Showing posts with label Travel Tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel Tips. Show all posts

Monday, May 18, 2015

Frequent Flyer Program Points / Miles Inflation

Airline Award Price Inflation
Inflation is a great way for governments to take wealth and reduce their debt. It happens continuously, but no one really notices, so it's a low risk political move.  By creating more currency, the government receives the full value of the new money while everyone's existing money is worth slightly less.  It's something everyone endures, but no one enjoys. 
South American Style Currency
Recent Inflation Victim
Airlines also manage a currency and create inflation. Airlines created their own currency with points programs and have been adding more currency than is being redeemed.  This creates an over supply of currency against a static (more or less) supply of awards.  The unbalanced supply and demand creates an opportunity for point inflation. Airlines manage their currency like Venezuela or Argentina.  There is constant inflation by creating more currency with fixed award opportunities.  They also engage in large and sudden devaluations periodically.  Venezuela has inflation every day, but they will also suddenly change exchange rates.  Both destroy currency value, but the gradual devaluation stings less.  Airlines do the same when they change their award charts (British Airways most recently).  Awards that cost 80,000 miles yesterday can cost 100,000 points today when the award chart changes over.  These massive changes are usually, but not always, announced several months in advance.
More Miles Pursuing Same Seats
Hyper Inflation Airlines
Airlines create new currency, point or miles, at no cost to them.  They sell this currency to partners, like credit cards or hotels and receive real money for their proprietary money.  United Airlines sold $2.9 billion of frequent flyer miles in 2013 and has about $4.9 billion of frequent flyer miles outstanding.  They expect 20% these miles to expire, so the mileage expiration policy creates $1 billion in profit.  They did not disclose how they value a frequent flyer mile.   

“Five million and 4.7 million MileagePlus flight awards were used on United in 2013 and 2012, respectively. These awards represented 7.7% and 7.1% of United’s total revenue passenger miles in 2013 and 2012, respectively. Total miles redeemed for flights on United in 2013, including class-of-service upgrades, represented approximately 80% of the total miles redeemed.” (UAL annual report)  20% of mileage redeemed was used for partner flights, merchandise awards, and other ground based awards. That’s a massive amount of miles chasing relatively few awards and creates a great inflation opportunity.
Costs More and More To Sit Up Front
44% Inflation over 9 Years
When I started collecting United miles in earnest, a round trip to Europe in business class was 80,000 miles.  Then it became 100,000.  Now it's 115,000 on United or 140,000 on a partner.  1,000,000 United miles was worth 12.5 round trips, but is now worth 7 trips.  This is a massive currency devaluation of 44% over 9 years.  Frequent flyers should be marching and banging pots in front of United's corporate office, but I doubt many realize their miles are worth so much less.  Most customers measure their balance by the number of miles in it.  This is a poor indicator of value though.  Viewing it as the number of awards you want (business class tickets to Europe in my example) is a better indicator of value. 
Program Changes Can Reduce Award Balance Value
Reducing Inflation Risk
Collecting miles and points creates an inflation risk.  The more you collect, the larger the risk.  Inflation can't be eliminated, but the risk can be managed.  Here are a few tactics to help support an inflation hedge strategy:
  • Collect Points in Multiple Programs – All programs have inflation, but at different rates and different times.  Diversification reduces your exposure to a single program's risk.  It also creates more reward opportunities.
  • Spend Points Regularly - A smaller point balance lowers the potential loss of value to inflation.  Also, why bother collecting miles if they are never used?
  • Be Aware of Pending Award Price Changes - Don't be taken by surprise, read emails from your programs.  If a change is coming, book at the lower prices if able.  I booked a round trip to Europe before British Airways changed their award chart this year.
  • Change Programs if Required - Most airlines have partners and one partner may have a more rewarding and stable award structure.  Alaska miles seem more stable than Delta miles and you can earn either on a Delta flight.
  • Set Award Based Goals - Don't set a balance number as a goal.  1,000,000 United miles has a nice ring to it, but it isn't an end in itself.  4 round trips to Europe in business class is a better goal because it has a fixed value while the miles could change value.  Redeem when you reach your goals.
  • Create A Single View of Your Assets – Take a look at your award balances on one screen.  Copy and paste into Excel or Gmail if needed.  Looking at your assets on the same page will help you understand where your risks are.  It also may help you be more creative with your awards. 80,000 Delta miles and 62,500 American miles is a round trip to Australia in business class.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Check Your Award Reservations For Changes

I booked an award reservation for a friend earlier this year for travel in September and forgot about it.  I recently was on looking at my reservations and pulled up this award flight to find there was a change.  United downsized a CRJ-700 to a CRJ-200 and my friend lost his first class seat. The reservation message wanted me to click ‘Continue’ to accept the change and move on.  I didn’t want to accept the change and instead clicked to the home page and looked for a better option.  I was able to find a first class seat on an Air Canada E175 and called United to make the change.  The agent found the award seat and updated the reservation.  My friend now has a larger seat, TV, meal, shorter lines, and free drinks.  Just because United updates your reservation, you don’t have to accept it.  The agents can be very flexible too because it was an airline initiated reservation change.
Air Canada A319 in Denver

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Flight Cancellation Rebooking Help Action Items

My flight on Monday was cancelled because the flight crew never arrived. I was sitting at the gate looking at the aircraft and watching the estimated departure time increment 10 minutes every ten minutes.  The gate agent did not share where the crew was coming from, just that they could arrive any minute and not to leave the gate area.  After three hours of this, the flight was cancelled.  What should you do in this situation?
Not Moving Today
  1. Find alternate options while waiting. Pull up the airline website and see what else can get you to your destination. Help your cause by finding other ways to your destination.  This will help when you talk to an agent about alternatives.  Keep it all on the original carrier.  Since airline deregulation in the 70's, US carriers are not obligated to put you on an open seat with another airline.
  2. Call your airline while you are waiting to see if they can switch you to another flight.  Once your flight is delayed, they should drop change fees.  If you don't like the first answer you hear, hang up and try again.
  3. Airline club staff can assist in rebooking if you have a membership or a day pass.  The lines are shorter, so you will wait less and have a longer conversation about alternatives than at the general customer service counter. 
  4. Once the flight is cancelled, call the airline and move quickly to the customer service counter or airline club.  You are likely to talk to a phone agent before an airport agent and they can get you started on rebooking.  If they offer an option you don't like, propose a better option from the list of alternatives you made.  Not all alternatives may be available, but some agents look a basic A to B options while A to C to B may be preferable.
  5. If you are spending the night and it it the airline's fault (crew, maintenance, almost anything else besides weather) ask an airport agent for a hotel voucher and food vouchers (has to be done at the airport).  Also if you checked a bag, ask if it will be held by the airline or returned; don't assume one or the other.  
Plan B
The earlier it is, the easier same day rebooking will be because there are more options and fewer displaced travelers.  A few other extreme options if you desperately need to leave:
  • Book a flight on Southwest as a back up.  You can cancel without penalty before departure.  It will probably cost more, but you will have a seat.  If your flight is cancelled, the original airline will refund your ticket (that half of the round trip most likely) without a change fee.
  • Book a refundable ticket on another carrier.  This will cost much more than Southwest, but it guarantees a seat out that day.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Time to Start Planning 2013 Adventures

Now that I made 1K for 2012, I am able to relax about status (SPG stays #24 and #25 are booked, so I’m safe).  It feels great not to worry.  The problem is 2013 is just around the corner and my business travel won’t get me close to 1K in 2013.  I’m looking for cheap United flights early in 2013 to get a status head start and maybe find some cheap deals to new places.
Sunset at Denver Airport on United 737
Denver isn’t the cheapest airport and there isn’t a close alternative (COS is 2 hours drive, but the fares aren’t great there either).  There are a few flights to Oslo or Stockholm for about 6.5c per mile flown.  Not bad, but not great.  I haven’t been to either city, so I’m tempted to book.  The price is a little high for just the miles and the fare has a two night stay required.  I wouldn’t mind a short vacation, but I’d rather go when it’s warm and there is sunlight.
US Airways Jet in New York
Domestic flights aren’t any cheaper from Denver; I’m looking at 8c a mile.  There are some cheap transcon flights (BOS-SNA for 4.5c / mi), but I’d need to reposition to a coast and that’s not cost effective unless I fly a few round trips.  There aren’t any cheap day trips out there, so very frustrating.  I guess I’ll go back to ITA Matrix and search some more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holiday Travel Tips

Thanksgiving and the holiday season is a popular travel time for infrequent travelers and families (amateurs), so things might not run as smoothly as normal.  Here are a few tips to help with holiday travel:
  • Allow Extra Time for Everything – It’s amateur hour.  People will be traveling heavy, with families, and with different mindsets.  Lines will be longer, people will be confused, walking slowly, and be totally absorbed with their situation and oblivious to those around them (this happens every day, but is worse around the holidays).  Strollers will be everywhere.  Give yourself extra time to deal with these impediments and they’ll bother you less.
  • Relax – Stay calm.  It’s possible the people in front of you in line haven’t flown since the TSA banned liquids/shoes/common sense at airports.  Becoming angry will not improve the situation.  See step #1.
  • Ear Plugs – They really work.  The plane and airport will be full of loud kids that are poorly supervised.  You can’t make children behave, but you can block out their loud antics.
  • Exit Rows are Kid Free – No one under 15 is allowed in an exit row.
  • Be Nice to Airline Staff – A smile goes a long way to making everyone’s travels better.
  • Try Flying at Off Peak Times – I doubt a family will book a red eye or flight before 8am if they can avoid it.  Flying on the holiday is usually less busy and cheaper than the days right around it too.  
Happy Travels!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

United Mileage Plus Merchandise Awards

There's no such thing as a bad award.  Well, as long as you are receiving more value from your miles than you expected.  Since the value of a mile different for each person (here’s my perspective on the value of a frequent flyer mile), there’s no global minimum value of a redemption for it to be good or bad.  Miles are like money and people won’t spend either on what they view as a bad value.  Some bloggers are adamant that merchandise awards are bad value and should be avoided.  They are less valuable than award flights in most cases, but that shouldn’t be taken as being a bad value. 
United Merchandise Awards Mailed Catalog
A colleague spent 50,000 United miles on a $400 watch and was pleased with the value he got from his miles.  Yes, he could have used 50,000 miles for two award tickets, each worth more than $400, but he would never buy just two tickets because he heads a family of 6 in Salt Lake.  Since his oldest kid is 6, he needs to fly direct to keep his sanity, so he flies Delta.  A nice watch sounded like a much better idea than a connection in Denver.  In absolute terms, not the best value, but in his mind it was an outstanding deal.

Update: United ran a sale on a Tumi carry on bag and I bought one.  I'm delighted with the bag and the value I received from my miles.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two Little Things to Improve Frustrating Travel

If you improve a few little things, travel becomes much more relaxing.  I travel with a power strip that has 3 outlets and two USB chargers.  There are never enough outlets, so make some more, the person using the outlet won't mind if you unplug them for a few seconds, but ask first.  I also have some ear plugs on me.  I can't sleep with my Bose QC15's on, but 10 cent earplugs work great.  Travelling prepared to deal with regular nuisances can make trips go smoother, even if you are stuck in EWR an extra two hours because it rained for 15 minutes like I was last week.
A few little things can make a world of difference

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tips for Reaching the Minimum Spend for a Credit Card Sign Up Bonus

The fastest way to boost your mileage balance is with credit card sign up bonuses.  I get three or more every year and it helps me travel as often as I do.  The problem here is that some cards have a minimum spend before the miles are awarded.  Hitting $500 in three months isn't a problem, but $5,000 in three months (Chase Ink) is a serious challenge.  Here are some tips to boost your credit card spending, without buying anything more than you would already purchase.
  • Use your new card whenever possible.  The more you spend with it, the faster you reach the minimum spend mark.  Simple first step that may be all you need.
  • Prepay your cell phone / internet / cable / etc. bills for a month or two.  AT&T et al won't mind if they get your money early.  This lets you move spending forward; you aren't spending more.
  • Buy gift cards to places you shop regularly to move spending forward.  Grocery stores and other retailers with large gift card displays are great locations to pick up a bunch of cards in one stop.  Safeway lets you buy gift cards with Safeway gift cards, so you can retain some flexibility.
  • Car insurance is an opportunity.  If you are up for renewal, pay the six month rate; it is usually cheaper and you bring all that spending forward.
  • Buy American Express Gift Cards.  Accepted everywhere Amex is taken.  Some cards don't have a purchase fee.  It works out as and even trade, so you are just turning part of your savings account into Amex gift cards while earning points and moving closer to the minimum spend mark.
  • Do your Christmas and birthday shopping early or treat yourself to that thing you want, but are waiting for.  If you were going to buy it anyway, it's not really an extra cost.
  • Put dinner with friends on your card.  Lots of people just toss down cash for their part of the check, you can put the bill on your card and pocket the cash.  It also saves on trips to ATMs. (I also hate to see those potential points vanish)
Keep track of how close you are to the spending mark.  Returns are deducted from your total, so remember to subtract that from your tracking spreadsheet.  Remember, if you carry a balance on your credit cards, this game is not for you.  Rates on rewards cards are much higher than other cards.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Starbucks Rewards Changes Announced In Advance

Starbucks is changing their My Starbucks Rewards program next month and told all their members about the changes well in advance.  This is how award program changes should be handled; a clear explanation of what's new and what's gone provided well in advance of the change.  Airlines and hotels often make the change and then (not always) announce it.  Customers fear change, but when it is clearly explained in advance, it lessens the impact and helps create a positive customer experience.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Delta Skymiles Amex Card Fills Mileage Balance Gaps

I am not the biggest fan of Delta, but SkyMiles are becoming more useful as Delta’s domestic network grows.  I’m not going to be flying Delta to collect SkyMiles (all my Delta and American flights are credited to Alaska), so their Amex card seems like the best route to earning miles. 

There is currently a lull in the credit card sign up game.  No one is offering the 50,000 to 100,000 point sign up bonuses any more.  Since I am unable to grab large numbers of miles, my new strategy is to strategically fill some gaps in my miles balances (I have a large pile of Starwood points that transfer to most airlines, so I’m never really in trouble, but I am hesitant to use them unless as a last resort).  SkyTeam is my largest gap so I picked up the Delta SkyMiles Amex to fill that gap.  It has a decent sign up bonus and no fee the first year.  It is a perfect fit for my needs. 
Delta Flight at MKE
I still recommend the Starwood Hotels Amex above all others.  If you don’t have it, you should grab it first.
Delta CRJ Needs a Visit to the Paint Shop

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Fairmont Rewards Chase Credit Card Program

Fairmont Presidents Club (FPC) is less about rewarding spend and more about customizing the onsite experience (I did score a four night stay in Barbados from them for spending 61 nights in a year along with 4 other free nights and several meals, so it is somewhat rewarding).  Since free nights are awarded based on number of nights stayed, not dollars spent, this model doesn't work for a credit card points program. Rather than fit into FPC, Chase made up their own program.  I confirmed with Fairmont that FPC is not switching to Chase's model and all hotels will be ranked the same in FPC.  I don't think Chase's chart is the most rewarding award chat around, but it isn't terrible. The sign up bonus is two free nights, not bad, but I don't need to stay at a Fairmont any time soon, so I won't get the card.  Also, The Plaza in New York has special rules constraining awards, so don't plan on booking a free night there soon.
View from Outside the Fairmont San Francisco
Here's the trick for booking The Plaza.  There is a limited number of free nights Fairmont is allotted at The Plaza per month. You can call Fairmont, find a month that's open, usually six or more out, and book a room for the number of nights you want.  This holds those free nights for you.  Call back later and shift the reservation to another time that month when your plans are finalized, the nights are yours and you can use them any time that month.  There is no fee and as long as standard rooms are available on your new dates, no hassle.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Spending Miles On Short Notice

Yesterday a friend sent me a note saying he has July off and was wondering if I would like to go on a trip.  Absolutely was my answer (not taking summer classes, so I have a bit of free time).  I started looking on for long haul award flights to see where we can go (long haul flights are the biggest constraint in planning, getting from your home city to the gateway airport is easier).  The key here is tracking the results, because you can only search one day at a time.  Here’s an example of my tracking format.  Dates are on the left and the different routes across the top.  I track the class availability in the cells with a little code for cabin and connections (Y for direct coach, Cc for connecting Business, Y(UA) United 747 coach warning).  The data can change at any time, but it is static enough to not need to refresh daily, but just before calling to book.
Availability Tracking Example

Monday, June 4, 2012

What is a Point or Mile Worth?

What is a point / mile worth?  It’s a simple question with a complex answer.  A mile or point in every program will have a different value too.  Also, miles might not have any value until a certain number are collected.  Ultimately the value is different for each person, but here are my answers and how I got to them.
Jets Lined Up at FRA
Miles and points are a currency that can be exchanged for goods and services.  These goods can also be purchased for cash, making it a simple equation: Total Value / Total Points = $x.xx per point.  If a flight to Europe is $1,000 or 50,000 miles, then each mile is worth 2c.  The denominator will always be known, but the numerator gets fuzzy when you are buying awards that you would never buy with cash.  A first class trip to Europe costs $13,000 or 135,000 miles; yielding almost 10c per mile in value!  But I would never pay $13,000 to fly to Europe, so what is it really worth?  Priceless is the best answer, but it doesn’t help with the math.  I just total the perceived value of the experience and that’s the value.  The means a first class award is more like 3-6c in value; still a good deal.

Do the math for yourself and use your answers to decide if to spend miles or cash.  For example, I would use miles to book a $450 domestic round trip, but use cash for a $300 ticket.  It’s a gray area for borderline redemptions.  I’ll lower my threshold if my balance still has a large number of miles.  Also, if your credit card doesn’t earn at least 2c in value for every dollar spent, just use the fee free Fidelity Amex. It has 2% cash back on every purchase and cash is accepted by any airline.
Sun Rise at ORD
SPG – 3c
Starwood Hotel (SPG) points are my favorite.  With the Cash & Points redemption option, SPG points are consistently worth about 4c each, while full points awards run 2-3c.  The SPG Amex (business card has the better sign up bonus) earns one point per dollar and two points for spending at SPG hotels.  Points can also be transferred to about 30 airline programs with a 25% bonus for every 20,000 points transferred.  This makes the SPG card better for earning American or Delta miles than the airlines’ own credit cards.  SPG is my favorite program and currency because of its high value and flexibility. 
W South Beach Miami Hotel View
Drawbacks: There aren’t SPG hotels everywhere and the top level hotels cost too many points to have any value.  The cobranded credit card is an Amex and not everyone takes those (like my local liquor store).  Mile awards with United and Southwest are poor value. 

Minimum balance of 4,000 needed to achieve top value.

United – 1.75c
United miles are the best in the air.  They are part of the Star Alliance (25 airlines and growing) and have a few other strategic alliances for miles redemption (Aer Lingus has great availability to Europe).  Their reservations people are very good and the website can be used to find and book complicated award trips.

Minimum balance of 12,500 needed to achieve decent value.
United Airlines Jets at EWR Sunrise
American – 1.5c
American is a oneworld partner and doesn’t charge excessive fuel surcharges on awards.  They allow one way bookings and have a decent award chart.  American availability, coach and first, to most places not over the Atlantic, is second to none.  Good off season discounts and a cheap oneworld partner chart (80,000 miles in first London to Australia).  oneworld coverage is spotty and fuel surcharges pop up on European carriers.

Minimum balance of 12,500 needed to achieve decent value.

Delta – 1c
Delta has a three tier award chart and every time I want to redeem, my flight is in the second or third tier, destroying the value of my miles.  They are a Sky Team partner and Virgin Australia partner, so It’s best to redeem miles with Air France/KLM or Virgin Australia.  I wound up cashing in my miles for Economist subscriptions, 3,200 for a year or 3c in value.  Not bad considering my options.

Minimum balance of 25,000 needed to achieve decent value or 3,200 for a year of The Economist.
Not Every Trip Is Glamours
Alaska Airlines – 1.6c
I credit my Delta and American flights to Alaska.  Alaska isn't part of an alliance, but are partners with most airlines you would want to fly not in the Star Alliance.  The award chart is downright cheap in places too.  The flexible earning and redeeming of miles makes Alaska a great program to have miles in.  One ways are allowed and there is a cash and points option.  Partner awards have to be a single carrier plus Alaska to get you to the gateway city.  Not Star Alliance good, but close.  Other than flights and credit card spend (not a good deal), it’s hard to earn miles with them (SPG transfers mostly).

Minimum balance of 12,500 needed to achieve decent value.

US Airways – 1.7c
Star Alliance member with a reasonable award chart (more reasonable than UA to Asia in business).  Only allow round trips.  Can’t book partner awards online, so be prepared for an hour long call with reservations.  Great deals on off peak awards.  The Mileathon promotion runs annually and is a great way to stock up on miles.  US Airways also runs frequent mileage purchase promotions.   I constantly fear award chart devaluation. 

Minimum balance of 25,000 needed to achieve good value.
Use BA Miles to Fly LAN Around South America
British Airways - .5c or 2c
BA is great for short one segment trips on American or LAN.  BA has a distance based award chart, allows one ways, and has partner booking online.  For long flights (less generous pricing), connections (each segment is charged, not total distance), premium cabins (x2 for business, x3 for first), or trips in Europe (steep fuel charges) don’t bother.  Good deals are found mostly in the America’s. The scary high fuel charges take the value out of any BA, Iberia, of Finnair award.

Minimum balance of 4,500 needed to achieve decent value.

Other Carriers – 0-10c
Southwest will sell any seat at 60 points per dollar so they have a fixed value of 1.67c per point (not bad really).  Other airline programs can be anywhere.  My Frontier miles might only be good for a magazine subscription.  Foreign carriers could have no value or tons of value, depending on if you need to use those airlines.  If you are going somewhere only Emirates flies, then those miles will be worth much more.  It’s too subjective for me to give a definitive value.
Southwest and US Airways Jets at ABQ

Friday, June 1, 2012

US Airways 100% Bonus on Purchased Miles

US Airways is selling miles with a 100% bonus again.  A trip to Asia in business class (or around the world award) is only $1,575.  That’s cheaper than the coach fare in some cases.  Great way to stock up on miles, but don’t sit on them too long.  US Airways has been selling miles like mad for the last few years, so this may be a prelude to an award chart change (the price of purchased miles has increased, so that may delay the points inflation).  Or they could be laughing all the way to the bank if Star Alliance awards cost them less than what they sell miles for, but only they know that.  This move also generates liquidity, so not a bad way to stay out of the bond market.
US Airways Airbus Tails at Phoenix
Offer good until June 30, 2012.  Maximum of 50,000 bonus miles can be earned with the promotion.  You need to make a Dividend Miles account before purchasing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why Fear of Overbooking?

The Sydney Morning Herald (I’ve been hooked on it since first reading it in Sydney) has one of the best travel sections in the world; much better than travel magazines or the NYT.  I enjoy taking a read though their articles and sometimes browsing reader comments (unlike any story remotely political, there is some decent information to glean).  One story talked about how Southwest doesn’t suck as much as other US carriers.  I disagree, but will save that for a later time.  The interesting bit was the comments.  There was an engaging discussion on which US airlines frequently bump passengers and suggestions to avoid them.
US Airways A321 Spending the Night at PHX
Why are people so afraid of bumping?  I understand the obvious, missing the flight and having travel plans thrown in a blender, but it shouldn’t be a large enough concern to avoid airlines that do it frequently (they all do it to some extent).  Also, flight delays or cancellations happen, so it is best to add some padding to travel planning if that were to happen (always fly in the day before your cruise ship departs).  This padding will also help mitigate the impact of an involuntary displaced boarding (IDB or bump).
United Jets at EWR
Bumping can be very lucrative if travel plans are made with padding.  United offers $400 in travel vouches for volunteering for a bump; US Airways gave me $250 for a 90 minute delay.  They will rebook you, sometimes in paid first (bonus miles), provide a meal voucher if the delay is long enough, and buy a hotel room if it is an overnight delay (Westin LAX for me).  These vouchers can add up to several thousand dollars in value if you are bumped several times in a year.  Other airlines provide different amounts of compensation, but they all make it worth your while to take the later flight.  Bumps can be a great way to extend your travel budget and add variety to routine flying.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Travel Tip – Good Day Trip Ideas

Sometimes you need a few more miles for the next status tier, other times you just want a mini-vacation, day trips are great solutions.  Instead of going on a two day cross country trek for miles, a little hop somewhere can do the job just as well; you can’t claim to experience a city just by their airport. Here are a few cities that make great day trip material.
United Airlines 757 at SFO
United Airlines 757 at SFO
San Jose (SJC) – I really like San Jose, the airport is short cab ride to downtown, walkable once you get there.  While in town, I recommend the Technology Museum; it has really interesting stuff like a robot that draws your picture and computer chip making equipment.  There are also a few good places to grab a bite in the area too.  The weather is usually outstanding too.
San Jose Tech Museum
San Antonio (SAT) – San Antonio usually has cheap fares and is a very easy city to tour.  The airport is about 15 minutes by cab from the Alamo (free tours).  From there, take a stroll on the river walk and grab a bite at one of the many restaurants along the river.  The boat rides are cheap and fun too.  It can get hot in the summer, but you don’t feel it that much by the river.

San Francisco (SFO) – San Francisco has a lot to offer, Alcatraz tours (book in advance), great sea food, In-N-Out, sights, the water front, and the trollies.  All of this is a (expensive for public transit) BART ride from the airport.  Very easy to day trip, but the BART is a little long, so allow extra time.  SFO isn't the most predictable airport, inconsistent security wait times and fog regularly causes delays.  There are usually cheap transcon flights, so it's worth a shot.
San Francisco Sights
Boston (BOS) – Take the T (subway) into town for $2.  It’s maybe a 20 minute ride to get to Boston Common.  Boston has a few sights all within a short stroll, like the capital building, old cemeteries, and other historic buildings.  There is also a lovely park along the Charles River for a stroll.  Another quick hop on the T and you are back at the airport.  BOS is also a nice airport to chill in if you have a connection, free (and fast) wifi, good views, and a nice terminal for Continental, US Airways, and Delta.  The United, jetBlue, and American terminals are difficult to spend time in.

Massachusetts State House, Kodak B&W Film + Fisheye

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Around the World with US Airways Dividend Miles – Award Booking Tips

US Airways will let you fly around the world for 120,000 miles in First, 90,000 in Business, and 60,000 in coach.  The award is just their basic North America to Northern Asia, but you are allowed to route via the Atlantic and the Pacific.  You also get a free stopover (stay longer than 24 hours) in a Star Alliance hub along the way, or somewhat out of the way.  Complete Dividend Miles rules are here.  I was able to book from Denver to Tokyo with a stopover in Helsinki with all segments in business class.
Star Alliance Air Canada Jet
The first step in booking is to find the flights.  I have some time off from class in summer, wanted to go somewhere new in Scandinavia, and see Japan.  Narrowing down the possible destinations will shorten the search process and focus your attention.  I found the list of Star Alliance hubs and started looking for flights. 

The two best search tools are and (you need to join Mileage Club to search).  I start with United and use ANA only if I’m stuck.  United has a much simpler interface and shows more routings.  When searching on United, make sure that you are only looking at Star Alliance airlines, Aer Lingus will show in United results, but can’t be booked through US Airways.  If Aer Lingus or other airlines outside the Star Alliance keep filling the search results, switch to ANA.
Lufthansa 747
The best way to build a trip is segment by segment; being too ambitious can overwhelm the search engine.  First open a spreadsheet to track all the available flights and see all the options in one place.  From there start searching for the beginning and ending flights, NRT-DEN and DEN-European gateway city.  Flying from Japan, I wanted a lay flat bed, ANA preferred over Asiana over United.  I found several options on ANA’s new 777-300s, a pair on Asiana, and a lot on United.  To Europe I preferred Swiss (flat bed) over Lufthansa (angled) over SAS (angled) over United (flat).  I’ve flown United business class, the seat is very good, but the service and food are awful.  There were a few Lufthansa and SAS flights available, so things are looking up.  Intra-Europe connections are plentiful and have great availability if going to capital cities.  The more out of the way, the harder it is to find flights (Berlin easy, Mehamn, Norway rather difficult).

Once the bookend flights are found, it is much simpler to find the middle flights (dates and connecting cities are limited).  Through sheer force of clicking, I found several options to stop in Geneva, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki.  Getting from Europe to Japan had very limited availability.  I did not want to fly Edelweiss Air (Swiss’ low cost airline with poor seats and bad service) or Air China (subpar seats and an evening arrival).  Lufthansa had a few flights, Austrian had one, and Turkish Airways had a lot from IST-NRT (but almost no options from my stopover cities to IST).  The date and timing has me on Lufthansa; I would prefer Austrian or Swiss, but the availability didn’t permit it.
US Airways, Making This Trip Possible
I found the flights I wanted and then reran the searches segment by segment before I called US Airways.  This was important because my A380 seat from FRA disappeared, so I had to find a replacement.  Luckily an A340-600 out of MUC had space and I could find a flight from Helsinki to Munich.

The reservation I had planned, DEN-FRA-HEL-MUC-NRT-LAX-DEN, met the rules and the flights were available.  US Airways agents don’t consistently interpret the rules.  If the agent says NO, just apologize, say you need to reevaluate the trip, hang up, and try again later.  I called to make the reservation and things started well.  I reached an agent quickly, gave her the flights one at a time, all were found, and the agent thought the reservation looked good.  Next the agent has to contact the rate desk to validate and price.  I was on hold, so didn’t hear what was discussed.  The agent came back and said I had to spend less than 24 hours in Tokyo or I couldn’t book the ticket.  I said I would re-plan off the phone and call back later.  I thanked her for her time, asked to have the reservation placed on hold (she did, thereby saving my flights and making it easier the next call).  This was a clear misunderstanding of what a stopover is by the rate desk.  To avoid getting the same guy again, I waited 10 hours before calling back.
United Airlines 737 Collection
My next call lasted 75 minutes and at least 60 of those were spent on hold.  I still had a positive experience thanks to the very bubbly and excited agent I spoke with.  She was new, so the US Airways culture hasn’t sunk in yet.  She quickly found my reservation, I explained what I was trying to book, she validated that it looked right to her, and then got on the line with the rate desk where things got weird.

After a few minutes on hold, I was told I could not book my trip because I was backtracking.  To make a valid reservation, I had to keep going east (my original direction of travel).  After a quick check of Google Maps, Oslo was my only option between FRA and MUC.  I quickly found flights to OSL on, keeping my long haul segments in place, and she tried the rate desk again.

When my agent came back on the line, she said the rate desk now said I had to stop in a hub.  I explained both OSL and HEL are hubs for SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) according to  She confirmed this and went back to play rate desk lotto.

She returned excited and told me that my original itinerary with a stop in Helsinki was validated and priced out to $130.  I jumped with joy, gave her my Amex number, she booked the ticket, gave me a confirmation number, and we parted ways.

The moral of this story is twofold; first find your flights before calling, second, be patient and persistent.  

Update 2/1/15:
US Airways' new oneworld award chart isn't as generous.  It's 110,000 miles to North Asia now and 100,000 to Europe.  Also oneworld carriers have fuel surcharges (British Airways is the worst) that are added to the price of the award.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

KLM Meet and Seat

I would rather have someone interesting sit next to me on a flight than an empty seat, really, even in coach.  Belgians are always good to talk with, Irish too.  I’ve chatted with an Antarctic researcher, pilots, networking contacts, and many frequent travelers.  Every time I’ve had an interesting seat mate, the flight has been memorable and fun.  KLM has a program to help facilitate having an interesting seat mate, KML Meet & Seat.
KLM Meet and Seat
The premise of KLM Meet & Seat is you can link your Facebook or Linked In profile to a seat map and see other passengers’ profiles.  Find someone interesting, connect with them, and sit next to each other on the flight.  Sounds like a great idea with professional and personal benefits.  KLM allows each person to control the amount of profile information shared.  You can also contact the other person before the flight if you like.  KLM Meet and Seat sounds like a fun and innovate way to create a better flying experience.  If your seat mate doesn’t work out, you can always watch a movie or try to sleep, but those tactics aren’t new.

I also like how they are using the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in their images.  It seems I'm not the only one excited about this airplane.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Picked Up The Chase Sapphire Card

My new Chase Sapphire Card is coming in the mail!  I picked up the 50,000 point sign up bonus (not on any more, but on some banner ads still).  I just need to spend $3,000 in 3 months.  I’m excited to have it because my JP Morgan Palladium card didn’t have a sign up bonus and my Ultimate Rewards (Chase points program) balance will be too small to do anything, but a cheap 1 way on Southwest.  That will change soon.  I’ll have a more detailed review after I have a little time with the card.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Travel Tip - Avoid the Phone Reservation Fee

Airlines have offered gift cards for years and they once served a valuable purpose.  It used to be that gift cards were only accepted over the phone and using a gift card would get the telephone reservation fee waived.  Due to advances in IT, most airlines can take gift cards online so the fee waives are gone.  US Airways is the exception that still allows free telephone reservations with a gift card and are the only ones worth buying.

Here is a rundown of airlines and gift cards:
US Airways CRJ-200 at ABQ
US Airways
You can buy a gift card online or at Walgreens.  Any amount will let you ticket by phone without a fee.
United Airlines CRJ-200 at ABQ
United Airlines
Now that Continental runs United, the free phone reservation trick is gone.  Gift certificates can be purchased for use at  Don’t bother.

American Airlines
American Airlines can process gift cards on their website, so they don’t waive the phone reservation fee. 
Southwest Airlines Taking Off at ABQ
Delta gift certificates expire in 1 year and can only be used at a ticketing office outside the US.
Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines gift certificates are only valid on their website.