How I’m Driving A 2019 Subaru Outback For (Almost) Free

“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.

picture of a forest bridge
Time to get back in touch with the Great Northwest

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.

2019 subaru outback

“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.

This car has a clean title!

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.

Lightning strikes started fires near Wenatchee last summer

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.

Inspecting Vehicles

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.

screenshot of carinspector.us
They go through every system on the car and check it – this is only part of the checklist

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).

Auction Pickup

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.

auction car lot
Auction houses really don’t want to store your car

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.

Washington State Patrol inspection sign

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 Economy Class Review – Seattle to Xiamen Via Shenzhen

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

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:

sea-szx-xnm-pek

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

cardboard cut-out of flight attendant

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.

Alaska Airlines planes

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:

Airline seat 54J

Seat 54J

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?

Poor man's business class seat

Unlimited legroom!

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:

Pillow and blanket

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.

another airplane meal

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.

xiamen air cabin turned into rainbows

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.

Xiamen airport I <3 Xiamen sign

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!

Where have you been in Seat 31B?

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! 🙂

Cyber Monday Sale On Alaska Airlines

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).

Alaska Airlines route map

Map courtesy of AirlineRouteMaps.com

You can visit the Alaska Airlines Cyber Monday page to find the sale fares for your city.

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!

Double Miles Disaster

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.

Delta double miles promo text

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.

Meet Seat31B This Summer in New York and Las Vegas!

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!

Flying Aeroflot Amid A Ukranian Invasion

One of the best kept secrets for flying between Europe and Asia is the Russian flag carrier Aeroflot. It’s not only the average least expensive carrier, it’s also one of the most convenient, depending upon the airport from which you’re departing. How much less expensive and how much more convenient? On a recent flight I took from Zagreb to Beijing, Aeroflot was by far the fastest way to get there and, at around $500, the flight was $150 less than the next cheapest flight (via Qatar). There are sometimes other cheap flights–for example on the Polish flag carrier LOT–but Aeroflot has been the most consistent bargain in my experience.

Yeah, you might say, but it’s Aeroflot. The formerly crash-prone, formerly Soviet airline whose logo still bears a hammer and sickle. And if you’re going on Aeroflot, you have to fly through Russia, a country which requires a visa for nationals of most countries. And by the way, Russia just invaded Ukraine! All of these are valid points, some of which are entirely rational and some of which no longer apply.

If you’re flying through Russia, you don’t need a visa if you will not leave the sterile area of the connecting airport (in the case of Aeroflot, Sheremetyevo Airport). When you land, don’t go the passport control area; follow the signs to the transfer desk. The Russian authorities will run an INTERPOL check on your passport and then direct you through to Russian airport security. My US passport was no problem despite recent US sanctions against Russia. Also, even though Russia just annexed part of Ukraine, security at the transfer area of the airport was pretty lax. The Russians seem to trust the competence of security in EU airports.

Sheremetyevo is not Schiphol, and although it’s a more comfortable airport than Domodedovo (the other Moscow airport), it’s not the most comfortable for layovers. Two transit hotels are available, but they are absurdly expensive as is everything else at the airport. Depending upon what you buy, you’ll pay 3-7 times as much as you would elsewhere. My layover was 4.5 hours and I ended up spending about $50 at the airport in between food and the pharmacy (it would have been about $20 otherwise). Free WiFi is available in many parts of the airport but not everywhere. Look for the Sheremetyevo Free WiFi and Beeline Free WiFi IDs.

Sheremetyevo Airport

Sheremetyevo Airport is basic and functional.

So, how about the safety and the service? I flew on newer, modern Airbus and Boeing aircraft. These are maintained well according to international standards. Aeroflot is a member of the SkyTeam alliance. I accrued my mileage to SkyTeam partner Delta, and it posted to my SkyMiles account exactly as advertised within a week. This didn’t happen correctly on my last flight with Aeroflot (when I was stranded in Moscow overnight and rerouted on KLM for the final segment) and I had to fight to get my points, so I was careful to keep my boarding passes until I saw the miles post. In-flight announcements were made in English, Russian and Chinese. Interestingly enough, the Chinese-language announcements (made by a native Russian speaking crew member) were almost flawless, but the English-language announcements were difficult to understand.

Economy class cabin, Aeroflot Boeing 777.

Economy class cabin, Aeroflot Boeing 777.

Aeroflot has improved the beverage service since the last time I flew them, but the food wasn’t as good this time. In economy class on the short-haul flight (Zagreb to Moscow), we were served a platter of cold snacks. An almost identical platter of cold snacks was served for breakfast before landing in Beijing. The hot meal was served about an hour after takeoff from Moscow, and there was a choice of chicken or fish. I am allergic to some fish, so I chose the chicken option and wasn’t very impressed. Aeroflot was trying to do an Asian-style chicken but they should stick to Russian food, which they do much better. The fish entree looked much better.

Economy class Aeroflot meal.

Aeroflot breakfast served before landing in Beijing.

Beverage service used to be very odd; no alcohol served at all, and beverages were served only before the meal (none during or after). So, you’d drink your whole beverage and then be thirsty after eating. The beverage service has changed so that now red and white wine are offered with dinner (and only during dinner). Shortly after dinner was served, the crew came through the cabin offering hot beverages and water.

The in-flight entertainment on Aeroflot is some of the best that you will find anywhere. From the new 3-D maps to Russian propaganda (thinly veiled as news and documentaries) to the latest Hollywood movies, you’ll find something to enjoy. The system is fast and responsive and I was very pleased with nearly every aspect except the control box under my seat! If you choose an aisle seat, do so at either end of the middle row, not the aisle seat nearest the window.

Overall, I believe that Aeroflot still represents exceptional value and–as of today–there is little impact from US sanctions on Russia. Transit is still allowed through Moscow airports for US passport holders without any visa and with minimal hassle. The biggest problem so far is that Aeroflot currently cannot accept US-issued credit cards because the bank they use has been cut off from US banks. If you want to book with Aeroflot you’ll need to do so through an online travel agency (I use Orbitz, which typically shows the same fares and books into the same fare classes as booking with Aeroflot directly).

Should you fly Aeroflot? I consider it a little risky to book right now, because of the political headaches that could occur. However, if you’re traveling soon, the risk is probably low–sanctions generally don’t happen overnight and without a lot of prior warning. The inflight service is good, flight safety meets international standards, and the planes are comfortable. For the price, Aeroflot value is awfully hard to beat!