Monday, April 28, 2008

More Homeland Insecurity Idiocy

From the "If it weren’t so frightening, this would be so funny" department. Quoting a Yahoo Travel News article, headlined: To Stave Off Terror, Feds Issue Safety Strategy For Boaters

“As boating season approaches, the Bush administration wants to enlist the country’s 80 million recreational boaters to help reduce the chances that a small boat could deliver a nuclear or radiological bomb somewhere along the country's 95,000 miles of coastline and inland waterways.

“According to an April 23 intelligence assessment obtained by The Associated Press, ‘The use of a small boat as a weapon is likely to remain al-Qaida's weapon of choice in the maritime environment, given its ease in arming and deploying, low cost, and record of success.’

“The millions of humble dinghies, fishing boats and smaller cargo ships that ply America's waterways are not nationally regulated as they buzz around ports, oil tankers, power plants and other potential terrorist targets.”

What a sad commentary on our government – not just the Bush administration, which is so zealous in this regard, but any administration in today’s world, when no one can be perceived as being soft on terror. Witness the idiocy about flag lapel pins during the recent Democratic debate.

Any 12-year-old can tell you that airport screening is a theatrical joke – we don’t catch terrorists by wanding grandmothers at the Boise airport. And we don’t catch terrorists by having the “80 million recreational boaters” in the U.S. play cowboy on the water.

It seems like every initiative coming from the Department of Homeland Insecurity is a Wag The Dog moment. Fingerprinting foreign visitors when they leave the U.S. Harassing chicken farmers. Devising toy X-ray machines for children. George Orwell was right. There is probably no hope for us to ever return to sanity and normalcy. But maybe that’s exactly how our elected politicians want it.

Defending our coastlines

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Joe Sharkey's Blog

We’re adding a new favorite Big-Ass-Opinion blogger to our list. Joe Sharkey, on his blog Joe Sharkey At Large, really says it like it is (or how he feels it is). We especially love his skewering of other (usually traditional print) media for their frequently inane and un-researched comments. He posts whenever it’s warranted – daily, weekly, or several times a day. If you like your travel news with a BIG dose of attitude (informed, nonetheless), not some MTV sound-bite journalism, visit Joe’s blog. We come from a traditional print media background, and have seen both the glory and the crap coming out of print and TV these days.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Euro Low-Cost Airlines

It’s not just here in the U.S. that airlines are struggling. Reuters reports that Francois Bacchetta, managing director of easyJet France, predicts that of the roughly 50 low-cost European carriers, only four will survive the competitive environment considering current fuel prices. ( counts 60 carriers.) Bacchetta said that if easyJet currently passed along fuel surcharges, the airline would need to “raise ticket prices by 10 percent ... and our payload factor would fall from 85 percent to 60 percent. Our whole low-cost business model would be thrown into question.” Of course, Bacchetta says that easyJet will be one of the four survivors. If this type of scenario turns out to be the case, it could be back to the trains (which are getting faster, are electric, and getting more competitive every day). If you’re planning European travel, and you give any credence to this report, to keep from disrupting your travel plans consider booking these types of flights at the last minute and always using a credit card.
(A tip of the hat to Online Travel Review for this lead.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Government Bureaucracy Wins Again

The 102-year-old Verkamp’s Curios store on the south rim of the Grand Canyon will close this year. According to an AP story reported on Yahoo Travel, the store’s owners are finally giving in to “bureaucratic process fatigue. There’s just so many hoops to do what you’ve always been doing,” said Susie Verkamp, the 60-year-old granddaughter of store founder John George Verkamp. “It kind of wears you out.” The National Park Service has purchased the building, and Superintendent Steve Martin said the structure may be used as a visitor center or a history museum.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Trying to Understand Southwest Airlines

We really, really would appreciate it if anyone could explain Southwest Airlines to us. Every time we check a Southwest fare, it’s more expensive than one of the Big 6 (5? 4?). There’s no assigned seating. And for anything more than a hop from Albuquerque to St. Louis (and why would we want to do that?) the routings usually seem to make more stops than the Big Guys do. (And Southwest doesn’t even tell you what the stops are, unless it includes a plane change.) What’s keeping them going? Is this just a cult thing that we simply don’t understand? Or are there truly some fares that are significantly cheaper and actually offer better routing? SeatGuru tells us that seat pitch is 32-33 inches and width 17 inches (most U.S. airlines flying similar aircraft – 737s – are 31-32 inches), so there may be 1 inch more leg room. Whee. There’s no video, audio, or other entertainment, even on Southwest’s longest flights. Obviously, we’re planning more domestic travel, and again for some reason we looked into Southwest. We just don’t get it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

US Air's New Seat Charges

It’s kinda hard to agree with two divergent points of view at the same time.... but we’re gonna try.

Upgrade: Travel Better seems to seriously dislike US Air’s new “pay-more-for-nothing-special-extra” seats at the front of the plane. We’re talking up-front economy seats at windows and aisles. From the Upgrade blog: “US Airways, dead-set on reminding Americans why they should dislike air travel with a passion, and insistent on making the movement from point A to point B just a smidge tackier... These aren’t perks. There’s no extra legroom.” Which we wholeheartedly agree with.

Cranky Flier feels that the extra $5-30 for a “better” seat is a decent idea, and considers that “It’s all about paying extra for added value these days.” Which we wholeheartedly agree with.

It’s cheap and mean-spirited. Yet it’s also something we’ve espoused – the willingness to pay more for a better product.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Retrospective Book Review – Europe on $25 A Day

There has been so much news lately about airline failures and mergers, we thought we’d do something fun and different. A few nights ago we pulled another old travel book off our shelf – Europe On $25 A Day. (Yes, we know the “original” was $5, but we weren’t travel aware when that book came out. So, this was one of our first budget-travel guidebooks.)

This 1985 edition of Arthur Frommer’s famous work (his photo is still on the back cover) is truly fun from a historical perspective. The book deals almost exclusively with the great cities of Europe – London, Paris, Vienna, and many more. Still, it doesn’t neglect Greece and Scandinavia, and does have several introductory sections on planning and logistics.

We were especially fond of material such as that about making reservations in advance: “...the cost of conducting an air-mail correspondence over reservations is a relatively heavy one...” The section on bathrooms in the room (now called “en-suite”) was also pretty fun to re-read. And given the budget profile, the $25 per day was to include “hotel[s] for from $12-14 per person..., breakfast for $2, lunch for $3.50, dinner for $5.” And The Big Splurge section revealed “the whereabouts of ‘luxurious’ meals that may run as high as $7 to $10.”

Despite the prices and other obvious changes over time, the few maps in the book are still usable – Europe hadn’t changed all that much physically (except for the wars) for several hundred years before the book was published, so it’s unlikely it has changed much in the 20-odd years since. No photos, but the words make up for it.

Find a used bookstore, pick up a copy of any of the old Frommer’s Euro guides, and read the sections of places you’ve recently visited. We guarantee you’ll be entertained.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Chase Freedom Visa Points to Airline Miles

We’ve written that the Chase Freedom Visa is a 3% cash reward card (on up to $600 in spending per month, then it goes down to 1%). An interesting feature of the card is that you can convert your cash rebates to points (and vice versa, once per billing cycle). One use of the points is that they can be converted to United or Continental airline miles at the rate of 6,000 points for 5,000 miles.

Doing the math (which we were admittedly never very good at), the maximum you can annually earn at the 3% rate is $216, but you get a $50 bonus if you wait to redeem until you have at least $200 in rebates (instead of in smaller increments), thus giving you $266. With the miles-to-points conversion, you could switch to 21,600 Freedom points per year, which would convert to 18,000 United or Continental miles. Either way, the cash or points come from $7,200 in spending per year. (This is all assuming you just charge up to $7,200 for the 3% maximum, and then switch to another card or live with 1%.)

For comparison, $7,200 in spending on a United Visa or Continental MasterCard would get you.... 7,200 miles. Plus, the airline cards have annual fees (the Freedom card has no annual fee).

Hmmm, let’s see....

  • $266 cash (with the Freedom card cash rebate)
  • 18,000 United/Continental miles (with the Freedom card points)
  • 7,200 United/Continental miles (with an airline card)

We’d certainly chose to go for the cash over 7,200 airline miles from an airline card. (That represents $798 in cash before we’d even get to the level of a 25,000-mile economy ticket with an airline card.) And we’d be on the fence comparing $266 to 18,000 miles. But it gets interesting when you consider upgrades. If you want to get out of the cheap seats, those 18K miles can be as much as halfway toward a round-trip upgrade seat (for example, depending on fare class, United’s round-trip international upgrades are 30,000 or 60,000 miles). Comparing an economy seat at $1,200 (for a random-date DEN-LHR flight) to a $4,000 business-class seat, those 18,000 miles could be “worth” from $700-$1,400. That might be a worthwhile deal.

The final benefit we see regards what we touched on just recently – what happens if your airline goes under and you lose your miles? By leaving points in the Freedom program until you want to transfer them (they do have an expiration, but it seems to be 3-5 years from when earned), you’ll have another way to preserve your miles. And you can always switch to the cash reward if the Freedom points are getting close to expiring.

Of course, this type of credit-card juggling (using one card for some things, up to spending limits, other cards for different purchases) can be a pain. But the reward side can be pretty attractive.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

bmi's Boss Has an Opinion

We generally love it when a CEO puts his or her mouth on the line. This quote from bmi airline’s boss, as reported on Breaking Travel News, isn’t some trite mumbo-jumbo from a PR flak. The quote is in response to news that British Airways (BA) will delay moving its long-haul flights to London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 until June. (BAA is Heathrow’s operator.)

Nigel Turner, bmi chief executive officer, said: “It is an absolutely outrageous announcement by BAA and done with no thought, consideration or consultation of any other airline other than BA. The sequence of moves affects over 50 airlines, including bmi, at Heathrow. The programme and timescale of changes was agreed in joint consultation with all airlines that are now geared up to undertake the moves as agreed.

“BAA and BA have shown a total disregard for all other airlines and their passengers at Heathrow in coming to this decision because of their own shortcomings and their inability to implement an agreed plan.

“BA through their mismanagement of the move to Terminal 5 will materially disadvantage all other airlines at Heathrow whilst BAA, through their perverse regulatory system, will actually benefit financially. The UK is once again a laughing stock

“This is yet another clear example of BAA treating airlines and passengers with contempt and no consideration whatsoever to a consultation process that took some considerable time to achieve an acceptable programme of terminal moves.”

Friday, April 11, 2008

Rethinking Mileage Credit Cards

With the recent wave of airline bankruptcies (Frontier) and shutdowns (Aloha, Skybus, ATA), you may be wondering what could happen to your frequent flyer miles. Most likely, if the airline stops operating, your miles go with them. (A bankruptcy such as Frontier’s generally means the business continues operation while they straighten out their financial situation. As long as they’re still flying, your miles should be OK. For awhile.)

There are two significant types of frequent flyer miles (although in nearly all cases, both types go into the same bucket). First are miles you earn by flying (which, incidentally, also count toward elite status with that airline, but that’s another topic). Second are miles you earn elsewhere, primarily with credit-card spending. For actual flight miles, the only way to hopefully “preserve” your miles is by affiliating with an airline which you hope will stay in business. Also by not hoarding miles but using them as much as possible. But credit card miles are discretionary. You can choose to use a Delta American Express, a United Visa, or any of the other airlines’ credit card partners. (As an added incentive, with an airline card there’s usually a big mileage bonus for signing up for the card.) But, those miles are dumped into your Delta or United or whatever account, just like flight miles. So if the airline folds, kiss your miles goodbye.

One alternative is to not even worry about miles from credit cards. There are many cash-back credit cards, some offering up to 3-5% on certain purchases. Percentage-wise, that may be a better deal than one-mile-for-one-dollar on your United Visa (depending on how you value your miles).

The second alternative is to use a payback-type system. Cards like Capital One, Merrill+ Rewards, or the American Express FreedomPass card accrue fake “miles” that can be redeemed for any travel purchase. Most offer about 1% back and most can be had for no annual fee. (We recently reported on a Capital One MasterCard which offers 2% back and has a $39 annual fee.)

Thirdly, if you want other types of travel awards, consider a hotel-affiliated credit card. We’ve used the Hilton American Express card (no annual fee) for years, and have accumulated a lot more Hilton points than we’ve used for stays at Hilton hotels. We’ve also heard many good things about the Starwood Amex card ($45 annual fee). Many of these cards have some sort of transfer program with various airlines, but generally at no better than a 1-to-1 ratio. The benefit of this system is that you hold your miles/points in a program which isn’t tied to a particular airline, yet can transfer points to certain airlines as needed. So unless the hotel chain goes under (much less likely) your points should stay valid. And if you use the hotel points in these programs for actual hotel stays, your “value” may be a lot higher than a 2% airline equivalent or a 3% cash-back program.

Finally, there are the proprietary systems such as the American Express Rewards or Diners Club programs. These, also, generally offer transfers into various airline programs, but most of these cards have significantly higher annual fees ($95-$350, for example) than even the airline’s branded credit cards (which are generally $50-90 per year). Most of the Amex/Diners programs also offer other perks to cardholders, but while the perks may make the annual fee acceptable, that’s beyond the scope of this article.

With any of the non-airline programs, the benefit is that you’ll keep at least some of your “miles” should the airline go bust. The miles already in the airline program might disappear, but you’ll still have some miles in the bank/hotel/card program for future travel. Personally, we go back-and-forth, back-and-forth. We’ve changed our thinking on this more than we care to admit. But in today’s environment, we believe that: 1) we’ll never pay an annual fee again (unless there is some big “other” benefit to the card); 2) we’ll consider carefully what airlines we choose to dump credit-card miles into (and then only if we can get the airline credit card for free); 3) we’ll use a cash-back credit card if we can get 3% or better; 4) we’ll only use a no-foreign-exchange-fee credit card overseas, whether it gives us miles or not (at least with Capital One or Discover, you can get some points/rebates, even if they’re not the greatest); 5) we’ll continue to use our Hilton Amex for points into that system (no card has been consistently better for us over the years).

Several websites have good info on credit card programs, including Frequent Flier, Free Frequent Flyer Miles, Ask Mr. Credit Card, Index Credit Cards, and Rewards Cards. Be forewarned, if you search for “Best Airline Credit Cards” or such, you will stumble upon several very OLD articles – one search of ours turned up a 1999 posting on the first search page.

This machine does not take credit cards

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Farewell Aloha, ATA, Skybus; Welcome to Higher Airfares

In just one week, Aloha, ATA, and Skybus airlines all folded. Aloha’s and ATA’s demise may have been long in the works, but Skybus began operations less than a year ago. Yet similar Euro cheapo carriers easyJet and Ryanair are still flying and still (apparently) profitable. (Upon the launch of Skybus, Dan Garton, executive vice president of marketing at American Airlines, was quoted as saying: “Skybus is very Ryanair-esque.”) Why the difference between Ryanair’s success and the quick exit of Skybus?

Ryanair and easyJet set up shop in one of the most-densely populated parts of the world – the British Isles. The UK has a population of some 60 million, all wanting to get off their crowded island more than occasionally. The Brits are also known to be peripatetic travelers, seeking out one new destination after another (even if they can never speak the language once they get there). So Ryanair and easyJet deliver weekend holiday-makers to hot spots across the continent – planes always full, and passengers charged for everything. (For the record, we’ve flown easyJet and it was very cheap compared to the mainline Euro carriers – such as Air France or BA – and it was fairly convenient and not completely dreadful. We have not been on Ryanair.)

In the U.S., Southwest also tapped a vein at the right time, with reasonably low fares (yet in our experience nowadays, seldom significantly less expensive than the majors), a fun attitude, and minimal amenities (no assigned seating). Nonetheless, they carefully picked their markets, frequently alternative airports in metro areas (Love Field instead of DFW) or good-sized second-tier cities (Albuquerque, Las Vegas). In contrast, Skybus decided to fly to lower-tier markets (Chattanooga, Ft. Lauderdale), or cities that had good service (Boston) just maybe not from places like Greensboro (what were they thinking?). Maybe they were looking at the Euro model (Skybus even painted their planes orange, like easyJet) instead of the Southwest one. From the minute Skybus started less than a year ago, we were skeptical.

Most likely, it’s simply another example of the fact that it’s expensive to run an airline, and you really can’t make a lot of money by giving away your product for pennies. We think this only reinforces our opinion that higher airfares are inevitable (especially for domestic U.S. travel), and will be here to stay.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Discover to Buy Diners Club

Discover Financial Services (Discover card) is buying the Diners Club credit card from Citigroup. Integration will take awhile (two to three years for full implementation, according to the announcement), but once in place it should mean that Discover cards will be accepted wherever Diners cards are taken, and vice versa.

One interesting and curious aspect is that the current Diners Club card in the U.S. is affiliated with and carries a MasterCard brand, and is currently accepted at any MasterCard merchant. Diners has an interesting array of value-added travel services (airport lounge access, primary car-rental insurance, frequent-flyer point transfers, much more international acceptance than Discover). Discover has been known for its various cash-back rewards programs and 0% foreign-exchange fees (although the card is seldom accepted internationally, except for Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and China).

It will be fascinating to see what card(s) come out of this alliance, and what the branding will be, but we would expect a much more useful (both U.S. and international) travel product.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Premium Economy Seats

A couple of years back, American Airlines tried their “More Room Throughout Coach” program. Apparently, American didn’t garner enough additional business or revenue to make it profitable to remove seats from planes to get the extra legroom.

We aren’t currently elite fliers with any airline, so don’t have access to upgrades unless we use miles (which we think is a good use of frequent flyer miles) to upgrade to business. Thus, we frequently seek out airlines offering some sort of Premium Economy service, especially for longer flights.

There aren’t a lot out there: Air New Zealand, ANA, bmi, British Airways, Eva Airlines, Japan Airlines, SAS, Singapore, Thai, and Virgin Atlantic are the only carriers listed on Seat Guru that offer Premium Economy, with seat pitch usually all around 38 inches, and generally about 1 inch of extra seat width. Seat Guru doesn’t count United, noting that United’s “Economy Plus is not sold as a separate cabin and doesn't have enhanced amenities beyond legroom.”

We, on the other hand, love United’s Economy Plus. No, you can’t purchase it as a separate fare, but it’s automatically available to all United Elites; you can frequently purchase an upgrade at the ticket counter; and us common folk can purchase a one-year Economy Plus Access for $349. United’s EP generally offers pitch of about 34-36 inches, a surprisingly comfortable addition over 31. With EPA, customers are offered EP seating anytime a seat in that section is available, and can take one companion on the same reservation at no additional charge. The seating is available no matter the booking channel, and is also available for award flights.

Some commentators have knocked United’s EP as being half-assed. To each his own – we love it. It is a lot cheaper than the fares for most international carriers’ Premium Economy. For example, a recent search on SAS for Seattle to Copenhagen flights found regular economy at $1331, premium economy at $2041 (in a separate cabin, offering a slightly wider seat and 38 inches of pitch, according to the SAS website), and $5031 in business. British Airways had a SEA-LHR flight on the same dates for $1322 in economy, $2142 in economy plus, and $5477 in business.

If seat comfort is important, and you’re not looking for the absolute lowest fares, look into premium economy offerings.

So you don't have to walk like this when you get there.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Guns in Cockpits

There’s been a (justified) media circus around the pilot who “accidentally” discharged a firearm in the cockpit of a USAirways plane. Finally, it comes out that he was apparently putting a lock on the gun when it discharged.

OK, whether you believe armed pilots are a good idea or not, two thoughts ....

Firearms do not go off accidentally. It’s only human intention or error. A person has to apply some sort of action to make a gun discharge – either through actual intent (shooting), or because of neglect, poor training, poor judgment, or ignorance. Secondly, if the gun is locked, what good is it? Firearms meant for protection need to be accessible – you don’t see police officers walking around with trigger locks on their sidearms.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

No International ATM Fees with Schwab

After writing about our recommendation of the Schwab checking account that reimburses all foreign ATM fees, a reader asked about our experience with it. Frankly, we had continued to use our Bank of Internet ATM card overseas, but now we’ve finally opened the Schwab account and acquired the accompanying ATM card.

The Schwab “High Yield Investor Checking Account” is simply a typical on-line bank account with a few twists. It requires you to open a Schwab brokerage account, but there is no charge for the brokerage account – nor any requirement that you use the brokerage functions. The checking account pays competitive rates (currently around 3%) with no minimum balance requirements and no service charges.

Upon opening the account, we received a personalized welcome email (not some canned PR crap), and massive amounts of support materials. We were very impressed, especially compared to other no-fee, on-line accounts we’ve opened.

The account promises (quoting the Schwab materials): “No ATM fees. We reimburse any ATM fee you are charged – worldwide.” This seems pretty unambiguous to us. The card is a combo Debit/ATM Visa card (usable on Visa/Plus/Interlink ATM networks worldwide), and allows $1,000 in ATM withdrawals per day. (Note that most individual ATMs do not allow that maximum per machine. If you need that much cash per day, you may need to hit several different ATMs.)

We believe ATM withdrawals are the best way to get cash on your international travels – far better than banks or money changers. For international travel our suggestions remain: Get a no-foreign-exchange-fee ATM card (such as this Schwab card), and use a Capital One credit card (which does not add the typical 3% foreign-exchange fee to credit-card charges) for all your non-cash purchases.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Travel News for April 1, 2008

Bush Administration Permits All Travel to Cuba
With the first wave of legal American tourism in 40 years, Dick Cheney leads a hunting trip to....

Credit Card Companies Drop All Foreign Exchange Fees

Card companies announced that not only would they eliminate foreign ATM fees, but....

Exchange Rate Drops to Parity: 1 Euro to 1 Dollar

In efforts to encourage U.S. tourism, tourist boards throughout Europe have....

Airlines Add Eight Inches of Legroom to Economy Seats
In related news, the airlines said that all seats would be eligible for frequent flyer....

TSA No Longer Has Time to Screen Grandmothers and Babies
But watch out for your sandwich. Deciding to focus its efforts on food screening, the TSA said....

American Schools Will Require All Students to Live Overseas for 1 Year
Hoping to have U.S. students learn more about the world, Congress passed legislation....

Cruise Ship Passengers Sink Small Caribbean Island

With 14 ships in port, and 34,000 visitors on land, a Caribbean island began to sink lower....

International Olympic Committee Chooses Sites for 2048 & 2050 Games

Feeling that host countries didn’t have enough time to plan a quality event, the IOC....

Oil Closes at $23 Per Barrel

With the price of oil declining by 80 percent, airfares are predicted to drop about $5 per ticket....

Old hand-colored postcard, Bermuda, 1930s