Thursday, February 16, 2017

North America's Hello Kitty Plane moves from Houston to Chicago

Last year I tried to fly to Taipei on EVA Air's Hello Kitty plane, but a last-minute equipment change foiled my plans. According to EVA's website, the service is moving to Chicago starting 31 May 2017.

Poor Houston space kitty!
  • Flight BR55 departs Chicago at 00:30 and has the Kitty plane Thu, Sat, and Mon
  • Flight BR56 departs Taipei at 19:50 and has the Kitty plane Wed, Fri, Sun
Official schedule (click to enlarge)
EVA operates a bunch of co-branded Sanrio planes, a route list is here. The new Gudetama plane sounds awesome – I saw it on the tarmac in Taipei when we were there last. But at this point I don't have any concrete plans to go back to Asia in 2017 😢


Other links

Fun stuff we did in Taipei

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

United Polaris = Overpromise, Underdeliver

Lots of people have been asking me about United Polaris so I decided to put a few thoughts down...

United is pouring millions of advertising dollars to tell the world about their new Polaris Class. Essentially they're ditching long-haul international First Class in favor of a "Business Class Plus" experience and giving it a catchy name. Very seldom have I had so many non-plane geek friends bringing up a new product with me the way I have with Polaris – so kudos to their marketing department for reaching a whole new audience with this vision.

But there are a few problems:

1. The nice new seats from the commercials won't be fully installed until 2021

Yes, that's right, you can book a Polaris flight right now, but the only Polaris thing about your flight will be new catering, the bedding, and the amenity kit. You'll still have the same old seat, same old interiors, and same old lounges (unless you're flying through Chicago where the lone Polaris lounge is).

The first plane with the Polaris interior has been delivered from Boeing, but it's still on training runs and won't be in regular service until nearly a year after Polaris was announced. (And did I mention that on the Polaris 777s, they're shoving in an extra seat per row in Economy?)

And pity the poor uneducated Polaris enthusiast who just randomly buys a United international Business Class ticket after seeing the commercial and ends up in their ratty 2-4-2 seating config on their 777s...

United's current 6-abreast 777 Business Class

2. The seats look nice but aren't exceeding their domestic or international rivals

Delta's new ONE product has closing-door suites, as does JetBlue Mint. I'd say the Polaris seats are comparable to the new American Airlines Flagship First... maybe a bit more innovative, but they're more densely-spaced than American's seats.

Polaris (left), AA's Flagship First

If you've ever seen Singapore's Suites Class, or the Etihad Apartment (let's not even mention The Residence!), then you'll know that the Polaris seats are a league below their international competitors' First Class products.

The come out a bit more favorably against international carriers who don't offer a First Class above their Business Class cabin. I'd say the seats are generally on par with EVA Airlines Royal Laurel Business Class, or JAL's 787 Sky Suite.

Etihad's First Class Apartment

3. Enthusiastic, committed staff are crucial, but I'm not hopeful on that front

We all talk a lot about seats, but for me, if I have a flat bed and Wi-Fi the rest of the stuff is just gravy. So why do I always try to fly international carriers instead of American ones on competing routes? The staff. With very few exceptions, the staff on foreign carriers are much more friendly, helpful, and actually diligent at performing their duties than their American counterparts.

United is going to be leaning heavily on their staff to make Polaris feel posh for the next 5 years while the planes and lounges are being slowly rolled out and that's just not one of their strong spots.

conclusions and conjecture

At first glance this rollout doesn't make much sense, but the longer I think about it, this is what I think its main goals are:
  • Bamboozle people. Lucky has a hilarious story about a Forbes reporter who reviewed United's existing First Class seat and totally thought it was the new Polaris one (Forbes had to pull the story once the public pointed out the error). If you can fool Forbes' reporters and editors, you can probably fool some portion of the public.
  • Keep United frequent fliers excited about the airline. People saving their miles for premium cabin flights must by definition have a longer-term strategy towards travel. Just knowing that the new Polaris experience will available in the medium-term might be enough to keep them excited about sticking with United Mileage Plus. Many younger/tech companies have travel portals that let employees choose their own airlines and flights, so employee captivity isn't what it used to be.
  • Create a halo effect for the whole United brand. If they can convince the general public that they've genuinely created an amazing new class of service, then it might convince people that their Economy class and airport experience has also been thoughtfully redesigned as well. Sadly all they're likely to find there are the aforementioned narrower seats and the "invention" of Basic Economy fares where you get no carry-on luggage and you're in boarding group 23. But United's been courting the bloggers left and right, and they've been cooing and blowing kisses in exchange for all of the exclusive access and attention.
  • Stall. JetBlue is rumored to be launching transatlantic service. Norwegian is rapidly expanding their operations across the Americas, so is WOW. British Airways is slashing costs and amenities to compete on price, Lufthansa is removing a huge chunk of its international First Class seats... The international travel landscape could look very different 5 years from now and having such a slow roll-out of the product might let them alter their plans if they decide that the future is more like Spirit and less like ANA.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Twitter is your friend

I (mostly) hate Twitter. Despite all of it's obvious problems, I find it especially horrifying to see respectable writers forced into to spelling "your" as "ur". But despite all that it's still one of the best ways to get customer service these days.

Recently Alaska Airlines and Virgin America merged, and I'd read several reports that customers were getting 10,000 bonus Alaska miles upon linking their points accounts with both airlines. I linked my accounts and moved all of my Virgin points into my Alaska account but never saw any bonus. I waited a month or so and then tweeted @AlaskaAir to inquire about it. They replied the same day in a private window asking for my account details and a day later 10,000 points showed up!

It never hurts to ask…

Another thing I'll mention as I stare out at a foot of snow on the ground: definitely use Twitter if you want to know the precise moment that travel fee-waivers are issued due to bad weather. Our story from Mexico last year nearly repeated itself this year.

I've tried 3 times now to get credit on Delta for my China Airlines flight via their customer service website and I've still had no luck. I'm actually going to take to Twitter today to see if I have any more luck doing it that way.


Monday, January 23, 2017

AT&T's new International Day Pass

AT&T announced a new international roaming option today called International Day Pass. Long story short: it's probably not worth it. I was really hoping that they'd overhaul their plans to include free 2G data like T-mobile, and then have something like this day pass to get 24 hours of high-speed internet. Or perhaps keep their existing passport plans and simply say "your speed drops to 2G once you've used up all your plan megabytes.

  • You pay $10 per day, per device to access the data pool in your US plan, so you're still chewing through your megabytes back home while you roam
  • At that pricing, a two-week vacation for two people is a $280 supplement on top of your bill
  • As friends pointed out me, though, this might be a great plan if you're traveling alone on a short trip, and you're a heavy user on an unlimited plan back in the US
  • Renting a Mi-Fi in most countries is $5 a day and you can share that data with your travel companions
  • There are further terms and conditions which limit your total international data per month and may require you to view down-sampled video 
  • Recently more and more smartphones are being sold without carrier locks, so it's much easier to rent a local SIM card for mobile data while traveling.
  • T-Mobile's plans allow for free 2G roaming, which is usually good enough to look something up when you're away from Wi-Fi. I've used it in England, Scotland, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines and have only really had trouble on Boracay, but that appeared to be primarily because of poor cellular coverage in general. 

My tips for cellular roaming abroad

Thursday, January 12, 2017

JetBlue makes streaming Wi-Fi free for everyone

JetBlue was a little late to the in-flight Wi-Fi game – early on they said that they were waiting for the much faster second-generation options to become available. I also think they expected their DirecTV to tide people over while they waited.

I've used their "Fly-Fi" internet on many of their flights and it's fast and free – like 10x faster than the GoGo option that most other carriers have but it still didn't allow you to stream video. For that they offered an un-throttled paid Wi-Fi option that was fast enough to stream Netflix, Hulu, and the like.

Well, JetBlue put out a big press release yesterday that seems very oddly-worded, so allow me to rephrase it: JetBlue now offers streaming-speed Wi-Fi for free on all of their flights. The pay option is gone. This might completely change what I watch on board...

They also made a point to mention that it works even when the plane is on the ground, which is nice considering how crummy my reception often is on many airport tarmacs.

JetBlue now has DirecTV at every seat AND free streaming-speed Wi-Fi

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Finally found a way to earn bonus points at

I'm not a huge Amazon customer mostly because I try to buy as much as I can from the amazing Essex Market near my house. It's a slice of old school New York that's still hanging on and I want it to be around forever. But there are lots of times when I need something they don't carry, and since I have zero loyalty to the dozen local Walgreens I could walk to, I'll buy online.

One of the nice parts of buying online is that you can use shopping portals to get airline points from your purchases on top of whatever points your credit card gives you for the purchase. The EV Reward website lets you comparison shop which portal is offering the highest bonus for a given merchant. It may seem small, but it adds up – last year I earned 50,000+ points with shopping portal bonuses.
EV Reward results for Macy's (click to enlarge) 

Unfortunately basically never partners with any of these portals (I'm guessing they want you to use their own Amazon credit card if you want rewards). But there are those times when Amazon's price and availability means that zero bonus is still the best option.

Recently, though, JetBlue announced that they're offering 3x points per dollar when you shop on Amazon via their affiliate link. To get your JetBlue bonus points:

  • Log in to your TrueBlue account, 
  • go to the TrueBlue home screen if you're not already there,
  • click Our Partners, 
  • then Amazon, 
  • then Click Shop and Earn

This passes a unique token to Amazon so you get your JetBlue bonus for your purchase. The token expires after 24 hours and you'll have to repeat the process if you want to buy more. It doesn't work for their mobile app.

Monday, January 9, 2017

I just converted my Virgin points to Alaska points...

Alaska's buyout of Virgin became official last year. The two airlines slowly merging operations and we've reached the point where you can transfer your Virgin points to Alaska points. Each Virgin point will get you 1.3 Alaska points. Make sure you have your logins for both programs and then head here.

Once I clicked Confirm, it took about 10 minutes for the transfer to complete. There's also some talk over at The Points Guy that some people are getting 10,000 point bonuses as part of the points plan merger (that's not happened for me yet, though).

They're also reporting that you can now redeem Alaska miles for Virgin America flights...

UPDATE: and there's now a page (log in to your Alaska account before you click) where you can link your Alaska account to your Virgin one so if you have Elite status on one, you'll have status on the other.