Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

At The Airport: Same Old, Same Old
Plus A Hotel Recommendation

Recent flying experiences in this supposedly worst-of-all-summers don't seem any worse than they have been to me.

For instance, I just returned from an itinerary that involved me, one way or another, on six American Airlines flights. Four flights suffered mechanical problems that either delayed the flights (3) or led to a cancellation (1); one flight was late into DFW for unexplained reasons (and even later leaving after the slow turnaround due to a high number of wheelchairs and UMs); only one flight was on time. One out of six.

Of course, even that mere 16.67% could possibly exceed the norm for on-time flights these days. But when one is personally discomfited on five out of six flights, well, it's different from coolly reading tardy flight statistics in USA Today while sipping a neat whisky in a relaxed hotel bar.

I was upgraded on two flights (no food, though) and downgraded on one (due to the cancellation), and flew in what AA likes to call the "main cabin" on the others. But those were merely the opening acts for the grand finale.

On my last flight, 2 hours and 23 minutes long from DFW to Raleigh, I was squashed in a center seat next to a person medical professionals would define as "morbidly obese" whose body oozed over of its own enormous accord (having nowhere else to go) into half my seat after maxing out every square centimeter of his own comfy aisle seat. Indeed, his heft was such that the beverage cart could not squeeze by the other side of his torso until he stood up. I was unable to raise the soft drink glass to my lips with my left arm because it was permanently blocked by various of Man Mountain's body parts.

The cherry on top, however, (same flight) was the infant seated directly behind my right ear on his father's lap who apparently, and with great delight, discovered his voice that very morn. He shrieked and screamed with soul-piercing baby yodels, with silent intervals of never more than 30 seconds, during the entire flight. With every ear-splitting outburst, the child's parents, unabashed, cooed encouraging words to their noisome offspring like he was the Second Coming.

I endured that 143 minutes with stoical determination, never saying a word of complaint either to my lard-ass neighbor nor to the inconsiderate duo who claimed satan's child as their own.

Still, I say: Such experiences have come at me regularly for some years. I am not in more pain flying, nor is it more sustained now, than, say, a year ago. It's just pretty much the same level, and for most all the time.

Not that I'm giving the legacy carriers a pass, mind you. It's just that it seems to me that the nincompoops who pretend to "manage" UA, DL, NW, CO, and AA are doing the same incompentent job as always. Heck, why all the fuss about THIS summer?

The more things change (fewer flights, higher fares), the more they stay the same (miserable experiences), I guess.

On a happier note, I have a hotel recommendation if you are heading off to Oklahoma City.

Last summer I stayed at a downtown Marriotti Courtyard in central Denver and was surprised at how upscale the big city CYs have become. The Mariott Courtyard Oklahoma City Downtown-Bricktown is in the same genre, but even fancier.

Despite some garish lobby colors, the property was more reminiscent of a real Marriott or even a Renaissance than any CY I've ever checked into. Big rooms, fancy amenities, valet parking, plush bar and dining area, and lots more--you get the idea.

Right by the front entrance there's even a convenient self-service laptop and laser printer for printing your boarding passes.

Not complaining, but I am uncertain how such properties differentiate themselves from their snootier brand cousins any more. It was a steal at $139/night (client corporate rate). The staff was friendly, very attentive and extremely well-informed, anxious to please, and consistently proved themselves with follow-through--more like the staff at a Ritz-Carlton than the typical Courtyard.
If you find yourself in need of a bed in downtown OKC, I recommend it.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Airline Frequent Flier Programs:
Why Bother Any More?

I'm still on the North Carolina Outer Banks with my family this week enjoying our summer vacation, so this will be a short post. What I have to say about the current state of FF programs, though, is necessarily brief even if getting back to my kids on the beach were not a priority.

My title this week is, admittedly, a phony come-on. There are, in fact, many good reasons for maintaining one's elite status in as many airline frequent flier programs as possible. But it's not really because of the free travel any longer.

So-called "award travel" tickets are increasingly hard to come by, and they've never been more expensive. Though this has been especially true for first and business class awards for some years, even getting a "free" (of course, they were never "free") coach ticket for less than double miles is nigh impossible these days.

Much has been written about the spiraling devaluation of award travel, including these sad facts:

  • Double miles are the only award travel available in most markets now, so airlines have effectively doubled the mileage rates they "charge" for award tickets.
  • That's on top of the fact that airlines have continuously raised the mileage required for all awards at the so-called "saver" levels.
  • Even after paying twice the mileage, new fees have been added for cashing in mileage for award tickets at some airlines, and all are expected to follow.
  • Delta announced last December that it has placed capacity controls on some double mileage awards, meaning it's eliminating "last seat availability" for double mileage travel awards; their action makes even double mileage awards harder to get, further eroding the value of FF programs.
  • The recent well-publicized capacity cuts of 10-20%, of course, make award seats even more scarce, especially when one considers that the number of people competing for awards is growing, not shrinking.
So what's an elite traveler to do? The carrot of "free" seats continues to move away from us even as we reach ever higher levels of elitism and millions of banked miles.

(Oh, and banking miles is a subject that requires a lengthy treatise by itself. Suffice it to say that it's bad policy, and that you should use your miles up annually. I believe my friend, Joe Brancatelli, has some very sound advice on this matter that he intends to share at in the near future, so watch for it there.)

I don't fret over the decreasing value of my miles. I use the miles up quickly (as best I can), and I focus instead on what I consider to be the greater benefits that come with attaining Gold, Platinum, or above with Northwest, Continental, American, and Delta. (No offense to anybody who still loves them, but I long ago gave up on US Airways and United.) Those program values are:

  • Access to so-called "premium" seats in the coach cabin when booking -- I can almost always snag an aisle seat near the front of the economy section, which makes flying in coach a lot more tolerable than a center seat or window seat or sitting way in the back.
  • Access to elite TSA security lines (at airports that have them) -- This is a huge benefit which saves wear and tear on my psyche.
  • Boarding ahead of other coach passengers -- After first class is seated, they call the Platinums and Golds to board, and what a great relief it is to stow my carry-on bags in the empty overheads before the masses fill them up!
  • Elite telephone lines -- Being able to phone an elite agent during times of crisis such as weather delays (snow in the winter, thunderstorms in the summer) and ATC delays gives Platinums and Golds a head-start on rebooking.
  • More subtle elite favors -- Platinums, and even Golds, are often forgiven the onerous fees airlines are adding for everything; these include "first bag" charges, award travel fees, change fees, and so on. It never hurts to ask an elite agent to forgive such a fee, and the request is often rewarded if you are one of their best customers, even if the rules say otherwise. (Some fees are specifically excluded from elite customers anyway.)
  • Upgrades -- This is the ultimate benefit, in my opinion. I won't get into the complex upgrade rules of each airline, and I'm not going to proselytize about which is best or worst. Each of the four carriers I normally use (DL, NW, AA, CO) has its own way of rewarding elite customers through upgrades to first class, and staying a Platinum gives me the best chance to sit up front.
That's it in a nutshell. I maintain that those are darn good reasons to keep making Platinum (or at least Gold) on as many carriers as you can, even if the mileage-based travel awards, which were the original FF program inducements, are not worth a plug nickel any more.

And I've probably forgotten a thing or two of value beyond the list I made above. After all, I've had more than one piƱa colada this evening, and they
have a way of fogging my brain here at the beach. So help me out. Maybe you can suggest additional benefits.

Cheers from Topsail Island, North Carolina!