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!

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.

czech_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

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

The upsides:

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

 

SkyMiles Savings From Canada

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

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

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

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

Coast to coast… for just 9,500 SkyMiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Open Jaw Jam

I’m getting ready to embark on another crazy itinerary. Next week, I leave for Europe. Hopefully everything goes according to plan.

A few months ago, in the frequent flier program of a small airline, there was an incredible sale fare on flights to Turkey. You could book flights to one specific airport for the same number of points as a domestic trip within the US would cost. I happened to have points with this small airline, so I booked two trips. The last trip I took apparently got me added to a TSA watch list, but it did get me to our office in Zagreb cheaply. Well, glutton for punishment that I am, I’m doing it all again.

Unfortunately I ran into a snag this time. I wasn’t able to find any availability back to the US from Zagreb on points. It’s incredibly challenging to find transatlantic award availability. This is the type of scenario in which you want as many options and as many different kinds of points as possible. Unfortunately, the only points that I had in any significant quantity, which didn’t involve fuel surcharges originating from Europe, were Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. And these only didn’t involve fuel surcharges if I booked on American Airlines, a nearly impossible task.

A ton of searching later and I found a way back–but it was awful. I’d have to fly from Milan to Miami, stop over for two days, and then I’d be able to continue back to LA. 30,000 miles and some money. It wasn’t perfect, but it’d work. The alternatives were to pay a ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly British Airways (more than half the cost of just buying a ticket) or to pay a ridiculous award price and an even more ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly KLM and Delta using my Delta points. I had US Airways Dividend Miles, but these didn’t help because they only worked for roundtrip itineraries. So, I gritted my teeth and booked it. I guessed I’d figure out a solution. I always do.

By chance, I reconnected with an old friend who lives in Miami. He offered to let me stay in his condo, which would soften the blow of the bad itinerary somewhat. A month or so later, he contacted me. “You know, I forgot that you’re coming during Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “You really don’t want to be in Miami Beach then. It’s an absolute zoo. Everyone who lives here gets out of town because it’s absolutely overrun with insane tourists.” Ugh. That definitely wouldn’t do, but I also wouldn’t be able to cancel my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket without paying a ridiculous award redeposit fee. Unless……..

Late last year, Delta ran a challenge for Seattle-based SkyMiles members to go for gold status. Nominally, I live in Seattle–I still have a house there, my mail is sent there, and I’m there enough to maintain legal residence. The promotion involved taking two Delta flights at full fare (anywhere in the Delta system), whereupon Delta awarded 25,000 bonus miles and Gold status for a year. I had two short-haul flights from Los Angeles that I needed to take anyway, and it only cost about an extra $150 to book in the fare classes that Delta required. Status didn’t really matter to me, but the 25,000 bonus miles made it an easy calculation. Even though Delta SkyMiles is an awful program, 25,000 bonus miles are worth at least $250. So, $100 free, just for filling out a form online? Sure! I booked on Delta, and was awarded Gold status. Little did I know that this would save me a bundle of dough later.

Now, Alaska Airlines is running a status challenge for Delta SkyMiles members. You can see where this is going. Just ask Alaska to match your Delta status, and they’ll do it. I sent in the request, and was granted MVP Gold within 2 days. And guess what? MVP Gold waives award redeposit fees! So, I went about searching for alternative flights across the Atlantic. In the interim, my US Airways Dividend Miles account had been consolidated with my American Airlines Aadvantage account, giving me access to one-way awards. What’s more, my US Airways Dividend Miles card–which I scored a few weeks before the program ended–netted me a 10% discount on award redemption. Still no availability from Zagreb, but an airBerlin flight was available from Milan on the 25th with an easy connection back to Los Angeles. No fuel surcharge! I wouldn’t get any work done in the US over a holiday weekend anyway, so why not spend it in Italy? I quickly booked the flight, for a total of 27,000 Aadvantage miles. Honestly, I have had nothing but uncomfortable flights and bad luck with American Airlines on transatlantic legs. I know most other bloggers love them, but they haven’t been good to me and I was happy to avoid them this time.

A quick call to Alaska Airlines later, and as a newly minted MVP Gold, my horrible itinerary through Miami with a holiday weekend stopover was cancelled and the miles were back in my account. There is one thing that can be said for status with frequent flier programs: it gives you more flexibility when booking awards, and you can get a lot of expensive fees waived. It’s rare that I will incur enough such fees in a year to make status even remotely worth chasing, but this year, I have avoided hundreds of dollars in checked baggage fees and award redeposit fees through maintaining status with airlines.

So, now I had a (more or less) free ticket to Turkey and a (more or less) free ticket back from Milan. But I needed to close the gap. And I don’t know if you’ve ever booked flight tickets to and from Zagreb, but just try to find a cheap one. Go ahead. I’ll still be here when you get back. Couldn’t find any, could you? So, that’s where Air Serbia came in.

LAX-FRA-IST

A free ticket to Istanbul…

 

mxp-dus-lax

..and a free ticket back from Milan. But I was actually going to Zagreb.

 

air serbia logoYou might be thinking “Wait, what? Air Serbia? You mean, the flag carrier of Slobodan Milosevic’s former regime? The flag carrier of the country that had a civil war with Croatia, and the country that still refuses to acknowledge Kosovo?” Yes, that Air Serbia. As of late, they have repaired relations with their western neighbor, sort of, to the point that there is commercial air service between the countries. By that, I mean one flight a day. And as it turns out, Air Serbia is part owned by Etihad Airways, so it might even be sort of safe. Most importantly, Air Serbia has a very interesting idea of what constitutes a “roundtrip.” They allow an open jaw under some circumstances. All I needed to do was use a hidden cities itinerary.

Oh yeah, hidden cities itineraries. You know, the thing that I warn people never to do because they can horribly backfire. Well, in this case, if I somehow ended up in Istanbul instead of Frankfurt (my connecting city) it would cost me 90 euro to fix the problem. Air Serbia is remarkably flexible when it comes to changes and cancellations, even on non-refundable fares. So I went ahead and booked the flight. FRA-BEG. 23 hours on the ground. BEG-ZAG. Then ZAG-BEG, 4 hours on the ground, BEG-MXP. Less than half the price of pretty much every airline. Why? This was considered a roundtrip.

Ridiculous Air Serbia itinerary

Does this look like a roundtrip to you?

Why was it cheaper? This is considered a round-trip flight, rather than a series of one-way flights. Where flights to Zagreb are concerned, this ends up being cheaper. A lot cheaper. And when viewed from a certain angle, it is a round-trip flight. Frankfurt to Zagreb, with a layover (not a stopover, because it’s only 23 hours) in Belgrade, then turning around and returning to… Milan.

Wait, what? How is a city in Italy considered the return portion of a roundtrip ticket from Germany? Because this is an open jaw itinerary. Normally, fare rules don’t permit open jaws. However, Air Serbia has extremely liberal routing rules. All the crazy things that you can normally only do with frequent flier tickets are possible with their paid fares. Which is how, for less than $200, I was able to visit two additional European cities I haven’t previously visited (Belgrade and Milan), and enjoy a round-trip flight to Europe for free.

This all assumes that everything works out as planned, and I don’t end up in Turkey unexpectedly. If that happens, it’s going to suck. I don’t have any miles that will get me out of Turkey cheaply or easily. Fortunately, Air Serbia flies to Istanbul, and they will–for a fee–allow me to apply my ticket toward another one departing from Istanbul. So, I’d lose about $200 in the worst case scenario–still less than a British Airways fuel surcharge.

So, there you go. This is how to use the Open Jaw Jam. Keep in mind that while it’s generally difficult to do this with paid fares, you can often use open jaws on award tickets. This is where things get really interesting, particularly on intra-Asia award tickets. If you play your cards right, you can potentially visit multiple cities with vast distances between them, all on a single low-cost award.

Get Full Delta Credit For Miles Flown Plus 25K Europe Roundtrips!

As has been widely reported elsewhere, Delta has done some really terrible things to their SkyMiles program (already one of the least lucrative frequent flier programs in the world) and for most people it is not a good value. Not only is mileage credit now granted based on the fare you pay, rather than the number of miles you fly (cutting mileage credit to half in many cases), but the number of miles needed to redeem awards is now entirely arbitrary. In some cases, you even have to pay Delta in order to redeem SkyMiles! It’s no surprise that given the rapid and massive devaluation, avid frequent fliers who once called SkyMiles “SkyPesos” have begun calling them “SkyRubles.”

Don’t get me wrong. Delta is generally a very good airline to fly–at least if you’re not flying on one of their “basic economy fares,” which offer a similarly terrible experience to other airlines. Generally speaking they run a reliable operation and fly well-maintained aircraft with decent amenities. The inflight service is generally also polite and professional, in stark contrast to most other US airlines. At many airports, Delta is also difficult to ignore, given their dominant position. If you’re based in Atlanta, for example, Delta serves all major US markets nonstop.

There is a loophole, however. You don’t have to use the SkyMiles program if you’re flying Delta. You can credit your miles to the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan or to any other SkyTeam partner. However, in most cases, this isn’t a good option. Very few Delta fares qualify for 100% mileage credit anymore with most partners. Additionally, every other Delta partner levies fuel surcharges on redeemed tickets, which Delta doesn’t do for flights originating in the US. However, there is one exception, which I found after researching every SkyTeam program in detail. Let me introduce you to OK Plus.

Czech Airlines logoOK is the IATA code for Czech Airlines, and their program, “OK Plus,” is a clever word play. You can’t actually view the terms and conditions or the accrual schedule for the OK Plus program without signing up. However, after doing the research, I found that the options are pretty incredible when it comes to Delta:

CSA Delta accrual schedule

Better than the 2014 Delta chart!

Yes, you read it right: Delta flights accrue at 100% of miles flown, except for paid business and first class which accrue at 200% of miles flown. There is one glaring exception, however: E fares. These are Delta’s “basic economy” fares and if you buy one of these, you will earn zero credit under the OK Plus program. So, if you book and fly an E fare, it’s probably best to credit it to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, which will at least net you 25% credit.

But wait, there's more!The good news doesn’t end here. Not only can you get 100% credit based on flown miles for your Delta flights, these miles will take you farther. CSA considers Iceland part of North America for the purposes of their program! So, if you want to take advantage of Delta’s seasonal service to Reykjavik (for which there is currently almost wide-open award availability), you can do it for only 25,000 miles.

So, of course, it’s not all good news, particularly for those wanting to earn elite status. Here are some of the limitations:

  • You have to fly two segments on Czech Airlines to earn SkyTeam elite status, and it can’t just be Czech Airlines-marketed flights; you need to actually fly on one of their planes.
  • In order to redeem an award ticket, you have to call their office in Prague and book over the phone; there is no online booking option.
  • There is a €36 booking fee.
  • One-way awards aren’t an option except for flights on Czech Airlines; only round-trip awards are possible.
  • Along with taxes, you have to pay the fuel surcharge for the flight you’re booking. However, Delta doesn’t currently have a fuel surcharge on domestic US flights, so you won’t pay anything if you redeem your miles this way. And in most situations, you have to pay fuel surcharges when you redeem SkyMiles on partners. For most scenarios, in a practical sense, you’re not much worse off.
  • No backtracking is allowed, “except to make a connection.” It seems like the intent of this rule is to prevent backtracking in combination with a stopover or open jaw, but it also appears that this could be enforced (or not) at the whim of the telephone agent.

So, those are the downsides. However, there are some really significant upsides:

  • Both a stopover and an open jaw (one each) appear to be permitted.
  • A maximum of 8 segments per roundtrip are permitted.
  • Changes and cancellations (with mileage redeposit) cost only €62, far less than SkyMiles.
  • Mixed class bookings are allowed, if you pay the fare for the higher cabin. So, if only economy class is available on an intra-Europe flight (where business class doesn’t really buy you much extra comfort), you could mix that along with business class for the transoceanic leg. This opens up considerably more award availability than would otherwise be available, particularly during the busy summer travel months.
  • You can mix Czech Airlines flights with the flights of any one individual SkyTeam partner. Depending on your routing, this might make it slightly easier to piece together an award ticket.

Why is the program still so generous? Probably because Czech Airlines almost went bankrupt. However, in 2013, they were bailed out by Korean Air (which took a 44% stake) and the Czech government. As the Czech flag carrier, it seems likely that they will continue flying. However, flag carriers can and do fail; Mexicana and Malev are two recent examples. You’ll have to balance the risk of Czech Airlines failing versus the risk of even further SkyMiles devaluations. I’ll personally take the risk and bank my miles in Prague.

So, there you have it: a way to earn full value for your discount economy tickets on Delta and redeem them for 25,000 mile roundtrip tickets to Europe! If you’re finding the SkyMiles devaluation tough to swallow, sign up here and start earning OK Plus miles today!

Super Bowl Travel Savings Tips

A lot of people have contacted me with the same question: “How do I save on my trip to the Super Bowl?” Well, despite being from Seattle, I’m not really a football fan. I can’t help you find tickets to the stadium or get them any cheaper, but I do have some advice about how to save money on getting to Phoenix, and getting around Phoenix once you’re there.

Saguoro sunsetPhoenix has relatively few flights and is a fortress hub of US Airways. When a city is a fortress hub, it generally means that flights are more expensive because there is a single dominant carrier, which makes it harder for other airlines to compete. And let’s face it, airlines aren’t dumb. They know that these are special dates and they’re charging a premium for the flights.

Many sites suggest using hidden cities itineraries on US Airways. I actually don’t recommend this, because these can be very risky. So, while you might find a good deal on a flight to Phoenix (it’s not likely, but possible), or through Phoenix (possible, but with considerable risk), it’s fairly unlikely. that you’re actually going to find a good deal to anywhere within 300 miles of the place. That’s why I think alternate cities are a better strategy for the Super Bowl.

Ontario airport terminal image

This little airport could save you big money.

Often overlooked, there are airports in Ontario and Palm Springs, California. If you are traveling to the Super Bowl, you should consider both. These airports are both a reasonable drive from Phoenix and also, as of this writing, have far more reasonable prices for rental cars than any rental agency in Phoenix. There aren’t many direct flights to either place, and you’ll probably have to take a connection along the way. However, even if one of the connections passes through Phoenix, it’s probably best to continue all the way to California. Most rental cars are sold out in Phoenix during the Super Bowl at this point, and the few remaining cars are very expensive. However, there are still plenty of rental cars available in Ontario and Palm Springs for the same dates. Palm Springs is less than a 3 hour drive from Phoenix, so this is a particularly attractive destination. As of this writing, flights to both destinations from many cities cost as little as 1/3 the price of a ticket to Phoenix.

It’s also worth considering the cost of hotels. The Super Bowl will be held on the west side of Phoenix. The farther you get from the center of Phoenix, the less expensive hotels are. In fact, some $70 rooms are still available at the Black Canyon Motel 6 location. Since the Phoenix airport is on the east side of town, hotels near the airport and near the Super Bowl stadium seem to be the most expensive. Having a rental car will give you considerable flexibility in where you stay, and may help to save you a fortune. Speaking of rental cars, fuel is usually much less expensive in Arizona than it is in California. Costco tends to have the lowest prices, if you’re a member. There is also a Costco in Palm Desert, California, where you can fill up before returning the car to the airport.

If you are traveling to the Super Bowl, I hope this was helpful. I definitely won’t see you there, but I hope you both have fun and save money!

HOT: Save At Least 20% On All Flights Right Now

As you have probably heard, the Russian ruble has effectively collapsed. This has created a tremendous arbitrage opportunity, but only if you take immediate action to leverage it.

ruble chart

The ruble effectively collapsed today

Airline tickets are quoted and priced in GDS systems, and currency conversions aren’t adjusted real-time. With the rapid collapse of the ruble, this means that you can effectively get a discount of 20% or more by paying in rubles versus dollars.

So, let’s look at a nice peak season flight from Los Angeles to Costa Rica on anywayanyday, a Russian travel agency:

lax-sjo price in usd

A typical peak season flight price to Costa Rica

As you can see, it’s $792 in US dollars. This is a typical non-sale fare price to Costa Rica during the peak season. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn this into a good peak season sale fare instead?

Currency selection menuIf you change your currency selection on this menu from USD to RUB, you can pay in the Ruble currency. Note that it’s a good idea to call your bank before you do this, because there is a slight possibility that they might consider it unusual that you are paying for things in rubles on a Russian travel site. By this, I meant that they will panic and block your card, which will cause you an endless amount of hassle. Why use a Russian travel site in the first place? It’ll be very hard for anyone involved to argue later that you shouldn’t be able to pay for things in Russia using rubles.

Now, let’s see what happens after you change the currency:

Yikes, that's a big number!

Yikes, that’s a big number!

The price becomes 41,638 rubles. So, let’s see how much that is worth in dollar terms:

ruble to usd conversion

Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s $196 cheaper to pay in rubles.

Folks, this sort of arbitrage opportunity almost never happens and it will not last. Take advantage while you can!

UPDATE: Many airlines are starting to correct this by repricing their tickets in the GDS systems. With British Airways, it is actually less expensive to book in dollars or euros now. Double-check the conversion before you book!