How Amex Charged Me $100 And Then Tried To Ruin Our Wedding

I have been trying to figure out the best way to write about this because it’s so hard to believe it actually happened. I realize that what I’m about to describe is deeply personal, and I do try to keep the blog to topics that could impact other people. But the root cause of the situation that American Express created is one that could impact anyone, so I ultimately decided to share. If you’re wondering what all of this is about, pull up a chair because the story I’m about to share should give any American Express cardholder pause.

The secret to booking Qsuites to the US is originating in Central Asia

Last Monday was my wedding day. “Wait, what?” If you know me at all, let me assure you that I’m just as surprised as you are that I’m writing these words. However, what started as a friendship and then a fling grew into two years of talking to each other every day and traveling together to UNESCO World Heritage sites. Eventually, we decided we liked each other enough to file immigration paperwork, and after exploring my career opportunities in Kazakhstan vs. Rakhat’s career opportunities here (not as easy a decision as you’d think because Rakhat is a native Kazakh speaker who teaches English) we decided to try the US. Eventually the paperwork was approved, and Rakhat arrived. Via Qsuites, of course, and on the inaugural flight from Tashkent, because that’s how we roll.

We couldn’t resist taking pictures here anyway

Of course, the immigration process wasn’t smooth. We were planning to get married at a private gathering on Orcas Island, on a picture perfect balcony, with some of the most beautiful scenery in the Pacific Northwest as our backdrop. The US Consulate in Almaty had other plans. They use a contractor to process US visas and associated documentation, and the contractor failed to return an envelope full of documentation intended for Customs and Border Protection. When Rakhat showed up, he was paroled into the United States for 30 days while we sorted out the documentation problem with the US Consulate (fortunately, they admitted their error and FedExed the needed documentation). However, he wasn’t formally admitted to the United States at the time of arrival, meaning we couldn’t get married until he was. Otherwise, he’d be refused entry, returned to Kazakhstan, and we’d need to file a different form which takes another year to process. And if all of this sounds completely insane, welcome to the US immigration system.

Anyway, we decided to make lemonade from lemons. After all, we’d dated by traveling around the world together. Why not get married at Sea-Tac Airport? Rakhat would have to return there anyway to get formally stamped into the country, so we’d already be there. We arranged with US Customs and Border Protection to clear his paperwork on Canada Day, July 1st. And then I set about to turning our dream into a reality.

I reached out to a good friend, who is a Sea-Tac Airport volunteer. If you weren’t aware, airports have volunteer programs and airport volunteers are extremely well-connected. They’re allowed to go airside, they have relationships with airline staff, lounge staff, and other airport staff, and they are trusted liaisons. I shared my plans with my friend, who investigated options. We weren’t able to reserve the interfaith chapel at Sea-Tac Airport, because it’s operated on a drop-in basis. However, the American Express Lounge had a private room, and we were welcome to use it for the ceremony. We’d just have to ensure that everyone there met the requirements: a ticket valid for travel within 3 hours of our planned ceremony, and the ability to enter the Amex lounge (either via a qualifying American Express card or as a guest of a cardmember).

As it turned out, we’re part of a group of people who travel, and a lot of people had travel plans over the holiday week. Also, many people we knew from the private event we attended on Orcas Island were flying out that day as well. And we could return on a quick flight ourselves. Really, it was perfect. We happily agreed, our airport volunteer friend confirmed (and subsequently re-confirmed with 3 different people on 4 occasions) and we set the date and time: 6:00PM on July 1st.

On Monday, Rakhat got his stamp. We went to the airport a bit early, not knowing how long it would take, checked in for our flights, and changed into suits. We met our friends at the base of the elevator. And then, at 6pm, we all took the elevator up to the American Express lounge. We were nervous but excited, ready to realize the dream that we had both traveled tens of thousands of miles around the world in order to achieve.

When I got to the front desk, I gave them my name, assuming they’d be expecting me. Nope. “We don’t have anything on the schedule,” the front desk agent said. I told them who approved it, and who had confirmed it, and the agent frowned. She went ahead and checked us in anyway, charged my American Express card $100 for two guests (Rakhat and Charlie, my best man) and seated our group at a table in the lounge while they sorted things out. I figured they’d get the room ready, invite us back in a bit, and we’d be able to have the ceremony.

After 15 minutes of standing around awkwardly, the agent came over and beckoned me into a corner. “May I have a word with you?” She proceeded to inform me that they didn’t have us on the schedule, and there was nobody to approve it because the manager went home sick, so we couldn’t have the room. Furthermore, a wedding ceremony in the lounge wasn’t consistent with the brand image of American Express, so she wouldn’t be able to approve it.

I was absolutely aghast. Wait, what?! Are you for real?! After setting it up, multiple confirmations, screen shots of text messages with approval from their boss, etc.? But the agent was firm. The brand image of American Express would be protected, and we wouldn’t be having our wedding in their lounge. OK, fine. I get it. Two guys who like to travel to places where American Express isn’t widely accepted probably don’t fit the brand image of American Express, and for that matter, I think American Express doesn’t fit my brand image either. I like my cards to actually work to make purchases, and you can barely even use them in Canada let alone anywhere further afield from the United States.

Amex didn’t even refund the $100 charge

OK. I’m good at thinking on my feet. I went back to my wedding party and told them the news. “Let’s go on an expedition to find the chapel,” I said. “Maybe we can use that. We’re not welcome here.” So we all traipsed out of the lounge, down the elevator, down multiple escalators, and we found the Sea-Tac International Airport Interfaith Prayer And Meditation Room. A couple of airport employees were hanging out in there during their lunch break, but weren’t actually using the room and were happy for us to get married there. So, moving fast before someone showed up to kick us out, we crowded into the room and my friend Dawn officiated. The space and atmosphere was much better than a stuffy Amex lounge anyway. We didn’t have to worry about violating anyone’s brand image. We just got to enjoy a beautiful moment together. And our reception afterwards was in the Club at SEA, which happily let everyone in without judgement.

The Enigma of Atlantis Bahamas

One of the most touted benefits of Caesars Diamond status is that you can get a free stay at the Atlantis Bahamas. This is a destination I wouldn’t ever have normally considered, but there was a really good sale fare from Vancouver to Nassau so I grabbed tickets a couple of months ago. This is usually a rational strategy: if there is a good deal on flight tickets, just grab the flights immediately and figure out the rest later.

I had no idea what I was setting myself up for.

Looking at a picture is the closest you might come to staying at the Atlantis Bahamas

I called in December and was informed that the calendar wasn’t open yet for February. “Call back after the first of the year, and there should be good availability” said the friendly agent. OK, fine. I called in on January 2nd, and was informed that the calendar would be opening for February in mid-January, without any certainty as to exactly when. “I know this sounds crazy because it’s really soon, but call back after the 15th and we should be able to take care of you.”

OK, fine. I called back today, less than two weeks before my planned stay (starting on the 2nd of February). “Have you ever booked with us before?” Apparently there’s a process where the Atlantis has to confirm my benefit with Caesars, and that takes a couple of days, and they can’t make a reservation before then. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the first 10 days of February are sold out. “Reservations have been open since Sunday,” the agent cooly stated. That’s funny, because the Web site says that reservations don’t open until February 1st.

Now, rooms aren’t actually sold out. You can buy all of the rooms you want. You just can’t use your Caesars benefit on those days. Atlantis manages its inventory like saver level frequent flier awards. They black out popular dates, and you’re more likely to be able to use the benefit for a midweek versus a weekend stay, and during hurricane season versus a nice time of the year to visit. While we all prefer different experiences when we travel, it’s personally difficult for me to justify using scarce vacation days on a destination like The Bahamas in order to stay in a casino resort.

So, I ended up spending 11,000 Choice points per night (transferred 1:2 from Citi) to stay in the Comfort Suites next door. They charge a $45 per night resort fee on top of it, so I spent the equivalent of $510 in points and cash for a 4 night stay. That stings, although it’s only 1/3 the cash rate for an equivalent room (Choice had availability for a garden view suite). There’s still a remote possibility that someone will cancel and I’ll be able to stay during my planned dates, but the possibility is remote.

Should you go for a Caesars Diamond status? Possibly, if it makes sense (I got my status matched from Wyndham, and I get my Wyndham status from a $95 annual fee credit card, which is less than I’d spend on parking each year at a conference I attend in Las Vegas). However, I wouldn’t gamble extra, or buy a Founder’s Card membership, with the intention of using this benefit. My experience actually trying to book and use the Atlantis Bahamas stay has shown that unless you’re willing to travel midweek in off peak months, this isn’t an easy benefit to use. Honestly, though, what should I have expected from a property named after a lost city? Maybe it doesn’t even exist.

Broken Capital One MFA Locking Up Points

I just got a frantic text from a friend today. “Capital One won’t let me transfer my points because I switched mobile phone carriers! I’m going to lose the award inventory, and they’re telling me that there’s nothing they can do. My points are locked up for an indeterminate period of time.”

Your Capital One points may end up in a weird AI-generated jail if you switch mobile phone companies

This is the first time I have heard of this problem, but indeed it’s true. Capital One has been notoriously fussy about its 2FA verification. They use a “data quality” service (such as the Phone Verification tool provided by Experian) to check whether a mobile phone number appears to be suspicious, and they can get back a lot of data from these services (mobile phone carriers and app providers can and do sell everything about you to data brokers, including carrier billing data and your approximate real-time physical location).

And that comes down to assumptions, and who is making them. To me, this has missing cultural context written all over it. Capital One has fired much of its US staff and moved a significant percentage of software development offshore. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a software job in machine learning, try looking in Bangalore. A carrier-authenticated mobile phone number totally makes sense for identity verification in a location like India, where everyone has a national ID card called an “Aadhaar” and real-name registration is required with mobile carriers using this national ID (I’m sure this capability is never abused).

This is not the case in the United States, where we don’t have a national ID, real name registration is not required for any form of telephone service, and data quality is inconsistent at best. First of all, the lines are blurred between mobile phones, VoIP services and land lines here: you can port to and from any of these and some services ring multiple devices on multiple networks at the same time. People don’t always register their phones with the carrier at all, or if they do, at the location where they live, or update the billing address when they move (most people get their bills online and pay automatically). When switching carriers, it can be weeks or even months before carrier data is updated, and billing data can be verified from the new carrier. So when you’re designing a system like this, and you have cultural context of how things operate in the US, you will understand that a mobile phone number isn’t authoritative and there should be other ways to verify a customer request.

Capital One, unfortunately, isn’t doing that. There is a whole Flyertalk thread of people complaining about this issue. If Capital One’s system can’t figure out how to send you a text message, you’re out of luck and you can’t transfer points. They’re in jail, customer service is a brick wall, and there are no alternate procedures. Nobody will help you and Capital One won’t even say where the failure is so you can try to get it corrected. That’s another hallmark of customer service in both American and mainland Chinese banking: if your situation doesn’t fit the script, nobody knows what to do and nobody will help you. Your job as a human is to figure out how to fit within the system as it’s (poorly) designed, and bend to the will of a computer.

My friend ended up completely stuck, and used some American Airlines points he forgot he had to book a different flight. For my part, I find it completely astonishing that Capital One has designed such a completely inflexible system for something as time-sensitive as points transfers. I totally get that SIM swapping is an issue, and that stolen credentials are a problem. There are, however, other entirely reasonable alternate verification methods that aren’t immediately obvious to someone in Bangalore. If any product managers are left in the US at Capital One, maybe they can help their offshore colleagues.

The jetBlue Pricing Twilight Zone

I just got off a call with jetBlue which made me feel like I was in the twilight zone. This February, I’m planning a visit to The Bahamas, my 78th country. I was able to find an outbound flight relatively easily with AAdvantage points, but the return is on a US holiday and that’s proving to be a challenge to find at any reasonable price. WestJet has a flight that gets back really late, and I can book it at a somewhat reasonable cost using points (via Qantas, of all airlines), but jetBlue has a better schedule.

My first call was to Qatar. It’s possible to use Qatar Avios to book jetBlue flights. I tried looking on their Web site first, but availability was limited, and they didn’t allow searching online for flights between Nassau and Vancouver. Usually the pricing isn’t very good, but availability is pretty generous and given that it’s a peak holiday travel date, availability matters. I figured that if the flights priced out at the usual 18,500 Avios between Vancouver and the east coast, using Avios would be a good potential option. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any availability using Avios.

OK, fine. jetBlue allows you to book any flight they sell through their TrueBlue mileage program. Better yet, there’s a 25% transfer bonus from Chase Ultimate Rewards to jetBlue, and I have some jetBlue points. Why not check their program? Well, that’s not quite as easy a proposition as it sounds. jetBlue doesn’t have the best IT (this is an understatement) and even though you can buy flights from Nassau to Vancouver on their own Web site via Google Flights, you can’t search for them on the jetBlue Web site. I know it sounds crazy but here’s how it looks:

You can find an itinerary from Nassau to Vancouver on Google Flights
You can even purchase it directly on jetBlue
You can’t search for the flight from their homepage, though!

Obviously this doesn’t work, because it would involve paying actual money for these flights. We try to avoid paying cash at Seat 31B, so I picked up the phone and called jetBlue. If the Web site isn’t cooperating agents can usually figure out how to piece an itinerary together, and sure enough, the guy I called (who sounded like he was in the Caribbean) was able to figure it out.

There was only one problem. He couldn’t give me a price, because my account didn’t have any points in it. Could I transfer in some points so that he could price out the itinerary? Wait, what? That’s like handing a store your money (in a non-refundable way) before they’ll tell you the price of anything. “That just doesn’t make sense to me,” I replied. “Can you just give me a temporary credit in my account, or use a test account to search?”

I hit a brick wall. Eventually I escalated, and was routed to someone claiming to be with technical support in New York who also acted like a brick wall. “It has been this way for years” she emphasized, which didn’t make this insanity sound any more reasonable. I offered the same options – could they temporarily credit me some points to get around the IT issue? Could they use a test account? Nope! The only solution was to give them the equivalent of a $20 bill to find out whether I wanted to buy a ticket on their airline.

Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. By all accounts, jetBlue isn’t a very good airline (their operational reliability is spectacularly poor, and they charge for carry on bags) so flying WestJet probably makes the most sense here. Still, I feel like this policy is straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. jetBlue knows they are doing this. They have been doing it for years. And it’s absolutely not normal, in any reasonable sense.

Has Air Canada Aeroplan Lost Its Mind?

It’s no secret in the miles and points world that the Air Canada Aeroplan program has been struggling with fraud and abuse. The situation is so bad that it’s speculated that many of their partners have cut them off from being able to book tickets (this has happened on and off over the past couple of months, with varying partner blocking). Part of this is due to loopholes in how the program was constructed (particularly with family sharing), but part of this is also due to automated points broker activity. This is a very deep rabbit hole which involves some fairly deep IT security conversations. Most of this unauthorized activity could be dealt with via technology updates (potentially using some of Air Canada’s own in-house technology, such as its New Distribution Capability API), but instead, Air Canada has chosen to make its Terms and Conditions some of the most unusual and restrictive in the industry.

Only One Aeroplan Credit Card Allowed Per Person, Period

Airlines make money with their loyalty programs by selling points to banks. The points are awarded to bank customers as signup bonuses for new credit card products, and for continued spending on the card. Given that the signup bonuses usually cost the banks more than the annual fee, banks impose restrictions on whether and how often you can receive multiple signup bonuses. However, it’s not unusual for an airline to partner with more than one bank (it’s common for airlines to work with different card issuers in multiple countries), or for a bank to offer both business and personal cards.

That’s now out the window with Aeroplan. Have a personal credit card tied to your Aeroplan account? You’d better not open an Aeroplan credit card for your small business, or your entire account could be shut down and all of your points confiscated. Are you Canadian temporarily working in the US on, say, a TN-1 visa, and want a credit card denominated in USD? Forget signing up for the Chase Aeroplan card, unless you want your Aeroplan account torched. And if you do have an Aeroplan card, you’d better use it enough not to be considered “disengaging” (whatever that means). I mean, don’t take it from me, it’s right there in the Terms and Conditions:

Aeroplan may, in its sole discretion, choose to limit the number of New Card Bonuses or similar bonuses or incentives a Member may receive in any period, and, in addition to the other remedies set forth in these Terms and Conditions, reserves the right to suspend, revoke or terminate the Account of any person who engages in a behaviour of excessive use, abuse or misuse of the New Card Bonus offers. Such behaviours include but are not limited to: (i) applying for, transferring or switching (including upgrading or downgrading), or completing any other product changes between multiple Aeroplan Credit Cards across one or more product types, or across one or more financial institutions that issue an Aeroplan Credit Card; (ii) a pattern of cancelling, or disengaging in, an Aeroplan Credit Card shortly after receiving a New Card Bonus (or any portion of a New Card Bonus) or similar bonus or incentive; (iii) a pattern of purchasing and then cancelling or returning any product or service for which Aeroplan Points were issued; and (iv) linking your Aeroplan Credit Card to an Account that is not your own Account.

https://www.aircanada.com/ca/en/aco/home/aeroplan/legal/terms-and-conditions.html

One Lifetime Credit Card Signup Bonus, Ever

You can only get a signup bonus for an Aeroplan credit card once in your lifetime, from a single credit card. Banks often set rules like this (American Express only allows one signup bonus per lifetime, per card product) but I have never seen an airline set such a requirement. This is absolutely unprecedented.

From time to time, bonus or incentive Aeroplan Points may be offered by us or participating partners and suppliers to acquire products or services (“Products and Services”) as part of the Aeroplan Program. In connection with bonus or incentive Aeroplan Points being offered as an incentive related to Products and Services, such bonus Aeroplan Points incentives are intended for a Member who has not previously received bonus Aeroplan Points for the same Products or Services, to acquire such Products or Services.

Only One Account, With Exact Passport Name Match

On the surface, it’d seem reasonable for Aeroplan to require that people have only one account per person, and that the name match their identification. In practice, this is a real problem because people’s names can change on their identification. People get married and change their last name. The US State Department decided with my last passport renewal to change my middle initial on my passport to my full middle name, in line with their new policy. Transgender individuals routinely change their legal names to the opposite gender. The list goes on.

If your Aeroplan account doesn’t match your legal name, you could lose all of your points!

Making matters worse, Aeroplan has absolutely terrible integration with banks. If the name on an Aeroplan account doesn’t exactly match the name on the credit card, points transfers won’t work. If you use a nickname, the name used in banking may not be the same name that is on your passport. If you want points transfers to actually work, you will need to create an Aeroplan account in a way that violates the Terms and Conditions from the outset.

All of this might be possible to manage around if Aeroplan customer service was accessible, but it often isn’t. At all. After wading through a multi layered phone menu, the phone system often plays a brush-off phone recording that effectively says that Air Canada is too busy for you, and then their phone system hangs up on you. If you do reach an agent (after waiting for hours), making updates requires sending one way emails to a back office somewhere that may get to you in a month or three. There is no feedback loop, and forget booking anything in the meantime. Your points will just sit locked up in the program, rapidly devaluing instead. Canadian companies in general are not known for good customer service, but Air Canada is considered terrible even for Canada.

Death Or Bankruptcy Zeroes Out Your Points

It’s not unusual for airline programs to zero out your points balance if you die. That’s why you should have detailed information accessible for your loved ones to use your points, and you should never tell an airline that a loyalty program member died. Aeroplan kicks it up a notch though. You’re dead to them if you declare bankruptcy. They’ll close your account and zero out your points balance. I have never seen anything like this in any airline program. This isn’t just a clawback of loyalty points earned through a partner bank you defaulted on. Purchased points or points earned from flying will be cancelled too.

Bottom Line

Rather than fixing the technology issues that are largely the root cause of Aeroplan’s fraud problems, or investing in providing literally any customer service at all, Aeroplan has instead rolled out the most restrictive Terms and Conditions that I have ever seen in any airline program. Look, I understand that Air Canada has been struggling with fraud and abuse in its Aeroplan program. And some of the Terms and Conditions updates are entirely reasonable (such as those to Aeroplan Family Sharing, which seem carefully thought out to limit abuse while maintaining a popular program feature). I have to wonder what Air Canada is possibly hoping to accomplish by limiting engagement with its financial partners, though. This is traditionally the biggest source of revenue to airline loyalty programs, so it seems like Air Canada is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

The Hotel Points Play Nobody Talks About

Everywhere you look, you’ll see people promoting the Chase Ultimate Rewards program and points transfers to Hyatt. The love for Hyatt in the blogosphere seems unlimited, even though they have repeatedly devalued their loyalty program just like everyone else (both covertly, by raising the category of existing properties, and overtly, by shifting to a multi-tiered pricing model). Sure, Hyatt has some nice properties, but the majority of them are mediocre properties (many of which in the US are owned by the notoriously cheap operator Aimbridge Hospitality). Many of them don’t even clean your room. So the reality of Hyatt is that you’re paying higher prices for worse service, so it’s worth questioning the comparatively higher cash rates that they charge versus other properties. And this should factor into your calculations when spending points. Even if you’re spending points at a high return, if that return is up against a poor cash value, this isn’t a good use of points!

This brings up the hotel program that almost nobody talks about: Choice Privileges. I get it: the program is obscure. And yes, very few people would consider a Comfort Inn to be an aspirational property. Nevertheless, these are the exact kinds of properties that I spend actual cash on, and the cash prices are actually competitive. When I’m traveling, I am usually just looking for a clean comfortable room where I can get a good night’s sleep without breaking the bank.

Nobody would consider the Comfort Hotel Kanda to be aspirational, but does it really need to be? It’s just a 7 minute walk to Akihabara!

Here’s an example. The Comfort Hotel Tokyo Kanda costs 8,000 Choice Privileges points per night. That’s up against a JPY 17,700 rate on the weekends, which is $118.49. The property is just a 7 minute walk to Akihabara, which is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo. So if you were transferring points at 1:1, it’d be just shy of 1.5 cents per point which is a completely reasonable points redemption. It’s well above the Seat 31B weighted average realistic value of most points programs.

However, Citi ThankYou points transfer 1:2 to Choice Privileges, meaning that you’re paying just 4,000 Citi points per night. This yields a return just shy of 3 cents per point, and this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky valuation against cash you’d never actually spend. It’s close to 3 cents per point in value against a totally reasonable cash price that I’d be spending in Tokyo anyway, if not at this property, at another similar business hotel.

The value can be even greater than this. Take New Year’s Eve in New York. The Comfort Inn Manhattan-Midtown West is $540 per night all-in, cash rate:

$540 per night rate for a Comfort Inn, Midtown West Manhattan

If you’re paying with points, it’s 20,000 Choice Privileges points, or 10,000 Citi ThankYou points:

20k points for the same room

This isn’t just for the weird room every hotel on Manhattan seems to have. You know the one; it used to be a closet next to the elevator, and someone crammed a twin bed in there. You have your choice of two twin beds, a queen bed, or this swank king room:

1 king bed room at Comfort Inn

This is a normal rate for New Year’s Eve in New York. It’s a completely reasonable property on Manhattan. And reserving through Choice Privileges delivers an absolutely astonishing 5.4 cents per point in value for your Citi ThankYou points. By the way, this inventory is live right now. You can go out and book it. If you go, send me pictures of the ball dropping in Times Square.

Now, I get it. Citi doesn’t pay fat commissions to bloggers like Chase does, so their cards are promoted less. Citi also has fewer cards in their ThankYou Rewards program, so it’s harder to churn through signup bonuses: you actually have to spend on their cards to earn ThankYou points. For the most part, there aren’t fancy splashy high annual fee cards in the program; in fact, Citi probably wins the “fewest perks” award for their card lineup (they don’t even offer secondary rental car insurance). So this program, in all likelihood, gets less attention than other programs.

Choice also doesn’t have fancy aspirational properties (their Ascend Collection brand, which are Choice’s highest end properties, are upper midrange at best). If you’re the kind of person who is excited more by the hotel where you’re staying than the destination you’re in, this program is probably not for you. You also can’t reserve more than 3 months in advance, so if you’re planning well in advance, it can be hard to use this program. Choice seems to manage their program to give away the rooms they don’t think they’ll sell, with an availability floor for rooms booked with points.

If you’re going to stay in a mediocre property anyway, wouldn’t you rather pay a price to match? Skip overpriced and dumpy Hyatt properties and consider a Choice or Wyndham hotel instead.

How To Apply For A Vietnam E-Visa

Now that Asia is back on the post-pandemic travel map, there’s plenty of demand for travel to Vietnam. This is one of the most up-and-coming destinations to visit in Asia. Like many countries, Vietnam has an e-visa process. And like many countries, the e-visa process is not easy to navigate.

The first challenge is finding the correct place to apply. Here’s an example: would you think, based on the name, that this is an official Government of Vietnam site? Well, it’s not. This is instead a private company that will fill out the official form for you and charge you an extra fee, should you be unfortunate enough to click on this:

There are a lot of these companies, and they play SEO games, buy ads, etc. all trying to displace the official site at the top of search engines. This can be expensive! The official site charges only $25 for a 30 day single-entry visa, or $50 for a 90 day multiple entry visa. Other sites can charge double this amount (or more).

The next problem is actually getting the site to load. Connectivity between US Internet providers and the Vietnamese government isn’t very good. I ultimately had to use a VPN (connecting through a Southeast Asia gateway) to get the site to properly load. If you get stuck with the site half loaded, try a VPN and this might help you work around the problem.

Without using a VPN, the upload controls on the visa page failed to load

The application form itself is relatively straightforward, although there are some unusual questions such as your religion. I found Vietnam’s system to be much less fussy with photo requirements than the Uzbekistan and India e-visa pages (which both have complex photo rules, and perform image analysis to make sure you have met them). I used a scan of a passport photo, and a scan of the information page of my passport. Both were accepted by the site without issues.

A screen will pop up with a registration code. You should get an e-mail message with this information as well, but if you don’t receive it for some reason, you’ll need the registration code to look up and print your visa once it’s issued. But first, you have to pay.

The Vietnamese government uses a payment portal operated by Vietcombank to process your credit card. All of this is relatively straightforward; you agree to the terms and conditions, pick the card type, enter the usual card details to make an online purchase, and send through the purchase. However, to your bank, you’re making an online purchase in Vietnam and they might freak out over this. I anticipated this, and used my trusty HSBC Premier MasterCard (which usually works fine with any sketchy thing I want to do), but this time, it didn’t work. The payment failed and I got sent back to the Vietnamese government Web site.

No problem, there was a “retry” link, which led me to a page to look up my visa application. Good thing I took a screen shot of that earlier. After entering my visa application number, birth date, and email address, I was taken back to my application form. No problem, I just clicked through again, and was taken to the following page:

This took me back to my visa application. I clicked through to submit it again, agreed to all of the terms and conditions again, and got through to the payment page. Except:

Yep, that’s right – if your bank doesn’t immediately let through a sketchy looking online purchase from Vietnam without trying to trigger Verified By Visa, MasterCard SecureCode, etc., you have to fill out a whole new visa application again from scratch.

I went ahead and did this, and used an Amex for my second attempt (Amex is usually my second most reliable way to make a sketchy looking purchase go through). This went through, somehow:

It’s not the amount it was supposed to be, and “New Merchant” wins the award for the shadiest looking online purchase I have ever made, but my visa application shows up in the processing queue now.

The stated timeline for processing Vietnam e-visa applications is “3 working days.” Keep in mind that this doesn’t include weekends or Vietnamese holidays. Accordingly, it’s best not to leave this until the last minute if you plan to visit.

You can also apply for a traditional passport sticker visa through a Vietnamese consulate or embassy. However, this appears to be discouraged given the complicated and time consuming process involved:

Hopefully this is helpful if you choose to visit Vietnam. I hope that in the future, the Vietnamese government will invest in faster Internet connectivity for its Web site, and that Vietcombank will improve its procedures in handling payments. It’s really not unreasonable to allow trying a different payment method if the first one doesn’t go through.

How To Get An Uzbekistan E-Visa

I am planning a trip to Uzbekistan, and like many countries, they require an e-visa for entry. If you have a US passport, an increasing number of countries are requiring some sort of electronic visa before you can enter. There are varying levels of complexity in obtaining these, ranging from a relatively easy form Sri Lanka has you fill out (with pretty much instantaneous approval) to Australia’s ETA (which is only available via a horribly rated mobile app that requires the newest and fanciest phones) to Vietnam (which not only requires photos of yourself and your passport, but also requires you to declare the specific location through which you will enter and exit the country).

This obstacle course of e-visas makes it easier for countries to deny you entry before you ever arrive on their soil (where you might have rights of appeal), and it also generates fee revenue. Unfortunately, travelers are seeing more and more e-visa friction each year and I expect the problem to get worse before it gets better. There’s really no reason why this process can’t be automated and run by the airlines at the time of check-in, with the fee built into the price of a plane ticket, so eventually, I expect IATA (or another travel industry consortium) to develop a more reasonable solution.

ETIAS logo

The European Union is revoking visa-free Schengen Area access to Americans next year. Given how much friction e-visa systems add, reconsider trips to Europe until the bugs are worked out.

As you might guess, I have filled out a lot of e-visa applications (and paid a lot of fees). Nothing, however, prepared me for the complexity and opacity of the Uzbekistan e-visa. It’s quite possibly the most complicated application I have ever done, because the Web site is so poorly designed. I have to wonder how many people just give up and decide not to visit Uzbekistan as a result.

The first thing you have to do is get access to the site. This seems pretty simple, but here’s what often happens:

Spinning screen of doom

The site often freezes on a “loading” screen, preventing further progress

If the page manages to load, you’ll be able to fill out your citizenship and the type of visa you want:

You can then pick the arrival and departure date of your trip, although the purpose of this selection seems to only be to check whether your planned trip exceeds the maximum length of stay, or starts after the visa would no longer be valid. The actual visa is valid from 3 months past the approval date:

Calendar selection screen

You can then fill in your biographical data (entire form isn’t shown, but you get the idea):

Biographical data screen

Then comes the really hard part: submitting your photo and the passport page. This site is absolutely cursed. First of all, it’s calling an external API to do the validation, and note that anytime this happens, the dreaded frozen spinning screen of doom can occur. This means reloading the page and starting all over again from the beginning. Second of all, if the photo you submit doesn’t exactly match the very specific photo requirements (which aren’t shown in detail anywhere on the photo upload page) the upload will fail with an error message that gives you no information about what failed, or why it failed. You’re left to guess whether your personal photo or the passport scan is wrong.

I finally solved the problem by going to Staples and having passport photos made in exactly the required dimensions (incidentally, they’re the same as a Pakistan passport photo). Staples was able to save them digitally for me on a thumb drive and their photos passed the test. I also scanned my passport on a professional copier, used a photo editor to exactly match the photo requirements page, and I finally got to the next step.

The next step involves solving a captcha and proceeding to “activation.” This will send an account activation link, which is only active for 12 hours. I clicked on the link, and it didn’t appear to do anything. And then I remained utterly perplexed at what to do next. Eventually, I figured it out. You need to go back to the front page, just as though you were going to start all over again in filling out a new application:

Front page

Click into Application for e-visa and you’ll get a blank form, assuming you don’t get the dreaded spinner of doom:

Application page

Now you can click Payment (click it anyway, even though it’s greyed out). You’ll get the following menu:

Payment page

What’s the application code? It’s in the activation email you received. I hope you didn’t delete it, because you’ll need this in multiple stages of the process:

Email with the code you cannot lose

Solve the captcha, and you’ll be taken to the payment page. My Visa payment kicked me over to Verified by Visa, which ran a verification and then the payment was declined and the payment failed. However, I didn’t actually know that it had failed for 24 hours, since the charge still showed as pending on my credit card. A day later, I tried with a MasterCard and everything worked. I received another email:

Payment processing successful

Success! They took my money. Now it was just a waiting game to find out whether I was approved for a visa or not. Two days later, I received the following email:

Visa finished

Remember the long, complicated application code? You’ll need it again. Enter it on the page here:

Application status page

After you enter the requisite information and click Check Status, you’ll see the spinning page of doom. If everything works correctly, it’ll just disappear and the page won’t change. However, don’t get caught in a loop of solving captchas. Scroll down on the page, and you’ll see the following:

Download button

You can then click Download and your e-visa page will download. Even though it’s electronic, the instructions indicate that you should print it out, so maybe just the delivery rather than the administration is electronic.

Congratulations, you now have an Uzbekistan e-visa. I’m pretty good with this kind of stuff, and it took me several days, a professionally taken photo, and two credit cards to successfully complete my application. However, I’m hoping this means that there won’t be many tourists in Uzbekistan, so I’ll get to enjoy the Silk Road attractions without crowds!

I Booked The Cheapest Airline In Canada (And Paid With Aeroplan Points)

Canadian startup low cost carriers have a checkered history in Canada. The first low cost Canadian carrier I flew was Canada 3000, which went out of business in 2001.

canada 3000 defunct airline logo
Canada 3000’s seating configuration was so dense that they might have been trying to fit 3,000 people on the plane

Many other attempts at low cost carriers have failed: Zip, Zoom, and Jetsgo. Even Air Canada couldn’t make the concept work, and retired their Tango subsidiary (although their cheapest economy class fares are still called “Tango”). The low cost carrier concept stubbornly keeps failing over and over in Canada, which is hardly surprising given that airport operating costs are some of the highest in the world (a report to the Canadian Senate in 2012 detailed myriad structural issues, and essentially nothing has been done or fixed since–in fact, operating costs have only gotten higher).

Nevertheless, startup airlines in Canada continue to open, fly for awhile, and then abruptly fail (usually leaving passengers stranded). The shakiest of these is currently Flair, which apparently didn’t have the money to take delivery of 11 new Boeing jets it had ordered, and which recently had four of its jets seized for non-payment of leasing fees. The 20% on-time performance rating for their Abbotsford-Calgary route is fairly representative.

So, did I book with Flair? Of course not! They weren’t the cheapest, and this article is about the cheapest airline in Canada. As it turns out, that’s tiny airline startup Lynx Air, which is currently flying a fleet of six aircraft. I had never heard of Lynx, but they popped up when I ran a search on an online booking site. I instead booked directly with the airline on their sketchy-looking Web site, and got back an email confirmation that looked like a phishing scam:

sketchy looking email

However, clicking on the attachment revealed an itinerary that looked like it was from circa 2003, using a random assortment of fonts that looked like a ransom note, and confirming that I had a roundtrip ticket to Calgary over March break weekend for CAD $168.00.

lynx air itinerary and logo

This is virtually unheard of; other airlines were charging well over $300 each way. I’m not sure whether Lynx forgot that it was a school holiday or what, but I really wasn’t going to question it.

The fare breakdown was as follows:

fare breakdown

That’s right, roughly half of the roundtrip airfare went to airport fees, and that’s before the airline’s share of the operating costs. Lynx would definitely be losing money on me.

“But wait,” you might say, “the headline says you paid with Aeroplan points. How did that work?” Well, I have the Chase Aeroplan credit card. A few months ago, Chase was offering a 30% bonus to transfer points into Aeroplan, and if you have the credit card and transfer 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points or more into Aeroplan, you got another 10% bonus on top of it. So I ended up with 70,000 points in Aeroplan. Well, in February, Chase decided to be exceptionally generous and started a promotion. You can now redeem Aeroplan points towards travel purchases (literally anything that codes as travel) at 1.25 cents per point. This meant that I could effectively spend the Ultimate Rewards points I transferred for 1.75 cents per point in value.

And that’s exactly what I did, as soon as the charge posted to my Chase Aeroplan credit card account:

I went ahead and paid for my airport parking with Aeroplan points, too–why not?

Was this a good deal? I think so. Sure, it’s not as high as the realistic ceiling for Aeroplan points. It is, however, just below the weighted average for Aeroplan points, and in Ultimate Rewards terms, it’s above the weighted average for Chase Ultimate Rewards points. And I had specific dates and times of travel that I needed (since I was going to Calgary for an event) so I had to opt for what was actually available.

More importantly, this fare was cheaper than alternatives and would otherwise be unattainable with points. While you can theoretically use Chase points at 1.25 cents per point on their travel portal, that only works for airlines that list their fares with Chase. Obscure low cost carriers like these don’t show up, meaning you’re only shown more expensive options.

9,895 points for a roundtrip flight is virtually unheard of

Less than 5,000 points each way, with no money out of pocket, is an incredibly good outcome for redeeming points on a short-haul flight (especially on a flight like Vancouver to Calgary that is under 500 miles, but over 11 hours of dangerous mountain driving). And remember, I got those points with a 40% bonus. To me, this was an absolute “no brainer” of a redemption.

So how was the flight? Stay tuned for the next installment!

What Are Miles And Points Really Worth? (2023)

Nearly every airline program I work with at AwardCat has massively devalued. And yet, I keep seeing the same optimistic points valuations on every blog. In my view, valuations are mostly a lie. While it might be theoretically possible to achieve the valuations noted, it’s clear that for the majority of redemptions, points aren’t worth anywhere close to what is ordinarily claimed.

Working with a shadowy group of Pacific Northwest miles and points enthusiasts, I have created a points valuation chart using an entirely new methodology. The truth is, the value of points varies per redemption and a lot of the value is theoretical (tickets to Amsterdam are generally undesirable in February, even if they’re still expensive in paid business class relative to redeeming with points).

This chart focuses on flights, not hotels. There is one exception: I did factor in the value of Hyatt transfers from Chase, because these really can deliver outsize value. Other hotel programs usually aren’t good value in exchange for transferable points.

cheap motel
You can usually get better value when booking independent hotels versus transferring bank points to a hotel program

Along the same lines, some options for redeeming your points are really good value, and others are not. So, we tried to calculate a weighted average based on a mix of awards redeemed within the program (as most users do; it’s rare that anyone uses their points only for the most aspirational of journeys). We also defined ceilings: Realistic Ceiling and Aspirational Ceiling, which reflect the highest value that can realistically be attained by most people, and the highest value that would typically be attained for an aspirational trip.

In particular, given the “ceiling” valuations, there are both objective and subjective influences and there’s probably room for folks to argue. For example, Aeromexico offers a tantalizing round-the-world award chart that should, in theory, offer far greater value than the 1.2 cent aspirational ceiling I have assigned. There are only two problems: partner availability is virtually nonexistent to Aeromexico on Korean Air, Delta, KLM and Air France in business class, and virtually all SkyTeam carriers levy fuel surcharges (along with Aeromexico itself). A round-the-world trip in economy class (with hefty fuel surcharges paid on every leg) looks a lot less aspirational, doesn’t it?

Conversely, Alaska Airlines crowns the aspirational ceiling (despite recent devaluations) because of their relatively low first class pricing, and because stopovers are permitted, achievable, and allowed on a one way trip. It’s harder than it used to be to take advantage of this, but stopovers really add outsize value. Air Canada similarly offers stopovers for 5,000 points each, although their comparatively high redemption rates lower their aspirational ceiling.

Airline/ProgramFloorWeighted AverageRealistic CeilingAspirational Ceiling
Aeromexico0.60.81.01.2
Air Canada0.81.31.92.9
Alaska0.81.32.14.2
American1.21.42.24.0
Amex0.71.11.42.9
Avios0.71.11.82.2
Bilt1.51.62.24.0
Brex0.60.81.01.7
Capital One1.01.31.72.9
Cathay Pacific0.81.21.92.4
Chase1.01.31.44.0
Citi1.01.31.72.9
Delta1.01.21.72
Emirates0.60.91.11.4
Etihad0.60.91.11.2
Flying Blue0.81.11.61.8
jetBlue1.21.21.31.3
LifeMiles0.71.21.82.7
Qantas0.51.01.23.9
Singapore0.81.01.31.7
Southwest Airlines1.21.31.41.4
Turkish1.11.52.42.4
United1.01.21.82.2
Virgin0.81.01.42.2
Average across all
programs
0.91.21.62.48
The above chart reflects my personal opinion of what airline and transferable points are worth, and is not the expressed opinion of AwardCat or any other party.

One of the biggest surprises to all of us was the low “floor value” of most points. This is because airlines and banks offer a lot of really unoptimal ways to spend points, from paying for WiFi charges to buying gift cards or statement credits towards credit card purchases. I ignored some of the worst and least optimal ways to redeem points and focused on flight related redemptions (either flights or enhancements to the onboard experience). Southwest and jetBlue win here, because it’s hard to spend your points for less than 1.2 cents each. While Turkish comes in just behind, this is primarily because there just aren’t very many ways (yet) to spend your points unoptimally in this program. And Brex (which, full disclosure, fired AwardCat as a customer so I do hold a grudge) takes the crown for least valuable transferable points. I’m very happy to have transferred my points out before they suddenly devalued their points with zero prior notice. That’s the risk you take with bank points, as I warned in 2016.

While again highly subjective, I think the weighted average is where most people are likely to redeem their points. This is surprisingly low. Some programs, such as Emirates and Etihad, have so hugely devalued their programs that their points average less than one cent apiece in redemption value. Singapore maintains a relatively low weighted average because of their high redemption rates for economy class flights, and their levying of fuel surcharges on partner flights. And the weighted average of bank points is about 30% more than their floor value because of the optionality for points transfers that they provide. I will point out that Chase’s own valuation of Ultimate Rewards points, when redeemed through their portal for travel, would seemingly (net of the likely profit gained by running their own travel agency) agree with ours.

Wrap-Up

I think that most sources online offer an overly rosy picture of the value miles and points can have. Now, I won’t say it’s because most of them financially benefit from you remaining invested in these programs, or that credit card links can pay hundreds of dollars in commissions. So, maybe they just haven’t updated their assigned valuations to account for the massive inflation in award costs? Or maybe they believe that when airlines and hotel chains assign a possible range of award costs, lower pricing will prevail more often than higher pricing (also, if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you)? Maybe they just really value the optionality of transferable points, to the extent that this optionality is worth considerably more than the points of transfer partners? Whatever reasons they have for their charts, here is mine. This is what I think points are really worth, for most people, most of the time, under most circumstances.

Do you agree? Vehemently disagree? Leave your comments below!