Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Lows And The Highs....

BA 747 from JNB to LHR.  Big birdie...

CruisingAltitude has discovered the key to mileage run happiness.  Currently, it's comprised of a BA WT+ Bulkhead seat, Bose headphones, nice single malt, and a cup of ice.  

Okay, that needs some explaining....or....we'll not really, but I'm going to anyway.
BA still has Glenlivet 12 in
minis...come on, AA!

The next chapter in this weekend's mega mileage run has its highs and lows.  It starts with waking up, wide awake at 3:45 in the morning, Jo'Burg time, then finally getting back to sleep at 6 to wake up at 8:30 (half an hour past my alarm) to a message my meeting had been moved to half an hour earlier than expected.

The meetings were successful...though I was starting to feel the 24 hr flight time & 10hr time change with a vengeance.  I actually started to think maybe the turn around was the easier option.

And then.....it got worse.  Upon arriving back at O. R. Tambo airport, I walked toward the check in desk, only to have that sinking, sickly feeling that I was missing something.  I was.  My passport. 

Dammit.  Times infinity. 

My safety first, cunningly smart international traveler plan to lock my passport up in the safe had backfired. It was safely locked up in my hotel room 30km away at the Hilton Sandton.  

Luckily, I was early enough to handle the s#%t out of this dilemma.  I hopped on the Gautrain (which, by the way, I recommend taking...and while I'm on the subject, I'd like to just say that my current homecity of LA should be ashamed.  Their public transport system has officially been surpassed by a city in Africa that was previously the most dangerous place outside of an active warzone.  Yes really.)

JNB Gautrain station 
 Annnyway..... Like I was saying, after asking a stranger to look up the hotel phone number for me, two train rides, a round trip shuttle to the station, and meeting a Delta pilot and the head of the Cape Town transport department later, I was back at JNB and ready for check in.  (No, the pilot really plays no part in this story ....but I thought it was cool)

So this brings us to check in.  Remember at this point I've had a day of being heavily let lagged, lost passport, and such.  I head to the nice BA premium line and get my boarding pass...which shows my carefully selected exit row bulkhead has been changed to row 42...something.  Cue embarrassing frequent flier breakdown.  

I'm not proud, I think I've made that blatantly clear in many of these posts.  This though...this was a new low.  I was tired, and coming down from the panic of 'Oh my God I've lost my passport and am going to live in Africa forever I don't love giraffes THAT much!!'

I must have looked like the saddest and most upset kicked puppy in the world.  I was trying ever so hard to not be 'that traveller' but I had no poker face left.  After a few minutes of 'but I picked that row a month ago' and 'is there anything else left in an exit row?' I actually had the experience of the agent looking worried and asking in heavily accented english if 'I was going to be ok?' I think the next words out of her mouth were going to be 'do you need a tissue?'

Officially. Embarrassed. 

Long story short, I sulked off through security to the Galleries First lounge (report later- small in size, but nice offerings and tom yum soup that was the first thing my stomach could handle well all day).  And prepared myself for a cramped 11 hour third long haul flight.  

Then, miracle.  When I handed my boarding pass over at the gate, it beeped.  Not that normal beep....but that beep that means something's up.  Something was up- an operational upgrade to world traveler 'plus.' Thank OneWorld status and whatever saint is in charge of travelers.  These seats come with extra space, pitch, added footrests, and marginally better food choices.

The other flyertalker on the flight got a similar upgrade, and I don't think I've seen two happier people I recent history.  I think we were near to jumping into each other's arms out of relief, actually.  He had even more reason for appreciating the extra space- as he had spent his 15hour JNB layover sleeping on and off on BA Galleries lounge chairs, recovering from a bout of food poisoning on his inbound flights!
WT+ Boarding Pass- Day. Saved.

It's all about the lows that make the highs better, am I right??  Once we hit altitude, I felt great.  Either it was the relief of a comfortable seat, or by this point I'm just addicted to artificial pressurization.
BA WT+ Seat and amenities

Well, that just about brings us current....now, for some reruns of the Big Bang Theory, a little reading, and hopefully....some sleep before arrival in LHR.


(Note- posted from DFW on the way home, so spoiler alert-Im alive.  Rest of posts to follow.)

Out of Africa...

First off, please forgive the title of this post...I couldn't help myself.

Second, this is just a quick layover update on my way back home.  There's far too much to get written in the next 20minutes before I head out of the LHR FL to check out my upgraded J seat on the 77W to Dallas.  

But....how much fun is that picture?  That's what 8 mileage runners look like after flying 2 consecutive 11hr redeyes.  Pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.  This weekend was a blast, less some serious jetlag.  Met some great new people, and a lion or 2.  

Full post to follow.

Fly safe - CruisingAAltitude

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Good morning Jo'Burg....

Good (early) morning from Johannesburg, South Africa!

Mileage run half way done!  It's 5am local time, and I'm wide awake.  The 10hour time difference is taking its toll, but I'll survive.  I'm relaxing in my (upgraded, thanks AmEx Plat) room at the Hilton Sandton, and watching soccer on one of the only 10-ish channels the hotel has.  I'm not quite sure who's playing...but I'm rooting for the guys in blue.  

Yesterday was a blast, even if we were all incredibly tired.  I arrived with the 5 other mileage runners on my flight from LHR and met up with a few others who were on the other BA flights.  We made our way out to Sandton via the Gautrain, and then hired a tour guide to take us out to 'Lion Park.'  My photos from the tour are stuck on my phone since the Hilton only allows one device on the free wifi, but I'll do a full trip report when I get home.  The short story- fun experience, you get up close and personal with the animals (several lions walked right up to our van, and at one point we had to wait for a herd of antelope to cross in front of us).  Plus, we had a chance to pet and play with lion cubs....and yes, I did get to feed that giraffe.

Most of my companions headed back to the airport last night to catch the outbound back to LHR.  I'll be right behind them tonight, but luckily my upgrade just cleared for the second and third flights, so it looks to be a much more comfortable return.  Can't wait to check out the 77W business class product!  

Review (definitely) to follow.


Saturday, November 23, 2013


Ready to board- 777-300ER at LAX

It begins..... Mileage season 2013.

And we're off!  I'm writing this from AA136, the first of 4 long haul flights in this year's first (and longest) mileage run.  So far, so good.  No, my upgrade didn't clear, but I've got a comfortable aisle MCE seat on the brand new 777-300ER and am enjoying a little IFE before trying to get a little sleep before landing in LHR (I might....might...be watching Planes as a matter of principle).
Hey, that guy looks familiar!

(Okay, maybe one complaint, which has two parts- 1- GoGo doesn't work internationally, and 2- the service they do offer doesn't seem to want to take my money.  Long and short of this is this will have to be posted from LHR.)

Upon arriving at LAX I got my first chance to check out the AA Flagship Lounge.  No complaints there either.  Except maybe one small one- how can you have not one, but three nice silver tequilas...and no lemon or lime juice to mix?? Priorities people, come on!
Buffet at LAX FL

Well, we've cleared some moderate turbulence, which coincided with dinner service (of course) and they just brought down the (pretty LED) cabin lights.  Time to relax and see if I can get a little sleep over the Atlantic.  Have another long day of lounges and row 29k on deck for tomorrow.  Plus, I found a place that'll let me feed a Giraffe for $3.  Well, I have to pay to get to the park first, but the giraffe food really is a pretty good deal...

Wish me luck,


Addendum- made it safely to LHR and am FULLY enjoying the BA Galleries First lounge.  I've had a shower, some lunch, and some 18yr Glenlivet. I've had worse days :)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Anatomy of a mileage season....

This season's flight paths, yes really.
(via Great Circle Mapper)

Last weekend Mrs. CruisingAltitude and I had some friends over for our, now annual, 'Fall in California' party.  You can read more about it from her [here] at our 'grounded' blog.  Turns out if you put enough pumpkin and cider into it, even an 80 deg  SoCal day by the beach can take on a convincing seasonal shift.  My point in bringing this up is that, after a few glasses of hard cider, someone asked what 'the deal was with my travel thing.'

A slight look of worry then crossed Mrs. CruisingAltitude's face as she warned our unwitting friend not to ask that question if they didn't actually want the whole answer (or lecture as it might be).  However, they laughed it off and said they really did want to know.  In short- can open, worms everywhere.

From meeting other miles and points junkies and addicted travelers, I know I'm not alone in this particular proclivity. Whether it's the latest flight deal or best card offer, when asked we really can't help but give a full....some might say exhaustive... answer.

Maybe it's our personal excitement over the subject, maybe a little pride in having caught that great deal, or maybe it's just simply that none of this stuff lends itself to a short reply.  I mean, honestly, if anyone's devised a way to explain the concept and execution of manufactured spending or valuation of elite status in a charming, witty, cocktail party-appropriate manner please god let me know.  Immediately.  

This is something of particular concern as I'm on 'short final approach' to a whopper of a mileage season.  This year, as last, I'm just under 40k shy of Executive Platinum status with American.  This is, yes, a lot.  Last year they ran a end of year DEQM, making qualification much simpler.  This year, however, it doesn't look good, so I'm doing things the old fashioned way.  I went back and forth for months about whether or not to re-qualify given the numbers involved.  In the end, I left it to fate and passively cruised for deals in case it could be done reasonably.  And, as it turns out, it can.  ('Reasonable' being a very relative term here)

The goal was to get it done in a minimum of weekends away, and little to no time off work.  The result of my search is the following two weekends:

Trip 1- 'The Real Test Of Resolve.'
This is a 5 segment, 3 continent, 22.6k mile round trip itinerary from LAX-London Heathrow-Johannesburg, South Africa-London Heathrow-DFW-LAX requiring around 48 hours of flight time.  Yes, once again, I'm serious.  It is, however, not a 'true' mileage run by purist standards as I have a night (on cash and points) at the Hilton Sandton in ZA and the better part of two days on the ground.  I know, I know, serious bad form there ;)

-Well, 48 hours of flight time, at least 24 of which must be in Y (coach) as they're a British Airways codeshare with no option to use a SWU.
-Parts of Jo'burg require some situational awareness while sightseeing.
-Likely stuffed to oversold flight on the outbound to LHR in all classes.

-Long flights means lots of miles with fewer possibilities for misconnects.
-Both TATL segments on American's new 777-300ER (aka Tripp from 'Planes'!!) meaning MCE at worst, and lie-flat business class at best.
-Quite a few other mileage runners are going the same weekend- safety in numbers, and a chance to meet some new people.
-No visa requirement
-Totally new destinations/airports/planes - AA Flagship lounges, Arrivals & GF lounge in LHR!
AA's new metal- 777-300ER
& Animated counterpart (above)
Trip 2- 'Just A Little Jaunt Across The Pacific'
The second round, though a little dwarfed by the first, is pretty hefty in it's own right.  However, some hardcore mileage runners would consider it little more than a rambling tour of the Pacific Rim in 36 hours.

It takes 7 segments, and nets right around 18k EQMs.  It starts with a positioning flight LAX-SFO-ORD, with an overnight at the Aloft Rosemont, before a morning flight ORD-Shanghai Pudong.  Then I have a night at the Sheraton in Shanghai (hoping for a nice Platinum upgrade here) and some time to sight see, followed by an early flight Shanghai- Tokyo Narita, 6 hours to enjoy the JAL First lounge, then the long haul of Tokyo-ORD-DFW-LAX.

-Quite a few segments to make connections on.
-Early flight out of PVG may require a taxi ride rather than the train (more expensive).
-Final day is 18+hrs of flying consisting of 4 segments.

-Almost entirely on AA metal, with a high chance of upgrades clearing, and therefore, grabbing some actual sleep along the way.
-2 real hotel nights, one of which should result in a nice upgrade and free food and drink.
-Some high end lounges and time to enjoy them, especially in NRT.
-Segment to NRT allows me to waive the $150 Chinese visa.
-Maglev train to Shanghai (300+ mph!!)

All in all I'll fly 12 segments, to and/or through 8 airports, on 3 different Oneworld airlines, in 6 plane types.  If I call it 'extreme flying' does it make it better.....or worse?  True, I'm probably going to be exhausted once the adrenaline dies down, but from my past experience I'll say there's nothing like walking off that last jetbridge at your home airport knowing you've hit 100k, made a ton of miles, and had an adventure along the way.

Planespotting from the LAX AC

One thing I think people don't emphasize enough when they try to tell others about this pass time (er...lifestyle choice?) is that there are so many reasons to do a trip like this, and you can't really separate them out or give them value independently from the other.  Sure, there's the status and the miles themselves, which we always mention.  They're the tangible benefit- something you can try to put a price tag on.  But the rest matters too, maybe even more in the long run (pun intended).

When I look back on previous mileage runs what I actually remember are the 'war stories'-  The gamble on tight connections, solving the puzzle of how to get from point A to point B in C number of miles for under D price, and the fun insanity of a weekend in the closed off world of airports, lounges, and planes - the only place you can be sitting down to a 6am orange juice and cereal, then have someone next to you order up a Heineken and no one even bats an eye.

But there are also the real, personal, memories- like having the chance to meet up with friends in distant cities as if you lived just one town over, walking through an early snowstorm in the Boston Common when it's 80 degrees back home in LA, or sitting down next to a stranger in row 10 of your second transcon of a Saturday, feeling a little silly when you tell him the reason for your trip....only to have him start to laugh, saying, 'Me too, and I've been doing this since Thursday!!'

It's a strange thing, this flying we do, but it offers some of the most unique experiences one can have.  I've had long conversations with people I never would have otherwise met, seen places I'd never have otherwise considered going, and I've worked, dreamed, written, schemed, and had epiphanies all along the way.

So, my point...should I choose to get back to it... is no, I still don't know how to give the cliffnotes version of 'what's up with my flying thing' without it being either unintelligible rambling about cents per mile, or sounding like a ridiculous excess waste of time and money.  I have a hard time getting the charm of it all across.

However, Mrs. CruisingAltitude had some advice- "Maybe you should work on making the explanation sound funnier."

Okay, funnier, here goes:

".....So a 737, a ERJ 145, and an Airbus fly into a bar....and the bartender says..."

Well... maybe not, I'll keep working on it.  Luckily I'll have plenty of time at 36,000ft to do so.  If I can't figure it out by the last of these segments, it's probably a sign the world's not ready.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

[Retro Report] From Jackson to Washington....

It's weekend again already!  This week just flew past (with no actual flying done this time).  However, I thought it was a good time to post a trip report I didn't get around to finishing up and formatting for quite awhile.  What would that be called?  Retro review....?

Anyhow, without any more delay, I take you back to early Sept, 2013.  The setting- a freshly painted 737, Seat 6A.  We see a somewhat tired-looking, yet content, frequent flyer pull out her iPad after crossing 10,000ft and start to write....

Fresh paint on my 737- View from DCA Admiral's Club

It's been a long week of work and travel,  and now it's finally wrapping up with flight 245 back home to LAX from DCA direct.  Given that my day started off at 4:45 to get to my first flight out of Jackson Medgar-Evars, and it's a good two segments later, even I'm okay with that.  I've done my miles-earning duty more than adequately.

It also helps that The flight's off to a good start- upgrade confirmed yesterday, on a nice 737 with the new lights and modern cabin. The friendly flight crew is serving EFBO, we've got a favorable tailwind, and they've got some Glenlevet on board (a limited quantity now that they're discontinuing the singles AA's been serving).  Plus the hot towels didn't even smell like 'eu de old coffee pot,' so consider me a happy flyer.

RJ from DFW-JAN.
Don't call her small, she prefers 'sporty'
This week's trip consisted of flights LAX-DFW-JAN to start off.  My upgrade cleared at the gate for the first segment, and the  later Eagle flight had a great flight attendant who said I was her only EXP and then almost aggressively offered me everything on the cart, even trying to get me to take some wine 'for later' when I declined the first time (I was on the clock...).  Once again, no complaints.
JAN 'Work Station'- no lounge, no problem ;)

However, my complaints did start once I left AA's control.  At National, I just got beat by a few steps to the only premium car in the aisle (a new-looking Genesis) and ended up with a Fusion with 8k on it.  Okay, okay, I've had worse....Ford's been doing some good tech upgrades and the XM Radio was still active, but I've had better.  Overall, the car is fine and responsive at low speeds, but painfully underpowered.  Merging on highways was dicey at times.

I stayed, for the second time this year, at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Ridgeland, and was significantly underwhelmed this time.  Had I gotten myself together (as I still might) to do a trip report for my first stay here, they would have gotten a much better review.  I know, I know, my lowly 'Blue' level with Hilton entitled me to nothing....but after my year of SPG Platinum treatment, I have a hard time not complaining about a 2nd floor room next to the laundry room with a view of a brick wall.  Seriously, just a brick wall. Oh, and my TV didn't work in the bedroom.
Kitchen and work space-ES Jackson Ridgeland

Bedroom- ES

Before I pan the stay entirely, I will say that the property has some features that made me a repeat customer-Open bar happy hour nightly from 5:30-7:30, free hot breakfast, free parking, Internet, and plenty of space to work.  All room types really are suites, and are 2 rooms, with a sitting area, kitchenette with sink, microwave and mini fridge, and work space.  Plus, it's in an area of town I was advised would be conducive to the out of towner, safety-wise.

Lobby and entry- Embassy Suites
(Quick correction....no Glenlevet after all....life is hard)

In short- National at JAN: 4/10 (had a better car last time).  Embassy Suites: 6/10 (one good stay, one not so great).  So that's that then....

Anyhow, even with the early start, today's been fun.  My layover in DCA was about 5 hours, which was a little long even for me to stick around in the airport.  Though it is a beautiful airport all things considered- architecture, water views, and GREAT staff at the (small but big-hearted) Admiral's Club.  They held my bags and sent me off to take the train into town.

DCA Terminal
I love, love, love airports that have quick access to their metro areas, a lot.  It's too bad they're so few and far between.  Of my regular stops, only BOS, DCA, and if you have a little more time, MIA and SEA are doable.  Besides great views on final approach, it makes long layovers so much better.  As much as I love planes and airports, there's something fun about going to a city 'for a few hours.'  Today I walked down the National Mall, visited some monuments, and took a look at the air & space museum (had to). Plus, it felt great to stretch between flights.
AA Flagship- Air & Space Museum

All in all, it's been a successful trip- work went well, as have my 5,600 miles.  Adding them to the 'bank' on the way to 100k this year.  There's plenty more to share, but it'll have to wait until the next segment.  Until then, fly safe, and take time to explore along the way!

On short final into DCA
P.S.- I have some pretty impressive mileage runs coming up, if I do say so myself.  YOU JUST WAIT for this year's mileage season trip reports....

Friday, November 1, 2013

Here we go again....

The 'Goal'....and yes, also an obnoxiously large flyertalk tag behind it.

Well friends, flyers, lost guests who thought they were clicking on something more interesting.... guess what it is again?

Friday? Correct.  Half-price Halloween candy day? Also correct.  The day both LAX got shut down AND United devalued their miles hugely.... correct and correct.  However, the answer I was looking for is 'Start of 'official**' mileage season.

Yes, here we are again, been awhile hasn't it?  Days are getting shorter....flights longer.  Sanity and cents per mile are being tested.

So, I thought it was a good time to talk about what it's all worth in the end.  This year, as last, I'm flinging myself into mileage season to hit 100k on American and earn back my Executive Platinum status.  And this year, so far anyway, there's no DEQM deal to make it easy.  This means we're doing things 'the hard way'- 100k But In Seat 'BIS' miles.
Here's a gratuitous shot of the new AA paint
from the jetbridge for no reason.  Enjoy.

My breakdown of flying for the year is about - 25% business, 35% planned personal (vacation, family visits, friends' weddings, etc), and the rest left to mileage runs.  I've got it locked and loaded- two massive weekends on cheap fares with some of last year's SWUs to make them less grueling.  One per month, some new airports, plane types, and meetups planned.  And yes, while I was in the planning stages my notes of routing, schedules and columns of miles did look something like a scene out of 'beautiful mind' ....one of the slightly disturbing ones, that is.

But, as I said above, for now I want to talk about the bottom line here.  I may not have been a savant at math in high school....or.....ever, but I do take an interest in getting a good deal, or at least 'justifying the crazy.'  

So, here's some of the tangible benefits of hitting 100k to put a price tag on:
1) Double all your earned miles for the year.  Same as the Plat level, but worth noting.

2) The 'big' one- 8 Systemwide Upgrades.  Valuation here is tricky, but my best stab at it is to not go by what paying for the business or first ticket would cost over the econ ticket....because would you REALLY cough up the extra, say 8-10k for a TATL upgrade?  Rather I value by how I would achieve those upgrades- meaning the co-pay and miles route.  This means they're worth $75 + 15,000 miles for domestic use, $150 + 25,000 miles to Hawaii (where some of mine went this year) and $350 + 25,000 miles for international (where I'm hoping to use the rest).  So if we value the miles conservatively and take an average there.... somewhere between $350-$800?? Even taking the low end there you could talk these reasonably up to a collective $3000+.

3) The other 'big' one- Free domestic upgrades + companion upgrades at top-level status.  Also varies by the person and route, but I'm batting 80-90% on the year, on 30+ segments.  What would you pay to sit in front for that many hours?  Could be hundreds, could be thousands, depending on your flight plan.

4) Expanded availability for Milesaaver redemption- this depends on how many award tickets you're doing per year and how lucky you get, but figure on an average year it could save a few hundred worth of miles?

5) Oneworld First Class Lounge access- This matters far more if you're traveling internationally on Oneworld flights.  But a visit to Qantas's premium lounges in Sydney, or Galleries and Arrivals lounges in LHR are definitely worth something!

6) Service- there's definitely value to the EXP desk, premium check in, top priority standby, etc.  These things are hard to value, but if it fixes even one trip that was going south due to a mechanical- throw some dollars there.

7) Intangible or little things that still can matter if you care (I do...I'll admit it): EXP luggage tags, bragging rights, the lot.... (yeah yeah, shallow I know...but it's there).

8) I'm sure there's more....you tell me.

Here's another gratuitous pic- sunset over DFW.
You earned it by reading through all that 'math' up there.

One last point here is that when mileage running you're (obviously) also earning the miles as you go (and possibly some bonus ones due to this year's elite awards at 40, 75, 125, and 150k).  My flights for this mileage season are averaging 4.5 cents per mile (qualifying) and 2.25ish redeemable, and 1.9 when you factor in the elite award mileage.  I've seen people value AA miles between 1.8 and 2.5 cents each....so these flights are somewhere in the neighborhood of "even money" at market value. Plus they 'come with' all of the above, and a chance to meet some new people and see some new places.

The math aside, I often 'check myself' by asking if I'd take the trips anyway if someone offered to give me the flights, even without the miles.  If my reservations about the itinerary, destination, or timing make that a tough call, I usually wait for the next deal to come along (case in point skipping the three hour turn in Dubai in favor of an overnight and time to explore in S. Africa for this year).  

In short, I've decided it's all a go for one more season.  Even if the concept is crazy (depending on who you talk to), the numbers might not be.... right??  ....Right???  Besides, there's plenty of adventure to be had along the way, especially when the destination isn't the reason for the journey in the first place.

Until the next departure, fly safe-


**Official mileage season, as declared by me, falls on the non-holiday weeks from the start of November through December.  Cheaper fares, lower business travel, and the perfect time to scramble for those last miles.