Sunday, March 20, 2011

Finally Happy With Travel Electronics

It’s taken us awhile, but we’re finally happy with our traveling computing and internet-access needs (at least domestically).

We have a small, 10-inch-screen Acer netbook that weighs about 2-1/2 pounds. We toyed with the idea of an iPad, but we really need a keyboard. (And I’m just not an Apple fan.) Plus, I can buy (and trash or upgrade) three netbooks for the price of an iPad. I need programs to update websites (not just blogs), for photo editing, for serious writing, and other applications.

We do have an iPod Touch, which in my mind is just a mini-me iPad anyway. It’s cute and fun and stores a bunch of music. A few travel apps are interesting and mildly useful. But nothing like a full-on website or search tool.

Finally, we tie them all together with a Verizon MiFi connection. The MiFi has been out for a year or so, but has come down in price (now free, with a Verizon data contract). With it, anywhere we can get a Verizon phone signal (most of the U.S.) we can get online with a device about the size of 4 credit cards stacked together. And the MiFi allows up to 5 devices to connect through it at the same time – it’s a personal, portable WiFi hotspot, and a mini router as well.

We are still happily in the stone age with phones, preferring “just-a-damn-phone-thank-you” over any of the new smartphones. We also have an quad-band GSM cell phone for international travel. Since our international trips are shorter nowadays, we can live with public WiFi hotspots, hotel internet access, and the like.

Of course, our cameras are DSLRs with lenses – I just can’t sacrifice quality for size. Yet.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Transfer United & Continental Miles

More news on the United/Continental merger. You can now transfer miles between your frequent flyer accounts. Information here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Continental to Get Economy Plus

Great news. United is retaining Economy Plus, and will be adding it to the Continental fleet in 2012. Details here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Delta Eliminates Mileage Expiration

We noted a few posts back that we’re liking Delta more and more. This morning we just received an email saying, “we have eliminated our mileage expiration policy - no asterisk, no fine print, no ifs, ands or buts.”

Wow. This could be a game-changer in the industry. Delta goes on to say, “We are proud to be the only major U.S. carrier without mileage expiration.” More details here.

More thoughts about this in the near future.

Commentary/Update

Thinking about this announcement, yes, it is a game-changer to some degree. But it’s mostly a great PR stunt (and I mean that word in the best sense).

Mileage expiration isn’t an issue for the frequent traveler – those who are Delta’s and most airlines’ bread-and-butter traveler. But it can be a big deal for the less-frequent flier. Those folks who fly to see grandma every couple of years deserve the mileage awards as much as do the road warriors. And they don’t deserve to have their mileage disappear because they fly less often.

Hey, the airlines set up these programs, and fliers of all stripes should benefit. Delta now has the opportunity to turn a PR stunt into a marketing advantage. If they can keep the occasional traveler loyal, maybe there will be a small incremental revenue benefit from the repeat business of those travelers. And there’s minimal downside to small amounts of unexpired miles in their systems – gramdma-flier will probably forget they exist and never use the miles anyway. And even if those fliers do burn their miles, that reduces Delta’s unused-miles liability.

As a marketing guy, I’d love to see Delta scream this from the rooftops – billboards alongside airport-access highways; signage at Delta ticket counters; constant reminders in every Delta email, credit-card statement, etc.

Of course, if (when) some of the other airlines jump on this, Delta’s advantage begins to shrink. The funny thing is, why did no airline think of this before? Sure, there are a few airlines with long expiration policies – Air Canada’s is 7 years; Korean Air is 10 years – but both those programs have “lose-or-use” miles. Probably for most travelers in those programs that’s as good as “forever” anyway.

The miles liability sits on the airlines balance sheet no matter what. The loyalty trade-off may be completely worth it.

(As of late afternoon, the news is still not on Delta's home page. It's not on the SkyMiles home page. It's not on the SkyMiles sign-up page. It's not on the SkyMiles log-in page. This marketing guy just sighs.)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Myths & Cults (Mostly Travel-Related)

Even as a kid, I don’t think I ever believed the “alligators in the sewers of New York” legend. And that was in the day when rumors traveled slowly – word of mouth; an obscure newsletter; a letter from a friend that took a week to arrive.

Everything today is instantaneous – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, online news. Yet some myths, legends, and cults continue to thrive in this world of openness and transparency. Here are a few of what I consider to be myths, and sometimes the cults that spring up around those myths.

Apple Computers
I’ve used Macs and PCs for decades – PCs by preference and Macs when necessary. Obviously, that makes me a little biased. But the belief that Apple products are faster, better, less buggy just has never been proven to me. They certainly are more expensive, and to my mind actually less intuitive to use than most PCs. Yet Apple has built a cult among the so-called cutting edge, the artists, and the tech elite that is unshakable.

Harley Davidson
The motorcycle manufacturer loves to pretend that Harley riders are (nearly) all doctors and dentists and lawyers. The company claims this exclusivity based on the price of a new Harley – “only doctors and lawyers can afford them.” Maybe only doctors and lawyers can afford a new Harley; maybe they are the most common first purchasers of the bikes. But anyone who has attended a motorcycle rally or even seen a group of Harley riders on a summer highway knows that those people are not the same folks who work on their teeth.

Southwest Airlines
Southwest built a reputation in its early years as fun, cheap, and convenient. The only thing that still stands is convenient, with lots of destinations and flights. In many, many comparisons in recent years, Southwest has been no cheaper (and frequently more expensive) than the competition. And does anyone really think that the cattle-call boarding is fun? Still, Southwest continues to thrive on its loyalists – even if they pay the same, travel on flights with multiple stops, fly to obscure destinations, and endure Southwest’s boarding indignities.

You Lose (Pick Your Percent) of Your Body Heat from Your Head
“Put on a hat or you’ll catch a cold.” “You lose 75% of your body heat from your head.” We’ve all heard it for decades. Yet the prescription to cover your head to stay warm is based on flawed science. Simply put, the research behind this did not also measure how much body heat was lost with an uncovered leg, or torso, or extremities. The experiment consisted of fully clothed people with their heads exposed. Turns out, we lose a lot of our body heat from ANY uncovered, un-insulated, part of our body that is exposed to the elements.

The Credit Card Companies Value Customers Who Pay in Full
No. The credit card companies call customers who pay their monthly bills in full “deadbeats.” The companies make enormous sums in interest, penalties, and fees from the average consumer who makes the minimum payment each month. The only thing the companies get from those who pay in full are the merchant fees from each transaction (still not a bad fee for carrying us deadbeats). For travelers, this means that unless you pay your bill in full each month, reward cards (miles, points, cash) cost you a lot more (in higher interest rates on reward cards) than the rewards you gain.

Dress Nice and Get an Upgrade
Maybe in 1972. Maybe when “Mad Men” were flying around the country to see clients. Today, dressing nice and asking nicely for an upgrade will only get you a blank stare, and a question as to whether you’re an elite member of the airline’s frequent flyer program. It still doesn’t hurt to always be polite – there are other benefits – but don’t expect to get a seat in the pointy end of the plane because you are. Corporate CEOs now dress in jeans and sweaters. But then they don’t have to worry about upgrades – they’re already booked in first class.

Your room is ready, sir.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Living in Fly-Over Country, Starting to Like Delta

We’ve recently relocated to the southern Rocky Mountains, and our closest real airport is now Albuquerque – an hour and a half away. Denver is 6 hours away, and every other large airport (SLC, PHX, DFW) is twice that distance.

We just read that Delta’s flight attendants rejected unionization. (Stay with us, we’ll bring this all together in a second.) And the rumors are swirling about Delta creating a “Premium Economy” cabin (or whatever they end up calling it) on international flights. Both changes make us much more amenable to flying them. As much as we’re liberal Democrats (in spirit, if not necessarily in voter registration), we’re surprisingly anti Union.

ABQ is heavily dominated by Southwest, an airline we really don’t care for. Every other major airline (except Alaska, which some would say isn’t really a major), has flights from Albuquerque to its various hubs – Continental to Houston, American to Dallas, USAir to Phoenix, etc. But discounting (bad pun) Southwest, our personal next-best options are United and Delta. We’ve avoided Delta because... I’m not even completely sure why. We certainly like United for Economy Plus (and only for E+), and have grown fond of Alaska and Frontier, which, alas, don’t have any realistic options from our new base near ABQ.

How we wish for JetBlue or Virgin America – but if wishes were fishes.... So, “our” airlines from ABQ are more likely to be United or Delta, and Delta will now be back on the list. As much as we detest flying cattle class, we can suffer through a domestic coach connection to an international gateway/flight if we might have the option of decent legroom for that very long over-the-water travel.

Middle America (and despite large populations, cities like Denver will never be big enough, or, in Denver’s case “on the coast” [unless the big California earthquake ever comes]) has very few international non-stop flights. Seattle – one of our two previous closest airports – has many international routes. Denver has basically two – London Heathrow (United and British Airways) and Frankfurt (Lufthansa). Albuquerque – population near 1 million – has none. Heck, ABQ doesn’t even have a non-stop to New York, nor Boston, nor Seattle.

Other middle America cities are in the same boat (plane?) too. Unless it’s from an airline’s midwest hub (Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis) there just aren’t many non-stop international flights from anywhere except the coasts. Which grudgingly makes a little bit of sense. Nonetheless, we’re whining, and would like at least an ABQ-NYC flight. But as long as Southwest has a lock on the airport, we don’t really expect that to happen.

All this reminds us that air travel isn’t some right, but rather a privilege. We aren’t guaranteed low fares, free carry-on bags, or wonderful schedules from every airport. We are at the mercy of each individual airline business, and those airlines are in business to maximize returns for shareholders. This is not an altruistic industry, but then neither is it an industry that the government (sorry Senators Schumer, Cardin; Secretary LaHood) should be meddling in. And if the government (which is, or should be, the people) really thinks they should meddle, well, let’s just re-regulate the whole thing.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The End of Southwest As We Know It? (Or the Beginning?)

It’s getting interesting again. Southwest Airlines has announced its intention to buy AirTran. Even though the news is only hours old, there have already been a lot of words spilled about routes, hubs, and the like. The airlines even already have the obligatory merger website up.

Much of the news centers about integration of aircraft, and about how Southwest now gets access to Atlanta – a big draw for business travelers. Southwest is attractive to business travelers? With no assigned seats? With all-coach seating?

Or does this mean that Southwest might just adopt some of AirTran’s approach (assigned seats, two cabins, baggage fees, etc.)? Any way you look at it, this seems a huge change in the U.S. airline industry.

UPDATE: Just got deeper into the merger FAQ page. Southwest states: “It is our intent” (ad nauseam) that there will be no assigned seats; no baggage fees; no change fees; only a single class of service. Basically, we see this as just a bigger Southwest – an airline we already don’t want to fly.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Anything For Publicity

Now we know. For the absolute best ticket prices, book your airline flights 8 weeks in advance, in the afternoon.

A couple of Japanese economists have concluded (via this wonderful formula... A = gUG + min(k - g, (1 - g)(1 - r) ...or some such nonsense) that the best price-window for ticket purchases is exactly 8 weeks ahead. In the afternoon. These folks must not travel all that much. Let's hope that no public funding (even Japanese public funding) went into this "research."

Aside from the useless junk science, there are far too many variables for this to have any significant validity. Furthermore, wanna bet that some airlines will try raising their prices 8 weeks and 1 day before the departure date? Just because of this study?

Anybody who pays any attention to this crap really needs to get a life.

Price Shopping vs. Value Shopping

Are you a Value shopper or a Price shopper?

A price shopper searches out the best price – no matter the circumstances. WalMart, Spirit Airlines, Dollar rental cars. Value shoppers look for the best value for their money – no matter who the vendor is (although many times there’s a loyalty value, too).

WalMart may have the best price, and also sometimes the best value, but then so might Tiffany’s. Hertz may be more expensive, but is quality customer service and a no-hassles experience worth Hertz’s higher prices?

A recent poll by travel writer Chris Elliott got us thinking. In his admittedly non-scientific survey, the top-rated rental car companies were Hertz, Avis, and National. At the bottom of the list were Dollar, Payless, and Enterprise.

Weirdly, in a recent J.D. Powers survey, Enterprise came out on top, followed by National and Hertz. The bottom three were Thrifty, Dollar, and Payless.

We’re not here to, really, discuss car rental companies, but we will say that we’ve never had a problem with Hertz. The one rental we’ve had with Enterprise was arranged through a friend/employee (so that may not be a fair comparison) and the experience was OK. And our experiences with Dollar have always left a lot to be desired. So for car rentals, we are definitely Value shoppers – we’ll go with Hertz whenever possible, even if the cost is a bit higher.

Likewise with airfare. We’ll gladly pay a bit more for a United Economy Plus seat, or for a Frontier fully-refundable ticket versus maybe saving a few dollars with Southwest.

But price shopping has a valid argument for many people. For some folks, the only way to fly, rent a car, or buy produce is to shop by price alone. If they can get a Dollar car rental that’s two-thirds the price of Hertz, they’ll take it and take their chances that Dollar won’t hit them with fake damage charges or screaming customer-service personnel.

The real challenge is discerning what is value. How can a consumer tell if Hertz is worth the higher price than Dollar? (Without extensive experience with various companies.) We’ve bought a few too many books and electronics and whatever on Amazon to trust even the detailed reviews. Recently we were tossing the mental coin over two art books from Amazon. Both had generally good reviews (we usually ignore the 5-star reviews, as well as the 1-star ones), and settled on one particular book. It was beyond terrible. We sent it back, and purchased our other option, which turned out to be excellent.

The web is full of self promotion, fake reviews, unknowledgeable consumers, opinions, and words and comments from intelligent as well as ignorant customers. Who can you trust?

Sadly, no one. We do our best; do the research; then still wind up with J.D. Power recommending Enterprise as their top car-rental company while Elliott puts it at the bottom of his list.

At some point, it comes down to who you trust. If my neighbor (who I like and whose opinion I trust) loves Southwest, that should weigh more heavily than any idiotic web survey. Likewise, I trust Chris Elliott and have no idea about J.D. Power, so despite my good (lucky?) experience with Enterprise, I think I’ll pass on them in the future and go with Hertz.

There’s a lot to be said for comfort and peace of mind. We are firmly in the value shopper camp. So for the record, some of our personal travel-related value preferences include:

Hertz car rentals
Hilton family of hotels
Frontier and Alaska airlines
American Express credit cards
Vodafone international prepaid cell-phone chips
ITA flight search engine
Amazon for travel products, electronics, and guidebooks

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Corporate Jargon – Who Said That?

As the 3 regular readers of this blog probably know, we hate jargon. Corporate America simply loves to say less with more. In a recent issue of Business Travel News we found some excellent examples of political/lawyer/PR/financial geek-speak.

In a sidebar to an article headlined, “Airlines Unlikely To Add Much Capacity,” were the following quotes from the CEOs of the “big 5” domestic airlines. See if you can match the quote with the speaker (listed most jargon-filled to least, with our added emphasis).

QUOTES
1. “I expect to continue this rigorous domestic capacity discipline as we look to optimize the merged carrier suite across the combined network.” 4-Star Jargon Award

2. “While some of our competitors have suggested increases in their forward guidance, we continue to believe that capacity constraint is essential for margin improvement.” 3-Star Jargon Award; Bonus “Huh?” Award

3. “Overall industry capacity should not grow faster than gross domestic product here in the U.S. or anywhere in the world, for that matter.” 2-Star Saying-Nothing Award

4. “By the end of 2010, our fleet will be 91 aircraft smaller, but we’ll be able to generate the same amount of revenue. We’ll continue this strategy in 2011 and reduce our fleet by another 20 aircraft.” 1-Star How-Can-That-Be? Award

5. “We’ve reduced our capacity and focused our flying on areas of competitive strength.” 1-Star What-Is-That? Award

SPEAKERS
a. American CEO Gerard Arpey

b. Continental CEO Jeff Smisek

c. Delta CEO Richard Anderson

d. United CEO Glenn Tilton

e. USAirways CEO Doug Parker


Answers: 1b, 2d, 3a, 4c, 5e

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Aegean Airlines Fast Track to Star Alliance Gold Status

The travel blog-o-sphere has been awash in words about Aegean Airlines entering the Star Alliance (one of the “big 3” airline alliances), and the fact that with Aegean one can gain Star Alliance “Gold” status with far fewer miles than with any other airline in the alliance.

(For the uninitiated, once Star Gold is attained on any Star Alliance airline – and there are a lot, it’s the biggest airline alliance – Gold benefits are available to you on any Star airline.)

“Status” means a lot to the frequent-flyer geeks out there, and Star Gold is the first decent elite level that begins to afford a few significant perks for travelers. In general, Star Gold offers the holder of that status:
* Priority check-in lines (at the business/first-class check-in counter)
* Priority boarding
* Airport lounge access (day of travel) to any Star lounge (if your Star Gold status is with an international carrier, you can apparently access U.S. Star lounges even on domestic itineraries)
* Priority baggage handling (whatever that means)
* No baggage fees for first 2 bags
* Additional baggage allowance (more weight or one more bag)
* On some airlines, possibly preferred seating or other benefits

What makes this all more than a frequent-flyer-geek exercise is that Star Gold status can be attained on Aegean Airlines with only 20,000 “status” (flying) miles in a year’s time. So maybe this isn’t one just for the geeks. Consider:

If you fly three domestic and one international flights per year, by crediting some of those miles to Aegean, you can have a year’s worth of Star Gold benefits. Here’s an off-the-cuff look at the tradeoffs.

Say you’re a leisure traveler and take those three domestic and one international flights per year. Using random cities, those four flights might earn you:
Two RT flights, LA to Chicago = 6,800 miles
One RT flight to visit grandma, LA to Orlando = 4,400 miles
One European vacation, for example LA to Paris = 11,300 miles
Thus, you’d have accrued 22,500 miles, and you might consider crediting 20,000 of those miles to Aegean for a year’s worth of Star Gold status. (Aegean is currently offering 1,000 status miles for signing up for their frequent-flyer program.) And although Aegean’s mileage redemptions don’t seem to be anything to get excited about, you are still accruing the miles somewhere.

In general, most commentators value frequent-flyer miles at 1 to 2 cents per mile. Thus, 20,000 flying miles might be worth $200-400. It takes 25,000 miles for a basic domestic economy ticket on most Star carriers (United, Continental, USAir). Let’s take the middle ground, and say that your 25,000 miles might get you a domestic ticket (if you can find one) worth $350.

Now, let’s look at the value of Star Gold.
* No baggage fees, $25-60 (for example, 1 or 2 bags) per domestic flight (6 annual flights – 3 round trips, as above) = $150-360. (Plus, say you want to take two bags to Paris; the first is free, but the second would be $50 each way = another $100.)
* Lounge access = $425 annual (United Red Carpet Club, 1 person) or $50 one-time fee per person (with Star Gold you can take a companion, so double that value).
* Convenience (priority check-in, boarding, etc.) = whatever you feel that’s worth.

So if you’re an average traveler, with your 4 trips per year, you might just consider trading a crappy $350 domestic economy ticket for a year’s worth of perks such as above (with a “value” of $575-885, or more). Read the Aegean fine print, and look at the other myriad words spilled on this subject. Consider the trade-offs.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Questioning the Value of Articles That Purport to Tell You the Value of Miles & Points

We recently saw a lengthy blog article discussing the “value” of frequent-flyer miles and hotel points. In general, the author postulated that miles/points were mostly worth 1 to 2 cents per mile/point. And that may be realistic for the redemption of points (allow me to just call them all “points” from now on).

Every so often, a travel writer/blogger has to take on the topic of value of miles. Print magazines, credit-card websites, travel blogs – every one needs a point-value article every so often. And all of them miss what we think is a very important consideration – what is the value based on the cost to acquire the point? Two examples:

The writer mentioned above suggests that Delta SkyMiles are worth 1 cent each. But if my cost to acquire 35,000 miles (as I did with a recent credit-card promotion) is, let’s say, an $85 annual fee (my card was actually fee-free the first year), then those points would be worth 2.4 cents each.

In the article, Hilton HHonors points are valued at .7 cents each. But virtually all our Hilton points are acquired through Hilton American Express card spending, and we only use that credit card for the purchase categories (gas, groceries, a few others) where we receive 6 points per dollar spent. Thus, we would value our Hilton points at 4.2 cents each.

Of course, all the equations and comparisons are meaningless. Because each individual situation and every person is so different. Do I want to use my miles for upgrades? Do I want a basic 25,000-mile ticket to see grandma next summer? Are my points acquired through hotel stays or by credit-card spending? What are my travel patterns? (Maybe I take more driving vacations, and thus lodging/hotels are more valuable than air miles.)

Finally, outside of accruing miles by flying or points from hotel stays, the other most-frequent method of accumulating points is via credit-card spending. And if that’s your case, maybe a cash-back credit card makes a whole lot more sense than an airline or hotel card. If you pay your credit-card balances in full every month, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be using some form of reward credit card for all your spending. And there are dozens of cash-back cards – 1% reward is considered the minimum, and by reading some of our older posts you shouldn’t have any problem getting significantly better than that.

We haven’t kept up with all the credit-card news lately, but, for example, we do know that:
1) Capital One offers cards with 1% rewards (and no foreign-transaction fees).
2) We have a Schwab card (which has been apparently discontinued, but could return) that offers 2% cash-back on all purchases.
3) Even the emasculated Chase Freedom card offers up to 5% cash back on certain categories of spending during certain months of the year (as does the Discover card).
4) The Merrill+ visa offers airline tickets (booked through them) for 25,000 points for tickets “up to $500 in value,” which would therefore be as much as 2 points value (and maybe even a bit more, as you can earn actual butt-in-seat frequent-flyer miles on the Merrill reward ticket).

So in general we give our usual thumbs-down to any attempt to calculate the “value” of miles – we wouldn’t want you to follow blindly even our suggestions. What’s important is the intangible value of your points. Do they allow you to travel more often? To see more varied places in the world? To save money for non-travel spending?

Take advantage of every opportunity to earn miles/points/cash-back, but spend less time worrying if the value of your points is less than someone else’s.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Americans Still Drinking the TSA’s Kool-Aid

Unless you’ve not traveled in the past several years, you’ve probably heard about the Transportation Security Administration’s new Virtual Strip-Search Machines (oops, TSA’s new full-body scanners).

The always-excellent The Middle Seat column in The Wall St. Journal yesterday discussed travelers’ reactions to the new full-body scanners. Several quotes in the article were deeply depressing and saddening.

1) “Public opinion polls show widespread acceptance in the U.S. of the technology, with many [people] saying tighter security outweighs inconvenience.”
The U.S. public actually thinks that this is about security?
2) “A small sampling at [Chicago’s] O’Hare [airport] last week showed broad support for the scanners.”
The U.S. public actually thinks that this is about security?
3) “‘If it’s for passenger protection, why not?’ said [traveler] Ann Pagel, on her way home from Houston.”
The U.S. public actually thinks that this is about security?

The article goes on to reiterate everything that’s already been said about the scanners – they’re optional (but you’ll get a full pat-down if you refuse); that the software “masks most of the particulars of a person’s body”; that they’re supposed to prevent a reoccurrence of the Underwear Bomber last Christmas.

The TSA was established in November 2001 by congress (which was effectively 50/50 Republican/Democrat at the time) and then-President George Bush. It is one of the largest federal bureaucracies, with an annual budget of $7 billion. We’d ask “Will it ever stop?” but we know the answer. No politician in America – of either party – would risk hampering the TSA and being accused of being “soft on terrorism.” As if the TSA really has anything to do with truly preventing U.S. or world terrorism.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Airline Non-Loyalty; Frequent-Flyer Agnosticism; United Economy Plus

I love all the wild speculation about what’s going to happen with the “new” United – the merger of the old United and Continental. The branding of the new company – with the United name, the Continental logo, and a mix of executives (headed by the Continental boss) – seems to indicate that the merged airline will take a similar approach in cherry-picking what parts of the old companies to retain and which to ditch. The blogs are humming with guesses about Starnet blocking, first-class cabins, Economy Plus, foreign vs. U.S. call centers, and more.

We haven’t flown Continental in several years (mostly because of our location and routings), but the last time we did we had an acceptable experience. We do fly United a fair amount, but the ONLY reason we’re United loyalists at all is because of Economy Plus. With it, we can put up with the surly flight attendants and the dehydrated food. We can compensate by bringing our own food; zoning out with our iPod and noise-canceling headphones; and mostly ignoring the “safety professionals” (especially since they mostly ignore us). Without E+, we have absolutely no reason to remain loyal to United (or to any of the U.S. legacy carriers).

As it is, with the exception of United, in the U.S. we try to fly Alaska and Frontier as much as possible. If JetBlue or Virgin America’s routes were more extensive for us, we’d be happy to give them business. And internationally, if we can’t get a decent United price (with E+), we do everything possible to fly on a foreign carrier.

Regarding miles for those or any airline, we are frequent-flyer agnostic. Sure, we pay a bit of attention to mileage bonuses (we recently got a Delta Amex with an exceptional initial-mileage bonus), and have mileage scattered around a few-too-many different frequent-flyer programs. Still, our mileage earning is mostly from credit cards, bonuses, and other activities rather than from flying. We do have enough sense to put as many flying miles into as few programs as possible – right now, primarily United for Star Alliance flights and Alaska for OneWorld or SkyTeam flights (whenever possible; Alaska partners with many OW and ST carriers, but not all).

Dog is my copilot

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Enhancements That Are Really Enhancements

Airlines aren’t known for reducing fees or adding benefits without some (usually sneaky) tradeoff. But an email we just received from Frontier Airlines sounds like the airline is truly enhancing their product and customer service. The email says, in part:

“You told us you wanted lower and fewer fees and the ability to select your seat assignment when booking an Economy ticket. We heard you, and made the following changes, effective immediately for all Economy tickets:
· We've reduced the fee for a confirmed alternate flight on the same day of travel from $100 to $50. Available at the airport only.
· We've eliminated the $25 Ticketing Service Fee.
· We’ve extended the option to select an advance seat assignment at the time of booking.
We’re committed to providing you with the best care in the air. The following service enhancements are also effective immediately:
· Classic Plus passengers will enjoy FREE access to the Best Care Club, on their day of travel. The club is located at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, on Concourse D near gate 38.”

We truly have been impressed with Frontier so far. This is another example of why we’d rather fly Frontier or Alaska or JetBlue than United or Delta or any other U.S. legacy carrier.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rewards Credit Cards – Chase Ink Plus Visa

With the new credit-card laws coming into effect, we’ve been watching the transitions going on with reward credit cards. It’s been subtle, but we’re seeing a few more annual fees, combined with a few more incentives.

We just got a solicitation for the Chase Ink Plus Visa. For $60/year annual fee (waived the first year), this “upgrade” from our regular Ink card offers a few more points on some purchases (less on others, see below), a few bonus points for acquiring the card, bonus points at certain annual spend levels, plus two travel benefits that actually seem pretty intriguing.

The Ink Plus comes with a Priority Pass airport lounge account ($99 annual value if purchased separately) and two free lounge visits (worth $54). Secondly, the card is touting the ability to transfer points 1:1 to “some of the industry’s leading frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs.” We can’t yet find out what the specific air and hotel partners are, but we might assume they could be Chase’s current travel card partners – United, Continental & Southwest air; Marriott & InterContinental hotels.

(Our current no-fee Chase Ink Visa gives us 3 points – equivalent to 3% cash back – for gas, restaurants, hardware, office supply, home improvement. The new Ink Plus solicitation says 1 point for every dollar spent, so we’re assuming those 3% categories would disappear. Of course, that may be part of Chase’s reasoning behind the new offer – they can garner an annual fee, while at the same time eliminating those 3% reward categories.)

Nearly every commentator loves Starwood’s American Express card ($45 annual fee) for its ability to transfer points into many airline frequent-flyer accounts. Indeed, very few proprietary points cards allow such transfers. Starwood’s points generally transfer at 1:1, except into United/Continental which are only at half that value.

Hilton’s Surpass Amex also offers the Priority Pass option ($75 annual fee, but without the two free visits). And while we like the Hilton card for its Hilton points earnings used at Hilton properties, the card has abysmal frequent-flyer transfer ratios.

So if you’re a United/Continental flyer, the Chase Ink Plus may offer more benefits (and essentially the same mileage earning) at a lower annual fee than a United or Continental card (both of which are also issued by Chase). Plus you get the Priority Pass membership.

We still are somewhat skeptical of rewards cards (or any credit cards) with annual fees. Still, the Chase Ink Plus joins our short-list of potentially useful annual-fee cards. The lineup (most of these cards also offer some sort of sign-up bonus miles or points):

  • Chase Ink Plus - $60 annual fee; Priority Pass membership plus 2 free visits; frequent-flyer/hotel account transfers.
  • Starwood Amex - $45 fee; many frequent-flyer account transfers; bonus points on some transfers.
  • Hilton Surpass Amex - $75 fee; Priority Pass membership; upgraded Hilton status levels depending on spending.
  • Alaska Airlines Visa - $75 fee; annual $99 companion ticket (anywhere on Alaska metal); Alaska has many OneWorld & SkyTeam partners.
  • United Access Plus Visa - $275 annual fee, but that gives you and a companion a full year of Economy Plus seating (which costs $425 to purchase annually). This one is only for hard-core E+ loyalists (we are, as much as we dislike most other aspects of United). And do keep an eye on the United (and Continental) credit card offerings as the merger progresses.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Travel Blogs and Travel News Sites

I’ve recently become disappointed with the Boarding Area Mutual Admiration Society. (Oops, make that the Boarding Area bloggers.)

Boarding Area is an umbrella for a group of travel bloggers who once seemed to have interesting, unique, and informative voices (and occasionally still do). Now, though, most of these writers seem to all write about the same new credit-card sign-up offers; they offer similar long and boring trip reviews; they are mileage- and points-obsessed; and they get worked up about folks with opinions different from their own.

The latest example that’s got several of them in a lather is a column by well-known travel writer Chris Elliott, questioning the value (if any) of frequent flyer miles.

I’ve had an acquaintance with Chris for several years, and I’ve read his blogs and web articles off-and-on over those years. (Sometimes I like them and agree with them, and sometimes I don’t.) But several bloggers on Boarding Area (one in particular) seem to have a juvenile, vehement hatred regarding anything Chris writes. Coincidentally, I stopped regularly reading that blogger some time ago, but I still occasionally visit his site to see if there’s any chance anything of real interest might be posted. Thus, I saw his rant against Chris.

People have been criticizing (and, occasionally, praising) my writing for far longer than any of these writers have been around (back in the day when we had “Letters to the Editor” sections in magazines). It’s part of the business. I seldom agree with more than half of what ANYONE writes, especially in the realm of travel. I approach all writing with a skeptic’s eye, but in this age of blogs and social networks and OPINIONS, I can’t seem to get too worked up about someone else’s writing. If I don’t like someone’s writing or philosophy or suggestions, I just take that blog (or magazine or newspaper) off my reading list.

So for the record, here are a few travel websites and blogs that I currently do enjoy. (Note that while I read these blogs and news sites, I VERY seldom read the comments. Every idiot with a laptop can now “write” something, usually commenting without forethought or knowledge about the original writer’s research, thoughts, and words.)

  • The Middle Seat (Wall St. Journal)
  • Today In The Sky (USA Today)
  • The Cranky Flier
  • Upgrade Travel Better
  • Consumer Traveler
  • Chris Elliott
  • Rick Steves
  • Swelbar on Airlines
  • Breaking Travel News
  • BNET Travel
  • Rick Seaney (FareCompare)

(I don’t have the time nor inclination to link these sites. I’m a writer and I’m just writing. You can google any of these sites and find them quickly.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

In The Middle

We like to sit in the middle. No, not the middle seat, not the middle of the airplane, but in the middle seating option between Sardine and Extravagant. That means some sort of Premium Economy – and in the U.S. that usually means just more legroom with few extra perks.

Some time ago we did an extensive round-up of Premium Economy on various airlines. Things have probably changed a bit since then as some carriers change their programs while others add the seating class (and a few have even eliminated it). But in general, the basics are still similar.

What we want to discuss today is “better” seating on domestic carriers.

UNITED has the most well-known product, Economy Plus. It basically offers some 4-5 inches of extra legroom. It’s available as an annual membership ($425) or on a flight-by-flight basis (we recently priced it on a SEA-ALB round trip and it was about $150). The other great under-the-radar option for E+ seating is with a fairly new United/Chase Visa credit card that offers the E+ annual option for a $275 annual fee on the card. That’s less than two transcon flights per year to make it worthwhile (and after only one flight with a companion, as E+ annual members can take one companion in E+ at no additional cost). (United and Continental recently announced a merger. There is wide speculation – and speculation only – that the Continental fleet will be re-configured with E+ seating options.)

FRONTIER is our new favorite. Their Stretch seats in the first four rows of the aircraft offer 4-5 inches of extended legroom, and they’re available for purchase at check-in or with certain of their fare classes. Our preference is actually the highest fare class (Classic Plus), which offers Stretch seats, priority boarding, two free checked bags, and... it’s FULLY refundable. On a recent reservation, Classic Plus was $211; Classic (basically 2 checked bags free and advance seat assignments) was $166; and Economy (no free bags, no advance seat assignment) was $136. Classic Plus seems like a deal. (Note that even with the two lower fare classes, you can purchase Stretch for $15-25 per segment.)

JETBLUE also seems like a standout, although we don’t have many opportunities to fly them. Their regular seats offer 2-3 inches more room (34” pitch) than most airlines’ regular economy seats; and Even More Legroom seats – with an additional 4 more inches – are available for as little as $10 per flight segment.

We’ve looked into VIRGIN AMERICA, but their extra-legroom Main Cabin Select seats seem quite overpriced. On paper, Virgin America’s regular economy seats offer one more inch of legroom than the domestic industry standard of 31” pitch. Seats on ALASKA are also mostly 32” pitch instead of 31. (We say “on paper” as that’s the official seat pitch, but a one-inch difference can be less or more noticeable depending on seat construction, width, etc. So although we like Virgin and Alaska, we don’t get too excited about either of those airlines based on their seats themselves.)

Finally, as SeatGuru points out, international Premium Economy can be as much as double regular Economy – and that may be worth it to many folks. But the site also notes that last-minute upgrades (when checking in on-line, or at the airport) can sometimes be quite affordable. (Not too long ago, we upgraded a British Airways DEN-LHR economy ticket to Premium Economy for about $180 at check-in. I don’t remember the original cost of that ticket, but today a BA economy ticket on that route is $700 while Premium Economy is $1150.) Several international carriers offer a well-respected Premium Economy product.

Try the middle some day. The increased comfort and reduced stress may be worth the slight additional cost.

[UPDATE 5/12/10: I just realized we left out SOUTHWEST. We simply don’t fly the airline: No assigned seats, flights that always seem to have an extra stop, and fares that we’ve never found competitive (in the example of the Frontier flights above, which totaled $439 RT fully refundable with all the perks, Southwest’s basic fare came in at $483). But in fairness, they do generally have seats with 32-33” pitch.]

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Consumer Reports Really Knows Travel

We know Consumer Reports has a huge following. But every time we see a CR article about something that we really know about (bikes, skis, travel, art, photography, kitchen knives, etc., etc., etc.) we find the articles and recommendations typically way off base. So why should we believe their recommendations about things we don’t know much about (vacuum cleaners, garbage disposals, dishwashers, beds, whatever)?

What got me going here is that CR just posted an article headlined: “What to do with your Continental and United frequent-flier points.” Yes, each and every media outlet needs to get in some news and commentary about the just-announced United-Continental merger, but “points”? Come on, CR, they’re called “miles.” Miles. Frequent flyer miles. (Oh, by the way, CR, you spell it “flier” in your headline and “flyer” in the text.)

I won’t even bother to address their “recommendations” for using your miles before or after the merger finalizes.

Monday, May 03, 2010

United & Continental

To me, the most interesting aspect of the just-announced United-Continental merger is the depth, scope, and professionalism of the merger website. The interactive combined route map is pretty kludgy, and quite a few questions are left unanswered, but overall it’s amazing what they’ve put together in probably less than three weeks (the amount of time since “serious” talks were made public).

The business commentators, travel pundits, and frequent-flyer geeks will be having a field day dissecting this merger to the nth detail. To us, this seems pretty neutral: Continental seems a “better” airline (especially with service); United has kept us somewhat loyal with Economy Plus; a merged frequent-flyer program helps our orphan Continental miles a bit; and we don’t expect much in the way of reduction of options from our flying hubs.

We do like the fact that the new name will be United, but the logo will be Continental’s. United’s old, ugly, inconsistent paint jobs won’t be missed.

Oh, yea, and “United” (the new you), if you’re listening, please keep E+. That’s pretty much all that’s kept us even this loyal to you. Remember, Frontier, Alaska, and JetBlue are out there for us, and we’re happy to keep flying them, too.

Photo courtesy United

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

[Updated 4.19.2010 See below.]

Am I one of the few people who find the whole “fees for carry-on baggage” imbroglio hilarious? Everyone seems to be taking it so seriously.

First it was Spirit Airlines declaring that it will begin charging passengers “up to $45 to place a bag in an overhead bin.” [NY Times]. Then, it was New York Senator Charles Schumer gaseously spewing that he was going to draft a law against carry-on fees. A law? Come on, Chuck, get angry at many things in this country, but baggage fees?

Now, in a remarkable show of solidarity, five U.S. airlines (American, Delta, United, U.S. Airways, and JetBlue) have “committed” to No-Fee Chuck that they will not institute fees for carry-on bags. (Of course, let’s not forget the phone-reservation fees and checked baggage fees and change fees and .... oh, you get the idea.)

The serious-sounding NY Times article notes that, “Notably absent from the list was Continental Airlines, which is said to be in merger talks with United.” Like, duh, what difference would that make? United may or may not also be in merger talks with U.S. Airways. And also “notably absent” from the list were Southwest, Alaska, Frontier, oh, you get the idea. Maybe one of the absent airlines will find something light and humorous (and intelligent) to say about all this.

The Times also noted that “Schumer and five other Democratic senators ... are supporting legislation that would tax airlines if they charged carryon bag fees.” Wow. Another tax that benefits... the government; not the consumers who are subject to the fees. This rather reminds me of the new tarmac-delay fines. Passengers get inconvenienced, but the airlines pay fines to the government.

Even Spirit’s CEO, Ben Baldanza is sticking to a serious tone: “Our plan was never predicated on anyone matching us.” Come on, Ben, say something funny, like: We really just wanted to yank everybody’s chain, and since Ryanair has already claimed to be considering pay toilets, there weren’t many ridiculous fees left that we could be first with.

The real “serious” travel news right now is about volcanic ash blanketing Europe and virtually shutting down air travel for half the world. So give us some levity here, Ben and Chuck. Say something funny. Find the absurdity in all this. I sure do.

UPDATE 4/19/10 – Somebody DID say something funny. Senator Gasbag (aka Ben Cardin) was quoted on The Cranky Flier as saying: “Carry-on luggage is where people keep items essential to their health, work, and safety like laptop computers, medications, food to eat on the plane, baby formula, eye glasses and other items that need to be kept close at hand. These are personal items that airline passengers should not be charged to keep with them in the cabin.”
Cranky’s response: “Thanks for playing, Senator, but everything you mentioned there remains free on Spirit. The airline is still allowing a personal item (like a purse, briefcase, etc) and things like diaper bags are free too.”
Yes! Now it’s starting to sound fun(ny).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spirit Airlines Bunches Ray LaHood’s Undies

Almost everyone has their panties in a wedge (in one way or another) over the fact that Spirit Airlines has announced it will be charging a fee for carry-on bags. Even our Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, seems to have nothing better to do than say: “I think it’s a bit outrageous that an airline is going to charge someone to carry on a bag and put it in the overhead. And I’ve told our people to try and figure out a way to mitigate that. I think it’s ridiculous. ... I don’t think they care about their customers. That’s what I think.”

Good for you, Ray, actually thinking. But I think that this is not a federal issue. It’s business. Most consumers always seem to shop for the cheapest anything, and (in this case) the airlines are happy to oblige – with the cheapest tickets. Air consumers don’t WANT service or amenities (although they say they do, yet they obviously won’t pay for it), so of course airlines “don’t care about their passengers.” Exactly. The airlines care about making money and satisfying their shareholders. As much as I hate most everything about domestic airline customer service (or lack thereof), I feel this is a business decision. Besides, from what I hear (I’ve never flown them), with Spirit we’re talking lowest-common-denominator here, sort of the Ryanair of America.

Personally, I choose to spend a little more for a few more amenities (legroom, decent seats, even if I have to sit in economy), so I try to fly international carriers and a few domestic airlines that provide such semi-decent service – JetBlue, Frontier, Alaska.

If customers want cheap, well, that’s what they’ll get – Cheap. Ya gets what ya pays for; and if ya don’t wanna pay fer it ya ain’t gonna get it.

Our pols in Washington should find something better to waste their time on.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

How Many Ways Can You Spell "Stupid?"

It’s already all over the internet, so I’ll just note the headline from the UK Daily Mail: “The mother and daughter who ‘tried to smuggle corpse on to plane’.” Read the full article.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ryanair's O'Leary on Striking BA Cabin Crew

This is probably the first time I’ve agreed with anything Ryanair’s Chief Executive Michael O’Leary has said or done.

After leasing a few Ryanair planes to British Airways during its strike, O’Leary called the striking union cabin crews “spectacularly stupid.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Search Engines Say the Cutest Things

We seldom spend time looking at the statistics of our various websites and blogs. But a recent post on the Ridge Winery blog got us to thinking (always a very dangerous thing).

Since the first of the year, this blog has been reached directly; by referrals; and via 312 different search terms. Far and away the most searched-for phrases were some variation of “no international ATM fees.” Several of the other search terms stood out as a little off-beat.

In many of these cases, we have no idea what on this site it was that the search engine picked up on. Nonetheless, here is a short list of “unusual” search terms that drove visitors to our site. (These are the exact search terms as listed from Google Analytics.)

  • can poi be extended to other processes and properties within the starwood system?
  • cubana economy seat width
  • ethics painting
  • fedex ground loading terminal durango colorado
  • how many number make up u s a passport number
  • lufthansa no "middle name "on airline ticket
  • passport name start with ken w. aolvse picture
  • ryanair wine carry on
  • smart traveler beware: foreign transaction fees national geographic traveler
  • to receive proper credit, the name provided above must match the name on the frequent flyer account.
  • vrbo magazine properties

We especially applaud the person seeking to find out if he or she can bring wine on Ryanair. Alcohol is probably needed to even consider flying them. We also admire the person who typed in the very long search term beginning with “to receive proper credit....” And we're really, really looking forward to Hawaiian food (Poi) during our next Starwood stay.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

When Ethics and Lawyers Collide

Travel photography (all photography, really) has been redefined with digital cameras and web distribution. Copyright has essentially become dead as a dodo – so many snapshot photographers are posting so many millions of travel photos online, and few if any are concerned with protecting their rightful copyrights to their images.

It appears that some travel businesses are taking advantage of amateur photographers’ desire to see their work in print. Professional photographer Bob Krist (National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian) offers a scathing post about a photo contest from Frommer’s that should serve as fair warning to all photographers. (It’s a long post, but read the full article – it’s worth it.)

Prague Castle
Copyright © Ken Hulick, all rights reserved, not for commercial use, do not download, do not save, do not post on another blog, just keep yer mitts off my photos. :)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Frontier Republic Midwest

There’s been some interesting speculation about what brand/name will eventually emerge from the Republic-Frontier-Midwest airline conglomerate. Republic’s head honcho, Bryan Bedford, has seemed to indicate in some press reports that the company is leaning toward an integrated brand. And sooner rather than later.

Having been a marketing/branding consultant for many years, here’s my two cents worth.

Frontier has a much more “generic” name than Midwest, which is a location-based name. (Even the Midwest frequent-flyer program name is provincial – Midwest Miles. But then Frontier’s frequent-flyer program, EarlyReturns, has a terrible name, too – nonsensical, boring, non-descriptive. What does an “early return” mean?)

Frontier is apparently the bigger airline by routes and revenue.

Both airlines have loyal fans in their home airports (Frontier in Denver and Midwest in Milwaukee).

Republic is also a nice generalized name, but it has virtually no name recognition with the traveling public. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the possibility of starting with a clean slate can be appealing.

If they do this right, it will be done soon, and only once. (You don’t want to re-brand your product again in a few years if you screw it up the first time. So don’t screw it up.)

From the amenities standpoint, both Frontier (with their tiered pricing and new Stretch seating) and Midwest (with their Signature seats and warm cookies) have some history. Frontier’s product currently has the ability to be more flexible and aggressive. But Frontier a’la carte pricing menu is too new to have become iconic, so shouldn’t be too much of a factor in leaning one way or another.

So, if I were in charge of everything....

I’d go with the Frontier name for the combined airline, but come up with a new tag line that indicated something new, emphasizing the extended almost-national breadth of the new entity. (I could be convinced that Republic would be a solid second choice for a name.)

This sounds heretical, but I’d ditch the goofy animal tails on Frontier. I’d update the Frontier logo; paint the planes just a little differently than now; maybe use the tail paintjob to slightly honor something from Midwest (a blue/gold streak or something). But in two years, you don’t really want anyone to remember the old part of your entity – you want every customer to think of your airline as Frontier. (Not, for example, how some travelers – after 5 years – still call US Airways “the old America West.”)

I’d immediately create a combined frequent-flyer program, under neither the Midwest Miles nor EarlyReturns names. Something new is needed, probably tied into the new tag line.

Now, if Frontier-Republic would like to pay me to suggest some brand strategies, tag lines, program names, etc....

UPDATE 4.13.2010
Republic decided today upon Frontier as their name. The tail animals will stay, as might the cookies (they are a little vague about that). No news yet about the frequent-flyer program.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Flying Sucks

We just got back from our firsts flights since another stupid Muslim stuck some explosives in his underwear. We’ve also been reading about the tribulations of international security. (Canada seems to be the worst offender, with 3-hour-before-flight airport-arrival suggestions and complete checked bag searches and pat-downs.) Our (domestic) flights went fine this trip, but we got to thinking about various ways to make the flying and airport experience more comfortable.

  • Get a flight with the fewest and easiest connections possible. Non-stop vs. one-stop; flying to Amsterdam instead of Paris, even if France is your destination.
  • Start your trip from an “alternative” airport if at all possible. We know you’re not going to drive 5 hours from Seattle to Spokane if you’re in the Seattle metro area, but if two airports are relatively equidistant, chose the easier (usually smaller) one.
  • Base your flight choices on aircraft, amenities, and comfort as much as on schedules. We much prefer the two-across seating on most 777s than the 3-across on 747s. We don’t really like United, but frequently chose them because they have Economy Plus seating (see below).
  • Buy the best seat you can afford. Frontier, United, JetBlue and a couple of other domestic airlines (and a lot of international ones) have a section of seats frequently referred to as Premium Economy or Economy Plus. For a few extra dollars the legroom is worth it.
  • Only fly an airline where you can check-in online and get an assigned seat. Crowding into lines to scramble for a decent seat on Southwest just isn’t our idea of fun. Likewise, British Airways doesn’t assign seats in Economy until check-in.
  • Sometimes (such as with Frontier) the better economy seats come with free checked bags, priority boarding, and other small perks that balance out the small extra cost.
  • If you have checked-in online and have your boarding pass, check you bags curbside (even if it costs a $5 tip) and completely bypass all the check-in counters.
  • Pack light. Unless we’re taking something like skis, we try to only fly with carry-on baggage. (One carry-on and one “personal item” – briefcase, purse, etc.) But if things such as are happening in Canada continue, it might make more sense to just check all your bags, and walk through security with little more than a tiny shoulder bag.
  • Dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s.” For example, make sure the name on your ticket exactly matches the name on your i.d. For international travel, make sure your passport is good for six months after your arrival date. Remember the TSA’s idiotic rules for liquids, gels, etc.
  • Once you’re in the terminal, don’t automatically just go to the security line behind your airline’s check-in counter. Spend a couple of minutes and wander left or right to see if there’s a shorter security line nearby.
  • If you’re stuck in an airport and have a 3- or 4-hour (or more) layover/connection, consider a lounge day pass. Many airlines offer them for around $50. Or you can get into many, many lounges with a $100/year Priority Pass and $27 per lounge visit. Lounges can give you a lot of extra comfort for your 10 bucks an hour.
  • Join every rental-car and hotel program you might conceivably use. With rental cars, this often offers you a “fast-check” option. With hotels, you might get a few benefits in the way of room upgrades, free continental breakfast, or free internet.
  • Find a hotel with an airport shuttle. Not only are car rentals much cheaper at off-airport locations, but that saves you returning a car at a congested airport location.
Lastly, you can always adopt our mindset: Drive instead of fly. If we’re traveling someplace that’s only a day’s drive each way (even a long day), we’re much more inclined to drive instead of fly. It’s usually cheaper, more convenient (we have our own stuff, and more of it), and takes no longer overall. (1 hour to the airport; arrive 2-3 hours early; 2 hour flight time; 1 hour for baggage and rental car, 1 hour more to get to your destination/hotel/etc. That’s 8 hours right there, not counting possible missed flights or delays.)

Monday, February 08, 2010

More Hours in Your Day for Travel

Time is a totally human construct. Over thousands of years, we have tried to tame the untamable, manage what is inherently chaotic. We set our clocks to suit our farming, education, business, recreation schedules. Then, we tinker with those settings by changing things in the summer with Daylight Saving Time.

A few times in U.S. history, we’ve made DST permanent – during World War II and again during the “oil crisis” of the early 1970s.

Now, the Brits are considering making DST year round. (No, wait. Actually, they’re proposing making all time one hour ahead – both summer and winter. Thus the UK would be GMT +1 in winter, and GMT +2 in summer.) Currently, when the UK sets their clocks forward in summer it’s called... Summer Time. The new scheme (Brit-speak for “plan”) is called... hold your breath... Single Double Summer Time (SDST). This is being promoted as (take your pick): A vote-getting stunt. A boost to tourism. A job creation measure (80,000 new jobs in the tourism sector alone). Reduce accidents. Save energy.

Of course, it’s once again playing “politics” with people’s lives. President Warren G. Harding allegedly called DST a “deception.” (Remember how effective Harding’s brief year-and-a-half in office was?) We actually rather agree with that observation.

But we also say: When in doubt, follow the money. The UK tourism industry is hoping for a £3.5 billion boost in revenue if SDST is implemented.

(Countries that observe DST in blue. Map from Wikipedia.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti Earthquake Support

If you’re concerned for the people of Haiti, you’re also probably wondering how best to help. Organizations world-wide will be pouring money and resources into the country. Our suggestion is to support Kiva.org, which helps people all over the world become more self-sufficient with micro loans. See Kiva’s comments about the Haiti earthquake relief here. A loan (much more valuable than just a donation) through Kiva can be made in amounts as small as $25.

We Don’t Make ‘em Up, We Just Report ‘em

We found this great quote on the Upgrade Travel Better blog. Use your imagination as to its context, or read the whole post.

“Sausages and hams ‘are much more dangerous than people think,’ says Janice Mosher, an official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Year’s Travel Resolutions

The rightly famous and ubiquitous Rick Steves recently posted his 10 New Year’s Travel Resolutions for 2010. Rick’s list (condensed) is:

• Take my last glass of wine away from the restaurant and enjoy it under the stars.
• Stretch 10 minutes a day.
• Eat at the counter in market eateries to [experience] all the local action.
• Order more adventurously to delve more deeply into regional cuisine.
• Drink more – and work less – late at night.
• Take time to talk with more people.
• Refuse to let small-minded victims of 24/7 news shrink my worldview.
• Buy clothes on the road and wear them.
• Take more photos with my tripod.
• Make music a bigger part of my travels.
• Embrace technology more vigorously.

We really like Rick’s #8 and 9, so will start OUR list with our variations on those two resolutions of his:

  • Use a tripod a lot more frequently. Always take the tripod with us.
  • Buy local clothes (and shoes!); wear them; and if we don’t want to return home with those clothes (or even ones we brought), donate them to some local charity.
  • Plan ahead more (frequent-flyer trips, reward stays, timeshare trades), while at the same time being more spontaneous on the road.
  • If we can get there domestically by driving no more than a day, drive instead of fly. (For us, even a short flight represents 2 hours to the airport; arriving 2-3 hours before our flight for security; 2 hours for the flight itself; 1 hour for baggage claim; 1/2 hour plus to gather the rental car; and at least 1/2 hour from airport to town or our lodging. That’s 8-9 hours minimum without delays, traffic, etc. A complete day any way you look at it. And we can take a lot more crap on a driving trip; as well as most likely being more affordable.)
  • Buy some local artwork – no matter how small or inexpensive – on every trip.
  • Revise our leisure travel windows into two general timeframes: 5-6 days (domestic trips, mostly driving); 9-10 days (domestic flying; or international trips to destinations where we can actually experience the place in that amount of time). Our other future timeframe is the 2- to 3-month trip, when we have the time, ability, and inclination to truly “live” in a country/place to experience the fullness of it. Of course, those travels would be more for our “retirement” years, but it’s worth considering and on our radar screens.
  • Keep a food and wine diary of every meal, bottle, bite on every trip.
  • Write on the road. Travel journaling; writing projects we’re working on. Don’t stop doing the creative things that motivate and reward us at home, just because we’re traveling and feel we “don’t have the time.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Gotta Change the Subject: Hilton Award Level Changes

I’ve just got to stop reading. Regarding the new TSA rules and airport security: "All the sensible voices in the world will fall on the deaf ears of the powers at the top." Thus, on to a different topic.

Many observers of the world of reward credit cards, hotel points, and frequent flyer miles have bemoaned the new “grade inflation” of Hilton hotel’s properties. Basically, Hilton has raised the Category level of many properties, thus “costing” more HHonors points for reward stays.

We’ve frequently mentioned that using a Hilton American Express credit card to accrue HHonors points is – for us – one of the best value propositions available. Previously, we had generally valued spending on the Hilton Amex as a 5% reward, compared to a 2% reward for some cash-back-equivalent credit cards (Schwab) or if you use your credit-card-derived frequent flyer miles wisely.

Yes, the Hilton category revisions bump many properties to a higher redemption level. But we recently searched for some reward stays, and we’re still valuing our Hilton Amex spending at 3-4%. Too many commentators talk about the value of the points themselves – and maybe the actual Hilton points do have less “value” than Starwood or other points. And this may be accurate if you’re accruing points primarily from hotel stays.

But for credit-card points/miles accumulation, we still believe that Hilton offers one of the best value propositions. The once-3% Chase Freedom Visa (now only for a few categories of spending) has been emasculated; to get the equivalent of 2% with most airline cards usually entails an annual fee; and many of the 2% cash-back cards (such as Schwab) are quietly disappearing.

Do your own math, but look at the points required for a Hilton room, versus the cost of the room, and then consider your spending. We use the Hilton Amex only for spending that garners 6 points per dollar spent (currently for gas, groceries, phone, internet, drug stores, cable & satellite TV, and at Hilton hotels; 3 points other spending), and we still feel our actual reward return with those 6 points per dollar is at least 3%.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Baaa, Baaa.

The TSA and the U.S. government (and governments worldwide?) received a nice little Christmas present as a result of the attempted terrorist attack/bombing/explosive device/whatever-it-was on a Delta/Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

[Please don’t think we’re saying the attack itself was a good thing. And don’t get us started on profiling and Islam.]

The gift? Once again our leaders have the opportunity to scare us into submission; to distract us from the partisan dealmaking going on with the “healthcare debate” spectacle; to try to make us forget Afghanistan; to allow Wall Street to destroy Main Street; yada, yada, yada. If we’re all turned into sheep because of scare tactics such as those created by the TSA, well, then we’ll all do whatever our government (“I’m from the gov’mint and I’m here to help”) wants.

Upon first reports of the airline bombing attempt, Republican gasbag Representative Peter T. King said in the NY Times: “‘This was the real deal,’ saying something had gone wrong with the explosive device, which he described as somewhat sophisticated. ‘This could have been devastating.’” This was said while the FBI and other law-enforcement professionals were still trying to figure how the bomber got his stuff on the plane (well, through airport security, of course), much less exactly what it was. Let’s put this guy in charge of the FBI, too.

Contemporary airport security is 90% theatre and 10% reality. The government also has been needing another reason to expand one of the world’s largest bureaucracies (the TSA), despite the fact that the TSA’s “threat level” has been constantly at Orange for more than three years. It’s never going to go away, is it?

(As a side note, we live in a “border” state – Washington – and the Border Patrol [a division of the Dept. of Homeland Security, as is the TSA] frequently sets up random highway checkpoints and boards transit busses looking for illegal aliens bent on creeping into the country and performing terrorist acts. Yep, we’re really concerned about those illegal Canadians coming over to get better healthcare.)

We’ve had to take our shoes off since Richard Reid in 2001. Now the TSA is making us remain seated for the last hour of a flight (and that helps how?) and not have anything in our lap during that time. There will be more restrictions, you can be sure.

Just wait until we have the underwear bomber.

UPDATE 12/30: The latest news says the bomb was in his underwear.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Interesting New United Visa

United Airlines has come out with what may be an enticing new Visa Select card (through United’s credit-card partner Chase, of course).

For a $130 annual fee (not waived the first year), you receive:

  • 30,000 initial bonus miles
  • 3 miles per $1 spent with United
  • 2 miles per $1 spent with other Star Alliance airlines
  • 2 miles per $1 spent on gas, groceries, dining, home improvement stores
  • 1 mile per $1 for everything else
  • $100 United Discount Travel Certificate.... PLUS....
  • up to 5,000 EQMs (Elite Qualifying Miles) for the first $5,000 spent with United
  • 5,000 annual bonus miles

The catch seems to be that you can probably get the card if you’ve had a United Visa in the past, but none of the bonuses (30K initial miles, EQM miles, 5K annual bonus) are available. (From the T&C: “This bonus offer is valid only for first-time United Mileage Plus Visa cardmembers with new accounts. Existing United Mileage Plus Visa cardmembers/accounts are not eligible for this bonus offer.”)

Nonetheless, and as much as we resist putting spending on airline cards (we do apply for them sometimes for sign-up bonuses), and also as much as we resist annual fees (unless waived for the first year), the mileage-per-spend sounds quite good, as do the other bonuses.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Short-sighted Union Self Interest

Oh, is there any other kind?

The cabin crews of British Airways have voted to strike from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2, effectively putting the airline out of operation during the busiest time of the year. Of course, the cabin crews (who, if they’re like U.S. flight attendants, consider themselves in the security business rather than in customer service) could care less about the million-plus passengers who will be affected.

They’ve also been duped by their union bosses (whose agenda, like that of all union politicians, is simply more power at the top) into believing this will give them more money, more job security, yada, yada, yada. Since 92.4% of the union voted to strike, that means less than 1 out of every 10 attendants understands Economics 101: If you don’t have a company to work for, you don’t have a job there.

My first instinct is to suggest that if the cabin crews strike from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2, that passengers “strike” from then on – boycotting the airline. But that would kill the goose. The union leadership would go on in their usual positions of power; the attendants would be out of their jobs; BA would go bankrupt; and many other ancillary jobs would be lost also.

The only upside is that a BA bankruptcy would probably lead to some other airline buying the dregs of BA, reducing the airline’s huge pension obligations, and paying the cabin crews lower wages.

See, kids, aren’t unions still useful in the 21st century?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

News of the Weird

OK, we know it isn’t exactly about travel, but it did at least take place in Paris.... The third annual National Stiletto Championship awarded 3,000 euros worth of shoes to the winning team. If we're in Paris in November, we want to see this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Changing Your Name on Frequent Flyer Accounts

There’s been more than a few gallons of ink spilled lately about the TSA’s new requirement that your name on your ticket must exactly match the name on your identification. Many airline websites now allow you to book with a full middle name (rather than just a middle initial, for example). But very few that we’ve found allow you to change your name in your frequent flyer account profile.

Of the U.S. airlines we’ve attempted name changes with, only Alaska and American allowed us to change from a middle initial to a full middle name online. United has an FAQ stating that you can email them to make “minor” name changes or corrections. All the other U.S. airline sites we have accounts with do not seem to offer any sort of online name-change option – this includes Delta, US Air, Frontier, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Continental.

We tried to change names on two of our international-carrier frequent flyer accounts – bmi and IcelandAir – and then simply gave up. With both airlines, we couldn’t even change our email address. We’ll deal with those airlines – and other international airlines we have accounts with – when or if it becomes really necessary.

As long as the name on your ticket matches your identification (make sure you double check that when booking/purchasing), things will probably be fine. Changing the name on your frequent flyer account really shouldn’t be too big of a deal – but still, the airlines have known about this upcoming change for many months now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Warning: Pay Your Rewards Cards or Lose Points/Miles

This one is worth coming out of our slumber for. According to Yahoo Travel News/Associated Press, American Express will begin withholding rewards points/miles earned by customers who are late paying.

We’ve stressed that reward credit cards only make sense if you pay your bill in full each month, but this is onerous. According to the article, while Chase and Citi also withhold rewards on some cards for late payers, only Amex is charging a “reinstatement” fee for lost points/miles. (This fee is in addition to late-payment penalty fees and much higher interest rates on late-payment balances.)

If we didn’t enjoy the benefits of our Delta and Hilton Amex cards, we’d ditch them because of this (even though we’re never late), just on principle. (The article notes that the other two big-name Amex cards that will be affected will be the Starwood and JetBlue cards.)

So again, beware. The credit card companies do NOT have your best interests at heart.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Adios for Awhile

As you have probably noticed, we haven’t posted in quite a while. We’ve been growing frustrated and tired of the blog-twit-internet-online world, and have been spending more time on more significant writing projects.

We may someday return to this blog on a regular basis, and we may occasionally post something in the future that’s just too irresistible to ignore. But for now, Adios. As a way of farewell, here are a few of our favorite travel photos.

Czech Republic


Hadrian's Wall, England


London

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Very Informal Weather Test (of Online Weather Guessers)

What to do in the heat? Compare weather forecasts. I’ve recently been trying to see if any of the major weather forecasts have a bit of accuracy. This is unscientific, and limited in scope and location.

The 5 online weather reports I tested were from the National Weather Service (NWS); Weather.com (The Weather Channel – TWC); AccuWeather; WeatherUnderground; and Intellicast. For one of my first tests, I also checked using Yahoo, Google, and msn. Those 3 were thrown out for subsequent tests, as Yahoo is just reporting TWC data, and iGoogle uses WeatherUnderground; msn was tossed because it was so far out of the ballpark it wasn’t worth checking ever again, probably because it’s from a location nearly 20 miles from the target location.

(Notes: 1. It appears that TWC and Intellicast use the same forecast data – in nearly every instance their temperature predictions were identical. 2. I based this test on a location I’m familiar with [a small town in a different climate environment] but which is 100 miles distant, so I would not have a personal look-out-the-window bias. 3. I used the reported high temperatures from both the city and county weather stations as my “official” temps in all instances. It’s always possible that some services do not use those locations, rather using a different place such as the small regional airport about 5 miles from the city/county weather stations. 4. AccuWeather issues a 15-day forecast – longer than anyone else – but given the inaccuracies in even medium-range forecasts, as you’ll see below, that seems pretty useless.)

My first test was of high temperature predictions for 3 consecutive days, based on the forecast high from each service the same day. On two of the days, both Intellicast and TWC were the most accurate, within 2 degrees of the actual high for the day. On one day, both the NWS and AccuWeather called the high temperature exactly.

During the first 3-day test, I also looked at how forecasts changed for the third day, over the course of the 3 days. Most services kept their forecasts within 1 degree of their 3-day-previous and 2-day-previous guesses.

My second test was for a medium-term forecast, again for 3 consecutive days (this testing was done about a week after test 1, above). I recorded forecasts for 4, 5, and 6 days out, and then checked to see if those forecasts changed over time until each target day arrived. For the 4-day-out forecast, no service came closer than 3 degrees of accuracy. When that first test day arrived, the actual recorded high temperature was 74 – the day-of forecasts for highs that day were 80-83-86-86-88. Interestingly, AccuWeather was “closest” with their forecasts from 2 and 3 days previous (79-77), but on day-of they were the worst, with a forecast high of 88. The closest day-of forecast (80, still off by 6 degrees) was from the NWS.

For all intents, we had no real winners that first day.

When target day 2 arrived, the day-of predictions ranged from 65 to 78 – an amazing 13-degree difference between forecasts. (The previous-days-out forecasts had ranged from 71 to 81.) The actual high temperature that day was 67. WeatherUnderground was dead on with a day-of guess of 67, and the NWS came in second with a guess of 65. But they, like every other service, had been predicting mid to upper 70s just a couple of days previous.

So for a day-of forecast, NWS and WU were the best, but since this was a test of a medium-range forecast, I’d again say we had no winners.

For my final target day, the 1- to 5-day-previous forecasts had ranged from 70 to 80, with the day-of forecasts ranging from 69 to 79 – still a full 10 degrees of difference. Actual temperature that final day of the test was 66. The closest day-of calls were again by the NWS (69, off by 3 degrees), WeatherUnderground (72, off by 6 degrees), and AccuWeather (73, off by 7 degrees).

(An interesting observation: For the final target day, Intellicast forecast a high of 79 – and they had forecast that temperature every day from 5 days out through the day-of. Ya gotta admire conviction, even when it’s consistently and dramatically wrong.)

Once again we had no long-term winners. TWC and Intellicast were the worst, calling for highs of 78-80 in every one of their 5-days-previous forecasts. AccuWeather was a little bit better, with forecasts ranging from 73-76. The NWS did predict 68 (from 1 day before) and 69 (day-of), and two other forecasts were at 70 and 71. WeatherUnderground called for 70 once, and 72 twice. But overall, another big OOPS for all of them.

Final Conclusions:

From a trend basis, the NWS, WeatherUnderground, and (lastly) AccuWeather seemed a tiny bit closer (when I averaged temperature predictions over the entire multi-day trial period), but none were close enough to take to the bank. Day-of, the NWS’s guess had a slight but significant edge most days, with WeatherUnderground a close second. Yet in fairness, there were a few days that Intellicast/TWC came closer for day-of guesses. For current conditions – actually happening on the ground – WeatherUnderground has an excellent array of weather station sites (at least for the region I was testing). A really odd observation was that if the high for the day turned out to be higher than the average for all 5 forecasts, Intellicast and TWC were usually (slightly) closer; if the high was lower than the average forecast, NWS and WeatherUnderground were closer.

Personally, when I want a forecast, I’ll probably check all services just for grins (if I have the time). Right now, I can’t say I’d rely on any one site for medium- or long-range forecasts. My two go-to sites will probably be the NWS and WeatherUnderground (and remember, if iGoogle is your taste, it also uses WU information).

Next up: As soon as we get into a rainy/stormy period, I’m going to test forecasts about precipitation.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Loose Threads - 30 July 2009

JetBlue has announced a complete revamp of their frequent flyer program, TrueBlue. The changes include points earned on dollars spent, rather than miles; and the ability to redeem for one-way awards.

Hotels.com had argued that their name was not generic and could be trademarked. The registration claim was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Loose Threads – 23 July 2009

The best “back-up” passport suggestion we’ve seen. Scan your passport pages and email the images to yourself. You can pull copies up from any computer, and don’t have to worry about hiding photocopies in your socks.

Wine tourism is an international phenomena. Five wine regions (California, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa) have joined forces to create the New World Wine Alliance, to better compete against the European countries. We wish them luck, as they don’t even have a website.

American travelers aren’t the only ones complaining. The Air Transport Users Council (UK) reported an 11% increase in customer complaints about airlines. This despite enhanced passengers rights in the UK.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We Have No Sympathy

(Disclaimer: Guess I’ve just been tired and grumpy in the heat.)

Not too many years ago they blamed their troubles on the 2001 recession and 9/11. Then it was sky-high fuel prices. Next it was the world economy falling into the toilet in this current recession. Now it’s the (somewhat related) crash in business travel. The dinosaur airlines have an excuse for their every failure to create a successful business model.

Did the airlines not think it strange that the price of a business-class ticket should be 3, 4, 10 times the cost of an economy fare? Did they not think the arms race of more-and-more amenities in the front of the plane was a race all were doomed to lose? Did they not think that they were alienating customers with opaque and constantly changing prices; with fees after fees; and with reduced amenities for the majority of their passengers? Did none of the airlines (except for the “budget” carriers like Southwest or jetBlue) understand that the everyday vacation traveler was (or should have been) the bread and butter of their profitability?

We can’t afford to fly in the pointy end of the plane, so don’t personally know if the service in business/first is as miserable as it is in the back of the bus. Probably just less miserable. But a few thoughts come to mind: Treat all customers equally and fairly, and maybe you’ll develop some brand loyalty (see Southwest or jetBlue). Second, treat all customers with respect, and maybe you’ll survive (see Southwest, jetBlue, Alaska, or... oh, never mind). Airlines, just price your product fairly for the consumer, and at a point where you can stay in business. You do want customers, and to stay in business, don’t you?

UPDATE: The July 23 Wall St. Journal illustrates why the airlines are in trouble. In an article headlined, “Delta, AirTran Offer Grim Outlook for Airline Industry, the Journal reports this: “To cope with the downturn, Mr. Anderson [Richard Anderson, Delta CEO] said the airline would continue to focus on maintaining liquidity, reducing its fleet and network size, and implementing the cost-saving initiatives it identified when it acquired its Northwest Airlines unit last year.”
Don’t you think that the word “customer” would appear somewhere in the above quote? In fact, in the entire article, the word “customer” isn’t used once.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why Even Bother With Frequent Flyer Miles?

“The Wall St. Journal [says] American, United and US Airways [are] the most at-risk [of bankruptcy].” – Today in the Sky

“After leveraging everything from frequent-flier miles to spare jet engines, United is running low on assets that it can use as collateral.” – Chicago Tribune

“[Standard & Poor’s analyst Philip Baggaley] doesn’t rule out one or more carriers filing [for bankruptcy] as soon as this fall.” – Wall St. Journal

“At this point no one US airline is too big to die.... The industry is still too big – with too many network carriers, too many regional carriers and too many hubs.” – Swelblog

Why in the world are we (frequent or infrequent travelers) wasting time on accumulating airline frequent flyer miles? Sure, if we fly an airline and it has a mileage program (and virtually all do), we might as well accept the miles offered. But using credit cards with annual fees just for a few more miles? Deciding which car to rent based on how many miles we’ll receive? Shopping for products we don’t need to build up our mileage?

The travel/mileage blogosphere is awash in words about how to add gazillions of miles to your various airline frequent flyer mileage accounts. But nearly every method “costs” you something – an annual credit card fee; a cheaper price on a product that doesn’t offer miles; a hotel room that’s more conveniently located vs. one that gives you bonus miles. Some part of your time and your life.

Some of our favorite travel blogs are primarily concerned with ways to boost your mileage accounts. And we ourselves have probably taken nearly half our flights in the past five years on award tickets. But at what cost? And what of the future (or not) of your miles in an airline bankruptcy situation?

If you’re one of the top 1% who hasn’t been impacted by the world’s financial meltdown, maybe you don’t care about saving cold, hard cash. (But then you can pay for full-fare first class anyway.) But if you spend a dollar here and 10 dollars there just so you (we) can get a few more miles.... We’re beginning to think that’s nuts.

Yes, we’ll gladly take advantage of anything that is truly free or less expensive. There is absolutely no cost to using a cash-back credit card vs. one that has no reward scheme. There’s no reason to pay 3% for foreign purchases when some credit cards charge nothing extra. There’s no reason to pay more for an airline ticket than necessary – and there are several great airfare alert sites that offer timely fare information. Why not try for a better deal on a hotel room through an opaque booking site (if you’ll be happy with whatever hotel you end up in)? There’s no shame in wanting the most bang for your buck – the highest quality at the lowest price is our mantra.

So we’ve just about given up on bothering to collect frequent flyer miles in any way other than flying. Our world is too complicated as it is, and our time (and other ways of saving money) are more valuable than the vague intangibles of frequent flyer miles.