The Vodka Dodge: How To Transit Russia Without A Visa

Yesterday, The Flight Deal posted an incredible deal from Los Angeles to Moscow. The fare actually dropped after they posted it and many people have been able to buy flights for as little as $600. “Yeah,” someone told me, “It’s a great deal, but then you need a Russian visa.” Well, maybe you need a visa, but what if you could turn a $600 sale fare into a sub-$800 trip to practically anywhere you want to go in Europe? It may be possible if you play your cards right.

Edward Snowden’s dramatic flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, and the limbo he was caught in at the Sheremetyevo Airport transit zone, became worldwide news last year. Still, most people don’t know that it’s possible to transit through Russia without a visa by using the Russian Transit Without Visa (TWOV) program. There are some rules that you need to follow but it works well, and I have done it nearly a dozen times through both major Moscow airports.

sheremetyevo airport photo

Aeroflot makes its hub at Sheremetyevo Airport

Why would you want to either fly through Russia or transit without a visa if you’re not running from the NSA? It’s simple: to save time and money. Russian visas are notoriously complicated and expensive to arrange. However, Russia is an excellent low-cost transit point between Europe and Asia. Aeroflot, for example, consistently offers low fares to Europe from Tokyo and Beijing. This is particularly true in the winter, where Aeroflot practically gives tickets to Moscow away. If you play your cards right, you can save hundreds of dollars by flying through Russia and transiting without a visa. Ignore all of the bad advice to “be safe and get a visa.” You don’t legally need one if you meet the requirements of the TWOV program so doing this doesn’t really give you any “safety” at all, it just gives you added cost and hassle.

The easiest way to transit without a visa is to buy a complete itinerary on a Russian airline. This minimizes the possibility of anything going wrong and Russian airlines are effective at dealing with local authorities (for example, Aeroflot has a special wing of the local Novotel for transit passengers stranded due to operational delays). However, it’s not strictly necessary to do this. You could buy a cheap ticket to Moscow, for example, and then a cheap onward ticket from Moscow to another destination. Your bags must be checked through to their final destination, because you will be unable to claim them in a Russian airport and re-check them. So, be sure you buy on carriers which cooperate with ticketing and baggage agreements so you can check in for your entire itinerary (and receive boarding passes and through bags) at your originating airport. These agreements roughly follow the lines of the airline alliances (Skyteam, Oneworld and StarAlliance).

You can also be denied boarding if you don’t meet the requirements for the TWOV program, so make sure your trip qualifies! Fortunately, most trips do. Note that even if you do manage to talk your way onto the plane, if your trip doesn’t qualify for TWOV, the infamously humorless Russian immigration authorities will promptly deport you if you arrive without the proper visa (unless your name is Edward Snowden).

Here is a quick checklist to ensure your trip qualifies for TWOV:

You’re not a Russian citizen. Russian citizens (or anyone Russia considers a citizen) are required to enter and leave Russia on a Russian passport. So, if you were born in Russia, left as a child, have never returned since, you don’t have a Russian passport, and you’re a naturalized US citizen, you may still considered by Russia to be a Russian citizen. So, you could be warmly welcomed home to Mother Russia and required to apply for a Russian passport before you are allowed to leave. This can take 6 months or more. Also, if Russia considers you a citizen and you didn’t complete your mandatory military service, you could be conscripted immediately into the army. It’s probably best to avoid Russia entirely if any of these scenarios could apply to you.

You’re flying into and out of the same airport. TWOV is only valid if you do not leave the sterile transit zone of the airport. You can’t fly into one airport (such as Sheremetyevo) and out of another (such as Domodedovo) without a Russian visa.

Your bags are checked through to their final destination. TWOV doesn’t work if you need to claim and re-check your bags. It’s always best to have only carry-on luggage, but there is no problem if you have checked luggage and it is tagged through to your final destination.

Your originating and departing flights are both international. It’s totally OK to fly an itinerary such as Amsterdam-Moscow-Beijing, as long as you’re not changing airports in Moscow. However, you can’t fly an itinerary like Amsterdam-St. Petersburg-Moscow-Beijing. This is because a domestic Russian flight is included, so you’d need to clear immigration (which requires a visa).

You’re not going to Belarus. Russia and Belarus share a customs and immigration union, and flights to and from Belarus are treated as domestic flights in Russia. So, you’ll need to have a Russian visa, because you’re entering the Russian domestic customs zone.

The airport you’re using has an international transit zone. It’s very unusual to TWOV in any Russian airport besides the two international airports in Moscow. However, this is permitted in a few other airports with international transit zones. If you’re using a complicated itinerary such as a flag stop, make sure that TWOV is permitted in the airport you plan to use before you book it. Otherwise, you might have a nasty surprise.

Your transit period is less than 24 hours. Ideally, you will want it to be far less than this. Russian airports are neither cheap nor comfortable places to wait for a long period of time. Note that you can exceed the 24 hour transit period in the event of flight delays or cancellations, but you cannot leave the transit zone of the international airport. It could be a miserable wait!

If you can follow the above guidelines, don’t hesitate to fly through Russia without a visa. It’s definitely not for the novice traveler, and you do need to pay attention to the details. However, if you follow the rules, it works just fine. You don’t need a visa. Save the money and time, and enjoy both on your trip instead!

Off The Beaten Path In The Netherlands

I spent nearly a year living and studying in The Netherlands, and am often asked for advice on what to see and do there. The Netherlands (often incorrectly called Holland) has a lot to see for such a small country, and it’s easy to navigate. It’s also a terrific gateway to Europe, because there are a large number of flights (including on low-cost carriers) into Schiphol airport. Although Dutch people speak their own language, they’re very linguistically versatile. Nearly everyone speaks excellent English (younger people especially so), and they usually also speak German. So, The Netherlands is a great first country to visit in Europe–or a great first country to visit in general.

Dutch boat and canal

If you visit The Netherlands, you’ll probably end up on a boat at some point.

Unfortunately, none of this is really a secret. The Netherlands is one of the most-visited countries in Europe, and for good reason: it’s home to some of its most famous museums and attractions. During the tourist season, The Netherlands is besieged by visitors, not only from North America and Europe but also from Asia. For a small country with only 14 million residents, the top attractions can become very crowded indeed. And for some reason, even though there is no shortage of places to visit in The Netherlands, everyone seems to flock to the same ones.

As I sit in Weesp, having enjoyed an idyllic and beautiful fall Sunday in a picture postcard Dutch town with nary another visitor to be seen, I am amazed that more people don’t make it off the beaten path in The Netherlands. Haarlem, a very similar city, is besieged by throngs of tourists, the restaurants and shops charging inflated tourist prices. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Belgian beer in a sunny sidewalk cafe for a mere €4.50 this afternoon, while watching the locals enjoy the day in their boats.

Weesp sidewalk cafe

Sidewalk cafes in Weesp are every bit as nice, but just half the price of Haarlem

It’s not just idyllic country towns that are great to visit when you go off the beaten path. Every weekend, planeloads of visitors descend on Schiphol and head straight for the Red Light district in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a party, this is one place to go, but not the best place. Despite the marijuana and prostitution, it’s a pretty relaxed, organized and tame place. It’s really crowded though, with the high prices you would expect in a really popular area. Personally, I skip the Red Light District. As a guy with a fairly serious DJ hobby, I’m into electronic music, and the best music and parties are in the young, vibrant city of Utrecht. For half the price of an evening out in Amsterdam, you can see much better DJs and have a lot better time at an Utrecht dance party. It’s also a beautiful city, known as the “city of lights” in The Netherlands and famous for the elaborate light displays along its canals.

Utrecht City Of Lights

The party is at the end of this tunnel.

How about art? Everyone knows about the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, did you know that there’s an astonishingly large Van Gogh collection at a museum you have probably never heard of? I think the seldom-visited Kröller-Müller Museum in Gelderland is a lot better than the Van Gogh Museum, even though it’s less well-known. It also has an incredible sculpture garden. It’s best if you rent a car to get there, but if you do, you might just have the place to yourself.

One reason that many people don’t venture far from the beaten path is the perceived complexity of public transportation. However, in reality, Dutch public transportation is one of the easiest systems to use in the world. It’s really only complicated if you’re trying to pay cash or use a non-European bank card. The Netherlands has a unified transportation payment system called the OV-Chipkaart. It works in literally every bus, train, subway and tram in the country. All of them, everywhere. You can buy one at the NS train ticket sales counter at Schiphol, and it will make your life incredibly easier. Public transportation is relatively expensive in The Netherlands, so 50 euro goes fast! Reloading is easy with cash or a credit card at any train station with a ticket counter. You can also reload your OV-Chipkaart at ticket machines, but this only works reliably with a European credit card with chip and PIN.

OV-Chipkaart reader

Scan your OV-Chipkaart on the reader

Using the OV-Chipkaart is remarkably simple. Just scan it before (or as) you get into the bus, train, train or subway. When you leave, scan it again. You’re charged by distance, and the fares add up quickly. Transportation in The Netherlands is expensive! That’s why you see everyone riding a bicycle; you will pay to be lazy. Your account will need a minimum balance of 20 euro to board a NS Railways train (which is why it’s best to start with 50 euro on your card), but you usually don’t need any minimum balance to board a subway, tram or bus.

It actually gets even better than this. You only need one way to plan travel in The Netherlands: either the Web site or smartphone app 9292. You can easily plan a trip between any two locations in the country and all methods of public transportation are covered. You can even find out the cost in advance. Content is all available in both English and Dutch. Yes, it really is this easy. The best way to search is by postal code, if you have it. Note that every single address in The Netherlands has its own unique postal code.

Dutch weather

The weather can change suddenly, even if it’s nice where you just were. Bring an umbrella!

Are there more hidden gems in The Netherlands? Of course! Some of my other favorite cities are Groningen, Maastricht and Den Haag (The Hague). Each has a very different personality. Groningen is famous for squatter dwellings, warehouse parties and graffiti art. Maastricht has winding cobblestone streets where you can find an absolutely perfect cup of fine Dutch Espresso, sipping slowly and watching the world go by. And Den Haag is a rabbit’s warren of serendipitous discoveries, with some of the most interesting and unique shops in the country.

But I have really only scratched the surface. For such a small country, there is a lot to enjoy in The Netherlands. Take the train to a place you’ve never heard of, rent a bicycle (possible for a few euro at most train stations) and go explore! You might be amazed at what you find.

Scrutinizing Southwest Part 2: Rapid Rewards

In the first part of this two-part series, I wrote about the US low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines. There are considerable differences in how they operate versus other carriers, from their focus on smaller airports to their surprisingly flexible change policies. In this part of the series, we’ll take a look at the Rapid Rewards program.

Southwest Airlines logo

A few months ago, Southwest and Chase ran a credit card promotion that offered 50,000 points and waived the annual fee for the first year. This was a very good promotion so I jumped on the deal. However, I then needed to learn the ins and outs of the Rapid Rewards program. It’s quite a bit different than most frequent flier programs and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.

Southwest actually operates three frequent flier programs, but two of them are old legacy programs bound for retirement. I think it’s important to cover the old programs because so much is still being written about them. This is because you can sometimes gain a slight advantage playing games with transferring points back and forth between the Southwest and airTran programs in an elaborate series of steps. However, these opportunities aren’t all that good in the first place and they evaporate in a month anyway. Unfortunately, blog articles about this will likely live on forever. So, this is mostly just to give you a historical picture of the Rapid Rewards program’s evolution, and bring you up to speed on the current program if you’ve been reading about Rapid Rewards on other blogs.

Under the legacy Rapid Rewards program (no longer active), you would earn one Rapid Rewards credit for each flight. After earning 8 credits, you could redeem them for an award flight voucher. This was a pretty sweet deal because you could earn your credits taking cheap short-haul flights, and then cash in your award flight for an expensive long-haul flight. However, Southwest eventually started to play games with capacity controls.  It became as difficult to redeem awards with Southwest as it was to redeem frequent flier seats on other airlines. And let’s face it, Southwest was giving away the store. If you have existing flight credits under the old program, they can be converted to the new program at a rate of 1,200 points per credit (which is a better deal if you plan to redeem your points for short-haul flights planned in advance, and a worse deal if you can live with capacity controls and plan to redeem them for long-haul flights or flights not planned in advance).

AirTran A+ Rewards Program logo

Southwest Airlines also owns airTran Airlines. The airTran A+ Rewards program will be discontinued on November 1, 2014, along with the airTran brand name. It is more or less identical to the legacy Southwest Rapid Rewards program and points are actually transferable between programs. Existing A+ Rewards accounts will be converted to the (current, not legacy) Southwest Rapid Rewards program when the A+ Rewards program is discontinued, and legacy credits will be converted to points at the same rate of 1,200 points per credit.

The current (as of 2011) Rapid Rewards program is the one that you’ll be signing up for if you’re new to Southwest Airlines. This program (at least until the beginning of 2015) is different from most other US airlines because rather than earning points based on the distance you travel, you earn points based on the fare you pay. There are different earning rates depending on the type of fare, but most readers of Seat 31B will be buying the lowest-priced “Wanna Get Away” fares. These earn 6 points per dollar spent (note that you earn points on the fare you pay, but not on the taxes).

Points can be redeemed for any seat that Southwest is selling, with no capacity controls and no blackout dates. Want to fly during the busiest peak periods around the Christmas holiday? No problem. Want to fly to sunny California in the winter? Sure. Obviously, it will cost you more points than an off-peak flight to an unpopular destination would, but it won’t cost you silly prices like you would have to pay with other North American airlines, presuming that they even offer any award inventory at all. Keep in mind that many airlines black out awards during peak seasons and/or to peak destinations, even at the highest redemption rates. Southwest doesn’t.

How much do awards cost? Contrary to many articles you’ll read online, it’s actually variable (Southwest doesn’t disclose the factors that influence this variability). In general, the cost in points will not be less than 50 points or more than 60 points per equivalent fare dollar redeemed. Note that points can be redeemed for the base fare only. You will still have to pay the tax on your ticket in cash. You can expect that Southwest may conduct stealth devaluations in the future, because there isn’t a fixed formula for how fares are converted to points. Additionally, you can currently redeem points for any fare type (including the deeply discounted “Wanna Get Away” fares Southwest offers), and this could change in the future, along with adding a whole host of ancillary fees that Southwest currently does not charge.

At the end of the day, Southwest Rapid Rewards can provide startlingly lower redemption rates than even British Airways Avios points (usually one of the best options for short-haul flights), depending upon where you are flying and what the fares are. For example, I am traveling roundtrip from Los Angeles to Seattle in late October for just 9,638 points. This would require 15,000 Avios points or 25,000 miles in almost every other US airline’s frequent flier program. Granted, this is a fare that would have cost me a little under $200 if I had paid cash, and it would have earned triple points under the current Southwest targeted promotion I’m enrolled for, but it’s still a great value. Keep in mind, there is always a justification to pay cash for a fare and earn more points. However, if you don’t spend your points, they’re going to eventually be devalued–you can bank on it! Southwest has even built in a “stealth” way to easily do this, given the variability in redemption rates. So, if you find a redemption that is good value (under 60 points per $1), I think it’s worth paying with points instead of cash.

There is another huge advantage to Rapid Rewards points: there are no fees whatsoever and surprisingly few “gotcha” clauses. Redemption fees? None. Even for seats booked at the last minute. Cancellation fees? Zero, as long as you cancel your ticket at least 10 minutes before the flight leaves (you’ll get your points and your money back). Change fees? None, and actually, you can even come out ahead on changes! If a fare goes down and requires fewer points, you can ask Southwest to reissue the ticket at the lower fare. They will do so and deposit the balance back to your Rapid Rewards account (and yes, this can easily be done online). Close-in booking fees? None of those either. Bag fees? Southwest doesn’t have them for up to two checked bags. The only “gotcha” that I can find so far is that your points will expire if you don’t have activity in your account at least once every 18 months.
Should you switch to Southwest for the Rapid Rewards program? It’s definitely not for everyone. Southwest doesn’t have a first class section. Many travel bloggers wouldn’t even think of going near an airline that doesn’t serve caviar on fine china, and would never sit in economy class. There is barely any semblance of elite status with Southwest, and it doesn’t get you much anyway. After all, with no first class and no airport lounges, the only thing they’d really have left to give away is free bags, except they give those free to everyone. If you’re primarily an international traveler, Southwest has very limited utility. I think, however, that Rapid Rewards will be a lot more attractive than the legacy airline frequent flier programs in 2015. Although they play the same games with mileage earning as other airlines will, they’re a lot better when it comes to redemption. And if, like the vast majority of Americans, you redeem your points for economy class domestic travel, it’s hard to ignore that it takes fewer Rapid Rewards points and a lot less hassle to get somewhere versus points travel on most other airlines.

Scrutinizing Southwest Part 1: Overview

I don’t personally have a lot of experience flying Southwest Airlines. The primary reason? I’m from Seattle, and I have spent most of the last 5 years living abroad. Southwest was, until very recently, virtually useless for international travel (they added a few holiday destinations abroad in the past few months). Although Southwest has offered Seattle service for 20 years (after they acquired Salt Lake City-based Morris Air Service), they serve a relatively small number of destinations and don’t have a large number of direct flights. Or a large number of flights, period. Seattle is overwhelmingly dominated by Alaska Airlines and Delta.

Even if you overlook all of the above, the destinations Southwest serves from Seattle are often less convenient. They fly to smaller, out-of-the-way airports like Oakland instead of San Francisco, and Love Field instead of Dallas. Want to fly to Los Angeles from Seattle? You’re not getting there without a connection, and practically everyone else offers a nonstop. Southwest is also really quirky. It does not offer baggage agreements with other airlines, so if you’re connecting to another airline, you will have to claim your bag and re-check it. Southwest is also not a member of any airline alliance, so they offer you access to only their own route network. And they are very proud to serve exclusively peanuts on their planes. I’m allergic to peanuts. Are you a person of size? Watch out! Southwest may charge you for an extra seat, and they are not shy about doing so if you cannot fit comfortably in a regular economy class seat.

More importantly, Southwest doesn’t generally have lower fares than other airlines, and they only sell fares through their own Web site. And the biggest reason why you’ll almost never see Southwest mentioned on the sites of most other travel bloggers: Southwest does not offer a first class cabin. All seats are in economy class (some with unusual configurations, such as family seating sections with rear-facing seats), and seating isn’t even assigned. You board by group (based on when you checked in) and just grab any open seat.

Southwest Airlines plane imageThere are upsides to flying Southwest, though. For an airline, they are exceptionally customer-friendly. They don’t charge any change fees, as long as you change your flight at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. They also don’t charge baggage fees for up to two checked bags. And of course, you don’t have to pay any fees for carry-on bags. So, if you need to check luggage or think you might change your plans, Southwest might be for you. Southwest also has a very friendly company culture. The flight attendants are famous for singing on planes. The company is known to be family-friendly, going out of their way to ensure that–in the end–families are seated together. And Southwest is innovative: they were one of the first airlines to offer electronic tickets, as well as check-in kiosks (although Alaska Airlines did beat them to both of these).

Should you fly Southwest? It depends. If you insist on flying in a premium cabin, Southwest is not for you and will probably never be for you. If you need to check bags, compare the total cost of a flight with another airline including bag fees to the cost of a Southwest flight. You may well find the total package to be less expensive with Southwest. And if you’re comfortable taking an extra connection, or flying into a smaller airport, Southwest might be a good option if the fare is lower. So, if you’re entirely OK with Southwest’s quirks, it’s probably worth comparison-shopping on southwest.com. Remember, you will not find Southwest fares on any other travel Web sites.

This is the first installment in a 2-part series. In the second part of this series, I introduce the Southwest Rapid Rewards frequent flier program.

How Much Did Priceline Pay For That Room You Bid?

Last week, I was in the Bay Area on some business travel. In my real life, I’m the founder of a tech startup. We’re not yet funded, so my travel budget is usually somewhere in between sleeping in my car and tent camping. I figured I could probably couch surf on my last trip, but that didn’t end up working out for most of the nights. I did manage to couch surf for two nights, but I also tent camped for a night and ended up in hotels, booked through Priceline, for two nights. For my Priceline room nights, the actual amount that Priceline paid was unintentionally leaked to me. This is normally very closely held information so it’s nice to get a rare inside look at the data.

picture of tent camping

Why not camp out to save money? China Camp State Park, California

So, a few words about Priceline, just so you know what I’m talking about and why this is special. Priceline sells hotel rooms through a number of channels. You can make a traditional reservation at the normal, published rate. Priceline receives a commission for handling the reservation just like any other travel agency. They also offer “express deals,” which allow you to choose a hotel by price, date, zone, and star level, with the name of the hotel revealed after you select a specific one. This works pretty much the same way as Hotwire, another popular “opaque travel” site. The best deals in the hotel business, however, are through Priceline’s “name your own price” offers. These work pretty much the same way as “express deals,” but you bid for a room and hotels within the zone can choose to accept your offer or not. In all cases, the amount that you actually pay bears little resemblance to what was either bid or advertised. Taxes and fees are lumped together and added on at the very end (just before you pay), which can inflate your bill by 20% or more. It’s a shady tactic, but just about everyone does this for hotel rooms.

When you use the “name your own price” method, I found out that the actual amount being “bid” to the hotel isn’t the same as you bid on Priceline. It’s actually a lower price. I was able to obtain data proving this in two cases (although it was provided to me inadvertently). For two different Bay Area rooms in separate properties on separate dates, Priceline pocketed about $10 per room night and refused bids that would have resulted in  a lower profit. I still saved a lot, but less than I expected.

For the first Priceline room night I booked, my winning bid was $60. The actual price I was charged, after my bill was larded up with taxes and fees, was $76.21. However, the hotel made an error and revealed the price that they billed Priceline. So, I was able to see that Priceline actually paid $65.88 for the room. Their profit on this room was $10.33. It’s worth pointing out that this particular hotel was selling its cheapest rooms for $129 per night plus tax, so the savings were still substantial. However, the hotel was nearly empty and really needed to sell the room. Given how my bidding was structured, Priceline could have sold me the room at a $50 and $55 bid. They held out until my bid was $60, guaranteeing themselves a minimum profit. Priceline thus demonstrated that it would have been willing to let last-minute room inventory spoil rather than selling it at a reduced profit.

For the second Priceline room night I booked, the results were nearly identical. I ended up with a $55 winning bid, which was unscrupulously inflated to a total of $69.64. The amount that Priceline was actually billed by the hotel, in data inadvertently leaked to me, was $61.56. So, in this case, Priceline’s profit was $8.08, and I bid for the same room–in the same zone–at $50 which would have turned a $3.08 gross profit.

So, how much is the minimum gross profit Priceline will accept for a name-your-own-price room night? At least based on my experience, it’s more than $5.33 and probably a little less than $8.08. For a single-night booking, this is actually a pretty slim margin. Priceline, after all, has to pay all of the costs of booking the room and processing your credit card. Still, it’s a little higher than I expected, and finding this data has encouraged me not to bid in even $5 increments. If I think I’m close to a winning bid, I’ll more likely increment my bids by $2 or $3 rather than $5.

Part of the value proposition to hoteliers in listing with Priceline is that it’s a good way to liquidate last-minute unsold inventory, albeit at a steep discount. Priceline, however, has demonstrated a willingness to allow inventory to spoil rather than to sell it at an (in its view) unacceptably low margin. It’d be interesting to know whether Priceline’s contracts obligate it to accept break-even bids in order to help its partners unload stale room inventory, and how much this actually is (bearing in mind Priceline’s operating costs). If not, hoteliers would be wise to insist upon break-even or better sales when it comes to any “name-your-own-price” sites.

You might be asking at this point “How was this data leaked?” I’m not going to go into details, because this would probably get the hotels involved in trouble. I’m also hoping that more data will continue to leak so I will have more points of reference in order to formulate better bids. I will say that there were no hacks or shenanigans involved. The information was accidentally leaked to me in both cases, and this probably happens fairly often; the difference with me is that I actually knew what it meant.

How To Avoid Booking Bad Airports

Sometimes a cheap fare can end up being a lot more expensive, both in terms of time and hassle. I’m not talking about baggage fees or any of the other charges that airlines use to cause last-minute surprises. Most readers of #Seat31B are savvy enough to avoid those. Instead, I’m talking about airports. Pay attention to where you’re flying. It might not be exactly where you were expecting.

Although you can encounter this issue in some North American cities, this problem can really bite you when you’re flying with cut-rate budget airlines in Europe and Asia. These airlines often don’t fly to the primary airports in their cities, leaving you stuck with limited (and often very expensive) transportation options. For example, Ryanair will fly you to a place they call Brussels, but the airport is actually well south of the city in Charleroi. It’s 62km away, and the taxi ride will almost definitely cost you more than your flight. The same is true with the place they call “Frankfurt.” It’s actually Hahn, nearly an hour away. To its credit, Ryanair generally organizes a bus between the center city and airports they serve (often at a price that rings up at more than your flight), but you have to book this in advance or you might find yourself without any other options. The same is true with AirAsia, which flies to Don Mueang airport in Bangkok where taxis are your only option. This might be OK, because taxis are generally pretty cheap in Bangkok, but it might be a disaster: traffic is notoriously bad. You always have to allow considerable extra time when departing from Don Mueang. AirAsia also makes its hub at the KLIA2 terminal at Kuala Lumpur airport. While there are very good transportation connections at this new terminal, it’s easy to end up in the wrong place if you’re not paying attention.

Even with more conventional international airports, ground transportation can be astonishingly expensive. Consider Tokyo. If you take a taxi from Narita Airport in Tokyo to the city center, you can end up spending as much as you paid for your flight! The cheapest train route will require about 2 hours in travel time and cost about $25.

Tokyo taxicab photo

Check the price before you get into a Tokyo taxi

How can you avoid trouble in Tokyo? Avoid Narita airport. Instead, if you can, fly to Haneda airport. It’s much closer to the city and transportation is much less expensive.

What are some of my favorite airports to avoid? Here is my list of the “worst offender” airports that I think are likely to cause you trouble:

Asia

Beijing: Avoid flying into Tianjin. Some budget airlines present this as an alternate for Beijing. It’s not. Tianjin is an entirely separate city located a considerable distance from Beijing. Also avoid booking China United Airlines at Nanyuan Airport. This is a secondary airport in the dangerous southern part of the city. It isn’t on the Beijing Subway and your only option may be to overpay for an illegal taxi.

Shanghai: Avoid flying into Pudong Airport if possible. It is located very far from the city center. Hongqiao Airport is a much better choice. Unfortunately, most international flights arrive at Pudong Airport.

Tokyo: Avoid Narita airport if possible. Although transportation connections are excellent, they are expensive. Narita is also far from the Tokyo city center, so plan your time wisely! Unfortunately, most international flights to Tokyo arrive at Narita.

Bangkok: Avoid flying into Don Mueang airport. The only transportation option is taxis which are more expensive than the train from the primary Bangkok airport, and are much less predictable in Bangkok traffic.

Europe

Ryanair – Be generally suspicious of any city names published by this airline and be certain you know where the flight will really be arriving. If it’s not the primary airport in the city you’re visiting, research ground transportation options before you book the flight. The overall package might still prove to be a good value, but be sure to know what you’re buying.

London – Avoid Luton and Stansted airports. Heathrow and Gatwick have good transportation connections, although Heathrow is the better of the two. London City airport has few flights, but is located directly in the city center.

The Netherlands - Avoid Eindhoven, the hub of Ryanair. It’s an expensive train ride from there to anywhere you’ll likely want to be.

Brussels - Avoid Charleroi airport. Not convenient!

Frankfurt - Hahn is not Frankfurt!

Rome - Ciampino Airport, used by many budget carriers, is actually closer to the city center than the main airport (Leonardo da Vinci). However, it has only bus and taxi connections. Given the terrible traffic in Rome, be sure to allow extra time when using this airport.

North America

Southwest Airlines and Allegiant AirlinesLike Ryanair in Europe, Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Airlines often fly to inconvenient, out-of-the-way and smaller airports with cheaper landing fees. Unlike Ryanair, you don’t need to read the fine print as carefully: they are both pretty up-front with showing the city names correctly. Just be sure that you don’t get carried away with booking a cheaper fare; it could mean more expensive ground transportation and longer connections.

San Francisco – There are often cheaper flights into Oakland and San Jose, both served by Southwest Airlines. However, ground transportation connections are not very convenient from either airport unless you’re renting a car. To be fair, Oakland will get much more convenient when it is linked to the BART railway network in Fall, 2014, at which point I might instead be calling it the Bay Area’s best kept secret.

Los Angeles – The most convenient airport is often not LAX, which is the biggest airport in the Los Angeles area and the primary international airport. If you’re visiting Disneyland, consider flying to Orange County – John Wayne Airport (SNA), which is practically across the street. For Universal Studios and Hollywood, fly to the Bob Hope Burbank Airport (BUR). The small Long Beach airport (LGB) is primarily served by smaller aircraft, so you can get in and out very quickly. The airport to avoid? Ontario (ONT), which is inconveniently located to almost everything except its immediate surrounding area. Don’t be tempted by the lower fare!

Washington, DC – Avoid Dulles Airport (IAD) and fly to National Airport (DCA) if possible. The latter airport is on the excellent Washington DC subway system, and is conveniently located to the city.

New York – Avoid Islip (ISP) and White Plains (HPN). These are both far from the city. Also avoid LaGuardia (LGA). This airport is delay-prone, its facilities have been charitably described as “third world,” and there are only bus and taxi connections. JFK airport, the primary international airport, has an inexpensive subway connection but is very busy and located far from the center city, so plan accordingly. Newark airport (EWR) is closer and has more expensive, but still excellent transportation connections to Penn Station via the AirTrain.

Are there any airports that you go out of your way to avoid? Drop me a line on Twitter @Seat31B.

Avoiding Awful Hotel WiFi

Of all of the things that hotels get wrong, few things are more infuriating than poor or nonexistent WiFi. Annoyingly, many hotels view WiFi as a profit center and provide the service at rates that can’t be reasonably viewed as anything other than a price gouge. I have been on the road for the past few weeks and have encountered a lot of issues myself. In some cases, I’ve come up with workarounds. Here are a few things I have learned along the way that I hope will help you to survive your next hotel WiFi experience.

Terrible Signal. You arrive in your room and there is only one bar of signal, and it fades in and out. Forget using your mobile phone or tablet, they can’t connect to WiFi at all. So, you pull out your laptop and try to connect, but the connection keeps dropping. It’s an exercise in frustration but one that you can solve with an external WiFi adapter. I use the TP-Link TL-WN822N. It has a more powerful antenna than the one on my laptop, and with a long USB cable, I can move it around to a location in the room that gets a better signal. Additionally, you might look for whether a wired connection is available in the room. Many hotels offer both wireless and wired connections, and the wired connection is invariably faster.

TP-Link Wi-Fi AdapterNo WiFi. Sometimes hotels don’t have WiFi at all. This is where having an unlocked phone with portable hotspot capability comes in handy. I carry the Moto G as my primary mobile phone, and use prepaid SIM cards that allow for unlimited data (typically 1-5GB at 4G speeds, and the remainder at 2G or 3G speeds). This allows me to use the “portable hotspot” feature to share out my mobile phone data plan to other devices. Most unlocked Windows Phone devices also support this feature. On iOS, the “Personal Hotspot” feature is available at the option of your mobile carrier. Unfortunately, most North American carriers don’t allow this feature to be made available on versions of their phones without paying extra, so an unlocked phone is required. The speeds I get aren’t as good as I typically see with a dedicated device for data services (such as a Verizon Jetpack), but for infrequent use, it’s a good solution. This does not require carrying multiple devices and subscribing to multiple data plans.

Charges for each device, or only one device allowed for free. Sometimes hotels want to charge you for each and every device that you connect to their wireless network. If the WiFi is free, they may only provide access to one device. Typically, devices are authenticated by MAC address. There are a couple of ways around this problem. The first is to clone a single MAC address onto multiple devices. However, this isn’t particularly easy; it’s a relatively technical thing to do. Another option is to use a travel router. Many of these have software that can “take over” the connection you set up on your laptop, and can then share it out to multiple devices. Additionally, travel routers can share out a wired network connection if one is available, which provides faster service and less complicated to set up.

ASUS WL330NUL image.

The tiny ASUS WL-330NUL travel router has scored high marks on reviews.

Slow speed is “free,” high speed costs more. Many hotels advertise “free WiFi” when you’re booking a room. When you get there, you find out that the “free” WiFi is barely faster than dial-up, and you’ll have to pay more in order to do anything more than send and receive e-mail. How do hotels do this? They have crippled previously fast WiFi by deploying “traffic shaping” software which limits the speed of your connection. Fortunately, a lot of this software is badly designed and you can sometimes get around its annoying speed limits without paying extra. One of the workarounds that works for me most consistently is using a VPN service to connect to the Internet. I run my own VPN service so that I can reach Facebook and other social media Web sites from countries with censored Internet access, but anyone can buy a VPN service at low cost.

Hidden free WiFi areas.  Many hotels offer free WiFi in public areas of the property, but don’t expect them to tell you this. If you are prompted to pay for WiFi in your room, check the lobby, conference areas and business center before you pull out your credit card. You might find fast, free access available a short walk away.

The bottom line: Hotels, like everyone else in the travel industry, are always looking for an opportunity to lard up your bill with extra charges. When it comes to WiFi, come equipped for battle. With the right moves, you could save $20 or more per day.

 

Reducing Rotten Resort Fees

One of the most evil and insidious creeping inventions of the hotel industry in recent years has been the “resort fee.” These originated in faraway tropical destinations but have spread to many destinations that you’d never consider to be resorts.

Typically a resort fee isn’t advertised as part of the base room rate. So, for example, at the Rio in Las Vegas (where I completed a recent stay) the room rate was advertised online at a low $37. It’s only after reading the fine print and adding up the charges that you see that the rate nearly doubles:

  • Room charge: $37.00
  • Tax: $4.44
  • Resort fee: $22.40
  • TOTAL: $63.84

Obviously, the $63.84 that you actually end up paying is considerably more than the $37.00 that is advertised. Even though the FTC has warned hotel operators against this type of deceptive “drip pricing,” the industry continues to advertise room rates that bear little relation to what you’re actually charged.

Picture of Rio Las Vegas

Resort fees sneakily cram $22.40/day onto your bill at the Rio

How can you fight back against resort fees? Make sure you actually get everything you pay for. Hotels will hold firm on charging a resort fee if the services that were promised are available (typically services that really ought to be free anyway such as access to the fitness center, local telephone calls and WiFi). However, you have a reasonable argument that the resort fee should be waived in the event that services weren’t available, particularly if you complained to the hotel and they failed to solve the problem. But this only works if you use all of the resort fee services so you can find problems with them before you’re charged.

In my case, once I arrived in the room, I began by trying to make a free local phone call. Often, the hotel phones don’t work well or even at all. The ancient telephone was essentially inoperable. Heavy scratching noises accompanied the audio and the microphone inside the handset had become unglued over the years so my speech was muffled and nearly inaudible to other parties. I called the front desk at the Rio, who immediately agreed there was a problem and assured me it would be corrected.

3 days later, at the end of the day, a technician finally showed up and replaced the phone. I could finally make free local phone calls. I asked the technician to note in my folio that there had been a maintenance issue with the phone, and it was replaced, “just to avoid any confusion about the phone in case they try to charge me for it.” He was happy to oblige. So, when I checked out, I was able to successfully challenge the resort fee because I didn’t receive all of the services I had paid for, and it was partially (proportionate to the number of days I was inconvenienced) waived. Remember, hotels stick to their guns on resort fees, so if you are able to get anything waived, it’s unusual. I was satisfied with the result.The next time you see that a hotel charges a resort fee, start figuring out how you might be able to get out of it. The more that resort fees become more trouble than they’re worth to hoteliers, the more likely they are to disappear.

 

Frequent Flier Flag Stops

If you’re looking for frequent flier seat availability during a busy peak travel period, it can be really tough. Often the biggest problem is the most frustrating one: flights to and from airline hubs. You might be able to find, for example, a flight “over the water” from Europe to a hub city, but not onward to your home city from there. This is why it’s really important to shop your flights one segment at a time, and to look at unconventional ways of reaching your final destination. Flag stops are a rarely used technique and can really help when inventory is tight.

The bad news from an American Airlines agent last summer was a typical conversation. “I don’t have any availability at all from Amsterdam. I do have availability from Dusseldorf to Chicago, though, on our new flight. There isn’t any availability onward from Chicago to Las Vegas, though.” I wasn’t particularly surprised by either the excellent geographic competence of the seasoned AAgent (international agents at American Airlines are usually excellent) or the news. Las Vegas is one of the most popular summer travel destinations in the world. Getting there was going to be hard. “Would you like to add a paid onward ticket? It will cost $184.50.”

Most people would just pay up. After all, even with the additional cost of a paid onward ticket, the overall redemption would still cost less than the fuel surcharges involved when booking on British Airways. However, don’t pay up before looking for a flag stop. What’s a flag stop? It’s a non-standard connection, sometimes (though not always) inconvenient, occurring in a non-hub city. Because these connections are non-standard (particularly if they involve partners) and would not normally be sold, they typically don’t show up in automated searches and have to be pieced together one segment at a time. Having an extensive knowledge of airline route networks and available partners works well here.

I knew that this was coming, and had done some research on the Alaska Airlines Web site prior to calling. Although you might not expect it, Alaska Airlines has one flight a day from St. Louis to Seattle. With a forced overnight in Seattle (which didn’t count as a stopover because it was 23 hours, not 24 hours), there would be onward availability the following morning to Las Vegas on another Alaska flight. The only piece I wasn’t sure of was a connecting flight to St. Louis. “Not yet,” I said. “I found availability on Alaska Airlines from St. Louis. Do you have a connecting flight there?” The agent replied in the affirmative, and a few minutes later, was issuing me a ticket for a grueling and complicated 3-stop itinerary that would take me all the way to Las Vegas with no fuel surcharges.

DUS-ORD-STL-LAS map

Yes it sucks, but it’s free…

Of course, I didn’t actually want to fly this awful itinerary. It would have gotten me there if I couldn’t find anything else, but I was hoping to replace it with something more sane. One nice advantage with American Airlines awards is that you can make essentially unlimited changes to the routing as long as your origin and destination cities are the same. This means that if space opens up on a more convenient itinerary, you can make the change with a simple phone call. Also, if your itinerary later breaks anywhere along the way due to a schedule change, American Airlines will generally open up inventory on their own flights to get you to your final destination. With a complicated itinerary like this, a lot could potentially go wrong so I figured the chances were better than even that I could score a better itinerary because of a schedule change.

In this case, I lucked out. Alaska Airlines changed the schedule of their St. Louis to Seattle flight, which resulted in a greater than 24 hour stop in Seattle. This was no longer “legal” under the fare rules, because it constituted a stopover. These are not allowed. So, when I called to inquire about the change, the American Airlines representative noticed the issue. She started off by telling me that my entire itinerary would be cancelled because I had booked an invalid connection. When I explained that the invalid connection was there because of a schedule change and I didn’t actually want the stopover, she said “Oh! Let me see if I can get you a better itinerary than this.” She contacted the Revenue Management department, who then decided to open up award inventory for me on an American Airlines connecting flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. dus-ord-las route map

This itinerary was much more reasonable.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I needed to get from New York to Los Angeles–again on an American Airlines award. I only needed an economy class seat, but no award space was available. I decided to work backwards, looking for nonstop flights from east coast destinations to Los Angeles. To my surprise, I found an early afternoon flight from Columbus, Ohio with availability. So, all I needed to do was to find a flight from a New York area airport to Columbus that would connect. I was in luck! There was an almost perfectly timed connection available from LaGuardia Airport.

LGA-CMH-LAX map

Not a hub, but it works

Although this isn’t an itinerary that would normally price out as a paid fare, adding Columbus as a flag stop proved to be perfectly valid when I searched for the award space one segment at a time. The itinerary priced out correctly at 12,500 miles and my checked bag did transfer correctly at Columbus.

The next time you’re looking for a hard-to-find seat, look for flag stops. It takes extra time–both when searching and when flying–but you may be able to magically find inventory when none existed only moments before.

Avoiding A Cabotage Calamity

With the increasing difficulty of using frequent flyer miles, it’s no surprise that many people are seeking to redeem on partner airlines instead. This sometimes creates situations that would rarely arise before, and one of those situations is called “cabotage.” Ever since another travel blogger, Jeff from Canadian Kilometers, lodged a cabotage-related complaint with the US Department of Transportation, it has made it a lot harder to book awards between US locations while transiting third countries.

Blame Canada

Blame Canada

What is cabotage? It is, quite simply, the practice of a foreign airline (or cruise line) carrying passengers between two points within the United States, even when transiting a third country. For example, consider a flight between Los Angeles and New York via Toronto. It seems like an awfully logical connecting point, just look at the map:

lax-yyz-lga route map

This routing could cause you trouble

If you were to fly Air Canada from Los Angeles to Toronto, and then connect to another Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York, this would be cabotage because a foreign airline carried you the entire way between two US points. And Air Canada would be slapped with a huge fine. It’s $25,000 each time, so they have a strong incentive not to do this. Making matters worse, you might even be able to book this itinerary as an award flight if the airline you’re using has a badly programmed booking engine, causing you unexpected trouble at the airport.

This is what happened to Jeff, who booked a flight from Seattle to Guam on Eva Air, via Taiwan. He was (correctly) denied boarding because this would create a cabotage situation, torpedoing the risky hidden cities itinerary that he’d planned on the mistake fare he found. Rather than accepting that these things can happen when you play dangerous games, he filed a complaint with the DOT and created a situation where even entirely legitimate itineraries can now be difficult to book, and some itineraries are no longer possible to book at all with Avianca LifeMiles.

How do you avoid cabotage? It’s really easy: make sure that at least one part of an itinerary between US locations, which transits a third country, is on a US carrier. So, for example, it’s totally OK to book a flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver on Alaska Airlines, which then connects to a flight from Vancouver to New York on Cathay Pacific. This is not cabotage. In fact, I am doing this right now. Similarly, Jeff could have flown ANA to Tokyo, and switched to a United flight to Guam. You can even transit a city in a third country using a US carrier and this is also no problem. So, for example, if you want to fly from Seattle to Las Vegas via Vancouver BC on Alaska Airlines (which you might want to do if award inventory is only available with this itinerary), it’s entirely OK and there is no cabotage. You would have to pay both US and Canadian immigration and airport fees, though (and endure all the immigration hassles, and travel with your passport) so this is probably something you don’t actually want to do unless it’s truly necessary.

As long as you know the cabotage rules, you can probably manage to book itineraries that don’t actually involve it, but it might require booking over the phone and appealing to a supervisor in order to get it done. Plan extra time at the airport in case you’re challenged. And be aware that airline search engines are imperfect. They may recommend (and allow you to book) itineraries that involve cabotage and will result in you being denied boarding at the last minute. Conversely, they may not display itineraries that are perfectly valid and don’t involve any cabotage, but do transit through a third country. In this case, you may have to piece these itineraries together manually.

As always, the thrill is in the hunt when traveling on miles and points. Avoiding cabotage situations sounds difficult, but in reality, it’s really simple: always book at least one leg (either into or out of the US) on a US carrier.