Elite Status Challenges with American Airlines

Airlines – particularly legacy US carriers — value their elite passengers.  These passengers are widely viewed by the airlines to be some of their most profitable passengers, and as such, those passengers are extended numerous perks such as priority boarding, free checked bags, and first class upgrades.  For quite some time, most airlines offer published and un-published opportunities for elite passengers of its competitors called status matches or status challenges. The basic premise of a status match is that an elite member of Airline A would request and be granted equal status with Airline B once their elite credentials were verified.  A status challenge is where an elite member of Airline A is granted equal status with Airline B provided that the member flies X amount of miles/points/segments in Y amount of time (months).Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 9.06.54 PM

What is an American Airlines Status Challenge?

American Airlines currently offers varying levels of status challenge opportunities for elite passengers of rival carriers –  primarily United and Delta, though YMMV with other carriers.  There are currently three levels of status challenges: Continue Reading →

Points, Planes and Passports Officially Joins Prior2Boarding and BoardingArea!

First of all, I apologize for the lack of posts the last few weeks — they’ve been quite hectic, and the blog has been in transition mode.

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A few months ago, I joined Prior2Boarding — a collection of top travel blogs and sister-site of the uber-popular BoardingArea community of travel blogs.  This past Tuesday, the techie wizards out in Colorado at BoardingArea successfully migrated my blog to the BoardingArea servers, so you’ll see a few minor changes to my blog, including a banner header with links to the other Prior2Boarding blogs.  I encourage you to check them out, as they all feature a wealth of information on everything related to travel, points and miles.

For those who haven’t read my blog yet, here’s a brief introduction… Continue Reading →

Review: United Global First Class Sydney to San Francisco

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

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

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

Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge

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

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

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

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

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

Best signage ever in the Singapore First Class Lounge Restroom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty of Room in 1A

Plenty of Room in 1A

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

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

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

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

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

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

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

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

Big breakfast -- and interesting eggs!

Big breakfast — and interesting eggs!

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

How I booked it…

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

Berkshire Hathaway’s AirCare Travel Insurance — Is it Worth the $25?

Berkshire Hathaway recently rolled out an interesting new concept for travel insurance called AirCare.

This relatively straightforward travel insurance plan costs $25 per direction of air travel and pays out the following in the case of travel snafus:

  • $50 per 2-hour flight delay
  • $500 per missed connection
  • $500 per delayed bag (more than 12 hours)
  • $1,000 per lost bag
  • $1,000 for a 2+ hour tarmac delay

Berkshire Hathaway AirCareThe glaring omission here is the lack of coverage of flight cancellation.   

For now, only domestic flight itineraries are eligible for this travel insurance, and the $25 premium appears to be per direction of travel, including stopovers.  It also appears that these claims are cumulative, so if one has a 2+ hour tarmac delay that results in a missed connection, the payout would be $1,500.

Another feature of this insurance plan is that it can be purchased at ANY time up to one hour prior to the flight.  Policies cannot be purchased for itineraries that have a weather advisory for either the outbound or destination cities though.

AirCare also comes with a nifty app for iPhone and Android, and includes “real-time” flight monitoring and a concierge who can be contacted in the case of missed connections, etc.   The plan also touts instant payment of claims to one’s bank account, though a quick search of reviews indicates a somewhat more complicated claims process.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how savvy travelers could potentially exploit this plan, so I do wonder if any tweaks will be made to the plan as time goes on.  Though I haven’t personally used this, it could potentially be a good way to hedge a bad travel itinerary with a close connection, and is a very interesting alternative to a traditional travel insurance policy.  One still needs to keep in mind that this IS after all, insurance — so the actuaries have already done the math to ensure that Berkshire Hathaway will ultimately come out on top in the long run.

As a word of caution, there are several questions or gray areas that aren’t covered on the website, such as what happens when the airline proactively re-books you on to a different flight as a result of a missed connection — would BH consider this a missed connection, or the scheduled itinerary?   This could make the claims process MUCH less straightforward.

Has anyone used the Berkshire Hathaway AirCare plan yet?  If so, how was the experience?  Were claims paid in a straightforward manner?