gordons jet flight Short hops    October 16, 2007    Golden ages, sweet spots, and the shortcut to the front of the TSA line

Golden Age, Golden Books: Travel back in time through the power of kids’ books
Children’s book protagonist Gordon experiences the magic of 1961 air travel: “Gordon ate steak and baked potatoes and lots of dessert — the things he liked best. ‘Food tastes good when you’re high in the sky,’ he said.” Cut to 2007, and little Gordon is a bitter man who can’t get an upgrade, but insists on calling the flight attendant “stewardess.” (Thanks, Brownlee!)

Sweet spot: Buy tickets in advance, but just not TOO far in advance
FareCompare.com CEO Rick Seaney busts a myth: That buying WAY far in advance is a great way to save money. Rarely true. Instead, the best time to really start shopping is about four months before your flight. One big reason: While most airlines sell tickets up to 11 months in advance, Southwest Airlines only sells tickets 4 to 5 months ahead. And since Southwest has enormous pricing power, their competitors don’t even bother trying to compete.

Your 15 minutes were over 20 minutes ago
Richard Branson never met a camera he didn’t love. Apparently neither did Kyla Ebbert, Southwest’s miniskirt bandit. Branson used Ebbert as a PR prop for Virgin America’s new service to Vegas. Classy. But hey, goofy photos result. Why is Branson dressed like a priest? Oh, screw it. It’s only egging him on.

Ryanair-style airline coming to transatlantic travel
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary plans to start a discount airline that connects Europe and the U.S. It won’t be Ryanair, just a lot like it. Always the opportunist, O’Leary plans to wait until other airlines are in trouble, and then buy their aircraft on the cheap.

Skybus dropping West Coast?
Skybus looks like it might drop its flights to California and Washington, focusing instead on its shorter flights. Maybe that’s a good thing. Do you really want to deal with 29″ of seat pitch for a cross-country flight?

How to cut to the front of the security line
This isn’t advice I want to try out, knowing that the TSA has the habit of compiling dossiers on travelers. But Christopher Soghoian, of fake-boarding-pass generator fame, posts his tip on how to get to the front of the TSA line: Refuse to show ID. Instant supplemental screening (SSSS)! And to those wondering, yes, you can refuse to show ID and still legally fly. Print-and-save (pdf).

Your hard drive is a weapon
Since when are external hard drives a threat to security? Sigh.

Posted by: Mark Ashley

dtw Finding the real reason for delays

If a flight is delayed and it’s not due to weather, you may be due for some compensation, according to the airline’s contract of carriage. But if the delay can be attributed to weather, you’re out of luck. Guess what they’ll try to blame… So how do you find the truth?

Following on Scott McCartney’s review of various flight status services, Gary Leff offers a great, if counterintuitive, tip for finding the real cause of delays: Use the airline’s cargo website.

For some reason, some airlines offer the real reason for flight delays to their cargo customers, but not their passengers. But not all airlines do this. In my experience, United and American cargo sites offer reasons for delays — reasons which may differ from the regular airline site. If you’re delayed, log in and check both the regular and cargo sites to see why. If it’s not weather, print-screen, then start negotiating with the gate agent.

Unfortunately, Northwest, Continental, and Southwest cargo sites don’t seem to give any different info than their passenger sites. Delta and US Airways cargo sites don’t even give flight tracking.

If the cargo route fails you, or if you’re looking for some all-purpose flight tracking, I generally recommend flightstats.com and flightaware.com. Flightstats offers great, detailed information on everything from gate information to runway statistics. Flightaware offers snappy live-updating maps and route information for the actual flight en route, but less practical info for the person actually traveling.


wallet Reader mail: Can I convert an existing credit card to a rewards card and still get the big bonuses?

Reader Sylvia asks:

I have an American Express blue card, but I want to get a different American Express Card that earns hotel points. Do I have to apply for a new card or can I just convert the card I have to the card that earns points?

Sylvia, I assume you’re thinking about the American Express Starwood or Hilton card. Unfortunately, in the case of American Express, you’ll need to apply for a new card, and then cancel the old one if you want the bonuses. This was confirmed to me over the phone.

The downside: Your credit score gets knocked a couple points for the new application, and depending on the creditor, the age of the account might get reset. (Older credit accounts are better than newly-established ones, for credit score purposes.) With Amex, they will likely keep your original “Member since…” date printed on the card, and not reset that to the new account’s start date, but you’ll likely get a new account number, which is what matters on your credit report.

If you’re deciding between the two Amex hotel programs, take a close look at the card terms to see which suits you better. Obviously, if you stay at one company’s brands more than the other, that creates an incentive. But if you’re brand-agnostic, the Starwood card may be the pick. The Hilton card is free, but the points aren’t very convertible. The Starwood card costs $45 a year (waived the first year), but the points can transfer to a laundry list of airline programs. So you have the airline backup, in case you decide not to use your Starwood points on hotel stays.

But either way you go, you’re going to have to re-apply.

- Reader mail: What kind of point-earning credit card is best?
- Use a credit card internationally? The banks owe you a refund.
- Reader mail: How can I upgrade flights using American Express?


Categorized in: advice, credit cards, reader mail, tips

three mile island Reader mail: Is it worth $20 to get 1000 bonus miles?Reader Joanna writes:

Is it worth paying an extra $20 to get an extra 1000 miles? United has a deal where you pay the fee and get bonus miles. My husband and I are hoping to fly to France next year, and we could use the extra miles. What do you think?

$20 for 1000 miles means two cents per mile… that’s about what miles should be worth. That’s my minimum-value target for cashing in miles, though I try for higher. Most folks get a lot less per mile than that, if they cash in their miles at all.

(See here for a breakdown of how miles are valued.)

United’s offer is a discount to their normal “miles-for-sale” offer, so it’s an upgrade from that. But it’s not really a steal.

A year ago, Northwest Airlines started an identical offer. (They called it “supersizing.”)

My advice: Only pay up for this offer if you KNOW you are about to cash in miles for something, and you’re just shy of the “free” ticket. And use it only — only! — as a last ditch effort to bump up the account. Don’t use it to hoard. It’s not always easy to cash in your points, so you don’t want to just pay money willy-nilly to an airline. And if you’re effectively pre-paying for that “free” ticket. For most people, the offer isn’t worth it.

(gratuitous image of Three Mile Island lamp… Three MILE… get it… har har har…)

milan duomo Reader mail: Where should I make international connections?

Reader Mara writes:

My husband and I are planning on flying to Milan from Houston later this fall using US Airways miles, and I’m wondering what the best option for connections would be. The agent tells me we can connect in Philadelphia, or there are Star Alliance flights we can take with Lufthansa, United, or Austrian. We know from reading your site that London Heathrow is bad for connections, and we would love some advice on where to change planes most conveniently. What should we avoid? Unfortunately there’s no Houston to Milan flight we can take! Thanks!

I applaud your strategizing, Mara, and I think you’re well on your way, simply knowing that Heathrow is a place to avoid. (Don’t believe me? Watch the video.)

There’s no nonstop Houston to Milan, so you’re going to be changing planes for this itinerary. So the question is, as you suggest, where to do it.

My general advice for travel to/from the United States: Try to avoid changing planes upon arriving in the US from overseas. You go through passport control and customs at your port of entry, not your final destination, so you have to claim your bags, possibly submit them to search, re-check those bags for your connection, probably change terminals, and hope you’ve left enough time to make the next flight. Not so in most of Europe: Connections are much, much easier in Europe, with customs inspections at your final destination rather than your entry point.

At the same time, the last thing I want to do after an overnight flight is to get onto another plane. Sure, I’ve done it, and sometimes it’s unavoidable, but my preference is always to have the overnight long-haul end at my destination. On overnight flights, try to arrive at your final destination, instead of at a hub requiring a connection.

So, practically, what does this mean for you? On your flight TO Italy, I would make connections in the U.S. and fly over the Atlantic direct to Milan. On the return, I’d make my connection somewhere in Europe and fly the long haul straight to Houston.

A caveat: These itineraries will usually involve different airlines on either end. That could get pricey for cash-money fares, even with codesharing. Try ITA’s search tool to find the best connections, and to get a sense of prices. Kayak.com may be of help, too, for mixed-airline itineraries.

But you said you’re using frequent flyer miles. Good! This is one of the less-celebrated benefits of the “free” ticket: You can mix your itinerary, with one airline going over and a different alliance member coming back. Use that flexibility to your advantage. And note: You won’t be able to view all the options online. You have to call the airline that you have the miles with — in your case, US Airways.

A quick search on arbitrary dates yields a flight from Houston to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia to Milan (all on US Airways). Coming back, consider Lufthansa from Milan to Frankfurt, and continuing from Frankfurt to Houston. Those flights follow the rules I set out, letting you avoid connections in Europe in the morning after your arrival, and skipping the tense fear that you might not make your connecting flight in the US, once you’ve dealt with Homeland Security’s passport control and customs inspections.

Either way you go, good luck, safe travels, and enjoy Milan!


Posted by: Mark Ashley

In a little over an hour, my wife and I are traveling on a family trip to attend a wedding. But it occurred to me that, in the course of planning and booking this trip, I ignored just about every rule that I set for myself, and which I recommend to others. Here’s what I did wrong:

1) Flying at the end of the day.
The flights are the last ones of the day heading to our desired destinations (we have a connection). If either of these flights is canceled, we’ll be out of luck.

2) Connecting, instead of flying nonstop.
My wife and I will have the enormous pleasure (groan) of milling about Washington Dulles International Airport this evening, watching the moon buggies cross the airport grounds. Two flights means twice as many opportunities for getting stuck. (Non-stops were available, but at an extortionary premium, or from a distant alternate airport.)

3) Flying at the end of the month.
In this instance, this was impossible to avoid, since the wedding is happening this weekend, and there’s not much we can do about rescheduling other people’s nuptials. But late-in-the-month flights risk cancellation because of pilot shortages. Pilots are only permitted to fly a certain number of hours per month, so if they meet their quotas early on, they’re grounded at the end of the month. The last week of every month gets riskier.

4) Flying in regional jets.
To fly to Dulles, we’ll be sitting in a 50-seat Embraer 145. Not as miserable as the 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet, if you ask me, but no picnic. But putting comfort aside: A 50-seat flight is still more likely to get delayed or cancelled during irregular operations (such as bad weather) because they don’t move as many people around as the Boeings and Airbuses.

Looking for a silver lining? At least 1) we’re not checking bags (though our roll-aboard will be gate-checked on the regional-jet flight, since those RJ’s don’t have overhead bins that amount to anything), 2) we’re earning miles (…which we’ve got in spades), 3) we’re upgraded on the second leg of the trip tonight (a whopping 1-hour flight, but hey, it’s an upgrade), and, most importantly, 4) we’re going to the wedding and celebrating.

Wish us luck.

Categorized in: advice, tips, travel