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2007 Travvies nominations: Best single-author travel blog

BEST SINGLE-AUTHOR TRAVEL BLOG

This award celebrates the best travel blog written by an individual blogger. Again, the topic is open, as long as there is only one regular poster.

You may nominate UP TO THREE BLOGS by leaving a comment in this post. If your favorite has been nominated already, feel free to nominate it again. Show your love!

Note: The comment form automatically asks for name, e-mail address, website (optional), and a text field. E-mail addresses will never be shared or visible publicly, in keeping with our privacy policy. Enter all nominations in the text field. Use the “website” field only if you are linking back to your own site.

For other nomination categories, refer to the list below.

– Best Travel Blog
– Best Destination Blog
– Best Informative/Practical Travel Blog
– Best Group-Written Travel Blog
– Best Photography on a Travel Blog

Update: How to support the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights

Reader Lisa writes:

I would be interested in supporting a passenger bill of rights, if someone started a “movement.” I don’t fly that often, but worry every time I go that I’ll be subjected to something like the 9 hour wait on the runway. Please let me know if there’s somewhere I could email, or send a letter of support for such a thing.

The idea of a passenger bill of rights is not new, but there hasn’t quite been a “movement” yet. The issue is getting some fresh attention lately, though.

Looking back a few years, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has a longstanding proposal for a bill of rights. The airlines, predictably, oppose such a measure, and have been able to keep it off the books. 

As far as the new efforts to get a bill of rights going, I can’t find a petition address. However, there is a blog titled “Coalition for Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights,” presumably run by the lawyers for the passenger group that filed their complaints with Congress (though technically the blog is written under the pseudonym “Coalition for Reform of Airline Passenger Protocol”… or CRAPP.)

If you want to register your support, you might try leaving a comment on that blog. But above all, you should write to your senators and representatives , as well as Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. 

Security update: Shorter no-fly lists; air cargo won’t be screened, “for your safety”

Two updates on the airport security front. One good, one bad.

First, the no-fly list is being revised. Downward! While the actual length of the list is a secret, TSA chief “Kip” Hawley told a Congressional oversight committee that the list was to be cut in half. Considering how often you hear complaints about people being on the list by mistake, and then trying in vain to get their names removed, it’s good to hear that something at the TSA is moving in the right direction.

…And then there’s the bad news:

Hawley also came out in opposition to the bill approved by the House of Representatives which would mandate inspection of airplane cargo. As it stands now, your suitcases are screened, but other cargo isn’t.

Hawley commented: “If you spend all your resources opening boxes and not applying your resources more generally, that opens up another vulnerability,” Hawley told the Senate Aviation Subcommittee. “The adaptive terrorist will go there.”

The “thudding” sound you may hear in the background is me hitting my head against my desk. If cargo isn’t being screened at all NOW, isn’t THAT where “the adaptive terrorist” will try to stash the bad stuff? Why would the head of the TSA effectively declare that cargo is something the TSA does not intend to screen? It’s an invitation, nay, a dare, to potential terrorists seeking to actually smuggle a bomb (or even themselves) on board.

In the meantime, the TSA is thankfully searching passengers for contraband pies. 

Update: Pie apparently a threat to security after all

Take everything I said a few days ago about TSA agents having a sense of humor and happily allowing pie-wielding passengers to pass through security, and throw it in the trash like so many 4-ounce bottles of shampoo. Sigh.

From the always plain-dealin’ Cleveland Plain Dealer (via USA Today):

Overall, operations at Hopkins were smooth, [(TSA assistant federal security director for Northeast Ohio) Rick] DeChant said, but there was at least one unexpected hiccup this week.

“In the last two days, we have taken a dozen baked pies,” he said.

Pie filling apparently is banned from carry-on luggage, too. But the pies didn’t go to waste. They were taken to the airport’s United Service Organizations lounge, where soldiers passing through can relax and eat.

Well, so much for common sense. Cleveland: unsafe for pies. Charlotte: apparently safe.

At least the pies didn’t go to waste, but the TSA’s inconsistent enforcement of rules for carry-on bags is back on full display.

UPDATE November 27: Pies should never have been confiscated, and that comes from the top: Aviation Daily’s Benet Wilson has the details:

[…] at a press conference Nov. 16 in D.C. with TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, […] a question actually came up about whether passengers could carry pies. We all had a good laugh, but Hawley did say that pies could — COULD — be carried past security. He said that his definition of a liquid is what would happen if he put a questioned substance on a table. If it holds its shape, then it’s not a liquid, he said. So pie would not be considered a liquid, he added.

America 2006, summed up in five words: Pie is not a liquid.

Mythbustin’: Is Wednesday at night the best time to buy airline tickets?

Yesterday, the site Seeking Alpha posted this tip for getting the best price for airfares:

What’s the absolute best time to purchase a ticket directly from the airlines? Turns out it’s Wednesday from midnight to 1 am in the time zone of the airline’s “home base.”[…] Why? That’s when the computer systems of most airlines get rid of the reserved but unbooked lower fare reservations.

Several blogs — at least 36 of them as of this writing — picked up on this tip. The problem is it’s completely wrong. It’s pure, unadulterated bunk, a long-running myth of the airline industry.

I consulted with the good folks at FareCompare.com, who reaffirmed my view. The Wednesday midnight rule is a myth. Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com sets the record straight:

Held reservations don’t all expire Wednesdays.

“Held inventory is released every day at midnight so Wednesday is nothing special. Agencies who use Sabre, Worldspan, Galileo and/or Amadeus [the major GDS’s — the global computer networks used for booking tickets] can hold DOMESTIC inventory (sold status SS) without ticketing up to 24 hours during the day, and the carriers at their choosing come in the evening at Midnight and release un-ticketed inventory. The hold for international inventory is normally longer than 24 hours but is at the discretion of the airlines. Some airline websites have a hold feature, but it acts the same way as an agency: the inventory is lost at midnight if not ticketed, and the itinerary is repriced at the current inventory for that flight at time of purchase. For the most part all airline sites use the same policy.”

Most fares that are put on hold aren’t that cheap to begin with.

“It’s not the low fare inventory that opens up at midnight. Low fare inventory is almost always ticketed immediately. Un-ticketed inventory is normally high priced business inventory held by a corporate agency for business travelers who are on the fence about going, or by government workers who have a special ‘hold until travel’ feature for negotiated routes.”

Midnight isn’t necessarily the best time for new fares, anyway.

“New fares (lower or higher) are distributed at 10:00 am, 12:30 pm, and 8 pm EST and loaded about 2-6 hours later in the GDS and airline sites. Seat inventory is controlled by automated revenue management systems, which continuously monitor current sales and consult historical models to decide on whether to release the lowest price seat inventory. The 8 pm domestic ATPCO [Airline Tariff Publishing Company — the clearinghouse (owned by the airlines) for raw air fare/rule distribution] fare feed (5 pm weekends) is loaded into the GDS and airline sites between 12:15 am and 1:30 am, which has the changed fares. But there is no correlation to getting a good deal, just because some inventory might be freed up at midnight. It is just as likely to free up at 2 pm when the yield management system decides sales are soft in a particular inventory price bucket for a particular flight.”

SHOCKER: Some agencies will try to get a better price than the fare they sold you. You just may not find out.

“Large volume non-online agencies do have a practice of ticketing later at night and trying to re-price all un-ticketed items to see if any fares or inventory have changed on a particular flight (sometimes they pocket the difference, sometimes the customer gets the benefit).”

This is not news.

“There is nothing special about this process. It has been this way for years.”

There you have it. Myth busted. It’s Wednesday night as I type, and though midnight is approaching, I’m not banking on any airfare deals tonight. Neither should you.

Big thanks to Rick Seaney for the insights.

UPDATE: SmarterTravel.com took on the same question today, and they suggest that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (especially Tuesday) are more likely to have lower fares. I don’t buy it. The explanation is purely anecdotal; I’ll go with the boys at FareCompare who track airfares obsessively, who say the low fares can come on any day.

The value of frequent flyer miles

A recent question:

How can I tell if it’s better to use miles or buy the ticket?

Excellent question. The short answer is: Pay cash when the cash price is less than the value of the miles you’d be redeeming.

But how much are the miles actually worth?

Smartertravel.com recently ran an advice piece that addressed this issue, and they are wise to suggest a range of options for your miles, but some of their tips are off the mark:

Whereas the industry standard of the value of a mile was once two cents, experts agree that it’s dropped to one cent.

ONE cent??!! I respectfully disagree.

For starters, a mile is not a mile. Each airline’s program has its own rules, including its own redemption rates. If a coach trip from the US to Europe costs 50,000 miles on United and the same flight costs 60,000 miles on Lufthansa, then a United mile is worth more than a Lufthansa mile. It’s like comparing American and Canadian dollars; they’re both money, they’re even both dollars, but they’re not worth the same.

Second, smartertravel.com cites “experts” who “agree.” Experts? Experts also agree that I’m the most important blogger in all of Blogistan. Who is saying this?

Not The Economist. Their study, cited in The Guardian, estimated that there were 14 TRILLION frequent flyer miles out there, with an estimated value of $700 million. That’s 5 cents per mile. That seems on the high side, frankly. But it’s not the 1 cent that smartertravel.com deems the consensus figure.

What about the airlines themselves? They sell their miles to hundreds of firms, such as credit card companies, rental car agencies, hotels, and who knows what else. The rate per mile the largest companies pay is confidential, but they reportedly average between 1 and 2 cents per mile. In fact, this is a huge revenue stream for the airlines, estimated at $10 billion worldwide.

Airlines will also sell miles to individuals, usually for around 3 cents per mile. This is nearly always a bad deal, unless you’re just a few thousand shy of that first class trip to Singapore, and this is the only way to top up the account.

And what do the airlines consider the liability of these miles (earned or sold) on their own books?

American airlines ignore all miles in individual accounts until they reach blocks of 25,000 miles (the minimum required for a domestic ticket). Then, for each 25,000-mile block of unredeemed miles, they enter a liability of only $20-25. They also assume, on average, that one third of miles will never be redeemed. Taking all this into account, in 2004 the 14 biggest American airlines posted a total liability of only $3.9 billion to allow for future frequent-flyer mileage redemptions, according to IdeaWorks, a consulting firm.

$25 per 25,000 miles?? That’s a measly 0.1 cents per mile, which they sell for 10 to 30 times that much. Nice margins!

Note also that a full third of all miles are expected to expire, unused. This is an important point. Besides not earning interest, miles are unlike dollars in another important way: they can expire, if you don’t keep your account active. (Rules vary by program.) Don’t let this happen. At a minimum, get yourself some magazine subscriptions, rather than let the miles disappear.

So what should you consider the value of a mile?

Averaging across programs, and assuming that you have the financial wherewithal to choose between spending miles or spending cash, I would consider 2 or more cents per mile to be the target, 1.7 cents per mile to be breakeven, and 1.5 cents the absolute floor.

How do I get these numbers? Basically, from two observations:
1) Many frequent flyer miles are actually frequent buyer miles — they’re miles earned through a mileage-earning credit card. One could choose a different rewards-earning credit card, such as a cash-back card. The value of the rebates I could be getting with such a card is approximately 1.7% of purchases. Thus, if I’m getting 1 mile per dollar charged instead of 1.7% cash back, then, for me to come out ahead of the cash-back card, 1 mile needs to meet or beat that 1.7%. That’s the breakeven level.

2) At the same time, value is impressionistic. When do you feel like you’ve gotten a good deal? At what price does a plane ticket start to sound expensive? These are personal decisions, and it’s up to you to decide when you’d rather spend cash or a “virtual” currency such as miles. For me, I like feeling that my miles have taken me great distances, in comfort, and in lieu of significant cash. 1.7 cents per mile feels okay, but 2 cents feels better. Higher than 2 cents is even better still.

Settling for 1 cent/mile is foolish, unless you have so many millions of miles in your account that you don’t know how to spend them. For example: Looking over my own accounts, I’ve averaged 4.4 cents/mile lifetime on redemptions. The best I’ve achieved in recent memory was a pair of business class tickets to New Zealand, using 90,000 United miles per ticket on an Air New Zealand/United itinerary. Taxes paid: $37.60pp. Distance traveled? Nearly 17,000 actual flight miles. Retail value of the tickets? Approximately $9000 each. About 10 cents/mile, and well in excess of the “experts” left unnamed by smartertravel.com.

Premium-class tickets (especially internationally) are the best use of miles, in my opinion. High cash equivalent, and it feels like a reward, but inventory on these tickets is often tight. Second-best: Last minute tickets, when the no-advance-purchase fares are in effect and the prices are sky high.

So beware the advice that one cent per mile is the consensus. What constitutes good value is, in the end, your choice. But one cent per mile should be your value of last resort. Aim high.

UPDATE: See also Miles or Buy, the guide/tutorial for people figuring out whether to pay cash or use frequent flyer miles for a ticket. Check it out.