How the Travel Industry's Heart Can Grow 3 Sizes this Year
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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen continues his series The Weekly Wish, looking at flaws, shortcomings, and room for improvement in the world of travel and loyalty programs. Today's wish: for airlines and hotels to spread some cheer and goodwill in the holiday spirit.
Though I started listening to Christmas music weeks ago, for most people Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season. While today is given to being grateful for what we have, I wanted to kick off the season with a wish—or several wishes—regarding changes the travel industry could implement in the holiday spirit. These suggestions, most of which should have zero or minimal impact on the bottom line, can help travel providers behave less like the Grinch and more like the Whos in Whoville.
1. Actual bereavement fares
I'm sure many of you have been in the horrible situation of needing a last-minute flight to attend the funeral of a loved one. While some airlines do offer "bereavement fares" for such situations, these have been steadily disappearing. American discontinued these fares earlier this year, and many other airlines stopped offering them years ago (see 2014 articles from USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, and The Seattle Times for additional coverage). As TPG often says, having a stockpile of points & miles (especially in a transferable currency) is the best insurance policy. However, I would love to see airlines move back toward bereavement fares in an effort to ease the hardest of times.
Bereavement fares don't need to be deeply discounted; they can just be a percentage off for last-minute flights (conditional upon proof of a death in the family). Airlines could limit this to 1-2 tickets per account per calendar year, and even then I suspect they could identify anyone trying to game the system.
2. Waived bag fees
I understand that bag fees are here to stay, and while there are many ways to avoid them, it's no fun starting off a holiday trip with the family by spending $100+ to make sure your luggage flies with you. I would love to see airlines offer a period of no checked baggage fees in the few days before and after Thanksgiving and Christmas. It would be a small concession, but with the proper marketing, it could even help the bottom line by encouraging passengers without status to book with one airline over competitors that might charge a fee.
3. Family-friendly seating
Too many times I've seen a family with young children board a flight and then disperse to various parts of the plane, or begin politely (but urgently) asking other passengers to swap seats. Sometimes this is due to a last-minute equipment swap or due to passengers booked on different reservations, so it isn't necessarily an issue of airlines having cold hearts. Still they could make a concerted effort to seat families together and keep them together.
To illustrate this, take a look at these seat maps from AA.com and ExpertFlyer for the same JFK-LAX flight on January 24, 2015:
I count 48 open seats in Economy, yet only 9 of those are available to non-status flyers without an upcharge. I can understand blocking seats for elite flyers, but why are the window and aisle seats in row 18 and the aisle seats in row 19 designated for premium passengers? Offering families the option to book these seats together without being charged extra would generate plenty of goodwill with customers.
4. First drink free on holidays
While Southwest won't be flying you to Europe or Asia in a lie-flat seat anytime soon, they do have one thing right: complimentary drinks on holidays. My wife and I always enjoy that first glass of wine or can of beer to kick off a vacation, and with the stress of holiday travel, it's even more welcome! I've flown Southwest on Easter as well as Father's Day, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they offer travelers (of legal drinking age) their first drink on the house. Other airlines may offer a complimentary coupon for elite travelers, but this is a small gesture that doesn't cost a lot.
5. Waived fees for lap children
Many of you have probably flown with a child under the age of 2, and for short-haul domestic flights, the booking process is fairly pain-free. Not so for most international flights, as TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele pointed out back in 2012. While some airlines do allow you to bring a lap child aboard for free, most charge 10% of the paid fare (or mileage required), which can add up to quite a lot, depending on the route and dates of travel.
These fees don't connect to any additional services or benefits, so I put them in the same ballpark as fuel surcharges. If you're traveling internationally this holiday season with an infant in tow, I'm sure you would love to keep that extra money in your pocket. For the sake of new parents everywhere, airlines should get rid of these humbug fees.
6. Free hotel WiFi
Hotels can be every bit as culpable as airlines for nickel and diming travelers, through resort fees, parking charges, internet, and other add-ons. Earlier this month, I wrote about how to get free WiFi during your hotel stays; I would love to see more major hotel chains follow Marriott's lead and simply include internet access as a standard amenity.
Many chains do give you free WiFi, and even some brands that don't usually offer it for free will include basic access (and then charge for faster, "premium" service). So many travelers these days have phones or tablets with data plans, and many can turn their devices into a secured hotspot. Internet simply isn't the profit center that it once was for hotels, and including it for free would be a clear benefit to even the most casual traveler.
7. Waived fees for up to 4 guests in a hotel room
Another hotel policy that would fit well with the family-friendly spirit of the holiday season would be suspending fees for additional guests in a hotel room. Jason Steele wrote a series of posts about maximizing family-friendly hotels (with SPG, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, and IHG), and unfortunately, many properties charge for additional guests or for rollaway beds.
These fees, which can run over $60 per night, seem excessive for such a simply amenity. I understand properties wanting to avoid Spring Breakers cramming 11 college students into a room with two double beds, but making simple accommodations for families would be more in keeping with the holiday spirit.
8. Partnerships with local charities
One final wish involves the desire that many feel to help the less fortunate during the holidays. My local Publix supermarket in Florida regularly partners with charities or fundraisers to support different causes, like a local food bank, the March of Dimes, or breast cancer awareness. At checkout, I'm frequently asked to donate a dollar or two to these causes, and since I love racking up points on my Hilton Honors Card from American Express, I usually say yes.
Hotels could offer similar programs to help local charities. Guests could charge a donation to their room folio, earning extra hotel points for their stay and on whatever credit card they use to pay. Hotels could then distribute these donations to deserving charities. This would mirror programs like Delta's pink lemonade campaign during breast cancer awareness month each October. If coin jars next to a register or Salvation Army bell-ringers outside a store can increase charitable giving, then surely travelers will be willing to donate when they can earn additional points or miles.
What changes would you like to see in the travel industry to reflect the holiday spirit?