Check Your Flight’s Price on JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska!

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 9.12.21 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-26 at 9.13.50 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-26 at 9.14.27 PMI recently booked my first flight on JetBlue — a weekend trip from Washington-National to Charleston for a bachelor party in August.  I ended up getting what I considered to be a pretty good deal, but after hearing about some recent deals that JetBlue was offering, I decided to check their website to see what my flights were priced at now.

As it turns out, the price had dropped $50.  Since I haven’t flown JetBlue before, I was not too familiar about their policies, but I was informed by Seth of The Wandering Arameanthat JetBlue would re-price my ticket to the new price and issue the difference as a future flight credit.

Sure enough, after a short phone call, the friendly agent with JetBlue adjusted the price of my ticket and issued $50 in credit to my “Travel Bank” for use on a future flight.  Pretty sweet!

The terms and the body of the e-mail is below.

Service Credit: Refund 50.00 USD

Given the recent change in your travel plans, we have deposited the above credit into your Travel Bank account. This credit, which expires 365 days from the date it is issued, is available for use on future travel with JetBlue. 

To book a flight using your Travel Bank credit, visit jetblue.com and choose Travel Bank as your form of payment.

In order to qualify for your fare to be re-priced and to have a credit issued, the new price must be for the exact same flights on the same day.  If the price dropped, it’s definitely worth a phone call!

JetBlue is one of a few airlines that offer a similar policy, with the others being Southwest and Alaska Airlines.

Whatever the case, it’s refreshing to run into the occasional flyer-friendly customer policy opposed to a series of flyer un-friendly changes that I’ve grown accustomed to flying another certain airline.

So if you’re booked on JetBlue, Southwest, or Alaska Airlines, make sure you periodically monitor the current pricing your flights — it could save you some money!

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…

Review: JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

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.  


 

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


We arrived in the late morning after our overnight flight from Houston via a private transfer from the airport to the hotel. Though we arrived well before check-in time, they still had our room ready.  This was probably because my roommate this trip was Platinum Status with Marriott.  By comparison, I was only Gold status, which I received as a benefit of having United Premier 1K status.

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

The JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is located smack, dab in the middle of Copacabana Beach, making it one of the best situated hotels on Copacabana.  The lobby was undergoing renovations while we were there, so that was a bit obnoxious, but we got over it.  Despite the ongoing renovations, the two-story lobby was quite large and an overall attractive space.

We had a standard deluxe ocean-view room on the 11th floor with a beautiful view of Copacabana beach.  It was a good-sized room with a functional bathroom and very comfortable beds.  The highlight of the room was the view.

Since we were both Marriott elite, we had access to the concierge lounge.  The concierge lounge features a two-story glass wall overlooking Copacabana.  There is ample seating space with a couple of TVs and computers.  Breakfast is served in the lounge, and it was delicious.  They also serve a variety of tasty appetizers every evening, along with unlimited beer and wine.  I ended up spending more time in this lounge than I planned, but oh well!

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

One of my favorite features of the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is the stellar rooftop patio and pool.  The rooftop has an amazing view of Copacabana.  I spent one evening here around sunset, and it was beautiful.  There is a nice bar where one can order a beer or a fantastic caipirinha.  The rooftop pool looks inviting, though I didn’t take a dip.  From the south side of the roof deck, one can see the sunset behind the Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer statue.  It’s just a fantastic outdoor space, and one of my favorite things about the hotel.

All in all, this is probably one of the best hotels in all of Rio de Janeiro due primarily to its location.  Marriott is mighty proud of this hotel too, as it’s quite pricey.

How I booked it…

We booked this hotel with Marriott points.  My friend had a ton of points since he regularly stays with Marriott, so he used those.  The JW Marriott is a category 8 hotel, which requires 40,000 Marriott points per night.  This is still a decent deal considering the standard rates at this hotel are often well north of USD $400.

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

 

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.

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 →

Review: Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston

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


After a wonderful breakfast at the Bunratty Meadows Bed & Breakfast, we dropped our car off at the Budget Rental Car center at the Shannon Airport after topping off the tank at a nearby gas station.  An Avis and Budget shuttle took us to the terminal, where we proceeded to Aer Lingus Business Class check-in.  At this point, I revealed to my girlfriend that we were actually flying business class home.  The entire trip, she was under the impression that we were flying economy back across the pond, since I kept that little detail to myself.

Check-in for business class actually seemed like it took a little longer than regular economy check-in, but we were in no hurry.  After check-in, we proceeded through security and on to the pre-clearance inspection station for the United States Customs and Border Control.  Shannon is one of the only airports in Europe (other than Dublin) to offer pre-clearance into the United States.  Since one goes through US immigration and customs in Shannon, you don’t have to go through the long immigration queues upon arrival back in the States.  Pre-clearance required us to undergo an additional security screening before getting in line for immigration and customs.  After immigration, there were two Global Entry kiosks where my girlfriend and I went ahead and put in our details to avoid the lines.  The only difference between Global Entry in Shannon and in the US is that in Shannon the customs agent asked me for my checked bag bar code, he scanned it, and then had me verify the picture of my bag on the computer.  I knew that this type of security was used, but this was the first time I actually saw it in action.

After zipping through Global Entry, we made our way to the Rineanna Suite — the business class lounge for Aer Lingus passengers at Shannon.  The lounge was nothing special, and actually quite barren with no exterior views.  It did; however, have canned Guinness — one of which I drank as a farewell to Ireland.  After fifteen minutes in the lounge, our flight to Boston was called for boarding.

Aer Lingus (EI) 135
Shannon (SNN) – Boston (BOS)
Aircraft:  Boeing 757-200
Seat:  2C
Sunday, May 18
11:40AM – 1:25PM
Duration:  6:45

We boarded our Aer Lingus B757-200 and turned left to take our seats in row 2, seats A and C.  The 757 is a newly acquired aircraft for Aer Lingus, as three of these airplanes were acquired from Air Contractors to facilitate year round service from Shannon to Boston and New York, as well as adding year round service between Dublin and Toronto.  The flight is actually operated by Air Contractors, but everything was branded as Aer Lingus.  I’m not really sure who the crew actually belonged to!  Since the 757 features a newly installed interior, the business cabin does not feature the same seats that are on Aer Lingus’s A330 fleet.

The business cabin on the Aer Lingus 757 consists of 12 seats — three rows of four seats in a 2X2 configuration.  The seat itself is pretty basic.  There is one basic control to control the recline (up or down), as it reclines into an angled lie-flat seat.  It does NOT lie completely 180-degrees flat.  The leg rest needs to be extended manually in order to get the seat into a bed-like state, which I found odd.  Another oddity is the location of the TV — it seems much lower than on other aircraft, but I suppose it worked fine.  Overall, the seat was perfectly fine for lounging for 5-6 hours, but I don’t think I would have had the most comfortable sleep in it — it was simply not wide enough for me, and the angle was pretty severe when in “lie-flat” mode.

One we settled into our seats, the flight attendant offered us a pre-departure glass of champagne, which we gladly accepted.  She then distributed basic amenity kits and menus.  We pushed back on-time and took off from a rainy Shannon Airport, and ascended to the West over the green fields of Ireland.  Once we hit 10,000 feet, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems were booted up, and I browsed the movie selections.  The selections were pretty decent with a good range of recent movies to classics.   I put on the movie Troy just prior to the start of lunch service.

To commence lunch service, I was brought a mediocre blended Scotch (Teachers) along with a selection of canapés from a cart.  None was particularly memorable, but they included goat cheese on toast, a mushroom pate, and antipasti.  The canapés were followed by the appetizer and salad.  I chose the smoked chicken appetizer instead of the seafood plate, and it was basically sliced deli chicken, which paired reasonably well with the accompanying plum chutney.  The salad was fresh enough, but didn’t really feature much lettuce.  For the entrée, we had a choice of a fillet steak, chicken stuffed with blue cheese, sea bass, or penne with tomato and basil sauce.   I ordered the fillet, and my girlfriend ordered the pasta, but we switched since the pasta appeared to be more pesto-based instead of basil.  The pasta was pretty tasty, though I forgot to take a picture of it.  I felt bad for my girlfriend because the steak was pretty awful — it was very dry and chewy.  However, the au gratin potatoes were fantastic.  I enjoyed a chocolate marble cake for dessert while my girlfriend enjoyed a cheese plate.  Overall, the catering for lunch was mediocre at best.  I’d heard some really good things about Aer Lingus catering, but this particular offering wasn’t all that impressive at all.

After lunch, I finished up my movie and pulled out the laptop to load up some pictures from the trip.  That took longer than I expected, because when I finished with that, the flight attendant was coming around again for afternoon tea service.  She brought out a cart filled with various open-faced sandwiches and some scones.  I wasn’t too hungry, so I opted for a scone and some tea.  Afternoon tea was a nice touch — I did enjoy it even though our flight was so short it seemed like lunch service had just ended.

Indeed, we were running ahead of schedule.  As afternoon tea was wrapping up, we had already started our descent into Boston.  Annoyingly, the IFE was shut off about thirty minutes before landing, so we just sat and commiserated how our vacation was coming to an end.  We arrived into Boston over an hour ahead of time, at 12:15 after what was only a five-hour and 35 minute transatlantic flight.  I’ve seriously had longer flights to California from the East Coast.

We pulled into our gate in Terminal A at Boston’s Logan International Airport and were at baggage claim in no time since we’d already pre-cleared immigration and customs.  Our bags were the first ones off the conveyor, so we were able to quickly make our way to Terminal C for our short US Airways flight back home to Washington-National Airport later that afternoon.  And just like that, our trip was over.

Overall, Aer Lingus was decent enough.  I was somewhat disappointed in the seat on the 757, as well as the catering.  The seat simply doesn’t compete with other business Transatlantic products out there, but it’s certainly much better than a domestic first class seat.  The flight attendant in the business cabin was not the warmest character, but she provided adequate service.  Whatever the case, it was perfectly comfortable for a daytime flight across the Atlantic, and it beats economy ANY day of the week!  I consider Aer Lingus business class to be an incredible value if obtained with British Airways Avios (which I did) — so the price was right!

How I booked it…

As I just mentioned, I booked this flight using British Airways Avios.  Since Shannon AND Dublin to Boston is less than 3,000 miles, it falls into an advantageous category on British Airways’ award chart where it only costs 25,000 Avios for a one-way business class ticket (or only 12,500 Avios for economy!)   To put that in perspective, 25,000 miles for business class is LESS than most airlines charge for a one-way economy class ticket to Europe.  It really is the best value for miles across the Atlantic out there — but more on that in a future post!

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

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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.

Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B

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


May 17

We awoke after a great night sleep at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway, and headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Breakfast was included in the room rate, and the spread was downright impressive.  They really had a little of anything you could think of, and it proved to be a wonderful start to the day.  After we checked out, the only plan for the day was to make it down to see the Cliffs of Moher — about a 90 minute drive from Galway.  The drive followed along a scenic, windy road as we followed the west coast of Country Clare throughout he Burren National Park.  When we hit the fork in the road in the town of Ballyvaughan, we decided to take the scenic route to the Cliffs of Moher — via the Ocean Road.  This proved to be a wonderful idea, as the scenery was simply stunning on this wonderfully clear day.   We thoroughly enjoyed driving and then just pulling over to take in the sights of a scenic coastline vista and the occasional castle.

After a couple of hours, we found ourselves in the small, port town of Doolin around noon.  Located about 6km from the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin is host to a ferry fleet where one can take a ferry for a scenic cruise of the Cliffs, or to one of the Aran Islands.  We went down to the pier to inquire with the O’Brien Line about their ferry tour to the Cliffs of Moher, and we were met by a friendly, older Irish man named Bill O’Brien, who happened to be the owner of the tour company.  He informed us that the next ferry was to leave at 3:15pm, and then gave us the “lay of the land” and ensured us that we’d have time to visit the Cliffs of Moher from above before coming back to Doolin for our ferry ride.  The ferry cost €25 for the estimated hour-long trip to the Cliffs and back – a fee that we gladly paid.

We heeded Bill’s advice and made the short, 15-minute drive from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher.  There is a €6 entrance fee per car at the Cliffs, and it is well worth the price of admission.  The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most famous geographical features of Ireland, as they feature a set of jagged cliffs that drop straight off, about 1,000 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.   The views are simply stunning.  We were lucky to have perfect weather that day, so we were not impeded by fog, rain, or mist!

After about an hour of taking in the vistas and snapping dozens of pictures, we headed back to our ridiculous mini car and drove back to Doolin for lunch.  We settled on lunch at Gus O’Connors Pub.  Gus O’Connors was quite crowded, as a tour bus group had just been dropped off, but even still, we were able to receive our food and pints pretty quickly.  I enjoyed a beef and Guinness Stew, which was great.  However, my girlfriend struck out with her chicken and cheese sandwich order, as it wasn’t the most appetizing thing she’d ever seen… or tasted.  After lunch, we returned to the pier for our ferry ride.  As we were waiting for our ferry to return, the weather started to turn as a storm started to pick up.  As the wind increased and the sea appeared to get a little more rough, we decided to go ahead and take our last two Dramamine tablets, just in case.

Good decision.

By the time we got on-board the vessel, the supposed ten minute ride took closer to 30 minutes, as we took ten foot seas over the bow on our short trek to the base of the Cliffs of Moher.  The Cliffs themselves were overwhelming from the bottom.  We looked up to where we stood a few hours before, and the sheer height of the Cliffs sank in as we could barely see the outline of people looking over the towering cliffs, 1,000 feet above.  The ride back to the dock was equally as choppy, and we were two of the only non-seasick passengers on the ferry.  Folks were getting sick left and right, but we had a blast!

By the time we got back to the dock, we were running about an hour behind schedule, so we hit the road en route for Bunratty.  Bunratty is a small village about five kilometers from the Shannon Airport.  We had reservations at the Bunratty Meadows Bed and Breakfast, where we planned to stay the night before our flight home to the States.  We arrived at Bunratty Meadows at around 6:30pm, and were greeted by the hostess, Dariena.  We were shown our room in her beautiful house located on a large meadow overlooking the River Shannon.  The room was extremely comfortable, and had all the creature comforts that we could want. Dariena recommended that we go into Bunratty to check out the famous Bunratty Castle, and then eat at a nearby restaurant for dinner.  The Castle is one of the larger ones you’ll find in Ireland, and it is open to the public along with a folk park that showcases Medieval Irish life.  We got to the castle too late to take a tour, so we just zapped some pictures, took a stroll throughout the famous Durty Nelly’s Pub, and walked across the street to the Creamery Bar for dinner.

I had a delicious dinner of fish and chips with a couple pints of Guinness — a perfect last supper for a wonderful four days in Ireland.  By the end of dinner, we were pretty exhausted from the long day of touring, so we made our way back to the Bed and Breakfast for our last night’s sleep on the trip.

May 18

We’d arranged for breakfast to be had at 8:30am, which would leave us plenty of time to get to the Shannon Airport for our 11:40am flight back across the pond.  We woke up, cleaned up, packed, and headed downstairs to the cute breakfast room where Dariena had four tables set for the four sets of guests that she was hosting the previous night.  There was a selection of cereals and coffee to choose from as Dariena brought out freshly baked scones with an assortment of jams.  I ordered the pancakes, and my girlfriend had the traditional Irish Breakfast.  Both were absolutely delicious, and we completely loved everything about the breakfast that was prepared for us.  Sadly, we had to say our goodbyes and head to the airport.

We really, really enjoyed Bunratty Meadows.  Though it was the only bed and breakfast on our trip, it was one of my favorite accommodations.  Based off this experience, I’d certainly be open to staying at bed and breakfasts more often since they really provide a fantastic value and have much more personality than do most hotels.  I also highly recommend Bunratty Meadows to anyone in the area — it’s especially great if you need to fly out to Shannon the next morning, as it’s only about five kilometers away from the airport.

 

 

The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland

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


May 16

We awoke around 6:30am to start our drive across the Emerald Isle since we had an 11:30am flight from Connemara Airport, about 45 minutes west of Galway.  The prior day we rented a car, so that was sitting for us in the parking garage.  And oh, what a funny little car it was!  The thing just screamed “European car” and I looked absolutely ridiculous driving it with my 6’4″ frame.  We left The Morrison and proceeded through the outskirts of Dublin right around the beginning part of Friday morning rush hour.  We were headed out of the city, so traffic was light.  We then got on the M4 and then the M6 motorway (very similar to US Interstate Highways), and drove clear across the country in about two and a half hours!  The next thing we knew, we were on the outskirts of Galway.  After proceeding through about a half dozen traffic circles, we were on an ocean-side highway hugging the Galway Bay between Galway and Connemara.  We stopped for a scone and a coffee of a picturesque beach overlooking Galway Bay.

Several months earlier, I arranged for a scheduled flight to take us to the Aran Islands and back.  After tons of research, we decided that we wanted to see the Aran Islands.  We decided on Inishmore since it was the largest of the three islands, and seemed to have lots to see.  Since they’re relatively remote (about ten miles off the West coast of Ireland), the only two options to get to the islands were by ferry or by plane.  The ferry was said to take 90-12o minutes and cost €25-30, while the plane was said to be an eight minute flight for €49 round trip.  Given our time constraint (we needed to do it in one day), the decision to book the flight was an easy one.  We booked the flight directly on Aer Arann Islands’ website, and the process really couldn’t have been any easier.

We arrived at the airport about 45 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time of 11:30am.  We checked in and were situated in the small lobby of the Connemara Airport.  After a safety briefing on TV, the two of us and a third passenger were gathered for boarding for this eight-minute flight that would cover 12 miles — currently the fifth shortest scheduled flight in the world!

We flew a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander — an eight-seat aircraft (including the two pilots) from Connemara (NNR) to Inishmore (IOR) in the Aran Islands with one pilot and three passengers, including the two of us.  After a scenic approach to the island, we touched down and were immediately met by Aer Arann Island officials who had a mini bus waiting to take us to town.  Upon arriving into the main town in Inishmore, called Kilronan, we grabbed a pint of Guinness and lunch at the bar, appropriately named, “The Bar.”  We then walked across the street and rented bikes for €10 each.  The bike shop owner pointed us out the sights we should see on the map, and off we went!

It was about a 6km bike ride along a very hilly and scenic road to the entrance of the must-see prehistoric fort of Dun Aonghasa.  From the entrance, there was another 1km walk up the hill to the ridge of the cliff where the fort lies.

The views from here were magnificent, as the cliffs dropped off some 300 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.

We walked around Dun Aonghasa for about 45 minutes, snapping pictures left and right.  Interestingly, there was no railing along the edge of the cliff, and one could hang their legs off the ledge if they dared — definitely a harrowing feat.  I myself didn’t play that game… I’m way too scared of heights, and I even had weak knees when I walked within five feet of the ledge!

After touring the fort, we descended the hill, got back on our bikes, and made the scenic drive back to town where our minibus picked us up for our return flight back to Connemara.  Inishmore was a MUST see.  If you have time in Ireland, or if you’re in Galway, it’s definitely worth spending at least a day out in the Aran Islands.  I much prefer the flight over there since it saves a ton of time, and you don’t need to worry about the frequently rough seas that you may encounter on a ferry ride.

Upon arriving back in Connemara, we hopped into our mini-car and proceeded to the town of Galway.  We were booked for one night at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway.  We chose this hotel because it was comparably priced to other places, it was within walking distance to the main part of town, and it received some pretty good reviews online.  Parking cost €5 and check-in was a breeze.  Much to our surprise, breakfast seemed to be included in our room rate — win!  The room was basic — comfortable and somewhat modern, but nothing overly special or memorable.  The lobby of the hotel was quite pretty, but we really didn’t spend any time there.

After freshening up, we set out to explore Galway for the evening.  And what an awesome little town it is!  Most of our time was spent along Quay Street in the Spanish Arch area.  This street was lined with pubs and shops, and just had a genuine Irish feel to it.  Galway is right on the water, so that made the town seem especially scenic.  We went into a couple of pubs for pints:  The Quays and The Dail Bar.  We enjoyed both of them, and honestly could have just pub-hopped all night in this cute little town.  Alas, we were starving at this point, so we headed to Finnegans Corner Restaurant & Bar where my girlfriend enjoyed some Shepherd’s Pie, and I had fish and chips, yet again.  The food was really quite fantastic, and we left the place pretty full.  At that point, it was approaching 10pm, and we were exhausted, so we made our way back to the hotel for a decent night’s rest.