Restaurant surcharges and hotel resort fees – disingenuity in action

[Your author Robert here… I was pondering whether this was more soft topics for my tech blog, or travel. I’ll crosspost, since I think it applies to both. And it sat around in my draft folder for about six months, but it’s still valid today.]

I recently dined with my honey at a local chain steakhouse. I’ve been going there as often as weekly for over a decade. We’ve gone less frequently in the last couple of years thanks to Nom Burger, but still once a month give or take.

Their prices have been sneaking up over the years. The dinner for two combo they have has gone from under $40 to $65 as I recall, although coupons still bring it down. Some of the choices have become added-cost items, so if you want a wedge salad, that’s an extra buck, and if you’re lucky it won’t be smaller than it was last month.

But the thing that annoyed me was the 3% “minimum wage surcharge” that was stickered onto the menu and was slapped on the bill.

Slapping customers with your cost of doing business?

The surcharge was annoying. The Chocolate-Orange Layer Cake was pretty good.

When I see a “minimum wage surcharge” or a “health insurance surcharge” on a restaurant bill, it rubs me the wrong way in a big way. It tells me the restaurant would really rather not pay a reasonable (legal) wage, or would rather not provide health insurance (maybe they’d rather have sick employees serving and cooking for customers?).

And a separate item could lead to lower tips as well. If you look at the subtotal to calculate the bill, 3% of that amount which is actually part of the cost of business is not included, so you may not think to tip for it. I didn’t think to look at whether the surcharge was taxed… is tax avoidance part of the consideration as well?

It wouldn’t be too hard to add 3% to the menu items themselves. If you were able to reprint the menus for the 5-10% price hike on certain items, you could easily add the 3% in rather than adding a sticker.

You’d also see a bit more money going to the employees you are hesitant to pay fairly or insure too. Sure, 20% of 3% isn’t a lot per cover, but over time it adds up.

It can’t just be surcharges bugging you…

As I pondered this particular sticker, I thought about parallels with fuel surcharges (for shipping and airline tickets) and resort fees (for hotels and, well, resorts).

The fuel surcharges seem similar; given the dynamic nature of pricing for airline tickets, it should be easy to adjust in a close-to-realtime fashion based on actual costs of fuel (or even to buy fuel more than a gallon at a time to absorb market shifts, which I think they do anyway). Shipping costs could be more complicated due to contracts with shippers and agencies.

Resort fees make them all look friendly and nice, of course; $30+/night for wifi and printing boarding passes is a bargain if you’re printing a thousand boarding passes, but more often it’s a great way to fleece customers and get away with false advertising. (Read some thoughts from The Points Guy and KillResortFees.com here.)

If you travel a lot, especially to Las Vegas, you’re accustomed to the resort fees, which as TPG above notes can be more than the room rate itself at cheaper hotels. But first-time travelers, especially those not on company expense accounts, may be disappointed and/or inconvenienced when their $30/night hotel room turns out to be $65+tax. Make it $100 if you have to park a car.

If you as a hotel operator believe that the resort fees reflect anything of actual value, why not either include them in the room rate, or make them optional? Surely all the people who find those services valuable will be happy to pay for them. Myself, I haven’t needed a notary or fax receiving at a Las Vegas hotel, well, ever… and based on Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts credits at several hotels, I know the wifi is worth $5 a day, and I’d pay that happily.

There’s a good read at the Federal Trade Commission’s website on their investigation into resort fees. The tl;dr summary (emphasis added):

 The analysis in the paper finds that separating mandatory resort fees from posted room rates without first disclosing the total price is likely to harm consumers by increasing the search costs and cognitive costs of finding and choosing hotel accommodations. The analysis finds that separating resort fees from the room rate without first disclosing the total price is unlikely to result in benefits that offset the likely harm to consumers.

However, to date not much has been done to address this, and resort fees continue to go up.

There are ways to get around some resort fees, of course. Caesars Entertainment does not automatically charge resort fees for Diamond and Seven Stars Total Rewards members, for example, and if you’re a high roller/have a host at other resorts and chains in Las Vegas, you might be able to get special treatment. But most visitors to Las Vegas will get slapped with a resort fee (and parking fees too!) that they get little or no benefit out of and no option to decline.

How do you feel about surcharges and fees? Do they affect your choice of destination? Or do you just consider them “part and parcel” of traveling and dining out? Share your feedback in the comments.

 

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Mini-trip-report: Campanile, a new Priority Pass “lounge” at LAX

Welcome back to rsts11travel.

Those of you who have premium credit cards (like American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and others) probably know about Priority Pass, a network of lounges around the world that you can get access to, either free or at a nominal fee of $27 per guest depending on your membership and number of guests.

See also: The Points Guy’s “All About Priority Pass

For the few years I’ve been traveling heavily, I have not used Priority Pass benefits, since most airports I visit have either a Centurion Lounge (access via Amex Platinum) or an Admirals Club lounge (access via Citi AA Executive). The Priority Pass lounges have often been reported as crowded, less impressive than Centurion/AA/Delta options, and more likely to restrict Priority Pass access.

Well, Priority Pass noticed, apparently, and started to partner with non-lounges in some busy destinations. In addition to a few Minute Suite options at smaller airports, there are almost 30 restaurant partners in the US as of this writing, and you can use your lounge visit privilege in the form of a $28 credit at any of these restaurants simply by showing your Priority Pass card (or mobile app).

A bit over a week ago, Priority Pass added Campanile, a self-described “fine dining” establishment in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Terminal 4. We had the opportunity to try it twice this past weekend, once for breakfast and once for dinner. LAX also has PF Chang and Barney’s Beanery under Priority Pass, and three Admirals Club lounges (including a small one in the Regional Terminal for people connecting within California), and a Centurion Lounge is coming in 2019.  Continue reading “Mini-trip-report: Campanile, a new Priority Pass “lounge” at LAX”

Breaking even on Founders Card in one week

We’ve written a bit here on rsts11travel about FoundersCard, a membership program for entrepreneurs and small/medium business operators that provides lots of travel, business, and lifestyle benefits for an annual fee of $295-595 (usually $395). We’ve also answered questions on various travel forums about it. But we haven’t really given a detailed review.

The short summary I’d give would be that, if you run a business or work for a small business where you manage your own travel, or if you find yourself in Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe or Atlantic City more than once a year, it’s pretty easy to make up the value of the membership fee without too much effort. If you travel more, use business and lifestyle services (more on that shortly), or buy technology for your business, it truly becomes a no-brainer. If you are limited to corporate travel or no travel and don’t use business services, it’s probably not for you.

We’ve been members for about three years now, with Robert (the site owner) having the annual membership and his partner having the spouse membership (which is a one-time fee for life). The first year we saw about $1,000 in value, and the second year at least half that (which exceeded the total cost of membership). The third year was looking a bit light due to less travel, but in one week in Las Vegas we recouped this year’s cost and then some.

A caveat for anyone considering membership: If you are choosing to apply because of one benefit, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that any particular benefit will be renewed from year to year, or will remain the same from year to year. Think about a range of benefits that may be of use to you before putting the money down, to minimize the disappointment if your one sacred benefit goes away in a few months or a year.

The Roman Emperor In The Room

Many FoundersCard fans consider the Caesars Entertainment benefit, Total Rewards Diamond status, to be worth the price of membership on its own. Continue reading “Breaking even on Founders Card in one week”

Trip report: Impressive redemption value at a transitioning Hyatt in Santa Rosa, CA

Welcome back to rsts11travel. Today we have a story of a hotel redemption that came to 3.6x the TPG valuation for the points in question, and the story of a hotel about due for redemption.

We’re members of a car club for a particular American car platform (the GM Kappa platform, as seen in Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky convertible roadsters), and we had a run a couple of hours from home earlier this month. It wasn’t so far as to warrant an overnight before the run, but with it being in the fringes of wine country, we decided to stay overnight after the run.

Our favorite hotel in Santa Rosa, the Fountaingrove Inn, burned down in the Sonoma County fires in fall of 2017 and has not been rebuilt, so we went looking for points redemptions. As we recall, the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort and Spa didn’t have points availability, so we went with the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country near downtown Santa Rosa.

We chose the $75 cash plus 6,000 World of Hyatt Points option, intending to use a travel eraser card to cover the room copay and taxes/fees and breakfast. Turns out this was an unexpectedly excellent value on its own, as the room was renting for $449 and up on Saturday nights. That means $374 of hypothetical room value covered by only 6,000 points, or about 6.2 cents per point. Compare that to TPG’s August valuation of 1.8 cents per point, and it’s pretty impressive.

To be fair, we’d never spend $449 for a quick overnight stay, but considering that we made up the points and more during a work trip to Las Vegas the week before, thanks to the MGM Resorts partnership with Hyatt Hotels, it was still a good deal.

Alas, the hotel, while good, was not up to Hyatt Regency expectations. 2018-08-25 16.11.31

The Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country is conveniently located on Railroad Ave in downtown Santa Rosa, blocks from downtown and a LOT of dining and shopping options. It’s a three story hotel with a central courtyard, a modest conference facility, paid self-parking ($10 when charged to the room, possibly a recent change according to some web reviews of the property).

It’s in the process of converting, apparently, from a Hyatt Regency to a regular Hyatt property (“Vineyard Creek” is seen on some of the materials in the hotel, but the corporate branding is still Regency). The restaurant has been closed for a while and has two months of construction left, so the dining options are room service, the small lobby bar, and a breakfast buffet set up daily in one of the convention rooms.

As mentioned, there are lots of great options for dining off property, but if you’re just looking to stay on site for the night, it’s somewhat suboptimal. We considered Guy Fieri’s Tex Wasabi’s, Russian River Brewing, and Toad in the Hole Pub, before deciding on Perch + Plow on the old courthouse square about half a mile from the hotel.

2018-08-25 16.10.21The room itself was spacious and comfortable, but felt more like an Aloft class hotel, or maybe a W, as opposed to a flagship property. It also fell short in the lighting category, with no switched lighting beyond the bathroom and entryway, and the corner between the bed and the bath (on the right above) being very dark in the evening even with the lights on. Our room was shower only, no tub, but unlike many of the hotels we stayed in recently, it did have a coffeemaker (with the disposable plastic filter trays and powdered “creamer”) and mini-fridge (no mini-bar, but that’s okay with us).

We didn’t get photos of this, but the power source arrangement was unique. The desk, the tv stand, and both sides of the bed headboard had an AC outlet and two USB charging ports, which made it easy to charge up all of our devices overnight. We’re used to one or two inconvenient outlets, or a lamp with one outlet in it, so this was a very modern offering that was unexpected.

For the property as a whole, aside from the restaurant being closed, things were acceptable. The staff were very friendly and helpful, even when we left our card keys in the room (and couldn’t get out of parking or back up to the third floor without them). The breakfast buffet, which is effectively a pop-up restaurant with omelet station, was pretty good as well (although it wasn’t free–$25.73 each with tax and tip). The $10/car parking charge was annoying, and unexpected for California wine country hotels, but we’ve paid far more for parking elsewhere before.

Mobile checkout worked quickly and seamlessly from the Hyatt mobile app, which also unexpectedly showed a current tally of room charges when we checked while checked-in. That saved us having to turn the TV on to look at the folio before checking out. We’re hoping the other major brands bring that functionality to their mobile apps as well, if it’s not already hidden away.

So wrap up the story for us

We were not blown away by the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country hotel, but for the redemption value and location, we were not disappointed. If availability leaned that way, or if we wanted to walk to Guy Fieri’s place, we’d be happy to return, hopefully with the restaurant in operation.

Odds are, though, our preference would be a return to the Renaissance in Sonoma, although it will eat 40-60k points per night (or 22-27.5k plus $165-225 depending on season).

Where have you stayed in Sonoma County for a good redemption value or even just a good wine country experience? Share in the comments, or join us on Facebook.

 

Crosspost: Travel tips and links for your summer conference season – 2018 edition

We’ve posted an updated version of the annual summer conference tips and tricks post on rsts11.com today. Feel free to check it out.

After a relatively sedentary winter/spring, I’ve started traveling again, and will be headed to Cisco Live in Orlando next month as well as the Cisco global sales kickoff in August in Las Vegas if all goes well.

I posted some tips and tricks a year ago on rsts11travel, with a focus on Las Vegas. A lot of the advice there is still relevant. In this post I’ll focus on hotel promotions you should look into, as well as some new product recommendations (with affiliate links, so you can help with my gadget addiction and hosting fees).

Read more on rsts11.com…

Quick take: An unexpected benefit to a Starbucks account

First of all, if you have an online account for Starbucks, or Peets, or anything else that’s tied to money you don’t want to throw away, make sure you’re not using a compromised or easy to change password. Go change it now. Really. 

And while you’re at it, you might check out haveibeenpwned.com, a site run by Microsoft’s Troy Hunt in his spare time to track where your email address may have been found in a data breach. Some you might be able to guess (Target, Equifax, etc) but others might be a surprise. 

Okay? Let’s get the story started then.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-14,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-YStarbucks has had their prepaid cards for over a decade, and they have a pretty usable mobile app that lets you link your cards, your rewards account, and top-up methods together in one place. It’s very convenient for me, living within walking distance of two Starbucks stores and liking to get out of the home office now and then.

A benefit they added in the last couple of years that’s very convenient (and got me over one of my main concerns over the cards themselves) is the option to tip from the app after your purchase posts. If you don’t carry cash but still want to give a little thank-you to your barista squad, it’s convenient, and it’s not connected to you face to face (so they don’t know if you tipped 50 cents or 50 dollars). The option manifests in a pop-up that tells you that “tipping is available until <two hours from now>.”

2018-02-11 11.00.15 oops starbucks
Enter a caption

This feature had an unexpected benefit for me this past weekend. I woke up around 10am on Sunday and checked my phone, finding that “tipping is available until 11:42am” message on my notifications. Quite convenient indeed.

The problem is, I had been asleep for several hours before that. And on top of that, the purchase that I was being allowed to tip for was on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado. Quite the long sleepwalk from Silicon Valley in California, right?

Well, I found that there were actually two unauthorized charges from Denver… one I hadn’t noticed a couple of days earlier, and one that morning. I logged in to my Starbucks account on the web, reset my password via my password manager, and contacted Starbucks through their web contact form. They told me I’d have to call in to discuss the matter, and I did.

The agent I spoke to got my gold rewards card cancelled/reissued, the unauthorized charges refunded, and the credit transferred to the new card. I have to wait a few days to actually use it, as it will come to me in the mail, but I was able to get an e-card to get me by until then (and still earn my rewards).

Ideally you won’t have a compromised password on your account, but in the event that either your card or your account is compromised, the Starbucks mobile app may give you a not-too-late warning.

You might not be as worried about $25 on your Starbucks account, but if you have auto-reload turned on, it can add up pretty quickly if someone else is brewing with your card.

Happy Anniversary to #rsts11travel

Greetings, readers.

A year ago today, rsts11travel spun off of the main rsts11 blog. Between that New Year’s Eve welcome post and today, 32 posts have come up on the blog, with an unsurprising focus on Las Vegas travel and benefits/loyalty programs. But there’s been more than that.

We brought you trip reports from Washington DC, Beverly Hills/Hollywood California, and three Las Vegas adventures with Jimmy Buffett, Gordon Ramsay, and the Burgers of Las Vegas.

We looked at Internet on the Road in a two part (1, 2) crossover feature with rsts11. We helped you save up to $179 a year on your CLEAR membership. And we helped you make your conference stay in Vegas a bit more comfortable.

In the year ahead, we’ll continue to carry loyalty program news, especially when it’s of particular interest to us (we can’t cover all the programs, but we’ll try to help you with the main ones). As new travel and caffeine technology comes out, we’ll be watching and writing about that as well.

A few of you have helped support our reviews by buying through our Amazon Affiliate links, and for that we thank you. We have a number of other ways that you can thank us for our coverage, over on the support page. Every little bit helps.

If there’s a topic or focus you’d be interested in seeing, or seeing more of, in 2018, let us know in the comments. And remember that you can join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/rsts11travel or on Twitter @rsts11travel (Facebook may get a more timely interaction).

Safe travels… we’ll see you in 2018.

Newsflash: Caesars Total Rewards Diamond changes and devaluations for 2018

Update 2018-02-01: The FoundersCard/Total Rewards partnership has been renewed. See below for details.

It looks like the news has been filtering out for two months, but somehow we just learned of this today. Caesars Entertainment has made some notable adjustments to the Total Rewards tier benefits for 2018.

For many Diamond members, and most Seven Stars members, this won’t be a severe downgrade. If you stay at Caesars properties regularly and leave a lot of money in the casino, you’ll probably be okay. But for people barely squeaking in to Diamond (or getting in through tier matching or FoundersCard), you’re going to notice some differences.

Links: Current (2017) benefits, New (2018) benefits

See also: Happy holidays from rsts11travel, and a quick offer from FoundersCard

What’s changing?

Continue reading “Newsflash: Caesars Total Rewards Diamond changes and devaluations for 2018”

Happy holidays from rsts11travel, and a quick offer from FoundersCard

Update for 2018: The FoundersCard $295 promo is no longer available, as noted below, but you should be able to get the $395/year rate going forward. 

Happy December, everyone. Robert Novak from rsts11travel here.

We’re coming up on the one year anniversary of rsts11travel as its own site. It’s been a good travel year, but things have slowed for my work travel, and most of the personal travel also sloped down after June. So the last couple of months have been lighter, and I expect that to continue until February 2018.

I keep an eye out for travel deals and concerns to share, as you’ve seen in the past year, and if anything particularly interesting comes up, I’ll get a newsflash posted here. Feel free to subscribe here on WordPress, or follow the site on Facebook and Twitter, for updates when they happen.

I do have a deal to share, and it makes me very happy to have it to offer.

Great deal on FoundersCard membership through my link

As some of you who’ve asked privately will remember, I offer my FoundersCard referral code on our support page and privately, but have suggested you wait for a better offer than the usual referral you get through my link. I don’t think I get any FCPoints if you do that, but I’d rather you get the best deal even if I just get a nod.

Well, FoundersCard reached out today and said that, through the end of December 2017 (December 29, actually), if you sign up through my referral link, you’ll get the $295/year “charter” rate.

That’s pretty cool. Continue reading “Happy holidays from rsts11travel, and a quick offer from FoundersCard”

Trip report: Marriott Marquis Washington DC

[Note: This post was written in early October and got forgotten for a little while. It’s still valid and we’re finally posting this report for your enjoyment.]

We’re back from nearly a week in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., for a little bit of sightseeing and a lot of the Splunk annual user conference, .conf2017.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Capitol, so to speak, and we’ll look at the unexpected benefit of using the Admirals Club instead of Centurion Lounge at SFO in a recent post. We also cover the change to Centurion Lounge access for non-Platinum cardmembers in another recent post.

Hotel: The Marriott Marquis, Washington, D.C.

The event was held at the Walter E Washington Convention Center, which is connected by underground tunnels to the Marriott Marquis. Having learned years ago that the event hotel is usually the best hotel for an eventgoing person, I chose to switch from my original reservation at the Grand Hyatt Washington (about 15 minutes walk, with a club room and Explorist status), to the Marriott Marquis (Not quite 15 minutes, but indoors, with a standard room, M Club access, and Gold Marriott Rewards status).

At check-in, the agent acknowledged my request for a feather-free room, and offered a $50 property credit which I promptly used on dinner that night. The lobby was mostly empty and there were only two people checking in at the time, so the process was quick and courteous as expected.

I got a two-doubles room facing the street, and an in-app request for body wash had been fulfilled with a bag of extra toiletries including body wash and hand wash. Marriott uses Thann products, which I’ve been happy with.

2017-09-23 19.49.00

I was disappointed to find that the coffeemaker is one of the disposable-tray models, not the Keurig Mini I’d seen in review photos. It seems the upper floors offer Keurigs, whereas the lower floors offer the standard Marriott coffeemaker (which is almost the same as the standard Hyatt coffeemaker). So my box of Tayst single cup pods stayed in the suitcase, and I actually didn’t use the coffeemaker nearly as much as I’d expected.

Join the Club

Silver, Gold, and Platinum guests receive access to the M Club lounge on the 12th floor, even if they don’t get club rooms. A long, thin room with a nearly-as-long  outdoor patio, the lounge offers coffee, tea, milk, sodas and waters, an espresso/coffee machine, and a still/sparkling water tap 24/7.

2017-09-24 19.04.52.jpg
View of Washington from the M Club lounge patio at dusk

In the mornings a modest breakfast was offered, with scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, potatoes, baked goods, and a few other items along with the regular beverage offerings and orange juice.

In the evenings, a bartender serves drinks (which you can charge to your room), and various hors d’oeuvres are available as well. Later in the evening, dry snacks and take-out style packages were offered, so you could grab some pretzels or other munchies and take them back to your room.

A hotel employee was checking people in for breakfast and hors d’oeuvres, but other times you just needed a qualifying key card to get in.

The coffee was exceptionally adequate, so I only ended up using my room coffeemaker once. It was just as easy to head up to the lounge and get a coffee and a snack.

Hotel Dining and Amenities

The hotel features a couple of dining options that were not disapointing.

  • The lobby bar with a light bar menu and, of course copious drink options
    High Velocity, the sports bar offering lots of televisions and lots of meat (including a good chicken sandwich and some excellent burgers)
  • Anthem, a diner-style restaurant with breakfast and lunch service. The breakfast buffet was a good deal when taken with coffee and juice (as most hotel buffets are).
  • The Dignitary, a bourbon bar next door (which I didn’t make it to)
  • Arroz by Mike Isabella, a southern Spanish restaurant next door (which I also didn’t make it to, but wanted to)
  • There was also a Starbucks in the lobby, which closed at 4pm. I never made in there, but the coffee in the M Lounge was quite adequate.

A small but reasonably-stocked gift shop is located around the corner from the main desk. There is a very convenient CVS pharmacy half a block from the back side of the hotel, which combined with the mini-fridge in the room (under the coffeemaker) could be very convenient for families staying here.

Exploring the Area

This was my first time in Washington in over 30 years, so I was happy to have a day to explore the Capital before my convention began.

washington-dc-hike-201709

I was quite surprised with the convenience of the hotel’s location; my tourist walk started with a bit less than a mile’s walk to the White House, continuing around it to the National Mall, the Washington Monument, the National World War II Memorial, and on to the Lincoln Memorial. The final walking tally was a bit over two miles, and I decided to take a ride-share back to the hotel from there.

If you’re visiting Washington, be aware that not everything is open, and not everything is as open as it used to be. For example, since repairing a crack in the Washington Monument from the 2011 earthquake, they found that the elevator needed to be replaced as well, so the Monument itself is closed through at least 2019. And for those of you wanting to get close to the fence at the White House, you probably won’t be able to. Security is very visible and there are additional layers of fencing all around, and line corrals near the Pennsylvania Ave gates.

Some coworkers and I went back out a couple of nights later for a night-time bus tour of the landmarks. For $39, it was two hours well spent, with an entertaining guide and only minimal interaction with tree branches in the open-top double-decker bus.

Most meals were taken at the hotel, or provided by the conference at the convention center. However, I did have a chance to visit a couple of restaurants, specifically the Rocket Bar, and Matchbox in Chinatown twice. I was quite pleased with Matchbox’s mini burgers (their apparent claim to fame) during a party, and returning with a colleague the next day we had a chance to enjoy the tomato mozzarella arancini and a pizza.

Those are our highlights from the trip, both at the hotel and around the City. I’d intended to visit Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, where Senator John F Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953, but didn’t make it quite that far out of the center of the capitol this time.

What do you think we missed? What are your go-to locations in Washington for dining, sightseeing, or just relaxing?

 

Photo credits: Map courtesy of Google Maps and its contractors. All photos (C) 2017 by Robert Novak, taken during this trip.