Southwest growth spurt + Better food? + Wi-fi on Delta + Hilton double + Whatever!

Umm BBQ on United. Is airline food getting better overall? (Photo: United)

Mmm, BBQ on United. Is airline food getting better overall? (Photo: United)

Southwest grows at Love again. It was just a couple of weeks ago that Southwest Airlines announced plans for a new round of expansion at Dallas Love Field on April 9, when it will add non-stop service to 10 new cities. And now the airline says it will grow even more, adding eight more destinations from Love starting August 9. Those cities, which will each get one daily roundtrip, include Boston, Charlotte, Detroit, Omaha, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh/Durham and Salt Lake City. On the same date, Southwest will increase frequencies between DAL and Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore/Washington, Houston Hobby, Little Rock, Chicago Midway and Seattle; and will boost DAL-Charleston, S.C. service from weekly to daily. Meanwhile, Southwest has sent out a targeted promotion to select Rapid Rewards members offering them double points on flights to and from Love Field through July 31. (Virgin America has been running a double miles promotion for Texas flights through March 31. Will Southwest and Delta use the same tactic against new competition from Spirit and Frontier at Atlanta?)

Umm BBQ on United. Last month, United Airlines introduced upgraded meal service for premium-cabin domestic travelers in its mainline fleet. And this month it is doing the same for the front cabins of United Express flights. The new cuisine, served on china, was introduced March 1 on Embraer E170s and E175s, and will be rolled out on CRJ700s and Q400s starting in April. Breakfasts include things like a fresh fruit plate, yogurt and breakfast bread; lunches and dinners offer two entree choices like a barbecue chicken and coleslaw sandwich, or ginger and garlic marinated beef. Desserts will be triple chocolate chunk cookies. First and biz class meals seem to be getting a LOT better on all airlines these days. Agree or disagree? Leave comments below. 

How to enjoy dining alone

Whatever Woman by Phil Gyford / Flickr

Whatever Woman by Phil Gyford / Flickr

Survey probes mileage plan changes. Now that both Delta and United have switched their loyalty programs from a miles-flown basis to a money-spent regime, website MileCards.com surveyed more than 1,000 “active frequent flyer program members” to see what they thought of the changes. Perhaps most surprising, 71 percent said they didn’t even know about the switch. (They must not be reading TravelSkills!) And of those who did, more than three out of five said it didn’t matter to them. Why not? A great many frequent travelers have credit cards from their preferred airline, and of those who do, three out of five say they earn more miles on the card than they do in the air. Still, 24 percent of the respondents said they would probably book Delta or United less often because of the change, while just 9 percent said they would book those airlines more often. What about you? Has the move toward revenue-based programs changed your travel habits at all? Or is your attitude more “whatever!” 

New HHonors promotion. Hilton has revived its “Double Your HHonors” promotion, offering double HHonors points or double airline miles for stays from March 1 through May 31. Members can register for the promotion and see all the details at www.HHonors.com/Double.

InflightWiFiuser

(photo: Gogo)

 

Delta upgrades Wi-Fi. Delta said it plans to enhance and expand coverage of its in-flight Wi-Fi service by switching from Gogo’s air-to-ground technology to its new satellite-based 2Ku service, starting next year. Delta said the upgrade will go into more than 250 of its aircraft, bringing faster Internet service to long-haul domestic routes as well as flights to Latin America and the Caribbean. Aircraft getting the upgrade include 757-300s and -200s, 737-800s and -900ERs, and Airbus A319s. New A321s coming in 2016 will also have the upgrade. The airline said it also plans to enhance Wi-Fi service on its short-haul domestic fleet by using Gogo’s next-generation air-to-ground technology, bringing “faster connections at broadband speeds.” That includes 717-200s, MD-88s and MD-90s. Currently, only Virgin America has Gogo’s faster ATG-4 system fleetwide.

West Coast – New York LaGuardia flights on horizon?

Visa Checkout on smartphones

Visa Checkout on smartphones

Virgin adds new payment option. Virgin America said it has become the first U.S. carrier to add Visa Checkout as a payment option on its website (www.virginamerica.com). “After signing up once, Visa Checkout removes the need to enter card details during the online checkout process wherever consumers see the Visa Checkout button,” Virgin said. Visa Checkout accepts all credit and debit cards, including Virgin America-branded cards. Customers who use Visa Checkout on Virgin’s website through March 15 can get $25 off a future flight.

Weekend Edition

Coming in tomorrow’s Weekend Edition: Following up on United’s fare errors, new transcon lie-flat biz class, new Mileage Plus redemption options, Marriott’s expiring points, update on Hilton’s 1,000 bonus point snafu.

In Case You Missed It…

  • Virgin’s first class opts for plush pillows over lie-flat transcon seats.

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United changes + SFO Sky Club + Southwest devalues + New Virgin route + Beijing bird!

United MileagePlus changes go into effect on March 1 (Photo courtesy Robbie Plafker)

United MileagePlus changes go into effect on March 1 (Photo courtesy Robbie Plafker)

First Delta, now United. Several weeks ago, Delta made the big changeover in its SkyMiles program to a spending-based model, and now it’s United’s turn. March 1 is the effective date for United’s previously announced changes in MileagePlus — changes essentially the same as Delta’s. Under the new system, MileagePlus members’ earnings will be on a graduated scale, ranging from five points per dollar spent on air fare for basic program members, up to 11 points per dollar for Premier 1Ks. So basically, low-level, low fare travelers will earn less for their trips than before, while front-cabin, WeekendEditionhigher-level elites will earn more. The big unanswered question at this point: Will American do the same when it finally merges the AAdvantage program with US Airways’ Dividend Miles this year? MileagePlus members: Will you be better or worse off under the new system? Post your comments below.

Rapid Rewards devaluation? Without releasing any specific details, Southwest Airlines said on its Rapid Rewards page last week that it plans to make some changes to its award travel starting April 17. On that date, the number of points needed for award travel on some routes “will vary based on destination, time, day of travel, demand, fare class, and other factors,” the airline said, adding that “many flights…will stay at the current redemption rate.” The blog Travel Summary adopted a skeptical attitude toward the cryptic announcement, referring to it as a “devaluation” of Rapid Rewards points. “While some prices may get cheaper, you can bet they’re making this change to increase a majority of prices,” the blog said.

Restrictions on free-flowing airport booze?

Delta's making progress on the new Sky Club at SFO's Terminal 1 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta’s making progress on the new Sky Club at SFO’s Terminal 1 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

San Francisco Sky Club. A Delta spokesperson has confirmed to TravelSkills that the brand new Sky Club, inside security at SFO’s Terminal 1, is set to open in May. We’ll share more specifics when we get them!

Double miles at Alaska; Delta’s bag guarantee. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members who register online can earn double miles from now through May 15 on eight routes to and from Salt Lake City, and on 19 Seattle routes. There’s no limit to the amount of extra miles that can be earned with this new promotion … Delta is offering SkyMiles members a bonus of 2,500 miles if they have to wait more than 20 minutes for a checked bag on any domestic flight to reach the carousel after arrival. All you have to do is fill out an online form within three days of arrival.

Trip Report: JetBlue Mint class [photos]

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 4.50.31 PMSouthwest adds Passbook. It took a while, but Southwest Airlines passengers who are checking in electronically for their flights can now have boarding passes sent to Passbook on Apple devices using iOS6 or later versions. Look for a new button on the bottom of the boarding pass screen that says “Add to Passbook.”

Virgin adds intra-Texas route. Southwest Airlines’ lock on the market between Dallas Love Field and Austin — where it operates 10 daily non-stops — is being challenged by Virgin America, which announced plans to begin flying the route five times a day as of April 28. Virgin already flies to AUS from San Francisco.

A bright new bird to spot flying over the Bay Area starting June 15 (Photo: ByeAngel / Flickr)

A bright new bird to spot flying over the Bay Area starting June 15 (Photo: ByeAngel / Flickr)

New China route for Silicon Valley. It’s all systems go for Hainan Airlines’ planned new non-stop service from San Jose to Beijing’s Capital International Airport. SJC officials said last week that Hainan’s new service will begin June 15, operating five days a week with a 213-seat, two-class 787 Dreamliner. Economy roundtrips are in the $1,500 range while business class is in the $3,500 range—reasonable. The only other transpacific service out of San Jose is ANA’s daily flight to Tokyo Narita — but more could be coming, as the airport expects to finish construction of two new international gates by this summer. 

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first three installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 757, 767 (latest)

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

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Are lower fuel costs resulting in lower airfares?

How will lower fuel costs affect airfares? (Photo: Deni Williams / Flickr)

How will lower fuel costs affect airfares? (Photo: Deni Williams / Flickr)

Will falling fuel costs result in lower airfares? Is it too early to book holiday trips?

Earlier this month I had a meeting with the scientists behind the new airfare prediction website FLYR, at their headquarters in downtown San Francisco. After that meeting I came up with some fare-related questions that TravelSkills readers might like to ask these smart guys.

Last week I asked them to help us predict what spring-summer airfares will look like this year. (see that post)

Today, I’ve asked them to examine what impact lower fuel costs might have on airfares later this year… and into the holidays.

Q: Will airlines lower fares at the last minute for travel to Europe this summer due to sharply lower fuel costs? Will decreased demand from Europeans due to weak currency situation bring prices down compared to last year?

FLYR: In general, we do not recommend waiting until the last minute for any airfares unless it is absolutely necessary (see previous post to learn why). Regarding fuel costs and currencies, these are issues that we at FLYR recently examined, due to the immense public interest in the recent plunge in crude oil prices.

03

We observed that over the rise and fall of jet fuel prices in the past two decades, airfares are remarkably stable in comparison. Part of this lies in the relative elasticity of demand between the two products. See the charts above (and below) which compare what we pay in fares to what airlines pay for fuel. Note how inflation adjusted airfares have remained nearly flat over the last 20 years, while fuel prices have jumped around wildly. 

Another reason fares are not heavily affected by fuel prices is the use of fuel price hedging by airlines (the extent of the practice varies by carrier). When fuel prices are hedged in monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual contracts, airlines get a better sense as to what operational costs look like in the near future. Likewise, these hedges act as a buffer against sudden changes in spot prices.

Predicting spring-summer airfares

04

The quarter-on-quarter changes since 2007 represent some of the most volatile periods for energy prices in recent history. Even so, you can see a counter-cyclical-like movement trend between fuel prices and airfares. It’s not really a counter-cyclical relationship of course; rather, it’s a one or two quarter lag before any drastic changes show up in airfare pricing.

Similar to commodities hedging, currency fluctuations are also hedged by a number of carriers with global reach. Therefore, we expect that a large part of the recent currency swings will be absorbed at the carrier level. Any effects felt at the consumer level (if at all) would take time to hit.

Q: For Holiday season travel, I need to travel on peak days around Xmas….should I book my ticket home for the holidays NOW or should I wait?

FLYR: There’s definitely a feeling of dread when it comes to booking holiday travel — not least due to the skyrocketing fares on certain peak days. That said, we found that the trajectory of holiday vs. non-holiday airfares is actually very similar. So what accounts for the extra cost of airfares?

There are two primary factors at work. First, certain discount fare classes are completely removed from holiday inventory, so needless to say holiday travelers shouldn’t count on snagging a “killer deal” during peak travel dates.

Second, travelers tend to book a few extra weeks in advance due to the relative importance of holiday travel and the fear factor associated with expensive holiday airfares (talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!). Our advice? Expect to pay more – not because you necessarily missed a lower fare, but because there were fewer lower fares to begin with. Book your holiday trips a few weeks earlier than you normally would, but certainly no need to book (or stress about the holidays) nine months in advance.

See previous post about predicting spring-summer airfares

–Chris McGinnis

In Case You Missed It…

>American sets schedules for first 787 Dreamliners.

>Chris tries out (and photographs) JetBlue’s new Mint Class.

>InterContinental’s loyalty plan adds Kimpton hotels, new signup bonus.

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first two installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

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Predicting spring-summer airfares

flyrHave you checked out the beautiful new airfare prediction site FLYR yet?

I’m a new fan of the free service, which drills down fare predictions to specific flights and advises users to buy or wait. Its “fare beacons” monitor fares on these flights for you and email an alert when it’s time to buy. It can also predict the likelihood of a certain flight selling out.

FLYR predictions are made based on monitoring mountains of historical airfare data that is sliced and diced with “adaptive price-forecasting algorithms.” While its predictive services do not yet cover every single flight in the world…they are slowly getting there. For now, it’s primarily a tool for pricing domestic US flights. According to the site today, they are monitoring 1,923 routes.

Are lower fuel costs resulting in lower airfares?

Flyr offers advice on when to buy or when to wait

Flyr offers advice on when to buy or when to wait

Earlier this month I had a meeting with the scientists behind the startup at their headquarters in downtown San Francisco. After that meetup I thought of some fare-related questions that TravelSkills readers might like to ask these smart guys.

I’ll present the Q&A in two parts. Here’s part One:

Q: When will I find best airfare deals for Spring Break planning? When are the best times to fly? 

FLYR: The US market is relatively fortunate in that our schedule for Spring Break covers a long period and is variable among travelers (from mid-February to late-April), as opposed to the rather “firm” dates found in East Asia such as Lunar New Year (Feb 19) and Golden Week in Japan (April 29-May 5).

01

We compiled a “Deal Index” looking at current airfares to the most popular domestic destinations for Spring Break, including Florida, Southern California, and Las Vegas. We examined the most popular travel weekends for air travel running from March through mid-April. (See chart at top)

The weekends with a higher deal index rating are generally better bets for cheap departures, while those with lower ratings are likely already filling up. Travelers with a bit of flexibility in their schedules should definitely avoid initiating travel on those higher-demand weekends. (Note that Easter is Sunday April 5 this year.)

For travelers who wish to check on a particular flight itinerary, our getFLYR.com website is able to deliver BUY/WAIT advice on most of these individual airfares.

Q: For summer planning, is now the best time to buy tickets to Europe for travel during peak summer season (JUL-AUG) or should I wait?

One of the most widely held beliefs among travelers is that earlier always means cheaper. Not necessarily. While buying far in advance will generally ensure that you will avoid paying the highest prices, they usually undergo some dramatic changes in the lead-up to the date of departure:

02

We examined current airfare data from multiple gateway cities in the US to major destinations in Europe. While airfares held steady over 120 days out, they do drop dramatically after that. While there will be cases where certainty in confirming a booking is necessary many months in advance, there appears to be little else compelling about booking your flights to Europe more than four months before you travel.

The caveat of course, is that this is highly dependent upon the particular route, carrier, and flight that each individual traveler is looking at. We have noted that a certain level of market disruption has already been introduced by the likes of Turkish Airlines and Norwegian Air Shuttle in US-Europe flights, especially in the cities being served. 

Next time, we’ll ask the FLYR folks how plummeting fuel prices and currency fluctuations will affect summer fares. Stay tuned! (UPDATE: Here’s the second part of our series with FLYR: 

Are lower fuel costs resulting in lower airfares?

–Chris McGinnis

 

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first two installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

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Like what you just read? Then say so! Scroll back up to the top and LIKE the post on Facebook, post it on Linked In and/or tweet it!

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Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Can you tell the difference between the 737 and A320 in this shot? (Angelo DeSantis / Flickr)

Can you tell the difference between the A320 and the B737 in this shot? (Angelo DeSantis / Flickr)

Pilots, planespotters and aviation buffs can quickly recognize nearly every aircraft type from the ground or in the air.

But it’s not so easy for the rest of us.

To help TravelSkills readers confidently recognize what they see overhead or out on the runway, we are going to offer up a series of posts dedicated to Planespotting 101. (Here’s last week’s post about the Boeing 717 and MD80/90 series)

Today let’s look at two ubiquitous planes – the Boeing 737 family and the Airbus A320 family

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 3.58.40 PM

See the pointy nose on the Boeing 737? The dorsal-like fin leading up to the tail? (Photo: Colin Brown / Flickr)

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 4.00.53 PM

See the more bulbous nose on the Airbus? (Aero Icarus / Flickr)

The Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 are two of the most popular single-aisle planes flying. They are about the same size and look quite similar to the untrained eye.

The 737 is Boeing’s most widely produced aircraft and has nine variants flown by almost all major domestic airlines, especially Southwest, which operates only 737s and has 665 of ‘em! Delta flies about 100.

The Airbus A320 (along with the similar A318, 319 and 321) is more popular overseas, but in the US, they comprise 100% of Virgin America’s fleet and much of JetBlue’s. US Airways has the largest Airbus fleet in the world, including nearly 270 in the A320 family. United has about 160. Delta has 105 A319s and A320s.

8 things every frequent flyer wants

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 4.16.17 PM

Note the Airbus nose and windows (PurplePoulpe / Flickr)

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 4.15.47 PM

Note the pointy nose and angular window in the Boeing (PurplePoulpe / Flickr)

The easiest way to tell the difference between a 737 and an A320 is by looking at the nose of the plane. Boeing jets tend to have pointy noses compared to Airbus noses which are more rounded and bulbous.

You can also look at the outer edge of the cockpit windows. On a 737, the windows have a sharp diagonal corner while the A320s windows are more square.

Also, look at the tail of both jets. The 737 has tail has small dorsal- like fin that extends at a slight angle from the top of the fuselage to the tail. That’s absent on the A320’s smaller tail. See it? The A320 also has a larger, more distinctive tail cone than the 737.

When flying the 737 or A320, do you notice much difference? Do you have a preference? Please leave your comments below. 

(Here’s last week’s planespotting post about the Boeing 717 and MD80/90 series)

–Chris McGinnis

In Case You Missed It…

Did you miss Saturday’s or Sundays issues of our weekend edition? Here ya go: 

United discounts awards + Delta eliminates chart + More Starbucks + United packs 777s + Southwest challenges Delta

KAL’s new biz class + Cheap biz class to London + Airline scents + Busiest airport? + Spate of new hotels

 

New breed of hotel discount sites

End of the hotel room phone?

5 key questions to ask at hotel check-in

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Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

The good old DC9 was the model for a long line of modern jets (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

The good old DC9 spawned a long line of modern jets (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

Pilots, planespotters and aviation buffs can quickly recognize nearly every aircraft type from the ground or in the air.

But it’s not so easy for the rest of us.

To help TravelSkills readers confidently recognize what they see overhead or out on the runway, we are going to offer up a series of posts dedicated to Planespotting 101.

Today, let’s start small and take a look at the Boeing 717, MD-80/90 series. All were based on the good old DC-9 (built between 1965 and 1982), which means they all look very similar to the untrained eye.

Here’s a look at the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737

Delta retired its last DC-9 in January 2014.

Boeing 717 (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

Boeing 717 (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

Hawaiian and Delta are the only two US airlines operating Boeing 717s (Prayitno / Flickr)

Hawaiian and Delta are the only two US airlines operating Boeing 717s (Prayitno / Flickr)

The most distinguishing feature of Boeing 717s, the smallest Boeing plane, is its T-shaped tail with engines at the back flanking either side of the tail.

717s are operated in the U.S. only by Hawaiian Airlines and Delta Air Lines. (AirTran’s 717s were retired at the end of 2014).

A Delta MD-80 (Mr.TinDC / Flickr)

The fuselage on an MD-80/90 tends to be longer than the 717  (Mr.TinDC / Flickr)

A Swiss MD-83 (Aero Icarus / Flickr)

A Swiss MD-83 (Aero Icarus / Flickr)

The MD-80 family (mostly flown by Allegiant, American and Delta) and MD-90 planes (mostly flown by Delta) have similar features like the T-shaped tail with smaller, thinner engines on either side, and a “pinched” tailcone. (See the “pointy” cone on the DC-9 at the top to compare.) No other commercial aircraft has a T-shaped tail, with the exception of regional jets.

Look for the unpainted outline near the top of the T on the 717

Look for the unpainted outline near the top of the T on the 717

The easiest way to tell the difference between at MD-80/90 and a Boeing 717? The 717 has an unpainted outline near the “stabilizer” at the top of the tail’s T shape. See it on the Hawaiian Airlines 717 to the right? It’s not there on the MD80/90 series. Also, check the engines. The 717 engines are fatter compared to most MD80/90 engines which are narrower and have more tapered ends. Also, the fuselage on the MD-80/90 series tends to be longer than the 717.

What’s best about flying on one of these plane? I’d have to say sitting in first class– with the engines so far away from the front, all you can hear is the wind whistling by your window and the ice cubes tinkling in your cocktail :)

Please share your planespotting tips or advice in the comments below! How do YOU tell the difference between a 717 and MD-80 or 90? 

Here’s a look at the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737

Aer Lingus sees green in U.S. [PHOTOS]

Putting a wrap on airport security checkpoints

5 key questions to ask at hotel check-in

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Like what you just read? Then say so! Scroll back up to the top and LIKE the post on Facebook, post it on Linked In and/or tweet it!

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6 tips for taking better iPhone pics

iphone6-main-image

(Photo: Casemate)

If the iPhone is your camera of choice, you’re hardly alone. More and more travelers, especially business travelers, are leaving big, bulky cameras at home and using their iPhones instead.

Why not? Small and compact and perfectly portable, an iPhone camera can more than get the job done. Not to mention, the improved cameras on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus mean there are more functions to help you get that perfect shot. The new iPhone cameras can focus more clearly and have improved face detection and exposure control. The iPhone 6 Plus camera has two significant improvements: improved focus and optical image stabilization (the iPhone 6 only has digital image stabilization).

The next time you hit the road for a business trip, don’t just fly in and out, only seeing the inside of a taxi cab and meeting room. Make time to explore and photograph. And before you do, here are 6 tips to help you take better photos with your iPhone:

eiffel-tower

(Photo: Natalie DiScala)

1 Steady your camera
Getting a good nighttime shot is really difficult without a tripod. Just the slightest movement in your hand, which is virtually impossible to avoid, and your photo will be unfocused and ruined. I took this shot at the Hotel Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel. Let’s be honest: the key to snapping this photo was, first and foremost, the spectacular location and view from my room! But to capture the moody color of the sky and the twinkling lights adorning the Eiffel Tower, steadying the camera was essential. Fortunately, I was able to balance my iPhone on the ledge of my room’s balcony to steady the camera and get this shot. But Apple’s iSight camera offers continuous auto-focus and stabilization for both photos and videos so that your shot remains steady when your hands are shaky.

Related: 6 tips for better plane pics

connecticut

(Photo: Natalie DiScala)

2 Look for beauty everywhere
While going for a stroll in Connecticut, I walked right by this pretty vignette. I doubled back and looked at it again and it was just too quaint not to photograph. Remember that some of the best photos will happen when you least expect it. But always having your iPhone in your pocket means you’ll always be prepared to capture those moments.

alberta

(Photo: Natalie DiScala)

3 Use photography apps
The iPhone camera has HDR capability and there’s photo editing software that can help tweak your photos when needed. But you can take iPhone photos one step further with photography apps like Pro HDR, which can help take an average photo from ho-hum to hot-diggity! The Pro HDR snaps two photos (one image exposed for the highlights, the other exposed for the shadows) and merges them together to create brilliant colour and clarity. This photo, taken at the Post Hotel in Lake Louise, Alberta, was the first I’d ever taken using the app. I was impressed.

Related: Crashing currencies: More travel deals for Americans

washington

(Photo: Natalie DiScala)

4 Choose the right filter
Filters can certainly add an artistic look to your photos but choose wisely. You don’t want the filter to alter the mood of the moment so dramatically that it communicates something false. Choose a filter that enhances the photo but keeps its integrity. This photo of the Washington Monument, taken from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, does have a filter on it (the Chrome filter, found in the iPhone’s photo editing settings) but I chose something that I felt retained the feeling of that moment, standing under a bright blue sky on a very cold day.

golden-triangle

(Photo: Natalie DiScala)

5 Play with angles
Sometimes the best shot is not the one that’s right in front of you. I often find myself walking around, looking up and looking down, trying to find the spot that will yield the best photo. Here in northern Thailand at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, there was so much to see that I simply had to shoot from above to include as much as possible. It all depends on the story you want to tell with your photo – and in this case, the posh pool plus the lush landscape were a perfect pair.

waikiki

(Photo: Natalie DiScala)

6 Shoot in the early morning hours
With over 17 million posts using the hashtag #sunrise on Instagram, it’s clear that sunrises are popular. If you’re up early enough to snap that sunrise, then stay up and explore. The soft light of early morning is magical for photos and can provide a completely different look to the same scene shot in the afternoon or evening. Plus, with fewer people around in the wee morning hours, you’re more likely to capture your shot without interruption.

-By Natalie DiScala

New jets SFO-LAX + Europe summer deals + United move at ATL + Delta wi-fi progress + Cathay biz class sale

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>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<
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Which countries have fastest hotel wi-fi? Surprising answer

wi-fi

Do you insist on consistently good quality and wide availability of in-room Wi-Fi at hotels? Then you better travel overseas, according to a new report from HotelWiFiTest, the website that tracks these things worldwide.

The U.S. ranks fairly high up on the list for the availability of free hotel Wi-Fi, but fairly low down for quality. The report notes that “quality” doesn’t mean super-fast Internet; rather, it means “the percentage of hotels that offer adequate WiFi quality in a given geographical area.” It defines “adequate” as download speeds of at least 3 Mbps — sufficient for SD-quality video streaming — and uploads at 500 kbps.

wifi

“For most travelers, having super-fast and consistently stable WiFi is a great bonus, but their first priority is ensuring that basic quality expectations for Internet access are met,” the company noted.

Worldwide, Asia offers the best Wi-Fi quality, the report notes, available at 50 percent of the region’s hotels. Europe is second at 46 percent, and the U.S. is third at 35 percent. On a country-by-country basis, 92 percent of South Korea’s hotels offer quality Wi-Fi, followed by Japan (84.9 percent), the Ukraine (!) at 82.1 percent, Switzerland at 79.8 percent and Romania at 78 percent. Ranking just below those countries, in order, are Hong Kong, Sweden, Norway, Taiwan, Hungary and Russia. The U.S. comes in at 40th place worldwide (35.9 percent), just above Malaysia, Turkey, Spain and France.

According to HotelWiFiTest, that means 79 percent of the world’s countries have better quality hotel Wi-Fi than the U.S.

My two favorite airlines. Yours?

The report found that the opposite trend holds true for availability of free in-room Wi-Fi, however, with that amenity provided at 85.4 percent of U.S. hotels — about the same as Ukraine, Taiwan and Turkey, but still behind Norway (92.4 percent), Sweden (91 percent) and Russia (90.1 percent). (That U.S. figure should increase since major chains like Hyatt, Marriott and Starwood recently decided to make basic free Wi-Fi available across all their brands.)

wi-fi

HotelWiFiTest’s report also looked at individual cities. In the 20 U.S. cities covered, Portland was number one in the Wi-Fi quality rankings (available at 66.7 percent of its hotels), 10 points ahead of second-place Seattle. Following in order behind Seattle are Albuquerque, Orlando and Chicago. Los Angeles ranked 7th (46.3 percent), New York 8th (44.5 percent) and San Francisco 10th (42.7 percent). Of the 20 U.S. cities rated, Atlanta came in at the bottom, with quality Wi-Fi at just 22.5 percent of its hotels.

Related: Ranking inflight wi-fi by airline

U.S. cities with the highest percentage of free Wi-Fi hotels are Portland, Albuquerque, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Denver, all above 80 percent. Ranking 20th out of 20 for free Wi-Fi was Boston at 56.6 percent, just below Washington D.C. (58 percent).

Overseas destinations outdo all of the U.S. cities in terms of Wi-Fi quality, the report concluded. Of the 50 cities worldwide covered in the report, the one with the best availability of quality Wi-Fi is Stockholm (at 88.9 percent of its hotels), followed by Budapest (84.4 percent), Tokyo (81.9 percent), Dublin (77.5 percent) and Montreal (69 percent). Atlanta ranked 49th on the list of 50, exceeding only Albufeira, Portgual.

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Ranking inflight wi-fi by airline

I'm always happy to see a sign like this one on my recent JetBlue flight to New York (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I’m always happy to see a sign like this one on my recent JetBlue flight to New York (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I’m addicted to inflight wi-fi and my ticket purchase decision is nearly always dependent on wi-fi availability onboard. That’s probably because I run an online business and being offline for long periods can have significant consequences.

But it’s not just me. I’ve noticed a big increase in the number of passengers onboard accessing wi-fi from their laptops, smart phones and tablets– and that’s part of the problem. Too many passengers accessing wi-fi at the same time slows down connection speeds.

Technology is barely keeping up with the demand for inflight wi-fi, but we’ve seen progress with the newer, faster satellite-based systems on United and JetBlue. Gogo has rolled out its faster ATG-4 air-to-ground system fleetwide on Virgin America, and its showing up on more Delta flights.

But even with those improvements, connections can be slow. Painfully slow. Especially when flying over desolate areas of the Rocky Mountains on a plane full of internet-hungry techies on a flight between New York and San Francisco.

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Slowly but surely things will get better. And wi-fi in the sky will only become more ubiquitous.  For a look at the current state of inflight wifi, airline booking site RouteHappy.com has produced an interesting report named “The Global State of Inflight Wi-Fi” which ranks inflight wi-fi by carrier.

Here are some interesting snippets:

Routehappy

On which airlines are you MOST likely to find inflight wi-fi? Based on the chart above, it’s Virgin America, Southwest and JetBlue. What’s best about Virgin here is that you know you are going to get inflight wi-fi every single time you get on a plane. No other airline can match that right now.

Routehappy

It’s important to point out that Virgin America is a small carrier with a tiny fleet compared to major airlines. So look above and see how airlines rank based on number of flights with wi-fi, and you see that Delta and Southwest lead…big time.

Routehappy

Availability of inflight wi-fi is huge…but increasingly important is having enough power to stay connected on long flights. Wi-fi is a huge drain on device batteries, so Routehappy took a look at which airlines offer the best access to in-seat power. Virgin America and Alaska lead in this category (see above), which is important because a large percentage of their flights are long-haul where in-seat power is essential. On the other hand, Southwest, which offers mostly short haul flights, offers no in-seat power at all. Lack of in-seat power is a big drawback for JetBlue since many of it’s flights are long haul transcon or NE to Florida flights– but it is working on adding more power.

Routehappy

We are lucky in the US because we were the first to enjoy widespread access to inflight wi-fi while the rest of the frequent flying world looked on with envy. That’s starting to change now as international carriers rapidly adding new satellite based systems for over water flights.

From Delta regarding international wifi progress

Among US carriers, Delta has about 37% of its international fleet outfitted with wi-fi–  primarily on its 747s and A330s but coverage is sparse on its much larger fleet of 777s and 767s. United has wi-fi on all its 747s and about half of its 777s but only a handful of its new 787 Dreamliners. It’s only on two of United’s 767s. On American, only its new 777-300ER and select 777-200 planes are equipped with wi-fi.

Thanks to Routehappy.com for providing this information! Click here for the full infographic.

How do YOU feel about the state of inflight wi-fi? Are you an addict? Happy or frustrated with the service… and the pricing? Please leave your comments below!

–Chris McGinnis

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Plane runs out of fuel, ditches near Hawaii VIDEO

Have you ever wondered what happens when a plane runs out of fuel over the ocean?

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a small plane from the Bay Area had to ditch in the ocean using a built in parachute after running out of fuel near the coast of Hawaii.

The pilot of a single engine Cirrus SR-22 aircraft that ran out of fuel is safe after ditching his aircraft 253 miles northeast of Maui, Hawaii Sunday. At approximately 4:44 p.m. the pilot was able to deploy the aircraft’s airframe parachute system and safely exit the aircraft into a life raft. (Now that took some TravelSkills, right? :) )

The Holland America Veendam cruise ship en route to Lahaina nearby was diverted to help rescue the pilot of the downed plane. Imagine watching all this unfold off the deck of a cruise ship. Unforgettable.

The dramatic video was shot by the crew of a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules airplane, which maintained communications with the pilot during the ditching. The most dramatic footage in the video above is toward the end after splashdown when the pilot evacuates into a life raft and the cruise ship arrives to save him.

Wow! Just wow.

What’s your biggest flying fear?

–Chris McGinnis

Crashing currencies = More travel deals for Americans

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Credit Cards

These are the two “go-to” credit cards in my wallet. What are yours? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The cards I carry: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. Both offer a nice 40,000 point sign up bonus (after spending $3,000 in first three months for the Barclaycard or $4,000 for Chase Sapphire), and you can use points on several airlines, hotels and other travel providers. Neither card assesses irritating and expensive foreign transaction fees. That 40,000 point bonus with Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is good for $500 in travel when booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards, plus it now offers primary rental car collision coverage (most cards provide secondary coverage). With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket or hotel bill. (Remember, when you get a new credit card via the links provided here, TravelSkills earns a commission. This is what keeps us in business cranking out meaningful content and practical advice. If you are in the market for a new card, please do so via links posted above. Thank you!)

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Best photo + United meals + Bid for Virgin upgrades + Delta downgrade + New Asian nonstop for SJC

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SkyMall bankruptcy surprises few

The SkyMall catalog was full of quirky, questionably  used items like this ball tosser (Photo: SkyMall)

The SkyMall catalog was full of quirky, questionably used items like this ball tosser (Photo: SkyMall)

SkyMall bankruptcy surprises few.

If you see a SkyMall catalogue in the seatback on your next flight, you might want to save it — it could soon be a collector’s item.

The venerable in-flight shopping diversion and its parent company have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with an eye toward selling off their assets.

What was the nail in the coffin? Too many flyers so busy looking at their personal electronic devices that they had no time to browse through SkyMall’s eclectic and eccentric product offerings.

A SkyMall "Ice chute" for your blender (Photo: SkyMall)

A SkyMall “Ice chute” for your blender (Photo: SkyMall)

Also, more travelers were likely getting used to browsing through shopping sites like Amazon or others via planes equipped with inflight wi-fi. For example, Gogo periodically allows travelers to browse sites such as Amazon for free. Over the holidays, it allowed bored passengers free online access to over 30 retailers.

In the Wall Street Journal story that broke this morning, SkyMall chief executive Scott Wiley cited a “crowded, rapidly evolving and intensely competitive” retail environment as the reason for the quarterly publication’s recent struggles. “With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the SkyMall in-flight catalog,” he said.

Who is left holding the (shopping) bag? Sounds like the airlines. In court papers, SkyMall named Delta, American and US Airways as its largest unsecured creditors. Assets are between $1 million and $10 million and total liabilities are about $12 million.

When Delta and Southwest ended their contract with SkyMall last fall, the handwriting seemed on the wall for the company.

Perhaps someone will buy the brand and somehow turn it around. It certainly seems to have a place in the national psyche…that’s worth something!

Readers: What would you do with the SkyMall brand if you bought it? 

–Chris McGinnis

6 tips for better plane pics

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HOW TO GET A $400 AIRLINE TICKET FOR $89…and help out TravelSkills?: Want to snag an easy 40,000 bonus miles? Earn 2x miles on all purchases? Avoid obnoxious foreign transaction fees? Get TripIt Pro for free? Easy peasy! Get the new Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket, rental car or hotel bill. We earn a small commission when readers sign up, so if you are in the market for a new card, help us out and get one! It’s quick and easy. 

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United bonus miles + Delta to Shanghai + Beware mileage thieves + Chris speaks Russian

united

(Photo: Jim Glab)

AIRLINES

United offers bonus miles to elites. Matching a similar move by American Airlines, United has come out with its own offer of bonus miles for MileagePlus members who buy tickets in premium cabins. The longer the flight and the higher one’s elite status, the more bonus miles United piles on, up to 12,000 for Premier 1Ks on long-haul flights of more than 3,000 miles (and p.s. transcontinental flights). Unlike American’s promotion, which is good all through 2015, United’s only applies through the end of February. That’s because on March 1, MileagePlus switches over to a new regime of earning based on money spent rather than distance flown. Delta made that same switch January 1, which is why it felt no need to match American’s premium-cabin mileage bonuses. For details on United’s plan, go to www.united.com/newyearbonus.

United bonus

JetBlue’s double miles. JetBlue has come out with its own seasonal bonus promotion for members of its TrueBlue loyalty program. The carrier is offering double base flight points on all flights booked and flown by March 8. The promotion requires online registration.

Delta’s Asian Situation. Could it be a coincidence? Just days after American Airlines asked the Transportation Department to take away Delta’s Seattle-Tokyo Haneda authority and give it to AA to launch Los Angeles-Haneda service, Delta filed for approval to operate Los Angeles-Shanghai Pudong flights starting July 9 — a route already served by American as well as United and China Eastern. Delta said LAX-Shanghai was the route “most requested by our corporate customers.” The airline will use a 777-200LR with BusinessElite, Economy Comfort and regular economy seating.

Cathay Pacific

Taking a lean back in Cathay Pacific’s premium economy seat on a B777-300

Cathay Pacific will expand San Francisco-Hong Kong service effective June 12 from twice-daily departures to 17 non-stop B777 flights a week. These new planes are outfitted with Cathay’s new(ish) premium economy cabin (pictured above), business class and regular economy class– no first. The third flight will depart SFO at 1:40 a.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with an early-morning arrival in Hong Kong. Check out Chris’s SFGate.com post about a unique Cathay Pacific “delivery flight” from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Hong Kong. And check out the plane’s roomy crew rest area in this short video. 

Miles stolen at AA, UA. Cyberthieves have used stolen usernames and passwords to access AAdvantage and MileagePlus customer accounts, in some cases securing free flights or upgrades, according to the Associated Press. The airlines reportedly notified affected customers in recent weeks — just a few dozen at United, but some 10,000 at American, the report said — and have frozen their accounts. The airlines noted that their own systems were not hacked, and that no customer credit card information was obtained. Readers: Do you take any special steps to keep your frequent flyer account access secure? Post comments below.

HOW TO GET A $400 AIRLINE TICKET FOR $89…and help out TravelSkills?: Want to snag an easy 40,000 bonus miles? Earn 2x miles on all purchases? Avoid obnoxious foreign transaction fees? Get TripIt Pro for free? Easy peasy! Get the new Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket, rental car or hotel bill. We earn a small commission when readers sign up, so if you are in the market for a new card, help us out and get one! It’s quick and easy.

WeekendEdition

INTERNATIONAL

Google Translate uses you phones camera to translate signs.

What language problem? Do you get frustrated on overseas trips because you can’t read the local signs or understand conversations? With the newly updated Google Translate app, you can simply point your phone’s camera at printed words (as long as they’re in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian or Russian) and see the English translation on the screen. The app will also translate spoken words into English (and vice versa), and with the new update it can automatically detect which foreign language it is hearing. Since I’m usually more baffled by signage in Japan or China than in Europe, I’m looking forward to the day that Google makes it work across the Pacific! In the meantime, the app does a nice job with Russian– watch me speak it in the video below.

In Case You Missed It…

–Chris McGinnis

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How do touch screens work?

Did you know that there are two types of touch screens? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Did you know that there are two types of touch screens? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Can you count how many touch screens you encounter on a single trip? Frequent travelers probably use touch screens more than most — smartphones, airport check-in or Global Entry kiosks, seatback entertainment systems are just a few.

Did you ever wonder how they work? The infographic below (from Visual.ly) provides an interesting look at the two primary types of touch screens: Capacitive screens (like on our smartphones) use electric fields to detect our fingers.

Resistive screens (like we use on most airline seatback systems) rely on pressure from our fingers to work– which regrettably leads to that irritating tap-tap-tap on the seatback which we’ve mentioned before.

Tip: At this time of year, be sure to clean your screen with a antibacterial wipe, or use your Purell after touching that screen! Or none of that is available, use your knuckle instead of your fingertip :)

 

touchscreens

 –Chris McGinnis

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22 fun facts about flying

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

Have a great Thanksgiving!

–Chris

22 fun facts

 

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Much needed upgrade in London

Heathrow Train

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

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

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

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

Related: Chris’s column Business Trip: London

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My 9 favorite travel smells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chestnuts Roasting NYC IMG_1703

Chestnuts roasting in Manhattan (Steven Depolo / Flickr)

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

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

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

–Chris McGinnis

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2 airlines offer free inflight wi-fi

Inside Emirates outstanding hub in Dubai (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inside Emirates outstanding hub in Dubai (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inflight wi-fi still feels like a miracle to me. It’s even more miraculous when it is free.

Right now, you can get it for free on two carriers: One international, the other domestic.

Today, Emirates announced that it will soon offer free wi-fi on all 53 of its A380 superjumbos, and on 28 (out of about 140) Boeing 777s. The Dubai-based carrier says that it is “aggressively retrofitting” all its other aircraft and will eventually offer free wi-fi fleetwide. This is great news because most of Emirates flights are super long-hauls, like this 15-hour journey I took from San Francisco to Dubai– and inflight wi-fi can sure help pass the time.

On most Emirates flights equipped with wi-fi, you’ll get the first 10MBs of data for free. To get a whopping 600MB, all you have to do is pay a token $1 fee.  But don’t count on getting free wi-fi yet– Emirates says that due to technical limitations, it is currently not possible to offer the 10MB free “on a few of its A380s and 777s” but that the issue should be “resolved in coming months.”

“If we can offer good quality Wi-Fi connections for everyone onboard at no charge tomorrow, we will do it. But we face a slew of technical limitations – from speed and bandwidth availability and cost, to the supporting hardware and software – all of which we are working hard to address with the industry right now,” said Emirates President Sir Tim Clark. “Ultimately, we believe that onboard Wi-Fi will become a free service, and a standard that customers will expect on a full service airline, just like onboard refreshments and personal inflight entertainment. Emirates is leading the way on this, and we are working closely with our suppliers and various stakeholders towards this vision,” he said. On a few of its A380s and 777s, it is not currently possible to offer the first 10MB free for technical reasons, but the airline says it is working hard to resolve the issue in the coming months.

Related: How to save $$$ on inflight wi-fi 

Emirates says that it saw a 200% spike in Wi-Fi usage in the month of October when it offered a free wi-fi promotion to mark the Eid holidays. During the month, it saw a daily average of 3,500 passengers using onboard Wi-Fi, at an average of 28MB per user. The highest number of Wi-Fi users on a single flight was recorded on an A380 with 153 passengers connecting, and the flight pulling the most bandwidth  was nearly 8,000MB from 26 users onboard a Boeing 777 flight. (It did not provide details on which flights.) Its data show that Emirates passengers most frequently access Google, Facebook, and chat services Skype, WhatsApp and BBM.  Passengers onboard Emirates also have other ways to stay connected with in-seat sms and email, as well as mobile phone services.

In the US, Emirates flies to Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Boston, New York City and Washington, DC. In December, it will begin flying A380s to both San Francisco and Houston. I’ve heard mixed reviews about Emirates’ inflight wi-fi connections. Have you used it? Please leave your comments below…

JetBlue

In the US, JetBlue’s beta version of Fly-Fi, its inflight wi-fi product, is on all 10 of JetBlue’s Airbus A321s and 73 of its A320s. It should be on all JetBlue’s Airbus aircraft by spring 2015. Eventually, you’ll get it on its Embraer 190s, too.

Fly-Fi is available on JetBlue’s fancy new Mint A321s flying between New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

JetBlue currently offers a basic wi-fi connection for free

On it’s website, JetBlue says that it currently offers a basic wi-fi connection for free

It’s basic “Simply Surf” option is currently free. For more bandwidth, JetBlue says that you can purchase its fatter “Fly-Fi Plus” plan for $9/hour. Just log in to the Fly-Fi portal during your flight and follow the instructions.

(Source: JetBlue)

JetBlue release this infographic in September. (Source: JetBlue)

Let’s do a bit of expectation management: Inflight wi-fi, no matter what carrier offers it, is still a relatively new phenomenon. Whether it’s paid for, or free, inflight wi-fi WILL NOT work as well as the connection you have at your home or office. Sometimes it will not work at all. Maybe some day it will. But not right now. Expectations managed? ;)

What’s been your experience with inflight wi-fi? Should it be free? Please leave your comments below. 

–Chris McGinnis

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Flying next to Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two [VIDEO + PHOTOS]

We took a ride in a Virgin America jet for one of the first looks at Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 over Marin County in 2011. Click to see video (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

We took a ride in a Virgin America jet for one of the first looks at Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 over Marin County in 2011. It’s the center portion– the “space ship” that crashed. Scroll down to see video (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Last week Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two crashed in the Mojave desert. One pilot died in the crash, another survived. Virgin Galactic is now absorbed with finding out exactly what happened and is posting regular updates about the crash on its Facebook page.

While the crash is a tragedy and setback for the ambitious program, it reminded me of one of the most spectacular flights I’ve ever taken.

On a bright spring day in 2011, Virgin America was celebrating the opening of its brand new Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport. In typical Virgin style, it was a big to-do. Richard Branson was there. So was Buzz Aldrin and his wife. California Lt Governor Gavin Newsom, too. There were also plenty of airport dignitaries and a handful of lucky media, like TravelSkills!

We all boarded a Virgin America jet for a joy ride over the Bay Area– We had been told that Virgin Galactic’s spaceship might show up, too, so there was plenty of anticipation about how this was going to work…and what we might see up there.

Recent: How often do planes get washed? Surprising answer

We took a spectacular spin over the city and bay, then buzzed the Farrallon Islands west of the city out in the Pacific Ocean. Then, all of a sudden, we were asked to peer out the left side of the plane to see the spaceship appear off the left wing. Over the PA system, a flight attendant told everyone to disregard the fasten seat belt sign, and get over to the left side of the plane to see “the future of space travel.”

Luckily, I was already seated behind the wing on the left side, so I had a bird’s eye view of the fantastic sight and captured as much as I could in photos and video. What a sight it was! We circled around over the Pacific, then flew in over the Golden Gate Bridge, over Alameda and approached SFO from the south to land in tandem. Wow! Enjoy the photos below.

Scroll down for photos & video of the spaceship’s visit to the Bay Area in 2011.

Look closely at the photos and you’ll see that there are 3 “fuselages” on the aircraft. The center one is the “space ship” and it detaches from the vehicle (known as “White Knight”). White Knight landed safely; the space ship crashed.

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Flying over San Francisco on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over San Francisco on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Virgin Galactic

Flying over Sausalito, CA. Look closely and you’ll see the “space ship” part of this aircraft in the middle– it detaches from the larger aircraft to shoot into space. That’s the part that crashed. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay-- where Pan Am Clippers used to take off for Asia! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay– where Pan Am Clippers used to take off for Asia! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Alameda on approach to SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Alameda on approach to SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here's a shot of the aircraft alongside the Virgin America jet from which we saw it out the window. This was at an event to celebrate the opening of SFO's Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here’s a shot of the aircraft alongside the Virgin America jet from which we saw it out the window. This was at an event to celebrate the opening of SFO’s Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Latest news: Crash investigation could take up to a year. 

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New Apple SIM a boon for travelers

Apple's new iPad Air 2

Apple’s new iPad Air 2

Interesting, potentially disruptive, news for travelers emerged last week when Apple rolled out its latest version of the iPad.

The wi-fi + cellular models of the iPad Air 2 come with the new Apple SIM, an iPad-only feature that allows users to choose among short-term plans from a variety of different carriers for data without having to physically switch out the tiny SIM card. Well, this tiny SIM may have big, long-term implications when it come to the way we stay in touch when on the road.

With the new iPad Air 2, you no longer have to sign up for a long term data plan with a single carrier…you only sign on and pay up when wi-fi is slow or non-existent. And if you travel overseas, you can sign on with a local carrier and avoid stiff roaming fees. You can even use these connections to set up personal wi-fi hotspots for colleagues when there’s no wi-fi (Just like you can now do with most iPhones).

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“Whenever you need it, you can choose the plan that works best for you — with no long-term commitments. And when you travel, you may also be able to choose a data plan from a local carrier for the duration of your trip,” Apple says on its website.

Currently, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile offer short term plans for the iPad Air 2 in the US. (Verizon is notably absent.) The SIM also works with EE in the UK and could eventually go global—which would help eliminate the frequent traveler frustration of keeping up with several tiny SIMs for each country visited.

iPad Air 2

If you have a new iPad here are the simple steps to select the carrier:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Tap on “Cellular.”
  3. Tap “Set up cellular data.”
  4. Select from available carriers.
  5. Complete the necessary information to purchase the temporary plan or connect to a current account.

This is something to watch over time, especially as carriers around the world respond to this new reality – and other tablet manufacturers decide how they want to respond to Apple’s move. Who knows, maybe one day, you’ll enjoy this type of plan portability on your smartphone.

Here’s an interesting discussion of this subject with PC Mag analyst (and former travel reporter) Sascha Segan.

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BYOD entertainment on planes

STreaming

Lufthansa expects you’ll do all kinds of things with your tablet onboard: buy tours, hotels and onboard drinks, enjoy some entertainment, and read up on your destination (Image: LSG)

If you are used to watching inflight movies, playing games or watching the moving map on a seatback or ceiling screen, get ready for a change.

After talking with airlines, entertainment providers and the various companies that outfit airline cabins at the recent APEX Expo in Anaheim, it appears that 2014 is the year of BYOD or Bring Your Own Device.

APEX is an annual inflight entertainment-focused trade show where Hollywood studios and other content providers tout their wares to airlines, and the BYOD concept was a huge focus of the expo.

Here’s how BYOD entertainment works: You bring your own device, whether smartphone, tablet or laptop onboard, and the airline beams content to that device from a server located on the plane. You connect your device to the server like you would to any other wireless network, then select (and likely pay for) a TV show or movie, or other content. Some planes allow you to watch inflight entertainment on your own device only; others allow you to choose a seatback screen or your device screen.

There’s no need to connect to the ground since all the content is coming from the server on the plane. The entertainment streaming operates separately from onboard internet systems.

The concept works similarly on most US airlines with BYOD, including United, Delta, American, US Airways and Southwest. It’s sometimes marketed as an airline-branded product (like United or Southwest) and sometimes as provided by a third party such as Gogo, as on Delta.

Gogo-Vision works in over 1000 Delta aircraft

Gogo Vision works in over 1,000 Delta aircraft

Delta probably has the most wide reaching streaming option now– available as the Delta Studio on more than 1,000 planes. Passengers can choose between tuning in on their own devices, or on seatback monitors. On United, video streaming is available on most Airbus A319, Airbus A320, Boeing 747-40, and 777-200 planes– and for now only on Apple’s iOS devices and on laptops.

That’s the concept, but of course since it’s in beta it does not always work. For example, not every plane on BYOD airlines has the system installed, and even if it does, it’s not always working. It’s a relatively safe guess that most planes with wi-fi will also have streaming, but there are exceptions to that as the systems roll out.

Most airlines have chosen to “soft launch” BYOD to allow a teething period while the airline, staff and passengers get used to it. United’s rollout in particular has experienced a few hiccups, mainly due to its decision to go with a new Panasonic system rather than the more tried and tested Gogo network.

A soft launch also lets airlines play around with pricing, which can change dynamically and thus isn’t fully predictable. For now, expect to pay a dollar or two for most TV shows and several bucks for a movie, with a few “sample” shows or movies for free.

But there are a few pitfalls and a good bit of uncertainty with being at the bleeding edge of technology. Be prepared to do a bit of research into your airline’s offering — the tech details vary quite a bit — and keep up with things, since requirements change often.

Some airlines require you to use their own app or download a plug-in (before you board or on the plane). Be sure that you have the latest version of the airline app updated in case you need to use it to access BYOD.

Be sure to download the following to your phone and/or tablet:

Gogo-Vision iOS appGogo-Vision Android app | United iOS app | Southwest Onboard player iOS | Southwest Onboard player Android

BYO device entertainment systems working on United flights (Photo: United)

BYO device entertainment systems working on United flights (Photo: United)

If things aren’t working as planned once you are on board, don’t expect much help from flight attendants — one of the points made at APEX was that cabin crew aren’t trained in troubleshooting your device.

That’s especially true for Android users — sorry folks, but it’s the usual story: iOS users get first dibs on new developments and you follow on later. Check on the airline’s streaming entertainment page to see whether your device is covered.

Another issue: power. BYOD is great when your device is all juiced up, but few planes have plugs at all seats, so make sure your devices are charged up before boarding.

TravelSkills asked about your experiences with BYOD streaming IFE last month, with experiences generally positive but with a few issues.

FTdad liked it:  Just flew on a 747-400 from HKG to SFO and was impressed with the in-flight entertainment streaming. Interface and video quality was very good; I wish the video selection had been more extensive and more current. I was hoping the selections would be more like what is offered in business/first class.  Let us know what you think!

Susan had a good experience:  We flew on a United flight Aug 14 with the streaming entertainment from Honolulu to Los Angeles. Hubby used the iPad and I had the iPhone to get access to the movies as long as you had the latest version of the United app and a fully charged device. Decent choices of movies and got to catch up on some TV shows too for the 5 hour flight. Made for a nice entertaining flight and had no problems with it at all. But, I wondered what my parents would do (they don’t have smartphones nor would they know how to download the app!) and we also wondered how much United would charge once it was out of beta mode.

BBinSF, however, was less impressed:  Just flew O’Hare to SFO and only entertainment option was to pay for wifi. I couldn’t get it on my personal iphone–neither could several people near me. Flight crew insisted it was working (but they wouldn’t/couldn’t provide assistance). Then I tried my work iphone (same model as personal one) and I was able to pay, use email, use Facebook, Twitter–but if I clicked on any link it would bring me back to United Wifi homepage. Also no streaming allowed. Terrible experience. Will get money back but it was a verrry long flight without entertainment.

Have you tried BYOD yet? Would you rather get your entertainment on your own device or on the seatback? Please leave your comments below.

–John Walton & Chris McGinnis

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Lessons learned about United wi-fi

I was happy to get this alert from United telling me that I'd have wi-fi on my flight to Cancun

I was happy to get this alert from United telling me that I’d have wi-fi on my flight to Cancun, but…

I admit it. I’m an inflight wi-fi addict. I use it all the time.

Because my professional life pretty much lives online and I live much of my working life in the air, it’s a major productivity enhancer. I’m still in awe (and thankful) that we are able to use wi-fi in the sky at all. I’m very forgiving of spotty connections, but less forgiving of no connections.

United’s much heralded new satellite-based wi-fi service sounds like it must be great. But so far it has never worked for me. To be fair, the product is still in beta. Plus, I have received emails from TravelSkills readers flying over the Atlantic or Pacific letting me know that it’s working for them. Plus, I’ve used the ground-based Gogo wi-fi system on United p.s. flights between California and New York City. But it’s United’s new satellite based system I’ve been eager to try.

Last week I flew United to Cancun from San Francisco via Houston and learned a valuable lesson about when and where United’s wi-fi system works…and where is doesn’t.

The trip got off to a good start since the equipment from San Francisco to Houston was upgraded from an older domestic 757 to an internationally configured 767. That meant I got an upgrade to a nice big lie flat business class seat for the four-hour ride to Houston. The bad news was that United’s 767s don’t have wi-fi yet. But no big loss. I was a happy camper and just defaulted to Gmail offline to keep my email box cleaned up.

Chart: Progress report on United’s wi-fi installations

Next up was my connecting flight from Houston to Cancun on a nice new United 737 with 20 first class seats. Since United sent me the email at the top of this post on the day before my flight, I was excited that I’d finally get to use its inflight wi-fi. Even though it’s only a two-hour flight, it would be worth paying to log on and see how it worked.

As we were taxiing toward take of in Houston, I became even more excited about finally getting to try United’s wi-fi when the flight attendant announced that this flight was equipped with wi-fi and that it only cost $2 per hour (quite a deal compared to what Gogo is charging these days). We took off and headed south and just as we were flying over Galveston and a sea of tankers in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought it was time to log on.

I went through the easy log in process, popped in my credit card number and agreed to the terms and conditions. My credit card was accepted and I agreed to the $2 per hour fee.

And then I saw this pop up:

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.00.26 PM

And I thought, “Hmm. United’s wi-fi is satellite based, which means it should work over water as well as land. Let’s try logging in again.”

So I went back through the process again… including, credit card, CVV number, expiration date and all that.

The light on the galley wall indicated that the system was working

The light on the galley wall indicated that the system was working

And I ended up with a similar “out of coverage” notification.

Frustrated, I thought I’d talk to the flight attendant that had proudly proclaimed that this flight had wi-fi. “Is the wi-fi system on? For some reason I’m not able to log on,” I asked. He turned around and looked over his should toward the galley and said, “Yes, the light is on, so it’s working.”

I tried logging on again using my laptop. By this time, my seatmate was in on the wi-fi hunt, too, and he was trying to connect from his iPhone. Neither of us could connect.

So we asked the flight attendant again. Flustered, he came back and said, “We just flew up here from Cancun and I think it was working.” Then another flight attendant said, “It only works over land, not over water.”

So I said, “I think it’s a satellite based system, so it should work over the Gulf of Mexico, right? Can you reboot the system?” I asked. He said, “All I can do it turn it off and on. They haven’t really told us much more about it.”

So we gave up.

When I arrived in Cancun, I logged on to the hotel’s wi-fi system and there was a bill from United for $2.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 4.47.59 PM

I was excited to see this on my return flight from Cancun to SFO.

On the flight back to SFO, I was on a nonstop 737-800 equipped with wi-fi. This time, the pre-flight announcement included a plug for the satellite-based wi-fi, but the flight attendant said it would not work until we flew “close to the US.” That still puzzled me since this was supposedly a satellite-based system, so as soon as we flew over Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas, I tried again. Entered all the credit card info (again) my address (again) CVV and the captcha (again). And I was on! For about 10 minutes.

Then I get this message:

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 4.17.06 PM

So I called over the flight attendant again and said, “So what’s going on? Isn’t this a satellite based system that should be working over land or water or other countries? Why does this say it only works over the continental U.S.?”

Pause. The flight attendant smiled conspiratorially and said, “Yes, it should be working, but we are on a Continental plane that gets its satellite from DirectTV, and the DirectTV satellite only works within a few miles of the US border. We are currently on a heading that keeps us south of the U.S. border.

Flying United just south of the Rio Grande (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying United just south of the Rio Grande (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

So we continued along the southern side of the Rio Grande over Chihuahua and Hermosillo without a connection. And a planeload of grumbling passengers, including me since I’d paid $8 for a four-hour connection and was not getting it. We eventually flew over Tijuana and out over the Pacific for the remainder of the flight to San Francisco—just far enough away from the coast to stay away from the DirectTV satellite coverage over the continental US.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 5.44.07 PM

So even if I never logged on during this flight, I learned something valuable to share with TravelSkills readers: United has two different satellite systems for wi-fi, one made by Panasonic, the other by DirectTV. If you are flying on a Boeing 737 with Direct TV, it will only work over the continental US. If you are flying on another aircraft with the newer Panasonic system, it should work over water. Most of the time.

What’s been YOUR experience with United’s inflight wi-fi product? Please share your comments below!

–Chris McGinnis

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3 ways to make low- or no-cost calls abroad

Using wi-fi connections for nearly free overseas calling (Photo: Tim Bishop / Flickr)

Using wi-fi connections for nearly free overseas calling (Photo: Tim Bishop / Flickr)

With the proliferation of wi-fi around the world, it’s making more and more sense for travelers abroad to make free (or very low cost) calls using internet connections instead of the more expensive cellular roaming option.

Much of this is driven by Apple, which has made wi-fi voice calling a prominent feature of its latest batch of phones, meaning that iPhone 6 users can soon opt to circumvent cellular towers entirely by making calls over wi-fi– at home or overseas.

So if you are sick of returning from trips abroad to face inflated phone bills, here are a few ways to use Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) technology to make calls on your smartphones.

Related: Is banning inflight calling really necessary? (check out the LOUD comments!) 

Image courtesy of Viber

New Viber Out allows calls to anyone in the world (Image courtesy of Viber)

Viber – http://www.viber.com/

Viber is one of the most prominent “free text and calls over wi-fi” applications – so prominent, in fact, that the Iranian government called for its censorship this week.

So why the high drama in Iran?

Well, the app allows users to make calls that are far less traceable than those that route through cell towers – and it allows calls to be made to just about anyone, anywhere in the world, even to people who aren’t on Viber. The ayatollahs in Iran don’t like that citizens can use Viber to communicate negatively about the government. 

Anyway, here’s how to take advantage of the new “Viber Out” feature on the app:

1) Download the Viber app to your smartphone, install and go through the verification procedure for your personal cell phone number.

2) Enter the verification code, and then decide if you want to connect your address book, and Facebook details – or create your own username. If you don’t want to share anything, just keep clicking no until you get to the main screen.

3) “Viber Out” is the calling feature; it’s at the bottom of the screen under the “Calls” phone icon. Click there, and then dial your number.

4) If you don’t have credit, you’ll be prompted to purchase credit via your app store account. Rates are also accessible from this screen.

With calls to US numbers (both landline and mobile) priced at 1.9 cents per minute, Viber is a steal of a deal. Viber also allows connection to 1-800 numbers in the US, a boon to anyone dealing with mundane life issues back home while spending extended time traveling abroad.

The Viber interface is clean and straightforward, and very useful as a quick and reliable VOIP smartphone solution.

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The Skype dial pad (Courtesy of Skype)

The Skype dial pad (Courtesy of Skype)

Skype – http://www.skype.com

Skype is definitely the granddaddy of the VOIP family. The app has been around seemingly since the dawn of digital time, and thus has a solid following and steady reputation with most people.

The advantage to this longevity is that many of your contacts are already likely engaged on the platform, meaning that chats and messaging become more useful with more people you know on it. Nearly everyone has a Skype handle these days.

For calling from your smartphone via VOIP, the newly refreshed app makes it simple.

1)    Download and install the Skype app to your smartphone.

2)    Login with your desktop details or set up a new account.

3)    On the main screen, tap the keypad-esque icon on the left. This will lead you to the dial out screen.

4)    Dial your number.

5)    If you don’t have credit, you will be prompted to add credit via your app store account.

6)    Voila – you know can dial any number for a cheap VOIP call!

The new Skype app is actually quite beautiful, offering a straightforward way to keep track of recent conversations, favorite people, and an overview of your network.

Skype’s rates are actually quite a deal higher than Viber’s (but still cheap compared to cellular calling) – it’s 2.9 cents per minute to call U.S. landlines and mobile phones. A better deal can be had for those regular users to lock in savings with Skype’s clever “Subscriptions” product that charges a flat monthly fee for unlimited calling to a specific region.

Overall, Skype is still trying to remain competitive in a messaging-app heavy world. Subscriptions are a no-brainer for any long-haul road warrior regularly seeking to use a smartphone as a phone inexpensively.

New: How to get a free flight home for the holidays!

(Courtesy Google)

(Courtesy Google)

Google Hangouts for calls 

This is one that’s going to be a bit of a surprise. Using Google’s Hangout product is a fantastic way to connect with the millions of people that have Google accounts. The product automatically comes with a Gmail account, so that means anyone on that platform is accessible via a wi-fi call.

The advantage here is that Hangouts are seamlessly integrated into the laptop interface as well, making it easy to make calls on the go or via Google while working on a computer. Here’s how to do it. 

Calls are free user-to-user, and then are subject to Google Voice rates – which are also free for those calling a number in the United States. An easy win from a larger player that doesn’t always come to mind for VOIP calling.

How do you communicate when outside the US? Have you ever returned home to some painful phone bill surprises? Please leave your comments or advice below! 

–Nick Vivion

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Is banning inflight phone calls really necessary?

Emirates Airline does not have a problem with passengers using their mobile phones in flight (Photo: OnAir)

Emirates Airline does not have a problem with passengers using their mobile phones in flight (Photo: OnAir)

Oh, please! Is a federal ban on cell phone calls on planes really necessary?

This week Washington politicians urged  the federal government NOT to lift the current federal ban on cell phone use for voice calls on planes.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) have been considering ending the ban ever since they determined that cellular service onboard planes is not a threat to aircraft navigation or communications systems.

Nearly 80 lawmakers claim that cell phone use on planes could lead to inflight mayhem– they say it could interfere with flight attendants’ ability to do their jobs keeping passengers safe and the cabin environment calm. They add that inflight phoning would exacerbate the already tense atmosphere in tightly packed planes. They even go so far as to claim that allowing cell phones on planes could help coordinate terrorist attacks.

Really?

Inflight cell phone for voice calls use is already permitted by many airlines around the world.  Even highly regulated Europe relaxed its ban on flight calls way back in 2008.  None have reported any of the mayhem predicted by US politicians.

Companies that provide cellular service onboard say that calls don’t last more than two minutes and the service is only used by a handful of passengers on any given flight. They say that most passengers choose to use their mobile phones for texting instead.

In the US, Delta’s CEO has already publicly stated that it will not allow the use of mobile phones for voice calls during flight with or without a federal ban. Elsewhere, airlines that have adopted the onboard technology have the ability to turn voice calling on or off– and some, like Lufthansa, have decided to keep it off. Ryanair, Europe’s largest carrier,  experimented with allowing cell phone use on its planes in 2009 and dumped the idea due to lack of interest.

Here are lists of airlines that offer inflight mobile phone service via Aeromobile or OnAir

Graphic courtesy OnAir

Graphic courtesy OnAir

Huh? Why don’t people in these other countries yack endlessly on their cell phones on planes if they can? It’s because of market forces. Using your phone on a plane is not the same as using it on the ground. It’s very expensive… To make a call, you first have to set your phone to international roaming, and then calls cost about $3-$4 per minute.

Vintage seatback phone. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Vintage seatback phone. Who used em? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Does anyone remember those GTE or Verizon phones installed in nearly every airline seatback in the 1990s? People could use those phones with the swipe of a credit card, at similarly steep rates, if they wanted to. But they did not.

Because of the cost (and peer pressure) I really don’t think that cell phone use onboard planes is all that big of an issue. Usage patterns here would not be too different from elsewhere in the world.

If the feds are searching for something to regulate, what about enforcing a minimum seat pitch and seat width aboard aircraft? If they are truly concerned about reducing stress and controlling mayhem in airline cabins, a standard 33 inches between seats that are no less than 18 inches wide would go a long way… it might even prevent more “Knee Defender” type incidents that were widely reported last month.

So what you you think… do we need the federal government to tell airlines if they can or cannot allow cell phone use for voice calls onboard planes? Would it be a better idea for our lawmakers to enforce seat pitch instead? Or should the feds stay out of the airline business altogether?

I’d love to hear your comments! Please leave them below.

–Chris McGinnis

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How to save on overseas mobile roaming

Global Roaming

Photo credit: Kai Hendry

Mobile data roaming charges on overseas trips are a perennial headache for frequent travelers. And it’s only going to get worse as our voracious appetite for data increases with new devices like the iPhone 6. 

Of course, just turning off data roaming (or switching to airplane mode) is a quick fix to avoid any surprise charges when you get home. Or you could switch to T-Mobile’s unlimited global data plan. Or you could buy a local SIM card and pay local rates, but that means switching to a new phone number, which is probably too unwieldy for a frequent traveler on a quick trip.

But what else can you do to avoid exorbitant overages when you need data when you are in other countries?

Luckily, many cities are moving fast towards ubiquitous public wi-fi, which allow VOIP calls in addition to data usage. But until that becomes more widespread, here are some options…

Comcast customers traveling overseas will soon enjoy inexpensive wi-fi access via a new partnership between Comcast and Liberty Global, a giant cable operator in Europe with about 2.5 million hotspots in countries such as the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, Ireland and Switzerland.

For Comcast customers traveling to Europe, this looks like a solid deal and can be taken advantage of by downloading the Xfinity Connect App. Trials begin later this year (no hard date set yet) with wider rollout expected in 2015.

Similarly, Boingo provides access to more than a million wi-fi hotspots around the world for just $10 per month—you can sign up for just one month, or get a monthly subscription. (It’s a free benefit on some American Express cards- check yours here.) To find a Boingo hotspot, just download the Boingo Wi-Finder App to your smartphone, tablet, or laptop.

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Truphone's global coverage map

Call, texts and data in 66 countries in the “Truphone World”

Truphone is an interesting solution for companies with several frequent international travelers on staff who regularly rack up significant charges on overseas calls and data. With a corporate Truphone plan, companies provide frequent travelers with phones (including the new iPhone 6) that work seamlessly in the US and 66 countries. (Just turn on the phone when you land, and go…) Users have a local US number, and can add up to seven local numbers in other countries. Truphone’s benchmark monthly rate is $100 for 1,000 minutes, 1,000 messages and 1 gigabyte of data anywhere in the “Truphone World.”

What about those times you get lost in a foreign city...and there’s no one around to ask directions? In the past, you’ve likely just groaned, logged on to the local phone network and paid too much to access Google Maps. But you can avoid that– before you go out and about in a foreign city, save a local Google map to your iPhone when in a wi-fi zone for easy access: Here’s how to do that.

These are only some of the strategies to manage roaming costs while traveling. What other clever solutions have you come up with? Please leave your comments below.

–Nick Vivion & Chris McGinnis

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CLEAR opens security fast lane at SF Giants’ AT&T Park

You'll soon see something like this at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Starting September 9, you’ll see something like this at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

From frequent flyers to fly balls, a special fast track lane for ballpark security is coming to AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants.

A pilot program starting September 9th and running through the end of the season will be operated by CLEAR, the pay-to-enter trusted traveler airport security company currently operating at nine airports nationwide.

At AT&T Park, all fans have been screened with metal detectors or handheld wands this season, with the Major League Baseball organization requiring that all ballparks begin using metal detectors by the start of the 2015 season. Sometimes all that special screening can lead to backups.

“Ballparks are similar to airports as a lot of fans are going through security in a short time period,” CEO Caryn Seidman Becker tells TravelSkills. “During this pop up pilot, CLEAR members should expect the same great experience they have at the airport. CLEAR is all about making this process more efficient and effective.”

Related: Should I renew my CLEAR card?

How? After registering with the program, “CLEAR’s secure identity platform ensures you are who you say you are and you can use that identity in the airport and beyond. CLEAR is focused on bringing members an easier, faster, more efficient experience where they live, work and travel,” Seidman Becker promises — but wouldn’t say exactly how much time she expects members to save.

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Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.40.37 AM

Pre-game queues swell at AT&T Park (Photo: BullCityDave / Flickr)

But here’s how things will work at AT&T Park:

• The CLEAR lane can be found at the Marina Gate.

• The pilot will begin Tuesday, September 9th and run for the last 10 games of the season.

• CLEAR members must bring their CLEAR card to use the new pop up lane.

• If they bring a friend who is not a member, their +1 can use the line directly next to CLEAR.

CLEAR’s usefulness at airports gets a mixed reception from frequent flyers — and TravelSkills readers on our recent article about renewing CLEAR.

TSA PreCheck proved part of CLEAR’s undoing five years ago–  but with PreCheck lines increasingly choked by passengers unfamiliar with how the process works, CLEAR is starting to look more attractive again.

CLEAR lane

Not sure whether you want to spring for the $179 annual membership? “As busy travelers return to the grind, they can enroll with a two month free trial and get other “travel pro” tools as well for free until September 15th,” Seidman Becker tells us. “Just use code PROTRAVEL at checkout.  Members can always add a family member for only $50 more. All children under 18 are free and don’t require a CLEARcard. Kids can accompany CLEARmembers through the pop-up CLEARlane.”

Bottom line: if you fly frequently to the nine airports where CLEAR operates, you might find it useful. That’s especially true at airports where security can be swamped with vacationers, like Orlando or (soon) Las Vegas.

And now, AT&T Park.

–John Walton

UPDATE: Clear has published its own web page about the new fast lane at AT&T Park.

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A spin around the new Airbus A350

A350

The most noticeable feature of the new Airbus A350 is the unusual swoop of the winglet (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

The world’s newest long-haul, wide body commercial jet, the Airbus A350-900, recently completed its route-proving mission in Helsinki and TravelSkills was invited along to take a look at the first of the “XWB” family of aircraft to debut.

Finnair will be the first European carrier to get its hands on the new bird when it takes delivery of its first of 11 in 2015. Initially, Finnair plans to deploy the A350 on routes between Helsinki and Bangkok, Beijing, and Shanghai. (Qatar Airways will be the first airline to operate the A350 later this year.) UPDATE: Delta has announced that it will purchase 25 A350s as part of a $6 billion deal with Airbus. The planes could be delivered to Delta as early as 2017.

In the US, both American and United are in line to add the A350 to their fleets with deliveries currently set for 2017 and 2018, respectively.  At a recent event in San Francisco, Cathay Pacific said that it plans to replace its fleet of Boeing 747s in part with the A350.

Airbus A350

High ceilings and a 3-3-3 configuration in economy make the A350 feel spacious (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

Airbus designed the A350 XWB family to compete with Boeing’s popular and efficient Dreamliner (787) and 777. These smaller, lighter aircraft give airlines the flexibility to fly nonstop on “long, thin routes” where there’s not enough demand to fill a jumbo like the 747 or A380.

Disclosure: Ramsey was a guest of Finnair in Helsinki

The A350-900 has a range of 8,250 nautical miles (which means it can fly nonstop from the US East coast to cities in China or southern Africa) and will carry roughly 276 passengers in a standard two-class configuration. Since this plane can fly farther and holds a smaller number of passengers than larger aircraft, it gives airlines the chance to open new routes that may not have made sense before. The Wall Street Journal reports that 38 airlines have ordered over 700 A350s– its highest total ever for a new jet that has yet to enter service.

The “XWB” suffix stands for “Extra Wide Body,” referring to the interior of the cabin. The A350-900 is 18.3 feet wide “from armrest to armrest” which is six inches wider than the cabin of a Dreamliner, Airbus claims. Not a huge difference, but every inch counts when it comes to cabin space these days, right?

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A350_XWB_msn005_wing

An unusual curved winglet is the distinguishing feature of the new Airbus A350

In Helsinki, the first thing that drew my attention were the plane’s curved winglets, which reduce drag inflight. (See photo above.) They are not rigidly bent upward in the same way other aircraft winglets are; rather they curve upward and swoosh backward. This is supposed to improve the fuel economy that existing winglets already provide. Also, the shape of the aircraft nose is also unusually pointy,  something not found on other Airbus aircraft, and a characteristic that will make it easy to identify.

Related: A look at Finnair’s interior designs for the A350

Aside from the nose and the winglets, the aircraft looks very similar to the A330 family since it is a twin-engine aircraft. The cabin is wider and the windows are larger than its older sibling, however, which are two features that passengers will appreciate.

A sense of spaciousness is immediately notable on entering the plane. I attribute this to the  high ceiling, which is in part due to the way the overhead bins fold away into the ceiling of the aircraft. The bins are very deep and tall allowing more space for baggage.

A350

Another feature: a cabin that’s 220 inches wide… which can accommodate either 9 or 10 seats across in economy. Let’s hope airlines opt for the 9 abreast seen here.

Of course, each airline will decide how they want to configure the interior seating and cabins, which plays a role in the sense of space as well. The A350 is wide enough to have 10 seats across in the main cabin, if an airline chooses to do that. We hope airlines stick with a 9-abreast option to truly take advantage of the extra wide cabin and not pack us in like sardines. Thankfully, Finnair will have a 3-3-3 configuration in economy and a 1-2-1 design in business class. (Airbus feels that an 18 inch wide seat should be the standard and has launched a campaign to encourage airlines to adopt it.)

Like the Dreamliner, the A350 is a game changer because it is 25% more fuel efficient than similarly sized aircraft, which makes airlines (and environmentalists) happy. Airbus’s main selling point is that, when compared to the Dreamliner, the A350 burns 9% less fuel, yet still carries more passengers.

A350 XWB - ROUTE PROVING - TRIP 2 - HONG KONG THROUGH THE WINDOW

Windows on the A350 are larger than on other Airbus planes, but not as big as those on the Boeing 787.

In addition to the plane’s pleasing girth, passengers will notice larger windows than other Airbus aircraft (Airbus windows are noticeably smaller than those on Boeing and Embraer planes). Still, the windows are not as large windows those on a Dreamliner, and they don’t have electronic dimming capability.

A350

High ceilings and mood lighting add to cabin comfort on the new A350 (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

LED lighting in the cabin can produce nearly 200 shades of color, which airlines can use for branding purposes or to create a more soothing atmosphere. Cabin lights will gradually become brighter as they are turned on. Lighting like this should offer flight attendants a gentle alternative to just blasting the lights on to wake everyone up for a meal.

The A350 airframe is crafted of composite materials that are corrosion and fatigue free. Like the Dreamliner, this makes it lighter. An advanced air filtration system will refresh cabin air completely every two to three minutes, which should help to combat dry skin and reduce the effects of jet lag. The cabin will be pressurized at 6,000 feet, which is similar to Boeing’s Dreamliner.

Related: Flying on a brand new United 787 Dreamliner

Finnair’s new aircraft will come equipped with wifi access, which will help to make those long flights feel shorter. Also, engineers integrated the inflight entertainment systems and wiring underneath the floor so there are none of those irritating boxes underneath economy class seats stealing your precious leg room! (There must have been a few frequent flyers at the drawing board, right!)

Overall, when the A350 takes to the skies with airlines in 2015, its passengers should be pleasantly surprised with the modern interior and sense of space…and airlines will be elated at the jet’s efficiency.

–Ramsey Qubein

 

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Airbnb for a business trip? Mixed results

Airbnb balcony view

The view from the balcony of my Airbnb accommodation (Photo: Airbnb)

During a recent business trip to Los Angeles, I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for the first time. When I made the booking, I was thrilled at the prospect of getting more for less—fabulous location, more space, free parking and (of course) free high-speed wi-fi. But as a first-timer, I also had a plenty of questions about using Airbnb for a business trip.

Regular TravelSkills readers may recall why I chose Airbnb for this trip…here’s a snippet from my previous post Are Uber, Airbnb or Lyft safe?

I booked an Airbnb condo in Los Angeles because all the convention hotels near my conference were sold out—except one property 10 miles away. The thought of a 10-mile slog in LA traffic was unbearable. Through Airbnb, I booked a one-bedroom condo in a brand-new building across the street from the convention center. Like most business travelers, cost was not my primary motivation, but it made me smile to be saving $84 a night. Hip décor and free use of the building’s gym and pool didn’t hurt either.

Recently, Airbnb has made a play specifically for the business travel market with a new, focused portal and by partnering with Concur on its TripLink product.

But does Airbnb really make sense for business travelers? Let’s see…

Airbnb living room 2

The unit’s living room was a lovely place to hang out at the end of the day. (Photo: Airbnb)

Here’s how my Airbnb stay played out:

Right off the bat, I have to say that I missed the familiarity of checking in in a hotel lobby. “Checking-in” at my Airbnb proved to be confusing and time-consuming. I was thrilled to have free parking for my rental car. So when I drove in from the airport, I followed the instructions the host provided. Entry required punching a code into a garage keypad, identifying myself and waiting for someone on the other end to open the gate. There were some miscues, and that process took about 10 minutes. The iron gate finally swung open.

The unit’s keys were to be in a lockbox on a pillar by the parking space. Thankfully, opening the lockbox went without a hitch. But then, it was not clear how to get from the parking garage into the locked building. At this point I was thinking fond and nostalgic thoughts about hotel front desks—I wanted one! After 10 more minutes, two phone calls and a few texts, I was in. Hours later I realized the fob for building entry was on the key ring. Dumb. Still, at a hotel, I would have been unpacked by then.

Bedroom in my Airbnb accommodations. What happens when you need to call "housekeeping?" (Photo: Airbnb)

Bedroom in my Airbnb accommodation. But what happens when you need to call “housekeeping” for an extra towel? (Photo: Airbnb)

Luckily, it got better once inside. The apartment was lovely and as clean as any hotel room. The view of the Convention Center, Staples Center and L.A. Live was just as the listing promised. There was complimentary coffee (Keurig!), tea, and water bottles, and snacks were provided free of charge. And of course, free wi-fi is always a welcome amenity.

The primary reason I chose this Airbnb apartment was its super-handy location. I was only a three minute walk from the front door of the LA Convention Center and reveled in the convenience– I was closer than all those other attendees at my convention who were paying significantly more up the street at the JW Marriott, or Ritz-Carlton.

Related:  Best new biz-class hotels in L.A.  | 20 business class seats in one room

In the morning, it felt a little weird waiting for the building’s elevator with some “real” (non-Airbnb) residents. And I wondered…as an Airbnb guest, was I a persona non grata? Maybe. I smiled and looked down. The following days I would conceal my convention badge.

One day while at the convention, I realized I needed my laptop, which I’d left back at the apartment. I dashed across the street and back in the span of five minutes. If I’d chosen a hotel, this would likely not have been such an easy option. Big score for Airbnb.

The front door to my Airbnb apartment near the LA Convention Center (Photo: Nancy Branka)

The front door to my Airbnb apartment near the LA Convention Center (Photo: Nancy Branka)

When the sun went down, though, I wasn’t feeling the love. I attended a convention-sponsored party at a nearby venue. Easy—just a short walk, right? When I walked over to the event in the evening light with lots of fellow conventioneers around, I felt happy about the sunset stroll.

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However, when the event was over and I had to walk back to the apartment in the dark,  I wasn’t so sure about the neighborhood. There was no brightly lit and active hotel front door and lobby staffed by a doorman and a steady stream of cars, taxis and guests. And I wasn’t comfortable with the homeless man camped out by the building’s front door, something I’d less likely encounter at a business-class hotel.

Did my real-life Airbnb experience meet my expectations?  Overall, it was a very positive stay because of location, location, location. So I’m glad to have Airbnb in my arsenal of travel resources. Now that I’m no longer an Airbnb newbie, I would feel more comfortable about doing it again, especially for a longer stay. 

But on the other hand, there were some hassles that would make me think twice about using Airbnb again for a business trip. Every Airbnb unit, every host and each location is different– careful scrutiny of both is essential to a successful stay. Luckily, the Airbnb site is very helpful when it comes to this with plenty of safeguards, user reviews, verified photos, maps and information. But booking a brand name, business class hotel room doesn’t require such scrutiny.

Have you ever used Airbnb for business travel? Would you feel comfortable using it? Share your thoughts in the comments.

– Nancy Branka 

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Free inflight entertainment + Delta dumping 747s + United hub reshuffle + Uber for business

Like many other airlines, Delta is starting to get rid of these graceful, gas guzzling old birds. (Photo: Delta)

A Delta 747-400. Like many other airlines, Delta is getting rid of four of these graceful, gas guzzling old birds. (Photo: Delta)

AIRLINES

Delta debuts free entertainment. Delta last week rolled out a big perk for passengers: Free in-flight entertainment options on all its domestic aircraft — including two-class regional jets — for flights longer than 90 minutes, and on all international flights as well. Called Delta Studio, the service lets customers in all classes access free movies, TV shows, music and games via seat-back screens or by streaming to personal electronic devices through onboard Wi-Fi … And Delta said it will now allow passengers on international flights as well as domestic to keep using their personal electronic devices from gate to gate.

Delta dumping four 747s. Delta announced changes in its Asia/Pacific network, including getting rid of four of its 16 Boeing 747s. This means that Atlanta and Los Angeles will lose Delta 747s currently deployed on nonstops to Tokyo on September 30. Detroit will lose the 747 on the nonstop to Nagoya, and the 747 on Tokyo-Hong Kong will fly away in October according to aviation writer Christine Negroni. The 747s will be replaced by smaller, more fuel efficient B777s and A330s. Several airlines around the world have sadly begun putting the graceful old 747 out to pasture. For example, later this month, Cathay Pacific will say goodbye to its last remaining 747 with a farewell luncheon at San Francisco International. In case you missed it, here’s a TravelSkills post from earlier this year about 747s flying away…

Here's part of the invite we received from Cathay Pacific to bid farewell to its last 747. Stay tuned to TravelSkills for a full report from the event!

Here’s part of the invite we received from Cathay Pacific to bid farewell to its last 747. Stay tuned to TravelSkills for a full report from the event!

United plans hub reshuffling. United reportedly plans to overhaul flight schedules at its Chicago O’Hare, Denver and Houston hubs, compressing arrivals and departures into periodic clusters, or “banks,” instead of spreading them evenly throughout the day, in an effort to boost profitability. (American earlier this year revealed plans to do the same.) The airline is also revising its regional fleet — as are other major carriers — to replace 50-seat jets with larger models, which will lead to the elimination of some smaller markets.

JetBlue eyes Boston for Mint service. JetBlue has high hopes that its new Mint business cabins on the JFK-LAX route — and starting this fall, on JFK-SFO — will produce so much extra revenue that it will be worth expanding to other transcon markets. And the airline has set its sights on Boston for the first round of expansion. Chief Executive David Barger said it’s “not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” JetBlue will begin SFO-BOS and LAX-BOS flights with the new premium cabin — which the airline is pricing well below the business cabins of major competitors.

new cabin design

Mod new cabin design for Embraer from Priestman-Goode (Love those Embraer windows!)

A solution to carry-on space wars? In a project for aircraft manufacturer Embraer, a London-based design firm has come up with a new cabin configuration that guarantees every passenger will find a place to put his carry-on bag. The plan also seeks to humanize lavatories with elements like glass tiles, touchless faucets and soft-close doors.

United’s sly safety video. Some airlines have started competing to see who can come up with the most creative safety video shown to passengers after boarding, and the latest entry is from United. The clever new UA video puts flight attendants into exotic or unusual locations as they explain the safety procedures. Take a look, and tell us what you think of it.

HOTELS

hilton app

Hilton’s digital revolution. By the end of this year, members of Hilton’s HHonors program will be able to use a mobile app to check in, select a specific room, and check out at 4,000 hotels worldwide across 11 Hilton brands. The technology will also let HHonors guests use smartphones or tablets to buy room upgrades and request specific room amenities before arrival. And in 2015, Hilton said, “the company will begin to equip its hotel rooms with the technology for doors to be unlocked with guests’ smartphones, enabling them to go straight to their rooms upon arrival.”

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How fast is your Wi-Fi? A crafty new online service called Hotelwifitest offers users an inside look at just how fast their in-room Wi-Fi really is. Users can test the connection speed themselves and then share it with the site, which compiles the data to calculate the most likely speed that guests can expect to find after they check in.

BUSINESS TRAVEL

Airbnb, Uber seek business travelers. Airbnb, the booking service for thousands of unique private accommodations, last week unveiled plans to broaden its market to road warriors: Starting this fall, it will integrate with Concur’s TripLink, which will automatically bring Airbnb booking data into corporate expense reporting. It also opened up a separate booking area for the new market called Business Travel on Airbnb. Meanwhile, ride-finding service Uber is also linking up with Concur, and Uber’s new corporate booking service will permit road warriors to pay for their rides with company accounts. (Try Uber for the first time and get a $30 discount by clicking here or on the ad to the right.)

In Case You Missed It…

>San Francisco-based Virgin America finally goes public. Would you invest in Virgin or any other airline? Why/not?

>The reincarnation of low-cost carrier PEOPLExpress has started service between Atlanta and Newport News/Williamsburg, Va. (Not much of a biz travel player, but newsy nonetheless…)

>Check out the latest and greatest business class seating options. (Chris’s photo slideshow from GBTA convention)

>Strategies: How to catch an earlier flight without paying a fee.

–Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

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20 different biz class seats in 1 room- PHOTOS

Southwest pads schedules + 70K Marriott points + New airline for SFO + Chris at GBTA + Salt Lake makeover 

Frequent travelers love Chick-fil-a

Kicked off flight for a tweet? Southwest responds

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Best & worst hotels, airports for Wi-Fi

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 12.17.32 PM

 

Free wi-fi is great, but you usually end up getting what you pay for, right? Well, maybe not, according to an interesting study by a Wefi, a mobile network management company.

According to the study, the hotel chains that offer the fastest wi-fi are in the budget and mid-priced category, with brands like Red Roof, Holiday Inn and Best Western leading the pack. These are also the brands that usually offer free wi-fi.

Those that offer the slowest wifi are primarily upscale or luxury brands. Hyatt, Marriott, Westin and Four Seasons rank near the bottom. Many of these upscale brands charge for wi-fi. Hilton appears to be the upscale chain with the fastest wifi.

I should point out that this is not an exhaustive study– several major brands do not appear at all. A Wefi spokesperson told TravelSkills that they studied wi-fi speeds at a minimum of 10 hotel locations per chain to determine the overall score– not a huge sample by any means. The following metrics are based on a 45-day average of Wi-Fi speeds for each location starting from April 1 to June 15, 2014.

Hotels Avg Bandwidth
Red Roof Inns  4.34
Sleep Inn  4.14
Ramada  3.69
Holiday Inn  3.68
Best Western  3.66
Aloft Hotels  3.42
Studio 6  3.22
Hilton  3.17
Quality Inns  3.15
4 Points by Sheraton  3.04
Comfort Inn  2.99
Candlewood Suites  2.69
Radisson  2.43
Clarion  2.42
Doubletree  2.32
Intercontinental  2.31
Wyndham hotels  2.05
Crowne plaza  1.92
Global hyatt  1.90
Marriott  1.70
Westin Hotels  1.65
Four Seasons  1.34
Motel 6  1.26
Airports avg bandwidth (mbps)
Detroit Metropolitan Airport, MI  4.63
Denver International Airport, CO  4.33
Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International FL  3.74
Los Angeles International Airport, CA  3.29
Washington Dulles International Airport, VA  3.09
Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, TX  2.88
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, WA  2.84
Houston George Bush Intercontinental TX  2.71
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, AZ  2.68
LaGuardia Airport, NY  2.67
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International GA  2.66
Boston Logan International Airport, MA  2.51
Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport  2.45
Las Vegas McCarran International Airport  2.41
San Francisco International Airport, CA  2.29
Nashville International Airport, TN  2.14
Baltimore-Washington International Airport  2.01
Chicago O’Hare International Airport, IL  1.88
John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY  1.79
Raleigh-Durham International Airport, NC  1.69
Orlando International Airport, FL  1.54
Miami International Airport, FL  1.37
Philadelphia International Airport, PA  1.18
Sacramento International Airport, CA  0.82

These results are interesting to me because, while I’m always grateful for the free wi-fi at less expensive hotel chains, I do usually feel like I’m getting what I pay for with slow (and sometimes no) speeds and balky connections. When faced with a free, but slow hotel room connection, I frequently think, “Jeez, I’d gladly pay for a better or faster connection.”

Airports are a mixed bag. Over the last year or so, I’ve been very impressed with the speed of the wi-fi at my home base airport at SFO, but it only ranks middle of the pack here. I’m glad to see Detroit at the top of the list– despite the city’s woes, its airport is awesome– one of the best hubs in the US as far as I’m concerned. As we reported here, Atlanta recently rolled out a brand new, reportedly very fast and free wi-fi network.

What about you? Do these findings mirror what you’ve found on the road? Please leave your comments below.

–Chris McGinnis

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Airline fees up 1,200% + Unusual new seat design + Wild Dreamliner ride + Secret Service warns about hotel PCs

Southwest Airlines turning its old leather seats into sneakers & soccer balls (Photo: Southwest Airlines)

Southwest Airlines is turning its old leather seats into sneakers & soccer balls (Photo: Southwest Airlines)

AIRLINES

‘Ancillary revenues’ skyrocket. In 2007, the world’s airlines took in $2.45 billion in “ancillary revenues” — those fees they charge for various amenities and services. By 2013, that figure had jumped to $31.5 billion — a 1,200 percent increase — according to the latest study by IdeaWorks Company. That’s $16 per passenger. United had the biggest haul, at $5.7 billion, followed by Delta ($2.5 billion) and American ($2 billion, not counting US Airways’ $1.1 billion). But the airline where ancillary revenues made up the biggest portion of total revenue was Spirit, at 38.4 percent. The bulk of ancillary revenue for all airlines (except Southwest) comes from those onerous $200 change fees and of course new checked baggage fees.

Recycle, recycle, recycle! The travel industry keeps finding ways to put things to good use. Southwest Airlines just started a project that will hire African youths to remake old leather seat covers into things like shoes and soccer balls for local communities. And in Atlanta, airport concessionaire HMSHost donates about a ton of unsold food from ATL each week to the Salvation Army to help feed the city’s hungry.

Boeing bares innovations. Visitors to the renowned Farnborough Air Show in the U.K. last week got to see some stunning aerobatics by Boeing’s 787-9, the newest version of its popular Dreamliner. Check out this video and be thankful (or jealous) you weren’t along for this wild demo ride. Meanwhile, Boeing also revealed some passenger-friendly design innovations for its upcoming 777X, like larger and higher windows, a wider cabin, next-generation LED lighting and improved humidity in the cabin air.

Alaska moves at SFO. Originally slated for June 25, Alaska Airlines now says that mid-August is the target date for its move from Terminal 1 to the International Terminal’s Boarding Area A at San Francisco International. The airline’s Board Room lounge has closed, but it plans to share lounge facilities with “one of our international Mileage Plan partners” at the new location once it makes the move, a spokesman said. In other news, TSA opened a PreCheck application office in SFO’s International Terminal, pre-security, G-side, near the BART station.

More cutbacks to Caracas. Delta and United are following the lead of American in reducing service to Venezuela, due to an unresolved dispute with the government about the airlines’ ability to take money out of the country. Delta on August 1 will cut its daily Atlanta-Caracas schedule to just one flight a week. And United’s daily Houston Intercontinental-Caracas operation will be pared from seven flights a week to four as of September 17.

newseat

Unusual new airline seat designed emerging. (source: Paper Clip Design, Hong Kong)

Seats of the future? How will airlines’ coach seating evolve in the years ahead? Airbus has filed a patent for short-haul “saddle seats” that look like glorified bicycle seats and are about as uncomfortable as they could get — although a lot more of them can be crammed into an aircraft. (The company notes that just because it filed for a patent doesn’t mean it intends to use them.) Meanwhile, a Hong Kong designer has come up with a long-haul economy seat concept that protects your knees during recline and even provides an easily-shared armrest.

I’m keeping my CLEAR card. Based on your reaction to Chris’s recent post asking whether or not to spend the $179 to renew his CLEAR card, he’s decided to keep it. Reader comments were mixed but leaned more toward keeping the card.

HOTELS

hotelbizcenter

Secret Service warning re hotel business center computers. (Photo: Hilton MSP)

Beware the Business Center computers. Do you use the computers in hotel business centers? Be careful what you do on them: The Secret Service sent a warning to hotels that scammers could be infecting their public computers with malware that logs users’ keystrokes and sends the data off to the bad guys by email. The agency especially warns against using the computers for personal business that requires you to input account information and passwords. Some scammers were arrested recently near Dallas for just this kind of crime.

Wi-Fi problems bug hotel guests. The biggest complaint by far from hotel guests is a slow or inconsistent Internet connection in their room, according to the just-released 2014 study of guest satisfaction by J.D. Power and Associates. But the biggest negative impact on a guest’s satisfaction is a room that’s not clean. Among the eight hotel categories rated, Four Seasons took the number one spot for luxury hotels, Kimpton for Upper Upscale, and Hilton Garden Inn for Upscale.

In Case You Missed It…

>Kimpton Hotels rolls out a new rewards program with lots of unique ways to earn points.

>A major Middle Eastern carrier will start flying to SFO this fall.

>Chris offers some thoughts on the Malaysia Airlines tragedy.

–Jim Glab

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How I watched the #MH17 tragedy unfold

Unusual ways to earn hotel rewards points

Should I renew my CLEAR card?

New global carrier for SFO with an Indian twist

Bigger bins + Check-in not required + Beware LAX traffic mess + New low fare O’Hare flights + Big new build hotel LA Live +

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

Are frequent flyer programs designed to fail?

Are Uber, Airbnb or Lyft safe?

More TSA scrutiny on cell phones + Southwest overseas + United carry-on enforcement + SF hotel rates soar + More Silvercar

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Traveling with Carly Simon (reprise)

Free wi-fi NYC airports + New Star Alliance member + More food at ATL + Clear card in Vegas + UberX on sale

5 ways Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still wows

How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi

5 key questions to ask at hotel check in

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Should I renew my CLEAR card?

CLEAR card renewal email

CLEAR card renewal email

Last week I received an email from CLEAR Card (see above) asking me to renew my $179 annual membership.

In the past, renewal for CLEAR was an easy decision. I always thought that $179 was a small price to pay to have CLEAR come to my rescue when surprised by an unusually long line at airport security. That $179 bought peace of mind that is invaluable to business travelers. In the back of my head, I always felt like I could push time limits and get to the airport late because, if need be, CLEAR could come to my rescue and get me through security in less than five minutes.

But over the last couple years as the TSA’s PreCheck program has expanded, I’ve found that I barely use my CLEAR Card at all any more. As a matter of fact, I prefer to go through the PreCheck lane because it does not require me to remove my belt, coat or shoes or take the laptop out of my carry on. Plus I don’t have to deal with having a CLEAR agent escort me to the front of the line, break me in front of other passengers and face their “who does that guy think he is” glares (a painful ritual my CLEAR-Card-carrying friend has referred to as the “walk of shame”). So PreCheck is always my first choice.

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BUT…as most frequent travelers know all too well, PreCheck is based on “random” selection. It’s not guaranteed. I know I can’t rely on it. And every now and then, just when I think I’ll sail through security, I check in for my flight and can’t find that PreCheck logo on my boarding pass. That’s when I smile to myself and think I’m so smart for renewing my CLEAR Card. Or am I?

A CLEAR card entry point in SFO's Terminal 3 at about 8 pm last Monday (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

A lonely CLEAR card entry point in SFO’s Terminal 3 at about 8 pm last Monday (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Almost every time I pass by a CLEAR kiosk or entry point at my hometown airport (SFO), there’s usually one or two employees standing there looking alternately bored and or eager to help. (Or there’s no one there at all.) Sometimes I feel like going through the CLEAR lane just to bring some joy to their work days. Recently I’ve begun to wonder if those going through CLEAR lines are less likely to be stopped by the newly empowered armies of airline baggage police? Despite what looks like a sinking ship, CLEAR claims that its 300,000 members in the U.S. have passed through CLEAR lanes almost two million times. It has a nifty new web site redesigned last September. Its website says that more than 250 companies have signed up to offer the CLEAR Card to their frequent travelers.

While I rarely need CLEAR Card assistance at SFO, it comes in most handy at airports where throngs of leisure travelers can overwhelm security lines, like Orlando. And CLEAR has just announced that it will soon be moving into McCarran-Las Vegas Airport where security lines can swell unexpectedly, such as on the last day of a city-wide convention. Or Sunday afternoons. That’s when the CLEAR Card could come in handy. CLEAR is currently in nine airports across the country and says that it is in serious talks with airport authorities in 12 other cities.

Still I wonder, should I spend the $179 for a CLEAR Card again this year? Help me.

Do you have a CLEAR Card? Will you renew it this year? If you’ve let your membership lapse, why? Please leave your comments about CLEAR below. 

Chris McGinnis

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Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts:

New global carrier for SFO with an Indian twist

Bigger bins + Check-in not required + Beware LAX traffic mess + New low fare O’Hare flights + Big new build hotel LA Live +

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

Are frequent flyer programs designed to fail?

Are Uber, Airbnb or Lyft safe?

More TSA scrutiny on cell phones + Southwest overseas + United carry-on enforcement + SF hotel rates soar + More Silvercar

7 ways to avoid summer storm delays (TravelSkills on CNN)

Traveling with Carly Simon (reprise)

Free wi-fi NYC airports + New Star Alliance member + More food at ATL + Clear card in Vegas + UberX on sale

5 ways Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still wows

How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi

5 key questions to ask at hotel check in

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

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How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi

This is a screenshot of Gogo pricing on a recent BOS>SFO flight (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

This is a screenshot of Gogo pricing on a recent BOS>SFO flight (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

During long summer flights, one of the best ways to tune out the crowded, hot conditions on the plane is focus on something else… like your email or social networking sites.

Thankfully, getting connected via wi-fi in the air is getting easier and faster thanks to advances in technology.

But it’s not getting any cheaper.

With the price for purchasing a day pass with Gogo during a flight now topping $30, here’s some advice on how to save some money.

Gogo is by far the largest inflight wi-fi provider, offering service on more than 2,000 planes including those of Delta, Virgin America, Alaska, United (p.s. flights), American, US Airways and AirTran among others.

The easiest way to save money is to PRE-purchase a Gogo day pass for $16 from the Gogoair.com web site (that rate increased $2 this month from $14). Even if you don’t end up using the pass on the intended flight, it’s good for a year so you can use it later.

The key to saving money with Gogo is to PRE-purchase your pass

The key to saving money with Gogo is to PRE-purchase your pass

Another good way to save is to pre-purchase a smartphone day pass for just $8. It won’t work with your laptop or tablet, but if all you plan to do is monitor email and check in on social sites with your phone, this is an excellent, money-saving option. (Plus, it’s increasingly tough to get the laptop open when flying in coach anyway!)

On shorter flights, or for just a quick check in on longer flights, Gogo offers a 1-hour pass for just $5.

Now, for those technological advancements. Last year Gogo began rolling out a newer, 3x faster service called ATG-4. At first, only a handful of planes had ATG-4 onboard, but rollout is now at a rapid clip.  For example, Virgin America announced this week that all 53 of its A320 aircraft how have the newer, faster service. (You know your plane has ATG-4 when you look at the plane and see two toaster sized white bumps on the  side of the fuselage, as well as a fin-like antenna on the bottom. See video below.) Delta says that about half of it’s wi-fi enabled fleet now has ATG-4 installed.

On recent Virgin flights with ATG-4, I’ve definitely noticed a difference. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.

Did you know that Uber is now offering $30 off your first ride when signing up via links on TravelSkills? Come on! Sign up and ride in style! 

Gogo and other providers like Honeywell and Panasonic are busy working on new satellite-based solutions to balky inflight connections, which is great news. The problem is that the new systems will not be widespread for years. I’ve heard a handful of positive reviews of JetBlue’s new Fly-Fi system (now on 49 planes @$9 per hour but free during beta), but have not had a chance to try it yet. Have you? My experience with United’s satellite-based system has been spotty at best (it’s been “out of service” on nearly every flight for me), but I did receive emails from a TravelSkills reader flying to Australia recently, which is a pretty cool feat when you think about it!

To me, inflight wi-fi is the greatest thing to happen to business travel since the rollout of the jet engine on commercial flights. Even though the technology is far from perfect, I’ve used it enough to know that I’m not going to get the same speed or reliability that I get at home or the office. And there are times I don’t get the service at all, which only serve to remind me how reliant I’ve become on having wi-fi on the plane.

What about you? What’s your experience been with in-flight wi-fi? Have you used systems other than Gogo on airlines such as JetBlue or United or Southwest? Please let us know about your experience.

–Chris McGinnis

(Disclosure: Gogo is a regular sponsor of the #TravelSkills chat on Twitter www.travelskills.com/chat. Virgin America is a sponsor of this blog.)

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Delta waffles on transcon upgrade policy

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Is Uber illegal?

Biz Trip: Denver

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Beer price index helps gauge cost of trips abroad

United’s new copy & paste MileagePlus program

Marriott’s M Club lounge experiment

More transpac + Slim-line seats slammed + More A321s + New SFO club + ATL free wi-fi + New Hilton brand

5 key questions to ask at hotel check in

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Is Uber illegal?

(Photo: Jason Tester Guerilla / Flickr)

(Photo: Jason Tester Guerilla / Flickr)

The recent brouhaha between popular ride sharing services (such as Uber or Lyft) and airport authorities may have frequent travelers uneasy about using them for airport runs. San Francisco seems to be the locus of the current controversy, but airports are taking action in other cities, too. For example, San Antonio airport authorities cited drivers and impounded cars last week.  

Ride sharing services and apps have changed the landscape of business travel like nothing else since, say, the proliferation of mobile phones in the 1990’s.

I’m a huge fan and frequent user when I’m home or when I’m on the road. And I’m a particularly heavy user on airport runs– it’s just too easy, simple and comfortable compared to a clunky cab ride.

But I’ve wondered, and I know that many law abiding business travelers out there have wondered, too:

As much as I love my Uber rides to the airport, is it illegal? If I’m a passenger in car that’s pulled over at the airport for violating public utility commission statutes, can I be penalized?

Of course, the answer lies in a gray area.  So let’s break it down.

First off, if you use Uber Black (limo, sedan or SUV), your rides to or from the airport are legal. That’s because Uber Black drivers are professional livery drivers licensed by the Public Utilities Commission for airport runs. UberTaxi drivers are also authorized to make airport runs.  

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Uber Black cars are okay for airport runs (Photo: Adam Fagan / Flickr)

Uber Black cars are okay for airport runs (Photo: Adam Fagan / Flickr)

It gets gray when you choose the less expensive services that utilize private or “citizen” drivers (like UberX, Lyft) using their own cars, and not holding airport permits. The California Public Utilities Commission recently granted these companies (called Transportation Network Companies or TNCs) permits to operate in the state, but their permits specifically disallow airport runs. Here’s what UberX’s permit states:

UberX permit

There lies the crux of the issue: No airports have authorized the services to operate on their grounds. But in flagrant violation of the permit, they continue to drive thousands of us to and from airports across the US every single day. Now that UberX is cheaper, more convenient, and more comfortable than a taxi ride to the airport, I use it all the time. No one has ever told me what I’m doing is illegal.

And now it sounds like some, but not all UberX drivers have airport permits. In a statement to TravelSkills, an Uber spokesperson said, “We are currently working with SFO on permitting for all uberX drivers. Right now, travelers can request any driver partner that currently has an airport permit. This includes driver partners who are on both uberX and Black platforms. We encourage travelers to open the app, request a ride, and they will be connected to a ride.”

But a rash of recent reports state that airports are getting aggressive with enforcement action on UberX and Lyft. So, as a law abiding business traveler, I’m wondering, as I know you are:  If it is illegal for these companies to be operating at the airport, what happens to me if my driver gets pulled over? Could I get fined or penalized, too? As it stands right now, it sounds like the answer to that question is NO.

“Under the law as it stands right now, I don’t see any liability on the part of a passenger for an UberX or Lyft ride to or from the airport,” said travel law attorney Adam Anolik of the Anolik Law Group in Sausalito, CA. “The issue really comes down to whether what Uber and Lyft are doing is illegal. If it is, then technically passengers are conspiring with drivers to break the law.  But, since the law has never been applied to passengers in the past, passengers should feel safe using these services until the enforcement methods are changed,” he said. 

Which credit card is currently offering $500 in free travel (among many other bennies) when you sign up? Click here to find out about this “no-brainer” offer! 

So the biggest threat to your business travel schedule right now is the possibility of delay–  you might be in a car that is pulled over by police at a California airport for the driver to get an admonishment– airport police at SFO have nabbed at least 300 drivers in the last month

“Our enforcement effort is focused on the driver, with a verbal admonishment,” Doug Yakel, spokesperson for SFO told TravelSkills. “If the same individual has been given two admonishments, the third offense would lead to a citation. The citation is a notice to appear in court, where a judge would determine the fine, etc. So while this doesn’t affect riders, the fact remains that TNC operations at any airport in California require the specific authorization of that airport.”

Do you use UberX or Lyft to get to the airport? Have you seen a driver get an admonishment yet? Who do you think is going to win…or lose…in this struggle? Please leave your comments below.

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Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts:

Biz Trip: Denver

Minty fresh transcons + AA US Upgrades + Salt Lake fight + United SFO consolidated + Amex/Uber tie up + Tokyo’s newest hotel

Mood lights on at new Virgin America site 

First look: The newest United Club (PHOTOS)

Beer price index helps gauge cost of trips abroad

United’s new copy & paste MileagePlus program

Marriott’s M Club lounge experiment

More transpac + Slim-line seats slammed + More A321s + New SFO club + ATL free wi-fi + New Hilton brand

Flying on a brand new United 787 Dreamliner

The sad state of summer airfares to Europe

Tip: What exactly is “high tea?”

Feast your eyes on United’s new London lounges (PHOTOS)

Economy comfort gets an upgrade (for some)

Late summer airfare sale starts TODAY

5 key questions to ask at hotel check in

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Runway closure at SFO to impact summer travel

SFO's North-South Runways 1R & 1L will close. Arrivals and departures will use 28R & 28L.

SFO’s North-South Runways 1R & 1L will close for 4 months. Arrivals and departures will use 28R & 28L.

On Saturday, May 17, San Francisco International Airport closed half of its runways for four months, which could result in significant flight delays, especially for those departing during peak hours.

Here’s what you need to know:

>SFO has four runways, two of which will be closed for about four months from Saturday, May 17 until mid-September.

>Runways are closed so the airport can construct new, federally mandated “Runway Safety Areas” (RSAs) at the end of runways 1L and 1R.

>While scheduling this work during peak summer travel season sounds insane, airport officials say that they can get the work done fastest during summer months, the Bay Area’s driest season of the year.

The engineered material arresting system – or EMAS – uses crushable concrete placed at the end of a runway to stop an aircraft that overruns the runway. The tires of the aircraft sink into the lightweight concrete and the aircraft is decelerated as it rolls through the material (Engineered Arresting Systems Corporation)

2010 photo from Charleston, WV runway overrun. The engineered material arresting system – or EMAS – uses crushable concrete placed at the end of a runway to stop an aircraft that overruns the runway. The tires of the aircraft sink into the lightweight concrete and the aircraft is decelerated as it rolls through the material (Engineered Arresting Systems Corporation)

>Inside each RSA will be large wide swaths of crushable concrete-like material known as EMAS (Engineered Materials Arrestor System), that are designed to allow aircraft that overshoot, undershoot or veer off the runway to come to safely come to a stop (and not barrel on to Highway 101 or into the Bay!). Think of them as runaway truck ramps like you see on freeways… but for planes.

>Every time it rains at SFO, the airport shifts to a two-runway pattern, so the closure is not unprecedented. As a matter of fact, airport officials say that SFO operated with only two runways 101 times in 2013. (That’s 101 times… not 101 full days, but still…)

(Related: 3 hot mess airports to avoid this summer)

>SFO says that has worked closely with the FAA and airlines to minimize delays associated with the closure. For example, Delta’s hourly shuttle service to LAX will not operate at 11 am or 1 pm this summer according to its schedule. Those flights resume in October. A Virgin America spokesperson said,  “We have proactively adjusted our schedules to allow for longer taxi times at SFO this summer and to minimize the impact for our guests.”

>SFO says that new flight procedures implemented last year to allow more planes to land during foggy conditions should help.

>Arriving flights will be given priority, which means that departures are most likely to be delayed. Those delays are most likely to occur during peak hours– between 10 am and 2 pm.

(Courtesy SFO)

(Courtesy SFO)

>All planes now take off to the west. Flights headed to Southern California and Asia depart SFO, fly up and over the San Bruno gap, then head out over the Pacific. Flights headed to the east and to Europe take off to the west, but make a sharp right turn shortly after take off, then head east over the Bay Bridge and Oakland. (It’s creating some awesome plane spotting from cars on Hwy 101!)

>The airport is implementing a metering system that will assign departure times during peak hours– this system will ensure that if your departure is delayed, you will wait at the gate area and not on the tarmac.

>Runways 28L and 28R had some minor adjustments made last year to meet the spatial requirements set by the federal government. This construction only required runway shutdown for a few days.

>When I asked airport spokesperson Doug Yakel if SFO’s delay problems might ever be permanently fixed by expansion into the Bay, he said no… “beyond the environmental concerns, building new runways out on the bay would simply be cost prohibitive.” He added that many of SFO’s delay issues would likely be solved by new technology instead of new runways.

UPDATE: Tuesday May 20: Flight delays reported by FAA at 8 am PDT (prior to mid-day peak): 

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click for latest data

How will this news impact your summer travel plans? Are you more likely to fly to/from Oakland or San Jose? Please leave your comments below!

--Chris McGinnis

Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts: 

London’s highest hotel opens + More Delta to Europe + Southwest/AirTran integration + Ranking frequent flyer programs +

Is Delta the airline to beat?

Behind the Scenes at Cathay Pacific: 10 Cool Things Revealed

Feast your eyes on United’s new London lounges

Virgin gets Love + Unusual SFO car wash + United to Tokyo Haneda + UberXL

Marriott’s 4,000th hotel opens

 

Airline “all-in” pricing on the ropes? Hope not!

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Aer Lingus + Changes at DCA + Marriott downgrades + United menus + Delta-LinkedIn

Aer Lingus will use Airbus A330's like this one on SFO-DUB (Photo: Flickr - Steven Little)

Aer Lingus will use Airbus A330’s like this one on SFO-DUB (Photo: Flickr – Steven Little)

DUBLIN. Lovely deep green Aer Lingus jets will float into SFO from Dublin again stating on April 2. MileagePlus members should be happy to know that Star Alliance partners Aer Lingus and United have a code sharing alliance. Air Lingus nixed the SFO-DUB route in 2009 as the global economy sputtered, but came back due to deep ties to the booming tech sector in both cities. If you love business class, you might want to check this out: Aer Lingus offers a unique bidding process for upgrades to the front of the plane. Details here. Aer Lingus’ return to SFO has sparked a fare war, with several carriers offering some rather remarkable deals (in the $700 range) for one-stop flights– these have been short, flash type sales during the slow spring months and will not last into the summer. (LIKE our Facebook page and we’ll keep you up to date on fare sales like this one.)

DRY SALUTE. Speaking of Aer Lingus—when the first flight arrives at SFO on April 2, it won’t get a water cannon salute. And that’s not because this is not really an inaugural—just a relaunch. It’s because of the drought. Airport spokesperson Doug Yakel said, “…in support of water conservation efforts, Aer Lingus will receive a ‘dry salute’, with firefighters and their equipment positioned on the tarmac, but with no water used.” The same thing will happen down at LAX when the first Saudia B777 arrives from Riyadh and Jeddah. Apparently a water cannon salute from firetrucks uses about 3,000 gallons of water. (Check out this gorgeous watery welcome for Air France’s first A380 at SFO!)

MUSICAL GATES AT DCA. If you fly Southwest, Virgin America or JetBlue into Washington Reagan National Airport, you need to read this about their plan to swap terminals. Virgin and JetBlue will move into more modern digs in Terminal B/C.  Southwest will expand at the older Terminal A, which is slated for a major re-do to be completed in late 2015.  

Rooms like this one at the swank Cosmopolitan Las Vegas bump up from Marriott Rewards Tier 8 to Tier 9. (Photo: Cosmopolitan)

Rooms like this one at the swank Cosmopolitan Las Vegas bump up from Marriott Rewards Tier 8 to Tier 9. (Photo: Cosmopolitan)

MARRIOTT REWARDS DOWNGRADES. It’s getting downright tiring to write about loyalty program downgrades. But I’ll carry on! Marriott has increased the number of points needed for free nights at a slew of properties around the world. Most of the properties that you’d really want to stay at are increasing from Category 8  to the newly created Category 9. Here’s the list. Read it and weep.

TAIPEI.  United is reintroducing nonstop B777 service between SFO and burgeoning Taipei on March 29. To prime the pump, it’s offer up to a 100% MileagePlus bonus on all except the cheapest economy fares.

UNITED MENUS. United announced that it’s bumping up options for flyers trying to avoid gluten. You soon see more soups, salad dressings and fruit/nut bars labeled as gluten free. The “savory snack box” on sale in coach will soon be 100% gluten free as are most items packed into the “classic” and “tapas” boxed snacks. In addition, it’s replaced regular yogurt with Greek yogurt in business class and on p.s. flights between SFO and NYC.

Fabulous new "grand lodge" interiors at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (Photo: Hyatt)

Fabulous new “grand lodge” interiors at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (Photo: Hyatt)

WORTH CHECKING INTO. Last week I was able to snag a super nice room at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe for just $100 per night by bidding low on Priceline. (Probably has something to do with the lack of snow there!) Having stayed there about five years ago, I was surprised at the REALLY nice full re-do of the 398-room high rise lakeside property in Incline Village, NV. The style is “grand lodge” and there’s lots of stone, leather and timber. The renovation project wrapped up this past December, with each room getting a $45K makeover… the total tab was about $25 million and it shows! Check it out! Overall, I’ve been impressed with Hyatt re-dos all over the world… have you noticed?

DELTA BOOSTS LAX AGAIN. Beginning this summer, Delta will add twice-daily nonstop service from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas aboard Boeing 717 and 737 planes. New daily service to Boise, Idaho will be added via Delta Connection, and a daily international link to San Salvador, El Salvador makes a comeback to the Delta network from LAX with 737 service each day. These moves in addition to a recent declaration that it intends to make Seattle a hub show Delta’s serious about building up its west coast presence.

DELTA PARTNERS WITH LINKEDIN. Delta has linked up with LinkedIn to offer business travelers the opportunity to fly with industry influencers on specific flights. Travelers that are intrigued with flying with a bigwig in their specific industry submit an application at Deltainnovationclass.com. Then, Delta will select and pair applicants with industry leaders. These pairings will be chosen throughout the year, and the winners will have the chance to fly side by side with their role model or industry icon giving them the chance to share ideas or discuss business topics along the way. Would you be up for some mentoring on a flight? If so, who would you most like to sit next to? 

--Chris McGinnis


Spring Break Warning + United in London + Air New Zealand upgrade + TripIt hack

Let’s do some catching up on Bay Area Travel News!

Spring in Portland (Photo Ian Sane - Flickr)

Spring in Portland (Photo Ian Sane – Flickr)

SPRING BREAK. Cold, dark winters back east nearly always lead to very busy, crowded and expensive spring breaks. For example, advance bookings for the rest of March and April at Best Western’s 2,100+ hotels in North America are up 10.4% compared to this time last year. The good news about this year’s spring travel season is that it is spread out over a six week period. That’s because the peak of collegiate spring break will last from now through about March 22. Then there’s a nice long lull until Easter, which comes relatively late this year on Sunday April 20. A late Easter means you’ll find a spring travel “sweet spot” during the first two weeks of April when the college kids have gone home (for the most part) and families have yet to embark on Easter trips. That’s when you’ll most likely find the best last minute deals and smallest crowds.

UAL AT LHR. United says that it will consolidate all operations from London Heathrow (now spread between Terminals 1 & 4) to the brand new Terminal 2, “The Queen’s Terminal” on June 4. The big, bright new terminal will sport a state-of-the-art 22,000 sq-ft United Club and United Global First lounge with floor to ceiling windows, a big spread of complimentary food and bevs and free wi-fi. Eventually, all of United’s Star Alliance partners will move in, too.

Air New Zealand's SkyCouch seat finally coming to SFO! (Photo: Air New Zealand)

Air New Zealand’s SkyCouch seat finally coming to SFO! (Photo: Air New Zealand)

MORE ANZ AT SFO. Air New Zealand will bump up its 7x week service between SFO and Auckland to 10x per week during peak season (Dec-Mar) later this year. The double daily service (Wednesdays, Fridays & Sundays) from SFO-AKL on Air New Zealand will begin on December 12 and conclude on March 4, 2015. Aircraft will be a mixture of the new 777-300 and refurbished 777-200 (when when the current 747 flies away). You’ll only find the popular Premium Economy Spaceseat  and Economy Skycouch on the newer 777-300. The 777-200 will offer the Skycouch, but not the Premium Economy Spaceseat.  To determine which plane you’ll be on, click on “view full itinerary” when booking on airnewzealand.com

Lufthansa's new Premium Economy seat (Photo: Lufthansa)

Lufthansa’s new Premium Economy seat (Photo: Lufthansa)

NEW LUFTHANSA SEAT. Lufthansa is rolling out a new premium economy seat on its long haul fleet. Starting this May, the seat, which offers 50% more space than standard coach, will be available only on Lufthansa’s 747-8 (which does not serve SFO). However, the carrier says it’s entire 106-aircraft long haul fleet (including the A380 serving SFO) will have the new seat by the end of 2015. Upgraded services include meals served on china, headrests and larger personal video screens. With the new seat, Lufthansa hopes that more passengers will upgrade from coach to premium economy versus downgrading from business to the new seat. What would YOU do?

NEW TRIPIT HACK. Mobile travel organizer TripIt is offering a new way for TripIt Pro members to track frequent-flier miles for the four airlines (American, Delta, Southwest and United) that were temporarily unavailable in Point Tracker. To do so, all you have to do is forward your monthly or quarterly points statements from these carriers to points@tripit.com. Using the same proprietary technology behind its itinerary creator, TripIt parses the data from those emails.

DELTA RELEASES AWARD CHART. Delta’s biggest public relations mistake in the rollout of the new rules for 2015 was that it only offered us half the equation. Initially, Delta only told us how much we’d earn… but it did not tell us how much we’d pay for award travel. Irritatingly, Delta said it would release a new award chart – but not until this fall. After a thorough lashing on that point, it released the chart last week. Much to everyone’s surprise, the chart is not much different than before. Instead of three tiers, there are now five. And the best news is that Delta is finally going to offer one-way awards starting at 12,500 miles.  It still remains to be seen how easy it’s going to be to get a round trip for 25K or a one-way award for 12.5K. Our guess is that the true lowest tier is will be Tier 2, with lowest domestic round trips at 35K (coach) and 65K (first) and Europe at 75K (coach) 160K (Biz).

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PLEASE, RECRUIT YOUR FRIENDS. If you like TravelSkills, would you please tell your friends and colleagues about it? The ONLY way we grow is via word of mouth from happy readers. Like every online publication, we need more eyeballs and appreciate your support.  Here’s something you can copy and paste into an email TODAY!

Have you ever heard about TravelSkills—TravelSkills– for frequent travelers? It’s a free local travel blog that I subscribe to. It’s full of helpful news and advice for frequent travelers who live in the Bay Area…just like us.  I think it’s definitely something you could use. See “Subscribe” in the upper right margin of the blog, or just sign up right here. Thanks! [ADD: *Your signature*]

–Chris McGinnis

And just in case you missed it, here are some of our most popular, recent TravelSkills posts :

Boeing 747s flying away from SFO?

Virgin America’s big plans for Big D

United carry-on “crackdown” not all it’s cracked up to be

Another spin on the frequent flyer merry-go-round

SFO by the numbers

Shoes + New STL flight + New A321T + Where’s the luv? + T3E cities + Free ice cream

Bikini-clad safety video

Best credit card for TravelSkills Readers?

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American & US Airways at T2 + Sonoma airport expands + UberX + Delta/Virgin + EVA expands

Have you ever been inside American's Admiral's Club at SFO Terminal 2? Nice! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Have you ever been inside American’s Admiral’s Club at SFO Terminal 2? Nice! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

US AIRWAYS-AMERICAN AT SFO. We asked our airport contacts when we might start seeing operations of merged American and US Airways at SFO’s  Terminal 2, but consolidation does not sound imminent. A spokesperson told TravelSkills: “The airlines will run separately for some time, so no word yet on combined operations.” Also, only six days to go and neither SFO or United has revealed what the first arrival or departure will be from the new T3E (opens Jan 28). Any guesses? Ours would be a flight to/from United’s home base of Chicago… but who knows? Please prognosticate below. 

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 1.57.52 PMMORE FLIGHTS FROM SONOMA? The Charles M. Schulz (Snoopy) Airport in Sonoma County is getting a makeover that could result in more nonstop flights.  With the biggest expansion since World War 2, the airport could soon see nonstops to Denver, Phoenix and Guadalajara in addition to the current Alaska Air flights nonstops to Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and San Diego.

UBERx CUTS PRICES. I dunno about you, but UberX has become my most frequent choice for transportation to and from the airport in SF and elsewhere. It’s just so easy. And now, it’s getting cheaper than cabs! In a new effort to be “the cheapest ride in town” UberX has cut its rates by 20%. Uber says that uberX rates are now 26% cheaper than cabs. Currently UberX from downtown SF to SFO is $25-$33; black car service is $65. From downtown SF to Oakland Int’l Airport, the fare is as low as $39. What do you think about Uber and UberX? Save $20 on your first Uber ride by clicking here. 

Shiny new EVA Air 777-300ER flies SFO-TPE (Photo EVA Air)

Shiny new EVA Air 777-300ER flies SFO-TPE (Photo EVA Air)

EVA AIR INCREASING. Taiwan’s EVA Air will bump up its weekly SFO-Taipei frequencies to 14 from the current 12 on July 3. EVA told TravelSkills that since joining Star Alliance last year, demand from business travelers flying EVA to Taipei and beyond has increased. EVA gets three more brand new Boeing 777-300ER in the second quarter which it will deploy on all its North American routes. We included EVA Air’s business class seat in our Business Class Sampler story from 2013Have you flown EVA Air? What did you think?

American Eagle's new name and logo

American Eagle’s new name and logo

NEW NAME. SAME PLANE. American Eagle, the commuter partner of American Airlines, has announced it will change its name to Envoy (which, not coincidentally, is what US Airways calls is business class product).

Delta's arrival kiosks at it's new JFK Terminal help reduce immigration wait times (Photo: Delta)

Delta’s arrival kiosks at its new JFK Terminal help reduce immigration wait times (Photo: Delta)

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NEW PASSPORT READERS AT ORD AND JFK…So, you may have heard about these new passport readers popping up in places like Delta’s terminal 4 at JFK and ORD, and wondered, “Why did I pay the $100 for Global Entry.” Well, there is a difference…these are totally separate systems. With this passport scanning system (free, no $ or interview required) , new arrivals insert passports, answer similar questions to what is found on the traditional blue landing card, and then wait in line to show a receipt to the CBP official who verifies that it is indeed you. So unlike Global Entry, kiosk users don’t bypass that step completely although it is much faster. The time spent with the CBP agent is reduced because users have already entered passport info into the system.

DELTA AND VIRGIN ATLANTIC LINK SCHEDULE. As we reported late last year, Delta and Virgin Atlantic have launched a joint venture, which officially started on Jan. 1. It includes all flights between the U.S. and the U.K., including Virgin’s daily flight from SFO to Heathrow. This means Bay Area flyers can now book SFO-London Heathrow nonstops on Delta.com, even though the flight will be operated by Virgin Atlantic. Benefits for travelers include access to Virgin’s impressive lounge network and earning and redeeming SkyMiles on either carrier. We hear mixed reviews about Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class seats on the SFO-LHR run on its 747-400… many love them, others say they are a bit tatty and in need of replacement. (Virgin’s newest version of Upper Class is currently only available on its A330s and 747-400’s flying to/from London Gatwick.) Have you flown Virgin Atlantic lately? How was it?

Looking out the window from landing jet at Asiana crash last summer (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Looking out the window from landing jet at Asiana crash site last summer (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

SAFEST YEAR EVER? Despite the Asiana tragedy at SFO last summer, 2013 clocked in as the safest ever for air travel. In related news, last week the San Francisco Fire Department released gruesome video of the Asiana crash rescue scene, which clearly shows the body of one of the teenage victims and early attempts to keep fire trucks away. Very sickening and sad.

FLY OVER CANADA MUCH? Then you’ll be pleased to know that Gogo recently flipped the switch on its new Canadian network, which means more connectivity onboard Air Canada flights. Currently, only two Air Canada Airbus A319s have Gogo onboard testing out the service. Even if you don’t fly Air Canada, you’ll get better reception when, for example,  you are on a Virgin America flight to Boston that flies over southern Canada to get there.

Subscribe to TravelSkills-  via e-mail!

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PLEASE, RECRUIT YOUR FRIENDS. If you like TravelSkills, would you please tell your friends and colleagues about it? The ONLY way we grow is via word of mouth from happy readers. Like every online publication, we need more eyeballs and appreciate your support.  Here’s something you can copy and paste into an email TODAY!

Have you ever heard about TravelSkills—TravelSkills– for frequent travelers? It’s a free local travel blog that I subscribe to. It’s full of helpful news and advice for frequent travelers who live in the Bay Area…just like us.  I think it’s definitely something you could use. See “Subscribe” in the upper right margin of the blog, or just sign up right here. Thanks! [ADD: *Your signature*]

 

– Chris McGinnis

And just in case you missed it, here’s what else you need to know about Bay Area Travel over the last month:

United transcon bonus + United 787 domestic + Fewer 747s + Delta vs Alaska

*How to earn a quick 40,000 United miles*

Anticipating T3E + Google Int’l + New Virgin Visa + More Southwest nonstops

Southwest: Blackfish backlash

United: T3E & UA500 & 49ers-Seahawks Game fares

What to do if pulled over by the police [Infographic]

***

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Are you a “data traveler?”

The average business traveler checks his or her email 34 times per day when on the road…and 75% of business travelers say that their mobile phones enable them to get more sleep at night. Find those and several more insights in this interesting infographic from Mophie, the makers of those mobile phone battery packs that keep us juiced up all over the world.

Mophie_-Day-in-the-Life-of-a-Data-Traveller

And just in case you missed it, here’s what else you need to know about Bay Area Travel over the last month:

Virgin SFO-LaGuardia + AA’s newest jet + Global Entry delays + more

Best/worst days for holiday trips

New terminal at SFO: hard hat tour (photos)

16 brand new, must see NYC hotels

Update: United p.s. fleet SFO-JFK

Asia on sale + PreCheck newbies + United wi-fi + Free airport parking + Nancy Pelosi

Virgin first class sale + Hilton HHonors downgrade + Chase Sapphire w chip + United dumps ExpertFlyer

More A380s + Cathay discounts biz class + SJC courts Asia + Double Elevate pts

>Southwest FINALLY joins PreCheck

>United to allow handhelds below 10K feet

>Travel advice fit for a Queen (Latifah!)

***

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Are YOU signed up for TravelSkills- TravelSkills? If not, why not? Subscribe to TravelSkills via e-mail!


Asia on sale + PreCheck newbies + United wi-fi + Free airport parking + Nancy Pelosi

The stunning interior courtyard of the Capella Singapore hotel (Chris McGinnis)

The stunning interior courtyard of the Capella Singapore hotel (Chris McGinnis)

SINGAPORE AIR PUTS ASIA ON SALE. Singapore Airlines offered up some remarkable deals to warm winter destinations throughout Asia this week, but you need to act by Dec 2, or before they sell out. From SFO, fly to Seoul, Hong Kong or Singapore, then connect to over 30 cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia or Korea. All inclusive economy fares start as low as $694 (Seoul)… but most are in the $1000 range. That’s a great deal! The window of opportunity for travel is quite large, too, extending from January 15 through May 15. Details/booking here.

(Photo: Jaxworld)

(Photo: Jaxworld)

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? Have you ever been in the PreCheck line along with someone who has no idea why they are there? Ive noticed is a lot lately. And I’ve heard from TravelSkills reader who wonder the same thing. How could someone in the PreCheck line NOT know what it is, or that they don’t have to remove shoes, belts or laptops when they go through? Turns out it’s because the TSA has vetted them, allowing them to use the PreCheck lane to relieve the pressure on the regular lanes. Here’s what TSA spokesperson Nico Melendez told TravelSkills: “Currently, TSA’s Secure Flight system uses information provided when making a flight reservation – such as name, date of birth, and gender – to identify and prevent known or suspected terrorists or other individuals from gaining access to airplanes or secure areas of airports. TSA will now use that information to identify passengers who present a lower risk to aviation security and offer those passengers expedited screening. This initiative will occur on a flight-by-flight basis and will not require passengers to enroll in a DHS Trusted Traveler program. If a passenger is eligible for expedited screening for a particular flight, a TSA Pre✓™ indicator will be embedded in the barcode of the boarding pass so that when scanned at the checkpoint, the passenger may be referred to a TSA Pre✓™ lane….This process will allow TSA to maintain its high security standards and create greater efficiency while offering more travelers the benefit of expedited screening through TSA PreCheck lanes.”

Eva Air's Hello Kitty themed plane landed at SFO today! (SFO Facebook page)

Eva Air’s Hello Kitty themed plane landed at SFO today! (SFO Facebook page)

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iPad rentals on Southwest Airlines (Photo: Dave Zatz)

iPad rentals on Southwest Airlines (Photo: Dave Zatz)

SOUTHWEST RENTS IPADS ON THREE ROUTES…Southwest is taking a page from the legacy airlines exploring new ways of offering inflight entertainment. Now it allows travelers to borrow iPad2 devices on flights between Chicago Midway, Denver, and Oakland. Checkout stations in the terminals of these airports will allow travelers to swipe a credit card to borrow a device and return it at their destination. Once on board, Southwest’s partnership with DishTV allows iPad users to stream live TV free of charge to the iPad (or any personal device if you already have one of your own). This unique promotion is available aboard all of Southwest’s wi-fi-equipped aircraft, which by the way, can now offer true gate-to-gate connectivity using its satellite-based Row 44 wi-fi system. Gogo, used by Virgin, Delta and many other carriers does not operate below 10,ooo feet.

FLY BA MUCH? Get the new British Airways Visa Signature® Card and earn a tidy 50,000 Avios points.

UNITED BEATS DELTA TO INTERNATIONAL WIFI CONTEST…United now offers more international, long-haul flights with wi-fi capability than any other North American carrier. Delta had announced its intention to outfit aircraft beginning this year, but snags with certification have caused a slight delay. United, however, already offers the capability aboard 13 of its Boeing 747-400 aircraft flying long-haul routes, mostly from SFO and LAX. More than half of United’s Airbus A319 and A320 aircraft operating domestically feature the same satellite wi-fi system. United still uses the Gogo air-to-ground system on the Boeing 757 transcontinental p.s.  aircraft, flying between JFK and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Overall, there are 100 United aircraft with wifi currently and the number is growing. Have you tried it? How speedy is it?

Oakland's new 236-ft , $33 million control tower is officially dedicated this week (Oakland Int'l Airport)

Oakland’s new 236-ft , $33 million control tower is officially dedicated this week (Oakland Int’l Airport)

FREE HOLIDAY PARKING PROMO AT OAKLAND RETURNS…Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 19, flyers can park free for up to three days in the daily lot at Oakland airport. The only stipulation is that their flight must depart midweek on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. To get a free parking coupon, if you qualify, visit: http://t.co/SayyNzzk81.

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Diane Feinstein flying home from DCA with the Giants last winter (Twitter)

Diane Feinstein flying home from DCA with the Giants last winter (Twitter)

NANCY PELOSI LOVES VIRGIN?…We’ve heard from several TravelSkills reader that Bay Area US rep Nancy Pelosi is now a regular on Virgin America’s daily roundtrip between SFO and Washington-Reagan National Airport. Even more interesting: she flies in coach! Can anyone else verify? And apparently, Diane Feinstein fancies Virgin America, too, but from this photo, it appears the Senator sits up front.

NEW BUY ONBOARD MENU FOR UNITED…Economy travelers have new options on United now that a refreshed Choice menu has been unveiled. No one ever said airplane food is glamorous, but this is as good as it gets in coach these days. The “Bistro on Board” concept will be available on board flights of 3.5 hours or longer within North and Central America. Breakfast menu items include a ham and Swiss baguette; a sweet cheese pastry; and a morning energy selection of a hard-cooked egg, cheese, grapes, a wheat roll and almond butter. The lunch and dinner menu offers  a caprese baguette; a bacon, lettuce and tomato wrap; and a roast beef and cheddar baguette, as well as an Asian-style noodle salad and artisan cheese selection. (Menus change with the seasons) Have you tried it yet? Please leave your comments below. 

+++

Chris McGinnis 

And just in case you missed it, here’s what else you need to know about Bay Area Travel over the last month:

Virgin first class sale + Hilton HHonors downgrade + Chase Sapphire w chip + United dumps ExpertFlyer

More A380s + Cathay discounts biz class + SJC courts Asia + Double Elevate pts

>Southwest FINALLY joins PreCheck

>United to allow handhelds below 10K feet

>Travel advice fit for a Queen (Latifah!)

>New landing procedure at SFO should help w delays! Hallelujah!

>Big, bad United MileagePlus surprise 

>Virgin’s new Safety Dance

>Riding the Red Carpet Route to London! 

>Double Miles on United & Southwest

>$100 hotels in NYC 

>Two posh new lounges coming to SFO 

***

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United to allow handhelds below 10k feet

JetBlue passengers celebrate relaxation of inflight electronics rules (JetBlue)

JetBlue passengers celebrate relaxation of inflight electronics rules (JetBlue)

United and American announced today that they have obtained FAA permission for passenger use of electronics on board aircraft below 10,000 feet– the FAA granted permission almost immediately to both JetBlue and Delta last week. Other airlines (including Virgin America and Southwest) will have to wait a few more weeks until they get FAA approval.

A Virgin America spokesperson told TravelSkills: “We’re in the process of applying through the new process and hope to implement the changes as soon as possible, with the goal of having the change live in November — in time for the holidays.”

As you know, this was previously deemed to be a safety threat to the aircraft’s electronics and navigation systems. But following significant review, the FAA has determined that is not the case. In fact, many pilots have been using iPads in place of bulky flight manuals, and Delta recently introduced handheld devices for flight attendants, which tend to remain on during all phases of flight, to handle in-flight sales and customer service issues.

Virgin America customers will have to wait a few more weeks for FAA approval for handheld use below 10K (Photo: Virgin America)

Virgin America customers will have to wait a few more weeks for FAA approval for handheld use below 10K (Photo: Virgin America)

The lifting of this unpopular rule will allow passengers to read books or listen to music while taxiing on the ground or in the first final phases of flight. Devices must be in airplane mode under 10,000 feet meaning there is no transmission of data (cell phone or Internet use).

According to United’s release,  this only applies to handheld devices like phones or tablets… laptops will likely still have to be stowed  for landing– but I’m not sure why a laptop poses any more danger than a tablet. And it’s an increasingly fine line separating tablets from laptops. Time will tell…

Wireless Internet via Gogo will NOT be available below 10,000 feet– A Gogo spokesperson told TravelSkills that “it’s a little of both” when we asked if usage was not possible due to FAA rule, or because the service simply does not work below 10K feet.

Flight attendants are surely pleased with this new rule as it keeps them from having to patrol every single device, but it is still unclear how crew will be checking to see if devices are in airplane mode. During taxi and before takeoff, there is nothing to stop a sneaky passenger from checking their email on a smart phone unless a crewmember was to catch them!

What about you? Have you ever left your phone in transmission mode under 10K feet? Do you think that cell phone transmissions can truly impact navigational equipment? Please leave your comments below… 

Chris McGinnis 

And just in case you missed it, here’s what else you need to know about Bay Area Travel over the last month:

>New landing procedure at SFO should help w delays! Hallelujah!

>Big, bad United MileagePlus surprise 

>Virgin’s new Safety Dance

>Riding the Red Carpet Route to London! 

>Double Miles on United & Southwest

>$100 hotels in NYC 

>Two posh new lounges coming to SFO 

>Airline cat fight benefitting TravelSkills Readers 

***

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New rules about using electronics onboard

JetBlue passengers celebrate relaxation of inflight electronics rules (JetBlue)

JetBlue passengers celebrate relaxation of inflight electronics rules (JetBlue)

Delta wasted no time in obtaining FAA permission for passenger use of electronics on board aircraft below 10,000 feet– the FAA granted permission almost immediately to both JetBlue and Delta. Other airlines (including Southwest and AirTran) will have to wait a few more weeks until they get FAA approval.

As you know, this was previously deemed to be a safety threat to the aircraft’s electronics and navigation systems. But following significant review, the FAA has determined that is not the case. In fact, many pilots have been using iPads in place of bulky flight manuals, and Delta recently introduced handheld devices for flight attendants, which tend to remain on during all phases of flight, to handle in-flight sales and customer service issues.

The lifting of this unpopular rule will allow passengers to read books or listen to music while taxiing on the ground or in the first final phases of flight. Devices must be in airplane mode under 10,000 feet meaning there is no transmission of data (cell phone or Internet use). It appears this only applies to handheld devices like phones or tablets… laptops will still have to be stowed (likely in the seatback pocket) for landing since they can become dangerous projectiles.

Wireless Internet via Gogo will NOT be available below 10,000 feet– A Gogo spokesperson told The TICKET that “it’s a little of both” when we asked if usage was not possible due to FAA rule, or because the service simply does not work below 10K feet.

Flight attendants are surely pleased with this new rule as it keeps them from having to patrol every single device, but it is still unclear how crew will be checking to see if devices are in airplane mode. During taxi and before takeoff, there is nothing to stop a sneaky passenger from checking their email on a smart phone unless a crewmember was to catch them!

While the rule lifts the previous ban, airlines must still apply to the FAA for permission showing that their aircraft equipment is suitable for the use of these personal devices below 10,000 feet. According to Delta, all mainline aircraft have completed carrier-defined PED tolerance testing to ensure the safe operation of these electronic devices. Delta Connection aircraft should be certified “by the end of the year.”

RELATED: And for those of you wondering about the satellite-based wireless Internet that was supposed to be rolled out on Delta’s international fleet earlier this year, plans have apparently been stalled due to FAA certification snags.

A Delta spokesperson told The TICKET that plans are still in place to hopefully have some aircraft equipped with the service in the next few months with an expected completion date by 2015 of all international aircraft. Keep your fingers crossed! (Won’t it be nice to have wi-fi on the ATL-LAX B777 on its way to Sydney or Tokyo?)

Ramsey Qubein & Chris McGinnis

 


5 ways inflight wi-fi could improve

What a groovy idea for better inflight wi-fi! See below for explanation (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

What a groovy idea for better inflight wi-fi! See below for explanation (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It’s not here yet, but the promise of faster, more reliable in-flight wi-fi is on the horizon. We’ll have to wait and see how all this pans out, but for now, here’s the news:

This month Gogo announced that it will roll out a new in-flight wi-fi product that will be 20 times faster than its original product, and six times faster than its upgraded ATG 4 system rolled out last year. The hybrid system (called GTO for “Ground to Orbit”) will use its existing ground-based network of antennae as well as a new satellite system.

Here's what's under the radome on the roof of planes with Gogo's new "Ground to Orbit" wifi solution (Chris McGinnis)

Here’s what’s under the radome on the roof of planes with Gogo’s new “Ground to Orbit” wifi solution (Chris McGinnis)

Virgin America will be the first airline to add the new system starting in late 2014. Gogo also powers in-flight wi-fi on Delta, American, US Airways and on United’s p.s. flights between California and JFK.

TIP for using Gogo: Did you know that if purchased during flight, a Gogo all-day pass now costs as much as $26? To get around that, you can by an all-day pass from the Gogo site in advance for just $14.

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JetBlue, which currently does not offer wi-fi, announced that it would start adding a fast new satellite-based system from ViaSat to its flights later this year. All its 180 planes could be wi-fi friendly by 2015.

In addition to internet access, Southwest’s satellite based system from Row 44 is now streaming live TV to passengers’ personal devices, free (for now at least). Row 44 is now on about 450 Southwest jets—about 80% of its fleet. The current cost for wi-fi is $8 per flight. Row 44 also provides wi-fi on Norwegian Air Shuttle, which will begin flying nonstop between Oakland and Oslo and Stockholm next summer.

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United is slowly rolling out a new satellite-only wi-fi system from Panasonic on select domestic and overseas flights. Currently it’s on about 60 A319 and A320 aircraft and 13 747s. Pricing is per segment and varies (from $4 to $20) based on flight length and connection speed. I was eager to give the new system a try on an SFO-SNA flight last week, but after a few system re-sets, flummoxed flight attendants said that it was inoperable on that flight.

Have you tried United’s new wi-fi system yet? Streamed live TV on Southwest? How did that go for you? Please leave your comments about inflight wi-fi below.

WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT? Last week I attended the Airline Passenger Experience Expo in Anaheim—a very cool show for airline geeks. It’s a gathering of all the suppliers for everything on the inside of an airplane—from carpet and lights to seats, wi-fi systems and inflight catering. What a sight to behold!

My “aha moment” came when I saw a simple solution to a problem that likely frustrated millions of frequent travelers every day… how to keep your  smart phone or tablet standing up on the airline tray table. A company called Smart Tray International has patented a rather simple solution—carve a grove into the tray tabletop into which the tablet or smart phone can be inserted. Brilliant, simple solution.

And, since we are moving to a BYOD for “Bring Your Own Device” world when it comes to inflight entertainment, the idea’s especially prescient.

Would you use it? Please leave your comments below! 

Chris McGinnis

***

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5 ways inflight wi-fi could improve

What a groovy idea for better inflight wi-fi! See below for explanation (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

What a groovy idea for better inflight wi-fi! See below for explanation (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It’s not here yet, but the promise of faster, more reliable in-flight wi-fi is on the horizon. We’ll have to wait and see how all this pans out, but for now, here’s the news:

This month Gogo announced that it will roll out a new in-flight wi-fi product that will be 20 times faster than its original product, and six times faster than its upgraded ATG 4 system rolled out last year. The hybrid system (called GTO for “Ground to Orbit”) will use its existing ground-based network of antennae as well as a new satellite system.

Here's what's under the radome on the roof of planes with Gogo's new "Ground to Orbit" wifi solution (Chris McGinnis)

Here’s what’s under the radome on the roof of planes with Gogo’s new “Ground to Orbit” wifi solution (Chris McGinnis)

Virgin America will be the first airline to add the new system starting in late 2014. Gogo also powers domestic in-flight wi-fi on AirTran, Delta, American, US Airways and on United’s p.s. flights between California and JFK. Apparently Delta and Gogo are working on a new satellite-based solution for overseas flights, but those plans still seem to be just plans.

TIP for using Gogo: Did you know that if purchased during flight, a Gogo all-day pass now costs as much as $26? To get around that, you can by an all-day pass from the Gogo site in advance for just $14.

In addition to internet access, Southwest’s satellite based system from Row 44 is now streaming live TV to passengers’ personal devices, free (for now at least). Row 44 is now on about 450 Southwest jets—about 80% of its fleet. The current cost for wi-fi is $8 per flight. Row 44 also provides wi-fi on several international carriers.

JetBlue, which currently does not offer wi-fi, announced that it would start adding a fast new satellite-based system from ViaSat to its flights later this year. All its 180 planes could be wi-fi friendly by 2015.

Subscribe to The TICKET via E-mail!

United is slowly rolling out a new satellite-only wi-fi system from Panasonic on select domestic and overseas flights. Currently it’s on about 60 A319 and A320 aircraft and 13 747s. Pricing is per segment and varies (from $4 to $20) by flight length. I was eager to give the new system a try on a United A319 last week, but after a few system re-sets, flummoxed flight attendants said that it was inoperable on that flight.

How frequently do you log on using Gogo on Delta or AirTran? Have you tried United’s new wi-fi system yet? Streamed live TV on Southwest? How did that go for you? Please leave your comments about inflight wi-fi below.

WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT? Last week I attended the Airline Passenger Experience Expo in Anaheim—a very cool show for airline geeks. It’s a gathering of all the suppliers for everything on the inside of an airplane—from carpet and lights to seats, wi-fi systems and inflight catering. What a sight to behold!

My “aha moment” came when I saw a simple solution to a problem that likely frustrated millions of frequent travelers every day… how to keep your tablet or phone standing up on the airline tray table. A company called Smart Tray International has patented a rather simple solution—carve a grove into the tray tabletop into which the tablet or smart phone can be inserted. Brilliant, simple solution.

And, since we are moving to a BYOD (for “Bring Your Own Device”) world when it comes to inflight entertainment, the idea’s especially prescient.

Would you use it? Please leave your comments below! 

Chris McGinnis

*****

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New Delta Shuttle SFO LAX + Aer Lingus returns + Problems in China + Expensive cities

A Delta Embraer 175. Photo: Christopher Ebdon

A Delta Embraer 175. Photo: Christopher Ebdon

DELTA’S NEW SFO-LAX SHUTTLE. Today Delta announced  that it will begin hourly, nonstop Delta Shuttle service between Los Angeles International and San Francisco International airports on Sept. 3, 2013. The Delta Shuttle operation will include 14 daily flights in each direction and a product tailored to business travelers operating similarly to its New York Shuttle. Flights will depart at the top of the hour beginning at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday and will be operated by Delta Connection partner, Compass Airlines using 76-passenger  E-175 aircraft with 12 First Class, 12 Economy Comfort and 52 Economy seats. A Delta spokesman told TravelSkills that unlike the carrier’s NY Shuttle, the California operation will not have aircraft on standby, nor can passengers walk up and purchase tickets from a kiosk at the airport. The California corridor is getting HOT and super competitive. Delta’s product, using a two-class Embraer (with Wifi) is a comfy ride compared to some other airlines in this market. Delta’s boarding area at Terminal 1 now has PreCheck, too, which helps ease the journey. Hmm. Would you give up on your currentl mileage program and switch over to Delta to use this new shuttle product? Please leave your comments below. 

An Aer Lingus A330 at Washington Dulles (Photo:  Stephen White)

An Aer Lingus A330 at Washington Dulles (Photo: Stephen White)

BIG GREEN PLANE BACK AT SFO. Aer Lingus announced that it will bring back its nonstop between Dublin and San Francisco starting April 2, 2014. The Irish carrier will use an Airbus A330 on the route, which will run 5x per week. Air Lingus business class seats are of the less desirable “angled lie-flat” variety which are not as easy to sleep in as United’s true lie flat product. MileagePlus members should be happy to know that Aer Lingus and United have a code sharing alliance. Air Lingus nixed the SFO-DUB route in 2009 as the global economy sputtered.

(This is part two of a big “Catching up on Bay Area Travel News” post I’ve been working on this week. Here’s Part 1 of that roundup! 

A United 737-900 in Orlando (DolceLuxury)

A United 737-900 in Orlando (DolceLuxury)

UNITED RETIRING 757’s. United is taking an aggressive approach to retiring its fleet of aging 757-200s according to a post this week on FlightGlobal.com. United currently has 129 757-200s in its fleet and has plans to retire 73 of them over the next two years, replacing them with new, more efficient Boeing 737-900’s. However, United spokesperson Karen May told TravelSkills  that it intends to continue using its p.s. configured 757’s on the SFO-JFK run for the time being. Which aircraft do you prefer, the B757 or the B737? For me, the 757 is a torture chamber if stuck in standard coach. It’s a bit better in Economy Plus. First is okay, but still pretty tight for first class. On the other hand, on a recent short flight to Denver, I was lucky enough to ride on a brand new United B737-900 with 20 first class seats… and it was nice! What about you? 

ROCKETMILES OVERSEAS. Remember when we wrote about Rocketmiles, the new site that offers mega-mileage bonuses for upscale hotel bookings in major cities in the US? This month, it expanded to 100 cities overseas such as London, Paris and Tokyo. Good news for SF-based flyers, Rocketmiles offers miles in United’s MileagePlus program and points in Virgin’s Elevate (and seven other airline programs). Customers earn an average of 7,000 miles per booking while paying roughly the same rates those found on other hotel booking sites. Have you checked it out yet? (Note: Join the 214 TravelSkills reader who have signed up for Rocketmiles via TravelSkills—we earn bonus miles when you book for the first time.)

RIDE/CAR SHARING BREAKTHROUGH? Just in time for another BART strike, the California Public Utilities Commission has proposed a way to calm the waters in the crazy ride/car sharing market that is disrupting public transport in the Bay Area and across the country. The commission has created a new category called “Transportation Network Company” (TNC) for companies like Lyft, SideCar, InstantCab, and UberX that connect passengers with drivers using their personal vehicles via smartphone applications. This new type of transport company must apply for permits from the state, obtain insurance, provide driver training, and impose strict no drug or alcohol requirements on drivers. SFO authorities, who have been arresting drivers issued a press release stating: “Such companies are currently prohibited from operating at SFO, but the CPUC’s proposed decision is a necessary first step in paving the way for safe, legal operations at the Airport. This proposal will ensure that ride-sharing is safe for the public, by requiring companies to screen drivers, inspect vehicles, and carry adequate insurance.” The CPUC issued the proposed decision on July 30, 2013. It’s not yet clear how the new rules might affects new companies at SFO such as RelayRides or FlightCar that are disrupting the airport rental car business. Stay tuned

FREE WIFI SAN JOSE-LAX. Virgin America is offering a free 30-minute snippet of Gogo wi-fi on its flights on the hypercompetitive SJC-LAX market. Details here.  Southwest, the only other carrier with wifi in that market, charges $8 for access.

Big, beautiful Beijing Capital Airport is getting hammered by delays. (Tomasz Wagner Mananetwork)

Big, beautiful Beijing Capital Airport is getting hammered by delays. (Tomasz Wagner Mananetwork)

TORTUOUS DELAYS IN CHINA. And we thought delays at SFO were a headache…consider what it’s like to travel frequently from Beijing or Shanghai, where delays are so bad that riots are taking place at airports. In June only 18% of flights at Beijing Capital Airport departed on time, making it the worst airport in the world for punctuality according to FlightStats.com. Shanghai was only slightly better at 24% on time. The problem has become so bad that the Chinese have coined a new phrase for the angry mobs that form at airport gates: “kong nu zu”, or “air rage tribe.” (You MUST see this video of gate area anger antics. Wow!) The most significant delays seem to hit mostly domestic flights, so it’s probably smart to avoid using these airports as connecting hubs until the issues are straightened out. Instead, consider Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong.

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PRECHECK FOR EVERYONE. Starting this fall the TSA will open up PreCheck to anyone willing to pay the $85 fee (good for five years) and submit to a background check, which includes an onsite interview and fingerprinting. Previously, you had to be nominated by an airline, or participate in the Global Entry program to use PreCheck lanes, which do not require travelers to take off shoes or coats, remove laptops from carry on bags, or submit to full body scanners. Currently, more than 12 million travelers are part of PreCheck, which is available at 40 airports nationwide. The TSA expects the expanded access to add another 383,000 travelers to the PreCheck rolls within a year. We are big fans of PreCheck… what about you? Do you use it? What’s been your experience? Have you ever been declined use of PreCheck lanes? Please leave your comments below.

Emirates Team New Zealand Waka lounge at Pier 32 in San Francisco (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Emirates Team New Zealand Waka lounge at Pier 32 in San Francisco (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

EMIRATES’ AMERICAS CUP LOUNGE. Have you been by Pier 32 on the San Francisco Embarcadero and seen that large boat-like structure out on the docks? That’s the hospitality lounge that Emirates Airline has set up for Team New Zealand. Last week Emirates invited TravelSkills to the lounge and out on the water to catch some Louis Vuitton Cup action. But I knew some TravelSkills reader would love to see what’s inside that big boat, known as a “Waka” in Maori. Check out my Google+ slideshow and let us know what you think!

MOST EXPENSIVE CITIES. What’s the most expensive city in the world for business travel? I would have thought it would be one of the perennial picks, such as London or Moscow…but Australia has taken over! Brisbane is now the most expensive city in the world for business travelers followed by Tokyo, then Sydney and Perth. Melbourne comes in at #7. In the US, only New York City ranks in the top 10. Here’s the list.  What’s them most expensive city you’ve ever traveled to? 

GOTTA SEE THIS. Take a Google Maps Tour INSIDE an Emirates Airbus A380 parked at Dubai International airport… and let us know what you think!

United's new Scimitar split winglet (United)

United’s new Scimitar split winglet (United)

UNITED SCIMITARS. Look out your window next time you are flying United to see if the plane wing sports the sleek new “split scimitar” winglet, which is designed to help to reduce drag and improve the planes fuel efficiency. United says the new winglet will cut energy use by 2%, saving to $200 million per year. Currently only one United 737-800 has the new winglet, but starting next year, it will go on its fleet of Boeing 737, 757 and 767 aircraft.

PREMIUM ECONOMY PERK ON CATHAY. If you are flying in Premium Economy on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong this fall, be sure to snag a certificate good for $100 off in-flight duty-free shopping here. Flights must be booked by August 22 for flights Sept 1- Oct 31.

 

Chris McGinnis

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How to avoid rising inflight wi-fi prices

Taking a ride on the Gogo inflight internet lab last year in Itasca, IL (Chris McGinnis)

Taking a ride on the Gogo inflight internet lab last year in Itasca, IL (Chris McGinnis)

Inflight wi-fi provider Gogo released statistics today showing that San Francisco International has the highest percentage of passengers using its service, followed by New York JFK and then John Wayne/Orange County. LAX is the fourth most-connected. Interestingly, Atlanta did not even place in the top 10. (See infographic below.)

It’s no surprise that airports located in coastal areas with a preponderance of longer transcontinental flights come out near the top of the list. It’s just not worth the hassle or the cost to break out the laptop or tablet on a flight under two hours. That’s why the poorest performers when it comes to wi-fi (such as Pensacola, Savannah or Akron) are small airports that primarily offer only short commuter flights to larger hubs where longer flights await.

In other Gogo news, the price to log-on onboard has jumped lately. Last week when flying between Atlanta and SFO, I noticed that the fee for a day pass purchased onboard had jumped to $26.95. Ouch! That’s a lot when you consider that Gogo competitor Row 44 only charges $8 per day  per device for inflight wifi on Southwest Airlines flights.

When I tweeted about the surprise price increase, Gogo responded with the suggestion that frequent users purchase a $14 all day pass BEFORE they get onboard. That represents a significant savings, and will be something I do before every transcontinental flight in the future. Especially now that it seems that buying wi-fi at the last minute at overly bloated prices is like buying last-minute airline tickets at overly bloated prices.

What’s nice about the $14 day pass is that it’s good for 12 months on any Gogo-connected airline– so if you end up not using on one flight, you can use it later. For those with a heavy month of travel ahead, a monthly pass is available for $49.95. Gogo is also offering a three-pack for just $30 good for flights through the end of August. (Look for the “Summer sun 3-pack” on the Gogo home page.)

The key here is that Gogo obviously is pushing us to buy passes ahead of time instead of onboard. 

Are you a heavy user of inflight wi-fi? Does the availability of it influence your airline decision? How much is too much to pay for the convenience of logging on on the fly? And finally, have you noticed any improvement is speed or connection using Gogo lately?

Please leave your comments below! 

Chris McGinnis

 

Gogo most connected cities wifi

 

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How to avoid rising inflight wi-fi prices

Taking a ride on Gogo's inflight lab last year (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Taking a ride on Gogo’s inflight lab in Itasca, IL last year (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inflight wi-fi provider Gogo released statistics today showing that SFO has the highest percentage of passengers using its service, followed by New York JFK and then John Wayne/Orange County. LAX is the fourth most-connected. (See infographic below.)

It’s no surprise that airports located in coastal areas with a preponderance of longer transcontinental flights come out near the top of the list. It’s just not worth the hassle or the cost to break out the laptop or tablet on a flight under two hours. That’s why the poorest performers when it comes to wi-fi (such as Pensacola, Savannah or Akron) are small airports that primarily offer only short commuter flights to larger hubs where longer flights await.

In other Gogo news, the price to log-on onboard has jumped lately. Last week when flying between SFO and Atlanta, I noticed that the fee for a day pass purchased onboard had jumped to $26.95. Ouch! That’s a lot when you consider that Gogo competitor Row 44 only charges $8 per day  per device for inflight wifi on Southwest Airlines flights.

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When I tweeted about the surprise price increase, Gogo responded with the suggestion that frequent users purchase a $14 all day pass BEFORE they get onboard. That represents a significant savings, and will be something I do before every transcontinental flight in the future. Especially now that it seems that buying wi-fi at the last minute at overly bloated prices is like buying last-minute airline tickets at overly bloated prices.

What’s nice about the $14 day pass is that it’s good for 12 months on any Gogo-connected airline– so if you end up not using on one flight, you can use it later. For those with a heavy month of travel ahead, a monthly pass is available for $49.95. Gogo is also offering a three-pack for just $30 good for flights through the end of August. (Look for the “Summer sun 3-pack” on the Gogo home page.)

The key here is that Gogo obviously is pushing us to buy passes ahead of time instead of onboard. 

Are you a heavy user of inflight wi-fi? Does the availability of it influence your airline decision (hello, United!)? How much is too much to pay for the convenience of logging on on the fly? And finally, have you noticed any improvement is speed or connection using Gogo lately?

Please leave your comments below! 

Chris McGinnis

Gogo most connected cities wifi

 

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Peak summer + United TP mess + SFO’s best food + Virgin at SJC

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. Summer got off to a slow start at SFO this week, with the rainy weather resulting in ground stops and delays of up to 2-3 hours, while Oakland and San Jose Airports were operating normally.  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 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 it appears that the Bay Area’s KGO Channel 7 scooped this story locally (which 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 AT SFO TERMINAL 1. The TSA’s super-popular PreCheck lanes are coming to Delta’s gate area at SFO’s Terminal 1, boarding area C, by mid-July according to SFO spokesman Doug Yakel. This means that PreCheck will now have lanes in all three domestic terminals at SFO; however, PreCheck will NOT have a lane in Terminal 1, boarding area B used primarily by United Express, Southwest and US Airways. PreCheck is one part of the No Hassle Travel Trifecta that every frequent traveler in the Bay Area should be a part of!

BEST FOOD AT SFO?. One of our favorite foodie blogs, Eater SF, recently chose the top 5 dining standouts at SFO. Do you agree with the following assessment? What’s your favorite place to grab a meal at SFO?

  1. Piq.  Italian influenced café and bakery in Terminal 1
  2. Ebisu. Hard-core sushi in the International Terminal G-side (United side).
  3. Burger Joint. Above average burgers in Terminal 2
  4. Yankee Pier. Good ole standby seafood house located near security lanes in United’s Terminal 3
  5. Cat Cora’s Kitchen. Upscale comfort food (like lobster mac and cheese) in Terminal 2

SUMMER DEALS TO ASIA. Singapore Airlines launched an interesting “Early Bird” sale for late summer and early fall travel this month. Every week, it puts a new Asian destination on sale. It started out with Singapore at $999 round trip, and has followed with Thailand and Vietnam at $1100 round trip. You must book tickets by June 29th and travel between August 18 and November 15. Singapore Air also posts last minute deals for trips as soon as July 16 to its stopover cities (Hong Kong and Seoul) for $784 to $964 roundtrip. (Fares are “all in”– including all taxes and fees.) These deals are not bad considering a roundtrip nonstops from SFO to Europe are in the $1,500 range for late August trips.

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TAKE BART TO THE AIRPORT? You may want to start thinking about alternatives starting next week as a strike looms. SFgate reports: With a BART strike appearing increasingly possible, Bay Area transportation officials are urging commuters to start planning for the gridlock and chaos that could be unleashed on Monday morning. Labor agreements with BART and its five unions expire at midnight Sunday.”

WILL YOU MAKE PREMIER? Based on our recent poll, TravelSkills reader are split regarding the impact of United’s recently announced spending thresholds for Premier status. Over half of you (57%) said that you’ll be able to maintain status (easily or just barely) while 43% said that you would not be able to meet the new spending requirements. See the poll (and vote!) here.

VIRGIN WINNING SJC-LAX. Remember when Virgin America announced that it would enter the San Jose-Los Angeles market with new nonstops on May 1? As soon as Virgin made that move, other airlines pounced, adding new service or beefing up existing flights, making the route one of the most competitive in the country with multiple daily flights from Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest and Virgin. At a recent Bay Area/Silicon Valley Business Travel Association meeting, John MacLeod, Virgin’s SVP Planning & Sales, told TravelSkills that according to ARC data (which does not include Southwest), Virgin already has the highest share of passengers on the route. However, MacLeod is not resting easy, adding, “Despite our low costs we’ll need it to be even higher to make a profit on the route. It’s very competitive.” Where’s all the biz coming from? MacLeod says that more Silicon Valley travelers than expected are driving to San Jose International and then flying Virgin to LAX to connect to transcon flights instead of facing the traffic-clogged 101 north to SFO.

United employees in new duds (Photo: United Airlines)

United employees in new duds (Photo: United Airlines)

NEW DUDS FOR UNITED. United employees will don new uniforms today. Here’s how a United press release describes them: Flight Attendants: The uniform includes a core wardrobe of black trousers, skirts, sweaters, vests and blazers with two rows of silver braid on the sleeves. Female flight attendants will also wear sweaters, vests, short sleeve jackets and two styles of dresses, including a signature blue dress with a black stripe detail. Outerwear for male and female flight attendants includes a black all-season coat and an optional gray double-breasted wool coat. Customer Service Agents: The uniform includes a wardrobe of black blazers, trousers, sweaters, vests and skirts. Agents will also wear colored shirts and distinctive neckwear that vary depending on their job responsibilities. What do you think? Please leave your comments below. 

NEW PLANES FOR UNITED. At the Paris Air Show earlier this month, United announced that it would order 35 of a “stretch” version of the new Airbus A350, the 350-seat Airbus A350-1000. A350s are new super-efficient composite aircraft introduced to compete with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Deliveries of the new plane will not begin until 2018. United already has 65 Dreamliners in the pipeline—20 of which will be the newer, larger 787-10 stretch version. All of these new planes will be used for long-haul international flying.

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NO MORE RENO-OAKLAND. Southwest Airlines is eliminating its 2x daily nonstops between Reno and Oakland this month due to lack of interest. However, you can still fly to Reno from San Jose (on Alaska) and SFO (on United).

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.

MORE MEGA-MILE BONUSES. Remember when I wrote about Rocketmiles and Pointshound—two new hotel booking sites that offer mega-mileage bonuses at select hotels? Well both have some out with news this month. First, Rocketmiles has teamed up with Virgin America, and is offering Elevate elites a big 5,000-point bonus for the first hotel booking; regular members get a 3,000-point bonus. Details on the bonus here. Pointshound is offering a 500-point bonus on Virgin America, United and several other carriers, but only for bookings made by the end of June. (Note: We have posted affiliate links to these sites and earn bonus points, too, when readers book trips. So help us out!)

United's new half bottles of wine. Would you?

United’s new half bottles of wine. Would you?

BIG JUGS ON UNITED. Have you seen the new 375 ml half bottles of wine that United is serving on p.s. flights? Each bottle (2.5 glasses) costs $15.99. Currently on offer: Meiomi Pinot Noir 2011 or St Supery Sauvignon Blanc 2012. Both rate 91+ on Wine Spectator. In a related story, Spirit Air is now selling canned wine onboard—in white or strawberry moscato at $7 per can. The press release says, “This new category is defined by delectable wine products in a convenient, environmentally-friendly container with six percent alcohol content.

NEW STAR ALLIANCE PARTNER. Taipei-based EVA Air has officially joined Star Alliance, which means you can earn and burn United miles, albeit at reduced levels, when flying on EVA’s Boeing 777 SFO-TPE nonstops. United’s planned nonstops between SFO and TPE, which were to have cranked up this past April, have been shelved until (at least) next March.

EMIRATES A380 TO LAX. SFO? Emirates announced last month that it would begin flying a double-decker, 489-seat, Airbus A380 between Los Angeles and Dubai starting December 2. As soon as I heard that, I wanted to know when it might bring the big bird in to replace the current B777s on SFO-DXB, but received the following non-committal answer from Emirates PR reps, “Emirates has not announced plans to bring the A380 into any additional US destinations but continues to review destinations as more A380s are delivered. Emirates, the largest A380 operator in the world, has 34 A380s in service and an additional 56 A380s on order; receiving one A380 delivery per month, on average.” While having an Emirates A380 at SFO would be great, keep in mind that the behemoth with have to dock at the far end of the international terminal, which would mean elimination of allowing business and first class passengers to board the plane directly from SFO’s enormous 9,500 sq ft Emirates lounge (which is located in the middle, not the end of the terminal).

Chris McGinnis

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New York to California in 45 minutes? Maybe

Since Elon Musk (the mind behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX) quipped about a new “hyperloop” high speed transportation system last week, futurists and techies have been abuzz about a new mode of transportation that could eclipse air travel one day—cutting travel time between New York and California to just 45 minutes, or between New York and Beijing to just two hours.

One company called ET3 is apparently working on a plan for “Evacuated Tube Transport” which is loosely based on pneumatic systems once used in banks, offices or hospitals (for those old enough to remember) to transport documents within buildings using capsules inserted into suction tubes.

(ET3/YouTube)

Six person capsules include luggage bays (ET3/YouTube)

ET3 says that its tubular network could transport 6-passenger, automobile-sized capsules up to 4,000 mph in a frictionless environment inside tubes using magnetic levitation. The company claims that ET3 can be built for a tenth of the cost of high speed rail, or a quarter of the cost of a freeway, and provide 50x more transportation per kilowatt than electric cars or trains. Tubes could be built along US interstates, could travel across Alaska to reach China or even go underwater.

(ET3)

Travel by tube? (ET3)

Is this the answer to carbon spewing aircraft…or how we’ll be traveling when we run out of fossil fuels? Who knows? But it’s certainly an interesting thought and likely something we’ll be hearing more about.

While Musk was short on details, he has described the technology as “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” He hinted that he might have more to say about it later this month.

How would you feel about a 45 minute hop to NYC for lunch? Would you take “the tube” across the country or around the world? Please leave your comments below! 

Chris McGinnis

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San Francisco to New York in 45 mins? Maybe

Since Elon Musk (the mind behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX) quipped about a new “hyperloop” high speed transportation system last week, futurists and techies have been abuzz about a new mode of transportation that could eclipse air travel one day—cutting travel time between San Francisco and New York to just 45 minutes, or between New York and Beijing to just two hours.

One company called ET3 is apparently working on a plan for “Evacuated Tube Transport” which is loosely based on pneumatic systems once used in banks, offices or hospitals (for those old enough to remember) to transport documents within buildings using capsules inserted into suction tubes.

(ET3/YouTube)

Six person capsules include luggage bays (ET3/YouTube)

ET3 says that its tubular network could transport 6-passenger, automobile-sized capsules up to 4,000 mph in a frictionless environment inside tubes using magnetic levitation. The company claims that ET3 can be built for a tenth of the cost of high speed rail, or a quarter of the cost of a freeway, and provide 50x more transportation per kilowatt than electric cars or trains. Tubes could be built along US interstates, could travel across Alaska to reach China or even go underwater.

(ET3)

Travel by tube? (ET3)

Is this the answer to carbon spewing aircraft…or how we’ll be traveling when we run out of fossil fuels? Who knows? But it’s certainly an interesting thought and likely something we’ll be hearing more about.

While Musk was short on details, he has described the technology as “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” He hinted that he might have more to say about it later this month.

How would you feel about a 45 minute hop to NYC for lunch? Should we be building a hyperloop instead of a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and LA? 

We’ve got a lot of catching up to do! Stay tuned for a “Catching up with Bay Area Travel News” issue later this week, which will include United’s new boarding procedures at SFO, Virgin’s new fast lane, the newest United Club, slow progress on new PS flights to NYC and much more! 

Chris McGinnis

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5 travel fees worth paying

The evening spread at the Park Royal on Pickering in Singapore is substantial. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The evening spread at the Park Royal on Pickering in Singapore is substantial. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The whole country seems to be making a collective groan when it comes to planning summer vacations.

And why not?

An early look at airfares (especially to Europe) shows some painful peak pricing, especially in July and early August. For example, nonstops from San Francisco International to cities such as London, Frankfurt and Paris are already running $1,400+ roundtrip. (And if you don’t book now, you’ll likely pay close to $2000 round trip later this summer.)

United made us all go bug-eyed when it announced that it was raising change fees on nonrefundable tickets to an egregious $200 last month. Our eyes popped even more when American, Delta and US Airways quickly matched the higher fee.

Then Frontier Airlines announced that it would begin charging $2 for in-flight beverages (including water) and $100 for gate-checked bags that don’t fit under the seat.

While I think that bag fees and change fees are rotten, the airlines love them—last year they collected nearly $6 billion in baggage and change fees alone. Fees, which now comprise nearly 30% of airline revenues,  are what’s been keeping them in the black in recent years.

But airlines aren’t the only ones playing fee-for-all. By now nearly every frequent traveler has been hit by a surprise “resort fee” or overpriced wi-fi fee at hotels. (Beware of those evil “per device” vs per room wi-fi fees, especially when traveling with others!) Rental car companies pile on all kinds of extra “concession” fees or hit us with obnoxiously high per-gallon fees when we don’t have time to fill up the car on the way back to the airport.

United Economy Plus seating usually provides enough room to work on laptops. (Photo: United)

United Economy Plus seating usually provides enough room to work on laptops. (Photo: United)

But all fees aren’t bad. As a matter of fact, I’m happy to pay fees that can truly improve my travel experience.

Here are five fees I don’t mind paying:

>Roomier seats. Elite level members of airline frequent flyer programs get free access to “premium economy” seats near the front of the cabin and by exit rows. However, non-elite travelers can pay a fee for access to these seats. Airlines determine such fees by the length of the flight and demand, and can range from $10 to $100. But on a long flight, a few extra inches can provide enough space to open up a laptop and be productive inflight. It can also make a big difference in comfort if you are tall like me, so it’s a fee I’ll pay when I have to.

>Early boarding. One of the most cherished benefits of elite status with airlines is the ability to board first and lay claim to overhead bin space. However, I spread my airline business around, and I’m not elite on every carrier I fly. So, for example, I’m happy to pay Southwest a $12.50 “Early Bird” fee to get me near the front of the boarding line—especially in the heat of the summer when planes are packed and overhead bin space scarce.

>Inflight wi-fi. When inflight wi-fi from Gogo or Row 44 works well (which seems increasingly rare), it’s definitely worth the fee to me, especially on transcontinental flights. This year, United is installing satellite-based wi-fi on its international fleet. It helps pass the time, keeps me productive and eliminates arriving at my destination to a full email box. $20 for a good connection on a five-hour flight? Sure. That’s money well spent to me.

Tip: To help sooth the sting of high fees, consider this: When you charge these travel related fees on credit cards linked to rewards programs, you are earning points you can use for free trips down the road. For example, with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, I earn two points per dollar spent on travel (including most fees). Eventually, all those charges will add up to points I can redeem to help cut the high cost of future trips.

Inside the nice new Club at LAS near the Virgin America gates at Las Vegas McCarran Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inside the nice new Club at LAS near the Virgin America gates at Las Vegas McCarran Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>Airport Club access. Have you ever been stuck in Chicago, Dallas, Houston or Atlanta during the summer thunderstorm season? Hordes of summer vacationers milling around…air conditioning systems straining to keep things cool…then the clouds roll in and gum up the works for hours. That’s the time it’s worth the $50 fee for a day pass to airport lounge. But get there early—once the lounge fills up, it’s open to members only. Also, be on the lookout for new non-airline, pay-to-play lounges such as The Club at SJC, Club at LAS (Las Vegas) or others like it– the per use fee is just $35 and definitely worth it during a long layover!

>Hotel Club Floor. When you know a trip is going to be all business all the time (and you don’t plan to get out much), a hotel club, executive or concierge floor is almost always worth the extra cost. When you pay the premium, you’ll likely get breakfast, snacks, booze (sometimes) and heavy hors d’oeuvres at night, free wi-fi, gym and business center access. Rooms are usually slightly larger and likely to be on upper floors offering better views. Plus, you can check in and out in the lounge and not have to wait in lines that can form in the hotel lobby. If I’m not planning to get out much, I’m usually happy to pay the premium of 20% or 30%.

Do you agree? Which travel fees seem most onerous to you? Which are you happy, even eager to pay? PLEASE leave your comments below. 

Chris McGinnis

HAVE YOU READ THE CURRENT ISSUE OF THE BAT: New 787 Dreamliner flight at SFO, Mileage Plus ranks highly, Sour Milk, SFO Airport Tiff, Virgin America loss, Tito’s vodka, dream of a new Terminal 1 at SFO.  Let’s catch up on Bay Area Travel news right now>>>

Disclosure: My company, Travel Skills Group, Inc, has a commercial relationship with Chase Card Services, which is mentioned in this post.

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Mileage Plus ranking + new 787 @ SFO + PreCheck + Airport standoff

In This Issue: New 787 Dreamliner flight at SFO, Mileage Plus ranks highly, Sour Milk, SFO Airport Tiff, Virgin America loss, Tito’s vodka, dream of a new Terminal 1 at SFO. Sorry for the recent lag in updates! Let’s catch up on Bay Area Travel news right now>>>

A Japan Airlines 787 Dreamliner at San Diego Int'l Airport.

A Japan Airlines 787 Dreamliner at San Diego Int’l Airport– soon at SFO!

MORE 787 DREAMLINERS.  Starting September 1, Japan Airlines will fly a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner between SFO and Tokyo’s close-in Haneda Airport, replacing the current B777 service. ANA will re-start Boeing 787 flights between San Jose and Tokyo-Narita on June 1. (Did you see the slideshow from my ANA flight from SJC to Tokyo?) Currently, United has no plans to fly Dreamliners from SFO.

UNITED EASIEST TO REDEEM. Among major legacy carriers, United ranks highest when it comes to redeeming awards online, according to a survey by Ideaworks. The report says that United had award seats available 80% of the time. By comparison, American had award seats available only 49% of the time. Delta and US Airways are the most parsimonious with awards, with seats available only 36% of the time. Only AirTran/Southwest and JetBlue ranked higher than United. Full report here.

VIRGIN AMERICA NARROWS LOSS. Our hometown carrier is still struggling to climb into the black, even as many of its competitors are showing relatively healthy and consistent profits (except United). In the first quarter of this year, Virgin America lost $46 million, which is not good. But it’s better than the loss of $76 million during the same period a year ago. It’s expanding, too, adding new flights between LAX and Las Vegas, and from SFO to Newark and Austin, and between San Jose and LAX. Based on that sorta good news, the carrier is flirting with the idea of an IPO. Would you invest in Virgin America if it manages to go public? Please leave your comments below.

Rendering of proposed Terminal 1 at SFO

Rendering of proposed Terminal 1 at SFO

DREAMING OF A NEW TERMINAL 1. Check out this interesting proposal for a massive re-do of SFO’s Terminal 1. It’s many years away, but it looks super cool. And tatty old T1 could use some help, that’s for sure.

PRECHECK NEWS. Have you noticed that United has started printing your PreCheck status on your boarding pass? Nice to know before you go whether or not you’ll get those glorious three beeps! Another good thing about PreCheck: It’s now available for those traveling on “select international flights.” Has anyone out there been able to use PreCheck internationally yet? SFO officials say that there are no PreCheck lanes at the international terminal yet—so is it smarter to use the PreCheck lanes at T3, and then walk to your international flight?  Please leave your comments below.

INFLIGHT WI-FI POLL. Last winter we visited Gogo headquarters in Itasca, Illinois and took a fun ride on their in-flight lab for a look-see at a new system called ATG-4 that is designed to improve Gogo’s connections and speed. That was six months ago and we are wondering… Have you noticed a difference? PLEASE ANSWER! (The “Vote” button might appear clear, but you must click it to VOTE and see the results)

Have you noticed an improvement with in-flight wi-fi performance?

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FlightCar

FLIGHTCAR UPDATE. By now you’ve likely heard of FlightCar, a new online service that offers air travelers free parking by SFO, plus the opportunity to earn some cash when they rent your car to other passengers arriving at SFO. Sounds like a good “sharing economy” deal, but the airport is not at all happy about these unlicensed interlopers (including other services like pink mustachioed Lyft).  Earlier this year, SFO issued a cease and desist order, forbidding these new companies from operating at the airport. To get around the C&D order, FlightCar hired a licensed black car service to shuttle its customers between the airport and their private parking lot. FlightCar’s Shri Ganeshram told TravelSkills: “We’re operating within the legal bounds of the system using independent licensed liveries to drop off and pick up passengers at the airport.” He says that FlightCar is now renting about 80 cars per week, despite the SFO cease and desist order. So we contacted SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel to find out if FlightCar is operating legally. He said, “As a public agency, we need to ensure a level playing field for all providers of ground transportation, and FlightCar must sign a permit and provide proof of insurance like every other off-airport rental car company.  This is a matter of basic fairness. FlightCar has yet to meet the obligations, including insurance, required for an SFO permit that would certify them for safe and legal operation at the airport. Their method of transportation to/from the offsite location does not change the fact that they are attempting to operate at SFO without a proper permit. It remains an issue of safety and fairness for us.” How do you think this will all shake out? Have you, or would you use FlightCar? Please leave your comments below!

6 MONTHS FREE AND CLEAR. Starting later this month, CLEAR card holders will be able to use their cards for expedited security screening at San Antonio International Airport. And starting this month, Visa Signature is working with CLEAR to bring the uninitiated a free 6-month CLEAR membership — and $60 off the annual rate of $179 when membership automatically renews. Do you have one of the many Visa Signature cards? Then check this out.

WE NEED YOUR HELP! Dearest TravelSkills Readers: TravelSkills needs more readers. Can you help us out? Please forward this link to frequent traveling friends, travel agents, travel managers, travel bloggers and tell them why you love TravelSkills and encourage them to sign up! THANKS!

CLOUDY MILK. The campaign to rename San Francisco International after Harvey Milk has come to a vague close with only a promise to name an as-yet unnamed terminal at SFO after him. I’m glad the whole contentious issue is (mostly) behind us. What about you? Please leave your comments below.

New 76-seat Embraer 175 from United

New 76-seat Embraer 175 from United

MORE BARBIE JETS. United will add 30 Embraer 175 regional jets to the United Express fleet starting next year. The 76-seaters will replace the less efficient 50-seat RJs currently in use. United says, “The aircraft will be configured with 12 United First, 16 Economy Plus and 48 United Economy seats. The design of the aircraft will result in more personal space for customers with wider seats and aisles than those on the 50-seat aircraft. The aircraft can accommodate standard carry-on bags, resulting in more convenience for customers.”

BETTER VODKA. Starting in June, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, made in Austin, TX, will replace Absolut vodka on all United flights. Did you know that vodka is the most-served spirit on US flights?

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? Join in the #TravelSkills chat with @JohnnyJet and me this Friday at 9 am PDT. 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

MORE MEXICO AT SFO. Aeromexico will add a second daily round trip to Mexico City on July 15. Check out BAT editor Chris McGinnis’ recent Business Trip: Mexico City for BBC!

San Francisco  Mexico City

Flight Number Departure Arrival Frequency
AM 0665 01:00 am 07:14 am Daily
AM 0669* 01:25 pm 07:53 pm Daily

Mexico City  San Francisco

Flight Number Departure Arrival Frequency
AM 0664 08:26 pm 11:25 pm Daily
AM 0668* 09:30 am 12:07 pm Daily

*New flights schedules available starting July 15th, all in local time and subject to change without notice.

SEEKING SASSY WHEELS in Dallas or Austin? High end Silvercar (which rents only silver Audi A4s) is offering four Virgin America Elevate reward points per $1 spent, 2,500 bonus points with your first rental, and another 2,500 points for your fourth rental through November 30. Have you tried Slivercar? What did you think?

Chris McGinnis

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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) 

How will United's new spending requirements affect your ability to attain or maintain Premier status?

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WE NEED YOUR HELP! Dearest Devoted TICKET readers:  The TICKET needs more readers!  Can you help us out? Please forward this link to at least three frequent traveling friends, travel agents, travel managers, travel bloggers and tell them why you love The TICKET and encourage them to sign up! THANKS!


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

*****

New SFO flights + United fee hike + SFO Terminal video + 787

Catching up on Bay Area Travel news: New flights to France & China; United hikes fees; video inside new SFO Terminal; flirt on Virgin America flights from San Jose; 787 Dreamliner update, new Routehappy booking site; FlightCar is back.

China Eastern's A330-200 at SFO (Photo Peter Biaggi)

China Eastern’s A330-200 at SFO (Photo Peter Biaggi)

HUANYING AND BON VOYAGE. Last Friday (April 26) was a busy day at San Francisco International.

At 9:30 am, the first China Eastern A330-200 arrived from Shanghai to a water cannon salute and a welcome celebration at the airport. For now, here’s what we know: 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.” At the festive inaugural dinner at the Westin St Francis, I learned that 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 assured me that the San Francisco flight will always get the newer plane with the true lie-flat seats. It has to, if it plans on competing for business travelers with United since the deployment of its excellent new business class product on SFO-PVG nonstops. 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. SFO joins New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu as the fourth US city served by China Eastern—although, oddly, the airline does not have a US website. China Eastern is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, which offers Delta flyers a new way to earn and burn points on flights to burgeoning China. We’ll provide an in depth look at the new China Eastern flight to Shanghai in a future post.

Passengers on United's inaugural Paris flight greet by a 12-ft Eiffel Tower & free French inspired food & drink. (Photo: United)

Passengers on United’s inaugural Paris flight greeted by a 12-ft Eiffel Tower & free French inspired food & drink. (Photo: United)

On Friday afternoon, United recommenced nonstop service between SFO and Paris-CDG. (United discontinued SFO-CDG nonstops in Oct 2005.) Flight 990 departs San Francisco daily at 2:45 p.m. and arrives at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport at 10:45 a.m. the next day. For the return, flight 991 departs Paris at 10:05 a.m. and arrives in San Francisco at 1 p.m. the same day. United operates this new service with Boeing 767-300 aircraft, which offer 30 flat-bed business class seats, 49 seats in Economy Plus and 135 seats in standard economy. The BusinessFirst cabin (configured 2-1-2) includes 15.4-inch touchscreen monitors for personal on-demand entertainment, electrical and USB outlets, iPod jacks and five-course meals. Each seat in Economy features a 9-inch touchscreen with personal on-demand entertainment, and all rows (configured 2-3-2) include access to electrical outlets. Book and fly United to Paris by May 31, and you’ll earn some tidy Mileage Plus bonuses. Air France is currently the only other carrier offering nonstops between SFO and Paris. Paris-based XL Airways offers summer season SFO-CDG flights.

UNITED HIKES CHANGE FEE TO $200. In what appears to be a poorly timed slap in the face to customers just coming off a year a dismal performance by United, the carrier has increased its fee to make changes to nonrefundable tickets by a whopping $50. That means if you want to change a domestic ticket, you’ll now pay $200 (plus any change in fare) for the honor. Want to change an international ticket? That will now be $300, thank you. Shortly after United hiked its fees, US Airways matched, which likely means its future merger partner American will follow suit. That leaves Delta as the hold out, but it’s probably waiting a bit to hike fees after taking so much heat for changing its same-day change fee last week. As we all know, Southwest does not charge change fees at all, but passengers do have to pay any difference in fare if it has increased from the time of purchase. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America still charge a much more reasonable $100 change fee. Is the $200 fee enough to make you switch away from United? Please leave your comments below.

A LOOK AT TERMINAL 3 PROGRESS. SFO has produced a video providing a virtual hardhat tour of the new Boarding Area E at United’s Terminal 3, which is due to open earlier next year. Some interesting facts picked up in the video: The glassy new terminal should be as nice or nicer than SFO’s award winning Terminal 2 (home to Virgin America and American). Expect very wide corridors, high ceilings, giant picture windows with dramatic ramp views, a new “information terrace” at the entryway, environmentally sustainable design and local food vendors.

WE NEED YOUR HELP! Dearest TravelSkills Readers: TravelSkills needs more readers. Can you help us out? Please forward this link to frequent traveling friends, travel agents, travel managers, travel bloggers and tell them why you love TravelSkills and encourage them to sign up! THANKS!

MEGA-MILE BONUS SITES GET FUNDING. Remember when we wrote about mega-miles bonus sites Pointshound and RocketMiles last month? Seems like venture capitalists think the sites are on to something. This morning, TravelSkills received a note from RocketMiles announcing that the six-month old company raised $2 million in its first round of external financing.

GET FLIRTY ON VIRGIN AMERICA. You see that hottie in the boarding area and try to establish eye contact. Bingo! You got “the look” back! You get onboard and see the object of your desire a few rows ahead of you. Instead of posting a “missed connection”  on Craigslist (and hoping for the best), a new service from Virgin America allows you to send a drink to someone via its seatback entertainment and food ordering system. Locate that hottie on the seatmap, choose a cocktail, and then send it over to them, then follow up with a text message via the system’s seat-to-seat communications platform. (Have a few minutes? Then check out this hilarious Asian animation of the new Virgin service.)

SPEAKING OF VIRGIN AMERICA. South Bay and Peninsula dwellers should be happy to note that Virgin America’s new four-times-daily nonstops between San Jose International and LAX crank up on May 1. Why suffer on another carrier’s cramped RJ when you can jump on Virgin’s mod A320 and send the hottie across the aisle a cocktail? Virgin will be entering the very crowded San Jose-LAX run, which is already served by five carriers: Low fare leader Southwest , United (which dominates the Bay Area) as well as American, Delta and Alaska Airlines. Southwest flies a one-class 737 on the hour-or-so long route, Delta, United and American fly regional jets, and Alaska uses a turbo-prop. Virgin is offering a two-for-one sale on SJC-LAX flights through May 31.

STATUS OF SFO’s LONG TERM PARKING LOT? From TravelSkills reader Damian: Chris, I love TravelSkills!  Have you written about the SFO Long Term Parking garageIt has had floor closures for a couple years and is now empty.  One parks outside or even gets a pass to go to short term parking at the same rate. Does the garage have structural problems?  Seems like it should be a scandal. Perhaps this is old news but in poking around on the Web I didn’t happen to find anything.” Having noticed the same thing…and wondered, we contacted SFO, and spokesperson Doug Yakel helped clear things up. He said, “The level closures in the Long-Term Garage are part of an ongoing, pre-planned schedule to accomplish routine maintenance. This includes pressure washing, restriping of ground markings and light bulb replacements. Only one floor is closed at a time for this work, and the work is scheduled to ensure all levels are open during peak demand periods such as the holiday travel season. We also monitor occupancy rates to ensure the appropriate match of supply and demand, and modify closure schedules if needed.”

ANA's expansive true lie-flat business class seat on its Boeing 787 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

ANA’s expansive true lie-flat business class seat on its Boeing 787 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

787 UPDATE. As you may recall, ANA’s important new nonstops from San Jose to Tokyo-NRT were waylaid by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner grounding, forcing all passengers to fly via SFO. While the FAA and Japanese authorities have given a conditional green light to new flights, ANA says it will begin by “replacing existing batteries with new batteries, changing to new battery chargers and installing new battery containment boxes and venting system. The improvements will require approximately one week per aircraft, with work on all seventeen aircraft scheduled to be completed by the end of May.” After that will be new crew training and a series of heavily monitored “proving flights.” This week, an ANA spokesperson told TravelSkills that it should have a firm date for the resumption of SJC-NRT by May 9. How would you feel about flying on a Dreamliner across the Pacific? Please leave your comments below.

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 SFO and Atlanta 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.

GET AROUND SFO CEASE & DESIST. The smart guys at FlightCar have found a way around the airport’s recent cease and desist order pushing it and other new-fangled airport transport options such as Lyft off airport property. Now, instead of dropping your car off with a FlightCar attendant at the airport, you drop your car at its off-airport lot, and then a licensed black car brings you to your terminal. When you land, you call FlightCar and the black car is sent to pick you up and brings you back to your car. Have you tried FlightCar? Should unlicensed transportation serviced be allowed at SFO? Leave your comments below. 

Chris McGinnis

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Catching up on Bay Area Travel News, March 17 2013

In this issue: New flights to Newark; free mags at Bay Area airports; new lie-flat seats to Japan; more car sharing at Bay Area Airports; take our POLL about car-sharing!; how to jump in a seat on a private jet.

Jersey in Noe Valley (Chris McGinnis)

Jersey in Noe Valley (Chris McGinnis)

25% OFF JERSEYLICIOUS FLIGHTS. To celebrate its new nonstops between SFO/LAX and Newark, New Jersey (EWR), Virgin America is offering a nice 25% discount on a future flight  to or from EWR. (somewhat restricted– no Fridays or Sundays). To get the discount, you must enter its “Fly Like a Boss” Facebook campaign. You can also win a chance to fly on the inaugural LAX-EWR run with Richard Branson and Mashable’s Peter Cashmore. Details here. Virgin says that since it announced the launch of EWR flights, fares on the EWR-West Coast routes have dropped by as much as 30 percent “and travelers now have an airline option that guarantees Wi-Fi, live TV and new aircraft on every flight.” Current roundtrip fares on the SFO-EWR run for mid-May flights are about $365. Virgin is also offering a double or triple points promo on flights between now and June 30, but you have to register to get the bonus.

FREE PREMIUM MAGS AT SFO/OAK/SJC. Here’s a helpful new app for TravelSkills Readers (BATs) who frequently find themselves stuck at the airport during delays, yearning for a good read, but hesitating to weigh down their bags with heavy magazines. The new Foli iPad app offers free access to premium magazine content (the stuff that’s normally behind a pay wall at glossies like Vogue, Car & Driver, GQ or Bon Appetit)—but it only works at the airport. Foli uses geolocation technology to limit access to Bay Area airports only—as well as a few coffee shops and hotels.  Download the Foli app for free at the iTunes store. It’s definitely worth a download because you never know when the fog will roll in.

Delta's flat bed seating on a 767. (Photo: Delta Air Lines)

Delta’s flat bed seating on its Boeing 767s. (Photo: Delta Air Lines)

MORE LIE-FLAT SEATS TO JAPAN. Starting April 1, Delta will offer business class seats that recline to a full 180 degree flat bed for sleeping on its Boeing 767-300ER flights between SFO and Tokyo Narita. That means that all business class seats on all airlines (United, ANA, Delta) on the heavily traveled SFO-NRT route are now flat.  Japan Airlines flies between SFO and the closer-to-downtown Tokyo Haneda Airport, but offers the less popular “angled lie flat” business class seat.  (Did you know that JAL’s SFO-Haneda flights are numbered 001 and 002?) Headed to Tokyo? Then be sure and check out my latest dispatch from the Land of the Rising Sun for BBC: Business Trip: Tokyo.

Are YOU signed up for BAT updates? If not, why not? Email in the upper right column, please! 

One of BMW's electric DriveNow cars in SF (Photo: DriveNow)

One of BMW’s electric DriveNow cars in SF (Photo: DriveNow)

DRIVING TO SFO. TravelSkills recently included mention of FlightCar’s car sharing service but we’ve heard from readers about other similar options. For example, DriveNow is a car sharing service that allows travelers to drive all-electric BMW cars from several locations in and around downtown San Francisco to parking lots near SFO or Oakland airports for less than the average cost of airport shuttle services and more than 50% cheaper than cab fares. The first 30 minutes costs $12 and then 32 cents for every additional minute. (There’s a $39 fee to join the car sharing service.) The service is part of BMW’s sustainable transportation initiative and currently only available in the Bay Area. A similar car sharing service for airport trips called Hubber is in the works, too, with locations at SFO and LAX expected to open this April.

DRIVING TO/FROM NYC AIRPORTS. Hertz on Demand has a similar service in New York City—members can drive a Hertz car between airports and several locations in Manhattan for less than half of what you’d pay a cab or car service…and with the Hertz plan, there is no membership fee. (Hertz on Demand has a location in downtown SF, but currently does not offer one-way drop offs at local airports.)

What do you think about new car-sharing options for airport transfers?

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A Gulfstream IV (Photo: Nima Pirzadeh)

A plush Gulfstream IV awaits private-jetsetters (Photo: Nima Pirzadeh)

PRIVATE JET SHARING, TOO. Since we are on the topic of sharing transportation, let’s take a look at a brand new service called Jumpseat, which has been billed as “the Airbnb for private jets.” Since many seats on private jets fly empty, Jumpseat is a new app that connects people looking to share those seats with those looking to fly, producing significant savings for both parties. Shopping is free and takes only a few clicks. Registered members can book a JumpSeat without paying a membership fee. For example, when I recently searched for flights from the Bay Area, I found several flights in March and April from San Jose to Santa Ana, CA available for $1000-$2,250 each way. In March, there’s a nice big Citation X jet flying from LA to Eagle (Vail), Colorado with two seats available at $5000 each. Eight seats on a March flight from New York to Aspen on a posh Hawker 4000 are going for $20,000 each. Flying private is not cheap, but there are few hassles—no airport security, for example, when using private jet terminals. Interested? Then check out this article about it on Forbes.com.

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Top tweeters for business travelers

twitter_london

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.

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

As matter of fact, since no one else has done it yet, I hereby announce the first Best Business Travel Twitter Awards—the BBTTs! Be sure to follow these road warriors, or add them to your lists!

(Listed in alphabetical order)

@adelmantravel - Social-media savvy corporate travel agency  Adelman Travel does a great job of posting important biz travel headlines every day.

@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 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! 


How we use inflight wi-fi [Infographic]

Gogo tower in remote Nevada location

Gogo tower in remote Nevada location

Wired frequent flyers living in Atlanta are lucky– both Delta and AirTran are industry leaders when it comes to having inflight wi-fi available on planes. It’s a rare occasion that an Atlantan jumps on jet at ATL that doesn’t have the service. That’s not the case for the poor souls in other airline hubs where getting inflight wi-fi is a hit or miss proposition.

But the situation is getting better nationally.

For example, Southwest now has wi-fi on 75% of its fleet. United says that it should have 300 wi-fi equipped aircraft by the end of this year. JetBlue is talking about adding a newer, faster version of satellite based wi-fi and offering it for free to all passengers. Delta is adding wi-fi to its international fleet. 

This week Gogo, the major purveyor of inflight wi-fi produced some interesting numbers around how we use their service– see below for an interesting infographic.

RELATED: Gogo to upgrade inflight wi-fi capacity. 

From Gogo:

When it comes to staying connected at 36,000 feet, tablets and smartphones now make up a whopping 67% of the devices being used to connect to Gogo. Tablets are the most preferred device at 35%, followed closely by laptops (33%) and smartphones (32%).

Apple devices are still reigning above the clouds, following the tablet trend with the iPad being the device of choice. Among all mobile devices being used to connect through Gogo, 84 percent carry Apple’s iOS operating system while 16 percent carry the Android operating system. If you look only at the smartphones our customers are using, the iPhone makes up 73 percent and all Android devices make up 26 percent, with Blackberry and Windows based devices each making up less than 1 percent of devices being used in air.

So, what are our passengers doing once they connect at 30,000 feet? It’s no surprise that general Web surfing ranked as the number one in air, online activity users want to do. Besides Web surfing, passengers spend their time in flight accessing personal email, engaging in social media, checking sports scores and shopping. Business travelers ranked accessing their work email and finalizing reports as the most frequent activity above the clouds. Passengers also utilize Gogo to explore their final destination’s weather, entertainment options and directions upon their arrival.

13GO_005_2013Infographic_v5 (2)


How we use inflight wi-fi [Infographic]

Locations of Gogo's ground based antenna beaming wifi to planes (Chris McGinnis)

Locations of Gogo’s ground based antenna beaming wifi to planes (Chris McGinnis)

TravelSkills Readers (BATs) are lucky. Since the area’s technocratic elite demand wi-fi access on planes, most airlines offer the service on flights to/from Bay Area airports. Hometown carrier Virgin America offers it on all flights. Delta, the third largest carrier at SFO offers it on all domestic flights. United and American offer it on all their flights between SFO and New York JFK– but it’s hit or miss on other flights.

Southwest now has wi-fi on 75% of its fleet. United says that it should have 300 wi-fi equipped aircraft by the end of this year. JetBlue is talking about adding a newer, faster version of satellite based wi-fi and offering it for free to all passengers.

This week Gogo, the major purveyor of inflight wi-fi produced some interesting numbers around how we use their service– see below for an interesting infographic.

RELATED: Gogo to upgrade inflight wi-fi capacity. 

From Gogo:

When it comes to staying connected at 36,000 feet, tablets and smartphones now make up a whopping 67% of the devices being used to connect to Gogo. Tablets are the most preferred device at 35%, followed closely by laptops (33%) and smartphones (32%).

Apple devices are still reigning above the clouds, following the tablet trend with the iPad being the device of choice. Among all mobile devices being used to connect through Gogo, 84 percent carry Apple’s iOS operating system while 16 percent carry the Android operating system. If you look only at the smartphones our customers are using, the iPhone makes up 73 percent and all Android devices make up 26 percent, with Blackberry and Windows based devices each making up less than 1 percent of devices being used in air.

So, what are our passengers doing once they connect at 30,000 feet? It’s no surprise that general Web surfing ranked as the number one in air, online activity users want to do. Besides Web surfing, passengers spend their time in flight accessing personal email, engaging in social media, checking sports scores and shopping. Business travelers ranked accessing their work email and finalizing reports as the most frequent activity above the clouds. Passengers also utilize Gogo to explore their final destination’s weather, entertainment options and directions upon their arrival.

13GO_005_2013Infographic_v5 (2)


Catching up on Bay Area Travel News, Feb 24

FREE PARKING AT SFO? Last week a new service called FlightCar soft-launched an innovative new car sharing service at SFO. FlightCar lets people parking at the airport rent their vehicles out to other travelers. Every rental is insured up to $1 million, and every renter is pre-screened. Depending on the size, age and condition of your car, you can also make up to $10 per day in gas credits. (And you avoid having to pay for airport parking.) Airport valets are at SFO to pick up and drop off cars to renters. They even wash your car. If you are a renter, FlightCar valets meet you at the airport with your rental. Rates are about 30% less than what you’d pay the big guys like Hertz or Avis. Watch the video above to see how it works. Would you do this? Please leave your comments below!

NEW UNITED FLIGHT BONUSES. Remember last year when TravelSkills broke the news about United’s new flights from SFO to Paris and Taipei? Those inaugural flights are coming up soon, and United is offering mileage bonuses on both runs. To Paris (11,000 miles roundtrip), you’ll earn 50% to 100% bonus award miles for flights between April 11 and May 31. Register here. For Taipei (13,000 miles round trip), United is also offering 50% to 100% bonuses for flights between April 9 and June 30. Register here. (UPDATE 2-25-13: United has confirmed that dates for the launch of these flights has been affected by the grounding of the 787 Dreamliner. Tentative new start dates: SFO-Paris: April 26; SFO-Taipei: June 6.)

Chris McGinnis inspecting ANA's maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

BAT-man Chris McGinnis inspecting ANA’s maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

787 UPDATE: If you didn’t get a chance to jump on one of those shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliners when United had them at SFO, or when ANA was flying them from San Jose to Tokyo, it sounds like it might be a while until you get the chance to do so. United announced this week that it was dropping the 787 from its schedule through at least June, and has put off new routes set to use the plane, such as Denver-Tokyo. ANA announced today that it has canceled all 787 flights, including San Jose-Tokyo, through at least May 31.

STARWOOD SPG TEAMS WITH DELTA. 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, Starwood Preferred Guest elites get access to Priority lines when checking in and can board Delta flights early. Delta Diamond and Platinum Medallions 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. They will also get one free check bag. Details and registration here:delta.com/crossoverrewards or spg.com/crossoverrewards. Insiders tell TravelSkills that a Starwood brand will team up with Delta later this spring with some trendy inflight amenities or other promotions. Have you flown Delta from the Bay Area recently? What did you think?

HILTON HHONORS DEVALUED: Effective March 28, Hilton HHonors will play under a new set of rules. 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…This week 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?

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Atop the shiny new $7 billion Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

SWEATY IN SINGAPORE. Your BAT editor recently traveled to Singapore to research and write his latest BBC Business Trip Column: Business Trip: Singapore. If you haven’t been there recently, check out this column to learn about the city’s newest hotels, hottest tables, and how those new casinos are affecting the local economy.

STREAMING MOVIES ON SOUTHWEST. Last week Southwest announced that it would offer more on demand TV and movies on all wi-fi equipped aircraft (75% of its fleet). Movies cost $5 per device. Wi-fi access (via Row 44) costs $8 per day. Most Southwest flights I take are so short that movies aren’t really an option. What do you think? Have you tried using Southwest’s in-flight Row 44 wi-fi product, which seems to get about as many complaints as the Gogo system used by other carriers? Please leave your comments below.

Harvey Milk San Francisco International Airport?

Harvey Milk San Francisco International Airport?

HARVEY MILK AIRPORT. Despite the lukewarm reaction to the idea (among TravelSkills reader and others) the campaign to add Harvey Milk’s name to SFO continues. SFgate’s City Insider blog said, “Privately, politicos say they’ve heard from plenty of local constituents, including gay and lesbian residents, who like the brand name of SFO, don’t think it’s worth the cost, fear the embarrassment of losing at the ballot or just don’t think it’s worth getting worked up over either way.” The Harvey Milk Foundation has donated $4,500 to a campaign to get the measure on the November ballot, and there’s a slick new website promoting the cause. Have you voted in our poll yet? Please do!

How do you feel about renaming San Francisco International Airport?

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Please leave any additional comments you have about renaming SFO in the comments box below.

— Chris McGinnis

 

 


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.


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 

>>>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!>>>

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.”

>Are you signed up for our Facebook page yet? We frequently break news on our Facebook page that eventually makes it into our monthly roundups. So if you want news when it happens, come on and get on our Facebook page.

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! 

*****

Gogo upgrades inflight wi-fi capacity

Gogo HQ in Itasca, IL (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Gogo HQ in Itasca, IL (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Are you gaga for Gogo inflight wi-fi?

To me, Gogo’s introduction of in-flight wi-fi in 2008 was the greatest thing to happen to business travel since the invention of the jet engine. It has so transformed the flying experience that I now choose my airline based on whether or not it offers wi-fi on board—especially if the flight is longer than two hours.

But recently it seems that the more popular in-flight wi-fi gets, the more difficult is to get a good signal, especially on those long transcontinental flights when the service is most valuable. For example, on two out of three recent transcontinental flights, the signal was so weak or inconsistent that I complained to Gogo, which offered me two $18 credits for use on future flights.

Obviously, Gogo does not want to keep handing out freebies like that, so they’ve fattened the pipes to the plane with the introduction of a new higher capacity system called ATG 4, which is rolling out now on Delta, Virgin America and US Airways jets.

Gogo says the next generation system is capable of delivering a peak speed of 9.8 Mbps, which is three times faster than current standard of 3.1 on the first generation ATG. (ATG is short for “Air to ground.) Gogo is able to do this with the addition of three extra antennae (vs. only one before) and another modem plus a software upgrade.

(Are YOU signed up to get The TICKET via email? Hop to it! Enter your email in the pink form to the right, please!) 

Earlier this week, Gogo invited me and a few travel and tech writers to its headquarters in Itasca, Il to check out the new ATG 4 system aboard its “jet-propelled internet lab” — a Challenger 600 jet flying out of the Aurora Municipal Airport near Chicago.

Gogo’s inflight internet lab (See slideshow for a look inside)

Onboard the plush 9-seater, the back half of which was full or racks of equipment and cabling, I heard lots of techno babble about latency, megahertz, simulations, Rev A and Rev B, HSPA Mbps, ping tests and page loading. All way over my head.

All I cared about was whether or not I got a good signal—and on this flight I did—good enough to stream a two-minute YouTube video with only a few bumps for buffering, even though Gogo now discourages or even blocks access bandwidth hogging sites like Hulu or Netflix. But there were only nine passengers on board flying over the western suburbs of Chicago.

It remains to be seen what kind of signal I’ll get using ATG 4 the next time I’m flying over Colorado when half the plane is logged on.

Right now, there are only 25 jets that have the new ATG 4 system—out of a total of 1680 jets flying with Gogo onboard.  Gogo is not making a big deal about the upgrade on the plane– the only way you know you are on an upgraded one is by taking a good look at the plane parked at the gate—look for two fins on the underbelly (vs. just one on the bottom before) , and two directional antennae (bicycle helmet sized humps) on either side if the aircraft fuselage.

(Have you scored your 500 Delta SkyMiles bonus for using TICKET sponsor Peachy Airport Parking yet? Click here for the coupon!) 

Currently, installation of ATG 4 is ongoing on Delta, Virgin America and US Airways. Gogo expects to add it to United’s PS fleet and on American Airlines starting next year.

Here are a few extra newsy nuggets I picked up on my visit to Gogo HQ and the test flight:

>There are currently 173 ground-based Gogo transmitters mounted on celluar towers in the continental US and southern Alaska that beam up a signal within a 250 mile radius.

>Gogo is adding and upgrading its transmitters fastest in the Midwest—which is where most complaints about weak signal occur.

>A Gogo system onboard a plane consists of two large toaster-sized black metal boxes mounted in the belly, two or three routers (about the size of the one you may have in your house) that are placed in the ceiling of the aircraft to evenly distribute the wi-fi signal among passengers, and lots of cabling. Total added weight is about 150 lbs.

(Are YOU signed up to get The TICKET via email? Hop to it! Enter your email in the pink form to the right, please!) 

>The new ATG 4 system can handle about 65 passengers logged on simultaneously—the current max is about half that. This means that overload problems are more likely on larger planes flying on longer routes– for example, both of my poor connection experiences occurred on 250-seat Delta 767s.

>Remember when Google sponsored free inflight during the holidays in 2009? So many users logged on that systems crashed and complaints soared. Gogo says that after that, freebie promos have been (and will continue to be) limited to short 15 minute test periods only.

>While overall in-flight wi-fi usage stats sound low (at around 5%), Virgin America says that usage runs as high as 40% on transcontinental flights, especially those nerd birds between San Francisco and New York.

(Have you scored your 500 Delta SkyMiles bonus for using TICKET sponsor Peachy Airport Parking yet? Click here for the coupon!) 

What’s been your experience with in-flight wi-fi? Are you a heavy user like me? Have you experienced connectivity issues? Would you rather spend your time on board reading or gazing out the window? Please leave your comments below.

*****

Gogo to upgrade inflight wi-fi capacity

 

Are you gaga for Gogo inflight wi-fi?

To me, Gogo’s introduction of in-flight wi-fi in 2008 was the greatest thing to happen to business travel since the invention of the jet engine. It has so transformed the flying experience that I now choose my airline based on whether or not it offers wi-fi on board—especially if the flight is longer than two hours.

But recently it seems that the more popular in-flight wi-fi gets, the more difficult is to get a good signal, especially on those long transcontinental flights when the service is most valuable. For example, on two out of three recent transcontinental flights, the signal was so weak or inconsistent that I complained to Gogo, which offered me two $18 credits for use on future flights.

Obviously, Gogo does not want to keep handing out freebies like that, so they’ve fattened the pipes to the plane with the introduction of a new higher capacity system called ATG 4, which is rolling out now on Delta, Virgin America and US Airways jets.

Gogo says the next generation system is capable of delivering a peak speed of 9.8 Mbps, which is three times faster than current standard of 3.1 on the first generation ATG. (ATG is short for “Air to ground.) Gogo is able to do this with the addition of three extra antennae (vs. only one before) and another modem plus a software upgrade.

Gogo’s inflight internet lab (See slideshow for a look inside)

Earlier this week, Gogo invited me and a few travel and tech writers to its headquarters in Itasca, Il to check out the new ATG 4 system aboard its “jet-propelled internet lab” — a Challenger 600 jet flying out of the Aurora Municipal Airport near Chicago.

Onboard the plush 9-seater, the back half of which was full or racks of equipment and cabling, I heard lots of techno babble about latency, megahertz, simulations, Rev A and Rev B, HSPA Mbps, ping tests and page loading. All way over my head.

All I cared about was whether or not I got a good signal—and on this flight I did—good enough to stream a two-minute YouTube video with only a few bumps for buffering, even though Gogo now discourages or even blocks access bandwidth hogging sites like Hulu or Netflix. But there were only nine passengers on board flying over the western suburbs of Chicago.

It remains to be seen what kind of signal I’ll get using ATG 4 the next time I’m flying over Colorado when half the plane is logged on.

Right now, there are only 25 jets that have the new ATG 4 system—out of a total of 1680 jets flying with Gogo onboard.  Gogo is not making a big deal about the upgrade on the plane– the only way you know you are on an upgraded one is by taking a good look at the plane parked at the gate—look for two fins on the underbelly (vs. just one on the bottom before) , and two directional antennae (bicycle helmet sized humps) on either side if the aircraft fuselage. (See slideshow above for a look at these fins)

Currently, installation of ATG 4 is ongoing on Delta, Virgin America and US Airways. Gogo expects to add it to United’s PS fleet and on American Airlines starting next year.

Here are a few extra newsy nuggets I picked up on my visit to Gogo HQ and the test flight:

>There are currently 173 ground-based Gogo transmitters mounted on celluar towers in the continental US and southern Alaska that beam up a signal within a 250 mile radius.

>Gogo is adding and upgrading its transmitters fastest in the Midwest—which is where most complaints about weak signal occur.

>A Gogo system onboard a plane consists of two large toaster-sized black metal boxes mounted in the belly, two or three routers (about the size of the one you may have in your house) that are placed in the ceiling of the aircraft to evenly distribute the wi-fi signal among passengers, and lots of cabling. Total added weight is about 150 lbs.

>The new ATG 4 system can handle about 65 passengers logged on simultaneously—the current max is about half that. This means that overload problems are more likely on larger planes flying on longer routes– for example, both of my poor connection experiences occurred on 250-seat Delta 767s.

>Remember when Google sponsored free inflight during the holidays in 2009? So many users logged on that systems crashed and complaints soared. Gogo says that after that, freebie promos have been (and will continue to be) limited to short 15 minute test periods only.

>While overall in-flight wi-fi usage stats sound low (at around 5%), Virgin America says that usage runs as high as 40% on transcontinental flights, especially those between San Francisco and New York (natch).

What’s been your experience with in-flight wi-fi? Are you a heavy user like me? Have you experienced connectivity issues? Would you rather spend your time on board reading or gazing out the window? Please leave your comments below.


PreCheck trusted traveler lanes arrive at SFO

Look for the PreCheck logo at SFO starting next Wednesday, Nov 14.

It’s official: Starting on Wednesday, November 14,  the TSA’s popular PreCheck trusted traveler security lanes make their long-awaited debut at San Francisco International Airport.

PreCheck offers certain high mileage frequent flyers access to special, faster lanes at airport security that do not require them to remove their shoes, belts or coats, or take their laptops out of their bags for screening. SFO is one of the last major airports in the US to get PreCheck.

Initially, there will be only two PreCheck lanes: One at United’s premium or elite level member checkpoint (“F3”) in Terminal 3; the other at the joint American/Virgin America checkpoint at Terminal 2. Both PreCheck lanes will be located on the far left side of the checkpoints with PreCheck directional signage.

There will be no PreCheck lanes at the international terminal checkpoints because PreCheck is for domestic passengers only.

Only specially selected passengers flying United or American can use PreCheck lanes when they open on Wednesday.

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There is no definitive word yet on when or whether Alaska, Delta or US Airways passengers will see PreCheck lanes at Terminal 1.  A Delta spokeswoman told TravelSkills, “We will continue to keep an eye on the number of our customers [in the Bay Area] who participate in PreCheck.  As that number grows, a specially designated PreCheck line is possible in the future.”

For now, Virgin America passengers cannot use PreCheck lanes at T2 because the carrier is not yet part of PreCheck, which the TSA still considers a pilot program. Virgin spokesperson Jennifer Thomas said, “Carriers need a certain number of eligible participants in their frequent flyer programs for TSA to accept them into the testing and initial operation of the program. TSA recently expanded that pool, and as a result we are now working with them on this and hope to be in – in the near future.”

In order to be able to use PreCheck lanes at SFO, you must first opt in to an invitation from United or American or sign up here. You can request an invitation from United here (requires Mileage Plus sign in). American Airlines AAdvantage members can opt in here.

In addition all Global Entry, Nexus and other card-carrying trusted travelers that hold special clearance from US Customs and Border Protection are eligible for PreCheck.

PreCheck or CLEAR?

Starting next Wednesday security checkpoints at SFO will have THREE special fast lanes for frequent travelers: PreCheck,  CLEAR  and airline first class/elite lines. These three options are all slightly different.

CLEAR, which operates at SFO as well as airports in Dallas/Ft Worth, Denver and Orlando, provides guaranteed access to the front of the standard security lines for an annual fee of $179. Members still have to remove shoes, laptops, etc. There are CLEAR lanes at all entrances at all terminals, including international, at SFO.  CLEAR’s  biggest selling point is that it guarantees access to the front of the line—and this certainty about the airport experience is very valuable to time-pressed frequent travelers. (Click here for a free two-month trial of  CLEAR )

The most important thing to know about PreCheck is that selection is random—which means that even of you have obtained PreCheck status, you are NOT guaranteed access to the PreCheck lane. You will only know that you are selected for the PreCheck lane when you arrive at airport security and allow the agent to scan your boarding pass or smartphone. Three beeps from the scanner means that you can proceed to the PreCheck lane. One beep means that you must enter the (likely longer) non-PreCheck line for standard screening. For security reasons, the TSA will not reveal its selection criteria. PreCheck is a free program if you are one of the lucky few chosen by your airline for this status. If not, you can buy your way into PreCheck status by spending $100 to get Global Entry from Customs and Border Protection (which provides access to faster kiosks vs immigration lines when returning to the US from abroad).

For those who have CLEAR and PreCheck,  CLEAR just announced that it has been approved to integrate PreCheck eligible CLEAR members into the PreCheck screening lane after they verify with CLEAR. “We are working with the airports and local TSA to operationalize the integration, which will hopefully be done soon,” said CLEAR spokesperson Nora O’Malley.

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Finally, if you are flying in first or business class, or are an elite level member of an airline frequent flyer program, you will have access to a special, shorter (most of the time) security line. United recently discontinued its Premier Line option, which allowed non-elite members to pay a fee for access to faster elite security lines.

So which line makes the most sense for you? Will you opt-in for PreCheck? Spend $100 for Global Entry? Pay $179 for guaranteed CLEAR access? Or just stick with what you’ve got? Please leave your comments below!

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Airline update: Delta, Southwest, ATL news

Having fun at the new Southwest Airlines Porch at Piedmont Park (Photo: Southwest Airlines)

SOUTHWEST PORCH AT PIEDMONT PARK. Southwest Airlines has just opened a “Southwest Porch” at Park Tavern overlooking the southeast corner of Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta. Visitors can relax in lounge chair, enjoy a beer or a snack, and take part in fun Southwest events and giveaways while taking in park and skyline views. Later this winter, they can watch ice skaters on the adjacent Southwest Rink. Southwest opened the Southwest Porch at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan in 2009—and it’s now a popular hangout with 3.5 stars on Yelp. Denver’s Southwest Porch at Skyline Park opened in September 2010 and has morphed into a seasonal operation called the Southwest Rink at Skyline Park. Last month, the Southwest Porch at Strauss Square opened in the Arts District in Dallas. Southwest, which arrived in ATL last February, now has 29 daily nonstop flights to 15 cities from Atlanta. Will any of you Delta die-hards stop by the Southwest porch for a beer and some brand building?

DELTA’S DOING JUST FINE. In its third quarter financials released today, Delta reported that it has $5.1 billion in cash on hand. Nice. It’s load factor for the quarter was a very packed 86.4%, slightly higher than last year. It’s still cutting capacity, though, stating it plans to cut 1-3% more in the fourth quarter, even after cutting out 2% in the third. We could only find one foreboding statement in this report, “However, we are in the process of implementing a $1 billion program of structural initiatives that we anticipate will generate significant savings in the second half of 2013, while maintaining the high quality product, network and operation we have built.” Hmm. “Structural initiatives.” What do you think that is? Please leave your comments below.

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RANKING TSA THEFT BY AIRPORT. Here’s an interesting story from ABC News, which obtained figures from the TSA via a Freedom of Information Act request, ranking airports based on the number of TSA employees fired for theft. No surprise that Miami came in numero uno with 29 firings, followed by New York-JFK (27) and Los Angeles-LAX (24). Atlanta took the #4 position with 17 firings. The idea to obtain the numbers on TSA firings was initially sparked by an investigative report showing how an iPad was planted and “lost” at airport security in Orlando, and then tracked to the home of a TSA officer.

Mt Rainer looms over Seattle (Photo: scsmith4 / Flickr)

SEATTLE GETS A BOOST. Seattle/Tacoma was an important gateway for Northwest and is now an important (and very profitable) gateway for Delta. At a recent event that included CEO Richard Anderson’s presence in Seattle (that’s how you know something is really important!), Delta announced major upgrades for its SEA-TAC gateway such as new Boeing 747-400 service to Tokyo (more seats compared to the current A-330), lie-flat Business Elite seats on all international flights including Seattle-Paris, Amsterdam and Osaka, an application to begin nonstop flights to Shanghai and Tokyo- Haneda (the latter switching from Detroit), and new upgraded transcon Business Elite service on the quartet of daily Seattle-JFK flights. This focus on the Seattle gateway shows that Delta is shifting focus away from Atlanta as its primary “Worldport.” In addition to its already strong JFK hub, the larger Delta is now taking advantage of market opportunities in all corners of the country.

DELTA-ALASKA AIR BENNIES. The major Seattle announcement put Delta’s Alaska Airlines codeshare partnership in the spotlight again. In case you didn’t know, Delta passengers get on upgrade waitlists for Alaska Airlines flights 24 hours before departure. All Alaska MVP elites will clear ahead of Delta flyers, but several TICKET readers report good success on upgrades on certain routes. Alaska elites can upgrade on Delta too, but only after all Delta Medallions have had a shot (yes, even suffering Silvers). Also, Sky Club members can access Alaska Board Room clubs in Seattle, Portland, Anchorage, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in conjunction with an Alaska flight. Be sure to take advantage of these perks!

EARNING DELTA MQMs. Running low on Medallion Qualification Miles as we approach the end of the year? Delta and Hilton have partnered up with a promotion allowing guests who stay at Hilton to earn 250 MQMs in addition to double miles. A two-night stay is required anytime between now and December 15, 2012. It is important to make sure your Hilton HHonors setting is switched to earning miles (some people have it switched to earning additional HHonors points instead). Sign up for the promotion here. Hertz is offering a similar 250 MQM promo for rentals of three days or longer—details here.

NEW AIRTRAN/CHASE CARD. When Southwest took over AirTran, it dumped Barclays as a card provider, and recently switched over to Chase to offer the new AirTran A+ Rewards Credit Card Get the new card and spend $1,000 in the first three months and you’ll receive 16 award credits and two upgrades to AirTran’s business class. The award credits equate to one free roundtrip—and the upgrades? Well, enjoy them while you can because (as revealed in a recent interview) business class is set to disappear completely by 2015. New AirTran/Chase cardholders get the $69 annual fee waived for the first year. Plus, cardholders get two credits at the end of every year they hold the card. Another nice perk: Cardholder credits are good for two years on AirTran vs just one for non-cardholders. Not bad—and don’t forget that credits can now be redeemed on AirTran or Southwest. (Note: Chase targeted certain members of A+ in September, offering whopping 32 credits for $2000 spend…the deal expired Oct 4. Did you get the offer?)

Opening day at the new iTravel store at ATL. (Photo: Myrna White)

APPLE DETHRONES BLACKBERRY AT ATL. Have you noticed that the Blackberry store near gate B-17 at ATL has turned into an Apple store? The new iTravel store (an Apple authorized re-seller) opened last month, offering a full array of Apple products…and experts on hand to answer any questions you may have about your new iPhone or iPad Mini or Mac.  Interesting: The US Patent Office recently awarded Apple ownership of a new concept called iTravel, which will eventually use Near Field Communications (NFC) so iPhones can be used as e-wallets or e-tickets—along the lines of Apple’s new Passbook application, which stores loyalty program credentials, airline boarding passes, etc in iPhones. Do you still use a Blackberry? Are you considering a switch to a new device? Which one?

NEW BANK AT ATL. Have you noticed all the construction by the old car rental counters at the top of the arrivals escalators at ATL’s main terminal? Word from airport officials is that the space will soon be a new Wells Fargo bank branch.

Airlines ranked by 2Q 2012 baggage fee revenue, dollars in thousands (000)

BIG ON BAG FEES. While most TICKET readers cringe at the thought of ever paying to check a bag on Delta (due to their elite status), it’s interesting to note that Delta leads the pack when it comes to bag fees. In the first half of this year, Delta collected nearly half a BILLION in bag fees—which are what keeps airlines in the black these days. While business travelers like to think it’s their high fares and loyalty that keep airlines afloat, the emergence of bag fees, which are primarily paid by INfrequent travelers, could be switching up that equation.

(Have you scored your 500 Delta SkyMiles bonus for using TICKET sponsor Peachy Airport Parking yet? Click here for the coupon!) 

MORE PARIS. With Delta’s recent transatlantic flight reductions, it’s increasingly likely that Europe-bound travelers will be making a stop at Paris CDG on the way to their final destination. Combined, Delta and Air France now offer four daily nonstops between ATL and Paris. Delta has announced it will add new nonstops to Paris from Newark and Boston. Charles de Gaulle Airport has recently expanded and enhanced its new S4 satellite terminal (slideshow) with big bright business class lounges and nicer gate areas, which should make even the most vociferous CDG-haters feel a little better about making transfers there. (Don’t forget that you can always transfer at Amsterdam Schipol on SkyTeam partner KLM.) With Europe racked by a recession, which is depressing demand for air travel, it’s likely going to be a while until we see the return of the raft of nonstops between ATL and smaller European cities. Bon voyage! UPDATE: Air France is expecting a strike on Oct 26– while it says it will transport all passengers, it also advises them to check for updates at www.airfrance.us

EUROPEAN ECONOMY COMFORT. Economy Comfort seats (similar to Delta’s) will be available on KLM’s Boeing 737 flights within Europe departing December 1 onwards. (EC was previously only available on KLM’s intercontinental flights.)  The carrier is reportedly considering the possibility of adding the roomier coach seats to its KLM Cityhopper fleet, too.

Do you know which brand new Chicago hotel is inside this wavy building?

BUSINESS TRIP. What are the top five hottest hotels and restaurants in Chicago…and what condiment should always be left OFF a Chicago-style hot dog? Do you know the names of the four brand new 5-star hotels that have opened in Toronto the last year? Take a peek at the latest in my BBC Business Trip series to learn the answers!

>Are you signed up for our Facebook page yet? We frequently break news on our Facebook page that eventually makes it into our monthly roundups. So if you want news when it happens, come on and get on our Facebook page.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. In a move that seems to foreshadow something interesting, the highly-reputed Etihad Airways (based in Abu Dhabi, UAE) along with Air Berlin have signed a partnership deal with Air France-KLM. The deal comes on the heels of Qatar Airways announcement that it plans to join the American Airlines-led Oneworld Alliance. This is especially interesting because until now, the three main Gulf carriers (Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar) were firm in their commitment to remain independent rather than hook up with global alliances. Qatar’s move may prompt the others to follow. For now, the partnership is strictly a codeshare agreement and not an opportunity for Delta/SkyTeam flyers to earn and burn miles—for now. But things change rapidly in the world of airline alliances, so sit tight and let’s see what happens… Have you flown a UAE-based airline yet? What did you think? Leave your comments below…

AN UNSAVORY MIX AT SKYCLUBS.  In recent years, TICKET readers have raved about the new array of sweet and savory snack mixes from Montego Bay to Mesa Rosa on offer at Sky Clubs. But those raves have turned to rants as club attendants have started to dump new mixes on top of the old, leading to stale snacks and random surprises like spicy cheese chips and crunchy corn kernels in an almond-cranberry nut mix. Noticed it?

AIRPORT WHEELCHAIR ABUSE? According to the New York Times, some sneaky travelers hoping to avoid airport security hassles are asking to be wheeled through airports and cutting in security lines in wheel chairs…even if they are not disabled. Here’s a snippet from the story: “Once cleared [at security], the woman suddenly sprang up from her wheelchair, hoisted two huge carry-on bags from the magnetometer’s conveyor belt and plopped back in the wheelchair. She gave a nod to the person pushing her, and they rolled off to the gate.” Hmm. Have you noticed this yet? Leave your comments below.

>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.

Silver Airways routes from ATL

SILVER AIRWAYS PICKS UP ATL ROUTES.  For years, Delta (like many other airlines) flew to smaller cities that were funded by the federal government as Essential Air Service (EAS) routes. This program guarantees that smaller communities get connections to the same global airline networks as larger cities– subsidized by the federal government. Delta recently decided to drop many of these routes on its own and forfeit the payments it was receiving from the government. Silver Airways has stepped in to offer new air service (using 19-34 seat propjets) to these communities from Atlanta including Tupelo, Hattiesburg, Meridian, and Greenville in Mississippi and Muscle Shoals in Alabama. Silver also serves Gainesville, Florida and Greenbrier Valley, WV from Atlanta. Have you flown Silver Air? What did you think? Please leave your comments below.

DELTA MUGS MILWAUKEE. Once the domain of Northwest and then AirTran, Delta is aggressively inserting itself into this important Midwest market by nabbing naming rights to its main convention center The Delta Center (formerly the Midwest Airlines Center). Delta’s name will also be added to the US Cellular Arena and Milwaukee Theatre.

OBRIGADO. Delta’s prolific “immediate help service” on Twitter now speaks Portuguese at @DeltaAjuda. Delta’s real-time customer service channel on Twitter is staffed during business hours from Monday through Friday, offering something other airlines lack. Have you used DeltaAssist or Ajuda to help solve a travel issue? What was your experience?

RECHARGE. Those popular recharging stations that have appeared at many airports like Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, JFK, Norfolk, Omaha, and Seattle are coming to even more airports. Four gates at Tokyo Narita have been upgraded and you’ll soon see the stations in: Anchorage, Austin, Denver, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston Intercontinental, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Ontario, CA, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Syracuse.

EASY 500+ SKYMILES BONUS. You gotta park at the airport anyway, 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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A vision of the future from Virgin America & Salesforce

Virgin America is once again going to change up the airline passenger experience– this time using Chatter, Salesforce’s wildly popular corporate social media platform. (Sort of like an internal Facebook for companies.)

This initiative was announced at the big Dreamforce conference held here in San Francisco last month with a video interview with Virgin CEO David Cush (above), and presentations by Salesforce execs with their grand plans on how it will all work.

Virgin spokesperson Abby Lunardini told TravelSkills that many of the stories in the blogosphere regarding the rollout of the initiative are premature. She said that Chatter will be launched internally later this fall, which should help bring  behind-the-scenes communication among employees into real-time. But she emphasized that the rollout of Chatter onto Virgin’s customer-facing seatback RED system is still in the distant future. So what follows is what we’ll eventually see. But not for a while. A man can dream, right?

So, at some point, maybe in 2013, Virgin’s seatback video screen will greet you by name and know your Elevate status when you sit down on your flight. It will offer you food and drink based on what you’ve ordered on previous flights.

If your flight is delayed, it will push information to your seatback regarding connecting flight information or changes– and provide you with alternatives before you land. It will also provide access to your Elevate account.

If you’ve chosen to provide Virgin with access to your Twitter or Facebook accounts, it will let you know if you have friends sitting nearby– and connect you with them for an inflight chat if you’d like. If you tweet or post on Facebook regarding positive or negative experiences during your flight, someone from Virgin America might respond.

Virgin customer service employees will also be using Chatter to communicate with each other… and with passengers in-flight or on the ground… using iPads. So, for example, a high high-ranking member of Elevate arriving on a late flight and in danger of missing a connection could be greeted by a smiling Virgin employee holding an iPad displaying a sign with the flyer’s name and photo– and then escorted quickly to the waiting flight.

What do you think? Is this new social enterprise solution going to improve your experience with Virgin America? Or will it feel like an invasion of your privacy? Please leave your comments below. 

>by Chris McGinnis

**DO YOU LIKE WHAT YOU ARE READING HERE? Help spread the word about TravelSkills! Forward this link to your frequent traveling colleagues, your travel agent, your corporate travel manager! We need new readers and will only get them from recommendations from readers like YOU! www.travelskills.com**

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Why isn’t popular PreCheck at SFO?

Map of TSA PreCheck locations across the US. What’s missing from this picture?

By now every frequent traveler has heard about the TSA’s innovative and very popular PreCheck trusted traveler program.

In a nutshell, PreCheck offers certain high mileage frequent flyers access to special, faster lanes at airport security that do not require them to remove their shoes, belts or coats, or take their laptops out of their bags for screening. (When I was chosen to pass through a PreCheck line last summer in Atlanta, the process reminded me of pre-9/11 security… a breeze. I was through in less than a minute and walked away with a big smile on my face.)

The introduction of the speedy new PreCheck lanes has been one of the best things the TSA has ever done for frequent travelers. It has been a roaring success in terms of passenger satisfaction as well as PR for the frequently maligned agency. To date, 3 million travelers have passed through PreCheck lanes at 26 airports across the country– the most recent addition is United’s hub at Washington-Dulles. It’s also at United hubs in Newark (C3), Houston and  Chicago. Even LAX has it!

There’s only one problem: Not a single Bay Area airport has PreCheck yet.

Why not? Well, it’s been tough for me to get a good answer from the airport or the TSA… and I’ve been asking and asking ever since the program rolled out last year. I’ve been hearing from TravelSkills reader, too wondering why we don’t have it at a major hub airport like SFO or even OAK or SJC.

Last week I got a hopeful response from SFO spokesperson Mike McCarron: “It is ultimately up to the airlines to work out the arrangement with the TSA.  From what we understand, PreCheck should start showing up with United and Delta about mid-November.” All the TSA will say is that it “will be in 35 airports by the end of 2012.”

Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini told TravelSkills, “We’re in discussions with TSA and are supportive of program and hope we can offer to Virgin America’s T2 guests in the near future — but there is no definitive roll out date yet.”

So there you have it…. I guess we’ll just have to sit back and wait our turn. Stay tuned to TravelSkills for updates and a big announcement when PreCheck finally arrives– hopefully this November.

Have you enjoyed PreCheck at other airports? Have you used CLEAR lanes at SFO yet? Are you finding airport security a bit more manageable now that the summer crowds have gone home? Please leave your comments below. 

>Chris McGinnis

**DO YOU LIKE WHAT YOU ARE READING HERE? Help spread the word about TravelSkills! Forward this link to your frequent traveling colleagues, your travel agent, your corporate travel manager! We need new readers and will only get them from recommendations from readers like YOU! www.travelskills.com**

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Problems w PreCheck, Faster wi-fi, Delta devalues miles, fall season outlook

Delta introduced Economy Comfort on domestic flights this time last year, and by June of this year it was on all two-class aircraft. Does that make you happy…or sad? Please leave your comments about EC below. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

PROBLEMS WITH PRECHECK? We are hearing from an increasing number of travelers frustrated that they are not being chosen for PreCheck, the TSA’s new trusted traveler fast lanes at ATL and elsewhere. While the TSA will not reveal why or why not travelers are chosen, we are now hearing about some patterns… for example, those who are NOT chosen have made their reservation within 24 hours of flight time. Others report that they are never chosen if they are flying on the domestic leg of an international trip. I’ve found that using the Delta mobile app, which displays my boarding pass on my smartphone, nearly always gets me the “three beeps” and into the fast lane. What about you? Are you noticing any other patterns in the TSA’s “random” selection process? Leave your comments below.

BETTER, FASTER INFLIGHT WI-FI. Canadian regulators have given the greelight to Gogo, the popular in-flight wi-fi provider, to get started on extending its ground-based network north of the US border. Service should be available starting in 2013. Also, JetBlue now says that it will (finally) offer a faster new satellite-based inflight wi-fi product—for free—starting in early 2013. JetBlue says that the new service is fast enough to allow streaming of movies in-flight—something you cannot do on the current version of Gogo. Maybe this competition will force Gogo to temper its recent price increases—now running at $18 for transcon flights. Not to be outdone by JetBlue, its largest competitor in the key NYC market, Delta now says that using new technology, it, too will offer the option of streaming movies and TV shows using inflight wi-fi on all 800 of its domestic two-class aircraft “by the end of 2013.”

WI-FI SURPRISE. With Delta and AirTran leading the industry with in-flight wi-fi on nearly every flight, we in Atlanta are pretty spoiled. Such ubiquity is not the case elsewhere, and in fact, only 31% of domestic flights (1,165 aircraft) in the US have it. At Southwest, 35% of planes have it, just 22% of American Airlines planes have it, and at United, the world’s largest carrier, only 1% of its flights have it.  Another big surprise: Usage of inflight wi-fi on the planes that offer it it miniscule—just 5.4% for the first half of 2012. I think that number is quite low due to the fact that most flights are so short that it does not make sense to log on in-flight— but I have witnessed a much higher usage rate on those 3-5 hour transcons out west. As a matter of fact, the availability of wi-fi is THE main factor when I’m chosing an airline for flights longer than three hours. What about you? How important is in-flight wi-fi in your airline decision? Please leave your comments below.

TOUGHER TO TRACK SKYMILES. Customers who keep track of their mileage program balances on sites like AwardWallet.com or TripIt Pro are losing the ability to track their Sky Miles. Delta is cutting off these sites from accessing our frequent flyer program data and frustrating members in the process. According to a cease and desist letter, Delta feels these sites are performing “computer trespass.” What this means is that Delta is making it tougher for its best, most loyal customers to keep track of multiple programs in one place. In addition to Delta, American and Southwest/AirTran do not participate with third party programs designed to make life a little easier for frequent travelers. To us, that’s short-sighted and frustrating. Frequent flyers, not the airline, should be able to choose with whom they share their program data. Do you agree? Have you used these programs to help monitor your miles? Please leave your comments below.

EASY 500+ SKYMILES BONUS. You gotta park at the airport anyway, 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! 

SEEING DOUBLE AT SOUTHWEST/AIRTRAN. From now through November 15, Southwest Rapid Rewards and AirTran A+ Reward members earn DOUBLE points on all flights. On Southwest, more expensive Business Select fares earn 24 points per dollar– that’s four times more than the standard six per dollar on its cheapest Wanna Get Away fares. Must register here to get the bonus: Southwest | AirTran

TICKET editor Chris McGinnis discusses his outlook for the fall travel season on national news! If you have plans for trips between now and through the holidays, tune in!

SKY CLUB NUMERO 54. The 54th Delta Sky Club (and third at La Guardia) has opened in the lounge that was formerly the US Airways Club in Terminal C. Now part of the expanded Delta operation there, passengers transfer between the two terminals by shuttle bus, but a bridge is already under construction. The club features the same snazzy look of other renewed clubs around the system and has excellent views of Delta’s new gates and terminal operation. (Stay tuned to The TICKET for a slideshow of Delta’s new Sky Club at ATL’s new Terminal F.)

EASIER CHARGING. Tired of being one of the huddled masses gathered around the single electrical outlet near your gate? Delta is adding new charging stations at gate areas in 13 more airports. For example, in Tokyo, four of Delta’s gates were recently updated with power stations that feature six standard U.S. 110 volt outlets and two powered USB ports. Delta also is adding the popular feature at airports in Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; Denver; Dallas/Ft. Worth; Houston Intercontinental; Kansas City, Mo.; Milwaukee, Wis.; New Orleans; Ontario, Calif.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; and Syracuse, N.Y.

DC-9’S STILL FLYING. With Comair out of the picture, Delta has reinstated mainline jet service (using its fleet of ancient DC-9s inherited from Northwest) between Atlanta and Chattanooga, and Atlanta and Wilmington, NC.

While there is plenty negative news coming out of ATL’s new Terminal F, here’s a bright spot: The Varsity is there! Have you been? I love to sit back and watch non-English speakers try to understand the “whaddya haves!” (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER? Atlanta Airport has fired three long-term PR professionals in the wake of the generally negative reception by travelers and the media of ATL’s new terminal F.  Yep, these were they key contacts who helped The TICKET with our extensive coverage of the new terminal. They have all received stellar employee reviews over the years, but were served termination papers effective this month.  We are vexed by the whole thing…. it just smells funny. What do you think? On our Facebook page, W Evans comments: “It is so political there. From what I understand these three were wonderful employees. Guess someone’s relative needed a job!” Leave your comments below.

DID YOU KNOW… Did you know: That the TSA now allows travelers aged 75 and older to pass through airport security screening with jackets and shoes on?

MUSICAL SEATS ON THE AIRBUS. Delta has quietly removed a row of first class from its Airbus A-319 and A-320 planes. When these were in the Northwest fleet, they offered 16 seats, but now the planes offer just 12. It’s important to understand that Delta did this to add Economy Comfort seats in the main cabin. Since many of these planes are used on routes to Latin America or cross-country, the added space in Economy Comfort when an upgrade doesn’t clear is certainly appreciated. What do you think? Is it better to have more first class… or more Economy Comfort? Leave your comments below.

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STEALTHY SKYMILES AWARD CHANGE. Earlier this month, Delta quietly raised the award redemption levels for a few mid- and high-tier mileage awards by 5,000 miles—with no advance warning. These include economy class awards to and from the Caribbean, Mexico, deep South America, and Europe where, for example, the mid-tier redemption increased from 90,000 miles to 95,000 miles. Luckily, travelers willing to pay the exorbitant high-tier mileage for a business class ticket to Southeast Asia can save 20,000 miles since Delta dropped the redemption level on that lone award. Surprisingly, many travelers do redeem their SkyMiles for these mid- and high-tier awards despite being a very poor redemption value. For now, at least, none of the low level awards were affected. Hmm. This does not bode well for the future…as airlines have consolidated and competition is reduced, I’m afraid we’ll see more high-handed and troubling moves on the part of Delta…and all the remaining legacy leviathans. What do you think? Is it time to start dumping those miles before they are devalued out of existence? Please leave your comments below.

B-A-A-A. Did you hear that ATL, like a handful of other airports in the country, is considering using a herd of sheep and goats to help keep plant growth near runways trimmed back? WXIA reports that these goats would be the same ones that have helped clear kudzu and other growth at City of Atlanta parks like Chastain. Apparently the herbivores do a better job than humans, and help avoid the use of harmful herbicides.

Coming soon to The TICKET! Our slideshow of images and our take on Delta’s newest Sky Club at ATL’s Terminal F (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

EASIER ORDERING AT MSP. Flyers used to ordering a meal on the built-in iPads in the New York Delta gate areas can now enjoy the same service when flying through Delta’s Minneapolis/St. Paul hub. The concept has proven quite popular and Delta is now working with restaurant operators to distribute 250 iPads to restaurants in Concourse G: , MinniBar, an upscale “sandwich bar;” Mimosa, a French country restaurant and raw bar; and Shoyu, a Japanese eatery. The iPads will be placed inside the restaurants at each seat so diners can order from a visual menu. While waiting for their meals, customers can use the iPads to surf the Internet, check email, or visit social media sites. Plans call for expanding the program with 4,500 iPads to other Delta hub airports.

HOLA ARGENTINA. Aerolineas Argentinas, Delta’s first full South American partner is now officially a part of SkyTeam. However, the full roster of reciprocal benefits does not begin until the end of 2012. Between now and then, travelers can earn and burn miles on the Argentine carrier and make use of its lounges, but Sky Priority benefits will not be extended until the end of the year at their hubs. From the US, Aerolineas Argentinas flies nonstop from Miami to its hub in Buenos Aires only. Have you ever flown Aerolineas Argentinas? If so, what did you think?

FREE WI-FI AT LAX. On your next visit to LAX, be sure to take advantage of their new, free-of-charge wireless Internet service. The airport is dropping its expensive fees to use its signal and joins numerous other major airports like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver, and Orlando in easing the strain of waiting for a flight. Hello, Atlanta Airport?? Hello?

TICKET readers see a lot of gross things on the plane such as barefeet on the bulkhead. What do you think? Should travelers be allowed to prop their feet (bare or shod) on the bulkhead? Please leave your comments below. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

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Coming soon to a flight near you: video streaming

JetBlue announced this week that it will (finally) offer a new, faster satellite-based inflight wi-fi product starting in early 2013. (Currently, JetBlue does not offer inflight wi-fi at all.)

JetBlue (with flights between SFO and Oakland to destinations such as Long Beach, Austin, Ft Lauderdale, New York, Washington and Boston) says that the new service from Live TV and ViaSat (not Gogo) will be fast enough to allow streaming of movies in-flight.  On its blog, JetBlue is promising that every passenger on the plane will be able to log on and have an “at-home experience” in terms of speed. The carrier offered no firm date for the launch, only promising “early 2013.” In an unusual twist, it says it will offer the service for free until the first 30 planes get it. After that, it will offer a tiered product, with a free basic connection, but charges for more bandwidth.

Not to be outdone by JetBlue, Delta says that it, too will offer the option of streaming movies and TV shows using inflight wi-fi on all 800 of its domestic two-class aircraft “by the end of 2013.” Delta currently provides Gogo wi-fi on its entire domestic fleet.

In related news, Canadian regulators have given the greelight to Gogo to get started on extending its ground-based network north of the US border. Service should be available starting in 2013. 

With SF-based Virgin America offering wi-fi on 100% of its flights, plus Delta, United and American providing it on all SFO>JFK flights, TravelSkills Readers (BATS!) are pretty spoiled. Such ubiquity is not the case elsewhere, and in fact, only 31% of domestic flights (1,165 aircraft) in the US have it. At Southwest, 35% of planes have it; 22% of American Airlines planes have it, and at United, the largest carrier in the world (and at SFO), only 1% of its flights have it, according to Business Travel News.

What is surprising is that usage of inflight wi-fi on the planes that offer it is miniscule—just a scant 5.4% on average for the first half of 2012 according to Gogo. I think that number is low because most flights are so short that it does not make sense to log on in-flight. But anyone who flies across the country frequently has witnessed a much higher usage rate– on some of those SFO-JFK flights sometimes it seems that the whole plane is logged on… and speed suffers as a result.  So all these promises of faster products are heartening.

Whether it is land-based or satellite-based,  the availability of wi-fi is THE deciding factor when I’m chosing an airline for flights longer than three hours. What about you? How important is in-flight wi-fi in your airline decision? Will you fly JetBlue more often if it comes through on its promise of a superfast in-flight wi-fi experience? Do we really need to stream video in-flight? Please leave your comments below.

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What the new iPhone will do for travelers

Have you had a chance to check out what Apple has in store with its new iOS 6 operating system… the one that will be in the new iPhone when makes its debut this month? It’s got all sorts of new gadgets and gizmos that will appeal to frequent travelers– especially this one:

Travelers will also see changes in all-important, newly designed, non-Google Maps, a (hopefully) smarter and more international Siri, easier photo sharing on Facebook, instant text replies to calls you can’t take, helpful do-not-disturb functions, FaceTime that works over cellular OR wi-fi networks, a new and improved “Lost Mode” for when that little devil slips away…

CNET surmises that all of this is eventually going to morph into an entire, recently patented, Apple travel ecosystem called iTravel.

All very exciting. I’m currently an Android/HTC user, but am about 99% along in my decision to finally switch to the new iPhone when it’s comes out… What about you?? Will you be making a switch to a new smart phone this fall? Which one? Why? Please leave your comments below… 


What the new iPhone will do for travelers

Have you had a chance to check out what Apple has in store with its new iOS 6 operating system… the one that will be in the new iPhone when makes its debut this month? It’s got all sorts of new gadgets and gizmos that will appeal to frequent travelers– especially this one:

Travelers will also see changes in all-important, newly designed, non-Google Maps, a (hopefully) smarter and more international Siri, easier photo sharing on Facebook, instant text replies to calls you can’t take, helpful do-not-disturb functions, FaceTime that works over cellular OR wi-fi networks, a new and improved “Lost Mode” for when that little devil slips away…

CNET surmises that all of this is eventually going to morph into an entire, recently patented, Apple travel ecosystem called iTravel.

All very exciting. I’m currently an Android/HTC user, but am about 99% along in my decision to finally switch to the new iPhone when it’s comes out… What about you?? Will you be making a switch to a new smart phone this fall? Which one? Why? Please leave your comments below… 

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Online travel: how do you compare?

Here’s an interesting infographic that illustrates just how much we have come to rely in the internet for nearly every part of our travel experience– from planning and booking, to sharing high points of our business trips, and then commenting or evaluating them afterwards. How do you fit into these interesting stats? Did you update your Facebook status while on vacation this summer? ;) Please leave your comments below.


Online travel experiences (infographic)


Google purchases Frommer’s travel guides

News broke this morning that Google has purchased the famous Frommer’s travel guide brand for an undisclosed sum. The purchase comes on the heels of Google’s 2011 purchase of Zagat guides, and is a clear signal that the search giant intends to get into the travel content business in a big way. I’m thinking that Google is prepping for a battle with Apple when it finally unwraps its mostly secretive, recently patented iTravel app sometime in the next year.

Frommer’s has a small editorial staff based in San Francisco that manages its website and online content.

The travel world is abuzz with comments on Google’s latest acquisition. What do you think?

Wall Street Journal: “In Frommer’s, Google sees an opportunity to broaden its consumer offerings outside of restaurant reviews. That Frommer’s provides information about hotels and destinations globally made the acquisition that much more attractive. The deal is expected to close shortly. Google hasn’t yet decided whether the Frommer’s guidebooks will continue to be published in print or whether they will eventually migrate entirely to online. It is also possible that the Frommer’s brand could be melded into the Zagat brand.”

CNET:  “It’s not all that surprising that Google has jumped in to swipe Frommer’s. The company has been making a significant travel push over the last couple of years with its acquisitions of travel software provider ITA and restaurant reviewer Zagat. Presumably Frommer’s is a natural extension of the Zagat purchase. ‘The Frommer’s team and the quality and scope of their content will be a great addition to the Zagat team,’ a Google spokesperson told CNET in an e-mailed statement. ‘We can’t wait to start working with them on our goal to provide a review for every relevant place in the world.'”

TechCrunch: “Although not confirmed at this point, it’s probable that Google is only interested in the travel content Frommer’s has amassed, and the book publishing portion of Frommer’s business will cease. As for what Google saw in Frommer’s, that’s not quite as clear. Although its brand is still well-known, the quality of its content can be a little shaky – its reviews, for example, are often outdated. Perhaps the selling price just made the deal worthwhile?… We’re also now hearing that the Frommer’s team will be joining the Zagat team, and indeed the acquisition is related to improvements related to the local search experience across Google. Initially, the Frommer’s content will come to Google under its own brand and will be further integrated with Zagat over time. No definitive decision has been made on the Frommer’s printed guides, but the deal is supposed to enable users discover reviews across Google, which means online.”

Fast Company: “One of Google’s major priorities has been the transformation of Google Maps and the Zagat-powered Google+ Local into a Yelp and Facebook killer. Frommer’s databases are also used by Kayak to help fuel hotel searches. Although the last few years have been rough for print travel guides as the internet ate away at their past dominance, Frommer’s has extensive brand recognition and a large network of contacts throughout the travel and hospitality industries.”

 What do YOU think? When was the last time you used a Frommer’s guide? Do you think Google can make travel content better? Please leave your comments below.
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✈ Bypassing security lines with CLEAR at SFO

CLEAR lanes are fast lanes at SFO security (Photo taken June 25)

Did you know that July is the busiest month of the year for air travel? As summer crowds begin to swell at SFO, frequent travelers are increasingly facing longer than expected lines at security… except for those who subscribe to the $179 CLEAR card, which cranked up operations at SFO in May.

From the looks of this photo, regular security lines during peak summer season are becoming reliably long, while CLEAR lines are reliably short…or even non-existent.

CLEAR is not revealing how many new subscribers it has in the Bay Area right now– the only number I could coax out of them was that members had used CLEAR lanes 600,000 times since the service re-started in 2010. The company also claims that 80% of its users in Denver and Orlando have returned since the company re-opened CLEAR lanes at airports in those cities. Prior to shutting down in 2009, CLEAR had 40,000 members in the Bay Area.

See the quiet CLEAR line at the bottom of this photo?

Currently, CLEAR has cranked up service in Orlando, Denver, San Francisco and just this week at Terminal E at Dallas Ft Worth. While it says it is working on getting back into other airports, it won’t name names.

To convince more of us to jump for the $179 annual subscription, CLEAR has started to layer on extras meant to appeal to frequent travelers. For example, they are offering a free one-year gold membership to the Regus network of workspaces and offices around the world. New members can also get a free three-month trial of of TripIt Pro, a service that helps travelers consolidate and keep track of their travel reservations. They are also offering free two-month trial memberships to those who have never been CLEAR members before.

Even with airline elite status, security lines are still rather unpredictable, especially in airline hub cities with a lot of frequent flyers (i.e. United hubs here at SFO or in Denver) so CLEAR execs are heavily promoting how having a CLEAR card provides predictability and no surprises when it comes to airport security. For a busy business traveler, this means leaving for the airport at the last minute and knowing that you won’t face a long wait at airport security.

Is that peace of mind worth $179 a year? Are airport security lines still a hassle or headache for you? Have your tried or re-activated your CLEAR membership? I’m waiting to renew mine until my heavy travel schedule kicks in this September. What about you? Please leave your comments below! 

If this information was helpful to you, please subscribe to TravelSkills via e-mail– and tell your friends about it, too!

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CLEAR security lanes return to SFO

CLEAR, which offers expedited access to airport security lines for $179/year, announced today it will launch its service at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on May 23, just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend travel crush.

CLEAR lanes will be located at every terminal at SFO, allowing every passenger on any airline to use their biometrics to speed through security. “We are thrilled to bring CLEAR’s biometric platform to San Francisco, a city synonymous with innovation and efficiency. SFO joins CLEAR’s growing network of airport partners bringing much needed speed and predictability to the travel experience,” said CLEAR CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker.

CLEAR Lanes are now available only at Orlando and Denver. SFO will be the third airport to join since the company sprang back to life after a hasty retreat in 2009. Dallas-Ft Worth Airport is apparently next on the list, although no formal date has been announced.

CLEAR says it has a base of more than 200,000 members across the U.S., including about 40,000 in San Francisco. San Francisco International is introducing CLEAR says the launch means 85 new private sector jobs, enhanced security, and new revenue for the airport. For more info, see www.CLEARme.com.

Interested? Is predictability at airport security worth $179 per year? Please leave your comments below.


How to use your phone overseas- and not spend a fortune

(Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

Did you get a shiny new iPhone or smart phone for Christmas? Are you worried that it might cost you a fortune if you dare to turn it on overseas? In this guest post, longtime TravelSkills reader Jim Braude offers some excellent tips for staying connected when overseas– whether you use an iPhone or an Android device. Braude divides his time between Atlanta and Paris managing a delightful collection of guest apartments in both cities that he rents to travelers.

Learn From My Mistakes!

The first time I came here [to France] with my iPhone I didn’t pay attention to details or warnings, resulting in an $1800.00 bill after just two weeks. Now I’ve learned the tricks and happy to share them with you. — Jim Braude, ourhomeinparis.com

1 – Use the wi-fi! Most hotels and all of our apartments have unlimited wi-fi use. Of course, it makes sense to do as much data transfer as possible using the wi-fi network, as it’s the 3G that nails you if you go over your limit (see next point). More coffee houses are adding wi-fi too as a free perk, but be careful if non secured.

2 – AT&T has three features that greatly reduce the bill:

>Global messaging – 200 international text messages for 30.00

>International roaming – data – 125MB for $49.99 – this is greatly reduced recently. If you use it with ONAVO (see below) it’s more than enough for a once-an-hour check of emails for a full month.

>International roaming – voice – $5.99.   Cheaper long distance to the US.   But I use SKYPE when on wi-fi instead, which is even cheaper.

3 – SKYPE nothing beats Skype to Skype video calls, free and with the newer Macs you get really clear sound and picture.

4 – ONAVO is a free app for iPhone that compresses data and greatly reduces the amount of data transmission– it literally halves your incoming data bill.

5 – PHONE TAG – for $9.99/month.  I forward my incoming voice calls to my phonetag number, it then computer-generates a voice to email message, and sends me an email. This also makes it unnecessary to check voice mail which I prefer. It’s not perfect– occasionally the computer will make some odd choices in its translation from voice to text– but it includes an attachment of the actual voice message that you can listen to if needed as a back up.

6- CHANGE SETTINGS. Change how often your phone checks for email from every fifteen minutes to every hour during the day and change to MANUAL setting at night unless you have wi-fi setting and wi-fi remains on 24/7.

7- WHATSAPP - an almost free app (99 cents) for international texting, works great [across iPhone, Android and Nokia platforms].

8 – GET AN APARTMENT - when a homeowner gets cable service in France, it costs only 5 euros more per month for the owner to add unlimited free calling to the US or Canada from a fixed line.  Warning: some carriers do NOT allow free calls to mobile phones–only to fixed lines–  so confirm that first. And confirm whether the country you are calling is on the free list.  When you install cable (and wi-fi and phone) in your apartment, calls to the US and Canada are almost always free, from both both fixed line and mobile.

9 – PICKPOCKETS – the number one most stolen item in France is the iPhone. DO NOT leave it on a table top at a cafe. A young man covered mine with a newspaper as he asked me a question and took my iphone away in seconds, but I caught him in the act. Avoid using on the subway as you are alerting those around you that you are a prime target. Never leave your iphone in backpack or purse that is behind you rather in front of you.

Do you have any other money-saving or hassle-reducing tips on using your mobile phone overseas? If so, please leave your advice in the comments box below!


How to use your phone overseas- and not spend a fortune

(Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

Did you get a shiny new iPhone or smart phone for Christmas? Are you worried that it might cost you a fortune if you dare to turn it on overseas? In this guest post, longtime TICKET reader Jim Braude offers some excellent tips for staying connected when overseas– whether you use an iPhone or an Android device. Braude divides his time between Atlanta and Paris managing a delightful collection of guest apartments in both cities that he rents to travelers.

Learn From My Mistakes!

The first time I came here [to France] with my iPhone I didn’t pay attention to details or warnings, resulting in an $1800.00 bill after just two weeks. Now I’ve learned the tricks and happy to share them with you. — Jim Braude, ourhomeinparis.com

1 – Use the wi-fi! Most hotels and all of our apartments have unlimited wi-fi use. Of course, it makes sense to do as much data transfer as possible using the wi-fi network, as it’s the 3G that nails you if you go over your limit (see next point). More coffee houses are adding wi-fi too as a free perk, but be careful if non secured.

2 – AT&T has three features that greatly reduce the bill:

>Global messaging – 200 international text messages for 30.00

>International roaming – data – 125MB for $49.99 – this is greatly reduced recently. If you use it with ONAVO (see below) it’s more than enough for a once-an-hour check of emails for a full month.

>International roaming – voice – $5.99.   Cheaper long distance to the US.   But I use SKYPE when on wi-fi instead, which is even cheaper.

3 – SKYPE nothing beats Skype to Skype video calls, free and with the newer Macs you get really clear sound and picture.

4 – ONAVO is a free app for iPhone that compresses data and greatly reduces the amount of data transmission– it literally halves your incoming data bill.

5 – PHONE TAG – for $9.99/month.  I forward my incoming voice calls to my phonetag number, it then computer-generates a voice to email message, and sends me an email. This also makes it unnecessary to check voice mail which I prefer. It’s not perfect– occasionally the computer will make some odd choices in its translation from voice to text– but it includes an attachment of the actual voice message that you can listen to if needed as a back up.

6- CHANGE SETTINGS. Change how often your phone checks for email from every fifteen minutes to every hour during the day and change to MANUAL setting at night unless you have wi-fi setting and wi-fi remains on 24/7.

7- WHATSAPP - an almost free app (99 cents) for international texting, works great [across iPhone, Android and Nokia platforms].

8 – GET AN APARTMENT - when a homeowner gets cable service in France, it costs only 5 euros more per month for the owner to add unlimited free calling to the US or Canada from a fixed line.  Warning: some carriers do NOT allow free calls to mobile phones–only to fixed lines–  so confirm that first. And confirm whether the country you are calling is on the free list.  When you install cable (and wi-fi and phone) in your apartment, calls to the US and Canada are almost always free, from both both fixed line and mobile.

9 – PICKPOCKETS – the number one most stolen item in France is the iPhone. DO NOT leave it on a table top at a cafe. A young man covered mine with a newspaper as he asked me a question and took my iphone away in seconds, but I caught him in the act. Avoid using on the subway as you are alerting those around you that you are a prime target. Never leave your iphone in backpack or purse that is behind you rather in front of you.

Do you have any other money-saving or hassle-reducing tips on using your mobile phone overseas? If so, please leave your advice in the comments box below!

 

 


Biz travel in 2012: My predictions

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It’s that time of year again, when travel pundits and prognosticators do their best to predict what may or may not happen in the coming year. Here’s what I see on the horizon for frequent travelers in Atlanta and around the worlds in 2012.

Apart from uncertainty about the eurozone, the global economy is slowly improving, meaning individuals and companies are likely to increase their budgets for both business and leisure travel. But just like improvements in the global economy, any expansion in travel budgets is going to be slow– very slow. Atlanta seems to be emerging from the great recession at a slower pace than many other US cities– but nonetheless, we are still traveling, still out there working hard and helping our companies recover.

Increased demand for travel in 2012 will mean higher prices for transportation, fuel, lodging and food, with the biggest jumps in fast-growing regions such as Asia, India and South America. Business travel to and from Japan should continue to improve, but leisure travel there will stay slow — forcing down rates for what has long been one of the most expensive countries in the world.

In the US, hotel prices will continue to increase in big coastal cities such as New York, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco where business is brisk, but will remain mostly flat in the heartland where economic recovery is slower. Airfares in the US are currently 10% to 20% higher than two years ago, and should remain high as airlines continue to reduce capacity, consolidate, or, like bankrupt American Airlines, shrink their way to profitability.

In Atlanta, Delta has already announced several cuts to its transatlantic schedule and AirTran/Southwest is trimming away at its domestic schedule from ATL and elsewhere. We are seeing some decent fare sales, but the restrictions around them make it tough for business travelers to use– for example, the current AirTran sale for January is only good for those who can travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

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With Europe’s economic woes, demand and prices for travel in the region could flatten, but this will not be by much. European companies are likely to crack down on extravagant spending by cutting back or eliminating business class air travel, enforcing the use of midrange hotels and asking travellers take trips by car or train instead of flying. In the unlikely event Greece reverts back to the drachma, prices could take a tumble there, opening up opportunities for bargain-focussed vacationers.

Click here on my BBC.com column for a full round up of what to expect regarding… Airfares, hotel rates, travel deals, gas prices, wi-fi, mobile and meetings & conventions…

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What's smarter: To ship or check baggage?

THIS JUST IN: eBay, Gogo Give Passengers 30 Minutes of Free Wi-Fi on Delta thru Jan 2

Now, back to our regular programming….

About this time of year, frequent and infrequent travelers alike are faced with the hassle, uncertainty and expense of checking bags for trips home for the holidays.

Most frequent travelers reading this rarely check bags when on the road for business– and if they do, fees are likely waived due to elite status. But for holiday trips home, bag contents frequently expand to include winter coats, formal wear, gifts and plenty of other extraneous items– especially if kids are involved.

Shipping bags via FEDEX or UPS sounds like a great idea until you look at rates. Shipping luggage is not cheap– or fast. To get rates that meet or beat airline fees, you must ship via ground which can take four or five days to get across the country. And distance makes a big difference when it comes to rates. Plus there’s the time cost of schlepping bags to a FEDEX or UPS facility.

I checked with FEDEX to determine how much it would cost to ship a standard carry on-sized piece of luggage (10″x14″x22″) weighing 35 lbs. from the FEDEX store in Atlanta to New York City, Boulder, Colo. and San Francisco.

Atlanta to New York:

$198 each way – Standard overnight delivery

$106 each way – Two-day delivery

$28 each way — end of second day home delivery

 

Atlanta to Boulder, Colo.:

$213 each way – Standard overnight delivery

$167 each way – Two-day delivery

$35 each way – Three-day (ground) home delivery

 

Atlanta to San Francisco:

$228 each way – Standard overnight delivery

$182 each way – Two-day delivery

$48 each way- End of fourth day (ground) delivery

Keeping in mind most airlines charge $25 for the first checked bag (except Southwest and JetBlue) and $35 for the second, each way, would you pay to ship or just check it with the airline and hope for the best?

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Book your trips here:

AIRTRAN: Get the latest, greatest airfare deals from AIRTRAN.COM

DELTA: Click here for the latest fare sales and deals at Delta Air Lines

HOTWIRE: Great hotel deals and $13.95 per day rental cars with low Hotwire Hot-Rates!



United to install fleetwide inflight wi-fi (finally!)

To me, the introduction of in-flight wi-fi is the best thing to happen to air travel since the introduction of the jet engine. I love it. It makes me more productive. It makes the flight go by much faster. I now choose my flight based on whether or not it has wi-fi. And relatively speaking, it does not cost that much at $6 to $15 per flight.

While SF-based Virgin America has had inflight wi-fi since it first took off in 2007 and Delta Air Lines and AirTran completed fleetwide installations last year, United, the largest carrier at SFO, has only offered it on flights to or from New York.

That’s about to change.

Today United has officially announced that it has selected Panasonic Avionics Corporation to provide Wi-Fi connectivity on more than 300 United Airlines and Continental Airlines mainline aircraft beginning in mid-2012.

And the wait might have been worth it…. That’s because the Panasonic Ku-band system that UAL has chosen will work on flights WORLDWIDE! Across oceans! That’s because the Panasonic system utilizes a satellite based network to provide connectivity. The biggest drawback to the Gogo system used by Virgin, Delta and AirTran is that it’s dependent on a ground based system of antenna, so it only works when flying over the US—once you fly overseas, the service quits. (Gogo does have plans to eventually adopt a satellite-based system; Row 44, which supplies wi-fi to Southwest Airlines, also uses a satellite-based system).

Jim Compton, United’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer said, “As a global carrier, we selected satellite-based Ku-band technology to enable customers to stay connected on long-haul overseas flights, something no other U.S.-based international carrier currently offers.”

United expects to install the Panasonic system on Airbus 319 and 320 and Boeing 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft. Customers will be able to use their wireless devices such as laptops, smart phones and tablets onboard those aircraft to connect with internet service using the in-flight hotspot.

United’s entire mainline fleet will be equipped with Wi-Fi by 2015. Details regarding the installation schedule and pricing are not yet available.

This is super exciting news for United devotees who have felt left behind when nearly every other carrier was offering inflight wi-fi.

How do you feel about this announcement? Will it impact your decision to fly United instead of another carrier? What’s the most you’d pay to be connected to the internet for a flight from SFO to Tokyo…or Frankfurt? Please leave your comments!


Google unveils clever new flight search tool

Today Google unveiled its long awaited new flight search tool. Take a look at the video and a spin through the tool and share your thoughts…do you like it better than your favorite online booking tool? Is this a game changer?

I like what I see…in typical Google style, its super fast, clean and simple, easy to understand, and unbiased. Right now it’s a work in progress, so there are no international flights, or options for one way travel. It also only displays Southwest flight times, but not fares.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.


Google unveils flight search tool (Video)

 

Today Google unveiled its long awaited new flight search tool. Take a look at the video and a spin through the tool and share your thoughts…do you like it better than your favorite online booking tool? Is this a game changer?

I like what I see…in typical Google style, its super fast, clean and simple, easy to understand, and unbiased. Right now it’s a work in progress, so there are no international flights, or options for one way travel. It also only displays Southwest flight times, but not fares.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.


Slow go with Diet Coke Gogo wi-fi promo

UPDATE: ROUND TWO: A second promotional freebie is scheduled to run for just six days:  Tuesday, August 16-Sunday August 21. What’s different about this one is that it’s only good for a 30-minute trial (not unlimited use). Once the 30 minutes are up, users will be logged off and asked to pay for the connection at standard