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
'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 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 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.