Photo: Santa traveling airport

Holiday travelers are wishing for fewer hassles.

Photograph by Brian Biggs

By Christopher Elliot

Hey Santa, how ’bout something for us this year?

Frankly, we’re a little tired of the lumps of coal. Last Christmas we had the underwear bomber, and the year before that, winter storms stopped us cold. And there was the recession and today’s jobless recovery to worry us.

Don’t we deserve something nice under the tree for a change? Like airline tickets we can let our friends use? Surcharge-free rental cars? Hotels where everyone doesn’t have a hand out, waiting for a tip?

Wishful thinking, perhaps.

I mean, who doesn’t want world peace, but does anyone really think we’ll get it anytime soon? However, I’ve taken a closer look at our list and discovered that some of our requests have already been granted, at least in part. And isn’t that worth celebrating?

The wish: I want to be able to give my airline ticket to a friend. Airlines say transferring tickets is a security issue (it isn’t, and the TSA has no specific rule preventing it). But allowing name changes on a ticket would deprive airlines of revenues, according to aviation consultant Bob Mann. “It’s money they can’t afford to lose.”

But…tiny Allegiant Air, a discount carrier based in Las Vegas, allows you to change the name on your airline ticket for a $50 fee. It still managed to earn $76 million last year—a time when its bigger competitors were bleeding money. True, Allegiant charges fees, but its name-change policy is a hit among passengers and a compelling counterpoint to those who think that allowing a name change would hurt an airline.

I’m tired of tipping. Well, you don’t have to, but proper etiquette says you should slip a few dollar bills to the parking valet or bellhop. Many hotels pay their employees accordingly, says hospitality and tourism researcher Bjorn Hanson, which is to say, they estimate a certain percentage of some employees’ salaries come from gratuities. Take away the tips, and “hotels would have to pay those employees more,” he says.

But…some hotels have bucked convention by imposing a no-tipping policy. The Elysian hotel in Chicago, for example, raised its employee wages so that staff wouldn’t have to rely on tips to make a living. David Pisor, the hotel’s founder and chief executive, said—no surprise—that guests love it. Some “all-inclusive” properties in the Caribbean, such as Sandals and SuperClubs, also ban most tipping.

Not another surcharge on my airline ticket. Airline fees are so annoying, aren’t they? Worse, most surcharges are inadequately disclosed, leading you to believe you’ll pay less than you actually do. “The airlines have become addicted to extra fees because the practice allows them to make their airfares appear lower,” says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. His organization is pushing for a new law that would require airlines to disclose their fees.

But…some airlines have resisted the “à la carte” trend in ticket pricing. On Southwest Airlines, you can still check two bags at no extra charge. JetBlue gives you one bag free. These airlines also don’t charge for ridiculous extras, like carry-on baggage or the use of your credit card. Chalk it up to corporate DNA. As Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford puts it, “We zig when everyone else zags.”

How about a cheap passport? Post-9/11 security means you need a passport to cross the border. It’s unlikely we’ll turn the clock back anytime soon or become like Europe, where you can drive among many countries without having to show your papers. And at $135 ($110 for renewals), a passport raises the price of an international vacation, keeping more of us within our border.

But…the new U.S. Passport Card, which is the size of a credit card and uses state-of-the-art security features, costs less (just $55) and can be used to enter the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports of entry. Alas, it isn’t good for international air travel. But it’s a start.

No more security hassles at the airport. Enough with removing shoes and confiscating liquids and gels. Can’t they come up with a way to screen our loafers and lattes?

But…they’re working on it, at least in Europe. Last April, the European Commission announced that it would have the technology to screen liquids and gels ready by April 2013. It’s unclear whether they’d simply upgrade existing screening machines, as some have suggested, or install new screeners capable of sniffing out dangerous liquids. One thing we do know: Beginning next year, liquids purchased at duty-free shops outside the EU or aboard non-EU airlines will be allowed in hand luggage, as long as they’re sealed and screened before boarding.

Let’s do away with car rental surcharges. Pity car renters, who get slammed every time they pick up their vehicles. If it isn’t the creative “tire disposal” or a “license recovery” fee added to their bill by the car rental company, then it’s a variety of taxes imposed by state and local governments to raise money for baseball stadiums and other pet projects.

But…we may soon be free of the latter type of charges. A coalition of rental companies and customer advocates is fighting for legislation in Congress that would make future discriminatory taxes illegal. The bill limits taxes to the operation of the rental car facility. “There would be no taxation without representation,” says Robert M. Barton, the association’s president.

Frequent flier miles that don’t expire. In 2007, most major airlines started to expire their frequent flier miles after 18 months to two years. (Only Continental didn’t follow, but it reserved the right to close “inactive” accounts after 18 months.) Wouldn’t it be great to reverse that change, allowing us to stockpile our frequent flier rewards? Forget about it. For the airline industry, the consequences of having non-expiring miles would be, in the words of frequent flier expert Tim Winship, “overwhelmingly negative.”

But…two air carriers and countless credit cards already offer a Plan B. Both Southwest and JetBlue have more generous loyalty programs that reward you based on the number of flights flown or price paid, as opposed to the number of miles collected. Also, many credit cards let travelers earn points by spending dollars that can be converted into an airline ticket or any number of other items. Their terms tend to be less frustrating.

So toss that wish list into the yuletide blaze. You might find Santa has already paid you an early visit.

E-mail contributing editor Christopher Elliott at celliott@ngs.org.


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