Sunday, August 1, 2010

Around-the-World Tickets

Ever dream of jetting to one far off place after another? An Around-the-World (ATW) ticket may be the answer. In conjunction with the World Traveler segment I've been asked to comment on this type of ticketing arrangement.

There are three airline alliances which market the ATW ticket: Sky Team, OneWorld and Star Alliance. Each have remarkably similar restrictions and prices (covered below) so the most important factors in selecting an alliance is where you want to go and which alliance flies there. With so many airlines and so many destinations its impossible to discuss the best option in abstract terms. You'll need to think about the places you want to go and do some research. Star Alliance has the largest network with the most member airlines, but doesn't cover all the continents equally. Star was lacking in South American presence until the recent addition of TAM-Brazil but if South America is one of your primary destinations (and you'd like to visit a lot of it) you might be better off on a ticket with OneWorld whose members include American Airlines (good connectivity to and from the States) and LAN which includes subsidiaries in Chile, Peru and Argentina and can get you almost anywhere in South America.

Prices are usually significantly better than the sum of the cost of a slew of one-way tickets. The largest economy tickets allow up to 39,000 flight miles on 16 separate flights and run between $6,000 and $7,000. It seems like a lot up front but consider how much you'd spend on just 3 or 4 one way, intercontinental tickets. All good things come with restrictions, however, and in this case paying attention to them can make or break a trip.

All three alliances have nearly the same restrictions but some define differently where travel zones begin and end so be sure to read up on whichever you're using. In general travel must begin and end in the same country but not in the same city (i.e. depart from New York and end your trip in LA). Also you must cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans exactly once and in the same direction (i.e. if you fly from New York to Paris, you must cross the Pacific from Asia/Australia to the US or Canada). Additionally you can only cross into each 'zone' once and must continually move in the same eastward or westward direction. The most generous and loosely defined zoning marks the world into three sections: The Americas (including North and South), EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) and Asia Pacific (everything else including Australia). Many tickets divide the world into five or six parts separating Africa, South America and the South Pacific into their own regions, but you get the idea. One you have crossed into a zone you are free to move about as you like as long as you don't exceed maximum number of flights on your ticket. Backtracking is permitted here, only within the current zone. When you move to a new zone it must be in the established direction of travel.

All of these tickets, if booked online, require you to choose your dates and flights for the entire trip up front. On the other hand if you book the trip through a reservation agent at one of the member airlines you're usually allowed to reserve just your first flight and leave the remainder open to use as you please over the course of a year. Keep in mind though that as you use up flights and mileage the ticket will become more restrictive because you'll need to have enough of both left to get to your home country. You cannot simply use all the miles and see where you end up (presumably buying your own way from there). You must end your trip in the country of origin. For this reason its probably a good idea to have some notion of (at the very least) where you'll be starting and ending, and how many miles and flights you'll need to get between those places and home.

Finally note that ATW tickets usually book into a specific fare class which has the potential to sell out. Airlines can also restrict specific flights from being used by ATW travelers. This means that even though an alliance carrier flies from point A to point B, you might not be able to get a ticket on that particular flight. Using the online booking tool will help identify which flights are available to ATW travelers. Most flights will be bookable but its worth keeping this in mind, especially if you're going to reserve your flights in the midst of your trip, as you go along.

ATW tickets can be a flexible and cost effective option. But like all things, you give up complete flexibility for a better price. If you can stand a bit of planning this might be the option for you. If you need to roam the globe free of encumbrances, look elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

World Traveler: Part 1 - USA to South Africa

World Traveler is intended to be a reoccurring segment following the travels of a friend. Lyssa will be starting her journey in October by flying to Cape Town, South Africa -- we'll begin there as well. She has no set schedule and plans to spend the better part of a year glob trotting wherever her whims and interests take her (or maybe wherever she can secure visas on short notice!). Each time she's looking to fly from place to place she'll be in touch and with some details so we can follow.

On her first leg Lyssa wants to fly from New York to Cape Town sometime in October. The trip will be one way which poses a problem as one way flights are traditionally more expensive. Fortunately, October being a low month for travel in the U.S., there are still deals to be had.

If your first motivation is economics then all dates in the calendar need to be open to find the best price. KLM-Royal Dutch is running a deal on flights to via Amsterdam on two Tuesdays, the 12th and 26th. Leaving JFK on an evening flight at either 4:20pm or 6:30pm and arriving in Amsterdam the following morning, this combination requires one connection to a direct Amsterdam-Cape Town daylight flight landing in South Africa shortly before 10pm. The earlier of the flights to depart JFK is a code share operated by Delta Airlines and leaves a connection time of around four and a half hours in Amsterdam. The later flight is operated by KLM and leaves a connection time of about two and half hours. This amount of time is probably sufficient for an international transfer but Lyssa should familiarize herself with the procedure prior to departing if she chooses this option. This combination of flights (with either JFK departure) currently runs $731 and can be booked on KLM's website.

Another option which eliminates the need to transfer in a third country is to take the non-stop South African Airways flight from JFK to Johannesburg and transfer to a domestic flight to Cape Town. The flight from JFK departs around 11am, flies for a little over 15 hours, and lands at 8:40am the following day -- take a moment to let the magnitude of a 15 hour flight to sink in. The benefits here are the aforementioned elimination of a third country stop and timing -- it would be nicer to arrive in the morning than late at night. This combination for flights has wider availability (October 6, 18-19, 24-28 and 31) and currently runs a few dollars over $800

A final option which is on sale for only one day in October (the 29th) is on Etihad Airlines. You may not have heard of this airline (or maybe you have) but its among the gamut of classy, middle eastern airlines that have come to prominence in the past decade. Etihad is based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and competes with Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai. The airline is safe and reliable, flying a brand new fleet of Airbus aircraft. This option would have Lyssa flying from JFK to Abu Dhabi on a late evening flight which lands in the evening the following day. She would then board a connecting flight 3 hours later (again departing in the late evening) and arrive in the morning one day later. In total she would depart on the 29th at night and arrive on the 31st in the morning. Obviously timing is less preferential than the other options, which is hampered by the fact that the flight from Abu Dhabi makes a stop in Johannesburg before continuing to Cape Town. This option is currently going for $760.

What should Lyssa choose? If her schedule is completely flexible (or just happens to work out) the KLM flights are probably the best. Most obviously the price is lowest but that's just a bonus. First, Amsterdam doesn't require a visa for U.S. citizens, just a passport which she'll need anyway so connecting here doesn't present a problem.  Second she has her choice of flights leaving JFK to give her more time to connect if she needs it, or less if she's confident she can make it on the shorter time. Also it gives her a stop loosely in the middle of the trip (first a 7-8 hour flight, then 10-11). While the South African Airways itinerary is flight is slightly shorter in terms of air time, 60-90 minutes isn't terribly significant on a trip of this length. Plus who wants to spend 15 hours in the same, coach class seat?! Nevertheless this would be a good alternative if the dates of the KLM flights won't work. As for the final option, while I have complete confidence in Etihad Airways, their itinerary simply takes too long. The extra stop is unnecessary when single stop trips can be booked for similar prices.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A ticket to Anywhere, Europe please?

One of the biggest pleasures of the modern age is that you can fly almost anywhere... anywhere you can afford, that is. Sometimes the most fun is in the art of the deal. Find the furthest you can go on your budget. The problem with this, of course, is that the cheap flights are often in the off-season or to marginal locations from a tourism standpoint, but this is when some of the best experiences can be had. Wander the misty streets of Venice in December or visit Europe's Christmas markets. Cold snap in Prague or Budapest? All the more reason to enjoy the warmth of the public baths. Snowing while you're in Paris? Take a side trip to Alps for some high altitude skiing. Even if you want to avoid the coldest weather, Europe can be great in the edge seasons. Fall and Spring still offer balmy temps in the Mediterranean and crisp nights in the northern latitudes keep crowds at bay and might even offer a glimpse of aurora Boreas as the days become shorter. Why not travel then? You'll save a bundle on flights which you can use to upgrade your hotel. Or keep the entire trip on a budget so you'll have enough to go again next year.

This is the situation a a couple from New York has found themselves in. With time available to travel in April they'll go anywhere a great deal takes them. April is a particularly good time to travel in Europe. Prices are in toilet even though the weather is warming as far north as the Baltic states. Start by sweeping the major European populations centers for flight deals: Paris, London, Dublin, Amsterdam and Madrid. If your interest lie further east check those as well: Moscow, Kiev, Prague or Budapest. Further south and at the cusp of Asia lies Istanbul. Once a deal has been identified build a trip from there. Enjoy transportation by train or inexpensive intra-European flights on Ryanair, easyJet and others.

This time we're looking in particular at the 3rd week of April, 2011. Its a little too far in advance to catch the really incredible deals -- most airlines don't actively manage inventory six months before a flight actually takes off. Nevertheless, this being edge season, expect some airlines to make an effort to grab revenue early by attracting a few leisure travelers. Carriers trying to expand a market or open a new route will generally offer respectable discounts for those who jump aboard first.

Turkish Airlines is one of those expanding carriers. Istanbul, their home base, is a respectable travel destination in its own right, but is also connected via train, ferry and air to much of southern and eastern Europe. Nonstop flight can be had from New York for about $680.

Iceland Air is another carrier trying to gain market share. While all of their flights connect through Reykjavik, they often offer significantly discounted fares to major European cities. Additionally they allow stopovers in Iceland free of charge if you'd like to enjoy the volcanic hot springs for a day or two. From New York, Paris for $740, Amsterdam for $730 or Oslo for $700 while nonstop flights charge hundreds more.

Air Europe, a Spanish carrier new to the New York market, offers a great deal to Madrid at $696 round trip, non-stop. Spain and the Iberian peninsula are particularly well connected by rail and served by Spanish low cost carrier Clickair. If you want to spend your vacation in Spain, Portugal or southern France this is a great option to book early.

Another way to find cheap flights is to look for carriers operating outside their traditional routes. Singapore airlines offers a tag-on flight from New York to Frankfurt which continues to Singapore. The leg to Frankfurt is bookable alone and is going for $$738 round trip. Air India is another atypical airline frequently operating on this route as mentioned in previous posts.

Moscow is another fantastic option and Aeroflot-Russian Airlines is letting their non-stop flights from New York go for $570. Even if the Kremlin isn't on the top of your list onward connections to destinations all over eastern Europe are only $20 to $40 more. That means Kiev, Riga, and St. Petersburg are all within reach for about $600.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Asia on Mileage

This is a trip planned recently involving a 3 week trip to Vietnam in October using miles from a Continental OnePass account.

The first thing to consider when using miles to book a flight is flexibility. Airlines generally release space to mileage reservations when they believe the seats will remain vacant at the time a flight departs. The best chance for landing one of these vacant seats it to allow for several departure and return dates and accept peculiar or indirect routings. Remember that aside from taxes these flights are available for free and on predicted 'space available' basis so travelers usually won't find the most popular flights or routes available to mileage reservations.

This trip needed to start at one of New York's three airports on or about October 4th and would return on or about October 23rd. The travelers asked to spend most of their time in Vietnam but also wanted a short stopover in a major city outside of the country. Additionally the use of OnePass miles from their Continental account meant that travel was restricted only to airlines in the Star Alliance partnership.

This trip made the most of two lesser known reward ticket policies. The first is an open jaw which allows travelers to fly into one destination and pick up their return flight from a second destination, providing their own travel between the two. In this case flights into Saigon would be arranged with a return from Hanoi. Since internal Vietnamese flights are very inexpensive by western standards it will be easy and cost effective to jump between the two cities.

Looking into the outbound leg revealed a few options. Initially the expectation would be to fly with a single connection via a major Asian hub. Indeed one of the available options was on Asiana airlines with a stop in Seoul. Unfortunately the layover in Seoul was many hours and due to the departure time of most flights to Asia from the east coast long layovers were inevitable no matter what city the stop was in. A caveat to this route in particular: it can be faster to make two shorter connections, first via Europe before going to Asia, than a single longer connection anywhere else. Available was just such a combination. The travelers chose to depart New York-JFK in the evening of October 3rd on a red-eye Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. Landing in the late morning of October 4th they'll connect to a second, early-afternoon, red-eye on Thai Airways arriving at Bangkok in the small hours of October 5th. Finally they'll catch a shorter, morning flight to Saigon landing around 10am.

Sound indirect? Consider that flying directly to Asia from New York involves a lengthy flight over the international date line and a long connection (mentioned before). Flying the Frankfurt-Bangkok route allows the travelers to arrive 12 hours earlier in Saigon and is only a few hundred flight-miles further. They were fortunate that tickets were available on all the flights they needed for this option.

Availability on the return leg from from Hanoi was much more restricted and but this where the second lesser known policy helped identify available flights. The stop-over policy allows travelers to make one or more stops in cities which are considered to be along the direct route of travel. As there are no direct flights between Hanoi and New York a stop is necessitated at another airport (or two) where travelers can spend a few days enjoying the sights. Major Star Alliance hubs in the area include Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and Seoul. Available reward seats from Hanoi to Tokyo were hard to come by in late October and seats on flight back to North America were non existent. Seoul is far enough north such that the weather in October is sufficiently cool to dissuade the travelers from spending much time there. Flights to both Singapore and Bangkok were available from Hanoi and after considering onward connectivity to North America, flights were reserved on October 18th to Singapore. This stop gives our travelers the opportunity to spend a few days there before heading home.

Returning to New York by the 23rd means one has to leave Singapore aboard an evening red-eye on the 22nd (excepting the 19 hour non-stop Singapore Airlines flight to Newark which is not bookable for award tickets). Unfortunately very few flights are available on that date so this is a good example where flexibility on timing and routing is important. While not the most direct route an available pair of Turkish Airlines flights through Istanbul were identified. These depart Singapore in the evening on the 23rd and arrive in New York the following afternoon making only one connection and of about 4 hours. Considering that connecting through Istanbul adds less than 1,000 flight miles over the non-stop to Newark (which, again, isn't bookable), this was the best option.

So that's how you can visit three different cities, a thousand miles apart, on a single award ticket. For OnePass members this itinerary used (per ticket) 62,500 miles in coach, 125,000 miles in business and 145,000 miles in first. Taxes were around $80 per ticket and cover fees for airport use, security, customs and immigration. For comparison the cheapest coach seats on Kayak were over $2,000.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Vermont Wedding

I was recently contacted by a pair of friends who have been invited to a wedding in northern Vermont. The couple lives in San Jose, CA and need to arrive in Vermont by the morning of Friday, October 1st and depart Sunday October 3rd. While schedule is the most important factor for this trip economics is a close second.

In order to find the best prices several nearby airports should considered in both the arriving and departing locations. In addition to San Jose airport, San Francisco and Oakland airports will also be considered. On the arriving side, Burlington, VT is the  closest airport to the wedding but since the travelers will be renting a car anyway, airports within a few hours drive are considered. These include Albany, NY, Manchester, NH and even Montreal, Quebec across the boarder.

It is evident by the arrival time requirement of Friday morning that departure will need to be sometime on Thursday. Given these parameters some immediate options jump out. United from San Francisco to Burlington via Washington-Dulles has acceptable timing (departing SFO at 12:48pm and arriving BTV at 11:13pm) and a reasonable price of $460. Additionally the Sunday return flights allow a relaxed morning with a mid afternoon departure.

A more expensive alternative at $100 more is a set of jetBlue flights from Oakland. jetBlue flies from all three Bay Area airports but the timing at Oakland is best. This set of flights features a 9:40pm red-eye to JFK with a morning arrival into Burlington. Additionally is utilizes a 5:00pm flight on Sunday night (also via JFK) which would allow them to spend more time on Sunday in Vermont and still arrive home around midnight.

Delta offers a great price to one of the alternative airports. Departing Oakland on a red-eye, this options arrives in Albany, NY via Atlanta Friday morning and departs Sunday a little before 1pm. While the price tag of $384 is great, layovers over 3 hours in both directions tarnish this option. Also the travelers will have to make the 3 hours drive from Albany to northern Vermont after a long red-eye and leave relatively early on Sunday to make the same 3 hour drive back.

If price is the greatest concern obviously the Delta flights to Albany would be the best option but as this is a trip for a wedding, schedule must take some precedence. Assuming the travelers have the flexibility to leave mid-day on Thursday I think the United flights offer a good compromise on price while still meeting the timing requirements and avoiding an overnight red-eye on a short trip.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Curry Express: Business Class to Frankfurt

The first request! This comes in the form of a business class ticket from New York to Frankfurt. Specifically this individual is interested in the best business class seat available between the two cities and wants to fly non-stop. He needs to travel in early October and will spend about a week in Germany.

First lets take a look at the airlines flying in this market. I'll include airlines both to New York-JFK and Newark-Liberty because they serve the same general area: Lufthansa, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Air India. The last two airlines are unique in this market and provide tag-on service to their respective hubs via Frankfurt. Note that all flights from the New York area to Frankfurt are overnight, red-eye flights so an environment that promotes the ability to sleep is preferred.

Differences in seating type arrangement can separate a restful night over the Atlantic and a fitful one. Each of the airlines offers a seat advertised as 'lie-flat' on the planes they fly between these two cities. On closer inspection many of the 'lie-flat' seats do not actually lie completely flat. Most, in fact, only flatten to about 170 degrees and tilt the traveler at an angle. This sometimes causes the traveler so slide down and is not very conducive to sleep. Lufthansa, Continental and Singapore offer this style seat the planes used between New York/Newark and Frankfurt.

Air India and Delta offer a lie-flat seat that actually does what it says -- that is it reclines to 180 degrees and when in that position is completely horizontal. Obviously this is much preferable for red-eye flights. Delta, however, flies much older Boeing 767-300 aircraft which are currently in the process of being reconfigured from an older sit-up style business class seat to the lie-flat variant. Air India flies much newer 777-300 aircraft which already have the lie-flat seats. So which should he choose?

In my opinion the horizontal lie flat seat is the better choice so Lufthansa, Continental and Singapore are out. Delta won't be able to guarantee that the newly configured aircraft will operate this route on any given day which means its possible to be stuck sitting up all night. My pick for this trip is Air India which flies from Newark-Liberty International airport in Newark, NJ. This will ensure he has a the opportunity to rest in the most bed-like position available. Additionally Air India offers some fantastic business class fares on this route (which happens on occasion with airlines operating outside their home territory) and is supposed to have decent catering for on board meals. Finally this traveler shared that he will be driving to the airport from New England which makes Newark the ideal choice as it's location along Rt. 95 makes it much more accessible than JFK for those coming from the North, South or West.

Happy flying!

An Opening Word

What has modern travel come to? Waiting in one line after another... Searched like you've already done something wrong... only to spend hours on end in a narrow pressurized tube hurtling through the atmosphere.

This is a new event. A place to vet anxieties over travel conditions. To be clear, lines can't be made to disappear and metal tubes are still the fasted way to move across great distances. But what happened to our fascination with flight? Gone are the days when recliners lined the windowed walls of Pan Am's flying boats but we can still make the best of each experience up in the wide open expanses.

Find a better way to travel. All flights are not created equal.

Feel cramped when flying? Find the newest planes with the softest seats and them most leg room.

Want to get there as fast as you can? Find the best route for your trip with the shortest flight and the fewest connections while avoiding delays.

Traveling on a budget? Find the best deal to get where you're going.

This space will log requests from friends, family and readers for advice and help finding the best travel arangments. Check in to travel vicariously to the latest far-flung locations and the best way to get there. If Expedia has you in need of a second opinon send over your trip details!