Saturday, 14 September 2019

Another online travel agency bankrupt: Amoma leaves guests stranded

Amoma.com was one of the smaller hotel booking platforms. It used to have good hotel rates, and I used it quite a few times myself. Now it has filed for bankruptcy, and people with a booking via this platform will not see their reservation honoured.

Always remember to use a credit card when you book a hotel online. In case of a bankruptcy, this will very probably protect you against loosing the deposit you made - in case of Amoma.com, this will probably be the full sum of the booking.

However, the misery might not end there. If you turn up in a hotel and have an Amoma booking which wasn't paid for by Amoma to the hotel, you have to make new arrangements. That might very well be more expensive than your original booking.

A few tips if you find yourself stranded: download the app 'Hotels tonight' and check if there is availability via this app - check rates elsewhere as well, because not all rates are good. What is more, I have once seen a lousy property being advertised for almost 500 euro a night.

The usual suspects for checking last minute hotel rates are Trivago.com, Momondo and Kayak, but also check your favourite hotel chain's app, because they might have very good last minute rates sometimes.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Latam Frankfurt - Madrid flight in business class

In Europe, Latam, the merger of TAM and LAN airlines from South-America, is a relatively unknown member of the OneWorld alliance. It is well known among aviation enthusiasts, though, because it flies a short-haul intra-European route with a wide-body plane, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. That plane is known for its comfortable atmosphere, a higher cabin pressure and higher humidity.

Apart from that, because the route is only flown once a day each way, the tickets are often sold against incredibly low fares. My wife and I just flew over to Madrid for 152 euro return - in business class. You get a lot of bang for the buck: priority check-in and security (not in Madrid), lounge access, priority boarding some 45 minutes before departure, and of course a very nice 2,5 hour flight including catering.

The business class cabin consists of five rows in a 2-2-2 layout. This is ideal if travelling as a pair, less so if you're flying as an individual. The seats turn into flat beds - however I'd rather stay awake on such a short flight. For those connecting from South America, this will be different: after the long haul leg from there, they will probably want to catch a few hours of sleep on their way to Frankfurt.

Latam provides a limited catering on the short flights; there is no choice for a main, only for a desert (which are delicious, by the way). The 'main course' consisted of a lovely cold cuts platter on the FRA-MAD flight and a rather meagre brie-turkey sandwich on the reverse leg. That said, food presentation is much, much better than on regular intra-European business class so there is no reason whatsoever to complain.

Personnel is generally friendly and speaks English well. They respond very quickly to calls made after the meal service. All in all, for those enjoying the experience, including lounge access 152 euro buys you 10 hours of 'quality time', which is truly amazing value. If you credit the tier points and miles to British Airways Executive Club, the return tickets also earns you 80 tier points and some 2,000 avios, worth some 20 euro.

You can find availability either by searching on the latam.com website or on matrix.itasoftware.com, where you can do a 30 day window search for business class flights between FRA and MAD. I would recommend you to book directly via latam.com (slightly more expensive at 168 euro) but if you like to take the risk of booking via a discounter OTA this will save you some additional 16 to 20 euro depending on the means of payment.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Why business class matters

Relatively few people fly business class, and the ones that never have often do not understand the degree of trouble I'm willing to accept in order to sit before the curtain. This post is meant to explain why I book these ridiculous iteneraries (like the one from Amsterdam to Singapore through Saint Petersburg and Frankfurt).

Here's why: I love flying. The feeling of being miles high in the sky, seeing the curvature of the horizon, leaving every day stuff literally far behind, I love it. There's an added romantic feeling even when it's night, when dinner is served and when you can sleep. It's similar to train journeys, although comfortable night trains have virtually disappeared, at least in Europe.

What I don't like is: being stuck in the middle seat, constantly aware of where you put your elbows (unlike your neighbours, who don't respect your personal space), screaming children not being guarded by their indifferent parents, the chair before you that is put in maximum recline without a word of warning while you're finishing your meal, taking away your personal 5 mm of legroom that you created by emptying the seatpocket entirely.

Flying economy, especially on long haul flights, has become a mild form of torture. Putting too many people in two little space is simply not a good idea, except from an economic viewpoint. I remember my 13 hour legs in the back of the economy section, with children screaming at least half of the flight, and a little bit of fine turbulence thrown in for added fun. My wife have said: no more of this.

The step from economy to business class is not about more room, better food, a bigger screen or priority boarding. The step from economy to business is about flying without feeling the stress of a fully loaded economy cabin and being able to enjoy that you're on a plane. Forget that you're paying at least three times the economy fare - it's money well spent.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Review of Mercure Bologna Centro

When the review mark on Booking.com is below 8, and Tripadvisor shows only 3,5 stars, you know you enter dangerous ground. However, I had booked the Mercure Bologna Centro willingly, for good reasons: a central location right across the Bologna central station, decent room size with a considerable chance of an upgrade because of my Accor gold status, and a right price including breakfast.

I arrived in Bologna when the temperature was 35 degrees, and after 20 minutes in the cramped airport bus I was very happy when I entered the hotel lobby and found it had excellent airconditioning. I had made two separate bookings because they were cheaper together than when booking the same room in a single booking. Therefore the agent had some trouble finding a room that would be available for the full duration of the stay, but she found one and upgraded me to a double room.

Entering the room, I found myself back in the eighties. Carpet, furniture that had seen better days, and a bathroom with fluorescent tubes - had they not been there, I would not have noticed that these have basically disappeared from hotel rooms over the past decade. The bathroom boasted 'vintage' dark green tiling, a bath with integrated shower (the horror! - spoiled brat that I am). However, on the positive side: both the room and the bathroom were very spacious.

Two features made the room stand out of the crowd, unfortunately in a negative way. This was a smoking room, and, yet again, I had forgotten what a smoking room smells like. I was catapulted 10, 20 years back in time once I walked into that room, remembering the smell of a smoking hotel room that seemed not to bother that many people at the time. But after smoking has gradually been banned from public life, its hits you right in the face.

The second 'feature' was a balcony. At least that was what it was called by the receptionist. However, a small strip of some 1 x 2 meters that has no furniture yet shows the signs of a serious lack of cleaning. Especially when the rain starts pooring and the pigeons' excrements start floating because the floor drain doesn't work. But this is where my hotel character assassination stops. Because I really had a fine time staying there, because almost all personnel was friendly and attentive, noticeably the breakfast crew.

The thing with the Mercure brand is that it's not very consistent. That will often be a problem with hotel brands, but only weeks before my wife and I stayed at the Mercure Krakow Stare Miasto, which was really excellent in all respects, and lightyears away from the time capsule that this Bologna property is. But then, you're in Bologna, you're only an hour by train away from beautiful other cities such as Parma, Modena and Ravenna, so who cares about the hotel room anyway? And the airconditioning did a great job in the room as well, by the way.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Get 1000 yums instantly for discounts at restaurants via The Fork

Yums are the 'currency' of restaurant website The Fork, available in a fair number of European countries. Use this link to sign up and make your reservation. When you do so, you get 1000 yums, 'worth' 20 euro in discount. I get 500 yums if you use the link and honour your first restaurant reservation.

The Fork lets you book a table easily. You can always cancel if you change your mind. Note that the restaurant owner pays for the booking. Last time I checked every reservation costs them 1,50 euro. The yums you earn can be used for discount (1000 yums = 20 euro, 2000 yums = 50 euro).

This discount cannot be combined with other offers. Many restaurants offer a percentage of your bill as a discount, varying from 20% to 50%. Sometimes the discount only applies to food items, and not to menus. Restaurants not honouring the discounts are very rare in my experience (I had one occassion only in recent years).

Please be aware that yums are a currency that is entirely paid for by restaurant owners. The restaurants that accept yums in return for discount only get a 50% discount on their The Fork cheque in return, insofar as I could check.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Visiting Auschwitz

During the preparation of a recent trip to Krakow my wife and I decided we wanted to visit the concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Obviously, this is not your regular day trip on a regular holiday. It's important to be prepared for the visit.

On a practical level, there are many offerings for day excursions from Krakow, which combine a bus return and guided tour, and sometimes a lunch. Because of an allergy of group tours, I decided to organise my own itinerary. It's doable, but probably not advisable. Our return consisted of a single trip with Flixbus from the bus station next to the main railway station of Krakow. It cost next to nothing, at 2,50 euro for the bus ride, and 3,00 for a front row seat. The trip took effectively 1.15 hour. Contrary to my expectations, the ride was comfortable and on time.

The way back was on a local Polish train from Oswiecim railway station, some 1,5 km from Auschwitz I (0,50 euro on a local bus). This station does not feature a station building, we did not see any ticket machines (but you can buy your tickets on board). There are no facilities so on a cold day take care of decent clothing, and on a hot day, do not forget to bring water and sunscreen. I bought my tickets beforehand (also for only a few euros) and the ticket inspector was kind enough to let us use our tickets on an earlier train. This train takes 1.30 to 1.45 hours for the 60 km to Krakow, and it has no airconditioning.

During the peak season, it is only possible to visit Auschwitz in combination with a guided tour. This is mainly to keep control over the large numbers of visitors. Although I'm generally not a fan of being guided, in this case I would highly recommend it. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and very direct about the history of the camps and the holocaust.

The crowds that visit these camps unfortunately do not all respect the basic rules that apply: not eating, not taking pictures in a few of the most sensitive places, and dressing modestly. Although it was 35 degrees celsius on the day of our visit, it should be clear that shorts are not something to wear in Auschwitz. And even after repeated requests not to take pictures in the part where stacks of victims' hair are on display, someone from our tour group still took a picture. On a positive note, we noticed that there are many young visitors of these grounds, and that the tour groups operate in almost complete silence (apart from the guides, obviously).

When you plan your trips, take into account the following advice:

  • Plan well ahead, especially if you want to book the trip yourself. I found most tour groups sold out already three weeks before the actual visit. You can book a day and time slot for approximately 15 euro per person (that's the fee for the guided tour, access itself is free but must always be booked).
  • If you choose to join an organised trip, there might be availability much closer to the actual visit.
  • Pardon me for stating the obvious: Auschwitz is not an amusement park. Places where you can eat or drink are very limited. Once on the premises, there is a vending machine in the room where you await your tour guide. On a hot day, take water with you. The first part of the tour takes 1,5 hours and there's no break. Remember that on premise, you are not allowed to eat.
  • You will enter cramped, dark places with uneven floors. If you have physical restrictions, be aware of this. I managed to get around despite my visual impairment but had to retain strict focus.
  • There are places where you can get some food and drinks but they are all small and unpretentious, even those outside the perimeter of the museum. Anything else would also be entirely inappropriate. 
Auschwitz (camp number I, the camp with the infamous 'Arbeit macht frei' sign above its gate) is actually rather small. It contains several baracks that have been converted into a museum. On display are photos taken on the premises during its functioning as concentration and extermination camp, as well as the countless objects that were confiscated from the victims by the nazis and then sorted and put to reuse. After freeing the camp, the authorities found some 200 thousand objects that have been partly converted in the gruesome, surreal setup of stacks of shoes, combs and suitcases currently on display.

The aforementioned room with victims' hair not only shows stacks of hair, but also some products it was put to use by the nazis, one of many signs of the industrialisation of genocide. Some of the barracks indicate how the victims 'lived' in the barracks, showing the lack of sanitary equipment and the space available for sleeping. The end of the tour leads you to the actual gas room and cremation oven built in Auschwitz I. The larger constructions of gas rooms and ovens in Birkenau were all destructed by the nazis when they left Poland. 

On a sunny day, with birds singing and green trees on the premises, the looks of Auschwitz I might still be deceiving. Any such deception will disappear when climbing the watch tower of Birkenau, the much larger camp that you will visit as the second part of the guided tour, after a short break and a bus ride between the camps. Railway tracks in the middle distinguish the male and female camps, barracks filling a large, empty plain. We visited one barrack with the original setup, showing the three layers on top of each other, each measuring (my estimate) 1,5 m x 1,5 m on which 5 to 7 people 'lived'. 

It is not recommended to take children below 16 to Auschwitz. Plan nothing for the rest of the day. For obvious reasons, I decided not to take any photos.

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.