We’ve recently relocated to the southern Rocky Mountains, and our closest real airport is now Albuquerque – an hour and a half away. Denver is 6 hours away, and every other large airport (SLC, PHX, DFW) is twice that distance.
We just read that Delta’s flight attendants rejected unionization. (Stay with us, we’ll bring this all together in a second.) And the rumors are swirling about Delta creating a “Premium Economy” cabin (or whatever they end up calling it) on international flights. Both changes make us much more amenable to flying them. As much as we’re liberal Democrats (in spirit, if not necessarily in voter registration), we’re surprisingly anti Union.
ABQ is heavily dominated by Southwest, an airline we really don’t care for. Every other major airline (except Alaska, which some would say isn’t really a major), has flights from Albuquerque to its various hubs – Continental to Houston, American to Dallas, USAir to Phoenix, etc. But discounting (bad pun) Southwest, our personal next-best options are United and Delta. We’ve avoided Delta because... I’m not even completely sure why. We certainly like United for Economy Plus (and only for E+), and have grown fond of Alaska and Frontier, which, alas, don’t have any realistic options from our new base near ABQ.
How we wish for JetBlue or Virgin America – but if wishes were fishes.... So, “our” airlines from ABQ are more likely to be United or Delta, and Delta will now be back on the list. As much as we detest flying cattle class, we can suffer through a domestic coach connection to an international gateway/flight if we might have the option of decent legroom for that very long over-the-water travel.
Middle America (and despite large populations, cities like Denver will never be big enough, or, in Denver’s case “on the coast” [unless the big California earthquake ever comes]) has very few international non-stop flights. Seattle – one of our two previous closest airports – has many international routes. Denver has basically two – London Heathrow (United and British Airways) and Frankfurt (Lufthansa). Albuquerque – population near 1 million – has none. Heck, ABQ doesn’t even have a non-stop to New York, nor Boston, nor Seattle.
Other middle America cities are in the same boat (plane?) too. Unless it’s from an airline’s midwest hub (Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis) there just aren’t many non-stop international flights from anywhere except the coasts. Which grudgingly makes a little bit of sense. Nonetheless, we’re whining, and would like at least an ABQ-NYC flight. But as long as Southwest has a lock on the airport, we don’t really expect that to happen.
All this reminds us that air travel isn’t some right, but rather a privilege. We aren’t guaranteed low fares, free carry-on bags, or wonderful schedules from every airport. We are at the mercy of each individual airline business, and those airlines are in business to maximize returns for shareholders. This is not an altruistic industry, but then neither is it an industry that the government (sorry Senators Schumer, Cardin; Secretary LaHood) should be meddling in. And if the government (which is, or should be, the people) really thinks they should meddle, well, let’s just re-regulate the whole thing.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
We’ve recently relocated to the southern Rocky Mountains, and our closest real airport is now Albuquerque – an hour and a half away. Denver is 6 hours away, and every other large airport (SLC, PHX, DFW) is twice that distance.
Monday, September 27, 2010
It’s getting interesting again. Southwest Airlines has announced its intention to buy AirTran. Even though the news is only hours old, there have already been a lot of words spilled about routes, hubs, and the like. The airlines even already have the obligatory merger website up.
Much of the news centers about integration of aircraft, and about how Southwest now gets access to Atlanta – a big draw for business travelers. Southwest is attractive to business travelers? With no assigned seats? With all-coach seating?
Or does this mean that Southwest might just adopt some of AirTran’s approach (assigned seats, two cabins, baggage fees, etc.)? Any way you look at it, this seems a huge change in the U.S. airline industry.
UPDATE: Just got deeper into the merger FAQ page. Southwest states: “It is our intent” (ad nauseam) that there will be no assigned seats; no baggage fees; no change fees; only a single class of service. Basically, we see this as just a bigger Southwest – an airline we already don’t want to fly.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Now we know. For the absolute best ticket prices, book your airline flights 8 weeks in advance, in the afternoon.
A couple of Japanese economists have concluded (via this wonderful formula... A = gUG + min(k - g, (1 - g)(1 - r) ...or some such nonsense) that the best price-window for ticket purchases is exactly 8 weeks ahead. In the afternoon. These folks must not travel all that much. Let's hope that no public funding (even Japanese public funding) went into this "research."
Aside from the useless junk science, there are far too many variables for this to have any significant validity. Furthermore, wanna bet that some airlines will try raising their prices 8 weeks and 1 day before the departure date? Just because of this study?
Anybody who pays any attention to this crap really needs to get a life.
Are you a Value shopper or a Price shopper?
A price shopper searches out the best price – no matter the circumstances. WalMart, Spirit Airlines, Dollar rental cars. Value shoppers look for the best value for their money – no matter who the vendor is (although many times there’s a loyalty value, too).
WalMart may have the best price, and also sometimes the best value, but then so might Tiffany’s. Hertz may be more expensive, but is quality customer service and a no-hassles experience worth Hertz’s higher prices?
A recent poll by travel writer Chris Elliott got us thinking. In his admittedly non-scientific survey, the top-rated rental car companies were Hertz, Avis, and National. At the bottom of the list were Dollar, Payless, and Enterprise.
Weirdly, in a recent J.D. Powers survey, Enterprise came out on top, followed by National and Hertz. The bottom three were Thrifty, Dollar, and Payless.
We’re not here to, really, discuss car rental companies, but we will say that we’ve never had a problem with Hertz. The one rental we’ve had with Enterprise was arranged through a friend/employee (so that may not be a fair comparison) and the experience was OK. And our experiences with Dollar have always left a lot to be desired. So for car rentals, we are definitely Value shoppers – we’ll go with Hertz whenever possible, even if the cost is a bit higher.
Likewise with airfare. We’ll gladly pay a bit more for a United Economy Plus seat, or for a Frontier fully-refundable ticket versus maybe saving a few dollars with Southwest.
But price shopping has a valid argument for many people. For some folks, the only way to fly, rent a car, or buy produce is to shop by price alone. If they can get a Dollar car rental that’s two-thirds the price of Hertz, they’ll take it and take their chances that Dollar won’t hit them with fake damage charges or screaming customer-service personnel.
The real challenge is discerning what is value. How can a consumer tell if Hertz is worth the higher price than Dollar? (Without extensive experience with various companies.) We’ve bought a few too many books and electronics and whatever on Amazon to trust even the detailed reviews. Recently we were tossing the mental coin over two art books from Amazon. Both had generally good reviews (we usually ignore the 5-star reviews, as well as the 1-star ones), and settled on one particular book. It was beyond terrible. We sent it back, and purchased our other option, which turned out to be excellent.
The web is full of self promotion, fake reviews, unknowledgeable consumers, opinions, and words and comments from intelligent as well as ignorant customers. Who can you trust?
Sadly, no one. We do our best; do the research; then still wind up with J.D. Power recommending Enterprise as their top car-rental company while Elliott puts it at the bottom of his list.
At some point, it comes down to who you trust. If my neighbor (who I like and whose opinion I trust) loves Southwest, that should weigh more heavily than any idiotic web survey. Likewise, I trust Chris Elliott and have no idea about J.D. Power, so despite my good (lucky?) experience with Enterprise, I think I’ll pass on them in the future and go with Hertz.
There’s a lot to be said for comfort and peace of mind. We are firmly in the value shopper camp. So for the record, some of our personal travel-related value preferences include:
Hertz car rentals
Hilton family of hotels
Frontier and Alaska airlines
American Express credit cards
Vodafone international prepaid cell-phone chips
ITA flight search engine
Amazon for travel products, electronics, and guidebooks
Saturday, August 14, 2010
As the 3 regular readers of this blog probably know, we hate jargon. Corporate America simply loves to say less with more. In a recent issue of Business Travel News we found some excellent examples of political/lawyer/PR/financial geek-speak.
In a sidebar to an article headlined, “Airlines Unlikely To Add Much Capacity,” were the following quotes from the CEOs of the “big 5” domestic airlines. See if you can match the quote with the speaker (listed most jargon-filled to least, with our added emphasis).
1. “I expect to continue this rigorous domestic capacity discipline as we look to optimize the merged carrier suite across the combined network.” 4-Star Jargon Award
2. “While some of our competitors have suggested increases in their forward guidance, we continue to believe that capacity constraint is essential for margin improvement.” 3-Star Jargon Award; Bonus “Huh?” Award
3. “Overall industry capacity should not grow faster than gross domestic product here in the U.S. or anywhere in the world, for that matter.” 2-Star Saying-Nothing Award
4. “By the end of 2010, our fleet will be 91 aircraft smaller, but we’ll be able to generate the same amount of revenue. We’ll continue this strategy in 2011 and reduce our fleet by another 20 aircraft.” 1-Star How-Can-That-Be? Award
5. “We’ve reduced our capacity and focused our flying on areas of competitive strength.” 1-Star What-Is-That? Award
a. American CEO Gerard Arpey
b. Continental CEO Jeff Smisek
c. Delta CEO Richard Anderson
d. United CEO Glenn Tilton
e. USAirways CEO Doug Parker
Answers: 1b, 2d, 3a, 4c, 5e
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
The travel blog-o-sphere has been awash in words about Aegean Airlines entering the Star Alliance (one of the “big 3” airline alliances), and the fact that with Aegean one can gain Star Alliance “Gold” status with far fewer miles than with any other airline in the alliance.
(For the uninitiated, once Star Gold is attained on any Star Alliance airline – and there are a lot, it’s the biggest airline alliance – Gold benefits are available to you on any Star airline.)
“Status” means a lot to the frequent-flyer geeks out there, and Star Gold is the first decent elite level that begins to afford a few significant perks for travelers. In general, Star Gold offers the holder of that status:
* Priority check-in lines (at the business/first-class check-in counter)
* Priority boarding
* Airport lounge access (day of travel) to any Star lounge (if your Star Gold status is with an international carrier, you can apparently access U.S. Star lounges even on domestic itineraries)
* Priority baggage handling (whatever that means)
* No baggage fees for first 2 bags
* Additional baggage allowance (more weight or one more bag)
* On some airlines, possibly preferred seating or other benefits
What makes this all more than a frequent-flyer-geek exercise is that Star Gold status can be attained on Aegean Airlines with only 20,000 “status” (flying) miles in a year’s time. So maybe this isn’t one just for the geeks. Consider:
If you fly three domestic and one international flights per year, by crediting some of those miles to Aegean, you can have a year’s worth of Star Gold benefits. Here’s an off-the-cuff look at the tradeoffs.
Say you’re a leisure traveler and take those three domestic and one international flights per year. Using random cities, those four flights might earn you:
Two RT flights, LA to Chicago = 6,800 miles
One RT flight to visit grandma, LA to Orlando = 4,400 miles
One European vacation, for example LA to Paris = 11,300 miles
Thus, you’d have accrued 22,500 miles, and you might consider crediting 20,000 of those miles to Aegean for a year’s worth of Star Gold status. (Aegean is currently offering 1,000 status miles for signing up for their frequent-flyer program.) And although Aegean’s mileage redemptions don’t seem to be anything to get excited about, you are still accruing the miles somewhere.
In general, most commentators value frequent-flyer miles at 1 to 2 cents per mile. Thus, 20,000 flying miles might be worth $200-400. It takes 25,000 miles for a basic domestic economy ticket on most Star carriers (United, Continental, USAir). Let’s take the middle ground, and say that your 25,000 miles might get you a domestic ticket (if you can find one) worth $350.
Now, let’s look at the value of Star Gold.
* No baggage fees, $25-60 (for example, 1 or 2 bags) per domestic flight (6 annual flights – 3 round trips, as above) = $150-360. (Plus, say you want to take two bags to Paris; the first is free, but the second would be $50 each way = another $100.)
* Lounge access = $425 annual (United Red Carpet Club, 1 person) or $50 one-time fee per person (with Star Gold you can take a companion, so double that value).
* Convenience (priority check-in, boarding, etc.) = whatever you feel that’s worth.
So if you’re an average traveler, with your 4 trips per year, you might just consider trading a crappy $350 domestic economy ticket for a year’s worth of perks such as above (with a “value” of $575-885, or more). Read the Aegean fine print, and look at the other myriad words spilled on this subject. Consider the trade-offs.
Monday, June 28, 2010
We recently saw a lengthy blog article discussing the “value” of frequent-flyer miles and hotel points. In general, the author postulated that miles/points were mostly worth 1 to 2 cents per mile/point. And that may be realistic for the redemption of points (allow me to just call them all “points” from now on).
Every so often, a travel writer/blogger has to take on the topic of value of miles. Print magazines, credit-card websites, travel blogs – every one needs a point-value article every so often. And all of them miss what we think is a very important consideration – what is the value based on the cost to acquire the point? Two examples:
The writer mentioned above suggests that Delta SkyMiles are worth 1 cent each. But if my cost to acquire 35,000 miles (as I did with a recent credit-card promotion) is, let’s say, an $85 annual fee (my card was actually fee-free the first year), then those points would be worth 2.4 cents each.
In the article, Hilton HHonors points are valued at .7 cents each. But virtually all our Hilton points are acquired through Hilton American Express card spending, and we only use that credit card for the purchase categories (gas, groceries, a few others) where we receive 6 points per dollar spent. Thus, we would value our Hilton points at 4.2 cents each.
Of course, all the equations and comparisons are meaningless. Because each individual situation and every person is so different. Do I want to use my miles for upgrades? Do I want a basic 25,000-mile ticket to see grandma next summer? Are my points acquired through hotel stays or by credit-card spending? What are my travel patterns? (Maybe I take more driving vacations, and thus lodging/hotels are more valuable than air miles.)
Finally, outside of accruing miles by flying or points from hotel stays, the other most-frequent method of accumulating points is via credit-card spending. And if that’s your case, maybe a cash-back credit card makes a whole lot more sense than an airline or hotel card. If you pay your credit-card balances in full every month, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be using some form of reward credit card for all your spending. And there are dozens of cash-back cards – 1% reward is considered the minimum, and by reading some of our older posts you shouldn’t have any problem getting significantly better than that.
We haven’t kept up with all the credit-card news lately, but, for example, we do know that:
1) Capital One offers cards with 1% rewards (and no foreign-transaction fees).
2) We have a Schwab card (which has been apparently discontinued, but could return) that offers 2% cash-back on all purchases.
3) Even the emasculated Chase Freedom card offers up to 5% cash back on certain categories of spending during certain months of the year (as does the Discover card).
4) The Merrill+ visa offers airline tickets (booked through them) for 25,000 points for tickets “up to $500 in value,” which would therefore be as much as 2 points value (and maybe even a bit more, as you can earn actual butt-in-seat frequent-flyer miles on the Merrill reward ticket).
So in general we give our usual thumbs-down to any attempt to calculate the “value” of miles – we wouldn’t want you to follow blindly even our suggestions. What’s important is the intangible value of your points. Do they allow you to travel more often? To see more varied places in the world? To save money for non-travel spending?
Take advantage of every opportunity to earn miles/points/cash-back, but spend less time worrying if the value of your points is less than someone else’s.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Unless you’ve not traveled in the past several years, you’ve probably heard about the Transportation Security Administration’s new Virtual Strip-Search Machines (oops, TSA’s new full-body scanners).
The always-excellent The Middle Seat column in The Wall St. Journal yesterday discussed travelers’ reactions to the new full-body scanners. Several quotes in the article were deeply depressing and saddening.
1) “Public opinion polls show widespread acceptance in the U.S. of the technology, with many [people] saying tighter security outweighs inconvenience.”
The U.S. public actually thinks that this is about security?
2) “A small sampling at [Chicago’s] O’Hare [airport] last week showed broad support for the scanners.”
The U.S. public actually thinks that this is about security?
3) “‘If it’s for passenger protection, why not?’ said [traveler] Ann Pagel, on her way home from Houston.”
The U.S. public actually thinks that this is about security?
The article goes on to reiterate everything that’s already been said about the scanners – they’re optional (but you’ll get a full pat-down if you refuse); that the software “masks most of the particulars of a person’s body”; that they’re supposed to prevent a reoccurrence of the Underwear Bomber last Christmas.
The TSA was established in November 2001 by congress (which was effectively 50/50 Republican/Democrat at the time) and then-President George Bush. It is one of the largest federal bureaucracies, with an annual budget of $7 billion. We’d ask “Will it ever stop?” but we know the answer. No politician in America – of either party – would risk hampering the TSA and being accused of being “soft on terrorism.” As if the TSA really has anything to do with truly preventing U.S. or world terrorism.
Sunday, June 06, 2010
I love all the wild speculation about what’s going to happen with the “new” United – the merger of the old United and Continental. The branding of the new company – with the United name, the Continental logo, and a mix of executives (headed by the Continental boss) – seems to indicate that the merged airline will take a similar approach in cherry-picking what parts of the old companies to retain and which to ditch. The blogs are humming with guesses about Starnet blocking, first-class cabins, Economy Plus, foreign vs. U.S. call centers, and more.
We haven’t flown Continental in several years (mostly because of our location and routings), but the last time we did we had an acceptable experience. We do fly United a fair amount, but the ONLY reason we’re United loyalists at all is because of Economy Plus. With it, we can put up with the surly flight attendants and the dehydrated food. We can compensate by bringing our own food; zoning out with our iPod and noise-canceling headphones; and mostly ignoring the “safety professionals” (especially since they mostly ignore us). Without E+, we have absolutely no reason to remain loyal to United (or to any of the U.S. legacy carriers).
As it is, with the exception of United, in the U.S. we try to fly Alaska and Frontier as much as possible. If JetBlue or Virgin America’s routes were more extensive for us, we’d be happy to give them business. And internationally, if we can’t get a decent United price (with E+), we do everything possible to fly on a foreign carrier.
Regarding miles for those or any airline, we are frequent-flyer agnostic. Sure, we pay a bit of attention to mileage bonuses (we recently got a Delta Amex with an exceptional initial-mileage bonus), and have mileage scattered around a few-too-many different frequent-flyer programs. Still, our mileage earning is mostly from credit cards, bonuses, and other activities rather than from flying. We do have enough sense to put as many flying miles into as few programs as possible – right now, primarily United for Star Alliance flights and Alaska for OneWorld or SkyTeam flights (whenever possible; Alaska partners with many OW and ST carriers, but not all).
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Airlines aren’t known for reducing fees or adding benefits without some (usually sneaky) tradeoff. But an email we just received from Frontier Airlines sounds like the airline is truly enhancing their product and customer service. The email says, in part:
“You told us you wanted lower and fewer fees and the ability to select your seat assignment when booking an Economy ticket. We heard you, and made the following changes, effective immediately for all Economy tickets:
· We've reduced the fee for a confirmed alternate flight on the same day of travel from $100 to $50. Available at the airport only.
· We've eliminated the $25 Ticketing Service Fee.
· We’ve extended the option to select an advance seat assignment at the time of booking.
We’re committed to providing you with the best care in the air. The following service enhancements are also effective immediately:
· Classic Plus passengers will enjoy FREE access to the Best Care Club, on their day of travel. The club is located at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, on Concourse D near gate 38.”
We truly have been impressed with Frontier so far. This is another example of why we’d rather fly Frontier or Alaska or JetBlue than United or Delta or any other U.S. legacy carrier.
Friday, May 28, 2010
With the new credit-card laws coming into effect, we’ve been watching the transitions going on with reward credit cards. It’s been subtle, but we’re seeing a few more annual fees, combined with a few more incentives.
We just got a solicitation for the Chase Ink Plus Visa. For $60/year annual fee (waived the first year), this “upgrade” from our regular Ink card offers a few more points on some purchases (less on others, see below), a few bonus points for acquiring the card, bonus points at certain annual spend levels, plus two travel benefits that actually seem pretty intriguing.
The Ink Plus comes with a Priority Pass airport lounge account ($99 annual value if purchased separately) and two free lounge visits (worth $54). Secondly, the card is touting the ability to transfer points 1:1 to “some of the industry’s leading frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs.” We can’t yet find out what the specific air and hotel partners are, but we might assume they could be Chase’s current travel card partners – United, Continental & Southwest air; Marriott & InterContinental hotels.
(Our current no-fee Chase Ink Visa gives us 3 points – equivalent to 3% cash back – for gas, restaurants, hardware, office supply, home improvement. The new Ink Plus solicitation says 1 point for every dollar spent, so we’re assuming those 3% categories would disappear. Of course, that may be part of Chase’s reasoning behind the new offer – they can garner an annual fee, while at the same time eliminating those 3% reward categories.)
Nearly every commentator loves Starwood’s American Express card ($45 annual fee) for its ability to transfer points into many airline frequent-flyer accounts. Indeed, very few proprietary points cards allow such transfers. Starwood’s points generally transfer at 1:1, except into United/Continental which are only at half that value.
Hilton’s Surpass Amex also offers the Priority Pass option ($75 annual fee, but without the two free visits). And while we like the Hilton card for its Hilton points earnings used at Hilton properties, the card has abysmal frequent-flyer transfer ratios.
So if you’re a United/Continental flyer, the Chase Ink Plus may offer more benefits (and essentially the same mileage earning) at a lower annual fee than a United or Continental card (both of which are also issued by Chase). Plus you get the Priority Pass membership.
We still are somewhat skeptical of rewards cards (or any credit cards) with annual fees. Still, the Chase Ink Plus joins our short-list of potentially useful annual-fee cards. The lineup (most of these cards also offer some sort of sign-up bonus miles or points):
- Chase Ink Plus - $60 annual fee; Priority Pass membership plus 2 free visits; frequent-flyer/hotel account transfers.
- Starwood Amex - $45 fee; many frequent-flyer account transfers; bonus points on some transfers.
- Hilton Surpass Amex - $75 fee; Priority Pass membership; upgraded Hilton status levels depending on spending.
- Alaska Airlines Visa - $75 fee; annual $99 companion ticket (anywhere on Alaska metal); Alaska has many OneWorld & SkyTeam partners.
- United Access Plus Visa - $275 annual fee, but that gives you and a companion a full year of Economy Plus seating (which costs $425 to purchase annually). This one is only for hard-core E+ loyalists (we are, as much as we dislike most other aspects of United). And do keep an eye on the United (and Continental) credit card offerings as the merger progresses.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
I’ve recently become disappointed with the Boarding Area Mutual Admiration Society. (Oops, make that the Boarding Area bloggers.)
Boarding Area is an umbrella for a group of travel bloggers who once seemed to have interesting, unique, and informative voices (and occasionally still do). Now, though, most of these writers seem to all write about the same new credit-card sign-up offers; they offer similar long and boring trip reviews; they are mileage- and points-obsessed; and they get worked up about folks with opinions different from their own.
The latest example that’s got several of them in a lather is a column by well-known travel writer Chris Elliott, questioning the value (if any) of frequent flyer miles.
I’ve had an acquaintance with Chris for several years, and I’ve read his blogs and web articles off-and-on over those years. (Sometimes I like them and agree with them, and sometimes I don’t.) But several bloggers on Boarding Area (one in particular) seem to have a juvenile, vehement hatred regarding anything Chris writes. Coincidentally, I stopped regularly reading that blogger some time ago, but I still occasionally visit his site to see if there’s any chance anything of real interest might be posted. Thus, I saw his rant against Chris.
People have been criticizing (and, occasionally, praising) my writing for far longer than any of these writers have been around (back in the day when we had “Letters to the Editor” sections in magazines). It’s part of the business. I seldom agree with more than half of what ANYONE writes, especially in the realm of travel. I approach all writing with a skeptic’s eye, but in this age of blogs and social networks and OPINIONS, I can’t seem to get too worked up about someone else’s writing. If I don’t like someone’s writing or philosophy or suggestions, I just take that blog (or magazine or newspaper) off my reading list.
So for the record, here are a few travel websites and blogs that I currently do enjoy. (Note that while I read these blogs and news sites, I VERY seldom read the comments. Every idiot with a laptop can now “write” something, usually commenting without forethought or knowledge about the original writer’s research, thoughts, and words.)
- The Middle Seat (Wall St. Journal)
- Today In The Sky (USA Today)
- The Cranky Flier
- Upgrade Travel Better
- Consumer Traveler
- Chris Elliott
- Rick Steves
- Swelbar on Airlines
- Breaking Travel News
- BNET Travel
- Rick Seaney (FareCompare)
(I don’t have the time nor inclination to link these sites. I’m a writer and I’m just writing. You can google any of these sites and find them quickly.)
Monday, May 10, 2010
We like to sit in the middle. No, not the middle seat, not the middle of the airplane, but in the middle seating option between Sardine and Extravagant. That means some sort of Premium Economy – and in the U.S. that usually means just more legroom with few extra perks.
Some time ago we did an extensive round-up of Premium Economy on various airlines. Things have probably changed a bit since then as some carriers change their programs while others add the seating class (and a few have even eliminated it). But in general, the basics are still similar.
What we want to discuss today is “better” seating on domestic carriers.
UNITED has the most well-known product, Economy Plus. It basically offers some 4-5 inches of extra legroom. It’s available as an annual membership ($425) or on a flight-by-flight basis (we recently priced it on a SEA-ALB round trip and it was about $150). The other great under-the-radar option for E+ seating is with a fairly new United/Chase Visa credit card that offers the E+ annual option for a $275 annual fee on the card. That’s less than two transcon flights per year to make it worthwhile (and after only one flight with a companion, as E+ annual members can take one companion in E+ at no additional cost). (United and Continental recently announced a merger. There is wide speculation – and speculation only – that the Continental fleet will be re-configured with E+ seating options.)
FRONTIER is our new favorite. Their Stretch seats in the first four rows of the aircraft offer 4-5 inches of extended legroom, and they’re available for purchase at check-in or with certain of their fare classes. Our preference is actually the highest fare class (Classic Plus), which offers Stretch seats, priority boarding, two free checked bags, and... it’s FULLY refundable. On a recent reservation, Classic Plus was $211; Classic (basically 2 checked bags free and advance seat assignments) was $166; and Economy (no free bags, no advance seat assignment) was $136. Classic Plus seems like a deal. (Note that even with the two lower fare classes, you can purchase Stretch for $15-25 per segment.)
JETBLUE also seems like a standout, although we don’t have many opportunities to fly them. Their regular seats offer 2-3 inches more room (34” pitch) than most airlines’ regular economy seats; and Even More Legroom seats – with an additional 4 more inches – are available for as little as $10 per flight segment.
We’ve looked into VIRGIN AMERICA, but their extra-legroom Main Cabin Select seats seem quite overpriced. On paper, Virgin America’s regular economy seats offer one more inch of legroom than the domestic industry standard of 31” pitch. Seats on ALASKA are also mostly 32” pitch instead of 31. (We say “on paper” as that’s the official seat pitch, but a one-inch difference can be less or more noticeable depending on seat construction, width, etc. So although we like Virgin and Alaska, we don’t get too excited about either of those airlines based on their seats themselves.)
Finally, as SeatGuru points out, international Premium Economy can be as much as double regular Economy – and that may be worth it to many folks. But the site also notes that last-minute upgrades (when checking in on-line, or at the airport) can sometimes be quite affordable. (Not too long ago, we upgraded a British Airways DEN-LHR economy ticket to Premium Economy for about $180 at check-in. I don’t remember the original cost of that ticket, but today a BA economy ticket on that route is $700 while Premium Economy is $1150.) Several international carriers offer a well-respected Premium Economy product.
Try the middle some day. The increased comfort and reduced stress may be worth the slight additional cost.
[UPDATE 5/12/10: I just realized we left out SOUTHWEST. We simply don’t fly the airline: No assigned seats, flights that always seem to have an extra stop, and fares that we’ve never found competitive (in the example of the Frontier flights above, which totaled $439 RT fully refundable with all the perks, Southwest’s basic fare came in at $483). But in fairness, they do generally have seats with 32-33” pitch.]
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
We know Consumer Reports has a huge following. But every time we see a CR article about something that we really know about (bikes, skis, travel, art, photography, kitchen knives, etc., etc., etc.) we find the articles and recommendations typically way off base. So why should we believe their recommendations about things we don’t know much about (vacuum cleaners, garbage disposals, dishwashers, beds, whatever)?
What got me going here is that CR just posted an article headlined: “What to do with your Continental and United frequent-flier points.” Yes, each and every media outlet needs to get in some news and commentary about the just-announced United-Continental merger, but “points”? Come on, CR, they’re called “miles.” Miles. Frequent flyer miles. (Oh, by the way, CR, you spell it “flier” in your headline and “flyer” in the text.)
I won’t even bother to address their “recommendations” for using your miles before or after the merger finalizes.
Monday, May 03, 2010
To me, the most interesting aspect of the just-announced United-Continental merger is the depth, scope, and professionalism of the merger website. The interactive combined route map is pretty kludgy, and quite a few questions are left unanswered, but overall it’s amazing what they’ve put together in probably less than three weeks (the amount of time since “serious” talks were made public).
The business commentators, travel pundits, and frequent-flyer geeks will be having a field day dissecting this merger to the nth detail. To us, this seems pretty neutral: Continental seems a “better” airline (especially with service); United has kept us somewhat loyal with Economy Plus; a merged frequent-flyer program helps our orphan Continental miles a bit; and we don’t expect much in the way of reduction of options from our flying hubs.
We do like the fact that the new name will be United, but the logo will be Continental’s. United’s old, ugly, inconsistent paint jobs won’t be missed.
Oh, yea, and “United” (the new you), if you’re listening, please keep E+. That’s pretty much all that’s kept us even this loyal to you. Remember, Frontier, Alaska, and JetBlue are out there for us, and we’re happy to keep flying them, too.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
[Updated 4.19.2010 See below.]
Am I one of the few people who find the whole “fees for carry-on baggage” imbroglio hilarious? Everyone seems to be taking it so seriously.
First it was Spirit Airlines declaring that it will begin charging passengers “up to $45 to place a bag in an overhead bin.” [NY Times]. Then, it was New York Senator Charles Schumer gaseously spewing that he was going to draft a law against carry-on fees. A law? Come on, Chuck, get angry at many things in this country, but baggage fees?
Now, in a remarkable show of solidarity, five U.S. airlines (American, Delta, United, U.S. Airways, and JetBlue) have “committed” to No-Fee Chuck that they will not institute fees for carry-on bags. (Of course, let’s not forget the phone-reservation fees and checked baggage fees and change fees and .... oh, you get the idea.)
The serious-sounding NY Times article notes that, “Notably absent from the list was Continental Airlines, which is said to be in merger talks with United.” Like, duh, what difference would that make? United may or may not also be in merger talks with U.S. Airways. And also “notably absent” from the list were Southwest, Alaska, Frontier, oh, you get the idea. Maybe one of the absent airlines will find something light and humorous (and intelligent) to say about all this.
The Times also noted that “Schumer and five other Democratic senators ... are supporting legislation that would tax airlines if they charged carryon bag fees.” Wow. Another tax that benefits... the government; not the consumers who are subject to the fees. This rather reminds me of the new tarmac-delay fines. Passengers get inconvenienced, but the airlines pay fines to the government.
Even Spirit’s CEO, Ben Baldanza is sticking to a serious tone: “Our plan was never predicated on anyone matching us.” Come on, Ben, say something funny, like: We really just wanted to yank everybody’s chain, and since Ryanair has already claimed to be considering pay toilets, there weren’t many ridiculous fees left that we could be first with.
The real “serious” travel news right now is about volcanic ash blanketing Europe and virtually shutting down air travel for half the world. So give us some levity here, Ben and Chuck. Say something funny. Find the absurdity in all this. I sure do.
UPDATE 4/19/10 – Somebody DID say something funny. Senator Gasbag (aka Ben Cardin) was quoted on The Cranky Flier as saying: “Carry-on luggage is where people keep items essential to their health, work, and safety like laptop computers, medications, food to eat on the plane, baby formula, eye glasses and other items that need to be kept close at hand. These are personal items that airline passengers should not be charged to keep with them in the cabin.”
Cranky’s response: “Thanks for playing, Senator, but everything you mentioned there remains free on Spirit. The airline is still allowing a personal item (like a purse, briefcase, etc) and things like diaper bags are free too.”
Yes! Now it’s starting to sound fun(ny).
Monday, April 12, 2010
Almost everyone has their panties in a wedge (in one way or another) over the fact that Spirit Airlines has announced it will be charging a fee for carry-on bags. Even our Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, seems to have nothing better to do than say: “I think it’s a bit outrageous that an airline is going to charge someone to carry on a bag and put it in the overhead. And I’ve told our people to try and figure out a way to mitigate that. I think it’s ridiculous. ... I don’t think they care about their customers. That’s what I think.”
Good for you, Ray, actually thinking. But I think that this is not a federal issue. It’s business. Most consumers always seem to shop for the cheapest anything, and (in this case) the airlines are happy to oblige – with the cheapest tickets. Air consumers don’t WANT service or amenities (although they say they do, yet they obviously won’t pay for it), so of course airlines “don’t care about their passengers.” Exactly. The airlines care about making money and satisfying their shareholders. As much as I hate most everything about domestic airline customer service (or lack thereof), I feel this is a business decision. Besides, from what I hear (I’ve never flown them), with Spirit we’re talking lowest-common-denominator here, sort of the Ryanair of America.
Personally, I choose to spend a little more for a few more amenities (legroom, decent seats, even if I have to sit in economy), so I try to fly international carriers and a few domestic airlines that provide such semi-decent service – JetBlue, Frontier, Alaska.
If customers want cheap, well, that’s what they’ll get – Cheap. Ya gets what ya pays for; and if ya don’t wanna pay fer it ya ain’t gonna get it.
Our pols in Washington should find something better to waste their time on.
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
This is probably the first time I’ve agreed with anything Ryanair’s Chief Executive Michael O’Leary has said or done.
After leasing a few Ryanair planes to British Airways during its strike, O’Leary called the striking union cabin crews “spectacularly stupid.”
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
We seldom spend time looking at the statistics of our various websites and blogs. But a recent post on the Ridge Winery blog got us to thinking (always a very dangerous thing).
Since the first of the year, this blog has been reached directly; by referrals; and via 312 different search terms. Far and away the most searched-for phrases were some variation of “no international ATM fees.” Several of the other search terms stood out as a little off-beat.
In many of these cases, we have no idea what on this site it was that the search engine picked up on. Nonetheless, here is a short list of “unusual” search terms that drove visitors to our site. (These are the exact search terms as listed from Google Analytics.)
- can poi be extended to other processes and properties within the starwood system?
- cubana economy seat width
- ethics painting
- fedex ground loading terminal durango colorado
- how many number make up u s a passport number
- lufthansa no "middle name "on airline ticket
- passport name start with ken w. aolvse picture
- ryanair wine carry on
- smart traveler beware: foreign transaction fees national geographic traveler
- to receive proper credit, the name provided above must match the name on the frequent flyer account.
- vrbo magazine properties
We especially applaud the person seeking to find out if he or she can bring wine on Ryanair. Alcohol is probably needed to even consider flying them. We also admire the person who typed in the very long search term beginning with “to receive proper credit....” And we're really, really looking forward to Hawaiian food (Poi) during our next Starwood stay.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Travel photography (all photography, really) has been redefined with digital cameras and web distribution. Copyright has essentially become dead as a dodo – so many snapshot photographers are posting so many millions of travel photos online, and few if any are concerned with protecting their rightful copyrights to their images.
It appears that some travel businesses are taking advantage of amateur photographers’ desire to see their work in print. Professional photographer Bob Krist (National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian) offers a scathing post about a photo contest from Frommer’s that should serve as fair warning to all photographers. (It’s a long post, but read the full article – it’s worth it.)
Saturday, February 27, 2010
There’s been some interesting speculation about what brand/name will eventually emerge from the Republic-Frontier-Midwest airline conglomerate. Republic’s head honcho, Bryan Bedford, has seemed to indicate in some press reports that the company is leaning toward an integrated brand. And sooner rather than later.
Having been a marketing/branding consultant for many years, here’s my two cents worth.
Frontier has a much more “generic” name than Midwest, which is a location-based name. (Even the Midwest frequent-flyer program name is provincial – Midwest Miles. But then Frontier’s frequent-flyer program, EarlyReturns, has a terrible name, too – nonsensical, boring, non-descriptive. What does an “early return” mean?)
Frontier is apparently the bigger airline by routes and revenue.
Both airlines have loyal fans in their home airports (Frontier in Denver and Midwest in Milwaukee).
Republic is also a nice generalized name, but it has virtually no name recognition with the traveling public. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the possibility of starting with a clean slate can be appealing.
If they do this right, it will be done soon, and only once. (You don’t want to re-brand your product again in a few years if you screw it up the first time. So don’t screw it up.)
From the amenities standpoint, both Frontier (with their tiered pricing and new Stretch seating) and Midwest (with their Signature seats and warm cookies) have some history. Frontier’s product currently has the ability to be more flexible and aggressive. But Frontier a’la carte pricing menu is too new to have become iconic, so shouldn’t be too much of a factor in leaning one way or another.
So, if I were in charge of everything....
I’d go with the Frontier name for the combined airline, but come up with a new tag line that indicated something new, emphasizing the extended almost-national breadth of the new entity. (I could be convinced that Republic would be a solid second choice for a name.)
This sounds heretical, but I’d ditch the goofy animal tails on Frontier. I’d update the Frontier logo; paint the planes just a little differently than now; maybe use the tail paintjob to slightly honor something from Midwest (a blue/gold streak or something). But in two years, you don’t really want anyone to remember the old part of your entity – you want every customer to think of your airline as Frontier. (Not, for example, how some travelers – after 5 years – still call US Airways “the old America West.”)
I’d immediately create a combined frequent-flyer program, under neither the Midwest Miles nor EarlyReturns names. Something new is needed, probably tied into the new tag line.
Now, if Frontier-Republic would like to pay me to suggest some brand strategies, tag lines, program names, etc....
Republic decided today upon Frontier as their name. The tail animals will stay, as might the cookies (they are a little vague about that). No news yet about the frequent-flyer program.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
We just got back from our firsts flights since another stupid Muslim stuck some explosives in his underwear. We’ve also been reading about the tribulations of international security. (Canada seems to be the worst offender, with 3-hour-before-flight airport-arrival suggestions and complete checked bag searches and pat-downs.) Our (domestic) flights went fine this trip, but we got to thinking about various ways to make the flying and airport experience more comfortable.
- Get a flight with the fewest and easiest connections possible. Non-stop vs. one-stop; flying to Amsterdam instead of Paris, even if France is your destination.
- Start your trip from an “alternative” airport if at all possible. We know you’re not going to drive 5 hours from Seattle to Spokane if you’re in the Seattle metro area, but if two airports are relatively equidistant, chose the easier (usually smaller) one.
- Base your flight choices on aircraft, amenities, and comfort as much as on schedules. We much prefer the two-across seating on most 777s than the 3-across on 747s. We don’t really like United, but frequently chose them because they have Economy Plus seating (see below).
- Buy the best seat you can afford. Frontier, United, JetBlue and a couple of other domestic airlines (and a lot of international ones) have a section of seats frequently referred to as Premium Economy or Economy Plus. For a few extra dollars the legroom is worth it.
- Only fly an airline where you can check-in online and get an assigned seat. Crowding into lines to scramble for a decent seat on Southwest just isn’t our idea of fun. Likewise, British Airways doesn’t assign seats in Economy until check-in.
- Sometimes (such as with Frontier) the better economy seats come with free checked bags, priority boarding, and other small perks that balance out the small extra cost.
- If you have checked-in online and have your boarding pass, check you bags curbside (even if it costs a $5 tip) and completely bypass all the check-in counters.
- Pack light. Unless we’re taking something like skis, we try to only fly with carry-on baggage. (One carry-on and one “personal item” – briefcase, purse, etc.) But if things such as are happening in Canada continue, it might make more sense to just check all your bags, and walk through security with little more than a tiny shoulder bag.
- Dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s.” For example, make sure the name on your ticket exactly matches the name on your i.d. For international travel, make sure your passport is good for six months after your arrival date. Remember the TSA’s idiotic rules for liquids, gels, etc.
- Once you’re in the terminal, don’t automatically just go to the security line behind your airline’s check-in counter. Spend a couple of minutes and wander left or right to see if there’s a shorter security line nearby.
- If you’re stuck in an airport and have a 3- or 4-hour (or more) layover/connection, consider a lounge day pass. Many airlines offer them for around $50. Or you can get into many, many lounges with a $100/year Priority Pass and $27 per lounge visit. Lounges can give you a lot of extra comfort for your 10 bucks an hour.
- Join every rental-car and hotel program you might conceivably use. With rental cars, this often offers you a “fast-check” option. With hotels, you might get a few benefits in the way of room upgrades, free continental breakfast, or free internet.
- Find a hotel with an airport shuttle. Not only are car rentals much cheaper at off-airport locations, but that saves you returning a car at a congested airport location.
Monday, February 08, 2010
Time is a totally human construct. Over thousands of years, we have tried to tame the untamable, manage what is inherently chaotic. We set our clocks to suit our farming, education, business, recreation schedules. Then, we tinker with those settings by changing things in the summer with Daylight Saving Time.
A few times in U.S. history, we’ve made DST permanent – during World War II and again during the “oil crisis” of the early 1970s.
Now, the Brits are considering making DST year round. (No, wait. Actually, they’re proposing making all time one hour ahead – both summer and winter. Thus the UK would be GMT +1 in winter, and GMT +2 in summer.) Currently, when the UK sets their clocks forward in summer it’s called... Summer Time. The new scheme (Brit-speak for “plan”) is called... hold your breath... Single Double Summer Time (SDST). This is being promoted as (take your pick): A vote-getting stunt. A boost to tourism. A job creation measure (80,000 new jobs in the tourism sector alone). Reduce accidents. Save energy.
Of course, it’s once again playing “politics” with people’s lives. President Warren G. Harding allegedly called DST a “deception.” (Remember how effective Harding’s brief year-and-a-half in office was?) We actually rather agree with that observation.
But we also say: When in doubt, follow the money. The UK tourism industry is hoping for a £3.5 billion boost in revenue if SDST is implemented.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
If you’re concerned for the people of Haiti, you’re also probably wondering how best to help. Organizations world-wide will be pouring money and resources into the country. Our suggestion is to support Kiva.org, which helps people all over the world become more self-sufficient with micro loans. See Kiva’s comments about the Haiti earthquake relief here. A loan (much more valuable than just a donation) through Kiva can be made in amounts as small as $25.
We found this great quote on the Upgrade Travel Better blog. Use your imagination as to its context, or read the whole post.
“Sausages and hams ‘are much more dangerous than people think,’ says Janice Mosher, an official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
The rightly famous and ubiquitous Rick Steves recently posted his 10 New Year’s Travel Resolutions for 2010. Rick’s list (condensed) is:
• Take my last glass of wine away from the restaurant and enjoy it under the stars.
• Stretch 10 minutes a day.
• Eat at the counter in market eateries to [experience] all the local action.
• Order more adventurously to delve more deeply into regional cuisine.
• Drink more – and work less – late at night.
• Take time to talk with more people.
• Refuse to let small-minded victims of 24/7 news shrink my worldview.
• Buy clothes on the road and wear them.
• Take more photos with my tripod.
• Make music a bigger part of my travels.
• Embrace technology more vigorously.
We really like Rick’s #8 and 9, so will start OUR list with our variations on those two resolutions of his:
- Use a tripod a lot more frequently. Always take the tripod with us.
- Buy local clothes (and shoes!); wear them; and if we don’t want to return home with those clothes (or even ones we brought), donate them to some local charity.
- Plan ahead more (frequent-flyer trips, reward stays, timeshare trades), while at the same time being more spontaneous on the road.
- If we can get there domestically by driving no more than a day, drive instead of fly. (For us, even a short flight represents 2 hours to the airport; arriving 2-3 hours before our flight for security; 2 hours for the flight itself; 1 hour for baggage claim; 1/2 hour plus to gather the rental car; and at least 1/2 hour from airport to town or our lodging. That’s 8-9 hours minimum without delays, traffic, etc. A complete day any way you look at it. And we can take a lot more crap on a driving trip; as well as most likely being more affordable.)
- Buy some local artwork – no matter how small or inexpensive – on every trip.
- Revise our leisure travel windows into two general timeframes: 5-6 days (domestic trips, mostly driving); 9-10 days (domestic flying; or international trips to destinations where we can actually experience the place in that amount of time). Our other future timeframe is the 2- to 3-month trip, when we have the time, ability, and inclination to truly “live” in a country/place to experience the fullness of it. Of course, those travels would be more for our “retirement” years, but it’s worth considering and on our radar screens.
- Keep a food and wine diary of every meal, bottle, bite on every trip.
- Write on the road. Travel journaling; writing projects we’re working on. Don’t stop doing the creative things that motivate and reward us at home, just because we’re traveling and feel we “don’t have the time.”