1500 Bonus Gold Passport Points at Avia, Hotel Sierra, and Summerfield Suites

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Via Loyalty Traveler, Hyatt is offering 1500 bonus points per stay at AVIA, Hotel Sierra and Summerfield Suites through January 8 with offer code 1500GP.

The code doesn’t generate a higher rate and Ric reports that it works with AAA and AARP rates as well.

Avia Napa is on my list, now that Hyatt has acquired the chain, I’m just not sure I’ll make it out there by January 8 (though I do need to do a few American mileage runs in the coming weeks).

30,000 Point Signup Bonus for Starwood American Express

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

There’s a new short-term offer for the Starwood American Express card, 10,000 points after first purchase and 20,000 more points after spending $5000 on the card within six months, no fee the first year.

The offer is expected to be available through December 12, both for the personal card and for the small business card. (These links do not provide any referral credit to me.)

30,000 point offers have been around a couple of times in the past, these are better than the otherwise-best offer of 25,000 points.

I don’t view this as your one shot at a 30,000 point bonus, and I’m not excited about the card for the bonus alone, but these are very good solid cards and if you’re going to apply for them best to do so when there’s a strong offer like this one.

(HT: Million Mile Secrets)

A US Airways Takeover of American Would Make No Sense

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

CrankyFlier reviews the American Airlines bankruptcy and says that the dream result would be US Airways taking over the airline. That makes no sense.

Now, the only argument in favor I can imagine is that it would mean a new management team, and the theory that they can’t make worse decisions than American has over the past decade — beginning with acquiring TWA out of a prepackaged bankruptcy. TWA failed because (1) they paid lower than average wages but still had higher than average labor costs due to crazy onerous work rules, like maintaining a 747 maintenance base when they no longer operated 747s, and (2) being hubbed in St. Louis they had virtually no high revenue origination/destination traffic.

American has had above average costs, in part because they didn’t go through bankruptcy while other major carriers have, but that was management’s decision believing that they could come to agreements with their labor unions without a strategic bankruptcy — something they utterly failed at. And the wasted years in the meantime have meant billions in losses. And poisoned labor relations, with American’s pilots now expecting to eat huge pension losses and flight attendants (who have gotten less media attention) likely to take a major hit to compensation.

But it isn’t just about the labor costs, as Scott McCartney pointed out yesterday, there’s a bigger revenue gap than there is cost gap between American and its rivals.

Delta Air Lines Inc. collected 12% more revenue than American for every seat flown a mile in the third quarter this year. And yet it cost Delta 6% less to fly each seat one mile. (A seat mile, one seat flown one mile, is the standard way to compare unit revenue and costs in the airline industry.)

It’s a similar story when you compare American to United, its other giant U.S. airline competitor. United’s unit costs were lower than American’s, and United’s unit revenue was higher per seat-mile flown. And so it’s little surprise that Delta earned $429 million in the last quarter and United earned $653 million, while American, in the period that includes much of the busy summer-travel season, suffered $162 million in net losses.

American is bleeding especially on its Chicago transatlantics, they’ve killed off the Brussels flight already but London is killing them. Yields have been so low that they wind up pulling connecting traffic out of Los Angeles instead of those passengers flying direct.

Now, what does all of this mean for US Airways?

One of the biggest operational challenges that US Airways has is poisonous labor relations. The America West / US Airways integration hasn’t gone forward yet, even though the pilots were ostensibly represented by the same union. The East Coast pilots lost under their union procedures and arbitration, so since they were the larger group went out and formed a new union whose primary purpose was sticking it to the West Coast pilots (rather than the company!). Meanwhile, there have been recent campaigns against the airline that has had the carrier seeking court injunctions and their own workers.

US Airways hardly has the formula for labor piece, it’s inconceivably that they could smoothly integrate their pilots in with American’s.

Meanwhile, the route networks are hardly complementary. One of the very first lessons I learned years ago is that you don’t make money overflying your own hubs. American is undercutting its Los Angeles – London flights with Los Angeles – Chicago – London, other carriers can pull it off but American doesn’t seem able to.

What US Airways and American would have is a route map that makes no sense. There’s little logic in maintaining East-West service out of both Los Angeles and Phoenix. Meanwhile, neither carrier has a strong presence in the Northwest. American has a huge operation at New York JFK, while US Airways hubs in Philadelphia. I don’t know American’s New York numbers, perhaps they concede to Delta and retrench to Philly?

An American/US Airways combination would wind up with hubs and focus cities all up and down the East Coast, New York-Philadelphia-Washington National-Charlotte-Miami.

About the only places where there’s not meaningful overlap are Chicago and Dallas — both American cities, where a US Airways combination adds nothing to the mix.

It’s not clear how this combination would solve the route and revenue issues, or the labor issues. About the only scenario I can see is on the cost side where American quickly downsizes its fleet and operates with US Airways’ newer planes and with future orders in order to gain fuel efficiency. The pilots still hate it (and relations get worse as a downsized carrier means fewer flying opportunities spread across a fixed number of pilots). And then they axe New York or Philly, axe Phoenix or Los Angeles, and figure out whether Charlotte continues to make sense sandwiched in between DCA and Miami.

US Airways gets mention because it’s about the only player left, and because its management seems to like mergers (they kept trying unsuccessfully with United, after having come over from America West).

Airline mergers rarely bear the sort of fruit that’s promised. And this one doesn’t even seem as promising as usual. There’s real work to be done at American, and they need to do that real work, not just look to make it someone else’s problem.

25,000 Delta Miles for $500 Skymall Spend Offer Expected First Week of December

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

DeltaPoints describes how he used the last Skymall offer of 25,000 Delta miles for a purchase of $500 or more in order to generate 250,000 miles for a net cost of $700 by buying items and then reselling them on eBay.

I found that they sold SAMSUNG GALAXY TAB 10.1′s for $499.99. I also got a 9v battery for 99 cents. I then resold all 10 of the TAB’s on eBay in one day. My cost to sell them including my eBay, Paypal and s&h fee’s to get them out the door was a loss of $70 per order. Thus, for $700 I earned 250,000 skymiles plus 10,000 Capital One points for the $5000 purchase cost (10×500).

Now, the price of tablets is coming down and I don’t see recapturing $430+shipping per Samsung tablet in the future.

But it’s worth coming up with the most re-sellable items on Skymall, because it’s expected that the offer will return during the first week of December.

Skymall even has support set up for it, they’ll accept email questions at miles -at- skymall.com. They’ve suggested that coupon codes will invalidate the offer, but that they will accept price matches from major retailers so while many of their prices are often above-market those prices can be brought down with a little bit of effort.

Ready… Set… Wait a few days for the offer to come out.

American Three Million Miler!

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

A couple of weeks ago I reminded that American’s lifetime elite status recognition program was changing — going from counting all miles earned in the program to counting only flight miles (except that folks who get the pricey Citi Executive Mastercard before December 1 would have spend from that card count towards lifetime status for at least a year).

I said at the time that I expected to end the month with 2,998,000 lifetime miles in the AAdvantage program. I had earned lifetime Gold at one million miles in 2006, lifetime Platinum at two million miles in 2010, and a bit over a year and a half later was on the cusp of 3 million lifetime miles which only means 4 additional confirmed systemwide upgrades valid from any fare… plus the distinction of course of being a 3 million rather than two million miler :)

That guess meant that I would pass the 3 million mark either on my flight to Dallas for the start of the oneworld Mega DO in January or on the oneworld Megao DO charter itself. And waiting until next year would mean that those systemwide upgrades would be valid a year longer than if I had crossed the threshold in 2011.

Instead, though, I decided to just be done with it and popped a few Starpoints into my account, which posted overnight. Since I just received my registration for the Executive Platinum challenge as part of the oneworld Mega DO, where I only have to fly 20,000 miles on American by mid-January in order to qualify, I have the potential for plenty more confirmed upgrades in my future. I wasn’t too worried about the expiration date on these upgrades.

Honestly, I’m just sharing my happiness at the lifetime achievement, though I sure wish that 3 million came with a bump in status over 2 million. Alas…

Top Off Your Elite Qualifying Miles Without Flying

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

It’s getting close to the end of the year and it’s time to take a hard look at your status miles year-to-date, add up the miles from all remaining travel through the end of the year, and figure out if you’re going to be a few miles short of that next elite level.

The traditional way to make up the difference in miles is to book a mileage run (flying just for the sake of the miles).

And while that’s incremental revenue for the airline, it’s also crowding the front cabin (from domestic upgrades) by folks who don’t need to be in the air, it’s usually done at the cheapest prices, and flying is no longer the primary income stream for the mileage programs themselves — other revenue sources like selling miles to credit cards and partners make up a significant part of the business. So airlines have moved in the direction of offering status miles, especially at the end of the year, for activities other than flying.

US Airways
A few years ago, US Airways ran a promotion where miles earned via their shopping portal counted towards elite status at the end of the year. They were the pioneers of offering non-flying ways to earn status. And in fact with US Airways there’s the option to do a straight buy-up for the miles or segments you need.

US Airways offered up to 10,000 status miles as part of their Grand Slam promotion.

Last month they were offering 3000 qualify miles for a club membership with promo code CLB30, presumably that’s no longer supposed to work but I haven’t tried it, the standard offer seems to be just 500 qualifying miles with promo code NM500.

The US Airways Mastercard (with no fee the first year offer and 40,000 miles after first purchase) will award 10,000 qualifying miles based on spend. So will the small business version of the card.

Between Grand Slam, two US Airways credit cards, and the lounge signup promo that’s 33,000 qualifying miles possible this year without flying — and that’s before then buying up the qualifying miles that you need. The buyup may seem pricey but I’m actually surprised at how inexpensive it is, if you have even one flight segment or one qualifying mile, you can buy right up to top tier Chairmans Preferred for $2999.

United/Continental
The Continental Presidential Plus Mastercard used to be great earning 1000 qualifying miles for every $5000 in spend which could be saved up and also dropped into anyone’s account any time, that benefit is now capped and the qualifying miles cannot be used to achieve 100,000-mile flyer status.

However there are some really great ways to generate qualifying miles with United and Continental before the end of the year without flying.

If you’ve earned miles from a United Visa (signup bonus miles count), then you can redeem those miles for qualifying miles — Each 10,000 miles is worth 1000 qualifying miles, up to a total of 50,000 miles for 5000 qualifying miles.

The best way to do it, though, is through the Continental website where they’ll actually sell you almost the exact number of qualifying miles that you need.

You need a Continental ticket and a Continental Onepass account. This doesn’t work with a United ticket or a United Mileage Plus account.

Buy a ticket at Continental.com. It can be any ticket at all, since they’ll refund whatever you purchase within 24 hours, although you can also buy a refundable ticket if that makes you more comfortable or you’re worried about not being able to get around to doing the refund within a day.

Once you’ve purchased your ticket, choose to purchase ‘elite maximizer’ elite qualifying miles. Basically they will sell you elite qualifying miles equal to the qualifying miles you’ll earn from the paid ticket. The elite maximize qualifying miles post right away, and stick whether you take the purchased flights or not.

These miles cost about 10 cents apiece. So buying 1000 qualifying miles costs $100. That, to me, is a much better deal than redeeming 10,000 miles for the 1000 qualifying miles (you’re effectively buying back those 10,000 miles at a penny apiece).

The best part is that you can buy just the right number of qualifying miles that you need this way, find and purchase a flight itinerary that gets you the right number of miles, whether it’s a short hop like one-way Newark – Philadelphia or a Newark – Beijing roundtrip.

Using this method you should even be able to buy 100,000-mile flyer status for $10,000. That’s not really a good deal compared to flying inexpensively for the miles, but many 1K members spend more than $10,000 miles and of course you’re not spending time up in the air to get the status. (If you’re not flying at all, what you’d need 100,000-mile flyer status for I have no idea, but we’ll leave that issue aside — the example was purely illustrative).

Of course while the offer needs to be taken advantage of through the Continental website and with a Continental Onepass account, United and Continental accounts can already be linked and status miles will be combined between the two programs to determine your 2012 status.

It’s unknown what the future of elite maximizer will be as part of the new program next year. Certainly the program likes to monetize offerings like this, so I imagine something of the sort will continue, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it tweaked in the future to make it less easy to buy status miles without flying.

Delta
The Points Guy posted yesterday about ways to get Delta medallion qualifying miles without taking a mileage run.

Through December 15, Delta will let you buy up to 10,000 qualifying miles:

2,500 MQMs for $295
5,000 MQMs for $495
7,500 MQMs for $695
10,000 MQMs for $895

The Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express offers both a personal card and a small business card which offer 10,000 qualifying miles with first purchase and up to 30,000 more qualifying miles based on spend (I do not receive any referral credit for these cards). The annual fee is $450, so it’s less expensive to get a Reserve card than to buy qualifying miles from Delta.

Delta has offered qualifying miles in the past for Hilton stays but there’s no such current promotion. Earlier this year they also offered 25,000 elite qualifying miles for transfers from American Express, that’s another one to watch for a repeat of next year perhaps.

There is currently an offer of 1500 qualifying miles for a SkyClub lounge membership by the end of the year.

American
The only way I’m aware of to earn elite qualifying miles from activities other than flying is through the new Citi Executive Mastercard which offers 10,000 qualifying miles after $40,000 in spend.

And if you get approved for the card today your spend on the card will count towards lifetime miles earned in the program as part of their lifetime elite status program. And that spend will continue to count for at least a year. (Otherwise, starting tomorrow, only flight miles count.)

Surely there are other ways of earning elite qualifying miles without flying that I’m missing as I type this at 2 a.m. What are they? Your fellow readers will appreciate the insights!

Conrad Bangkok Deluxe Suite: “Burn Avios, Burn” Cathay Pacific First Class and Amazing Conrad Suites

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Index:

We pulled up to the Conrad and were immediately assisted with our bags and directed to the front desk.

Upon identifying myself, the woman at the desk went for assistance. I had a momentary panic — I had booked the room on a mistake rate of sorts, when Hilton HHonors introduced cash and points awards the Conrad Bangkok published all room types other than the Presidential Suite with the cash and points rate plan. So I got a discounted award, and I was able to book the next suite down from the Presidential. I thought perhaps I had a problem…

But no such worry, another woman came over and said that since I had already booked a suite they wouldn’t be able to upgrade me further, and would I like the 1000 point Diamond amenity in lieu of upgrade? Then they proceeded to simply escort us to the suite in order to handle check-in formalities there.

Tired as I was, I had the presence of mind to hand the woman my Chase Sapphire Preferred card. I do have a Hilton Surpass American Express which earns 9 Hilton points per dollar, but also charges a foreign currency conversion fee. The Sapphire earns 2 points per dollar on hotel spend, and has no such foreign currency fee, so saves me cash and earns double points, a far better choice in my view when traveling internationally — even when staying at a Hilton when I have the co-branded ‘premium’ Hilton card.

We walked into the living room, which contained a sofa area, desk/workspace, and small dining area.

Here’s the bedroom:

And the bathroom, to the side of which is a walk-in closet and luggage storage area.

There was a separate toilet room, the shower was excellent with both nozzle and rainshower, and the tub had a little plastic elephant:

This is the view from the room:

We went up to the lounge for breakfast in the morning but found the place deserted of guests and staff explained occupancy was very low, there were only some pastries out and complimentary buffet breakfast was available in the restaurant. So we sat and had some coffee and a croissant before heading downstairs.

On this visit to Bangkok, just two nights and one full day, we decided to get out of the city for some sightseeing. In Bangkok I’m comfortable getting around on my own, but since things like the floating market and train market would require driving I made arrangements with Tour With Tong, whom I used for my in-laws visit to Bangkok by cruise ship in April.

Traffic was really bad, though, what should have been an hour’s drive took two hours, largely because of the Bangkok floods. We weren’t traveling on any flooded routes. Rather, much traffic was re-routed onto a limited number of arteries because of the flooding causing major backups. My limit for touring is reached after six hours in a day, it isn’t supposed to be work, so we didn’t do as much as planned.

Here we are feeding bananas to long tail macaque in Klong Klon, about 90 minutes outside of Bangkok.

On our way back another boat was bringing tourists to do the same thing. I felt so derivative. These monkeys are well fed. And well trained. A simple call and they know they’re getting bananas, they all come running.

Took the boat back to the nearby village and wound up with a tasty lunch.

Back at the hotel in the evening we stopped by the club lounge, the offerings were substantial and varied both hot and cold, though none of it struck me as especially noteworthy so I didn’t indulge much. Too much good food in Bangkok to just eat what’s ‘there’.

We did get up in the middle of the night, still a big jetlagged I supposed, and more than a little puckish. There’s something fun and super indulgent about order room service in the middle of the night, so we ordered up some nasi goring, laksa, and larb gai.

Probably the best nasi goring I’ve ever eaten!

American Airlines Files For Bankruptcy — And Your Miles Are Safe

Posted on: November 29th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

American Airlines’ parent filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this morning.

In the past decade, United, Delta, and US Airways have all been in and exited from bankruptcy protection.

American will certainly continue to operate through its reorganization, which is designed to shed costs that competitor airlines have already offloaded. While there will be some operational changes no doubt, frequent flyers need not worry.

As I explained last month, an American Airlines bankruptcy is not bad for frequent flyers.

I have nearly a million American Airlines miles myself, and lifetime Platinum status with the airline. And I’m not worried about my stash of miles. American Airlines will continue to fly, liquidation is not foreseeable.

Bankruptcy may even be a boon to American’s mileage program. It’s been quite some time since American Airlines restructured their frequent flyer award redemption chart, while other carriers have adjusted their award pricing upwards. A bankruptcy could well put off any award chart inflation, not wanting to anger or spook customers during the process, and lead the carrier to attempt to leverage the program during bankruptcy through lucrative bonus offers and promotions, much to the benefit of members (although likely leading to greater award chart inflation after American exits bankruptcy).

Update: I’m quoted by the Associated Press this morning:

“Miles are safe,” said Gary Leff, co-founder of frequent flier site MilePoint. He said the bankruptcies of past airlines “are instructive.” He even suggested there might be some promotions to keep loyal travelers.

New Chase Ink Bold Charge Card Offer: 50,000 Point Signup Bonus, Quintuple Miles on Office Supplies, Cell Phones, Cable

Posted on: November 29th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Key Links:

  • Chase Ink Bold Charge Card: 50,000 points after spending $5000 within 3 months, fee waived the first year (Update: expired)
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred: 40,000 points after spending $3000 within 3 months, fee waived the first year

Last week I shared the word I had received that the then-current offer for a Chase Ink Bold Charge Card was being pulled on November 28th. That’s exactly what happened.

As I explained in the post, I didn’t know at the time was what was coming next as the new offer for the card. The new offer is still 50,000 points after $5000 in spend within 3 months. But many of the benefits of the card are different.

The new offer does not include threshold bonuses for high spenders. I had included the Chase Ink Bold Charge Card in my discussion of the most rewarding credit cards for big spenders because the previous offer that was pulled yesterday included up to 47,500 bonus points for hitting spending targets: 7500 after $25,000; 15,000 more after $50,000; and 25,000 more after $100,000 in a year.

Personally I’m able to generate significant spending on a card and really value those threshold bonuses, I’m glad that I applied for the Ink Bold Charge Card under the offer I had noted was going away. I’m still waiting for a decision on that card, I expect to have to do a bit of horse-trading by calling up Chase and offering to move some credit off of an existing card in order to get approved. But I’m happy I got in under the wire with the old offer.

That said, some folks will benefit better from the new offer. And if you’re one of those folks who applied under the old offer, and prefer the new one, I’d simply ask Chase to get switched — I’d be surprised if there was much difficulty in sending Chase a ‘secure message’ through your account and explaining you’re really interested in the new features that they’re offering on the card.

The new offer for the card comes with no foreign currency transaction fees (something I get on my Chase Sapphire Preferred card already) and bonuses for specific kinds of spending —

  • Quintuple points on office supply, cable, wireless and landline expenses
  • Double points on gas and hotels

.. for the first $50,000 in charges in these categories.

The card also comes with Priority Pass Membership which provides two free lounge visits in participating airline lounges each year, and paid access thereafter. I actually receive unlimited Priority Pass (though not to United lounges) through the American Express Platinum card, so this one isn’t of huge use to me and another reason I’m happy with the older version of the offer that I applied for last week — basically I get the threshold bonuses but not the spending category bonuses.

But this will certainly be the undisputed best card offer for office supplies and telecommunications spend!

Either way, if you don’t yet have the card yet, getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Bold Charge Card together for their combined 100,000 point signup bonuses represent a good way for many to use credit card offers to construct a free dream trip quickly.

Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer 1:1 into United/Continental, Hyatt, Marriott, British Airways, Priority Club, Korean Airlines, and Amtrak Guest Rewards. United/Continental and Hyatt represent the best value.

Now, Chase won’t usually approve more than one personal credit card application at one time, but will often approve a personal and a small business card at once. And we all do have businesses these days in our modern free agent world, we’re looking for the next way to earn an additional income stream, and sole proprietorships list the owner’s social security number as the tax ID for the business..

As I’ve mentioned, the Sapphire Preferred is one of my go-to cards that I use daily, and I’ve applied for the Ink Bold Charge Card. Two really good offers in my opinion. But do know that if you choose to apply for the cards using the links in my post, I receive a referral credit (which I’m most appreciative of my readers for).

Update: the Sapphire Preferred bonus is now 40,000 points.

The Pier Lounge and Cathay Pacific Business Class, Hong Kong – Bangkok: “Burn Avios, Burn” Cathay Pacific First Class and Amazing Conrad Suites

Posted on: November 29th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Index:

We landed in Hong Kong, proceeded to transfer security, and took the train over to Cathay Pacific’s The Pier lounge which was adjacent to our onward connecting gate.

Though we were flying business class Hong Kong – Bangkok, as an arriving first class passenger showing a first class boarding pass stub we were granted access to the First Class lounge. The drama of whether or not we’d have access with the agent in New York was a non-issue, we were welcomed in without difficulty.

Unlike the bright, light, airy first class side of The Wing, The Pier is darker and done up in wood. Some prefer that look, but I find that there are nicks and scratches everywhere, the Pier seems well-worn to me.

First off was a shower, and then some internet time. The internet connection, though, was exceptionally weak and I had to move around the lounge to find a strong enough signal to get through my email.

Half an hour from departure we proceeded to our boarding gate and onto the plane for a fairly uneventful trip to Bangkok.

A far cry from the original 747 we were originally booked into first class on, we were greeted by an old style regional business class — which for intra-Asia flying is fine but a bit depressing, though which for even a domestic transcon in the U.S. would be a joy.

The flight was scheduled for a bit over two hours and dinner would be served:

    DINNER

    Starter
    Marinated chili prawns with mixed rice salad and citrus vinaigrette

    Main Courses
    Steamed sea bass with mushroom and red dates, steamed jasmine rice and stir-fried choy sum

    Braised lamb shoulder rack with lamb sauce, green pea mash, roasted baby carrot, garlic and shallot

    Ice Cream

    Tea and Coffee

    Pralines

My wife had the lamb…

.. and I had the sea bass:

The flight was fairly uneventful. We circled Bangkok before landing due to air traffic control, which was odd because so many flights in and out of Bangkok had been cancelled as a result of reduced passenger traffic from the flooding. Our original 747 had been downsized, and indeed our original flight had been cancelled a week or so in advance and everyone moved onto the flight an hour later.

Upon arrival, we were met at the end of the jetway by a representative of our car service. I’ve been using Image Limo for Bangkok transportation for a few years successfully, they’re not the absolute cheapest but their prices are reasonable and I’ve found them to be reliable. They were running a special for free VIP meet and greet with airport transfer, so I pre-booked a few months out to take advantage of the offer. I wouldn’t have needed it, Cathay Pacific provided fast track passes to everyone in business class. Though fast track did have lines 5 or 6 people deep when we arrived. Our representative simply waived at a woman near the fast track area, and she immediately came over to open a new line for us and we breezed through.

We walked over to baggage claim, waited a couple of minutes, and our baggage was out. We then were escorted out to meet our driver, however he was nowhere to be found. And he wasn’t answering his cell phone. The gentleman who met us left in search of the driver — he quickly found the vehicle but not the man. It was more than 20 minutes before he figured out that the driver was waiting a door over from us. Once that was sorted we were on our way to the Conrad.

Cathay Pacific First Class, New York – Hong Kong: “Burn Avios, Burn” Cathay Pacific First Class and Amazing Conrad Suites

Posted on: November 28th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Index:

  • Planning the trip
  • US Airways Shuttle to New York and the Sheraton JFK
  • Cathay Pacific First Class, New York – Hong Kong
  • The Pier Lounge and Cathay Pacific Business Class, Hong Kong – Bangkok
  • Conrad Bangkok Deluxe Suite
  • Bangkok Airways Business Class, Bangkok – Koh Samui
  • Conrad Koh Samui, 2 Bedroom Ocean Pool Villa
  • Conrad Koh Samui, Resort
  • Bangkok Airways Business Class, Koh Samui – Bangkok
  • Cathay Pacific Business Class, Bangkok – Hong Kong and Marriott SkyCity Hong Kong
  • Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong – Chicago
  • United Airlines Back Home

Cathay Pacific first and business class check-in is with British Airways at the end of Terminal 7, it’s quiet and has its own dedicated security so no real waiting.

With no one ahead in line it took a surprisingly long time for an agent to free up, and then a surprisingly long time to check in. The only bit of confusion came when I asked them to print a lounge invitation for Hong Kong. I explained that we were in first class for the transpacific segment, on a first class (award ticket), our onward flight to Bangkok had been downgauged to an aircraft with no first class cabin. In the past I’ve had no problem getting access to first class lounges in Hong Kong based on arriving first class boarding passes.

The agent printed a lounge invitation for Hong Kong. It said business class. I explained the difference and she seemed unsure of what to do, “I’ll have to talk to someone to ok it.” I mentioned I even had an email from Hong Kong explaining that this was permitted, she asked to see it, and then said “well, if I’m asked I can say he had an email!” She tried to print first class lounge invites and said the computer wouldn’t let her without approval – and she didn’t want to get approval, “just ask in Hong Kong.” Great…

The single security line is also up a surprisingly steep gradiant, it’s like walking up Nob Hill in San Francisco (albeit for a very short distance).

Off to the lounge, Cathay Pacific uses the British Airways Terraces lounge and as a first class passenger I was directed left to the first class side. It’s not real first class lounge, since BA first class passengers have access to the Concorde Room. Instead, it’s really an Executive Club Gold lounge that’s called first class.

They had coffee, juice, tea, and a stocked bar, they had internet access, cereal, and they had smoked salmon. No hot items, no service, and the place was packed when we walked in. A London-bound flight was departing, though, and the place quickly cleared out.

Ultimately, the lounge was perfectly serviceable though non-descript, there wasn’t really anything ‘first class’ about it, certainly not anything that lives up to the overall Cathay Pacific first class experience. Still, it’s better than departing on the midnight flight from Toronto where they use the KLM lounge. I find Cathay Pacific to be really outstanding in the air, but I’m not at all impressed by their service on the ground.

Since I hadn’t had any internet access since boarding my US Airways flight to New York 14 hours earlier, I tried to catch up on things in the lounge knowing that I’d be offline again for at least 16 hours. Boarding was called, and I hurriedly finished a document for work, sent it off, and was the one of the last two or three to board the flight. On the way to the gate I stopped at Starbucks, wanting another coffee and knowing that Cathay Pacific doesn’t serve hot beverages on the ground or until the seatbelt sign is turned off. Only when I got to the front of the line they informed me that their espresso machine was broken. Why they didn’t say something to folks standing in line I’ll never know, other than the fact that this is New York and it’s a Starbucks at JFK.

The little Starbucks delay meant a backup on the jetway by the time I made my way over to the gate.

Once onboard, though, I was at peace. Cathay Pacific’s seats aren’t the newest anymore and they don’t have ‘doors’ but they’re holding up exceptionally well. I stowed my carryons in my seat’s closet. I do like the spaciousness that comes from not having any overhead bins. And the way you can lean against the seats while standing makes it one of the few cabins where it feels ‘normal’ to stand up and talk.

The load was 5/6 with only one of the two middle seats open. Sad, just days earlier my wife I had had appeared to be alone in the cabin. Alas, not a repeat of our February Asia trip where we had two first class flights to ourselves up front.

Pre-departure beverages, pajamas and amenity kits were distributed, we pushed back, and we were airborne in no time.

Taxiing at JFK is always interesting for plane spotting, here’s an El Al 747.

I quickly made my way across to the ottoman of my wife’s seat, while a flight attendant set up her table for us to dine together, across from each other as though in a restaurant. They add a table extender and have a tablecloth that fits across the entire double-length table.

We began with brunch, and would end the flight with lunch as the second meal. Here’s the brunch menu:

    BRUNCH

    Starters

    Orange or apple juice

    Mango energizer

    Fresh seasonal fruit

    Natural or fruit yoghurt

    Assorted cereals

    Main Courses
    Free range eggs-freshly scrambled, fried or boiled
    Served with grilled pork sausage, Breakfast steak, home fried potatoes, grilled tomato and sautéed mushrooms

    Dim sum with chili sauce
    Shrimp dumpling, siu mai, scallop dumpling, glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf

    Seafood congee, steamed mushroom rice roll with imperial soy sauce

    Bread Basket
    Assorted breakfast bread and fresh toast
    Served with Mrs. Bridges Scottish preserves, Tasmanian meadow honey and butter

    Tea and Coffee

    Pralines

As always, a welcome note from the cabin crew:

Fruit starter:

I had the dim sum:

My wife had the congee:

After a short meal, not taking advantage of all the courses, I changed into my Shanghai Tang pajamas, a flight attendant made my bed (leaving it semi-upright for lounging), and I settled in and began exploring the extensive options in the StudioCX system. Cathay really does have a deep selection of movies and television shows. The only thing I find annoying is the array of commercials which play at the start of each one, though of course you can fast forward through them.

I watched a couple episodes of the final season of Entourage and the Keira Knightley film Last Night, worked for a bit, and the flight was somehow halfway through its expected 15 hours and 15 minutes. Time for a look at the snack menu:

    SNACKS
    Braised beef brisket in noodle soup

    Brie cheese with yellow peppers and chives on multi-grain corn spitz roll and mesclun salad

    Chicken tikka with mint yoghurt sauce

    Hot pot rice with cured meats, served with chicken broth

    Ice cream

It’s important to remember that Cathay Pacific’s service standard is to avoid disturbing the cabin. Unlike on some airlines, where flight attendants roam the aisles throughout the flight looking for something they can do for you, or even observe you discretely, Cathay Pacific first class flight attendants stay in the galley until called.

Now Ben has been known to push the call button and time how long it takes a flight attendant to respond. On this flight, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, I’d push the button and before I’d have been able to even start a clock someone was by my side. I ordered the beef brisket:

A brief nap, a bit more StudioCX, and we were about an hour and a half outside Hong Kong, my wife and I decided to have lunch together.

    LUNCH

    Caviar and Fine Smoked Salmon
    Caviar and fine smoked salmon

    International Favourites
    Saffron cream soup

    Lobster and mango salad with lemon olive oil dressing

    Grilled double bone lamb chop with rosemary jus, polenta roulade and grilled zucchini
    Or
    Pappardelle pasta with white asparagus sauce, toasted peanuts and grilled asparagus

    Chinese Favourites
    Double boied quail with Chinese yam soup

    Cold plate – marinated gluten with dried mushroom

    Stir-fried seafood in X.O. sauce
    Or
    Braised chicken with chestnuts

    Served with steamed jasmine rice, stir-fried pak choy, black mushroom and carrot flower

    Cheese and Dessert
    Cambozola, Taleggio, Manchego, Chaumes

    Fresh seasonal berries with rose syrup

    Pistachio pudding cake, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce

    Red bean soup with lotus seeds

    Tea and Coffee

    Pralines

Naturally, a bit of caviar to begin:

I had the saffron cream soup, and my wife had the Chinese yam soup:

I then continued the Western menu with lobster and mango salad…

.. then my wife and I both went for the Chinese meal.

And I had dessert (Pistachio pudding cake) back at my seat. The menu said it came with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce but it was served with chocolate ice cream, sans sauce, and the cake was a bit dry.

It was time to change out of my pajamas for landing in Hong Kong. By the time I returned to my seat, my bedding was removed and everything was back into place for landing. We were a few minutes early, and I was very much looking forward to clearing transit security and heading off for a shower.

Free Accor A|Club Top Tier Platinum Status

Posted on: November 27th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Via RoninTech on Milepoint:

 If you have an existing non-platinum account go here (its in german but chrome/firefox can translate for you), enter your member number and email, click the button and you get upgraded to Platinum for free.

Update: Commenter Colleen notes “…or just select “English” on the upper right pull-down menu and the translated page will appear ;)

As I noted with a previous offer at the beginning of last month,

Platinum status generally requires 60 nights (or 25,000 points earned) and comes with a 100% points bonus and then at Sofitel, Pullman, and MGallery hotels: room upgrades that the rules say you specifically have to ask for, 4pm late checkout, guaranteed availability, and a welcome drink and gift.

I’ve always found it odd that A|Club elite status doesn’t get you recognition at Novotel properties, but still being Platinum which is their top tier is certainly better than a hole in the head as my grandfather used to say — especially when the status is instant and free.

US Airways Shuttle to New York and the Sheraton JFK: “Burn Avios, Burn” Cathay Pacific First Class and Amazing Conrad Suites

Posted on: November 27th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Index:

  • Planning the trip
  • US Airways Shuttle to New York and the Sheraton JFK
  • Cathay Pacific First Class, New York – Hong Kong
  • The Pier Lounge and Cathay Pacific Business Class, Hong Kong – Bangkok
  • Conrad Bangkok Deluxe Suite
  • Bangkok Airways Business Class, Bangkok – Koh Samui
  • Conrad Koh Samui, 2 Bedroom Ocean Pool Villa
  • Conrad Koh Samui, Resort
  • Bangkok Airways Business Class, Koh Samui – Bangkok
  • Cathay Pacific Business Class, Bangkok – Hong Kong and Marriott SkyCity Hong Kong
  • Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong – Chicago
  • United Airlines Back Home

There’s little detail to share about the start of the trip. Since we’d be taking the morning Cathay Pacific flight, a 9am departure, we flew up to New York the night before. Since I was using British Airways miles (in their pre-Avios incarnation), I wasn’t going to combine partners on an award. The ticket was Cathay Pacific only, which meant I had to make it on my own to the international gateway, as Cathay doesn’t serve DC.

We grabbed the 6pm US Airways Shuttle, now 6pm departures to New York can be dicey. On a day with borderline weather even more so. Low visibility throughout the day meant planes stacking up trying to enter and leave New York airspace.

Since I was checking bags, I showed up at DCA around 4:45pm. Breezed through security after opting out (the US Airways pier has three lanes, only two of which have nude-o-scopes, but the middle lane without the scanner was closed). Stopped by the news shop and for a Five Guys burger, it was going to be better than my options on the other end, and we skipped the lounge.

Boarding was on-time, and quick, it wasn’t a full flight. My wife and I had 6A and 6C, no upgrade, my only US Airways elite qualifying miles for the year are the ones I earned from the Grand Slam. My short-haul US Airways segments get credited to bmi for their 600 mile minimums (plus status bonus), and I’ve re-qualified for Gold mostly on the basis of those US Airways short hops.

In hindsight of course I’m regretting that decision. British Midland miles have been really valuable, with their cash and points award chart and one-way awards allowing stopovers. They’re a great program for crediting premium cabin fares given the generous class of service bonuses. And being Star Gold in a non-US program has meant no need to buy a United lounge membership.

But with British Airways acquiring bmi, I expect my precious Diamond Club points to become Avios and to no longer be a Star Alliance Gold member through a non-US program. I’m hoping, of course, that the program continues to run as a standalone at least long enough to redeem my miles efficiently, and ideally that Star Alliance would run a status match offer to try to retain bmi elites.

Everyone was ready to go and we pushed back a few minutes early. Then we pulled off the active taxiway and the pilot told us we’d be sitting for about half an hour, cell phones were permitted which was great because a reporter was trying to get hold of me for a story on credit card signup bonuses.

After an hour’s delay we were on our way, flight time is usually about 35 minutes but after about 20 we started circling. And circling. And circling. Then we’d inch north, and circle again. Without United’s channel 9, and with a fairly uncommunicative pilot, we didn’t know how long we’d be. Shortly after 8pm we landed. And the pilot came on to let us know that we had no gate to go to, and wouldn’t be allowed to taxi across the airport. So we sat. And we sat. Half an hour went by and we hadn’t moved, planes were stacked side by side in close proximity. After an hour had passed we were released, and we made it over to a gate around 9:30pm. Even if the three hour tarmac delay rule added departure delays and arrival delays, US Airways would have been in the clear. I’d have loved to have had more updates, but otherwise it wasn’t terrible, the only real annoyance being the lack of cushioning on those US Airways coach seats!

A quick wait at baggage claim, hop in a cab, and we were off to the Sheraton JFK.

JFK really is a hotel wasteland. The last time I needed an airport overnight there I stayed at the almost-adequate Hilton Garden Inn, this Sheraton wasn’t yet built and is right next door. It’s close to the airport, and new, and that puts it head and shoulders above the JFK competition. Which means that it’s able to pull $250 a night room rates. I burned some points, not the greatest use of 10,000 I’ll admit. I didn’t want to head into the city only to try to make it back out to JFK for a 9am international departure. The proximity was attractive, and really how bad could it be?

We were at the hotel a little bit after 10pm, checkin was quick and I was assigned a room at the very end of the hall on the 6th floor.

It was the smallest hotel room I’ve ever been in, smaller than I’ve had at the W New York (the one on Lex) and smaller than at the Hilton Tokyo. The bathroom though was reasonable enough.

There were two main problems, though. First, the room faced the freeway and there was virtually no soundproofing. The circling winds and the cars below were loud. And second, the internet signal didn’t really reach the end of the hall and I had no connectivity.

I did mention both of these things when asked in the morning how my stay was. The clerk proactively offered me 1000 points as an apology (nice gesture, but seriously, 1000 points? There are two things I was looking for from my stay – a peaceful night’s rest, and the ability to be productive, I had neither.)

Still, if I had to stay at JFK again I’d probably do the Sheraton, because it’s arguably marginally better than the Hilton Garden Inn next door, and there really are no other options.

More likely though I’d grab a room at the Holiday Inn Long Island City, it’s a little further from the airport so not really an airport hotel, but it would provide a clean, restful night’s sleep while still avoiding morning traffic out of the City.

The shuttle driver was prompt for the 7am departure to the airport. It was a really ratty van, with fraying seats and tape on the liner along the top of the sliding passenger door. But it did the trick, and after stops at a couple of other terminals along the way we made it to terminal 7 by 7:20, nearly two hours before our departure.

Free Club Carlson Award Nights (9000 Bonus Points Per Award Stay)

Posted on: November 27th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Via Ben:

[T]hey’re offering 9,000 bonus points for each award stay (excluding cash and points) that you make with them between December 1, 2011, and January 31, 2012. You can earn the bonus up to five times, and bonus points will be credited to your account by February 15. Registration is also required.

Now, Club Carlson’s category one hotels actually only cost 9,000 points per night, so if you have the points balance up front, this actually means you could get five free nights at one of their lower end hotels.

Planning the Trip: “Burn Avios, Burn” Cathay Pacific First Class and Amazing Conrad Suites

Posted on: November 27th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Index:

  • Planning the trip
  • US Airways Shuttle to New York and the Sheraton JFK
  • Cathay Pacific First Class, New York – Hong Kong
  • The Pier Lounge and Cathay Pacific Business Class, Hong Kong – Bangkok
  • Conrad Bangkok Deluxe Suite
  • Bangkok Airways Business Class, Bangkok – Koh Samui
  • Conrad Koh Samui, 2 Bedroom Ocean Pool Villa
  • Conrad Koh Samui, Resort
  • Bangkok Airways Business Class, Koh Samui – Bangkok
  • Cathay Pacific Business Class, Bangkok – Hong Kong and Marriott SkyCity Hong Kong
  • Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong – Chicago
  • United Airlines Back Home

Hopefully this trip will be useful to some readers, as I believe two of the very best aspirational uses of points are Cathay Pacific First Class (because it’s an outstanding product, and one that’s reasonably possible to redeem for) and the Conrad Koh Samui (because every room is special, and even at 50,000 HHonors points per night it’s a good value compared to paid rates). I’m just back from the trip, and thought I’d share some of my thinking and experiences along the way.

Back in the spring I first started hearing rumblings about a British Airways mileage devaluation, I mentioned my prediction of a devaluation here on this blog back at the beginning of May. I decided to top off my British Airways Executive Club account using a 50% transfer bonus from Diners Club and then clean it out – a devaluation made some sense, it had been several years since the last one BA did and they had been printing miles like mad, moreover they were now awarding full mileage on discount fares to come into parity with American Airlines as part of their joint business venture. So I figured that my miles would certainly not be worth more in the future than they were at that moment, it was time to book a trip.

Problem was that I needed to find a time to do it, I wasn’t really interested in a LAN business class award to Easter Island with stopovers in South America, that’s on my list but not at the top of it. I didn’t have anything booked for Thanksgiving yet, and I decided on a Cathay Pacific first class award at 150,000 miles per person.

Now, British Airways awards get expensive when you include more than one partner on an award since you get pushed onto their distance-based award chart. (Heh, now they’re expensive even if you stick to just one partner.)

What that meant is that my award wouldn’t start and end in my home city. I found a departure from New York, and a return to Chicago, but I was going to be responsible for getting myself to and from my international gateway cities. That plus fuel surcharges meant that it wasn’t going to be an inexpensive redemption. But it seemed worthwhile, especially given the likely future prospects for British Airways miles (an assumption which proved to be correct).

When I first booked the award it was four segments, all Cathay Pacific first class, New York JFK – Hong Kong – Bangkok – Hong Kong – Chicago. In the end there were several schedule changes to my Hong Kong – Bangkok – Hong Kong flights, in part because of Bangkok flooding which reduced travel demand and led to some flight cancellations and also downgauged equipment. So the short intra-Asia segments wound up in business class.

Still, I was happy with what I got and glad to have cleaned out my BA account.

Then it was a decision of ‘what to do in Thailand?’

I decided upon a couple of nights in Bangkok and five nights at the soon-to-open Conrad Koh Samui resort.

For Bangkok, I toyed with the idea of staying at the new St. Regis. But the Conrad published all of its room types except for the Presidential Suite as ‘cash & points’ awards – cash and points were new to Hilton HHonors and they seemed to have loaded the rate plan incorrectly. I booked the suite one category below the Presidential at the basic cash and points price.

I booked the Conrad Koh Samui on points, but I went through several iterations with the reservation. Initially it was a category 6 hotel, 40,000 points per night but just 160,000 points for a 5-night stay with elite multi-night discounts. I was thrilled with this, given that the entry level room at the property is a standalone ocean villa with private pool.

Shortly after making my booking, and before the hotel opened, it moved up to category 7 – a whopping 25% increase in points (to 50,000 per night). Of course, my booking was secure. Meanwhile, a little birdie at Hilton HHonors suggested to me that the hotel would likely go on PointStretchers when it opened, meaning just 30,000 points per night. I could save 10,000 points over my 5 night stay if I cancelled and rebooked.

But something even better happened. The Conrad Koh Samui RESIDENCES loaded award room availability. It’s the same hotel, but the residences meant 2-bedroom 2000 square foot ocean villas with an even larger pool (and 2.5 baths and a private garden as well). I’d have to rebook at the category 7 price, but that seemed worth it to me, my 5 night stay went up to 200,000 HHonors points.

Except.. that Hilton couldn’t get the darned thing to reserve correctly. And in the meantime they had cancelled out my existing reservation, which couldn’t be restored as award rooms were no longer available for the one-bedroom. And so I escalated matters from one Diamond agent to the next and over the course of three or four days they managed to secure a Diamond Force for the Residences, I assume that means that Hilton HHonors paid the ‘real’ price to get me the room. (I described the booking drama in greater detail back in September.)

Diamond Force used to be one of the really special benefits of Hilton’s Diamond status – most hotel chains offer their top elites guaranteed availability on paid rooms (with a certain amount of notice, and at a high price). Hilton always used to offer this on award reservations. A sold out hotel would make a room available for the Diamond member, and then the reservation would be converted to points.

Since the introduction of premium room rewards (spending what can be a boatload of additional points for a higher room category), the Diamond Force has been much less useful – Hilton tells you to just redeem for the higher level room if any such room is available, even if it’s a million points a night.

But the Conrad Koh Samui resort is a great candidate to use the option still, since the resort offers only a single room type if they’re sold out of award rooms then there won’t be any available at the premium redemption price either. And that’s what it seems they did for me, secured me the two bedroom (‘base room’) at the residences.

Since I was taking the new Hong Kong – Chicago flight home, and it’s an early departure, I’d need a room for an overnight in Hong Kong. And I’d need to book flights to and from Koh Samui. I also decided to head up to New York the night before my JFK – Hong Kong flight since I had the morning Hong Kong departure, and that meant a JFK hotel. So I had a few more arrangements to make, but the guts of the trip were handled.

There’s lots more to this report, as you can see, but if you have any questions please ask away!

30% Bonus on Transfers from Membership Rewards to British Airways

Posted on: November 25th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Via Mommypoints, American Express Membership Rewards is offering a 30% bonus on transfers to British Airways through January 31.

It’s not as generous as the February/March 40% bonus or the June/July 50% bonus.

And both of those were offered before British Airways decided to make up a new word for its frequent flyer program, “Avios” — a fitting change because they want you to make believe that the program retains much value.

Still, there are times when you’ll want to use Amex points to redeem awards via British Airways. And a 30% bonus is better than no bonus! I rather thought they’d bring back bonuses once they made their points less valuable, though I admit I was hoping it would be 50% again, perhaps that’ll be offered again in the future.

In fact, it makes those short-haul non-stop awards within the US pretty cheap (transfer 7000 points for that Houston-Dallas roundtrip you’ve been wanting so badly).

And the short hop transatlantics are priced less expensively under the new program, it’s 80,000 ‘Avios’ roundtrip for New York – London in business class meaning it’ll take just 62,000 Amex points.

You’ll pay fuel surcharges on the award of course, but at only 62,000 points roundtrip that may be worthwhile — especially if your points balance is limited.

I wouldn’t make any speculative transfers under this bonus. But if you have a need to book a transatlantic premium cabin (transatlantic coach awards aren’t really worthwhile with this program, because fuel surcharges are often such a large portion of a cost of a paid ticket so you don’t wind up saving that much even when you redeem your miles) this could be a useful opportunity.

And I’d point out that one of the remaining benefits of American Express Membership Rewards that trumps Chase’s Ultimate Rewards would be the transfer bonuses. There’s a 43% transfer bonus to Delta currently, for instance.

And it’s one of the reasons that the I still love the the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card — triple points on airfare (so nearly 4 miles per dollar with a 30% transfer bonus) and double points on gas and groceries.

The American Express Business Gold Rewards card, business version of that same card, offers triple points on airfare and double points on shipping and advertising (GoogleAds!).

Both are no fee the first year, and both do provide a referral credit to me if you use my links to apply. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan.

Frontier Early Returns Offers Double Elite Qualifying Miles

Posted on: November 25th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Via Lucky, Frontier is offering double elite qualifying miles during the month of December, registration required using promo code DBLEQ.

I like Lucky’s comment, “[N]o, the legacies won’t match.” Of course not, American has moved to shrink its elite ranks by making changes to million miler qualification effective December 1.

In general airlines haven’t felt the need to run double qualifying miles promotions the past couple of years because they’ve shrunk capacity, their load factors have been up, and their elite ranks have not shrunk.

Delta, with ‘rollover’ qualify8ing miles, is the carrier in least need of making such a move. They’re also most aggressive in offering alternative methods of earning qualifying miles, perhaps followed by US Airways which will let you do it via Grand Slam, outright purchase, or re-upping on club membership.

And United, having combined with Continental and now offering four elite tiers, isn’t going to drive this either.

So absent targeted route bonuses, we have little Frontier aggressively marketing towards its elites. They’ve done similar creative things, such as offering folks who were close to qualification or requalification the ability to re-up with a single flight. And their elite ranks aren’t that unmanagable nor is it difficult for them to deliver on expectations since they don’t even have a first class cabin to upgrade folks into.

Still, they do a lot to work with what they have, such as offering elites free DirecTV, extra legroom seating, and complimentary premium beverages. I’m not a fan of Frontier Early Returns on the redemption side, and I don’t like the lack of a front cabin, but they’re a small program that gets customer service and works hard to please their members.

Should Loyalty Programs Care About Social Media Recommendations?

Posted on: November 24th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

In the October issue of Executive Travel, Randy Petersen adopts a controversial thesis in an article titled, “2 Great Frequent Flyer Programs” — what two programs is he talking about? Delta Skymiles and Southwest Rapid Rewards!

Why is it shocking that these programs would be dubbed great? I’ve redeemed well over 100 million miles for myself and for others, and from my experience and the near-universal experience of those I speak with, these two programs offer less value than their peers. Delta miles are difficult to work with and availability (at the ‘low’ or ‘saver’ level) is relatively poor. Southwest has a revenue-based program designed to reward buying expensive paid tickets and using points for cheap leisure travel on empty planes, with no possibility of aspirational international premium class travel.

What Randy is reporting on is a study of positive and negative comments about rewards programs in social media, Key drivers of success seem to be:

  • Problem resolution. Both Delta and Southwest have relatively proactive online presences in social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, where they don’t just engage in one-way conversation but actually engage in customer service and problems solving.
  • Expiring points. Delta eliminated expiration of miles in February. This appeals to the masses, the less engaged customers, the ones deriving the least value from programs to begin with. But it eliminates a frustration point. A social media study values every voice equally, and folks whose miles would expire care about a program no more than once every two years (Southwest’s current expiration policy). But there are enough members that these complaints register, and if it’s what folks are most vocal about it affects the data.
  • Problems with redemption. This is where I don’t understand Delta’s score, though I don’t have access to the raw data of the study and have to assume while they’re doing well overall it can’t be because they’re especially better on the redemption side. Southwest, on the other hand, has historically been generous and I’d have to imagine that the study isn’t fully reflective of the new program launched in January of this year. Although at the same time, since the focus of redemption activity is largely on cheap domestic coach awards rather than more aspiration awards, Southwest can still find itself doing well even under the new regime.
  • Immediate gratification. The study offers that programs rewarding members frequently, rather than delaying gratification for high value awards, get high marks. It’s in high value awards where both Delta and Southwest are most limited.

A program like Delta’s with non-expiring miles won’t generate ire from members who are disengaged from the program, who don’t interact with it for years at a time, and whose only interaction would otherwise be negative (when after several years discover that their miles are gone). Holding unexpired miles on a balance sheet is a real liability, other programs recognize significant revenue from expiring miles. So Delta has chosen to forego this revenue, investing large sums in its least engaged members, but it does well in social media apparently by avoiding the griping of the masses. My contention, though, is that these social media would-be complainers are not a program’s profitable customers, and they’re not likely to become such.

When studying satisfaction with a loyalty program, whose opinion you’re looking at matters. Just as in election polling, likely voters are a relevant metric, surveying the satisfaction of those that actually use a program would be a key variable. And explains the disconnect Randy identifies between this survey and online forums:

The reason this study result is shocking is that it contradicts other data, as well as sentiment on the street and in online forums.

Looking at a broad base of disengaged members, it’s also little surprise that the greatest value would be placed on low value rewards which come easily, rather than higher value awards which require delayed gratification. If the earning potential over any reasonable time horizon of a disengaged member is just a few thousand miles, they’ll certainly prefer redeeming their miles for iTunes than for the hope of international first class in a future that’s hard to imagine.

The lessons of the study purport to be that simplicity and immediacy trump. I spent the last couple of days at the pool reason Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, and in terms of Apple’s success their tightly knit hardware-software-consumer integration (which failed them with the original Mac) and minimalist industrial design, combined with simple-to-use devices (e.g. insisting that nothing on an iPod require more than three clicks) has served them well in recent years. I suppose there is something to this, for the mass consumer technology market certainly, though despite Google’s clean interface they certainly offer some advanced, complex tools. Still, Apple is offering tight integration of experience at the upper end of retail. As applied to loyalty programs in this study, high score correlates with a lowest common denominator strategy. Which I think misses the point for a loyalty program.

Hilton’s take on this is, I think, similar to Delta’s and Southwest’s — customers don’t understand complex value propositions, so offering more value to consumers who don’t understand doesn’t make sense. That’s why Hilton devalued their points and started getting more aggressively into the promotions game.

The limitations of Delta Skymiles are many: fuel surcharges on several partners and several European departures, no international first class, a broken website which does poorly both finding seats and pricing awards, restrictive routing rules, poorly trained agents, no ‘holds’ over the phone (and most partner airlines aren’t available on the website), no changes to awards within 72 hours of travel, to name just a few. But most consumers don’t understand any of these limitations, or how programs differ on these fronts (at least until they’ve invested in the program and try to redeem). As this study and as Hilton’s Jeff Diskin point out, consumers only pay attention at redemption time and the general member doesn’t calculate value propositions. That’s why programs offer mileage redemptions for toasters.

But there really is a bifurcated market — folks you keep on the treadmill for years, some of whom may only engage once in awhile and get mad when their miles have expired after 18 months or 2 years, and the much more engaged, active, loyal members who pay more attention to the details of the program and care about higher value awards whose aspirational nature motivates their involvement.

Members of all stripes care most about a program at the point of redemption. And if your strategy is focused on 30 million or 50 million members most of whom won’t earn but a handful of points, it may not matter much what sort of value you offer to them as long as they get something for their trouble, and it will take them enough years to accumulate points for an award that the members will express happiness all along the way at least until it comes time to redeem and they’re presented with a price of 350,000 miles for a business class ticket to Asia (a la Delta’s website). The really engaged, profitable members though become so much more engaged when they’ve had a good redemption experience for a high value, life-changing even, reward — when a program helps them fulfill their dreams it becomes a part of their entire experience and they become evangelists for the brand.

Simple and low value works for general members and minimizes complaints in social media. But it isn’t a strong reinforcing value proposition that’s sustainable over time. “Social media recommendations” may rate Skymiles and Rapid Rewards more highly than other travel programs. I just have to hope that loyalty program managers don’t think that the social media label suggests that this study means anything more than that their least frequent customers complain less when their miles don’t expire, their problems get resolved, and they get an iTune or a Dallas-Houston flight every now and then.

Top 10 Airline and Hotel ‘Mistake’ Fares of the Past Decade

Posted on: November 24th, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Airline and hotel mistake deals were the lifeblood of my best travel experiences for a long time. I took plenty of trips I wouldn’t have otherwise taken, and they often pre-empted going places that were ‘on my list’ for places I hadn’t considered and I had really great experiences in the process.

But it’s sure seemed over the past two years that the best mistakes have dried up. Sure, I’ve heard of some glitches that haven’t been all that useful to me, business class fares originating in India or Malaysia that haven’t made sense for me to do or even to blog about since if I’m not finding them useful then it’s unlikely that a substantial portion of my readers will find them all that useful.

I do think that airlines at least have gotten much more careful and have better systems overall for detecting mistakes early on. And certainly there are folks who used to share deals but are now much more wary of doing so for fear that they won’t be honored if too many people get in on them. But in the past the very best ones were most often found by newbies rather than experts, by large numbers of people booking travel and then someone unpredictably stumbling upon a ‘find’. That seems to happen so much less these days, and 2009 feels sort of like when the really great run at this ended. I hope I’m wrong.

Ultimately my approach to deals when they came along was to make a booking, it was up to the travel provider whether or not it would get honored but if it was I certainly wanted to be along for the ride. If not, I didn’t complain, but most of the time luck was on my side.

While I’ve had great deals at places like the Intercontinental Tokyo and the Renaissance Seattle, there are a handful that I consider to be the very best mistake deals of the past 10 years.

Mexicana ~ $55+tax business class fares from their US gateways to Puerta Vallarta (summer 2002). This was the very first mistake fare I jumped on.

British Airways $20+tax World Traveler Plus fare from several US cities to several points in Europe (fall 2002). I missed this one while I was on the beach in Puerta Vallarta.

Conrad Bangkok $51 Presidential Suite (Summer, 2006). American Express travel priced this at $51. They honored it ‘as long as someone didn’t book and pay for the Presidential suite’ in which case they downgraded the booking. The best part is that some folks were able to combine it with…

The Le Meridien $33 Khao Lak Oceanfront Villa (December, 2006). The hotel published its 3 and 4-night discount rate plan in Ugandan Schillings instead of US dollars. That made a ~ $1500 a night 3100 square foot 2-bedroom Oceanfront Resident with Private Pool 60 cents per night. The hotel determined that they wouldn’t honor the rate, but offered $50 per night (with third night free, thus effectively $33.33/night) insead. And the rate included tax and breakfast, the latter normally costing more than the room rate itself. (Currently, a combination of Thailand’s tourism problems, the world economy, promos, and off-season make it possible to secure this room for ~ US$350 per night, which I’d regard as a value.) Some lucky souls timed their Khao Lak Ugandan Schillings trips to coincide with Bangkok travels, combining a an Oceanfront Villa stay with a Conrad Bangkok Presidential Suite stay.

$3 Hilton Tokyo/Osaka (November, 2005) Expedia displayed rooms at the Tokyo and Osaka Hiltons without the last two zeros in yen, so instead of ~ $200 a night for a standard room and $300 a night for an executive rooom (complimentary breakfast, evening cocktails, internet) the rooms became $2 and $3 respectively. Expedia did cancel some bookings but honored a good many as well. This was the first hotel mistake rate I benefited from.

Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort $120 Overwater Bungalow with Breakfast and Dinner (January, 2009) When Hilton took over management of three French Polynesia properties from Starwood (the former Sheraton Tahiti, Sheraton Moorea, and Bora Bora Nui) I wasn’t surprised that they had currency conversion issues. Bora Bora Nui itself had currency issues when it first went online, creating a famous mistake rahe that wasn’t honored (when the hotel sent a mass email to notify guests of its decision, they failed use the Bcc: filed and violated Starwood’s privacy policies so everyone that booked the rate received 10,000 Starpoints as an apology if I recall correctly). Hilton priced the Moorea property in Congolese Francs (CDF) instead of French Pacific Francs (CFP or XPF). That made a $1000 a night overwater bungalow a bit over $100 with meals included. Initially Hilton refused to honor, but then relented for those willing to convert their cancellable stays into prepaid stays (the prepayment naturally scaring away those not certain to use their reservations).

United Business Class to Auckland via Sydney for $1100+tax (Spring 2007) United loaded a C fare, which means full business class, so availability wasn’t an issue. And it was a weekend, so the fare lasted for days. It was also upgradable to first class for the US-Sydney flights, with onward travel to Auckland on other airlines.

Intercontinental Bali Imperial Villa as a reward night so just 30,000 Priority Club points. (2006) Priority Club long had an issue with hotels loading all room types available for award redemption, and this was certainly one of the very best ones in that overall mistake genre.

Colombo, Sri Lanka to New York JFK one-way for $1100 in business class (Fall 2007) This was a great fare, but tickets departing Colombo were often cheap. What made this an amazing mistake fare was that it lacked any routing or maximum mileage restrictions, which meant that folks could fly on a ton of different airlines, all over the world, as long as they started in Colombo and the ticket concluded in New York. Folks flew well over 20,000 miles one-way.

And the Number One All-time Mistake Fare, Both for Value and for Pure Drama…

Alitalia $33+tax business class fare to Larnaca, Cyprus (April 2006). The fare permitted stopovers in Italy in both directions and required departing from Toronto. The intention was to file a $3300+tax business class fare. Initially Alitalia refused to honor the fare and began cancelling itineraries. They got pushback from some Orbitz lawyers, presumably over the unilateral handling of the situation. They agreed to honor the fare, but reconstructed itineraries to remove stopovers. In some cases travel dates were changed significantly. Then they conceded that was problematic, and began restoring itineraries to their original, but in some cases there was no codeshare availability on the flights between Italy and Cyprus (which were operated by Cyprus Airways) so people were rebooked on different dates, in a different class of service, or found themselves without any flight between Italy and Cyprus at all… Or flying to Cyprus with no way back (such folks were dubbed “the swim team”). This mess was given to one amazing staffer in Alitalia’s New York office named Nicolo to fix. The deal became that these tickets were fully changeable — once. You could change your dates (time of year even). You could change your routing. Add or delete stopovers. The only requirements were that you actually had to fly to Cyprus (a handful of folks circumvented this early on dealing with Alitalia’s Canadian office) and once reissued your ticket became non-changeable.

What other mistake fares deserve to be on this list? When you hit the comments, please be sure not just to list other mistake fares, but make the case for its inclusion — explain the value and why it merits being on the list instead of one of the items I preferred. I considered adding the $28 W Times Square rate or the $2 US Airways fares to Hanover, New Hampshire. But those didn’t seem to quite make the cut. Neither did the $200 first class fares on US Airways to St. Croix. But this is a top ten list, after all!

Last Chance for 50,000 Point Ink Bold Charge Card Signup Bonus

Posted on: November 22nd, 2011 by: Gary Leff

Key Links:
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Chase Ink Bold Charge Card

A great companion to the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which offers:

  • 50,000 bonus points after $3000 spend within 3 months
  • No fee the first year
  • Double points on restaurants and travel (airfare, hotel, taxi, tolls, car rental, etc.)
  • Points transfers to United/Continental, British Airways, Korean, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club
  • 7% annual bonus on all points earned
  • Access to the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal, which is now cataloged at EV Reward for easy comparison to other shopping portals (and often beats them)
  • No foreign currency transaction fees

.. is the Chase Ink Bold Charge Card.

  • 50,000 bonus points after $5000 spend within 3 months
  • No fee the first year
  • Up to 47,500 bonus points for hitting spending thresholds: 7500 after $25,000; 15,000 more after $50,000; and 25,000 more after $100,000 in a year
  • Free One-Year Priority Pass Membership which includes 2 free visits to participating lounges and $27 per visit thereafter

However, the 50,000 signup bonus offer for Chase Ink Bold Charge Card is expected to go away on November 28. Now, there may well be similar offers in the future! There have been similar offers in the past. But in terms of immediate expectations, it sounds like the best offer when this one is pulled will be a 25,000 point signup bonus.

I’ve been pretty busy and haven’t pulled the trigger on this card, though I need to, I had personally been waiting 90 days from my last application until making this one although that isn’t technically required. And I didn’t want to apply with an IP address from out of the country while traveling, I thought that might trigger some alerts. But I plan to hit this one before it expires, because 50,000 points is a really good offer for a no fee card with tremendous flexibility, Ultimate Rewards benefits are the same as I’ve described with the Sapphire Preferred card.

Update: Looks like the Ink Bold Charge Card may be getting even better. From the comments:

The Ink Bold Charge Card was just updated. 5x points on office supply and wireless and 2x points for gas/hotels (for first $50k spend in each category) – no foreign transaction fees – and the Priority Pass Membership is free every year with 2 free visits every year – with each visit after the first 2 costing $27

Update: the Chase Sapphire Preferred bonus is now 40,000 points.

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