Tuesday, February 28, 2017

My first churn of 2017 – Starwood American Express

Well it's late February and I'm doing my first credit card "churn" of the year. (Last year's roundup is here).

While I often say "this is a hobby for people with more time than money", there's also an obsessive-compulsive/extreme couponing vein running through point collector community. People go to some crazy lengths for a signup bonus, but for me, I generally sign up for a new card once or twice a year if something easy, interesting, or low-impact comes along.

The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card definitely fits that bill:
  • I already have another card with Amex they didn't pull my credit report 
  • No annual fee the first year
  • 25,000 Starwood points (some of the most valuable points out there – 2.2¢ each) after $3k of spending
  • Starwood points transfer to a lot more programs than Chase UR and Amex MR points do (just not instantaneously)
  • A refer-a-friend program where you earn 5,000 points for each person who signs up through your unique referral link.
  • If this all sounds good to you, please consider signing up with:

Card issuers have been getting stricter about churning signup bonuses lately, and Amex actually only allows you to earn a signup bonus once in your lifetime PER CARD TYPE. Since Starwood just got bought up by Marriot, I'm guessing this card will eventually go away or get folded into another card type, just like the JetBlue Amex card did recently. My logic is "might as well get snag this card's bonus before it goes away", which is exactly why I applied for the JetBlue Amex as soon as I heard they were moving to MasterCard.

Even if this card doesn't go away, this is one of the better SPG signup bonuses I've seen, and the referral bonus option makes it even sweeter. Also, I'm not much of a hotel person, the great majority of my friends love having fancy accommodations when they travel, so you might just want to keep the card rather than cancel it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Quick warning about JetBlue's Fly-Fi Wi-Fi service

JetBlue recently announced "gate to gate" Wi-Fi connectivity but for now I'd recommend against using their onboard Wi-Fi until you're in the air.

I just flew from New York JFK (where cellular reception on the ground is a bit spotty) and used the onboard Fly-Fi to access the internet at the gate and during taxi. Once we were airborne I couldn't get my phone to connect. I'm a software engineer and a former technical support person (as is my husband) and neither of us could find any trickery to get my phone to connect.

I found a thread over on Flyertalk where a user (ostensibly a JetBlue employee) is reporting that this is currently a known issue. Until a fix is posted, it's probably best to use Fly-Fi only after you've taken off.

With my phone now unable to access the internet, I grabbed the laptop out of my bag and it worked fine. Until I tried to access my Google account:

Yup, I'd recently enabled 2-factor authentication and now couldn't receive the text I needed to access it! So the second lesson here is: make sure you set up new devices on the ground before you leave if you have 2-factor authentication enabled

(From what I understand, I probably could have gotten around the bug if I'd had a MAC-address spoofer on my phone, but I don't...)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

North America's Hello Kitty Plane moves from Houston to Chicago

Last year I tried to fly to Taipei on EVA Air's Hello Kitty plane, but a last-minute equipment change foiled my plans. According to EVA's website, the service is moving to Chicago starting 31 May 2017.

Poor Houston space kitty!
  • Flight BR55 departs Chicago at 00:30 and has the Kitty plane Thu, Sat, and Mon
  • Flight BR56 departs Taipei at 19:50 and has the Kitty plane Wed, Fri, Sun
Official schedule (click to enlarge)
EVA operates a bunch of co-branded Sanrio planes, a route list is here. The new Gudetama plane sounds awesome – I saw it on the tarmac in Taipei when we were there last. But at this point I don't have any concrete plans to go back to Asia in 2017 😢


Other links

Fun stuff we did in Taipei

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

United Polaris = Overpromise, Underdeliver

Lots of people have been asking me about United Polaris so I decided to put a few thoughts down...

United is pouring millions of advertising dollars to tell the world about their new Polaris Class. Essentially they're ditching long-haul international First Class in favor of a "Business Class Plus" experience and giving it a catchy name. Very seldom have I had so many non-plane geek friends bringing up a new product with me the way I have with Polaris – so kudos to their marketing department for reaching a whole new audience with this vision.

But there are a few problems:

1. The nice new seats from the commercials won't be fully installed until 2021

Yes, that's right, you can book a Polaris flight right now, but the only Polaris thing about your flight will be new catering, the bedding, and the amenity kit. You'll still have the same old seat, same old interiors, and same old lounges (unless you're flying through Chicago where the lone Polaris lounge is).

The first plane with the Polaris interior has been delivered from Boeing, but it's still on training runs and won't be in regular service until nearly a year after Polaris was announced. (And did I mention that on the Polaris 777s, they're shoving in an extra seat per row in Economy?)

And pity the poor uneducated Polaris enthusiast who just randomly buys a United international Business Class ticket after seeing the commercial and ends up in their ratty 2-4-2 seating config on their 777s...

United's current 6-abreast 777 Business Class

2. The seats look nice but aren't exceeding their domestic or international rivals

Delta's new ONE product has closing-door suites, as does JetBlue Mint. I'd say the Polaris seats are comparable to the new American Airlines Flagship First... maybe a bit more innovative, but they're more densely-spaced than American's seats.

Polaris (left), AA's Flagship First

If you've ever seen Singapore's Suites Class, or the Etihad Apartment (let's not even mention The Residence!), then you'll know that the Polaris seats are a league below their international competitors' First Class products.

The come out a bit more favorably against international carriers who don't offer a First Class above their Business Class cabin. I'd say the seats are generally on par with EVA Airlines Royal Laurel Business Class, or JAL's 787 Sky Suite.

Etihad's First Class Apartment

3. Enthusiastic, committed staff are crucial, but I'm not hopeful on that front

We all talk a lot about seats, but for me, if I have a flat bed and Wi-Fi the rest of the stuff is just gravy. So why do I always try to fly international carriers instead of American ones on competing routes? The staff. With very few exceptions, the staff on foreign carriers are much more friendly, helpful, and actually diligent at performing their duties than their American counterparts.

United is going to be leaning heavily on their staff to make Polaris feel posh for the next 5 years while the planes and lounges are being slowly rolled out and that's just not one of their strong spots.

4.  Their lounge opening dates keep getting pushed back, and then pushed back yet again, and the lone Chicago Polaris lounge is already overcrowded.

They're doing a bad enough job keeping their own staff and operations in order, now add in local contractors and layers of airport governmental bureaucracy on top of that and it's no wonder the second Polaris lounge isn't going to open until 2018...

conclusions and conjecture

At first glance this rollout doesn't make much sense, but the longer I think about it, this is what I think its main goals are:
  • Bamboozle people. Lucky has a hilarious story about a Forbes reporter who reviewed United's existing First Class seat and totally thought it was the new Polaris one (Forbes had to pull the story once the public pointed out the error). If you can fool Forbes' reporters and editors, you can probably fool some portion of the public.
  • Keep United frequent fliers excited about the airline. People saving their miles for premium cabin flights must by definition have a longer-term strategy towards travel. Just knowing that the new Polaris experience will available in the medium-term might be enough to keep them excited about sticking with United Mileage Plus. Many younger/tech companies have travel portals that let employees choose their own airlines and flights, so employee captivity isn't what it used to be.
  • Create a halo effect for the whole United brand. If they can convince the general public that they've genuinely created an amazing new class of service, then it might convince people that their Economy class and airport experience has also been thoughtfully redesigned as well. Sadly all they're likely to find there are the aforementioned narrower seats and the "invention" of Basic Economy fares where you get no carry-on luggage and you're in boarding group 23. But United's been courting the bloggers left and right, and they've been cooing and blowing kisses in exchange for all of the exclusive access and attention.
  • Stall. JetBlue is rumored to be launching transatlantic service. Norwegian is rapidly expanding their operations across the Americas, so is WOW. British Airways is slashing costs and amenities to compete on price, Lufthansa is removing a huge chunk of its international First Class seats... The international travel landscape could look very different 5 years from now and having such a slow roll-out of the product might let them alter their plans if they decide that the future is more like Spirit and less like ANA.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Twitter is your friend

I (mostly) hate Twitter. Despite all of it's obvious problems, I find it especially horrifying to see respectable writers forced into to spelling "your" as "ur". But despite all that it's still one of the best ways to get customer service these days.

Recently Alaska Airlines and Virgin America merged, and I'd read several reports that customers were getting 10,000 bonus Alaska miles upon linking their points accounts with both airlines. I linked my accounts and moved all of my Virgin points into my Alaska account but never saw any bonus. I waited a month or so and then tweeted @AlaskaAir to inquire about it. They replied the same day in a private window asking for my account details and a day later 10,000 points showed up!

It never hurts to ask…

Another thing I'll mention as I stare out at a foot of snow on the ground: definitely use Twitter if you want to know the precise moment that travel fee-waivers are issued due to bad weather. Our story from Mexico last year nearly repeated itself this year.

I've tried 3 times now to get credit on Delta for my China Airlines flight via their customer service website and I've still had no luck. I'm actually going to take to Twitter today to see if I have any more luck doing it that way.