The Forward Cabin reports on new gift card limits at CVS effective October 27.

  • No more than $2000 total per person per day
  • ID required for purchases of $300 or more

Purchasing Vanilla Reload cards with a credit card ended April 4. But CVS has still been a useful place to buy prepaid cards.

They’re placing new limits on the purchase of those cards, and it’s pretty clear they’re doing it because of concerns over fraud or federal financial reporting rules.

That’s why they’re hard-coding limits of $2000 per single transaction into registers for purchase of prepaid cards, and why the memo to store managers warns about ‘structuring’ or breaking up larger transactions into smaller one. The memo warns that structuring to avoid reporting requirements is illegal, which points to the concern or motivation for this change although it’s rather oddly places as there are no such reporting requirements for sub-$2000 transactions.

A little over a week ago I explained how to have your credit card company cover your expenses when your flight is delayed or cancelled. Thanks to your credit card roadside assistance is available, too.

Sherman asked for a rundown of credit card roadside assistance benefits.

Credit Card Roadside Assistance Benefits

You probably have free or reduced cost roadside assistance available to you, even if you don’t realize it.

Some insurance companies offer it. Car manufacturers do too, especially with luxury brands. Most importantly, credit card roadside assistance is very common.

Now, I have a AAA membership for the hotel discounts. Over the course of a year I definitely save much more than the membership cost by booking AAA rates. And I do pay for membership even though I could easily get away with not doing so.

If I didn’t have AAA membership, which would be my go-to for roadside assistance, I’d look in my wallet for credit card roadside assistance benefits.

What Each Card Network Offers

Keep reading to see what benefits your cards offer!

News and notes from around the interweb:

Pearls of Travel Wisdom suggests that the American and US Airways frequent flyer programs will be combined by year’s end. That’s 2014.

I believe this is wrong.

While they could always beat their timeline (although I’ve never known an IT project to finish under cost and ahead of schedule), public statements on integration are:

  • Frequent flyer programs combine first half of 2015 (my bet is end of first quarter, although that could be aggressive — at one point I understood they were looking at late 2015).
  • Single operating certificate in the second quarter of 2015 (target late April)
  • Passenger service system (single reservation system) late 2015.

The biggest challenges here are IT/data. I don’t think they actually know when the programs will get merged, they have targets but will do it when the IT is ready and working right.

On all of these things, sooner is better. American’s leadership wants the ‘merger synergies’ which means reducing duplication in systems and starting to see more and more benefits from combining operations in terms of revenue. Senior executive compensation is tied to achieving those.

But they don’t want to screw it all up the way United/Continental did (and US Airways/America West did).

When the merger first got the go-ahead, I said there were 10 things to expect. Those are generally holding up pretty well.

Here’s how the merger is doing overall.

Yesterday American Express came out with a 35% bonus on transfers to Virgin Atlantic. But Virgin Atlantic has the worst miles and hits you with fuel surcharges.

Today they came out with a 50% bonus on transfers to Starwood Preferred Guest. Starwood points are awesome, but you’re still only getting 1 Starwood point for every 2 Amex Membership Rewards points. There’s the occasional person that’ll find some value in this offer. But most should hold onto their Amex points.

There’s now also a 33% bonus on transfers to Hilton through November 30.

Oddly, I don’t see the bonus when using Google Chrome.

But it does come up for me using Internet Explorer.

In any case, especially after Hilton’s massive devaluation last year (and that was after program changes during the Great Recession that was ‘the worst devaluation in 17 years’), transfers to Hilton aren’t going to be great value.

That doesn’t mean you never transfer Amex points. The only way you’ll get meaningful value out of your points is to transfer them. There’s no value in collecting them for their own sake (the simple aesthetic of seeing a big balance).

But it’s worth remembering basic principles. Keep reading to learn how to get the most value out of your American Express points…

When Etihad’s Airbus A380 takes to the skies, it will include the most luxurious accomodation by far in commercial aviation — in addition to what looks to be an amazing first class, there will be a single three-room “residence.”

The residence offers:

a single or double occupancy 3 room cabin with double bed, 2 dining tables, lounge room, private shower suite (4 minutes of water) and dedicated butler. The Residence is 125 square feet.

The living room has a reclining sofa, dining tables, and a mini-bar as well as a 32 inch television. A door separates the living room from the bedroom and shower room. The bedroom has a 27 inch TV.

The Residence can be booked with miles.

Cranky Flier thinks the Residence is clever because it makes effective use of otherwise dead space.

[T]he A380 normally has a lot of wasted space at the front of the upper deck. There is a big staircase that goes downstairs at the front and that leaves awkward areas on each side that can’t be used for seating. Most airlines have failed to find anything great to put there.

Here’s what Qantas does with the space, quite common amongst carriers:

Etihad is known presently for their onboard chef concept in first class. This is something their CEO did back when he ran british midland as well. It’s hit or miss, the idea is one of the flight attendants is designated chef and has actual restaurant experience. Some are quite good, others aren’t, it’s a matter of personality, talent, and motivation.

With the Residence the idea is to take it a step farther, and offer the guest or guests of the Residence a butler trained by the Savoy hotel in London.

It’s more or less your own private flight attendant, not dissimilar when you’re the only person in a first class cabin (although in that case you have more than one flight attendant to yourself).

It’s not quite as exotic as it sounds, either, becoming a Residence butler entails two weeks of instruction and one week at the Savoy.

But the very first class of Etihad Residence butlers have graduated.

The 13 graduates hail from Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, Tunisia (one each) and the United Kingdom (three).

Etihad claims,

“The flying butlers will provide a level of service that no traveller has ever experienced in commercial aviation,” said Aubrey Tiedt, Etihad Airways’ vice president for guest services.

And the Savoy, under contract with Etihad, echoes the sentiment,

Sean Davoren, the Savoy’s head butler, praised Eitihad’s first crop of graduates, saying they combined “the discretion of a traditional English butler with the efficiency of a 21st-century personal assistant”

After three weeks. Really?

Other butlers are skeptical.

“There’s not a lot for a butler to do on an airplane,” said Robert Wennekes, who runs the Netherlands-based International Butler Academy and who has worked in the industry for 35 years.

“A butler is an executive manager of a household. I’m sure these stewards do a wonderful job, but it misses the point.”

I suspect like the Etihad onboard chefs, and like service in the Middle East generally, this will be good but somewhat hit-or-miss and likely over-promise and somewhat under-deliver. Not that I wouldn’t like to give the Residence a shot!

Dulles Passenger in Homemade Hazmat Suit Goes Viral (Get it? ‘Viral’)

    dulles passenger in a hazmat suit

A photo of a traveler in a homemade “hazmat” suit at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., is making the internet rounds as hundreds of real suits are selling out online.

The female passenger was spotted sitting down in an airline terminal and dressed in what appeared to be a full-length white onesie, topped with a blue rain poncho, blue latex gloves and a white face mask.

This doesn’t actually seem all that strange to me. Maybe I’ve just flown enough in Asia where it’s common to see a decent percentage of passengers wearing surgical masks.

Maybe we don’t need an ebola travel ban. We just need to to practice safe travel.

Which strangely reminds me of the old Capitol Steps tune, “Little Doc Koop” (to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coop).

It used to be I’d tumble with my lady loves
But now I only let them date me wearing rubber gloves
I used to give the girls whatever they’d ask
Now I only let them kiss me through a surgical mask
You gotta listen to Koop, you don’t know what they got
(Listen to Koop, you don’t know what they got)
The other evening with my honey I abruptly awoke
I worried I was sleeping with a thousand folk
I told her in the future when we snuggle up,
She has to wear a.. (suit of armor…)

After all, Ebola spreads by sapping and impurifying our precious bodily fluids.

Hilton HHonors has has updated the section of the Hilton terms and conditions where they describe their right to shut down your account.

  • They can shut down your account for violating Hilton terms and conditions or the intent of the program which isn’t spelled out in the rules.
  • The standard of proof is very low, “if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting, in its sole discretion” — Hilton decides if their own actions are reasonable, and only their perspective matters.

While the changes mostly look like one lawyer not liking the way another lawyer wrote some clauses, the major change is to clarify that when Hilton decides to shut down your account that you don’t just lose your points, you lose your elite benefits as well.

Which strikes me as funny — someone thought it was necessary to make it super explicit that if you are no longer an HHonors member, you’re not going to get free breakfast and internet provided to elite HHonors members anymore.

Usually those sorts of things get added for a reason, like someone actually making that argument, that ‘sure I sold awards or otherwise broke the rules of hte program, you shut down my account, but by my read of the terms you only have the right to take my points and not my status so I still want my upgrades, which the program doesn’t guarantee anyway, darnit!
Continue reading to see what Hilton has changed…

News and notes from around the interweb:

Last week I flew American’s 777-200 in first class to and from Buenos Aires.

It was my goodbye to the Flagship Suite. That’s because American’s new 777-300ERs have a new first class, and the American Airlines 777-200 business class is getting a retrofit with a top shelf product… but no first class.

American’s trusty old Flagship Suite will be a thing of the past.

That story and review is coming up, but for now what I’m interested in is the new 777-200 business class.

I love American’s new business class onboard the 777-300ER. That one was put together quickly, a version similar to what Cathay Pacific offers (and a generational upgrade on the seat US Airways pioneered).

The 777-200 business class seat is supposed to be even better. And now that the first redone aircraft has been delivered to American and placed into service, we get a look at it for the first time.

Until now this is all American had released:

We knew that coach gets power ports (standard plug ins) and USB ports, and business class seats get two of each.

And we knew that the 777-200 seat would have more space than the 777-300ER seat. There would be forward and rear-facing seats in business class, and that the rear seats would have more work space than forward-facing ones.

Now that the first plane is in service we have photos. Keep reading to see what the real plane looks like, now that it’s in service!

President Obama credit card declined!

@TomBruneDC reports that Obama’s credit card was declined at a restaurant in New York.

Obama: NY restaurant rejected his rarely used credit card when he was attending UN general assembly. “Fortunately, Michelle had hers.”

As regular readers know, the President has been known to carry a JP Morgan Select card.

The only way to get this card currently is to be a Palladium card cardholder. JP Morgan Select is issued for times when Palladium cardholders want to be ‘low profile’ and not use the heavy metal payment instrument with laser-engraved signature.

It used to be possible to apply for the JP Morgan Select card on its own, although this was exceedingly rare as it was an obscure product.

We do know that the President is a long-standing JP Morgan Chase client with assets sufficient for a JP Morgan Private Client relationship (indepedently of his status for which, no doubt, the bank would make an exception if he didn’t).

One benefit of the Palladium card, I’ve heard, is that it’s never supposed to be declined during normal use.

But since Chase isn’t commenting on whether the President’s data was compromised in the recent security breach at the bank. Perhaps the data breach, combined with infrequent use, as well as the fact that Obama was using the card away from ‘home’, led to the security alert on his account.

The President was able to laugh about it, and suggested it was ‘probably because he doesn’t use it enough’.

He presumably received an email or text from the bank asking him to confirm the charge, but responding to a Chase fraud alert was – quite reasonably – probably not at the top of his priorities list (Ebola and all…). I’m not sure I’d want to be the Chase security specialist who failed to own making sure the President’s card was always usable, however. Since I can imagine they wouldn’t want to lose his business to Citibank, US Bank, Bank of America, or American Express.

(HT: @p_brady)

American continues to offer ‘Flagship Lounges’ or first class lounges in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York JFK, at London Heathrow.

There are no longer Flagship Lounges in Dallas or Miami. The Dallas lounge still has the dedicated room, just walk into the Admirals Club in the A terminal and when you get upstairs and come out of the elevator you are facing the desk with reservations agents. Turn completely around, because right behind you is the room that used to be the Flagship Lounge. Almost no one is ever in it, it has separate restrooms, it’s great for quiet and privacy even when the rest of the lounge is busy. In Miami the Flagship Lounge closed, and didn’t re-open.

My favorite flagship lounge is Los Angeles, I think the food offerings are pretty good and you frequently see Hollywood celebrities (you see them in the Admirals Club sometimes, too).

I like Chicago because of the staff there. Certain Admirals Clubs — especially Washington National and Austin — are staffed with really phenomenal people. Chicago is as well, with agents who welcome you and take great care of your reservation when things go wrong.

Heathrow is well-provisioned, but it’s also frequently super-busy, because American gives Flagship Lounge access to Executive Platinum (100,000 mile flyer) members when flying internationally. And all American Executive Platinums are flying internationally when they’re at Heathrow.

The one I like the least is JFK. It’s one large room that gets busy before the transatlantic and evening South America departures. The staff isn’t nearly as good as in Chicago. And the food isn’t as good as Los Angeles.

Keep reading for the low-down on American’s first class Flagship Lounges, and a detailed look into the one at JFK…

Back in June, Chris McGinnis offered 5 smart questions to ask at check-in. These were mostly questions about your room.

It was advice to avoid connecting rooms (noise) and ADA rooms (messy showers), and also to make sure your frequent guest number is on file.

All good, basic stuff, but you can do better. You can learn to ask for what you want. You won’t always get it, but it’s worth asking these five questions if you want to improve your stay.
Keep reading to learn how to get the best room, the best service, and the best advice the next time you check into a hotel!

On Tuesday a Delta regional jet taking off from Grand Rapids and bound for Cincinnati hit a coyote.

delta flight hit coyote

The plane apparently escaped damage. Which means residents of Grand Rapids will continue to experience the comforts of the 50 seat regional jet.

Now, I’m not sure how I missed this story for a couple of days. I was probably too busy on hold with Cadillac trying to schedule a test drive.

Sadly, under Delta’s new revenue-based frequent flyer program next year, the coyote wouldn’t even have earned miles for the flight, since he wouldn’t have paid a fare.

Of course there is of course only one possible reaction to this whole incident. And the commenters on the news story nailed it:

    delta flight hit coyote

Next up: A United regional jet flight is cancelled because the co-pilot had ants in his pants…?

(HT: Milepoint to the story that the Delta flight hit coyote – priceless.)

I’m not an epidemiologist and I have no greater understanding about the spread of ebola than what I’ve read from others.

So I am limiting the scope of my commentary on the spread of the disease and travel. (Relatedly, I found this Wired piece from August on the extent to which disease spreads on planes interesting.)

One of the hot topics under discussion is the idea of an ebola travel ban, stopping anyone ‘from West Africa’ from entering the United States. I’ve seen lots of discussion of this in my Facebook feed, including a couple of links to a petition with over 35,000 signatures.

Have the FAA ban all incoming and outgoing flights to ebola-stricken countries until the ebola outbreak is contained

While there are certainly capabilities to limit entry into the United States by certain persons, it strikes me that the whole idea is far more complicated than broadly understood or discussed.

  • There’s no such thing, for instance, as a Monrovia – New York flight. There are very limited flights from West and Central Africa direct to the U.S. (these include the six times weekly United Lagos-Houston flight and the three times weekly Arik Air Lagos – New York JFK flight, Delta’s Dakar – New York JFK and Accra – JFK flights and South African’s Dakar – Washington Dulles flight). Most travel from the affected region would be via Europe..
  • So we’re not just banning a certain set of flights, a policy would presumably be banning specific passengers enroute from Europe. And that’s harder.

You can stop people on entry into the U.S. But if they are infected with Ebola, they may have infected many others on the flights they took to the U.S. So the policy would keep them out, but not the people they infected.

You can stop people from boarding flights into the U.S. in the first place, but since it’s specific people on specific flights from Europe, this gets harder to do than it might seem at first blush.

The Department of Homeland Security generally knows the flight plans of each arriving passenger. They know everyone on an arriving aircraft, since airlines flying to the US have to provide their manifests in advance.

And DHS then cross-references against their PNR (reservation) database. So if passengers are traveling to the US on a single ticket, the US government knows where they have come from. It should be possible to decide that passengers on an itinerary originating in West Africa are ineligible for entry to the U.S, and thus should be denied boarding. And that passengers should not be permitted to purchase itineraries to the U.S. originating in West Africa going forward. (Existing tickets would have to be refunded.)

If a passenger, though, purchased a ticket say Monrovia – Brussels, and then a separate ticket Brussels to Washington DC, New York, or Chicago then the US government may not to know that the passenger originated in Liberia.

Another approach would be to bar passengers with West African passports from entering the U.S. But that could include people who haven’t been in Africa for months or longer. In other words, they would be banning Europe-originating passengers.

And it would not help keep out, say, Europeans who have been in West Africa.

It seems there are travel limitations that the US could put in place, but it is not obvious that the US could keep all of those people it intends to avoid entering into the US from doing so, and such a policy would likely keep out people who such an approach doesn’t intend to bar.

How would a West Africa travel ban even work?

Update: I wrote this post yesterday morning but failed to hit publish. Minutes after I had it go live today, I learned that the German government has apparently already reversed this very strange decision. So it looks like all is well, for now, but there’s still no public explanation for this very strange story.

In what has to be one of the strangest legal decisions in aviation that I’ve seen, German authorities have decided Etihad and airberlin have to cease codeshares. No explanation is given for the decision.

The German regulator has to re-approve codesharing agreements twice each year, with the filing of summer and winter schedules. The Etihad-airberlin relationship has been consistently approved (six times) over the past three years until now.

airberlin struggled on its own, and attracted an investment from Etihad as part of the Abu Dhabi-based carrier’s efforts to grow into a global player from its base in the capital of the UAE.

Etihad has even been willing to make investments worse than La Compagnie in order to further this end. They’re investing in Alitalia, after all.

The German government, it seems, would like to strike a blow to the heart of the country’s number two airline.

According to Prock-Schauer, the decision affects about 46,000 bookings. However, all passengers will be transported as planned.

Airberlin, which will absorb most of the financial impact, said it will use all legal steps to fight against the LBA decision.

…Airberlin reportedly generates a turnover of €100 million ($127 million) per year with codeshare flights (with all partner carriers), according to several media outlets.

It will be extremely hard for air berlin to be an anchor in the new Etihad-based airline alliance without codeshares.

And it will be a struggle for the airline without their Etihad codeshare.

My prediction — sans any special expertise in German law or politics — is this capricious decision gets overturned.

News and notes from around the interweb:

Yesterday Starwood unveiled a bunch of website revamps and improvements. I’ve already written about changes to the SPG Moments page which lets you buy or bid on experiences with your points.

Another thing that has changes is the launch of SPG Preferences.

Six weeks ago I broke that this was coming. Here’s how I described it then,

Chris told me that they’re making “significant investment in suite night awards.. Over the next few months more to share.”

He also noted that “rolling out in October is ‘SPG Preferences’

Members will be able to select their core preferences either globally in their account, or varying for each individual stay (recognizing that needs can change by trip).

Starwood is adding upgrade preferences so that members can specify that perhaps they want the first available room as quickly as possible, or maybe what’s more important is view or room size.

Come mid-October they’re going to start capturing this information for every Platinum member.

With the website update, they’ve now launched SPG Preferences. Continue reading to see how Starwood will let you customize your next stay!

American Express Membership Rewards is offering a 50% bonus for transferring points to Starwood through November 30.

Amex points normally transfer 3:1. In other words, 1000 Amex points become just 333 Starwood points.

With this offer the transfer rate is 2:1. So 1000 Amex points transfer to 500 Starwood points.

Better, but not tempting to me. For some though it opens up avenues for transfers beyond Starwood into airline partners that are not linked to American Express Membership Rewards.

40,000 American Express points will transfer to 20,000 Starwood points with this bonus. From there, Starwood points transfer to 25,000 miles with most of their airline partners.

That means you can transfer 40,000 Amex points into 25,000 miles with airlines such as:

There’s devaluation involved in this process, I’m not doing it, but it will be useful for some.

Instead, here are the best uses for American Express Membership Rewards points.

Thailand’s military coup back in May led to quite a bit of concern and uncertainty for tourists. Indeed, tourism is down year-over-year.

My own take at the time was that coups are fairly common in Thailand, as are political protests, and historically outsiders have been quite safe. I will be in Bangkok shortly.

The current Thai government sees martial law as something that should benefit tourism! Come visit our temples, our spas, and come see martial law!

Officials in Thailand say they are preparing to add martial law to a list of tourist attractions, reports suggest. This follows calls by local tourism groups which insist that martial law needs to be lifted in order to halt the decline in the number of visitors to the country.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is preparing a campaign called 24 Hours Enjoy Thailand to attract foreigners to visit the country under martial law, says TAT governor Thawatchai Arunyik. According to the official, martial law actually benefits tourism because it ensures that foreigners are safe round-the-clock, Khao Sod newspaper reports.

“We want the tourists to be confident that they can travel in Thailand both day and night with safety at all times,” Thawatchai Arunyik said, adding that he hopes to promote this concept by creating a “buzz” on social media.

(HT: Michael W. Travels)

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