Promo: Squeeze More Value From Your Starpoints

I normally try to cover loopholes and tricks that other blogs don’t, but this is a pretty good promotion I’d like to be sure my readers don’t miss. American Airlines is currently offering a 20% bonus on points transfers from the Starpoints program. If you have the right strategy, this promotion can represent very good value.

Starwood Preferred Guest is a points program operated by the Starwood hotels chain. It’s generally considered to be the richStarwood Preferred Guest logoest points currency (although the program is also subject to some notable limitations, such as an aggressive points expiration policy). The points can be redeemed for rooms at Starwood properties, and this is generally the best redemption. However, they can also be exchanged for a very wide variety of points in other programs. And unlike many points currencies, exchanging Starwood points can often be at more than a 1:1 ratio.

Under the current promotion, which expires August 7th, you can receive an additional 20% bonus. This means that if you transfer blocks of 20,000 Starwood points into Aadvantage miles, you ordinarily receive a 5,000 mile bonus. However, you get an extra 20%. This means that you will receive a total of 30,000 Aadvantage miles for every 20,000 Starpoints that you transfer.

American Airlines logoShould you do this? A qualified maybe. I certainly wouldn’t do it on speculation; have a flight that you want to take in mind, and be aware that it could disappear before your transfer clears. This is because the availability of cheap Aadvantage points in the past has sometimes foreshadowed devaluations, which occurred without prior notice last time. Additionally, it has become a lot harder in recent months to book Aadvantage awards–so don’t assume it’ll be easy. Some availability opens up at the last minute, but American nails you with a $75 last-minute fee if you book less than 3 weeks in advance. And with Delta, Southwest and United now basing their loyalty programs on money spent rather than miles flown, the Aadvantage program might head the same direction. Or maybe not. After all, American invented the airline loyalty program, and given that Aadvantage is one of the largest such programs in the world, they might choose to leave it as-is. Nobody really knows except for American, and they’re not saying.

Where can you go for 30,000 miles? One-way in economy class between Europe and North America during the peak summer period, which is one of the best redemptions for Aadvantage miles (if you can find availability). You can do this with low to nonexistent fuel surcharges if you fly on American, Iberia or airBerlin. These are tough flights to find, but I have had relatively good luck looking at less popular routes (such as Dusseldorf-Chicago on American or Dusseldorf-Los Angeles on airBerlin). Or if you look ahead to the winter months, consider an austral summer sun break in Chile. Whatever you do, if you take advantage of this promotion, don’t sit on the miles. Have somewhere in mind that you want to go, have flexibility on your dates, times, airports and airlines, and book right away.

 

Blazing Through Belgrade – Part 1

If you book award tickets between North America and Europe, you probably know how big of a challenge it can be to find transatlantic award availability. Getting over the water is the hardest part and you need to have a really high degree of flexibility on which gateway cities you use. Additionally, depending on availability, there might be no actual way to get to your final destination on a single award ticket.

Fortunately, when you’re flying intra-Europe, it’s generally not too expensive to just buy a ticket. Numerous low-cost carriers operate in the region and there’s usually a cheap way to get between European cities. After all, Europe is so small that it’s hard to find a flight longer than 3 hours in any given direction. So, this is how I ended up booking a ticket from Los Angeles to Istanbul via Frankfurt. Not many people want to fly to Istanbul from the US right now, so it’s turning out to be one of the best award gateways to Europe for this summer–if you can accept the SSSS risk. So, for my trip to Zagreb, I found an award flight to Istanbul on Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), and found a return flight from Milan on airBerlin. There wasn’t any actual award availability to anywhere in Croatia, though, so I had to fill the gap.

Croatia, unfortunately, isn’t one of those places where you can fly cheaply. The only low-cost carrier to serve Zagreb, easyJet, pulled out earlier this year. So, forget about catching a $50 hop on a low cost carrier from a European gateway city like you can to most places. Almost every flight I was looking at cost over $400, except for a flight on airSerbia with a 23-hour layover in Belgrade.

serbiabombedYeah, that. Belgrade. The city that was bombed by NATO. Most Americans have long forgotten this, but the scars of the Yugoslav civil war and the NATO bombing campaign are still visible all over the city. Although Serbia doesn’t require a visa for Americans to enter, it’s not a member of the European Union. It doesn’t recognize the borders of Kosovo, either. So, I honestly had to wonder just how warm a reception I could expect as an American in Belgrade. The NATO bombing campaign wasn’t that long ago–I was still in college then. There was also the matter of flying Air Serbia. It’s the former Yugoslav Airlines, marred by bankruptcy after being mired in over a decade of mismanagement.

I held my breath and booked the ticket. I just found it mentally impossible to justify paying $200 more, and the fare rules sealed the deal. Air Serbia has exceptionally flexible fare rules, so I was able to book an open jaw itinerary as a roundtrip rather than two point-to-point one-way itineraries. Air Serbia is also very flexible with changes, which was important because I was flying a hidden cities itinerary and these are super risky. If it turned out I couldn’t depart from Frankfurt as booked and planned, I could change my ticket and depart from Istanbul instead. The price was $218.30 and my itinerary would allow me nearly 23 hours in Belgrade on the outbound, plus a long afternoon in Belgrade on my return.

It was an uneventful flight on Lufthansa to Frankfurt. The service was efficient and entirely unremarkable–typically German. After arriving in Frankfurt, I found the Air Serbia check-in counter. It opens 3 hours before departure and I had a 6 hour layover, so I ended up dropping my bags at the luggage storage facility next door. It’s conveniently located, albeit expensive (the cost was about 15 euro to drop my bags for the day). I then hopped on the U-Bahn (fortunately I had a European chip and PIN card that worked on the ticket vending machine) and headed to central Frankfurt.

Frankfurter in Frankfurt

What’s a layover in Frankfurt without a frankfurter? It hit the spot!

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

Trees budding in the springtime sun

Trees budding in the springtime sun

It is a long flight from LA to Frankfurt and I was pretty tired from being on the road. I stretched out and napped on a park bench, soaking up the sun and enjoying the afternoon. Since a lot of not-obviously-homeless people were doing the same thing, I figured it was socially acceptable. It was bliss; sometimes the best things in life are free. Eventually, the time came to make my way back to the airport. I stopped at Starbucks for coffee, at a Chinese shop next door for some snacks, and hopped on the subway.

An uneventful trip back to the airport, and I retrieved my bag. I’d gotten back sooner than planned, and was about 2 hours early for my departure. By now, the Air Serbia counter was staffed. After meticulously weighing all of my bags and requiring me to shift items from one bag into another one (this was done for no good reason, it only served the purpose of hassling me), I was issued a boarding pass and my carry-on items were tagged. Almost no line at immigration, and I was thoroughly and efficiently stamped out of Germany (the immigration agent briefly quizzing me on why I was arriving and leaving on the same day, since I had booked two separate tickets on the itinerary). Once through, I proceeded to the gate area.

The gate used by Air Serbia in Frankfurt is all the way at the end of the international departures area, and you don’t actually clear security until the gate is open. Who opens the gate? The same people who run the check-in desk. And there is nowhere to sit until the gate area is opened. A lot of sour-faced people from the Balkans were standing around looking less than entirely amused, and there were a lot of screaming kids. So, since I had about an hour before boarding, I headed upstairs to a completely deserted transit lounge. Ever wonder what airport employees do in between flights when the terminal isn’t busy? A lot of napping and a lot of texting with their friends on the phone. Most of the employees seemed surprised that a passenger was there, but I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me.

Eventually, I made my way down to the gate. The outside area was even more crowded now, with people even more sour-faced and children crying. Eventually a security guard showed up, then another few trickled in, and they began preparing the gate. German security is Very Serious, with the supervisor first clearing all of the security guards through security. Still no Air Serbia employees yet, though. Those came about 5 minutes later, arriving on bicycles, the same people who had been operating the check-in counter! They actually had to be cleared through security as well, along with the flight crew who showed up exactly when the gate was opening, clearly being more aware than passengers of the actual boarding time.

The boarding process was a little chaotic, definitely not organized like the US or Singapore but more organized than Russia or China. I could see that it wasn’t a full flight, so even though I had a large carry-on bag, I didn’t worry too much about the mad boarding scramble. I slipped into the line in front of an inexperienced traveler, with about the closest that you’ll ever get to a nod and wink from the German gate staff, and boarded the plane. Next stop, Belgrade!

The Open Jaw Jam

I’m getting ready to embark on another crazy itinerary. Next week, I leave for Europe. Hopefully everything goes according to plan.

A few months ago, in the frequent flier program of a small airline, there was an incredible sale fare on flights to Turkey. You could book flights to one specific airport for the same number of points as a domestic trip within the US would cost. I happened to have points with this small airline, so I booked two trips. The last trip I took apparently got me added to a TSA watch list, but it did get me to our office in Zagreb cheaply. Well, glutton for punishment that I am, I’m doing it all again.

Unfortunately I ran into a snag this time. I wasn’t able to find any availability back to the US from Zagreb on points. It’s incredibly challenging to find transatlantic award availability. This is the type of scenario in which you want as many options and as many different kinds of points as possible. Unfortunately, the only points that I had in any significant quantity, which didn’t involve fuel surcharges originating from Europe, were Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. And these only didn’t involve fuel surcharges if I booked on American Airlines, a nearly impossible task.

A ton of searching later and I found a way back–but it was awful. I’d have to fly from Milan to Miami, stop over for two days, and then I’d be able to continue back to LA. 30,000 miles and some money. It wasn’t perfect, but it’d work. The alternatives were to pay a ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly British Airways (more than half the cost of just buying a ticket) or to pay a ridiculous award price and an even more ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly KLM and Delta using my Delta points. I had US Airways Dividend Miles, but these didn’t help because they only worked for roundtrip itineraries. So, I gritted my teeth and booked it. I guessed I’d figure out a solution. I always do.

By chance, I reconnected with an old friend who lives in Miami. He offered to let me stay in his condo, which would soften the blow of the bad itinerary somewhat. A month or so later, he contacted me. “You know, I forgot that you’re coming during Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “You really don’t want to be in Miami Beach then. It’s an absolute zoo. Everyone who lives here gets out of town because it’s absolutely overrun with insane tourists.” Ugh. That definitely wouldn’t do, but I also wouldn’t be able to cancel my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket without paying a ridiculous award redeposit fee. Unless……..

Late last year, Delta ran a challenge for Seattle-based SkyMiles members to go for gold status. Nominally, I live in Seattle–I still have a house there, my mail is sent there, and I’m there enough to maintain legal residence. The promotion involved taking two Delta flights at full fare (anywhere in the Delta system), whereupon Delta awarded 25,000 bonus miles and Gold status for a year. I had two short-haul flights from Los Angeles that I needed to take anyway, and it only cost about an extra $150 to book in the fare classes that Delta required. Status didn’t really matter to me, but the 25,000 bonus miles made it an easy calculation. Even though Delta SkyMiles is an awful program, 25,000 bonus miles are worth at least $250. So, $100 free, just for filling out a form online? Sure! I booked on Delta, and was awarded Gold status. Little did I know that this would save me a bundle of dough later.

Now, Alaska Airlines is running a status challenge for Delta SkyMiles members. You can see where this is going. Just ask Alaska to match your Delta status, and they’ll do it. I sent in the request, and was granted MVP Gold within 2 days. And guess what? MVP Gold waives award redeposit fees! So, I went about searching for alternative flights across the Atlantic. In the interim, my US Airways Dividend Miles account had been consolidated with my American Airlines Aadvantage account, giving me access to one-way awards. What’s more, my US Airways Dividend Miles card–which I scored a few weeks before the program ended–netted me a 10% discount on award redemption. Still no availability from Zagreb, but an airBerlin flight was available from Milan on the 25th with an easy connection back to Los Angeles. No fuel surcharge! I wouldn’t get any work done in the US over a holiday weekend anyway, so why not spend it in Italy? I quickly booked the flight, for a total of 27,000 Aadvantage miles. Honestly, I have had nothing but uncomfortable flights and bad luck with American Airlines on transatlantic legs. I know most other bloggers love them, but they haven’t been good to me and I was happy to avoid them this time.

A quick call to Alaska Airlines later, and as a newly minted MVP Gold, my horrible itinerary through Miami with a holiday weekend stopover was cancelled and the miles were back in my account. There is one thing that can be said for status with frequent flier programs: it gives you more flexibility when booking awards, and you can get a lot of expensive fees waived. It’s rare that I will incur enough such fees in a year to make status even remotely worth chasing, but this year, I have avoided hundreds of dollars in checked baggage fees and award redeposit fees through maintaining status with airlines.

So, now I had a (more or less) free ticket to Turkey and a (more or less) free ticket back from Milan. But I needed to close the gap. And I don’t know if you’ve ever booked flight tickets to and from Zagreb, but just try to find a cheap one. Go ahead. I’ll still be here when you get back. Couldn’t find any, could you? So, that’s where Air Serbia came in.

LAX-FRA-IST

A free ticket to Istanbul…

 

mxp-dus-lax

..and a free ticket back from Milan. But I was actually going to Zagreb.

 

air serbia logoYou might be thinking “Wait, what? Air Serbia? You mean, the flag carrier of Slobodan Milosevic’s former regime? The flag carrier of the country that had a civil war with Croatia, and the country that still refuses to acknowledge Kosovo?” Yes, that Air Serbia. As of late, they have repaired relations with their western neighbor, sort of, to the point that there is commercial air service between the countries. By that, I mean one flight a day. And as it turns out, Air Serbia is part owned by Etihad Airways, so it might even be sort of safe. Most importantly, Air Serbia has a very interesting idea of what constitutes a “roundtrip.” They allow an open jaw under some circumstances. All I needed to do was use a hidden cities itinerary.

Oh yeah, hidden cities itineraries. You know, the thing that I warn people never to do because they can horribly backfire. Well, in this case, if I somehow ended up in Istanbul instead of Frankfurt (my connecting city) it would cost me 90 euro to fix the problem. Air Serbia is remarkably flexible when it comes to changes and cancellations, even on non-refundable fares. So I went ahead and booked the flight. FRA-BEG. 23 hours on the ground. BEG-ZAG. Then ZAG-BEG, 4 hours on the ground, BEG-MXP. Less than half the price of pretty much every airline. Why? This was considered a roundtrip.

Ridiculous Air Serbia itinerary

Does this look like a roundtrip to you?

Why was it cheaper? This is considered a round-trip flight, rather than a series of one-way flights. Where flights to Zagreb are concerned, this ends up being cheaper. A lot cheaper. And when viewed from a certain angle, it is a round-trip flight. Frankfurt to Zagreb, with a layover (not a stopover, because it’s only 23 hours) in Belgrade, then turning around and returning to… Milan.

Wait, what? How is a city in Italy considered the return portion of a roundtrip ticket from Germany? Because this is an open jaw itinerary. Normally, fare rules don’t permit open jaws. However, Air Serbia has extremely liberal routing rules. All the crazy things that you can normally only do with frequent flier tickets are possible with their paid fares. Which is how, for less than $200, I was able to visit two additional European cities I haven’t previously visited (Belgrade and Milan), and enjoy a round-trip flight to Europe for free.

This all assumes that everything works out as planned, and I don’t end up in Turkey unexpectedly. If that happens, it’s going to suck. I don’t have any miles that will get me out of Turkey cheaply or easily. Fortunately, Air Serbia flies to Istanbul, and they will–for a fee–allow me to apply my ticket toward another one departing from Istanbul. So, I’d lose about $200 in the worst case scenario–still less than a British Airways fuel surcharge.

So, there you go. This is how to use the Open Jaw Jam. Keep in mind that while it’s generally difficult to do this with paid fares, you can often use open jaws on award tickets. This is where things get really interesting, particularly on intra-Asia award tickets. If you play your cards right, you can potentially visit multiple cities with vast distances between them, all on a single low-cost award.

How Free Travel Might Have Landed Me On A TSA Watch List

As a frequent traveler and a member of the Global Entry program, I had gotten used to being able to get through borders and checkpoints quickly. When you’re a trusted traveler, long lines and intrusive questioning more or less go away. And this makes sense. In order to get a Global Entry pass, you have to give up a great deal of personal information to the government and pass an extensive background check. Just a lack of criminal history isn’t enough. While the Global Entry program selection criteria are secret, it’s widely believed that applicants are checked against a variety of law enforcement and terrorism databases. This information is combined with information about your known associates, employment, residence, travel patterns, and income in order to determine your level of risk.

Somehow, I was approved. I mean, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be approved, but I do travel to some pretty unusual places. French Guyana (home of the European Space Agency’s launch site, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited). Suriname (reached by crossing a pirahna-infested river in a leaky dugout canoe). Even Palau. Combined with this, I’m pretty politically outspoken, and have even run for public office as an independent candidate. But none of this came up in the Global Entry interview. They just made sure my birth date was correct, verified my (lack of) criminal history, and took my fingerprints.

Fast forward a couple of years. The TSA implemented PreCheck, which–when combined with my Global Entry number–consistently got me expedited screening. I was able to get through airports quickly with a minimum of hassles until one day, I couldn’t anymore. I had been flagged, and was apparently added to a watch list. My days of easily crossing borders had come to an end. My crime? The government won’t say, but given the timing of the action, a dodgy-looking itinerary to Turkey is the likely culprit.

lax-ewr-lhr-lgw-saw map

This may have been the itinerary that got me in trouble with the TSA

So, as red flags go, I think this itinerary would probably throw up about as many as possible. First of all, it was a one-way ticket. Second of all, it was actually two separate ticket numbers and multiple PNRs. I mean, this looks shady as hell. Why would someone take a flight that looks like an ordinary flight to London Heathrow, then book a flight a few hours later from London Gatwick to a secondary airport in Istanbul (which has connecting flights onward to all sorts of not-so-nice places in the Middle East), unless he was up to something?

Well, I was up to something. I was using frequent flier miles, and this is the sort of itinerary you end up with if you actually want to use your miles to go somewhere in Europe. You end up finding availability to secondary airports on inconvenient itineraries. My real destination was Zagreb, where my company has an office, but there wasn’t any availability to there. So I flew to the cheapest place from which I could get to Zagreb. I booked my onward itinerary to Zagreb as a round-trip ticket from Istanbul and threw away the return portion (because a round-trip ticket was cheaper than a one-way ticket). And then my return ticket from Zagreb was also booked on points–via London with an overnight, on an itinerary that I changed less than 2 weeks in advance due to an airline schedule change.

IST-ZAG-LHR-LAX map

Istanbul-Zagreb, roundtrip ticket, throwaway return portion. Continuing on AAdvantage itinerary with overnight in London.

OK. Got all that? I’m really not surprised that the government didn’t either. Now, it wouldn’t have actually been hard for them to contact me to find out what’s up. After all, as part of my Global Entry enrollment, they have my home address, mailing address, employment address, email address, phone number, and fingerprints. Honestly, I’m not hard to find. And I have to wonder how many openly gay CEOs of online dating companies ought to be considered a more likely ISIS recruit than a likely target of an ISIS kidnapping and beheading! I was certainly paying close attention to my personal security in Istanbul, and didn’t take risks I normally would. Nevertheless, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t bother calling me to make sure I was safe in Istanbul, or offer me any assistance (as the Japanese embassy did to all Japanese citizens in the Middle East after Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was kidnapped). Instead, I was flagged as an imminent security risk to commercial aviation and apparently (although they won’t confirm or deny this) ended up on a watch list.

The TSA has two lists, neither of which are good to be on. The first and most carefully vetted list, with the smallest number of people, is the “no fly list.” Being on this list means you’re not allowed on board any flight to, from or through the United States (including flights that pass through US airspace). And if you’re on this list, you probably belong on it. According to documents leaked to the press and the ACLU in 2013, the criteria for being on this list are criteria I can fully get behind. The government needs to not only be pretty sure that you’re a suspected terrorist, but also that you’re what they consider “operationally capable” of committing a violent act of terrorism. So, it’s not enough just to be a suspected terrorist. You have to be in the actual process of doing bad terrorist stuff, having taken tangible steps toward committing an act of violent terrorism. And for this purpose, “terrorism” isn’t the all-expansive, politically motivated definition of essentially any opposition to the Obama Administration and its wrong-headed policies, but the real deal: actual violent stuff, really and truly bad guys. There are a couple of other categories of people who end up on the no-fly list, including former Guantanamo Bay detainees and known insurgents fighting US troops abroad. Basically, the No Fly List is full of really bad people. Nevertheless, if you’re a US citizen and you end up on the no fly list, the TSA can still issue a waiver on a case-by-case basis and allow you to fly (this seems to be intended to allow US citizens placed on the list to return home from abroad). In short, people on the No Fly List aren’t people I would want to be on the same plane with, and it’s not easy to end up on this list.

ssss boarding pass

Selectee boarding pass

And then there is the list I apparently ended up on. This list is called the “selectee list.” These are people (like me) who are still allowed to fly, but are subject to additional security screening. You can also run into trouble at the border, and extra questioning and searches. Or, as is more often the case, you’re someone who is misidentified with a person on the list. You can end up on this list for a very large number of reasons, and the ACLU has sued the government repeatedly in an effort to reduce the number of innocent people ensnared and provide citizens with more effective redress procedures. One of the ways that you can reportedly end up on this list (there are an expansively large number of ways this can happen) is by making travel movements to known terrorist hotbeds for which no legitimate explanation for the travel exists. On the surface, this probably makes sense. And objectively, my travel to Turkey probably looked pretty shady absent any context. However, it’s an open question what efforts the government makes to obtain any actual explanations for suspicious activity. In my case, one phone call to me–or even an email to the UK Border Force, who asked me about my unusual itinerary in detail at Heathrow–would likely have cleared everything up.

bag tag with SSSS

Selectees’ bags receive a special tag marked SSSS

What happens when you are on the selectee list? Even if you have Global Entry, you can no longer check in online. You have to check in at the airport counter, which really sucks if you’re flying an airline (such as Southwest) that doesn’t allow reserving seats in advance. I am usually stuck in Seat 31B anyway, but I’m virtually guaranteed this now. Your boarding passes are flagged with SSSS, and you need to obtain a stamp from the TSA after you are screened and prior to being allowed to board (TSA agents will also often meet you at the gate and retrieve your boarding pass). The TSA doesn’t always remember this, so you might miss your flight if you discover that your boarding pass hasn’t been stamped. Your bags are also tagged with SSSS and receive extra scrutiny, so if you check bags, be sure to allow extra time in advance. Otherwise they might not make the flight you’re on.

When you present yourself at the security checkpoint, you are assigned a TSA escort who stays with you until the checkpoint. This can actually be a good thing–if the TSA is short-staffed (like they usually are at LAX) and can’t waste a half-hour waiting in line with you, they’ll just cut the line with you and escort you to the front. You will receive the same type of screening as if you refuse to walk through the body scanner or have forgotten your ID. This means aggressively being frisked all over your body, having your genitals and (if female) breasts groped, and having to undo your pants so the security officer can feel all the way around. All of your electronics have to be powered on, so be sure you have a full charge on everything. Everything you have will be scanned for explosive residue, so hopefully you aren’t an Army ranger, the owner of a fireworks stand, or a pyrotechnician. All of your bags will be gone through manually in addition to being X-rayed. While the TSA might look the other way on liquids or gels for most people, every rule will apply to you to the letter. The whole process takes an extra 10 minutes or so at the checkpoint versus a normal screening, unless the TSA finds anything not to their liking and decides to question you further. This could take even longer. And although you’re allowed to proceed on your own to the gate, you’re often required to board last. So, in addition to being stuck in a middle seat, you’re virtually guaranteed no space in the overhead bin. TSA agents will double-check your boarding pass for their magic stamp before you’re allowed on board. All told, it takes the fully dedicated resources of about 10 people to get you on a plane each time you fly–your tax dollars at work. Thanks, Obama!

There is a redress procedure, which I filed. I provided a detailed explanation about myself and my travel that explains everything that might look unusual without understanding the context. Today, I received a letter which said, in effect, that the TSA will neither confirm nor deny whether I was (or am) on a list, but it provides a redress number I can use the next time I fly to ensure that I am correctly identified. So, we’ll see what happens on my next flight. Hopefully, sanity will prevail. In the meantime, if you end up on a watch list, you can at least know what to expect and plan accordingly. And given this experience, I am only strengthened in my resolve to follow the lead of Tim Cook and Apple at Cuddli when it comes to digital privacy issues.

The flight where someone DIED on my plane – Part 2

We were just crossing between Greenland and Hudson Bay when the call came out over the intercom. “Is there a doctor on the plane? Please immediately make yourself known to a flight attendant.” Now, this has happened a number of times when I have been flying. But there was a certain urgency to this call, particularly when it came again, and was amended to “A doctor or nurse on the plane.” Call buttons rang out and a few medical personnel made their way rapidly to the front of the plane, flight attendants speaking in hushed tones. Shortly thereafter, the cabin lights came on. This was no ordinary medical incident.

Over the northern tip of Hudson Bay is about the worst possible place to have a medical emergency. There is no airport closer than Edmonton that can handle a fully loaded 777. And Edmonton is 3 hours away. Sure enough, “follow the plane” in the inflight entertainment shortly showed us tracking to Edmonton. Whatever was happening was really serious. Airlines don’t divert flights unless it’s absolutely necessary, given the high costs of doing so. And they especially don’t divert flights to a third country–where not everyone onboard is guaranteed to be admissible, and where it’ll cost a fortune to get everyone to their final destination–unless it’s an absolute dire emergency. Whatever was happening was a life or death situation.

About 5 minutes later, there was another announcement–one that I have never heard before. “Does anyone onboard have any diabetic test strips for measuring blood glucose?” Now, this could only mean one thing, given everything else going on: diabetic shock was suspected. The victim might already be in a coma. This is an absolute life threatening emergency.

Medical emergency on a plane

Medical personnel attend to the stricken passenger. If you look closely, you can see a bag of saline hanging from the overhead bin.

I snapped a picture quickly, and was quickly approached by a flight attendant who asked whether I was taking pictures. I avoided the question and sat down. “You’re not allowed to take pictures,” she said. I didn’t care to argue the point – the flight attendants definitely had more pressing issues than being the photo police, but they were already tired, stressed out and had their eye off the ball. No need to make the situation worse, even if I was in the right.

Periodically, I heard the sounds of an EKG monitoring the heartbeat, and then the heartbeat stopped. The medical personnel turned the sound way down as not to alarm everyone, but I heard it. When I saw our flight divert again to Chicago, I knew that we’d probably run out of time.

The O’Hare Fire Department, Customs and Immigration came onboard and quickly took someone out on a stretcher. We were deplaned shortly thereafter. When I got to the immigration counter, I asked the officer whether he knew what happened. “The old woman didn’t make it, she passed away,” he said, crossing his chest as devout Catholics do. I replied “On Ash Wednesday, no less,” and the officer crossed himself again, nodding and returning my passport. “Welcome home.”

Life is short. Your time is limited. The economy class meal you just choked down might be your last. Life for today, and make the most of it!

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!