United DOES care (on a trip when your in-flight entertainment doesn’t work)

My wife and I took United flight 1513 from Newark to San Francisco last Thursday afternoon and were pleasantly surprised by the outcome of an unfortunate situation that occurred with the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system.

Essentially, since United decided to remove many of their IFE systems from planes to save on costs. The physical hardware requires maintenance and fuel in order to keep it in the sky. Many airlines are going in this direction so you should always check in advance if you need to download an app or a movie to make sure you have something to watch on long flights (that is, if you want to – there are also these paper-based items called “books” I’ve heard are having a resurgence).

Anyway, for the vast majority of our flight the IFE system was inoperable. My wife and I like to watch movies together on airplanes and were disappointed (as, I’m sure were parents of small children…). I read a book and took a nap, then discovered with about 45 minutes left in the flight that the IFE was working again.

Throughout this situation, were kept fairly well apprised by the flight attendants that there was nothing they could do and that they were sorry for the delay. Toward the second half of the flight we heard a message explaining that they wanted to make it right with us and we should go to this website in order to get something for our troubles. In the end, we were offered a choice that – to me – is a no-brainer:

5000 miles is worth about $50-$75 with how they are often used, so I opted for the $100 e-certificate for the two of us. That means our next flights are discounted by a pretty substantial amount. Since the plane tickets, themselves, were about $110 each for us, I’m impressed that we were able to get these certificates.

Also, I’m curious to know United’s math on this situation. According to this seating chart of the plane that we used (I think it was this model of 777-200) there were 364 people on the plane, meaning $100 * 364 = $36,400 of extra cost for United. I am very impressed at both the speed and ease in which this all took place. This definitely makes me like them a bit more than I had before.

Kudos, United. Thanks for the money back.

Review: United 777-300ER EWR->SFO (Economy)

On a trip to San Francisco last week I decided to get up quite early and take the new 777-300ER United flight from Newark, hoping against all hope that I would be upgraded because of how early the flight was (7:00am). I was (unpleasantly) surimg_7844prised that so many people wanted to take the flight. It probably happened because the plane just started being flown 10 days ago. The review I’m about to write is not about the new Polaris business class (lord knows we’ve had a lot of those recently, anyway). I did attempt to buy an upgrade to business class using miles and cash, but to no avail. By the time the flight was boarding, I was #19 on the waitlist.

img_7847I can tell you that the Polaris seat looks quite nice and comfortable. As many have said before, there are better and worse seats in the cabin so watch out. My brief assessment (as I walked by), however, is that all the seats are pretty darned good for transcontinental (and soon transatlantic) service.


What I did end up getting was one of the economy seats closest to the front of the cabin as possible: seat 30F. It is a middle seat in the middle section of the 3-4-3 cabin, so it’s not the most desirable. That being said, for some reason I had no one sitting next to me (possibly because that person was upgraded to Economy Plus or Polaris Business class – who knows?).

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It was legitimately a pretty tight squeeze, at 17″ of seat width, something akin to the low-cost-carriers like Frontier or Spirit. That being said, the in-flight entertainment was pretty spectacular with all kinds of on-demand movies and TV shows for free. Since it was such an early flight I spent a bit of time watching the end of a film I had started on a previous flight and then did my best to sleep. The seat does recline (however little) and my legs were fine fitting under the seat in front of me. The only annoying thing is that the posts holding the seats down don’t completely match up with where your feet sit, so watch out for having room for them if you have larger people sitting next to you.

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The other important thing to note is that the overhead bins seem to be smaller than the crew is used to. I heard several times that they do not hold as much as other flights and that they have been checking around 60 bags per flight, despite them fitting within the carry-on requirements.

I’m not sure how the in-flight service was since I was asleep when they came around. It was probably minimal, but good. They don’t charge for your first snack and drink, which is nice.

Overall, it was a fine flight. After taking first class all over the world it is a significant downgrade (even from other United economy seats) so beware of taking this plane unless you are fully aware of the ups and downs.


Should you keep that credit card or not?

As many of you who read this blog know my wife and I have over 25 credit cards to our names. In some, she is the primary user and in some I am. We have accumulated all these cards because of their sign-up bonuses and various benefits like free checked baggage, access to lounges, elite status, etc. But, every little while it is a good idea to think about if you should keep a card in your wallet (or folio, in our case) or cut it free. In fact, The Points Guy has great posts on checking your credit card inventory once in a while.

The biggest question for me in keeping or cancelling a care is if I am getting a benefit that outweighs the annual fee every year. The easiest examples of “keepers” to me are cards for airlines I or my wife use frequently. For example, we have a United Mileage Plus Explorer card and an AAdvantage Aviator Red Card, each with a $95 annual fee, but we keep them year after year because we get benefits of free checked bags (a $25 benefit each flight per bag) and boarding status (we get to come on the plane earlier and make sure our carry-ons fit in the overhead compartment). As long as we have at least four bag-checks on each airline, it is worth it to keep those cards.

Other cards come with anniversary bonuses. The Amtrak Guest Rewards World card provides an annual Companion pass that, if used correctly, can offset its $79 annual fee. My wife and I travel to Providence, RI frequently enough that a round-trip train ticket + companion makes that doable. The JetBlue Plus Card has a fee of $99 but gives free checked bags and 5,000 points after every account anniversary.

Some cards come with status and not necessarily other benefits you might use. The AMEX Hilton HHonors Surpass card has a $75 annual fee but comes with Gold status at all Hilton-connected hotels. That has given me free room upgrades and free breakfast in at least three situations, totally that much money or more. Additionally, I have earned more points than usual, making it more possible to have a free night sooner. Basically, it does end up paying for itself.

It’s really the big, expensive cards that make me seriously think whether or not it’s worth it to keep them. I currently have a Citi Prestige card, which I got in December 2015 when the sign-up bonus was 50,000 ThankYou points. I applied because I knew that while it has a $450 annual fee, each calendar year it comes with a $250 airline credit. So by using it in 2015 to buy a flight and 2016 to buy a flight, I received $500 in credits to offset the fee the first year. Additionally, it also comes with a host of other benefits including access to the Priority Pass network of lounges across the globe, which my wife and I used extensively during our honeymoon. The fee just came up again and I am debating whether or not to keep the card. It is essentially a $200 annual fee card (with the offset airline credit) in order to access a whole host of lounges and potentially free hotel nights as well. I’m not sure what to do with it but I have some time to decide.

So there you have it – my basic analysis of the different types of benefits you can earn. It really is an individual decision whether or not to keep these cards and, as the Points Guy said at a recent workshop I attended, “do the math.”

Death of the Mileage Run?

Two days ago American Airlines announced that starting on August 1, 2016 their frequent flyer program, AAdvantage, will become revenue-based instead of mileage-based. This is a move that follows the other major carriers, Delta and United, who have done the same in recent history. It is definitely a big move as AA is the largest domestic carrier in the US and now all three of the top domestic carriers have similar rules.

With these major carriers imposing these changes, it seems that there is another nail in the coffin of the mileage run, a practice of flying to distant locations for cheap fares in order to gain miles for use at a later time. With revenue-based earning, the price of the ticket matters a lot more than the distance flown.

So what does this mean more specifically? Here is an example of a flight from New York’s JFK airport to London-Heathrow.Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.16.27 PMScreen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.16.33 PM


Under the former system, 100% of the miles flown would be added to the purchaser’s account in any Economy class, as shown below. Since the two airports are 3,452 miles apart (as calculated by TravelMath), the total miles earned would be 3,452 * 2 = 6,904.

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According to American Airlines’ new rules, however, for that same trip costing  $881, the number is significantly less. First of all, only the “Base Fare” and “Carrier-imposed Fees” count towards mileage determination. Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.18.12 PM

So, only the $195 + $458 count, totaling $653. With the example shared on their announcement website, a low-level member of AAdvantage (read: most of us) would earn 5 miles/dollar. That totals to a whopping 653 * 5 = 3,265 miles, not even half of what was earned before.Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.22.34 PM

So, with this information in mind, it’s important to consider a) if earning points from flying is actually worthwhile in the future and b) perhaps we should put our miles on foreign carriers to get more leverage from them in the future.

United’s cheapest award booking

My wife and I are going to Detroit in June to attend a wedding and so I’ve been trying to find the cheapest flights available that matched our criteria. New York to Detroit is a well-traveled route (although not by international standards) with plenty of options for flights. Since Detroit is Delta’s second-largest hub I thought I would try them but came up with flights at inopportune times for over $300 each roundtrip.

Instead, I opted to check out my award travel options on United, knowing that they fly a lot to Detroit and I have their MileagePlus Explorer Card, guaranteeing me more options of award tickets. I wound up finding a sweet spot on their award chart:Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 7.38.41 PM

That asterisk next to the 10 in the Saver award was very useful. For flights below 700 miles United allows Saver awards for 10,000 miles one-way.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 6.45.06 PMI capitalized on this and immediately booked our flights. For a meager $22.40, we are going to Detroit for the wedding and getting free bags to boot due to award ticket rules!

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Florida and Nashville for under $600

My wife and I recently decided to use President’s Weekend to visit Florida again and – since I have a mid-Winter break as a teacher – I am continuing on to Nashville for the rest of the week. We used a variety of different mileage deals as well as knowledge of where to get discounts in order to book these tickets.

Flights to Florida
I searched a variety of methods including using British Airways Avios to book an American Airlines flight for 7,500 Avios per person but unfortunately the availability was just not there. There were a few business/first class flights but since their devaluation last year, it was no longer worth it (15K for the one way, not it’s 30K). In the end, I found availability using American Airlines miles themselves under their “Economy AAnytime” category which was only 20K per person. I had 32K available personally but my wife had 7K available to transfer. The cost was about $80 (annoying) and I had to buy the last 1K at a cost of $50. Baggage is free since this is an award ticket. Total cost: $130 (for miles) + $11.20 (Sept. 11th fees) = $142.50

Rental car in Florida
I don’t often use these deals, but I received a notice in my email from American Airlines that we could earn 6 times the normal mileage for renting through Hertz using certain codes sent to me via email. That’s exactly what we did, so for total cost of under $200, we got our three day rental. Total cost: $197.

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Housing in Florida
This is the cheapest part. My parents have a condo in Delray Beach. If you have family members who have places to stay in Florida, take advantage of it. Instead of spending any hotel points or money to stay in an AirBnB or something like that, it was free. Total cost: $0.

Return flights
My wife is returning to New York on February 16 and I am continuing on to Nashville to explore a city and state I’ve never been to! I found a return ticket for her using United because we received travel vouchers for $150 due to our complaint a few weeks ago on our last trip to Toronto. I found a deal for $211.10 (pretty good) on her return fare. We have the MileagePlus Explorer card, so baggage is free for the first two travelers. Total for her flight: $211.10 – $150 = $61.10.

As I mentioned, I am continuing travel to Nashville for three more days of relaxing break. I found a deal with Southwest Airlines for a direct flight using a ridiculously small amount of points: 6,699 for the one-way. Since we have more than enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points right now, I transferred 5,000 (I already had about 1,900 in my account) and booked the ticket. Total cost: $5.60 (Sept. 11th fee again).

Housing in Nashville
I did some searching using the various hotel points we have and found a good deal with Hilton Hotels for a Hampton Inn at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. For only 30,000 points/night I could book my three nights for free! The only snag was that I only had 80K. I researched the cost of the extra 10K points and found out it would have been another $100 to buy the points necessary.

Instead, I looked at some of the transferable options that I have access to. I shied away from using our Chase Ultimate Rewards point as we want to use that for a return flight for our honeymoon. Instead, I realized that I have had a few thousand Citibank ThankYou points lying around a checking account for years. I looked at their list of transfer partners and – low and behold – Hilton is one of them! At a ratio of 1.5:1, I transferred 7K for a redemption of 10.5K – exactly what I needed. Total cost for my hotel: $0. 

Rental car in Nashville
This purchase was deceptively simple. I usually use a website called RentalCarPerks for specific codes that have offers for Hertz, Avis, Budget, and more. Instead, Enterprise had the best offer – an intermediate SUV for $120. Yes, that was the cheapest option (not the compact or economy – those were more expensive). Total cost of car rental: $120.47

Return flight from Nashville
I used my own United voucher on a flight I found for $175.10. Again, having the United credit card allows for free baggage. Total cost for flight: $175.10 – $150 = $25.10


Success with United Customer Comments

As you may have read in my recent blog posts my wife and I had an unfortunate interaction with United Airlines last week that resulted in me making an official customer comment (complaint) on their website. It took a few days, but I received a pleasant response from one of their representatives who told me I would be receiving a travel voucher for my troubles.

Dear Mr. Cohen:

I’m sorry for the inconvenience you experienced when your flight was delayed.

Direct customer feedback about our products and services is so important in helping us to improve.

Please know our goal is to operate every flight on schedule, every day. Unfortunately, there may be times when weather, a mechanical issue or the late arrival of a crew member, due to missed connection or other unforeseen event, may cause a flight to be delayed. When this occurs, we want to minimize the impact to you as much as possible and keep you informed.

For information of your damaged clothing in your baggage, please contact our baggage resolution department at 1-800-335-2247.

For your inconvenience I would like to offer you an electronic travel certificate as an expression of our concern. Please allow 3-5 days for processing and delivery via a separate email.

We hope to welcome you aboard another flight in the near future, and thereby have the opportunity to win back your trust. Our goal is to create the world’s most Flyer Friendly airline. We have room for improvement, but that’s the direction we’re headed.

Thank you for your business and for flying the friendly skies.

In the end, they sent me two $150 travel vouchers (one for me and one for my wife). We are now contemplating what to do with these vouchers (likely get us to Florida again in the winter).

After the success of that comment, I sent another one in because we had almost been bumped and received separate travel vouchers for $700 each. I said that I had signed something that seemed like a contract for those vouchers and they should not have taken them back. We will see what happens with that. It might be me being greedy but, hey, if you don’t ask, you won’t receive!

Communication Nightmare on United (part 2)

Continuing from my previous post on our issues with United to fly to Florida for my winter break, there was another major complaint that we had leading up to the flight.

We arrived at the gate at around 7:30pm, with the set departure time of 8:30pm (now that it was delayed). We heard and saw on the screen by the gate that they were offering travel vouchers and overnight accommodation for anyone willing to be bumped to another flight.

I had done some research earlier that day and discovered that the plane we were supposed to take at 7:14pm was coming from New Orleans and was super delayed (hence the previous messages that our flight would not leave until 10:30pm). When United decided to push the flight time forward again it was because they had grabbed another plane from somewhere else to use for our flight. This plane was smaller than the originally scheduled one and so not all the passengers would physically fit anymore.

My wife and I spoke and decided that if they offered us at least $300 each, we would accept the voucher and fly the next day.

When I found out that they were offering $700 each – I jumped on it! I waited by the gate for the representative to call me over and held the vouchers in my hand while the rest of the passengers were boarding. The rep at first offered me tickets on the flight that left December 24 at 7:11am, which would have been fine. Then she offered tickets for the flight leaving December 23 at 8:58 pm (45 minutes hence) that would have been awesome! My wife and I got so excited!

Then, she told us that one of the seats was taken on the 8:58pm and she would book us on the 7:11am flight. After 2 minutes and all the passengers had boarded, they realized they actually did not need our seats and took back the vouchers and put us back on the plane. It seemed very unprofessional to me and was a bit let-down.

We are going to follow up all this with an official complaint to United because of the heartstring tug-of-war that made us rush, get all wet, and then we were almost changing plans while being rebooked. It was annoying but we did finally arrive (late) in Fort Lauderdale and went to sleep for the night.

Communication nightmare on United (Part 1)

I know I haven’t written here in a while – things got quite busy with work and life. I’m hoping to continue regular posting. In that vein, here is a recent story (last night) about a horrible experience my wife and I had before a United flight from Newark to Fort Lauderdale.


My wife and I planned a trip to stay in Delray Beach at my parent’s condo. I wrote about this recently as I was excited to plan and execute a trip for less than $500. We were to fly out at 7:14pm yesterday, December 23, one of the worst times to travel in the country, but I thought with 4 hours to get from work to the gate, we would be fine. It all started going downhill when, at 3:00pm, I got a text message from United saying our flight was delayed:

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I immediately got on the phone with my Mileage Plus Explorer Card phone number. I did have to wait about 15 minutes on hold, but the agent did her best to find me two other seats later that night on United and on American or Delta. I was pleasantly surprised by her effort, but nothing worked. Unfortunately, she would not let me put on hold a ticket for the next day just in case.

She did tell me, however, that my flight was actually delayed by 3 hours and wouldn’t leave until around 10pm. I kept checking the United flight status page but it hadn’t updated. Once I got off the phone with her, I received this text message:

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I called my wife and my parents so everyone knew what to expect. My wife stayed at work and I went home. Little did I realized but things can change rapidly, as noted on the United Flight Status page:

* United Airlines will do everything practical to ensure we provide the most accurate flight status information at all times. However, situations change quickly and many factors affect our scheduled operations. Please understand that a flight listed as “Delayed” may, depending on the circumstances, depart “On Time.” Unless your flight has been listed as “cancelled” we suggest you always check-in for the original scheduled departure time of your flight.

So, really, I shouldn’t have been surprised to receive this text message about 20 minutes after I had ordered a burger for delivery:

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At this point it was 4:45pm and my carefully planned relaxed method of getting to the airport was done for. We both left our respective locations immediately and booked it to the airport. Subways were working fine but we got drenched in the downpour of rain that was brought in with a warm front (to make a rainy Christmas, oy). When we met each other at Penn Station, we could relax a little bit more since I received the final important text message of the evening:
Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 5.54.05 PMThe story doesn’t end there, however. You will have to stay tuned for the next installment soon!

Using Virgin Atlantic miles to book a Delta award flight

My wife and I are traveling to San Francisco in October for a wedding of some good friends but had an issue where our miles seemed not to work as well as we would have liked them to. Originally I tried to book United flights but all the saver availability (25,000 miles roundtrip) seemed to be out for the flights that we wanted. Since I have the United Mileage Plus Explorer Card (contact me for a referral) we are still able to purchase the standard award level (50,000 miles roundtrip) for these flights, however. That would have been our best option.Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 8.07.38 PM

With this reservation, our cost/mile usage would be 1.05 cents/miles. The Points Guy values United miles at 1.5 cents/mile so this would not be the best use of our miles.

Then I remembered a critical component of travel with miles and points: booking awards with partner airlines. I’ve written previously about using British Airways Avios to book American Airlines flights because it’s so easy to do – simply use their website tool to find availability. There is something to be said, however, for simply “phoning it in.” Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 8.14.25 PM

I remembered that Virgin Atlantic has partner airlines in Virgin American and Delta and that roundtrip flights within the Continental US are only 25,000 miles roundtrip (plus the $5.60 September 11th fee). I called them up and found that while there was no availability for Virgin America, the Delta option was wide open. I put a hold on the flights that we wanted that will stay in place for 48 hours.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 8.22.32 PMIn the meantime I transferred 50,000 points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account into my Virgin Atlantic account and just waited. In theory it should be instantaneous and in reality it took about three minutes for the miles to show up. So, in the end I am able to book the following Delta flight with only 50,000 Virgin Atlantic miles for my wife and me:

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In this new scenario, our points/mile ratio is 1.87 cents/mile. The Points Guy values these miles at between 1.5-2.3 cents/mile so we are right on the money.

All in all, not bad for a day’s work of savings.