How I Got A Parking Ticket In Zagreb

It’s really easy to run afoul of parking regulations in Europe. This is especially true in Zagreb, where signage for paid parking isn’t always clear and parking meters can be a block or more away from where you actually parked. So, I was annoyed but not particularly surprised to see a parking ticket sitting on my windshield after parking outside a friend’s apartment overnight.

Zagreb parking ticket image

An unwelcome decorative item on my windshield

Zagreb, however, is unusually fair about how parking tickets work. Basically they bill you the full charge for parking in the space for a 24-hour day, starting from the time that the ticket is issued. Parking is split up into zones identified by color. This parking ticket was for a yellow zone, for which the 24-hour charge was about $10. Displaying the ticket on my dashboard entitled me to park in any other yellow zone space in the city until the expiration date. So, this actually didn’t end up costing me any more than just paying normally for parking would have, because I needed to park overnight in the same space again anyway. However, it’s painfully expensive if you didn’t plan to park all day.

The main problem was figuring out how to actually pay for the ticket. The information in English on the back of the ticket isn’t very helpful; it just says that you have to pay within 6 days or it’ll go to collections. And my Croatian employees don’t drive, so they had no idea how to deal with the problem. However, one of my Croatian friends does drive, and told me that I could just pay the ticket at, among a long list of other places, the post office.

My Croatian friend tried to convince me very hard not to pay the parking ticket. “Your car is from Budapest? They’ll never track you down,” he said. I wasn’t so sure, and didn’t want to risk not paying the parking ticket. I really don’t recommend that you risk avoiding traffic fines in Europe either. Generally speaking, the parking authorities will just send the fine–with hefty late payment charges tacked on–to your car rental company. They will pay the ticket on your behalf, tack on their own fines and handling fees, and bill your credit card “for your convenience.” There is no disputing or getting out of any of these charges, because you explicitly agree to them in the rental contract and generally initial a separate provision acknowledging that you understand this. Actually, I have personal experience with this. I was tracked all the way across the Pacific Ocean from Australia a year later after receiving a parking ticket in error, and had to argue the fine vehemently with Sydney parking authorities before it was finally rescinded (in this case, I had genuinely been ticketed in error and could provide proof that I was authorized to park in the space).

Fortunately the Croatian post office is pretty good and they have locations all over the city, including one within easy walking distance of my friend’s apartment. They are friendly, efficient and speak English. 65 kuna and 5 minutes later (including the fee for making the payment), and I was on my way with a payment receipt.

If you ever get a parking ticket in Zagreb, I hope this is useful! It’s best not to get one in the first place, though. Always double check whether you’re in a paid parking space. Very few spaces on the street are free, and you might have to hunt around for a parking meter to pay. They don’t take credit cards, and generally only take Croatian coins, so be sure that you carry plenty of change in the car. And, of course, don’t drive if you can avoid it. The hassle and expense are rarely worth it.

Saving At Budget Motels In California

As I write this, I’m enjoying the spectacular weather in sunny southern California. Nothing beats 78 degrees and breezy at the end of October, but as you probably know, California isn’t a very budget-friendly destination. Even a campground will set you back as much as $35 per night! Most brand-name hotels in the downtown areas of cities start around $200 per night, which is strictly unaffordable for the average Seat 31B traveler.

Many travel blogs encourage you to play elaborate points games in order to stay in expensive hotels. Even if you do this, you’ll still end up spending as much as $100 per night. You have to consider the cost of credit card annual fees, the opportunity cost versus earning other types of points, and the taxes you have to pay (which are often billed based on the retail cost of the room). “Free” isn’t really free when it comes to this stuff.

Alternatively, you can look at lower cost options. California is the world’s seventh largest economy, and it’s well known for having unique local businesses. In addition to famous local fast food chains (such as In-N-Out Burger), there are three local motel chains offering clean, comfortable and decidedly budget-friendly rooms throughout California. I’d like to introduce you to Good Nite Inn, EZ-8 and Premier Inns.

Good Nite Inn has locations throughout California, and often advertises in coupon books that you can pick up at rest areas and Denny’s restaurant locations throughout the state. These coupons will almost always save you money. It’s worth picking up the book. They also occasionally have deals on their Web site. You’ll usually pay about the same price for two people as you would for a single room at Motel 6, and you’ll usually find a Good Nite Inn near a Motel 6 location (in Sylmar, there is a Motel 6 next door). Rooms typically look like they are from the mid-1990s, with a tube television and funky carpet. However, the beds tend to be comfortable, everything works, rooms are somewhat clean and there is air conditioning. Like Motel 6, Internet service isn’t available at all locations and it’s not free if it is available. Coin laundry facilities are typically available on site and there is an ice machine available as well. Motel 6 locations fill up fast (being some of the only reasonably priced accommodations in many parts of California), so Good Nite Inn is a good alternative.

Good Nite Inn room

A typical 1990s-inspired room at Good Nite Inn

EZ-8 Motels and Premier Inns are another good alternative. They don’t advertise at all, have no coupon specials, and they only offer a small AAA discount. Their Web page pretty much says as much. As well, these motels are typically located a little off the beaten path. In the Bay Area, you won’t be staying in the center of San Francisco. Instead, you’ll be staying in a bedroom community like Concord or Newark, but you can quickly and easily take the BART from there to San Francisco. When a room in San Francisco will easily cost you $200 or more per night, it’s worth staying a little out of town.

Image of E-Z-8 motel room

E-Z-8 Motel room – basic but comfortable

How much could you save? A lot! A room for a single person this weekend will cost you just $35 per night in San Diego. The W, not far away, has rooms starting at $170 per night (for the most heavily restricted, prepaid, non-refundable rate) and doesn’t even include parking! If you cashed in points for your stay at the W, you’d pay nearly as much just for parking and taxes as you would for an entire room at the E-Z-8.

Budget motels don’t offer frequent guest programs, concierge service or fancy amenities. Some offer watery coffee in the lobby, served in a Styrofoam cup. However, how much of your California vacation do you really want to spend in your room? Get out and enjoy the sun! That’s why you came, isn’t it?

The Epic Transatlantic Armrest Battle

I just flew 13,588 miles from Los Angeles to Paris to Copenhagen to Amsterdam and back. The whole trip was flown in economy class and I only narrowly avoided Seat 31B. It truly was the worst seat in the plane on two separate legs of the journey, even though the aircraft types were different (Boeing 737 and Airbus A380). In fact, it’s so bad that KLM reserves the whole row 31 for crew use only. Instead, I was seated one row forward in Seat 30C for two legs of the journey. Somehow, I even scored an aisle seat.

Picture of Seat 31B

Seat 31B is the one in the middle. It doesn’t recline.

Exceptionally pleased with my good luck, I stored my carry-on luggage with an almost smug attitude on the final leg of my journey. It was a monster long leg, a nearly 12-hour flight from Paris to Los Angeles on the A380. Now, I was flying on an “attack fare,” and expected that something awful would likely happen. After all, apart from taxes, the seat was nearly free. I paid only $555 for a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen on Air France, tacking on a cheap intra-Europe flight to Amsterdam with KLM so I could fly on a single itinerary (and avoid bag fees). It was the final leg of the journey, and I really couldn’t believe my good luck. A direct flight to the West Coast on an A380, and I didn’t even have to sit in the middle!

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

I took my seat, but a few minutes later I knew there would be a problem. A diminutive woman leaned over to me. “Would you like to sit by the window?” she said, a statement more than a question. “No, actually. I prefer the aisle, thanks,” I said. The woman started to crawl over me to her seat–clearly a novice flyer. “Please wait, I will get out, you can take your seat,” I said. “It’s OK, I can climb over,” she said, but I nimbly got out of the way and she was able to take her seat (she never really got the idea; it became a race the entire flight to get out of my seat before she tried to crawl over me). Just as I started to sit down, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was her son. He was nearly 7 feet tall, a pile of gangly limbs with a tall pile of dreadlocks atop his head.

Now, the ceiling in the A380 is tall, but between this guy’s height and his crazy hair, the reading light was actually blocked! The other issue was the fact that he didn’t fit in his seat. At all. His diminutive mother sat in her window seat unmolested while this guy tried to wedge himself into his seat. Finally, he lifted the armrest. “Let’s leave this up for the flight,” he said, literally half of his body occupying my seat. “Let’s not,” I said. “It doesn’t work very well to do this when I lean back to sleep, and by the way, not to be annoying, but there isn’t actually room for me to sit in my seat.”

He adjusted himself, contorting his body into perhaps the most painful stress position I’ve ever seen–rivaling those the CIA perfected at Guantanamo–and managed to clear most of my seat. Unfortunately, his body still protruded into my seat, right elbow and knee and shoulder, everything hard and sharp periodically bumping into me as he tried to remain squeezed in his seat, limbs occasionally popping out of their stress positions to jam into me. Young people being independent, he didn’t want to try to share his mother’s seat, so everything moved gradually in my direction.

lax-cdg-cph-ams

It was a *long* roundtrip in economy class

I lived for 3 years in Beijing. I am used to close quarters, and if you don’t learn to be tolerant of uncomfortable situations and inexplicable delays, you’ll just go crazy there. I learned to be more patient, and I’m still pretty patient–I haven’t been living in Western society long enough to lose patience, empathy and good humor. Still, this was an armrest battle on steroids. The battle in this case wasn’t over who had the armrest–trying to share it would have entirely been a lost cause–but whether the armrest stayed down and my seat-mate remained in only his seat. Every time I left my seat, I’d return to find the armrest up and half of my seat occupied. I mean, I didn’t blame the guy. I really sympathized. It isn’t his fault that airplane seats are designed to be a tight squeeze for Chinese people, let alone people who are nearly 7 feet tall. Still, leaving the armrest up just wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t exactly stand up for the whole flight.

In the end, I got almost no sleep. This was one of the longest and least comfortable flights I’ve ever taken. I honestly can’t even imagine what it was like for the guy next to me–a cruel, sadistic 12 hours of torture (gate to gate) no doubt. I think there really needs to be a better solution than this. The sizes of seats and people keep moving in opposite directions.

Do you have to fight for your whole airplane seat? Comment below!

Off The Beaten Path In The Netherlands

I spent nearly a year living and studying in The Netherlands, and am often asked for advice on what to see and do there. The Netherlands (often incorrectly called Holland) has a lot to see for such a small country, and it’s easy to navigate. It’s also a terrific gateway to Europe, because there are a large number of flights (including on low-cost carriers) into Schiphol airport. Although Dutch people speak their own language, they’re very linguistically versatile. Nearly everyone speaks excellent English (younger people especially so), and they usually also speak German. So, The Netherlands is a great first country to visit in Europe–or a great first country to visit in general.

Dutch boat and canal

If you visit The Netherlands, you’ll probably end up on a boat at some point.

Unfortunately, none of this is really a secret. The Netherlands is one of the most-visited countries in Europe, and for good reason: it’s home to some of its most famous museums and attractions. During the tourist season, The Netherlands is besieged by visitors, not only from North America and Europe but also from Asia. For a small country with only 14 million residents, the top attractions can become very crowded indeed. And for some reason, even though there is no shortage of places to visit in The Netherlands, everyone seems to flock to the same ones.

As I sit in Weesp, having enjoyed an idyllic and beautiful fall Sunday in a picture postcard Dutch town with nary another visitor to be seen, I am amazed that more people don’t make it off the beaten path in The Netherlands. Haarlem, a very similar city, is besieged by throngs of tourists, the restaurants and shops charging inflated tourist prices. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Belgian beer in a sunny sidewalk cafe for a mere €4.50 this afternoon, while watching the locals enjoy the day in their boats.

Weesp sidewalk cafe

Sidewalk cafes in Weesp are every bit as nice, but just half the price of Haarlem

It’s not just idyllic country towns that are great to visit when you go off the beaten path. Every weekend, planeloads of visitors descend on Schiphol and head straight for the Red Light district in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a party, this is one place to go, but not the best place. Despite the marijuana and prostitution, it’s a pretty relaxed, organized and tame place. It’s really crowded though, with the high prices you would expect in a really popular area. Personally, I skip the Red Light District. As a guy with a fairly serious DJ hobby, I’m into electronic music, and the best music and parties are in the young, vibrant city of Utrecht. For half the price of an evening out in Amsterdam, you can see much better DJs and have a lot better time at an Utrecht dance party. It’s also a beautiful city, known as the “city of lights” in The Netherlands and famous for the elaborate light displays along its canals.

Utrecht City Of Lights

The party is at the end of this tunnel.

How about art? Everyone knows about the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, did you know that there’s an astonishingly large Van Gogh collection at a museum you have probably never heard of? I think the seldom-visited Kröller-Müller Museum in Gelderland is a lot better than the Van Gogh Museum, even though it’s less well-known. It also has an incredible sculpture garden. It’s best if you rent a car to get there, but if you do, you might just have the place to yourself.

One reason that many people don’t venture far from the beaten path is the perceived complexity of public transportation. However, in reality, Dutch public transportation is one of the easiest systems to use in the world. It’s really only complicated if you’re trying to pay cash or use a non-European bank card. The Netherlands has a unified transportation payment system called the OV-Chipkaart. It works in literally every bus, train, subway and tram in the country. All of them, everywhere. You can buy one at the NS train ticket sales counter at Schiphol, and it will make your life incredibly easier. Public transportation is relatively expensive in The Netherlands, so 50 euro goes fast! Reloading is easy with cash or a credit card at any train station with a ticket counter. You can also reload your OV-Chipkaart at ticket machines, but this only works reliably with a European credit card with chip and PIN.

OV-Chipkaart reader

Scan your OV-Chipkaart on the reader

Using the OV-Chipkaart is remarkably simple. Just scan it before (or as) you get into the bus, train, train or subway. When you leave, scan it again. You’re charged by distance, and the fares add up quickly. Transportation in The Netherlands is expensive! That’s why you see everyone riding a bicycle; you will pay to be lazy. Your account will need a minimum balance of 20 euro to board a NS Railways train (which is why it’s best to start with 50 euro on your card), but you usually don’t need any minimum balance to board a subway, tram or bus.

It actually gets even better than this. You only need one way to plan travel in The Netherlands: either the Web site or smartphone app 9292. You can easily plan a trip between any two locations in the country and all methods of public transportation are covered. You can even find out the cost in advance. Content is all available in both English and Dutch. Yes, it really is this easy. The best way to search is by postal code, if you have it. Note that every single address in The Netherlands has its own unique postal code.

Dutch weather

The weather can change suddenly, even if it’s nice where you just were. Bring an umbrella!

Are there more hidden gems in The Netherlands? Of course! Some of my other favorite cities are Groningen, Maastricht and Den Haag (The Hague). Each has a very different personality. Groningen is famous for squatter dwellings, warehouse parties and graffiti art. Maastricht has winding cobblestone streets where you can find an absolutely perfect cup of fine Dutch Espresso, sipping slowly and watching the world go by. And Den Haag is a rabbit’s warren of serendipitous discoveries, with some of the most interesting and unique shops in the country.

But I have really only scratched the surface. For such a small country, there is a lot to enjoy in The Netherlands. Take the train to a place you’ve never heard of, rent a bicycle (possible for a few euro at most train stations) and go explore! You might be amazed at what you find.

How Much Did Priceline Pay For That Room You Bid?

Last week, I was in the Bay Area on some business travel. In my real life, I’m the founder of a tech startup. We’re not yet funded, so my travel budget is usually somewhere in between sleeping in my car and tent camping. I figured I could probably couch surf on my last trip, but that didn’t end up working out for most of the nights. I did manage to couch surf for two nights, but I also tent camped for a night and ended up in hotels, booked through Priceline, for two nights. For my Priceline room nights, the actual amount that Priceline paid was unintentionally leaked to me. This is normally very closely held information so it’s nice to get a rare inside look at the data.

picture of tent camping

Why not camp out to save money? China Camp State Park, California

So, a few words about Priceline, just so you know what I’m talking about and why this is special. Priceline sells hotel rooms through a number of channels. You can make a traditional reservation at the normal, published rate. Priceline receives a commission for handling the reservation just like any other travel agency. They also offer “express deals,” which allow you to choose a hotel by price, date, zone, and star level, with the name of the hotel revealed after you select a specific one. This works pretty much the same way as Hotwire, another popular “opaque travel” site. The best deals in the hotel business, however, are through Priceline’s “name your own price” offers. These work pretty much the same way as “express deals,” but you bid for a room and hotels within the zone can choose to accept your offer or not. In all cases, the amount that you actually pay bears little resemblance to what was either bid or advertised. Taxes and fees are lumped together and added on at the very end (just before you pay), which can inflate your bill by 20% or more. It’s a shady tactic, but just about everyone does this for hotel rooms.

When you use the “name your own price” method, I found out that the actual amount being “bid” to the hotel isn’t the same as you bid on Priceline. It’s actually a lower price. I was able to obtain data proving this in two cases (although it was provided to me inadvertently). For two different Bay Area rooms in separate properties on separate dates, Priceline pocketed about $10 per room night and refused bids that would have resulted in  a lower profit. I still saved a lot, but less than I expected.

For the first Priceline room night I booked, my winning bid was $60. The actual price I was charged, after my bill was larded up with taxes and fees, was $76.21. However, the hotel made an error and revealed the price that they billed Priceline. So, I was able to see that Priceline actually paid $65.88 for the room. Their profit on this room was $10.33. It’s worth pointing out that this particular hotel was selling its cheapest rooms for $129 per night plus tax, so the savings were still substantial. However, the hotel was nearly empty and really needed to sell the room. Given how my bidding was structured, Priceline could have sold me the room at a $50 and $55 bid. They held out until my bid was $60, guaranteeing themselves a minimum profit. Priceline thus demonstrated that it would have been willing to let last-minute room inventory spoil rather than selling it at a reduced profit.

For the second Priceline room night I booked, the results were nearly identical. I ended up with a $55 winning bid, which was unscrupulously inflated to a total of $69.64. The amount that Priceline was actually billed by the hotel, in data inadvertently leaked to me, was $61.56. So, in this case, Priceline’s profit was $8.08, and I bid for the same room–in the same zone–at $50 which would have turned a $3.08 gross profit.

So, how much is the minimum gross profit Priceline will accept for a name-your-own-price room night? At least based on my experience, it’s more than $5.33 and probably a little less than $8.08. For a single-night booking, this is actually a pretty slim margin. Priceline, after all, has to pay all of the costs of booking the room and processing your credit card. Still, it’s a little higher than I expected, and finding this data has encouraged me not to bid in even $5 increments. If I think I’m close to a winning bid, I’ll more likely increment my bids by $2 or $3 rather than $5.

Part of the value proposition to hoteliers in listing with Priceline is that it’s a good way to liquidate last-minute unsold inventory, albeit at a steep discount. Priceline, however, has demonstrated a willingness to allow inventory to spoil rather than to sell it at an (in its view) unacceptably low margin. It’d be interesting to know whether Priceline’s contracts obligate it to accept break-even bids in order to help its partners unload stale room inventory, and how much this actually is (bearing in mind Priceline’s operating costs). If not, hoteliers would be wise to insist upon break-even or better sales when it comes to any “name-your-own-price” sites.

You might be asking at this point “How was this data leaked?” I’m not going to go into details, because this would probably get the hotels involved in trouble. I’m also hoping that more data will continue to leak so I will have more points of reference in order to formulate better bids. I will say that there were no hacks or shenanigans involved. The information was accidentally leaked to me in both cases, and this probably happens fairly often; the difference with me is that I actually knew what it meant.

How To Avoid Booking Bad Airports

Sometimes a cheap fare can end up being a lot more expensive, both in terms of time and hassle. I’m not talking about baggage fees or any of the other charges that airlines use to cause last-minute surprises. Most readers of #Seat31B are savvy enough to avoid those. Instead, I’m talking about airports. Pay attention to where you’re flying. It might not be exactly where you were expecting.

Although you can encounter this issue in some North American cities, this problem can really bite you when you’re flying with cut-rate budget airlines in Europe and Asia. These airlines often don’t fly to the primary airports in their cities, leaving you stuck with limited (and often very expensive) transportation options. For example, Ryanair will fly you to a place they call Brussels, but the airport is actually well south of the city in Charleroi. It’s 62km away, and the taxi ride will almost definitely cost you more than your flight. The same is true with the place they call “Frankfurt.” It’s actually Hahn, nearly an hour away. To its credit, Ryanair generally organizes a bus between the center city and airports they serve (often at a price that rings up at more than your flight), but you have to book this in advance or you might find yourself without any other options. The same is true with AirAsia, which flies to Don Mueang airport in Bangkok where taxis are your only option. This might be OK, because taxis are generally pretty cheap in Bangkok, but it might be a disaster: traffic is notoriously bad. You always have to allow considerable extra time when departing from Don Mueang. AirAsia also makes its hub at the KLIA2 terminal at Kuala Lumpur airport. While there are very good transportation connections at this new terminal, it’s easy to end up in the wrong place if you’re not paying attention.

Even with more conventional international airports, ground transportation can be astonishingly expensive. Consider Tokyo. If you take a taxi from Narita Airport in Tokyo to the city center, you can end up spending as much as you paid for your flight! The cheapest train route will require about 2 hours in travel time and cost about $25.

Tokyo taxicab photo

Check the price before you get into a Tokyo taxi

How can you avoid trouble in Tokyo? Avoid Narita airport. Instead, if you can, fly to Haneda airport. It’s much closer to the city and transportation is much less expensive.

What are some of my favorite airports to avoid? Here is my list of the “worst offender” airports that I think are likely to cause you trouble:

Asia

Beijing: Avoid flying into Tianjin. Some budget airlines present this as an alternate for Beijing. It’s not. Tianjin is an entirely separate city located a considerable distance from Beijing. Also avoid booking China United Airlines at Nanyuan Airport. This is a secondary airport in the dangerous southern part of the city. It isn’t on the Beijing Subway and your only option may be to overpay for an illegal taxi.

Shanghai: Avoid flying into Pudong Airport if possible. It is located very far from the city center. Hongqiao Airport is a much better choice. Unfortunately, most international flights arrive at Pudong Airport.

Tokyo: Avoid Narita airport if possible. Although transportation connections are excellent, they are expensive. Narita is also far from the Tokyo city center, so plan your time wisely! Unfortunately, most international flights to Tokyo arrive at Narita.

Bangkok: Avoid flying into Don Mueang airport. The only transportation option is taxis which are more expensive than the train from the primary Bangkok airport, and are much less predictable in Bangkok traffic.

Europe

Ryanair – Be generally suspicious of any city names published by this airline and be certain you know where the flight will really be arriving. If it’s not the primary airport in the city you’re visiting, research ground transportation options before you book the flight. The overall package might still prove to be a good value, but be sure to know what you’re buying.

London – Avoid Luton and Stansted airports. Heathrow and Gatwick have good transportation connections, although Heathrow is the better of the two. London City airport has few flights, but is located directly in the city center.

The Netherlands – Avoid Eindhoven, the hub of Ryanair. It’s an expensive train ride from there to anywhere you’ll likely want to be.

Brussels – Avoid Charleroi airport. Not convenient!

Frankfurt – Hahn is not Frankfurt!

Rome – Ciampino Airport, used by many budget carriers, is actually closer to the city center than the main airport (Leonardo da Vinci). However, it has only bus and taxi connections. Given the terrible traffic in Rome, be sure to allow extra time when using this airport.

North America

Southwest Airlines and Allegiant AirlinesLike Ryanair in Europe, Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Airlines often fly to inconvenient, out-of-the-way and smaller airports with cheaper landing fees. Unlike Ryanair, you don’t need to read the fine print as carefully: they are both pretty up-front with showing the city names correctly. Just be sure that you don’t get carried away with booking a cheaper fare; it could mean more expensive ground transportation and longer connections.

San Francisco – There are often cheaper flights into Oakland and San Jose, both served by Southwest Airlines. However, ground transportation connections are not very convenient from either airport unless you’re renting a car. To be fair, Oakland will get much more convenient when it is linked to the BART railway network in Fall, 2014, at which point I might instead be calling it the Bay Area’s best kept secret.

Los Angeles – The most convenient airport is often not LAX, which is the biggest airport in the Los Angeles area and the primary international airport. If you’re visiting Disneyland, consider flying to Orange County – John Wayne Airport (SNA), which is practically across the street. For Universal Studios and Hollywood, fly to the Bob Hope Burbank Airport (BUR). The small Long Beach airport (LGB) is primarily served by smaller aircraft, so you can get in and out very quickly. The airport to avoid? Ontario (ONT), which is inconveniently located to almost everything except its immediate surrounding area. Don’t be tempted by the lower fare!

Washington, DC – Avoid Dulles Airport (IAD) and fly to National Airport (DCA) if possible. The latter airport is on the excellent Washington DC subway system, and is conveniently located to the city.

New York – Avoid Islip (ISP) and White Plains (HPN). These are both far from the city. Also avoid LaGuardia (LGA). This airport is delay-prone, its facilities have been charitably described as “third world,” and there are only bus and taxi connections. JFK airport, the primary international airport, has an inexpensive subway connection but is very busy and located far from the center city, so plan accordingly. Newark airport (EWR) is closer and has more expensive, but still excellent transportation connections to Penn Station via the AirTrain.

Are there any airports that you go out of your way to avoid? Drop me a line on Twitter @Seat31B.

The Case For Carry-On Empathy

It’s really easy to lose sight of the human element in today’s air travel experience. It’s generally rushed and miserable. With ludicrous fees nipping at your heels everywhere you step among a minefield of “gotcha” clauses in the Contract of Carriage, it’s no surprise that people are in a sour mood as soon as they check in. And this is before experiencing the TSA circus that is all part of the modern security theatre experience.

So, by the time that you get on the plane, I can appreciate that you’re really upset to be delayed even further by someone in front of you, struggling to fit their overstuffed carry-on bag into the undersized bin on the plane. “That guy,” you think, while possibly snapping a picture and making a snarky Twitter post with a hashtag of #CarryOnShame. This is the latest mean-spirited trend in the already angry world of travel.

Several times over the past four years, “that guy” could have been me. Until very recently, I was living abroad. Last year, I lived in 3 different countries around the world (China, The Netherlands and Costa Rica) and each time, I brought my possessions with me on planes. Before that, when living in Beijing, I’d only get to come home 2-3 times per year. I’d make massive Costco runs, bringing back whatever small comforts of home I could carry on and fit in my checked bag and carrying on whatever I could. Most recently, I took another flight, again using my full baggage allowance. After a long time away, I am starting a new life back in my home country, which has become a mean-spirited place that I sometimes barely recognize anymore.

Overstuffed luggage

Nearly everything I own is in these bags.

Yes, I’m that guy. The guy with a carry-on bag that I had to sit on in order to fit everything inside. The guy who is using 52 pounds of his 50 pound baggage allowance. The guy who stretches the definition of “personal item” into “whatever I can get away with.” It’s really out of necessity. Airlines do not have reasonable prices for extra or checked bags on international flights so let me make things completely clear: in practice, the choice I have faced each time has been either to be “that guy” or to abandon my stuff and start over. Start over even more than I already am, in a country where I don’t know where or whether I can replace my stuff. Sure, I chose to move, you might say. This is true, but I don’t choose to make things any more difficult. The Calvinist notion that people should have to struggle because… well, because… isn’t one I buy into.

The next time you see a person struggling with an oversized carry-on, trying to fit it into the overhead bin, have a little empathy. Consider stopping to help instead of pushing past or taking pictures to post on Twitter with snarky hashtags. Sometimes life just doesn’t easily fit into a small carry-on bag.

How I Turned An Overbooked Flight Into $400

I just turned an overbooked $99 one-way flight into an extra day in Seattle (which I actually wanted), $400 in Delta Dollars (which spend like cash on the Delta Web site), and a hotel voucher for the night. Not a bad outcome for a delay that I wanted anyway! I did this by getting bumped off of a flight, and you can too.

Delta voucher

I received a $400 Delta voucher!

Most airlines (with the exception of JetBlue) routinely oversell flights. This means that they sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane. It makes sense for the airlines to do this to soak up inventory that would otherwise go unsold. On almost every flight, there will be a few seats that go out empty because people showed up late or misconnected. Most of the time, this works out just fine for the airlines. Flights go out full (or nearly full), and the airlines pocket the change fees. However, as those change fees have increased–to the point where tickets are now often completely nonrefundable–people have gotten a lot better at making their flights. This has made it a really delicate calculation for the airlines and sometimes it doesn’t work out in their favor.

My flight yesterday was an ideal candidate for scoring a bump. It is the last flight of the day from Seattle to Los Angeles, and it’s also a feeder flight for Virgin Australia’s service to Sydney. These connecting passengers cannot miss their flight without causing a major disruption to their itineraries. Making matters worse, Delta has begun funneling most passengers onto its own flights instead of routing them onto Alaska Airlines, and they just launched a massive expansion in Seattle two weeks ago without adding any additional capacity on the route. Flights (especially connecting flights) are suddenly packed. At the same time, the relationship with Alaska Airlines has deteriorated to the point where the two airlines are no longer cooperating on the route through codeshare, so Delta doesn’t have anywhere for the overflow. And I was booked only from Seattle to LAX, with all of the flexibility in the world.

The US Department of Transportation (equivalent rules exist in other countries) highly frowns on the practice of overbooking when it results in what is called an “involuntary denied boarding” (or “IDB” in industry parlance). There are some really stiff penalties, requiring cash compensation of up to 400% of the ticket price. Additionally, if airlines deny you a seat that you paid for, they have to buy you another seat on the next available flight (whether they operate it or not). If you’re stuck overnight, they have to pay for all of your hotels and if you’re delayed for over two hours, they have to pay for your meals. All of this also gets reported to the Department of Transportation and ends up in published statistics that invariably end up as negative press. As you might imagine, airlines do whatever they can to avoid involuntarily denying boarding to passengers (although if they ultimately do have to involuntarily bump someone, there is a detailed pecking order through which they decide whom to bump).

the hook

This is why airlines will sometimes ask for volunteers who are willing to take another flight in exchange for compensation. The compensation is whatever you can negotiate, although it’s typically a fixed offer and there tends to be a lot of competition for volunteering. United typically starts the bidding at $200 in vouchers, US Airways and American start the bidding at $300, and Delta usually starts at $400. However, Delta will only put you on another Delta flight, whereas other airlines (except Southwest) will often buy you a ticket on the next available flight regardless of operating airline. This means you’re usually facing a longer delay with Delta.

It pays to pay attention. By the time that gate staff makes an announcement in the gate area, it’s probably too late to volunteer your seat. Many airlines (such as Delta) ask for volunteers during the online check-in process, so it pays to check in as early as possible – you can usually check in 24 hours early. Also pay attention to the seat map. If there are no seats available for selection unless you pay extra, don’t pay for a seat. You’re likely to get a free upgrade to a preferred seat when you check in (sometimes even first class), and you may have the opportunity to get bumped as well. Airlines call this an “operational upgrade,” or “op-up” for short. This is because it costs them less to give you a free upgrade than it does to bump you off the flight.

How do you know whether you might have a chance at getting bumped? There are a few clues. If you’re asked online to volunteer your seat, you know the flight is definitely overbooked and there is a very high chance of getting bumped. Airlines will offer the lowest possible compensation you might accept online, but you can generally bid a higher amount. Just keep in mind that higher bids are lower in priority, and airlines usually don’t need very many volunteers (sometimes they only need one). If you accept the lowest offer at the earliest time with the least complicated itinerary, you will have the highest chance of being bumped. Note that you won’t always be asked online. If you check in and your boarding pass doesn’t have a seat number but instead says something like “assigned at gate,” you know that the flight is overbooked and you’ll probably have a chance to get bumped.

If you haven’t volunteered your seat online, go to the gate early (the gate typically opens an hour before the flight leaves) and be the first in line to talk to the agent. Ask politely whether the flight is oversold, and if it is, ask whether they are looking for volunteers. If they are taking volunteers, they’ll take your boarding pass. Sit down near the podium (in a place where they can easily see you) and pay attention. Everyone else will board before you. If you do end up getting on the flight, you will be the last person on. Don’t worry, the gate agent hasn’t forgotten about you (and if they have, they will need to give you compensation anyway). So, do not bother the gate agents, they are very busy getting the flight out on time, and if you hassle them they might just put you on board to get rid of you (and you’ll lose your chance at being bumped for compensation). Wait in the gate area and stay visible until they call you to the podium.

What will you receive if you’re voluntarily bumped? It’s whatever compensation you can negotiate, or if you didn’t negotiate up front, whatever you can negotiate with no leverage (being nice and polite to the gate agent goes a long way here). You’ll usually get a hotel voucher for the night if you’re not in your home city and you’re stuck overnight, an airline voucher that is good for up to $800 (although usually for much less), and sometimes meal vouchers depending upon the length of the delay. You should be aiming to get the maximum amount possible with the minimum length of delay (unless, of course, you want the delay), but remember you have competition. If you’re too greedy the airline will accept another volunteer’s less demanding offer!