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.
In my article on speculative transfers, one of the redemptions I briefly highlighted was using Flying Blue points for WestJet flights. This used to be a really good deal,costing a roughly flat rate 14,500 points for economy class travel anywhere in North America. Well, Flying Blue must have seen my article, because after I speculatively transferred my Brex points into their program, they massively raised award prices on most WestJet redemptions (along with the majority of other awards). The keyword is “most.” While the majority of prices are totally crazy and you’d never want to redeem your points at these award levels, there are still a few sweet spots.
When redeeming Flying Blue points for WestJet flights, Flying Blue seems to charge by the number of segments and the distance you’re flying. You’ll always pay more points for a multi-segment flight than you will for a nonstop flight, but the pricing is all over the place. For example, a flight between Vancouver and Victoria costs 10,500 points. If you connect in Calgary, however, the same flight costs 21,000 points. You might be forgiven if you think that Flying Blue is just adding up the pricing of each segment if you took them individually, but that isn’t true. For example, Vancouver to Calgary costs 10,500 points, and Calgary to Edmonton also costs 10,500 points. However, if you fly from Vancouver to Edmonton with a connection in Calgary, it costs 11,000 points. Neither price is likely to be a good deal on this heavily competitive route, though.
The price goes up if you’re flying farther, and the pricing also makes less sense. Flying to Winnipeg? It’s a steep 17,500 points for a nonstop flight, or a ridiculous 22,000 points if you connect in Calgary (note that this is a $110 flight on a low cost carrier, or a $172 flight on WestJet, so this objectively isn’t a good redemption). Although connecting in Calgary creates a difference of only 8 flown miles (1,162 vs. 1,170 miles) and it doesn’t seem to cross any obvious threshold of either a mileage band or a logical break in journey (the pricing difference applies to flights with only a one hour connection), it’s a 4,500 point price difference!
Pricing gets even more wild when you look at longer flights. It costs $45 on a low cost carrier from Vancouver to Toronto. It’s $124 on Westjet. Or you can spend half of the low cost carrier fare in taxes, and a cool 27,500 Flying Blue points:
I mean, the sky is really the limit on Flying Blue’s crazy pricing. Check out how much Flying Blue wants for a coast-to-coast flight within Canada, which would cost $150 on a low cost carrier, or $254 on WestJet:
Given all of this, it’d be reasonable to conclude that there is no value left in WestJet redemptions, just like Flying Blue has sucked the value out of most other redemptions. And you’d be mostly correct. However, WestJet serves a few airports that are spectacularly expensive destinations. If you redeem strategically, there is still incredible value.
Take Terrace, British Columbia for example. If you want to go on short notice, especially during the peak travel season, you’re looking at some really expensive fares. Here’s what a one way flight tomorrow would cost, which is roughly the same price as last weekend’s flight (which I booked) was selling for:
However, you can book this flight with Flying Blue points, at a value that might knock your socks off:
WestJet has exceptionally generous award availability, and when you redeem Flying Blue points, the pricing is fixed price. The award pricing is usually very high, but for short haul flights, it’s pretty reasonable.
What does flying to Terrace on a beautiful, clear, last weekend of summer accomplish? Well, that’s a trip report in and of itself, but here’s a preview:
One of the most-vaunted benefits of the American Express Platinum card is that you receive a $200 credit when booking with Fine Hotels and Resorts. This is an American Express Travel program which is only available to Platinum card holders, and which provides substantial benefits: free breakfast, a $100 property credit and a 4pm late check-out. You can also receive a $200 credit on your Amex card when you book a stay with Fine Hotels and Resorts.
I mean, look at this incredible set of benefits. It’s right there on the front page:
OK, sure, there’s some fine print. Not all benefits are available at every hotel, right? However, there’s a guarantee of at least $100 in benefits. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
There’s only one catch: these rates are often higher than if you book with the hotel directly, and these are some astonishingly expensive hotels; some of the most expensive properties in the world. However, I needed a one night stay in Amman, Jordan, where $241 buys you a room at the St. Regis. Minus the $200 credit, we’d be right around the $40 I usually spend per night in a location like Amman, so I was fine splashing out and living a little. I booked my completely non-refundable room through Amex at a rate higher than I could have gotten directly from the hotel, and I did receive the $200 Fine Hotels and Resorts credit.
Unfortunately, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Amex just outright scammed me with the following clause in their Terms and Conditions:
When I checked in this evening at the St. Regis, I was told that I booked through Expedia, had just a basic room, breakfast wasn’t included, and that I didn’t get a property credit. I was confused so contacted Amex, who informed me that Fine Hotels and Resorts benefits are only available for two night stays, and since my stay was one night, I didn’t get anything. The above unfair and deceptive trade practice they pointed to when trying to weasel out of providing the correct set of benefits isn’t even consistent with what I’d actually receive if this were true, since I’d get only half of the promised value (using Amex’s math) if I stayed for two nights.
I have been trying to resolve this with Amex for well over an hour (through two chat sessions and a phone call), and as of this writing, I’m still sitting on hold.
However, I’m likely to cancel my Amex Platinum card over this. Amex has continually raised the annual fee while making benefits harder to use, but they have thus far avoided being outright deceptive. This crosses the line: it is a scam. There is no other way to describe it. Be prepared to be embarrassed at the front desk of the St. Regis if you fall into the same trap I did.
Update: Two hours in, Amex Travel supervisor DJ admitted that this was their error and I should have received the benefits. However, they effectively had no way to fix the problem. Instead, I was promised an expiring $300 Amex Travel voucher. This makes me a little more than whole (although doesn’t quite compensate for the time spent running down the compensation), so I’m calling it a day. That being said, please comment below if you have been impacted by the same problem!
Hi! It has certainly been awhile since I posted last. I’ll be posting more about how my life has evolved since 2019, but suffice it to say that two years of pandemic (which is still grinding on) has led to some major changes. I’m starting to travel again, though, because the world is opening back up again and this is a part of my life that I missed a lot. And more importantly, I’m starting to book more travel (both for myself and for AwardCat clients), which means that I’m working with frequent flier programs a lot more. These have also changed a lot in the past two years, but I have a pretty good idea of which programs I’ll be using and where they are most likely to come in handy.
The conventional wisdom you’ll read on other blogs is to never make speculative transfers from banks into airline programs. Instead, blogs encourage leaving your miles in a bank program (such as Amex, Chase, Capital One or Citi) until you want to redeem an award. This advice is usually on point, and it’s what I will generally advise AwardCat clients to follow. After all, you don’t have to worry about your points expiring in a bank program (as long as you keep at least one card active in the program), and as quickly as airlines are devaluing points in frequent flier programs, banks are adding greater value to their own programs. After all, banks want you engaged with them, not the airlines.
Occasionally, however, an offer will come along that–for me–is worth breaking the usual rules. Two such offers are available, and expiring today: Chase is offering a 25% transfer bonus to Flying Blue, and American Express is offering a 40% transfer bonus to Avios. Last night, I cleaned out my entire Chase account to transfer points to Flying Blue, and I transferred about 100k Amex points with the 40% bonus to Avios. I’ll explain why I did it, and how bucking the conventional wisdom might be a good idea if you have specific future redemptions in mind.
Flying Blue + Westjet
One of the recent changes I made in my life was moving to the greater Vancouver area, which now makes YVR my home airport. Vancouver has the second largest airport on the West Coast with nonstop flights all over the world, but if you’re traveling within North America, the two major Canadian airlines (Air Canada and Westjet) are top dog. They have the most nonstop flights from Vancouver to both US and Canadian destinations.
This presents a really amazing sweet spot for me, because Westjet partners with the Flying Blue frequent flier program, and Westjet also has extremely generous award availability at low redemption rates. For example, you can book economy class travel anywhere in North America for 14,500 points, or 17,500 points each way to the Carribbean. Unlike in the Delta program, the price doesn’t go up the closer you get to departure, either. And there are no fuel surcharges or booking fees; you only pay actual taxes.
I had 28,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, after spending most of my points on the Dubai Hyatt Jumeirah for a forced 10 day quarantine (that’s another story I’ll write about later). Transferring these to Flying Blue got me 35,000 points, which is enough for a nice holiday in the Caribbean this winter. Does this make sense? Of course it does, even though I don’t know exactly what I want to book right now. What’s more, I have pretty much completely drained my Chase account, so I can close the Chase Sapphire Preferred when the annual fee comes due and overall stop engaging with the Chase program (which has lost competitiveness).
Avios + Iberia, Qatar, Sri Lankan and “Royal” Partners
The Avios program has been a mixed bag since 2019. They have gone through multiple rounds of devaluations (including stealth devaluations), often with no prior notice. For example, redemption rates within Asia were previously a sweet spot, but JAL and Cathay Pacific award tickets became more expensive last year. The prices even went up last year for travel on British Airways. In the meantime, although theoretical sweet spots remain on the award chart for award tickets on American and Alaska Airlines, the practical reality is much different. Both airlines have gotten much harder to book using Avios, because fewer seats are being given away to partners (this impacts not only Avios, but also programs such as Cathay Pacific Asia Miles). Wide-open availability between, say, Seattle and Los Angeles or San Francisco and Hawaii is a thing of the past. Keep this in mind when you read mainstream blog articles breathlessly espousing the large signup bonuses for Avios co-branded cards, and touting the award chart as if that equates in any way to actual availability.
Given such a recent history of bad behavior by both the Avios program and partners in the ecosystem, you might be surprised that I’d move a pretty substantial chunk of American Express points into this program. Why? Where one door closes another opens, and Avios has two new partners in the ecosystem: Royal Air Maroc and Qatar Airways. Additionally, I think Iberia, Royal Jordanian and Sri Lankan are underappreciated partners given the very low redemption rates that are often possible with these airlines.
This isn’t an article about the Avios program as a whole. I’ll write one of those going into the sweet spots in detail, so I’ll just talk about some of my personal favorites as a representative example.
Long Haul Premium Cabin Flights On Qatar
The conventional wisdom for redeeming Avios is that they’re good for short to mid haul flights in economy class, on airlines without fuel surcharges. However, they’re super expensive to use for long haul flights in premium cabins, especially on airlines like British Airways with fuel surcharges.
This is now out the window when flying Qatar Airways and using Avios. Qatar recently adopted Avios as its frequent flier currency, and the award chart is much different for flights on Qatar, likely because Qatar is so focused on long haul flights. Additionally, fuel surcharges have been dramatically reduced. Given the new redemption rates, I was able to redeem 85,000 Qatar Qpoints (which transferred in 1:1 from British Airways Avios) plus $224 in cash for Qsuites on an Almaty-Doha-Los Angeles itinerary (yes, I know this is Seat 31B, but this is also almost as far as you can travel in the world. For me, paying about double the points to do it in business class was totally worth it on this route). With the transfer bonus, it cost only 61,000 Amex points which is almost totally unheard of when using Avios for this length of flight. Assuming you can find availability, it’d cost 75k points with American AAdvantage points, or a minimum of 90k points with Asia Miles.
Flights Within Africa On Royal Air Maroc
The conventional wisdom used to be to base yourself for a few months in Hong Kong and then hop around Asia using cheap Avios redemptions on Cathay Pacific, using absurdly low numbers of points for flights that would otherwise be super expensive. This was already on the way out before the pandemic (Cathay Pacific pulled partner availability inside of 14 days), and if Hong Kong and Japan ever open again, flights with Avios are now a lot more expensive.
However, where one door closes, another opens, and that door is in Africa now. Royal Air Maroc flies a ton of places in Africa, and these flights would normally (like many things in Africa) be insanely expensive. Take Casablanca to Lome, Togo. This flight costs 11,000 Avios, plus $29 in tax. It would cost 30,000 AAdvantage points for the same flight, or a whopping $582 in cash! That’s a solid 5 cents per point (or 7 cents per Amex point if you got your Avios with a transfer bonus) in value for an economy class flight–and this is real value, not theoretical value based on a premium cabin seat you’d never otherwise buy.
Is this the only sweet spot with Royal Air Maroc? Nope! There are plenty of others. Casablanca is a low tax airport and Royal Air Maroc doesn’t have fuel surcharges. You can base yourself in Casablanca and hop all over Europe and Africa with extremely generous award availability and very little cash out of pocket for each flight. Now, this isn’t the fanciest airline with the best inflight service, but who cares when it’s this cheap?
Royal Jordanian and Sri Lankan
Royal Jordanian doesn’t get a ton of attention, apart from their high fuel surcharges and apparent willingness to fly through storms that would result in a cancelled flight at other airlines (that being said, their pilots are mostly former Air Force and the airline hasn’t had a major incident in over 35 years). So what makes them interesting? They fly some highly unusual routes. I’m flying them from Tel Aviv to Amman, which is one of the shortest mainline commercial routes in the world. The flight would normally cost about $300 all-in, but I paid 6,000 Avios plus around $100 in taxes and fuel surcharges. It’s not cheap to use Avios on Royal Jordanian, but you can get very good value for your points, particularly if you’re getting the points with a transfer bonus.
Take Amman to Erbil, for example (Erbil is in the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq, and is relatively safe to visit compared to other parts of Iraq). On a few dates I checked, Royal Jordanian is selling this short flight for $287. Alternatively, you can pay 6,000 Avios plus $135, which is a solid 2.5 cents per point–or 3.5 cents per Amex point if you got your Avios with a 40% transfer bonus.
Sri Lankan is a similar niche airline that is widely ignored due to laughably high fuel surcharges, but with good value Avios redemption pricing to otherwise expensive destinations. You really have to crunch the numbers though because they can have cash fares that are better value than paying with points. Take, for example, one route I have flown, from Colombo to The Seychelles. I picked a random October date and the flight costs 194,113 Sri Lankan rupees (which at today’s exchange rates is $539.61). If you pay with points, it costs 11,000 Avios plus $255. That works out to almost 2.6 cents per point, or 3.6 cents per Amex point if you got your Avios with a 40% transfer bonus.
Iberia gets a lot of attention for the low redemption rates, with relatively low fuel surcharges, on East Coast to Madrid routes in premium cabins. This requires moving your points into Iberia’s own program and finding availability, which is super hard. Other blogs have documented this extensively (usually while hard selling Avios credit cards) and it’s fine to use Iberia Avios this way, but I’d personally sit in economy class for one of these routes. It’s only 7 hours from New York to Madrid. I’m willing to spend more points to sit up front on a 16 hour flight, but for a 7 hour flight, premium cabins seem like a waste of money to me.
However, how about an 13 hour flight for 51,000 Avios (that’s just 37,000 Amex points with the 40% transfer bonus) in business class, or 25,500 Avios (19,000 Amex points with the 40% transfer bonus) in economy class? That’s what it costs to fly Iberia from Madrid to Montevideo, which is a very nice flight to be on in November when it gets cold in Europe. Ordinarily this would be an over $800 economy class flight. Accounting for taxes and fuel surcharges, you’re getting 2.9 cents per point in value, or 4.2 cents per Amex point in value if you got your Avios with a 40% transfer bonus.
When To Speculatively Transfer
Both of these transfer bonuses expire in a few hours, so if you want to hop on either of them, you should do it right now. However, the most important question is whether you plan to use the points before they will expire, and whether you think the sweet spots you’re after will still be there when you want to take advantage of them. I think that the award flights I’m targeting are in obscure enough partnerships, and in dusty enough corners of award charts, that they’re likely to stick around for awhile. I’m also obsessive to a perhaps unhealthy degree about this stuff (to a point where I help other people book their award travel through AwardCat) so I’m very much on top of my points balances and what is happening in award programs. I feel confident with speculative transfers to both of these programs because I use both of them regularly, and plan to redeem my points before they expire (and hopefully before they devalue).
However, I am going into this with a pretty solid idea of how I’ll use the points. I wouldn’t make a speculative transfer to, say, Asia Miles (since I think Cathay Pacific is likely to declare bankruptcy and may even go out of business entirely), or to Avianca LifeMiles (which has very little credibility as a program given that they block most partner inventory, and don’t even offer much on Avianca). Speculative transfers are, as a general rule, not a great idea–but when done strategically, they can yield incredible value.
“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.
Xiamen Air is one of the smaller mainland Chinese airlines. A member of SkyTeam, it codeshares a limited number of routes with Delta and is definitely a “little sister” when stacked up against the two other mainland Chinese SkyTeam airlines, China Eastern and China Southern. The airline mostly serves destinations in China, with a handful of international destinations (primarily in Asia). However, they do offer service to New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle along with Amsterdam, Sydney and Melbourne.
Here in Seattle, Xiamen’s flight hasn’t been doing well. Of the transpacific flights to and from Sea-Tac, it is reputed to consistently have the lowest overall load factor. Given that the service is one of the only nonstops from the West Coast to the tech hub of Shenzhen, I was very surprised to hear this. However, I haven’t gone out of my way to take the flight because the fares were relatively high, and I lived in China for 3 years so I haven’t really been in a hurry to go back there.
All of this changed when I got the opportunity to attend and speak at DEF CON China, which was–to the best of my knowledge–the first international hacker conference to be hosted in China. I’ve been doing some research into a technical area where I thought feedback from a Chinese audience would be useful, so couldn’t pass it up. Only one problem: I figured out that I’d be going only about 2 weeks beforehand. This was enough time to get a visa together, but it was pretty late to book a flight. So I ended up booking with Xiamen Air despite their terrible itinerary due to their low price.
The itinerary was truly terrible. It’s like flying from Hong Kong to Seattle, but via Los Angeles and a forced overnight in San Francisco. Here’s what it looked like:
Seattle to Beijing… via Shenzhen and Xiamen
Why would I subject myself to this? Because, dear reader, it was the cheapest way to get to Beijing: $479. This blog isn’t called Seat 31B for nothing!
Check-in In Seattle
No mistaking this for anything other than Xiamen Air!
Xiamen Air’s check-in desk is all the way at the far end. Rather than being on the back wall, it backs up against the airport drive. I was a little confused but Xiamen anticipated this and there was a cardboard cut-out to help me find my way.
The check-in desk wasn’t crowded, even for economy class. Granted, I arrived at the airport 3 hours before departure, because I hadn’t paid for a seat assignment, online check-in isn’t supported, and Xiamen doesn’t participate in TSA Precheck (you will not get precheck even if you have a known traveler number). I knew I would need plenty of extra time at the airport. Still, I got through the economy class line in about 5 minutes, and was able to arrange an aisle seat with no problem at all.
One of my friends recently had luck talking his way into the precheck line with a NEXUS card, which I hold, so I figured I’d give it a try. I was unceremoniously bounced. Even though the airline I was flying didn’t participate in Precheck, it didn’t matter: I wasn’t given access. My guess is that the TSA agent at the other airport thought my friend’s NEXUS card was some sort of military identification instead of a trusted traveler card. After being kicked out of the Precheck line, it took over 45 minutes to get through the “regular” TSA security line. I’m not sure why airport security is always such a disaster in in the US and UK when it’s both faster and more thorough in China, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.
After I got into the airport, I went to the Alaska Airlines lounge and was granted entry (after a short wait when the agent called upstairs to make sure there was room) with my Priority Pass card. The planespotting was great, as it always is from the Alaska lounge. It was around lunchtime and I wasn’t sure what or how much they’d serve us on the plane, so I had some soup, salad and bread in the lounge.
All the planes you want to spot, as long as they’re Alaska jets! (Virgin America merged with Alaska)
Finally, it was getting close to the boarding time. The flight left from the south satellite, so I took the airport subway. This took longer than I expected and I was the last person to board the plane, although I still boarded about 20 minutes early. I was surprised to discover that this was my seat:
If you spend a lot of time in economy class, you probably picked up on it: the armrests are immovable and the IFE swings out from the front. Why might this be?
Seat 54J, as it turns out, is one of the two best seats in economy class. Although it’s close to the toilets, I don’t have a sensitive sense of smell. And there is unlimited legroom on these seats because they are directly on the exit row. The window seat is terrible in this row because there isn’t actually a window and the exit door protrudes, meaning there is less leg room than usual seats. However, the aisle and middle seats had unlimited legroom. A pillow and blanket was provided on each seat, and there were plenty of spares if you wanted one:
You could have as many of these as you wanted because the flight was lightly loaded
My seat mates were both tech people and that’s the industry I work in too, so it was easy conversation to Shenzhen–particularly because one of the guys had brought a bunch of miniature bottles of booze on board, and the flight attendants were happy to look the other way. One thing that differentiates Xiamen from other Chinese airlines: the inflight service was very friendly and extremely attentive. Actually, Xiamen Air service in economy class was on par with my last Cathay Pacific business class flight! They really get the small details and human kindnesses right from making sure you have enough water to noticing if you sneeze and bringing you a tissue.
Italian garden vegetable lasagna with fresh German salad, rustic pretzel bread, French Village yogurt and New York style cheesecake
I was worried about going hungry on the flight but in the end we were stuffed, and the quality of the food catered in Seattle (more later on the food catered in Shenzhen) was very good for economy class. They fed us two full meals and brought two rounds of sandwiches midflight as well. While liquor wasn’t available (even for purchase), beer and wine flowed freely. To my delight, they had my favorite Chinese beer on board, Yanjing. It’s a local Beijing beer and I didn’t expect they’d actually have it, because Xiamen is in the southern part of China.
The time passed pretty quickly in between meals because Xiamen Air has free WiFi on board and I made good use of it. Of course, like most things involving the Internet in China, using it is complicated because you have to register for it in advance. You can’t register more than 30 days in advance, or less than two days in advance, and only the first 50 users who register can get the service. Also, your access code only works on one device, a different access code is issued per flight, and access codes aren’t available for all flights, even though WiFi service was present on all of the flights I took. Got all that? If you do, you’ll get an access code that grants you access to…
…the Chinese Internet. Which is very special. And which, after you agree not to post any “illegal speech,” mercilessly blocks every VPN you throw at it (I did find a way around the firewall, but I am also far more technical than the average user). This is just fine if you’re Chinese though, or if you’re happy with reading the Global Times and Xinhua News. A few Western services aren’t blocked, maybe? Anyway, I happily used Twitter and Facebook the whole way to Shenzhen.
I like rainbows
When we approached Shenzhen, the cabin lighting turned into a rainbow. We landed at a remote stand (which is fairly common in China) and were herded onto buses that took us to the terminal. Once inside the terminal, it got a little bit confusing.
There are different immigration procedures, staff, and locations for people who are transiting China without a visa versus people who have a Chinese visa. I had a visa and two of the Americans on the plane, thinking I must know what I was doing, followed me into the wrong line. I redirected them back out of the line and into the correct place, although to be fair, Xiamen Airlines staff were there doing the same thing.
Additionally, once you get through immigration (which was efficient as always in China, although ever more intrusive–this time they captured my fingerprints) there are two different sets of baggage procedures. If you are continuing onward to Xiamen, you don’t claim your bag in Shenzhen; it is checked through to Xiamen. However, a lot of people went to the baggage area in Shenzhen, only to discover that their bags weren’t there. They then had to be escorted back out of the baggage area, because it’s a Customs zone and exits out of the secured area of the airport.
I followed the correct signs which took me down a long corridor to be re-screened (this is normal, every country you enter wants you to pass their own security procedures). There was only one screening checkpoint open and everyone shared it (including the flight crew), but I was right at the front of the line because I’d apparently gotten through immigration faster than people transiting without a visa, and I’d also followed the signs correctly (it wasn’t super easy to figure out what to do, but my guesses in China are right more often than not). After re-screening I was back into the international transit area of Shenzhen Airport.
After an underwhelming lounge visit, I went to the boarding gate, which had changed to the exact gate we’d arrived at. I then re-boarded the same aircraft (with the same crew) for the short (300 mile) flight up to Xiamen.
Arrival in Xiamen was also complicated, because just like in Shenzhen, the baggage gets separated out into Customs vs. non-Customs zones. Xiamen Air sells the Shenzhen-Xiamen leg as a separate flight, so bags checked on that leg go into the domestic arrivals area of the airport. However, bags checked on the Seattle-Shenzhen-Xiamen leg go to the international arrivals area. It gets even more confusing because China Customs screens your carry-on baggage in Shenzhen, but they screen it again in Xiamen along with your checked bags.
Pay attention to the sign this guy is holding. It’s your only clue.
It took a long time to get our bags, and then I was on to the next adventure: finding out whether the promised transit hotel would materialize. I certainly hoped so, because I was exhausted after two flights!
I’ve been slow with posting because I am on the road (LA to Seattle to LA to San Francisco back to Seattle to LA to Istanbul to Zagreb to London…), so it’s time to open this blog up to readers.Where is the most interesting place you have traveled in the most awful seat in the plane? What’s the worst airline you’ve ever flown to the most amazing experience? The world is watching, so write your story below in the comments! 🙂
Alaska Airlines has a good Cyber Monday sale. They operate mainly up and down the West Coast, but there are also some good sale fares to Hawaii from many cities. The deals are good today only for dates between December and mid-March. The lowest fares are good for Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday travel only and require a 21-day advance purchase. Alaska also has service to many locations in western Canada and leisure destinations in Mexico. Not to be overlooked, Alaska serves many cities on the East Coast, such as Newark, Boston, Washington DC, St. Louis, and Orlando, although typically with limited service (one or two flights a day).
While Alaska Airlines has an excellent frequent flier program (Mileage Plan), they also partner with many other airlines including Delta and American. So, if you are a member of these programs, you can get mileage credit for your flights on Alaska.
UPDATE: Alaska Airlines tweeted a coupon code that can be used for an extra 5% off this already great offer. Enter SHOPNOW at checkout to save!
Delta Air Lines has been battling Alaska Airlines for market share in Seattle. Both airlines are running double miles promotions between Seattle and West Coast cities where the two airlines compete. However, it’s important to read the fine print (which, to Delta’s credit, is reasonably clear). As I discovered yesterday, double miles offers could be only as lucrative as the initial segment.
I had booked a flight between Seattle and Los Angeles via Salt Lake City, and traveled yesterday. Since I registered for the promotion several months ago, I didn’t remember the details. Disaster! I was surprised to see that when the flights credited to my account, I only received double miles for the Seattle to Salt Lake City portion, and I received only regular mileage credit between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles (note that although Alaska Airlines is now competing with Delta Air Lines on routes from Salt Lake City, Delta apparently doesn’t take the threat very seriously and is not offering a double miles promotion in these markets).
It’s worth pointing out that Delta is delivering exactly what they have promised here. I just failed to carefully read the fine print. For what it’s worth, I also failed to read the fine print a month ago on an Alaska flight from Long Beach to Seattle. Contrary to my expectations, I received only ordinary mileage credit even though Alaska Airlines is offering double miles to Seattle from every other Los Angeles area airport. Long Beach isn’t on the list.
Mileage promotions come and go, and Alaska and Delta aren’t the only airlines with promotions requiring registration. If you do register for a promotion, read the fine print! Otherwise you may be in for a nasty surprise when you view your statement.
Even though Seat 31B has been online for less than a year, I’m really happy with the overwhelmingly positive and supportive feedback that I have gotten so far. Interestingly enough, even though travel hacking has been a niche area for some time (and there are a number of blogs on the subject), this is an area that has been more popular with frequent fliers than hackers.
Hackers? Yes, for many years, I have been involved in the hacker scene and I am a regular columnist for 2600: The Hacker Quarterly (I write the Telecom Informer column). These days hacking isn’t about committing crimes (it never has been for me), and is a lot more about learning how things work and building amazing stuff. So, you can probably guess how excited I am to help connect the hacker world to the travel hacking scene this summer, where I will be speaking at HOPE X and bSides Las Vegas.
If you’re into travel hacking and you’d like to meet the world’s top experts at hacking computer systems and phones, you’ll definitely want to come to one of these conferences. I’ll cover some of the more common travel hacking techniques and I expect there will be an extensive Q&A where I’ll have the opportunity to cover a variety of subjects. It is sure to be a lively discussion!
Don’t come to either conference just for my talks. Also note that I’m paying my own travel expenses for both and they aren’t paying me anything, so you can rest assured that I’m not promoting these conferences for personal gain. Do, however, come if you’d like to broaden your knowledge about hacking things that you may never have considered were possible to hack! Even if you don’t know anything about being a hacker, all it takes is being curious about learning how things work and interested in finding out what happens when you try something out of the ordinary. You’re sure to learn at least one new skill, if my experience is any guide.Without you sharing these stories and telling your friends, Seat 31B would never have grown so fast. See you this summer, and thanks so much for your support!