Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reviewing Our Frequent Flyer Reward Programs, Travel Patterns, and Goals for 2009

As much as we complain about the decline in the value of frequent flyer miles, we have to admit they’ve worked for us. Over the last five years, just about half of our airline tickets have been obtained with frequent flyer miles. A few have been from credit card spending on “fake miles” credit cards (such as Capital One, Amex FreedomPass, or Merrill+). A few more were obtained from points in hotel programs (especially Hilton HHonors, back when you could redeem points directly for airline tickets, rather than just transferring to/from an airline program). Other tickets have been obtained directly with miles in an airline’s program (mostly United or Alaska, even if we used those miles with other airlines, such as Alaska’s partnership with American). Nonetheless, more of those miles were probably obtained from credit card sign-up bonuses and spending than by flying.

In addition, we’ve obtained about half our hotel stays over the past few years for free by using points for rooms (again, mostly Hilton points obtained from credit card spending).

We’ve been whittling down the balances in our frequent flyer accounts. Currently, we each have about 30,000 miles with Alaska; Ken has roughly 60,000 with United, 25,000 with Delta, and 30,000 with USAir (we wiped out Francesca’s United miles on our last international trip); we have a bit more than 160,000 Hilton points; plus there are some miles scattered around other airline programs.

So despite our skepticism, we still have to say that the game works. Consider getting those airline credit cards to obtain the initial bonus miles. Work the system for points with other credit cards or other points programs such as hotels. Make every purchase count – assuming you pay your card(s) in full every month, use a credit card for every purchase and either get cash back or miles/points of some sort for every dollar you spend. Work the angles for sign-up bonuses, contests, surveys, and the like – for example, every one of our combined 28,000 bmi miles have been obtained that way.

Our miles/points goals for 2009 are pretty modest: 1) bump up the Delta miles significantly, to get to the next award/upgrade level, 2) use up those USAir miles that we think of as just “sitting around,” 3) concentrate on using cash-back credit cards as much as possible, yet, 4) no matter what, continue to take advantage of every opportunity for free miles, even if we’re skeptical of their value.

As for related goals, we vow to only use 0% foreign-exchange-fee credit cards overseas (Capital One and Schwab are our current favorites); to never pay an ATM fee again (possible with several banks, especially Bank of Internet and Schwab); hopefully never fly less than Premium Economy again; and finally, for foreign travel, try to fly a “good” domestic carrier (JetBlue, Virgin America) to a U.S. gateway city, and then fly a real airline (an international carrier) overseas.

As for specific travel plans, we’ve moved to a space in our lives where we are “non-planning” more vacations, and being more spontaneous. We have our list of desired destinations, and the general timeframes when we can travel. Then, we’re going to wait for airfare deals, specials, and other offers much closer to our actual travels. For example, just in the past month we saw several incredible airfare deals to New Zealand, Scandinavia, France, and Asia. If we had been “ready” to take advantage of those offers, we could have jumped on a good deal. In general, we’ll have a few destinations in mind where we’ll be ready to pull the trigger in a 30-day window. This also makes sense with the myriad schedule changes the airlines are making nowadays. A recent trip that we planned several months in advance had more than half-a-dozen flight changes (we stopped counting) before our departure.

We’ll be traveling from Jan 1-10, and do not plan any posting or moderating comments during that time. We thank all our site visitors during 2008, who came from 88 countries this year (see map below). See you all next year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Exposed – Credit Card “Rating” Websites

We’ve previously discussed websites that supposedly “rate” credit cards, especially reward credit cards. These sites purport to review cards, and pretend to tell you about the best card offers for cash rebates, frequent flyer miles, or other rewards. We’ve almost always felt that these were self-serving affiliate marketing sites first, and unbiased review sites a far-distant second.

For those unfamiliar with affiliate marketing, it means that every time you click on a link or ad to ABC credit card on the XYZ card review site, XYZ gets a commission for a successful transaction. (Many blogs also participate in affiliate marketing programs, yet most blogs still seem to be fairly unbiased. We do not participate in any affiliate program on this blog. Thus, we have no incentive to recommend one card – or other product – over another.) That said, in many cases affiliate marketing is a legitimate revenue source for many blogs and websites. But it has never seemed appropriate to us with the “card-rating” websites.

The reason for this post is that it now appears (according to CreditMattersBlog) that Chase, Citibank, HSBC (and possibly American Express) have pulled some or all of their card products from the affiliate marketing channels. Guess what? All of a sudden nearly all of the so-called “unbiased” card-rating sites no longer display any United Airlines credit cards (Chase), American Airlines cards (Citi), HSBC cards, and many others.

If you find a rating site that no longer shows these and similar cards, you can be assured they do NOT have YOUR best interests at heart in ANY of their recommendations. Our least-favorite, self-serving “review” site no longer even lists Chase or HSBC on their credit-card-issuer’s page – you’d think that those companies no longer issue cards. The good news is that this can be a “canary-in-the-coal-mine” test for card review sites. If a card review site still lists a full range of Chase, Citi, and HSBC cards, it may pass the unbiased test. Unfortunately, in our recent tests, NONE have passed.

We are really saddened that several sites which we had previously considered relatively unbiased have suddenly stopped listing certain cards. For example, the Chase Freedom Visa, which we have recommended several times, has disappeared from most card-rating websites. Its 3% cash rebate is still one of the absolute best returns we’ve seen, but since the affiliate-dependent sites no longer get a commission for recommending it, the card has disappeared from their reviews.

What you have, then, is another “Buyer Beware” moment. If you want unbiased credit card reviews, you have to do your homework. As of now, we have NOT FOUND A SINGLE SITE which hasn’t changed its “recommendations” since Citi, Chase, and HSBC pulled out of the affiliate channels. Therefore, there isn’t a single comparison site for reward credit cards that we can recommend. When (or if) we find a comprehensive, truly unbiased card review site, we’ll rush to post that information.

[UPDATE: 12/31/2008. The buzz over on CreditMattersBlog seems to indicate that more card issuers are pulling out of the affiliate market. According to CMB, those include most Advanta credit cards, all Bank of America cards, and Discover business cards. Already, several of those so-called unbiased credit-card “rating” websites have pulled those cards from their sites. Which obviously confirms our opinion that they do NOT have any real interest in presenting objective reviews.]

Friday, December 26, 2008

Solutions for Problems that Don’t Exist?

The French government has unveiled a new logo and brand message (see below). As marketing/branding consultants, we actually like the image. But is it really necessary? France has been the world’s top tourist destination for the last 15 years.

The Pittsburgh airport authority will spend $600,000 over the next two years promoting a new Delta Pittsburgh-to-Paris flight. This is in addition to up to $9 million in revenue guarantees to Delta if the flight’s load factors don’t meet certain estimates. If real demand for the service isn’t there, no amount of money will help when the revenue guarantees run out.

We’re all for being as environmentally friendly as possible, but the news that Discover is now producing some credit cards with biodegradable plastic just seems odd. We applaud Discover for this move, but was there really a demand for this? Landfills will be just as full and just as massive, no matter what type of credit-card debris is dumped into them. Aren’t there other environmental initiatives that Discover might have taken that produce more benefits to the world?

The TSA announced expansion of its “popular” Family Lanes at security checkpoints to every airport in the nation, saying this will “allow families, individuals unfamiliar with air travel procedures and travelers with special needs to go through security at their own pace.” This is about as useful as saying “if you don’t drive very well, stay in the slow lane on the freeway,” or “if you’re a beginner skier, stay off the black runs.” Every Texan skier in the universe thinks they’re a black-diamond skier. Do we think travelers are any different?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Airport Websites

Unlike some travel writers, we don’t think of ourselves as airplane/airport/airline geeks. We are more interested in the ways that the air experience impacts our travels. So it was interesting when we saw a recent article on Yahoo travel about The World’s Top 10 Airport Web Sites. Not airports, but airport websites. Which got us to thinking that, yes, we do sometimes consult airport websites, but usually during the travel research stage.

The article points out some good pieces of information that are available on some airport websites, such as flight delays, current parking-lot conditions, and gate information.

So what’s important in an airport website? We have only used a few of the airport websites listed in the article, but have visited several other sites that we find helpful, and others that we find useless. Our suggestions for what we want to see from a good airport website include:

When Planning Your Travels
What airlines fly from the airport?
Are there airline route maps for each airline serving the airport?
What non-stop routes (especially internationally) are available from the airport?

After Ticketing but Before Traveling
Where are the gates in relation to the ticket counters?
Are there multiple security lines (so we can find a less-crowded one)?
Where are connecting gates?
What shopping and other services are available?
What are the restaurant and dining choices?
Where are the airline’s lounges (if your ticket allows access)?
Are there links to airport hotels, in case we have a long delay?
Information about ground transportation.
Parking lot information and parking costs.
Maps. We want lots of maps of terminals, gates, parking, etc.

Day of Travel
Delays, gates, updates, and other flight information.
Weather at the airport.
Parking lot updates – what’s full, what’s open.

General Website Features
Ease of navigation of the website.
Clearly defined sections, areas, tabs.
Easy-on-the-eye fonts, colors, graphics.
Fast loading (we don’t always have high-speed internet on the road).

The original article’s Top 10 includes five U.S. airports and five international ones.

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport
Chicago O'Hare International Airport
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
Denver International Airport
San Francisco International Airport
Copenhagen Airports
Frankfurt Airport City
London Heathrow International Airport
Singapore Changi Airport
Tokyo Narita International Airport

What airport sites would you add? What other information would you like to find on an airport website?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Why Use an Airline Credit Card?

We actually can’t think of any good reason. Frequent flyer tickets are becoming harder to obtain, and the miles needed are being increased, thus devaluing your reward per mile.

Airline frequent-flyer-mile credit cards generally cost in the neighborhood of $75 or more per year in annual fees, and then you end up with miles usually worth 2 cents each, or less. The old logic was that you received good value if you could use 25,000 miles for a domestic ticket that you’d probably pay about $500 for (less real value, though, because of that annual fee).

But as miles became devalued, the argument then became that you would get better use of miles for upgrades from economy to business or first class. With premium-class tickets sometimes 3 or 4 times the price of economy, that made some sense, even though you had to purchase the economy ticket itself first.

But now, several airlines are imposing fees of up to $300 to upgrade domestically, and up to $1,000 to do so internationally. The biggest abusers so far appear to be American, Continental, and United. Plan on the other majors following the herd.

This seems to be another squeeze-the-customer moment that the airlines have imposed without much thought to its consequences. If this, as we suggest, means that people will simply stop using airline credit cards, the banks that pay the airlines for those miles will begin to see customers migrate to other cards, and the airlines stand to lose one of their few reliable income streams.

In today’s environment, we can’t recommend an airline credit card anymore. There are several cash-back credit cards that offer 2% or better for purchases, and which have no annual fees. We remain convinced that over the long run, most consumers will be better off with the Chase Freedom Visa (3% cash back in several categories), the new Schwab Visa (2% cash back on everything), or the American Express Blue Cash (up to 5% after reaching a spending threshold).

Put that cash reward in a piggy bank, and buy yourself the airline ticket you want – any seat, any time, no extra fees for using cash, and probably inexpensive if you watch the airfare sales.

Airfare Watchdog has a good chart of the latest frequent-flyer fees.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Best Merger Plan Ever

The Italian government is bailing out Alitalia, while the U.S. government seems poised to throw billions of dollars to the Big 3 automakers. The December 9 Wall St. Journal reports that Italy’s Fiat is seeking an alliance/consolidation to stay in business, and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram just ran a story about the CEO of American Airlines suggesting that the U.S. air travel industry should get in line with hands out to the government.

We have a better idea. Combine General Motors, Fiat, Alitalia, and United into the world’s biggest (and first) Fly-and-Drive company.

The top executives at the U.S. airlines and in Detroit are so well known for understanding customer service, and are so humble and financially under-rewarded. Italian quality and efficiency is famous the world over. What better fit could there be? Wait! How about a new GAUF (GM, Alitalia, United, Fiat) credit card – pronounced “gaffe” – issued by financial partner Washington Mutual!

We can already see the advertising:

  • Buy a Fiat and get free airfare on United for a year (although there will be fees for baggage, drinks, snacks, seat cushions, in-flight magazines, and use of the lavatory)!
  • Fly Alitalia and instead of frequent flyer miles get points that can be redeemed for auto-parts purchases!
  • The new GAUF credit card offers rebates that can be applied toward CEO bonuses!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Great-Looking New Schwab No-Foreign-Exchange-Fee Visa

We’ve mentioned in the past that the Schwab checking account is one of our favorite travel tools. It offers an ATM card that rebates all ATM fees, worldwide.

Now, it looks like Schwab has introduced a brand new Signature Visa card that should make a great foreign-travel credit card. In the simplest terms, the Schwab Bank Invest First Visa Credit Card (whew, that’s a mouthful) claims to offer 2% cash back on all purchases, and 0% foreign exchange fees.

The cash rebate goes directly into a Schwab One brokerage account (no fees, no minimums to open), the same as you needed to link to for the checking account.

This Visa is very new, so we don’t have too many details yet. All we can say is, “Watch out Capital One” – their 0% forex fees just got some competition. And the Schwab 2% cash rebate with the new card is better than Capital One’s points/miles/cash-back schemes.

We’ll be applying for the card and will report our results after we’ve had a chance to use and evaluate it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Not Flying? - Fees Anyway!

We’ve never been ones to post “see-what-this-other-blogger-wrote” pieces, but this – ahem – “News Story” from The Onion is priceless. But shouldn’t they have saved it for April 1?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Zagat Best Airline Survey; Lonely Planet Top 10 Cities

Regular readers of our babblings on this blog know our love/hate relationship with “Best Of” surveys. Well, another one’s out, this time from Zagat. We’ve never been impressed with Zagat – their signature restaurant reviews full of breathless quote snippets from everyday consumers just seem to creep us out.

To us, the 2008 Zagat Airline Survey provides insights not so much into the airlines themselves, but into Zagat readers, subscribers, and survey participants. According to Zagat, “This year’s Survey included 17 domestic airlines and 68 airlines that fly internationally. Each surveyor took an average of 16.3 flights per year, for a total of 162,000 annual trips; 38% were for leisure, 62% for business.”

You can find the full survey results on the Zagat website, but a few highlights and comments. First is how well Southwest did in a variety of categories – in itself not too surprising, but it is surprising to us when nearly two-thirds of survey voters are reported as being business travelers.

On another note, if an airline is in the news a lot (Delta/Northwest, United, American) it’s conspicuously absent from the Zagat results. The domestic airlines most honored in the survey are Southwest, Continental, jetBlue, and Virgin America. On the international side, the airlines appearing at the top of the results most often are Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, and Cathay Pacific.

The reason we question these surveys is exemplified by the votes (in order) for Best Frequent Flier Programs:
Southwest Airlines
Virgin Atlantic Airways
Continental Airlines
Cathay Pacific Airways
Alaska Airlines

Southwest may have a good frequent flyer program within its own system, but it has no airline partners and a very limited number of other partners. Virgin Atlantic seems to have a great program, but what travel patterns do survey respondents have that would put it in second place? After Southwest in first place? We can’t imagine two more different programs. Also, it would seem to us that earning and redeeming miles with Cathay Pacific – a member of the OneWorld alliance – would be on the more challenging side. And Alaska? We love the airline and the partners in its frequent flyer program, but it surprises us that enough survey respondents are familiar with it for it to make the top five.

Anyway, we love these surveys and the insights, opinions, and absurdities they sometimes reveal.

BONUS: Lonely Planet Top 10 Cities

And just in case you were planning to visit some of the world’s great cities this coming year, Lonely Planet has your shopping list. Forget Paris, Prague, Hong Kong, San Francisco, or Rio. In Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2009, the “Top 10 Cities” are, alphabetically:

Antwerp, Belgium
Beirut, Lebanon
Chicago, USA
Glasgow, Scotland
Lisbon, Portugal
Mexico City, Mexico
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Shanghai, China
Warsaw, Poland
Zurich, Switzerland

They must really need to drum up book sales for those destinations.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Modest Frequent Miles/Points Suggestion for the Travel Industry

Joe Sharkey reports about the collapsing hotel travel marketplace. Airlines are reporting record losses, even with dramatically lower fuel prices. Because the American public (and pretty much the rest of the world) is hunkering down.

Our modest suggestion to the travel industry – especially airlines and hotels: Combine your frequent-flyer/guest programs. The airlines, especially, have global marketing alliances, the Big 3 being SkyTeam, OneWorld, and Star.

What if travelers were able to use a combination of Delta, Air France, and (maybe) Alaska miles? Or British Airways, American, and Qantas miles? United, bmi, and Lufthansa? This could send a dramatic message and be an incentive for travelers to cash in some miles for flights. Sure, the airlines would still probably restrict seats, but most travelers would perceive this as a two-for-one offer: They’re probably going to pay for a second ticket to go with their frequent-flyer freebie.

And what if hotel chains joined with the air alliances to offer rooms for airline miles (instead of just transferring points at poor ratios)? Or dramatically reduced room reward rates (maybe as part of a multi-night-stay deal so they’d be getting revenue instead of just giving away the free room nights)?

The other benefit to all this is that airlines and hotels could greatly reduce the number of banked miles/points (financial liabilities) on their books. Thus, when the recovery does happen, and folks start spending for travel again, more flights and hotel stays will then be full revenue producing. And we’d bet there will be a lot of pent-up demand for travel when the purse strings finally open again.

I imagine lots of folks smarter than me can offer reasons why this wouldn’t work. Fine. Several folks allegedly smarter than me are running General Motors, Ford, Merrill Lynch, AIG, United Airlines, etc. In this financial environment, it should be time for out-of-the-box thinking within the travel industry. Don’t hold your breath.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Travel Credit Cards in Today’s World

With the current financial situation, we’re suddenly seeing changes in many different areas of consumer credit. Yesterday we received a notice that our American Express card’s foreign-exchange fee would raise from 2% to 2.7% (pretty close to the Visa/MasterCard standard of 3%). We have a Washington Mutual Visa that has offered 1% forex fees, but who knows what that card’s future is now that Chase has bought WaMu (we don’t have a lot of hope that 1% will survive). We do hope that Capital One stays ahead of the crowd, and continues to differentiate itself with its 0% forex fees. But nothing’s sacred today.

We are also just as concerned about airline frequent flyer miles, and the credit cards that accrue them. Travel writer Peter Greenberg has jumped on the “dump your miles” bandwagon, feeling that United is most at risk of going under. Which makes us suggest even more strongly than we have in the past that you forgo any airline miles credit cards, and especially any that charge annual fees. This is an environment for cash-back or (maybe) travel-reward or hotel-points credit cards. (Note that one of the somewhat-better travel-reward cards was the Merrill+ Visa. Merrill Lynch has been absorbed by Bank of America, and that card’s future is unknown.)

We get change-in-terms notices weekly – many are announcing higher interest rates, higher late-payment penalties, etc. In the past, we (like most folks) just dumped these notices in the trash. Now we’re reading them. So as of now, our thoughts for your best bets in this changing environment are Capital One for foreign travel; a good cash-back card for your general rewards (we like the Chase Freedom); and maybe even the JCB credit card – 1% forex fees; 1% rebate; and backed by a non-U.S. (Japanese) bank.

And, as always, ignore all the reward cards if you carry a balance. Simply go for the absolute lowest APR you can find.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Letter to the New President-Elect

Dear President Obama:

You were right. You said that America needed change, and a majority of voters agreed with you. We’d like to humbly suggest a couple of things in the travel industry that could use a dose or two of change.

The Airport Experience: Some day, when no one is looking, head to a big airport yourself and stand in the cheap-seats check-in line. Check a couple of bags. Stand in the security line. Remove your shoes, place your belongings on the conveyer. Watch as a myopic, humorless, brain-dead worker-bee tries to decipher the strange shapes in your carry-on bag. This is “security”? I’m sorry, Mr. President, but this is theatre. If the TSA won’t even be screening 50% of all air cargo until February 2009, the 4 ounces of liquid in the grandmother’s purse is not the issue. If the people of this country felt that airport security really was about deterring terrorists, citizens would be behind it all the way. But the current system just insults our intelligence and our dignity.

International Relationships: We applaud your campaign words to actually talk to foreign leaders, even ones we don’t “like” very much. We suggest you take it a step further, and allow Americans to travel anywhere in the world they desire. Specifically, we’re talking about Cuba. Now that the “we-hate-Fidel” Florida Cuban vote is less of a political issue, please consider resuming normal relations with the island. Better yet, why not visit yourself? You might find it as beautiful as your home state of Hawaii, with people just as open, friendly, and interesting. Remember, whether it’s Cuba or Croatia, the more of the world Americans see, and the more we can share our values with other people, the more we can become knowledgeable and compassionate citizens of the world.

We could go on about other things we feel need “change” in America (especially the health-insurance industry). And let’s clean up our financial house of cards. To us, anything that changes our world view – both internally in the U.S. and of the world itself – would be the most lasting and positive change possible. And anything that snaps America out of its naval-gazing rut will be good for the country, for travelers, and for the world.

We applaud your victory, and hope the next four (or eight) years under your leadership bring a new era of enlightenment to our country – in travel and many other areas.

Trinidad, Cuba

Friday, October 24, 2008

Politics and Travel

Despite the criticisms we’ve occasionally heaped on the heads of the TSA and the Department of Homeland [In]Security, we’ve tried to keep this blog fairly non-political. After all, it’s a travel blog.

But travel can be a political act, and politics can and does affect when, where, and how we travel. The policies of the U.S. government (under any administration) clearly affect how the rest of the world views us, and how we interact with the rest of the world, as both a nation and as individuals.

No matter what your political affiliation, please read and thoughtfully consider the words in the just-published presidential endorsement by the New York Times editorial board. Our decisions here in America can, and probably will, affect the rest of the world. As citizens of – and travelers around – that world, we encourage you to think about your personal choices on November 4.

WWII Commando Memorial, Great Glen, Scotland

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Travel, Charity, Support With Micro Loans

If you’ve ever traveled to less-developed parts of the world, you can’t help but be aware of the disparity of wealth between Americans and people in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, etc. – there are pockets of poverty everywhere. Many words have been wasted arguing about tipping, handouts, giving gifts or money, and other ways of supporting individuals in less fortunate countries.

In general, we believe that part of our responsibility as travelers to those regions of the world includes some form of support. Yet we really, really dislike the give-away attitude. We’d really rather support organizations such as Kiva, which offers people an incentive to do better for themselves.

Kiva does not give away any money or “things” – they loan money to folks who are truly trying to create a better life with the loan they receive. We’ve been supporting Kiva for a couple of years now, and are extremely pleased with what they seem to be accomplishing. (In the past, we’ve also supported organizations such as Heifer International and other charitable causes, so we feel we have a good base of comparison.) Note that Kiva is a loan organization – not only do the recipients have an incentive to become self-supporting, but when they pay back your loan (which they nearly all do), you can then redirect your funds to another deserving individual.

Each of us makes our own choices, but if you’re a traveler to a part of the world where people could use some help, consider supporting an organization such as Kiva instead of handing dollars or trinkets to people on the street. You can support an individual trying to start a business or improve a life with as little as $25 to Kiva. Seems to us that goes so much farther than a handout.

Malawi, Africa

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The “Financial Crisis” and Leisure Travel

You only have to be a consumer – of anything – to know that the U.S. (and the rest of the world) is in a deep financial mess. The details of how we got here are confusing and convoluted, but it’s a significant world event, and will impact our economies for years.

Whether you hole up at home; whether you still spend freely on luxuries; or whether you barely make ends meet as your mortgage is underwater and your credit cards are being squeezed, you either are now or will soon be affected.

Americans love to spend, spend, spend. On food, travel, clothes, automobiles, electronics, and a hundred other categories. And in our opinion, if a real financial squeeze comes for most Americans, travel will be one of the first “luxuries” to be eliminated from the budget. (But then, do any Americans actually have and follow a “budget” any more?)

The short-term effects of a recession, depression, or whatever you call this economic pullback are being felt not just on Wall Street, but at your local bank (where, if the bank’s still in business, hiring and raises are frozen as deposits melt away), at the construction jobsite (where developers can’t get enough credit to cover payrolls), at the grocery store (since shoppers are gravitating toward WalMart and Costco), at the car dealer (where gas guzzlers sit on the lot for months), and in most corners of your community.

It may take awhile for the financial crisis of 2008 (and probably well into 2009) to be fully felt within all segments of the travel industry, but it will happen. Airlines will cut even more flights (at the same time trying to raise fares). Hotels will see lower occupancy rates (and they can’t park underutilized hotels in the desert like the airlines can park planes). Ski resorts and other destination attractions will find fewer visitors this winter and into the coming year.

In recent years, the travel industry took a hit during the first Gulf War and after 9/11. But on a day-to-day economic basis, those world events were minor compared to what we’re facing now. Of course, we may be in a “fear bottom,” and everything various governments are now doing will pull the economies of their countries up in a short time.

But talking to everyday folks both here in the U.S. and abroad, it seems everyone is talking about reigning in their discretionary (travel) spending in a major way. We’re not economists (thank goodness), but we believe that the travel industry has a very tough year or two ahead. Businesses will fail. And as a consumer, you will have fewer choices, higher prices, and your overall travel habits and patterns may change, affecting the industry for many years to come.

Simpler times before the last financial storm – postcard from London, postmarked 1928

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Airlines You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

How many of these airlines have YOU heard of?

  • Pegasus Airlines
  • Aegean Airlines
  • Lagunair
  • Siberia Airlines
  • Aer Lingus
  • Jet Airways
  • Dalavia
  • V Australia
  • Icelandair
  • Jet2
  • bmi
  • Boliviana de Aviacion
  • Go Air
  • Xiamen Airlines
  • Paramount Airways
  • Kingfisher Red
  • First Air

If you’ve heard of more than three of these airlines, take a bow.

These 17 airlines were mentioned during the past week alone on Alternative Airline News. And there are many, many more detailed elsewhere on the website. Most of us probably have little interest in regional Chinese (Xiamen) or Bolivian (Boliviana de Aviacion) carriers, but some folks might actually find it useful to know about Kingfisher Red, which operates flights from London to India.

Nonetheless, the Alternative Airlines website is new (to us) and fascinating. Break out some airline trivia next time you’re cornered by the World-Traveling-Airline-Snob.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

United 30,000 Mile Credit Card Offer

For collectors of United Airlines frequent flyer miles, this United offer is one of the best credit card offerings we’ve seen in a long time. 30,000 miles for signup, plus “one $25 United Discount Travel Certificate and one One-way, 1,000 mile, One-class Upgrade Certificate.” Some reporters have claimed success churning (applying for a card, canceling, then applying for a new card with a new sign-up bonus) United Chase cards, but this offer states “offer is valid only for first-time United Mileage Plus Visa cardmembers with new accounts.” Sometimes the credit-card companies hold to those restrictions, sometimes not. The terms and conditions state a $60 annual fee, with no mention of free for the first year.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Travel Musings

As we’ve noted, we don’t have to travel for business anymore, so our focus on leisure travel has caused us to reevaluate some of our ideas about the hows and whys of travel. Our most recent trips have solidified our thinking about several topics. A few rather random thoughts.

We just want to get there, and to feel our legs when we arrive. We have no need for First Class, little need for Business, but Premium Economy is essential. We’d much rather spend the thousands of dollars saved by not buying upper-class tickets at our lodging, on treasures, or participating in activities at our destination. Now, if we can get Business Class as an upgrade....
Anyway, we love Premium Economy (or Economy Plus, as it’s sometimes called). We’ve posted about Premium Economy several times. Obviously, for some (most?) folks a Premium Economy ticket is an extra $200 or $300 or whatever that they’d rather not spend. And if the flying bus is all you need, that’s OK.

We’re enjoying more regional destinations lately – places that we can visit with an easy two-day drive (for week-long trips) or a day’s drive (for long-weekend getaways). There’s usually so much to see along the way, and we find drive trips generally more relaxing than the hassles of air travel. Plus, car travel allows us to take all our various toys and favorite foods.

Our somewhat-splurge is more on the lodging side. We’ve given up on cheap hotel rooms – actually, we’ve pretty much given up on hotels completely, preferring B&Bs, lodges, cottages, cabins, and the like. We don’t need the service or pampering that hotels offer.
We like to cook, and drink wine without having to worry about driving. So we frequently chose self-catering (as they’re called in Europe) accommodations. In the U.S., it’s frequently B&Bs, because many VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) are for week-long time periods. If we can find a VRBO that allows us to book just a couple of nights, we frequently take that option.

We like the freedom of rental cars, but we don’t like driving in most foreign countries. We grew up driving the freeways of L.A., and felt if we could navigate the 405 we could drive anywhere. But if it’s a crowded destination (most of central Europe, Japan, etc.) we’d really rather take the train, and hire a driver/taxi for local transport. Of course, more rural areas (Scotland, Chile, Canada) are a lot easier to navigate.

We actually rather dislike that word – sightseeing. We much prefer to experience a place, by hiking, bicycling, snorkeling, kayaking. Of course, there are places and things to see everywhere, and being photographers we enjoy dramatic landscapes and historical sites. But if it’s a choice between standing outside the stone circle of Stonehenge and photographing the site, or wandering among the huge circle at nearby Avebury and feeling the ancients building that place, we’ll chose the second every time.

Hiking along Hadrian's Wall, England

Friday, September 26, 2008

Credit Card, ATM, Cell Phone, GPS Europe Travel Updates

We tried some new cards and toys in Europe this month, and thought we’d give a quick wrap-up.

Our Garmin GPS worked well, but had some of the same limitations we’d noticed in the states. Even with the newest maps, it still didn’t know of some intersection/roundabout changes, and it sometimes tried to take us on bizarre routes. Nonetheless, it was a great tool, but we wouldn’t drive with the GPS alone and without maps.

Our Capital One Visa worked every time. Every merchant (even tiny, out-of-the-way petrol stations) accepted our swipe card (nearly all Euro cards are now “chip-and-pin”). Our JCB card was not accepted at a merchant (a pub) that advertised JCB acceptance.

The Schwab ATM card also worked flawlessly, and previous use has indicated that any ATM fees will all be rebated. That means the old advice of getting large sums fewer times can be put to rest. If you’re uncomfortable carrying large amounts of cash, you can hit the ATM (“cashpoint” in Brit-speak) as frequently as you like and not worry about ATM fees.

We used several mobile (cell) phone chips this trip. A very old Orange (UK) chip that we figured was long dead still worked with what little time we had left on it. A new Vodafone (UK) chip also worked great. The UK chips are easy to top up all across the country, in shops and even at ATM machines. We chose Vodafone because they allegedly had the best coverage in Scotland, and that appeared to be so. Vodafone also has a plan (their Passport sevice) where you can set up international roaming in some countries (mostly in Europe, but also Australia and New Zealand) that costs the same as UK calls. Roaming in other countries still works, but charges are higher. In addition, we tried our 09 (Iceland) “international” chip, and despite being a “call-back” type system (dial, wait, your phone rings, answer that ring, and then get connected) it also worked every time we tried it.

Finally, despite our frequent complaints about car-rental ripoffs, we were quite pleased with the car, price, and service we received from Hertz (we rented at Heathrow and drove throughout England and Scotland). We paid for the rental using an American Express card, which gave us primary CDW coverage for only $20 for the entire rental period – a bargain at only a buck a day in our case.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Change of Focus

We’re back from three weeks in Scotland. During that time, we did a lot of thinking about travel and travel writing, and what part we play in that picture. The short answer is that we’ve decided to change the focus of this blog a bit. We’ll still occasionally offer some pertinent travel news; a little more often we might offer our “how to travel” tips; but we’ll much more commonly write stories, articles, and essays about the act and art of travel.

What we’ll be leaving out of this blog is just as important – grumpiness. We’re tired of the travel industry (especially the airlines, airports, TSA, and everything flying related), and we’re tired of complaining about the travel industry. Being curmudgeons, we’ll probably never completely stop pointing out some of the absurdities of travel, but we hope to lighten up a bit.

Finally, since we’ll be writing longer and more in-depth pieces, it’s quite likely that the frequency of our posts will change. We hope to put up something interesting once every week or two, although it could be more or less frequent. Check back with us occasionally, or be alerted to new posts by using one of the subscription links on the right.

If you are inclined to continue to visit our site as we change our style, we appreciate your interest. If our new offerings aren’t to your taste, here are several other good travel news blogs we read and enjoy that you might also consider reading.

Upgrade Travel Better
View from the Wing
Sky Talk
Today in the Sky
The Cranky Flier
Free Frequent Flyer Miles
Airfare Watchdog
OAG Travel News
The Middle Seat Terminal
One Mile at a Time
Travel Tech Talk
Breaking Travel News

Thanks for your loyalty. Enjoy your travels.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


We’re off to Scotland for the next 3 weeks. Visiting the Highlands and Islands; driving on the other side of the road; sampling a wee dram of Whiskey here and there. We are planning to get away from technology as much as possible, so we’re NOT taking a computer and don’t plan on any posting. Also, that means any comments to this blog won’t be moderated until we return. See you all again in late September.

For your enjoyment until then, here are a few of our totally biased “best of” entries from the past year:

Flying vs. Driving
Rethinking Mileage Credit Cards
Car Rental Tips
Stress-Free Travel Tips
Senior Travel Thoughts
How To Take a Wine-Tasting Tour

Saturday, August 30, 2008

No More Family Early Boarding

According to the Wall St. Journal’s The Middle Seat Terminal blog, at least 4 airlines – American, United, Delta, and Southwest – have stopped pre-boarding for families. The airlines all claim that the new policy speeds up boarding for all passengers, and gives flights a better opportunity to leave on time.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Alitalia Bankruptcy and Zoom Death

Italian carrier Alitalia filed for bankruptcy protection today, according to Bloomberg. So far, the news is sort of unclear, but seems to indicate that the airline will probably keep flying until its various parts are sold, liquidated, or merged (with Air One).

In other airline news, Canadian carrier Zoom entered bankruptcy and completely ceased operations yesterday evening.

Best Economy Plus Airlines

As a counterpoint to our previous post about the worst airline seats, we present this information about what could be considered the best economy seats.

According to surveys conducted by the Skytrax (UK) website, the five top-rated economy plus airlines were (in order):

Airline & Seat Pitch/Width
EVA Air - 38”/18”
bmi - 49”/21”
ANA - 38”/18.5”
British Airways - 38”/18.5”
Air New Zealand - 38-40”/17.8-18.5”

[Economy plus seat pitch and width numbers from SeatGuru.]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Travel News: Minimum Stays, China Air Service, In-Flight Internet, US Airways

Minimum Stays Returning?
While not (yet) reverting to Saturday-night-stay requirements for the cheapest airfares, some airlines are re-instituting minimum stay requirements, in an effort to squeeze more money out of business travelers.

China Air Service Overview
The OAG travel website has a good article detailing air routes to China from the U.S. (It also discusses air to China from other parts of the world.) The story notes that currently only four Chinese destinations – Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou – can be reached by non-stop flights from the U.S.

In-Flight Internet Roundup
TravelTechTalk has a nice overview of in-flight internet either planned or in operation on U.S. carriers.

US Airways & America West
Does anyone other than us find it odd that three years after the “merger” of US Air and America West that we’re still getting email for both our newer (merged) US Air frequent flyer account and the older America West account? Even after the two programs merged mileage balances years ago? Or that the current US Air website’s title is still “US Airways America West Airlines Official Site”?

Monday, August 25, 2008

United’s Downhill Slide

An old acquaintance from our days in the Colorado ski industry, Claire Walter, posed an interesting comment on her Travel Babel blog. On her post, titled Help Me Rediscover the Joy of Travel, she asks: “Have my posts become too whiny -- or has travel simply become a chore rather than a joy?”

Sometimes, we feel we’re in the same boat. Are our posts too cynical? Does stating over and over again how moronic the TSA is help us (or others) be better and happier travelers?

It’s really not a simple question. The world today, and especially America, seems full of pompous and arrogant politicians, agencies, businesses, employees, and, yes, even customers. It’s a lot more than just travel. Store clerks are surly, drivers are insane, and service businesses are cold-hearted. Of course, there are exceptions, and those people and businesses can brighten our days.

But overall, we’re a nation of whiners who are seemingly only looking out for ourselves. Maybe we need another long trip somewhere uncivilized to clear the mind. With that in mind, we present our last diatribe against the travel industry for at least a month. We are taking most of September off, albeit not to an uncivilized destination. So without further ado:

United’s Downhill Slide

The travel blog-o-sphere is awash in words about United’s recently announced changes regarding in-flight meals and other “Changes Provid[ing] Value.” For many years now, United has been our preferred domestic airlines as well as having our favorite frequent flyer program.

Yet we haven’t flown United since the new slash-and-burn mentality appeared a few months ago. We are on several United flights (both domestic and international) over the next few weeks, and it will be interesting to see how service is, even though the international changes aren’t scheduled to take effect until Oct. 1. We booked those flights way too far in advance, and have already suffered through seemingly dozens of phone calls every time United changed a flight time or aircraft or had another tantrum.

To pour salt into the wounds, United is now offering 10 percent off international tickets by purchasing with a Visa card. It galls us that they claim they’re losing so much money that they have to charge us for snacks, yet they can forgo 10 percent revenue with this promotion. Even if this is a totally Visa-sponsored promo, it just sends the wrong message.

So now we’re trying to decide if it’s best to burn our United frequent flyer miles in the near future, before United sinks so deep into the mud that it simply disappears. We’ve already begun to put any domestic-airline flying miles into international carriers’ programs (such as bmi). When that’s not feasible, we’re accruing domestic flying miles into Alaska’s program (yet even Alaska is devaluing their mileage program, as is Frontier). Finally, this only reinforces our conviction that non-flight rewards (credit-card spending, mostly) are better as cash-back rewards or points in hotel or other programs rather than as airline miles.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Still More Misc. Travel News: Lonely Planet, Continental, TSA, Unions

Lonely Planet Maps on Nokia Phones
Nokia phone users can download Lonely Planet maps to more than 100 “popular tourist locations.” The service costs 8 Euros per download.

Continental Leaving Dining Program
Continental Airlines is pulling out of the Rewards Network dining program, effective Oct. 31, 2008. Most other airlines still appear to be participating.

Dumb & Dumber Isn’t Just For Airline CEOs
Two exceptional news reports:
First, from the Dallas Star Telegram’s Sky Talk blog, comes the story that the TSA is defending a TSA “inspector” who damaged 9 American Eagle planes (and delayed 40 flights and hundreds of passengers) by climbing on the outside of the aircraft. The best part? The TSA is threatening possible action against American Eagle for “security lapses.”
The second Head-Up-The-Butt story comes from USA Today’s Today in the Sky blog, about Northwest Airlines’ unions slamming NW management after NW and Delta asked employees about ways to better integrate during the upcoming Delta/NW merger.

It Takes A Million (Names on the Terrorist Watch List)
According to Travel Babel, the ACLU has estimated that there are now 1 million names on the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorist watch list. That’s names, not people. And how many other folks have the same names as the ones on the list? Pretty soon, the airlines won’t have to worry about alienating their customers, because the TSA won’t let anyone fly, as everyone in America will be on the list. We feel so much safer now.

Friday, August 22, 2008

More Misc. Travel News

BAA Must Divest Itself of Some UK Airports
BAA, the operators of 7 UK airports, will probably have to sell Gatwick and Stansted airports, after the UK Competition Commission found that BAA was anti-competitive in its ownership. The Commission also recommended that BAA sell either Glasgow or Edinburgh.

American Airlines Inflight Internet
American Airlines has begun to roll out inflight internet service on domestic flights. Aircell’s Gogo service will be available on American’s 767-200 aircraft, offering coast-to-coast coverage on nonstop flights between New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami.

Air France/KLM Considering Merging Frequent Flyer Program with Delta's?
A strange survey, courtesy of FreeFrequentFlyerMiles, seems to indicate that Air France/KLM might be considering merging its frequent flyer program with Delta’s. (On the FreeFrequentFlyerMiles site, follow links from the “what’s new” page.)

The Airline Oil Spin
The Airline Oil Spin website has been launched by, in an attempt to counter the airline industry’s claims that “oil speculators” are responsible for higher oil/fuel prices.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Worst Airline Seats

So you’re complaining about your 31-inch economy seat pitch on American or Northwest or Continental or....? Fly some of the cheap airlines of Europe (many are charter airlines) and you’ll be treated to seat pitches of 29 or even 28 inches. This list comes from the Skytrax UK website.

  • bmi Baby – 29”
  • easyJet – 29”
  • Belair – 28-31”
  • First Choice (short haul) – 28”
  • Monarch Airlines – 29”
  • Thomsonfly (short haul) – 29”

Separately, Skytrax lists North Korea’s Air Koryo as the only “1-Star” (lowest) of all rated airlines. It doesn’t say anything about Air Koryo’s seats.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Misc. Travel News

Airline Fee Chart
The total price you’ll pay for airline travel today will probably NOT be the one shown when you purchase your ticket. A great overview chart showing the fees that different airlines are adding on can be found at

United Pilots’ Opinion of Their CEO
Not only are the airline CEOs out of touch, but United’s CEO Glenn Tilton has been in the business world for decades yet apparently never even reserved his own domain name. United Airlines pilots have begun a campaign to oust him from the leadership of the company, using as their grievance page.

KLM Award Seats on Delta’s Website
Delta announced that members of its frequent flyer program can shop for award seats on KLM. Previously, passengers could shop for seats on Air France, Continental, Northwest, Hawaiian and Alaska.

American, BA, and Iberia Alliance
American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia Airlines have announced a joint business agreement (pending regulatory approval). All airlines are members of the oneworld alliance.

Another Best-Airline Awards List
The UK Skytrax website surveyed more than 15 million air travelers worldwide, and has announced their “best” airline awards. We thought we’d mention it because we love silly lists. See how many U.S. carriers you can find in the awards.

1920s Postcard - Paris Opera

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Capital One No-Fee MasterCards

A reader of one of our previous posts took issue (correctly) with our comments and mentioned having a Capital One MasterCard that carries no annual fee and which offers Capital One’s well-known 0% foreign-exchange fee. (Which is the primary reason we suggest using the Cap1 card only for international travel – the rewards programs are generally not that great.) We had previously found only one travel reward MasterCard in Capital One’s line, and that showed a $39 annual fee. Now, we’re seeing nine different Cap1 MCs on this page, four of which offer some type of rewards and all with no annual fee. (And weirdly, some Cap1 application pages show a card without any MC or Visa logo at all, and no indication of which card you’re applying for.)

Bottom line: We’re still generally under-impressed with Capital One’s reward programs, but think a Cap 1 card is the best for international travel (or even purchases from the U.S. that are made in foreign currencies, such as from an international merchant). With Capital One not charging the 3% forex fee most other cards charge, using the card for international purchases can be like getting a 4% rebate (1% cash-back rebate on some Cap 1 cards, plus not being charged the 3% forex fee).

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pet-Friendly Road-Trip Travel

We really don’t think it’s a great idea to fly with any animal – it’s stressful for both pet and human, and it’s risky (animals do die, although very infrequently). On road trips, though, traveling with the critters, especially dogs, can be relatively easy.

You’ll have three major aspects to consider. 1) While traveling in your car. 2) Lodging. 3) What to do with the dog(s) while you’re doing other things – tasting wine, shopping, etc.

In the vehicle, you should have plenty of space and carry a familiar blanket or pad. Make lots of stops along the way for short pee breaks. Don’t feed them significantly, but offer the occasional treat or dog biscuit. When you stop, unless you’re in the middle of nowhere and far off the highway, put them on a leash for their break – you don’t want them chasing a rabbit across the highway. Offer water outside the car during those stops. And, obviously, factor in a bit of extra time for all those breaks – traveling with a dog can easily add 30-45 minutes or more to a day’s drive.

There are many lodging options for dog travelers, but our favorites are motels that have individual cottage or cabin units. Some home rentals ( is a good source for vacation homes) are pet-friendly, but most are geared to multi-day stays rather than single nights on the road.

When you go out for the day to do your own thing, take the dogs. Do not leave them in your room or rental (most lodging specifically prohibits it anyway). As with driving, allow extra time in your schedule for breaks and walks. If you leave the dogs in the car for two hours while you’re shopping, make sure they get a good 10-15 minute walk when you get back. Also, leave all windows opened a few inches to give the dogs plenty of air. And you probably don’t want to travel with animals at all during the heat of summer.

Take familiar objects along – dog beds, their usual food, toys, treats, etc. The more they feel at home the more your dogs will be good travelers. And if you have a barker, invest in a bark collar – they are not cruel, and should keep the peace with other travelers. Anytime, anywhere you’re walking your dog, pick up after it and dispose of the droppings appropriately. And do take them for walks a lot – they don’t have their yard or other usual outdoor space to run and play in.

Lastly, be a good traveling-dog owner. One lodge owner said to us that he’d had more problems with people and kids than with dogs, and therefore welcomed them. Be respectful and considerate, and more lodging owners might allow animals on their properties.

Vacation Rentals Accepting Pets
Pets Allowed Hotels

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Can It Get Any Worse? (Of Course It Can)

Did all airline executives graduate from Dumb & Dumber University? Is there anything more that U.S. airlines can do to annoy their customers? (That’s rhetorical: We know there’s a lot more coming.) We aren’t aware of any other business that tries so hard to disenfranchise their customers – their source of revenue. Not even used-car dealers, not cable companies nor mortgage brokers. Sure, we may not LIKE some of those other businesses, but they at least seem to WANT us as customers.

Fees for food. Fees for “free” tickets. Fees for changing your mind. It’s become such a joke that there are charts all over the internet of both real and bogus fees. Changed flights, disappearing routes, opaque pricing, baggage fees and hassles. It appears that the airlines really DON’T want customers. Not us, not ANY customers.

Maybe airline CEOs and executives are just in it to make their huge salaries and bonuses, biding their time and waiting to go out of business. It seems like they believe that sitting in the big office is just something for them to do for awhile, passing their time making millions a year and not really caring (or knowing) anything about their business or their customers.

Oh, yes, we forgot. It’s the evil oil speculators who are FORCING the airlines to annoy us. Yup, makes sense. Oil speculators know that airline executives are dumb as a box of rocks, and will flutter around like wounded birds in a small room, knocking over lamps and crapping on the furniture. Yes, that’s it: The smart oil speculators are trying to push the airlines out of business so Americans and Chinese will have to drive instead of fly, burning a lot more automotive gas instead of a lesser amount of jet fuel that would have been used for equivalent per-person air travel. Yea, that’s it.

Any airline that returned its service levels (and lack of “fees”) to what they were 10-20 years ago would have our lifetime loyalty – no matter WHAT the price of a ticket. We want to be loyal customers. We want an airline that actually wants us as customers.

Of course, it’ll never happen. Graduates of Dumb & Dumber University can’t read, can’t think, and certainly don’t know how to run a business and retain customers.

Monday, August 04, 2008

It’s a Race to the Bottom: Run, Don’t Walk, Toward International Airlines

Flying to Europe or Asia for your next vacation? Are you a leisure traveler and not a business traveler stuck with a corporate account with a particular U.S. airline? If so, get yourself a domestic ticket on Alaska, Frontier, Virgin America, or JetBlue to an international gateway city (Los Angeles, New York, etc.) and fly a real airline (an international carrier) overseas.

The Upgrade: Travel Better blog talks about United’s possible new scheme to charge for all food on international flights. United is apparently doing the market research for that scenario now. As Upgrade says, we think your best choice increasingly becomes to fly international carriers and not U.S. ones. All the U.S. majors have international alliance partners, so even when you have to fly a U.S. carrier in the states, you can credit your frequent flyer miles to an international airline which flies most conveniently to your preferred destinations. As Upgrade says, it’s a race to the bottom, and the only winners will be international airlines and maybe a few domestic carriers such as Alaska, Southwest, or JetBlue.

Star Alliance
SeatGuru’s premium economy comparison chart

Friday, August 01, 2008

Summer Travel: Ski Resorts

Even if you’ve never been a skier, consider a summer trip to a downhill ski resort. Many ski areas have a wide variety of summer activities – hiking, mountain biking, alpine slides, dining and restaurants, shopping, scenic chairlift rides, guided mushroom hikes or photography courses, mini golf, climbing walls, and a host of other activities. Many resorts are also world-renowned for music festivals, theatre, or wine-and-food events.

Ski resorts are scattered across every mountain range of the U.S., and offer a wonderful escape from the heat and noise of summer in the lowlands and cities. State-by-state lists of ski areas (all may not offer summer activities) can be found at HowToTravelAmerica, GoSki, SkiResortGuide, and SkiResorts.)

Most resorts that do have summer operations close shortly after the Labor Day Weekend, so they can begin preparing the slopes for next winter. But since most ski resorts are on National Forest or other public land, they offer opportunities for hiking or picnicking in the beautiful fall days of September and October, until the snow flies. (A few ski areas may be entirely on private land, and may therefore close the entire area until ski season.)

The majority of resorts offering summer activities are in the west (California especially), the Rocky Mountains (especially Colorado and Utah), and New England (a lot of the Vermont resorts), but there are many more. There are an estimated 600 ski resorts (to our knowledge in at least 38 states), so you should find something near you.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Frequent Flyer Programs and Credit Cards for Infrequent Flyers

Given the fact that we don’t have to travel for business, combined with the awful experience that air travel is today, we’ve begun planning more driving vacations and cutting back on our plans for discretionary flying. Until air misery improves, we expect to be flying only 3-4 times a year. So we got to thinking about other folks in similar situations or, especially, people who are new to the frequent-flyer and reward-credit-card games.

If you’re a newbie or just normally an infrequent flyer, you may want to re-think some of the commonly offered advice. Let’s examine 4 scenarios. (If you fly more than our examples, or already have a lot of miles, you’re probably OK with whatever you’re doing now.)

1 You fly once a year domestically to visit family or friends. You almost never stay in hotels.
2 You fly once a year domestically. You stay in hotels several times a year on your travels.
3 You fly once a year internationally for vacation, and another 1-2 times domestically. You almost never stay in hotels.
4 You fly once a year internationally and 1-2 times domestically. You stay in hotels several times a year.

Here are our suggestions.

Situation 1 & 2
Credit-Card Frequent Flyer Buying: We have two suggested options. Get a cash-back credit card (some offer as much as 3-5%, depending on category and spending limits – see some of our previous posts) and buy yourself an airline ticket with the money you saved. Alternately, look to the travel-reward cards outlined below. If you’re in scenario 2, seriously consider a hotel credit card instead. Assuming you like a particular hotel chain, your room rewards may work out to as much as 5% – far better than most cash-back or travel-reward card percentages. Some hotel cards also allow transfers to airline frequent-flyer programs. Some no-annual-fee hotel card options are listed below.
Flying: Sign up for the frequent-flyer program of whatever airline you fly, whenever you fly. Over time you may accrue enough flight miles for a ticket, if... you fly one airline as much as possible; your airline stays in business; the program doesn’t change the rules.

Situations 3 & 4
Credit-Card Frequent Flyer Buying: We’d still suggest a cash-back or travel-rewards card as your primary credit card. Hotel cards can again be very worthwhile if you’re in situation 4. You could also possibly – just possibly – consider a no-annual-fee airline credit card (as a secondary card only) if you fly one airline almost exclusively. The only major U.S. airlines that we know of which offer no-fee cards are United, USAir, and American. Still, you should get much better reward percentages with cash-back, travel-reward, or hotel cards.
Flying: Sign up for the frequent-flyer program of whatever airlines you fly. But... try to maximize your miles into one or, at most, two airline programs. Your travel patterns should show you which airlines are best for you. Then, take advantage of all the additional earning opportunities for your preferred airline program(s). These include contests, surveys, purchasing products through the airline’s shopping partners, car rentals, etc. Take at look at the many options shown on Finally, and although this can get complicated for newbies, research the international airline partners of your preferred airline. For example, if your annual international trip is to Europe, look into the possibility of crediting all your flying miles to bmi rather than United, or to British Airways instead of American.

Specific Credit Card Advice for Infrequent Flyers

Avoid any reward card that charges an annual fee. Avoid the airline credit cards (except as noted above). Once you chose a card, stick with it – if you jump around between cards you’ll have less chance to build a large-enough point balance for redemptions. Never carry a balance on a reward card – most reward cards carry significantly higher APRs than non-reward cards.

Some folks appreciate the incentive of a travel-rewards card, feeling they’re getting more of a “free” ticket than simply using cash saved from other rebate cards. If you decide to go with a travel-rewards card instead of a cash-back card, there are two common types of point-based cards (with some variations).

One type allows you to earn points (fake miles) that can be used as a statement credit against any travel purchase. This category includes American Express FreedomPass and Blue Sky cards, Miles by Discover, and Capital One No Hassle Miles cards. Our favorite of this group is the Amex FreedomPass card, giving you 1.33% credit for travel purchases ($100 statement credit for 7,500 points). We like it because the FreedomPass card also offers some worthwhile travel discounts (for example: 3% off Delta or JetBlue tickets just by purchasing with the card).

The second category consists of cards where you need to contact the card issuer’s travel department to redeem your points (miles). This category includes the Merrill+ card, several Citi cards (ThankYou network), and Bank of America WorldPoints cards. These can be useful for acquiring that basic economy ticket within the U.S. Our favorite in this group is the Merrill card, giving you up to 2% value (a ticket up to $500 value for 25,000 points) as well as some other travel benefits, such as discounts on American Airlines tickets.

For hotel cards, some of the no-annual-fee offerings we’ve discovered include Hilton, Wyndham, Choice, La Quinta, and Best Western. We’ve personally been very pleased with Hilton’s Amex and Visa cards (the Amex card offers a little better point-earning rate). Look carefully at room rates and calculate your rewards percentage before getting a hotel card in preference to a cash-back or travel-rewards card.

Make every purchase count for something.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Garmin Nuvi 670 GPS Review

We’d been planning for awhile to acquire a car GPS, and after looking at the options and online reviews, we settled on the Garmin Nuvi 670. We were familiar with Garmin’s hand-held GPS units from wilderness search-and-rescue work, but this is a different beast. We’d also used GPS a few times in rental cars, and found them reasonably convenient but not essential. But we’ll be driving all over the back roads of Scotland for a month, and thought a GPS would be helpful. So we got this unit in advance, to see how it worked on road trips in areas we’re familiar with and ones we’re not.

The unit has an excellent four-inch-wide touch screen, and is easily viewed from both driver’s and passenger seats. The 670 comes preloaded with both North America and Europe maps – if you’re planning on using a Garmin in Europe, it’s much more affordable to purchase one with the Europe maps now rather than spending several hundred dollars to add them later.

Our favorite aspects:
The unit was great for finding gas stations (or restaurants, or...) in medium-sized towns, where you could aimlessly wander one small street after another. The gas-find aspect is also great while on the highway to find out whether you should stop immediately or wait a few exits. (Or if the gas station that the highway sign says if off Exit 10 is really there, or 5 miles down a back road to a small town.)
We also liked that it showed some shops, lodging, and attractions. On our California wine trip, we often didn’t know the physical address of a particular winery, but the GPS listed just about every one by name in its directory.
In general, the unit took us right to our destination along the shortest or quickest route. We seldom second guessed a routing, even in regions we knew well. The menus and screens are very intuitive, and the voice software usually pronounced names well enough to be understood.

Our significant complaints:
If you get off route (because you drove past your turn, or took an intentional detour) the unit never just tells you to turn around. It’s always trying to find a new route, even if that means going miles to the next right-right-left to get you back on your original route.
At least one town (it’s been there since 1900, so it isn’t someplace new) simply didn’t exist in the database. Nor did any of the town’s street names show up in surrounding towns. Oddly, the street names actually show on the moving map itself. The unit just said “not found” for the name of the town itself and all its street names.
It sometimes calls roads “Highway 78” and then sometimes calls the same road “Taylor Avenue” or some such. Maybe Taylor Ave. is the local name, but we really don’t want to keep hearing “drive 34 miles on Taylor Ave.”
We know roads change, but a major highway bypass that was completed at least five years ago didn’t show on one of our routes. (Our unit had up-to-date maps, and the GPS manufacturers suggest buying updates every year. Still, a change in a major highway five years ago?)

Overall, we were pleased. The unit is quite intuitive in inputting addresses, and most maps seem up-to-date. But we would suggest never following the unit blindly, nor travelling without a paper map for backup of any questionable routings. Still, we’re taking it to Scotland, and plan on using it extensively.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Amazon – Another Good Cash-Back/Travel Credit Card

If you spend a lot at Amazon (as we do), you might consider the Amazon Visa card, which offers 3 “points” per $1 spent at Amazon. This works out to 3% cash back or an Amazon credit. You can also use “15,000 points [for] $150 off [an] Airline Ticket” and “25,000 Points [for a] Round-Trip Airline Ticket Within the 48 Contiguous United States.” We can not yet find if this requires purchase through a travel-agent partner, but it should still represent at least 3% (or better, if the price limit on the round-trip ticket offer is higher than $250). This is far better than what we consider our return (2%) on an airline credit card. There is also the option of converting “6,000 Points [in] Exchange for 5,000 British Airways Miles.”

With the card, you also get a $30 credit for your first purchase with the card, and double reward points for the first 90 days. Purchases at “Gas Stations, Restaurants, and Drugstores” offer the equivalent of 2%, and it’s 1% everywhere else you use the card. (We think you can do better than that with other cards.) There are other rewards available, and there is no annual fee.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tip: Call the International Flights Phone Number

Most of the major U.S. airlines that fly internationally have separate reservation/customer service phone numbers for international travel vs. all-U.S. routings. Every time we’ve called the number for international flight assistance, we’ve been connected to a call center in the U.S. Conversely, when we’re using the phone number for booking or changing a U.S. reservation, we end up talking to someone in Asia. This is not a bad thing, but we’ve found we can generally get more personalized assistance with a customer-service rep headquartered in the U.S. Thus, we always call the international flights number, and just “forget” which number we’re calling, or say something like, “sorry, I meant to push 1 instead of 2.” No one has refused to assist us. Bottom line, especially if you have a complicated situation, call the phone number for international itineraries, no matter what your actual destinations.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Wall St. Journal Take on the Airlines' "Oil Speculators" Letter

We frequently disagree with the Wall St. Journal’s political stance, and editorial board member Kimberley Strassel’s columns often rub us the wrong way. But she has written the best response we’ve yet seen to the airlines’ letter to customers about oil speculators. Now if only a few of the airline CEOs made it far enough in school to be able to read....

Friday, July 18, 2008

IcelandAir MasterCard

We have found that a few places in Europe take MasterCard but not Visa. (We think that’s probably because those places take Maestro, MasterCard’s debit card.)

If you’ve been looking for a no-annual-fee MasterCard for international travel that charges less than the standard 3% rip-off foreign-exchange fee, take a look at the IcelandAir MasterCard from Juniper (Barclays). The card offers 5,000 initial IcelandAir points (miles) and 1 point per $2 of spending. The forex fee is a slightly better 2%. (There is also an annual-fee card available offering better mileage.)

No, that’s not as good as Capital One’s 0% forex fees, but Capital One has only one MasterCard in their line, which carries a $39 annual fee. All their no-annual-fee cards are Visas. (American Express charges 2% but is less widely accepted overseas. Discover charges 0% but is not accepted in Europe. The JCB card charges 1% but isn’t widely available to U.S. residents.)

If you’re interested in IcelandAir’s credit card, make sure you first sign up for an IcelandAir frequent flyer account through their current contest (ends July 29) – 120,000 points are up for grabs in the contest, with a 1,000-point sign-up bonus for new frequent-flyer program members.

Ahh. That sure tastes 3 percent better. (Vienna Woods, Austria)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Questionable Recommendations About Reward Credit Cards

Although many people consider Consumer Reports the final word about everything consumer-quality related – autos, sports equipment, financial services, clothes, appliances, etc. – we’ve never been impressed. In our observations, for product categories that we actually know about really well, Consumer Reports just about always misses the boat. It seems that CR assigns values to aspects of a certain category of product that really aren’t important, and then has non-experts write/research the articles. We’ve seen it over and over in various categories, which makes us skeptical of their reporting in other categories.

This all is leading up to the recent CR story about reward credit cards (“The Best Cash-Back Credit Cards”). There is a bit of solid advice in the article, but then they throw in something like this:

“‘Invariably, if you see a 5 percent card, there will be restrictions or other strings attached,’ [Curtis] Arnold [founder of U.S. Citizens for Fair Credit Card Terms] says. He points to Discover’s Open Road Card as an example. The card pays 5 percent cash back on gas and auto maintenance, but the fine print says that applies only to the first $1,200 you spend in the category. Another example is the Discover More Card, which also pays 5 percent on purchases in certain designated categories, but they change four times a year. ... But the right card can pay off handsomely. Arnold says he and his wife use American Express’s Blue Cash card, which, after you charge $6,500, pays 5 percent back on further purchases the rest of the year in supermarkets, drugstores, and gas stations, and 1.5 percent on everything else, with no limit on the reward amount.”

So CR is saying to avoid the card that doesn’t pay more than a certain amount (Discover), but use a card (Amex Blue) which doesn’t pay until a certain amount? And both have the “5%-strings-attached” feature. Huh?

The article then presents CR’s favorites, saying: “We screened out cards that charge an annual fee and selected among only those that rated five stars in scoring...” We also dislike annual fees, as they effectively reduce your reward percentage, but for many users an annual-fee card can offer many worthwhile additional benefits.

But our biggest complaint is that the Consumer Reports recommendations are based on reviews from the website (which, by gosh, is the website of Arnold’s U.S. Citizens for Fair Credit Card Terms). is an affiliate-marketing website first and foremost (in that every click to a card company’s application earns cardratings a commission) and an unbiased review site a far-distant second. For example, on the first page of cardratings “Featured Frequent Flyer & Travel Reward Credit Cards” section, one-third (3 of 9) of the cards are Capital One No Hassle cards. Most knowledgeable observers of the travel/reward-card world think Capital One cards have some of the poorest reward programs going. (In fairness, we actually like the card for its 0% foreign-exchange fees, but as a reward system it’s way down in the pack.)

We wholly agree with CR that no one should even consider a reward card if they carry a balance – just go for the lowest interest rate. But for those who pay off their cards every month, there are many superior cards to the eight best on Consumer Reports’ list, which includes two Discover cards (which they seemed to slam earlier in their article) and a 1% cash-back Capital One card (if you can’t get better than 1%, you’re not even trying).

The CR article is now making the media rounds, with CNN Money doing their article about the CR article in their “Raw Deal: Tales of Economic Injustice” section. The title of the CNN Money article about the CR piece? “Credit Card Rewards Are A Real Rip Off.”

That kind of reporting gives us a headache. We don’t know which bothers us most: CNN Money misrepresenting the CR article with an inaccurate and inflammatory headline, or the original CR article and its questionable recommendations.