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Tag Archives: tips

MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to stay well, feel better

2 hrs.

In a city built on bad behavior, one hotel is hoping to appeal to more health-conscious guests — or at least ease their pain.

On Friday, the MGM Grand Hotel Casino opened the doors on 42 Stay Well Rooms designed to counter the effects of jet lag, promote better sleep and take some of the sting out of the morning after.

The rooms feature more than a dozen health-oriented amenities, including blue-shaded lighting to counter jet lag, dawn-simulating alarm clocks so guests awaken slowly and air- and water-filtration systems that eliminate toxins and pathogens.

There are even showers that infuse the water flow with Vitamin C — said to promote healthy hair and skin — and a dedicated TV channel featuring a welcome from Dr. Deepak Chopra.

“There is a customer out there that is inspired by this,” Scott Sibella, MGM Grand president and COO, told CNBC. “This is their lifestyle at home so why not bring it to Las Vegas?”

Video: Stay Well Rooms Debut at MGM

Of course, few would suggest that great masses of people will suddenly view Las Vegas as a health retreat but more visitors are seeking a less toxic experience while in town, says Anthony Curtis, president of LasVegasAdvisor.com, an online newsletter.

“You see lots of people playing slots with their shirts pulled over their mouths or wearing surgical masks,” he told NBC News. “There’s been a real big push lately — non-smoking sections, green initiatives — to accommodate (health-conscious travelers).”

As for the health benefits of MGM Grand’s Stay Well Rooms, only more rigorous testing will be able to ascertain any salutary effects. The company cites the fact that it collaborated for four years with doctors and researchers at Columbia University Medical School, among others, in developing the concept.

Other medical professionals are more skeptical. “It could help but there’s also the placebo effect,” said Dr. Stuart Rose, founder and medical director at the Travel Medicine Center of Western Massachusetts. “When you tell people a treatment will make them feel better, they’ll usually feel better.”

To test that theory yourself, you can book a Stay Well Room at rates that generally run $20 to $30 above the hotel’s standard room rates.

Alas, there’s no word yet on whether the benefits of the in-room amenities accrue to reversing the effects of alcohol, overeating and going bust.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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Southwest Airlines shuts down automatic check-in site

2 hrs.

Courtesy Nikil Viswanathan

“This is a much better experience than trying to wake up in the middle of the night or the early morning, remembering to check in,” Nikil Viswanathan said of his automatic check-in site.

To be among the first passengers to board a plane is often so crucial to keeping your sanity while flying that many travelers are willing to pay for it.

But what if you could have an edge over other fliers for free?

A recent Stanford University computer science graduate who came up with a way to boost passengers’ odds of boarding early on Southwest Airlines flights found lots of takers, but also drew scrutiny from the airline, which ordered him to shut down the project.

“It was funny because I actually didn’t think that anyone wanted to use this at all. I literally thought that it was something no one cared about,” Nikil Viswanathan told NBC News.

He was wrong. Thousands of travelers were captured by Viswanathan’s simple idea: to automatically check in for a Southwest flight the second you are able to, thereby improving your chances in the carrier’s first-come, first-serve competition for boarding times.

Viswanathan, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., began the project while visiting his sister on the East Coast earlier this year. He kept forgetting to check in for his flights, so Viswanathan, 25, decided to create a tool that would automatically do it for him on Southwest – the airline he flies most. It took him less than an hour to write the code, which he incorporated on his website, Checkintomyflight.com.

Here’s how it worked:

Southwest passengers don’t receive assigned seats, but they board in groups that are labeled either A, B or C, with the A group boarding first and getting the pick of overhead bin space and the best seats.

Passengers who buy Business Select fares are guaranteed an A boarding pass, while Southwest’s frequent fliers and travelers willing to pay a $10 fee for “EarlyBird Check-In” are checked in before everyone else, boosting their chances of getting into the A group. The rest dukes it out starting at 24 hours before departure.

Passengers who used Viswanathan’s website would be checked in the moment the process opened, virtually guaranteeing a spot in the A boarding group. There was no charge for the service.

Viswanathan unveiled the website on his Facebook page on October 2. It was featured on Hacker News three days later, and then picked up by two travel blogs. More than 10,000 people have visited Checkintomyflight.com since and about 1,500 flights have been entered into the site.

“People were getting really, really good boarding passes,” Viswanathan said. “This is a much better experience than trying to wake up in the middle of the night or the early morning, remembering to check in.”

But Viswanathan also soon heard from Southwest, which sent him a cease and desist letter last week. Programs like his violate the company’s terms and conditions of use, he found out.

“Southwest places a very high value on customer service and our personal relationship with customers,” said spokeswoman Katie McDonald in a statement to NBC News. “By intruding on that relationship and removing a touch point with the customer, check-in sites take away the ability for Southwest to provide its services in accordance with its policies and legendary personal touch.”

Viswanathan said he suspects Southwest is most upset that passengers who used his website didn’t see the ads on the airline’s check-in page.

He shut down Checkintomyflight.com on Wednesday, even though travelers have put in flights all the way until May of 2013. He’s hoping Southwest will allow him to honor those requests.

The project has even garnered Viswanathan a job offer from Expedia. He has declined, preferring to work on his “own stuff,” he said.

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Most common travelers’ tipping mistakes

54 min.

Photo © iStock

A few coins can cause a lot of drama.

College professor Gene McManus was having a quick dinner in Sydney and had just gotten back his change from a sarcastic waiter. “I thought, I’ll show you, I’ll leave a 2-cent tip,” says the Canadian, “so I left these two small, ugly coins that looked like Life Savers.” The next day he returned to the restaurant and was greeted enthusiastically and shown to the best table. “Turns out that ugly coin was a $2 coin,” says McManus. “I’d tipped $4 on a $12 bill.”

The most ironic part of the story? McManus’ waiter likely wasn’t even expecting 2 cents—because in Australia, restaurant patrons rarely tip at all.

Since travel offers us countless opportunities to thank those who ease the way for us (valets, drivers, bartenders), it also offers myriad chances for making tipping mistakes. And though most of us have made the occasional gaffe—unintentionally stiffing a deserving hotel housekeeper, for instance, or expecting a tipee to make change—learning from these can ensure a more rewarding travel experience for everyone involved.

“Tipping is part of your vacation, and it’s also part of doing business when you travel—and you need to budget for it,” says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and the owner of the Protocol School of Texas. “You’re tipping for the moment, and for future service—so that they will remember you the next time.”

Her rule of thumb for traveling overseas? When in doubt, ask a concierge or guide for local tipping protocol. In the U.S., she advises, “If they touch it, you tip them.“

If it’s any comfort to tip-happy Americans, people from other countries are often just as clueless about tipping when they come to our shores.

One Australian travel insurance agency has even decided that their clients need educating: “Since Australians don’t tip at home, there is great angst about it, and they have come to blows over it,” says Phil Sylvester of the Sydney-based World Nomads Group. “We finally decided it was a safety issue that needed addressing—as in, ‘Don’t get into a fight, learn to tip.’”

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Fly free faster by mixing miles and money

5 hrs.

Courtesy MileWise.com

A screenshot of MileWise.com.

If you’re like many travelers, you probably have multiple frequent-flier accounts, none of which ever seem to have enough miles or points to snag that free round trip ticket.

Ten-thousand miles here, five-thousand points there; pretty soon you’re talking… paying real money for your airfare and watching your not-quite-big-enough account balances languish and eventually expire.

The folks at MileWise.com feel your pain and would like to help. Last week, the loyalty-program-management website unveiled Combo Fares, which allow travelers to use a combination of cash and miles (or points) to purchase two one-way fares on separate airlines.

“Sometimes people don’t have 25,000 miles for a round trip ticket but they’ve got 12,500,” said MileWise co-founder and co-CEO Sanjay Kothari. “With Combo Fares, you can do one search and see all the different options for both outbound and return flights in one place.”

For example, during a recent search for a flight between Los Angeles and New York, the site returned several dozen results, including a round trip on US Airways for $385 (the lowest cash fare available), a round trip award ticket on Alaska for 25,000 miles and a Combo fare that combined an outbound flight on United for 12,500 miles and return flight on US Air for $137.

Valuing those miles at 1.4 cents per mile, Kothari calculates that the Combo fare essentially cost $315, significantly cheaper than either the Alaska award (valued at $353) or the US Air cash fare.

“There’s a general misconception out there that mileage seats are never available,” he told NBC News, “but our results show that there are always some.”

The challenge, of course, is finding them, which, for travelers with multiple accounts, typically entails serial visits to multiple airline websites.

“The problem is that there’s no transparency with awards,” said Brian Kelly of ThePointsGuy.com. “The Kayaks and Travelocitys of the world have done a decent job of providing it for paid fares, but as far as award tickets go, it’s been a free-for-all.”

MileWise seeks to simplify the process by serving as a metasearch engine for award seats. It will work for any user but is most effective for those who register and provide their specific frequent-flier account details. For the latter, the site will return the most relevant results: i.e., flights based on actual account balances and status.

And in a clever bit of marketing, the site also assigns each flight a “WisePrice,” which calculates the miles or points you earn for cash tickets and “subtracts” it from the retail price. In the above example, the $137 US Air ticket would add 2,464 miles to your account, worth approximately $34.

Alas, you’d still pay the full $137 fare, but to Kothari, at least, “you’re earning $34 worth of ‘currency.'”

The site is not without issues. Since all flights are booked on the airlines’ proprietary sites, Combo Fares require two separate reservations, which can lead to technical difficulties. During the above search, for example, the US Air link connected directly to a page offering a round trip fare of $435, requiring another round of clicks to access the appropriate $137 one-way fare.

The bigger issue — and one that also impacts users of other mileage-tracking sites, such as AwardWallet and Traxo — is that airlines are beginning to take issue with the sites’ accessing their plan members’ data. In recent months, both American and Delta have threatened legal action against the sites, forbidding access to members’ accounts.

“It’s a shame that airlines are using this ruse that it’s a security issue,” said Kelly. “If banks and credit-card companies can link to other third-party apps, there’s no reason the airlines shouldn’t allow consumers to use applications that simplify their lives.”

For his part, Kothari says he’s currently in discussions with American and Delta and “hopeful” that they’ll come to an agreement that will allow MileWise to access members’ accounts and show award availability again.

In the meantime, Kelly suggests that websites like MileWise should be considered, not as the final arbiter of award availability, but as additional tools in your frequent-flier arsenal.

“At the end of the day, these sites can help but they’re not the final answer,” he told NBC News. “The bottom line is to educate yourself about the programs you participate in, know the ins and outs and leverage that information to get the most value out of your miles.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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8 most common tipping mistakes—and how to avoid them

3 hrs.

Tipping really shouldn’t be so hard. The service was good, you leave a token of your appreciation and everyone is happy. Not so fast. This is one of the most difficult aspects of travel to navigate, since you have to take into consideration everything from how employees are paid to cultural traditions that could have you embarrassing yourself and your waiter just by leaving that 15 percent (apps like GlobeTipping—which gives advice for tipping in restaurants, hotels and more in 200 countries—can help you along). We consulted experts and avid travelers for their thoughts on the scenarios that trip up travelers most and got their advice on how to avoid awkward situations.

Who you always tip—but shouldn’t

—Cruise staff
In the old days, cruise lines provided an envelope and suggestions for how much to tip the crew members with whom you had direct contact during a sailing. Now it’s the norm for major cruise lines to automatically add the tips to your bill (which could take you by surprise), especially in the U.S. and the Caribbean. “In the last 10 years or so there’s been a trend toward automating [tips] where the cruise line said ‘we’ll take care of that for you if you just mark this off on the bill,'” says Spud Hilton, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s travel section and Bad Latitude blog. While some cruise lines make it possible to adjust the included tips if you wish, on others, those included tips have become mandatory and cannot be adjusted. In this case, says Hilton, “The tipping is no longer about you and the person giving you good service—it’s about service in general on the ship.” And that service, he says, can even extend to things the cruise lines shouldn’t expect passenger tips to cover—including employee education. Always check with your cruise line to find out if tips are included (and whether or not they can be adjusted) before setting sail.

—Wait staff
We’ve got tipping in the U.S. down when it comes to restaurants—leave 15 to 20 percent unless there’s some outstanding circumstance. It’s not so cut-and-dried abroad. A general rule for tipping in European restaurants is to leave a couple of euros if you’re happy with the service, rounding a 47 euro bill up to 50 euros, for example. But in Denmark and New Zealand, no tip is expected at all. And be on the lookout for service charges that are included in the bill. In Norway, a 10 percent service charge is typically included (though you should leave 10 percent if it is not). But be aware that in some places, that service charge doesn’t always cover the full tip. In Aruba, for instance, 15 percent is automatically added to the bill (this is distributed to everyone, including the kitchen staff). If you were happy with the service, leave an additional 5 to 10 percent and give it directly to your waiter. When in doubt, ask the hotel staff what the local customs are for tipping at restaurants. It’s confusing when Europeans travel here as well. A couple years ago, the bar at a trendy New York restaurant started automatically adding 20 percent tips to bar tabs, since waiters were sick of being stiffed by European visitors who may not have been aware of customs on our shores.

—Bell man
The tipping conundrum gets all the more confusing when you arrive at a big hotel with a flotilla of staff members on hand to assist you. One person grabs your bag from the car, another wheels it to reception and yet another delivers the luggage to your room. You could get dizzy tossing around dollar bills. It’s better to give one handout when you’ve reached your room. “The person who usually takes your bag from the car to check-in doesn’t really expect to be tipped,” says Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur who spends 85 percent of his time traveling, “They usually rotate their shifts (with the other porters delivering bags to rooms). The person who brings the bag to my room is the one I tip.”

—Staff in China and Japan
Believe it or not, tipping is considered rude in China and Japan, and is just not done. That goes for cab drivers, restaurant wait staff and workers in hotels. But there is a big exception to this rule that could take even the savviest traveler by surprise. Keep reading to find out!

Who you never tip—but should

—Shuttle van drivers
Those courtesy shuttles you take from the airport to the car rental parking lot and from your hotel into town shouldn’t be viewed as a completely free ride. Whether there’s a jar for tips or not, you should hand off a dollar or two to the driver as you’re getting dropped off. “If I have really heavy bags, I usually give the driver a few bucks,” says John DiScala of Johnny Jet.

—Hotel housekeeping
“Housekeeping is probably the most controversial—and misunderstood—tipping subject in hotels,” says Charlyn Keating Chisholm, editor of About.com’s hotels and resorts site, who has written several blogs on the topic. “Many people don’t, but you should definitely be tipping the maid at your hotel,” adds DiScala. “And if you tip every day instead of at the end of your stay you’ll get the best service.” A couple of dollars per day is acceptable. And when there’s no official envelope for tipping, it’s best to leave the money under the pillow instead of on a dresser, DiScala advises—in the latter case, maids may think the cash is not for them, and leave it behind after they clean. Even better, he says, find your housekeeper in the hallway and pass her a few dollars while thanking her for work well done. One caveat for this is if you are staying at a small inn or BB. It’s usually the owners themselves taking care of the tidying up, so forgoing the housekeeping tip is perfectly acceptable.

You don’t need to tip a hotel concierge for sketching the route to the best local sushi joint on your map or arranging an airport shuttle. But if a real effort has been made to get you tickets to a sold-out show or a table at an impossible-to-book restaurant, the concierge deserves a special thank-you for his or her efforts. Tip somewhere between $5 and $20, depending on what you’ve requested, says DiScala. Slide the cash to the concierge in person or have it delivered to them inside one of the hotel’s envelopes with a brief message expressing your gratitude.

—Tour guides
Tips for guides are rarely included in tour prices, and are expected whether you were shown around the Roman Colosseum for an hour or the Great Barrier Reef for an entire day. “Generally speaking, $3 to $4 per day (in local currency) is acceptable for guides of shorter tours and $7 to $10 per day for full-day tour guides,” says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. When in doubt, ask the tour operator what is considered an acceptable tip—the question comes up so often that many agencies even post the information on their websites, he says. When we say this is standard worldwide we mean it—yes, even traditionally non-tipping countries like China and Japan (see, we told you there was an exception). But making a big show of passing over a few yuan or yen is still frowned upon. “Ideally, you would not give the tip directly after someone has done a favor for you,” says Greg Rodgers, who runs several Asia travel blogs, including one on About.com. “That is like paying for the service. Instead, giving the tip at a later, unexpected time would be better.” Most tours in China will include transport back to your hotel or the airport, so wait until the final goodbyes, not right at the conclusion of the tour. According to Rodgers, just taking cash out of your pocket is the worst way to tip in Japan. Put the money in an envelope and seal it before passing it to your guide.

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