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.