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. ūüėČ

Flight map SEA-SJO return with LAS ending

A busy April!

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

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

How I Booked To Minsk Without Paying A Mint

As I wrote in my¬†previous article, it’s now possible for the citizens of 80 countries to visit Belarus without a visa.¬†However, there are some significant strings attached, the most¬†important of which is that¬†you must arrive and depart by flight at Minsk airport.

Unfortunately, Minsk isn’t the cheapest place to visit, because¬†there are limited¬†flights. Only 12 airlines service Minsk, and¬†two of those airlines only fly to Russia (so you can’t use them unless you have a Russian visa, because of the Customs control zone Belarus shares with Russia). That leaves you with only 5 routes on which it’s practical to use points–all StarAlliance, and one of which is on Air China from Beijing. The rest are non-alliance airlines like airBaltic, Belavia, Ukraine International¬†Airlines and even an airline called Motor Sich which flies¬†to–and I can’t even begin to pronounce this–Zaporizhia. Go ahead, I’ll wait¬†while you go find it on a map.

Motor Sich Airlines

I fly a lot and have never even seen an airplane like this.

The cheapest roundtrip flights to Minsk cost about $200, and leave from Kiev.¬†But you have to get to Kiev first, and that’s not exactly a cheap place to visit either.¬†In this case, my journey to Minsk is starting from Barcelona (by the way, my trip from¬†Seattle to Barcelona cost just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage¬†Plan miles). I was pretty flexible about where I¬†ended up after visiting Minsk, but preferred that it be Kiev. I got my wish! By stacking two travel hacks, I used just¬†13,533 Chase Ultimate Rewards¬†points for the trip. This will allow me to visit both Minsk and Kiev for fewer¬†points than required to visit just one city using a StarAlliance award, and also¬†required¬†no cash out of pocket.

The first step was to¬†find a good¬†fare hack.¬†Belavia, the state airline of Belarus, publishes¬†a fare between Barcelona and Kiev that allows a stopover in Minsk. However, you can’t actually book these fares¬†on their Web site, which only allows¬†simple one-way and round-trip itineraries.¬†Additionally, Belavia doesn’t publish their fares on most online travel agencies. As far as Orbitz (my usual go-to site for booking complex itineraries) is concerned, Belavia doesn’t even exist. Also,¬†once I finally found a place to buy it (a Spanish¬†travel agency), the fare was still higher than I wanted to pay.

belavia review

The title of the top Skytrax review is “Worst flying experiences ever”

I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card.¬†This card is dramatically over-hyped by other travel blogs (mostly because they get a commission for you signing up). However, the sign-up bonus was very good (100,000 points). Also, if I cancel the card before the annual fee comes due, I’ll actually make $150 on the deal (you get a $300¬†travel credit per calendar year, and¬†I have already gotten two years worth of annual credit out¬†of one $450 annual fee).¬†While you can transfer the¬†points¬†directly to a number of airline programs at a 1:1 ratio,¬†you can also spend them in the Chase travel portal at the rate of 1.5 cents per point. “No way they’ll have this flight,” I thought as I searched the Chase portal just for the sake of completeness.

And then it popped up.¬†The exact itinerary I’d found on the Spanish travel agency–and nowhere else. The price even came in a few bucks cheaper. I couldn’t believe it!¬†Most of the time when I search the Chase portal,¬†the results aren’t very good (except for rental cars, where I have gotten some truly spectacular deals). Hotels generally cost a lot more than other places, and¬†flights tend to cost the same or more. The selection is not only more limited than most travel sites, but the portal is also slow and clunky to use. But there in front of me was¬†a perfect itinerary for 13,533 points with no cash out of pocket! Well, anyone who reads this blog knows I like to fly¬†for free.¬†I went ahead and booked it.

What do I expect?¬†To be honest, I have no idea. The Skytrax¬†reviews of Belavia are very much a mixed bag–your experience really seems to depend upon the crew you get and the aircraft in use. However, the schedule was better than any other airline, and¬†I could go for free. Hard to beat that!

While the deals usually aren’t spectacular with the Chase¬†travel portal,¬†there are occasionally good surprises. Before you transfer your points, be sure to compare what the cash fare would be. You might be pleasantly surprised.

 

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.

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.

Why Delta Paid Me $800 To Visit New York

I just returned from a weekend in New York where I helped run an event called SecretCon (by the way, I’m really good at running technology conferences–feel free to reach out if I can help you). My flight to New York on Delta was more or less uneventful. I was informed at check-in that the flight was oversold and offered the opportunity to volunteer my seat. However, my seat wasn’t needed and I arrived at JFK on time.

For the return flight, on Sunday evening, I arrived at Delta’s JFK international terminal (flights to LAX depart from the international rather than the domestic terminal) and found the gate was a total madhouse. On a hunch, I asked whether the flight was oversold. Wow, was it ever. The gate agent was happy to let me volunteer my seat. “I already asked for volunteers and didn’t get any, so I’ll put you in for the maximum bid.” Like many airlines, Delta operates on a bidding system–they start at $200 and go all the way up to $800 if you volunteer your seat.

Delta ended up bumping me, but they also bumped 4 other people off the flight. These were people who were connecting from an international flight and had technically not arrived in time to make the connection, so they weren’t entitled to any more compensation than a hotel overnight (since the late arrival was Delta’s fault). As the only volunteer, I was entitled to the maximum compensation offered in these situations, which was $800 plus an overnight hotel and a meal voucher.

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

Busy Delta departure area at JFK

“So what,” you may be saying, “a restricted and practically worthless airline voucher that expires before you can use it.” Well, that used to be true, but Delta has apparently changed denied boarding compensation in some situations. At least if you volunteer your seat at the gate instead of online, you can receive a gift voucher which is more valuable. I was asked for my email and received a message inviting me to a gift card reward portal operated by Connexions Loyalty, Inc. A Delta gift card was an option, along with gift cards from various department stores, but an American Express gift card was also an available option. Obviously, I chose this option.

Why would Delta do this rather than sending you a check or giving you cash? Well, there’s a chance that you won’t spend all the money on the gift card before it expires, and gift cards can probably be purchased for less than face value (because American Express receives swipe fees from every purchase you make). That’s not the most interesting part of the story, though. The most interesting part is that Delta apparently now internally values transportation on Delta at near cash par value. However, consumers don’t assign the same value to airline vouchers. They do value gift cards at near cash par value, though, so Delta has likely added these options in order to increase the number of bidders in oversell situations, hence lowering the amount they’ll have to pay.What does this mean to you? Volunteer to be bumped on Delta as many times as you can before the news gets out! You might be pleasantly surprised at being given the option of receiving an American Express gift card instead of a semi-worthless voucher.

Blazing Through Belgrade – Part 1

If you book award tickets between North America and Europe, you probably know how big of a challenge it can be to find transatlantic award availability. Getting over the water is the hardest part and you need to have a really high degree of flexibility on which gateway cities you use. Additionally, depending on availability, there might be no actual way to get to your final destination on a single award ticket.

Fortunately, when you’re flying intra-Europe, it’s generally not too expensive to just buy a ticket. Numerous low-cost carriers operate in the region and there’s¬†usually a cheap way to get between¬†European cities. After all,¬†Europe is so¬†small that it’s hard to find a flight longer than 3 hours in any given direction.¬†So, this is how I ended up¬†booking¬†a ticket from Los Angeles to Istanbul via Frankfurt. Not many people want to fly to Istanbul¬†from the US right now, so it’s¬†turning out to be one of the best¬†award gateways to Europe for this summer–if you can accept the SSSS risk.¬†So, for my trip to Zagreb, I¬†found an award flight to Istanbul on Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), and found a return flight from Milan on airBerlin. There wasn’t any actual¬†award availability to¬†anywhere in Croatia, though, so I had to fill the gap.

Croatia,¬†unfortunately, isn’t one of those places where you can fly cheaply.¬†The only low-cost carrier to serve Zagreb, easyJet, pulled out earlier this year. So, forget about¬†catching a $50 hop on a low cost carrier from a European gateway city like you can to most places.¬†Almost every flight I was looking at cost over $400, except for a flight on airSerbia with a 23-hour layover in Belgrade.

serbiabombedYeah,¬†that. Belgrade. The city that was bombed by NATO. Most Americans have long forgotten this, but the¬†scars of the Yugoslav civil war and the NATO bombing campaign are still visible all over the city. Although Serbia doesn’t require a visa for Americans to enter, it’s not a member of the European Union. It doesn’t¬†recognize the borders of Kosovo, either. So, I honestly had to wonder just how warm¬†a reception I could expect as an American in Belgrade. The NATO bombing campaign wasn’t that long ago–I was still in college then. There was¬†also the matter of flying Air Serbia. It’s the former Yugoslav Airlines, marred by bankruptcy after being mired in over a decade of mismanagement.

I held my breath and booked the ticket. I just found it mentally impossible to justify paying $200 more, and the fare rules sealed the deal. Air Serbia has exceptionally flexible fare rules, so I was able to book an open jaw itinerary as a roundtrip rather than two point-to-point one-way itineraries. Air Serbia is also very flexible with changes, which was important because I was flying a hidden cities itinerary¬†and these are super risky. If it turned out I couldn’t depart from Frankfurt as booked and planned, I could change my ticket and depart from Istanbul instead.¬†The price was¬†$218.30 and my itinerary would¬†allow me nearly 23 hours in Belgrade on the outbound,¬†plus a long afternoon in Belgrade on my return.

It was an uneventful flight on Lufthansa to Frankfurt. The service was efficient and entirely unremarkable–typically German. After arriving in Frankfurt, I found the Air Serbia check-in counter. It opens 3 hours before departure and I had a 6 hour layover, so I ended up dropping my bags at the¬†luggage storage facility next door.¬†It’s conveniently located, albeit expensive (the cost was about 15 euro to drop my bags for the day). I then hopped on the¬†U-Bahn (fortunately I had a European¬†chip and PIN card that worked on the ticket vending machine) and headed to central Frankfurt.

Frankfurter in Frankfurt

What’s a layover in Frankfurt without a frankfurter? It hit the spot!

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

A lazy afternoon at the river Main

Trees budding in the springtime sun

Trees budding in the springtime sun

It is a long flight from LA to Frankfurt and I was pretty tired from being on the road. I stretched out and napped on a park bench, soaking up the sun and enjoying the afternoon. Since a lot of not-obviously-homeless people were doing the same thing, I figured it was socially acceptable. It was bliss; sometimes the best things in life are free. Eventually, the time came to make my way back to the airport. I stopped at Starbucks for coffee, at a Chinese shop next door for some snacks, and hopped on the subway.

An uneventful trip back to the airport, and I retrieved my bag. I’d gotten back sooner than planned, and was about 2 hours early for my departure.¬†By now, the Air Serbia counter was¬†staffed.¬†After¬†meticulously weighing all of my bags and requiring me to shift items from one bag into another one (this was done for no good reason, it only served the purpose of hassling me), I was issued a boarding pass and my carry-on items were tagged. Almost no line at immigration, and I was thoroughly and efficiently¬†stamped out of Germany (the immigration agent briefly¬†quizzing me on why I was¬†arriving and leaving on the same day,¬†since I had booked two separate¬†tickets on the itinerary). Once through, I proceeded to the gate area.

The gate used by Air Serbia in Frankfurt is all the way¬†at the end of the international departures area, and you don’t actually clear security until the gate is open. Who opens the gate? The same people who¬†run the check-in desk. And there is nowhere to sit until the gate area is opened. A lot of sour-faced¬†people from the Balkans were standing around looking less than¬†entirely amused, and¬†there were a lot of screaming kids. So, since I had about an hour before boarding, I headed upstairs to a completely deserted transit lounge. Ever wonder what airport employees do in between flights when the terminal isn’t busy? A lot of napping and a lot of texting with their friends on the phone. Most of the employees seemed surprised that a passenger was there, but I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me.

Eventually, I made my way down to the gate. The outside area was even more crowded now, with people even more sour-faced and children crying. Eventually a security guard showed up, then another few trickled in, and they began preparing the gate. German security is Very Serious, with the supervisor first clearing all of the security guards through security. Still no Air Serbia employees yet, though. Those came about 5 minutes later, arriving on bicycles, the same people who had been operating the check-in counter! They actually had to be cleared through security as well, along with the flight crew who showed up exactly when the gate was opening, clearly being more aware than passengers of the actual boarding time.

The boarding process was a little chaotic, definitely not organized like the US or Singapore but more organized than Russia or China. I could see that it wasn’t a full flight, so even though I had a large carry-on bag, I didn’t worry too much about the mad boarding scramble. I slipped into the line in front of an inexperienced traveler, with about the closest that you’ll ever get to a nod and wink from the German gate staff, and boarded the plane. Next stop, Belgrade!

How Free Travel Might Have Landed Me On A TSA Watch List

As a frequent traveler and a member of the Global Entry program, I had gotten used to being able to get through borders and checkpoints quickly. When you’re a trusted traveler, long lines and intrusive questioning more or less go away. And this makes sense. In order to get a Global Entry pass, you have to give up a great deal of personal information to the government and pass an extensive background check. Just a lack of criminal history isn’t enough. While the Global Entry program selection criteria are secret, it’s widely believed that applicants are checked against a variety of law enforcement and terrorism databases. This information is combined with information about your known associates, employment, residence, travel patterns, and income in order to determine your level of risk.

Somehow, I was approved. I mean, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be approved, but I do travel to some pretty unusual places. French Guyana (home of the European Space Agency’s launch site, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited). Suriname (reached by crossing a pirahna-infested river in a leaky dugout canoe). Even Palau. Combined with this, I’m pretty politically outspoken, and have even run for public office as an independent candidate. But none of this came up in the Global Entry interview. They just made sure my birth date was correct, verified my (lack of) criminal history, and took my fingerprints.

Fast forward a couple of years. The TSA implemented PreCheck, which–when combined with my Global Entry number–consistently got me expedited screening. I was able to get through airports quickly with a minimum of hassles until one day, I couldn’t anymore. I had been flagged, and was apparently added to a watch list. My days of easily crossing borders had come to an end. My crime? The government won’t say, but given the timing of the action, a dodgy-looking itinerary to Turkey is the likely culprit.

lax-ewr-lhr-lgw-saw map

This may have been the itinerary that got me in trouble with the TSA

So, as red flags go, I think this itinerary would probably throw up about as many as possible. First of all, it was a one-way ticket. Second of all, it was actually two separate ticket numbers and multiple PNRs. I mean, this looks shady as hell. Why would someone take a flight that looks like an ordinary flight to London Heathrow, then book a flight a few hours later from London Gatwick to a secondary airport in Istanbul (which has connecting flights onward to all sorts of not-so-nice places in the Middle East), unless he was up to something?

Well, I was up to something. I was using frequent flier miles, and this is the sort of itinerary you end up with if you actually want to use your miles to go somewhere in Europe. You end up finding availability to secondary airports on inconvenient itineraries. My real destination was Zagreb, where my company has an office, but there wasn’t any availability to there. So I flew to the cheapest place from which I could get to Zagreb. I booked my onward itinerary to Zagreb as a round-trip ticket from Istanbul and threw away the return portion (because a round-trip ticket was cheaper than a one-way ticket). And then my return ticket from Zagreb was also booked on points–via London with an overnight, on an itinerary that I changed less than 2 weeks in advance due to an airline schedule change.

IST-ZAG-LHR-LAX map

Istanbul-Zagreb, roundtrip ticket, throwaway return portion. Continuing on AAdvantage itinerary with overnight in London.

OK. Got all that? I’m really not surprised that the government didn’t either. Now, it wouldn’t have actually been hard for them to contact me to find out what’s up. After all, as part of my Global Entry enrollment, they have my home address, mailing address, employment address, email address, phone number, and fingerprints. Honestly, I’m not hard to find. And I have to wonder how many openly gay CEOs of online dating companies ought to be considered a more likely ISIS recruit than a likely target of an ISIS kidnapping and beheading! I was certainly paying close attention to my personal security in Istanbul, and didn’t take risks I normally would. Nevertheless, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t bother calling me to make sure I was safe in Istanbul, or offer me any assistance (as the Japanese embassy did to all Japanese citizens in the Middle East after Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was kidnapped). Instead, I was flagged as an imminent security risk to commercial aviation and apparently (although they won’t confirm or deny this) ended up on a watch list.

The TSA has two lists, neither of which are good to be on. The first and most carefully vetted list, with the smallest number of people, is the “no fly list.” Being on this list means you’re not allowed on board any flight to, from or through the United States (including flights that pass through US airspace). And if you’re on this list, you probably belong on it. According to documents leaked to the press and the ACLU in 2013, the criteria for being on this list are criteria I can fully get behind. The government needs to not only be pretty sure that you’re a suspected terrorist, but also that you’re what they consider “operationally capable” of committing a violent act of terrorism. So, it’s not enough just to be a suspected terrorist. You have to be in the actual process of doing bad terrorist stuff, having taken tangible steps toward committing an act of violent terrorism. And for this purpose, “terrorism” isn’t the all-expansive, politically motivated definition of essentially any opposition to the Obama Administration and its wrong-headed policies, but the real deal: actual violent stuff, really and truly bad guys. There are a couple of other categories of people who end up on the no-fly list, including former Guantanamo Bay detainees and known insurgents fighting US troops abroad. Basically, the No Fly List is full of really bad people. Nevertheless, if you’re a US citizen and you end up on the no fly list, the TSA can still issue a waiver on a case-by-case basis and allow you to fly (this seems to be intended to allow US citizens placed on the list to return home from abroad). In short, people on the No Fly List aren’t people I would want to be on the same plane with, and it’s not easy to end up on this list.

ssss boarding pass

Selectee boarding pass

And then there is the list I apparently ended up on. This list is called the “selectee list.” These are people (like me) who are still allowed to fly, but are subject to additional security screening. You can also run into trouble at the border, and extra questioning and searches. Or, as is more often the case, you’re someone who is misidentified with a person on the list. You can end up on this list for a very large number of reasons, and the ACLU has sued the government repeatedly in an effort to reduce the number of innocent people ensnared and provide citizens with more effective redress procedures. One of the ways that you can reportedly end up on this list (there are an expansively large number of ways this can happen) is by making travel movements to known terrorist hotbeds for which no legitimate explanation for the travel exists. On the surface, this probably makes sense.¬†And objectively, my travel to Turkey probably looked pretty shady absent any context. However, it’s an open question what efforts the government makes to obtain any actual explanations for suspicious activity. In my case, one phone call to me–or even an email to the UK Border Force, who asked me about my unusual itinerary in detail at Heathrow–would likely have cleared everything up.

bag tag with SSSS

Selectees’ bags receive a special tag marked SSSS

What happens when you are on the selectee list? Even if you have Global Entry, you can no longer check in online. You have to check in at the airport counter, which really sucks if you’re flying an airline (such as Southwest) that doesn’t allow reserving seats in advance. I am usually stuck in Seat 31B anyway, but I’m virtually guaranteed this now. Your boarding passes are flagged with SSSS, and you need to obtain a stamp from the TSA after you are screened and prior to being allowed to board (TSA agents will also often meet you at the gate and retrieve your boarding pass). The TSA doesn’t always remember this, so you might miss your flight if you discover that your boarding pass hasn’t been stamped. Your bags are also tagged with SSSS and receive extra scrutiny, so if you check bags, be sure to allow extra time in advance. Otherwise they might not make the flight you’re on.

When you present yourself at the security checkpoint, you are assigned a TSA escort who stays with you until the checkpoint. This can actually be a good thing–if the TSA is short-staffed (like they usually are at LAX) and can’t waste a half-hour waiting in line with you, they’ll just cut the line with you and escort you to the front. You will receive the same type of screening as if you refuse to walk through the body scanner or have forgotten your ID. This means aggressively being frisked all over your body, having your genitals and (if female) breasts groped, and having to undo your pants so the security officer can feel all the way around. All of your electronics have to be powered on, so be sure you have a full charge on everything. Everything you have will be scanned for explosive residue, so hopefully you aren’t an Army ranger, the owner of a fireworks stand, or a pyrotechnician. All of your bags will be gone through manually in addition to being X-rayed. While the TSA might look the other way on liquids or gels for most people, every rule will apply to you¬†to the letter. The whole process takes an extra 10 minutes or so at the checkpoint versus a normal screening, unless the TSA finds anything not to their liking and decides to question you further. This could take even longer. And although you’re allowed to proceed on your own to the gate, you’re often required to board last. So, in addition to being stuck in a middle seat, you’re virtually guaranteed no space in the overhead bin. TSA agents will double-check your boarding pass for their magic stamp before you’re allowed on board. All told, it takes the fully dedicated resources of about 10 people to get you on a plane each time you fly–your tax dollars at work. Thanks, Obama!

There is a redress procedure, which I filed. I provided a detailed explanation about myself and my travel that explains everything that might look unusual without understanding the context. Today, I received a letter which said, in effect, that the TSA will neither confirm nor deny whether I was (or am) on a list, but it provides a redress number I can use the next time I fly to ensure that I am correctly identified. So, we’ll see what happens on my next flight. Hopefully, sanity will prevail. In the meantime, if you end up on a watch list, you can at least know what to expect and plan accordingly. And given this experience, I am only strengthened in my resolve to follow the lead of Tim Cook and Apple at Cuddli when it comes to digital privacy issues.

The Flight Where Someone Died – Part 1

So yeah, someone died on my plane. We landed and dropped off a corpse. Full-on, stone cold, dead. Not breathing, passed away, dead.

Wait. Let’s back up and I’ll start from the beginning. American Airlines had stranded me in London overnight at my expense the evening before, but I had made lemons from lemonade. I stayed in the Generator Hostel on an incredible promo deal [expired] through American Express. Including the subway ride to and from Heathrow, it was less than $30 for a night in London, an incredible bargain. So after checking out the nearby incredible collection of antiquities at the British Library (free entrance), I headed to Pret-A-Manger, my favorite London soup and sandwich shop. $10 later, I had soup and a sandwich (food in London is very expensive) and made my way back to the hostel.

And then came an evening involving a Canadian girl, a Bahraini girl, ciders and beers and conversation, early twentysomethings plotting an actual, honest-to-goodness orgy at the tables behind us, a cloud of ganja smoke and somewhere around 3 in the morning I lost track of what happened. I woke up in the morning in my hostel bunk, passed out stone cold with an alarm piercing in my ear. “7:30 AM,” my phone insistently said. “7:30 AM.” Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. I wanted to throw it across the room but knew I had a flight at noon, and it was from Heathrow, so I knew it’d be a stream of endless hassle. So I hauled myself out of the top bunk, the room echoing with snoring I hadn’t even noticed, and walked down to the bathroom to take a shower. My pounding head drew into sharp focus the number of beers I’d consumed the previous evening. I realized that I’m way too old for this shit.

Generator Hostel London

Before things got crazy

Hostel life. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. A staple of my early twenties, it became a less frequent experience as my income gradually afforded me more expensive accommodations. Now, as a startup founder, money is again really tight and I’m back to a backpacker budget. The only problem with this is that I’ve done it before. I have become the old guy in a hostel. I mean, not quite. At least I’m self-aware enough to know that I should probably be owning a hostel rather than staying in one, and that my financial condition (a startup founder on a reduced salary) is by choice a temporary one. I am, after all, sitting on top of a budding startup. Nonetheless, yeah. I’m probably too old for this.

The alarm went off way too early in the morning. I dragged myself down the hall and to the shower, realizing too late that there weren’t any towels. Sponging myself off with an old T-shirt, I dressed, packed up as quietly as I could, and made my way onto the Piccadilly Line, carrying my heavy suitcase down the stairs. No escalators here, unlike the newer systems I’m accustomed to in Asian cities. It takes about an hour from central London to Heathrow on the subway, but it’s the cheapest way to go and didn’t actually take any longer than a train would given my starting point. And I arrived at the airport in plenty of time for my flight.

I hadn’t been able to check in online, but this wasn’t particularly unusual on international flights. Foreign airports usually want to verify your documentation before you fly into the US, and US airports usually want to verify your visa before you fly out. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I was handed a boarding pass with SSSS on it. This was the first occasion of what has now become routine. I was intercepted at the gate and corralled into a separate area where I was tightly frisked and everything I had was searched with a fine-toothed comb. I had officially been added to The List. The only benefit was that I was afforded pre-boarding, and allowed to board the plane before all the other passengers. If you’re deemed a security threat you’re brought to the front of the line, in order to prevent you from mingling with other people in the airport terminal.

The American Airlines 777 had 10-across seating. I barely fit in the 17″ seat. An ample woman plopped down next to me, her mass spilling out over the armrests and occupying about 1/3 of my seat. Yeah. It was going to be one of those flights.

Seat 31B Is Being SSSSed!

On the last two flights I have taken, operated by two different airlines, I have been selected for additional security screening with the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass:

You really don't want a boarding pass with this designation

You really don’t want a boarding pass with this designation

What does this mean? Possibly nothing. Sometimes people are randomly selected for additional screening. Lightning could have struck twice. On the other hand, it’s possible that my frequent and unusual travel patterns (at least, unusual for anyone who isn’t a travel blogger) have aroused the suspicion of the TSA. Or maybe it’s the destinations I’m visiting. After all, my last two trips have been to Turkey and Dubai. I did enter my Global Entry number both times, but was still selected for additional screening.

What is involved in additional screening? More time and hassle. You don’t get access to PreCheck or any expedited screening. What’s more, the TSA takes you aside after your regular screening, goes through your bag manually, and takes several test strips to run through a machine. You’re also required to undergo a thorough manual pat-down (the same one that they give you if you refuse to be screened by the machine). Eventually, they will stamp your boarding pass and you’re allowed along your way.

In case you slip through, your airline double-checks for the TSA stamp on your boarding pass to ensure that you have gotten the additional screening. And if you’re traveling *into* the United States, it’s even more hassle. You’re separated from the rest of the passengers at the gate, everything you have is manually searched, you’re manually patted down (and your shoes double-checked), and you’re finally let on the plane. At least you get early boarding as a bonus, though; this is done to ensure you don’t mix with anyone else in the terminal.

The TSA has a redress program. Shortly after 9/11, I was constantly getting flagged with SSSS. I have a very common name, and apparently one of the thousands of people who share my name is on some sort of watch list. I participated in the redress program before, and the problems magically stopped. So, I’m not sure whether this is a recurrence of the previous issue, or something else. I have submitted an inquiry with the TSA, and hopefully the issue will be resolved soon.

Update: I’m definitely “on the list.” I suspect this happened because I traveled to Turkey via a circuitous route–the sort of route that would only be taken by either a shady character or someone trying to use frequent flier miles. It’s not unusual for me to be questioned by border agents about my unusual travel patterns (which are either a result of crazy routes I have to take in order to fly on points, or routes I’m flying because of mistake fares), but it’s definitely the first time I’ve apparently been put on a watch list as a result of this!