What I miss about First Class

November 16, 2020

AA and UA reneged on 50,000 lbs of fancy nuts the carriers had requisitioned for first class service, which by itself isn’t surprising during this austere Covid travel period.  What upset me was their subsequent decision never to serve those nuts in first class again—or at least that’s what they told their suppliers. 

What the heck?  Why trouble myself to get in United’s or American’s first class if they’ve eliminated every vestige of being special?  The trappings of first class service have dwindled: no nuts, no alcohol except in prepackaged cans or plastic bottles (wine that comes in cartons is not for me), and no meals—just snacks previously sold in coach. 

Call me naïve, but in my youth and middle years of air travel I imagined that what’s now called premium cabins (domestic first and international business) would have improved as in-flight service matured over the decades.  Instead, it seems the airlines are using the pandemic as cover for chopping what little is left of “premium” and leaving us with nothing more than a bigger seat near the front of the airplane on domestic routes when the plague abates.  If that’s the new normal, maybe the carriers should drop the pretense, throw in the first class towel completely, and go back to the all-coach cabin configuration that Piedmont made famous and that Southwest emulated.

But if the domestic front cabin persists—and I hope it does—then here’s what I miss about it that I consider essential (I’ll leave expectations for service in international business class cabins for another post):

  • Acknowledge me a little.  If I pay for first, then I’m contributing a greater share of profits to the airline’s bottom line than the good souls in the last row.  Just a smile and a simple, courteous thank-you for flying up front; no butt-kissing required.
  • Give my checked luggage real preference.  Not just a gaudy tag, but retrieve my bags ahead of other suitcases when I get there.
  • Let me board ahead of the mad rush.  Okay, board me behind folks in wheelchairs, but BEFORE all others, including BEFORE those who need “a little extra time in boarding” and BEFORE babies and military personnel and such.  And also BEFORE super-grandee-deluxe-imperial-royal snoot-face status flyers (well, maybe that includes me on some airlines).  If those gals and guys are so special, they’ll hold seat assignments in first class anyway and can board with the rest of us.  If they are in the back, one wonders why. But if so, they can board right after first class. I want to get on the plane, get my luggage stowed, settle in, and tune out, avoiding the conga-line boarding stress rearward.
  • Hang my jacket.  Used to be that as a business flyer I habitually wore suits on planes so I could go directly to work on arrival.  Sartorial mores have relaxed even for business, but most men wear a business jacket even if they fly tieless, and in colder months I always don outerwear.  For decades flight attendants always took and hung up my jacket and returned it on final approach.  It’s a small but important gesture if I pay for the privilege to be in first class.
  • Keep first class overhead compartments only for first class customers.  This includes flight attendants and pilots.  I have often found FA and cockpit crew luggage in first class overheads.  This is especially important in the bulkhead row which lacks underseat space—and I often choose the bulkhead row.  Delta does a good job here, which I greatly appreciate when flying their planes.
  • Serve mixed drinks and palatable wine from real bottles, along with good beer in cans.  When the pandemic passes, go back to G&Ts and Bloody Marys and other cocktails served with lemon or lime wedges, as the discriminating passenger (like me) requires.  I maintain it’s not really a gin and tonic or Bloody Mary without a slice of lime.  Keep a variety of decent bourbon, single malt scotch, and VSOP Cognac on hand, too, along with the usual popular liqueurs like Bailey’s and Kahlua.  After all, it’s “first class” and should feel like it, not like some cheap saloon in rural Alabama.
  • Always offer a beverage of my choice, whether coffee or cocktail, during boarding.  More than one if time permits.  On longer flights, like transcons, make it Champagne (a good Cava or American sparkling will do and isn’t expensive).  ‘Nuff said!
  • Restore hot meal service on flights of 90 or more minutes, cold snacks on shorter flights.  Especially at breakfast times.  It’s hard to screw up morning meals, and the food must be heated.  Getting off an early flight with even just a warm biscuit or bagel in my stomach gives me energy enough to hit the ground running at destination, and I always remember the airline that launched me thus.
  • Come around multiple times to offer drink refills and to chat during the flight.  Of course not possible during turbulence, but otherwise, why not?  It builds relationships, a warm human touch, and makes me happy.
  • Let first class “deplane” ahead of coach passengers.  This may seem obvious from typical narrow-body planes with the premium cabin up front, but for 757s and some wide-bodies that board and deplane from the second-left door (in airline parlance), coach and first customers often merge at the door, slowing everyone getting off the plane.  Northwest routinely enforced the practice to hold coach until all first class flyers had left, as do some foreign carriers.  This should be every airline’s discipline.

Some colleagues and friends who sit often in first class grumble about coach passengers wandering up front to use the lav during flight, but that doesn’t bother me.  Modern aircraft often skimp on toilets, and so why not share?

Now that I think about it, that’s not a long, complex list, nor are the services expensive.  It’s all the little things that made first class “first class” for as long as I’ve been flying (since 1960).  These elements are not new, but they are indispensable and make flying up front feel exceptional.  I sure hope they survive this period of cost-cutting asceticism. 

“I am strong to work”

November 4, 2020

In the fog and uncertainty of this day after Election Day, I am reflective.  As we Americans decide by this election what values the 2020 majority share, I wonder how many of us take our phenomenal personal prosperity for granted.  Even during this terrible pandemic, only 7.9% of us are officially out of work, says the BLS. The numbers demonstrate that most Americans can blithely assume we will always have gainful employment.  And with lots of leisure couch potato time to watch Netflix and pig out on nachos.

Whereas in South Africa official unemployment hit 30.1% at the end of March—and that was before Covid’s impact. (Unemployment worsened to 42% in the second quarter of 2020.)

This picture of a South African job-seeker was heart-breaking to me, despite having often traveled to developing nations, including many trips to work or visit South Africa, where sights like this man and his sign are all too common. 

While I’ve seen a great deal of deep poverty outside the USA, I’ve never become inured to it. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which I’ve often visited since 1991, young men and women working there have several times asked me to adopt them so they could come to the United States to get jobs.  They love their country, they say, but can’t find work. Often they have told me of dreaming to send money back to South Africa to their moms and dads and brothers and sisters because their family members have been unable to find work for years.  They have little money for food or to better their meager living conditions.

I always find a way to give them some pocket cash, usually through generous gratuities.  After all, as a typical American, I have a comfortable surfeit of currency and never want for food. I can afford to share.

This election has made me wonder how many Americans are aware, except abstractly, of the routine challenges for daily food and shelter faced by a great many citizens of other countries like South Africa.  In my experience, most folks in other places are eager to toil, like the young man above who is “strong to work.”

Could it be that Americans are heedless and incurious because extreme poverty beyond our borders is out of sight and out of mind, literally and figuratively foreign to them? I don’t believe that we can close our minds, hearts, and pocketbooks to the rest of humanity. We’re all in this together.

It always shocks me that many Americans do not travel.  According to this 2019 Forbes article, 11% have never even left the state of their birth, and 13% have never flown on an airline. 40% have never traveled outside the USA, not even to Canada or Mexico, and 10% don’t want to go anywhere.

That’s not me. Travel is broadening, the best education one can experience. My life of travel has made me a witness to the struggles of cultures and people around our fragile, small planet. I admire their courage and character to seek work and to work hard.  The vast majority of Americans used to share that view, a universal empathy inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty that defines what it means to be an American.

Through travel, I’ve confirmed firsthand that the world does not begin and end in the United States.  Yet half of my fellow countrymen now believe it does.  Or at least the results of yesterday’s election make me think that.

We used to do better, and we can again.

But can I get there?

A recent “luxury travel” come-on (I get tons of up-market travel emails) touted their top ten “winter sun” vacation spots.  What made me take note of this particular message was its list of places allowing tourists during the Covid crisis, with helpful details of travel restrictions for each destination.  But it didn’t say how travelers might be able to get there, which got me wondering which airlines and routings are actually available. 

A bit of sleuthing among several reservation systems, including Google Flight Search, revealed that travel from my home airport of Raleigh/Durham (RDU) to every place in the list is indeed possible.  (I assumed two weeks leaving late January and returning early February, 2021.)  Here’s what I learned from #10 (Tahiti) to #1 (The Maldives):

French Polynesia (Pape’ete, Tahiti)

United claims it’ll get me to Tahiti (PPT, not Bora Bora) for $1288 round trip Economy and $4950 in Business via EWR and then SFO, but owing, I surmise, to the dearth of flights these days, it’s a 52-hour torment from Raleigh.  It would be a direct flight if I lived in the Bay Area.  I couldn’t find any other airline making the journey in January-February from RDU. I’ve been to Moorea, and it was idyllic, but The Maldives are dazzling and surpass the beauty and charm of Tahiti, in my opinion.

Eqypt

Lots of options here. Cairo is reached quickest (19+ hours) via Air Canada/Turkish, Jet Blue/Turkish, and United/Austrian for $848 in coach, $1550 in Premium Economy, or around $3300 round trip in Business.  Other major carriers and alliances also say they are flying then, with the Delta/AF Business fare just $2600.  I’ve traveled in Egypt from Cairo to Aswan and marveled at its ancient wonders.  I’d happily return for a longer linger.  In fact the most spectacular hotel I’ve ever spent nights in was the Oberoi on an island in the Nile at Aswan.

Dominican Republic

Many options from RDU with durations of 5-8 hours for as little as $376 (Spirit—ugh!) to $551 in coach on all major carriers, and a reasonable $729-900 in Business.  Tempts me to go; I would enjoy sampling their cigars, superior rum, and pristine beaches.

Costa Rica

Again, every major airline lists flights to San Jose and will take me there in 8-9 hours for $271 (the dreaded Spirit again) to $450 in Economy and $750-990 in Business.  Been there, done that on both coasts, through mangrove swamps and dense rain forests.  The worst potholes on earth are on a main Pacific highway there, large enough to swallow  a bus—beating out even rural Venezuelan roads in my adventures.

Dubai

Well, of course Emirates flies to Dubai, their home base, I thought.  Not at the present, apparently, or else they aren’t listed on the systems I queried.  But I did find flights on Air Canada, UA, DL/KLM, and Turkish for $880-1200 in the back and $3006-4700 up front.  However, travel times are long, with most 21 hours or more.  Great airport, which I love connecting through, but I’ve never considered making a vacation stop in Dubai, though I once almost had a consulting gig there.

Mexico

It’s a big country with two coasts, so I checked both Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific (Baja California peninsula) and Cancun on the Caribbean (Yucatan peninsula).  Cabo appears to be served by DL, UA and AA for $450-480 round trip Economy and $1012 in First (AA).  It’s about a 7-hour trip.  From RDU, Cancun is well-served mainly by Delta (many flight options), less so by UA, AA or Spirit.  It’s a 5-6 hours journey, with coach just $350-380 and First/Business $630 (UA) to $720.  South of the border has never grabbed me like some places, though I once had a relaxing week on Isla Mujeras. And I always yearned to see Chicken Pizza, er, I mean, Chichén Itzá.

St. Lucia

American promises to get me cheapest to UVF Airport ($392 in coach versus $584 on Delta) and in under 7 hours.  Business/First on AA runs $1053, while Delta thinks their front cabin is worth $1929.  This place sounds exotic and gorgeous, but with few bargains once on the ground, it seems.

Zanzibar (Tanzania)

Like Cairo, ZNZ is cheapest and fastest via Air Canada/Turkish at around $1300 in coach or a steep $7000 in Business, but it’s a 26-27 hour ordeal.  UA/Austrian/Ethiopian has a lower coach price ($830), but takes an agonizing 41 hours to get there.  Other airline alliances will get me to Zanzibar, but the fares are higher and flying time over 30 hours.  I’ve flown through the airport a couple of times en route to Arusha (Tanzania) and the Serengeti.  Thought the seaside resorts appeared beautiful on approach, but I was told local fishermen have dynamited the once-pristine reefs into oblivion, with no marine life left to see.

Turks & Caicos

Having heard about the islands’ elegant digs, I thought T&C would be pricey to fly to, but it’s just $420-450 (coach) and $800 (First) from RDU, and I can get there in a mere 5 hours on Delta, United, or American.  Who knew it was so quick and cheap?  Another place I’d love to visit.

The Maldives

Unlike Turks & Caicos, I have been to The Maldives and fell in love with the archipelago. Pre-Covid, Emirates flew to Malé (MLE Airport) with lots of capacity, but as with Dubai, I could not find flights on Emirates listed connecting from Raleigh.  However, it appears that the Air Canada/Turkish, AA/Qatar, and JetBlue/Turkish partnerships will get me there for $1200-1300 in coach or around $7000 in Business.  The kicker is that takes 25-30 hours of flying at a minimum.  Air Canada/Lufthansa connections show an unendurable 52-hour itinerary.  My one visit to The Maldives left an indelible positive mark in my memory.  My wife and I plan to return.  Maybe this winter is the right time.

I imagined that this frivolous exercise would do little more than validate my ennui and deep longing to travel again. After all, it began as a lark to satisfy my curiosity after reading the “top ten” list and wondering how I’d get to those places during the pandemic. My expectations were low. 

Therefore, I was genuinely surprised to find the usual rez systems displaying flights in January-February to every destination.  Now I wonder if the many flights I found are real or phantoms.

Assuming the flights are there, however, I worry that the mandatory testing is harder than finding itineraries that work. And that being allowed to enter the countries is even harder. I recently fretted about this in the context of my planned 2021 trip to South Africa. The current chaos of nonstandard testing and entry requirements, exacerbated by the uncertain fluidity of the plague’s peaks and valleys, makes it impossible to know if I can comply and be allowed to fly and enter any of the nations listed.

The trouble with e-credits, while others bike

 Thanks to plague-related flight cancellations earlier this year, I have a stockpile of e-credits with Delta Air Lines.  Easy-peasy to use when you want, the Delta reps assured me each time one of my itineraries bit the dust.  My experience with them this week? Not so much.  While I was struggling with the counter-intuitive e-credit rules, two friends were enjoying the open road on their big BMW motorcycles, leaving me equal parts envious and frustrated.

In fact the displeasure when trying to use some of those airfare credits left me so exasperated that I momentarily considered submitting a blank blog post this week to signify the nothingness that is my travel today.

When the e-credits were deposited into my SkyMiles account, Delta had instructed me to start there when booking to use them.  Being a pretty good rule follower when it comes to the Catch-22s of airline bureaucracy, I went into my SkyMiles account, located a couple of the credits, checked the right boxes to use them, and then painstakingly shopped flights by date and price for my wife, daughter and me to travel Raleigh to Minneapolis in mid-December to attend our son’s piano recital at his college.  Simple, I thought, as I tried to find flights that worked for us.

Despite the airlines saying planes are empty and bookings scarce, fares were surprisingly high, which I attributed to being close to Christmas.  After some time I eventually found what we needed and tediously entered all the name and contact data required to book my wife and daughter.  Fares for three would use up all the two e-credit amounts and leave me with a balance to pay, which was what I expected.

But when I then tried to finalize the reservations and pay for the itinerary, the Delta system balked and would not execute.  The error message was a generic one without explanation of what might have gone wrong.  I therefore attributed the failure to a system hiccup and started over.  In so doing, Delta took me all the way back to my e-credits.  Once again I checked the boxes of the two credits I wished to use and repeated the entire booking process.

At least this time, I thought, I knew which days and flights to go after.  Still, the process took a lot of time and forced me to re-enter the names and contact data for my wife and daughter, including their Known Traveler numbers (we’re all TSA Global Entry members and therefore TSA Pre members).  Finally at the end, I hit the book-and-pay button.  Once again the system blinked and spit out the same generic error message as before.  No explanation; just wouldn’t process the reservations.

I should have given up then, but my native stubbornness and self-reliance kicked in, and I went through everything all over again.  I couldn’t see why it wasn’t working.  Third time would be the charm, I thought. 

WRONG! Same error message, yet onscreen Delta’s system teased with the flights and personal data all there, while executing the booking eluded me.

By now I’d wasted nearly an hour.  I called the Delta Elite line, waited for the new-normal callback in 15 minutes, and ultimately explained my dilemma.  The rep’s explanation surprised me.

She readily agreed that using the e-credits isn’t easy or intuitive online and explained some of the rabbit holes that folks are prone to fall into.  For one, I can’t use but one e-credit at the time even if the ticket price is higher than all e-credits combined.  Makes no sense, but that’s the rule.

Another snag is that I cannot book more than two people on an e-credit itinerary.  I had therefore violated two hidden rules (not published anywhere I could find) in trying to book three of us on one record and attempting to use two of my e-credits to pay for the tickets.

The Delta rep graciously offered to book the flights I had researched, but she was unable to bend those rules any more than I could.  If I couldn’t use more than one of my credits at the time, I asked if we could instead use one of mine to pay for part of my ticket, plus one of my wife’s Delta e-credits to pay for her ticket.  The answer was yes, as long as it was done through a Delta rez agent like her.  It could not be done online in the same itinerary. 

My next request was to use one of my e-credits to offset my fare and use another of my e-credits for my daughter’s ticket.  Nope, not allowed, came the answer.  Delta e-credits can only be used for the person in whose name they are issued.  That rule applies even when two people are on the same itinerary, meaning if the e-credit applied to my fare exceeded the ticket price, then the remainder could not be used to pay for any part of the second person’s fare.  Any remaining portion of the e-credit would be redeposited into the owner’s SkyMiles account for future use.

Sheesh!  What foolish hurdles Delta has created, I murmured.  She laughed and agreed.  I posited this learning exercise was a waste of my time and Delta’s, though the convoluted process had the unintentional consequence of assuring job security for reservations agents like her because I couldn’t have reserved what I wanted without a rep’s involvement.

The Delta agent did a fine job of booking all three of us.  She put my wife and me on one record, using one of my e-credits (we chose the one that would expire soonest) and one of my wife’s e-credits for her ticket.  That reduced the difference I had to pay for her fare and mine.  The agent then booked our daughter on a separate but linked record locator, a fare I had to pay in its entirety despite having e-credits lingering in my account.

Over 90 minutes has elapsed from the time I had begun to book the flight and the time I disconnected from the helpful, well-informed Delta agent.  While I was being schooled in Delta’s e-credit dysfunction, two friends had coincidentally emailed descriptions of their respective recent bike trips, including enticing pictures of the great American outdoors.  Both own big BMW motorcycles and are fearless adventurers.  One just returned from a week riding in Arizona where, among things, he slept one night in a modest Navaho “B&B” in Monument Valley.  Here below are the gorgeous views he arose to the following morning. 

Contrasting the non-value-adding e-credit idiocy of what I’d gone through to book a simple itinerary RDU to MSP, I smiled at the simplicity of just hitting the pavement and going places on rubber tires.  Untethered from airline complexity and snafus, the personal freedom of the road suddenly appealed. The 1949 advertising ditty to “See the USA in your Chevrolet” made famous by Dinah Shore came to mind, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Still and all, it displaced the sour e-credit experience.

Points to cashback card shuffle

October 13, 2020

At the end of September I pondered: Are all those airline and hotel loyalty program points and miles I’ve zealously pursued for forty years still worth going after during this zero-travel period of indeterminate length, especially given how costly, not to mention elusive, airline awards have become?  After reflection, I can now say with certainty: Not so much. 

Which led me to consider what credit cards I should be using instead.  Because all the cards currently in my wallet except Discover accumulate points or miles.

After two weeks of analysis, I’ve made my choices. Along the way I learned that figuring out the right cards for me these days is harder than I anticipated.

I thought I could easily quantify current credit card benefits and current new card offers in a side-by-side, two-bucket comparison between cards that offer rewards and those that offer rebates. My plan was then to construct a matrix of the points/miles bucket of cards to parse the benefits and assign comprehensible values to each.  However, as I began to populate the matrix of the points group of cards, I realized that, for me, the mileage game has devolved into an existential morass.  Because of the constantly rising cost of awards and the lost transparency of membership reward charts, I can no longer accurately quantify, compare, and contrast the relative “values” of miles and points. Thus I abandoned that approach and went with my gut: It’s time to move on.

My three everyday credit cards have for a long time been American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa, and Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage MasterCard.  In other words, one of each major card type.  I closed a Citi Business Platinum AAdvantage MasterCard because it was essentially redundant after I qualified for the bonus miles. Secondary cards include a Wells Fargo Visa, a Bank of America MasterCard, and Discover.  All accumulate miles or points except Discover, which offers the usual cash rebates of up to 5%, depending upon special offers and retailers used.

In addition to active accounts, the present bevy of new card offers vary:

  • Hilton HHonors American Express (100,000 Bonus Points after spending $1,000 in the first three months and lots of multiplied Bonus Point opportunities)
  • Delta SkyMiles Amex (60,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months plus lots of Delta bennies like first bag checked free and $600-700 in future Delta flight credits)
  • American Express Business Gold (35,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months plus 4X the points in my top two spending areas)
  • Amex Cash Preferred Blue Card ($300 cash back after spending $3,000 in the first three months plus 3-6% cash back from various retail types)
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited Visa ($200 cash bonus after spending $500 in the first three months plus up to 5% cash back from various retail types)

The preponderance of Amex offers in these examples is coincidental.  I routinely receive similar offers from many banks. Those listed are just the most recent ones. Many dizzying card offers come almost daily, their bonus differences only a matter of degree and program preference.

I didn’t bite on any of them because the fine print revealed limitations and complexities no better after the initial bonus periods than the cards I carry already.

Most of the offers charge annual fees, some as high as $295, for the privilege of carrying the card, and all have ceilings on how much you can earn, whether points or cash.  Joesentme.com contributor Fred Abatemarco detailed cashback recently, helpfully (to me) concluding that a single card won’t do it.

Fred’s probably right, but I’m getting many fewer cashback card come-ons than mileage bonus propositions. Why, I wonder, are so many of the offers landing in my mailbox and email still focused on the race for miles and points rather than on cashback schemes.  In these Covid-induced travel doldrums, I’d have thought many fellow points addicts would be losing interest in accumulating ever more miles they can’t use. Whatever others are doing, I’ve made my decisions:

DISCOVER CARD SPENDING TSUNAMI

My principal takeaway until the traveling future clarifies is that I should move the bulk of card spending to Discover and add one more cashback card.  In addition, I will keep at least one of each of the big three card issuers almost universally accepted worldwide: American Express, MasterCard, and Visa.

AMERICAN EXPRESS PLATINUM, BECAUSE I CAN’T BEAR TO LOSE IT

Reflecting on the ones I have already, I am loath to confess an irrational attachment to my American Express Platinum Card.  I’ve had an American Express card since 1976 and have carried the Platinum version for longer than I can remember.  Why does it feel somehow like I’d be chopping off an ear to lose it?

Maybe it’s because when air travel becomes routine again, I don’t want to lose the airport club privileges that come with that card: entry to Centurion Lounges, Delta SkyClubs, and the 1200-plus Priority Pass clubs worldwide. Though I wouldn’t miss some of the minor benefits like streaming service credits (Netflix, etc.) and Uber credits.

I’m going to keep my Amex Platinum despite its high annual fee ($550). Another justification: For $175 extra per year (total), my wife and two kids also carry the Platinum card, which gives them independent access to those same airline clubs.  Well, when we are all flying again…

MASTERCARD AS BACKUP, JUST BECAUSE

I no longer need that Citi AAdvantage Platinum MasterCard.  With AA’s extreme devaluation (by making AAdvantage awards so costly), accumulating AAdvantage Miles doesn’t work for me anymore.  In addition to which, I now have 41 or 42 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades sitting uselessly in my AAdvantage account because my Lifetime Gold elite status is utterly worthless.  AAdvantage Golds never get high enough on any AA upgrade list to use one.  Shame, because AAdvantage is my oldest airline frequent flyer program membership (since 1981), which somehow makes me feel like abandoning an old friend.  Foolish, I know.  Just the same, I am closing the account.

That leaves me with just one MasterCard, the one from Bank of America.  It’s a no-fee throwback that I keep in my back pocket as backup in case the primary plastic malfunctions.

VISA FLIPFLOP FROM POINTS TO CASHBACK

Today I turned my Chase Visa reward points into a credit statement. I plan to use up the balance and close that account, replacing it with a Costco cashback Visa. 

OLD RELIABLE

The big card shuffle moves my focus from points to cashback.  Although it leaves my old reliable Amex Platinum lurking expensively inert in my back pocket, I am ready to use it to fly again.  Maybe I should think of it as a kind of lucky charm, like a shamrock, that will magically bring back travel.  If only…

Covid-19 Catch-22 travel dictums

October 8, 2020

Exasperated!  That’s how I feel right now about the uncertainty of my planned trip returning to South Africa’s Kruger National Park next year.  Emerging Covid-19 test requirements for travel to all sorts of places are sowing doubt and confusion at a minimum for would-be travelers like me or are just downright impossible to achieve in some cases, giving the most stringent mandates a distinct Catch-22 quality.  Specific to me, new Covid-10 testing directives in South Africa threaten my trip scheduled in early May, 2021.

Tourism is vitally important to the South African economy, with one in every 22 working South Africans said to be employed in the industry, especially important with massive unemployment of as much as 42%.  Naturally the country wants to reopen its borders to international tourists asap. 

Even domestically the pent-up demand has been so great that over last weekend, a South African national holiday period, the Kruger National Park reached 100% occupancy consisting entirely of South Africans who just wanted to get away.  Pre-Covid, it was not unusual for the Kruger to be busy over local holidays, but 100% full was uncommon.

As one of those overseas tourists who want to visit the Kruger, I know that demand is high even way out in the future.  When I had to rebook my Kruger accommodations from February to May, my very clever and well-informed local agent based in South Africa was unable to find space for me on the exact dates and in the exact Kruger camps that I requested, requiring me to flex my Kruger Park schedule considerably.  And that was seeking Kruger accommodation eight months in advance!  That has never happened to me before in 30 years of travel to the Kruger.

With so much bottled-up demand, I thought the South African government would have developed a well-coordinated set of requirements to make it easy for international visitors to comply when the country reopened on October 1.  Instead, SA government departments muddled things entirely with two directives to all arriving passengers that are impossible to achieve:

  • Produce a negative Covid-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) certificate not more than 72 hours old; and
  • Show proof of travel insurance that covers cover the cost of Covid-19 tests and quarantine costs.

That news led me to investigate both requirements.

First, the worldwide insurance industry does not currently issue policies covering mandated government testing requirements and quarantine costs for a known event.  Perhaps they will, but my sources speculate the cost for such a policy would soar above the garden variety travel insurance currently costing $25-80.  For the moment, though, there is no insurance at any cost that meets the South African requirement, and so the order is a Catch-22.

With regard to the PCR Covid test, I found nearly 20 places in Raleigh that offer the test, many without a doctor’s referral, with prices ranging from nearly free using my private health insurance to as much as $200 when all fees are totaled.  It’s hard to figure out what all the costs are.

But cost wasn’t the kicker; it’s the time required to get results.  PCR tests are much more accurate than the many “quick” tests available because they use specialized lab equipment that takes time.  Every place I queried gave me the same inflexible answer to get back results: 2-3 days.

South Africa’s requirement to present a negative PCR Covid-19 test result not older than 72 hours makes it impossible to comply because the 3-day window will close due to the lag time between testing and receiving test results.  Even if PCR test results came in just two days, I can’t get to Johannesburg within 72 hours, which makes this requirement, too, a Catch-22.

My Kruger trip planned for May, 2021 is still seven month off, so maybe the South Africans will untangle the mess they’ve made.  Right now, though, one well-heeled South African I know has postponed all international trips because not even he can meet the fiats when he returns home. 

I’m not going to cancel my trip…yet.  Way too early.  I’ll wait and see just how they straighten out things.  Meantime, I am sure Joseph Heller is laughing heartily somewhere in the Great Beyond watching the creation of ever more Catch-22 situations that plague us (pun intended).

Paradigm lost

September 30, 2020

After nearly forty years spent chasing miles, the Covid crisis has made me realize that points-earning cards may no longer be right for me.

I signed on to the American AAdvantage program in 1981 when it launched and still have the flimsy plastic card AA sent me then.  At the time I was often flying several times weekly, heavily on Eastern, Delta, and United, so later joined their respective programs the moment each was offered. Soon after came the onslaught of hotel and rental car programs, and later mileage- and points-based credit cards.  I greedily gorged on them all.  But now, with apologies to Milton, I am forced to wonder if it’s a paradigm lost.

Used to be, in the early days of frequent flyer programs, my wife and I could fly JFK-London first class on a TWA 747 for 50,000 miles total.  25,000 miles each for the royal treatment when Trans World still had panache and elegance.  Their lounges were styled Ambassador Clubs.

It wasn’t just Teenie Weenie Airlines, either.  Original awards on every airline required relatively low mileage, not subject to capacity constraints if any seats were still available for sale, and mile accumulations were generous, often in 1,000-mile minimums per flight segment, and often goosed—such as being doubled—based on marketing gimmicks.

The decade of the 1980s was the golden era of frequent flyer programs.  By 9/11, the frequent flyer schemes were twenty years old, and the industry faced its first major downturn. Programs had by then become markedly more austere, with tiered awards, fewer awards seats (especially premium seats), and stratified so-called “elite” levels of so-called “loyalty” based on mileage flown per year.  Super-duper elite level flyers were allowed free upgrades and other perks not available to “general” members.

That tightened further in the early 2000s with restrictions on how super-elite levels could be reached (e.g., money spent annually mostly replaced miles flown), and elite levels were parsed again to create tippy-top groups.  To qualify, I had to concentrate almost all flying on one carrier and pay higher fares.  I was becoming disgruntled even on Delta, where I had five million-plus miles and had been designated “Lifetime Platinum” elite.  But Platinum meant next to nothing by then, nor did my Lifetime Gold on American.  No matter how I tried, in most years I could hit all kinds of high mileage plateaus, but never spent quite enough dollars on fares to break through to higher elite levels.

During the same period, mileages required for coveted international premium cabin seats skyrocketed on every airline.  The mileage inflation impacted domestic flight awards, too, as did the tedious capacity controls on award seats.  At one point, Delta wanted 960,000 SkyMiles for a single round trip business class seat to Johannesburg.  Readily acknowledging that JNB is more distant than London, nearly a million miles for a ticket to anywhere is an astonishing number, especially compared to paying 25,000 miles to London on TWA in first class in 1984. Heck, I was having trouble even getting coach award seats RDU to Billings, Montana.

Then came the 2008-2010 recession and another big downturn in air travel, especially business travel.  In its aftermath, the airlines retooled their frequent flyer schemes again.  Award charts, a hallmark since the beginning, disappeared from websites.  Award mileages became dynamic, mysterious, based on algorithms benefiting only the carriers, not the members. 

The black magic lack of transparency further dampened my enthusiasm to dash after miles and points.  But I kept on doing it, like a meth addict who can’t stop tweaking.  I even signed up for a couple of new points/mileage-based credit cards to get the spending threshold bonuses that came with the offers.  I made every one, too, and saw those thousands of miles enrich my accounts at one airline or another.

But I felt a nagging question in the back of my mind:  Were all those points and miles worth it, especially given how expensive, not to mention elusive, airline awards had become?

Ditto for the hotel programs, which though I haven’t mentioned until now, went through the same early boom and later steep devaluation.  After being a Hilton Diamond VIP member for years, for example, I mostly stopped paying attention to those increasingly useless points even before the 2009 Great Recession.

I remember looking in my wallet late in 2019 and thinking that I should be using my Discover Card more because it gave me a simple refund on what I spent.  Otherwise, my credit cards were all based on points and miles:  American Express Platinum (Membership Miles), Delta SkyMiles Amex, two different AAdvantage-based MasterCards, a Wells Fargo MasterCard with its point counting system, and a Chase Visa that was racking up points.

Following every single previous economic slowdown since 1981, travel came back quickly, and my loyalty—obsession, really—to the frequent flyer programs did not wane or change.  Now, however, the Covid-19 plague has shut down everything, making air travel impossible for the better part of a year, and I feel like I may be waking up.  These loyalty programs don’t seem to have the hold on me they did even early this year. 

I question now the value of running after those rabbits. As a good friend and travel expert reminded me today, my growing angst with the programs is no minor conclusion and no minor matter. I have a lot to ponder and research to do.  I’ve awakened now from my forty-year torpor and am questioning my addiction to the loyalty program paradigm. As I discover what options are out there and compare those to what I’m doing now, I will share my thoughts.

Back to the Kruger in 2021, in May (maybe)

September 22, 2020

On this first day of fall, the final pieces fell into place for a revised trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park for next year after my original plan was shattered by the airlines, as I wrote about last week. In pre-pandemic times, the five major elements of such a journey (air to Johannesburg, one night in a Jo’burg hotel, air to the Kruger, a rental car, and Kruger National Park accommodation) took careful, one-time coordination and a lot of time to get right. I always breathe a sigh of relief when complete.

In the past I would focus intently on Kruger trip planning and get it done in a week of juggling those five bits before nailing everything down.  I accomplished that for the trip I scheduled in late January and early February, too. 

But then Delta Airlines and South African Airlink yanked the rug out last week, causing me to start over from scratch.  The resulting options for February didn’t work well, which forced me to see if I could rebuild the trip in late April, my next availability owing to commitments.

However, I wasn’t having any luck this time last week finding reasonable airfares for the second half of April.  Determined to go, I persisted.

When I widened my search to early May, I discovered that the discounted Delta business fare I had snagged for Jan-Feb was available if I left on May 4.  That’s what I grabbed for the outbound. 

Returning, the best connection back to Raleigh looked like a Delta codeshare with Air France through Paris (CDG) and then the CDG/RDU nonstop.  The European connection will be necessary because Delta will then be flying a triangular route Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta.  That new schedule involves a departure time from JNB in order to reach Cape Town too early for me to make the connection from my puddle jumper from Skukuza (the Kruger Park airport).  Without a legal connection to the direct ATL flight, the discounted business fare only worked through CDG on AF, through LHR on Virgin Atlantic, or through AMS on KLM.  Paris is the easiest since it’ll be just two flights, so I opted for routing and booked it.

Which got me all set for the flights to and from Johannesburg and nearly an even swap of tickets on Delta.  I actually ended up with an e-credit. 

The SA Airlink flights JNB/SZK (Skukuza) and back offered fewer and simpler options, and that new ticket was an even exchange—neither more nor less expensive. 

Neither was it difficult to change my Avis rental car rez at SZK from February to May, and the rate did not fluctuate.

Modifying my one night in Johannesburg at the City Lodge OR Tambo Airport property is in limbo, though.  Apparently, the City Lodge IT team is slow to activate its May, 2021 inventory, so I may have to book an off-airport hotel.  I hope not, since it’s a nuisance to wait for the airport shuttle buses, often running erratic schedules.  I will keep checking the airport City Lodge for rooms in May.

That left the most challenging pieces in the Kruger trip puzzle, accommodation for each of the 12 nights I will be in the Park.  I was a tad worried that South Africa National Parks might penalize me for moving my Kruger dates three months forward from February to May.  I had, after all, paid the required 50% deposit on the initial February booking.  Turns out, thank goodness, my requested changes are far enough out that no penalty applies.

The not-so-good news is that the world has taken note that South Africa is reopening to international tourists on October 1, resulting in an onslaught of Kruger bookings to the Kruger.  Many Kruger camps in May are unavailable for the accommodation I had booked successfully for February.  But I have tentative bookings everywhere, and I am checking every day intending to improve what I have already.

Whew!  I did it!  I’m going in May!

Well, maybe.

Truth is, no one yet can predict what flights will be operating eight months from now, least of all the airlines.  Commercial aviation is currently in denial about the state of the industry.  For a grim, but realistic outlook on where the business is heading, watch this Financial Times video interview with aviation consultant and insider, Hubert Horan

If Horan’s predictions are accurate, then it’s only a matter of time before the meteor hits the earth, killing the airline dinosaurs.  His specter is a vast restructuring, including fares possibly rising 300-400% as the Covid-related economic disaster shatters international air travel.

Me, I’m hunkered down with my Kruger trip locked and loaded a second time and hoping I get to go in May.  And watching the skies closely for that meteor.

Back to the Kruger in 2021, but only when the airlines allow

September 17. 2020

My previous post laid out the trials of planning a 2021 return trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  Before the figurative ink had dried on that saga, I received word that the two airlines I booked had altered their schedules to make it impossible for me to go on the outbound and return dates that I’d confirmed and paid for, leaving me with confused flying options and Johannesburg hotel, Kruger Park accommodations, and car rental logistics to re-do.

Delta Airlines let me know that its former daily flights ATL/JNB would be operating only some days each week, and not on the late January date in my itinerary.  Simultaneously, SA Airlink, the only carrier that flies between Jo’burg and Skukuza, which is in the Kruger National Park, would offer service only on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays, effectively canceling both legs I’d paid for, JNB/SZK and my return two weeks later SZK/JNB.  Delta could provide service the day before or the day after, which complicated not only my stateside commitments, but also the JNB/SZK connections.  Changing either or both meant also modifying my one night at the City Lodge O.R. Tambo Airport hotel in Johannesburg, as well as my car rental in the Kruger and the hard-to-get nights at camps inside the Kruger.

Further complexities derived from the change to the SA Airlink schedule on the days it will operate.  Instead of arriving in the Kruger Park at 11:00 AM as before, the sole flight will land at 2:30 PM.  The speed limit in the Kruger is 50 KPH, which is 31 MPH—and strictly enforced.  My first night in the park is currently booked at Berg-en-Dal Camp, which is a long drive from Skukuza Airport.  Arriving at eleven in the morning would allow ample time to reach the camp before the gates close for the night at 6:30 PM. 

However, it would be a close thing to make it there leaving the airport around 3:00 PM—probably no problem, but with African wildlife on the roads all the way, one can never be certain when forecasting travel times inside the huge national park.  Elephants on the roads, as they frequently like to be, don’t care about my schedule, and, well, elephants ALWAYS have the right of way.  Sometimes they like to graze for an hour in one spot on the verges, making it impossible to pass and to know if I can make the journey before Berg-en-dal closes.

Which means that I will now have to rebook that first night in the Kruger to a camp close to the Skukuza Airport, perhaps Skukuza Camp right next door, or maybe Lower Sabie camp, which is half the distance of Berg-en-Dal from Skukuza.  In any case, it means rejiggering my entire schedule.

Ditto for the last day, when no SA Airlink flight is operating, so I was told yesterday.  I’ll have to leave a day or two earlier or later, both to accommodate the SA Airlink change and the Delta change, with consequent impacts to my Kruger camp accommodation bookings.

It’s a mess because of all the moving pieces in the current plan, which is late January and early February, and I am somewhat hemmed in by commitments here in Raleigh just before and right after my current itinerary.  In other words, I do not have a lot of flexibility to go earlier or to stay later without compromising those obligations.  So I decided a better option would be to move my entire trip out to late April and early May. 

After carefully coordinating the SA Airlink, Johannesburg hotel, Skukuza car rental, and Kruger accommodation for April-May rather than Jan-Feb, this morning I spoke at length to an impressively competent and helpful Delta Elite rez agent to explore those options.  No go unless I want to spend an extra $6,000 to remain in Delta’s Business Class (Delta One).  Apparently the Z fare I snagged in Delta One for the Jan-Feb trip skyrockets to over $9,000 in April-May. 

A different option would be Delta’s Premium Economy, which would yield me a $1,600 refund—well, okay, an e-credit—but it’s the standard fare, and I still cannot make the dates work for the reasons partially explained above.

At the time of writing, I am uncertain what to do.  One final option would be to go for a full refund on the airfare and the Kruger accommodation.  Those are the sole dollar commitments to date, and Delta assured me I will get 100% back if I kill the reservation by December. I am within the full refund period for the Kruger, too.

Thing is, as I said in last week’s post, I very much want to go.  A refund defeats the purpose.  Despite the airlines making things difficult, I am going to take this trip, somehow, some way.  I am still mulling my options.

Back to the Kruger in 2021

September, 9, 2020

The world shut down a few days after I returned from another great adventure to the Kruger National Park in South Africa on March 12, 2020.  It was an especially massive letdown after such a perfect experience, one of the best in 30 years of regular visits to the Kruger.  Just a month later in mid-April I was already chomping at the bit and pondering when I’d go again.  Now, six months after Covid-19 grounded me, I plan to go back to South Africa and the Kruger National Park, albeit not until February, 2021.

At least that’s the plan.  I’m throwing a Hail Mary pass way downfield and hoping both the United States and South Africa will be back to some semblance of normality in another five months.  Some of what I’ve invested in the trip may be at risk, but most probably isn’t.

I started by arranging flights.  Despite the cosmic uncertainties regarding which air carriers will operate what planes from where to where in early 2021, I was able to narrow down flying options to Emirates, Qatar, or Delta.  Other airlines hadn’t yet finalized post-pandemic offerings, while schedules and fares on those three gave me enough options to compare to past cost and time factors.  I chose Delta through Atlanta to Johannesburg and even managed to snag a bargain fare in business class both ways for less than on Qatar or Emirates—a lower premium cabin fare probably thanks to the virus’ negative impact on future load factors.

Once in Jo’burg I must always book a separate flight JNB to Skukuza Airport (SZK), the little facility which is actually in the Kruger National Park.  Watching the plague impacts on government-owned South African Airways and its government-owned subsidiary SA Express, I knew both carriers had declared bankruptcy since the health crisis shut down travel to and from South Africa.  SAA had been beleaguered with bad management and government corruption for years and was teetering on the edge even before the coronavirus hit.  The Alitalia of the Southern Hemisphere, SAA never made money or ever had a sound business plan even in a good economy.

Luckily, however, a third airline, SA Airlink, operates ERJs between JNB and SZK, and it is a privately-owned carrier.  I was delighted to find that SA Airlink was booking flights when I needed them, though at no lesser fare than I’ve always paid for that independent round trip.  Still, I grabbed it, and it became part of my Delta itinerary, even though DL has no code share agreement with SA Airlink.

Booking the return SZK/JNB segment to connect to my ATL flight, I noticed a new challenge; namely, that the return flight on Delta will be scheduled then to depart Johannesburg several hours earlier than in the past.  I was therefore careful to schedule myself on the noontime SA Airlink flight SZK/JNB to make the international connection legal. 

Curious why the DL segment was scheduled so much earlier than it has been for years, I investigated.  Delta, having ditched their entire 777 fleet, is switching to an A350-900ULR for the always-full-in-every-class (pre-Covid) ATL/JNB/ATL flights.  That’s the same aircraft Singapore is (was) using on the world’s longest nonstop flight, EWR/SIN, which I wrote about in early 2019

There the similarity ends.  Singapore fits out its A350-900ULR planes with only business and premium economy cabins, thus limiting the weight.  Delta plans its usual three or four classes (business, premium economy, possibly Comfort+, and definitely sardine class—er, it mean, coach).  That will add substantial weight.  Though the new planes can make the nonstop ATL to JNB, the 5,512’ Johannesburg Airport altitude is too high for the A350 to take off with a full load of fuel and passengers and still return to Atlanta without stopping.  To get around that problem, Delta plans to fly Jo’burg-Cape Town, and then can easily make the nonstop hop back to ATL from CPT. Delta’s flight path alteration meant I had to connect earlier from Skukuza to Jo’burg.

Naturally, I had to pay the entire airfare up front, but at little or no risk.  After all, I want to make the trip, and if Delta is unable to deliver on the itinerary due to one or both countries still being closed, then it will refund the ticket or give me a credit.

Next to reserve was day-by-day accommodation among the 12 Kruger rest camps—“rest camp” being the charming and archaic South African term for the extremely comfortable, self-contained, full-service villages inside the vast African wilderness of the Kruger National Park.  Once arrival and departure dates and times at Skukuza Airport were nailed down, I emailed my government-registered Kruger booking agent who knows the very best bungalows in each rest camp. 

Within 24 hours I had my booking with South African National Parks and ponied up the required 50% upfront to hold it, the remainder due in December.  That is possibly at risk if South Africa is open then and the United States is not.  However, given the plummeting South African Rand, my cost in US dollars was quite reasonable, which minimizes my financial loss, should the worst occur.

Lastly, I booked an Avis car at Skukuza Airport online to drive myself through the Kruger during my visit.  I can cancel up to the last minute with no penalty, so my car rental cost risk is nil.

This trip may not happen. Medical science and political uncertainties in both countries make prognostication a crap shoot.  I keep up with the spread of the virus in South Africa, and, like the USA, new cases and deaths are declining. I could include graphs and charts and facts here to demonstrate the downward trends, but who really knows if that trajectory will continue or if we’ll have an effective and universally available vaccine by year’s end?  So I may not go.  Notwithstanding, I needed to be optimistic and plan to go.  Looking forward is good for my spirit and is my natural inclination.