To see my tribute to Flo, go here

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

Monday, January 10, 2011

Building up to Berlin booking

I've been silent on this blog since my return from Italy. I'm back on my original concept of the blog being mainly about my international travel.

The main domestic trip I've taken during this time was to San Francisco; it was so wrapped up in personal matters that I wasn't ready to post about it in detail. After reluctantly joining Facebook, I connected there with most of my small class (where I was the only boy) from my American high school in Rome. I saw one classmate in Iowa at Thanksgiving; during the San Francisco trip, in September, I spent time with a classmate from nearby. This woman and I have connected in a special way during the time we were together on the trip and as we've been in touch since then, and I'm hoping we have a future as, at a minimum, traveling companions. I'm having her join me and my parents in an upcoming trip to New Orleans.

A few developments in the general travel scene have caught my attention. One is the indignities building up in airport security in the U.S., which is really security theater as there are still loopholes for bad guys to exploit. Also, I could mention the curiosity that I looked at a number on the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards screen for my account that was in the 90s; I thought wow, that could reach 100 and I'll have a companion pass for a companion to travel free with me, but I don't normally travel with a companion (if I do with the aforementioned one, we would generally be starting from different places and the pass wouldn't work). Then I saw that count wasn't the credits from one year (where 100 would lead to a pass) but two years, so I wasn't so close. Just as I get this post started, Southwest has announced the revamping of Rapid Rewards, meaning that award trips will now be earned based on the fare paid, rather than a cheap short trip getting the same credit as an expensive transcontinental trip. It's going to be much harder for me to get award trips on Southwest. Between this and security changes, I'll need to rethink my practices of going on casual domestic trips.

But getting back to the main topic of this blog, international travel, I've had in mind that I'd like to get to Berlin, and for now I'm just booking that trip for myself. In my post on travel around the Flo memorials (June 21, 2010), I mentioned that I took an overnight bump on a United flight and got a $600 voucher. A condition of the voucher was that it had to be used on United-operated flights, which wouldn't get me all the way to Berlin; the United itineraries would call for a codeshare, generally on Lufthansa, for the last segment. So I was making plans to apply the voucher to a trip to Munich (a destination I consider preferable to Frankfurt), then purchase a separate ticket (usually looking at Air Berlin) to Berlin. I was thinking I could connect (allowing a reasonable layover) on my arrival day on the outbound, then have a couple of days in Munich on the return.

I then learned from FlyerTalk that there is a way around the restriction of using the voucher only for UA-operated flights. Book a fully refundable ticket on a route that's available for a little more than the value of the voucher (it can have nothing to do with the route that I plan to take), then cancel and apply the funds to the trip I want, which can include codeshare segments.

For a dummy reservation, a fully refundable Kansas City-Cincinnati trip was a little more than $600. The voucher required phone rather than online booking. The phone reservations system is automated, working with voice recognition, and I didn't find any menu options that provided for the voucher. I went to to learn how to get to a person, and got through to an operator, likely in a distant country. I had them hold the reservation; since I was going by Kansas City airport, as I always do when going to the city, I arranged to exchange the voucher there rather than mail it, which in my view would call for the trouble of certified mail.

I got to the airport and made the exchange at the ticket counter. The agent said there was a lower fare that would let me keep one of the vouchers (they were actually four $150 vouchers). I asked if that was refundable as I wanted, and he said yes. I took that; when I got the receipt, and saw the term "NONREF"; I went back and asked him about it; he said "You wanted a refundable fare?" and went back, taking needless time to make the change to the previously quoted fare for this trip that I had no intention of taking, while there were people behind me in line apparently needing to make a change to get onto a flight that was about to take off.

When I got home, I called up my confirmation code on the United site, and it didn't come up. It called for using the code and my last name; I looked at the receipt, and they had misspelled my name. I called to get that fixed. This was in early December, and I needed to figure out when to book the Berlin trip for May. The fare was hovering around $1000; aside from generally needing to decide whether to go ahead with the trip as planned, I wanted to see if low fares turned up in January, as sometimes happens. For low season, there had been options of a fare of $750, or $150 in new money; I thought for my first trip there I should go in better weather, and May looked good.

Although lower, possibly mistake, fares were sometimes showing for other airlines, I wasn't seeing any change for United as I was committed to take, and people were saying not to expect to see particularly lower fares this year. Then on Kayak, which I usually rely on to tap into the airline sites, United's fare was getting higher. My first instinct was to wait in the hope that they would go down some, but then I went to United's site and found itineraries where the fare hadn't gone up. When I see a fare that's gone up on one site but is still available on another, that's when my instinct says it's time to book.

When my dummy ticket to Cincinnati was booked and I was able to call it up on the site, I had been able to go through the steps of changing to the other itinerary online, with them quoting the fare difference without a change fee, and I stopped short of confirming it. This may have been when my name was misspelled; every time I tried afterwards, I got an error message, perhaps because there had been too many interventions on my record. So anyway, I needed to phone to get this itinerary confirmed; the agent said some of their systems were down and they needed to do some of the process manually. She also quoted a $150 change fee; I questioned that, with the previous ticket having been refundable, and she got that fee removed; I have this trip booked with $350 of new money.

I had been looking for itineraries connecting in Chicago rather than Washington Dulles on the U.S. side, and Munich rather than Frankfurt on the German side. I was able to use Chicago in both directions, but getting the lower fare required connecting in Frankfurt on the outbound. On the return, I was able to connect in Brussels, which has a slightly lower tax and I think is an easier airport. All connecting times are comfortable; I extended the trip by a day rather than have a too-tight connection in Frankfurt on the return.

So I have this trip booked; I'd been interested for some time in getting to Berlin, and when I got the voucher on United, with their many flights to Germany, I thought this would be a good occasion. When I learned about the way to use the voucher on codeshares, I could have considered the option to use the voucher to go to Italy with more options than United's Washington-Rome flight. It was certainly something to consider especially with the chance of going with a companion, but for now it feels right to do this Berlin trip this year, and have a good, fulfilling Italy trip in 2012.

Now that I've resolved all this about getting to Berlin, I need to get in mind why I was interested, what I'd like to do, and where to stay, whether it's finally time to get a vacation rental and go more in the Slow Travel style.