How To Get Full Mileage Credit On Cheap Tickets

Over the past year, across the board, airline mileage programs have gotten a lot less generous. And this makes a lot of sense–there were just too many people gaming the system and the programs were no longer good at doing what the airlines actually want them to do, which is attracting and retaining high-value flyers. These are typically “road warrior” business travelers who spend tens of thousands of dollars per year on airfares.

High value flyers don’t buy the kinds of deep discount, bargain basement tickets that you and I buy (like the $59 fare I recently bought from Phoenix to Seattle on Southwest, which even included two free checked bags). Actually, airlines lose money on those. Airlines make their money on last-minute tickets to and from business destinations. Want to fly from Washington DC to Cincinnati tomorrow, returning Thursday? It’s only 388 miles, but It’ll cost you a cool $709 in coach.

Delta was the first US program to go revenue-based, and the other two “Big Three” airlines United and American have more or less copied their program so I’ll use it as an example. Before the program went revenue-based, you’d earn credit based on a combination of your elite status and the number of miles flown. If you were an elite member of the SkyMiles program, you’d also earn a bonus. And for any flight, there was a 500 mile minimum. So here’s what your earnings would look like:

  • 1000 miles roundtrip (500 miles each way)
  • Mileage bonus (100% for Gold Medallion)
  • Total: 2000 miles

A frequent business traveler (to get Gold Medallion status, you must fly 50,000 miles with Delta and you need to spend a minimum of $5,000) would get 2,000 miles of mileage credit. Someone like me (without elite status) would get 1,000 miles.

These days, with the big 3 major carriers, I’ll net just 5 miles for every dollar I spend. Gold Medallion members get 8 miles for every dollar they spend. So, for our frequent business traveler, here’s what the mileage earning looks like on the above flight:

  • $709 x 8 equals…
  • 5,672 miles

Our hypothetical business traveler is pretty happy. She’s getting almost 3 times the number of miles that she would have earned before. It almost makes visiting Cincinnati tolerable.

businesswoman photo

The trip may not be fun, but at least she earned a lot of miles!

However, you and I aren’t buying a $709 last minute walk-up fare. We’re probably flying farther away than Cincinnati. And we don’t have Gold Medallion status. So we get only 5 miles for every dollar that we spend, and we’re buying cheap fares. Here’s what our earnings would look like for the same itinerary on a discount fare:

  • $138 x 5 equals…
  • 690 miles

See what happened? The number of miles people earn without frequent flyer status, and who didn’t buy an expensive fare, just got cut back. This may not seem so bad, but it gets a lot worse for longer flights.

For a $59 fare from Seattle to Los Angeles, where I previously earned 954 miles, I now walk away with only 295 miles! Bargain hunters get hit really hard on long international routes. Here’s an example. There was a $457 roundtrip flight yesterday on United from Seattle to Brussels. Routing via Newark, the mileage is 12,154 miles roundtrip. This is nearly enough miles for a free one-way ticket within North America. However, you’d now get just 1,750 miles instead of the full mileage credit. It’s a truly massive hit, so if you’re buying cheap fares, you need to look beyond the Big 3 frequent flier programs.

If you don’t have status and you buy cheap fares, you’re generally much better off with mileage earning programs versus revenue earning programs. Fortunately, there are still a few of these, and there are loopholes where you can still earn full mileage credit.

alaska_airlines_2016_logo

 

 

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is still mileage earning rather than revenue based, and Alaska has a very large number of partners. You can also transfer Starwood Preferred Guest points to Alaska. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you’re flying on cheap fares, you usually won’t earn 100% mileage credit unless you’re flying Alaska. In fact, you can end up with as little as 25% mileage credit.

Still, it’s not necessarily optimal to earn 100% mileage credit if your miles get stranded in a program you seldom use and will have trouble earning enough miles in to redeem a free ticket before they expire. This is particularly true with international partners like Hainan, Emirates and Icelandair. Alaska should be viewed as a program that covers a very large number of partner airlines with middle-of-the-road value.

Let’s go back to our Washington to Cincinnati flight on Delta, and see how it looks if you’re using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Because the program is mileage based, the amount of money spent on the flight doesn’t strictly matter–however, it does matter in practice, because earning is based on fare class. Airlines sort fares into buckets and the cheaper buckets are sold as a different “class” than more expensive ones. You can view Delta’s fare classes in this chart.

fare bucket image

It’s hard to know or control which fare you are buying. Only the first class fare (P) gives 100% mileage credit.

If you sort the chart by “pecking order,” you’ll see that the fare classes more or less exactly follow the mileage earning chart that Alaska Airlines publishes for Delta flights. Note that most of the time, people shopping for flights just choose the lowest fare and it can be hard to know exactly what fare class you’ve booked into until after you have purchased a ticket . It doesn’t actually matter for this short flight, though. Alaska has a 500 mile minimum per flight! So, you’ll get 1000 points for the roundtrip no matter what fare you book. If you have Alaska Airlines MVP Gold status, you’ll get a 100% bonus for a total of 2,000 points. Obviously, frequent business travelers traveling on high fares won’t be better off doing this, but leisure travelers flying on low fares come out ahead.

The upside is that Alaska generally has competitive fares and serves a surprisingly large number of destinations from the West Coast. They are also in the process of merging with Virgin America (the deal is expected to close by the end of 2016), and the number of destinations will only grow.

This program is an absolute no-brainer for crediting Emirates, Icelandair and Hainan flights, because these airlines have very limited partnerships. If you’re flying American or Delta, also consider crediting your flights to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. You won’t get 100% credit on most fares, but it may be worth giving up to pool your credit in one program.

singapore_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

 

If you’re flying United, you have very limited options with StarAlliance airlines to accrue 100% mileage credit on discount fares. However, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer has a very competitive award chart and 100% accrual on United. The accrual rates on other StarAlliance programs are competitive with other programs as well.

There are some big sweet spots in the program:

  • You can transfer points to Krisflyer from all of the major bank programs, including American Express, Chase and Citibank. This helps to top up your balance when you want to redeem an award.
  • You can also transfer points to Krisflyer from the Starwood Preferred Guest hotel program (although, generally speaking, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is a more valuable transfer partner).
  • The Krisflyer program doesn’t have a surcharge for last-minute award bookings, unlike United who charges $75.

Generally speaking, you should be careful when you accrue miles to a foreign frequent flier program; these typically charge fuel surcharges while most US-based programs don’t. Krisflyer is no exception. However, if you redeem your Singapore Airlines miles for flights on United Airlines, you won’t pay fuel surcharges within North America.

Using Krisflyer miles is a little more complicated than using United miles because you have to book most awards over the phone. However, it’s a small inconvenience in exchange for the incredible value that Krisflyer offers.

czech_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

Czech Airlines OK Plus is the only program that offers 100% mileage credit for the majority of Delta fares. The program also has some interesting rules, such as placing Iceland and North America in the same zone. And you get 2,000 bonus points after crediting your first flight to the OK Plus program. You can redeem OK Plus points on any SkyTeam flight, and the award chart is here.

The upsides:

  • When you fly Delta, you get a minimum of 100% mileage credit on most fares. Some fares even give 200% mileage credit. This is more than you’ll get with other SkyTeam programs.
  • You can travel all the way to Iceland roundtrip for just 35,000 miles! You can also travel to Central America or the Caribbean for the same price.
  • If the Air France “island hopper” to from Miami to Cayenne is on your bucket list, this is an available option and is only 30,000 miles roundtrip.
  • There are other “sweet spots” with the program, particularly when flying with Chinese airlines that are relatively stingy in other programs, and when redeeming award tickets from cities in central America.
  • You’re allowed both a stopover and an open jaw. What’s more, you’re allowed to connect up to 8 times on an itinerary and connections can be up to 23 hours each. The

There are some key downsides to the OK Plus program:

  • You don’t get any miles at all on Delta “E” fares. These are encountered rarely, but should be credited to Alaska.
  • Miles expire after 36 months, versus no expiration with Delta SkyMiles.
  • All SkyTeam awards must be booked round trip. There are no one way awards.
  • There is a 36 euro booking fee, plus an additional 50 euro fee if you use a transatlantic Delta flight, plus all applicable fuel surcharges. Given that a Delta flight is the highest value award (Delta’s seasonal flight from JFK to Reykjavik), it stings a little.

Like Singapore Airlines, you have to book your flights over the phone. This is a minor inconvenience, but isn’t a showstopper for most people.

Wrapping Up

Look beyond the mileage programs of the airlines you are flying. If you’re comfortable using the mileage programs of foreign airlines (and calling overseas to book award flights), you can still earn full mileage credit when flying with Delta and United, even on cheap fares. And if you credit cheap American Airlines fares to Alaska, you’ll generally do better than you would using the American Aadvantage program.

Good luck, and see you in the sky!

Thanksgiving In Phoenix On Points

My parents own a home in the Phoenix area, and since they’re now retired they spend the majority of their winters in Arizona. As of late, they have started spending Thanksgiving in Arizona, since this provides a nice change of pace (and much better weather) from typically gloomy November weather in Seattle.

cactuses

Typically sunny and pleasant Arizona afternoon in November

Over the past two years, it has been relatively easy for me to get to Phoenix because I was a short drive away in Los Angeles. However, I’m spending much less time in California this year, and will be starting out from Seattle. This means flying, and flights during peak holiday periods are expensive. While flights to Phoenix have been spectacularly cheap as of late (as low as $59), it was over $400 for the dates and times I wanted.

However, I had five different types of miles that I could use, so I thought it was worth checking to see whether using them was possible. When you’re going to a popular destination during a popular time, it generally isn’t possible to use miles. However, it’s sometimes possible if you have some flexibility in both the points you use and the way you book. Here’s how I actually did it.

Outbound: Wednesday, November 23

Southwest was out. The number of points required on Southwest is based on the price of a ticket. Because the ticket was expensive, there were no bargain fares using Southwest points.

Avianca was also out. They partner with United in the US, who had no availability for the dates I wanted. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Delta had availability for a silly number of points: 32,500. This is just shy of the points required to fly to Japan.

Alaska could get me there on a 12,500 mile partner award using a combination of American and Alaska flights. However, they charge a $12.50 fee in addition to the taxes when a partner is involved. For Alaska’s own flights, the cheapest redemption was 20,000 miles. And all of the return flights were 30,000 miles. When you consider that this is what a ticket to Europe in the summer costs, it just wasn’t good value.

However, I could book the very same outbound flights using American Aadvantage points – a flight to Las Vegas on Alaska connecting to an American flight onward to Phoenix–for no fee. And I had just barely over the necessary 12,500 points with American. Given that American points are less flexible than many (a 3-week advance purchase is required to avoid a $75 last-minute booking fee), this was a good redemption for me. The paid flight would cost over $200, so the redemption value was about 1.6 cents per point. This is slightly above the average value of 1.5 cents per point. And it was a relatively rare case of a domestic redemption I could do with more than 3 weeks of pre-planning Booked! My American account is now cleaned out.

Return: Saturday, November 26 or Sunday, November 27

The big problem was getting back. There was far less availability.

Alaska had no low availability coming back on either the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving. It would take 30,000 miles, which isn’t good value–it’d be less than 1 cent per mile.

Southwest was based on the price of the flight, which was stupidly high. So this option was out.

American didn’t have any availability, and I was out of Aadvantage points anyway.

Avianca didn’t have any availability.

Uh-oh. It wasn’t looking good. Then I checked Delta, and they had availability on Saturday! It was a Delta flight to Los Angeles, connecting to an Alaska flight to Seattle. 12,500 miles. Booked.

Techniques Used

I used a number of techniques when booking these flights:

  • Search One Way: A roundtrip search yielded no availability. One way searches also yielded no availability on some airlines in some directions, but I was able to find a combination that got me there and back.
  • Know The Rules: Delta allows booking one-way flights when combining an Alaska and Delta flight. However, Alaska Airlines doesn’t; you must book a round-trip flight when a Delta segment is included. While I could technically have used Alaska Airlines miles to book this itinerary, the Delta segment wasn’t showing up as available on the Alaska Airlines Web site. This sometimes happens (particularly when inventory is in flux) so having more than one points currency helped.
  • Have more than one points currency: If all of my miles had been locked up with one airline, I wouldn’t have been able to book this itinerary.
  • Ignore people who say you have to book a year in advance: Frequent flier seat availability changes all the time. If you want to take an expensive flight, it almost always pays to try to use your miles. Even if you can’t find a round-trip fare to your destination, you may still be able to book one way on points and save half of the cost.
  • Be flexible with flight times and willing to take a connection: I have to fly through Las Vegas on the way to Phoenix, and back through Los Angeles. I had very limited choice of flight times. This wasn’t as convenient as a nonstop at exactly the times I wanted, but it’s only a couple of extra hours and the times were close enough. For $400, I could be flexible.
  • Fly alone: There was one seat available on this itinerary. It gets a lot harder to use miles during peak times if you need two seats traveling together.
  • Spend points, don’t sit on them: American miles are expensive to use if you don’t book in advance. Delta miles are notoriously hard to use (at reasonable rates). This was a trip where the stars aligned and I could realize good (although not amazing) value for my points. Rather than wait around for another devaluation, I used my points and scored free tickets to a popular warm-weather destination at a peak time.

I’m looking forward to a fun Thanksgiving in the Arizona sun. And I’ll be going for free! If you’re still making holiday plans, don’t count out the opportunity to use your miles, even if you’re going somewhere that is popular and expensive.

Using Resort Fees To Identify Opaque Hotels

One of the biggest scams that hotels are pulling lately is the addition of the “resort fee.” This odious practice started about 5 years ago in Las Vegas. It has now gotten so bad that even trucker motels charge resort fees. These days, it’s very difficult to find a room at all without paying them.

Think a truck stop motel doesn't charge resort fees? Think again.

Think a truck stop motel doesn’t charge resort fees? Think again. The Wild Wild West charges $11.19.

Unfortunately, resort fees are a double-whammy: room prices in Las Vegas have gone up–a lot! It now routinely costs over $300 per night at the better Strip properties over summer weekends. And this is the rate before resort fees, which at some properties add an additional $35.84 per night. When you consider that just a few years ago, you could get an entire room downtown for about the same as a resort fee on the Strip today, you can truly wrap your head around the extent of the madness.

Every summer, I attend DEF CON, which is the world’s largest hacker convention. I’m speaking at an event just beforehand, bSides Las Vegas, where I’m getting a $70 per night convention rate (where the usual $27 nightly resort fee is waived). However, Friday and Saturday nights are $110 per night, and I pretty much won’t ever spend over $100 per night for a hotel room. So this left me looking for a better deal. And at my usual favorite properties, there aren’t any.

The thing is, I needed to be in a particular part of town. You just don’t want to be that far away from DEF CON – the conference is really exhausting and a long commute after each day is more than most folks want to deal with. However, being away from The Strip is nice. My compromise over the last several years has been to stay in the UNLV area. It’s relatively close to The Strip, and I know my way around and (more or less) where everything is. Unfortunately the price of hotels in this area has steadily crept up as other people have discovered my secret, and prices are beginning to approach some areas of The Strip.

However, I have an ace up my sleeve. Although the list prices are up, bookings really aren’t in the part of town where I like to book. Most of the time, it’s not as busy as The Strip. So, while hotels in the area have high list prices, they offer a lot of discounts. Priceline and Hotwire both offer blind booking services where you don’t know the name of the hotel before you book. This can really suck if you pick the wrong property: I have had serious cases of “Hotwire regret” (and the same, although less often, with Priceline). In particular, Hotwire takes artistic license with star levels to the same extent as Expedia–which makes sense, because they’re actually owned by Expedia. And while star levels and resort fees may be a usual source of consumer pain, both of these things make it easier to find out the name of the hotel where you’ll be staying. It’s not 100% reliable but it certainly isn’t bad.

To identify a Priceline or Hotwire hotel, I usually start with BetterBidding. These folks attempt to unmask hotels by the amenities listed. While this method can work, it’s not 100% reliable. Properties in Las Vegas change their amenities around frequently, and the properties participating with Priceline and Hotwire also change frequently. You may find enough information to unmask a property here, but you should combine this data with additional information: the star level (if you’re booking on Hotwire) and the resort fee.

A current listing of hotel resort fees is here, and resort fees are disclosed (albeit in small print) on the booking page of Priceline and Hotwire. They don’t tell you the exact price down to the cent, but you can get a pretty good idea. A resort fee of “about $27” in the “East Of Strip – UNLV” area probably means that you’re looking at the Tuscany. Similarly, if no resort fee is listed, you have an even better idea given the shrinking number of properties not charging a resort fee.

Looking for my dates, I found a $74 per night rate listed on Hotwire in the UNLV area for a 2 1/2 star property including breakfast, parking, WiFi, and a free 24 hour shuttle to The Strip. Best of all, there was no resort fee. However, the amenities and star levels didn’t actually match up with anything listed on BetterBidding. However, in checking the area and the properties with no resort fee whatsoever and offering free breakfast that could reasonably be considered a 2 1/2 star, I thought there was a pretty good chance that I would land at either the Baymont Inn and Suites or the La Quinta.

Another fun trick with Hotwire is that there are often coupons you can find online that apply to hotels. I found one on RetailMeNot for $25 off a booking of $150 or more. I was able to offset most of the taxes and fees with the coupon (which worked, although only if you followed the instructions and booked using the Hotwire mobile app). Adding to the problem of fake low headline room rates in Las Vegas, booking sites add on taxes and booking fees at the end and these can jack up the actual price you pay by $25 or more. In this case, I ended up paying about $154 for 2 nights. And I got the LaQuinta, which is very close to Paris and Bally’s, so I’m happy with the result.

Did I really save the 54% Hotwire claimed? Yes, versus the highest rack rate the hotel lists. However, the actual price if you booked directly with the hotel is $99 per night, plus 12% tax. Nevertheless, I saved about $35 per night. That’s not a bad result, and I ended up in a property I’m happy with at a price that–while more than I like to spend–is just about the best weekend deal you can get for a decent room these days in Las Vegas.

 

HOT: Save On Flights And Hotels Booked In Pounds

Occasionally, a massive currency swing allows an arbitrage opportunity when booking flights, hotels, and other travel products priced in a declining currency. This is certainly true this evening. As of this writing, it looks like the UK has voted to leave the European Union and panicked currency traders are dumping the British pound.

The last time this happened was in December, 2014 when the Russian ruble suddenly plunged. However, this was harder to take advantage of last time, because you had to book through a Russian travel agent and book a fare that was listed in Russian rubles. There were some great deals, but mostly on Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines.

Sterling-USD chart

The largest drop in the GDP… ever.

It’s a whole different ball game this time. It’s fairly unusual that the currency of a modern, developed European economy collapses by 10% overnight. All sorts of travel products are priced in pounds and virtually every airline in the world has pound-based fares. Hotels sell rooms priced in pounds. Tour packages are available as well. And at least until prices reset tomorrow, you can save 10% off or more if you book on a UK travel site and pay in pounds. Note that you need to book and pay now to lock in the savings. I like LastMinute because their prices are generally very good anyway, and they’re especially so right now. Opodo is another good option.

Remember if you’re buying things priced in pounds, your bank may charge you a foreign currency conversion fee. Capital One cards don’t have this fee, HSBC Premier WorldMastercard doesn’t have the fee, and several airline credit cards also don’t have this fee. If you’re not sure, check with your bank: you’ll still come out ahead, but conversion fees can eat 3% of the savings.

Also, Rapid Travel Chai points out that using a MasterCard is the best option to leverage this arbitrage opportunity: http://rapidtravelchai.boardingarea.com/2016/06/23/brexit-fueled-pound-crash/

SkyMiles Savings From Canada

When Delta did away with their award charts earlier this year, most people assumed that no good could come of this and it would effectively lead to a Southwest-style award chart that is based on the price of the ticket. In my mind that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, because it makes award pricing more predictable and you can more accurately predict what your miles are worth. However, it would also take away the “sweet spots” which provide some of the best value in frequent flier programs.

Instead, I have found the results to be decidedly mixed. Award pricing for premium cabins is often just silly, and it’s never particularly good. However, when flying economy class, there are now some incredible sweet spots in the Delta award chart yielding value of over 3 cents per mile. This seems to be based on the available inventory on the flight versus the the price of the flight, which is an important distinction. Delta may want to maintain high cash fares in a market, but will let SkyMiles seats go cheaply if they’ll likely otherwise go unsold.

Here’s an example of a flight I just booked from Vancouver to JFK. Why Vancouver? I couldn’t find any “saver” award availability on any airline from Seattle, and Vancouver is just a short drive away. A nonstop coast-to-coast flight, in the peak of the summer travel season, is an astonishingly low 9,500 SkyMiles:

Coast to coast... for an astonishingly low 9,500 SkyMiles

Coast to coast… for just 9,500 SkyMiles

There is a relatively high cash fare, ringing up at nearly $300, for the very same flight:

After conversion, the cheapest fare is nearly USD $300.

After conversion, the cheapest fare is nearly USD $300.

This was an absolute no-brainer. Even with the hassle of driving from Seattle to Vancouver to catch the flight, it was an absolute steal. The value rang up at over 3 cents per mile! While you can theoretically get higher value booking premium cabins on certain international flights, most of these are fares that nobody would actually buy. But if you want to get from the West Coast to New York this summer, it’s going to cost you a minimum of $500 roundtrip in actual, real money. So this isn’t a theoretical value, it’s an actual one and I consider it a very good result.

The return flight was a slightly more complicated decision. The latest Delta flight out from New York to Vancouver leaves just before 7:00PM. Catching it will mean that I’ll have to leave the conference I am attending about two hours before it ends. And it’s not as good a deal: it costs 15,500 miles for a USD $310 fare. This is still a redemption value of 2 cents per mile, though–and overall pretty good. The total roundtrip price was 25,000 miles, which worked out to an overall redemption value of about 2.4 cents per mile when factoring in what comparable flights from Seattle would have cost and subtracting the taxes I had to pay out of cost. The usual value of Delta miles is about 1.2 cents per mile, so this is a very solid redemption.

However, Cathay Pacific also operates a flight from New York to Vancouver, which provides an intriguing option. It’s a Fifth Freedom flight on an internationally configured widebody aircraft, and it leaves a little later–just after 9pm. And I could have redeemed 17,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles to take it. However, it would have also cost me an additional $27.50 in call center and partner airline ticketing fees (Cathay Pacific awards aren’t bookable online), and I’d have landed in Vancouver at 12:10am facing a long, tiring drive to Seattle after that. Additionally, Cathay Pacific doesn’t allow advance seat selection. The last time I took this flight, I was stuck in a middle seat on a bulkhead row next to an overweight woman and it wasn’t even a little bit fun. The flight was available for a cash fare of about $280, but subtracting out the fees and taxes, and I’d be getting less than $250 of value for 17,500 miles. That’s a value of 1.4 cents per mile, which just isn’t a good one for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. These can be redeemed for much more valuable itineraries.

It might have been worth 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for Premium Economy, which is actually a very nice product on Cathay Pacific. However, there wasn’t any availability–just regular economy, which honestly isn’t a much better product than Delta offers. So I went ahead and booked the Delta flight.

I have said it before and will say it again–if you live near a Canadian airport and can fly from there, don’t forget to check the options if you’re having trouble using your miles! You’ll pay slightly more in taxes (it costs about $30 additional from Vancouver versus flying from Seattle), but might open up availability that simply doesn’t exist otherwise.

FlightCar: Sharing Economy Gone Horribly Wrong

IMG_20160316_095250

If you’re a frequent traveler, you have likely encountered the sharing economy. Uber doesn’t actually own any cars or employ the drivers, but they move roughly as many people around every day as airlines. Airbnb doesn’t actually own any rooms, but they rent more rooms than many hotel chains. I’m generally an early adopter of technology (as you might expect given that I’m a startup founder), so I was eager to try another innovation in the sharing economy: FlightCar. Unfortunately, this proved to be a very expensive mistake.

When you see this company, run the other direction!

When you see this name, run!

FlightCar’s pitch is simple: park your car with them. You won’t pay for parking, they’ll drop you off and pick you up at the airport, and your car will be clean, fueled and waiting when you return. The catch? They can rent out your car to their customers while your car is with them. If they do, you’ll be paid 10 cents per mile driven. Easy, right? This seemed like a no-brainer when I took a recent trip to The Philippines, and needed to leave my car parked at LAX for a month. Nothing could have prepared me for the nightmare that ensued.

Just one problem: this isn’t my car!

When I arrived back at LAX after a long international trip, I had only one thing on my mind: pick up my car so I could get to my friend’s house and go to sleep. My connecting flight had been delayed for 3 1/2 hours in Seoul, so it was late and I was tired. I called the toll-free number for FlightCar and they dispatched a driver.

Eventually, I got a call from a guy who showed up in a creaky old Lincoln Town Car. He drove me in silence to the FlightCar office. I felt a vague sense of impending doom. “Did you see the photos I sent?” was the first question from the representative. “No, what happened?” I replied. “Follow me,” said the representative, taking me out into the parking lot to a scratched and damaged Nissan Versa. “There was an accident,” he said. “Well, just one problem,” I said. “This isn’t my car.”

I looked around the parking lot. My car was nowhere to be seen. “This…isn’t your car?” the representative repeated, slowly. “Yes, my car is a hatchback, this is a sedan,” I replied. “It definitely isn’t my car.” This kicked off a 3 hour long circus, whereupon my car was located in the hands of a renter in West Hollywood. Apparently, since it was the only car on the lot, FlightCar rented it out even though I was returning. They figured they’d pick up the pieces later. I’m not sure how often this happens (the representative wouldn’t say) but I wasn’t having it. I needed my car to embark on a cross-country trip the next day. Eventually, we arrived at a solution where we’d take the damaged Versa to the renter in West Hollywood, swap it there, and I’d retrieve my car. It wasn’t clean, and wasn’t full of gas. I paid to top up the tank (although FlightCar claims they’ll reimburse me). I signed off to receive my measly $97 in compensation for my car being driven nearly 1000 miles by 4 different renters. And I also signed off on the damage report.

The damage on to the lower part of your bumper and plastic shielding beneath your car are considered “Wear and Tear”

While being rented out for nearly every day of the past month, some damage had occurred to my vehicle. When I checked in my vehicle with FlightCar, they assured me that I would be covered if there was any damage, touting their $1,000,000 insurance policy. This is the same insurance policy that is liberally touted on their Web page. Unfortunately, there is fine print, and I was burned by it: Hundreds of dollars in damages to my car are not covered by FlightCar or my own insurance.

That insurance policy? Not so much.

That insurance policy? Not so much.

Just look at the damage that was caused to my car:

IMG_20160316_095219 IMG_20160316_095250 IMG_20160316_095308In case you’re wondering which of these damages is covered by FlightCar’s $1,000,000 insurance policy–the windshield rock chip or the massive paint scrapes and underskirt damage – it’s the rock chip. My own auto insurance is of no help either. Because my car was not operated by me and was being commercially used by FlightCar, my own insurance won’t pay to repair the damage either. I am left holding the bag. Here is FlightCar’s response to me:

Per our “Owner’s Terms” the damage on to the lower part of your bumper and plastic shielding beneath your car are considered “Wear and Tear”. As long as the damage is purely cosmetic.
 
We can, however, cover your windshield. I would need a picture of the chip or crack in your windshield to compare it to the photos we have on file. As soon as you send me that photo I can help you move forward with your claim.
 
 
Thank you,
 
Sayeed Shah
Resolutions Manager

Warning: Not all sharing economy companies are alike and participating in the sharing economy can end up costing you money.

Some companies, like airbnb, have your back. If an airbnb member damages your home, airbnb will take care of you. FlightCar, unfortunately, is hiding behind several pages of dense legalese that apparently say the exact opposite of both their advertising and their representatives.

Update: More than 2 months after I posted this, FlightCar’s new head of customer service reached out to me. We came to an agreement: FlightCar would repair my car to the condition it was in when I dropped it off, and I would update this blog post to say so. They held up their end of the bargain, so I’m holding up mine.

Why You Shouldn’t Get The Chase Sapphire Preferred

I’m very often asked “Which credit card should I get? Should I get the Chase Sapphire Preferred?” This is rarely a surprising question. Bloggers go on and on endlessly about the Chase Sapphire Preferred because it pays them the highest commission. It’s certainly not a bad card, but it isn’t the best one either. And it carries a $95 annual fee. So let’s do a deep dive and see whether it’s a card you should get:

Is this the best card for you? Maybe not.

Is this the best card for you? Maybe not.

Untrustworthy Ultimate Rewards Points

The points you’re earning with the Chase Sapphire Preferred are Ultimate Rewards (UR) points. Who backs them? Chase. What are they worth? Whatever Chase says they are, and they can change the value whenever they want. They are not airline, hotel or rental car points. This can be dangerous; if the bank shuts your account down (and they can do this for essentially any reason or no reason), they can take all of your points and there’s nothing you can do about it. The bank can devalue the points and benefits whenever they want, as other travel programs do. Points are considered a discount, not cash. This actually benefits you for tax purposes, but it’s not a good thing at all when it comes to your rights around devaluation. In short, you don’t have any. There have been multiple cases with different banks shutting down accounts of people who are too good at working the programs.

You can legally count cards in Las Vegas and gain an advantage in blackjack, but the casinos can legally refuse to play with you. Banks play basically the same game with points. My recommendation is never to maintain high balances of bank points, because they could pull the rug out from under you at any time.

Sketchy Sign-Up Bonus

Right now, you can get a 50,000 bonus points for signing up and an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user to the card. The catch? You have to spend a whopping $4,000 in the first 3 months of having the card. This used to be easy when you could buy Visa gift cards or Vanilla Reload cards and load them to an American Express Bluebird, which you could then use to pay your credit card bill. However, American Express shut this down last month, and ever since it’s gotten a lot harder. Are you sure you can spend $1,333+ per month on a credit card without buying a bunch of crap you don’t need?

The worst part: If you don’t achieve the spending threshold, you don’t get the bonus. Simple as that. Chase is banking on this.

Pathetic Points Transfers

Chase boasts that you can transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to travel partners. The problem is, most of their partners just aren’t very good. 40% of the transfer partners are hotel programs, and they’re the ones with the least valuable points in the industry. The airline partners aren’t much better (although there can be sweet spots with each one). Redeeming British Airways Avios points often involves paying hefty fuel surcharges and the best awards–on Alaska Airlines–can only be booked over the phone. Korean Air SKYPASS not only has a horrendously expensive award chart, but booking awards is a giant hassle and you can only book tickets for yourself and immediate family members (with extensive documentation requirements), not friends. And after the United award chart devaluation, it’s really only worthwhile to use Mileage Plus points on United–the least reliable airline in America.

It’s not that there aren’t sweet spots in each of these programs that can make them worthwhile. It’s just that airline points devalue faster than Zimbabwe dollars, and hotel points are nearly as bad. And if you want to earn airline points, the benefits tend to be much better with airline affiliate cards (for example, you get companion passes, drink coupons and free checked bags with many airline cards).

Dodgy Discounts

“Get 20% off travel!” claims the headline. Unfortunately, there’s an asterisk, and it’s a big one: you can’t book your travel directly with hotels or airlines. Instead, you have to book through a Chase travel agency portal. And as you may have guessed, this doesn’t give you all of the options, and the prices shown are often higher than you can get booking through other sites. The “20% savings” might actually end up costing you money.

Wrap-up

Should you get the Chase Sapphire Preferred? Sure, if you want to support your favorite travel blogger with a fat commission by using their affiliate link. Otherwise, it’s not the best travel card out there, and it isn’t by a long shot.

Don’t Get Conned By Chase: Read The Fine Print!

I like getting bonus miles to share a good deal with friends, and I don’t like fine print. Chase is offering some of both in their most recent refer-a-friend promo for the Rapid Rewards Visa that you may have signed up for when I offered it in November. Beware: you might not get the miles you expect for signing up your friends if Chase also offers you a referral bonus.

I received an offer in the mail last week offering me 5,000 miles for every person that I refer through June 30th. However, there is a lot of disturbing fine print so I called Chase today to confirm the details of the offer. What I found out was really disturbing and Chase may not honor the referral deal as clearly published. So, if you choose to participate in this program, it’s best to be fully aware of how it might bite you.

Changing Promotions

Chase can change the terms of the promotion at any time. So, although I received a refer-a-friend offer in the mail for up to 10 friends–and they even included 10 tear-off referral cards to share–my promotion was silently cut back! What did Chase do? They pared back the promotion to only allowing 6 referrals instead of 10, and this was done with no prior notification. I would never have known unless I called Chase and they told me that they did this. I would have done the work of selling 4 friends and readers on their card (which, to be clear, is actually a good deal) for no compensation whatsoever.

Calendar Year Can Clobber Your Points

Making matters worse, Chase only awards 50,000 referral points per calendar year. I completed 10 referrals in November and December. However, the points haven’t been credited to my account yet, and won’t be credited until sometime in 2016. Chase measures “calendar year” based on when they credit the points to your account, not based on when the referral was completed. So, if I participate in any referral programs in 2016 at all, I’ll be helping Chase sell credit cards, but I won’t actually get the referral bonus for doing so. If I hadn’t asked, I would have done a lot of work for nothing.

Calling Out Chase

Most travel bloggers won’t ever call out a bank for doing something wrong or questionable. After all, Chase pays good money for referrals, which is why most travel blogs are always going on and on about the Sapphire Preferred card (which, to be honest, just isn’t all that good). I’m not afraid to call out Chase, though–they’ve never paid me a dime. The refer-a-friend program is rife with exclusions and “gotcha” clauses and there’s simply no excuse for it. If Chase takes the referral, they should cough up the miles without any weaseling. After all, referring friends and readers doesn’t stop with them signing up for the card. It’s a lot of work! People come to me about any problems they have with the card, or any questions they have about the Rapid Rewards program in general.

What’s Next?

I still think that the Rapid Rewards Visa offer with 50,000 bonus points is a good deal (vs. their normal 25,000 bonus point offer, which isn’t good). However, the refer-a-friend program just isn’t credible. It’s just too rife with conditions, exclusions, and last-minute changes. If you’re going to participate, I recommend you call Chase every time to confirm the details before you make a referral. And given the amount of time this requires, you might prefer to avoid the program altogether.

Save Money, Drive Instead: LAX Flyaway Fares To Increase 1/1/16

One of the biggest criticisms of the Los Angeles area is that public transportation is fairly poor. Although the LA Metro goes to the airport, it requires several transfers and more than an hour to get to the more central parts of the Los Angeles area.

A few years ago, LAX Airport began to plug the gap with its own buses called LAX Flyaway. The buses leave LAX and go to relatively central parts of the Los Angeles area. Initially, you could travel to Union Station downtown (with easy Red Line connections to the most popular tourist areas) but you can now travel directly to Hollywood, to Westwood (near UCLA), Long Beach, Van Nuys and more. These buses are a fairly convenient and relatively inexpensive option if you’re going to anywhere near where they stop.

LAX Flyaway station map

Newly expanded LAX Flyaway service

Unfortunately, since the launch, the cost of the LAX Flyaway has gradually crept up and it’s going up again on the 1st to $9 per passenger, per ride. At this point, it’s worth rethinking whether to use the Flyaway service for shorter trips. Parking in the LAX area is extremely competitive and costs as little as $3.75 per day at some lots. You can even get free street parking for short trips in some locations, if you take advantage of free hotel shuttles nearby. At a cost of $72 for a family of 4 (plus the cost of transit to and from the bus stop), driving to the airport and parking for a week costs about the same as using the LAX Flyaway. However, it’s a lot less hassle. For shorter trips, you can save money by driving instead.

I like the LAX Flyaway service, but the cost has crossed the threshold where I can really recommend it, unless you’re taking a long trip by yourself and you are within easy walking or subway distance of a bus stop. Door-to-door shuttle anywhere in the Los Angeles area costs just $21 each way with Shuttle2LAX, so you don’t have to schlep your luggage on the subway. From many parts of the Los Angeles area, using Lyft or Uber costs only slightly more.

So, hop in your car. Clog up the roads. Spew out some smog. It’s one of those “only in LA” things, but driving–believe it or not–can actually be cheaper than the bus.

Hoverboards On No-Fly List

Hoverboards are one of the coolest tech inventions of 2015, but they have made the no-fly list on many airlines despite FAA regulations that don’t explicitly prohibit them. This is noteworthy, but also understandable. Since 2008, lithium-ion batteries have been banned from checked baggage, and batteries in carry-on luggage cannot exceed 100 watt-hours (which is slightly bigger than a full-size laptop battery).

What’s the reason for the ban? In a word, fires. The crash of a UPS 747 freighter near Dubai in 2010 was affirmatively traced to lithium-ion battery fires. These types of batteries are easily damaged, and can violently explode in a massive fire that cannot be extinguished by normal means. It only takes one battery catching on fire to ignite every other battery nearby, resulting in a chain reaction big enough to bring down any airplane. Although the pop-ups are extremely annoying, this video made by some crazy Russians will help you understand what happens when a lithium battery catches fire:

“So what,” you may be thinking. “Millions of people travel all the time and their lithium batteries don’t catch fire.” And this is entirely true. Fire risk increases with the size of battery, and most devices don’t have large batteries. However, hoverboards do, and as it turns out, the cut-rate batteries and shoddy engineering used on the cheaper models poses a massive risk.

Alaska Airlines is one of the most enthusiastic early adopters of new technologies and they are based in tech-friendly Seattle, home of Amazon and Microsoft. So, when they issued a ban, I really sat up and took notice. Alaska performed independent tests on multiple hoverboard batteries. In their tests, they discovered that many batteries were labeled under 100 watt-hours, but were actually larger than this. This combined with a nationwide epidemic of hoverboard fires was enough: Alaska Airlines has banned hoverboards from their flights, and many other airlines have done the same.

Normally, I would be leading an outcry against knee-jerk reactions to ban new technologies. In this case, I can fully get behind Alaska Airlines. Fires on an aircraft are no joke. They’re one of the most dangerous things that can possibly happen inflight, and your chances of survival are slim if the plane you’re sitting in catches fire. Until better safety standards are in place, and battery ratings on hoverboards are proven to be credible, banning them is a smart move in the meantime.

Keep your travels safe this holiday season. Even if your airline doesn’t specifically ban hoverboards, please leave them at home. It’s not worth risking your life.