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. 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

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.