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.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Skimming the banks: 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. 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. Always let your cards be charged in the currency of the country you're visiting. It'll save you money. But there's more ways to do this.

  • 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...