Emirates (Sort Of) Honors Low India Fares

On Tuesday night, there was an incredible deal to India on Emirates. How incredible? $450 roundtrip from Los Angeles to Mumbai. There were even better deals, including $258 roundtrip from Los Angeles to Hyderabad. Deals were available from most North American cities served by Emirates. However, they could only be booked on Vayama, who has a fairly unusual procedure for issuing tickets.This ultimately torpedoed my trip, along with everyone else who booked these low fares.

Last night, I received email from Vayama backing out of the deal:

Dear Customer,

 

We recently received your online booking request.  Quality control has determined that your booking could not be processed at the fare that was originally quoted.  Unfortunately, the airline was unable to accept the fare that was quoted earlier and as a result, the fare is increased now. This was an issue from Emirates Airline due to  fuel surcharge was not updated on the ticket price. Hence we would suggest you to either cancel this reservation or accept the below fare. We are doing this to avoid any kind of problem at the airport.

 

The total fare now  is $992.74 USD

 

please respond to the email or call us on 1.877.628.6452 at the earliest convenience if you agree to pay the new fare, so that we will go ahead and issue your ticket.  If you have any questions please feel free to respond to this email and we will get back to you generally within 24 hours.

 

***Please note: fares are not guaranteed until the final processing is complete***

 

We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.

Sincerely,

 

Customer Care Team

What was the root cause here? You have to have both a reservation and a ticket number in order for the contract to be complete. Vayama, for whatever reason, makes a reservation immediately upon booking, but manually processes ticketing. They likely do this to avoid fraudulent credit card charges. If an airline decides that a low fare was a mistake, it’s very easy for them to back out of the deal in this scenario. No ticket was actually issued at the time of purchase, hence there was no Contract of Carriage. So, Emirates didn’t legally have to honor the deal–and they didn’t. I will have to visit India another time.

UPDATE: I just received a phone call from Vayama indicating that Emirates will honor the fare after all. However, the ticket that was issued was a very heavily restricted ticket which is the same category issued for frequent flier tickets. This means that it likely will not earn mileage with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. However, at a 50% discount from the usual lowest fare, it’s still a very good deal to visit India.

One Day Left Before LifeMiles Devalues!

Frequent flier miles are a depreciating currency. Don’t hang onto them and never trust that they will maintain their value. The latest program to devalue is Avianca LifeMiles. You have until midnight (Colombia time) tomorrow to book under the old rates. Pay attention to the time zone so you don’t miss out!

Avianca logoThe new award chart hasn’t been published (and won’t be until the devaluation has already happened) so it’s impossible to know precisely how much the program will be devalued. Accordingly, if you have Avianca LifeMiles, my recommendation is to redeem them now.

One of the most frustrating things about the LifeMiles program is that you can really only book what is offered online, and there are a lot of restrictions. It’s really best to use the program for simple point-to-point itineraries. You can book either one way or roundtrip itineraries. Unfortunately, the LifeMiles search engine is spectacularly stupid. A lot of itineraries fail to show up, even though they are available.

To search for flights, I recommend using the United search engine, which seems to work a lot better, to find an itinerary. Ideally, look for an itinerary involving only one airline. Once you find a workable itinerary on the United page (bearing in mind that only “United Saver” or “Partner” award space will be available when booking with LifeMiles), you can search for the same dates with LifeMiles. The LifeMiles search engine allows you to skip their “SmartSearch” option (which, in my opinion, is the opposite of smart) and select an individual airline. I have tested a few different itineraries and by using this method, have been able to make successful bookings that do not show up either with the “SmartSearch” or “StarAlliance” option.

Good luck, and burn LifeMiles now while you still can. At least Avianca gave advance notice of the devaluation this time. This doesn’t always happen.

Paying For Protection

You know that you need to pay the Mafia for protection or bad things will happen. Did you know that you need to pay your airline too? In airline industry parlance, “protection” means guaranteeing you transportation to your final destination. It seems like a fairly simple thing–after all, you paid for a ticket–but it’s remarkably easy to find yourself in a situation where you get stranded in a random airport somewhere along the way and nobody will do anything to help you.

I first learned about “protection” when, several years ago, Delta protected me through to Athens on an itinerary that they would have broken through a mechanical delay in New York. They also fixed my ticket on the return. What happened? I bought a Delta ticket to Frankfurt, and a separate ticket onward from Frankfurt to Athens. Delta’s delay would have resulted in me missing my flight in Athens. Since the delay was Delta’s fault, they did the right thing and instead transferred me onto their nonstop Athens flight. Additionally, since my onward ticket was invalidated by my failure to show up for the first leg, Delta also re-booked me on their nonstop flight for the return. I actually ended up with a much better itinerary as a result, and I was really happy that Delta didn’t dump me in Frankfurt hours late, and left to fend for myself.

Japanese guy being stranded by delta

Delta stranded this poor guy in LA. He won’t get home.

Fast foward to tonight. I’m waiting for a delayed Delta flight, and have been sitting near the ticket counter. So, I’ve been able to overhear all of the activity. Delta routinely rebooked a few people with connecting flights they’d miss, denied meal vouchers and a hotel to someone who wanted to extend his stay (reasonably so, it was only a 2 hour delay), more or less the usual. Except for the guy above. This guy booked his flight through a travel agency. It was booked as two round-trip flights with two separate ticket numbers:

  • Taipei-Los Angeles-Taipei
  • Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Los Angeles

The tickets were consolidated into a single itinerary and Delta has a baggage agreement with the connecting carrier (All Nippon Airways) so the guy probably had no idea that he had a completely unprotected itinerary. After all, when he checked in, his bags were tagged all the way to their final destination. The only thing he knew he would need to do was get boarding passes for his connecting flight from the connecting airline, but this isn’t even particularly unusual in Asia. Most airports there have a transfer desk for precisely this reason.

So, all of this works just fine… until it doesn’t. The flight I’m on is delayed 2 hours. What was plenty of time for a connecting flight has turned into just 15 minutes. There is no physical way to make the transfer from Terminal 5 in Los Angeles to the Tom Bradley Terminal, short of someone meeting the incoming flight at the gate in a Porsche. And even then, making the connection would be a race. “This is not our ticket to Taipei, there is nothing I can do,” the Delta agent kept repeating to the visitor (a Japanese man who apparently lives in Taiwan). “Your ticket with us is only to LA. I can only get you to LA. You will have to deal with the other airline when you get there.”

Obviously, being a no-show for an international flight, without even having a boarding pass issued, is disastrously expensive. And one might think it’s not entirely reasonable for Delta to completely wash its hands of the problem, given that the flight delay was totally their fault. The flight crew called in sick! They had to find another flight crew. Incredulous, the Japanese visitor–who had every right to expect Delta to solve the problem–politely asked again for Delta to help. He was again rebuffed. This happened a few more times, which is a really big deal in Japanese culture, and finally it became clear: Delta was, in fact, going to just dump him in Los Angeles with no solution, left to solve a problem that they alone created. He wasn’t getting home.

When I contrast this to my experience in Japan with a tight connection that was entirely my fault, and how JAL and ANA completely had my back and did everything possible to help me make my flight, it’s truly unbelievable. But that’s the current state of air travel. These days, at least with Delta, your itinerary is only protected if it’s all on a Delta ticket number. It’s not even entirely clear whether it’s possible if there are multiple Delta ticket numbers. If anything goes wrong along the way–even if it’s entirely their fault–you could be left stranded in a strange city and forced to fend for yourself.

How can you prevent this sort of problem from happening? For the average consumer, it’s almost hopeless, actually. Travel insurance is often suggested as the catch-all panacea, but most travel insurance won’t cover you in this situation. When you book online, some sites (such as Kayak) will automatically string together itineraries such as these in order to secure the lowest fare. The safest way to at least have a fighting chance is to buy your tickets directly from the airline (either by phone or on their Web site), and to buy simple roundtrip itineraries. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, particularly with complex international itineraries, but if you bought everything directly from the airline you’re flying, you’ll at least have a better chance of success.

I am fond of saying that the only thing an airline’s Contract of Carriage actually requires them to do is to eventually transport you to your final destination. However, the definition of “final destination” can now be fuzzy. You and the airline may not actually think it is the same thing. Buyer beware!

The Epic Transatlantic Armrest Battle

I just flew 13,588 miles from Los Angeles to Paris to Copenhagen to Amsterdam and back. The whole trip was flown in economy class and I only narrowly avoided Seat 31B. It truly was the worst seat in the plane on two separate legs of the journey, even though the aircraft types were different (Boeing 737 and Airbus A380). In fact, it’s so bad that KLM reserves the whole row 31 for crew use only. Instead, I was seated one row forward in Seat 30C for two legs of the journey. Somehow, I even scored an aisle seat.

Picture of Seat 31B

Seat 31B is the one in the middle. It doesn’t recline.

Exceptionally pleased with my good luck, I stored my carry-on luggage with an almost smug attitude on the final leg of my journey. It was a monster long leg, a nearly 12-hour flight from Paris to Los Angeles on the A380. Now, I was flying on an “attack fare,” and expected that something awful would likely happen. After all, apart from taxes, the seat was nearly free. I paid only $555 for a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen on Air France, tacking on a cheap intra-Europe flight to Amsterdam with KLM so I could fly on a single itinerary (and avoid bag fees). It was the final leg of the journey, and I really couldn’t believe my good luck. A direct flight to the West Coast on an A380, and I didn’t even have to sit in the middle!

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

I took my seat, but a few minutes later I knew there would be a problem. A diminutive woman leaned over to me. “Would you like to sit by the window?” she said, a statement more than a question. “No, actually. I prefer the aisle, thanks,” I said. The woman started to crawl over me to her seat–clearly a novice flyer. “Please wait, I will get out, you can take your seat,” I said. “It’s OK, I can climb over,” she said, but I nimbly got out of the way and she was able to take her seat (she never really got the idea; it became a race the entire flight to get out of my seat before she tried to crawl over me). Just as I started to sit down, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was her son. He was nearly 7 feet tall, a pile of gangly limbs with a tall pile of dreadlocks atop his head.

Now, the ceiling in the A380 is tall, but between this guy’s height and his crazy hair, the reading light was actually blocked! The other issue was the fact that he didn’t fit in his seat. At all. His diminutive mother sat in her window seat unmolested while this guy tried to wedge himself into his seat. Finally, he lifted the armrest. “Let’s leave this up for the flight,” he said, literally half of his body occupying my seat. “Let’s not,” I said. “It doesn’t work very well to do this when I lean back to sleep, and by the way, not to be annoying, but there isn’t actually room for me to sit in my seat.”

He adjusted himself, contorting his body into perhaps the most painful stress position I’ve ever seen–rivaling those the CIA perfected at Guantanamo–and managed to clear most of my seat. Unfortunately, his body still protruded into my seat, right elbow and knee and shoulder, everything hard and sharp periodically bumping into me as he tried to remain squeezed in his seat, limbs occasionally popping out of their stress positions to jam into me. Young people being independent, he didn’t want to try to share his mother’s seat, so everything moved gradually in my direction.

lax-cdg-cph-ams

It was a *long* roundtrip in economy class

I lived for 3 years in Beijing. I am used to close quarters, and if you don’t learn to be tolerant of uncomfortable situations and inexplicable delays, you’ll just go crazy there. I learned to be more patient, and I’m still pretty patient–I haven’t been living in Western society long enough to lose patience, empathy and good humor. Still, this was an armrest battle on steroids. The battle in this case wasn’t over who had the armrest–trying to share it would have entirely been a lost cause–but whether the armrest stayed down and my seat-mate remained in only his seat. Every time I left my seat, I’d return to find the armrest up and half of my seat occupied. I mean, I didn’t blame the guy. I really sympathized. It isn’t his fault that airplane seats are designed to be a tight squeeze for Chinese people, let alone people who are nearly 7 feet tall. Still, leaving the armrest up just wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t exactly stand up for the whole flight.

In the end, I got almost no sleep. This was one of the longest and least comfortable flights I’ve ever taken. I honestly can’t even imagine what it was like for the guy next to me–a cruel, sadistic 12 hours of torture (gate to gate) no doubt. I think there really needs to be a better solution than this. The sizes of seats and people keep moving in opposite directions.

Do you have to fight for your whole airplane seat? Comment below!

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.