Don’t Over-Optimize Yourself Out Of An Award

I book a lot of award travel – not just for myself, but for a lot of other people. It’s at least 10 tickets per month, and usually more than that, so I have gotten a pretty good sense for what is a good award and what isn’t. I have also gotten a good sense for when people get themselves into trouble. One of the biggest problems I see is that people try to over-optimize their award booking to the point of losing the opportunity to fly with points altogether. If you see a good deal, you need to book it right away. Just get the ticket and figure out the details later. This applies to all airline tickets, not just award tickets. Book first and ask questions later.

don't over optimize jpg

Sometimes I just want to…

What is over-optimizing? It’s going into an award booking knowing the fundamental bargain (or having been advised of it): airlines give away the seats they don’t think they’ll sell. Those seats aren’t the good seats on nonstop flights with perfect schedules. Instead, you’re flying cross country on a regional jet connecting to another regional jet in Columbus, or traveling on Ethiopian from Los Angeles to Dublin. In Seat 31B, and you’re lucky if it is anything other than that. And yet, even though you know this, and I briefed you, and you agreed to it, you just dither and dally and tweak and fiddle and try to get a perfect itinerary in Cathay Pacific first class instead of a perfectly good (and entirely reasonable) itinerary in Air China business class. When I say “If you want to go, you really need to book this right now before it’s gone,” you say “I need to ask my wife” and disappear for a day or three while you try to search for something better on your own.

Even though you hired me to help you. Trust me, although I’m not much of an expert at anything, I’m genuinely an expert at this.

Here’s how it ends, all too often. All of the available options evaporate in front of your very eyes because–against my advice (which you have actually paid for)–you don’t immediately book the one highly reasonable option that is available for your travel dates when it becomes available and when I urge you to book it. Traveling around Christmas and New Year? That’s why there was only one option and that is why that option wasn’t a nonstop (which you can almost never get anyway). It was a good option. An option you totally blew. And that is also why there isn’t likely to be another one. At all.

I think this is because people read too many blog articles and develop unrealistic expectations. You’ll never hear hype from me on Seat 31B, unless it’s about an unusually good economy class seat. However, other travel blogs so over-hype certain airlines and their business and first class products that literally everyone tries to book them and it means award availability is very limited. Here’s some tough love: You’re not likely to secure those “aspirational” awards at all, and you’re especially not likely to secure them over holidays, and extra especially when you show up 6 months after the booking calendar opened. Full-time bloggers have schedule flexibility where they can literally book and fly the same day, giving them access to last-minute inventory you can’t reasonably use. They all have relationships with the airlines and often fly on complimentary “industry” tickets. You don’t have any of that. Instead, you signed up for a few Chase cards and have a few hundred thousand points just like everyone else did this year, and they’re all chasing the exact same seats on the exact same dates.

What’s the reality? If you’re flying in a long-haul business class, it’s far nicer than economy class on pretty much every airline in the world. The baseline is so much of a step up from economy class that the differences between airlines are only incremental. For example, the difference between Air China and Cathay Pacific is pretty marginal. Slightly different catering, better English skill level with a Hong Kong vs. mainland Chinese crew, a different selection of alcoholic beverages and teas, and better lounges in Hong Kong vs. Beijing. That’s it. They will both get you to your destination safely in a modern lie flat seat, giving you a comfortable ride and a nice meal.

There are marked differences in economy class. You feel these much more. Premium economy is a major step up from regular economy class. And since there is more economy class award inventory, it is well worth favoring one airline over another (all else being equal). This is particularly true when you’re looking at 9-across vs 10-across economy class seating on a 777. This just isn’t the case with business class. If you’re getting a lie flat seat, worrying about one airline versus another is mostly worrying about which wine is catered. Does it really matter so much that you’d risk losing an opportunity to fly in business class for free?

Apparently, it was. You decided to push your luck. Not content with finding an itinerary that met all of your requirements and was really very good, you held out for something better. Except it wasn’t actually there, because airlines barely give away any seats during Christmas and New Year at all, and especially not premium airlines on premium nonstop routes. Instead, someone else snapped up the award you didn’t book. They were happy to have what you were trying to over-optimize. Your opportunity disappeared right in front of your nose. And I know exactly what’s going to happen next.

You’re going to be upset with me.

 

Separation Soap Opera – American’s Love Lost For Alaska

You know that stage of a relationship where there isn’t any love left, you’re sleeping in separate bedrooms, but you have kids so you put on a strong public face and stay married for the sake of the children? That’s my view of the relationship between Alaska and American Airlines. It has been steadily deteriorating over time, and while many frequent fliers had a lot of (I think false) hope after Alaska split up with Delta earlier this year, the writing has been on the wall for some time.

If you follow airlines closely, you knew something was seriously awry when American began flying from Seattle to Los Angeles earlier this year. This was the only American hub where American didn’t have service on its own aircraft from Seattle, instead relying on Alaska to provide connecting flights to its domestic and international services. And Alaska is fully capable of doing this. They operate 14 nonstop flights a day between Seattle and Los Angeles, not counting an additional 4 Virgin America flights per day. Absent any rift in the partnership, there was absolutely no need for additional lift in this market–a market so competitive (in between Delta, Alaska, Spirit, United and now American) that fares are often as low as $59 each way. Also, consumer preference almost definitely isn’t in play; American service is inferior to Alaska in just about every way so it’s hard to imagine many consumers going out of their way to fly American over Alaska.

Meanwhile, though, Alaska fliers are the “kids” in the relationship. Despite struggles in the marriage, it has been very good for us with reciprocal frequent flier benefits. Elite frequent flier members have benefited from free bags and priority check-in, boarding and seating. For those of us in Seat 31B, however, the best part of this has been some very cheap mileage fares in economy class when booking with Alaska miles.

map sjo-dfw-pdx-sea-las

This American Airlines partner flight–with a long stopover in Seattle–cost only 15,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

There are some particularly good sweet spots on the Alaska Airlines award chart with American Airlines, especially their off-peak flights. I flew to Barcelona on May 14th this year for just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles in American economy class, because Alaska follows the “old” AAdvantage peak/off-peak rules. I also flew from Costa Rica to Seattle, enjoyed a long stopover, and will be continuing on my journey to Las Vegas later this month. This cost only 15,000 miles–also an off-peak award. These are some of the best deals on the Alaska Airlines award chart–and more importantly, these awards are achievable for ordinary people who aren’t flying every week or doing crazy stuff to get miles.

There will likely be howls of protest from the blogosphere, but I don’t think they’re really justified. American massively devalued its own award program more than a year ago. It was untenable for Alaska Mileage Plan members to continue getting a better deal on American awards than AAdvantage members, particularly given that American flyers could easily credit their miles to Alaska. I knew this couldn’t last, and put my money where my mouth is: I have been burning my own miles on the best awards.

What’s next? Well, divorce probably isn’t in the cards, not yet anyway. At the end of the day, American and Alaska need each other–Alaska has very strong service throughout the West that American doesn’t have, and American serves Midwestern cities Alaska doesn’t. So this is the stage of the relationship where Alaska and American are no longer sleeping under the same roof; they are formally separated. But they’ll still put on a brave face and show up at the middle school parent-teacher nights as a couple. All of the changes go into effect on 1/1/18, so you will have until then to earn and redeem at current levels.

Act Fast: More ANA Award Tickets To Asia

Booking good economy class tickets to Asia is always difficult. One of the biggest reasons for this is that many flights arrive poorly timed for onward connections to other destinations in Asia, meaning that you get stuck with long connections and forced overnights. When you’re flying in Seat 31B, you just want to get there as quickly as possible.

It’s always good to see a new Asia route with both good award availability and good timings for onward flights, and ANA is starting one on October 29th. They’ll be adding a third daily flight from LAX to Tokyo (Narita), which leaves LAX at 10:20am and arrives in Tokyo at 3:20PM. This is early enough in the day to allow for same-day onward connections from Tokyo to many destinations in China, southeast Asia, and even India. The timings aren’t really great for origination and departure traffic in Tokyo so this flight really seems geared toward carrying connecting passengers.

ANA promotional route map with connecting destinations

ANA offers a solid economy class product including a pillow, blanket and even a pen to fill out your Customs forms. The food is edible and ANA flies newer aircraft. I’d gladly choose them in economy class over most other airlines with service to Asia (Asiana does, however, remain a cut above).

You can book award tickets on this new ANA flight using StarAlliance miles (the most popular are United, Aeroplan, Singapore and ANA’s own program). It’s likely that cash pricing will be very competitive, since this opens up a whole lot of Asian cities to additional competition from LAX, so always compare the price of paid flights to award tickets. If you want to use miles, act fast – this new flight has opened up a lot of award availability to Asia, and it will not last.

Asiana Club Mileage Expiration Extended

Asiana Club isn’t my favorite mileage program, but it offers middle-of-the-road value for StarAlliance flights and does offer credit on some Asiana fares that are hard to credit to other airlines. However, like its fellow StarAlliance partner Singapore, miles do expire on a rolling basis after earning.

Unlike Singapore, whose miles expire 3 years after they are earned (meaning that Singapore defiitely isn’t an airline in which to accrue large mileage balances), Asiana miles expire 10 years after they were earned (or 12 years after being earned for elite members). And although Asiana’s mileage chart isn’t the best, they haven’t devalued as much (or as often) as other airlines. So it’s a reasonable program to consider if you fly Asiana a lot.

I received an email today notifying of “enhancements” to the Asiana Club mileage expiration policy. I usually hate seeing these, because it means yet another devaluation. However, this time, Asiana has actually improved mileage expiration policies in a way that simplifies the program.

The new expiration policy is still more complicated than it needs to be, and is as follows:

Asiana mileage expiration policy chart The bottom line? You might get up to 11 additional months before your Asiana Club miles expire. However, you really shouldn’t wait that long–it’s likely that if you do, your miles will be worth far less at the time you redeem them.

Tax Day: Should You Pay Your Taxes With A Credit Card?

A reader contacted me and asked a question that a lot of folks are asking on tax day: “Should I pay my taxes with a credit card?” The answer is a strong “it depends” and you need to be careful. Beware of bloggers bearing affiliate links and pushing you to do this.

First of all, any way that you do this, you’ll be paying a fee. That’s real cash that you’re shelling out in return for points. In nearly all cases, if you’re just doing this for the points, you’ll be paying more than they’re worth. Typically, tax services charge around 2% to pay your taxes with a credit card, which is the same thing as buying points for 2 cents each. You can often buy them directly from the airlines for less than this.

If you need to hit a minimum spend threshold, though, this could be an easy way to do it. But it could be an expensive waste too! If you pay the IRS directly (rather than through a tax service) it will almost always code as a CASH ADVANCE which charges interest, fees and doesn’t count toward minimum spend. You will need to pay through a tax service, which will send the money to the IRS on your behalf.

payday loan shop

Bank cash advance fees can cost more than a payday loan!

This could also be an efficient way to get enough points to reach an award threshold, especially if the points are more expensive than 2 cents each to buy. Just weigh the real money you’ll be spending in fees versus your ability to earn the points through regular spending (without fees).

If you pay through a tax service or through your tax software then sometimes–though not always–it codes as a purchase. But you need to be sure not only how the merchant bills you, but how your credit card interprets the charge. If they’re billing you in the “tax preparation service” or “software” categories, you’ll probably be fine. Citi, however, is particularly aggressive about coding things as cash advances that other merchants don’t, so be especially careful with them.

Just as with taxes themselves, how you pay your taxes can be complicated. It’s nice to sweeten the deal with a few extra points, but be careful so it doesn’t backfire!

How To Boycott United While Still Flying Them

It was all over the news yesterday. At the behest of United Airlines, Chicago police forcibly removed a man from a plane yesterday. They treated him the way that you might expect police to treat anyone who is a violent terrorist threat to aviation security, beating him unconscious and dragging him down the aisle. I’m not going to embed the video here because it’s simply too disturbing to watch.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a terrorist. There was no threat of violence. It was a 69 year old Asian-American doctor who had patients to see the following day, had paid for his seat, had already boarded the plane, and United decided to kick off to make room for commuting employees instead.

Make no mistake: United summoned state violence–with all the weight of anti-terrorism laws behind them–for commercial reasons. First and foremost, the flight wasn’t overbooked. United just wanted the seats for commuting employees instead of paying passengers. Nobody wanted the crappy restricted $800 vouchers that the airline was offering, so in order to save money, United then decided to invoke the denied boarding clause of the Contract of Carriage. This, by law, limits the airline to paying $1,350 per passenger in compensation for denied boarding, and it was clear that this was going to be United’s cheapest option. However, it’s questionable whether it was even legal under both the Contract of Carriage and denied boarding regulations for them to do this in the first place given that the passengers involved had already been boarded, so boarding wasn’t actually being denied. Undoubtedly, this will play out in the courts going forward. In the meantime, it hasn’t been good for United stock: the company lost more than $500 million in market capitalization today.

United stock drop chart

This is what happens to your stock after you really screw up

Even before this, United wasn’t making any friends after devaluing their frequent flier program and introducing a new, worse “basic economy” experience. They’re my second least preferred airline, behind Spirit. Fortunately I have a choice not to fly them–Seattle is a highly competitive airport with Alaska and Delta duking it out for dominance and plenty of other options as well. I usually fly Alaska or Southwest, both of whom have friendly crews and passenger-friendly policies. When I fly one of the three majors, I lean toward Delta; their planes are just a little cleaner, the crews are just a little nicer, and the service is just a little more punctual than the other major US airlines. I’ll still fly United occasionally–for instance, if I need a nonstop to Dulles or Houston at times Alaska doesn’t fly–but I’m usually also glad when the flight is over.

However, if you’re a hub captive, you don’t have any real choice. You’re stuck on United, an airline that will literally have you beaten up and thrown off a plane to make room for their employees if it saves them money (unapologetically so, I might add). However, you can still boycott United even while flying the airline. You just need to realize where United makes its money. For the most part, it’s not actually selling tickets: it’s their Mileage Plus loyalty program.

The most valuable part of any airline is its frequent flier program. Loyalty programs drive a ton of revenue, from credit card mileage sales to shopping portals to data mining. Air Canada received a 20x multiple on earnings when it spun off part of Aeroplan in 2005. In fact, when most major US airlines went bankrupt after the financial crisis, a major part of recapitalization plans was mileage sales to banks. I don’t normally link to The Points Guy, but he recently interviewed analysts who reported that up to 50% of airline revenues come from mileage sales to banks. So, ironically, your commercial value to United Airlines lies far less in whether you buy tickets and fly on their airline, and far more in whether you use their loyalty program.

Want to really punish United Airlines, and discourage them from literally beating you bloody on your next flight? Call up Chase and cancel your Mileage Plus Visa. Clean out your Mileage Plus account and take an international trip on a United partner (it’s always nice to visit Japan on ANA, or southeast Asia on Thai and Singapore). It makes sense to do this anyway–miles only devalue over time. Many people who fly United are better off opening a Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer account and crediting their flights to KrisFlyer anyway, because Singapore gives 100% flown miles credit for most United fare classes. If you must use Mileage Plus to book an award, bank your points in a transferable rewards currency like Chase Ultimate Rewards, and only transfer in your points to immediately redeem an award.

United won’t change its behavior or even apologize until people start voting with their feet. But they’ll laugh all the way to the bank if you keep using their loyalty program while no longer flying United. Burn all your Mileage Plus miles. Spend them to zero. And credit your next United flight to another StarAlliance partner. This will ultimately cost them nearly as much as if you didn’t fly United at all.

How I Just Hacked My Trip To Defcon

Although it is fairly well known that Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles are the most valuable airline points in the industry, they are usually considered to be so valuable because of Alaska’s large number of partners. Alaska’s partners include premium airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Emirates as well as niche carriers like Fiji. This allows Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members access to a very large number of destinations. This year, Alaska further improved the value of Mileage Plan miles for redemption on their own flights by moving to a variable award chart; this allows travelers who plan ahead to redeem for as few as 5,000 bonus miles on many popular routes (such as between Seattle and the Bay Area).

Alaska’s routing rules, however, are simultaneously some of the most restrictive and the most generous in the industry and this is how I just (legally, following all the rules, please don’t hurt me!) hacked my trip to Defcon. Most of the time, I find the rules frustrating. For each direction of travel, you can’t combine partners on an award. You can only combine one partner with an Alaska flight, and the Alaska connecting flight you use needs to have “saver” level availability (which can be very hard to find on some routes, particularly in places like Adak or Barrow). What does this mean in practice? You can’t, for example, fly Alaska from Seattle to JFK, connect to an American Airlines flight to London, and then continue from there to Amsterdam on KLM. A partner award means one partner only (with one exception: you can combine Air France and KLM flights because they are owned by the same company). Making the rules even more frustrating, Virgin America is considered a “partner” for routing purposes so your itinerary can’t include any Virgin America flights if it involves a partner airline. And if all of that wasn’t enough, just to make things more complicated, award tickets involving Korean Airlines or Delta Air Lines (note the Delta partnership ends 5/1/17) must be on a round-trip itinerary. Technically you can book one way, but you still pay the roundtrip price!

However, although the routing rules can make it very difficult to find an award that will work in the first place, Alaska does have one unusually generous rule that makes it at least possible most of the time: stopovers are allowed. And not just one stopover is allowed, but one stopover in each direction. You don’t even need to be traveling on an international itinerary! This legitimately makes up for the considerably more restrictive rules on carrier routing versus other mileage programs by allowing you to wait longer in between flights, so you can create itineraries that connect up. Here’s an example of an award you can book with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan that you couldn’t book with American AAdvantage:

SEA-ORD-CLT itinerary

Stopping overnight is allowed on a US domestic itinerary with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

American, with very few exceptions, will not allow more than a 4 hour layover on a US domestic itinerary. However, Alaska will allow a stopover on a domestic itinerary, so you’re free to book this. It’s not ideal, but it’s also very hard to find saver level award availability between Seattle and Charlotte (and remember that if you’re booking a partner award ticket, you have to find saver level award space the whole way). Alaska’s generous stopover rules make it possible to book awards that would otherwise be impossible.

Alaska allowing stopovers especially makes sense when you consider the far-flung route network they operate, and the accompanying limited service. For example, there are only two flights a week to Adak. Many places off the beaten path receive air service at inconvenient hours as well. Without the ability to stop over, it would be virtually impossible for people living in Adak to book awards to anywhere other than Anchorage. So given the very unique operating environment in the State of Alaska (but not just there, Hawaii and many rural Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana communities face the same challenge), Alaska’s stopover rules are a practical necessity for many of their members.

There are, however, some pretty creative ways to use stopovers in order to wring maximum value out of an award ticket. I just squeezed 3 trips out of one ticket. How did I do that? By taking full advantage of the stopover rules Alaska Airlines allows. Generally speaking, Alaska allows you to book a stopover in a hub or connecting city. When you consider the West Coast, this allows opportunities to stop over in every major city.

In the month of April, I am starting in Seattle. I need to be in Las Vegas for a conference. Then I’m heading to Costa Rica for 10 days and returning to Seattle. This summer, I need to be in Las Vegas for another conference. Here’s the itinerary I just booked, and I’ll walk you through why it works:

Itinerary description

8,112 miles flown for 32,500 points.

You may recall that I’m actually going to Las Vegas. So why am I flying to Ontario first? On this itinerary, I couldn’t actually use Las Vegas as a stopover point en route to Costa Rica, because there aren’t any onward flights directly from there. However, I was able to use Los Angeles, because there is an onward flight leaving from there. I’m flying to Ontario instead, which is allowed because it is a co-terminal of LAX, and Ontario is closer to Las Vegas. It’s an easy drive or 3,818 Southwest Rapid Rewards points for the flight.

From there, I’m continuing on to San Jose on Delta. It’s possible to use Delta for this segment because Delta is still an Alaska Airlines partner for another 6 weeks, and because I booked a roundtrip ticket so it priced correctly. From San Jose, it’s a pretty conventional return itinerary back to Seattle – I have to double connect through Dallas and Portland because that was the only award availability. You’ll note that I’m returning from San Jose to Dallas on American Airlines – but that’s OK. With Alaska awards, you can only use one partner (plus Alaska flights) per direction, but I’m not using more than one here. Also, while the ticket has to be a round-trip ticket for Delta or Korean segments to price correctly, you don’t actually have to use these airlines in both directions.

“All right, TProphet,” you might say, “you’re back in Seattle. That’s round-trip. How did you get Las Vegas to work?” Well, this is because my ticket isn’t actually a round-trip ticket. It’s an open jaw ticket, meaning that I’m returning to a different destination than my starting point. This is allowed under the rules, and so are two stopovers. The three months I’m spending in Seattle before continuing my journey onward to Las Vegas is my second stopover. And naturally, my Vegas trip in July is to Defcon. 😉

Flight map SEA-SJO return with LAS ending

A busy April!

Was this easy to book? Not even close! It’s actually really hard to book stuff like this in practice, which is why more people don’t do it (and probably why Alaska still allows it). Also, considerable flexibility on my part was required. I had to fly into a city that is different than the one I need to end up in, spend 3 days longer in Costa Rica than I was planning, take flights that leave both at midnight and at 6:something in the morning, and it required a phone call to straighten everything out after the Web site choked. Still, I get to fly 8,112 actual butt-in-seat miles for only 32,500 points. The cheapest way to do this with paid tickets would have been $998, meaning that I achieved 2.2 cents per mile in value (net of taxes, which I paid in cash, and miles that would otherwise have been earned). This is 10% above what The Points Guy says Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points are worth–and more importantly, it’s a practical value. A lot of theoretical points valuations thrown around on the Web are based on prices for premium cabin seats that most people would never pay. This is based on economy class tickets I’d otherwise have bought and paid for.

Do you have Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles? Don’t forget that stopovers are an option that can both add flexibility and value to your award redemptions!

How I Booked To Minsk Without Paying A Mint

As I wrote in my previous article, it’s now possible for the citizens of 80 countries to visit Belarus without a visa. However, there are some significant strings attached, the most important of which is that you must arrive and depart by flight at Minsk airport.

Unfortunately, Minsk isn’t the cheapest place to visit, because there are limited flights. Only 12 airlines service Minsk, and two of those airlines only fly to Russia (so you can’t use them unless you have a Russian visa, because of the Customs control zone Belarus shares with Russia). That leaves you with only 5 routes on which it’s practical to use points–all StarAlliance, and one of which is on Air China from Beijing. The rest are non-alliance airlines like airBaltic, Belavia, Ukraine International Airlines and even an airline called Motor Sich which flies to–and I can’t even begin to pronounce this–Zaporizhia. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you go find it on a map.

Motor Sich Airlines

I fly a lot and have never even seen an airplane like this.

The cheapest roundtrip flights to Minsk cost about $200, and leave from Kiev. But you have to get to Kiev first, and that’s not exactly a cheap place to visit either. In this case, my journey to Minsk is starting from Barcelona (by the way, my trip from Seattle to Barcelona cost just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles). I was pretty flexible about where I ended up after visiting Minsk, but preferred that it be Kiev. I got my wish! By stacking two travel hacks, I used just 13,533 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the trip. This will allow me to visit both Minsk and Kiev for fewer points than required to visit just one city using a StarAlliance award, and also required no cash out of pocket.

The first step was to find a good fare hack. Belavia, the state airline of Belarus, publishes a fare between Barcelona and Kiev that allows a stopover in Minsk. However, you can’t actually book these fares on their Web site, which only allows simple one-way and round-trip itineraries. Additionally, Belavia doesn’t publish their fares on most online travel agencies. As far as Orbitz (my usual go-to site for booking complex itineraries) is concerned, Belavia doesn’t even exist. Also, once I finally found a place to buy it (a Spanish travel agency), the fare was still higher than I wanted to pay.

belavia review

The title of the top Skytrax review is “Worst flying experiences ever”

I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. This card is dramatically over-hyped by other travel blogs (mostly because they get a commission for you signing up). However, the sign-up bonus was very good (100,000 points). Also, if I cancel the card before the annual fee comes due, I’ll actually make $150 on the deal (you get a $300 travel credit per calendar year, and I have already gotten two years worth of annual credit out of one $450 annual fee). While you can transfer the points directly to a number of airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, you can also spend them in the Chase travel portal at the rate of 1.5 cents per point. “No way they’ll have this flight,” I thought as I searched the Chase portal just for the sake of completeness.

And then it popped up. The exact itinerary I’d found on the Spanish travel agency–and nowhere else. The price even came in a few bucks cheaper. I couldn’t believe it! Most of the time when I search the Chase portal, the results aren’t very good (except for rental cars, where I have gotten some truly spectacular deals). Hotels generally cost a lot more than other places, and flights tend to cost the same or more. The selection is not only more limited than most travel sites, but the portal is also slow and clunky to use. But there in front of me was a perfect itinerary for 13,533 points with no cash out of pocket! Well, anyone who reads this blog knows I like to fly for free. I went ahead and booked it.

What do I expect? To be honest, I have no idea. The Skytrax reviews of Belavia are very much a mixed bag–your experience really seems to depend upon the crew you get and the aircraft in use. However, the schedule was better than any other airline, and I could go for free. Hard to beat that!

While the deals usually aren’t spectacular with the Chase travel portal, there are occasionally good surprises. Before you transfer your points, be sure to compare what the cash fare would be. You might be pleasantly surprised.

 

Visiting Belarus Without A Visa

Prior to January 9, 2017, Belarus was one of the most difficult and expensive places in the world for Americans to visit. Visas cost a minimum of $140, and required a complicated visa application form to be completed. Not surprisingly, most Americans wanting to visit the region skipped Belarus in favor of its neighbors Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (which don’t require a visa) or Russia. Although Americans do require a visa to visit Russia, its visa previously cost the same as a Belarus visa. Also, Russia has a similar language and culture to Belarus and is geographically the world’s largest country, so there was a lot more that you could see for the same visa fee.

Well, all of that just changed. As in the United States, immigration policy is largely under the control of the president. Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, has issued a decree allowing citizens of 80 countries, including the United States, visa-free entry for 5 days. However, since the decree was issued suddenly, the travel industry isn’t very well briefed on this new policy yet. I wasn’t able to get good answers from hotels, airlines, or anyone. Fortunately, I’ll be visiting in May, and did the leg work for you. I also received confirmation on some key points and a cool “life hack” from the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Read on to learn how to visit Belarus via Minsk for 5 days without a visa.

To visit Belarus without a visa, you must arrive and depart via flight at Minsk Airport. Unfortunately, you can’t take a much cheaper flight to Vilnius and enter via a short, inexpensive train ride. Unless you already have a Russian visa, you can’t transit Russia either, because you have to be on the Russian side of the Customs control zone to take a Belarus flight. This leaves you with limited flight options, and drives up the cost versus simply taking the train from an EU airport. The day that your passport is stamped counts as the first day. So, for example, if you arrive on the 1st, you need to depart on the 5th. Days start at midnight, and many flights arrive in Minsk shortly before midnight, so you can maximize your stay by waiting until after midnight before going through passport control. This “life hack” was recommended by no less than the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs!

https://twitter.com/BelarusMFA/status/835219075034988545

Belarus has historically had an unusual arrangement with its powerful neighbor, Russia. Until three weeks ago, there weren’t actually any border checkpoints between the countries; you could drive freely between them and flights between Minsk and Russia were treated as domestic flights. That all changed on February 1 when Russia set up a formal border with Belarus. According to press reports, except for rail passengers, Russia is only allowing citizens of Russia and Belarus to pass–even if you have a Russian visa. Accordingly, if you plan to enter Russia, assume you must transit a third country such as Poland or Ukraine. Leaving Russia via Minsk, on the other hand, should be no problem. President Lukashenko stated after Russia’s action that Belarus will not reciprocate with its own border controls.

Why am I visiting Belarus? Yes, Belarus is referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and many Western writers paint a dark picture of crushing authoritarianism. Having lived for three years in China, I know from personal experience that there is a lot more to a country than its government. I really enjoyed my visits to Armenia and Georgia, and like them, Belarus is a former Soviet republic with a unique local history and culture. It is separate and distinct from Russia.

In Armenia and Georgia, I found delicious food, friendly people and incredible history (along with challenging road conditions and a sometimes considerable language barrier). It looks like there is a lot to discover in Belarus, although with only 4 1/2 days (based on the schedule of my flights), I’ll have to work hard to make the most of it! Most importantly, I’m visiting now before Belarus gets discovered, overrun by visitors, and the historical sites turn into tourist traps. If you’d like to join me in Minsk, I’ll be there from May 20th through 24th, 2017!

How To Save On Myanmar Domestic Flights

If you’re looking to travel within Myanmar, you generally have three options: flying, taking the bus, or taking the train. All of these have questionable safety records. Train tickets actually include life insurance because the trains derail so often. Buses have hair-raising names such as “Hot Rod Grand Prix” with sometimes questionable braking systems.

Myanmar train ticket

Trains derail so often in Myanmar that the tickets include life insurance

Flying, while usually safe, isn’t much better in Myanmar. Myanma, the national airline of Myanmar (and formerly known as Burma Airways) had, until recently, one of the poorest safety records of any airline. If you’re from the US, you aren’t allowed by the Department of the Treasury to fly Yangon Airways because it’s owned by drug traffickers. The same goes for Air Bagan. Only one airline is sort of normal in Myanmar; Asian Wings Airways which is 49% owned by ANA of Japan (and their flights almost always sell out).

If you ignore the safety issue (after all, flying is still relatively safe compared to other options) it’s still really expensive to fly. Most flights within Myanmar cost over $100, and are rarely more than one hour. Making matters worse, the only airline that regularly shows up on some (but not all) online booking sites is the airline with the worst safety record and most checkered past: Myanma Airways. “Don’t do it!” said the owner of my guest house, shaking her head and tut-tutting like a mother hen. “Too dangerous!” Locals know best and I took her advice.

Fortunately, there are two other airlines with a nationwide network that offer online booking: Asian Wings Airways and Air KBZ. If you want to fly with Asian Wings Airways, you need to book in advance. They’re the only airline in Myanmar with an (as of yet–note they’ve only been in business since 2011) unblemished safety record. ANA provides training for their pilots and crew and technical assistance, and they are generally considered the most professional airline operating in the country. Their flights sell out consistently.

Asian Wings plane

Want to fly on this plane? Book early!

The next-best option is Air KBZ. They’re owned by one of the largest banks in the country (KBZ Bank) and are relatively well capitalized. It may seem odd that a bank owns an airline, but a different bank in Yangon owns one of the larger bus lines in the country. Transportation just seems to be something that banks do here (maybe Chase and American Express will copy them given their affinity for travel rewards cards). One of the nice things with Air KBZ (apart from only one non-fatal safety incident) is that they offer discount fares if you book with them directly online. What’s more, their Web site actually works for payments with American credit cards! Given that sanctions against Myanmar were only lifted recently, a lot of Web sites haven’t been updated to reflect this.

Being able to pay online with a US credit card–much less getting a discount for it–is a massive convenience in Myanmar. Most airlines in the country can be booked only through local travel agents, and fares are quoted and paid in USD. Unfortunately, businesses will only take absolutely pristine, crisp, new USD notes. In cash. Preferably in high denominations. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Myanmar, so paying with USD either means you brought it with you (in new, uncirculated bills) or you’re withdrawing kyat and changing it to dollars (taking a double hit on the exchange rate plus an ATM fee).

When I factored in the currency exchange shenanigans on a $114 fare, the $5 ATM fee, and the savings for booking online, I saved $30 by booking a $101 online-only fare with Air KBZ. And a whole lot of hassle! What’s more, given the size of the aircraft, I’m safe: I won’t be flying in Seat 31B!