Wednesday, November 19, 2014

And with this tiny footnote, United likely ended my husband's loyalty to them

If you look at item 1 at the bottom of this page, you'll see the power of a single footnote.
Premier members who request a MileagePlus Upgrade Award on or after February 1, 2015, for a p.s. route between New York JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco will no longer be exempt from the co-pay.
For several years now, my husband's work has paid for his JFK< >SFO flights in Economy and he upgrades those flights to United P.S. BusinessFirst with miles out of his personal account. One of the things he's really liked about post-merger United is that doing this is a piece of cake — no need to call customer service, just tap a few buttons on the website and it all happens automatically. 

But now, his upgrade to BusinessFirst is going to cost him 40,000 of his own miles plus $500 of his own dollars on top of whatever his company paid. While United miles are probably the most valuable of the US carriers, he essentially runs a deficit — he spends way more miles upgrading each flight than he earns, so he isn't accruing valuable miles for personal vacations at a later date. (Right now he's using a United credit card to keep his balance up). Honestly, with the recent devaluation – it's now 140,000 miles for Business Class to Europe – I question whether United miles are really that valuable anymore. 

There was a lot more bad news, but Lucky covered it better than I can. 

So now the big question is what to do next year? Does he just do JetBlue? I'm thinking aloud here and making some public notes to myself so I can keep all of my research in one place... 
  • There's a good overview of their program here. Long story short: points are worth about 1.4¢ each when you redeem them. If you use their website and their credit card to book, you earn 10 points per dollar spent (so basically you're getting a 10% back in JetBlue travel dollars). 
  • You can earn points on tons of airlines, but you can only redeem TrueBlue points for travel on JetBlue or Hawaiian
  • Mint is hands-down the best product on the JFK-SFO/LAX run. Better food, vastly friendlier staff, free Wi-Fi that's 10x faster than United's paid Wi-Fi, and the ride is especially sweet if you can score that middle suite (which they're still not charging extra for!)

  • It's $99 per segment to upgrade from Coach to "Even More Space" (i.e., Economy Plus) — but can he do that with his own money AFTER his employer buys his ticket? (He doesn't usually mind doing one of the legs in coach as long as he has enough room and Wi-Fi to actually work the whole flight.)
  • There are SJC and OAK flights, but he usually has to get a rental car and they charge huge fees if you return the car to a different location so i think the SJC and OAK options are off the table (since he'd be flying home via a SFO Mint Redeye flight)
  • JetBlue's Mosaic (elite) program lets you use points for Even More Space seats, but you don't get free access to those seats like you do Economy Plus on United, nor can you use the points to upgrade into Mint
  • Looks like JetBlue isn't running a status challenge at the moment. Their last one was 3/2014
  • I'm thinking it wouldn't hurt to just email them (mosaicchallenge@jetblue.com) and see if they'll do it anyway
I realize this is a lot of consternation about something that might seem simple, but my husband really hates commuting to the west coast and getting to sleep one or both ways is one of the few things that makes it bearable to him. I'm also the reason he moved so I feel extra pressure to make sure it's as painless as possible for him!
  • The other big wrinkle in all of this is that he only just recently learned that his employer will pay Business Class on redeye transcon flights BUT, like on all flights, he has to pick a fare within $100 of the lowest available. A quick skimming of the corporate travel portal seems to indicate that this will likely be JetBlue's Mint most of the time. We saw several test dates where the next-closest fare was fully $500 more (one way).
  • JetBlue also just announced a bunch of customer-unfriendly policies (no more free checked bag, shrinking the legroom in regular coach) so lots of people are probably thinking about new options right now
  • It's unfortunate that Virgin America hasn't refreshed their cabins. While their huge recliner chairs are the fanciest thing available from any carrier on most of their routes, all of Virgin's competitors have lie-flat beds standard in Business Class on the JFK-SFO and JFK-LAX runs. And Virgin is pricing their last-gen product like it's a lie-flat. Nope. 
  • Given the way that Delta is eating Alaska Airline's lunch in Seattle, I'd love it if Alaska would think outside the box and start offering a premium JFK-SFO flight. But sadly I think Southwest is more likely to do this than they are. 
One thing's clear: loyalty is long gone and 2015 is the year to shake things up. So far the only trip we have planned is Puerto Vallarta in January, which we're going on miles on Aeromexico's new 787 there and we're flying Delta's reasonably-priced Business Class direct service back. 


Newark Food options improving

Several people sent me this article about Newark Airport where we're told:
Say goodbye to pre-made sandwiches and hello to haute cuisine from the likes of Alain Ducasse, Mario Carbone, Amanda Cohen and other big name chefs, plus some high tech menu and ordering systems that employ iPads instead of waiters.
As a Manhattanite, I hate Newark. If I take a car I have to crawl through Soho to the tunnel, which can literally take hours if you're flying anywhere near rush hour. Or I schlep my bags to the F train, walk two avenues over to Penn Station (hope it's not raining, snowing, grey slushing, or sweltering hot out!) get on the line for a ticket machine, wait up to 30 minutes for a Newark Airport-bound train, then switch to that verkachte Monorail thing that has a top speed of 7 miles per hour while praying that my terminal isn't at its last stop because it's literally 25 minutes between the first stop and the last stop. (FYI, this amazing 1960s technology is coming soon to the bay area as the Oakland Airport connector!)
My friend Gabe had an awesome tip when I lived on the West side: just take the PATH from Manhattan to Newark Penn and then jump in a taxi for the last 2 miles. This actually worked well until Hurricane Sandy and the near-constant evening/weekend repair closures since. Once that's done, it's probably the fastest way there if you're in SW Manhattan. 
But getting there is only half the fun. Once you're there it's just... crowded and old and surly and tacky and long security lines and ugh. I'll stop. This little news clip is a glimmer of good news and I'm going to focus on the positive. Ever-more international flights are using Newark, so it's not realistic to just refuse to fly out of it. Better food is always a good way to make me happy.

I'm going to keep my expectations low, though, because I've tried the airport editions of Blue Bottle coffee and Wolfgang Puck and those have been pretty flat, but I still liked them 10x more than what was there before.

Also, I got to try out the "high tech menu" iPads mentioned in the article while I waited for my flight to Puerto Rico earlier this month. Every seat has a card swiper, an iPad with custom software, and power+USB jacks. You enter your flight information when you sit down and it will keep track of delays and gate changes in the background while you browse the menu or shop for souvenirs (i guess the deliver those right to your seat just like they do with the food). The food options all have large photos for each item and sub-menus for all of the picky/allergy/condiment options. It was a lot like using Seamless, now that I think about it. And anything that let's me poke a few buttons on a screen and make a gin and tonic appear is something I approve of!

P.S. Someday the PATH might run all the way to Newark, but I'm guessing I'll be arriving to the Airport (en route to Boca, of course!) by one of those senior citizen lift vans by then.





Tuesday, November 18, 2014

LINK: A great piece in the New Yorker

A friend send me this link from the New Yorker on Friday... pretty much hits the nail right on the head.
On the “new” United, seats got smaller as the airline jammed more people into the same tube; upgrades, to escape the sardine effect, seemed to become harder to book. The number of boarding groups began to resemble something like a caste system; “change fees,” which have always been outrageous, grew higher(two hundred dollars for domestic, three hundred dollars for international), while baggage fees soared to as high as a hundred dollars. The cross-country flights somehow seemed to all be on old, broken-down planes, while gate agents and flight attendants all just seemed crabbier. Yet, I remained, through the indignities, the outrages, and the general descent into lousiness.
Getting rid of competition is rarely a good thing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

United Mileage Plus does another copy-paste from Delta.

Now that the economy is booming again, air travel demand is up, but the capacity cuts made during the recession have not been restored. Prices are up, fees are up, benefits are being slashed, elite thresholds keep getting moved higher as airlines look for ways to extract more profit from their customers.

Delta led the pack by doing two major things over the past year and a half: 
  • changing how you earn elite status by basing it on dollars spent instead of miles flown, and 
  • rewarding points for each flight based on how much the flight cost instead of the distance 
To some extent this makes sense: if I paid $8000 for a seat, I'd want more points than the person who paid $1400 for an identical seat on a super-discount promo. Likewise, it's irked me that people make Gold who've spent half as many dollars with the airline as I did and I only made Silver.

The part I find amusing about all of this is that United's management has essentially been copy-pasting Delta's mileage plan changes since the merger. Do they seriously have no vision at all? Just last week the copy/paste happened again: Delta raised their tier dollar levels for 2016 and United matched not long after.

Delta's 2016 requirements


Look familiar?

American hasn't yet followed suit with the revenue-based points/tiers, I think, because they've been too busy digesting US Airways. It's been cute watching all of the travel bloggers not-so-subtly shift all of their praise and loyalty onto American now that it's the last of the big US carriers where miles matter more than dollars. (Most travel bloggers use broad knowledge of the airline industry and a flexible schedule to get on premium flights at deeply-discounted rates). I predict that once they get through the merger IT rough patch, American will do the same. Maybe then we'll finally start seeing reports from travel bloggers on carriers like JetBlue and Virgin America.

People like my brother have been thrilled with these changes. His work pays for last-minute flights to Asia and Europe over a dozen times a year and he'd love to see the elite ranks culled so he has a better shot at free upgrades. 

On the other hand, I have tons of friends who, like me, are paying out of their own pockets, but manage to exploit their good credit scores, credit card signup bonuses, and the occasional fare sale to stay in the Silver or Gold range. We're screwed in this new economy. And this, right here, is why I decided 2014 was the year I gave up on status. The writing was on the wall: with a strong economy and more mergers happening, air travel is going to stay expensive and freebies are going to dry up.

The bottom line: plan far ahead or absolute last minute if you want to travel up front on miles. Flexibility and advance planning are your two biggest assets.  

The two times when your odds are best to find an empty award seat are less than 7 days before departure, or one year in advance. For example, I planned my trip to Europe with my parents starting 13 months out, whereas this trip to Prague for Thanksgiving will likely happen only if I can find a reward seat at the last minute. I've also taken advantage of occasional fare sales (like summer discount Business Class to Europe) but those only work with the cheap dates work well with our work schedules. 






Friday, November 14, 2014

Europe for Thanksgiving...

Normally Thanksgiving week is a great time to find cheap Business Class fares to Europe from the US. I'm guessing it's because most people have that week off from work, and the people who are traveling are going so to see family within the USA. One way or the other, it's usually a great time to find round-trip fares to Europe for well below $3000.

As I mentioned here, I earned 9600 United miles and 11,000 Amex points for a trip I took on a cheap summer Business Class fare. I always take a look at the coach fares too, so I have some idea of how much extra I'm actually paying. I the case of my Singapore Airlines flight, I paid an extra $500 for Business and got a boatload of miles on top of getting a much nicer flying experience. 

Right now I've been keeping an eye on the Thanksgiving fares because I might end up trying to meet my brother in Prague for turkey day (though I'm guessing in Prague it'll end up being more of a goose day). Unfortunately I won't know until the last minute whether or not he'll be there. As November has gone by, the fares have been slowly creeping up. A month ago I was seeing fares as low as $2300. With the big day just 2 weeks away, it's already crept up to $3600. If I fly only as far as Frankfurt I can get it down to $2900. 


I've never really tracked them over time like this, so guess the lesson here is to buy in mid- to late October if you want to get the super cheap business class tickets to Europe. I tried pricing out itineraries to different places, but I didn't want a 4 stop itinerary on a trip that's only going to be 5 days long, so I had to choose cities with direct connections to either Prague or Vienna. London still has $2300 Business Class seats, but ONLY on Kuwait Airlines. After reading a few trip reports, I decided I'd rather not do that. 

Nope 

Another nice budget option for getting to Europe in Business Class is to go on Iceland Air. They have 40" recliner seats, similar to most US carriers' domestic Business Class, but the food, drink, and service are better, plus it comes with access to their awesome First Class arrivals and departures lounge in Reykjavik as well as the BA Galleries lounge at JFK. They have an interesting setup where you land in Reykjavik from the US in the morning and you can then continue on to the continent immediately, or you can go into town or into the famous Blue Lagoon Spa for the day, and then continue on your way in the evening. I've done this before and I swear it's the reason I basically had zero jet lag on that trip!

Unfortunately for me, they don't have flights to Vienna, or Prague (routemap). So for now I'll just wait until I hear more about his schedule and see what's available then. If the prices go high enough ($3000 is my pain point for airfares these days), I might try to use miles or just get him to meet me in Iceland or something :)

The 8 hour layover at the Blue Lagoon Spa might be the best jetlag cure EVER. 




On not chasing elite status

For people like me who fly entirely for vacations on their own dime, I'm convinced that chasing airline elite status is a lot like going to Vegas: "the house always wins". Yes, you get a couple of thrilling payouts along the way but ultimately you lose because you'll spend heaps more money to make sure you stay in the high rollers club.

This last trip we took (JFK > SFO > JFK > YUL > JFK > SJU > JFK) was one of those times when "the house" got to rub my nose in my decision :) My husband has to fly ≈8 transcons a year for work (work pays), so he's usually United Platinum and I'm still a lowly Silver (though with their new Delta-style rules, he'll drop to Gold and I'll drop to nothing next year). We both bought economy tickets on United's PS service and then immediately submitted a request to upgrade our flights with miles to their Fancy Domestic First class (called BusinessFirst) for 20,000 miles per person, per segment.

On the way to SFO, neither of our upgrades cleared. *sad trombone* But given all of the top-tier 1k and Global Services members on that run, it's not surprising. Luckily, because we have status, we were both able to choose EconomyPlus seats for free *hooray! the status "slot machine" paid out!* so we had ample legroom and were able to sit together. Once I lose status, I'm going to have to pay for those extra 4 inches. To make matters worse, on the way back, his points upgrade cleared and mine didn't. *How you like your silver status now?!*
A quick note on angst here: elite status is sold to you as "making travel easier and less stressful" but it's often entirely the opposite. People who are waiting for mileage seat upgrades or the ever-elusive "complimentary upgrade" end up spending untold extra hours stressing out about whether or not their upgrade has cleared. Flyertalk forums have thousands of posts where people speculate about the algorithms that determine the order of the waitlist. Is any of this making your trip less stressful? I didn't think so. (Yes, it's not lost on me that I'm posting this on a blog about points travel!)
But whenever I get that weird non-buyers-remorse kind of feeling about things, I reflexively remind myself to look at the math of the situation. As I've discussed before, United routinely prices their flights vastly higher than identical/superior flights, so loyalty to United on just one flight (our annual JFK > PVR run) would cost me $500 more than flying Delta. Or even when United's prices are the same, I'd prefer to be on nearly any other airline because they have friendlier staff and fleet-wide Wi-Fi.



The price of loyalty...


Complicating all this math is the fact that my hubby has United Gold, and I wouldn't have flown United if he hadn't been flying on work's dime. JetBlue's Mint service to SFO launched 4 days after my trip, otherwise I would have happily waved at him from through the window of my $599 First Class suite :) Most importantly, I never would have known how awesome Mint is because even people who make their living reviewing airline service can't bring themselves to "waste" a transcon's worth of elite qualifying miles on one of the big 3 alliances to try JetBlue or Virgin's products. And if they don't have the "willpower" to break the spell of elite qualification, I know I wouldn't, either.

I just have to remember to "do the math" whenever I think about what elite status would cost me versus what it gives me. I still say the general rule is that you should only go for status when someone else is paying, or when you're a "hub captive" and really only have one choice in airlines from your local airport.