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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Honeymoon Trip Report, Day 1 - A Taste of Istanbul; Review of Grand Hyatt Istanbul.

In conjunction with

Scroll down for a review of
  • Grand Hyatt Istanbul
After escaping from the chaos of immigration control, we walk out of the terminal toward the bus stop area for the Havatas (pronounced "hah-vah-tash") airport bus operated by the local government.

Our hotel is near Taksim Square, and while my natural inclination was to use Istanbul's metro system (since I saw a Taksim station), I'm glad I found info on the Havatas bus, since it would drop us off just down the street from our hotel without having to make a transfer.

I was still hesitant about taking the bus, being on a foreign country where neither of us could speak the language nor could even figure out the root words, but fortunately we found most locals knew enough English and were very friendly.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Honeymoon Trip Report, Day 0 - A Day by the Bay; Reviews of Avis at SJC; Hyatt House Belmont/Redwood Shores

In conjunction with

Scroll down for reviews of
  • Avis San Jose Airport
  • Hyatt House Belmont/Redwood Shores

Day 0: Our Day in the Bay Area

I do have to rewind a bit, since our day officially started at LAX, and I'm sure AirlineReporter's editor-in-chief David Parker Brown and airline guru Johnny Jet would get a kick out of hearing that our honeymoon started with them (and I hope my wife doesn't read this part!).

Monday, September 28, 2015

Trip Report: Our Honeymoon to Europe (or, We're Just Insane)

In conjunction with

Background info: My wife Kat and I were married last October 2014. We met at an airport, I even proposed at an airport. We're both definitely travel nuts... I mean, just look at our cake!
One of our wedding cakes, courtesy of our amazingly talented friend,
Elly Artiz of Cakes by Elly!
We've already traveled short and long haul together, so it was natural that we wanted to go all out on our honeymoon.

We decided pretty early on that we'd postpone our honeymoon until this summer, because Europe was our first choice, but we didn't really want a depressing winter honeymoon. We had considered going to South America so that it would be summertime there, but some of the political and economic instability had made us hesitant, and the excess visa/reciprocal fees for US citizens (almost $1,000 just to be able to visit the countries we wanted) would eat into our budget. Finding a super deal on Air France's Airbus A380 in premium economy to Paris, then onto Istanbul, sealed the deal. We had to fly out of San Francisco, but that's no biggie for us.
Air France's Premium Economy section on their Airbus A380. Source: Air France
We really weren't going to spend too much time in Istanbul, but it got us close enough to travel to other parts of Europe, especially to where it would be "exotic" to us. Plus, our US passports gave us visa-free entry into most countries (the only exception was Turkey, and that was a mere $20/person fee for multiple entries).

Kat knew what she was getting into (#FFNerd- and #AVGeek-wise) by marrying me, and thankfully she trusted me enough to give me the green light and go along with building an insane flight itinerary.

It took about a month's worth of researching and planning on where to go and what flights were available, but we were able to use some United miles (gifted by my parents... thanks, Mom & Dad!) to book the following award flights on their Star Alliance partners:
  • Istanbul to Vienna on Turkish
  • Vienna to Budapest on Austrian
  • Budapest to Hamburg on Germanwings
  • Hamburg to Geneva on Germanwings
  • Zurich to Paris on Swiss
  • Paris to Dubrovnik on Croatia
  • Dubrovnik to Athens on Olympic
  • Athens to Istanbul on Turkish Aegean (I'll explain later)
Route map of our award flights, courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.
Eight flights for just 30K miles roundtrip, the intra-Europe "saver" economy level roundtrip award for each person. I definitely feel like I got a great return for the miles. Knowing the intricate rules for United's awards definitely helped, as I basically planned a "simple" open-jawed round-trip with multiple connections to get me to my "destination" and back to my origin.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a fan of United's MileagePlus program. I find the American AAdvantage and Alaska Mileage Plan programs to be more valuable and superior for accruing redeeming miles.

However, I was duly impressed with Star Alliance's coverage of non-Northern Europe. Oneworld isn't perfect, and quite frankly Star has superior coverage for getting around the rest of Europe, with plenty of hubs (and thus, non-stop flights) all throughout the continent.
A sampling of views from the window seat.
(I'll still need to have a talk with Mom & Dad about getting a different points-earning credit card, but that discussion will come later).

For those who know me, you may be wondering why we didn't book business class seats.  Unfortunately, "business" class in Europe (what we would call "first class here in the US) usually means the same coach seat, just up front and with a blocked middle seat.  Along with the short flights, I felt the extra miles wouldn't be worth it.
Row 1 in Business Class on a Turkish Airlines Airbus A320, for an intra-Europe flight.
At least this middle seat has a fold-down tray/armrest.
Along with our positioning flights from Southern California to the Bay Area, as well as flights to Thessaloniki that got flushed down the drain, we're looking at:
  • 4 separate tickets, 16 flight segments (14 flown) between 13 different airports on 9 different airlines (and just 1 flight cancellation!);
  • 14 nights at mostly-Hyatt hotels and Airbnbs;
  • 3 car rentals; and of course,
  • 8 European cities in 7 different countries, plus a couple days in the Bay Area and Napa Valley
This special honeymoon trip report will be split up into segments:
  • Flight reviews will be posted as part of my coverage on AirlineReporter (.com | my articles). 
  • Hotel reviews, foodie pics, and trip notes will be posted here on VNAFlyer.
  • This entry will be constantly updated with links to individual segments as they post.
  • You can also get updated when items post by following along on Twitter (@VNAFlyer) or Facebook (/VNAFlyer).
I'm excited to share our travels and experiences with you, so thank you for following along, and please feel free to post comments and questions any time!

I'm back! And I have flights, hotels, and trip reviews galore!

You probably didn't notice, but I'll let you know anyway that I've been offline thanks to a postponed honeymoon trip through Europe.

But, I come back bearing gifts... in the form of a massive trip report made up of:
  • 14 flight segments between 12 different airports on 9 different airlines (and just 1 flight cancellation!);
  • 14 nights at hotels and Airbnbs;
  • 3 car rentals; and of course,
  • 8 European cities in 7 different countries.
It was an amazing trip I could only share with my lovely wife, Kat (who was also crazy enough to say "Yes" to the questions of "Will you marry me?" and "Are you willing to spend 9 days flying 8 times to visit 8 cities?")

Over the next several days, I will be posting my flight reviews on AirlineReporter (.com | my articles), and the rest of the report here on VNAFlyer.  You can also follow along on Twitter (@VNAFlyer) or Facebook (/VNAFlyer).

Thanks for following along!

Monday, August 31, 2015

American Airlines Mistakenly Discounts Airfare by 90%. You Won't Believe What They Did Next!

Photo: | Brandon Farris
Some customers found an unexpected and pleasant surprise last week while buying tickets online from American Airlines.
An apparent error on the airline’s website caused all published fares to be a mere fraction of normal prices for any ticket purchased.  It is unknown how long the error had existed, but information about the mistake was posted early in the day last Thursday on Flyertalk, a popular website and online forum for the frequent flyer community.
Flyertalk user flipside posted a screenshot image showing a round-trip business class ticket on American from Sao Paulo to Hong Kong that priced out to be R$1,255 Brazilian Reals (BRL), or approximately $350 US Dollars at today’s prevailing exchange rate.  The normal fare for that business class ticket is approximately US$3,350 (R$12,000); the same ticket in coach is about US$850 (R$3,060).  How could this sort of thing happen and, in cases like this, how would American respond?
Screenshot: Flyertalk | flipside.
Getting the fare wasn’t very straightforward, but instructions were given on how to change your “country of residence,” to Brazil, giving one access to the “mistake” fare.
Photo: | Bernie Leighton
There is speculation that the error was caused when currency values were inadvertently transposed when the data was entered. Said another way, while the value of R$1.00 is approximately US$0.29, the data was entered as R$0.29 to US$1.00, or R$1.00 to US$3.45.  In layman’s terms, the US dollar was accidentally and massively overvalued against the real by a factor of almost 12 times, causing the resulting airfare to be about 1/10 the actual price.
The airline corrected the pricing error by late Thursday afternoon, and it is not known how many tickets were purchased with the error, but it was enough to create a days-long backlog in American’s Brazilian office, which is responsible for issuing the tickets, due to the fact that the fares were technically purchased in Brazil and charged in reals.
While American would not elaborate on the cause or details behind the error, a company representative did provide American’s official statement, saying, “American Airlines will honor mispriced fares that were booked last week in select international markets. We hope customers enjoy their experience with American and book with us again in the future.”
Photo: | Bernie Leighton
This is in stark contrast to United Airlines’ decision when that airline suffered a similar pricing error in February of this year.  United chose to void “several thousand bookings,” bolstered by a U.S. Department of Transportation decision not to pursue any legal proceedings against the airline, after several complaints were submitted from passengers who had their itineraries canceled by United, even though tickets had been validated and issued for travel.  United claimed an element of fraud on behalf of customers, most of whom had to change their home country and currency to manipulate the booking system.
British Airways, a partner of American in the oneworld alliance, also canceled tickets issued just last week after a different pricing error caused trips from Germany traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to price at US$1,350 in first class.  Many users on Flyertalk are crying foul over the cancellations, as well as the way the refunds were processed, sometimes leaving customers hundreds of dollars short, due to fluctuating foreign exchange rates and fees.
There are also sporadic reports that in spite of American’s official stance in honoring their mistake fares, some itineraries are still being canceled, repriced to the original higher fares, or unable to be ticketed.  However, most reports on Flyertalk seemingly confirm that American is indeed processing and issuing the mispriced tickets.
One user reports booking an economy roundtrip from Seattle to Rio de Janeiro for US$175; others are flying as far as Europe and Australia without touching Brazil, and sometimes not even flying on flights operated by American.
Flyertalk user jfkeze found first class seats on American partner Cathay Pacific for $1,300,  traveling from Brazil to Hong Kong via the U.S.  Cathay maintains a Five-Star rating from Skytrax, recognizing the airline as one of the best in the world.
First class cabin on Cathay Pacific.
Photo: Cathay Pacific
As for flipside from Flyertalk, he was able to book nine trips in first and business class from Rio to Hong Kong, Sydney, New York, Singapore, and Miami.  They have all been ticketed, and he has already departed on the first of his trips.
Mistakes happen, and some companies choose to reverse their mistakes and minimize their own losses, while others choose  accept their mistakes to be consumer-friendly.  In this case, even with apparent support from their peers and a government opinion establishing precedence to do otherwise, American chose to go against the grain and own up to their mistake.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Le Quyen Fined for Onboard Peeing Incident

(image courtesy VietOneRadio)
Pop star Le Quyen recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons, and now Vietnamese authorities are holding her accountable.

VNAFlyer was the first English-language source to report an incident where Le allegedly allowed her young son to urinate in an airsickness bag while flying onboard Vietnam Airlines' newly-delivered Airbus A350.

(Heck, the UK's Daily Mail even felt free to plagiarize my translation of an image caption that broke the story and other big chunks from my previous entry.)

I'm guessing the government of Vietnam was none too pleased with Le shining such a negative light onto Vietnamese culture, and it has been reported by the BBC's Vietnam post that she and her husband/manager have both been fined 4 million VND (approx. 183 USD) each by the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) for "violating discipline and order" on board the flight.

Considering that she has been recognized as one of the wealthiest entertainers in Vietnam, the fine seems a little anemic.

The CAAV has been cited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as having inadequate oversight over civil aviation, including the lack of ability to impose substantial fines.

For instance, a recent incident involving a passenger smoking in-flight lead to a $183 fine to the offender. While the CAAV has the authority to impose up to a 5-million VND (229 USD) fine for such infractions, it pales in comparison to the FAA's fine of up to 5,000 USD (over 100 million VND).

A $183 fine imposed against Le is probably more symbolic than punitive or even preventative.  The social media backlash, however, may never end.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Vietnamese Celeb Allows Child to Pee on VNA's New A350

A well-known Vietnamese singer is alleged to have allowed her young son to urinate whilst in their seats and not in a lavatory, reports VietOneRadio (link in Vietnamese).

To make matters worse, this was on Vietnam Airlines' (VNA) brand new Airbus A350-900 (A359), which was just recently delivered on June 30. The new plane is currently flying between VNA's two bases in Hanoi (HAN) and Saigon (SGN) to help familiarize and train personnel before its international debut to Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) in September.

A fellow passenger posted the story on their Facebook page (also in Vietnamese), with a photo of the singer sitting behind him in Seat 11B.
(image courtesy VietOneRadio)
While the poster anonymized the singer's identity by hiding her face and using only her initials "L.Q.," the Internet quickly figured out her identity to be Le Quyen (Facebook fan page, individual page), using a photo that was publicly posted just after she arrived.

(image courtesy VietOneRadio)
The poster claims that Le let the child pee into an airsickness bag, which cause urine to splatter onto the plane's interior.  When confronted by the Chief Steward on the flight, she pretended not to hear him.
Roughly translated: On board this beautiful A350 which still has that new plane smell (currently at 9000 m, so you can still use the lavatory), one beautiful female passenger in Seat 11B, with 10 fingernails painted in 10 colors, dressed very fashionably, tore open a vomit bag for her son to pee in, splashing everywhere. Chief Steward asked why not go into the lavatory. Dirtying the plane, but the passenger didn't even want to look/acknowledge the Chief Steward. Truly insane, peasants flying on a plane... DEATH BECOMES ME (communicating an "OMG" moment)... THIS LADY IS A VERY FAMOUS SINGER... ONE OF THE HIGHEST PAID PEOPLE IN VIETNAM... SHOULD I UPLOAD THIS PHOTO... (image courtesy VietOneRadio)

The Internet quickly reacted, calling the behavior embarrassing and for her name and this incident to be used to educate the public on proper etiquette. As one can imagine, some posters who did not see anything amiss were quickly mocked and shamed.

A similar incident occurred onboard a Delta flight in 2014 from Beijing, when a child defecated in his seat after his parents spread newspapers out for him. The incident sparked public outrage in China, with those on social media calling the family an embarrassment to Chinese culture.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fleet Updates: Vietnam Receives A350; Postpones B787

Vietnam Airlines (VNA) earlier today took delivery of their very first Airbus A350-900 (A359). The aircraft is the first new widebody added to VNA's fleet in over 10 years, and alongside the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner (B789), will mark the modernization of its long-haul fleet, currently consisting of Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s.

Photo courtesy Airbus/ATWOnline
VNA becomes only the second carrier to operate the A359, after Qatar Airways (QR), and has orders for 13 additional A359s.  The inaugural route will be from Hanoi (HAN) to Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) sometime in 3Q of this year.

As for the B789 delivery schedule, sources have confirmed that the handover will be delayed until July 24. There was reportedly a minor issue with the planned interior configuration, and changes had to be implemented before the aircraft received its airworthiness certificate.

This is the same aircraft, operated by Boeing pilots, that wowed spectators earlier this month at the Paris Air Show with a near-vertical takeoff.  Below is a video from Boeing on the preparation and warmup flights.

VNA plans on introducing the B789 on its London-Heathrow (LHR) routes.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Another Passenger on Vietnam Airlines is Fined for Smoking Onboard

Another passenger, this time on a Vietnam Airlines (VNA) domestic flight from Hanoi (HAN) to Saigon (SGN), has been fined for smoking in the lavatory.  The incident occurred on May 1.

This passenger obviously doesn't read VNAFlyer.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) imposed a 4 million VND (~$183 USD) fine on Nguyen Canh Dinh, who claimed that he did not see the No Smoking signs, and only smoked a little bit.

The crew was alerted when the smoke detector in the lavatory was triggered.

The CAAV has the authority to levy fines up to 5 million VND, which is a minute amount compared to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fine of up to $5,000 USD, or over 100 million VND.

The CAAV also recently pledged to bring civil aviation standards in Vietnam up to a level acceptable to the FAA, which would open up the possibility of direct flights from Vietnam to the U.S.  Currently, Vietnamese carriers are not allowed into U.S. airspace, and U.S.-based carriers are not allowed to start direct service into Vietnam.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Small Bites Hall of Shame: Vietjet Strands Wheelchair Passenger; Passenger Slaps Staff, Vietnam Crew Smuggle Gold

Vietjet Air (VJ) staffers at Danang International Airport (DAD) in central Vietnam decided to strand a wheelchair-bound passenger, citing safety concerns. The passenger originally flew in from Hanoi (HAN) with no issues, but when she checked in for the return flight, rather than deal with assisting her from the tarmac up the airstairs to the plane, the staffers thought it was more prudent to cancel her ticket and issued a refund.  The passenger had to wait another 6 hours for an available seat on a Vietnam Airlines (VNA) flight. The staffers were subsequently fined VND 5 million by the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV), or approximately USD 250, with further discipline possible from the company.

On the flipside of VJ news, a female passenger was fined VND 7.5 million (approx. USD 345) by the CAAV for slapping a male VJ staffer after she was asked, and agreed to, to have her carryon luggage weighed. VJ has a 7kg limit on carryons, and the passenger was indeed over the limit.

VNA isn't immune to bad news: Both a pilot and a flight attendant were arrested in Busan, South Korea for smuggling gold in their shoes without declaration.  What's more amazing is that they apparently didn't know the other was doing the same thing, even though they were each being paid USD 250 to smuggle the gold in their shoes.  The gold, at present prices, was valued at over USD 227,000.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spring 2015 Asian Escapade

Yes, I know I haven't finished my last trip report... but I wanted to give you a heads up that I just came back from another trip. As you can see below, we hit a lot of places in a short amount of time. I call it "run-and-gun" but it's definitely not for everyone.

I enjoy maximizing the return on value to visit cities I normally would just connect through; I previously wrote about utilizing stopover privileges, and how you can flex them to your advantage.

Read more: Maximize the Layovers on Your Itinerary

As the real-life example here, I was able to stretch out a simple trip to Vietnam to include stops in Tokyo and Kyoto during cherry blossom season, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Chicago.

The map of my flights:
Image source: Great Circle Mapper
What you see above is actually a combination of paid and award bookings (and another example of why it's so worth it to pay attention to miles!). The foundation of the whole trip is a purchased double open-jaw roundtrip, which had us flying Seattle (SEA) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT), then as the return Saigon (SGN) to Los Angeles (LAX). By flying back into LAX instead of SEA, I was able to save a couple hundred dollars in airfare, even after counting the cost of buying a separate one-way flight LAX-SEA.

Sidenote: You'll probably see me refer to "we" a few times. I'm fortunate enough to be able to travel with my wife and some friends of ours, so when you scale the savings up, it starts amounting to a lot!

To get from Japan to Vietnam, we cashed in some miles and flew in comfort while maxing out how much we could fly.

So I have a full report for you: flights, hotels, ground transportation, and experiences.  Our complete itinerary, so that you can visualize it and either envy or pity us:
  • Alaska Airlines, from Seattle to Los Angeles
  • American Airlines, from Los Angeles to Tokyo-Narita
    • LAX Admirals Club
    • Hyatt Regency Tokyo
  • Shinkansen, from Tokyo to Kyoto
    • Ryokan Ryokufuso
    • Hotel Nikko Kansai
  • Japan Airlines, from Osaka-Kansai to Taipei-Taoyuan
    • KIX Sakura Lounge
    • Grand Hyatt Taipei
  • Cathay Pacific Airways, from Taipei-Taoyuan to Hong Kong
    • TPE Business Class Lounge
    • Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui
  • Cathay Pacific Airways, from Hong Kong to Saigon
    • HKG The Bridge Business Class Lounge
    • Lan Lan 2 Hotel
  • Vietnam Airlines, from Saigon to Danang
    • Hyatt Regency Danang
  • Vietnam Airlines, from Danang to Saigon
    • Lan Lan 2 Hotel
  • Phuong Trang/FUTA Buslines, from Saigon to Can Tho
    • West Hotel
  • Japan Airlines, Saigon to Tokyo-Haneda
    • SGN The Bamboo Lounge
  • American Airlines, from Tokyo-Narita to Chicago-O'Hare
    • NRT Admirals Club
    • Conrad Chicago
  • American Airlines, from Chicago-O'Hare to Los Angeles
  • Alaska Airlines, from Los Angeles to Seattle
So stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

First Boeing 787 for Vietnam Airlines Rolls Off Assembly Line

Short but sweet news: FlightGlobal reports that Vietnam Airlines' (VNA's) first Boeing 787-9 (B789) has completed assembly and has rolled out of the hangar.

Photo courtesy Vietnam Airlines/FlightGlobal
Its next stop will be the paint shop to put on the VNA livery, then test flights will commence.

VNAFlyer previously broke the story about interior cabin configurations.

This first B789 is leased, and will have 28 business class seats from Cirrus and 283 slimline economy seats from B/E Aerospace.

While the leased aircraft will not have a deluxe economy section, VNA's purchased airframes will be configured with 28 business, 35 deluxe economy, and 211 economy seats.

The first B789 will be deployed on the Hanoi (HAN) to London-Heathrow (LHR) route commencing June 29, and split time with the Ho Chi Minh City (SGN)-LHR sector.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why Alaska Airlines is My New Favorite Carrier

Source: VNAFlyer
You may have noticed that, while this blog is about the airline industry in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, I write quite a bit about Alaska Airlines (AS).

Truth be told, being based in the United States, American Airlines (AA) is my carrier of choice, so much so that I reached 2 Million Miler status and earned lifetime Platinum (PLT) status.

However, AA has very limited routes along the west coast, so relies instead on their deep codesharing and frequent flyer partnership with AS.  Splitting my time between Los Angeles and Seattle and flying AS has given me the chance to truly appreciate the level of service AS provides.

What started as an incidental exposure on a few codeshare flights led me to request a status match with AS, which was gladly granted.  By virtue of my AA PLT status, AS matched me to their mid-tier equivalent MVP Gold (MVPG) status, which normally requires 40,000 miles flown on AS only, or 50,000 miles flown on AS and its partners.

I have to say that I've been very happy flying AS.  Don't get me wrong, I quite enjoy flying AA and the benefits as an elite there. However, AS has definitely won me over with its customer-friendly policies for everyone, and generous benefits for elites. The AA+AS partnership is a fantastic one-two knockout punch.

Alaska's partner airlines chart.
Being a regional carrier that uses only variants of the Boeing 737 (B737) in its mainline operations, Alaska's shortcoming is the lack of long-haul international flights; however, it makes up for that by forging partnerships with several international airlines across alliances, a novel but effective approach for the independent carrier.

In fact, one can earn both redeemable miles (for award flights) and elite-qualifying miles (for elite status) towards AS's Mileage Plan (MP) program on no less than 5 Oneworld airlines (AA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN, and Qantas) and 5 Skyteam airlines (AeroMexico, Air France, Delta, KLM, and Korean Air), along with Middle East powerhouse Emirates and South Pacific carrier Fiji Airways.

As an mid-tier elite, I've been 100% successful on being upgraded into first class (6 of 6), and have also taken advantage of their Same Day Flight Change, where elites can switch to a different flight on the day of departure for no charge, so long as there is a seat available. Even for non-elites, the cost is only $25, which is very reasonable and doesn't require a passenger to sweat it out at the gate, since once the change is confirmed and the passenger is reticketed onto the new flight.

Other things like power at almost every seat, streaming entertainment, a liberal Price Guarantee, and their 20-minute Baggage Service Guarantee puts Alaska towards the front of the pack for domestic US flying.

I really am a fan of AS, especially in light of recent heavy competition from Delta (DL) moving into AS's home hub, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), as their own new hub and gateway to Asia (and yes, you did just read that AS and DL are supposed to be partners). Alaska has been lauded by experts for its ability to hold its own against one of the world's largest airlines in what's been popularly referred to as "The Battle in Seattle."

Since I'm now flying AS so much, I've decided to start a companion blog, ASFlyer, so that I can put in my AS-specific posts there.  In fact, I went into more detail in my first post on ASFlyer, "Why I Love Alaska Airlines, and Why You Should Too."

Follow ASFlyer for most information and updates on Alaska Airlines... the little airline that could.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Trip Report: The Adventures of Checking in at Sea-Tac

I started writing this report starting in the middle of my trip, when I met up with my VNA flight

Other chapters:
Alaska 737-800 at SEA
We are scheduled to depart on an Alaska Airlines (AS) at 7:55pm from Seattle (SEA) to Los Angeles (LAX), where we will spend the night before flying out the next morning to Shanghai-Pudong (PVG) on American Airlines (AA).

We planned on this overnight layover intentionally, so we could visit family and pick up some things to bring back to Vietnam.  Since we were staying in Los Angeles for under 24 hours, it wasn't considered a stopover and therefore didn't increase the cost of the tickets by breaking up our itinerary into two separate fares.

In my past experiences, what typically would happen was that our flight down to LAX would be treated as a normal domestic flight, and our bags would be checked to LAX, since we were spending the night there.

Domestic check-in time for AS is 40 minutes with or without checked baggage, and we arrive a bit early at the counter (70 minutes before departure) so we don't have to rush. By virtue of our Platinum status with AA, we have access to AS's first class check-in, as well as priority boarding, so we are in no particular rush.

So we plan accordingly, packing as if we were going to grab our bags in LAX and spend a night in Los Angeles. Things were not to be, however, when we stroll up to the counter, happily stating that we are checking in 4 pieces for the flight to LAX.

The agent takes our drivers licenses, taps a few keys, and asks, "Are you flying to Shanghai?" I tell her that we are, and she continues to tap at a feverish pace. After a couple of minutes, she asks for our passports, which strikes me as odd because we are flying a domestic flight, but I dig them out of my backpack and hand them over.

The agent takes them and walks to the back office. Though I'm not in panic mode, I do start feeling a growing concern that something was amiss. Is there a problem with our booking? Is one of the flights canceled ore rescheduled? Is the TSA after us? (That last one was more funny than concerning.)

After a few minutes, the agent comes back and loudly declares, "You were supposed to be here sooner!"  I politely point out to her that we're well before the cutoff time, and she's essentially ignoring us, not to be rude, but to type as fast as she can and asking us about our trip to Shanghai and onwards.

As best as I can put together, the system is treating us as international passengers and demanding all the foreign travel formalities. Obviously, this agent has has handled international check-ins before but not as experienced as those from legacy carriers, which leads us to our next hurdle:

"Where are your visas?"
Interlude: While China requires a visa to visit as a tourist with a US passport, at certain airports including Shanghai there is a "Transit Without Visa" (TWOV) program available, as long as we are flying onto a 3rd country (in our case, Vietnam) and staying no more than 72 hours (23 hours for us). 
Also, Vietnam requires visa for US passport holders to have a visa before entering. However, a visa waiver program was instituted for certain visitors who had a Vietnamese heritage. upon which Vietnam would issue a "certificate of waiver exemption" that looked like a visa adhered to a passport page and essentially acted like a visa.
Airlines use a system called TIMATIC that explains the travel documentation requirements for all possible combinations of departing city, connections, and final destinations. 
I tell the agent that we don't have visas, and explain the above as to why we didn't. I know she referenced TIMATIC to know in general that we needed visas, but I still show her my printout of the TIMATIC results, which I had in case there was a problem in CHINA... I didn't figure I would need them in Seattle!

The agent accepted the fact that we qualified for China's TWOV program, but did not accept that our "Certificates of Visa Exemption" were valid for entry into Vietnam, as it was not a visa per se. She runs to the back office again, and after a few minutes comes out.

She finally finishes checking us in, saying that she is using our places of birth as evidence of our entry (which is fine for my wife... but I was born in the US, so I have no idea how that would work). In any case, we get the boarding passes printed, all the while the agent keeps grumbling how we should have been here earlier, and I have to keep pointing out that a) we should have been checking in as a domestic itinerary, and b) we were still there before the international check in time of 60 minutes. I also wanted to point out her lack of understanding the TIMATIC results, but at that point we just let her be.

Now it's on to checked luggage... which of course is tagged all the way to PVG and not LAX, where we had intended to unload some things and redistribute. More typing, more grumbling, and a compromise, but she's able to short-check 2 of our our bags to LAX (the ones we REALLY needed), and the other 2 go all the way to PVG.

At this point, I realize that AS doesn't provide priority tags for the bags, which would be important in PVG if we wanted a chance to have our bags be one of the first to come out from a full B777. I sprint down to the AA counter, which luckily was only about 100 yards away, give my 15-second elevator pitch as to why I needed their priority tags, and sprint back to the AS counter. Having never tagged a bag as priority before, I actually have to show the agent how to put the priority tags onto the luggage tags (fast forward: our bags are some of the first out at PVG, thanks to the priority tags).

We finally have boarding passes in hand and get into security 45 minutes before our departure. Thankfully we have TSA Pre-Check, so we're through in less than 5 minutes, but without enough time to check out Alaska's Board Room lounge, we just head out to the gate, and we start boarding within 5 minutes of our getting there.

So much for our relaxing pace to start our trip!

After the scrum at check-in, we have a quick, uneventful flight down to LAX. Our AA Platinum (PLT) elite status allows us to board with AS's elites, as well as select preferred seats at the time of booking. Normally, non-status passengers can only select non-preferred seats towards the rear of the plane, but can pick any seat when they check in 24 hours ahead of time, including exit row seats.

On this flight, we are sitting in Row 17, which is the 2nd exit row with ample legroom and full recline (whereas Row 16 has limited recline). Interestingly, the tray tables on AS's exit rows are NOT in the armrests, but on the seatback instead, meaning that these seats have the same width.

On descent into LAX, making the turn over downtown
Los Angeles. For reference, the purple light is Staples Center.
Alaska is also unique in offering a baggage delivery service guarantee: If your bags don't arrive to baggage claim within 20 minutes of the aircraft door opening, AS will give you a certificate good for $25 off your next flight with AS, or 2,500 AS Mileage Plan miles. I've gotten into the habit of starting my phones stopwatch just to remind me if I should ask for a certificate. You don't even have to wait at baggage claim... you can talk to any airport agent, or contact AS within 2 hours of arrival via phone or even through Twitter @AlaskaAir.

Alas, AS again proves its efficiency and our bags come out in just 11 minutes, and we're on our way away from LAX.

Maximize the Layovers on Your Itinerary

It's always worth checking out if you can stay in your connection city on a stopover for a few days, especially if it's a city you enjoy or have never been to before. Even if a stopover isn't allowed, sometime's a longer connection time ("layover") is permitted.

Use layovers to visit places like Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.
Being based in the US, I primarily fly American Airlines (AA), especially to get to an Asia gateway airport on my way to Vietnam.

I've found that on most AA international fares, or fares that include an international segment, so long as you are scheduled to be in your connecting city for less than 24 hours, it's not considered a stopover and therefore doesn't increase the price of your ticket by breaking your ticket up into two separate tickets (if stopovers aren't allowed). This "trick" works on many other airlines as well.

Typically on a purely domestic itinerary, AA generally requires you to take a connecting flight within 4 hours of your arrival at the connection city.

What I've found to be great this use of this layover rule is that it's scalable.. that is to say, the layover rule applies to all your connection points made en route, including any connections in the US. You can spend up to 23 hours, 59 minutes after your schedule arrival in each city, and it may cost exactly the same base fare (there are some variances in taxes and fees).

To illustrate: Let's say you are starting in Dallas (DFW) and in Tokyo-Narita (NRT) on your way to Saigon. A typical sample itinerary may look something like this:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
A standard roundtrip, same-day connections at each connection city, nothing out of the ordinary, prices out at US$873.

Now, what if you wanted to visit, say, Los Angeles for whatever reason (you've never been, you want to grab dinner with friends, you miss your family, etc.).  This is what happens when I price the itinerary with an overnight layover at LAX Airport:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
Notice that I'm scheduled to spend about 21 hours overnight in Los Angeles starting in the late afternoon, giving me enough time, e.g., to pickup my rental car, head to the beach for a couple of hours, grab dinner, grab plenty of sleep, go for a run along another beach, and grab breakfast, all before heading back to LAX to hop on my flight to NRT.

All this for the fare price of $890, or a mere $17 increase from the original boring itinerary, which is just the difference in taxes and airport fees.

If you're lucky, AA may even check your luggage (two free for all, by default) all the way to SGN, so you don't have to deal with it on your long layovers.

This is what happens if I decide to spend a few extra hours in Tokyo before heading to Saigon:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
Instead of a 1.5 hour connection in Tokyo, I now have 9 hours to visit, and it only added US$12 to the previous total. Granted, there's a change in airport, but 9 hours is a lot of time to be able to explore the city before heading to Haneda Airport (HND), which is situated much closer to the central city areas.

Finally, if you wanted to go all crazy on both the outbound and return legs, this is what you can do:
Click to enlarge. Image source: ITASoftware
As you can see here, on the way home back to DFW, I added a 23h05m layover in San Diego and a 23h19 layover in Chicago, all for a mere $51 increase from the original boring itinerary! Scalable...

Obviously, this type of trip isn't for everyone. I personally like taking the opportunity to get a taste of the cities I visit, even if just for a little bit. I figure, if I'm going to fly hours to get to some city, why not leave the airport for a little bit?

There are a few caveats to be aware of:
  • Your fare type (shown as "Q" in the examples above) must be available on all your flight segments.
  • Individual fare rules dictate layover maximum, number of connections, etc.
  • Remember to keep it at 23 hours, 59 minutes or under. If you hit 24 hours, your connection becomes a stopover, which may trigger a stopover fee or break the fare into two separate (and usually more expensive) fares.
  • You'll actually have to price and ticket this itinerary, either by manipulating or another travel site, using the "multi-city search" feature, or by having an AA agent (phone or airport) ticket what you want. Having an AA agent involved incurs a fee ($35 right now per passenger, but it's going up to $45 soon).
  • This layover trick exist on other airlines as well, though your experience may vary.
If you know the rules, you can fully maximize your trip potential without adding much cost. It's a great way to experience new cities, or revisit favorite ones.

Let me know if you have any success with your long layovers!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

40-Minute VietJet Air Flight Delayed for Over 10 Hours

VietJet Air Passengers getting off
their plane that went out of service for
10 hours. Image source: Thanh Nien
VietJet Air's (VJ's) nasty reputation for being chronically late has reared its ugly head again.

Passengers at Phu Quoc Airport (PQC) for hoping for an uneventful short flight to Saigon (SGN) were subject to rolling delays amounting to 10 hours that apparently included the aircraft itself repeatedly going around in circles from paddock (there currently are no jet bridges attached to the terminals, so boarding is by bus and airstairs) to taxiways back to its parking spot.

From personal experience, the flight time from PQC to SGN should take about 40 minutes, or about an hour from gate to gate.

A mechanical issue was reported to be the problem, and I don't fault anyone for playing it safe, but this severity of this delay was compounded by several variables:

  • The mechanical fault itself;
  • PQC is essentially a remote outstation on an island, with no aircraft maintenance services present. Even if VJ wanted to borrow VNA's tools and equipment, they couldn't (not that VNA would want to lend them the tools);
  • VJ only has 3 flights a day from SGN, where the part was coming from;
  • VNA only has 4-5 flights a day, many on small prop planes, so it would have been tough to get passengers reaccommodated (again, only if VNA was a willing participant);
  • There are limited services at PQC, and I'm not sure if VJ handed out vouchers that could be used at the couple of eateries there (with my most major delay with VNA, they passed out meals out of a galley cart).
  • VJ fully utilizes its small fleet, so no other aircraft would be available as a replacement, especially at an outstation.
Mechanical issues are inevitable, but it's how airlines handle the irregular operations (IRROPS) that make or break the passengers' experience.

One more interesting tidbit: It looks like there was a decree requiring airlines to refund passengers their airfare if their flight was delayed by more than 5 hours. We'll see how VJ handles this (I wouldn't be surprised if this "refund" came in the form of a voucher for future use on the airline).

Sounds like VJ gets a D- on this occurrence (and not a full-blown F, since apparently they did try to feed the passengers).

Update: VNA's First 787 in Final Assembly

Apparently Vietnam Airlines' (VNA's) first Dreamliner has entered the beginning stages of final assembly at the Boeing factory in Everett, WA. 

Final assembly means that most of the smaller components that can be installed have been installed, and all that's left is to join the large body sections such as the flight deck, fuselage, wings, engines, and landing gear. This process can take a month or more to complete.

VNA is due to receive the 787-9 (B789) in late May, with the first scheduled long-haul flight scheduled for Hanoi (HAN) to London-Heathrow (LHR) on June 29. It will be painted in VNA's updated livery that has already appeared on a number of Boeing 777-200s (B772) after repainting, and on the new Airbus A350-900 (A359) that emerged from the paintshop in Toulouse recently.

(H/T: All Things 787)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

5,000 Bonus AA Miles After First Stay Through Rocketmiles

Last week, I wrote about Rocketmiles' hotel booking site, and how they were enticing frequent flyers with a standard 1,000-mile bonus, with 3,000 bonus miles to some airlines, for booking and completing their first stay through the site, no minimum stay length required.

Alaska Airlines flyers were treated to a 5,000 miles signup bonus.

Today, Rocketmiles comes out with a 5,000 mile offer for American Airlines flyers. Just book before April 15, 11:59pm CT.

To ensure that you receive the bonus:

  • Sign up for a Rocketmiles account by clicking on this link, which leads you to the AA bonus signup page (even though a pop-up window will indicate a 1,000-mile bonus; ignore that).
  • The tricky part: Go back to that same link to the AA-specific page to search and make your first reservation. 
    • I've been told by Rocketmiles that if the booking is completed on a different page, the bonus will not be applied. 
    • Also, the bonus is null and void if someone cancels their first booking to make another one.
Follow the steps above and you should be able to get a one-night hotel stay for ~$100+ and 5,000 miles... not a bad return!

Disclosure: The links above will give me a small referral credit, for which I would be truly appreciative.

The full terms and conditions:
To be eligible for this promotion, the hotel reservation must be booked via the Rocketmiles mobile app with promo code "AA5000" OR using this promotional link by 11:59PM CT on April 15, 2015. Limited to first time customers and subject to investigation post-purchase. Limit one per customer. Limit one per stay. Promotional offer cannot be applied to existing bookings or retroactively applied to bookings not made using the link above. This promotional offer cannot be combined with any other offers, including a sign-up from referral bonus. Rocketmiles reserves the right to retract a bonus at any time if it detects technical errors, cancel/rebooking activity (defined by identical search criteria), or any deceptive behavior attempted to circumvent the limits expressed above, including multiple accounts. Please allow 2 weeks for bonus points to post in a qualifying member's account after hotel stay is completed and the qualifying member has met the stated conditions. If Rocketmiles is not contacted directly with a refund request until after miles/points have already been posted, any approved refund amount may be reduced by up to the full retail value of the reward. Rewards that cannot be posted due to incorrect or incomplete information may become ineligible after 12 months and no customer response to our e-mail outreach. See for full terms, or call Rocketmiles concierges at 1-855-355-7625 with questions of eligibility or for any other assistance. Please contact your loyalty program directly for information about redeeming miles/points, or for questions about earning miles/points for past flights. American Airlines reserves the right to change the AAdvantage® program and its terms and conditions at any time without notice, and to end the AAdvantage® program with six months notice. Any such changes may affect your ability to use the awards or mileage credits that you have accumulated. Unless specified, AAdvantage® miles earned through this promotion/offer do not count toward elite-status qualification or AAdvantage Million MilerSM status. American Airlines is not responsible for products or services offered by other participating companies. For complete details about the AAdvantage® program, visit American Airlines, AAdvantage, the Flight Symbol logo and AAdvantage Million Miler are trademarks of American Airlines, Inc.

Were you successful in earning the bonus? Let me know below! 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Vietnam Airlines Confirms New Cabin Uniforms; But a Different 787 Business Seat?

Vietnam Airlines (VNA) has confirmed the introduction of new uniforms for cabin and flight crew members:

VNAFlyer previously posted an Instagram photo of the purported uniforms captured on the computer screen of an unknown person.

The traditional Vietnamese ao dai is preserved, though now uniform colors are based on the cabin being served: blue for economy, and gold for business. The new uniforms can already be seen on some international routes.

What's most striking to me actually isn't the flight attendants posing in their uniforms. It's that they were photoshopped onto a background of a 787 cabin, and the seats shown are decidedly different than the ones that were "officially released" by VNA:

Honestly, the doctored photo with the FAs could be more accurate, as they show an interior color palette that more closely resembles their current cabin, as well as the rendering for the A350 cabin:

I will follow up with what I find out...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Rocketmiles Offers 3,000 Mile Signup Bonuses to Certain Airlines

Rocketmiles is a hotel booking website that gives you bonus airline miles for booking with them. They currently offer 500-5,000 miles or points per night to any one of 26 frequent flyer programs.

Read more: What is Rocketmiles? Let's Start with 1,000 Bonus Airline Miles...

The standard signup bonus is 1,000 miles after your first stay. However, Rocketmiles is offering a special 3,000 mile signup bonus for members of certain airline frequent flyer programs.

Below is a list of these airlines, along with their book-by dates. Click to sign up:
To earn the 3,000 bonus miles:
  • Sign up for a new Rocketmiles account using one of the links above.
  • Reserve your stay by the deadline (the actual stay can be after the deadline) through the same promo link above. That is to say, if you close the page and subsequently come back to, you won't receive the bonus.
Update: The offer is for 3,000 miles minimum for the first booking, not on top of the miles already earned. Still not a bad deal on what would otherwise be a 1,000-mile night. The terms & conditions are similar for all the promotional links, here's the one for Aeroplan from Rocketmiles:
Qualifying Activity: To be eligible, the hotel reservation must be booked via the Rocketmiles mobile app with promo code "AEROPLAN" OR using this promotional link ( by 11:59PM CT on 30 June 2015 (a yellow banner at the top of the search results page will clearly show if search criteria qualify for the bonus). Limited to first time customers and subject to investigation post-purchase. Limit one per customer. Limit one per stay. Promotional offer can not be applied to existing bookings or retroactively applied to bookings not made using the link above. Promotional offer can not be combined with any other bonuses or offers. Rocketmiles reserves the right to retract a bonus at any time if it detects fraud, stacking of bonuses, technical errors, cancel/rebooking activity (defined by identical search criteria), or any deceptive behavior attempted to circumvent the limits expressed above, including multiple accounts. Rocketmiles reserves the right to change the terms of a promotion, or end a promotion, at any time. Rewards that can not be posted due to incorrect or incomplete information may become ineligible after 12 months of attempts with no customer response. See for full terms, or call our friendly concierges at 1-855-355-7625 (U.S.) / +1-773-257-7680 (International) with questions of eligibility or for any other assistance. Please allow 2 weeks from checkout for miles to post. ®Aeroplan is a registered trademark of Aimia Canada Inc.
If your preferred airline isn't listed above, you can still sign up for the standard 1,000 signup bonus. Unfortunately, Vietnam Airlines is not available (yet).

Were you successful in signing up with Rocketmiles and your favorite airline program? Let me know in the comments below!

Rocketmiles Now Offering 5,000 Bonus Miles for Alaska Airlines Flyers

Author's Note: I know, this doesn't seem like it has anything to do with VNA or Southeast Asia. But I love miles, and Alaska is one of my preferred airlines for getting around the US. Plus, you can redeem Alaska miles with on of their partners, such as Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, and Emirates, to get to Vietnam.

Rocketmiles is a hotel booking website that gives you bonus airline miles for booking with them. They currently offer 500-5,000 miles or points per night to any one of 26 frequent flyer programs.

Read more: What is Rocketmiles? Let's Start with 1,000 Bonus Airline Miles...

The standard signup bonus is 1,000 miles after your first stay. There are also some 3,000-mile bonuses for certain airline programs.

For Alaska Airlines (AS) flyers, or more specifically their MVP, MVP Gold, and MVP Gold 75K elite tier members, Rocketmiles is offering a 5,000-mile signup bonus for new accounts, after the first stay.

To earn the 5,000 bonus miles:
Update: The offer is for 5,000 miles minimum for the first booking, not on top of the miles already earned. Still not a bad deal on what would be a 1,000-mile night. The full terms & conditions from Rocketmiles is below:
To be eligible, the hotel reservation MUST BE BOOKED USING THIS PROMOTIONAL LINK ( by 11:59PM CT on 15 April 2015. Strictly limited to Elite members that are first time customers of Rocketmiles and subject to investigation post-purchase. Limit one per customer. Limit one per stay. Promotional offer can not be applied to existing bookings or retroactively applied to bookings not made using the link above. Promotional offer cannot be combined with any other bonuses or offers. Rocketmiles reserves the right to retract a bonus at any time if it detects fraud, stacking of bonuses, technical errors, cancel/rebooking activity (defined by identical search criteria), or ANY other deceptive behavior attempted to circumvent the limits expressed above. See for full terms, or call our friendly concierges at 1-855-355-7625 with questions of eligibility or for any other assistance. All Mileage PlanTM Conditions of Membership Apply.
Quite frankly, I'm not sure how elite status is verified, so if you don't have status with AS, you can try to sign up and hope that you'll receive the 5,000 mile bonus. Otherwise, there's a 3,000 mile bonus for non-elite Mileage Plan members.

Were you successful in signing up and booking? Let me know in the comments below!