Review: United Global First Class Sydney to San Francisco

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

We awoke at the Park Hyatt Melbourne after our last night in Australia, and grabbed a cab to the Melbourne Airport.  We were to pick up our United ticket back to the States in Sydney, so we booked a one-way flight from Melbourne to Sydney on Qantas.  In order to avoid a misconnection, we allowed ourselves a 3.5 hour layover in Sydney, which ultimately proved to be plenty of time.  After having breakfast in the Melbourne Airport food court, we proceeded to the gate to ride our Qantas B767-300 for a short, hour-long flight to Sydney to start out our long, 28-hour day of traveling.

Our flights home:  MEL-SYD-SFO-DCA / SFO-CLT-TPA

Our flights home: MEL-SYD-SFO-DCA / SFO-CLT-TPA

We were luckily able to snag a couple bulkhead seats, so this flight wasn’t bad at all — chalk it up as another good experience with Qantas, similar to what we experienced a few days before.

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

We arrived in the domestic terminal 2 at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport, but we needed to get to Terminal 1 for our international flight on United to San Francisco.  Qantas operates a shuttle between the domestic and international terminals for their international connecting passengers, but they allowed us to access the shuttle with our Untied boarding passes, so that was nice.

After driving the tarmac past some behemoth airplanes, the shuttle dropped us off at a point where we had to go either to the transfer security checkpoint, or to the check-in counters.  We went to the United check-in counters, but they were not yet open as it was a tad more than three hours before our scheduled flight time.  Though we had boarding passes on our phone, we wanted paper boarding passes and lounge passes, so we waited about five minutes before we saw a United representative.  Though they weren’t open yet, she saw were Global First Class passengers, so she went ahead and produced our boarding passes and sent us on our way.

Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge

After going through security, we proceeded to the Star Alliance section of the terminal.  Though we had lounge invites for the Air New Zealand Lounge, I figured we’d give the Singapore First Class Lounge a shot since according to the Star Alliance Lounge Access Policy, we should be granted access.

We were, in fact, granted access to the Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge without issue, and were informed that it had just undergone a refurbishment.  It was completely empty when we arrived, so we took two seats overlooking the tarmac and several gates.

The View from our perch in the Singapore First Class Lounge at Sydney

The View from our perch in the Singapore First Class Lounge at Sydney

We enjoyed a few drinks, and  a fantastic Thai Red Coconut curry lunch in the lounge.  We really enjoyed this lounge, and appreciated the personal service we had during our two hours there, as there was a waiter who kept our drinks and plates full.  Though there were ultimately a few other patrons in the lounge, we felt like we had the place to ourselves, making for a very relaxing layover prior to our loooooong flight back to the States.  Oh, and the bathroom had one of the more ridiculous signs I’ve seen…

Best signage ever in the Singapore First Class Lounge Restroom!

Best signage ever in the Singapore First Class Lounge Restroom!  Thanks for the advice, SQ!

We left the lounge a little after the published boarding time only to find hoards of people by the gate.  Shockingly, boarding had yet to commence, so we popped up into the Air  New Zealand Business Lounge.  And what an insane asylum it was!  This was a massive lounge that was quite crowded and very loud.  After checking it out for ten minutes, we’d seen enough — we were so glad that we opted to spend time in the Singapore First Class Lounge instead (though I loved the hot dog cart in the ANZ lounge)!  By the time we got back to the gate, boarding was well underway.

United Airlines (UA) 870
Sydney (SYD) – San Francisco (SFO)
Aircraft:  Boeing 747-400
Seat:  1A (Global First Class)
Thursday, January 9
4:20PM – 10:50AM
Duration:  13:30

We boarded through door 1L, hung a left, and were seated in the same two seats that we had on our outbound flights a few weeks prior:  seats 1A and 1K in Global First Class on board a United B747-400.  Again, I can’t say enough about the awesomeness of these seats.  They’re somewhat private, they have a ton of storage, there is no foot traffic, and they’re very spacious.  Overall, it’s an extremely comfortable seat in which to spend 13+ hours, and is great for pairs traveling together.

Seat 1A in Global First Class on the United B747-400

Seat 1A in Global First Class on the United B747-400

Plenty of Room in 1A

Plenty of Room in 1A

Once we took our seats, the friendly flight attendant fulfilled our pre-departure beverage requests and brought us our amenity kits, which I really do like.  We pushed back pretty close to on-time and taxied out past another United B747-400 that was running an extra segment due to a cancellation the day before.  We taxied all the way to the end of runway 34R and took an extra-long take-off roll before turning north.  The view of Sydney out my window was fantastic!

Dinner service began about 30 minutes after takeoff.  The appetizer was some sort of a pork won-ton, and was actually quite good.  The soup was a cream of asparagus, and it was probably the highlight of the dinner.  The salad was pretty standard — fresh and tasty.  Due to both of our awful entrees on our outbound flight LAX-SYD, I decided to play it safe and order the pasta.  The Pasta dish on this flight was a butternut squash ravioli.  It was relatively tasty, though dominated by the sauce.  The traditional ice cream sundae topped off this slightly improved meal.

At the end of the day, the dinner service was a bit better than our outbound flight, but it still just doesn’t compete with other airlines’ food in international first class that I’ve experienced.  You shouldn’t have to go with a “safe” choice when flying international first class.

After dinner, I had a few more drinks and watched another movie.  I started getting sleepy, so I went to change into something more comfortable.  When I came back to my seat, it was made into a bed.  Once again, I slept wonderfully on this flight.  I find the Global First Class seat on United to be great for sleeping, as it provides plenty of room for even me to stretch out (I’m 6’4″)!!

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

Seat 1A in United Global First Class in bed mode, and made up with a blue duvet

Seat 1A in United Global First Class in bed mode, and topped with a blue mattress pad

I awoke about 90 minutes outside of San Francisco and the flight attendant promptly brought me the breakfast menu.  I elected to try the eggs with hollandaise sauce.  The whole breakfast was served on one tray — the fruit, yogurt, croissant, eggs, and sausage.  Everything was pretty decent, though the eggs tasted like they were cooked 12 hours prior — and they looked like plastic.  It still wasn’t a terrible breakfast, though I do prefer my eggs to be freshly cooked, and these were most certainly not.

Big breakfast -- and interesting eggs!

Big breakfast — and interesting eggs!

Service throughout this flight was perfectly adequate, but nothing overly memorable or special.  The flight attendants were friendly enough and provided solid service.  When I needed something, it was taken care of quickly, but not necessarily with a smile.  Though it was good, I found the service to be better on our outbound flight from LAX.

Upon landing, I breezed through Global Entry and took a quick shower in the United Arrivals Lounge at SFO — a most welcome freshen-up after the long day of flying.  After that, my dad and I parted ways as he went off to catch his US Airways first class flight back home to Tampa via Charlotte and I went to catch my non-stop United flight to Washington-National airport in first class.

This was a non-eventful, domestic first class flight, and I slept through the entire flight!  I arrived in DC ahead of schedule, ending one of the most memorable few weeks of my life — and a trip with my dad that I’ll remember forever.

Bottom Line

United’s Global First Class is a very comfortable way to get to and from Australia.  The catering is what sets this product from being anywhere near first-rate in the industry.  Catering would qualify as okay to decent for business class, but it’s certainly not first class catering.  At the end of the day, the thing I value the most in a first class seat is the comfort of the seat, and I really do find this seat truly comfortable.  Though it lacks the privacy of some other airlines’ first class seats, it’s certainly a good way to cross the Pacific.

How I booked it…

As mentioned in my previous post, I booked this trip for my dad and I using United miles.  United charged 80,000 miles each way (160,000 miles round trip) for each of us.  Note:  As of March 2014, United no longer flies the Boeing 747-400 on its Australia routes.  Instead, the airline operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on both its LAX-SYD and SFO-SYD routes.  The B777-200 has four fewer Global First Class seats than the B747-400, so I expect it to be somewhat more difficult to find first class award space on United flights to Australia.  Starting in late 2014, United will operate their brand new, two-class B787-9 Dreamliner on nonstop flights from LAX to Melbourne.  This flight will only offer BusinessFirst class, similar to what I experienced on my flights on the B787-8 Dreamliner from Denver to Tokyo SeattleSeattle to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Denver.

Review: United Global First Class Los Angeles to Sydney

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

United Airlines (UA) 839
Los Angeles (LAX) – Sydney (SYD)
Aircraft:  Boeing 747-400
Seat:  1A (Global First Class)
Wednesday, December 25
10:05PM – 7:50AM (+2 days)
Duration:  14:45

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

After a bit more than an hour in the lounge, we were escorted to the gate by a United agent from the Global First Class Lounge to a separate air bridge, where we entered the Boeing 747-400 from the first door.  I selected seats for my dad and I in the first row — at the very tip of the nose of the 747.  These seats were absolutely fantastic since there was virtually no foot traffic by us.  Since it is in the nose, these seats were close enough to each other to have a conversation, yet far enough apart to where we could each enjoy our private space.  They were also separated from the rest of the first class cabin, so it really did feel like our own little mini-cabin.  I would highly recommend row 1 when flying solo, or with a companion in United Global First Class on the B747-400. The seat itself is very spacious and extremely comfortable.  In an upright position, one has an immense amount of personal space.  There is also a ton of storage all over the suite.  There is a good-sized In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) screen which has an impressive collection of movies, TV shows, music, and games.  I really enjoy United’s movie selection and find it to be one of the better IFE systems out there.

Shortly after boarding, the lead flight attendant, Doug introduced himself to us and brought us a pre-departure beverage and amenity kit.  The amenity kit for Global First Class is very nice, as it includes basically anything one would need during a flight.  My favorite part about the amenity kit is the actual case — it’s functional and re-usable, as I still use it to this day as an overnight kit.  Anyway, Doug and his crew took great care of us throughout the flight — the service was pretty outstanding all around on this particular flight. I oriented myself with my seat / suite, and started a movie, as I’d planned to watch a movie, have dinner and go immediately to bed.  Our departure was delayed for about 30 minutes as the crew confirmed the weight and balance of the aircraft. We finally pushed back around 10:35PM.  After taxiing for about a minute, the plane came to a stop.  Minutes later, the captain announced that they were having a mechanical difficulty, so we returned to the gate. This process would repeat itself two more times.

By 1AM, I was pretty convinced that they were going to cancel the flight due to mechanical issues.  Fortunately, we finally pushed back and taxied out to the runway for an actual departure at around 1:15am, about three hours late after three separate delays.   Our arrival time into Sydney was updated to around 10:20am local time on December 27th. Takeoff from LAX was pretty cool, as you could really feel the power of the 747 in the very front of the aircraft.  My dad particularly enjoyed this flight since it was his first time flying the Queen of the Skies — the Boeing 747.

As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew began dinner service at around 2AM Pacific time — about 5AM eastern time.  At this point, it was so late, I wasn’t even sure I was hungry, but went ahead and ordered anyway.  I ordered the coconut shrimp and spring roll for a warm appetizer, and this was relatively tasty.  The tomato soup was piping hot, and went great with the warm garlic bread and pretzel rolls.  For my entrée, I ordered the tamale stuffed chicken.  This dish could have been quite good if it was pulled off properly.  Unfortunately, my dish was given the heavy hand with the salt and spice, resulting in a dish that was so salty and spicy that it was barely even edible.  This was pretty disappointing, as I’d heard good things about this particular dish.  My dad ordered the beef ribs for his entrée, and he was similarly disappointed by a very tough and borderline inedible dish.  Luckily, the ice cream sundae somewhat salvaged the meal.   Overall, we found the dinner service to frankly not be up to standards for an international first class product.

After dinner,  I finished up my second movie and went to go change into more comfortable clothes to sleep in.  As I went to the lavatory to change, Doug offered to turn down my bed, which I found to be a nice touch.  I returned to my seat with the bed turned down and padded with a duvet and two over-sized pillows.  I slept wonderfully in this seat — it was probably one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had on a plane, as I was out cold for a good nine or ten hours.

Long Flight!

Long Flight!

I awoke about 90 minutes prior to arrival in Sydney.  Doug came by check on my sleep and to inquire as to whether I wanted breakfast.  After I changed back into my travel clothes, Doug delivered a continental breakfast of scones, croissants, yogurt, and fruit.  While not overly memorable, it was tasty enough.  After breakfast, we prepared for arrival into Sydney, and talked to Doug for a bit — again, the crew was fantastic and very friendly. Final approach and landing in Sydney was beautiful.  The weather was perfect, and I had a wonderful view of Sydney Harbor as we approached Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport.  We ultimately arrived three hours late, at around 10:20am on a beautiful summer morning.  We were handed fast track passes for immigration, and ultimately got through customs and immigration in about 20 minutes.

Bottom Line

United’s Global First Class is a very comfortable way to fly across the Pacific.  The seat and cabin are far superior to the BusinessFirst offering on the same aircraft.  The service on the flight was very good — excellent by United standards.  Sadly, the catering — the food, wine, and drink selection was a disappointment.  The catering was worse than my previous experiences in United BusinessFirst, and is nowhere near competitive with other airlines’ first class offerings that I have experienced.   At the end of the day, we flew first class in order to be as comfortable as possible on the long flight to Australia, and United Global First Class certainly delivered in that aspect, as we arrived in Sydney well rested after a very comfortable flight.

How I booked it…

As mentioned in my previous post, I booked this trip for my dad and I using United miles.  United charged 80,000 miles each way (160,000 miles round trip) for each of us. Note:  As of March 2014, United no longer flies the Boeing 747-400 on its Australia routes.  Instead, the airline operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on both its LAX-SYD and San Francisco (SFO)-SYD routes.  The B777-200 has four fewer Global First Class seats than the B747-400, so I expect it to be somewhat more difficult to find first class award space on United flights to Australia.  Starting in late 2014, United will operate their brand new, two-class B787-9 Dreamliner on nonstop flights from LAX to Melbourne.  This flight will only offer BusinessFirst class, similar to what I experienced on my flights on the B787-8 Dreamliner from Denver to Tokyo Seattle, Seattle to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Denver.

United Global First Class Lounges – Washington-Dulles and Los Angeles

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

TPA-IAD

I awoke on Christmas morning anticipating one of my longest travel days of the year.   My mom dropped my dad and I off at Tampa International Airport where we boarded our first flight of the day, a two-hour flight from Tampa to Washington-Dulles.  We were seated in first class on a B737-800.  The flight was quite nice and went by pretty fast.  There was not a full breakfast service, but scones were served.  I watched some SportsCenter and took a nap, waking up just before we landed at Dulles.

Long couple days of flying!  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD

Long couple days of flying! TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD

5 hours at Washington-Dulles (IAD)

Due to award availability, we were forced to spend a five-hour layover at Dulles.  Because of this glut of free time, we headed over to Terminal B to spend some time in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge.  Since we had a same day international first class ticket, we had access to the lounge (I also have access as a Star Alliance Gold member).  This lounge is without a doubt the nicest Star Alliance lounge at Dulles Airport, and is one of the better lounges in the US.  We had a couple of drinks and lunch in the lounge,  as Lufthansa has a decent spread that features four hot items and a variety of cold sandwiches and salads.  After a couple of hours, we decided to try out the United Global First Class Lounge.

Food offering in Global First Class Lounge IAD

Food offering in Global First Class Lounge IAD

Upon checking into the Global First Class Lounge, the lounge agent informed us that we didn’t have access to the lounge since our International flight was out of LAX, and not IAD.  I questioned this logic, since that’s not what the United lounge access policy says, so the lounge agent begrudgingly allowed us access to the lounge, but really acted like she was doing us some sort of favor.   This rubbed us the wrong way since we were, after all flying in global first class out of LAX later that day, and were in first class on IAD-LAX later that afternoon.  The lounge itself was completely empty, as my dad and I were the only two people in the lounge.  There was a small food spread, which didn’t look all that appetizing.  We did help ourselves to the open bar for a drink though. The lounge agent requested us to leave the lounge at 2pm since it was the end of her shift.  We found this strange, but we did so anyway and went next door to the regular United Club.  Upon checking into this United Club, the lounge agents here were rather bewildered as to why we weren’t using the Global First Class Lounge.  We explained to them the hassle we were given upon entering the Global First Lounge, and that really upset the lounge agent who offered to escort us back to the lounge and have a word with the agent there.  Since at that point we only had twenty or so minutes until boarding time, we declined, as we just didn’t want there to be a scene since this United employee was pretty bothered that we had been given a hard time.  United just really needs to figure this out and preach more consistency on the education and/or enforcement of policies by their employees.  This whole experience really did leave a sour taste in mouth to start our long day of travel with the airline.

IAD-LAX

Finally, it was boarding time for our flight to LAX.  We were seated in seats 2A and 2C for this flight.  I enjoyed a pretty decent diner of pasta, and then watched a few Anthony Bourdain videos on Sydney and Melbourne before dozing off for a nap.  I must have been really tired since I didn’t wake up until the flight attendant was preparing the cabin for arrival into Los Angeles.  This was actually a very nice transcontinental flight — things were improving!

Dinner on IAD-LAX

Dinner on IAD-LAX

LAX Global First Class Lounge

We only had about two hours at LAX before our long flight to Sydney, so we headed straight to the Global First Class Lounge and were greeted by an extremely friendly lounge agent.   The offerings at the LAX Global First Class Lounge are far superior to that of Washington-Dulles.  Apart from a full bar, there were several warm appetizers and snacks.  We were also provided a limited menu from which we could order a small meal.  We each ordered some udon noodles, which were brought out to us after about ten minutes.  They were delicious, and proved to be a great little snack since unbeknownst to us, it would be more than a couple of hours before we ate again.

Overall, the LAX Global First Class Lounge was far superior to that of IAD.  The employees at the LAX lounge were friendly, accommodating, and provided great service — the complete opposite of our experience at Dulles.  The physical facility, while not amazing was much better than the Global First Class Lounge at Dulles.    At the end of the day, I feel that United needs to vastly improve its consistency.  While lack of consistency is a major weakness throughout the United brand at the present time, it was never more painfully obvious than it was given our two experiences at two of United’s “premier” lounges. Next:  United Global First Class Los Angeles to Sydney

2014 Mid-Year Travel Report

Where has the time gone?

I can’t believe that six months ago, I’d already rung in the New Year in Sydney, Australia — it seems like yesterday!

As the mid-point of the year has now come and gone, I figured it was that time of the year to compile my travel statistics for the year thus far.  Though I’ve taken a couple wonderful trips, my rate of travel lags FAR behind my pace in 2013.  This is due a number of reasons:

  • This year, I’ve focused on burning the tons of miles that I accumulated from flying over 150,000 miles in 2013
  • This year, I’ve taken a few very long trips instead of a dozen quick trips and weekend getaways
  • This year, I’m no longer taking trips “just because” due to the new Premium Qualifying Dollar requirement instituted by United.  This reduced the incentive for me to look for and fly cheap tickets for random weekends to various places, since status is no longer calculated solely by the distance one flies — there’s a dollar spent aspect to it now.

Despite a large reduction in distance traveled, I’ve still had an incredible traveling year thus far in 2014…

My trips thus far have included:

  • The last Two-thirds of my trip to Australia in January
  • A trip to see the family in Tampa in February
  • A work trip to New Orleans in April
  • 2.5 weeks in Europe for a 12-night cruise and 4 days in Ireland in May
  • A weekend in New York in June

2014 Mid-Year Travel Statistics

It appears that so far, I have:

  • flown 21 flights to 19 airports
  • flown 26,417 miles
  • visited 5 countries (3 new:  Australia, Italy, Greece)
  • visited 4 continents (1 new:  Australia)
  • Crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice and the Pacific Ocean once
  • flown 9 airlines (5 new:  Virgin America, Qantas, Hinterland Aviation, Ryanair, AerArann Islands)

    Flights thru 01 July 2014 (future flights in white)

    Flights thru 01 July 2014 (future flights in white)

For comparison’s sake, by this point in 2013, my year-to-date travel looked like this:

  • 49 flights to 28 airports
  • 94,176 miles flown
  • 7 countries (6 new:  Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, UAE, Japan)
  • Crossed the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean Twice

    Travel from January - June 2013

    Travel from January – June 2013

The Quest for United Airlines Premier Status

As previously mentioned, United’s addition of the Premium Qualifying Dollars criteria to the Premier Qualification process almost entirely diminished all incentive I had to seek out low fares for weekend trips that would accumulate miles.  I simply haven’t done that at all this year, and as such, it’s evident that I haven’t even tried to re-qualify for Premier 1K.   In addition to this, most of my vacation time this year has been taken up by two very long trips (Australia and Europe), so I just don’t have the time off to take long weekends frequently.  Sadly, I haven’t really gotten to enjoy my United Premier 1K status, simply because they’ve taken away much of the incentive to actually fly United.  I’m not sure that’s the point of a loyalty program.

United Premier Qualifying Stats YTD in 2014

United Premier Qualifying Stats YTD in 2014

Yup, that’s only 5 flights for 4,264 miles and $954 spent.

By contrast, at this point last year, I was here:

2013 United Premier Qualifying Status as of 01 July 2013

United Premier Qualifying Status as of 01 July 2013

That’s 42 flights for 85,387 miles — just a slight increase over this years’ totals, huh?  By this point last year, I’d already qualified for Premier Platinum status (75,000 miles) and was well on my way to Premier 1K (100,000 miles), which I achieved in August.

Though I may not be a high-value customer for United, that is still quite a bit of business they are losing from me.  Then again, the fact that I’ve been burning miles instead of paying and earning them has a major hand in my lack of Premier qualification – I simply haven’t been paying for flights this year.

The Rest of 2014…

I do have quite a bit of travel planned for the rest of the year.  The biggest trip is another mileage redemption — an around the world trip in October to Munich for Oktoberfest, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo in first class.  This trip was booked using most of my balance of US Airways miles.  The rest of my planned trips this year are largely paid trips, as my mileage accounts are now pretty much decimated!

Future travel in 2014 (projected)

  • Charleston, SC for a Bachelor Party in August
  • Auburn, AL for the Arkansas @ Auburn football game over Labor Day Weekend
  • Las Vegas for BAcon (Boarding Area’s Blogger Conference) in September
  • Munich for Oktoberfest
  • Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo after Oktoberfest
  • Weekend trip to Iguazu falls in Brazil and Argentina in November

With these trips, my total travel for 2014 is projected to be:

  • 41 flights to 35 airports
  • 67,208 miles flown
  • 13 countries visited (3 new:  Australia, Italy, Greece)
  • 5 continents visited (1 new:  Australia)
  • Crossing the Atlantic Ocean three times and the Pacific Ocean twice
  • Flights on 17 airlines (8 new:  Virgin Australia, Qantas, Hinterland Aviation, Ryanair, AerArann Islands, JetBlue, China Eastern, ANA)

    Projected 2014 Total Travel

    Projected 2014 Total Travel

Again, for comparison’s sake, here were my year-end statistics for 2013:

  • 89 flights to 37 airports
  • 151,864 miles flown
  • 7 countries (6 new:  Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, UAE, Japan)
  • Crossed the Atlantic Ocean four times and Pacific Ocean three times
  • Flights on ten airlines (3 new:  TAM, LAN, Cathay Pacific)
2013 Travel

2013 Travel

Though it looks like a major decrease in distance traveled this year, I’m certainly making up for it by taking long trips to some incredible destinations.  In fact, I’ve spent more time away from home this year than I did at this point last year, meaning I’ve spent much more time at these destinations instead of flying to the a destination, so that’s a good thing!  After all, the destination is what travel is all about… right?

 

 

Fifteen Days in Australia – Planning

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Planning

Putting a two-week vacation to Australia is no small feat.  Doing so almost purely using frequent flyer miles for ones’ flights can be even more difficult, as finding award availability to Australia over New Years is a very, very tall order.  Nonetheless, I managed to throw together a memorable 15-day trip to Australia during in which almost all of the transportation and some of the hotels were paid for with miles.  Here’s how I planned everything…

International Flights

As previously mentioned, I speculatively reserved two Global First Class seats on United for a Christmas Day flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) since I’d always wanted to go to Australia.  Since I was fortunate enough to have a relatively large stash of United miles along with 1K status with United, I always kept my miles tied up in speculative awards since it ultimately costs nothing for a United passenger with at least Platinum status to refund or change these awards.

United Global First Class Suite - from United Airlines

United Global First Class Suite – from United Airlines

For months I tossed around the idea of spending New Years Eve in Sydney to friends, and it never seemed to really stick.  During a trip back home last September, I casually mentioned the idea of heading to Australia to my dad.  I never thought he’d accept the offer since he’s always maintained that he would never spend that amount of time on an airplane.  However, it seems the offer of first class seats to Australia dramatically changed the situation.  After conferring with my mom, my dad enthusiastically accepted my offer — and just like that, the serious planning for Australia began. At that time, I had two one-way trips to Sydney in United Global First Class booked.   I had them both originating in Tampa since I planned to be there for the Christmas holiday.  Since neither United nor one of its Star Alliance partners offered a nonstop flight from Tampa to Los Angeles, we were forced to take a layover somewhere.  Due to favorable flight times and the availability of first class award space, we decided to transit through Washington-Dulles (IAD) en route to LAX.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United.  80,000 miles each.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United:  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD (80,000 miles each)

I had about 60,000 miles left in my United account, and I had a speculative round-trip award booked to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.  Since I’d already been to Brazil three times in 2013 alone (including here and here), I happily canceled my trip to the World Cup in favor of finding the two of us a way home from Australia!  It basically came down to the following decision:  Take my dad on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia OR Go to the World Cup in Brazil (and subsequently visit Brazil for the 4th time in 14 months). For me, the decision was easy:  we were going to Australia! Once I had the 100,000 miles from my World Cup trip refunded to my account, I started to look for a return routing back to the United States.  Ideally, I wanted a first class award. Sadly, there were no non-stop routings from Australia back to the United States available at any time during January 2014, so I was forced to come up with a backup plan and transit home via Asia.  On United’s website, the award search engine will not give you every combination of flights available when you search something like Sydney to Washington DC.  Instead, you need to break the flight up into smaller segments.  By doing this, I was able to find the following routing in first class on Thai, Air China, and United:

sdf

Original Return:  SYD-BKK-PEK-NRT-SFO (Thai First / Thai Business / Air China First / United First)

I found the above individual segments available, but the United Award booking engine would not piece this itinerary together, as it frequently struggles with putting together multi-segment award itineraries.  In order to book this award, I dialed up the United Premier 1K phone line and had the friendly agent convert my one-way awards to Australia into round-trip awards that included the return home above. Before I hung up the phone with the United agent, I mentioned how I wished that there was award space available on one of the non-stop United flights from Sydney back to the States since I knew my dad would not be too excited about the prospect of spending 40-some hours on our flights home.  The agent then offered to put in a wait list request for first class award space on both the Sydney routes to the States (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Not thinking much of it, I agreed and then ticketed my award with the crazy routing. Not two hours later, I received an e-mail from Untied indicating that my wait list request had cleared for my preferred date for the Sydney to San Francisco (SFO) segment!

My Wait list confirmation email!

My Wait list confirmation email!

I immediately called United back, and sure enough — they opened non-stop first class space from Sydney to San Francisco!  I easily tacked on a non-stop flight from SFO to Washington-National (DCA) for myself, and a flight back from SFO to Tampa via Charlotte on US Airways for my dad.

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Return flights:  SYD-SFO-DCA (blue is my flight from SFO on United); SYD-SFO-CLT-TPA (red is my dad’s flights from SFO on US Airways)

Just like that, we had ourselves flights to and from Australia!

Finally had the long flights booked!

Total Cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles (United Global First Class)

Total cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles

What to do in Australia?

With the tough part taken care of, I then started to talk to my dad about what, exactly he wanted to do while we were in Australia.  One thing I was adamant about was spending New Years Even in Sydney, as I wanted to see the celebration on Sydney Harbor.  As such, I’d reserved a room at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for five nights, departing on New Years Day. The number one thing my dad wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Great Barrier Reef.  My dad and I were certified SCUBA diving together when I was twelve years old, and have always enjoyed going on dive trips together — and Australia would basically be the epitome of all our dive trips!  I knew that the Cairns / Port Douglas area was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so I started looking at options.  With the exception of a few day trips to the GBR, many of the diving options were multi-day live-aboard dive trips.  I broached this idea to my dad, and he was once again VERY enthusiastic about this.  I researched the various live-aboard dive boats that leave from Cairns, and based on reviews and descriptions, we decided to take a very highly recommended, four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom.  Though it was one of the pricier options, we figured that it would be well worth the cost for such a “bucket-list” experience.  After a few e-mails back and forth to the folks at Spirit of Freedom, we were all set to depart Cairns on 02 January and return on 06 January.

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary *Map from Spirit of Freedom

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary
*Map from Spirit of Freedom

That left us three days until our return flight back to the States from Sydney.  I broached a couple of ideas to my dad including a trip to the Outback or spending a few days in Melbourne.  After asking around, he told me he wanted to do Melbourne — so that was the plan!

Domestic Flights

With the details planned out of what we wanted to do in Australia planned, I then turned to flights.  Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  At the same time, both Virgin Australia and JetStar are relatively low-cost airlines that sell somewhat cheap and reasonable flights domestically in Australia. I weighed my options for a couple of days and decided to buy our flight from Sydney to Cairns (via Brisbane) on New Years Day from on Virgin Australia.  Though it wasn’t cheap (around $240 per person), it was the only choice with a reasonable departure time (10am).  The mileage option would have required a 6am flight on New Years Day — no thank you. For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways

Our last flight of the trip required a positioning flight from Melbourne back to Sydney.  I checked the option of award space on the Melbourne to Sydney tag-on flight that’s operated by United, but there was no award space available on that AT ALL.  The good thing about this flight is that Qantas runs hourly non-stops on the route, and as such, the prices are pretty reasonable.  We ended up just booking the flight in cash for less than $100 per person.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 8.59.06 PM

Domestic Australia Flights — Purple: Virgin Australia; Red: Qantas; Cyan: Spirit of Freedom positioning flight via Hinterland Aviation

Total cost:  17,500 American Miles + 14,500 BA Avios + ~$680.

Hotels

As previously mentioned, I was able to get a very nice rate at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney over New Years.   With its central Sydney location, it was perfect for getting around the city.  I use the phrase “very nice rate” lightly — as it was still pricey — just not nearly as obscene as the pricing at other properties in Sydney over New Years. We also found a pretty cheap rate at the Holiday Inn Cairns for our one and only night there before our dive trip. We agonized for a bit over our hotel selection in Melbourne.  We were torn between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt properties, but ultimately decided to stay at the Park Hyatt due mostly to the fact that some of my most amazing hotel stays up to that point had been at Park Hyatt properties (Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich).  I used Hyatt points for two of the nights and we paid for the last night at this property.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

The End Result

Booked with miles / points:

  • Domestic flights in United First Class from TPA-IAD-LAX
  • International flight in United Global First Class from LAX-SYD
  • Domestic flights in Qantas Business and Economy Class from CNS-SYD-MEL
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • International flight in United Global First Class from SYD-SFO
  • Domestic flight in United First Class from SFO-DCA and in US Airways First Class from SFO-CLT-TPA

Booked with cash

  • 5 nights at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney
  • Domestic flights in Virgin Australia Economy Class from SYD-BNE-CNS
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn, Cairns
  • 4 nights Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom
  • 1 night at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • Domestic flight in Qantas Economy Class fromMEL-SYD

    sdf

    The End Result!

 

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions

In honor of the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve decided to publish some previously un-published blog entries that I already had written about my trip there last September.  I’m not going to change anything since these were my thoughts immediately upon returning from Rio.   Also included are some pictures from the soccer futbol game I attended at the famed Maracana Stadium.


 

For previous installments from this trip, please see the links below:

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Revew:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

An entry from a previous stop in Rio:  

Eight hours in Rio de Janeiro


Getting there and Getting around

As previously mentioned, a group of friends and I booked this trip down to Rio due to an extremely low price that was offered by United last February for Rio flights leaving Orlando. This forced me into a pretty crazy routing, as I flew all over the place to and from Rio. Getting down there, I flew Washington to Orlando to Houston to Rio. And on the way back, I flew Rio to Houston to Denver to Orlando to Washington. Yeah — that’s a lot of flying. But hey, I got mad miles for it, and I slept most of the time, so it wasn’t all that bad!

My routing:  US Airways in Red; United in Blue

My routing: DCA-MCO-IAH-GIG// GIG-IAH-DEN-MCO-DCA; US Airways in Red; United in Blue

The flights were nothing terrible, and nothing great to speak of. Since my long flights were in economy class, I don’t find those particularly interesting, so I’ll hold off on a full-fledged flight review.  I did get a very roomy first row of economy plus behind BusinessFirst on United’s B777-200 (two-class, pre-merger Continental configuration).  This was great because it featured even more leg room than the standard Economy Plus, and there was only a bulkhead in front of me — not another seat.

Getting to and from the Beaches from GIG

Ground Transportation to and from the beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, and Barra)

We arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galieleo International Airport around 9:30am and proceeded directly through immigration and customs. Since this was not my first time in Brazil, I already had obtained a Brazil Visa, which is necessary for entrance to the country for US citizens. We pre-arranged a shuttle to our hotels through shuttlerio.com. This cost 20 real per person, each way, and it a pretty good deal. Considering the Real Onibus is 13 real per person each way to the beaches, the extra 7 real is definitely worth it since the shuttle takes a much more direct path to the beach with fewer stops. The shuttle took a little less than an hour to get to the JW Marriott on Copacabana, while the bus can take 90 minutes to two hours at times.

For detailed information on taking the Real Onibus to or from GIG to the beaches, see this post:  Eight Hours in Rio de Janeiro.

Our trip back to the airport took well over two hours on the Real Onibus from Copacabana, so be sure to allot plenty of time.  In fact, be sure to allot plenty of time no matter which mode of transportation you choose — the traffic in Rio is horrendous.

During the next three days, I did a whole bunch of different activities. From lounging on Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches to visiting Cristo Redentor to attending a Botafogo soccer game at the famed Marancana Stadium – I had a packed three days.

Transportation along the beaches

The three major beaches in Rio are Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon (from north to south).  While Ipanema and Leblon are connected, there’s a mountain between Copacabana and Ipanema, so transit is needed.  There are a series of public buses that run every 5-10 minutes from multiple stops along all beaches, so that’s the cheapest and easiest way to get from one spot to another.  Since I was with a group, we found it easier to just take a cab to meet different parts of our group at Ipanema.  Split three ways, the cab was quick and cheap.

 Seeing the sights (Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain)

There are various tour operators that can arrange a trip for you to either of these landmarks.  Since we had a group, we hired a guide who took us everywhere in a minibus — it was really fantastic, and I highly recommend you look into that route just for convenience sake.  Otherwise, you can easily take a cab to Sugarloaf Mountain.  Cabbing to Christ the Redeemer could be a little more complicated.  You can either cab to the base of the mountain and take a tramway up, or you can cab all the way to the top.  You can likely negotiate a round trip rate for the cabbie to wait for you up top, but I imagine it would be a tad pricey.

General Impressions

Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about my trip to Rio, simply because of Brazil’s somewhat negative reputation due to the violence in Rio and other large cities.  After spending four days there, I am happy to report that at no point did I feel in danger in any way, shape, or form.  Granted, you need to be aware as you do in any large city, but from my experience, the danger of Rio did not apply.  Now, do keep in mind that I stuck to the upper end beach communities of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon during my time, there – it wasn’t like I was roaming favelas at 3am.  Still, most tourists – especially from the US – focus their time on those beach communities anyway.

One big takeaway from the time I spent there was the terrible, terrible traffic.  It took two hours to get from the beach to the airport, and traffic in general was gridlock – especially during anytime close to traditional rush hours.

The single most attractive quality of Rio – its location on the ocean and along the mountains are it’s single biggest challenge.  Due to these geographical restrictions, infrastructure is pretty poor in Rio.  I honestly cannot imagine how they will successfully rectify their infrastructure and improve it enough to successfully host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.  I imagine the city will come to a literal stand-still for those 16 days.  Rio may survive next summer’s FIFA World Cup, simply because the event will be spread throughout 12 different cities in Brazil, and only 5-6 games will actually be held in Rio.

Despite these infrastructure deficiencies, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Rio.  It is one of the most beautiful cities I have  visited anywhere in the World.  I am completely looking forward to returning sometime soon… will I be there for the World Cup next summer?  There’s a very good chance!

United’s Premium Service Business Saver Award Availability is Much More Sparse than its Competitors’

It’s been widely documented that United Airlines has implemented a series of devaluations to its MileagePlus loyalty program.  First, there was the move to add a dollar spend amount to Premier Status qualification through the added criteria of “Premium Qualifying Dollars.”  Then, United announced a major devaluation of their award chart which hit premium international travel particularly hard.  It also created essentially a separate, more expensive chart for travel redeemed on one of United’s Star Alliance partners — the partners that supposedly make membership in Star Alliance so valuable.  Finally, last week, United announced their new plan for accruing redeemable miles in its 2015 MileagePlus program — it will based purely on ticket price, and not on the mileage flown, which is essentially bad for anyone who is somewhat price-sensitive, and is buying their own tickets.  This revenue-based system appears to be a carbon-copy of the same plan that Delta announced this past February, leading many to accuse United of simply copying Delta on things that arbitrarily “sound like a good idea.”

To counteract these devaluations, one might think that United may increase award availability so it’s not all bad for the consumer.  Alas, that is not the case.  Though United continues to have pretty good saver award availability on international awards, it has become increasingly hard to find a saver award — particularly for a premium cabin on a transcontinental domestic flight.

Case in point:  United’s Premium Service flights from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).

These flights are operated by two-class Boeing 757-200s with a special, two-class configuration featuring 28 lie-flat, business class seats.  I was alerted by a friend that the availability of these seats is absolutely dismal, so I looked into it and then decided to compare it with the availability of “saver” level award seats in both Delta and American’s programs.

What I found was much worse than I thought.

United Premium Service Award Availability

Below are the availability calendars for United’s Premium Service Saver-level award availability for JFK-LAX for the entire schedule.
*Yellow denotes saver economy space is available.  Blue denotes BusinessFirst is available, and Green denotes both economy and BusinessFirst is available.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.42.52 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.50.18 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.50.45 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.51.08 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.51.32 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.51.58 PM

That’s right.  For the entire year, there is award space for only three dates for BusinessFirst — and all are within the next three days.

The availability is much the same for the opposite direction:  LAX-JFK:  3 dates in the next year; ironically enough including Christmas Eve.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.53.46 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.55.20 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.55.43 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.56.00 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.57.44 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.58.02 PM

I then decided to look at the other United Premium Service route to San Francisco, only to find similar results (I’ll spare you all the calendar shots.)

JFK-SFO:  Slightly better, with 6 days of BusinessFirst open

SFO-JFK:  The worst of the whole bunch:  only 2 days with BusinessFirst saver open, and very little economy space open at all.

After seeing this paltry availability for United, I figured that surely it was probably just as bad for Delta and American.

Notsomuch…

Delta Transcontinental BusinessElite Award Availability

Upon studying the Delta award availability (which is much more difficult to navigate than United’s), I found that on its JFK-LAX premium route with all flat-beds in its Transcontinental BusinessElite product, there was actually pretty good availability for saver-level seats after September.  In fact, in October, it’s pretty wide open (the Green dates indicate Saver availability).  The same was true with return flights from LAX-JFK.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 9.20.39 PM

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 9.25.46 PM

Delta’s Domestic Award Chart

It is worth noting that Delta has a couple different levels of “Saver” awards, based on seasonality, so a Saver award could cost you either 50,000 or 65,000 round trip (since no one-way awards are offered on Delta).  Delta’s online award search engine is also vastly inferior to that of United, so there’s always that.

American Airlines A321T Award Availability

American Airlines had a simllar pattern of availability as did Delta.  Though this summer’s business or first class “MileSAAver” level availability was slim-to-none, it looked pretty good after August.   Below is American’s chart for Business class MileSAAver awards on its non-stop JFK-LAX route on its new A321T, 3-class “Flagship Service” flights.  It’s also worth noting that first class availability was just as readily available after the summer time.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 9.30.15 PM

 So what does this tell us?

For starters:  don’t plan on being able to use your United miles to fly on its Premium Service flights anytime soon.  This is just another deficiency that’s a result of a littany of #flyerUNfriendly “enhancements” to United’s formally industry-leading MileagePlus loyalty program.

Though it faces major competition in a continually evolving US air travel market,  United seems to cherry-pick the things that it copies from other airlines, such as Delta’s Skymiles medallion qualification and revenue-based earning program.  At the same time, it seems to ignore other very important things such as creating operational efficiencies by decreasing the reliance on regional carriers, and rewarding customers with at least making premium transcontinental flights obtainable with miles.  It could always mean that United is filling all these high dollar seats with paying customers while their competition is not, but given United’s recent reports of profitability (or lack thereof), I really doubt it.

Analysis: How Will United’s New 2015 Revenue-Based MileagePlus Program Impact You?

Yesterday, United Airlines announced the new MileagePlus earning structure for award miles that will go into effect on March 1, 2015.  Basically, United is changing the way one earns miles from a system based on the mileage flown to a system based on the price of one’s ticket.  Customers will no longer be able to rack up tons of miles by finding deals on long-distance trips.  The only way one will be able to earn miles flying United is by the price of the ticket.

This change only affects the earning of Redeemable Miles (RDM) within the United program — these are the miles that one earns and then can redeem for free travel.  This change does NOT change the way one accumulates Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM) — the miles that determine one’s status with the airline.  United announced changes to that system last June, and they took effect on January 1.  Those changes added a Premier Qualifying Dollar requirement in order to qualify someone for elite status.

The basics to Tuesday’s announcement are as follows according to United’s website:

As of March 1, 2015, the award miles you earn on most United and United Express tickets will be based on your ticket price (that is, base fare plus carrier-imposed surcharges) instead of the distance you fly, so members will be rewarded for their travel spending on United.  And when you have Premier status, you’ll earl even more.

Earning Rates are below, as listed on the United site:Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.36.33 PM

Some important caveats follow here from the United site:Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.36.47 PM

This highlights a few important points:

  • There are no longer RDM bonuses for class of travel and Premier status, as those bonuses are contained in the earning rates
  • This system only pertains to United-ticketed flights.  Flights ticketed and flown by partner carriers will still earn RDMs based on mileage flown.
  • There is a cap of 75,000 miles earned on any flight

Are you confused yet?

The changes announced this week definitely have a profound affect for those frequent flyers who rack up miles and/or status on cheaper tickets.  It essentially kills the value proposition in this opportunity.

I decided to perform an analysis on these changes to figure out:

  • How this change affects different types of elite customers
  • How this change affects different types of flights
  • What is the break-even price of a ticket where the RDMs earned in 2015 equals that of 2014
  • How this change affects general populations of customers
  • How this change affect my travel profile

I knew that this change would be potentially catastrophic for me, but I wanted to run the numbers to see just how bad it really is.  I decided to run an analysis based on four flights from my home base, Washington-Dulles.  In order to account for different types of flights, I priced out the following round trips:

  • A short-haul trip from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Newark (EWR)
  • A trans-continental flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to San Francisco (SFO)
  • A long-haul, Trans-Atlantic flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to London-Heathrow (LHR)
  • An ultra long-haul flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Singapore (SIN) with a routing through Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and Hong Kong (HKG)

I priced all of these flights on June 11, 2014 for the following booking scenarios:

  • Last minute booking (~1 week):  June 18-21 for IAD-EWR and IAD-SFO; June 18-25 for IAD-LHR and IAD-SIN
  • Booking 5-weeks out:  July 16-19 for IAD-EWR and IAD-SFO; Jun 16-23 for IAD-LHR and IAD-SIN
  • Booking in advance (3 months):  September 11-14 for IAD-EWR and IAD-SFO; September 11-18 for IAD-LHR and IAD-SIN

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.34.22 PM

So what does this analysis tell us for…?

General Members:

  • It’s a win for short-haul since not getting 500-mile minimums
  • All-in-all a bad thing for Trans-Continental fares; especially the most discounted fares
  • Not terrible for long-haul unless buying a cheap, economy ticket
  • Terrible for ultra long-haul in economy; bad for business; great in full-fare First class

Premier Silver Members:

  • All in all, it’s okay unless paying super cheap fares planned far in advance for short-haul
  • Trans-continental travel is terrible unless buying last-minute, first class fares
  • Transatlantic looking good unless buying cheap, economy fares
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds on ultra long-haul.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase

Premier Gold Members:

  • Slight increase for everything except for cheap, economy tickets.  Last minute F is an increase
  • Trans-continental travel is terrible unless buying last-minute, first class fares
  • Transatlantic looking good unless buying cheap, economy fares
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds on ultra long-haul.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase, but capped at 75K

Premier Platinum Members:

  • Slight increase for everything except for cheap, economy tickets.  Last minute F is an increase
  • All-in-all a bad thing for Trans-Continental fares; especially the most discounted fares
  •  Not terrible for long-haul unless buying a cheap, economy ticket
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds on ultra long-haul.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase, but capped at 75K

Premier 1K/GS Members:

  • Slight increase for everything except for cheap, economy tickets.  Last minute F is an increase
  • All-in-all a bad thing for Trans-Continental fares; especially the most discounted fares; start to realize some increases in first tickets
  • Good thing for Trans-Atlantic flights, except for cheap economy tickets
  • Terrible for economy fares of all kinds.  Business is a small improvement unless a “discount business” fare;  first is massive increase, but capped at 75K

What does this analysis tell us for different types of flights?

Short-Haul Flights

  • For the most part, an increase in RDMs, with the exception of cheap economy fares for elites.

Trans-Continental Flights

  • Major decrease in RDMs.  The exception is for last-minute, expensive first class fares.

Trans-Atlantic Long-Haul Flights

  • Increase in RDMs for everything except discount economy fares (>$1,300)

Ultra Long-Haul Flights

  • Major decrease for any economy fares.  Huge increase for first class fares and for more expensive business class fares.
  • Notice that RDMs are capped at 75,000 RDM per round-trip.  This caps off the potential earning for long-haul first class tickets, BUT even in some of the most drastic circumstances, one would still earn more RDMs in this new system for any round trip less than 21,429 miles (assuming that passenger is a 1K or GS, flying in Global First Class).

Break-even Ticket Prices

I continued to analyze for each of these scenarios exactly how much one would need to spend on a ticket in the 2015 MileagePlus Program to earn the same amount of miles as they would in the 2014 MileagePlus Program.  I also added in several mileage milestones to use as guidelines to see how much one must spend on a ticket in 2015 to receive the same amount of RDMs as they would have in 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 9.35.03 PM

How do these changes affect you?

  • Occasional flyer who buys cheap tickets:
    • It really doesn’t affect you that much.  You will earn fewer RDMs on most cheap, economy fares, but it wouldn’t be in such a volume to cause you to avoid United.
  • Frequent Flyer (Elite) who primarily flies Trans-continental flights:
    • This devaluation hurts you unless you purchase relatively last-minute, first class tickets.
  • Frequent flyer (Elite) who shops for cheap tickets and deals; Mileage Runners:
    • It’s time to start looking at other programs.  This is a significant devaluation from a RDM perspective, and there are better options out there (for now).  United MileagePlus is no longer a good value for earning RDMs.
  • Frequent flyer (Elite) who flies on expensivefares (last-minute or premium fares):
    • This change is potentially extremely lucrative for you.  Specifically, if you fly expensive short-haul tickets, or long-haul flights in premium cabins.

Essentially, the everyday leisure traveler does not gain much from this, and is actually hurt a little bit as far as mileage accrual, but not enough to where it should sway them from United.  The big winner here is the corporate traveler whose company is most likely bankrolling their flights.

So, I suppose these changes aren’t all bad… unless you’re the one playing for the ticket.

What does this mean for me?

As an elite (United Premier 1K) customer who primarily flies cheap tickets – especially cheap trans-continental and long-haul fares, this devaluation is a game-changer and deal-killer for me.  I will no longer be using United Airlines as my airline of choice unless they’re clearly the least expensive choice on a trip that I must take.

I plan to status-match or challenge with American Airlines, who has yet to change to a revenue-based system (for now).  Once this challenge is complete, I may fly United to bank some RDM miles before this change on March 1, 2015.

In conclusion

This is a game-changer for me.  Honestly, it’s a huge devaluation for the frequent-flyer / points community.  However, all is not lost, as this change is not the End-of-the-World for the occasional leisure traveler.  This new MileagePlus Program clearly benefits those that United deems to be their more valuable customers – those who spend top dollar on premium tickets and those who spend really high amounts on otherwise cheap tickets.  I can see the potential benefit in this for United, even though it significantly alters my personal travel profile.  It will be interesting to see if this alters United’s customer loyalty enough to influence their bottom line in one way or another.

Oktoberfest 2013 Trip – Frankfurt, Munich, London, and Edinburgh

Well, it’s that time of the year again — it’s time to head over to the happiest place on Earth — Oktoberfest!  This will be my fourth year in a row that I’ve attended the world’s largest festival, and every year it’s the highlight of my year!This year, I will be meeting eight friends in Munich for Oktoberfest, and then will be proceeding on to hit some other parts of Europe.  Tonight, I will be flying from Washington-Dulles to Frankfurt in United BusinessFirst.  I’ll be staying the day and night in Frankfurt, and will train down to Munich on Friday morning commence the Oktoberfest activities!   Once again, we will be staying at the Four Points Sheraton Munich Central — easily the best location in Munich for Oktoberfest, as it is only two blocks away from the front gate!

OktoberfestAfter three days of beer, brats, and dirndls, I will separate from the group and fly to London with a friend from grad school where we will stay for four days at the Waldorf Hilton.  Finally, we will train up to Edinburgh, Scotland for the last three days of the trip at the Glasshouse Autograph Collection.

Will anyone else be in Munich for Oktoberfest this coming weekend (Closing Weekend – October 4-7)?

I’d also love recommendations for things to do, places to see, and for restaurants, and bars in both London and Edinburgh!

I can’t wait to throw on the lederhosen and boots and get this thing started!