Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Consumer Advocacy Win

Update: Penny Parker at The Denver Post has written about this issue, crediting me with the shopping center's new disclosure of this fee.

I love to write.

I write about credit cards in my daily column for the blog at AskMrCreditCard.com.   I write about travel over at Blend.com, and I write about politics, travel, aviation, and consumer issues here at Steele Street.   The common thread here is that I am a consumer advocate.  The only think I hate more than getting ripped off, is seeing it happen to others.

So last week, I went out to for lunch to the Belmar Shopping Center in Lakewood Colorado.  I stopped in a restaurant that advertised a $8.99 sushi lunch.    When I received the bill, I was charged $9.21 plus tax.    On the bill was a 22 cent charge labeled "PIF".   I asked the waitress what "PIF" was, and she produced a leaflet indicating that the shopping center was requiring merchants to add 2.5% to every bill for it's Public Improvement Fund.   The leaflet also said that the fee was not a tax.  I double checked, and there was no disclosure of the fee anywhere in the restaurant or on the menu.

Now, 22 cents is not worth fighting over in a restaurant, and I did not.  They can call it anything they want, but the money that a merchant pays it's landlord is called rent.   22 cents isn't a lot, but the principal is important.   If the practice of adding an undisclosed surcharge to your restaurant bill becomes widespread, soon, every retailer will start advertising prices that don't include rent.   We have already seen businesses such as rental car companies and hotels adding surcharges for things like electricity, labor, and compliance with the law.   Do we really want every store to start adding an undisclosed surcharge to every purchase you make?  What's to stop them from adding a surcharge that better reflects their rent, such as 20% or 30%?

My response was to write the restaurant, the shopping center, the city of Lakewood, the Denver Post, and the Colorado Attorney General's office.     Before you wonder how much time I wasted on this, keep in mind that we are talking about two emails addressed to multiple recipients, and like I said, I love to write.

Today, I received a reply from the city, which approved a tax break for the shopping center as well as their PIF scheme.   In response to my efforts, they will now be requiring every merchant in the shopping center to prominently disclose this surcharge to all customers before their purchase.

You may consider this a small win for consumers, but if no one makes the effort, how long would it be until every retailer feels free to add whatever surcharge they feel like, and not tell you about it unless you question your receipt?

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Earlier this month, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Salvador Brazil.  We were going to be in Atlanta, so going even further south was not too inconvenient.

We actually considered visiting Ireland instead, and we would still like to.   One of the things that appeals to me about Ireland is it's incredible scenery and culture.   The fact that they speak English there is a bonus as well.    While the place has a reputation for being cold and rainy, it can be quite sunny and mild in the summer when places like Rome and Paris are just a bit too hot for my tastes.

When we looked at going to Ireland, the Euro was still pretty high, and things looked pretty expensive there.   Even a pint of Guinness was going for something like eight dollars!    Now, prices have come down a bit, and I was even able to find some great deals on Hotels in Dublin, with many under 100 Euros.

Here's to the Euro staying reasonably low, and my chances for visiting Dublin soon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Most of the time I spend in Florida has been in the Ft. Lauderday and West Palm Beach areas, primarily because that is where my family has been.   Lately, I have had a couple opportunities to fly through Miami, and I forgot how interesting of a place it can be.  Think if it like a Latin version of New York, as there are so many communities of people from places like Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Haiti and other exotic places.   Beyond Latin America there are large populations of Russians, Israelis, Vietnamese, and other Asian nations.  With the people, comes their food, music, and culture.

Even at the airport, we were able to take in some great Cuban food, not to mention some interesting people watching as passengers arrived and departed to every corner of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.    In the past, I have taken Holidays to Miami along with my family visits to check out the Coral Castles, Little Havana, and even some decent Israeli food on Miami Beach.    Certainly, the weather is always better there than in New York!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How To Find Cheap Airfare

There has been much written about finding the cheapest airfares.    Some people actually believe that the least expensive airfares can be found on certain days of the week, but I have never seen any evidence to back that up.  Others feel that there is a certain time of year when fares are the least expensive.

When I look for tickets, I first go to the websites of each of the airlines that fly the route non-stop.    Living in a city that major airline hub for three different airlines, I often have a wide selection of non-stop flights to most cities.  

Things get trickier when I am trying to fly somewhere that requires a change of planes.   At that point, I am forced to look at other web sites that offer airfares or even packages.    For example, here is a site that offers great deals to America for European travelers.    Never forget that it is often cheaper to get a package that includes hotel and airfare than it is to try to buy each service separately.

Finding A Great Hotel

I just returned from a trip to Brazil.   Naturally, I used frequent flier miles to get there, and we didn't need a car, so my biggest decision regarding the trip was finding a great hotel.    Fortunately, we came across the Pousada Redfish in the historic center of Salvador Brazil (Pousada is Pourtuguese for inn).   

How did we find it?   Lots of Googling, especially sites such as TripAdvisor.  It wasn't always that easy.   In 1998, a few years before the Internet was really what it is now, I went to London.   Naturally, I wanted to stay at one of the hotels in London city centre.    Somehow, I came across a little hotel a block or so from one of the major train stations.   It was expensive, and the room was just barely larger than the bed, but it worked.    I think that today I would have a much easier time.

Here are the criteria I would use today to select a hotel.   First, location is the most important thing.   You can save money by staying further away, but it is rarely worth it.    You will have to pay for gas or other public transportation, eating into your savings, but more importantly, you will be loosing time, the most valuable commodity in most vacations.    You went somewhere to experience the place, so why bother staying far away.    It is tiring to go back and forth between an city center and your hotel.   It is surprising how nice it is to return to your room during the day for a couple hours to read, shower, or just catch up on sleep after a long flight.

After narrowing down the location, search TripAdvisor for the best rated hotels in the area.   Read through some reviews of the ones you like.   I tend to dismiss reviews that are extremely positive with no drawbacks.   I also have to take bad reviews into account depending on the context.   For example, a hotel might get a bad review based solely on someone not liking the pool.   If I am visiting in the winter and the pool will not even be open, what do I care?

Finally, try to find the best deals out there on the hotels you like.    You might find a great deal on one of the large travel sites like Expedia, but don't forget to check out specialty travel sites as well.   Between resources such as TripAdvisor and all of the great Internet sites offering hotel deals, it is fairly easy to find great hotels anywhere in the world.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Amazing Story Of Life, Death, and Art At Denver International Airport

Denver International Airport (known as DIA) was built in the early 1990's with a mandate to include a broad variety of public art displays.   From my non-artist's point of view, their effort has been somewhat of a success.   Attentive visitors can enjoy moving sculptures along the walls of the tunnels of the people mover system.  Others might appreciate the murals in the terminal or the paper airplane sculptures hanging from the ceiling.  In total, there are 26 art exhibits that include works from 39 different artists.

One exhibit is stands out in many ways.   On the only access road to and from the airport, Pena Boulevard, about 1 mile from the terminal, stands a giant sculpture of blue horse.   It is meant to symbolize the spirit of the west, not to promote Denver's football team, the Broncos.   The horse is reared up on it's hind legs, it's muscles are well defined, and it has a pair of lights where it's eyes would be.

Some find it a bit scary.

This work of art is even more ominous when you consider how it got there.  In 1992, Denver commissioned this work from famed Latino artist Luis Jimenez.   When the airport opened in 1995, 16 months behind schedule, it's signature piece of art was still not ready.   In fact, it's story had hardly begun.  Over the next decade, the artist labored at his own pace to complete it, while successive city governments became annoyed, frustrated, and angry as each targeted completion date passed without the artist producing a finished work.   The delay culminated with the tragic events of June 13th, 2006.   On that day, a large piece of the sculpture broke free, landed on the artist, and killed him.

It would be impossible to imagine the story ending there.  The city found an artist who was able to rebuild and complete the sculpture.    It was finally delivered to Denver earlier in 2008.    This piece represents the final work of Luis Jimenez.    

As it stands now, it is actually illegal to pull over to admire the work.   Sadly, one can only appreciate it by driving down Pena Boulevard at 55 miles per hour.   It took 16 years to complete and cost the artist his life, and now you have only a few seconds to view it.