Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What I learned doing the JetBlue Family Pooling

(updated March 2017)

As I mentioned before, my husband and I both gave up on United and on chasing status with "the big 3" a couple years ago. Since he flies NYC-SFO a lot for work, he ended up settling into a pattern of flying JetBlue Mint since it's hands-down the best domestic Business Class and is often the cheapest (his employer requires him to fly on the lowest-priced flight within $100).



Since we both fly quite a bit, we decided to do take advantage of JetBlue's unique-in-the-US family point-pooling program. The big advantage of a Family Pool is that you can avoid the situation where, for example, two of you want to go somewhere and you need 30,000 miles each, but one of you has 45,000 miles and the other only has 15,000. (Most airlines won't let you transfer miles between accounts without a hefty fee).

Another big advantage of Family Pooling is that it's easier to redeem for a single ticket that includes multiple family members. During bad weather or other service interruptions, being on the same ticket together can help keep all the members of your party together during automatic re-bookings and cancellations.

I'll skip the long tale of how I screwed up and just get to the important things I learned:
  • If one person in the family travels a lot more than the others, it's best to make that person the Head of Household
  • Everyone in the family elects to contribute some percentage of their existing and future earned miles into The Head of Household's account (i.e., the Family Account and the Head of Household's personal account are one in the same)
  • Family members traveling without the Head of Household do not have access to the Family Pool for upgrading to Even More Space with points (even if everyone has Mosaic elite status).
  • Further, non-Mosaic Family members traveling without the Head of Household can only upgrade to Even More Space with cash even if the Head of Household books the ticket through their account
  • You can't upgrade to Mint with points if you bought the ticket with dollars (even if you're Mosaic)
  • You can only change your Family Pooling preferences once a year
  • You can't book a reward flight where one person is in Mint and the other person is in Economy. You have to book 2 separate tickets for that.
  • If you have the JetBlue Plus MasterCard, ONLY the primary cardholder receives the 10% rebate on point redemptions.
  • If you have Mosaic status, JetBlue allows you to make changes to your family pool, and can change the head of household, but they won't do this for non-mosaic members.
Also note that the Mint network is expanding. Seasonal service to Aruba and Barbados, and year-round service between Boston and SFO starts March 2016. My Mint reviews are here, and here.

Friday, November 6, 2015

New York City food

Intro

Lots of folks ask me for tips on food in my neighborhood and NYC in general so here's a few of my very Lower East Side-centric tips. There's tons of info online about the restaurant scene here – you don't need me to tell you that Per Se and Le Bernardin are great places to eat, but check out EaterNY or the Michelin Bib Gourmand list if you want to read up on some places for yourself.

A great watch on the plane ride here is The Sturgeon Queens – a documentary about the legendary Russ and Daughters appetizing shop. Lots of celebrity cameos including Ruth Bader Ginsberg!

Doing schmaltz shots with Nikki Russ at the Russ and Daughters Cafe!

Food

Food and drink in this neighborhood change very quickly. My favorite things right now are:
  • Raku on 6th Street in the East Village has fantastic Udon that's exactly like the stuff I ate in Japan.  
  • Cocoron is also great and they've got tons of cold noodle options, too.
  • Tim Ho Wan has Michelin-starred dim sum and it's fantastic. Lines are shortest around 3 p.m.
  • Mission Chinese's kung pao pastrami and the thrice-cooked bacon are amazing. So are their pickles. And sansho pepper beer. And the lamb ribs.
  • A long, sake-filled meal of a million tiny seasonal things from Yopparai (chawanmushi, oden, house-smoked duck, tsukune, shioyaki of whatever fish is in season, house made tofu, sake pudding and yuzu shave ice)
  • Soft Swerve has Ube, coconut, matcha, and black sesame soft serve with a zillion crazy toppings.
Ube soft serve!

 

Buzz

New York and Tokyo both have a perverse love of restaurants with huge lines and lots of buzz. Personally I hate waiting, so I try to eat at like 5:30pm (or 11pm) when you can usually sneak in. Some places will give you the, "ok but someone has this table at 7..." spiel but just roll with it and you can save yourself hours of waiting. Some of the more buzzworthy places (Mission Chinese) will let you book a table with the Reserve app, but usually they only have a small subset of their tables on there, and they charge you for the privilege of making a reservation. But again, $5 to save hours of waiting is totally worth it. 
  • New York has reached Peak Poke! It seems like every day I see another restaurant offering this Hawaiian dish that was originally created to put fish scraps to good use.
  • David Chang (of Momofuku) opened a casual fried chicken sandwich and booze place called Fuku. He's serving the new meatless Impossible Burger to huge crowds at Nishi during lunch.
    Momofuku Nishi serving the Impossible Burger
    • Cosme is big right now. Mexico’s best high-end restaurant, Pujol, opened an outpost here and it’s making big waves. I think it’s an easier sell in New York because Californians/Texans have strong opinions about what "authentic" Mexican food is even if they’ve never been to Mexico.
    • Cronuts are still going strong two years later. They have an online ordering system now so with a bit of advance planning (2-4 weeks), you can just walk in and pick one up. I've had several knockoffs and nothing comes close – not worth a 2 hour line, but definitely worth the no-hassle online thing. For fall, they have 100-layer cinnamon buns that are poised to be "the next cronut". You had me at "applejack frosting"...
      Green tea and pineapple cronut
    • Shigetoshi Nakamura opened a ramen place on Delancey. Big lines, but, hey, someone has to give Ivan Ramen a run for his money! 
    • Japan's Ichiran Ramen opened in Bushwick and is also super hot right now. 
    • No tipping has been sort of a perennial topic, but it seems to be gathering some steam. Dirt Candy banned it. So did Joe's Lobster Shack, I Trulli, and Bruno pizzeria. Shake Shack's Danny Meyer is banning it from 13 of his high-end places. So are 11 Madison Park, and Masa -- two of NYC's most expensive restaurants. All four places in the Marlowe group did too. The menu will tell you if service is included (nearly all New York restaurants will automatically include 20% tip if your party is larger than 5). 

    Lower East Side Jewish brunch

    • The Lower East Side is the spiritual home of the bagel.  Kossars on Grand Street is the best bet for getting fresh warm bagels in the morning, but Davidovich in Essex Market is a decent stand-in. A few steps from Kossars is Pickle Guys. I love their "new pickles" and the half-sours. Also the pickled radishes and the pickled pineapple. 
    • Doughnut Plant is next to Kossars. Their crème brûlée donut is amazing. So is the coconut-filled one. 
    • Black Seed has Montreal-style bagels but usually a really long line. 
    • Russ and Daughters has bagels and an amazing selection of lox, smoked whitefish and pickles to go with your bagels. They also have fresh squeezed orange juice. Get the chocolate babka. You're on vacation, it has no calories, right? If you wanna go all the way to 11, make the chocolate Babka into French toast. Have your cardiologist on speed dial. 
    • Put all of those things together and you have an amazing Lower East Side breakfast
    • If that's too much work, you can just go to the new Russ and Daughters Cafe and have them make it all for you. (Get an order of Babka French Toast for the table to share!)
    • If you want less fish in your jewish breakfast (or lunch), Katz's Deli is awesome if you can get there in between the tour buses. Cash only, and do NOT lose the ticket they give you when you enter! Eat the pickled tomatoes!
    bagels with whitefish and pickles
    the classic with lox – Russ and Daughters has a dozen kinds...

    Babka french toast, the traif is optional :) 

    Katz's pastrami reuben

    Drink

    My favorite bar is Angel's Share. There's a good chance whatever amazing artisan cocktail bar you love back home can trace its roots back to what the folks at Angel's Share have been doing since the 90s. No parties larger than 4, no exceptions. No ordering until you're seated. Go at off hours to avoid the crowd. Nitecap and Bar Goto are also good. So is Pouring Ribbons. The hidden speakeasy gimmick is still alive and well so make sure to read the Yelp reviews so you know how to find them. On a cold weeknight, I love sitting by the fireplace and drinking Armagnac at La Lanterna*. On a warm summer night I love taking the L train out to Nowadays* for some outdoor picnic-y drinking. (Their Mister Sunday parties are legendary!)

    If you're buying liquor, September Wines and Le Du* are my favorite local shops. Astor Wine and and Liquor has a huge selection and Michael Towne* has hard-to-find whisky.
    Quick note about NYC liquor: grocery and corner stores can only sell beer. Wine shops can sell wine and liquor, but not beer. Confusingly, we call our corner stores "bodgeas" (sorry about that, Spain). Be careful! Bodegas sell things that LOOK LIKE wine but are basically wine-flavored malt liquor – Chateau Diana is its own punchline here in New York.

    My Top Picks by Category

    (i put an asterisk* if it's outside the Lower East Side/East Village area):
    • Dim sum: Tim Ho Wan, Golden Unicory, Jing Fong before 3pm, Nom Wah after 3pm, Vanessa's for take-away.
      Golden Unicorn if you want cute little piggy pork buns
    • Pizza: Rubirosa, Motorino, Luzzo's. The infamous Artichoke Pizza should only be eaten at 3am drunk

      Only eat Artichoke pizza when you're really drunk :)

    • Sushi: Kanoyama, Nakazawa (if you can get in)
    • Izakaya: Village Yokocho, Azasu, Sakagura*, Lucky Cat*
    • Fancy Japanese: Kyo Ya
    • Ramen: Ippudo is great but insanely crowded. Nakamura or Minca are good alternatives
    • Mexican: Fonda, Hecho in Dumbo, or Cosme* 
    • Chinese: the aforementioned Mission Chinese or Vanessa's Dumpling for cheap
    • Thai: Pok Pok* is amazing. In the neighborhood, I'd say Zab Elee.
    • Greek: Snack Taverna*, Kyclades Taverna, or Pylos
    • Filipino: Jeepney, Marharlika, Pig and Khao (get the Sissig), or Kuma Inn (get the Adobo pork buns!)
    • The Sissig at Pig and Khao is fantastic!
    • German: Lorelei has decent warm pretzels, schnitzel, Kölsch on tap, and a beer garden. 
    • French: Lucien is decent, but I go there more for a late-night Fernet than I do for dinner. I've heard good things about Dirty French, but I've not been myself.
    • Korean: in the 'hood go to Oiji. Or take the subway to Koreatown* and go to New Wonjo. Or Gaonnuri if you want fancy. 
    • Steakhouse: Buenos Aires, Peter Luger*, St. Anselm*, or Sammy's Roumanian if you want a side order of schmaltzy Jewish culture and comfort food with your steak. "It's an institution!" (i.e., read the reviews before you decide if it's for you!)
    • Indian: Babu ji. Or MasalaWala if you're just doing Seamless (they have great Malai Kofta)
    • Brunch in NYC usually involves all-you-can-drink mimosas. No liquor can be served on Sundays until Noon, but that doesn't matter because brunch doesn't really get going until 1pm and then it bleeds into football and early dinner. If you're going for all-you-can-drink, you don't need any recommendations because they all serve crap sparkling wine and you're going to be puking your food up on the sidewalk by 4pm anyway.
    • If you'd like a civilized brunch: Clinton Street Bakery's blueberry pancakes are amazing. Prune's brunch is legendary. So is Balthazar's. I'd also recommend doing Dim sum instead... 
    • New American: Little Owl*
    • 24 Hour Diner: Remedy. I actually like their Cuban sandwich even though I shouldn't
    • "I need a drink after seeing a Broadway show!": O'Lunney's Times Square Pub*. 
      Good Guinness and Fernet. No crowds, no bullshit.
    • Bakeries: Balthazar, Maison Keyser, Dominique Ansel, Patisserie Tomoko*
    • Ice cream/Gelato: Morgensterns (Black Walnut + Fernet, or Black Pepper Pine Nut), il laboratorio del gelato (Black Sesame or Corn). I don't like Van Leeuwen but people here love it. If you get dragged there order Earl Grey ice cream and skip everything else. 
    • Dessert: Momofuku milk bar, Chickalicious
    • All of the above in buffet form: the Queens Night Market
    • "I miss the Soup Nazi thing! Where can I go where the staff will treat me like shit!": Shopsin's in the Essex Market. Read the reviews before you go – it's NOT for the thin-skinned! Get the macaroni and cheese pancakes. 
      Mac and cheese pancakes at Shopsin's
    • The "I can't deal with NYC crowds anymore" dinner: Seamless and Caviar. The latter has delivery for some of the city's best and most popular places.

    Other resources

    • I’m briankusler on Instagram and I basically only post food pix with corresponding restaurant check-ins
    • My occasinally-updated google map is here: https://goo.gl/85KNhE
    • Michelin's Bib Gourmand (i.e., their "cheap" eats list) for NYC is here.
    • Lo-down's LES guide is here.
    • My Puerto Vallarta guide is here
    • My Tokyo food guide is here.
    • My Taipei guide is here.

    Important note for visitors from other countries:
    • Please, please, please if the service isn't already included, TIP your waitstaff at any restaurant with table service. 20% is customary. There’s a place on the credit card receipt to write one in, or you can leave it in cash on the table. 
    • Unless you order your food at a counter, you don’t seat yourself in a restaurant. A host will seat you or will make eye contact and say “sit wherever you want".
    • In bars, it’s customary to leave at least $1 per drink as a tip (more if it's expensive or time-consuming to make). The law doesn’t require shots to be measured, so tipping well on your first drink is usually to your own benefit!
    • While walking around town if you accidentally bump into anyone, immediately turn around, look them in the eye and sincerely say, “excuse me”. I've seen several tourists in Soho end up in violent altercations for not saying sorry. 
    • New Yorkers are surprisingly friendly and helpful as long as you’re not delaying one who’s in a hurry

    * Not in Soho/LES/East Village


    updated June 2017


    Friday, October 2, 2015

    Korean Air First Class "Kosmo Suite 2.0"

    We flew First Class on Korean Airlines A380 from Seoul to New York City earlier this year (thanks largely to Chase Sapphire points) and loved it.

    I noticed today that the already amazing seat is getting an upgrade - the Kosmo Suite 2.0 will have fully-closing doors that are apparently see-through only from inside the suite. It also looks like they raised the height of the partition for even more privacy. The partitions can be raised and lowered and yes, I had a lot of fun playing peek-a-boo / Bye Felicia! with Kelly during the trip :)



    We have the big Japan trip coming up next spring, but we're doing ANA and JAL for that trip so we won't be able to check this out anytime soon. 

    Thursday, September 24, 2015

    Alaska - Iceland Air partnership is back!

    Alaska Airlines ended their partnership with Iceland Air a couple of years ago with little notice or fanfare. I've been to Iceland twice now, and took advantage of this partnership both times to credit my Iceland Air flight to my Alaska account.

    I'm really glad to see it's back - it's a great option for affordable Business Class flights to the continent. 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!

    Info is here.

    And also, they have new Northern Lights on their planes!


    saga lounge in Reykjavik

    Midnight sun in Iceland

    Blue Lagoon: Best cure for jet lag ever!



    Wednesday, September 9, 2015

    $10 Amex statement credit at select NYC restaurants

    American Express is doing a promo in September where you get $10 if you spend $50 at a bunch of NYC Restaurants. Normally I wouldn't post about this type of thing but I searched my home address and nearly every single restaurant in the Lower East Side is there so it seemed like an easy $10...

    Details are here. You have to register your card for the promo.




    Monday, August 31, 2015

    British Airways keeping their 747s

    British Airways has been irritating me as of late... Criminally-high fuel surcharges, worthless Travel Together certificates, slow and clunky website, and yet-another massive point devaluation all led me to get rid of my BA credit card this year.

    That said, I still think my favorite place to fly is on the upper deck of a 747 and British Airways flies a bunch of them on the NYC – London routes. I've been in First and Business Class on various A380s, and I've also flown the polar opposite: BA's tiny all-Business Class A318. Still, for me, nothing can quite match the 747's and its double-whammy of "Glamour of my childhood" meets "Secret clubhouse in the attic".

    I was happy to read this report that says BA will likely remodel their newer 747s (with 86 Business Class seats! a net increase of 16!) and keep them for another decade. Low fuel prices have to be part of their math on this... For most of the 2000s the trend has been to replace the bigger, 4-engine planes with modern 787s or A350s and then to use A380 super-jumbos on routes where the airports are very crowded and have a limited number of landing slots. But this unexpected downturn in fuel prices mean we get to keep the clubhouse a little longer :)

    Upstairs "secret attic clubhouse" on the 747

    Friday, August 28, 2015

    British Airways launching 787 service between San Jose and London

    As a former San Franciscan, I'm quite used to checking those two little "SFO" and "OAK" boxes in Kayak when searching for flights. Given that San Jose's airport 60 miles away with no decent transit link and a taxi/Uber/Super shuttle are all over $100 and have to grind thru crushing 101 traffic, it's almost never worth it to even look at flights from the ole' SJC.

    But British Airways just announced that they're putting a brand-new 787-900 on the SJC - London Heathrow route starting 4 May 2016. Tickets just went on sale yesterday. The 787-9 is larger than the 787-8 and they're going to put 4-class service into this bird: 8 First Class seats, 42 Business, 39 Economy Plus, and 127 Economy.

    SJC 8pm > LHR 2pm
    LHR 3:15pm > SJC 6pm

    All new plane smell geekery aside, I love the 787's quiet interior, higher cabin pressure, and higher humidity – food tastes better and you arrive feeling less fatigued from the dry air and droning engine noise. So if you're traveling to Europe from the Bay Area, you might want to check that "SJC" box when searching on Kayak or Google flights... You might just find a deal that'd be worth the trek down the peninsula. Just beware of trying to use points to redeem for these flights: BA's criminally-high fuel surcharges mean that it's really only worth it if you're looking for First or Business Class flights. For Economy, the surcharges are usually as much as the ticket would cost to just buy with dollars.

    In other West Coast news, BA are also starting A380 service to Vancouver.

    My Aeromexico 787 trip report is here, my LOT Polish 787 report is here.


    Onboard espresso on our Aeromexico 787... yay for updated amenities!


    lots of headroom in the 787



    cool 787 electronic window shades

    spacious business class cabin on aeromexico 787








    Monday, August 17, 2015

    Ugh. Amtrak moving to a revenue-based redemption model

    Lucky points out today that Amtrak is moving to a revenue-based model for its points program. He's also reporting that they may leave as a Chase Sapphire transfer partner. Though I suppose if they do the former, I would never need to do the latter...

    Like most of these programs (Virgin, JetBlue) the points will very likely end up being worth 1.3 - 1.8¢ each, far below some of the better rates you can get now. On Acela express, I've routinely redeemed in the 3 - 4¢ per point range, which is better than most domestic airline redemption rates. As Lucky points out, there are even better redemptions available on long distance sleeper cars.

    I guess the one positive is that they'll hopefully get rid of those pesky blackout dates.

    UPDATE: more info from Amtrak here. Analysis here.


    Sunday, June 28, 2015

    Planning for Japan mega-trip

    We've been planning a big 3 month visit to Japan for a while now and even though it's 9 months away, it's time to start shopping for flights. If you want to fly on points you tend to have the best luck if you plan really far in advance or if you're super flexible and travel last-minute.

    UPDATE! 6/2016 Trip Reports:

    We like to fly together on the same ticket so we're processed together if something goes wrong (e.g., mechanical or weather delay), but looking at our various mileage accounts, we're in the same boat as last time we went to Japan – we don't have enough points in one single account to book two round-trips. This means we'll likely end up doing two one-ways to Japan on one airline and two one-ways back on another. Furthermore, given that buying a one-way ticket to/from Asia with money usually costs as much or more than a round-trip does, we have to successfully book both legs of the trip with miles or it's a complete waste. Most airlines let you book 11 or 12 months out so we're creeping up on the date where we could book both legs of the trip. Our current mileage situation looks like this:
    Our current mileage situation
    Sapphire and Ink can transfer to United, and Amex can transfer to British Airways and Delta, so we'll have just enough miles for two Business Class tickets if we book now.

    Cash

    Going through my usual process, I price out the flight in cash before I do anything. Direct round-trip Business Class is running right at $5000 per person. ($4300 for a 1-stop on Korean, $3600 for a 2-stop Air Canada flight).

    Miles – Star Alliance / United

    Ideally we'd love to fly ANA in First – I've always wanted to experience the "Skyseki" meal and service that managed to impress even my most jaded international flyer friends. Booking through United.com it's 110,000 miles per person one way. We flew Business Class on this flight a few months ago and it's is 75,000 miles. We'd be more than happy to do that if we can't scrounge up the extra miles for First. Looking now (June 2015 for a March 2016 departure), there's plenty of availability for 2 people. 

    After accounting for all of the transfers from our Chase cards into my husband's account, we're still 17,000 points shy of the 220,000 we'd need for First. Buying 17,000 United Miles costs $505 (i.e., 2.97¢ each). We could also transfer some miles from my United account, but United's fee for that transfer is $285 (1.75¢ each). I looked into potentially using the Award Accelerator option on our flight to Seattle next month and it wasn't much better of a deal (I think we'd save like $35).

    There are lots of other ways to get to/from Japan with Star Alliance miles, but since we're planning so far ahead, we're going to aim for our first choice, provided we're finding good availability on the way back with our Amex/BA miles.

    For reference, this flight is priced at $13,260 per person, one way (!!) – so my 110,000 miles ended up being worth 12¢ each on this flight! But since I'd never pay that, it's probably more fair to do the math on half the cost of the $4300 Korean Business Class fare I saw, and that's 2.9 cpm. 
    United's award ticket change fees are outlined here.


    Miles – British Airways / OneWorld

    Initially we thought we'd try using our British Airways Travel Together companion certificate for a round-trip ticket via London (24 hours of flight time versus 15 hours direct), but the price for this is 250,000 Avios + $3226 in cash (total for both of us)! BA's criminally-high fuel surcharges make their Travel Together certificate worthless. To wit: that Air Canada 2-stop itinerary I mentioned is $3600 and is still 4 hours shorter than the BA one. I canceled my BA card earlier this year because of it. With their partner Cathay Pacific considering devaluations and cutting off First Class access for partners like BA, Avios are rapidly becoming the new "SkyPesos".

    British Airways ghastly surcharges

    BA's partner Japan Airlines (JAL) doesn't have these fees, but you can't use the Travel Together certificate on partner airlines. Also, there were no JAL award seats on the JFK to Tokyo route, but there is availability on the leg home -- including seats on their new 787 that I've really been wanting to fly. Their 787 has no First Class, just lie-flat Business "Sky Suite". I poked around their award calendar over the course of two days and it looks like JAL is releasing 2 Business Class seats per flight about 11 months out for 105,00 Avios points + $145 in fees (each). The seats for the March flights have all been bought up, but if I keep my eye on it, I should be able to snag the June flight home when they add the seats to the system.

    For reference, this flight is $5,800 per person, one way – 5.2¢ per mile redemption value. BA's change policies are here.
    My LOT Poland 787 trip report is here, Aeromexico 787 is here.


    JAL Sky Suite

    Miles – Delta / SkyTeam

    I hate flying internationally on a domestic carrier, but I figured I should price out Delta just to have a reference point. One way was 70,000 miles + $44 per person in Business. They're also partners with Korean Airlines, which would be a nicer way to get there than Delta (trip report).


    Buying!

    With all that said, it seems like I have a really good shot at getting those JAL seats for the return flight so I went ahead and booked the ANA First tickets to Japan! We have a departure date and this trip is starting to get real... So many of our plans hinge on dates and now we can start looking for rentals and renters and classes and trips and sumo tickets and and and and... :) Very excited!

    One quick note about something that seemed super shady to me on United.com: I clicked through the award booking process before I'd actually purchased the 17,000 miles we needed and I thought to myself, "oh hey look! they'll actually sell me the missing miles as part of the checkout process, how convenient!". But then I remembered that every time I'm offered something during checkout it's usually a terrible deal. So I hop into a new browser window to check their price to buy the miles, and sure enough, United was going to happily charge me $100 extra to buy those miles as part of the checkout process.
    16,815 miles for $639...
    ... or 17,000 miles for $543


    In mid August we snagged the JAL seats as soon as they came into the system. One quick note about that: I needed to transfer points from my Amex account into my husband's BA account. Luckily since he's a cardholder on my Amex, there's a whole separate screen for doing transfers into other cardholders frequent flier accounts.


    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

    Great news! JetBlue Mint is coming to Boston! Expanded JFK service!

    United recently announced that it was moving all of its PS (Premium Service) lie-flat First Class service to Newark. Seemingly in response to that news, today JetBlue announced that they would add several additional flights between JFK and LAX/SFO. I'm a big fan of Mint (my reviews here, and here) and I'm happy that expanded service means more flight times and more chances to snag the $599 seats. 

    The other big news is that they've announced Mint service between Boston and SFO/LAX! Delta used to have their premium service planes on this and the JFK-SEA runs but both services have been discontinued. Hopefully they'll do $499 promo flights for the launch like they did with LA. Boston is a much smaller market than NYC but hopefully they can make it successful and spread it to other destinations (I'd love Mint on the JFK-SEA run!).

    Hooray for lie-flat seats and closing door suites!
    More information here.

    Thursday, June 18, 2015

    Boracay planning!

    Good friends are getting married in Boracay December of 2016 and a bunch of us will be heading there from both coasts of the US. I use my blog as a notebook to keep track of the stuff I've learned while I'm looking for a good fare. This is what I've learned so far. Please email me or leave a comment if you have anything to add or have any questions. I'll keep adding and revising stuff as I find it.  (updated 29 Sept 2016)

    Intro

    • Here's the Wikipedia entry for Boracay for openers. Wikitravel guide is here.
    • Looking at their airport situation, there are two: KLO airport (90 minutes by car from Boracay ferries, several international flight options) and MPH (right next to the ferry, but only has flights to Manila and Cebu).
    • Several of my frequent flier friends who've done this say that unless you want to spend some time sightseeing in Manila, arriving to KLO from another country is the way to go. 
    • Here are all the direct flights into KLO (keep in mind not all of these are year-round or 7 days a week)
      Direct flights into KLO (updated Sep 2016)
    • All that said, my first thought is to try to fly into one of these places and spend some time there before heading over to KLO. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul all sound great for a layover. 
    • ... OR to go to Manila with Nico (a good friend who's originally from there) beforehand and just party eat for a while before heading over.
    • (FYI - Jin Air is a new low-cost carrier owned by Korean Air. They have Boeing 737s in an all-economy configuration)

    General Tips

    A couple of tips before you click Buy:
    • Google Flights is a speedy, well-designed place to search for and buy flights. (There's a great tutorial for it over here). Kayak has a larger selection of flights in its database so, especially for less-common Asian carriers, always double-check Kayak
    • Make sure you look at the flight number (or the plane type) and use SeatGuru before you buy. A bit of poking around and you can sometimes find a good seat in Economy (like #2 in the pic below) that's a bit less painful than the others. Also note the seat pitch -- if you feel cramped in United's 32" seats, are you going to survive a long flight in 28" seats? If you click on the flight detail in Google flights, it does a good job flagging flights with good or bad legroom. 

    Look at all that legroom
    • Make sure you look at the layover times! Having an 8 hour layover in the middle of the night at the airport is not fun. For example, here are two identically-priced itineraries for NYC-KLO, but the second one will have you sleeping overnight in the Manila airport.

    • If you read through the Wikitravel article, you'll see that even after your 28+ hours of air travel, you've still got customs, a 2 hour car ride, a ferry ride, and tricycle taxi ride to your hotel. I'm thinking I might want to break that up a bit... Maybe spend a day or two in Seoul or Hong Kong before continuing on.
    • Philippine Airlines has "direct" service to Manila from JFK and Toronto, both flights have a stopover in Vancouver en route. 

    Prices

    • Right now most flights from North America to KLO are pricing out around $1100 in economy, $4500 in Business Class, and "Ain't Nobody Gonna pay that" in First ($10,000+) on most of the airlines. 

    Best Bets Flying on Points

    • Sadly Philippine Airlines isn't part of any of the big alliances, so using points with them isn't possible
    • My first instinct is to fly via Seoul. There are usually quite a few seats available on Asiana (United/Aeroplan/Star Alliance) and Korean Airlines (Delta/SkyTeam) even up until the last minute. A Saver award seat on Asiana or Korean in Economy is 35,000 each way. For flying "fancy" to Seoul, I'm going to transfer Chase points to Korean Air – their First Class is priced the same as the other carriers' Business Class. (Our trip report here).

      UPDATE: we've booked our tickets and, indeed, we're coming back from Boracay on Korean Airlines via Seoul. We transferred Chase points (important note on that here) to Korean Airlines and are doing the upper deck on their 747-8 on the long leg to JFK. 
    • From Seoul to KLO there's three flights a day (AirAsia, Philippine Air, Jin Air) on most days of the week. It's a 4.5 hour flight and both flights have seats smashed together even closer than the worst US carriers so it might be worth springing for Business Class on Philippine Airlines (AirAsia is 100% Economy). Though if you look at the seat map, you might be good if you can snag 42A or 42K in Philippine Air Economy, though. These flights are running $400-$500 in Economy and $900 in Business.
    • The glamour route of course would be Singapore Suites class to Singapore and connect to KLO there. A Saver reward in Suites is 110,00 miles each way, per person - if you can find an available seat. Some tips about booking this reward are here. The flight from Singapore to KLO is 3 hours 45 minutes and isn't daily, so plan accordingly. At least one of the legs will likely be TigerAir, which has no Business Class.
    • And if you're flying Singapore Suites-level of baller, you might as well get helicopter service to your resort from Manila... it's only US$2000 :P
    • For OneWorld/Avios/American Airlines, I'd do Cathay Pacific JFK or SFO to Hong Kong. It's another high-glamour choice that's a bit more attainable than Singapore Suites. If you have American/British Airways points it's 35,000 points each way for Economy, 70,000 for Premium Economy, and 105,000 for Business. (More points are required when flying from Boston...) My trip report from that plane is here.
    • If you geek out on planes, you could try to route yourself there on a double-decker A380 or a new 787. The flight detail in Kayak and Google flights shows the plane type. Asiana, Korean, Singapore, and several others operate A380s. A list of 787 routes is here.

    Other Options

    • Ultimately, for the flight to the Philippines we chose to fly through Taipei, mostly because we want to fly on the Eva Air Hello Kitty plane. Its only North American destination is currently Houston 3x a week, but when I saw Saver Business Class seats we jumped on them even though it's a more convoluted routing. Eva Airlines is part of Star Alliance and is priced similarly (35k/80k each way).

      I finally found the direct Taipei – Kalibo flights: China Airlines, flight 707, Monday and Thursdays only, 7am. Philippine Airlines flight 893, Wednesdays and Saturdays, departing 9:40am.
    • Kuala Lumpur has no direct flights to the USA, so I'd probably not take that route. It's just under 4 hours on AirAsia's extra-cramped Economy from KUL to KLO.
    • Beijing/Shanghai I would only do if I were stopping off there for a few days to actually see China just because I've never been there and I'd feel lame being so close and not stopping over. Boston has direct service to Shanghai and Beijing on Hainan: $1200 r/t in Economy, $3500 in Business. They have a new Boeing 787 on that route with lie-flat seats. They aren't part of an alliance so no points here. For the life of me I can't get AirAsiaZest to display the direct flights from China to KLO, so maybe it's a unicorn. I guess just keep an eye on this one... 





    Wednesday, June 17, 2015

    some personal packing tips...

    I don't travel as much as some people, but often enough that I've definitely got my packing down to a planned routine. I keep a master packing checklist on my iPhone so I can run through it to make sure I don't forget anything. At the top of the list are things I need to do more than one day out ("do laundry!"), and as I reach the bottom, it's things like "wallet, keys, phone" that I'll grab right as I'm leaving.

    My list isn't just about what to put in my bag, it's also life reminders for being gone (e.g., who's picking up the mail?, water the plants, take out the trash, clean out the fridge, put a good movie onto your phone, etc).

    Keep a master packing list on your phone

    There are tons of great resources for packing out on the net, but here's a few of my own packing tips:

    First off: Netflix now lets you download shows for offline viewing, so queue up some plane watching while you pack! Maybe also install Duolingo.

    If you have to check a bag, only put clothes in there. Do not put any kind of electronics, jewelry, or other small, high-value items in a checked bag. Bring one change of socks/underwear/shirt in your carry-on in case your bag gets lost.

    Everyone tells you to take a layering approach to travel clothes and they're right, but furthermore, I think it's important that you pick things that are thin, light, non-bulky, and won't look terrible if they're rolled in your bag for 12 hours. For example, I'm a big fan of this stretchy hoodie from Alternative Earth. Also, stretchy V-neck sweaters can cover up 90% of the wrinkly parts of a dress shirt underneath it and save you from having to iron or send out for pressing.

    While I appreciate all of the recent innovation in packing supplies and luggage, I usually stick with Ziploc bags as my organizational tool of choice -- they're cheap, they're see-thru (so it's easier to spot what you need without digging around), and you can squeeze the air out before you seal them so it doesn't take up more space than necessary.
    • DAILY BAG: toiletries and meds I use every day (including any bottles of liquid or gel). This is the ONE bag I take out of my carry-on for the X-ray machine. I keep it near the top.
    • FIRST AID: (i.e., things I don't use every day): ibuprofen, band-aids, blister pads, chap stick, antacid, etc. that can be buried a bit deeper in the bag
    • SEX: One for condoms, lube, and anything else you might need when using those two things :)
    • TECH: iPhone charger, plugs, cables, outlet adapters, headphones, and a small microfiber towel. It cleans glasses and iPhone screens and it even removed a bunch of stubborn adhesive glue from my Nikon body once. 


    Use an old contact lens case to bring gels and lotions you don't need a lot of on your trip (make sure you label them!)


    In addition to your regular prescriptions, Benadryl is a great double-duty pill to have around because it's both an antihistamine and a sleep aid. Xanax (chased with one and only one cocktail) is the only thing that can silence a crying baby in the next row – works great regardless whether you or the baby takes it :P A couple of really strong Sudafed (straight pseudoephedrine not mixed with anything else) are good in case you end up congested before a flight (I normally hate cold medicine, but flying with your ears fully plugged is an extremely painful experience that can last DAYS after your flight ends!)

    It's never a good idea to bring new shoes on a trip, but if you end up with blisters anyway (people tend to just walk a lot more than normal on vacation), having these Band-Aid blister foot pads in your bag is a life saver.

    Always have a small gift or two in my bag to give to people I'm planning to meet (and a few extras for new or unexpected people I might meet...). Ideally it's something from your hometown or country, something unique they couldn't get at their own corner store. As you give them away, you make room for souvenirs. The flatter the gifts are, the better. 

    If you have elite status with an airline, bring that silly card they mail you. Sometimes the lounge dragon attendant won't let you in unless you have your physical card with you. (This happened to me in Munich when the Lufthansa employee said, "we can't look up your elite status but I can let you in if you have your United Gold status card...")



    I've found single-use packets of lube to be really useful when traveling. I used to carry around a small, 30ml bottle of it in my bag and it leaked once... worst. cleanup. EVER. Plus those small bottles are really easy to forget (I've forgotten at least 2 of them in the bedsheets). With single-use packets you don't carry around more than you need or, more importantly, less than you need. Condom depot sells various kinds of single-use packs.



    Speaking of single-use, you can also get neosporin in that format as well.

    I'm also a big fan of Preparation H Totables wipes for when you're going someplace without Toto Washlets (i.e., nearly everywhere but Japan!) These are just witch hazel wipes (no scent, no medicine, just clean!) in individual foil packets so you can always have one with you.

    If you have a favorite brand of condoms, you might want to bring those along as well, condom shopping abroad can be an adventure sometimes...

    The elephant makes me feel like I'm in a Miss Elliott song!
    And if all responsible sex measures fail you (or worse…), it's a good idea to have a single course of PEP in your bag (if you're not already on PrEP). Gals might also want a morning after pill in addition to the PEP. No one wants to think about this before they go, but trust me, it's absolutely no fun to spend an entire (and likely hungover) day of your vacation at a clinic in a country where you don't speak the language trying to explain what PEP is to a very conservative, religious doctor who might just want to call the authorities when you explain that you had unprotected, extramarital/gay sex the night before.






    Tuesday, June 16, 2015

    United leaving JFK, moves PS service to Newark!

    According to this link, United is leaving JFK in a slot-swap with Delta. While most of their operations are already at Newark, they've kept their signature Premium Service between SFO/LAX and JFK. I'm somewhat surprised because I figured they must be getting a good deal of people taking the West Coast – JFK flights solely for connecting to the huge number of international destinations available at JFK. Apparently not.

    I'm not a huge fan of Newark Airport (more on why here), so this will make it even less likely that I'll fly United PS again. On the bright side, it's probably way more convenient for making domestic connections, but Virgin has SFO/LAX flights to both EWR and JFK and supposedly both routes are profitable. Hm.

    Luckily JetBlue Mint, American Airlines Flagship, and Delta BusinessElite One all still offer lie-flat service between the two coasts, and Virgin America offers a 60" recliner that puts the rest of the transcon 38" seats to shame.

    UPDATE: Their official press release is here. If they really are upping the number of flights from 6 a day to 17 (their math seems off by a bit, but let's just grant them that they're drastically upping the number of available lie-flat seats on this route) this should keep the downward pressure on prices that JetBlue started when they launched Mint... though this actually is a reduction of competition at JFK. Hm. If I were them I'd also figure out some number of those seats to give away to Elites as part of their Complimentary Premier Upgrade program, but they've not been moving in the direction of being nicer to their customers as of late, so I wouldn't count on it. At the very least they could go remove the footnote that caused my husband to leave them.

    This trip last October was likely my last PS flight for a while…


    And then Mosaic happened...

    As I said in the post yesterday, status is best earned when someone else is paying. Well, my hubby's most-recent work flight on JetBlue Mint posted this morning and he crossed the threshold into JetBlue "Mosaic" elite status. While he's United gold until Feb 2016, he left them for JetBlue at the start of 2015 (more information on why he left United here). The other big development driving his move is that his company changed their rules and started paying for Business Class for transcontinental red-eye flights. Since policy also requires him to pick a flight within $100 of the lowest fare offered, Mint is almost always going to be his only choice.

    JetBlue's loyalty program is entirely revenue-based, so you earn status based mostly on how much you spend. Likewise you redeem points for a fixed amount of money (≈1.4¢ each). The Mosaic benefits are covered here, but I think the most exciting one is that you immediately get 15,000 bonus points (a $210 value) when you reach status.

    15,000 bonus points for this Mint flight!


    The 3 extra bonus points per dollar when booking might be nice, but with the corporate travel desk booking most of his flights we'll miss out on a bunch of the potential point bonuses from booking directly on JetBlue.com and using our personal JetBlue Amex. 

    When we're flying domestically on our own dime, we usually aim for a Premium Economy seat unless there's a cheap First Class fare or a Saver-level First Class award seat available. Mosaic allows you to upgrade to a Premium Economy seat with points, but sadly not to Mint class. It's also unclear if they'll let you upgrade with points if you've paid cash for your ticket. According to this chart over on the Points Guy, it sounds like the "upgrade with points" option isn't priced particularly well (only 1.25¢ per point compared to paying cash to upgrade)UPDATE: For 2016, JetBlue improved Mosaic to include discounted point redemptions for Even More Space – up to 9¢ per point versus the normal 1.5¢ valuation for their points! In addition, they also added free drinks for Mosaic members flying in Economy. 

    The rest of the options are pretty standard (early boarding, free bag, ticket changes with no fee). And on a Stockholm Syndrome-esque note, one of the best things about being United Gold is the dedicated customer service number... But our experience with JetBlue so far is that everyone who calls in gets handled quickly and fairly regardless of status. The quality of the Big 3 airlines has fallen so far that we just accept that only top and mid-tier elites are worthy of decent service. Though during a big east coast snow storm or summer hurricane, the elite line might come in handy for rebooking. 

    Monday, June 15, 2015

    Spontaneously Seattle

    Our schedules have been crazy lately and we've been trying to save up vacation days for an epic 3-month Japan trip next year so we've not been doing much on the leisure travel front. Right on schedule (i.e., May), the summer Business Class fares to Europe happened and sadly we just couldn't make it happen this year.

    We weren't going to have an entire summer with no vacation, though, so when we found out that the Monday after July 4th is a work holiday, we decided to do a 5 day weekend trip. It's been a while since we'd been to Seattle so we decided to head over there to see old friends and family and to be someplace with relatively mild weather.

    I hopped on to Google flights to start pricing out the trip (sidenote: I usually use Kayak.com for this but I'm really liking how quickly you can look at different fares on Google flights... There's a great tutorial about it over on Lucky's site).

    Loving the new Google Flights!

    I was already fairly familiar with the available options (JetBlue, United, Delta, American, Alaska have direct service) and their planes all have standard USA domestic configurations. Only on rare occasions will I pay extra for domestic Crappy First Class™ and last I'd read, Delta discontinued the only JFK-Seattle lie-flat service, so Economy Class it is...

    I have to admit I was shocked to find that United had the cheapest fare - $600 versus JetBlue's second-place $700.

    A few years back I decided it was time to become a free agent and completely ignore getting any kind of elite status with an airline. For someone like me who doesn't have an employer paying for my tickets, chasing elite status just means that I'll routinely choose a more expensive flight just to reach the next goal. But due to their new Mint product, I've been flying JetBlue a lot and logging in to my JetBlue account I gotta admit that Elite crack is tempting! And JetBlue has two bonus promos to chase on top of elite status to make it even worse. So here's the classic elite-chasing conundrum: is it worth the $100 each on this flight to chase JetBlue status? I think some more math is in order, first.

    So much temptation!

    > UPDATE: LOL he hit Mosaic status without even trying :)
    For a daytime transcon, all I really want is a seat where my large body isn't squashed, and that starts right around 35" for me. Most airlines have shrunk their coach seats to 31 or 32" and have branded their 35"+ Economy seats as Premium Economy. Even JetBlue, who historically had 34" pitch for all their seats, is in the process of moving to the narrower configuration to drive paid upgrades to their Even More Space™ seats. The lame part is that US carriers won't publish a price for Premium Economy on a domestic route – you have to buy an Economy ticket and then upgrade it for an unknown price. I know from experience that it's about $100/person/leg on a transcon, so i need to tack on $200-ish to whatever price I'm seeing.
    Carriers don't publish Premium Economy fares, making comparison shopping difficult
    Oh, and while I have the calculator open, don't forget that my paid upgrade to domestic Premium Economy doesn't include a checked bag (unless I'm on Virgin America), so be sure to account for that, too. If I'm checking a bag, my "$600" Economy fare is now actually $850. Add in the value of three cocktails, a crappy airport meal, and a few bonus miles and I'm now at a point where if I can find a crappy Domestic First fare for under $900, I'm totally going to take it. Sadly that wasn't the case today, the cheapest First ticket was $1300.

    In the middle of all this math, my dear husband reminded me that he still has United Gold status due to his many flights back when they were his preferred work carrier. United was already $100 per person cheaper, but then when you add in the fact that we can check a bag and sit in Premium Economy for free with his status, our two flights on United work out to $600 cheaper than on JetBlue (enough to cover 3 of our nights in the Hotel 5 downtown).

    Even better - the magic Economy Plus seat with near-infinite legroom was available!
    And this is honestly what's so maddening about the whole points game - there are times when having the status is really awesome, but I still think if you're paying for your tickets yourself, it's almost always not worth it. If someone else is paying, well, then it's a slam dunk :) And no matter what you're doing, do the math for upgrades and bags so you're actually comparing apples to apples.

    Saturday, June 13, 2015

    Air vents!

    Obviously this isn't an expansive list, but I'm trying to keep a record for myself of which flights have personal air vents. While there are lots of cool new tools to track the various in-flight amenities, none of them that I've found track this. I have many friends who work in the industry and I realize that these vents (nicknamed "gaspers") actually impede well-engineered cabin airflow, none of the marvels of my friends' airflow engineering will help me when the cabin crew sets the thermostat to 28C. Some more background info here.




    In general, narrow-body us dometic planes all seem to have them. I only just started keeping track, but here's my list so far. Feel free to add your own!

    Cathay 777-300ER  no
    AA     777       yep
    AC     777       yep
    B6     A321*     yep (mint)
    KL     A380*      no
    ANA    777*       no
    UNITED 777-200   yep
    SK     A330       no
    SK     A340       no
    DL     A330      yep