Friday, May 28, 2010

Rewards Credit Cards – Chase Ink Plus Visa

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

Travel Blogs and Travel News Sites

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

In The Middle

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

Consumer Reports Really Knows Travel

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

United & Continental

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.

Photo courtesy United