How I’m Driving A 2019 Subaru Outback For (Almost) Free

“Wait, what?” you might be thinking. “Cars? Isn’t this blog about cheap flights? And where have you been for the last year, anyway?”

Good questions. The last trip out of state that I took was in February, 2020 to Minneapolis. I was joking with my friends, as the pandemic was beginning to take shape, that the last trip I took had better not be to Minneapolis in the winter. Here we are almost a year later and it’s clear that we’re in for nearly another year of limited travel.

I wish I could say that I’ve spent what amounts to nearly a year being productive and catching up on my massive backlog of travel writing. I have a series to finish on Christmas Island, another on Providencia, some advice on how to see Bogota in the blink of an eye, and the list goes on. But like most of you, honestly, I’m not OK with any of this and it’s just too emotionally difficult for me to write about a part of my life that I both loved very much, miss a great deal, and am–frankly–angry doesn’t exist anymore. I’m not sad, or disappointed. The fact that the travel industry has been so thoroughly decimated has been a deliberate choice by politicians on both sides of the aisle to deliberately expose us to a fatal disease amid false hopes of attaining herd immunity. The consequences of this choice have now been borne out with new, more virulent and more contagious strains of COVID-19, one of which largely evades the new vaccines.

That brings me to what I’m doing about my car, and what I’m doing about travel for the next year. Any travel I do will be solo, local (in the Pacific Northwest), and for the most part, outdoors. Camping is in, and crashing at the Generator Hostel in London is out. I drive a 2005 Scion xA, which is a car I really love and have had a lot of good memories with. It also has 184,000 miles on it and has joined the “part of the month club.” In the past few months I have replaced the water pump, thermostat, all of the belts and hoses, clutch, front brakes, and battery. There isn’t a whole lot left to replace at this point but I also feel like this is a vehicle that could be a really solid (albeit elderly) freeway commuter car, but it just can’t take the level of punishing abuse on gravel Forest Service roads that I have in mind for this summer. At some point, I have to recognize that the car, like my body, just isn’t the same as it was when it was young.

picture of a forest bridge
Time to get back in touch with the Great Northwest

Unfortunately, a lot of people have the same idea that I do, and are looking for new or late model used vehicles. New car inventory is very limited now for popular models (along with a spike in demand, production is constrained due to COVID-19 protocols), and I was shocked to learn that dealers are asking for above sticker price for cars–and getting it! Discounts are few and far between. This has spilled over into the used car market as well, making it harder to find late model used cars and also making them more expensive. All of this is great news if you want to sell a car, but it’s terrible news if you want to buy one.

The Auction Solution

So, I went down a rabbit hole on YouTube which started with a local tow truck driver’s channel. I thought “hm, maybe auctions could be a way to get a car at a discount.” After all, most people need to finance a car and auctions require that you pay the full amount immediately in cash. This makes the market somewhat less competitive, and dealers are the usual folks bidding so the prices have to reflect leaving in something for their profit margin. A few clicks later and I landed on Andrei Khaladzinski’s Salvage Secrets channel, and I was instantly hooked.

Andrei is an unassuming Belarusian immigrant who came to the US with $500 in his pocket and now runs a successful small dealership on Long Island in New York. His YouTube videos are the kind of thing I love. He stands in front of a whiteboard in a dimly lit gritty office that has probably not been painted since 1992, and with a laser focus, he walks through the numbers, nuts and bolts of bidding on salvage auctions. And holy smokes, what a discovery this was! In a weekend-long deep dive, I was able to learn enough from Andrei’s decades of experience to save $9,000 on the cost of a 2019 Subaru Outback 2.5i with 14,000 miles on it. I paid $15,588 (plus state sales tax, title and licensing fees) all-in. Only one catch: it has a rebuilt title.

2019 subaru outback

“A rebuilt title?” you may be thinking. “That’s crazy! It means the car has been completely trashed! Everything in the world could be wrong with it! It’s not even safe to drive those!” And while thinking this is rational, not all rebuilt title cars are the same, and not all clean title cars are the same. In fact, I will never think about “clean title” cars the same after this experience, because I have really learned more than I ever wanted to about how the sausage is made.

Rebuilt vs. Clean Titles

There is a lot of variability in the different types of titles and the procedures to follow in different states. However, the same general ideas and procedures apply in most locales as here in Washington state.

When a car is damaged or destroyed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the title changes its status from “clean.” For example, rental car companies own their cars, and they are also self-insured. So, when a rental car gets wrecked, it goes to the same salvage auction as insurance totaled vehicles. The same applies to auto dealers.

Check out this “clean title” vehicle. It’s completely destroyed. The engine took a direct hit. Someone will put it back together (maybe with stolen parts, since “clean title” vehicles aren’t routinely inspected for these in most states) and sell it to the next owner, who will never have a clue how badly it was damaged because it has a “clean title.” If insurance never paid out the claim, as is the case if a rental car company (which is self-insured) owns it, nothing will show up on a VIN check (such as Carfax) either.

This car has a clean title!

So what is a “salvage title?” All that this means is that an insurance company has declared the vehicle a total loss. As it turns out, insurance companies have a lot of reasons why they might do this and it doesn’t always mean that the car was even damaged at all, or if it was, that it was damaged in a way that can’t be safely repaired.

When a car is stolen, for example, insurance companies are required to declare the car a total loss and pay out the claim after a set period of time–usually a month. So, consider the following scenario. Your car is stolen by a professional car thief who stashes it in a storage unit and is promptly arrested and jailed on unrelated charges. A couple of months later, after the storage fees remain unpaid, the storage company cracks open the unit, discovers a chop shop, and calls the police who recover your vehicle.

Except it’s not your vehicle anymore. It belongs to the insurance company, because they paid out your claim two months ago and you have moved on with your life. You are happy to recover your personal belongings but now the car is the insurance company’s problem. They send your “totaled” vehicle to auction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it–not even a scratch, but it’ll have a salvage title.

Lightning strikes started fires near Wenatchee last summer

Other cases of vehicles being totaled are ones where the insurance company just routinely declares a vehicle a total loss if a certain category of loss occurs. My vehicle was allegedly struck by lightning. In October. There is no evidence whatsoever that this actually happened, the car was a local vehicle, lightning storms are very rare at that time of year in our area, they usually occur in the mountains rather than in the nearly sea level valley of Puyallup, and a mechanic has thoroughly checked it out and failed to find anything wrong with it. Nevertheless, USAA (the company that insured this vehicle previously) just automatically totals any vehicles struck by lightning. They don’t want to deal with potentially expensive and difficult to adjudicate problems down the line (because potentially any electrical issues with the car, even years later, could stem from a lightning strike). So even though it’s likely that the previous owner was underwater on their loan and just wanted out from under the vehicle, it ended up totaled and sold at auction.

How Auctions Work

“OK, this makes sense,” you’re thinking. “I want to get in on this!” Keep in mind that the lower prices mean the following:

  • If you bid and win you own the car and it’s entirely your problem. It doesn’t matter how inaccurate the auction listing is; anything sold “where is/as is with no guarantees” (as auction vehicles are) means exactly that. Plan to do more due diligence (under tougher circumstances) than usual.
  • Even if the car is brand new, the warranty is void.
  • You can’t drive the car off the auction lot. You need to figure out how to tow it (or have it towed) to a location where you can either work on it yourself or have someone fix it.
  • Even if there is nothing wrong with the car, expect some work will be required. Picking up the car on a forklift, moving it out to the lot and towing it on a flatbed apparently dislodged some suspension bushings on mine, a minor repair that cost $60. Other common repairs needed are draining the fuel system if the car has sat for a long time, and replacing the battery (these seem to have gone bad very often on auction cars).
  • You can’t finance auction purchases using any conventional sort of financing. Instead, you need to be prepared to immediately wire the full amount of your bid, plus fees and potentially sales tax as well, right after the auction is completed. Late fees run $100 per day or so, and the wire is due the day after the auction (so you have to send it on the day of the auction). To wire funds, they need to be in your bank account, free and clear – so you can’t deposit a check and then immediately wire the funds.

There are two major auction houses that dispose of salvage vehicles, IAAI and Copart. It’s possible with IAAI to identify the seller of a vehicle, which you can’t do with Copart, making Copart a riskier auction because a lot of dealers dump their problem vehicles there. I’m not going to go through the details of how the auctions run and how to use auction and broker sites, because there are plenty of other resources (and YouTube videos) that explore these in depth. Instead, I’ll focus on everything else around the auction process which isn’t nearly as well documented.

Auction houses charge a hefty registration fee as well as a bevy of additional fees. You’ll pay “documentation fees,” “gate fees” and a commission which is either a fixed amount or a percentage depending upon the value of the vehicle. I opted not to register directly with IAAI, which was the seller of the vehicle I was interested in. Instead, I signed up with SalvageBid (you can get 30% off of their membership using the promo code on their blog). Although I didn’t need to go through a broker in Washington state (because unlike in most states, anyone is allowed to buy salvage vehicles in any condition here), it was advantageous to do so because broker commissions are much lower than what IAAI offers to the general public. I ended up saving nearly $1,000 in commissions purchasing through SalvageBid (on their most expensive “VIP” membership, which is probably a no brainer if you’re buying a newer car) versus going directly through IAAI.

Inspecting Vehicles

Although you can go to the auction lot to view cars, it’s a hassle. Both Copart and IAAI are located in far-flung Seattle suburbs each about an hour away from where I live. IAAI only allows registered users on their lot (which means you have to pay their registration fee), while Copart charges $25 if you’re not a registered user (having paid their registration fee). You also need a safety vest, or they’ll charge you for one. And then once you’re there, if you’re not a mechanic, it’s hard to make a good assessment of whether a vehicle is in good shape or not.

Fortunately there is a solution: you can pay carinspector.us to check out your car. I paid them $155, and they delivered a comprehensive report on the car (along with detailed high resolution photos, much better than what IAAI had provided) confirming that there was nothing obviously wrong with it. The report gave me the confidence to bid aggressively on the car because I likely had more information than the majority of bidders.

screenshot of carinspector.us
They go through every system on the car and check it – this is only part of the checklist

The 50% Rule

Vehicles sold at auction will have the estimated repair cost and the estimated “actual cash value.” These figures will in some cases only loosely resemble either of the actual values; they come from insurance company estimating software and don’t take into account either the used vehicle market or the true cost of repairs.

Remember Andrei? He works around this by setting a “50% rule.” Having identified a reasonably repairable salvage vehicle (keep in mind, most cars sold at auction aren’t), he will bid no more than 50% of the “ACV,” or “actual cash value.” He also factors all of the fees into his bid, and since he buys a lot of cars, he generally knows exactly what these will be. This gives him enough of a budget both to repair the car and to discount it for having a salvage title instead of a clean title (here in Washington, the expected discount is about 20%).

Andrei is right in his advice not to get carried away with bidding. In this case, I knowingly broke the “50% rule,” because I knew I wasn’t going to have to invest much in the car, giving me more headroom to pay more at auction. The ACV of my car was $25,806 which isn’t far off from what these cars actually sell for (one with double the mileage of mine and a clean title is currently for sale for $26,888 at a local dealer). A previously wrecked car from Louisiana with similar mileage to mine, and also with a salvage title, is selling for just under $20,000. However, that car is being sold by an out of state dealer in Oregon, which is notorious for its virtually unregulated salvage vehicle market. There’s no telling whether the other vehicle has been repaired properly, or with which parts. After all, how did it end up in Oregon when it was sold at auction in Louisiana, anyway?

In the end, I went up to $14,200, and including all fees, I paid $15,588. Adding on the required SalvageBid membership, cost of towing, the oil change that was needed, and the inspections and minor repairs I had performed, I paid $16,433 (I get free wire transfers from my bank, but if you don’t, account for this, too). State tax, title and licensing fees added to the total but I’d have had to pay these with any vehicle, so I’m not including these in the calculation. So, I saved $10,455 versus what a dealer is trying to sell a higher mileage vehicle for. I think realistically, I saved $9k because that’s closer to what I’d pay a private party for a similar vehicle (remember, these are popular vehicles in short supply, not many are for sale, and Blue Book values are pretty far out of step with the market).

Auction Pickup

You get 3 days to pick up your car from IAAI before they start charging expensive storage fees (think airport parking prices), and the 3 days includes the day of the auction. Making matters worse, they are closed on the weekend so if you miss a Friday pickup (auctions are every Wednesday, and you must arrive before 4pm on Friday to pick up the car) they will charge you storage over the weekend plus Monday.

auction car lot
Auction houses really don’t want to store your car

However, you can’t pick up the car until you’ve paid for it and funds clear. This means that you need to be prepared to wire the funds immediately after the auction closes and you win. The auction is wrapped up by 11:30am and the bank wire cutoff is usually something like 3:15PM Eastern time. Be watching your email for an invoice with wire instructions and I recommend that you get set up with your bank to wire funds through online banking versus going into a branch. That way, you’ll get your car paid out on time to get the vehicle released before you start getting charged for storage.

IAAI won’t release the car to you to drive off the lot, because it’s illegal. You need to have a way to tow it, either by showing up with a car trailer or hiring a towing company to tow it. It’s best to hire a flatbed to tow your car because if there are any problems with the tires, they’ll be unable to tow it with a conventional wrecker. I hired a flatbed that regularly works with my mechanic for $160 to retrieve my car. They gave me a good discount because I allowed them to pick up the car any time that IAAI was open over a 2 day window, and that’s why I got the discount: they picked up my car when they’d otherwise be making an empty return trip.

Passing Inspection And Registration In Washington

Registering a salvage vehicle in Washington is different than a regular vehicle and there is virtually no information available online about how to do it. I had to figure it all out on my own but it all worked. Other states have their own procedures ranging from refusing to allow salvage vehicles to be registered at all to allowing them on the road with virtually no inspection or documentation. Washington is pretty middle-of-the-road as requirements go, but definitely research your local procedures before you buy a salvage car.

After I paid SalvageBid, they promptly sent me a DocuSign for a bill of sale. In Washington, that’s all you get; the insurance company notifies the Department of Licensing when they total a vehicle and the state cancels the title. A salvage vehicle is simply a vehicle with no title, and this means it is not street legal in the State of Washington.

In order to get plates and register the car, you will need to have it inspected by the State Patrol. So, first have the car repaired (or repair it yourself) in a manner that will pass inspection. Then schedule your inspection. You need to start looking right at 8am on Monday because that’s when appointments are loaded into the system, and they’re all gone within a couple of hours. Check every location around you (I was able to get an appointment in Bellevue, but not in SeaTac) and ignore all of the warnings not to schedule an appointment without the Department of Licensing request. You need the date of the inspection for the Department of Licensing, and WSP availability is the constraint.

Once you have the car repaired and your appointment scheduled, head down to your local Department of Licensing agency (the same place where you get tabs, not where you get your driver’s license) with the bill of sale for the car that either the auction house or your broker sent you. Tell them that you bought the car in an online auction and you need to have it inspected by WSP. They’ll issue you a temporary permit for $8 (pay cash to avoid the $2.25 credit card fee) which will allow you to drive the car to a State Patrol facility for inspection. You get two separate dates and they can be non-consecutive, so give them the date you’ve scheduled and another date a couple of weeks later. That way, you can try again if you fail inspection the first time.

Washington State Patrol inspection sign

When you go for the WSP inspection, display the temporary license you got from the Department of Licensing (they do check, and if you don’t have it displayed, I assume it’s an instant ticket). You will also need to take the following documents:

  • The bill of sale from your broker or auction house.
  • Receipts for all of the parts you used in your repair, as well as any labor receipts.
    • Pay attention to the WSP’s checklist before you buy anything and be sure to get the correct documentation because without it, you won’t pass!
    • Be especially wary of parts purchased online (such as on Craigslist) which are often stolen. Parts sold by licensed junkyards are a safer bet, when sold with invoice and serial numbers as applicable.
  • The “Request for Inspection” from the Department of Licensing.

Be sure to show up at least 5 minutes early and allow extra time for Google Maps to direct you to the wrong place (this happens in Bellevue). WSP doesn’t have a public restroom, so include that in your plan as well.

My WSP inspection was thorough, courteous and professional. The officer ran everything “by the book” and I got back their inspection report and the bill of sale. They stamped both, and they also affixed an official label inside the door which indicates the vehicle has been rebuilt and inspected.

I then returned to the Department of Licensing agent, who took all of the documentation and collected $1,908.15 in tax, title and licensing fees. Naturally, I paid cash to avoid the 3% credit card fee. They issue your new license plates on the spot, and your title shows up in the mail 8 weeks later.

What About Insurance?

My insurance company wrote me a full coverage policy without even batting an eye. No surcharges, and exactly the same rates as if the vehicle didn’t have a rebuilt title. Your mileage may vary but most insurance companies in Washington don’t seem to consider salvage vehicles (which have been inspected and are street legal) to be much—if any—higher risk than other vehicles. I suspect that this has to do with the strict inspection requirement here, which many other states (such as Oregon) do not have.

Driving For Free?

For most people, a car is a liability. My car is an asset–it’s worth more than I paid for it. Since much of the depreciation on a new car is front loaded within the first 2 years, I’ll have another 3 years (or so) to drive this car before its value drops below what I paid for it. In effect, I’m driving for free when you really think about it. And that’s what makes this a perfect Seat 31B travel hack!

I spent less overall time doing this than I have spent finding and booking Cathay Pacific first class, and I’ll be getting years of effectively free road trips out of it. You can too. It’s high risk, but nothing in the free travel game is low risk. May the odds ever be in your favor.

Qantas 737-800 Economy Class Review (Long Haul)

Coming from: Part 2 – Vancouver-Sydney on Qantas

Part 3 – Sydney to Perth

I had scheduled two spectacular days in Sydney and really made the most of them. Having gotten plenty of sleep on the flight, I was surprisingly ready to seize the day in Sydney and by staying up late, I was able to get my time zones adjusted with relative ease. I’ll write more about what to do with a day (and change) in Sydney, but here’s a quick taste:

Sydney Opera House
I saw the Opera House twice in a day: once from the air, and once from the water!

As it turned out, a friend of a friend was staying in the same hotel, so we met in the lobby for breakfast. He’s a foodie from LA, and wanted to check out some of Sydney’s famously pretentious coffee culture. I was happy to be along for the ride, so we ventured forth to Single O, which was within walking distance.

The coffee was, in fact, super pretentious and incredibly expensive, but it was also very good:

We parted ways after breakfast since I had shopping to do. My experience with small remote islands like Christmas Island has taught me that groceries are incredibly expensive and selection is incredibly limited. I considered going to Costco because it’s the best place to buy American stuff abroad, but the logistics of getting there were too complicated (and I didn’t need large bulk sizes of anything). There was an Aldi right around the corner from my hotel, and I figured that the prices would be competitive and they’d have what I needed. This was correct. Everything cost roughly double what it would at home, which is around the right price for things in Sydney (which is a very expensive city). I stocked up on items like soy milk that I knew would be hard to get on the island. Quarantine regulations are strict, even when traveling within different regions of Australia, so I stuck to packaged items (fresh fruits, vegetables and meats can’t be brought into Australia or between Australian regions).

After that, I headed out for lunch, visited a local DJ shop, and went back to the hotel to retrieve my bags. Although I’d purchased a round-trip train and subway ticket, it turned out that the hotel had a shuttle bus to the airport which was both cheap and convenient. Instead of hassling with my luggage in the subway I just bought a ticket on that, and had no regrets.

My transcontinental flight from Sydney to Perth was on Qantas, an economy class award ticket I bought with 10,000 American Airlines Aadvantage miles. This was a fantastic deal, because cash fares are expensive on this route. Unfortunately, Qantas check-in wasn’t entirely smooth. It looks sleek and modern, but because of the service flow, it ended up being a hassle. They use automated machines for everything, including checking in luggage, and they are very strict on baggage requirements. I checked in my bag, and then headed for security. It turns out that in Sydney, Qantas weighs your carry-on bags! My carry-on was slightly overweight, so the agent forced me to check it. Of course, my large bag was already checked in, so I couldn’t shift weight into it. My assumption was that this whole thing was a setup to gouge me for bag fees, and I was prepared for an argument about being charged, but much to my surprise, Qantas didn’t even try to charge me. The agent just pressed a button and I was easily able to check in my second bag through the machine. That was entirely fine with me; I didn’t need or want to carry on my second bag, and the only reason I was doing so in the first place was to avoid bag fees.

Security was really, really fast, so I ended up in the domestic terminal much faster than I anticipated. I used my Priority Pass to get a snack and drink at Bar Roma. The AUD$36 credit didn’t go very far at all due to the insanely high prices, but I was able to get a simple snack (an open faced sandwich) and a canned drink. Most Australian food is good, but this wasn’t. Still, it was free, so it was hard for me to complain.

Bar Roma, Sydney
Open faced sandwich and drink from Bar Roma. Looks better than it tasted.

Even after having a snack and a drink, it was still early for my flight so I worked on my laptop for awhile until the plane finally arrived.

Qantas 737
My ride to Perth

I hadn’t lucked out as much with the seat assignment on this flight. Initially, I’d been assigned a middle seat. As soon as the gate agents took the podium, I asked whether there were any aisle seats available. There weren’t. There was only one window seat, and it was all the way in the back. Still, for a transcontinental flight, this (barely) beat a middle seat.

Qantas 737 seat in the back
Second worst seat on the plane. The worst is right next to it!

The seat didn’t recline at all, but Qantas isn’t using hard, uncomfortable seats yet. I am 5’7 so there was enough legroom for me with the 30″ seat pitch, but I have broad shoulders and felt a bit cramped on the 17.2″ seats. Taller people would have been considerably less comfortable. The flight was completely full with every seat taken, so it took awhile to load up and push back from the gate.

Qantas still provides meal service on long domestic flights, and this began not long after we were airborne. Unfortunately only the less popular of the two meal choices was available by the time the flight attendants got to us in the very back row. Unbelievably, Qantas serves chili on a plane! Here’s what it looked like:

Qantas meal box
OK, looks innocent enough….
Qantas chili
Qantas chili. Tasted slightly better than it looked.

There was no Internet, and I can sleep pretty much anywhere. After the meal service, I listened to some music and napped for most of the nice smooth ride to Perth. Upon arrival, there were lots of signs warning about quarantine regulations but we weren’t required to go through it. My checked bags came out without incident so I called my hotel and went outside into a chilly Perth evening to hop on the shuttle.

Wrap-Up

On award tickets, Qantas doesn’t give you free seat selection. I never pay for seats, and just ask for a better one. However, this only works as long as a better seat is available. If the good seats are all taken, you can end up in a middle seat all the way in the back. Ultimately, though, this was OK with me. I got to my destination at the same time as people who paid far more, and I paid the least amount possible.

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

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