Friday, March 28, 2014

NEWS: the Alaska Airlines / Delta war continues...

Delta and Alaska Airlines have been partners for years. Alaska's huge west coast route network fed into Delta's huge international and transcontinental network out of Seattle. They each honor the other's elite status and you could earn miles on one for flying on the other.

Earlier this year, though, things started to go sour, and it's pretty clear Delta is bullying Alaska into allowing themselves to be bought up by their former partner. While this drama unfolds, it's probably a great time to find cheap fares and lots of bonus point opportunities on routes where they're competing (pretty much Seattle to anywhere in the western US and DC/NYC).


Thursday, March 27, 2014

NEWS: Virgin America announces it's profitable!


Virgin is probably my favorite low-cost carrier. When they launched, they brought seat-back entertainment to every seat in coach, offered seat-to-seat chat, video games, mood lighting, hip design, and the ability to order drinks and food from your seat with the swipe of a credit card. They also brought a fun and hip attitude to travel that's been long gone from the perpetually-beleaguered legacy carriers for decades.

There were a lot of roadblocks to their success: their small route network, lack of partner airlines (even the other Virgin brands use a different point scheme and they don't coordinate their flights), the US legacy carriers challenging their legal status, and the fact that they launched right at the beginning of a huge economic downturn. Many of the naysayers cited their massive quarterly losses as proof that they wouldn't survive and that they wouldn't fly them because their points and status would vanish when the inevitable bankruptcy happened.

For whatever reason, Virgin recently decided to focus heavily on profitability instead of expansion and now they're in the black for the first time. Hopefully this can help them handle those "but my points will vanish when they go bankrupt!" objections that some veteran flyers have about flying Virgin.

Another reason they avoid Virgin is the fact that most are chasing elite status on one of the big 3 and they don't want to "waste" a big transcontinental run on Virgin. Additionally, Virgin uses a fixed-value points plan (like JetBlue and other low cost carriers), so the sugar plum dreams of a mileage redemption for international first class aren't fed by flying Virgin, like they are on big carriers in big alliances.

Now that the economy is picking up and the number of empty seats is dropping, prices are shooting up, airlines are gutting their elite programs, jacking up prices, and adding barriers to elite status (like minimum spending requirements for higher elite tiers). This means many people chasing elite status by doing lots of cheap mileage runs won't be able to qualify any longer. I think this might drive a whole class of flyers to consider flying Virgin who never considered it before.

Virgin's seat-to-seat chat in Economy

Virgin First: Does this fisheye lens make me look fat?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

20 Things I learned being an AirBnB host

If you travel a lot, you might end up wanting to rent out your apartment on AirBnB or a similar service. I listed my old apartment because I'm stuck in a lease the landlord won't let me out of. I thought I'd share a few things I've learned hosting in a big, American, tourist-heavy town.

  1. COVER YOUR ASS! Let's get this out of the way right at the start -- AirBnB very carefully dances around the legality of their service and puts the onus on YOU to be in compliance with the law. In their quest to "disrupt" the hotel industry, you're the front line infantry. Renting out your room could get you evicted, prosecuted by local authorities, and it might also make your neighbors hate you. And AirBnB isn't going to come to your aid when any of this happens. If anything, they might even rat you out to the authorities in a plea bargain-style deal. Read up on the law and your lease and make sure you don't end up screwing yourself over.
  2. THE AIRBNB SITE IS QUITE GOOD with tips for hosts, start there if you don't know what you're doing. I'm just covering some of the finer points that I learned from doing it myself. And by that I mean "things AirBnB can't/won't tell you".
  3. DON'T SWEAT OVERLAPPERS. When I first started hosting, I was freaking out about having all of these conflicting "pre-approved" reservations. Don't worry about them! Pre-approve everyone that you like. When someone commits to dates (i.e., they PAY), the system automatically handles the conflicts by changing the status from "Pre-Approved" to "Not Possible". Here's a sample message in case one of your "Not Possibles" inquires with you (most do not):
    Conflicts are handled automatically by the "Not Possible" tag

    Unfortunately it looks like someone else booked the place during that time. I have the "auto book" feature enabled — it allows people with verified ID and positive reviews to book my place without my approval. When that happens it automatically sets all conflicting Pre-Approvals to Not Possible. 
    Looking at my Reservations listing, yes, someone booked those dates a couple days ago. 
    My apologies. In the neighborhood I've had close friends and family stay at Gem Hotel, Hotel East Houston, The Comfort Inn LES, and Holiday Inn LES and they're all decent places for not a lot of money.

  4. ERGO, SHE WHO BOOKS FASTEST, WINS! Nearly all guests are shopping and requesting pre-approvals at several places at a time (at least in big cities), so there's no shame or breach of etiquette for you to pre-approve several overlapping people while you wait for one to commit.
  5. LIKEWISE, SHE WHO REPLIES FASTEST, WINS! The reverse applies to you – if you take 36 hours to get back to a request, it's likely they've found somewhere else to stay. Taking a long time to reply also makes AirBnB shuffle your listing toward the bottom of search results.
  6. LEAVE A PAPER TRAIL. I highly recommend conducting all forms of communication with the guest within the AirBnB App or Website. If there's a dispute with the tenant, staff members can view that conversation and take appropriate action.
  7. AVOID CHEAPSKATES. I've had several people request a discounted rate. I only give a special rate (10 or 15% off) if the guest is staying longer than 5 days. I've had people ask me quite literally for 50% off on a 2 day reservation. I mean, there's haggling and then there's "gimme a break!" Also, I'm convinced this is exactly the kind of guest that will steal all of your soap, tea, coffee, swiffers, and laundry detergent because they want to "get their money's worth".
  8. PEOPLE BOOK SEVERAL MONTHS OUT. I noticed lots of Europeans booking spring trips in late winter, so April and May was almost completely full by the end of December. Keep this in mind when you open up days on your calendar to the public. Also, make sure you charge more for peak times! (The calendar view lets you set different prices for different days).
  9. BUSINESS TRAVEL IS LESS SEASONAL. Your best bet is to get a business traveler when the weather is terrible — preferably a long-term one. I gave a significant discount to a French engineer who offered to take the place for a 3-month stint for her job.
  10. LONGER IS BETTER. The act of "turning" the apartment (cleaning, laundry, damage checklist, replacing consumables...) for a new guest is time-consuming and often very time-sensitive. If you've got a job or an active social life it can be very disruptive (or expensive if you pay someone to do it for you). The less you have to do it, the better. Use the "minimum stay" preference to control this.
  11. HAVE A SERIES OF CANNED EMAILS in Evernote or This allows you to paste in nicely-worded, well thought out messages to potential guests even when you're out and about on your iPhone. I found myself revising and improving my canned emails with each new guest.
  12. TELL GUESTS "NO SHOES INDOORS DURING BAD WEATHER!" Regardless of the customs "back home", it's disgusting and rude to tromp around anyone's living quarters when you've just come from grey winter slush. Take 'em off! Have a big mat and a little stool to help people take them off right by the front door.
  13. DON'T RELY ON PEOPLE "READING THE MANUAL", people only look there as a last resort. I put a sticker on our shower faucet that says, "CAUTION: hot and cold reversed!", a sticker on the AC that says, 72 F = 22 C, etc. Put the info so they'll see it when they need it.
  14. DELAYED ARRIVALS. Many people are flying in directly to your town. If their plane is delayed, it can screw up the scheduling of your entire day or disrupt your sleep -- one guest arrived at 3am after a very delayed flight and I still had to get up and meet him there to let them in. Don't schedule an expensive Broadway show right after a guest check-in!

    UPDATE: You may be able to use a service like this one, or this one to handle key pickups and meetings. I've never used them, but it might be good in a pinch.
  15. DON'T TOLERATE PEOPLE WHO CHOOSE TO WASTE YOUR TIME. While there's nothing a guest can do about a delayed flight, other guests choose to waste your time. One texted they were "on their way" from the airport but then stopped off a friends house for a drink first. I sat there for 2 hours waiting for them before calling. Now what I do is text them as soon as I arrive at the apartment ("Just arrived at the apartment, you nearby?") and I LEAVE if they're more than 30 minutes past their ETA without a reply (I say, "Had to leave, please text me when you're out front and I'll come back and meet you"). Make these types of people wait on you.
  16. MANAGE EXPECTATIONS. Each guest has different expectations and it's sometimes difficult to meet them — I had one guest who was unhappy I hadn't sent her the detailed check-in email because she was, after all, my "next guest". Little did she know that I actually have 4 different guests arriving and departing in the 2 weeks between now and when she arrives. I made a point of politely mentioning that it's my normal practice to send out the welcome email 48 hours prior to arrival and that I hadn't forgotten her. The AirBnB site is helpful for both parties to have a common idea of what's expected of them:
  17. INSIST ON VERIFIED ID. Don't accept guests who haven't gone through the official AirBnB verified ID process. For me it's less so about the guest being shady and moreso the fact that if they won't show AirBnB (i.e., YOU!) their drivers license yet they expect to get the keys to your apartment, they clearly have unreasonable expectations of how the world works.
    Make sure guests have Verified ID

  18. ONE STRIKE RULE. I refuse all reservation requests from people who have even one single bad review. Sorry.
  19. SOMETIMES YOU CAN'T BE PICKY. Ideally all guests would have at least one good review, but sometimes you can't afford to be super picky. I've taken several people with no reviews and have not had a problem yet.
  20. BE POLITE BUT DIRECT. This is your home, trust your gut, and say what you need to say to get to "No" or "Completely Comfortable". Example of something I sent:
    Hello. I'll send along my welcome email in a bit. But first I'd like to know a bit more about your visit, specifically if you're planning on having anyone in the apartment beyond the one guest in your reservation request.
    Forgive me for being so cautious but a college student who: already lives in town, has zero positive reviews, is scoping out the apartment location 5 days before the reservation, and wants to know the apartment number sets off a lot of "I'm planning a big party in your apartment" alarms for me. If you're planning one, let's just cancel the reservation no harm no foul and i'll do a full refund for you. I have good friends in the building and I'm going to find out so let's just keep it easy for everyone. There are several hotels within walking distance that have rooms around the same price that might be better suited for that. 

    ==> BONUS! 20 MORE tips that I wrote after another few months of hosting...

    ==> YET ANOTHER BONUS! PART 3 the financial totals is here