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Originally published October 8, 2012 at 11:29 AM | Page modified October 8, 2012 at 11:31 AM

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Hotels adding $5 billion in upgrades this bounce-back year

Travel Biz updates: American hotels are upgrading rooms and lobbies; new iPads in rooms; higher carry-on fees; helpful air booking tips.

Los Angeles Times

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All of those shiny new amenities you've seen at your hotel lately — fitness equipment, flat-screen TVs and redesigned lobbies — are part of a trend across the country.

Hotels are expected to spend $5 billion on improvements in 2012, a 33 percent increase over 2011, said Bjorn Hanson, a dean at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.

The spending still falls below the high mark of 2008, when the hotel business was booming and the industry spent $5.5 billion.

What are hotels spending all that money on? The added amenities include redesigned rooms, new bedding and beds, high-speed Internet access, flat-screen TVs, renovated restaurants and upgraded exercise rooms, Hanson said. Most of the spending has gone to renovate lobbies.

"If the lobby looks like it's recently been renovated, it projects on the rest of the hotel," Hanson said.

Hotel owners are spending more partly because they are enjoying higher occupancy rates and daily fares than in the last few years, he said. The managers of big-chain hotel brands are also pressing independent hotel owners to make upgrades that had been deferred because of the tough economy.

Not to mention, hotel guests have been complaining about tired-looking hotel facilities.

"Individual brands and hotels are receiving complaints in comment cards and things like that," Hanson said.

Hotels adding in-room iPads

Among the high-tech amenities that many pricey hotels have been adding in the last two years is the in-room iPad.

In many hotels, the tablet is loaded with software that lets guests tap the screen to order room service, call for a taxi or request a bill to check out. The Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills both offer in-room iPads.

A new study by the company that makes the software for iPads at 53 hotels across the country found that 82 percent of guests who had access to the tablets used them an average of 11 times per stay.

Of the guests who used the hotel iPads, 41 percent ordered in-room food, 21 percent requested a wake-up call and 7 percent called for a housekeeper, according to the study by Intelity.

"In-room tablets have quickly become the new mark of luxury service in hotels," said David Adelson, chief executive of the Orlando, Fla., company. Despite the popularity of iPads, hotels don't seem to have a problem with guests taking home the tablets. Some hotels attach the iPads by a cable to furniture in the room. Others warn guests when they check in that if the iPad goes missing, the hotel will tack a fee of up to $800 on their bill.

In the last two years, Intelity said it has received only two reports of damaged iPads and no reports of missing devices.

Spirit Airlines boosts bag fees

Depending on whom you talk to, Spirit Airlines is either the industry's top innovator or greatest abuser of passenger fees.

The Florida airline, which lists 72 fees in eight categories on its website, announced last week that starting Nov. 6 it will charge passengers $100 for a carry-on bag, up from the current fee of $45.

In 2010, Spirit became the first U.S. airline to impose a fee for carry-on bags.

The higher fee will be levied against passengers who wait until they reach the gate to pay the fee. The airline said it is raising the fee to discourage passengers from slowing the boarding process by waiting until the last minute to pay the fee.

"Our goal is for no customer ever to pay the $100 fee," Tony Lefebvre, chief operating officer for the airline, said in a statement

Spirit passengers who pay the carry-on bag fee online before getting to the airport will pay $35, an increase from the current $30 fee.

Airlines cutting shorter flights

If you're having a hard time finding short-haul flights to small and medium-size cities, it's not your imagination.

A new study by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that the elimination of thousands of flights of less than 500 miles is one result of the airline industry's efforts to prosper in the face of higher fuel costs and economic turbulence in the last few years.

Another strategy airlines have used to rebound from the dismal financial times that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession: Packing more passengers in bigger planes so that the chances of stretching out to an adjacent empty seat are almost nil.

The good news is that airlines have seen profits grow in the last few years, the report said. It noted that the nation's largest airlines earned about $5 billion in profits in 2011, compared with 2002 when the industry lost a combined total of $9.2 billion. In addition, the airlines have improved on-time performance and cut the number of canceled flights.

But the bad news for passengers is that five airlines now serve 85 percent of the market in the U.S., compared with 2000 when 10 airlines served more than 90 percent of the market. In addition, airlines have eliminated thousands of flights, especially short-haul flights using smaller planes.

Of the 457 airports in the country, 61 have lost half or more of the carriers serving their communities over the last five years. Meanwhile, the number of flights of less than 500 miles have been cut by 3,000 a day in that same period, according to the report.

The hardest hit cities have been Cincinnati, with a 63 percent cut in scheduled flights; Pittsburgh, with 40 percent fewer flights; and Memphis, with 35.5 percent fewer flights, according to the report.

"The industry's strategies of consolidating airlines, cutting flights and raising fares have produced positive financial results," the report concluded.

A spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation's airlines, said the industry has cut many domestic flights and reduced seating but only to better match demand.

Book 21 days ahead to save

Looking to save money on a flight? Your best bet is to book your flights 21 days before departure, according to a new study by the travel booking website Kayak.

Over a six-month period before departure, the average fare for a domestic flight is $370, according to a study of millions of flights booked by Kayak users. But that fare drops to its lowest level — $342 — when booked 21 days before departure, according to Kayak.

For international flights, the lowest fare can be booked 34 days before departure, when the average price is $977, compared with $1,016 for the six-month period before takeoff, the study said.

Other tips: If you're taking a quick domestic trip, you can save as much as 16 percent on an airfare by departing on a Saturday and returning Monday. For trips more a week long, you can save as much as 10 percent by leaving on a Tuesday and returning on a Wednesday.

For quick international flights, you can save 21 percent if you leave on a Tuesday and return the following Wednesday. For international trips longer than a week, you can save 9 percent if you leave on a Saturday and return on a Sunday.

Cheapair offers new flight search

If you think booking a flight online is too complex, CheapAir.com says it may have the solution for you.

The travel website recently unveiled a search feature that lets you type in your travel needs in a simple statement, instead of punching in destination, dates and times in several fields.

For example, people who use the feature, called Easy Search, can type in a sentence such as "L.A. to Newark on July 3, returning on the 10th." The software at the travel site will decipher the airport codes and calendar dates and display the flights that best fit your needs, according to CheapAir.

"Easy Search is one more thing we're doing differently than the competition to make it easier to book travel arrangements," said Jeff Klee, chief executive of CheapAir.

Still, there may be one easier way to book travel: Call a travel agent.

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