Monday, December 15, 2014

*Sad Trombone* Kimpton is being acquired by IHG

I generally prefer B&Bs to big hotel chains, but if I do have to stay in a hotel, I just stay at a Kimpton if one is available. They're reasonably priced, each one is unique, they have free wifi if you sign up for their loyalty program, there's decent free coffee in the lobby in the morning, free wine in the lobby before dinner, emergency condoms in the amenity kit, and some of them have free loaner bicycles.

Welp, it looks like they just got acquired by IHG. All discussions of hotel points aside, any time a small, unique, innovative, tightly-run business gets acquired, all of the things that made it unique and attractive are the first things that get cut. Maybe it'll be different this time, but I doubt it. 

Thankfully Virgin is launching a hotel chain, so at least there's a new entrant to that space... 

YESSS! Amex transfer bonus to British Airways is back!

For the past few years, Amex has offered a monthly(ish)-long promo where you get bonus points when you transfer Amex Preferred Rewards points to British Airways. They don't publish a schedule, so whenever the first of the year rolls around people start speculating if, when, and how long the bonus will be this year.

Well wait no longer! Until 31 January 2015, you get a 40% bonus when transferring.

I'm still waiting to get more information about my brother's spring party in Tokyo, so I'll probably wait a bit before transferring anything. The main beauty of transferrable point cards like Amex Premier Rewards and Chase Sapphire is that you can transfer them, usually instantly, to an airline Frequent Flyer plan when you've found available award seats. It lets you keep points in a "neutral" place until right before you need them, and you can usually transfer into most of the big airline alliances so they're a great defense against getting tricked into loyalty to a single carrier



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Virgin launching a hotel chain

UPDATE: it's open now! review here.

I'm not a big hotel person. Most travelers roll their eyes at people who go to another country and then eat at McDonald's, but that's kind of how I feel about people who travel and stay at a Hilton, Westin, or other big hotel chain.
Ideally I stay with someone local. My favorite thing about traveling is seeing people's day-to-day lives and taking part in it. If that's not an option I'll look for a small B&B or guest house so I have the chance to get to know the proprietors. If that's not an option, I'll look at AirBnB. Failing that, then I look to a local pension. 

If I end up having to stay at a big chain hotel, I just stay at a Kimpton if one is available. They're reasonably priced, each one is unique, they have free wifi if you sign up for their loyalty program, there's decent free coffee in the lobby in the morning, free wine in the lobby before dinner, emergency condoms in the amenity kit, and some of them have free loaner bicycles.

Today Virgin announced their first hotel - on East Lake and Wacker in Chicago. I love flying Virgin and I hope they bring some of their magic to the hotel scene. They're currently offering double bonus Virgin Elevate points for stays between Jan 15 and March 31, 2015.

I've always loved the grown-up, "continental" attitude towards their customers that Virgin takes, and I'm glad to see they've extended that to the hotel chain:



The rooms will also feature TVs that support streaming from your mobile devices and laptops, "street price" minibars, a fully-integrated mobile app for interacting with the hotel, and a set of privacy doors so the person in bed isn't exposed to room door unless they want to be.











Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Delta rebranding their cabins

Delta announced that they're re-branding all of their cabins. I've complained talked about about this in the past and today's changes are even more obfuscated than before. As I've said in the past, use SeatGuru when you're shopping so you know what you're paying for!

Basic Economy - even shittier than Economy, you won't earn miles, can't pick your seat, and no changes are permitted

Main Cabin - Virgin America has used this phrasing for their Economy Class for a long time now, I wonder if that had any influence on Delta's choice here.

Delta Comfort+ - I think Premium Economy has a different name on every single airline. Again, they're copying Virgin in that they're including free drinks, better food, and free movies along with the extra 4" of legroom. Let's hope they don't copy Virgin's ridiculous pricing to buy these seats.

First Class - The standard USA domestic first you've seen for years. 38" recliner seats, usually with free drinks and a meal. This is what I commonly refer to as "Crappy Domestic First". Delta currently refers to this as Business Class. Unlike most other airlines, Delta prices their Crappy Domestic First reasonably, so hopefully this change won't make it hard to know what I'm getting when I price shop on Kayak.

Delta One - The new name for their Fancy First Class. This is usually on long-haul flights to Asia and Europe, as well as flights between JFK and SFO/LAX. If you're flying to Latin America, South America, or Hawaii, make sure you check Seat Guru... I'm guessing Delta One will only be on a small handful of flights to those markets.


Monday, December 8, 2014

La Compagnie

Back in June I mentioned La Compagnie – an all-Business Class airline brought to you by the same folks who founded Openskies. Six months later, they're still in business with their one Newark - Paris route.

They've just announced a new route to London (the press release makes it sound like it'll be to Gatwick).

I've not flown them before, but I did fly Openskies back when it was an all-Business Class airline and I liked it. The big pro with these flights is that they give me cheap access to the one thing I want most: a seat I can comfortably sleep in. In La Compagnie's case, $2600 for TWO roundtrip Business Class tickets is unheard of. It's cheaper than many big airlines' economy tickets. They also offer pre-departure lounge access and, because they're french, the onboard liquor won't be a disappointment :)

There are, of course, downsides. If anything goes wrong with the plane, well… they don't have any other planes to put you on. You don't earn any miles (which is fine by me since I'm not chasing status) and yeah, I kinda hate Newark. Maybe once the PATH train is done it won't be so bad, but until then, ugh. Also, the seats are the last-generation angled-flat seats, but lots of fancy airlines (hello, Lufthansa and JAL) are still flying this product today.

Lucky has a great trip report here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Buying up to the next elite tier...

Yes, I often rail about how airline loyalty is meaningless these days as airlines gut their elite benefits and keep raising the bar on all of the tiers. But for some people (e.g., people who fly a lot for work) it makes sense to try and make elite status if for no other reason than having a shot at a slightly less miserable year in the air next year.

I'm often surprised how many of my friends who fly 50,000+ miles per year for work often have very little idea about how mileage plans work. Though to be fair, I think the airlines do their best to make sure that the rules are as difficult as possible to understand.

With that said, I just wanted to point out that typically in December, airlines will let you directly buy Elite Qualifying Miles/Dollars to top off your account and ensure that you make the next tier up for next year.

  • Delta
  • United (United requires you to buy the points in conjunction with a flight)
  • American 
There's more info over on The Points Guy, but keep in mind that page is from December of 2013, so things may have changed a bit. 





Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tokyo in spring?


So it's looking like my brother has settled on Tokyo Sakura Festival as the site for his big 4-0 celebration. While the whole country goes nuts celebrating the arrival of the cherry blossoms, it's definitely on my bucket list to brave the crowds and do that in Japan once in my life. The big challenge on this is that he can't commit to specific dates until February at the earliest. This makes finding award seats challenging. I'm thinking my only real hope is snagging some of the award inventory that airlines sometimes release at the very last minute (like less than 5 days from departure). But if you're going on a 3 week trip, that means you'll depart without a return ticket and you'll have to get up every day of your vacation and poke around award inventory and hope you can find yourself a seat home. Not exactly a relaxing proposition. Also, flights to and from Asia tend to be priced such that one way tickets are often more expensive than round-trips, so if you have to buy a one-way ticket home, you saved literally nothing by using miles to get there.

I've started looking at our options for getting there. From NYC it's a 15 hour flight to Japan. We did it once in United's lie-flat BusinessFirst cabin and yeah, 15 hours is a loooooong flight even when you have a bed. I'll probably revise this page half a dozen times as the trip approaches so I can keep a quick record of what I've looked at so far. I've gotten senile enough that if I don't do this I just end up repeating everything I've already done!

Due to our upgrades not clearing a couple of months ago, we actually have 60,000 more United miles than we would have otherwise, so those failed upgrades are looking like a blessing in disguise right about now. So we've got a bunch of United and British Airways (BA) points, a BA Travel Together certificate, and a bunch of transferrable points in Amex and Chase to top off our accounts if we're a bit short. So we're good-to-go for searching on Star Alliance and OneWorld. We don't have many Delta points to begin with, and SkyTeam awards are generally such a pain to redeem that we don't usually check them unless it's a last resort. (Though I am intrigued by the option of transferring Chase points to Korean Air directly and flying on their A380...)

Paying Cash

Like I mentioned back in my tutorial, I started by using Kayak.com to see what it would cost to pay for this flight. For a few test days in April, Aeroflot had seats for $3800, but I'm not flying Aeroflot so Finnair was the next cheapest – $4000 for a 1-stop trip. It has an 8-hour layover in Helsinki, but the leg to Tokyo is in a 787 (that they're leasing from LOT Polish?), so that could be cute.

Air China, Etihad, and Air Canada both have flights for under $5,000. Honestly our pain point for long haul international is somewhere in the $3 - $4k range so I'm not even going to look at anything above $5k. So now that I know the cash price, I can start seeing what I can get with my points.

British Airways / OneWorld

Searching BA's website it looks like using our Travel Together certificate isn't possible. There's basically no BA award seats at any time in the next 6 months. (Since the ticket requires you to be on a BA plane, I wasn't really looking forward to getting there the long-way-round via London anyway). However, it looks like there's actually a fair amount of Business Class award availability on Japan Airline's 787 – 280,000 point and $1156 for the two of us round-trip.
UPDATE: with the just announced Amex-to-British Airways points bonus, that 280,000 point trip will only cost me 200,000 Amex points! Now let's hope he can pick a date before the bonus period ends on 31 Jan 2015!


In the back of my mind i seemed to recall plane nerds being shocked that JAL had put a previous-gen seats into their brand-new 787s so I googled it and it's true - JAL put 1990's business class seats into a 2012 plane. Welp, at least it has Toto Washlet toilets onboard, right?

Most airlines stopped doing "angled lie flat" 5+ years ago

Probably my favorite airplane amenity since onboard espresso machines!

Looking further, I found this press release saying that they were retrofitting their 787's with their new SkySuite product and the JFK - NRT plane would be upgraded in January 2015. Even better!

This looks a lot nicer :)
So while all of this looks perfect, we have to hope that there's still availability once we know when the big fiesta is actually taking place.

Star Alliance

If I'm shelling out a heap of miles (and spending a bunch of my time) to look for award seats, I do my damnedest to avoid flying on a US-based airline. So while I might use the United website to search, I'm only going to fly United if there's literally no other option. (TIP: remember to ALWAYS look at the "Operated By" field to see which plane you'll actually be on! It could be a codeshare flight!) To quote my best friend who's originally from Tokyo, "I'd rather fly ANA in Economy that United in Business". Given how tall I am, I'm not 100% in agreement there, but I completely agree with the sentiment. I might make an exception if it put me on United's 787 between SFO and Osaka, though.

United/ANA is showing quite a bit of "now" availability in business (though it *is* early December right now, not exactly a peak travel time...) and a bit of spotty availability on some random dates in April – including a couple of elusive ANA First seats (for 110,000 miles per person, per segment). A friend of mine who has flown more than 4 million miles almost entirely in premium cabins said this this was hands-down the best flight he's ever taken. I can't even imagine the effort required for them to deliver a traditional dozen+ course kaiseki meal on an airplane. But that'd definitely be cool to experience.



UPDATE Feb '15: We have our tickets! Click here for all the details. 

Out of the box ideas

I'll keep checking back in here as the date progresses, but here's a couple of other things I might need to try if I can't find availability. 
  • Fly from Boston, Philly, DC
  • Fly into Osaka
  • Fly AeroMexico's 787 MEX-NRT? 220,000 Amex points for both of us RT. They usually have wide-open saver business class availability but just did a spot check and availability is spotty
  • Delta is showing partner availability JFK > ICN > NRT on Korean A380 for 70k + $34 in Business
  • Oddly delta won't show routings *back* to the US via ICN, which would be my preference. hm. only domestics in 767s landing on the west coast and then Crappy Domestic First to JFK. 90,000 miles plus $50. 

Notes

So irritating that airlines keep blocking online point trackers! So here's our counts from early December. Boy I'd sure love a BA 30% Amex transfer bonus to happen early next year!

ME:

  • 98k United
  • 13k BA
  • 151k Amex
  • 84k Chase personal
  • 75k Chase work
HUSBAND:
  • 121k United
  • 141k BA
  • 75k Amex
  • 44k Chase
For my own reference, buying BA points costs $575 for 20k (they only allow 27k to be purchased per year). 20k miles on United is $752.