Saturday, February 28, 2009

That Rental Car Taxes Issue

First off, well done to all of you. The responses to my questions about the byzantine rental car tax structure were fascinating. There's a huge amount of discontent and confusion out there about this particular area of taxes. In fact, I can't think of another area of consumer taxes that is as hard to figure out (cell phone bills maybe?) as the rental car universe. Taxes on food, retail goods and even hotel rooms seem elementary and straight-forward in comparison. There's obviously a broader story to be done here and I'm going to get into it soon, I hope.

In the meantime, I received via email a few explanations for what's going on in the examples I provided. The most conclusive response came from Pamela Levins, who just heard of me last weekend (can you imagine!??!) when I appeared on a weekly local gay radio program for which, sadly, there is no podcast edition available.

Anyhow, Pam worked out a calculation that makes the figures in the screen shots of that earlier post make sense to the extent that anything so ridiculous can make sense. She also attached a PDF of her handwritten calculations for each of the five examples which do, in fact, show that it checks out. If you want to see that, I'll happily email it upon request.

Before we get to Pam's explainer, here's two of the screen shots -- this is National and then Avis -- I showed before so you don't have to go back and look:

And here's Pam's explanation and commentary:

I figured out how the rates are applied and then applied them in a consistent manner to all of the companies. Here are the steps:
  1. Take base rate
  2. Add 10.2% of the base rate - Concession Recovery Fee
  3. Add 2% of the subtotal of the base rate + 10.2% of the base rate (2% of (#1 + #2)) - Clark County Rental Fee
  4. Add 2% of the base rate (2% of just #1) - Registration Recovery Surcharge
  5. Add 2% of the base rate (2% of just #1) a second time - Nevada Recovery Surcharge
  6. Add 6% of the subtotal of the base rate + 10.2% of the base rate (2% of (#1 + #2)) - Nevada Government Service Fee
  7. Add 7.75% of the subtotal of the base rate + the Concession Recovery Fee + Clark County rental Fee (7.75% of (#1 + #2 + #3)) - Clark County Sales Tax
  8. Add $9.00 ($3.00/day) - Customer Facility Charge
It does appear that all five companies followed these steps, but it would have been nice if they presented their calculations in a manner in which a consumer could follow the math. So, I don't think the rates are different from company to company. When Avis said the Concession recovery Fee was 10%, they had to be rounding in language only (they didn't think you or I would actually question them) since it appears they used 10.2%.

Although the companies don't appear to be deliberately overcharging, a couple of them did collect a little more than they should have, but they would probably tell us it was due to rounding. If one company rounds at each subtotal (stopping between calculations) while another keeps a running total in their calculator and only rounds at the end, then there will be a discrepancy. I guess the question would be, are the "extra" taxes collected by the dissimilar rounding techniques kept by the rental car company or paid to the government agencies that are collecting the taxes?

This is exactly why I don't let my mortgage company pay my taxes and insurance. I do it myself. Even a small overcharge to a consumer can turn out to a great deal of money when you multiply by the total number of consumers.

"Oh well, it's just the tourists getting overcharged" is not true, because all of us are tourists at some point. This is a Consumer Affairs issue. The companies should have to present their figures in a set format ... like lending forms (APRs) and labelling formats. However, this might cost some of these companies a great deal of money to revamp their computer systems. What I'd like to know is if there are are random audits of these companies by the governmental agencies collecting the taxes to verify the figures?

Thanks to Pam for this. I do wonder if anyone can answer this question in the comments section from luckydonut:

Hertz recently tried to sting me on a "Location Service Charge", which was listed as included in a prepaid rental and then charged to my credit card again after I returned the car. I got this refunded but as I queried the bill in detail, this was also part of their response: "The remaining charge on your invoice is $57.88USD. This charge is for the Additional Driver and also 15.75% Tax on top of the charge." 15.75% - any guesses?

For all the talk in DC of a passenger's bill of rights for air travelers, I do wonder if there's enough confusion and outrage out there for someone to demand car rental companies provide better accounting for their charges and the taxes and fees they collect.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

This week's LVW Col: Sun Dance Festival

Here's this week's LVW piece, from my exclusive visit to a recent round of Cirque du Soleil dance auditions. I'll have more pictures up later from the same and maybe some video.

Sun Dance Festival

Cirque du Soleil is far more than acrobatics, as a recent audition proved


In a dance studio south of the Strip earlier this month, a long table of casting personnel—in this Dancing With the Stars era I so want to call them judges—sat at attention in a large mirrored room where an impeccably built young dancer named Mas slithered about in nothing but extremely tight blue underwear.

Mas was trying his hand at an improvisational dance number with music he’d never heard before. With every turn and beat, he felt over his bare body or shook out his tight, barely concealed bottom or did something else intended to fulfill the command of casting director Krista Monson to give her something seductive.

When the music (unfortunately) stopped, he stood there catching his breath—did I mention he was now glistening with sweat in addition to being nearly naked?—waiting for Monson to offer some feedback. And happily for those enjoying Mas’, uh, work, she wanted him to do it again, only this time, she said, he was to add some menace to the seduction act. “This character, you’re never sure if he wants to kill you or ... he wants to fuck you,” she said.

Monson seemed to enjoy Mas’ second effort, but just as quickly as he was at the center of her world, he was moved off to the side so a succession of equally attractive men and women could strut before her, all of them having flocked here from across the United States and even from overseas for a chance of landing a job at one of the most significant dance companies in the world.

That company: Cirque du Soleil.

Of course, it wasn’t always thus, and you’re forgiven if it wasn’t at the top of your list. For most of my career covering Las Vegas, I’ve described Cirque variously as “the Canadian acrobatic” or “human circus” troupe or some other similar construct.

Yet with each of its newest shows in Las Vegas—Love, Criss Angel Believe and the still-unnamed Elvis-scored production opening in December at Aria—the company has become a new force in the world of modern dance.

Read the rest at this LasVegasWeekly.Com link.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Can Someone Explain This To Me?

I was looking to rent a car at McCarran for a visiting friend and went to various websites for prices. For some reason -- and I never do this -- I looked carefully at what the taxes are that people coming to Las Vegas pay for their car rentals.

The numbers don't add up. Would somebody with a good math brain help me out? The guiding figure here is supposed to be the base rate, right? You don't pay taxes on other taxes, do you?

Take National, for instance. The base rate for this reservation is $145.77. Here's the tax breakdown that they provide:

See the Sales Tax line? It says it's 7.75 percent, but $12.68 on $145.77 is actually 8.70 percent. And why are three 2 percent taxes listed here but the third one is different and actually works out to 2.2 percent? And how about that 6 percent "Nv Gvt Svc Fee"? At $9.64, you're being charged 6.6 percent.

This also seems to be the case for Alamo, owned by the same company. Here's their breakdown on a base rate of $125.70.

Again, the amount charged for sales tax is actually 8.7 percent of the base rate, the third 2 percent tax is actually a 2.2 percent tax and the Nv Gvt Svc Fee listed as 6 percent is actually 6.6 percent of the base rate.

In neither case does the breakdown indicate what percentage the Concession Recovery Fee is supposed to be. Yet on this breakout from Avis, It says it's 10 percent.

Going back to do that math on National and Avis, then, we see that those companies are charging 10.2 percent. And although the list of taxes looks a little different here, in both the Alamo/National and Avis cases, assuming a 10 percent rate for the Concession Recovery Fee, the total rate in both cases comes to 29.75. (This does not include the $3/day "facility charge" because that is based per day and not as a percentage.)

But take another look at what Avis charges for the only thing it breaks out alone, the 9.75 percent "tax." They charge $18.89 on a base rate of $167.97. But that's actually 11.25 percent, not 9.75 percent.

How about Hertz? Here's their breakdown, which omits any indication of any percentages. The base rate here is $208.47.

What do we see? Well the good news is that the "Gov Service Fee" that we were told in the other breakdowns is supposed to be 6 percent turns out to be... 6 percent of the base rate. But other than that, Hertz' breakdowns are baffling and vague. The "Airport Concession Fee Recovery" fee is 10.4 percent of the base rate and the undefined "Taxes" line comes to 11.2 percent of the base. These figures have no evident relation to any specific taxes.

I tried Thrifty. Here's what happened over there:

Once again, the numbers are off. A 4 percent charge on a $124.05 base charge, for instance, ought to come to $4.96, not $5.32. A 7.75 percent state tax ought to come to $9.61, not $10.31.

In fact, the only tax in Thrifty's summary that is accurate is the 10 percent "APT Access Rec Fee" -- it really is $12.40 on a $124.05 charge. (Actually, if we were rounding up, it would've been $12.41, but they gave us the penny.) I'm starting to think that's because most people can actually calculate a 10 percent charge in their head and they wouldn't want us to spot these overcharges too easily.

What all five have in common is that their stated taxes, which in some cases are bunched together and called different things, comes to a total tax rate of 29.75 percent plus the $3/day facility charge.

And yet, here are the actual percentages of the base rate charged in each case, again leaving off the $3/day facility charge:

Avis: 32.25 percent
Hertz: 31.6 percent
National: 31.7 percent
Alamo: 31.7 percent
Thrifty: 31.98 percent

What am I missing here? How can these rates be different from one company to the next?

Anybody out there have any thoughts? Are these companies deliberately overcharging taxes and keeping the extra? The fact that that 10 percent charge in the Thrifty computation works out correctly when applied to the base rate would seem to kill the theory that the percentages aren't based on the base rate. And, anyway, what else would they be based upon?

Don't know about you, but my head hurts.

Introducing The Luxor Hostel-Casino!

You've gotta be kidding. I understand that times are tough. But I'm just not sure that pushing $9-a-night sardine-packed rooms is exactly the right way to go.

The funny thing is, I remember Luxor President Felix Rappaport, in explaining to me the approach to adding all the cool new attractions to the hotel (LAX, Company, Criss Angel Believe, Cathouse, etc), saying that the historic problem with the property was that people stayed there but didn't use the place. The word he used to describe such an enterprise? Dormitory. And yet, five-to-a-room starts to sound a bit like a dorm, too, doesn't it?

That said, I'm not sure this offer is an honest one anyway. What they're saying is that you can book the cheapest rooms available and not pay the surcharge of $30 for having more than two guests in a room.

Yet I've been through the calendar and I've tried and tried to get the lowest rate available when putting in that I want to have 4 people in the room. (It doesn't allow you to put in more than 4, despite the special offer.) Every time I search for a room that sleeps 4, the rooms I'm told are available are the larger, more expensive ones. See?

I tried over and over throughout the offer period, which runs from February 25 to November 30. You give it a go. Not one single time did the system offer me the least expensive room if I said I wanted to house four people. I thought maybe that was because they wouldn't let me have four or five people in a room that doesn't have two queen beds and that all the 2-queen rooms are more expensive, but that's not the case, either. The cheapest rooms can come with two queens.

So this promotion fails on two fronts. First, it makes the Luxor sound like a youth hostel. And two, the offer being promoted doesn't actually exist the way its being promoted.

[Hat tip to Matt in Boca for this one.]

New Episode Is UP

While we're waiting for the LVRocks.Com studio to return to functioning -- soon, we're promised! -- we're using this hiatus to post some interviews and conversations that never made it onto the show for whatever reason. This is with Ricci Martin, for instance, fell victim to the fact that I just had too many good interviews in the can at the time and so I didn't get this onto the show before Martin's concert in Vegas last year. I kept waiting for him to be back in town, but it hasn't happened yet.

Either way, Dino's kid offers up some great anecdotes about Sinatra and Old Vegas and some thoughts on the children of celebrities.

Download it by right-clicking here or subscribe via iTunes here or via Zune here.

Transgender Regret

Here's my latest from USA Today, a look in today's paper at the struggles of transgender people who, for various reasons, change their minds about their transitions. I'm astonished -- but not surprised -- by the cruel comments (not aimed at me) in the reaction section. It's a very tricky and complicated subject, and I've never quite understood why so many people must have such simplistic, compassionless views of complex matters.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Will You NOT Come To Vegas...

...if it costs you 3 percent more per room night?

The Nevada Assembly today by a 35-7 passed a room-tax increase of 3 percent for Washoe and Clark counties. The move is supposed to raise $233 million for the cash-strapped state.

Lots of Republicans voted in support and even Gov. Jim Gibbons, a read-my-lips kinda guy himself, has included the money in his budget. But some of the seven who voted against it think this will further doom the tourism industry. To wit, the AP reported:

"Our tourism-based economy here in Nevada is hemorrhaging jobs," said one of the GOP opponents, Assemblyman Ty Cobb of Reno. "I think it's going to hurt rather than help."

Look for the R-J editorial board tomorrow to praise the seven dissenters and predict doom. But I ask you, since so many of you readers here are tourists: Would you really not come here if your $100 room cost $3 more?

Just wondering. The State Senate still has to vote on this.

Amateur Three Minutes Runs Amok!

I swear I was going to leave this be for now, I really was. I'd had my fun and now it was time give the fine folks at RJTV a fighting chance to refine their product. But then I got a note from a prominent journalist urging me to take a look at today's edition of the daily news program.

So I did. And I'll say right now that it's difficult to know what part of this mess someone might find bizarre and blogworthy.

As I started watching, I wondered if my attention was being drawn to the fact that on RJTV, over-the-shoulder graphics get placed ON Nate Tannenbaum's shoulder by people unclear on the concept. You know, like this:

Not great, but hardly the worst sin. I mean, it's not like anyone's ever done this sort of programming before anywhere ever, right? Give them a break! They're inventing a wheel here. It takes practice!

So I kept watching. A few moments later, I was sure I had unearthed the priceless nugget to which I had been led when accused child rapist Chester Stiles, uh, ate Nate. Here's a digital flipbook, if you will:

Poor Nate! And poor Dude Who Didn't Know How Stupid That Looked And Published It On The Website Of A Professional Newspaper. Well, not poor DWDKHSTLaPIotWoaPN. He's got a job, as baffling as that may seem.

But ultimately, I really don't think that's why I was pointed to this thing today. I'm fairly certain my friend wanted me to see the R-J's publisher, Sherm Frederick, popping into the studio direct from the golf course and perhaps in need of a stronger SPF product.

Sherm was there to offer up a profound little life lesson: Capitalism = Good. The segment is not labeled as opinion, but that's probably DWDKHSTLaPIotWoaPN's fault anyway. The publisher, whom I assume has given more than a few public speeches in his time, nonetheless delivers his lines like that Boom Goes The Dynamite kid, leading us into a lengthy 30-year-old clip of economist Milton Friedman telling Phil Donahue that greed is good. Then it's back to Sherm to conclude -- and this is all he says before it's time for Yesterday's Weather Forecast Today -- "Well, here we are pondering these same issues in 2009." Sure we are if you're the R-J's editorial board and you believe any advocacy whatsoever on behalf of government intervention in a devastated economy is the equivalent of giving up altogether on capitalism. To the rational people, though, these matters are a little less black and white.

Mostly, though, I'm horrified by what this actually shows us. RJTV is not intended to inform, it is intended to become a soap box for a vainglorious newspaper publisher! Next week, maybe he'll condescend to explain why murder is bad, no matter what that growing legion of pro-murder activists say!

Evidently there just isn't enough news to smear all over ol' Nate's face.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Boyd Buying Station?!?

I don't understand. Boyd's stock is at $3.40 a share. They've halted construction on Echelon. And now they've sent a "non-binding preliminary indication of interest" indicating they want to buy a whole bunch of Station Casinos properties for $950 million in cash? The letter says Boyd has $2 billion in liquidity.

It's times like these I'm glad I'm not on the Vegas Gang podcast. I'm not qualified.

Vdara, Aria Start Taking Reservations

And so it begins. MGM Mirage today unleashed fully operational websites for Vdara, which opens Oct. 1, and Aria, which opens Dec. 16, two of the hotel-related components of CityCenter. Next to come online should be the Mandarin Oriental, which is supposed to also open in December.

At the hotel-condo Vdara, the smallest suites -- and they're all called "suites" even though it appears there's only one room, borrowing from the fraud that the Venetian started -- are 582 square feet, have "fully equipped gourmet kitchens" and start at $214 pre-taxed on that opening evening. For $40 more, they offer "pool view" "lake view" rooms, which makes me wonder (a) what kind of views you get from the other basic suites are ("interstate view" doesn't have a ring to it?) and (b) whether there'll be a TV channel where you can pipe in the Bellagio Fountains music when the show's on. Right now, there's no price difference between a lake view and non-lake view room. Either way, this is what you get:

Here's what they show for a rendering of the Vdara suite, which goes for $315 on opening night and boasts 809 square feet:

It's an odd image inasmuch as there's some sort of red MGM Mirage sign in the window reflection. I'm at a loss to figure out what the artist was trying to say there. Subliminal marketing?

I'm also trying to figure out what's going on in this bathroom shot from the 1,316-square-foot Two-Bedroom Penthouse. (Prices not online, booking not permitted via web.) It looks like those are windows behind the sinks, so what's a shower doing out there suspended in mid-air?

See? There it is again in this photo for the $400, 836-square-foot Panoramic Suite -- windows over the sink. Where do I look when I'm shaving if there's no mirror there? Odd, right?

Here's what the two-story, one-bedroom 948-square-foot Penthouse Suite will look like. If it's two stories and less than 1,000 square feet, that actually strikes me as sort of cramped. But I like look.

The real steal seems to me to be the $149 rates currently available for the night of Dec. 16. If the rest of CityCenter really does open that night, that's going to be an incredible rate to be at the center of all the action.

Also, you can't book at Aria for Dec. 16, at least not yet. The hotel-casino's site only allows you to start booking for Dec. 17. At that point, this is what the basic 520-square-foot room, now priced at $299, looks like:

I am most curious about the Sky Suites and SkyVillas, clearly Aria's version of the SkyLofts at MGM Grand. Here's the image they've got available now...

...and the description:

An alternative-fuel limousine whisks you from the airport to an exclusive arrival under a private porte cochere. Immediately, you are escorted into a separate lobby for your private check-in. Then, after enjoying a drink and hors d'oeuvres in the exclusive ARIA Sky Suites lounge, a private elevator takes you to one-of-a-kind accommodations with custom furnishings, unparalleled amenities, and soaring floor-to-ceiling windows providing dramatic views of the world's most famous skyline.

Nice. Now, let's just hope there's someone with some money to spend on this stuff by the time these places are scheduled to open.