Save Money, Drive Instead: LAX Flyaway Fares To Increase 1/1/16

One of the biggest criticisms of the Los Angeles area is that public transportation is fairly poor. Although the LA Metro goes to the airport, it requires several transfers and more than an hour to get to the more central parts of the Los Angeles area.

A few years ago, LAX Airport began to plug the gap with its own buses called LAX Flyaway. The buses leave LAX and go to relatively central parts of the Los Angeles area. Initially, you could travel to Union Station downtown (with easy Red Line connections to the most popular tourist areas) but you can now travel directly to Hollywood, to Westwood (near UCLA), Long Beach, Van Nuys and more. These buses are a fairly convenient and relatively inexpensive option if you’re going to anywhere near where they stop.

LAX Flyaway station map

Newly expanded LAX Flyaway service

Unfortunately, since the launch, the cost of the LAX Flyaway has gradually crept up and it’s going up again on the 1st to $9 per passenger, per ride. At this point, it’s worth rethinking whether to use the Flyaway service for shorter trips. Parking in the LAX area is extremely competitive and costs as little as $3.75 per day at some lots. You can even get free street parking for short trips in some locations, if you take advantage of free hotel shuttles nearby. At a cost of $72 for a family of 4 (plus the cost of transit to and from the bus stop), driving to the airport and parking for a week costs about the same as using the LAX Flyaway. However, it’s a lot less hassle. For shorter trips, you can save money by driving instead.

I like the LAX Flyaway service, but the cost has crossed the threshold where I can really recommend it, unless you’re taking a long trip by yourself and you are within easy walking or subway distance of a bus stop. Door-to-door shuttle anywhere in the Los Angeles area costs just $21 each way with Shuttle2LAX, so you don’t have to schlep your luggage on the subway. From many parts of the Los Angeles area, using Lyft or Uber costs only slightly more.

So, hop in your car. Clog up the roads. Spew out some smog. It’s one of those “only in LA” things, but driving–believe it or not–can actually be cheaper than the bus.

Hoverboards On No-Fly List

Hoverboards are one of the coolest tech inventions of 2015, but they have made the no-fly list on many airlines despite FAA regulations that don’t explicitly prohibit them. This is noteworthy, but also understandable. Since 2008, lithium-ion batteries have been banned from checked baggage, and batteries in carry-on luggage cannot exceed 100 watt-hours (which is slightly bigger than a full-size laptop battery).

What’s the reason for the ban? In a word, fires. The crash of a UPS 747 freighter near Dubai in 2010 was affirmatively traced to lithium-ion battery fires. These types of batteries are easily damaged, and can violently explode in a massive fire that cannot be extinguished by normal means. It only takes one battery catching on fire to ignite every other battery nearby, resulting in a chain reaction big enough to bring down any airplane. Although the pop-ups are extremely annoying, this video made by some crazy Russians will help you understand what happens when a lithium battery catches fire:

“So what,” you may be thinking. “Millions of people travel all the time and their lithium batteries don’t catch fire.” And this is entirely true. Fire risk increases with the size of battery, and most devices don’t have large batteries. However, hoverboards do, and as it turns out, the cut-rate batteries and shoddy engineering used on the cheaper models poses a massive risk.

Alaska Airlines is one of the most enthusiastic early adopters of new technologies and they are based in tech-friendly Seattle, home of Amazon and Microsoft. So, when they issued a ban, I really sat up and took notice. Alaska performed independent tests on multiple hoverboard batteries. In their tests, they discovered that many batteries were labeled under 100 watt-hours, but were actually larger than this. This combined with a nationwide epidemic of hoverboard fires was enough: Alaska Airlines has banned hoverboards from their flights, and many other airlines have done the same.

Normally, I would be leading an outcry against knee-jerk reactions to ban new technologies. In this case, I can fully get behind Alaska Airlines. Fires on an aircraft are no joke. They’re one of the most dangerous things that can possibly happen inflight, and your chances of survival are slim if the plane you’re sitting in catches fire. Until better safety standards are in place, and battery ratings on hoverboards are proven to be credible, banning them is a smart move in the meantime.

Keep your travels safe this holiday season. Even if your airline doesn’t specifically ban hoverboards, please leave them at home. It’s not worth risking your life.

The Best Time To Apply For A Passport

What’s the best time to apply for a passport? Right now. The least busy time in the passport office is between October 26th and November 30th. And, for the first time, the US State Department is offering free faster processing to anyone who applies for a passport through the end of November. This applies to both newly issued and renewal passports. Due to security requirements, the State Department can’t easily add seasonal staff in the same way as private businesses. So by offering faster processing, my guess is that they hope giving people an incentive to renew early will nudge them to renew off-peak.

Don't get stranded with an expired passport. Renew early.

Don’t get stranded with an expired passport. Renew early!

What do faster processing times mean in practice? The State Department advertises 4-5 week turnaround for regular passport applications, and 2-3 week turnaround for expedited passport applications (which cost an extra $60). Anecdotally, it can be much faster if you apply off-peak. The State Department processes applications in the order and priority received, and if there isn’t a long line ahead of you, you could see your passport in as little as a week or two. They won’t advertise or promise this, and you shouldn’t count on it, but it can and does happen.

Renewal tips from Seat 31B:

  • You don’t have to wait for your passport to expire to apply for a new one.
    • Many countries won’t let you in if your passport expires within 6 months of your arrival! Consider your passport expired 6 months before the actual expiration date.
  • If you travel frequently, ask for a passport with extra pages.
    • Ordinary passport renewals come with 24 pages. You can get a 48-page passport at no additional charge upon request.
  • Don’t pay for expedited service unless it’s an emergency, and you’re applying in person at a US Passport Agency for travel within the next 2 weeks.
    • This time of year expedited service is a waste of money–except for emergency rush applications–because ordinary applications are processed in an expedited time frame anyway.

 

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.

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 on my plane – Part 2

We were just crossing between Greenland and Hudson Bay when the call came out over the intercom. “Is there a doctor on the plane? Please immediately make yourself known to a flight attendant.” Now, this has happened a number of times when I have been flying. But there was a certain urgency to this call, particularly when it came again, and was amended to “A doctor or nurse on the plane.” Call buttons rang out and a few medical personnel made their way rapidly to the front of the plane, flight attendants speaking in hushed tones. Shortly thereafter, the cabin lights came on. This was no ordinary medical incident.

Over the northern tip of Hudson Bay is about the worst possible place to have a medical emergency. There is no airport closer than Edmonton that can handle a fully loaded 777. And Edmonton is 3 hours away. Sure enough, “follow the plane” in the inflight entertainment shortly showed us tracking to Edmonton. Whatever was happening was really serious. Airlines don’t divert flights unless it’s absolutely necessary, given the high costs of doing so. And they especially don’t divert flights to a third country–where not everyone onboard is guaranteed to be admissible, and where it’ll cost a fortune to get everyone to their final destination–unless it’s an absolute dire emergency. Whatever was happening was a life or death situation.

About 5 minutes later, there was another announcement–one that I have never heard before. “Does anyone onboard have any diabetic test strips for measuring blood glucose?” Now, this could only mean one thing, given everything else going on: diabetic shock was suspected. The victim might already be in a coma. This is an absolute life threatening emergency.

Medical emergency on a plane

Medical personnel attend to the stricken passenger. If you look closely, you can see a bag of saline hanging from the overhead bin.

I snapped a picture quickly, and was quickly approached by a flight attendant who asked whether I was taking pictures. I avoided the question and sat down. “You’re not allowed to take pictures,” she said. I didn’t care to argue the point – the flight attendants definitely had more pressing issues than being the photo police, but they were already tired, stressed out and had their eye off the ball. No need to make the situation worse, even if I was in the right.

Periodically, I heard the sounds of an EKG monitoring the heartbeat, and then the heartbeat stopped. The medical personnel turned the sound way down as not to alarm everyone, but I heard it. When I saw our flight divert again to Chicago, I knew that we’d probably run out of time.

The O’Hare Fire Department, Customs and Immigration came onboard and quickly took someone out on a stretcher. We were deplaned shortly thereafter. When I got to the immigration counter, I asked the officer whether he knew what happened. “The old woman didn’t make it, she passed away,” he said, crossing his chest as devout Catholics do. I replied “On Ash Wednesday, no less,” and the officer crossed himself again, nodding and returning my passport. “Welcome home.”

Life is short. Your time is limited. The economy class meal you just choked down might be your last. Life for today, and make the most of it!

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.

Top 5 Taxi Scams In Mumbai

Ah, taxi scams. You’ll encounter them all over the world. However, even though I’m pretty accustomed to taxi scams during my travels, Mumbai pretty much takes the cake. Nowhere else in my travels have I encountered more shamelessly avaricious drivers. It’s a jungle out there, folks, so be careful!

By Ask27 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mumbai taxis are really cute, but the bill might make your blood boil

Top 5 Mumbai Taxi Scams

1. Modified Meter: You get in the taxi. It has a meter. The meter even starts at the normal fare. But then, not too long after that, it starts running really fast–insanely fast. Don’t stay in the cab. You won’t win an argument about the bill. Insist that driver immediately stop, get out of the cab and take another one. In 3 days in Mumbai, I have been stung by this three times. Also applies to Tuk-Tuks with meters! It’s a huge red flag if the driver wants to wait wherever you’re going and then drive you back. This is so you don’t notice that you overpaid (it’ll be the same both directions), and of course, to rip you off both coming and going.

2. “Broken” Meter: You get in the taxi, and the driver claims the meter is broken but he’ll take you to wherever you’re going for a low flat fee. No problem. Of course, the fee is 2-3 times what it should actually cost.

3. The Drive-Off: The driver guns it and pulls away before all your stuff is out of the cab. This happened to me last night. Fortunately I had the guy’s license plate number snapped on my camera phone (and backed up to the cloud). Also, one of the items stolen was my phone. I went directly to the police, they tracked him down almost instantly, and they were able to get all my stuff back. The driver claimed he didn’t know I hadn’t gotten everything back, and it was all just a big misunderstanding. The police had to let him go because they couldn’t prove he intended to steal my stuff, but I am told by locals this isn’t uncommon.

4. Lost In Translation: The driver will claim he knows where you are going, and then drive you an entirely different place nowhere near where you’re actually going. This is particularly common with hotels and restaurants, where they will drive you to the one that pays them a commission. If you insist to go to the correct place the driver will eventually take you there, but will also charge you for the unnecessary detour. Expect a hard sell for the other property first.

5. “No Change.” Drivers get paid all day in small bills, but usually claim to have no change. If you say “well, I guess I can’t pay then, you will need to call the police” change magically appears, but not necessarily before the driver erupts in a tirade.

Should you let Mumbai’s taxi scams get you down? Keep things in perspective. I was egregiously ripped off today–charged triple the normal rate. In ill-gotten gains, the driver netted… $3. Obviously, he needed it more than I did.

What scams have you encountered when traveling abroad? Comment below!

 

How I Claimed 2,500 Alaska Airlines Bonus Miles

Alaska Airlines has, in my opinion, one of the most valuable frequent flier programs of any airline. So when there’s an easy opportunity to earn 2,500 bonus miles, I jump at the chance!

On a recent flight to Seattle, my bag arrived on the belt 25 minutes after my flight. With most airlines this would be pretty fast, but with Alaska it’s 5 minutes later than their 20 minute baggage service guarantee. No kidding: Alaska guarantees that you’ll have your checked bag at the carousel no more than 20 minutes after your flight, anywhere in their system. What does Alaska give you if your bag shows up late? Either 2,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan bonus miles, or a $25 discount certificate good toward a future flight. This effectively refunds your checked baggage fee and you can even come out ahead if claiming the miles, because those are more valuable than $25.

image of bonus miles delivered to my Alaska account.

Bonus miles for late luggage, delivered!

To claim your miles, just see the baggage service representative. They’ll give you a voucher that you can use to either claim the discount or the bonus miles. It is fast and hassle-free, provided that your bag really was late. They do actually check. All bags are scanned as soon as they show up on the belt, and the time is compared with the published flight arrival time. So, no claiming the bonus unless your bags really are late.

The best part? I didn’t even pay for the checked bag! Alaska Airlines is running a promotion for the month of January where checked bags are free. So, checking a bag paid off more than simply avoiding the hassle of fighting for space in the overhead bin. All I had to do was pay attention to my watch and make an easy claim!

 

1 Star Hotel Review: Greenwich Inn, San Francisco

It has been a super busy couple of weeks as I’ve been attending startup events around California. However, I was able to squeeze in some stays at one and two star properties thanks to the Visa Checkout promo with Orbitz. For those of you who missed it, over Black Friday, Orbitz and Visa ran a joint promo that gave $100 off a booking of $100 or more. I snapped up 9 hotel rooms, although I ultimately ended up having to cancel 3 of them. This covered two of my nights in San Francisco, and I spent 3 more nights with relatives, who were kind enough to let me stay through the crazy weather and help me avoid a commute to the conference.

Today, my friends invited me to a party in San Francisco at the last minute, but I’d already left my relatives’ house and it isn’t really appropriate to stumble in drunk late at night anyway. So, I needed a place to crash. In San Francisco. On the weekend. This is the kind of place where a couch in a living room on airbnb goes for $80 a night–plus tax! So, I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered that Orbitz and Visa ran another promo through their Hotel Club affiliate: AUD $50 off an AUD $100 or greater booking.

SF Marina neighbhood

You can’t get in a much more central SF Marina location than this.

I found the one-star Greenwich Inn listed for the low, low price of AUD $104. Unfortunately, Orbitz lists the rate before they add on taxes and a bunch of fees, and the discount is off the base rate, not the all-in price. So, the price actually worked out to AUD $70.59 after the discount, which is about USD $58. Still, this is the same all-in price as a hostel bunk in the worst part of town, and it’s is a standalone property in the Marina District with free parking and WiFi. You get your own room and the Internet even sort of works. Split with two or more people, you’ll pay less than you would for hostel bunks. The property seems popular with backpackers.

What does this buy you, though? A property built in the 1960s motel style that has undoubtedly seen a lot of terrible things happen between its walls, but has been spruced up to look semi-respectable. Here are a few photos of what life on the road looks like Seat 31B style. The Greenwich Inn is a typical one star experience, although I had much more a vibe here of something being very wrong just beneath the surface than most other properties. It definitely falls in the “creepy motel” category.

bed at greenwich inn

Queen sized bed. This was advertised as a king. Some tripadvisor reviews complain of bedbugs, so check carefully.

Bathroom, Greenwich Inn

Something bad happened in the bathroom. The door looks like it was previously kicked in and the mirror is broken. However, the bathroom was clean and smelled like bleach.

Bathroom amenities, Greenwich Inn

A nice set of amenities in the bathroom, resembling those you’d get in a 4 star hotel

Room amenities

Old tube TV, a battered mini fridge, and free in-room coffee.

Coffee table book, Greenwich Inn

Coffee table book mostly full of ads for shopping and tourist traps. Some of the pages were stuck together.

Heater, Greenwich Inn

The wall heater is broken so the hotel provided an industrial shop style electric heater.