Avoiding Rental Contract Tricks Abroad

Renting a car outside the United States can be a lot different than renting one within it. There are plenty of pitfalls that can trip you up and cost you extra. I just rented a car from a small, local company in Budapest and there were even more traps than usual. So, although the last thing that you may want to do after a long international flight is sit down and read the tiny print of a rental contract, it pays to go through it.

First, when you rent a car abroad, all of the normal stuff that you need to watch out for in the US applies. Be sure that you inspect the car for damage before you get in and drive off. Don’t believe anything the rental agent says about the damage not mattering–be sure that it’s carefully noted on the rental form. Also don’t be afraid to take a quick photo of the agent with the car, especially if there is visible damage. This will go a long way towards ensuring there are not arguments later.

Other things to watch out for are insurance scams and additional driver charges. Unless you rent with a rate that includes multiple drivers, you will probably have to pay extra for each driver. And then there’s insurance. It works differently abroad. In the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, all rental cars include both comprehensive and liability insurance. However, there is typically a 10% deductible and also an “excess,” which is an amount that you have to pay before any coverage kicks in. Many credit cards include insurance that will entirely cover any damages to the rental car, so you don’t need this coverage. However, this doesn’t typically stop rental car companies from trying to insinuate that the insurance is required, or that you will have problems using credit card insurance. There definitely can be insurance problems if you use a credit card, but these can be avoided by reviewing the coverage in advance. Note that all bets are off in Israel, Jamaica, Ireland and Northern Ireland where no credit cards offer coverage for rental cars.

However, some charges are out of left field. Have you ever taken a rental car to a car wash? Make sure that the contract doesn’t require it, and that there isn’t a car wash fee. In the contract, there was a 15 euro car wash fee, unless I washed the car myself! Since the car wasn’t actually clean when I rented it, I got the rental company to waive it, but I doubt they would have done so if I hadn’t asked up front. Additionally, there can be a border crossing fee. I needed to cross into Croatia from Hungary, and paid an additional 19 euro charge to do it. However, the vehicle was monitored via GPS, and if I hadn’t paid this, the rental car company would have fined me 150 euro as a penalty–and that charge is per border I crossed. In Europe, countries can be roughly the size of postage stamps, so this can add up in a hurry. Finally, there was an administration fee. If I had run up any tolls, traffic fines, or parking fines, these would all be individually billed with a 50 euro surcharge per item.

Read the fine print when you rent, and avoid nasty surcharges! There are few nice surprises when it comes to renting cars.

One Day Left Before LifeMiles Devalues!

Frequent flier miles are a depreciating currency. Don’t hang onto them and never trust that they will maintain their value. The latest program to devalue is Avianca LifeMiles. You have until midnight (Colombia time) tomorrow to book under the old rates. Pay attention to the time zone so you don’t miss out!

Avianca logoThe new award chart hasn’t been published (and won’t be until the devaluation has already happened) so it’s impossible to know precisely how much the program will be devalued. Accordingly, if you have Avianca LifeMiles, my recommendation is to redeem them now.

One of the most frustrating things about the LifeMiles program is that you can really only book what is offered online, and there are a lot of restrictions. It’s really best to use the program for simple point-to-point itineraries. You can book either one way or roundtrip itineraries. Unfortunately, the LifeMiles search engine is spectacularly stupid. A lot of itineraries fail to show up, even though they are available.

To search for flights, I recommend using the United search engine, which seems to work a lot better, to find an itinerary. Ideally, look for an itinerary involving only one airline. Once you find a workable itinerary on the United page (bearing in mind that only “United Saver” or “Partner” award space will be available when booking with LifeMiles), you can search for the same dates with LifeMiles. The LifeMiles search engine allows you to skip their “SmartSearch” option (which, in my opinion, is the opposite of smart) and select an individual airline. I have tested a few different itineraries and by using this method, have been able to make successful bookings that do not show up either with the “SmartSearch” or “StarAlliance” option.

Good luck, and burn LifeMiles now while you still can. At least Avianca gave advance notice of the devaluation this time. This doesn’t always happen.

Paying For Protection

You know that you need to pay the Mafia for protection or bad things will happen. Did you know that you need to pay your airline too? In airline industry parlance, “protection” means guaranteeing you transportation to your final destination. It seems like a fairly simple thing–after all, you paid for a ticket–but it’s remarkably easy to find yourself in a situation where you get stranded in a random airport somewhere along the way and nobody will do anything to help you.

I first learned about “protection” when, several years ago, Delta protected me through to Athens on an itinerary that they would have broken through a mechanical delay in New York. They also fixed my ticket on the return. What happened? I bought a Delta ticket to Frankfurt, and a separate ticket onward from Frankfurt to Athens. Delta’s delay would have resulted in me missing my flight in Athens. Since the delay was Delta’s fault, they did the right thing and instead transferred me onto their nonstop Athens flight. Additionally, since my onward ticket was invalidated by my failure to show up for the first leg, Delta also re-booked me on their nonstop flight for the return. I actually ended up with a much better itinerary as a result, and I was really happy that Delta didn’t dump me in Frankfurt hours late, and left to fend for myself.

Japanese guy being stranded by delta

Delta stranded this poor guy in LA. He won’t get home.

Fast foward to tonight. I’m waiting for a delayed Delta flight, and have been sitting near the ticket counter. So, I’ve been able to overhear all of the activity. Delta routinely rebooked a few people with connecting flights they’d miss, denied meal vouchers and a hotel to someone who wanted to extend his stay (reasonably so, it was only a 2 hour delay), more or less the usual. Except for the guy above. This guy booked his flight through a travel agency. It was booked as two round-trip flights with two separate ticket numbers:

  • Taipei-Los Angeles-Taipei
  • Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Los Angeles

The tickets were consolidated into a single itinerary and Delta has a baggage agreement with the connecting carrier (All Nippon Airways) so the guy probably had no idea that he had a completely unprotected itinerary. After all, when he checked in, his bags were tagged all the way to their final destination. The only thing he knew he would need to do was get boarding passes for his connecting flight from the connecting airline, but this isn’t even particularly unusual in Asia. Most airports there have a transfer desk for precisely this reason.

So, all of this works just fine… until it doesn’t. The flight I’m on is delayed 2 hours. What was plenty of time for a connecting flight has turned into just 15 minutes. There is no physical way to make the transfer from Terminal 5 in Los Angeles to the Tom Bradley Terminal, short of someone meeting the incoming flight at the gate in a Porsche. And even then, making the connection would be a race. “This is not our ticket to Taipei, there is nothing I can do,” the Delta agent kept repeating to the visitor (a Japanese man who apparently lives in Taiwan). “Your ticket with us is only to LA. I can only get you to LA. You will have to deal with the other airline when you get there.”

Obviously, being a no-show for an international flight, without even having a boarding pass issued, is disastrously expensive. And one might think it’s not entirely reasonable for Delta to completely wash its hands of the problem, given that the flight delay was totally their fault. The flight crew called in sick! They had to find another flight crew. Incredulous, the Japanese visitor–who had every right to expect Delta to solve the problem–politely asked again for Delta to help. He was again rebuffed. This happened a few more times, which is a really big deal in Japanese culture, and finally it became clear: Delta was, in fact, going to just dump him in Los Angeles with no solution, left to solve a problem that they alone created. He wasn’t getting home.

When I contrast this to my experience in Japan with a tight connection that was entirely my fault, and how JAL and ANA completely had my back and did everything possible to help me make my flight, it’s truly unbelievable. But that’s the current state of air travel. These days, at least with Delta, your itinerary is only protected if it’s all on a Delta ticket number. It’s not even entirely clear whether it’s possible if there are multiple Delta ticket numbers. If anything goes wrong along the way–even if it’s entirely their fault–you could be left stranded in a strange city and forced to fend for yourself.

How can you prevent this sort of problem from happening? For the average consumer, it’s almost hopeless, actually. Travel insurance is often suggested as the catch-all panacea, but most travel insurance won’t cover you in this situation. When you book online, some sites (such as Kayak) will automatically string together itineraries such as these in order to secure the lowest fare. The safest way to at least have a fighting chance is to buy your tickets directly from the airline (either by phone or on their Web site), and to buy simple roundtrip itineraries. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, particularly with complex international itineraries, but if you bought everything directly from the airline you’re flying, you’ll at least have a better chance of success.

I am fond of saying that the only thing an airline’s Contract of Carriage actually requires them to do is to eventually transport you to your final destination. However, the definition of “final destination” can now be fuzzy. You and the airline may not actually think it is the same thing. Buyer beware!

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.

Avoiding A Cabotage Calamity

With the increasing difficulty of using frequent flyer miles, it’s no surprise that many people are seeking to redeem on partner airlines instead. This sometimes creates situations that would rarely arise before, and one of those situations is called “cabotage.” Ever since another travel blogger, Jeff from Canadian Kilometers, lodged a cabotage-related complaint with the US Department of Transportation, it has made it a lot harder to book awards between US locations while transiting third countries.

Blame Canada

Blame Canada

What is cabotage? It is, quite simply, the practice of a foreign airline (or cruise line) carrying passengers between two points within the United States, even when transiting a third country. For example, consider a flight between Los Angeles and New York via Toronto. It seems like an awfully logical connecting point, just look at the map:

lax-yyz-lga route map

This routing could cause you trouble

If you were to fly Air Canada from Los Angeles to Toronto, and then connect to another Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York, this would be cabotage because a foreign airline carried you the entire way between two US points. And Air Canada would be slapped with a huge fine. It’s $25,000 each time, so they have a strong incentive not to do this. Making matters worse, you might even be able to book this itinerary as an award flight if the airline you’re using has a badly programmed booking engine, causing you unexpected trouble at the airport.

This is what happened to Jeff, who booked a flight from Seattle to Guam on Eva Air, via Taiwan. He was (correctly) denied boarding because this would create a cabotage situation, torpedoing the risky hidden cities itinerary that he’d planned on the mistake fare he found. Rather than accepting that these things can happen when you play dangerous games, he filed a complaint with the DOT and created a situation where even entirely legitimate itineraries can now be difficult to book, and some itineraries are no longer possible to book at all with Avianca LifeMiles.

How do you avoid cabotage? It’s really easy: make sure that at least one part of an itinerary between US locations, which transits a third country, is on a US carrier. So, for example, it’s totally OK to book a flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver on Alaska Airlines, which then connects to a flight from Vancouver to New York on Cathay Pacific. This is not cabotage. In fact, I am doing this right now. Similarly, Jeff could have flown ANA to Tokyo, and switched to a United flight to Guam. You can even transit a city in a third country using a US carrier and this is also no problem. So, for example, if you want to fly from Seattle to Las Vegas via Vancouver BC on Alaska Airlines (which you might want to do if award inventory is only available with this itinerary), it’s entirely OK and there is no cabotage. You would have to pay both US and Canadian immigration and airport fees, though (and endure all the immigration hassles, and travel with your passport) so this is probably something you don’t actually want to do unless it’s truly necessary.

As long as you know the cabotage rules, you can probably manage to book itineraries that don’t actually involve it, but it might require booking over the phone and appealing to a supervisor in order to get it done. Plan extra time at the airport in case you’re challenged. And be aware that airline search engines are imperfect. They may recommend (and allow you to book) itineraries that involve cabotage and will result in you being denied boarding at the last minute. Conversely, they may not display itineraries that are perfectly valid and don’t involve any cabotage, but do transit through a third country. In this case, you may have to piece these itineraries together manually.

As always, the thrill is in the hunt when traveling on miles and points. Avoiding cabotage situations sounds difficult, but in reality, it’s really simple: always book at least one leg (either into or out of the US) on a US carrier.

The Dangerous Game of Hidden Cities

I am seeing more and more people write about “hidden cities” itineraries lately. There is even a site called Skiplagged that will help you find them. I don’t think that enough is being said about the risk of using these. Things can very badly go wrong with these itineraries and if it happens even once, it is likely to cost you far more than you will ever potentially save.

“But wait a minute,” you might say. “Weren’t you just telling us about co-terminals and how you can save with these?” There is a big difference and it’s very key. Using co-terminals is allowed (and even encouraged) under the fare rules. However, using hidden cities is a big no-no in both the Contract of Carriage and in the terms of every airline’s frequent flier program.

So, what exactly is a hidden cities itinerary? Suppose you’re in New York, and you want to go to Miami. The weather in New York is lousy and everyone else has the exact same idea, so fares to Florida are relatively high. It’s $199 each way. However, you do a little searching with Kayak Explore, and you notice that American Airlines is running an “Amazing Alabama” sale with $99 one-way fares to anywhere they go in Alabama. “Hmmm,” you think, and you quickly find the following itinerary:

JFK-MIA-CLT-MOB itinerary screenshot

Looks perfect, right?

“I have a brilliant plan,” you might think. “Why not just get off the plane in Miami and skip all of the rest? I can go for half price!” Smug in your ingenuity, you buy a $99 ticket to Alabama and go to the airport, only to find out when you arrive that your flight has been cancelled. “The pilot caught the flu, so we have to reroute you” says the friendly counter agent. “Great news, though, we have you on a much better itinerary. You’ll get there much earlier!” she says, practically beaming, and hands you your new boarding passes.

JFK-CLT-MOB itinerary screenshot

Your new direct routing

That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is real when you realize that your beach dreams are being replaced with … whatever there is to do in Alabama. It probably doesn’t involve a beach.

Thinking fast, you try to figure out a way to get back your original routing and salvage the trip. “I won’t get as many miles if I go this way,” you nervously say. “I was really hoping to get enough for the big trip I have planned.” An assured smile and the reply of “No problem! Just write in to Aadvantage after your flight, send in your boarding passes and original itinerary, and ask for original routing credit. They’ll take care of you. Enjoy your trip to Alabama!” says the agent with an air of finality, and you leave the counter defeated.

You’re now faced with a decision. You can abandon your trip entirely, and lose the $99 that you paid for your ticket. Fortunately that’s all you’ll lose; you weren’t sure when you were coming back, so you hadn’t bought a return ticket from Miami yet. You can buy a last-minute ticket, but a quick check of SkyScanner shows that the cheapest last-minute fare is $363 and it leaves at 3:50 this afternoon. This pushes your total cost to almost $500 and you’re going to be stuck for the whole day at JFK instead of sitting on the beach. Or, you could continue on to Alabama. “Maybe that’s not so bad, I’ve never been there,” you think. You start looking for things to do, and find this:

What they do in Alabama

Cultural heritage of Alabama

Since you’re already at JFK, you decide to go to the beach at Coney Island instead. It’s cold and covered in trash. Shady teens are hanging out on the street corners, doing a really bad job of hiding the fact that they’re dealing drugs. You are left alone to ponder your bad life choices.

OK, rewind. Suppose the above didn’t happen. Let’s say that your original itinerary worked. You totally got away with it. In fact, US Airways had a sudden last minute $99 fare sale from Fort Lauderdale to New York for the return, and you even got American Airlines Aadvantage miles. You showed off your tan in the office Monday morning, gloating about how you managed to score a peak season flight to a subtropical beach paradise for less than the cost of a limo to the airport.

Two months later, a letter arrives in your mailbox from American Airlines. It looks different from everything you’ve ever received from them, and it is a stern letter from their Account Audit department. The letter explains that the airline is fully aware of your shenanigans, outlines exactly what you did and the sequence of events, quotes the clause of the Aadvantage contract that you violated, and ends with the following quote:

Your Aadvantage account has been closed and all miles forfeited. While you are welcome on board American Airlines, you are no longer eligible to participate in the Aadvantage program.

That mileage balance you spent years accruing and were saving for a Christmas trip to Hawaii? It’s gone. You begin to think that maybe the $99 savings wasn’t worth it. What’s worse, you just realized that you could have flown to Fort Lauderdale, only a short train ride away from Miami, for the same price as your ill-conceived hidden cities itinerary.

As you can see, there is a lot that can go wrong with hidden cities itineraries. So much can go wrong, in fact, that booking them is almost never a good idea. And this doesn’t even get into the numerous other problems, such as only being able to take carry-on bags and being good for one-way fares only. Through the use of co-terminals and alternate airports, you can often find savings that are equal or better than hidden cities itineraries.

Skip hidden cities itineraries. They are a minefield on the best of days, and worst case scenarios can and do happen.

US Bank LifeMiles Visa Bonus: Read The Fine Print

A few months ago, US Bank ran a 40,000 mile signup bonus for the Avianca LifeMiles visa card. The Avianca program is one of the most generous in the StarAlliance for booking partner awards, if its limitations are acceptable to you. These limitations are substantial. The program doesn’t allow stopovers, you can only book what is available online even if other award space is available elsewhere, and the call centers are in El Salvador and Colombia (it’s best if you speak Spanish). However, there are some real advantages; award rates are reasonable and there are no close-in booking fees.

US Bank Avianca LifeMiles Visa

There’s always a catch.

I pulled the trigger and signed up. 40,000 miles is double the usual bonus offered for this card. As advertised, the deal was for 20,000 miles after the first purchase, and 20,000 miles after spending more than $3,000 within the first 120 days. Well, that seemed easy enough to achieve, and it was. I put the card at the top of my wallet and made the $3,000 minimum spend in the first month. A month later, 20,000 miles showed up in my Avianca account.

Wait a minute. Only 20,000 miles? I emailed US Bank, who explained that the bonus miles are delivered separately and I would receive them within 6-8 weeks. I was definitely not happy with the delay; frequent flier programs devalue very rapidly (often without prior notice) so 20,000 miles today could be worth the same as 10,000 miles tomorrow. However, I was also traveling on a complicated round-the-world itinerary and didn’t really have time to argue across multiple time zones so I just gritted my teeth and hoped that a devaluation wouldn’t happen in the interim.

8 weeks later, there were still no bonus miles!  I emailed US Bank again. What I found out (and which their Twitter team confirmed) is shocking. The 8 week clock starts after the first 120 days! Yes, it takes a full six months after completing the minimum spend to receive your bonus miles. And you will not receive the additional 20,000 miles if you close the card before then! This is something that I have never seen before with credit card bonus miles, and it’s a very disturbing trend.

A lot can happen in frequent flier programs in 6 months. I have not only missed the entire summer travel season (and I was counting on using this promotion for a flight this summer), but I would not be surprised to see a massive devaluation strike before my bonus miles are deposited. Avianca has devalued their LifeMiles program overnight in the past, and I expect they may do so in the future amid across-the-board devaluations in nearly all other frequent flier programs this year.

This definitely changes the game with credit card miles and points. For most people, collecting airline miles and points is a bad way to earn free flights. Hotel and other loyalty programs (such as American Express Membership Rewards) are starting to look a lot better.

AAxed: Aadvantage Award Change Flexibility

Business and first class award tickets are a great use of miles, but it’s almost impossible to actually redeem these awards. Don’t believe all of the stories you read online about being able to effortlessly redeem your miles for a luxury experience. It is sometimes possible if you really work the system, but the time and effort involved is why I have always focused on using my miles to take me to faraway and interesting places in economy class (it’s all economy seats to Ushuaia, Argentina and Adak, Alaska anyway). Unfortunately, one of the most useful options for grabbing business class award seats is, for some customers, now gone in the American Airlines Aadvantage program.

One of the particularly nice historical Aadvantage program features is the lack of change fees and the ability to make “mixed class” bookings. So, for example, if you are booking a long trip that you’d like to take in business class, but one segment is only available in economy, you can book the missing segment in economy class (while paying the business class award price) and call in later to upgrade that segment to business class if an award seat opens up. The same goes for changing award classes. If you book an award in economy class because (as is usually the case) it’s the only thing available, and you find business class space available later, you could call in, upgrade and pay only the mileage difference between the award classes. This is what I planned to do when booking an award from Kunming to Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Vancouver to New York. The difference in cost is only 20,000 miles for this itinerary, and it’s well worth it for business class on Cathay Pacific.

This has all changed if, as I do, you have an existing booking that includes a stopover in the North American gateway city. Even if you don’t change anything except the class of service, the award has to be reissued at the new mileage rates and under the new rules. This is yet another change that Aadvantage has suddenly made without prior notice or even any “grandfathering” provision for award tickets issued prior to the change. So, the precedent has now been set.

You’d have to be crazy to book a “mixed class” award now. If American changes the award chart or rules again, you will have to “buy up” to the then-current price and be subject to the then-current rules. Given that it is routinely necessary to book business class award seats 330 days in advance, booking a “mixed class” itinerary is a very risky bet.

The situation could be even worse than I have already been able to confirm. American Airlines has always been flexible with changes to dates and flights in the Aadvantage program, and charges are free as long as the origin and destination cities remain the same. It is possible in the future that changing the dates on an itinerary would also require “buying up” to the then-current price. The trigger seems to be whether the ticket is reissued or not. Changing dates while keeping everything else exactly the same does not always require reissuing the ticket. Making more substantive changes (such as switching a flight with a connection for a nonstop) may, and could cause the itinerary to re-price. It is also worth noting that US Airways, unlike American, charges $150 for every change to an award ticket and no changes are allowed once the itinerary has begun (except due to schedule changes or irregular operations). It is probably a safe bet that change fees will be introduced to Aadvantage soon, potentially creating a double whammy of increased prices and new, high change fees.

American Airlines has always had the right to change or devalue the Aadvantage program. Other airlines have also devalued their programs, but until recently, only Avianca (a Colombian airline) had suddenly devalued their LifeMiles program overnight, apparently following the example of Hugo Chavez devaluing the Venezuelan bolivar. Maybe American Airlines has been spending too much time in South America and the culture has rubbed off, but you can now add Aadvantage miles to the list of untrustworthy currencies. I personally recommend that you view the recent devaluation as a “warning shot” and empty your Aadvantage account now.

Higher Costs and Fewer Opportunities for AAward Travel

I woke up this morning to the news that American Airlines has devalued their Aadvantage program overnight with no prior notice, and in tandem with this, US Airways has also done the same. It is rare for a devaluation to occur with no prior notice, in a similar fashion to overnight devaluations of Argentine pesos and Venezuelan bolivars. These devaluations are actually worse, though. They hurt because they not only raise the number of miles required for award travel, but they also have introduced restrictions that can make miles even harder to use.

One of the biggest historical advantages of American Airlines award tickets was the ability to use a stopover on a one-way award. While this could be used to obtain a “free one-way” trip wherein your final destination is a different city than you originally intended, it could also be used for short stopovers which are helpful if you could not find a continuing flight from the gateway within 24 hours. If American had wished to close the “free one-way” loophole, introducing a maximum length of stopover (allowing for short stopovers only) would have been a fairer way to do it. Unfortunately now, if an award flight to your final destination isn’t available from the gateway city within 24 hours, you’re out of luck. You’ll either have to book a paid onward itinerary or try to find availability on another date.

Ah, availability. Now there’s the rub. American Airlines has introduced a third tier for award travel, which likely means that award tickets at the “saver” level (which are really the only award levels that deliver good value for redemption) will be even further cut. It’s already difficult, if not impossible, to find award tickets at the “saver” level. This will become even more difficult when stopovers are no longer permitted. Even awards that cost more because of the numbers of stopovers they allow have been eliminated. Mileage-based Oneworld awards (which people on round-the-world or intra-European itineraries found particularly valuable because they allowed unlimited stopovers) are no longer redeemable.

Finally, some trips will now take more miles, assuming you can find availability in the first place. US Airways Dividend Miles business class awards to North Asia now require 110,000 miles, up from 90,000 miles. “Aanytime” awards redeemed during periods newly defined as “peak” will now cost 5,000 miles more. For some domestic travel, coach seats will cost up to 50,000 miles each way! The goal posts have moved yet again.

Overnight, the American Aadvantage and US Airways Dividend Miles programs just became a lot less valuable. The lack of prior notice is an abrupt reminder that miles (in any program) are best earned and spent immediately. They are a depreciating currency, so holding large numbers of them will only result in eventual losses and the devaluation cycles are becoming ever more rapid. Points programs and their promises that “your miles are secure” are not credible, so “earn and burn” as quickly as possible.

Update: American Airlines responded on Twitter to the flood of controversy. Here is their comment on what we can expect going forward:

Harmonizing BusinessesI think this just about sums it up: you can probably expect that the least trustworthy and customer-friendly policies of both airlines will be combined in a headlong race to the bottom. It’s unfortunate to see this, but was hardly unexpected. If you have Aadvantage miles, I recommend using them now because this is likely not the only devaluation that will occur.

Double-Crossed By DoubleTree

On my current trip to Europe, I booked rooms with two different DoubleTree properties and have already had problems with both of them. I’m a pretty relaxed guy, and I usually am not the sort of person to complain too much (after all, I have flown around the world in Seat 31B).

What makes me write about a problem publicly? A broken laptop and an exotic “dynamic currency conversion” swindle, both perpetrated by the same hotel chain (DoubleTree by Hilton), occurring over two different properties, and in both cases, complete failure to solve the problem amicably after complaining about a perfectly reasonable issue privately and giving the property multiple chances to resolve the problem.

First, the broken laptop. After waiting 3 months for Fujitsu to repair my laptop (never buy a laptop from Fujitsu, their repair service is horrible), I got it back and it was repaired. In particular, I was pleased to note that they replaced the LCD. I used the laptop for a day with no problems, hopped on a plane, traveled to Rotterdam, continued to Amsterdam, and used the laptop just outside the DoubleTree Amsterdam (again with no problems) to verify the address of the Sixt rental car return facility (whose sign outside the hotel I had missed). Nothing was wrong with my laptop when I put it into my bag and handed it off to the bell desk.

When I got to my room, I took the laptop out of my bag, put it on the desk, opened it, and never turned it on. I was instead invited by my parents (who were traveling with me and staying in another room) to dinner. I ended up being busy the rest of my stay at the DoubleTree and never even plugged in my laptop. I put it away in my bag when I went to check out, and headed for the lounge. I needed to take care of some work so powered up my laptop, and imagine my surprise to see this:

Broken laptop display

Note the physical damage in the exact size and shape of the back of a broom handle, or a vacuum cleaner handle.

I immediately went to the front desk and showed the damage to the on-duty manager. However, she refused to take immediate responsibility or to arrange for repair of my laptop, instead saying that she would conduct an investigation. I gave the DoubleTree the benefit of the doubt, but naturally the results of the investigation are that the DoubleTree refuses to take responsibility. Apparently they believe that my laptop display broke on its own, or maybe it was damaged by space aliens. Either way, they will not be paying to repair it or assisting me any further.

I would maybe give DoubleTree the benefit of the doubt (“Please trust us…” their email said) if they didn’t completely rip me off (there is no more delicate way to put this) on another booking I made in London. The rate was advertised in pounds. However, I was billed in dollars at an unfavorable exchange rate (by the order of around 10%). This kind of “dynamic currency conversion” is a common swindle in the travel industry, but usually companies with whom you are doing business at least ask whether you want this. In my case, DoubleTree just went ahead and ripped me off with a bogus exchange rate, they didn’t give me the opportunity to opt out. I have gone back and forth with Hilton customer service a couple of times and the issue has not been resolved. Here is a snapshot of my credit card statement so you can see how this happened:

A transaction in GBP is circled.

A transaction in GBP is circled.

Hilton customer service blamed my bank for billing me in dollars, rather than pounds. However, my bank (Capital One) doesn’t have anything to do with the currency in which I was billed. You can see that on my statement, I bought a plane ticket from a UK-based travel agency and was properly billed in pounds, which was converted by Capital One to dollars (I use a Capital One card for foreign currency transactions because they do not charge a currency conversion fee). DoubleTree, as you can see, billed me an inflated price in dollars. It’s an outright rip-off. I never agreed to this.

If you are considering booking a stay with DoubleTree (or any Hilton property), or signing up for any Hilton credit cards, I suggest you seriously consider whether this is a good idea. I consider integrity very important in business, and to experience a breach of honesty and integrity at two separate DoubleTree properties is a pattern that seriously leads me to question my loyalty to Hilton.