Travel Maze: Beware Hotels Offering 'Convenient' Shuttle to Airport


There's usually only one reason to stay at an airport hotel -- convenience. Neighborhoods surrounding hotels are never top notch, unless you happen to be a fan of noise, pollution and traffic. Staying at the airport is all about a promise to get to and from your plane quickly and without undue stress.

Hop in the hotel shuttle bus and in a few minutes, you'll arrive at airport terminal, the theory goes. That's until your three minute ride turns into 13 minutes of nail-biting shuttle bus hell.

Unfortunately, when it comes to airport shuttle bus services, convenience is increasingly being trumped by cost-cutting.

I've found in my own recent travels that hotels near airports are "carpooling," so to speak. They are sharing their shuttles to save time and money for themselves, but not necessarily for you.

For example, I recently stayed at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, which is literally steps away from the terminal used by Southwest and US Airways, at Los Angeles International Airport. The Sheraton's ad trumpets its complimentary shuttle service that will take you to and from LAX, "which is minutes away." The commute is so close travelers often ditch the shuttle and walk, says the Sheraton's manager, Michael Washington.

So, if you get on the shuttle, it shouldn't take more than a minute or two, right?

You can imagine my annoyance when on a recent Sheraton shuttle ride, I watched the airport come into view, then quickly vanish in the rear-view mirror. It turns out we had to make several stops at other hotels to pick up waiting passengers before we arrived at the Southwest terminal. The total time of the entire trip was 13 minutes. Washington says I'm not the only hotel guest that has gotten "frustrated" at the lack of direct service.

A Familiar Tale of Cost-Cutting

Joseph A. McInerney, president and chief executive officer of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, says the culprit is the economic downturn, which has reduced hotel profits and forced chains to look for places to cut. He says hotel shuttle service has been one area that has been hit hard. He agrees that many business travelers find these carpooling arrangements frustrating and stressful -- especially as a hotels increasingly include hotels that are further apart on their shuttle bus routes.

My recent visit to the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel in Oregon certainly illustrates this trend. The hotel boasts on its website that it is located on the airport grounds and offers 24-hour complimentary shuttle service. What it doesn't mention is that this service is sometimes shared with the Aloft Hotel, which is off of the airport grounds. The shuttle driver on my trip informed me that the shuttle service would soon include a third off-airport hotel as part of a cost-saving measure by management.

He said business travelers complain all the time about this inconvenience. The manager at the Sheraton Portland Airport didn't return my phone call for his views on the matter.

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Take note: Don't expect any hotel to tell you in advance that their shuttle isn't non-stop. Hotels proudly advertise their free shuttle on their web site, but don't mention the less-than-express service.

Airport Traffic Also A Concern

Washington, the manager of the Sheraton at LAX, said his hotel shouldn't bear the full blame for cutting direct service. He maintains hotels are under pressure from airport officials to cut their number of van trips or face thousands of dollars of increased fees if they refused to abide.

"We realize the customer is upset, but we are trying to do our best to create a greener environment in partnership with the airport,'' he said.

Washington says his hotel is exploring restoring direct service. He concedes, however, that the cost of buying new vans and hiring more drivers may be too much. He says the hotel sold its vans around five years ago and hired an outside transportation company for the shared shuttle service.

Bill Wright, the manager of the Courtyard by Marriott at LAX said even offering a shared shuttle service can be very expensive. He says the hotel pays $21,000 per month for its shared van with the Sheraton and the Embassy Suites hotel at LAX.

What's A Traveler to Do?

Unfortunately, there is no way to opt out of the shared shuttle service when staying at a hotel at LAX. All the major hotels share shuttles.

But travelers can skip the shuttle. Take a cab to the airport -- surely you can expense it. Or, better yet, if there is a safe pedestrian route, walk to the airport. There are some hotels, the Marriott at the Tampa and Philadelphia airports and the Hyatt at the Orlando airport come to mind, that are connected directly to the airport terminal.

Wright said the challenge for hotels is to keep the customer happy despite the shared shuttle service. "We are in the hospitality business and if a customer has a bad experience on the shuttle, then it is viewed as an extension of the hotel,'' he said.

McInerney of the hotel and lodging association says things look brighter on the horizon, with forecasters predicting increased business travel. He predicts that as the economic recovery takes hold, many hotels will be back to offering direct shuttle service.

It certainly would be good news to hear the hospitality industry is actually focusing on hospitality.

Originally published