Five Days in Sydney: Days One and Two

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

Arrival into Sydney

After clearing Australian immigration and customs, I headed to the local cell phone retailer in the baggage claim area to purchase SIM cards for my dad and I.  For about AUD $30, we each procured SIM cards that gave us unlimited data, unlimited local text, and a $450 credit for international calling and texting.  Considering we would be in Australia for two weeks, this was a steal compared to the international plans offered by Verizon Wireless prior to the trip.  After SIM card shopping, we hopped a cab to our hotel – the Sheraton on the Park.  We chose this hotel due to both its location in the Sydney central business district, and the relatively decent rate considering the otherwise astronomical average price of most properties in the area.

Though we arrived at the Sheraton on the Park before noon, they had a room ready for us, which was a relief because we wanted to relax a bit and freshen up after almost two full days of traveling.  Though we were tired from our travels, I always try to make it a point NOT to go to sleep.  I’ve found the best way to adjust to the new timezone and to defeat prolonged jet lag is to get oneself onto the new timezone’s sleep cycle as soon as possible.  In this case, I wanted to do everything possible to stay awake until 8 or 9pm local time — simply so we could get a full night of sleep and awake the next morning more or less adjusted to Australia time.

I’m Free – Free Sydney Walking Tour

One of my favorite things to do on the first day in a new city is to get oriented with my surroundings.  I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is by taking a free walking tour, which is offered in many cities, all over the world.  I generally find these tours to be educational and really helpful in teaching one the “lay of the land” in an unfamiliar city.  These “free tours” operate on a tips-only basis.  If you participate in the tour, a tip is generally expected, and almost always is well-earned.  I encourage you NOT take one of these tours if you have no intention to tip — that’s just rude, as these guides are often local university students who do a really fantastic job.

After a quick Google search, I found a walking tour of Sydney departing a few blocks from our hotel at 2pm that day.  We went to meet the tour guides outside the Sydney Town Hall, just a couple blocks from our hotel.  There were quite a few people on the tour on this beautiful Friday afternoon, so the guides broke up into three groups.  Our guide walked us through the sites of Sydney taking us from the Sydney Town Hall, through the Queen Victoria Building and the Pitt Street Mall shopping district out to Hyde Park.  We continued towards Circular Quay with stops at Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital,  the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, and the bird cages on Angel Placebefore stopping for a break for water and ice cream.

After touring the Sydney Customs House, the group made its way around the edges of Circular Quay to the cruise terminal where we took in a wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House as a large cruise ship, the Voyager of the Seas departed.  The walking tour ended in the Rocks area after about three hours.  We found this tour to be extremely informative and well-done.  I’m not really sure what the “norm” for tipping is for a tour like this, but we tipped about AUD $20 per person, as we felt anything else would be pretty unfair considering the thoroughness of the tour.   I highly recommend spending a few hours one day in Sydney to take this economical and very nice “free” walking tour.

After the walking tour, we took he recommendation of our tour guide to try out a pub for dinner in the Rocks called, The Australian Hotel.  Here, we had a couple of beers and I tried a kangaroo burger.  The burger was tasty, but certainly a bit different.  My dad ordered some pizza, but decided not to try the somewhat famous “Coat of Arms” pizza that features both kangaroo and emu meat.  Australia is probably the only country whose citizens enjoy eating their national symbols — the kangaroo and emu.  Could you imagine walking into a bar in the USA ordering “Bald Eagle chicken wings”?   By the time we were done eating and having a few beers, we were pretty tired.  We took a leisurely walk in the late afternoon back to our hotel and called it a night at about 8pm.

Manly Beach

We awoke Sunday morning around 9am after a full thirteen hours sleep!  Of course, we were starving, so we walked down the street for a real Australian breakfast — McDonalds!  As we downed our egg McMuffins, we planned out the day and put together the things we wanted to do the next several days.   We knew we wanted to see more of the iconic Sydney Harbor, so we decided to walk that way to Circular Quay, and see what the options were.  What we found was a beautiful day in Sydney, where another Royal Caribbean cruse ship was docked at the harbor (the Rhapsody of the Seas).  Our two options for the day were to head to Manly Beach or the Taronga Zoo.  We opted to purchase roundtrip ferry tickets on the Manly Ferry out to Manly Beach since it was one of the longer ferry rides offered, and the weather was just perfect for a boat ride.  The cost was AUD $7.40, each way.

The ferry ride lasted about 35 minutes en route to Manly Beach, and the views were magnificent.  As we sailed out past the Sydney Harbor Bridge, we turned to the East and motored right past the famed Sydney Opera House.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We arrived at Manly beach soon after.  A bustling beach community, Manly features a rather large, inviting beach with a number of shops, restaurants, and bars that line the beach and go back several blocks.  The two of us walked the beach for a while, zapping pictures before settling down for some lunch at the Manly Grill.  We had a nice, outdoor patio seat where we enjoyed a bucket of prawns, burgers, and beers as we watched the people of Manly Beach walk by.  After lunch, we explored the town a bit before heading into a cool looking bar in the Manly Wharf Hotel, right near the ferry pier.  Here, we enjoyed a few beers and tried to figure out the game of cricket, which had the locals captivated, as The Ashes Tournament between England and Australia was on the television.  After giving up on cricket, we hopped back on the ferry for another late afternoon, scenic ferry ride back into Sydney Harbor.  

 Upon returning to Sydney, we headed over to the Rocks to view the Rhapsody of the Seas as she departed the Port of Sydney for her cruise, and we got some wonderful pictures of the harbor and the cruise ship.  By this point, we were pretty spent, so we headed back to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation.  After a couple of hours in the room, it was clearly time to eat again.  We wanted to do something low-key, but fun, so we walked about fifteen minutes to Darling Harbour.

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbor is a highly developed harbor in Sydney that is lined with restaurants, bars, shops, movie theaters, and other touristy things.  By the time we got to Darling Harbor, the crowds were growing for the upcoming fireworks show, which takes place every Saturday night during the summer.  There were thousands of people — locals and tourists who decided to spend the evening dining al fresco to watch the fireworks.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a doner kebab stand in a food court just in time to watch the fireworks.  The show was pretty nice, but I figured it would pale in comparison to the fireworks show we would see a few nights later on New Years Eve.  After the relatively quick fireworks display, we explored the area a bit more and made our way back to the hotel for another full night of sleep.

Next up… More from Sydney:

  • Sydney:  Day Three and Four (Sydney Opera House, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, Woolloomooloo, and the Sydney Fish Market)
  • New Year’s Eve in 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:

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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.

dfg

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!

 

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.

Booking a Transatlantic Flight on Aer Lingus with British Airways Avios

Updated January 29, 2015:  This particular award will no longer be available once the new British Airways award chart goes into effect for bookings made after April 28, 2015.  This award in business class will increase to 37,500 Avios, each way.


 

I recently reported on my experience flying Aer Lingus business class from Shannon to Boston last month to conclude my European vacation.  I did so with the use of one of the best valued awards that currently exist to get across the Atlantic — British Airways Avios for travel on Aer Lingus.  In the rest of this post, I will detail how one can easily fly from Boston to Ireland in business class for fewer miles than most airlines charge for a one-way in economy.  I’ll hit the following points in this post:

  • The Sweet Spot on British Airways’ Award Chart
  • Checking Award Availability
  • Calling British Airways to Book
  • Fly in Style for Cheap
  • How to get British Airways Avios…. if you don’t fly British Airways

Continue Reading →

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.

How to Navigate the Ryanair Website and Avoid Hidden Fees

Flying on Ryanair is often one of the cheapest ways to fly point-to-point in Europe.  However, the major complain people always have regarding Ryanair is their never-ending pursuit of ancillary revenue — they nickel and dime the passenger for seemingly everything.  After all, Ryanair is the airline that infamously once tried to charge for use of the toilet, and has floated the idea of standing room only seats on its aircraft, just to fit more passengers onboard.  Another major complaint about Ryanair is the rather predatory booking process on their website.    Though the website has a much friendlier user interface than it used to, the booking process is downright cumbersome!IMG_7570

This post is meant to walk you through the booking procedure with Ryanair, so you can avoid accidentally paying for extra things that you don’t want!  Once you successfully do this, Ryanair can fly you for really, really cheap within Europe.  I had a decent flight with them last month.

1.  To book travel, visit Ryanair’s website at www.ryanair.com  For simplicity’s sake, I will search for a flight that I just took with Ryanair — a one-way flight from Venice-Treviso to Dublin.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.31.46 PM

2.  Pick the date that works for you.  For purposes of this exercise, I will select Wednesday, September 17.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.32.48 PM

3.  Notice on the right that it will cost you a 2% fee to book by credit card.  Select whichever method you’re comfortable with and click “continue”Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.32.58 PM

4.  Enter your name

5.  Select your Travel Insurance.  I never select this option.  However, Ryanair hides the “Don’t Insure Me” option in the middle of the drop-down list.  It’s really petty, but that’s what they do!Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.36.43 PM

6.  If you’re checking bags, you’re going to want to pay for it earlier rather than later.  Select “Add” and then choose your baggage selection.  Please note that it is NOT possible to pay for a bag that weighs more than 20kg.  You MUST pay for two bags if your bag weight more than 20kg.  I experienced this frustration on my recent flight with Ryanair, and boy was it an obnoxious experience!

Though their policy states that you can buy up to two bags for a maximum combined weight of 35kg, no single bag can be in excess of 20kg — at least that’s the way the policy was enforced at Treviso Airport.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.38.00 PM

Cabin bags are permitted to be up to 10kg, and if they’re deemed over-sized by the gate agent, they will not just gate-check them for free like US airlines.  They will gate-check your bag after charging you €50! Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.40.01 PM

7.  Choose assigned seats if you choose.  It costs €5 for an assigned seat, and €10 for a “Premium” Seat.  Priority boarding is included with the “Premium” seat, and with the long queues that often build up with Ryanair flights, it’s not a bad idea.  Interestingly enough, extra leg-room seats cost the same as “premium” seats, so I would recommend on selecting one of those if you choose to pay for a seat assignment.  I sat in seat 1C on my flight, and had plenty of room.  If you choose not to pick an assigned seat, you will be automatically assigned one by the airline.  If you’re traveling with someone, or with children, it maybe best to pick seats to ensure that you’re seated together.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.42.26 PM

Plenty of leg room in row 1

Plenty of leg room in row 1

8.  Ryanair charges €2.49 for a SMS text for flight details… really?   No, thanks.  This is a service that US airlines provide for free.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.46.49 PM

9.  Navigate through the barrage of parking, transfers, and sport/musical/baby equipment.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.47.01 PM

10.  Say “no” to rental car sponsored by Hertz (unless you want it)Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.48.21 PM

11.  Same goes with hotels, powered by Booking.com — I can usually find a better rate on my own.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.49.43 PM

12.  It’s not over yet — you could PLAY to WIN!   Or not… it sneakily adds a €2 charge to your account if you choose to PLAY to WIN.  In perusing the Terms & Conditions, it’s interesting to note that the user may be charged anywhere between 1 and 10 euros to PLAY to WIN… wow!  And they only pick one winner per week — this is the largest airline in Europe, people — those odds just ain’t that great.

Play to Win?  Sounds like a great idea!

Play to Win? Sounds like a great idea!

There's a fee to play?  Sneaky!

There’s a fee to play? Sneaky!

PLAY to WIN's T&C's -- they can charge you anywhere between 1-10 euros!

PLAY to WIN’s T&C’s — they can charge you anywhere between 1-10 euros!

13.  Once you put in your contact and payment info, check out the text that says, “Your debit/credit card will now be charged 157.17 USD (108.11 EUR more information), you will be redirected to the next page for confirmation of this transaction.”  Call me crazy, but the foreign exchange rate sounds a bit off.  I’ll click for more info, thank you!

Click on the "more information" link

Click on the “more information” link

 

14.  Click “more information” and you will see that Ryanair is doing you the favor of royally screwing you in your foreign exchange rate.  They are charging a rate of $1.45USD: €1  when the going rate is $1.36USD:  €1.  On a purchase as large as this one, that would cost you about $10!

15.  To ensure you don’t get screwed by this ridiculous exchange rate, uncheck the box in the disclaimer.  You usually get the best rate if you just let your credit card / bank do the conversion for you since it will be billing in euros.  If you have a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees, you’re good to go.  If your card or bank DOES charge foreign transaction fees, it’ll likely cost you around 3% — still less than this bad exchange rate that’s proposed by Ryanair.

Uncheck the box

Uncheck the box

16.  Review your charges.  I decided on checking a 20kg bag and getting an assigned seat in row 1.  I also opted to use a credit card.  Those things upped my ticket price significantly, so you can see how Ryanair thrives on ancillary revenue like this.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 4.03.16 PM

17.  Finally — Book the darned thing!

18.  Important reminder:  you MUST check-in online AND print out your boarding pass PRIOR to arriving at the airport.  You are able to do this up to 30 days prior to your flight.  Failure to do so results in either a €70 check-in fee at the airport or at €15 “boarding card re-issue fee” at the airport.  Seriously.Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 4.10.07 PM

As long as you are aware of these extra potential fees on Ryanair’s website, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem booking your ticket.  After all, their tickets are many times exponentially less expensive than the next cheapest option.  If you master the caveats of their booking process, you can really travel cheaply within Europe on Ryanair!

 

Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Katakolon and Athens

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.  The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

We sailed out of Venice in the middle of a thunderstorm, forcing us to relocate from the open decks at the top of the ship to the our balcony.  Though it was dreary out, we still had some beautiful views of the rooftops of Venice as we sailed out of the picturesque city.

May 3 – At Sea

The first full day on the ship was spent at sea.   After a breakfast of eggs Benedict on the balcony, I headed off to the gym and then to explore the ship with my girlfriend.  The rest of the day was spent lounging around while she enjoyed her spa treatments.  This was the first formal night, and we dined in the Pinnacle Grill — one of two specialty restaurants onboard.  The Pinnacle Grill is an upscale steakhouse serving prime cuts of meat and amazing appetizers.  I ordered the rib eye, which was excellent.  Others ordered the filet mignon, and I go to have a few bites.  It was simply perfect — one of the best filets I’ve had anywhere.  The cost of the meal is $29 per person, and this is WELL worth it, as a comparable meal on land would run well over $150 each.  We were pretty much beat after dinner, so we headed back to the suite after a couple of drinks in the piano bar for some good rest before the barrage of ports ensued the following morning.

May 4 – Katakolon, Greece

We awoke to breakfast being delivered in our suite just after the sun came up.  As the fog burned off, we watched as the Nieuw Amsterdam docked in the port of Katakolon, Greece.  This town is a small fishing village that serves as the hopping off port for Olympia – the site of the ancient Olympic Games.  Though several tours were offered through the ship, we opted to head to Olympia on our own.  We bought a round-trip train ticket from Katakolon to Olympia for €10 each and arrived in Olympia 40 minutes later.  Olympia itself is a cute, clean Greek town with a number of sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and shops.  We walked through the town in the middle of a light drizzle to the entrance of the Olympia archaeological site where entrance was €6 apiece.  Here, we viewed the excavated ruins of the ancient Olympic Games.  The highlight of this site was the original Olympic Stadium where my girlfriend and I ran a lap on the original 440 meter “track” which more resembles a couple of dirt football fields back to back.

We were done viewing the ruins after about an hour.  Unfortunately, we still had about two and a half hours before our scheduled train was to leave.  So, we did the only logical thing – we hopped a bus that we thought may go in the right direction.

The driver spoke pretty much no English, but the only thing he could say was “Pyrgos.”  We knew Pyrgos was a city a little more than halfway between Olympia and Katakolon, so we hopped the bus to see how that would work out – the price was right, at about €1.20 each.  About 35 minutes later, we disembarked at the bus station in Pyrgos – a large, somewhat dirty town about 10 kilometers from Katakolon.  There was another bus to Katakolon an hour later, but we opted for a taxi, who thought he was Sabastian Vettel.  This guy was flying down the road at over 140kph, and had us in Katakolon in no time.  This was a great adventure to get us back to the ship, and was much more fun than the standard bus tour shore excursion offered by Holland America.

Upon arrival back into Katakolon, we found a nice restaurant called “Arhipelagos Fish Tavern” (this is directly from their business card, which may or may not have had a typo) right on the harbor where we enjoyed a lunch of gyros, fried cheese, greek salad, and a few beers (as well as free wifi).  This made for a great early afternoon before we headed back to the ship.  We enjoyed champagne and beer in our private hot tub on the balcony as the ship set sail from Katakolon — not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

May 5 – Piraeus (Athens), Greece

I awoke to the hustle and bustle of a very industrial port swarming with ferry activity.  This port – Piraeus is the port neighborhood of Athens.  Athens is a seemingly never-ending metropolis, and Piraeus is where the sea of white rooftops ends at the Aegean Sea.   We again opted against taking a ship-arranged tour, and set out on our own.  A cab driver approached us and offered a €20 ride to the Acropolis, which we thought was more than reasonable for the three of us.  After about a 20 minute ride through the lightly congested highways and streets of Athens, we arrived at the south entrance to the Acropolis.  We ascended the stairs to overlook the amphitheater, and eventually made it up to the famed Parthenon.  We walked all around the Parthenon and Temple of Athena, taking dozens of pictures of the recovered ruins and stunning vistas of Athens that were aided by picture perfect weather and blue skies.

Once we deemed that we’d seen enough, we walked down the north side of the Acropolis, stopping at a café  for a few beers in the Anafiotika neighborhood on one of the steep, narrow streets lined with cafes and restaurants.  This shady and picturesque street (Mnisikleous Str.) made for a great place to rest the legs, relax with a drink, and check up on e-mail with wifi.  We really enjoyed ourselves at Anafiotika over these couple of hours.  After this, we headed down to the main shopping area in Athens before stopping for a quick gyro lunch.  We decided to take the metro back to Piraeus since it was a straight shot (about 4-5 stops) and only a couple of euros a person.  The train station is about a twenty-minute walk from the ship, but that wasn’t a problem at all.  Upon arriving back in the room, we all crashed for an hour nap before enjoying the sail out of Piraeus into the deep blue Aegean Sea from the comfort of our balcony.

 Next port of call:  Istanbul, Turkey…

 

SPG offering up to 3X Starpoints on Oktoberfest stays in Munich!

Starwood has just announced a promotion in which you can earn up to 3X Starpoints for stays at one of their Munich properties during Oktoberfest.  This includes probably the closest hotel to the Theresienwiese (where Oktoberfest is held), the Four Points by Sheraton Munich Central, where I have stayed the last four years for my jaunts to Oktoberfest.  It’s crazy convenient!

Sadly, it looks like my booked stay at the Le Meridien will not be valid for this promotion since I booked it so far out.

Your three best SPG options in Munich for Oktoberfest are:

Details are as follows:

  • Book at least three months in advance for triple Starpoints and two months in advance for double Starpoints
  • Minimum 3 night stay at one of the participating Munich properties (including the three mentioned above)
  • Offer valid for any rate that is eligible to earn Starpoints
  • Offer valid for stays booked between May 07, 2014 and August 19,2014 and completed between September 20, 2014 and October 05, 2014.

For full terms and conditions, go here:  http://www.starwoodhotels.com/preferredguest/offers/termsandconditions.html?offerCode=32168807RK

If you haven’t been to Oktoberfest, go!  It’s a blast, and is my favorite trip of the year!  This will be my fifth year in a row to attend, and it’s quite the experience.  It’s a beer lovers dream!

Hacker tent

Where to Find the Best Deals on Airfare

Probably the most common question that people ask me is, “how do you find such good deals?  Where do you look for these cheap fares?”

There is not a quick, simple answer to that question.  There are several different avenues that I monitor on a regular basis for good fares.  I’ll detail those later in this post, but #1 reason why I’m able to travel on such good deals is that I’m flexible.

By “flexible”, I mean that when seeking out deals, I am generally  looking for neither a specific destination, nor  date.  All I want is for the fare to preferably be leaving the DC area (DCA, IAD, or BWI), though I certainly make exceptions to that requirement, as I frequently “fly” from the Philadelphia 30th Street train station via the United / Amtrak code-share.  I’ll also consider flying from New York – especially for good international deals.  Once I see a fare to a cool place (hopefully far, far away), I check availability to make sure it fits into my schedule.  This generally means I’m looking for a weekend.  If those two criteria are met, I’ll pretty much go anywhere.

A ridiculously cheap airfare sent me to Istanbul for a weekend in February!

A ridiculously cheap airfare sent me to Istanbul for a weekend in February!

I know this is not necessarily the answer people want to hear, but it’s the truth.  If you’re looking to travel on specific dates to any destination, you have a good chance of getting “lucky” when a good fare comes about.  However, if you are looking for a certain destination at a certain time, things get substantially tougher – you’ll actually have to search for fares, and they will most likely not be one of the crazy deals that you want.

In reality, I travel so often due to both finding great deals, and by using miles that are earned at least in part by flying far distances for cheap by acquiring airfares that I find using several of the below flights:

Below are a list of resources that I use to check for both deals, and for specific flights:

Where to hunt “deals”

  • TheFlightDeal.com – This website is an awesome resource for those who are casually browsing for deals.  It is a blog that calls out fantasic deals.  It evaluates fares on  a CPM (cents per mile) basis to show the value of the fare.  Follow this site on Twitter to stay on top of the deals.  Notice that the site has a menu option where you can select a specific US city.
  • FareMagnet.com – Similar to The Flight Deal, FareMagnet is also a fantastic resource that alerts folks to abnormally awesome airfares.  You should also follow this site on Twitter if you’re looking for deals.
  • Travelzoo “Today’s Best Fare” Airfare specials – These are not always accurate, but they do provide a nice, at a glance view of lowest airfares out of specific US gateways to various domestic and international destinations, sorted by price.  This is a good starting point for finding good fares.

    Today's Best Fares from Travelzoo

    Today’s Best Fares from Travelzoo

  • ITA Matrix —  For hardcore searching, I run searches from WAS to a list of places on the west coast on a semi-normal basis.  This tool tells me when and where there’s space, and how much it is listed for.  This is more of an advanced search tool, but it allows searching to multiple cities and returns the cheapest airfares — for that reason, it’s an invaluable resource for airfare hunting.  This site requires a bit of direction, and I will detail how to search for cities in another post.
  • Flyertalk mileage Run message boards — Though these fares are sought specifically by and for mileage runners, they certainly can be used by anyone.  It is Flyertalk etiquette to evaluate a fare on a cents-per-mile (CPM) basis.  On this site, CPM is calculated referring to Premier Qualifying Miles (generally the actual mileage flown), and not redeemable miles.  The goal is to fly as far as possible, for as cheap as possible.  Generally speaking, a “good” mileage run deal comes in at less than 5 cents-per-mile.  A very-good mileage run is less than 4 CPM, and an amazing mileage run would be less than 3 CPM.  This can be overwhelming if you’re new to it, but some threads started here regularly feature some really great deals.  Learn your airport codes if you plan on using this site!

These five resources are great, but it does take a bit of time to stay “up to date” on the fares disclosed on these sites.  Since most of these deals are so good, they rarely last more than a day or two.

The best resources to search for specific flights

  • ITA Matrix — Again, this is the most thorough search engine for finding fares between defined city pairs.  The only downside is that you cannot book directly on the website – you must go to the airline’s website, or another booking site in order to make a reservation.  There are a series of codes to return exactly what you may be looking for, and I will detail these in a later post.

    ITA Matrix Search and Syntax for hints on searching

    ITA Matrix Search and Syntax for hints on searching

  • Kayak.com – This is a very popular and very useful metasearch engine for flights.  It searches over 120 websites to find the best price.  It’s usually pretty accurate and gives great results.  Definitely a good site if you know what you want and need to book today.

You can search all you want for fares.  There are a few tricks of the trade, but many times it just comes down to luck.

A mistake fare put me in this seat from Seoul to LA for less than $250!

A mistake fare put me in this first class seat from Seoul to LA for less than $250!

Below are a few tips:

  • Be flexible.  As I indicated earlier, this is probably the best way to get in on an airfare deal.  The more you limit your options, the less likely it is that you’ll find a great fare.  I routinely fly from BWI or IAD instead of my preferred DCA – simply because I can get fares that are sometimes hundreds of dollars cheaper.
  • Be alert.  Use all the avenues above to their fullest.  The more you monitor fares, the more likely you are to benefit from them.  This can be crazily time-consuming, but if cheap and frequent travel is your goal, this is just a fact of life.  Use Twitter, RSS readers, and online forums to better your chances at finding deals.
  • Fares tend to be re-filed by the major airlines on Tuesdays around Noon, Eastern time.  This is often a time where you can find some of the better pricing out there.  Contrarily, fares can also raise at this time, so if you’re debating a trip with what you deem to be a reasonable price, book it, don’t wait!
  • If you see a mistake fare, BOOK NOW and THINK LATER.  When I see something too good to be true, it may be.  But lots of times, the airlines let them slide because they’re a headache to deal with.  Just book the mistake fare and work out the details later.  If it doesn’t get canceled by the airline, you’ll likely have plenty of time to work out the hows and whys of the trip.
  • Make friends who seek out deals.  What’s better than monitoring fares on the reg?  Having friends who monitor fares and then alert you of them!  Since I’ve been doing this for a while and have friends who share the same interest, I’m often alerted of awesome deals that I may have missed, or that I just didn’t see.

All in all, cheap fares are out there.  It’s just a question of how much time you’re willing to put in to find them.  There’s no “magic bullet” to finding the cheapest fares all the time, but by visiting some of the sites suggested in this post, and by adhering to some of my hints, your odds are much better!