Saturday, May 31, 2008

Car Rental Insurance with American Express Cards

In the never-ending battle against car-rental ripoffs, here’s another tool to consider.

American Express offers a $19.95 car rental insurance policy that is primary rental insurance. Insurance provided by all other credit cards (except Diners) is secondary – in other words, the credit-card insurance only kicks in after you’ve gone through your personal auto insurance provider to try to resolve the issue. The Amex policy is valid anywhere in the world except in Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, or New Zealand (which is typical with most credit-card car-rental insurance coverage).

(There are some slightly different coverages and options, depending on what state you live in. See the Amex site.)

The Amex coverage is for the entire rental period (for up to 42 days), not per day. This seems like a cheap way to give yourself an additional layer of protection, especially if you’re a leisure traveler who rents a few times a year for longer periods (rather than a business traveler renting for a day or two many times a year). You are required to register your Amex card, but there are no charges until you reserve and pay for your rental with your Amex card.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

America On Sale: International Visitors Still Coming

We’re trying to understand the news from the U.S. Dept of Commerce that international visitors to the U.S. increased 13 percent in January and February 2008 over the previous year. Some specific numbers are:

  • UK up 11%
  • Russia up 20%
  • Canada up 24%
  • Germany up 24%
  • France up 22%
  • Italy up 17%
  • Netherlands up 17%
  • Spain up 22%
  • South Korea up 9%
  • China up 22%
  • India up 13%
  • Australia up 8%
  • Brazil up 22%
  • (a lot more numbers are available on the Commerce website)

Why? The U.S. government continues to make obtaining a visa harder and harder. The politicos spend endless hours thumping their chests about border fences and immigration. The TSA makes every aspect of the air travel experience more dreadful every day.

Yes, America is obviously “on sale,” with the weak dollar making everyone else’s money worth more. We could understand it if the increases were just from Europeans: snow in Europe was so bad last winter that these could all be skiers coming to the U.S. for some decent snow. Yet for other visitors, why January and February anyway? Traditionally, international tourism to the U.S. has peaked in summer and fall, so what’s in store for this summer season? Maybe gasoline sticker-shock will change that picture.

Or is it just that money always wins? “We want it all and we want it now and we want it cheap.” The rest of the world is becoming more wealthy, and not just because of the dollar’s decline. Asians, Eastern Europeans, South Americans are wanting the luxuries that increased personal wealth brings – cars, toys, homes, travel. Combined with America On Sale... If that is the case, then America has won the world. Our values (money trumps everything else) are now universal.

This is a fabulous country to visit, and international tourists bring many more things to the U.S. than just their money. They enrich our cultural understanding of the rest of the world, and might even make some Americans less protectionist and isolationist. We’re happily surprised, but nonetheless, still surprised.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

U.S. Credit Cards Accepted Internationally

If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll invariably take a couple of credit cards. The two “usual suspects” – Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted (in our experience, Visa somewhat more so, yet one hotel in eastern Europe accepted MasterCard but not Visa). American Express is accepted much less frequently, but will usually be taken at major car-rental agencies, large hotel chains, airlines, and high-end restaurants, especially in larger cities. Discover is accepted (depending on merchant) in Canada, Mexico, most of the Caribbean and Central America, China (on the UnionPay network), and Japan (on the JCB network), but still less often than Visa or MasterCard. (Update: The Discover/JCB/China Unionpay integration is apparently not yet complete.) Discover is not accepted in Europe or anywhere else in the world. The JCB card – available to residents of some U.S. states – is becoming more widely accepted in Europe and has a large presence in Asia, especially Japan. (JCB cards can also be used in the U.S. on the Discover network. But, integration with all Discover merchants has not yet been completed.) Finally, your Diners Club card is now a MasterCard, and will be accepted anywhere MasterCard is taken. (Discover recently purchased Diners, and their card options may change in the future.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Package Shipping

Not only is checked luggage a time-consuming hassle, but now it’s getting more and more expensive. American Airlines just instituted a $15 charge to check even one bag. Most airlines have adopted a $25 charge for a second bag. Our suggestion is to ship it. If you absolutely need more than your carry-on bag, consider UPS, FedEx, or the Post Office. Several articles and blogs have claimed it’s too expensive – $200 for next-day shipping – but why should you need it next day? Send it ahead to your hotel or friends a week in advance. For a 50-pound package from coast to coast (and if you can’t get everything you need in a 50-pound box, you might just as well stay home), UPS charges $59 (8 days), Post Office $44 (7 days), FedEx Ground $51 (5 days). We’ve strongly suggested that you travel light, and the new airline fees makes us even more inclined to do so. The airlines are tacking on fees (baggage fees, change fees, phone-booking fees, in-flight food fees) in desperate hopes of raising revenue by nickels and dimes, and annoying travellers in the process. Pack a sturdy cardboard box with clothes and essentials, and ship it ahead. Buy your shampoo and toothpaste on arrival. Beat the airlines at their silly games.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Airlines Offering No-Annual-Fee Credit Cards

In our continuing short series (see our previous posts about sign-up bonus miles for U.S. and international airlines’ frequent flyer credit cards), here is a current list of airlines that offer a no-annual-fee card. This is different from a card that promises no annual fees for the first year, but then (unless you cancel the card) institutes an annual fee thereafter. As we’ve said before, we don’t think that we’ll ever again chose to pay an annual fee for a credit card, but you should decide for yourself. Some of the cards listed below may even offer a sign-up mileage bonus (less than that offered for the annual-fee cards), and most will only earn miles at 1 mile per $2 spending (vs. 1-to-1 for the fee cards). Still, these cards may be useful depending on how often you fly an airline, or if you just want to occasionally charge something to the card to keep a mileage balance current. You might also consider acquiring the annual-fee card for the first year (if it’s offered free that first year), and then calling to switch to the no-fee card just before your first year is up – we’ve had success doing this with both United and USAir (as we wanted to keep a card for those airlines).

Also note that with the state of the airline industry, some of these card offerings (and some of the airlines themselves) may disappear. For example, we know that some time ago Continental offered a no-fee card, but we’re not able to find that offer anymore. And as we write this, Frontier is in bankruptcy but still flying. If they go under, you can kiss goodbye any miles acquired from any source – including from the credit card.

Airlines offering no-annual-fee credit cards:

  • American
  • United
  • USAir
  • Midwest
  • AirTran
  • Frontier
  • IcelandAir
  • China Air
  • Korean Air

Friday, May 16, 2008

Kansas Déjà Vu All Over Again

Seems like the state of Kansas has got a patented mojo working. First there were the 8 Wonders of Kansas, with nominations and voting and awards. Now, we have the 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture. At some point, this gets kind of tedious. Will we soon have the 8 Wonders of Kansas Cheeseburgers? The 8 Wonders of Kansas Prairie Potholes? The 8 Wonders of Kansas Shopping Malls?

So we promise, for the last time, we’ll note that Kansas is on a PR roll. If you’re curious about the finalists for the 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture, visit

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

International Airline Frequent Flyer Credit Card Bonuses

Here are the current (as of May 12, 2008) bonus offers for international airline frequent-flyer credit cards. The cards listed below are apparently available to U.S. residents. Generally, if we don’t list an airline, it’s because it doesn’t appear to offer a U.S. card or the information is unavailable. The cards offered by these airlines may be Visa, MasterCard, or American Express cards. As mentioned in our previous post about U.S. frequent-flyer credit cards, we suggest you visit Free Frequent Flyer Miles for a lot more info about airline frequent-flyer credit cards.

Some of these offers may be buried on sub-pages of the airlines’ websites. The terms and conditions may be different (such as only getting bonus miles if you fly within a certain time period, etc.) from typical terms you’ve come to expect for U.S. airlines cards. Most of these cards have annual fees (although at least one we know of, IcelandAir, offers a no-annual-fee card, but with lower bonus miles). Read everything carefully if you’re interested in any of these frequent-flyer credit cards. From what we can see, these are all typical U.S. bank credit cards – none are the up-and-coming international standard “chip & pin” cards. Note also that some international airlines value miles and reward flights differently than do the majority of U.S. airlines.

  • British Airways - 20,000
  • Lufthansa - 20,000
  • Korean Airlines - 15,000
  • IcelandAir - 10,000
  • China Airlines - 7,500
  • Asiana Airlines - 5,000
  • ANA - 5,000
  • Mexicana - free companion ticket

Sunday, May 11, 2008

You WILL Be Paying Higher Airfares

“ airplane was ever designed to make a profit with jet fuel at these prices, and no carrier has figured out a way to charge enough to make up the difference.”

That is from a fascinating article in the current (May 12) issue of Fortune magazine. The author, Barney Gimbel (quoted above), is interviewing American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpey, and discussing the state of the industry.

The article talks of airline mergers (a mixed bag, but the Delta/Northwest merger isn’t viewed favorably); ticket pricing; extra fees and charges; competition (especially Southwest); and, most significantly, oil prices. “[Jamie Baker] J.P. Morgan analyst, thinks that at current fuel prices the industry needs to shrink as much as 20%.”

At jet fuel prices of $2.74 per gallon (when the article was written), American’s cost to fly one seat one mile increased 29% in one year. “The problem? The market allowed fares to go up only 5%.”

The final sad commentary comes from Arpey himself. “‘There is no business,’ he said, ‘that can go on forever selling its product for less than the cost to produce it.’”

Friday, May 09, 2008

"Who Flies Where" Airline Search Tool - jetnav

We’re always looking for better flight-planning tools, and we’ve been searching for the best “Who Flies Where” website. Although we frequently use ITA Software, its matrix results are sometimes too detailed, especially when we haven’t even begun price shopping.

The UK site seems to offer a good Who Flies Where tool. In our rather limited tests, it shows more airlines than ITA does (ITA doesn’t show Southwest or easyJet, for example). Another thing we like about jetnav is that although you have to plug in dates, the results show what days a flight operates.

Since jetnav doesn’t list prices, the results are displayed by flight times (great for planning), and the endless combinations in ITA are simplified or eliminated. For example, jetnav showed all airlines offering Spokane, Washington (GEG) to Durango, Colorado (DRO) and showed “20 outward flights and 15 return flights,” while ITA had a staggering 500 combinations for the same city pair. ITA too often shows “United [or whatever] and other airlines” without showing what those other airlines are. jetnav’s results show both airlines of a combination. When we’re just trying to find what airlines fly from A to B, jetnav offers simpler results.

jetnav does seem slow for some of its searches from little airport to little airport, and for flights of more than one stop. And on an intentionally obscure search (FIH to BKK – Kinshasa, Congo, to Bangkok, Thailand) jetnav only showed one flight on Ethiopian Airlines, while ITA showed one-stops on Air France, South African, and Thai. Conversely, on a Stansted, London (STA) to Prague (PRG) routing, ITA showed a ridiculous one-stop on “Delta” which turned out to be an American flight from London to New York, and then a Delta flight from New York back to Prague. We’re glad that jetnav didn’t bother to show that one, yet did show all other airlines on that route.

This looks like a promising tool – we’ll continue testing.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

All Electronic Tickets Coming June 1

According to Breaking Travel News, a large Australian travel agency (Flight Centre Limited) is concerned about the impending June 1 death of the paper ticket and the switch to all-electronic airline ticketing. There has been nary a peep from the U.S. media about the switch, yet Flight Centre makes some interesting points, including:

“...significant issues had not been resolved in relation to: Customers travelling with infants, as most carriers would not allow infants to travel on e-tickets; Some codeshare and interline fares involving more than one carrier; Some round-the-world fares.”

We’re not sure how much – if any – impact there will be for U.S. air travelers, but in today’s aviation environment, anything that throws a wrench in the system can have cascading effects down the line.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Airline Credit Card Mileage Bonuses

There’s always a lot of interest regarding airline frequent-flyer-mile credit cards, so we thought we’d present a wrap-up of current bonuses for signing up for various airline credit cards. These may be MasterCard, Visa, or American Express offers. Most waive annual fees (usually in the $75-per-year range) the first year. There may be a spending requirement over a certain time period to receive these miles. It’s up to you to decide if applying for new credit is worthwhile, and if you want to pay any annual fees (should you choose to keep the card).

In general, we find the best source for more detailed information about frequent-flyer credit cards is at Free Frequent Flyer Miles.

Here are the bonuses advertised on various U.S. airlines’ websites as of May 7, 2008.

Many international carriers also offer mileage credit cards, and we will research those soon and post their current offers.

  • American - 25,000
  • USAir - 25,000
  • United - 21,000
  • Continental - 20,000
  • Hawaiian - 20,000
  • Alaska - 20,000
  • Delta - 17,500
  • Northwest - 15,000
  • Spirit - 15,000
  • Frontier - 15,000
  • Southwest - 8 credits
  • Airtran - 8 credits
  • JetBlue - 50 points

Monday, May 05, 2008

Stress-Free Travel Tips

We’ve reached the point where we want our travels to be fun, enlightening, relaxing, invigorating, and EASY. Stress is not on our list – in life or in travel. We want our travel adventures to be ones we plan, not ones that result when rural bus schedules change in third-world countries. Sure, things out of our control will happen – they always do. But we can do things to minimize the challenges of travel. Here are our ideas for reducing travel stress.

Plan Ahead
Make as many reservations in advance as possible. Especially for your first night or two of lodging, and for any car-rental, train, air, or other major transportation. Keep copies of all reservations and receipts.

Travel Light
We’ve said it, other commentators have said it, but few of us travel light enough. If any time on your last few trips you found yourself wishing for less crap to lug around, make a vow to travel only with a 20-pound carry-on next trip. Try it.

Be Flexible
If something doesn’t work out as planned, let it go. If your train schedule changes, call ahead to change your hotel reservation – but don’t worry about it. Aside from losing a passport or credit card, or having a major injury, most challenges aren’t worth worrying about.

Get Exercise & Get Rest
Don’t rush from place to place – take time to smell the croissants. Conversely, exercise every day – walk, swim, hit the hotel gym. But not obsessively. Mostly just walk as much as possible – walking is stress-relieving, as well as a great way to see and interact with locals.

Eat, Drink, and Enjoy
Life is meant to be lived. Linger over dinner and wine. Get up late. Take a picnic to a park and sit and read. Don’t become obsessed with capturing the sunset photo or making the 8 o’clock performance. Have another glass of that wonderful digestif instead.

Money Matters
Don’t be so cheap that you feel you’re depriving yourself. You’ve spent probably thousands on just getting where you are – allow yourself a few hundred for treasures. Don’t worry about bargaining a vendor down from 25 cents to 20 cents. As for money itself, rely on credit cards as much as possible, and use ATMs for local currency.

Mobile Communications
Take that international cell phone so you can call ahead to change reservations. And consider not giving the number to your friends at home. If something happens while you’re traveling, there isn’t much you can do about it from 3,000 miles away. Life works itself out. Use that cell phone for your convenience, not someone else’s. Likewise, stay off the internet as much as possible. Ditch the email, your blog, and web surfing as entertainment.

Leave Lots of Time Between Connections
Nothing, absolutely nothing, stresses your composure more than running across a train platform while towing a large suitcase behind you and having another two bags smacking you on the back.

Don’t Rely on (Probably Outdated) Guidebooks
Use those guidebooks mostly before you travel, to get general ideas about the “How To” of travel to a destination. At your destination, avoid the places listed in the guidebooks (especially lodging and dining), except for the “big stuff” you just have to see (Angkor Wat, the Tower of London, the Great Wall, the Eiffel Tower).

Friday, May 02, 2008

Hyatt’s a Riot

From our “Did anyone ask the marketing department?” files. Hyatt Hotels has a new “online travel community” called yatt’it. The company has put a trademark symbol after yatt’it, but they really needn’t have bothered – no one is going to infringe on that name. We’ve done brand marketing for dozens of companies, and have seldom seen names as dreadful as yatt’it. Oh, wait, we get it. They didn’t have to “talk to the marketing department” because this is from either the public relations department, or (from the sound of the name) was a Texas second-grade class project.

On the site, there are travel tips from “Gold Passport Members, Hyatt Concierges, and Frommer’s.” But it gets us rather suspicious when “Member” tips with high votes are posted by folks with screen names like Hyatthound and hyattleo. This is nothing more than a Hyatt PR feel-good site – if you have any doubt, read the Posting Rules section. Don’t say anything critical.

Aside from the dreadful name, we really don’t know why anyone would either visit the site looking for self-serving “tips” or bother to contribute. If you’re curious anyway, visit

Thursday, May 01, 2008

More Premium Economy Offerings

Air France will reportedly be adding a Premium Economy class to their long-haul flights over the next year and a half. The seats are said to have 38 inches of pitch (typical economy seats are 31-32, depending on airline), and will have extra in-air amenities. The seats will be installed on all long-haul aircraft (including the new Airbus A380) except for the 747s, which are being phased out.

Other airlines are possibly jumping on this trend also. A good overall Premium Economy wrap-up article is on the (UK) Business Traveler website, which mentions that Air New Zealand, Qantas, British Air, KLM, bmi, JAL, and several other airlines are planning to either add or expand their Premium Economy product.

If, like us, you enjoy a bit of extra comfort short of a full-on business-class price, this is a welcome development.