The Road Trip

I am off on a 8-night, 9-day road trip starting Sunday, May 18 and ending Monday, May 26. I will be in at least 10 states, maybe 11, depending on routing.

Visit My Road Trip with Spidey or follow me on Twitter (@STLSpidey) to read more about where I’ve been and where I’m going.

I got this idea a few years’ back.  I started reading travel books, and I found that many writers took trips on their own, sometimes with no set timeline.  I read Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, and Andrew McCarthy’s The Longest Way Home.

I decided that I was going to try to take such a trip.  I decided to go Bryson’s route, simply because it’s easier.  I’d like to follow Theroux (train) and McCarthy (destinations) at some point in the future.

I’ve plotted out a path from St. Louis, where I live, visiting 10 states to the west in 9 days.  Most days require less than 6 hours driving, leaving ample time for stops. Unlike the writers, I can’t go without a timeline.  So, I have planned out hotel stops with reservations, and I was able to use points for 6 of the 8 nights.  I’ve also noted things I want to see along the way and confirmed opening and closing times.

I used Roadtrippers and Trip Advisor to plan things out.  The route is below from Google Maps.

It should be fun!!



Credit Cards I Don’t Need Just for the Bonus Points

I’ve applied for and gotten two new credit cards this week.  In doing so, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people who play a game called “how many points can I collect by signing up for new credit cards?”

There is an entire sub-culture of people who know how to earn frequent flyer or frequent stayer points to make travel exciting, comfortable, and free.  Some of these folks frequent Inside Flyer or Milepoint or FlyerTalk.  Others provide free advice on blogs at sites like Boarding Area.

I’ve always ensured that I maximize my points.  I try to fly the same airline (Delta) as much as possible. I’ve already achieved Delta Platinum Medallion, which won’t expire until February 2014.  Because of three trips to Asia in the past two years, the family and I are going to Hawaii over Christmas, all on frequent flyer tickets.  But, I hadn’t, until this week, started playing the frequent flyer credit card bonus game.

Mrs. Spidey and I carry very few cards.  We’ve got American Express and a Southwest Airlines Visa.  We’ve also got a Best Buy card, a Kohl’s card and a Nordstrom card, because of the specific benefits at those stores, and a Hilton American Express, because when you spend a bucket load of money on a bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah at a Hilton property, getting 5 frequent stayer points per dollar is just awesome.  But, in reality, we only really use the AMEX and the Southwest Airlines Visa.

I’ve know about credit card offers for a while.  When each of us got the Southwest Airlines Visa, we got 2 round-trip tickets each as a sign-up bonus.  However, I never wanted to expand card use.  The tipping point for me was realizing that the lowest fare to visit my parents at Thanksgiving is $344 per person and being frustrated at not having points.  Even with my travel, I need more points.

So, this week, I applied for and got instant approval for two new cards, which, based on folks at those blogs above, are  the two best cards.  You should look yourself.

First, I signed up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card.  For signing up and spending $2,000 in the first three months, I get 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer 1:1 to United, Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott and British Airways, among others.  The card also gives you a 7% bonus at the end of the year on top of all the points you’ve earned.

Then, I signed up for the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express.  With this card, I get 10,000 points after my first purchase and another 20,000 if I spend 5,000 in the first five months.  The beauty of SPG points is that they aren’t just for rooms, but, like AMEX’s Membership Rewards and Chase’s Ultimate Rewards, you can transfer to airlines programs 1:1 – and SPG has many more airline partners.

As noted, these two cards are routinely cited at the two best cards for travelers to accumulate points.  Approval was easy.  And, now, our Southwest Visa will be canceled and cut up.

If you go down this route, don’t forget to have your spouse apply for a separate card and get his or her own card and own bonus.  You can actually refer your spouse for the Starwood AMEX, and he/she will get 5,000 extra points.  The cards don’t care where you transfer points, so you can combine the points into a single account for maximum use.

And, one last thing – this frequent flyer/frequent stayer sub-culture is endless.  Dive in deep and make it a game, and you will end up with some amazing free vacations.



Our Trip to Anguilla

After our three days in St. Martin/Sint Maarten, we journeyed over to Anguilla for a wonderful seven-days on that island. For the first time in many summer trips, we’re talking about returning to our destination.

If you are considering Anguilla, you should know a few things before you book. First, if you are looking for either a massive party spot or a bevy of activity, stay away. This place is for those that want to rest and rest hard. There is one golf course and some tennis courts, but the primary focus of tourists is eating, sleeping, and sunning at the beach/pool. Second, it ain’t cheap. You’ve probably already seen the hotel rates, but restaurants will get you for a minimum of $100 with drink. Our cheapest dinner was at Picante, the local Mexican spot, and that was $78 including tip, but without alcohol. So again, if you want a cheap, party spot, you won’t find it in Anguilla.

Disclaimers aside – we loved Anguilla. It was fabulous. We wanted rest, and we got rest.


We took a ferry operated by GB Express to get from Sint Maarten to Anguilla. This was based on many of the comments over at Trip Advisor. We’re glad we took the recommendation. The public ferry that leaves from Marigot looked very hectic and crowded. GB Express boats seat maybe 12, and it is just a better operation. We made our reservations in advance and had no problems. (I should mention that we left our rental car at the dock in Sint Maarten, and Lesley from Kenny’s went there to pick it up.) I know there is a flight from SXM to AXA. It is about double the cost of the ferry and is all of 10 minutes. Maybe next time we’ll try that.

On Anguilla, we rented a car for four of the days. This was well worth it. We got to explore the island a bit, but it also gave us flexibility. We didn’t have to worry about calling a taxi ahead of time. It was also exciting to drive on the left for the first time in my life. I was disappointed, however, to get a car with left-hand drive. Next time, I’ll ask for a right-hand drive car. We used Island Rentals, solely because the concierge at the hotel arranged it. We got another white Toyota Corolla, but in much better shape than the one on Sint Maarten.

The Hotel

We stayed at the CuisinArt Resort in a Luxury Junior Suite. For those interested, we stayed in room 1007, which is the building farthest to the left, as you stand facing the beach from the lobby. We loved it. The resort is the perfect size for us, the service was generally good, and the amenities were great. It wasn’t perfect, and I’ll note below a few things that could be improved.

The Villas at CuisinArt Resort Shot from the Beach (#10, where we stayed, is farthest to the right)

We took a taxi from the Blowing Point Ferry Terminal to the hotel. It was $18 for that trip. We were met at the entrance by Stephane, the manager. He was somewhat ubiquitous at the resort, as was the #2 man, Fabio. Both were very pleasant and were helpful. As we checked in, we received our vouchers and our welcome drink. We were escorted to our room and the bags arrived shortly afterward.

The video below showcases the room, so I won’t go into massive detail here. It was more than comfortable, and the view was just amazing. I’ve never stayed anywhere before with views like that.


We never had trouble getting a seat at the beach or a seat at the pool. Attendants were omnipresent to “make-up” the chairs with towels and offer free bottles of cold water. There were also free floats for use in both the ocean and the pool. Each set of lounges, both at the beach and at the pool, came with a cooling umbrella. Mrs. Spidey and I commented multiple times about how nice it was not to have to get up at 6am to claim our chair. And to say that the beach was quiet is an understatement. Although all beaches in Anguilla are public, there really wasn’t anyone else on the beach but CuisinArt guests. Well, there was Mike the bracelet guy who came by every morning, but that’s about it. It was just pure, utter relaxation.

For some flavor of the grounds and the lobby, I shot two more videos below.



I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention the Beach Bar and Sam the bartender. I would be further remiss, if I didn’t recommend the frozen mojitos that he makes with fresh, hydroponically grown mint. They are crazy good. I’d be even more remiss, if I didn’t tell everyone that there is happy hour from five to six where all of Sam’s drinks are two-for-one. The beach bar at the CuisinArt from 5pm to 6pm is about as crazy as that place gets.

So, as crazy good as the place is, it could improve in a few areas:

1. Internet Access. I know we were on vacation, but we needed access to check email and see photos of our kids at camp. Internet in the room was wired and didn’t work for the last three days. WiFi was available only in the lobby and part of the pool. They have to get WiFi in the rooms. Stephane says they plan to do this in the next few months, when the hotel closes for hurricane season.

2. Coffee. Seriously. The in-room coffee maker was too upscale for us. It had these very small, individual demitasse coffee cups, and only the first two were free. At breakfast time, the only way to get coffee was by going to breakfast or ordering room service. Give us normal coffee makers and perhaps a few coffee urns in the lobby. That would be great.

3. Service oddities. We asked for several extra pillows upon check-in, which arrived right away. I sleep with two pillows under my knees for my back. I’ve done that for years. However, each morning, like clockwork, the extra pillows were moved to the closet up on top of an armoire. I then pulled them out each night. Turn down service was also nice, but we never used the slippers and never used the bathrobes on the bed. I’m just nitpicking here.

The Food

We purchased the Sea of Love package from CuisinArt. This included three lunches at Mediterraneo, three dinners at Santorini’s, including the Chef’s Table, one-day car rental, a wine tasting, and a spa package. We’re undecided whether to do this again next year. I need to do the math. All-in-all, I can tell you that we ate way too much while in Anguilla. It was great food, but there was just so much.


Mediterraneo is the restaurant where you eat breakfast, and it is then open for lunch. Breakfast was very, very acceptable. It was not spectacular. There is a buffet that includes many varieties of fruit, cereal, pastries, pancakes/waffles/French Toast, and some local salt fish, which I enjoyed. You can also order omelets. Coffee is European strong. That means stronger than Starbucks.

(I should note that guests also have an option to take a continental breakfast in the room. We did this twice and were able to eat on the balcony once. They delivered right on time, exactly as promised.)

Without a voucher, my guess is that lunch will easily set you back $50+ for two. That’s a lot, if you plan to eat lunch every day. We didn’t. We ate our three lunches and went without the other days. We just didn’t need it after a big breakfast and in anticipation of a large dinner.

Lunch there was very good. We recommend several things. Salad is made to order by selecting what vegetables and dressing you want. They have the same for pasta and pizza. Mrs. Spidey had the salad each lunch and said it was very good. I had a pepperoni/sausage pizza one lunch, and it was quite good. We can also recommend the lobster curry, the cheeseburger, and the grilled lobster. With a voucher, you get appetizer, main course, and dessert, and, in reality, that was just too much food.


We ate at Santorini’s three times, including the Chef’s Table. The Chef’s Table was $195 per person, which includes five courses, each paired with wine. We agreed that, had we not bought the package, we would not have paid for it. The food and wine were good but, again, it was too much. Notable was some fried calamari on saffron rice for the second course. I like the foie gras for the first course as well. I will write, however, that we were a bit disappointed by the Chef’s Table, as it really wasn’t a chef’s table. We were the only people who ate the meal that night, and we were not given a seat in the kitchen. In fact, the chef never came out to talk to us. We never asked why or insisted, but we should have.

Our two other dinners at Santorini’s were ok. I’m not going to say they were the best ever. We each had grilled lobster once, which was very good. Again, with the voucher you got appetizer, main course, and dessert, and it was just too much food. I will say that I highly recommend the beef lasagna. It was outstanding. We had a bit of a service goof our last night there. We had an 8:00 reservation, but, when we arrived they did not have a table. We learned that they had seated too many walk-ups. After 20 minutes of waiting, we were given a seat inside (all others were on the veranda) and could see dirty dishes piling up. We were told we’d be moved as soon as a table became available, but then the first available table went to another group. We were eventually moved, and Fabio did wipe all charges for us. Nonetheless it was frustrating.


We ate at three restaurants off-property.

We had a drink and some small plates at Spice, which is at Cap Juluca. We had wanted to see what Cap Juluca looked like. Spice is in a building at the far end of the Cap Juluca resort, to the left as you look at the water. We sat at a table right overlooking the water, right where it lapped on some rocks. The restaurant web site just about shows where we sat.  In the dark, however, there really wasn’t a view. Spice occupies the same building as a wine bar called Flights and the Pimms restaurant. Mrs. Spidey had some fried calamari, and I had something called tuna four-ways, which was outstanding. I also had a flight of red wine that was very good.

A few nights later, we ate at Blanchards. I had read about Blanchards in the book “A Trip to the Beach,” written by Melinda Blanchard. The food there was very good, especially the corn chowder. We also had their famous Cracked Coconut dessert, which was better than anticipated. The Cracked Coconut is a chocolate shell with coconut ice cream and rum on the inside.  It’s unreal.  This time of year, Blanchards has a $49 price fixe meal, which we both took, although we paid extra for the dessert. When we got there, we surprised to see Samaro working there, as works at CuisinArt as well.  Turns out that Blanchards is his primary job.  Who knew?

The Cracked Coconut from Blanchards Restaurant

As noted above, we also ate at the lone Mexican restaurant on the island, Picante. Picante is located down on the end of the Island past Viceroy and past Cap Juluca. It seats perhaps 30 at small tables on a broad veranda. Mrs. Spidey had fish tacos, and I had chicken fajitas. They were both good. If you go, however, watch out for the hot sauce. Fortunately, I tasted a bit on the end of my knife before putting it on a fajita. It is H-O-T, hot.

Our trip also overlapped (not intentionally) with the annual celebration of Anguilla’s emancipation at their Summer Festival. We avoided crowds by heading down to Sandy Ground on the Sunday before the August Monday celebration. On Sunday, we saw the beginnings of what we assume happened on Monday. We saw local sailboats lined up at anchor ready for a race. We saw some larger power boats lined up in a row (literal touching) forming a mini party cove. We also saw many food and drink tents being set up. The pictures of the wall-to-wall crowds expected on Monday kept us away, but it looked like the younger set was ready to have a good time.

As I’ve told friends and co-workers about our trip, I’ve come to say that it’s the best trip we’ve taken since our honeymoon. It’s probably also the most expensive. However, it was worth it and, I think there is a good chance, once we figure out schedules, that we’ll go back again.

I need this view again.

My View from CuisinArt Resort on Anguilla

Our Trip to St. Martin/Sint Maarten

We have just returned from a 10-day vacation, the first three of were spent at the Westin Dawn Beach Resort and Spa on the island of Sint Maarten. The other 7 days were spent a 25-minute ferry ride away on Anguilla. More on that in a later post.

(For specificity, I’ll use St. Martin when referring to the French-side of the island and Sint Maarten, when referring to the Dutch side. The airport is on the Dutch side, and so was our hotel.)

We arrived into St. Martin via US Airways through Charlotte. The trip from CLT is just under four hours. Thankfully, we had some frequent flyer tickets in first class. They made all the difference. We arrived in a rain storm, which was the last rain we would see on St. Martin/Sint Maarten, but not the last on our trip overall. We breezed through passport control, but waited over 30 minutes for our bags. As we stood by the carousel, the lost baggage desks were conspicuously over our shoulder. Our bags were nearly the last off the plane, but they made it.

Based on some advice on Trip Advisor, we rented a car through Kenny’s. As promised via email, Lesley was there to meet us. He took us over to our white Toyota Corolla in the parking lot, where we did the paperwork. The Corolla will never be confused with a luxury rental. We came to call it the “golf cart” because pressing the gas got you about the same acceleration as would a regular golf cart. This was particularly challenging around the hills near our hotel. That much said, Lesley was very efficient, and the car ($40/day) worked great.

Our drive to the hotel through Simpson Bay took forever. The road out of the airport through Simpson Bay is one-lane and very crowded. It moved faster once we got out of that general area and headed up into the hills. Our porter at the Westin later told us that it’s faster to go the other direction, all the way through Marigot and Grand Case. We later traveled through there and now believe him.

We got to the Westin fine. If you go (and we do recommend it), beware of the last hill to the hotel. The hotel is at the bottom of the steepest hill down which I’ve ever driven. It’s worse than anything I’ve seen in San Francisco. The roads on the island go up and down as the landscape does, and we were constantly challenged to see over the hill at oncoming traffic.

The Hotel

Check-in went well. We asked about an upgrade to oceanfront and were told it was available for $100 per night. Knowing we were headed to Anguilla with an oceanfront room reserved there, we passed. After checking-in, I parked the car in the free garage, and we headed up. To our dismay (and the porter’s), our room had not yet been cleaned. That was frustrating to say the least. He was really embarrassed. The hotel found us a room relatively quickly, and we got our oceanfront room for free! I’ll give the hotel credit for recovering nicely.

Our Oceanfront View at the Westin Dawn Beach (looking left)

Our Oceanfront View at the Westin Dawn Beach (looking right)

The room was standard. King size bed and a sitting chair. A desk with wired and wireless Internet. Cable TV. Separate shower and tub. Oddly, our sink was cracked, something Mrs. Spidey thought had to happen upon installation. Internet was $14.95 per day per device. We plugged in Mrs. Spidey’s laptop, but elected not to use wireless for our iPhones and my iPad.

Our Room at the Westin Dawn Beach, Shot with My Back to the Balcony

Our Bathroom Shower and Sink at the Westin Dawn Beach Resort

The pool and beach area was quite nice. The hotel is tucked into a little cove on Dawn Beach near Oyster Pond and is unreachable, except through the hotel. That made it very quiet. We had no trouble finding lounge chairs on the beach. Towels were readily available, and waitresses came by to take drink orders. The water was warm in both pool and ocean, and the ocean wasn’t too rough. Granted, this was low season, but the quiet and serenity was quite nice. We could envision it more noisy at Easter or Christmas, but even then, the beach was long-enough and secluded enough to find a good spot.

Beach Chairs Looking at the Hotel at the Westin Dawn Beach

There is a casino (a very, very small casino) just off the lobby in the hotel. Although it seemed like some tourists went to the hotel just to gamble, it was never crowded. We probably lost $100 on slots between the two of us, in the three days we were there.


We were on the island for three dinners and three breakfasts. We had one breakfast and all dinners outside the hotel. The hotel has a breakfast buffet in its restaurant that was around $25 per person. It had made-to-order omelets, french toast, cereals, sweets, and lox and bagels.

Our View from Breakfast at Mr. Busby's

Our breakfast outside the hotel was at Mr. Busby’s, which was just back over the hill behind the Coral Beach Club. It was about $25 for the two of us for breakfast right on the beach. The breakfast was the quality of any diner I’ve been to back the U.S. – very sufficient. The view, however, was fantastic.

Our first dinner, the night we arrived, was also in Coral Beach Club at Big Fish. It was very elegant and is recommended. We sat outside on a deck, but there is no view, as it is inside a courtyard. We ate well, although the service was a bit slow. We learned over the next 10 days that the speed at restaurants on both islands is much, much slower than at home. We never really got used to it, but we were accepting. Mrs. Spidey had a dish called Oprah’s Favorite, which was a mixture of different types of seafood. I had a Mahi Mahi dish that was stuffed with crabmeat and covered with lobster sauce. Both were served on incredibly large plates, each with four small sides. We would go back, although we’d be a bit hungrier next time. We were stuffed.

Our second dinner was at a café in Marigot. (IMPORTANT NOTE – Marigot basically shuts down on Sundays. We were lucky to find anything open. When I write that it was a ghost town, I mean it.) Unfortunately, neither of us can remember the name of the restaurant in Marigot, but it was right in a strip of four outdoor restaurants to the left of the ferry terminal, as you face it. The food wasn’t to die for, but was enjoyable. I had the curried conch, and Mrs. Spidey had some coconut shrimp.

Our last dinner, before heading to Anguilla, was in Grand Case. If you are in St. Martin, you must got eat in Grand Case. It is a town of perhaps 3/4 mile in length, but much of it is a one-way strip of Grand Case Boulevard, on which there must be 10 or more restaurants. The proprietors/chefs of the restaurants stand outside beckoning you in. Armed with the Trip Advisor rankings, we chose La Villa for dinner. We were not disappointed. The restaurant offers the first drink free and (if you think ahead) will convert 1 Euro for 1 USD, if you pay in cash. I had an escargot appetizer that was as buttery as one could want. I also had a filet that was cooked very nicely, also with four sides, just like The Big Fish. I wish I could tell you the rest of the meal, but I just can never remember what I eat unless I write it down right away.

Final Thoughts

Here are a few summary points for those of you thinking about going to St. Martin/Sint Maarten:

1. Definitely rent a car. The island is not that big, and renting a car gives you the flexibility you want. Kenny’s worked well for us.
2. Get out of your hotel for meals. Mrs. Spidey told me that Grand Case is considered the culinary center of the Caribbean. I now believe her.  We didn’t even stop at any of the outdoor barbecues. Enjoy it.
3. If you want to shop, synchronize your shopping in Marigot or Phillipsburg with the cruise ships. We did neither and didn’t enter a single store. Plus, the stores close at 6:00pm. You need to leave the beach early.
4. Although we didn’t see rain for our three days, rain is prevalent in the low season. However, it never seems to last very long.

I think we would go back to Sint Maarten or St. Martin, but, if you read my next post, you’ll see that we’re more likely to return to Anguilla.

Flying to Manila – The Atlanta to Tokyo Leg

Yesterday (or I guess, technically, the day before yesterday), I left 45 degree St. Louis and made my way to 85 degree Manila. I woke up at 5:30am CDT in St. Louis Monday and went to bed in my hotel in Manila at about 1:30am Wednesday. By my calculations that’s 31 hours.

I’ll try to give some thoughts on Manila itself after I’ve been here a few days. For now, I’d like post some photos of the trip itself. I flew Delta from St. Louis to Atlanta, Tokyo and Manila. Althoug my flights weren’t spot on time, I made my connections with ease.

From Atlanta to Tokyo, I was on a Delta 777 in Business Elite, which feature its herringbone layout.


My seat (or “suite”) had a seat and a footrest. The gap between was closed when the bed went flat. It was comfortable, but it lacked in real storage space for anything other than a magazine or book. I ended up putting things behind the chair. You’ll note from the pictures that my 5’6″ frame barely got my feet to the footrest. Taller folks you’re in good shape.



Here are a few more shots from this leg: the seat controls, not as confusing as they look, with a convenient USB port beneath, the large tray that pulls out and the TV screen, the ridiculously large piece of salmon for dinner, and the vanilla ice cream sundae for dessert.





All-in-all, this was an above average experience if only for the flat beds that, when combined with an Ambien, led to at least six hours sleep. The primary negative was the malfunctioning AV system, on which shows would appear randomly. I selected Black Swan, and I got Man vs. Food. I love Adam Richman, but I wanted Natalie Portman.

Next post on my Tokyo to Manila leg. Spoiler: the AV system worked!

The Poetry of Air Travel from St. Louis

Regular readers know that I travel often for business and enjoy travel for pleasure.  I travel so much that I am more or less immune to things that frustrate others.  I handle delays with ease.  I prepare for no leg room, plan for no luggage room, and bring my own snacks.  I have trained myself to fall asleep while the plane is on the tarmac before take off.

But, I’m frustrated with air travel out of our home airport, Lambert-St. Louis.  Direct destinations are decreasing.  Is seems like most destinations on airlines other than Southwest require connections.  The number of routes, including those to airlines’ hubs, have decreased overall, meaning that every flight is full and uncomfortable.  Embraers and Canadair jets seem the norm, with some routes on the smaller planes now over three hours long.

For fun, I decided to express this frustration in verse, harking back to days of high school English class.  Call me a bit loopy.   Enjoy.

Lambert Airport St. Louis - A Frustrating Place to Be


There once was a man from St. Louis
Who cursed every time that he flew us.
There was no room in the seat
Or for bags at his feet,
And the attendants were generally clueless.

There once was an airport best in show.
Airline execs were rolling in dough.
The economy hit a rut,
And routes were cut,
Leaving travelers with nowhere to go.


Flights from St. Louis
Small planes and long connections
Car trips seem better

Boeing and Airbus
Full-sized jets rare in St. Louis
Embraers are the norm

Life spent in the air
Forced to fly indirectly
To where they must go


I fly for business out of Lambert St. Louis.
Connections have become the norm.
Other cities say “please come through us”
Acting the safe port in the storm.
We once flew from St. Louis across the globe.
30 million through in the year 2000.
Now only 12 million per year wear Lambert’s robe,
Far less than TWA once planned.
What can we do but bow to airlines decisions?
They reduce plane size and increase fees.
They put route maps through regular revisions.
Passengers are constantly put ill at ease.
Tourists call us the “Gateway to the West,”
But air travelers know we are really the “Many Gates of Southwest.”

A Simple Investigation into Round The World Airfares

I was looking at some flights the other day for business trip where I might have to visit several countries in Asia.  The odds of the trip happening are less than 50%, but, given the multiple countries, it got me thinking about round the world fares.  Would it be cheaper to just continue going west from Asia through Europe and across the Atlantic to get home compared to booking a complex multiple-city routing that brings me over the Pacific and then back again?

I started investigating, knowing nothing about these fares.  I learned that the three major airline alliances (Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and OneWorld) offer round the world fares that are very similar in their rules and complexity:

  • Fares are based on mileage.  The longer your travel, the more it costs.  I should note that One World has two types of RTW fares:  based on mileage or based on # of continents visited, either four or six.
  • You can buy fares in all classes.
  • You can continue traveling on the same “ticket” for as long as 12 months, but you also can’t return home in fewer than 10 days.
  • There are minimum and maximum stop-overs (more than 24 hours), typically a minimum or 3 or 5 and a maximum of 15.
  • You can only cross the Pacific and the Atlantic once, but you can double-back within continents.  For example, you can travel east from New York to Frankfurt, back west to London (still within Europe) and then onward east to Tel-Aviv or Mumbai.  The only restriction is that you can’t ever backtrack to your point of origin.
  • The ticket has to be purchased in advance.  You can’t start out on a trip and then convert to an around-the-world ticket.  You don’t have to book all segments, just purchase the ticket and the first international leg.

There are, of course, all sorts of rules and limits.  The One World rules sheet take up 11 pages!!

In addition to round the world fares, each alliance also offers variants on intra-continental fares or discounts for residents of other continents.  For example, Europeans traveling to North America may be able to save money on travel by buying a North American pass or something equivalent.

The pricing is interesting and can create some options.  At a certain point,  it may be cheaper to continue around the world after completing business, rather than double back.  Your only limitation might be the requirements to spend a few days somewhere on the way back to qualify for the fare.  But, after two weeks in Asia, would you be opposed to spending two days in Rome, Paris or London on your way home?

I tried to price out a business class trip online for each of the three alliances.  In the end, I wasn’t completely successful.

The itinerary I used starts here in St. Louis on October 24, and goes to Tokyo, Manila, Beijing, Mumbai, Singapore, and then home via Geneva, arriving in St. Louis on November 7.   To compare with the three round the world fares, I used Kayak to price out the same itinerary and an itinerary without Geneva, selecting low-cost, reasonable length, business class itineraries.  Here’s what I found:

  1. Star Alliance = $11,316 (estimated without selecting flights)
  2. OneWorld = $10,685 (selected flights, but excluded Mumbai and Singapore, as I hit limits on stops within one continent)
  3. SkyTeam = $5,800 (based only on estimate on the SkyTeam web site – they do not have an online booking tool I could find)
  4. Kayak throug Geneva (series on one-way fares on any airline) = $12,772
  5. Kayak with return from Singapore direct to St. Louis = $10,702

The bottom line is that it would seem worthwhile, if you are traveling across either the Atlantic or Pacific to multiple cities on another continent to at least consider round the world fares.  The OneWorld limit on intra-continental stops was a limiting factor for me on this sample itinerary and could be for you.  No doubt adding back Mumbai and Singapore would have carried the OneWorld cost far above the Kayak estimate.

For reference:

OneWorld Round The World Fares

SkyTeam Round The World Fares

Star Alliance Round The World Fares

Delta Airlines to Beijing – Bonus Miles Make Up for Spotty Service

Last week, I flew Delta round trip from St. Louis to Beijing.   I didn’t do it for the great connections or flight times.  I did it purely for the miles.

Delta has a program now that provides for bonus miles and extra qualifying miles for elite status for flights from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham and Nashville.  I flew Delta through two connections (and a very, very low price), because every round-trip international business class trip originating in St. Louis and routed through a Delta hub nets 50,000 extra miles and double qualifying miles towards medallion status.  I’m already a Platinum Medallion, which gets me double miles on every flight.  Business class gets a 50% bonus.  It was a bonanza!!

I earned a total of 88,491 miles:

  • Round trip miles (STL-ATL-SEA-PEK-PEK-MSP-STL) = 15,396
  • 100% Platinum Medallion bonus:  15,396
  • 50% International Business Class bonus:  7,699
  • Special bonus:  50,000

On that one trip, I also earned 46,190 miles towards status, which nets me silver for next year and is less than 3K away from gold.  Note that you have to register for this Delta promotion in advance.  Visit this post at Gary Leff’s View from the Wing blog for links to all four city promotions.

The trip itself was very smooth.  I had six flights and four connections.  The flight from Atlanta to Seattle on the way out was delayed a bit, but I wasn’t close to missing my connection.  Beijing-Seattle pushed back on time, but sat for about 45 minutes on the tarmac.  Still, it arrived early into Seattle.  Thanks very much to Delta for making a four-connection round trip very smooth.

On the Atlanta-Seattle flight I paid $12.95 to use their Gogo Wifi internet.  My experience was very positive.  The connection was easy and fast.  I spent a bit of time chatting with friends, and the connection couldn’t have been smoother.  I used Skype to send texts to my family, although I wasn’t able to receive any back, because I hadn’t preauthorized it through my mobile phone.  I didn’t try voice on Skype, because my headphones and microphone were up on the overhead storage.  The only downside, was that my 757 did not have electric outlets, even in first class.  My laptop battery ran out before time to use the Internet.  What a bummer.

The international business class on Delta had ups and downs.  Although the seat wasn’t a flat bed, it was very comfortable, as were the pillow and duvet.  The flight attendants rated about a 7 out of 10, with most of the points earned by the crew from Beijing to Seattle.  The crew from Seattle to Beijing wasn’t impressive.  One flight attendant didn’t know the wine choice, even though there was only one red and one white, and others tended to be too chatty with a group of flight attendants that were passengers on that plane.

Business Class Dinner on Delta - That's Steak at Bottom Right

There were at least three other negatives to my Delta experience.  First, the video system itself had a smaller screen and a must narrower selection than Continental and United for comparison.  On my return, I watched Breaking Bad on DVD on my laptop and didn’t even pull the video unit out.  Second, the electric plug is located behind the passenger’s right hip and is nearly impossible to reach.  Third, and most notably, the food was just not good.  I took a picture of my dinner from Beijing to Seattle and have posted it here.  Yuk.  At any rate, who wants dinner at 10am anyway.  We should have had breakfast!!

I may take another trip to Beijing at the end of September.  No question I’ll endure the connections and layovers for the Delta miles, assuming the cost stays low.  I’ll renew Platinum Medallion on that trip.  And now I know not to order the steak!

My Final Business Trip to Beijing

My company no longer needs me in China.  This is a good thing.

I’ve made seven trips in the past 12 months, including this one, but our plan of establishing the business and transitioning to a local team is nearly complete.  Appropriately so, there is no place for someone like me, who isn’t a deep technical expert and doesn’t speak the language.  Thankfully, we are also exploring other areas, and I already have two projects in two different countries.

Visiting Beijing so often, on trips ranging from four to sixteen days and visiting Shanghai and Hangzhou in addition to Beijing, has been fantastic.  I made it to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.  Like many business travelers, I suspect, I will need to come back as a tourist to fully appreciate the country and its culture.  Even with the business meetings and the feeling some days that I might as well be in Akron, it’s been fantastic and many things will stay with me.

When traveled in younger days, the ubiquitous American phrase across the globe was “Big Mac and fries.”  You went to McDonald’s, and you were home.  Now the phrase is  “Grande Latte,” at least in China.  Starbucks is seemingly always just around the corner and tastes the same.  Starbucks would be smart to put more items like mugs in  Chinese as souvenirs.

"Grande Latte" - Now a Global Phrase

China is no longer the remote place it might have been in the past.  It’s a major global city with full connectivity.  With the Internet, an iPhone, and satellite TV, you are never really that far from home.  As I write, I’ve got an ESPN Gamecast of Yanks-A’s in a separate window.  While Twitter is blocked by Chinese authorities, it comes through on my iPhone and through my company’s VPN.  Our apartment has CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg for news.  The local English paper, China Daily, is good enough.

The iPhone has been indispensable on these trips.  I’ve got language applications and an application with restaurant and bar reviews for Beijing.  Of most help, however, has been Google Maps.  The application works here just like it would at home, and the maps show place names in Chinese.  I’ve used it to show cab drivers exactly where I want to go and to find my way to a subway station on a cold, rainy night in February, when I was completely lost.

I’m going to miss the haggling in the local markets for knock-off clothes and purses for my daughter and electronics for my son.  I’m going to miss the 11RMB or $1.61 cab rides across the city.  I’m going to miss that “wild west” feeling I get from time to time when you realize you are having a nice meal and glass of wine overlooking downtown Beijing or Shanghai.  I will miss handing over business cards, keys, money – literally everything — with two hands and a slight bow. I will miss getting jammed into subway cars on my 2RMB or $0.28 ride, where, at 5’6″, I can see over most people.

I can’t say that I will miss the pollution and the smog.  (I was asked if a recent thunderstorm drove out the smog.  I said yes, but added that “replacement smog” came right back in.  I won’t miss the traffic jams on the ring roads 24×7.  I won’t miss the rock hard bed here in our corporate apartment that just ruins my back and leads me to my Advil bottle every four hours or so.  I won’t miss the agonizing slow speed with which documents are saved to or retrieved from our corporate servers back in the US.

In one year, I climbed the Great Wall in the snow.  I got my daughter more “Juicy” items than she can handle.  I got a knock-off iPhone, and may get a knock-off iPad in the coming days.  I ate duck tongue, pig’s ear and donkey.  We’ll see if the next country can live up to this.  It will be tough.

Something New and Frustrating From an Air Canada Flight Attendant

Writing tonight from Toronto on a quick trip from St. Louis.   After meetings tomorrow, I’ll be back in S t. Louis by dinner time.

After an unexpected experience on my flight tonight, I was reminded that airline service is 100% correlated to the people, not to the airline itself.  There are good people on bad airlines and bad people on good ones.  Tonight, I had the latter.

Tonight I heard something from a flight attendant I have never heard before.

Air Canada's CRJ - My Plane from St. Louis to Toronto

The flight up was on Jazz, Air Canada’s regional airline.  It was a CRJ, direct from St. Louis to Toronto.  This CRJ has two seats on either side of the aisle and 13 rows.  It’s a squeeze for most people and relatively uncomfortable.

I was seated in row 2 on the aisle, and the window seat next to me was occupied.  The man seemed nice enough, but I could tell by the placement of his arm on the center armrest, that he was not going to move it for the length of the flight.  His elbow was well into my space.  Already squeezed, I felt even more so.  However, the two seats across the aisle were empty.  Score!

When boarding ended, the guy next to me politely asked whether I would want to move across the aisle.  Of course I did.  However, I had heard the flight attendant tell another passenger that he couldn’t move until we were in the air and the seat belt signed was turned off.  That was very odd.  Very odd.

Wanting to respect the flight attendant, I asked if I could move across the aisle.  The FA said no.  He said gave me the same answer I had overheard.  The conversation then went something like this:

Me:  “I’ve never heard that before.  People move all the time before take off to get more comfortable.”

FA:  “You need to wait until the seat belt sign is off after take-off.”

Me:  “Ok, but I don’t understand why.  I’ve never heard that before.”

FA:  “It’s for weight distribution.  This is a small plane.”

Me:  “You’re kidding.”

FA:  “Do you want to go talk to the pilot?  I’ll go get the pilot.  He can explain it to you.”

Here’s the thing — the flight was 2/3 full, and there was no way that me moving from one aisle seat across to another aisle seat was going to throw the plane out of balance.  If he had just said it was Air Canada or Jazz policy, I would have bought that.  He acted as if our seats were assigned based on weight distribution.  Of course that’s ridiculous.

About two minutes later, the FA gets on the speaker and announces that he needs two people from the front rows to move to the rear of the plane “for weight distribution.”  He is staring right at me as he says this.  He says we can’t leave until someone moves.  By this point, I was frustrated, and I got snippy.

Me:  “I don’t want to move to the back.  I want to move across the aisle.”

FA:  Row 11, 12 or 13. (Still staring through me.)

So – I moved and we left.  My luck – this FA will be on my return flight tomorrow.