Sunday, December 22, 2013

Credit Card Surcharges Coming Soon To A Store Near You?

For those of us who earn miles, points, or cash back on credit card purchases, the past two years have witnessed an unsettling series of events that all seem to be leading to one eventuality: the onset of surcharges for Visa, MasterCard, and American Express payments.

Over a year ago, Visa and MasterCard settled one of the largest private antitrust lawsuits in U.S. history, paying out $5.7 billion to merchants who claimed that both companies had colluded with banks to eliminate competition and increase the price of credit card transactions. Part of that settlement allows for merchants to add a surcharge when customers pay with a credit card.

However, the settlement also stipulates that any merchant who decides to tack on a surcharge to Visa and MasterCard transactions must also do the same for American Express, if they accept American Express. In turn, American Express has its own rule stating that all electronic payments must be treated equally, meaning surcharges would then have to be added to debit cards transactions as well. In a truly bizarre Catch-22 scenario, both Visa and MasterCard specifically prohibit surcharges on debit cards, rendering the entire argument moot.

That is, until this past Thursday. Just one week after a judge finally approved the Visa and MasterCard settlement from last year, an agreement was also reached in a separate class-action lawsuit involving American Express. While there will be no massive payout in this settlement, American Express has quietly relented on their requirement that surcharges be levied across the board, including debit card transactions.

This essentially clears the way for retailers to establish a two-tier pricing system, one for cash, checks, and debit cards, and another for credit cards. While some merchants claim that this will allow them to offer a discount to those paying with cash, there are serious doubts as to whether any savings will actually be passed down to consumers.

Many businesses already take credit card swipe fees into account by building them into the price of goods and services they sell, and there may be little incentive for them to offer a real discount for cash transactions rather than to simply tack on an additional surcharge for credit card transactions.

So what does this all mean for credit card rewards programs? Well, first off, it may get a little more confusing at the register in the future. If the price differential between cash and credit card is large enough, any rewards you earn may be completely worthless given the extra money you are paying up front. While it remains to be seen if the two-tier pricing system catches on with mid-to-large-size retailers, this certainly has the potential to become a game-changer.

In countries like Australia, credit card surcharges are ubiquitous and seemingly arbitrarily set by the retailer, raising the possibility of deceptive pricing. Often times, it makes absolutely no sense to use a credit card given the considerable difference in price, and while traveling across the country, I found myself relying more and more on cash.

If there is a substantial shift in the U.S. to cash and debit card payments, credit card companies may be compelled to lower their fees, which, in turn, may force them to reduce the rewards and benefits offered on even the most premium of products. We witnessed the same effect on debit card rewards programs when the Durbin Amendment went into effect, reducing the swipe fees that banks collected from merchants.

It is still too soon to become alarmed, however, as some states still maintain a ban on all credit card surcharges, despite the settlements. Lawsuits challenging these bans may alter the payments landscape in the future, but that could take years. In addition, a judge must still approve the American Express settlement, not to mention the possibility of further delays due to the appeals process.

You can read more about this story on The New York Times here and here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

United Removes Singapore Airlines Award Inventory Online

In yet another blow to the MileagePlus program, United and Singapore Airlines have "agreed" to remove Singapore Airlines inventory from the award search results on as well as the United Mobile App, effective December 13, 2013. United has done a great job adding partners to its online award search function in recent years, and this is the first time I've actually witnessed the removal of an airline's inventory.

But I suppose come February 1, 2014, when the devalued United award charts are implemented, there will be relatively few people redeeming for premium class partner awards anyways, so perhaps this is all a moot point. However, for those of us who still redeem miles for economy seats on Singapore Airlines, this will make things a bit harder. Searches and bookings will now need to be made over the phone with an agent, incompetency notwithstanding, and phone booking fees will not be waived. Of course, you can still search for Singapore Airlines award availability online at ANA's website... for now.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Winner Of The American Airlines Admirals Club Passes

Congratulations to commenter #21 Becca Bandit, who said she would love to go to Southeast Asia for the holidays! She was the winner of the two American Airlines Admirals Club One-Day Passes. Becca Bandit, I will be contacting you to get your mailing address, and I will have the passes sent out by Monday. Thanks to all who entered!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

American Airlines Admirals Club One-Day Lounge Passes Giveaway!

With the end of the year fast approaching, I noticed I still had two extra American Airlines Admirals Club One-Day Passes that are expiring on December 31, 2013. They were included as extra perks from the approval of my Citibank AAdvantage Visa Signature card a year ago. Since I have no upcoming travel plans, I figure what better way to put these passes to good use than give them away on here.

To make this simple, all you have to do is leave a comment below by answering the question: If you could go anywhere this holiday season, where would it be? Use the pull-down menu and select Name/URL for the "Comment as" field. You can leave the URL field blank. Then send me an email at, specifying the unique name you used when commenting.

On Friday December 6, 2013 at 11:59 PM PST, I will choose a comment using a random number generator. The winner will be contacted by email and I will ask for your mailing address to send out the passes immediately. Good luck!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Australia September 2013 - Qantas Airways 422 Economy Class (MEL → SYD)

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Since there is currently no rail connection to and from Melbourne International Airport, the SkyBus express shuttle remains the quickest and most direct option for passengers. Operating out of the Southern Cross Station at the west end of the CBD, SkyBus runs 24/7, including all public holidays. In addition, buses leave every ten minutes during regular business hours.

Southern Cross Station

I arrived at Southern Cross Station just before 8:00 am and followed the signs to the SkyBus terminal on the lower level. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time on their website, or through the small kiosk at the station. One-way tickets are $17 AUD while return tickets are $28 AUD. There are also a number of family options available for a discount. With so many departures, there is hardly ever an extended wait for the next shuttle.

SkyBus ticket booth

The bus was comfortable, and had plenty of storage space even for the largest luggage. Within 20 minutes, we arrived at Terminal 1, home to all Qantas and Jetstar domestic flights. I stepped into the cavernous, modern-looking hall and quickly located the automated check-in kiosks. While most U.S. airports also have self-check-in options, something completely new to me were the automated bag drop stations.

Qantas has basically eliminated the need for inefficient human-operated check-in counters by allowing passengers to do everything themselves. The check-in kiosk prints out your boarding pass and checked luggage tag. You then scan your boarding pass at the bag drop station and place your luggage onto the conveyor belt. Once the weight is calculated, your bags are whisked away automatically. Of course, there are still a few agents standing by in case anything goes terribly wrong.

Terminal 1

Check-in kiosks

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Australia September 2013 - Grand Hyatt Melbourne & Exploring Melbourne

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The Grand Hyatt Melbourne is conveniently located in the central business district, or the CBD. This is the core of Melbourne's metropolitan area, and it serves as the financial capital of the city as well as the historical, cultural, and political center of the state of Victoria. The CBD is actually quite compact, and the streets are laid out in an easy-to-manage grid that makes it virtually impossible to get lost.

I was dropped off at the hotel entrance roundabout on Russell Street, and I proceeded into the lower level lobby. The doorman and bellhop offered to take my large backpack, but I declined. Elevators and stairs led to the main lobby upstairs, where a second entrance opened onto Collins Street.

Grand Hyatt Melbourne

Bird sculptures by the entrance

Entrance roundabout

Downstairs lobby

The main lobby was elegant in an understated sort of way, with plenty of marble all around and high ceilings. Off to one side, there was a decorative fireplace and a lounge area with comfortable couches and chairs. Directly facing the front desk was a large restaurant and bar, where the daily breakfast buffet was served. Unfortunately, since I don't have Hyatt Diamond status, breakfast wasn't included, and I opted not to add it to the reservation.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

20% Off Your Next Virgin America Flight

Here's a quick and easy way to get 20% off your next Virgin America flight, but you have to take advantage of it soon. UrbanDaddy is sponsoring The Final Countdown sweepstakes, where you and a friend can win a three-night stay at the Hudson Hotel in New York City over New Year's Eve and round-trip flights on Virgin America.

The main point, however, is that simply by entering the contest, you will earn a 10% promo code for your next Virgin America flight. If you refer four friends (only emails are required), the promo code bumps up to 20%! Just click on the link, and start by entering your email and zip code. It's as simple as that. I received the promo code in my email within a few minutes of entering.

Be aware that there are a number of restrictions. Here are the full terms and conditions of the Virgin America discount code. Essentially, you must book your non-stop or connecting travel by 11:59 pm PST on November 26, 2013 and travel between January 11, 2014 and March 6, 2014. The promo code is valid only for Main Cabin seats. Blackout dates include all Fridays and Sundays, as well as January 17-20, 2014 and February 14-17, 2014.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Australia September 2013 - Qantas Airways 94 First Class (LAX → MEL)

***This post is part 3 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

After a leisurely stroll from Terminal 4, I arrived at Tom Bradley International Terminal and found my way to the Qantas check-in area. With more than five hours to go before departure, there was hardly anybody in line. In fact, there was no one manning the first class counters. Once they saw me, however, an agent from the business class check-in area came over to assist me.

Tom Bradley International Terminal

Qantas First check-in

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Australia September 2013 - American Airlines 2456 First Class (SFO → LAX)

***This post is part 2 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I arrived at Terminal 2 in SFO almost two hours before departure. There was a short line for first/business class passengers, but the wait was no more than five minutes. My large backpack was checked all the way through to MEL and I was given boarding passes for the American Airlines flight to LAX as well as the onward connection on Qantas. After a quick security check, I walked directly to the Admirals Club Lounge entrance, located on the left side of the main hall. A friendly agent checked my boarding passes and welcomed me inside.

SFO Terminal 2

American Airlines check-in

First/business class line

Admirals Club lounge

Thursday, November 7, 2013

One Hell Of A Time Booking AeroMexico Award Tickets

I spent the past week pulling out my hair in frustration trying to book AeroMexico award tickets using both Delta Skymiles and Air France Flying Blue miles. Last Wednesday, I wrote a detailed post about AeroMexico's phantom award availability on the Delta website. While there may still be random occurrences that I'm not aware of, it does seem like the problem has mostly been fixed.

On Friday, I did my daily search using Delta's website for the flight I needed from SFO to CUN via MEX, all on AeroMexico. Of course, I used the multi-city search function with the non-stop option selected to get the most accurate results. Per usual, each segment of the AeroMexico itinerary showed up as available. Once I selected the last leg, however, instead of seeing an error message that typically indicates phantom award availability, I was shocked to see the summary page with taxes and fees listed!

AeroMexico award seats bookable on Delta!

I clicked all the way through, entered my credit card information, and amazingly, I had my itinerary booked without any problems. Just to be completely sure, I even called into Delta and reconfirmed my ticket with the agent. The total cost was 35,000 Skymiles plus $109.18 in taxes and fees.

Now the wheels in my head started turning. As some of you may already know, there are some hidden gems in the Air France Flying Blue award chart, mostly involving Latin America. A round-trip award ticket from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico only costs 25,000 miles, as opposed to 35,000 miles like most other programs. Going to Central America costs only 30,000 miles as opposed to 35,000 miles as well. Going to Northern South America costs 35,000 miles, which is identical to the American Airlines AAdvantage award chart. However, going to Southern South America costs only 50,000 miles as opposed to 60,000 miles like most other programs.

So, with a 24-hour cancellation guarantee on the Delta award booking I already made, I figured why not try booking the exact same itinerary using Flying Blue instead for 10,000 less miles? After all, they are an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, and I had a small stash of points just sitting there. I went onto the Flying Blue website and tried searching for the same itinerary, and there it was:

Flying Blue website shows availablity

However, once I clicked through to the next page, I got this:

Cannot book this award ticket due to "technical reasons"

I could not book this itinerary online no matter what I tried. And since the Flying Blue award search engine is apparently even more broken than the infamous Delta website, I couldn't even do a multi-city search (try it and you'll see what I mean). Although it did seem to allow me to book each segment individually, but the cumulative price would total a whopping 50,000 miles instead.

So I called into Flying Blue... for the next five days. I must have spoken to two dozen agents, many of them I began to recognize by name because I would get connected to the same ones over and over again. And every single response was the same. They could see the award availability, but once they tried to grab the seats for me, it would fail. All of the agents blamed it on AeroMexico, saying they were not releasing the seats.

In the meantime, I was cancelling and rebooking the same itinerary like crazy over on Delta as a backup. I even called into Delta again and asked them if they could see how many award seats were available since I knew the AeroMexico award fare code was (X). They assured me they could see two seats available. At this point, I knew the issue was on the Flying Blue side.

Yesterday morning, I called into Flying Blue again, this time trying to elevate the situation to a higher level. Amazingly, I was connected to an understanding supervisor, who listened to my five-minute rant about how their website was broken and how Flying Blue agents could not book an award ticket that was clearly available. He apologized and told me he would get in direct contact with AeroMexico to see what the problem was.

A few hours later, I received a phone call back from the supervisor, saying that he had AeroMexico manually sell him the award seats, and everything was set! I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Then, as we were going through all the booking information, I noticed he got the return date wrong. My head nearly exploded at that point. Unfortunately, he said he needed to call AeroMexico again and start from scratch.

About another hour later, he called back again, and this time, everything was correct. Total cost for the award flight was 25,000 Flying Blue miles and $113.72. He didn't even bother adding on the usual €15 phone booking fee. I still don't know why the taxes and fees were higher than Delta's calculation, but by then, I could really care less about a $5.00 discrepancy. I just wanted my tickets booked and done with.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Flying Blue program is riddled with problems like these. Numerous other bookings I tried to make on their website also came back with the same technical error issue. And from the experiences I've described, it seems like calling in won't get the problems easily resolved either. As with most things in life, persistence appears to be the key. If you are 100% positive that the award seat is available, then keep hammering away until you can get a supervisor to do a manual sell for you. Otherwise, you'd be hard pressed to take advantage of any hidden gems on the Flying Blue award chart.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Australia September 2013 - Introduction

***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Australia is simply one of those places people yearn to visit. It may not sit at the very top of everyone's bucket list, but try asking a few friends what they think about the land down under, and a likely response would be that they'd love to go someday. Likewise, I'd always wanted to visit Australia, but I knew early on that I didn't want to spend just a few days in Sydney. If I took the effort to travel nearly 8,000 miles, I wanted to see as much of the continent as I possibly could.

Booking award tickets to Australia is no easy feat, and I dare say the mere planning of this month-long itinerary was one of the most exhaustive ordeals I'd ever experienced in my many years of redeeming miles and points. To make things even more interesting, I decided that I wanted to try out Qantas' first class suite on the A380. In order to secure these seats, I had to start looking almost a year in advance, and even then, availability was virtually nonexistent.

Amazingly, I was able to find one seat compatible with my departure schedule using 72,500 AAdvantage miles and only $19.50 in taxes and fees. The routing from SFO to MEL via LAX would give me more than 15 1/2 hours wrapped in the comforts of a first class suite. Unfortunately, it seems like Qantas has become even more stingy in releasing award availability in recent months. A quick search on both the American Airlines and British Airways websites revealed no first class availability through the end of October 2014!

Next, I had to determine all the places I wanted to visit within Australia so I could begin to book domestic award tickets. After some research, I ultimately decided on the following list: Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, Uluru, Alice Springs, and Perth. Of course, there were a number of other places I would have loved to visit (like Tasmania), but even with almost a month, I had difficulty budgeting my time to fit in so many destinations.

In September, I wrote about how British Airways Executive Club is the secret to cheap domestic travel in Australia. Using their distance-based award chart, redeeming for most short-haul tickets cost only 4,500 Avios with minimal taxes and fees. While many of the popular routes are easily bookable online, some of the more obscure destinations serviced by QantasLink are not. Those must be booked by phone through the British Airways awards desk.

It took quite a bit of patience and dozens of calls to secure all the domestic award seats I needed. My final itinerary looked like this: MEL-SYD-OOL//HTI-CNS-AYQ-ASP-PER. The total cost was a mere 35,500 Avios and $234.70 in taxes and fees. Compare that to the more than $2,000 it would have cost out of pocket if I had booked the cheapest available coach seats! In between, I was still missing a segment from BNE to PPP, which Qantas does not service. Their subsidiary, Jetstar, does operate that route, but unfortunately, you cannot use Avios to book award seats on Jetstar since they are technically not part of OneWorld.

Enter Virgin Australia, which flies the BNE to PPP route, and also partners with Virgin America. I wrote a detailed post earlier this year about my experiences using Virgin America Elevate points to book domestic Virgin Australia award tickets. The process was a bit tedious, and involved waiting almost of week before receiving confirmation of the booking, but everything worked out fine in the end. The total cost was 3,000 Elevate points and $27.60 in taxes and fees.

For the return flights, I opted to go with Star Alliance and used my United miles to book a one-way ticket from PER to SFO via SIN and ICN, all on Singapore Airlines in economy. The entire itinerary was easily bookable on the United website, and cost 40,000 miles plus $107.40 in taxes and fees. I've compiled a simple spreadsheet below detailing all of my flights and the corresponding cost for this trip:

Hotels were quite a bit easier to arrange, with plenty of options in all the major cities. In Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Uluru, and Perth, I used points from Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, Le Club Accor, and SPG to redeem for award nights. Thus, more than half the nights I spent in Australia were completely free. I will go into the booking and cost details in subsequent posts.

With a dearth of international chains in the Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, and Alice Springs, I opted to go with shared rooms at highly-rated hostels. Some people might be wary of hostels and backpackers lodges, especially when they've become so accustomed to hotels, but I was perfectly fine splitting my time between the two. I've found that hostels are actually a great way to meet new people from all over the world when traveling alone.

Finally, I wanted to do a three-day sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands. There were tons of options to choose from, almost too many in my opinion. There were large party boats capable of holding 30 or more people, and also smaller, more private sailboats and catamarans with only a dozen or so spaces. I decided to splurge a little and go for the latter. Despite the higher cost, I think the less crowded environment and more personalized service made it worthwhile.

Total out of pocket costs for flights and hotels came out to $624.10, not bad for almost a month in Australia! The three-day Whitsunday Islands sailing trip by itself was a whopping $531.17, including all meals. No doubt, I would not have been able to justify a trip of this magnitude without the help of miles and points. I was fortunate enough to experience some of the most beautiful sights in the country, and, more importantly, meet some amazing people who exemplified the best of Australian hospitality.

Uluru at sunset - September 27, 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013

Australia September 2013 Trip Report

In early September 2013, I set off for Australia and traveled across the country for almost one month. Even though this was the culmination of a year of detailed planning, I was still somewhat apprehensive because I had never traveled on my own for such an extended period of time. I quickly realized, however, that I had nothing to worry about, as I discovered a country that was brimming with warmth and hospitality. Read on for all the details (links will become active as they are completed):

Friday, November 1, 2013

United Guts Its Award Chart - Effective February 1, 2014

We all knew that the United MileagePlus award chart was ripe for a substantial devaluation, but even the most cynical among us probably could not have expected this kind of wholesale massacre. The biggest and most painful change comes in the form of a complete separation between award redemptions on United metal and partner airlines. Starting on February 1, 2014, there will be an updated award chart specifically for partner airlines that makes redeeming virtually any business or first class award a hard pill to swallow.

There are so many massive increases across the board that it is probably easier just to look at the old and new award charts directly. In addition, I've compiled a side-by-side table that compares the current redemption requirements with the new cost using only United Airlines and using partner airlines. Note that this table is only for routes to and from the Mainland U.S., Alaska, and Canada.

One of the worst offenders I found is going to South Asia in first class, which jumps from 70K miles one-way to an unbelievable 130K miles (an 85.7% increase)! Yes, it will now cost 260K miles to fly round-trip on partner airlines to Singapore, Thailand, and even Hong Kong. To get to the Middle East, India or the Maldives in first class on a partner airline will now cost you a whopping 280K miles. Even first class to Japan will now cost 220K miles round-trip on partner airlines. To say this is shocking would be putting it mildly. And I haven't even begun to go through the massive increases between other regions!

Take a look at the current award chart, the new award chart effective February 1, 2014, and the table of changes I've compiled for award flights to and from the Mainland U.S., Alaska, and Canada. Routes where mileage requirements have increased are highlighted in red.

My only recommendation now is to burn as many United miles as you can before the new award chart comes into effect. You can still book award travel all the way through to January 2015 using the old mileage requirements, so don't delay! If you have any aspirational awards in business or first class on any partner airline, now is the time to plan those trips, because come February 1, 2014, it will cost you a hell of a lot more to realize those travel dreams.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

United Club One-Time Pass Winner

At 12:00 AM PDT on 10/31/2013, I used the Random Number Generator to select from one of four comments left in the United Club One-Time Pass giveaway. Congratulations to Erin B, who wrote that she would love to visit South Africa! Erin, I will be contacting you via email soon!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Phantom Partner Award Availability On The Delta Website?

Last week, I was in the midst of constructing award itineraries on two different SkyTeam partners using Delta Skymiles. Since they were rather complicated routings, I had to call in to make the bookings. Before I did that, however, I researched partner award availability using the Delta website and noted that there were plenty of open seats for Korean Air as well as Aeromexico. However, after speaking to multiple agents, I discovered that they could not see any of the online availability. Here is what I found in both cases:

Case #1 - Korean Air
Korean Air releases plenty of award seats, despite the checkerboard of blackout dates that apply year-round. Be aware that Delta effectively blocks all Korean Air award availability on the blackout dates listed, regardless of the fact that only specific routes are supposed to be affected. Nevertheless, it is quite easy to find award seats from North America to Seoul, and then on to other parts of Asia. For example, for SFO to ICN on a random date, not only was the direct flight available at the saver level, but also routes via LAX, where Korean Air flies the Airbus A380.

Korean Air award seats showing as available online

Try calling in to book these seats, however, and you may hit a brick wall. Five out of six agents I talked to last week immediately said they saw no availability on Korean Air at all. Being transferred to the Delta website help desk got me nowhere as well. I was about to give up and blame it on the dreaded online phantom award availability issue when I finally connected with a very knowledgeable agent who told me to hold on while she tried something else.

A few minutes later, she came back and said she was able to see all the available award seats I had been talking about! Surprised, I asked her what she did differently this time, and her response was that for some reason, when querying Korean Air award availability, she had to use the "shopping tab" feature on the internal system instead of the standard search function. Even doing a segment by segment search didn't return any results.

From then on, for every agent I talked to who couldn't see any Korean Air award availability, all I had to do was gently advise them to try the "shopping tab" feature, and voilà, suddenly all the missing award seats became visible! So don't give up if you speak to an agent who insists that there is nothing available on Korean Air. Simply suggest the "shopping tab" and see what happens.

Case #2 - Aeromexico
In the case of Aeromexico, things got a little more strange. Searching on the Delta website for a simple one-way or round-trip award ticket won't return any Aeromexico results if the seats are not actually available. However, if you use the multi-city search function and type in each segment individually, suddenly, plenty of Aeromexico results pop up.

Multi-city search for Aeromexico seats

Aeromexico award seats showing as available

If you click through the results, and select the available flights, you can get all the way to the very last segment. Once you select the flight for your last segment, however, an error message will appear. Basically, you will never be able to book Aeromexico award flights online using the multi-city search function.

Error message when trying to book the award ticket

I called in to Delta and talked to several different agents, and as expected, none of them could see any Aeromexico award seats even after trying every possible search method. I was transferred to a supervisor and also to the website help desk once again, neither of which helped one bit. I finally came to the conclusion that Delta is in fact showing phantom award availability online for Aeromexico flights using the multi-city search function.

Wanting to confirm this, I logged on to my Flying Blue account and did a search for the exact same award itinerary there. Surprisingly, they also showed award availability on Aeromexico. When I clicked through to book, however, an error message popped up as well. Calling in to Flying Blue, the agent told me that she could see the Aeromexico flights, but when she tried to reserve them as an award, they would come back as unavailable.

As of tonight, it appears that both the Delta and Flying Blue websites are still displaying phantom award availability on Aeromexico. I haven't checked other partner airlines for these issues, but be aware that phantom award availability remains a problem on Delta, and the only way to know for sure is to call in. And when calling in, make sure the agents are using all available search functions at their disposal, including the "shopping tab".

Sunday, October 27, 2013

United Club One-Time Pass Giveaway

I have an extra United Club One-Time Pass that is set to expire on 11/30/2013, and since I have no upcoming travel plans, I figure why not give it away to one of my two blog readers! All you have to do is follow the instructions here:
  1. Post a comment below telling me where you would like to go on your dream vacation. Use the pull-down menu and select Name/URL, then enter any unique name you wish. You can leave the URL entry blank.

  2. Send an email to to confirm your entry, specifying the unique name you used in your post. I will use this email to contact the winner of the United Club Pass.

  3. On Wednesday 10/31/2013 at 12:00 AM PDT, I will use a random number generator to select one comment as the winner. If any part of the instructions listed here are not met, I will go ahead and select another comment as the winner.
Unfortunately, I am only accepting entries from the United States. Here is a list of all the United Club locations around the world. If you want the best bang for your buck, I would use the One-Time Pass at an international United Club location, where they typically offer fancier food and drink selections, as well as showers and other amenities.

I visited the United Club at Hong Kong International Airport in January of this year, and I was pleasantly surprised. There was a good variety of snacks and hot entrees, and plenty of comfortable seating in the large space. I didn't use the shower since the waiting list was quite long, but the option is there if you need it.

United Club at Hong Kong International Airport

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - American Airlines 2194/1267 Economy Class (LIM-DFW-SFO)

***This post is the conclusion to a full trip report. Click here for the index***

My original return itinerary included the direct LAN flight from Lima to San Francisco, departing at 1:15 am. However, a few months before the trip, a modification was made to my ticket, and I noticed that LAN had changed all of their Lima to San Francisco departure times to 9:00 am.

I wasn't about to endure a ten-hour overnight layover at the airport, so I quickly called in and was able to have my itinerary changed to American Airline's brand new 1:40 am departure from Lima to Dallas/Ft. Worth, and then on to San Francisco. This route was inaugurated on April 2nd, so I experienced their seventh day of operation, departing on April 8th.

Thankfully, the long check-in line moved quickly, and I soon had my backpack tagged all the way through to San Francisco. Of course, I still had to retrieve it in Dallas/Ft. Worth and go through international customs there. After security, I did some last-minute shopping around the departures hall and then headed over to Gate 24, where boarding had already commenced. Since our flight was bound for the United States, a secondary security screening was conducted at the gate, and all passengers were required to have their carry-ons inspected. 

Check-in line


Secondary security screening

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - LAN Airlines 2106 Economy Class (AQP-LIM)

***This post is part 17 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

After returning to Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte and gathering up my belongings, I had the reception call a taxi for me. Although the airport in Arequipa is only about six miles from the center of town, it still can take upwards of 20 minutes to drive there since no freeways are located in the vicinity. Total cost for the one-way trip was 20 soles plus tip.

Rodríguez Ballón International Airport

I got to the airport almost two hours prior to departure, which I soon found out was complete overkill. The check-in line was fairly short, and I quickly had my large backpack tagged and boarding pass printed out. Unfortunately, they could not issue my remaining boarding passes to San Francisco via Dallas, so I had to retrieve my backpack and check in again with American Airlines once in Lima. 

Afterwards, I took a walk around the pre-security area and noticed there was a substantial amount of construction going on. I learned that the airport was in the midst of renovating the small terminal building, as well as installing its first two jet bridges in the departures hall. Last I checked, the first phase of construction was completed at the end of September 2013.


Check-in line

Airport renovation in progress

Monday, October 21, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Arequipa

***This post is part 16 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Arequipa is often regarded as the most beautiful city in Peru. Officially founded some 473 years ago, the remnants of a long history under Spanish rule can still be seen today in its elegant colonial architecture, most noticeably in the city center. Three massive volcanoes tower prominently over the skyline, and all of them, Chachani, El Misti, and Pichu Pichu, are intricately woven into the spirit and psyche of the entire region.

Colloquially, it is known as La Cuidad Blanca, or the White City, due in part to the prevalent use of sillar, a type of white volcanic rock found in abundance nearby, for building construction. Another, perhaps less diplomatic, reason for the moniker comes from the largely European characteristics of its population and culture during the colonial period. In fact, Arequipa is noted for its faithfulness to the Spanish Crown, even as the country struggled for independence during the 19th century.

La Cuidad Blanca

In recent years, Arequipa has become an important stop along the Southern Peru tourist circuit. For those wanting to visit Colca Canyon or climb El Misti, the city will serve as a convenient base for both day trips and longer excursions. Since I only had two full days here, I opted to stay close so I could enjoy the main sights around town.

After arriving at Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte, I checked in with the friendly front desk agent, who handed me the keys and also provided a useful map of the historic city center. I had reserved a single room with ensuite bathroom on for only $35.00 USD per night. Perhaps the best thing about Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte is its quiet and convenient location next to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. It is also just a five-minute walk from Plaza de Armas.

Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte