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

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

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

Higher Prices

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

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

Let’s start with the price on Expedia:

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

Now let’s check the Chase portal:

Same flights, $78 higher price.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What payment information? I was paying entirely with points!

That leads to the next problem, which is…

Chase Travel Customer Service Is Terrible

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap-Up

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

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

LEAKED: Devalued British Airways Avios Award Chart

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

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

Surf’s still up!

What We Know

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

Not Yet Clear

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

The Chart

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

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

How I’m Getting To Providencia

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

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

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

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

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

NOPE.

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

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

Hmm, what’s this?

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

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

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

Success!

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

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

Alaska Airlines Basic Economy SEA-LAX Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flight

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

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

Notice anything missing?

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

Wrap-Up

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

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

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

How I Power My Devices When Traveling Abroad

It’s something that you might not think about when you’re booking a ticket overseas, but it’s really important: not every country uses the same type of plug that we use in North America. In fact, other countries don’t necessarily even use the same voltage! It ranges from as low as 110 volts in Japan, on up to 240 volts in most of the rest of the world. It’s a mixed bag in the Americas, with familiar plugs operating at 110 or 120 volts in the US, Canada Mexico, and most of Central America. Meanwhile, South America is split between US, European and a grab bag of other standards.

You checked into your European hotel room, tried to plug in your cell charger, and……

Check Before You Buy

There is no shortage of places to buy plug adapters online, and mercifully, I won’t bombard you with affiliate links to junk sites. Instead, check out the IEC World Plugs Reference, the world’s most authoritative source on which power is used in what countries. Use this reference to figure out what types of plugs are required in the country you’re visiting.

Most American travelers who need a plug adapter are visiting Europe. You can usually get away with only two adapters: Type C (Europe) and Type G (UK). However, I don’t like using Type C because it isn’t grounded. I do have a Type C adapter and will use it in a pinch, but I also carry a Type F adapter and it’s a relatively rare occasion that I can’t use it. Those rare occasions, however, are usually important ones which is why I carry both.

If you’re visiting other locations, just check to see what type of plug you need. China and Australia use the same plug type (it’s technically different but they’re interchangeable in practice), South Africa uses its own standard, etc.

The Cube Tap Hack

One of my favorite hacks is using a cube tap in combination with the international plug adapter, sometimes chained to a ground lifter.

Find this cube tap at a hardware store

Your plug adapter will typically come with a single universal or US-style plug on it. This is annoying if, like me, you travel with a laptop, cell phone and spare battery, all of which need to be charged at the end of the day. I bring along a cube tap and just plug that into the plug adapter, which gives me 3 US-style outlets. Don’t plug in stuff that draws a crazy amount of power or you’ll overload the circuit, but it’s fine for the typical assortment of consumer electronics.

You can also find a ground lifter or “cheater plug” at a hardware store

One other item worth buying is a ground lifter, also known as a “cheater plug.” You can buy these in any local hardware store. If you look online, you might find a “non-polarized” version (if you look at the image above, the prong on the left is slightly wider than the one on the right; a non-polarized version will have evenly sized prongs). Non polarized ground lifters can be used in Japan as a plug adapter. The reason to buy this is so that if you’re stuck using a Type C outlet, you will have a way to plug your cube tap into it. Yes, this does result in a giant, Rube Goldberg stack of stuff hanging out of the outlet, and yes, you might need to put something underneath it to keep it from falling out of the wall. Don’t judge me.

Don’t Fry Your Stuff

If you haven’t heard the sizzle of electronics and seen a puff of smoke wafting gently from the general vicinity of your power outlet, you haven’t spent enough time abroad. It happens to all of us eventually. Here’s a quick crash course in how I avoid frying my stuff. Obviously, I am not responsible if you fry your stuff!

These labels with tiny print are super important!

If you look at the picture of the above laptop power brick, you’ll see the part where it says Input. This is important! It will tell you the voltages for which the unit is rated to operate. This Asus power brick, like most laptop power bricks, is designed to work pretty much everywhere in the world. It operates from 100 to 240 volts, at either 50Hz or 60 Hz, and it draws 1.5 amps (this is useful because it helps you estimate how much power your stuff requires–everything you’re plugging in, all together, should not exceed 10 amps).

The Output section is less important. This simply represents what is coming out of the little round plug that goes into your laptop. That’s going to be consistent no matter what the input is. However, if you’re used to using your laptop in the US, your power brick will probably get a lot hotter when you use it in Europe. This is fine, and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just working harder than it normally does (because there is more work required to step down a higher voltage).

What if the Input section said 100 ~ 120v 50/60Hz? If you guessed “laptop smoke,” you guessed right! This would represent a power supply that is designed for use in Japan and North America only. While it’s exceedingly uncommon for this to be the case with laptops anymore, it’s not unusual for other devices to be incompatible with higher voltage power sources. Some common examples I have seen are monitors, Internet routers, and personal care devices (such as shavers). While you can buy step-down transformers that purport to reduce the voltage, in my experience, the only ones that work reliably enough to trust that they won’t fry my stuff are heavy commercial ones. These cost a lot and weigh even more. Whatever incompatible device you want to power probably isn’t worth the hassle.

Wrap-Up

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have the right plug changer when you land abroad. They’re widely available and can be purchased in almost any luggage or electronics shop. However, why spend your limited time abroad chasing logistics that you could take care of beforehand? Leave the US with the right plug adapters and you’ll both keep your devices charged and happy, and save yourself a lot of time.

Booking Intra-Australia Flights With Points

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

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

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

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

Points Options

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

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

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

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

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

Booking Award Flights On Qantas

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap-Up

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

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

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

I’m Going To Christmas Island

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

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

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

Getting There With Points

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

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

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

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

My $174.41 Roundtrip Flight To Syndey

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

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

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

18,900 Miles For $560

Mileage Earning – Choose Your Program Carefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Administrativa: Site Upgrade

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

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

It was DNS meme

This time, it actually wasn’t DNS

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

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

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

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

I Just Bought My First Delta Basic Economy Fare

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

basic economy warning

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

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

Delta basic economy warning

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

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

ryanair plane

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

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

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

My Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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