Cathay Pacific First Class – SFO-HKG December 2017 (with Alaska connection)

Probably the last review you’d ever expect to read on Seat 31B is a review of Cathay Pacific first class. However, for the trip I booked to South Africa and St. Helena, the deal was just too good to pass up. I wrote more about how I found and booked the flight here.

Sea-Tac Airport was far less busy than I expected on the day after Christmas. My first flight on the itinerary was with Alaska Airlines so I checked in with them. Although I brought two bags with me, I only checked one of them because I wanted to change into a fresh pair of clothes in Hong Kong. The Alaska Airlines agent was able to check my bag all the way through to Johannesburg. This is an improvement versus when I flew Alaska and Cathay Pacific last year via Vancouver, when the Alaska agent could only check my bag as far as Vancouver and I had to claim and re-check the bag with Cathay there.

One thing I didn’t notice until I was at the security lane was that for some reason, my known traveler number hadn’t made it onto the reservation. I reserved over the phone and the agent didn’t ask for it, and I guess they didn’t automatically pull from my Alaska file like my reservations normally do. I could have gone back to straighten it out, but the premium lane was actually shorter at Sea-Tac than the precheck lane. I had to argue a bit with the agent that first class passengers are, in fact, entitled to use the premium lane (she turned me away without even looking at my ticket) but when I pressed the issue she let me through.

Alaska Airlines – Seattle Lounge And First Class

My flight was departing from the north satellite so I went to the Alaska lounge, where the agent turned me away, so I again pressed the issue. I had paid for first class, and I was flying in first class. However, when I originally booked, the itinerary was mixed cabin because there was no first class award space on the Alaska flight. Alaska waitlisted me for a first class upgrade (because I had paid for first class), and I had a high position on the upgrade list because I’d technically already paid for first class. So, two days before departure, I was upgraded to first class for the Alaska leg, but because this showed as an *upgrade* versus paid first class, the agent denied me lounge access.

Now, all of this makes complete sense using airline logic, but it didn’t actually make *common* sense. I paid for a first class fare, had a Priority Pass besides, was flying in first class, and I wasn’t allowed access to the lounge because of a technicality. I politely asked the agent whether this made sense, explaining that I’d paid for a first class fare and was flying in first class, and he finally relented and let me into the lounge. I am glad that Alaska gives front-line staff some discretion in stuff like this because kicking me out would have made no logical sense whatsoever even if I wasn’t technically “entitled.”

Picture of Alaska 737

My ride to SFO

The Alaska lounge in the north satellite is simple, functional and crowded. It is designed to be a temporary facility until Alaska builds a new lounge there in a few years. I could see why the front desk agent was so protective of the limited space. I had a bowl of soup in the lounge (Alaska is famous for its soups) and drank some refreshing cucumber water, and before too long it was time for my Alaska flight to San Francisco. Onboard, the flight attendant was senior, professional, and super friendly. Like most of the staff at Alaska it was clear she loved her job and took pride in her work. The catering onboard was the horribly named “protein plate” which is actually a Mediterranean style tapas dish. It was nice and the Bloody Mary I had along with it was properly stiff.

SFO Arrival And Cathay Pacific Lounge

My Alaska flight arrived in Terminal 2 at SFO, and Cathay Pacific departs from the international terminal. This transfer requires leaving the secure area of the airport, taking a train, and re-clearing security. The whole thing takes forever, it’s clunky and terrible, and I really hope Alaska improves the experience if they expect to effectively use SFO as a hub airport. As in Seattle, I was initially denied access to the premium lane until I pointed out that I was flying in first class. I think the reason for this is that premium cabin passengers mostly have precheck now, so they don’t use the premium lane anymore (where regular TSA security procedures apply). So the lane is primarily used by wheelchair passengers. It’s a relatively rare case where someone flying in a premium cabin actually wants to use the premium lane, so agents working these lanes are used to just denying people, probably 99% of whom don’t belong there. And I don’t look the part of someone flying in a premium cabin.

SFO yoga room

If you can’t get into the lounge, at least there’s a yoga room at SFO!

I cleared security quickly (despite the standard TSA procedures, it was much faster than the precheck lane) and headed to the Cathay Pacific lounge. The agent looked me up and down, and it was clear she also didn’t think I belonged there, but she politely asked to see my ticket. I showed it to her, and she then asked to see my return itinerary from South Africa. I had this printed out as well. After some frowning and scowling and typing, and without saying a word, she handed me new boarding passes on Cathay Pacific stock. “Are we all set?” I asked, and she said “yes.”

The Cathay lounge at San Francisco has two sides, with buffets on each side (a selection of cheap unappetizing Chinese dishes on one side, and equally cheap unappetizing Western snacks on the other), seating, and a ramen bar (which is actually pretty good, with soup made to order). With 4 hours until my flight (which became 5 hours because my flight was delayed), I figured a light snack made sense, so I had some vegetarian ramen noodles (the only non-fish option) and apple juice. I then decided that it would make sense to take a shower, so asked at the front desk. They traded my boarding pass for a key. However, when I went into the shower room, there weren’t any towels, so after tracking someone down (which was surprisingly hard) I eventually found someone to get me a towel. This shower room was at least stocked with a full selection of amenities, so I was able to shave after my shower.

cathay lounge SFO seating area

So sterile. The whole place feels like “you don’t belong here”

After taking a shower I was able to get my boarding pass back from the staff, and waited in the lounge until the flight was announced. I ignored the snacks which didn’t look at all appetizing.

gross food in cathay lounge

I don’t get why people rave about this. It’s cheap food like you get at a Chinese buffet.

So yeah. Was it a better place to spend time than the gate area? Sure. Is it worth all the fawning reviews that Cathay Pacific lounges get? Probably not. Sure, it was nice, but it was a basic lounge.

On Board – Cathay Pacific First Class

It was a long walk from the lounge to the gate. It took some work to get through the crowded gate area to the premium cabin line, but–somewhat to my surprise–nobody tried to stop me from entering it. Instead, the gate agent scanned my boarding pass and said “first door on the left, please” and she even smiled. On board, the flight attendant showed me to my seat (1A), which was immediately adjacent to the door. First class cabins on Cathay Pacific don’t have overhead bins; instead, you put your bag into a compartment that is part of the seat. Unfortunately these are a smaller size than most overhead bins so it took some work to fit my bag inside the compartment. The flight attendant watched me struggle with it but didn’t offer any assistance, and I finally managed with considerable effort to wedge my bag inside.

Cathay first class seat guest chair

Not the seat. It’s the *extra* seat.

The first class seat itself was enormous. It’s so big it comes with an extra seat. It’s nicely laid out, with fresh flowers. However, the inflight entertainment system is old. It comes with a remote control and the response time is sluggish. Also, although there is seat power, it kept switching itself off when I tried to charge my phone (this was an issue in Cathay business class as well). And to my surprise, there was no onboard WiFi.

Once we were up in the air, the flight attendants almost immediately took our dinner orders. I am allergic to some types of fish so generally avoid fish dishes unless I can control exactly what is in them. Unfortunately this narrowed my selections to Western dishes only and meant that I had to skip part of the meal, because Cathay Pacific seems to put fish in almost everything. The starter (champagne and caviar) was out, but I don’t like caviar and I can’t drink much wine (sulfite allergy) so would have skipped it anyway. I asked if I could have the Chinese pickled vegetables instead that were offered with the Chinese meal, but she was unable to accommodate this.

I did have most of the rest of the dishes and they were good. The starter was a butternut squash soup served with a bread basket.

Butternut squash soup with bread basket

Butternut squash soup with bread basket

Steak with roasted baby vegetables

Steak with roasted baby vegetables

There were only two non-fish options for the main, and one of them (mushroom ravioli) that I definitely didn’t want, so I let the flight attendant know as soon as possible that I wanted the steak and *only* the steak. Fortunately she was able to accommodate this request. Unlike the last steak I had in Cathay Pacific first class (which was tough and stringy), this one was very good. It was served medium as I requested, was accompanied by a side of roasted vegetables, and was tender and cooked to perfection.

Bread pudding

The bread pudding was excellent.

For dessert, I had bread pudding and vanilla ice cream, which was also excellent. I also requested a dram of Scotch whisky. The only single malt on offer was (if I remember right) a Glenmorangie 12, which was acceptable but not exceptional. The most expensive (but not the best) Scotch whisky on the menu was Johnny Walker Blue. The flight attendant asked if I’d like it “on the rocks.” My reply was “of course not!”

After dinner I was stuffed, and I was tired from it being late. I changed into the pair of complimentary pajamas (which are designed by a company called PYE and are supposedly expensive but I think they’re awkward to wear – they have a bunch of buttons) and while I did that, the flight attendant prepared my seat. The seat lies fully flat, and when you’re ready to sleep, the flight attendants set it up for you with a mattress pad so it turns into a bed. A lot of bloggers rave about this and say that it’s as comfortable as their bed at home, etc. I’m assuming that Cathay must have comped them the flight because while it’s OK and certainly beats flying in coach, it’s not *that* comfortable. It’s like lying on a padded bench that has a Costco mattress pad on top of it. Not one of those super fancy memory foam ones, but the cheap kind. The bedding is nice; it’s a duvet. The pillow, however, was surprisingly small.

Me in Cathay first.

The cat’s pajamas? Best thing since sliced bread? Meh. Nice, but no longer exceptional.

I woke up about 8 hours later, but it was much too early to be up and about. I watched a movie (Dunkirk) since I couldn’t sleep. It was easy to see why–despite one of my good friends working on the special effects–the movie was a box office bomb. There was no Hollywood happy ending. People want a happy ending. This movie was depressing and exhausting but that was good because I needed some extra sleep, so I passed out for another couple of hours. I walked up to the galley and asked the flight attendant to turn the bed into a seat, which she did. Breakfast came about an hour before landing, as I requested; it was scrambled eggs (freshly prepared onboard), fruit, toast (when is the last time you had that on an airplane?) and some other things. They didn’t have brewed coffee, only espresso, but I found this out when I got the “black coffee” I ordered (it was knock-you-on-your-ass strong espresso). IHOP gives you more for $7 but the quality of everything was good and I didn’t feel like I was still hungry afterwards.

Cathay first breakfast

Cathay fresh cooks your breakfast on the plane.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, the immigration wait was very short (I got right through) and I visited the Cathay Pacific arrivals lounge. The front desk agent was friendly, quick and efficient. I wanted to shower and change clothes. There’s usually a wait to get a shower, but because I was there first, I was able to get right in. The shower room had a towel this time, but no razor and shaving cream. I fortunately had my bag with me so dug these out, and after my shower I got into a fresh change of clothes. If you have a long layover in the arrivals lounge Cathay Pacific will store your bag for you, so I pulled everything heavy out of my backpack (including electronics, etc.) and put them into the bag with the pajamas from the flight. The front desk agent put the bag in storage, handing me a claim check, and notified me that, if I’d rather check it now, I could check in my bag upstairs onward to Johannesburg if I wanted. I had some more coffee, juice and a breakfast pastry in the lounge and as it got close to 9:00am (bank opening time), I made my way upstairs. It was fast and easy to check my bag onward to Johannesburg and I went out into Hong Kong to buy some UK pounds, do some shopping, and have a business dinner. However, when I checked in my bag, the agent had to take all of the same information about my return flight as the lounge agent in San Francisco had. The first agent must have entered it incorrectly and it was annoying having to provide all of the same information again.

hong kong computer market

There are few things I love more than a Hong Kong computer market!

Cathay Pacific – The Wing First Class Lounge

I arrived back at the airport about 3 hours before my flight, retrieved my stuff from the arrivals lounge with no issues, and got right through security and immigration. This was in the regular line, not any sort of premium or VIP line. Hong Kong is just that efficient–the airport is exceptionally well-run. I headed to The Wing, which is the Cathay Pacific first class lounge. I had been in this lounge before (last year on my flight back from Myanmar) but on the business class side. When I arrived I was suddenly surrounded by lounge attendants who approached me immediately in a very polite but firm way (they were almost running). Then they looked at my ticket and welcomed me into the lounge.

The first class side is virtually identical to the business class side of the lounge, except that there isn’t a noodle bar and it’s less crowded. It’s honestly nothing special at all. The only thing special about it is who is there. I am pretty sure I saw Elon Musk, but I followed “Hollywood rules” which are that you never engage someone famous, you only respond if they engage you. And guy-who-was-possibly-Elon didn’t engage me so I will never know for sure if that’s who it was.

I took a shower–the first class shower suites are slightly fancier than normal, with a special chute you can stick shirts through to be ironed. They magically get ironed and hung back up in the closet. And the room is slightly larger than the business class lounge. Other than that–I honestly couldn’t believe this: there wasn’t a razor and shaving cream! Cathay Pacific has started doing the same cheapskate thing that the Ramada Inn does, where they don’t stock things in the room and you have to go ask for them at the front desk. Except what am I going to do, walk out there dripping wet with a towel wrapped around me? Or get dressed, go out, ask for the thing I want, and then go back and shave? Instead, I went without shaving, which is exactly what Cathay wanted. I am sure they might have saved up to 75 cents. Oh, and those foot massages everyone raves about? Those aren’t in the first class lounge either. They’re in an entirely different business class lounge. Also, the Scotch whisky served in the first class lounge is blended. And it was offered “on the rocks.” I swear I am not making this up.

There are no pictures here because I didn’t want to make other people in the lounge feel uncomfortable by taking them–but you can find plenty of other pictures online and it was really nothing special. The service isn’t better. The catering isn’t better. The alcohol isn’t higher quality. You don’t even get shower amenities without asking for them. I think the only real reason to sit in a first class Cathay Pacific lounge is if you’re famous and don’t want to be around ordinary people. And just like the SFO lounge, it was just totally sterile and lifeless.

My connecting flight onward to Johannesburg was in business class because Cathay Pacific doesn’t operate a first class cabin anymore on that route. I’m going to leave off here because that was the end of the “first class” experience and write another review of the business class flight.

Cathay First? Meh.

You have probably picked up by now that I’m not giddily raving about the experience like most bloggers do. Sure, it was nice, and definitely beat sitting in the back, and it was still a pretty good value for the 70,000 miles and $70 or so that I spent. However, if I’d paid cash for this flight, it would have cost almost $25,000. This is about 4 times what a paid business class fare would have cost. It was more than 10 times what a premium economy class ticket would have cost. Was it worth that much? Not even close! The service and attention to detail simply wasn’t there. For that much money, I expect at least the level of amenities that I can get at a Holiday Inn Express without having to fight for them. I expect some Chinese pickled vegetables if I want them (come on, Cathay, this is a pretty common Chinese snack and it’s certainly not expensive). I expect a proper, fine, 18 year old Islay Scotch whisky on the beverage menu–or something equally special–and I certainly don’t expect to have it offered to me “on the rocks.” I mean, who does that?

I also expect at least the level of care and attention that I get in first class on an Alaska flight, where a single flight attendant is looking after up to 16 passengers versus the two flight attendants looking after 6 passengers on a Cathay flight. The crew on the flight was professional, but when I wanted water, I had to go looking for them. After the third time I walked to the galley and asked for a bottle of water, you’d think they’d have figured out where I was keeping my water bottle and made sure I always had a full one (I drink a lot of water on planes because of the dry air). I mean, China Eastern literally did a better job of keeping me hydrated in economy class. They came around with water, I didn’t even have to go ask for it.

Wrap-up

So, should you fly Cathay Pacific in first class? On the Alaska award chart, it can still make sense. It’s only incrementally more expensive than business class, so if it’s available, go for it! However, on the American, Avios or Asia Miles award chart, or *especially* if you’re paying cash, it’s just silly. First class is slightly better than business class in some respects, but actually worse in others (I’ll take a fancy lounge with a noodle bar and foot massages over a stuffy lounge with bad whisky and Elon Musk in it, and I’ll take an overhead bin that can fit my bag over having to manhandle my bag into a tight space). And I expect at least the level of beverage service that I’d get in economy class. Ultimately, these are all “first world problems” but when you’re paying as much for a flight as most cars cost, it’s completely reasonable to expect an exceptional experience. And I just didn’t get that.

 

Planning And Preparing To Visit St. Helena

I’ll admit it: advance planning and preparation isn’t always my strong suit. A lot of the time when I travel, I like to book at the last minute and figure things out when I get there. St. Helena is not a destination where you can really get away with doing this so if you are planning to visit, planning and preparing in advance is essential.

Part of this is because St. Helena Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It’s slightly less remote than it used to be because there is now one flight a week, on a plane with 70 seats for sale (this is a tough flight to book, but I wrote instructions here). So, presuming you’re starting from South Africa, you can get there in a day.

Nevertheless, you can’t just show up and hope it’ll all work out. Really, you can’t. The population is only 4,255 people and while they do have some tourism infrastructure, it is limited and not fully developed. What is there is, of course, civilized (St. Helena is part of the UK after all), but you can’t just breeze into town and expect to be able to rent a car and find a hotel easily. In fact, the wrong assumptions can get you deported.

Have A Visa If You Need One

st helena passport stamp

You will be stamped in for exactly the length of your visit–no longer!

Numerous places on the Internet state that anyone can enter St. Helena for a period of up to 180 days without a visa. This is totally wrong. St. Helena has changed its visa policy with the initiation of flights. It mirrors the visa requirements for the United Kingdom except that South Africans, unlike when visiting the main part of the UK, do not need a visa.

In addition, St. Helena has Airlink (the airline) enforce this and given that the policies are different for St. Helena and Ascension island, sometimes the check-in agents will claim that only US and UK passports are allowed. Given that I had to remind the Airlink check-in agent that my passport was in fact a US passport, I decided not to argue the point any further.

Also, note that you won’t get 180 days automatically. You’ll be stamped in for only the exact number of days that you can prove that you have accommodations. My passport was stamped in for only a week, because my departure was then. I initially thought that this was pretty unfriendly because I’d be committing an immigration violation with no way to avoid it if the flight was delayed through no fault of my own. However, the tourist office explained that an extension would in fact be granted in such a circumstance. I still think that the policy limits flexibility (I wouldn’t have been able to extend my stay if I had wanted to do so), but these are the rules as they currently stand.

Round Trip Tickets Are Required

Obviously, because of the immigration policy above, you’re required to book (and show proof of) a round-trip ticket. It’s not possible to book a one way ticket, have an indeterminate visit, and then buy your return ticket on the island when you decide you want to leave. Again, this is just not a travel destination that allows for much spontaneity or flexibility. You need to make a specific plan and you’ll have to stick to it.

Travel Insurance Is Required

Travel insurance in the amount of GBP 1,000,000 is required to visit the island and the airline checks this before you’re allowed to board a flight. Fortunately the airline missed that the insurance was in USD rather than GBP, and fortunately St. Helena immigration officials also let that slide (technically, they could have deported me). Most visitors on my flight didn’t know that they had to provide proof of insurance and were scrambling to show it at the airport. This is checked when your boarding passes are issued, again before boarding the plane, and once more when clearing St. Helena immigration. They are really serious about this but they don’t sell insurance at the airport either.

You Need A Place To Stay

You aren’t allowed to enter St. Helena without accommodations already secured. They still do things very much the old fashioned way on the island. Accommodations aren’t listed on Web booking platforms like airbnb or booking.com, and for the most part, you can’t pay with a credit card either. Instead, you need to book through the St. Helena Tourism office.

This doesn’t happen instantly. The way it works is you email the tourist office (don’t call, because it costs a minimum of $1.50 per minute), then they call everyone on the island who rents rooms to see if any are available, and they’ll get back to you with a list of what’s available. This might be an extremely short list. When I reached out, there were only two options available, both relatively top end for the island. It took a few more days to sort things out and I only had the accommodations finalized the day before I arrived.

What I didn’t realize until I got there was just how high stakes having accommodations is. While the St. Helena tourism office does come to the airport to meet every flight, and presumably they can try to assist you last-minute, you’ll actually be turned around and sent home by immigration authorities if there isn’t anywhere for you to stay on the island. I normally travel pretty casually, making things up as I go and figuring things out when I get there. That’s just fine in most places (and often gets you great last-minute deals) but it 100% doesn’t work in St. Helena.

 

St. Helena bungalow

I stayed in this tidy bungalow for GBP 60 per night

The upshot? The place where I stayed was perfectly lovely! It was a “self catering cottage” which meant a house with a kitchen. The place was spotless but didn’t come with maid service. A couple of hotels are also available in Jamestown, but at much higher prices than the properties you can rent. These, however, come with amenities such as a restaurant and bar, and maid service is provided.

Book A Car In Advance

old rental car

Old, dented, manual transmission, but I was happy to have it!

If you’re wanting to explore the island, you’ll need a car… or be prepared to spend a lot on taxis. Since I hadn’t really booked in advance, the tourist office couldn’t arrange a car for me because none were available. The owner of my home was fortunately willing to drive me to the house (at an extra charge), and it turned out she knew someone who knew someone who had a car. It showed up a day later with a handshake and no paperwork (I didn’t even know I was paying GBP 12 daily until the end), so everything ultimately worked out and I was able to tour the island. However, it very well might not have worked out! I just got lucky, because a vehicle that was out of service when I originally tried to book was able to be returned to service, and my host just happened to know this.

There are no brand name rental car companies on the island. The companies are all family owned. None of them take credit cards, so your credit card insurance doesn’t apply either. Fortunately all of the companies include local insurance with your car rental, and the deductible is fairly low with a small out-of-pocket expense for damages (under GBP 100).

It’s worth noting that rental cars are equipped with manual transmissions and they have right-hand drive (which doesn’t matter much, because most roads on St. Helena are one lane, but your points of reference will all be different if you’re used to driving left-hand drive vehicles).

Print Out Everything

Mobile phones are still a relatively new and very expensive luxury on St. Helena, so immigration officials aren’t very used to navigating smartphones yet. Also, there isn’t any roaming data signal and there is no free WiFi in the airport, so your phone will be completely useless anyway (unless you have downloaded all of your documents). I saw a lot of folks fumbling with phones that weren’t working well and it was obviously uncomfortable for everyone involved. Print out all of your documentation proving your bona fides: your itinerary, housing arrangements, and travel insurance. Immigration authorities in St. Helena are friendly, but very thorough, and you can expect they will check this.

Bring Cash (In GBP)

St. Helena is almost entirely a cash economy, but there are no ATMs on the island. Let me repeat: There are no ATMs on the island. Yes, I know it’s 2018, but there is only one bank and it’s best avoided because it is both extremely archaic and extremely expensive to deal with. If you need money, they can only give you a cash advance from your credit card with a massive fee, plus the massive fee your bank charges on top of it. They will also change US dollars, euros or South African rand at poor rates.

uk pounds cash

The solution is to bring UK pounds with you, in cash. Where do you get those? I bought mine at HSBC on a layover in Hong Kong on the way to St. Helena where good rates are available. You can get them in South Africa at rates that aren’t as good as in Hong Kong or the UK, but better than on St. Helena.

You will need enough cash for everything you plan to do on the island. The number of places that take credit cards can be counted on one hand, and they all levy a stiff surcharge for accepting them.

While you can pay for things with UK pounds on the island, you’ll generally get your change in St. Helena pounds. These are worthless (except as souvenirs) as soon as you leave the island so you have to change them into UK pounds before you leave. The Bank of St. Helena will do this, but charges a 2% fee for changing your pounds into… well, pounds. However, St. Helena people are very friendly, so if you tell them you’re leaving the island and ask for change in UK pounds, they’ll try to accommodate your request if they can.

Don’t Miss Your Flight

“Don’t miss the boat” has turned into “don’t miss your flight.” There is only one flight a week, so when you’re visiting St. Helena, it’s really important that you don’t miss your flight. Two of the passengers for our flight showed up late, in fact, and nearly missed the flight. It’s easier to miss the flight than you might think. It leaves from a bus gate all the way at the far end of Johannesburg airport, about a 10 minute walk from any of the airport lounges. Because the gate is a bus gate, they just load everyone on the bus exactly when boarding starts. So if you aren’t there at the boarding time listed on your ticket, you actually missed the flight.

The two late passengers didn’t know it was a bus gate and figured that the start of boarding time wouldn’t be the end of boarding time, because it never is. Only because it would have taken the gate agent longer to offload their bags than to send the bus back to pick up the wayward passengers were they accommodated. If they’d showed up 3 minutes later, the result would have been the opposite.

Bring Supplies–But Mind The Quarantine

There are a handful of stores on the island and they do carry a basic selection of groceries and consumer goods. However, nearly every food item for sale on St. Helena (with the exception of some local fish, produce, eggs, bread, meat and coffee) is imported and therefore extremely expensive due to the very high cost of freight. I also don’t want to overstate how many local goods are actually available; I didn’t see a single egg for sale the whole time I was there, and bread is only available a couple of times each week. Many of the goods sold originate from the UK which means they are shipped first from there to South Africa, and then onward to St. Helena. Given my experience visiting similarly remote parts of Alaska, I knew that it was probably a good idea to maximize my baggage allowance and bring as many groceries with me as possible.

This turned out to be a very good decision, keeping in mind the baggage limitations. This is important: The baggage allowance on flights to South Africa is 23kg, but it’s 20kg within South Africa and from South Africa to St. Helena. I brought a large check-in bag and loaded it to exactly 20kg, then put all the heaviest things into my carry-on bag which was not weighed. If your bag is overweight, this will backfire because airline fees are very high for overweight baggage.

What did I bring? Stuff that I thought would be difficult or expensive to find there, could survive an 11,000 mile trip, and could clear St. Helena’s strict quarantine (canned and packaged food is OK, nearly everything else is out). The quarantine is really very important to follow because it protects the unique biodiversity on the island–the most important forbidden item is honey, but you should declare everything you have and let the authorities take whatever they want (I invited them to inspect my stuff and they were fine with all of it). Among the things I brought were tortillas, refried beans, Parmesan cheese, rice milk, breakfast supplies like pancake mix and oatmeal and granola bars, snacks, Tabasco sauce, taco sauce, real Vermont maple syrup… you’d be surprised how much you can fit in 20 kilos if you buy stuff that is not in heavy packaging. This saved me a bundle, easily more than $100. Was it a little more hassle dealing with a checked bag? Yes, but for $100, I really didn’t mind the hassle. I was mostly right on the items that would be hard to find there, but the variety of goods available was a little better than I was expecting. It was also totally worth it when I got to enjoy a stack of delicious pancakes on the patio.

View from the patio

A taste of home is a lot sweeter when it comes with this view!

Obviously, I didn’t use up everything I brought with me, so I just left the extra for the next visitors. I mean, how much of a treat is it to show up on St. Helena and find Snoqualmie Falls Lodge pancake mix in the cupboard and pure maple syrup in the refrigerator? A pretty big one for me, and the homeowner (Mrs. George) seemed to think it would be a nice surprise for them too.

If you don’t buy groceries to bring with you, at least bring your own booze. Max out the Customs allowance. It’s very expensive on St. Helena so if you want to enjoy a cocktail, you will be glad you brought it with you!

Wrap-Up

St. Helena is a wonderful holiday destination, but getting there requires considerably more planning and preparation than most destinations. The economy there is frozen in an era before ATMs and credit cards, and it is also expensive once you arrive. While St. Helena is not a budget travel destination, you can still save a lot of money on unnecessary expenses through advance planning.

Adventures With LifeMiles: South African Airways and United Business Class

Having secured my outbound flight to South Africa, I needed to figure out how to get back. My first choice was using Avianca LifeMiles because I don’t trust the program, had a substantial mileage balance, and the program doesn’t levy fuel surcharges (which are substantial over such a long distance using other programs). I was starting with 69,000 Avianca LifeMiles. 60,000 of these came from an Avianca Vuela credit card signup (so I got them for free), and the remainder came from a combination of flights credited to the program and credit card spend. Now, LifeMiles is one of the least trustworthy programs of all airlines. This is not a program you want to keep a lot of miles in, and especially not for long. Behind the scenes, LifeMiles is the spun-off (but captive) program of a financially shaky Colombian airline in the midst of a bruising management battle. They have frequently devalued points, sometimes with no notice. In fact, in between the time I booked this trip and flew (just 3 weeks later), there was another program devaluation.

Making matters worse, it’s often very difficult to redeem LifeMiles. You’ll see blogs say stuff like “it isn’t for the faint of heart” (often while trying to sell you a credit card or even worse, purchased miles), but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Here’s what redeeming LifeMiles is like in practice: The Web site suffers from frequent technical issues, so it’s often not possible to book flights that show as available. And when it does, you’re negotiating with Colombians which is like negotiating for anything else in Latin America–patience and Spanish-language ability are both a big help. Unlike with other airlines, calling in won’t help you here: telephone agents just use the Web site for you (and charge you a fee to do it) so if you can’t book it on the Web site, you can’t book it over the phone. So, although I definitely wanted to burn LifeMiles if possible, I was willing to use other miles if it wasn’t possible. As long as I was willing to return January 16th or later, there was plenty of availability in economy class using multiple programs so I was confident in attempting to book with LifeMiles given that I had more than one backup plan.

One recent change in the LifeMiles program is that they now allow mixed cabin bookings, and they also discount a business class itinerary based on the economy class legs involved. This is actually positive because most programs charge you the full business class price if even one leg is in business class. I am not entirely sure how the pricing works, but one example is it was only ~51,000 LifeMiles for a mixed cabin itinerary departing from Johannesburg to Frankfurt in economy class, connecting onward to a United flight in business class to San Francisco. I don’t really understand the logic here because if you took a flight from Europe to the US in business class it’s 63,000 points, but it’s cheaper for a longer journey if you have a leg from Europe in business class on a mixed cabin itinerary. I kept playing with the site and eventually found an itinerary that would get me back to Seattle if I was willing to fly an overnight segment in economy class, connect in Europe, and then connect again in Chicago. It wasn’t ideal but the price was right so I went ahead and attempted to book it.

Not an itinerary I was excited about–except for the price.

Naturally, the Web site choked and failed. Who knows why. It doesn’t matter. I got all the way to the end and it bombed out. This happens often. I called in, and they suggested I try again. No dice. So, I found out from the telephone agent that there is a backdoor procedure you can use with LifeMiles to book. You start by emailing support@lifemiles.com with the itinerary you want, and an explanation that you can’t book it online due to technical errors. It helps if you have screen shots of the itinerary and pricing. The LifeMiles support center will email you back a day or so later and ask for a scan of your passport. I sent them a picture. They’ll then forward it to a really friendly guy in Medellin, Colombia. A day or two later, he’ll call you up and ask if you if you still want to book. Best of all, he works directly in the reservations system, and has access to StarNet, so he can book any StarAlliance inventory that is available to partners. This is very different than you’ll normally see on the LifeMiles site, where certain partners (such as South African Airways) appear to be blocked.

He confirmed with me the itinerary I was attempting to book, but it wasn’t actually available any longer. In between the time that I had originally looked and the time that I worked through the email procedures, the inventory had disappeared. However, while we were talking, I was searching (on the United Web site, which still isn’t perfect but does a better job of showing StarAlliance inventory) and I found a better itinerary. It was business class from Johannesburg to London on South African Airways, then from London to Chicago in business class on United, and finally from Chicago to Seattle in economy class.

Still not perfect, but much better than before.

He saw the itinerary as bookable but it wasn’t appearing on the LifeMiles Web site, so here’s the craziest part: we negotiated the price! It’s 75,000 LifeMiles for an itinerary that is entirely in business class. However, since there was a leg in economy class, he agreed to discount the itinerary to 72,000 LifeMiles. This seems like around the right price based on what the site was displaying for similar itineraries, but it’s clear he just manually priced the itinerary and had the ability to charge any price that made sense. Since I had only 69,000 points, he collected $99 for the 3,000 additional points along with the roughly $101 in taxes and $25 booking fee. A couple of days later, I got an itinerary in Spanish that had a ticket number, so I called in to United and South African Airways to pick seats. I still didn’t believe that I actually had a ticket until my boarding passes printed out in Johannesburg and made sure I had two backup plans in the bag. However, the backup plans weren’t needed: the ticket was actually there.

The Economics – In A Nutshell

  • My primary objective was to return in mid-January in a premium cabin on at least one long leg (preferably the Africa-Europe overnight leg), using LifeMiles, and minimizing out of pocket cost. I was successfully able to achieve this objective at an attractive redemption value.
  • Some flexibility was needed. I compromised on airlines and didn’t focus on “aspirational” products. That is all academic when you’re traveling to or from a popular destination like South Africa in the austral summer and a good redemption is–first and foremost–one that gets you on a plane for free. A ticket in hand is worth far more than a dream and a points balance. Would I rather have flown back in Cathay Pacific first class? Sure, but it wasn’t available at all, and can’t be booked with LifeMiles anyway.
  • Neither United nor South African Airways operate the best business class cabins in the world–not even close. However, they do offer lie flat seats on long flights, operated safely and professionally. And this is 90% of what you’re going for when you book in a premium cabin. The other 10% is the trimmings.
  • I needed to be able to think on my feet. LifeMiles is a Latin American program run by people in Colombia and a patient, friendly and flexible approach to business will get you farther than having rigorous American or European expectations.

 

I still didn’t get amazing value for these miles, at least the way I value them. I don’t look at this as a $4,000 ticket (or a 5.5 cent per mile redemption), even though that’s what the flight would have cost in cash. Why? I wouldn’t ever have bought that flight. Instead, I look at this as a $650 ticket, because a roundtrip ticket to South Africa on my dates in economy class would have cost about $1,300 (for a decent logical routing; the cheapest terrible routing through China would have been about $1,000).

Out of pocket, I saved about $425 in cash. That’s 0.6 cents per mile. However, I got most of these miles for free, and the opportunity cost was … well, what, exactly? Another devaluation? More failed redemption headaches? Also, there is value in a business class seat, it’s just not the price the airline charges for it. Is that closer to the 1.7 cents per mile that LifeMiles charges during mileage sales? Probably. This comes in at $1,224, or around double the price of an economy class seat. For an amount of premium cabin flying that pushes 10,000 miles, that’s a pretty fair price.

Wrap-Up

I generally feel pretty good about being able to use LifeMiles for anything at all before they suddenly devalue, so I felt very good about the value I was able to achieve for them in this case. Sure, this wasn’t the world’s most “aspirational” redemption. However, nothing in this market is given the number of points I had.

How I Booked The Industry’s Best “Sweet Spot” Award Flight

There were two specific types of points I wanted to use for my South Africa trip: Avianca LifeMiles and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. I had an uncomfortably high Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan balance, and there is an astonishingly good award on their chart. It’s only 70,000 points from the US to Johannesburg on Cathay Pacific in first and business class (first class to Hong Kong and business class onward to Johannesburg). The cost is 62,500 points if you can find space the whole way in business class.

The economy class fare? 50,000 points. And it’s 55,000 points in premium economy (which, to me, is an absolute no-brainer given how much better this is than economy class). So it’s only 15,000 more points to go first class than it is to go in premium economy class. Don’t get me wrong, Cathay Pacific has a pretty decent economy class (although it’s cramped at 10 across), but first and business class are a lot nicer. It’s hard for me to sleep well in economy class so I feel trashed the first day of the trip, but if I have a lie flat bed, I can arrive refreshed and ready to go. There is real value in what is effectively an additional vacation day.

This price is one of those “almost too good to be true” and also “too good to last” sweet spots on the Alaska award chart. It is widely considered to be the best “sweet spot” award in the airline industry. These existed for a couple of years with American Airlines awards too (where it was significantly cheaper to book American Airlines awards with Alaska Mileage Plan points than it was to book with American AAdvantage points), but eventually their larger partner realized what was going on and dropped the hammer. Alaska is getting too big to keep “flying under the radar” so I expect that fairly soon, the award chart will devalue. This has already happened with Emirates and American so it is bound to happen with Cathay Pacific as well. So, not only is the pricing a really good deal, it’s a deal that I don’t think is likely to last.

What do you do with exceptionally good award chart sweet spots that aren’t likely to last? It’s not an automatic “book them!” but for a 20k mile differential, I think getting an extra day out of the trip is absolutely worth it. A lie flat seat allows your arrival day in South Africa not to be one where you arrive stiff and sore, completely disoriented, after having spent 27+ hours in the air. I don’t want to trivialize 20k miles – you can do two roundtrips from Seattle to San Francisco for that on the Alaska award chart. But the value of what I can get out of 20k miles is about $480, at the 2.4 cents per mile I can usually squeeze out of Alaska miles. Remember how I value miles: not in terms of the cash price of a premium cabin award, but in terms of what I would have spent in cash on a flight.

The hardest part of booking this award is finding availability. It is almost never there. In fact, award tickets to South Africa on Cathay Pacific are practically a unicorn. This is a tough route even in economy class. However, when I went to look, there were two seats open from Hong Kong to Johannesburg in business class on December 28th. When you’re booking to South Africa in the austral summer, this is one of the hardest award tickets to get and it was staring at me in the face. The only thing I needed to do was find a flight to Hong Kong on December 26th (necessary given the timing) that could connect up with it. I didn’t expect that I’d be able to find anything, but I started searching availability from Cathay Pacific’s gateways on the West Coast. These are Vancouver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I could go in business class on the 25th and Alaska Airlines does allow stopovers in Hong Kong, but I’d miss Christmas with my family which was a non-starter. From Los Angeles, there was a flight, but it got into Hong Kong after the Johannesburg flight left. And then, I saw it: a single first class seat available from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Nothing was available in business class, but first class was potentially available.

I say potentially because Alaska Airlines has access to a more limited set of award inventory than Cathay Pacific’s Oneworld partners. I use British Airways’ site to search for availability and while Alaska pretty much never has access to inventory when British Airways lacks it, British Airways can have access to inventory that isn’t available to Alaska Airlines. It’s not unusual to see 4 seats available to British Airways members while Alaska may have only one or two seats available. However, I called up Alaska, and they were able to see the seats I found along with an Alaska flight from Seattle to connect up with it. I booked immediately.

me in Cathay first

It’s a rare occasion indeed that you’ll find me here.

It’s worth pointing out that British Airways also had an option available in premium economy. But this cost 60,000 points and $478 in taxes and fuel surcharges. There is also a very long layover in London, and I’d be there in December. I considered this option to be a non-starter. Had I been able to find BA inventory in economy class, it would have cost me $288 out of pocket and 50k miles.

The Economics – In A Nutshell

  • The #1 rule for getting the best award is “book the award that is actually available.” Ignore theoretical numbers on an award chart: live inventory is what really counts. I had a specific time frame when I wanted to fly and there was award availability with no fuel surcharges in first/business class, but not in economy class.
  • There was a premium cabin “sweet spot” on the award chart that aligned with award inventory. This very rarely happens, so when it does, it’s worth strongly considering.
  • Corollary: This is a very hard “sweet spot” to actually book and it is one that is likely to disappear soon. Availability is exceptionally rare. So this merits even more strong consideration.
  • No fuel surcharges apply when redeeming Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles on Cathay Pacific versus other programs.
  • I had a higher mileage balance in the Alaska program than I was comfortable maintaining.

 

Wrap-Up

For me, it was a no-brainer to book this. Why? I won’t overlook travel in premium cabins even though I normally conserve my miles, and I don’t feel comfortable concentrating too many miles in a single program. Even though it’s awfully expensive to spend so many miles, I think this was an award worth spending the miles to get.

How And Why I Booked A Round-The-World Trip In Premium Cabins

Yes, you’re still reading Seat 31B. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I mostly write about travel to unconventional places via unconventional routes, and about squeezing the maximum value out of your points (in terms of money you would have actually spent). You’re a lot more likely to read a review of an economy class flight to Ecuador on the worst seat in a regional jet here than you are to read about Cathay Pacific First Class.

And yet, the latter is exactly what I booked as part of the round-the-world trip I just completed. I’ll be writing a lot about South Africa and St. Helena over the next week or so but the elephant in the room is the long-haul flights. They were all booked in premium cabins and this is fairly uncharacteristic for me so I figured I’d write a post about why I spent my miles this way, and why in this specific case I think it made sense for me, given my personal situation and the opportunities I had. I will also write two “deep dive” articles about the mechanics and economics of booking these flights.

A whooooole lotta flights

The Flights

Getting to St. Helena requires starting from Johannesburg (you can also buy tickets to and from Cape Town, but these currently connect through Johannesburg). It’s a really unique flight in a lot of ways, the operations and marketing are very strange, and that’s an entire article in and of itself but these tickets are only sold ex-South Africa. The largest number of international flights into South Africa (by far) land in Johannesburg, although there are also international flights to Durban and Cape Town. I ultimately decided to book the outbound to St. Helena from Johannesburg and return to Cape Town, both because it was cheaper and because I wanted to visit Cape Town.

So, this meant that I had to get to Johannesburg, one of the most difficult destinations in the world to reach using miles and points. And making matters worse, I had decided almost at the last minute that I was going to take the trip. This is because unexpectedly, due to a threatened lawsuit, business in my company ground to a halt. This wasn’t something that was going to be resolved quickly. The tech industry more or less shuts down from the middle of December through the middle of January (people take off for Christmas and then it’s CES, so nobody really gets back to work until the 15th). So, I found out a week before Christmas that I was going to have about 3 weeks free. I booked everything starting just 8 days beforehand.

Of course, this wasn’t easy. At all. I was looking to fly over the holidays (or “festive season” as they call it in South Africa and St. Helena) when flights are absolutely packed. However, you can sometimes score last minute seats, especially when you only need a single seat. This is because airlines will give away unsold seats to frequent fliers at the last minute, and they will also generally return last minute cancelled seats to inventory.

You don’t always have to book award flights 330 days in advance

The conventional wisdom when it comes to booking award travel is that you need to start 330 days in advance when the booking calendar opens. Like most conventional wisdom there is some truth to it, but it isn’t the only truth. The reality in the current state of the industry is that revenue management systems at many airlines regularly evaluate seat inventory and make seats available to frequent fliers based on anticipated revenue load.

This means that, with many airlines, you have multiple opportunities to score an award seat. Consider a flight where five business class seats were made available for awards. The airline might initially make two seats available 330 days in advance. However, they might open up another two seats 20 days before departure (allowing the seat to be booked, but allowing themselves to collect a close-in booking fee). Another seat might open up 3 days before departure if it has remained unsold, with the final seat made available on the day of departure. People also sometimes need to cancel their flights at the last minute. There is an influenza epidemic this winter. Someone else’s flu misery might be your travel opportunity, because most airlines will put award seats that were cancelled up for grabs.

This is what saved me. I was able to book the whole thing using the mileage currencies I wanted thanks to last-minute inventory becoming available. What was available to book? A mix of the world’s most aspirational and least aspirational first and business class products. In the end, it cost me under $300 in cash to literally travel all the way around the world, in premium cabins, on all but one leg of my journey. If I’d paid cash, this would have cost over $30,000. And if I’d bought a discounted business class fare, it would still have cost me about $7,000.

Why I Booked In Premium Cabins

I normally fly in economy class and look for “sweet spots” on award charts to travel the maximum distance and squeeze the maximum value out of the fewest number of points. However, I consider Africa to be a “sour spot” destination in economy class. Depending on the award program you use, it can cost 50,000 points in economy class for a one-way trip to Africa. And South Africa is really far away. From Seattle, it’s 14,237 miles when routing via Asia.

Meanwhile, the price in a premium cabin to Africa is–depending on the program you are using–almost the same cost as a trip to Europe or Asia. It’s about twice as far, making the value of a lie-flat seat considerably more valuable; however, unlike in economy class, this doesn’t actually cost any (or much) more. It takes a solid 27 hours (or more) of flying to get to South Africa, so this is one of the few places in the world where the upgrade is truly worth the extra miles.

Wrap-Up

I was able to book my trip during absolutely peak travel periods, to one of the most difficult to book award travel destinations, and do it all without paying fuel surcharges. And I was able to redeem the points that are, in practice, the most difficult to redeem for this destination and the most at risk of devaluing. The way that I was able to accomplish this was by being flexible and using multiple points currencies. Award travel booking is part art and part science. I think this was a great redemption, and an amazing trip!

British Airways – Cape Town to Durban In Economy Class

One of the most unique parts of the British Airways operation is in South Africa. BA operates long haul flights from London to Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, they also have a branded domestic operation within South Africa (operating in all major cities) and a regional operation between South Africa and other destinations in southern Africa (Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). The flights are competitively priced versus South African Airways, although fares are usually a bit higher than low cost carriers (including Kulula, its affiliated carrier). And they operate a nonstop route between Cape Town and Durban, which is a route I wanted to take. Better yet, the flight was competitively priced versus the low cost carriers (I was able to book a sale fare) and even better than that, I was able to book the trip using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

“But wait a minute,” you might be saying. “That’s cabotage!” And yes, it would be, except that BA actually operates via a franchisee in South Africa. The operating carrier is Comair. There is a decal on the front of the plane (which is easy to miss) that indicates this and the flight attendants announce “operated by Comair” when stating the flight number, but most people would have no idea that they’re not flying with British Airways. The branding, marketing, frequent flier program, uniforms, Web site and even the inflight magazine are all BA. In fact, the only thing that would tip you off that it’s not quite BA is the fact that in South Africa, BA remains a full service carrier.

BA operated by comair 737-800

You’d never guess that this British Airways aircraft is actually operated by Comair

While BA sells domestic European fares that don’t include a carry-on bag, and BA has also cut meal service on its intra-Europe flights, Comair has maintained British Airways as a full-service carrier. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case; maybe it’s because they want to differentiate the product from their own low-cost carrier Kulula, or maybe it’s because they want to be competitive with South African Airways (which is also a full-service carrier). It’s also possible that the franchise agreement dictates the services they’re required to offer. Nevertheless, the service is differentiated in a good way.

I boarded late, so didn’t get good pictures of the aircraft cabin. However, there are a few things that were interesting. The first is that the “Club” cabin is different than both US first class carriers and domestic European carriers. The seats have slightly more pitch than economy class. They are slightly wider as well. This means there are 5 seats across in “Club” class (3×2), versus 6 across (3×3) in economy class. On a US domestic carrier, first class would be 2×2 and on British Airways in Europe, “Business” class would be 3×3, but with the middle seat blocked out. I think that this configuration is interesting; it’s more like a premium economy class than a business class, but with a wider and more comfortable seat.

My seat was in economy class. Like the rest of the British Airways operation, you have to pay for seat selection until check-in. I wasn’t able to check in using the mobile app, so ended up checking in online late via the BA Web site. This meant that the only two available seats were the very back row (right up against the toilet) or a middle seat in the front. Since I am on the road I didn’t have (or have access to) a printer. However, that’s OK; British Airways lets you compete the check-in procedure online (so you can select a seat) and then print out a boarding pass at the airport.

When I got to the Cape Town airport to check in, I asked whether any better seats were available. There was an “exit row” available. However, the seat maps with BA are really strange about what is considered an exit row. The very last row of the plane–the one where all the seats back up against the toilets and don’t recline–is considered an “exit row,” because it’s close to the rear exit. However, this comes with none of the benefits. In my case, I was given a seat in the row in *front* of the exit row, which isn’t actually an exit row at all, and which doesn’t recline. However, a non-reclining seat near the front beats a non-reclining seat right next to the toilets, so I was happy to move.

Since I carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I have a Priority Pass. I had enough time to visit a lounge and this granted me access to the Bidvest Premier Lounge. Although the lounge is a contract lounge in Cape Town, it’s actually really nice. There was an excellent lunch spread with both hot and cold dishes, a great beverage selection, and the lounge wasn’t crowded. There are even showers available for domestic flights (although they are temporarily not available in Cape Town due to government restrictions on water usage–Cape Town is suffering from the worst drought in 100 years). There is also a large table upstairs with power outlets and good, fast WiFi so you can get some work done. While I’m not sure any lounge is worth going to the airport early, it’s a great place to kill time if you do arrive early. The main part of the Cape Town terminal is great for Africa, but the gate areas can get very crowded because there is limited seating.

The aircraft was an older 737-800, originally delivered in 2002. It’s very much due for both a deep cleaning (there was set-in grime) and a cabin refresh; European BA cabins look a lot nicer but they also have been refitted with newer slimline seats while this aircraft has not been. The flight was almost completely full and only two hours long but the flight attendants still managed to get out a beverage service, a hot lunch, and a second beverage service.

airline meal picture

Spinach ravioli with feta, with apple pie accompaniment

One really annoying thing about flying to or within South Africa is the electronics rules. Held over from the early 2000s, airlines are absolutely zealous about allowing no use of portable electronics at all for completely unreasonable lengths of time. I was using my tablet and listening to headphones, and the flight attendant came by, scolded me, and made me turn everything off the moment we started descending. It’d be great to see South African aviation authorities retire these outdated and antiquated rules like most of the rest of the world has done.

Bottom line

While I don’t think it’s worth paying extra to fly British Airways in South Africa, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. They got me to my destination safely, on time, with my bags, and I wasn’t hungry when I landed. And I got miles in my preferred frequent flier program (Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan)

Points I redeemed

The trip would have cost $78.39 in cash, but I redeemed 5,226 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Yes, I realize that this was only 1.5 cents per point in value. However, this was far better value than the 7,500 Avios (plus $42 in taxes and fuel surcharges) the flight would otherwise have cost. In addition to this, I will receive 500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for the flight (it’d only qualify for 125 Avios or American Airlines points because of the fare class I bought, but Alaska has a 500 mile minimum credit per flight). Although I might theoretically get some better value by preserving optionality for a future flight, this is a flight I wanted to take right now, it’s cash I didn’t want to spend right now, and it was available at the real price (not some arbitrarily higher price as is often the case) on the Chase portal. So to me, this was a no-brainer.

Ringing In The New Year In St. Helena

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

map of st. helena

A tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

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

St. Helena airport runway

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

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

JNB-HLE-WDH-CPT map

The most expensive flight I’ve ever bought

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

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

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

How I’m Maximizing Distance Based Awards In 2017

For a long time, most US airlines charged 25,000 miles for a saver level domestic round-trip award in economy class. This is a number that stayed the same for literally decades. Airlines cut availability of saver level awards, introduced additional higher level pricing tiers with more availability, and made one-way awards available, but one principle remained the same: with few exceptions, the price was–more or less–12,500 miles whether you were flying from Seattle to Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.

Some “hacks” were available, but they were limited. For example, British Airways Avios offered (and still offers) a distance-based chart that charges per flight. For short-haul flights of 650 miles or less, they charged just 4,500 miles (this award tier has been eliminated in North America, and now all flights up to 1,150 miles cost 7,500 miles). This is still great value, but it only applies on non-stop flights. Flights with a connection will cost you at least twice as much.

sea-sfo-las graphic

A nonstop flight from Seattle to Las Vegas costs 7,500 Avios. However, connecting in San Francisco will set you back 15,000 points!

Well, a lot has changed in 2017. Delta got rid of its award chart entirely, and there are now some great values on it if you know where to look (along with some terrible values too). Alaska massively revamped its award program, but was much more transparent with the changes than Delta. American got into the game by introducing a new short-haul award, and even United has an anemic offering in its award program.

Delta

A couple of years ago, I ended up with a massive haul of Delta points through a promo they ran with American Express. The only problem was using them. The Delta SkyMiles program has been much maligned over the years, and deservedly so. Delta was historically stingy with award availability, making it hard to use SkyMiles. Then they introduced an insanely complicated award chart with as many as five different pricing levels. Awards went from being almost impossible to obtain to available, but incredibly expensive.

Eventually, Delta got rid of its award chart entirely. Most people assumed that it would result in a price increase for most flights, and for awhile, that was true. While prices have gone up for many flights, they have–surprisingly–come down on a lot of flights too. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it, but short-haul flights can be priced from 5,000 to 7,500 miles when booked in advance.

What’s more, the pricing may be loosely based on the revenue fare, but also seems to be based on demand for the flight. Seattle to Anchorage is a $140 paid flight, so redeeming SkyMiles yields a value of about 1.8 cents per mile.

SkyMiles award chart for Anchorage

Anchorage is a mid-haul flight of 1,449 miles – but it’s only 7,500 SkyMiles on select dates.

I am using my bank of SkyMiles for flights to Alaska (I recently redeemed 7,500 SkyMiles for a flight to Juneau) and for flights to Los Angeles (I just redeemed 5,000 points for a flight to LAX). In all cases, I have realized an equivalent cash value of over 2 cents per point, which is very good for SkyMiles.

American

American’s AAdvantage award chart is largely theoretical because there is so little award availability anymore. That being said, short-haul flights of 500 miles or less to the US or Canada are allowed for 7,500 miles.

If you’re stuck with a lot of AAdvantage miles and want to use them for short-haul flights within North America, focus on Canada. 500 miles can get you from most of the East Coast to Toronto or Montreal. These would often be very expensive flights otherwise. Given that American allows you to take a connection en route to your destination (while BA charges you per flight), this might be a better option if you can hold the overall distance traveled to under 500 miles.

United

United has, for many years, offered a short-haul award of 10,000 Mileage Plus points for up to 700 miles traveled. However, this just isn’t much of a savings over the 12,500 mile level for longer flights. Since the difference in cost is so small, the calculations really don’t change substantially versus a 12,500 mile saver level award. Generally speaking, United short-haul awards are poor value.

Alaska

Alaska Airlines revamped their award program at the beginning of this year. There was a lot of breathless coverage at the time along with a lot of silly hacks people published taking advantage of loopholes in the pricing engine (which have since been closed). While some of the changes were negative (the biggest being the loss of Delta as a redemption partner) others were largely positive, such as the move to a distance-based redemption chart. This exposed some sweet spots that have largely escaped the attention of mainstream travel blogs, but they didn’t escape my attention.

As good as short-haul awards are on Alaska, I haven’t personally been using them. First of all, they’re hard to come by because Alaska’s chart is variable. Although in theory, you can find awards at the lowest level published, in practice they’re hard to get:

Alaska mileage chart

Although you can find Alaska awards at the lowest levels, it’s not consistent.

For example, it’s under 700 miles from Seattle to Ketchikan. Good luck finding an award at the 5,000 mile level though. I did find a couple – on December 23, for example. Merry Christmas! These awards do exist, but a more common redemption level is 20k which is more in line with what flights to Ketchikan cost.

Unlike most programs, Alaska allows a stopover on a one-way award. This is such a valuable benefit that I always try to maximize it when using their program. However, adding in a stopover seems to consistently drive the price up to 12,500 miles (and this is guaranteed to happen when a partner is thrown into the mix). Accordingly, given my usage pattern and the flying I like to do, it really only makes sense to redeem Alaska miles for long-haul domestic awards in economy class or long-haul international awards in business class (with some exceptions; partner awards on American are also particularly good value off-peak).

Southwest

The Southwest chart isn’t distance based, but it’s worth pointing out that it can be highly competitive with distance-based airline award charts. Southwest awards are based on the price of the flight, not the distance traveled. However, for some flights, this creates a sweet spot. For example, flights from Seattle to Tucson are over 1,200 miles which would push an award into the mid-haul Avios chart (at 10,000 points required). However, Southwest regularly offers sale fares between the two markets and you can sometimes redeem Rapid Rewards points for much less. The same is true with flights to Phoenix and Los Angeles. These are very competitive markets and the fares are low, sometimes as low as $59 each way. With Rapid Rewards holding a pretty steady value of 1.7 cents per point (sometimes more, sometimes a bit less) it’s always worth comparing Southwest to an economy class short-haul distance based award. You may find that Southwest offers better value.

Combinations

One “sweet spot” I have found is also a risky one: combining multiple short-haul award flights. I’ll explain how I did this with my friend Boris on an itinerary to Mazatlan this December.

I am always on the lookout for new routes (since this often means award availability) and American Airlines (a British Airways partner) has recently increased their flying to Mexico via their regional partner Compass Airlines (which, oddly enough, has its roots in Delta-acquired Northwest Airlines). It’s 1,046 miles from Los Angeles to Mazatlan which puts the LAX-MZT flight in the 7,500 mile band with British Airways Avios. American’s flight from Mazatlan to Phoenix is also in the 7,500 mile Avios band, at 789 miles. So both flights are right in the “sweet spot” with the Avios program.

What’s more, these are expensive flights to a popular beach resort at a busy time of year. It’d cost over $500 to buy the tickets! Granted, there is quite a bit of tax built into the fare (which you have to pay in cash when booking with miles) but you can realize about 2.3 cents per mile in value when booking these flights in economy class.

Availability is always tough with American but Boris and I found two seats outbound from LA on December 8th. On the 16th, there wasn’t availability for two from Mazatlan to LA, but there was for one person, and there was another ticket available from Mazatlan to Phoenix (for one person) leaving an hour later. Boris was returning to Los Angeles, but I can connect back to Seattle just as easily through Phoenix so we agreed to split up on the return. So, here are what my flights look like, for just 15,000 Avios:

lax-mzt-phx map

These short-haul flights cost just 15,000 Avios. They would have cost over $500 in cash.

Of course, I’m not starting my trip in LA, and I’m not ending it in Phoenix. I needed to book connecting flights. Unfortunately, there weren’t any available on the day of travel that would get me to Los Angeles in time, so I ended up flying a day earlier. For me, though, that’s actually fine. I have a lot of friends in LA, so I was happy to schedule an extra day there.

How did I do it? Delta. There was a 5,000 mile nonstop award between Seattle and LAX. This flight would have cost $106, so I got a very solid 2 cents per point.

For the return, I initially booked a Southwest award at a very solid 1.8 cents per point in value based on a $130 fare. However, this ultimately wasn’t great value, because Alaska Airlines put a flight on sale leaving at almost exactly the same time. I had a $75 e-certificate that was due to expire, and using this brought the fare down to under $25 in cash. Considering that I’ll earn 1107 miles on this fare, and I can regularly get 2.2 cents per mile in value from Alaska miles, the ticket is actually free–it’s actually a better deal than using points.

sea-lax-mzt-phx-sea

3,896 miles of flying–for just 20,000 points redeemed.

What’s the risk with a “hack” like this? The biggest one is on the return. If anything goes wrong with my flight out of Mazatlan, I could technically be stranded in Phoenix. This is because I’m traveling on two separate tickets. American only owes me a flight to Phoenix, and Alaska only owes me a flight from Phoenix to Seattle at the scheduled time. If I don’t show up for it, they don’t owe me a flight home. Additionally, American isn’t technically required to check my bags through all the way from Mazatlan to Seattle, even though I’m flying with their partner Alaska.

However, in practice, it’s sometimes possible to arrange bags to be checked through. And in practice, Alaska will usually put you on the next flight out if you misconnect, even if it’s not their fault. I’m leaving on the last flight of the day, but my family has a place in Phoenix, so I wouldn’t be sleeping on the airport floor overnight. I have a couple of friends in Phoenix, so can probably lean on someone for a ride. Ultimately, the best deals sometimes require taking a bit of risk, and my worst case scenario is burning some points to get out of Phoenix.

By optimizing my redemption of short-haul awards in economy class, I was able to achieve some very solid points valuations, all over 2 cents per mile, with hard-to-use points. And I got tickets to Mexico roundtrip from Seattle for just 20,000 points.

 

Separation Soap Opera – American’s Love Lost For Alaska

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

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

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

map sjo-dfw-pdx-sea-las

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

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

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

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

How I Just Hacked My Trip To Defcon

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

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

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

SEA-ORD-CLT itinerary

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

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

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

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

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

Itinerary description

8,112 miles flown for 32,500 points.

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

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

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

Flight map SEA-SJO return with LAS ending

A busy April!

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

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