Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cape Air trip report

This summer I flew from one P-Town to the other — Provincetown, MA (PVC) to Portland, Oregon (PDX). Given Provincetown's location at the end of Cape Cod, your options to get to Boston's Logan Airport are ferry, car, or Cape Air. The pictures really tell the story of our 28 minute adventure. Make sure you check out the movie clip of landing!

PROS
  • Ridiculously scenic
  • Fast (28 minutes)
  • Land inside the security area at Boston's JetBlue terminal for easy transfers
  • Partners with JetBlue so you can book connecting service easily
  • No line at security in PVC
CONS
  • Expensive (round-trip ≈ $290 versus $90 on the ferry)
  • Very weather sensitive
  • Cramped seating was only tolerable for about 20 minutes (If you're tall, try to get the co-pilot's seat for extra legroom)
  • Extra hard on motion sick people (but so's the ferry...)
Alternatively, JetBlue has started seasonal service from JFK to Haynnis (HYA) if you still want to fly but really don't like tiny planes. You can also take Cape Air from Provincetown to White Plains (HPN) airport.

Enjoy :)

Provincetown Airport (PVC)

Inside PVC


Our chariot


takeoff...

And you thought Spirit Airlines 30" pitch was bad...

Gorgeous scenery

Views, views, views

Our very friendly pilot


landing in Boston (best in full screen. use "gear" icon to set to HD)


Extra luggage storage in the engine pylon

Our awesome pilot!

Some of Cape Air's other plans at BOS



Car rentals for car-free people

One of the things that makes car-free living in the city bearable is the occasional long weekend out in the country. Carsharing services like Zipcar and Hertz 24/7 have made trips like these vastly easier and more convenient but I still find myself needing to do a traditional car rental a couple of times a year – especially when I'm traveling. What astounds and irritates me is how there's almost no information out there about how do handle liability insurance when you don't already own a car. 
BOTTOM LINE (for Americans renting cars in the USA):
  1. If you don't own a car (and ergo have no insurance), you should probably take the Liability Insurance Supplement insurance from your rental car company. 
  2. Most credit cards offer coverage for the vehicle itself, but none offer liability.
  3. If you rent cars more than 30 days a year, call an insurance broker and get a "non-owners auto policy" for when you rent cars. 

When I've talked with other car-free folks about this I'm surprised by the number who think, "oh, my fancy credit card covers all of that for free..." They're wrong. No credit card offers liability insurance, not even American Express' fancy supplemental program does. Those programs cover the cars, but I'm way more concerned about other people's medical bills in the event that I'm found even partially at fault. State minimums basically cover a broken arm and not much more.

Liability NOT INCLUDED!

I'm not a lawyer or an insurance expert but here's what I've found:
  • Some states require rental car companies to carry the state-mandated minimum of liability insurance for people who rent cars there. 
    • For New York state, that comes out to $25,000 of personal injury with a maximum of $50,000 per incident. (link has lots of other helpful info)
    • For Massachusetts, those numbers are $20,000 / $40,000
    • For California, the rental car companies are NOT required to include any liability coverage in their rental fees.
    • The rental car agencies seem intentionally cagey about listing which states require them to provide liability coverage as part of their base rates. I've been having good luck spot checking states by just googling, "does {state} require rental car companies to carry liability insurance?
  • Your homeowners insurance company might be able to add an umbrella liability policy that will offer liability coverage when you're driving a rental. 
  • I've heard that filing a claim with your credit card requires an huge amount of paperwork versus filing a claim when you've used the rental car company's insurance.
  • You can get a "non-owners auto policy" from an insurance company but it likely won't be worth it unless you rent a car for more than 30 days a year. Geico, for example, quoted me $400 a year for $500,000 of liability coverage. 

State mandated liability insurance levels (from hertz's website)




Monday, August 25, 2014

United PS lounge access

I've been a big fan of United PS and its competitors for nearly a decade. Considering the flight from New York to London is only about an hour longer than the flight from New York to San Francisco/LA, it makes sense that someone would offer international-style amenities to people flying this route.

Originally, United PS had a traditional 3-class configuration and ONLY the people flying in First were entitled to use the United lounge at JFK (Business Class customers were out of luck...) Well, when they reconfigured their cabins a couple of years ago to only have Economy and lie-flat BusinessFirst classes, they also granted lounge access to everyone in the BusinessFirst cabin!

Somehow we missed that fact and we've been sitting in the often-very crowded JFK Terminal when we were entitled to be in the lounge (ahem... drinking for free). We'd just assumed since First Class was gone so was all lounge access. Given the airlines' tendency these days to always choose the most customer-hostile option when presented with a choice, it wasn't a completely crazy assumption. So some good news for once!

United's official lounge policy for PS BusinessFirst

While I'm on the topic of lounges, a couple of other random facts:
  • Lucky wrote an awesome guide for determining whether or not you have lounge access. It's sometimes quite difficult to figure out all of the rules. Especially since they all have Lounge Dragons (the usually-hostile person at the counter who decides if you're eligible to enter) who I swear get a commission every time they deny someone who tries to come in :)
  • ALWAYS carry your official airline elite status card with you when you travel internationally. In Munich, for example, we could have used the lounge for a domestic connection but the Lufthansa Lounge Dragon told us that she couldn't "look us up in the computer" that we had to have our actual United Gold status cards in order to enter.
  • American Airlines' competitor to PS (called Flagship) retained their 3-class service after a recent plane retrofit. If you're actually in First, make sure you use their very cool (and very posh) Flagship Checkin and and First Class lounge. 
  • If you're flying out of JFK, lots of airlines contract with British Airways to use their "Galleries" lounge but only people actually flying on a British Airways plane get to eat in the preflight dining room. Everyone else just gets snacks and liquor. (ProTip: they have champagne in the Galleries lounge but you have to ask for it!)




Friday, August 8, 2014

United ranks dead last in customer satisfaction

Full story is here



What's shocking is the Delta came in first — even above JetBlue and Virgin! United came in dead-last:


United’s abysmal ranking may be due to the fact that it had the highest number of boarding denials (nearly 246 per one million passengers, compared with just 3.58 per one million for JetBlue, which ranked highest in this category) of all the airlines examined as well as the lowest overall customer satisfaction score (it ranked 60 out of 100 compared with 79 out of 100 for JetBlue, which had the best customer satisfaction score).

I knew united was bad about overbooking flights but 246 versus 3.58? Wow. Full breakdown on the numbers is here.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Finally a major US credit card with Chip + PIN!

Credit and debit cards with a chip in them have been the norm in Europe for years. In various travel situations (most notably automatic ticket machines) it can be downright maddening to have a wallet full of cards and none of them work. A few US card issuers started including the chips, but they opted for a slightly different standard called "Chip + Signature", whereby your card is authenticated with the chip, but a traditional signed paper receipt is required to complete the transaction. (NOTE: all of these cards include a traditional magnetic stripe so they can be easily used in the USA). While this helps out quite a bit, it still leaves you stranded at the ticket machines (which work ONLY with Chip + PIN cards).


Given that the USA is supposed to completely switch over by October of 2015, it's surprising to me that no major US credit card company has issued a Chip + PIN card until now. When the big commercial travel bloggers got wind of it, they knew EXACTLY what the "acid test" was: French ticket machine trauma :) Once I heard it had passed the test I got myself a Barclays Arrival card and can personally add to the list of battle-tested locations:
  • London Oyster card machine (pin)
  • London Emirates Sky tram ticket machine (pin)
  • Transport for London staffed window (sig)
  • Spanish Renfe long distance train ticket machine (pin)
  • onboard cafe on Spanish AVE train (sig)
  • Madrid metro ticket machine (pin)
It seems that the card only runs in Chip + PIN mode when there is no Chip + Signature option available. Basically everywhere I went that was staffed, I was offered a piece of paper to sign. 

While I've not seen any visible signs of the big transition to EMV Chip cards in the US next October, I did see this article today, saying that Square is now coming out with a chip-enabled reader. Square is popular with small, hip businesses but they recently added Starbucks as a major customer, so this transition may happen after all. 

Square is launching an EMV Chip-enabled reader


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Baggage Fees, Economy Plus, and Fedex

Airlines have started "un-bundling" services — ostensibly making base ticket prices cheaper and then allowing people to pay to add things like checked bags, early boarding, seats with more legroom, etc. Many of these little perks are free to people with some kind of Elite status, but if you don't have status you're going to have to cough up some money (or spend more miles to sit in First, where most of these perks are included).

If flying First isn't an option, you might want to consider FedEx (or the US Postal Service) as an alternative to paying to check a bag. Maybe someday Japan's amazing Takkyubin delivery service will launch in the US, but until then FedEx will have to do. Depending on the size and weight of your bags, it can be as cheap (or cheaper) than paying the airlines' fees. Plus it gets dropped at your destination versus waiting around the airport and then schlepping it home. Shipping can be especially cost-effective if NOT having a big bag enables you to take public transport on either end of your trip versus an Uber or Taxi!

I decided to do some comparisons based on two sample items:


Conclusions

  • It's always cheaper to check the bag if you're flying internationally
  • If your bag HAS to be there the next day, it's ALWAYS cheaper to check it
  • If you can fit your stuff into the USPS flat rate Large Box, it's cheaper than a checked bag
  • But maybe you can pack differently so your big bag can show up 2 days after you and your carry-on?
  • For short flights (e.g., LAX – SFO), FedEx Ground is the same price as a checked bag and it shows up in 2 days
  • For long distances (e.g., SFO – JFK), FedEx Ground is a bit more than a checked bag and takes 5 days. 
  • If you decide to do it, set up a FedEx account and print everything out at home. The walk-up rate in the store is much higher and filling out those forms by hand is no fun. 
  • Factor in external costs (how will you get the box to FedEx? can you take the train to the airport now that you have no big bags to carry?)
  • Buying up to Economy Plus seating doesn't get you a free checked bag


The details

First off, how are you going to get the box to FedEd or the Post Office and how much will that cost you? FedEx will pick it up for $3 if you request the pickup electronically with at least a day's notice ($4 for same day), but if that's not convenient you might need to drive/cab/lug it to the nearest Fedex dropoff point. Remember to do this thinking for both ends of the trip.


Coast-to-Coast FedEx

The coast-to-coast proposition isn't great – $50.90 to ship a bag that will take 5 days to show up. All of the speedier options are vastly more expensive than checking a bag. But 5 days isn't a deal-breaker in all cases: I personally have a scenario where we're going to do it. My entire family is coming here for Christmas: think lots of presents and heavy clothes for an East Coast winter that you don't need for West Coast winter. This is exactly the kind of thing that can spend 5 days in transit. Given that 6 people each checking a bag is $300 ($25/person each way), this gives quite a budget for shipping. As you can see below, the price for a big box doesn't really go up between 30 and 50 pounds. And jumping it up to 60 pounds only brings the price up another $3. And given the chaos of 2 adults, 2 seniors, and 2 kids navigating Newark Airport and into Manhattan, I think the trip will be a lot simpler this way.

(I also included the price of a box the size of a carry-on, so you could see the effect that smaller volume has on prices.) 

United largest checked bag, 50 pounds, coast-to-coast
United largest checked bag, 30 pounds, coast-to-coast (the lighter weight didn't affect the price at all)
United carry-on bag, 30 pounds, coast-to-coast
United carry-on bag, 50 pounds, coast-to-coast

Short Haul

For short haul flights, FedEx is a lot more appealing — much shorter delivery times and much lower prices. As above, 30 pounds and 50 pounds are the same price, and a smaller box saves you even more.

United largest checked bag, 30 pounds, San Francisco - Portland

United largest checked bag, 50 pounds, San Francisco - Portland
United carry-on bag, 30 pounds, San Francisco - Portland
United carry-on, 50 pounds, San Francisco - Portland

USPS


This is your best best at USPS

I tried a whole bunch of option on the USPS website and nearly all of them were priced way above FedEx's rates. The lone exception I could find was the Large Flat Rate Box option, which is $18.75 for any weight up to 50 pounds. This box is 38.5 linear inches, but keep in mind the largest legal carry-on is 45 linear inches. This could still come in handy depending on your baggage situation.







Friday, August 1, 2014

JetBlue's new "Mint" service

Last updated August 2017
 
When JetBlue announced their new lie-flet First Class "Mint" service, I was lucky enough to snag a seat at the special introductory fare of $499 (one way).
I've updated this page over the ensuing months to keep the review current

PROS: 
  • Best transcon seat hands-down
  • Half the price of any competitor
  • Free, fast WiFi and live TV
  • Delicious, innovative food

CONS: 
  • No lounge (unless you have Priority Pass and use Virgin's)
  • JetBlue's rewards program has limited redemption options

Conclusion 

if you're paying for your own ticket, this is unquestionably the best way between NYC and LAX or SFO (or their new cities) in style and comfort. 

 

Background

First, a quick primer: for years Delta, American, and United have flown special planes on the NYC-Los Angeles and the NYC-San Francisco routes. (Delta also flies their fancy planes on the NYC-Seattle route). They're configured like international planes and feature lie-flat first/business class and fancy food and drink like you'd find if you were flying to Paris or Tokyo. The flights are priced accordingly – usually in the ballpark of $3500 round trip. The airlines have also exempted these flights from their elite complimentary upgrades programs, so even if you're an super-duper-platinum, you pay for that upgrade with either miles or dollars.

The big 3 carriers recently finished retrofitting these special planes to have the latest and greatest interiors. Not long after that was done, JetBlue made a surprise announcement that no one believed – not only were they adding first class, they were adding a first class with closing door suites! They were leapfrogging the big three AND undercutting their prices by over half. It wasn't an april fools press release (seriously watch this movie of the DOOR on my domestic first class suite!)


The service started in late June (2014) to LAX and begins in October to SFO.

Boarding

While the "Mint experience" is equal and often superior to that of the big 3, the lack of a pre-departure lounge is definitely a weak spot. I was in LA during a massive construction project near the airport and I'd left the requested 3 hours for my trip to the airport and, of course, it only took 20 minutes. So I had a lot of time to kill. American and United give free lounge access to people in their premium transcon First Class, but with JetBlue you don't have the option at all.

UPDATE: As of May 2017, JetBlue has moved to Terminal 5 at LAX and reports are saying that it's much more pleasant than Terminal 3.

When we boarded, the staff were very good about enforcing the boarding order. While I'm well aware "we're all getting on the same plane" and that we'll "all land at the same time", it's irritating when people are rewarded for not following the rules. Two people got sent out of line for it "not being their turn yet". GOOD.

Once aboard I found my suite and settled in. The blanket and pillow were really high quality, the headphones not so much (UPDATE: JetBlue changed their headphone vendor to Grado and they're awesome!). I was quickly greeted by name and offered a pre-departure lemon Mint cocktail with or without vodka in it. It was tasty. The crew were friendly to the point of gushiness. They seemed genuinely excited about making sure we had a first-rate experience. They showed me the features of my suite (gotta love the "do not disturb" button!) and explained the menu.

TIP: The seat cushions are actually inflated and padded. If your seat feels rock hard, ask the FA to reset your seat and it will properly re-inflate itself to a much more comfortable setting.

The pilot then invited everyone on board to "take a big whiff of that new plane smell" and we were off.
Boarding area wasn't too chaotic...

old headphones (they've since updated to Grado), eyeshade + earplugs pouch, and a welcome card

Note the TWO power outlets by my bag - each also has a USB power jack

Water bottle spot + reading lamp

Entertainment controls


not really sure what i'm supposed to put in this cubby…





Welcome cocktail


In-flight service

We took off late but the captain assured us we could make up some time. Food began not long after reaching cruising altitude. A restaurant near my house in NYC designed the menu. It's a "pick three out of these five" tapas setup. 

It's definitely the most innovative food I've ever eaten on an American carrier. 
  • Corn/lobster was tasty: right balance of soft/crunchy/spicy/sweet/savory. the lobster got overwhelmed by the strong flavors though. 
  • Cod in fennel tomato was nicely cooked and very rich. 
  • The stuffed gnocchi was my favorite. It was lightly browned (I love that) and the truffles, leeks, butter, and fontina all worked perfectly together. 
  • Dessert was light and perfect – fruit and mint-chip ice cream.
    UPDATE 5/2017:
    JetBlue announced that Mint flights will feature ice cream from local shops in their departure cities: Blue Marble (NYC), Coolhaus (LA), Double Rainbow (SF), The Frieze (Ft. Lauderdale), Toscanini's (Boston)

It was a little odd to have those 3 trays all at once and all of them best eaten with a spoon. That aside, I'd rather have this than ANY of the wellllll done meat entrees or high school lunch pasta that normally gets served by United, American, Delta, or even Virgin on their first class JFK-LAX runs.

More updated menus and pictures over on FlyerTalk.
TIP: People who aren't keen on their innovative menu can call 24+ hours before the flight and request their "Plane Eats" menu, which features a more midwestern, picky-eater kind of menu (burgers, mac and cheese, etc). 
Brooklyn summer ale and the carrot ginger soup
Menu (click to enlarge)



Redeye flights have an abbreviated "prix fixe" menu (sorry for the bad picture quality, everyone on the plane went to sleep so i had to take the pics with my seat light!)
Feb 2017 Redye Menu

Feb 2017 Redye Menu

Deviled Egg (Feb 2017 Redeye)

Feb 2017 "pre fixe" Redeye menu

 

 
August 2017 Redeye menu

 

Sleep / Entertainment

The screens were larger and nicer than the normal JetBlue ones, but it's basically the same programming. The plane had Ka-band Wi-Fi (FAST) and it was FREE. There was an option to pay for faster Wi-Fi but it seemed plenty fast to me. 

They handed out an amenity kit from Birchbox after dinner.  It was cute but like most amenity kits, I didn't really need anything out of it. The laundry bar stain remover was the most interesting thing in there. As of our November 2016 flight, the amenity kits are now being done by Hopper, and contain the usual assortment of things you might need on a long-haul flight (especially a red-eye): cabin socks, lip balm, eye shades, ear plugs, toothbrush, toothpaste, mints, a moist towelette and a lens/screen-cleaning cloth.

The seat has a built-in massager and Airbus finally found someone to make metal seat controls rather than those terrible membrane ones that look broken after 2 months of use. The sleeping position has a LOT of your legs underneath the seat in front of you, but it didn't prevent me from sleeping on my side. The foot area light was a nice touch. 

I slept until right before landing and the FA had kindly saved me a cookie box to take home with me since I'd missed him handing it out. I packed up my bags and headed out. If they can keep the fares this low, I'll definitely be back!

Check out my friends' reviews here, and here (we were all on separate flights). 

Great blanket and entertainment

New amenity kit (August 2017)
Old Birchbox amenity kit
I'm 6'1 / 185cm and my head doesn't touch the lavatory ceiling!

Bed position: a LOT of your legs are underneath the TV

Before landing, you get a gift box of brownies and shortbread from Mah Ze Dahr, but...
as of June 2017, they've changed that to a Momofuku Milk Bar cookie!

 

 

Other Mint posts:

➡️ checking in on Mint 6 months after launch (March 2015)
➡️ checking in on Mint 18 months after launch (March 2016)
➡️ JetBlue announces a major expansion of their Mint Network