Saturday, September 26, 2015

It's that time again...again....

AA heritage at the Air and Space Museum in DCA (on a layover, of course)

** disclaimer- posted unedited from Miami under time constraints.  Be kind.**

Is it really 2015?  Have I been doing this for over 5 years?  It both seems ridiculous, and like it’s been even longer.  

Today marks the first day of the ‘real’ 2015 ‘mileage season’ for me, if you don’t count that little jaunt over (around? down?) to Hong Kong this spring.  Today’s flight out of LAX is headed to Miami, and from there my traveling companions and I hop the 777-300ER that we all love so much for a relatively quick flight down to Sao Paulo, Brazil.  We’ll have a 2 day one night stay, and then take the return flight up to Miami again, and stop in JFK on our way back.  You know… like everyone does. 

The upgrades have cleared for both the long hauls, and I’ve got a plan to do a flight change to get the last segment taken care of as well, so all is good so far. 

I wanted to take a few minutes before I get distracted by the in-flight movie or views of the southern transcon route to do my traditional ‘start of mileage season’ rundown.  I almost forgot (read-ran out of time) but, what are 5 hour morning flights for?

This year, due to some fluctuating work travel plans, I’ve booked two long hauls- Sao Paulo, and back to Jakarta- as well as a couple cheap domestic flights that were too good to pass up.  This year’s been full of travel so far, but much has been domestic and relatively close to home in comparison with my average, so I’m having to manufacture a decent amount.  I don’t mind the adventure, though. 
2015 Flightpaths.  As I always say- 'yes, really.'

The Sao Paulo trip will be my first visit to Brazil (and I’m now the proud owner of a shiny new ten year Brazilian visa thank-you-very-much).  We’re scheduled to meet some of my work contacts upon landing and spend some time with them getting shown the city.  I’ve been waiting for a deal to GRU to come up for a few years, so I’m excited to finally be on my way. 

This trip also has a nice long stopover in Miami, so we can check out the newly opened Centurion Lounge in Terminal D (new lounge smell…yes, I’m tempted to say it), as well as some time in JFK on the way back. (Spoiler alert, it's fantastic, though crowded)

I’m also lucky (crazy?) enough to have been doing this long enough to have met quite a few other long haul mileage running friends.  I’ve met them online through flyertalk, by chance in airports, and even gotten some of my ‘real life’ friends hooked on this ‘game.’  The upshot of all of this, is that I rarely mileage run alone.
Chance meeting with other mileage runners (and their Flyertalk-tagged bags) in CGK, all en route to Tokyo for the day! There are dozens of us out there I tell you, dozens!! ;)  

Dinner at Nobu at the HKG Intercontinental with strangers who are now all best friends!
What’s really great about meeting other mileage runners, is that they’re uniformly intriguing.  They are on average, highly educated, self sufficient, of course well traveled, and come from all walks of life.  Mileage running is probably the only ‘pass time’ where a normal weekend could be meeting a bunch of strangers from around the US for the first time in the Toronto airport, flying with them to Hong Kong, going out to Nobu at the Intercontinental, and then ending up having a beer in someone’s hotel room from a 7-11 at 2am (local time), after the bar at the Ritz closed for the night.  And… it’s considered completely normal behavior to everyone in the group. 
Cheers to Mileage Running buddies - They're the only ones who will go on 3 hours sleep to be there when the new lounge opens at 6am, talk on and on about planes with you for 5 hours until your flight, and consider it all to have been time well spent. 
Now, I know entries in a travel blog are supposed to be ‘entertaining’ or ‘enlightening,’ or at least funny or something.  However, I have learned from experience that consistently my most read entries are the dry, ‘mileage math’ so, someone likes them.  And in accordance with that… here’s some more!

Besides, I’m convinced ‘Universal on American’ is turning in to basically the golf channel with some re-runs of Fallon, so what better do I have to do? (RIP 30 Rock, I miss you)

This weekend’s trip nets around 14,000 miles, and my tour of Asia is worth roughly 21,000.  The combined cents per mile ‘CPM’ of the deals works out to just shy of $0.04, which is pretty decent.  Plus, when you add in the REAL steals of this year- two $81 ROUND TRIP tickets to Chicago from LAX, it drags it down even further.  As usual, this year’s totals put me solidly in the realm of ‘even money,’ if not ‘making money,’ on the trips. 

As I’ve rambled on about earlier [SEE] miles and EXP benefits can be thought of as a unique kind of currency, the exchange rate of which depends, not on market forces, but on what you spend them on.  Overall, I’ve given them a $0.02 price tag, but the truth is if you’re spending them on run of the mill domestic tickets, without being too selective of what you redeem for, you’re probably more likely to be getting $0.015 or even a bit (or a lot) worse. However, if you’re creative, and take the time to redeem them for first class, business class, or better yet, international first or business, you can pull down some seriously fantastic ‘conversion rates.’ 

Case in point, our trip to Peru this spring.  [more on that here] We spent 60k each, plus a nominal tax amount.  We were able to book business class tickets non-stop from LAX to Lima on the 787-900 with LAN.  These tickets would have cost an average of $5000 if paying cash.  Doing the quick math, this is a whopping 8 cent per mile redemption!  I’ve had similar redemption rates to Europe, especially when taking Airberlin’s business class to avoid those outrageous ‘fuel surcharges.’ So, if you do a mix of big ‘aspirational’ award trips with your everyday hopping around the US, and redeeming for Y to F upgrades, which always seem to come out to $0.02 on the nose, 2 cpm is a fair valuation, in my opinion.  

All of this, of course, is to be taken with a grain of salt as the overriding truth is that miles are a currency, and like any modern currency, they’re subject to depreciation.  Airlines will always be upping the amount of miles to redeem seats, and condensing the amount of seats available.  So, the logical plan is to spend as you earn, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to plan ahead, get things booked well in advance as this will ‘lock in’ the ‘price’ for you.  Then you can sit back, relax, and brag to your friends about the awesome deal you got on that ‘life changing’ trip, until their eyes glaze over, and they change the subject to the weather, the traffic, or something having recently caught on fire that they need to attend to immediately.

So…. What has all of this got us?  To summarize: 

-It’s mileage season again, and the sky’s the limit as usual for the bizarre routings and adventure. 

-Appreciate and cherish other people willing to indulge in above-described bizarre routings and adventure with you.

-Miles can be worth more than you think, especially if you have a hankering to explore Inca ruins, or to bike down the ‘runway’ at Tempelhof park.

-Oh, and 7-11s are open 24 hours in Hong Kong.  That might be the most important lesson of them all.

Happy flying,

~Cruising Altitude
Good night, skies. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Inca Flightpath, part II

Quinoa fields and glacier-capped Andes on the plains above the Sacred Valley

As promised, here's the 'trip report' half to this mileage burn trip.  For the nuts and bolts of booking it, check out the post [HERE.]

By the time our departure finally rolled around I'll admit I was really, really excited for this trip.  It had been a hectic start to the year for us, and for a while I was convinced this was going to be one of those times I'd be utilizing the EXP mileage ticket 'get out of jail free' card, and re-depositing my miles.  However, I really, really didn't want to.  And, as it turns out, I didn't have to!

So.... here's the report:

First stop, of course, was LAX to catch our LAN Dreamliner flight down to Lima.  This alone was plenty reason to go, but I also hadn't had the chance to fly out of Tom Bradley Int'l Terminal since they've gotten further along in the renovation.  I'm always just watching it from 'afar' in T-4.

For OW elites, the renovation has meant some highly improved lounge choices, as well as just enjoying that 'new terminal smell.'

(Completely random note- if you walk into a brand new Centurion Lounge, say, in DFW the first week they open, and make that same joke about a 'new club smell,' they will fix you with a glare, and say very seriously, 'No.  That is our 'signature scent.'  I'm not kidding.  I love you AmEx (mostly) but please...)

Annnnyhow.... OW lounges, right.  So, there are two reasonable choices.  First is the Oneworld Business class lounge, which is highly rated, large, and even has a faux fireplace in the middle with seating around it.  It has decent food, drinks and seating.  I really meant to go check it out, I really really did.
"Official"  Pic of the Oneworld Bis lounge at TBIT

But then, all of a sudden.... I didn't.

Because, just a couple months before this trip, Qantas opened a new 1st class lounge at TBIT.  So, that happened.  What also happened, was that due to the new lounge(s), I wanted to take my time at the airport before the flight.  Like, a lot of time.  Our flight was at 1:30pm, LAN's check in opens at 9:15.  We were there at 9:05.  Yes, Mrs. CruisingAltitude would have thought I was nuts, but she's got a decent sense of humor about me, and enjoys a good lounge as much as anyone.


Point of order, though- the sign said they opened at 9:15.  They did not open at 9:15.  They did not open at 9:20, or 9:30.  It was closer to 9:50 before the counters opened, and the Mrs. had to withstand my mounting annoyance at waiting in line while there was a perfectly good lounge just RIGHT past security.  This mainly took the form of repeatedly pointing to the well staffed, and prompt JL counter next door, and grumbling about how we 'would already be having a mimosa if we were on the Tokyo flight.'

But, eventually, we did get checked in and on our way.  Now, the lounge- the one complaint I've read about it is that it can get loud and crowded at times.  The acoustics, admittedly, could be better as it is essentially one large room, and at one side features an open kitchen.  I could see the issue when in the evenings Qantas loads up a couple a380s with a decent amount of premium passengers, as well as the OW Emeralds.  Luckily for us, though, the LAN flight is hours before this rush, and we were just about the only ones there at the start.  Like, seating for 200, and it's us and one other person.  Echos, crickets, it was magical.
Beautiful and....

....empty Qantas 1st Lounge.

The bar area & espresso bar

The layout offers lots of seating arrangements, a couple TV lounge areas, work space, and a full serve complimentary restaurant menu with seating.  It's very 'First Class.'  There's also a large bar, and several self serve bars throughout the space with wine, water, and soft drinks.  If I'm nit picking, I'd say the only drawback here is that the substantive food options are limited to the menu, so there's no buffet to grab something at on a shorter visit.  That said, the service was great, and with just us eating, was super prompt.  We arrived in time to start with breakfast, and then later before heading out, tried their lunch menu as well.  Both were great, though, I'd say the lunch/dinner menu is more memorable.

5 o'clock in airports everywhere

The carpacchio and the calamari were particularly good, as was the semifreddo that the great waitress demanded we try on the way out!  (And I mean demanded, as in 'you have to have it, yes you have to, it's great....don't worry, I'm sure your plane will wait for you to have some dessert' kind of demanded)  I'll also give a nod to the espresso bar.  It was a treat to be able to order a real 'flat white' Aussie style.  Haven't had one of those since we were in Sydney several years ago.
Lemon & Black Pepper Calamari- We didn't even order this, it came by mistake, but we sure ate it!


Dessert- the photo got a little blurry, as we were scrambling to make it to pre-boarding! 

White wine & sparkling water

The reds...

One tiny other complaint, that they can't do anything about, is that there are no windows that overlook the gates or runways, so no planespotting.  This looks to be true of both lounges for OW elites in this terminal, and it's a bit of a shame as the one thing that would make the great amenities and service even better would be enjoying them while watching some of the big birds that leave from TBIT roll the runway.

But, regardless, we had a great time, and then headed off to catch our flight.  As discussed in the last post, we were trying out a new 787-900 that LAN just took delivery of.  Yes... new plane smell...

The -900 configuration features 30 'premium business' seats, all forward of the 2L door, which was also the boarding door at LAX.  I do love 'turning left, not right' on a long haul.   The cabin layout is 2-2-2, so the window seats don't have direct aisle access.  In theory, this can be annoying if you don't know the person sitting next to you.  However, I found the new LAN J seats to be extremely spacious, and it was easy to get up and into the aisle, even with the lie-flat bed next to you fully extended.  This is because, unlike the 'angle lie flat' seats still installed on most AA 777-200s, the bed is very low, and can easily be stepped over.  This is probably my favorite cabin layout to travel in with a companion.  You can talk easily since there's no big privacy divider, but you definitely feel like you have personal space.  The pictures really don't do justice to how nice the seats were.

This is also combined with the fun of the dreamliner- the windows, of which each J seat has 3- are huge, and dim via a button, rather than a pull down screen.  The seats are fully wired, with USB as well as DC plugs, and the recline function worked without any glitches.  The cabin is also well insulated, making the engine noise quieter, even on take off.  Through the flight, the plane handled turbulence well and I was able to get some good hours of sleep after the dinner service.

So- hard product: 8/9 out of 10.  Top marks.  Now, a bit about the 'soft product.'

Overall, it was a nice flight.  I especially liked the personal greeting by the purser when we got to our seats.  ('En ingles?') He was attentive, offered a PDB (I went with the champagne, of course, which was Roederer estate, and very nice).  They also came by at gave use Ferragamo amenity kits that came with standard items- lotion, pen, etc, as well as a pillowcase, which I hadn't seen before.  They do give you upgraded headphones, which was nice, but they weren't Bose like AA offers and I could tell the difference.

The food, which was lunch, and then a slightly confusing breakfast-ish meal prior to landing (at 11:50 pm??), was okay.  Maybe on par with AA's usual international fare, but not like what you would expect from a carrier like JL or CX.  I did find that once the main service was over, the crew wasn't as attentive as some.  I'm not the type to ring the call button (which was probably what I should have done) but I found myself going up to the galley a few times to ask for more water, drink, etc.  On that, one thing that did annoy me a little was that they kept the curtain closed to the galley, and snapped down, so that to use the lavatory, you had to shove/crawl your way though.  I assumed it was for cabin lighting, but still... awkward.  Some of the FA's also clearly weren't as comfortable with English as the Purser, but I was on a LAN Peru flight, so that's as much my issue as theirs.  As it turned out, this was just the start of our education in how little of our rudimentary Spanish from High School had stuck with us, and how Peru is NOT a resort town in Cabo, language-wise.
In flight meal- I had the scallops.  Not bad, but a little fishy.  

In Flight Dessert

The IFE was okay, definitely better if you're a 'movie' person, as the TV options were a little slim.  I think Mrs. CruisingAltitude approved, though as she got through the better part of 4 movies while I ate and slept.

Overall, I'd give the soft product a 6ish out of 10.  Highlights were the drinks and 'breakfast.'  There were things I'd change, especially since they've invested in such a stellar hard product with the 787.  A few little things would bring the whole experience up to a really elite business/first one.

When we landed it was late, so after getting through customs, we made our way to the Wyndham hotel that's at the airport.  It wasn't the fanciest, but was the only one that we could walk to from the terminal, and the rooms were upgraded and clean.

The next morning we checked back in to catch our short flight up to Cusco.  The flight is about an hour on a a319 on LAN.  No 1st/bis class, so we were in the main cabin.  No complaints for such a short flight.  The real intrigue of this flight is that while Lima is essentially at sea level, the Cusco airport is at a whopping 11,000 ft.  As a result, this flight path goes up to cruise, and then only has to come about half way back down.  You fly over the Andes, and then land into the valley that Cusco is in.  It's worth getting a window seat for this one!

For what to see and do in the Sacred Valley, have a look at Part III!


Friday, August 21, 2015

The Inca ‘Flight Path,’ or ‘A Mileage Burn To Write Home About’....

Correspondent’s note: I’m going to break this trip report up into the ‘what and why’ first, with a second post covering the ‘where and how.’  In other words, this is the how to book and why to book, with the experience based info coming next.


Yes, everyone has this shot.  Yes, it's worth going and taking it yourself, especially if you do it in style! 
In May, Mrs. Cruising Altitude and I did our second international mileage burn in as many years.  I have to say, that both trips, (the first being our Oneworld Explorer tour of Europe) turned out to be an amazing use of miles.  Great value throughout, reasonably ‘bookable,’ and a totally memorable trip to somewhere I might not have thought to go otherwise.

Awhile ago, some other savvy folks we’ve met in our travels, told us unequivocally that we “had to go to Tambo Del Inka, on a miles and points deal, and drink lots of Pisco Sours and coca tea.  Oh, and yeah... probably go to Machu Picchu at some point.”  Well then, who am I to decline such specific advice??
Welcome to Tambo Del Inka...

....Have a [large] Pisco Sour.

As you may or may not know, Tambo Del Inka is a stunning, relatively new, Starwood Luxury Collection resort in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, high up in the Peruvian Andes.  The resort is well designed, and tastefully constructed to fit in with the natural surroundings.  On one side rooms face a rushing river lined with towering eucalyptus trees, and the other has views of a year-round glacier.  The grounds are beautifully up-kept, and the facilities include a unique indoor/outdoor pool, water spa, gorgeous architecture featuring towering timber beams to the ceiling, and a reasonably priced, but fantastic restaurant.  
Quiet and peaceful grounds.

Indoor/outdoor pool and spa.

The resort has only been open for a few years, and so is not yet showing age.  Plus, for the environmentally conscious, it meets LEED standards.  A rarity in foreign construction, but feels good given the natural treasures this area holds.  

The town of Urubamba itself is next to the resort, and is easily walkable if you want to explore.  It’s not a ‘tourist area’ per se, but can be interesting to check out to take in some local culture.  While we were there there was a several day festival going on, complete with parades, dancers, and music.  What’s most useful about the proximity though is possibly that you can get a WAY better deal on transportation to the train stations, airport, and archeological sites by just walking a few blocks from the resort down to the nearest gas station and picking up a local taxi.  Tambo’s travel agency on site will happily arrange tours for you…. for double or more the price.  
Urubamba festival

View from the front of the Tambo lobby

For the nuts and bolts of this booking-  Tambo Del Inka, perhaps because of it’s remote location, does have ongoing decent availability for cash & points nights throughout the year, especially if booked far in advance.  At its hotel tier, it requires 6000 starpoints and $110.00 per night.  Worth it.  No question. The added great thing about cash & points is that those nights are generally completely refundable.  One not here though- as this is a ‘resort property’ make sure you keep on top of what the ‘cancel-by’ date is.  This property requires about 3 weeks’ notice to cancel, though I’ve had good luck getting around these rules by calling the Starwood Platinum line and pleading my case.  

Room selection-wise, if you can’t get one of the ground level suites that have a private patio, I’d go for the side facing the river (where we were).  It’s quiet, and with the placement of the trees, really feels like you’re out in nature.  Plus, you can open the sliding windows and listen to the water.

Tambo Del Inka is beautiful from any angle...
As an added note, this property is good with Platinum recognition.  While we ended up there during a peak time when the resort was fully committed and weren’t put in a suite, they did offer to move us for the portion of our stay that they had a suite available (we turned it down because our room was plenty nice), and apologized that they couldn’t confirm a suite and offered both extra points, and the free breakfast, rather than just one or the other.  Plus, for Plat guests they take an additional 15% off the restaurant and bar prices, which made the already good prices due to the exchange rate even better.  The 1:3 rate of dollars to soles was awesome, and resulted in wonderful dinners out for 2 people coming in around $30, with drinks.  

The 'riverside' rooms.

Both the lobby, and the restaurant feature huge fireplaces.  Walking into Tambo at the end of a day of adventuring is like getting a hug...especially when it comes with a warm cup of coca tea.

So….given all of the above, how does one get here???

That’s the best part!

I knew that LAN flies nonstop from LAX to Lima a couple times per day, and does it for a stunning 30k AA miles each way in business class.  Knowing this, and that I needed two tickets, I pulled out the calendar FAR in advance (ie. 331 days), and got on the phone.  The tickets can be booked as a Oneworld partner award, and I recommend booking them as one way tickets initially so you don’t have to wait until 331 days before your return date to book the outbound.  As a bonus, for the same mileage, you can add on the connecting flight LIM-Cuzco, which is where you need to get to to visit the Sacred Valley.  

On the phone, the booking was fairly simple, and stress free, as being an EXP my mileage tickets are fully refundable up to the day of travel.  Plus, no big taxes and fees here- only about $36 per ticket, round trip!  Done and done. the best, best part.  When I booked the tickets, the flight was on a 767-300, with a 2-2 config in J.  Fair enough, sounds good to me.  However, several months later, I found out that AA had reassigned me a new FF# due to an alleged hack of their database.  Annoyed, I called to find out what was happening, and ended up on the phone with an AAgent for 2 hours because my flights hadn’t moved over to my new profile, and in the moving, they lost my seat assignments.  

Anyhow… when the Lima itinerary was pulled up, the agent asked what seats I wanted, “it’s a 2-2-2 configuration” she said.  Wait, WHAT NOW??  I knew something was up, so I asked her what the plane type was showing as. It was….wait for it…. now a brand spanking new 787-900 Dreamliner that LAN just took delivery of at the start of the year.  

Cue avgeek meltdown.  

This plane’s so new, SeatGuru didn’t even have a map for it, and I couldn’t find any reviews, other than previews of the new cabin config and seats from LAN itself.     
Extremely spacious 2-2-2 lie-flat seat config. 

787-900 J cabin
Not bad at ALL- 8+ hours on the Dreamliner in J (there’s no F on this plane, so J is the pointy end) for 60k miles and $36.  I didn’t even mind (too much) that LAN only released tickets on the later departure from LAX that arrived LIM at about 11pm, and the return was a redeye.  I booked a layover hotel in LIM, and we slept a bit and then took a morning flight to CUZ.  The connections in and out of CUZ go at least once an hour, so that was no issue at all.

All in all, this trip can be a fantastic value- luxury plane and resort for very low points, miles, and cash.  Not too many times can you get 4 nights in a 5 star resort, and round trip airfare on this kind of flight for two for around $500!  
Let's go!

Up next- the trip report itself.  TBIT’s new lounge, LAN J service, and adventures- salt pools, Inka ruins, fun at altitude, fast and slow taxi drivers, and more Inka ruins….

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The ONE Time Silver Is Top Tier...

"Silver Elite"
This has been a long time coming, but as I just put over 200 miles on this shiny,  new, Audi A4 Quattro, I decided to make time.  The review at hand- "The car rental that doesn't suck." (their words, but mine as well)  This truly eloquent company is Silvercar, and yes, the internet has already sung its praises, but here's my take:

Renting from Silvercar has a certain 'Bond. James Bond.' appeal to it, as much as any reasonably priced car service can.  It's the 'Uber Black' of rentals, if you will.  No, you probably don't 'need' the horsepower or the bling to get to your airport hotel or to see the in-laws, but it sure doesn't hurt.  Plus, it feels good to roll up to 'that meeting,' or to take a client out to dinner with a little panache.

Glamour shot...


So far, I've rented at two of their locations- SFO and ORD.  Adding to the international 'man of mystery' feel, the pick up instructions at each location are different.  Awhile ago, when I rented at SFO, it was a covert-feeling multi-step process involving a non-Silvercar marked van, a location inside an offsite general use airport parking garage, and a guy with an iphone guarding two A4s parked in a corner.  The website generally just directs you to 'text us when you've landed, and we'll give you the details' ie., 'your mission, should you choose to accept it.'  But, when the benefit of finding the place is taking one of these for a weekend in Sonoma, I'll happily accept the challenge.

Never seen a National Ex aisle look like this!

 Thankfully, the staff are uniformly polite, young, and enthusiastic.  Little surprise, given that it's the 'tech startup' of rental cars.  Today I was dropped off personally at ORD in my actual rental car, eliminating any extra stops, or transferring of luggage.  I approve.

The Pros-
 -Guaranteed silver (get it??) current year Audi A4.  Every single time.  No picked over lots, or third-in-a-goddamn-row Malibus that always pull to the right. (I'm looking at you, Hertz 'gold')
-No base models here, they're all quattro all wheel drive.
-Slick rental app.
-Cars come (mostly) fully loaded, including some nice extras like nav, wifi, working bluetooth & sirius radio.
-Car charger to USB adapter included. 
-Concierge-feeling customer service.
-Feeling elite without paying (too bad) of a price.


The Cons:
-Severely limited locations, so it can't be your 'go-to' everywhere.
-On average, cars seem to have a decent amount of miles on them, at least in comparison to some of the very low mileage I can usually find on a well stocked National aisle.
-As they're new, and not a main line car rental, getting to their lot is a different experience at each location, and you need to be aware of the instructions before you go to pick up.
-No real elite program, or accrual of free days.
-If you need a bigger car, you'll have to go elsewhere. 

In short, I happily pick Silvercar where possible, and where they're price-compeditive.  Surprisingly, even with the premium fleet, they can meet this criteria pretty often.  The only hesitation I have is missing out on status and free day credits with National....but it passes about the time I hit 60mph!

Happy driving,