Info ~ travel musings for the masses

Posts from the Travel Category

Craig Karamin and Ezequiel Minaya for the Wall Street Journal:

Marriott International Inc. said Monday that it has agreed to acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. in a deal worth $12.2 billion that will create the world’s largest hotel company with more than a million rooms globally.

Under the terms, Marriott will forward 0.92 share along with $2 in cash for each Starwood share, for a total of $11.9 billion in stock and $340 million in cash. The transaction has a value of $72.08 a Starwood share.

I can’t say that I am thrilled by this news. I used to stay at Marriott properties almost exclusively and was never all that impressed. There were a few standout locations that I enjoyed staying at but a number of them were poorly maintained or just poorly built (lots of noise through the walls). My Marriott status was Platinum for quite a while but I never saw much benefit from that status and I actually had to deal with Marriott’s rather quick expiry of points more than once.

At the end of the day, these buyouts and mergers are not about you and I the customers but about the shareholders and the health of the business. We will have to wait and see what this means for the different aspects of the rewards and loyalty programs of both hotel chains.

The NY Times piece on what is happening to the Nazi sites in the historic city of Nuremberg is a look into the conundrum of up-keeping history while not honoring it.

In this city, the rallying point for Hitler, is the largest piece of real estate bequeathed by the Nazis, and a burden only increasing with time.

First comes the sheer physical size: a parade ground bigger than 12 football fields. A semicircular Congress Hall that dwarfs any structure at Lincoln Center. Great Street, more than one-and-a-half miles long, with no structures on either side — a modern Appian Way where the storm troopers strutted between the old Nuremberg of Albrecht Dürer and the rallies idolizing the Führer.

Then there are its troubled history and the far stickier question of what to do with it. “These are not simple memorials,” said Mathias Pfeil, chief curator of historic sites in Bavaria, “because they symbolize a time we can only wish had never happened.”

I have visited Nuremberg quite a few times and the Nazi sites always strike me as a strange intersection of history, hatred, and remembrance. Last time I visited I was with my dad and grandfather and there happened to be a heavy metal festival taking place on the site, with Metallica being the headliner. It was strange to hear metal being played as you read about the horrors of the Holocaust. During my second visit to the city, I even wrote in the caption for this photo about the strange dichotomy at the Nazi rally grounds.

Hitler stood here multiple times to give speeches during Nazi rallies. On this particular day it’s being used for a children’s marathon. The German people are torn on how to use these landmarks, they cannot be forgotten, yet they should not be glorified.

Zeppelinfeld Stadium
So where is the line between teaching younger generations about the atrocities committed in the name of the Third Reich and glorifying it? The story touches on the fact that most Nurembergers under the age of 25 have no historical context with which to view the rally grounds. They have always been there during their lifetime and associated with nothing that resembled war or struggle.

If you do visit Nuremberg, the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände (Documentation Center at the Nazi Rally Grounds) is a fascinating and sobering look at how the Nazi party took hold in Nuremberg, Munich, and finally Berlin. The center also tells the story of the Holocaust, the eventual loss by Germany, and the Nuremberg trials. It is on the site of the rally grounds and you can walk around them after visiting the exhibit.

A couple of stories popped up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds recently and I think they deserve a little attention. Not because they are amazing stories, but because they are titled as “travel hacking” and I think that term deserves a discussion.

The first article is on Business Insider and is about a blogger named Sam Huang and his “round the world trip in first class for $300”. To be clear, Sam is selling something. I don’t know exactly what it is but I would guess it’s a guide to earning miles with a credit card. He clearly sent out some feelers to see if anyone would be interested in carrying his story to hopefully generate some traffic.

Travel blogger Sam Huang recently cashed in his Alaska Airlines frequent-flyer miles for a $60,000 trip around the world, and luckily he took plenty of pictures documenting what it was like.

Right off the bat I see some interesting claims being made. One, this isn’t really a round-the-world itinerary, it’s a one-way purchased with miles and then a return at a later date, also purchased with miles. A true round-the-world goes in one direction around the globe and ends in the same city (or close to it) that the journey began. Secondly, the price seems quite steep. I cannot find anything on the Emirates website that hints at the price for a trip around the world in first costing $60,000. My guess is that Huang priced out each separate segment in first and is quoting the sum as the price of the trip which may or may not be close to reality.

The second story is this one, on Collectively Conscious, about blogger Scott Keyes. I have to give Mr. Keyes some credit as he looks for cheap fares and seems to be focused on travel rather selling a service or a guide to earn free miles.

This is nothing new for Keyes, who told us that he uses his massive collection of credit cards to gain points, frequent flyer miles, and plenty of other member perks all the time. He then turns around and uses those perks on vacations like his upcoming trip that will take him 20,000 miles on 21 flights — all for free.

The strand that ties these two stories together is the heavy mention and use of credit card miles. Both gentlemen use a frequent flyer credit card and use those earned miles for travel, but what neither article seems to touch on is how exactly they are doing it. More than likely they are signing up for cards and then spending enough on the card to earn the bonus miles probably offered for initial sign-up and then eventually cancelling the card. It is a stretch to call this “travel hacking”. The practice is definitely neat and draws in some pageviews, but relying on a credit card to fuel travel is not an easy undertaking but is being sold to readers as a cheap way to get from point A to point B in style (or on the cheap). For some people, cash back cards may actually be a better proposition, for others, a card that gives them points that they can use for purchases might work better. Just jumping into the airline/travel credit card game without a goal or an understanding of the risks, which range from devaluation to closing of accounts, is dangerous and something I discourage.

A telling paragraph in the Keyes story:

Keyes has a few methods to procure his frequent flyer miles, including opening new credit cards that award miles or points, letting airlines know when there’s a problem with his flight, and not being afraid to get bumped if a flight is full.

Opening new credit cards is at the forefront. Complaining about something broken or a problem on a flight I don’t have a qualm with, but it seems to be a tactic that gets abused. The last point about being bumped if a flight is full is a great way to earn airline vouchers if you have flexible plans. Just know that some of the vouchers come with restrictions and make sure you understand those restrictions.

It is sad to see “travel hacking” basically turned into a credit card ad and having people eating it up as a quick route to travel when it could backfire badly. Using multiple cards to earn the miles that are talked about in these articles takes organization and a firm understanding of the terms and how your personal credit rating works. It would be nice if such details were included in these articles and people were made aware of what was really going on.

United Boeing 787
Texas Monthly’s recent piece, “Up in the Air” by Loren Steffy, has left me scratching my head. The by-line is “The 2010 sale of Continental Airlines has left Houston in a holding pattern” so I was expecting a look into dealings with the city or the airport. I braced myself for an investigative long-read.

The first two paragraphs focus on how terrible it was to lose Continental to the merger and then United to Chicago; How cultures are a problem.

As a management consultant, Heiland knew that the biggest hurdle for the two companies wouldn’t be integrating systems, processes, or technology but reconciling their cultures. “When it was announced that the headquarters would be in Chicago, I felt the war was lost.”

Then all of the sudden the article becomes a brief history of Continental. Details about former CEOs and what they did or didn’t do for the airline. All of it reads like a Wikipedia job. Then near the end there is some more meat.

And so, in 2010, Smisek struck a deal. Though he called it a merger, he basically sold Continental to United; the name “Continental” disappeared and the Houston headquarters was essentially vacated. Continental’s management team was supposed to be in charge, but it never took root in the cold climes of Chicago. “The Continental culture was a terrible thing to risk,” Bakes says. “United’s history is one of bureaucracy and arrogance, and it ended up culturally being more dominant.”

I get it, there are definite service issues with United. I’m not convinced it had anything to do with “culture” at either airline but more to do with the management not fostering a relationship with the front line staff and building trust. It has lead to distrust and unhappiness for the people who travelers see first and deal with most in their travels: flight attendants, agents, and other ground staff. Morale has been in the mud and it shows. The new CEO, Oscar Munoz, who is on medical leave due to a recent heart attack, mentioned the morale problems and customer service issues immediately after taking the job.

On another note, the part about the Houston offices being vacated is at best an oversight or at worst, poor research. There are a large number of employees who still work in downtown Houston. Just fly a Chicago-Houston morning flight or an evening Houston-Chicago flight, there are a lot of United employees commuting to or from the Houston office.

The whole article reads like a whine and never addresses the by-line. How is Houston in a holding pattern? If anything, United has helped the city before the merger and after. United has committed to paying for at least part of the renovations taking place at Terminal B and C at IAH. The airline also plays a crucial role in attracting other carriers to the city. Their membership in the Star Alliance means that other airlines can codeshare with them, drawing those carriers to offer service to airports where United is located to connect to surrounding cities. EVA, ANA, Singapore Airlines, Air China, Lufthansa and Avianca all offer service to IAH, building on the connections that United offers. And soon there will be a Houston-Auckland flight on Air New Zealand, another Star Alliance partner.

If United had truly left Houston in a holding pattern, it would have happened in a similar fashion to what they did to Cleveland or what Delta did to Cincinnati. Nostalgia is always fun to discuss and reminisce about, but the Texas Monthly article was far from that. I would have been much more of a fan had Texas Monthly found and licensed a bunch of old IAH and Continental photos and just told the history of the airline and the airport. Instead it was a let down.

Brandenburg Gate
Last week a number of airlines had a sale on business class tickets from the U.S. to Europe. Prices were about the same as coach and the destinations varied by airline alliance but most of the overlap seemed to be Dublin, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. The key was, the tickets had to be purchased by Friday, October 16. We had been looking for options for the spring break holiday and considered some of these destinations as well as a reward I had on hold for Japan for the cherry blossom season. Unfortunately, the timing of the flights to Japan meant we would only have four days in the country and to me, that was not long enough to really enjoy the trip. In addition, the hotels in Japan during cherry blossom season are insanely priced and that made it even less attractive. Since the fare sale did not include any German cities, we decided to fly into Prague and take the train to Berlin for a week.

I ended up purchasing Portland-Washington Dulles-Vienna-Prague for the outbound and Prague-Frankfurt-Denver-Portland for the return. We’ll get to try Austrian Airlines on the longhaul Dulles-Vienna segment, which I am a little excited about, but a little worried about the short duration of the flight. I prefer longer flights so I can rest and try to adjust to the destination’s timezone. There were not many options available by the time I booked, so I went with the new carrier.

All of this came together rather quickly, I saw the fares on Thursday and purchased Friday afternoon. A number of the available destinations have less than stellar weather in March (Dublin) so we were looking at options with better weather (it will be cold in Berlin, but not too bad) and since we know Berlin, it will be pretty easy for us to get around. The other things I was having to take into consideration were airlines. The fare was available on Delta and they have a non-stop Portland-Amsterdam flight. Unfortunately, the outbound was not available but the return was. I strongly considered Delta though, as I would really like to fly them on a longhaul flight.

Overall, I think it will be a great trip. The flight from Dulles to Vienna might be short, but I can sleep on the train. It will be our first long vacation since moving to Portland and we are really looking forward to it. Making quick decisions is tough, but when a good fare comes up, you have to be quick.

Any new places in Berlin we should know about?

I recently listened to an account given by a business traveler about a cancelled flight on her way to a client engagement. The airline essentially told all of the passengers, “if you want to fly with us, the next flight is tomorrow morning”, sending most of them home for the rest of the day. The business traveler then told me about her company’s business travel policies, she books via a booking portal (Concur, Egencia, etc. are all examples) and that she must book the cheapest flights for the earliest arrival, regardless of airline. Such policies sound harsh, but they are quite normal. For this particular traveler, luck was on her side, as the airline that she was flying that day, was actually the airline she has status with. She called their elite line and was quickly booked on the next available flight to get her to her destination.

This begs the question, should employers encourage employees to have status with an airline? Status perks go beyond bonus miles and upgrades, there are usually dedicated phone lines for customers, most airline customer service agents are encouraged to go above and beyond for elites, and for a number of programs, there is the waving of some fees.

I get why companies want their employees to use a booking portal, they get a small amount of the transaction dollars paid back to them and since they are billing the travel, those small increments can add up. But by telling your employees to book whoever is cheapest, regardless of status, I think they may be doing them, and their clients, a disservice. Sure, there is a minority of travelers who abuse their travel privileges to fly certain carriers but I doubt it is anywhere close to being the norm and I don’t think it should discourage allegiance to an airline.

The bottom line is always money, but it seems companies are looking only at a small portion of the bottom line. What if an employee had been able to get on an earlier flight for free because of their status, getting a few extra billable hours in on-site at the client. Shouldn’t those dollars be accounted for when making travel policy decisions? What about being able to take a later flight to stay on-site a little longer to help a client with something? Now you’ve made some extra cash and you have impressed the client.

What I think happens is that the travel agent companies and their booking portal buddies get together and build a real fancy PowerPoint, wowing their potential clients. Employers see potential profit and some travel agent “benefits” without understanding that what those travel agents are doing is acting on behalf of the employee, when the employee may be sitting at the airport staring at their gate, stranded.

There are three major airlines in the U.S., Delta, United, and American. There is also Southwest, which a lot of corporate booking portals now include in their results, but they open up a whole new can of worms when it comes to irregular operations and not being able to put you on another carrier. Companies could have their employees choose an airline to be loyal to and maybe a back up for when schedules/prices are a little better and the employee then flies that airline when possible. The employee benefits, and in the long run, so does the employer.

From Gerald Lynch’s piece at Gizmodo:

Offline downloads are perhaps the most often requested, “holy grail” feature of TV and movie streaming services, and while Netflix may be the leading provider, it’s Amazon and its Prime Instant Video service that’s become the first to offer it. Netflix however remains firm in its stance that it’s not going to offer offline downloads through its mobile applications, even in the face of competition from its rival. But why?

According to Neil Hunt, Netflix’s Chief Product Officer, Netflix users won’t be able to handle the complexity the added choice will bring.

“I still don’t think it’s a very compelling proposition,” said Hunt, speaking to Gizmodo UK at the IFA tradeshow in Berlin.

As I write this at 34,000 feet over Montana, all I can say is, I don’t buy it.

The biggest use case for downloaded content is air travel. Airlines have been extremely quick at installing WiFi and some of these systems even offer streaming content, but basic WiFi service is still the norm and just about every service out there that I have seen blocks streaming content from Netflix, Amazon, etc. On top of that more airlines are moving to a model where streaming movies and TV hosted on an onboard server are paid content only. The recourse for customers is to download that content before a flight.

About six months ago I made a comment on Twitter about how I wished Amazon would allow downloads of video content on non-Fire devices. There was, and still is, a large amount of video content that I would like to enjoy and now I can, even when flying. Add people who don’t want to eat up their data plan or don’t have access to an LTE network from time to time and the number of those who could benefit from downloads starts to increase dramatically.

The argument that downloads would be too complex seems to me to be a cop-out. An easy way to avoid the discussion. People will take notice and eventually Netflix will have to offer downloads or some variant of them.

The Man Who Flies Around the World for Free

Rolling Stone did a feature on Ben Schlappig, creator of One Mile At a Time, and it’s definitely interesting. In typical Rolling Stone fashion, I am sure it was edited and in some cases sugarcoated to make the story more intriguing (I for one have never heard of “the Hobby”), but it’s a good read. There is tons of insight into the frequent flier community, including this:

Early editions of Petersen’s magazine featured stories on deals from obscure carriers; instructed fliers on how to duck airline countermeasures; and showed readers how they could win a thousand free miles by subscribing to magazines like Esquire. By 1993, Inside Flyer had 90,000 readers. Two years later, Petersen took the community online as FlyerTalk.

And this:

For some, the game has evolved from a wonkish pastime into an ends-justified obsession with beating the airlines — less Rain Man, more Ocean’s Eleven. While the game’s traditional methods remain technically legal, these Hobbyists — imagine them as the Deep Web of the Hobby — use tactics that routinely violate airline terms and conditions, techniques that can span a gradient from clever and harmless to borderline theft. (Schlappig concedes that he pushes the rules but insists he is careful not to break any laws.) Take the practice of “hidden-city ticketing” — booking your layover as your final destination, like buying a ticket from Point A to Point C, then sneaking away at B — or “fuel dumping,” a booking technique that confuses the price algorithm to deduct the cost of fuel from a ticket, often at an enormous discount.

I decided to read the Flyertalk thread that talks about the article and it was painful. A lot of personal attacks aimed at Ben and his story made it hard to read. I’ve only met Ben a few times and he’s a nice guy, I don’t agree with everything he writes or the idea of pushing credit cards on readers to receive the sign-up bonus, but I am a little jealous that he gets to fly around to really cool places and do it in premium cabins and makes a living from it. I think anyone who is a frequent flier and says they aren’t jealous of some of Ben’s travels is lying to themselves.

For me, doing a full time schedule of around the world travel, even in premium cabins, sounds good on the surface but is something I would probably really struggle with. I like having somewhere to come back to, a base of operations. But I would definitely love to fly premium cabins to exoctic locales more than I do currently.

After our move to Portland last year, I decided to match my United 1K status to Alaska Airlines. At the time, there were rumors that Alaska was matching top tier statuses from other airlines with their Gold 75K status, so I gave it a shot. A few weeks after submitting the match I received my credentials in the mail and sure enough, Gold 75K was what they gave me.

Since then I have not had much of an opportunity to fly on Alaska. Most of trips early in the year were to places they don’t fly or where their prices were not competitive. But recently Alaska Airlines has started offering flights between Seattle and Milwaukee and it has been perfect for my work trips. The flights are operated by Skywest using Embraer E-175s, a regional jet that doesn’t feel like a regional jet. They can hold normal sized carry-on bags in the overhead bins, they have tall ceilings, and for most carriers, they have a first class cabin.

My first trip on Alaska’s new Skywest E175 service was a return from Milwaukee to Seattle on the second day the flight operated. I had been upgraded to first class shortly after booking. The only seats available were the set of two in the bulkhead. Not my favorite seats, but I was not going to complain. At the airport, there was an agent helping customers use the kiosk as well as two agents helping at the counter to check bags and print boarding passes. All were very friendly and seemed excited about the new service. I arrived with a little more than an hour until boarding but with PreCheck, I was through security and at the gate very quickly. Not much more waiting and they were already announcing boarding for families with children under two and those needing extra assistance. Then active duty military were called and first class. Walking onboard I got a good whiff of “new plane smell” which, I have to say, is like new car smell just a bit more expensive.

The flight attendants had already placed small Dasani water bottles at every seat and were greeting passengers as they boarded. They both seemed excited about the new planes, the new service, and just happy to be there. It was refreshing. The plane did not take long to board and we pushed back from the gate right on schedule, the captain telling us it would be right at four hours until wheels down in Seattle. I was actually seated next to a pilot who explained that for the first few days of service, Alaska and Skywest were flying an extra crew to operate the return flight just in case there was a storm or other delay that would cause the original crew to time out and cancel the flight. He was gracious and answered all of my questions about the E-175 and the Skywest service for all of the different carriers. It seemed like he enjoyed his job and was happy to be able to fly the E-175 for multiple carriers now.

Shortly after takeoff the flight attendant visited each passenger, asking them what they wanted to drink and whether or not they would be having dinner. I asked for an Alaskan Amber and mentioned that yes, I would be having dinner. I expected to hear choices for dinner but none were presented. A short time later and the Alaskan Amber and plastic ramekin of nuts was delivered (the nuts had been heated). A little while later and the dinner was placed in front of me. The meal consisted of a sandwich, in this case chipotle chicken, a salad, and a cookie. The meal was ok. I am not a fan of those sandwich rounds used for the bread but other than that, it was fine. I will say that I found the portion to be a little small for a flight of four hours. United, on Chicago-Portland in first, serves a large portion meal followed by an ice cream dessert.

On the next flight I took, Seattle to Milwaukee, the meal was a similar sandwich and salad affair but the sandwich was a “Cuban”. I put it in quotes because it had pickles, cheese, and ham but that’s about where the similarities between what I ate and a what Cuban sandwich is end.

Let’s talk about the seat for a minute. It’s a simple first class seat with a power outlet for each passenger. The headrest is adjustable and the recline is nice. Other than that, it’s a basic seat. There is also supposed to be WiFi and streaming entertainment but neither of these have been available on any of the flights I have been on, though I am told it is definitely coming.

Overall, Alaska’s E-175 offering is a great option to get from the Pacific Northwest to Milwaukee. The food leaves a little to be desired but it’s non-stop from Seattle (I do wish it left a little earlier) and the operation seems to be pretty solid. I have taken thes flights between Seattle and Milwaukee about 5 times so far and the only inconsistency I’ve noticed is in the flight attendant service. I think this will work itself out once they are used to operating for Alaska on the E-175s, but there were a few times where the crew did not know how to operate some of the equipment or handle the service. Definitely nothing that is a deal breaker for me. I am just happy to have another option where I do not have to connect through Chicago.