22 September 2014

Rail - Capitaine Train

I have my brother Ken to thank for alerting me to a new rail booking website for Europe.

Called "Capitaine Train", it's based in Paris, and is a one-stop shop for buying tickets from some of the biggest passenger rail systems in Europe.  As of now, they sell tickets on Eurostar (the "Chunnel" trains between London, Paris, and Brussels), SNCF (French National Railroads), DB (Deutsche Bahn - German Federal Railroads), three other lesser known systems (Thalys, Lyria, and Thello), and even a few bus lines.

It's easy to use.  You don't have to get accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of each railroad's proprietary website, yet you still have access to all of their lowest rail fares.  What's more, there are no booking fees (they earn commissions from the sale of the tickets), and they have real, live people at the other end of the email pipeline when questions arise.

My brother used it to buy tickets for travel in France and thought it was great.  Testimonials by others echo that.  You can create a unique account for use on Capitaine Train, or you can simply sign in using your Facebook credentials.

Heading to Europe and planning to use the trains?  Click on over to Capitaine Train.  (Select the U.K. flag to get the English version - the default is French.)

By the way, Americans have been conditioned to buy various flavors of rail passes for travel in Europe but unless you intend to do a lot of moving around by train, simply buying point-to-point one-way or round-trip tickets will probably be a better value and simpler.

17 April 2014

Hotels - The seasonal ups-and-downs of hotel rates in New York

My travel business is focused on booking hotel rooms for business travelers.  In dollar volume if not also in number of room-nights, I've booked more in New York than in any other single location.

Highline Park - lower East Side
Over the years I've noticed a distinct seasonality to prices there.  For travelers to New York who want to keep the cost of lodging low, and who have the flexibility of traveling at any time, it's useful to know the seasons of lower priced hotel rooms in this remarkable city.

Here's a month-by-month summary.

January - lowest
February - lowest
March - lowest but starts to rise mid-month and beyond
April -  high
May - highest
June - highest but drops as the month goes on
July - lower
August - lower
September - after Labor Day prices zoom
October - highest
November - highest
December - highest until a week or so before Christmas then lowest (except New Year's Eve)

New York is a destination for all reasons, but like most big cities except for glaring exceptions like Las Vegas and Orlando, lodging demand is driven by business travel.

In the winter, business travel subsides and leisure travel in New York slows to a crawl.  In the spring and in the fall, business travel is very high.  In summer business travel declines which leads to somewhat lower rates in New York, too.  This is partly offset by increased leisure travel but these travelers aren't willing to spend as much on accommodations as business travelers are, and prices reflect that.  As in other destinations driven primarily by business travel, rates are generally higher for weeknights (Sunday-Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday) and lower for weekend nights (Friday-Saturday).

Let's go from the general to the specific using three different hotels as examples:
- Hampton Inn Times Square South (moderately priced hotel)
- New York Hilton (upscale, huge Midtown hotel)
- The Plaza (luxury hotel on Central Park South at Fifth Avenue)

Rates below are per night before tax for three weeknights in a standard room with king bed.  The rate is what is called "best available rate".  Lower rates such as AAA or senior may apply, but these discounts are taken off "best available rate".  (Rates were researched on 16 April 2014.)

28 April 2014
Hampton Inn: $289
New York Hilton: $349
The Plaza: $700

22 July 2014
Hampton Inn: $269
Hilton New York: $349
The Plaza: $625 

14 October 2014
Hampton Inn: $359
Hilton New York: $469
The Plaza: $775 

13 January 2015
Hampton Inn: $179
Hilton New York: $249
The Plaza: $650

While not as volatile as airline ticket prices, hotel rates are also dynamic.  The price for a room booked three months in advance may be different (higher or lower) when booked closer to the actual date of travel.  Take these prices merely as a random snapshot example of the seasonality of the rates, and not as a bronze, immovable tablet.

And then go take a big bite of the Big Apple.  There's no other city quite like it.

05 February 2014

USA Today articles about airline fees and Southwest’s new flights from Dallas Love Field

USA Today recently published a couple of articles readers might find of interest.  The focus is on Southwest Airlines.

First up is the piece about fees charged by U.S. domestic carriers for services such as checked baggage, ticket changes, call-center reservations, and so on.  Certainly not to my surprise, Southwest Airlines is the only carrier that does not resort to relentless nickle-and-diming for services which were free not so long ago.

While bag and ticket change fees get the most attention, I think it's important that Southwest does not tack on an extra fee in order to make reservations and pay for tickets over the phone with a reservations sales agent.  (Call center agents cannot book internet-only fares, however.)  And a further benefit that accompanies that, is that as far as I know Southwest does not have out-of-the-U.S. call centers, so you do not have to struggle to understand agents with impenetrable accents.

Why would you want to book over the phone when you can book online?

Complex multi-city itineraries are complicated to complete online.  Also when you are making asymmetrical travel arrangements for different people with overlapping but not identical itineraries, it's easier to have a pro do it.  (Example: you are traveling round-trip from Sacramento to Chicago leaving 10 June returning 17 June but your partner is returning on 20 June.)

At one time Southwest was something of a regional carrier, but that is long past.  They serve the entire country and contrary to what some people say, they do have hubs (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Chicago Midway, Baltimore, Denver, and others with smaller operations).  If you are planning a trip that you know runs a high risk of having to be changed or canceled, you should strongly consider using Southwest even if the service isn't as good as on another carrier.  Why?  With the three big network carriers (American/US Airways, United, and Delta) all charging $200 to make changes to a nonrefundable domestic ticket, you will lose big time if you need to cancel or alter plans.
With Southwest on the other hand, you can cancel without penalty and apply the full value of the old ticket toward purchase of a new one.  You would only have to pay the difference in fare.  And you could handle the transaction with an easy-to-understand Southwest Airlines reservations agent.

The second article from USA Today is purely about Southwest and how in October and November it will be adding flights from Dallas Love Field to many cities.

For those not familiar with the subject, Love Field was the original airport for Dallas, but supplanted in the early 1970s by DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth).  A law called the Wright Act, sharply limited flights out of Love Field to only intra-Texas and neighboring states.  It made sense at the time, because the new DFW (less convenient to Dallas than Love Field) needed to grow its business.  However over the years it became anachronistic as DFW cemented its hold on travelers in north Texas, and as the area surrounding DFW became populous and a business hub itself.  (The story is quite similar to the opening of Washington Dulles Airport in 1962, and its relationship to Reagan National Airport.)

So the Wright Act will pass into history and Dallas Love Field will get a lot of new nonstop flights on Southwest to points much further on the map than Austin or Albuquerque.  For now only LAX, Orange County and San Diego in California are included in the expansion (on 2 November) but my guess is that Oakland will probably not be far behind.  And who knows, maybe even Sacramento one fine day?

Dallas Love Field will instantly become a mini-hub for Southwest connecting the West with the Midwest, East, and Southeast, and at an airport a fraction the size of other hub airports.