World’s 5 most popular cities (and my comments)

See the Thames snaking through this glittering view from a United 767 approaching London Heathrow? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Last month I grinned at this glittering view of London as our United 767 approached Heathrow. See the Thames? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

London is the most popular travel destination in the world. (I would agree with that!) The British capital reclaimed the most popular spot based on air travel arrivals and foreign visitor spending, besting last year’s most popular destination, Bangkok, by more than 2 million visitors according to MasterCard’s Global Destination Cities Index released this week.

Where else are people traveling? Behind London and Bangkok, Paris, Singapore and Dubai rounded the top five locations across the globe.

I’ve been to all five of these cities within the last five years, but as a business travel columnist for BBC, that’s not out of the ordinary. But what about you? Read on to learn what I truly think about these places, and please let me know if you agree with me or not! See comments below!

Thankfully, MasterCard narrowed down the content of its massive report to the following data points. See my comments in italics after each… and please leave your comments below!

>Who’s traveling to the most popular destination in the world? Visitors to London come most often by way of New York, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Stockholm and Dublin. London will always remain in my top 2-3 cities because every time I go (and I’ve been at least once per year for the last 20 years) I find something new or interesting there. It has a dynamic dining and hotel scene, is always modernizing or changing, and just feels like the center of the universe to me. Some recent new finds: The Great Northern Hotel in the now-hip-once-seedy area around Kings Cross Station on the north side of town. The Borough Market is always worth a visit, especially now that you can make a side trip into the new, nearby Shard and have a look at the new Shangri-La hotel inside it. 

View from a room at the new Shangri-La Paris. Who can't love Paris? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

View from a room at the new Shangri-La Paris. Who can’t love Paris? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>Interestingly, Dubai is poised to eclipse Paris and Singapore as a more popular city than within five years if it continues to show such healthy growth number. I don’t get the attraction to Dubai. Once the novelty wears off (in a day or two) it feels like Las Vegas without the gambling and limited booze to me. Sure, it has a futuristic airport, a fab hometown airline, glam hotels and big architecture, but it was hot and dusty most of the time I was there. And I can’t help but keep wondering what would happen to the place if the desalinization plants ever shut down. Sure, it’s great for a stop over or a business trip, but I don’t think I’d go back on my own dime. Now, Paris  is a complete other story. Who can’t love Paris? Enough said. I had a really great time on a recent trip to Singapore– I really liked eating like a local at the “hawker stalls” and inspecting a raft of new hotels, but I was put off by the stifling heat, humidity and painfully high prices. Also, it seems unfair that locals are only allowed into casinos by paying a steep fee, but foreigners get in for free (and yes, they ask for passports at the casino door). But it’s worth seeing, especially that spaceship-like Marina Bay Sands with the pool on the roof. Wow! 

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>Perhaps the most surprising result this year is that Lima, Peru broke through as the first Latin American city to rank in the top 20 most popular destinations in the world and had more than double the visitors (5.11 million) as presumed more popular cities: Mexico City (2.57 million) or Sao Paulo (2.51 million). I have not been to Lima, but hope to make it there one day soon, even though LAN recently cut its nonstops from SFO. It’s been interesting to see the popularity of Peruvian cuisine sweep across the US. On the downside, I’ve heard that Lima is somewhat gritty and cloudy most of the time, so I’d probably hightail it outta there and hit the Andes and Machu Picchu after a few days. I was in Mexico City last year and really REALLY liked it. It’s definitely cleaned up its act lately, has a fun food/dining scene and lots of new hotels– it’s clearly a sleeper city. 

The Turkish Airlines CIP lounge at Istanbul Ataturk airport (Photo: Turkish Airlines)

The Turkish Airlines CIP lounge at Istanbul Ataturk airport (Photo: Turkish Airlines)

>Movers & Shakers: Istanbul saw the greatest percentage change in visitors from 2013 to 2014 with 17.5% more visitors, while Amsterdam bested Milan for twelfth place, pushing the Italian city of fashion to #13. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Istanbul, and I’m gunning to get back. I’m enthralled by the emergence of Turkish Airlines as such a big global player, and can’t wait to see its unusually mod airport club at Ataturk International one day. Based on the increasing number of Facebook posts and pics I see of my friends and readers at the mosques and markets, I’d say many folks are crossing this off their bucket list. Milan remains on my bucket list. 

>New York was notably the only North American city to crack the top 10 (or even the top 20!) list of top destinations worldwide. Behind New York the top cities remained unchanged YOY – Los Angeles (#2), Miami (#3), Toronto (#4) and San Francisco (#5) This is clearly a sign of how unwelcoming the US is to foreign visitors with unwieldy visa requirements. I know we had to tighten up after 9/11 but come on! In any case, New York always seems to be brimming with foreign tourists, which is why I always try to avoid the biggest tourist traps like Times Square or Fifth Ave, except for a day during the holidays when going there is fun and gets me in the holiday spirit…but I only stick around for an hour or so to see the tree at Rockefeller center, then split! The hotel scene in NYC is crazy these days, with new hotels opening at least monthly, so it’s hard to keep up. But one of my favorite pastimes when there is to just walk around town and check out the new hotel lobbies and have a drink or a meal. 

Okay! Your turn! Please leave your comments about the world’s top five cities below! LONDON, BANGKOK, PARIS, SINGAPORE, DUBAI. Have you been? What did you like or not like? Do you agree or disagree with my brief assessments? 

–Chris McGinnis

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Traveling with Carly Simon (reprise)

Carly Simon looking and sounding great at 65 on the ferry between Martha's Vineyard and Woods Hole, Mass. (and me!)

Carly Simon looking and sounding great at 65 on the ferry between Martha’s Vineyard and Woods Hole, Mass. (Selfie by Chris McGinnis)

I’m still a little bit star struck. Last week, on the first leg of my journey home from my summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., I traveled with one of my all-time favorite singers and songwriters, Carly Simon.

(Note: This is a reprise of a post from a previous Fourth of July weekend that I thought you might like to read again!)

Here’s what happened: As we were walking along the pier off Martha’s Vineyard to enter the queue for the ferry back to the mainland, a woman in a billowy white dress, a big handbag, blonde hair and a very familiar face walked up behind us in line.

I looked at her and smiled, then looked away, and then a little bell went off in my head. I turned and looked again, and she smiled back at me, and I stuttered something like, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like. . . um wait a minute. . . are you Carly Simon?” As a long-time fan, I knew that she lived on Martha’s Vineyard, so the possibility was not completely far fetched.

She smiled and said, “Yes, I am,” and seemed eager for a friendly chat, so I engaged.

I introduced myself and my partner Barkley, told her I was a big fan and that I cut my music-listening teeth on many of her hits on AM radio way back in the 70′s. (like You’re So Vain, Anticipation, Nobody Does It Better.)

The ferry between Woods Hole and Martha's Vineyard is always packed on July 4 weekend (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

You never know who you may meet on the ferry between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard on July 4 weekend (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I was looking around to see if her people, her handlers, her bodyguards or anyone else was around and realized quickly that it was just Carly, all by herself. She was toting a box of 100 or so CD’s that I offered to help her with, but she insisted on carrying it.

She told us that she was doing some very personal publicity for her new acoustical album Never Been Gone– and that the box was full of teaser CDs with two songs from it. Her plan was to stand at the entryway of the returning ferry and hand them out to passengers, and urge them to go to a record store on the Vineyard to buy the album for half price when they presented the teaser CD.

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We made a little more small talk, boarded the ferry, she sat down, handed me a CD, we said goodbye, and I walked away floating about 10 feet in the air.

I found my seat, got out my iPod and started listening to her Greatest Hits album. After a song or two, I decided to go back and ask her to sign the CD she’d given me and maybe even ask for a photo.

Carly Simon’s latest album, Never Been Gone. (Iris Records)

With pen in hand, I walked up to where she was seated in the sun on the main deck of the ferry, still by herself, and asked if she would autograph the CD. She said, “Of course,” and pulled out a Sharpie (natch) from her big bag and asked, “Would you like to sit down? Now, Chris, is this just for you, or for you and Barkley?” (Inside, I thought, wow, she even remembered our names!)

I sat down. She signed the CD and we talked for ten minutes or so, about the horrendous summer heat wave, about her 42-year-old horse that recently died, her bout with Lyme’s disease, the brand new iPad she was fiddling around with, life on Martha’s Vineyard and about my long weekend there.

Finally, I mustered the courage to ask if I could snap a photo and she said, “Of course, let’s do it!” I took two pics and then we both huddled over the camera and she chose the best one. I returned to my seat, and continued on my journey to Boston-Logan airport, and then back home to San Francisco.

What a great way to end a great vacation!

So anyway, frequent travelers . . . since this is a travel blog and not a celebrity blog, let’s add a travel angle here with a question:

Have you ever encountered a celeb or superstar on your frequent travels? If so, how did you react? I’d love to hear your stories and I’m sure other readers would like to hear them, too! Comments, please! Let’s have some fun with this . . .

–Chris McGinnis

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Best & worst days for holiday trips

(Photo: Bert Kaufmann)

(Photo: Bert Kaufmann)

Holiday travel season usually mimics the peak summer travel season, which this year was very busy and very expensive, so I expect the same for the upcoming holiday season.

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 9.26.07 AMWhen’s the best time to buy airline tickets? Due to high demand, there simply are not any real airfare “deals” on the peak days around Christmas and New Year’s this year. Travelers who want the most convenient flights on their preferred airlines should book as soon as possible to get seats on those flights…otherwise they will likely be stuck paying the same high price for “dog flights” that depart super early or late, they’ll have to sit in those dreaded middle seats, or make several stops en route to their destinations. My favorite sites for shopping for air travel this year: Kayak.com and Routehappy.com.

Should I drive or fly this year? I always stick to the five-hour rule: If you can drive to your destination in five hours or less, it’s likely smarter to hit the road instead of the skies during the holidays. This is especially true for families traveling together. Good news this year is that gasoline prices are at their lowest in many years. One of my favorite new smartphone apps for driving trips is Waze, a GPS-based mapping tool that uses information provided by other drivers to help you avoid traffic, road hazards…and speed traps.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 1.18.27 PM

What are the best days for traveling this year? The good news about this year’s holiday season is that it is longer than usual with Christmas and New Year’s falling on Wednesdays– the full season will be over two weeks long, which means more wiggle room for travelers. (Compared to a season when Christmas and New Year’s both fall on say, Sunday, which makes for a much more compact, crowded and expensive season.) Smart travelers will depart on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and return on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day to avoid the biggest crowds and snag the lowest fares.

London in January? Why not? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

London in January? Why not? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Are there any alternatives or hidden secrets to getting good deals this year? If you have the flexibility to travel during the slowest times of year, the so called “dead weeks” of early December and early January, you can save 50%-70% on airfare or hotels. For example, airfares to Europe can be remarkably inexpensive during winter months. The best sites to shop for these dead week deals: Hotwire.com, Priceline.com and TravelZoo.com. It’s also a good idea to check out airline or hotel social media streams on sites like Twitter or Facebook to look for short term, last minute sales.

Is now a good time to redeem points or miles for trips? It’s nearly impossible to use airline frequent flyer awards during the blacked out, heavily restricted peak holiday season. Instead of dealing with those frustrations, focus on your credit card points! For example, the when redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you are not subject to blackouts or other restrictions. If a seat is available on any airline, you can get it!

What about airline baggage fees? If possible, avoid checking bags during the holidays– the risk of your bag getting lost and ruining your trip is just too high. Try to learn to live out of a carry on. If you have too much for a carry on, ship your bags ahead of time, but do so at the “ground” rate at UPS, FEDEX or the Postal Service. Shipping a 25 lb bag via next-day or two-day express is just too expensive.

What’s a good way to avoid holiday travel stress? Always try to book nonstop flights because you double your chances of a delay or cancellation with a one stop flight, even though you might save a few bucks. Another stress-busting move: Consider staying over in a hotel when visiting families during the holidays– rates at new hotels like a locally owned Best Western in or near suburban office parks hit annual lows during holidays (due to the lack of business travelers), and facilities are usually new and nice. Having your own space at a hotel is a big relief for both the traveler and the host during the stressy holidays.

Doesn't that look more appealing than a lumpy sofa bed? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Doesn’t that look more appealing than a lumpy sofa bed at the in-laws? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

‘Tis the season for Holiday Travel and I’m pleased to announce that I’ve teamed up with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card to produce a series of travel tips and advice for those heading over the river and through the woods this year. 

Chris McGinnis 

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Did I get it right about Atlanta?

Have you been inside the mode new Hyatt Atlanta Midtown hotel at 10th & Peachtree yet? (Chris McGinnis)

Have you been inside the mod new Hyatt Atlanta Midtown hotel at 10th & Peachtree yet? (Chris McGinnis)

As many TICKET readers may know, I wear a lot of hats in the travel biz… one of my roles is Business Travel Columnist for BBC… I write the monthly “BBC Business Trip” column which features what’s new, exciting, helpful or interesting about major business travel destinations around the world.

This month, I wrote about our home town, Atlanta and I’d like to hear what you all think… did I get it right? What did I leave out? What sort of advice would you give a business traveler headed to Atlanta for a few days? 

Here’s the introduction to my story… click on the links provided to read the whole thing. 

Business Trip Atlanta BBCLike its official symbol, the phoenix, Atlanta is rising from the ashes of the recent recession, maintaining its position as the commercial capital of the fast-growing southeastern US.

Over the last five years Atlanta has added a $1.4 billion international airport terminal, opened or renovated a slew of hotels, attracted additional national and regional business headquarters, and spurred development of once decaying downtown neighbourhoods with multimillion dollar mixed-use developments and parks.

Evidence of Atlanta’s comeback: overnight visitation was up 9% in 2012 compared to 2011, according to the city’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. In October 2013, Korean Air added daily 407-seat Airbus A380 nonstop flights between Atlanta and Seoul. The city ranked fourth in the US for meetings and conventions in 2012, after Orlando, Chicago and Las Vegas. Its surprisingly sophisticated and dynamic dining scene continues to enthuse visitors and locals alike – Atlantans dine out more often than New York or Chicago residents, and enjoy restaurant prices well below the national average, according to Zagat.

Most business travellers arriving in Atlanta will meet, eat and sleep somewhere along the north-south corridor, which starts in the city’s central core (downtown) and moves north to MidtownBuckhead and the sprawling Perimeter Centre/Dunwoody area, which has more office space than downtown. Stick close to this spine and you can get around easily by taxi or MARTA (the city’s rapid rail system).  But if business takes you into the tech-heavy northern suburbs such as Marietta, Alpharetta or Gwinnett County, a rental car is necessary to traverse the sprawl.

I wrote about the new mod new Hyatt in Midtown (a down to the studs revamp), the chic Le Meridien out by Perimeter Mall, the classy Mandarin Oriental near Lenox and the popular St Regis, Buckhead. For dining, I suggested The Optimist, King + Duke, KR Steakbar and the unusual new Gunshow. I suggested a walk or ride along the new Eastside Trail and Beltline, and talked a bit about southern manners.

Please take a read and let me know what I may have missed! What would YOU suggest to an international business traveler coming to ATL? (Leave your comments below) And use this as a resource to send out to colleagues coming into town.

Chris McGinnis 

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Love to fly in business class? Then see this!

Click on photo to launch slideshow of 15 business class seats!

Click on photo to launch slideshow of 15 business class seats!

Last week I attended the Global Business Travel Association convention in San Diego. The best part about this confab is the trade show floor, where most major global airlines show off their latest, greatest business class seats.

Want to see what I saw?

Click on the photo above or here to launch the Google+ slideshow where I present to you my photos of 15 of the cushiest seats in the sky!

Which one looks best? Which one(s) have you flown? Please leave your comments below. 

Screen shot 2013-08-15 at 8.10.40 AM

Chris McGinnis

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Delta/Virgin done + pricey summer travel + PreCheck @ SFO + mess at United

Virgin Atlantic's route map

New places to go! Virgin Atlantic’s route map

DELTA AND VIRGIN ATLANTIC INK DEAL. Delta’s recent acquisition of 49% of Virgin Atlantic Airways is now complete, paving the way for the roll out of new benefits for travelers. Immediately, Delta Platinum, and Diamond Medallion members plus business class flyers gain access to Virgin Clubhouses (oases of luxury with restaurant menus, luxury bars, beauty salons, and spas all with Virgin’s compliments). Unfortunately, those of you flying from London-Heathrow to Atlanta (or New York) on Delta will still be using Heathrow’s nice but more prosaic SkyTeam lounge since Virgin flights do not depart from terminal four where Delta flights leave. However, if you are a Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion member flying back to the states on Virgin, you’ll have access to its super-posh Clubhouse in Heathrow’s Terminal 3. Now there’s a reason to arrive early at the airport! Have you flown Virgin before? What did you think? Please leave your comments below. 

Virgin's super posh, recently renovated Clubhouse at JFK. Seen it yet? (Virgin Atlantic)

Virgin’s super posh, recently renovated Clubhouse at JFK. Seen it yet? (Virgin Atlantic)

DELTA-VIRGIN DEAL BOOSTS NYC-LONDON FREQUENCIES. There are no current plans for Virgin Atlantic to fly to Atlanta, according to a Delta spokesperson. But the key  development of this new partnership is that Delta and Virgin will now offer 9-10 flights daily (depending on the seasonal schedule) on New York – London, one of the world’s busiest and most lucrative routes. In addition to reciprocal lounge access, Delta flyers will earn mileage on Virgin flights and have access to priority check-in and boarding plus increased baggage allowance. Would you fly to London via New York (JFK or EWR), Boston or Washington DC instead of nonstop on Delta from ATL to fly on Virgin Atlantic or to sample its clubhouses? Please leave your comments below.

DELTA FINED FOR IMPROPER BUMPS. This just in from New York Times:  The government has fined Delta $750,000 for bumping some passengers involuntarily, without offering compensation or seeking volunteers first. Airlines sometimes sell too many tickets for a flight, and have to move, or “bump,” them to a later flight. If travelers do not volunteer, the airline has to compensate them. The Transportation Department said Wednesday that in March 2012 it visited the Atlanta headquarters of Delta and reviewed 310 complaints about how it handled overbookings from November 2010 to January 2012. The agency said it found numerous cases where Delta had failed to tell overbooked passengers about their rights to receive payments, failed to provide written notice, or failed to seek volunteers before bumping passengers involuntarily. Full story here. 

PRICEY SUMMER. This is expected to be the busiest summer travel season since before the recession of 2008. The peak of the peak summer travel season, which runs from roughly June 21 through August 10 this year, is now upon us. Airlines say that the busiest days of this summer will be Thursdays and Fridays, so avoid those if you can. Since this is THE most expensive, most crowded time of year to travel, try to postpone trips until late August if you can, and you may get through this summer with your wallet and sanity intact. (Check out my in-person travel tips in the above video, which is part of a summer travel project I’ve been working on with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.)

United flight attendants improvisation when toilet paper ran low. (Credit: Unknown)

United flight attendants improvised when toilet paper ran low on an London-SFO flight (Credit: Unknown)

UNUSUAL TP ON UNITED? By now you’ve likely heard about United flight 931 from London to San Francisco that somehow took off… without enough toilet paper. United uses a 747-400 on the 10-hour daylight flight from Heathrow, which has nine lavatories. Over the last week, the story has gone viral. A quick Google news search using “United Toilet Paper” shows at least 28 stories have run so far.While the story was originally posted on FlyerTalk, here’s our favorite take on it, from the Daily Beast: “Is it us, or does flying keep getting crappier? Every airline seems to be cutting back on something, but United took it to a whole new level by taking off for a ten-hour flight without [enough] toilet paper on board. Some quick thinking flight attendants stocked the bathrooms with cocktail napkins, but the effort didn’t sit well with passengers. In a statement, United said, ‘We apologize to our customers on this flight for the inconvenience and would like the opportunity to welcome them back.’” Another good headline from USA Today: “United is wiping up after a customer service mess.” CNN confirmed that the lavatories lacking TP were in the coach section, not in business or first class. Thoughts please! Leave them below in the comments section.

Precheck logo TMPRE CHECK ARRIVES AT SAN FRANCISCO. Delta flyers soon will have access to the speedy PreCheck lane when traveling on from SFO’s Terminal 1 Boarding Area c used by Delta. The lanes are expected to open in mid-July.

NEW SEATTLE-SHANGHAI SERVICE. Delta continues to bolster its Seattle-Tacoma gateway with international flights and has added nonstop Seattle-Shanghai service using a Boeing 767 aircraft fully equipped with lie-flat beds in BusinessElite and a retrofitted Economy Comfort cabin. Delta’s commitment to growing Seattle is also evidenced by Alaska Airlines’ recent announcement that it will drop all other international codeshare agreements (including Qantas and Emirates) to focus on its partnership with Delta. In the SEA-TAC gate areas, Delta has also added popular charging stations for those needing a power boost. We are hearing rumors about a potential new Delta nonstop between Seattle and London-Heathrow. Stay tuned!

MEMPHIS HUB OFFICIALLY AXED. Delta has finally announced the closure of its hub operation in Memphis, meaning more than a dozen cities lose nonstop flights to the one-time Northwest Airlines hub. Most of these flights used gas-guzzling CRJ-200 50-seat regional jets that Delta is phasing out anyway. This will funnel more traffic through the Atlanta hub, but Memphis will still maintain flights to major cities including Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC.

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CINCINNATI SAFE, ACCORDING TO DELTA CEO. Richard Anderson publicly announced that Delta’s Cincinnati hub will continue to operate despite speculation that Delta might dump it, too based on the raft of recent cuts there.  For now, Delta still maintains a significant presence including nonstop service to Paris Charles de Gaulle. Anderson was even quoted as saying, “the hub is doing quite well…we feel really good about where are service levels are there.” What do you think… will CVG survive? Please leave your comments below.

Delta CEO Ricard Anderson (Delta Air Lines)

Delta CEO Ricard Anderson (Delta Air Lines)

DELTA CEO HAILED AS A HERO. Richard Anderson grabbed the spotlight in a positive way after quietly giving up his seat to a distressed traveler on her way to pick up her daughter from a diabetes camp. She has had experienced a trail of delayed and canceled flights throughout the day. In a classy move, neither Delta nor Anderson flaunted the act of kindness until the traveler publicly commented about the incident via a thank you letter on Facebook that went viral. Apparently,  Anderson even helped her lift her bag into the overhead, then sat upfront in the jumpseat with pilots for the flight.

UNITED FOLLOWS DELTA IN REVENUE REQUIREMENT FOR ELITES. Delta’s move to establish revenue requirements for flyers looking to maintain elite status  caught the eye of United, which followed suit this month with an even more harsh plan. United’s revenue requirements include similar spending levels and a credit card-spending pathway to avoid the revenue thresholds. However, United’s top-level, Premier 1K, (equivalent to Delta’s Diamond) does not qualify for an exemption no matter how much you spend on a co-branded United credit card. Flyers must spend $10,000 if they wish to maintain that top level of elite benefits. Like Delta, the changes go into effect in 2014 for 2015 elite qualification. Now the big question is whether or not American will join the club. What do you think?

ATL TO GET TOUCH-SCREEN GUIDES. A $2.1 million project to replace existing signage in Atlanta’s terminals with interactive screens is set to begin, pending a final approval from the city. These new signs will be easier to use and allow passengers to look up information about the entire airport such as the location of certain shops or restaurants. The old-school, static signs now are location-specific.

ANOTHER ATL NONSTOP TO SAO PAULO COMING. Delta has received preliminary approval for a second-daily nonstop between ATL and Sao Paulo. If approved, it will feature all lie-flat seating in business, plus several rows of Economy Comfort seats (which are now fitted on all mainline aircraft).

Delta's new Sky Deck at ATL. (Photo: Brad Bell)

Delta’s new Sky Deck at ATL. (Photo: Brad Bell)

SKY DECK OPEN AT ATLANTA TERMINAL F. The long-awaited Sky Deck at the Sky Club has opened allowing al fresco seating for club guests as they await their flights. See photos of JFK deck here. Views of the tarmac and aircraft below are captivating, and they are similar to those found at the newly opened Sky Deck at JFK terminal four. Outdoor seating was designed by Thom Felicia in partnership with Architectural Digest magazine. Have you tried it yet? Or are you waiting for the summer humidity to die down?

The apple-sized Beacon Phoenix wireless speaker in my NYC hotel room (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The apple-sized Beacon Phoenix wireless speaker in my NYC hotel room (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

PORTABLE BLUETOOTH SPEAKERS. Last month Beacon Audio sent me one of their new, fist-sized, Phoenix Bluetooth speakers ($49-$99 depending on where you buy it) for a test drive. I’m no audiophile, but this tough, rubberized, rechargeable and travel-friendly speaker packs a wallop of sound that’s great for jamming on iTunes in the hotel shower—it also adds a deeper dimension to watching videos on my iPad. I plan on bringing it to the beach later this summer. Do you pack a portable speaker for your listening pleasure when on the road? What’s your speaker of choice? Why? Please leave your comments below.

Chris McGinnis & Ramsey Qubein

*****

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Fewer Sky Club freebies + JFK Extension + New PreCheck lane at ATL

Delta's Sky Club Luxury Bar on Concourse E (Chris McGinnis)

Delta’s Sky Club Luxury Bar on Concourse E (Chris McGinnis)

FEWER FREEBIES AT SKY CLUBS. With little notice, Delta has moved several beverages from the Sky Club complimentary bar menu to the Luxury Bar pay menu. You’ll now be asked to pay for beers like Heineken or local brews, liqueurs such as Bailey’s and other popular pops.  We contacted Delta to determine what it still offers at no charge at Sky Clubs and a spokesperson sent over this list of the free stuff:  Vodka – Gordon’s; Gin – Gordon’s; Rum – Myers’s Platinum; Scotch – Scoresby; Bourbon – Jack Daniel’s;  Sweet & Dry Vermouth – Martini & Rossi; Beer- Budweiser & Miller Lite; Wine- no changes.  Delta also sent us the new Luxury Bar Menu, effective May 15. Which of your favorite adult beverages has disappeared from the “complimentary” list and what are the new prices? Please leave your comments below.

Delta now operates from T4 and T2 at JFK. The old Pan Am Worldport will soon be gone.

Delta now operates from T4 and T2 at JFK. The old Pan Am Worldport will soon be gone.

DELTA’S JFK EXTENSION. On May 24, Delta took the wraps off its new digs at New York- JFK, which will replace the now shuttered vintage Pan Am Worldport, or Terminal 3.  Delta is currently demolishing that leaky old Mad-Men-era terminal to allow easier movement and more parking between terminals 2 and 4. It’s important to note that Terminal 4 is not brand new—it’s been around since 2001– but Delta has completely remodeled and lengthened the B-side space adding nine new gates to the existing seven. The new terminal also features TSA PreCheck, something that many international terminals do not have presently. New dining options include an outpost of Manhattan’s favorite burger joint, Shake Shack. T4′s opening also gives Sky Club members their first look at a new SkyDeck, an open-air, glassed-walled terrace overlooking the tarmac—great for spotting all those exotic tails that float around JFK runways. Outdoor seating and umbrellas are a great way to get some fresh air. A similar SkyDeck will open later this year in Atlanta’s F concourse. The Sky Club at JFK’s T4 is now Delta’s largest.  Many domestic flights and nearly all Delta Connection flights will continue to use Terminal 2 (JFK’s oldest), while most Delta transcons and all international flights will now use T4. By 2015, Delta will add an additional 11 gates to T4.

DELTA WAITS IT OUT. Earlier this month CEO Richard Anderson said that Delta is in no hurry to order new aircraft like the Boeing 737 Max or Airbus A320neo. He said Delta would rather have other airlines test them first to work through any kinks such as the recent battery issues exhibited by the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. He said that not only does this allow for a more efficient rollout of aircraft within its fleet, but it also allows for more affordable pricing when it comes time to upgrade a fleet. Delta is, however, taking new Boeing 737-900s in the coming years, but these are already being flown by a number of airlines including United, Delta’s closest domestic rival at the moment.

MORE PRECHECK AT ATL. Atlanta’s north security checkpoint now has a TSA Pre-Check lane for expedited security. The north checkpoint is used primarily by non-Delta flyers, which means Southwest/AirTran travelers will eventually enjoy speedier access once it joins in on the PreCheck fun. Southwest will only say that it is working on getting into PreCheck…nothing certain yet. If it wants to compete with Delta for business travelers in Atlanta, it frankly needs to get on the stick and become part of PreCheck. Agree? 

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FLAWS IN RECENT AIRLINE SURVEY. IdeaWorks’ fourth annual survey of airline award seat availability ranked Delta dead last. But to be fair, we must point out that the survey only used airline websites to gauge availability, and we all know that Delta’s is pretty dismal when it comes to redemptions. IdeaWorks searched for two tickets on 280 different dates, at the restricted award levels. Southwest clocked in at first place, and Delta tied with US Airways for the worst among domestic airlines. By picking up the phone (after doing significant research via other websites like AirFrance.us via its Flying Blue program), Delta flyers usually find much more open space. But, the survey does not reveal that. What was accurate and fair about the survey was that it ranks Delta much higher for close-in availability as award seats are often released more freely within two weeks of departure.

ON THE OTHER HAND, KUDOS. On a brighter note, Delta ranked as the top legacy carrier in the recent JD Power survey. It also ranked second best (after Southwest) among majors in a recent Consumer Reports survey. It’s easy to pick on the dominant, hometown carrier…but compared to its peers, Delta’s sitting pretty these days.What do you think? Do Atlantans whine too much about Delta when they might have the best of the bunch in their own backyard? Please leave your comments below.

Love the rocking chairs a Charlotte Douglas Airport (Francesco Mucio)

Love the rocking chairs (but hate the high fares) at Charlotte Douglas Airport (Francesco Mucio)

NEW GOUGE: CHARLOTTE. From TICKET reader JJ: “Has anyone noticed that since Southwest and AirTran left the Atlanta-Charlotte market that Delta fares (a few weeks ago were $200 or a little more) are now over $600 no matter how far out you book? This used to be the case before AirTran went into Charlotte and now that they have left, good old gouge you Delta is at it again. Oh well I guess I’ll have to go back to driving to Charlotte – hate that drive.” (Agreed! That drive up truck infested I-85 is awful!)

THOUGHT DELTA WAS SNEAKY? Delta is not the only airline monetizing its upgrade programs. For example, passengers can bid how many miles or how much money they are willing to spend to upgrade on long flights. Air New Zealand, Austrian, Etihad, and Virgin Atlantic are all offering this type of program. Customers can still use miles for business class seats, but this new auction system allows the demand to ratchet up the price on busy flights putting more money in the airline coffers. It also helps to fill seats that would otherwise go empty making low bidders quite happy (although the cheapest fares are often restricted). Could Delta be next? What do you think about such an idea? Please leave your comments below.

NEW SOUTHWEST FLIGHTS. Atlanta will see additional Southwest flights to New Orleans, New York LaGuardia, St. Louis, West Palm Beach beginning Nov. 3. Also on that date, AirTran’s Atlanta to San Juan flight will switch to Southwest instead of an AirTran plane with business class.

CURTAIN CALL FOR AIRTRAN BUSINESS CLASS. AirTran regulars may have noticed that there are no longer curtains between business and coach class. This removal is part of the alignment with the Southwest model and preparation for operating with a single cabin of service. So its buh-bye business class…but at least it’s a long buh-bye!

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An Alaska Airlines 737 at Atlanta Airport (Atlanta Airport)

An Alaska Airlines 737 at Atlanta Airport (Atlanta Airport)

PLUS PORTLAND. MINUS SEATTLE. Delta partner Alaska Airlines will add a new Boeing 737-800 nonstop between ATL and Portland, Oregon on August 26. When the Portland-Atlanta route begins Aug. 26, Alaska Air will reduce its Seattle-Atlanta route to once daily.

FLINT. With AirTran/Southwest out of the picture on the ATL-Flint, Michigan route, Delta is deploying a larger A319 on the route, adding 60 extra seats between the two cities starting in June. Delta is currently using an RJ on the route. With Delta as the only nonstop in the market, you can only guess which direction prices have gone recently….

Join Chris McGinnis & JohnnyJet for the #travelskills chat on Friday mornings!

Join Chris McGinnis & JohnnyJet for the #travelskills Twitter chat on Friday mornings!

SEEKING SUMMER TRAVEL DEALS AND ADVICE? Join in the #TravelSkills chat with @JohnnyJet and me every Friday at noon Eastern! Our new chat has been trending in the US on Twitter on nearly every Friday, so stop by and join the fun. And learn something, or uncover a summer travel deal! See www.travelskills.com/chat

Chris McGinnis

*****

 

Delta's new $200 fee + PreCheck at kiosk + More flat seats + Routehappy

DELTA’S  $200 FEE. This morning Delta joined United and US Airways in raising its standard change fee to a painful $200, up from $150. Like the same-day-change policy shift we wrote about last week, this news is particularly painful to business travelers, who are most likely to make ticketing changes. So far, American is the holdout in the move to the $200 fee. And as you may know, Southwest does not charge change fees at all—however, you do have to pay for any difference in price if the fare you booked is no longer available. How do you feel about a $200 fee? Is this enough to force the many Atlanta-based Delta devotees into the arms of Southwest? Please leave your comments below!

DeltaTSAboardingPass

GOT PRECHECK? It is becoming even easier to know if you are on the TSA’s A-list. Delta now prints PreCheck notifications on boarding passes picked up at airport kiosks. This means that you’ll know whether or not you are selected before getting to security and waiting (hoping) for those beautiful three beeps.  Soon, boarding pass notification of PreCheck status will also be available for mobile boarding passes. You should see it on the same line where your elite status appears– directly underneath your name.

SOUTHWEST FLYERS NEXT IN LINE. Southwest Airlines, the only major airline that does not currently offer PreCheck, is apparently in negotiations with TSA to join in the fun. A Southwest spokesperson told The TICKET: “We are currently reviewing the program and considering participation sometime before the end of year.”  Insiders say that it’s not that Southwest does not want to participate, but that its reservations system is not capable of incorporating PreCheck yet. (San Francisco-based Virgin America just announced that it would participate in PreCheck this summer.)

TIGHTER SQUEEZE. Prepare to suck it in a little more when entering an even smaller lavatory aboard Delta’s new Boeing 737-900s pretty soon. Delta will install a new lavatory design that’s so small that it will be able to cram in an extra four seats on each plane. Delta says that much of the space is taken from the wall behind the sink so it will not be as noticeable (was there much space to steal from the bathroom anyway?). Get the hand sanitizer ready!

Business class on Delta's A330s (Photo: Delta)

Business class on Delta’s A330s (Photo: Delta)

GETTING FLATTER, FASTER. Delta has really sped up the installation of new flat-bed seating on international aircraft, and the Airbus A330 is the last aircraft type to be retrofitted. Delta inherited these wide-body aircraft in the merger with Northwest, and they all came with angled lie-flat “cocoon” style seat. Soon, all A330s will have 34 new lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. Once the retrofit is complete (Delta says summer 2014) , all long-haul aircraft in Delta’s fleet will feature the new flat bed seating with the exception of the B757s flying to Europe on routes including JFK to Reykjavik, Iceland and Malaga, Spain, which have cradle-style seats.

SOUTHWEST SPREADING OUT AT ATL. This from the Dallas Morning News: “Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly said the airline will spread out its daily flight schedule at the Atlanta airport to attract more local travelers instead of those connecting to other cities. The number of daily flights won’t change from 175, he said. With fewer people and bags moving from plane to plane through the Atlanta airport, Southwest won’t need as many ramp and customer service workers, such as ticket and gate agents and baggage handlers.” The result? Southwest will lay off 300 AirTran workers at ATL.

FREE INFLIGHT WI-FI. Blackberry’s doing everything it can to get its hot new Z10 smartphone in the hands of travelers, and its teaming up with Delta to say “thanks” to those who’ve made the big switch. Fire up your browser on your Blackberry inflight, and you’ll enjoy free Gogo wi-fi on all Delta domestic flights through June 30. The promotion is in honor of Blackberry’s new Z10 device, which is on display in various airports around the system including stations in numerous Sky Clubs like New York LaGuardia and Boston. PLEASE take our poll! Which type of smart phone do you carry? (Be sure to click on the “Vote” button below… it may be hard to see) 

[poll id="6"]

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SNEAK PEEK AT DELTA’S T4 AT JFK. Delta just released a new video showing progress on its big new hub project at New York-JFK’s Terminal 4. Opening on May 24, the new terminal sports a giant 23,000 square foot Sky Club (See 1:40 in the video). In Manhattan, Delta has opened a new T4X “popup” demo of the new terminal in SoHo, and invites folks to come by for a look-see… and a $4 lunch!

MORE SIZZLE AT SEATTLE HUB. Delta’s and Virgin Atlantic’s plans to institute a joint venture on transatlantic flights is certain to be a boon for all Delta and Virgin flyers. It also brings about the possibility of new routes including a proposed flight between Seattle/Tacoma and London Heathrow. The flight is expected to benefit from the feed from Alaska Airlines codeshare flights and would make Seattle an even more important gateway in the Delta network. Neither Virgin nor Delta currently serves London from Seattle.

DELTA CEO PAY. Delta’s CEO Richard Anderson saw his compensation jump 42% last year — a combination of his long-term incentive pay and the fact that Delta made more money than its peers. His overall compensation rose to almost $12.6 million, up from $8.9 million in 2011, according to an Associated Press calculation based on an SEC filing Tuesday.

A China Eastern A330 at the gate at SFO (Photo: Peter Biaggi)

A China Eastern A330 at the gate at SFO (Photo: Peter Biaggi)

GET SHANGHAID. There’s a new way to Shanghai on SkyTeam partner China Eastern via San Francisco. The Airbus A330 departs SFO at 11:30 am and arrives at Shanghai Pudong airport (PVG) the following day at 4 pm. On the return, the flight departs Shanghai at 1 pm and arrives at SFO at 9:30 am. Three days a week, the flight offers continuing service to Wuhan (pop 10 million), a central Chinese city many refer to as “the Chicago of China.” China Eastern offers two types of business class seats on its Airbus A330-200—one type is the angled lie flight, the other is a true lie flat (180 degrees flat). China Eastern’s San Francisco manager Charlie Gu tells The TICKET that the San Francisco flight will always get the newer plane with the true lie-flat seats. Every seat on China Eastern’s A330 (coach and business) has personal seatback entertainment systems and access to AC plugs. China Eastern is the second largest carrier in China (after Air China), and flies a relatively young fleet—with an average age of just seven years. Have you flown or heard much about China Eastern? Please leave your comments below!

MARVELOUS MAKEOVER. In partnership with the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airports, Terminal 5 at LAX will benefit from $229 million in construction and refurbishment work (expected to take place in phases beginning now through 2015). Ticketing and security screening areas will be expanded and include a separate VIP entrance and SkyPriority check-in lobby similar to that at JFK. The Sky Club will finally receive additional charging stations for passengers needing juice for electronics. There are plans to install a pricey new Luxury Bar replacing the more popular (and cheaper) self-service bar. Other terminal amenities include new baggage carousels and baggage recheck areas for inbound connecting passengers, and a fresh new look and new restaurants and bars that reflect LA’s culture and lifestyle.

TERMINAL F MAKES THE GRADE. The coveted LEED designation has been given to the new international terminal in Atlanta recognizing its environmental design and Earth-friendly production materials. Many features promote sustainability including a water box on the roof that collects rain water for filtering and release to the environment; thermal glazing to prevent loss of heating or cooling through windows; low-flow faucets in bathrooms; energy-efficient lighting, and a strong recycling program. It also includes those new “waterless” (and stinky!) urinals—men, do you know what I’m talking about here? P.U.!

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 9.41.54 AMARE YOU A HAPPY FLYER? Just fiddling around with the new Routehappy website makes us feel happy. Why? After a year of  researching, analyzing, and grading aircraft types and amenities, Routehappy applies “happiness factors” most business travelers care about such as seat pitch, width and layout, entertainment, Wi-Fi, in-seat power, plane quality, and trip duration to help you pick the option flight. In addition, it manually gathers complex information about flights from sources like the airline’s website, press releases, staff, industry analysts & influencers, blogs, forums, news stories and reviews from road warriors and “route experts.” It then applies a “happiness score” to each flight to help make the best decision. For example, I’ve always known that Delta’s roomy, jumbo B767 flights between ATL and SFO are much more comfortable than those long, narrow torture tubes known as Boeing 757’s. Routehappy exposes that. This sounded very similar to Hipmunk’s “Agony” index, which uses an algorithm to rank flights based on price, duration and stopovers. Routehappy seems to have taken flight ranking a step beyond that with more robust information that includes human input. Take a look at Routehappy and let us know what you think. Leave your comments below.

Chris McGinnis

*****

15 top business travel tweeters

twitter_londonHave you dabbled in Twitter….or are you a power user? Let’s face it, Twitter can be overwhelming for time-pressed business travelers. Who has the time to sort through the millions of #travel-related tweets?

Finding truly useful business travel information can be as tough as finding that free drink coupon at the bottom of your carry-on bag. But flitting around on Twitter can unearth some very useful, topical information that can help you save money, have better trips, and be a better-informed traveler.

To help you out, here is a list of those I feel are the top Tweeters when it comes to business travel.

(Listed in alphabetical order)

@ajcairlinesThe AJC’s Kelly Yamanouchi does a great job keeping up with, and tweeting out, newsy and helpful info regarding aviation and Atlanta airport news.

@ausbt - The Australian Business Traveller tweets from down under with news and advice that that doesn’t just apply to Australians.

@barbdelollis – It’s smart to follow USA Today’s super-connected hotel blogger Barbara Delollis, who keeps us up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in at hotels—every business traveler’s home away from home on the road.

@cjmcginnis - That’s me. Having covered the business travel beat since 1991, I’ve developed a good nose for what’s important to frequent travelers, and provide links to top travel news as well as my posts on BBC.com, SFgate, The TICKET (of course)  and elsewhere.

@econbiztravel – Official postings from Gulliver, The Economist’s excellent business travel blog—a good mix of US and European coverage.

@executivetravel – The twitter feed from Executive Travel Magazine, “which supports the affluent, executive lifestyle of the world’s business leaders.”

@frequentlyflyin – The feed from LA-based Darren Booth, who is CNBC’s Road Warrior editor, and also writes the FrequentlyFlying.com blog.

twitter-floowme@garyleff – The prolific Washington, DC-based Gary Leff writes the popular View From the Wing blog, and primarily tweets news and strategies for managing loyalty points.

@globetrotscott – New York-based Scott Mayerowitz is the airline reporter for the Associated Press, and frequently breaks important business travel news with his tweets.

@johnnyjet - LA-based John DiScala is the travel industry’s social media master, and supplies a steady stream of useful links and updates from his frequent jaunts around the world.

@sean_oneill – Travel techies should follow London-based Sean O’Neill, who covers travel tech for BBC.com and Tnooz.

@skiftnews – Skift.com is a slick and sophisticated new travel news site that’s taken the industry by storm, and its twitter feed provides an excellent, frequently updated stream of travel industry intelligence that leans heavily in the direction of business travel.

@smartwomentrav – Don’t let her twitter handle fool you—Orlando-based author and blogger Carol Margolis tweets a helpful stream of business travel “pearls of wisdom” that apply to both sexes.

@stuckatairport – Business travelers spend as much time in airports as they do on planes. If there’s something going on at an airport in the US or around the world, blogger Harriet Baskas is one of the first to know about it…and tweet about it.

@thepointsguy – I get dizzy watching Miami-based Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, masterfully keep up with the frequent changes in airline, hotel and credit card programs, and then tweet out smart strategies for earning and burning.

@todayinthesky – Washington, DC-based Ben Mutzabaugh writes USA Today’s popular Today in the Sky blog, and is frequently the first to know… and tweet… important airline industry news.

@travelfoodguy – Vermont-based bon vivant Larry Olmsted provides business travelers a helpful stream of all-important dining, golf and travel advice, along with links to his work on Forbes.com, Cigar Aficionado and USA Today.

Who did I miss? Please add your favorite business travel tweeters below! 

Checking in on new AirTran A+ Rewards card

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 8.41.26 AM

Here’s an interesting discussion between TICKET reader N.G. and Southwest’s Director of Rapid Rewards regarding recent changes in the AirTran A+ Rewards card.

Dear Chris: I just opened my mail and received the new rules for AirTran’s Juniper/Barclay card that is moving over to Chase.

First, they are changing the annual bonus. I used to receive two $50.00 certificates each anniversary. Now it will be 2,000 A+ reward dollars which get transferred to two A+ Reward Credits. Remember, you need eight credits to get a one way flight; so the hundred dollars is changing to one quarter of a one way flight. That stinks!

Two credits sounds good but they are not flight credits. It takes eight to fly (one way).

They still say every $8,000 charged on the card gets another credit bonus (above the one credit per $1,000 spent). But the Chase site says it will take $9,600 charged to get the AirTran credit bonus.

They are just trying to make me leave…

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I now have over 10 years of Elite status with AirTran and have only flown Delta once (Brazil)  in the last five years. I never could get past Silver with Delta because I only fly short hops…

But now Southwest is the new owner and bad things are happening. Like no more business class. And a lot of standing in the cattle yard to board.

And, we still have no idea about Elite reciprocity over at Southwest…

Regards;

NG (Half million Delta; quarter million AirTran; none on Southwest yet)

The TICKET contacted AirTran/Southwest with N.G.’s letter. Here’s what they said:

Dear N.G.:

We’re very sorry for your disappointment in receiving the recent communication regarding your Barclays A+ Rewards Credit Card change in ownership letter. We truly value your loyalty and welcome the opportunity to respond to your concerns.

Southwest B737 at ATL. (Chris McGinnis)

Southwest B737 at ATL. (Chris McGinnis)

As we combine the operations of AirTran and Southwest, we want to ensure you continue to get the most value from your A+ Rewards Credit Card program.  Over time, A+ Members may have fewer opportunities to use the certificates as our terminals change from AirTran to Southwest. [Full integration is expected by end of 2014.]   By changing your Anniversary Bonus to 2,000 A+ Rewards Dollars, which is equal to two A+ Rewards Credits, you’ll be able to redeem them towards AirTran flights and upgrades or transfer them to your Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Member account program.  Plus, the 2 A+ Rewards Credits are valid for 24 months as opposed to the certificates which were only valid for one year. We hope that this will give you more flexibility and give you opportunities to fly more on our extended network.

In regard to the information you saw on Chase’s website concerning the amount you’ll need to spend in order to receive your credits, the information you relayed in your note is information for Customers that apply for a new card, not existing Cardholders.  You’ll continue to receive one A+ Rewards Credit for every 1,000 A+ Rewards Dollars you earn. The way you earn rewards will improve with the transition to Chase.  While you’ll continue to earn two A+ Rewards Dollars per $1 for purchases made directly with AirTran Airways, you’ll now also earn two A+ Rewards Dollars per $1 for Southwest Airline purchases and purchases made with Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Hotel and Car Rental Partners.  For all other purchases, you’ll continue to earn one A+ Rewards Dollar per $1 spent on all other purchases.  The complete Program rules and regulations will be included in your welcome package along with your new card.

We know our Customers are anxiously awaiting for integration updates. If you’d like for your A+ Rewards Elite Status to be reciprocated on Southwest Airlines, we’d be happy to accommodate that request for you. [Emphasis added] Please provide us with your account information so we can take care of that or feel free to call A+ Customer Service (1-888-327-5878) directly to request through one of our A+ Customer Service Representatives. Again, we value your loyalty and would welcome the opportunity to discuss further with you.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Clarkson, Director of Rapid Rewards, Southwest Airlines

We presented N.G. with that note, and he swung back with a final word that reflects a lot of the frustration frequent flyers are feeling with not just Southwest, but all loyalty programs.

Thanks, Chris.

The point they still miss is I am used to receiving $100.00 each year and the new system will give me 1/4 of a one way ticket; which is worth about $40.00 since you can only use them on cheap segments and have to double up to get the more desirable flights…

But, I guess everyone is squeezing the programs.

Hilton just made some changes that take away from the Diamond members. What are these guys thinking?

Regards,

NG

How do YOU feel about the current state of frequent travel loyalty programs? Are they taking away more than they are giving us? Please leave your comments below. 

Spring travel could be pricey, dicey

Spring breakers to invade Florida in late March. (Photo: Ampresco / Flickr)

Spring breakers to invade Florida in late March. (Photo: Ampresco / Flickr)

Combine a long, cold winter, spiking gasoline prices, and an improving economy. Then fold in a very early Easter and you have the recipe for what could be a very crowded and expensive spring travel season. To avoid the highest prices and the possibility of sold out flights, hotels or rental cars, those planning March trips should make reservations as soon as possible– especially if headed to popular spring break destinations such as Florida (especially Gulf coast cities such as Panama City, Destin, Ft Walton Beach), Mexico, nearby Caribbean resorts in Bahamas or Dominican Republic, and Rocky Mountain ski resorts.

This year, the peak spring travel season will be compact–only about three weeks– beginning on Friday, March 8 and lasting until Monday April 1. Already, advance bookings for March at Best Western’s 2000+ hotels in the US are up 8.9% compared to this time last year.

Due to an unusually early Easter (Sunday, March 31), March is going to be a month when college students, families and business travelers converge on the nation’s airports, highways and hotels. Collegiate spring break will peak in mid-to-late-March during mid-semester break. Family spring break will peak during the last week of March when most elementary and high schools close prior to Easter weekend. Spring Break week for Emory and UGA March 9-17; Georgia State and Georgia Tech: March 16-23.

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Rowdy spring breakers whoop it up in Mexico (Photo: EytonZ / Flickr)

Rowdy spring breakers whoop it up in Mexico (Photo: EytonZ / Flickr)

To avoid the biggest crowds at airports, try to avoid traveling on weekends during the peak collegiate spring break period–from roughly March 8 through April 1. If you are flying on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays during March, you’ll find airports (like ATL!)  in or near college campuses and warm weather destinations packed with vacationing students, creating longer lines at airport security. Also, beware of crowding and possible delays on highways and skyways on the days leading up to and shortly after Easter Sunday, March 31.

In addition, St Patrick’s Day falls smack in the middle of spring break on Sunday, March 17 this year. Travelers should expect extreme vigilance on the part of police and highway patrol when it comes to drinking and driving.

Peak spring break travel season should end on about Tuesday, April 2. From April 3 through May 23 there will be an earlier-than-normal “shoulder season”–of the best times of year to save money and avoid crowds–and one of the smartest times time to schedule business trips. During shoulder season, demand for travel (and prices) drops significantly from the highs you’ll see during the spring and summer peaks. (The summer travel season kicks off on Memorial Day–May 27– weekend.)

TIP: If you are a business traveler staying over in a resort or beachside area, ask for a quiet room away from the pool or other public areas, which may attract a rowdy spring break crowd.

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Airfares:
Since January 1, airlines have attempted three across-the-board fare hikes. The first two failed. The jury is still out on whether or not the third one will stick. But don’t think that this means prices will not rise. Over the last several years, airlines have reduced the number of seats flying. At the same time, improvements in the economic outlook and consumer confidence are translating into more demand for air travel— and when you have high demand and limited supply, prices rise. Therefore, spring travelers should budget for higher airfares (up 5-10% compared to last year), and more fees.

TIP: To get the lowest fares, try to plan trips during non-peak times, such as April or May known as the “shoulder season.” Also, travelers who can travel mid-week–on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays are also more likely to find lower fares.

Hotels:
While demand for hotels is increasing, average rates have only crept up about 5% compared to this time last year. This should be a relief for travelers who are finding that they are spending more than they’d like to at the gas pump or when buying airline tickets.

Over the last two years, hotel rates have jumped the most in large coastal cities in the US such as Boston, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and Seattle. Rates in smaller, interior US cities remain about the same as this time last year.

Nonetheless, with the compact nature of this spring’s peak month of March, expect higher rates than normal, especially in popular warm-weather regions

Last Minute Deals:
Waiting around for last minute deals or flash sales rarely results in significant discounts during peak travel periods such as spring break.

Those who have their heart set on a specific destination in March should make reservations early in order to get the best deals. Waiting around for last minute deals is only advisable if you really don’t care where you go…you just want to get away.

On the other hand, waiting for a last minute deal makes much more sense if you plan to travel during periods of lighter demand, such as April or May, when travel providers are more likely to unload their excess inventory at big discount.

–Chris McGinnis

This item appeared first on Best Western’s youmustbetrippin.com blog for which I write.

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February update

We still get excited at the sight of a big ole Delta B747, especially now that they all have new lie flat seats! (Photo: Redlegsfan21 / Flickr)

We still get excited at the sight of a big ole Delta B747, especially now that they all have new lie flat seats! (Photo: Redlegsfan21 / Flickr)

Check out our new look! And help us celebrate! We’ve been busy working on a new look for The TICKET that we hope will be easier on your eyes, and easier to navigate. Please bear with us as we polish up the new look and let us know if there’s anything that does not make sense, or seems out of place. Also, this month marks an important milestone in the life of The TICKET– it’s TWENTY YEARS OLD! Yep, the TICKET cranked up as a paper newsletter ($37/yr) mailed via the USPS way back in February of 1993. How many of you have been reading that long? 

Remember when The TICKET looked like this?

Remember when The TICKET looked like this?

IMPACT OF SKYMILES CHANGES. Our informal poll of TICKET readers gauged the response on the recent addition of dollars spent to miles flow to achieve SkyMiles medallion status. 42%of the poll respondents said they will easily be able to make both the spending and mileage requirements to maintain status. About 18% said it would be tough, but they would be able to make the cut. The other 40% said they will be up a creek. See the survey responses and read interesting comments regarding that post here.

MILLION MILERS CAN CHILLAX. If you earned Silver, Gold, or Platinum Medallion status based on being a One, Two, or Three+ Million Miler, you are exempt from the new revenue requirement. If you want to continue rolling over MQMs, however, then you must meet the requirement of the level from which you want to rollover. Still have questions or concerns? Delta has posted a helpful FAQ about the new program here.

DELTA + STARWOOD = NICE. Delta and Starwood have launched a unique new program called Crossover Rewards, which offers reciprocal benefits in both programs. This means that starting March 1, Delta Diamond and Platinum Medallions (who are not already elite with Starwood) will get elite level benefits in the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program, including 4 pm checkout, free internet, and one SkyMile per dollar spent on room rate in addition to Starpoints. That’s great. But it also means that elite level SPG members will have access to already crowded priority check in and boarding lines. They will also get one free check bag. What do you think? Is this a good thing, or not? If you are a Delta Diamond or Platinum beholden to another hotel brand, will this make you consider a switch to swanky Starwoood? Please leave your comments below! Details and registration here: delta.com/crossoverrewards or spg.com/crossoverrewards. Insiders tell The TICKET that a Starwood brand will team up with Delta later this spring with some trendy inflight amenities or other promotions.

HILTON HHONORS DEVALUED: Effective March 28, Hilton HHonors will play under a new set of rules. (Sound familiar?) Instead of the current seven award tiers, there will be 10. The highest tier will now require a whopping 95,000 points per night, up from just 50,000. You’ll pay more during high season, and less during low season. This is indicative of a travel industry trend I’ve been following—when paying with cash or with points, peak season prices are rising through the roof due to rising demand from travelers. The only way to get the best deals at rates that feel reasonable, is to fly or stay during low or so-called “shoulder” seasons. How do you feel about this? Angry enough to dump Hilton and move to a competitor? Well, not so fast…Today Starwood rolled out its adjusted list of hotel award categories, with more hotels moving up than down—not as severe as Hilton’s, but still. Thoughts?

GLASS-BOTTOM JET. Hey iPad users… have you tried out Delta’s cool new Glass Bottom Jet feature, which shows what’s going on beneath the plane as you are flying across the country? To use it, you must first download the Fly Delta for the iPad app. Give it a go, and let us know what you think. And if you have no idea what we are talking about, watch the video above! 

AMERICAN + US AIRWAYS. The proposed merger of American Airlines and US Airways will have a minimal impact on the Atlanta market. Neither carrier has a large presence here. US Airways flights to Charlotte, Philadelphia and Phoenix will likely be folded into American’s operations out of the T-gates at ATL—that’s an improvement for US Airways customers who’ve had to trudge out to Concourse D. Plus, they will have access to American’s nice Admirals Club near the T-gate spine. Another plus: If you have some stray AAdvantange or Dividend miles lying around, you’ll be able to combine them in the new program. What do you think? Will the merger have an impact on you?   

DELTA TO TOKYO. Delta has received the go-ahead from the DOT to shift its Detroit-Tokyo Haneda flight to Seattle-Haneda.The new flight will be an excellent option for Atlantans who prefer close-in Haneda– avoiding the long transfer (1-2 hours) from Narita into town. While it does involve flying to Seattle first, the Seattle-Haneda flight will be flown with Boeing 747-400 aircraft (like the Atlanta-Narita flight) with new lie-flat seats in BusinessElite and individual entertainment screens in Economy Comfort and Economy.

TICKET editor Chris McGinnis's Business Trip column on BBC.com

TICKET editor Chris McGinnis’s Business Trip column on BBC.com

SPEAKING OF TOKYO. Your TICKET editor is fresh back from a business trip to Tokyo—the result of which is his latest BBC.com column. Check it out to learn about Tokyo’s recovery from the earthquake, its luxury hotel boom (one brand new hotel is inside Tokyo Station!), and where to find a decent meal.

AIRTRAN-SOUTHWEST CODESHARING BEGINS. The two carriers, which have begun the merger process, have started placing their codes on a handful of each other’s flights. While this may seem like a non-event for the average traveler, AirTran still charges bag fees ($25 for the first, $35 for the second). If you purchase your ticket via Southwest’s website under a Southwest code (even if it is operated by Air Tran), you will be spared the bag fee. Agents are certainly going to be hell bent on charging the fee, but the official policy is that your source of purchase should dominate. Note that not all AirTran flights appear on Southwest.com– only the current handful of code share flights.

ONLY 25% OF MILES FLOWN? SAY WHAT? Delta has cracked down on the SkyMiles it awards customers who book tickets as part of a package. Those hotel, car rental, and flight bundles found on Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and other travel sites can offer excellent value, but will now come at a cost. They are known as unpublished fares and fall into the same category as student airfares and consolidator bookings. While these tickets may appear to book into standard L, U, and T fare categories, if they are booked on third-party sites, only 25% of flown mileage will be awarded. Also included in this new restriction is airfare purchased through a cruise line as part of a package. This does not affect flight-only purchases on third-party sites, which continue to earn the full mileage flown. (Hat tip to TICKET reader SG for bringing this to our attention.)

Delta's new Tumi inflight amenity kit.

Delta’s new Tumi inflight amenity kit.

NEW AMENITY KITS. Delta’s Business Elite amenity kits have seen many incarnations including the collector’s tins from the late 1990s, the zippered triangles in the early 2000’s and the more recent red cylindrical tubes. Customers will have a new one for their collection beginning this month. The new kit comes from luggage provider Tumi and features a smart, stylish design. It is packed with Malin+Goetz toiletries like neroli hand lotion, lip balm, and the standard accoutrements of socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and eye shades. New to the kit is an antibacterial wipe. These kits are being introduced throughout the month on all long-haul international flights. The older red kits will continue to be used on domestic transcon flights between JFK and Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle until the stock is depleted. Do you use the amenities airlines provide in these kits? Leave your comments below!

GOOOAAALLL! A new partnership with Gol Airlines of Brazil (an airline in which Delta recently acquired an equity stake) now offers more benefits like reciprocal lounge access and priority check-in for Delta passengers. Already in place was the ability to earn and redeem mileage with Gol, which has an immense network throughout Brazil and South America. New complimentary lounge access at Gol’s lounges in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are open to Gold, Platinum, and Diamond Medallion members when traveling with Gol or Delta.

NEW DELTA ROUTES. Although it was expected to be eclipsed by Beijing this year, ATL held on to its title as the world’s busiest airport yet again in 2012. Delta is helping its biggest hub hold onto that title by adding nonstop flights to three U.S. destinations: Anchorage AK, Burlington VT and Green Bay, WI. The first two cities will be served with Delta mainline aircraft while the Green Bay route will be flown with a CRJ-700 featuring 9 first class seats. Delta is also starting new service between LAX and Seattle and San Jose, California and adding an extra flight between JFK and Dublin three days a week this coming summer.

All passengers at Singapore's Changi Airport have access to this outdoor patio, pool and bar for a $14 fee. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

All passengers at Singapore’s Changi Airport have access to this outdoor patio, pool and bar for a $14 fee. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

AHHH. FRESH AIR. Flight delays may just be a good thing on warm spring and summer days now that Delta has announced plans to open terraces or “SkyDecks” at the concourse F Sky Club in Atlanta and the new JFK club later this year. Fresh air, patio-style seating, fabric umbrellas, and large glass walls ringing the space will be a welcome change to the often over-crowded clubs these days. Plane spotters will have excellent views of the tarmac (unless the glass is not cleaned regularly!). The outdoor areas are a collaboration between Delta, Architectural Digest, and fashion designer Thom Felicia. Your TICKET editor recently enjoyed an afternoon at the enormous public sky deck at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport…have you ever been to an airport that offered access to the great outdoors? If so, where? Please leave your comments below.

SKY CLUB RATES BUMP UP. Better renew your Sky Club membership now because in March annual rates will get a boost in price of about $50 (depending upon your elite status). Rates have not increased in the past three years, and Delta’s heads-up to customers to renew in advance is certainly appreciated.

NEW DELTA WEB SITE GLITCHES. Delta agents now freely admit the new website is problematic…several have acknowledged that phone calls are coming in “by the truckload” about buggy features. Whether it freezes halfway through a transaction or simply refuses to load on Safari or Internet Explorer, Delta flyers continue to put up with a disappointing raft of missteps. Some TICKET readers who don’t have the time or inclination to learn how to work the new site have reported that they are resorting booking travel on third-party sites or even other airlines to get away from the frustration of delta.com. Have you experienced the same website freezes or disruptions that stop you from booking a revenue or frequent flyer ticket? Keep us informed so we can investigate and let the Delta team know what’s frustrating TICKET readers.

LAX SKY CLUB CHANGES. In a reversal of what many clubs seemed to be offering, the Sky Club at Los Angeles is being redesigned again (surely you have noticed the dreadful construction over the past few months) and re-installing its staffed bar. Delta removed the bar in the last renovation in favor of a stylish, kitchen ambiance with refrigerators stocked with drinks of all types and a self-service bar. Presumably, the return to bartender service is intended to sell more drinks from the Luxury Bar. Customers wanting juice or soda must now wait in line. A similar removal of the self-service bar took place at one of Minneapolis/St. Paul’s SkyClubs and has been met with mixed reaction. What do you think? Do you prefer to make your own drink or would you rather leave that up to a bartender? Please leave your comments below.

NEW FEES AT SOUTHWEST. Southwest Airlines passengers who are used to not showing up for a flight and then requesting full credit for that flight for future use later are in for a surprise. Southwest says it will soon impose a no-show fee on cheaper restricted tickets if you don’t contact the airline and cancel your plans within 24 hours of flight time. Southwest’s “Early bird” check in fees have increased to $12.50 from $10. In addition, if you want to nab an open position in the first boarding group, Southwest now charges a $40 fee (based on availability) for that. In addition, the fee for oversized or overweight bags, or a third checked have increased from $50 to $75 each. Southwest still does not charge for the first or second checked bag…but industry scuttlebutt is that Southwest will likely join other carriers in charging bag fees starting next year.

World's 10 happiest cities

smileyglobe_visionsphotographiques

How often do you get to take a happy business trip to one of the top 10 happiest cities in the world? Too bad there is only one in the US. The infographic below is based on a perception survey by GFK Custom Research, as well as factors like number of outdoor attractions, shopping centers, and cultural locations. 

Which city do you feel should have made this list, but didn’t? Leave your comments below.

find-a-happy-place_5107f6cf94ac7

 

Delta: What have you done for me lately?

Delta has finally come out of the closet with phase one of its long-rumored revenue-based SkyMiles program. Luckily, we are getting a full year’s notice. For travel this year, you will continue to earn status for 2014 as before. However, beginning with flights in 2014, status for 2015 will be based miles flown and dollars spent.

First off, the same segment and Medallion Qualifying Mile (MQM) requirements will remain in place. But starting next year, you will have meet a new MQD (Medallion Qualifying Dollar) threshold.

To achieve Silver Medallion, you must fly 25,000 miles and spend at least $2,500 on Delta. If both are not met, you will not earn status. For Gold Medallion, you must spend at least $5,000; for Platinum, at least $7,500; and for Diamond, you must spend at least $12,500.

Screen shot 2011-02-17 at 4.04.45 PMMQDs are based on money spent on Delta-marketed flights only (taxes and fees excluded)—this does NOT include money spent on ancillary fees for bags, upgrades, in-flight food/bev, etc. Spending on Delta-marketed flights will include partner and code share flights– those tickets with an 006 prefix. So, for example, dollars spent on a Delta-marketed Alaska Airlines flight will count. Delta says that passengers will be able to track their MQDs on the new SkyMiles dashboard introduced as part of its recent website redesign.

Delta is still mum on how SkyTeam flights will be handled under the new scheme.

One way around the new rules: Spending at least $25,000 miles in a calendar year on any Delta SkyMiles American Express card exempts you from the spending thresholds (but not the mileage/segment requirements).

Meeting or beating these new spending thresholds may be easy for some, but for others, not so much. For example, to attain or maintain Gold status (50K miles + $5K spend), you would have to buy an average of ten $500 Delta tickets over the course of a year. How easy or hard do you think this will be? Please vote in our poll!

[poll id="4"]

Delta is betting that this will weed out the flyers that “game the system” for status or simply buy the lowest fares. In the end, the new spending thresholds are going to hurt leisure travelers (who bring Delta the least revenue) most. Big spending business travelers might find that with fewer Medallions to compete with, it’s easier to board early and upgrade.

As usual with SkyMiles changes, Delta says that we’ve been asking for this– here’s a line from the press release announcing the changes: “These changes are a result of considerable research that we’ve conducted including conversations with hundreds of customers, many of whom expressed a desire to see the Medallion program truly target our best customers,” said Jeff Robertson, vice president – SkyMiles. “Adding a revenue component to the SkyMiles Medallion program ensures that our most valued customers receive the best program benefits and a more exclusive experience.”

Stay tuned to The TICKET for further updates about SkyMiles changes—these new spending thresholds are rumored to be only the first step toward a full transition to a revenue-based program.

What do you think about the new rules? Please leave your comments below.

A few good comments from our Facebook page about these changes:

>Vicky: “It’s a sign that frequent travelers/fliers are not as important as frequent spenders. It’s no longer a frequent ‘flier’ program.”

>Steve: “Delta is the best at making these kind of changes, calling them improvements and saying that we, their most frequent and loyal travelers, asked for/demanded them. Yeah, uh-huh, dat’s right.”

>Mike: “I think if they are going to make the program revenue based they should remove the mileage component altogether. Status should be completely based on spend not on miles in a seat.”

>Paul: “No impact for me, or most of the other Medallions I know– if you travel frequently you’ll probably hit the spend threshold easily unless you’re making status purely on MRs.”

>Lynn: “I agree with Paul…. there won’t be any impact for most people I know – $12,500 is peanuts for most diamond medallions!”

>Ed: “Will silver medallion status continue for million milers? I am retired and don’t travel as much any more. Will I lose my silver medallion status in 2014?” (We are awaiting an answer from Delta on this one…)

EARNING MQMs TO CHANGE. As if the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirement were not enough, the ability to earn MQMs will become more difficult for some folks. M fares will no longer earn 150% MQMs, dropping instead to 100%. The Y and B fares still earn 150%. Luckily, all other economy fares earn 100% MQMs. If you are privileged to purchase first or business class tickets, you will soon earn 200% MQMs. Reinforcing the revenue-based trend, Delta’s incentive is to reward the flyers that bring Delta the most money, which makes sense. But, it is tough price to pay for of those who have learned to love the older, easier way.

COMPETITIVE RESPONSE? While low fare carriers such as AirTran, Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America have embraced the revenue-based trend, it is yet to be seen if American, United, or US Airways will follow along. Since most other legacy carriers are in varying states of uncertainty or disarray compared to Delta, it’s unlikely they will enact such changes in the near future. However, if you are ready to bail on Delta, United will be happy to match your Delta status—but you must act fast. This offer expires on Jan 31. The deal requires you to fly United for a pre-determined number of miles within 90 days. Your new United status will be instant allowing you to enjoy upgrades and other perks during your qualification flights.

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Lowest travel prices of the year

Mexico is magical (and cheap) during the so-called “dead weeks” of winter (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Did you know that right now… in early January… is the cheapest time of year to travel? We are in the midst of what are known in the industry as “dead weeks” and travel bargains abound.

The dead weeks are a good time for business travelers on a budget to get out there and dig up some new business face-to-face. It’s also a great time for leisure travelers with flexible schedules to take advantage of amazingly low rates for quick last minute getaways.

How cheap, you may ask?

>Most fares from ATL to Florida are now $200 round trip… or less.

>Houston, Denver, Colorado Springs are going for about $220 round trip from ATL

>Chicago, second to NYC as the #1 biz travel destination for Atlantans, is running at about $220 round trip.

>Five and six night Caribbean cruise are rock bottom at $300-$350 for 4-6 nights ex Ft Lauderdale.

Look for these deals on last minute deal pages of web sites such as ExpediaAirFareWatchDog,HotwireTravelZoo, or apps like Hotel Tonight. (NOTE: Above prices checked Monday Jan 7 and subject to change.)

I’ve been working with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card over the last few months on a series of travel tips that it will be posting on its social media sites this year—reminding travelers that the card offers two points per dollar spent on travel and dining.

Here’s an early look at some of that advice:

DEAD WEEKS & EXCEPTIONS. The long, cold, dark stretch between the Christmas/New Years holiday and Easter may seem to last forever, but thankfully there are two long weekends to help break up the monotony of winter: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday January 21 and President’s Day on Monday, February 18. While travel prices are generally very low during winter months, you can expect to see spikes around these long weekends as demand rises.

EXTRA LONG WEEKEND? Romantics might consider turning Valentine’s Day (Thursday, Feb 14) into a nice four-or-five-day weekend by combining it with the long Presidents Day Weekend.  But keep in mind that many others will likely have the same romantic notion, and higher demand will lead to higher prices over this weekend.

EASTER COMES VERY EARLY. Another date to keep in mind: Easter, which comes very early this year on Sunday, March 31. This means that most spring break travel will be concentrated in the month of March this year, leading to much higher prices. The good news is that an early Easter means that we’ll see a longer “shoulder season” during April and May when the weather begins to improve, but demand and prices remain low and flexible travelers can score some great last minute deals.

(Have you scored your 500 Delta SkyMiles bonus for using TICKET sponsor Peachy Airport Parking yet?)

Top bargain destinations for winter travel:

Las Vegas: If you are looking for a fun and inexpensive time to visit Las Vegas, January’s the time to go—but be careful. When there are big conventions in town (like the Consumer Electronics Show Jan 8-11), prices spike… but at the same time, they drop dramatically during non-convention periods. For example, rooms at big name resorts like the Venetian and Aria are in the $500 range during CES this week. But make your trip during the week of January 22, and you’ll pay only about $179 per night.

Cross country skiing near Crested Butte, Colorado. (Photo: Trailsource.com)

Colorado: Heated airline competition in Denver has made it one of the cheapest cities in the US to fly into or out of. That helps bring down the budget for winter ski trips to Colorado all winter long. If you want to find the very best deals, book your trip in early January after the holiday crowds have gone home. But do it before the long Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend (Jan 21), when prices begin to rise, and then peak on President’s Day weekend, and then remain high into March. You might be taking a chance with snow conditions, but you’ll find great deals if you can wait for the two-week period between Easter (March 31) and April 15 when ski resorts close for the season.

Utah: Utah may be less of a bargain when it comes to airfare, but hotel deals make up for the difference. Instead of overnighting in pricey slope side condos or hotels, stay and après-ski in relatively inexpensive Salt Lake City instead and commute up to the ski resorts, many of which are within 30-45 minute radius of downtown. Another great deal: If you fly into Salt Lake City in the morning and bring your airline boarding pass to any of Park City’s four ski resorts on the same day, they will give you a free lift pass for your first day on the slopes. Details here.

Latin America. January and February are magical in Mexico because hotel and resort prices are low, the sun is out, beaches are warm, and the big crowds don’t come until March, which is peak Spring break travel season. Due to the lack of demand, airfares between the US and Mexico can be remarkably inexpensive, too. If you’d like to venture further south, consider a winter trip to Argentina, which still offers excellent value to US travelers due to its wobbly economy and currency. Buenos Aires is considered “the Paris of South America,” and offers a warm, cosmopolitan alternative to Europe’s cold wet winters. Brazil, on the other hand, is very expensive for Americans now due to it improving economy and significantly stronger currency.

>>>Have you signed up to get The TICKET via e-mail yet? If not, do it right now! Email in the box to the right, please!>>>

Anna Maria Island near Tampa is one of Florida’s best kept secrets. (Photo: Florida Bird Watchers)

Northern Florida. Unlike southern Florida hotspots like Miami or Ft Lauderdale, which pack in snowbirds paying high peak season rates all winter long, consider a break in northern Florida instead. Due to cooler winter weather and less demand, airfares (to Orlando, Jacksonville, Tampa, Tallahassee or Pensacola) and hotel rates tend to bottom out in January and February. While you may not be able to swim and sunbathe, you can still enjoy long walks on beaches, local seafood, and gorgeous sunsets. It’s also the cheapest time of year to enjoy nearby attractions such as Disney World or SeaWorld.

Where are YOU going this winter?

Airline-Airport Update

Great shot of Virgin Atlantic’s swanky new Clubhouse lounge at New York-JFK (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)

WHAT WILL DELTA+VIRGIN BRING? With the deal so new, it’s tough to say much at this point, but let’s speculate: First, the Delta-Virgin tie-up is likely to have much more impact on New York than Atlanta. It would be nice, but unlikely, if Virgin would compete nonstop with Delta between ATL and London-Heathrow, but a man can dream, no? Like before, those who would like a taste of Virgin Atlantic using their SkyMiles will likely fly Delta from ATL to Washington, New York, Newark, Chicago or Boston, and then change to Virgin for the over water leg to London. From there, the Virgin partnership offers some interesting new options for flying to Africa, India, and Asia. Interesting aircraft, too—it has six Airbus A380s and 15 B787 Dreamliners coming online in 2014-15. Once Delta and Virgin are housed in the same terminal at Heathrow, we’ll all have access to Virgin’s swish Clubhouse there. The big IF in all this is Delta’s much-anticipated switch to a revenue-based frequent flyer program—many expect this new program to be announced in 2013, and then put into effect in 2014. If you are wondering what a revenue-based program looks like, just take a look at Virgin America’s Elevate plan…which of course opens up a whole new can of worms with everyone wondering if Delta’s going to enter into some sort of arrangement with the mod, very popular, but money-losing SF-based carrier. Would YOU like to speculate? Please leave your comments below…

DELTA.COM FRUSTRATION. Our post last month about Delta’s switch to a new website elicited a slew of angry, confused comments from readers expressing their dismay at a redesign that makes the site clunkier to load and harder to get around. Even purchasing a ticket seems difficult. The display sorting method is partially to blame since certain options are often left out and more desirable flights are often four pages deep.  In addition, Delta has switched to a password-based login adding one more step to an already frustrating process. We’ve been unable to get Delta to tell us WHY it felt the need to change the website in the first place…but have received no reply. WHY do YOU think Delta has burdened us with this clunky new site? In the spirit of focusing on the positive… can you name a thing or two about the new site that is an improvement? Please leave your comments below!

DELTA FIRST CLASS FARE SALE. Delta’s offering a great deal on upgrades to first class on US and Canada flightsduring the busy holiday season– Dec 15 – Jan 5. Upgrades on the cheap! Details here. Not a bad idea to pony up a little extra cash as a gift to yourself (or others) for the Holidays!

>>>Have you signed up to get The TICKET via e-mail yet? If not, do it right now! Email in the box to the right, please!>>>

Buh-bye to Delta’s cramped CRJ200′s show here (Photo: Redlegs / Flickr)

BUH-BYE CRJ-200s. Delta is (thankfully) accelerating its removal of the cramped, 50-seat, one-class CRJ-200 aircraft and has placed an order for 40 more CRJ-900 aircraft that will be fitted with first class, Economy Comfort, and wi-fi. These 72-seaters are more efficient to operate allowing Delta to deploy them on routes that are too big for a CRJ-200, but too small for a mainline aircraft.

SOUTHWEST OVER WATER.  Starting in April, Southwest will fly nonstop from Orlando and Tampa to San Juan, its first over-water flights. For the time being, AirTran will continue to fly nonstop to San Juan from Atlanta, but the new SW flights offer a new one-stop choice for the Caribbean-bound.

ROLLOVER CONFUSION. TICKET reader B.R. reached out to us with an interesting issue that sheds light on confusion regarding rollover miles for those who have earned their status for life through the Million Miler program. It seems that customers who achieve Silver or Gold Medallion by earning Million Miler status instead of earning it by flying, do not carry over the extra MQMs into the New Year the way other travelers would. Let’s say you flew 35,000 MQMs in 2012 and are a two Million Miler (giving you lifetime Gold Status). Now it seems that the 10,000 extra MQMs over the 25,000 Silver Medallion threshold do not roll over since you technically did not fly up to the Gold Medallion level you have achieved to begin carrying over. You still maintain Gold status for life, but rollover seems to begin only above and beyond your current status level for the year. Delta helped The TICKET out with an answer to this, pulling this little nugget from its Terms & ConditionsMembers who receive complimentary or gifted Medallion status [ie, Million Milers] are ineligible for Rollover MQMs unless they earn more MQMs than the gifted status requirement. For example, if a member is gifted Silver Medallion status in 2012 and also earns 30,000 MQMs in 2012, s/he will be able to roll over 5,000 MQMs since the Silver Medallion requirement is 25,000 MQMs.

(Have you scored your 500 Delta SkyMiles bonus for using TICKET sponsor Peachy Airport Parking yet?)

ATL’S DATA-DRIVEN SCULPTURE. Here’s another reason to go check out ATL’s new International Terminal F: The new AirFIELD liquid crystal sculpture hanging from the ceiling that is synched to real-time flight data. Each flight that lands or takes off at ATL activates small ripples in the sculpture for small plane and big ripples for jumbos.  Go check it out! Or just get hypnotized by the video above.

FULLY FLAT DETROIT-SAO PAULO. Delta now offers its new flat bed seat in all Business Elite markets to Brazil. Until now, the Detroit flight was a notable exception.Speaking of South America, Delta’s celeb-chef Michelle Bernstein has overhauled menus on overnight flights to South America with more regional dishes. Have you noticed?

BAD BAG POLICY CHANGE. Starting January 15, Delta will no longer through-check baggage to its final destination if you are traveling two separate tickets… and the second ticket is not a Delta ticket. Delta will only check the bag through to your first stop, requiring you to exit the airport secure zone, fetch your bag at baggage claim, re-check it at the non-Delta carrier counter, and then re-enter the terminal via airport security. What a pain in the butt! How often do you buy two separate tickets for a single trip?

NEWEST AIRPORTS W PRECHECK: Atlanta was one of the first four airports in the country to get PreCheck back in Oct 2011, and TSA has been busy rolling out the program at the nations busiest airports ever since then, now totaling 35 airports. Some of the latest additions are: Anchorage, Nashville, Santa Ana (Orange County), Ft Lauderdale, and San Francisco. Note: Airports with multiple entry points may not support Pre-Check at all of them. For example, there are only two PreCheck lanes at SFO—one for United flyers at Terminal 3, the other for American flyers at Terminal 2. However, there is no PreCheck line at SFO’s Terminal 1 used by Delta, Alaska and USAirways, all of which participate in PreCheck. The following are airports where DELTA operates with PreCheck: Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall, Charlotte Douglas International, Chicago O’Hare International, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International, Dallas/Fort Worth International, Denver International, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Honolulu International, Indianapolis International, John Wayne, LaGuardia Airport, Las Vegas’ McCarran, Logan International, Los Angeles International, Luis Muñoz Marin International, Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Orlando International, Pittsburgh International, Portland International, Ronald Reagan Washington National, Salt Lake City International, Seattle-Tacoma International, Tampa International, Ted Stevens Anchorage International and Washington Dulles International airports.


SHAPING UP AT ATL. Next time you are out at ATL’s Terminal E and feeling a little pudgy or bloated from too much travel, pick up a pack of Spanx to help keep your girly or manly figure. Spanx was invented by an Atlanta fax salesperson who started the company out of a rental house in Virginia Highland. Spanx at ATL opened this month. See the video for the interesting story!

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GOING GREEN. Delta has achieved status in The Climate Registry for its greenhouse gas emission inventory. As the first US carrier to do so, the award recognizes the numerous procedures Delta has put into place to save fuel including taxing on one engine (something that is unique to Delta). Over the past six years, Delta has lowered its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent.

Check out that super shiny floor at Peachy’s climate controlled indoor lot on Sylvan Road.

Please say THANK YOU to our sponsor, PEACHY AIRPORT PARKING for helping keep The TICKET free for readers this year! If you have not done so already, give ‘em a try, get your SkyMiles, and let us know what you think! 

EASY 500+ SKYMILES BONUS. The holidays are the BEST time of year to avoid oversold on-airport parking lots…. so why not help out The TICKET, and our newest sponsor, Peachy Airport Parking, on your next trip? You’ll help yourself, too, since Peachy is offering TICKET readers 500 SkyMiles plus three SkyMiles per dollar spent. If you are tired of worrying about on-airport lot sellouts, long, dark walks to your car or the congested mess that is Camp Creek Parkway, just exit I-85 south at Sylvan Road, one mile north of the airport, and follow the signs to Peachy. Once there, you’ll find extra wide spaces in a secure, climate controlled indoor lot, a free car wash and a short two-minute shuttle ride to the airport. Daily rates are just $6.99 outdoor or$8.99 indoor. COME ON! Help keep The TICKET free by clicking on this link or on the ad to the right to learn more about ATL’s newest parking option. Note: You have to click on the link and print the page to get the SkyMiles! 

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Delta's wacky website, first class upgrades on sale, wi-fi at ATL, MQM-Sky Club bonus

Delta’s explaining page regarding changes to its website.

NEW DELTA.COM. Likey or no likey? We’ve all heard that sometimes change is hard—but eventually we get used to it and realize that the change was for the better. Is that what’s going on with Delta’s recently revamped website? It’s been two years since Delta last finagled with it, and now that you’ve had a few weeks to play around with it, what do you think? Many of the design elements are the same, but a new drop down twist is new and feels a little buggy.  Have you memorized your complicated new login password? How does Delta’s site compare to other airlines or booking sites you’ve used? Bummed that Delta did nothing to improve its broken online SkyMiles award booking site? Do you plan to “get social” with Delta and link to your Facebook or Twitter pages? Suggestions for the web designers? Here’s a link to Delta’s online introduction to the new site. Please leave your thoughts below.

PRECHECK NUMBER. With all the complaints about missing or incorrect profile info migrating to the new Delta site, PreCheck members should be certain that their GOES “known traveler” number is intact. But finding that is tough. Here’s how: Login at Delta.com, then go to your profile> in left hand column, open “Basic Info”> scroll to “Secure Flight Passenger Data”> click the “Edit” button to the right> click on the “Add Redress or Known Traveler Number” link> then check to be sure your known traveler number is there… and correct. Phew! I hope you get your three beeps!

DELTA FIRST CLASS FARE SALE. Delta’s offering a great deal on upgrades to first class on US and Canada flightsduring the busy holiday season– Dec 15 – Jan 5. Upgrades on the cheap! Details here. Not a bad idea to pony up a little extra cash as a gift to yourself (or others) for the Holidays!

WIFI AT ATL. FINALLY FREE. No more squatting on the floor outside the Sky Club to snag free wi-fi. ATL has decided to install free wi-fi beginning in the fall of 2013. As the airport adjusts to a heftier system to accommodate the increased demand, it will gradually lower the price of access until it becomes completely free. This revenue loss accounts for around $1.5 million to the airport, but with airports around the country offering it without charge, Atlanta has finally succumbed to the pressure.

MQM BONUS FOR SKY CLUB. Need to renew your Sky Club access for the coming year? If you do it now, Delta will throw in 1,500 bonus MQMs that can help with Medallion status in the coming year (or opt for two free months of membership added to your current Sky Club account). The offer is valid until Dec. 31. Details here.  If nothing else, it’s an easy way to snag some extra MQMs without having to book a last-minute flight somewhere before the end of the year. http://www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/traveling-with-us/airports-and-aircraft/delta-sky-club/membership/delta-sky-club-promotion.html 

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MORE SHRINKAGE IN MEMPHIS. Delta’s cutting back in Memphis once again, this time nixing nonstops to Birmingham, Jacksonville and Ft Lauderdale. It also will trim one daily round-trip flight between Memphis and the following cities: Jackson, Kansas City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Nashville, Raleigh/Durham,  St. Louis, San Antonio and Tulsa. As we’ve long expected, this adds fuel to the fire that both Memphis and Cincy will eventually not be Delta hubs at all.

What do you think of the mod, minimalist design of the front desk at the recently re-vamped Grand Hyatt San Francisco? Leave your comments below!  (Photo: C McGinnis)

SOUTHWEST TO THE KEYS. Southwest will take over AirTran’s flights between ATL andt Key West via Orlando and Tampa beginning in March 2013, making it Southwest’s 8th Florida destination.

DELTA SOARS IN CORPORATE TRAVEL. While it might be tough for Atlantans (most of whom love to complain about the 900-lb gorilla out at ATL), corporate travel buyers ranked Delta first among its peers for the second year in a row in the Business Travel News Annual Airline Survey. Delta says that the recognition is a result of its $3 billion investment in improving the flying experience—like upgrades to business class seats, the roll-out of economy comfort, pervasive inflight wi-fi, the re-vamp of multiple Sky Clubs, a new terminal at NY-LaGuardia and JFK. With United crippled due to a botched merger and American fighting with unions in bankruptcy court, Delta’s mopping up new customers all over the country—even in non-hub cities. What do you think? Is Delta getting better? Please leave your comments below!

At Las Vegas’s nice new Terminal 3. Have you seen it yet? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

BUSINESS TRIP. What are the top five hottest, newest hotels and restaurants in Las Vegas…and have you heard what they are going to do the THEhotel next year? Do you love Vancouver as much as I do? Do you have any plans to travel to India’s capital city of Delhi… or have just wondered what it might be like to take a business trip there? Take a peek at the latest in my BBC Business Trip series to learn the answers!

AIRTRAN+SOUTHWEST INTEGRATION. An excellent look by the AJC at how the combination of the two carriers came about and how it is progressing through the eyes of AirTran’s co-founder Lewis Jordan: “A year and a half after the deal closed, the combination of the two carriers’ operations is still in progress, and the AirTran name is expected to remain in some form into 2015. AirTran still had roughly 170 flights a day from Atlanta this fall, while Southwest had about 20 daily flights. Next year, Southwest plans to connect AirTran’s route network with its own. Southwest has cut some AirTran routes as it gradually dismantles the AirTran hub in Atlanta to decrease the focus on connecting passengers.”

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NEW CHINESE PARTNER FOR SKYTEAM. Xiamen Airlines is set to join the Delta-led alliance later this month adding another option for travelers to Asia. The airline is a heavily domestic Chinese carrier and expands travel options for those flying to fast-growing but poorly served secondary and tertiary cities. While the addition is hardly cause to drop everything and plan your next vacation, SkyTeam is certainly becoming the market leader in China. Mileage earning and redemption will be in place by the end of the year.

HERTZ/SKYMILES PROMO. A new Hertz promotion for reservations between now and the end of the year offers bonus SkyMiles  based on the number of days of your rental. One to two day rentals earn a 500 mile bonus, three to four day rentals earn 900 extra miles, and five days or more brings in 2,000 bonus miles. Hertz already offers 100 miles per day for SkyMiles members (200 miles per day for Medallions), and these extra miles sweeten the pot. To reserve, visit the offer page.

TIME LAPSE ICE RINK. Southwest put together an interesting one-minute time-lapse video showing how they set up the ice skating rink at Park Tavern in Piedmont Park. Have you ever seen how they do this? Pretty neato!

>Do you follow TICKET editor Chris McGinnis on Twitter? Every day I sift through all the business travel news out there and tweet items that I think would interest my readers most.

POSH UPGRADE TO DELTA TRANSCONS. Too bad these flights don’t touch Atlanta… but if you are out and about…. Delta is upping its game against transcontinental competitors with true Business Elite service on these cross-country flights. Until now, Delta only offered its famous multi-course meal service and in-flight amenities (duvet, large pillow, noise-canceling headsets, menus, and amenity kits) on these high-profile flights. The 757s used had the recliner-style seats, but soon, all flights plying these routes will have full flat beds up front. Boeing 767-300ERs will be added to certain flights (the first starts in March 2013 and is timed to connect with the LAX-Sydney flight) while the 757s go in for a retrofit to flat beds. The addition of Seattle to the list of domestic Business Elite flights signals Delta’s heavy commitment to this market. Beginning in May 2013, all transcon flights with the new product will depart from JFK’s renovated Terminal 4. It will take two years for this change to be implemented across all transcon flights so be sure to book your flights accordingly. What do you think? Is a flat bed on a transcon all that important…or is it overkill? 

 

Dusk at SEA-TAC (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

DELTA + ALASKA. The code share agreement that Delta has with Alaska Airlines is proving to be a meaningful source of revenue as passengers can connect to a host of international cities from Seattle including Amsterdam, Beijing, Osaka, Paris, and Tokyo Narita. According to Alaska and Delta, there are as many as 1,200 daily connecting passengers between Delta and Alaska flights. Have you flown Alaska lately? What did you think?

TIME TO DONATE MILES?Even though Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on its northeast operations in early November canceling flights and tugging on profits, Delta made a hefty $100,000 donation to the American Red Cross’ relief efforts through the Delta Air Lines Foundation. In addition, Delta has a long-standing agreement with the Red Cross to provide cargo and seats needed during disaster relief efforts.Customers can also donate SkyMiles to the Red Cross or other charities here. 

Artwork in display at the new Holiday Inn next to London’s Olympic Park

CHRISTMAS IN LONDON. Is like something out of Dickens… And Delta is matching other airline’s promotions to offer a hefty pile of SkyMiles for passengers flying to London on full-fare tickets. Your first round trip will earn 15,000 miles; the second round trip earns 35,000 miles, and the third scores 50,000 miles. Three roundtrips equal enough for a free roundtrip award in Business Elite to Europe. Full fares including J, C, D, S and I in business class and Y, B, and M fares in economy. Register and fly before Jan. 31, 2013.

EASY 500+ SKYMILES BONUS. The holidays are the BEST time of year to avoid oversold on-airport parking lots…. so why not help out The TICKET, and our newest sponsor, Peachy Airport Parking, on your next trip? You’ll help yourself, too, since Peachy is offering TICKET readers 500 SkyMiles plus three SkyMiles per dollar spent. If you are tired of worrying about on-airport lot sellouts, long, dark walks to your car or the congested mess that is Camp Creek Parkway, just exit I-85 south at Sylvan Road, one mile north of the airport, and follow the signs to Peachy. Once there, you’ll find extra wide spaces in a secure, climate controlled indoor lot, afree car wash and a short two-minute shuttle ride to the airport. Daily rates are just $6.99 outdoor or$8.99 indoor. COME ON! Help keep The TICKET free by clicking on this link or on the ad to the right to learn more about ATL’s newest parking option. Note: You have to click on the link and print the page to get the SkyMiles! 

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5 most annoying habits of infrequent flyers

Filthy airplane feet (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Over time, most frequent travelers adopt an unruffled, zen-like attitude when it comes to flying. But at times, especially during the holidays, infrequent travelers exhibit certain behaviors that get under their skin. Here are my top five irritants. What are yours?

1) Seatback tappers- You know,  the ones who repeatedly tap-tap-tap on the seatback entertainment screen to play games, change channels or who knows what. Since they don’t fly much, they don’t realize how irritating it is for the person in front of them to feel that constant knock that hits square on the back of the head. As soon as you think they’ve quit, it starts over again. After about 15 minutes, I’ll turn around and give ‘em an arched eyebrow… what about you?

2) Pushy recliners- These folks can do real damage to an open laptop, or knock a drink right out of your hand and into your lap. They apply full backward pressure on the seatback, and then POW! They discover that that funny little button is what makes the seat go back– and right into your personal space. I can’t say this with complete authority, but from what I observe, most frequent travelers no longer recline their seats unless they are on an overnight flight. Do you still recline?

3) Aisle hogs- During boarding, these are the folks who think they can yank their overstuffed wheelie-bag down the aisle, and act surprised when it doesn’t fit and they keep running into seats and knees. Pick the bag up already, and get down the aisle! There are 150 people behind you! And once you’ve stuffed that monster into the bin, don’t go back and block the aisle while you fetch your magazines or iPod. Sit down in your seat and get outta the way. You can go back to your bag after we take off.

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4) Boarding line breakers- These are the novices who act like they are deaf or don’t speak English, or can’t read when gate agents are boarding by zone, and wander into the zone 1 group when they are actually in zone 5. What are even more irritating are gate agents who don’t pay attention and let these slouches board anyway. Back off, Jack!

5) Typhoid Marys- Most frequent travelers know that when they are in tiny tubes darting through the stratosphere, they should keep their germs to themselves. Most infrequent travelers haven’t learned that yet, and sneeze or cough without covering, prop their feet (sometimes bare) up on the the bulkheads, tray tables or armrests … even after a trip to the lavatory. These are the same folks who grab their bags in overhead bins by the wheels (which have rolled through all kinds of muck), and then touch your seatback, tray table, armrest, light switch or air vent. If you are seated by the window, these are also the hands passing drinks and food to you. Yuck! Bring on the Handi-Wipes!

Okay, now that I’ve had my Ebenezer Scrooge moment, it’s time  for me to retreat back into my frequent traveler zen skin and remember that now is the time to ffer tolerance (and maybe even help) to infrequent flyers, especially during this holiday season.  All of us were once one ourselves.”

But… what about you? What habits of infrequent fliers irritate you most? Please leave your comments below!

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