Wednesday, December 28, 2011

South American Adventure - DEN-IAD-ATL-MIA

  1. Booking
  3. Miami
  4. MIA-SCL
  5. SCL-IPC
  6. Easter Island
  7. IPC-SCL
  8. Santiago
  9. SCL-MVD
  10. Montevideo
I needed to get to Miami to start my award trip because the British Airways pricing was only cheap if you were flying on a single airline (this has since changed).  I purchased a round trip on United via IAD both ways.  The pricing worked out best if I left a few days earlier and I needed some SPG stays to make Platinum again, so I added a 2 night Miami vacation to my trip.

I wanted to arrive at least a day ahead of schedule anyway in case something unexpected happened and I missed my LAN flight.  Since these flights were different tickets and different alliances, if United made me miss my LAN flight, LAN or United wouldn’t have to do anything to help me out.  A similar rule applies to cruise ships, show up the night before just to be safe.  As it turned out, something did happen.

My DEN-IAD flight was uneventful.  My upgrade cleared and I had the basic United first class experience.  The breakfast was the standard mediocre fare, unlike Continental’s great offering, and I settled in for my flight.  We landed a few minutes early and I was off to the Lufthansa lounge by B gates train stop.
Lufthnsa Senator Lounge IAD

Star Alliance Gold members can access any Lufthansa lounge (or Singapore in SFO) with a same day ticket on a Star Alliance flight.  My boarding pass was all I needed to for access.  I only had about 20 minutes before I had to leave for my flight to Miami, but was able to grab a snack and relax a little.
Lufthnsa Senator Lounge IAD

I got to my Miami flight close to the end of boarding.  I saw on the monitor that they were looking for volunteers, so I added my name to the list and waited in the gate area to see if I would be needed.  After the last few people boarded, I was told to board and took my seat on the CRJ-700.  Four more people came on, but there was only one open seat.  The gate agent pulled me and another two off, the ground crew grabbed my bag out of the hold and I would soon be $400 in United vouchers richer.  I found some routing options as the agent was processing the other removed passengers and trying to find out why her count was so far off.  She called me up, handed me my vouchers and tickets for Delta to go to Miami that night.  I asked if there were other options, but she said no.  I went back to the Lufthansa lounge for a few more hours.  Decent German food and alcohol took the sting out of having to go through Atlanta.
Economy on Delta's MD-88

My flight to Atlanta was on a MD-88 and rather uneventful.  The flight was mostly empty and I had my own row.  We landed on time and I was only a mile away from my flight to Miami.  I got to the gate at the start of boarding and it was a zoo.  The flight was full and I was in the second to last row.  Luckily I had space for my bag and a window seat.  Unluckily, the guy next to me was huge and the guy behind me was yacking away on his phone.  We landed a few minutes late; I was just about the last person off and found the Sheraton Miami Airport shuttle to take me to my hotel for the night.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

US Airways Company Store Sale

The US Airways company store is having a sale with 30% off everything and free shipping on orders over $50.  Use the promo code NEWYEAR at checkout.  You can get some good deals on PacMin models for less than $150.  The also have some cool trinkets and shirts.

Company Store Sale Email

Friday, December 23, 2011

South American Adventure - Booking

  1. Booking
  3. Miami
  4. MIA-SCL
  5. SCL-IPC
  6. Easter Island
  7. IPC-SCL
  8. Santiago
  9. SCL-MVD
  10. Montevideo

I only have 10 days off a year and they don’t roll over, so I have to be careful with their use. I wind up sitting on them and using them as needed.  Then October comes and I have 8 left, so I start planning a year end trip to finish them off.  I have always had a fascination with South America, but never had an excuse to go there.  Then I collected about 160,000 British Airways miles through a credit card bonus and buying coins at face value with free shipping.  British Airways charges exorbitant fuel surcharges on their own reward flights, but not on partners.

I ran a search one day and found a round trip to Santiago and found it was 80,000 miles and $60 in business class.  A round trip to London in business was 100,000 miles and $840.  My mind was made; I was going to South America.  British Airways allowed (this policy and pricing has changed since I booked) unlimited stopovers in a region, as long as you stayed on the same airline.  I wanted to go to Easter Island and then as many other places as I could manage. 

I made a spreadsheet to track availability by day for the segments I wanted and started searching each leg online.  I did one way searches for each takeoff to get the most granular detail I could.  From there I could just assemble the different legs into a trip, call the agent, and book.  I found no availability into Buenos Aires in December, nothing at all, but Montevideo was a wide open alternative.  I wanted to fly the longer flights in business and found a options for MIA-SCL and back, very limited JKF flights, and nothing out of LAX or SFO.  I was able to put together a trip, from MIA-SCL-IPC-2 nights-SCL-2 nights-MVD- 1 night-SCL-MIA.  I reran my search to confirm the flights were all still available and then called to book.

Booking was totally drama free.  After about 10 minutes on hold, not bad for a general member really, I got a friendly agent based in New York.  I gave her the flights, segment by segment and she found each one as expected.  She put it all together, priced it (80,000 miles and $120, as expected), and booked it.  A confirmation email landed in my inbox, I gave it a look, thanked her for her help, and that was it.

The key to booking this was doing the leg work before calling.  It took me several hours to plan it out and find the best routing.  Open ended bookings like this can be a very complex challenge because you are not constrained by locations and dates.  If I relied on the phone, it would have taken much longer and I would have been far less likely to find such a nice trip and timing.  I’m available to help with award bookings if you would like to use my award consulting service, just shoot me an email.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Least Aspirational Award

The fun of reward programs is that they make experiences available to you that would otherwise be unattainable.  Flying first overseas, staying in top hotels, and having exclusive experiences are all reasons to collect points; making dreams come true is why I play the game.  

I received an email from Qatar Airways this morning with their newest award option, using miles to pay for excess bag fees.  That’s the least aspirational award I’ve seen advertised.  Emails should help you dream of new trip ideas; Lufthansa and KLM do a great job of that with their ‘destination of the week’ emails.  I want to be inspired, not reminded of airline fees.  Sorry Qatar, you are missing the mark on this email.
Qatar reminding me of fees, not the best messaging

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thank You Thanks Again

I won 5,000 US Airways dividend miles from Thanks Again’s facebook promotion.  Thanks Again gives you miles for using a registered card at selected retailers.  It doesn’t cost anything to participate, so definitely sign up your cards for free miles.  Also look into the dinning program for your airline of choice and register your credit cards with them too.  I don’t recommend changing your spending habits; the rewards are only about 3 miles per dollar, but it is a nice surprise to receive bonus miles for spending you were going to do. 

It also shows that real people actually win things from facbook promos, but only participate with brands you know to avoid some major spam.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Shopping

There are a few ways to thrill an aviation nerd at Christmas, like a flight to Peru, a stay at the newest W, and airline gear.  Luckily the latter option is in a reasonable price range.  Airlines and manufactures run online stores that sell a wide array of logo gear, models, and other interesting trinkets.  I’ve ordered from Boeing, Airbus, United, and US Airways.
A380 shirt in the A380 cockpit
My favorite item is the custom A380 t-shirt from Airbus.  I ordered a shirt for my first A380 flight, a first class trip on Lufthansa.  It was a great trip and I’ll go into more detail in a future blog post.  I wore the shirt on the flight and the flight crew loved it.  They took pictures with me and I also got to visit the cockpit and meet the captain.  It was a great item and got my trip off to a great start.  Other passengers and lounge attendants also got a kick out of it.  The downside of Airbus’ store is that they ship from Germany and have a rather high minimum order amount. 

The Boeing store operates through and has a wide selection of models and t-shirts.  I picked up a Boeing tee and some of the cartoon airplane stickers.  There is also a retail location in Chicago at the Boeing headquarters; it’s right by the Merta station and worth a look if you are in the area. 

Almost every airline has an online store and most of the products are focused on employees, but they do allow anyone to place an order.  US Airways has a good store with lots of models, posters, and retro tees from brands they have absorbed.  Sign up for their email list, they run good promotions on occasion.  United’s store it outsourced and seems to be closing because everything is on clearance.  They recently ran, without thinking it through all the way, a free shipping promotion with no minimum order.  I picked up some luggage tags, a Ted teddy bear, and a Ted sleep kit all for under $10. 

An airline related gift could be that special and unique thing the you or the airline nerd you know would love of Christmas.  There are quite a few, though not well advertised, options out there so give it a look.  

UPDATE: It appears the United shop has closed.  None of their URLs work any more.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Making the Best of a Bad Situation, New York Flying

New York is one of my least favorite destinations as far as airports at least.  There are plenty of choices, but never one that looks appealing.  Pricing, distance to destination, connections, and other issues combine to make for a miserable experience. 

LaGuardia Airport
LGA is usually your best option because it is a quick trip to Queens and Manhattan with lots of flights 1,000 miles and shorter.   The terminal facilities can be better, it’s almost impossible to find a seat with a view and there is nothing worth eating post security.  You also have to take the M60 bus to catch a train into the city.  The FAA imposes antiquated restrictions on flight distances, so rule out direct from the west coast.  Further, there is a curfew and you’ll be landing at JFK if you miss it.  There are two runways and lots of traffic, so be prepared for a long taxi during rush hour or if there is weather.
Walk long enough and you can get a window seat at LGA

Newark Airport
Newark isn’t that far from Manhattan, but going to New Jersey never sounds appealing.  It’s a $14 train ride from the airport to Penn Station and from there the subway system awaits.  Not all that inconvenient really.  The terminals are spacious with good views, ample seating, and a wide array of food options.  Delays aren’t that bad either.  It does take about 2 hours to get from Queens to your gate.  Best option for connecting.
Heavy jets at EWR

JFK Airport
It’s like Heathrow, every flag carrier flies there and there is no simple connection.  Delta and JetBlue own JFK on the domestic flights.  No one carrier owns international, but Delta is strongest.  Getting into Manhattan or joining the subway network can be done by rail.  However connecting to LGA is a pain as there is no direct way to do it.  The airport itself is pleasant and has great plane spotting.

Long Island MacArthur Airport
US Airways props to PHL and Southwest are your two options.  It is out in Islip and a good option if you are going to Long Island.  There’s a train to get you into NYC, but it’s a long trip.  Southwest has been scaling back their operations as they grow in LGA and EWR.  I don’t think they will abandon this airport, but it is part of the retired Southwest model of driving to a secondary airport for lower fares and doesn’t fit with their new priorities.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

First Time On Frontier

I’m a Star Alliance flyer for about 99% of my trips.  It can get you almost anywhere in the world quickly and easily, but not DEN to LAX on a Wednesday after 9pm.  The only option was Frontier, so I joined a new frequent flyer program, booked my ticket, and broke my flying routine. 

I’ve been interested in Frontier since they (Republic Airways really) took over Midwest Express a few years ago.  Republic is a successful operator of regional jets for mainline carriers.  It’s a nice business model as the large airline pays for fuel and has to sell tickets.  Express carriers just need to show up with a plane and crew to collect a flat fee per flight.  A few years ago, Republic’s management decided to run branded service and purchased Frontier out of bankruptcy.  Soon after, they bought Midwest Airlines in bankruptcy too.  This isn’t proving to be the best business decision as Frontier loses as much money as their core business line makes.  Frontier has a large operation in Denver and is serious competition to United and Southwest at DEN; helping keep fares down.  They also have different animal pictures on their aircraft, so it makes for fun plane watching too.  I had never traveled with them before and didn’t know anything about flying with them.

My travel experience with Frontier was pleasant all around.  There were no lines at check in and no window seats on my flight.  Frontier sells their equivalent of Economy Plus called stretch seating; it provides a few more inches of leg room and seat up front, but I declined the upsell.  If you don’t buy a stretch seat, select row 20 or higher, those are the first rows called in general boarding.  The boarding process could have been done better because there was no general explanation of the process before it started, so everyone gathered around thinking they could be next.  The gate agent made one announcement per group and had to turn many people away because they didn’t hear the single announcement.  Frequent use of the PA would be a simple solution to a frustrating situation.
Decent legroom on Frontier's A320

The aircraft was a new A320 and spotless inside.  It had LED lighting and the new slim style seats.  I sat in seat 20B, a middle seat, but with enough space for the two hour flight.  There are seat back TVs available for a fee, unlike JetBlue’s free DirecTV offering.  The flight attendants came through with a drink offering and baked onboard chocolate chip cookies, the lasting legacy of Midwest Express.  The flight arrived on time and I enjoyed my first Frontier flight.  I don’t think I will become a regular, the EarlyReturns program is very weak, but will defiantly consider them for future travel.