Monday, August 7, 2017

Alternative for an actual Priority Pass Lounge

I'm not a huge lounge person. There are a few international First Class lounges that still have a huge wow factor, but Business Class lounges – especially ones in the US – are increasingly crowded and often don't even include free drinks or hot food.

Meanwhile, the terminals themselves have been getting increasingly nicer:
  • food from famous local restaurants
  • healthier and more interesting food and beverages
  • flexible seating with USB and chargers
  • gate-side seating so you can keep an eye on your gate while you wait to board... 
I recently had a friend ask me about the lounge in JetBlue's main terminal and I told him it wasn't even worth visiting.


Priority Pass is a lounge membership program that lets you enter a selected list of lounges around the world for a fee (their hand app lets you see which ones they partner with). Due to the huge popularity of the Chase Sapphire Reserve (which includes a free membership), lots of people ended up with a free Priority Pass membership this past year. This has only exacerbated the overcrowding problem.

I was eyeing a flight to Portland from San Francisco (so I could fly through the eclipse!) and I noticed something interesting at PDX – Priority Pass will now give you a $28 food and beverage credit for select restaurants inside the main terminal. From reading through the details, it also sounds like any official "guests" you bring also get the $28 credit.

I can totally see myself using this. If I have a long layover where I need to eat, I don't even consider a lounge a viable place to have a proper meal (again, unless it's in an international First Class lounge like the Concorde room). Hopefully this will become commonplace, as I doubt the lounges are going to get nicer anytime soon.






Monday, July 31, 2017

A fun tool for visualizing your trips

I just gave JetItUp.com a try yesterday and it's a fun little tool for visualizing your travel. It connected directly to my TripIt account (after I granted permission) and imported and analyzed 8 years of my travel. (TIP: you can email old airline confirmations to TripIt and it should be able to import them even though they're several years old)

They support several other types itinerary management software too.


First off – who doesn't love a map! From there it shows a bunch of stats about my travel: the types of aircraft I flew, which airports I used, international/domestic breakdown, and maybe most importantly: Economy vs. Business vs. First 😂

Rumors of my glamorous lifestyle have been greatly exaggerated…

On the disturbing news front: I've spent 58 days and 7 hours in the air! There's heaps more info to look at, so if you browse a snapshot of my data, go here.

When you're logged in there's are several other views beyond what you see in the snapshot. I really enjoyed seeing the breakdown of all the different plane types I'd flown on. The chronological view is also nice since it's much more smooth and scroll-able than the stuck-in-2004 interface that TripIt has.







Friday, July 28, 2017

Amex Offers bonanza!

The Chase Sapphire Reserve's overwhelming popularity has got Amex shaking in their boots. From the looks of things, they're spending a bunch of marketing money by coming up with Amex Offers to bribe people into using their Amex cards for purchases that are likely not in the Sapphire's bonus categories (dining and travel).

The big wildcard with Amex Offers is that they're somewhat random – there are different offers for different customers, and they're different on every card if you have more than one type of Amex. After looking over my offers, here's how I'm getting in on the action:

5000 bonus miles for spending $5000

I have lots of spending that doesn't neatly fall into any card's bonus category, so I'm stuck earning one lowly point per dollar on it. With this offer, I can essentially double it, provided I hit the spending target. I've charged a few big expenses from my business to my personal Amex (which was my only card with this offer) and then filed an expense report for myself. I've already gotten a confirmation email from Amex that I've reached the threshold once, and I'm going to try to hit it a second time.

1000 bonus points for spending $100 on cellular bills

I have the T-Mobile ONE plan right now, but it's set to auto-pay $70 a month. I went in and manually made a payment of $101 and it went through no problem. Click Pay Now, then manually enter an amount, and click to confirm that you're overpaying your bill. I got an email confirmation from Amex that the offer bonus happened a few minutes later.

Luckily this offer showed up on the same card as the previous one, so my payment here will also help me hit that $5000.

Near-instant confirmation

 

1000 points for paying your cable bill

Here's another offer that will stack with the first one and is also in a category where I'd otherwise only earn one point per dollar. I was really hoping that this offer would be on another of my or my husband's cards so we could double-dip (our cable/internet bill is $210 a month) by each making a half-payment on the bill, but alas he didn't get this offer. Again, I got an email confirmation from Amex that I'd earned the bonus minutes after the charge went through. 

 


Home Depot one extra bonus point per dollar

I need a new shower head and Home Depot stocks the one I need (our fixtures have weird color and it needs to match) so I added this Amex Offer to my card before I bought. This spending also counts toward the $5000 in the first offer, plus I'm earning 2 points per dollar on top of that. Like a bad "As seen on TV" commercial, "But wait, there's more!" – if I use the United Mileage Shopping portal to visit Home Depot's website, I'll earn another point per dollar, plus it'll count toward their Back To School bonus program

Using the United Mileage Shopping portal, I'm going to nab another 500 points on this showerhead

 

Kinda "manufacturing" some spending paying my ConEd electric bill

Our local utility here in NYC has a website that seems like it hasn't been updated since about 2003, but it does let you pay your energy bill online via credit card for a flat $3.35 fee regardless of the size of the payment. Assuming each mile is worth 2¢, that means this fee is "worth it" for any amount over $167. I'd read on Reddit's churning forums that you can charge up to $1500 on the ConEd website and the remainder simply applies to next month's bill. This could come in handy if you go abroad for longer trips because their website isn't accessible outside the United States. I charged $1200 and this should help me reach that second 5000 point bonus. (Also, there's some penny-wise logic in paying that $3.35 fee as few times as possible).

 

Martha Stewart Wine

Both my and my husband's cards got this offer for $40 off a $50 order. Most of wine offers on the various points programs want you to join some kind of club so I never bother. This one didn't. We did one order on my card, used a Coravin to sample all three and then used my husband's offer to buy 3 bottles of the one we liked most (the Ocean Breeze Pinot Noir).




Monday, July 24, 2017

What category will my transaction be?


Another useful tool that I've recently come across is a Visa search that helps you figure out what official category the charges from a specific merchant will code to on your Visa statement.

Since many cards have category bonuses (e.g., groceries, gas, dining), this can be helpful to figure out which card to use at various merchants. It's especially helpful if it's a merchant you've never been to and you don't have any historical data in your own account to look back on.

Check it out!




Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cool tool to search for award seats across all airlines

One of the toughest parts of the points game is actually finding the flights you want once you've gathered enough points. Most people end up with a mix of points across several carriers and maybe a pile or two of transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.

If you're just perusing possibilities, AwardHacker.com is great for showing you all of your potential options. You can filter the list so it doesn't show flights with programs you don't have points for. While this is great for brainstorming (and for choosing which new points programs to join), it doesn't show the availability of those rewards, so you'll need to use something different once you're ready to book.
Award Hacker (click to enlarge)

There are several options to look for reward seat availability. The "beginner" way is to search one airline's site and make sure it's set to also show partner flights (e.g., using United.com can show you results for United and nearly all of their Star Alliance partners). There are a few downsides to this, the biggest is that you have to search at least 3 websites (United/Star Alliance, Delta/SkyTeam, and American/Oneworld) for availability when you're trying to use transferable points. Another is that many airlines hide available award seats from their alliance partners when inventories get low.

But if you're looking for an award seat that's pretty easy to find, say, 1 person, 10 months from now, in low season on a busy route, that's likely all you need. But if you're looking for something a bit more challenging, you'll quickly want smarter tools. Earlier this year, a new startup called AwardEx.io launched that adds real-time seat availability to AwardHacker-style rewards searches. Yes, there are other options for this type of service (Expert Flyer, Award Nexus, FlightFox) but I've found they're almost too "pro" for most of my needs. AwardEx has a simple interface and a straightforward pricing structure

AwardEx.io pricing after you've used up your signup credits


It's a lot like searching on Kayak or Google flights. Put in your dates and cities (it automatically includes nearby airports) and other flight info and search.

Search (click to enlarge)

Results are conveniently grouped by transferable point programs first, then by individual airlines below. One feature I'd love to see here is some kind of a flag letting you know that one of these groups includes a direct flight.
Results (click to enlarge)

Once the results load, make sure you take advantage of that Sort button to find those cheap/nonstop flights.


Once you've found a flight you like, AwardEx gives you instructions for how to book.


I've spot-checked several examples and each time I've been able to actually locate the open seat it's recommended at the price point shown in AwardEx. Since seats can vanish without warning, it's helpful to know in advance which transferable points transfer instantly and which ones don't (cheat sheet here).



This seems like a great tool to have in my toolbox going forward. Since I only learned of it after planning our next big trip, I'll have to report back on how useful it is planning the trip after that.






Thursday, July 20, 2017

More competition coming for the Big 3 US carriers

Despite the PR nightmare of United's recent dragging and beating episode, United is on track to have a great quarter, and they'll likely have their highest number of boardings ever. Despite all of those Facebook comment threats about "never flying them again", it's amazing how many people still do when it's the cheapest, most-convenient, or only option. People might still hate United, but not enough to pay $50 more or take a 2-stop itinerary instead of a direct one...

This is why competition is so important. I still don't understand why the Obama administration approved the three mergers that eliminated Continental, US Air, and Virgin America. The airlines have now fully recovered from their post-9/11 financial crises, are making record profits, and yet they're raising prices, introducing "Basic Economy" fares with even fewer amenities, and treating customers worse than ever. As we drift toward monopoly, this is exactly what we'd predict would happen.

Well, there's been a little bit of good news on the competition front.
  • Frontier just announced a huge expansion – adding 21 new cities and 300 new pilots. 
  • Alaska is expanding to 13 new routes from the Bay Area, and potentially adding passenger service out of north Seattle's Paine Field
  • In somewhat shocking news, Southwest's previous booking system was so stone age, it didn't support red-eye flights, nor several other seemingly-basic features. Their new system should allow them all kinds new options to compete. 
  • The new 737-Max and A321-LR planes are giving budget airlines the ability to do transatlantic service. Norwegian is already offering transatlantic service out of JFK, Newark, and NYC-exurb Newburgh (SWF), and while they may force you to pay for your carry-on, they're at least giving you free Wi-Fi onboard
  • A new-ish low cost carrier called Primera is using new A321s to launch service between NYC/Boston and London, Paris, and Birmingham.
  • JetBlue is adding transatlantic service when they take delivery of their A321-LRs in 2018, and they'll feature the industry-leading Mint Business Class
  • Speaking of JetBlue Mint, they've also announced the Mint is being added to Seattle and San Diego and being expanded at Boston. And the Big 3 (mostly) only offer 38" recliner seats only those routes, so JetBlue has a competitive double-whammy there.
New JetBlue Mint routes

As a data point on competition: the introduction of Mint on the JFK-SFO/LAX run caused United, Delta, and American to drop their prices on these runs by $1000, so you'll likely benefit even if you're flying one of the legacy carriers.






Monday, July 17, 2017

JetBlue will status match to Mosaic

Over the weekend I got an email from JetBlue that they're bringing back status matches and status challenges. The former allows people with status on another airline to try out JetBlue's Mosaic elite status, and the latter allows non-elites to earn status through the end of next year by flying $1250 worth of JetBlue flights in 90 days.

My husband ended up earning Mosaic status largely by accident,  and we've scrutinized the benefits we've gotten from it and found that we got around $1200 of value out of it. Since people use some benefits more than others, you might want to look carefully at what it's worth before you make any decisions.

In our case, it's looking like my husband might miss making Mosaic status for next year due to fewer work trips this year, so he's planning on signing up for the challenge to still requalify for 2018. The one downer here is if you qualify via the challenge, you don't get the 15,000 bonus points (worth about $200) for making Mosaic.

You can enter the match or the challenge here. All the fine print is at the bottom. Here are the elite statuses they'll match:

  • Virgin America®: Elevate® Silver, Elevate® Gold
  • Alaska Airlines®: Mileage Plan™; MVP® Gold or MVP® Gold 75k
  • American Airlines®: AAdvantage Platinum®, AAdvantage Platinum Pro®, AAdvantage Executive Platinum®
  • Delta®: SkyMiles Medallion® Silver, Gold, Platinum or Diamond
  • Southwest Airlines®: Rapid Rewards® A-List Preferred or Companion Pass
  • United®: MileagePlus® Premier® Silver, Gold, Platinum or Premier1K®





Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Big changes to Aeromexico's Upgrade plan


We started planning the annual pilgrimage to Mexico a bit early this year. We loved Oaxaca so much last year that we basically want to repeat the schedule from last year:
   NYC > Oaxca > Puerto Vallarta > NYC.
We booked last year in September and many of the food and mezcal tours we wanted to take were already sold out for our late January dates, so we wanted to book a bit earlier this year.

There are several challenges in that itinerary, but probably the biggest one is that final direct flight back to New York. United (and Delta back when they used to compete on this route) will charge you USD$1000 per person for that trip whether it's a one-way or a round-trip. I got lucky last year and found a Mexican travel agent who could book the one way for $600-ish. Sadly they couldn't make that happen again this year, so I had try several different tricks but managed to eventually land the one-way for $550 in Business (happy to share how privately).

As I discussed in previous planning posts, there are never any Saver award seats on these direct NYC-PVR flights, and very rarely are there seats at the Standard award level, either.

 

Goodbye, Optiontown…

Ok, so we've got a flight home, now it's time to start looking for the other legs. Unfortunately there have been lots of changes since last year so I can't just copy-paste what I did last year. In years past, you could buy a coach ticket with Aeromexico, and then enter a lottery for a $50 upgrade through a 3rd party company called Optiontown. That's now been scrapped in favor of a new homegrown Upgrade auction system. From what I've been able to find on Flyertalk, winning bids are generally in the $150 to $200 range and you have to bid on each segment of your flight separately if you're on a connecting itinerary.
New Aeromexico Upgrade system

Right now a one-way Aeromexico flight from JFK to Oaxaca is about $950 in First, and about half that price in Economy. The next-best option is a United one-stop flight via Houston, but it's more expensive, there are no Saver rewards, and a long leg of that itinerary is on a tiny regional jet with no First or Business. (The Aeromexico flight is on a 787 with lie-flat seats). Furthermore, whenever I fly into a small town, I'd prefer to be on the biggest local carrier. United has one flight a day into OAX and if there's a mechanical problem their options are limited compared to Aeromexico's.

In years past they've had quite a bit of award seats available (usually netting around 3¢ each after you transfer from Amex) but now their Saver First award calendar is completely empty throughout the winter. (This might also be related to their recent addition of Peak dates for rewards) One way or the other, it looks like we're going to have to buy the tickets this year.

Zero saver award seats in First on any days in Jan/Feb


If you book right now (i.e., July/low season), there's plenty of choices

One other thing that's changed since last year is that Aeromexico has moved to Terminal 4 at JFK from Terminal 1. Their lounge in T1 was quite nice, so I'm not very hopeful for this new one.









Thursday, July 6, 2017

LOT Polish Airlines starting direct New York to Budapest service

Hungary hasn't had direct service to the US since American Airlines cut their flight and Malév went bankrupt in 2012, but it looks like starting next May, they're going to sponsor a new fifth freedom flight between NYC/Chicago and Budapest operated by LOT Polish Airlines.  Having a direct flight will help tourism and commerce so it makes sense the Hungarian government would want to sponsor this service. Apparently they originally planning to have Emirates operate the flight, but that fell through.

My first-ever 787 flight was on LOT Polish (their entire long-haul fleet is 787), and we had a great trip. I wrote a trip report for it over on Medium.com. I've always wanted to go to Budapest and I might actually take this flight when I finally get around to going. They're part of Star Alliance, and you can search/book award flights through United.com. Also, I don't know if this is typical, but I actually called their call center (push the buttons to get to the First Class support people) and they actually manually opened up another award seat for me so our friend could join us as a last-minute addition.


Lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 config
Their chef is a "taste sorceress"
Z is nearly 2 meters tall but there's plenty of headroom
We got a sneak peak at the crew rest "bump"

Friday, June 30, 2017

Where to find TOTO Washlets outside of Japan

I love Washlets. I've had one in my house since my first visit to Japan more than a decade ago and I love it when my hotel room or my plane has one. And it's not just me, the NYTimes wrote about them, and several competing brands have appeared in the US in recent years.

If you want a Washlet in the sky, you don't have much of a choice – only ANA and JAL have them, and only in the premium cabins.

ウォシュレット!

But what about hotels? As the spokesmodel in this commercial says, "I can't go on vacation anymore". A few of us were discussing this the other day and I said that yes, in fact, the presence of a Washlet would be a slam dunk for me when choosing a hotel. So I went poking around to find places outside of Japan that have them. Please message me if you know one that should be added to the list!

Hotels with Washlets


The Americas
  • The Kitano Hotel in New York has them in all of the rooms.
  • The Chatwal Hotel in New York
  • The Ritz Carlton Battery Park City, New York (suites only)
  • the $18,000 a night Presidential Suite at the NYC Four Seasons has one too :P
  • J House in Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Aria Casino, Bellagio, Mirage, and Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas have them in their suites
  • Also in Las Vegas: Nobu Hotel, Red Rock, Palazzo, the Venetian, and the Mansion at MGM (again, all likely only in the suites)
  • Holiday Inn Express in Auburn Hills, Michigan
  • some of the rooms in the Hotel Madonna in San Luis Obispo, CA
  • the Tower rooms at the Royal Hawaiian in Hawaii
  • the Suites at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Hawaii
  • Some of the rooms at Andaz Maui 
  • Grand Hyatt in Kauai 
Asia
Europe
TIP: If you go to Trip Advisor to look at a hotel, you can click 'Room and Suite' and then click 'Bathroom' to check out visitor photos before you book
TOTO also keeps an online list of restaurants. I think they do this largely so people can "try before they buy" if they've never used one before.


Hello Kitty Washlet!





Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Double-dipping on Dining

Most of the big American airlines have a mileage dining program. It's pretty simple: enroll your credit card in their program and any time you eat at a participating restaurant you earn bonus miles. Here in New York there are a few good places on their program.

Even if you never use their search engine to explicitly dine at one of them, it's good to sign up anyway because I've definitely dined at a few completely by accident (especially when traveling) and the miles were a nice surprise.

A few notes:
  • The mileage dining plans all seem to be run by the same company 
  • The participating restaurants are the same for all the airlines' programs
  • If you've never signed up for one, many have a 1000+ point signup bonus
  • If possible, book a reservation at the restaurant so you also earn OpenTable points 
  • Mileage Dining programs occasionally run seasonal bonuses, so staying on their email list might be valuable (I actually earned another bonus 500 miles on my example dine at Fonda below because of a Flash Sale United Mileage Dining was having)
  • You can only have one card registered for each airline
That last one is a gotcha – it'd be awesome to earn points on like 5 airlines every time you ate at one of the restaurants but I totally get why they don't let you "double dip".

Well, I recently signed up for Yelp's new-ish Yelp Cash Back program and I just learned that indeed you can double-dip with it and a mileage dining program. (Yelp's program gives you a cash rebate back to your credit card whenever you dine at one of their participating restaurants.)

I ate at Fonda in the East Village. The bill was $100 and I earned:
  • 500 United Miles (worth $7.50)
  • $5.78 over on yelp 
  • 300 Chase Ultimate rewards (worth $6.60)
  • TOTAL: $19.88 worth of rewards on a $100 bill. If you count the flash sale bonus, that's $27.38 in rewards on $100 bill.

500 United Mileage Dining Miles
$5.78 in Yelp Cash Back




Plus 300 Chase points


TIP: on Yelp click All Filters, then More Features, the check the Cash Back box to find participating businesses

 

Final Thoughts

I hate point schemes that involve a ton of work. Setting up your cards for this and Yelp takes a couple of minutes and you never really have to mess with it again. Points/dollars just show up right where you want them whenever you happen to eat at one of the participating restaurants. No referral links, no apps, no coupons, no BS. Now if they could just get some better restaurants in there!






Friday, June 23, 2017

Kayak now lets you search for travel by Emojis! Vote for the next 15!

Kayak has a history of doing fun things with their travel search portal's interface. A while back they implemented a special Excel spreadsheet-style view so you could plan your vacation while still looking productive at work.

Now they're letting you search for travel by emoji! For example:

🗽 searches New York
🍣 searches for Tokyo
📱 searches for San Francisco
🎰 searches for Las Vegas

 ðŸ ☘️ 🚨 🐇 are Toronto, Dublin, Amsterdam, and Chicago (O'Hare, get it?!) respectively.

You can vote right now for the next 15 emoji-city pairs. I know it's a bit frivolous, but who doesn't want to have a say in which city gets to own the beer-moji!


And Boston is currently winning for Baseball (?!??!) and Green Bay for football


And most importantly to my NYC friends, the Pizza-moji is up for grabs too! 
It might come from Italy, but it's a religion here in NYC

San Francisco has a HUGE lead for the Pride flag

Seattle is in the running for both 🦄 and ☕️
Paris is behind in the battle for the 👠
New world vs Old world battle for the 💃
Thank god Austin isn't winning for 🎸
Cancún is sweeping 🍹
Honolulu is winning 🏄‍♀️
No clear leader for 🎿
And it's the Leaf's vs. the Habs for 🏒
And MOST IMPORTANTLY, who gets the mutha&%$#in' TACO?! 🌮

And, yes, as the final question, you get to write in your candidate for 💩

Go vote!





Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shopping for Hotels...

I don't post a lot about hotels. When I'm traveling I'm usually out and about and I don't really want to spend much time in my room.

AirBnB

Now, I have friends who absolutely LOVE AirBnB, but unless I need a unique attribute of one of their properties (e.g., size, hot tub, location, or "local charm"), I HATE being an AirBnB tenant. Here's why:
  • Key pickup: I want to get off my plane – whenever it chooses to land – saunter into the city at my own pace, and be checked into my room in 5 minutes or less when I arrive. There's nothing worse than sitting on the sidewalk in pouring rain or blazing sun waiting 40 minutes for the host to show up. Or schlepping your bags in said weather an extra 9 blocks to get to a key concierge. Or (this has happened to me TWICE), the host cancels while I'm on the plane there. Or worse, cancels on you after a 6 hour drive because they don't like your race. And AirBnB expects you accept an alternate accommodation that's 20 miles away and nowhere near a subway stop. NO. 
  • Host Expectations: "no noise after 8pm", "no visitors", "please feed my cat", "oh and water my plants", and dontcha love the places where they leave you laundry instructions and cleaning supplies even when they've charged you a $50 cleaning fee? I was a host for nearly a year (my tips are here) so I have zero tolerance for selfish hosts who haven't a single hospitality bone in their bodies. 
  • Apartment mysteries: The directions to the apartment are wrong, the neighbors all think you're trying to break in, once you're inside you have no idea how anything works: "How the hell do I turn the lights on?... what's the Wi-Fi?... During what century was this mattress purchased?  I have to do WHAT to make the hot water come on? What's that horrible sound? How many remotes do I need to turn the TV on? Where is the host's apartment guide!?"
Though Bloomberg is reporting that AirBnB is rolling out a higher-end service where their staff actually visits and verifies that the accommodations are up to snuff. That might help alleviate some of these concerns, but we'll see…

For me, a Japanese business hotel like APA is kinda perfect: it has a Toto Washlet toilet in the room, a liquor vending machine and shirt presses in the hallway, a nice hot spring-style spa on the roof, and espresso and laundry machines on-site. I don't really want to pay the premium (or waste the miles) for a fancy hotel, I'd rather spend them on more air travel to new places, but alas there are no Japanese business hotels in the US... Though I do have to give a nod to the Kitano Hotel in New York for at least having a Washlet in every room!

 

The challenge:

So I'm heading to San Francisco in August and my husband's work is picking up the hotel tab for the weekdays but we have to pick up the cost of the weekend. Since we don't want the hassle of switching hotels, I'm pricing out our dates at the Intercontinental. (Due to the limited hotel options at each of the various places his work sends him, he can't really chase status with one brand)

This is my general workflow:


I start by looking at Kayak.com... all their vendors are showing $260.

Kayak

Then I check Amex Travel - also $260 but it comes with some perks (see pic). If I book through Amex, I'd earn 1040 Amex points (a $20 value) and zero Intercontinental points. There's almost no chance I'd use the $75 credit since most of my time in my old hometown will be spent out with friends and family. But this might be a good option if I could actually find a way to put that credit to use

Amex
Perks (click to enlarge)

Next up - check directly with the hotel website. This option saves me $34 and I'd get 4860 IHG points (also worth about $34).

Cheaper booking direct with hotel
I didn't see any option for an AARP rate, so I googled and found IHG's AARP portal. No, I'm not really "old enough" to be in the AARP, but there's no longer an age limit, and they have great benefits if you can get over your own aversion to feeling old. Unfortunately, the rates were actually higher for AARP. So much for that. (FYI it also appears you can just add the IATA 99634975 to Intercontinental's regular website to get the AARP rate)

AARP
IATA group code


Lastly, just for fun I looked at Rocketmiles. Rocketmiles lets you earn miles directly with airlines for your stay (your bookings through them aren't eligible for Hotel points). It's a great option if you're not chasing elite status with a particular hotel brand (and ergo will never have enough points for a decent redemption). But do beware – Rocketmiles prices in dollars are often not competitive and you'll pay more in dollars than the points were worth in the first place. In this case the price was competitive, but I'd only earn $30 worth of United miles (TPG values them at 1.5¢). If the math works out, it can be a good option. (My Rocketmiles referral link)

Rocketmiles

Conclusion

Seems like a tossup between Amex and the Intercontinental's own website... But in all honesty the smartest move financially would be for us to suck it up and be willing to move hotels, and book something much cheaper altogether. There's a cute little place down the street from our old house called The Willows that's only $160 a night. To put it another way we'd be "saving" 13,000 United miles worth of dollars by choosing this option.





Thursday, June 15, 2017

Japan says goodbye to United's 747s

I saw over on The Points Guy today that United's 747's will no longer fly to Japan. I love the 747 even though it's smaller than the A380 and it uses too much gas. The upstairs Business Class has all the comfort of a small private plane with all of the advantages of a jumbo jet.

Sigh... I wish they'd have build this model with the sleeping attic! (click to enlarge)

United is putting their new 777-300ER planes with the Polaris seats onto this route to replace the 747. While those seats will be nice in "Polaris" Class, keep in mind that in Economy, United shoved an extra seat into each row so it's now 10-abreast.

Feeling a little nostalgic for this beautiful plane slowly going away, I dug out a video from our very first trip to Tokyo on United... 30 pounds and about 5,000 grey hairs ago (i.e., 2005). Bonus: at the end Dr. K actually caught me seeing my first-ever Japanese train in real life!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mileage dining train-wreck

Two of my favorite things in life are travel and food. Since I post a lot about earning points to do the former so you can do lots of the latter in new and exciting places, it's no surprise I've got my credit cards enrolled in mileage dining programs.

Since I'm fairly savvy on the restaurant scene in my current (NYC) and former hometowns (San Francisco and Seattle), I can tell you that when I see a place show up on the mileage dining roster, it's a good sign the place is circling the drain. I feel bad saying that but with few exceptions, every time I visit one of these places it's a train wreck... like somehow "let's join a mileage dining program" is the restaurant equivalent of "lower the lifeboats!"

(FYI the same restaurants seem to be in all airlines' programs)

Last week I saw an email from Delta mileage dining that a very hip, upscale pizza restaurant we love was "new to the program". I was wary, but the 1000-point Delta bonus swayed me. We got there and there was no wait on a Wednesday night ("uh oh...") and the place had a single waitperson for 25 seated patrons ("oh sh*t! guess it's good I'm not starving..."). The meal turned out ok, but everything about the place had gone downhill several notches since my last visit there maybe a year ago. Sigh.

In the spirit of that, I just wanted to give a little shout-out to the lower Manhattan shining stars on the mileage dining list that I think are actually worth a visit:
  1. Fonda
  2. Oda House
  3. Paris Sandwich
  4. Yuba
  5. Cheese Grille
Obviously I've not been to all of the mileage dining restaurants, but I've tried enough stinkers on that list that I'm certainly not going to make a point of trying to. If you've got a favorite, I'd love to hear about it. One thing I found helpful was visiting places on the list for lunch – way cheaper and quicker if the place turns out to be crappy.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Trip Report: SAS Copenhagen to New York (CPH - EWR) in Business Class

There are 4 engines!

Intro

This is the return leg of my Newark to Berlin flight on SAS. My review of the inbound leg is here. I was expecting an A330 with the new Business Class configuration like the one I'd flown out on... But then I walked down the jetway and noticed the plane had 4 engines, not 2. Since it was still a single-decker plane, I knew we'd had an equipment swap to an A340. This also explained why they'd been making announcements at the gate about there being no Wi-Fi on today's flight. I didn't mind, since I'm a plane nerd and I hadn't been on an A340 in years.

 

Pros

  • Friendly service
  • Good food
  • SAS still earns United partner miles based on distance, not dollars (net gain: 7000 miles!)

Cons

  • Chaotic boarding procedure
  • Secured gate means you're trapped inside a small area until the plane boards 
  • Our A340 didn't have upgraded interiors so we had an older plane with the previous-gen seats

 

How I did it

In early May, I was pricing out flights to Germany for this particular week in June and spotted this flight for $2100 USD. SAS flights still earn United miles based on the distance of the flight, not the cost of the ticket, so I earned 13,000 United miles for this flight (versus 6,000 if this ticket had been for a United-operated flight). In addition, I'll earn another 6,000 Chase points for using my Reserve card with the 3x airfare bonus. All told, I earned about $380 worth of points for this flight.

 

Boarding

Just like the flight here, boarding started with a single call for Business Class and all Elites. This is a fairly large group but since we'd already pre-screened to enter the secured gate area, we didn't have the bottleneck of each person needing to scan their boarding passes.

The Business cabin was full and quite a few people seemed amused at the "museum piece" we were flying on. SAS's interiors were updated only very recently so I'm a bit surprised by people's reactions.


Boarding gate was a secure holding area

Old A340 seats


my seat
Seat controls

Legroom

Food

The trip started out with a lot of turbulence but that's fairly normal. Once we were airborne menus, warm nuts, and drinks came out.

The service was being provided by on FA in a normal uniform and another in a chef's coat. There was a similar pair in each aisle. A basket full of warm bread was passed and then the appetizer came out. I chose the tapas. The chef made a salad for me to go with it.

For my main, I had the veal shank and it was ok. The truffle pasta was probably the best part. I'd just read this article about airline food and it definitely made me think about how my food had been prepared. Like the texture of the meat was great but the pasta wasn't sauced so it had dried out quite a bit.

For dessert i had rhubarb cake and a side of Mackmyra Swedish whisky - very tasty. After that I had no trouble falling asleep in my seat and woke up in time for the pre-arrival lunch. Landing cards were handed out and the rest of the trip was on-time and uneventful.

warm nuts and some Pinot Noir to go with my veal

Tapas appetizer
Table-side salad prep
Veal shank and truffle pasta
Rhubarb cake and Swedish whisky before taking a little nap
Veal with black-eye peas prior to landing
Menu (beverage menu pics on the inbound flight review)
Menu (beverage menu pics on the inbound flight review)