Ten Tips for Planning an Oktoberfest Trip to Munich

My favorite trip  of the year is always my annual pilgrimage to Munich for the World’s largest festival — Oktoberfest!

This coming year will be the sixth year in a row that I’ve attended the Wiesn in Germany, so I’ve learned on the fly, but at this point,  I think I know what I’m doing pretty well.

Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival that runs every year,  from the late September to the first full weekend in October.  Plan these dates accordingly.

Planning a trip to this foreign festival can be a daunting task, but here are ten tips along with several guides and recommendations: Continue Reading →

Week in Review: Free Delta Flights, American Premium Bonus and More

Here’s a 35,000 foot view of travel news from around the Internet and a recap of my weekly posts…

News Around the Interwebs

It’s been a somewhat slow week in the points and miles world, but here were some of the highlights of the week that I saw pass through:

Delta Free Flights for Displaced DC-NYC passengers

After various reports of $2300+ airfare from DC to New York, MJ on Travel reports that Delta Airlines has come out to honor Amtrak customers displaced by the effects of the May 12th Derailment of Amtrak Train 188. Continue Reading →

Review: Delta Business Elite Class Sao Paulo to New York-JFK

Sometimes, you reach your breaking point.

My breaking point came in T2 at Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport as I stared down the barrel of a ten-hour layover with no lounge access.  This was after a schedule change and seating change on my outbound flight from JFK to Santiago the night before in an attempt to make it to Iguazu Falls.

At this point, I’d been traveling for over 24 hours.

I hadn’t slept.

And I still had over 12 hours left to go, culminating in a border crossing between Brazil and Argentina at the un-Godly hour of 3am.

That was it — I’d had enough.  So, I decided to throw in the towel, cut my losses and head home.

I scoured the Internet from the domestic terminal at GRU looking for award flight availability back home, and found some viable options.  I was reluctant to blow miles on a trip home, but was resigned to do so until I had a Facebook chat conversation with a friend who works for Delta.  He graciously offered me a buddy pass to get me back to the States that evening.  The best part about it?

It was in business class.  And there was plenty of non-rev space available open that evening.  I took my friend up on his offer, paid some nominal fees and taxes, and I appeared on the stand-by list for DL 472 to JFK — a flight that would sent me right back to the airport I’d departed less than 24 hours before.

I arrived at the gate about an hour prior to departure and let the gate agent know I was there, per instructions from my friend.  After all revenue passengers had boarded, my name was called and the gate agent handed me a boarding ticket for seat 6B, in business class!  I was going home…

Continue Reading →

US Airlines Continue to Cut Passenger Services, Please Investors

Snip, snip, snip….

This is apparently the week for US-based airlines to make all sorts of passenger un-friendly changes and cuts.  While ultimately screwing over the passengers, the cuts are largely going to please investors on Wall Street.

Just this week, Delta, United and JetBlue have announced some cuts that hurt the consumer, and in many cases, they’ve prettied-up their press releases to make it look consumer-friendly.  Tsk, tsk…

Some of the changes this week include:

  • JetBlue announces “refresh” of A320 cabins (read – less leg room)
  • JetBlue announces that free checked bags are no more!
  • United makes a number of “enhancements”
  • Delta announces new 2015 award chart
  • Delta eliminates stopovers and open jaws on award tickets

Continue Reading →

A 36-hour Trip to Nowhere: An Iguazu Fail

I write this post on Saturday morning — not from Iguazu Falls as planned, but from New York – JFK, Terminal 2.

That’s right.  I never made it to Iguazu Falls.

There were a ton of little things that went wrong with my trip, and they all caught up with me Friday afternoon in Sao Paulo.

Red:  Planned Flights Blue:  Actual Flights Purple:  Planned = Actual

Red: Originally Planned Flights
Blue: Actual Flights
Purple: Planned = Actual

Basically, I was both physically and mentally exhausted.  Confronting me was a ten-hour layover in Sao Paulo before a late night flight to Iguazu Falls.  Considering how exhausted and out of it I felt at 4pm, I couldn’t imagine dealing with negotiating with a Brazilian cab driver, crossing the Brazil / Argentina border, and locating a small hostel in Puerto Iguassu, Argentina twelve hours later.

But what exactly happened to get to that point?

Continue Reading →

Ten Tips for Planning an Oktoberfest Trip to Munich

My favorite trip  of the year is always my annual pilgrimage to Munich for the World’s largest festival — Oktoberfest!

This will be the fifth year in a row that I’ve attended the Wiesn in Germany, so I’ve learned on the fly, but at this point,  I think I know what I’m doing pretty well.

Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival that runs every year,  from the late September to the first full weekend in October.  Plan these dates accordingly.

Planning a trip to this foreign festival can be a daunting task, but here are ten tips along with several guides and recommendations: Continue Reading →

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.

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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.

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago?: Planning

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1  (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda


This monstrosity of a trip was actually the result of combining three different vacations.  I’ll split the planning out into three sections, outlying how I went about booking each portion, and the confluence of events that led to linking these trips together to create a 15-day, multi-continent adventure!

The original trip:  Denver to Tokyo on the 787 Dreamliner

In May 2012, on the day that United announced their first official international 787 Dreamliner route from Denver to Tokyo-Narita, they uploaded it into the schedule with an abnormally low price of ~$900 round-trip on their B-fare.  A United B-fare is a full-fare economy ticket, which would normally cost several thousands of dollars.  This sort of fare earns 1.5X Premier Qualifying Miles, which help one build United status.   Additionally, this fare was available for what was supposed to be the inaugural flight for this route, and the inaugural international 787 flight for United.  Several friends on Milepoint booked this same flight, so it was to be a “party-flight.”  A sub-$1,000 fare to Tokyo is pretty good in general, but the fact that this was a B-fare, and that this was supposed to be the inaugural flight made it a must-have.

Denver to Tokyo-Narita

Denver to Tokyo-Narita

I originally planned this trip to be March 31 through April 6, and planned to spend the week in Japan.  As it turns out, the 787 had its share of problems after its initial release, and was subsequently grounded in January.   By the end of February, United finally made the official announcement that the inaugural would be postponed to a later date, so this inaugural was no longer a possibility.  I was left contemplating when I wanted to change this flight to…

Another unrelated trip:  TAM airfare deal from New York to Santiago

In November 2012, an extremely low round-trip fare of ~$330 appeared for flights from New York or Miami to both Buenos Aires and Santiago on TAM Airlines (of Brazil) through Orbitz.  After a late-night call from a friend, I decided to book a couple of these flights – a trip to Buenos Aires in March 2013 and one to Santiago in June.

I ended up selecting a routing from New York-JFK to Santiago.  After a litany of schedule changes by TAM, and after dealing with a series of hour-long phone calls to Orbitz, I ultimately ended up with a trip from New York to Santiago, via Rio de Janeiro on the outbound and via Sao Paulo on the return.

New York-JFK to Santiago (SCL) via Rio de Janeiro (GIG) on outbound and Sao Paulo (GRU) on the return

New York-JFK to Santiago (SCL) via Rio de Janeiro (GIG) on outbound and Sao Paulo (GRU) on the return

Joining the gang in Dubai

As I pondered when I should take my DEN-NRT flight on the 787, I decided that I wanted to spend some time in Japan, but at the same time try to somehow get over to Dubai to meet a group of ten friends who would be there, and to see my old roommate who moved to Dubai last year.  They would all be in Dubai during the heat of the summer, from June 20th-23rd.  I checked award availability and found an absolute gem on the American Airlines award flight

American OneWorld Award Chart from AA.com

American OneWorld Award Chart from AA.com

This particular award allows for a trip from Asia Zone 1 (Japan, etc) to India and the Middle East for only 22.5k miles each way in economy, 30k AA miles each way in business class, or 45k in First.  Compare that to the Star Alliance options of United (45k/67.5k/87.5k) and US Airways (40k/60k/90k), as well as Delta (40k/60k), and you can see that this is an absolute steal!

Tokyo to Dubai Award Comparison

Tokyo to Dubai Award Comparison

Luckily, I had a decent sized stash of American AAdvantage miles stored up after a couple of credit card signing bonuses and a few flights to Europe from a couple years back, so I decided to redeem an award in business class.

With this award in mind, I needed to find availability for one of American’s OneWorld partners on the route.  I ‘ll make no bones about it – I wanted to try Cathay Pacific.  Ideally, I would have flown in first class, but since Cathay operates its HKG-DXB route with a two-class A330-300 aircraft, this would not be possible.  So instead, I settled on business class – a pretty sweet consolation price considering that this plane features arguably the best business class seat in the world.

Cathay Pacific's new Business Class. Picture:  Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific’s new Business Class. Picture: Cathay Pacific

So I headed over to the Qantas website to check award availability for Tokyo to Dubai.  I wanted to arrive on June 20th and depart the night of June 23rd.  I was pleased to see that the exact flights I wanted were available, so I jotted down the flight numbers and called them into American.  After a five minute phone call, I had secured a round-trip from Tokyo to Dubai via Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific business class for 60,000 AAdvantage miles and about $85 in taxes.

Tokyo to Dubai via Hong Kong

Tokyo to Dubai via Hong Kong

 Sewing it all together

So, now I had the Dubai portion booked.  Given that it was pretty close to the end of my previously planned Santiago trip, I decided to move the outbound DEN-NRT segment to arrive Tokyo the same day as my Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong and then Dubai.  I did want to spend about three days in Tokyo, so I added on several days in Tokyo after Dubai, and scheduled a return from NRT-DEN for June 27th.

I was able to adjust the dates of my Santiago flight due to the multitude of schedule changes to mesh nicely with the rest of my trip.  This left me getting into New York the morning of June 17th and a flight from Denver to Tokyo on June 18th.  So I looked for a flight from New York to Denver on the 17th.  I was able to find a very reasonable round-trip fare on United from NewYork-LaGuardia to Denver departing the late afternoon of the 17th and returning to Washington-Dulles the evening of June 27th.  Perfect.

After finding a very cheap Delta flight from Washington-Reagan (DCA) to JFK on the date of my outbound flight to Santiago on June 13th, I was all set.

Domestic flights -- the missing pieces to the puzzle

Domestic flights — the missing pieces to the puzzle

Adding to the sheer awesomeness of this trip, I was upgraded to United BusinessFirst on both the DEN-NRT and NRT-DEN flights on the 787!  That will equate to almost 24 hours in a lie-flat business seat, thanks to using a friend’s United Global Premier Upgrade (GPU) and a Mileage Upgrade (30,000 miles).

My ride to Tokyo:  The United 787 BusinessFirst cabin (from my first trip on the 787)

My ride to Tokyo: The United 787 BusinessFirst cabin (from my first trip on the 787)

The Final Product

About 38,000 miles of flying...

About 38,000 miles of flying…

DCA-JFK-GIG-SCL // SCL-GRU-JFK, LGA-DEN // DEN-NRT-HKG-DXB // DXB-HKG-HND // NRT-DEN-IAD

All this craziness resulted in a fifteen night trip, visiting five cities and three continents.  The final product looks something like this:

June 13:  Washington-Reagan (DCA) – New York (JFK) on a Delta CRJ-900 in economy comfort

June 13:  JFK – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (GIG) on a TAM A330-200 in economy

June 14:  9-hour layover in Rio!

June 14:  GIG – Santiago, Chile (SCL) on a TAM A320 in economy

June 14-16:  Two nights in Santiago at a hostel.

June 16:  SCL-Sao Paulo (GRU) on a LAN B767-300 in economy

June 16:  GRU – JFK on a TAM B777-300ER in economy

June 17:  New York-LaGuardia (LGA) – Denver (DEN) on a United B757-200 in economy plus

June 17:  Overnight in Denver at the Aloft Denver Airport

June 18:  DEN – Tokyo-Narita (NRT) on a United B787-8 in BusinessFirst

June 19:  NRT – Hong Kong (HKG) on a Cathay Pacific B777-300 in Business

June 20:  HKG – Dubai (DXB) on a Cathay Pacific A330-300 in Business

June 20-23:  Three nights in Dubai at the Park Hyatt, Dubai

June 23:  DXB – HKG on a Cathay Pacific A330-300 in Business

June 24: HKG – Tokyo-Hanaeda (HND) on a Cathay Pacific B777-300ER in Business

June 24-27:  Three nights in Tokyo at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo

June 27:  NRT-DEN on a United B787-8 in BusinessFirst

June 27:  DEN – Washington-Dulles on a United B757-200 in economy plus

Whew!  That’s a lot of travel, but I actually enjoy flying on airplanes – especially in business class.  In all, this trip will consist of five nights on airplanes and ten in hotels.  It will cover 38,856 total miles.  Since TAM is a member of Star Alliance (for now), this total trip will earn me 31,789 United Premier Qualifying Miles and about 36,761 United Redeemable miles from just the TAM and United segments.

Well, let’s start this thing!  I’ll try to give some timely first impressions throughout the course of my trip, and will follow it up with a full-fledged trip report afterwards.

EDIT: Well, as it turns out, weather did not cooperate with me, so I’ve already deviated from the above plan by heading to NYC a night early.  I’ll make a separate post on that whole fiasco later on.

Well, this trip didn’t start as planned

So I was finishing up work yesterday when a co-worker mentioned to me that there was severe weather expected to roll through the DC area on Thursday.  Alarm bells immediately went off in my head as I was scheduled to fly from DCA to New York-JFK at around 12:30 on Thursday — the same time when the weather was supposed to be God-awful.  This flight was to get me to JFK in plenty of time for my flight to Rio de Janeiro – at 7pm on Thursday.  My concern was not necessarily the Rio flight; rather, it was being able to get to JFK in order to take that flight!  These were separate tickets after all, so the good folks at TAM Airlines really wouldn’t care less if Delta couldn’t get me to New York in time.

I got home and started running through my options.  I could:

  • Keep everything as it was, and just cross my fingers that there wouldn’t be a significant delay or cancellation of my flight to JFK
  • Try to fly out earlier in the morning from DCA-JFK
  • Err on the side of caution and take the Amtrak up to New York on Wednesday night to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight to Rio.

If I kept everything as-is, I would have been a nervous wreck, and probably would not have slept very well.  The weather forecasts were extremely ominous, and I didn’t like my chances.  Many times with weather, there are many cancellations — primarily of regional jet traffic (which would include my DCA-JFK flight).  In situations of extremely bad weather, air traffic control tends to get the large planes flying internationally out, and the regionals end up with severe delays or cancellations.  After thinking about all this, I decided that I could not just stay with what I had — I needed to make a proactive change.

My first thought was to change the flight to an earlier flight to JFK on Thursday morning.  Then it dawned on me — I wasn’t flying United.  Since I have status with United, I’ve grown accustomed to being able to make same day changes to my flights — I almost take it for granted.  But no, this flight was with Delta.  An airline with which I have zero status.  Delta had not issued a weather waiver at that point, and it was unlikely I’d be able to change my flight unless they did.

The last option I had was to take the train up to New York on Wednesday, stay the night, and have a relaxing day during which I could find my way out to JFK.  I have a modest bank of Amtrak points from which I could use 4,000 of them to get to NYC, and I was able to find a very reasonable last minute rate at the Four Points Sheraton SoHo.  Perfect.

But then there was a small detail that I had to work with:  it was 6:15pm and my train left at 8:45pm.

I had not done laundry.  I had not packed.  At all.

Fast forward two hours, and I found myself scarfing down a slice of Sbarro pizza as my train was about to depart for New York’s Penn Station.  I made it!

The boarding scrum for the NE Regional Amtrak train DC-NYC.

The boarding scrum for the NE Regional Amtrak train DC-NYC.

The train ride was uneventful — a standard Northeast Regional experience.  It takes about 3:20 – 3:30 to get from Washington to New York on Amtrak, and it’s a good way to go, as it dumps you off at Penn Station — smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.

I arrived at Penn Station at about 12:10am, hailed a cab to the Four Points, and went right to bed.

I slept pretty well in the small room, and woke up at around 8am to do some work.  Again, the room was quite small, but the location is very good and is well situated in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.

My small room

My small room at the 4 Points Sheraton SoHo

After a brief walk around the SoHo neighborhood, I packed my things and headed to Brooklyn where I planned to meet a friend for lunch.  The subway ride was about 15 minutes, and eventually plopped me out right in downtown Brooklyn near the brand new Barclay’s Center.  Wow – what a cool looking arena!

Photo Jun 13, 2 13 26 PM

The new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn — home of the Nets

My friend took me for a roast beef sandwich at Brennan and Carr’s in Brooklyn… awesome!

The Gargiulo burger at Brennan & Carr's in Brooklyn

The Gargiulo burger at Brennan & Carr’s in Brooklyn

After lunch, he drove me to JFK, where I had plenty of time to check-in and make the flight to Rio!  In fact, I’m writing this from the comforts of the American Airlines AAdmirals Club at JFK in T8.  My flight is scheduled out for 7:10pm, I have a drink in hand, and things are good!

A whole bunch of AAirplanes at JFK

A whole bunch of AAirplanes at JFK

Next stop:  Rio de Janeiro!