Seat 31B Is Being SSSSed!

On the last two flights I have taken, operated by two different airlines, I have been selected for additional security screening with the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass:

You really don't want a boarding pass with this designation

You really don’t want a boarding pass with this designation

What does this mean? Possibly nothing. Sometimes people are randomly selected for additional screening. Lightning could have struck twice. On the other hand, it’s possible that my frequent and unusual travel patterns (at least, unusual for anyone who isn’t a travel blogger) have aroused the suspicion of the TSA. Or maybe it’s the destinations I’m visiting. After all, my last two trips have been to Turkey and Dubai. I did enter my Global Entry number both times, but was still selected for additional screening.

What is involved in additional screening? More time and hassle. You don’t get access to PreCheck or any expedited screening. What’s more, the TSA takes you aside after your regular screening, goes through your bag manually, and takes several test strips to run through a machine. You’re also required to undergo a thorough manual pat-down (the same one that they give you if you refuse to be screened by the machine). Eventually, they will stamp your boarding pass and you’re allowed along your way.

In case you slip through, your airline double-checks for the TSA stamp on your boarding pass to ensure that you have gotten the additional screening. And if you’re traveling *into* the United States, it’s even more hassle. You’re separated from the rest of the passengers at the gate, everything you have is manually searched, you’re manually patted down (and your shoes double-checked), and you’re finally let on the plane. At least you get early boarding as a bonus, though; this is done to ensure you don’t mix with anyone else in the terminal.

The TSA has a redress program. Shortly after 9/11, I was constantly getting flagged with SSSS. I have a very common name, and apparently one of the thousands of people who share my name is on some sort of watch list. I participated in the redress program before, and the problems magically stopped. So, I’m not sure whether this is a recurrence of the previous issue, or something else. I have submitted an inquiry with the TSA, and hopefully the issue will be resolved soon.

Get Full Delta Credit For Miles Flown Plus 25K Europe Roundtrips!

As has been widely reported elsewhere, Delta has done some really terrible things to their SkyMiles program (already one of the least lucrative frequent flier programs in the world) and for most people it is not a good value. Not only is mileage credit now granted based on the fare you pay, rather than the number of miles you fly (cutting mileage credit to half in many cases), but the number of miles needed to redeem awards is now entirely arbitrary. In some cases, you even have to pay Delta in order to redeem SkyMiles! It’s no surprise that given the rapid and massive devaluation, avid frequent fliers who once called SkyMiles “SkyPesos” have begun calling them “SkyRubles.”

Don’t get me wrong. Delta is generally a very good airline to fly–at least if you’re not flying on one of their “basic economy fares,” which offer a similarly terrible experience to other airlines. Generally speaking they run a reliable operation and fly well-maintained aircraft with decent amenities. The inflight service is generally also polite and professional, in stark contrast to most other US airlines. At many airports, Delta is also difficult to ignore, given their dominant position. If you’re based in Atlanta, for example, Delta serves all major US markets nonstop.

There is a loophole, however. You don’t have to use the SkyMiles program if you’re flying Delta. You can credit your miles to the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan or to any other SkyTeam partner. However, in most cases, this isn’t a good option. Very few Delta fares qualify for 100% mileage credit anymore with most partners. Additionally, every other Delta partner levies fuel surcharges on redeemed tickets, which Delta doesn’t do for flights originating in the US. However, there is one exception, which I found after researching every SkyTeam program in detail. Let me introduce you to OK Plus.

Czech Airlines logoOK is the IATA code for Czech Airlines, and their program, “OK Plus,” is a clever word play. You can’t actually view the terms and conditions or the accrual schedule for the OK Plus program without signing up. However, after doing the research, I found that the options are pretty incredible when it comes to Delta:

CSA Delta accrual schedule

Better than the 2014 Delta chart!

Yes, you read it right: Delta flights accrue at 100% of miles flown, except for paid business and first class which accrue at 200% of miles flown. There is one glaring exception, however: E fares. These are Delta’s “basic economy” fares and if you buy one of these, you will earn zero credit under the OK Plus program. So, if you book and fly an E fare, it’s probably best to credit it to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, which will at least net you 25% credit.

But wait, there's more!The good news doesn’t end here. Not only can you get 100% credit based on flown miles for your Delta flights, these miles will take you farther. CSA considers Iceland part of North America for the purposes of their program! So, if you want to take advantage of Delta’s seasonal service to Reykjavik (for which there is currently almost wide-open award availability), you can do it for only 25,000 miles.

So, of course, it’s not all good news, particularly for those wanting to earn elite status. Here are some of the limitations:

  • You have to fly two segments on Czech Airlines to earn SkyTeam elite status, and it can’t just be Czech Airlines-marketed flights; you need to actually fly on one of their planes.
  • In order to redeem an award ticket, you have to call their office in Prague and book over the phone; there is no online booking option.
  • There is a €36 booking fee.
  • One-way awards aren’t an option except for flights on Czech Airlines; only round-trip awards are possible.
  • Along with taxes, you have to pay the fuel surcharge for the flight you’re booking. However, Delta doesn’t currently have a fuel surcharge on domestic US flights, so you won’t pay anything if you redeem your miles this way. And in most situations, you have to pay fuel surcharges when you redeem SkyMiles on partners. For most scenarios, in a practical sense, you’re not much worse off.
  • No backtracking is allowed, “except to make a connection.” It seems like the intent of this rule is to prevent backtracking in combination with a stopover or open jaw, but it also appears that this could be enforced (or not) at the whim of the telephone agent.

So, those are the downsides. However, there are some really significant upsides:

  • Both a stopover and an open jaw (one each) appear to be permitted.
  • A maximum of 8 segments per roundtrip are permitted.
  • Changes and cancellations (with mileage redeposit) cost only €62, far less than SkyMiles.
  • Mixed class bookings are allowed, if you pay the fare for the higher cabin. So, if only economy class is available on an intra-Europe flight (where business class doesn’t really buy you much extra comfort), you could mix that along with business class for the transoceanic leg. This opens up considerably more award availability than would otherwise be available, particularly during the busy summer travel months.
  • You can mix Czech Airlines flights with the flights of any one individual SkyTeam partner. Depending on your routing, this might make it slightly easier to piece together an award ticket.

Why is the program still so generous? Probably because Czech Airlines almost went bankrupt. However, in 2013, they were bailed out by Korean Air (which took a 44% stake) and the Czech government. As the Czech flag carrier, it seems likely that they will continue flying. However, flag carriers can and do fail; Mexicana and Malev are two recent examples. You’ll have to balance the risk of Czech Airlines failing versus the risk of even further SkyMiles devaluations. I’ll personally take the risk and bank my miles in Prague.

So, there you have it: a way to earn full value for your discount economy tickets on Delta and redeem them for 25,000 mile roundtrip tickets to Europe! If you’re finding the SkyMiles devaluation tough to swallow, sign up here and start earning OK Plus miles today!

Mistake Fare Versus Sale Fare: Can You Tell The Difference?

In the past year, I have taken three trips at exceptionally low fares. Can you guess which one was the mistake fare?

  • Phoenix to Quito return, with an overnight stopover in Mexico City, for $398, in February.
  • A lovely fall trip from Los Angeles to Copenhagen return for $545.
  • Los Angeles to Beijing one-way via Europe (an inconvenient routing, requiring multiple stopovers and the airlines I used can’t get you there otherwise) for $450.

If you’re scratching your head trying to figure it out, I don’t blame you. All of these were good fares, but they might have been either a good sale fare or a mistake fare. Only the last fare I listed, from Los Angeles to Beijing, is widely believed to have been a mistake fare. The airline didn’t include any fuel surcharges on the ticket. But it’d be an entirely normal price–or even a bit higher–for a direct flight between Los Angeles and Beijing. The low fare to Quito? An Aeromexico promotional fare to celebrate their newly launched service. And the Los Angeles to Copenhagen fare? A response by Air France to Norwegian Air Shuttle’s promotional fares, the latter having newly entered the market.

In Europe, Ryanair routinely sells flights for as little as one euro. There are $99 one-way flights from Baltimore Ryanair 33 euro flightto Iceland on sale as we speak. I recently flew on a $59 promotional fare from Los Angeles to Seattle, a route where flights often cost 3 times as much. So, if an airline sells tickets at a really low price, there is plenty of precedent: it’s usually a really good sale fare. This is particularly true on airlines such as Ryanair, who make most of their money on ancillary fees such as luggage charges and advanced seat selection. The fare is cheap because it only includes a seat. Nothing else. Seat assignments and luggage are extra. There is even a fee to buy the ticket!

Yesterday, United Airlines was selling business class seats between London and Newark for about $75 roundtrip. Was this a competitive response to the far superior Club World London City service offered by British Airways? A promotional stunt? Or a mistake? United claims it was a mistake and they aren’t honoring the tickets. They have consistently argued with the US Department of Transportation that they shouldn’t have to honor fares they didn’t mean to sell, even after taking your money and issuing you a ticket. Up until now, the Department of Transportation hasn’t agreed.

In pleadings before the Department of Transportation, airlines have argued that travel bloggers are Evil Incarnate, spreading news of mistake fares far and wide and costing them millions of dollars. When there is a mistake fare, they argue, airlines’ financial losses are greater these days because news of good deals just spreads faster. Well, this is definitely true. However, usually it’s not news of mistake fares. Instead, it’s free publicity for the airlines and I don’t think that they should get to pick and choose which kinds of deals bloggers can communicate, and which ones they have to honor. After all, I have personally helped to hand the airlines a megaphone when there are good sale fares they want advertised. For example, I drove tens of thousands of dollars in business to Alaska Airlines with this blog post.

There is also a fairness issue. After all, if you want to get out of something in the airline’s Contract of Carriage, the airline doesn’t offer you any flexibility. So, why should they get to weasel out of the contract when it would benefit them? Nobody has filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation yet about United’s refusal to honor yesterday’s mistake fares, but it’ll be interesting to see whether they allow United to get out of the contract. I hope the government doesn’t hand airlines a license to gin up all the free publicity they want while not actually having to deliver the goods.

How American Airlines Is Stranding Me Overnight In London (At My Expense)

One of the best deals going in economy class award redemptions is between North American and Europe with the American Airlines Aadvantage program. You can redeem awards for only 20,000 miles each way when you fly off-peak and all you have to pay is the actual taxes for your flight. Better yet, this phenomenal bargain is available when departing Europe, unlike on Delta where you have to pay a fuel surcharge ex-Europe. However, this comes with a catch: it’s really hard to find transatlantic award availability on American Airlines, even in economy class. British Airways has plenty of availability, and you can redeem your miles for flights with them, but you have to pay a ridiculous fuel surcharge which costs nearly as much as just buying a ticket would. So, I was excited to find an itinerary that would work to return me from Zagreb, Croatia to Los Angeles.The first segment was on British Airways to London, and then the onward segment left two hours later on American Airlines via Chicago. I paid a total of about $80 in cash and 20,000 miles. Life was good.

zag-lhr-ord-lax map

My original itinerary would get me to LA in one day.

Last week, I received a call from American Airlines from a very fast-talking agent. She rushed through my itinerary and then asked for my credit card number. Wait, what? I had already paid. “There’s extra tax,” she said. Whoa, wait a minute. “I feel like we’re starting in the middle of a conversation I missed the first part of. Can you explain to me why you called, starting from the beginning?” I said. More rushed explanation, the upshot of which was that I was being asked for nearly $300 additional, and finally, “If you don’t want to pay the extra and you want to get back on the same day, I can’t do anything. Would you like to speak to a supervisor?”

Yes, I did want to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor was much more experienced and personable on the phone, and for the first time, I spoke with someone who could actually explain the true reason for the call. British Airways changed the schedule of my outbound flight from Zagreb to London, and they only had one flight a day. This would get me into London too late for me to have any option to return to Los Angeles on the same day. And there weren’t any options to connect through another city. So I had a choice: I could either be stranded in New York or in London overnight at my own expense. Or, I could have my miles refunded and figure out another way to get home. Which bad option would I prefer?

I’d prefer neither, actually. Figuring there might be something wrong with the information I was being given, I got in touch with the excellent American Airlines customer support team on Twitter. They confirmed that I actually didn’t have any other options, and American Airlines really did plan to just strand me overnight due to a schedule change. Mind you, there is a British Airways flight that would get me back the same day, and British Airways created the problem by changing their schedule, but being accommodated on the British Airways flight wasn’t an option unless I paid their fuel surcharge.

My new, horrible itinerary

My new, horrible itinerary

I ultimately opted to be stuck in London overnight. It’ll be cheaper than being stuck in New York and with a better chance of avoiding East Coast winter weather delays at the airport. Granted, I’m redeeming miles for the ticket. I don’t have any status whatsoever. And American Airlines is pretty much unaware that I’m the author of Seat 31B, so I believe they treated me no differently than they would treat you or anyone else. Still, this drives home a valuable lesson: Airlines can change their schedule whenever they want, strand you overnight in a connecting city, and dump the problem on you. Plan accordingly.

How I Claimed 2,500 Alaska Airlines Bonus Miles

Alaska Airlines has, in my opinion, one of the most valuable frequent flier programs of any airline. So when there’s an easy opportunity to earn 2,500 bonus miles, I jump at the chance!

On a recent flight to Seattle, my bag arrived on the belt 25 minutes after my flight. With most airlines this would be pretty fast, but with Alaska it’s 5 minutes later than their 20 minute baggage service guarantee. No kidding: Alaska guarantees that you’ll have your checked bag at the carousel no more than 20 minutes after your flight, anywhere in their system. What does Alaska give you if your bag shows up late? Either 2,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan bonus miles, or a $25 discount certificate good toward a future flight. This effectively refunds your checked baggage fee and you can even come out ahead if claiming the miles, because those are more valuable than $25.

image of bonus miles delivered to my Alaska account.

Bonus miles for late luggage, delivered!

To claim your miles, just see the baggage service representative. They’ll give you a voucher that you can use to either claim the discount or the bonus miles. It is fast and hassle-free, provided that your bag really was late. They do actually check. All bags are scanned as soon as they show up on the belt, and the time is compared with the published flight arrival time. So, no claiming the bonus unless your bags really are late.

The best part? I didn’t even pay for the checked bag! Alaska Airlines is running a promotion for the month of January where checked bags are free. So, checking a bag paid off more than simply avoiding the hassle of fighting for space in the overhead bin. All I had to do was pay attention to my watch and make an easy claim!

 

Where have you been in Seat 31B?

I’ve been slow with posting because I am on the road (LA to Seattle to LA to San Francisco back to Seattle to LA to Istanbul to Zagreb to London…), so it’s time to open this blog up to readers.Where is the most interesting place you have traveled in the most awful seat in the plane? What’s the worst airline you’ve ever flown to the most amazing experience? The world is watching, so write your story below in the comments! :)

An Armenia Retrospective – And An Inspiration

A little over a year ago, I took a trip that was pivotal in my own life experience. It was to Armenia and Georgia. When I got back, I had to share the experience–it was that incredible. It’s also one of the most detailed trip reports I have ever written, and ultimately, this experience led me to start Seat 31B.

Since the trip report was originally posted to FlyerTalk, I’m leaving it there. However, I cordially invite readers to view the whole trip report here: Armenian AAdventure – DUS-DME-EVN

Soviet-era communications gear

To the glory of Socialism!

HOT! Save $80 On China Flights With Hainan Airlines

Hainan Airlines is offering an $80 promo code on flights to China. You can click here to get your own promotion code, and in fact, you can get up to 3 of these per day (maybe, I was only able to retrieve two). The promotion codes can be redeemed throughout the entire year for flights on Hainan Airlines. There are a limited number of promotional codes available. Go grab some right now if you think you might travel to China within the next year.

They fly nonstop to Beijing from Seattle, Chicago, Toronto and Boston and onward from there to most major Chinese cities. If you’re coming from another city, they can sell you a flight that includes connections on American Airlines. Given that Hainan typically has some of the lowest fares to China from the West Coast, this could be a steal of a deal. On a typical fare of $800 between Seattle and Beijing, you will save 10%.

Hainan_Airlines_Boeing_737-800_B-2158_CTU_2011-7-7[1]Hainan isn’t a member of any frequent flier alliance, and they do not offer miles and points with any US airline. However, the value of points you can earn from Delta, their primary competitor on this route, is now negligible on low fares. You can earn points in Hainan’s own program, which isn’t particularly good, but can offer good value if you redeem the points for flights with their partner Hong Kong Airlines.

How’s the service? Very good, actually. They have the highest SkyTrax rating (for what it’s worth) and fly new modern aircraft with excellent inflight entertainment. Crews are friendly and the food isn’t bad. Hainan Airlines has to meet all the same safety standards as any other airline operating within the United States, so I wouldn’t worry about that either. I have helped many friends from Seattle fly to China on Hainan and most people have been surprised in a good way.

Most people need a visa to visit China. Here’s how to apply by yourself and save agent fees!

Super Bowl Travel Savings Tips

A lot of people have contacted me with the same question: “How do I save on my trip to the Super Bowl?” Well, despite being from Seattle, I’m not really a football fan. I can’t help you find tickets to the stadium or get them any cheaper, but I do have some advice about how to save money on getting to Phoenix, and getting around Phoenix once you’re there.

Saguoro sunsetPhoenix has relatively few flights and is a fortress hub of US Airways. When a city is a fortress hub, it generally means that flights are more expensive because there is a single dominant carrier, which makes it harder for other airlines to compete. And let’s face it, airlines aren’t dumb. They know that these are special dates and they’re charging a premium for the flights.

Many sites suggest using hidden cities itineraries on US Airways. I actually don’t recommend this, because these can be very risky. So, while you might find a good deal on a flight to Phoenix (it’s not likely, but possible), or through Phoenix (possible, but with considerable risk), it’s fairly unlikely. that you’re actually going to find a good deal to anywhere within 300 miles of the place. That’s why I think alternate cities are a better strategy for the Super Bowl.

Ontario airport terminal image

This little airport could save you big money.

Often overlooked, there are airports in Ontario and Palm Springs, California. If you are traveling to the Super Bowl, you should consider both. These airports are both a reasonable drive from Phoenix and also, as of this writing, have far more reasonable prices for rental cars than any rental agency in Phoenix. There aren’t many direct flights to either place, and you’ll probably have to take a connection along the way. However, even if one of the connections passes through Phoenix, it’s probably best to continue all the way to California. Most rental cars are sold out in Phoenix during the Super Bowl at this point, and the few remaining cars are very expensive. However, there are still plenty of rental cars available in Ontario and Palm Springs for the same dates. Palm Springs is less than a 3 hour drive from Phoenix, so this is a particularly attractive destination. As of this writing, flights to both destinations from many cities cost as little as 1/3 the price of a ticket to Phoenix.

It’s also worth considering the cost of hotels. The Super Bowl will be held on the west side of Phoenix. The farther you get from the center of Phoenix, the less expensive hotels are. In fact, some $70 rooms are still available at the Black Canyon Motel 6 location. Since the Phoenix airport is on the east side of town, hotels near the airport and near the Super Bowl stadium seem to be the most expensive. Having a rental car will give you considerable flexibility in where you stay, and may help to save you a fortune. Speaking of rental cars, fuel is usually much less expensive in Arizona than it is in California. Costco tends to have the lowest prices, if you’re a member. There is also a Costco in Palm Desert, California, where you can fill up before returning the car to the airport.

If you are traveling to the Super Bowl, I hope this was helpful. I definitely won’t see you there, but I hope you both have fun and save money!

A 2014 Retrospective

I’m writing to you from Seattle, where I’m celebrating the holidays with my family. I won’t be taking any more flights in 2014. Here is ultimately where I traveled in 2014:

Map of my travel in 2014

What a year!

So, in the spirit of New Years’ retrospectives, here are my top memories of 2014.

Most amazing bargain: Definitely the Alitalia round-the-world fare widely assumed to be a mistake fare. I traveled all the way around the world for (effectively) under $219.

Most unexpected development: I ended up with Delta Gold Medallion status because I booked so many bargain fares with them. Normally riff-raff like me are filtered out, but because I lived outside of the US during the period in which Medallion Qualifying Dollars are calculated, I was exempt from the usual spending requirement. So, while flying around on sale fares, I got to enjoy some fancy airport lounges that are most definitely not a normal part of the Seat 31B experience.

Most surprising destination: Ecuador. An amazing, beautiful, friendly and ridiculously under-visited country in South America. I was able to visit on an incredible Aeromexico introductory fare of under $400.

Scariest travel moment: Getting really sick in Yunnan, China, near the Tibetan border. The only hospital within 100 miles that supposedly treated foreigners had no English-speaking doctors. I ended up booking the next flight out to Bangkok, the nearest city with international-standard hospitals, and heading to Bumrungrad Hospital. Fortunately, after an extensive series of tests, the doctors informed me that I had a bad case of heartburn. The total hospital bill? Under $300, fully paid by my travel insurance.

Most interesting city: It’s a toss-up between Beijing, my always exciting and vibrant home of 3 years, and Mexico City. However, Mexico City wins. I was amazed how surprisingly modern it is, how fashionably people dress, and how much there is to do. Honestly, if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were in Paris or Madrid.

Most stressful travel experience: Traveling through Italy and The Netherlands with my parents, who consider a trip to Vancouver, Canada (3 hours’ drive from their house) to be an exotic foreign vacation. Why was it stressful? Not because of them–they were surprisingly adaptable and really good sports–but because I cared so much about ensuring they had a memorable experience. It was a surprisingly smooth trip overall, my careful advance planning paying off, and it helped that my parents had really done their homework. These countries turned out to be almost perfect for first-time visitors to Europe.

Most unusual airline flown: It’s a toss-up between NOK Air in Thailand (a low cost carrier who paints their planes like cartoon birds) and Aeroflot Russian Airlines. No issues in either case, both got me safely to my destination!

Worst flight delay: 3 hours and 30 minutes, Cathay Pacific, between Vancouver and New York.

City visited for the shortest time: A tie between Hong Kong and Vancouver. I visited Hong Kong twice for 5 hours when flying Cathay Pacific between Beijing and Hong Kong. This is enough time to go into the city and have a very nice Cantonese dinner. I visited Vancouver on a layover between Los Angeles and New York (I flew via Vancouver to use the Cathay Pacific flight from there to New York).

Most scenic drive: Zagreb to Dubrovnik via Neum, Bosnia. If you love great drives, the Adriatic coast will not disappont.

Most luxurious travel experience: Business class, British Airways, Seattle to London. Normally I wouldn’t book this, but I didn’t have any flexibility on dates, times, or the type of points I was redeeming. And I was traveling to my graduation (I completed an MBA in 2014), so I didn’t mind splurging a little.

Least luxurious travel experience: Careening down an Ecuadorian highway locally known as “Carretera de Muerte” (Highway of Death) in a van full of singing Germans with dodgy brakes and no working seatbelts. I didn’t really fear for my life–the driver knew the road–but I was really glad when the 3 hours of bone-jarring gravel and potholes were over.

Most friendly people: Thailand, without question. The warm hospitality of this country is almost unmatched in the world.

Least friendly people: Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow, Russia.

Most unusual lodging: A 19th century mansion amid some of Denmark’s most beautiful gardens, converted to student housing. I slept on a couch in the public area, rented to me on airbnb by the friendly and enterprising student occupants.

Most inexpensive lodging: Backpacker Hostel, Koh Samui. It was around $8 per night, an incredible bargain for a bunk in an air conditioned room.

Most expensive lodging: $78 per night in London at the DoubleTree Heathrow. There just wasn’t anything cheaper since most hotels were full.

Best airport: Copenhagen International Airport, Denmark. Clean, modern, and easily accessible. It’s a pity that more flights don’t connect here.

Worst airport: Surat Thani Airport, Thailand.

Best airline: Bangok Airways. They let all passengers use their airport lounge and it’s actually pretty nice. Comfortable seats and good service.

Worst airline: Transavia. Surly staff and the inflight entertainment was a bizarre video of the flight kitchen in which sandwiches are made. Definitely unappetizing!

And there you have it, my retrospective of 2014. It has been an incredible year, and I can’t wait for 2015!