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.

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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.

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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!

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Introduction

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions
Review:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro


As I landed in Istanbul last Valentine’s Day, I received an e-mail alerting me to an inordinately low fare to Rio de Janeiro on United for pretty much all year.  I just happened to be on this trip to Istanbul with a bunch of travel friends, so the only logical thing for us to do was to immediately book a trip together to Rio!

So there we were, drinking free alcohol from the Club Level of the Grand Hyatt Istanbul – just blocks from Taksim Square.  And what were we doing?  Planning out what to do in Istanbul that weekend?  Nope.

We were trying to book the most insane routings you could think of to get to Rio de Janeiro over Labor Day weekend and rack up as many miles as possible.  At the time, this was a great idea since I was gunning for United Premier 1K status.  Now, having achieved that status a few weeks ago, this routing looks pretty silly — even to me.Screen shot 2013-08-28 at 4.09.22 PM

Thursday morning, I will be flying to Orlando — and then Houston to catch my Thursday night redeye flight to Rio de Janeiro.  On Monday evening, I’ll be on the overnight flight back to Houston and then will be connecting to Denver, back to Orlando, and finally home to DC.  It’s a total of 14,812 miles in an airplane — a perfect way to spend the weekend, right?

This may not suck Courtesy:  JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

This may not suck
Courtesy: JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

There are at least a dozen travel / miles enthusiasts who are making this trip, and we have a bunch of events planned.   I’m slated to stay at the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro — smack-dab in the middle of the famed Copacabana Beach.  I will be staying a total of four days and three nights in Rio – a perfect getaway for Labor Day weekend.  During my time here, I will be spending some time on the beach, touring various sights including Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer, and the beach neighborhoods of Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana.  I also plan on sampling a ton of Brazilian food including dinner at Porcao – one of the more famous churrascarias (Brazilian-style steakhouses).

Sunday, I’ll be attending a futbol (soccer) game at the famous Marancana Stadium — the future site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.  I especially can’t wait for that, as I love going to sporting events in other countries.

I’ve been to Rio before, but was only there for a few hours on Ipanema Beach during a layover to start out my crazy 15-day adventure this past June.  I’m definitely looking forward to spending some more time in Rio.  Who knows?  If I love it, I may just go back for the 2014 FIFA World Cup — I’ve already got award tickets booked just in case!

Does anyone have any suggestions for some other things to do or places to eat while in Rio?  If so, I’d love to hear them!

A Weekend Trip to Alaska

Two weekends ago, I booked an impulsive, last-minute weekend trip to Anchorage, Alaska on a Wednesday night — my flight was scheduled for first thing on Friday morning.  After a late Thursday night out in DC, I found myself at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport for an early-ish 7:45am flight to Chicago.  Before I booked this trip, I was sure that all my segments would upgrade to first class by using some Regional Premier Upgrades that I had on United.

The path of my journey

The path of my journey

My flight to Chicago and then on to Anchorage were both uneventful, but about as good as it gets for domestic first class on United.  The Chicago to Anchorage leg was a cool 6.5 hours, but DirecTV and movies, along with a proper meal and ice cream sundae helped pass the time pretty well.

I arrived at Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport at around 1:30pm and immediately took a cab downtown for about $20.  I planned to do this trip without a rental car, since the prices on rental cars were astronomical, and I was trying to do this trip on a low budget.  Another cheaper option to get from the airport to downtown is Anchorage’s People Mover Bus system.  The 7 Bus runs hourly between the airport and downtown (and vice-versa) for only $1.75.  This takes about 30-35 minutes instead of the roughly 15 minute cab ride.  Keeping with the low budget theme, I planned to stay in a hostel in Anchorage given the notoriously high Anchorage hotel prices.

Humpy's Halibut n Chips with a flight of Alaskan Brewery Beers

Humpy’s Halibut n Chips with a flight of Alaskan Brewery Beers

I arrived at my original hostel — The Alaska Backpacker’s Inn — and had an immediate, terrible first impression.  It was several blocks away from central downtown, it was filthy, and the girl at the front desk advised me that check-in was not allowed for another couple hours.  So I stored my bag, and briefly considered just booking a hotel for the weekend, but cooler heads prevailed and I just walked to a bar instead. Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse in downtown was highly recommended by some friends, so I went there.  I had some great halibut fish n chips, as well as several beers from their solid beer selection.  I also go to talking to some folks at the bar who advised that I check out the Bent Prop Inn, Downtown — a hostel just a block or so away, which they said was much nicer.

So I did just that — the guys who run the Bent Prop Inn could not have been any more kind.  The place was much cleaner, and they were able to accommodate me for the weekend.  It has a fantastic location right by the Marriott, and the price was right — $30 for the first night, and $25 for the second night for a bed in a 8-bunk bed dorm.  By the time I’d gotten my things and settled down back at the Bent Prop, it was past 10pm Alaskan time (2am Eastern), and I needed some sleep.

I was up early the next morning for breakfast at Snow City Cafe.  This place is a must for breakfast in Anchorage.  The line was out the door at 7:15am, but I was able to get a spot at the bar after about ten minutes.  I ordered the Kodiak Eggs Benedict, which featured King Crab, and was freakin’ amazing.

For the day, I’d arranged a trip out to the Alyeska Resort in nearby Girdwood, Alaska.  As previously mentioned, I did not have a rental car, so instead I booked a round-trip on the Alaskan Railroad for about $46 each way.  This provided a relaxing 90-minute train ride along Turnagain Sound to Girdwood.  Once in Girdwood, the Alyeska Resort has a shuttle that picks passengers up and takes them to the resort.

Above Girdwood and the Turnagain Sound in the distance

Above Girdwood and the Turnagain Sound in the distance

The Alyeska Resort is the premier ski resort in Alaska.  With it being Summer time, it was prime for hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoors activities.  I decided to give the mountain a climb.  There are very defined hiking trails up Mount Alyeska, and since there was a race going on that day, there were  a good bit of people making the climb.  Because of this, my concerns about bear encounters were significantly diminished, and I managed to hike up to the mid-mountain tram station where the uber-popular Seven Glaciers Restaurant is located.  I had lunch at another location, since Seven Glaciers is only open for dinner.  Everyone I’ve talked to highly recommended Seven Glaciers, and it did indeed look amazing.

After lunch, I proceeded to hike up as far up the mountain as I could.  I made it quite a ways up when the hiking trail basically ended just short of the glacier atop Mount Alyeska.  I was ready to stop hiking at that point due to exhaustion and the fact that at this point I was the only one up there — it was a tad creepy, and I couldn’t help but worry a bit about bears.

So down I went back down to the mid-mountain tram spot.  I went ahead and trammed back down the mountain and hopped the shuttle to the nearby town of Girdwood, where I had lunch and some drinks at one of the resort bars called the Sitzmark Bar & Grill.  This was a ski-lodge type bar at the base of a couple ski runs that were being used as mountain bike tracks that day.  After several beers, I again hopped the shuttle back to the Girdwood station for my return train ride to Anchorage.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening

I really enjoyed the Alaska Railroad, and found it an very relaxing and scenic way to travel around.  Though a car would have been twice as fast to Alyeska, one was also much more expensive.  I arrived back in Anchorage at 9:45pm, and of course the sun was still up.  That didn’t matter much to me, as I was exhausted and headed to bed.

Sunday morning I once again headed to Snow City Cafe, but this time ordered the Crabby Omelet.  Again, it was amazing.  As I said before, this place is a must visit breakfast place in Anchorage.  It was rainy that morning, and I had several hours to kill before I had to return to the airport for my flight back home.  I spent that time walking though town and observing the Anchorage Marathon, which was happening that morning.  As lunchtime was upon me, I headed to F Street Station for a helping of beer battered halibut and some beers.  Wow, this halibut was fantastic — highly recommended.  Apparently F Street Station is also quite the hangout late night for locals.   After a quick nap at the hostel, I hopped on the 7 bus to the airport and then boarded my United Airlines redeye flight back to Chicago and then to DC on Monday morning.  Being the good employee that I am, I proceeded directly from Dulles Airport to work.

Overall, this was a helluva way to spend a weekend.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  As my third trip to Alaska, it was the first time that I got to spend some time in Anchorage.  While there honestly isnt’ much to the city itself, the surrounding area is absolutely beautiful.

My Current Strategy to Earn Miles and Travel Often

In early 2012, I started to really understand how to seriously accrue a ton of airline miles, and I began to travel on a regular basis using many of the things I learned.  That year, I flew over 96,000 miles on a variety of trips.  This year, I’ve already eclipsed 2012, by traveling over 100,000 miles before the beginning of July.

How do I travel so often?

1.      Actually Flying — and doing so with a form of “Miles Arbitrage”
2.      Earning miles from Credit Card sign-up bonuses and spend

“Miles Arbitrage”

As detailed in an earlier post, I actively hunt cheap airfares.  Many times, my goal is not to go to a certain place – it’s to go wherever, whenever — as long as it’s a relatively long distance, and it is cheap.

Why would I engage in this madness?

Simple:  I get to travel some in order to earn miles and travel even more!

Hunting for ridiculously cheap airfares allows me to take quick, weekend trips to a lot of really cool places where I otherwise would probably never really bother to go.  Additionally, these trips earn valuable Premier Qualification Miles and Redeemable Miles for at a very cheap rate.

  • Premier Qualification Miles (PQMs) are the miles that determine one’s status in an airline’s frequent flyer program.  In my case, I primarily fly United and its Star Alliance partners.
    • The more PQMs one flies during a calendar year, the more perks one gets – perks such as:
      • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights
      • Upgrade certificates for international travel
      • Priority boarding
      • Free checked baggage
      • Reduced change fees
      • A miles multiplier to which you can earn redeemable frequent flyer miles.
        • For example, a Premier 1K member with United earns 2 miles for every 1 mile flown.
    • Generally speaking, the only way to accrue status on an airline is good, old-fashioned flying – you must hit the status threshold for segments or miles flown within a calendar year.
    • In the future, the quest for airline status will get much more complicated, as Delta and United have recently introduced an additional criterion for Premier qualification– minimum dollar spend.  This will likely kill my current strategy.
  • Redeemable miles (RDMs) are traditionally what people think of when one mentions “airline miles.”  These miles are ultimately redeemed for future travel.

By collecting miles cheaply on flights across the country and internationally, I accrue a hefty balance of miles.  I prefer this method to straight up buying the miles, since these provide me a pretty fun weekend getaway while earning them.  These miles, in turn, enable me to take major, long vacations to even more exotic locations in international business or first class – tickets that I never would have otherwise purchased.

Miles got me this -- First Class on a Lufthansa A330 from Munich to Washington

Miles got me this — First Class on a Lufthansa A330-300 from Munich to Washington-Dulles

Essentially, it’s miles arbitrage – I’m earning miles for a low price, and redeeming them at much, much higher values.  I am generally earning miles at a rate of $.02 – $.035 per mile, and redeeming them on tickets that cost in excess of $.12 per mile.  That’s a pretty decent return on investment right there!

Credit Card Sign ups and Spending

Last year, I was heavy in the credit card sign-up game.  Co-branded travel and bank credit cards are some of the easiest ways to get a bunch of miles quickly.  Through a few credit card sign ups, I was able to quickly accrue over 400,000 miles over the course of the year.  Before employing this strategy, you should see if this tactic is right for you.  Applying for new credit cards does take a temporary, small hit on your credit, but the long-term effects of building a good credit history of paying your bills on time, and in full will do nothing but help you credit going forward.  The important thing to remember is to make sure you pay off your balance in full every month to avoid any interest fees, as interest on owed amount negates the value of the miles.  In future posts, I plan to get into a little more detail on credit card sign-up bonuses, but since this is not currently part of my strategy, I will save it for later.

This year, I have stayed away from credit cards and focused my effort on earning miles organically – by flying.  With that said, the majority of all my spend is on one of two or three points-earning credit cards.  This ensures that every dollar I spend is earning valuable miles that I will later use for travel.   I will go into greater detail on credit cards in future posts.

Though the quickest way to compile a serious bank of frequent flyer miles is through credit card sign ups, I enjoy taking quick trips on the cheap to earn my miles the natural way — by actually getting on a plane and flying somewhere!

An Impulsive, Last-Minute Weekend Trip to Anchorage

What happens when I have a wide-open long weekend, $1,300 in United eCertificates, and the desire to not do the same-old, same-old in DC?

Why, I book an impulsive trip to Alaska for the weekend, of course!

A previous expedition to Alaska

A previous expedition to Alaska

So I’ve been thinking about this for a while, as the fare has been out there for a bit.  But I finally pulled the trigger on things last night.  There’s a pretty nice deal on United and other carriers right now to Anchorage, Alaska that I found thanks to The Flight Deal.  Now, I wouldn’t normally just blow that amount of money to go to Alaska for a couple days on a random weekend, but like I said, I have a pile of United “play money” that I’ve acquired as compensation for mishaps here and there.  There was also plenty of “upgrade-able” space available on flights to Anchorage this weekend, which I figured would be a good use for a couple of my Regional Premier Upgrades.

As a result, I’ll be making my third trip to Alaska — but this time, it’s not by cruise ship.

I’ll be leaving for Anchorage on Friday morning from Washington-Reagan airport via Chicago.  My flight will arrive into Anchorage early Friday afternoon, and I will be there all weekend until my return flight on Sunday evening.  It’ll be a red-eye flight back to Chicago, and then on to DC first thing Monday morning.

My upgrades to first class cleared on all segments, so I’ll be comfortable as possible.  United is also operating B737-800s with DirectTV and Power Ports on all segments too (as of now), so that’s a major win.  Staying in the major win category — this sequence of flights will allow me to achieve United Premier 1K Status — United’s top achievable frequent flyer status!!!

The path of my journey

The path of my journey

Though I’ve been to Alaska many times, I have not gotten the chance to spend much time in Anchorage.  I’ll probably spend some time on a hike in nearby Chugach State Park, as I don’t think I have the time or the money to do a quick trip to Denali.  Maybe I’ll go fishing, or fight a brown bear with my bare hands… everything is on the table!  A meal of halibut and chips is definitely in the works, that’s for sure.

So, I’ll ask you– the reader… what should I do with two days in Anchorage?