Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Alaska Airlines Announces Mileage Plan Program Enhancements

These days, it's pretty rare to find an airline making positive enhancements to it's frequent flyer program. Usually the "changes that you'll like" are quite the opposite, with those takeaways packaged with a trivial enhancement just to help with the optics and packaging of the negative changes.

But it appears that Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan program is making some real, substantive enhancements that will make it easier for you to earn more miles. Here is a summary of what's changing:

Higher Bonuses for Top-Tier Gold 75k Members

Effective January 1, 2015, Alaska's top-tier Gold 75k members will receive an elite bonus of 125% of miles flown for travel on Alaska and all partners, which is an increase from the current bonus of 100%. In addition to the enhanced bonus, Gold 75k members receive 50,000 bonus miles upon qualification.

To qualify for Gold 75k, you need to accrue 75,000 EQM's on Alaska alone, or 90,000 total EQM's including partners.

Anecdotally, many people have felt that other than higher-priority upgrades, there really wasn't much difference between the top-tier Gold 75k and mid-tier Gold status. This change certainly adds more incentive to go for top-tier status, and if I had known about these 2015 changes in advance would certainly have thought hard about it.

Higher Class of Service Bonuses on Alaska Flights

Since my travel is 100% leisure, I'm able to plan well in advance and score el-cheapo fares in the lowest fare classes. This change is most beneficial to those who can't plan well in advance, and purchase paid First Class fares or higher fare classes.

For fare buckets F / P (First Class) and Y / S / M / B (Economy Class), you will receive an additional 25% in miles earned over what you receive today.

Change in Miles Earned on Delta

In response to some of the changes announced by Delta, Alaska will be modifying it's mileage earning chart on Delta effective January 1st, 2015.

The changes vary greatly depending on fare class, but in general high fare classes in Economy Class as well as almost all Business and First Class fares will receive enhanced mileage earning of 25%-50%.

However, discounted Economy fares will receive a 25%-75% reduction in the miles earned, which will almost certainly make Alaska members think twice about flying Delta. This isn't a surprise given the turf war in SEA that Alaska and Delta are embattled in.

Bottom Line

These are true enhancements in every sense of the word (well, other than those Alaska members who regularly fly Delta) and depending on your fare class and status, will increase the number of miles that you earn on a given flight by as much as 75%.

The timing of the announcement certainly qualifies as short-notice, and we would be skewering Alaska for these changes if they were takeaways, but I guess there's a double-standard when positive changes are announced.

I'm wrapping up my Gold re-qualification this week, but the changes certainly have me thinking long and hard about another push to the 75k tier. What do you think - is it worth it?

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Oldest Credit Card Just Got The Axe

It's a sad day for me - I woke up to an ominous email from Citibank with the subject line "Account Closure - Important Information".

It's the credit card equivalent of getting a text from your significant other with the message "Need to talk to you right now, really important call right away!!!". While that conversation usually turns out to be a false alarm, along the lines of them being at the store and not remembering if you were out of milk, Citi wasn't messing around.

I logged into my account, anxious to find out which of my 4 Citi credit cards had gotten the axe. Of all the ones I didn't want it to happen to, of course that was the victim.

Why was my card closed

My Citi ThankYou Preferred card, the oldest of my entire collection of credit cards which I've had for nearly 15 years, died today, on November 17th, 2014.

A short and sweet message from Citi indicates that it was due to lack of activity, which is fair since I haven't used that card in several years.

So if I wasn't using the card at all, why am I so sad about the account closure?

FICO credit scores take into account your average length of credit history, and with all the churning that many of us do, it means that the majority of our credit cards don't even stay open for a year. While those closed accounts stay on your credit report for up to 10 years, it's a good idea to preserve a good average length of credit history by keeping a few no-annual fee credit cards in your sock drawer.

As an added bonus, American Express back-dates all new cards to your oldest credit card's date, which for me is about 10 years ago. So even if I opened a new Amex card tomorrow, it would count as 10 years old.

I have multiple credit cards that are just sitting around unused, and never had a problem until now. But this closure coincides with recent news that many of the old American Express Blue Cash cards were getting closed, and could be an indication that the card issuers are cracking down on inactivity.

My favorite memory of the card

As part of the eulogy for my oldest card, let's flash back to 2008. My friends and I decided to take a trip to Thailand, and I unwittingly lucked into being the one who booked all 4 tickets for the group on my Citi Preferred card.

Why did that matter? Back then, this card actually provided 1 point per flight mile on all airline tickets purchased with the card. Which meant that in addition to the 1x I'd earn on the cost of the tickets, I also earned 1x flight miles for each of the 4 airline tickets, which brought in nearly 70,000 points for the trip!

As ashamed as I am to admit it now, back then I was as unsavvy and clueless about points and miles as one can be. But that didn't change the fact that I was ecstatic about the points windfall, and did what a typical 25 year old would have done - I cashed them in for a $700 statement credit! Can you blame me? That's a LOT of pizza and beer!

Friday, November 14, 2014

How A Singapore AIrlines Passenger Spent $1,200 On Wifi

Be careful the next time you purchase Wifi on board your flight, as one Singapore Airlines passenger learned the hard way when he was stuck with a shocking bill for $1,200!

He had purchased a Wifi package for ~$30, and during the course of his flight had just 155 page views, and also uploaded a 4MB PowerPoint file which took over an hour due to the slow connection speed. Here's a copy of his bill:

There is scarce detail about the source of the additional overage charges, but Singapore Airlines has said that they charge based on both volume of usage and time. That is a bit different than what I see on US airlines which sell packages that are time-based (e.g. 1 hour, 12 hours, unlimited) with some caps on the usage.

This reminds me of a story about a teenager who incurred over $20,000 in roaming charges while using his cell phone overseas. Once stories like these hit the media, the provider almost always does the right thing and will eat the cost rather than risk the ensuing PR nightmare.

To better protect passengers, I think it should be required to warn them about any overage charges prior to them being incurred, and would also be helpful if there was a pop-up box with your running total for the session. Either way, it's a good reminder nonetheless to read the fine print when using Wifi on-board your next flight!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The British Airways Companion Ticket Is Worthless From The West Coast

On the surface, the British Airways 2-for-1 Travel Together certificate that comes after spending $30,000 or more in a calendar year on the Chase British Airways credit card sounds like a fantastic deal.

While many people find Avios most useful for short-haul domestic tickets which only cost 4,500 miles each way, in general I prefer to use my miles for long-haul premium cabin flights. So in theory, this certificate is exactly the type of thing that would appeal to me, since I'd be able to save 150,000 miles for example on First Class flights from San Francisco to London.

While the certificate is good for 24 months, I'm quickly approaching the expiration date for mine. I've been trying desperately to find a good use for it over the past year, but am at the point where I'm going to give up and let it expire. Here's why.

The rules and restrictions

The British Airways certificate comes with some very restrictive rules that make it both hard to use and cost-prohibitive. Here are some details from the terms and condition:

"The Travel Together Ticket (voucher) allows the main BA/Chase account holder, when making a return flight booking using Avios, to book another seat on the exact same journey for a companion without having to pay the Avios flight price for that Companion. Taxes, airline, government, or other separately charged fees and charges must be paid by Member redeeming the voucher and is payable at time of booking"

A lot of words here, but the main takeaway is that you have to pay fuel surcharges on both tickets, which can be substantial. Let's look at what the surcharges would amount to on a SFO-LHR First Class ticket for example:

Each leg in First Class comes out to $479.60 per person, or an astonishing $1,918 round-trip for two people! To put that in perspective, over the past couple months you could easily find paid Business Class tickets for a similar route for as low as ~$1,500. Additionally, those tickets would earn both elite and redeemable miles, and were widely available on almost any date.

So in essence, you'd be purchasing 150,000 miles by using the companion pass for $1,918 which is a rate of roughly 1.3 cents-per-mile (CPM). It's worth nothing that at times that have been up to 50% transfer bonuses to Avios from American Express Membership Rewards, and in that case would effectively bring the cost of "purchasing" Avios down to just 1.0 CPM.

In itself, that's not a bad deal at all, if you're able to find availability.

Where's the availability?

"All travel must originate in and return to the US. The voucher cannot be redeemed for travel with BA’s franchisees, code share partners or oneworld Alliance members."

This is perhaps the nail in the coffin in terms of finding a practical use for the certificate. In short, you can only use the pass for travel to/from the US, and it must be on British Airways flights - no codeshares with other partners, including American Airlines, are allowed.

"The voucher will be issued in the name of the main BA/Chase Credit card account holder, who must travel on any voucher."

On top of that, you must be one of the two people traveling, which means that unfortunately you cannot use it for others.

So how does availability from the West Coast look like? Let's look at a few examples - there's no availability for close-in flights from SFO to LHR:

And nothing from either SFO or LAX to LHR several months out in March/April:

Even if you're able to plan 10-11 months in advance, there's still nothing!

Adding it all up

So if you live in the West Coast and are determined to use the certificate, you'll essentially to make your way Eastbound to other US gateways. For example, from ORD and JFK there is some decent award availability for both close-in bookings and further out in March/April 2015 for example. But even then, finding availability for both the outbound and return flights within a specific window of time isn't easy. You'll have to be extremely flexible.

Since the companion certificate does not cover non-British Airways flights, you are left on your own to pay for the cost of getting to gateways such as ORD or JFK. Even if you're able to plan in advance, round-trip airfare for two can easily cost $500-$600.

And on top of that, for a crazy risk-averse traveler like myself, flying on two separate tickets and facing IRROPS isn't something I'm willing to deal with, so depending on the flight schedule I'd likely find myself arriving the night before and booking a hotel.

When you add up all those costs and also take into account the availability of cheap Business Class fares, it simply does not make sense for West Coast flyers to utilize the British Airways Travel Together Certificate.

I'd love to hear from others who have successfully used the companion ticket, is there anything I'm missing?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

World's Most Popular Honeymoon Destination, Be Ready For The Next Mistake Fare, And Sneezing On A Plane

In case you missed it, here's a round-up of some of the notable posts from the past week. Keep up with all the latest news by following me on Facebook or Twitter, and feel free to send me an email anytime with questions or comments!

  • A throwback trip report where we flew Cathay Pacific First Class to Hong Kong and Macau to ring in the New Year where we had a front row seat to the fireworks over Victoria Harbor from the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong
  • Some exciting news related to the Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort in Australia - it will be rebranded as a One & Only Resort next year, and my review on Flyertalk was converted into the sleek new Hotel Review format 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort - New Management And A New Flyertalk Hotel Review Format

It was announced earlier this week that the Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa located near the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, Australia will be re-branded as a One & Only Resort, joining the newly opened One & Only Hayman Islands as the two properties in Australia managed by Kerzner International.

The timing of the re-branding hasn't been finalized, but should be finished early next year. Emirates will retain ownership of the resort for which they spent in excess of $100 million to build on a 7,000 acre conservatory reserve.

We stayed at this resort last year as part of our honeymoon and absolutely loved it. Our only complaints were mild ones, and revolved around the somewhat disorganized dinner service. I'd imagine that this is one area that will certainly be addressed by the new management group.

With Emirates retaining ownership, that bodes well for those that would like to use their Emirates Skywards miles which as it stands cost 65,000 miles per night. Given the retail cost of the resort and the fact that it is all-inclusive, it's not a bad option at all at 2-3 cents-per-mile (CPM) value.

New Flyertalk Hotel Review Format

On a related note, it appears that my review of the resort got the new Flyertalk hotel review format treatment. You can check out the new format here and compare it to the old one here. I certainly like the change as it creates a more structured and visually-appealing format. Most importantly, it aligns more closely to what you can find on other review sites like TripAdvisor which provide a rating for the various components of your stay like facilities, service, and food.

It also appears that each Flyertalk member's hotel reviews have been added into their profile, which will make it easy to read all of the reviews written by specific members.

What are your thoughts on some of the latest Flyertalk updates?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

#TBT Trip Report - Cathay Pacific First Class To Hong Kong and Macau To Ring In The New Year

While most people spend Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays at home with their families, we've typically used those times to travel. This year will be no different, with a short trip over Thanksgiving weekend to Europe planned.

Last year, we booked a last-minute trip to Hong Kong and Macau where we enjoyed a front-row seat to the amazing fireworks over Victoria Harbor from the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. The full trip report links are below, and the post below starts with our First Class flight aboard my favorite airline, Cathay Pacific.

We would have preferred to catch the night time flight but weren't able to get seats on the smaller 77W, so the daytime 747 it was. Like a kid on Christmas day I woke up excited to try out another new airline. Our flight was at 11:50am and we arrived at the airport around 9:30am. Check-in was very quick, and we headed over to the "A" side of the international terminal where I had actually never been before.

By now I know Terminal 3 and International Terminal G like the back of my hand, but today I actually had to read and follow the signs which took us up the escalator and down the hallway to the CX lounge. We were one of the first passengers to arrive and the lounge felt very new and fresh as I believe it was recently remodeled. There was a little bit of food set out at the buffet, as well as a noodle bar where I had a bowl of wonton noodles and dan dan noodles which were both just OK.

Cathay Pacific lounge at SFO

Buffet spread

Not much of a view from the lounge, just a single Korean Air plane

We headed toward the gate around T-60 so that we could stretch our legs and do a bit of shopping in the terminal before getting on the long flight. As we were leaving, the lounge agent said "please wait sir, your flight is not ready for boarding yet" which is a similar reaction that we've gotten when leaving the lounge prior to boarding commencing for our flight. I guess that most first/business class passengers have the mindset of wanting to be able to wait until the last possible minute to board, but for me I'm perfectly happy being one of the first people to board which gives me more time to relax and get settled in (of course much to my wife's chagrin).

We arrived at the gate and an announcement was made that *gasp* boarding would be delayed by 10 minutes. The number of sincere apologies for this delay, you would have thought that the plane was several hours delayed or even cancelled. Perhaps I'm just used to standard boarding procedures with domestic airlines, where only a 10 minute delay in boarding would be a blessing.

We headed on board and were escorted to our seats 1A and 1K. As much as I enjoy reading FT trip reports, I guess I will say that part of the excitement of entering a new cabin for the first time is diminished as I basically knew exactly what to expect for the flight, all the way from the seat to the IFE to the food and even to the amenity kit/pajamas. But that's not to say that I still very much enjoyed experiencing all this for the first time.

The cabin load was only 4/9 for the flight and even though the suites don't have doors, 1A and 1K felt extremely private, yet close enough to still feel like we were traveling together. During the boarding process, pajamas and amenity kits were distributed. Cathay just switched from the Shanghai Tang pajamas to the new Pye pajamas which were amazing. The material was very comfortable and felt like it was very high quality. As an added bonus, there is a slip inside the pajama bag for a free gift at any Pye store, and we picked ours up at the store in Hong Kong inside Pacific Place which was a nice boxed set of 5 pocket squares. The amenity kit is Zegna branded but the contents were a bit underwhelming.

General impressions about the first class product were that it felt warmer than Emirates, and the seat width was fantastic and was the first we've come across that matched the seat we had on Singapore. But the suite is definitely more low-tech than some of the other first class products we've tried. It would have been nicer to have a little bigger TV screen, and the IFE offerings were just ok, but may have been influenced by the fact that we had been traveling just the month before and had seen most of the movies already.

Being a day time flight, I expected to be up for most of the ride and actually ended up staying up the entire time as I just couldn't get myself to fall asleep. Part of it was the fact that the cabin was just too hot , but I think that's par for the course on most of the flights I've been on. Also, the mattress padding wasn't particularly comfortable.

Anxiously waiting at the gate to board

First class cabin

Seats 1A and 1K

Seat width matches that of SQ's

IFE screen

Seat and IFE controls

Storage compartment for headphones

Pye pajamas

Free gift, make sure not to throw away the slip

Zegna amenity kit for men

Trussardi amenity kit for women

Great views after take-off

View of the office, much happier where I'm currently sitting

Just like taking a road trip down Highway 1

Menus were passed out and we were very excited for the lunch as we've heard the food on CX is a highlight. We each started with caviar, then had the Chinese ginseng soup, scallop salad, and then for me back to the Asian menu for the chicken and abalone entree which was fantastic. The wife had the herb-crusted sea bass and really enjoyed it. Lastly, we finished up with cheese, dessert, and then tea and pralines.

Service throughout lunch was extremely attentive and efficient, with the pacing determined by each person, not at the slowest eater in the cabin's pace which can happen at times. The perfect example of this, was that since I'm an extremely fast eater, I finished my entire meal just as my wife was starting her entree. Normally, we will always be +/- 1 course from each other, which means that I'm often waiting around for long periods of time for my next course.


Lunch, snack, and dinner menu

Wine menu

Champagne and nuts to start


Chinese ginseng soup

Scallop salad

Sea bass

Chicken and abalone


Berries and cream dessert

Pralines and milk tea

After lunch I requested turn down service and got comfortable for the remainder of the flight. Since it was a daytime flight and I have trouble sleeping on planes in general, I pretty much gave up on trying to take a nap. A few hours later I had a snack of the hot pot rice which was really delicious, and ice cream.

I had burned through all of the movies I wanted to watch on the IFE system, but had come prepared with my own entertainment and watched a movie and a few episodes of Summer Heights High on my iPad. About 2 hours out from HKG, dinner was served which consisted of some fruit, and for my entree I had the pork chop which was again very delicious. I had some cake, pralines, and one last Hong Kong milk tea to finish.

Turn down service

Mid-flight snack

Hot pot rice

Cathay Delight, really good

Pork chop

Mango cake

Overall, we really enjoyed our first flight on Cathay. We both felt that the food was probably the best we have ever had on board a plane, and the service was very attentive but not quite as warm as what we had experienced on SQ or EK. The only negative was that the suite just felt so dated and low-tech compared to the others we've experienced recently, otherwise CX very well may have shot to the top of our lists. So for now, the king stay the king, and SQ still sits atop the totem pole for both of us.