A Trip To Christmas Island

Part 1: Planning

Earlier this year, Qantas ran a crazy sale on flights to Australia. I was able to score a $550 roundtrip on their A380 from Vancouver to Sydney. These weren’t nonstop flights (the outbound was from Dallas and the return was to Los Angeles), and Vancouver isn’t exactly a convenient airport for me to use given that I live in the Seattle area, but the savings were worth it—especially since the over 16,000 miles of flying credits at 100% to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically aim for 2.4 cents per point in fully loaded value from my Alaska Airlines points, and I’m regularly able to achieve this. So, it was like paying $75 each way. To Sydney, Australia.

Then, from a miles and points perspective, things got even better. Alaska ran a double miles promo for flights on Qantas, meaning that I’d get 200% mileage credit for these flights. When combined with the small mileage credit I received for my positioning flight on American, this $550 ticket scored me a massive points haul of 32,614 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. The way I spend them, it’s $783 in value, so in effect, Alaska Airlines paid me $233 to go to Australia. I don’t have any elite status with Alaska (most of my flights are paid for with miles and points, not cash) but if I had, I could have scored a nice tier bonus on top of this.

The catch was that August is winter in Australia, the weather isn’t great in Sydney, and the sale fare wasn’t available to other Australian destinations. Australian friends warned me that it’d be cold, so I looked into flying onward from Sydney to warmer destinations. I have been on an island kick lately, most recently visiting The Seychelles. I also have a trip booked to Providencia later next year. So when I started researching Australian island destinations, Christmas Island caught my eye.

The majority of Christmas Island is a national park

The island is most famous for its red land crab migration, which occurs during the rainy season. Millions of them swarm the beaches and cover them (along with the roads), basically creating a river of crabs. I wouldn’t be visiting at the right time of year for that, but I would be visiting early enough to disconnect from the Internet. Christmas Island is one of the few places in the world still connected only by satellite (a fiber optic connection to Singapore is currently under construction). Also, there are only two flights a week. So it definitely checked my box of “not reachable from work.” When I’m on vacation, I like to truly unplug, which, given the ubiquity of the Internet, is really difficult to do these days.

Internet is available only by satellite

I scheduled a day in Sydney and an overnight in Perth en route (to allow recovery time for missed connections–this is super important when visiting a place where there only two flights per week), and booked my onward flights. Flights to Christmas Island are very expensive on Virgin Australia on their fully economy class configured aircraft, but I was able to book this flight with 45,000 Delta SkyMiles. I also needed to get from Sydney to Perth in order to catch my flight, so ended up using American Airlines AAdvantage points for this. Domestic flights on Qantas within Australia in economy class cost 10,000 AAdvantage points each way. I also received a 2000 mile rebate on the roundtrip using a now-discontinued Citi credit card benefit, so I ended up paying 18,000 miles plus about $40 in taxes.

Continue to Part 2 – Qantas A380 Economy Class Review

Alaska Airlines Basic Economy SEA-LAX Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flight

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

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

Notice anything missing?

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

Wrap-Up

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

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

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

I’m Going To Christmas Island

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

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

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

Getting There With Points

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

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

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

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

I Just Bought My First Delta Basic Economy Fare

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

basic economy warning

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

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

Delta basic economy warning

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

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

ryanair plane

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

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

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

My Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Xiamen Air Economy Class Review – Seattle to Xiamen Via Shenzhen

Xiamen Air is one of the smaller mainland Chinese airlines. A member of SkyTeam, it codeshares a limited number of routes with Delta and is definitely a “little sister” when stacked up against the two other mainland Chinese SkyTeam airlines, China Eastern and China Southern. The airline mostly serves destinations in China, with a handful of international destinations (primarily in Asia). However, they do offer service to New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle along with Amsterdam, Sydney and Melbourne.

Here in Seattle, Xiamen’s flight hasn’t been doing well. Of the transpacific flights to and from Sea-Tac, it is reputed to consistently have the lowest overall load factor. Given that the service is one of the only nonstops from the West Coast to the tech hub of Shenzhen, I was very surprised to hear this. However, I haven’t gone out of my way to take the flight because the fares were relatively high, and I lived in China for 3 years so I haven’t really been in a hurry to go back there.

All of this changed when I got the opportunity to attend and speak at DEF CON China, which was–to the best of my knowledge–the first international hacker conference to be hosted in China. I’ve been doing some research into a technical area where I thought feedback from a Chinese audience would be useful, so couldn’t pass it up. Only one problem: I figured out that I’d be going only about 2 weeks beforehand. This was enough time to get a visa together, but it was pretty late to book a flight. So I ended up booking with Xiamen Air despite their terrible itinerary due to their low price.

The Itinerary

The itinerary was truly terrible. It’s like flying from Hong Kong to Seattle, but via Los Angeles and a forced overnight in San Francisco. Here’s what it looked like:

sea-szx-xnm-pek

Seattle to Beijing… via Shenzhen and Xiamen

Why would I subject myself to this? Because, dear reader, it was the cheapest way to get to Beijing: $479. This blog isn’t called Seat 31B for nothing!

Check-in In Seattle

cardboard cut-out of flight attendant

No mistaking this for anything other than Xiamen Air!

Xiamen Air’s check-in desk is all the way at the far end. Rather than being on the back wall, it backs up against the airport drive. I was a little confused but Xiamen anticipated this and there was a cardboard cut-out to help me find my way.

The check-in desk wasn’t crowded, even for economy class. Granted, I arrived at the airport 3 hours before departure, because I hadn’t paid for a seat assignment, online check-in isn’t supported, and Xiamen doesn’t participate in TSA Precheck (you will not get precheck even if you have a known traveler number). I knew I would need plenty of extra time at the airport. Still, I got through the economy class line in about 5 minutes, and was able to arrange an aisle seat with no problem at all.

One of my friends recently had luck talking his way into the precheck line with a NEXUS card, which I hold, so I figured I’d give it a try. I was unceremoniously bounced. Even though the airline I was flying didn’t participate in Precheck, it didn’t matter: I wasn’t given access. My guess is that the TSA agent at the other airport thought my friend’s NEXUS card was some sort of military identification instead of a trusted traveler card. After being kicked out of the Precheck line, it took over 45 minutes to get through the “regular” TSA security line. I’m not sure why airport security is always such a disaster in in the US and UK when it’s both faster and more thorough in China, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.

After I got into the airport, I went to the Alaska Airlines lounge and was granted entry (after a short wait when the agent called upstairs to make sure there was room) with my Priority Pass card. The planespotting was great, as it always is from the Alaska lounge. It was around lunchtime and I wasn’t sure what or how much they’d serve us on the plane, so I had some soup, salad and bread in the lounge.

Alaska Airlines planes

All the planes you want to spot, as long as they’re Alaska jets! (Virgin America merged with Alaska)

Finally, it was getting close to the boarding time. The flight left from the south satellite, so I took the airport subway. This took longer than I expected and I was the last person to board the plane, although I still boarded about 20 minutes early. I was surprised to discover that this was my seat:

Airline seat 54J

Seat 54J

If you spend a lot of time in economy class, you probably picked up on it: the armrests are immovable and the IFE swings out from the front. Why might this be?

Poor man's business class seat

Unlimited legroom!

Seat 54J, as it turns out, is one of the two best seats in economy class. Although it’s close to the toilets, I don’t have a sensitive sense of smell. And there is unlimited legroom on these seats because they are directly on the exit row. The window seat is terrible in this row because there isn’t actually a window and the exit door protrudes, meaning there is less leg room than usual seats. However, the aisle and middle seats had unlimited legroom. A pillow and blanket was provided on each seat, and there were plenty of spares if you wanted one:

Pillow and blanket

You could have as many of these as you wanted because the flight was lightly loaded

My seat mates were both tech people and that’s the industry I work in too, so it was easy conversation to Shenzhen–particularly because one of the guys had brought a bunch of miniature bottles of booze on board, and the flight attendants were happy to look the other way. One thing that differentiates Xiamen from other Chinese airlines: the inflight service was very friendly and extremely attentive. Actually, Xiamen Air service in economy class was on par with my last Cathay Pacific business class flight! They really get the small details and human kindnesses right from making sure you have enough water to noticing if you sneeze and bringing you a tissue.

another airplane meal

Italian garden vegetable lasagna with fresh German salad, rustic pretzel bread, French Village yogurt and New York style cheesecake

I was worried about going hungry on the flight but in the end we were stuffed, and the quality of the food catered in Seattle (more later on the food catered in Shenzhen) was very good for economy class. They fed us two full meals and brought two rounds of sandwiches midflight as well. While liquor wasn’t available (even for purchase), beer and wine flowed freely. To my delight, they had my favorite Chinese beer on board, Yanjing. It’s a local Beijing beer and I didn’t expect they’d actually have it, because Xiamen is in the southern part of China.

The time passed pretty quickly in between meals because Xiamen Air has free WiFi on board and I made good use of it. Of course, like most things involving the Internet in China, using it is complicated because you have to register for it in advance. You can’t register more than 30 days in advance, or less than two days in advance, and only the first 50 users who register can get the service. Also, your access code only works on one device, a different access code is issued per flight, and access codes aren’t available for all flights, even though WiFi service was present on all of the flights I took. Got all that? If you do, you’ll get an access code that grants you access to…

…the Chinese Internet. Which is very special. And which, after you agree not to post any “illegal speech,” mercilessly blocks every VPN you throw at it (I did find a way around the firewall, but I am also far more technical than the average user). This is just fine if you’re Chinese though, or if you’re happy with reading the Global Times and Xinhua News. A few Western services aren’t blocked, maybe? Anyway, I happily used Twitter and Facebook the whole way to Shenzhen.

xiamen air cabin turned into rainbows

I like rainbows

When we approached Shenzhen, the cabin lighting turned into a rainbow. We landed at a remote stand (which is fairly common in China) and were herded onto buses that took us to the terminal. Once inside the terminal, it got a little bit confusing.

There are different immigration procedures, staff, and locations for people who are transiting China without a visa versus people who have a Chinese visa. I had a visa and two of the Americans on the plane, thinking I must know what I was doing, followed me into the wrong line. I redirected them back out of the line and into the correct place, although to be fair, Xiamen Airlines staff were there doing the same thing.

Additionally, once you get through immigration (which was efficient as always in China, although ever more intrusive–this time they captured my fingerprints) there are two different sets of baggage procedures. If you are continuing onward to Xiamen, you don’t claim your bag in Shenzhen; it is checked through to Xiamen. However, a lot of people went to the baggage area in Shenzhen, only to discover that their bags weren’t there. They then had to be escorted back out of the baggage area, because it’s a Customs zone and exits out of the secured area of the airport.

I followed the correct signs which took me down a long corridor to be re-screened (this is normal, every country you enter wants you to pass their own security procedures). There was only one screening checkpoint open and everyone shared it (including the flight crew), but I was right at the front of the line because I’d apparently gotten through immigration faster than people transiting without a visa, and I’d also followed the signs correctly (it wasn’t super easy to figure out what to do, but my guesses in China are right more often than not). After re-screening I was back into the international transit area of Shenzhen Airport.

After an underwhelming lounge visit, I went to the boarding gate, which had changed to the exact gate we’d arrived at. I then re-boarded the same aircraft (with the same crew) for the short (300 mile) flight up to Xiamen.

Arrival in Xiamen was also complicated, because just like in Shenzhen, the baggage gets separated out into Customs vs. non-Customs zones. Xiamen Air sells the Shenzhen-Xiamen leg as a separate flight, so bags checked on that leg go into the domestic arrivals area of the airport. However, bags checked on the Seattle-Shenzhen-Xiamen leg go to the international arrivals area. It gets even more confusing because China Customs screens your carry-on baggage in Shenzhen, but they screen it again in Xiamen along with your checked bags.

Xiamen airport I <3 Xiamen sign

Pay attention to the sign this guy is holding. It’s your only clue.

It took a long time to get our bags, and then I was on to the next adventure: finding out whether the promised transit hotel would materialize. I certainly hoped so, because I was exhausted after two flights!

I Just Booked My Cheapest Ever Flight To China

I lived in Beijing for 3 years, so have a lot of friends and former colleagues there. And with a bit of extra time in my schedule, I decided to consider taking a week to catch up with my former life in Beijing. Spring isn’t the best time to visit, because there are often dust storms, but it’s also not a terrible time to visit because it isn’t too hot there yet.

Naturally, I default to using miles and points for trips rather than cash, so I went ahead and put a decent itinerary with American Airlines on hold. However, I really don’t enjoy flying them. The cabin configuration in economy class is more or less intentionally miserable. Also, if you book inside of 21 days with AAdvantage points, you have to pay a close-in booking fee. I could avoid that by using Alaska points, but Alaska points are so valuable for other flights that I really hate to burn them on American flights at the same redemption rate.

So, I decided to check cash fares. I like using Momondo, which often uncovers cheap fares. However, I wasn’t really prepared for just how cheap the lowest fare (by more than $200) was: $479. Of course, this wasn’t a nonstop flight on a well-known airline. It wasn’t even a one-stop flight on a well-known airline. It was a two stop flight with a forced overnight on the virtually unpronounceable Xiamen Air.

Xiamen airlines plane

Of course, a forced overnight wasn’t really a great deal if I had to pay for hotels along the way. China is a surprisingly expensive destination and hotels would cost me a minimum of about $50 overnight.

However, Xiamen competes with Hainan Airlines, who provides free transit hotels for people who get stuck with a forced overnight in Beijing. I thought there was a possibility that Xiamen provided transit hotels, which would make the all-in pricing competitive (and help to justify the two-connection, 29 hour itinerary required to fly them to Beijing), so I called their customer service number.

The first time I called their customer service number, I sat on hold for a long time, and was abruptly informed by a recording that “we are busy at this time, please call again later.” The call then disconnected! I called again, and a very patient agent answered all of my questions.

She was able to see the same fare as me, but not with the same routing. Instead, the routing would have had me leaving Fuzhou in the late morning and I wouldn’t have gotten to Beijing until the following afternoon (two calendar days, mind you, after leaving Seattle). On the way back, I’d leave Beijing late, arrive in Xiamen really late, and then fly out super early in the morning the following day to catch my flight in Shenzhen. This itinerary (and similar ones) was also available on the Chase portal, which would have allowed me to spend just over 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points for this itinerary at 1.5 cents per point.

However, I kept searching around online travel agencies and finally found a somewhat better itinerary on the worst of them: CheapOAir. I really hate using this agency, because they don’t honor the standard 24 hour cancellation policy the airlines do (even if you made a booking 5 minutes ago in error, they still charge a $75 “agency fee” to change or cancel it). However, they are independent of Expedia and Priceline (the two companies that own the largest online travel agencies), and they negotiate with airlines directly. This means that they can get access to inventory that other travel sites don’t have. And in this case, their inventory–for the same price–gave me a much more reasonable (but still terrible) itinerary.

I had a lot of questions for the agent. She explained that the free transit hotel applied with the following conditions:

  • Xiamen flights only, no codeshares
  • 6-24 hour layover at Xiamen hub of Fuzhou, Shenzhen or Xiamen
  • Can be requested only upon arrival at Xiamen airport, no advance booking
  • Not applicable for class of service G, O, X, Z, E

 

However, she also stated that flights laying over in Shenzhen or Fuzhou would qualify. That being said, she wasn’t sure whether a hotel could be provided in Fuzhou on the itinerary she was contemplating if I changed to it in Shenzhen, because it would be considered a domestic flight.

xiamen airlines transit hotel policy

Is a transit hotel included? We’ll see.

The ticket I bought is for the absolute cheapest economy class fare. It’s an “S” fare, which is so cheap that no mileage credit is awarded for it in any program. It’s so cheap that the paid fare was about the same as the fuel surcharge would have been if I had redeemed Delta miles for this flight. Basically, it’s so cheap that there’s no conceivable way that Xiamen Air is making money, even if they flew me there in a jumpseat attached to the airplane toilet door and fed me gruel with sawdust and only water to drink.

Nevertheless, this ticket, on paper, qualifies for a transit hotel. I can’t wait to see whether I actually get it, or if I do, what it’s really like (I have stayed in some really awful hotels in China–will I become reacquainted with Zhang the Cockroach?). But at only $479, there are enough savings built into the itinerary that I can spring for a hotel along the way if I need to do so (if Xiamen Air is anything like China Eastern, I am pretty well assured that nothing promised–especially with as weak a promise as Xiamen Air provides–will actually be delivered). I did put the airfare on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, so there’s a possibility I could try to claim trip interruption insurance if Xiamen Air strands me (although this situation seems pretty clearly not covered, there are stories of people having success with questionable claims).

Oh, and seating? I could select from any middle seat I wanted. This will be a true Seat 31B itinerary. I’m taking off May 5th. Stay tuned!

MEGA POST: Flying Alaska Airlines For Fewer Points

Since its merger with Virgin America, Alaska Airlines has a lot more reach than in the past. It is an airline that has been growing like crazy anyway, and with the addition of the Virgin America network, there are a lot more opportunities to connect than were previously available. This means that if you’re based on the West Coast (or traveling to the West Coast) it’s a lot more practical to use Alaska for cross-country flights than it used to be. Alaska has also added a ton of service to Hawaii and they fly to Costa Rica for good measure. They are also a great airline to fly (and one of my favorites) offering friendly Pacific Northwest hospitality, power at every seat, and free WiFi on every plane.

alaska airlines jet

Eskimo tails are showing up all over the country

One of the great things about Alaska Airlines is the number of partners it has. You’ll see plenty of blog articles extolling the virtues of its Mileage Plan, and I do think that Mileage Plan is pretty good overall. However, it’s not always the best program for booking flights on Alaska Airlines itself. Alaska’s partners sometimes have better award pricing.

Alaska has such a large number of partners that, with one exception, I am focusing on partners to whom you can transfer points. Other partners, such as Hainan and JAL, are primarily useful to people based in their respective local markets.

Programs I Recommend

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

While Mileage Plan isn’t always a good deal for Alaska Airlines flights, it sometimes is. For flights on Alaska Airlines, Mileage Plan has two very good sweet spots:

  • A stopover is allowed on one-way flights, provided you redeem at the highest 12,500 mile saver award level. This allows you to visit two cities on the same trip with one ticket. I wrote more about how to do this here.
  • Short-haul awards, when booked in advance, cost as little as 5,000 miles.
  • Domestic US award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles start at 7,500 points, versus 10,000 or more points with other programs.

 

Stopovers are cool, but they have limited utility for most people outside Alaska (where they are sometimes necessary, which is why I think Alaska Airlines still allows them). While it’s fun to add a tag flight to Anchorage onto your award flight from, say, LA to Seattle, it doesn’t really do you much good if you weren’t actually planning to visit there.

The real sweet spot? Almost any other airline program you use is going to charge a minimum of 7,500 points for an award flight on Alaska Airlines, so Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan can be significantly less expensive on short-haul flights. There is a catch, though. Alaska Airlines generally doesn’t give seats away at these award levels when you book at the last minute. You’ll need to book 3 weeks or more in advance.

Another sweet spot is award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles. On most award charts, these are more expensive than the 7,500 miles Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan charges. The same advance purchase requirements apply as for short-haul awards.

British Airways Avios

British Airways has a distance based award chart. It’s roughly aligned with Alaska’s distance based award chart, with similar award levels. However, you have to watch out because along with the sweet spots, there are some “sour spots.” For example, the Avios chart is usually more expensive than Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan for flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles (I say “usually” because Alaska has a variable award chart and charges more for flights booked on short notice).

The program is also quirky in that it charges per flight. This means that if your flight involves a connection, using Avios could make your award much more expensive than in other programs. And a further quirk is that you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights online. Instead, you have to call in, and let’s just say that British Airways doesn’t run the same kind of top-notch call center operation that Alaska does.

Here are the things I think are best about using Avios for Alaska Airlines flights:

  • If you don’t have airline status, it’s the cheapest way to book Alaska Airlines flights you want to reserve, but might need to cancel. The cancellation fee is just $5.60 per segment for US domestic flights (for some reason there’s a massive change fee, so it’s cheaper to cancel and rebook).
  • The award chart is strictly distance based with no zones or borders. So, for example, you can fly from Los Angeles to Mazatlan for just 7,500 Avios each way. I think that’s far more interesting than the 12,500 Avios from the West Coast to Hawaii that every other blogger beats to death.
  • It’s relatively easy to get Avios. They transfer from HSBC Premier, American Express and Chase along with many hotel programs. There are also lots of bonus opportunities through the Avios shopping portal.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and award pricing doesn’t change. It’s the same price if you book 3 hours in advance as it is if you book 3 weeks in advance.

 

The downside? Awards are a little complicated to book, not searchable online, and availability is limited compared to what Alaska Airlines makes available to their own members. Still, this program is a great way to save points when booking Alaska Airlines flights.

Korean Air Skypass

Hardly anyone writes about using Korean Air Skypass for booking Alaska Airlines flights, and I think it’s probably because almost nobody does it. Also, there is a lot of speculation lately that this partnership will end soon, because Alaska’s relationships with other SkyTeam carriers have ended. Nevertheless, provided you are willing to deal with how much of a hassle this program is, it can be great to use if you’re traveling over a longer distance. Here are the advantages:

  • Flights within the US (except for Hawaii) cost 20,000 points roundtrip.
  • Flights to Mexico, Hawaii or Costa Rica cost 30,000 points roundtrip.
  • A stopover and an open jaw are both allowed.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and pricing doesn’t go up close to departure.

 

A lot of the reasons why round-trip awards are hard to book can be worked around with the generous stopover and open jaw rules. For example, you could fly from Seattle to San Francisco, stop over for a few days, continue to New York, take the train to Philadelphia, then return to Seattle from there. Not only does this allow you to visit 3 cities on a single ticket, but it gives you more options to find award availability.

So, what are the downsides?

  • You can only book tickets for yourself and immediate family, and family relationships require a lot of paperwork to prove.
  • Award tickets for travel on Alaska Airlines can’t be booked online. You have to book over the phone, and the call center is (to put it politely) difficult to work with. The agents are not native English speakers and they are kept on very strict timers, so try to rush the booking process.
  • Only round-trip itineraries are allowed.
  • Even though Delta is a Korean Air partner, you can’t mix and match with Alaska flights. You can only fly Alaska Airlines (including Horizon Air and Skywest flights marketed as Alaska).
  • Availability is more limited than to Alaska Airlines’ own members.

 

If you’re traveling over a long distance, though, this program is a no-brainer. 20,000 miles roundtrip from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale is impossible to beat. It’s even really good for more conventional transcontinental flights such as from Seattle to New York.

It’s also a good deal for flights to Costa Rica when booking from certain regions. These cost 35,000 points when you redeem Korean Air SkyPass miles on Delta, but it’s only 30,000 points when redeeming on Alaska.

Note there is, from some regions, a better “sweet spot” with Costa Rica redemptions using Singapore KrisFlyer. However, this award isn’t available from all zones on their chart whereas there are no zone restrictions using Korean Air Skypass.

Singapore KrisFlyer

Singapore is one of Alaska Airlines’ newest partners. In fact, they are so new that as of this writing, you can’t redeem Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles on Singapore flights. Nevertheless, Singapore KrisFlyer members are able to use their miles on Alaska Airlines flights.

The award chart appears to have been created by an intern who has very limited knowledge of US geography. It was obviously rushed out with very little review, because among other things it has invented the states of “North Dakorta,” “Goergia” and “Alsaka.” I was absolutely baffled the first time I saw it. Over time, I’m guessing Singapore will tighten it up, but for the time being, there are some amazing sweet spots. Here’s what I like about the chart:

  • One way awards are allowed, and connections en route are (in practice) allowed at no additional charge.
  • It’s as easy to get KrisFlyer miles as it is to get Avios. All the same programs apply.
  • Costa Rica and most Mexico flights are a crazy value. It’s only 12,000 points each way from most of the West Coast to Costa Rica or Mexico on Alaska Airlines.
  • Flying from Canada to Hawaii is only 11,500 points.
  • It’s 12,000 points from the West Coast to Hawaii, and only 12,500 points to Hawaii from the Midwest and mid-South. This is an especially good option for people in Dallas where award availability from the former Virgin America mini-hub at Love Field is excellent.
  • If you’re based in Dallas, last-minute flights to the East Coast from Love Field are excellent value. The price is the same as Alaska’s own distance-based chart, but it doesn’t go up close to departure.

 

The downsides:

  • The Singapore chart blocks a lot of routes. Las Vegas to Costa Rica? Well, even though you could easily connect in LAX, it’s not an option. The same applies from the East Coast to Costa Rica.
  • The Singapore chart is very expensive for short-haul flights to Alaska (such as from Seattle to southeast Alaska). Seattle to Ketchikan can be as little as 5,000 points on the Alaska award chart, but it’s 12,000 on the Singapore chart.
  • Intra-Alaska flights are extremely expensive because they cost the same as a flight from Alaska to Hawaii (which, on the other hand, is extremely cheap at just 12.5k miles).
  • No stopovers are permitted. Technically, “transfers” are not permitted either, but this seems to only apply to co-terminals (meaning no airport changes are allowed).
  • You can’t book Alaska Airlines flights with KrisFlyer miles online. Instead, you have to call in, and dealing with the KrisFlyer call center can be a challenge (to put it lightly).

 

To me, what is the best sweet spot? Costa Rica. It’s less expensive on the Singapore chart than any other award chart. While the Avios chart can be cheaper to a handful of Mexican destinations from Los Angeles, the Singapore chart beats it hands down if you’re going to or from anywhere else.

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

While Cathay Pacific has a fairly expensive award chart for most flights on Alaska Airlines, they can deliver equivalent value to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan if you need to take a trip with a lot of stops. This is because Asia Miles allows you to take up to 5 stopovers on an award, and you can also include two open jaw connections. ** Edit: Technically you’re only allowed 2 stopovers because it’s a non-Oneworld award, but in practice agents have allowed me to do 5. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s an example. You could travel from Los Angeles to Seattle, stop for 3 days, continue to Ketchikan, take the ferry from there to Juneau, continue from Juneau 4 days later to Anchorage, stay a week, return from Anchorage to Seattle, take the train to Portland, and then continue 2 days later to Los Angeles on a flight that connects in San Francisco. The whole itinerary would cost 30,000 Asia Miles, which is the same number of points as if you booked with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and fully optimized your stopovers.

You can’t book this kind of itinerary online. Instead, you have to call in and work with the Asia Miles call center. Note that the Asia Miles program is very complicated and it can take a long time for agents to review the rules and ensure that your booking confirms. Some agents will claim you can’t do something that is actually allowed (they apparently get in a lot of trouble if they make any mistakes), so it’s best to hang up and call again if you know you’re in the right.

Programs I Avoid

Not every Alaska partner offers good value when redeeming their points for flights on Alaska Airlines. Here are the programs I generally avoid:

American Airlines AAdvantage

American Airlines makes very few seats on American flights available in their program. It is not a program I generally recommend accumulating miles in because the award chart has frequently devalued and the miles have become very difficult to spend.

Because of this, it might be tempting to spend your AAdvantage miles on an Alaska Airlines flight, especially because it’s so easy: Alaska flights are bookable on the American Airlines Web site. However, American Airlines offers generally poor value for these flights because their award chart is expensive. Domestic flights on Alaska Airlines cost 12,500 AAdvantage miles each way. Flights to Hawaii cost 22,500 AAdvantage miles each way. No stopovers are allowed.

The upside is that you can mix in Alaska flights with other flights to create a complete AAdvantage award itinerary. This can be a good deal if it helps you connect up with an American or other partner flight to your final destination. However, for an itinerary that strictly includes flights on Alaska Airlines, the award chart is only competitive for long, cross-country flights.

LATAM Pass

On paper, this distance-based award program has some really nice sweet spots. Check out their chart. They are particularly sweet for short distance intra-Alaska redemptions under 350 miles round-trip such as between Petersburg and Wrangell or Juneau and Glacier Bay. These cost only 3,750 points each way.

The problem is fees, the complexity of booking, and the complexity of earning points:

  • There is a $30 fee to redeem awards when booked over the phone, and this is not waived for airlines (like Alaska) that aren’t bookable online.
  • You have to book round-trip. Prices shown in the chart are each way based on round-trip purchase.
  • The LATAM Pass call center only operates in the Spanish language. If you need to do business in English, there is a complicated process to call in and request a call-back. This can take up to two days to arrange.
  • The service center books so few flights on Alaska that they may tell you outright that it isn’t possible (that’s what they told me, in writing!). It actually is, you just have to be persistent.
  • The only practical way to earn LATAM Pass points, apart from flying, is with their co-branded credit card. Unfortunately the card just isn’t very good.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue

Not only are the redemption rates relatively unattractive, you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights on the Flying Blue Web site. It requires dealing with their call center, which is based in Mexico. Additionally, this partnership ends in April, which means that you won’t be able to make any changes to tickets booked for travel after then.

Emirates Skywards

Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Emirates points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way (and in fact, one of the only ways) to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.

Qantas

Same story as Emirates: Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Qantas points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.

Wrap-Up

Alaska Airlines goes more places than ever before, and has relatively generous award availability on their own flights. This is particularly true if you’re based in the former Virgin America hubs of Dallas and San Francisco, or the new mini-hub of San Diego. However, the best award pricing often requires using a partner program and booking over the phone.

How I Hacked My Trip To Sunny SoCal

On my recent trip to Minneapolis, I was originally planning to return directly to Seattle on a nonstop flight with Alaska Airlines. However, after shivering in the frigid temperatures and looking at the terrible forecast for Seattle, I decided that it might be better to head somewhere warm.

Alaska Airlines has really been adding a ton of service to San Diego lately, and I was delighted to see that nonstop service from Minneapolis was starting the day I was leaving Minneapolis. Even better, saver level award space was available. This opened up a great opportunity for me because it was close to the Thanksgiving holiday and award space was very difficult to find. So I hatched a plan: fly to San Diego, rent a car, drive to LA, get an airbnb for a week, visit friends, drive to Phoenix for Thanksgiving with family, then back to San Diego, and finally, a flight back to Seattle.

msp-san-sea image

Two flights. One award ticket.

Well, the first order of business was changing my flight. I already had a flight booked from Minneapolis to Seattle using British Airways Avios. This had cost 10,000 Avios and $5.60 in taxes. However, if I simply changed the ticket with Avios, it’d cost a $55 change fee plus the difference in miles (another 7,500 Avios). British Airways charges per flight based on distance with a minimum cost of 7,500 points. This obviously wasn’t the optimal solution.

However, British Airways offers another option: you can cancel your flight and redeposit the Avios. This also costs $55, but there’s a loophole: the $55 is deducted from the taxes and fees already paid. If you cancel online, British Airways won’t refund any fees, but also won’t charge any additional. So, in effect, you can cancel domestic US flights booked with Avios for $5.60.

Given that I was flying Alaska Airlines, another option was to book with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically don’t book Alaska flights with Mileage Plan miles (using them for partner redemptions instead), because most Alaska flights are short to mid-haul and are thus cheaper with the Avios award chart. However, Mileage Plan has a very unusual benefit: they allow a stopover on a one-way trip.

What does this mean? Alaska treats a trip from Minneapolis-San Diego-Seattle as a single ticket, even if you stop over for 10 days in San Diego. And if you can find space at the lowest award level, it means the trip costs only 12,500 miles. Stopovers are specifically allowed under Mileage Plan rules and while most people don’t take advantage, it’s an entirely legal and risk-free “hack.” The catch? You have to find “saver” level award availability (in economy class, “W” fares) for the entire journey. Your trip must be entirely on Alaska Airlines where a domestic stopover is involved (on partner awards, stopovers are only permitted in international connecting cities). And you can only take a stopover at a logical connecting point. San Diego was a logical connecting point for my trip from Minneapolis to Seattle, because it’s in the correct direction of travel and doesn’t exceed the maximum permitted mileage. Alaska does have some measures in place to prevent illogical connections, such as Minneapolis-Portland-Los Angeles-Seattle.

It’s not just in San Diego where you can take a stopover, and people in the Lower 48 probably aren’t the biggest users of stopovers. This is a really valuable benefit for folks in rural Alaska who often get stuck in Anchorage overnight before they can fly onward to anywhere. Without it, they’d effectively be unable to book award tickets to anywhere other than Anchorage. Additionally, many folks traveling from Alaska to the Lower 48 stop over in Seattle for shopping before heading home. Everything costs more in Alaska so this makes plenty of sense. The Tukwila Costco is strategically located near Sea-Tac Airport and I’d be surprised if at least 10% of its business isn’t Alaskans.

san-ont-phx-san

724 miles by air… and quite a few more by car.

Fortunately, the same benefit extends to those of us in the Lower 48, even at relatively new “mini hubs” like San Diego. Now, I’ll be completely honest: taking advantage of the stopover benefit did cost me money I wouldn’t otherwise have spent. After all, I was really going to Los Angeles and Phoenix, not San Diego. This meant I had to drive 100 miles farther than I wanted, but I did it in a rental car that was less expensive than it would have been in Los Angeles. I also had to overnight in San Diego versus flying out the day I wanted to leave, but the $35 hotel room I bought on Hotwire was cheaper (by far) than buying a flight. There were definite trade-offs, but I think they were worth it for the savings. And spending some time in San Diego, a city I often overlook, gave me the opportunity to reconnect with a friend I usually only see once a year.

The upshot? Look for new routes when you’re looking for award space. These are often wide open with saver level award space, even when most routes have been booked up for months around a busy holiday period. And if you’re flying on an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket, don’t overlook the value you can get out of a stopover. This is a huge benefit. It’s one that really differentiates the program from its competitors (most of whom have taken away the ability to do this), and stopovers can really make an award trip more fun!

Using Award Travel For Boring Trips

It’s November, and I need to take a trip to frigid Minneapolis next week. It’s a boring trip to a cold, boring city. I wasn’t particularly excited about going in the first place, and was even less excited when I saw the price. For the times of day I needed (it’s a tight schedule), I was looking at paying more than $600.

I need to fly out in the morning, fly back in the evening, it’s over a weekend – so I’m breaking all the rules of getting a cheap ticket. Cheap flights are the ones nobody wants to take, but if you want to take a flight at a good time of day it gets expensive in a hurry. Given that I went all the way to Fukuoka, Japan for under $600 it was pretty galling to see that the price for the schedule I wanted cost over $600!

cost of flight sea-msp

The outbound cost over $316… adding insult to the injury of a 6:45AM flight.

…and the return cost almost $300!

Less desirable schedules were possible for considerably less money, but in this case “less desirable” meant flights where I’d lose two entire days on the ground. This meant that I’d have to extend my trip to frigid Minnesota in exchange for a lower fare, which to me was a non-starter.

I didn’t expect that, with barely more than a week until travel, I’d be able to find a good value traveling with miles. Airlines have gotten pretty good with revenue management and these days, they give away far fewer seats (one reason why using an award booking service like ours is worth considering). However, this trip illustrates that it’s always worth checking! The Delta flight that cost over $316 was available for just 12,500 SkyMiles in economy class. And the Alaska flight that I wanted was available for 12,500 Alaska miles in economy class.

On its own, this would have been a pretty good deal, delivering about 2.5 cents per mile in value for the Delta flight (more than double what The Points Guy says they’re worth) and about 2.4 cents per mile for the Alaska flight (a nice bump above the 1.9 cent per mile valuation). However, I was able to get even better value than this by using British Airways Avios to book the Alaska flight. I scored a massive haul of these earlier in the year, and the Avios award chart prices flights by distance and number of segments.

Minneapolis to Seattle is a nonstop flight (which is important, because British Airways Avios charges per flight to calculate the cost). And clocking in at 1,399 miles, this trip costs 10,000 Avios based on distance. I was able to net nearly 3 cents per mile in value for my Avios points, which I think is exceptionally good. It’s exactly double what Avios are commonly considered to be worth.

These tickets are in economy class. This isn’t some theoretical valuation based on a premium cabin ticket I’d never buy, it’s a flight I would have bought with cash (although in all fairness probably at less convenient times, on different airlines, and involving connections in order to save money). On the airlines I’m flying, I’ll be able to take advantage of credit card benefits to check a bag, and award tickets aren’t considered “basic economy” fares so I’ve been able to select my seats in advance. More importantly, though, I have been able to choose exactly the schedule that minimizes the amount of time I have to spend in Minnesota in November! And that’s the very best savings of all.

How I’m Maximizing Distance Based Awards In 2017

For a long time, most US airlines charged 25,000 miles for a saver level domestic round-trip award in economy class. This is a number that stayed the same for literally decades. Airlines cut availability of saver level awards, introduced additional higher level pricing tiers with more availability, and made one-way awards available, but one principle remained the same: with few exceptions, the price was–more or less–12,500 miles whether you were flying from Seattle to Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.

Some “hacks” were available, but they were limited. For example, British Airways Avios offered (and still offers) a distance-based chart that charges per flight. For short-haul flights of 650 miles or less, they charged just 4,500 miles (this award tier has been eliminated in North America, and now all flights up to 1,150 miles cost 7,500 miles). This is still great value, but it only applies on non-stop flights. Flights with a connection will cost you at least twice as much.

sea-sfo-las graphic

A nonstop flight from Seattle to Las Vegas costs 7,500 Avios. However, connecting in San Francisco will set you back 15,000 points!

Well, a lot has changed in 2017. Delta got rid of its award chart entirely, and there are now some great values on it if you know where to look (along with some terrible values too). Alaska massively revamped its award program, but was much more transparent with the changes than Delta. American got into the game by introducing a new short-haul award, and even United has an anemic offering in its award program.

Delta

A couple of years ago, I ended up with a massive haul of Delta points through a promo they ran with American Express. The only problem was using them. The Delta SkyMiles program has been much maligned over the years, and deservedly so. Delta was historically stingy with award availability, making it hard to use SkyMiles. Then they introduced an insanely complicated award chart with as many as five different pricing levels. Awards went from being almost impossible to obtain to available, but incredibly expensive.

Eventually, Delta got rid of its award chart entirely. Most people assumed that it would result in a price increase for most flights, and for awhile, that was true. While prices have gone up for many flights, they have–surprisingly–come down on a lot of flights too. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it, but short-haul flights can be priced from 5,000 to 7,500 miles when booked in advance.

What’s more, the pricing may be loosely based on the revenue fare, but also seems to be based on demand for the flight. Seattle to Anchorage is a $140 paid flight, so redeeming SkyMiles yields a value of about 1.8 cents per mile.

SkyMiles award chart for Anchorage

Anchorage is a mid-haul flight of 1,449 miles – but it’s only 7,500 SkyMiles on select dates.

I am using my bank of SkyMiles for flights to Alaska (I recently redeemed 7,500 SkyMiles for a flight to Juneau) and for flights to Los Angeles (I just redeemed 5,000 points for a flight to LAX). In all cases, I have realized an equivalent cash value of over 2 cents per point, which is very good for SkyMiles.

American

American’s AAdvantage award chart is largely theoretical because there is so little award availability anymore. That being said, short-haul flights of 500 miles or less to the US or Canada are allowed for 7,500 miles.

If you’re stuck with a lot of AAdvantage miles and want to use them for short-haul flights within North America, focus on Canada. 500 miles can get you from most of the East Coast to Toronto or Montreal. These would often be very expensive flights otherwise. Given that American allows you to take a connection en route to your destination (while BA charges you per flight), this might be a better option if you can hold the overall distance traveled to under 500 miles.

United

United has, for many years, offered a short-haul award of 10,000 Mileage Plus points for up to 700 miles traveled. However, this just isn’t much of a savings over the 12,500 mile level for longer flights. Since the difference in cost is so small, the calculations really don’t change substantially versus a 12,500 mile saver level award. Generally speaking, United short-haul awards are poor value.

Alaska

Alaska Airlines revamped their award program at the beginning of this year. There was a lot of breathless coverage at the time along with a lot of silly hacks people published taking advantage of loopholes in the pricing engine (which have since been closed). While some of the changes were negative (the biggest being the loss of Delta as a redemption partner) others were largely positive, such as the move to a distance-based redemption chart. This exposed some sweet spots that have largely escaped the attention of mainstream travel blogs, but they didn’t escape my attention.

As good as short-haul awards are on Alaska, I haven’t personally been using them. First of all, they’re hard to come by because Alaska’s chart is variable. Although in theory, you can find awards at the lowest level published, in practice they’re hard to get:

Alaska mileage chart

Although you can find Alaska awards at the lowest levels, it’s not consistent.

For example, it’s under 700 miles from Seattle to Ketchikan. Good luck finding an award at the 5,000 mile level though. I did find a couple – on December 23, for example. Merry Christmas! These awards do exist, but a more common redemption level is 20k which is more in line with what flights to Ketchikan cost.

Unlike most programs, Alaska allows a stopover on a one-way award. This is such a valuable benefit that I always try to maximize it when using their program. However, adding in a stopover seems to consistently drive the price up to 12,500 miles (and this is guaranteed to happen when a partner is thrown into the mix). Accordingly, given my usage pattern and the flying I like to do, it really only makes sense to redeem Alaska miles for long-haul domestic awards in economy class or long-haul international awards in business class (with some exceptions; partner awards on American are also particularly good value off-peak).

Southwest

The Southwest chart isn’t distance based, but it’s worth pointing out that it can be highly competitive with distance-based airline award charts. Southwest awards are based on the price of the flight, not the distance traveled. However, for some flights, this creates a sweet spot. For example, flights from Seattle to Tucson are over 1,200 miles which would push an award into the mid-haul Avios chart (at 10,000 points required). However, Southwest regularly offers sale fares between the two markets and you can sometimes redeem Rapid Rewards points for much less. The same is true with flights to Phoenix and Los Angeles. These are very competitive markets and the fares are low, sometimes as low as $59 each way. With Rapid Rewards holding a pretty steady value of 1.7 cents per point (sometimes more, sometimes a bit less) it’s always worth comparing Southwest to an economy class short-haul distance based award. You may find that Southwest offers better value.

Combinations

One “sweet spot” I have found is also a risky one: combining multiple short-haul award flights. I’ll explain how I did this with my friend Boris on an itinerary to Mazatlan this December.

I am always on the lookout for new routes (since this often means award availability) and American Airlines (a British Airways partner) has recently increased their flying to Mexico via their regional partner Compass Airlines (which, oddly enough, has its roots in Delta-acquired Northwest Airlines). It’s 1,046 miles from Los Angeles to Mazatlan which puts the LAX-MZT flight in the 7,500 mile band with British Airways Avios. American’s flight from Mazatlan to Phoenix is also in the 7,500 mile Avios band, at 789 miles. So both flights are right in the “sweet spot” with the Avios program.

What’s more, these are expensive flights to a popular beach resort at a busy time of year. It’d cost over $500 to buy the tickets! Granted, there is quite a bit of tax built into the fare (which you have to pay in cash when booking with miles) but you can realize about 2.3 cents per mile in value when booking these flights in economy class.

Availability is always tough with American but Boris and I found two seats outbound from LA on December 8th. On the 16th, there wasn’t availability for two from Mazatlan to LA, but there was for one person, and there was another ticket available from Mazatlan to Phoenix (for one person) leaving an hour later. Boris was returning to Los Angeles, but I can connect back to Seattle just as easily through Phoenix so we agreed to split up on the return. So, here are what my flights look like, for just 15,000 Avios:

lax-mzt-phx map

These short-haul flights cost just 15,000 Avios. They would have cost over $500 in cash.

Of course, I’m not starting my trip in LA, and I’m not ending it in Phoenix. I needed to book connecting flights. Unfortunately, there weren’t any available on the day of travel that would get me to Los Angeles in time, so I ended up flying a day earlier. For me, though, that’s actually fine. I have a lot of friends in LA, so I was happy to schedule an extra day there.

How did I do it? Delta. There was a 5,000 mile nonstop award between Seattle and LAX. This flight would have cost $106, so I got a very solid 2 cents per point.

For the return, I initially booked a Southwest award at a very solid 1.8 cents per point in value based on a $130 fare. However, this ultimately wasn’t great value, because Alaska Airlines put a flight on sale leaving at almost exactly the same time. I had a $75 e-certificate that was due to expire, and using this brought the fare down to under $25 in cash. Considering that I’ll earn 1107 miles on this fare, and I can regularly get 2.2 cents per mile in value from Alaska miles, the ticket is actually free–it’s actually a better deal than using points.

sea-lax-mzt-phx-sea

3,896 miles of flying–for just 20,000 points redeemed.

What’s the risk with a “hack” like this? The biggest one is on the return. If anything goes wrong with my flight out of Mazatlan, I could technically be stranded in Phoenix. This is because I’m traveling on two separate tickets. American only owes me a flight to Phoenix, and Alaska only owes me a flight from Phoenix to Seattle at the scheduled time. If I don’t show up for it, they don’t owe me a flight home. Additionally, American isn’t technically required to check my bags through all the way from Mazatlan to Seattle, even though I’m flying with their partner Alaska.

However, in practice, it’s sometimes possible to arrange bags to be checked through. And in practice, Alaska will usually put you on the next flight out if you misconnect, even if it’s not their fault. I’m leaving on the last flight of the day, but my family has a place in Phoenix, so I wouldn’t be sleeping on the airport floor overnight. I have a couple of friends in Phoenix, so can probably lean on someone for a ride. Ultimately, the best deals sometimes require taking a bit of risk, and my worst case scenario is burning some points to get out of Phoenix.

By optimizing my redemption of short-haul awards in economy class, I was able to achieve some very solid points valuations, all over 2 cents per mile, with hard-to-use points. And I got tickets to Mexico roundtrip from Seattle for just 20,000 points.