Monday, July 23, 2007

Introducing Virgin America

Virgin America, a U.S.-based affiliate of the already enormous Virgin empire of Richard Branston (though only owned 25% by Virgin Group because of U.S. laws restricting foreign ownership of airlines), started selling tickets at 6:00 a.m. EDT on July 20. The first flights are scheduled for August 8, pending Government approval.

Now, I know what you're thinking: another airline? It's true that we have quite a few of them these days, but before you write this off as a waste, let me tell you some of the things that promise to make Virgin America different from most of the airlines flying today:
  • Outlets at every seat with standard 110v power, USB connectors, and Ethernet for broadband Internet access
  • Self-serve mini-bars and fresh food that can be ordered from your seat and bought with the swipe of a credit card
  • Mood lighting that changes over the course of the flight to create a relaxing atmosphere
  • A First Class cabin with reclining leather seats with footrests, equivalent to what you'd find on international business class on America's legacy carriers
  • On-demand digital entertainment including television by Dish Network, pay-per-view movies, and video games
Up until this point, I would have subjectively rated JetBlue as America's most advanced airline, on account of their DirecTV video service, expanded seating, and overall excellent service for extremely reasonable prices; Virgin America looks ready to challenge them on every level. By opting for two-class service, they're also taking aim at the lucrative business market served by the legacy carriers.

Most of my questions at this point focus on Virgin America's frequent flyer program, eleVAte. Would-be travelers can join today, but details on the program are still sparse. What's known so far is that eleVAte is a point-based program (5 points per $1 spent on travel), and award tickets will be available for any open seat. What we don't know so far, though, is...
  • Will upgrades be available using points? (Probably.)
  • How many points will it take to book an award seat?
  • Is there an elite status tier system?
  • And the big question: will Virgin America's eleVAte program include partner affiliation with Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club?
This last point matters a lot. Why? Well, because Virgin America is a domestic low-cost carrier. That means you'll be able to fly VA* around the United States--but to really compete in the business travel market, an airline needs to be able to offer international service. Virgin Atlantic already offers service around the world; if Virgin America flyers gain access to the benefits of the huge Virgin Atlantic route map, the appeal to fly with VA will be much greater.

Anyway, flights scheduled to start on August 8, with initial routes operating out of San Francisco/SFO with service to New York/JFK and Los Angeles/LAX. Direct LAX-JFK service should start on August 29, and VA plans to add Washington-Dulles and Las Vegas-McCarran to the mix before the end of October. (Refer to the route map.)

I'm planning my first flight on Virgin America to be over Labor Day weekend. Check back for an update at that point.



* Virgin America has been assigned the code "VX" because "VA" is already assigned to Virgin Atlantic. But I think most people will refer to them as "VA" anyway, especially since the airline chose to call its frequent flyer program "eleVAte".

Friday, July 13, 2007

Understanding Award Fares on Legacy Carriers

One of the biggest benefits of frequent flyer programs is the ability to trade accrued flight credits for free travel. The process is extremely straightforward for low-cost airlines like JetBlue, which have only one type of ticket. Choose your flight, trade your credits, and hop aboard.

It gets a little more complicated, though, when you're dealing with one of the legacy carriers, the seven* U.S. airlines that existed prior to deregulation. Consumer advocacy groups and passengers alike regularly complain that it's virtually impossible to get free flights from these airlines. The airlines counter that awards are always available.

In fact, both sides are correct.

Legacy carriers typically have two classes of award: an unrestricted award, which can lay claim to any seat on any flight on any day; and a restricted award, which is available for a limited number of seats on certain flights and may have blackout dates. The names vary by carrier and can be a little confusing--"standard", for instance, means unrestricted on United while Continental uses the same name for its restricted awards--but there is one common trait: unrestricted awards require twice as many miles as their restricted counterparts.

When advocates complain about award availability, therefore, they aren't claiming that airlines won't actually honor award fares; they always do. What has them furious is the difficulty that they have obtaining restricted awards, forcing them to use twice as many miles to take the same trip.

Now, to be fair, I almost always pay for my fares so I can earn miles towards elite status. At the same time, I regularly buy award tickets for my girlfriend and other people to accompany me on trips, so the shortage of restricted award is an annoyance that I routinely encounter. (Anyone who imagines that I have an unlimited stockpile of miles to use for unrestricted awards need only consider just how many miles it takes to get one of those tickets when going to, say, Asia.)

Even so, I think people are being a little unfair. With flexible planning, it's possible to find a restricted award going just about anywhere. And if you do have firm, fixed plans, why shouldn't you pay for the privilege of having the itinerary that you want? At a time when most of the miles we use for free tickets are earned from non-flying activities like credit cards, we as consumers should appreciate the cost airlines incur when passengers fly for free.

That being said, everyone wants to get the best deal. So, how can you get the best availability of restricted awards? Here are some tips:
  • Check early. Award fares are available as much as a year in advance.
  • Check again 30 days out. Most airlines "hold" a number of award seats until a month in advance to prevent everything disappearing too early to give anyone a chance.
  • Check again 14 days out. Depending on booking, additional seats may be converted to restricted awards.
  • Call 3-4 days in advance. Airlines hate to fly with empty seats. Sometimes, empty seats get converted to last-minute restricted awards at the last minute.

Even if you do everything right, though, you may not be able to get a restricted award. If that happens, you have a few choices. If it's not expensive, you may prefer to buy a ticket outright. Most programs also let you buy miles, and some let you transfer them from other programs like American Express Membership Rewards.

In a pinch, though, you may have to reschedule your trip. That's why the best advice I can give you when it comes to award travel is this: if one person is buying a ticket and booking an award fare for someone else, always lock in the award ticket first. Otherwise, you may end up paying a fee (which may be as much as $100) to reschedule the fare you bought.

Happy travels!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thinking of Traveling Solo?

Most people assume that traveling is something best done with a bunch of friends or as part of a tour. Group trips have their place, but there's a lot to be said for traveling solo as well.

Writing for one of my favorite travel sites, RaeJean Stokes offers some great insights on traveling alone. Her comments are focused on students in particular, but as a 27-year old who's had more than his share of solo adventures, I can assure you that these tips and the references that she includes as links will be helpful to just about anyone.

Take a look!

For Luxury, Look to Foreign Airlines

In today's Wall Street Journal, Scott McCartney writes about the luxuries that some foreign carriers are making available to their First Class passengers: private check-in and security screening, bubble baths, cigar rooms, and chauffered planeside service in a Mercedes or Porsche. At the same time, the article observes that most of the U.S. legacy carriers--including Delta, Northwest, Continental, and U.S. Airways--have eliminated First Class service altogether for their overseas passengers, offering only Business and Coach seating.

And for those that do continue to offer international First Class, the service gap between their accommodations and those of foreign carriers could hardly be wider: United Airlines, for instance, recently announced with much fanfare that its international First Class passengers would receive free WiFi Internet access in its lounges, a $9.95 value in recognition of a fare often priced at more than $6,000. (AirlineEquality offers ratings of the various airlines' lounges; you'll notice that the U.S. carriers' lounges receive little praise.)

But we can hardly place the blame for waning service on the airlines. For all of their faults, U.S. carriers tailor their service to what their customers want--and America has become a culture more interested in lower prices than higher quality. As long as that remains the case, we can anticipate that the U.S. airline experience will lag behind that offered by foreign airlines. If you do want to receive outstanding service, put those alliances to use and do your overseas flying with a foreign airline.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Dealing with Delays

In its July 5 article "Ugly Airline Math," the New York Times brought to the forefront a serious problem facing travelers: across the board, domestic airlines are finding it harder to keep to their schedules. As fares drop, air travel is becoming more popular, and because airspace and air traffic control capacities are limited, adding more planes tends to compound rather than reduce the problem.

Merely an annoyance in most cases for passengers arriving at their final destinations, flight delays can cause serious problems for those who are meeting connecting flights--especially if those connections take them overseas or to remote airports serviced by infrequent commuter flights.

No amount of planning can prevent delays entirely. Spontaneous Tourists, however, can minimize the impact of these delays by following some basic principles of travel planning:
  • Try to get direct flights rather than connections. You may arrive late, but at least when you do arrive, it will be at your final destination.
  • If connections are unavoidable, try to find an itinerary where all flight segments are with the same airline. That makes it easier to reroute you in the event of a delay.
  • Give yourself some leeway by planning any layovers to last at least an hour.
  • Include luggage tags with your phone number of all checked baggage, so the airline can reach you in case something gets lost en route.

Above all, be courteous and patient when dealing with airline staff members. It's understandable that you're frustrated, but imagine the amount of work--and stress--involved in dealing with hundreds of frustrated people! U.S. airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delays; compensation rules apply only to passengers involuntarily "bumped" from overbooked flights. There are often things that the airline can do for you, though, and when you treat people well, they are far more inclined to help you.

Happy travels.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Finding Last Minute Fare Specials

All of the legacy carriers in the U.S.--United, U.S. Airways, American, Delta, Northwest, Continental, and Alaska Air--offer last minute fare specials for the weekends, which are called "e-fares", "e-savers", or other names depending on the airline. The airlines offer these reduced rates to fill flights that are coming up on the weekend below their optimal bookings, so the city pairs that are offered change each week.

Instead of visiting each carrier's site to see what options are available, try the Last Minute Airfare tool on SmarterTravel.com, which lets you find fares based on an origin city, a destination city, or a preferred airline. It's simple and quick.

Why We Travel

"One of the issues becoming obvious in the aviation industry is that it is not about the United States anymore," said Jon Kutler, head of Admiralty Partners, a Los Angeles aerospace private equity firm. "It's an extraordinary shift in power. Airlines like the Emirates are pushing for the latest and greatest. They are making an obvious distinction with American carriers that are nickel-and-diming the passengers."

Quoted in a recent article in the International Herald Tribune's business section, Mr. Kutler captures in one stroke the essence of why it is so critical for Americans to travel. For fifty years, those favored by luck to be born in the United States have enjoyed a preeminent position in the world. While children in other countries learned foreign languages, we confidently strode across the globe speaking only English, the purchasing power of American dollars reinforcing our belief that the world revolved around us.

The world has changed.

Today's American students--lazy beyond reckoning, demonstrably inferior in terms of measured performance, yet blind to these realities because of a culture that places them on a pedestal--will enter a global economy in which their birthright offers precious little. In such an environment, we cannot afford to ignore the outside world.

Travel. See the world. Talk to people. Learn that the ways in which others do things are different but not necessarily inferior. As Thomas L Friedman writes in The World is Flat, "the playing field is being leveled."

To get to the top, you'll have to climb.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

One-way vs. Round-trip on the Chinatown Bus

The Chinatown Bus has become increasingly popular in the last few years. Tickets can be bought online or in person when the bus pulls up, and fares are amazingly low--around $20 for a typical one-way from New York to Washington, D.C. Safety records are hard to track, but the buses themselves are comparable in terms of comfort to what mainstream industry giant Greyhound offers, and GotoBus.com makes it easy to check schedules for all of the participating companies.

While each company provides similar service, however, the companies themselves are unrelated and do not accept one another's tickets. That introduces a bit of a dilemma for some travelers, because once you've got a ticket with a particular bus line, you're stuck waiting for that company's bus to arrive. On the other hand, the round-trip fare is about $5 cheaper than two one-way fares, money you might use to pick up dinner at a fast-food place before you leave.

Of course, there's no right or wrong answer here. If you'd like the flexibility to jump on whichever bus shows up first that's heading to your destination, the higher total fare is worthwhile. For those who want the best deal, buy round-trip and be prepared to wait a bit longer as other buses come and go. The important thing is that you're aware of your options.