United Close-In Booking Trick Is Dead

I don’t make it a practice to write about questionable loopholes in award programs, other than warning people against using them without knowing exactly what they’re doing. For one, making loopholes well-known and easy to use is the best way to get them shut down. For two, loopholes often come with risks that are underappreciated by the majority of people.

Still, some loopholes exist for such a long time that it is hard to know whether they’re a loophole or intentional. Nowhere is this more true than with United. Loopholes in their “Excursionist Perk” have existed since the award program was revamped roughly a year ago. Additionally, since the introduction of a $75 close-in booking fee, there has been a loophole to get around it: book a ticket farther out, then make a change within the 24-hour policy to an earlier date. Until recently you could do this online, and then for several months thereafter you were able to do it over the phone.

united logo

It wouldn’t be too big a stretch to expect that this was intentional. United customers are particularly vocal and resistant to change, so they have a practice of making off-menu services available to those “in the know” but not advertising them to those who aren’t. Think of this as akin to the In-N-Out “secret menu.” For example, if you book United Polaris business class, you can ask for wine flights, a gel pillow, and a mattress pad. These aren’t officially on the menu, but are available when you ask on board.

Unfortunately, it seems that whether intentional or not, the trick to avoid the close-in booking fee is well and truly dead. When you call in, telephone agents are prompted to collect the additional $75 if you change to a flight inside of 21 days. Unfortunately, I only learned this after I transferred points to Mileage Plus and tried to use them! So in the interest of helping you avoid a similar situation, don’t assume you can take advantage of this loophole. It’s gone.

Air France Economy Class Review: SEA-CDG

Despite rushing to pack, I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport about 2 1/2 hours prior to departure. This was plenty of time to make my flight. Although I’d checked in online, there was no opportunity to enter my known traveler number so I didn’t have a Precheck boarding pass (fortunately, just having bought a one-way ticket 4 hours before an international flight, it didn’t have SSSS either). Having Precheck saves a lot of time in Seattle, but if there is a long queue for the check-in counter, it can take longer to get your boarding pass straightened out than it does to just go through the regular security line.

Happily, there was almost no line and I was cheerfully checked in by a SkyPriority agent. I appreciate that Air France has their SkyPriority agents take customers out of the regular queue when there are no SkyPriority passengers waiting; not all airlines do this. The agent hadn’t seen a NEXUS card before so initially entered the wrong number, but I gently corrected her and she was really nice about it (I’m used to airline employees insisting they’re right and going on power trips when they make a mistake, so I really appreciated the lack of ego).

Alaska Airlines Sea-Tac C Lounge

In pictures, this lounge looks really big, but it’s surprisingly small in real life

Armed with a TSA PRECHK boarding pass, I was ready to do battle with the Precheck line. Fortunately it was a total breeze. Nobody was waiting, and I got right through. Continuing my amazing streak of airport luck, I was able to get into the new Alaska Airlines Terminal C lounge with my Priority Pass. They initially tried to deny me access, but I mentioned that their sign automatically denying access wasn’t out, and they relented and let me in. The lounge has a smart design but I was surprised to find the furniture very dirty (it badly needs to be steam cleaned). The new lounge also looks a lot bigger in pictures than it is. The food selection was similar to that available in the older Terminal D lounge, except somewhat more limited. The pancake machine runs 24 hours (unlike in the other lounge) but there aren’t cheese cubes or vegetables (which the other lounge has). The planespotting opportunities were very good for the aviation geek, though; I not only saw the incoming Air France flight on the taxiway, but saw an incoming Prime Air flight as well. While lounges are very much an optional experience for me anyway, I won’t go out of my way to return to the “new” Alaska lounge if the “old” one is more convenient.

So far, so good, then. Flying Blue had advanced me the points to get on the flight in the first place, check-in was friendly, and I managed to talk my way into a lounge that was hard to get into. Although I have had some really great adventures on Air France (including a flight to South Africa in economy class and an “island hopper” adventure to Cayenne, French Guyana via Port au Prince, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) I haven’t flown Air France in a couple of years. My last flights with them were on an A380 out of LAX in their “old” economy class which was a pretty comfortable experience overall. In light of this I was excited to try their “new” economy class.

Remembering my recent trip to Beijing, I left the lounge 25 minutes before the boarding cut-off. I’m never eager to get to the gate earlier than necessary on long international flights, because checked bags are free so there is usually plenty of overhead bin space. The Terminal C lounge is right next to the airport subway, but you have to change trains twice in order to get from there to the south satellite (from which most international flights depart). The waiting time isn’t super long in between trains and you’re not on them for a long time, but it does add up and it took me a full 15 minutes to get to the gate. Fortunately there was no problem; Air France had just finished with premium cabin boarding and was beginning to board the economy class cabin (where I was in the last boarding group). An agent came by and checked my passport, and I was on board the tired old 777-200 operating our flight. The crew was a very senior French crew, and Parisian in demeanor. This is like a New York based senior crew with a US airline; somewhat abrupt, but also generally efficient. I was directed to my seat, in a row right behind a bassinet infant who wasn’t super happy to be on board. I stashed my luggage, and I was just getting ready to sit down when I spotted something amiss.

There was puke on my seat.

After my cleaning job, with seat cover added.

It had been mopped up by the previous occupant with napkins or something, but there was definitely leftover barf on the seat belt and seat. I didn’t sit down, but stood to the side and when the aisle was clear, I walked up to the galley explaining what happened, and asked for cleaning supplies. Of course, this isn’t actually what I expected to get–usually a flight crew will first verify that your story is true (totally was in this case, the barf was plainly visible) and will then find somewhere to reseat you–even an op-up if needed–taking the dirty seat out of service. Not this crew! I got exactly what I asked for–they expertly put together a vomit kit for me, and handed it to me. Well, all right then. I went back and scrubbed the seat (hoping there wasn’t norovirus involved, because there unfortunately weren’t any rubber gloves). A flight attendant shortly thereafter stopped by, checked my work, took the supplies back and gave me a cover for the seat (because at this point it was wet). I went up to the lavatory to thoroughly scrub my hands, and another flight attendant said “wait here a minute.” A couple of minutes later she returned with a business class amenity kit as a gift, which I think was a pretty nice gesture all things considered. This is probably more than I would have gotten on United, but the response on a Japanese carrier would have been one bordering on shock and horror accompanied by profuse apologies and more or less bending over backwards to find me somewhere else to sit. There is a happy medium somewhere, and that’s not what this was.

These seats are *tight*The good news is that when I went back, the middle seat next to my assigned seat had remained empty. So I just moved over and took that seat. Unfortunately, the “new” Air France economy class cabin is tight. It’s not quite as tight as Lufthansa, but unlike I have experienced on Lufthansa, the seat was heavily worn and uncomfortable. It was so hard my butt was numb 2,000 miles into a 5,000 mile flight (I’m a middle aged guy with an average build). The seat pitch also makes it really hard to work on a laptop (although there was seat power); I’m 5’7″ and there was only about an inch between me and the seat in front of me. Also, in the row where I was sitting, the seats were in a staggered configuration and there was an annoying support post in the middle of my legroom (although to be fair, this isn’t nearly as bad as the personal entertainment boxes that often steal your legroom in economy class).

 

I hadn’t eaten much lunch in the lounge (I just had some soup and salad) so I was ready for dinner, which I knew would be served onboard. My previous experiences with Air France involved surprisingly good economy class catering – I mean, it’s the national airline of France, so there would be good quality French cuisine, right? I also remember being fed a pretty large meal on my previous flights. Unfortunately, all of that has changed. There were two meal choices, chicken or pasta. I’m glad I got the chicken because the pasta was small and didn’t look filling. Still, the chicken was just pieces of chicken breast (not an entire chicken breast, more like half of one) in a white gravy. It was bland, and served with rice. Apart from that, there was a disgusting and inedible lentil salad, a piece of cheese, a tiny piece of coffee-flavored cream cake, and some unsweetened applesauce. I have seen more appealing high school cafeteria lunches, and Air France’s economy class catering is about on par with United. SkyTeam airline Xiamen Air had much better food catered out of Seattle, and Air France’s partner Delta does a much better job with catering as well. The one thing I will say for Air France is that they have a better selection of alcohol than either airline. You can still get brandy in economy class! It’s probably a usual complaint on planes to say “the food was lousy and there wasn’t enough” but that’s exactly what this was. Some crackers with spreadable cheese and a green salad would have rounded out the meal.

Air France economy class meal

It tasted how it looks

Breakfast served before landing was equally unmemorable. Instant coffee, a container of canned fruit, a container of orange juice, some plain yogurt, a bread roll and a sweet roll. The sweet roll was hot, but it tasted like one of those canned Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that you heat up in the oven–you know the overpoweringly sweet, chemical, plastic taste. Overall, my thoughts on the breakfast were “how American” and that pretty much sums it up. I’d totally have expected something like this if I were flying United in economy class. A croissant is apparently out of order on a French airline.

While there is (surprisingly) no inflight WiFi, Air France does have good quality inflight entertainment. Although the economy class seats aren’t very comfortable, they’re equipped with large new, LED displays with a full complement of inflight entertainment (a new computer system runs this and it’s really very good). This is one area where Air France is markedly better than United’s old 777-200s and their tiny seatback displays. Of course, I spent most of the time watching the “moving map” – my usual go-to entertainment on planes.

WRAP-UP

Air France planeOverall, would I fly Air France economy class again? For 25,000 miles (particularly ones that aren’t even in my account yet), to an expensive destination, at the last minute, sure! I’m always happy to take the last seat in the plane if it’s free. For money, though? I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly Air France versus other options from Seattle to Europe, and I certainly wouldn’t pay more. I think Delta wins overall here, and they still fly nonstop to Amsterdam. British Airways often has much better fares and they offer a very similar inflight product, service attitude, and connecting airport. Icelandair and Condor aren’t full service airlines, but are also generally a lot cheaper. Norwegian, an ultra low cost carrier, has ridiculously low fares. For a full service European carrier, Lufthansa has better (and more) food and the service, which while very efficient (in a very German way), is also surprisingly friendly. This is, however, balanced out by the very tight configuration in their economy class cabin, which is even more uncomfortable than Air France.

Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

air france economy class seat

Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disaster right now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.

Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.

The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.

So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.

Summary

Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.

Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.

Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.

Xiamen Air Transit Hotel Disaster!

Xiamen Air offers some really cheap flights from Seattle to destinations in China and throughout Asia. The catch? You end up stuck overnight in Shenzhen, Xiamen or Fuzhou, China.

Not to worry, though, right? Xiamen Air provides a transit hotel. The details on their Web page are as follows:

Xiamen Airlines offers passengers transit accommodation services free of charge, when the tickets satisfying the following conditions apply:

1. All flights are carried by Xiamen Airlines. (code-sharing, chartered flights are not applicable);

2. Connection time of transit passengers is within 6 to 24 hours in Xiamen (G Class and Z Class are not applicable);

3. Must contain at least one international(regional) flight in the ticket;

4. The service contains only free hotel, passengers have to pay for meals and the other transportation fee.

The position of transfer counter:

Domestic Departure Hall on 2nd Floor, B11 counter or other check-in counter(no priority check-in counter)

Service consultation phone number: (0086-592)5739500 or (0086-592)95557

My tickets qualified. I called the US toll-free number to confirm, so it seemed like I was golden. And I have to admit, the room that was promised sure looked nice:

hotel room promised photo

Wow, what a nice hotel room. Would have been great to stay in it!

Now, if you have experience in mainland China, and with mainland Chinese airlines, you probably know where I’m headed with this. In China, this sort of thing is rarely easy to arrange in practice and also rarely works as advertised. While other airlines in other parts of the world might be expected to whisk you from your flight to a hotel room with a seamless transfer, Xiamen Air makes you figure out how to ask for the benefit when you arrive, and then they hit you with a couple of serious “gotchas.”

Gotcha #1: It’s Hard To Claim Your Room

When I arrived in Xiamen, and again in Shenzhen, I had to hunt around for the desk that could issue the voucher. In Xiamen, it’s a desk labeled “transfer services.” In Shenzhen, you have to go upstairs one floor from the baggage claim and find the ticket counter (where they sell tickets). This agent can take care of the hotel voucher. I’m not sure where to look in Fuzhou, but the guy who was sitting next to me on the flight to Shenzhen, and who continued onward to Fuzhou, emailed me and told me he couldn’t figure out how to get the room (or whether it was even possible) so he ended up sleeping in the airport overnight.

Gotcha #2: You Share A Room With A Random Stranger (Or Pay Extra)

When I arrived at the transfer counter for my room, some forlorn-looking guy was standing there waiting. “I guess we’re roommates,” he said. Um, maybe not. I insisted on escalating as far as possible, speaking to a supervisor, and showed screen shots from the Web page. It was no matter. The supervisor had heard it all before. She pointed to a laminated form and said “you must choose, either share a room (!) or pay 135 yuan (about $21) extra.”

How Xiamen Air tricks you

Oh, you thought you’d get your own room? What a strange Western idea.

This was discussed and explained in Xiamen but it was never discussed in Shenzhen (leading me to believe a different set of circumstances applied there). In Shenzhen, I arrived at the hotel, got my room, took a shower and was fast asleep when some random guy started trying to get into my room! Apparently the front desk had given him a key based on this crazy airline policy. The guy then tried to argue with me (in barely understandable English) that he was going to be my roommate etc. but I was having none of it. I shut the door, sent him back to the front desk and unplugged the phone. The hotel staff didn’t speak any English so I figured that would settle the matter (it did). It’s a good thing I’d locked the door with the chain from the inside! Otherwise, who knows what random stranger might have been trying to climb into bed with me.

Gotcha #3: Transportation Isn’t Always Included

In Shenzhen, the airport hotel has a shuttle that comes and picks you up at the airport, takes you to the hotel, and then returns you to the airport the following morning. You know, like you’d expect an airport hotel to do. In Xiamen, however, you have to take a local taxi to and from the hotel. However, this requires local currency, and the ATMs are all upstairs, and the airport closes down early, so you don’t have an easy way to get local currency for the taxi. Also, returning the next day, it’s hard to get a taxi on the street because the taxis have moved to using dispatch apps. This means you’ll need data service that works in China and an app called DiDi on your phone in order to get a taxi.

The Hotels

Both hotels were very local and Chinese. In Xiamen, it was the HMYL Hotel. It’s a basic Chinese business hotel on a leafy tree-lined street in central Xiamen. The room was typically Chinese with a hard twin bed, and was poorly soundproofed. Hotel staff was friendly but spoke no English.

In Shenzhen, the hotel was called the James Joyce Coffetel. I don’t know exactly what a coffetel is (coffin hotel? I wasn’t dead. Coffee hotel? No coffee in the room), but it had a room, and it was fine apart from being at the end of the airport runway (planes made the windows rattle starting around 6 in the morning) and being across the street from a giant noisy construction site. And, of course, apart from giving some random stranger a key to my room at 2am. They had a shuttle to and from the airport at least.

xiamen transit hotel

Tiny business hotel room with two beds in Xiamen. Should have been free, cost about $30 all-in.

shower picture

Large walk-in shower. This was nearly as big as the rest of the room.

trees in Xiamen picture

The Xiamen Air transit hotel is in a pleasant neighborhood with tree-lined streets.

 

I should probably point out that I lived in mainland China for 3 years and speak basic Chinese, but without that, I would probably have never ended up at either hotel.

James Joyce Coffeetel bed

The bed at the Shenzhen James Joyce Coffetel was more neatly made than this when I arrived, I put it back together for the picture

Extra bed picture

Second bed in a side bedroom. I didn’t sleep in this one. And the random guy who tried to come in at 2am didn’t either.

Shenzhen James Joyce Coffeetel view

Sweeping expansive view of … giant dusty construction site

Xiamen Air Staff Are Great, Despite It All

I have nothing bad to say about any of the employees I interacted with at Xiamen Air. Each and every one of them was kind, polite, and professional, and many went above and beyond for me (in Xiamen, a wonderful kind airline employee escorted me upstairs to the closed part of the airport so I could use the ATM, and then helped me get a taxi to the hotel without being ripped off). I think the airline puts them in a difficult situation of over-promising and under-delivering, and they’re all just making the best of it.

Wrap-Up

The Xiamen Air ground experience seems almost deliberately designed to strand Western travelers unfamiliar with navigating China and without a command of the Chinese language at the airport. Even with extensive China experience and the ability to speak basic Chinese (as long as I’m not trying to do it out of context or over the phone), I was thrown for a loop by the unadvertised shared room policy. It is understandable to do this when two people are traveling together on the same ticket, but hooking you up with a random stranger is absolutely insane. Unexpectedly giving someone a key to your room with no advance warning is even worse. And requiring foreigners to navigate the process of catching a taxi in Xiamen to and from the hotel (in Chinese) is an awful lot to ask.

If you’re prepared to pay extra and negotiate for your own room, and if you can speak Chinese and are familiar with how things operate in mainland China, you’ll probably manage (like I did) to muddle through. However, if you can’t speak Chinese, and you don’t have experience thinking on your feet in mainland China, you might find yourself sleeping in the airport instead.

Xiamen Air Economy Class Review – Seattle to Xiamen Via Shenzhen

Xiamen Air is one of the smaller mainland Chinese airlines. A member of SkyTeam, it codeshares a limited number of routes with Delta and is definitely a “little sister” when stacked up against the two other mainland Chinese SkyTeam airlines, China Eastern and China Southern. The airline mostly serves destinations in China, with a handful of international destinations (primarily in Asia). However, they do offer service to New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle along with Amsterdam, Sydney and Melbourne.

Here in Seattle, Xiamen’s flight hasn’t been doing well. Of the transpacific flights to and from Sea-Tac, it is reputed to consistently have the lowest overall load factor. Given that the service is one of the only nonstops from the West Coast to the tech hub of Shenzhen, I was very surprised to hear this. However, I haven’t gone out of my way to take the flight because the fares were relatively high, and I lived in China for 3 years so I haven’t really been in a hurry to go back there.

All of this changed when I got the opportunity to attend and speak at DEF CON China, which was–to the best of my knowledge–the first international hacker conference to be hosted in China. I’ve been doing some research into a technical area where I thought feedback from a Chinese audience would be useful, so couldn’t pass it up. Only one problem: I figured out that I’d be going only about 2 weeks beforehand. This was enough time to get a visa together, but it was pretty late to book a flight. So I ended up booking with Xiamen Air despite their terrible itinerary due to their low price.

The Itinerary

The itinerary was truly terrible. It’s like flying from Hong Kong to Seattle, but via Los Angeles and a forced overnight in San Francisco. Here’s what it looked like:

sea-szx-xnm-pek

Seattle to Beijing… via Shenzhen and Xiamen

Why would I subject myself to this? Because, dear reader, it was the cheapest way to get to Beijing: $479. This blog isn’t called Seat 31B for nothing!

Check-in In Seattle

cardboard cut-out of flight attendant

No mistaking this for anything other than Xiamen Air!

Xiamen Air’s check-in desk is all the way at the far end. Rather than being on the back wall, it backs up against the airport drive. I was a little confused but Xiamen anticipated this and there was a cardboard cut-out to help me find my way.

The check-in desk wasn’t crowded, even for economy class. Granted, I arrived at the airport 3 hours before departure, because I hadn’t paid for a seat assignment, online check-in isn’t supported, and Xiamen doesn’t participate in TSA Precheck (you will not get precheck even if you have a known traveler number). I knew I would need plenty of extra time at the airport. Still, I got through the economy class line in about 5 minutes, and was able to arrange an aisle seat with no problem at all.

One of my friends recently had luck talking his way into the precheck line with a NEXUS card, which I hold, so I figured I’d give it a try. I was unceremoniously bounced. Even though the airline I was flying didn’t participate in Precheck, it didn’t matter: I wasn’t given access. My guess is that the TSA agent at the other airport thought my friend’s NEXUS card was some sort of military identification instead of a trusted traveler card. After being kicked out of the Precheck line, it took over 45 minutes to get through the “regular” TSA security line. I’m not sure why airport security is always such a disaster in in the US and UK when it’s both faster and more thorough in China, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.

After I got into the airport, I went to the Alaska Airlines lounge and was granted entry (after a short wait when the agent called upstairs to make sure there was room) with my Priority Pass card. The planespotting was great, as it always is from the Alaska lounge. It was around lunchtime and I wasn’t sure what or how much they’d serve us on the plane, so I had some soup, salad and bread in the lounge.

Alaska Airlines planes

All the planes you want to spot, as long as they’re Alaska jets! (Virgin America merged with Alaska)

Finally, it was getting close to the boarding time. The flight left from the south satellite, so I took the airport subway. This took longer than I expected and I was the last person to board the plane, although I still boarded about 20 minutes early. I was surprised to discover that this was my seat:

Airline seat 54J

Seat 54J

If you spend a lot of time in economy class, you probably picked up on it: the armrests are immovable and the IFE swings out from the front. Why might this be?

Poor man's business class seat

Unlimited legroom!

Seat 54J, as it turns out, is one of the two best seats in economy class. Although it’s close to the toilets, I don’t have a sensitive sense of smell. And there is unlimited legroom on these seats because they are directly on the exit row. The window seat is terrible in this row because there isn’t actually a window and the exit door protrudes, meaning there is less leg room than usual seats. However, the aisle and middle seats had unlimited legroom. A pillow and blanket was provided on each seat, and there were plenty of spares if you wanted one:

Pillow and blanket

You could have as many of these as you wanted because the flight was lightly loaded

My seat mates were both tech people and that’s the industry I work in too, so it was easy conversation to Shenzhen–particularly because one of the guys had brought a bunch of miniature bottles of booze on board, and the flight attendants were happy to look the other way. One thing that differentiates Xiamen from other Chinese airlines: the inflight service was very friendly and extremely attentive. Actually, Xiamen Air service in economy class was on par with my last Cathay Pacific business class flight! They really get the small details and human kindnesses right from making sure you have enough water to noticing if you sneeze and bringing you a tissue.

another airplane meal

Italian garden vegetable lasagna with fresh German salad, rustic pretzel bread, French Village yogurt and New York style cheesecake

I was worried about going hungry on the flight but in the end we were stuffed, and the quality of the food catered in Seattle (more later on the food catered in Shenzhen) was very good for economy class. They fed us two full meals and brought two rounds of sandwiches midflight as well. While liquor wasn’t available (even for purchase), beer and wine flowed freely. To my delight, they had my favorite Chinese beer on board, Yanjing. It’s a local Beijing beer and I didn’t expect they’d actually have it, because Xiamen is in the southern part of China.

The time passed pretty quickly in between meals because Xiamen Air has free WiFi on board and I made good use of it. Of course, like most things involving the Internet in China, using it is complicated because you have to register for it in advance. You can’t register more than 30 days in advance, or less than two days in advance, and only the first 50 users who register can get the service. Also, your access code only works on one device, a different access code is issued per flight, and access codes aren’t available for all flights, even though WiFi service was present on all of the flights I took. Got all that? If you do, you’ll get an access code that grants you access to…

…the Chinese Internet. Which is very special. And which, after you agree not to post any “illegal speech,” mercilessly blocks every VPN you throw at it (I did find a way around the firewall, but I am also far more technical than the average user). This is just fine if you’re Chinese though, or if you’re happy with reading the Global Times and Xinhua News. A few Western services aren’t blocked, maybe? Anyway, I happily used Twitter and Facebook the whole way to Shenzhen.

xiamen air cabin turned into rainbows

I like rainbows

When we approached Shenzhen, the cabin lighting turned into a rainbow. We landed at a remote stand (which is fairly common in China) and were herded onto buses that took us to the terminal. Once inside the terminal, it got a little bit confusing.

There are different immigration procedures, staff, and locations for people who are transiting China without a visa versus people who have a Chinese visa. I had a visa and two of the Americans on the plane, thinking I must know what I was doing, followed me into the wrong line. I redirected them back out of the line and into the correct place, although to be fair, Xiamen Airlines staff were there doing the same thing.

Additionally, once you get through immigration (which was efficient as always in China, although ever more intrusive–this time they captured my fingerprints) there are two different sets of baggage procedures. If you are continuing onward to Xiamen, you don’t claim your bag in Shenzhen; it is checked through to Xiamen. However, a lot of people went to the baggage area in Shenzhen, only to discover that their bags weren’t there. They then had to be escorted back out of the baggage area, because it’s a Customs zone and exits out of the secured area of the airport.

I followed the correct signs which took me down a long corridor to be re-screened (this is normal, every country you enter wants you to pass their own security procedures). There was only one screening checkpoint open and everyone shared it (including the flight crew), but I was right at the front of the line because I’d apparently gotten through immigration faster than people transiting without a visa, and I’d also followed the signs correctly (it wasn’t super easy to figure out what to do, but my guesses in China are right more often than not). After re-screening I was back into the international transit area of Shenzhen Airport.

After an underwhelming lounge visit, I went to the boarding gate, which had changed to the exact gate we’d arrived at. I then re-boarded the same aircraft (with the same crew) for the short (300 mile) flight up to Xiamen.

Arrival in Xiamen was also complicated, because just like in Shenzhen, the baggage gets separated out into Customs vs. non-Customs zones. Xiamen Air sells the Shenzhen-Xiamen leg as a separate flight, so bags checked on that leg go into the domestic arrivals area of the airport. However, bags checked on the Seattle-Shenzhen-Xiamen leg go to the international arrivals area. It gets even more confusing because China Customs screens your carry-on baggage in Shenzhen, but they screen it again in Xiamen along with your checked bags.

Xiamen airport I <3 Xiamen sign

Pay attention to the sign this guy is holding. It’s your only clue.

It took a long time to get our bags, and then I was on to the next adventure: finding out whether the promised transit hotel would materialize. I certainly hoped so, because I was exhausted after two flights!

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport Priority Pass Lounge Review

The Shenzhen airport was opened in 2013, and is much more comfortable than most airports in China. The Beijing and Shanghai airports don’t have a lot of amenities, but Shenzhen has the majority of the stuff you’d expect an airport to have, along with far more luxury shopping than you’d need any airport to have (seriously, who buys luxury stuff in an airport?). I figured I’d try my luck with finding a Priority Pass lounge. The airport is really huge and the Priority Pass app wasn’t at all clear as to where the lounge was. Since the directions and signage weren’t good, I just went to the biggest, fanciest lounge I could see. It looked really nice and very fancy and I totally didn’t get in. However, someone from that lounge (Shenzhen Airlines) was kind enough to walk me up to the Priority Pass lounge.

I’ll give away the plot: this lounge was below average, even for a typical Chinese airport lounge.

airport snacks, shenzhen

The selection was as unattractive as the presentation

shenzhen airport priority pass lounge

Lounge chairs jammed tight in a corralled-off part of the airport

Probably the most interesting thing in the Priority Pass lounge was the massage chairs. Unlike the general passenger area of the Seoul airport, these chairs in the Shenzhen Priority Pass lounge weren’t free, but you could pay for them with WeChat:

pay for massage chair sign

USB-equipped massage chairs at your service… for a fee

pay for lounge chair with wechat

Want a massage after your long flight? It’ll cost you, and you’ll need a Chinese bank account

Is this a nicer place than the rest of the airport to wait for your next flight? Well, it depends. Do you enjoy crowds? Would you like to overhear loud phone conversations in multiple dialects of Chinese? And how about a warm beer and some Chinese packaged snacks to go with the experience? Well, this Priority Pass lounge may be for you.

Otherwise, give it a pass. Starbucks is nicer, and if you paid a $550 annual fee for access to this lounge, you could have instead bought the entire flight that brought me to it and a coffee and still come out ahead.

I Just Booked My Cheapest Ever Flight To China

I lived in Beijing for 3 years, so have a lot of friends and former colleagues there. And with a bit of extra time in my schedule, I decided to consider taking a week to catch up with my former life in Beijing. Spring isn’t the best time to visit, because there are often dust storms, but it’s also not a terrible time to visit because it isn’t too hot there yet.

Naturally, I default to using miles and points for trips rather than cash, so I went ahead and put a decent itinerary with American Airlines on hold. However, I really don’t enjoy flying them. The cabin configuration in economy class is more or less intentionally miserable. Also, if you book inside of 21 days with AAdvantage points, you have to pay a close-in booking fee. I could avoid that by using Alaska points, but Alaska points are so valuable for other flights that I really hate to burn them on American flights at the same redemption rate.

So, I decided to check cash fares. I like using Momondo, which often uncovers cheap fares. However, I wasn’t really prepared for just how cheap the lowest fare (by more than $200) was: $479. Of course, this wasn’t a nonstop flight on a well-known airline. It wasn’t even a one-stop flight on a well-known airline. It was a two stop flight with a forced overnight on the virtually unpronounceable Xiamen Air.

Xiamen airlines plane

Of course, a forced overnight wasn’t really a great deal if I had to pay for hotels along the way. China is a surprisingly expensive destination and hotels would cost me a minimum of about $50 overnight.

However, Xiamen competes with Hainan Airlines, who provides free transit hotels for people who get stuck with a forced overnight in Beijing. I thought there was a possibility that Xiamen provided transit hotels, which would make the all-in pricing competitive (and help to justify the two-connection, 29 hour itinerary required to fly them to Beijing), so I called their customer service number.

The first time I called their customer service number, I sat on hold for a long time, and was abruptly informed by a recording that “we are busy at this time, please call again later.” The call then disconnected! I called again, and a very patient agent answered all of my questions.

She was able to see the same fare as me, but not with the same routing. Instead, the routing would have had me leaving Fuzhou in the late morning and I wouldn’t have gotten to Beijing until the following afternoon (two calendar days, mind you, after leaving Seattle). On the way back, I’d leave Beijing late, arrive in Xiamen really late, and then fly out super early in the morning the following day to catch my flight in Shenzhen. This itinerary (and similar ones) was also available on the Chase portal, which would have allowed me to spend just over 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points for this itinerary at 1.5 cents per point.

However, I kept searching around online travel agencies and finally found a somewhat better itinerary on the worst of them: CheapOAir. I really hate using this agency, because they don’t honor the standard 24 hour cancellation policy the airlines do (even if you made a booking 5 minutes ago in error, they still charge a $75 “agency fee” to change or cancel it). However, they are independent of Expedia and Priceline (the two companies that own the largest online travel agencies), and they negotiate with airlines directly. This means that they can get access to inventory that other travel sites don’t have. And in this case, their inventory–for the same price–gave me a much more reasonable (but still terrible) itinerary.

I had a lot of questions for the agent. She explained that the free transit hotel applied with the following conditions:

  • Xiamen flights only, no codeshares
  • 6-24 hour layover at Xiamen hub of Fuzhou, Shenzhen or Xiamen
  • Can be requested only upon arrival at Xiamen airport, no advance booking
  • Not applicable for class of service G, O, X, Z, E

 

However, she also stated that flights laying over in Shenzhen or Fuzhou would qualify. That being said, she wasn’t sure whether a hotel could be provided in Fuzhou on the itinerary she was contemplating if I changed to it in Shenzhen, because it would be considered a domestic flight.

xiamen airlines transit hotel policy

Is a transit hotel included? We’ll see.

The ticket I bought is for the absolute cheapest economy class fare. It’s an “S” fare, which is so cheap that no mileage credit is awarded for it in any program. It’s so cheap that the paid fare was about the same as the fuel surcharge would have been if I had redeemed Delta miles for this flight. Basically, it’s so cheap that there’s no conceivable way that Xiamen Air is making money, even if they flew me there in a jumpseat attached to the airplane toilet door and fed me gruel with sawdust and only water to drink.

Nevertheless, this ticket, on paper, qualifies for a transit hotel. I can’t wait to see whether I actually get it, or if I do, what it’s really like (I have stayed in some really awful hotels in China–will I become reacquainted with Zhang the Cockroach?). But at only $479, there are enough savings built into the itinerary that I can spring for a hotel along the way if I need to do so (if Xiamen Air is anything like China Eastern, I am pretty well assured that nothing promised–especially with as weak a promise as Xiamen Air provides–will actually be delivered). I did put the airfare on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, so there’s a possibility I could try to claim trip interruption insurance if Xiamen Air strands me (although this situation seems pretty clearly not covered, there are stories of people having success with questionable claims).

Oh, and seating? I could select from any middle seat I wanted. This will be a true Seat 31B itinerary. I’m taking off May 5th. Stay tuned!

HOURS REMAINING: Extend Your LifeMiles For 2 Years

I don’t recommend that most people maintain large balances of LifeMiles, because the program is generally untrustworthy. It can be difficult or impossible to redeem miles, and LifeMiles also has a history of suddenly devaluing the program with little or no notice.

However, the most recent devaluation came with plenty of notice: The LifeMiles expiration policy is changing. Up until today, April 14, 2018, any earning or redemption activity in your LifeMiles account will extend the validity by two years. However, after that, only earning miles will extend their validity, and (like Aeroplan) the validity will be only a short one year.

Most travel blogs are recommending that you buy miles through their link, presumably because they get a commission. However, there is a much less expensive way to accomplish the same thing: donate one mile. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Log onto your LifeMiles account.

Step 2: Point to Use, and then click Donate Miles

Step 3: Donate whatever quantity of miles you want. The form is self-explanatory. I donated one mile.

Step 4: Ignore the error message that you receive. It’s just broken Avianca IT.

Step 5: Point to My Account, and then click Your eStatement:

 Step 6: Verify that the donation shows up in the transactions detail:

lifemiles statement detail 2

Want to use this loophole to extend your LifeMiles? You only have a few hours remaining to do it. Transactions must be posted by midnight Colombia time!

Meeting Jonathan On St. Helena

The world’s oldest living land animal is a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan. He is estimated to be about 186 years old, and he lives at the governor’s residence on St. Helena.

St. Helena governor's residence

The governor’s residence is beautifully maintained in Victorian style.

St. Helena queen's china

Tea is served on the Queen’s china. However, excellent local St. Helena coffee is also on offer.

While it’s possible to stop by and look at Jonathan and his friends (there are six tortoises in total) at any time, guided tours of the governor’s residence are offered once a week. You can either take a full tour or visit the library, which is well stocked with the sort of books that you would expect a territorial governor’s residence to have. The books date back hundreds of years but are primarily focused on the flora and fauna of the area, scientific discoveries, economics and politics (I read a book about the British West African Currency Board which operated in the 1950s) and even a collection of “Who’s Who” bound volumes.

governor's library, st. helena

The governor’s library is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon with a book about 1950s West African economics.

I called too late to get the full tour, but was able to visit the library. This is less expensive (costing 5 pounds) and I was still able to see most of the rooms in the governor’s residence; the primary difference between the library visit and the full tour is that you can’t go upstairs if you are on the library visit, there isn’t a formal guided tour, and you are served tea (on the Queen’s logo china) but not lunch.

Also on offer is local St. Helena coffee. It’s some of the best and most expensive coffee in the world, so I was happy to have that. It was, of course, excellent. The staff was friendly and accommodating and my cup was never empty.

Books and coffee cups

Coffee, tea, or economics?

When it became time for the library to close, I asked whether I could meet Jonathan. I expected that the staff would point out which one he was, and I’d be directed to the viewing area opposite. However, I was delighted to be allowed out onto the field directly with the tortoises for a little while so I could meet Jonathan up close and personally.

Jonathan the tortoise

Jonathan, the world’s oldest living land animal.

I’m not a spiritual person, but I could truly feel how old he is, how much he has seen, and the wisdom behind his piercing stare (clouded by cataracts though it was). He looked at me while chewing on the tall grass, and we didn’t need to have a conversation because there was nothing he could learn from me. I was the equivalent of a teenager beside a septugenarian. Maybe he spoke to me; I am not sure. I don’t speak tortoise.

Me with Jonathan

I feel less old when I look at this picture.

I heard the staff at the governor’s mansion calling to me from across the field. The front gate was being closed soon, so it was time for me to end my visit, and could I please be sure the enclosure was secure when I left? Of course I could, and gladly did.

passport stamp

The St. Helena exit stamp honors Jonathan.

Jonathan, along with the wirebird (which is native to St. Helena) holds a truly special place in the hearts of “Saints” (as residents are called) and the culture of the island. Many of the arts and crafts available for sale feature the tortoise, and he is even honored on the St. Helena exit stamp (the wirebird is on the entry stamp). I’m not sure whether Jonathan is aware he is so famous. Or that he would even care if he knew. After all, his life has spanned three of our generations. Of what use is fame when humans are so fleeting?

If you go to St. Helena, do visit the governor’s mansion. Read a book (or three) in the library. And enjoy the coffee and tea. But don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time with Jonathan!

Airlink Economy Class: Johannesburg to St. Helena

I was pretty sure my flight was at 1:15 in the afternoon. Sure enough that, from memory, I arranged with the front desk to take me to the airport at the appropriate time to make an afternoon flight. However, I’d asked for breakfast to be served early — around 6:00AM, since I missed dinner and knew I’d be up early due to jet lag.

At 3:00am, I woke up with the nagging feeling that something was wrong. I hadn’t actually checked my flight time, and I was operating from my fuzzy memory based on an entirely incorrect time zone. So I pulled out the paperwork and sure enough, my flight was at 9:00am. It *arrived* at 1:15 in the afternoon. It’s a good thing that I was planning to be up early. I set an alarm for 5:30AM and was in the lobby by 6:00AM.

Outlook Lodge breakfast area

The Outlook Lodge not only got me an early shuttle to the airport, but even made breakfast for me early.

Now, the general manager of the Outlook Lodge at OR Tambo International Airport is probably one of the best hotel general managers I’ve ever met. When I let him know there was a problem, there was absolutely no scolding me. He just immediately sprang into action and solved the problem, asking a driver to come in early to get me to the airport on time. And since I had asked for breakfast early, he even made sure that I had something to eat beforehand. I paid $26 per night for this hotel and I don’t think I have gotten better value anywhere else in the world, ever.

The driver dropped me off at the airport and I went to check in for my flight. The check-in agent could have worked for any US airline, being officious about weighing my bag and making me pointlessly move items around between the bags (the 3kg was going on the plane anyway, so there was absolutely no sense in this). This was also my first introduction to how many hoops that St. Helena authorities make the airline jump through. First, there was a thorough visa check. St. Helena’s visa policy is apparently now the same as the United Kingdom (it used to be more lax) but in the airline’s visa information database, they actually reference the visa policy of Ascension Island (a St. Helena possession) which only allows US and UK passport holders visa-free. But in any event, I had a US passport, so the check-in agent finally relented on the visa issue. None was actually required. The next hurdle involved travel insurance. I didn’t see anywhere that this was required, but it is. Fortunately I have a policy that offers global coverage and I had printed it out (assuming I’d possibly need it for South African authorities).

Clearly frustrated in her inability to trip me up, the check-in agent printed out my boarding passes and handed them to me. Looking directly at me, she said “Gate A30, boarding time 8:15.” I thought this was early for a 9:00am flight, but knew that the aircraft was a regional jet so thought it was possible that it would be at a remote stand which would explain the early boarding time. Taking note of the time, I saw that I had time to visit a lounge so I headed to the surprisingly excellent Shangololo Lounge. It’s brand new, very nicely decorated, had a selection of typical South African breakfast dishes along with a coffee machine (which is what I wanted), and was available to visit with my Priority Pass. While I chafe at paying $450 a year for my Chase Sapphire Reserve, I really do get a lot of mileage out of the Priority Pass and often end up eating in lounges for “free” when I would otherwise grab a snack in the airport.

shangololo lounge photo

The Shangololo Lounge has a smart, modern, and distinctively African design.

airlink bus gate

Don’t miss the bus for your Airlink flight! Get to the gate early.

At 8:10, I left the lounge and headed to my gate. I was right – the gate was a bus gate, and the aircraft was at a remote stand. Airlink had begun boarding at 8:15am sharp, and they were checking passports and travel insurance policies again at the gate. Obviously, there must be a massive fine involved for transporting people without proper insurance. After checking my documents once again, I was scanned through. I boarded the bus, and we waited and waited and waited and waited. Eventually the agent came on board looking for two people. They weren’t there. We waited a couple of minutes, and eventually a very frustrated gate agent boarded. There were two people missing, but they’d checked luggage, and now their bags would have to be offloaded. The gate agent wanted the flight out on time, and that wasn’t going to happen. She openly hated working the flight and all of its attendant hassles, especially the superfluous documentation checks.

My bag, as expected, was gate checked. There was no way it would fit in the overhead bin (despite meeting the published bag dimensions) which is why I’d offered to check it at the counter. Obviously the airline wouldn’t do that, because it would actually have made sense. The gate agent, to her credit, pulled me aside to gate check my bag before I carried it up the stairs–she knew it wouldn’t fit. Finally, I was on board. My economy class seat was surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet, and given that it was the appropriate width and nicely padded, it was actually more comfortable than many 737s.

We ended up waiting awhile longer – apparently as soon as the bus pulled away, the two late passengers showed up, looking appropriately sheepish and clearly fresh from a tongue-lashing. The annoyed gate agent apparently decided that shuttling them over to the flight would be faster than offloading their bags and doing all the paperwork so good news for them, they managed to make the one flight of the week. Bad news for us, though, we’d lost our take-off slot so the pilot announced we were on a short ground hold. However, this time, “short” actually meant that. We were making our way to the runway almost as soon as he finished the announcement. A few hours later, after being served a chicken salad sandwich for breakfast, we were landing in Windhoek, Namibia.

This flight is very unusual because it requires a technical stop in Windhoek, Namibia for fuel. Aircraft are required to have enough fuel to divert to another airport in the event the destination airport is unavailable. St. Helena can’t accept aircraft larger than an Embraer E75, and even these can have trouble landing due to the extreme cross-wind weather conditions at the airport. The aircraft that Airlink uses has enough range to safely divert if necessary, but only at slightly above 70% passenger load (meaning they can only sell 70 seats per flight) and only if the tanks are topped off in Namibia so there’s enough fuel to divert to either Ascension Island or Walvis Bay. What’s more, there aren’t any aircraft mechanics living on St. Helena (with only one flight a week, no locals have yet taken up the profession), so the airline has to bring a mechanic along on the flight. It started to become clear why the flight cost nearly $1,200 roundtrip: this was an extremely expensive flight for the airline to operate.

technical stop in windhoek

Tanks full to the brim during a technical stop in Windhoek. Enough fuel is needed to return to Walvis Bay. Air Namibia aircraft in the background.

Back up in the air, the flight crew came through again and served lunch. Yes, two full meals plus four beverage services on a 6 hour economy class flight! I chatted with the crew for a moment and learned that they do a turn at St. Helena and fly all the way back to Johannesburg the same day. It’s a 15 hour day. While this isn’t a longer work day than, say, a New York to Hong Kong flight, it’s arguably a lot more work getting two flights and three (and scheduled to be four) segments out the door. The crew gets one day for rest, and then they’re back to work the following day.

Airlink meal

Second meal on Airlink flight. This was more substantial than the sandwich served earlier.

We began our descent a few hours later. I had moved from my original seat to an empty window seat in the row across from me, and was delighted to have a first view of the island. My first thought was “how in the hell are we going to land on that?!” The island is the top of an undersea volcano, with craggy jagged peaks and sheer cliffs dramatically rising out of the ocean. But then we were looping around the island, turning around in the other direction, and with a more rapid descent than usual we had a very firm touchdown. Some of the folks seemed jarred by the firm landing, but I’d expected it. Crosswind conditions are nothing to mess with; pilots want to get the flight on the ground as quickly and safely as possible with comfort a secondary consideration (firm landings can also be safe landings–the pilot didn’t necessarily mess up if you really feel it).

The St. Helena authorities have clearly been extensively trained and they’re doing everything by the book. The immigration agent asked me a lot of questions about where I was staying that were difficult to answer because I didn’t have a formal reservation from a booking agency, but rather had just arranged private accommodations through the tourist office. I eventually dug up the name of the person I’d worked with at the tourist office and the immigration agent was satisfied I wouldn’t be homeless. I also told the immigration agent I was leaving on the next flight, and she stamped me in until … the next flight. That’s it! Technically I could have stayed for 6 months with no visa, but why give someone even a day longer than needed? They might extend their trip and spend more money! Something I was happier to see was proper and extensive attention paid to biological quarantine procedures. St. Helena has one of the last populations of bees that hasn’t been subject to colony collapse and biosecurity is extremely important on the island. After Customs scanned my bags and found them free of guns or whatever they were looking for, I was officially cleared and was on the island.

Wrap-Up

Overall, this flight is in a way very usual (be prepared for all of the regular airline hassles) and also very unusual (extensive documentation requirements, multiple meal services and a technical stop). I found it surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet and it felt safely and professionally operated. While it’s disappointing that I couldn’t book the flight with miles and had to pay cash, it’s understandable that it’s so expensive. Even given the very high airfare, the government of St. Helena still subsidizes the flight. Despite operating only once a week, the flight is a massive improvement versus the previous boat, which operated just once every 3 weeks, and took 5 days from Cape Town.