Sunday, 16 June 2019

Will online travel agencies survive Google?

Google.com/travel homepage (past trips)


Ever been playing around with all the travel confirmation documents you need for a trip? Over the past years, I've been using Tripcase. It's an app that allows you to combine your flights, hotels etc. into a single trip overview. On top of that, it lets you know if your flights has been delayed. Sounds great? It does. But it isn't. The app just doesn't have the 'smartness' needed for a good user experience. For instance, I often send Rotterdam - London City trips to Tripcase. They end up in my Tripcase app (and in my calendar, for that matter) as flights between Rotterdam and Dubbo, Australia.  Ouch.

Not to mention the number of confirmations that Tripcase just doesn't 'understand' and therefore have to be added manually to an itinerary. It's painfully difficult to find the right hotel, so I looked for an alternative. I found Google Trips. The app usually doesn't need any mails being forwarded, because obviously Google already has access to your (GMail) account. On top of that, it handles somewhat harder cases perfectly well. Sometimes I make separate bookings for my wife and I, and Google Trips adds those different bookings to the trip as two travel documents. So that's the good news.

The bad news: Google will soon stop supporting Google Trips. In a long row of legacy products left on the Google graveyard, Trips is the next victim. Google leaving the travel business? No, of course not. It's omnipresent there. For instance, take this Skift long read on the Google Maps 'super app'. See the ways Google integrates your flight and hotel bookings in their search if you're a logged in user. And consider the number of 'travel related' options that appear in Google's services, based on a simple search for 'hotel':

- Four ads for online hotel booking platforms and meta search engines (hotels.com, booking.com, Trivago, hotels.nl)
- A Google 'widget' with a search (dates filled in: from today until tomorrow, 2 persons)
- A results list for this widget showing four hotels and a maps display with prices

Google's hotel meta search engine

When you click anywhere in the widget, you stay in the Google realm. Only when I start booking an individual hotel, I get an overview of prices per online travel agency (OTAs). For the hotel I clicked on, there are four OTAs, two meta search engines (Trivago and Tripadvisor) and one hotel chain website (the direct booking channel). So Google is slowly taking over the complete booking funnel, only leaving out the final step: actually booking the hotel. Will they take the final step? Probably not, afraid of competition law kicking in.

However, you could wonder if the large OTAs (Booking.com, Hotels.com) will be able to keep up their profitability. Virtually the only way to get to the end consumer is through Google. Google has the lottery ticket that almost guarantees a prize: the consumer will either click on one of the OTAs ads on top of the page, generating ad revenue, or book a room through the Google 'meta search engine', generating commissions (and probably ad revenue on top). Only a few individuals will bother to scroll down further and click an organic search result or type the name of an OTA or aggregator directly in the browser link bar.

In an overview article on HospitalityNet an infographic showing average expenses break-up for a hotel room, the commission part is 11,4% for US hotels in 2015. My guess is that the percentage has gone up since then. It is generally assumed that commissions for OTAs are between 10 and 30%, with a more common rate being 15%. The magic 30% we know from the Apple app store and the '25%' Uber takes from its drivers (read here why it's actually more, again this is US-based). Personally, I think that 30% commission sucks the oxygen from any market at the expense of suppliers or consumers, or both.

So, back to Google for its travel plans. In this HospitalityNet article a dozen of industry experts make predictions on the Google plans in the travel vertical in the light of the google.com/travel service. This is interesting to read, as several of them say Google hasn't really moved fast at all and will not make a difference in the next years to come, as others state Google will disrupt the business. Some explicitly state that Google will not go into the OTA business itself, mainly because of the complexity of mastering that last part of the funnel where you can make money more easily in the earlier part.

My own argument for Google dominating the travel vertical follows this line of thought:

  • Access to personal data. Google knows my previous bookings and thus knows far more about my preferences for locations, hotels, sights etc than any OTA can ever know, even the more integrated ones such as Expedia.
  • Mastery of the larger funnel part. From searching for possible locations to searching for characteristics of specific hotels - Google not only makes money out of it by ads but also learns about where we make the actual bookings. An OTA may own all the data about the last part of the funnel, but that will not save them from being less dominant.
  • Integration. Booking.com has dominated the market by focusing on accommodation only, but is this the future of travel? I don't think so. It's easier to sell a hotel room to someone while knowing more about travel behaviour (car driver or public transport), leisure or business travel behaviour etc. That's where Google comes in.
  • Google buying ITA Matrix software and powering Google flights may seem strange at first, because flights are not where you earn substantial commission these days. However, my estimate would be that an average consumer invests most time in saving money on the product that generate the lowest commissions: flights. 
  • But right after that, they will move to accommodation, which will earn the integrated supplier much more commission. And then they might move to day excursions, where commissions will be sky-high (this article suggests it's between 20 and 40% and I wouldn't be surprised if it can be as high as 50%). 
  • Therefore, the party that provides the combination of such products as seamless as possible will take the biggest part of the cake. The smaller the vendors of inventory such as accommodation and excursions will be, the higher the commission that the provider is able to take. 
  • Seamless integration also requires a seamless booking experience, and my guess is that advanced APIs will take care of that. Once Google is able to impose its standards on the booking and payment process, the visibility of OTAs will diminish.
A first look at www.google.com/travel shows a very clean, no frills interface with seemingly objective information and little if any ads. My prediction is that it will take only a few years before it will be as overwhelmingly commercial as Google search results page. 

Going back to where I started: Google will be in a much better position to get my 'travel administration' in order. Of course, I will pay the price for that, in terms of a total lack of privacy, an ever bigger lock-in in the Google ecosystem and a substantial contribution to Google's revenue and profits. May Tripcase rest in peace, and may OTAs such as Booking.com find ways to survive Google. But above all: may the market, and where necessary the legislator, find ways to supply sufficient oxygen to all those poor hotel owners and tour guides.


Monday, 10 June 2019

May they Rest in Peace: KLM flight bundles

I guess it was nice while it lasted. Earlier I wrote about why KLM flight bundles might not be a bad idea at all to use. And apparently, many other people found out too. They have now increased in price. And not by a few percent.

I checked the bundle I was looking for last time: between Amsterdam and Venice. I recall that it was just slightly more expensive per return than the cheapest return you can book (99 euro), probably around 106 euro per return.

When I just checked the same bundle (20 single flights, 2 persons, least flexibility, 180 days or more advance booking) the price per return flight increased to a whopping 202 euro. So when you're looking for cheap returns, you'll have to revert to early booking and special actions.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Hilton hotel sale - Molino Stucky under 100 euro per night

View on San Marco square from the San Giorgio Maggiore


The wonderful Hilton Molino Stucky (with a chance of an upgrade to an absolutely wonderful view if you're a gold status holder in Hilton Honors) can now be booked for even lower rates than the rockbottom rates I found for ourselves last month. The cheapest room in this five star property on Guidecca, right across the south of the main island, can be booked from 91 euro per night. That's for an internal view room without breakfast.

However, Hilton gold status can be obtained relatively easily either by doing a status match here or by signing up for Amex Platinum here (kickback warning) which will get you the status instantly. And last time we received an upgrade to an executive room which lets you view Venice from the sixth floor and includes lounge access - and free breakfast is standard with Hilton gold status.

I checked November and December for these rates - if you fancy a trip to Venice just before Christmas you can get the low rates as well. To find them, start a search here, then select the option Change, and tick the checkbox Use flexible dates. This allows you to see the rates for two weeks, and browse backward and forward by the week. Remember that Venice adds a five euro per person per night city tax to the rate.

Short review of the Valerio Catullo lounge at Verona airport

Luckily there's more to Verona than its horrible airport and airport lounge - View from Castelvecchio

Most lounge experiences are so standard and uneventful that they do not need a review. You just sit there, have a drink, read a book and then carry on with your life. However, this morning my wife and I paid a brief visit to the VIP lounge of Verona airport. It's a land side lounge (which doesn't really make sense to me: it's better to have lounge access after security as you never know how much passing the security checks will take these days).

You get access for free with a Priority Pass subscription (the all-inclusive one that is) - but don't get your hopes too high. The woman behind the reception did not even bother to ask for our signatures, nor did she hand our Priority Pass cards back to us - she just left them on the desk. The lounge, with a very seventies feel ot it, promotes FREE WIFI on large posters, implicitly stating that this is a unique selling point - welcome to 2019 folks. And it was completely empty.

Having left our hotel before 7 AM, we had not had breakfast in our hotel so we wanted to eat something. We could choose from packaged plumb cake and packaged vanilla waffles. A hot drink? There was a kettle which you had to fill with bottled water in order to make tea. Or you could put a packaged capsule into one of two coffee machines which had not seen recent cleaning - was that fungus on the capsule compartment?

When we had to leave to catch our flight it appeared that there was indeed 'fresh' food being distributed - too late for us. Anything positive? Well, they had glass bottles of Coke Zero, always highly appreciated by me - even in the early morning. I don't think any of the people working in this lounge actually cares about people at all - making the label 'VIP lounge' all the more grotesque. But we will remember this lounge as one of Europe's worst.


Monday, 6 May 2019

An ethical pitfall of business travel: who's paying for loyalty benefits?

Looking down from The Shard in London


My assumption is that most loyalty programs in the travel industry have been designed to get the loyalty of employees by letting their employers pay for their loyalty benefits. Often, it only helps to be a member of an airline or hotel loyalty program if you're a really frequent traveller, and that probably means that someone else is paying your bills.

It is very attractive for an individual to have benefits from business travel and then use these for leisure travel. When I would do a lot of business travelling, it might affect my decisions in such a manner that I would benefit from them for my leisure travelling. It would probably cost my employer more money than strictly necessary.

The thing is this: it hardly ever pays to be a loyal customer. It is far more economical to find the cheapest tickets and rooms every time you have to travel. This works properly as long as the traveller's interests are aligned with those of the one taking up the bill. But if the traveller, or their secretary, is the one booking the tickets and rooms, the alignment is no longer there.

For example, I can easily book two cheap return tickets instead of one flexible ticket, and still save money. But the number of airline miles I can earn with the flexible ticket will far outweigh the ones for one cheap ticket (remember you don't earn miles for segments not flown). So the most economical solution (two cheap returns for added flexibility) might not be chosen in the real world.

The same is valid for hotel rooms. Most hotel programs are revenue based nowadays. This means that the more expensive a hotel room is, the more points you can earn, which will get you a free hotel room for a leisure trip more easily. Not to mention the tricks hotel loyalty programs have to let you book more nights than strictly necessary. There's your incentive to decrease travel costs...

When I was the company's internal travel agent at my latest employer, I had a few rules that should ban all risks associated with the above dilemmas. I booked all tickets and hotel rooms based on only price and convenience. Employees could still use loyalty programs but were not likely to benefit from them because I put them on any airline that provided the right price and time (and a direct flight).

Of course, using cashback sites is absolutely out of the question in a business travel setting. Even in case of channeling the money back to the employer, it might be too time-consuming to be effective. It is important to let employees realise that benefits from travelling are not an obvious thing if they do not pay for them themselves. Ultimately, all loyalty benefits are being paid for in cold, hard cash.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

When you really need to fly, and airlines reflect that in their prices

As a leisure traveller, you have the time and flexilibity to find the lowest fare and fly for virtually nothing. As a business traveller, you don't have the time nor the flexilibity and that's something airlines take advantage of when determining their fares: it's called yield management.

Business travellers will usually get reimbursed by their employers, so they don't really care about the flight cost. But if you're stranded somewhere, and need to go home as soon as possible, you might find yourself in a situation where you don't have the means, but still find yourself searching in the business traveller's fare buckets. Because you just lost time and flexibility.

Singapore


So here are the steps to consider when you're in such a situation. I fully realise that these are often not the circumstances in which you want to deal with these matters (e.g. a loved one is dying in your home country) but still - the following tips might help you out:

If you're in a foreign country, be aware of roaming charges and the similarly outrageous charges hotels make for phone calls. So buy yourself a local prepaid sim card and a lot of credit to prepare for making some long-lasting phone calls.

Of course, check your insurance. Not only your travel insurance but also cover of your credit card. Call the emergency number and make sure that if they allow you to make a reservation, they make it for you or you receive written confirmation of their willingness to reimburse.

Remember that insurance doesn't cover everything. People have a tendency to buy insurance but not check the terms and conditions. Do not assume coverage when you make your further travel plans. Check first with the insurance company or their contracted emergency center.

Call your airline and check whether your ticket has any flexibility built in. Even if you have to pay a change fee of several hundreds of euros, it will probably be cheaper than other options.

If you're a mile collector, check if there might be an award fare suitable to get you home. Sometimes their availability is relatively flexible and it might get you a cheap single trip home - but be aware your travel insurance will probably not reimburse miles used.

Check an online travel agency or a meta search engine such as Google Flights, Momondo or Skyscanner for fares. Start with the more obvious ones between airports near you and your home airport. Compare single fares with return fares. If there is a low cost carrier active on your route, legacy carriers will generally also offer single fares at more decent prices.

If you're checking return fares (please do! they are often cheaper than single fares, you can just let the return legs be forfeited), make sure to play with the return date. Most cheaper tickets have a minimum stay of Saturday to Sunday, 3 nights or even 7 nights.

Once you found an okay-ish fare, try the airline's own website to find even lower fares. Most airlines have price calendars which allow you to find the lowest fare. It's harder to find such fares via a meta search engine or online travel agency as these usually only show fares for given dates.

When prices are still ridiculously high, check the ITA Matrix search engine. This allows you set multiple airports as alternatives and find the cheapest single or return fare in a period of 30 days. Be patient though, it's really slow. You cannot book through ITA Matrix, so you'll have to find a different channel for that.

When you're really desperate, consider flying to a major hub by a low cost carrier and booking a ticket from there. For instance, for the people currently stranded in Sri Lanka, I would look for ticket offerings from major hubs in India such as Mumbai and Delhi (be aware of visa restrictions though, one might get stuck on an airport).

When visiting e.g. South-East Asia, major hubs such as Bangkok might be a safer bet to fly from if you're stranded in e.g. Myanmar or Laos. Low cost carriers are omnipresent in South-East Asia, visa restrictions are scarce, so it might be your best bet to reposition before arranging a flight to your final destination.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Drinks (almost) for free at Gong bar, the Shard

Forgive me the clickbait, but we managed to have a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine (a 77 GBP bottle of Chardonnay) almost for free at the Gong bar, level 52 of The Shard, the ridiculously high building next to London Bridge station. Normally, you'd pay 32 GBP on the spot to get into the normal viewing gallery which takes you as high as level 72. Prepare for a one hour wait too.

The amazing view from the Shard, including its own shadow, Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf

Buying in advance can get you in cheaper, but a rough 15 or 16 GBP in absolute low season (January) will be the minimum. Search both on the official website (theviewfromtheshard.com) and ticket resellers such as tiqets.com to get the best deals. Visiting a bar such as Gong will not trigger an entrance fee, but:

  • You'll have to make a booking well in advance
  • You'll get a time slot, roughly an hour
  • You have to leave your credit card details
  • You'll pay a penalty (15 GBP) if you don't show up

So, how did we get the bottle for free then? In two stages, actually:

  • The first was to jump through a couple of hoops summarised in this post (no longer possible though)
  • The second was to stay for three nights in the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang resort on Penang, which I can assure you is not a punishment at all
Together, these provided some 1,100 Golden Circle points, probably not nearly enough for a reward stay, but enough to spend on a bottle of too expensive wine. Also note that in the process of converting the two times 100 USD vouchers a few percent will be skimmed of the final amount by hidden foreign exchange costs, valuing a GBP at 1,39 USD whereas it should have been 1,30 USD. 


Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Marriott sweetspot reward booking: Brescia, Italy

I was planning a short-term holiday for a minimal spend, and some searching in Marriott's reward space brought me to Turkey, Spain and Italy. Especially in Spain, there are many AC hotels in the lowest two reward categories (1 and 2), costing 7,5 / 12,5 K points per night. For a five night stay (fifth night is free for Marriot rewards) that amounts to 30K / 50 K points.

I also wanted a hotel relatively near the railway station (AC hotels are often a few kilometres outside the city center). Given a minimum spend and nearness of a railway station, as well as a decent review score, I ended up at the AC Hotel Brescia. Brescia is an awful city if you approach it by rail - many European cities are, for obvious reasons. But the town itself is rather nice, and it is centrally located somewhere between Milan and Venice in northern Italy.

Cash rates for this hotel are currently a whopping 150 euros per night, which would value the stay at 750 euro and the value per Marriott point at 2,5 cents. I would put my 150 euro probably in a more centrally located hotel, but the value here is still amazing (well, we still have to complete the stay so how amazing it really is will be in this blog later on). Remember you get 20,000 AMEX points with a platinum card and AMEX values those at 80 cash value.

For 30K AMEX points this would mean you multiply its value from 120 euros (conversion from AMEX to Marriott points is at a 1:1 rate in the Netherlands) to 750 euros, i.e. from 0,4 cent to 2,5 cent, multiplying its value by six times. Remember though, readers, this is all theoretical, the 'money' is not much more real than a bitcoin.

UPDATE: our stay appeared to be during the Mille Miglia event - which would in part explain the relatively high cash prices of the hotel. The hotel is perfectly fine, but it is not in the best neighbourhood you could imagine. Basically, it is in the middle of largely abandoned buildings. We walked back late in the evening every day and nothing strange happened, but I wouldn't recommend walking around alone in the area.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Fighting hidden forex charges

Back in the days when banks' own equity funds had a lot of hidden charges, they also managed to raise the yearly cost percentage. When presenting this as 'a modest increase from 1% to 1.2%', they forget to mention this is in fact a huge raise of 20% of their income from managing the fund. Back then, I left, and found the first true index fund in the Netherlands (Meesman). They still exist and operate at a total cost of ownership (TCO) of 0.5 percent.

These days it's much easier to get equity funds against low TCOs. What has become actually harder, is to avoid foreign exchange charges. It's today's cashcow for banks and credit card issuers. When paying with a debit card, you'll probably pay at least 1% extra compared to the interbank exchange rate. When paying with a credit card, this will easily become 2%, or even more. These bits add up, but things can get worse.

Ever shopped at Amazon? When you pay in a different currency, they ask you politely if you want to pay them in your own currency. More transparent, right? You know precisely what it will cost you in your own currency. Yes, more transparent, and more expensive. Amazon roughly adds 3% to the interbank rate. It's completely free money, for them. Not for you, you were just tricked.

The same happens at ATMs worldwide these days. They offer you a fixed rate in order for you to be sure what your cash withdrawal will cost. Really nice feature, right? No, you will again be charged a considerable surplus on your withdrawal. This is called 'dynamic currency conversion', which is a euphemism for skimming. Always let your cards be charged in the currency of the country you're visiting. It'll save you money.

But there are more ways to save even more money.
  • In some countries, credit cards are issues that have 0% foreign exchange surplus rates. You may want to consider those.
  • If there aren't any, such as in the Netherlands, you may consider one of the 'fintech' alternatives that are available. I discuss two of them below, because I use them myself: Revolut and Curve.
The Revolut card is a Visa debit card. It's linked to a UK bank account that allows you to transfer money in and out. It takes different currencies - you can easily keep your GBPs and EURs separate and exchange them at any point in time. 

It usually let's you exchange between currencies at a 0% rate, however, be aware of exceptions that might apply for some currencies and during closure of the forex markets. Main drawback is that this card takes some planning. If you want to use it you have to preload it with money. 

The same drawback does not apply to the Curve card. This is essentially a debit card, but it is linked to any of you Visa or Mastercard creditcards. At any point in time you can choose to charge a different card, and you can even retroactively change the card used. 

The 'magic' with Curve happens when you pay: you pay in the currency of the country you spend in (or on, in case of a local hotel reservation). Curve then charges your own credit card in the currency of its own country of issuance. This happens at rates starting at 0%, with again the exceptions of some currencies, a maximum spend per month and closure of forex markets.

Remember that with Revolut, you can use local ATMs without a charge. But given the fact that Curve indicates a cash withdrawal from an ATM as such, your credit card will probably impose the usual (high) rates for withdrawing cash, which will wipe out any forex advantage that you might have. These cards require quite a lot of careful planning to use them most effectively - it's up to you if you think the possible gain is worth it. 

Two side notes: both Revolut and Curve card make an excellent Oyster card for London transport. Using the same card for tapping in and out every time you use public transport in London also provides you with the advantage of automatically capping your day spend (at a one day travel card cost, or similar). The other side note: both cards offer many more features. I wouldn't go anywhere near the bitcoin BS, but some of the other features might also be useful to you. 

And now for something positive on British Airways

Stocked with sufficient avios earned on a Qatar Airways business class return from Budapest to Chaing Mai, we've booked ourselves some returns from Rotterdam Airport to London City Airport. It's ultra-short-haul, taking just over 30 minutes under optimal circumstances. It's a worthwhile redemption, you spend some 9,000 Avios on a return plus 44 euros in taxes. Given it's a business route, it can be rather costly if you have to pay for the flight in cash. In this case, I think it was some 275 euro at the time of booking.

Anyway, we had already been pleasantly surprised on a RTM-LCY leg with BA CityFlyer, but this time it was a nice flight as well. It's definitely more relaxed flying between two such small airports. The amazing thing is that the stewards/stewardesses (they're called customer service managers in this case, really) are very friendly and make the best of the 30 minutes in the air. They even get you something to drink and to eat, for free!

Yes, after all the complaining on BA becoming a low cost carrier, its regional sibling CityFlyer maintains free catering (the flight's too short for payments anyway), has considerable legroom in their Embraer jets and overall gives you the impression that the people working there are still enjoying their jobs. Recommended!

Brief review of Lufthansa short-haul business class

I've asked the question before and I will ask it again: why on earth would you book business class on a European carrier's short haul flight? You get the same seat (with a blocked middle seat if the seating is in a 3 - 3 configuration). OK, you'll get some other perks such as nicer food, more miles, priority boarding etc, but it's really not worth it.

Unless it's included in a long haul routing and you get it for 'free'. Such as with the Saint Petersburg - Frankfurt leg on our totally ridiculous first class venture in February 2019. As a third leg that day, it was definitely nice to be able to sit in the front of the cabin, getting nicer food and all. But come one people of Lufthansa, if there's a way to make the difference in business class, then do it!

I'm talking about the plastic and tinfoil covers on the food platter. It gives you that very special economy feeling to have the privilege of removing hot tinfoil from the meal, and plastic from the salad. That's a chance to make a difference in business class - a small one, but still. But the packaging is left on your meal, basically saying: you may think you're in business, but don't let it get to your head.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Appraisal of Lufthansa first class

Lufthansa first class chairs


So, after going through the tiring (yes it's our own fault) detour of Saint Petersburg, we finally boarded our A380 to experience first class. And to be honest, being spoilt by the rather unbelievable service of Qatar Airways business class, this was a bit underwhelming experience. Yes, you have even more room, and I had seven hours of solid sleep which I had never managed before (ok, one time after being awake for 40 hours, on my way to Sydney in economy).

The food is quite amazing, the wines are unbelievable and having two bathrooms for eight passengers is also a huge luxury. And what kind of bathrooms they are - for on a plane, they are massive: several meters long, cotton towels, more than enough room to change into your pyjamas (provided too) without colliding with the walls. Yes, that's miles away from economy, or rather: just the stairs right before the first class cabin.

I don't do reviews with photos of all dinner courses and showing menus of the entertainment system - personally as a reader I wouldn't really care. What I want to highlight is a few positives and a few negatives. Starting with the latter: when boarding the plane, the stewardesses were busy with the five family members from South America travelling together and taking selfies in the first interior. It slightly distracted them from the other passengers.

Stairway to... hell? No, premium economy


Service made a bit of a random impression (will I get a welcome drink or will they forget me?). On the positive side, on both the outbound and incoming flights, we had enthusiastic, warm crews who really made the impression they cared about their passengers. They were also not as young as usual on Qatar Airways flights. It gives a nice touch to your service if the stewardesses have had a long career and made it to first because of their experience.

Stellar white cholate dome desert


So, would I pay double the price of a (rock bottom) business class ticket again to experience first? No, I don't think so. The step from economy to business class is just so much more meaningful in terms of added comfort than the step from business to first. I might think differently though if the added cost would be 50% or less.

Frankfurt: an airport to avoid

A few years ago my wife and I flied via Frankfurt and discovered that some big airports also 'feel' big, which means that they're terrible to navigate. I regularly use special assistance and they managed to let us wait at three transfer points, often without sanitary facilities. There were security agents that thought it would be funny to ask me if I couldn't act any faster (believe me, I'm not that slow in handling my luggage). In a few words: my first visits of Frankfurt was underwhelming.

Enter the new visits, on the way to Saint Petersburg, Singapore and back from Bangkok. You would expect some courtesy when flying first (which is not to say that I expected to be handled as cattle when flying economy, but I hope you catch my drift). But asking either Lufthansa or security staff about the location of the first class lounges did not reveal much usable information. At one of the business lounges of Lufthansa, however, there was a woman who clearly knew what she was doing.

She helped us through some of the stuff needed to get a car transfer between legs (a prerogative of first class passengers). This woman was the kind of person that you know in the blink of an eye that will help you in any situation in a very adequate manner. Such people are rare - it would be great having someone like that as a personal assistant but I guess that's above my budget.

Anyway, returning from Saint Petersburg there was indeed a giant Porsche car waiting for us. But it brought us to a terminal where we had to go through a security check because of originating at a 'dirty' airport. That's where things went wrong. Customs officers shouting at us, security personnel sending us away while specifically asking for a certain lounge. Well, Saint Petersburg was a heaven of friendliness in comparison to Frankfurt.

When we returned to Frankfurt from Bangkok, we were up for a surprise again. When my wife tried to guide me to the special assistance person working there to take a 'free ride' with the elevator, she basically exploded. 'No! Via the stairs!', she shouted at us. I explained to Lufthansa that a little friendliness wouldn't hurt - I was using my cane visibly. They compensated us with 100 euro for a dinner, which is a nice gesture - but it doesn't take away the problem.

I've the luxury of never having flown via Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle. I can imagine that they would be similar to Frankfurt. Far and middle east airports are usually a haven of hospitality (in terms of special assistance at least). We received a personal guide both on arrival and on departure in Singapore and Bangkok as part of the first class service - why doesn't Lufthansa provide that same service in their home terminal?

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Don't try this at home: flying from Russia

Early last year I saw a 'cheap' return in first class advertised by Lufthansa. Flying first for once in my life was on my bucket list, so my wife and I booked a return, starting from Saint Petersburg. We envisaged doing a three day visit to Saint Petersburg. The itinerary would be:
- Flying by Air Baltic from Amsterdam to Saint Petersburg via Riga, doing a slightly under 24 hour stopover in Riga to see that city.
- Staying in Saint Petersburg for three nights.
- Then flying to Frankfurt in business, and from Frankfurt to Singapore in first.
- Staying some nights in Singapore.
- Then flying to Penang, staying there for five nights.
- Then flying through to Bangkok for another two nights' stay.
- Returning to Frankfurt in first.
- And skipping the last leg from Frankfurt to Saint Petersburg.

So that was the theory. And now we had to apply for a visa. Because we formally had two stays in Russia (one preceding the first flight and one after the last leg), and I was afraid Lufthansa would check that while checking in in Bangkok on the way back, I decided to apply for a double entry transit visa. I even booked two singles from Moscow to somewhere in Europe to complete the story. Foolish me - I had not reckoned with Russian bureaucrats over at VFS global. That is supposed to be a company, but they employ bureaucrats that want to torture Western customers.

'Where's the invitation?' the woman asked to me. 'We don't need one, we're on a transit visa' I replied. She countered: 'you cannot travel on a transit visa. Do you want to stay in the transfer area of the airport for three nights?'. So we left and learned from a friendly guy at a travel agency that we even could not formally apply for a double entry tourist visa because that is meant for visiting neighbouring areas. 

I already thought of forfeiting the entire ticket (of course it was a nonrefundable one) when I retried 'wrapping around' a ticket. I found out that Lufthansa actually had cheaper returns than at the time of booking the original tickets. For 160 euro I could book a 'positioning' return flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Saint Petersburg and back (remember I needed a credible story). In order not to need a visa for Russia, you have to transfer to a different flight within 24 hours. 

The schedule worked, but there was one issue: the positioning flight was on the same plane as the first leg of the ticket to Singapore (Saint Petersburg to Frankfurt). Normally, you would have only some 45 minutes between arrival and departure, but for some reason, these flights have a turnaround time of 1,5 hours. Would that suffice to go through the formalities in Saint Petersburg? The only way would be to try it out. If it wouldn't work, the consequences would be rather disastrous: forfeiting the ticket, but most of all, being stuck in the airport without a visa.

I'll fast forward to Saint Petersburg now. We arrived in time and entered the arrival hall. After some looking around we saw a transfer desk - without people behind it. We asked some official and she said she would request someone to go to the desk. Five minutes later, indeed, someone turned up and took our boarding passes and passports. She said she needed some ten minutes. The clock was ticking. But after ten minutes of waiting and some additional questions she let us through.

Then we had to go through the security channel. A lady apparently was sitting there just to let us through (we were the only transfer passengers at the time). She asked where we came from. 'Frankfurt', my wife replied. And where are you going? 'Frankfurt', I replied. I must admit that this could have triggered a bureaucratic nightmare but it didn't. She stamped our boarding passes and let us through. There was a entire luggage check filter with two people, again, in an otherwise entirely empty space. No issues here. We could enter the departures area, sat down for three minutes and then could board the plane.

The crew (the same one from the onward journey) stared at us in disbelief. We sat down in business class. One steward asked 'voluntarily or involuntarily?', which I could answer with 'voluntarily'. The purser couldn't believe her eyes and said she was dying to hear the story. All in all this experience was much better than we expected after the Russian visa office visit, no one had been unfriendly to us and some of the people we saw were even outright friendly. 

Is this worth a rerun then? No, definitely not. First, we forfeited a few hundred euros in tickets and hotels because of the change in plans, in addition to the additional more than 300 euros for the Lufthansa positioning tickets. Second, we had taken quite a big risk. Third, we like flying, but not that much that we enjoy three intra-European flights before the intercontinental leg. If you fancy flying first and don't have the points, watch out for regular offers from Western Europe. Months after booking my own first class tickets I booked a colleague on an even cheaper offer from Copenhagen. 

Two other points: although it's customary to leave the last leg 'as is' and just walk away from the airport, there is a case in which Lufthansa has tried to charge a recalculated ticket fee for that. I would deem that a small risk though. The other thing is: think about your luggage. My wife and I travel without checked-in luggage so we can always walk away from the plane. Imagine yourself trying to get your bag back which is still supposed to be loaded on the onward flight...

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Venice revisited

Being a fan of Venice and of travel hacking, here are a few tips that help you save on a trip to Venice and make the most out of it:

  • Venice is not an expensive city to fly to. That is because of the massive competition on this destination. It should be relatively easy to get there for 100 euro for a return, even on a legacy carrier. Beware, though the likes of easyJet will fly you to the main airport, of course Ryanair chose Treviso as its base. There's probably nothing wrong with Treviso, but it's not as well connected with Venice as Marco Polo airport. 
  • You've heard about the hordes of tourists at the San Marco square and the train station? Yes, they are there. But if you go in low season, things get much better. Our last visit late January: there was no high water (acqua alta), and there were no queues at the San Marco basilica. What's even better: if you go to the San Marco square in the evening, there will hardly be anyone over there. 
  • With an overload of hotels on the main island and the surrounding islands such as Giudecca and Murano, prices can be extremely attractive in low season. We stayed at the absolutely wonderful Hilton Molino Stucky for less than 100 euro per night per room (yes, we did book over half a year in advance). The hotel threw in a view from the sixth floor to the main island on our Hilton Honors gold status too (not to mention several other benefits).
  • If you're a regular visitor, you can buy a 'local' transport card which will allow you to take a water bus ride for only 1,40 euro instead of the usual 7,50. This requires you to invest a hefty 100 euro though. It's an investment for five years - for an extensive guide take a look here.
  • The best things in life are (almost) free: once you have that ACTV water bus pass (either the regular or the tourist one) you can take lines 1 or 2 to have that wonderful boat trip over the Canal Grande (if you start on Piazzale Roma, you have a chance of getting a seat). Also consider a trip around the east side of the main island, which shows the Giardini and the remainders of industrial locations and less glamarous parts of Venice (if it's your cup of tea).
  • Of course, you can visit the tower on the San Marco square if there is no queue (there wasn't end of January) and at 8 euro it's not even really expensive and definitely the view is worthwhile. You can also take the boat (line 2) to San Giorgio Maggiore and take the elevator to take in breathtaking views for only 5 euro. 
  • The rooftop of the commercial center Fondacio dei Tedeschi can be visited for free if you book in advance. Definitely worthwile with a view from above on the Rialto bridge (much better than trying to walk over it - the one location I would recommend you to stay away from). You can find all relevant information here
  • This one is definitely not for free, but even if you're not interested in art or architecture, it is strongly advisable to visit the Biennale, usually from May to November. There are two locations: Arsenale and Giardini. Especially the first one is worth the visit in itself: a huge, cathedral-like factory building originally used for building boats in an early form of mass production.
  • Download apps such as The Fork and Tripadvisor on your mobile phone. In low season, you can get discounts of up to 50% on your restaurant bill. Check the quality of the restaurant based on the review score in order not to get disappointed. During our last visit, we had dinner with on average a 40% discount.
  • Finally, the best way to explore Venice is to walk! A few hundred meters from the San Marco square or the Rialto bridge, there might be virtually no one left and you can explore the streets, alleys and canals of Venice on your own.