Now that Asia is back on the post-pandemic travel map, there’s plenty of demand for travel to Vietnam. This is one of the most up-and-coming destinations to visit in Asia. Like many countries, Vietnam has an e-visa process. And like many countries, the e-visa process is not easy to navigate.
The first challenge is finding the correct place to apply. Here’s an example: would you think, based on the name, that this is an official Government of Vietnam site? Well, it’s not. This is instead a private company that will fill out the official form for you and charge you an extra fee, should you be unfortunate enough to click on this:
There are a lot of these companies, and they play SEO games, buy ads, etc. all trying to displace the official site at the top of search engines. This can be expensive! The official site charges only $25 for a 30 day single-entry visa, or $50 for a 90 day multiple entry visa. Other sites can charge double this amount (or more).
The next problem is actually getting the site to load. Connectivity between US Internet providers and the Vietnamese government isn’t very good. I ultimately had to use a VPN (connecting through a Southeast Asia gateway) to get the site to properly load. If you get stuck with the site half loaded, try a VPN and this might help you work around the problem.
The application form itself is relatively straightforward, although there are some unusual questions such as your religion. I found Vietnam’s system to be much less fussy with photo requirements than the Uzbekistan and India e-visa pages (which both have complex photo rules, and perform image analysis to make sure you have met them). I used a scan of a passport photo, and a scan of the information page of my passport. Both were accepted by the site without issues.
A screen will pop up with a registration code. You should get an e-mail message with this information as well, but if you don’t receive it for some reason, you’ll need the registration code to look up and print your visa once it’s issued. But first, you have to pay.
The Vietnamese government uses a payment portal operated by Vietcombank to process your credit card. All of this is relatively straightforward; you agree to the terms and conditions, pick the card type, enter the usual card details to make an online purchase, and send through the purchase. However, to your bank, you’re making an online purchase in Vietnam and they might freak out over this. I anticipated this, and used my trusty HSBC Premier MasterCard (which usually works fine with any sketchy thing I want to do), but this time, it didn’t work. The payment failed and I got sent back to the Vietnamese government Web site.
No problem, there was a “retry” link, which led me to a page to look up my visa application. Good thing I took a screen shot of that earlier. After entering my visa application number, birth date, and email address, I was taken back to my application form. No problem, I just clicked through again, and was taken to the following page:
This took me back to my visa application. I clicked through to submit it again, agreed to all of the terms and conditions again, and got through to the payment page. Except:
Yep, that’s right – if your bank doesn’t immediately let through a sketchy looking online purchase from Vietnam without trying to trigger Verified By Visa, MasterCard SecureCode, etc., you have to fill out a whole new visa application again from scratch.
I went ahead and did this, and used an Amex for my second attempt (Amex is usually my second most reliable way to make a sketchy looking purchase go through). This went through, somehow:
It’s not the amount it was supposed to be, and “New Merchant” wins the award for the shadiest looking online purchase I have ever made, but my visa application shows up in the processing queue now.
The stated timeline for processing Vietnam e-visa applications is “3 working days.” Keep in mind that this doesn’t include weekends or Vietnamese holidays. Accordingly, it’s best not to leave this until the last minute if you plan to visit.
You can also apply for a traditional passport sticker visa through a Vietnamese consulate or embassy. However, this appears to be discouraged given the complicated and time consuming process involved:
Hopefully this is helpful if you choose to visit Vietnam. I hope that in the future, the Vietnamese government will invest in faster Internet connectivity for its Web site, and that Vietcombank will improve its procedures in handling payments. It’s really not unreasonable to allow trying a different payment method if the first one doesn’t go through.
I am planning a trip to Uzbekistan, and like many countries, they require an e-visa for entry. If you have a US passport, an increasing number of countries are requiring some sort of electronic visa before you can enter. There are varying levels of complexity in obtaining these, ranging from a relatively easy form Sri Lanka has you fill out (with pretty much instantaneous approval) to Australia’s ETA (which is only available via a horribly rated mobile app that requires the newest and fanciest phones) to Vietnam (which not only requires photos of yourself and your passport, but also requires you to declare the specific location through which you will enter and exit the country).
This obstacle course of e-visas makes it easier for countries to deny you entry before you ever arrive on their soil (where you might have rights of appeal), and it also generates fee revenue. Unfortunately, travelers are seeing more and more e-visa friction each year and I expect the problem to get worse before it gets better. There’s really no reason why this process can’t be automated and run by the airlines at the time of check-in, with the fee built into the price of a plane ticket, so eventually, I expect IATA (or another travel industry consortium) to develop a more reasonable solution.
The European Union is revoking visa-free Schengen Area access to Americans next year. Given how much friction e-visa systems add, reconsider trips to Europe until the bugs are worked out.
As you might guess, I have filled out a lot of e-visa applications (and paid a lot of fees). Nothing, however, prepared me for the complexity and opacity of the Uzbekistan e-visa. It’s quite possibly the most complicated application I have ever done, because the Web site is so poorly designed. I have to wonder how many people just give up and decide not to visit Uzbekistan as a result.
The first thing you have to do is get access to the site. This seems pretty simple, but here’s what often happens:
The site often freezes on a “loading” screen, preventing further progress
If the page manages to load, you’ll be able to fill out your citizenship and the type of visa you want:
You can then pick the arrival and departure date of your trip, although the purpose of this selection seems to only be to check whether your planned trip exceeds the maximum length of stay, or starts after the visa would no longer be valid. The actual visa is valid from 3 months past the approval date:
You can then fill in your biographical data (entire form isn’t shown, but you get the idea):
Then comes the really hard part: submitting your photo and the passport page. This site is absolutely cursed. First of all, it’s calling an external API to do the validation, and note that anytime this happens, the dreaded frozen spinning screen of doom can occur. This means reloading the page and starting all over again from the beginning. Second of all, if the photo you submit doesn’t exactly match the very specific photo requirements (which aren’t shown in detail anywhere on the photo upload page) the upload will fail with an error message that gives you no information about what failed, or why it failed. You’re left to guess whether your personal photo or the passport scan is wrong.
I finally solved the problem by going to Staples and having passport photos made in exactly the required dimensions (incidentally, they’re the same as a Pakistan passport photo). Staples was able to save them digitally for me on a thumb drive and their photos passed the test. I also scanned my passport on a professional copier, used a photo editor to exactly match the photo requirements page, and I finally got to the next step.
The next step involves solving a captcha and proceeding to “activation.” This will send an account activation link, which is only active for 12 hours. I clicked on the link, and it didn’t appear to do anything. And then I remained utterly perplexed at what to do next. Eventually, I figured it out. You need to go back to the front page, just as though you were going to start all over again in filling out a new application:
Click into Application for e-visa and you’ll get a blank form, assuming you don’t get the dreaded spinner of doom:
Now you can click Payment (click it anyway, even though it’s greyed out). You’ll get the following menu:
What’s the application code? It’s in the activation email you received. I hope you didn’t delete it, because you’ll need this in multiple stages of the process:
Solve the captcha, and you’ll be taken to the payment page. My Visa payment kicked me over to Verified by Visa, which ran a verification and then the payment was declined and the payment failed. However, I didn’t actually know that it had failed for 24 hours, since the charge still showed as pending on my credit card. A day later, I tried with a MasterCard and everything worked. I received another email:
Success! They took my money. Now it was just a waiting game to find out whether I was approved for a visa or not. Two days later, I received the following email:
Remember the long, complicated application code? You’ll need it again. Enter it on the page here:
After you enter the requisite information and click Check Status, you’ll see the spinning page of doom. If everything works correctly, it’ll just disappear and the page won’t change. However, don’t get caught in a loop of solving captchas. Scroll down on the page, and you’ll see the following:
You can then click Download and your e-visa page will download. Even though it’s electronic, the instructions indicate that you should print it out, so maybe just the delivery rather than the administration is electronic.
Congratulations, you now have an Uzbekistan e-visa. I’m pretty good with this kind of stuff, and it took me several days, a professionally taken photo, and two credit cards to successfully complete my application. However, I’m hoping this means that there won’t be many tourists in Uzbekistan, so I’ll get to enjoy the Silk Road attractions without crowds!
I don’t prefer to stay in chain hotels, and they often don’t exist anyway in the off-the-beaten-path places where I prefer to travel. However, I go to a conference every year in Las Vegas where I run an event. Now, Las Vegas is probably my least favorite destination in the world, and I’d probably never visit otherwise if not for this particular conference. Naturally it happens in the summer, also happens to be during a peak travel week (for some reason), and this makes both flights and hotels really expensive.
This year, I somehow managed to get a cheap flight (Southwest ran a good sale after their massive meltdown, so I burned some of my Rapid Rewards points) and the next challenge was finding a reasonably priced hotel. Las Vegas has gotten incredibly expensive as of late. Everything costs extra. You’ll typically pay $30 per day (or more) in resort fees, and on top of this, there’s $15 or so in parking charges. And that’s on top of the rate, which is often $150 or more. A cup of coffee costs $7 (not a fancy barista beverage, just plain coffee). The days of cheap deals in Las Vegas are over.
While I typically use miles and points for flights, there are occasional good values with hotels. The most well-known program is Hyatt, but there was just a brutal devaluation earlier this month, which is a follow-on to the gut punch of a devaluation last year. In Las Vegas, this means you can now book a room at a Hyatt Place for 15,000 points (worth an eye-popping $187.50 worth of Chase points) per night. Plus parking. I’m sorry, Hyatt, but I haven’t stayed at a Hyatt Place anywhere in the world that is even close to worth that.
I checked with a friend who works at a Strip hotel. He offered me his friends and family rate of $249 per night, plus resort fee. Thanks but no thanks. Grasping at straws, I looked at IHG who wanted close to $300 per night worth of points (at current sale prices) for a room at a Holiday Inn Express. And then, bearing in mind my terrible experience at the La Quinta last year (I consider it one of the worst hotels in Las Vegas–check the reviews), I decided to see what Wyndham had to offer.
Transferring Points To Wyndham
Most people don’t know this, but you can transfer both Citi ThankYou and Capital One points to Wyndham. The program offers two different redemption options: “Go Fast” which offers a discounted room rate plus a small number of points (either 1,500, 3,000 or 6,000), and “Go Free” which offers a completely free room paid entirely with points. Most properties cost 15,000 points per night, including such renowned brands as Travelodge and Days Inn. Some top tier (for Wyndham) properties cost 30,000 points. You can also book Vacasa vacation rental properties at 15,000 points per bedroom per night, which can be a pretty good deal in expensive resort destinations. Now, you’re reading Seat 31B, and you can probably guess that $187.50 worth of points (and up) isn’t what I typically spend on a hotel night. There are, however, a handful of properties that cost only 7,500 points per night, and this is where you might occasionally strike gold in the Wyndham program.
In Las Vegas, Wyndham owns a resort called the Desert Rose. It has a two night minimum stay, and is really well rated. Even though the property is actually a resort, they don’t charge for parking or have a resort fee. What’s more, for some reason, this property costs only 7,500 points per night for a “Go Free” stay. But it gets even more interesting than that. Their “Go Fast” rate is actually variable during the week, while paid stays don’t vary much (you’ll pay about $150 per night during the week, and $185 per night on the weekends). “Go Fast” stays from Sunday through Thursday were averaging out at 1,500 points plus less than $70 a night!
Splitting Up Stays
One tactic I’ll sometimes use is paying for some nights, and using points for another. In this case, on a one week stay, the best deal was to use the “Go Fast” rate for Monday through Thursday nights (spending an additional 6,000 points for a completely free room would yield less than $70 in savings, or about 1.1 cents per point). I then booked the “Go Free” rate for Friday through Sunday nights (where I’d have had to spend much more out of pocket, yielding over 2 cents per point in value overall). This meant making two different reservations and technically I will have to check in and out mid-stay. However, hotel front desks are used to dealing with this sort of thing (which can happen for various reasons) and can usually put two reservations together so you don’t have to change rooms.
Wyndham Is Weird
Look, Wyndham Rewards is a pretty strange program, which I suppose suits a hotel chain as strange as Wyndham. They have a pretty big footprint, but their properties are mostly a random hodgepodge of truck stop motels and the occasional timeshare resort. Quality is all over the place, with very little consistency even within brands, and few people would ever consider a Days Inn to be aspirational, which is why I think there is very little written about Wyndham Rewards. Pricing is also all over the place in the program. It’s usually not very good, but occasionally, it’s incredibly good.
I still prefer not to stay in chain hotels, but I like spending money even less (at least when I could spend points at good value). It’s hard to find good independent properties in a place like Las Vegas anyway, and I was happy to get some incredible value for this stay. With no resort fees, no parking fees, and an all-in effective room rate of under $100 per night at a non-casino resort property in a good location, I think this deal has earned the Seat 31B seal of approval.
If you’re a frequent traveler between the United States and Canada, you’re probably familiar with the NEXUS program. This trusted traveler program is similar to Global Entry, but it works on both sides of the border. Getting a NEXUS card isn’t easy. You need to pass rigorous background checks by both US and Canadian authorities, and pass an in-person interview with both US Customs and Border Protection and the CBSA. There are also strict rules governing the program; it’s hard to get these privileges, and it’s very easy to lose them.
At land crossings, there is a special NEXUS lane (by the way, never enter this lane if you are not a NEXUS card holder: you’ll automatically be sent to secondary inspection and will also likely be fined). When entering the US by air, you can use a Global Entry kiosk to clear immigration. When entering Canada, there is a NEXUS kiosk used to clear immigration. And for program members, there’s an additional bonus: NEXUS cards are a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) compliant credential, meeting the equivalent requirements in Canada. This means that they are a perfectly valid and acceptable travel document for air travel between the United States and Canada–fully equivalent to carrying a passport.
When I’m flying from Vancouver (which I often do, because I live in between the Vancouver and Bellingham airports), I usually fly Canadian carriers who are aware of the procedures. However, yesterday I was flying Delta from Salt Lake City, who made up its own rules and denied me boarding unless I presented a passport. Fortunately, I was on a connecting flight from Mexico and I had my passport with me this time, but this isn’t always the case.
At boarding, the Delta gate agent ran facial recognition on me (something I absolutely hate, and which feels super creepy and invasive–I never signed up for this or gave them my photo), and then the gate agent asked for my passport. I handed her my NEXUS card. “Nope!” she said. “You have to give me a passport.” I explained that NEXUS is a valid credential for travel to Canada, and that a passport wasn’t necessary. “I’ll look it up but you’re wrong,” she said, “international flights always require a passport.” She then proceeded to look through her system, failed to find anything involving NEXUS, and called a “Red Coat” who–apparently without looking anything up–denied me boarding without a passport.
By now, the agent (who it turns out was a Canadian citizen) was apparently curious. I knew I was right, remained polite, and suggested that she call Delta’s Canadian partner WestJet to confirm the requirements. After some digging, she confirmed in a Delta system (last updated 5 days ago) that I was, in fact, right. However, because a “Red Coat” had determined I was required to show my passport, she required me to do so anyway. This is very typical of Delta; they don’t seem to give their employees much flexibility or encourage independent thinking.
It’s fairly routine for NEXUS card holders traveling between Canada and the US to carry only their NEXUS cards. After all, this is all that is required to cross the border! However, if you’re considering a ski vacation to Utah this winter, think again before flying Delta. If you don’t bring your passport–which is completely unnecessary–you might end up stranded until you rebook with a Canadian carrier who understands the rules and follows proper documentation procedures.
Look, I get it. I don’t blame the gate agent. You may not be aware of this, but gate agents can be personally liable for fines if they allow travelers without valid documents on board an aircraft. If they’re as strict with ID requirements as a 7-11 clerk selling cigarettes to someone who looks 16, this is why. This is entirely the fault of poor training at Delta, combined with software that makes it too difficult to verify which ID is required. In the meantime, carry your passport because it seems that Delta just makes up its own documentation requirements.
A lot of people have been asking for an explainer on what is going on with Southwest Airlines and the massive meltdown that has occurred. I’m almost at a loss for words: Southwest is the largest US domestic airline. They serve 23 of the top 25 markets in the US. One of my friends is currently stranded with his cat in Las Vegas, and Southwest can’t get him back home until *checks notes* 2023.
When it suits them Southwest says, in effect, “we’re a small carrier serving small places, the rules shouldn’t really apply to us” (whether it’s safety or anything else) but the reality is that they’re a major airline. They should be considered as such, and treated accordingly.
However, Southwest is highly unusual. Their IT is almost entirely homegrown, with software they built themselves. It’s creaky and antiquated – you’ll observe this if you watch their schedules. They’re irregularly and manually loaded into the system. The majority of airlines use standardized reservations systems like Sabre, Amadeus, etc. which integrate well with other standardized tools. While Southwest has kinda sorta migrated to Amadeus, they only support limited integrations in specific circumstances.
Other airlines (apart from Allegiant, Southwest, Spirit, Frontier and a couple others like Avelo and Breeze) have relationships with airport hotels so they can issue vouchers to stranded passengers and crew. They also work with each other in a system called “interlining” where they take each other’s passengers to avoid total systemic meltdowns like these. For example, when Delta melted down in the past, American and United have bailed them out (and vice-versa). In this case, it’s the week between Christmas and New Year, and there are no seats on other airlines to book their passengers into. Even if there were, there is no interline agreement. So Southwest behaves like an ultra low cost carrier (where you expect poor service and paid a fare to match, rather than the above-market fares Southwest often charges), basically says “see you next week” and dumps you wherever they left you.
So, about aircraft positioning and crew scheduling – Southwest is essentially a short and medium haul airline. They mostly don’t do long haul services except for Hawaii. Southwest turns aircraft quickly, in less than 30 minutes. They have higher aircraft utilization than any other major US airline. They often run their crews on tight loops where they’re out from home and back the same day so they can save money on accommodating crews who overnight away from their home base. This is all really clever and it works really well until it doesn’t.
So when Southwest melted down due to weather events, they didn’t have nearly the number of rooms reserved that they needed for their own crew, and it was Christmas so hotels were full. Crews often did not get rooms. They just got dumped like passengers at airports. At least there are crew break rooms at most airports, but it’s not very comfortable. Major airlines usually have enough hotel relationships to be able to work something out (American has had some issues too) but Southwest does not.
The airline now has a problem where they need to figure out where all of their crews are (lacking accommodations, some have found their own way home), and where their planes are, and whether either are where they need to be, and basically redo their entire crew and aircraft scheduling plan for the whole airline. The only real way they have to do this (because of the way they operate and their limited IT capabilities) is to stop for an entire day and set to work inventorying their assets and crews and then build out entirely new trips for everyone.
However, they were also just really mean to everyone who works for them, and who knows what that will do for the motivation of their employees. They effectively required employees to come to work sick, making others sick just before they’re most needed to recover the operation. Given Southwest’s checkered past with safety, will they pressure employees to work when they really aren’t fit to fly? I personally hope the FAA is watching.
Anyway, how does Southwest fix this? Just like in IT security, every time there is a high profile problem, there is a vendor promising to magically fix everything with AI. Unfortunately, just like in IT security, the problem space is also very complicated and AI is not good at solving most of these problems. One way they could handle it is already proven, it’s just expensive: holding crews and aircraft in reserve to recover from irregular operations. Qantas successfully does this.
A week ago, Qantas had an A380 unexpectedly land in Azerbaijan. They thought there might be a fire in the cargo bay so they landed in Baku. It turned out there was a real problem with the aircraft and it couldn’t be promptly repaired in Azerbaijan, a country which doesn’t frequently see A380s. So, Qantas sent a rescue flight, something that Southwest has repeatedly proven they lack the capability to do. Because Qantas plans ahead for emergencies (and they absorb the expense of doing so), they were effectively able to recover their operation.
To be fair, it’s not just Southwest who does their route planning this way. You see the same sort of problems with Flair Airlines in Canada. They’re an extreme example but fairly representative. Flair serves 34 destinations with 24 aircraft. You can imagine the follow-on impact if any flight, on any leg, has a problem. So why would an airline do this? It seems crazy, right? Well, it’s a question of incentives.
This holiday season could have worked out really well for Southwest, had everything gone according to (a very aggressive) plan. Southwest did their route planning the same way that most American companies do supply chain planning: “just in time” with no slack or contingency planning. If it all melts down, they simply dump the problem on their customers. Southwest, after all, legally has no responsibility to practically anyone except for their shareholders. They are covered by their Contract of Carriage and US Department of Transportation rules (which are lasseiz-faire at best).
You didn’t get home for Christmas? You got stranded in Las Vegas for a week? Well, dear consumer, Southwest won’t help you, the government won’t help you, nobody will compensate you for the losses you suffered, and you also can’t sue because the federal government has given airlines a liability shield along with endless taxpayer bailouts. If you don’t like it, you’re looking at one middle finger from the federal government, and another from Southwest.
One last piece of airline trivia before I leave you all to digest this post. American Airlines cancelled less than 1% of its schedule yesterday. Southwest cancelled over 70% of its schedule. Southwest will likely (successfully) claim that under the Contract of Carriage, they do not have to pay for stranded passengers’ hotels. Keep this in mind any time that politicians show up saying that every problem will be fixed with tort reform to keep evil class action lawyers from driving up costs.
What’s the fix? Liability. Airlines are actually run by really smart people. They’re just allowed to optimize for only one thing: shareholder returns. As it turns out, this hasn’t worked out any better for essential services like airlines than it has for any other sector of the US economy. We need to be OK with the idea that corporations have obligations other than shareholder value, and those obligations extend for longer than this quarter’s earnings call. Create damages which aren’t excluded from class action liability, and airlines will suddenly become extremely interested in reliability (as well as extremely interested in a DOT-regulated standard for weather delays and disruptions).
I don’t personally think re-regulating is the solution, as many pundits have proposed. Instead, financial accountability is the solution. The US should just copy EU 261 from the European Union. It has worked very well to improve airline reliability in Europe because there are actual financial penalties paid to consumers. There have still been occasional meltdowns, but far smaller scale than the largest domestic passenger airline in the US entirely collapsing for multiple days.
Some people will say that this will drive up costs, making flying more expensive. With respect, I observe that you can routinely fly over 1,500 miles within Europe for under 22 euros:
It’s long past the time that airlines should get a free pass (if they ever should have). Real, financial penalties are a market-based solution to encourage airlines to improve reliability. Organizations respond to incentives, and the federal government must create the right ones.
“Wait, what?” you might be thinking. “Cars? Isn’t this blog about cheap flights? And where have you been for the last year, anyway?”
Good questions. The last trip out of state that I took was in February, 2020 to Minneapolis. I was joking with my friends, as the pandemic was beginning to take shape, that the last trip I took had better not be to Minneapolis in the winter. Here we are almost a year later and it’s clear that we’re in for nearly another year of limited travel.
I wish I could say that I’ve spent what amounts to nearly a year being productive and catching up on my massive backlog of travel writing. I have a series to finish on Christmas Island, another on Providencia, some advice on how to see Bogota in the blink of an eye, and the list goes on. But like most of you, honestly, I’m not OK with any of this and it’s just too emotionally difficult for me to write about a part of my life that I both loved very much, miss a great deal, and am–frankly–angry doesn’t exist anymore. I’m not sad, or disappointed. The fact that the travel industry has been so thoroughly decimated has been a deliberate choice by politicians on both sides of the aisle to deliberately expose us to a fatal disease amid false hopes of attaining herd immunity. The consequences of this choice have now been borne out with new, more virulent and more contagious strains of COVID-19, one of which largely evades the new vaccines.
That brings me to what I’m doing about my car, and what I’m doing about travel for the next year. Any travel I do will be solo, local (in the Pacific Northwest), and for the most part, outdoors. Camping is in, and crashing at the Generator Hostel in London is out. I drive a 2005 Scion xA, which is a car I really love and have had a lot of good memories with. It also has 184,000 miles on it and has joined the “part of the month club.” In the past few months I have replaced the water pump, thermostat, all of the belts and hoses, clutch, front brakes, and battery. There isn’t a whole lot left to replace at this point but I also feel like this is a vehicle that could be a really solid (albeit elderly) freeway commuter car, but it just can’t take the level of punishing abuse on gravel Forest Service roads that I have in mind for this summer. At some point, I have to recognize that the car, like my body, just isn’t the same as it was when it was young.
Unfortunately, a lot of people have the same idea that I do, and are looking for new or late model used vehicles. New car inventory is very limited now for popular models (along with a spike in demand, production is constrained due to COVID-19 protocols), and I was shocked to learn that dealers are asking for above sticker price for cars–and getting it! Discounts are few and far between. This has spilled over into the used car market as well, making it harder to find late model used cars and also making them more expensive. All of this is great news if you want to sell a car, but it’s terrible news if you want to buy one.
The Auction Solution
So, I went down a rabbit hole on YouTube which started with a local tow truck driver’s channel. I thought “hm, maybe auctions could be a way to get a car at a discount.” After all, most people need to finance a car and auctions require that you pay the full amount immediately in cash. This makes the market somewhat less competitive, and dealers are the usual folks bidding so the prices have to reflect leaving in something for their profit margin. A few clicks later and I landed on Andrei Khaladzinski’s Salvage Secrets channel, and I was instantly hooked.
Andrei is an unassuming Belarusian immigrant who came to the US with $500 in his pocket and now runs a successful small dealership on Long Island in New York. His YouTube videos are the kind of thing I love. He stands in front of a whiteboard in a dimly lit gritty office that has probably not been painted since 1992, and with a laser focus, he walks through the numbers, nuts and bolts of bidding on salvage auctions. And holy smokes, what a discovery this was! In a weekend-long deep dive, I was able to learn enough from Andrei’s decades of experience to save $9,000 on the cost of a 2019 Subaru Outback 2.5i with 14,000 miles on it. I paid $15,588 (plus state sales tax, title and licensing fees) all-in. Only one catch: it has a rebuilt title.
“A rebuilt title?” you may be thinking. “That’s crazy! It means the car has been completely trashed! Everything in the world could be wrong with it! It’s not even safe to drive those!” And while thinking this is rational, not all rebuilt title cars are the same, and not all clean title cars are the same. In fact, I will never think about “clean title” cars the same after this experience, because I have really learned more than I ever wanted to about how the sausage is made.
Rebuilt vs. Clean Titles
There is a lot of variability in the different types of titles and the procedures to follow in different states. However, the same general ideas and procedures apply in most locales as here in Washington state.
When a car is damaged or destroyed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the title changes its status from “clean.” For example, rental car companies own their cars, and they are also self-insured. So, when a rental car gets wrecked, it goes to the same salvage auction as insurance totaled vehicles. The same applies to auto dealers.
Check out this “clean title” vehicle. It’s completely destroyed. The engine took a direct hit. Someone will put it back together (maybe with stolen parts, since “clean title” vehicles aren’t routinely inspected for these in most states) and sell it to the next owner, who will never have a clue how badly it was damaged because it has a “clean title.” If insurance never paid out the claim, as is the case if a rental car company (which is self-insured) owns it, nothing will show up on a VIN check (such as Carfax) either.
So what is a “salvage title?” All that this means is that an insurance company has declared the vehicle a total loss. As it turns out, insurance companies have a lot of reasons why they might do this and it doesn’t always mean that the car was even damaged at all, or if it was, that it was damaged in a way that can’t be safely repaired.
When a car is stolen, for example, insurance companies are required to declare the car a total loss and pay out the claim after a set period of time–usually a month. So, consider the following scenario. Your car is stolen by a professional car thief who stashes it in a storage unit and is promptly arrested and jailed on unrelated charges. A couple of months later, after the storage fees remain unpaid, the storage company cracks open the unit, discovers a chop shop, and calls the police who recover your vehicle.
Except it’s not your vehicle anymore. It belongs to the insurance company, because they paid out your claim two months ago and you have moved on with your life. You are happy to recover your personal belongings but now the car is the insurance company’s problem. They send your “totaled” vehicle to auction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it–not even a scratch, but it’ll have a salvage title.
Other cases of vehicles being totaled are ones where the insurance company just routinely declares a vehicle a total loss if a certain category of loss occurs. My vehicle was allegedly struck by lightning. In October. There is no evidence whatsoever that this actually happened, the car was a local vehicle, lightning storms are very rare at that time of year in our area, they usually occur in the mountains rather than in the nearly sea level valley of Puyallup, and a mechanic has thoroughly checked it out and failed to find anything wrong with it. Nevertheless, USAA (the company that insured this vehicle previously) just automatically totals any vehicles struck by lightning. They don’t want to deal with potentially expensive and difficult to adjudicate problems down the line (because potentially any electrical issues with the car, even years later, could stem from a lightning strike). So even though it’s likely that the previous owner was underwater on their loan and just wanted out from under the vehicle, it ended up totaled and sold at auction.
How Auctions Work
“OK, this makes sense,” you’re thinking. “I want to get in on this!” Keep in mind that the lower prices mean the following:
If you bid and win you own the car and it’s entirely your problem. It doesn’t matter how inaccurate the auction listing is; anything sold “where is/as is with no guarantees” (as auction vehicles are) means exactly that. Plan to do more due diligence (under tougher circumstances) than usual.
Even if the car is brand new, the warranty is void.
You can’t drive the car off the auction lot. You need to figure out how to tow it (or have it towed) to a location where you can either work on it yourself or have someone fix it.
Even if there is nothing wrong with the car, expect some work will be required. Picking up the car on a forklift, moving it out to the lot and towing it on a flatbed apparently dislodged some suspension bushings on mine, a minor repair that cost $60. Other common repairs needed are draining the fuel system if the car has sat for a long time, and replacing the battery (these seem to have gone bad very often on auction cars).
You can’t finance auction purchases using any conventional sort of financing. Instead, you need to be prepared to immediately wire the full amount of your bid, plus fees and potentially sales tax as well, right after the auction is completed. Late fees run $100 per day or so, and the wire is due the day after the auction (so you have to send it on the day of the auction). To wire funds, they need to be in your bank account, free and clear – so you can’t deposit a check and then immediately wire the funds.
There are two major auction houses that dispose of salvage vehicles, IAAI and Copart. It’s possible with IAAI to identify the seller of a vehicle, which you can’t do with Copart, making Copart a riskier auction because a lot of dealers dump their problem vehicles there. I’m not going to go through the details of how the auctions run and how to use auction and broker sites, because there are plenty of other resources (and YouTube videos) that explore these in depth. Instead, I’ll focus on everything else around the auction process which isn’t nearly as well documented.
Auction houses charge a hefty registration fee as well as a bevy of additional fees. You’ll pay “documentation fees,” “gate fees” and a commission which is either a fixed amount or a percentage depending upon the value of the vehicle. I opted not to register directly with IAAI, which was the seller of the vehicle I was interested in. Instead, I signed up with SalvageBid (you can get 30% off of their membership using the promo code on their blog). Although I didn’t need to go through a broker in Washington state (because unlike in most states, anyone is allowed to buy salvage vehicles in any condition here), it was advantageous to do so because broker commissions are much lower than what IAAI offers to the general public. I ended up saving nearly $1,000 in commissions purchasing through SalvageBid (on their most expensive “VIP” membership, which is probably a no brainer if you’re buying a newer car) versus going directly through IAAI.
Although you can go to the auction lot to view cars, it’s a hassle. Both Copart and IAAI are located in far-flung Seattle suburbs each about an hour away from where I live. IAAI only allows registered users on their lot (which means you have to pay their registration fee), while Copart charges $25 if you’re not a registered user (having paid their registration fee). You also need a safety vest, or they’ll charge you for one. And then once you’re there, if you’re not a mechanic, it’s hard to make a good assessment of whether a vehicle is in good shape or not.
Fortunately there is a solution: you can pay carinspector.us to check out your car. I paid them $155, and they delivered a comprehensive report on the car (along with detailed high resolution photos, much better than what IAAI had provided) confirming that there was nothing obviously wrong with it. The report gave me the confidence to bid aggressively on the car because I likely had more information than the majority of bidders.
The 50% Rule
Vehicles sold at auction will have the estimated repair cost and the estimated “actual cash value.” These figures will in some cases only loosely resemble either of the actual values; they come from insurance company estimating software and don’t take into account either the used vehicle market or the true cost of repairs.
Remember Andrei? He works around this by setting a “50% rule.” Having identified a reasonably repairable salvage vehicle (keep in mind, most cars sold at auction aren’t), he will bid no more than 50% of the “ACV,” or “actual cash value.” He also factors all of the fees into his bid, and since he buys a lot of cars, he generally knows exactly what these will be. This gives him enough of a budget both to repair the car and to discount it for having a salvage title instead of a clean title (here in Washington, the expected discount is about 20%).
Andrei is right in his advice not to get carried away with bidding. In this case, I knowingly broke the “50% rule,” because I knew I wasn’t going to have to invest much in the car, giving me more headroom to pay more at auction. The ACV of my car was $25,806 which isn’t far off from what these cars actually sell for (one with double the mileage of mine and a clean title is currently for sale for $26,888 at a local dealer). A previously wrecked car from Louisiana with similar mileage to mine, and also with a salvage title, is selling for just under $20,000. However, that car is being sold by an out of state dealer in Oregon, which is notorious for its virtually unregulated salvage vehicle market. There’s no telling whether the other vehicle has been repaired properly, or with which parts. After all, how did it end up in Oregon when it was sold at auction in Louisiana, anyway?
In the end, I went up to $14,200, and including all fees, I paid $15,588. Adding on the required SalvageBid membership, cost of towing, the oil change that was needed, and the inspections and minor repairs I had performed, I paid $16,433 (I get free wire transfers from my bank, but if you don’t, account for this, too). State tax, title and licensing fees added to the total but I’d have had to pay these with any vehicle, so I’m not including these in the calculation. So, I saved $10,455 versus what a dealer is trying to sell a higher mileage vehicle for. I think realistically, I saved $9k because that’s closer to what I’d pay a private party for a similar vehicle (remember, these are popular vehicles in short supply, not many are for sale, and Blue Book values are pretty far out of step with the market).
You get 3 days to pick up your car from IAAI before they start charging expensive storage fees (think airport parking prices), and the 3 days includes the day of the auction. Making matters worse, they are closed on the weekend so if you miss a Friday pickup (auctions are every Wednesday, and you must arrive before 4pm on Friday to pick up the car) they will charge you storage over the weekend plus Monday.
However, you can’t pick up the car until you’ve paid for it and funds clear. This means that you need to be prepared to wire the funds immediately after the auction closes and you win. The auction is wrapped up by 11:30am and the bank wire cutoff is usually something like 3:15PM Eastern time. Be watching your email for an invoice with wire instructions and I recommend that you get set up with your bank to wire funds through online banking versus going into a branch. That way, you’ll get your car paid out on time to get the vehicle released before you start getting charged for storage.
IAAI won’t release the car to you to drive off the lot, because it’s illegal. You need to have a way to tow it, either by showing up with a car trailer or hiring a towing company to tow it. It’s best to hire a flatbed to tow your car because if there are any problems with the tires, they’ll be unable to tow it with a conventional wrecker. I hired a flatbed that regularly works with my mechanic for $160 to retrieve my car. They gave me a good discount because I allowed them to pick up the car any time that IAAI was open over a 2 day window, and that’s why I got the discount: they picked up my car when they’d otherwise be making an empty return trip.
Passing Inspection And Registration In Washington
Registering a salvage vehicle in Washington is different than a regular vehicle and there is virtually no information available online about how to do it. I had to figure it all out on my own but it all worked. Other states have their own procedures ranging from refusing to allow salvage vehicles to be registered at all to allowing them on the road with virtually no inspection or documentation. Washington is pretty middle-of-the-road as requirements go, but definitely research your local procedures before you buy a salvage car.
After I paid SalvageBid, they promptly sent me a DocuSign for a bill of sale. In Washington, that’s all you get; the insurance company notifies the Department of Licensing when they total a vehicle and the state cancels the title. A salvage vehicle is simply a vehicle with no title, and this means it is not street legal in the State of Washington.
In order to get plates and register the car, you will need to have it inspected by the State Patrol. So, first have the car repaired (or repair it yourself) in a manner that will pass inspection. Then schedule your inspection. You need to start looking right at 8am on Monday because that’s when appointments are loaded into the system, and they’re all gone within a couple of hours. Check every location around you (I was able to get an appointment in Bellevue, but not in SeaTac) and ignore all of the warnings not to schedule an appointment without the Department of Licensing request. You need the date of the inspection for the Department of Licensing, and WSP availability is the constraint.
Once you have the car repaired and your appointment scheduled, head down to your local Department of Licensing agency (the same place where you get tabs, not where you get your driver’s license) with the bill of sale for the car that either the auction house or your broker sent you. Tell them that you bought the car in an online auction and you need to have it inspected by WSP. They’ll issue you a temporary permit for $8 (pay cash to avoid the $2.25 credit card fee) which will allow you to drive the car to a State Patrol facility for inspection. You get two separate dates and they can be non-consecutive, so give them the date you’ve scheduled and another date a couple of weeks later. That way, you can try again if you fail inspection the first time.
When you go for the WSP inspection, display the temporary license you got from the Department of Licensing (they do check, and if you don’t have it displayed, I assume it’s an instant ticket). You will also need to take the following documents:
The bill of sale from your broker or auction house.
Receipts for all of the parts you used in your repair, as well as any labor receipts.
Pay attention to the WSP’s checklist before you buy anything and be sure to get the correct documentation because without it, you won’t pass!
Be especially wary of parts purchased online (such as on Craigslist) which are often stolen. Parts sold by licensed junkyards are a safer bet, when sold with invoice and serial numbers as applicable.
The “Request for Inspection” from the Department of Licensing.
Be sure to show up at least 5 minutes early and allow extra time for Google Maps to direct you to the wrong place (this happens in Bellevue). WSP doesn’t have a public restroom, so include that in your plan as well.
My WSP inspection was thorough, courteous and professional. The officer ran everything “by the book” and I got back their inspection report and the bill of sale. They stamped both, and they also affixed an official label inside the door which indicates the vehicle has been rebuilt and inspected.
I then returned to the Department of Licensing agent, who took all of the documentation and collected $1,908.15 in tax, title and licensing fees. Naturally, I paid cash to avoid the 3% credit card fee. They issue your new license plates on the spot, and your title shows up in the mail 8 weeks later.
What About Insurance?
My insurance company wrote me a full coverage policy without even batting an eye. No surcharges, and exactly the same rates as if the vehicle didn’t have a rebuilt title. Your mileage may vary but most insurance companies in Washington don’t seem to consider salvage vehicles (which have been inspected and are street legal) to be much—if any—higher risk than other vehicles. I suspect that this has to do with the strict inspection requirement here, which many other states (such as Oregon) do not have.
Driving For Free?
For most people, a car is a liability. My car is an asset–it’s worth more than I paid for it. Since much of the depreciation on a new car is front loaded within the first 2 years, I’ll have another 3 years (or so) to drive this car before its value drops below what I paid for it. In effect, I’m driving for free when you really think about it. And that’s what makes this a perfect Seat 31B travel hack!
I spent less overall time doing this than I have spent finding and booking Cathay Pacific first class, and I’ll be getting years of effectively free road trips out of it. You can too. It’s high risk, but nothing in the free travel game is low risk. May the odds ever be in your favor.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
Despite rushing to pack, I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport about 2 1/2 hours prior to departure. This was plenty of time to make my flight. Although I’d checked in online, there was no opportunity to enter my known traveler number so I didn’t have a Precheck boarding pass (fortunately, just having bought a one-way ticket 4 hours before an international flight, it didn’t have SSSS either). Having Precheck saves a lot of time in Seattle, but if there is a long queue for the check-in counter, it can take longer to get your boarding pass straightened out than it does to just go through the regular security line.
Happily, there was almost no line and I was cheerfully checked in by a SkyPriority agent. I appreciate that Air France has their SkyPriority agents take customers out of the regular queue when there are no SkyPriority passengers waiting; not all airlines do this. The agent hadn’t seen a NEXUS card before so initially entered the wrong number, but I gently corrected her and she was really nice about it (I’m used to airline employees insisting they’re right and going on power trips when they make a mistake, so I really appreciated the lack of ego).
In pictures, this lounge looks really big, but it’s surprisingly small in real life
Armed with a TSA PRECHK boarding pass, I was ready to do battle with the Precheck line. Fortunately it was a total breeze. Nobody was waiting, and I got right through. Continuing my amazing streak of airport luck, I was able to get into the new Alaska Airlines Terminal C lounge with my Priority Pass. They initially tried to deny me access, but I mentioned that their sign automatically denying access wasn’t out, and they relented and let me in. The lounge has a smart design but I was surprised to find the furniture very dirty (it badly needs to be steam cleaned). The new lounge also looks a lot bigger in pictures than it is. The food selection was similar to that available in the older Terminal D lounge, except somewhat more limited. The pancake machine runs 24 hours (unlike in the other lounge) but there aren’t cheese cubes or vegetables (which the other lounge has). The planespotting opportunities were very good for the aviation geek, though; I not only saw the incoming Air France flight on the taxiway, but saw an incoming Prime Air flight as well. While lounges are very much an optional experience for me anyway, I won’t go out of my way to return to the “new” Alaska lounge if the “old” one is more convenient.
So far, so good, then. Flying Blue had advanced me the points to get on the flight in the first place, check-in was friendly, and I managed to talk my way into a lounge that was hard to get into. Although I have had some really great adventures on Air France (including a flight to South Africa in economy class and an “island hopper” adventure to Cayenne, French Guyana via Port au Prince, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) I haven’t flown Air France in a couple of years. My last flights with them were on an A380 out of LAX in their “old” economy class which was a pretty comfortable experience overall. In light of this I was excited to try their “new” economy class.
Remembering my recent trip to Beijing, I left the lounge 25 minutes before the boarding cut-off. I’m never eager to get to the gate earlier than necessary on long international flights, because checked bags are free so there is usually plenty of overhead bin space. The Terminal C lounge is right next to the airport subway, but you have to change trains twice in order to get from there to the south satellite (from which most international flights depart). The waiting time isn’t super long in between trains and you’re not on them for a long time, but it does add up and it took me a full 15 minutes to get to the gate. Fortunately there was no problem; Air France had just finished with premium cabin boarding and was beginning to board the economy class cabin (where I was in the last boarding group). An agent came by and checked my passport, and I was on board the tired old 777-200 operating our flight. The crew was a very senior French crew, and Parisian in demeanor. This is like a New York based senior crew with a US airline; somewhat abrupt, but also generally efficient. I was directed to my seat, in a row right behind a bassinet infant who wasn’t super happy to be on board. I stashed my luggage, and I was just getting ready to sit down when I spotted something amiss.
There was puke on my seat.
After my cleaning job, with seat cover added.
It had been mopped up by the previous occupant with napkins or something, but there was definitely leftover barf on the seat belt and seat. I didn’t sit down, but stood to the side and when the aisle was clear, I walked up to the galley explaining what happened, and asked for cleaning supplies. Of course, this isn’t actually what I expected to get–usually a flight crew will first verify that your story is true (totally was in this case, the barf was plainly visible) and will then find somewhere to reseat you–even an op-up if needed–taking the dirty seat out of service. Not this crew! I got exactly what I asked for–they expertly put together a vomit kit for me, and handed it to me. Well, all right then. I went back and scrubbed the seat (hoping there wasn’t norovirus involved, because there unfortunately weren’t any rubber gloves). A flight attendant shortly thereafter stopped by, checked my work, took the supplies back and gave me a cover for the seat (because at this point it was wet). I went up to the lavatory to thoroughly scrub my hands, and another flight attendant said “wait here a minute.” A couple of minutes later she returned with a business class amenity kit as a gift, which I think was a pretty nice gesture all things considered. This is probably more than I would have gotten on United, but the response on a Japanese carrier would have been one bordering on shock and horror accompanied by profuse apologies and more or less bending over backwards to find me somewhere else to sit. There is a happy medium somewhere, and that’s not what this was.
The good news is that when I went back, the middle seat next to my assigned seat had remained empty. So I just moved over and took that seat. Unfortunately, the “new” Air France economy class cabin is tight. It’s not quite as tight as Lufthansa, but unlike I have experienced on Lufthansa, the seat was heavily worn and uncomfortable. It was so hard my butt was numb 2,000 miles into a 5,000 mile flight (I’m a middle aged guy with an average build). The seat pitch also makes it really hard to work on a laptop (although there was seat power); I’m 5’7″ and there was only about an inch between me and the seat in front of me. Also, in the row where I was sitting, the seats were in a staggered configuration and there was an annoying support post in the middle of my legroom (although to be fair, this isn’t nearly as bad as the personal entertainment boxes that often steal your legroom in economy class).
I hadn’t eaten much lunch in the lounge (I just had some soup and salad) so I was ready for dinner, which I knew would be served onboard. My previous experiences with Air France involved surprisingly good economy class catering – I mean, it’s the national airline of France, so there would be good quality French cuisine, right? I also remember being fed a pretty large meal on my previous flights. Unfortunately, all of that has changed. There were two meal choices, chicken or pasta. I’m glad I got the chicken because the pasta was small and didn’t look filling. Still, the chicken was just pieces of chicken breast (not an entire chicken breast, more like half of one) in a white gravy. It was bland, and served with rice. Apart from that, there was a disgusting and inedible lentil salad, a piece of cheese, a tiny piece of coffee-flavored cream cake, and some unsweetened applesauce. I have seen more appealing high school cafeteria lunches, and Air France’s economy class catering is about on par with United. SkyTeam airline Xiamen Air had much better food catered out of Seattle, and Air France’s partner Delta does a much better job with catering as well. The one thing I will say for Air France is that they have a better selection of alcohol than either airline. You can still get brandy in economy class! It’s probably a usual complaint on planes to say “the food was lousy and there wasn’t enough” but that’s exactly what this was. Some crackers with spreadable cheese and a green salad would have rounded out the meal.
It tasted how it looks
Breakfast served before landing was equally unmemorable. Instant coffee, a container of canned fruit, a container of orange juice, some plain yogurt, a bread roll and a sweet roll. The sweet roll was hot, but it tasted like one of those canned Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that you heat up in the oven–you know the overpoweringly sweet, chemical, plastic taste. Overall, my thoughts on the breakfast were “how American” and that pretty much sums it up. I’d totally have expected something like this if I were flying United in economy class. A croissant is apparently out of order on a French airline.
While there is (surprisingly) no inflight WiFi, Air France does have good quality inflight entertainment. Although the economy class seats aren’t very comfortable, they’re equipped with large new, LED displays with a full complement of inflight entertainment (a new computer system runs this and it’s really very good). This is one area where Air France is markedly better than United’s old 777-200s and their tiny seatback displays. Of course, I spent most of the time watching the “moving map” – my usual go-to entertainment on planes.
Overall, would I fly Air France economy class again? For 25,000 miles (particularly ones that aren’t even in my account yet), to an expensive destination, at the last minute, sure! I’m always happy to take the last seat in the plane if it’s free. For money, though? I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly Air France versus other options from Seattle to Europe, and I certainly wouldn’t pay more. I think Delta wins overall here, and they still fly nonstop to Amsterdam. British Airways often has much better fares and they offer a very similar inflight product, service attitude, and connecting airport. Icelandair and Condor aren’t full service airlines, but are also generally a lot cheaper. Norwegian, an ultra low cost carrier, has ridiculously low fares. For a full service European carrier, Lufthansa has better (and more) food and the service, which while very efficient (in a very German way), is also surprisingly friendly. This is, however, balanced out by the very tight configuration in their economy class cabin, which is even more uncomfortable than Air France.