Faster Virgin Wi-Fi + Hertz status for SkyMiles + Kimpton purchase + Free Internet at Starwood

VirginAmericaWiFiservice

Virgin America Wi-Fi service (Photo: Virgin America)

 AIRLINES

Virgin speeds up in-flight Wi-Fi. Flyers on Virgin America who use in-flight Wi-Fi should notice an improvement in download speeds now that the airline has completed the deployment of Gogo’s ATG-4 Wi-Fi service on all 53 of its Airbus A320s. With speeds topping out at 9.8 Mbps, the ATG-4 service is more than three times faster than the first generation of in-flight Internet. To promote the enhancement, Virgin and Gogo are offering a chance to win roundtrip flights, a new iPad or free Wi-Fi service for a year to persons who “share their best ‘office in the sky’ moment on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #OfficeInTheSky.” Readers, what’s your experience with in-flight Wi-Fi? Too slow? Too expensive? Or just right? Post comments below.

Gogo Wi-Fi Tip: Did you know that you can buy Gogo day passes online before your flight for just $16 vs the $35+ fee you’ll pay for connecting on the plane? This saves the most money for longer transcon flights. Get your passes ahead of time here: Gogo $16 day pass

SkyMiles offers Hertz status. Delta has bolstered its partnership with Hertz by offering SkyMiles Medallion members elite status in the car rental company’s Gold Plus Rewards program, which will give them expedited service and car upgrade eligibility. Gold Medallions can join Hertz’s Five Star Program, while Platinums and Diamonds are eligible for the Gold Plus Rewards President’s Circle. Delta set up a web page with a link to the registration process for Hertz status enrollment. Medallions can also scan Hertz’s summary of benefits for the Gold Plus Rewards status levels.

Alaska debuts new in-flight perks. Streaming in-flight entertainment to personal electronic devices is just one of the perks Alaska Airlines is rolling out as part of its new “Alaska Beyond” in-flight improvements. The company said entertainment streaming — currently available on 50 of its 737s, and coming on the rest by April — will be free through January 31; after that, movies and TV shows start at $1.99. The improvements also include new Recaro leather seats with power outlets and USB ports at every seat (currently on 95 percent of its aircraft) and new in-flight service that offers “locally-sourced, artisan food and beverage from iconic Northwest brands.” Later in 2015, Alaska is due to begin installing new overhead bins that provide 48 percent more storage space.

Routes: Southwest, JetBlue, AA. Southwest will add new service next year on several routes: On June 7, it will begin twice-daily Los Angeles-Portland, Ore. flights as well as new daily service between LAX-Indianapolis, Oakland-Nashville and Oakland-New Orleans. On June 28, it will add twice-daily Indianapolis-Boston flights and daily service between Austin-St. Louis and Austin-Orange County, Calif. … JetBlue last week inaugurated three new Florida routes from Washington Reagan National, including twice-daily service to Jacksonville and daily flights to Ft. Myers and West Palm Beach … American Airlines has filed for government approval to start code-sharing with Mexican carrier Interjet, with plans to put the AA code onto Interjet flights from Mexico City to Huatulco, Villahermosa, Merida, Tuxla Gutierrez and Oaxaca.

China connections: United, Virgin. United Airlines plans to boost seasonal capacity from San Francisco to China in 2015. The carrier said that from May 6 to October 24, it will double its SFO-Shanghai service to two flights a day, and from June 4 to September 1 it will increase SFO-Chengdu frequencies from three a week to daily. Meanwhile, Virgin America said that starting in 2015, it will offer members of its Elevate program reciprocal benefits with China Eastern, so they can earn and burn miles on the Chinese carrier’s flights. Virgin will also add the Shanghai-based airline’s code to a number of its U.S. routes.

Why not let holiday spending help you snag big credit card mileage bonusesCheck out our recommendations here and get your 40,000 miles! 

AIRPORTS

qantasloungelax

Qantas First lounge at LAX (Photo: Qantas)

New Qantas First lounge at LAX. Qantas has cut the ribbon on a new Qantas First lounge at Los Angeles International Airport that’s more than three times the size of its predecessor. The new Qantas First facility — open to first class customers, Qantas Platinum and Platinum One frequent flyers, and Oneworld Emerald and international first class flyers — can seat more than 200 guests. It has a 74-seat restaurant with cuisine from Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry, as well as enhanced services like faster Wi-Fi, wireless printing, cable TV, a pair of private work suites and seven shower suites. Meanwhile, Qantas last week increased service on it s LAX-Melbourne route from seven flights a week to 10.

HOTELS

Guest room at Kimpton's Hotel Monaco Philadelphia (Photo: Kimpton)

Guest room at Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Philadelphia (Photo: Kimpton)

InterContinental to acquire Kimpton Hotels. The popular and fast-growing boutique chain Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, with 62 U.S. properties and 16 more in the works, is being acquired by InterContinental Hotels Group for $430 million. Noting that the boutique hotel business is “the fastest growing segment in the industry,” IHG said that Kimpton, with its distinctive designs and decors, will be “highly complementary with IHG’s Hotel Indigo and EVEN Hotels brands.” The purchaser said it would speed up the growth of Kimpton in the U.S. and introduce the brand in foreign destinations, citing a “significant opportunity” for expansion in Europe and Asia. There will be no immediate impact on customers; Kimpton told members of its Karma Rewards plan in an email that its program and the IHG Rewards Club “will continue to run as separate loyalty programs” for the time being.

Starwood expands free Wi-Fi. On the heels of a similar announcement by Marriott two months ago, Starwood Hotels & Resorts said that effective February 2, 2015, members of its Starwood Preferred Guest program who book their rooms directly through a Starwood digital channel including websites and mobile apps will get free standard in-room Wi-Fi access at all the company’s brands. Starwood already offers free Internet at its Aloft, Element, and Four Points by Sheraton brands in North America, and to SPG Platinum members. Starwood’s other brands include St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W, Westin, Le Meridien and Sheraton.

Hilton digital check-in goes live. Hilton Worldwide announced last week that guests who use its Hilton HHonors app can now check in digitally at more than 4,100 of its properties worldwide in 11 brands, using their own smartphones, tablets or desktops. They can also use the app to select a specific room for their stay. Next year, Hilton said, it will expand the app’s functionality so guests can unlock their room doors with their smartphones, starting with its Conrad, Hilton, Waldorf Astoria and Canopy by Hilton brands. Have you tried digital check-in with any hotels yet? Any problems?

In Case You Missed It…

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iPhones on United + Delta backtrack + Holiday first class sale + Uber issues + New hotel for NYC

United's going big with the new iPhone 6 Plus. (Photo: United)

United’s going big with the new iPhone 6 Plus. (Photo: United)

AIRLINES

UA flight attendants get iPhones. Passenger purchases on United flights will soon be processed through an iPhone 6 Plus. The airline said it plans to give the big new iPhones to 23,000 flight attendants in the second quarter of 2015, and they’ll be able to handle most in-flight retail transactions. In the months to come, “United plans to develop a number of customer-focused tools for the device,” a spokesman said.

AmEx-Delta: No point transfer cap after all. American Express and Delta said they have agreed to “a multi-year extension” of their 18-year-old co-branded credit card partnership. And as part of that deal, the companies announced that they have backed off an earlier plan to cap American Express Rewards point transfers into SkyMiles at 250,000 a year. Also, “Platinum Card members from American Express and Delta Reserve Card members can continue to enjoy access to the Delta Sky Club,” the companies said. It was only a couple of months ago that the limit on point transfers, which was supposed to take effect January 1, was announced — and neither AmEx nor Delta offered any hints as to why it is now being dropped. Readers — care to speculate on the reason? Was this a big deal for you or not?

First class holiday sale from Virgin. Act fast (booking deadline is midnight Sunday, December 14) and use promo code MERRY50 and you can save 50 percent off Virgin America’s first class and Main Cabin Select fares for travel December 19-January 2.

Why not let holiday spending help you snag big credit card mileage bonuses? Check out our recommendations here and get your 40,000 miles! 

Here's a rendering of American's new look at the airport

Here’s a rendering of American’s new look at the airport

AA promises big customer improvements. American Airlines marked the one-year anniversary of its merger with US Airways last week by announcing it will spend $2 billion on passenger-oriented improvements in the months ahead. Besides fleet renewal — some 112 new aircraft will be delivered next year, AA said — improvements will bring new seats (including lie-flat, direct aisle access first and business class seats “on nearly every American Airlines widebody jet”); power ports in every row on narrow-bodies and at every seat on newly delivered 777-300ERs and 787s (AA’s first Dreamliner is due in the next few months); new Bose headsets in premium cabins of international and transcon flights; and Wi-Fi on international routes. Airport facilities and Admirals Clubs will also get an overhaul. Another part of the plan: American will install Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi over the next year on 250 of its two-class regional jets. Which passenger enhancement would you most like to see on American? Post comments below.

Cleveland Shuffle: Flights cut, added. United’s big drawdown of service at Cleveland Hopkins isn’t finished yet. The carrier’s latest cutbacks will include the end of Cleveland-Dallas/Ft. Worth service on March 5, followed by termination of flights to Ft. Myers, Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa on April 7. Meanwhile, JetBlue said it will add Cleveland as the 88th destination on its route map starting April 30, when it launches two flights a day to Boston. And low-cost Frontier Airlines plans to pull its service from Cleveland to LaGuardia, Washington Dulles and Chicago O’Hare in the weeks ahead.

International routes: China Southern, Delta, EVA. December 16 is the launch date for China Southern’s new service from San Francisco to Guangzhou, operating via a stop in Wuhan three times a week with a 787 … Delta kicks off new daily service December 20 between its Salt Lake City hub and Mexico City … Taiwan’s EVA Airways plans to begin new service between Taipei and Houston Bush Intercontinental in June 2015, flying three times a week with a 777-300ER.

Lufthansa’s new course. What’s going on at Lufthansa? Pilots have staged disruptive walkouts in recent weeks as the airline moves forward with a plan to compete against low-cost carriers by expanding its budget Eurowings subsidiary on both short and long-haul routes while still maintaining a full-service operation at the parent airline. Lufthansa chief Carsten Spohr explained the strategy in a New York Times interview last week. Have your plans been disrupted by LH pilot strikes? How did you handle it?

Recent: Better hotel deals on these 5 hotel-only sites? 

AIRPORTS

Delta coddles arrivals at Heathrow. Delta premium passengers flying into London Heathrow can now take advantage of a new arrivals lounge the carrier has opened in Terminal 3. Available at no charge to BusinessElite passengers as well as SkyMiles Diamonds and Platinums, the facility has 11 private showers, clothes pressing and shoeshine services, breakfast service, Wi-Fi and a business center. It’s open from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily.

CARS

Uber’s legal ups and downs. It’s a real roller-coaster ride for the lawyers at ride-sharing app Uber these days. On the upside, Uber (and competitor Lyft) just won approval from the Dallas City Council to operate legally in that city effective April 30. On the downside, district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles last week filed suit against Uber alleging violations of various consumer protection statutes (although both cities recently settled a similar case against Lyft). But that’s not Uber’s only difficulty: Web site The Daily Beast last week published a summary of the legal problems facing the company in a number of venues. And then there’s this: Who’s Driving You?

Have you entered the contest to win a $200 Amex gift card plus one year of National Executive status? All you have to do is offer one great travel tip! 

HOTELS

A big new Virgin hotel for NYC...but why not SF? (Photo: Virgin Hotels)

A big new Virgin hotel for NYC…but why not SF? (Photo: Virgin Hotels)

Virgin America adds sister hotel firm to Elevate. The newest participant in Virgin America’s Elevate loyalty program is its new sister company Virgin Hotels. Its first property is due to open in Chicago in mid-January; Elevate members will get 1,000 points per stay (doubled from January 15-March 31), and Gold members will receive free breakfasts and room upgrades. A Nashville property is expected to open in 2016, followed by a New York City hotel in 2017. The developer of the Manhattan property, at Broadway and 29th Street, last week revealed some details about the 38-story, 475-room hotel, including a rooftop bar, outdoor pool and spa. (We wish they’d build a new one in in San Francisco!)

In Case You Missed It…

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Tip: Stormy weather slowing you down? Here’s why…

(Photo: SlightlyNorth / Flickr)

Flight delays at San Francisco International Airport regularly exceed two hours when it’s rainy, windy or foggy, while airports in San Jose and Oakland report few if any delays. As I write this, the FAA is reporting delays averaging 3 hours 40 minutes at SFO.

Here’s why:

As most frequent travelers know, delays mount at SFO almost every time a storm blows in off the Pacific. Just look at these sad numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics: SFO ranked 27th out of 29 major airports in on-time arrivals in the first 10 months of 2014. It ranked 18th out of 29 in on-time departures (an improvement over 2013 when it ranked 23rd).

Why does SFO seem to suffer so many more weather-related delays than other airports in the Bay Area?

Of course, the answer is endlessly complicated, but for the most part, the main reason is capacity. SFO’s runways are too close together to allow simultaneous operations during wet weather. Due to environmental concerns, there are no current plans to further separate the runways, which would require expansion into the Bay.

SFO Plan West

The West Plan at SFO allows up to 60 aircraft arrivals per hour (Illustration provided by SFO. Yes, we know about the “SJO” mistake on this image.)

SFO runways are designed to handle up to 60 aircraft arrivals per hour in dry weather. That’s because the airport operates two sets of parallel runways– one set for takeoffs, the other for landings. These parallel runways intersect at their midpoint forming a giant “X.” (See figureDuring dry weather, two streams of planes can land and take off from these parallel runways.

The problem is that planes are only allowed to take off and land simultaneously on these parallel runways during clear, dry weather.

When storms blow in, air traffic control changes up the formation in which planes land, from the dry weather “West Plan” (with aircraft arriving on runways 28L or 28R and departing on runways 01L or 01R– see above) to the stormy weather “Southeast” plan (when aircraft arrive on 19L & 19R and depart on 10L & 10R– see below).

When air traffic controllers switch to the Southeast plan, simultaneous operations on parallel runways is forbidden, which cuts the airport’s arrivals capacity in half– from 60 down to 30 or 38 per hour, depending on the severity of conditions. All planes must land in single file, which causes delays when there are 60 planes scheduled to land, but air traffic control only allows 35. And when planes arrive late, it’s likely that they will also depart late.

Related: Is this the best flight of the year? 

During rainy weather, SFO switches to the Southeast plan, which slows down operations

During rainy weather, SFO switches to the Southeast plan, which slows down operations (Illustration provided by SFO. Yes, we know about the “SJO” mistake on this image )

If you live in San Francisco, you can tell when planes switch to the Southeast Plan because arriving aircraft whistle and moan as they descend through the clouds over the city as they approach SFO.

What can you do to avoid this? Fly early during storm season. Before 9 a.m., arrival volume at SFO is below 30 per hour. But after 9 a.m., just over 30 aircraft are scheduled to land. The arrivals rate peaks between 12 noon and 2 pm when 40+ aircraft per hour are scheduled to land at SFO. The situation usually does not improve until later in the afternoon when arrival volume falls below 30 per hour.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

The main reason that airports in Oakland and San Jose don’t face such on-time performance issues– even when it’s raining–  is that their volume is low. They rarely exceed their capacity for arrivals in good or bad weather. (For example, neither airport is included in the BTS’s top 29 airports cited above.)

Late last year, SFO announced that new landing procedures could help reduce delays– but those new procedures only apply during periods of low ceilings (fog) but not rain.

Would you consider switching your flying to Oakland or San Jose due to delays at SFO? Why or why not? Please leave your comments below. 

– Chris McGinnis

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Is this the best flight of the year?

It's not every day you board a 747, destination: North Pole.

It’s not every day you board a 747, destination: North Pole.

By Nancy Branka

By the time December rolls around each year, the last thing I want to do is to get on a plane. I am, by now, a jaded, tired business traveler. I am just plain done with TSA agents, done with vying for position in boarding groups, done with heaving my carry-on over my head.

But on Saturday I had the privilege of experiencing the joy of air travel again, on what was pretty much the best flight ever. Of course, this was no standard trip. It was the “Fantasy Flight,” staged by 120 United Airlines San Francisco-based employees for children recovering from serious illnesses.

The flight was to embark from SFO’s Gate 82, where the 54 families would board a 747, fly for approximately one hour, then land at the North Pole—AKA Gate 86. From check-in at a specially decorated ticket counter to arrival where kids, most dressed in their Christmas finest, received gifts and sat on Santa’s lap, smiles abounded. (OK, maybe they were punctuated with the occasional crying toddler sibling.) I eavesdropped on a conversation with one family, parents and two children, eager to board the plane because the kids had never flown before. What a way to spend a Saturday.

Have you ever seen an airport gate look like this?

Have you ever seen an airport gate look like this?

Normally bland gate areas were transformed to holiday wonderlands thanks to myriad blow-up decorations—life-sized Christmas trees, clusters of snowmen, Santa in a hot air balloon. A Lionel train ran the length of the departure gate. Meanwhile, choirs sang Christmas carols, elves offered refreshments, fairies painted children’s faces and Mike Hanna, United’s SFO station manager, introduced a cadre of special guests, including former 49er football players and 13 Olympians.

The SFO-based United employees have staged this event for 20 years running, and similar events are held at other United hubs. The effort requires months of fundraising to reach the $20,000 required to put on such an event: Employees generated $3,000 from a silent auction and food sales, United donated the use of the plane, and Chevron provided the fuel. From what I could hear, many of the employees—all of whom donated their time–had participated in the event before and looked forward to it each year.

Meanwhile, the frequent traveler in me wondered about the logistics of an unscheduled “fantasy flight.” As I pondered these questions, a series of conversations shed light on my musings. Here’s what I learned.

It's hard not to smile when you share beautiful views of San Francisco, with candy canes and gingerbread men.

It’s hard not to smile when you share beautiful views of San Francisco, with candy canes and gingerbread men.

How do pilots develop a flight plan for a flight to nowhere?

I buttonholed Captain Jim Abell, United assistant chief pilot, NW region, who told me the main thing was for the flight to stay out of the way of traffic at the busy airport, maintaining close communication with TRACON. He mentioned that this 747 would “take off like a rocket,” because we would be unusually light—just a sip of fuel, no cargo and a load of lightweight passengers. This was basically a sightseeing flight, he said, so we’d maintain a cruising altitude of just 3,000 feet, making views a priority: taking a track across the bay, over Alcatraz, then a left turn and through the Golden Gate, flying down the coast as far as Monterey before turning back. (I loved the idea of sightseeing on a 747.)

Santa and Mrs. Claus hung out on the upper deck before making their dramatic appearance.

Santa and Mrs. Claus hung out on the upper deck before making their dramatic appearance.

How would the North Pole narrative deliver the magic for both skeptics and believers?

About an hour in, just when we flew over Pebble Beach, flight attendants announced that bad weather had delayed our landing at the North Pole. Instead, Santa and Mrs. Claus were landing their sleigh on top of the plane. And what do you know? The rosy-cheeked pair emerged down the stairs from the upper deck, to the delight of the kids. Ingenious. (I was amused earlier in the flight when I visited the upper deck and found it to be a rather surreal Green Room for the cast of characters and their children. In fact, the pilots’ grandchildren were on the flight and scrambled onto their laps in the cockpit after we landed.)

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!
SFPD Airport Bureau bomb-sniffing dogs like Big and his handler, Sgt. Michael Andraychak, were just along for the fun of it.

SFPD Airport Bureau bomb-sniffing dogs like Big and his handler, Sgt. Michael Andraychak, were just along for the fun of it.

How do you keep a planeload of sick kids safe and still have fun?

Five paramedics from the South San Francisco fire department were on board the flight with their gear in case of medical emergency, donating their time. They told me later that they had a blast, and, happily, their services were not needed. In addition, the traditional safety demonstration by flight attendants had been rewritten to the cadence of “The Night Before Christmas.” I chuckled at, “In the unlikely event of a dip in the bay, put on your life vest and you’ll be OK.” Some other guests helped me appreciate what a special flight this was.

Two San Francisco police officers and their bomb-sniffing dogs were on board, small packs of children petting the dogs in the galleys. I have to say, there’s something relaxing and wonderful about seeing Black Labs roam the aisles of a 747.

Even the pilots were into it!

I was actually sad to have this flight end. Certainly, the day brought a special joy to the very deserving families for whom it was arranged. I was just along for the ride. But maybe it was the ultimate Christmas miracle for me, too, to embrace the fact that even airlines have big hearts this time of year. Air travel really is a wonder.

This time of year do you get travel burnout, or do you enjoy the ride? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! 

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What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

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Virgin food award + Delta beer + New flights to Europe + 3 Miami hotels + First A350

VirginAmericasobanoodles

Virgin America soba noodles serving (Photo: Virgin America)

AIRLINES

Virgin takes top honors in food study. Charles Platkin, a nutritionist also known as the Diet Detective, has come out with his annual ratings of airline food in terms of its nutritional quality, and Virgin America has captured the top spot. “It’s great that Virgin America also provides ALL nutritional information, NOT just calories, and it’s on their website, too.  Virgin America also has on-demand eating – you simply select the food you want, when you want it right at your seat,” he wrote.  Platkin rated Delta’s in-flight food as most improved this year, thanks to a new partnership with healthy food company Luvo. Do you care about the nutritional value of in-flight food?  What’s the best meal you’ve had this year? Please leave your comments below. 

Delta broadens beer selections. The craze for regional craft beers is getting a boost from Delta, which said it is introducing seven varieties to the beverage carts on a number of its most popular business travel routes. The providers of the new brews range from New York’s Brooklyn Brewery to San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing.

Qatar Airways A350 (PHOTO: Qatar Airways)

Qatar Airways A350 (Photo: Qatar Airways)

Qatar debuts world’s newest airliner. Qatar Airways, the global launch customer for the new Airbus A350 XWB, said it will take delivery of the first aircraft on December 13, and plans to put it into commercial service between Doha and Frankfurt in January. Qatar, a member of the Oneworld global alliance, has expressed its confidence in the new Airbus model by ordering 80 of them. The A350 is a wide-body, mid-sized aircraft designed as Airbus’ answer to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, to be used on medium to long-haul international routes. Like the Boeing plane, the A350 relies on composite materials and aluminum alloys to reduce its weight and increase fuel efficiency. The XWB stands for extra-wide body — its cabin is a few inches wider than the 787’s. TravelSkills got an advance look at the A350 a few months ago; here’s our report.

Oneworld expands benefits. Frequent flyers who have achieved Sapphire status in the Oneworld alliance (American, British Airways, et al.) are getting an additional baggage benefit. In economy class on member airlines using a weight-based system, they’ll get an extra 15 kg. over the usual economy class allowance; and on those using a piece system, they’ll get a second checked bag (when the allowance is one) of up to 23 kg. Allowances were also increased for first and business class customers. In addition, Sapphire and Emerald-level elites will get priority baggage delivery.

International routes: Etihad, United, Lufthansa, Azul. Etihad Airways last week kicked off new non-stop service between Abu Dhabi and Dallas/Ft. Worth, using a three-class 777-200LR; its initial three flights a week will increase to daily next April … United on Sunday (December 7) begins daily non-stops between Houston Bush Intercontinental and Santiago, Chile, with a 767-300 … Lufthansa last week resumed seasonal Miami-Munich service five times a week, with a three-class A330-300 … Brazilian carrier Azul — run by JetBlue founder David Neeleman — has started its first service to the U.S. with a daily Ft. Lauderdale-Sao Paulo flight; it will add Orlando-Sao Paulo on December 15.

Delta sets seasonal Europe service. Delta last week unveiled plans for its 2015 seasonal transatlantic schedule additions. March 29 is the launch date for New York JFK-Nice service, using a 767-400 and operating five times a week, increasing to daily on May 2. Also on May 2, Delta will kick off daily JFK-Shannon, Ireland non-stops with a 757-200. On June 2, the airline will begin daily JFK-Prague non-stops, using a 767-300, and daily Atlanta-Barcelona service with an A330-300.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!
TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis is in Washington DC this week-- flew nonstop SFO-Washington National on Virgin America

TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis is in Washington DC this week– flew nonstop SFO-Washington National on Virgin America

AIRPORTS

Clear Card in Vegas. CLEAR, the provider of biometric identity-based expedited access to airport security lanes, has finally added Las Vegas McCarran as its 10th location. The $179-a-year service is already available at SFO, SJC, DFW, DEN, IAH, HOU, SAT, MCO and HPN. Miami International MIA is next on the list for Clear although there is no firm start date. Do you use Clear? Is is still worth $179 per year? Leave comments below. 

Washington D.C.’s airports dilemma. The nation’s capital has expected Dulles International Airport to handle the region’s long-term traffic growth, but a report by the Washington Post notes that growth at IAD has stalled as more passengers and airlines are flocking to close-in Reagan National Airport. Part of the blame goes to Congress, which has opened up DCA to more long-haul flights, but part of it is due to Dulles’ remote location.

CARS

Uber, Lyft OKd in Denver. Ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber have both won approval from Denver International Airport officials to pick up and drop off passengers at the passenger terminals. Have you used Uber or Lyft for airport transportation? How would you describe the difference between the two?

HOTELS

marriott-edition-hotel

Miami Beach Edition Room (Photo: Marriott)

South Florida gets three new properties. The newest product of Marriott’s partnership with hotelier Ian Schrager has opened its doors — the Miami Beach EDITION. The 298-room EDITION — a remaking of the old Seville Hotel at 2901 Collins Avenue — was designed as an “urban resort” to appeal to business travelers who want to work and play in Miami Beach … Down the road at 4041 Collins Avenue, Thompson Hotels has cut the ribbon on the 380-room Thompson Miami Beach in an historic Art Deco building; it has 47,000 square feet of meeting space and a gourmet restaurant called Seagrape from local celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein … And in Palm Beach, Kimpton Hotels has added a new oceanfront property, taking over the former Omphoy Ocean Resort and rebranding it last week as the Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa after making a number of enhancements.

JW Marriott Houston Downtown room (PHOTO: Marriott)

JW Marriott Houston Downtown room (Photo: Marriott)

Openings: Houston, Brussels, Johannesburg. The century-old Samuel F. Carter building at 806 Main Street in downtown Houston has been remade into the newly opened, 328-room JW Marriott Houston Downtown. Each room has a 55-inch TV, Nespresso machine, touch-screen room controls, and an iPad for ordering hotel services … A landmark building in the heart of Brussels, close to the Grand Place and the Square Brussels Meeting Center, has been transformed into the new Hilton Brussels Grand Place, with 123 rooms and suites … The renowned Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa, has undergone an 18-month, $56 million renovation and reopened as The Four Seasons Hotel-The Westcliff Johannesburg. All 117 rooms were renovated, and the hotel has new contemporary restaurants, lounges and a spa …In Australia, luxury operator Langham Hotels has finished a $25 million renovation of The Langham Sydney (formerly the Observatory Hotel).

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Uber out in Vegas + United changes routes + Delta in Philly + Virgin’s next moves? + New India visa

alaska

Alaska Airlines is sticking to a miles-based program unlike most other carriers (Photo: Jim Glab)

AIRLINES

Alaska boosts mileage bonuses. Alaska Airlines has an early Christmas present for its Mileage Plan members: bigger earning bonuses for certain fare classes and for MVP Gold 75K elites starting January 1. The bonus for first class fares jumps from 50 to 75 percent, and for refundable coach (Y) fares from 25 to 50 percent. Some nonrefundable fare classes will start offering 50 percent (S class) or 25 percent (M and B) bonuses. And MVP Gold 75K elites will see their bonus rise from 100 to 125 percent. An Alaska official said airlines that have moved to revenue-based loyalty programs “have the potential of diluting the rewards earned for the average passenger,” and said Alaska will stick with a generous mileage-based plan. (Take that, Delta!)

United draws heat for Sacramento suspension. United Airlines will suspend its non-stop service between Sacramento and Washington Dulles for the winter season (January 6-April 6), drawing criticism from local politicians and members of Congress, who will have to make the trip via a connection during that period. United said the suspension is due to weak seasonal demand. California has 53 members of the house of representatives and two senators.

JetBlue debuts free Wi-Fi content. JetBlue last week went live with its new “Fly-Fi Hub,” a collection of free content that passengers can view on their personal devices aboard aircraft equipped with JetBlue’s Fly-Fi service. Content available both online and off-line includes Fox TV shows; e-book excerpts from 20 HarperCollins best-sellers; National Geographic programs; and educational videos including courses from Wharton Business School. Users also will have the option to buy Time Inc. magazines. Coming early next year is PBS programming for kids, as well as full access to the Wall Street Journal.

Popular! 6 most annoying actions of infrequent flyers

virgin-route-map

Virgin America routes as of November 2014 (Source: Virgin America)

Virgin America: Ready for takeoff? With its initial public offering successfully completed, its balance sheet in the black and fuel prices remaining low, Virgin America appears to be poised for a new period of growth and expansion, according to a newly released analysis by the CAPA Centre for Aviation. With new funds and 10 new aircraft joining its fleet in the next two years, it is expected to achieve capacity growth of 10-15 percent in 2015, and to focus on attracting an increasing number of higher-yielding business travelers. There’s room to grow, since Virgin only serves 15 of the top 50 U.S. markets, the report notes. Where would you like to see Virgin America fly next? On our wish list: Atlanta, New Orleans, Phoenix. What about you? Please leave your comments below. 

Route news: United, Alaska, Delta. United plans to add a pair of new seasonal routes to Europe on June 4 and double its service on another: Daily Newark-Venice service operates through September 23 with a 767-400ER; daily Chicago-Dublin service through August 17 with a 757-200; and a second daily Washington Dulles-Paris CDG flight through August 17 with a 757-200 … This week, United adds two Latin American routes: Denver-Panama City starting December 3, and Houston-Santiago December 7 … On July 1, Alaska Airlines will add three routes operated by partner SkyWest’s Embraer 175s: Seattle-Milwaukee, Seattle-Oklahoma City and Portland-St. Louis, each with one daily flight … Delta plans to drop even more routes from Memphis on January 5, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Dallas/Ft. Worth; in April, it will end MEM-Washington Reagan National service.

MileagePlus tests new shopping app. United recently revealed plans to let MileagePlus members use miles to pay for meals and drinks via iPads at Newark’s Terminal C once renovations are finished, and now it is expanding its app-based shopping technology. The airline said it has started testing with a select group of members what it calls the MileagePlus X mobile app, which lets members with iOS and Android phones instantly earn up to 24 miles per dollar spent at participating retailers, including Lowe’s, Sears, the Gap and AMC Theaters. “The airline plans to expand MileagePlus X to all members and offer more retailers soon,” a spokesman said. “United is continuing to improve MileagePlus X and plans to launch additional features, including the ability to redeem miles for in-store purchases.”

Philadelphia

Philadelphia (Photo: Murray Hedley, Flickr)

AA, Delta battle for PHL-London. When Delta recently began its own non-stop Los Angeles-London Heathrow service, American responded with plans to double its service on the route to two flights a day starting next spring — and now the same thing is happening on the Philadelphia-London Heathrow route. Delta said it will launch daily 757-200 flights between PHL and LHR on April 8 as part of its partnership with Virgin Atlantic. And American said it will add a second daily PHL-LHR flight starting March 29, operated by a US Airways 757-200, with a 9:55 a.m. departure time. That will give the AA-British Airways joint venture four daily PHL-LHR flights.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

CARS

Uber suspends Nevada service — for now. Ride-sharing app Uber’s presence in one of its newest big markets — Las Vegas — has been suspended after a Nevada judge issued a temporary restraining order against the service. It’s apparently the first time that Uber has failed to overcome the many legal and regulatory challenges to its business model, which generally involve whether or not the firm should have to follow the same rules as taxi operators.


Gas prices plunge. As air fares keep going up, gas prices keep going down. Late last week, the price of a barrel of oil plunged to a low of about $66. If this trend continues, it could lead some business travelers to consider adding more road trips to their schedules in place of shorter flights. Last week, average U.S. gas prices hit $2.82 a gallon, down 47 cents from last year at this time and at their lowest late-November level in five years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Are you planning to drive more now that fuel prices are lower… but airfares are not? Please leave your comments below. 

International

Easier entry to India. The notoriously difficult Indian visa application process is now apparently a thing of the past according to QuartzThe Narendra Modi government on Thursday launched a “tourist visa on arrival” scheme for nationals of 43 countries (including the US and Cananda) traveling to India for 30 days or less—and only for “recreation, sightseeing, short duration medical treatment, casual business visit, casual visit to meet friends or relatives.” Applications must now be made online (instead of the previously required visit to a consulate) at least four days prior to arrival and cost $60.

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22 fun facts about flying

For your holiday reading pleasure, here are 22 fun facts about flying that you may not know. An entertaining and enlightening read from the folks at FlightRight.com.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

–Chris

22 fun facts

 

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36 most/least frustrating airports

Did you know that there's a five star hotel (with a great bar) inside Vancouver Airport? Photo: Chris McGinnis

Did you know that there’s a five star hotel (with a great bar) inside Vancouver Airport? Photo: Chris McGinnis

Just in time for the holiday crunch, Bloomberg/BusinessWeek has put together a spot-on ranking of the 36 largest airports in the US and Canada.

What’s best about this ranking is that it is based on a survey of 3,000 frequent travelers who know a thing or two about airports, plus a full analysis of drive time to/from airports, and airport on-time data.

Let’s start on a positive note and look at the those that come out at the top of the list for being LEAST frustrating overall:

#1 Vancouver YVR

#2 Portland PDX

#3 Austin AUS

#4 Calgary YYC

#5 Phoenix PHX

Every one of these top five airports puts a smile on my face. I love Vancouver for its indoor creek and 5-star hotel on the premises. I’m in awe of Portland’s glassy rain canopy that connects the airport to parking lots. Austin has live music, rocking chairs and BBQ!

Portland's glass canopy and great public transport  give it high marks (Port of Portland)

Portland’s glass canopy and great public transport give it high marks (Port of Portland)

One thing that jumped out at me about this study was that Canadian airports rank so high. In addition to Vancouver and Calgary, Ottawa ranked #8 overall. However, Toronto Pearson (YYZ), Canada’s busiest, ranked near the bottom of the pack at #30– just ahead of the reviled LAX and JFK. I can relate– nearly every time I fly to or from Toronto or pass through Pearson, I get lost. The first step Toronto could take toward a better airport would be better directional signage.

The bottom of the list should be familiar territory to all TravelSkills readers…these airport laggards nearly always fall at the bottom of every list, so there are few surprises here:

#32 New York Kennedy JFK

#33 Chicago O’Hare ORD

#34 Washington Dulles IAD

#35 Newark Liberty EWR

#36 New York LaGuardia LGA

Here's how Bloomberg described LaGuardia airport

Here’s how BusinessWeek described LaGuardia airport

Why the disdain for NYC area airports? Probably because they are dinosaurs– and most are too busy to make way for many improvements. Although I think it’s fair to say that there have been some improvements in New York. And there are more on the way… but it’s going to take a while…

For example, Delta’s new Terminal 4 operation at JFK is a dramatic improvement over its old digs at the long gone PanAm Worldport. The biggest downside are the unusually long walks required to get to gates at the far end of the concourse. I was just in JetBlue’s big, bright and happy JFK Terminal 5 last week and was impressed. And United’s operations at Newark are slated for improvements as we reported on TravelSkills this week.

Washington Dulles Airport's curves are sure lovely. Bu not its commute! (Photo: Joe Wolf / Flickr)

Washington Dulles Airport’s curves are sure lovely. Bu not its commute! (Photo: Joe Wolf / Flickr)

Another thread among the most frustrating airports is drive time. Washington Dulles is the most dramatic example of this… there is little worse than a five-hour transcon flight to Dulles, then another hour or two fighting traffic to get into downtown DC. Thankfully we have Washington National, which came in at #13. The top three airports in terms of drive time to/from during rush hour are: Boston BOS, Atlanta ATL and San Francisco SFO.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses! 

Some other interesting notes from the study: Delta’s big hubs at Detroit and Atlanta came in at #11 and #12 respectively- well into the top half. While both are big and always busy, they work well. When I lived in Atlanta, people would say, “Atlanta Airport is about as pretty as a Xerox machine. But it works like one, too,” referring to the overall efficiency of the world’s busiest airport.

My hometown airport San Francisco International ranked #17– firmly middle of the pack. While SFO has some award winning terminals, organic food and excellent runway views, I’m sure its poor on-time performance in rain and fog likely pushed it down in the rankings.

Bloomberg airports

Click to see the full report!

Take a look at this fascinating report!  and leave your comments about it below. Were there any surprises in it? 
 
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New look for Newark + United goes Android + New Delta look at LAX + Fee at Hilton/Marriott

Which country boasts this gorgeous passport design? See below

Which country boasts this gorgeous design on passport pages including the North Star, Moon and Northern Lights? Scroll to bottom for full story!

AIRLINES

Just in time for the busy holidays, United has (finally) extended its new onboard streaming service to Android users. Apple iPhone and iPad users (as well as those on any laptop)  have been able to give the new service a try since last spring.  To use it, you must first download the United app from the Google Play or Apple App store in order to watch a variety free TV shows and movies while in flight on nearly 200 United aircraft, including its entire Airbus A319, Airbus A320 and Boeing 747 fleets and its Boeing 777 flying between the mainland and Hawaii. For the full story on inflight streaming, see this recent TravelSkills post: BYOD Entertainment on Planes. Have you tried United’s inflight streaming product yet? How did that go for you? 

You are reading Part 2 of this week’s Catch Up in Travel News from TravelSkills. Here’s Part 1

AIRPORTS

NEW RAIL LINK UP & RUNNING.  BART’s new Oakland airport service got off to a wet start last Saturday — with crews forced to squeegee off rain that had blown in and flooded the airport station platform — but nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of its jubilant first-day riders, according to SFgate.com “It was great, it was wonderful, it was easy, quick and cheap,” said one rider. New automated trains will transport riders from BART’s Coliseum station to the new Oakland Airport station every five minutes during peak hours; the ride takes eight minutes. The ride from the Coliseum station to/from downtown SF takes about 25 minutes. BART fares between the new Oakland Airport station and downtown San Francisco are $10.05.  More… 

A rendering of the future look for United's Concourse C in Newark (Image: OTG)

A rendering of the future look for United’s Concourse C in Newark (Image: OTG)

Big-name chefs coming to EWR. United Airlines and development partner OTG Management have revealed more plans for the ongoing overhaul of Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport. Not only is the revamped facility bringing in new restaurants from a number of high-visibility chefs, but travelers will be able to use their MileagePlus miles to pay for food and drinks through some of the 6,000 iPads that will be deployed in the terminal’s restaurants, bars and gate areas. The headliner restaurant will be chef Alaine Ducasse’s Saison, a French bistro; others include a French country eatery from Alex Guarnaschelli; an Italian steakhouse from Mario Carbone, and a surf bar and sushi outlet from Josh Capon.

Taxi turmoil at SFO. Organized taxi drivers clogged up the roadways outside passenger terminals at San Francisco International one night last week to protest the airport’s recent decisions to let app-based ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft operate there. And members of the Taxi Workers Alliance are threatening to repeat the curbside chaos at SFO “again and again” unless the airport changes its policy. Meanwhile, a top Uber executive stirred up a mini-scandal after word leaked out that he had threatened to start digging up dirt on journalists who write negative stories about the company. Would negative publicity about Uber make you less likely to use their service? Put your comments below.

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Delta's Sky Prority lobby at LAX efore (above) and after (below)

Delta’s Sky Prority lobby at LAX efore (above) and after (below)

Lobby remake at LAX. Delta has finished the renovation of its Sky Priority lobby at Los Angeles International’s Terminal 5. Take a look at the before and after photos.

HOTELS

New fees coming at Hilton, Marriott. Effective January 1, Hilton and Marriott will impose a new standard cancellation fee — a single night’s room rate — on no-show guests unless they have cancelled their bookings at least the day before scheduled arrival. If individual hotels within the groups already have more restrictive cancellation policies, those will remain in effect. Not all chains are adopting a uniform policy; e.g., things are unchanged at Best Western, a spokesperson said, where cancellation policies vary by the rate booked and the individual hotel’s policy; policies are listed under each rate bookable on bw.com.

This is what Norway's passport pages look like in normal light. (Image: Neue)

This is what Norway’s passport pages look like in normal light. (Image: Neue)

This is what the pages of Norway’s new passport look like in normal light. The darker image above (scroll to top), which reveals the north star and northern lights, is only visible under UV light. Beautiful! (Full story from CNN here)

You are reading Part 2 of this week’s Catch Up in Travel News from TravelSkills. Here’s Part 1

-Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

In Case You Missed It…

  • Olefactory stimulants: Chris lists his favorite travel smells. What are yours?
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Delta push at Seattle + Seat pitch compared + Southwest “Swagger” + Delta’s newest jets +

Delta & Alaska Air battle for Seattle (Photo: Jim Glab)

Delta & Alaska Air battle for Seattle (Photo: Jim Glab)

AIRLINES

Delta’s big(ger) Seattle plans. Last week Delta’s CEO told employees the company wants to expand from its current 11 gates to 30 gates at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, making it “a huge international gateway.” With those gates, Delta could operate up to 240 flights a day. Delta has been steadily adding transpacific and domestic flights at SEA, to the dismay of its erstwhile partner Alaska Airlines, which is following its own growth plan at its hub airport. Alaska currently controls about 40 percent of SEA’s traffic. Meanwhile, Delta announced another round of expansion at SEA next May and June, adding Delta Connection service to Denver (five flights a day), Sacramento (four a day) and Boise (four a day), plus seasonal service to Ketchikan and Sitka, Alaska.

Even with the cuts, JetBlue has a chart showing that it's legroom will still be better than others. (Image: JetBlue)

Even with the cuts, JetBlue has a chart showing that its standard legroom will still beat other carriers. (Image: JetBlue)

JetBlue overhauls fares, seating. Only two major U.S. airlines let all passengers check a bag for free — JetBlue and Southwest (Southwest allows two free bags) — but that will fall to just one in the first half of 2015. That’s when JetBlue will revamp its pricing into three “branded fare bundle options.” The lowest fares will be for “customers who do not plan to check a bag,” JetBlue said; the others will include one and two checked bags respectively, plus other perks. The airline also will “refresh” its A320s by installing “lighter, more comfortable seats” that will let it increase the number of seats per plane — and reduce its current (very generous) standard seat pitch, although it will still exceed pitch on major competitors according to the chart above (supplied by JetBlue). The airline pledged that its Wi-Fi will still be offered for free (at least through 2015). Meanwhile, a JetBlue exec said in an interview the airline is likely to expand its Mint premium seating product to transcon flights from Boston in the future.

Within days of JetBlue’s announcement, wily Southwest Airlines launched a retro-hipster, captivating new TV ad campaign focusing on its free checked bag option. This 30-second spot, called “Swagger” is worth a watch and listen! See below.

Delta places big widebody order. In a blow to Boeing, Delta said it will turn to Airbus for the next big phase of its fleet renewal program, placing an order for 50 twin-engine widebody jets to replace its aging 747s and 767s. The company has ordered 25 of Airbus’ next-generation A350-900s, to be delivered starting in 2017; and 25 A330-900neo aircraft, to arrive starting in 2019. The A350s will be used on transpacific routes, and the A330s will go onto medium-haul transatlantic routes and some west coast-to-Asia routes. Earlier this year, TravelSkills got an inside look at the A350, which claims to be the widest of widebodies. Check out our report and PHOTOS of the new A350.

Cheaper upgrades. Delta is offering winter travelers the opportunity to upgrade at a discount for flights now through February. A nice way to avoid some holiday travel hassles, yes, but (as usual) there are some important points in the fine print: The markets NYC to/from LAX / SFO / SEA will be excluded from this offer.  This promotion does not include any fares purchased in Delta’s cheapest E, V, or Y class.

Popular: Did you hear about the latest wave of downgrades at United MileagePlus? Read this! 

Watch those Wi-Fi charges. When you sign up for in-flight Wi-Fi, do you keep a close watch on how much data your device is eating up? One transpacific traveler found himself unexpectedly facing a bill for almost $1,200 from Singapore Airlines, and web site Skift examined just what went wrong for him– providing an object lesson for others. (P.S. Sounds like the guy’s not getting his money back…)

KLM's new economy seat (Image KLM)

KLM’s new economy seat (Image KLM)

KLM overhauls 777-200s. Delta’s SkyTeam partner KLM has started renovating the passenger cabins of its 777-200 fleet, following up on a similar overhaul of its 747s. The new World Business Class is getting fully-flat seats with more personal space for passengers and new 16-inch seatback monitors with upgraded entertainment options. In the 777-200 economy class, new seats will provide extra legroom, ergonomic headrests, power outlets and a new entertainment system with hundreds of programming options.

Route news: Alaska, JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit. Alaska Airlines said it will introduce daily Seattle-Washington Dulles service on March 11 … JetBlue last week started daily non-stops between Salt Lake City and Orlando … Spirit Airlines has big expansion plans at Houston Bush Intercontinental, where it will add 10 new routes next spring, including Tampa, Baltimore/Washington and Oakland as well as three points in Mexico and four in Central America … Frontier Airlines told employees that it plans to slash 15 flights a day at its Denver home base next year due to rising taxes and fees at that airport.

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Bottled cocktails on VX.  A new cucumber vodka mojito from Austin Cocktails, a line of bottled, craft cocktails, is now available fleetwide onboard Virgin America. The new pre-mixed drink is made with vodka, natural flavors and sweetened with organic agave and priced at $8.25. Culturemap Austin says this about the Mojito:  “For anyone watching her girlish figure, what may be most noteworthy is that all the drinks ring in at less than 100 calories a serving….and has a refreshing, lime-heavy flavor that gets better with subsequent sips. With its hint of cucumber, it reminds us of the cucumber-infused water you get at a spa.”

STAY TUNED! Part 2 of Catching Up on the week’s most important travel news comes tomorrow!

In Case You Missed It…

  • Olefactory stimulants: Chris lists his favorite travel smells. What are yours?
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Much needed upgrade in London

Heathrow Train

New cars for the London Tube (Photo: Transport for London)

The City of London has released plans for a futuristic upgrade to The Tube, one of the world’s largest underground rail systems. But don’t hold your breath– the fleet of 250 new trains won’t hit the tracks until the mid-2020s, and are anticipated to remain in service for 40 years. The Piccadilly Line, well-used by business travelers in central London, will be the first to get the new cars.

The cars were designed by UK-based PreistmanGoode, a design firm that specializes in transportation and has made its mark on many travel environments that touch us daily, such as seats on United, interiors of Qatar Airways’ new A380 or Heathrow’s Terminal 5. (Cool website!)

Simply called “the New Tube,” the trains will feature a few firsts.  They will be comprised of one contiguous walk-through barrel, rather than many interconnected cars. This stretched look means that more passengers can be transported on the same track, increasing capacity on the system overall. (You may have seen trains like this if you’ve taken the MTR subways in Hong Kong.)

Related: Chris’s column Business Trip: London

 

The new trains will bring a welcome reduction in crowding….the new layout increases capacity up to 60%, providing a significant boost for Tube travelers for the useful life of the new trains – pegged at 40 years or more. Slideshow here

Another welcome tech feature comes from the air-cooling of the cars. It’s not always possible to move air-conditioning at certain depths in the existing Tube system, and so this will bring cooler, fresher air to increase passenger comfort. (And could help eliminate that well known “Tube smell”– see our post about that here)

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The initial rollout will still have drivers in each car; eventually, the New Tube can run on its own without human guidance. As some viewers have pointed out on YouTube, this full automation has the added advantage of reducing, and eventually eliminating, chaotic Tube strikes.

London Travel Tip: During peak travel season, when tourists, business travelers and locals fill the city, do not depend on the ability of London’s current aging transportation infrastructure to get you to your meetings on time. Black cabs creep slowly through the traffic of central London. The London Underground, or Tube, is notoriously unreliable and susceptible to delays, forcing users onto lengthy alternate routes. To avoid being late in a city that appreciates promptness, always schedule your meetings with a very large cushion of time in between.

Popular: Did you hear about the latest wave of downgrades at United MileagePlus? Read this! 

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Google’s travel advice

Google travel

Ninety percent of holiday travel is by CAR, not by plane. With that in mind, the smarties at Google took a deep dive into their data and came up with some helpful insight and advice for avoiding Thanksgiving traffic as well as top searches in Google Maps before, during, and after Thanksgiving.

Traffic data was pulled from the Monday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after Thanksgiving during 2012 and 2013, and Google Maps search trends are based on information from 2013.

According to Google’s data, Wednesday is the worst Thanksgiving traffic day for most cities, with Saturday the worst day to return. (This flies in the face of conventional wisdom that Sunday is the worst day to return.)

Google travel

  • Worst day to travel: For most cities, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the worst traffic day — but in San Francisco the worst day is Saturday. Other exceptions include of Boston (Tuesday), Honolulu (Saturday), Providence (Saturday).
  • Skip the rush: The worst time for Thanksgiving traffic falls between 3:00pm and 5:00pm the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Better to leave before 2:00pm or after 7:00pm on Wednesday if you want to beat the rush.
  • Second worst traffic day: Saturday and Tuesday vie for the second and third heaviest traffic days overall — Black Friday doesn’t draw huge road traffic.
  • Thanksgiving Day traffic: Thanksgiving Day traffic is a breeze — it usually has the least traffic of the entire week; for those looking to beat even the lightest traffic day, make sure you stay off the road between 12:00pm and 2:00pm on Thanksgiving Day.
  • When to drive back home: Traffic patterns show that you’re better off driving home from the holiday weekend on Sunday rather than Saturday — traffic can be up to 40% worse on Saturday.
  • Changes in holiday traffic: In six cities, Thanksgiving traffic has actually decreased slightly between 2012 and 2013 (Boston,Dallas, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Providence).

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Food and drink top Google Maps searches the day before Thanksgiving, and Detroit football fans looked for directions to the stadium.

  • Last minute prep: The top three trending searches on Google Maps the day before Thanksgiving were ham shop, pie shop, and liquor store, as Americans do last minute errands just before Turkey Day.  I get liquor story, but ham shop? Really? :)
  • Gearing up for Black Friday: “Outlet mall” is the #1 trending Google Maps search term on Thanksgiving Day. Meanwhile, “outlet mall” is only the #3 trending search term on Black Friday itself.
  • Ready for Christmas: The top two Google Maps search trends on Black Friday had nothing to do with shopping — instead, people were already on to Christmas. The top two terms were: “Christmas tree farm” and “festival.”
  • Thanksgiving football: Lions fans plan ahead. The day before Thanksgiving football, Detroit fans searched for directions to the stadium (#1) and parking garages (#2). In comparison, in Dallas, stadium is the #9 search trend the day before Thanksgiving.

Google Travel

–Chris McGinnis

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My 9 favorite travel smells

The new scent globe a London Heathrow Terminal 2 (LHR Airports)

The new scent globe a London Heathrow Terminal 2 (LHR Airports)

This week sees London-Heathrow’s brand new Terminal 2 “The Queen’s Terminal” operating at full capacity with all 26 airlines (primarily Star Alliance) now in their new home. Airport authorities planned for the transition to take place over the five months instead of in one fell swoop. Good thinking since the process seems to have gone without a hitch, and the new terminal is a far cry from the old cramped quarters of Terminal 1 & 2.

TravelSkills got an early sneak peek at the shiny new terminal and United’s nice new business and first class lounges last spring. But regrettably, we missed out on the terminal’s new, one-of-a-kind “scent globe” which the airport says “will immerse the curious in the aromas of Thailand; South Africa; Japan; China and Brazil.”

The scents emitted from the globe come from key ingredients associated with the designated country and “are designed to transport passengers to far flung destinations.” South Africa smells of tribal incense, wild grass and musk. Brazil’s scent is rich in rainforest fauna with a palette of coffee, tobacco and jasmine. Japan smells cool, oceanic with a mix of seaweed and shell extracts, green tea and Ambergris. Thailand is mix of lemongrass, ginger and coconut.

This of course got me on a train of thought about distinct travel smells… there are many and some so strong and memorable that I could be blindfolded, yet know exactly where I am due to the olfactory sensation. 

For example, there’s what I call “the Marriott smell.” Have you ever noticed that Marriotts (all brands) smell like band-aids? I’m not certain, but I assume that the lodging giant centrally sources an iodine-based antibacterial cleaning compound that emits the smell. It’s not a bad smell… it’s a clean, reassuring smell. But it’s there. Am I crazy or does anyone else notice this?

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!

Speaking of travel smells… here are nine of my favorites (in no particular order)… what are yours?

Chestnuts Roasting NYC IMG_1703

Chestnuts roasting in Manhattan (Steven Depolo / Flickr)

  1. The smell of coffee brewing on a plane as a long overnight flight is coming to an end. And the smell of jet fuel as you walk off the plane and onto the jetway.
  2. The acrid, sour, but memorable smell of chestnuts roasting on a dry, cold New York City night.
  3. Getting into a rental car, noticing the “new car smell” and looking down at the odometer reading 000016 miles.
  4. The smell of rain & tropical flowers when stepping off the plane at almost any airport in Hawaii
  5. The minty-soapy-lotiony-cologne-y smell of my toilet kit- it means the road is calling.
  6. The leathery, carpet-y “new plane” smell on a brand new or refurbished aircraft.
  7. I love it when you walk into a hotel with a spa… and you can smell it. Usually eucalyptus. On the other hand, I hate it when you walk into a hotel with an indoor pool and you can smell the chlorine.
  8. The smell of cookies baking on a plane (even if they are only served in first class).
  9. A Cinnabon at the airport. A Lush boutique somewhere overseas. And yes, even a McDonald’s when I’ve been away from the US for too long.

To me, Seattle and San Francisco smell like dark roast coffee. Los Angeles and Phoenix smell like orange blossoms. Houston smells like refineries. Tampa and Orlando smell like hot summer afternoon thunderstorms. Paris like bread. London smells metallic, and rubbery, like the Tube.  Mumbai like sewerage and sandalwood. Boston smells like fish or the ocean. Denver like wood smoke. I could go on and on.

What about you? Please leave your comments and favorite (or least favorite) travel smells below.

–Chris McGinnis

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United changes rules + Radical plan for NYC airport + Centurion “Studio” + Uber’s friends in DC

United

Somewhere over Greenland up in the bubble on a United B747 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

AIRLINES. 

Did you get the email from United last week? As expected (and as usual) the carrier mimicked Delta’s recent move to increase the amount of dollars members must spend to get (or maintain) Premier status. The 20% bump up applies to qualifying activity in 2015 for status in 2016. The 25K spend threshold on MileagePlus co-branded credit cards  for status is not affected by this. Details here. So far, American is still sitting back, watching and remaining vague about any plans it has for the move toward a revenue based program. So what do you think? Last time we wrote about airlines’ new revenue requirements, the general reaction from TravelSkills readers was, “Mmmeh, I’ll easily meet those spending requirements.” And some even lauded Delta and United for weeding out the gamers who don’t pay much but have figured out wily ways to snag awards and upgrades. Please leave your comments below. 

AIRPORTS

New Amex Centurion “Studio.” American Express can’t always find a airport space large enough for its super popular Centurion Lounges, like the brand new on in San Francisco. Such is the case in Seattle (SEA), where Amex announced that will open a smaller Centurion Studio instead. Amex says: “The Centurion Studio will be a retreat for Card Members but in a smaller space, featuring some of the amenities Card Members say are most essential: comfortable seating, charging stations, fast and free WiFi, and complimentary healthy snacks and beverages.” Amex told TravelSkills that it will be located “right off the Main terminal towards concourse B, post-security and easily accessible to all terminals.” It will be interesting to see how the smaller studio handles crowds…we’ve heard from several TravelSkills readers already about overcrowded conditions at the SFO lounge and elsewhere….

A grand re-imagining of New York's LaGuardia Airport- enter on Riker's Island & take a train to your plane (ReThink NYC)

A grand re-imagining of New York’s LaGuardia Airport- enter on Riker’s Island & take a train to your plane (ReThink NYC)

Visionary plan for LaGuardia. The New York Times reports that one local resident who thinks big has a grand plan for remaking LaGuardia Airport. His concept would move airport access much closer to Manhattan and expand the airport from two runways to four, and have as many as 160 passenger gates. How could this be? The airport would take over nearby Rikers Island — currently home to a big city jail — and put all the passenger gates there, freeing up space at the existing airport for more runways; a transportation terminal at the southern tip of The Bronx would bring in passengers from subways and Amtrak trains; and the whole thing would be linked with underground trains. Talk about outta-the-box thinking!

Big improvements planned at DCA. Airlines at Washington Reagan National have come to terms with the airport authority on a plan to invest $1 billion in facility improvements over the next 10 years. The plan calls for construction of a regional airline concourse linked to the north pier; connecting the three B/C piers inside security by moving TSA checkpoints from level 2 to level 3, making for easier connections between American Airlines flights; adding a new parking garage; and overhauling Terminal A.

Bonus Offers: How about a round trip to Hawaii or Mexico for less than $100 on US Airways? Or enough points for two roundtrips and a big jump on coveted Companion Status on Southwest? More…

CARS

(Photo: Uber)

(Photo: Uber)

Uber gaining Capitol friends. A new report finds that ride-sharing service Uber is making big inroads among Congress people and their staffs. Specifically, their use of Uber for local transportation increased from a zero percent market share in the 2010 election campaign to 61 percent this year. “Uber has overtaken taxis in both number of rides and amount spent,” the researchers said.

SFO adds another private ride provider. San Francisco International Airport, which in recent weeks reached agreements allowing UberX, Lyft and Sidecar to operate there, has issued a pilot permit to another operator — Wingz (www.wingz.me). Unlike the others, Wingz specializes only in airport transportation, offering a $35 flat rate to SFO for a private ride with “an awesome trained and background-checked driver.” Service should begin within 30 days.

Note: This is part 2 of our weekly “Catch Up” — have you read Part 1? 

Study tracks rental processing time. How effective are car rental firms’ express service programs for business travelers? The latest rental customer satisfaction study from J.D. Power finds that the vehicle pick-up and return process for business renters averages 41.5 minutes (including the shuttle ride) — only about three minutes less than the process takes for leisure renters. Overall customer satisfaction dropped slightly this year after rising steadily since 2009. Enterprise, National and Alamo topped the J.D. Power list this year. Hertz ranked #4.

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HOTELS

Hackers said to steal business travelers’ data at hotels. Internet security giant Kaspersky is warning business travelers about a corporate espionage campaign it calls “Darkhotel” that targets senior executives staying at luxury hotels — especially U.S. executives doing business in the Asia/Pacific region. The hackers “trick the person into downloading and installing a backdoor that pretends to be an update for legitimate software, such as Google Toolbar, Adobe Flash or Windows Messenger,” Kaspersky said, and can then hunt for stored passwords and logins as well as business data. The firm said travelers should be “suspicious” of suggested software updates when they are abroad, and should use a VPN provider. Has this ever happened to you– or anyone you know? Do you take any precautions when using a Wi-Fi connection in your hotel? Please leave your comments below. 

In Case You Missed It…

Note: This is part 2 of our weekly “Catch Up” — have you read Part 1? 

 

New extra bonus offer: Get a whopping 50,000 Rapid Rewards points by signing up for Southwest’s Premier card – that’s enough for TWO free tickets. 

>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

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Virgin’s next moves? + NYC + New Lufthansa seat + Eastern Airlines + More A380s

A brilliant fall day in NYC from the top floor of the Parker Meridien hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Greetings from New York City on a beautiful fall day peering out from the Parker Meridien hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

AIRLINES

Virgin shares soar in IPO. And the airline could, too. This is going to be really fun to watch. Virgin America shares hit the market Virgin Americaon Friday morning at $23 each, and took off to reach $30 by the end of the day. That makes Virgin worth about $1.3 billion. Now, with about $220 million in net proceeds, Virgin is going to add new planes, new routes and hopefully more frequencies in key business markets. CEO David Cush said that Virgin will add five new planes in 2015 and another five in 2016. He also said the SF-based carrier has a few other “tricks up its sleeve.” Talk of new flights to Hawaii has re-emerged. With Southwest taking AirTran’s business class seats out of the SFO-ATL market, I’d love to see two-class Virgin dive in. Where would YOU like to see Virgin America (see current destinations) expand? And would you be willing to give up your legacy carrier frequent flyer miles to try it? Please leave your comments below. 

Lufthansa’s premium economy starts this week. That new Premium Economy Class at Lufthansa is opening up nine days sooner than expected. The carrier said that starting November 22, the new section will be available on all of its 747-8 routes, including Frankfurt to Chicago, LAX and Washington Dulles. Besides the extra in-flight comforts, passengers will get twice the free checked bag allowance of regular economy, and for a 25 euro fee ($31), Premium Economy passengers can access the business class lounge before departure. Currently, United does not allow redemption of MileagePlus miles for Lufthansa (or any Star Alliance) premium economy. Lufthansa is offering a 15 percent discount on Premium Economy bookings until December 9. Take a look at Lufthansa’s new seat in this TravelSkills post: 20 different business class seats in one room

etihadTheResidenceFclass

One of three rooms in the Etihad First Class “Residence” onboard its A380s (Etihad)

$20,000 first class suites going fast. Would you pay $20,000 one way to fly in a private first class suite the size of some Manhattan apartments? Etihad Airways says these super-premium accommodations on its A380s — called The Residence — are selling out, in spite of the stratospheric price tag. Each one has a private shower, living area, bedroom — and the services of a butler. Meanwhile, other leading international carriers have upgraded their own front cabins to meet strong demand from global business moguls.

I captured this image of the Asiana B777 wreckage when my Delta flight from Atlanta landed the day after the crash (Chris McGinnis)

I captured this image of the Asiana B777 wreckage when my Delta flight from Atlanta landed  at SFO the day after the crash (Chris McGinnis)

Asiana SFO flights suspended. The South Korean government has ordered Asiana Airlines to halt its daily service to San Francisco from Seoul Incheon for 45 days as a penalty for the airline’s crash of a 777 during its landing at SFO in July 2013, in which three passengers died and scores were injured. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on errors by one of the pilots, who was unfamiliar with all the automated systems on the 777. Asiana said it will appeal the suspension, which could delay implementation of the order.

Related: Korean Air Trip Reports- SFO-Seoul on a B777  &  Seoul-Atlanta on an A380 

International route news: Etihad Airways, which begins daily San Francisco-Abu Dhabi non-stops November 18, said its upcoming Dallas/Ft. Worth route, beginning with three flights a week on December 3, will increase to daily on April 16; Etihad is a code-share partner with American …

>Emirates will put a fourth daily flight, using an A380, onto its Dubai-New York JFK route on March 8, timed to maximize connections with partner JetBlue. The carrier also said it intends to put the A380 super-jumbo onto more U.S. routes; it introduced the plane on its DFW route last month, and will do the same in December with San Francisco and Houston. Emirates will have 68 A380s in operation by the end of 2015 compared with 55 today according to Bloomberg …

>British Airways will replace the 777 on its Denver-London route with a four-class 747 starting in March (including its new 14-suite first class design) …

>El Al will introduce Boston-Tel Aviv service three times a week starting in June 2015 …

>On May 1, Aer Lingus will begin new seasonal service from Washington Dulles to Dublin four times a week …

>Lufthansa will add Tampa to its route network in September 2015, using an A340-300 for flights to Frankfurt.

Popular: 20+ TravelSkills readers have signed up for these oddball credit card offers that reap big rewards. Have you? 

The new Eastern Airlines has painted its first jet. Brings back memories, no?

The new Eastern Airlines has painted its first jet, a 737-800. Brings back memories, no?

Something old, something new: PEOPLExpress, Eastern. The new incarnation of PEOPLExpress Airlines appears to be in trouble: Media reports indicate officials at Virginia’s Newport News/Williamsburg Airport are trying to evict the carrier from its home base, citing $100,000 in unpaid bills … The old Eastern Airlines name is also being revived in Miami. The “new” Eastern has started recruiting flight attendants, although it doesn’t yet have FAA certification. The company said it plans to operate 737-800s, but will initially serve only as a charter airline.

United’s holiday shopper lounges. Chase and United Airlines will soon open special VIP lounges for holiday shoppers in San Francisco and New Jersey. Available to Chase United cardholders, they’ll offer gift wrapping, refreshments, TVs, Wi-Fi and more, with locations at the Westfield San Francisco Centre (November 24-December 24) and The Mall at Short Hills (November 22-December 24).

Lake Tahoe at sunset (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Lake Tahoe at sunset (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Love Lake Tahoe? Then come chat about it! TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis will be talking about his favorite place to get away from it all MONDAY at 3 pm ET. Take a cool virtual tour here and come chat with us and FlipKey today! On Twitter, look for the #TakeMeThereTahoe hashtag at 3 pm ET, Noon PT today!

In Case You Missed It…

Stay tuned! Part 2 of this weekly “Catch Up” will post tomorrow morning…

 

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Trip Report: Korean Air A380 Seoul-Atlanta (Part 2)

Flight attendants are eager to help take photos of folks like me crossing scenes like sitting in KAL's Celestial Lounge off the bucket list

KAL flight attendants are eager to help take photos of folks like me eager to cross a scene like this off the ole bucket list. (Chris McGinnis)

It takes three jetways to load up an A380 here at Seoul's Incheon Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It takes three (clear glass) jetways to load up an A380 here at Seoul’s Incheon Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Last month I finally crossed this off my bucket list:  Flying from Seoul to Atlanta on a Korean Air A380. KAL’s big blue A380 is Atlanta’s one and only double decker and I’ve wanted to float into my old hometown on it since the service started in September 2013.

The first leg of that journey started in San Francisco where I boarded a KAL B777 for the trip to Seoul. I was a guest of Korean Air and wrote about that part of the trip here.

In the first post, I concluded that there was not much difference between business class on the two planes once you are in your seat. But the differences do become evident when you walk around and explore the enormity of the big A380 bird.

See Part 1

Upstairs in business class on KAL's A380 feels big, bright and spacious (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Upstairs in business class on KAL’s A380 feels big, bright and spacious (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

There are 94 lie flat business class seats on the upper deck of KAL's A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

There are 94 lie flat business class seats on the upper deck of KAL’s A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The key feature of Korean Air’s A380 is its dearth of seats. I know that sounds crazy, but did you know that there are fewer seats, just 407, on a KAL A380 than on any other commercial A380? On most other carriers, the number is closer to 500, or well over it in some cases. (Lufthansa, for example, squeezes in 526 seats on its A380.) This means that there is a lot more room for passengers…for onboard lounges (two of them)…for two staircases….and even for a duty free store.

Ninety-four (94) lie-flat business class seats configured 2-2-2 fill the entire upper deck of this bird. On the main deck there are 12 first class “suites” up front configured 1-2-1, and 301 economy class seats configured 3-4-3 with a generous pitch of 33-34 inches. Korean Air does not offer a premium economy section. See the KAL A380 on SeatGuru.

Nice big storage bins reserved for window-seat flyers (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Nice big storage bins reserved for window-seat flyers on the A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

To me, the best business class seats on the A380 are window seats. That’s mostly because I really like looking out the window. But it’s also because of storage space. Due to the curvature of the plane, there is room for a good sized storage bin between the seat and the window. The bin is big enough to hold the contents of a briefcase, and that really comes in handy on a long flight (in this case about 14.5 hours). These bins are not available on the B777. The downside of the window seat is that you have to skirt around your neighbor to get to the aisle. Not a big deal to me but I know some folks don’t like that. All the other business class seats offer direct aisle access.

Roundtrip business class fares between Atlanta and Seoul run about $4,800. Economy class is about $2,100 in mid December. First class round trips? $18,000.

If you redeem Delta SkyMiles for the ATL-ICN roundtrip, you’ll pay a minimum of 70,000 in economy and 190,000 in business class. KAL first class is not available to SkyMiles members redeeming miles. (Based on a search for nonstops in mid January.)

Mood lighting in business class onboard KAL A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Mood lighting in business class onboard KAL A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Another feature that I noticed on Korean Air was the mood lighting which varied in brightness and color throughout the trip. I think flight attendants were trying to re-create morning and evening with the lights. Regrettably, I was on a different schedule and every time I opened my window shade for a peak out at the view, I was asked by flight attendants to close it. Nice: When window shades are up, business class seats enjoy quite a show out of two or three windows for each row.

Related Trip Report:  British Airways A380 on the “Red Carpet Route”

Korean Air

KAL’s Celestial Lounge at the rear of the upper deck business class section (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

This is the lounge at the front of the business class section adjacent to the staircase to the main deck (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

This is the lounge at the front of the business class section adjacent to the staircase to the main deck (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here’s a look at the “Celestial Lounge” at the rear of the upper deck business class cabin. There is room to sit down and strap in if it gets turbulent. Those high cushions you see are for leaning if it gets a little bumpy. On my flight, business class was only half full, so the lounge never attracted a big convivial crowd…on my two trips back there I smiled through my bleary eyes at a few other bleary-eyed travelers checking out the space like I was. Flight attendants were eager to take photos of passengers saddled up to the bar or on the sofa. There’s another smaller lounge with similar catering at the front of the business class section.

Korean Air

Here’s part of the spread offered in the Celestial Lounge. Korean Air has partnered with Absolut, so there’s a icy well full of various flavors of vodka, wine and Champagne (Perrier Jouet). Snacks (which few passengers ate) consisted of a plate of nice canapes, some nuts, a big bowl of kettle fried potato chips and these colorful Korean-style dessert lollipops or gosibol– fermented cookies made of sweet rice and various freeze-dried fruits and grains. Since this flight departed Seoul at around 9 a.m. and arrived in ATL at about 9 am, it felt like morning to me throughout the (mostly sleepless) 14.5-hour flight, so I never partook of the boozy bevs.

Korean Air

Here’s a view down the rear staircase– this one is spiral while the one up front is not. Both staircases were roped off during the flight to prevent mixing of the classes. But I noticed several other curious travelers (like me) ignoring the ropes and taking self-guided tours of the plane.

Korean Air

A spacious and cushy first class “Kosmo Suite” on the main deck of KAL’s A380 (Chris McGinnis)

Korean Air's first class cabin flew empty from ICN to ATL (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Korean Air’s first class cabin flew empty from ICN to ATL (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

When I snuck downstairs to check out the first class section, I was surprised to find the the entire cabin empty. All that beautiful real estate just sitting there so lonely. Does this have something to do with Delta not allowing SkyMiles members to redeem miles for KAL first class? Probably. Especially on this route. But it made it much easier for me to take photos– which is usually something that first class passengers don’t appreciate. Korean Air calls its big seats “Kosmo Suites” and they are super spacious (79 inches long by 27 inches wide) and plush. Unlike a lot of carriers that wall off first class passengers into compartments, the KAL A380 open plan would be a lot more convivial if there had been more passengers. Korean Air is one of the few carriers that still serve caviar in first class.

Related Trip Report: Lufthansa’s inaugural A380 flight

Economy class on the A380 is configured 3-4-3 and seats have a generous 33"-34" of pitch and oversized seatback screens (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Economy class on the A380 is configured 3-4-3 and seats have a generous 33″-34″ of pitch and oversized seatback screens (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Korean Air

Korean Air flight attendant serving the first course of one of two meal services on the 14.5 hour flight from Seoul to Atlanta (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

KAL serves two meals (both lunch or dinnerish…no breakfast) on this 14-hour flight that departs Seoul at around 9 a.m. and arrives in Atlanta at about 9 a.m. on the same day. My jetlag counselor Bill Ashton (www.stopjetlag.com) suggests getting as much sleep as possible as early as possible in the flight, I postponed my first meal until later into the flight. Flight attendants were happy to oblige.

Korean Air

Roasted red snapper with paprika sauce served with squid ink spaghetti and braised zucchini (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

"Chinese style bean curd with minced beef and xo fried rice" (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

“Chinese style bean curd with minced beef and xo fried rice” in business class (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Korean Air

Korean Air’s duty free store is located at the rear of the economy class section near the circular staircase up to business class. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Americans are typically not big fans of duty free shopping. That’s because our government does not impose heavy excise taxes on luxury goods like booze, watches, cosmetics or cologne. But duty free is HUGE business in Asia. This is made very clear when you see the queue to get into the duty-free Louis Vuitton boutique at Seoul-Incheon airport. Korean extends similar discounts in its well stocked onboard duty-free store located at the rear of the main deck economy class section. From what I saw, Americans were there to gawk and pass the time….but the Asians were buying.

Related: 20 different business class seats in one room

Even the lavatories felt more spacious on KAL's A380- note the counter space (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Even the lavatories felt more spacious on KAL’s A380- note the wide counter space (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Korean Air

See Part 1 of this trip… my KAL flight from SFO to Seoul on a Boeing 777.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Korean Air on this trip

–Chris McGinnis

New extra bonus offer: Get a whopping 50,000 Rapid Rewards points by signing up for Southwest’s Premier card – that’s enough for TWO free tickets. 

>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

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New options for Delta flyers at SFO

Delta flyers can now enjoy the mod design and amenities of SFO's Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta flyers can now enjoy the mod design and amenities of SFO’s Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta flyers at SFO can now take a yoga break, partake of local organic food and wine or check out a cool museum space at SFO.

That’s because there’s a brand new airside (behind security) connector between Terminal 1, Boarding Area C or “T1C” (used by Delta) and the world famous Terminal 2, designed by the San Francisco design firm Gensler, where Virgin America and American are located. Starting in January, US Airways flyers can join the fun when its SFO operations move alongside Delta’s in T1C.

So next time you are stuck at SFO’s rather prosaic Terminal 1 due to fog…or maybe if you arrive a bit early, take a 10-minute stroll through this new 500-foot, glassed-in, “sterile connector” to Terminal 2 and you can enjoy what many people think is the best airport terminal in America.

Here's a rendering of the new connector viewed from the ramp (Fentress Architects)

Here’s a rendering of the new connector viewed from the ramp with T1 to the left and T2 to the right (Fentress Architects)

(See airport map here to get your bearings)

What’s so cool about it? Well, for one, there’s a new yoga room. I’m not sure how many travelers actually use it for yoga (the original one has been empty every time I’ve peered in) but it can also be used for naps, prayers or quiet time. To make room for the new connector entrance, SFO relocated the original yoga room from T2 to the connector.

Scroll to the bottom for a photo from INSIDE the connector.

SFO's famous yoga room has moved to the new corridor.  (Photo: SFO)

SFO’s famous yoga room has moved to the new corridor. (Photo: SFO)

What else is great about T2? Well, the food! About the only decent place to get a meal in Delta’s T1C space is Perry’s, a sit down restaurant. In T2, options multiply- there are 11 outlets and the food is outstanding… there are Burritos (Andale), Tapas & cocktails (Cat Cora), sushi & noodles (Wakaba), fresh healthy soups, salads and sandwiches (Pinkberry/The Plant), a wine bar (Vino Volo) and even rotisserie chicken (Napa Farms) or steak/seafood (Lark Creek). There’s a Kiehl’s store, too.

On of my favorite stops at T2 is the excellent maps exhibit. Endlessly fascinating to see maps old and new depicting the growth of San Francisco over the last 150 or so years. In addition, T2 is one of the best perches at the airport for plane spotting. Just go sit a big red egg chair facing out to the runways and gaze. T1 does not offer views like these!

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T1 redevelopment

Some other important points about what’s going on at SFO:

>Frontier Airlines, which used to operate out of T1C, has moved into Boarding Area B in T1, which does not have access to the new sterile connector.

>Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said that plans for a similar sterile connector between T2 and T3 (United) are in discussion, but “no schedule has been established for this as of yet.”

>Alaska Airlines has moved from T1 to the International Terminal Boarding Area A. Lucky Alaska Boardroom members now get to use Cathay Pacific’s outstanding business/first class lounge nearby.

>SFO’s iconic new 220-foot control tower, which is rising between T1 and T2 should be completed by mid-2015. The new tower is built to withstand an 8.0 earthquake with 215 piers embedded in bedrock 140 feet deep and anchored by 2,700 cubic yards of concrete, according the Fentress Architects which designed the tower and the new connector.

>A complete re-do of SFO’s Terminal 1 is already in the works and should be complete by 2024.

Here's a look down the new sterile corridor connecting T1 and T2 (Fentress Architects)

Here’s a look down the new sterile corridor connecting T1 and T2 (Fentress Architects)

–Chris McGinnis

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Trip Report: Korean Air B777 & A380 (Part 1)

Korean Air

Business class seats on Korean Air’s B777 are nearly identical to those on its A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Ever since Korean Air launched its Airbus A380 service between Seoul and Atlanta in September 2013, I’ve longed to take a seat on that 14.5-hour whopper of a flight.

Last month, I finally got my chance when Korean Air invited me over to Seoul for a look at the fast-growing, modern-yet-quirky South Korean capital.

The first leg of my journey was an 11.5-hour Boeing 777 flight from San Francisco to Seoul. I was in Seoul for three busy days, then boarded an A380 for the trip to Atlanta.

I was especially excited to be able to compare the business class experience on two different planes in a single trip. What did I discover? Well, it’s that business class on Korean Air is very consistent across these two planes. Except for the unbelievable business class lounges onboard KAL’s A380 (tune in to my next post for details/photos), nearly everything else was identical. There’s no need to be too disappointed if you can’t ride on an A380 because once you are in your seat, there’s very little difference– the seats, service, food, inflight entertainment, lavs… it’s all pretty much the same. And in both directions, the planes were squeaky clean– even down to the floor of the lavatories (see below).

Today, let’s take a look at that B777 flight from San Francisco to Seoul. Tomorrow I’ll post about my experience on KAL’s big A380 to Atlanta and we’ll explore the slight differences between the experiences.

At SFO, Korean Air uses British Airways Terraces lounge for first and business class flyers (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

At SFO, Korean Air uses British Airways’ Terraces lounge for first and business class flyers (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

At SFO, Korean Air new uses British Airways Terraces lounge for first and business class passengers. Luckily the KAL flight and the BA flights are timed well apart from each other so the lounge did not feel overcrowded.

Direct access to the plane from the lounge (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Direct access to the plane from the lounge (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Nice touch: When boarding KAL’s B777 from the Terraces lounge, business and first class passengers walk directly onto the plane from the lounge… the jetway is just beyond the door in the photo above.

Now, let’s jump onboard.

Korean Air

Carpet in the lavs on Korean Air’s B777 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

On the B777 flight from SFO to Seoul, I noticed something I’ve never seen on any aircraft: Carpet in the business class lavatories! My first thought was “eeuuww, what if this gets wet?” But upon closer inspection, I noticed that the carpet was actually a rug that was velcroed to the floor. If it gets wet, it’s removed and replaced with another. Based on how many times I noticed the hard working KAL flight attendants enter the lavs for cleaning during the flight, I was certain that it would get switched out if needed. But in any case, I have to say that it added a cozy or homey feel to the lav– much better than the black rubber floor I’m used to. It’s one of those “little things” but I noticed and appreciated it.

Korean Air

Buttonholes in the napkins on Korean Air (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Another one of the “little things” I noticed on this flight…. napkins with button holes. I’ve seen this on a handful of other carriers and always appreciate it… especially when I’m wearing a light colored shirt and eating things that easily spill… like soup or salad dressing. It shows that someone has really thought through inflight dining… a good sign. (And a shirt saver!)

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Korean Air

The dinner starter on SFO>Seoul: Seared tuna (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Meal service on the flight from San Francisco (which departed at 2 pm) started with seared tuna– accompanied of course by the ever present Korean chili paste gochujang and a two servings of kimchee-like pickles with an unusual rubbery crunch.

Korean Air

KAL’s famous bibimbap (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Next up for dinner was the popular Korean specialty bibimbap. Korean Air is famous for this… and even serves it from a truck at promotional events like its recent launch in Houston… it even offers it the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It’s delicious and healthy. To eat it, you squirt that tube of chili paste over the top and then mix all the ingredients together. Yum!

Economy class on Korean Air B777 offers 33-34 inches of pitch (Chris McGinnis)

Economy class on Korean Air B777 offers 33-34 inches of pitch (Chris McGinnis)

Economy class on Korean Air’s B777s offers a roomy 33-34 inches of seat pitch– that’s very generous compared to other carriers (United, for example, only offers 31 inches on its B777). Seats are configured 3-3-3. Korean Air does not offer a premium economy seat.

Stay tuned! My next post will be about my 14.5 hour journey on KAL’s A380 to Atlanta! Here’s a teaser photo… explanations coming soon! 

Korean Air

–Chris McGinnis

Disclosure: I was a guest of Korean Air on this flight

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Delta bumps bennies + BART-Oakland sets date + LAX airlines move + Hilton HHonors hacked + W in Beijing

Delta has expanded its popular Porsche pick up service to three more airports (Photo: Delta)

AIRLINES

Delta expands Porsche transfers, expedites at Heathrow. Delta continues to lead the way when it comes to adding new services for its best customers. For example, last week it announced an expansion of its Porsche tarmac transfer program to three more airports — New York LaGuardia, Seattle-Tacoma and Detroit Metro. The program offers gate-to-gate rides in Porsche vehicles for select SkyMiles Diamond Medallion members who have tight connecting times. It’s already offered at Atlanta, New York JFK, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul. (Here’s a video showing how it works.) At London Heathrow’s Terminal 3, meanwhile, Delta BusinessElite passengers arriving by private car service can now take advantage of an expedited greeting service in which Virgin Atlantic concierge staffers will meet them curbside with boarding passes, take their luggage, and speed them through security to the Virgin Clubhouse. Delta says, “On arrival at London Heathrow Terminal 3, Delta Air Lines BusinessElite customers can now enjoy a seamless and stress-free transfer from car to lounge in less than 10 minutes via the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Wing.” Keep in mind that many of Delta’s flights at Heathrow (including those to/from Detroit and Minneapolis) use Terminal 4 where this service is not available. Delta’s Atlanta-London flights switched to Terminal 3 from Terminal 4 on October 26.

The AirBART station is located at the front door of Oakland International

The AirBART station is located at the front door of Oakland International

BART-Oakland Airport sets date. Bay Area Rapid Transit officials have finally announced an opening date for the new BART rail link to Oakland International Airport. On Saturday, November 22 the new automated trains will transport riders from BART’s Coliseum station to the new Oakland Airport station every five minutes during peak hours; the ride takes eight minutes. The ride from the Coliseum station to/from downtown SF takes about 25 minutes. BART fares between the new Oakland Airport station and downtown San Francisco will be $10.05. That’s a nice break from cab fares which run as high as $75-$80. Are you more likely to use Oakland Airport now? Leave your comments below. 

Virgin America posts another profit. After dipping back into the red in the first quarter of 2014, Virgin America was solidly profitable in the third quarter, reporting net income of $41.6 million and a healthy operating margin of 12.9 percent. After years of operating in the red since its founding in 2007, Virgin has been profitable now for five of the last six quarters, putting it in a good position for its upcoming initial public offering. Virgin said in an SEC filing last week that its IPO shares will be priced at $21 to $24, valuing the company at up to $1 billion. The anticipated $320 million from the share sale should allow Virgin to move ahead with an ambitious expansion plan to buy new planes and add new routes.

Sneeze alarm. With all the concern about disease lately, especially as it affects travelers, you might get a little paranoid when a fellow passenger on your flight sneezes. Did you ever wonder just how far that sneeze can travel? Check out this video — if you dare.

American adds Europe routes. American Airlines has unveiled plans to add a pair of new routes to Europe next spring. On May 7, AA will inaugurate new daily narrowbody 757 flights from New York JFK to Birmingham, England. And on May 14, the company will kick off daily 767-300 flights from its Miami hub to Frankfurt.

AIRPORTS

The nice new Star Alliance lounge at LAX's new Tom Bradley International Terminal (Air New Zealand)

The nice new Star Alliance lounge at LAX’s new Tom Bradley International Terminal (Air New Zealand)

Air New Zealand, US Airways move at LAX. Effective December 3, Air New Zealand will set up shop in Los Angeles International’s refurbished Tom Bradley International Terminal 3, moving out of Terminal 2. That will give premium customers easy access to the new Star Alliance Lounge at LAX, which Air New Zealand manages. The carrier operates twice-daily service to Auckland (to be increased next summer to 17 a week) and one flight a day to London from LAX. Meanwhile, American Airlines affiliate US Airways last week moved from Terminal 3 to Terminal 6, gates 60-63, “with convenient access to connections on flights operated by American Airlines at Terminal 4 through an underground connector,” American said. “Shuttle service is also available to Terminal 4 and the Remote Terminal for American Eagle flights.”

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New airside connector at SFO. We’ve heard (but not confirmed) that the new airside connection between SFO’s fabulously famous Terminal 2 (Virgin America & American) and the more prosaic Terminal 1C (Delta’s boarding area) has opened. This means that Delta flyers socked in by delays now have some exciting new dining and retail options once they are behind security.

Outdoor spaces are the craze these days. Here's what JetBlue's will soon look like at JFK (Image: JetBlue)

Outdoor spaces are the craze these days. Here’s what JetBlue’s will soon look like at JFK (Image: JetBlue)

JetBlue’s JFK terminal grows. On Wednesday (November 12), JetBlue will open a $200 million extension of its home base, Terminal 5 at New York JFK, to be used for international flights. (The airline’s international arrivals currently use leased gates at Terminal 4.) The new six-gate expansion offers full federal inspection facilities in an arrivals hall and 40 automated passport readers. JetBlue plans to develop a public outdoor area on the new facility’s rooftop, akin to the popular High Line park in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Air France has finished a complete renovation of its two-level lounge at JFK’s Terminal 1.

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HOTELS

Hackers hitting HHonors accounts. How safe are your points in Hilton’s HHonors loyalty program? Recent online reports indicate that hackers have been raiding some accounts, not only stealing points — and in some cases selling them — but also gaining access to members’ credit card information.

Related: Hilton’s newest hotel in Honolulu

Hotels roll out keyless entry apps. Starwood and Hilton last week both announced new app functionality that will allow guests to open their room doors with smartphones. The Starwood Preferred Guest app’s new SPG Keyless feature is available now at 10 select Aloft, W, and Element hotels, with more to come in the months ahead; it allows SPG members who book directly with the company to bypass the front desk and go directly to their preassigned room, where a tap of their Bluetooth-enabled phone will unlock the door. Hilton said keyless entry will be available through its HHonors mobile app starting in 2015 at its Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad and Canopy brands, and at all 11 of its brands in 2016. The app will also work with other locked areas in Hilton’s hotels such as executive floors, fitness centers and garages.

A room at the new W Beijing located near the Forbidden City (Photo: Starwood)

A room at the new W Beijing located near the Forbidden City (Photo: Starwood)

Openings in Beijing, Sydney, Paris. The newest hotel in China’s capital city is Starwood’s 349-room W Beijing-Chang’an, located close to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Each room is equipped with a digital tablet that controls its lighting, 48-inch TV and Bluetooth sound system… InterContinental Hotels Corp. has cut the ribbon on the InterContinental Sydney Double Bay Hotel a few miles from that city’s central business district; the 140-room property is a luxury remaking of the former Double Bay Hotel … Hilton scheduled a January opening for the 268-room Hilton Paris Opera in the heart of the French capital; the company spent $50 million restoring and improving the 125-year-old building, formerly the Concorde Paris Opera.

In Case You Missed It…

>Check out these two airline credit cards for bonus benefits.

>American Express has opened a Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International.

>Two airlines offer free in-flight Wi-Fi.

>Here are six tips for securing the best air fare.

>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

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First look: Centurion Lounge at SFO [photos]

Centurion Lounge

SFO’s new American Express Centurion Lounge is located on the far west end of Terminal 3, behind security (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The new American Express Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3 opens on Thursday, November 6.

It joins three other Centurion lounges at New York LaGuardia, Dallas Ft Worth and Las Vegas McCarran airports.  A spokesperson told TravelSkills that the next Centurion Lounge will open at Miami International in the first half of 2015. She also said that Amex is working on securing space at several other airports.

The SFO Centurion Lounge is located in Terminal 3 (United) behind security. This means that it is easily accessible for travelers in Terminal 3 or the International Terminal Boarding Area G. But it is going to be inconvenient for passengers flying in or out of the airport’s other terminals because getting there requires an extra trip through the T3 security gauntlet. At SFO, Terminal 3 is not connected on the airside to Terminal 2 (American, Virgin America) or Terminal 1 (Delta, US Airways, Southwest).

American Express invited TravelSkills in for a sneak-peek at the lounge which included a sit down dinner prepared by Chef Christopher Kostow, who will oversee the lounge’s full kitchen. The menu items he prepared for this special meal were similar to those that will be on offer at the lounge. (see photos below.) All Centurion lounges offer a full hot buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. SEE MENU

What’s unique about the San Francisco lounge is its wine wall. Members get a paper chit with a bar code when they check in. This chit entitles them to five small pours of wine from an automated dispenser (See photos below.) Wave the chit under a reader, push a button, and get your pour. Very cool! There’s also a full complimentary bar stocked with call brand booze and beer. There’s a single shower, a quiet nook with chaise lounges for napping, a small business center that pays homage to Bay Arean Steve Jobs and a big bright & colorful living room space. Thankfully, there’s a glassed in “family room” for kids.

And before we get started with photos, here’s a link that explains who gets in Centurion lounges. (It’s free for Amex Platinum and Centurion card holders only- this does not include Delta/Amex Platinum card holders. Anyone else with any type of Amex Card gets in for $50.) See the screen grab at the bottom of this post for more details.

Free Rides to SFO! To celebrate the opening of The Centurion Lounge at SFO, American Express is working with Uber to give Amex card holders a complimentary Black Car ride to the airport. On November 6 Amex cardhholders who have any Amex card as their selected method of payment can enter the promo code CENTURIONSFO in the Uber app to receive a complimentary Black Car ride from San Francisco to SFO.

Now let’s take a look! Leave your comments below, please… 

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!

Centurion Lounge

All Centurion Lounges sport a “living wall” (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

Check in here to enter. Only Platinum and Centurion cardmembers get in free. All others pay $50 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

A big bright “living room: area with windows that overlook Terminal 3. Sorry, no views out to runways. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

The SFO lounge’s most distinguishing feature is this wine wall. Each member gets 5 free pours (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Wave this chit under a reader and then choose your pour. Very cool! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Wine expert Anthony Giglio shows how to pick your pour. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

An all Mac business center pays homage to Steve Jobs. Nice touch! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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The glassed in family room for kiddies (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

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A full kitchen staffed by chefs serving hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Eat your hot meal or sip on your wine here. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Full bar with plenty of nice call brands and beer (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

IMG_0049

A nook for napping (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Plenty of color pops…and room to sit down (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Centurion Lounge

Looking down from the lounge which is located on the mezzanine level– accessible by this staircase or a glass elevator. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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A nice sit down dinner for special guests included menu items likely to be served (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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“Slow roasted pork shoulder apple lees vinegar” paired nicely with a big fat Somerston Estate red blend from Napa (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Chestnut pudding with roasted chocolate for dessert (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

–Chris McGinnis

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!

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