Ringing In The New Year In St. Helena

The island of Saint Helena is one of the most remote places in the world. Until two months ago, the only way you could visit the remote British territory was by private vessel or by taking the Royal Mail ship RMS St. Helena. It’s a very long journey across the stormy South Atlantic, taking 5 days each direction. The nearest mainland is Namibia, over 1,200 miles away.

map of st. helena

A tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

Two months ago, an airport finally opened in St. Helena, the world’s newest commercial airport (airport code HLE). It took 12 years to build from the time it was originally approved, because of the challenging terrain. The airport was spectacularly expensive costing over $400 million (around $100,000 per resident of St. Helena). Making matters worse, after the airport opened, authorities figured out that the aircraft type for which it was built couldn’t safely land due to wind shear. The largest aircraft that can land is a regional jet, and these can’t be fully loaded.

St. Helena airport runway

This isn’t the plane I’ll be flying to St. Helena, because qualification tests for this aircraft type failed.

This throws a monkey wrench into the already dubious plans for the airport to create a tourism industry on St. Helena. Because of the high operating costs, flights there are crazy expensive. I’m flying roughly the distance of a roundtrip from Seattle to New York (a trip I can easily buy for $400) and my ticket cost a cool $1,175 in points. Additionally, there is only one flight a week, meaning once the plane leaves, you’re stuck on the island for a week. But that’s OK, once you’re there, you can make satellite phone calls for $1.60 per minute.

JNB-HLE-WDH-CPT map

The most expensive flight I’ve ever bought

Naturally, this is the best place I could think of to ring in the New Year so I’d like to invite my readers to join me. I’m leaving from Johannesburg to St. Helena on December 30, 2017 and returning January 6, 2017. It’s normally very hard to get to Johannesburg on points, but not if you book last minute–I was able to use my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points to score a first class ticket on Cathay Pacific (an unusual thing for me to do but also a no-brainer; it’s 50k points in economy class and 70k in first class). The easiest way to buy tickets onward to St. Helena is on the United Web site (even though the flight is operated by Airlink, a South African Airways regional affiliate). Right now, the cheapest tickets are $1,264. Because the airport code HLE is new and isn’t loaded in most travel agency computer systems, it’s surprisingly hard to book tickets to this destination.

Note that there is only one flight per week, on Saturdays, so the shortest period of time you can spend on the island is one week. I don’t expect anyone to actually show up, but if you do, I’ll buy you a drink! đŸ™‚

Are you joining me for New Year’s Eve in St. Helena?

How I Hacked My Trip To Sunny SoCal

On my recent trip to Minneapolis, I was originally planning to return directly to Seattle on a nonstop flight with Alaska Airlines. However, after shivering in the frigid temperatures and looking at the terrible forecast for Seattle, I decided that it might be better to head somewhere warm.

Alaska Airlines has really been adding a ton of service to San Diego lately, and I was delighted to see that nonstop service from Minneapolis was starting the day I was leaving Minneapolis. Even better, saver level award space was available. This opened up a great opportunity for me because it was close to the Thanksgiving holiday and award space was very difficult to find. So I hatched a plan: fly to San Diego, rent a car, drive to LA, get an airbnb for a week, visit friends, drive to Phoenix for Thanksgiving with family, then back to San Diego, and finally, a flight back to Seattle.

msp-san-sea image

Two flights. One award ticket.

Well, the first order of business was changing my flight. I already had a flight booked from Minneapolis to Seattle using British Airways Avios. This had cost 10,000 Avios and $5.60 in taxes. However, if I simply changed the ticket with Avios, it’d cost a $55 change fee plus the difference in miles (another 7,500 Avios). British Airways charges per flight based on distance with a minimum cost of 7,500 points. This obviously wasn’t the optimal solution.

However, British Airways offers another option: you can cancel your flight and redeposit the Avios. This also costs $55, but there’s a loophole: the $55 is deducted from the taxes and fees already paid. If you cancel online, British Airways won’t refund any fees, but also won’t charge any additional. So, in effect, you can cancel domestic US flights booked with Avios for $5.60.

Given that I was flying Alaska Airlines, another option was to book with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically don’t book Alaska flights with Mileage Plan miles (using them for partner redemptions instead), because most Alaska flights are short to mid-haul and are thus cheaper with the Avios award chart. However, Mileage Plan has a very unusual benefit: they allow a stopover on a one-way trip.

What does this mean? Alaska treats a trip from Minneapolis-San Diego-Seattle as a single ticket, even if you stop over for 10 days in San Diego. And if you can find space at the lowest award level, it means the trip costs only 12,500 miles. Stopovers are specifically allowed under Mileage Plan rules and while most people don’t take advantage, it’s an entirely legal and risk-free “hack.” The catch? You have to find “saver” level award availability (in economy class, “W” fares) for the entire journey. Your trip must be entirely on Alaska Airlines where a domestic stopover is involved (on partner awards, stopovers are only permitted in international connecting cities). And you can only take a stopover at a logical connecting point. San Diego was a logical connecting point for my trip from Minneapolis to Seattle, because it’s in the correct direction of travel and doesn’t exceed the maximum permitted mileage. Alaska does have some measures in place to prevent illogical connections, such as Minneapolis-Portland-Los Angeles-Seattle.

It’s not just in San Diego where you can take a stopover, and people in the Lower 48 probably aren’t the biggest users of stopovers. This is a really valuable benefit for folks in rural Alaska who often get stuck in Anchorage overnight before they can fly onward to anywhere. Without it, they’d effectively be unable to book award tickets to anywhere other than Anchorage. Additionally, many folks traveling from Alaska to the Lower 48 stop over in Seattle for shopping before heading home. Everything costs more in Alaska so this makes plenty of sense. The Tukwila Costco is strategically located near Sea-Tac Airport and I’d be surprised if at least 10% of its business isn’t Alaskans.

san-ont-phx-san

724 miles by air… and quite a few more by car.

Fortunately, the same benefit extends to those of us in the Lower 48, even at relatively new “mini hubs” like San Diego. Now, I’ll be completely honest: taking advantage of the stopover benefit did cost me money I wouldn’t otherwise have spent. After all, I was really going to Los Angeles and Phoenix, not San Diego. This meant I had to drive 100 miles farther than I wanted, but I did it in a rental car that was less expensive than it would have been in Los Angeles. I also had to overnight in San Diego versus flying out the day I wanted to leave, but the $35 hotel room I bought on Hotwire was cheaper (by far) than buying a flight. There were definite trade-offs, but I think they were worth it for the savings. And spending some time in San Diego, a city I often overlook, gave me the opportunity to reconnect with a friend I usually only see once a year.

The upshot? Look for new routes when you’re looking for award space. These are often wide open with saver level award space, even when most routes have been booked up for months around a busy holiday period. And if you’re flying on an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket, don’t overlook the value you can get out of a stopover. This is a huge benefit. It’s one that really differentiates the program from its competitors (most of whom have taken away the ability to do this), and stopovers can really make an award trip more fun!

Don’t Be Frustrated By Baggage Friction

Until recently, the majority of airlines had baggage transfer agreements (with the notable exception of Southwest). What did this mean? Provided you weren’t flying Southwest (who did not and does not have agreements with any other airline), you could check in with the first airline in your itinerary and ask them to check your luggage all the way through to the final destination. This was even the case with airlines that weren’t partners (such as United and Delta) and on itineraries involving more than one ticket.

I’m not sure how the airline economics work, but apparently there is some cost involved when bags are transferred between airlines. Over the years, airlines have locked down baggage agreements to the point where the majority of the airline industry looks a lot more like Southwest than previously. The upshot? If your itinerary isn’t all on one ticket, you’re probably going to have to claim your bag and re-check it.

picture of bag with tag

I had to re-check my bag in Phoenix to Seattle

I was just (unexpectedly) bitten by this problem by American Airlines. I’m flying American to Phoenix, and Alaska onward (on a separate ticket) to Seattle. Although American and Alaska are partners, American won’t always check a bag all the way through if you have more than one ticket on the itinerary. Sometimes they will, but it’s inconsistent. In fact, American won’t even necessarily check bags through all the way on their own airline anymore!

How can you be bitten by this problem? It can happen when you buy tickets through sites like Kayak, Momondo or Skiplagged. Many of these sites piece together an itinerary by booking a journey as separate tickets. After all, this can be significantly less expensive. My itinerary is a bit unusual, in that I’m combining an award ticket from Mazatlan to Phoenix with a paid flight from Phoenix to Seattle. However, the award ticket would have been expensive if I’d paid cash (it’s an international flight from Mexico during the shoulder season of a holiday period) and the paid flight was really cheap. It’s the same principle with paid tickets. A ticket from Seattle to Detroit via Chicago might be really expensive if you bought a through itinerary with American, but could be much less expensive if purchased as a Seattle-Chicago and Chicago-Detroit itinerary.

To punish you for saving money (there is really no other explanation I can see when only one airline is involved – if the intent is to charge you two bag fees, they could just collect them up front), American won’t check your bag all the way through. Instead, they’ll force you to claim your bag in Chicago and re-check it. This will require you to clear security again as well. There’s no good reason for this; it just introduces friction that doesn’t need to be there. What’s also odd is that this policy is inconsistent. American will allow you to combine a paid flight with an award flight booked with AAdvantage miles. However, they won’t allow you to combine a paid partner flight with an award flight, and they won’t allow you to combine a paid flight with an award booked on American through a partner (such as British Airways). And this is what just tripped me up. I assumed that the policy of combining a paid flight with an award flight would cover me, but it didn’t because the paid flight I’m taking is on Alaska Airlines (a partner flight) and the award flight I’m taking (on American) was booked with British Airways Avios.

Also bear in mind that I’m relatively expert at this stuff. Even I get tripped up sometimes. The average person, who doesn’t spend roughly 20 hours a week keeping on top of airline policies like I do, doesn’t have a chance.

What can you do? The only way to be (probably) sure that you’ll be able to check a bag all the way through to your destination is to book directly on an airline’s Web site and to book a ticket directly from your origin to your destination (without manual connections). Otherwise, build time into your schedule to claim and re-check your bags and re-clear security in connecting cities. It’s annoying, but not surprising. Full service airlines have been removing almost every last vestige of differentiation between themselves and low cost carriers. It’d be interesting to see low cost carriers go the other direction; when major airlines are creating so much friction that doesn’t need to be there, it stands to reason that they might see an opportunity for differentiation.

And of course, the other option? Travel light. None of this applies if you only have a carry-on bag!