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. ūüėČ

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!

Myanmar Tourist Visa Fees Double

Most visitors to Myanmar (apart from certain ASEAN countries) need a visa. Since 2014, e-visas have been available to citizens of a fairly large number of countries, but the pricing has always been a little strange. It costs $50 for a single-entry, 28 day tourist e-visa. However, it typically only costs $20 for a single-entry 28-day visa sticker issued at an embassy.

E-Visas also have some odd limitations, although these are gradually diminishing. You can use a visa sticker to enter Myanmar at any legal border crossing. However, you can only use E-Visas at designated points of entry. So in effect, by using the e-visa, you get less flexibility and it costs more.

Nevertheless, for many people, paying an extra $30 has been worth the faster issuing time and lesser hassle versus sending your passport and an application form to an embassy. However, budget-minded Seat 31B travelers have been happy to fill out a form and drop their passport in the mail to save about $20 (factoring in postage both directions). Unfortunately, this loophole is no longer available. Myanmar has raised its visa fees across the board, and it now costs $40 for a visa sticker. When you factor in mailing costs, a tourist visa sticker now costs the same (or more) as an E-Visa.

myanmar passport stamp image

There’s now no reason to apply for a Myanmar visa in an embassy unless you want a visa type that isn’t available in E-Visa (e.g. multiple entry or religious visa), you want to enter the country at a checkpoint where the E-Visa isn’t recognized (these are typically in border regions where travel is restricted anyway), or you need a visa in less than 3 days (express service is available at some Myanmar embassies and consulates by special arrangement for an additional charge). While I’m disappointed to see the price go up, the only thing that is really surprising is that it has taken so long to happen.

Adjusting Times On Award Flights

A couple of months ago, I¬†booked a trip to Phoenix during Thanksgiving.¬†Although I was able to do it using my points, the flight times weren’t ideal and¬†I was stuck with long connections in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.¬†I went ahead and booked the flights¬†anyway, because¬†when it comes to award tickets, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. After all, when you’re flying for free, you’re getting the¬†itineraries that nobody wants to pay for and this is particularly true during holiday periods.

However, even though I originally booked a less than perfect itinerary, I’m now flying a much better one. How? By taking advantage of¬†schedule change rules and¬†award policies. I¬†successfully did this on both legs of my¬†flight, and here’s how I did it.

Delta Schedule Change Slam Dunk

I received an email from Delta indicating that my schedule changed.¬†When Delta changes your flight¬†with a departure or arrival time that is more than one hour from the original itinerary, they will allow you to change¬†it online. Unfortunately, this itinerary didn’t qualify; it was only a 29 minute change. However, I figured there might be an opportunity to change my flight if I called in.

Schedule change

Could this be an opportunity?

When I called in, the representative was at first unwilling to make any changes. However, I explained that the new schedule would interrupt our holiday dinner plans, and asked whether it’d be possible to choose a later flight. Of course, I had an exact flight number and time to suggest, which happened to be a¬†more convenient nonstop flight.

When the agent came back on, she was willing to make a schedule change. However, she¬†refused to put me on the nonstop flight I requested, because–as she put it–I was required to take a connecting flight since I had originally booked one. My plans foiled, I still ended up with a better itinerary. My new flight left at 7:40PM, connected in Salt Lake City, and arrived at 11:32PM. I was happy to take it. The new itinerary was operated entirely on Delta mainline aircraft (versus Delta Connection and Alaska Airlines), and arrived a full hour earlier in Seattle than my originally scheduled itinerary. So, while this wasn’t quite a slam dunk, it’s an entirely reasonable itinerary.

American Award Change Alley-Oop

One little-known perk of American award tickets is that you¬†are free to change the¬†times and routings of award tickets as long as the origin and destination remain the same. Date changes are also free as long as¬†they are outside of 21 days in advance (if you change to a date inside of¬†21 days, however, a $75 fee applies). What does this mean in practice?¬†When you’re booking an award on American, grab whatever you can. If¬†a better itinerary¬†opens up later, you can call in and switch to it.

My original itinerary had me leaving at 8:30am (not my favorite time of day to fly, because it means a 5:30am start), flying Alaska¬†Airlines to Las Vegas, changing terminals, and connecting to an American flight¬†two hours later . I wouldn’t arrive in Phoenix until three in the afternoon. Now, don’t get me wrong. The ticket was free and I was happy to have it. However, I kept checking for a better itinerary, hoping that one opened up.

sea-LAS-phx

If anyone wants it, here’s the itinerary I ditched.¬†The seats I gave up were returned to award inventory!

Today, that happened. Alaska typically¬†returns award seats to inventory if they are cancelled, and–likely due to a cancellation–a single award seat opened up on a nonstop¬†flight leaving at 2:55pm on Wednesday afternoon. I immediately called American Airlines and¬†grabbed the seat. The change was free.¬†It’s likely that I will end up in a middle seat in the back (the only seat currently showing available on the map), but that’s just fine with me. Taking advantage of¬†the free award change will allow me to sleep in, spend a productive half-day at work, and save 3 hours of travel time.

Wrap-Up

If you book an award ticket, don’t stop looking for better options. Most airlines will allow you to rebook award tickets if a¬†schedule change disrupts your itinerary.¬†American Airlines allows you to change award tickets for free¬†as long as the origin and destination don’t change, and as long as the dates don’t change within 21 days.¬†Alaska Airlines also allows free changes or cancellation as long as it is done outside of¬†60 days. British Airways allows you to entirely cancel an itinerary (with a return of your points) if you forfeit the taxes paid. And¬†Southwest Airlines¬†allows award changes and cancellations with no fee at all, right up until 10 minutes before your flight leaves.

Award tickets often offer flexibility that paid itineraries don’t, so take advantage!

 

How To Get Full Mileage Credit On Cheap Tickets

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

  • $709 x 8 equals…
  • 5,672 miles

 

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

businesswoman photo

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

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

  • $138 x 5 equals…
  • 690 miles

 

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

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

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

alaska_airlines_2016_logo

 

 

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

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

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

fare bucket image

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

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

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

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

singapore_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

 

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

There are some big sweet spots in the program:

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

 

Generally speaking,¬†you should be careful when you accrue miles to a foreign frequent flier program; these typically charge¬†fuel surcharges while most US-based programs don’t. Krisflyer is no exception. However, if you¬†redeem your Singapore Airlines miles for flights on United Airlines, you won’t pay fuel surcharges within North America. Also, be sure to use your miles. They expire after 36 months!

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

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

The upsides:

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

 

There are some key downsides to the OK Plus program:

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

 

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

Wrapping Up

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

Good luck, and see you in the sky!

Thanksgiving In Phoenix On Points

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

cactuses

Typically sunny and pleasant Arizona afternoon in November

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

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

Outbound: Wednesday, November 23

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

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

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

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

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

Return: Saturday, November 26 or Sunday, November 27

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

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

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

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

Avianca didn’t have any availability.

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

Techniques Used

I used a number of techniques when booking these flights:

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

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

Using Resort Fees To Identify Opaque Hotels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

HOT: Save On Flights And Hotels Booked In Pounds

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

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

Sterling-USD chart

The largest drop in the GDP… ever.

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

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

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