Monday, July 24, 2017

What category will my transaction be?


Another useful tool that I've recently come across is a Visa search that helps you figure out what official category the charges from a specific merchant will code to on your Visa statement.

Since many cards have category bonuses (e.g., groceries, gas, dining), this can be helpful to figure out which card to use at various merchants. It's especially helpful if it's a merchant you've never been to and you don't have any historical data in your own account to look back on.

Check it out!




Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cool tool to search for award seats across all airlines

One of the toughest parts of the points game is actually finding the flights you want once you've gathered enough points. Most people end up with a mix of points across several carriers and maybe a pile or two of transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.

If you're just perusing possibilities, AwardHacker.com is great for showing you all of your potential options. You can filter the list so it doesn't show flights with programs you don't have points for. While this is great for brainstorming (and for choosing which new points programs to join), it doesn't show the availability of those rewards, so you'll need to use something different once you're ready to book.
Award Hacker (click to enlarge)

There are several options to look for reward seat availability. The "beginner" way is to search one airline's site and make sure it's set to also show partner flights (e.g., using United.com can show you results for United and nearly all of their Star Alliance partners). There are a few downsides to this, the biggest is that you have to search at least 3 websites (United/Star Alliance, Delta/SkyTeam, and American/Oneworld) for availability when you're trying to use transferable points. Another is that many airlines hide available award seats from their alliance partners when inventories get low.

But if you're looking for an award seat that's pretty easy to find, say, 1 person, 10 months from now, in low season on a busy route, that's likely all you need. But if you're looking for something a bit more challenging, you'll quickly want smarter tools. Earlier this year, a new startup called AwardEx.io launched that adds real-time seat availability to AwardHacker-style rewards searches. Yes, there are other options for this type of service (Expert Flyer, Award Nexus, FlightFox) but I've found they're almost too "pro" for most of my needs. AwardEx has a simple interface and a straightforward pricing structure

AwardEx.io pricing after you've used up your signup credits


It's a lot like searching on Kayak or Google flights. Put in your dates and cities (it automatically includes nearby airports) and other flight info and search.

Search (click to enlarge)

Results are conveniently grouped by transferable point programs first, then by individual airlines below. One feature I'd love to see here is some kind of a flag letting you know that one of these groups includes a direct flight.
Results (click to enlarge)

Once the results load, make sure you take advantage of that Sort button to find those cheap/nonstop flights.


Once you've found a flight you like, AwardEx gives you instructions for how to book.


I've spot-checked several examples and each time I've been able to actually locate the open seat it's recommended at the price point shown in AwardEx. Since seats can vanish without warning, it's helpful to know in advance which transferable points transfer instantly and which ones don't (cheat sheet here).



This seems like a great tool to have in my toolbox going forward. Since I only learned of it after planning our next big trip, I'll have to report back on how useful it is planning the trip after that.






Thursday, July 20, 2017

More competition coming for the Big 3 US carriers

Despite the PR nightmare of United's recent dragging and beating episode, United is on track to have a great quarter, and they'll likely have their highest number of boardings ever. Despite all of those Facebook comment threats about "never flying them again", it's amazing how many people still do when it's the cheapest, most-convenient, or only option. People might still hate United, but not enough to pay $50 more or take a 2-stop itinerary instead of a direct one...

This is why competition is so important. I still don't understand why the Obama administration approved the three mergers that eliminated Continental, US Air, and Virgin America. The airlines have now fully recovered from their post-9/11 financial crises, are making record profits, and yet they're raising prices, introducing "Basic Economy" fares with even fewer amenities, and treating customers worse than ever. As we drift toward monopoly, this is exactly what we'd predict would happen.

Well, there's been a little bit of good news on the competition front.
  • Frontier just announced a huge expansion – adding 21 new cities and 300 new pilots. 
  • Alaska is expanding to 13 new routes from the Bay Area, and potentially adding passenger service out of north Seattle's Paine Field
  • In somewhat shocking news, Southwest's previous booking system was so stone age, it didn't support red-eye flights, nor several other seemingly-basic features. Their new system should allow them all kinds new options to compete. 
  • The new 737-Max and A321-LR planes are giving budget airlines the ability to do transatlantic service. Norwegian is already offering transatlantic service out of JFK, Newark, and NYC-exurb Newburgh (SWF), and while they may force you to pay for your carry-on, they're at least giving you free Wi-Fi onboard
  • A new-ish low cost carrier called Primera is using new A321s to launch service between NYC/Boston and London, Paris, and Birmingham.
  • JetBlue is adding transatlantic service when they take delivery of their A321-LRs in 2018, and they'll feature the industry-leading Mint Business Class
  • Speaking of JetBlue Mint, they've also announced the Mint is being added to Seattle and San Diego and being expanded at Boston. And the Big 3 (mostly) only offer 38" recliner seats only those routes, so JetBlue has a competitive double-whammy there.
New JetBlue Mint routes

As a data point on competition: the introduction of Mint on the JFK-SFO/LAX run caused United, Delta, and American to drop their prices on these runs by $1000, so you'll likely benefit even if you're flying one of the legacy carriers.






Monday, July 17, 2017

JetBlue will status match to Mosaic

Over the weekend I got an email from JetBlue that they're bringing back status matches and status challenges. The former allows people with status on another airline to try out JetBlue's Mosaic elite status, and the latter allows non-elites to earn status through the end of next year by flying $1250 worth of JetBlue flights in 90 days.

My husband ended up earning Mosaic status largely by accident,  and we've scrutinized the benefits we've gotten from it and found that we got around $1200 of value out of it. Since people use some benefits more than others, you might want to look carefully at what it's worth before you make any decisions.

In our case, it's looking like my husband might miss making Mosaic status for next year due to fewer work trips this year, so he's planning on signing up for the challenge to still requalify for 2018. The one downer here is if you qualify via the challenge, you don't get the 15,000 bonus points (worth about $200) for making Mosaic.

You can enter the match or the challenge here. All the fine print is at the bottom. Here are the elite statuses they'll match:

  • Virgin America®: Elevate® Silver, Elevate® Gold
  • Alaska Airlines®: Mileage Plan™; MVP® Gold or MVP® Gold 75k
  • American Airlines®: AAdvantage Platinum®, AAdvantage Platinum Pro®, AAdvantage Executive Platinum®
  • Delta®: SkyMiles Medallion® Silver, Gold, Platinum or Diamond
  • Southwest Airlines®: Rapid Rewards® A-List Preferred or Companion Pass
  • United®: MileagePlus® Premier® Silver, Gold, Platinum or Premier1K®





Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Big changes to Aeromexico's Upgrade plan


We started planning the annual pilgrimage to Mexico a bit early this year. We loved Oaxaca so much last year that we basically want to repeat the schedule from last year:
   NYC > Oaxca > Puerto Vallarta > NYC.
We booked last year in September and many of the food and mezcal tours we wanted to take were already sold out for our late January dates, so we wanted to book a bit earlier this year.

There are several challenges in that itinerary, but probably the biggest one is that final direct flight back to New York. United (and Delta back when they used to compete on this route) will charge you USD$1000 per person for that trip whether it's a one-way or a round-trip. I got lucky last year and found a Mexican travel agent who could book the one way for $600-ish. Sadly they couldn't make that happen again this year, so I had try several different tricks but managed to eventually land the one-way for $550 in Business (happy to share how privately).

As I discussed in previous planning posts, there are never any Saver award seats on these direct NYC-PVR flights, and very rarely are there seats at the Standard award level, either.

 

Goodbye, Optiontown…

Ok, so we've got a flight home, now it's time to start looking for the other legs. Unfortunately there have been lots of changes since last year so I can't just copy-paste what I did last year. In years past, you could buy a coach ticket with Aeromexico, and then enter a lottery for a $50 upgrade through a 3rd party company called Optiontown. That's now been scrapped in favor of a new homegrown Upgrade auction system. From what I've been able to find on Flyertalk, winning bids are generally in the $150 to $200 range and you have to bid on each segment of your flight separately if you're on a connecting itinerary.
New Aeromexico Upgrade system

Right now a one-way Aeromexico flight from JFK to Oaxaca is about $950 in First, and about half that price in Economy. The next-best option is a United one-stop flight via Houston, but it's more expensive, there are no Saver rewards, and a long leg of that itinerary is on a tiny regional jet with no First or Business. (The Aeromexico flight is on a 787 with lie-flat seats). Furthermore, whenever I fly into a small town, I'd prefer to be on the biggest local carrier. United has one flight a day into OAX and if there's a mechanical problem their options are limited compared to Aeromexico's.

In years past they've had quite a bit of award seats available (usually netting around 3¢ each after you transfer from Amex) but now their Saver First award calendar is completely empty throughout the winter. (This might also be related to their recent addition of Peak dates for rewards) One way or the other, it looks like we're going to have to buy the tickets this year.

Zero saver award seats in First on any days in Jan/Feb


If you book right now (i.e., July/low season), there's plenty of choices

One other thing that's changed since last year is that Aeromexico has moved to Terminal 4 at JFK from Terminal 1. Their lounge in T1 was quite nice, so I'm not very hopeful for this new one.









Thursday, July 6, 2017

LOT Polish Airlines starting direct New York to Budapest service

Hungary hasn't had direct service to the US since American Airlines cut their flight and Malév went bankrupt in 2012, but it looks like starting next May, they're going to sponsor a new fifth freedom flight between NYC/Chicago and Budapest operated by LOT Polish Airlines.  Having a direct flight will help tourism and commerce so it makes sense the Hungarian government would want to sponsor this service. Apparently they originally planning to have Emirates operate the flight, but that fell through.

My first-ever 787 flight was on LOT Polish (their entire long-haul fleet is 787), and we had a great trip. I wrote a trip report for it over on Medium.com. I've always wanted to go to Budapest and I might actually take this flight when I finally get around to going. They're part of Star Alliance, and you can search/book award flights through United.com. Also, I don't know if this is typical, but I actually called their call center (push the buttons to get to the First Class support people) and they actually manually opened up another award seat for me so our friend could join us as a last-minute addition.


Lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 config
Their chef is a "taste sorceress"
Z is nearly 2 meters tall but there's plenty of headroom
We got a sneak peak at the crew rest "bump"

Friday, June 30, 2017

Where to find TOTO Washlets outside of Japan

I love Washlets. I've had one in my house since my first visit to Japan more than a decade ago and I love it when my hotel room or my plane has one. And it's not just me, the NYTimes wrote about them, and several competing brands have appeared in the US in recent years.

If you want a Washlet in the sky, you don't have much of a choice – only ANA and JAL have them, and only in the premium cabins.

ウォシュレット!

But what about hotels? As the spokesmodel in this commercial says, "I can't go on vacation anymore". A few of us were discussing this the other day and I said that yes, in fact, the presence of a Washlet would be a slam dunk for me when choosing a hotel. So I went poking around to find places outside of Japan that have them. Please message me if you know one that should be added to the list!

Hotels with Washlets


The Americas
  • The Kitano Hotel in New York has them in all of the rooms.
  • The Chatwal Hotel in New York
  • The Ritz Carlton Battery Park City, New York (suites only)
  • the $18,000 a night Presidential Suite at the NYC Four Seasons has one too :P
  • J House in Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Aria Casino, Bellagio, Mirage, and Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas have them in their suites
  • Also in Las Vegas: Nobu Hotel, Red Rock, Palazzo, the Venetian, and the Mansion at MGM (again, all likely only in the suites)
  • Holiday Inn Express in Auburn Hills, Michigan
  • some of the rooms in the Hotel Madonna in San Luis Obispo, CA
  • the Tower rooms at the Royal Hawaiian in Hawaii
  • the Suites at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Hawaii
  • Some of the rooms at Andaz Maui 
  • Grand Hyatt in Kauai 
Asia
Europe
TIP: If you go to Trip Advisor to look at a hotel, you can click 'Room and Suite' and then click 'Bathroom' to check out visitor photos before you book
TOTO also keeps an online list of restaurants. I think they do this largely so people can "try before they buy" if they've never used one before.


Hello Kitty Washlet!