Friday, May 15, 2015

Delta is having a gay pride fare sale

I guess I'm old enough that it's still a bit exciting when a big company like Delta acknowledges we exist :) Details about Delta's gay pride fare sale are here.




Thursday, May 14, 2015

Alaska's new Premium Economy

Looks like Alaska Airlines is rolling out a Premium Economy experience similar to Virgin America – basically they're selling the exit/bulkhead row seats with a free alcoholic beverage for a $15 - $50 (each way) surcharge. I've flown Virgin's Main Cabin Extra and it's always comedic watching the crew try to keep people from "self upgrading" into those rows after takeoff. At one point on one of my flights, the FA found a crewmember who was deadheading and asked him to sleep lengthwise across the 3 unoccupied exit row seats.



I had my own inter-passenger seat drama when two large Russian ladies from New Jersey decided they were going to self-upgrade into my Main Cabin Select exit row from a regular Economy seat. I looked at them and said, "No. I'm in the Aisle seat and ONE of you can sit by the window, but you're not both cramming into this row with me." Of course they argued but it's amazing how cooperative they became when I reached for the FA call button...

So yes, I'm sure Alaska will give most of those seats away for free to their Elite flyers. But if I were flying them, I'd pay for it. Alaska's First Class is crappy (arguably even crappier with the new seats) and you'll actually have more legroom in the Exit row than in First. They're in a big battle with Delta right now and I just don't get why they're adding ever-longer routes and shrinking their First Class seat pitch. I personally wish they'd add an ultra-premium First Class cabin like JetBlue did with their Mint product and actually give themselves a big leg-up when going head to head with Delta.

Some more thoughts on Crappy Domestic First here.



Monday, May 11, 2015

Canceling my British Airways Visa card...

As I alluded to in my post about Japan, I've been pretty frustrated with my British Airways Visa card.

My husband and I have both done the $30k annual spend on our BA cards to earn a Travel Together certificate and have found it basically impossible to redeem them due to lack of reward seats. Further, when we have seen availability, the fees are astronomical. Coupled with their recent point devaluation, a trip from New York to Barcelona I just priced out now costs 157,000 points + $2100 + the Travel Together coupon for the two of us. (UPDATE: as I predicted, annual summer business class fare sales are on right now, and you can actually purchase Business Class tickets from NYC to Paris for less than the cost of just the fees associated with this award!)

On top of that, they recently announced changes to cut the earning rate on this card from 1.25 points per dollar to 1 point per dollar while simultaneously devaluing Avios by approximately 30%. Ouch.

To make matters worse, In January, I received a postcard in the mail telling me that I could earn 9000 bonus points by spending $9000 by March 31st. So I did. The miles never showed up. I called. I spent 4 years as a phone rep so I know how to be polite and friendly in order to get my issues addressed. They sent my issue off for "research" and I was told today in writing that the offer wasn't intended for me even though the card was addressed to me.
...Sigh...
I'd had this issue before, so I'd even taken a picture of the card so I'd have proof. In the end, it just wasn't worth the effort or the hassle so I called in and canceled the card today.

I might have kept the card if any of these things were true (sadly, they aren't):

  • Travel Together tickets got "any empty seat" privileges during redemptions. BA offers this to their top-tier elites so there's absolutely infrastructure and precedence in place for this. I'd pay the high price if I didn't have to battle for hours trying to find an award seat.
  • Travel Together tickets could be used on Oneworld partners
  • The card was Chip + PIN rather than Chip + Signature
  • I could take the 30k spend bonus as 30k Avios instead of a Travel Together ticket
  • The hold time to talk to BA's reward flight desk was 10 minutes instead of 60. 

I even took a picture of the offer postcard and they refused to honor it

A few Japan tips

(last update 14 Mar 2017)


Before You Go


Check to see what festivals and holidays are happening on the days you're considering. There might be some awesome things you don't want to miss, or giant crowds (e.g., Golden Week) that could complicate your plans. 

If the trip is far enough out, start planning how to get there in Business or First Class with points. My planning for our big 3 month adventure is here. Our points planning for the trip before that is here. Try to get on a Japanese airline if you can... ANA is in Star Alliance and is an Amex transfer partner. JAL is in OneWorld and recently added a partnership with Alaska Airlines. To quote my best friend who's originally from Tokyo, "I'd rather fly ANA in Economy that United in Business".


Consider getting a Japan Rail Pass before you go. It gets you on any JR train in the country, including the urban JR trains like Yamanote and Chuo lines, as well as the Narita Express train from the Airport. There are a few region-specific passes available only in Japan so you're not completely out of luck if you didn't plan ahead. Bring your passport with you to the JR office. On our most recent 3 week pass we calculated every single trip we took and it saved us 3x what it cost!

Save big on train travel with a rail pass!


Staying


Not all hotel inventory is shared with big US travel portals like Kayak.com. We had several instances where we couldn't find any open rooms on Kayak but managed to find space in exactly the same "fully booked" hotels when we looked on Japanican.com. Further, Japanican often shows whole classes of rooms not visible on western websites – I booked a double-bed room for $113 when the cheapest room for the exact dates and hotel on Kayak was $172 Queen room. 
can't find a hotel room? try these guys :)

Many of Japan's "Business Hotels" (e.g., Dormy Inn, APA) have nice onsen spas on the roof or in the basement. The Japanican portal lets you filter by "Hot Springs" when searching for a hotel. The hotel hot springs are often nicer than any of the private spas I've seen in the US, and they're also more lax with the whole "no tattoos" thing. Business Hotels also usually have washing machines on site.

Gracery Shinjuku might not have a hot springs, but it does have a giant Godzilla climbing the building!

AirBnB can be tricky in Japan. It's now technically illegal in Tokyo (as of Spring 2017 it's been legalized). There's also a similar homegrown, fully-legal service called StayJapan.com, but I don't know anyone who's tried it yet.
In my own experience I watched two friends who spoke no Japanese attempt to interact with a first-time AirBnB host who spoke no English, who'd provided no google map, and who was trying to hide the fact that she was renting from her neighbors... I was able to help sort out the confusion, but if you don't speak Japanese and aren't up to speed on Japanese customs and wayfinding, you might want to skip AirBnB or pick a host with several positive reviews from English speakers.
AirBnB can be tricky…

Takkyubin


Another major downside to AirBnB is that it often prevents you from using one of Japan's greatest inventions: Takkyubin (aka Ta-Q-Bin)! Nearly every Japanese person uses this magical courier service to move bags between hotels when they travel. For $8 they transported my roll-aboard bag from one coast to the other, overnight. All hotels have infrastructure in place to send and receive the bags, so my bag was waiting for me in my room when I checked in. 

On the train, I bring a small carry-on with one change of clothes and a few toiletries in it. Make sure you have the phone number and the full postal address of your next hotel handy, and note that all Takkubin payments have to be in cash.  Given how crowded subways and train stations are, it's considered impolite to schlep giant bags around unnecessarily. Plus, you might even save money if shipping your bags lets you take the subway instead of a taxi. Many Japanese people flying home to Tokyo will go to the Takkyubin office at the airport and drop off all of their checked bags so they don't have to bother carrying them back to their house. 


Another great feature is that you can specify the day and time your bag will arrive, up to one full week out. This is super handy - you can forward all of your souvenirs and dirty laundry several stops ahead. 
With Takkyubin, bags are waiting for you in your room when you check in!
Seriously, don't be "that guy"


Getting Around


Japan's #1 challenge for visitors is finding their way to things. First off, Google Maps is pretty spotty with its Roman-character entries, so if you aren't finding something and can type (or cut and paste) the Japanese characters in, you might have better luck. Better: visit the website of the business you're looking for and look for the "Access" link (アクセス) and there's usually custom directions.

Even in fairly small cities, the native mindset is that you'll arrive by subway so directions are often given from that perspective. Train stations, subway stations, and giant malls all bleed together so you'll usually see directions given by which station exit they're near (all of them are named or numbered). Given the vastness of some stations, coming out the wrong exit can make it next-to-impossible to actually walk to your destination. Japan Railways has online station maps that can be helpful.
Most businesses will list their exit number

If you're looking for something outside a station, remember that Asians aren't nearly as biased toward street-level businesses as Westerners are. Look up! Lots of retail places (especially restaurants) are on the 3rd or 4th or 5th floor. Also, Japanese postal addresses provide insight into how they look at wayfinding: State, City, Ward, District, Block, Building Number, Apartment Number. Google maps is helpful, but GPS is really unreliable here due to tall buildings and to so much being underground.

Also, while you're walking around town: Keep Left! They drive on the other side of the road here and they walk on the other side of the sidewalk and escalator. (Though in the western part of Japan the escalator customs are sometimes reversed!)

Get a transit card (e.g., Suica). If you put cash onto the card you can spend it on the Tokyo Metro or JR urban trains in most any large city. The big "IC" logo indicates a machine or gate that handles the contactless fare cards. You can also use the cash on the card to buy drinks and food from many vending machines and convenience stores (called "kon bii nii"). Even some of the noodle shops (the ones where you pay for your food at a vending machine) take transit cards for payment. There's also interoperability between regions – I used the cash on my Tokyo Suica to ride the Nagoya and Kyoto subways, for example.

Suica!

Tokyo's mass transit is comprised of several completely separate companies and the Suica card lets you seamlessly pay for trips on all of these systems (Osaka's mass transit is structured similarly). Japan Rail runs the Yamanote and Chuo lines, which are free if you have a Japan Rail pass (just enter/exit through the staffed faregate and show your pass). Tokyo Metro runs the subway system. There are also a handful of other private railways (Odakyu, Seibu, etc) but they all take Suica.

There are some day-pass options, but they're quite expensive if you get one that covers all of the systems (¥1590 for an all-inclusive 24-hour pass), so maybe do a little planning and math before buying one. Google maps and Hyperdia both show the fares for individual trips.
Some of the various regional farecards

Get the Hyperdia app if you're doing any intercity train travel. It's only free for a two week trial so install it right before you go. It can help you find the best options for navigating the huge and often complex rail system. If you have the popular Japan Rail Pass, you can't use a ticket machine to book a free seat reservation, and since many trains require a seat reservation that means you'll be visiting a staffed JR office. Lines can be very long at peak times so I recommend going off-hours at least one day before your trip to reserve your seat. During popular times (e.g., cherry blossom festival, Golden Week) go even earlier – especially if you're going in a group and want to sit together. With your desired itinerary on-screen, hand your phone to the JR ticket agent at any station and ask for a reservation - they'll know exactly what to do.  TIP: today is "kyo" and tomorrow is "ashta".


And speaking of trains, just know that when the Shinkansen bullet train pulls into your station, you don't have long to disembark, even at the terminus. If you stay on too long, you might end up leaving your husband and your bags sitting on the platform while the train departs with you stuck inside. I may or may not be saying this from personal experience :)
A couple of other great apps: the JR East app shows you a system map, line status, and full station maps. It always tries to connect to the internet, but just ignore that and let it time out and you'll find most of its functionality is available in offline mode. The Tokyo Metro app is also good.

If you love Japanese trains and want to fill up a little station passport booklet, check out my Eki stamp post.


All reports I've seen indicate that Japan wants you to have an International Driving Permit AND your home state Drivers License if you're going to drive there. If you're near a AAA office you can just go down and get one in person (they even take your picture). You don't have to be a AAA member to do this. Even in very rural areas the concept of Taxis is very common, so you almost never need a car. 

Uber is in Tokyo now, but I've found that it takes quite a bit longer for them to pick you up than in the US (usually 15 minutes or so). Giving directions in a taxi is quite difficult, so make sure you drop that destination pin in the Uber app before the driver arrives.

Food

  • I made a short list here of my favorite places to eat in Tokyo. 
  • My Instagram account (@briankusler) is entirely food, with corresponding restaurant check-ins, so you can go browsing through there for some ideas. 
  • Some of the best restaurants are in the train station, so are some of the worst. Good luck!
  • Yelp is what Americans like – by definition it's not a guide to local taste. If you can read Japanese or trust Google Translate, you can use Tabelog.com, one of the most popular Japanese food review sites.
  • You don't tip in Japan. In fact, it's considered rude to hand someone uncovered money.
  • If you're planning on visiting a Ryokan (Japanese-style hotel), here's how you put on a Yukata
  • Draft beer is "nama biiru". 生 is the symbol for draft. Two other useful kanji: 酒 means alcohol, and it'll be on convenience store signs that sell it. 男 means "man", 女 means "woman" and in a nice restaurant it might be the only sign on the bathroom indicating gender.
  • Ordering in a restaurant with no English or picture menu can be tough. Don't forget that Google Translate has a picture mode where you point the camera at something and it tries to read it. It's come in handy quite a bit (requires your phone to be on the internet).
    Google Translate can read signs and menus with you iPhone camera!
  • When in doubt, you can always try おすすめ "oh sue sue may" which basically translates to "whatever you recommend", though this might be rough if you're a picky eater. Even if you're at the vending machine noodle stand, you'll sometimes see this phrase above the buttons for their most popular items.
  • Don't be shy about saying "sūmimasen" when you want something in a bar or restaurant, it's not the custom for the staff to keep checking in with you. Some places (esp. barbecue places) have a button on the table you can push when you need something.
Some tables have a buzzer for summoning your server

General Stuff


  • If you've studied Japanese at all, you might find my Twitter feed interesting. I basically tweet things that I have to look up while living in Japan, so hopefully it's useful... 
  • As a fat white American, I'm always hot in Japan. They seem to like room temperature around 26° and I like it more around 20. Air conditioners often don't even function until the hotel has decided "it's summer now" so if you have an unseasonably warm day in April, well you're just gonna sweat.
  • There's a little tray at nearly every cash register where you put your money or your credit card when it's time to pay. Do not hand cash or credit cards directly to the checker.
  • Yes there is sales tax in Japan, and it's just as annoying as in the US: unpredictably applied to certain things and with a nasty habit of filling your coin purse (go buy one if you haven't yet) with useless one-yen coins. I find I'm constantly loading my change onto the Suica card. 
  • If you're at more mom and pop store and feel like haggling on price, please read this guide on how to properly haggle in Japan
  • There are almost no trash cans anywhere in the entire country, despite the fact they have an obsession with over-packaging everything. Luckily there are Starbucks everywhere and they have trash cans. So do many public toilets, and those are also fairly ubiquitous and free.
  • Many public toilets are the squat style ones and many bathrooms don't have toilet paper or paper towels. You see all those people handing out free pocket tissues at the train station? Yeah, they're not really for blowing your nose :) Keep a pack in your bag just in case. 
  • If you're going to be out seeing temples and shrines, you'll be taking our shoes on and off all day. Wear slip-on shoes if you can. 
  • Speaking of shoes and other inside-outside things, your bag does not go on the floor. Most restaurants and bars will have a hook or a basket or some other option for you to put it someplace where it won't "get dirty". 
  • Since there's almost no crime in the country, if you lose something, you're very likely to get it back if you remember to label it with your contact info (include an email and/or a LINE ID so you give the finder a way to contact you that isn't an expensive international call in a language they might be too shy to speak). Make certain that your passport has your current info in the front of it, too!
  • Japanese "Onsen" hot springs (温泉 or often just this emoji: ♨️) have distinct hours for different activities. Take note of them before you get in, lest you be the lone naked white guy who's still in the springs after "women only, nude" hour has begun. ("Gomen" is the word for "sorry"). Some great onsen tips here. And yes, it's true, people with tattoos aren't permitted in most onsen
  • If you're a same-sex couple traveling together and you booked a western-style room, they'll assume you want separate twin beds, even if you booked a room with one. Make sure they know you want "ichi beddo." Many business hotels simply don't offer beds that sleep two. 
  • If you're gay and looking to meet locals, install the Jack'd, 9Monsters, and Line apps (the US apps are slowly catching on here). Given that the majority of gay bars (and even a few restaurants) don't admit unescorted foreigners, it can be very helpful to meet someone local before going out.
  • Speaking of cellular… Here's AT&T's Japan roaming plans. Honestly, don't go without at least getting the cheapest plan – $30 for 120MB + unlimited text + steeply-discounted voice is a great deal. T-mobile supposedly offers free 2G roaming in Japan, but I don't know what the coverage is like… Information about Verizon is here. Given Verizon's network differences, it's probably a good idea to call them ahead of time to see if your current smart phone will can connect to Japan's cell network at all. 
  • Renting a Japanese Mi-Fi is another popular option, but once you factor shipping, insurance, a supplemental device charger, and daily caps on high-speed data, "only $5 a day!" isn't such a good deal. If there's two of you and you'll be spending most of your time together, though, that makes the Mi-Fi math better since you can both share it. 
  • On an iPhone there are lots of great tricks to minimize your data usage, I made a list of my favorite ones here.
  • Renting a SIM card is another option, but then I need an unlocked phone, I won't be able to receive calls to my USA number, I can't tether with one, and Japan forbids you from having a voice line / Japanese phone number unless you are a resident, so I decided to pass. Some more good info over here.
  • Given the upcoming Olympics free Wi-Fi is finally starting to catch on. Most airports and large train stations now offer it, as do lots of businesses, including Tokyu Hands, Atre, Don Quixote, Bic Camera, Bicqlo, and 7-Eleven and Lawson convenience stores. The Tokyo Metro app shows which subway stations offer free Wi-Fi. Most of the Yamanote line stations have it as well. Most require you to enter your email address to sign up, so remember that if you're on the Wi-Fi but your apps aren't working, you might need to open Safari or Chrome first so you can be prompted for the login and "accept the terms" screens. The Free version of the Navitime App has an offline map just for finding free Wi-Fi.

    Tokyo Metro app shows which stations have free Wi-Fi

Links





Friday, May 8, 2015

Google Street View for planes

Cool post over on Lucky's blog about a new Google Street View for the inside of planes. It's sponsored by the airlines so everything is fresh and clean and new and well-lit, so I think there's still plenty of value in people posting trip report photos :)

Air France's Premium Economy on Google Street View

Check it out!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

NEWS: Amazon Prime Video coming to JetBlue's Wi-Fi

In-flight Wifi is an amazing thing. My first time experiencing it (on Virgin America) was one of those rare moments of "holy cow! we live in the fuuuutuuuuuuure!" moments. Despite being a bit pokey, it still completely changed flying for me.

Onboard the plane, there's more than enough bandwidth to stream video from the plane's Wifi router to passengers' phones or iPads, but unfortunately, even with the new, faster Ka-band satellite connections there's still not enough bandwidth between the plane and the ground for everyone to do that. One solution is to bring a large selection of video content onboard the plane and let people stream from a server aboard the plane to their devices.

Lufthansa and Delta have both launched these systems and JetBlue has just announced that they're partnering with Amazon to bring AmazonPrime content to the skies. I feel like this technology will eventually replace seatback entertainment systems and I'm actually happy about that. Lugging hundreds of little TVs and (all of the equipment to control them) wastes millions of gallons of fuel a year and seems exceedingly wasteful given that most people are carrying at least one smartphone or tablet with them already. Furthermore, the seatback entertainment systems seem to be on a much faster innovation schedule than the seats, so it's the first part of your fancy new plane to look shabby and dated.