Thursday, April 17, 2014

Summer business class fares to Europe

People have all different kinds of goals when it comes to collecting points for travel. In my case, I'm a big fan of flying in business class on long-haul flights, but I'm not a big fan of spending the $6000+ that usually costs. To that end, this summer and last I spent a great deal of time and energy planning summer mileage award trips to Europe from New York. In both cases I had very specific dates, flights, and destinations in mind, so the advance planning was necessary.

Two years ago, however, I actually paid to fly to Europe in business class (on a Singapore Airlines A380, no less). I've noticed a trend over the years that most airlines seem to offer some kind of a business class fare sale between the US and Europe during the summer when business-related travel is low and vacation travel is at its peak. In the case of that A380 trip, the business-class seat was almost the same price as an economy seat on the same flight! The fact that I was flexible about dates and destinations made it possible to not only fly in style, but also earn miles in the process. I used my Amex Gold card and got 4 Amex points per dollar (11,000 points) PLUS another 9600 United miles for the actual flight – so I alllmost earned an entire free US domestic flight from one paid trip to Europe.

Business class on Singapore A380, JFK to Frankfurt…

With more and more airlines now adding very high fuel surcharges onto reward tickets, I'll definitely be giving more thought to my future summer travel plans. In the case of this summer's trip, my round-trip business class flight to London has nearly $1200 of fuel charges on top of the 75,000 points i had to spend. And while those charges are steep, they don't hurt so bad when you know you're getting a ticket that would have otherwise cost $7000, but when you see summer business-class fare specials like these for $1900, it hurts quite a bit.

Hopefully I'll have some more flexibility summer 2015 so I can take advantage of the sales. As far as this summer goes, I was trying to accomplish two things: attend my friends birthday party in Spain, and fly on one of the most unique flights in normal commercial service — British Airways' London City service. BA flies a tiny A318 between JFK and London's City airport. The plane is entirely business-class and only has 8 rows! This is probably as close to a private jet as I will ever get!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Some major changes at Delta, United, and American

As I mentioned in the past, you need to have the mantra of "earn and burn" because frequent flier miles are devalued about every 18 months. The most common way they're devalued is by raising the number of points it takes to redeem for a flight. United's most recent changes in February nearly doubled the price for several routes, for example.

Delta made similar changes to their plan and they also made a huge change in that the number of points you earn on a paid flight is now based on the price you paid, rather than the distance you flew.

And because when one of the 3 legacy carries does it, the others usually follow suit, American announced a huge devaluation a few days ago. The worst-impacted part of their plan were their rule-buster rewards (AAnytime) that would let you book the last seat on the plane even if all the award seats were empty — the price for that doubled. The worst part of all is that American did this with zero advance warning.

Our economy is recovering and demand for seats is shooting up, so the airlines feel they can get away with these kinds of changes – especially when they all seem to make the devaluations within months of one another. No sense jumping from one to another in anger if the same change is going to happen elsewhere...

Even the low cost carriers do devaluations, so you can't necessarily escape by flying Southwest or JetBlue.

Until the airlines can return to the previous service levels (many drastically cut their schedules during the recession) prices will likely stay on an upward trend and points programs will continue to be gutted. In reading comments and postings on Flyertalk, it's clear that many people had big trips planned that were ruined by these devaluations. As a reminder, the two best ways to burn those points ASAP is to:

  1. book a ticket for a trip many many months in the future when there's more availability, or
  2. plan something completely spontaneous for this weekend (many airlines release a bunch of mileage award seats at the last minute).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Amtrak blackout dates...

UPDATE: Amtrak moved to a revenue-based model and blackout dates are gone now...

I often take Amtrak between Washington, New York City, and Boston. Their Acela service faster than the bus or the plane, but due to a lot of political BS, there's way more demand than there is supply so the price is usually a huge deterrent. Luckily Amtrak has their own points program, their own points credit card, and they're a 1:1 point transfer partner with Chase Sapphire.

As I mention in my little point tutorial, airlines often restrict the number of reward seats on each plane unless they're on a fixed value point system like Virgin or JetBlue. Amtrak was sort of the best of both worlds — the cost between two points is always the same and you can still book the last empty seat on the train with points. Or so I thought!

I went to book a one way trip from Washington today and saw an error message that rewards aren't allowed on rush hour Acela Express trains. When I clicked on the Blackout Dates button, sure enough, I saw this message:

So I guess I'm going to take an earlier train :)

Also, doing the point math: the Washington -> NYC trip is $259 and it costs 8,000 amtrak points, so I'm getting 3.2¢ per transferred Sapphire point.