Quick thoughts on 5 American Airlines flights

For my first trip since my Italian caper in January, earlier this week I flew to Reno for a fencing tournament and, per my plan for paid flights in 2015, booked flights on American Airlines, which I could credit to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

I've only very rarely flown on American, not because I actively avoid them (as I do United), but because until this year I was deliberately renewing my Delta Platinum Medallion status and American seldom served my needs for award tickets.

This isn't a sweeping judgment of American Airlines, just my thoughts after spending perhaps 20 hours in their clutches in the last 3 days.

Chicago is a terrible choice for a hub

This criticism isn't unique to American Airlines, but Chicago in general and O'Hare in particular is a bad place to route huge numbers of flights through.

On my outbound leg Sunday evening, my American Eagle flight to Chicago was delayed 90 minutes, which was only mitigated by the fact that my flight from Chicago to Reno was delayed 2 hours.

Detroit, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City, all northern cities with significant winter weather conditions, don't seem to have the continual problems I experience traveling through Chicago.

On my original return flight from Reno to Chicago, the flight was both delayed because of weather in Chicago and put under "weight restriction."

My gate agent was good at rerouting volunteers

Due to our weight restriction, my original return flight required a huge number of volunteers to take other flights. I think they ended up needing about 12 volunteers. They were offering $500 in voluntary denied boarding compensation, so I decided to see what options were available.

A simple Kayak search on my phone (the ITA app stopped working on my iPhone a while ago) didn't show any flights with space available that would get me home that night on any carrier, but the gate agent was able to force space open for me on a route through Los Angeles and Dallas that got me home 4 or 5 hours later than my original routing.

Alaska Airlines doesn't give bonus mileage for full-fare economy on American Airlines

I was rebooked into the full-fare "Y" fare class for my flights to Los Angeles and from Dallas, and booked into American's "F" fare class for the longer flight between Los Angeles and Dallas. I excitedly checked what kind of class-of-service bonus this would earn me in Alaska's Mileage Plan and was disappointed to discover Alaska doesn't offer any bonus for full-fare economy tickets.

However, neither of the other programs I might consider crediting miles to, American or their oneworld partner British Airways, awards bonus miles for "Y"-class tickets either, so I stuck with my original plan and credited the flights to Alaska (American gives 50% more Elite Qualifying Points, if you're planning to qualify that way)

The American Airlines cookie is fine

Since until this year I only occasionally flew American Airlines, I have only noticed with bemusement the literally thousands of times bloggers have written about the cookie served in American Airlines' first class cabin.

I was served lunch in first class between Los Angeles and Dallas, a distance of 1,235 miles, qualifying me for the second-most-elaborate food service:

"Warmed mixed nuts, followed by a three-course meal including a warm cookie for dessert."

The cookie? It's fine.

ERJ-145 planes are terrible

Both my regional American Eagle flights were on Embraer ERJ-145 airplanes, and those things seem to be just terrible.

The lefthand exit row seat has an odd metal protuberance which, on my first American Eagle flight a few months ago, I assumed was because the seat had been vandalized in some way.

Now that I've flown on a second ERJ-145 with an identical jutting metal bar, I realize that the armrest must have been deliberately sawed off in order to make the emergency exit accessible. Seems to me a slightly crazy way to run an airline, but I'm not an airline mechanic.

American flight attendants are a mixed bag

One of the great things about Delta is their flight attendants who, at least on mainline jets, are relentlessly terrific.

On my mainline American Airlines flight between Los Angeles and Dallas, the flight attendants were bumbling but well-meaning. I had to place orders so many times I started to thing I was having déjà vu. Twenty minutes after placing my lunch order, the same flight attendant walked by and asked, "Will you be joining us for lunch?"

The American Eagle flights that bookended my trip were opposite experiences:

  • The first flight, already running 90 minutes late, was delayed another 20 minutes by the flight attendant repeatedly asking the gentleman behind me, "Are you going to treat me with respect?" I didn't hear what initiated the exchange, but come on: it's a 20 minute flight, and we all just want to get to Chicago.
  • On the last American Eagle flight I took on my way home, the flight attendant exercised my very favorite dereliction of duty: she didn't charge me for booze.

Conclusion

This year I plan on directing my paid travel to Delta first class flights when possible, and American economy flights otherwise, in order to maximize my chances of renewing medium- or high-level Alaska Airlines status. I feel like this trip taught me a lot about what to watch out for when booking American flights, and hopefully my future flights will have more cookies and fewer sawed-off armrests!

I fly Delta because flying United is very stressful

Let me start off by apologizing to any readers who have contacted me in the last few days that I haven’t managed to respond to yet. I will get to everyone eventually, but I have had even less time than usual as my life has been consumed by wrapping up my responsibilities at work and planning my move.

Now that I’m safely ensconced in first on my last leg of the night, I have time to share today’s mini-travel-hacking saga.

My apartment is totally empty

If you’ve been following my adventures on Twitter, you know I had a lot of problems unloading my (very nice!) furniture at laughably low prices. Finally I broke down and sent out a blast e-mail to my company listserv offering it for free, and instantly had a dozen or so people willing to take it off my hands. The couple that ended up emptying my apartment even gave me some cash for the furniture, which I thought was nice of them since I’d offered it for free.

Ground stop in Chicago

On my way out the door to head to TF Green International Airport, I checked the status of my flight to Chicago and saw that it was both delayed 2 hours and cancelled. Quite an achievement, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Crisis mode

United had already rebooked me on a two-stop itinerary arriving late tomorrow night, which didn’t work for two reasons: I’m going to a concert tomorrow night in my destination, and my apartment is totally empty, so I had nowhere to sleep (see above).

There were no more Delta flights out of Providence tonight, but I checked Boston and there was a 6:47 flight to Detroit which would allow me to connect on to my final destination.

I called United and was told there was a 45-minute wait to speak to an agent. While on hold, I quickly signed into my Alaska Airlines account and – incredibly – found there was low-level award space on the entire ex-Boston itinerary. Unfortunately, Delta still only allows round-trip award reservations – and that applies to reservations made through Alaska – so I booked a return flight in September at the low-level as well.

While still on hold with United, I packed up the last of my suitcases and headed out the door to the train station. When I finally reached an agent, I quickly explained the situation and asked him to book me on the same Delta flight I’d already made my award reservation on. He was happy to do it, but had to call in to Delta's reservations line, which meant another 10-minute hold.

Finally, he came back on and said he’d made my reservation on Delta and gave me a new Delta confirmation number.

On the train

Alaska allows free cancellations within 24 hours of booking on award bookings, so I refunded that ticket immediately just in case Delta cancelled one or both reservations as a double booking. Then I added my Delta Skymiles number to the new, paid reservation and selected my economy comfort seats.

One benefit of being rebooked onto a different carrier on the day of travel is that you’re typically booked into an expensive, last-minute fare bucket, in this case a full-fare economy “Y” fare. That meant that if there were any first class seats available on my Delta flights today, I’d be virtually guaranteed an upgrade as a Platinum Medallion, and also pick up a rack of bonus Skymiles and Medallion Qualifying Miles.

And indeed, my upgrades cleared first at the gate for both my flights today.

Things to follow up on

For reasons I can’t begin to understand, I decided to pay for my checked bag on United online at check-in, instead of at the airport. I never do this, so cannot begin to imagine why I thought it would be a good idea — it never is.

That means United now has $25 of my money that I’m going to have to request refunded, call, e-mail, and tweet about until they give it back, because they are just terrible about refunds.

Additionally, I’ll request original routing credit for my United itinerary, which they’ll hopefully credit to my Aegean Airlines account. While I’m fairly sure they’ll go along with that, this is one I’m not willing to go to the mat over, since while Star Alliance Gold is a fun travel hacking goal, to get the most benefit from it I would then subsequently have to fly United, and ensuring the original routing credit would require more interaction with United than I’m willing to commit to.

Conclusion

Since we're about to take off, here are my take-aways from today's little adventure:

  • Never pay for your checked bags online. Why would you?
  • Keep your eye on developing situations, like the today's radar-tower fire in Chicago.
  • Be proactive: know your options and book refundable backups, if necessary.
  • Ask the ticketing carrier to book you on other airlines, if they can get you where you're going.
  • Don't forget to add your frequent flyer number to the new reservations.
  • And ask for original routing credit from the ticketing carrier.

What's up with Alaska Airlines First Class?

Alaska Airlines First Class has a bit of a queer reputation. It may be one of the least aspirational long-haul first class product in the world. For example, in her trip report on her flight to Hawai'i, Mommy Points said of the seats:

"Of course these are not the fancy 'lie flat' type of seats, but they weren’t bad, and were certainly an upgrade over coach."

"An upgrade over coach" may be the best "damning by faint praise" of a first class seat I've ever read. Did they pressurize the cabin, too?

On the other hand, 100% bonus Medallion Qualification Miles and a 50% class of service bonus was enough to convince me to pony up for paid(!) first class tickets for me and my partner to fly to Kaua'i for Christmas with my family. Of course, I redeemed Barclaycard Arrival miles against the upgrade from refundable coach, turning the holiday into a cheap last-minute mileage run for my last year of Platinum Medallion status with Delta.

Four flights; eight options; one vegetarian dish

As we were hanging out in the terminal at Boston's Logan airport, my partner turned to me and asked, "this is a pretty long flight, they're going to feed us, right?"

I answered, "Hey, we're flying in first class – they've got us taken care of."

Then I started thinking, and Googled, "vegetarian food in Alaska first class." The results were not encouraging.

Let's take a look at the dishes offered on the first three legs I flew (the 4th menu didn't make it home with me):

from bos.JPG

Pretty standard airplane fare: a choice between a slab of meat and a pasta dish with red sauce. We had nothing to worry about after all!

After a night in Portland and a dinner at Pine State Biscuits, we headed to the airport for our flight to Kaua'i. Here's the menu for that flight:

to kauai.JPG

Here Alaska Airlines broke with longstanding airline tradition and replaced the boring pasta dish with...another slab of meat!

After a relaxing week on the Garden Isle, we begrudgingly headed back to the airport and boarded our flight back to Portland, where these dishes were served:

from kauai.JPG

Here Alaska decided to get even more adventurous and replaced the second slab of meat with...shellfish!

On our final return flight after a very relaxing New Year's weekend in Portland, we had two breakfast options. I enjoyed the quiche (with bacon), while my partner picked her way through a plate of scrambled eggs...with a "beef braised hash." I have no idea what a beef braised hash is, since the flight attendant was happy to serve the eggs without it, which brings me to...

Alaska Airlines flight attendants are amazing

All four legs of our trip were made incredible by the great, friendly, attentive flight attendants. They were happy to do anything possible to accommodate our dietary restrictions, happy to keep our glasses full, and even had a pretty good comedy routine congratulating passengers on getting to spend the holidays in Hawai'i. I love having a good rapport with flight attendants; it's part of the charm of flying for me.

But the hard product is pretty bad

Even "bad" might be too strong a word. But it's uncomfortable in a number of nagging ways:

  • There are no USB or AC power outlets. That's not the biggest deal in the world, but it does mean on a long flight, especially if you're connecting to another long flight (fortunately, we had an overnight stay in Portland between our transcontinental and Hawai'i legs), you're going to need to manage your battery use aggressively on your electronic devices;
  • The personal entertainment players don't fit on the tray tables during meal service. Instead of having a seat-back or fold-out entertainment system, Alaska distributes pretty sizable personal video players. They work great, and have great battery life and video selection, but they take up a lot of space. Once your meal is served, you've got to find a place to stash this unwieldy object, hopefully without losing your place in whatever movie or show you're watching. That's not fun;
  • And it's true: the seats don't recline very much.

Conclusion

As Mommy Points remarked so concisely, it's an upgrade over coach, and I wouldn't hesitate to fly Alaska First Class again if the price was right.

In fact, I'm taking Alaska's non-stop service between Boston and Seattle for Frequent Traveler University in late April, and I'm technically eligible for an upgrade on those flights as a Delta Platinum Medallion.

Fingers crossed!

The time I got 3 cents per Skymile and saved Christmas

That was exciting.

I've mentioned my upcoming flight in Alaska Airlines First Class to Hawaii to celebrate Christmas with my family (and earn Delta Platinum Medallion status). Well, Sunday's the big travel day, which means that my travel partner is flying tonight from her home base in the midwest out to New England so we could be on the same flights to Kauai. That was important to me because if there are any weather or mechanical delays along the way, I wanted to be able to troubleshoot the issues with her rather than leaving her stranded to negotiate rebookings, hotels, meal vouchers, and the rest of the hassles of winter travel on her own.

Unfortunately, when we booked the ticket a few months ago, it seemed like United's price and schedule worked best to get her out here. I say it "seemed" like it, because I failed to take into account the "United premium" of delays, missed connections, terrible customer service, and the overall disaster of an airline they represent.

With a delayed flight into Cleveland, there was no way my partner would make it into New England tonight. If she was rebooked onto a flight tomorrow, then we'd lose the Saturday buffer in case of additional weather problems. The only way she would get into New England tonight was on Delta:

That flight costs $1,219.60! Using Skymiles, on the other hand, I was able to book the outbound leg at the "Peak" (previously "high") level, and the inbound at the "Saver" (previously "low") level, for a total of 42,500 Skymiles and $10 in taxes and fees. That's a nominal value of 2.85 cents per Skymile.

Now, it's fair to point out that I wouldn't have actually paid $1,220 to rebook her onto Delta. Rather, I would have let United handle it, rebooking her onto flights tomorrow and causing me a huge amount of stress waiting to see whether she makes it in time.

That's the distinction I was driving at in this post back in April. While it's not fair to say that I used my miles to "save" $1,210, since I wouldn't have paid that much for this Delta ticket, it is fair to say that the 42,500 Skymiles I used, which cost me perhaps $243 to manufacture (earning 1.4 Skymiles per dollar, spending 0.8 cents per dollar), bought me something that's worth at least several times that much (including a ticket, my peace of mind, and a buffer day in between traveling), and in that sense I really did get an outsized return on my upfront investment.

Two Alternatives

There were two additional alternatives that were conceivable in this situation. First, I could have bought my partner the paid Delta ticket using my Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, and redeemed Arrival miles against the purchase. To earn 122,000 Arrival miles, I'd need to spend about $61,000 on the card, which would cost me perhaps $488. That would be slightly more expensive than the Skymiles option, but it would leave me with the 42,500 Skymiles, which is about a third of the new cost of a transatlantic BusinessElite ticket.

Alternatively, and I might have tried this if I were flying with my partner, I could have asked United to rebook me on the Delta flight tonight, instead of paying for a hotel in Madison or Cleveland. Airlines are sometimes willing to do this, although it will depend largely on the agent you're dealing with and how hard you're willing to push. Besides the fact that I didn't want to put my partner on the spot to negotiate her rebooking, the real obstacle to this approach is the agonizing slowness of United customer service agents. If she waited in line to speak to the customer service representative, she would have missed not only the United flight to Cleveland, but probably the Delta flight to Detroit as well. I'd rather go online, book a ticket, and have her walk over to her new gate.

Plus, this way I scored huge brownie points, just in time for the holidays.

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

This weekend I went on my mileage run to Lima, Peru, thereby ensuring I'll be Platinum Medallion next year for (probably) the last time. If you follow that link you'll see my airtight logic that by using my (non-mileage-earning) Skybonus award ticket to fly to Chicago this coming weekend, I could use the money I saved to fly to Peru, earning 3 times as many Medallion Qualifying Miles and securing Platinum Medallion status with Delta.

Platinum or Diamond Medallion status is almost essential for securing low-level award tickets, both domestically and internationally. I regularly use the free award rebooking benefit to rebook legs from "medium" to "low" level (now called "standard" and "saver").

While that's all well and good, thanks to the recent Skymiles devaluation, Alaska Mileage Plan miles are so much more valuable than Delta miles (even for award tickets on Delta flights) that that's where I'll be focusing in the future.

All that being said, this mileage run was pretty horrible. While I was seated in Economy Plus on both my international flights and the one domestic flight on which I wasn't upgraded to First, the Atlanta-Lima route was being operated by an extremely old 767-300ER. One of the lavatory doors would not latch so when it was unoccupied the door was literally swinging open and closed with the motion of the plane (right at my seat, 19B). As I walked through BusinessFirst (no OpUp for me, unfortunately) I saw a personal video device Scotch-taped in place.

On the other hand, the service was attentive and the food was perfectly edible in Economy.

The most stressful part of the run was the unwillingness of the staff in the Atlanta airport to print out my return boarding passes. It ended up not being a problem since I had them printed at the gate in Lima. There is absolutely no conceivable reason for this restriction, but I couldn't find anyone in any Sky Club or at the customer service counters who was willing to print out my boarding passes – even though I could access them on my own computer, and was already checked in for my return flight. The Delta Sky Clubs in Atlanta also happen to be in a "transitional period" so their business centers do not have the ability to print documents. All in all it was an absurd set of circumstances for what is otherwise my favorite domestic airline.

In any case, if I ever feel the need to go on a mileage run again, I'll make sure it's short, domestic hops.

Trip report: Acela First Class

One of the reasons I started this blog is because in general it's remarkably difficult to find practical details about the actual mechanics of airline, hotel, and credit card rewards programs. For example, until my recent posts on redeeming Barclaycard Arrival miles (and subsequent pale imitators), there was no way to know that the card has the option of using your points to make partial award redemptions.

Last Friday, July 5th, I took Acela First Class from Providence, RI down to Philadelphia as part of a quick vacation before traveling out West for my brother's wedding. Some pretty extensive Googling didn't yield any information about the Acela First Class product (besides the Knob Creek bourbon they serve onboard), so I want to share my experience so readers have an idea of what to expect if their miles and points ever take them out East.

Seating

The train left Providence slightly late, but once on board my companion and I were shown to a pair of facing seats. This hilarious diagram shows the different kinds of seats available in First Class; we were sitting at a "small table" on that chart.

Meal Service

For a good laugh, be sure to read Amtrak's enthusiastic description of their first class dining experience (and menu).

Here I made my first mistake; in the course of my preliminary research before the trip, I had read that in both directions of travel, meals in First Class are served after leaving New York's Penn Station. Not true! As soon as we were seated, a steward came by to hand us menus and take our drink orders. When he returned with our drinks, he took our meal orders, and delivered them more or less immediately to our table. Of course, thinking it would be 3+ hours before we ate, I had lunch before we left for the station. So, lesson learned: at least on some (all?) Acela trains, you'll receive your meal shortly after departure.

My companion had the "sunflower and goat cheese salad," and I had the salmon on the third of the "rotating menus."  Hers was good! Mine was a bit bland, but certainly an improvement over the food in domestic airline first class. In general I find train food to be more flavorful than airline food, and this was no exception.

Drink Service

The drink service is key in any First Class experience, and Acela's was...ok? Going in, I was worried that there might be some kind of "one drink with your meal" rule, which was emphatically not the case. However, additional drink service after we were seated did depend on the steward noticing that our glasses were empty. My companion thought the entire experience was perfect, so I can't say our steward did anything wrong, but I can't say that he was at any point "solicitous."

Conclusion

I find that Amtrak is the best way to get around the East coast, and having now experienced Acela's First Class, I think it's the most aspirational Amtrak product I've tried, and I'll certainly use it whenever I'm traveling outside New England (there's no significant advantage to Acela on shorter routes).

Having said that, I am writing this from coach in the middle of another Amtrak award trip that has not gone nearly as well...