Monday, December 15, 2014

*Sad Trombone* Kimpton is being acquired by IHG

I generally prefer B&Bs to big hotel chains, but if I do have to stay in a hotel, I just stay at a Kimpton if one is available. They're reasonably priced, each one is unique, they have free wifi if you sign up for their loyalty program, there's decent free coffee in the lobby in the morning, free wine in the lobby before dinner, emergency condoms in the amenity kit, and some of them have free loaner bicycles.

Welp, it looks like they just got acquired by IHG. All discussions of hotel points aside, any time a small, unique, innovative, tightly-run business gets acquired, all of the things that made it unique and attractive are the first things that get cut. Maybe it'll be different this time, but I doubt it. 

Thankfully Virgin is launching a hotel chain, so at least there's a new entrant to that space... 

YESSS! Amex transfer bonus to British Airways is back!

For the past few years, Amex has offered a monthly(ish)-long promo where you get bonus points when you transfer Amex Preferred Rewards points to British Airways. They don't publish a schedule, so whenever the first of the year rolls around people start speculating if, when, and how long the bonus will be this year.

Well wait no longer! Until 31 January 2015, you get a 40% bonus when transferring.

I'm still waiting to get more information about my brother's spring party in Tokyo, so I'll probably wait a bit before transferring anything. The main beauty of transferrable point cards like Amex Premier Rewards and Chase Sapphire is that you can transfer them, usually instantly, to an airline Frequent Flyer plan when you've found available award seats. It lets you keep points in a "neutral" place until right before you need them, and you can usually transfer into most of the big airline alliances so they're a great defense against getting tricked into loyalty to a single carrier



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Virgin launching a hotel chain

UPDATE: it's open now! review here.

I'm not a big hotel person. Most travelers roll their eyes at people who go to another country and then eat at McDonald's, but that's kind of how I feel about people who travel and stay at a Hilton, Westin, or other big hotel chain.
Ideally I stay with someone local. My favorite thing about traveling is seeing people's day-to-day lives and taking part in it. If that's not an option I'll look for a small B&B or guest house so I have the chance to get to know the proprietors. If that's not an option, I'll look at AirBnB. Failing that, then I look to a local pension. 

If I end up having to stay at a big chain hotel, I just stay at a Kimpton if one is available. They're reasonably priced, each one is unique, they have free wifi if you sign up for their loyalty program, there's decent free coffee in the lobby in the morning, free wine in the lobby before dinner, emergency condoms in the amenity kit, and some of them have free loaner bicycles.

Today Virgin announced their first hotel - on East Lake and Wacker in Chicago. I love flying Virgin and I hope they bring some of their magic to the hotel scene. They're currently offering double bonus Virgin Elevate points for stays between Jan 15 and March 31, 2015.

I've always loved the grown-up, "continental" attitude towards their customers that Virgin takes, and I'm glad to see they've extended that to the hotel chain:



The rooms will also feature TVs that support streaming from your mobile devices and laptops, "street price" minibars, a fully-integrated mobile app for interacting with the hotel, and a set of privacy doors so the person in bed isn't exposed to room door unless they want to be.











Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Delta rebranding their cabins

Delta announced that they're re-branding all of their cabins. I've complained talked about about this in the past and today's changes are even more obfuscated than before. As I've said in the past, use SeatGuru when you're shopping so you know what you're paying for!

Basic Economy - even shittier than Economy, you won't earn miles, can't pick your seat, and no changes are permitted

Main Cabin - Virgin America has used this phrasing for their Economy Class for a long time now, I wonder if that had any influence on Delta's choice here.

Delta Comfort+ - I think Premium Economy has a different name on every single airline. Again, they're copying Virgin in that they're including free drinks, better food, and free movies along with the extra 4" of legroom. Let's hope they don't copy Virgin's ridiculous pricing to buy these seats.

First Class - The standard USA domestic first you've seen for years. 38" recliner seats, usually with free drinks and a meal. This is what I commonly refer to as "Crappy Domestic First". Delta currently refers to this as Business Class. Unlike most other airlines, Delta prices their Crappy Domestic First reasonably, so hopefully this change won't make it hard to know what I'm getting when I price shop on Kayak.

Delta One - The new name for their Fancy First Class. This is usually on long-haul flights to Asia and Europe, as well as flights between JFK and SFO/LAX. If you're flying to Latin America, South America, or Hawaii, make sure you check Seat Guru... I'm guessing Delta One will only be on a small handful of flights to those markets.


Monday, December 8, 2014

La Compagnie

Back in June I mentioned La Compagnie – an all-Business Class airline brought to you by the same folks who founded Openskies. Six months later, they're still in business with their one Newark - Paris route.

They've just announced a new route to London (the press release makes it sound like it'll be to Gatwick).

I've not flown them before, but I did fly Openskies back when it was an all-Business Class airline and I liked it. The big pro with these flights is that they give me cheap access to the one thing I want most: a seat I can comfortably sleep in. In La Compagnie's case, $2600 for TWO roundtrip Business Class tickets is unheard of. It's cheaper than many big airlines' economy tickets. They also offer pre-departure lounge access and, because they're french, the onboard liquor won't be a disappointment :)

There are, of course, downsides. If anything goes wrong with the plane, well… they don't have any other planes to put you on. You don't earn any miles (which is fine by me since I'm not chasing status) and yeah, I kinda hate Newark. Maybe once the PATH train is done it won't be so bad, but until then, ugh. Also, the seats are the last-generation angled-flat seats, but lots of fancy airlines (hello, Lufthansa and JAL) are still flying this product today.

Lucky has a great trip report here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Buying up to the next elite tier...

Yes, I often rail about how airline loyalty is meaningless these days as airlines gut their elite benefits and keep raising the bar on all of the tiers. But for some people (e.g., people who fly a lot for work) it makes sense to try and make elite status if for no other reason than having a shot at a slightly less miserable year in the air next year.

I'm often surprised how many of my friends who fly 50,000+ miles per year for work often have very little idea about how mileage plans work. Though to be fair, I think the airlines do their best to make sure that the rules are as difficult as possible to understand.

With that said, I just wanted to point out that typically in December, airlines will let you directly buy Elite Qualifying Miles/Dollars to top off your account and ensure that you make the next tier up for next year.

  • Delta
  • United (United requires you to buy the points in conjunction with a flight)
  • American 
There's more info over on The Points Guy, but keep in mind that page is from December of 2013, so things may have changed a bit. 





Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tokyo in spring?


So it's looking like my brother has settled on Tokyo Sakura Festival as the site for his big 4-0 celebration. While the whole country goes nuts celebrating the arrival of the cherry blossoms, it's definitely on my bucket list to brave the crowds and do that in Japan once in my life. The big challenge on this is that he can't commit to specific dates until February at the earliest. This makes finding award seats challenging. I'm thinking my only real hope is snagging some of the award inventory that airlines sometimes release at the very last minute (like less than 5 days from departure). But if you're going on a 3 week trip, that means you'll depart without a return ticket and you'll have to get up every day of your vacation and poke around award inventory and hope you can find yourself a seat home. Not exactly a relaxing proposition. Also, flights to and from Asia tend to be priced such that one way tickets are often more expensive than round-trips, so if you have to buy a one-way ticket home, you saved literally nothing by using miles to get there.

I've started looking at our options for getting there. From NYC it's a 15 hour flight to Japan. We did it once in United's lie-flat BusinessFirst cabin and yeah, 15 hours is a loooooong flight even when you have a bed. I'll probably revise this page half a dozen times as the trip approaches so I can keep a quick record of what I've looked at so far. I've gotten senile enough that if I don't do this I just end up repeating everything I've already done!

Due to our upgrades not clearing a couple of months ago, we actually have 60,000 more United miles than we would have otherwise, so those failed upgrades are looking like a blessing in disguise right about now. So we've got a bunch of United and British Airways (BA) points, a BA Travel Together certificate, and a bunch of transferrable points in Amex and Chase to top off our accounts if we're a bit short. So we're good-to-go for searching on Star Alliance and OneWorld. We don't have many Delta points to begin with, and SkyTeam awards are generally such a pain to redeem that we don't usually check them unless it's a last resort. (Though I am intrigued by the option of transferring Chase points to Korean Air directly and flying on their A380...)

Paying Cash

Like I mentioned back in my tutorial, I started by using Kayak.com to see what it would cost to pay for this flight. For a few test days in April, Aeroflot had seats for $3800, but I'm not flying Aeroflot so Finnair was the next cheapest – $4000 for a 1-stop trip. It has an 8-hour layover in Helsinki, but the leg to Tokyo is in a 787 (that they're leasing from LOT Polish?), so that could be cute.

Air China, Etihad, and Air Canada both have flights for under $5,000. Honestly our pain point for long haul international is somewhere in the $3 - $4k range so I'm not even going to look at anything above $5k. So now that I know the cash price, I can start seeing what I can get with my points.

British Airways / OneWorld

Searching BA's website it looks like using our Travel Together certificate isn't possible. There's basically no BA award seats at any time in the next 6 months. (Since the ticket requires you to be on a BA plane, I wasn't really looking forward to getting there the long-way-round via London anyway). However, it looks like there's actually a fair amount of Business Class award availability on Japan Airline's 787 – 280,000 point and $1156 for the two of us round-trip.
UPDATE: with the just announced Amex-to-British Airways points bonus, that 280,000 point trip will only cost me 200,000 Amex points! Now let's hope he can pick a date before the bonus period ends on 31 Jan 2015!


In the back of my mind i seemed to recall plane nerds being shocked that JAL had put a previous-gen seats into their brand-new 787s so I googled it and it's true - JAL put 1990's business class seats into a 2012 plane. Welp, at least it has Toto Washlet toilets onboard, right?

Most airlines stopped doing "angled lie flat" 5+ years ago

Probably my favorite airplane amenity since onboard espresso machines!

Looking further, I found this press release saying that they were retrofitting their 787's with their new SkySuite product and the JFK - NRT plane would be upgraded in January 2015. Even better!

This looks a lot nicer :)
So while all of this looks perfect, we have to hope that there's still availability once we know when the big fiesta is actually taking place.

Star Alliance

If I'm shelling out a heap of miles (and spending a bunch of my time) to look for award seats, I do my damnedest to avoid flying on a US-based airline. So while I might use the United website to search, I'm only going to fly United if there's literally no other option. (TIP: remember to ALWAYS look at the "Operated By" field to see which plane you'll actually be on! It could be a codeshare flight!) To quote my best friend who's originally from Tokyo, "I'd rather fly ANA in Economy that United in Business". Given how tall I am, I'm not 100% in agreement there, but I completely agree with the sentiment. I might make an exception if it put me on United's 787 between SFO and Osaka, though.

United/ANA is showing quite a bit of "now" availability in business (though it *is* early December right now, not exactly a peak travel time...) and a bit of spotty availability on some random dates in April – including a couple of elusive ANA First seats (for 110,000 miles per person, per segment). A friend of mine who has flown more than 4 million miles almost entirely in premium cabins said this this was hands-down the best flight he's ever taken. I can't even imagine the effort required for them to deliver a traditional dozen+ course kaiseki meal on an airplane. But that'd definitely be cool to experience.



UPDATE Feb '15: We have our tickets! Click here for all the details. 

Out of the box ideas

I'll keep checking back in here as the date progresses, but here's a couple of other things I might need to try if I can't find availability. 
  • Fly from Boston, Philly, DC
  • Fly into Osaka
  • Fly AeroMexico's 787 MEX-NRT? 220,000 Amex points for both of us RT. They usually have wide-open saver business class availability but just did a spot check and availability is spotty
  • Delta is showing partner availability JFK > ICN > NRT on Korean A380 for 70k + $34 in Business
  • Oddly delta won't show routings *back* to the US via ICN, which would be my preference. hm. only domestics in 767s landing on the west coast and then Crappy Domestic First to JFK. 90,000 miles plus $50. 

Notes

So irritating that airlines keep blocking online point trackers! So here's our counts from early December. Boy I'd sure love a BA 30% Amex transfer bonus to happen early next year!

ME:

  • 98k United
  • 13k BA
  • 151k Amex
  • 84k Chase personal
  • 75k Chase work
HUSBAND:
  • 121k United
  • 141k BA
  • 75k Amex
  • 44k Chase
For my own reference, buying BA points costs $575 for 20k (they only allow 27k to be purchased per year). 20k miles on United is $752. 




Wednesday, November 19, 2014

And with this tiny footnote, United likely ended my husband's loyalty to them

If you look at item 1 at the bottom of this page, you'll see the power of a single footnote.
Premier members who request a MileagePlus Upgrade Award on or after February 1, 2015, for a p.s. route between New York JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco will no longer be exempt from the co-pay.
For several years now, my husband's work has paid for his JFK< >SFO flights in Economy and he upgrades those flights to United P.S. BusinessFirst with miles out of his personal account. One of the things he's really liked about post-merger United is that doing this is a piece of cake — no need to call customer service, just tap a few buttons on the website and it all happens automatically. 

But now, his upgrade to BusinessFirst is going to cost him 40,000 of his own miles plus $500 of his own dollars on top of whatever his company paid. While United miles are probably the most valuable of the US carriers, he essentially runs a deficit — he spends way more miles upgrading each flight than he earns, so he isn't accruing valuable miles for personal vacations at a later date. (Right now he's using a United credit card to keep his balance up). Honestly, with the recent devaluation – it's now 140,000 miles for Business Class to Europe – I question whether United miles are really that valuable anymore. 

There was a lot more bad news, but Lucky covered it better than I can. 

So now the big question is what to do next year? Does he just do JetBlue? I'm thinking aloud here and making some public notes to myself so I can keep all of my research in one place... 
  • There's a good overview of their program here. Long story short: points are worth about 1.4¢ each when you redeem them. If you use their website and their credit card to book, you earn 10 points per dollar spent (so basically you're getting a 10% back in JetBlue travel dollars). 
  • You can earn points on tons of airlines, but you can only redeem TrueBlue points for travel on JetBlue or Hawaiian
  • Mint is hands-down the best product on the JFK-SFO/LAX run. Better food, vastly friendlier staff, free Wi-Fi that's 10x faster than United's paid Wi-Fi, and the ride is especially sweet if you can score that middle suite (which they're still not charging extra for!)

  • It's $99 per segment to upgrade from Coach to "Even More Space" (i.e., Economy Plus) — but can he do that with his own money AFTER his employer buys his ticket? (He doesn't usually mind doing one of the legs in coach as long as he has enough room and Wi-Fi to actually work the whole flight.)
  • There are SJC and OAK flights, but he usually has to get a rental car and they charge huge fees if you return the car to a different location so i think the SJC and OAK options are off the table (since he'd be flying home via a SFO Mint Redeye flight)
  • JetBlue's Mosaic (elite) program lets you use points for Even More Space seats, but you don't get free access to those seats like you do Economy Plus on United, nor can you use the points to upgrade into Mint
  • Looks like JetBlue isn't running a status challenge at the moment. Their last one was 3/2014
  • I'm thinking it wouldn't hurt to just email them (mosaicchallenge@jetblue.com) and see if they'll do it anyway
I realize this is a lot of consternation about something that might seem simple, but my husband really hates commuting to the west coast and getting to sleep one or both ways is one of the few things that makes it bearable to him. I'm also the reason he moved so I feel extra pressure to make sure it's as painless as possible for him!
  • The other big wrinkle in all of this is that he only just recently learned that his employer will pay Business Class on redeye transcon flights BUT, like on all flights, he has to pick a fare within $100 of the lowest available. A quick skimming of the corporate travel portal seems to indicate that this will likely be JetBlue's Mint most of the time. We saw several test dates where the next-closest fare was fully $500 more (one way).
  • JetBlue also just announced a bunch of customer-unfriendly policies (no more free checked bag, shrinking the legroom in regular coach) so lots of people are probably thinking about new options right now
  • It's unfortunate that Virgin America hasn't refreshed their cabins. While their huge recliner chairs are the fanciest thing available from any carrier on most of their routes, all of Virgin's competitors have lie-flat beds standard in Business Class on the JFK-SFO and JFK-LAX runs. And Virgin is pricing their last-gen product like it's a lie-flat. Nope. 
  • Given the way that Delta is eating Alaska Airline's lunch in Seattle, I'd love it if Alaska would think outside the box and start offering a premium JFK-SFO flight. But sadly I think Southwest is more likely to do this than they are. 
One thing's clear: loyalty is long gone and 2015 is the year to shake things up. So far the only trip we have planned is Puerto Vallarta in January, which we're going on miles on Aeromexico's new 787 there and we're flying Delta's reasonably-priced Business Class direct service back. 


Newark Food options improving

Several people sent me this article about Newark Airport where we're told:
Say goodbye to pre-made sandwiches and hello to haute cuisine from the likes of Alain Ducasse, Mario Carbone, Amanda Cohen and other big name chefs, plus some high tech menu and ordering systems that employ iPads instead of waiters.
As a Manhattanite, I hate Newark. If I take a car I have to crawl through Soho to the tunnel, which can literally take hours if you're flying anywhere near rush hour. Or I schlep my bags to the F train, walk two avenues over to Penn Station (hope it's not raining, snowing, grey slushing, or sweltering hot out!) get on the line for a ticket machine, wait up to 30 minutes for a Newark Airport-bound train, then switch to that verkachte Monorail thing that has a top speed of 7 miles per hour while praying that my terminal isn't at its last stop because it's literally 25 minutes between the first stop and the last stop. (FYI, this amazing 1960s technology is coming soon to the bay area as the Oakland Airport connector!)
My friend Gabe had an awesome tip when I lived on the West side: just take the PATH from Manhattan to Newark Penn and then jump in a taxi for the last 2 miles. This actually worked well until Hurricane Sandy and the near-constant evening/weekend repair closures since. Once that's done, it's probably the fastest way there if you're in SW Manhattan. 
But getting there is only half the fun. Once you're there it's just... crowded and old and surly and tacky and long security lines and ugh. I'll stop. This little news clip is a glimmer of good news and I'm going to focus on the positive. Ever-more international flights are using Newark, so it's not realistic to just refuse to fly out of it. Better food is always a good way to make me happy.

I'm going to keep my expectations low, though, because I've tried the airport editions of Blue Bottle coffee and Wolfgang Puck and those have been pretty flat, but I still liked them 10x more than what was there before.

Also, I got to try out the "high tech menu" iPads mentioned in the article while I waited for my flight to Puerto Rico earlier this month. Every seat has a card swiper, an iPad with custom software, and power+USB jacks. You enter your flight information when you sit down and it will keep track of delays and gate changes in the background while you browse the menu or shop for souvenirs (i guess the deliver those right to your seat just like they do with the food). The food options all have large photos for each item and sub-menus for all of the picky/allergy/condiment options. It was a lot like using Seamless, now that I think about it. And anything that let's me poke a few buttons on a screen and make a gin and tonic appear is something I approve of!

P.S. Someday the PATH might run all the way to Newark, but I'm guessing I'll be arriving to the Airport (en route to Boca, of course!) by one of those senior citizen lift vans by then.





Tuesday, November 18, 2014

LINK: A great piece in the New Yorker

A friend send me this link from the New Yorker on Friday... pretty much hits the nail right on the head.
On the “new” United, seats got smaller as the airline jammed more people into the same tube; upgrades, to escape the sardine effect, seemed to become harder to book. The number of boarding groups began to resemble something like a caste system; “change fees,” which have always been outrageous, grew higher(two hundred dollars for domestic, three hundred dollars for international), while baggage fees soared to as high as a hundred dollars. The cross-country flights somehow seemed to all be on old, broken-down planes, while gate agents and flight attendants all just seemed crabbier. Yet, I remained, through the indignities, the outrages, and the general descent into lousiness.
Getting rid of competition is rarely a good thing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

United Mileage Plus does another copy-paste from Delta.

Now that the economy is booming again, air travel demand is up, but the capacity cuts made during the recession have not been restored. Prices are up, fees are up, benefits are being slashed, elite thresholds keep getting moved higher as airlines look for ways to extract more profit from their customers.

Delta led the pack by doing two major things over the past year and a half: 
  • changing how you earn elite status by basing it on dollars spent instead of miles flown, and 
  • rewarding points for each flight based on how much the flight cost instead of the distance 
To some extent this makes sense: if I paid $8000 for a seat, I'd want more points than the person who paid $1400 for an identical seat on a super-discount promo. Likewise, it's irked me that people make Gold who've spent half as many dollars with the airline as I did and I only made Silver.

The part I find amusing about all of this is that United's management has essentially been copy-pasting Delta's mileage plan changes since the merger. Do they seriously have no vision at all? Just last week the copy/paste happened again: Delta raised their tier dollar levels for 2016 and United matched not long after.

Delta's 2016 requirements


Look familiar?

American hasn't yet followed suit with the revenue-based points/tiers, I think, because they've been too busy digesting US Airways. It's been cute watching all of the travel bloggers not-so-subtly shift all of their praise and loyalty onto American now that it's the last of the big US carriers where miles matter more than dollars. (Most travel bloggers use broad knowledge of the airline industry and a flexible schedule to get on premium flights at deeply-discounted rates). I predict that once they get through the merger IT rough patch, American will do the same. Maybe then we'll finally start seeing reports from travel bloggers on carriers like JetBlue and Virgin America.

People like my brother have been thrilled with these changes. His work pays for last-minute flights to Asia and Europe over a dozen times a year and he'd love to see the elite ranks culled so he has a better shot at free upgrades. 

On the other hand, I have tons of friends who, like me, are paying out of their own pockets, but manage to exploit their good credit scores, credit card signup bonuses, and the occasional fare sale to stay in the Silver or Gold range. We're screwed in this new economy. And this, right here, is why I decided 2014 was the year I gave up on status. The writing was on the wall: with a strong economy and more mergers happening, air travel is going to stay expensive and freebies are going to dry up.

The bottom line: plan far ahead or absolute last minute if you want to travel up front on miles. Flexibility and advance planning are your two biggest assets.  

The two times when your odds are best to find an empty award seat are less than 7 days before departure, or one year in advance. For example, I planned my trip to Europe with my parents starting 13 months out, whereas this trip to Prague for Thanksgiving will likely happen only if I can find a reward seat at the last minute. I've also taken advantage of occasional fare sales (like summer discount Business Class to Europe) but those only work with the cheap dates work well with our work schedules. 






Friday, November 14, 2014

Europe for Thanksgiving...

Normally Thanksgiving week is a great time to find cheap Business Class fares to Europe from the US. I'm guessing it's because most people have that week off from work, and the people who are traveling are going so to see family within the USA. One way or the other, it's usually a great time to find round-trip fares to Europe for well below $3000.

As I mentioned here, I earned 9600 United miles and 11,000 Amex points for a trip I took on a cheap summer Business Class fare. I always take a look at the coach fares too, so I have some idea of how much extra I'm actually paying. I the case of my Singapore Airlines flight, I paid an extra $500 for Business and got a boatload of miles on top of getting a much nicer flying experience. 

Right now I've been keeping an eye on the Thanksgiving fares because I might end up trying to meet my brother in Prague for turkey day (though I'm guessing in Prague it'll end up being more of a goose day). Unfortunately I won't know until the last minute whether or not he'll be there. As November has gone by, the fares have been slowly creeping up. A month ago I was seeing fares as low as $2300. With the big day just 2 weeks away, it's already crept up to $3600. If I fly only as far as Frankfurt I can get it down to $2900. 


I've never really tracked them over time like this, so guess the lesson here is to buy in mid- to late October if you want to get the super cheap business class tickets to Europe. I tried pricing out itineraries to different places, but I didn't want a 4 stop itinerary on a trip that's only going to be 5 days long, so I had to choose cities with direct connections to either Prague or Vienna. London still has $2300 Business Class seats, but ONLY on Kuwait Airlines. After reading a few trip reports, I decided I'd rather not do that. 

Nope 

Another nice budget option for getting to Europe in Business Class is to go on Iceland Air. They have 40" recliner seats, similar to most US carriers' domestic Business Class, but the food, drink, and service are better, plus it comes with access to their awesome First Class arrivals and departures lounge in Reykjavik as well as the BA Galleries lounge at JFK. They have an interesting setup where you land in Reykjavik from the US in the morning and you can then continue on to the continent immediately, or you can go into town or into the famous Blue Lagoon Spa for the day, and then continue on your way in the evening. I've done this before and I swear it's the reason I basically had zero jet lag on that trip!

Unfortunately for me, they don't have flights to Vienna, or Prague (routemap). So for now I'll just wait until I hear more about his schedule and see what's available then. If the prices go high enough ($3000 is my pain point for airfares these days), I might try to use miles or just get him to meet me in Iceland or something :)

The 8 hour layover at the Blue Lagoon Spa might be the best jetlag cure EVER. 




On not chasing elite status

For people like me who fly entirely for vacations on their own dime, I'm convinced that chasing airline elite status is a lot like going to Vegas: "the house always wins". Yes, you get a couple of thrilling payouts along the way but ultimately you lose because you'll spend heaps more money to make sure you stay in the high rollers club.

This last trip we took (JFK > SFO > JFK > YUL > JFK > SJU > JFK) was one of those times when "the house" got to rub my nose in my decision :) My husband has to fly ≈8 transcons a year for work (work pays), so he's usually United Platinum and I'm still a lowly Silver (though with their new Delta-style rules, he'll drop to Gold and I'll drop to nothing next year). We both bought economy tickets on United's PS service and then immediately submitted a request to upgrade our flights with miles to their Fancy Domestic First class (called BusinessFirst) for 20,000 miles per person, per segment.

On the way to SFO, neither of our upgrades cleared. *sad trombone* But given all of the top-tier 1k and Global Services members on that run, it's not surprising. Luckily, because we have status, we were both able to choose EconomyPlus seats for free *hooray! the status "slot machine" paid out!* so we had ample legroom and were able to sit together. Once I lose status, I'm going to have to pay for those extra 4 inches. To make matters worse, on the way back, his points upgrade cleared and mine didn't. *How you like your silver status now?!*
A quick note on angst here: elite status is sold to you as "making travel easier and less stressful" but it's often entirely the opposite. People who are waiting for mileage seat upgrades or the ever-elusive "complimentary upgrade" end up spending untold extra hours stressing out about whether or not their upgrade has cleared. Flyertalk forums have thousands of posts where people speculate about the algorithms that determine the order of the waitlist. Is any of this making your trip less stressful? I didn't think so. (Yes, it's not lost on me that I'm posting this on a blog about points travel!)
But whenever I get that weird non-buyers-remorse kind of feeling about things, I reflexively remind myself to look at the math of the situation. As I've discussed before, United routinely prices their flights vastly higher than identical/superior flights, so loyalty to United on just one flight (our annual JFK > PVR run) would cost me $500 more than flying Delta. Or even when United's prices are the same, I'd prefer to be on nearly any other airline because they have friendlier staff and fleet-wide Wi-Fi.



The price of loyalty...


Complicating all this math is the fact that my hubby has United Gold, and I wouldn't have flown United if he hadn't been flying on work's dime. JetBlue's Mint service to SFO launched 4 days after my trip, otherwise I would have happily waved at him from through the window of my $599 First Class suite :) Most importantly, I never would have known how awesome Mint is because even people who make their living reviewing airline service can't bring themselves to "waste" a transcon's worth of elite qualifying miles on one of the big 3 alliances to try JetBlue or Virgin's products. And if they don't have the "willpower" to break the spell of elite qualification, I know I wouldn't, either.

I just have to remember to "do the math" whenever I think about what elite status would cost me versus what it gives me. I still say the general rule is that you should only go for status when someone else is paying, or when you're a "hub captive" and really only have one choice in airlines from your local airport.

Monday, October 20, 2014

SHARE: Domestic Routes with International Business and First Class

I've talked about how generally lame US Domestic First is, and I've mentioned the "Fancy USA Domestic First" options that exist almost exclusively on the JFK — LAX/SFO routes.

Today, there's a great article over on The Points Guy about other domestic USA routes outside the LAX/SFO/JFK market with Fancy First.

Check it out!


Thursday, October 9, 2014

JetBlue and Porter announce interline agreement

I love Porter Airlines. They have a fleet of Q400 planes that fly out of a tiny airport (YTZ - Billy Bishop) on a tiny island in the harbo(u)r right in front of downtown Toronto. The whole terminal is theirs and it feels like a giant Business Class lounge. And until the tunnel is finished, you get to take the world's shortest ferry ride to get there.

Riding the 121m ferry to YTZ airport
The route map is fairly regional (but they have big expansion plans) and all flights start or end in Toronto. If you live in one of their larger markets (Chicago, NYC, Montreal) you wouldn't take a connecting flight with them, but if you're in a smaller market and have to connect anyway, you could potentially do a one-stop itinerary with them.

you live in one of the larger cities they serve, you can probably just get a direct flight to your destination if you're going someplace else within their network. 

porter route map

They just announced an interline agreement with JetBlue to allow combined JetBlue + Porter itineraries through Boston. I've done this in the past with Cape Air and it worked out perfectly. Porter currently flies into a different terminal than JetBlue at Logan, so I wouldn't book a tight connection at this point. (One of the nice things about our CapeAir flight was that we deplaned right next to my connecting JetBlue flight to PDX...).

Sadly, I can't find any of my pictures from our flight, but the seats are all leather with 34" of pitch, which helps make the small Q400 feel a lot less cramped. That and the lounge-like airport and the real glassware on board make this probably the nicest puddle jumping experience I've ever had. 



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

United.com adds LOT booking support

LOT Polish Airlines is in Star Alliance and they have some fancy new 787's flying between North America and Warsaw. In years past, you've had to phone them to redeem United miles but that's finally changed.

A round trip in Business Class will set you back 140,000 United Miles (sorry, I'm still in post-devaluation shock and that number seems ridiculously high). When we took their 787 flight in 2013 it was 50,000 each way, so it's not *that* different, but still... 

All that said, you might still want to call them. I'm seeing virtually no Business Class availability in the coming 12 months (a few dates in Jan/Feb, but trust me, you really don't want to go to Warsaw in February...) but when we booked our flight we were able to talk the phone rep into opening up another reward seat for us. Tip for their US call center: make sure you use the phone prompts to route you to the Business Class booking center – shorter hold times.

Warsaw's airport just had a major overhaul and you could use Warsaw as a jumping point to elsewhere in Europe (don't forget to check out low-cost carrier Wizzair's fares for short hops).

(Keep in mind that partner award visibility is constantly changing... United removed Singapore Airlines flights a few months back...)



Wizzair's WAW routes



Thursday, September 25, 2014

Paying for domestic First Class

"First Class" flights within North America sorta deserve the quotes I just put around them. While there are a few exceptions1, the majority of these flights feature recliner-style seats with 38" of pitch (remember, economy has 32"), 20-ish inches wide, no lounge access, limited alcoholic beverage selections, and if there's food at all it's likely to remind you of a high school cafeteria - overboiled mystery meat (or gluey pasta) served with a side of surliness. Let's just call this "Crappy First Class™"

Meanwhile many of these same airlines have upgraded the seats in their long-haul international planes to be fully lie-flat beds with 60+ inches of pitch while simultaneously re-branding them as Business Class seats! Delta had the sense to name their crappy First Class product "Business Class", whereas United stuck with the First Class moniker (except when the planes fly to Mexico — all of a sudden that same cabin is now called Business! Gahhhh!).

SeatGuru is your friend in these cases - plug in the date and flight number when you're shopping to make sure you know what you're actually getting for your money!

guess which one is called "First Class"...

Cabin names aside, I do sometimes pay for Crappy First Class – especially since I made the decision last year to stop chasing elite status and fly on points as much as possible. Despite the flying experience having no glamour, there are advantages to being in First, the main one being that you're first in line for re-bookings if something goes wrong with your flight. And on a busy travel weekend when a big storm comes in, you'll be grateful you sprang for the good seats. You also earn more miles in First (usually 50% more), you board first, and you don't have to worry about room for your carry on. It also includes a checked bag (economy usually doesn't unless you have elite status or a co-branded credit card).

So when I'm paying for crappy First it's almost always with Delta and here's why: Despite everything about two flights being equal, United is double or triple Delta's price. And that's true on nearly every intra-North American flight. I just don't get it. Yes, Delta miles have earned the nickname "SkyPesos" because you need a billion of them to go anywhere interesting, but United started openly copying Delta's mileage plan rules last year so I don't think their mileage program alone warrants paying double. Also, note the little icon below that shows United has no Wi-Fi. United is in the middle of a decade-long rollout out Wi-Fi (it's been fleet-wide on Delta for years) so you might even argue that the Delta flight is superior.



And keep in mind that in this example, Delta's Crappy First class was only about $150 more than Economy, which is about all I'd be willing to pay for the 5 extra inches of legroom, near-worthless bonus miles, free crappy food and liquor, a checked bag, and a virtual line pass for rebooking if there's a problem. United is asking $700 for those same things (albeit with slightly more useful miles). But I can take the Delta flight, and use the money I saved to go buy all of the United miles I'd have earned by flighing United and still have money left over. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

and some days the bear gets you...

As I've mentioned before, chasing points is generally for people with more time than money. Yes, I frequently get lucky and manage to snag a great redemption entirely via the web with minimal planning and zero time on the phones.

And then there's yesterday...

So I'm trying to get to Puerto Vallarta for a wedding 4 months from now. Since I know there's no direct service on the day I need to fly, I'm opting for a touch of glamour by flying through Mexico City on Aeromexico's new 787 and then connecting after a 2.5 hour layover.

I don't have Aeromexico (AM) points but I do have American Express Premier Rewards points that I can transfer. For most of their Airline partners, those transfers happen instantly. But Aeromexico transfers take up to two weeks. One way First Class is 30,000 points1 plus $125 in fuel surcharges and taxes. Not too bad for a flight that prices out at US$1000 (meaning i earn 2.75¢ per point).

By the time my points showed up in my AM account ten days later, the second leg of my optimum flight was gone. Aeromexico uses a fixed award chart, so it's the same number of points to fly from to Mexico city as it is to fly to Vallarta with the stopover. So I get on the phone… AM's call center is actually one of the better ones — I've never waited more than 10 minutes for an agent... Unfortunately, the agents can only see the same flight options I do online and my only choice is to take the reward to Mexico city and then buy a connecting coach flight to Vallarta. So add another $198 to the cost of my trip (now I'm essentially redeeming for 2.3¢ per point).

But we're not done yet. I get my itinerary email and realize that we're not sitting together and I have to call back to get us reseated. The agent tells me her computer is down and I should call back in 20 minutes. I do, and I get us reseated. So far so good. Then I get an alert email from Aeromexico telling me that my flight has been altered by the airline and it's now leaving at 13:40 instead of 15:00. And my seat assignments are gone. And I have no idea if I'm even still on the 787. I decide to go to bed and deal with this in the morning.

The next day I do some extra confirming and it does, in fact, look like our 787 is leaving 80 minutes earlier (I was afraid there had also been an equipment change). No wait for a phone agent, but the "computers are down again"... call back in 20 minutes and got our seats re-assigned.

UPDATE JAN '15: Normally I like to use Optiontown for upgrading my paid AM flights but for some reason their site wasn't working for me today so I called in to AM's call center. No wait for an agent, and he upgraded my paid MEX > PVR leg for $29 a person! Let's hope their lounge dragon doesn't get picky about the fact that my flight to PVR is on two separate tickets!

UPDATE FEB '15: Trip was fantastic! JFK lounge pix are here. Trip report is here.

Can I just point out right here how many times it's come in very handy that I used to work in a call center and know the military alphabet by heart? It's shocking how hard it is to spell a six-letter confirmation code through a cell phone to a remote call center halfway around the planet without it.



And since we're talking about my days in the call center, I'll point you to this link and just tell you that it's spot-on. Decide before you call if you want results or if you want to yell at someone making less than minimum wage to make yourself feel better, because you don't get to do both.

Bottom Line
While I realize that several of these things would have still happened even if I'd paid cash for the flight, today I'm really feeling like I'm working for less than minimum wage for the $677 I saved by using points. Put another way: I'll have spent more time dealing with this trip than the duration of the actual flight!

Aeromexico Credit Card
The agent offered me a credit card. He swore the companion certificate that comes with the card was good in all classes of service but I did some looking at the T&C's on the web and, as usual, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The companion certificate only works in the 3 most-expensive Economy class fare buckets, and isn't good for business class travel at all. The card's buy "3 get one free" option has more fare buckets (including C/J for Business Class) but I don't routinely need 4 tickets.


1 Aeromexico users "AeroKilometros" which exchange with Amex "miles" in the miles-to-kilometers ratio of 1-to-1.6. The redemption on AM's site is 48,000 kilometers (1.6 * 30,000). The Amex website incorrectly shows a 1:1 transfer rate. 


Sunday, September 21, 2014

puerto vallarta

I put together a visitor guide for Puerto Vallarta over on Medium.com. Check it out!

My 'getting to Vallarta' post is here.

Trip report: American Airlines' new Flagship First JFK > SFO

My friend George shared this report about his recent flight in American Airlines' new transcontinental Flagship First from New York to San Francisco. 

My husband and I were able to use our miles to book American's new transcontinental First Class product from JFK - SFO over Labor Day weekend. I was very excited to get to experience this as I had read about the service from a few other sources.

We arrived at JFK and proceeded through security. One does have the option of using Flagship check-in, but as we didn't have any checked baggage and use our phones as boarding passes, we wanted to just spend more time relaxing in the Admirals Club.

Speaking of which, as a Transcon First Class traveler, one is escorted into the Flagship lounge part of the Admirals Club. This separate section has an open self-serve bar and decent nibbles. Two Negronis later we boarded the flight, which actually left on time and took off about 20 minutes after leaving the gate (that *never* happens at JFK).

Once we were seated, we were offered a glass of champagne, orange juice or water. The IFE system in my seat was quirky, but worked most of the time. The Bose QuietComfort headphones, common for First / Biz Class on all International AA flights, were provided shortly after takeoff.


We then had a three course lunch (The flight left at 3 PM), and I wasn't impressed with the main dish (steak) though the salad (mesculun) and the appetizer (Tuna & Salmon Sashimi) were tasty as was the traditional ice cream sundae.

There was a basket of snacks left at the front of the cabin, and requests for drink refills were promptly attended. In fact, the purser on the flight was one of the best I had ever encountered in all my travels on AA. I asked if she was traveling on Labor Day Monday as I hoped she'd be on our return flight, sadly she was not.

We landed into SFO 45 minutes early and quickly got through the terminal and into a cab, off to the dinner party and the rest of our fun SF weekend.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tips and gotchas when using American Express' travel portal

American Express offers 3 points per dollar when you purchase plane tickets with their Premiere Rewards card. They offer an additional bonus point when you purchase through their online travel portal. 

As I've previously advised, make sure you comparison shop on Kayak.com and make sure that their prices are competitive before you book. I've found that they're usually more expensive by a few dollars, but I do the math to make sure I'm not overpaying for my extra bonus point.

Their site has improved in recent years, but buying through their travel portal is almost always slower and less convenient than booking directly through the airline's own site. For example:

  • It doesn't remember your passport number
  • It doesn't remember any frequent companion information, only yours. 
  • It doesn't have a way to enter Known Traveler numbers for Global Entry/TSAPre, so you have to call the airline to add it after you book
  • It doesn't let you enter a partner airline frequent flier number (e.g., if you book a flight on American Airlines, you can't put in a British Airways FF number)
  • If you book a hotel through the portal, it shows as being booked through Travelocity and you don't get any hotel points

If you're willing to deal with all of that to get your extra points, remember that the final checkout price will show up as two charges on your Amex statement – the ticket cost, and an Amex booking fee. Those two charges together add up to the amount shown during the web checkout process.

I love all of the transfer partners for Amex points and how flexible they are, but the Premier Rewards Gold card is getting long in the tooth, if you ask me. It seems downright silly to tell people that they have to upgrade to a $495 a year platinum card to get a chip card and no foreign transaction fees.

Charge as shown during checkout


Charge on Amex statement

Amex Premier Rewards transfer parners







Saturday, September 13, 2014

Warsaw to JFK on the 787

The layout engine here on Blogger.com feels a little clunky and 1998... Honestly why have 400 themes when you can't get a blank template right?

*Le Sigh*

Since so few people fly through Poland, I had a friend ask me to write up a trip report for our 2013 trip on LOT Poland's new 787. I decided to put it on Medium.com since it looks so much nicer and the editing process is so much less clunky. Check it out :)


Monday, September 8, 2014

Getting to Puerto Vallarta


I wanted to post a few quick tips for people flying to Puerto Vallarta (Airport code PVR). My city guide is here.

Last update June 2017
  • This chart on Wikipedia lists every direct flight destination to/from Puerto Vallarta. Some are seasonal (i.e., only in winter). This is a good reference point if you're confused about why you're not finding a flight you wanted. Many of the flights aren't 7 days a week!
  • United sometimes stocks margarita mix and tequila on flights to/from Mexico but they run out fast so order early :)
  • American citizens need to have a passport to go to Mexico
  • Customs at PVR closes around 5pm, so if you want to land later than that, you need to be arriving from Mexico City, Guadalajara, or elsewhere within the Mexico. 
from NYC
  • United offers direct service from Newark 2 days a week on Saturdays (2 flights) and Sundays (one flight). It's a 6 hour flight. 
  • Delta no longer offers direct service to the New York area. Delta has seasonal direct service from JFK on Saturday only, with an odd blackout from Jan 14 - Feb 11.
  • It's nearly impossible to leave NYC early enough to fly via SFO or LAX. Though due to 2016's big blizzard, I can now say with first-hand experience that yes, you can do JFK-LAX-PVR if you don't mind getting up at 4am. It's a very tight connection, but we landed at LAX like 5 gates away from the departure gate. 
  • There is no international-style lie-flat First Class service into Vallarta from NYC, it's all the 38" recliner seats you see on most US domestic First. 
  • Aeromexico offers connecting service though Mexico City. Flight 405 (9:00am) and flight 409 (2:00pm) out of JFK is on a 787 with lie-flat Business Class on the JFK > MEX leg. [My trip report]
  • Other common one-stop routes: American via Phoenix or Dallas, Air Canada via Toronto
from San Francisco
  • Virgin America, United, and Alaska all have direct service from SFO to Puerto Vallarta. Alaska has direct service 7 days a week. Virgin flies twice a week on Wed/Sat, United 3x on Wed/Sat/Sun. The direct flight takes 3 hours and 40 minutes.
  • Virgin America's First Class is vastly superior to United and Alaska's. Huge massage seats with 55" of seat pitch (versus 38"), seatback entertainment, friendly flight attendants, decent food, free-flowing liquor, and a general sense of glamour. Sadly the flight is poorly timed with the Virgin Clubhouse so no lounge access for you. 
  • Common one-stop itineraries: US Airways via Phoenix, Delta/Aeromexico via Mexico City, Frontier via Denver

after you land

  • When you arrive in Mexico, there's a big button in customs that you push in front of an officer, if it turns red, s/he searches all of your bags. If the light is green, they don't. Luck of the draw... 
  • It's best to pre-arrange an airport car service through your hotel. The car service offices are in the main lobby of the airport AFTER the gauntlet of people trying to sell you vacations and "car services" outside of security.
  • PLEASE NOTE: Vallarta is on the state boundary between Jalisco and Nayarit (the Ameca river separates the two), and the two are in different time zones. Triple check your departure times and your plans with friends if you stay north of the river.
  • Prices are in Pesos, but are shown with a $ (sometimes MX$). The exchange rate is 18 Pesos per dollar (Feb 2016). We usually bring enough Pesos with us to at least cover the taxi and any emergency needs.
  • We usually use an indoor ATM to take out Pesos. The bank exchange rate is usually favorable, but we've seen a lot of insider fraud recently, so on this last trip we just canceled our cash cards as soon as we got back home just to be safe. 
  • My custom google map of Vallarta with a few noteworthy places on it


Aeromexico 787 trip report

As a food-loving aviation nerd with bad sinuses, I've been really excited about the 787 ever since I first heard about its groundbreaking cabin humidity and air pressure levels. We've made a bit of extra effort to get flights on the 787 whenever (reasonably) possible and I definitely find myself less fatigued from the journey and the food does seem to taste a bit better.

For our annual flight NYC – Puerto Vallarta last year, we decided to route via Mexico City to try out Aeromexico's new 787s. (My PV guide is here). We celebrate both our birthdays, our anniversary, and Valentines in one big annual blowout trip but sadly the First Class options to Mexico don't offer much opportunity for glamour: all direct service has 38" domestic First recliner seats with limited food and alcohol choices. (Nearly all of the PS/Mint/Flagship routings via LAX or SFO require an overnight stay).

We needed to come back on a direct flight, so we took one of United's twice-weekly (Sat, Sun) direct flights back to Newark. I'd say it's a tough call to decide between flying direct on the second-rate "First Class" service offered by United/Delta and flying Aeromexico's 787 connecting service. But given how quickly the direct flights on United and Delta fill up (especially in First), their extremely limited award seats, and twice-weekly service, Aeromexico is a nice alternative.

Pros

  • JFK AirFrance lounge is great
  • Lie-flat, international long haul seats with seat-back entertainment and power
  • Reasonably priced (≈ $1000 one way)
  • Unique upgrade lottery system. Friends are reporting 50% success rates, YMMV.
  • Nearly unlimited award seating via Amex point transfer (yielding ≈ 3.4¢ redemption rate)
  • Champagne and premium tequila on board
  • Daily service (United and Delta's direct flights are only twice weekly)

Cons

  • Onboard food isn't very good out of JFK. Cabin crew said food out of MEX is better
  • One flight a day. MEX > JFK flight leaves at 6:30am (!!), JFK > MEX is at 1:40pm
  • The seat-back entertainment was very glitchy, hopefully that's fixed now
  • ...No really, like the boarding music (Sting's "if i ever lose my faith") kept playing every time the system crashed so we heard that song 4 dozen times. (Yes, I did lose my faith! :P)

UPDATE: we took this flight again in Jan '15 and it was largely identical. I'll add a few pictures of the food. Lounge pix are here. My booking saga is here





UPDATE 2015: finally got a pic of our plane!














787 tinted windows

32 business class seats











toilet with a view...












Jan 2014 food

Jan 2014 food


==================================


UPDATE: Jan 2015 appetizer

UPDATE: Jan 2015 main

UPDATE: Dessert


First Class lounge in Mexico City