Bosnian Border Blitz

I have spent the last two weeks in Zagreb, Croatia. While most of my trip has been for business, I have had the opportunity for some personal travel as well. It’s about a month before the tourist season begins here in Croatia, so good deals are available on rental cars.

One of my favorite sites for booking discount rental cars in Europe is All the rates are prepaid and include basic insurance, so it’s relatively easy to avoid upsells. You can also see the rental car agency you’re using, which is different from sites like Priceline that don’t show you that. Better yet, the discounts they offer are sometimes astonishing, at 50% or less of the regular published price. Unfortunately, if you use Enterprise in Croatia, there is some fine print in the contract that is really limiting. They don’t allow you to travel to Serbia, Bosnia or Montenegro, all neighboring countries, unless you pay an additional 50 euro. This is simply a shakedown because the policy already includes coverage in these countries; they just won’t give you the insurance “green card” to prove it so you can’t get the car across the border. You can supposedly get around this by making a 10,000 euro deposit. I would have done this, but the Capital One credit card I used for this particular rental doesn’t have that large a limit (it’s irritating, because almost every other credit card I carry does).

I hate rental car scams and I hate being told I can’t go somewhere. I was determined to get to Bosnia, so I found a loophole. Dubrovnik, Croatia is an exclave and is only reachable via Bosnia through an area known as the “Neum corridor.” If you travel on this route, the Bosnian authorities do not require you to have a “green card” proof of insurance in order to cross. This presented an opportunity, so earlier this week, I made a Bosnian border blitz in order to experience a small slice of a rarely visited country.

The roads in Croatia are excellent, though expensive. It costs about $40 to travel from Zagreb to the Bosnian border. It’s easy to see why; the quality of the roads is similar to that in Switzerland and the route traverses some very challenging terrain. I passed through at least a dozen tunnels of varying length, some up to 2km long.

croatian highway

130km/hr across Croatia

The motorway route isn’t as spectacular as the old route along the coast (or so I’m told), but it was spectacular enough to me. Tall mountains tower over a stark arid scrubland, something that I didn’t expect to see in this part of the world. Roughly halfway, there is a mountain-crowned lake so spectacular that it would be a bustling national park in the United States, but appears to be a simple Croatian holiday village. Finally, I reached the border with Bosnia. A car in front of me was from Montenegro. The answers the driver gave were clearly unsatisfactory because, after a long delay, the car was directed aside and border guards started searching it very thoroughly. My experience was better. “Where are you going?” asked the officer. “Dubrovnik,” I said. “Only Dubrovnik?” he replied, to which I replied “Yes.” He asked “Why do you travel to Dubrovnik?” I replied “Because it is beautiful.” He handed back my passport, smiled, and said “In Dubrovnik the women are beautiful! Now talk to my colleague, he is Bosnian police.” I pulled forward to the next window, where a sour-faced guy scanned my passport into his computer. I asked whether it was possible to stamp my passport, and he handed back my passport saying “No. Now you go out.” I wasn’t interested in arguing the point, so I continued into Bosnia.

I had been warned by Croatians that the road would be terrible in Bosnia, but it wasn’t. One thing that I did think was very interesting was that the road signs had spray paint all over them, clearly obscuring something I couldn’t make out in the dark. However, the path to Dubrovnik was clearly marked. I drove into Neum, stopped at a restaurant for a bad and very expensive dinner where I got ripped off on the exchange rate, and then found an ATM to get some local currency, the Bosnian mark.

Bosnian marks worth about 40 euro.

Bosnian marks worth about 40 euro.

After my bad experience at dinner (don’t order the “Pirate Style Kebabs”), I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to finding a hotel. However, I was tired and wanted to find somewhere to stay. I drove past the largest hotel (which I assumed would be expensive), and eventually came across a small boutique 3-star hotel called the Hotel Villa Nova. The office wasn’t open but a sign in the window said “we are downstairs,” so I went downstairs and the owner came out. Yes, a room was available, but without breakfast because I would be the only guest. Accordingly, there would be a small discount. The price was 30 euros, would I like to see the room?

Yes, I wanted to see the room. Rooms in Dubrovnik cost at least 3 times that. I had a look and everything was very clean and exactly in order. The hotel caters to Swiss and German visitors, who have very high expectations when they travel. All of the facilities were exactly as I would expect for a 3 star hotel and you can even drink the tap water. My room had a very nice balcony, comfortable bed, and the wireless Internet worked well. Basically, it’s exactly what I would expect of a property that caters to very particular Swiss visitors and it was almost frighteningly clean. Best of all, a spectacular view awaited me in the morning.

Room with a view

Room with a view

After checking out, I went to the post office to mail postcards home, and then to the gas station to fill up the car. There are two gas stations in Neum, but the one closest to the center of town has the cheapest prices (by about 20 eurocents per gallon). Unfortunately they only take cash and they rip you off on exchange rates if you don’t pay in Bosnian marks. Fuel is about 30% less expensive in Bosnia than in Croatia, so I definitely wanted to take advantage. I used up the remainder of my Bosnian marks which got me to about 3/4 tank, but I figured that would be enough to get me to Dubrovnik (it was more than enough; I topped off the tank to 100% on my way back to Zagreb).

Heading south toward Dubrovnik, I noticed why there was spray paint on the road signs. The Bosnian government apparently uses both Roman script and Cyrillic (in a nod to the Bosnian Serbs). Cyrillic script is thoroughly unacceptable to the local population, who are ethnically Croatian, so every trace of Cyrillic has been meticulously blacked out throughout the entire Neum corridor. This part of Bosnia was not spared the violence of the Serbian-Croatian war in the early 1990s, and even physical scars remain. The psychological ones will take longer to heal.

bombed out building

Bombed out building, Neum waterfront

If you’re faced with unreasonable restrictions from your rental car company, consider a visit to Neum if you’d like a taste of Bosnia. It provides a very affordable alternative to expensive accommodations in Dubrovnik, and is only an hour away.

AAxed: Aadvantage Award Change Flexibility

Business and first class award tickets are a great use of miles, but it’s almost impossible to actually redeem these awards. Don’t believe all of the stories you read online about being able to effortlessly redeem your miles for a luxury experience. It is sometimes possible if you really work the system, but the time and effort involved is why I have always focused on using my miles to take me to faraway and interesting places in economy class (it’s all economy seats to Ushuaia, Argentina and Adak, Alaska anyway). Unfortunately, one of the most useful options for grabbing business class award seats is, for some customers, now gone in the American Airlines Aadvantage program.

One of the particularly nice historical Aadvantage program features is the lack of change fees and the ability to make “mixed class” bookings. So, for example, if you are booking a long trip that you’d like to take in business class, but one segment is only available in economy, you can book the missing segment in economy class (while paying the business class award price) and call in later to upgrade that segment to business class if an award seat opens up. The same goes for changing award classes. If you book an award in economy class because (as is usually the case) it’s the only thing available, and you find business class space available later, you could call in, upgrade and pay only the mileage difference between the award classes. This is what I planned to do when booking an award from Kunming to Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Vancouver to New York. The difference in cost is only 20,000 miles for this itinerary, and it’s well worth it for business class on Cathay Pacific.

This has all changed if, as I do, you have an existing booking that includes a stopover in the North American gateway city. Even if you don’t change anything except the class of service, the award has to be reissued at the new mileage rates and under the new rules. This is yet another change that Aadvantage has suddenly made without prior notice or even any “grandfathering” provision for award tickets issued prior to the change. So, the precedent has now been set.

You’d have to be crazy to book a “mixed class” award now. If American changes the award chart or rules again, you will have to “buy up” to the then-current price and be subject to the then-current rules. Given that it is routinely necessary to book business class award seats 330 days in advance, booking a “mixed class” itinerary is a very risky bet.

The situation could be even worse than I have already been able to confirm. American Airlines has always been flexible with changes to dates and flights in the Aadvantage program, and charges are free as long as the origin and destination cities remain the same. It is possible in the future that changing the dates on an itinerary would also require “buying up” to the then-current price. The trigger seems to be whether the ticket is reissued or not. Changing dates while keeping everything else exactly the same does not always require reissuing the ticket. Making more substantive changes (such as switching a flight with a connection for a nonstop) may, and could cause the itinerary to re-price. It is also worth noting that US Airways, unlike American, charges $150 for every change to an award ticket and no changes are allowed once the itinerary has begun (except due to schedule changes or irregular operations). It is probably a safe bet that change fees will be introduced to Aadvantage soon, potentially creating a double whammy of increased prices and new, high change fees.

American Airlines has always had the right to change or devalue the Aadvantage program. Other airlines have also devalued their programs, but until recently, only Avianca (a Colombian airline) had suddenly devalued their LifeMiles program overnight, apparently following the example of Hugo Chavez devaluing the Venezuelan bolivar. Maybe American Airlines has been spending too much time in South America and the culture has rubbed off, but you can now add Aadvantage miles to the list of untrustworthy currencies. I personally recommend that you view the recent devaluation as a “warning shot” and empty your Aadvantage account now.

Higher Costs and Fewer Opportunities for AAward Travel

I woke up this morning to the news that American Airlines has devalued their Aadvantage program overnight with no prior notice, and in tandem with this, US Airways has also done the same. It is rare for a devaluation to occur with no prior notice, in a similar fashion to overnight devaluations of Argentine pesos and Venezuelan bolivars. These devaluations are actually worse, though. They hurt because they not only raise the number of miles required for award travel, but they also have introduced restrictions that can make miles even harder to use.

One of the biggest historical advantages of American Airlines award tickets was the ability to use a stopover on a one-way award. While this could be used to obtain a “free one-way” trip wherein your final destination is a different city than you originally intended, it could also be used for short stopovers which are helpful if you could not find a continuing flight from the gateway within 24 hours. If American had wished to close the “free one-way” loophole, introducing a maximum length of stopover (allowing for short stopovers only) would have been a fairer way to do it. Unfortunately now, if an award flight to your final destination isn’t available from the gateway city within 24 hours, you’re out of luck. You’ll either have to book a paid onward itinerary or try to find availability on another date.

Ah, availability. Now there’s the rub. American Airlines has introduced a third tier for award travel, which likely means that award tickets at the “saver” level (which are really the only award levels that deliver good value for redemption) will be even further cut. It’s already difficult, if not impossible, to find award tickets at the “saver” level. This will become even more difficult when stopovers are no longer permitted. Even awards that cost more because of the numbers of stopovers they allow have been eliminated. Mileage-based Oneworld awards (which people on round-the-world or intra-European itineraries found particularly valuable because they allowed unlimited stopovers) are no longer redeemable.

Finally, some trips will now take more miles, assuming you can find availability in the first place. US Airways Dividend Miles business class awards to North Asia now require 110,000 miles, up from 90,000 miles. “Aanytime” awards redeemed during periods newly defined as “peak” will now cost 5,000 miles more. For some domestic travel, coach seats will cost up to 50,000 miles each way! The goal posts have moved yet again.

Overnight, the American Aadvantage and US Airways Dividend Miles programs just became a lot less valuable. The lack of prior notice is an abrupt reminder that miles (in any program) are best earned and spent immediately. They are a depreciating currency, so holding large numbers of them will only result in eventual losses and the devaluation cycles are becoming ever more rapid. Points programs and their promises that “your miles are secure” are not credible, so “earn and burn” as quickly as possible.

Update: American Airlines responded on Twitter to the flood of controversy. Here is their comment on what we can expect going forward:

Harmonizing BusinessesI think this just about sums it up: you can probably expect that the least trustworthy and customer-friendly policies of both airlines will be combined in a headlong race to the bottom. It’s unfortunate to see this, but was hardly unexpected. If you have Aadvantage miles, I recommend using them now because this is likely not the only devaluation that will occur.

Double-Crossed By DoubleTree

On my current trip to Europe, I booked rooms with two different DoubleTree properties and have already had problems with both of them. I’m a pretty relaxed guy, and I usually am not the sort of person to complain too much (after all, I have flown around the world in Seat 31B).

What makes me write about a problem publicly? A broken laptop and an exotic “dynamic currency conversion” swindle, both perpetrated by the same hotel chain (DoubleTree by Hilton), occurring over two different properties, and in both cases, complete failure to solve the problem amicably after complaining about a perfectly reasonable issue privately and giving the property multiple chances to resolve the problem.

First, the broken laptop. After waiting 3 months for Fujitsu to repair my laptop (never buy a laptop from Fujitsu, their repair service is horrible), I got it back and it was repaired. In particular, I was pleased to note that they replaced the LCD. I used the laptop for a day with no problems, hopped on a plane, traveled to Rotterdam, continued to Amsterdam, and used the laptop just outside the DoubleTree Amsterdam (again with no problems) to verify the address of the Sixt rental car return facility (whose sign outside the hotel I had missed). Nothing was wrong with my laptop when I put it into my bag and handed it off to the bell desk.

When I got to my room, I took the laptop out of my bag, put it on the desk, opened it, and never turned it on. I was instead invited by my parents (who were traveling with me and staying in another room) to dinner. I ended up being busy the rest of my stay at the DoubleTree and never even plugged in my laptop. I put it away in my bag when I went to check out, and headed for the lounge. I needed to take care of some work so powered up my laptop, and imagine my surprise to see this:

Broken laptop display

Note the physical damage in the exact size and shape of the back of a broom handle, or a vacuum cleaner handle.

I immediately went to the front desk and showed the damage to the on-duty manager. However, she refused to take immediate responsibility or to arrange for repair of my laptop, instead saying that she would conduct an investigation. I gave the DoubleTree the benefit of the doubt, but naturally the results of the investigation are that the DoubleTree refuses to take responsibility. Apparently they believe that my laptop display broke on its own, or maybe it was damaged by space aliens. Either way, they will not be paying to repair it or assisting me any further.

I would maybe give DoubleTree the benefit of the doubt (“Please trust us…” their email said) if they didn’t completely rip me off (there is no more delicate way to put this) on another booking I made in London. The rate was advertised in pounds. However, I was billed in dollars at an unfavorable exchange rate (by the order of around 10%). This kind of “dynamic currency conversion” is a common swindle in the travel industry, but usually companies with whom you are doing business at least ask whether you want this. In my case, DoubleTree just went ahead and ripped me off with a bogus exchange rate, they didn’t give me the opportunity to opt out. I have gone back and forth with Hilton customer service a couple of times and the issue has not been resolved. Here is a snapshot of my credit card statement so you can see how this happened:

A transaction in GBP is circled.

A transaction in GBP is circled.

Hilton customer service blamed my bank for billing me in dollars, rather than pounds. However, my bank (Capital One) doesn’t have anything to do with the currency in which I was billed. You can see that on my statement, I bought a plane ticket from a UK-based travel agency and was properly billed in pounds, which was converted by Capital One to dollars (I use a Capital One card for foreign currency transactions because they do not charge a currency conversion fee). DoubleTree, as you can see, billed me an inflated price in dollars. It’s an outright rip-off. I never agreed to this.

If you are considering booking a stay with DoubleTree (or any Hilton property), or signing up for any Hilton credit cards, I suggest you seriously consider whether this is a good idea. I consider integrity very important in business, and to experience a breach of honesty and integrity at two separate DoubleTree properties is a pattern that seriously leads me to question my loyalty to Hilton.

Save On High Speed Trains In Italy – There’s An App For That!

Italy, surprisingly, has a well-developed network of high speed trains. These aren’t quite as fast as the Chinese trains I was used to when living in Beijing, but they do reach 247KM/hr–a respectable speed. Most visitors just go to the train station and buy a ticket, but you can actually save money by buying your tickets in advance using a mobile phone app.

The app is called Italo Treno, and there is an English-language version available. Here is what the iPhone version looks like:

Italo Treno app screenshotJust search for your trip, and you’ll see a schedule with prices. If you buy your ticket a few days in advance, you can save 50% or more. For example, the train I took today from Florence to Rome cost 43€ when purchased today at the station, but the fare was only 20€ when purchased 3 days ago via the app.

The Shanghai Sprint – Visiting China Without A Visa

Many people have avoided China in the past because with very few exceptions, a visa is required. Chinese visas are relatively complicated to obtain and they are very expensive for US passport holders. This has put Chinese airlines at a competitive disadvantage because until recently, the Chinese government required almost everyone entering the territory of the People’s Republic of China to be in possession of a valid visa. This applied even if you were just flying through a Chinese airport en route to somewhere else.

I am pleased to report that this has all changed. Almost overnight, and probably in response to heavy lobbying from Chinese airlines (who are trying to grow their international business), China has substantially liberalized its visa regime. At most gateway cities in China, it is now possible to transit for 72 hours. The full list is here. Unfortunately there is still a lot of confusion over the 72-hour transit policy, so I’ll try to make things as clear as possible.

What can you do in 72 hours? A lot! You can easily see the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, but you could actually do much more. Other Chinese cities are equally rich, vibrant and exciting. The only limit to what you can do is your imagination.

Great Wall pic

Visit the Great Wall on a perfect fall day

city park

Enjoy an afternoon stroll around an urban lake

ditan park

Try morning exercises with friendly local seniors in Ditan Park

“Transit” in China is defined as flying into a Chinese city en route to somewhere else outside China. The definition of “outside China” includes Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong for visa purposes. So, if you fly from San Francisco to Beijing, spend 72 hours in Beijing, and then continue onward to Hong Kong, this is allowed under the policy and you’ll have no problems. The same applies if you’re going to any other country outside China, as long as it’s a third country and isn’t the country from which you originated.

Unfortunately, there are still a few snags and restrictions, and my friend Jesse was tripped up by one of them today. He bought a ticket from Seattle to Shanghai via Beijing. He planned to use the 72 hour visa-free transit in Shanghai, and then continue to Hong Kong for 4 days before returning to Seattle. It all seemed like a perfect plan and would totally have worked except for the fact that visa-free transit begins in the city where you enter China. In order to use visa-free transit, you have to enter and leave China from the same city, and you also aren’t allowed to travel between cities in China while you’re on a visa-free transit. So, if Jesse wasn’t rejected at the airport in Seattle for his failure to hold a Chinese visa, he would have been turned around in Beijing–or, at best, he would have had to re-book his connecting itinerary to Hong Kong from Beijing instead of Shanghai. Not the sort of thing that is a nice surprise! I advised Jesse to instead obtain a tourist visa for China. I wrote detailed information about how to do so here. He wasn’t thrilled that he has to get a visa, but he’s happy to learn this before taking the trip.

So, in summary, here are the things to double-check before you plan to use 72-hour visa-free transit in China:

  • It only works in the participating list of cities. This includes the major transit hubs of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Make sure the city you plan to transit participates.
  • It only works for eligible countries. Most Western and many Asian countries are eligible but many countries (such as India) are not. Make sure your passport qualifies.
  • You need to be traveling from China directly to a third country. You can’t fly from, for example, the US to China directly back to the US. However, if you’re flying from San Francisco to Beijing to Tokyo to San Francisco, you are transiting Japan, which means that you’re continuing from China to a third country. This makes you eligible for 72-hour visa free transit in China.
  • Your transit city is considered the city that you first enter China.
  • You must fly in and out of the same city.
  • You are not allowed to leave the city you are transiting. This means no side trips to Hangzhou from Shanghai, or Tianjin from Beijing.
  • You can’t apply for a regular Chinese visa in China while you’re in transit. If, however, you have extenuating circumstances (such as a cancelled flight or a sudden illness requiring medical treatment), the Chinese police will not punish you if you explain and prove the reason for your overstay. It is best to contact the Public Security Bureau (the Chinese police) as soon as you are aware of an issue that will require an extended stay in China, as well as your airline, so they can both help you to apply for a proper visa and avoid punishment.
  • Not to scare you, but visa issues are taken very seriously in China. It isn’t unheard of for the police to throw you in an immigration jail until they figure out what to do with you in the event that you break the law. This is no different than what happens to illegal immigrants in the United States. If you’re enjoying your visit so much that you want to spend more time in China, travel to a neighboring country and apply for a visa.

Next time you are searching for a flight to Asia, consider flying with a Chinese airline and spending some time in China! The service on Chinese airlines may surprise you–it is rapidly improving–and brash, modern China is truly one of the most exciting destinations in the world.

SkyMiles Scavenger Hunt to Bumpin’ Boise

As some of you may know, in addition to running a startup and writing about travel here on #Seat31B, I also have a fairly serious hobby as a DJ. By “fairly serious” I mean that I own enough PA and DJ equipment to keep two stages full of happy people dancing all night, and I also play myself (typically the chill, lounge and psychill genres). Things got so much out of hand with my hobby a few years ago that I actually own a full-size 15 passenger van (with the seats taken out) that I needed to convince my insurance company was not intended for commercial use.

TProphet DJ photo

On the decks in Las Vegas

One of my favorite music festivals is held in the mountains of Idaho north of Boise. It is a small gathering (with enforced limited attendance) because the space is too small to accommodate more. I am friends with most of the organizers and many of the performers, and this is the last year that the event is happening. There really is no way that I could miss it, but at $350, tickets for summer travel are quite expensive from the Los Angeles area to Boise. This seemed a perfect opportunity to use my Delta SkyMiles, because Delta just launched a lot of new service from Los Angeles to Seattle, which I guessed would open up a lot of award seats.

I guessed wrong. Delta is just as stingy with award seats between Los Angeles and Seattle as they are with every other route. There was essentially no availability at all, but–for now–Delta remains a partner with Alaska Airlines. You can only book tickets at the “saver” award level with Alaska if you’re redeeming Delta miles, but there is often availability. You just have to be really flexible and search hard.

In this case, flexibility wasn’t my friend. I needed to travel on a specific weekend, and I just wasn’t finding anything on the Delta site. This isn’t surprising– is notoriously terrible when it comes to searching for awards. Instead, I searched on the Alaska Airlines site, and I did find availability. There was only one problem: the flight times were terrible and the airport was really inconvenient.

On the 20th, there was one flight from the Los Angeles area to Boise on Alaska. It left at 7:00am for Seattle from the Orange County airport near Disneyland (SNA), and after a 5 1/2 hour layover, connected to a Boise flight via Lewiston. If I used this flight, I’d either be staying in a hotel overnight near the Orange County airport or starting my journey around 4:00 in the morning. Coming back was much better–a flight through Seattle to Burbank, which is a lot more convenient.

Delta offers a lot of flexibility in award itineraries, though. You can have both an open jaw and a stopover on award tickets. This meant that I could potentially fly to Seattle on Thursday evening, overnight there (I have lots of places I can stay for free in between friends and family),  and then continue to Boise on Friday afternoon. I could also use different airports in the Los Angeles area for my origination and departure. Last night, though, there just wasn’t any inventory available–even with the maximum flexibility. This afternoon, I checked the Alaska Airlines website again. Jackpot! A seat opened up on the evening of June 19 from LAX to Seattle. All of the other seats I had found the previous day (which would line up perfectly with this itinerary) were still available, so I went off to to book my flight. Here is what it looks like:


Although it is very hard to find award flights on, you can use the “multi-city itinerary” tool to feed flights one at a time to the site. You have to enter the trip segment by segment, so I entered the following:

  • LAX-SEA 6/19 -> evening
  • SEA-BOI 6/20 -> afternoon
  • BOI-SEA 6/23 -> afternoon
  • SEA-BUR 6/23 -> evening

All of the flights I had searched for showed up in the search results, as walked me through segment by segment. I picked the same flights that I had found with Alaska Airlines, and the award priced out correctly at $10.00 and 25,000 miles! This represents a value of approximately 1.4 cents per mile, a 40% premium over the usual 1 cent per mile value I assign to SkyMiles.

Is it possible to do better? Yes! You can get substantially better value–even double the number of cents per mile–using Delta miles to book Alaska Airlines award travel to Canada and Alaska (both expensive destinations), or to book AeroMexico travel to Mexico. However, there is another calculation in play, and that is what personally makes sense to me. I think it makes economic sense for me to spend $10 plus some hard-to-use points to enjoy a music festival in Idaho, but it makes approximately zero economic sense for me to pay $350 to do the same thing. Additionally, the Delta partnership with Alaska Airlines is very rocky. There is no guarantee that it’ll be easy–or even possible–to use SkyMiles to fly on Alaska in the future. And finally, it’s hard for me to book round-trip itineraries given my personal travel patterns. I am flying on a lot of one-way and multi-city itineraries lately, which aren’t generally possible to book with Delta awards.

The upshot? I’m going to have even more fun in Idaho this year knowing that I got there for free! 🙂

Delta Denmark Deal – LA to Copenhagen for $555 return

In September, I’m flying to Denmark on Air France in their spectacular A380, the world’s largest passenger airplane. I will spend my birthday in Europe, and it only cost me $555 roundtrip! Best of all, I will earn miles. Why Denmark, and how did I manage to find such a crazy low fare? A healthy dose of old-fashioned competition.

Map of LA to Denmark

12,589 miles for just $555

The new kid on the block in transatlantic service is Norwegian Air Shuttle, who has roared into the US with a new Boeing 787 fleet and some exceptionally low fares to Scandanavia. As you may have heard, intra-Europe flights are fairly cheap. The expensive part is getting to Europe from the US. Norwegian is–incredibly–offering round-trip fares of under $500 for fall travel in some markets. This is something that obviously has traditional carriers worried. Nothing really justifies fares to Europe being as high as they are, but there has been limited competition and virtually no competition from low-cost carriers. With the arrival of Norwegian into the US, this has obviously changed.

Delta, Air France, KLM, United and Air Canada have vigorously responded, publishing low fares to match–and in some cases even undercut–Norwegian in markets where they compete. Some airlines, such as Air Canada, give only limited frequent flier credit for such low fares. However, Delta allows any fare purchased on and carrying a Delta flight number to accrue mileage in their SkyMiles program. While SkyMiles is not my favorite program because Delta miles are extremely difficult to redeem, $555 would be a great fall fare to Europe anyway–even without mileage credit. Even though my flights will entirely be operated by Air France, they carry a Delta fare code (V) and flight number, and they were booked directly with Delta, so they will earn mileage. The fare I booked is not eligible for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan credit. Check your flight numbers carefully and ensure they are eligible for credit to alternative programs.

I am an avid follower of The Flight Deal, a site that tracks and posts exceptionally low fares. They published a heads-up on Twitter, and I was able to find availability from Los Angeles on the ITA Software Web site. While the flights I found were coded under a Delta flight number (and I purchased them on the Delta Web site), they are entirely operated by Air France. I tried a few tricks to play with the routing in an effort to earn more miles (with particular focus on routing through Seattle so I could earn the double miles bonus), but none worked. I was only able to book the most direct routing without stopovers. This was, for what it’s worth, entirely OK with me. While extra miles are nice, it’s also nice to take a very direct routing and arrive refreshed.

The miles earned from this trip will, under the 2015 Delta program, buy a one-way “saver” award ticket–or put you halfway to a free ticket within North America. I value Delta miles at 1 cent per mile, which makes the fare effectively $429 when you subtract the value of the miles earned for an effective transportation cost of 3.4 cents per mile. It’s hard to find a deal that good anywhere!

This deal is still available on select dates to airports throughout Scandanavia. Availability is limited, but you should find a deal you’ll like if you are flexible with your dates.

Going Dutch – Europe Budget Flights On Transavia

In case you’re wondering why I haven’t posted much lately, I am currently on a trip in The Netherlands and Italy with my parents. I just graduated with my MBA, and am enjoying a last couple of weeks of freedom before I settle down into my new job (which I know is going to keep me very busy).

On our trip, we planned to visit Venice, Lucca, Florence and Rome. I mostly booked accommodations through airbnb which ended up being a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel, and promises to get us better locations and the convenience of being able to cook at home if we prefer.

Getting to Italy on the train is possible from The Netherlands, but it’s surprisingly expensive and takes a long time. My parents are also not experienced travelers; they consider a trip 3 hours north to Vancouver from their Seattle-area home to be an exotic foreign vacation. Flying seemed to be a better solution, but there wasn’t actually any way to fly directly from Amsterdam to Venice on conventional airlines.

I plugged my route into SkyScanner which is my favorite tool for checking flight prices and routes within Europe. It is particularly useful because it picks up a lot of budget airlines and routes which aren’t bookable through conventional online sales channels (such as Expedia or Orbitz) and won’t show up on the ITA Software search tool. This uncovered a nonstop route on an airline called Transavia which was surprisingly inexpensive–under $100!

Transavia is a subsidiary of Dutch airline KLM, which itself is a subsidiary of Air France. They fly primarily to leisure destinations throughout Europe from Amsterdam and Rotterdam. For the most part, they sell tickets on their own Web site ( and flights do not earn miles with any frequent flier program. Transavia operates more or less separately from KLM, although they do share gates and some ground staff at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam (and maybe other places, I only noticed this in Amsterdam). Transavia also uses the KLM Web site for online check-in. We used it and it worked fine.

The similarities more or less end there. However, Transavia is not Ryanair; I consider the service a notch above both Ryanair and Spirit. They offer assigned seating (free 24 hours in advance, or earlier for an extra charge). The hand baggage allowance is just one bag, which needs to be pretty small. You can’t additionally carry a purse or backpack; everything has to fit in your carry-on bag or you have to check it. Checked bag fees are reasonable, at 25 euro for a 23 kilogram (50 pound) allowance and cheaper fees for lighter weights (as low as 15 euro for 15 kilo).

All fares are actually 5 euro more than advertised, because there is an unavoidable “booking fee” charged. Incidentally, I really wish that the EU would follow the lead of the US and require an “all-in” fare to be published, rather than phony fares that can never actually be booked.

At Amsterdam Schiphol airport, our Transavia flight used a regular KLM gate. The check-in counter was run by Transavia staff (a very friendly woman from Suriname who was highly efficient), but KLM staff assisted us at the gate. Things worked pretty much like boarding a KLM flight and a jetway was even used (budget airlines usually try to avoid doing this because it is more expensive).

Trasavia plane at jetway

Transavia plane awaits at the end of the jetway

Transavia jetway

Transavia jetway – it was crowded!

Onboard, leg room wasn’t bad, and I had a whole row of seats to myself–until a really fat guy who required a seat belt extension helped himself to two of empty seats in my row. This wasn’t quite what I’d planned when I paid extra for a seat where the adjoining two seats were blocked, but it was only a 2 hour flight and I wasn’t going to make a big stink over it.

Transavia row of seats

My very own row… for about 5 minutes.

My parents prefer to show up at the airport several hours early for their flight, and to be at the boarding gate early–preferably before the check-in staff arrive. I suggested we have dinner instead, bearing in mind that Schiphol is efficient. They went along with my suggestion with a mix of reluctance and trepidation. We ultimately arrived at the gate around 10 minutes before Transavia started boarding, which is normally plenty of time. Unfortunately,”gate lice” rushed the gate and we ended up somewhere in the middle of the group to board. There was only one boarding call. So much for pre-boarding, for which we had paid extra along with our supposedly premium seats.

Despite the meager carry-on bag allowance, the overhead bins were completely full so my father had to store his bag in row 29 despite being seated in 1A (I got up later in the flight and moved it underneath the seat in front of me). Lesson learned? Don’t pay for pre-boarding or a premium seat on Transavia. You won’t actually get either.

My seat did recline, there was inflight entertainment (consisting mostly of a bizarre video showing the flight kitchen where Transavia sandwiches are made–not appetizing!) and there was food service available. Everything cost money, even water, there was no hot food, and the only thing that was substantial was sandwiches. This is basically what things are like in Holland anyway so it’s not a huge surprise. The inflight staff wasn’t aggressive in selling stuff and the plane wasn’t festooned with ads like a bus, so it seems that KLM is trying to maintain some semblance of dignity with their Transavia product.

Transavia legroom

Transavia legroom is about the same as United

Arrival in Venice was at a bus gate, which was relatively quick. Two buses were parked near the exits and Transavia opens two aircraft doors (at the front and rear) for arrival. Luggage service was very fast, no problems with the bags, and we were on our way in almost no time.

Would I fly with Transavia again? Sure, if the price is right. Add 30 euro to the fare you see to get the “real price” with the same domestic baggage allowance you’d have with a US airline, and with their “booking fee.” Skip the extras, they may not be honored anyway and you can pick any available seat you want during online check-in. Also subtract the value of the frequent flier miles you’d otherwise receive by flying a legacy airline. If the deal is less expensive (and it was both more convenient and less expensive in our case), go ahead and book! Our flight was professionally operated, arrived on time, and was certainly comfortable enough for a short (2 hour) journey. Most importantly, it passed the “Mom test!”

My parents in Venice

Mom and Dad enjoying their first big international trip!

21,152 Miles Around The World For Under $1200

In an unusual departure from my usual Seat 31B, I am sitting in the British Airways lounge in Seattle waiting for a delayed flight. I am on my way to The Netherlands to participate in my graduation. On Friday, I’ll officially be an MBA!

ba_loungeOrdinarily, I don’t fly in business class. It’s almost impossible to book it at the “saver” or “low” award level, and even if you can, it’s not particularly good value. This is especially true on British Airways, which requires payment of a fuel surcharge ($331 in my case) which can sometimes approach the cost of a ticket. In this case, it was the best deal I could find. Paid tickets are incredibly expensive right now (a one-way in economy class is going for around $800 from Seattle, even on Icelandair) and no award space was available in economy class. Using my Aadvantage points, I was able to redeem at the “saver” award level in business class. On the bright side, I will be very well rested for graduation.

This time, I will be traveling around the world on a combination of British Airways, Aeroflot, Cathay Pacific and Alaska Airlines. This trip will be entirely in economy class except for SEA-LHR-AMS. I will also note that Russia just invaded and annexed Ukraine and I will be flying through Russia without a visa, which is going to make matters really interesting. The total cost of the trip was $1174 in paid fares, taxes, fuel surcharges and booking fees.

rtw_clockwiseSEA-LHR-AMS: 50,000 Aadvantage miles (earned from a single Aadvantage Citi credit card signup, annual fee waived and $3,000 minimum spend) plus $331 in taxes and fuel surcharges. Club World business class

AMS-LGW+LHR-ZAG: $163 paid fare on British Airways. This fare is eligible to earn me 1,383 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

ZAG-SVO-PEK: $530 paid fare on Aeroflot. This low fare, amazingly, earns 100% mileage credit on Delta SkyMiles. I will earn 4,773 miles. The only catch is that I have to transit Russia with no visa in the midst of a Crimean invasion, and also amid very frosty relations with both Europe and the United States. My mother isn’t thrilled I have chosen to do this.

PEK-KMG: I will transfer ICBC points earned through my American Express card to my Hong Kong Airlines account, and redeem them for a domestic intra-China ticket from Beijing to Kunming, Yunnan. This has to be done in person when I arrive in Beijing. The redemption fee, as best I can tell, is zero! Now that’s the kind of price I like.

KMG-HKG-LAX: 30,000 Aadvantage miles (earned for free by signing up for an Aadvantage Visa to join my Aadvantage MasterCard, annual fee waived with $3,000 minimum spending requirement) plus $71 in taxes and booking fees. Note that I won’t even be realizing the full value of the award on this trip, because I added a free one-way to New York later this summer on the same award.

LGB-SEA: $79 paid fare on Alaska Airlines. This will earn me 965 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

I would have paid about $1200 for a round-trip ticket from Seattle to The Netherlands in economy class. By taking advantage of miles and points, I am flying all the way around the world for around the same price and 1/3 of the trip will be in British Airways Club World, one of the best business class services in the air. This is the beginning of an epic two month adventure, and it’s going to be amazing!