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


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Crossing Into Peru Via Tacna

***This post is part 15 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The towns of Arica in Chile and Tacna in Peru are separated by merely 35 miles of land. Crossing the international border between them isn't difficult, but the information on how exactly the process works is a bit scattered online, resulting in confusion and uncertainty among independent travelers. There are currently only two public ways to do this trip: by colectivo or by bus.

Prior to May 2012, there was a historic one-car train that ran the Arica-Tacna route once per day. However, due to lack of maintenance and safety issues, the service has been suspended ever since. According to this article, Peru is in the process of investing $4 million USD to revive the train, and it is expected to be operational again by December 2013.

Even taking the train into account, however, the fastest way to get from Arica to Tacna is by colectivo. Colectivos are essentially shared taxis that run the border route several times per day. The vehicles are typically older Lincoln Town Car or Ford Taurus models, and drivers will wait until there are five passengers to depart. Buses leave from the same terminal in Arica, and the cost may be slightly cheaper than colectivos. However, with room for a lot more passengers, the journey will also take longer.

I was in no rush the morning of departure, since Peru was two hours ahead of Chile, taking into account daylight savings time. I walked from the hostel to the bus terminal, which took about half an hour, and arrived at approximately 8:30 am. Be aware that the large building with the pyramidal roof is the domestic Rodoviario Terminal. Keep walking past this building until you see a sign that says Terminal Internacional. 

Domestic Rodoviario Terminal

International Terminal

Once you enter the gates, the first thing you have to do is pay the international departure tax at the window immediately to your right. This token amount totals 250 CLP, or roughly $0.50 USD. Afterwards, take the slip of paper and continue into the terminal. On your left, through a short alleyway, are the buses waiting for departure to Tacna, and straight ahead are the colectivos.

Paying the departure tax

Buses through the alleyway

Friday, October 18, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Arica

***This post is part 14 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Hostal Jardín del Sol is located in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks away from central Arica. While they had shared dorm rooms just like typical hostels, I was also happy to see that they had private rooms available for an extremely reasonable price. After reading through the stellar reviews on TripAdvisor, I reserved my one-night stay using for only 12,500 CLP, which was an absolute steal.

When I arrived at the hostel, I noticed the front door was locked. After ringing the bell, there was a buzz and the door automatically opened. I walked through two lounge areas before finally locating the reception off to one side of a narrow outdoor hallway. 

The owners were there to greet me and give me a very descriptive rundown of the hostel and the town of Arica. I really appreciated all the information they provided on what to see during my short stay. In fact, they were probably some of the friendliest and most helpful people I came across during this entire trip. I would highly recommend Hostal Jardín del Sol based on that fact alone.

Hostal Jardín del Sol

Lounge #1

Lounge #2

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Obsessive Behaviors And The Retention Department

I just read this hilarious post from The Points Guy this morning, titled "10 Obsessive Behaviors of Miles and Points Junkies". I guess I haven't gone off the deep end yet, since I only exhibit 8 out of the 10 behaviors listed on a regular basis ;)  All humor aside, there are actually some very good miles/points-earning tips in his post.

One I wanted to emphasize was #5, "threatening to cancel a credit card unless they give you bonus points or waive the annual fee". While it may sound like a terrible thing to do, like I'm blackmailing or hostage taking, this is actually a very normal aspect of owning (and disowning) a credit card, and one of the main reasons why retention departments exist in the first place.

I typically do not keep a credit card past the first year if there is an annual fee, unless it provides a truly worthwhile anniversary bonus, such as a free night at a hotel or a decent amount of miles/points. But even if a card doesn't give you any of those things, it is still important to call in and speak to someone if you are thinking about canceling, because more often than not, they will try their best to keep your business.

This is exactly what I did yesterday with my American Express SPG Business Credit Card. I noticed that the $65 annual fee had posted on my October statement, and I immediately called in. Using the automated menu, I selected the option of canceling my account, and was transferred directly to the retention department. From there, I followed a fairly standard script:

  • Even before speaking to anyone, first make sure you have enough leverage, and by leverage, I mean annual spend on the account. The more spend you have, the greater the chances they will provide some sort of incentive for you to keep the card.
  • Tell them how you really enjoy the benefits of the card and that you use it regularly, but the annual fee is just too high. Politely ask if there is anything they can do, such as waive the fee. I typically do not ask for miles/points directly, since they may voluntarily give you this option anyway if they can't waive the fee.
  • There may be some push back. The agent may tell you how great this card is, and give you a long list of reasons why you should keep it. Respond by bringing up examples of other cards you have that may provide better benefits, such as no foreign transaction fees, or an anniversary bonus.
  • At this point, it is either an absolute no, and you may want to go ahead and cancel the card outright, or the agent will ask you to hold for a minute while they see what can be done.
  • If a hold occurs, then there is a very good possibility that they are willing to provide some sort of incentive. If they do, decide whether or not to take it, or perhaps to push even harder for more. That's a personal decision on whether or not the offer offsets the annual fee.

In my case, the agent came back and said they could give me a $35 statement credit immediately, bringing my annual fee down to $30. I waivered for a few seconds, then politely asked if that was the best they could do. Sensing my hesitation, the agent actually put me on hold one more time, and then finally came back and said they could waive the entire annual fee by giving me a $65 statement credit. Score!

Of course, success is not always guaranteed, and I have plenty of examples where I struck out and went ahead with closing my account. But, if you have a good amount of spend on your card, and you are thinking about cancelling anyways, why not call in and see what kind of retention offer they can provide? It never hurts to try.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Lauca National Park And Putre

***This post is part 13 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Although I had already booked my stay at the Terrace Lodge in Putre for two nights, I hadn't done any additional planning in terms of getting to and seeing Lauca National Park. I figured as long as I could get myself to Putre, it would be very straightforward to book a day trip with a local tour agency. Boy was I wrong.

First things first, I got settled in at the Terrace Lodge. This quaint little property on the edge of town is owned by a polyglot couple from Italy who are also extremely knowledgeable about the Chilean Altiplano. While slightly more expensive than the few other options in town, the quality here is quite high. There are only five rooms at the lodge, and mine was the last unit.

Terrace Lodge

The bedroom was nicely decorated and spotlessly clean. A small portable heater was included, but I still found it to be rather cold at night. Luckily, the thick duvets were sufficient for keeping in the warmth. The bathroom was modern and had plenty of hot water throughout the day. A standard hotel safe in the closet area was also much appreciated.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Bus To Putre Via Arica

***This post is part 12 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

To be honest, I was a little nervous about this part of my journey through South America. I had been traveling with my two friends the entire way up until now, but our paths were to diverge here in San Pedro de Atacama. My plan was to head up to the northern tip of Chile to see Lauca National Park, near the small town of Putre, while my friends' itinerary took them further south to the Lake District and Puerto Montt.

Since there were no regular flights available between any of these Northern Chilean cities, my only option was to make the nearly 520-mile journey by bus. In San Pedro de Atacama, both Tur Bus and Pullman had offices where we could purchase tickets. Only Tur Bus, however, offered an overnight direct route to Arica. As with all things in Chile, prices weren't cheap. I ended up splurging a little and booked a first class seat for the 10-hour bus ride, thinking I would be able to get better sleep that way.

Bus route from San Pedro de Atacama to Putre via Arica

I later regretted that decision when I realized that there really wasn't a significant difference between the first class and regular coach seats. Both were simple recliners, with the upgraded version slightly wider and more cushioned. I found the first class cabin, located on the lower level, to be small and claustrophobic, and would have much preferred to sit in the larger coach cabin upstairs. Sadly, the ticket cost me 26,000 CLP, which was quite a bit more expensive than the 18,000 CLP for a regular seat. Live and learn I guess.

The departure point for Tur Bus in San Pedro de Atacama is not at the main bus station, but rather around the corner from their office in a large parking lot. I walked there from the hotel and arrived approximately 20 minutes before departure. After confirming my tickets and loading my large backpack, I stepped on board and took my seat in the first row.

Tur Bus to Arica

First class was almost completely full, which made an already small cabin feel even tighter. And unfortunately, the bulkhead seat made it impossible for me to stretch out, despite a decent pitch. I was exhausted though, having woken up before 4:00 am that morning, so I reclined my seat and quickly fell asleep. About an hour and a half later, we made a scheduled stop in the city of Calama, where some passengers disembarked and others got on.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bank Of America And The Global ATM Alliance

I use credit cards with no foreign exchange fees as much as I can when traveling abroad. It saves me from carrying a wad of cash in an unfamiliar environment, and I can rest assured knowing that I am being charged a reasonable rate. However, there are always times when the local currency is needed, whether it's at a restaurant that only accepts cash, or just for simple things like tipping.

It can be a hassle trying to find ways to obtain cash, especially when you're in the midst of a hectic travel schedule. You can always bring a stack of U.S. dollars (or whatever your base currency is) and do the conversion upon arrival, either at the airport or when you get into town. But doing so typically incurs high fees and a lousy exchange rate. The most straightforward method, in my opinion, is to stick with withdrawing cash directly from a bank ATM.

Bank of America charges customers a $5.00 international ATM fee, in addition to the fee that the local ATM will tack on to any withdrawal. This is where the Global ATM Alliance can save you quite a bit of money. A joint venture between several major international banks, the Global ATM Alliance allows customers to use their ATM or debit cards at any bank within the alliance without incurring any local or international ATM fees. Here are the participating banks, in addition to Bank of America in the United States:

Although not listed above, you can use China Construction Bank in mainland China (excluding Hong Kong) and Banco Santander in Mexico without any local or international ATM fees as well. Be aware that fee-free usage of any of the Global ATM Alliance banks only applies in the specific coverage area. For example, if you decide to use a Deutsche Bank ATM located outside of Germany, all applicable fees will still be charged.

Bank of America also warns customers that an international transaction fee of 1% may still apply when converting your currency. This fee jumps to 3% effective November 8, 2013. However, in my experiences using the Global ATM Alliance, I have never been charged this additional transaction fee. I have used Deutsche Bank in Germany, Barclays in the U.K., and Westpac Bank in Australia in just the past three months. For customers of other banks within the alliance, this Wikipedia entry has a lot more details regarding additional rules for each bank.

The Global ATM Alliance makes withdrawing money internationally a much less expensive proposition, and beats converting currency at the airport or at an exchange shop hands down. Nowadays, when traveling to any of the countries listed in the coverage area, I bring at most a $100 bill purely for emergencies, and withdraw any amount I need directly from the alliance banks.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring San Pedro De Atacama

***This post is part 11 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most popular destinations to visit in Chile for international and domestic tourists alike. Located in the far north of the country and sitting in the midst of a green oasis along the edge of the South American Altiplano, it is the perfect jump-off point for touring the incredible landscape of the Atacama Desert.

Streets of San Pedro de Atacama

Main square

The first thing we did after arriving in San Pedro de Atacama was to locate our lodging at Hotel Dunas. The town is quite small, and easily walkable to virtually all points of interest. It is also very bike-friendly, and you can find bike rentals around just about every block. Hotel Dunas is a five to ten-minute walk from the center of town, located on a quiet and safe street.

Hotel Dunas