Thursday, February 26, 2009

Airline Customer Service, Flying in the “Idiot Cabin,” and a New Blog Poll

There’s a post over at One Mile At A Time (and several other travel blogs and news sites) about a United flight attendant calling passengers in economy “idiots,” and being overheard by a passenger listening to the cockpit channel. On every United flight we’ve taken in the past year (in Economy Plus, which is still in the “idiot cabin”), that’s pretty much how we’ve been treated, so it’s really not a surprise to hear the FAs actually saying it. The best commentary about United’s service, specifically, was on a post at Wing and a Prayer.

But is there something else going on here?

Twice recently, we’ve ridiculed the Association of Flight Attendants for making inane comments (not specifically referencing United) about flight attendants’ duties being primarily that of “safety professionals” in the sky.

We’re beginning to wonder if the Association of Flight Attendants is intentionally putting out moronic statements so as to lower our (already low) expectations regarding actual customer service in the cabin. Maybe if they get enough of us believing that their real duties are as overgrown hall monitors, we won’t even expect courtesy any more.

If that is the mindset of the FA’s union, and that message is being passed on to FAs at most airlines, is it any wonder that there’s an adversarial attitude between airline management, pilots, flight attendants, phone reps, gate agents, baggage handlers, and ... oh, yes, customers.

So with spring in the air, and April Fool’s Day approaching, we’ve added a new poll to this blog. Over in the right column, voice your opinions about customer service on U.S. airlines. Poll closes on ... April Fool’s Day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New Discover Escape Card

Discover has introduced a new travel-rewards credit card. The Escape Card’s rewards are similar to many other “fake miles” cards, such as some Capital One, Merrill, and American Express cards. The Escape Card gives you 2 miles for every $1 spent – working out to a 2% reward ratio (but only 1% if you want to redeem your miles for cash instead). That’s better than some of the other cards’ reward ratios. However, like the other fake-miles cards, instead of actual air miles you are given credit that can be applied to any travel purchase made with the card.

Offsetting that 2% reward ratio is a $60 annual fee, although you receive 1,000 “bonus miles” every month for the first year. (There have been some reports of the 1,000 miles bonus for 25 months, but we can not find that offer on Discover’s website.)

But the intriguing part is the inclusion of primary car rental insurance (as well lost or damaged luggage insurance, travel delay insurance, and trip cancellation insurance). Note that for international use, Discover will be instituting a 2% foreign-currency-exchange fee in May. (Outside the U.S., Discover cards are currently only accepted in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and China.)

We actually believe this type of fake-miles-reward card can be useful for some types of spenders and travelers. For infrequent flyers looking for some “incentive” to save for that basic economy ticket, these cards might be useful, and may have more perceived travel value than the same level of cash rebate.

Nonetheless, we think there are other cards with which you can usually obtain rewards that are better than 2%. If a flat 2% (for all purchases) is all you want, you can get that with the Schwab Visa (with no annual fee). Still, if you like Discover’s products, the Escape Card may be worth looking into – that primary car rental insurance is quite enticing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Customer Service on U.S. Carriers - Right From the Horse's Mouth

Just a couple of weeks ago, we posted about flight attendants’ new “main responsibility.” We quoted Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, who said that the union, “views Wi-Fi as a potential threat to flight attendants’ ability to keep order in the cabin. Our duties involve securing the safety of the cabin ... the main requirement that flight attendants are on board for.”

Now, we read this quote (from a post on Upgrade:TravelBetter, in an article about USAirways eliminating fees for coffee and soft drinks).

“Flight attendants are safety professionals first and foremost,” [Mike Flores, president of the US Airways’ unit of the Association of Flight Attendants] said. “This decision by the company will help return us to that status rather than being salespeople in the aisle of the airplane.”

Yet in another report on the same topic, Flores is quoted as saying: “The bottom line is that the airline industry is not the transportation industry. It’s a customer service industry and if you’re not pleasing your customers then you’ve got a problem.”

If it’s ever been possible, we’re speechless.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

ATM Foreign-Withdrawal Fees Update

Several banks actually seem to be lowering fees or reimbursing ATM-owner-imposed fees. (Isn’t competition – especially from the internet banks – a wonderful thing?) So rather than list a bunch of small banks offering 0% or 1% fees, or that reimburse ATM-owner fees, we thought we’d highlight some of the Wall of Shame Banks – banks that still charge exorbitant fees (sometimes as much as 3% plus $3 per transaction!) just so you can get your money from a wall. (Note that the high fees may not apply to all cards from these banks, and that there are generally no fees for withdrawals within each bank’s own network.) The banks to watch out for include: Chase, Citibank, Citizens, HSBC, ING, PNC, US Bank, and Wells Fargo.

There are really several types of ATM fees banks can charge:
1 – A fee from your bank (the card-issuing bank) to use any “foreign” ATM. In bank-speak, foreign means any ATM not affiliated with one of their branches. It is charged by your bank, not the ATM owner. (Some banks do not charge ATM fees for withdrawals within their “partner” networks. For example, Bank of America customers do not get charged ATM fees for withdrawals from Barclays in the UK, Deutsche Bank in Germany, and several other international banks.) A few banks do not charge any fees to use a foreign ATM.
2 – Some banks also have a “foreign”-foreign ATM fee that is higher for withdrawals from international ATMs than from domestic ATMs that are out of their network. Again, this will be a fee imposed by your bank. And again, some banks do not charge any foreign-foreign ATM fees.
3 – ATM-owner fees. These are the fees that pop up on an ATM screen saying the ATM you’re using will add a $2.50 (or whatever) fee to your cash withdrawal. Surprisingly, many international ATM machines do not impose these owner fees. These are the fees that banks like Schwab or Bank of Internet advertise they will refund to you. Most other banks do not rebate or refund these fees, so even if your bank doesn’t add any of its own fees, you could end up paying this one. (In the worst cases, you might be hit by a high-percentage fee from your bank for using a foreign ATM, plus get this ATM-owner fee added in as well. In that case, we suggest you get another bank.)
4 – Finally, there’s the possibility of a hidden “fee” you’ll never know about. That is the fact that you never really know what exchange rate a bank uses to convert your foreign-currency purchase or withdrawal into U.S. dollars. It may be the Interbank rate, or may be slightly higher.

If you’re planning on accessing cash from ATMs while traveling, and your bank charges ridiculous fees, we suggest opening an online checking account with the likes of Bank of Internet, Fidelity, Schwab, or State Farm. Make sure the online checking account has no monthly fees, and then fund that account with just enough money for your travels. This is probably much safer than carrying a debit card tied to your regular checking account (especially if you have a large balance). If your debit card were lost or stolen, your entire bank balance could be wiped out.

(This is part 3 of a short 3-part series of updates on international credit card and ATM use. Part 1. Part 2.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dynamic Currency Conversion

Just say no.

The practice seems most prevalent in Europe, but some merchants (anywhere in the world) will offer to charge your credit-card payment in U.S. dollars rather than in the local currency. Don’t do it. This “dynamic currency conversion” can cost you as much as 5% more for your purchase, as the exchange rate the merchant uses is usually much higher than the Interbank exchange rate. This is even worse than the 3% most Visas or MasterCards charge. Again, simply refuse. Visa representatives say that any merchant accepting their cards must allow the customer to pay in local currency.

Also watch out for international purchases through PayPal. On a recent purchase, we were offered to convert the price (in British Pounds) to U.S. dollars “at the PayPal exchange rate.” We declined, as it would have been much less favorable than using the open-market Interbank rate. On our $35 purchase, the PayPal exchange rate would have added more than $2 to our transaction. Can you spell “rip-off”? Just another reason to dislike (and avoid) PayPal. If you must use them, decline the PayPal exchange rate if possible (some PayPal merchants seem to offer this option, some don’t), and if paying with a credit card (whether through PayPal or directly) use a 0% foreign-conversion fee card such as Capital One or Schwab.

(This is part 2 of a short 3-part series of updates on international credit card and ATM use. Part 1. Part 3.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ryanair Inflight Cell Service

It’s a sign (unfortunately) of the times. European cheapo carrier Ryanair has installed in-flight cell-phone service on 20 of its aircraft. According to the report on Breaking Travel News, only six people will be able to use their mobile phones at one time. Since Ryanair has virtually no service that it doesn’t charge for, maybe all the galleys on the aircraft will be empty, and the cell-phone users can stand next to each other and the flight attendants and bother them instead of other passengers.

Ryanir will become the second airline offering in-flight cell-phone service, following Emirates which began the service last March. Breaking Travel News says that bmi has been testing text messaging, and that British Air will allow text messaging on some flights. According to the article, “Other carriers that have begun testing inflight technology include Air Portugal, Qantas, Air France, Oman Air and Royal Jordanian. Meanwhile Lufthansa has ruled out using the service.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Credit Card Foreign-Exchange Fees Update – Discover and Other Cards

Despite the fact that the Discover credit card does not have as much international presence as does Visa, MasterCard, or America Express (it’s only accepted internationally in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, China, and Central America), it was one of the few cards that did not add foreign currency transaction fees when converting purchases made in other currencies. No longer. According to Discover’s terms and conditions, the card will begin charging 2% beginning with billing periods ending after May 1, 2009.

Thus, the only credit cards we know of not charging any forex conversion fees (0%) are Schwab and Capital One. There are several cards from small banks and credit unions that charge 1%, but realistically for most consumers, practically all popular Visas and MasterCards charge 3%, and Amex charges 2.7%. (FlyerGuide Wiki has an overview of credit, debit, and ATM forex fees, but we have not independently verified all their information – it is a user-edited Wiki, after all.)

Technically, the 0% that Schwab and Capital One advertise means that those banks are absorbing the 1% that Visa and MasterCard tack on above the Interbank exchange rate for ALL foreign-currency conversions. Those 3% fees from most banks means that in addition to Visa/MC’s 1%, those banks are adding another 2%.

(This is part 1 of a short 3-part series of updates on international credit card and ATM use. Part 2. Part 3.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hilton American Express Card Changes

It looks like it’s official. The Hilton HHonors American Express card has changed its reward ratios. The new terms offer “6 points for Hilton Family Hotels, Supermarkets, Drug Stores, Gas Stations, Home & Wireless Phone, Cable & Satellite TV, and Internet Service Providers.” 3 points for other purchases. This is up from 5 points previously in several categories, but Restaurants and the Post Office have been eliminated from the higher reward tier.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal to us. We still think the Hilton Amex is one of the best reward cards available, and an extra reward point is always a nice thing. The big unfortunate change is the elimination of restaurants from the top 6-point tier. It’s getting harder to find reward credit cards offering more than 1% for restaurant purchases. (The Costco Amex and the Chase Business card both still seem to offer 3% at restaurants.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act

A bipartisan bill (HR 874) that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 4, 2009. The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act would prohibit the President of the United States from regulating or forbidding travel to or from Cuba by U.S. citizens and legal residents, except in times of war between the two countries or of imminent danger to public health or the safety of U.S. travelers.

Americans have been forbidden to travel to Cuba since the 1963 travel ban. And in 2004, former President Bush tightened the ban on Cuban-American travel.

Americans without family on the island are not permitted to travel unless sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, with a few exemptions for researchers and journalists. During his campaign, President Obama said he would ease back on Bush’s restrictions on travel to Cuba. “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years,” Obama proclaimed to a crowd while in Miami. He also promised “unrestricted rights” regarding travel to the island for Cuban-Americans – but it was unclear as to whether that would apply to other Americans. The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act takes Obama’s promise one step further. The bill calls for ending the ban for all Americans, not just for those of Cuban origin.

Old Postcard: Havana, Cuba, in the 1930s

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Travel Photography

We recently received an email note from a friend in Sweden, and he asked about the photo gear we travel with, and what we use for our books and websites. Which got us to thinking (a dangerous precedent). Here are our preferences for travel photography equipment.

Francesca has a “big” Nikon digital SLR, with 18-55, 55-200, and 70-300 zoom lenses. Despite its significant bulk and weight, she takes it on pretty much all trips. She loves photography for its own sake, as well as being inspiration for her paintings.

Back in the slide-film days, Kenneth used to be a “semi-pro” photographer, selling numerous photos to magazines to accompany his articles. He still has several useless film camera bodies as well as too many nice lenses that he’ll never use again. Yet in this digital age, he’s become enamored of “amateur” cameras. His two digital cameras are an older Olympus Stylus waterproof model, which is used primarily for skiing, hiking, and anywhere around water. In addition, he uses a small Nikon Coolpix that will fit in a shirt pocket, and it sees a lot of use in restaurants (without flash) for food and wine photos as well as being a general travel camera.

Kenneth is also addicted to video and filmmaking, and has three video cameras: A small Canon mini-DV video camera for travel; an old Sony Hi-8 video camera with amazing low-light capabilities and for intentionally capturing a grainy, “old-video” look; and a “big-gun” Panasonic DVX100 for filmmaking. (Weirdly, we’ve never been interested in producing or posting online video.)

We carry a passel of camera chips (and video tapes), because we generally don’t travel with a computer except on driving trips. We take spare batteries for every camera, and chargers for everything.

When we return home, we make sure every image is stored in at least two places – usually our main computer and an external hard drive – before we erase any camera memory chips. Trust us, this is important. We have “accidentally” deleted whole photo files and were very glad to have had another backup.

We’ll discuss composition, lighting, and other techniques in future articles.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hilton Hotels for Lufthansa Miles

We seriously doubt that Hilton and Lufthansa have been reading our blog for ideas, but something we mentioned several months ago has actually happened.

According to this Hilton web page, members of Lufthansa’s Miles & More frequent flyer program can book Hilton hotel rooms with miles. The entry page states that a minimum of 13,500 miles are required.

At least some companies are thinking outside the box – a necessity in these current economic times.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Flight Attendants’ Main Responsibility

And you thought it was customer service.

(Spoiler alert: We know, we know. We said we were going to be less grumpy on this blog. But this news got our attention.)

The New York Times recently ran an article about the roll-out of new Wi-Fi services on planes, noting that some travelers appreciate it while others find it a distraction. But the really weird part of the article is a quote from Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. Caldwell said the union “views Wi-Fi as a potential threat to flight attendants’ ability to keep order in the cabin.”

“Our duties involve securing the safety of the cabin, not acting as censor police,” Caldwell is quoted as saying. “It just adds another layer of duties inside the cabin, which take away from the main requirement that flight attendants are on board for.”

In addition, Caldwell said the flight attendants’ union also feared that terrorists plotting a scheme on a plane could use Wi-Fi to communicate with others on the plane or on the ground. “Right now, their ability to do that on board is limited,” she said. “But we can see an instance in which this becomes a potential threat.”

What????? Isn’t the TSA supposed to be keeping terrorists off airplanes? Don’t we have air marshals on most flights? Aren’t flight attendants supposed to be on board for customer service? The “MAIN REQUIREMENT” that flight attendants now have is “securing the safety of the cabin”???

The Times article finishes by noting that “airlines in the United States are catching up to many foreign carriers, like Lufthansa, which has offered [Wi-Fi] service for the past several years.”

Oh, sorry, Ms. Caldwell, I guess we forgot about all the terrorist activities on Lufthansa that have occurred since they installed Wi-Fi.

Does anyone wonder why fliers dislike just about everything regarding travel on domestic carriers?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Premium Economy Overview

Does anyone remember when airlines offered “Coach” seats instead of “Economy”? Prices were at one time regulated, seat pitch was usually 34-36”, the word “Coach” held a modicum of cachet, and in-flight service was actually personal and attentive. Airlines (and their employees) still had the words “customer service” in their vocabulary back then.

SAS DC-6. Hats, suits, service. Photo by L'Écolier on Wikipedia.

Today, there aren’t many travel experiences worse than Air-Sardine-Can. Yes, we know there wasn’t any in-flight video back in Coach days, but most U.S. carriers don’t offer anything more on domestic flights now anyway.

If you are as dissatisfied with airline Economy seats and service as we are, yet can’t seem to justify the cost of Business Class tickets, there’s an in-between option you may want to consider. Called various names by the different airlines (Economy Plus, Premium Economy, Economy Comfort, etc.), this between-Economy-and-Business service aims to provide more leg room, better in-flight amenities, and sometimes additional on-the-ground benefits that can make life easier at check-in and boarding. We’ll call it PremEcon.

The PremEcon concept is well established, but changes are always ongoing (some airlines are adding the service, amenities change, etc.), so do your specific research to confirm all this with the airline you’re planning to fly.

Prices for PremEcon vary widely, from as little as $15-30 additional (some United and JetBlue flights, depending on route) to as much as four times regular Economy. In many instances, PremEcon seems to be about twice as expensive as regular Economy. By comparison, Business Class fares can easily be five times or more the cost of Economy. As for amenities, the best PremEcon products today are roughly comparable to what international Business Class was a dozen years ago, and the best PremEcon is often very similar to current domestic First Class seats.

In the broadest terms, we have found three different “flavors” of PremEcon: 1) Just more leg room (and the same physical Economy seat), with no added amenities over regular Economy; 2) The opposite, with quite a few amenities (including better seats themselves) but not much increase in leg room, and; 3) Airlines offering both significantly increased leg room and added amenities. Most of the airlines in the latter two categories offer a physically separated PremEcon cabin, while in the first category the seats are generally within the main Economy section.

Seat pitch numbers (the distance from one seat anchor to the next, which is not the amount of leg room) were compiled from the airlines’ websites as well as from independent seat-rating resources such as SeatGuru. We have not taken tape measures to any seats ourselves. As for seat width, we do not mention it unless it exceeds the industry standard of 17-18” for most Economy seats.

For comparison purposes, most domestic First Class seats today have seat pitch of about 36-38” and are 18.5-21” wide. International Business and First seats are much bigger and more luxurious than that. Note that, in general, domestic flights on U.S. carriers have two cabins: economy and business/first. The domestic PremEcon seats listed in the first section below are pretty much just regular Econ seats with a bit more legroom. International flights, especially on international carriers, may have as many as four classes in separate cabins: economy, premium economy, business, and first.

In the first category (more leg room only) are:
United – Economy Plus offers 34-36” seat pitch (roughly 3-5” of additional legroom over United’s and the industry’s standard Economy seat pitch of 31-32”). The upgrade price varies by route and distance.
JetBlue – All seats have at least 34” pitch (on their primary aircraft, the A320), and some seats with pitch up to 38” are available for additional fees.
Midwest – Signature Seats have 34-36” seat pitch and are 22” wide, at an up-charge from the standard 32”-pitch Econ seats.
Virgin America – A few 38”-pitch seats are available for an additional charge. These Main Cabin Select seats also offer complimentary food and drink, priority ground services, and other extras. (We couldn’t decide if Virgin America should be in this category, or below where we list airlines offering enhanced services. We left it here because it’s only a few seats in exit rows, and not a separate cabin.)

The second category (better seats and added amenities, but not all that much more leg room) includes: (Amenities might include extra baggage allowance, lounge access, priority check-in, complimentary beverages, better meals, better entertainment systems, or refundable fares.)
Icelandair – Offers a PremEcon product that has only 33” of seat pitch, but the seats are 21” wide and amenities include lounge access, priority check-in, enhanced meals, and more. This appears to be their Business seat but with less leg room than in the Business cabin.
Virgin Blue – PremEcon seats offer only 33-34” of pitch, but amenities include lounge access, better meals, more entertainment options, extra baggage allowance, and more.
Air Tahiti Nui – Air Tahiti doesn’t claim to have a PremEcon product, but their standard Econ seats and service may offer comfort and in-cabin amenities equivalent to that of the above two airlines. These standard Econ seats have 33” pitch and are 19” wide.
(Like Air Tahiti, above, Thai Airways seems to have several planes with up to 34” pitch in their standard Econ seats. Thai’s regular services and amenities are reported to be exceptional.)

Finally, the third category of additional leg room, better seats, and added amenities: (We have emphasized a few of the amenities each airline offers, but many have additional perks – priority boarding, better meals, lounge access, comfort kits, complimentary drinks, better entertainment, extra frequent-flyer miles for booking PremEcon, extra baggage allowances, and more.)
Open Skies/L’Avion – This British Air subsidiary has the greatest seat pitch of any PremEcon product at 52”, with a seat width of 20”. Excellent seats, easy boarding (the airline only offers PremEcon and Business classes), but not lounge access. (Some reporters have speculated about the future of Open Skies with the falloff in business travel in the current economic environment.)
British Airways – Seat pitch 38”, width 18.5”. Average number of added amenities, mostly in the cabin.
SAS – Seat pitch 37”, width 18.3”. A few extra amenities, but mostly just a better seat. SAS’s product has seemed to be on the high-end price-wise in our research.
bmi – Seat pitch 49”, width 21”. Not as many “other” amenities beyond the seats, but look at that seat pitch and width. (bmi has recently announced reductions in U.S. service.)
Virgin Atlantic – Seat pitch 38”, width 21”. Nice in-cabin amenities, plus lots of other perks, including check-in, lounges, etc. A long-established, well-respected product.
EVA Airlines – Seat pitch 38”. Benefits seem mostly in the seat itself, but typical Asian airline on-board amenities appear excellent.
Air New Zealand – Seat pitch 38-40”, width to 18.5”. Additional amenities (many) appear to be on the plane, not at the airport with check-in, etc.
Qantas – Seat pitch 38-42”, width 19.5”. Priority check-in and boarding; wide range of in-cabin amenities. (Not available on all planes nor all flights. SeatGuru reports the 42” pitch as being on some seats on the new A380.)
ANA – Seat pitch 38”, width 18.5”. Benefits seem mostly in the seat itself (including leg rests!), but normal Asian airline on-board amenities appear excellent. This seems to be only offered on some routes.
Japan Airlines – Seat pitch 38”. JAL has added their PremEcon product to more North American routes. Incredible-looking PremEcon seat design and in-flight amenities, plus lounge access.
Air France – While a different type of PremEcon product is currently available on a few non-U.S. routes, Air France is adding a new PremEcon section to nearly all aircraft in late 2009. Seat pitch for the new product is announced to be 38”.
V Australia – Keep an eye on this new one from the Virgin folks. PremEcon seats are 38” pitch, 20” wide. Better seats, better on-board amenities, but no on-ground benefits. The first flights from Australia to the U.S. are scheduled for early 2009.
Thai Airways – Only on the Los Angeles-Bangkok route with their A340 aircraft. 42” pitch, 19” wide, many extra perks.

Air Cubana does not appear to offer Premium Economy. Photo by Chalmers Butterfield on Wikipedia.

There may be other PremEcon products out there, but it may take some digging on your part to find them, especially as some are only regional products. As examples: China/Mandarin Airlines appear to offer a PremEcon product on some inter-Asia flights, but we can find no details. LAN has introduced PremEcon on some flights within South America – it appears to offer a lot of amenities but also seems very expensive. KLM offers Europe Select seats with 2” more legroom and additional perks, but only for inter-Europe flights.

We’ve written enthusiastically about Premium Economy before, and remain convinced that it can be a high-value product for travellers seeking more comfort without the expense of Business Class. We’d also love to hear of any updates, additions, or changes that our readers are aware of.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Some Good Airline News

We’ve previously mused about how provincial Americans can be. Even experienced world travelers can get stuck in the mode of assuming that the only airlines out there are U.S. or European, and that they’re all in financial trouble. So we’re pleased to note that elsewhere in the world, some airlines are making a go of it. The four most recent headlines from Alternative Airline News:

Ethiopia looks set to get a new domestic airline.
Mon 2-Feb-2009

Air Ethiopia is the brainchild of Capt. Abera and will operate Ethiopian domestic slights, possibly later this month.

BOA Bolivian airlines set to take off.

Mon 2-Feb-2009

New Bolivian state owned airline BOA looks good to go, at last....

Indochina Airlines flies high.

Mon 2-Feb-2009

Indochina Airlines of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam has an encouraging first two months of operation.

Adria Airways fleet now complete.
Fri 30-Jan-2009
Adria Airways take delivery of fleet completing CRJ900.