Qantas 737-800 Economy Class Review (Long Haul)

Coming from: Part 2 – Vancouver-Sydney on Qantas

Part 3 – Sydney to Perth

I had scheduled two spectacular days in Sydney and really made the most of them. Having gotten plenty of sleep on the flight, I was surprisingly ready to seize the day in Sydney and by staying up late, I was able to get my time zones adjusted with relative ease. I’ll write more about what to do with a day (and change) in Sydney, but here’s a quick taste:

Sydney Opera House
I saw the Opera House twice in a day: once from the air, and once from the water!

As it turned out, a friend of a friend was staying in the same hotel, so we met in the lobby for breakfast. He’s a foodie from LA, and wanted to check out some of Sydney’s famously pretentious coffee culture. I was happy to be along for the ride, so we ventured forth to Single O, which was within walking distance.

The coffee was, in fact, super pretentious and incredibly expensive, but it was also very good:

We parted ways after breakfast since I had shopping to do. My experience with small remote islands like Christmas Island has taught me that groceries are incredibly expensive and selection is incredibly limited. I considered going to Costco because it’s the best place to buy American stuff abroad, but the logistics of getting there were too complicated (and I didn’t need large bulk sizes of anything). There was an Aldi right around the corner from my hotel, and I figured that the prices would be competitive and they’d have what I needed. This was correct. Everything cost roughly double what it would at home, which is around the right price for things in Sydney (which is a very expensive city). I stocked up on items like soy milk that I knew would be hard to get on the island. Quarantine regulations are strict, even when traveling within different regions of Australia, so I stuck to packaged items (fresh fruits, vegetables and meats can’t be brought into Australia or between Australian regions).

After that, I headed out for lunch, visited a local DJ shop, and went back to the hotel to retrieve my bags. Although I’d purchased a round-trip train and subway ticket, it turned out that the hotel had a shuttle bus to the airport which was both cheap and convenient. Instead of hassling with my luggage in the subway I just bought a ticket on that, and had no regrets.

My transcontinental flight from Sydney to Perth was on Qantas, an economy class award ticket I bought with 10,000 American Airlines Aadvantage miles. This was a fantastic deal, because cash fares are expensive on this route. Unfortunately, Qantas check-in wasn’t entirely smooth. It looks sleek and modern, but because of the service flow, it ended up being a hassle. They use automated machines for everything, including checking in luggage, and they are very strict on baggage requirements. I checked in my bag, and then headed for security. It turns out that in Sydney, Qantas weighs your carry-on bags! My carry-on was slightly overweight, so the agent forced me to check it. Of course, my large bag was already checked in, so I couldn’t shift weight into it. My assumption was that this whole thing was a setup to gouge me for bag fees, and I was prepared for an argument about being charged, but much to my surprise, Qantas didn’t even try to charge me. The agent just pressed a button and I was easily able to check in my second bag through the machine. That was entirely fine with me; I didn’t need or want to carry on my second bag, and the only reason I was doing so in the first place was to avoid bag fees.

Security was really, really fast, so I ended up in the domestic terminal much faster than I anticipated. I used my Priority Pass to get a snack and drink at Bar Roma. The AUD$36 credit didn’t go very far at all due to the insanely high prices, but I was able to get a simple snack (an open faced sandwich) and a canned drink. Most Australian food is good, but this wasn’t. Still, it was free, so it was hard for me to complain.

Bar Roma, Sydney
Open faced sandwich and drink from Bar Roma. Looks better than it tasted.

Even after having a snack and a drink, it was still early for my flight so I worked on my laptop for awhile until the plane finally arrived.

Qantas 737
My ride to Perth

I hadn’t lucked out as much with the seat assignment on this flight. Initially, I’d been assigned a middle seat. As soon as the gate agents took the podium, I asked whether there were any aisle seats available. There weren’t. There was only one window seat, and it was all the way in the back. Still, for a transcontinental flight, this (barely) beat a middle seat.

Qantas 737 seat in the back
Second worst seat on the plane. The worst is right next to it!

The seat didn’t recline at all, but Qantas isn’t using hard, uncomfortable seats yet. I am 5’7 so there was enough legroom for me with the 30″ seat pitch, but I have broad shoulders and felt a bit cramped on the 17.2″ seats. Taller people would have been considerably less comfortable. The flight was completely full with every seat taken, so it took awhile to load up and push back from the gate.

Qantas still provides meal service on long domestic flights, and this began not long after we were airborne. Unfortunately only the less popular of the two meal choices was available by the time the flight attendants got to us in the very back row. Unbelievably, Qantas serves chili on a plane! Here’s what it looked like:

Qantas meal box
OK, looks innocent enough….
Qantas chili
Qantas chili. Tasted slightly better than it looked.

There was no Internet, and I can sleep pretty much anywhere. After the meal service, I listened to some music and napped for most of the nice smooth ride to Perth. Upon arrival, there were lots of signs warning about quarantine regulations but we weren’t required to go through it. My checked bags came out without incident so I called my hotel and went outside into a chilly Perth evening to hop on the shuttle.

Wrap-Up

On award tickets, Qantas doesn’t give you free seat selection. I never pay for seats, and just ask for a better one. However, this only works as long as a better seat is available. If the good seats are all taken, you can end up in a middle seat all the way in the back. Ultimately, though, this was OK with me. I got to my destination at the same time as people who paid far more, and I paid the least amount possible.

An Epic Redemption To Svalbard And Moldova

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.

Svalbard is way north!

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!

The settlement of Barentsburg still has a statue of Lenin!

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.

Abandoned Soviet circus? Yes, please!

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).

16,773 miles in economy class

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.

The least expensive reasonable itinerary

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:

  • $1,773
  • $223
  • $79
  • = $1,471
  • % 60,000
  • = 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.

Wrap-Up

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!

Qantas A380 Upper Deck Economy Class Review

Coming from: Part 1 – Planning

Part 2 – Vancouver-Sydney on Qantas

My flight leaving Vancouver was at 1:15PM, so I aimed to arrive by 11:00AM and made it perfectly on schedule. My NEXUS card got me quickly across the Canadian border with a friendly “have a nice holiday” from the CBSA agent (they are always so nice, unlike their US counterparts). I was running a bit early and was glad I did, because the long term parking lot at YVR is truly enormous (I got lucky and scored a space in Row 15). You then need to take the SkyTrain two stops to the airport, and for some silly reason, you have to “buy” a free SkyTrain ticket in order to use it (I didn’t get tripped up by this because I’d read up in advance, but the process is absolutely not obvious).

I stopped by the NEXUS office at YVR Airport to update some information on my account. It’s run by the Canadian CBSA who is friendly, helpful and efficient; I prefer dealing with them versus the usually unfriendly US authorities. I checked in for my flight on the machine, and noted to my dismay that I’d been assigned middle seats the entire way, overriding my previous aisle seat assignment on the Vancouver-Dallas flight. My NEXUS card got me into the Canadian version of TSA PreCheck (at YVR Airport, you ignore the long line, walk right to the front of it, and show your NEXUS card to the agent who pulls up the rope and lets you into the special NEXUS line). Note that you can also jump the queue and get access to a priority lane at YVR with a Visa Infinite card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I then went back through US immigration using the Global Entry kiosk, which was quick and smooth. This is because Vancouver is a preclearance airport, which means that you clear US customs and immigration on the Canadian side, and when the flight arrives in the US, it’s treated as a domestic arrival.

The whole thing—from entering security through “re-entering” the US—took about 15 minutes. It would have taken well over an hour without my NEXUS card. Considering that it costs only $50 to get, it’s kind of a “no brainer” to get one versus Global Entry if you’re eligible, even if you only take one trip through Canada a year. I don’t frequently transit Canada, but when I do, it saves me hours every time.

My first stop was the Plaza Premium Priority Pass lounge at Vancouver. The Vancouver airport is actually super nice and spending time in a crowded lounge isn’t usually as nice in being the rest of the airport, but I was about to take a long flight and hadn’t had lunch. The Plaza Premium lounge had a really nice lunch spread: cheese ravioli, beef stew with real mashed potatoes (no reconstituted powdered junk), and some salad, fruit and other fresh stuff. The lounge was definitely crowded but I was able to grab one of the “telephone” rooms, charge up my devices (which proved to be useful), and get a little work done before my flight.

Solid lunch spread at Plaza Premium Lounge, YVR

Gates for US-bound flights open about 45 minutes before departure, so I left the lounge at about that interval and talked to the gate agent to see if there was any chance of getting out of the middle seats I’d been assigned. I didn’t have high hopes given that most flights leaving the Pacific Northwest during summer are jam packed and overbooked, but to my surprise, the gate agent was able to move me back into the aisle seat I had been originally assigned. She also made sure my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account number was entered on the reservation, which had somehow dropped off (this is a fairly common problem with Alaska Airlines’ partners, so I always double-check). I credited this flight to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan because American Airlines international flights are—in theory—eligible for mileage credit (I did, in fact, get 500 Mileage Plan miles for this flight, but I had to ask for the points to be manually credited and submit boarding passes).

My ride to DFW

We didn’t get out of Vancouver on time, but landed in Dallas close to on schedule. Unfortunately, there had been an earlier ground hold which had snarled operations at DFW Airport, and we ended up in a long conga line of aircraft waiting for a gate. The majority of the passengers were flying home after Alaska cruises and had connections in Dallas. They also weren’t experienced travelers, so were properly freaking out. When we finally got to a gate, two angry Boomers behind me started trying to push past me while I patiently waited for a grandmotherly little old lady (she was easily 80 years old) to gather her things and shuffle into the aisle. “There is no rush that justifies running over a little old lady,” I scolded them, while they scowled at me. “We have a connection!” they said heatedly. “Relax, it’s probably caught in the same traffic jam we were.”

Almost as hard to get into as a nightclub, but way less fun

DFW Airport was a total disaster, with about half of the flights cancelled and a long line snaking across the airport to the two people working the American Airlines rebooking desk. American runs a generally unreliable operation with poor service recovery, so I was glad that I wasn’t connecting to an American flight. The Qantas flight was running on time, so I stopped by The Club and DFW to grab a bite to eat (Qantas has a reputation for not feeding economy class passengers much, so I didn’t board hungry). The club was over capacity but they were trying really hard to run a waitlist with a hostess service. Unfortunately, with seating spread across 3 different lounges and people coming and going frequently, the hostess was unable to keep up with the available seating. She eventually allowed me to register, then I got assertive about where I wanted to sit and she went along with it. The food wasn’t as good as the Plaza Premium lounge in Vancouver, but I got enough to fill me up and was able to work on my laptop until boarding.

I had been automatically assigned a terrible middle seat so asked the gate agent whether any better seats were available, joking that I “wouldn’t mind an aisle seat on the upper deck.” These are expensive seats if you pay to pre-assign them, but also highly desirable, so I figured it’d be impossible. Much to my surprise, the agent handed me a new boarding pass. “Here you go, aisle seat, bulkhead row, nobody next to you. Enjoy!” I did a double-take but smiled and said “thank you!” The boarding pass did, in fact, say “UPPER DECK” so I turned right on the double decker boarding gate and headed to the upper deck.

My row on the upper deck!

With pretty much every other carrier operating the A380, the upper deck is reserved for premium cabin passengers. Qantas operates a small upper economy class cabin, with a few rows of regular economy in a 2-4-2 configuration and the rest premium economy and business class. The premium economy cabin was almost empty, while the business class cabin appeared completely full. Being located in the bulkhead with no neighbor, and after snagging a couple of extra unused pillows, I was able to really stretch out for the flight (using my carry-on bag as a foot rest). It wasn’t a lie flat seat, but was effectively a “ghetto business class” upgrade.

Huge storage compartment by the window seat–same size as in business class
I propped my feet up on a suitcase to kinda sorta lie angle flat-ish
Happiness is nobody next to you on a 16 hour flight

Dinner service started rolling out shortly after takeoff. Our flight attendants were taking care of both the premium economy and economy class cabins, and deftly juggled the different service offerings between the two cabins. There were three dinner options: cheese ravioli, chicken caccitore, and a flat iron beef salad with dried cranberries, feta and couscous. I had the salad, the least popular of the three options, but judging from the looks of the other entrees, it turned out to be the best. The flat iron beef wasn’t anything to write home about, but it certainly wasn’t bad, there was enough of it, and it mixed surprisingly well with the rest of the ingredients. The salad was accompanied by a very rich chocolate cake with cherry sauce. I thought it was too rich.

The menu mentioned that amenities were available, so I asked for an amenity kit. It contained a toothbrush with a small tube of toothpaste, eye shades and a pair of earplugs. Definitely not a fancy branded business class amenity kit, but certainly not bad either. After dinner I watched a movie, and then stretched out managing to sleep a solid 8 hours. I completely missed the midflight snack of a beef empanada.

I then started working on my laptop, which was easy with all of the extra space. I like to watch the moving map while I’m inflight, and noticed that the destination had changed to Brisbane. This probably meant that the flight was diverting, so I went back to the galley to ask the flight attendants whether they had heard anything. They were furiously getting breakfast ready, and one of the attendants gave me a surprised look. “Who told you we’re diverting?” Their explanation was that the “captain couldn’t get a proper weather report” and politely asked me to return to my seat because they had to get breakfast service out.

About 20 minutes later, the captain came on the PA system and explained what was happening. There was fog in Sydney. It wasn’t clear whether we’d be able to land if we flew there, and given the long distance of our flight, there wasn’t enough fuel to wait around in a holding pattern. So, we were going to land in Brisbane to take on some additional fuel, then continue onward to Sydney once we were able to land. The captain then described in detail Qantas’ service recovery procedures. Nobody would be permitted to disembark in Brisbane, even passengers who were bound for there. Everyone would be rebooked onto new flights once we arrived in Sydney. The captain wasn’t sure when we would get to Sydney, but he was guessing around 2 hours late.

That isn’t Sydney!

And then, 15 minutes or so later, the moving map updated our destination to Sydney once again, and I could feel the aircraft making a gradual left turn. 5 minutes or so later, the captain came back on the PA. “We received an updated weather report. The fog is clearing at Sydney airport, and we now expect that we’ll be able to land, so we have decided to continue onward to there. We’ll be landing around right around our scheduled arrival time, and should be on the gate shortly after that.” So, no diversion after all which was just fine with me.

Sydney Airport is an absolute zoo. It’s very much under-sized for the size of airport it is, and making matters worse, the immigration authorities have put kiosks all over the place to automatically check in the majority of visitors to Australia. The whole thing is laid out in a very poorly organized fashion – once you finish with the machine there’s nowhere to go, because there are no marked pedestrian travel lanes. Making matters worse, the machines don’t reliably work with US passports because our passports are printed off-center. This means that exiting via the automated passport gates often doesn’t work, so you end up having to stand in line to check in with an immigration agent anyway. The one change this system has brought is that Australia no longer gives passport stamps. I asked for one, and the agent apologetically stated “we don’t even have stamps anymore.”

Wrap-Up

One of my guiding principles in travel is “if you don’t ask, they can’t say yes.” If I hadn’t asked about a NEXUS lane at YVR, I would have been stuck in line for an extra hour. If I hadn’t asked for a better seat on my American flight, I’d have been stuck in the middle. If I hadn’t asked nicely for a upper deck seat on Qantas, I wouldn’t have gotten my very own bulkhead row. When you travel, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Be nice about it, make sure your requests are within reason, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised!

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.

How I Power My Devices When Traveling Abroad

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

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

Check Before You Buy

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

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

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

The Cube Tap Hack

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

Find this cube tap at a hardware store

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

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

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

Don’t Fry Your Stuff

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

These labels with tiny print are super important!

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

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

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

Wrap-Up

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

Booking Intra-Australia Flights With Points

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

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

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

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

Points Options

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

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

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

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

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

Booking Award Flights On Qantas

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap-Up

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

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

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

I’m Going To Christmas Island

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

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

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

Getting There With Points

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

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

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

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

My $174.41 Roundtrip Flight To Syndey

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

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

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

18,900 Miles For $560

Mileage Earning – Choose Your Program Carefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!