Booking Intra-Australia Flights With Points

This September, I’ll be going to Christmas Island. However, I’ll be arriving in Sydney and departing to Christmas Island from Perth. This means that I needed to figure out how to get between Sydney and Perth.

Most of the articles I read about intra-Australia travel rush straight to using British Airways Avios for award tickets on Qantas. This can often be good value but it’s not always. Avios can be a terrible value, too! Instead, I’ll walk you through the process that I followed and the calculations I made which led me to use a different program.

The first thing I always check is the cash price of a ticket so I can calculate the value of a redemption. Like any comparison I don’t compare the same exact flights, but use comparable flights to find the lowest fare. Not surprisingly, given the length of the transcontinental flight, it’s expensive to fly between Sydney and Perth. I had specific dates and times I needed to fly, and the cash price on Virgin Australia was $324. This was actually pretty good. The cheapest price in the market was $296, and this didn’t include a checked bag, which I’ll need. So the Virgin Australia fare really was the best deal.

Sydney to Perth is a slightly longer flight than Los Angeles to Atlanta.

Points Options

On paper, I had two options to spend points on this flight. Delta and Singapore Airlines both partner with Virgin Australia. However, the flight times I needed weren’t available with points. Additionally, both charts are really expensive; it would have cost 45,000 SkyMiles or 40,000 KrisFlyer miles to book the roundtrip. This would yield less than 1 cent per point in value.

I could also book the Virgin Australia flight through the Chase portal. With my Chase Sapphire Reserve, the price would be 21,600 Ultimate Rewards points. This wouldn’t have been a bad deal; there’d be no cash out of pocket and I’d earn a handful of Delta SkyMiles for the trip. However, I’d be taking a risk: my positioning flight would be on an airline with frequent operational challenges (Virgin Australia is known for great inflight service, but also for unreliable operations), and I wouldn’t be able to check my bags through to my final destination. Accordingly, for my return flight, it’d mean that I’d either have to cut my day short in Perth, or I’d be taking a risk.

The similarly timed Qantas flight was a better, less risky option for the schedule I wanted. This is an overnight flight that allows for a 4 hour connection in Sydney, and for which there is no available backup flight. Why was it lower risk? Qantas allows interlining across their own flights. So, if you have two separate Qantas tickets on a connecting itinerary, you can present both tickets when you check in at your originating city, and they’ll issue boarding passes all the way through and check your bags all the way through. This reduces the risk of flying on multiple tickets. If your first Qantas flight is delayed, you are much less likely to be stranded in the connecting city because you can more easily make a tight connection (you won’t have to claim your bags and check in again).

The more flights that you string together, the greater the risk of irregular operations.

Qantas also has special, unpublished rules for when a revenue ticket is combined with an award ticket. They understand that people often have to buy positioning flights for use with award tickets. Ordinarily, these rules apply when the short-haul segment is a revenue flight, but there is nothing in the rule that says that the long-haul segment can’t be part of the combination instead. What are the rules? Well, they’re unpublished, so nobody really knows, and they could change at any time. However, in practical terms, if you check in on time, check your bag through, and have boarding passes for your entire journey, Qantas will treat the entire itinerary as “checked in.” This means that if your Qantas flights are delayed or cancelled in a way that breaks your itinerary along the way, Qantas will reroute you on other flights to get you where you’re going. This can, in some circumstances, also apply to Oneworld award ticket combinations.

Booking Award Flights On Qantas

The specific flights I wanted were available as economy class award tickets on Qantas, and I had multiple ways to book them.

Using British Airways Avios, the price was 25,000 miles plus $34.20 in tax. That “sweet spot” that other blogs have beaten to death (often while selling British Airways credit cards) for intra-Australia flights is a sour spot with long flights like these, which are really expensive on the Avios distance-based chart. British Airways Avios charges no booking fees, however, yielding a relatively straightforward (but very poor) 1.15 cents per mile in value relative to a comparable flight.

Using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, the mileage cost and taxes were the same as British Airways Avios. On top of taxes, however, Alaska Airlines charges a $25 “partner booking fee” per roundtrip, making them the most expensive option. The effective cents per mile received here is 1.06, which is terrible value for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. I average 2.4 cents per mile in “real” value for these points (although I have gotten a consistent 15 cents per mile in “sticker price” value for Cathay Pacific First Class redemptions).

And then, almost as an afterthought, I looked at my American AAdvantage points bank. American has a terrible program for Seattle-based travelers. Availability is extremely limited from the West Coast to anywhere using their program (most award flights require one or two inconvenient connections) so I am constantly struggling to spend my AAdvantage miles in an optimal way. American typically doesn’t open up availability until the last minute, so they can charge you a $75 close-in booking fee (sucking most of the value out of the program). The miles are relatively easy to accrue (with multiple credit card partners offering generous sign-up bonuses), but they’re super hard to spend in any optimal way.

I don’t book much intra-Australia award travel, and most of it is short-haul (for which either cash or Avios are best), so I was surprised to see that there is an incredible sweet spot in the award chart: it’s just 10,000 miles for intra-Australia flights of any length. As the holder of an Barclays Aviator card, I was further entitled–through the end of the statement cycle when I cancelled the card–to a 10% discount on this redemption. This meant that I spent only 18,000 AAdvantage miles roundtrip for the flight, yielding a value of 1.61 cents per mile.

Wrap-Up

The value I received for my AAdvantage miles is by no means spectacular, but I value cash more than devaluing, hard-to-spend points and the value beat the 1.5 cents per point I would have gotten from Chase Ultimate Rewards. It also beats the 1.4 cent per point TPG valuation for AAdvantage points, which–if anything–I consider generous. More importantly, it de-risked my itinerary by keeping the return on Qantas. While the “sleep at night” factor is hard to measure, there is a real value to this as well.

When you’re booking intra-Australia flights, don’t just run to an overly-promoted sweet spot. Look at all of the options.

Want to fly with miles to Australia or anywhere else? AwardCat can help!

I’m Going To Christmas Island

I like visiting remote places. Like, really remote places. In colder parts of the world, I have been to Adak, along with Barrow, Deadhorse and Antarctica. In warmer parts of the world, I have been to Palau and Myanmar. There is something about being on the edge of civilization that gives me a sense of truly falling off the map. And one way to fall off the map is to be in a place that takes real effort to visit, and from which there isn’t an easy exit.

Christmas Island is an Australian-controlled territory closer to Sumatra in Indonesia than to Australia. Fewer than 2,000 people officially live there, and they are outnumbered by red land crabs at about 10,000 to one. In recent times, it has been home to an immigration jail, but that is closed. The Australian government is, however, considering reopening it for those convicted of terrorist offenses. It’s also, famously, the original home of an Internet meme called “goatse.” Go ahead, run that through your favorite search engine. I’ll wait.

As you might expect, given how remote it is, it’s not easy to get to Christmas Island. Once a week, there is a charter flight to Jakarta. Sometimes. If the flight actually goes. You have to book it through a travel agency. Twice a week, there is a flight to Australia. Usually. Sometimes it’s delayed for a week. This is not unusual. And for the privilege of generally unreliable service, it usually costs about $1,000 for the flight from mainland Australia. From Perth, this is 1,618 miles or roughly the distance from Seattle to Dallas.

Getting There With Points

This is where miles and points can come in handy. I often use them for economy class flights on non-competitive routes that would otherwise be very expensive. However, this is tricky in the case of getting to Christmas Island. Virgin Australia, who operates the only flight, is a partner of Delta and Singapore Airlines. This particular flight, though, is unusual. While it’s branded Virgin Australia and carries a Virgin Australia flight number, it’s not actually operated by Virgin Australia. It’s instead operated by Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, which was formerly known as Skywest (not the same company as the regional US carrier who operates flights on behalf of Alaska Airlines and others). Virgin Australia acquired Skywest but doesn’t operate the flights along with its other flights under a single operating certificate. So, this gets complicated when you want to book the flight with points. As it turns out, using Singapore KrisFlyer points, you can’t book it at all. For whatever reason, they don’t have access to ex-Skywest inventory. This is unfortunate because their award chart is much less expensive for Virgin Australia flights.

Fortunately, I also had some Delta points I could use, because Delta and Virgin Australia are partners, and Delta points work for this flight. Unfortunately, you can’t mix and match Virgin Australia flights with ex-Skywest flights and have it price as a normal intra-Australia flight, which is a still-expensive 22,500 points each way. I was starting from Sydney, and the only way to book from there was to book my ticket as–in effect–two awards at a cost of 40,000 miles each way. And this was only possible by booking over the phone; it’s not possible to book this routing online. The price is egregiously expensive and I refused to pay it. By manner of comparison, you can routinely fly from Los Angeles to Sydney or Melbourne in economy class for the same number of SkyMiles. There was simply no way I was willing to pay that much.

Instead, I booked my ticket originating from Perth. This was bookable online for 22,500 SkyMiles each way. It was still expensive, but the $860 savings (versus a deep discount advance purchase fare) yielded a solid value of about 1.8 cents per point when paid with SkyMiles. Other people consider lie flat seats with fancy champagne aspirational, but I consider a ticket to somewhere nobody has ever heard of–and for which I would have paid cash–aspirational. I was happy to spend my SkyMiles on this award, given that I value them at only one cent per point.

This left me needing to get from Sydney to Perth roundtrip, though. I’ll leave that for my next post!

My $174.41 Roundtrip Flight To Syndey

By default, I’m usually a little skeptical of crazy sale fares. Whether it’s the UK in the winter (rainy and cold), the Caribbean in the summer (hurricane season) or a screaming deal to San Pedro Sula, Honduras (the murder capital of the world), there is usually a reason why they’re cheap. 

However, there are occasional sale fares that are genuinely crazy. Air Canada and Qantas have been duking it out for supremacy in Vancouver, an airport a few hours up the road from me. They have been running some truly crazy sale fares. Last month, it was a $528 fare from Seattle to Melbourne on Air Canada. And on November 30th, I scored a $560 fare from Vancouver to Sydney on Qantas. 

Now, this was enough to get me excited. While Air Canada operates a miserable 10-across configuration in economy class, Qantas has a more comfortable (17.5″ width, 31″ pitch) economy class cabin on its A380 aircraft. I was able to book my flights on these aircraft. Granted, without paying extra, I’ll likely be assigned an inside middle seat. Also, it’s a bit of a hassle for me to fly from Vancouver because it requires crossing the border. However, for the price and mileage earned, I’m willing to do it. A wide range of dates were available. I ended up picking off peak early Austral spring dates (Labor Day weekend) to take advantage of the US holiday, but spring weather in the northern part of Australia was pretty nice.

18,900 Miles For $560

Mileage Earning – Choose Your Program Carefully

Qantas operates their own frequent flier program. However, crediting these flights to their program wouldn’t have been good value. First of all, the Qantas program is a very expensive program with which to buy tickets – it requires more points to book flights using Qantas points than with most other points. You might think that such a program would make it easier to earn points, but this isn’t the case. If I’d credited to Qantas, I would have earned the following points:

  • Vancouver-Dallas: 0 points
  • Dallas-Sydney: 4,900 points
  • Sydney-Los Angeles: 4,200 points
  • Los Angeles-Vancouver: 0 points

I would have received credit for just over half of the miles flown, in a program that is expensive and hard to use. No thanks!

Using the AAdvantage program of Qantas’ Oneworld partner American Airlines might seem, on the surface, to be a better bet. They would at least offer credit for the Vancouver-Dallas leg, and their award chart is a lot less expensive. However, the mileage earning is much worse:

  • Vancouver-Dallas: 439 AAdvantage miles
  • Dallas-Sydney: 2,145 Aadvantage miles
  • Sydney-Los Angeles: 1,872 AAdvantage miles
  • Los Angeles-Vancouver: 0 AAdvantage miles

What’s the best option? Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. The fare is in “O” class, meaning that it earns 100% credit: one Mileage Plan mile per mile flown. On Qantas. Unfortunately “On Qantas” is the operative term. This fare is a very good example of how airlines play games with mileage earning on codeshare flights.

For this particular itinerary, the flight from Vancouver to Dallas is operated by American Airlines. International flights on American do allow for mileage credit on Alaska Airlines, but for this particular class of service, there is only a 25% mileage credit. Additionally, the flight is operated by American on a Qantas flight and ticket number. In practice, Alaska will typically credit this as if it were an American flight, but technically, they only have to credit Qantas flights that are actually operated by Qantas. I will most likely earn 439 miles for this segment.

Similarly, for the return flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Alaska and Westjet aren’t partners. However, Westjet and Delta are partners. Westjet was willing to let me attempt to claim Delta mileage credit for this segment. If it goes through, I’ll get a minimum of 25% and a maximum of 100% SkyMiles credit for this segment, depending upon which fare class Delta recognizes. Delta is pretty good at denying mileage credit, so I am not expecting any, but it’s possible that I’ll see something. So, here’s how crediting to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan will look:

  • Vancouver-Dallas: 439 miles (probably)
  • Dallas-Sydney: 8,578 miles
  • Sydney-Los Angeles: 7,488 miles
  • Los Angeles-Vancouver: up to 1,081 SkyMiles (>50% chance of no credit).

I will receive a guaranteed 16,066 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. It’s not unusual for me to receive 2.4 cents per mile in value for these points when I redeem them, meaning that the points are worth $385.58. So, factoring this in, I am effectively paying $174.41 for a roundtrip flight to Australia.

I’m not stopping in Sydney, by the way. This is just a positioning flight. My next post will be on where I’m headed next!


Administrativa: Site Upgrade

TL:DR: This is a nerdy technical post about Web site administration. The site was down for several days due to a denial of service attack. It’s back up now.

Five days ago, I was notified by our hosting provider, Dreamhost, that our site had experienced a denial of service attack so they took it offline. I’m not sure who would actually want to attack a free, irregularly updated blog about economy class travel (maybe Xiamen Air wasn’t happy with my review), but I can state pretty definitively that DDoSing a site at Dreamhost is effective. Dreamhost totally punishes the victim. They completely removed our site, which had to be restored from a backup. After that, they required us to move it into Cloudflare. Dreamhost has some automated tools to do this, which they ran, but they didn’t actually work. Our site was left in a broken state. Three days later, after failing to solve the problem, Dreamhost more or less washed their hands of the problem and passed the buck to Cloudflare.

It was DNS meme

This time, it actually wasn’t DNS

I’ve been pretty busy and I normally give folks plenty of space to do their jobs, but five days of downtime is where my patience with junior tech staff exceeds its limit and I get personally involved. Ultimately, I blocked a few hours to roll up my sleeves and fix the problem (I have worked in IT pretty much my whole life, and am currently a senior information security architect).

The first thing I did was decouple the site from Dreamhost DNS which–inexplicably–is the default when you enable Cloudflare caching on a site hosted at Dreamhost. A million and one problems can be caused by DNS, so it’s generally a best practice to host DNS with the ISP that is actually serving your site (which, in the case of using Cloudflare, becomes Cloudflare). I thought there was a pretty good chance that this would fix the problem, but it only partially resolved the problem. The cipher mismatch error I was receiving when using SSL was replaced with a redirect loop.

I did some digging, and it turns out that there are two WordPress plugins that need to be installed in order to solve the problem. One fixes the redirect loop problem, and the other integrates WordPress with your Cloudflare account. Now, you’d think that Dreamhost support–given their extensive support for WordPress–might know about this, but somehow, they didn’t. Anyway, I wasn’t quite out of the woods when I did this, but at least the error message changed again. A quick search of the Cloudflare knowledge base revealed this could be fixed by setting SSL mode to Strict in Cloudflare. I made the change, and magically everything was working.

We’re back online. It took me about 4 hours to solve what Dreamhost couldn’t solve in 5 days. I apologize for the outage and the inconvenience. Hopefully the move to Cloudflare will have the side effect of making the site faster. And if you have any issues, please let me know.

I Just Bought My First Delta Basic Economy Fare

I just bought my first Delta “basic economy” fare! It was $108.20 from Seattle to Phoenix on Thanksgiving. I’ll get to my mom’s place in time for Thanksgiving dinner, and it’ll be really nice to enjoy the sun. I would normally avoid fares like these, but in this specific case it was the best option for me. Hey, this is Seat 31B–I put my money where my mouth is! 🙂

What is “basic economy?” Over the past 18 months or so, the major airlines have rolled out a new tier of economy class service. This was ostensibly intended to compete with ultra low cost carriers such as Spirit, but ultimately these fares showed up on pretty much every route.

The specifics of these fares vary by airline but the common features are as follows:

  • No changes or cancellations are allowed, with very limited exceptions. If you don’t fly, you lose the entire fare.
  • No seat selection until the time of check-in. This means you have a better chance of ending up in a middle seat.
  • Frequent flier program benefits are limited. If you’re an elite member of a frequent flier program, you won’t qualify for upgrades or standby lists. Depending upon the airline, these fares may not count toward elite qualification.
  • These fares can’t be upgraded at all. Not even if you pay. You’re sitting in the back, no matter what.

 

In addition to this, United doesn’t allow a free carry-on bag on these fares, American doesn’t currently allow one but will do so on September 5th, 2018, and Delta has always allowed a free carry-on bag on these fares. Got all that?

Given the complex rules, online travel agents have pretty much thrown up their hands. They do everything possible to discourage people from buying these fares. Here’s an example from Expedia:

basic economy warning

Expedia all but says “you don’t want to buy this fare.”

Airlines also do what they can to talk you out of buying their own basic economy fares. Here’s the warning you get from Delta:

Delta basic economy warning

“Just pay around 30% more and you avoid all of these problems” Delta’s site practically whispers in your ear. I mean, I’m used to it. Gas stations try to upsell you to a higher grade of gasoline than you need, trying to guilt trip you into paying more. McDonald’s tries to upsell you super sized meals. So why not airlines, too?

After all, the agenda of these fares was pretty clear from the beginning: advertise a deceptively low fare, and then lard it up with fees resulting in a more expensive fare. This is the business model of ultra low cost carriers such as Spirit in the US and Ryanair in Europe. Unfortunately major airlines found that there were logistical problems in the implementation. For example, Ryanair has historically been set up so that nobody gets a free cabin bag (they experimented with allowing these, but have backed off the policy and as of November will charge for them again). Major US airlines give most people a free cabin bag, but United and American charge people traveling on basic economy fares for their carry-on. Similarly, seat selection is free with most fares on major US carriers, but isn’t free with basic economy.

ryanair plane

Most people expect a terrible, scammy experience with Ryanair, but not with major US carriers.

This has all rolled downhill to gate agents, who are stuck enforcing policies that are confusing to the flying public, most of whom are not frequent travelers. The outcome is predictable: abandoned bags in airports causing security nightmares (Paris Charles de Gaulle airport alone had to call bomb disposal units over 1,000 times in 2017), parents being separated from their kids, and flight delays. That’s actually a really bad thing in the airline business–flight delays are really expensive.

Given all of this, you might wonder why I’m crazy enough to buy a Delta basic economy fare. The answer is simple: I’m saving $30, and for this specific flight, I’m actually not giving up anything of value. I’ll break it down so you can see why this was the logical choice.

My Options

For this flight, I had three practical options. I’ll break these down below.

The first option: 12,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan or American AAdvantage points for a connecting itinerary from Seattle to Phoenix via Sacramento. This was attractive because I didn’t have to spend any cash (apart from the taxes), and it was a way to burn American Airlines AAdvantage miles (which are hard to use). Also, AAdvantage allows changing dates and routings as long as the origin and destination cities don’t change; this would give me the option to move to a different date and/or a nonstop flight if inventory opened up. The downside? The flight left at 5:50 in the morning, and the trip took almost 6 hours. Also, for holiday travel, I considered the chances of a more favorable nonstop routing to be slim.

The second option: 10,000 Delta points for a nonstop flight leaving at 9:30am, or $138.20 in cash for a regular economy fare.

The third option: $108.20 in cash for a basic economy sale fare sold only on Delta’s Web site. Additionally, I had a $50 Delta gift certificate that could only be used on Delta’s Web site. I find these hard to use because I don’t buy many tickets with cash.

The first option was easy to rule out. Why pay more points for a terrible flight? Choosing between the second and third options, on the other hand, wasn’t as obvious. Delta award tickets are treated more like regular economy class fares than as basic economy class. Still, it’s important to look at the practical differences between the fare types. I’ll break those down:

  • Change and cancellation flexibility: If you book with miles, Delta will allow you to redeposit them for a $150 fee, as long as you do so at least 72 hours in advance. Changes are done as a redeposit and re-booking. You can also choose to forfeit the miles and just not show up for the flight. In this case, it doesn’t make sense to pay $150 to get $120 worth of miles back (if you believe The Points Guy’s valuations). So, in effect, the award ticket option was non-refundable and non-changeable. The regular economy class fare has even worse economics: you can pay a $200 change fee to get back $138 in credit toward another ticket.
  • Advance seat assignment: For some people, it’s worth paying extra to avoid a dreaded middle seat. However, the flight I am taking is operated by an E-175 aircraft. The seating configuration on the aircraft is a 2×2 configuration, meaning that I am guaranteed either a window or an aisle seat. I’m traveling by myself. There is nobody I want to sit with, so there is no value in paying extra for this.
  • Luggage allowance: Delta gives you the same luggage allowance on a basic economy fare as with a regular economy fare. So, I can bring a regular sized carry-on suitcase and a laptop backpack–this is plenty for a Thanksgiving trip.
  • Standby flexibility: Delta’s informal “flat tire rule” applies to basic economy tickets, and this is the only flexibility I’d potentially need. I don’t plan to get to the airport earlier than 9:30am so standing by for an earlier flight wouldn’t benefit me.
  • Paid upgrades: Not judging those who do, but boozing it up at 9:30AM just isn’t my thing. And I am 5’7″ and weigh 140 pounds soaking wet, so I don’t need extra leg room or a bigger seat.
  • Elite qualification: Who cares? As a Seattle-based traveler, I travel so infrequently on Delta given their subpar West Coast schedule that this isn’t even on my radar.
  • Elite benefits: I don’t have elite status on Delta so none of that stuff applies to me. Even if I had elite status, to me, paying more to board earlier isn’t worth anything.

 

When I looked at the full picture, it made the most sense to spend cash this time. What tipped the balance for me? The Delta gift certificate I have has been surprisingly hard to use, and this is a good opportunity to spend it. It’s also cheaper than redeeming miles. I personally agree with The Points Guy’s valuation for Delta miles (although I usually get better value for them), so spending $120 worth of miles (plus $5.60) on a $108 ticket simply doesn’t pencil out.

And there you have it: I bought my first Delta Basic Economy ticket, and it actually made more sense to pay cash than points this time. More importantly, I’ll get to spend Thanksgiving in Arizona, which will make my mom happy!

Fiji Ain’t Easy

I have an AwardCat client who is on a year-long round-the-world trip. He and his partner are visiting some really interesting destinations along the way (frankly, I’m jealous), and Fiji is one of those interesting destinations. Only one problem: it’s one of the toughest award tickets in the world to get, especially in a premium cabin. While I can work a lot of magic when booking awards, this one used pretty much every trick in the book. I’m writing it up while it’s still fresh and hoping that it helps other folks trying to get there.

Fiji beach scene

Fiji dreams? Get ready for an award booking nightmare.

The first problem in getting to Fiji is finding an airline that even flies there in the first place. It’s not a long list:

  • Aircalin
  • Air Kiribati
  • Air New Zealand
  • Fiji Airways
  • Air Vanuatu
  • Jetstar
  • Korean Air
  • Virgin Australia

 

The second problem is routing. Aircalin? It’s a great option if you’re based in New Caledonia, a French territory. Air Vanuatu? Perfect if you’re coming from Port Vila. You get the idea. Even some of the bigger airlines, such as Jetstar, don’t work unless you’re starting in Australia. This leaves only four  real options if you’re coming from outside of the region: Virgin Australia, Korean Air, Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand.

Unfortunately, the third problem is availability. You can book Virgin Australia flights using Delta points, but good luck actually finding availability. The same is true on Air New Zealand, who more or less never makes seats (even in economy class) available on this route. Even if they made space available, finding award availability that lines up from the US to Australia or New Zealand and then onward to Fiji is a nearly impossible task.

This leaves Fiji Airways as the routing that most people have written about. You can book their flights using Alaska and American points. While I won’t say they have either good availability or a particularly good inflight product, it can be achievable with a little (ok, a lot of) flexibility. I won’t rehash all the other posts here; suffice it to say that it’s a good potential route if you’re sitting on lots of American and Alaska points, but otherwise not a good route.

And then there are my clients. Who were, naturally, not starting anywhere conventional, but in Osaka, Japan. This particular client earns Amex points at an astonishing rate; he has the Platinum Business card and his company books a ton of expensive airfare. This is a 5x bonus category with this particular card, meaning that for every $1 his company spends on airfare (and they spend over $10,000 a month on airfare) he receives 5 points. Naturally, given the amazing sweet spot, they have been working Membership Rewards pretty hard and have nearly a million points in the program. And they had very few points in anything else, after I encouraged them to spend all of their Marriott points on an air and hotel package to a Fiji hotel (me and my big mouth). Oh, and best of all, they were traveling on fixed dates (this strikes fear into any award booker’s heart) because they had already booked the hotel.

I knew I wouldn’t find anything on Air New Zealand but looked anyway. Nothing. Virgin Australia was a no-go. Fiji Airways was possible from Tokyo, but not on their dates, and they wouldn’t be in Tokyo. And then I checked Korean. Bingo. Economy class and first class availability on the dates I needed (well, one day early, but no way around that because there weren’t flights every day). And I knew I was going to have a difficult conversation with my clients, who really don’t like flying economy class if they can avoid it. I understand their perspective; really, I do. When you are swimming in points with no end in sight, you might as well burn them on seats up front. After all, my client has accumulated more points than many people could use in a lifetime, and all they do is devalue. If you’re in that position, why not treat yourself to the best?

A route, or a challenge?

Korean Air isn’t, unfortunately, the easiest program to use. You can only book tickets for yourself or for family members, which are strictly defined. And you can’t just name your family members like you can with other programs, such as Asia Miles. Instead, you have to complete a complicated family registration process which literally requires married couples to provide a marriage certificate. My clients, who I’ll call Lars and Jen, are on the road. They’re in a country that is known to have an officious government and are well-prepared for officialdom with plenty of documentation, but a billion bureaucrats are no match for Korean Air’s booking dragons. I knew that the only thing that was likely to work was Lars and Jen each booking their own ticket from their own Korean Air account, which fortunately both of them had.

The upside is that Korean Air will put award seats on hold while you figure out how to pay for them. I went ahead and put the seats on hold, and then we set about the task. The first step was seeing how many Chase points the couple had. These transfer directly to Korean Air. Fortunately both Lars and Jen are Chase cardholders, and they’re part of the same household. And Jen had enough Ultimate Rewards points to pay for her ticket. I went ahead and transferred over the points.

This left Lars. I moved Jen’s remaining Ultimate Rewards points into his Chase account, giving him a total of 42,000 points. This wasn’t going to be enough, but I transferred them over to his Korean account (remember, it had to be his because of Korean’s complicated rules). Lars also had 9,000 Starwood points, which can be transferred to Korean Air. This wasn’t enough on its own, but American Express transfers to Starwood. It’s a horrible conversion rate, at 3 Membership Rewards points per 1 Starwood point, but transfers do go through instantly and Starwood points do transfer to Korean Air. And fortunately, this is an avenue that is still available; the program ends in a couple of weeks on August 18th and it’s likely that the ability to use Membership Rewards points in the successor Marriott program will not exist (since Marriott is affiliated with Chase).

circuit diagram image

Simple, right?

Starwood is also running a points sale, and this offers pretty good value, but I advised Lars to transfer his Amex points instead. Why? He is earning them at a furious pace, faster than he can really use them, and there would be no out of pocket cost to do this. He’s also earning points at more than a 3:1 rate already, which means that it’s not as big a “loss” on the conversion. And it’s not quite as bad as a 3:1 conversion, because for the transfer we were doing, Starwood would provide a 5,000 point bonus. It’s still not good at all, but not quite as bad as before. Fundamentally, though, he would not be trading real money for points. He’d be trading points (which he got for free) for different points (also obtained for free). You really have to be careful about valuing points as money because they aren’t; they are far less valuable than cash.

We transferred the remaining points needed from Amex to Starwood (they credited instantly), and then from Starwood to Korean. All of the points should show up in their respective accounts over the next week or so, along with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points they selected with the Marriott Hotel and Air package they booked. If I’m lucky, the Fiji Airways ticket they want to Australia will still be there and I’ll grab it with Alaska points.

And that’s how Lars and Jen are going to Fiji. Simple, right? Just sign up for a few credit cards and you’ll be in paradise. The reality is a lot more complicated. With some planning and work, you might even get there on Korean Air.

Other blogs sell credit cards to accrue points – we help you use them! AwardCat can help you get to Fiji, or anywhere else in the world.

 

 

Pay For Car Rentals With … Bitcoin?

E-Z Rent A Car isn’t my first choice of rental car companies, but I find myself using them an increasing amount in Las Vegas where they sometimes charge only 1/3 the price of the “big” rental companies. That used to mean bad cars and terrible service too, but recently, the company partnered with Europcar which considerably improved their standards. You get the same cars and staff at double the rates if you reserve from Europcar vs. E-Z.

E-Z Rent A Car doesn’t rent these, but some of the cars they have rented me aren’t much better!

People who rent from E-Z are value driven and are often more … marginal rental car clients. After all, these aren’t business traveler road warriors. Accordingly, E-Z has some unusual policies and promotions from time to time. I haven’t quite seen something as unusual as this, though: E-Z Rent A Car now allows payments in Bitcoin. You can also change your E-Z Money loyalty program points (if you happen to have any) into Bitcoin.

For what it’s worth, I’m a Certified Bitcoin Professional so I can tell you with some level of authority that this is insane. There is practically no method of payment with higher transaction fees than Bitcoin, especially given the relatively low rental fees that E-Z Rent A Car charges. The cryptocurrency is designed for low-velocity transactions in high dollar amounts.

Do you expect other rental car companies to accept Bitcoin payments? Comment below! 🙂

United Close-In Booking Trick Is Dead

I don’t make it a practice to write about questionable loopholes in award programs, other than warning people against using them without knowing exactly what they’re doing. For one, making loopholes well-known and easy to use is the best way to get them shut down. For two, loopholes often come with risks that are underappreciated by the majority of people.

Still, some loopholes exist for such a long time that it is hard to know whether they’re a loophole or intentional. Nowhere is this more true than with United. Loopholes in their “Excursionist Perk” have existed since the award program was revamped roughly a year ago. Additionally, since the introduction of a $75 close-in booking fee, there has been a loophole to get around it: book a ticket farther out, then make a change within the 24-hour policy to an earlier date. Until recently you could do this online, and then for several months thereafter you were able to do it over the phone.

united logo

It wouldn’t be too big a stretch to expect that this was intentional. United customers are particularly vocal and resistant to change, so they have a practice of making off-menu services available to those “in the know” but not advertising them to those who aren’t. Think of this as akin to the In-N-Out “secret menu.” For example, if you book United Polaris business class, you can ask for wine flights, a gel pillow, and a mattress pad. These aren’t officially on the menu, but are available when you ask on board.

Unfortunately, it seems that whether intentional or not, the trick to avoid the close-in booking fee is well and truly dead. When you call in, telephone agents are prompted to collect the additional $75 if you change to a flight inside of 21 days. Unfortunately, I only learned this after I transferred points to Mileage Plus and tried to use them! So in the interest of helping you avoid a similar situation, don’t assume you can take advantage of this loophole. It’s gone.

Air France Economy Class Review: SEA-CDG

Despite rushing to pack, I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport about 2 1/2 hours prior to departure. This was plenty of time to make my flight. Although I’d checked in online, there was no opportunity to enter my known traveler number so I didn’t have a Precheck boarding pass (fortunately, just having bought a one-way ticket 4 hours before an international flight, it didn’t have SSSS either). Having Precheck saves a lot of time in Seattle, but if there is a long queue for the check-in counter, it can take longer to get your boarding pass straightened out than it does to just go through the regular security line.

Happily, there was almost no line and I was cheerfully checked in by a SkyPriority agent. I appreciate that Air France has their SkyPriority agents take customers out of the regular queue when there are no SkyPriority passengers waiting; not all airlines do this. The agent hadn’t seen a NEXUS card before so initially entered the wrong number, but I gently corrected her and she was really nice about it (I’m used to airline employees insisting they’re right and going on power trips when they make a mistake, so I really appreciated the lack of ego).

Alaska Airlines Sea-Tac C Lounge

In pictures, this lounge looks really big, but it’s surprisingly small in real life

Armed with a TSA PRECHK boarding pass, I was ready to do battle with the Precheck line. Fortunately it was a total breeze. Nobody was waiting, and I got right through. Continuing my amazing streak of airport luck, I was able to get into the new Alaska Airlines Terminal C lounge with my Priority Pass. They initially tried to deny me access, but I mentioned that their sign automatically denying access wasn’t out, and they relented and let me in. The lounge has a smart design but I was surprised to find the furniture very dirty (it badly needs to be steam cleaned). The new lounge also looks a lot bigger in pictures than it is. The food selection was similar to that available in the older Terminal D lounge, except somewhat more limited. The pancake machine runs 24 hours (unlike in the other lounge) but there aren’t cheese cubes or vegetables (which the other lounge has). The planespotting opportunities were very good for the aviation geek, though; I not only saw the incoming Air France flight on the taxiway, but saw an incoming Prime Air flight as well. While lounges are very much an optional experience for me anyway, I won’t go out of my way to return to the “new” Alaska lounge if the “old” one is more convenient.

So far, so good, then. Flying Blue had advanced me the points to get on the flight in the first place, check-in was friendly, and I managed to talk my way into a lounge that was hard to get into. Although I have had some really great adventures on Air France (including a flight to South Africa in economy class and an “island hopper” adventure to Cayenne, French Guyana via Port au Prince, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) I haven’t flown Air France in a couple of years. My last flights with them were on an A380 out of LAX in their “old” economy class which was a pretty comfortable experience overall. In light of this I was excited to try their “new” economy class.

Remembering my recent trip to Beijing, I left the lounge 25 minutes before the boarding cut-off. I’m never eager to get to the gate earlier than necessary on long international flights, because checked bags are free so there is usually plenty of overhead bin space. The Terminal C lounge is right next to the airport subway, but you have to change trains twice in order to get from there to the south satellite (from which most international flights depart). The waiting time isn’t super long in between trains and you’re not on them for a long time, but it does add up and it took me a full 15 minutes to get to the gate. Fortunately there was no problem; Air France had just finished with premium cabin boarding and was beginning to board the economy class cabin (where I was in the last boarding group). An agent came by and checked my passport, and I was on board the tired old 777-200 operating our flight. The crew was a very senior French crew, and Parisian in demeanor. This is like a New York based senior crew with a US airline; somewhat abrupt, but also generally efficient. I was directed to my seat, in a row right behind a bassinet infant who wasn’t super happy to be on board. I stashed my luggage, and I was just getting ready to sit down when I spotted something amiss.

There was puke on my seat.

After my cleaning job, with seat cover added.

It had been mopped up by the previous occupant with napkins or something, but there was definitely leftover barf on the seat belt and seat. I didn’t sit down, but stood to the side and when the aisle was clear, I walked up to the galley explaining what happened, and asked for cleaning supplies. Of course, this isn’t actually what I expected to get–usually a flight crew will first verify that your story is true (totally was in this case, the barf was plainly visible) and will then find somewhere to reseat you–even an op-up if needed–taking the dirty seat out of service. Not this crew! I got exactly what I asked for–they expertly put together a vomit kit for me, and handed it to me. Well, all right then. I went back and scrubbed the seat (hoping there wasn’t norovirus involved, because there unfortunately weren’t any rubber gloves). A flight attendant shortly thereafter stopped by, checked my work, took the supplies back and gave me a cover for the seat (because at this point it was wet). I went up to the lavatory to thoroughly scrub my hands, and another flight attendant said “wait here a minute.” A couple of minutes later she returned with a business class amenity kit as a gift, which I think was a pretty nice gesture all things considered. This is probably more than I would have gotten on United, but the response on a Japanese carrier would have been one bordering on shock and horror accompanied by profuse apologies and more or less bending over backwards to find me somewhere else to sit. There is a happy medium somewhere, and that’s not what this was.

These seats are *tight*The good news is that when I went back, the middle seat next to my assigned seat had remained empty. So I just moved over and took that seat. Unfortunately, the “new” Air France economy class cabin is tight. It’s not quite as tight as Lufthansa, but unlike I have experienced on Lufthansa, the seat was heavily worn and uncomfortable. It was so hard my butt was numb 2,000 miles into a 5,000 mile flight (I’m a middle aged guy with an average build). The seat pitch also makes it really hard to work on a laptop (although there was seat power); I’m 5’7″ and there was only about an inch between me and the seat in front of me. Also, in the row where I was sitting, the seats were in a staggered configuration and there was an annoying support post in the middle of my legroom (although to be fair, this isn’t nearly as bad as the personal entertainment boxes that often steal your legroom in economy class).

 

I hadn’t eaten much lunch in the lounge (I just had some soup and salad) so I was ready for dinner, which I knew would be served onboard. My previous experiences with Air France involved surprisingly good economy class catering – I mean, it’s the national airline of France, so there would be good quality French cuisine, right? I also remember being fed a pretty large meal on my previous flights. Unfortunately, all of that has changed. There were two meal choices, chicken or pasta. I’m glad I got the chicken because the pasta was small and didn’t look filling. Still, the chicken was just pieces of chicken breast (not an entire chicken breast, more like half of one) in a white gravy. It was bland, and served with rice. Apart from that, there was a disgusting and inedible lentil salad, a piece of cheese, a tiny piece of coffee-flavored cream cake, and some unsweetened applesauce. I have seen more appealing high school cafeteria lunches, and Air France’s economy class catering is about on par with United. SkyTeam airline Xiamen Air had much better food catered out of Seattle, and Air France’s partner Delta does a much better job with catering as well. The one thing I will say for Air France is that they have a better selection of alcohol than either airline. You can still get brandy in economy class! It’s probably a usual complaint on planes to say “the food was lousy and there wasn’t enough” but that’s exactly what this was. Some crackers with spreadable cheese and a green salad would have rounded out the meal.

Air France economy class meal

It tasted how it looks

Breakfast served before landing was equally unmemorable. Instant coffee, a container of canned fruit, a container of orange juice, some plain yogurt, a bread roll and a sweet roll. The sweet roll was hot, but it tasted like one of those canned Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that you heat up in the oven–you know the overpoweringly sweet, chemical, plastic taste. Overall, my thoughts on the breakfast were “how American” and that pretty much sums it up. I’d totally have expected something like this if I were flying United in economy class. A croissant is apparently out of order on a French airline.

While there is (surprisingly) no inflight WiFi, Air France does have good quality inflight entertainment. Although the economy class seats aren’t very comfortable, they’re equipped with large new, LED displays with a full complement of inflight entertainment (a new computer system runs this and it’s really very good). This is one area where Air France is markedly better than United’s old 777-200s and their tiny seatback displays. Of course, I spent most of the time watching the “moving map” – my usual go-to entertainment on planes.

WRAP-UP

Air France planeOverall, would I fly Air France economy class again? For 25,000 miles (particularly ones that aren’t even in my account yet), to an expensive destination, at the last minute, sure! I’m always happy to take the last seat in the plane if it’s free. For money, though? I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly Air France versus other options from Seattle to Europe, and I certainly wouldn’t pay more. I think Delta wins overall here, and they still fly nonstop to Amsterdam. British Airways often has much better fares and they offer a very similar inflight product, service attitude, and connecting airport. Icelandair and Condor aren’t full service airlines, but are also generally a lot cheaper. Norwegian, an ultra low cost carrier, has ridiculously low fares. For a full service European carrier, Lufthansa has better (and more) food and the service, which while very efficient (in a very German way), is also surprisingly friendly. This is, however, balanced out by the very tight configuration in their economy class cabin, which is even more uncomfortable than Air France.

Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

air france economy class seat

Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disaster right now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.

Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.

The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.

So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.

Summary

Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.

Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.

Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.