Jun 22

Airport Lounge Access: An Affordable Luxury

I spoke to a cruise executive several months ago who told me that one of her frustrations was that the general public still viewed cruises as a luxury item. Not that it’s a bad thing once you get on the ship, but the image kept people from even exploring the option, since they feared it would be too expensive.

I tend to feel the same way about airport lounges: It’s a great product that doesn’t cost too much, but most people think of them as a luxury. But it isn’t, a fact that you will find out as soon as something goes wrong with your flight. Either of the two types of lounges will help you in that situation.

Airline-Owned Lounges

airport lounge

American Airline Admirals Club Lounge, Buenos Aires                Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Airline lounges are those run by the airlines themselves. They tend to be somewhat cookie cutter, but large and comfortable. Food generally consists of snacks or very light meals, such as soup, but it’s free (although you might end up paying for drinks). Best of all, though, it’s staffed by airline employees. An airline lounge is a comfortable place to wait, but its real value comes when something goes wrong. Flight cancelled? Gonna miss a connection? Got stuck in a middle seat between two Sumu wrestlers? No problem, these are among the best agents that the airlines have. So, how do you get into an airline lounge? Here are some of the most popular*:

  • Buy a membership. Most cost $500-700 annually, with discounts given for members with elite status. Delta Diamond members get free access to SkyClubs. Sound like a lot? Well, if you’re flying once or twice per month, it’s worth it. If you really need access on a particular day, you can buy a day pass.
  • Get a high-end credit card. The Big-3 (American, Delta and United) all have credit cards sub-$500 that will get you lounge access or membership (The former may only get you in if you are flying the airline that day.). The American Express Platinum card will get you into Delta lounges.
  • Fly on the airline (or a partner) in Business or First class internationally. A few select transcontinental routes will also get you in.

Independent Lounges

The bar at the London Gatwick Priority pass lounge

Private lounges are run by independent companies. Some of them include Priority Pass, Escape and American Express. The size, quality and admission rules can all vary, although the American Express Centurion Lounges tend to be fairly consistent. The amenities tend to be better and often include full meals, but again, your experience may be different from airport to airport. I visited an incredible Priority Pass lounge with full waiter service (Everything was free, of course.) at London Gatwick, and then followed it up a few days later at Dublin with a PP lounge that had a few snacks, no air conditioning and non-functioning internet. These lounges are not run by the airlines, so don’t expect assistance with your flight.

  • American Express Centurion Lounges (CL) are highly consistent and provide a top-notch experience. They’re free for Platinum Card and Centurion Card holders and other American Express cardholders can buy passes. The lounges offer meals, drinks, good WiFi and comfortable seating. There are only seven of them now but, if you live in or travel to a city that has one, they’re worth the $450-550 annual fee, even without any other perks.
  • There are over 1,000 Priority Pass Lounges around the world, so they may be your best deal, particularly if you travel internationally. Priority Pass Lounge access generally comes with the high-end credit cards, but be careful of access rules. They’re different for every credit card. Some allow just you in, some allow guests, some make you pay, etc. Most of the high-end Chase cards offer the best rules. Amex Platinum and Citi Prestige are also good. These lounges are privately operated and most people in them have some sort of membership. All of them have food and internet access, but amenities after that might vary. In general, though, the PP lounges are superior to those that the airlines offer, sometimes dramatically. The cards with the best access rules generally have a $450 fee.
  • There are other lounges out there, generally accessible through your credit card. For example, Escape Lounges are in a few airports scattered around the country. They clearly have some growing pains in Minneapolis, where they didn’t serve meals due to a lack of staff and the “high speed WiFi” clocked in at a painful 4-5 Mpbs. You can buy day passes which, at $40-45 are a good value if you have a long layover.

Here’s the point I want to convey: Lounges are an above-average experience that can be a lifesaver (or flight-saver, as the case may be) when needed or simply a nice place to relax after the craziness of security. If you’re a frequent flyer, lounge access of some sort is worth your time and money.

 

*This list is somewhat basic and doesn’t involve some of the ins and outs of using a partner’s lounge. Generally, though, if you have a business class ticket, you can get into an alliance partner’s space, as well.

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Jun 21

Airlines: The Way We Were

Joe Nocera just published an interesting article on Bloomberg about how the airline business has gotten to where it is, describing it as “Airline Hell.”

The basic message is “you get what you pay for” and, while it’s not pleasant, he would likely agree with former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune, who told a reporter that it was easy for passengers to get big, comfortable seats and full meals: They could buy first class.

 

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Jun 20

Free Companion Ticket On Alaska Air Or Virgin America

I have a confession to make: This blog is influenced by geography. The fact that I live on the east coast means that the Big 3 carriers, as well as JetBlue, get the most mindshare. Which is too bad, because Alaska Airlines does not get the attention it deserves.* Flights are comfortable, service is great and, as an added bonus, the executives who run the airline are among the nicest in the industry. That’s right: Believe it or not, the people who work there actually care. We east coasters just aren’t used to that.

Free Alaska Air Companion Ticket

alaska air

We’re “borrowing” the image from Alaska’s website because, well, it’s pretty; Alaska has two cards, the Visa Signature and Platinum Plus

Every airline’s credit card has different benefits, but Alaska Air’s happens to be one of the most valuable from a dollar point of view: When you open the Visa Signature Card (not the Platinum Plus card, which gives you an annual $50 credit), you’ll get a free companion ticket (buy one, get one free) on Alaska Air or Virgin America, which Alaska recently acquired. All it will cost you is fees (starting at $22). There are no blackout dates, so the companion ticket won’t be hard to use. Given how much airline tickets cost these days, getting to bring somebody along for free on a flight is a huge benefit. And every year after the first, you’ll get another companion ticket for $99 (plus fees). Good luck finding a fare that cheap.

The card comes with many of the other perks that normally show up with an airline credit card: a free checked bag for up to seven people, triple points for spending on the airline and bonus points for signing up, depending on which card you get. To qualify for the bonus, you need to spend $1,000 in the first three months and the cards come with either a $50 or $75 annual fee.

Good card, free ticket, great airline. What else can you ask for?

Note: Credit Cards are generally available on the Credit Cards For Charity page. All commissions are donated to charity.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Despite the name, the airline flies everywhere, with a huge presence on the west coast and enough of a transcon presence that you can get from one end of the country to the other pretty easily. That convenience will only get better, now that they have acquired Virgin America. Take a look at the company’s route map.

 

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Jun 19

Going, Going, Gone? Using Your Miles For Auctions.

Airlines have a problem. It’s a good problem, but still a problem: Frequent flyer programs have become too popular. The carriers are making so much money selling miles to their partners* that  they can’t stop, leading to overwhelming demand from the customers who own the miles and have nothing to do with them. One thing that they’re doing, of course, is raising the price of awards, but consumers will eventually catch on to that ploy. So they’re also looking into selling you products with your miles, anything from champagne to toasters.

Airline Auctions

miles auction

One of the more interesting methods that they are using to burn large amounts of miles is to offer auctions. Many of us value experiences over things and are willing to pay for them, so customers with millions of miles can shell out a few for a unique offering.

Delta Airlines is hosts probably the best known mileage auctions, SkyMiles Experiences, but you’ll get more value at JetBlue. Why? Because JetBlue’s auction page is not as well known as Delta, and you won’t have as many people to compete against.

The problem with JetBlue’s auctions are simply that they don’t have that many of them, but when they do, they’re good. The current auction is for a couple of US Open Tickets, although it will end and be replaced soon by a Patrick Kane hockey puck.

But look at the bottom of this page at some of the previous auctions. A trip to Disneyland, which included three days of theme park passes, hotel and breakfast and other goodies went for 53,500 points. JetBlue points are worth 1.5 cents each toward the cost of a ticket when you redeem them, so the entire package is $800!

Or check out the Beverly Hills Fashion Fix, which went for 94,000 points, or about $1,400. It got you two nights at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, $1,500 to spend at a choice of stores, breakfast and airport transfers. So it costs $1,400 for your $1,500 spending money and the rest is free. Not a bad deal.

These deals don’t occur often, so keep you eye on your email. Other people’s losses are your gains!

 


Beginner’s Hint: Credit cards don’t get those miles for free. When they give you miles for your purchases, they’re using points that they have bought directly from the airlines. They’re buying billions at a time, so they get a  big discount. 

 

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Jun 16

A Couple Of Security Updates

It’s fair to say that I’m not a fan of the TSA. I’ve always considered much of what they do to be security theater*, which can create as many problems as it solves. It’s rare that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does anything to improve efficiency at the checkpoints, since it has no incentive to do so. Any politician who advocated changes to the airport that even appeared to be “loosening” security would be characterized by their opponent as soft on terrorism.

Thus, I was surprised to see the TSA announce a few trial balloons that might actually speed up lines. Of course, it involves giving the government more of your information than you actually want to, but that’s a personal issue.

The Myth of Fingerprints

tsa

A fingerprint. Or maybe a fish. Photo Credit: Creative Commons

This one scares me. I’m more than a little nervous about the idea of a new program that will allow you to replace your boarding pass and ID with a fingerprint. I’ve been fingerprinted on more than one occasion, so I have no skin in the game (pardon the pun), but privacy experts are right to be cautious. I’m also concerned that the fingerprint check could slow down the lines. The TSA is an agency of technology built by the lowest bidder, and I have no doubt that there will be many, many instances of the machine being unable to read your print or, even worse, matching it falsely to somebody else’s. Either way, a misread would no doubt lead to a full body probe. But let’s be entirely fair: Privacy experts are worried that having your prints on file will make you much easier to find if you commit a crime, but there’s probably a better way to manage that situation: Don’t commit crimes.**

3-D Security

I have a much more favorable view of a test that the TSA is running in conjunction with American Airlines in Phoenix. The agency is implementing 3-D CT technology that could eventually allow you to keep your liquids and laptops in your bag. Not only would this procedure speed up the line but it would also mean fewer TSOs yelling in my ear, “ALL LIQUIDS AND GELS NEED TO BE OUT OF YOUR BAG AND IN A BIN!” Again, I don’t understand what the threat of liquids and laptops was to begin with. The current technology can’t tell if your laptop is anything but a laptop, while the liquids ban leaves a lot of questions unanswered (e.g., If six ounces of liquid is a threat, then why am I able to carry two three-ounce containers on the plane?). But for now, I’ll just be happy that the lines might move a tad bit faster.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: The term “security theater” was coined by privacy expert Bruce Schneier, and refers to the concept of security that allows people to feel safer but, in fact, has little practical purpose. I consider checking identification to be one of those items, by the way. If the screeners are doing their jobs, it shouldn’t matter who is getting on the plane. We should know who passengers are before they get to the airport.

**And again, we get into the dilemma of what happens if you are accidentally linked to a crime that you didn’t commit. That is a perfectly valid concern, and one of my biggest with the program. But when a privacy expert says that “you’ll want to keep your nose clean for the rest of you life,” as he did in the linked article, that may be a good thing to consider regardless of whether anyone has your fingerprints.

 

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Jun 13

JetBlue (Possibly) Improves Boarding (Slightly)

I’ve never really understood the concept of a “premium boarding lane.” Yup, it’s just what it sounds like: There is a special rope line for people that the airline wants to make feel special. It costs them nothing and allows the chosen passengers to get on the plane without mingling with the commoners. Frankly, I don’t care where I board, as long as I can find an overhead spot for luggage.

JetBlue Testing Premium Boarding

jetblue

You could be here first. But why would you want to be? Photo credit: Creative Commons

JetBlue is running a test out of Boston now that will give Mosaic and Mint* customers access to a special line. They already get to board first, but now they get to do it in their own special queue! Swell, just another way to slow down boarding. The one benefit I see, other than the psychic one, of course, is that they will board you immediately if you are there. In other words, if you missed the first few boarding groups and need to get on quickly to reserve your overhead space, you’ll now have a reserved spot to do so.

Whatever. They’re still missing the one true benefit that Mosaic should provide, which is free upgrades to its extra legroom product.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: JetBlue has a true first-class product on several routes, most of them transcon. They call it Mint and, although I’ve never tried it, it looks pretty good. Mosaic is JetBlue’s elite program.

 

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Jun 11

Quick Hilton Canada Bonus (Stay Required)

Oh, Canada…

hilton honors

If you’ve signed up for the Points and Miles option at Hilton*, you’re in luck (and if you haven’t, you can change whenever you like). Register here and stay at a participating property in Canada, and you’ll receive an additional 1,500 points per night. It’s not a huge number and many properties aren’t participating, but it’s better than nothing. It’s a poorly-worded promotion, but it does appear that the only supplement to the traditional bonus is the 1,500 points, not additional airline miles (above and beyond what you already earn).

 


*Beginner’s Hint: When you earn with Hilton, you have a choice of redemption schemes. You generally get ten points per dollar spent, but you can choose either additional bonus points or miles from your choice of airlines. The bonus points are usually the better value.

 

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Jun 09

And, In Other News…

I’ll be away for a week, so posts will be fewer and further between.

Two things to think about:

Several weeks ago, Kenny G gave an unannounced performance on a Delta flight. No word on whether the passengers received compensation.

A few days ago, a United employee and a passenger got into an altercation over the passenger’s violin which, apparently, was worth big bucks. The Chicago police were not called and the instrument is believed to have left the airplane unbruised.

I know that there has been a lot of media over the past few months about altercations on airplanes. A lot of people have questioned me on whether it’s still safe even to bring your kids aboard a flight. The good news is, I believe that it is, but be aware that there’s a chance that they will be exposed to sax and violins.

 

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Jun 08

JetBlue Raises The Bar On Vacations Offers

I rarely advise people to buy travel packages. Usually, you can do better just by booking the air and hotel separately. Occasionally, though, a promotion makes it worthwhile.

Double Points on JetBlue Vacations

jetblue vacations

12 points per dollar is the equivalent of an 18% rebate.

I like JetBlue a lot, but I wonder who is responsible for their frequent flyer financials, since they always seem to be giving something away. For example, their credit card gives you six points per dollar spent on JetBlue which, with other bonuses, gets you up to 25% back in reward value. And yet they keep adding.

JetBlue just announced that it is doubling points for its vacation packages through September 5. That means that, instead of getting six points per dollar spent, you’ll get 12*, the equivalent of an 18% rebate when you go to redeem. Paying with a JetBlue credit card? Good, you’ll get another 4-6 points per dollar spent, as well as some cash, depending on the card you use, not to mention a statement credit.

JetBlue Raises The Bar On Vacations Offers

Limited Time Only!

What’s even better than booking air + hotel (+ more!) together for one low price? Earning tons of TrueBlue points on top of it!

  • 12 TrueBlue points per eligible $1 spent. When you’re a TrueBlue member and book a JetBlue Vacations package. Not a member? Sign up here.
  • 15 TrueBlue points per eligible $1 spent. When you book a JetBlue Vacations package with the JetBlue Card.
  • 16 TrueBlue points per eligible $1 spent + a $50 statement credit. When you book a JetBlue Vacations package with the JetBlue Rewards Card.
  • 18 TrueBlue points per eligible $1 spent + a $100 statement credit. When you book a JetBlue Vacations package with the JetBlue Plus Card.

 

While you won’t get additional on-line or Mosaic credit, you’ll make up for that in bonus points. And it’s worth noting that Labor Day falls on September 4 this year, putting that holiday weekend within the promotion period.

You can read all the details of the promotion here.

 


Beginner’s Hint: A JetBlue point can be valued at about 1.5 cents. When redeeming points on the airline, your cost is based on the underlying value of the ticket and that’s the price where the points shake out. In other words, a $150 ticket would cost you about 10,000 points (10,000*.015=$150).

 

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Jun 07

Marriott Releases “Hidden” Promotion

Every quarter,* the major hotel companies launch major promotions (which are more comprehensive than the minor ones interspersed throughout the period). Marriott has launched theirs. Sort of.

Marriott MegaBonus

megabonus

Your definition of “infinite” may be different from theirs

Marriott’s second quarter promotion was actually released over a month ago but, due to a technical error, many people didn’t get it. You had to know to email the company and asked to be enrolled. Fortunately, they’ve now released the promo into the wild.

The bad news is that this MegaBonus is not so mega. Starting May 27 (I know.) and lasting through September 4, you’ll get 2,000 points for every stay, beginning with your second stay. That description contains two big negatives: First, you’ll get the points per stay, rather than per night. A stay is one check-in and one check-out, no matter how many nights you stayed. Most offers will base your bonus points on the actual number of nights that you stayed. Furthermore, you don’t even get the bonus on your first stay. You actually have to wait until the second. This promotion won’t be getting too many customers to switch.

The “hook” is not much of one. You’ll earn an additional 2,000 points for each brand (Marriott, Renaissance, Courtyard, etc.) you stay with, as well. That bonus, of course, also starts with the second brand.

Marriott, maybe you should have just kept this one hidden. You’re just embarrassing yourselves.

 

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Some of them have moved to every four months, but you’re still getting the same amount of promotion time, regardless of what else you might read. Instead of getting four 3-month promos, you’re now getting three 4-month promos.

 

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