Category: Uncategorized

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.

Did I have Covid-19?

That’s the uneasy question I’ve several times asked myself when I seemed to have coronavirus symptoms since the pandemic hit us all in March. But each of those suspicious physical anomalies soon abated and relieved my anxiety. Subsided so quickly, in fact, that I never contacted my physician to report what happened. However, when I suddenly developed a fever last weekend, I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that I might really have the virus and thus needed to let my doc know. Waiting to see him and subsequently waiting for test results was a fretful, fearful period.

I take good health and high energy for granted, a common conceit, I am told.  The old saying about not appreciating your health until you lose it came back to me on Saturday when I suddenly felt an unfamiliar throbbing pain under my chin and in my throat (but not a sore throat).  It hurt to breathe deeply, too.  Worry engulfed me, wondering if these were the first signs of CV-19.  I’ve read about strange symptoms as the virus takes hold in organs and begins to wreak systemic bodily damage.  Was this what was happening?

I took solace in not having a fever, reminding myself that we’re all on a hair trigger when some mild infection that we would have largely ignored pre-Covid abruptly manifests.  That thinking calmed me, but I could not shake the feeling that this bore close watching.  I seemed to have swollen salivary glands, and that had never happened to me before and just seemed bizarre.  I didn’t even know salivary glands could get infected.

I spent the weekend in an unsettled, irritated mood. I’m not a patient person to begin with and can be hard to live with, so I tried to avoid interactions with my wife and kids and other people.  No need to reconfirm my curmudgeonly nature, I thought.

Then came the fever onset Sunday afternoon.  Out of nowhere my face was prickly hot.  At once, I took my temp, and it was over 102 degrees.  To be sure, I borrowed a no-contact forehead thermometer, identical to the ones in use worldwide now.  Same reading as the old-fashioned device under the tongue. The high temperature rocketed my concern to a higher plain.

When my doctor of nearly three decades moved his UNC Med practice to a concierge clinic, I reluctantly ponied up the annual premium so I wouldn’t lose him.  Being a concierge member has its advantages, one being I can reach my physician 24/7/365 on his cell phone.  I called the number Sunday afternoon and reached him at once, explaining the background and current realities of physical pain and elevated temp.  He scheduled an exam and Covid test for the follow day (Monday) at 9:30 AM.

The fever had me knackered, and I withdrew to bed at the unheard-of (for me) early time of 8:30 Sunday night.  After taking an aspirin, I fell asleep in a feverish daze with most of my clothes on.

I awakened just before midnight and felt physically exhausted.  But I was hungry (I had skipped dinner) and thirsty.  Only a very slight fever, but my body felt tired from the experience of fighting it off.  I had a big glass of water and some roasted potatoes.  Uh oh, I thought.  Could I taste the food?  Yes, the potatoes were delicious and tasted like, well, good old spuds.  Relief.  Maybe I didn’t have Covid.  But the fever, and my state of fatigue.  And my throat still ached around the salivary glands.  After having a bite and the water, I fell asleep again almost immediately, once more taking an aspirin.

To my surprise, I awoke shortly past seven Monday morning feeling more like a human being than when I went to bed.  No fever, either.  None. Not even slight.  Good sign, I thought. 

I had been instructed not to enter the clinic building but to drive underneath into the parking garage and not get out of my car.  I was to phone that I’d arrived, which I did.  Pretty soon my doc and a nurse arrived in full hazmat medical gear head to toe to examine and test me.  Also, a medical cart full of stuff. 

As they prepared the test, I warned that I could not tolerate the brain stem swab probe if that was called for on account of a lifelong history of nosebleeds.  No problem, they said, since the newest tech involved only a special fuzzy swab that took samples from both nostrils.  Sure enough, the swab was not terribly invasive and merely tickled.  Other probes of temperature, lungs, heart, oxygen level, and blood pressure were all normal and good. 

Again, a big relief.

However, the virus is complicated and stealthy, I was advised, and no absolute conclusions could be drawn until the test results were back despite the otherwise normal signs.  And that might take a couple of days.

So I waited timorously through Monday and Tuesday this week, not knowing what to expect.  My energy level was fine again, so I carried on with my schedule, careful not to go out on normal errands like to the grocery store.  I cocooned carefully at home and Zoomed several meetings, and I waited.

Monday and Tuesday dragged by. What if I was positive? I’ve read of asymptomatic cases and mild cases.  What would mine be like?  Would my lungs become so infected that I was put on a ventilator? At times I could feel my heart racing and tried to calm myself. My mind constructed a plan for contact tracing the few people I’d been in close contact with and wondered what other steps I’d have to take to cordon myself off from the world.  Time crept by at a tectonic pace Monday and yesterday.

At 3:50 PM Tuesday afternoon my physician called.  Negative!  I was negative.  Are you certain?  That is, don’t you have cases of false negatives?  No.  I was well. 

Relief overwhelmed me after we hung up.  I’ve never been so happy to fail a test.

Room with a view—no takers

When we had to scratch our big summer international trip due to the pandemic, I got busy and reserved a spectacular oceanfront beach house instead. We anticipated having to turn friends away. Turns out, not so much.

North Carolina has over 300 miles of barrier island coastline, and I’ve seen almost all of it.  My love of sea, surf, and sand developed early in life and remains strong as ever today. I can’t get enough of the beach, which is a good thing during this weird shut-in period because Raleigh is only 2-3 hours from the ocean, and many beachfront properties are available for rent.

When the plague shattered travel plans to celebrate our 25th anniversary in Morocco this summer and suddenly imprisoned us and our two kids—one in high school, the other in college—at home together, we rapidly pivoted to plan two weeklong family vacations at the beach, directly on the ocean, on Topsail Island just north of Wilmington. 

We opted to rent two different cottages, as big oceanfront houses are quaintly called in North Carolina, and we decided to plan trips in two different weeks, one in July, the second over Labor Day. Both houses (“cottages”) are directly on the beach, but for the latter week, we splurged and leased a gigantic 5-bedroom, 5-bath mansion that sleeps 14.  Three of the bedrooms face the beach and ocean, boasting lots of glass to soak in the gorgeous view, and two have private balconies.  What a place!

Why room for fourteen when it’s just the four of us?  Our thinking was, if we can’t get to Morocco this year, then we will deliver plenty of extra rooms for the kids’ friends and for our friends to come stay a few nights and enjoy the ocean with us. I mean, just look at the monster, huge and beautiful and directly on the surf! 

Excited and looking forward to seeing everyone, we invited friends from New York and from New Orleans, friends from Wisconsin and tidewater Virginia, friends from Raleigh and Winston-Salem, even friends from California and the state of Washington.  They were thrilled to receive our invitation, too, and promised to think it over after checking their calendars. 

One by one, though, friends from near and far got back to us with glum news: We can’t come.  We want to, but we can’t because…well, for a lot of sound and varied reasons, but at base, always the specter of Covid-19 was the culprit.

Some friends are long in the tooth and felt the risk catching the virus flying or driving outweighed the fun they’d have browning in the sun and catching the salt spray in their hair.  The uncertainty of all the people they’d inevitably have to be close to at airports and on planes if coming by air, or at gas stations and in hotels and restaurants if traveling on wheels, was scary.  Prudence won out in light of indeterminate medical facts regarding how one might get sick.

Others live in states like New York that enforce strict 14-day quarantines for visitors and returning residents alike.  Understandably, they felt the joy of a North Carolina holiday would be dashed when they couldn’t leave their home for two weeks.

Even those from NC who didn’t have to travel far or suffer a quarantine once back home sheepishly admitted that one of the great joys of such a gathering, the socializing among friends sharing each other’s company, also presented one of the greatest hazard of becoming infected.  And if we couldn’t laugh together, then what’s the bloody point?

The caution extends to our kids’ friends’ parents.  They are naturally wary of letting their children, who are just as naturally eager to get out of their houses to be with friends at the beach, expose themselves to the possibility of picking up the easily transmissible sickness.  Since the contagion danger can’t be accurately quantified and measured, parental judgment is to deny the threat by keeping their kinder segregated from associates.

All reasonable and logical decisions, of course.  Hence the irony that we have never booked a bigger or swankier place with so many oceanfront bedrooms with such lovely views of the water, and yet…no takers.  Harsh proof that you don’t have to come down with the coronavirus to experience its mean impact on the American quality of life.

Desultory musings

It’s a big letdown to be imprisoned at home again in Raleigh after a glorious week on the ocean at Topsail Island.  Still no air travel!

On the plus side, we were not on the coast for the arrival of Hurricane Isaias, which thankfully moved through North Carolina like a rocket, leaving minimal wind and water damage in its speedy wake.  This caricature says it all (misspelling aside):

Mask fashion flair

I am a dutiful mask wearer, both to protect myself and others.  But, you know, it’s not that much fun. At all. 

If we have to wear the damn things, then why not have a bunch of interesting masks and rotate through them? Like these babies (among ten or so I use routinely).

I list these in functional order, meaning in order of which masks stay on my face best:

Scottish plaid, made in Hanoi.

Tasteful Scottish plaid, an ironic design since it was made and purchased in Hanoi by me some years ago.  Plaid designs are popular there; such masks are everyday items on the streets to combat air pollution and to ward off sickness due to constant intermingling of human density in that fascinating city.  This mask is simple and easy to keep clean, and yet its subtly contoured design hugs the parts that bulge out on my face better than any other mask.  Bravo to the Vietnamese; they knew what they’re doing.  I think I paid the equivalent of two or three dollars for it (and probably overpaid at that). Yet it’s the best.

South African flag, made in China

Loving the Kruger National Park as I do, I had to have one that boasts the South African flag.  It’s made in China and was shipped to me from there (took five weeks).  Like the Vietnamese model, very well-made and benefits from China’s long tradition of mask-wearing to fight SARS and traffic fumes (not in that order) by having been sewn well and being form-fitting over the facial contours of chin, mouth, cheeks and nose.  Also came with three robust washable filters.  Pretty good for $20, delivered.

With thanks to Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch

“The Scream” mask from Redbubble.com – Clever and trendy, created by independent artists and originated in Melbourne, now with offices in San Francisco and Berlin, featuring products of 700,000 artists. You can pass an entire afternoon browsing their stuff.  Not cheap at about $18.

Science doesn’t care what you believe

Science is real! Another great Redbubble design, and one guaranteed to trip someone’s trigger wherever it’s worn. Be prepared to fight, run, or argue.  I love the designs, but the Redbubble masks are not contoured to fit the jutting angles on my face.  Works, but less well than the Vietnamese and Chinese masks—the Asian-made masks are the optimal designs to fit properly and stay on. Again, about $18.

Can I help you with your groceries?

Plain green, which seems to be standard grocery store employee issue.  Sturdy and has at least some contour-sensitive features to make it stay on my face. Free.

I’m so sorry for your loss

Conservative plain black with classy discreet U.S. flag to show it was made in America for Joe Brancatelli’s joesentme “wall of business travelers”!  Great for funerals and to sport at presidential candidate rallies of either party. I loved it from day one, but is much like the Redbubble designs in wanting to slip off my nose. About $10.

Artisan-made in Raleigh

Kind of paisley plaid made locally in Raleigh; comfortable and sewn with contours, but missed the mark a bit.  The mask tends to slip off my nose over time.  $22 is steep, but I bit to buy local and support art.

A whole lot of not much

Washington Post hosted a live broadcast called “The Path Forward: The Airline Industry with Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian” that was free to anyone who signed up.  I get the WaPo through Amazon for cheap since Bezos owns both companies, and was thus alerted to this one hour discussion.

Bastian was, as always, nattily attired and coifed to look like a million dollars, which he certainly is and more (net worth over $60 million as of late last year, which, even pandemic-shrunken, is vastly more than I have).  He nearly sparkled.  Though I give him credit for not looking like a sleaze and without the whiff of a mafia boss, as do some other airline execs.

The face of Delta pronounced firm, no-compromise stances on masks (wear them or get added to the no-fly list) which I liked. He predicted 2024 or later for a return to pre-Covid levels of business flying. 

Mr. Ed repeated the Delta empty middle-seat mantra (well, at least through September, though he hinted that might get extended, depending…), and he talked about upcoming pilot furloughs that look likely.

Most interesting to me was a glimpse into Delta’s acceleration of long-term fleet plans: lots of Airbus A220s, the A320NEO aircraft, and the 737 family.  However, he failed to mention the retirement of the 777 fleet and the new dependence upon the A350 models for international routes, including the A350-900ULR to be deployed ATL/JNB/CPT/ATL. Neither did he say what was to become of the ubiquitous 757 and 767 airplanes.

Mr. Bastian was strictly replying to questions from the WaPo host, but I was still disappointed that no mention was made regarding the future of customer loyalty.  I wanted to ask how Delta plans to differentiate service to very frequent flyers and multi-million milers like me (5.4 million) as we return to the road now and in the post-pandemic flying environment.

Or maybe now “how” but “if” Delta is planning any customer differentiation to survive the plague.

Video highlights here.

Even a little road trip can be exciting

A friend sent me a picture yesterday of his midday chow at Nashville’s Loveless Café, a mainstay since 1951, saying “it never disappoints” and including a note describing his meal:

  • Fried Chicken
  • Mashed taters
  • Fried okra
  • Biscuits
  • 3 flavors homemade jams
  • Sweet ice tea
  • And of course
  • Coconut cream pie saved for pre-departure

And he ended with this critique:

  • The menu was quite reduced yesterday
  • Breakfast menu was typical
  • But Supper menu was seriously reduced
  • Supper starts at 11:00 AM
  • Tables very reduced
  • But the food and service were excellent
  • Worth a trip if you’re into southern food

Having been born and raised in Eastern North Carolina (Kinston), I’m a big fan of southern comfort food. Never learned to like collards or Brunswick stew, but most else is okay, especially finely chopped southern-style slaw, mashed potatoes, fried okra (not the frozen stuff), southern biscuits, cornbread, hush puppies, chopped pork BBQ, fried chicken, BBQ chicken, fried chicken livers, fried flounder, fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried scallops, crab cakes, deviled crabs, and soft shell crabs.

And pass the biscuits back again, please, along with the butter and blackstrap molasses.

I like that supper at the Loveless starts at 11:00 AM.

Not the road to Morocco

To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife and I had a grand trip scheduled for two weeks exploring all over Morocco in mid-July.  The novel coronavirus, naturally, quashed those plans.

After Delta refunded our business class tickets, we decided to direct those not-insubstantial sums to rent oceanfront houses at Topsail Island, NC twice (two different weeks) and to make each week a family vacation.

We are halfway through the first week (the second will be over Labor Day), and I’m so glad we came.  It’s only 2 hours, 15 minutes from Raleigh, but it seems, well, so exotic.  Not Morocco-exotic or Rarotonga-exotic, but compared to being imprisoned in Raleigh for nearly five months, this beach is sheer paradise.  If I squint in the ninety-plus degree heat, it could almost be The Maldives.

Okay, no palm trees or Frangipani, but the whitest white sand and a glorious surf tame enough to swim in without drowning, and with tropical-warm water.

Literally tropical, because the Atlantic Ocean washing up on the beach in front of our house is warmed by the Gulf Stream, which meanders very, very close to the North Carolina shore in summer. 

To add to the fun, the car trip down from Raleigh was an unexpected adventure.  It was 97° F. all the way, then dropped to 91 on the barrier island. But it felt like 110. Late in the day it cooled off to the low 80s, a welcome contrast.  Nights have been high 70s to low 80s.

On the drive along I-40 from Raleigh, I’ve never seen such speeding. The NC Interstate limit is 70 mph, and I set the cruise on 75…and then passed not a single vehicle. That made me the slowest car on the road. Scores and scores of beach-bound cars, roughly half with out-of-state plates, flew past me. Many had to be going 100 or more. Yet I didn’t see a single one pulled over.

Friends in high places say many state highway patrol agencies have been told to take it easy on speeders during the pandemic. I’m no prude and have a heavy foot myself; however, routinely driving such very high speeds is dangerous. I-40 to the beach has always been a racetrack, but I’ve never seen speeding like we encountered on Sunday. Both the sheer numbers of offenders as well as the average rate.

I had read about speeders during the total shutdown back in early spring, but assumed that was a quirk and about over.

Maybe not.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon during what might be called “shift change.”  Saturdays and Sundays along the NC coast are characterized by heavy outbound and inbound traffic as weekly rentals typically end those days. 

Because Topsail Island still had a 60 year old drawbridge over the busy Intracoastal Waterway, weekend traffic on and off would get snarled up every time the bridge opened, a nightmare. To fix that problem, NCDOT built a new high bridge to replace the old swing bridge.

Seemed like the right solution, but the traffic engineers designed the bridge ends with two utterly dysfunctional roundabouts, the worst I’ve ever seen. Rather than keeping cars moving, the two circles back up traffic in all directions.

Having lived and worked in the U.K. and on the Continent, and in cities like Hong Kong, and therefore having navigated hundreds of roundabouts, I’m a huge advocate. But the ones here must have been designed by idiots. On the positive side, finally reaching our own oceanfront house was made that much sweeter.

This beach house, in downtown (such as it is) Topsail Beach, is not fancy, but comfortable. With blasting air-conditioning, supplemented by lots of spinning overhead fans, and with a decent kitchen, this will do nicely for a week. Very relaxing.

Mostly free of politics as well.  One Trump 2020 flag flutters across the street, and a lone Black Lives Matter sign sits by the street a block away.

Most local places of business have signs advising customers to wear masks, but our observations indicate about half ignore the admonition.  However, the two big grocery stores hereabouts, Food Lion and Publix, routinely enforce the mask rule, as does even the little IGA Supermarket.

We are not much bothered by maskless folks because we mostly stay in our house on the ocean, enjoying the sand and surf and cooking our own meals during this Covid-time.

Speaking of food prep, after settling in, we spent a frenetic two days of cooking:

  • 7 lbs boiled shrimp
  • 2 signature shrimp dipping sauces
  • Fried flounder
  • Fried red snapper
  • Thai yellow curry fish
  • Jasmine rice
  • 2 blueberry pies (my own recipe with lime zest, lime juice, and cinnamon)
  • Whipped heavy cream (with vanilla and sugar, of course)
  • Clam chowder (old family recipe)
  • 2 kinds of pasta
  • Croissants w/ cured ham and Swiss cheese
  • Not to mention mundane breakfast dishes and numerous cocktails
  • Also salads and fresh fruit (grapes, blueberries, cantaloupe) and vegetables (local tomatoes, etc.)
  • 15 soft shell crabs await frying, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, accompanied by green beans, other veggies. 
  • Oh, and my wife made a killer gazpacho, too.
  • And more food I’ve lost track of…but it’s all in the fridge. Yum!

Now, with the heavy cooking done and stockpiled, I have time to swim in the surf and to read until Sunday.  Punctuated, of course, by the odd G&T in the afternoon.

Over Labor Day week we’re coming back to Topsail to stay in a much bigger place in Surf City, again right on the beach. It’s a splurge to rent for 2 weeks, but the kids wanted this, too, after being cooped up in the house for months.

With apologies to Crosby & Hope, we had to skip the road to Morocco this year. Instead, I did my best Burt Lancaster impression to my wife’s Deborah Kerr as we kissed in the surf like they did in From Here To Eternity to celebrate 25 happy years together.