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