You should always book one-way tickets, except when you shouldn't

Not just among travel hackers, but also in the civilian population, the conventional wisdom for a long time has been that it's usually better to make roundtrip airline reservations than book one-way tickets. There are a few reasons usually cited for this:

  • In the case of a trip interruption or cancellation, you'll only pay change fees once on a roundtrip ticket booked on a single reservation, while you'd have to pay the corresponding fee in each direction if the tickets are booked separately.
  • Since "only business travelers book one-way tickets," airlines take advantage of the opportunity for price discrimination to charge more for one-way tickets than roundtrip reservations. They may charge less for tickets with a Saturday night stay, a discount you can only secure if you book a roundtrip ticket.

I book virtually all of my airline reservations as one-way tickets these days, and thought it would be worth explaining why.

Some airlines compose all reservations from one-way segments

Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines treat all reservations as the combination of two or more one-way tickets. So you'll never save any money booking a roundtrip ticket on those airlines, rather than two one-ways.

In an extreme case, if you're tracking the price of your Southwest Airlines reservation in order to rebook at a lower fare, you might miss the opportunity if your outbound segment goes down in price and your return segment goes up in price by the same amount or more.

Keeping your reservations separate will make sure you capture any downward price difference in either direction.

Some airlines don't let you change your frequent flyer information after travel has commenced

If you want to credit one segment of a Delta-operated itinerary to SkyMiles and another to Alaska Mileage Plan, you're out of luck: once travel has commenced, you can't change the frequent flyer account linked to a Delta-operated reservation.

If you make two reservations instead, you can easily credit one of them to one airline's frequent flyer program and another to a second program.

Booking one-way tickets allows you to capture low-level redemptions, where available

Consider a $600 ticket, the individual components of which price at $350 each. While the roundtrip ticket is $100 cheaper than two paid tickets, if low-level award space is available on one segment, but not the other, you can buy one $350 paid ticket and redeem 12,500 miles, getting 2 cents per redeemed mile.

And of course, you can redeem 20,000 US Bank Flexpoints for the $350 ticket, which brings me to...

Price compression means more expensive tickets don't necessarily cost you any more

In the case above, the $600 roundtrip ticket (well, assuming it's actually $600.01) will cost 40,000 US Bank Flexpoints. But two $350 one-way tickets will also cost 40,000 Flexpoints! Furthermore, booking the tickets separately may reveal that a first class ticket in one or both directions costs only marginally more, allowing you to book yourself in greater comfort (and in a higher-earning fare class) without redeeming any additional miles or points. That's the phenomenon I refer to as "price compression."

When you should definitely consider booking roundtrip reservations

There are a few key exceptions to my rule of thumb that most trips should be booked as a series of one-way reservations:

  • Complicated reservations. If you're booking multi-stop itineraries in one or both directions, you want to be accommodated if you miss a connection or a flight is cancelled. If your airline can't see your onward connections in their system, they probably won't accommodate you.
  • If you're booking a revenue ticket in either direction of an international itinerary. With all of its marvelous pricing technology, the airline industry often charges less (sometimes much less!) for roundtrip tickets to and from Europe than for one-way reservations. So make sure you're actually saving money before booking one direction with cash and the other direction with miles and points.
  • If you are buying travel insurance (and actually might use it). If you buy two one-way tickets, and your outbound trip suffers an event covered by your trip insurance, your return flight may not be covered. In any case, it means paying two trip insurance premiums for a single trip and a single covered event.

Conclusion

There are obviously a lot of moving pieces here, but the key take-away is to check the award and revenue pricing for all flight reservations as both one-ways and roundtrips. You may end up saving a lot of whichever currency you end up deciding to use.

Easy wins: Saint Kitts edition

I was initially going to roll this into last Friday's post on the Park Inn Danube closing out from under me, since it's a related topic: looking for easy wins whenever possible. There's nothing wrong with Rube Goldberg gift card reselling machines — I occasionally indulge — but you want to go after those after you've cashed in your easy wins.

Every hotel loyalty program has regular property turnover

Someone once explained to me that hotels actually get some kind of tax benefit from leaving one loyalty program and entering a new one, but regardless of the back office details, it's a fact that properties periodically move from one chain's loyalty program to another's.

For example, the Radisson Aruba Resort, Casino & Spa was recently rebranded as the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino.

When that happened, guests who had redeemed Club Carlson Gold Points using their last-night-free benefit were suddenly booked at a newly refurbished Hilton rather than an aging Radisson!

That was an easy win.

The Park Hyatt St. Kitts is scheduled to open in December, 2016

When the Park Hyatt St. Kitts opens, it is going to be spectacular. It's scheduled to open in December, 2016, and they plan to start accepting reservations a few months before that.

And they might, in fact, open in December! They might, in fact, honor every reservation that's made through Hyatt as soon as reservations become available.

They also might not. And if they don't, you better believe that they're going to be offering points, nights, upgrades, and amenities to anyone who can't complete a stay they booked months in advance.

That's an easy win.

Conclusion: keep an eye out for new and renovated properties missing their deadlines

Hotels, especially new hotels, really want to put heads in beds. So they tend to err on the side of opening their reservation windows earlier, rather than later, to make sure they get the kind of occupancy rates they need to satisfy their anxious investors. That makes it worth scoping out upcoming properties and putting a reminder on your calendar to book rooms as soon as they become available.

Then put another reminder on your calendar to cancel the room within the cancellation window if the property ends up opening on schedule!

Use Hipmunk to find positioning flights

There are a lot of websites you can use to search for paid flights. Kayak is one of the most popular, but Orbitz, Expedia and Priceline will all find you tickets as well. If you're booking paid flights with Ultimate Rewards points you'll need to use their internal search engine, and the same is true of US Bank Flexpoints.

All those sites work, and they all have roughly similar search features: you can search for specific dates or flexible dates, you can specify your cabin of service, and you can filter by airline and time of day.

What none of them let you do is filter by different times of day depending on the day of the flight. Let me explain.

Award availability often requires positioning flights before or after the award segments

Award availability is the aspect of travel hacking that we have the least control over. Whether or not an airline makes seats available on the dates we need them is entirely at the discretion of the airline. While much digital ink has been spilled over the best ways to find award seats, ultimately it's not something we can predict in a reliable way.

Further, when award availability does become available, it may not exactly suit our needs. There may be award seats from an alliance hub city, but not on flights from your home airport to the hub. If you're committed to booking the award seats, that means you'll need a positioning flight: either a paid flight or an award on a different carrier that gets you to the airport in time to take your award flight.

Of course, positioning flights can be necessary at the beginning or end of a trip.

Use Hipmunk to find positioning flights

When you search for flights with every other search engine I know of, you can filter by time of departure, but that filter applies to every day searched. For example, on ITA Matrix filtering by "early morning" departures returns early morning departures for every day within the search range:

HIpmunk is the only flight search engine I know of that lets you filter by departure times across day boundaries. For example, I have an upcoming award flight booked on Air Berlin between Berlin and New York City. But I don't live in New York City, and there's no oneworld award space between New York City and my hometown, which means I need a positioning flight.

Since we don't want to go into the city (we'll be getting back from 17 days in Europe), I'd like to search for the cheapest flight that leaves either the evening we arrive in New York or the next morning. In other words, I'm fine staying overnight at the airport if it saves us some money, but I'm not willing to wait to fly out until the next evening.

Lo and behold, Hipmunk found me the perfect flight:

We'll stay overnight at JFK, leave early the next morning, and be back home early that afternoon.

Uber is no longer selling gift credit (for now)

A few people have reached out to me on Twitter to tell me that Uber is no longer selling gift cards. Sure enough, my account (in which I had asked them to re-enable the "Gifts" option after it mysteriously disappeared) no longer showed the option of buying gifts, and this cached version of an Uber help page reads: "Please note that we are no longer offering gift cards for purchase on the Uber system."

As a reminder, Uber gift credit was useful because an individual Uber ride is often cheaper than the $25 minimum redemption of the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard. Buying Uber credit in bulk got around that restriction, and I probably would have continued to buy it $100 at a time even after today's Arrival+ devaluation.

Why the change?

It's always fun to speculate on why companies make sudden, unannounced changes like this. I have two pet theories to explain why Uber stopped selling gift credit.

The first theory is based on the possibility that whichever Uber city you originally sign up in is persistently linked to your account, even if you move. That being the case, it's possible that Uber gift credits were being improperly assigned as revenue to your home city, rather than the city you actually take your rides in, which may have been messing up some internal profit metric Uber uses.

The second theory is that since Uber is currently running an American Express Offer for $10 off $20 in rides, the last thing they want is for customers to buy thousands of dollars in Uber credit for 50% off! If this theory is true, gift credit may return after the American Express Offer expires on December 31, 2015.

Alternate Uber payment schemes

If you have an American Express card enrolled in Membership Rewards, you can use your Membership Rewards points for 1 cent each against Uber rides, or earn 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar. Since Membership Rewards points are relatively easy to earn and difficult to monetize, this is a straightforward way to redeem them for 1 cent per point.

You should be able to redeem Bank of America Travel Rewards points or Capital One Venture miles against Uber rides starting at $25, although I don't have either card so I don't know for sure.

While not exactly a payment scheme, also remember to link your Starwood Preferred Guest and Uber accounts, so you can earn 1 Starpoint per dollar spent on Uber rides (up to $10,000 per year, and only after your first qualifying Starwood Preferred Guest stay each calendar year).

Beware Delta bearing voluntary denied boarding compensation

It's no secret that I think Delta runs the best domestic airline operation in the United States. They have incomprehensibly good on-time and completion statistics compared to the competition, and their mainline jets are clean and comfortable. It's a great airline.

However — and this may not be totally surprising — they don't love giving away money.

Delta's voluntary denied boarding compensation is more restrictive than their competitors'

When you volunteer to give up your seat on a flight that's overbooked, airlines will offer voluntary denied boarding compensation, which usually takes the form of a voucher valid for use only on the airline you were originally scheduled to fly on (rather than the cash you'd be entitled to for being denied boarding involuntarily).

Both United and American allow such vouchers to be redeemed for any passenger. It's true that American doesn't make redeeming vouchers easy (you have to present your voucher in-person at an American ticket counter or mail it to a post office box in Florida), and it's true that flying United is a special kind of hell, but the vouchers are, in fact, relatively easy to redeem (in American's case, as long as you have a stamp handy!).

For a few years now, Delta's electronic credit vouchers have only been redeemable in situations where the "bumped" passenger is one of the passengers on the new reservation. According to the terms and conditions of the voucher I received back in August:

"5. REDEMPTION/TRANSFERABILITY: VOUCHER IS NON-TRANSFERABLE UNLESS ASSIGNED TO SOMONE TRAVELING WITH THE ORIGINAL VOUCHER OWNER ON THE SAME RESERVATION AT THE TIME THE VOUCHER IS BEING REDEEMED."

My experience redeeming an electronic credit voucher

When I lucked into a $1,300 voluntary denied boarding voucher back in August, I knew the restrictions on transferability and assumed that I would redeem the voucher for my own flight to Europe next summer, while redeeming Flexpoints or Skymiles for my partner's ticket.

Then life got in the way. And by "life," I mean my partner listened to the original cast recording of Hamilton and said, "Hey, let's go to New York."

Fortunately, we have two daily nonstop flights to New York City, so this was not a heavy lift. Even better, those nonstop flights were just $206 roundtrip! In fact, those flights are so cheap that it became hard to decide how to pay for them. They're far too cheap for a Flexpoints redemption. Ordinarily I'd redeem Ultimate Rewards points at 1.25 cents each, but all my current Ultimate Rewards earning is reserved for a few upcoming transfers.

That's when I remembered: I have $1,300 in Delta credit!

Electronic credit vouchers can't be redeemed for multiple passengers online

When redeeming an electronic credit voucher for a single-passenger itinerary, it is either greater than or less than the cost of the flight you're redeeming it for. In other words, you either owe money, or will be issued a residual credit voucher.

When redeeming a voucher for two passengers, things aren't so simple. Here's what it looks like when I try to redeem my residual balance for a similar itinerary:

What you're seeing is the that my $862.60 voucher is only being applied against my own fare. The second passenger's $341.20 fare has to be charged to a credit or debit card.

When I asked Delta's normally-helpful @DeltaAssist Twitter team what to do, they told me the only way to redeem my voucher was to call in:

Delta tried to charge me for two direct ticketing fees — then lied to me and charged me one anyway

Call in I did, and eventually got on the line with a reservations agent who understood exactly what I wanted to do.

But instead of the $412.40 my tickets had priced out to online, he quoted me a whole $50 more. When I asked about the discrepancy, he explained that since I was making my reservation over the phone, there was a $25 per-ticket direct ticketing fee.

I told him that since the tickets couldn't be booked online, I expected him to waive the direct ticketing fee. He agreed, and came back again telling me that my total was $437.40 — again, $25 higher than the tickets had priced out online.

This time he explained that while he could waive my direct ticketing fee, he couldn't waive the second passenger's direct ticketing fee.

At this point my readers can imagine that I was more than a little frustrated. So I explained again that the only reason I was calling in the first place is that the ticket I wanted to book couldn't be booked online (you'd have to be crazy to book a ticket over the phone if you could help it!).

My agent went back to his supervisor again, then came back and told me that my residual travel voucher would be $887.60 — $1,300 less the correct $412.40 my tickets priced out at online.

I immediately logged into my account and saw this:

The residual voucher had been reissued less the $25 direct ticketing fee the agent assured me had been waived.

Conclusion

I immediately contact the @DeltaAssist Twitter team — again — and they submitted a refund request on my behalf.

This is the kind of miserable nickel-and-diming that it would be nice to believe Delta was capable of rising above. How many people have to call in to redeem these vouchers and don't think to ask how the phone agent arrives at the final price?

At the end of the day, when you accept voluntary denied boarding compensation for taking a later flight, you are doing a favor for the airline that is able to get their flight out full and on time. It would be nice if the airline was able to appreciate that and make it as painless as possible to redeem those vouchers for any eligible itineraries.

Amtrak thruway bus cabotage

I just got back from a long weekend in Galveston, Texas, which had a surprising effect on me. I don't enjoy reading, let alone writing, trip reports, but I had enough interesting impressions while there that I plan to write up a few key lessons I learned during the trip. So look forward to more Galveston-related content soon; in the meantime, here's a quick tip on Amtrak thruway bus cabotage.

Amtrak is prohibited from providing intercity bus transportation

Cabotage, strictly speaking, is the act of carrying goods or passengers by a carrier registered in one country between two points in another country, and is prohibited except at the discretion of the second country.

But a similar principle is at work in the delivery of passenger bus and rail transportation in the United States. In my primitive understanding, Amtrak, the American passenger rail service, is allowed to provide bus transportation from cities that are not served by passenger rail to its passenger rail stations, but only on the condition that passengers have an onward passenger rail connection.

This is basically a shameless sop to passenger bus companies, who don't want to compete against a loss-making quasi-governmental train company. Interestingly, most of these so-called "thruway" bus routes are in fact operated by private passenger bus companies, from whom Amtrak contracts to provide transportation to their passenger rail stations. 

Amtrak tickets are quite cheap (and they have a rewards program)

While considering our various options to travel back from Galveston to Houston (I'll cover travel to Galveston in a future post), I stumbled across the interesting fact that the only passenger bus service from Galveston to Houston is operated by Lone Star Coaches, as a thruway bus service connecting to Amtrak's Sunset Limited service between Louisiana and California.

Of course, Amtrak is prohibited from selling thruway bus tickets between Galveston and Houston.

But they aren't prohibited from selling tickets from Galveston to San Antonio (one stop West of Houston). And those tickets are not very expensive.

Here's a ticket from Galveston to San Antonio (available Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday):

That's the second-cheapest price I could find for transportation from Galveston to Houston (spoiler alert: the cheapest is Galveston Express, but they seem to operate only when the cruise ships are in port).

Conclusion

I began looking into this option as a way to save money on our return from Galveston, but the same principle operates in markets all across the country: even if you can't find passenger bus service between two points, Amtrak may run a thruway bus between them, which only requires a train ticket to the next station down the line.

I love Uber, but they are seriously terrible

The private ride-coordinating app Uber exists for a single reason. It’s not the ubiquity of smartphones and it’s not the rise of the freelance economy. It’s the fact that taking taxis is the worst, and always has been.

For me and most people I know, taking a cab thrusts me into a shadowy world I don’t like or understand: taximeters (which after the driver fidgets with the keys always end up $2-4 higher than the fare itself); “broken” credit card terminals; being assured that the driver has a “shortcut” to get wherever you’re going; and of course never being able to get one when you need it (Washington, DC, and Los Angeles — I’m looking at you). It’s all just so painful.

Uber neatly solves all these problems: no taximeter, no credit card terminals, a GPS map that makes it obvious if your driver is screwing with you, and even “surge pricing” to encourage drivers to come out at times of peak demand (and push notifications when surge pricing has ended).

But you don’t have to use Uber very many times to realize that it comes with its own slew of problems. It seems I can never take an Uber without running into one or more of these issues:

Drivers and cars don’t match the app

If an Uber driver’s car is in the shop, he’ll borrow a friend’s, and riders have no way of knowing whether that car is insured, whether it’s safe, or even whether it’s stolen. Always compare the license plate in your app to the one on the car: if they don’t match, don’t get in.

The same is true of drivers, although it’s not particularly easy or fun when your car shows up to make a split-second decision about whether the picture and the driver look “enough” alike.

Drivers accept a ride and then…go do something else

I once ordered a pickup in Brooklyn and the driver who accepted was driving the other direction on the Williamsburg Bridge. He at least had the good sense to call and ask if I wanted to wait for him to turn around.

Another time the driver who accepted my pickup was getting gas. After 5 minutes of watching his car sitting still on my iPhone screen, I canceled the ride and ordered another. And the same driver accepted! Which brings me to…

The driver selection process is completely opaque

As the story above shows, there’s no way to participate in the process of choosing your driver. After a ride you can provide feedback, but you can’t do something as simple as marking whether or not you want that driver to pick you up in the future. And if the ride doesn’t take place, there’s no way to provide feedback at all. If you or or driver cancels the call before the ride begins, you can’t indicate whether you canceled the call because the car or driver didn’t match, if you canceled it because your driver was busy getting gas, if you didn’t feel safe, or any other reason.

Uber doesn’t collect that information because it doesn’t want that information: if it were receiving reports in real time about unregistered drivers or vehicles, it would have a duty to act on that information immediately.

Likewise, every time someone borrows their friend’s Uber account to give a few rides, or uses a different car than the one they registered with Uber, Uber still gets their cut of the fare.

I am personally unconvinced, however, that their studied ignorance will protect them against the coming wave of lawsuits. Fortunately, settling out of court with Uber’s victims is their problem, not mine.

Uber operates as a semi-criminal enterprise

It’s no secret why Uber works this way: it’s because their business in many markets is in violation of applicable laws and regulations. While their customers may be hipsters, businesspeople, and travel hackers, the independent contractors who provide rides for those users are not: they’re by definition the kind of people who are willing, for whatever reason, to work as freelance contractors, using their personal vehicles and personal liability insurance to provide rides to strangers, all while operating in a legal grey area.

Conclusion

I don’t use Uber very much, for the same reason I don’t use cabs very much: I walk, bike, and take public transportation as much as possible.

But I do use Uber, because sometimes you need to get somewhere by car, but don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of renting one or trying to use a taxi (see above).

Still, I wish Uber weren’t a bunch of criminals, I wish the rider-driver matching mechanism was more transparent and that the rider had more control over it, and I wish it were possible to alert Uber to shady behavior that makes you cancel a ride before it begins.

But I’m not holding my breath.

If you haven’t experienced the joys of Uber for yourself yet, feel free to use my signup referral link. You’ll receive a free ride (worth up to $20 at the time of writing, although it periodically changes) in your account immediately and I’ll receive one as soon as you take your first ride. If you end up finding Uber useful, I’ve written before about prepaying for Uber rides by sending yourself gift credit $25 at a time; it counts as a redeemable travel purchase with the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, and you can spend it down over time – gift credit doesn’t expire (until Uber does!).

Using my Barclaycard Arrival+ PIN in Italy

If you're a citizen of the United States, the Barclaycard Arrival+ card is likely the only "chip and PIN" card you carry. These cards are popular outside of the United States, but for economic and historical reasons they have not and, in my only-slightly-educated opinion, likely will never dominate the credit card market in the United States: plans by several issuers to issue chip and PIN cards have already fallen through; merchants have no interest in buying new equipment; and Americans just don't travel internationally very much!

But Barclaycard issues one, and it happens to be a card lucrative enough (because of the 10% points rebate on travel redemptions) that many travel hackers carry it.

Set your PIN online

One thing I didn't realize until I received my chip and PIN card is that the PIN is not hard-coded onto the chip. My understanding was that US-based issuers were resistant to adopting chip and PIN technology because their customers would be frustrated if they had to memorize a different PIN for each card. But with Barclaycard, you can set your PIN to the same number you use for all your other cards (and your phone, and your bank accounts, and your home security system...), and you can do it online.

Just go to "Account settings" in your online account and look for "Manage your PIN:"

Use your PIN at unattended kiosks

I used my PIN exactly twice in Italy: buying a train ticket from Milan's Malpensa airport into town, and buying a train ticket from Rome's Termini train station to Fiumicino airport. Both times were at unattended kiosks: I inserted my card, left it in the slot until prompted for my PIN, entered my PIN, then withdrew my card when prompted.

I had read a few posts around the blogosphere suggesting that the first time a card is used abroad, the cardholder has to sign the purchase in order to "activate" the card's PIN. That's completely incorrect: the first purchase I made on arrival in Milan was a PIN transaction at an unattended train station kiosk.

Sign everywhere else

I was surprised to find that every other merchant we visited in Italy had signature-compatible terminals. Some of the merchants themselves seemed surprised when the receipt printed with a blank space for my "firma," but we had no issues with acceptance.

This won't be true everywhere: I've visited Russian grocery stores that flatly refused to process signature transactions, so you still shouldn't travel abroad relying completely on your credit cards.

Bonus: Bluebird is still awesome for foreign ATM withdrawals

I mentioned this once before during a trip to the Czech Republic, but Bluebird is still a slam dunk for ATM withdrawals while traveling abroad.

I withdrew 200 euros twice at ATM's, and the total charges to my Bluebird account were $240.48 and $238.98, including all ATM fees. That gives exchange rates of 1.202 and 1.195 euro per US dollar, both within 2% of the financial market rates on the days in question (according to xe.com).

It's hard for consumers to exchange currency at the prevailing market rates, and ATM fees can add substantially to currency exchange costs, while Bluebird offers exchange rates very close to market rates, along with flat international ATM fees. Unfortunately, not all ATM's are configured to process American Express withdrawals, so it may take some trial and error to find ATM's you can use your Bluebird card at (my card was rejected at one of the ATM's I tried).

Lessons learned after a week in Italy

I don’t write trip reports because I don’t like reading trip reports. On the other hand, while in Italy I discovered a few things I wasn’t expecting, which might prove useful to readers planning their own trips. So here are my top 6 travel-hackery takeaways from my 8-night trip to Italy.

1) The Hilton Molino Stucky Venice is an incredible place to stay in Venice

I did a fair amount of research on this property before arriving, but I was pleasantly surprised at every turn:

  • It’s incredibly easy to get to. Many reviews and comments about this property point out that the hotel is located on an island, not in “Venice proper.” The “island" is just another one of the landmasses in the Venetian delta, and while it’s not connected to the other island by a bridge, there’s a simple public water transportation system that connects you there directly from the train station and, I believe, the airport as well. If you catch one of the express waterbusses it’s a ride of perhaps 15 minutes from the main Santa Lucia train station.
  • We had buffet breakfast in the restaurant included. Trip Advisor has dozens if not hundreds of reviews from Hilton HHonors Gold and Diamond members who were told they would only receive breakfast in the executive lounge, which would indeed be disappointing, since it’s basically just eggs, bacon, and yoghurt. Some of those reports are as recent as December, but as a Diamond member we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which has a staggeringly wide assortment of hot and cold dishes, salads, breads, and meats. I have no explanation for the discrepancy, but that was our experience.
  • The rooms are quiet. Some people complain about noise from the street and from the boats moving around the canals, but we found the windows to provide great sound insulation when closed. It may be much louder during the high season, with revelers coming and going all night long.
  • The views are superb. The side of the building facing the water is in the shape of a “U,” and some people with rooms in the “depressed” part of the “U” complained that they had only obstructed, not clear, views of the city. This may be a bigger problem in the corners, but we were located in the center of the depression and didn’t find our view hurt in any way by seeing the sides of the building. We had a perhaps 160-degree view instead of a “full” 180 degrees.

2) The Radisson Blu es. Hotel in Rome is a very pretty disaster

At 66,000 Club Carlson points ($13,200 in purchases on the US Bank Premier Rewards personal or Business Rewards small business credit cards) for 2 nights in a premium room, this hotel seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was.

The hotel’s owners clearly invested a great deal of money in design, but without paying the slightest attention to function:

  • The room’s outlets require a keycard to be left by the door, so it’s impossible to charge electronics during the day without leaving a key behind.
  • The entire hotel was heated to 70 degrees or so, including the bedrooms (and the minibar). To cool off, we opened the door to our room’s balcony, and tiny insects soon covered every surface.
  • Behind the bed was a “control panel” with buttons labeled with various functions, like controlling the room’s shades. None of them worked as described (our room's shades didn’t even appear to be electric).
  • On our second day, there was apparently a brief power outage and the hotel’s internet stopped working for the rest of our stay. This wouldn’t have been such a problem, except…

3) It’s preposterously hard to get online in Italy

My vague understanding is that this has something to do with Europe’s internet security laws, which require those providing internet access to verify the identity of their customers. Even with that being said, I’ve never had as much trouble getting online in any other European country as I did all over Italy.

My favorite example: the high-speed train we took between Milan and Venice had free on-board wireless internet. All you needed to do was register, and you’d receive your login credentials…via e-mail!

4) You probably don’t need to book train tickets in advance

I booked all our train tickets in advance through ItaliaRail.com, which is useful for scanning for the cheapest departures each day (and purchases are correctly coded as travel with the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard). Once in Italy, for the sake of comparison I checked the prices for same-day tickets, and found they were identical to the advance purchase prices I’d secured online.

One possible exception is if you’re able to find “Two For One Fare” tickets, which are only available on advance purchases. That’s a way to secure real savings, if you’re able to book the trains on which those tickets are available.

5) You probably don’t need to stay at the airport when departing Rome

We had a not-particularly-early morning flight from Rome to Philadelphia, and I thought it would be convenient to stay in Fiumicino, the suburb of Rome where the airport is located. This turned out to be totally unnecessary: the train from Rome’s Termini train station to Fiumicino airport takes just a touch over 30 minutes, and runs every 20 minutes. We ended up having a lovely dinner in Fiumicino on our last night, and paid just $14 for our hotel there thanks to Expedia’s Cyber Monday sale, but in general I’d suggest spending the night in Rome and having a nice dinner there, instead, unless you have a very early morning flight and want to stay at one of the two Hilton properties attached to the airport.

6) Checking in for US (and Israel?)-bound flights from Rome is an insane process

We left Rome on a US Airways-operated flight, which meant we had to check in at Fiumicino’s Terminal 5. Terminal 5 is a giant warehouse with the sole function, as far as I could tell, of handling check-in for US airlines and El Al, the Israeli national carrier.

The procedures in Terminal 5 are what you might come up with if you were taken on a 30-minute tour of a US airport and told to replicate as much of it as possible from memory.

The first step is presenting your passport. This has nothing to do with checking in for your flight; it appears to serve solely to verify your identity. The same person who checks your passport gives you a handful of plastic bags and instructs you to put all the electronics, batteries, and for some reason cables which you plan to carry onto the flight into these plastic bags for security screening.

After pulling out all your electronics and bagging them, the second step is not passing through security. Rather, now you can finally proceed to the airline check-in counters, all while juggling your plastic bags filled with electronics. I don’t know how the other airlines handle this, but the US Airways counters were being overseen by a woman who appeared to be deliberately screwing with the passengers. Before my eyes, she told a passenger to put her carry-on into the bag sizer, turned back to her computer, and then when the passenger told her it had fit replied, “I didn’t see it.” The sooner this airline vanishes from the face of the earth, the better.

Finally you can head to security, which was, after all this rigamarole, much easier than passing through security in the States. We didn’t even have to take off our shoes!

After all this, you hop on a bus that takes you to a completely normal terminal with flights departing all over the world, which is why I suggest Terminal 5 only exists to satisfy the US that some semblance of our security procedures are being followed for US-bound passengers. The fact that you could trade luggage or boarding passes with someone who checked in at the other international terminal appears to have been lost on them.

Good enough for government work

I'm not shy about telling people that Americans today are blessed to have inherited government institutions designed by people who believed in the government's ability to function. I marvel, for example at the IRS's ability to fit a century of income tax regulations onto a one- or two-page form that works for almost all wage-earners – despite Congress's insistence on adding more amendments, exceptions, and exclusions each year.

While one political faction continues to sabotage the ability of those institutions to function on a daily basis, for the time being our inheritance hasn't yet run out. That's why I'm writing more in sadness than in anger at a ridiculous institutional failure I encountered today.

Since it has to do with US passport renewal, I think it's not completely out of place here. For all I know, this post may even help someone in the future who runs into the same absurd situation.

The Department of State has an online tool to complete applications for passport renewals

You can find it here.

Since passport renewals require you to submit a recent (within 6 months) passport-sized photo and your most recent passport (which the Department of State insists on calling a "passport book"), you can't actually submit the application online. However, you can use an online tool to prepopulate the fields of the relevant form, DS-82:

Then you just have to print and sign the form, and submit it with the necessary materials.

The online tool is too smart for its own good

This took me several hours of trial and error to discover, but buried deep in this online tool is a seemingly innocuous question:

As it happens, my place of birth WAS printed incorrectly on the passport I've been using for the last 9 and a half years. I was born in Arkansas, but my passport says I was born in Alaska (AR, AK, get it?).

If you report an error of any kind, however, your answers are prepopulated not to the correct DS-82 form, elegantly titled "U.S. PASSPORT RENEWAL APPLICATION FOR ELIGIBLE INDIVIDUALS", but to the DS-5504 form, used for "NAME CHANGE, DATA CORRECTION, AND LIMITED PASSPORT BOOK REPLACEMENT."

This error could cost you months of processing time

This shouldn't – necessarily – matter. After all, both the DS-82 and DS-5504 forms contain the same information (which is why they can be prepopulated from the same online tool). But the DS-5504 contains the following text:

"There is no fee associated with the use of this form unless expedited service is requested (see below)."

While the DS-82 reads:

"Please visit our website at travel.state.gov for detailed information regarding current fees."

In my case the renewal fee for my passport was $110. What would have happened if I had submitted my application without a check for $110? I have a hard time even venturing a guess. Would they have simply mailed my application back? Is there someone in the passport processing facility whose job it is to call hundreds or thousands of people every day to try and track down their missing payments?

A (kind of) explanation

As it turns out, there is an explanation for this diabolical situation: you can file form DS-5504 within a year of your passport's date of issue and have any errors on the document corrected at no charge. That seems like a fairly reasonable policy, allowing for human error on the part of both applicants and State Department employees.

What's unreasonable is that the online tool defaults to form DS-5504 even though another question on the same form asks for your most recent passport's date of issue. The online tool simply doesn't check first whether you're eligible for a fee-free replacement before defaulting to the fee-free form.

Now, if this were United Airlines, I'd have just submitted the fee-free form and crossed my fingers. But with the US government, I thought it was better to be safe than sorry, and submitted the DS-82 instead, with check firmly attached.

And if there are any errors on my new passport, I'll deal with them in another 9-and-a-half years!