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.)

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. There is no clear word from Delta regarding its interest in the A350, but with its recent retirement of four Boeing 747s and the need for more wide bodies, you never know! 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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Trip Report: ANA’s 787 Dreamliner to Tokyo

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.

Best Credit Cards

If you are in the market for a new card, please do so via the links here. 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.  THANK YOU! Best all around cards for business travelers (and what Chris carries in his wallet): Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World MasterCard. Both offer nice 40,000 mile sign up bonuses (after spending $3,000 in first three months), and you can use miles on several airlines, hotels and other travel providers. Neither charges irritating foreign transaction fees. And the Barclaycard now has Chip & PIN for easier use overseas. That 40,000 mile bonus with Chase Sapphire is good for $500 in travel when booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Try it, you’ll like it!

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

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How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi

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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.

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!

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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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

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

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Economy comfort gets an upgrade (for some)

Late summer airfare sale starts TODAY

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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): 

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 8.13.14 AM

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

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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]

***

Subscribe to TravelSkills-  via e-mail!

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

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!)

***

Subscribe to TravelSkills-  via e-mail!

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

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