Monthly Archives: October 2009

Top 5 Friday: Top 5 Things I’ll Miss About Skyteam

I’ve gotten a bit of grief from yesterday’s post where I stuck up for Skyteam on the day that Continental moved over to Star.  Let me be clearer:  moving to Star is a GREAT move for Continental flyers in just about every way.  My point was that it’s not like Skyteam was horrible – I’m sure we all took perfectly nice free trips while Continental was a member.  The end.

To finish up this whole line of discussion, I bring you the Top 5 Things I’ll Miss about Skyteam:

1) Prior to the Delta merger, even Silver Elites on Continental were nearly always upgraded when flying Northwest.  Northwest flew 757s with 24 first class seats all over the place, and if you had status you were going to be upgraded into one of those seats.  Which, at least in the past 2 years, is exactly the opposite experience Silver Elites had when flying Continental.

2) Spending time in Detroit’s airport, which is arguably the best airport in the country.  Indoor monorail?  Awesome.  It’s all the more amazing that it replaced arguably the worst airport in the country.

3) Little ceramic houses with booze in them that KLM gives you in business class.

4) The Northwest DC-9s.  Cramped seating?  Sure.  But quiet and you were flying a giant hunk of history.

5) Never, ever, ever, ever, ever seeing a business class seat available to Europe on Delta.  Oh wait, I won’t miss that.

Continental Says Goodbye to Skyteam…I’m Going to Stick Up for Skyteam for a Moment

Continental ended their association with Skyteam and headed on over to the greener pastures of Star Alliance yesterday.  It seems that most folks see this as a positive move for travelers (Gary Leff at View from the Wing outlines the reasons, with first class options, lounge access and choice of carriers leading the way).  He’s right – those are all good things.  As is the ability to book many Star carriers on Continental’s website.  That’s a great thing.  Well done all around.

But I’ve read quite a bit of Skyteam bashing (Gary, again) and I feel a slight twitch where I need to defend Skyteam for a bit.  Was it the best alliance out there?  No.  Did they have a large array of world class carriers associated?  No.  Did Continental and Delta have miserable – truly miserable – reward availability, especially in business?  Yes.  That all said, I was never unable to book a reward ticket where I wanted to go.  Air France, Alitalia, and KLM (to an extent) all had pretty good availability, even in business class.  Gary loves (understandably) first class awards to Asia and the insane pampering that goes with that.  Star is great for that with first class awards available on a number of top airlines to Asia.  But for many of us (especially with twin 3 year olds), a 10-day trip to Asia isn’t in the cards.  I cared more about quick trips to Latin America, or a long weekend in Europe.  And Skyteam served that need for me, with a great choice of flights and availability.

Don’t get me wrong, Star will be great…but Skyteam wasn’t nearly as bad as we think.

Does American Airlines’ BlackAtlas.com Feel a Bit, uh, I Don’t Know…Something?

A couple of weeks ago American Airlines launched BlackAtlas.com, a website aimed at African American travelers.  I did a radio interview yesterday about the site, and as I’ve thought more about it I’ve become increasingly torn on whether this is a smart idea.  Magazines targeting specific demographics have existed for years with no fallout, but this is American’s second try at a website aimed at African Americans and each has had its critics.  (Others complained about their somewhat patronizing website aimed at women travelers).  Check out the site.  Something just feels somewhat off.  Is the section helping you find barbershops and beauty salons in a given city helpful, culturally correct, or just a bit stereotypical?  While on the other end of the spectrum, much of the travel content is not at all aimed at a specific group of travelers.  If that’s the way to go, why does this site exist at all?

I’m not Black, so it’s entirely possible I’m missing the point.  But when AA launches JewishAtlas.com and offers sections on bagels & lox, how to save money, and where to find an Accountant in Rome, something will seem a bit off to me.

I appreciate the idea of a targeted, well-written site aimed at a specific group of travelers.  That’s fine.  But something about this one just makes me feel slightly icky.

Baby Born on AirAsia Flight Given Free Flights for Life (And His Mom, Too)

In a clever PR move, AirAsia has given free flights for life to a mother who gave birth on a flight last week in Malaysia (or above Malaysia, I guess).  The offer also extended to the baby who was born in mid-air.  Mother and baby are doing fine after a doctor on board helped with the delivery.

One Final Note (I Promise) on Easter Island: Why We Collect Frequent Flyer Miles

My final thought on the whole Easter Island trip:  Polynesians arrived on the island more than a thousand years ago likely by paddling 2,000 miles on a double-hulled canoe.  Air service to the island did not begin until the late 1960s — yes, until 40 years ago the only way to get to this remote dot was via ship.

By opening a couple of credit cards I accumulated enough miles to get a free flight there.  Think about how insane that is:  For all of human history until just a few years ago, you couldn’t even get to the place without suffering unspeakable misery on a ship hoping you could navigate your way to a 100 square mile speck in the Pacific Ocean.  Now I literally did nothing and could get there in a few hours for free.

Outside of the invention of the aircraft itself, have frequent flyer miles done more than anything else to shrink the size of the world?  We take for granted nowadays that we can fill out a credit card application and get just about enough miles to fly to Hawaii for free.  Then people complain that all of the dates they want aren’t available.

Think about that:  you can fly just about anywhere in the world you want for free.  And yet we hear (and read) about people complaining about the middle seat.  Or that the food wasn’t great.  Or that the availability wasn’t quite what they wanted.  Are we all crazy?  This is a revolution.  Anyone with half a brain can gather enough frequent flyer miles (without actually even flying anywhere) in a couple of months (if that long) to get a free ticket anywhere in the world.  Stop for a second.  You can go anywhere.  In.  The.  World.  For.  Free.

We are the first generation to experience the world shrinking like that.  Everywhere was far away until the airline alliances kicked in over the past 20 years.  Now nowhere is far.  Everywhere is right out the back door, and nowhere costs anything.  And we’ve gotten so spoiled about it that so many of us, upon returning from a free trip to heaven knows where, will mention only that the seating was a bit cramped and the pre-flight drink not quite up to snuff.

All of us who spend time accumulating miles really need to take a step back once in a while and remember that we are the beneficiaries of a system that has made it possible to travel anywhere in the world we want without paying.  Does this give the airlines a free pass?  Of course not.  But the idea that the entire world is accessible to the average person outweighs any indignity suffered at the hands of an airline.  I, for one, know that I need to smack myself in the ass once in a while and remind myself that I have it pretty good.

Some Help Planning a Trip to Easter Island…For How Many Days Should You Go?

When I was planning the Easter Island trip I found that the resources online were, shall I say, less than completely useful. Before I left I shared tips about how to plan a trip there using miles. Today I thought I’d pass along some additional logistical odds and ends.

The only flight gateways to Easter Island are Tahiti (which I didn’t fly through) and Santiago (which I did). Santiago – Easter Island is a domestic flight, so you will clear customs after landing in Santiago. The bad news for business class passengers is that the lounge in Santiago is accessible for passengers departing on international flights. What’s that mean? It means that you won’t be getting a shower when you land in Santiago.

The Santiago airport has an international and domestic wing. The Easter Island flights are boarded at a gate that straddles both the international and domestic terminals.

There is no lounge at Easter Island either, but we did see wild horses playing in the parking lot.

The big question (other than whether you should bother going) is for how many days you should go. Let’s start with that one. If you’re a huge history buff, you could spend 5-7 days on the island (if not more, frankly). There are hundreds of Moai (the statues) all over the island, and, again, if you are into the history (which, admittedly, is fascinating) you will have ample opportunity to view many of the important sites strewn about the island.

If you have a mild interest in history, you will be able to accomplish what you’d like in a 3-night trip. This will present you with plenty of time to see key sites and allow for some important hanging around time. 3 nights would probably have sufficed for us (Susan may say that 0 nights would have sufficed and that 5 nights in St. Bart’s would have been better. Neither answer is wrong).

What you give up in 3 nights (rather than a 5-7 night trip) is getting into the rhythm of the place. It’s a Polynesian island and offers a laidback, friendly attitude that can be experienced with a beer watching the waves roll in in town. It is not, however, Hawaii. Or Tahiti. There are two sandy beaches. Only two. And they are not exactly Waikiki. Which was fine for me – no one else was there, and we were surrounded by the ubiquitous wild horses, and I found it to be relaxing and different. My wife didn’t really see it that way. You (or your spouse) may feel similarly.

The big question is really whether you would be happy going at all: There seem to be three camps:

1) It’s just a bunch of statues. Please don’t make me fly that far for a bunch of statues.

2) It’s a bunch of statues, but I’d like to see them because they are part of the world’s most interesting history. 3-nights will suffice.

3) It’s one of the world’s great archeological discoveries and when you combine that with an off-the-beaten path locale, you could get lost there easily for a week.

None of those, obviously, is correct (or incorrect). To be frank, I was able to appreciate the place and the speed of it more than my wife. I was moved by the idea that this civilization spent an unspeakable amount of time and effort to carve these statues using only the most primitive of means. That’s fine (well, not exactly fine as this was supposed to be a trip for her birthday), but I’m guessing that is a common reaction – one of the two of you may feel much differently about it than the other person. That can be, as my wife says, a chafe, as you’ve flown way the hell out there. Which is why I make this recommendation: Combine it either with a trip to Patagonia or a trip to Tahiti. Most of the people at the hotel had combined it with a trip to one of those places (we were more jealous of the folks going to Tahiti). LAN flights from Santiago continue on to Tahiti several days a week, making the stopover quite easy.

Our trip was sidelined a bit by absolutely miserable weather. Biblical rains washed us out the first few days and we felt a bit trapped. Guidebooks generally suggest that October is among the best times to visit. This was probably true several years ago. Because of changing weather patterns October, which used to be warm and dry, is now part of the rainy season. That’s a bummer. Going from site to site would be wonderful in the 80-degree climes found in December – February. The chilly, rainy weather we found (and which locals told us has now become normal during that time of year) is not conducive to sightseeting (to be fair, no vacation benefits from several days of rain).

The Explora (which is where we stayed thanks to the TweetYourTrip.com contest we won) is insanely expensive ($1500/night) but the only very nice option on the island. The Hotel Tauraa and Hotel Otai are apparently OK 2-3 star choices, but if “somewhat rustic” is not your thing, the Explora is your only option. And you’ll be shelling out decent bucks for it.

As Susan said to me on the last day, when (like us) you are trying to go to some more interesting vacation spots, not every one is going to be a winner. I felt Easter Island was a risk worth taking. In the end, I’m not 100% sure. But before you go, think about what’s important to you in a vacation – it’s a very long trip to find yourself disappointed.

How to Get to Easter Island Using Frequent Flyer Miles (Since I’m Leaving for Easter Island Today)

The OTR is headed to Easter Island for a few days (I’ll be back posting again next Thursday, most likely) thanks to frequent flyer miles and my somehow winning Voyage.Tv’s TweetYourTrip contest.  While doing some research about how to get to Easter Island using frequent flyer miles, I found that there wasn’t a particularly useful roundup of how to do that.  I’ll provide that now:

LAN (part of oneworld) is the only airline that flies to Easter Island, and the schedule varies quite widely based on seasons – though you can only fly there via Santiago, Chile, or Tahiti.  There are a handful of months (October is one) where you can make the connection from New York without having to spend a day in Santiago.  For those of us in the US, American would be the most obvious choice to use miles, but they consider Easter Island to be part of the South Pacific – so you would have to fly via Tahiti.  Not really an option from the East Coast (especially with Air Tahiti Nui’s nonstop from New York no longer flying).

Fret not:  you have several other options:

– Use your AAdvantage points for the flight to Santiago (40k miles offpeak), then book the 50,000 kilometer reward from Santiago to Easter Island using points you’ve transfered into LAN from Starwood.  Remember – Starwood points transfer at 1-to-2, so 20k Starwood points gets you 50,000 kilometers.

– Or, even better if you’re going with two people, British Airways only requires 20,000 miles for the Santiago – Easter Island flight.  Transfer 35,000 SPG points into BA and you’ve got two roundtrip tickets.  40k AA miles + 17,500 SPG points is a pretty good deal, considering it’s 16 hours flying time.

– Or you can suck it up and pay 100k AA miles and fly on LAN’s apparently great premium business to Santiago.  My wife doesn’t do 17 hours in coach anymore.

– Thanks to TweetYourTrip we’ll be staying at the Explora Rapa Nui.  Trust me, I would not pay $1,600/night on my own.  I’ll let you know if it’s worth it.

In any case, we’ll be back Wednesday.  Looking online there really was a lack of resources out there about how to plan this trip so if any of you have questions about Easter Island, I’ll be more than happy to answer & post here.

A Quick Note about United Switching to a Continental-Like Unlimited Domestic Upgrade Scheme

You may have heard that United is moving from its somewhat confusing current upgrade format for Elites to a Continental-like unlimited domestic upgrade scheme.  If you haven’t heard it, shoot on over to View from the Wing or One Mile at a Time for all the details.  Enjoy.

I just wanted to note (as they have as well) that for who knows what reason United has chosen to exclude its transcon P.S. service from this plan.  If you want to upgrade on those flights you’ll have to break out the miles and the wallet for the co-pay, baby.  If unlimited upgrades are supposed to be a benefit for Elites, why would you exclude the (supposed) premier domestic service from that benefit?  I don’t want to hear about not wanting to fill the front cabin with upgrades.  They sell lots of seats up front on those routes.  Every frequent flyer feels that each time an airline adds something, they take something away.  This is another case of petty restrictions that annoy the crap out of loyal travelers.

If I Only Had 1 Tip About Using Miles to Book a Trip…

The OTR is heading off to Easter Island later this week (I’ll have more about it on Thursday), but I thought I’d pass along what I consider to be the most important tip about booking a trip using frequent flyer miles (especially in business or first):

You have to keep checking.  Over.  And.  Over.  I know.  That’s annoying.  But having booked a decent number of premium class trips using miles, I’ve seen it in nearly every instance:  the seats I wanted weren’t available when I first wanted to book the trip, but then they open up.  In the case of our trip on Thursday, they opened up this morning.  Why did I know that?  Because I check three times a day.  For me, getting something like $10,000 worth of airline tickets for free is worth 10 minutes of my time each day.  If it’s not, Gary Leff at View from the Wing offers a great service for about $150 where he’ll do all this for you.  And he knows this better than anyone (OK, he and Lucky at One Mile at a Time know this stuff better than anyone).  But you can also do it yourself.  Airlines change award inventory throughout the day, so if you really want that seat, you have to keep checking.

Along those lines:  I recommend booking the tickets in coach if it’s available and premium awards are not.  In most (all?) cases you can move up to business class if the seats become available without incurring a change fee.  I can’t think of a time where I’ve booked a couple of months out without eventually being able to move into a premium seat as it got closer to the travel date.  Seats open up all the time.

Also, rather than calling and spending a year on the phone with the agent for an international reward ticket (checking all of those combinations – and finding a helpful agent – could take hours):  For a OneWorld award, sign up for Qantas’ frequent flyer program (it’s free if you live in the U.S.).  It will give you access to their online reward booking system which shows OneWorld inventory.  For Star, sign up for ANA’s frequent flyer program for access to their alliance’s inventory.  I’ve found SkyTeam to be more hit or miss (Northwest’s site has generally been pretty good, but not perfect – if someone has a better suggestion let me know).

I’ll more details on Thursday, but remember:  don’t give up on that free ticket yet.  Keep checking.  And checking.

Top 5 Friday: Airlines I’ve Been Surprised to Learn Fly (or Flew) 747s

I was pleased with the response from last Friday’s Top 5 747 routes Delta flew that made no sense.  Along those lines I bring you the Top 5 Airlines I’ve been surprised to learn Fly (or Flew) 747s:

– Surinam Airways.  Because of the distance from Surinam back to Amsterdam there was probably a point at which a 747 made sense.  Nah.  Check out the awesome circa-1973 font, though, on the livery.

– Cameroon Airlines.  The vaguely Indian, vaguely psychedelic font on their livery is even better than that on Surinam Airways.  Seriously, why did Cameroon need 747s?

– Air Madagascar.  Sure, it’s an island thousands of miles from anywhere.  Again, great font.

– Ernest Angley Ministries.  When I lived in Cleveland Ernest Angley used to have an absolutely awesome televangelist show from his home base in Akron.  Badly lip-synching singers were the cherry on the sundae of mangled scripture and a terrible toupee.  But for some reason he flies this awesome 747-SP.  Even God is impressed.

– Air Gabon.  Quite a disappointing font for an airline that has no reason to own a 747.