Thursday, September 25, 2014

Paying for domestic First Class

"First Class" flights within North America sorta deserve the quotes I just put around them. While there are a few exceptions1, the majority of these flights feature recliner-style seats with 38" of pitch (remember, economy has 32"), 20-ish inches wide, no lounge access, limited alcoholic beverage selections, and if there's food at all it's likely to remind you of a high school cafeteria - overboiled mystery meat (or gluey pasta) served with a side of surliness. Let's just call this "Crappy First Class™"

Meanwhile many of these same airlines have upgraded the seats in their long-haul international planes to be fully lie-flat beds with 60+ inches of pitch while simultaneously re-branding them as Business Class seats! Delta had the sense to name their crappy First Class product "Business Class", whereas United stuck with the First Class moniker (except when the planes fly to Mexico — all of a sudden that same cabin is now called Business! Gahhhh!).

SeatGuru is your friend in these cases - plug in the date and flight number when you're shopping to make sure you know what you're actually getting for your money!

guess which one is called "First Class"...

Cabin names aside, I do sometimes pay for Crappy First Class – especially since I made the decision last year to stop chasing elite status and fly on points as much as possible. Despite the flying experience having no glamour, there are advantages to being in First, the main one being that you're first in line for re-bookings if something goes wrong with your flight. And on a busy travel weekend when a big storm comes in, you'll be grateful you sprang for the good seats. You also earn more miles in First (usually 50% more), you board first, and you don't have to worry about room for your carry on. It also includes a checked bag (economy usually doesn't unless you have elite status or a co-branded credit card).

So when I'm paying for crappy First it's almost always with Delta and here's why: Despite everything about two flights being equal, United is double or triple Delta's price. And that's true on nearly every intra-North American flight. I just don't get it. Yes, Delta miles have earned the nickname "SkyPesos" because you need a billion of them to go anywhere interesting, but United started openly copying Delta's mileage plan rules last year so I don't think their mileage program alone warrants paying double. Also, note the little icon below that shows United has no Wi-Fi. United is in the middle of a decade-long rollout out Wi-Fi (it's been fleet-wide on Delta for years) so you might even argue that the Delta flight is superior.



And keep in mind that in this example, Delta's Crappy First class was only about $150 more than Economy, which is about all I'd be willing to pay for the 5 extra inches of legroom, near-worthless bonus miles, free crappy food and liquor, a checked bag, and a virtual line pass for rebooking if there's a problem. United is asking $700 for those same things (albeit with slightly more useful miles). But I can take the Delta flight, and use the money I saved to go buy all of the United miles I'd have earned by flighing United and still have money left over. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

and some days the bear gets you...

As I've mentioned before, chasing points is generally for people with more time than money. Yes, I frequently get lucky and manage to snag a great redemption entirely via the web with minimal planning and zero time on the phones.

And then there's yesterday...

So I'm trying to get to Puerto Vallarta for a wedding 4 months from now. Since I know there's no direct service on the day I need to fly, I'm opting for a touch of glamour by flying through Mexico City on Aeromexico's new 787 and then connecting after a 2.5 hour layover.

I don't have Aeromexico (AM) points but I do have American Express Premier Rewards points that I can transfer. For most of their Airline partners, those transfers happen instantly. But Aeromexico transfers take up to two weeks. One way First Class is 30,000 points1 plus $125 in fuel surcharges and taxes. Not too bad for a flight that prices out at US$1000 (meaning i earn 2.75¢ per point).

By the time my points showed up in my AM account ten days later, the second leg of my optimum flight was gone. Aeromexico uses a fixed award chart, so it's the same number of points to fly from to Mexico city as it is to fly to Vallarta with the stopover. So I get on the phone… AM's call center is actually one of the better ones — I've never waited more than 10 minutes for an agent... Unfortunately, the agents can only see the same flight options I do online and my only choice is to take the reward to Mexico city and then buy a connecting coach flight to Vallarta. So add another $198 to the cost of my trip (now I'm essentially redeeming for 2.3¢ per point).

But we're not done yet. I get my itinerary email and realize that we're not sitting together and I have to call back to get us reseated. The agent tells me her computer is down and I should call back in 20 minutes. I do, and I get us reseated. So far so good. Then I get an alert email from Aeromexico telling me that my flight has been altered by the airline and it's now leaving at 13:40 instead of 15:00. And my seat assignments are gone. And I have no idea if I'm even still on the 787. I decide to go to bed and deal with this in the morning.

The next day I do some extra confirming and it does, in fact, look like our 787 is leaving 80 minutes earlier (I was afraid there had also been an equipment change). No wait for a phone agent, but the "computers are down again"... call back in 20 minutes and got our seats re-assigned.

UPDATE JAN '15: Normally I like to use Optiontown for upgrading my paid AM flights but for some reason their site wasn't working for me today so I called in to AM's call center. No wait for an agent, and he upgraded my paid MEX > PVR leg for $29 a person! Let's hope their lounge dragon doesn't get picky about the fact that my flight to PVR is on two separate tickets!

UPDATE FEB '15: Trip was fantastic! JFK lounge pix are here. Trip report is here.

Can I just point out right here how many times it's come in very handy that I used to work in a call center and know the military alphabet by heart? It's shocking how hard it is to spell a six-letter confirmation code through a cell phone to a remote call center halfway around the planet without it.



And since we're talking about my days in the call center, I'll point you to this link and just tell you that it's spot-on. Decide before you call if you want results or if you want to yell at someone making less than minimum wage to make yourself feel better, because you don't get to do both.

Bottom Line
While I realize that several of these things would have still happened even if I'd paid cash for the flight, today I'm really feeling like I'm working for less than minimum wage for the $677 I saved by using points. Put another way: I'll have spent more time dealing with this trip than the duration of the actual flight!

Aeromexico Credit Card
The agent offered me a credit card. He swore the companion certificate that comes with the card was good in all classes of service but I did some looking at the T&C's on the web and, as usual, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The companion certificate only works in the 3 most-expensive Economy class fare buckets, and isn't good for business class travel at all. The card's buy "3 get one free" option has more fare buckets (including C/J for Business Class) but I don't routinely need 4 tickets.


1 Aeromexico users "AeroKilometros" which exchange with Amex "miles" in the miles-to-kilometers ratio of 1-to-1.6. The redemption on AM's site is 48,000 kilometers (1.6 * 30,000). The Amex website incorrectly shows a 1:1 transfer rate. 


Sunday, September 21, 2014

puerto vallarta

I put together a visitor guide for Puerto Vallarta over on Medium.com. Check it out!

My 'getting to Vallarta' post is here.

Trip report: American Airlines' new Flagship First JFK > SFO

My friend George shared this report about his recent flight in American Airlines' new transcontinental Flagship First from New York to San Francisco. 

My husband and I were able to use our miles to book American's new transcontinental First Class product from JFK - SFO over Labor Day weekend. I was very excited to get to experience this as I had read about the service from a few other sources.

We arrived at JFK and proceeded through security. One does have the option of using Flagship check-in, but as we didn't have any checked baggage and use our phones as boarding passes, we wanted to just spend more time relaxing in the Admirals Club.

Speaking of which, as a Transcon First Class traveler, one is escorted into the Flagship lounge part of the Admirals Club. This separate section has an open self-serve bar and decent nibbles. Two Negronis later we boarded the flight, which actually left on time and took off about 20 minutes after leaving the gate (that *never* happens at JFK).

Once we were seated, we were offered a glass of champagne, orange juice or water. The IFE system in my seat was quirky, but worked most of the time. The Bose QuietComfort headphones, common for First / Biz Class on all International AA flights, were provided shortly after takeoff.


We then had a three course lunch (The flight left at 3 PM), and I wasn't impressed with the main dish (steak) though the salad (mesculun) and the appetizer (Tuna & Salmon Sashimi) were tasty as was the traditional ice cream sundae.

There was a basket of snacks left at the front of the cabin, and requests for drink refills were promptly attended. In fact, the purser on the flight was one of the best I had ever encountered in all my travels on AA. I asked if she was traveling on Labor Day Monday as I hoped she'd be on our return flight, sadly she was not.

We landed into SFO 45 minutes early and quickly got through the terminal and into a cab, off to the dinner party and the rest of our fun SF weekend.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tips and gotchas when using American Express' travel portal

American Express offers 3 points per dollar when you purchase plane tickets with their Premiere Rewards card. They offer an additional bonus point when you purchase through their online travel portal. 

As I've previously advised, make sure you comparison shop on Kayak.com and make sure that their prices are competitive before you book. I've found that they're usually more expensive by a few dollars, but I do the math to make sure I'm not overpaying for my extra bonus point.

Their site has improved in recent years, but buying through their travel portal is almost always slower and less convenient than booking directly through the airline's own site. For example:

  • It doesn't remember your passport number
  • It doesn't remember any frequent companion information, only yours. 
  • It doesn't have a way to enter Known Traveler numbers for Global Entry/TSAPre, so you have to call the airline to add it after you book
  • It doesn't let you enter a partner airline frequent flier number (e.g., if you book a flight on American Airlines, you can't put in a British Airways FF number)
  • If you book a hotel through the portal, it shows as being booked through Travelocity and you don't get any hotel points

If you're willing to deal with all of that to get your extra points, remember that the final checkout price will show up as two charges on your Amex statement – the ticket cost, and an Amex booking fee. Those two charges together add up to the amount shown during the web checkout process.

I love all of the transfer partners for Amex points and how flexible they are, but the Premier Rewards Gold card is getting long in the tooth, if you ask me. It seems downright silly to tell people that they have to upgrade to a $495 a year platinum card to get a chip card and no foreign transaction fees.

Charge as shown during checkout


Charge on Amex statement

Amex Premier Rewards transfer parners







Saturday, September 13, 2014

Warsaw to JFK on the 787

The layout engine here on Blogger.com feels a little clunky and 1998... Honestly why have 400 themes when you can't get a blank template right?

*Le Sigh*

Since so few people fly through Poland, I had a friend ask me to write up a trip report for our 2013 trip on LOT Poland's new 787. I decided to put it on Medium.com since it looks so much nicer and the editing process is so much less clunky. Check it out :)


Monday, September 8, 2014

Getting to Puerto Vallarta


I wanted to post a few quick tips for people flying to Puerto Vallarta (Airport code PVR). My city guide is here.

Last update 12 Dec 2016
  • This chart on Wikipedia lists every direct flight destination to/from Puerto Vallarta. Some are seasonal (i.e., only in winter). This is a good reference point if you're confused about why you're not finding a flight you wanted. Many of the flights aren't 7 days a week!
  • United sometimes stocks margarita mix and tequila on flights to/from Mexico but they run out fast so order early :)
  • American citizens need to have a passport to go to Mexico
  • Customs at PVR closes around 5pm, so if you want to land later than that, you need to be arriving from Mexico City, Guadalajara, or elsewhere within the Mexico. 
from NYC
  • United offers direct service from Newark 2 days a week on Saturdays (2 flights) and Sundays (one flight). It's a 6 hour flight. 
  • Delta has seasonal direct service from JFK on Saturday only, with an odd blackout from Jan 14 - Feb 11.
  • It's nearly impossible to leave NYC early enough to fly via SFO or LAX. Though due to 2016's big blizzard, I can now say with first-hand experience that yes, you can do JFK-LAX-PVR if you don't mind getting up at 4am. It's a very tight connection, but we landed at LAX like 5 gates away from the departure gate. 
  • There is no international-style lie-flat First Class service into Vallarta from NYC, it's all the 38" recliner seats you see on most US domestic First. 
  • Aeromexico offers connecting service though Mexico City. Flight 405 (9:00am) and flight 409 (2:00pm) out of JFK is on a 787 with lie-flat Business Class on the JFK > MEX leg. [My trip report]
  • Other common one-stop routes: American via Phoenix or Dallas, Air Canada via Toronto
from San Francisco
  • Virgin America, United, and Alaska all have direct service from SFO to Puerto Vallarta. Alaska has direct service 7 days a week. Virgin flies twice a week on Wed/Sat, United 3x on Wed/Sat/Sun. The direct flight takes 3 hours and 40 minutes.
  • Virgin America's First Class is vastly superior to United and Alaska's. Huge massage seats with 55" of seat pitch (versus 38"), seatback entertainment, friendly flight attendants, decent food, free-flowing liquor, and a general sense of glamour. Sadly the flight is poorly timed with the Virgin Clubhouse so no lounge access for you. 
  • Common one-stop itineraries: US Airways via Phoenix, Delta/Aeromexico via Mexico City, Frontier via Denver

after you land

  • When you arrive in Mexico, there's a big button in customs that you push in front of an officer, if it turns red, s/he searches all of your bags. If the light is green, they don't. Luck of the draw... 
  • It's best to pre-arrange an airport car service through your hotel. The car service offices are in the main lobby of the airport AFTER the gauntlet of people trying to sell you vacations and "car services" outside of security.
  • PLEASE NOTE: Vallarta is on the state boundary between Jalisco and Nayarit (the Ameca river separates the two), and the two are in different time zones. Triple check your departure times and your plans with friends if you stay north of the river.
  • Prices are in Pesos, but are shown with a $ (sometimes MX$). The exchange rate is 18 Pesos per dollar (Feb 2016). We usually bring enough Pesos with us to at least cover the taxi and any emergency needs.
  • We usually use an indoor ATM to take out Pesos. The bank exchange rate is usually favorable, but we've seen a lot of insider fraud recently, so on this last trip we just canceled our cash cards as soon as we got back home just to be safe. 
  • My custom google map of Vallarta with a few noteworthy places on it


Aeromexico 787 trip report

As a food-loving aviation nerd with bad sinuses, I've been really excited about the 787 ever since I first heard about its groundbreaking cabin humidity and air pressure levels. We've made a bit of extra effort to get flights on the 787 whenever (reasonably) possible and I definitely find myself less fatigued from the journey and the food does seem to taste a bit better.

For our annual flight NYC – Puerto Vallarta last year, we decided to route via Mexico City to try out Aeromexico's new 787s. (My PV guide is here). We celebrate both our birthdays, our anniversary, and Valentines in one big annual blowout trip but sadly the First Class options to Mexico don't offer much opportunity for glamour: all direct service has 38" domestic First recliner seats with limited food and alcohol choices. (Nearly all of the PS/Mint/Flagship routings via LAX or SFO require an overnight stay).

We needed to come back on a direct flight, so we took one of United's twice-weekly (Sat, Sun) direct flights back to Newark. I'd say it's a tough call to decide between flying direct on the second-rate "First Class" service offered by United/Delta and flying Aeromexico's 787 connecting service. But given how quickly the direct flights on United and Delta fill up (especially in First), their extremely limited award seats, and twice-weekly service, Aeromexico is a nice alternative.

Pros

  • JFK AirFrance lounge is great
  • Lie-flat, international long haul seats with seat-back entertainment and power
  • Reasonably priced (≈ $1000 one way)
  • Unique upgrade lottery system. Friends are reporting 50% success rates, YMMV.
  • Nearly unlimited award seating via Amex point transfer (yielding ≈ 3.4¢ redemption rate)
  • Champagne and premium tequila on board
  • Daily service (United and Delta's direct flights are only twice weekly)

Cons

  • Onboard food isn't very good out of JFK. Cabin crew said food out of MEX is better
  • One flight a day. MEX > JFK flight leaves at 6:30am (!!), JFK > MEX is at 1:40pm
  • The seat-back entertainment was very glitchy, hopefully that's fixed now
  • ...No really, like the boarding music (Sting's "if i ever lose my faith") kept playing every time the system crashed so we heard that song 4 dozen times. (Yes, I did lose my faith! :P)

UPDATE: we took this flight again in Jan '15 and it was largely identical. I'll add a few pictures of the food. Lounge pix are here. My booking saga is here





UPDATE 2015: finally got a pic of our plane!














787 tinted windows

32 business class seats











toilet with a view...












Jan 2014 food

Jan 2014 food


==================================


UPDATE: Jan 2015 appetizer

UPDATE: Jan 2015 main

UPDATE: Dessert


First Class lounge in Mexico City







Friday, September 5, 2014

The ever-shrinking airline seat

In recent years everyone's been talking about "seat pitch" – the distance between each row of seats. As materials have gotten stronger and lighter, seats have been getting thinner and thus an apples-to-apples comparison of seat pitch from decades ago (when we always seem to imagine things being better) with today isn't really possible.

With most modern planes today, airlines have standardized on 29-31" of seat pitch in economy, 34-38" in economy plus (and most American domestic "First" Class), and 58" or more in long-haul Business and First Class. There's not a lot changing on this front until we get to the standing/saddle configuration that we keep getting rumors of.

But the urge to cram more people into the plane is never-ending and next frontier is seat width. The trend has been to try and put another seat into each row: as much as 11 across in the A380 Emirates wants, and 10-across in the 777. To do that, seats and aisles have to be narrower. So now you need to start paying extra attention to seat width when checking seating charts on SeatGuru. 18" is the generally agreed-upon standard width for economy, but you can see that AirCanada has already started squeezing people down into 17" seats.



One small piece of good news on this front is that JAL just announced that they're re-vamping their 787-800s to actually remove one seat per row and allow for 19" wide seats in economy. The new planes will fly Tokyo-Frankfurt and Tokyo-JFK in early 2015. All this and a Toto Washlet on board? How can I lose?!

JAL's SkyWider II seats