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By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/29/2010 10:00:52 AM ET 2010-09-29T14:00:52

Free drinks. Room upgrades. Better restaurants. That’s what the travel industry thinks you want from your next travel experience.

American Airlines last week announced it would start serving Admirals Club lounge visitors free drinks, adding that it decided to make the move because it’s “committed to investing in enhancing the travel experience for its loyal customers.”

Priceline, meanwhile, announced the launch of a free new service on its site that lets future hotel guests search its database of published-price hotels for all kinds of valuable hotel freebies. (Customers who “name their own price”, however, will still face surprise parking charges and resort fees that add to the cost of their prepaid room.)

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Also, details of Royal Caribbean’s highly anticipated Allure of the Seas leaked out. Among the ship’s planned amenities will be a Brazilian churruscaria restaurant and the first Guess store at sea.

But is that what travelers really want? Perhaps not.

A 2006 survey conducted by travel distribution company Amadeus offered a surprise answer: It isn’t frills or cheap tickets, but value that travelers are looking for. In some cases, they are even willing to pay more to get a better product.

But it could be even simpler, say experts: The travel industry could start by taking a few things away.

For airlines, giving passengers what they want could mean ending what’s been called the “commoditization” of airfares. The concept — that an airline seat is not a service but an economic good that is essentially indistinguishable from one offered by a competitor — has been a driving force in the industry, according to experts. At some point after airline deregulation, carriers decided their economy class sections — and by extension, some might argue, their economy class passengers — were commodities.

“There is a very clear movement to evolve from commodity shopping to providing the consumer with a more personalized travel product and corresponding experience,” said Jim Davidson, the president and chief executive of Farelogix, a travel distribution systems company based in Miami.

In the meantime, passengers who want to avoid the being treated like a commodity can book a ticket on a carrier like Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airlines, which offer a more inclusive product, according to industry observers.

Hotels face similar pressures as airlines. Many have responded by unbundling their rates — taking items that used to be included in the price of a room and charging a la carte. For example, access to the pool or hotel gym used to be part of the room rate, but at some properties is added later, as a mandatory “resort” fee of between $10 and $30 a night. Some don’t even bother with an explanation. And even the properties that don’t charge mandatory resort fees will add a “concierge” or “bellhop” fee or even a surcharge for the minibar or safe (which they do not guarantee will keep your valuables safe).

A recent J.D. Power and Associates guest satisfaction survey suggests a backlash against fees, with a majority of hotel guests expecting amenities such as wireless Internet access to be included in the price of the room. Until hotels rebundle their rates, experts suggest trying an all-inclusive resort, like Jamaica-based Couples Resorts, or an American chain hotels like Residence Inn and Homewood Suites.

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Increasingly, the cruise industry is sailing away from the all-inclusive vacation concept and turning it into a trip to the mall, say observers. The further the cruise industry drifts away from that, by introducing ships with waterslides and rock climbing walls, the further it moves away from the product most travelers think of when they think of cruising. A recent survey by travel insurance company TravelGuard found that cruise passengers were happier with their floating vacation than their land-based getaways, but that they looked for value and adventure, not over-the-top amenities.

Fortunately, not every cruise line feels bigger is better. Viking River Cruises or Avalon Waterways may make you feel more connected with the ocean you’re sailing on. If you’re looking for a more authentic cruise experience, experts suggest you downsize your cruise ship.

Car rental customers are also looking for value, and again, car rental companies believe that means they want low prices. And while industry observers say that’s true, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want the fees that are often added to it. Some forward-looking car rental executives see that. Asked about fees in a recent interview, Robert Barton, the chief operating officer for U-Save Car & Truck Rental and president of the American Car Rental Association, said he was opposed the creative pricing some car rental companies had embraced lately.

“My personal view is to charge a fair price for the product,” he said, adding that he was “adamantly opposed” to à la carte pricing.

Avoiding fees is difficult, for now, but many one tried-and-true method is getting a pre-paid voucher (by booking through Hotwire or Priceline) which ensures you’ll pay the rate you were quoted.

Adding an amenity or service is almost always good news for the traveling public, but sometimes, taking something away is even better.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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