An Epic Redemption To Svalbard And Moldova

Given that I have been traveling a lot less this year, I have been living vicariously to some degree through YouTube travel videos. Two of my favorite YouTubers are Drew Binsky and Bald and Bankrupt, both of whom travel to some places that are pretty far off the beaten path. After seeing Drew’s videos of Svalbard and Bald’s videos of Moldova, I knew that I needed to visit both.

If you have been following this blog for awhile (or know me in real life) you probably won’t be surprised that I’m interested in visiting Moldova. After all, I have already been to Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine. Svalbard, however, is an unusual choice for me given that it’s expensive. The largest town is administered by Norway, which is already one of the most expensive places in the world. Naturally, prices on Svalbard are even more expensive than the rest of Norway, given its extremely remote location.

That being said, I have visited other expensive islands. Adak, Alaska is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. The Seychelles, which I recently visited, are also a super expensive destination, as was Christmas Island, Australia. I have learned to moderate the cost of remote island destinations by staying in less expensive accommodations when possible (for example, I stayed in an airbnb on Christmas Island that was 1/3 the price of any hotels, and I found an excellent Couchsurfing host on Palau), and bringing extra food and supplies with me if I have a luggage allowance that permits it.

Svalbard is way north!

The island of Svalbard is interesting to me because apart from being one of the world’s most remote islands, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It’s only about 650 miles from the North Pole!

The settlement of Barentsburg still has a statue of Lenin!

Sweetening the deal, of course, is the chance to visit the nearby Russian settlement of Barentsburg. It’s administered by Russia, but I won’t need a visa to visit. Making it even more interesting is the fact that they have kept it more or less like it was during Soviet times. They even still have a statue of Lenin!

Moldova, meanwhile, not only the the least visited country in Europe, it’s crazy cheap. How cheap? It makes Bulgaria look expensive. Like Ukraine, one of my favorite countries, it has an ethnic Russian breakaway region, the de facto country of Transnistria. Visiting would be possible, although I’m not 100% sure that’s the plan. Whether or not I visit, I expect to find the sort of decaying ex-Soviet stuff I like to check out along with a lot of surprises along the way. I don’t plan trips carefully to places like Moldova; instead, I just leave a lot of time for serendipitous discoveries.

Abandoned Soviet circus? Yes, please!

Naturally, with off-the-beaten-path destinations like these, flights to both places are also really expensive, which is where miles and points can really come in handy. With many award programs, tickets are priced based upon the regions in which you’re traveling, not on the cash cost of a ticket.

Selecting A Mileage Program

Although United has devalued their program for flights that involve a United segment (often more than doubling the previous price), they have —for now — maintained the previous award levels for partner flights. Additionally, they have maintained the “excursionist perk,” which gives you a free intra-Europe one way flight on a roundtrip flight to Europe. For my itinerary, this was extremely valuable given the high cost of flights between Svalbard and Moldova. All I had to do was find availability on dates that would work.

I try to book my travel around US holidays so I end up taking fewer vacation days, and it really took some work to find availability. When I’m planning a complicated itinerary like this, I focus on the most difficult flights to get first. Not surprisingly, these are flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Why? There is only one flight a day on United’s partner SAS (from Oslo), and it’s really expensive so a lot of people try to use points on it. I was able to find availability on the 30th, so I worked backwards from there to find availability to Oslo.

I’m starting from Seattle and there wasn’t anything available that would get me to Oslo in time, but I was able to find an outbound itinerary on a combination of SWISS and SAS that routed the entire way from San Francisco. I’ll have to buy a positioning flight to San Francisco, but from Seattle, these aren’t expensive (sale fares commonly run as low as $59).

Onward from Longyearbyen, there was availability on SAS back to Oslo, continuing on Austrian via Vienna to Chisnau. This flight alone would cost $629 if booked with cash (other, less convenient flights were around $100 less). And finally, from Chisnau, I was able to find availability back to Seattle via Austrian (back to Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Munich).

16,773 miles in economy class

Yes, It’s In Economy Class

If you read most travel blogs, they’ll tell you that the only way to use miles and points is to book premium cabin award seats, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar after a visit to an over-the-top fancy lounge, jetting off to an over-the-water bungalow on a private island in the Maldives. Or something. Now, I’m not knocking this. It’s nice to fly in premium cabins, and I’ll use my miles this way under limited circumstances (for example, on extremely long flights, which would be expensive in economy class, and where I can redeem at the lowest “sweet spot” redemption rate).

There’s another good way to spend miles and points, though: economy class flights that would otherwise be really expensive, especially those on flights where business class doesn’t matter. That’s how I typically use my miles and points. So let’s deconstruct this itinerary and I’ll explain why it made the most sense to book in economy class.

Considering The Cost

The minimum cost to book this itinerary in business class would be 140,000 points. This is because the most logical transatlantic flights from the West Coast aren’t on United for this itinerary, and there wasn’t availability anyway. This compares to the 60,000 point cost to book in economy class, an 80,000 point difference. I’d be getting these points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account if I were to spend them.

80,000 points is really a lot. Even spending these through the Chase portal (and I can usually do better than that) would yield $1,200 in value. Is it worth $1,200 for a lie flat seat on a roughly 8 hour overnight trip? To me, definitely not.

Availability: The Toughest Hurdle

In economy class, there was availability over the 4th of July weekend, which would allow me to take one fewer vacation day for the trip. There wasn’t availability in business class over this week. I could find availability in business class over a different week, but it’d be for a trip that was a day shorter than I wanted. Making matters worse, the domestic legs were all in economy class to the East Coast, connecting to international flights on a third-tier carrier (LOT) from there.

This just didn’t make sense to me. Why blow 80,000 extra points on an itinerary chock full of intra-Europe legs, where intra-Europe “business class” would get me into the same lounge I can access with Priority Pass and an economy class seat (with a blocked middle)? It might have been worthwhile if the transatlantic flights originated on the West Coast, but almost none of them do.

One big downside: During the week I wanted to travel, there was no availability from Seattle at saver level for the outbound flight. I could only find availability from San Francisco. I was, however, able to find a return flight back into Seattle at saver level. This is a side effect of United changing to dynamic award pricing for award itineraries that include even a single flight on United. If I had departed from Seattle, the price would have been 70,000 points for the outbound flight, instead of 30,000 points. The 40,000 difference, at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed on the Chase portal, is like paying $600 for a 90 minute flight that regularly sells for $79.

Getting Nerdy: Cents Per Point Breakdown

I think one of the best measures of whether you got a good deal on a flight is how much it would cost if you paid for similar flights you’d actually buy. That’s really hard with this trip, because these flights are so expensive. Without using miles and points, visiting these destinations would be almost financially impossible.

The least expensive reasonable itinerary

I’m flying a better itinerary than the cheapest reasonable itinerary (which is on a combination of Norwegian, SAS, Austrian and Turkish), and I’m traveling on better airlines. This itinerary, from Seattle, costs $1,773. It’s the least expensive reasonable itinerary, and it’s what I’d most likely book.

Pricing out the value here isn’t as easy as just taking 1,773 and dividing it by 60,000, because I had to pay some money out of pocket for the award ticket. It cost $223 in taxes, and the flight departs from San Francisco where I don’t live. That ticket is currently selling for $79, which is a normal price for a flight between Seattle and the Bay Area. So the calculation goes as follows:

  • $1,773
  • $223
  • $79
  • = $1,471
  • % 60,000
  • = 2.5 cents per point

Is 2.5 cents per point a good value? I think so, even though it’s nothing close to the eye-popping values you see assigned to points by the credit card bloggers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points have a floor value of 1.5 cents per point. In practice, it is difficult to achieve on the Chase portal, so the floor is actually below that.

This booking even exceeds the 2.4 cents per point in value I can usually get out of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, which are generally considered the most valuable airline points. I think that’s really good. Sure, it’s not a huge inflated number based on an outrageously expensive business class fare, but that’s not a fare I’d ever actually buy. However, a flight on a nearly bankrupt airline via a dumpy secondary British airport is very much a flight I’d actually buy here at Seat 31B, so I think the valuation is fair.

Wrap-Up

I haven’t been more excited about a trip I’m taking in a long time. Having explored some of the farthest northern reaches of Alaska (including Barrow and Deadhorse), it’ll be incredible to see how Svalbard compares!

Qantas A380 Upper Deck Economy Class Review

Coming from: Part 1 – Planning

Part 2 – Vancouver-Sydney on Qantas

My flight leaving Vancouver was at 1:15PM, so I aimed to arrive by 11:00AM and made it perfectly on schedule. My NEXUS card got me quickly across the Canadian border with a friendly “have a nice holiday” from the CBSA agent (they are always so nice, unlike their US counterparts). I was running a bit early and was glad I did, because the long term parking lot at YVR is truly enormous (I got lucky and scored a space in Row 15). You then need to take the SkyTrain two stops to the airport, and for some silly reason, you have to “buy” a free SkyTrain ticket in order to use it (I didn’t get tripped up by this because I’d read up in advance, but the process is absolutely not obvious).

I stopped by the NEXUS office at YVR Airport to update some information on my account. It’s run by the Canadian CBSA who is friendly, helpful and efficient; I prefer dealing with them versus the usually unfriendly US authorities. I checked in for my flight on the machine, and noted to my dismay that I’d been assigned middle seats the entire way, overriding my previous aisle seat assignment on the Vancouver-Dallas flight. My NEXUS card got me into the Canadian version of TSA PreCheck (at YVR Airport, you ignore the long line, walk right to the front of it, and show your NEXUS card to the agent who pulls up the rope and lets you into the special NEXUS line). Note that you can also jump the queue and get access to a priority lane at YVR with a Visa Infinite card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I then went back through US immigration using the Global Entry kiosk, which was quick and smooth. This is because Vancouver is a preclearance airport, which means that you clear US customs and immigration on the Canadian side, and when the flight arrives in the US, it’s treated as a domestic arrival.

The whole thing—from entering security through “re-entering” the US—took about 15 minutes. It would have taken well over an hour without my NEXUS card. Considering that it costs only $50 to get, it’s kind of a “no brainer” to get one versus Global Entry if you’re eligible, even if you only take one trip through Canada a year. I don’t frequently transit Canada, but when I do, it saves me hours every time.

My first stop was the Plaza Premium Priority Pass lounge at Vancouver. The Vancouver airport is actually super nice and spending time in a crowded lounge isn’t usually as nice in being the rest of the airport, but I was about to take a long flight and hadn’t had lunch. The Plaza Premium lounge had a really nice lunch spread: cheese ravioli, beef stew with real mashed potatoes (no reconstituted powdered junk), and some salad, fruit and other fresh stuff. The lounge was definitely crowded but I was able to grab one of the “telephone” rooms, charge up my devices (which proved to be useful), and get a little work done before my flight.

Solid lunch spread at Plaza Premium Lounge, YVR

Gates for US-bound flights open about 45 minutes before departure, so I left the lounge at about that interval and talked to the gate agent to see if there was any chance of getting out of the middle seats I’d been assigned. I didn’t have high hopes given that most flights leaving the Pacific Northwest during summer are jam packed and overbooked, but to my surprise, the gate agent was able to move me back into the aisle seat I had been originally assigned. She also made sure my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account number was entered on the reservation, which had somehow dropped off (this is a fairly common problem with Alaska Airlines’ partners, so I always double-check). I credited this flight to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan because American Airlines international flights are—in theory—eligible for mileage credit (I did, in fact, get 500 Mileage Plan miles for this flight, but I had to ask for the points to be manually credited and submit boarding passes).

My ride to DFW

We didn’t get out of Vancouver on time, but landed in Dallas close to on schedule. Unfortunately, there had been an earlier ground hold which had snarled operations at DFW Airport, and we ended up in a long conga line of aircraft waiting for a gate. The majority of the passengers were flying home after Alaska cruises and had connections in Dallas. They also weren’t experienced travelers, so were properly freaking out. When we finally got to a gate, two angry Boomers behind me started trying to push past me while I patiently waited for a grandmotherly little old lady (she was easily 80 years old) to gather her things and shuffle into the aisle. “There is no rush that justifies running over a little old lady,” I scolded them, while they scowled at me. “We have a connection!” they said heatedly. “Relax, it’s probably caught in the same traffic jam we were.”

Almost as hard to get into as a nightclub, but way less fun

DFW Airport was a total disaster, with about half of the flights cancelled and a long line snaking across the airport to the two people working the American Airlines rebooking desk. American runs a generally unreliable operation with poor service recovery, so I was glad that I wasn’t connecting to an American flight. The Qantas flight was running on time, so I stopped by The Club and DFW to grab a bite to eat (Qantas has a reputation for not feeding economy class passengers much, so I didn’t board hungry). The club was over capacity but they were trying really hard to run a waitlist with a hostess service. Unfortunately, with seating spread across 3 different lounges and people coming and going frequently, the hostess was unable to keep up with the available seating. She eventually allowed me to register, then I got assertive about where I wanted to sit and she went along with it. The food wasn’t as good as the Plaza Premium lounge in Vancouver, but I got enough to fill me up and was able to work on my laptop until boarding.

I had been automatically assigned a terrible middle seat so asked the gate agent whether any better seats were available, joking that I “wouldn’t mind an aisle seat on the upper deck.” These are expensive seats if you pay to pre-assign them, but also highly desirable, so I figured it’d be impossible. Much to my surprise, the agent handed me a new boarding pass. “Here you go, aisle seat, bulkhead row, nobody next to you. Enjoy!” I did a double-take but smiled and said “thank you!” The boarding pass did, in fact, say “UPPER DECK” so I turned right on the double decker boarding gate and headed to the upper deck.

My row on the upper deck!

With pretty much every other carrier operating the A380, the upper deck is reserved for premium cabin passengers. Qantas operates a small upper economy class cabin, with a few rows of regular economy in a 2-4-2 configuration and the rest premium economy and business class. The premium economy cabin was almost empty, while the business class cabin appeared completely full. Being located in the bulkhead with no neighbor, and after snagging a couple of extra unused pillows, I was able to really stretch out for the flight (using my carry-on bag as a foot rest). It wasn’t a lie flat seat, but was effectively a “ghetto business class” upgrade.

Huge storage compartment by the window seat–same size as in business class
I propped my feet up on a suitcase to kinda sorta lie angle flat-ish
Happiness is nobody next to you on a 16 hour flight

Dinner service started rolling out shortly after takeoff. Our flight attendants were taking care of both the premium economy and economy class cabins, and deftly juggled the different service offerings between the two cabins. There were three dinner options: cheese ravioli, chicken caccitore, and a flat iron beef salad with dried cranberries, feta and couscous. I had the salad, the least popular of the three options, but judging from the looks of the other entrees, it turned out to be the best. The flat iron beef wasn’t anything to write home about, but it certainly wasn’t bad, there was enough of it, and it mixed surprisingly well with the rest of the ingredients. The salad was accompanied by a very rich chocolate cake with cherry sauce. I thought it was too rich.

The menu mentioned that amenities were available, so I asked for an amenity kit. It contained a toothbrush with a small tube of toothpaste, eye shades and a pair of earplugs. Definitely not a fancy branded business class amenity kit, but certainly not bad either. After dinner I watched a movie, and then stretched out managing to sleep a solid 8 hours. I completely missed the midflight snack of a beef empanada.

I then started working on my laptop, which was easy with all of the extra space. I like to watch the moving map while I’m inflight, and noticed that the destination had changed to Brisbane. This probably meant that the flight was diverting, so I went back to the galley to ask the flight attendants whether they had heard anything. They were furiously getting breakfast ready, and one of the attendants gave me a surprised look. “Who told you we’re diverting?” Their explanation was that the “captain couldn’t get a proper weather report” and politely asked me to return to my seat because they had to get breakfast service out.

About 20 minutes later, the captain came on the PA system and explained what was happening. There was fog in Sydney. It wasn’t clear whether we’d be able to land if we flew there, and given the long distance of our flight, there wasn’t enough fuel to wait around in a holding pattern. So, we were going to land in Brisbane to take on some additional fuel, then continue onward to Sydney once we were able to land. The captain then described in detail Qantas’ service recovery procedures. Nobody would be permitted to disembark in Brisbane, even passengers who were bound for there. Everyone would be rebooked onto new flights once we arrived in Sydney. The captain wasn’t sure when we would get to Sydney, but he was guessing around 2 hours late.

That isn’t Sydney!

And then, 15 minutes or so later, the moving map updated our destination to Sydney once again, and I could feel the aircraft making a gradual left turn. 5 minutes or so later, the captain came back on the PA. “We received an updated weather report. The fog is clearing at Sydney airport, and we now expect that we’ll be able to land, so we have decided to continue onward to there. We’ll be landing around right around our scheduled arrival time, and should be on the gate shortly after that.” So, no diversion after all which was just fine with me.

Sydney Airport is an absolute zoo. It’s very much under-sized for the size of airport it is, and making matters worse, the immigration authorities have put kiosks all over the place to automatically check in the majority of visitors to Australia. The whole thing is laid out in a very poorly organized fashion – once you finish with the machine there’s nowhere to go, because there are no marked pedestrian travel lanes. Making matters worse, the machines don’t reliably work with US passports because our passports are printed off-center. This means that exiting via the automated passport gates often doesn’t work, so you end up having to stand in line to check in with an immigration agent anyway. The one change this system has brought is that Australia no longer gives passport stamps. I asked for one, and the agent apologetically stated “we don’t even have stamps anymore.”

Wrap-Up

One of my guiding principles in travel is “if you don’t ask, they can’t say yes.” If I hadn’t asked about a NEXUS lane at YVR, I would have been stuck in line for an extra hour. If I hadn’t asked for a better seat on my American flight, I’d have been stuck in the middle. If I hadn’t asked nicely for a upper deck seat on Qantas, I wouldn’t have gotten my very own bulkhead row. When you travel, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Be nice about it, make sure your requests are within reason, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised!

A Trip To Christmas Island

Part 1: Planning

Earlier this year, Qantas ran a crazy sale on flights to Australia. I was able to score a $550 roundtrip on their A380 from Vancouver to Sydney. These weren’t nonstop flights (the outbound was from Dallas and the return was to Los Angeles), and Vancouver isn’t exactly a convenient airport for me to use given that I live in the Seattle area, but the savings were worth it—especially since the over 16,000 miles of flying credits at 100% to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically aim for 2.4 cents per point in fully loaded value from my Alaska Airlines points, and I’m regularly able to achieve this. So, it was like paying $75 each way. To Sydney, Australia.

Then, from a miles and points perspective, things got even better. Alaska ran a double miles promo for flights on Qantas, meaning that I’d get 200% mileage credit for these flights. When combined with the small mileage credit I received for my positioning flight on American, this $550 ticket scored me a massive points haul of 32,614 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. The way I spend them, it’s $783 in value, so in effect, Alaska Airlines paid me $233 to go to Australia. I don’t have any elite status with Alaska (most of my flights are paid for with miles and points, not cash) but if I had, I could have scored a nice tier bonus on top of this.

The catch was that August is winter in Australia, the weather isn’t great in Sydney, and the sale fare wasn’t available to other Australian destinations. Australian friends warned me that it’d be cold, so I looked into flying onward from Sydney to warmer destinations. I have been on an island kick lately, most recently visiting The Seychelles. I also have a trip booked to Providencia later next year. So when I started researching Australian island destinations, Christmas Island caught my eye.

The majority of Christmas Island is a national park

The island is most famous for its red land crab migration, which occurs during the rainy season. Millions of them swarm the beaches and cover them (along with the roads), basically creating a river of crabs. I wouldn’t be visiting at the right time of year for that, but I would be visiting early enough to disconnect from the Internet. Christmas Island is one of the few places in the world still connected only by satellite (a fiber optic connection to Singapore is currently under construction). Also, there are only two flights a week. So it definitely checked my box of “not reachable from work.” When I’m on vacation, I like to truly unplug, which, given the ubiquity of the Internet, is really difficult to do these days.

Internet is available only by satellite

I scheduled a day in Sydney and an overnight in Perth en route (to allow recovery time for missed connections–this is super important when visiting a place where there only two flights per week), and booked my onward flights. Flights to Christmas Island are very expensive on Virgin Australia on their fully economy class configured aircraft, but I was able to book this flight with 45,000 Delta SkyMiles. I also needed to get from Sydney to Perth in order to catch my flight, so ended up using American Airlines AAdvantage points for this. Domestic flights on Qantas within Australia in economy class cost 10,000 AAdvantage points each way. I also received a 2000 mile rebate on the roundtrip using a now-discontinued Citi credit card benefit, so I ended up paying 18,000 miles plus about $40 in taxes.

Continue to Part 2 – Qantas A380 Economy Class Review

American Airlines Awards Bookable On Iberia Again

Shortly after the British Airways Avios devaluation, American Airlines awards became impossible to book with Iberia Avios. If you called agents, they would see available flights online but couldn’t actually book them. I was concerned that an additional devaluation may be in the works, because the Iberia award chart is slightly more attractive than the British Airways award chart for booking most flights (especially short haul flights) on American Airlines.

The prices shown are for round-trip itineraries, based on total mileage for all segments.

Iberia Avios are particularly valuable for redemptions on American Airlines that involve connections. British Airways Avios charges per flight, making connecting itineraries much more expensive.

Well, as of today, American Airlines awards are again bookable with Iberia Avios. Award flights are showing up online for both American Airlines mainline and American Eagle inventory (and yes, that is a flight you’re seeing from SEA-LAX which does compete with an Alaska Airlines route).

Iberia has an apparent glitch in their tax calculation. They charge you almost double what the tax should actually be. Keep this in mind if you buy your tickets online:

If you choose to book with Iberia Avios, keep in mind that unlike British Airways Avios, there are very significant restrictions on partner awards. You can only book round-trip awards, and no changes or cancellations are permitted whatsoever. You either fly as booked or you lose your ticket.

JAL Blocking Seat Selection On Award Tickets

I’m returning from Bangkok after Songkran next year, and it’s a long flight. Over the past two months, I just earned a ton of American Airlines AAdvantage points through generous credit card signup bonuses. However, no sooner had I earned them than the program started rapidly devaluing by moving to a dynamic award pricing scheme for flights on American Airlines. Given my lack of trust in AAdvantage at this stage, I decided to make burning these points a priority.

JAL recently started service to Seattle on their new 787, which is configured with Apex Suites (they brand it SKY Suites). And better yet, there was a more or less perfect itinerary returning from Bangkok which was bookable with AAdvantage points. Because it’s a partner flight, it’s also still bookable at the old (pre-devaluation) AAdvantage rates! So, using the brand new capability to reserve JAL flights on the AAdvantage Web site, I booked the flight.

With these seats, seat selection matters. Window seats in this configuration are much better and more private than aisle seats. So, I went ahead and called American Airlines to get the JAL confirmation code, which I then plugged in to the JAL Web site to pick seats. I was super disappointed to see the following maps:

No window seats. None at all. Right?

Only aisle seats were available to select. However, this didn’t sit right with me. This is a brand new flight to Seattle, and April isn’t exactly peak season to fly to Seattle. Who would be buying out every single good seat on the plane, in a premium cabin?

So, in a separate incognito browser window, I assumed my trusty alter ego of “Fo Do” and went back to the JAL site. This time, I was buying a flight, rather than assigning seats on an already ticketed flight. Lo and behold, when you’re not booking a partner award but are buying a flight from JAL, the seat map is totally different:

Just look at all those window seats!

Exasperated, I took a note of all of the open seats (any of which would be acceptable) and called JAL. Naturally their US office was closed, so I called their Tokyo number and reached an astonishingly dishonest agent (I’m used to being lied to in many countries in Asia, but not in Japan). First the agent lied and said the first two seats I asked for were “under airport control.” OK, fine, I gave him two alternates. These were “reserved for elites.” OK, fine, I gave him the last alternate. “This seat is not available.” Why isn’t it available? “I’m sorry, it’s not available.”

The agent was clearly uncomfortable with the conversation, so I explained exactly where I was looking at the seat map, and that the seats were clearly available. So why, when I already have a ticket, am I not able to pick one of those seats? Was there possibly a technical problem? Might it be possible another way (in Asia, always provide a face-saving way for someone to solve your problem)?

Nope. The agent wouldn’t budge. The seats weren’t available and that’s that. So I asked some very sharp questions. Is seat selection blocked for partner award tickets? For award tickets in general? And with that, I got a clear answer: yes, it’s blocked by fare class. The only way to pick a window seat on an award ticket is to check in online 24 hours in advance and hope one is still there.

This is incredibly frustrating. I went out of my way to fly JAL, and paid quite a bit more, to enjoy the excellent SKY Suites experience. For me, it’ll be considerably less excellent in an aisle seat.

Icelandair Awards Unavailable With Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

I forgot that there’s a long weekend ahead, and what better to do with a long weekend than fly to Iceland? This may seem crazy, but domestic travel during holiday weekends is crowded and expensive, while international travel is often available with points last-minute. When I went to check on Alaska Airlines’ Web site, though, nothing was available. I mean, nothing. There was no availability from any Icelandair gateway city all the way through the end of the schedule.

I reached out to Alaska Airlines on Twitter and after some back-and forth they have confirmed that there is an issue:

It’s unfortunate that, given the current lack of European partners, one of them isn’t bookable. Hopefully Alaska will solve the problem soon!

Chase’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Travel Portal

Chase pays some of the highest commissions in the blogosphere. It can be hundreds of dollars per card signup. The travel blogging community is overall pretty friendly, but nothing is played closer to the vest than highly coveted Chase affiliate links. Nothing can financially make or break a travel blogger faster than Chase either granting or revoking sponsorship. And that’s why you will hardly ever see anything negative written about Chase. All you ever hear is whispers, but word on the street is Chase doesn’t like criticism. They don’t ever want to see anything negative. So, if you know what’s good for you, and you don’t want to be blackballed by Chase, then you’d better stick to the talking points.

And that’s why Chase has probably been able to skate for so long on their absolute disaster of a travel portal. It’s a hot mess and after having spent over 3 hours of my Seychelles vacation banging my head against the wall in trying (and failing) to book a 40 minute roundtrip flight, I am mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore! And I am writing it with the full realization that it might not even get read, while potentially costing me thousands of dollars in commissions.

Higher Prices

The Chase travel portal is operated by Expedia. You would think that this means that they offer the same prices as on expedia.com, but they don’t. The prices are usually higher on the Chase portal.

I’m answering a lot of questions from friends lately about flights to Beijing for DEF CON China, so I picked this route at random (but for different dates). This problem is so widespread that literally the first flight I looked at cost more. This example is for Seattle to Beijing, departing June 12th, returning June 19th.

Let’s start with the price on Expedia:

$987 on Expedia. Note this is higher than the $946 price booking direct with Air Canada.

Now let’s check the Chase portal:

Same flights, $78 higher price.

The Chase portal price for the above example is $78 more. The flight I was looking at booking today (but failed to book) between Mahe Island and Praslin Island in the Seychelles was $168.60 booked through the Chase portal, but $151.07 booked directly though the airline. While domestic US flights are generally priced about the same as the Expedia price, international flights, in my experience, tend to run about 10% more. This sucks a significant part of the value out of the points you have earned.

It’s not just flights that are more expensive when booked through the Chase portal. Rental cars can be significantly more expensive. Hotels are also often more expensive.

To underscore this, I’ll use a trip I’m taking in a few weeks as another example. Here’s the current best rate available through the Chase portal for a car from Dollar Rent A Car:

I don’t get why a minivan is cheaper, but we’ll roll with it

Here’s the deal for a “specialty vehicle” (which will probably be a minivan) that I locked in on Priceline. At the time I booked this, cross-checking with Chase yielded an even higher price than is currently offered:

Chase jacks up the rate by almost 30%. If you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, spending your points this way versus just going for a statement credit at 1 cent per point actually costs you money.

Not All Flights Are Bookable, Even When They Appear On The Portal:

OK, so you’ve decided that you’ll let Chase overcharge you for a flight so you can at least spend the points, while getting 10% less value than you expected. NOPE! The site is rife with technical glitches. Here’s what happened when I tried to buy a flight from Mahe Island to Praslin Island in The Seychelles. The flight appears on the Chase portal. It shows up on Expedia, too. Air Seychelles isn’t some sort of budget carrier or third-tier airline; it’s part-owned by Etihad and uses Etihad Guest as its frequent flier program. It’s the primary airline in a popular (and high-end) holiday desination. While it was $17.53 more to book with the Chase portal, I decided that I’d overlook it.

Ha! Just kidding! I’d select my flights, put in all of my information, get all the way through to the end, and then the following error message would appear:

What payment information? I was paying entirely with points!

That leads to the next problem, which is…

Chase Travel Customer Service Is Terrible

The agents at Chase Travel (which is really Expedia) basically just use the Web site for you. If you have an error on the site, they’ll have the exact same error. They’re unable to deal with any situations that don’t fit the script. And they are on a very strict call timer with every incentive to get you out of their queue as quickly as possible. You are a hot potato, and all they want to do is get you out of their hands.

My first call had no resolution, so I became a hot potato. Chase Travel bounced me over to the bank. Call handling metrics good! The Chase agent was patient and helpful (they’re pretty good on the banking side), looked up my account, and verified that there were no issues that would prevent me from using my account. She transferred me back to Chase Travel. Call handling time minimized! The agent, after spending 3 minutes trying to convince me to “just wait a few hours and try again” had the same problem, and transferred me to something called the “legacy team.” Out of their queue! The “legacy team” agent took my information, we got all the way to the end, and….

…the call dropped. At this point I was into this for close to 2 hours, and I didn’t want to spend any more time on the problem, especially since the Internet connection (which slows down later in the morning–limited bandwidth on the island) was getting really choppy.

I tried again the next day. Another agent had the same problem, and tried to transfer me to the “legacy department.” After a few minutes, she came back on the line and asked me for permission to blind transfer me. I called her on it, but she blind transferred me anyway–into a queue of agents in The Philippines, which wasn’t the correct department. This was now my third agent in the same department (“New Platform”) who ran into the exact same problem. Mind you, I’m giving my name, flight numbers, and listening to disclaimers about non-refundable tickets each of these times. Finally, the Filipino agent got someone in the “legacy department” to have a try, and that agent couldn’t fix the problem either. So, in the end, hours into the problem, the agent offered a creative solution: I could book directly with the airline, and get reimbursed at 1 cent per point.

Yes, because Chase is incapable of selling me a flight, I should apparently lose the 50% bonus–which, I’ll note, I pay a $450 annual fee to receive. Ultimately, the agent gave me a 5,000 point “courtesy credit” but this is now on my record. Chase has a history of “firing” customers it thinks are costing them too much and I have now poked the dragon.

Wrap-Up

It’s not a secret that the new Chase travel portal is terrible. It’s terrible, horrible, no good and very bad. But you’re only going to read about the problems with it here.

I ultimately don’t think that Chase being so thin-skinned helps them. They’re positioning the Chase Sapphire Reserve up against the American Express Platinum card, a truly premium card from a company with a lot of experience offering one and the global infrastructure (including a worldwide network of local offices) to match. Chase has third-party agents in Manila working “on behalf of” Expedia, a partner who may have been selected because they pay the highest rebates. And those third-party agents have only one mandate: get you off the phone, as quickly as possible. This isn’t the service I expect from a credit card with a $450 annual fee. If I want to spend the points I go out of my way to earn by putting a Chase card at the top of my wallet, I want it to “just work” as advertised. And I also don’t want to play shell games with disappearing partners, devaluing points and deceptive pricing. Chase, if you’re reading this–listen, I have a lot of respect for you guys. You’re brilliant at marketing. But the product ultimately has to measure up, and right now, it isn’t measuring up. Given the increased churn I expect this issue to cause, you’re about to get kicked in the NPV of your LTV.

LEAKED: Devalued British Airways Avios Award Chart

British Airways today announced that they will be devaluing the Avios award chart starting on May 30th for partner redemptions. What they didn’t provide is any details of what the devaluation looks like. “We’re devaluing your points,” they said. “But we won’t retroactively raise the prices on any bookings you have already made!”

Although the new chart isn’t available, it has been programmed into the British Airways computer system for booking agents. So, by asking the right questions, I was able to piece together what I believe to be the award chart for the short and mid-haul flights most commonly booked with Avios (the Avios chart generally isn’t a good deal for long haul flights, so I didn’t focus on these). What are the results? They’re not as bad as I expected, and are in line with the recent LifeMiles devaluation. It’s clear that British Airways is trying to remain competitive with LifeMiles, and it’s possible that their credit card partner Chase leaned on them to do so given the 30% bonus currently available for transfers to Avios.

Surf’s still up!

What We Know

  • Hawaii West Coast sweet spot (mostly) remains intact. The price is going up by 500 miles which is manageable.
  • Mid-haul sweet spot goes away. These flights are going from 7,500 to 9,000 points which is painful however you slice it. This is going to give Delta an excuse to devalue, so I’m actually much more concerned about burning my SkyMiles than worrying too much about BA’s devaluation here.
  • British Airways isn’t moving to variable pricing. There is still an award chart, it has just been devalued.
  • Per-leg pricing isn’t changing. Every flight is priced individually so the price for connecting itineraries is sum of all of the flights. This is the same practice as currently
  • All partner flights will cost the same. It won’t be more expensive to redeem on Alaska or American versus Sri Lankan, S7 or Cathay Pacific.
  • Taxes and fees won’t change. They will remain exactly the same as they are now.
  • Pricing for business and first class is consistent. This will still be 2x and 4x the economy class price, respectively. In general, this isn’t a great deal (although there can be sweet spots such as on Cathay Pacific mid-haul business class) so Avios are best used for economy class redemptions.

Not Yet Clear

  • It seems possible that the 0-650 mile award chart is coming back for flights within North America, because short-haul flights are pricing out based on this mileage band.
  • It isn’t clear whether Iberia and Aer Lingus will also devalue their Avios programs. If they don’t devalue, and you can live with the restrictions of Iberia, this may be a better program to use in many cases.

The Chart

  • 0-650 miles: 6,000 Avios
  • 651-1,150 miles: 9,000 Avios
  • 1,151 miles-2,000 miles: 11,000 Avios
  • 2,001 miles-3,000 miles: 13,000 Avios

Want help booking a flight with Avios or any other award program? At AwardCat, we’re expert at helping you get the most for your miles.

How I’m Getting To Providencia

In mid-February, I jumped on a really good sale fare to Bogota, Colombia. It was purchased really far in advance — in fact, a year in advance. And I have to fly from Vancouver, Canada. Then again, it was a hair over $200, was heading somewhere warm when it’s going to be cold in the Pacific Northwest next year, and — somehow — I haven’t been to Colombia yet. So it was one of those “buy it now and figure out the details later” things.

That was, until I mentioned to my friends and family where I was going. “Colombia?!” was the typical response. “You’re going to get yourself killed!” And if you don’t know anything about the country, I suppose this might seem like a rational response. Venezuela, their neighbor, is on the brink of a civil war. Crime rates are higher than in the US (even Nomadic Matt got stabbed). Still, mass shootings happen pretty much every week in the US and I don’t worry about getting killed when I visit the local shopping mall. Nevertheless, I figured if I planned out the trip more in advance than I usually do (I’m going to Sri Lanka in 3 weeks and only have my first hotel night booked), I’d at least be able to describe what I’m doing. And as it turns out, as I researched Colombia, one of the most interesting places is also one of the safest places in the country.

Providencia is a former English colony that is now part of Colombia. It’s distinctly Caribbean in flavor, and the residents mostly speak English. It’s closer to Nicaragua than the rest of Colombia. And most importantly, it’s complicated and expensive to get there, making it an exclusive destination by virtue of its remoteness. I like destinations like these, and it fits nicely in with my recent theme of visiting extremely remote islands like St. Helena and Christmas Island. Of course, crime and violence on the mainland are a world away from Providencia.

There are two ways to get to Providencia, both of which require starting from San Andrés Island. If you think of San Andrés and Providencia as Colombia’s version of Hawaii (which really isn’t a bad way to think about it), San Andrés would be the equivalent of Honolulu except with duty free shopping. It’s a big, busy tourist hub, attracting hordes of Colombian holidaymakers on package tours. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, but it’s not the kind of “nice” I would spend about 20 hours of travel time and 3 flights in economy class to reach. Getting to San Andrés is an easy two hour flight from Bogota. I was able to book this for almost exactly $69 each way on Avianca. Unfortunately, this was a Web fare, sold only on Avianca’s Web site, so I wasn’t able to use my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to purchase it (Chase was selling the same flights for $108 each way).

Most visitors to the region don’t venture beyond San Andrés, though. Providencia is intentionally kept undeveloped in order to preserve its traditional culture. It’s quiet and peaceful, making it a less interesting destination than San Andrés for fun-loving Colombians. Since it’s undeveloped, transportation is limited. There is a catamaran, which, when it’s sort of safe to do so, irregularly traverses the very rough open ocean. This is an intense ride. It’s so rough you’re pretty much guaranteed to puke; they give you seasick pills with your tickets! There is even a dedicated crew member on board who runs around collecting vomit bags. For the privilege of losing your lunch, the catamaran is also really expensive and it takes 3 1/2 hours.

NOPE.

You can also fly. It costs $50 more than the catamaran roundtrip, and takes 20 minutes. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy a ticket. There are only about 40 seats per day available for sale, in total, to Providencia, across the two daily flights. The flights are operated by Satena, a small regional Colombian airline. Satena doesn’t list their flights on online travel agencies such as Expedia. Their entire Web site is in Spanish, and even if you can manage to make it all the way through a booking, your transaction will fail (several hours later) because the credit card processor is set up to take Colombian cards, not foreign cards.

I tried to work around this by calling the airline. In Colombia, because that’s the only place where they have a phone number. Unfortunately this didn’t work. Everything on their phone system is in Spanish. I was able to figure out to press 1 to book a flight, I could say “Servicios en inglés, por favor” and they even put someone who spoke English on the phone, but telephone agents are only able to book flights through December, not through the end of the schedule.

Hmm, what’s this?

Right around the time I was close to giving up, I noticed a chat control at the very bottom of the page. Usually this sort of functionality is just a stupid useless bot, but I figured “what the heck” and gave it a try. To my complete and utter amazement, a fully competent reservations agent was on the other end of the chat. I gave her my previous reservation number, which she pulled up and was able to verify. While she was unable to make alternative payment arrangements, she was able to create a new reservation. The fare was roughly the same price, but with a roughly $18 service fee added. I quickly agreed to the fee, given that it wasn’t possible to complete the transaction on their Web site anyway, and the fare was still in the lowest bucket (around $90 each way, or $1 per kilometer).

I didn’t expect it, but chat actually worked!

Overall, the process took a long time – more than an hour. The agent spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether she needed to create a completely new reservation or could work with the existing one. Ultimately she created a new reservation, just copying all of the information from my previous one. She then emailed me an invoice from a Colombian payment service similar to PayPal. This is the same one they use on their Web site, but when you receive an invoice via email, you can pay with a non-Colombian credit card. As soon as I paid, I sent her the transaction confirmation number. My tickets were immediately issued, and I received them in my email.

Success!

Thoughtfully, Satena provided an itinerary in English, and provided all my ticket details (including ticket number) in Spanish. At over $1 per mile, this is — in terms of cost per mile — the most expensive air ticket I have ever purchased. On the other hand, I was able to purchase it at all, which is the most important consideration here. With only a handful of seats for sale to Providencia on any given day, it’s not crazy to book fully 10 months in advance.

Want to visit Providencia or anywhere else in the world? Let AwardCat help you use your miles and points to get there!

Alaska Airlines Basic Economy SEA-LAX Review

My ex-boyfriend lives in Los Angeles. We dated for 3 years, nearly two years of it long distance, but ultimately he got a great job in LA and after my last startup failed, I landed in an outer exurb of the Puget Sound area (it’s not very exciting, but at least the rent is cheap). We concluded that the relationship wasn’t going to work with us living in different cities, but we’re still friends. And when it’s rainy and gloomy in the Pacific Northwest, it’s awesome to have a friend in sunny LA to visit!

We figured out dates that would work, and I set about finding tickets. My usual stack rank in payment method is as follows:

  • Expiring airline credits
  • Airline miles already held in a loyalty program
  • Airline gift cards or non-expiring credits
  • Transferable points with cash value
  • As a last resort, actual cash
What’s the worst currency to pay for a flight? Actual cash!

In this case, I had some expiring airline credits with Alaska Airlines worth about half of the cost of a ticket. I also had some non-expiring “My Wallet” funds with Alaska Airlines which I could use to pay the balance.

It wouldn’t have been a good deal to use these if I was paying a higher fare, but Alaska actually had the best fare to LAX at exactly the time I wanted. The fare was $121.29. This is definitely on the high side for SEA-LAX, but it was right at the beginning of the Spring Break travel period and booked only 2 weeks in advance, so this was pretty much the best I was going to get.

Only one problem: The $121.29 fare was an Alaska Airlines “Saver Fare.” This is a punishment fare, similar to Basic Economy on other airlines, and comes with the usual draconian restrictions. No changes allowed at all, not even for a fee. No refunds under any circumstances. If you miss your flight, you lose all your money. And you board last, even when it slows down the boarding process, just to kick you in the teeth a little harder. I booked it anyway, because paying $30 more would only get me the following:

  • Ability to make same-day changes, based on availability, for a $50 fee.
  • Ability to get a refund or change the ticket prior to the day of departure, for a $125 fee (a fee higher than the price of the ticket).
  • Boarding next-to-last instead of last. Whoop-de-doo.
  • Seat selection in the entire airplane, not just a few rows in the back of the airplane.

I carry the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Visa card, so I can check a bag for free. Alaska has a 20 minute baggage service guarantee so I pretty much always do this rather than carrying a bag on; my bag is usually out on the carousel by the time I get to baggage claim. If it isn’t, I score an easy 2,500 extra miles (and I did on this trip), so there’s no real downside. When booking a basic economy fare, this helps to avoid some of the annoyance of bringing a carry-on bag only to have to check it at the gate because there isn’t any room on board.

I was able to select a seat, although there was only one aisle seat available, and it was in the third to the last row of the plane. Yes, you literally sit “in the back of the bus” if you buy an Alaska basic economy fare. They do sell more basic economy tickets than there are available basic economy assigned seats, so if you don’t pick a seat, they’ll assign you a middle seat somewhere else on the plane at check-in (or, if you’re really lucky, a window or aisle).

The Flight

Alaska Airlines is one of my favorite airlines to fly because their service is almost always friendly and punctual, their baggage service is excellent (my bags always show up and do so fast), and their social media team is really, really good. Unlike most airlines, Alaska’s social media team has the ability to handle almost anything a telephone reservations agent can, so I can just DM them @Alaskaair and I usually have my question answered within a few minutes. There is some limited free Internet onboard (which I’m able to make the most of) and there is also power at every seat. Given my past good experiences I’m pretty surprised how “off” this flight was, making my basic economy experience even worse.

The flight was about an hour late to depart, and there was no explanation as to why. An aircraft finally showed up, and we eventually boarded an ex-Virgin America Airbus. Alaska crews and ex-Virgin America crews provide a very different experience; Alaska crews usually stand in the doorway and individually welcome everyone on board, while ex-Virgin America crews are more subtle with their service delivery. As a Basic Economy passenger, I was in the group that boarded last. Fortunately this was a very large group, consisting of roughly half the plane. Unfortunately, this was super inefficient because everyone was scattered throughout the plane, trying to stow luggage and sit in middle seats when people who had paid higher fares had already settled into the window and aisle seats. The process was an absolute disaster slowing down our departure even more on an already delayed flight.

Notice anything missing?

Making matters worse, when I got to my seat, the recline button was broken. I notified a flight attendant who nodded and disappeared for awhile (ex-Virgin crews really are different; an Alaska crew would have apologized, explained what they were going to do, and then gone to work on it). However, the ex-Virgin flight attendant did, in fact, follow through; it’s just a different service delivery culture. She returned to my seat shortly before departure and said “The mechanics aren’t going to be able to make it here to get your seat fixed, sorry about that. Can I offer you 2,000 miles or a $50 voucher for the inconvenience?” Sure, $50 voucher please. To my surprise, two of them showed up in my Alaska Airlines account, so between that and the miles, Alaska pretty much comped my flight.

Wrap-Up

Basic Economy (or Saver Fares) on Alaska Airlines is, in my view, terrible as implemented. On the surface, competitors that Alaska is copying are doing the same thing. Anecdotally, however, they seem to be selling far fewer of these fares (when I flew Delta Basic Economy, there were only a small handful of passengers boarding at the end). Having so many Basic Economy passengers slows down the boarding process for everyone flying Alaska, and reverses the excellent customer experience that was historically Alaska’s primary differentiator (now Alaska may be applying harsh, mean-spirited policies to a greater percentage of its passengers than its competitors, making them seem worse by comparison).

How did this happen? Alaska pretty much took their lowest fares and made them all Saver Fares, but the restrictions don’t really move the needle for most of their customers. All that Basic Economy really seems to have accomplished at Alaska is forcing their most loyal business customers to buy more expensive tickets in order to receive their status benefits, along with slowing down the boarding process for everyone. And this is expensive: Southwest can board a similar sized jet in just over half the time, which allows them to use the aircraft for an extra short-haul flight per day. Given that, Basic Economy is probably costing Alaska much more than the business they were otherwise losing to Spirit and United’s basic economy fares.

Would I book another Alaska Basic Economy Punishment Saver Fare? Sure, if it was the cheapest (and I’ll probably do it at least twice more, because I have some more expiring vouchers to spend). However, all else being equal, I’d book away from one of these fares to Southwest if the schedule worked and the price was the same. I have already done so for two subsequent trips.