Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Basic Burn.....


After my recent post about the unfortunate introduction of Basic Economy fares by American, let's just say I was more than a little amused to scroll through Facebook today and come across this little gem of an add by Southwest:


Well played, my friends, well played.

This is a company that knows when it's about to get an influx of customers fleeing the competition.  That's not base speculation either, as United covertly stated when it rolled back Basic fares just this week. 

In all honesty, if you don't fly enough (or far enough) to need the perks of a big international network, at this point you're much better off flying Southwest, JetBlue, or Alaska domestically.  The prices are fair, and in many cases, the service is much better. 

Plus, they have a sense of humor.

~CruisingAltitude

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Buyer Beware: AA Rolls Out Basic Economy

Don't look at me like that, I'm still mad at you.  You know what you did.

Basic Economy: The product no one needs, absolutely didn't ask for, and definitely don't want.  So...thanks for that.

Overnight, AA has rolled out their new basic economy pricing across their domestic flights, and it's bad my friends.  The pricing starts for flights later this month and continues on indefinitely.  It's a plan that all of the major airlines have gone with, and AA was just the last to conform.  We knew it was coming, and had already started in some markets earlier this year.

In theory, the idea is to let the major US 3- American, Delta, and United, price match the ultra low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier by offering a ticket that removes all possible benefits and guarantees you'll hate flying just as much as if you were on Spirit.  Nice, right?

They justify it by saying it 'gives the customer the choice' to pick the benefits they want.  However, benefits like a seat assignment, or a carry on bag, are a bit necessary to the vast majority of travelers and so it's really just a way to nickel and dime people who don't understand, or don't care about the fine print.  In most cases you'll end up spending as much or more on the ticket once you have to add on everything that's necessary.



What's worse though, is the hypocrisy of how AA changed the pricing structure overnight.  Instead of actually creating some new lower fares and making those Basic Economy (which was how they advertised the upcoming change), they simply took the existing pricing and made the cheap tickets Basic, and started charging about $40 more round trip for the exact same main cabin ticket that had been there the day before.  Classy.

So, I hope anyone who had their eye on those cheap LAX-DFW fares I posted about last week managed to click purchase before today, because guess what?  Those $79 tickets are now booking into Basic Economy, and won't come with a seat assignment, a carry on bag, any flexibility, and will earn half of the qualifying miles and segments they would have 24 hours ago.  Oh, and they also aren't eligible for elite upgrades anymore either. 

Being elite does get you out of some of these restrictions, if you happen to find yourself in Basic.  You will still have your baggage privileges and priority boarding, but being off the upgrade list and earning fewer qualifying miles will hurt. 

As I said, AA isn't alone in this move, the others having done this already.  They're now set to make extra off of the up-pricing of the main cabin tickets they were already selling, as well as raking in millions in baggage and seat assignment fees from people booking into Basic.  There really is no upside for the consumer, but that's pretty well the point. 

In the end we have the big carriers' bottom lines to thank for this, but more importantly the likes of Spirit and Ryanair for showing them how to make air travel just a little less pleasant. 

From here on out, book wisely.

~CruisingAltitude

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fare Sale Alert- Los Angeles to Dallas

Sunset over DFW

It's that time again- American Airlines is having a quick (could end any time) sale on flights from LAX to DFW for this fall.  Dates are currently available for October through early December 2017.  Prices start at $79 round trip, including all fees!  This happened briefly last year & I made the most of it.

Google Flights at time of posting
 
To see what's available, the quickest way is to head over to Google Flights and search for LAX to DFW round trip and scroll through the calendar.  This year American seems to be rolling out some of these great fares throughout the year.  A month or so ago, they had round trips to Chicago for $81, so who knows what all they'll open up over the next month.
 
Even more fun, many of the cheap flights to Dallas put you on bigger planes- the 777 or 787, making upgrades a great experience since they'll be into lie-flat international style business class seats!  But these fares will disappear quickly, so grab them while you can!
 
~CruisingAltitude

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Yes, This Is Real Life Part 4: Welcome to Ghost...Port?

Our a350 from the tarmac.  Yes, despite having no flights and no passengers, they somehow couldn't find us a jetbridge. Really?

You could hear a pin drop in the Doha airport today.  It's calming, bizarre, and if I'm being honest, a little creepy.....I frikkin' love it.  
 
Imagine you touched down and de-planed in JFK to find that the population of the entire airport is about 300, plus staff.  You'd pretty well assume the world was ending, right? 
 
Just about the only ones on the way to immigration.
Well, we know that hasn't happened (at least not in the Hollywood action sense) but you wouldn't know that in Doha right now.  Sure, no one is running around screaming about the end of the world with their hair on fire, but it's unsettling nonetheless. 

Completely empty customs and baggage hall.
 
There's more staff than passengers by far, and we're literally (using the term correctly) the only people at each checkpoint.  I'd say we're the only ones in line, but using he term 'line' wouldn't really be correct...since it's just us....and we're only two people.  The bathrooms have more people cleaning them than using the facilities, and we get asked if we need directions multiple times in minutes by idle staff.  The thing is, we don't need directions, we know the way from here.
 
Lots of red up there....
 
The way out since we're legitimate premium passengers this time around, is through the designated business class customs...lounge... I suppose you could call it?  On the way to baggage and customs, you have to clear immigration as per usual, but not be outdone, Qatar has made even this process luxurious.  You check in at the lounge, which is basically a large room with nice chairs, some light refreshments, coffee, tea and the like, and when you're ready to exit, you just proceed to the dedicated customs desks at the other side.
 
 
The entrance to the immigration 'lounge.'
 
As was the case with the rest of the airport, this too was basically an empty room except for us and the staff.  No fighting for seats here.  We didn't wait around too long, since we had a room at the Grand Hyatt to check into for the night.  Since you can now apply in advance for a free transit visa, I didn't have to pay the $25 entry fee, which was nice on a short layover. 
 
I learned a thing or two about this process, and the ways it works and doesn't in planning and taking this trip.  Long story short, you can have only one visa application at a time, and you have to apply at least 7 days in advance.  You can also get a free visa if you have the right length of layover to be able to participate in QR's stopover package on a premium itinerary. (More on the ins and outs of this later)
 
Yes, this is what premium immigration lines look like in Doha.  This is also not to be confused with the actual 'Arrivals Lounge' past customs, which has far more than this.
 
After a brief look around, and getting our passports stamped, we headed out through the empty customs hall, and grabbed a cab to the hotel.  It was about a 30 minute ride, and there was hardly anyone out, or any traffic.  This is probably due to the perfect storm of the travel embargo, Ramadan....and the oppressive summer heat.  In any case, the city looked to be more or less an echo of the ghost town that the airport was.  Like I said, a bit unnerving..... and I frikkin' love it. 
 
What's a mileage run, if not the search for truly unique experiences?
 
 ~CruisingAltitude

Up next: When you layover during Ramadan....

Yes, This Is Real Life Part 3: Shades On, Wheels Up

 

The trip so far:

Preview: Yes, This Is Real Life

Part 1: Location Location Location

Part 2: Brits in Beantown

I have to grudgingly admit that Airbus did a good job with the a350, there's no denying it.  Now, as I've said, I'm a Seattle native.  Not just a Seattle native, but a North of SEA, Boeing hometown, kinda native.  As such, I'm pre-conditioned to be skeptical of anything that doesn't get designed and built in Everett.  

And I'm right.  I'm absolutely right with respect to the a319...and the a320 series.  Give me an MD80 or a 737 over those any day.  The a330 also doesn't knock my socks off, I'd prefer the 777 line.  However, I'll cave and give them props for being daring enough to put the a380 into production, and the a350 is a fair answer to the Dreamliner model.  
 

Flying the DOH-BOS route, I've gotten to check it out a couple of times so far.  The a350 has some features that set it apart as a pretty boy of a plane (yes, I'm jetlagged, deal with it.  People are dealing with stuff now).  The first thing you notice is that it has its 'shades on' from the get-go- the cockpit windows are tinted and appear black from the outside.  It was probably a functional design spec, but there's no denying it's sexy as hell.  Well, if you're a confirmed avgeek, that is.  
 

In flight, the size is formidable, giving a smooth ride, and if you grab a window seat, the elegantly curved winglet will make your in-flight pictures even more snazzy.  Allegedly, they've implemented the lower pressurization and higher humidity that Boeing put in place with the 787.  Being pressurized at less than the standard 8,000 ft density altitude should make you feel better and less dried out when you get to your destination.  I will say I've felt good getting off both 787 and 350 flights, but that could be the air, or the good sleep I got in their comfy business class seats.  I'll try to pay better attention next time. 

 
So now that that larger love fest is in place, let me give you the small, nitpicking complaints.  I flew this route in reverse in February, so just a couple of feelings about it.  

First off, try as they will, Airbus has IFE issues.  On the 321 it skips, and cuts in and out in turbulence.  Seriously.  One the 350, the sound occasionally did the same. There's really no excuse for this, and I won't make any.  While we're on the topic of IFE, they could cycle through their TV offerings a little more frequently.  I'm pretty sure a lot of it was overlap from 5 months earlier. 
 
The other issues I had, and they're admittedly small...though I would argue important to an airline trying to keep up this mythical 'world's only 5 Star airline' cache, is that in just the span of a few months since I last flew this route, they've already downgraded the service. 
 
 
The two things that stand out immediately are the amenity kit, which has gone from an Armani branded one with a full size hand lotion, generous perfume or cologne, and other goodies, to their current kit, which has much smaller samples, no perfume, etc.  The container itself might be a slight improvement, but I miss the Armani. 
 
 
The other notable change is a downgrade in their Champagne from Tattinger Blanc de Blancs, to Billecart-Salmon Brut.  I fully realize that this sounds like the most petty complaint, but like I said, this airline's entire marketing scheme focuses on being superior and offering a particularly luxurious business class experience. 
 
If their motto was 'sit here and eventually we'll get you someplace else, and then you'll be in that place and so deal with it until then,' like most American carriers' business model has become, that would be different, but premium is pretty much what QR has going for them, and the first thing on every drinks menu is the bubbly.  Details matter.
 
 
That said, the service is still head and shoulders above any US based carrier, bar none.  As is the case with most all of their mid and long haul flights, business class is 'dine on demand' so you can relax and order as you like.  There are generally several options for each course, and the drinks menu has not only wine, beer, spirits and the like, but also has a 'cocktail menu' included. 
 
It's true that since the plane is carrying all the mixers and whatnot, you could technically order a cocktail on most international flights (if not by name) it's fun to have some featured drinks listed.  I started out by trying the 'pink gin' which, as I quickly learned, was pretty much just a cup of gin.  I managed.
 
 
From there, I worked my way though the dinner menu.  Everything was excellent, as airplane food goes.  Many times I don't make it all the way to dessert, but this time I did.  I had the ice cream, and it was also good, but so frozen that it took awhile to be able to eat it.  Pro tip- order it with your entrée so it will defrost enough before you actually get to it. 
 
 
By this point, I'd worked my way though a fair amount of the IFE I hadn't already seen, including some bizarre documentary-but-fiction thing about the future of space...something?  I settled in, and got some sleep for a couple hours.  Honestly, even long haul flights that are this comfortable never seem quite long enough.  Yes, I'm serious.
 
~CruisingAltitude
 
  

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Perfect Summer


It really is the little things that make travel memorable- the time you clear security in 5 minutes from entering the airport, the time you clear your upgrade unexpectedly into your favorite seat, and of course, when someone along the way takes that extra step to making your day just a little better.

It's the escape from the normal on scales small and large that keep us coming back, and make us crave getting to the next jetbridge.  Even when you dedicate a fair amount of energy to traveling well, it's easy to get stuck in the monotony, and caught in the minutia. 

I'm happy to say that my current trip defies these traps.  I'm wrapping up a lovely, if short, weekend on Whidbey Island, WA with family.  The weather was perfect- warm days, cool nights, and sunsets made for storybook covers. I grew up here, and I don't get back nearly enough, especially in the summer.

Bringing all this ennui back to topics I cover in this blog, I have to comment on the recent upgrading and expansion of the SEA airport.  In case you've been living under a rock for the last 10 years or so, Seattle has become the SFO of the north, and as the industry and money have moved, the airlines and services have followed.  What once was a 2nd tier dominated airport, nearly to capacity with Alaska Air 737s, has become a bustling hub of the major players.

Most importantly (for me) just last year American started multiple nonstop service daily from LAX, and introduced the route with some killer deals.  Since then, I've rarely flown Alaska.  What's more, the 'Battle for Seattle'- a showdown between Delta and Alaska for dominance at this up and coming hub has ripped open airline alliances, and killed interline and codeshare deals between Alaska and both Delta and American. 

It's an interesting time to be alive...

However, what I really wanted to write about, less the small diversion, is that even American Express has apparently had their eye on Seattle, and a few years ago launched the 'Centurion Studio,' a smaller version of their Centurion Lounge, in the B Gates to test the waters.  Apparently, they got their answer loud and clear, and within the year started an expansion to the space that recently opened. 

It's fast become one of our favorite stops due to the beautiful views of Mt. Rainer, the nice food options, and especially the lounge staff.  From check in, to table service, to the bartenders, everyone is friendly and attentive. 

Tonight, I wandered up to the bar trying to decide what I was in the mood for.  I was immediately cut off, and was informed he had the perfect thing.  What I was served went a little like this:

"The Perfect Summer"

1.5 oz St Germain Elderflower
1/2oz fresh lemon
1/2 oz blood orange liquor
1/2oz simple syrup
Fill with crushed ice, float Prosecco to fill hi-ball glass
Garnish with a slice of grapefruit



And that, my friends, is the way to end a summer weekend before getting back to work.

Fly well,

~CrusisingAltitude

Around The World In 80 Hours: Epilouge

Hello Boston!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I did, very eventually, make it back to Los Angeles.  I may or may not still have been wearing my Qatar pajama top.  When you fly 7 flights around the world, you can judge me for that.  Until then.....

The circle was completed by a final flight back to LAX direct from Boston.  My upgrade cleared well in advance through use of an expiring SWU (as this was 'back in the days' when we got 8, and by February some would be in jeopardy of evaporating into thin air unused), so I didn't have to go from one of the nicest seats in the Oneworld fleet, to row 15 on an aging 737.

Let's take it home!

 My layover in Boston was spent saying goodbye to my travel companion as he headed off to his much shorter flight back to DCA, showering at the Admiral's Club, and trying to do a little writing to collect my thoughts.  It was a whirlwind trip to say the least, and I'm still amused and amazed that it all worked out as well as it did.

I arrived late into LAX, and checked into the LAX Westin hotel for the night so I didn't wake up my family by blundering in half jetlagged and dragging my suitcase at 1am, and could instead get off to work in the morning with less drive time.

Looking back, this trip was easily one of my favorite, if not THE favorite, mileage run to date.  It was exhausting at times, but good company, wonderful layover cities, and the story to tell about making the complete round the Earth flightpath in a long weekend is hard to beat.  It checked all the boxes- luxury, challenge, hilarity, camaraderie, and of course, a huge haul of miles. 

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me in reading this as I got it posted, and if you want to continue following this year's insanity, be sure to read about Havana Running, and of course the companion trip to this one- Yes, This Is Real Life, where I answer the existential question of how to mileage run to Cairo, when you can't fly to Cairo. 

As it stands, I'm actually coming up on my 100,000th mile very soon, which is much earlier than past years.  I should cross that milestone (get it...get it??) on our upcoming family trip to Europe!  Irony (or considering this year's flying, perfect fit) I'll get there on a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Copenhagen.  Look for a preview post about this mileage burn (not earn- this is where all those miles go in the end) trip both here, and also on Baby Flyer Blog.

Thanks again for reading.  Fly well, fly safely,

~CruisingAltitude

This is what one looks like after going around the world in 80 hours.  Midnight at LAX, yes, those might be QR PJs.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Yes, This Is Real Life Part 2: Brits in Beantown

 
Well done, BA, well done.
 

I did, very eventually, make it to Boston.  I hardly ever fly into Logan anymore, and so it was a sentimental experience to taxi into the B gates.  In many ways, I learned to mileage run because of the Boston airport.  Well, not the airport itself, but because for over two years Mrs. CruisingAltitude and I kept up a Los Angeles-Boston relationship.  Hauling back and forth to see her got me my first EXP status, and I've never wanted to give it up. 
 
Elevator up to the lounge level, follow the signs.
In the last few years, BOS has undergone some big renovations, and it was fun to see the new modern parts of the terminals as we walked from B to E.  The E gates serve international destinations, and I hadn't flown out of there before. We elected to walk through the parking structure, rather than taking the infra-terminal shuttle bus.  We got some steps in, which was good since we had a 12 hr flight ahead of us. 
 
The delay really limited the time I had to do the terminal change, check in with Qatar, re-security, and enjoy some pre-flight lounge time.  As we'd discovered just before this trip, British Airways has a beautiful new lounge at the E gates.  Since a major Oneworld benefit is access to partner airlines' lounges when traveling internationally, no matter the class of service, we headed over to check it out. 
 
Now, let me state again that I consider lounge access to be a major draw keeping me interested in staying loyal to Oneworld airlines.  With all the upheaval domestically with the merger and reduction in American benefits, you have to give Oneworld even more weight.  Where Delta might give better domestic service, and United is launching their "Polaris" class that looks pretty elegant, Oneworld is king when it comes to lounges worldwide. 

Airports like HKG, NRT, and SYD have lounge set ups for top tier flyers that are worth hours of layover time.  The free drinks and food, as well as comfort and services, are a bit part of the benefits of Oneworld status. So, it was annoying and short sighted when we were denied access at the door.  According to rules I'm pretty sure BA just made up, they deny access to Qatar customers, trying instead to send them to an inferior Air France lounge.  This is a clear violation of Oneworld rules, which state that OW Emerald has access to first class and business class lounges when traveling on ANY international itinerary, as long as the next onward flight is on a Oneworld marketed and operated flight.  There are a few very small carve outs to this, but the BA lounge in BOS sure isn't one of them. 

It says so RIGHT THERE, on their own sign!
 
They're right that they can make a non-Oneworld elite go to the Air France lounge since Qatar has contracted with that lounge to take their business class ticketed passengers.  However, we were at BA based on our Oneworld status, not the seat we were flying in that day.  The entrance to the lounge even has the Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire logo on it!  Things got a little heated, which is shameful on BA's part, because we were within the rules, and annoying loyal Oneworld elites shouldn't be a career goal for them.  They have plenty of transatlantic competition with newer planes, and lower taxes.
 
We did, however, prevail and were let in.  However, the entire thing was embarrassing, and the agents there need retraining on Oneworld rules if they really don't understand them.  This kind of issue was happening at the Qantas lounge at LAX when they first opened, and after a refresher, it hasn't been an issue since. 
 


Drama over with for the time being, we did get access to the lounge and had a look around.  The space is decently large for a BA outpost at a large enough, but not massive airport.  The décor is chic and modern, with some elegant touches.  It was, however, packed at this time of day.  This may have been part of the more vicious fight they put up over letting us in (or so I'd like to think).  It's to be expected though, as most transatlantic flights leave the US in the evening, causing mad rushes on the lounges around this time. 

A quick look around showed there was plenty of food, with both buffet and small made to order options.  The offering had a bit of a pan-Asian bent to it, which I enjoyed, though didn't entirely understand.  There were made to order lettuce wraps, and steamed buns, as well as a salad bar/hot bar, and plenty of sweets.

A small business center and showers were also available, and I had hoped to clean up before the long flight, but judging by the crowds and the delay that only left us with about an hour of lounge time, told me I'd just have to hold out until Doha.

We squeezed through the main part of the lounge, and found two seats at the bar.  The views of the sunset from here over the airport and the city were some of the most stunning of any airport lounge in the world. Paired with a glass of champagne, it was a perfect kick-off to the rest of the trip, and I'm still scheming on ways to get back there with the right ticketing for another visit.
  

Dear God, let me get back there again
 
All too soon, the sun disappeared over Boston, and it was time to head out to our plane.  However, this was definitely no great hardship, and the journey was just beginning!
 
~CruisingAltitude
 
Up Next: Part 3- Shades On, Wheels Up

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Around the World In 80 Hours Part 9: And Then, Everything is Perfect

 
 
How we got here:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Well, my friends, here it is- the capstone flight to my first around the world trip.  We've come a long way to get here, and in record time.  Now all that's left is to kick back and enjoy the next 12 or so hours. 
 
Once again, Qatar's service is in good form.  The champagne corks are popped before the passengers even board, and they get right down to business when you find your seat- Armani amenity kits, comfortable (and more trendy than AA) PJs, and a menu that takes some time to look over. 
 

 
Yes, 1,000 times yes.  You can just leave the bottle, I'll be fine. Promise.
 
 
What's more, we're getting a first look at QR's new a350.  It's not quite the inaugural flight, but the plane's been in service for less than a year.  It's a snazzy thing, if I do say so myself (though, don't let my hometown hear me actually approving of something not made in Everett).  Qatar's done a good job of their business class cabin design- it's a 1-2-1 all aisle access set up with angle seats that lie flat (of course).  There's a decent amount of privacy, and ample tray table and storage space. 
 


 
Oh...and the cabin ambiance is fun.  There's the LED lighting scheme, not to mention the 'walk up bar' in the middle of the cabin that nicely takes up what would otherwise be dead space, or a spare galley, but also.... there's the ceiling.  They've removed the overhead bins on the inside of the business class aisles, since there's fewer passengers and they're not needed.  This opens up the feel of the cabin, and makes it seem much bigger inside.


 
The a350 being Airbus's rough equivalent of an answer to the Dreamliner, it's always worth making a few comparisons.  Overall, the experience is similar- lighting, modern style, composite materials, and smooth ride.  The differences are in the details- the 350 has snazzy windows with automatic shades, but instead of the dimming screens, they use actual shades that give a nice lighting feel over the blue or bluer scheme of the 787.
 
 
The other comparison you notice right off is the 350's modern winglet design which pairs quite nicely with the insanely terraformed 'coast line' of Doha.
 
Because they can
 So, now that I've set the scene....let the fun begin!  We rolled the runway pretty well on time, and we watched our progress from the HD camera on the plane's tail.  Best. Channel. Ever.
 
 
Like the last flight, everything on Qatar is 'on demand' - food, drinks, everything.  I took full advantage of this, and tried a few things from the menu, to the detriment of my potential sleeping time.  No pain, no gain.
 

 
 
 
Now, I know I post a lot about food and seats and airports, but wait, there's more!  Aside from the little luxuries, the most memorable flights come with unforgettable views that give you a sense of the world as you can't see it otherwise. 
 
 
 
While crossing between Kuwait City and Tehran, I looked out the window to see snow covered mountains on the horizon.  They only got more dramatic as we flew closer.   
 
 
It's flights like this that double windows were made for.  
 
 
It was at about this point that I 'helpfully' reached over the front of my TV screen to tap (some might say smack) my brave travel companion on the head, lest he sleep through these views.  And yes, he thanked me for it.... as everybody should.  How often do you get to see vistas like this between Baghdad and Tehran??  I mean, come on....
 
Only complaint about this plane, and for that matter the 787, is that the modern window controls allows the flight crew to take them over and force all the windows to go black when they think it's "lights out time."  While they really lock down on the 787, it appears to be just a 'hard suggestion' on the 350.  Now, I get that it's annoying if you're trying to sleep, and the guy in 6A's got his shade open like a spotlight.  But honestly, that's what eye masks are for.  They even give them to everyone.  On the off chance that you're on a flight that's largely a 'daylight' one, you should have the option to look out and see where the heck you are. 
 
This flight was a prime example of this quandary.  About the time we crossed over into Europe, the windows went dark until approach into Boston.  Unacceptable.  I'm a grown-up, and I'll decide when it's time for ny-nys, and when it's time for pretending I can tell Sweden and Norway from 31,000ft thankyouverymuch.
 
ANYWAY, I did need to get some sleep on this flight, so I got my PJs on, and my bed made up.  They provide a comforter and mattress pad, which does make a difference.
 
 
After some rest, and browsing through the extensive IFE selections, the lights went back up as we got closer to Boston.  I'll admit, it was pretty surreal to see the other coast of the US come up on the horizon after four days spent flying West.
 
 
 

And with touchdown in my once hometown of BOS, all that's left is the conclusion....
 
~CruisingAltitude