Monday, December 28, 2009

Gotta Change the Subject: Hilton Award Level Changes

I’ve just got to stop reading. Regarding the new TSA rules and airport security: "All the sensible voices in the world will fall on the deaf ears of the powers at the top." Thus, on to a different topic.

Many observers of the world of reward credit cards, hotel points, and frequent flyer miles have bemoaned the new “grade inflation” of Hilton hotel’s properties. Basically, Hilton has raised the Category level of many properties, thus “costing” more HHonors points for reward stays.

We’ve frequently mentioned that using a Hilton American Express credit card to accrue HHonors points is – for us – one of the best value propositions available. Previously, we had generally valued spending on the Hilton Amex as a 5% reward, compared to a 2% reward for some cash-back-equivalent credit cards (Schwab) or if you use your credit-card-derived frequent flyer miles wisely.

Yes, the Hilton category revisions bump many properties to a higher redemption level. But we recently searched for some reward stays, and we’re still valuing our Hilton Amex spending at 3-4%. Too many commentators talk about the value of the points themselves – and maybe the actual Hilton points do have less “value” than Starwood or other points. And this may be accurate if you’re accruing points primarily from hotel stays.

But for credit-card points/miles accumulation, we still believe that Hilton offers one of the best value propositions. The once-3% Chase Freedom Visa (now only for a few categories of spending) has been emasculated; to get the equivalent of 2% with most airline cards usually entails an annual fee; and many of the 2% cash-back cards (such as Schwab) are quietly disappearing.

Do your own math, but look at the points required for a Hilton room, versus the cost of the room, and then consider your spending. We use the Hilton Amex only for spending that garners 6 points per dollar spent (currently for gas, groceries, phone, internet, drug stores, cable & satellite TV, and at Hilton hotels; 3 points other spending), and we still feel our actual reward return with those 6 points per dollar is at least 3%.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Baaa, Baaa.

The TSA and the U.S. government (and governments worldwide?) received a nice little Christmas present as a result of the attempted terrorist attack/bombing/explosive device/whatever-it-was on a Delta/Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

[Please don’t think we’re saying the attack itself was a good thing. And don’t get us started on profiling and Islam.]

The gift? Once again our leaders have the opportunity to scare us into submission; to distract us from the partisan dealmaking going on with the “healthcare debate” spectacle; to try to make us forget Afghanistan; to allow Wall Street to destroy Main Street; yada, yada, yada. If we’re all turned into sheep because of scare tactics such as those created by the TSA, well, then we’ll all do whatever our government (“I’m from the gov’mint and I’m here to help”) wants.

Upon first reports of the airline bombing attempt, Republican gasbag Representative Peter T. King said in the NY Times: “‘This was the real deal,’ saying something had gone wrong with the explosive device, which he described as somewhat sophisticated. ‘This could have been devastating.’” This was said while the FBI and other law-enforcement professionals were still trying to figure how the bomber got his stuff on the plane (well, through airport security, of course), much less exactly what it was. Let’s put this guy in charge of the FBI, too.

Contemporary airport security is 90% theatre and 10% reality. The government also has been needing another reason to expand one of the world’s largest bureaucracies (the TSA), despite the fact that the TSA’s “threat level” has been constantly at Orange for more than three years. It’s never going to go away, is it?

(As a side note, we live in a “border” state – Washington – and the Border Patrol [a division of the Dept. of Homeland Security, as is the TSA] frequently sets up random highway checkpoints and boards transit busses looking for illegal aliens bent on creeping into the country and performing terrorist acts. Yep, we’re really concerned about those illegal Canadians coming over to get better healthcare.)

We’ve had to take our shoes off since Richard Reid in 2001. Now the TSA is making us remain seated for the last hour of a flight (and that helps how?) and not have anything in our lap during that time. There will be more restrictions, you can be sure.

Just wait until we have the underwear bomber.

UPDATE 12/30: The latest news says the bomb was in his underwear.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Interesting New United Visa

United Airlines has come out with what may be an enticing new Visa Select card (through United’s credit-card partner Chase, of course).

For a $130 annual fee (not waived the first year), you receive:

  • 30,000 initial bonus miles
  • 3 miles per $1 spent with United
  • 2 miles per $1 spent with other Star Alliance airlines
  • 2 miles per $1 spent on gas, groceries, dining, home improvement stores
  • 1 mile per $1 for everything else
  • $100 United Discount Travel Certificate.... PLUS....
  • up to 5,000 EQMs (Elite Qualifying Miles) for the first $5,000 spent with United
  • 5,000 annual bonus miles

The catch seems to be that you can probably get the card if you’ve had a United Visa in the past, but none of the bonuses (30K initial miles, EQM miles, 5K annual bonus) are available. (From the T&C: “This bonus offer is valid only for first-time United Mileage Plus Visa cardmembers with new accounts. Existing United Mileage Plus Visa cardmembers/accounts are not eligible for this bonus offer.”)

Nonetheless, and as much as we resist putting spending on airline cards (we do apply for them sometimes for sign-up bonuses), and also as much as we resist annual fees (unless waived for the first year), the mileage-per-spend sounds quite good, as do the other bonuses.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Short-sighted Union Self Interest

Oh, is there any other kind?

The cabin crews of British Airways have voted to strike from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2, effectively putting the airline out of operation during the busiest time of the year. Of course, the cabin crews (who, if they’re like U.S. flight attendants, consider themselves in the security business rather than in customer service) could care less about the million-plus passengers who will be affected.

They’ve also been duped by their union bosses (whose agenda, like that of all union politicians, is simply more power at the top) into believing this will give them more money, more job security, yada, yada, yada. Since 92.4% of the union voted to strike, that means less than 1 out of every 10 attendants understands Economics 101: If you don’t have a company to work for, you don’t have a job there.

My first instinct is to suggest that if the cabin crews strike from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2, that passengers “strike” from then on – boycotting the airline. But that would kill the goose. The union leadership would go on in their usual positions of power; the attendants would be out of their jobs; BA would go bankrupt; and many other ancillary jobs would be lost also.

The only upside is that a BA bankruptcy would probably lead to some other airline buying the dregs of BA, reducing the airline’s huge pension obligations, and paying the cabin crews lower wages.

See, kids, aren’t unions still useful in the 21st century?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

News of the Weird

OK, we know it isn’t exactly about travel, but it did at least take place in Paris.... The third annual National Stiletto Championship awarded 3,000 euros worth of shoes to the winning team. If we're in Paris in November, we want to see this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Changing Your Name on Frequent Flyer Accounts

There’s been more than a few gallons of ink spilled lately about the TSA’s new requirement that your name on your ticket must exactly match the name on your identification. Many airline websites now allow you to book with a full middle name (rather than just a middle initial, for example). But very few that we’ve found allow you to change your name in your frequent flyer account profile.

Of the U.S. airlines we’ve attempted name changes with, only Alaska and American allowed us to change from a middle initial to a full middle name online. United has an FAQ stating that you can email them to make “minor” name changes or corrections. All the other U.S. airline sites we have accounts with do not seem to offer any sort of online name-change option – this includes Delta, US Air, Frontier, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Continental.

We tried to change names on two of our international-carrier frequent flyer accounts – bmi and IcelandAir – and then simply gave up. With both airlines, we couldn’t even change our email address. We’ll deal with those airlines – and other international airlines we have accounts with – when or if it becomes really necessary.

As long as the name on your ticket matches your identification (make sure you double check that when booking/purchasing), things will probably be fine. Changing the name on your frequent flyer account really shouldn’t be too big of a deal – but still, the airlines have known about this upcoming change for many months now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Warning: Pay Your Rewards Cards or Lose Points/Miles

This one is worth coming out of our slumber for. According to Yahoo Travel News/Associated Press, American Express will begin withholding rewards points/miles earned by customers who are late paying.

We’ve stressed that reward credit cards only make sense if you pay your bill in full each month, but this is onerous. According to the article, while Chase and Citi also withhold rewards on some cards for late payers, only Amex is charging a “reinstatement” fee for lost points/miles. (This fee is in addition to late-payment penalty fees and much higher interest rates on late-payment balances.)

If we didn’t enjoy the benefits of our Delta and Hilton Amex cards, we’d ditch them because of this (even though we’re never late), just on principle. (The article notes that the other two big-name Amex cards that will be affected will be the Starwood and JetBlue cards.)

So again, beware. The credit card companies do NOT have your best interests at heart.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Adios for Awhile

As you have probably noticed, we haven’t posted in quite a while. We’ve been growing frustrated and tired of the blog-twit-internet-online world, and have been spending more time on more significant writing projects.

We may someday return to this blog on a regular basis, and we may occasionally post something in the future that’s just too irresistible to ignore. But for now, Adios. As a way of farewell, here are a few of our favorite travel photos.

Czech Republic


Hadrian's Wall, England


London

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Very Informal Weather Test (of Online Weather Guessers)

What to do in the heat? Compare weather forecasts. I’ve recently been trying to see if any of the major weather forecasts have a bit of accuracy. This is unscientific, and limited in scope and location.

The 5 online weather reports I tested were from the National Weather Service (NWS); Weather.com (The Weather Channel – TWC); AccuWeather; WeatherUnderground; and Intellicast. For one of my first tests, I also checked using Yahoo, Google, and msn. Those 3 were thrown out for subsequent tests, as Yahoo is just reporting TWC data, and iGoogle uses WeatherUnderground; msn was tossed because it was so far out of the ballpark it wasn’t worth checking ever again, probably because it’s from a location nearly 20 miles from the target location.

(Notes: 1. It appears that TWC and Intellicast use the same forecast data – in nearly every instance their temperature predictions were identical. 2. I based this test on a location I’m familiar with [a small town in a different climate environment] but which is 100 miles distant, so I would not have a personal look-out-the-window bias. 3. I used the reported high temperatures from both the city and county weather stations as my “official” temps in all instances. It’s always possible that some services do not use those locations, rather using a different place such as the small regional airport about 5 miles from the city/county weather stations. 4. AccuWeather issues a 15-day forecast – longer than anyone else – but given the inaccuracies in even medium-range forecasts, as you’ll see below, that seems pretty useless.)

My first test was of high temperature predictions for 3 consecutive days, based on the forecast high from each service the same day. On two of the days, both Intellicast and TWC were the most accurate, within 2 degrees of the actual high for the day. On one day, both the NWS and AccuWeather called the high temperature exactly.

During the first 3-day test, I also looked at how forecasts changed for the third day, over the course of the 3 days. Most services kept their forecasts within 1 degree of their 3-day-previous and 2-day-previous guesses.

My second test was for a medium-term forecast, again for 3 consecutive days (this testing was done about a week after test 1, above). I recorded forecasts for 4, 5, and 6 days out, and then checked to see if those forecasts changed over time until each target day arrived. For the 4-day-out forecast, no service came closer than 3 degrees of accuracy. When that first test day arrived, the actual recorded high temperature was 74 – the day-of forecasts for highs that day were 80-83-86-86-88. Interestingly, AccuWeather was “closest” with their forecasts from 2 and 3 days previous (79-77), but on day-of they were the worst, with a forecast high of 88. The closest day-of forecast (80, still off by 6 degrees) was from the NWS.

For all intents, we had no real winners that first day.

When target day 2 arrived, the day-of predictions ranged from 65 to 78 – an amazing 13-degree difference between forecasts. (The previous-days-out forecasts had ranged from 71 to 81.) The actual high temperature that day was 67. WeatherUnderground was dead on with a day-of guess of 67, and the NWS came in second with a guess of 65. But they, like every other service, had been predicting mid to upper 70s just a couple of days previous.

So for a day-of forecast, NWS and WU were the best, but since this was a test of a medium-range forecast, I’d again say we had no winners.

For my final target day, the 1- to 5-day-previous forecasts had ranged from 70 to 80, with the day-of forecasts ranging from 69 to 79 – still a full 10 degrees of difference. Actual temperature that final day of the test was 66. The closest day-of calls were again by the NWS (69, off by 3 degrees), WeatherUnderground (72, off by 6 degrees), and AccuWeather (73, off by 7 degrees).

(An interesting observation: For the final target day, Intellicast forecast a high of 79 – and they had forecast that temperature every day from 5 days out through the day-of. Ya gotta admire conviction, even when it’s consistently and dramatically wrong.)

Once again we had no long-term winners. TWC and Intellicast were the worst, calling for highs of 78-80 in every one of their 5-days-previous forecasts. AccuWeather was a little bit better, with forecasts ranging from 73-76. The NWS did predict 68 (from 1 day before) and 69 (day-of), and two other forecasts were at 70 and 71. WeatherUnderground called for 70 once, and 72 twice. But overall, another big OOPS for all of them.

Final Conclusions:

From a trend basis, the NWS, WeatherUnderground, and (lastly) AccuWeather seemed a tiny bit closer (when I averaged temperature predictions over the entire multi-day trial period), but none were close enough to take to the bank. Day-of, the NWS’s guess had a slight but significant edge most days, with WeatherUnderground a close second. Yet in fairness, there were a few days that Intellicast/TWC came closer for day-of guesses. For current conditions – actually happening on the ground – WeatherUnderground has an excellent array of weather station sites (at least for the region I was testing). A really odd observation was that if the high for the day turned out to be higher than the average for all 5 forecasts, Intellicast and TWC were usually (slightly) closer; if the high was lower than the average forecast, NWS and WeatherUnderground were closer.

Personally, when I want a forecast, I’ll probably check all services just for grins (if I have the time). Right now, I can’t say I’d rely on any one site for medium- or long-range forecasts. My two go-to sites will probably be the NWS and WeatherUnderground (and remember, if iGoogle is your taste, it also uses WU information).

Next up: As soon as we get into a rainy/stormy period, I’m going to test forecasts about precipitation.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Loose Threads - 30 July 2009

JetBlue has announced a complete revamp of their frequent flyer program, TrueBlue. The changes include points earned on dollars spent, rather than miles; and the ability to redeem for one-way awards.

Hotels.com had argued that their name was not generic and could be trademarked. The registration claim was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Loose Threads – 23 July 2009

The best “back-up” passport suggestion we’ve seen. Scan your passport pages and email the images to yourself. You can pull copies up from any computer, and don’t have to worry about hiding photocopies in your socks.

Wine tourism is an international phenomena. Five wine regions (California, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa) have joined forces to create the New World Wine Alliance, to better compete against the European countries. We wish them luck, as they don’t even have a website.

American travelers aren’t the only ones complaining. The Air Transport Users Council (UK) reported an 11% increase in customer complaints about airlines. This despite enhanced passengers rights in the UK.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We Have No Sympathy

(Disclaimer: Guess I’ve just been tired and grumpy in the heat.)

Not too many years ago they blamed their troubles on the 2001 recession and 9/11. Then it was sky-high fuel prices. Next it was the world economy falling into the toilet in this current recession. Now it’s the (somewhat related) crash in business travel. The dinosaur airlines have an excuse for their every failure to create a successful business model.

Did the airlines not think it strange that the price of a business-class ticket should be 3, 4, 10 times the cost of an economy fare? Did they not think the arms race of more-and-more amenities in the front of the plane was a race all were doomed to lose? Did they not think that they were alienating customers with opaque and constantly changing prices; with fees after fees; and with reduced amenities for the majority of their passengers? Did none of the airlines (except for the “budget” carriers like Southwest or jetBlue) understand that the everyday vacation traveler was (or should have been) the bread and butter of their profitability?

We can’t afford to fly in the pointy end of the plane, so don’t personally know if the service in business/first is as miserable as it is in the back of the bus. Probably just less miserable. But a few thoughts come to mind: Treat all customers equally and fairly, and maybe you’ll develop some brand loyalty (see Southwest or jetBlue). Second, treat all customers with respect, and maybe you’ll survive (see Southwest, jetBlue, Alaska, or... oh, never mind). Airlines, just price your product fairly for the consumer, and at a point where you can stay in business. You do want customers, and to stay in business, don’t you?

UPDATE: The July 23 Wall St. Journal illustrates why the airlines are in trouble. In an article headlined, “Delta, AirTran Offer Grim Outlook for Airline Industry, the Journal reports this: “To cope with the downturn, Mr. Anderson [Richard Anderson, Delta CEO] said the airline would continue to focus on maintaining liquidity, reducing its fleet and network size, and implementing the cost-saving initiatives it identified when it acquired its Northwest Airlines unit last year.”
Don’t you think that the word “customer” would appear somewhere in the above quote? In fact, in the entire article, the word “customer” isn’t used once.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why Even Bother With Frequent Flyer Miles?

“The Wall St. Journal [says] American, United and US Airways [are] the most at-risk [of bankruptcy].” – Today in the Sky

“After leveraging everything from frequent-flier miles to spare jet engines, United is running low on assets that it can use as collateral.” – Chicago Tribune

“[Standard & Poor’s analyst Philip Baggaley] doesn’t rule out one or more carriers filing [for bankruptcy] as soon as this fall.” – Wall St. Journal

“At this point no one US airline is too big to die.... The industry is still too big – with too many network carriers, too many regional carriers and too many hubs.” – Swelblog

Why in the world are we (frequent or infrequent travelers) wasting time on accumulating airline frequent flyer miles? Sure, if we fly an airline and it has a mileage program (and virtually all do), we might as well accept the miles offered. But using credit cards with annual fees just for a few more miles? Deciding which car to rent based on how many miles we’ll receive? Shopping for products we don’t need to build up our mileage?

The travel/mileage blogosphere is awash in words about how to add gazillions of miles to your various airline frequent flyer mileage accounts. But nearly every method “costs” you something – an annual credit card fee; a cheaper price on a product that doesn’t offer miles; a hotel room that’s more conveniently located vs. one that gives you bonus miles. Some part of your time and your life.

Some of our favorite travel blogs are primarily concerned with ways to boost your mileage accounts. And we ourselves have probably taken nearly half our flights in the past five years on award tickets. But at what cost? And what of the future (or not) of your miles in an airline bankruptcy situation?

If you’re one of the top 1% who hasn’t been impacted by the world’s financial meltdown, maybe you don’t care about saving cold, hard cash. (But then you can pay for full-fare first class anyway.) But if you spend a dollar here and 10 dollars there just so you (we) can get a few more miles.... We’re beginning to think that’s nuts.

Yes, we’ll gladly take advantage of anything that is truly free or less expensive. There is absolutely no cost to using a cash-back credit card vs. one that has no reward scheme. There’s no reason to pay 3% for foreign purchases when some credit cards charge nothing extra. There’s no reason to pay more for an airline ticket than necessary – and there are several great airfare alert sites that offer timely fare information. Why not try for a better deal on a hotel room through an opaque booking site (if you’ll be happy with whatever hotel you end up in)? There’s no shame in wanting the most bang for your buck – the highest quality at the lowest price is our mantra.

So we’ve just about given up on bothering to collect frequent flyer miles in any way other than flying. Our world is too complicated as it is, and our time (and other ways of saving money) are more valuable than the vague intangibles of frequent flyer miles.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Southwest Changes Wine Service – Gosh, Are We Excited

Would you pay $5 for a glass of Two Buck Chuck (aka Two Buck Junk)? Southwest Airlines isn’t exactly pouring TBC, but has switched its wine service to Coastal Ridge Chardonnay and Merlot, both made by the same Bronco Wine Company that makes Trader Joe’s TBC.

We’re pretty sure that Coastal Ridge wines don’t exactly come from the same giant vat as TBC, but they still taste like industrial, sterilized White Wine and Red Wine.

This isn’t to pick on Southwest – serving quality wine anywhere in America is only a recent phenomena, and the quality of wine on other U.S. airlines isn’t a whole lot better. You don’t fly just to have a wine-tasting experience, and besides, your taste buds are allegedly dulled in an airplane cabin. But still, 5 bucks for a (small) glass of what you could buy for $5 a bottle (the approximate price of Coastal Ridge at retail)?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Is VRBO Still A Useful Lodging Rental Site?

We’ve generally been big fans of alternative accommodations – timeshare trades, private apartments, home exchange, and VRBO (vacation rentals by owner). But we’re really getting annoyed with many of the homeowners advertising on vrbo.com.

It seems that many properties have now taken the ebay approach – sell the product for $5 but charge $10 shipping. In the VRBO case, it’s pricing the night’s stay low, but then adding a mandatory cleaning fee (not deposit). Too many VRBO properties are also now showing a price range – say $250-$500/night – but when you get to the details all dates are priced at $500. Is the $250 rate only available for one night on March 22, so the homeowner can set their range that low?

Being the owners of (or being owned by, we’re not sure) two border collies, we frequently travel with the critters and look for “pet friendly” lodging. Again with VRBO, we used to see reasonable pet policies, but now it seems many listings are pretending to be pet friendly, but have ridiculous policies, such as:
Pets “with prior approval.” What? You want us to drive 300 miles for an interview with the dogs and then have you decide if we’re OK?
Saying “pet friendly” and then telling us you’ll help us find a kennel near your property.
And we can understand a small additional pet fee or higher cleaning deposit, but some properties are adding amounts so large they certainly aren’t “friendly” any more.
We saw one property where their cleaning fee (not deposit) and non-refundable pet fee totaled more than the nightly rate. (Sure, that would amortize if staying several nights, but still....)

VRBO’s policies specifically note that they do not control what properties charge, how they advertise their property, or how they define certain phrases. “All property listings on the Site are ... the responsibility of the member, and we specifically disclaim any and all liability arising from the alleged accuracy of the listings [our emphasis], property reviews....”

VRBO is a vast resource, and one might expect them to issue some standards or guidelines for listings on their site. For if they don’t, they may become victims of the Trip Advisor Syndrome, where reviews or listings are being frequently questioned for accuracy. Our recent experiences certainly make VRBO a less-useful tool for our travel planning.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Lose Threads 2 July 2009

Say goodbye to all those different cell-phone chargers – at least if you have a phone manufactured for the European market. The European Union has gotten 10 mobile manufacturers to agree to produce a universal cell-phone charger for smart phones. On board are Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Apple, Motorola, RIM, Samsung, LG, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and NEC. A micro-USB plug will be used for all phones. Some sources indicate that the implementation could be as early as next year. This is also apparently the same charger standard mandated by China.

Mobile phone roaming costs within the European Union (EU) have been coming down for awhile. Now, the EU has standardized roaming costs – if you have a phone from an EU country and are calling within the EU.
The maximum outgoing call cost will now be €0.43
Maximum incoming call cost now €0.19
Maximum text message cost €0.11
Data transmission up to 1 meg €1
We’ve found that – while it may not be the absolute cheapest option (vs. Skype, etc.) – the most convenient option is obtaining a UK SIM chip (or a chip from the primary country you’re visiting) and then just calling (roaming) as normal throughout the EU, without worrying about weird call-back systems, phone cards, or internet calling.

Unrelated to anything, really, Swelblog points out that “Allegiant, AirTran, Alaska and SkyWest – airlines many Americans have never flown – each today have a market capitalization greater than that of either United or US Airways.” Oh, yea, that’s right. It’s related to whether the major carriers (and how many of them) are in business a few years from now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two, Two, Two Best Airlines

We just saw two Tweets on Twitter – one from jetBlue that said, “Woot! Thank you all so much! J.D. Power and Associates ranked us top in Customer Satisfaction for the 5th time,” and the other from Alaska Airlines that said, “Thank you! Highest in customer satisfaction among traditional carriers in North America 2 yrs in a row!”

At first quick glance, we were confused, two “highest/top” ratings? Then, we looked more closely – Alaska did say “...among traditional carriers.” So we went to the J.D. Power press release, and saw that indeed, both statements were accurate: Alaska was tops in the Traditional Network Carrier Segment, and jetBlue tops in the Low-Cost Carrier Segment.

What’s interesting are the actual numbers. We assume (which often gets us in trouble) that the metrics were the same for each category. If so, ALL the low-cost carriers had a higher numerical score – and therefore were rated better – than the BEST traditional carrier (Alaska). This isn’t to pick on Alaska – we really like the airline – but it shows one huge reason that the low-cost operators are successful. Wake up Big Guys, it’s not (just) the ticket price of the upstarts that attracts consumers, it’s actual SERVICE.

Yes, we know that’s a strange concept, but as J.D. Power notes, “...overall customer satisfaction with airlines in 2009 has declined for a third consecutive year to a four-year low.”

For the record, the low-cost carriers, in order from the top, were: jetBlue, Southwest, WestJet, Frontier, and Air Tran. The traditional carriers, again in order, were: Alaska, Continental, Delta, Air Canada, American, Northwest, United, and US Airways

Monday, June 29, 2009

Loose Threads – 29 June 2009

The weird, wonderful, and hugely popular London Eye is being refurbished – one cabin at a time. The upgrade is planned to be complete by the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

View From the Wing has an excellent roundup of current mileage and hotel reward credit cards.

Fitch Ratings has downgraded Delta’s credit rating – still better than its rivals, though. According to ATW News, Fitch also commented earlier this month that United, US Air, and American “could be forced to file for bankruptcy protection ‘as early as the winter if operating trends fail to stabilize.’”

We’re still not completely sure about multi-country SIM chips for GSM phones, but a new one has caught our eye. We haven’t tried it yet, but the Global Roaming chip seems to offer excellent world-wide coverage and very competitive rates.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Republic & Lufthansa

We’ve been pondering the latest news of acquisitions by Republic Airways (U.S.) and Lufthansa (Germany). And we really haven’t come up with any brilliant commentary about whether their recent acquisitions hold portent for the future of air travel, or are just signs of a couple of successful (?) companies growing while the cherry picking is good.

Just for the record, here are the airlines that Lufthansa owns (or at least will probably own once regulatory approval is granted), plus a couple of others that Lufthansa has an ownership percentage in.

  • Lufthansa
  • bmi
  • Brussels
  • Austrian
  • Eurowings
  • Swiss
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Germanwings
  • Sun Express 50%
  • jetBlue 19%
  • Luxair 13%

Republic’s list reads like this. Note that Republic hasn’t operated any planes under its own name. Yet.
  • Frontier
  • Midwest
  • Republic Airlines (operating flights for US Airways Express, Midwest Connect)
  • Chautauqua (operating flights for AmericanConnection, Continental Express, Delta Connection, United Express, US Airways Express)
  • Shuttle America (operating flights for Delta Connection, United Express, Mokulele Airlines)

Just focusing on the U.S. airline landscape, back on April 15 we said, “Here’s our only slightly tongue-in-cheek prediction: Five years from now the U.S. will have five dominant airlines – Southwest, jetBlue, Alaska, and two other airlines created from some combination/merger/bankruptcy of the existing five majors.” But we certainly are far from being airline experts.

Yesterday (6/25), Swelblog (who does know something about the airline industry) wrote: “The top domestic airlines of tomorrow might be Southwest, jetBlue, Republic and maybe two of the five current legacy carriers.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ryanair – The World’s First Completely Self-Service Airline

We’re beginning to think that Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has been drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid.

From the Los Angeles Times:
“Ryanair... Europe’s largest low-cost airline, will bar passengers from traveling with anything other than hand luggage as it seeks to cut costs.
Ryanair plans to offer an ‘unlimited’ allowance for carry-on bags ... while abolishing checked luggage from next spring.
‘We’re going to move away from check-in luggage to more carry-on luggage,’ O’Leary said. ‘This isn't the end of civilization as we know it, it only sounds revolutionary. I can assure you it’s not.’
Ryanair is already scrapping airport check-in desks for passengers from Oct. 1, compelling people to register for flights via the company’s Web site. According to O’Leary’s new rule on baggage, passengers must carry all belongings onto the plane themselves and only when overhead lockers become full will items be stowed in the cargo hold.”

The airline is basically being converted into a complete self-serve operation. Think of the history of grocery checkout. Originally, you’d enter a store and ask the clerk for everything you wanted. Then came stores where you could wander the aisles, choosing your own products, and upon checkout a cashier would unload your groceries and total your bill. Next came the conveyor belts, but a store employee would still unload your cart onto the check-out belt and the cashier would ring it up. Soon, you were emptying your own cart onto the belt, and sometimes bagging your own groceries. Now, you can go completely self-serve, without interacting with another person (unless the flashing lights go off and the nasty voice tells you there’s a problem).

We can see that happening with Ryanair. Some day soon, you’ll purchase your ticket online; print your own boarding pass; schlep yourself and your bags through security; scan your boarding pass at an automated turnstile; throw your bags in the belly of an airplane; find a seat by yourself; watch a recorded safety briefing; break out your credit card to go take a pee; deplane upon landing; search through the cargo hold for your bags; and continue on your jolly journey.

Each Ryanair flight will then only require three employees – two in the cockpit and a hall monitor in the cabin. No check-in personnel, no baggage handlers, no one collecting boarding passes.

Is this an airline you’d want to fly?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Loose Threads - 23 June 2009

If you write a travel blog – or any blog, for that matter – watch out what you write and how you disclose any compensation you might receive. The Federal Trade Commission wants to get in your face and “monitor” what’s written online about products, trips, or anything that purports to be a sort of “review” that might have been influenced by compensation from a company. The FTC has an 86-page document detailing the proposal.
UPDATE: John C. Dvorak, writing on pcmag.com, has the most well-written commentary on this topic. He didn’t pay us anything to say that.

Travel Business News:

  • Lufthansa has entered into agreement to purchase the majority of bmi airline.
  • Frontier will be acquired by Republic airlines, but will continue to fly under the Frontier name. (UPDATE: And today Republic announced the acquisition of Midwest.)
  • Clear, providers of verified-identity security services, has folded.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Loose Threads - 22 June 2009

View From The Wing has a good evaluation and commentary about the proposed new carry-on-baggage-standardization bill that’s been introduced in Congress. The bill, HR 2870, is delightfully being called the “Securing Cabin Baggage Act.”

No airline has yet to make it work – the all-business model (Silverjet, EOS, Maxjet) – and it looks like the last holdout may not survive either. Speculation is rampant that British Airways will soon shut down their OpenSkies subsidiary. We’ve wondered about it from the beginning. Weirdly, BA is inaugurating a new all-business service from London City to New York.

Finally, another mention of how provincial we can be in viewing the airline industry. Today’s headlines from Alternative Airlines News:

  • Vietnam Airlines signs for 18 new Airbus aircraft
  • Daallo Airlines launch services from Hargeisa
  • airBaltic launch flights Riga to Warsaw and Pskov
  • Iranian Airline Mahan Air launches UK to India service
  • BH airlines (Air Bosna) and Montenegro Airlines announce new routes
  • Australia loses third airline [Oz Jet] this year
  • Avianova - New Russian Low cost airline to be launched
  • Chile gets new domestic airline - PAL
  • Moscow to Irkutsk, New Route From Transaero Airlines
  • Mexican airline, Aviacsa grounded
  • SBA Airlines launch Panama to Caracas

Friday, June 19, 2009

Questioning Travel Blogger Ethics: Painting With Too Broad a Brush?

Nicholas Kralev, in his blog On The Fly (published by The Washington Times), revisits an ongoing discussion about the ethics of travel blogs (and, by extension, all blogs) that aren’t written by “professional” journalists. While fairly objective, in my view the article perpetrates some myths about travel writing – on blogs or in traditional media. I wish Kralev had taken this nascent discussion and expanded it a lot.

Kralev writes that, “the blogosphere has no editorial rules; authors are free to write anything they want, and they don’t answer to editors.” Generally true. He adds: “The absence of an ethics code hasn’t been lost on travel companies, which have been offering bloggers free or discounted flights, hotel stays and meals. Most mainstream media organizations are almost certain to decline such gifts.” I guess also technically true, but....

Having been in the “mainstream media” as a writer, editor, and publisher, I agree that any outward appearance of favoritism in the industry is kept pretty well in check. And generally freebies are frowned upon. But I also know that there are myriad subtle shadings of favoritism. Big advertisers may be more likely to have their products reviewed in the publication. Publishers can design special editorial sections to appeal to an industry or group of advertisers. And writers who successfully pitch a destination story idea will be paid (by the magazine) for their words and insight into that place – maybe not getting directly “paid” to travel there, but they will be recompensated for their travels by the article sale.

Mainstream Media are businesses – they’re in it to maximize profits. Travel publications want readers to desire to visit a place, and to buy the next issue of the magazine; purchase airfare from advertisers; and shop with other travel suppliers – negative destination articles don’t sell magazines. Conversely, few, if any, bloggers make enough money to pay even their minimal web hosting costs.

The world is full of self promotion. Lodging properties game the system on TripAdvisor and other travel review sites by recruiting folks to post glowing reviews; small book publishers have been known to round up friends to write great reviews on Amazon; and many of your “followers” on Twitter are out to sell you porn or cameras or airline tickets or their product/service of the moment.

I believe that most travel bloggers are in it for the joy of writing and sharing their thoughts. To me, they are the least offensive self-promotional folks out there. As long as a travel (or other) blogger indicates that his or her trip was paid for, a review can be taken in its proper context. And even if the writer doesn’t explicitly state that a trip was a freebie, well, Sunset Magazine doesn’t always say in the opening of an article on North Wonderfulstan that there’s an ad for the same destination in the back of the book.

The common complaint is that when freebies are given, the travel blogger seldom writes anything negative. Yet so it is with Mainstream Media. Negative articles (covering any topic) usually come from deep “investigative” research. Seldom does a Mainstream Media travel writer say anything bad about any destination (look no further than the Sunday travel section of any newspaper). If anything, I believe that travel blog writers might be more likely to be objective or write a critical piece simply because they don’t have a Mainstream Media advertising director sitting in the next office. Bloggers are known for being opinionated, and revel in voicing those opinions.

A consumer is probably more likely to be fooled by a slick color brochure for Tropical Holiday Paradise than by any blogger’s write-up of the property – no matter how glowing the words. Another check-and-balance is that most bloggers offer their readers a way to comment directly and immediately on their postings. Blog readers are quick to slam anything they disagree with or perceive as inaccurate.

There have been too many Mainstream Media articles painting bloggers as not being “real” writers. I’ve seen some terrible writing on travel (and other) blogs, but I’ve also seen third-grade writing (and research and editing) in the Wall St. Journal and National Geographic Traveler and a host of other publications. And I’ve also seen – especially in the travel realm – many instances where it’s obvious that the writer of the mainstream-publication article does not know the subject; has not even traveled to the destination; or has been edited (supposedly by professional editors) so that a great deal of the story is missing or inaccurate.

Lastly, I even dislike the word “blogger.” We are writers. Some of us are good, some are crappy, most fall in the middle. But that’s true everywhere. There’s a class-distinction feeling to having a different name for folks who write about travel and other topics on “non-professional” websites or blogs. We don’t call newspaper writers “newsies” nor magazine writers “maggies.” Let’s get away from the somewhat pejorative term “blogger” and just all be writers.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

We Don’t Make ‘Em Up, We Just Report ‘Em

Coming soon to a country near you: In-flight cell phone use. The last two major holdouts in the UK cell phone industry – Vodafone and Orange – have agreed to let their subscribers use their mobiles on aircraft featuring the OnAir system.

A report in the UK TimesOnline says that the service will cost £2.50 per minute (about $4 currently). The article stresses that many mobile users could be shocked by a big phone bill, but the CEO of OnAir offers the best quote in the piece. “The British do not talk much, but the Italians talk a lot. It must be a cultural thing.”

For us, though, the scariest line from the article is this: “...British Airways will introduce the system for its service from London City Airport to New York this summer.” Currently, U.S. airlines have resisted implementing in-flight cell usage, but you could lose money betting that ban will last for long, with the airlines scraping for every cent they can make from fees and add-ons.

Prepare to say goodbye to whatever tiny trace of civility was left in the airline cabin.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reward Credit Cards Redux

Just a few days ago, we posted a piece about a survey from MilesLink that said most credit card users (in their poll) strongly preferred frequent flyer miles as rewards. We tended to disagree, noting that we felt miles seldom offer the most value. A recent article by finance columnist Liz Weston quotes a J.D. Power survey about which cards and card companies users were “happiest” with. American Express was at the top of the list and HSBC at the bottom, echoing our sentiments.

Similarly, the card users in the survey strongly favored hotel rewards as the best, followed by cash back – again, our feelings and recommendations exactly. (One small but shocking tidbit in the article noted that J.D. Power said that, on average, 10% of consumers reported having problems with their account in the previous year.)

Travel rewards, annual fees, award reductions, changes in terms are rampant in today’s credit-card environment. We’ll continue to follow and comment on the latest news, especially as it relates to travel and rewards cards

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thoughts About Twitter

Everyone in the world is apparently either on Twitter or talking about Twitter. On the site, there seems to be this weird competition to see who can have the most followers. (In case you’re one of the last four people on the planet who doesn’t know, on Twitter you post 140-character Tweets, and people can choose to follow your postings. You, of course, can also choose to follow other people or companies. Or not.)

It seems that many folks are on Twitter just to spew their babblings – there are an incredible number of inane “I woke up tired this morning” posts. But I guess for some folks that’s fine. Personally, I view Twitter as a mini blog feed – it’s a place where I can see quick information bites from folks whose opinions I value. Thus, as I said on one of my Twitter posts, I can’t imagine following even a hundred people – just the people I like to read.

As for followers, well, I guess more followers spreads “your words” out there, but so what? I write of things that interest me, and that I feel might be of interest to others. If you don’t want to read what I write, that’s totally OK. When I read a newspaper I skip many articles – I don’t think the writer cares too much. Maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t need a hundred or a thousand or a million followers. I’d rather take pride in the fact that the followers I do have chose to follow my rambling thoughts and opinions.

As I write this, I just looked at Twitter to see what’s up. Through one of the people I follow, I saw one of his people links, which led to this site. This is exactly what I’m talking about. This bozo and his bozo software (“Increase Your Followers By 10's of Thousands!” [sounds like computer Viagra to me]) are focused on one thing – MORE followers. This guy has nothing to say, nothing worth reading, is just focused on egotistical self promotion. He apparently doesn’t even write anything, just uses the software he’s pitching to create automated posts by the thousands.

So forgive me if I don’t have near as many followers as either you or Oprah do. I really just don’t care. But if you do find my writings interesting, thanks for following this blog and on Twitter. (Find us on Twitter here.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

More Fun With Numbers

The June 10 MilesLink newsletter reported results of a poll about preferences for frequent flyer and reward credit cards. One of the questions was....
“If you could have one credit card only from the list below, which card would you choose?
66.7% Co-branded credit card earning miles in a frequent flyer program
0% Co-branded credit card earning points in a hotel loyalty program
16.7% Cash-back credit card.
11.1% American Express Membership Rewards card.
5.6% Diners Club Club Rewards card.
0% Other type of credit card not listed above.”
We, of course, found this rather strange. Many reasonably knowledgeable observers who follow trends in the world of rewards credit cards frequently recommend Amex Membership Rewards or the Starwood Hotels’ Amex (and occasionally Hilton’s Amex, as we do). These same writers are very frequently of the opinion that airline card programs give you far less value and versatility.

In unrelated fun with numbers, four airlines received votes in our recent blog poll: “What U.S. airline will be the first to fly to Havana, Cuba?”
Delta received 41% of the votes
American 33%
United 11%
Virgin America 11%
We didn’t vote in our own poll, but our two bets were for Continental and JetBlue.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

British Airways CEO Speaks

We love good quotes. According to ATW Daily News, British Airways CEO Willie Walsh wrote in the latest edition of BA News that “[the OpenSkies subsidiary] is not profitable, Heathrow is not profitable, Gatwick is not profitable, cargo is not profitable and British Airways is not profitable.” Cheerful.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Good Guess or Just Wishful Thinking?

“Think Tanks Expect US Travel to Cuba to Open Fully by Oct” – Jamaica Observer

Stupid

Could we possibly say anything more when the headline says it all? “Airlines Reduce Size of Spoons to Save Fuel” – Telegraph UK

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Opinion: The Two Most Rewarding Reward Credit Cards

After posting several entries recently about changes in credit card rewards, we thought we’d detail our two current favorite reward credit cards. (Note that we are NOT an affiliate marketing site for any card or other product, so we have no agenda in recommending any one card over another.)

The Hilton American Express offers 6 Hilton HHonors points per $1 spent at grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, and for phone, cable/satellite TV, and internet service; 3 points for other purchases. This card is useful primarily if you stay at Hilton properties (ranging from Hampton to Doubletree to Hilton, etc.). When we use points in lieu of payment, we generally feel we get about 1% reward per point. Thus, the Hilton Amex gives us what we think of as 6% or 3% rewards for our purchases.

The Schwab Visa offers two significant advantages: It offers 2% cash rewards on all purchases, and it does not charge any foreign-currency conversion fees (nearly every other credit card charges about 3%). So used for international travel (or any purchase in a foreign currency) the Schwab card provides the equivalent of a 5% reward. The Schwab rewards are a little awkward, in that you need to open a Schwab brokerage account for the rewards to be credited to. But there are no fees nor minimum balances for that account.

(We still have a fond spot in our hearts for the Alaska Visa, but Alaska Airlines isn’t a viable airline for many folks around the country. In addition, the card has a $75 annual fee, but you do receive an annual $50 companion ticket – a pretty good value if you use it for an $800 Hawaii ticket. And Alaska does have many airline partners, including Delta, AirFrance, American, British Airways, Qantas, LAN. Still, the card’s reward is only 1 mile per $1 spent, so you need to use your miles wisely to get a return better than 2%.)

Needless to say, within the current credit-card environment, you’ll never know in advance whether or not your card’s rewards will be changed in the future. But for now, and for most travelers, we think the Hilton Amex and the Schwab Visa are your top two bets.

UPDATE: Our friend Marcus (@CreditMatters on Twitter) reminded us that Hilton’s new fee card – Surpass – offers 9 Hilton HHonors points for spending at Hilton properties (in addition to the same other Hilton points as above), and comes with a basic membership in the Priority Pass airport lounge access program ($99 value). If you spend $20,000 per year on the card, you receive Hilton Gold status; with $40K spend you receive Diamond status. Annual fee of $75.

Delta Extends Mileage Expiration with 1 Mile Deposits

Delta Airlines seems to have deposited 1 mile in every frequent flyer account. That means you now have another 24 months before your miles expire. This is good news for infrequent flyers who may have some miles with an airline, but don’t want to lose them if they don’t fly the airline for awhile. Remember also that once you link your Northwest and Delta frequent flyer accounts, you can transfer back and forth between the two until the Delta/Northwest merger is finalized.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Misc. Travel News

Microsoft has entered the travel-search game with Bing, a combination of Farecast and MSN Travel. Bing also has a weeklong trivia contest on Twitter, beginning today, June 3.

Hilton Hotels is offering 25% off their “best available rate” if paying with a Visa Signature card. Pre-qualification of the card is required before booking. Finally, a decent benefit for Visa Signature.

United Airlines has a game you can play daily through July 17 for a chance to win a year’s Economy Plus Access.

A survey by IdeaWorks looked at on-line award seat availability on 5 U.S. and 5 International carriers. The results are limited, but interesting.
1 Iberia – successful 83% of the time
2 Lufthansa – 66%
3 British Airways – 63%
4 American – 58%
5 Air France/KLM – 53%
6 Delta/Northwest – 44%
7 Continental – 36%
8 United – 18%
9 Scandinavian Airlines – 7%
10 US Airways – 4%

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What's In a Name? (Not Shakespeare)

The TSA is now requiring the name on your travel documents (passport or driver’s license) to exactly match the name on your ticket. So if your passport says John James Smith, you better not buy a ticket for John J. Smith (unless you want even more hassle from the TSA – as if that were actually possible). The TSA says they’ll cut travelers a little slack “for the near future.” Sure.

Most driver’s licenses use middle initials; passports use middle names. Some airline websites don’t have fields for full middle names, just initials. Have fun.

Note, also, that on August 15, you’ll have to provide your birth date and gender when purchasing tickets.

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
JULIET:
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Sky Is Falling (On Credit Card Rewards)

Here we go again. Both the House and Senate have quickly passed legislation that will attempt to curb some of the credit-card industry’s current practices in the areas of fees, interest rates, late-payment penalties, and the like. Of course, The Pundits are out in force, proclaiming (to paraphrase): “The end of rewards cards as we know them,” “Annual fees will reappear for most cards,” and our favorite, “Use your rewards/miles/points now before you lose them.” (Some examples: Recent articles from the Wall St. Journal, New Credit Rules, New York Times, and Barron’s.)

With enough spin from The Pundits, this might provide travelers with a new worst enemy to focus on instead of the airlines. Realistically, we expect that, yes, there will be some changes in terms and rewards. But the credit-card landscape is incredibly competitive. Despite any new legislative caps on fees or disclosure rules or other regulations, the credit-card companies will still want you to spend more and more on their cards. They only make money when you use your plastic, not when your card sits unused in your desk drawer.

Sure, some credit-card rewards may be reduced (as is apparently already happening with some cards), but we also wouldn’t be surprised to see some sweet new offers coming along. Again, compare this to the airline industry, which is now throwing frequent flyer miles around for shopping, bonuses for flying certain routes or times, signing up for newsletters – all in a competitive effort to retain and gain business.

Make no mistake, the credit-card companies do not want you to switch your spending to cash (unless you are one of their defaulting customers). They do want you to carry a balance, since even somewhat lower interest rates on outstanding balances make them lots of money.

As the Chinese proverb says: May you live in interesting times. The proverb should also add: Pay your credit-card bill in full every month.

UPDATE 5/21/09: A couple of other sensible and non-sensational views on the (proposed) new regulations on credit card companies, and what the changes mean for reward cards. View From The Wing and Upgrade: Travel Better.

UPDATE 5/22/09: Obama signed the law today, which takes effect in 9 months. It will be interesting to see which of the many viewpoints noted above turn out correct.

UPDATE: 5/23/09 A purported “expert article” on Yahoo Finance (really just a cut-and-paste roundup of other articles) offers still more views on this topic. The Words of The Pundits keep flowing.

Airline Customer Satisfaction

Yippee! Another fun, mindless survey of the airline industry is just out!

Readers of this blog know of our fondness for surveys that purport to be gauges of customer experiences, quality, favorites, or just silly lists. The latest is the annual “American Customer Satisfaction Index.” The ACSI rates or ranks many industries, and businesses within those industries. Here’s how the airlines scored:

  • Southwest 81
  • All Others 77
  • Continental 68
  • Airlines (as an industry) 64
  • Delta 64
  • American 60
  • US Airways 59
  • Northwest 57
  • United 56

A couple of observations. No matter what the scale, the difference between the bottom four airlines is essentially insignificant. (Although, from our personal consumer perspective, United deserves its bottom rating.) Secondly, the “all others” category contains, we assume, JetBlue, Alaska, AirTran, and others. The average of 77 for these mystery carriers compares to the average of 60.7 for the six legacy carriers – that is a significant difference.

See kids, numbers can be fun!

How many, uh... airlines, yea airlines... can you see in this picture?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dual-Number (U.S. and UK) Cell Phones

We’ve long been fans of pay-as-you go international SIM chips for GSM cell phones. The two basic types are single-country chips and multi-country international chips. Our experience has been good with single-country chips, and mixed with international chips.

Now, Telestial (one of the largest U.S. retailers of chips and phones) is offering a dual-number (U.S. and UK) international chip. There are 3 Passport options, but the Telestial website does not have an easy comparison chart – you’ll have to look at each offering, and do the pencil-on-the-napkin comparisons yourself. (We’ve had mixed experiences with Telestial. A few years ago, a chip we purchased [no longer offered] worked poorly, couldn’t be topped up, and we couldn’t contact the Telestial customer service number from overseas. But, upon our return, they did send a replacement chip with additional call credit at no charge.)

The big advantage to this type of phone is that it should be cheaper for your U.S. contacts to call your U.S. number than calling an international number. From an outgoing call standpoint, the call charges seem a little high in most countries – depending on which of the 3 Passport chips you choose – but not terrible. (A lot cheaper than most of Mobal’s outgoing call costs. Mobal may have the broadest country-coverage, but their rates are pretty darn high. We keep it in our bag as an emergency-only chip.)

If you’re seriously interested in a multi-country SIM, it’s worth your while to check out PrePaidGSM for a good comparison of the many offers available. (The site also offers extensive info on single-country SIMs.) Note, too, that many international SIMs are call-back type systems, where you place a call, wait for your phone to ring, then answer and are connected. If you find this cumbersome, dig deeper into each offering to see how it operates.

Bottom line, the Telestial Passport could be an interesting international communications tool. Until we dig a little further, we’ll probably continue to stick with single-country SIMs for our overseas travels, unless we were planning that around-the-world trip, when a multi-country chip would be invaluable.

UPDATE 17 May 2009:
It looks like several international-roaming cell operators will be rolling out dual U.S./UK SIM chips. These products are all still very new. Our suggestion: Wait. Any problems with the new chips should work themselves out in 6 months or so. As always, we suggest checking the PrepaidGSM.com website for the best unbiased info.

Another warning: Single-country cell operators (Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile, etc.) seem to generally be staying in business. The international-roaming operators come and go. We’ve seen United Mobile (once universally touted as “the best”), 09, Yackie, and others disappear in just the last year. Again, buyer beware.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Why Would You Ever Want to Fly These Airlines?

Ryanair charges up to £40 just for boarding passes.
Air Jamaica charges for bags that may not even arrive.
US Airways can’t figure out how to board passengers.
Alitalia ... is, well, just “the world’s worst airline.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Significant Reward Credit Card Changes

Not that we’re really surprised. In today’s credit/financial environment, change is the rule rather than the exception. We’ve received notice of (or read about) several coming changes in travel rewards credit cards that we have previously recommended.

Indications are that the popular Chase Freedom card – which offered 3% rewards in certain categories – is being eviscerated. The new scheme is apparently only 1%, with allegedly some monthly bonus categories to be announced.

The Freedom card had been one of our highly recommended cards, with its 3% rewards beating most airline mile cards. No longer, apparently. Guess we’ll now stick with the Hilton American Express (which offers good-value Hilton points) and the Schwab Visa (2% cash rewards on everything) for most of our purchases. We’ll also look more seriously into the Starwood Amex (even though it carries an annual fee).

Also, according to our latest American Express FreedomPass (Open savings) business card statement, the 3% discount for purchasing Delta tickets with the card is ending May 15, 2009. The 3-5% discounts for purchases from Marriott (many, but not all, hotel brands), Hertz (U.S. rentals), JetBlue, Hyatt (U.S. properties), and some other non-travel businesses continue in effect. (Plus, Amex is adding to the list of non-travel merchants in this discount program.)

Finally, Advanta, issuers of business credit cards (which had pretty lousy rewards anyway) is apparently ending its credit card business. This shouldn’t affect too many of our travel readers, as the card has never been a prime “travel” credit card.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cuba Travel Petition from Orbitz

Orbitz wants you to sign a petition to help end the Cuba travel ban. In exchange for signing their online petition, Orbitz is offering a $100 voucher for a future “vacation” to Cuba when/if such travel is allowed, and when/if Orbitz offers such travel.

Excellent Customer Service

It’s time for a couple of Customer Service kudos. We know we can get kind of grumpy on this site, so we’d like to acknowledge two recent excellent customer-service experiences.

We recently purchased two carry-on bags from Rick Steves, and the telescoping handle on one bag became disconnected the first time we used it. Their customer service department responded in one day, and is sending a replacement bag, no questions asked.

Secondly, Alaska Airlines continues to impress us. Actually, there was no single “special” customer-service treatment, just the fact that the airline actually performs as if they want us as customers/passengers.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Virtual Credit Cards

After suffering from one too many online credit card fiascos and ripoffs, we began researching virtual credit card numbers. (In the past month, we had a disputed charge with Earthlink, we had one of our credit card numbers used by some scumbag, and we received a letter from Batteries.com about a security breach of their computers.)

Virtual credit cards are one-time or short-term numbers that are created by your credit card company and can then be used for an online transaction. These temporary numbers can be time-limited and amount-limited.

We have found the service offered on most Bank of America credit-card accounts, and on some Citi accounts. (Discover also apparently offers the service, but we don’t have any Discover cards to test it out.) Charges on the virtual cards go right to your normal credit card statement, and carry the same purchase and fraud protections that your card offers.

Of course, this adds a small level of complexity to your online shopping, but may be worthwhile for purchases from unfamiliar merchants. Also, we see this as a way to stop unauthorized recurring billings and card-number theft, since the virtual card has a dollar limit. Once you feel confident with a new merchant, if you choose you can use your regular card number for future transactions.

You can use a virtual credit card any time you don’t have to present a physical card. Which means, of course, not to use it for airline tickets, hotels, or car rentals, as you will probably have to present your card at the counter.

Another small benefit, surprisingly, is that using a virtual credit card number requires you to log in to your card website to obtain the number. That also gives you the opportunity to check all your charges and balances more frequently – something we should all be doing more often.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Opinion: Don’t Panic About the Swine Flu

Disclaimer: This is our opinion only – take medical advice from medical professionals.

But.... The average annual number of regular, seasonal flu-related deaths in the U.S. alone is 36,000. The Centers for Disease Control says, “[Study] results...showed that...36,171 flu-related deaths occurred per year, on average.” Additionally, estimates are that worldwide flu-related deaths are 250,000 to 500,000 per year.

Currently (May 1) reported by the World Health Organization there are 9 confirmed swine flu deaths in Mexico, and 1 in the U.S. (Mexican health officials are reporting 159 deaths from the disease.)

We just read an absurd travel newsletter where the author talks of going out and buying more than 60 pounds of rice at Costco (in case food supplies are interrupted worldwide for months?), and that he couldn’t find hand sanitizer packets anywhere. (This is also a travel writer who still doesn’t believe in Global Warming.)

In our opinion, you’re more at risk of getting sick from using the bathrooms at Costco than from flying or traveling during this flu “pandemic” (a lovely scare word from the medical community).

Yes, this may get worse – much worse. But for now we think it’s another media/political thriller. Wash your hands. Try not to kiss someone who’s sneezing. If you have travel plans, go. You’re probably more likely to be killed in an ambush in Kazakhstan or get food poisoning by eating a bad fish taco than you are of getting – much less dying from – the swine flu while you’re traveling.

America, and the world: Stop being so afraid.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Does the World Need First Class?

Does anyone really need first class seating and service? Wouldn’t it be nice to spread the wealth more toward the back of the plane?

It’s kind of like those arguments that Wall Street has been making saying that without obscene salaries and bonuses, the “talent” will go elsewhere. It’s claimed that the huge compensation packages are necessary to keep all the geniuses from abandoning ship and starting hedge funds. This, of course, referring to the brokers and wizards that got the financial industry into the mess it’s in – these being the same bozos that sank the whole world into the Great Recession.

OK. Now that that’s off my chest....
Qantas has said that they “have too few seats on some of our aircraft.” As reported in ATW Daily News, the airline has or will be removing some first class cabins, and reducing the number of business class seats so it can focus on economy and premium economy.

This makes great sense, even though in the fat times airlines made tons of money off first-class passengers paying thousands of dollars more than the price of an economy ticket. But now reports are that paid first class tickets are rare, and the airlines are filling those seats with upgrade passengers.

But the bigger question is whether the airlines – or the world – really need that level of ostentation. (Showers and casinos for first-class passengers, Mr. Branson?) We can only hope that the world will continue to be “a different world” after this financial wake-up call. We’re skeptical, but a more egalitarian world – with wealth and luxuries ratcheted down a bit and spread around a bit more – would be a wonderful place.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Credit Card for Old Northwest Visa Holders (and Others)

With Northwest being absorbed into Delta, the Northwest Visa that was offered by U.S. Bank will be disappearing – just like the terminals, signs, and paint jobs on anything that said Northwest. With that change, the only Delta affiliated credit card will be from American Express.

But U.S. Bank isn’t sitting still. If you’re a current Northwest WorldPerks Visa card holder, you should be receiving a new U.S. Bank FlexPerks Visa card – with the same account number (thus, no interruption in auto payments, etc.). Of course, U.S. Bank will also be offering the card to new customers.

The card is a “fake miles” card, which basically awards points you can redeem for a ticket on “more than 150 airlines.” The Signature Visa earns the equivalent of up to 2% return (“up to $400 ticket value for 20,000 miles”) and carries a $49 annual fee (waived the first year; also waived for $24K annual spending). There are also some bonus point categories and other perks/benefits. U.S. Bank also has a lower-tier Visa, with no annual fee but a reward ratio coming in at 1%. There is also a business Visa available.

It’s not clear how rewards are handled. The U.S. Bank website mentions redeeming via a user’s account page. This may mean that the card redemptions are similar to Capital One or Amex FreedomPass, where you receive a statement credit for a ticket purchase. Alternately, it may function more like the old Capital One or the current Merrill+ plans, where you need to contact the reward center to book a ticket.

Bottom line: 2% isn’t too bad, but you should be able to get that return or better with other cards. With this type of card, you generally need to redeem at the top of each reward level, or your reward percentage effectively declines. (Those 20,000 points are for a ticket “up to” $400 value. If your ticket only costs $250, you’ll still pay 20,000 points.) We’re less than impressed with these fake miles cards, but for some travelers they can be useful travel reward tools. Finally, if you’re a new customer interested in this card... wait a bit. The U.S. Bank website doesn’t yet even seem to have an application page available for this card.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Capital One Updates

We’re still not huge Capital One fans, yet we get more inquiries about their credit cards than any other topic on this blog. So we thought it was time to re-survey their offerings and post an update.

As we’ve said before, we think their reward schemes are generally unimpressive (not bad, just not great). But they are also one of a very few cards that do not add foreign-exchange fees, making them a top choice for international travel. For most purposes, that’s the only time we use our Capital One cards.

Capital One’s website lists 28 different cards (yes, 28) and most seem like pretty much their old standards, but two new (to us) cards caught our eye.

  • The latest version of the No Hassle Miles Rewards card offers 2 “miles” per dollar after $1,000 a month in spending, with one mile otherwise. (Capital One “miles” aren’t real airline miles that you can transfer into an airline account. They’re simply points you can redeem for statement credit for ticket purchases.)
  • The Orbitz Visa Signature offers Capital One’s usual 1 point per dollar, except it gives you 3 points/dollar for purchases from Orbitz. In general, 1 Capital One point translates to a 1% rebate/travel credit. So if you use Orbitz a lot, this would be equivalent to a 3% return – pretty good in today’s reward environment.

Many frequent-flyer commentators value traditional airline miles at about 1.5 cents each. With real airline miles, you need to make sure you maximize your miles (ie: don’t burn 25,000 miles for a $200 ticket), or you could end up having less value than Capital One’s 1%. We, however, feel we use our airline miles at about 2 cents each, so with other types of reward cards for cash or points, we look for a 2% or better return.

We’ve discussed points/miles/reward cards frequently. Browse through our archives on the topic, and you’ll also see some suggestions for cards for international travel.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rip-Off Alert: EarthLink Internet Services

On one of our recent travels, we spent a month in a location where we couldn’t easily get wireless or other high-speed internet service, but which did have a landline phone. We researched options, and settled on EarthLink’s dialup internet – for one month of service.

We did NOT set up recurring service, but EarthLink continues to charge our credit card (and we continue to contest the charge). EarthLink has not responded to our cancellation and refund requests, and their only option for cancellation is via postal mail.

So we’d suggest: 1) As always, Buyer Beware, and 2) Avoid EarthLink. If you’re looking for short-term or dial-up internet options while traveling, look elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Opinions About a la Carte Pricing

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth lately in the travel media about fee-based ancillary revenue. It’s frequently called an “a la carte” pricing strategy – sell a basic ticket, but charge extra for checked bags, a preferred seat, meals, etc. These being aspects of the travel experience that the airlines now believe are optional.

Some commentators suggest that in many cases the added fees are the only revenues that are keeping some airlines alive. And of course, Europe’s Ryanair has been successful from the beginning with a model that stresses seemingly dirt cheap fares, but the customer pays for EVERYTHING additional – seat selection, baggage, food. It’s gotten so extreme that Ryanair itself had a tongue-in-cheek contest last month asking consumers what they thought the airline should charge for next.

But that’s the Brits, and if you know the Brits, you know that they have different expectations about the travel experience than Americans do. So from a U.S. consumer standpoint, the biggest challenge with varying add-on fees is comparing apples to apples. Only a few new “metasearch” websites are just now beginning to experiment with showing fares plus add-on pricing options.

Our view is that the airlines at some point risk alienating their customers so much that there will be a backlash. But then, unless everyone starts flying Southwest (with their wonderfully transparent pricing and terms), consumers don’t have many options as long as every other major airline is playing the same game. (Of course, domestic dinosaur airlines have been alienating their customers with awful customer service for years now. That culture is so ingrained that it’s hard to conceive of how they can alienate customers even more. Joe Sharkey just posted a great article on that topic.)

So is this an opportunity for one airline to differentiate itself and go back to offering service and amenities all in one package/price? The only current hint of a crack in the armor of the a-la-carte pricing model may be Air Canada. The airline recently booted its CEO, and installed a new boss who publicly claims to be reevaluating the a-la-carte pricing strategy.

Maybe that would be the other way out of this mess – for one of the big airlines to scrap all fees, and become hugely successful as customers rushed to support that airline. Oh, wait, that’s Southwest, isn’t it? And Southwest is expanding aggressively as other airlines are cutting capacity and plunging deeper into unprofitability.

So here’s our only slightly tongue-in-cheek prediction: Five years from now the U.S. will have five dominant airlines – Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, and two other airlines created from some combination/merger/bankruptcy of the existing five majors (Deltanental? UniCon?). In addition, there will be several new airlines based on the Ryanair and easyJet models (with commodity-level prices and a passel of add-on fees), as well as some existing smaller/regional carriers (such as Spirit, Midwest, AirTran, Allegiant, etc.) that will adopt the no-frills model.

One other possibility is that the U.S. government opens up the domestic airline industry to increased foreign ownership, or allows international carriers to fly within the U.S. Washington seems to be moving toward a governing model that may let some huge businesses fail (GM) or become more foreign owned (Chrysler/Fiat). If the dinosaurs (United, USAir, Continental, American, Delta) are to survive, they may need to shake up their business models by a lot more than adding fees.

Hungry for a great airline meal? That'll be 15 bucks, please.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Canadians vs. Americans in Cuba

We seem to be on a roll with Cuba posts.

Just read an article in the Canadian Globe and Mail about Canadians worried about an “Invasion of the American Tourists” to Cuba. It must have been a slow news day, or some Canadians are really whiney. Or is Canada upset about losing tourist dollars flowing into Toronto and Montreal from the currently “illegal” American tourists to Cuba who fly from those Canadian cities?

From what we saw in Havana and elsewhere, the Italian and German tourists were generally a lot more annoying than were Americans. The Canadians there were certainly “good” tourists, as were the many Scandinavians and Brits we encountered. It really seems disingenuous of the Canadian visitors to Cuba to want to keep it “[their] own little island.” The article does go on to point out that many other Canadians are just fine with American tourism to Cuba.

Travel is great for everyone. It broadens our horizons in much more than a physical sense. Certainly I don’t like some tourists, from any country – but that’s about the individuals, not classing them as a dislikable group. And having lived in tourist towns in the U.S., we have also witnessed the “idiot tourist” mentality first hand – but mostly those folks have given us a laugh much more often than they have disturbed us.

Oh, well, as we said. Must have been a slow news day in Canada.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Travel Twitter Tips

The world is full of too much noise. The web is full of too much babble. And sites like Twitter just make it worse. We actually like Twitter, but are already getting sick of reading “I went shopping” tweets from folks we like to refer to as “nit-twits.” Here is the best article we’ve read about using Twitter: “Twitter Tips from 25 Tweeting Travelers.” Most of the advice boils down to: Please say something useful or just shut up.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Airline Brand Naming Gone Very Wrong (or At Least Very Funny)

We just saw the news that a new airline, Baltia, has received U.S. Dept of Transportation permission to fly from New York JFK to St. Petersburg, Russia. The report we saw on themoscowtimes.com indicates the airline will begin operations sometime this summer.

What we find hilarious, though, is the airline’s name for its frequent flyer program – Freeloaders. We really don’t think this is tongue-in-cheek, but rather a cheerful reminder that some things just don’t translate well, even in this interconnected world.

We also wonder if they chose the name “Baltia” simply because the dot-com domain name was available. OK, we get the Baltic part of the name. And we wish them all the success in the world – but we’d also suggest they hire someone for their marketing department.

We can’t wait to sign up and get our Freeloader card.

Monday, April 06, 2009

U.S. to Cuba Travel, a New Blog Poll, and Win a Cuba Guidebook

Ever since we were lucky enough to travel to Cuba several years ago, we’ve been fascinated with the country. Now, with the strong probability of the easing of travel restrictions for all Americans traveling to the island, we thought we’d start a new blog poll. The question: When travel restrictions are finally eliminated for American travel to Cuba, what U.S. airline will be the first to announce non-stop service from the U.S. to Havana?

Vote on the right, but if you’d also like to leave your guess as a comment, we’ll send a Cuba travel guidebook to the first person who guesses the ultimate airline correctly (make sure you leave an email address/contact info so we can contact you if you’re the winner).

Thursday, April 02, 2009

More Misc. Travel News

Results from last month’s “Worst Airline Customer Service” blog poll:
United – 46% of voters
American – 15%
Continental – 7%
USAir – 7%
Delta/Northwest – 7%
They’re all terrible – 38% (Multiple choices were allowed.)
Interesting to note that JetBlue, Alaska, Frontier, Virgin America, and Southwest didn’t receive any votes as the worst. Totally unscientific, but hopefully entertaining.

BAA, the operator of most of the airports in the UK (seven of ‘em), has been ordered by the Competition Commission to sell three of its airports – Gatwick, Stansted, and either Glasgow or Edinburgh.

The Middle Seat blog has a short story on the inevitable – cell phones in airplanes. The EU currently allows it, while the U.S. does not. But we’ll bet with enough pressure from U.S. airlines that want every possible source of extra revenue, that the U.S. ban will eventually give way. If you have any doubt, note that American Airlines just announced it will install WiFi on all planes.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Loch Ness Monster (Photo) Anniversary

It’s approaching April Fool’s Day, so we thought we’d post one of the great April events from 75 years ago.

On April 21, 1934, the most famous photograph of the Loch Ness Monster was published in the UK Daily Mail. The so-called “Surgeon’s Photograph” was supposedly taken by London gynecologist Robert Wilson. Sixty years later, the photo was revealed as definitively being a hoax. The photo was of a toy submarine with a sculpted “head and neck” made from plastic-wood modeling material. Rather than revealing a monster, the image showed an object estimated to be no more than three feet long.

The Surgeons Photo of the Loch Ness Monster.

Yet the legend of the “monster” began long before the photograph. Where did those stories come from? Humanity needs its myths and legends – real or imagined. The waters of Loch Ness, and the mystery and drama of the Scottish Highlands, lend themselves perfectly to a legend of a monster. Who can say what’s real and imagined, especially in the mists of time.

Scotland in the mists – any legend is possible.