Canadian startup low cost carriers have a checkered history in Canada. The first low cost Canadian carrier I flew was Canada 3000, which went out of business in 2001.
Many other attempts at low cost carriers have failed: Zip, Zoom, and Jetsgo. Even Air Canada couldn’t make the concept work, and retired their Tango subsidiary (although their cheapest economy class fares are still called “Tango”). The low cost carrier concept stubbornly keeps failing over and over in Canada, which is hardly surprising given that airport operating costs are some of the highest in the world (a report to the Canadian Senate in 2012 detailed myriad structural issues, and essentially nothing has been done or fixed since–in fact, operating costs have only gotten higher).
Nevertheless, startup airlines in Canada continue to open, fly for awhile, and then abruptly fail (usually leaving passengers stranded). The shakiest of these is currently Flair, which apparently didn’t have the money to take delivery of 11 new Boeing jets it had ordered, and which recently had four of its jets seized for non-payment of leasing fees. The 20% on-time performance rating for their Abbotsford-Calgary route is fairly representative.
So, did I book with Flair? Of course not! They weren’t the cheapest, and this article is about the cheapest airline in Canada. As it turns out, that’s tiny airline startup Lynx Air, which is currently flying a fleet of six aircraft. I had never heard of Lynx, but they popped up when I ran a search on an online booking site. I instead booked directly with the airline on their sketchy-looking Web site, and got back an email confirmation that looked like a phishing scam:
However, clicking on the attachment revealed an itinerary that looked like it was from circa 2003, using a random assortment of fonts that looked like a ransom note, and confirming that I had a roundtrip ticket to Calgary over March break weekend for CAD $168.00.
This is virtually unheard of; other airlines were charging well over $300 each way. I’m not sure whether Lynx forgot that it was a school holiday or what, but I really wasn’t going to question it.
The fare breakdown was as follows:
That’s right, roughly half of the roundtrip airfare went to airport fees, and that’s before the airline’s share of the operating costs. Lynx would definitely be losing money on me.
“But wait,” you might say, “the headline says you paid with Aeroplan points. How did that work?” Well, I have the Chase Aeroplan credit card. A few months ago, Chase was offering a 30% bonus to transfer points into Aeroplan, and if you have the credit card and transfer 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points or more into Aeroplan, you got another 10% bonus on top of it. So I ended up with 70,000 points in Aeroplan. Well, in February, Chase decided to be exceptionally generous and started a promotion. You can now redeem Aeroplan points towards travel purchases (literally anything that codes as travel) at 1.25 cents per point. This meant that I could effectively spend the Ultimate Rewards points I transferred for 1.75 cents per point in value.
And that’s exactly what I did, as soon as the charge posted to my Chase Aeroplan credit card account:
Was this a good deal? I think so. Sure, it’s not as high as the realistic ceiling for Aeroplan points. It is, however, just below the weighted average for Aeroplan points, and in Ultimate Rewards terms, it’s above the weighted average for Chase Ultimate Rewards points. And I had specific dates and times of travel that I needed (since I was going to Calgary for an event) so I had to opt for what was actually available.
More importantly, this fare was cheaperthan alternatives and would otherwise be unattainablewith points. While you can theoretically use Chase points at 1.25 cents per point on their travel portal, that only works for airlines that list their fares with Chase. Obscure low cost carriers like these don’t show up, meaning you’re only shown more expensive options.
Less than 5,000 points each way, with no money out of pocket, is an incredibly good outcome for redeeming points on a short-haul flight (especially on a flight like Vancouver to Calgary that is under 500 miles, but over 11 hours of dangerous mountain driving). And remember, I got those points with a 40% bonus. To me, this was an absolute “no brainer” of a redemption.
So how was the flight? Stay tuned for the next installment!
Given that I have been traveling a lot less this year, I have been living vicariously to some degree through YouTube travel videos. Two of my favorite YouTubers are Drew Binsky and Bald and Bankrupt, both of whom travel to some places that are pretty far off the beaten path. After seeing Drew’s videos of Svalbard and Bald’s videos of Moldova, I knew that I needed to visit both.
If you have been following this blog for awhile (or know me in real life) you probably won’t be surprised that I’m interested in visiting Moldova. After all, I have already been to Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine. Svalbard, however, is an unusual choice for me given that it’s expensive. The largest town is administered by Norway, which is already one of the most expensive places in the world. Naturally, prices on Svalbard are even more expensive than the rest of Norway, given its extremely remote location.
That being said, I have visited other expensive islands. Adak, Alaska is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. The Seychelles, which I recently visited, are also a super expensive destination, as was Christmas Island, Australia. I have learned to moderate the cost of remote island destinations by staying in less expensive accommodations when possible (for example, I stayed in an airbnb on Christmas Island that was 1/3 the price of any hotels, and I found an excellent Couchsurfing host on Palau), and bringing extra food and supplies with me if I have a luggage allowance that permits it.
The island of Svalbard is interesting to me because apart from being one of the world’s most remote islands, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It’s only about 650 miles from the North Pole!
Sweetening the deal, of course, is the chance to visit the nearby Russian settlement of Barentsburg. It’s administered by Russia, but I won’t need a visa to visit. Making it even more interesting is the fact that they have kept it more or less like it was during Soviet times. They even still have a statue of Lenin!
Moldova, meanwhile, not only the the least visited country in Europe, it’s crazy cheap. How cheap? It makes Bulgaria look expensive. Like Ukraine, one of my favorite countries, it has an ethnic Russian breakaway region, the de facto country of Transnistria. Visiting would be possible, although I’m not 100% sure that’s the plan. Whether or not I visit, I expect to find the sort of decaying ex-Soviet stuff I like to check out along with a lot of surprises along the way. I don’t plan trips carefully to places like Moldova; instead, I just leave a lot of time for serendipitous discoveries.
Naturally, with off-the-beaten-path destinations like these, flights to both places are also really expensive, which is where miles and points can really come in handy. With many award programs, tickets are priced based upon the regions in which you’re traveling, not on the cash cost of a ticket.
Selecting A Mileage Program
Although United has devalued their program for flights that involve a United segment (often more than doubling the previous price), they have —for now — maintained the previous award levels for partner flights. Additionally, they have maintained the “excursionist perk,” which gives you a free intra-Europe one way flight on a roundtrip flight to Europe. For my itinerary, this was extremely valuable given the high cost of flights between Svalbard and Moldova. All I had to do was find availability on dates that would work.
I try to book my travel around US holidays so I end up taking fewer vacation days, and it really took some work to find availability. When I’m planning a complicated itinerary like this, I focus on the most difficult flights to get first. Not surprisingly, these are flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Why? There is only one flight a day on United’s partner SAS (from Oslo), and it’s really expensive so a lot of people try to use points on it. I was able to find availability on the 30th, so I worked backwards from there to find availability to Oslo.
I’m starting from Seattle and there wasn’t anything available that would get me to Oslo in time, but I was able to find an outbound itinerary on a combination of SWISS and SAS that routed the entire way from San Francisco. I’ll have to buy a positioning flight to San Francisco, but from Seattle, these aren’t expensive (sale fares commonly run as low as $59).
Onward from Longyearbyen, there was availability on SAS back to Oslo, continuing on Austrian via Vienna to Chisnau. This flight alone would cost $629 if booked with cash (other, less convenient flights were around $100 less). And finally, from Chisnau, I was able to find availability back to Seattle via Austrian (back to Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Munich).
Yes, It’s In Economy Class
If you read most travel blogs, they’ll tell you that the only way to use miles and points is to book premium cabin award seats, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar after a visit to an over-the-top fancy lounge, jetting off to an over-the-water bungalow on a private island in the Maldives. Or something. Now, I’m not knocking this. It’s nice to fly in premium cabins, and I’ll use my miles this way under limited circumstances (for example, on extremely long flights, which would be expensive in economy class, and where I can redeem at the lowest “sweet spot” redemption rate).
There’s another good way to spend miles and points, though: economy class flights that would otherwise be really expensive, especially those on flights where business class doesn’t matter. That’s how I typically use my miles and points. So let’s deconstruct this itinerary and I’ll explain why it made the most sense to book in economy class.
Considering The Cost
The minimum cost to book this itinerary in business class would be 140,000 points. This is because the most logical transatlantic flights from the West Coast aren’t on United for this itinerary, and there wasn’t availability anyway. This compares to the 60,000 point cost to book in economy class, an 80,000 point difference. I’d be getting these points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account if I were to spend them.
80,000 points is really a lot. Even spending these through the Chase portal (and I can usually do better than that) would yield $1,200 in value. Is it worth $1,200 for a lie flat seat on a roughly 8 hour overnight trip? To me, definitely not.
Availability: The Toughest Hurdle
In economy class, there was availability over the 4th of July weekend, which would allow me to take one fewer vacation day for the trip. There wasn’t availability in business class over this week. I could find availability in business class over a different week, but it’d be for a trip that was a day shorter than I wanted. Making matters worse, the domestic legs were all in economy class to the East Coast, connecting to international flights on a third-tier carrier (LOT) from there.
This just didn’t make sense to me. Why blow 80,000 extra points on an itinerary chock full of intra-Europe legs, where intra-Europe “business class” would get me into the same lounge I can access with Priority Pass and an economy class seat (with a blocked middle)? It might have been worthwhile if the transatlantic flights originated on the West Coast, but almost none of them do.
One big downside: During the week I wanted to travel, there was no availability from Seattle at saver level for the outbound flight. I could only find availability from San Francisco. I was, however, able to find a return flight back into Seattle at saver level. This is a side effect of United changing to dynamic award pricing for award itineraries that include even a single flight on United. If I had departed from Seattle, the price would have been 70,000 points for the outbound flight, instead of 30,000 points. The 40,000 difference, at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed on the Chase portal, is like paying $600 for a 90 minute flight that regularly sells for $79.
Getting Nerdy: Cents Per Point Breakdown
I think one of the best measures of whether you got a good deal on a flight is how much it would cost if you paid for similar flights you’d actually buy. That’s really hard with this trip, because these flights are so expensive. Without using miles and points, visiting these destinations would be almost financially impossible.
I’m flying a better itinerary than the cheapest reasonable itinerary (which is on a combination of Norwegian, SAS, Austrian and Turkish), and I’m traveling on better airlines. This itinerary, from Seattle, costs $1,773. It’s the least expensive reasonable itinerary, and it’s what I’d most likely book.
Pricing out the value here isn’t as easy as just taking 1,773 and dividing it by 60,000, because I had to pay some money out of pocket for the award ticket. It cost $223 in taxes, and the flight departs from San Francisco where I don’t live. That ticket is currently selling for $79, which is a normal price for a flight between Seattle and the Bay Area. So the calculation goes as follows:
=2.5 cents per point
Is 2.5 cents per point a good value? I think so, even though it’s nothing close to the eye-popping values you see assigned to points by the credit card bloggers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points have a floor value of 1.5 cents per point. In practice, it is difficult to achieve on the Chase portal, so the floor is actually below that.
This booking even exceeds the 2.4 cents per point in value I can usually get out of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, which are generally considered the most valuable airline points. I think that’s really good. Sure, it’s not a huge inflated number based on an outrageously expensive business class fare, but that’s not a fare I’d ever actually buy. However, a flight on a nearly bankrupt airline via a dumpy secondary British airport is very much a flight I’d actually buy here at Seat 31B, so I think the valuation is fair.
I haven’t been more excited about a trip I’m taking in a long time. Having explored some of the farthest northern reaches of Alaska (including Barrow and Deadhorse), it’ll be incredible to see how Svalbard compares!
I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.
Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!
Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disasterright now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.
Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.
The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.
So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.
Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.
Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.
Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.
One of the most unique parts of the British Airways operation is in South Africa. BA operates long haul flights from London to Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, they also have a branded domestic operation within South Africa (operating in all major cities) and a regional operation between South Africa and other destinations in southern Africa (Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). The flights are competitively priced versus South African Airways, although fares are usually a bit higher than low cost carriers (including Kulula, its affiliated carrier). And they operate a nonstop route between Cape Town and Durban, which is a route I wanted to take. Better yet, the flight was competitively priced versus the low cost carriers (I was able to book a sale fare) and even better than that, I was able to book the trip using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
“But wait a minute,” you might be saying. “That’s cabotage!” And yes, it would be, except that BA actually operates via a franchisee in South Africa. The operating carrier is Comair. There is a decal on the front of the plane (which is easy to miss) that indicates this and the flight attendants announce “operated by Comair” when stating the flight number, but most people would have no idea that they’re not flying with British Airways. The branding, marketing, frequent flier program, uniforms, Web site and even the inflight magazine are all BA. In fact, the only thing that would tip you off that it’s not quite BA is the fact that in South Africa, BA remains a full service carrier.
You’d never guess that this British Airways aircraft is actually operated by Comair
While BA sells domestic European fares that don’t include a carry-on bag, and BA has also cut meal service on its intra-Europe flights, Comair has maintained British Airways as a full-service carrier. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case; maybe it’s because they want to differentiate the product from their own low-cost carrier Kulula, or maybe it’s because they want to be competitive with South African Airways (which is also a full-service carrier). It’s also possible that the franchise agreement dictates the services they’re required to offer. Nevertheless, the service is differentiated in a good way.
I boarded late, so didn’t get good pictures of the aircraft cabin. However, there are a few things that were interesting. The first is that the “Club” cabin is different than both US first class carriers and domestic European carriers. The seats have slightly more pitch than economy class. They are slightly wider as well. This means there are 5 seats across in “Club” class (3×2), versus 6 across (3×3) in economy class. On a US domestic carrier, first class would be 2×2 and on British Airways in Europe, “Business” class would be 3×3, but with the middle seat blocked out. I think that this configuration is interesting; it’s more like a premium economy class than a business class, but with a wider and more comfortable seat.
My seat was in economy class. Like the rest of the British Airways operation, you have to pay for seat selection until check-in. I wasn’t able to check in using the mobile app, so ended up checking in online late via the BA Web site. This meant that the only two available seats were the very back row (right up against the toilet) or a middle seat in the front. Since I am on the road I didn’t have (or have access to) a printer. However, that’s OK; British Airways lets you compete the check-in procedure online (so you can select a seat) and then print out a boarding pass at the airport.
When I got to the Cape Town airport to check in, I asked whether any better seats were available. There was an “exit row” available. However, the seat maps with BA are really strange about what is considered an exit row. The very last row of the plane–the one where all the seats back up against the toilets and don’t recline–is considered an “exit row,” because it’s close to the rear exit. However, this comes with none of the benefits. In my case, I was given a seat in the row in *front* of the exit row, which isn’t actually an exit row at all, and which doesn’t recline. However, a non-reclining seat near the front beats a non-reclining seat right next to the toilets, so I was happy to move.
Since I carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I have a Priority Pass. I had enough time to visit a lounge and this granted me access to the Bidvest Premier Lounge. Although the lounge is a contract lounge in Cape Town, it’s actually really nice. There was an excellent lunch spread with both hot and cold dishes, a great beverage selection, and the lounge wasn’t crowded. There are even showers available for domestic flights (although they are temporarily not available in Cape Town due to government restrictions on water usage–Cape Town is suffering from the worst drought in 100 years). There is also a large table upstairs with power outlets and good, fast WiFi so you can get some work done. While I’m not sure any lounge is worth going to the airport early, it’s a great place to kill time if you do arrive early. The main part of the Cape Town terminal is great for Africa, but the gate areas can get very crowded because there is limited seating.
The aircraft was an older 737-800, originally delivered in 2002. It’s very much due for both a deep cleaning (there was set-in grime) and a cabin refresh; European BA cabins look a lot nicer but they also have been refitted with newer slimline seats while this aircraft has not been. The flight was almost completely full and only two hours long but the flight attendants still managed to get out a beverage service, a hot lunch, and a second beverage service.
Spinach ravioli with feta, with apple pie accompaniment
One really annoying thing about flying to or within South Africa is the electronics rules. Held over from the early 2000s, airlines are absolutely zealous about allowing no use of portable electronics at all for completely unreasonable lengths of time. I was using my tablet and listening to headphones, and the flight attendant came by, scolded me, and made me turn everything off the moment we started descending. It’d be great to see South African aviation authorities retire these outdated and antiquated rules like most of the rest of the world has done.
While I don’t think it’s worth paying extra to fly British Airways in South Africa, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. They got me to my destination safely, on time, with my bags, and I wasn’t hungry when I landed. And I got miles in my preferred frequent flier program (Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan)
Points I redeemed
The trip would have cost $78.39 in cash, but I redeemed 5,226 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Yes, I realize that this was only 1.5 cents per point in value. However, this was far better value than the 7,500 Avios (plus $42 in taxes and fuel surcharges) the flight would otherwise have cost. In addition to this, I will receive 500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for the flight (it’d only qualify for 125 Avios or American Airlines points because of the fare class I bought, but Alaska has a 500 mile minimum credit per flight). Although I might theoretically get some better value by preserving optionality for a future flight, this is a flight I wanted to take right now, it’s cash I didn’t want to spend right now, and it was available at the real price (not some arbitrarily higher price as is often the case) on the Chase portal. So to me, this was a no-brainer.
You know that stage of a relationship where there isn’t any love left, you’re sleeping in separate bedrooms, but you have kids so you put on a strong public face and stay married for the sake of the children? That’s my view of the relationship between Alaska and American Airlines. It has been steadily deteriorating over time, and while many frequent fliers had a lot of (I think false) hope after Alaska split up with Delta earlier this year, the writing has been on the wall for some time.
If you follow airlines closely, you knew something was seriously awry when American began flying from Seattle to Los Angeles earlier this year. This was the only American hub where American didn’t have service on its own aircraft from Seattle, instead relying on Alaska to provide connecting flights to its domestic and international services. And Alaska is fully capable of doing this. They operate 14 nonstop flights a day between Seattle and Los Angeles, not counting an additional 4 Virgin America flights per day. Absent any rift in the partnership, there was absolutely no need for additional lift in this market–a market so competitive (in between Delta, Alaska, Spirit, United and now American) that fares are often as low as $59 each way. Also, consumer preference almost definitely isn’t in play; American service is inferior to Alaska in just about every way so it’s hard to imagine many consumers going out of their way to fly American over Alaska.
Meanwhile, though, Alaska fliers are the “kids” in the relationship. Despite struggles in the marriage, it has been very good for us with reciprocal frequent flier benefits. Elite frequent flier members have benefited from free bags and priority check-in, boarding and seating. For those of us in Seat 31B, however, the best part of this has been some very cheap mileage fares in economy class when booking with Alaska miles.
This American Airlines partner flight–with a long stopover in Seattle–cost only 15,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.
There are some particularly good sweet spots on the Alaska Airlines award chart with American Airlines, especially their off-peak flights. I flew to Barcelona on May 14th this year for just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles in American economy class, because Alaska follows the “old” AAdvantage peak/off-peak rules. I also flew from Costa Rica to Seattle, enjoyed a long stopover, and will be continuing on my journey to Las Vegas later this month. This cost only 15,000 miles–also an off-peak award. These are some of the best deals on the Alaska Airlines award chart–and more importantly, these awards are achievable for ordinary people who aren’t flying every week or doing crazy stuff to get miles.
There will likely be howls of protest from the blogosphere, but I don’t think they’re really justified. American massively devalued its own award program more than a year ago. It was untenable for Alaska Mileage Plan members to continue getting a better deal on American awards than AAdvantage members, particularly given that American flyers could easily credit their miles to Alaska. I knew this couldn’t last, and put my money where my mouth is: I have been burning my own miles on the best awards.
What’s next? Well, divorce probably isn’t in the cards, not yet anyway. At the end of the day, American and Alaska need each other–Alaska has very strong service throughout the West that American doesn’t have, and American serves Midwestern cities Alaska doesn’t. So this is the stage of the relationship where Alaska and American are no longer sleeping under the same roof; they are formally separated. But they’ll still put on a brave face and show up at the middle school parent-teacher nights as a couple. All of the changes go into effect on 1/1/18, so you will have until then to earn and redeem at current levels.
As I wrote in my previous article, it’s now possible for the citizens of 80 countries to visit Belarus without a visa. However, there are some significant strings attached, the most important of which is that you must arrive and depart by flight at Minsk airport.
Unfortunately, Minsk isn’t the cheapest place to visit, because there are limited flights. Only 12 airlines service Minsk, and two of those airlines only fly to Russia (so you can’t use them unless you have a Russian visa, because of the Customs control zone Belarus shares with Russia). That leaves you with only 5 routes on which it’s practical to use points–all StarAlliance, and one of which is on Air China from Beijing. The rest are non-alliance airlines like airBaltic, Belavia, Ukraine International Airlines and even an airline called Motor Sich which flies to–and I can’t even begin to pronounce this–Zaporizhia. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you go find it on a map.
I fly a lot and have never even seen an airplane like this.
The cheapest roundtrip flights to Minsk cost about $200, and leave from Kiev. But you have to get to Kiev first, and that’s not exactly a cheap place to visit either. In this case, my journey to Minsk is starting from Barcelona (by the way, my trip from Seattle to Barcelona cost just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles). I was pretty flexible about where I ended up after visiting Minsk, but preferred that it be Kiev. I got my wish! By stacking two travel hacks, I used just 13,533 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the trip. This will allow me to visit both Minsk and Kiev for fewer points than required to visit just one city using a StarAlliance award, and also required no cash out of pocket.
The first step was to find a good fare hack. Belavia, the state airline of Belarus, publishes a fare between Barcelona and Kiev that allows a stopover in Minsk. However, you can’t actually book these fares on their Web site, which only allows simple one-way and round-trip itineraries. Additionally, Belavia doesn’t publish their fares on most online travel agencies. As far as Orbitz (my usual go-to site for booking complex itineraries) is concerned, Belavia doesn’t even exist. Also, once I finally found a place to buy it (a Spanish travel agency), the fare was still higher than I wanted to pay.
The title of the top Skytrax review is “Worst flying experiences ever”
I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. This card is dramatically over-hyped by other travel blogs (mostly because they get a commission for you signing up). However, the sign-up bonus was very good (100,000 points). Also, if I cancel the card before the annual fee comes due, I’ll actually make $150 on the deal (you get a $300 travel credit per calendar year, and I have already gotten two years worth of annual credit out of one $450 annual fee). While you can transfer the points directly to a number of airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, you can also spend them in the Chase travel portal at the rate of 1.5 cents per point. “No way they’ll have this flight,” I thought as I searched the Chase portal just for the sake of completeness.
And then it popped up. The exact itinerary I’d found on the Spanish travel agency–and nowhere else. The price even came in a few bucks cheaper. I couldn’t believe it! Most of the time when I search the Chase portal, the results aren’t very good (except for rental cars, where I have gotten some truly spectacular deals). Hotels generally cost a lot more than other places, and flights tend to cost the same or more. The selection is not only more limited than most travel sites, but the portal is also slow and clunky to use. But there in front of me was a perfect itinerary for 13,533 points with no cash out of pocket! Well, anyone who reads this blog knows I like to fly for free. I went ahead and booked it.
What do I expect? To be honest, I have no idea. The Skytrax reviews of Belavia are very much a mixed bag–your experience really seems to depend upon the crew you get and the aircraft in use. However, the schedule was better than any other airline, and I could go for free. Hard to beat that!
While the deals usually aren’t spectacular with the Chase travel portal, there are occasionally good surprises. Before you transfer your points, be sure to compare what the cash fare would be. You might be pleasantly surprised.
I’m very often asked “Which credit card should I get? Should I get the Chase Sapphire Preferred?” This is rarely a surprising question. Bloggers go on and on endlessly about the Chase Sapphire Preferred because it pays them the highest commission. It’s certainly not a bad card, but it isn’t the best one either. And it carries a $95 annual fee. So let’s do a deep dive and see whether it’s a card you should get:
Is this the best card for you? Maybe not.
Untrustworthy Ultimate Rewards Points
The points you’re earning with the Chase Sapphire Preferred are Ultimate Rewards (UR) points. Who backs them? Chase. What are they worth? Whatever Chase says they are, and they can change the value whenever they want. They are not airline, hotel or rental car points. This can be dangerous; if the bank shuts your account down (and they can do this for essentially any reason or no reason), they can take all of your points and there’s nothing you can do about it. The bank can devalue the points and benefits whenever they want, as other travel programs do. Points are considered a discount, not cash. This actually benefits you for tax purposes, but it’s not a good thing at all when it comes to your rights around devaluation. In short, you don’t have any. There have been multiple cases with different banks shutting down accounts of people who are too good at working the programs.
You can legally count cards in Las Vegas and gain an advantage in blackjack, but the casinos can legally refuse to play with you. Banks play basically the same game with points. My recommendation is never to maintain high balances of bank points, because they could pull the rug out from under you at any time.
Sketchy Sign-Up Bonus
Right now, you can get a 50,000 bonus points for signing up and an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user to the card. The catch? You have to spend a whopping $4,000 in the first 3 months of having the card. This used to be easy when you could buy Visa gift cards or Vanilla Reload cards and load them to an American Express Bluebird, which you could then use to pay your credit card bill. However, American Express shut this down last month, and ever since it’s gotten a lot harder. Are you sure you can spend $1,333+ per month on a credit card without buying a bunch of crap you don’t need?
The worst part: If you don’t achieve the spending threshold, you don’t get the bonus. Simple as that. Chase is banking on this.
Pathetic Points Transfers
Chase boasts that you can transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to travel partners. The problem is, most of their partners just aren’t very good. 40% of the transfer partners are hotel programs, and they’re the ones with the least valuable points in the industry. The airline partners aren’t much better (although there can be sweet spots with each one). Redeeming British Airways Avios points often involves paying hefty fuel surcharges and the best awards–on Alaska Airlines–can only be booked over the phone. Korean Air SKYPASS not only has a horrendously expensive award chart, but booking awards is a giant hassle and you can only book tickets for yourself and immediate family members (with extensive documentation requirements), not friends. And after the United award chart devaluation, it’s really only worthwhile to use Mileage Plus points on United–the least reliable airline in America.
It’s not that there aren’t sweet spots in each of these programs that can make them worthwhile. It’s just that airline points devalue faster than Zimbabwe dollars, and hotel points are nearly as bad. And if you want to earn airline points, the benefits tend to be much better with airline affiliate cards (for example, you get companion passes, drink coupons and free checked bags with many airline cards).
“Get 20% off travel!” claims the headline. Unfortunately, there’s an asterisk, and it’s a big one: you can’t book your travel directly with hotels or airlines. Instead, you have to book through a Chase travel agency portal. And as you may have guessed, this doesn’t give you all of the options, and the prices shown are often higher than you can get booking through other sites. The “20% savings” might actually end up costing you money.
Should you get the Chase Sapphire Preferred? Sure, if you want to support your favorite travel blogger with a fat commission by using their affiliate link. Otherwise, it’s not the best travel card out there, and it isn’t by a long shot.
UPDATE: It’s back! Get this deal before it vanishes.
I don’t normally share credit card offers because every other travel blog is awash with them, and very few of them are actually good. However, I will occasionally share a deal that I genuinely believe is actually a good one. How can you keep me honest? I’ll tell you a secret: timing. The best time to get an airline affiliate credit card is near the end of a fiscal quarter, and near the end of the fiscal year is best. All the banks are trying to hit their numbers so they offer better deals. That’s why we’re seeing an exceptionally good deal from Chase on their Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards credit card. This offer expires November 15, 2016.
What’s the deal? An exceptionally generous 50,000 Rapid Rewards points after an easily achievable $2,000 minimum spend. The regular offer (available here) is half as generous: 25,000 bonus points with a $1,000 minimum spend. This can add up to 10 or more free flights depending upon how you redeem the points. For the Seat 31B traveler, no other offer comes close.
Grab this deal and support Seat 31B!
Southwest has a different frequent flier program than most. It is based on points rather than miles and is revenue based. So, this program can be considerably more lucrative for many domestic flights than other frequent flier programs. This is because the price of awards is loosely based on the price of a paid ticket, although not exactly. There are “sweet spots” based on the day of the week that you fly and the airport you fly from.
What are some of the better award rates? If you are getting 1.5 cents in value per point or greater, you’re doing pretty well. Redemption values will vary from as low as 1.2 to as high as 1.9 cents per point, with the highest prices on popular dates and routes (particularly booked last-minute) and the lowest ones booked on less popular dates and routes (particularly in advance). The sweet spot is short-haul flights booked in advance. I use Southwest points when I can plan ahead and when I can be flexible to get the best deals and have flown from Los Angeles to Seattle for under 5,000 points. A trip between Ontario and Sacramento I’m taking in December cost only 2,819 points. When you compare this to other programs, it’s an incredible value. British Airways, generally considered the best “legacy” airline program for short-haul flights, now charges a minimum 7,500 points for a short-haul flight.
Another advantage of the Rapid Rewards program: no cancellation fees. I will often use Rapid Rewards for speculative bookings where I’m not 100% sure whether I’ll actually take a trip. I’ll book the ticket well in advance to lock in the best redemption rates, and if I can’t actually go, I can cancel the trip without penalty. As long as you cancel 10 minutes or more before the flight’s departure, you will get back all of the points. Also, don’t forget to keep checking to see if the price goes down. If it does, just refund your ticket and re-book at the lower rates. This happens more often than you might think!
Finally, don’t forget that Southwest charges no baggage fees. I fly them fairly often if I need to check bags, because you can check up to 2 bags free of charge. This saves you $120 versus most airlines on a round-trip flight (if you check two bags). On short-haul flights where the fares are low anyway, baggage fees on other airlines can sometimes exceed the fare!
There are different flavors of the current best offer. This version has a $99 annual fee and $2,000 minimum spend, but you do get most of the value of the annual fee back because it awards 6,000 bonus points at each renewal and includes free drink coupons. Also, if you use our magic link, Seat 31B receives 5,000 bonus points. Other offers for the same card may waive the annual fee for the first year (these are targeted offers for which you may or may not qualify), but with those deals, you don’t get the bonus points at renewal. This card also has no foreign transaction fees, which isn’t the case with all Southwest Airlines cards. I’m comfortable offering this card because I’m confident there isn’t a better deal out there, and it represents a good value for Seat 31B readers.
US Airways was acquired earlier this year by American Airlines, and has been slowly absorbed into American Airlines ever since. Its mileage program, Dividend Miles, is still a stand-alone program, although it will be merged with the American Airlines Aadvantage program early in 2015. So, if you have US Airways Dividend Miles, they will become American Airlines Aadvantage miles and the Aadvantage program rules will then apply.
It is all but a foregone conclusion that the Barclays US Airways MasterCard is going away when the programs merge, because Citi is the preferred card partner for American Airlines. However, it’s still available and Barclays is running a special referral promotion. If you are referred by an existing cardholder, you can receive 50,000 miles on your first purchase. This is enough for a round-trip winter ticket to Europe in Seat 31B with miles left over. It will also get you two roundtrip tickets within North America, or a ticket to Hawaii or South America with miles left over. There is an $89 annual fee that is not waived. This is much better than the usual offer of 40,000 miles after spending $3,000.
$89 plus the cost of a pack of gum definitely isn’t a bad price for a round-trip economy class ticket to Europe. So, I’m comfortable recommending this deal. It doesn’t come with the pitfalls common to most other credit card offers, which are rife with tricks and traps. You get a few other perks for your $89 annual fee, including a companion fare certificate good on US Airways flights, a free checked bag on US Airways, and priority boarding on US Airways. I’m not sure what will happen to these benefits when US Airways disappears as a brand, so I’m not assigning a whole lot of value to them. If you plan to use the companion fare, I recommend that you book it as soon as you receive the certificate.
Overall this isn’t a bad credit card, except for the annual fee (you won’t want to keep it for more than the first year) and the very high APR. The general Flyertalk consensus over Barclays customer service is that it is terrible, but I deal with them exclusively online and haven’t had any problems. The trouble seems to come from calling them; telephone customer service is rated inconsistent at best.
If you want the card, I will be happy to send you a referral link. Just contact me from the email address where you’d like the link sent, or leave a comment below with your email address (note I moderate all comments and won’t publish these requests, so your email will remain private). My email address is tprophet [at] seat31b.com. In the interest of full disclosure, I will receive 5,000 bonus miles if you sign up for the card through my link. So, if you want to share this offer with friends, please don’t forward the email but have them contact me directly so I also get the bonus for referring them.
Unlike the links you’ll find on other blogs (which pay bloggers actual money rather than a paltry few extra bonus miles), this is–to my knowledge–the best currently available offer for this card. It’s also a (relatively) quick and easy way to earn enough miles for a trip to Europe for less than $100, giving it the Seat 31B seal of approval.
As you have probably heard, the Russian ruble has effectively collapsed. This has created a tremendous arbitrage opportunity, but only if you take immediate action to leverage it.
The ruble effectively collapsed today
Airline tickets are quoted and priced in GDS systems, and currency conversions aren’t adjusted real-time. With the rapid collapse of the ruble, this means that you can effectively get a discount of 20% or more by paying in rubles versus dollars.
So, let’s look at a nice peak season flight from Los Angeles to Costa Rica on anywayanyday, a Russian travel agency:
A typical peak season flight price to Costa Rica
As you can see, it’s $792 in US dollars. This is a typical non-sale fare price to Costa Rica during the peak season. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn this into a good peak season sale fare instead?
If you change your currency selection on this menu from USD to RUB, you can pay in the Ruble currency. Note that it’s a good idea to call your bank before you do this, because there is a slight possibility that they might consider it unusual that you are paying for things in rubles on a Russian travel site. By this, I meant that they will panic and block your card, which will cause you an endless amount of hassle. Why use a Russian travel site in the first place? It’ll be very hard for anyone involved to argue later that you shouldn’t be able to pay for things in Russia using rubles.
Now, let’s see what happens after you change the currency:
Yikes, that’s a big number!
The price becomes 41,638 rubles. So, let’s see how much that is worth in dollar terms:
Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s $196 cheaper to pay in rubles.
Folks, this sort of arbitrage opportunity almost never happens and it will not last. Take advantage while you can!
UPDATE: Many airlines are starting to correct this by repricing their tickets in the GDS systems. With British Airways, it is actually less expensive to book in dollars or euros now. Double-check the conversion before you book!