Monday, January 19, 2015

Per this link, Emirates is offering a fantastic deal on their direct JFK-Milan service.
  • $799 for two people in economy, 
  • $4999 for two people in business, and 
  • $7999 for two people in First
Fly before May 10th. Also, it's a 777 so no onbaord shower for you if you spring for first :)

Trip report: Cathay Pacific New York JFK to Vancouver YVR

Jan 2015, seat 20A and 11A. My notes on how I booked are here. Both flights leave around 10pm local time. 

Pros: Internationally-configured plane on a "domestic" transcon. Lots of premium seat availability on points. Amex Transfer partner. Great deals when booking via partner rewards on British Airways' website. Vastly superior service to UA/AA/DL's premium transcons. 
Cons: No Wifi. No air vents. Hot. Redeye 

The business class cabin is split in two: a big section behind the galley and a very small part in front of the galley, adjoining first class. I sat in the big section on the way there and in the small one on the way back... I thought there'd be a big difference between the two but there wasn't, really. The small cabin's potential "intimacy" is sorta disturbed by the galley being so close and the staff having to run back and forth between First and the galley. 

The seats are really nice – nearly identical to the ones BA puts into their international First Class cabins, actually. Fully lie-flat with a nice pillow and thick blanket. As is usually the case, the cabin was so warm that the blanket was altogether unnecessary. (Note to self: find a USB-powered portable fan to bring along!). There were no personal air vent controls so it was a sweaty, boozy nap en route to YVR. It was a bit cooler on the way back, though. 

At JFK you use the BA lounge but you don't get access to the dining room unless you're top-tier on Oneworld. If they don't have champagne out on offer, feel free to ask the lounge staff... They're usually really sweet about bringing out a bottle for you.

At YVR, Cathay has its own lounge. They had some dim sum style food on offer and it was pretty good. Given how small their presence is at YVR, I appreciated that the lounge staff actually announce when the plane is about to open up for boarding. Many of the busier lounges don't do that.

The service was similar to Singapore Airlines: effusively friendly and yet oddly robotic at the same time. I was addressed by name by everyone on staff, which was impressive given the size of their premium cabins. Meal service started right after we hit cruising altitude, and all of the hot mains were brought out on a cart, dim sum style, even though none of them were dim sum :) Cheese, nitecaps, and chocolates were on offer for dessert if you wanted it. It seemed pretty clear the goal was to let you get to sleep ASAP

The only other big thing to note is that the flight doesn't pre-clear US Customs in Vancouver, so you don't actually follow the airport signs for "Flights to the USA". Some could see this as a negative, but because I have Global Entry, I actually found it a plus. 

I want to add a shout out for L'Hermitage hotel. N'espresso in the room with free pods. Year-round salt water pool and hot tub. Steam rooms in the gym locker rooms. Fantastic concierge. Housekeeping noticed that I'd bought a bottle of scotch and proactively left me proper glasses for it. Only $120 a night. Perfect.

The larger of the two Business Class cabins

Another view of the cabin

Seat is very similar to BA First Class. Power and USB port at your seat. 

Exterior camera view on IFE screen

View from 20A


Spotted an EVA 747 on one of it's final flights ever

YVR lounge food

Cathay Amenity Kit

Air show

L'Hermitage hotel's outdoor, year-round saltwater pool and hot tub

Float planes at coal harbour

Olympic flame

Great Jewish deli

Sushi is to Vancouver what burritos are to San Francisco

BBQ Poutine!

A vancouver specialty: Meat and cream pizza

Skyline view from North Vancouver, a quick trip on the SeaBus

28 Minutes from YVR Airport to downtown on the SkyTrain

Friday, January 9, 2015

Can't buy Amex points nor Chase UR points anymore

I was on the phone with American Express today and I confirmed with two agents and a supervisor that you can't buy American Express Premier Reward points anymore. I've not seen this pointed out anywhere (in fact, here's a posting where TPG describes how to do it), so I thought I'd mention it.

UPDATE Feb '15: I just checked with Chase and they've stopped allowing members to purchase Ultimate Reward points. I was like 400 points short of a redemption and mentioned to the phone rep how nice the "buy" option was for these kinds of situations and she just gave me the points I needed for free! YMMV...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

20 Things I learned about being an AirBnB host: Tax time conclusions!

I made two postings (1, 2) about being an AirBnB host a while back and I wanted to post an update on the "Things I learned" now that we're doing the taxes for our final 6 months as hosts. 

(As a reminder, we were trapped in a bad lease when we moved down the street into a place we'd purchased. Our landlord didn't want to rent the place out after our lease ended so it was next-to-impossible to find someone to take it for such an odd term, trust me, we tried!)

Gross Earnings (Guest Fees + Cleaning Fees minus AirBnB hosting fees)

Our Costs
$28,200 rent ($4700 x 6) 
$349.76 facebook ads (worth every penny, IMHO)
$663.07 utilities 
$960 cable + internet
$600 cleaning person for monthly deep cleaning
$? for cleaning supplies (laundry, dish soap, swiffer pads, tilex, fabric softener, etc)
$? for extra bedding, plates, and supplies we had to buy
= $30,772.83
conservative estimate of uncompensated hours we spent working on it = 60

assuming our labor is free, we lost $8925.83

I'm hoping that our net loss is something that we can write off our taxes but I'm not an accountant so I'll have to consult with mine about it. 

Here are some notes:
  • We had only one renter in all of January and I didn't have the fortitude to place FB ads until January was approaching and I had a very empty calendar staring me in the face. LESSON: Place ads early and often! You can turn them off or dial them down whenever you want.
  • We had a cleaning fee of $50 on most of the reservations and that's included in the Gross Earnings so you could argue that our time wasn't totally uncompensated :)
  • Given that NYC regulations only allow you to rent out your whole apartment for periods longer than 30 days, we could have made more money if we'd rented out the whole apartment instead of just one bedroom in it. (it's a small 2-bedroom apartment and one bedroom was ours even though we were often not home). 
  • May was our best month by far – $6148. It's also the nicest month of the year in NYC and we were charging more than AirBnB's recommendation and still filled the place up almost the whole month. LESSON: don't be afraid to charge a lot for prime times, you need to do that to pay yourself back for all the bad times!
  • The math of having someone else take care of the place for you doesn't work out at all, IMHO. If I had to pay my cleaning person $100 after every visitor and then pay a service to do the meet and greet when people arrived — often with significant air travel delays and often into the wee hours of the night – I would have lost way more money than I did. LESSON: you're taking on a part-time job for almost zero pay, are you sure you want that?
  • Since rent is the biggest expense, I think the math works out better when you've had an apartment for a long time and you're paying comparatively little rent. (Given rent control laws in NYC, it's a general rule that the longer you live in a rental, the better deal you're getting). 
  • If it's a space you were going to have to keep and just lose money in any event, it's probably helpful to just view any money you made on AirBnB as "gravy" :)
  • It's New York City, so you just add a zero to the end of everything folks, I realize $4700 will get you a penthouse with a hooker in the square states, here it gets you a 750 sqft apartment in an 200 year old tenement building with no elevator, no doorman, and a 15 minute walk to the subway. Conversely, no one is going to pay you $250 a night for an apartment in suburban Tulsa. 
  • ALSO: i just read about this – a service that matches AirBnB hosts who need a place to crash when they rent their apartments out. Crazy. No way would I do that for free, even if I wasn't home. Especially if I wasn't home.

Monday, January 5, 2015

ANA and JAL lowering their fuel surcharges

Airlines buy long-term fuel contracts to prevent the pain that can happen when prices temporarily spike. But fuel prices have been trending down for quite some time and people are starting to get crabby about the charges still being so high.

British Airways is being sued by its frequent flier members over it. Some good news, though: both ANA and JAL are lowering theirs. Since most reward tickets require you to pay the fuel surcharge in cash, it's a huge deal to people who fly like I do. BA's fuel charges are so high, you're basically paying for an Economy class ticket's worth of "fuel" when you redeem miles, so redeeming for Economy is absolutely pointless.

Not quite worth it...

Friday, January 2, 2015

Heading to Vancouver...

I often use this blog as a place to store bits of my research for a particular ticket I'm trying to get – it's helpful for me (keeps me from doing the same work twice) and I feel like it also shows my thought process, so hopefully that means it's helping other people too.

I'm sure it's just coincidence, but less than a week after I posted my Tokyo in Spring, another travel blog did a near-identical breakdown of how to use British Airways Avios points to book Japan Airlines flights between the USA and Tokyo. It's not a big deal, but they have a zillion more followers than I do and the last thing I want is a bunch of people competing for the same seats I'm trying to get! So, coincidence or not, I'm going to leave these types of posts in "Draft" mode while I work on them and only publish after I have my own ticket in hand! (Trip report is here)

With that out of the way... I need to go to Vancouver (YVR) for work in January. There are only two direct flights: Cathay Pacific or Air Canada. The Cathay flight actually continues on to Hong Kong so it's a 777 with international long haul seats, food, and service. Unfortunately the flight is a redeye both directions. The Air Canada flight is a small A319 in a domestic configuration (a.k.a. Crappy Domestic First Class). Looking at SeatGuru, it looked like there was no Economy Plus on the Air Canada flight – the "Preferred Seats" are shown as having the same legroom as regular coach. But if you look over here, it seems pretty clear that this Air Canada A319 has 35" seats in the Preferred Seats section.


Round trip:
  • Cathay is $542 Economy, $982 Premium Economy, or $4500 Business
  • Air Canada is $706 Econ, $906 Premium Economy1, or $2250 Business
One way NYC - YVR:
  • Air Canada is $420, $620, $1079 (Econ, Premium1, Business)
  • Cathay is $560 (Asian airlines love pricing one-ways the same as round-trips), $562 for Premium Economy (yes, i triple-checked this!!), and $1963 for Business.


Now that I know the prices, ideally I'd book something in Economy and then use my own miles to upgrade. I don't have miles with Aeroplan (Air Canada's points program) but I have Amex points I can transfer. Looking here, though, it seems like I can only upgrade with miles if I'm in the most expensive Economy fare buckets (Y, B), so that's a no-go.

Cathay Pacific's Asia Miles program is a points transfer partner with Amex, so I looked into upgrading. I logged in to Cathay Pacific's website and began a couple of bookings and, as I suspected, neither the $542 Economy fare, nor the $982 Premium Economy fare is upgradeable. (if you click through to the next screen while booking you see that the Premium Economy fare is fare bucket "E" which isn't eligible for mileage upgrades, only "W" and "R" are). 

Award Seat

I had little hope for Aeroplan having a seat. In my experience, Aeroplan blows. Their systems never, ever offer you a seat on a direct flight. But if I poke enough buttons (Business Class, rule-buster rates) I can make it show me the non-stop flight I want — 315,500 miles PLUS $91.50! For reference, that's about what Singapore Airlines would charge me for a trans-oceanic flight on their Suites Class. So I'm not doing a reward with them, either. I also tried (one of Air Canada's partners) didn't show any availability, either.

If I can find award space on Cathay, it's 50,000 miles for a round-trip in Business Class on a flight that's pricing out at $4500 -- a fantastic redemption at 9¢ a mile! British Airways is partnered with Cathay, but only has award seats available TO Vancouver but none on the way back. I'd prefer to book through BA's site due to the Amex transfer bonus that's in place right now. The redemption is so good that's it's cheaper to BUY Avios points from BA at their astronomical prices and then redeem them for this flight than it is to pay cash for the airfare. That doesn't happen too often.

Cathay Pacific is a bit like Air Canada in that their points program is run by a separate company (Asia Miles). What stinks, though, is that when you're ready to redeem your miles, you actually have to join (for a USD$50 fee) the Cathay Pacific Marco Polo club. You can't even check award flight availability without joining. UPDATE: These metal luggage tags just arrived in the mail, so I have something to show for my $50 Marco Polo club fee :)

Plus, their website kept crashing when I got to the final joining screen, even after a re-boot, and even in 3 different browsers. I emailed their help desk and it took over a week to get a reply. I tried again a few days later and it randomly decided to work. This doesn't inspire a lot of confidence if the site crashes while I'm in the middle of getting a ticket!
TIP: it's often much easier to find award availability directly from the airline operating the flight than it is to redeem through one of their partners. Even if you rarely fly them, use a point transfer credit card like American Express Premier Rewards or Chase Sapphire to transfer miles in and then book. 
In any event, I managed to create my account, log in, and there's wide-open availability on Ok, so there I am, ready to book, but because I REALLLLLY want to take advantage of the Amex transfer bonus to British Airways, I decide to look one last time on their site to see if any award seats have opened up. (It's been a few days and these things change over time). Lo and behold there's availability on BOTH legs of the trip! So now I only have to transfer in 30,000 Amex points for the whole trip! Done and done.

So much of this points game still relies on good old fashioned luck. Yes there are tools to more obsessively monitor award seats, but most of them have a subscription fee, and not all of the airlines' inventories are in there, so I've never had much luck using them. I just check back manually now and then and sometimes you get lucky like today :)

1 This price assumes that I'm paying $99 per leg to upgrade to the more-legroom seats. Cathay's Premium Economy is a true Premium product, so it's not quite and apples-to-apples comparison.

BA Visa spending bonus (targeted?)

Just got this flyer in the mail — spend $9,000 on my BA Visa card before March 31st and earn 9000 bonus miles, no registration required. I'm guessing the offer is targeted at certain cardholders but I might be wrong. One way or the other, I'm saving this flyer for future reference. They've run a similar promotion before and my bonus miles never showed up. I eventually had to call and convince them with a lot of screenshots that I'd qualified and that they did, in fact, owe me the miles.

If you think about it, they're basically offering you 2.25 miles per dollar spent (1.25 base plus one bonus mile) for the first $9,000 of spending you do in Q1 2015. If you have a lot of spending to do that's not in any of the bonus categories on your other cards it might be worth it. Like for example I wouldn't go charging airfare to it when I could be getting 4 points for dollar on that with my Amex.

UPDATE: BA is currently waiving the $95 annual fee on this card until the end of March 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

One bit of good news in 2015...

2014 was full of mostly bad news for point hounds like me. Devaluations, new fees on elite members, rising elite tiers... but one good change is that Delta is now allowing one-way mileage rewards. Given that Delta is often the best option on domestic First Class runs, I usually end up with a small amount of Delta miles every year and this should help me spend them :)

More on Lucky's site.