Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cruising In Asia: Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

Finally time to start our trip! Waiting until the day of the trip to start packing was probably not the best of ideas, but our 10pm flight and taking an extra day off from work paid off. By 6pm we were off to SFO for the first leg of the trip.

Because we were using British Airways miles (75,000 per person), and Oneworld does not have any carriers that fly First Class from SFO to Tokyo, we had to fly out of LAX. Not wanting to risk any possible delays or missed connections, we planned to fly out the night before and spend the night near LAX.

Although there were numerous airlines that fly between SFO and LAX, we ended up choosing Southwest, not because the fare was any cheaper, but because we would each be checking 2 bags and even with co-branded credit cards, we would have only had 1 bag free per person on Delta or United. I had not been on a Southwest flight for some time and thought I would invest the $25 in early bird check-in to ensure I had a good boarding position. Leading up to the day of the flight it seemed like a really good idea and the checking in at 1pm the day of the flight and still having a Group A boarding pass was nice indeed. However, our flight was due to leave at 9:55pm. By 9:15, we were literally the only people sitting by the gate waiting. It did turn out that the plane was delayed and other passengers were spread out in surrounding gates, but in the end, there were a total of 17 passengers boarding the flight (meaning there were more rows than passengers).

I was unfortunately too tired to take any pictures, but then again there was not much to show. I was at least pleased with the amount of leg room, being 6ft tall and definitely not slim, I did not feel entirely squished like I do on most other carriers. We were on our way and within about 45 minutes of takeoff, it was already time to prepare for landing.

By the time we collected our bags, it was nearly midnight and it had been a busy day. We set out to find our hotel shuttle over to the Sheraton LAX Gateway. After arriving at the pickup station, we quickly realized how much of a mess this was going to be. Dozens of shuttles were fighting to get in and out of the tiny space allocated for them. It was a good 20 minutes before we finally found ours. After 10 minutes of navigating an absolute maze of traffic, we finally left the airport, and 2 minutes later we were at the hotel entrance.

We were very ready to get to our room and get to bed. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that was not going to happen. Moments after entering we witnessed several things. An angry flight crew that had arrived only to find their reservation had not been processed correctly and there were not enough rooms left for all of them, a woman slumped on a couch in the middle of the lobby surrounded by a number of hotel staff, and an ambulance rolling up to the entrance right behind us. Twenty minutes later, we finally had our room keys (which didn't work and had I had to go back down) and were into the room. After showering and making a mess of the room with our luggage, I again forgot to take pictures! The room was basic but clean and the bed was definitely comfortable. For the 3,000 SPG points we paid (normally 7,000), we were quite pleased and it served its purpose. We were emailed at least twice leading up to the stay asking if we wanted to upgrade to a club room or suite for $30-$70. Considering we were in after midnight and out at 10am, it did not seem worth while.

The next morning, after a little bit of repacking, we were off to the airport. This went much more smoothly than the night before. Just as we stepped outside, the shuttled pulled up and within 5 minutes we were at the international terminal.

The dedicated first class check-in was completely empty and the agent was exceptionally friendly and did not ask if we were in fact flying first class (I have a feeling she would have helped us even if we were not anyhow). Our baggage got the typical priority tags, but I was surprised and amused by the extra tags they placed on our carry on luggage for us.


The JAL website mentions that First Class passengers have access to the Oneworld Lounge and the LAX International Lounge, but the desk agents provide you with a little map that leads the way to the Oneworld Lounge. We had not had breakfast yet and it seemed easiest to follow the map. The desk agents at the lounge quickly pointed us towards the First Class side. The lounge is relatively small, but it was relatively empty when we arrived around 11am.

 Hot Food
 Cold Food
Latte and Cookies!

After an hour or so we thought we would walk around the terminal and head towards the gate. We were a bit surprised how little there is to see beyond security in the international terminal. We headed over to the gate and I tried to grab a picture of the plane, but the window and the gate were oddly placed I could only get a portion of it.

 JAL 777

It turned out that the flight was delayed about 40 minutes due to headwinds and a late arrival. Before the boarding process started, gate staff were going around the seating area in a seemingly random order checking passports and boarding passes to avoid delay at the gate. When boarding did start, they started 3 lines, apparently using the same 3 signs that were setup by the check-in desks. I thought the line for First Class was exceptionally long, but soon realized that almost everyone was JMB Diamond or Oneworld Elite. They quickly turned right at the jet way to head towards Business Class, while we went left which was dedicated to First Class. Seven of 8 seats were taken, but there was so much space, no one got in each others way.

Because we were traveling together, we chose seats 1D and 1G in the center so we could sit by each other. With the divider wall lowered, it was definitely very easy to see and talk with each other throughout the flight. It was exceptionally difficult to get a shot of the seats without standing in someone elses seat, I have borrowed a shot from the JAL  to give you an idea of the layout.

Though I am no fan of the Camera, I seem to be in all the pictures!
Taken from the opposite seat.

Before takeoff, the cabin attendants came around and provided everyone with their JAL Pajamas. They don't ask for your size, but they only have Small, Medium, and Large. I did not bother trying on the pants, but I humored my wife in trying the jacket. Clearly, that was not going to work. I did however enjoy the slippers and stowed my shoes under the ottoman. 

 Pajama Sack
First Class Menu

We quickly settled in and started reading through the menu. For dinner there was a choice of a Japanese set menu or a western menu. Having seen pictures of how nicely the Japanese dishes were served, we both decided we would be going for the Japanese menu.

Shortly after takeoff the cabin attendants came around and offered champagne and rice cracker snacks. Having heard good things about the Salon champagne served on JAL, I thought I would definitely have to give it a try. Not having the most discerning of palates or being a particular fan of champagne, all I can say was that it was "good". I did however ask to try the Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Sake, and that was seriously awesome. I liked it enough I tried to find out where to buy it, but found it was more than $100 for a 750ml bottle and quickly gave up on that! We were also offered another somewhat odd plate of snacks consisting of a skewer of zucchini and meat, a stuffed mushroom, and some melon.

Salon Champagne
 Rice Crackers / Snacks
 More Snacks!

Dinner started with some interesting appetizers that did not appear to be on the menu anywhere. Followed by an interesting dish of vegetables in Jelly. The appetizers consisting of six individual dishes is served in a multi-tiered box with a different dish to hold each item. Everything was very well presented and nicely prepared, but we were not completely prepared for some of the very unique flavors we would encounter. I enjoyed all of the dishes, but had to help my wife finish a few that were just a little too different for her taste (including the Jellyfish with Orange Vinegar Sauce, front and center.)  After eating two servings of a few of the items, I had nearly forgotten that there was a main dish still to come. This included "Braised Black Pork with Welsh Onion, Soybean Milk Miso Sauce,  Seasoned Rice with Sea-bream & Lotus Root, and Japanese Clear Soup with Steamed "Yuba" Mousse. At this point I thought I would try the other sake on hand, Hiroki. This was much stronger and a bit harsher than the Isojiman. Finally the meal came to an end with the "Japanese Sweet" which was a rice paste ball with "Sweet Beans" inside.

Japanese Appetizers
Summer Vegetables in Japanese Jelly
Appetizer Box
 Tsubo / Shiizakana / Mukouzuke
Main Dish
Japanese Sweet

After dinner, we were provided with his and hers amenity kits. They both contain Shiseido brand products, but the men's comes in a slightly larger canvas bag, while the women's kit comes in a smoother black cosmetics pouch. Unfortunately I seem to be missing that picture! As people were now beginning to settle in for the night (even though it was only about 5pm), I caught a glimpse of one of the other First Class passengers doing something I seem to always, and oddly enough only, see in premium cabins. Take off your shoes and put your feet (usually bare) onto the seat or tray table! At least in First Class we can expect that these are wiped down each flight, right...?

 Men's Amenity Kit

Bare foot on the table!

Now it was time to settle in ourselves and check out the IFE system. By this point the cabin attendant also noticed that I was more interested in trying the Japanese alcohol than the western options. Having tried both of the sake offerings, she suggested that I try the "Shochu". I am not a big fan of the drink, somewhat similar to Vodka, but I figured that if they offered it on board it must be good. I learned my lesson there! Luckily there was another option on the menu that I was interested in trying, the "Royal Blue Tea." The tea is very floral smelling, but the flavor was not. It was very refreshing and the novelty of having tea served from a wine bottle and poured in a wine glass was also adding to the enjoyment.

The IFE options were relatively limited and not the easiest to navigate. After having a hard time finding something to watch in English, I switched over to a Japanese movie "Detective in the Bar." About half way through my wife was asking me a question to I took of my headphones and was looking her direction when she stops mid sentence and asks "What are you watching!!" I look back at my screen and to my surprise the movie is now in the middle of a relatively graphic "adult" scene, that went on for quite a while. I should have expected no less from a Japanese Crime-Drama-Comedy about a private detective investigating the murder of a drag queen with the help of his nerdy companion that also knows Kung Fu.

Royal Blue Tea

By now my seat had been converted into a bed with the help of a Tempurpedic mattress pad, Tempur pillow, and a nice down comforter. The seat certainly turns into a very nice sized bed, and was pretty comfortable. Unfortunately, I have a hard time sleeping on planes in general, and I definitely prefer a cold sleeping environment. As I hard heard in other reviews, JAL likes to keep its cabin temperature quite high. I was quickly much too hot to be able to use the blanket and only managed about 30 minutes of sleep throughout the flight. Luckily, this turned out to be the fastest flight I have ever been on to from the West Coast, and had a total flying time of less than 10 hours. 

About two hours out from Narita, the cabin started to wake up and light started to pour in. The cabin attendants were already coming around taking orders for breakfast. Being that it was almost 4pm local time, that seemed a bit odd. During dinner, all of the other passengers in the cabin, all of whom were Japanese, had opted for the western meal. For breakfast though, most of them went with the Japanese option of steamed fish. One passenger however was not satisfied and also had a plate of curry with his breakfast. Lots of odors wafting about the cabin, it was a bit surreal. Feeling less adventurous by now, we both went for the western option of French cinnamon souffle with fresh fruit and bacon, assorted breads, and a yogurt panna cotta with orange zest.


Shortly after breakfast, we prepared for the final descent and were taxing to the gate before we knew it. By now I was definitely tired. Luckily we made it through customs in just a few minutes, had our bags, and were off to find our train.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cruising in Asia: Intro and Planning

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

Around February of 2013, we had just received the dates for my wife's summer break schedule. With my work being relatively flexible with vacation time and her having nearly 5 weeks between teaching sessions, we had a fairly large window. We just had to figure out where to go.
We already had a number of places on our travel checklist, so we started with the primary focus of cruising. Considering there are only so many cruises sailing in any one month, it didn't take us too long to narrow it down to a few options. When we started searching for matching award tickets to get to and from the cruise it quickly narrowed down much further. In the end our trip was based around a 7 night cruise from Tokyo (Yokohama) - to Hong Kong. More on that booking process in an earlier post.

With the anchor of our trip in place it was time for flights. Our goal initially was to locate business class tickets for the two flights. We had on hand 150,000 AA miles (from 2x CitiCard 75k offers). 100,000 British Airways miles (transferred from Marriott as a gift), and 50,000 Amex MR points (Mercedes Bendz Platinum 50k offer). After a bit of looking at award charts. I realized it would cost us 100,000 BA miles for two one way Business Class tickets on JAL from SFO to Tokyo (HND) and another 110,000 for Cathay Pacific Business Class from Hong Kong back to SFO. Unfortunately (or not..) I could not get the dates to line up quite right. So I expanded my search a little further and found that we could instead transfer 50K from Amex to BA and spend 150,000 miles on two one way First Class tickets on JAL, but we would have to fly from LAX to Tokyo (NRT). I also found that the difference between Cathay business and first would only be 25,000 more miles, I could not resist. And so, for the first time ever, we would get to fly international first class, not once, but twice on two highly acclaimed airlines and products.

With our flights booked, we now had a few gaps to fill in. We had to get to Los Angeles for our flight to Tokyo, and we needed hotels for LA, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. At this point, we are less than 3 months from the trip, and I have only maybe enough points for 1 night in any hotel program. Looking at cash rates for our dates, I was aghast at the $300+ per night for standard rooms and knew I would need another approach here.

After quite a bit of research and some procrastination, I applied for 2 new cards. The Chase Sapphire Preferred (40,000 points) and the Barclay's Arrival Mastercard ($440 Cash Back on Travel). I had both cards within two weeks and thanks to some reimbursable work expenses had both of the spending requirements done within another week. My plan was to use 28,000 Chase points to transfer to Hyatt (leaving me with ~37,000 in my account), to book 1 night at the Intercontinental Yokohama for ~$110 (very cheap, but poor reviews) and 2 nights in a club room at the Hyatt Regency TST in Hong Kong (36,000 Hyatt points).

We still needed a room in LA for 1 night before the Tokyo flight, and I was very happy to find that my pitiful 3000 SPG points would be enough to book a room at the Four Points LAX. That is, it was enough until that same night the hotel bumped its rate to 7000 points at nearly the exact moment I tried to book it (more on that here). Thanks to some pleasant customer service agents, the extra points were deposited in my account and I was booked!

Now with less than 2 months to go, everything seemed to be in order, but I was not 100% satisfied. We only had 1 night in Tokyo before getting on a ship and sailing away, and I was still paying cash for the hotel night. This is where I made things complicated, and drove my wife a bit crazy!

I had been reading about the Hyatt Diamond challenge and the Hyatt Card from Chase. I knew that I wouldn't be able to stay 12 nights in 60 days to keep the status, but I knew if I got instant Diamond, I could get 2 nights in a suite at any Hyatt hotel from the card. Having Platinum status with IHG (from the chase card and from IC Ambassador membership the year before), they let me start my Diamond Challenge immediately. Within hours, my status was live and I applied for the chase card. 7 days later, I had the card in the mail, bought a few things (maybe a gift card or two) and met the $1000 spend requirement in a few days. Less than a week later, the suite nights showed up in my account and I used them to book 2 nights in a suite at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, and switched our Tokyo stay to 1 night at the Park Hyatt for 22k points.

Whew its over... right? To make it more complicated, I had been checking availability tirelessly on JAL for an earlier flight. Less than 9 days to departure, finally, two seats opened up 2 days earlier. I quickly canceled the original flights (paying ~$50 in fees on and rebooked the new flights. Anticipating this move, I had booked with Southwest for our SFO>LAX flight so there was no added cost there. The stay at the Four Points had to be changed, but I wasn't able to online so I just canceled it. The 7000 points posted immediately back to my account. I went to book again and found that the Sheraton and Westin LAX were also 7000 points. Having heard better reviews, I switched to the Sheraton on our new date. But now we had 2 more nights to fill in Tokyo!

I quickly transferred the remaining Chase UR points to Hyatt and changed the Grand Hyatt suite nights to regular nights at 22,000 points per night (I was short 700 points and bought 1000 for $24 from Hyatt). I kept the 1 night at the Park Hyatt, and added on two nights in a Park Suite King with the Chase Certificates.

Not able to leave good enough alone, I took advantage of the $440 cash back from the Barclay card and booked two Japan Rail East Passes. This covered our Narita Express train ride to Shinjuku as well as Shinkansen tickets to Niigata and back where we would visit my host family from many years prior. For good measure, I also made use of AA routing rules to add on two additional flights for no extra charge. SFO>LAX and LAX>MIA in 3 cabin first class. We may or may not get to use these, but now we get to start planning again!

In the end, our trip would look like this:

SFO>LAX Southwest ($138)
Sheraton Gateway LAX (7000 SPG)
LAX>NRT JAL First Class (150,000 BA + $640 Taxes)
Park Hyatt Tokyo (Park King 22,000GP + Park Suite 2x Suite Award)
7 Nights Sun Princess 
Grand Hyatt Hong Kong (Executive Harbor View 2x 22,000GP)
HKG>SFO Cathay Pacific First Class (135,000 AA + $126 Taxes)
SFO>LAX>MIA American Airlines Flagship First (FREE)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Finally... I will give Southwest another chance.

It has been nearly 15 years since my last flight on southwest. I can still remember the anxiety, traveling with my family, hoping we would manage to get seats together knowing we checked in at the airport. By the time we made it on board  the only rows left with more than 1 seat were in the very back of the plane. Luckily it was only a 2 hour flight, but I can still remember being overly uncomfortable and hoping never to have that experience again. 

I generally pack light, or fly airlines that I have a co-branded credit card that covers the first bag. I certainly don't mind paying $35 for main cabin select on Virgin America flights either. However, on this occasion  a perfect storm of circumstances made Southwest the best option by long enough that I could not refuse. 

For months I have been planning a trip to Asia, flying First class on Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific. In order to start the journey, we need to get from SFO to LAX, a flight that takes just over an hour and has numerous carriers flying many times a day. In the end though, Southwest beat out the competitors for the following reasons.  

1. Flexibility: Up until the last minute I was waiting for an earlier flight to open up on JAL so that we could have a few extra days on the ground in Japan. United, Virgin, American, and Delta all had hefty change fees that would have cost more to change than the ~$69 the tickets would cost on Southwest. Knowing that we might have to change our dates, southwest offered the simplest option of being able to bank the value of the original flights and apply it towards a different fare. 

2. Baggage: Our flights on JAL and Cathay both offer cover 3 checked bags, and our trip is 2+ weeks long. Its likely that we will have at least two bags per person that we need to get down to LAX before we continue on. Even with a free bag via credit card or main cabin select upgrade, we would still have to put down at least $25 per person for our additional bags. Knowing we can freely check 2 bags per person on Southwest, this made the choice even easier. 

3. Schedule: We still have to work all day before we pack up and head to the airport. The last Virgin and American flights leave at around 8pm, cutting it a little close, and the United Redeye was already twice the price. We found that Southwest had a perfect 10pm departure that would get us down and into our airport hotel before midnight. 

In the end, the choice was easy. For an extra $25 I paid for our early-bird checkin, which should guarantee us in the first boarding group and a decent seat. I hope that this flight will help change my mind about flying southwest.   

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cruise Planning - Tokyo to Hong Kong

When it comes to planning an international trip, I almost always start with the flights. I usually search using calendar features when available and make a spreadsheet of all the available incoming and outgoing reward flights (yes, I use spreadsheets for everything. would not be able to survive without google docs). Once I have my available date range, I start planning what to do once we get there.

In this particular case, we had a number of limitations. We wanted a cruise, in July or August, that included Japan, and was 7 nights or longer. To my surprise this quickly narrowed our options down to just a few possible options and once matched with the flight availability, there was really only one option left.

7 Nights on the Sun Princess, leaving from Tokyo and arriving in Hong Kong.

When your dates are not flexible, finding a deal on a cruise can be a pain. Prices do rise and fall similar to airfare, but if you wait too long, you run the risk of your desired cabin type selling out. Luckily, if you are booking far in advance, most cruise lines will either offer some form of a price drop guarantee. Some lines offer onboard credit for the difference right up to the day of departure, some will book you into a higher category for the same price, and others still will reduce your final payment amount if you are more than 90 days out. Each company is very different in their rules on this, but one they tend to stick to is this: If you book with a travel agent or 3rd party, you must go through them to request any price drop or cabin changes". If you did not book direct with the cruise line, don't spend time on hold before talking to the company you booked through. 

Generally I never book direct through a cruise line. Why? They rarely offer the best overall deal. They will always match the best advertised price, however, they may not offer the best benefits, bonuses, or perks. It is important to shop around for more than just the best price. If you are a Costco member, I do recommend checking out Costco Travel's deals, they almost always come with onboard credit. On a recent NCL booking, they also added in free soda packages ($30/pp value) even though the promotion had expired.

I also personally make use of American Express Platinum Cruise Benefits. The $450/year Platinum card is not worth getting just for these benefits, but along with the $200 airline credit, I find that we are able to more than break even every year by using these benefits. When booking through Platinum Travel Service (or a travel agent that knows how to call PTS) and paying with your Platinum Card (or any AMEX if you also have a platinum card), you get either onboard credit or category upgrades, along with additional perks like a bottle of wine/champaign, and specialty restaurant fees waived. If you do carry this card, be sure to ask any travel agent you work with if they know how to apply these benefits by calling PTS after booking.

When booking this cruise, I found that there were very few bonus offers available and that my best bet would be to book through American Express travel and get 2x points, a 2 Category Upgrade (higher floor, better location), A bottle of sparkling wine, and dinner at a specialty restaurant. It sounded fine, but I was just not satisfied. I kept digging further looking for some way to get a better deal. Somehow I came across a site called The site was pretty minimal, and seemed even a little suspicious as to if it was real. All I needed to enter was my email and desired sailing and room type. I figured there was little to lose. 

Within a few hours, offers from individual travel agents started to come in. The first few were no better than what I could have found myself, but then a few agents started offering fares $100 or more per person lower than the best rate I could find. We finally selected an agent based in Florida that not only saved us ~$200 per person, but they were also familiar with AMEX PTS and was able to get us all of the same benefits (minus the 2x membership rewards points). After selecting my travel agent I "closed" the request and only get minimal email from cruisecompete, which could easily be unsubscribed from. 

I have been happy to see that over the last few months, the publicly advertised price for our cruise has not once come close to the deal we got, and in fact many of the categories have sold out considering this is a 1 time itinerary that is also bookable as a 14 night cruise ending in Singapore. I definitely recommend trying out this service if you are looking into booking a cruise.     


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Starwood Preferred Guest - Four Points LAX

Compared to airlines, hotel chains are often much more accommodating when something goes wrong. They also have many more options to help correct a situation or offer good will gestures for unavoidable events. It does help to be a member of their loyalty program (elite or not) and keep in mind that bookings made through 3rd party sites like Priceline/Hotwire will not help your cause. 

On Monday night I was looking for an inexpensive hotel to stay at near LAX before our upcoming international flight that we cannot afford to miss. With most decent airport hotels in the mid $100 per night range, I started exploring options for redeeming points. With airport hotels in Los Angeles being seemingly high in demand, many hotels required more points than I was interested in spending. After checking Hyatt, Priority Club, and Hilton, I remembered I had a very small collection of Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points from a few years ago. Having just 3200 points, I would only have enough for a category 2 hotel. To my surprise, the Four Points LAX hotel was available and only 3000 points per night. Knowing I did not want to pass up this offer, I tried to book (from my iPad in bed at 11:30 at night), only to reach an error page before getting to the end of the booking. I figured it was just an iPad browser issue and gave up for the night, figuring I would book the next day. 

The next day, I was checking my favorite travel blogs for news and deals and I see the headline, "Starwood raising hotel category for Four Points LAX without any announcement or advance notice." My heart sank, realizing that my plans had just fallen apart. I thought perhaps this was just a mistake, but it was soon confirmed that the hotel made the change overnight. 

In the terms and conditions of the program, the hotels are allowed to change their rates at any time without advance notice. Having attempted to book the hotel at the advertised rate and having the booking fail, I felt this was worth an email to SPG. I did not mention that I attempted to book and failed, I just sent an email asking if it was at all possible to book at the old rate. Within a few hours I had a response. 

The agent informed me that they had spoken to the hotel and confirmed that the rate had in fact gone up, and they would not be able to book the room at the 3000 point value. However, as a gesture of good will, they would credit me with enough points to make the new booking at the 7000 point cost. After about 30 minutes chatting with a customer service representative, they were able to make me a tentative booking while I wait for the points to post and my plans were saved.

I have definitely had experiences with hotels that resulted in less desirable outcomes, but I think its important that you keep in mind, it does not hurt to ask (unless you are a "Diamond Guest" who needs a suite for your Giraffe). If you really feel you have been wronged and don't feel that you are getting anywhere with customer service, I would recommend reaching out through social media channels (Twitter/Facebook). They often have a stronger incentive to offer a solution.

In the end, it is up to you as to what you feel is worth asking/complaining about.      

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Is Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan a good fit for you?

In an earlier post I covered airline alliances and partnerships that allow you to earn and redeem miles between airlines. I also mentioned that there were a few programs that do not fall into the 3 major alliances, but have partnerships with other major airlines. Alaska Airlines' loyalty program, Mileage Plan, is one of these very unique programs that partners with a handful of airlines, even a few in rival alliances.

Earning Miles
You can of course earn miles by flying on Alaska, but you can also credit flights on any of their partner airlines. Some of their partners include AirFrance, Delta, KLM, and Korean Air from the Skyteam Alliance, as well as American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN, and Qantas from the OneWorld Alliance. For those of you lucky enough to be flying in paid premium cabins (Business/First), you will want to consider crediting your flights to the carrier you are flying on, or a member of its alliance as there are quirky rules about bonus miles awarded based on the class of service you fly in.

Apart from miles flown, there are a number of ways to accumulate miles with Alaska. Many of the major hotel groups offer miles in return for stays (though they often replace the hotel points you would have earned). You can also earn miles through all of the major car rental agencies. For those of you really dedicated to your mileage earning, there are also a number of ways to earn points for dining, shopping, or banking with certain financial institutions. 

Redeeming Miles 
This is where things start to get tricky. Mileage Plan is not the most difficult program to redeem with by far, but figuring out how much an award costs and checking availability can become challenging. You can at least check for cost and availability of flights on Alaska, American, British Airways, and Delta on

Flights within the Continental US (48+Alaska) and Canada
For the most part, these flights will cost 25,000 miles round trip in economy. Alaska, American, and British Airways will allow you to book one way tickets at half the cost, but Delta will require you to either book a round trip, or book one way on Delta and one way on Alaska, American, or British Airways. All of these flights can be searched for and booked via the site, so I will not go too into depth on where you can fly. 

Flights between North America and Hawaii
Not a good deal for west coast based flyers, but not terrible from the East or Canada. 
American Airlines

Flights between North America and Europe
As alaska does not fly outside of North America, these flights will have to be on their partners. You can check out the full chart here, but here are a few of the example costs. I will focus on round trip economy class in this section and dedicate a separate section to aspirational premium awards. 

Air France / KLM
American Airlines 
60,000 (May 16th - Oct. 14) / 40,000 (Oct. 15 - May 15) British Airways

65,000 (+High Fees!)
60,000 (only 90,000 in Business!)

Flights between North America and Asia
This is where you might throw your hands in the air and give up! Each partner airline charges differently and they also divide Asia into different regions. Again focusing on round trip economy tickets.

American Airlines 
Japan - 65,000 (May 1st-Sep 30th) / 50,000 (Oct 1st - Apr 30th)
China - 70,000
Cathay Pacific
Japan/China/Korea - 60,000
Japan/China/Korea - 60,000
Korean Air
Japan/Korea/China/Taiwan - 70,000

Premium Cabin Awards (The best kind!)
These awards will provide you with the absolute best value per mile. I will not cover all of these, or even the most complicated, but a few of the more common possible trips to get you thinking. I am skipping British Airways flights as they will incur up to $1000 in Fuel Surcharges on premium cabin awards.

North America to Europe
Air France/KLM Business Class - 100,000 (Possible Stopover in Paris or Amsterdam)
American Airlines Business Class - 100,000 (125,000 First Class)
Delta Airlines Business Elite - 90,000

North America to Asia
American Airlines Business Class to Japan - 100,000 (125,000 First Class)
American Airlines Business Class to China - 110,000 (135,000 First Class)
Cathay Pacific to South East Asia Business Class - 100,000 (140,000 First Class)
Delta Business Elite to Japan/China - 120,000
Korean Air Business Class to Korea/ Japan / Taiwan / China 105,000 (Possible stopover in Korea)
Korean Air Business Class to South East Asia - 110,000 (Possible stopover in Korea)

North America to Africa / Middle East / India
Air France/KLM Business Class - 120,000 (Possible Stopover in Paris or Amsterdam)
Cathay Pacific Business Class - 125,000 (Possible Stopover in Hong Kong)
Cathay Pacific First Class to South Africa - 140,000 (Amazing Deal! ~$25,000 worth of flights)
Delta Business Elite - 120,000 (Possible stopover in Amsterdam en route to Mumbai)
Emirates Business Class to India / Middle East - 145,000 (180,000 First Class)

North America to Australia / New Zealand / South Pacific
Air France Business Class LAX to Tahiti - 120,000 (Can include Alaska Airlines US Flight)
Air Pacific Business Class LAX to Australia/New Zealand Via Fiji - 110,000 (Can Include Alaska Airlines US Flight)
Cathay Pacific Business Class to Australia / New Zealand Via Hong Kong - 120,000 (160,000 First Class)
Delta Business Elite to Sydney - 105,000
Qantas Business Class - 110,000 (First Class 140,000, Possible Stopover in Australia en route to New Zealand)

Who is this program is best for?
If you fly somewhat frequently within the continental US, but never seem to accrue more than 25,000 miles flown on an individual airline each year, Mileage plan may be a good fit for you. It is also much more effective if you are based on the west coast as this gives you the option of spreading your flights across 3 domestic airlines (Alaska, American, and Delta), while still accumulating miles in only one program. If Hawaii is also a favorite destination, Alaska frequently offers sub $400 round trip from the west coast that earn you nearly 5000 miles per ticket and offer a decent in flight experience (and possible $100 upgrades to First Class each way).

Monday, May 27, 2013

San Francisco to Uganda - Buying Miles

Under certain circumstances, buying miles can be an excellent deal. It can be especially useful if you are buying them to book international first or business class tickets. There are also occasions when the price of economy airfare is so unreasonably high, that it is cheaper to buy miles and book an award flight instead.

I have been helping to track airfare for a family member trying to fly from SFO to EBB (Entembbe, Uganda). By the time they were ready to book, economy tickets had risen to over $2300 and included at least 2 stops or an overnight layover.

While holding out for prices to drop, I began looking at possible alternatives. US Airways frequently runs a 100% bonus on purchased miles, which allows you to buy miles at ~1.8 Cents per mile. Their award chart also allows for a round trip ticket from the United States to Africa for only 70,000 miles in economy (110,000 in Business). Using I was able to search for award availability on star alliance partner airlines. After finding availability, you can call up US Airways and confirm the tickets are bookable. Purchased miles post instantly, so you can complete your purchase while still on the phone with the agent and make your booking all in one call.

During the current 100% purchased miles promo, 70,000 miles cost you $1317. After adding in some booking fees and taxes, the total cost of the tickets came out to $1463.87.  In our case, the flights did not line up exactly as we would have liked so we added a one way from JFK-SFO for $312, bringing the total trip cost to $1775.87. Even with this added expense, the trip is still $500 cheaper than buying a regular ticket. 

It is not the most straightforward process and your experience with a US Airways phone representative can be very hit or miss, but the booking is possible and potentially more flexible than a purchased ticket.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Choose Your Alliance!

"Airline Alliance" that is. This was one of the most important things I learned that really changed everything for me and it is what makes some of the most valuable kinds of award travel possible. 

What is an airline alliance?
Most airlines have formed partnerships with each other that allow you to both earn and redeem points on airlines within the same alliance. For the most part, each alliance has enough partners to cover just about every destination around the world. 

What does this mean for earning? 
It means that you can effectively choose just two or three programs to accumulate points in, instead of trying to keep track of programs for every airline you fly on. Instead of having 10 accounts with 5000 miles each in them, you could end up with 2 accounts with 25,000 miles each. This also means, you do not need to tie your self down to a single airline when you fly because you are worried about leaving points on the table. 

What does this mean for redeeming?
It opens up a world of possibilities. You can redeem United points to fly ANA to Japan, Delta Skymiles to fly Air France to Paris, American AAdvantage points to fly Qantas to Australia. If you have enough miles with any airline, there is almost always a way to get wherever you want to go. 

Who are the Alliances? 
Alliances change often, but here is a rundown of a major alliance. Check out who you might be able to fly on with your miles.
 (As of 2013)

Oneworld Alliance - Air Berlin, American Airlines, Britsh Airways, Cathay Pacific, FinnAir, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Royal Jordanian, and S7 Airlines.

Star Alliance - Adria Air, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EYGPTAIR, Ethiopian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandanavian Airlines, Shenzen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss, TAM, TAP, THAI, Turkish Airlines, United, and US Airways.

Skyteam Alliance - Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argent, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech Airlines, Delta, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Xiamen Air, and a few other smaller airlines.
Outliers - not all airlines play by the same rules. There are a number of airlines that have various partnerships with other airlines, but don't belong to an alliance. Alaska Airlines for example, partners with both American (Oneworld) and Delta (Skyteam), along with a handful of other airlines. Emirates and the Virgin group also have similar partnerships. Then you have Southwest/AirTran which is a whole different game. I will go more in depth on each alliance and group at a later date.

Takeaway: You have more options for earning and redeeming miles than you might think. Sign up for at least one frequent flyer program per alliance, and focus your actual traveled miles into as few programs as possible to avoid small balances in random programs. However, no points are too small to leave on the table, 500 points could be worth $20 to you someday, so don't hesitate to pick up free points from surveys, promotions, or shopping portals.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Why do I play the miles game?

My friends usually role their eyes when I start talking about what they "could" be doing with airline miles. There he goes again... "Miles blah blah, points points, bonus something-or-other, FREE!" Dare I say "Credit Card" and the suspicious looks really pile up. 

People know my wife and I travel a lot, but they probably also think we spend a bunch of money doing it. Ok, travel and money inevitably go together and no trip is ever "Free," but we can certainly stretch our dollars. 

I would like to share some our successful travel redemptions to give you an example of how small and big the rewards can be in this game. 

1. Short Haul British Airways Award - SFO - SEA 7500 Miles + $30 One Way
When my mother was sick and about a 1000 miles away, I wanted to visit her as often as I could afford to. Last minute flights from San Francisco to Seattle can range between $200-$300. When I couldn't book in advance, I often relied on miles to make the trip possible. For just 7500 miles one way or 15000 round trip and a $30 booking fee, I was able to fly on Alaska Airlines direct flights on very short notice.

2. Cross Country American and United - SFO to MIA/FLL 25000 miles + $10
Cruises have become one of our absolute favorite ways to travel (more on that later), but most of cruises we enjoy depart from Florida. Ticket prices can vary widely, but we would expect to pay about $350 for a flight. Finding award tickets on the dates you want can be a pain sometimes, but luckily, United and American, both offer one way awards at half the price of a round trip. Add in the airline partner flights, and you have even more options. For special occasions, 25000 miles one way gets you into First Class, or American's International Business Class with angled lie flat beds.

3. North America to Europe in Business Class - SFO to CDG to LHR to SFO 100000 Delta Miles +$250
Our first real venture into premium, dare I say "Freemium" travel. Our Delta miles secured us business class on Air France to Paris, where we were allowed a stopover for several days before continuing on in Air France to our destination of London as well as our tickets in Delta Business Elite with fully lie flat seats (as close as Delta gets to First Class). The total cost of the flights would have been approximately $7000 each, but if we were to fly economy, it would have been about $1500 for all the flights. 

I'll have to save our latest and most caluable redemption for another post, and perhaps my first ever "Trip Repot" as we try out Internatioinal First class for the very first time.  

Do you know what your points and miles are worth?

Everyday I read dozens of stories from people who use their points and miles to fly all over the world, often in first or business class, staying in luxury hotels, and planning their next trips before they even finish the one their on.

Many of these individuals travel for business and rack up enourmous quantities of points, all courtesy of their employers, while others score giant sign up bonuses after applying for dozens of credit cards a year. It's likely that most of us don't fit into either of these categories, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to enjoy some of the same benefits that the "road warriors" and "travel hackers" are taking advantage of. 

While I love to share information about credit card sign up bonuses and promotions, I find that often the people I talk to are far more familiar with the concept of earning points than they are with redeeming them. Maybe they have 5,000 miles, maybe they have 500,000 miles (more often than not they don't even remember which airline/hotel they have points with). If you can't figure out how to use your travel miles, they really arent worth anything to you. I hope to change this for each and every person that I know. At the very (very!) minimum, you should be able to get at least 1 cent of value out of every mile or point you have. If you really work at it, they can be worth much more. 

If you are interested in finding out more about the potential value of the points and miles you already have, or want to figure out what programs might be best for you, leave me a comment, send me an email, or if you know me, just come say hi. I will happily donate some of my time to give you some ideas for using your points or help figure out how you can start earning even more.

Freemium Travel - Introduction!

What is Freemium Travel? Its the idea of experiencing "Premium" travel and destinations at as close to "Free"  as possible. How? Through a combination of points, miles, promotions, and sometimes just plain awesome deals. 

My goal is to take the vast knowledge of the travel/points blogging community, digest it, and turn it into something comprehensible for all my friends and family. I do not consider myself an expert, but I hope to gain more knowledge with each deal and posting. 

I will start with explaining a few potential deals that currently exist, recap on a few that we have taken advantage of in the past, and finally, what i'm really looking forward to, offering free consultations for anyone that has a stash of points and miles, and doesn't know what to do with them!

I look forward to sharing this information with everyone I meet, and meeting even more people along the way.