, the airline must remove that pilot from duty immediately.”

The rule has been a long time in coming. In the mid 1990s, the FAA tried to update its flight and duty time regulations, but withdrew its rule under opposition from airlines. But momentum for change increased following the February 12, 2009, crash of Continental flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York, which killed 50 people.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded pilot fatigue contributed to the crash, although it said it could not be attributed solely to fatigue. The hearing, though, spotlighted the practice among some pilots to commute lengthy distances to their jobs. The pilot of Colgan Air 3407 commuted from Tampa, Florida, and the co-pilot commuted from Seattle, Washington, to their base in Newark, New Jersey.

The new rule addresses potential cumulative fatigue by placing weekly and 28-day limits on the amount of time a pilot may be assigned any type of flight duty, according to the FAA. The rule also places 28-day and annual limits on actual flight time. It also requires that pilots have at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis, a 25 percent increase over the old rules.

The FAA said the rule also incorporates the latest fatigue science to set different requirements for pilot flight time, duty period and rest based on the time of day pilots begin their first flight, the number of scheduled flight segments and the number of time zones they cross. The previous rules included different rest requirements for domestic, international and unscheduled flights. Those differences were not necessarily consistent across different types of passenger flights, and they did not take into account factors such as start time and time zone crossings.

Another component of the rule includes when a pilot’s day begins. The FAA said, “The allowable length of a flight duty period depends on when the pilot’s day begins and the number of flight segments he or she is expected to fly, and ranges from 9-14 hours for single crew operations. The flight duty period begins when a flight crew member is required to report for duty, with the intention of conducting a flight and ends when the aircraft is parked after the last flight. It includes the period of time before a flight or between flights that a pilot is working without an intervening rest period.”

The Air Line Pilots Association expressed its support for the new rule covering passenger flights.

“Today’s pilot fatigue rule release marks historic progress in what must be an unrelenting commitment to ensuring the highest safety standards throughout the airline industry. The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA), is gratified that the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have delivered on their pledge, and a Congressional mandate, to issue new flight- and duty-time regulations and minimum rest requirements for airline pilots,” said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, an independent aviation safety organization.

Moak said while the new rule brings “much-needed science improvements to flight and duty regulations,” he expressed disappointment that cargo operations “are being held to a lesser standard.”

New York draws record number of tourists

December 22nd, 2011 by Mariah

(CNN) — It’s been a big tourism year for the Big Apple.

New York expects to draw more than 50 million visitors by the end of 2011 — a record for the city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Tuesday.

“While playing host to the world isn’t new for us, the number of visitors we’re welcoming in recent years is new,” Bloomberg said during a ceremony in Times Square, while surrounded by cheering tourism officials.

“That means more guests in our hotels, more shoppers in our stores, larger audiences in our museums and theaters, more diners at our restaurants.”

The city reached the milestone a year ahead of schedule, Bloomberg said. Throughout 2011, New York was the No. 1 city and overseas destination in the United States, his office added.

To celebrate, the mayor named newlyweds Craig and Lucy Johnson from Lichfield, England, as the honorary 50 millionth visitors to New York and presented them with a “golden ticket” to the city.

The couple will receive thousands of dollars’ worth of gift cards from New York retailers and tickets to a Broadway show.

The Johnsons were among the 10.1 million international visitors to come to the city this year. Another 40.1 million tourists came from within U.S. borders.

Tourism is a huge moneymaker for the city, generating $32 billion in visitor spending and $48 billion in economic impact, Bloomberg’s office said.

“New York City’s quality of life has contributed to this great success, and we are confident we will sustain the success of our tourism industry in the months and years ahead,” Bloomberg said.

Alec Baldwin fled to toilet, booted from plane

December 8th, 2011 by Mariah

Los Angeles (CNN)-An American Airlines pilot booted Alec Baldwin off a flight Tuesday because the actor refused to turn off his cell phone after the plane’s doors were closed for departure, the airline said Wednesday.

“The passenger was extremely rude to the crew, calling them inappropriate names and using offensive language,” the company said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

Baldwin, in a column published by The Huffington Post Wednesday, apologized to fellow passengers who were delayed by the incident. But he blamed a flight attendant who “singled me out to put my phone away” while other passengers continued to use theirs.

“I guess the fact that this woman, who had decided to make some example of me, while everyone else was left undisturbed, did get the better of me,” Baldwin wrote.

After Baldwin refused to turn off his cell phone, with the seat belt light on for departure, he walked into the toilet with his phone, the airline said.

“He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked,” the airline said. “They immediately contacted the cabin crew to check on the situation.”

“Given the facts above, the passenger was removed from the flight and denied boarding,” the company said.

The “confusion” started after the plane remained at the gate for 15 minutes after the door closed, Baldwin wrote.

“I then did what I have nearly always done and that was to pull out my phone to complete any other messaging I had to do before take off,” he said. “In nearly all other instances, the flight attendants seemed to be unbothered … and said nothing about such activity, by me or anyone else, until we actually were pulling away from the gate.”

Although other passengers were still using their phones, a female flight attendant “singled me out to put my phone away,” he said.

He pulled his phone out again after the plane remained at the gate, he said. “Again, I was singled out by this woman in the most unpleasant of tones.”

Boxer Oscar De LaHoya, who was also on the plane, posted a Twitter message of support for the actor, saying, “I think the flight attendant over reacted.’

Word of Baldwin’s clash with the crew spread worldwide within minutes of his being escorted from the New York-bound flight at a Los Angeles International Airport gate, because of Twitter postings by Baldwin and a passenger.

“On an AA flight at LAX. Alec Baldwin removed from the plane We had to go back to the gate. Terrible that everyone had to wait,” tweeted Michael J. Wolf, a consulting firm executive who was a passenger on the flight.

A short time later, Baldwin tweeted to his nearly 600,000 followers: “Flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing WORDS W FRIENDS while we sat at the gate, not moving.”

When CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin — no relation — tagged Alec Baldwin in a tweet asking about “Words with Friends,” the actor replied, “It’s…well….addicting.”

“Words With Friends” is a digital word-building game popular on several platforms.

Another Baldwin tweet took aim at the crew, saying he would never again fly on American Airlines, “where retired Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950’s find jobs as flight attendants.”

The star of NBC’s “30 Rock” noted in his tweets that “oddly, 30 Rock plays inflight on American.”

A posting on the airline’s Twitter account showed the company was trying to reach Baldwin. “Mr. Baldwin, we are looking into this. Please DM us contact information,” the company tweeted.

In his column, he said he had happily flown American Airlines for 20 years and until now was “brand loyal, in the extreme.”

Most of the flight attendants “still have some remnant of the old idea of service,” he said. “But there are many now who walk the aisles of an airplane with a whistle around their neck and a clipboard in their hands and they have made flying a Greyhound bus experience.”

“The lesson I’ve learned is to keep my phone off when the 1950’s gym teacher is on duty,” he wrote.

Despite the apparent distress, Baldwin’s journey resumed.

“Now on the 3 o’clock American flight. The flight attendants already look…..smarter,” he tweeted.

Baldwin arrived at New York’s JFK Airport on an American Airlines flight Tuesday evening.

Booted fliers blame bully flight attendant

December 8th, 2011 by Mariah

(CNN)-Three women kicked off an AirTran plane bound for New York say a “bully” flight attendant is to blame.

The passengers — who did not know each other before the Monday flight from West Palm Beach, Florida, to White Plains, New York, but were seated in the same section of the plane — say the incident started during boarding when a male flight attendant began roughly handling bags in the overhead bin.

“I said, ‘Hey, I have breakables in that,’ ” recalled Marilyn Miller,according to CNN affiliate WPTV-TV in West Palm Beach. But she said the comment only seemed to make his behavior worse.

“It was just like a bully and I found myself shaking.”

Passenger Carol Gray told the TV station that she flagged the same flight attendant for help with another problem.

“I said, ‘Excuse me sir, my seat is broken,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘I’m not talking to you,’ and poked me in the arm,” Gray told WPTV.

The passengers said the flight attendant then began to get angry and told them to leave the plane, according to WPTV. That’s when a third woman, who had been watching the situation unfold, told the station she decided to intervene.

“I said, ‘This is crazy, they didn’t do anything. Why are you doing this to them?’ And he said, ‘Throw her off, too,’ ” Karyn Schorr told WPTV.

Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene and stood by as the women exited the plane and went to another gate, said Eric Davis, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. The women were not cited or charged with any crimes, WPTV reported.

Southwest Airlines, which owns AirTran, said it booked new travel arrangements for the passengers and compensated them as “a gesture of goodwill for their inconvenience.”

“Our goal is always to mitigate any uncomfortable situation prior to departure. Our crew assessed the environment onboard and ultimately decided to accommodate the passengers on an alternative flight,” spokeswoman Brandy King said.

“We always prefer that a passenger walk away with a positive experience when flying our airline; we regret that didn’t happen in this scenario. As we often do in these situations, we will take this opportunity to review the reports and take away any key learnings that we might uncover.”

Hogwartz headed to Hollywood

December 8th, 2011 by Mariah

(CNN)-Muggles will have another opportunity to slip into Harry Potter’s magical world at a new Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Universal Parks CEO Tom Williams promises the planned Southern California attraction will be “every bit as spectacular” as the first Harry Potter park, which opened in 2010 at Universal Orlando in Florida. That successful Harry Potter theme park will be significantly expanded, Williams also announced Tuesday.

Hogwarts Castle, which houses the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry featured in the “Harry Potter” series, will be the Hollywood park’s centerpiece, as it is in Orlando. Details on the timing of the new park and expansion have not been released.

The new California park is likely to bring millions of tourist dollars.

“It’s a huge win for the Los Angeles tourism industry,” said Mark Liberman, CEO of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, in a statement.

The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. estimates the Harry Potter park will produce $147 million in spending in the county for every one million additional visitors to Universal Studios Hollywood.

The Orlando Harry Potter attraction’s opening brought an immediate boost to Universal Orlando. Wizarding World’s opening halfway through 2010 boosted overall paid admissions to Universal’s Orlando parks by 20% in 2010 over 2009, according to financial documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Five Lessons from living in Paris

December 8th, 2011 by Mariah

“Paris is so very beautiful that it satisfies something in you that is always hungry in America.” — Ernest Hemingway

(CNN) – Jennifer L. Scott arrived in France as a California girl, but she returned home as a Parisienne.

As a foreign exchange student in college, she spent six months living with a family in Paris: an elegant couple she dubbed Madame and Monsieur Chic.

Scott observed them carefully, took part in their everyday rituals and delighted in the experience.

“Before I lived in Paris, I would go through life on autopilot,” said Scott, who writes The Daily Connoisseur blog and is the author of the new book, “Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris.”

“Paris taught me not how to just exist, but to thrive and make every small moment meaningful.”

Here are five of the lessons Scott learned in the “City of Light.”

1. Live a passionate life

Scott noticed that Parisians often turned mundane aspects of everyday life into something special.

“For example, every night after dinner we would have a cheese course and every night we would have Camembert because it was Monsieur Chic’s favorite cheese. And every night without exception, before we cut a slice of Camembert for everyone, he would proclaim it to be the ‘Roi du fromage’ — or the king of all cheeses,” Scott recalled.

“He did it with passion. They turn the smallest things, the smallest rituals and they make them passionate events.”

Dinnertime was a great example because every night of the week, whether it was a Wednesday or a Friday, it would be an experience that included a three-course meal and lively conversation, Scott said. Afterward, the family would listen to classical music.

“They never sat in front of the television with a box of pizza and zoned out, never,” Scott said.

 

2. Cultivate an air of mystery

Scott thinks the French get a bad rap for coming across as cold and aloof when they’re simply very picky about who they open up to and how much they reveal about themselves.

“I think we can learn a lot from this,” Scott said.

“I would attend at least two dinner parties a week when I was there… and I wouldn’t really (know a lot about) the guests. I wouldn’t know what they did for a living, but yet I would know the best book they read recently or the most interesting film they saw or the art exhibit that they went to. They loved to discuss these areas of life but they don’t overshare details about their personal lives.”

It’s considered rude in France to ask someone what they do for a living, Scott said, so when she returned to the United States she stopped asking new acquaintances this question and liked the way it fueled her wonder about them.

She also discovered that staying mum can be “delicious.”

“Being OK with silence is important. I think a lot of people are afraid of silence in conversations, I know I am,” Scott said.

“French people are very OK with silence. You can see this in a lot of French films — there’s lots of silent pauses in French films that you don’t get in American films.”

3. Look presentable always

Madame Chic wouldn’t even go to the corner store to get a baguette without applying lipstick and tying a scarf around her neck, Scott recalled. Looking presentable was a way of honoring the people she came in contact with everyday.

“This isn’t to be confused with being high maintenance,” Scott said.

“She wouldn’t spend an hour in the bathroom flat-ironing her hair and applying meticulous makeup. She had a very quick (routine): ‘Le no makeup look’ and a very easy hairstyle to follow. Her 10-item wardrobe allowed her to pick something really easily. She wouldn’t agonize over what clothes to wear every day like so many of us do.”

Scott also noticed the family would routinely wear their best clothes for everyday occasions, a lesson she took to heart.

“It’s funny, we’ll go and spend money on beautiful clothes and we won’t wear them. We’ll be saving them for some unknown occasion in the future because we don’t want to ruin them,” Scott said.

“We should use these clothes on a daily basis. Why not use our best? I think you should never save your best clothes for later. Use your best now and get rid of anything that isn’t up to par.”

4. Don’t forget the simple pleasures (and do not deprive yourself)

Scott thought the movie “Amélie” showed off this lesson perfectly as it introduced its whimsical characters and their little pleasures.

“For some of them it’s cleaning out their handbag, and for some of them it’s breaking the crust on a crème brulee with a spoon,” Scott said. “These are things that a lot of us just mow over in life and don’t even notice.”

She observed that Madame Chic took great pleasure in making her own preserves or baking a strawberry tart, while Monsieur Chic always looked forward to eating his favorite cheese every evening.

Food was a big part of life in Paris, but Scott was amazed to find that she didn’t gain any weight. She attributes this paradox to lots of walking, little TV watching and no snacking.

“There were no snack foods in the house and I just did not snack the entire time I was there. So when I went to meals, I was hungry,” Scott recalled.

“But the meals were long, drawn-out affairs so I wasn’t scarfing down this decadent food. I was sitting at dinner and we were having conversation. The meal would take about an hour and I would eat mindfully, so I wouldn’t overeat.

“I had dessert at least twice a day. I had it every day after dinner, and for tea every afternoon, I would get a crepe or something in the city. And I enjoyed my food.”

5. Make life a formal affair

Scott was impressed by the formal manner in which her host family lived. They were always elegantly dressed, their apartment was beautifully furnished and they maintained graceful rituals.

As a visitor to their home, for example, Scott was considered the female guest of honor and was always served first at dinner, ahead of her host and hostess and their son.

“They just observed these formal protocols and manners and etiquette were very important to them,” Scott said.

“They used their best china and their best crystal on a regular basis. … They used the nicest things that they had on a daily basis and it elevated every experience that we had.”