Don’t Over-Optimize Yourself Out Of An Award

I book a lot of award travel – not just for myself, but for a lot of other people. It’s at least 10 tickets per month, and usually more than that, so I have gotten a pretty good sense for what is a good award and what isn’t. I have also gotten a good sense for when people get themselves into trouble. One of the biggest problems I see is that people try to over-optimize their award booking to the point of losing the opportunity to fly with points altogether. If you see a good deal, you need to book it right away. Just get the ticket and figure out the details later. This applies to all airline tickets, not just award tickets. Book first and ask questions later.

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Sometimes I just want to…

What is over-optimizing? It’s going into an award booking knowing the fundamental bargain (or having been advised of it): airlines give away the seats they don’t think they’ll sell. Those seats aren’t the good seats on nonstop flights with perfect schedules. Instead, you’re flying cross country on a regional jet connecting to another regional jet in Columbus, or traveling on Ethiopian from Los Angeles to Dublin. In Seat 31B, and you’re lucky if it is anything other than that. And yet, even though you know this, and I briefed you, and you agreed to it, you just dither and dally and tweak and fiddle and try to get a perfect itinerary in Cathay Pacific first class instead of a perfectly good (and entirely reasonable) itinerary in Air China business class. When I say “If you want to go, you really need to book this right now before it’s gone,” you say “I need to ask my wife” and disappear for a day or three while you try to search for something better on your own.

Even though you hired me to help you. Trust me, although I’m not much of an expert at anything, I’m genuinely an expert at this.

Here’s how it ends, all too often. All of the available options evaporate in front of your very eyes because–against my advice (which you have actually paid for)–you don’t immediately book the one highly reasonable option that is available for your travel dates when it becomes available and when I urge you to book it. Traveling around Christmas and New Year? That’s why there was only one option and that is why that option wasn’t a nonstop (which you can almost never get anyway). It was a good option. An option you totally blew. And that is also why there isn’t likely to be another one. At all.

I think this is because people read too many blog articles and develop unrealistic expectations. You’ll never hear hype from me on Seat 31B, unless it’s about an unusually good economy class seat. However, other travel blogs so over-hype certain airlines and their business and first class products that literally everyone tries to book them and it means award availability is very limited. Here’s some tough love: You’re not likely to secure those “aspirational” awards at all, and you’re especially not likely to secure them over holidays, and extra especially when you show up 6 months after the booking calendar opened. Full-time bloggers have schedule flexibility where they can literally book and fly the same day, giving them access to last-minute inventory you can’t reasonably use. They all have relationships with the airlines and often fly on complimentary “industry” tickets. You don’t have any of that. Instead, you signed up for a few Chase cards and have a few hundred thousand points just like everyone else did this year, and they’re all chasing the exact same seats on the exact same dates.

What’s the reality? If you’re flying in a long-haul business class, it’s far nicer than economy class on pretty much every airline in the world. The baseline is so much of a step up from economy class that the differences between airlines are only incremental. For example, the difference between Air China and Cathay Pacific is pretty marginal. Slightly different catering, better English skill level with a Hong Kong vs. mainland Chinese crew, a different selection of alcoholic beverages and teas, and better lounges in Hong Kong vs. Beijing. That’s it. They will both get you to your destination safely in a modern lie flat seat, giving you a comfortable ride and a nice meal.

There are marked differences in economy class. You feel these much more. Premium economy is a major step up from regular economy class. And since there is more economy class award inventory, it is well worth favoring one airline over another (all else being equal). This is particularly true when you’re looking at 9-across vs 10-across economy class seating on a 777. This just isn’t the case with business class. If you’re getting a lie flat seat, worrying about one airline versus another is mostly worrying about which wine is catered. Does it really matter so much that you’d risk losing an opportunity to fly in business class for free?

Apparently, it was. You decided to push your luck. Not content with finding an itinerary that met all of your requirements and was really very good, you held out for something better. Except it wasn’t actually there, because airlines barely give away any seats during Christmas and New Year at all, and especially not premium airlines on premium nonstop routes. Instead, someone else snapped up the award you didn’t book. They were happy to have what you were trying to over-optimize. Your opportunity disappeared right in front of your nose. And I know exactly what’s going to happen next.

You’re going to be upset with me.

 

Tax Day: Should You Pay Your Taxes With A Credit Card?

A reader contacted me and asked a question that a lot of folks are asking on tax day: “Should I pay my taxes with a credit card?” The answer is a strong “it depends” and you need to be careful. Beware of bloggers bearing affiliate links and pushing you to do this.

First of all, any way that you do this, you’ll be paying a fee. That’s real cash that you’re shelling out in return for points. In nearly all cases, if you’re just doing this for the points, you’ll be paying more than they’re worth. Typically, tax services charge around 2% to pay your taxes with a credit card, which is the same thing as buying points for 2 cents each. You can often buy them directly from the airlines for less than this.

If you need to hit a minimum spend threshold, though, this could be an easy way to do it. But it could be an expensive waste too! If you pay the IRS directly (rather than through a tax service) it will almost always code as a CASH ADVANCE which charges interest, fees and doesn’t count toward minimum spend. You will need to pay through a tax service, which will send the money to the IRS on your behalf.

payday loan shop

Bank cash advance fees can cost more than a payday loan!

This could also be an efficient way to get enough points to reach an award threshold, especially if the points are more expensive than 2 cents each to buy. Just weigh the real money you’ll be spending in fees versus your ability to earn the points through regular spending (without fees).

If you pay through a tax service or through your tax software then sometimes–though not always–it codes as a purchase. But you need to be sure not only how the merchant bills you, but how your credit card interprets the charge. If they’re billing you in the “tax preparation service” or “software” categories, you’ll probably be fine. Citi, however, is particularly aggressive about coding things as cash advances that other merchants don’t, so be especially careful with them.

Just as with taxes themselves, how you pay your taxes can be complicated. It’s nice to sweeten the deal with a few extra points, but be careful so it doesn’t backfire!

How To Get Full Mileage Credit On Cheap Tickets

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

  • $709 x 8 equals…
  • 5,672 miles

 

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

businesswoman photo

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

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

  • $138 x 5 equals…
  • 690 miles

 

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

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

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

alaska_airlines_2016_logo

 

 

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

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

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

fare bucket image

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

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

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

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

singapore_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

 

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

There are some big sweet spots in the program:

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

 

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

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

czech_airlines_logo-svg

 

 

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

The upsides:

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

 

There are some key downsides to the OK Plus program:

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

 

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

Wrapping Up

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

Good luck, and see you in the sky!

FlightCar: Sharing Economy Gone Horribly Wrong

If you’re a frequent traveler, you have likely encountered the sharing economy. Uber doesn’t actually own any cars or employ the drivers, but they move roughly as many people around every day as airlines. Airbnb doesn’t actually own any rooms, but they rent more rooms than many hotel chains. I’m generally an early adopter of technology (as you might expect given that I’m a startup founder), so I was eager to try another innovation in the sharing economy: FlightCar. Unfortunately, this proved to be a very expensive mistake.

When you see this company, run the other direction!

When you see this name, run!

FlightCar’s pitch is simple: park your car with them. You won’t pay for parking, they’ll drop you off and pick you up at the airport, and your car will be clean, fueled and waiting when you return. The catch? They can rent out your car to their customers while your car is with them. If they do, you’ll be paid 10 cents per mile driven. Easy, right? This seemed like a no-brainer when I took a recent trip to The Philippines, and needed to leave my car parked at LAX for a month. Nothing could have prepared me for the nightmare that ensued.

Just one problem: this isn’t my car!

When I arrived back at LAX after a long international trip, I had only one thing on my mind: pick up my car so I could get to my friend’s house and go to sleep. My connecting flight had been delayed for 3 1/2 hours in Seoul, so it was late and I was tired. I called the toll-free number for FlightCar and they dispatched a driver.

Eventually, I got a call from a guy who showed up in a creaky old Lincoln Town Car. He drove me in silence to the FlightCar office. I felt a vague sense of impending doom. “Did you see the photos I sent?” was the first question from the representative. “No, what happened?” I replied. “Follow me,” said the representative, taking me out into the parking lot to a scratched and damaged Nissan Versa. “There was an accident,” he said. “Well, just one problem,” I said. “This isn’t my car.”

I looked around the parking lot. My car was nowhere to be seen. “This…isn’t your car?” the representative repeated, slowly. “Yes, my car is a hatchback, this is a sedan,” I replied. “It definitely isn’t my car.” This kicked off a 3 hour long circus, whereupon my car was located in the hands of a renter in West Hollywood. Apparently, since it was the only car on the lot, FlightCar rented it out even though I was returning. They figured they’d pick up the pieces later. I’m not sure how often this happens (the representative wouldn’t say) but I wasn’t having it. I needed my car to embark on a cross-country trip the next day. Eventually, we arrived at a solution where we’d take the damaged Versa to the renter in West Hollywood, swap it there, and I’d retrieve my car. It wasn’t clean, and wasn’t full of gas. I paid to top up the tank (although FlightCar claims they’ll reimburse me). I signed off to receive my measly $97 in compensation for my car being driven nearly 1000 miles by 4 different renters. And I also signed off on the damage report.

The damage on to the lower part of your bumper and plastic shielding beneath your car are considered “Wear and Tear”

While being rented out for nearly every day of the past month, some damage had occurred to my vehicle. When I checked in my vehicle with FlightCar, they assured me that I would be covered if there was any damage, touting their $1,000,000 insurance policy. This is the same insurance policy that is liberally touted on their Web page. Unfortunately, there is fine print, and I was burned by it: Hundreds of dollars in damages to my car are not covered by FlightCar or my own insurance.

That insurance policy? Not so much.

That insurance policy? Not so much.

Just look at the damage that was caused to my car:

IMG_20160316_095219 IMG_20160316_095250 IMG_20160316_095308In case you’re wondering which of these damages is covered by FlightCar’s $1,000,000 insurance policy–the windshield rock chip or the massive paint scrapes and underskirt damage – it’s the rock chip. My own auto insurance is of no help either. Because my car was not operated by me and was being commercially used by FlightCar, my own insurance won’t pay to repair the damage either. I am left holding the bag. Here is FlightCar’s response to me:

Per our “Owner’s Terms” the damage on to the lower part of your bumper and plastic shielding beneath your car are considered “Wear and Tear”. As long as the damage is purely cosmetic.
 
We can, however, cover your windshield. I would need a picture of the chip or crack in your windshield to compare it to the photos we have on file. As soon as you send me that photo I can help you move forward with your claim.
 
 
Thank you,
 
Sayeed Shah
Resolutions Manager

Warning: Not all sharing economy companies are alike and participating in the sharing economy can end up costing you money.

Some companies, like airbnb, have your back. If an airbnb member damages your home, airbnb will take care of you. FlightCar, unfortunately, is hiding behind several pages of dense legalese that apparently say the exact opposite of both their advertising and their representatives.

Update: More than 2 months after I posted this, FlightCar’s new head of customer service reached out to me. We came to an agreement: FlightCar would repair my car to the condition it was in when I dropped it off, and I would update this blog post to say so. They held up their end of the bargain, so I’m holding up mine.

Don’t Get Conned By Chase: Read The Fine Print!

I like getting bonus miles to share a good deal with friends, and I don’t like fine print. Chase is offering some of both in their most recent refer-a-friend promo for the Rapid Rewards Visa that you may have signed up for when I offered it in November. Beware: you might not get the miles you expect for signing up your friends if Chase also offers you a referral bonus.

I received an offer in the mail last week offering me 5,000 miles for every person that I refer through June 30th. However, there is a lot of disturbing fine print so I called Chase today to confirm the details of the offer. What I found out was really disturbing and Chase may not honor the referral deal as clearly published. So, if you choose to participate in this program, it’s best to be fully aware of how it might bite you.

Changing Promotions

Chase can change the terms of the promotion at any time. So, although I received a refer-a-friend offer in the mail for up to 10 friends–and they even included 10 tear-off referral cards to share–my promotion was silently cut back! What did Chase do? They pared back the promotion to only allowing 6 referrals instead of 10, and this was done with no prior notification. I would never have known unless I called Chase and they told me that they did this. I would have done the work of selling 4 friends and readers on their card (which, to be clear, is actually a good deal) for no compensation whatsoever.

Calendar Year Can Clobber Your Points

Making matters worse, Chase only awards 50,000 referral points per calendar year. I completed 10 referrals in November and December. However, the points haven’t been credited to my account yet, and won’t be credited until sometime in 2016. Chase measures “calendar year” based on when they credit the points to your account, not based on when the referral was completed. So, if I participate in any referral programs in 2016 at all, I’ll be helping Chase sell credit cards, but I won’t actually get the referral bonus for doing so. If I hadn’t asked, I would have done a lot of work for nothing.

Calling Out Chase

Most travel bloggers won’t ever call out a bank for doing something wrong or questionable. After all, Chase pays good money for referrals, which is why most travel blogs are always going on and on about the Sapphire Preferred card (which, to be honest, just isn’t all that good). I’m not afraid to call out Chase, though–they’ve never paid me a dime. The refer-a-friend program is rife with exclusions and “gotcha” clauses and there’s simply no excuse for it. If Chase takes the referral, they should cough up the miles without any weaseling. After all, referring friends and readers doesn’t stop with them signing up for the card. It’s a lot of work! People come to me about any problems they have with the card, or any questions they have about the Rapid Rewards program in general.

What’s Next?

I still think that the Rapid Rewards Visa offer with 50,000 bonus points is a good deal (vs. their normal 25,000 bonus point offer, which isn’t good). However, the refer-a-friend program just isn’t credible. It’s just too rife with conditions, exclusions, and last-minute changes. If you’re going to participate, I recommend you call Chase every time to confirm the details before you make a referral. And given the amount of time this requires, you might prefer to avoid the program altogether.

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.

Cheap Spirit Intro Fares: Should You Bite?

Spirit Airlines has some new routes to and from LA, and they’re advertising very low introductory fares starting as low as $34.10 each way (for flights to and from Portland). These are exceptionally low fares, some of the lowest I have ever seen on these routes. Given the savings, should you bite?

Spirit ad for LA flights

The headline fare is low, but there’s a catch!

Maybe not. There aren’t many airlines that are on my “no fly list,” but Spirit and Ryanair both qualify. Why? The customer experience is more like navigating a minefield rather than buying tickets. Apart from charging for checked bags, they also charge for carry-on bags, printing your boarding pass, and even booking online. But wait, there’s more. Once you’re finally on board (and after paying more in add-on fees than you expected), Spirit has the most uncomfortable seats in the skies. There is a mere 28″ of space in between the narrow 17″ seats. Seats on Spirit don’t even recline! And unlike every other airline, not even a glass of water is free. You’ll have to buy a drink and pay $3. So, by the time you get done, you might not be saving a lot of money.

There is also the question of irregular operations. If you’re flying with a mainstream airline (in the US, this means most carriers apart from Southwest, Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier), these airlines have agreements to get you where you’re going even if another seat isn’t available on the carrier you booked. So, for example, if you’re on the last United flight of the day from Seattle to Las Vegas and the plane has a mechanical issue, they could instead (pending availability) rebook you on a later Alaska or Delta flight to get you where you’re going. Spirit will never rebook you on any flight that isn’t their own. They have a reputation for taking liberties with the definition of “weather” in order to avoid paying for hotels if they strand you somewhere (if they can blame weather, they don’t have to pay). And Spirit has far more limited numbers of flights, so it could be several days before they can get you where you’re going. This isn’t a problem with a larger carrier. Even Southwest, which also won’t rebook you on other airlines, at least has such a large and extensive route network that there’s usually a way to get you where you’re going in a reasonable time frame.

Southwest usually has enough flights to bail you out of a jam

Southwest usually has enough alternatives to bail you out of a jam

Is Spirit worth it? I would maybe consider them for one-way, optional journeys from my home city where I don’t need to carry luggage and I can buy the ticket at the airport and check in online. This avoids Spirit’s extra “gotcha” fees. And if something goes wrong, I could just cancel the trip and ask for a refund (which Spirit will grudgingly provide in the event of irregular operations). If I’m only using them from my originating city, I won’t have to worry about getting stranded in a place where hotel room costs erase any savings. However, also note I’m 5’7″ tall and weigh 140 pounds. Narrow seats that are spaced close together don’t bother me that much. If I end up in Seat 31B, so be it. If you’re big and/or tall, it’s another question entirely. You’ll likely end up paying for priority seating to avoid the crunch in the back, erasing even more of the savings.

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.

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!

 

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!