Meeting Jonathan On St. Helena

The world’s oldest living land animal is a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan. He is estimated to be about 186 years old, and he lives at the governor’s residence on St. Helena.

St. Helena governor's residence

The governor’s residence is beautifully maintained in Victorian style.

St. Helena queen's china

Tea is served on the Queen’s china. However, excellent local St. Helena coffee is also on offer.

While it’s possible to stop by and look at Jonathan and his friends (there are six tortoises in total) at any time, guided tours of the governor’s residence are offered once a week. You can either take a full tour or visit the library, which is well stocked with the sort of books that you would expect a territorial governor’s residence to have. The books date back hundreds of years but are primarily focused on the flora and fauna of the area, scientific discoveries, economics and politics (I read a book about the British West African Currency Board which operated in the 1950s) and even a collection of “Who’s Who” bound volumes.

governor's library, st. helena

The governor’s library is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon with a book about 1950s West African economics.

I called too late to get the full tour, but was able to visit the library. This is less expensive (costing 5 pounds) and I was still able to see most of the rooms in the governor’s residence; the primary difference between the library visit and the full tour is that you can’t go upstairs if you are on the library visit, there isn’t a formal guided tour, and you are served tea (on the Queen’s logo china) but not lunch.

Also on offer is local St. Helena coffee. It’s some of the best and most expensive coffee in the world, so I was happy to have that. It was, of course, excellent. The staff was friendly and accommodating and my cup was never empty.

Books and coffee cups

Coffee, tea, or economics?

When it became time for the library to close, I asked whether I could meet Jonathan. I expected that the staff would point out which one he was, and I’d be directed to the viewing area opposite. However, I was delighted to be allowed out onto the field directly with the tortoises for a little while so I could meet Jonathan up close and personally.

Jonathan the tortoise

Jonathan, the world’s oldest living land animal.

I’m not a spiritual person, but I could truly feel how old he is, how much he has seen, and the wisdom behind his piercing stare (clouded by cataracts though it was). He looked at me while chewing on the tall grass, and we didn’t need to have a conversation because there was nothing he could learn from me. I was the equivalent of a teenager beside a septugenarian. Maybe he spoke to me; I am not sure. I don’t speak tortoise.

Me with Jonathan

I feel less old when I look at this picture.

I heard the staff at the governor’s mansion calling to me from across the field. The front gate was being closed soon, so it was time for me to end my visit, and could I please be sure the enclosure was secure when I left? Of course I could, and gladly did.

passport stamp

The St. Helena exit stamp honors Jonathan.

Jonathan, along with the wirebird (which is native to St. Helena) holds a truly special place in the hearts of “Saints” (as residents are called) and the culture of the island. Many of the arts and crafts available for sale feature the tortoise, and he is even honored on the St. Helena exit stamp (the wirebird is on the entry stamp). I’m not sure whether Jonathan is aware he is so famous. Or that he would even care if he knew. After all, his life has spanned three of our generations. Of what use is fame when humans are so fleeting?

If you go to St. Helena, do visit the governor’s mansion. Read a book (or three) in the library. And enjoy the coffee and tea. But don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time with Jonathan!

Airlink Economy Class: Johannesburg to St. Helena

I was pretty sure my flight was at 1:15 in the afternoon. Sure enough that, from memory, I arranged with the front desk to take me to the airport at the appropriate time to make an afternoon flight. However, I’d asked for breakfast to be served early — around 6:00AM, since I missed dinner and knew I’d be up early due to jet lag.

At 3:00am, I woke up with the nagging feeling that something was wrong. I hadn’t actually checked my flight time, and I was operating from my fuzzy memory based on an entirely incorrect time zone. So I pulled out the paperwork and sure enough, my flight was at 9:00am. It *arrived* at 1:15 in the afternoon. It’s a good thing that I was planning to be up early. I set an alarm for 5:30AM and was in the lobby by 6:00AM.

Outlook Lodge breakfast area

The Outlook Lodge not only got me an early shuttle to the airport, but even made breakfast for me early.

Now, the general manager of the Outlook Lodge at OR Tambo International Airport is probably one of the best hotel general managers I’ve ever met. When I let him know there was a problem, there was absolutely no scolding me. He just immediately sprang into action and solved the problem, asking a driver to come in early to get me to the airport on time. And since I had asked for breakfast early, he even made sure that I had something to eat beforehand. I paid $26 per night for this hotel and I don’t think I have gotten better value anywhere else in the world, ever.

The driver dropped me off at the airport and I went to check in for my flight. The check-in agent could have worked for any US airline, being officious about weighing my bag and making me pointlessly move items around between the bags (the 3kg was going on the plane anyway, so there was absolutely no sense in this). This was also my first introduction to how many hoops that St. Helena authorities make the airline jump through. First, there was a thorough visa check. St. Helena’s visa policy is apparently now the same as the United Kingdom (it used to be more lax) but in the airline’s visa information database, they actually reference the visa policy of Ascension Island (a St. Helena possession) which only allows US and UK passport holders visa-free. But in any event, I had a US passport, so the check-in agent finally relented on the visa issue. None was actually required. The next hurdle involved travel insurance. I didn’t see anywhere that this was required, but it is. Fortunately I have a policy that offers global coverage and I had printed it out (assuming I’d possibly need it for South African authorities).

Clearly frustrated in her inability to trip me up, the check-in agent printed out my boarding passes and handed them to me. Looking directly at me, she said “Gate A30, boarding time 8:15.” I thought this was early for a 9:00am flight, but knew that the aircraft was a regional jet so thought it was possible that it would be at a remote stand which would explain the early boarding time. Taking note of the time, I saw that I had time to visit a lounge so I headed to the surprisingly excellent Shangololo Lounge. It’s brand new, very nicely decorated, had a selection of typical South African breakfast dishes along with a coffee machine (which is what I wanted), and was available to visit with my Priority Pass. While I chafe at paying $450 a year for my Chase Sapphire Reserve, I really do get a lot of mileage out of the Priority Pass and often end up eating in lounges for “free” when I would otherwise grab a snack in the airport.

shangololo lounge photo

The Shangololo Lounge has a smart, modern, and distinctively African design.

airlink bus gate

Don’t miss the bus for your Airlink flight! Get to the gate early.

At 8:10, I left the lounge and headed to my gate. I was right – the gate was a bus gate, and the aircraft was at a remote stand. Airlink had begun boarding at 8:15am sharp, and they were checking passports and travel insurance policies again at the gate. Obviously, there must be a massive fine involved for transporting people without proper insurance. After checking my documents once again, I was scanned through. I boarded the bus, and we waited and waited and waited and waited. Eventually the agent came on board looking for two people. They weren’t there. We waited a couple of minutes, and eventually a very frustrated gate agent boarded. There were two people missing, but they’d checked luggage, and now their bags would have to be offloaded. The gate agent wanted the flight out on time, and that wasn’t going to happen. She openly hated working the flight and all of its attendant hassles, especially the superfluous documentation checks.

My bag, as expected, was gate checked. There was no way it would fit in the overhead bin (despite meeting the published bag dimensions) which is why I’d offered to check it at the counter. Obviously the airline wouldn’t do that, because it would actually have made sense. The gate agent, to her credit, pulled me aside to gate check my bag before I carried it up the stairs–she knew it wouldn’t fit. Finally, I was on board. My economy class seat was surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet, and given that it was the appropriate width and nicely padded, it was actually more comfortable than many 737s.

We ended up waiting awhile longer – apparently as soon as the bus pulled away, the two late passengers showed up, looking appropriately sheepish and clearly fresh from a tongue-lashing. The annoyed gate agent apparently decided that shuttling them over to the flight would be faster than offloading their bags and doing all the paperwork so good news for them, they managed to make the one flight of the week. Bad news for us, though, we’d lost our take-off slot so the pilot announced we were on a short ground hold. However, this time, “short” actually meant that. We were making our way to the runway almost as soon as he finished the announcement. A few hours later, after being served a chicken salad sandwich for breakfast, we were landing in Windhoek, Namibia.

This flight is very unusual because it requires a technical stop in Windhoek, Namibia for fuel. Aircraft are required to have enough fuel to divert to another airport in the event the destination airport is unavailable. St. Helena can’t accept aircraft larger than an Embraer E75, and even these can have trouble landing due to the extreme cross-wind weather conditions at the airport. The aircraft that Airlink uses has enough range to safely divert if necessary, but only at slightly above 70% passenger load (meaning they can only sell 70 seats per flight) and only if the tanks are topped off in Namibia so there’s enough fuel to divert to either Ascension Island or Walvis Bay. What’s more, there aren’t any aircraft mechanics living on St. Helena (with only one flight a week, no locals have yet taken up the profession), so the airline has to bring a mechanic along on the flight. It started to become clear why the flight cost nearly $1,200 roundtrip: this was an extremely expensive flight for the airline to operate.

technical stop in windhoek

Tanks full to the brim during a technical stop in Windhoek. Enough fuel is needed to return to Walvis Bay. Air Namibia aircraft in the background.

Back up in the air, the flight crew came through again and served lunch. Yes, two full meals plus four beverage services on a 6 hour economy class flight! I chatted with the crew for a moment and learned that they do a turn at St. Helena and fly all the way back to Johannesburg the same day. It’s a 15 hour day. While this isn’t a longer work day than, say, a New York to Hong Kong flight, it’s arguably a lot more work getting two flights and three (and scheduled to be four) segments out the door. The crew gets one day for rest, and then they’re back to work the following day.

Airlink meal

Second meal on Airlink flight. This was more substantial than the sandwich served earlier.

We began our descent a few hours later. I had moved from my original seat to an empty window seat in the row across from me, and was delighted to have a first view of the island. My first thought was “how in the hell are we going to land on that?!” The island is the top of an undersea volcano, with craggy jagged peaks and sheer cliffs dramatically rising out of the ocean. But then we were looping around the island, turning around in the other direction, and with a more rapid descent than usual we had a very firm touchdown. Some of the folks seemed jarred by the firm landing, but I’d expected it. Crosswind conditions are nothing to mess with; pilots want to get the flight on the ground as quickly and safely as possible with comfort a secondary consideration (firm landings can also be safe landings–the pilot didn’t necessarily mess up if you really feel it).

The St. Helena authorities have clearly been extensively trained and they’re doing everything by the book. The immigration agent asked me a lot of questions about where I was staying that were difficult to answer because I didn’t have a formal reservation from a booking agency, but rather had just arranged private accommodations through the tourist office. I eventually dug up the name of the person I’d worked with at the tourist office and the immigration agent was satisfied I wouldn’t be homeless. I also told the immigration agent I was leaving on the next flight, and she stamped me in until … the next flight. That’s it! Technically I could have stayed for 6 months with no visa, but why give someone even a day longer than needed? They might extend their trip and spend more money! Something I was happier to see was proper and extensive attention paid to biological quarantine procedures. St. Helena has one of the last populations of bees that hasn’t been subject to colony collapse and biosecurity is extremely important on the island. After Customs scanned my bags and found them free of guns or whatever they were looking for, I was officially cleared and was on the island.


Overall, this flight is in a way very usual (be prepared for all of the regular airline hassles) and also very unusual (extensive documentation requirements, multiple meal services and a technical stop). I found it surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet and it felt safely and professionally operated. While it’s disappointing that I couldn’t book the flight with miles and had to pay cash, it’s understandable that it’s so expensive. Even given the very high airfare, the government of St. Helena still subsidizes the flight. Despite operating only once a week, the flight is a massive improvement versus the previous boat, which operated just once every 3 weeks, and took 5 days from Cape Town.


How To Position With An Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Award

When you’re booking an international award flight, one of the trickiest things to figure out is how to get from where you are going to and from international gateways. Although there is more point-to-point service nowadays, the majority of international flights travel between major hub cities with connecting flights on either end.

Alaska Airlines has a somewhat unusual and often frustrating rule when it comes to partner award tickets (these are tickets that involve flights on airlines other than Alaska Airlines). You can only mix a single partner and Alaska Airlines flights, which has historically made positioning really difficult on Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award flights.

The upside of this approach is that it allows Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan to run separate award charts per partner, which (presumably) allows Alaska to price award flights in a way that reasonably correlates with their cost. So, rather than having a single chart for all partners that averages the cost across all programs, they can have a separate chart for each partner. Overall, I think this makes sense because some partners (such as Emirates) appear to be very expensive for the program while others (such as Condor and Icelandair) are relatively inexpensive.

dus airport

If Dusseldorf is your destination, it’s surprisingly difficult to get there with Mileage Plan.

The downside of this approach is that, in order to reach partner gateways, you’re limited to the reach of Alaska Airlines within North America (which used to be a serious drawback) and you’re also limited to the reach of the partner you’re flying. So, for example, if you are flying American Airlines to London, you can’t continue onward to the rest of Europe with British Airways. Additionally, in some cases, Alaska Airlines only has partnership agreements with a primary airline, and not all regional affiliates:

  • Cathay Pacific: No access to Cathay Dragon
  • Hainan: No access to Hong Kong Airlines
  • British Airways: No access to Comair (South Africa)


However, just to make things more confusing, there are other cases where it is possible to fly regional affiliates. You can use American Eagle flights on an American Airlines partner award, and you can also use Openskies flights on a British Airways award.

This means that when you’re booking an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award, it’s important to know which airlines fly to your destination, and what other ways you might possibly get there. For example, if you’re traveling to Dusseldorf, you won’t get there on Condor; they only fly to Frankfurt and that is the end of the line as far as Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is concerned. You could do it on British Airways, connecting through London, but you must fly the entire route (except for connecting to and from the British Airways North American gateway city, which can be done on Alaska flights) on British Airways. However, when you consider the fact that British Airways charges more miles, the fact that British Airways also levies a fuel surcharge, and the pain of connecting through London, you’re probably better off flying to Frankfurt and taking the train from there to Dusseldorf.

Another thing that gets really confusing is which Alaska Airlines flights you can take in order to position for a partner award. Let’s walk through an example to see how it works. Suppose you want to travel from Seattle to London in business class this summer. There is a flight that seems perfect from North America to London:

BA jfk-lhr price

The problem is, when you try to start from Seattle, this flight doesn’t show up no matter what you do:

sea-lhr flight missing

The other flights are all mixed cabin itineraries, and the economy class segment is the long flight (by the way, Alaska, you really should fix this). So obviously you wouldn’t want to book these.

Frustratingly, though, there’s an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to JFK! It should work, and you should be able to add this, right?

SEA-JFK not available at saver level

There is actually a specific reason why you can’t book this. It’s because you can only add an Alaska Airlines positioning flight if it’s available at the low “saver” level. And to find those flights, the best way to search them isn’t to look on Alaska Airlines’ Web site. Instead, you should search on the American Airlines Web site, which only shows Alaska flights in fare classes that can be hooked up to a partner flight. This surfaces a heretofore hidden option:

Hidden route to LGA

Wait, what’s this?

The perfectly timed overnight flight that would give you a full day in New York isn’t available for partner awards, so you can’t use it. However, by using the American Airlines Web site, another option surfaced.

Because this flight goes into a different New York area airport, and because of the overnight layover, this route didn’t show up on the Alaska Airlines Web site (although the Alaska site, to its credit, is considerably better at piecing together unconventional itineraries than most). So, to make this price out, we have to build it as a multi-city itinerary:


You can force a routing by putting in the specific airports you want. It’s hard to see here, but I specified LGA on the inbound flight to New York, and JFK on the outbound. That caused it to price out:

priced out at 60k


So, what’s really cool about this? Before the Virgin America merger, this is not a routing that would have worked. You’d have been stuck buying a flight to New York, or booking two separate awards. However, this routing makes use of Alaska’s newly expanded network to build in positioning flights.

It this an ideal itinerary? No. There is a fuel surcharge, British Airways has a below average business class, and there is a forced overnight in New York. However, you are flying in first and business class all the way to London, and have a full day to enjoy New York along the way. While not the best option, it’s certainly not a bad option for summer travel to Europe.

The next time you’re searching for an award flight with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, don’t forget that you can add Alaska Airlines flights to your itinerary at no extra charge–if you can find partner availability. That’s the hard part, but with some creativity and a bit of luck, you can stretch your miles even farther!

Cathay Pacific First Class – SFO-HKG December 2017 (with Alaska connection)

Probably the last review you’d ever expect to read on Seat 31B is a review of Cathay Pacific first class. However, for the trip I booked to South Africa and St. Helena, the deal was just too good to pass up. I wrote more about how I found and booked the flight here.

Sea-Tac Airport was far less busy than I expected on the day after Christmas. My first flight on the itinerary was with Alaska Airlines so I checked in with them. Although I brought two bags with me, I only checked one of them because I wanted to change into a fresh pair of clothes in Hong Kong. The Alaska Airlines agent was able to check my bag all the way through to Johannesburg. This is an improvement versus when I flew Alaska and Cathay Pacific last year via Vancouver, when the Alaska agent could only check my bag as far as Vancouver and I had to claim and re-check the bag with Cathay there.

One thing I didn’t notice until I was at the security lane was that for some reason, my known traveler number hadn’t made it onto the reservation. I reserved over the phone and the agent didn’t ask for it, and I guess they didn’t automatically pull from my Alaska file like my reservations normally do. I could have gone back to straighten it out, but the premium lane was actually shorter at Sea-Tac than the precheck lane. I had to argue a bit with the agent that first class passengers are, in fact, entitled to use the premium lane (she turned me away without even looking at my ticket) but when I pressed the issue she let me through.

Alaska Airlines – Seattle Lounge And First Class

My flight was departing from the north satellite so I went to the Alaska lounge, where the agent turned me away, so I again pressed the issue. I had paid for first class, and I was flying in first class. However, when I originally booked, the itinerary was mixed cabin because there was no first class award space on the Alaska flight. Alaska waitlisted me for a first class upgrade (because I had paid for first class), and I had a high position on the upgrade list because I’d technically already paid for first class. So, two days before departure, I was upgraded to first class for the Alaska leg, but because this showed as an *upgrade* versus paid first class, the agent denied me lounge access.

Now, all of this makes complete sense using airline logic, but it didn’t actually make *common* sense. I paid for a first class fare, had a Priority Pass besides, was flying in first class, and I wasn’t allowed access to the lounge because of a technicality. I politely asked the agent whether this made sense, explaining that I’d paid for a first class fare and was flying in first class, and he finally relented and let me into the lounge. I am glad that Alaska gives front-line staff some discretion in stuff like this because kicking me out would have made no logical sense whatsoever even if I wasn’t technically “entitled.”

Picture of Alaska 737

My ride to SFO

The Alaska lounge in the north satellite is simple, functional and crowded. It is designed to be a temporary facility until Alaska builds a new lounge there in a few years. I could see why the front desk agent was so protective of the limited space. I had a bowl of soup in the lounge (Alaska is famous for its soups) and drank some refreshing cucumber water, and before too long it was time for my Alaska flight to San Francisco. Onboard, the flight attendant was senior, professional, and super friendly. Like most of the staff at Alaska it was clear she loved her job and took pride in her work. The catering onboard was the horribly named “protein plate” which is actually a Mediterranean style tapas dish. It was nice and the Bloody Mary I had along with it was properly stiff.

SFO Arrival And Cathay Pacific Lounge

My Alaska flight arrived in Terminal 2 at SFO, and Cathay Pacific departs from the international terminal. This transfer requires leaving the secure area of the airport, taking a train, and re-clearing security. The whole thing takes forever, it’s clunky and terrible, and I really hope Alaska improves the experience if they expect to effectively use SFO as a hub airport. As in Seattle, I was initially denied access to the premium lane until I pointed out that I was flying in first class. I think the reason for this is that premium cabin passengers mostly have precheck now, so they don’t use the premium lane anymore (where regular TSA security procedures apply). So the lane is primarily used by wheelchair passengers. It’s a relatively rare case where someone flying in a premium cabin actually wants to use the premium lane, so agents working these lanes are used to just denying people, probably 99% of whom don’t belong there. And I don’t look the part of someone flying in a premium cabin.

SFO yoga room

If you can’t get into the lounge, at least there’s a yoga room at SFO!

I cleared security quickly (despite the standard TSA procedures, it was much faster than the precheck lane) and headed to the Cathay Pacific lounge. The agent looked me up and down, and it was clear she also didn’t think I belonged there, but she politely asked to see my ticket. I showed it to her, and she then asked to see my return itinerary from South Africa. I had this printed out as well. After some frowning and scowling and typing, and without saying a word, she handed me new boarding passes on Cathay Pacific stock. “Are we all set?” I asked, and she said “yes.”

The Cathay lounge at San Francisco has two sides, with buffets on each side (a selection of cheap unappetizing Chinese dishes on one side, and equally cheap unappetizing Western snacks on the other), seating, and a ramen bar (which is actually pretty good, with soup made to order). With 4 hours until my flight (which became 5 hours because my flight was delayed), I figured a light snack made sense, so I had some vegetarian ramen noodles (the only non-fish option) and apple juice. I then decided that it would make sense to take a shower, so asked at the front desk. They traded my boarding pass for a key. However, when I went into the shower room, there weren’t any towels, so after tracking someone down (which was surprisingly hard) I eventually found someone to get me a towel. This shower room was at least stocked with a full selection of amenities, so I was able to shave after my shower.

cathay lounge SFO seating area

So sterile. The whole place feels like “you don’t belong here”

After taking a shower I was able to get my boarding pass back from the staff, and waited in the lounge until the flight was announced. I ignored the snacks which didn’t look at all appetizing.

gross food in cathay lounge

I don’t get why people rave about this. It’s cheap food like you get at a Chinese buffet.

So yeah. Was it a better place to spend time than the gate area? Sure. Is it worth all the fawning reviews that Cathay Pacific lounges get? Probably not. Sure, it was nice, but it was a basic lounge.

On Board – Cathay Pacific First Class

It was a long walk from the lounge to the gate. It took some work to get through the crowded gate area to the premium cabin line, but–somewhat to my surprise–nobody tried to stop me from entering it. Instead, the gate agent scanned my boarding pass and said “first door on the left, please” and she even smiled. On board, the flight attendant showed me to my seat (1A), which was immediately adjacent to the door. First class cabins on Cathay Pacific don’t have overhead bins; instead, you put your bag into a compartment that is part of the seat. Unfortunately these are a smaller size than most overhead bins so it took some work to fit my bag inside the compartment. The flight attendant watched me struggle with it but didn’t offer any assistance, and I finally managed with considerable effort to wedge my bag inside.

Cathay first class seat guest chair

Not the seat. It’s the *extra* seat.

The first class seat itself was enormous. It’s so big it comes with an extra seat. It’s nicely laid out, with fresh flowers. However, the inflight entertainment system is old. It comes with a remote control and the response time is sluggish. Also, although there is seat power, it kept switching itself off when I tried to charge my phone (this was an issue in Cathay business class as well). And to my surprise, there was no onboard WiFi.

Once we were up in the air, the flight attendants almost immediately took our dinner orders. I am allergic to some types of fish so generally avoid fish dishes unless I can control exactly what is in them. Unfortunately this narrowed my selections to Western dishes only and meant that I had to skip part of the meal, because Cathay Pacific seems to put fish in almost everything. The starter (champagne and caviar) was out, but I don’t like caviar and I can’t drink much wine (sulfite allergy) so would have skipped it anyway. I asked if I could have the Chinese pickled vegetables instead that were offered with the Chinese meal, but she was unable to accommodate this.

I did have most of the rest of the dishes and they were good. The starter was a butternut squash soup served with a bread basket.

Butternut squash soup with bread basket

Butternut squash soup with bread basket

Steak with roasted baby vegetables

Steak with roasted baby vegetables

There were only two non-fish options for the main, and one of them (mushroom ravioli) that I definitely didn’t want, so I let the flight attendant know as soon as possible that I wanted the steak and *only* the steak. Fortunately she was able to accommodate this request. Unlike the last steak I had in Cathay Pacific first class (which was tough and stringy), this one was very good. It was served medium as I requested, was accompanied by a side of roasted vegetables, and was tender and cooked to perfection.

Bread pudding

The bread pudding was excellent.

For dessert, I had bread pudding and vanilla ice cream, which was also excellent. I also requested a dram of Scotch whisky. The only single malt on offer was (if I remember right) a Glenmorangie 12, which was acceptable but not exceptional. The most expensive (but not the best) Scotch whisky on the menu was Johnny Walker Blue. The flight attendant asked if I’d like it “on the rocks.” My reply was “of course not!”

After dinner I was stuffed, and I was tired from it being late. I changed into the pair of complimentary pajamas (which are designed by a company called PYE and are supposedly expensive but I think they’re awkward to wear – they have a bunch of buttons) and while I did that, the flight attendant prepared my seat. The seat lies fully flat, and when you’re ready to sleep, the flight attendants set it up for you with a mattress pad so it turns into a bed. A lot of bloggers rave about this and say that it’s as comfortable as their bed at home, etc. I’m assuming that Cathay must have comped them the flight because while it’s OK and certainly beats flying in coach, it’s not *that* comfortable. It’s like lying on a padded bench that has a Costco mattress pad on top of it. Not one of those super fancy memory foam ones, but the cheap kind. The bedding is nice; it’s a duvet. The pillow, however, was surprisingly small.

Me in Cathay first.

The cat’s pajamas? Best thing since sliced bread? Meh. Nice, but no longer exceptional.

I woke up about 8 hours later, but it was much too early to be up and about. I watched a movie (Dunkirk) since I couldn’t sleep. It was easy to see why–despite one of my good friends working on the special effects–the movie was a box office bomb. There was no Hollywood happy ending. People want a happy ending. This movie was depressing and exhausting but that was good because I needed some extra sleep, so I passed out for another couple of hours. I walked up to the galley and asked the flight attendant to turn the bed into a seat, which she did. Breakfast came about an hour before landing, as I requested; it was scrambled eggs (freshly prepared onboard), fruit, toast (when is the last time you had that on an airplane?) and some other things. They didn’t have brewed coffee, only espresso, but I found this out when I got the “black coffee” I ordered (it was knock-you-on-your-ass strong espresso). IHOP gives you more for $7 but the quality of everything was good and I didn’t feel like I was still hungry afterwards.

Cathay first breakfast

Cathay fresh cooks your breakfast on the plane.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, the immigration wait was very short (I got right through) and I visited the Cathay Pacific arrivals lounge. The front desk agent was friendly, quick and efficient. I wanted to shower and change clothes. There’s usually a wait to get a shower, but because I was there first, I was able to get right in. The shower room had a towel this time, but no razor and shaving cream. I fortunately had my bag with me so dug these out, and after my shower I got into a fresh change of clothes. If you have a long layover in the arrivals lounge Cathay Pacific will store your bag for you, so I pulled everything heavy out of my backpack (including electronics, etc.) and put them into the bag with the pajamas from the flight. The front desk agent put the bag in storage, handing me a claim check, and notified me that, if I’d rather check it now, I could check in my bag upstairs onward to Johannesburg if I wanted. I had some more coffee, juice and a breakfast pastry in the lounge and as it got close to 9:00am (bank opening time), I made my way upstairs. It was fast and easy to check my bag onward to Johannesburg and I went out into Hong Kong to buy some UK pounds, do some shopping, and have a business dinner. However, when I checked in my bag, the agent had to take all of the same information about my return flight as the lounge agent in San Francisco had. The first agent must have entered it incorrectly and it was annoying having to provide all of the same information again.

hong kong computer market

There are few things I love more than a Hong Kong computer market!

Cathay Pacific – The Wing First Class Lounge

I arrived back at the airport about 3 hours before my flight, retrieved my stuff from the arrivals lounge with no issues, and got right through security and immigration. This was in the regular line, not any sort of premium or VIP line. Hong Kong is just that efficient–the airport is exceptionally well-run. I headed to The Wing, which is the Cathay Pacific first class lounge. I had been in this lounge before (last year on my flight back from Myanmar) but on the business class side. When I arrived I was suddenly surrounded by lounge attendants who approached me immediately in a very polite but firm way (they were almost running). Then they looked at my ticket and welcomed me into the lounge.

The first class side is virtually identical to the business class side of the lounge, except that there isn’t a noodle bar and it’s less crowded. It’s honestly nothing special at all. The only thing special about it is who is there. I am pretty sure I saw Elon Musk, but I followed “Hollywood rules” which are that you never engage someone famous, you only respond if they engage you. And guy-who-was-possibly-Elon didn’t engage me so I will never know for sure if that’s who it was.

I took a shower–the first class shower suites are slightly fancier than normal, with a special chute you can stick shirts through to be ironed. They magically get ironed and hung back up in the closet. And the room is slightly larger than the business class lounge. Other than that–I honestly couldn’t believe this: there wasn’t a razor and shaving cream! Cathay Pacific has started doing the same cheapskate thing that the Ramada Inn does, where they don’t stock things in the room and you have to go ask for them at the front desk. Except what am I going to do, walk out there dripping wet with a towel wrapped around me? Or get dressed, go out, ask for the thing I want, and then go back and shave? Instead, I went without shaving, which is exactly what Cathay wanted. I am sure they might have saved up to 75 cents. Oh, and those foot massages everyone raves about? Those aren’t in the first class lounge either. They’re in an entirely different business class lounge. Also, the Scotch whisky served in the first class lounge is blended. And it was offered “on the rocks.” I swear I am not making this up.

There are no pictures here because I didn’t want to make other people in the lounge feel uncomfortable by taking them–but you can find plenty of other pictures online and it was really nothing special. The service isn’t better. The catering isn’t better. The alcohol isn’t higher quality. You don’t even get shower amenities without asking for them. I think the only real reason to sit in a first class Cathay Pacific lounge is if you’re famous and don’t want to be around ordinary people. And just like the SFO lounge, it was just totally sterile and lifeless.

My connecting flight onward to Johannesburg was in business class because Cathay Pacific doesn’t operate a first class cabin anymore on that route. I’m going to leave off here because that was the end of the “first class” experience and write another review of the business class flight.

Cathay First? Meh.

You have probably picked up by now that I’m not giddily raving about the experience like most bloggers do. Sure, it was nice, and definitely beat sitting in the back, and it was still a pretty good value for the 70,000 miles and $70 or so that I spent. However, if I’d paid cash for this flight, it would have cost almost $25,000. This is about 4 times what a paid business class fare would have cost. It was more than 10 times what a premium economy class ticket would have cost. Was it worth that much? Not even close! The service and attention to detail simply wasn’t there. For that much money, I expect at least the level of amenities that I can get at a Holiday Inn Express without having to fight for them. I expect some Chinese pickled vegetables if I want them (come on, Cathay, this is a pretty common Chinese snack and it’s certainly not expensive). I expect a proper, fine, 18 year old Islay Scotch whisky on the beverage menu–or something equally special–and I certainly don’t expect to have it offered to me “on the rocks.” I mean, who does that?

I also expect at least the level of care and attention that I get in first class on an Alaska flight, where a single flight attendant is looking after up to 16 passengers versus the two flight attendants looking after 6 passengers on a Cathay flight. The crew on the flight was professional, but when I wanted water, I had to go looking for them. After the third time I walked to the galley and asked for a bottle of water, you’d think they’d have figured out where I was keeping my water bottle and made sure I always had a full one (I drink a lot of water on planes because of the dry air). I mean, China Eastern literally did a better job of keeping me hydrated in economy class. They came around with water, I didn’t even have to go ask for it.


So, should you fly Cathay Pacific in first class? On the Alaska award chart, it can still make sense. It’s only incrementally more expensive than business class, so if it’s available, go for it! However, on the American, Avios or Asia Miles award chart, or *especially* if you’re paying cash, it’s just silly. First class is slightly better than business class in some respects, but actually worse in others (I’ll take a fancy lounge with a noodle bar and foot massages over a stuffy lounge with bad whisky and Elon Musk in it, and I’ll take an overhead bin that can fit my bag over having to manhandle my bag into a tight space). And I expect at least the level of beverage service that I’d get in economy class. Ultimately, these are all “first world problems” but when you’re paying as much for a flight as most cars cost, it’s completely reasonable to expect an exceptional experience. And I just didn’t get that.


How To Convert Virgin America Travel Bank to Alaska Airlines

While it has been possible for a long time to convert Virgin America Elevate points to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles (and a forced conversion took place at the beginning of the year), there wasn’t anything that could be done with Virgin America Travel Bank credits other than spending them on Virgin America flights. However, there have been fewer and fewer Virgin America flights to spend them on and I was hoping that Alaska would come up with a solution. This has finally happened.

If you log onto your Virgin America account, you can now convert your Travel Bank credits to Alaska. Just click the link:

convert credit to Alaska

You will be linked off to a special page where you can enter your account details:




Log in with your Virgin America account (not your Alaska account), and you’ll see the following screen:


All you will need to do then is agree to the terms, and Alaska will email you a credit certificate and PIN. These come in two separate emails, and I got mine almost immediately.

success pageYou can either buy a flight using the discount code on the check-out page, or you can add the certificate to “My Wallet” on your Alaska Airlines account (click Deposit a card or certificate). Note that the expiration date is carried over from your Virgin America account to your Alaska account. However, when you add a credit to “My Wallet,” Alaska applies expiring credits before non-expiring credits (such as those received from gift certificates), and by default, it spends them down in expiration order. Do note that if you buy a flight and then cancel it, you will lose the value of the credit.

With the Virgin America mileage program closing for good on February 8th, it’s a nice gesture that Alaska will allow this credit to be usable. It wasn’t clear whether these credits would expire along with Virgin America, and I’m glad that Alaska did the right thing here. That being said, I do recommend moving on this fast, because this opportunity may disappear along with the Virgin America Elevate program.

Planning And Preparing To Visit St. Helena

I’ll admit it: advance planning and preparation isn’t always my strong suit. A lot of the time when I travel, I like to book at the last minute and figure things out when I get there. St. Helena is not a destination where you can really get away with doing this so if you are planning to visit, planning and preparing in advance is essential.

Part of this is because St. Helena Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It’s slightly less remote than it used to be because there is now one flight a week, on a plane with 70 seats for sale (this is a tough flight to book, but I wrote instructions here). So, presuming you’re starting from South Africa, you can get there in a day.

Nevertheless, you can’t just show up and hope it’ll all work out. Really, you can’t. The population is only 4,255 people and while they do have some tourism infrastructure, it is limited and not fully developed. What is there is, of course, civilized (St. Helena is part of the UK after all), but you can’t just breeze into town and expect to be able to rent a car and find a hotel easily. In fact, the wrong assumptions can get you deported.

Have A Visa If You Need One

st helena passport stamp

You will be stamped in for exactly the length of your visit–no longer!

Numerous places on the Internet state that anyone can enter St. Helena for a period of up to 180 days without a visa. This is totally wrong. St. Helena has changed its visa policy with the initiation of flights. It mirrors the visa requirements for the United Kingdom except that South Africans, unlike when visiting the main part of the UK, do not need a visa.

In addition, St. Helena has Airlink (the airline) enforce this and given that the policies are different for St. Helena and Ascension island, sometimes the check-in agents will claim that only US and UK passports are allowed. Given that I had to remind the Airlink check-in agent that my passport was in fact a US passport, I decided not to argue the point any further.

Also, note that you won’t get 180 days automatically. You’ll be stamped in for only the exact number of days that you can prove that you have accommodations. My passport was stamped in for only a week, because my departure was then. I initially thought that this was pretty unfriendly because I’d be committing an immigration violation with no way to avoid it if the flight was delayed through no fault of my own. However, the tourist office explained that an extension would in fact be granted in such a circumstance. I still think that the policy limits flexibility (I wouldn’t have been able to extend my stay if I had wanted to do so), but these are the rules as they currently stand.

Round Trip Tickets Are Required

Obviously, because of the immigration policy above, you’re required to book (and show proof of) a round-trip ticket. It’s not possible to book a one way ticket, have an indeterminate visit, and then buy your return ticket on the island when you decide you want to leave. Again, this is just not a travel destination that allows for much spontaneity or flexibility. You need to make a specific plan and you’ll have to stick to it.

Travel Insurance Is Required

Travel insurance in the amount of GBP 1,000,000 is required to visit the island and the airline checks this before you’re allowed to board a flight. Fortunately the airline missed that the insurance was in USD rather than GBP, and fortunately St. Helena immigration officials also let that slide (technically, they could have deported me). Most visitors on my flight didn’t know that they had to provide proof of insurance and were scrambling to show it at the airport. This is checked when your boarding passes are issued, again before boarding the plane, and once more when clearing St. Helena immigration. They are really serious about this but they don’t sell insurance at the airport either.

You Need A Place To Stay

You aren’t allowed to enter St. Helena without accommodations already secured. They still do things very much the old fashioned way on the island. Accommodations aren’t listed on Web booking platforms like airbnb or, and for the most part, you can’t pay with a credit card either. Instead, you need to book through the St. Helena Tourism office.

This doesn’t happen instantly. The way it works is you email the tourist office (don’t call, because it costs a minimum of $1.50 per minute), then they call everyone on the island who rents rooms to see if any are available, and they’ll get back to you with a list of what’s available. This might be an extremely short list. When I reached out, there were only two options available, both relatively top end for the island. It took a few more days to sort things out and I only had the accommodations finalized the day before I arrived.

What I didn’t realize until I got there was just how high stakes having accommodations is. While the St. Helena tourism office does come to the airport to meet every flight, and presumably they can try to assist you last-minute, you’ll actually be turned around and sent home by immigration authorities if there isn’t anywhere for you to stay on the island. I normally travel pretty casually, making things up as I go and figuring things out when I get there. That’s just fine in most places (and often gets you great last-minute deals) but it 100% doesn’t work in St. Helena.


St. Helena bungalow

I stayed in this tidy bungalow for GBP 60 per night

The upshot? The place where I stayed was perfectly lovely! It was a “self catering cottage” which meant a house with a kitchen. The place was spotless but didn’t come with maid service. A couple of hotels are also available in Jamestown, but at much higher prices than the properties you can rent. These, however, come with amenities such as a restaurant and bar, and maid service is provided.

Book A Car In Advance

old rental car

Old, dented, manual transmission, but I was happy to have it!

If you’re wanting to explore the island, you’ll need a car… or be prepared to spend a lot on taxis. Since I hadn’t really booked in advance, the tourist office couldn’t arrange a car for me because none were available. The owner of my home was fortunately willing to drive me to the house (at an extra charge), and it turned out she knew someone who knew someone who had a car. It showed up a day later with a handshake and no paperwork (I didn’t even know I was paying GBP 12 daily until the end), so everything ultimately worked out and I was able to tour the island. However, it very well might not have worked out! I just got lucky, because a vehicle that was out of service when I originally tried to book was able to be returned to service, and my host just happened to know this.

There are no brand name rental car companies on the island. The companies are all family owned. None of them take credit cards, so your credit card insurance doesn’t apply either. Fortunately all of the companies include local insurance with your car rental, and the deductible is fairly low with a small out-of-pocket expense for damages (under GBP 100).

It’s worth noting that rental cars are equipped with manual transmissions and they have right-hand drive (which doesn’t matter much, because most roads on St. Helena are one lane, but your points of reference will all be different if you’re used to driving left-hand drive vehicles).

Print Out Everything

Mobile phones are still a relatively new and very expensive luxury on St. Helena, so immigration officials aren’t very used to navigating smartphones yet. Also, there isn’t any roaming data signal and there is no free WiFi in the airport, so your phone will be completely useless anyway (unless you have downloaded all of your documents). I saw a lot of folks fumbling with phones that weren’t working well and it was obviously uncomfortable for everyone involved. Print out all of your documentation proving your bona fides: your itinerary, housing arrangements, and travel insurance. Immigration authorities in St. Helena are friendly, but very thorough, and you can expect they will check this.

Bring Cash (In GBP)

St. Helena is almost entirely a cash economy, but there are no ATMs on the island. Let me repeat: There are no ATMs on the island. Yes, I know it’s 2018, but there is only one bank and it’s best avoided because it is both extremely archaic and extremely expensive to deal with. If you need money, they can only give you a cash advance from your credit card with a massive fee, plus the massive fee your bank charges on top of it. They will also change US dollars, euros or South African rand at poor rates.

uk pounds cash

The solution is to bring UK pounds with you, in cash. Where do you get those? I bought mine at HSBC on a layover in Hong Kong on the way to St. Helena where good rates are available. You can get them in South Africa at rates that aren’t as good as in Hong Kong or the UK, but better than on St. Helena.

You will need enough cash for everything you plan to do on the island. The number of places that take credit cards can be counted on one hand, and they all levy a stiff surcharge for accepting them.

While you can pay for things with UK pounds on the island, you’ll generally get your change in St. Helena pounds. These are worthless (except as souvenirs) as soon as you leave the island so you have to change them into UK pounds before you leave. The Bank of St. Helena will do this, but charges a 2% fee for changing your pounds into… well, pounds. However, St. Helena people are very friendly, so if you tell them you’re leaving the island and ask for change in UK pounds, they’ll try to accommodate your request if they can.

Don’t Miss Your Flight

“Don’t miss the boat” has turned into “don’t miss your flight.” There is only one flight a week, so when you’re visiting St. Helena, it’s really important that you don’t miss your flight. Two of the passengers for our flight showed up late, in fact, and nearly missed the flight. It’s easier to miss the flight than you might think. It leaves from a bus gate all the way at the far end of Johannesburg airport, about a 10 minute walk from any of the airport lounges. Because the gate is a bus gate, they just load everyone on the bus exactly when boarding starts. So if you aren’t there at the boarding time listed on your ticket, you actually missed the flight.

The two late passengers didn’t know it was a bus gate and figured that the start of boarding time wouldn’t be the end of boarding time, because it never is. Only because it would have taken the gate agent longer to offload their bags than to send the bus back to pick up the wayward passengers were they accommodated. If they’d showed up 3 minutes later, the result would have been the opposite.

Bring Supplies–But Mind The Quarantine

There are a handful of stores on the island and they do carry a basic selection of groceries and consumer goods. However, nearly every food item for sale on St. Helena (with the exception of some local fish, produce, eggs, bread, meat and coffee) is imported and therefore extremely expensive due to the very high cost of freight. I also don’t want to overstate how many local goods are actually available; I didn’t see a single egg for sale the whole time I was there, and bread is only available a couple of times each week. Many of the goods sold originate from the UK which means they are shipped first from there to South Africa, and then onward to St. Helena. Given my experience visiting similarly remote parts of Alaska, I knew that it was probably a good idea to maximize my baggage allowance and bring as many groceries with me as possible.

This turned out to be a very good decision, keeping in mind the baggage limitations. This is important: The baggage allowance on flights to South Africa is 23kg, but it’s 20kg within South Africa and from South Africa to St. Helena. I brought a large check-in bag and loaded it to exactly 20kg, then put all the heaviest things into my carry-on bag which was not weighed. If your bag is overweight, this will backfire because airline fees are very high for overweight baggage.

What did I bring? Stuff that I thought would be difficult or expensive to find there, could survive an 11,000 mile trip, and could clear St. Helena’s strict quarantine (canned and packaged food is OK, nearly everything else is out). The quarantine is really very important to follow because it protects the unique biodiversity on the island–the most important forbidden item is honey, but you should declare everything you have and let the authorities take whatever they want (I invited them to inspect my stuff and they were fine with all of it). Among the things I brought were tortillas, refried beans, Parmesan cheese, rice milk, breakfast supplies like pancake mix and oatmeal and granola bars, snacks, Tabasco sauce, taco sauce, real Vermont maple syrup… you’d be surprised how much you can fit in 20 kilos if you buy stuff that is not in heavy packaging. This saved me a bundle, easily more than $100. Was it a little more hassle dealing with a checked bag? Yes, but for $100, I really didn’t mind the hassle. I was mostly right on the items that would be hard to find there, but the variety of goods available was a little better than I was expecting. It was also totally worth it when I got to enjoy a stack of delicious pancakes on the patio.

View from the patio

A taste of home is a lot sweeter when it comes with this view!

Obviously, I didn’t use up everything I brought with me, so I just left the extra for the next visitors. I mean, how much of a treat is it to show up on St. Helena and find Snoqualmie Falls Lodge pancake mix in the cupboard and pure maple syrup in the refrigerator? A pretty big one for me, and the homeowner (Mrs. George) seemed to think it would be a nice surprise for them too.

If you don’t buy groceries to bring with you, at least bring your own booze. Max out the Customs allowance. It’s very expensive on St. Helena so if you want to enjoy a cocktail, you will be glad you brought it with you!


St. Helena is a wonderful holiday destination, but getting there requires considerably more planning and preparation than most destinations. The economy there is frozen in an era before ATMs and credit cards, and it is also expensive once you arrive. While St. Helena is not a budget travel destination, you can still save a lot of money on unnecessary expenses through advance planning.

How To Book A Ticket To St. Helena

For pretty much the entire history of St. Helena Island, the only way to get there has been to take a boat. In recent times, this has taken 5 days each direction from Cape Town aboard the RMS St. Helena. However, you can now fly there, and while there will undoubtedly still be opportunities to arrive by ship (most likely by cruise ship), the vast majority of travelers will be flying.

Forget Using Miles

However, believe it or not, it’s surprisingly difficult to book a flight there. It’s not the most complicated ticket in the world to book, but it’s close. Let me first get one thing out of the way: Unless you somehow have an absolutely crazy number of South African Airways Voyager points (because the only award flights available are extremely expensive under this program), this flight can’t be booked with miles. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways (SA) and operates their flights with SA flight numbers, but they don’t participate directly in StarAlliance. This means their flights aren’t bookable with StarAlliance miles like SA flights are. They’re only booked with South African Airways Voyager points. Unless you’re in South Africa, there is no easy or practical way to obtain these.

Forget Using Bank Points

This means you have to book with cash. However, even this is very complicated because the airport is so new that it doesn’t show up on a lot of online travel agencies yet, and because the airline (Airlink) publishes fares between only an extremely limited number of cities.

hle airport error

Want to book a flight to St. Helena? Most travel sites (such as Priceline) can’t handle it.

So, the next thing I thought was using bank points. Unfortunately none of the bank portals work, so forget using bank points to buy the ticket (unless you have a card that lets you use the points to reimburse a charge made on another travel Web site).

Forget Using Most Online Travel Agencies

On Expedia, the airport doesn’t exist. It does on Priceline, but you can’t actually book any flights to St. Helena; the booking engine doesn’t seem to work for this airport on the back end. Just before Christmas when I was buying my ticket, no travel agent site I tried could sell me the ticket.

Forget Buying From Airlink

Of course, you can always try to buy directly from the Airlink Web site. It theoretically works but is difficult to navigate, links you off to South African Airways, charges you in South African Rand, isn’t really set up to deal with US cards, and … well, let’s just say that banks in the US typically take a dim view of making charges on African Web sites. If the charge goes through at all (which it didn’t for me), expect it to be immediately flagged for fraud.

Forget Buying From American Airlines

American Airlines has a really powerful booking engine because the Sabre reservations system was originally developed by them. They used to be able to sell you tickets for almost any flight on any airline on their Web site (you had to use “Advanced Search” but it worked). Unfortunately they don’t do this anymore. So I tried calling them. The agent found the flight, quoted me a price, started to sell me a ticket, and then stopped and refused to proceed. It turns out that now, they’ll only sell you a ticket if an American flight is included on the itinerary. Since I wasn’t also buying a ticket on American, they wouldn’t take my money. I was surprised, but not surprised–it is American, after all.

Finally, A Breakthrough

This gave me an idea though. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways, which is a StarAlliance member. Well, United is also a StarAlliance member. Might it be possible to buy a ticket on the United Web site? I’d looked for award tickets, but hadn’t looked for paid ones. As it turns out, you can, and it’s reasonably easy. Not only is it possible to search for flights an entire month at a time (so you can easily find what day the flight operates), but you can book it on a US Web site and pay in US dollars. And you can book the real price, not the Orbitz price with fake taxes included:

Buying on United site costs less

Buying tickets to St. Helena from United instead of Orbitz will save you almost $30.

I was buying a ticket from Johannesburg and returning to Cape Town, so I didn’t even notice the routing problems you can encounter. More on that later.

Orbitz Works–With A Catch

Last week, Orbitz became the first major travel booking site to start selling tickets to St. Helena. Sort of. The site does technically work, but it’s very hard to search for flights (because there is only one flight a week and it doesn’t always go on the same day). Also, the site sneakily (and I think borderline deceptively) charges close to $30 in fees hidden in with the taxes:

orbitz ripoff

Orbitz sneaks fees disguised as taxes into your ticket price!

Forget Buying A Through Ticket

Of course, there is another problem: Even if you’re using the United Web site, you can’t search for flights and buy tickets the way that you normally do because of how the fare is published. What does this mean? Well, normally, when I want to fly from Seattle to somewhere, I look for a ticket directly from Seattle to that destination (in this case, Jamestown, St. Helena or HLE airport). Here is what happens when you do that:

no scheduled flights error

I assure you there actually are flights. You just searched wrong.

The problem is that Airlink, the operating carrier, only appears to publish two routes to and from St. Helena, one each from Cape Town and Johannesburg. So, if you’re trying to buy a ticket to or from anywhere else involving St. Helena, you can’t actually do it. You have to buy a ticket to South Africa from wherever you are, and then another ticket onward to St. Helena from there.

It’s Worth The Effort

St. Helena is one of the world’s most unique and special destinations. Visiting is an incredible experience. As much effort as it has historically been to visit, the island hasn’t been overtaken by tourism yet. Now that visiting doesn’t require a 10-day roundtrip on a boat, the island is much more accessible than before. Go now!

Should I Spend Or Save My Points?

Very often, I work with people who have accumulated large points balances. However, when the opportunity arises to spend their points on a very good redemption, they often balk and start looking at paid flights or other options to save points and spend cash instead.

Whenever this happens, it drives me a little bit insane. I don’t think most people think this through and since I’ve had the same conversation multiple times this week, I think it’s probably worth pulling this together into a post.

Understanding Factors Influencing Points Valuations

There are ways that points can become more valuable, and there are ways that points can become less valuable. Over the past few years we have seen both of these, but the overall trend is devaluation and I don’t think there are many opportunities left for points to increase in value.


Which lever will your airline pull?

Airlines can increase or decrease the value of points in the following ways:

  1. Changing the price of awards.
  2. Increasing or decreasing flexibility, based on the rules involved.
  3. Adding or removing booking fees, such as telephone booking fees or close-in booking fees.
  4. Imposing or removing co-payments (often called fuel surcharges) for awards.
  5. Making more or fewer flights available on which you can redeem your points.
  6. Making it easier or harder to earn points through flights or with partners.
  7. Causing your points to expire sooner.
  8. Adding partners with whom you can redeem awards, giving more options to redeem.


As you can see airlines have a lot of levers to pull in their programs, which can move in either direction, and they pull them frequently. You need to keep these in mind when you consider saving your points. What follows are some of the reasons people most often decide to save, rather than spend their points:

Pursuing Value

It is rational to keep an asset when you believe that it will grow in value. Conversely, it’s rational to liquidate an asset when you believe it will fall in value, or will grow in value at a rate that is slower than inflation.

This gets tricky with miles and points because there is a very lopsided value distribution. For most people, the greatest value for miles comes at the top end of the award chart, for international business and first class award tickets. However, these are also the hardest to book (so difficult, in fact, that people pay points consultants like AwardCat) and the most subject to airline award chart devaluations.

If you save your points vs. spending them immediately, you’re making a bet. I think there is only one good reason to do it:

  • You plan to redeem your points for a top-tier award, and you have a strategy to earn the points in order to do it.
  • You feel confident that you’ll be able to redeem the award you’re pursuing before the goal posts move.

Preserving Optionality

A lot of people try to preserve optionality. “I might take a trip in the future that is more valuable or expensive,” they think, so they pay cash now and save their points. There can be some logic to this, but you need to be strategic about it and consider what your needs really are.

I don’t think it makes any sense to speculate on the potential cost of a trip you’re planning on taking later, and whether there will even be availability on points then. In 3 years, we have gone from seeing Iceland be one of the most expensive places in the world to visit down to one of the cheapest places to reach (although the prices when you get there are another story!). We have also gone from American Airlines having extremely generous award availability to almost no award availability. The only thing you can be certain about in the miles and points sphere is that your points will generally lose value at a rate far higher than inflation.

blue lagoon

It used to be expensive to visit Iceland. Now Reykjavik is one of the cheapest flights to Europe.

I do think there is some value in having enough points to deal with a last-minute emergency without paying an arm and a leg. This is one of the most valuable ways to use points–flights to small airports on short notice; the kind of stuff that looks to the airline like business travel for which they charge a premium. However, this requires being strategic about the points programs you are using and this will generally involve transferable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, and American Express points.

Remember #3 above, booking fees? American and United both charge a close-in booking fee. Delta and Alaska charge more points for last-minute bookings (although Alaska does so within a fixed range; Delta has no upper limit). This leaves foreign programs such as Aeroplan, LifeMiles, Korean Air, Flying Blue, and Avios with fixed redemption values and no close-in booking fees. However, you’re really not going to know which airline has availability at the last minute, so it’s unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket.

History Of Devaluations

Airlines have frequently devalued their award charts. At the same time that this has been done, they have sometimes (though not always) added “sweeteners” to make the devaluation seem less bad. For example, the first broad industry round of chart devaluations was accompanied by an improvement in flexibility. Although the number of miles required for a round-trip flight went up, it became possible to book one way tickets. Most airlines now publish charts on a one way basis.

Delta has devalued more frequently than any other award program. However, one Delta award chart devaluation came with a promise that SkyMiles would never expire. Another Delta devaluation was spun as an increase in availability, because any Delta flight can now be booked with no blackout dates (popular dates just now require a ridiculous number of miles to book). The Delta devaluation after that dropped the price of some short-haul flights when booked in advance.

venezuela government store

After an award program devaluation, you can queue for the scraps.

So, it’s sort of like Venezuela handing out vouchers for staples while devaluing the Bolivar. Yeah, your savings just evaporated, and you can’t afford to buy anything nice anymore, but here, have a few rolls of toilet paper. Subject to availability, of course.

Points You Should Always Spend

It almost never makes sense to save Southwest Airlines or jetBlue points if you plan to book a flight on either airline. This is because these points can be redeemed at a fixed value toward the cost of a ticket. There is no history of the fixed value increasing; it has only decreased. Accordingly, if you have enough points for the flight, you should spend these points instead of cash.


Given the lack of credibility airline award programs have, the frequent history of devaluation, and the fact that miles and points sometimes devalue without prior notice, it continues to astonish me that people want to hold onto their points rather than spending them. If you think their value will go up, can I also interest you in some Venezuelan Bolivars?

I do think it can make sense to hold a small balance of transferable points for emergencies. And it can also make sense to save up over a short period for a specific premium cabin redemption. However, it generally doesn’t make any financial sense to save your points. They are a depreciating asset.

What’s the biggest reason I think people have trouble spending their points? 100,000 points just sounds like an awful lot. It isn’t, though. In reality, it’s just enough points to fly a family of four to Disney World in economy class. But given how much Disney tickets cost these days, wouldn’t you rather save the money for the park instead of spending it on the flights? Spend your points. You can earn more!

MEGA POST: Flying Alaska Airlines For Fewer Points

Since its merger with Virgin America, Alaska Airlines has a lot more reach than in the past. It is an airline that has been growing like crazy anyway, and with the addition of the Virgin America network, there are a lot more opportunities to connect than were previously available. This means that if you’re based on the West Coast (or traveling to the West Coast) it’s a lot more practical to use Alaska for cross-country flights than it used to be. Alaska has also added a ton of service to Hawaii and they fly to Costa Rica for good measure. They are also a great airline to fly (and one of my favorites) offering friendly Pacific Northwest hospitality, power at every seat, and free WiFi on every plane.

alaska airlines jet

Eskimo tails are showing up all over the country

One of the great things about Alaska Airlines is the number of partners it has. You’ll see plenty of blog articles extolling the virtues of its Mileage Plan, and I do think that Mileage Plan is pretty good overall. However, it’s not always the best program for booking flights on Alaska Airlines itself. Alaska’s partners sometimes have better award pricing.

Alaska has such a large number of partners that, with one exception, I am focusing on partners to whom you can transfer points. Other partners, such as Hainan and JAL, are primarily useful to people based in their respective local markets.

Programs I Recommend

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

While Mileage Plan isn’t always a good deal for Alaska Airlines flights, it sometimes is. For flights on Alaska Airlines, Mileage Plan has two very good sweet spots:

  • A stopover is allowed on one-way flights, provided you redeem at the highest 12,500 mile saver award level. This allows you to visit two cities on the same trip with one ticket. I wrote more about how to do this here.
  • Short-haul awards, when booked in advance, cost as little as 5,000 miles.
  • Domestic US award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles start at 7,500 points, versus 10,000 or more points with other programs.


Stopovers are cool, but they have limited utility for most people outside Alaska (where they are sometimes necessary, which is why I think Alaska Airlines still allows them). While it’s fun to add a tag flight to Anchorage onto your award flight from, say, LA to Seattle, it doesn’t really do you much good if you weren’t actually planning to visit there.

The real sweet spot? Almost any other airline program you use is going to charge a minimum of 7,500 points for an award flight on Alaska Airlines, so Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan can be significantly less expensive on short-haul flights. There is a catch, though. Alaska Airlines generally doesn’t give seats away at these award levels when you book at the last minute. You’ll need to book 3 weeks or more in advance.

Another sweet spot is award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles. On most award charts, these are more expensive than the 7,500 miles Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan charges. The same advance purchase requirements apply as for short-haul awards.

British Airways Avios

British Airways has a distance based award chart. It’s roughly aligned with Alaska’s distance based award chart, with similar award levels. However, you have to watch out because along with the sweet spots, there are some “sour spots.” For example, the Avios chart is usually more expensive than Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan for flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles (I say “usually” because Alaska has a variable award chart and charges more for flights booked on short notice).

The program is also quirky in that it charges per flight. This means that if your flight involves a connection, using Avios could make your award much more expensive than in other programs. And a further quirk is that you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights online. Instead, you have to call in, and let’s just say that British Airways doesn’t run the same kind of top-notch call center operation that Alaska does.

Here are the things I think are best about using Avios for Alaska Airlines flights:

  • If you don’t have airline status, it’s the cheapest way to book Alaska Airlines flights you want to reserve, but might need to cancel. The cancellation fee is just $5.60 per segment for US domestic flights (for some reason there’s a massive change fee, so it’s cheaper to cancel and rebook).
  • The award chart is strictly distance based with no zones or borders. So, for example, you can fly from Los Angeles to Mazatlan for just 7,500 Avios each way. I think that’s far more interesting than the 12,500 Avios from the West Coast to Hawaii that every other blogger beats to death.
  • It’s relatively easy to get Avios. They transfer from HSBC Premier, American Express and Chase along with many hotel programs. There are also lots of bonus opportunities through the Avios shopping portal.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and award pricing doesn’t change. It’s the same price if you book 3 hours in advance as it is if you book 3 weeks in advance.


The downside? Awards are a little complicated to book, not searchable online, and availability is limited compared to what Alaska Airlines makes available to their own members. Still, this program is a great way to save points when booking Alaska Airlines flights.

Korean Air Skypass

Hardly anyone writes about using Korean Air Skypass for booking Alaska Airlines flights, and I think it’s probably because almost nobody does it. Also, there is a lot of speculation lately that this partnership will end soon, because Alaska’s relationships with other SkyTeam carriers have ended. Nevertheless, provided you are willing to deal with how much of a hassle this program is, it can be great to use if you’re traveling over a longer distance. Here are the advantages:

  • Flights within the US (except for Hawaii) cost 20,000 points roundtrip.
  • Flights to Mexico, Hawaii or Costa Rica cost 30,000 points roundtrip.
  • A stopover and an open jaw are both allowed.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and pricing doesn’t go up close to departure.


A lot of the reasons why round-trip awards are hard to book can be worked around with the generous stopover and open jaw rules. For example, you could fly from Seattle to San Francisco, stop over for a few days, continue to New York, take the train to Philadelphia, then return to Seattle from there. Not only does this allow you to visit 3 cities on a single ticket, but it gives you more options to find award availability.

So, what are the downsides?

  • You can only book tickets for yourself and immediate family, and family relationships require a lot of paperwork to prove.
  • Award tickets for travel on Alaska Airlines can’t be booked online. You have to book over the phone, and the call center is (to put it politely) difficult to work with. The agents are not native English speakers and they are kept on very strict timers, so try to rush the booking process.
  • Only round-trip itineraries are allowed.
  • Even though Delta is a Korean Air partner, you can’t mix and match with Alaska flights. You can only fly Alaska Airlines (including Horizon Air and Skywest flights marketed as Alaska).
  • Availability is more limited than to Alaska Airlines’ own members.


If you’re traveling over a long distance, though, this program is a no-brainer. 20,000 miles roundtrip from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale is impossible to beat. It’s even really good for more conventional transcontinental flights such as from Seattle to New York.

It’s also a good deal for flights to Costa Rica when booking from certain regions. These cost 35,000 points when you redeem Korean Air SkyPass miles on Delta, but it’s only 30,000 points when redeeming on Alaska.

Note there is, from some regions, a better “sweet spot” with Costa Rica redemptions using Singapore KrisFlyer. However, this award isn’t available from all zones on their chart whereas there are no zone restrictions using Korean Air Skypass.

Singapore KrisFlyer

Singapore is one of Alaska Airlines’ newest partners. In fact, they are so new that as of this writing, you can’t redeem Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles on Singapore flights. Nevertheless, Singapore KrisFlyer members are able to use their miles on Alaska Airlines flights.

The award chart appears to have been created by an intern who has very limited knowledge of US geography. It was obviously rushed out with very little review, because among other things it has invented the states of “North Dakorta,” “Goergia” and “Alsaka.” I was absolutely baffled the first time I saw it. Over time, I’m guessing Singapore will tighten it up, but for the time being, there are some amazing sweet spots. Here’s what I like about the chart:

  • One way awards are allowed, and connections en route are (in practice) allowed at no additional charge.
  • It’s as easy to get KrisFlyer miles as it is to get Avios. All the same programs apply.
  • Costa Rica and most Mexico flights are a crazy value. It’s only 12,000 points each way from most of the West Coast to Costa Rica or Mexico on Alaska Airlines.
  • Flying from Canada to Hawaii is only 11,500 points.
  • It’s 12,000 points from the West Coast to Hawaii, and only 12,500 points to Hawaii from the Midwest and mid-South. This is an especially good option for people in Dallas where award availability from the former Virgin America mini-hub at Love Field is excellent.
  • If you’re based in Dallas, last-minute flights to the East Coast from Love Field are excellent value. The price is the same as Alaska’s own distance-based chart, but it doesn’t go up close to departure.


The downsides:

  • The Singapore chart blocks a lot of routes. Las Vegas to Costa Rica? Well, even though you could easily connect in LAX, it’s not an option. The same applies from the East Coast to Costa Rica.
  • The Singapore chart is very expensive for short-haul flights to Alaska (such as from Seattle to southeast Alaska). Seattle to Ketchikan can be as little as 5,000 points on the Alaska award chart, but it’s 12,000 on the Singapore chart.
  • Intra-Alaska flights are extremely expensive because they cost the same as a flight from Alaska to Hawaii (which, on the other hand, is extremely cheap at just 12.5k miles).
  • No stopovers are permitted. Technically, “transfers” are not permitted either, but this seems to only apply to co-terminals (meaning no airport changes are allowed).
  • You can’t book Alaska Airlines flights with KrisFlyer miles online. Instead, you have to call in, and dealing with the KrisFlyer call center can be a challenge (to put it lightly).


To me, what is the best sweet spot? Costa Rica. It’s less expensive on the Singapore chart than any other award chart. While the Avios chart can be cheaper to a handful of Mexican destinations from Los Angeles, the Singapore chart beats it hands down if you’re going to or from anywhere else.

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

While Cathay Pacific has a fairly expensive award chart for most flights on Alaska Airlines, they can deliver equivalent value to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan if you need to take a trip with a lot of stops. This is because Asia Miles allows you to take up to 5 stopovers on an award, and you can also include two open jaw connections. ** Edit: Technically you’re only allowed 2 stopovers because it’s a non-Oneworld award, but in practice agents have allowed me to do 5. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s an example. You could travel from Los Angeles to Seattle, stop for 3 days, continue to Ketchikan, take the ferry from there to Juneau, continue from Juneau 4 days later to Anchorage, stay a week, return from Anchorage to Seattle, take the train to Portland, and then continue 2 days later to Los Angeles on a flight that connects in San Francisco. The whole itinerary would cost 30,000 Asia Miles, which is the same number of points as if you booked with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and fully optimized your stopovers.

You can’t book this kind of itinerary online. Instead, you have to call in and work with the Asia Miles call center. Note that the Asia Miles program is very complicated and it can take a long time for agents to review the rules and ensure that your booking confirms. Some agents will claim you can’t do something that is actually allowed (they apparently get in a lot of trouble if they make any mistakes), so it’s best to hang up and call again if you know you’re in the right.

Programs I Avoid

Not every Alaska partner offers good value when redeeming their points for flights on Alaska Airlines. Here are the programs I generally avoid:

American Airlines AAdvantage

American Airlines makes very few seats on American flights available in their program. It is not a program I generally recommend accumulating miles in because the award chart has frequently devalued and the miles have become very difficult to spend.

Because of this, it might be tempting to spend your AAdvantage miles on an Alaska Airlines flight, especially because it’s so easy: Alaska flights are bookable on the American Airlines Web site. However, American Airlines offers generally poor value for these flights because their award chart is expensive. Domestic flights on Alaska Airlines cost 12,500 AAdvantage miles each way. Flights to Hawaii cost 22,500 AAdvantage miles each way. No stopovers are allowed.

The upside is that you can mix in Alaska flights with other flights to create a complete AAdvantage award itinerary. This can be a good deal if it helps you connect up with an American or other partner flight to your final destination. However, for an itinerary that strictly includes flights on Alaska Airlines, the award chart is only competitive for long, cross-country flights.


On paper, this distance-based award program has some really nice sweet spots. Check out their chart. They are particularly sweet for short distance intra-Alaska redemptions under 350 miles round-trip such as between Petersburg and Wrangell or Juneau and Glacier Bay. These cost only 3,750 points each way.

The problem is fees, the complexity of booking, and the complexity of earning points:

  • There is a $30 fee to redeem awards when booked over the phone, and this is not waived for airlines (like Alaska) that aren’t bookable online.
  • You have to book round-trip. Prices shown in the chart are each way based on round-trip purchase.
  • The LATAM Pass call center only operates in the Spanish language. If you need to do business in English, there is a complicated process to call in and request a call-back. This can take up to two days to arrange.
  • The service center books so few flights on Alaska that they may tell you outright that it isn’t possible (that’s what they told me, in writing!). It actually is, you just have to be persistent.
  • The only practical way to earn LATAM Pass points, apart from flying, is with their co-branded credit card. Unfortunately the card just isn’t very good.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue

Not only are the redemption rates relatively unattractive, you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights on the Flying Blue Web site. It requires dealing with their call center, which is based in Mexico. Additionally, this partnership ends in April, which means that you won’t be able to make any changes to tickets booked for travel after then.

Emirates Skywards

Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Emirates points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way (and in fact, one of the only ways) to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.


Same story as Emirates: Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Qantas points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.


Alaska Airlines goes more places than ever before, and has relatively generous award availability on their own flights. This is particularly true if you’re based in the former Virgin America hubs of Dallas and San Francisco, or the new mini-hub of San Diego. However, the best award pricing often requires using a partner program and booking over the phone.

HSBC Devalues World MasterCard Rewards Points

I have been catching up on my mail since returning from St. Helena and South Africa, and finally got around to opening the stuff that looks like junk mail. Of course, a lot of that stuff in there is actually important, and in the miles and points world, this is pretty explosive. It’s the first notice of an overt (rather than stealth) devaluation of a bank rewards program I have ever seen.

hsbc evaluation

HSBC points are devaluing. Is the money in your account next?

Points in the HSBC Premier World MasterCard Rewards program spend like cash through a travel portal, similar to the US Bank or Bank of America rewards programs. Currently, for HSBC Premier members, the rate is 62 points per $1. However, as of April 2, 2018, the rate will increase to 80 points per $1. This is a significant devaluation, from about 1.6 cents per point in value down to 1.25 cents per point in value.

I think this is most significant because it is the first major bank program devaluation. Banks have been fairly hesitant to devalue their award programs, and I think for good reason. You don’t want to associate a bank’s brand with the idea that your assets in that bank will lose value. In fact, American Express has responded to airline award program devaluations by offering periodic transfer bonuses into airline programs. This has helped to maintain the value of Membership Rewards points.

However, HSBC crunched the numbers and must have decided that a money grab is worth the reputational risk. It’s an extremely aggressive move, because this impacts their Premier product–these accounts are for their highest value customers with over $100,000 on deposit. So, I think this is a shot over the bow. If HSBC is willing to devalue their points this much, and to do so for their highest value customers, I don’t think any bank award program is safe.

For my part, I’ll be asking my HSBC banker whether they also plan to devalue the cash in my account.