To see my tribute to Flo, go here

See about helping Flo's Haitian artist friends at Jakmel Ekspresyon

Monday, September 14, 2009

Southwest's ill-timed generosity

Updating my transatlantic booking: Northwest has changed all its flight numbers starting in late October. I got an itinerary update e-mail with new flight numbers, but the flight times are the same.

I view this blog as mainly about international travel, but here's an occasion to report on my domestic travel with Southwest Airlines. SWA has much in its favor: from Kansas City, they have the only non-stops to many places, all flights are the same aircraft type (no jungle jets), and they've given me enough drink coupons that I can have alcohol on all flights, even the early-morning ones. With no change fees, I can often rebook at a lower fare and have the difference as a credit for future travel. If I need to change plans, there's a potentially higher fare and I need to pay the difference, but no change fee on top of that. I can work with their open seating system so it's usually preferable to assigned seating on other airlines; they've added a new wrinkle where I need to see if I should spend $10 for EarlyBird check-in and a pre-assigned early place in line.

I endeavor to earn one award ticket per year with them, to use for the year-end holidays. Since they expire a year after being issued, I've been trying to get them issued early in the year so they're available for that use or any emergencies before that. It's a bit much even for me to take eight round trips a year to reach award level with them; in addition to car rentals, a conversion from the Choice Privileges hotel program helps to top off an award. Ideally I would convert what I needed early in the year. However, Choice has a history of devaluing their conversion rate without notice. This summer, word got out that there was a discreet notice on their Web site that they were about to do a new devaluation. I made the conversion at the old rate, noting that I would need to limit what SWA credits I would get for the rest of the year, so an award wasn't issued too early.

A trip to Baltimore (really Washington) in mid-June had not posted. Enough time passed that I figured that it would not post until I made the request online, and they allow two years to do that. I had my booking to the SlowTrav get-together in St. Louis for $30 each way, less than the price of gas, and a car rental with a coupon for next to nothing, also using a code that would get me double Southwest credit. I would be right there at two credits short of an award, and I would put in for the missing Baltimore credits in January and get the award issued.

On the curious date of September 11, nearly three months after the flight, I got an e-mail that an award had posted with those credits. So next 9/11 is the expiration date of that award, which I was aiming to use in December 2010, and I need to decide whether to use it by the expiration date or extend it for $50. I've thought of the one-year expiration and that fee as unfair, but I've learned to consider it reasonable. My previous plan was also holding me back from taking any more trips this fall, but now I'm open to doing that. I'm kicking myself for not doing the St. Louis car rental without the bonus code, so I would still be a half-credit short. It's mysterious why the SWA credit posted at this late date, but I can't say I have a grievance with them. Their program's been devalued since they offered unrestricted award trips to members who took four cheap round trips. They have a genius at keeping the program attractive, or at least one that can be worked with, as they devalue it. They're delaying the start of Rapid Rewards 2.0, which reportedly will give points based on fare paid, and I'm thinking it will be difficult for me to benefit from that.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Frequent flyer adventures

As I've given a lot of attention to practical travel matters, I continue to learn things. I've been able to take overseas award flights most years this decade with very little paid travel. Early in the decade I got several bonuses for changing my long distance phone service when I make little use of the phone; more recently bonuses for getting credit cards have earned me awards. In Northwest's program, I took award trips to Europe in 2007 and 2008, while my only miles-earning trips during that time were a couple of trips to Toronto and one to Savannah for the 2008 Slow Travel gathering. As the merger with Delta came into place, I started getting some small bonuses to revive my near-empty account with them, and the miles could be combined for a new transatlantic award. Here is a report on the trip that didn't happen as this is written in 2009, and the trip that I have booked for 2010.

The trip that didn't happen, Paris-Berlin 2009.

I was continuing to get bonuses on NW, mostly from restaurants on the Rewards Network list. I had dropped NW's Visa card when the annual fee came due in late 2008. NW appeared to consider me still a cardholder when their affiliation with that Visa ended, and they gave me an especially nice offer for the Delta American Express card. I regularly go to Italy in even-numbered years; I thought that if the opportunity came into place I could go elsewhere in Europe this year, and the chance of combining Paris and Berlin looked interesting. I have a history with Paris, having lived there a year as a child, and made frequent visits when I lived in Italy as a teenager. I haven't been to Berlin, and have gotten interested in visiting for several reasons. With the credit card bonus, I could make this trip.

The bonus for getting the credit card came in three sections. There was a warning to expect each to take 8-12 weeks to post, but the first two posted promptly. For the third, I needed to charge a certain amount in the first three months; I reached it by the second billing date in late June and was checking regularly to see if the bonus posted. Although people were saying that the two airlines' low-tier transatlantic award of 60,000 miles was getting nearly impossible to find, I was looking and finding availability for the 3-legged trip (that is, including a Paris-Berlin flight) at that level, leaving from St. Louis where I would be for a Slow Travel get-together on Aug. 30.

Even though NW and Delta are becoming the same airline, and until Aug. 31 miles could be transferred between programs, the two sites were often showing different award availability, and the NW site was easier to search for the 3-legged trip. The search involved some steps for which a lesson may not be that useful since the NW Worldperks program is set to go away in October, but in brief: select Multi-City and WorldPerks award, fill in the three city pairs, and note to change the default dates that they put in. Presumably a list by Lowest Miles for each segment is what would most interest people, but the list doesn't come this way; you need to select a button to have it sort with the Lowest Miles first. If the intra-Europe segment is at 12,500 miles, the whole trip prices at 60K.

On the Delta site, if you select the Multi-City option it doesn't show the price in miles of each segment. The way around this is to to search each segment first as a round trip and see which flights are in the low-miles bucket. A curiosity there is that for intra-Europe trips Delta's "taxes and fees" for an award trip were often more than the fare at which the trip could be booked for money on the Air France site. Both NW and Delta's sites were flaky about showing good availability once, then shortly afterwards not showing that flight available even at the high miles level. In particular NW's site was on and off about showing Air France flights.

I was trying not to search too often before I had the miles, but I kept doing it. Availability out of St. Louis went away, but I found it out of Chicago, where the transatlantic flight would be on Air France, which I'd prefer. As a contingency for this, I booked a (cancellable, funds could be used for later travel) St. Louis-Chicago flight on Southwest for $30, and I'd need to get from Midway to O'Hare airport. Another remaining alternative was to return home and fly out of Kansas City the next day; that itinerary would require changing Washington, D.C., airports. Those options went away and I was looking at leaving a week later, the latest option before there would be bigger problems in being away from work.

Usually the Paris-Berlin availability only showed for connections through Amsterdam; in fact, even though Air France was a partner and these airlines fly from their hubs to Paris, I was looking at all three legs connecting through AMS. Some options showed a long enough layover there after the overnight flight that I'd have considered a few hours at the Yotel in the terminal. Often the only non-stop Paris-Berlin flight with availability was at 7 a.m.; I first thought I'd rather connect through AMS than try that, then I got ready to go with that flight and stay on points at the airport Hilton the night before. People also said that going from central Paris to CDG airport by taxi or car service to make a flight at that time is fast, but it can be a problem to go by public transportation, as I'd prefer, at that hour.

The miles didn't post with my third statement in late July, and I started to get cold feet about making the trip. Although I could afford the costs on the ground, they would still be substantial at a time that I should be thinking more about saving for retirement. Silly as it seems, what really turned me against this trip was hearing a story on public radio that the Berlin S-Bahn train was having problems and service had been cut back. If I go to Germany, I want to see efficient public transportation!

So in early August, I booked a trip to see my family in Vermont the first week of September. On Aug. 7, the miles finally posted and out of curiosity I searched and found that there was still availability for this trip leaving the first weekend of September, but I'd decided not to take it and was otherwise committed. It was hard to believe that I was still accumulating miles to this extent, but surely if I used the miles this year, next year's trip to Italy would need to be paid. Now I had the miles for my 2010 trip to Italy with a stopover in Paris. Berlin will need to wait.

The trip that's booked: Italy with a stopover in Paris, 2010

Before I had the final bonus, I transferred all my NW miles to Delta because that's where the credit card bonus would go. When that bonus took me over 60K, I transferred that amount to NW because of their easier booking. When another bonus for partner transactions with Delta posted before the Aug. 31, I made another transfer to have 75K with NW.

So there were considerations in when to go to Italy. There's a small window of time when the family house isn't rented before the height of summer. I could wait for a trip in September or later, but there was some appeal to booking while the better NW site is up and while Continental is still a partner (that ends in late October): having them with one connection in Newark as an option is nice.

While watching U.S. Open tennis on television in my parents' home, having briefly talked about when the Italy house would be available, I couldn't resist searching on a laptop for current availability for this trip. I found it for early summer dates, going to Paris first, at 75K. Maybe I could have waited to find something at 60K, but it was hard to wait much longer, and, as I prefer, these transatlantic flights are without a change in Europe. In fact I think this availability showed because the Minneapolis-Paris and Rome-Detroit flights had just been put back on the schedule. These were booked as NW flights but it appears that only the Delta name will be in place then, and I'm expecting to see big schedule changes before I go.

For Paris-Rome, I only needed a flight with medium-tier award availability, and maybe the choices were limited because of momentary site flakiness and I should have waited. There were options to connect through Amsterdam, which seems really out of the way, and others to connect through Lyon or Bordeaux; one option was to stay overnight in Lyon and leave late enough the second day to see some of Lyon, probably not a good way for a Slow Traveler to make a one lifetime visit. Having a connection on these flights also adds to the fees on an award ticket. I considered flying to Florence, but I went with the one non-stop to Rome that was showing, in the evening, so if I'm going alone I'll probably stay at a Rome airport Hilton. Then I noted that World Cup quarterfinals will be in progress; if France or Italy are playing it will be interesting trying to get service, and I'll be wanting access to TV too. If I'd waited to book, maybe I could have found a more convenient flight time, but it would have meant devoting the full day to the relocation; as I have it, I can do things in Paris before leaving.

While I was booking, there was also the option for my parents to book their award and join me, just for the Italy part. It would require a transfer of miles, at a cost but for now with a bonus, from mother to father. I was finding availability at 60K from Boston or a closer airport but connecting through Detroit (an indication that the reinstated flight was the key). When I changed it to search availability for two people, it was no longer showing. So their plans are on hold; I have hope that there's time for this to become available at the lower mile level. People worry about Delta showing much availability; my experience is that airlines in general improve their award availability in January for summer travel.

So, thinking about non-airline matters, for Paris my parents recommend a hotel, but I also need to be open to the SlowTrav style of apartment stays. I have a long list of museums I want to see, and I need to see if the Paris Museum Pass makes sense. My stay in Italy will be shaped by whether my parents are there; I'll need to consider whether to spend the whole time in the Umbertide house with a few excursions around Umbria and nearby Tuscany, or take other trips around. Arriving on Friday night, do I rent a car at the airport although I try to avoid the surcharge, or do I take the train to, say, Perugia, to rent the car before the Saturday midday closing? Or spend time in Rome before going to Umbria? Things to consider.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Starting out

My interest in travel has shown in various places. At this point, some years behind the times I suppose, I'm starting a blog for the things I have to say. This title came to mind for the topic to be mostly travel, although I may stray from it; in that discussion area, I have the most to say in a "Just the facts" practical approach, but I'll go beyond that too. I don't expect to have the polished writing style that I've seen in other blogs. We'll see where this goes.