Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Hawaii planning


When I first started nerding out on points years ago, I noticed that FlyerTalk.com forums were full of posts from novices pleading for advice for getting to Hawaii. The subject line was always, "HELP!!!!" and then continued with:
"It's my honeymoon so you HAVE to help me!  …And the honeymoon is in 10 days!  …And I want to fly direct to Maui from Omaha!  …And I want to be in First Class! …And I have 8,000 points total spread across six frequent flier accounts!" 
Needless to say there weren't many happy endings on those posts 😜

Well, now it's my turn to start sifting through all of that advice I skipped over all those years – I'm taking my first trip to Hawaii. My in-laws are there on a work assignment outside of Hilo, so we're going to try to get out to see them at the tail end of New York winter, when you're 110% sick of the snow and slush.

UPDATE: Trip report!

Here's a few things I learned:

  • Flights to Hawaii are all during the day
  • Flights from Hawaii to the East Coast are all 11-hour overnight flights, so a lie-flat seat would be ideal on that leg
  • Most of the First Class seats to Hawaii are normal 38" domestic recliner seats
  • A few airlines have lie-flat seats on flights from the East Coast (Delta, United), but you have to be really careful to make sure you're booking the right flight. (SeatGuru.com is your friend!)
  • Delta's direct JFK service is Winter-only (ending 25 March). Their lie-flat Business Class is around $1700 round trip – less than half the cost of United's lie-flat service, and still cheaper than Hawaiian's domestic recliners. 
    As is so often the case, United is laughably more expensive for an inferior product
  • An economy round-trip is around $800 on all the carriers, so Delta's First Class is essentially double that price. United and Hawaiian want a minimum of triple the economy price for first. 
  • I still have around 100k United points, but after looking there's basically zero Saver rewards in First and spotty Standard reward availability on the non-stop flight. So that's 180k miles (per person, round trip) in lie-flat First on days I don't like, with a per-point redemption value below 1¢. (Remember, anything below 1¢ is a terrible deal). But it's irrelevant in any event because I don't have 360k points, even if I transfer in from Chase.

    You're going to need 180,000 miles AND flexible dates if you want an award seat on that non-stop flight
  • Hawaiian airlines is slowly rolling out lie-flat First, but the rollout isn't complete until 2018. From this thread on Flyertalk.com, it sounds like their flights to Asia will get the lie-flat service first, but then The Points Guy posted that the JFK-Honolulu run will get the lie-flat seats starting Feb 2017...
    Hawaiian's new lie-flat seat (click to enlarge)
  • You can use JetBlue points to redeem for Hawaiian Airlines flights but you have to do it over the phone and you get about 1¢ per point. Of course AFTER I did all of this research The Points Guy publishes a full guide to the various JetBlue/Hawaiian redemption values :) 
  • Many carriers offer direct service to smaller Hawaiian cities like Hilo, but only from the West Coast. Most everything from the East Coast routes through Honolulu.
  • If you're connecting through Honolulu to other parts of Hawaii, double-check the cost of booking that leg separate from your long haul. I saw several instances where a cheap island hop connection was adding $500 to my itinerary. 

What we did

Since there were no good point options we decided to pay for our flight. Once I actually priced out a split itinerary (Economy there, First on the way back) we'd only be saving around $300 a person by flying in Economy on the leg out there. For a 10-hour flight it seemed worth it to spring for First both ways. I booked through the Amex Travel portal so I'd get another bonus point per dollar in addition to the 3 points I get on airfare from my Amex Premier Rewards Gold card. During checkout, I noticed this (the framing of the window says I get 2x points from the Amex portal for Delta flights). If this is correct I'll earn 5 Amex points per dollar (8500 Amex points!) for my flight in addition to the 5 Delta points per dollar.  UPDATE: you don't get 2x as the window promises, just 1x. Details here. All told, I earned 8,000 Delta miles for this flight and 7,000 Amex points worth around $225.




Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2016 Points roundup

Looking back on 2016, the travels we got to take were truly the bright spots in an otherwise dismal year. But it also makes me grateful for the health and prosperity that allows us to travel. I started this blog in 2013 largely because I wanted to share the knowledge I'd gained about traveling for less. Travel opens your eyes to the world and ergo to yourself, and I think it generally makes the world a better place when we see how others live. 

That said, the most common question I've gotten in 2016 is "love the blog, but how are you making all of those miles?" And to that question, I decided to compile a list of 2016's point earnings and churnings.

Earnings: ≈ 550,000 points across six programs



Korean Airlines Credit Card targeted signup bonus – 40,000. This came in super handy paying for our flights to and from Japan...


Chase Sapphire Reserve signup bonus – 100,000. I think half of the United States got this card this year! I recently read that Chase is spending several hundred million dollars just to pay for all of the perks that come with this card.

Chase Sapphire spending – 90,000. Chase has bonuses in Dining and travel so those helped me boost my earning on everyday spend here. I also had the Boracay trip in mind and knew they had tons of award space yielding well above 2¢ per mile so I chose to put one of my company's estimated quarterly tax payments on my card. With Payusatax.com you pay a 2% convenience fee, so as long as you know you can redeem above 2¢ in the near future it can be worth it.



Amex Offers Bottega Veneta – 20,000. What can I say, I was grief shopping after the election...

Amex spending – 100,000. Looking over the year the biggest "pop" I get on monthly spend is buying paid airfare through the Amex travel portal so I get 4 Amex points per dollar spent in addition to whatever I earn from the airline for the flight. Some tips for using their portal.

The second-biggest item is the shipping charges for my company (I have a personal and a work Amex). FedEx earns a 3x bonus and that also adds up.


LOL the only United pic I have on this blog is my "goodbye United" shoe pic
United – 11,000. I didn't fly United at all this year! I despise flying out of Newark so United starts off at a "-3" rating even before I get off the AirTrain. Once they pulled their PS planes from JFK, there was no escaping it. Even our normal Puerto Vallarta flight ended up being on Delta this year. Still, they have some great partner redemptions with their miles and many have super reasonable co-pay prices. I use the United Mileage Dining program to earn bonus miles at select restaurants, and I use their shopping portal to take advantage of bonuses at places I'm going to buy holiday presents at anyway.


Earning Delta miles on a China Airlines flight
Delta – 6000. Our flight to Vallarta was paid on Delta, as was our flight to Kalibo from Taipei on their partner, China Airlines.



JetBlue – a lot :)

This one is too hard to calculate. My husband flies a lot for work and we have a family account so that complicates the math. He used to fly United for work, but then they did this at the end of 2014 and he decided to jump over to Mint for work travel. On top of his flying:
JetBlue.com shows the two of us accruing a total of 180,000 points, including all of those bonuses. Oddly, though, we didn't redeem JetBlue points for any of our flights this year. Since "earn and burn" is the mantra I'm guessing we'll try to burn some of these points in 2017. Given that their points are fixed-rate (around 1.4¢) and that they only have one redemption partner (Hawaiian Airlines for 1¢ each), the miles aren't the best to have, but they're free. 


Churnings

  • Closed my Chase Sapphire Preferred card (in favor of the Reserve Card)
  • Closed my Barclays Arrival card in favor of the new JetBlue Plus card (they both offer Chip + PIN backup, so your card will work in foreign train ticket machines)
  • Closed my JetBlue Amex/Mastercard in favor of the new JetBlue Plus card
  • Closed my Chase Ink Business in favor of Amex Business Gold
  • Looking ahead to 2017, I might get the Chase United card again if I'm eligible for the 60k signup bonus (Chase got grumpy about churners and instituted a "5/24" rule)


Monday, December 19, 2016

Korean Airlines canceling flights due to pilots' strike


I just got an alert from Korean Airlines that a pilots' strike is going to cause a bunch of flight cancelations the 22nd through the 26th of December. Details here, but so far it looks like no North American flights are going to be impacted.

International cancelations (click to enlarge)

Each Virgin America point becomes 1.3 Alaska Airlines points

Alaska Airlines and Virgin America have been slowly merging. Since I moved away from the west coast I've not had much opportunity to fly either airline, but I have 20,000-ish miles with both carriers that I'll probably put to use at some point. I've used both Virgin and Alaska's shopping portals to earn a few miles here and there and keep my points from expiring.
Virgin's First Class recliners – a midpoint between two domestic First Class extremes

Now that the merger is nearing completion they've announced that each Virgin point will become 1.3 Alaska points. Details about the transfer process are still TBD.

(Let's not forget the other awesome use of Virgin points – getting a 30,000-point match from JetBlue earlier this year!)

At this point the most exciting thing about Alaska miles is all of the great partner redemptions you can do with them (like Japan Airlines or Iceland Air). Since they're spending a lot of money on this merger in hopes of becoming a national rather than regional airline, I hope they put some thought into their transcon services.

Alaska is very used to having legions of hub-captive customers and has consistently underwhelmed with their plane choices (slow to roll out Wi-Fi and at-seat power, no seatback entertainment, etc). This might be fine for shorter regional flights, but in recent years JetBlue Mint has completely upended the transcon market by offering incredible onboard amenities (fast and free wifi, at-seat DirecTV, enclosed First Class suites with lie-flat beds) with prices half that of the legacy carriers.

I'm not sure how Alaska plans to position themselves in this marketplace. Virgin's planes have a First Class somewhere between the two extremes of the other airlines. On one hand, their 55" recliners are inferior to the luxurious suites of Mint, Delta One, American Flagship and United PS; but on the other hand, they're much nicer than the 38" recliners on most domestic runs (including Alaska's). With no hub-captives chasing status, do they race to the bottom and undercut price, or do they retrofit Virgin's planes to compete (or surpass) Mint and go that route?

Other links

Sunday, December 18, 2016

planning mexico

We've been going to Puerto Vallarta for our anniversary since 2007. We nearly skipped going last year due to work stress and a massive winter storm, but we managed to keep up our streak with a minor re-routing through LAX. This year is our 20th anniversary (!!) and we're having a party in Vallarta with friends and doing a quick stopover in Oaxaca on our way there.
Vallarta Sunset


summary

  • JFK – MEX on an Aeromexico 787 in Business Class
    MEX – OAX on Aeromexico E170 regional jet in Business Class
      = 30,000 Delta miles + US$45 for these two flights, per person
  • OAX – MEX – PVR on Aeromexico regional jets in Business Class
      = US$250 per person
  • PVR – EWR on a United 737 in Business Class
      = US$662 per person
My updated guide to booking a flight to Vallarta is here.

details

We love the 787, and Aeromexico flies an internationally-configured 787 with lie-flat seats between JFK and Mexico City. Since there's no direct service to Oaxaca from New York, connecting with this 787 flight was a no-brainer. It was pricing out around $1000, so we redeemed Delta miles around 3.3¢ each. About half of those points came from flying Delta domestically and the other half came from an Amex point transfer. My Amex points come from a mix of spending for my business and from purchasing groceries and airfare (Amex bonus categories).

Aeromexico 787 with international lie-flat seats

This cleaned me out of Amex points, so the flight from Oaxaca to Vallarta (sadly, no direct service) via Mexico City was US$250 cash in Business Class. 

As for getting home, United and Delta are well aware of the limited options for direct flights between Vallarta and New York, and they price things accordingly. They're also very stingy about releasing reward seats. Since I really didn't want to pay $1200+ per person for a one-way flight, I poked and poked and eventually found a much better deal by booking through a Mexican travel agent. 


Other links

My Puerto Vallarta guide on Medium

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What we did in Taipei

We had a long layover in Taipei on our last trip and we got a ton of great recommendations from people. Here's a few things we did.

First off, the airport is quite far from the city and traffic can be horrendous (the subway to the airport opened in Spring 2017 and you can get a deal online for airport rail fare + 48 or 72 hour Taipei Metro pass). We opted to take the bus to the bullet train station.


Download and watch Anthony Bourdain's video about Taipei on the flight there. He's always good for a laugh and a tip or two. 


Subways and bullet trains are cheap. If you're going to be there for more than a couple days, get an Easy Card from the staffed window at the subway station. You can also use it to pay at most convenience stores. If you're not, single-ride tickets are actually plastic RFID "coins" that you tag at the faregate when you enter, and then drop into the faregate slot when you exit. 


Eat breakfast at Fuhang Soymilk. (華山市場 阜杭豆漿) The line is long, but do it anyway. I don't care if you "don't like soymilk" – this isn't hippie crud, it's savory and delicious and perfect. Go do it!




Ride the gondola at the Taipei zoo. There's lovely teahouses with a view at the top. Choose a gondola with a glass bottom if you're looking for some terror with your tea.


Eat Beef noodle soup (Nu Ro Mein – 牛肉麵), the national dish. This place is legendary.


Go to a night market and eat Hujiaobing (胡椒餅). You're totally not going to be able to wait for it to cool and will scald your face when you bite into it but it's so delicious you won't care.


While you're at the night market, eat some Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐). Trust me, it smells way worse than it tastes. Make sure to get it with the pickled cabbage. 



Also at the night market, eat the giant fried chicken breasts. I absolutely loved these and I'm a total dark meat girl who normally won't touch a chicken breast with a 10 foot pole. 


Kill two birds with one stone - Go to Taipei 101 in the morning and then queue up for the Din Tai Fung in the lobby about 15 minutes before they open. The lines are supposedly much shorter here than at the original one closer to the city center. Their soup dumplings (小籠包 - XLB - Xiao Long Bao) are fantastic. 


Eat ALL the fruit. I'd never eaten a custard apple before and it was insanely good (it's not really an apple). Eat dragon fruit, wax apples, mango, guava... it's all delicious!


Eat mango shave ice. This one had panna cotta on top!


Go to the national museum. You know a country is obsessed with food when the two most popular items (like there's a separate queue for them inside like there is for the Mona Lisa in Paris) are a piece of jade that looks like a cabbage, and another that looks like a piece of pork belly.


Take the red line to Beitou and then take a bus or an Uber to one of the many hot springs. Bring your own towel and a water bottle. Like Korean spas, not good if you're shy about being naked. We went to Emperor, which seems to be popular with the bearish guys in the evenings. (This spa is gender-separated)

If you're a train nerd like us, you can also collect station stamps from the MRT subway and bullet train stations.


We stayed at the Tango ChangAn and it was perfection. A mood-lit jetted tub with a TV in it and NHK showing cycling championships? Yes, please! Plus fast wi-fi, espresso machine on site, full breakfast, and Toto Washlets!


Some other things

  • Bubble tea is from Taiwan. I didn't try any, though
  • The oyster omelettes are another Taiwan classic we didn't have time to try
  • Tianbula (similar to Japanese Oden)
  • Jade Market
  • Visit Jiufen and follow the trail of Spirited Away


Other links

Trip Report: Korean airlines Seoul to JFK in Business Class 747-8 KE 85

pros
  • 747 upstairs Business Class cabin is my favorite place to fly
  • newest (and likely last-ever version) of the 747 has updated interior similar to JAL's fantastic Business Class suite
  • exterior cameras feed into a pilots-eye view channel on the in-flight entertainment
  • the coolest in-flight map ever 
  • good food and liquor 

cons
  • no wi-fi 
  • no pajamas
  • the blue interior plus white LED lighting makes the inside feel like a hospital
  • very warm cabin 
  • no mattress pad

how i did it

This trip is the second leg in this this booking75,000 Korean Air points for Manila – Seoul – JFK (For comparison, JFK – Seoul is 62,500). 40k points came from a sign-up bonus for a Korean Air credit card. The rest came from Chase Ulitmate Rewards, most of which we acquired from a 60k point bonus for a Chase Ink Business card. (Both cards we've since canceled). Planning is here.

conclusions

Korean Air has great award availability and accepts instant point transfers from Chase, so this will stay a go-to option to check when getting to Asia provided I'm not flying on one of their Peak dates when redemption rates jump. 

(UPDATE: Chase Sapphire Reserve's runaway popularity means that Korean's wide-open award availability of yesteryear is no more. Plan as far in advance as you can)

If timing means I need to fly the A380, I might spring for First Class since the Business Class seats aren't as nice as those on the 747.


lounge

Since this is Korean Air's home base, the lounge was vast and busy. This and the First Class lounge are completely separate, so don't go up the stairs until you see the sign for the Prestige Class lounge or you'll end up in the wrong place. 

As I mentioned in my review of the First Class lounge last year, there's no gin and there's no kimchi. Other than that, it's a full featured lounge with hot meals, fast wi-fi, snacks, bathrooms, work areas, and even an enclosed smoking area. My favorite feature, though, was the automatic beer pouring machine. We grabbed a seat and a snack and chilled out for an hour before our flight. 


Vast "Prestige Class" lounge in Seoul

Cup noodle ramen

Premium spirits and wine

Buffet with several hot dishes

Beverages and cheese

Work areas

boarding

Boarding was unusually orderly. There was a separate line for the premium cabins and the staff made sure the First Class people were at the front of the line before the doors opened.

Save for a couple of luxury items (Johnny Walker Blue, foie gras, fancier amenity kit) the service was basically identical to what i had in First on Korean's A380. Even though the premium for First Class is small (15k more miles one-way) I wouldn't bother with First if i was on the 747

The new lie-flat Apex Suites (Korean calls them "Sky Suites") in Business have nearly as much privacy as the First Class ones do, and every seat has direct aisle access. On the A380 (which has different, not-so-nice Business Class seats), I might spend the extra miles to get into the Kosmo Suite.

Hooray for orderly boarding!
Our 747-8

New Business Class seats

I love the upstairs cabin!

Pillow, blanket, and amenity kit
Love the forward-facing exterior camera on the IFE

food

The food is better than any USA domestic carrier but man, I wish they'd put an egg in their bimbimbap! Or give you sesame leaves with you boolgogi.

The second meal is breakfasty even though the flight lands at 7pm. the FA suggested that i have the ramen from the snack menu instead of the korean porridge or western omelette options. she warned me several times that it was very spicy. Fruit, coffee, and tea were offered afterward. 

Menu (click to enlarge)

Beverages 

Amuse-bouche


Seafood salad to start

Boolgogi

Cheese cart

Cheese

I ordered ramen off the snack menu for the 7:30pm "Breakfast"

More perfect fruit


sleeping

As usual, the FAs ran the cabins really warm – I'd guess around 26C. Since they didn't have pajamas, and because I'd accidentally put mine into my checked bag I was a lot smellier upon arrival than I'd have preferred. I perused the entertainment system quite a bit and the choices were fairly sparse, even for local tourism content. It had some games, though.

I also love their flight progress animation.


landing

We landed on-time and immigration was a breeze even for those without Global Entry. The baggage claim was really slow, though... Welcome to JFK. We took advantage of the Uber promo and got a free ride back into the city. Gotta love the forward cam for the landing!