The Flight Where Someone Died – Part 1

So yeah, someone died on my plane. We landed and dropped off a corpse. Full-on, stone cold, dead. Not breathing, passed away, dead.

Wait. Let’s back up and I’ll start from the beginning. American Airlines had stranded me in London overnight at my expense the evening before, but I had made lemons from lemonade. I stayed in the Generator Hostel on an incredible promo deal [expired] through American Express. Including the subway ride to and from Heathrow, it was less than $30 for a night in London, an incredible bargain. So after checking out the nearby incredible collection of antiquities at the British Library (free entrance), I headed to Pret-A-Manger, my favorite London soup and sandwich shop. $10 later, I had soup and a sandwich (food in London is very expensive) and made my way back to the hostel.

And then came an evening involving a Canadian girl, a Bahraini girl, ciders and beers and conversation, early twentysomethings plotting an actual, honest-to-goodness orgy at the tables behind us, a cloud of ganja smoke and somewhere around 3 in the morning I lost track of what happened. I woke up in the morning in my hostel bunk, passed out stone cold with an alarm piercing in my ear. “7:30 AM,” my phone insistently said. “7:30 AM.” Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. I wanted to throw it across the room but knew I had a flight at noon, and it was from Heathrow, so I knew it’d be a stream of endless hassle. So I hauled myself out of the top bunk, the room echoing with snoring I hadn’t even noticed, and walked down to the bathroom to take a shower. My pounding head drew into sharp focus the number of beers I’d consumed the previous evening. I realized that I’m way too old for this shit.

Generator Hostel London

Before things got crazy

Hostel life. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. A staple of my early twenties, it became a less frequent experience as my income gradually afforded me more expensive accommodations. Now, as a startup founder, money is again really tight and I’m back to a backpacker budget. The only problem with this is that I’ve done it before. I have become the old guy in a hostel. I mean, not quite. At least I’m self-aware enough to know that I should probably be owning a hostel rather than staying in one, and that my financial condition (a startup founder on a reduced salary) is by choice a temporary one. I am, after all, sitting on top of a budding startup. Nonetheless, yeah. I’m probably too old for this.

The alarm went off way too early in the morning. I dragged myself down the hall and to the shower, realizing too late that there weren’t any towels. Sponging myself off with an old T-shirt, I dressed, packed up as quietly as I could, and made my way onto the Piccadilly Line, carrying my heavy suitcase down the stairs. No escalators here, unlike the newer systems I’m accustomed to in Asian cities. It takes about an hour from central London to Heathrow on the subway, but it’s the cheapest way to go and didn’t actually take any longer than a train would given my starting point. And I arrived at the airport in plenty of time for my flight.

I hadn’t been able to check in online, but this wasn’t particularly unusual on international flights. Foreign airports usually want to verify your documentation before you fly into the US, and US airports usually want to verify your visa before you fly out. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I was handed a boarding pass with SSSS on it. This was the first occasion of what has now become routine. I was intercepted at the gate and corralled into a separate area where I was tightly frisked and everything I had was searched with a fine-toothed comb. I had officially been added to The List. The only benefit was that I was afforded pre-boarding, and allowed to board the plane before all the other passengers. If you’re deemed a security threat you’re brought to the front of the line, in order to prevent you from mingling with other people in the airport terminal.

The American Airlines 777 had 10-across seating. I barely fit in the 17″ seat. An ample woman plopped down next to me, her mass spilling out over the armrests and occupying about 1/3 of my seat. Yeah. It was going to be one of those flights.

Stay In A 5 Star Hotel For A Budget Motel Price!

I’m writing this from a JW Marriott hotel room. This is a 5 star property. It’s one of the most expensive hotels in town, as JW Marriott properties often are. There are multiple restaurants that are absolutely phenomenal, along with the best nightclub in the city which attracts top DJs from all over the country. It’s everything that you would expect from one of the very best 5-star hotels in a city of over 8 million people in size.

Naturally, I didn’t pay cash: I paid with Marriott Rewards points. And I got those points for free, by signing up for the Marriott Rewards credit card. In points terms, this cost me about the same as a Fairfield Inn in a distant California suburb. Let me repeat this for emphasis: I paid basically the same as I would pay for a budget motel in the US. I’ll get to how I managed this in a minute. But this is definitely not the typical Seat 31B experience. Just check out these pictures, they speak for themselves:

queen bed, JW Marriott

A comfy queen size bed. I got two, so can try them both.

me in the mirror

Obligatory dorky tablet selfie in the spotless full sized hallway mirror

bathroom, jw marriott pune

Walk-in shower, tub, and toilet in a room of its own

So, now that we have established that I am actually, really, comfortably ensconced in a five star hotel (which is totally unlike the normal Seat 31B experience), and you know there’s no way I’d ever pay full price, I’ll tell you the secret. I’m in Pune, India, a delightful university city on a pleasant plateau located a few hours inland from Mumbai. This property is normally 10,000 points per night (still a fantastic value), but it’s currently on a PointSavers special for 7,500 Marriott Rewards points per night. Or you can pay cash, the equivalent of about $150 per night. It’s a phenomenal value.

I also spent 3 nights in the excellent (and more centrally located) Courtyard by Marriott in central Pune. This is also an amazing value, a Category 1 property also costing only 7,500 points per night. It’s not what you’d expect from a Courtyard property in the US. In Asia, Courtyard properties are solid 4 star hotels. I was overall very pleased with this property, although the value isn’t quite as good redeeming for points because paid rates are considerably less than the JW Marriott. For paid stays, at rates of about $80 per night, the Courtyard is an incredible value.

One other advantage of redeeming points here? When you redeem your Marriott points in India, you don’t pay taxes. Taxes are charged on the actual room rate, so on a $0 room rate, you won’t pay a cent. Imagine how you’d feel in one of the best rooms in town, in a tropical city full of universities and temples, enjoying this spectacular sunset and knowing that you could have had the equivalent of a suburban Motel 6 for the same price.

sunset photo, pune, india

Phenomenal sunset view with temple in the distance

Top 5 Taxi Scams In Mumbai

Ah, taxi scams. You’ll encounter them all over the world. However, even though I’m pretty accustomed to taxi scams during my travels, Mumbai pretty much takes the cake. Nowhere else in my travels have I encountered more shamelessly avaricious drivers. It’s a jungle out there, folks, so be careful!

By Ask27 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mumbai taxis are really cute, but the bill might make your blood boil

Top 5 Mumbai Taxi Scams

1. Modified Meter: You get in the taxi. It has a meter. The meter even starts at the normal fare. But then, not too long after that, it starts running really fast–insanely fast. Don’t stay in the cab. You won’t win an argument about the bill. Insist that driver immediately stop, get out of the cab and take another one. In 3 days in Mumbai, I have been stung by this three times. Also applies to Tuk-Tuks with meters! It’s a huge red flag if the driver wants to wait wherever you’re going and then drive you back. This is so you don’t notice that you overpaid (it’ll be the same both directions), and of course, to rip you off both coming and going.

2. “Broken” Meter: You get in the taxi, and the driver claims the meter is broken but he’ll take you to wherever you’re going for a low flat fee. No problem. Of course, the fee is 2-3 times what it should actually cost.

3. The Drive-Off: The driver guns it and pulls away before all your stuff is out of the cab. This happened to me last night. Fortunately I had the guy’s license plate number snapped on my camera phone (and backed up to the cloud). Also, one of the items stolen was my phone. I went directly to the police, they tracked him down almost instantly, and they were able to get all my stuff back. The driver claimed he didn’t know I hadn’t gotten everything back, and it was all just a big misunderstanding. The police had to let him go because they couldn’t prove he intended to steal my stuff, but I am told by locals this isn’t uncommon.

4. Lost In Translation: The driver will claim he knows where you are going, and then drive you an entirely different place nowhere near where you’re actually going. This is particularly common with hotels and restaurants, where they will drive you to the one that pays them a commission. If you insist to go to the correct place the driver will eventually take you there, but will also charge you for the unnecessary detour. Expect a hard sell for the other property first.

5. “No Change.” Drivers get paid all day in small bills, but usually claim to have no change. If you say “well, I guess I can’t pay then, you will need to call the police” change magically appears, but not necessarily before the driver erupts in a tirade.

Should you let Mumbai’s taxi scams get you down? Keep things in perspective. I was egregiously ripped off today–charged triple the normal rate. In ill-gotten gains, the driver netted… $3. Obviously, he needed it more than I did.

What scams have you encountered when traveling abroad? Comment below!

 

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.

Update: I’m definitely “on the list.” I suspect this happened because I traveled to Turkey via a circuitous route–the sort of route that would only be taken by either a shady character or someone trying to use frequent flier miles. It’s not unusual for me to be questioned by border agents about my unusual travel patterns (which are either a result of crazy routes I have to take in order to fly on points, or routes I’m flying because of mistake fares), but it’s definitely the first time I’ve apparently been put on a watch list as a result of this!

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!