Thursday, April 26, 2007

Frequent Flier Ticket Availability

Recent research by Ed Perkins at Smarter Travel and Scott McCartney with the Wall Street Journal generally found that, in order, the best airlines for snagging frequent flier seats were:
American – good
United – good
Continental – fair
Northwest – fair
US Air – poor
Delta – none
We’ve recently had fairly good luck with United and American, but haven’t tried any of the other airlines lately.
(The Wall St. Journal original article above requires a paid on-line subscription, but a forum discussing the article is available here for free.)

ADDENDUM: Just tonight, after writing the above, we're trying to book a frequent flier ticket for next Thursday (a week away; domestic). We can't even GET INTO US Air's award booking site, while we found several flights available on United. Nuf said.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Flying Loves & Hates

Everyone has their priorities when it comes to air travel. Some folks want the absolute lowest fare, others want amenities. For us, it’s about two primary things – seat comfort and non-stop flights.

We can’t afford business class (much less first), so we want the best bang for our economy-ticket buck. Which is why we like United’s Economy Plus; why we love SeatGuru; and why we’ll pay a little more for a butt that still has feeling after we deplane. And since we really hate the airport experience part of traveling, we also want the most direct flights possible. We’ll gladly pay a little more to get to Europe from our small-town airport in one stop instead of two.

Some of what we don’t like we have control over (what airline to fly), some we don’t (airports and security).

What we don’t like is unassigned seating (we live three hours from a Southwest airport, yet have only flown them once); not enough counter agents; unexplained delays; criminally high airport parking fees; onerous change fees; unfriendly/unpleasant flight attendants (hey, your job IS customer service, get over it). And, finally, security. The sole purpose of our current security system is to keep us in a constant state of low-grade fear. In Bowling for Columbine, one of Michael Moore’s contentions is that government and some businesses have a vested interest in keeping Americans in a culture of fear. We have seen the future, and airport security is the closest we’ve seen to an Orwellian nightmare.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mostly Ignored: Airline Ticket Fees Benefit Non-commercial Airports

Despite a headline which should have raised a lot of eyebrows (“Airline Passengers Subsidizing Private Aviation”), the travel media mostly ignored another potentially hot issue. A recent Associated Press story, reported on last week, raised the issue that many ticket fees airline passengers pay are used for benefits to private aviation airports (which don’t see commercial air traffic, and therefore have no direct benefit for commercial passengers).

The story leads by saying: “The federal government has taken billions of dollars from the taxes and fees paid by airline passengers every time they fly and awarded it to small airports used mainly by private pilots and globe-trotting corporate executives.”

Fees and taxes on airline tickets just keep increasing. Read the full AP article, and if this makes you mad, contact your Senators and Representatives. Congress is currently looking into new ways of financing the FAA (which doles out the money to private airports) before the agency’s funding expires on September 30.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Crap-Free Web Campaign

The web is a wonderful place. But it sometimes seems that it’s going the route of trash TV, and of graffiti vandalism being called art. In the course of our business and life, we look at way too many websites (especially travel sites) on a daily basis. There is so much crap, intrusive crap, annoying crap, and just plain bad crap on websites now. Not that I’ll ever be able to do anything about it, except ignore those sites completely that don’t respect my sensibilities.

Complaint #1 – The “dancing moron” ads. Most of these are from LowerMyBills and ClassesUSA (both Experian companies – yes, the credit agency folks). Maybe I’m not in their target demographic and just don’t get it, but I will never patronize any business which annoys me so much so frequently.

Complaint #2 – “Enter” pages on websites. I don’t want to see your gauzy, too-cool intro pages. I don’t want to wait (even with broadband) until I finally see a “skip intro” button. I just want to see your damn information.

Complaint #3 – Unwanted noise, music, narration on any website, for anything. I like Yakima car racks, but their moronic little narrator “coach” drives me away from their products. Especially when I can’t get him to shut up. Mobal’s world cell-phone site has another very annoying narration with no easy "SHUT-UP" option.

Complaint #4 – Browser pop-up blockers have finally helped control pop-up and pop-under annoyances, but some still get through. The latest are the “floater” or “fly-over” ads, the little boxes which run across your screen too fast to hit the close X (unless you’re a better gamer than I am), and which obstructs the article you really want to read.

Complaint #5 – Spam. Yea, it isn’t directly a website issue, but every website should be conscious of the ways in which it may inadvertently help promote spam. Spammers are the lowest form of life on the planet – another form of vandalism, just like graffiti. If caught, spammers (and graffiti vandals) should have one testicle removed upon first offense, and the second one if caught again. At least that way they can’t breed.

Much of my past professional career was in marketing and advertising. I understand what all the above techniques are trying to accomplish, and certain (questionable) studies show that even annoyances, especially in advertising, create name recognition (the theory that “bad publicity is better than no publicity”). Maybe that once worked for toilet-paper purchases in the grocery store, where you grabbed whatever name first came to mind, not remembering that it was a negative connotation. Maybe I’m in the minority, and annoying web ads, noise, and navigation really do work in today’s sound-bite world. I hope not, because there aren’t many ad-free and noise-free places left in the world. Maybe I’ll start by moving to a state (Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii, last I knew) or community with an anti-billboard law.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The 8 Wonders of ..... Kansas

Kansas wants to be more on the minds of travelers and tourists. The state, through the non-profit Kansas Sampler Foundation, is soliciting nominations for The Eight Wonders of Kansas. To us, Kansas is a state of sweeping vistas, beautiful tall-grass prairies, and, well, more nice stuff.

The Associated Press reports that Caleb Asher, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Commerce, told The Wichita Eagle: “The best places you can find are in those small towns, in some of those family-owned restaurants that fix fried chicken and fresh-baked pies.”

The Eight Wonders campaign is seeking nominations through May 6, when 24 finalists will be selected (we hope they find that many family restaurants serving fresh pie). Voting on the finalists will continue until December 31, and the eight winners will be announced on “Kansas Day,” January 29, 2008.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Whistler's Gigantic Gondola

If you’re a traveler and skier, you’re probably already anticipating the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. And what will be the best way to see the vast slopes of the Alpine ski venues at Whistler? How about a new 2.7-mile-long (4.4 km) gondola which will stretch from the peaks of Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain.

Scheduled for completion in December 2008, the gondola will feature a free span of nearly 1.9 miles (3 km) and will have 28 cabins, each capable of holding 28 passengers. Whistler’s Peak to Peak website has artist’s views and information (just be sure to turn off the obnoxious music on the intro page).

We generally prefer smaller, powder-rich ski areas, and don’t get too excited about BIG ski resorts (and Whistler is the biggest in North America), but we’d love to see the views from this baby.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

American Airlines - Women's site or ....

So is American Airlines’ “women’s” site really about women, or another foray for AA into the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) market? American was just named the official airline of Olivia, a “lesbian-focused travel company” (according to today’s Wall St. Journal). On their Rainbow web page, American boasts that they have the “American Airlines Rainbow TeAAm - The only LGBT Dedicated Sales Team in the industry.” As we said before, it’s all about marketing.

Monday, April 16, 2007

UK Carry-on Reminder

With the high season for travel to Europe soon upon us, we wanted to remind travelers going to or connecting through Britain that you’re allowed only one carry-on bag. You can not have a purse, laptop bag, camera bag, or briefcase in addition, as you can in the U.S. That one bag must not exceed 56x45x25 cm (22x17x10 inches). The same 3-ounce, 1-plastic-bag rule for cosmetics/liquids as in the U.S. is in force, and your plastic baggie must be able to fit within your carry-on. (Note that you can put a purse, camera bag, or at-your-seat bag inside your carry-on, and remove it after you board.) The latest info can be found at under the “airport security” section.
There is also a wealth of Europe travel information available at How To Travel Europe.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Travel/Destinations in the Movies – Part I

We love films that take us places – intriguing places we desire to visit; nostalgic glimpses of places from the past; or destinations we’re familiar with, which convey a wonderful sense of that specific place. Here are a few of our favorite travel/destination movies.

The Quiet American – Michael Caine in Vietnam in the early 1950s. Atmospheric and edgy. Like most of our favorite travel films, this makes us wonder what it was really like in that time and place.

Casablanca – Rick’s Café, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Morocco. What more is there? If you don’t want to visit North Africa after seeing this, you just don’t have the travel bug.

Havana – This is Robert Redford’s remaking of – and homage to – Casablanca, but set in Cuba just before Fidel’s victory. Much of it was filmed in the Dominican Republic, but the B-unit shots are certainly Havana, and the historical context is wonderfully entertaining.

Under the Tuscan Sun – Diane Lane as “Francesca” (one of us). Francesca saw the movie just before a trip to New Zealand and a friend said to her, “You’re not going to come back, are you?” (She did.) Wonderful sense of a place.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Silly, rude, and wonderful. Too goofy for words, but it “moved” us.

The Out of Towners – The original, not the remake. Who hasn’t been in some sort of similar situation in a big city (in this case, New York)? Plans go awry, flights are missed, lack of sleep – sounds like the typical travel “adventure” to us.

Amelie – The early, cute Audrey Tautou in locations all over Paris. The fun is recognizing sites and attractions. The best evocation of French cafés since Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Notting Hill – For the anglophile in us all. Portobello Road, plus the disgustingly cute Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Loved it nonetheless.

Mindwalk – Deep, talky, and mostly ignored. My Dinner with Andre in France. This still draws Kenneth toward Mont St. Michele.

As we’re movie fans, filmmakers, and travel writers, we’ll add some more to this list again soon. Let us know your faves, too.

Sloppy Joe's Bar, Havana, Cuba, early 1930s

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

American Airlines New Women’s Website – Point/Counterpoint

American Airlines has come out with a new website and (obviously) a new marketing campaign aimed at women travelers ( While we applaud almost everything that contributes to the equality of the sexes, we’re not exactly sure what to make of American’s effort. Do women really want or need different booking or destination information? Is there some added value for the female traveler in using a sex-specific website?

Kenneth’s (male) take:
It’s obviously a work-in-progress. Will there be sections of the website that are actually useful for women (those “personal” travel hygiene tips)? Will there be an interactive component of the site, such as a woman-to-woman forum?
Also obviously, the site isn’t designed to offer special discounts just for women – that would be completely discriminatory.
So my take is that it’s simply an American Airlines marketing tool – trying to get more women to fly American. Which, as a former marketing consultant, makes sense to me. Differentiate yourself from the pack, even if it’s with only the sizzle and not the steak.
This is not a knock against American. We’ve generally had good travel experiences on the airline. But my final take is that this is a good marketing gimmick for American, while at this time offering information of questionable value which can probably be found better elsewhere.

Francesca’s (female) take:
I’m sorry, but to me the new women-specific marketing campaign of American Airlines is insulting and offensive to women and men alike. The battle of the sexes was decades ago, and if I recall from my history class, it ended nicely in compromise.
Women have been treated equally and fairly in most walks of life since this treaty’s conception, so why stir up old grumblings now? What inequality is there now while traveling? What “privileges” do men have over women on a plane? Being a very happy, independent, well-traveled, and fulfilled-in-life woman, I feel used like a pawn in the game which big companies play to stay on top.
I’ll be traveling to the shower now to “wash that airline (man) right out of my hair.”

So, are we missing something here? Let us hear your thoughts.

Old postcard 1930s, Luzern (Lucerne), Switzerland

Thursday, April 05, 2007

HSBC Ups Foreign Credit Card Fees

After just praising HSBC in the previous entry for having only a 1% foreign-transaction fee on credit card purchases, today I got in the mail a change of terms and conditions stating the fee will now be 3%. So scratch HSBC off the list. Looks like Capital One (0%) and Washington Mutual (1%) are the last good options.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Our Latest International Credit Card & ATM Research

In the process of planning some upcoming international travel, here’s what we’ve discovered about credit card foreign-exchange fees. This is based on information from the credit card terms-and-conditions literature, the card company’s website, or from talking with customer-service personnel. It may not be correct for your card or your travel situation. It may also not apply to all cards in a company’s lineup. Check with your card company, but this seems to be the latest we could find:

Capital One charges 0% foreign-exchange fees.

HSBC charges 1-3% foreign-exchange fees.

Washington Mutual charges 1% foreign-exchange fees.

America Express charges 2% foreign-exchange fees, but is not as widely accepted internationally.

All other cards we researched charged 3% or more.

Since most “reward” cards (miles, points, cash-back, etc.) generally offer their rewards at roughly equivalent to 1% – and some do not offer rebates/rewards for non-U.S. purchases – the reward would seem generally not enough to offset a higher foreign-exchange fee. Also remember that should you return a purchase while overseas, you’ll get hit with the foreign-exchange fee again for the credit. Finally, don’t ever fall for a merchant’s offer to charge the purchase in U.S. dollars instead of the local currency. Again, you’ll pay dearly in increased fees.

ATM fees are another matter. Most banks (probably yours) charge a fee for use of a “foreign” ATM – but in bank-speak this means any ATM that is not one of theirs. This is usually a fixed amount – we’ve seen most of these fees range from $1.50-$5.00 per ATM withdrawal. Which means, withdraw as much as you think you’ll really need, rather than smaller amounts several times. But... don’t get so much cash that you’ll have to convert it back to dollars, as then you’ll really take a hit. We’re generally really pleased with ourselves if all we have left after our trip is a few dollars worth of coins (which will come in handy for our next trip). ATMs also charge a 1% wholesale exchange commission, on top of the fee above.

Two ways to lower your ATM fees that you might consider:

1 – Get an HSBC ATM card, and hope that you can find an ATM in the wide HSBC network (18,000 locations). A good way to do this is to open a free on-line checking account with HSBC, fund it with only a little more than you think you’ll need in cash for your trip (to limit your potential theft/fraud loss), and get an ATM card linked to that account only.

2 – Get an ATM card from Bank of America. BofA is a member of the Global ATM Alliance, which claims 12,000 ATMs operated by member banks in the U.K., Germany, Australia, New Zealand, France, China, Mexico, and Canada.

Despite the fees, credit cards and ATM cash withdrawals are still better and cheaper than carrying traveler’s checks or exchanging hard dollars for local currency. Still, you might as well pay as little as possible for the convenience and safety of plastic.

Old postcard, Thames Embankment, London, 1928