Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Why it's not that obvious to book a return

In the past, it was easy. If you flew a return, you could find deals, otherwise, you probably could not. That was in the days that legacy carriers still were proudly named flag carriers and low cost was non-existent. Anyone flying something else than a plain return was considered able to pay the hefty prices of something out of the ordinary. Yield optimisation was still simple in those days.

Now it's different. If I fly a return, I optimise flight times and airports. Our favourite hangout Lisbon has an awful low cost terminal, which we want to avoid at all cost. So sometimes we fly to Lisbon with our favourite low cost carrier Transavia (you don't have to go through the low cost terminal on arrival) but on the inbound flight we choose Vueling (well, we do not anymore, but that's a different story).

As I do not favour early flights or very late flights, it sometimes pays to make separate bookings. You have to take into account potential extra booking costs (easyJet spreads a fixed administration fee over the price of all tickets bought in a single purchase, Vueling doesn't seem to have a booking cost these days, Transavia hasn't had one in years).

You may use lowcostairlines.nl to find the lowest combined fares, but when you want to book them, take into account that this site often refers to online travel agencies rather than the airlines themselves. This will probably add costs to the purchase. Booking the single flights on the carriers' own website will probably by cheaper (but more time consuming).

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Why Ryanair gets all the publicity

Michael O'Leary, CEO of the travel world's favourite subject of complaining - RyanAir - doesn't make a secret out of the fact that he still supports the old adage: any publicity is good publicity. In some documentary, he admits that the rule where his personnel may not charge their phones in office is indeed really a rule, while adding that, of course, no one cares about it.

So when RyanAir publishes a press release, media just jump on it and throw it at their audiences. Because the occurrence of 'RyanAir' alone in a news item automatically turns it into clickbait. So apart from real issues such as labour conditions, also their baggage policies are apparently newsworthy.

So for those who read the headlines this week: you can still bring your carry on on board - if you're willing to pay for priority boarding (for 6 EUR each way) and you're able to get it. Because priority boarding will only be sold to a maximum of 30% of the passengers, which is good, because otherwise all people would stand in the priority lane. Why?

Because as of November, it will cost 8 EUR to check in a (bigger) cabin size trolley each way, where up till now you good bring it to the gate where it would be checked in after all for free. So if you travel with a larger size cabin size trolley, it's a no brainer to 'cough up' the 6 EUR for priority boarding. Plain and simple.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Maximising your discount on an MGallery hotel room

Yes I know. It seems like this site is sponsored by MGallery. But it isn't. There are just a few MGallery hotels that my wife and I love. Notably: the LaGare Venezia on Murano (see this post), the MGallery Ceretani in Florence, and the Avista Hideaway Phuket Patong. There are also a few that we liked less: the MGallery in Milano (not because of the hotel itself, which was great, but because of the arrogant staff of the rooftop bar) and the MGallery in Vienna, which was merely a second hand Sofitel instead of the 'boutique hotel' that an MGallery is supposed be.

Phuket old town: one of the few attractions besides water and "entertainment" on Phuket 

Anyway, this post is about discount. If your hotel spend justifies it, buy the Ibis business card as describes in this post. Make an Topcashback account as described in the same post. For our stay in Phuket, we booked three nights in the local MGallery. We paid some 400 euro for the room for 3 nights, including breakfast. At the time, we received a 15% cashback rate from Topcashback, which amounts to 60 euro. Our gold status provided us with an upgrade to a jacuzzi suite (my wife and I both thought: did he just say jacuzzi suite?) and entitled us to free cocktails between 5 and 7 PM.

The Accor Le Club points program gives 37 points per 10 euro spent (if you have gold status), which translates into a value of approximately 30 euro for this stay. You can spend that (a minimum of 40 euro per 2,000 points) on hotel stays and food&beverage. Together with the cashback that amounts to a discount of approximately 22,5% on your stay in an MGallery hotel. If there is a good rate on offer on the accorhotels.com website, and if it also looks good in comparison with the competition, 22,5% obviously is a good discount, effectively reducing the rate to 310 euro for 3 nights.

Worried about the opportunities to spend the points? If you visit Accor chain hotels quite regularly, you need not be. We spent our latest 40 euro voucher on a single night in a Mercure hotel in Riga early next year, which cost exactly that: 40 euro. To give you an idea, Accor hotels cover the complete spectre from very basic to very luxurious, where my wife and I regularly use the Novotel and Mercure chains (efficient 4 star) and more luxurious MGallery and Sofitel chains (luxurious 4 and 5 star).
"Did he just say: jacuzzi suite?"

How about that specific MGallery on Phuket? You'd have to consider if you really want to visit Phuket, being a concentration of beach and land side resorts and the kind of entertainment in Patong that you'd better leave aside. But if you like a quiet retreat on a mountain overlooking the sea, this hotel had an spectacular lobby, several pools and impeccable service. The restaurant was fantastic with amazing food presentation.

Finally, please note that the Accor hotels website has the very nasty (and in the Netherlands I think it's actually illegal) habit of not including taxes (VAT) until you have almost completed your booking. So the first rates you will see won't be the final price. Also note that hotel prices in Phuket are highly season-dependent. You will get much better deals during the rainy season - for obvious reasons.

Oman Air business class fares from Paris and Milano

Omanair.com currently offers its frequently repeating weekend business class offers from Paris and Milano to Asia (Bangkok, India, Philippines), starting at some 1,120 EUR for a return Paris to Bangkok. Only bookable on August 25 and 26 (well, maybe again next weekend or the weekend after that).

Oman Air is a boutique airline (that's another way of saying that it's a small airline) connecting major hubs in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Their business class product - at least their seat - looks great. In fact, on some of their flights, they offer 'suites'. In airline jargon, that's a cocoon made of plastic panels that offer you more privacy, especially while sleeping. But 'suite' sounds so much better, doesn't it?

Friday, 24 August 2018

Follow that trolley! The importance of travelling light

I have to admit that I'm a fan of the movie Up in the air. That's the film where George Clooney plays an airline nomad sacking people for work and giving lectures about 'lean life'. There is a scene where he explains how he chooses the right security line, and his coworker accuses him of racism. "I'm like my mother, I stereotype", Clooney responds, after explaining that you should avoid people with children, old people and just stand behind Asian people because they are efficient and use slip on shoes.

One secret of moving around airports quickly is being agile. I always wonder why people take so much luggage that they are hardly capable of carrying it. I just don't understand. Why bother? In my closet, there's three lightweight cabin-size trolleys suited to the need of any holiday (not including camping - I don't camp, as you might already have expected). Two are four-wheeled, which allows you to easily move them around in a line at an airport. One is two-wheeled and only 40 cm high, which makes it suitable for max 4 day trips and smaller aircraft with ditto overhead bins.

First rule of travel hacking: always stay close to your luggage. You don't want to put your cabin trolley in the belly of the airplane where it might get lost, effectively robbing you of your luggage for your onward business class trip. Get on board first to secure room in the overhead bins, or pay to get the privilege to get your trolley on board. It should be light enough to put it in or get it out of the overhead bins without a significant exertion and a risk of injuring your fellow travellers. A trolley need not weigh more than 2 kg, and packed, 8 kg should be the maximum.

Another reason to keep your luggage close to you: you're more flexible. I paid 55 euro for a single ticket from Faro to Madrid via Lisbon instead of 110 euro for a single ticket from Faro to Lisbon - and the only reason this was possible is that I didn't check in my luggage. Then it wouldn't be as easy to leave Lisbon airport - which was the real destination of that trip.

Fancy a business class flight with your national carrier? It's usually cheaper to fly from a different country because indirect flights are cheaper than direct flights. So when I considered flying to the USA West Coast from Dublin via Amsterdam, I knew that it would be a lot easier to leave the fourth leg (Amsterdam - Dublin) if I only had carry on luggage. By the way, in business class, it's generally possible to carry two cabin size trolleys per person. That's the reason for having multiple ones in my closet.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Flying "business class" in Europe

If you've ever flown long haul business class in a modern cabin, you'll have to laugh about what European carriers sell as 'business class' for their intra-European flights. It's generally this:
  • Priority lane for security
  • Lounge access at the airport
  • Priority boarding
  • A seat identical to an economy seat
  • A blocked middle seat in a row of three seats, leaving some room for a small tray table
  • Better catering
This would be okay if prices would be accordingly, but they aren't. It's quite easy to pay a whopping 1,200 euro for a business return between Amsterdam and Venice. (Yes, that's as much as I usually pay for a business return between Europe and Thailand.) You probably get flexibility for that amount of money, but, well, you can book a lot of nonrefundable 100 euro returns for 1,200 euro. Twelve, that is. So here's your "fly low cost business class" guide for Europe:
  • Select a low cost carrier without a business class (yes, there are low cost carriers with a - sort of - business class)
  • Book a seat on the first row or in an emergency exit row. This will generally set you back between 10 and 25 euro per person per leg, but it's worth it.
  • Buy priority boarding and buy lounge access
  • Buy priority for the security lane at the airport (not always possible)
  • Don't cut down on your on board spend on food and beverage - yes it's expensive, but business class tickets are much more expensive
It's not uncommon for my wife and I to spend as much on extras such as priority boarding as on the base flight price, even though we never check in luggage. But we'd rather not end up in row 30 at the back of the plane, directly next to the lavatories.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Why KLM flight bundles might actually be useful

KLM has been experimenting with flight bundles for almost a year now. And to my own surprise, when I did some more investigation into their offering, I found it quite interesting. So what's the idea? You pay for a set number of flights to a certain destination. Depending on the destination, the number of flights, the number of people that can use the bundle and the degree of flexibility you want to have, the effective price per flight varies.

I myself am not particularly interested in flexibility when booking tickets for personal travel, so when I fly KLM, I usually do so at the very bottom end of the price range, meaning 99 euro for many European destinations. Anyone trying to book such fares knows that when there are multiple flights a day, the cheapest are always on times you don't want to fly. Outbound flights are usually in the evening, leaving little to enjoy on your first day but checking into your hotel, and inbound flights are almost exclusively the first ones in the morning, so that you have to get up at 4 AM.

Maria and child by Giovanni Bellini, Accademia Carrara in Bergamo

There are a lot of things I'm willing to do to get a cheap flight, but getting up in the middle of night is not one of them. So when I try to book a flight Amsterdam Venice, I often turn to a low cost carrier because the fare quickly gets up with legacy carriers if you want comfortable flight times and wrap flights around the weekend to keep the use of holidays to a minimum. There are other reasons to fly low cost too - and comfort can actually be one of them; more about that in a different post.

Back to the Venice case. Being a destination with a lot of competition, it's one of the routes where you theoretically can get tickets under 100 euro with KLM. This is reflected in the bundle prices too. For 20 single flights (so 10 returns) for 2 persons (5 returns per person) you pay 112 euro per return ticket (1120 euro for the bundle plus 10 euros booking costs). This is with a minimum of flexibility, meaning that you book 180 days in advance, nonflexible booking class, no checked in luggage and 3 nights minimum stays or an obligatory night Saturday to Sunday.

So then where's the benefit? Right here: you can now choose any KLM-operated flight. It means that you can always use the preferred flight time on the outbound and inbound flights, because half a year in advance, no flights will ever be fully booked. It's hard to calculate a discount without knowing individuals preferences, but it's safe to say that the slight premium on the cost per flight will give you a lot of flexibility in choosing your dates and times of travel.

Of course, payment is in advance (or in several terms) and when you choose not to use any flights in the bundle, they will expire a year after the bundle starts (shorter bundle terms are also available) without any compensation. Also, whereas normally you might choose to fly low cost every now and then, you are now bound to KLM for this specific destination.

There are a few other interesting bundles that I want to highlight. You can choose a country bundle. Crazy of Italy? Choose from any Italian destination that is part of the KLM network (Venice, Bologna, Genua, Cagliari, Catania, Milano, Florence, Torino) for spending your bundle. The price per flights is significantly higher than for a Venice bundle, obviously because of the choice of destinations that are priced higher than Venice flights.

There is even a three city trip bundle including Paris, Copenhagen and Prague. Not particularly interesting, because Paris is easy to reach by train and Copenhagen and Prague are low cost destinations. But well, let's say this is an 'interesting idea'. And there is a bundle that takes you across the whole of Europe, which will only be interesting for people with a strong preference for the most expensive intra-European flights.

You can see the flight bundles offering on https://klmflightbundle.klm.com. Similar offerings are available from Air France and low cost daughter Hop! via lepass.airfrance.fr and lepass.hop.com.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Why I avoid error fares

Once the holy grail of travel hacking, error fares are the occasional 'fat finger' mistakes that occur in spreadsheets with airline fares. These spreadsheets (or would they use APIs these days?) still feed online travel agencies with the multitude of different fares and fare rules that airlines use to optimise yield.

So every now and then, you can fly business at economy prices, because someone forgot fuel surcharges or left out a zero in a base fare. And then these fares are published on forums and websites such as www.secretflying.com. And then people start booking them, thinking they will outsmart 'the system'.

Boy, have I got news for you. Airlines follows these forums too! And they correct their mistakes. While some airlines sometimes still honour error fares, I wouldn't count on it. I tried it once, with an error fare of some 780 euro Florence - Bangkok - Dusseldorf (in essence it was a single ticket within Europe with an amazing opportunity to make some detour to south-east Asia).

The error was acknowledged, the booking was partially canceled, and I had to get on the phone to see if I could get my money back. Luckily that happened, at least a month later. Also I was so lucky to get a full refund, also for my booking costs at the online travel agency that I had used.

Now, compare this to the legitimate rates: I can get tickets from Europe to Bangkok for around 1,200 EUR, with an occasional drop to 1,000 EUR. Thus it's a simple question: why bother? With error fares, you need to postpone your travel arrangements, because of the risk of cancellation. And would it work, I'd be scared that I would be denied boarding.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

A small case study: getting to South-East Asia in October

October/November is the start of dry season in Thailand. Whatever your reason to travel there, usually you will do this by plane. Flying directly to Bangkok directly from Western Europe will take some 11 hours. Doing that in economy class will usually be a nightmare. What are the options for a somewhat more comfortable flight?

  • Split the journey in two. Your best bet are the middle east carriers that will take you to Bangkok in approximately 2 x 6 hours. You can build in a stop 'en route' and might get a decent sleep in a hotel. 
  • Upgrade your travel class. These days there is a class called 'premium economy' that will increase your leg space, recline and food served. Then there is business class, obviously, and depending on fares offered this might be your best bet. It will offer you a flat 'bed' (usually) and much better food. 

Cheese plate: dessert on a Qatar Airways flight

How can you decrease your spend?
  • By being as flexible as possible. The more you insist on travelling on specific dates, specific airlines and from and to specific airports, the more you are likely to pay.
  • Use the http://matrix.itasoftware.com tool. It's slow and it looks like it's from the stone age, but in reality it's one of the most powerful booking tools that are at disposal to anyone, not just travel agents.
  • Once you have found an attractive fare (you will see the 'official' price), use the fare details (airline, dates etc.) to find opportunities to book it for less via a site such as Momondo (find your local Momondo by adding your country's internet extension). 
  • Be wary of the options offered though, there are a lot of online travel agencies that just do not take up the phone. Always book with a credit card: the travel industry is volatile, booking by credit card is your main insurance against bankruptcy or plain fraud.
Now, how about Bangkok?
  • I fill in the ITA Matrix search with departure airport Amsterdam and destinations Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore (a flight within South-East Asia can easily be done with a low cost carrier).
  • I ask for a price calendar for 30 days starting on October 1.
  • Now the lowest fare I see is 1278 euro Amsterdam to Bangkok, only on October 22. It's with Norwegian, a low cost carrier offering a premium cabin on long haul flights, not up the standards of some other carriers. 
  • I'll have to switch to different departure airports now. I have to do this manually for each departure airport, because ITA Matrix does not allow multiple departure airports anymore.
  • Suitable departure airports are within easy reach of Amsterdam, with multiple flights a day. Why? Because they're cheap to reach, and because there is no 'interlining' between the first so-called positioning flight and the long haul flight. In plain English, if you miss your long haul plane, you often won't be rebooked and might loose all your money.
  • So I try the following ones: Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Brussels, London, Budapest, Prague and Paris. Only to Bangkok this time, to speed up the searches. Frankfurt: 1,273 euro, Hahn Air Systems, never heard of. Dusseldorf: more than 2,000 euro. Brussels: 1,500 euro, but - Ukraine International Airlines. I'd rather not. London: 1,400 GBP, again Hahn Air Systems. Budapest: the equivalent of 1,400 euro, Air China. Not a preferred carrier. Prague: approximately 1,500 euro with Ukraine International Airlines, not a good deal. And then there's Paris.
  • I started out this search knowing that probably the best offer of this moment was on Gulf Air, a small carrier with a very comfortable business class, leaving from Paris, via Oman, for approximately 1,400 euro. I have to get rid of the Ukraine fares though, that undercut that price by somewhat more than 100 euro. For this, I add its IATA code PS with a negation sign (~) before it in the Outbound routing codes field. And then: nothing. I can't find the deal that I know should be there.
  • Back to Momondo. And yes, there it is, from 1,311 euro, October 2 through October 23, with a flight time of some 15 hours. Undercut by the probably truly horrendous EgyptAir (avoid at all cost). 
  • This would not be the cheapest business class ticket ever. If you have time, you can wait for slightly sub 1,200 euro prices across Europe. But if you don't have time, this might currently be your best bet.
  • Be aware that fare conditions for business class tickets vary widely. They may be very flexible but they might also be completely nonrefundable. I have even seen (and flown on) fares that promise to charge a multitude of the price you paid for the ticket in case of no show. I don't think any airline actually does that, but they do not mind putting it in their fare rules.
UPDATE August 18, 18:11
There is a flash sale of Oman Air on their own website (www.omanair.com) where you can book a ticket from Paris or Milan to Bangkok for approximately 1150 euro, only during this weekend (through insideflyer.de).

Hm, I'd rather fly economy from Amsterdam, and have a direct flight
No worries. use ITA Matrix and specify only direct flights and no additional stops. There is decent availability on KLM for 639 euro and on EVA Air for 759 euro. You might get some discount via an online travel agency.

What about this 'premium economy' product?
I wouldn't bother trying to fly premium economy on an indirect route. But I would definitely consider it for the direct flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok. There are two airlines operating this route directly: Dutch KLM and Taiwan based EVA. Now EVA has a real premium economy product, with wider seats, larger seat pitch and better food. Whereas KLM only has larger seat pitch - and the much-hated '10 abreast' configuration in their 777s. There used to be nine seats in a row, now it's 10. With prices for EVA premium economy starting at approximately 1,000 euro and for KLM at 900, it's clear that EVA would be the preferred carrier to fly with.

Where do you find deals without spending hours on ITA Matrix?
That's an easy one to answer. Usually I find the most attractive business class fares via insideflyer.de. A good second one to follow is travel-dealz.de

Booking train tickets

It's easy to see that trains are run by monopolists - just visit railway companies' websites and try to book a train ticket. Whereas most airlines will optimise their booking process to make the sales process as easy as possible, this does definitely not hold for railway companies.

Cross-border tickets are hard to find, and even harder to book. The Dutch railways' international booking site will often generate errors and even when you found the right fare, you might be confronted with a message that the seat is no longer available half way through the booking process - the search isn't made live, so you search in an inventory several hours old.

One of the better ways to book flawlessly is to either consult a specialised travel agency such as treinreiswinkel.nl in the Netherlands, or use a site such as loco2.com. These somehow seem to be able to circumvent the notoriously poor booking engines offered by national railway companies.

A few more travel hacking tips for acquiring cheap train tickets:

  • Book early. Railway companies copied the yield management trick from airlines, so they offer a few cheap seats on most (high speed) trains. Make sure you know the exact start of the booking window, put it in your agenda, and make reservations on the first day of that window. It can be difficult to establish the booking window though. Sometimes sites such as loco2.com can help you by sending notifications.
  • Find deals. Most railway companies have special offers for youth, elderly people, weekend fares, 'travel together' fares etcetera. 
  • For people from the Netherlands travelling to Belgium, try the nmbs.be website and look for the weekend fare from Roosendaal. It's not so attractive anymore because the fast trains run via Breda, for which this option is not available, but the weekend return from Roosendaal to Antwerp is only 9,60 euro (Brussels 16,60). These fares do not have restricted availability. For trains between Breda and Antwerp/Brussels the cheapest fares are currently 14 and 28 euros.
  • Thalys, Eurostars and the other German and French high speed trains generally have low cost options with (very) limited availability. The cheapest train ticket between Amsterdam and London is approximately 110 euro with the added benefit of not having to pay for the expensive trains from London airports to the city center.
UPDATE 25/8. A colleague pointed me to oui.sncf, obviously run by the French national railways, but featuring more destinations and a more friendly user interface. It also includes a price calendar allowing for low fare search.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

So much for independent travel blogging

Anticipating a huge growth of visitors ;-), I was looking into ways to incorporate affiliate marketing in this blog. In other words, I was checking if it were possible to get kickback fees from travel websites. When signing up for one of the travel industry's larger company's affiliate program, I went through the trouble of reading their affiliate agreement.

As expected, I found a clause about the affiliate partner not allowed to say something negative about the company. Whereas I understand that they want this as part of the contract, of course in a normal advertising relationship there would be a Chinese wall between the advertisement department and the editors. It's a clear sign that independent writing and affiliate marketing are not a good combination.

With paid content as an endangered species, the question is where independence on blogs should come from. I don't have the answer. My esteemed colleagues at InsideFlyer have Norwegian as a sponsor, leading to a rather disappointing newsfeed about Norwegian's growth of 11% in January and its schedule between Amsterdam and New York. I understand it, but I do not endorse it.

Yes, I sometimes watch the video reviews of airline cabin products. And yes, I wonder who pays the bill for those trips. Is it the airline? Is it advertisements in YouTube? Or the vlogger, who just likes to do reviews? Anyway, I do not intend to do only shiny happy reviews because of this, just so you know.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

How to increase review scores

Yep, that's 'increase', not 'improve'. We're talking about optically increasing review scores in order to satisfy the marketing needs of both booking websites and their suppliers (hotels). Would you stay in a hotel reviewed with an average 7? I definitely wouldn't. That's not because it's a low 'mark' in itself, but because it's a very low review score for a hotel.

Why is that? Let's take the review system of Booking.com as an example. They currently have 7 dimensions for review: cleanliness, comfort, facilities, staff, value for money, free wifi and location. Even if staff is rude and the rooms are hardly cleaned, the other dimensions may up the score considerably (assuming that they all weigh equally, which seems to be the case).

A colleague of mine once stepped into a Brussels hotel room, finding hair all over the place. Its review score was 7. He also stayed in a very well reviewed hotel in Athens, finding a gun store next door and a neighbourhood that felt about as safe as the slums of Naples. Yes, the hotel was excellent but he feared for his life when he stepped outside.

Booking.com has the added benefit of being able to see both the distribution of scores and the distribution of visitor types. The latter is useful because it allows you to see if the people reviewing match your type of visitor. Let's say that if 'groups of friends' are the main visitors, it's probably best to avoid such a place if you're an older couple.

A general rule of thumb to follow is that if you want a really good hotel, don't settle for a score less than 8,5. Be aware though, that outside the realm of Booking.com, which uses only confirmed reviews, there are many sites using Tripadvisor scores. These need not be unreliable per se, but they are unconfirmed and more open to manipulation.

Monday, 13 August 2018

The most opaque market within the travel industry: hotel rooms

There is a reason why Booking.com would be the one of the most valuable Dutch companies if it were still Dutch. It has a huge market share in the worldwide hotel booking market. And it's also the champion of obfuscation: hiding the truth, in this the truth that, these days, Booking.com hardly ever offers the lowest hotel rates. A combination of the two gives it an impressive profit margin.

What are its strengths? To name a few:

  • It is omnipresent in Google. Its organic and paid search results are always in the highest regions.
  • It focuses on hotel rooms. No cross selling here to rental cars or airline tickets.
  • It creates urgency by emphasising limited supply of a specific hotel, of rooms in general, of low prices, of competing bookers (18 persons booked this hotel in the past hour).
  • It crowdsources reviews based on actual bookings (which adds to their reliability).
  • It has elaborate information on rooms, surroundings etcetera, including a selection of photos.
  • It partners with airlines and other travel industry companions where it whitelabels or cobrands its search results to mimic an 'airline specific' hotel search.
By a combination of these, a user visiting this website might get convinced that they don't have to look further, or even can't look further, because of 'fear of missing out'. They book the room, and Booking.com gets a whopping 15% or so of the total booking value. That's platform economics at their best, sucking out basically all oxygen for any competition. Is it that bad?

No, not for a travel hacker of course. If you are willing to accept the fact that you will never find the lowest hotel rate, just optimised ones, here are a few tips to lower your spend on hotels:
  • Use comparison websites, but be careful. I use Trivago all the time, but be aware that this copies all the tricks Booking uses as well. You'll have to change settings and filters to really let it work for you.
  • Never use the default ranking for booking websites. That ranking is optimised for the site's profit, not your benefit.
  • Be aware that everyone in the hotel industry benefits from high review scores, except the customer. So avoid everything below an 8, and try to get hotels with a review score of 8,5 or even 9 or higher.
  • If there is a few hotels that you would prefer to stay in, widen your search. If it's chain hotels, check the chain's own booking site. This often has lower rates, especially when you're a member (becoming a member is always free, except of course that you get spammed via e-mail if you don't check/uncheck the right tick boxes).
  • Don't forget blind or opaque supply of hotel rooms. Hotels want to optimise their yield so they dump cheap rooms via tour operators and operators such as Secret Escapes, channels that are not supposed to be visited by business travelers - partly because they're always nonrefundable.
  • Most of the 'best price' guarantees are loaded with requirements, such as identical reservation conditions and 'public availability of the rate'. In other words, once you have to leave your mail address to get a specific rate, it no longer counts for a 'best price' guarantee claim.
As always, there would be a huge benefit in having a premium search engine - one you pay for - listing hotel rooms on merits rather than on kickback, but markets do not work like this. In my next blog post, I will shed some more light on yield optimisation relative to time, and how this works out for airfares and for hotel rates.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Spending your time on travel, or on points?

There's an excellent way to forget about the delights of travelling. That's spending your time on collecting and spending points. Or writing about them. So here's the thing: points are a means towards an end. It's not about you, it's not about free hotel nights, it's about getting your money. Or rather, the money of your employer.

So despite the fact that I like travelling more than spending too much time on points, I find it a highly fascinating topic. Not because of the collecting, but because of the apparent optimisations that make companies money (rather than rewarding loyal customers). You know the saying: "if you can't convince them, confuse them". That's what points are about.

Points are a means of obfuscation, of appealing to your dark, irrational desires. They are very much like bitcoins: completely worthless in themselves, highly unregulated, while mimicking real money. I've got a stack of points! Well, congratulations on that! So here's an overview of characteristics that I deem necessary for a successful points program:

  • Give loads of points. Even if they're effectively worth nothing, high numbers still seem to impress people. 
  • Make it hard to value them. So do not emphasise that you need to stay 20 nights in order to earn one night for free, but instead reward longing for more points.
  • That's where acceleration comes in. By introducing tiers, your more loyal customers earn more points. However, conceal the fact that then it still takes 15 nights to get one for free.
  • Throw in perks for immediate reward. The longing needs to be there, but you have to get an immediate reward as well. So offer a free drink. Most people will order one more, just because they got one for free.
  • Add a little gaming element. There are people chasing a reward scheme where they have to jump through all kinds of hoops in order to earn 35,000 points (with whatever value). Being busy with attaining the next goal, they forget about checking the real cost of what they're doing.
I prefer hotel loyalty programs to airline programs. Why? A hotel can offer you a room upgrade or a free breakfast, which represents real value (at least I think so). An airline throws in mostly perks that are at the expense of others. So you have made your thirty return flights and now you can make a free seat selection and get on board first! Of course, that's a seat where another passenger can't sit, and another passenger has to wait for you to have boarded. 

It's just a zero-sum game in getting favours that other passengers aren't getting, without the airline spending a single euro extra (whereas, I think, a room upgrade or a free breakfast introduces at least some marginal cost for the hotel chain). I must admit that there is a tendency for loyalty programs to become revenue-based. You get a fixed percentage of 'value' per euro spent. In such a system, calculating that percentage is relatively easily and gives you an objective picture of your loyalty's value.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

An expensive but worthy travel hack

So here's how to get instant hotel chain status and get free access to airport lounges. It's an investment, and it will set you back some 350 euros in the first year (and be warned, some 700 euros per year after that). There's another catch: you need to earn at least 5,000 euros gross a month (i.e., in the Netherlands). If you're prepared to pay the hefty fee, it will get you an American Express Platinum card (kickback warning).

Now your first question should be: what idiot is going to pay so much money for a credit card? Well, me, for starters. This is the result of cold calculations. There's two main benefits for this card:
  • It will get you unlimited lounge access on airports. For (often) low-cost flyers like my wife and I, this is a great way to escape the crowds at airports. Buying lounge access will easily set you back 25 euros per person, and the Priority Pass that you get normally costs 400 euros a year.
  • It will get you gold status at Hilton, SPG/Marriott and a handful of other, smaller hotel chains. What's the benefit? You usually get breakfast for free, room upgrades and early check-in and/or late check-out. Book the cheapest room against the lowest (non-flexible) rate and you often can stay at 4 or 5 star properties at rates below 100 euro, and then benefit from your perks.
Then there's the smaller things that still count:
  • A yearly travel voucher that entitles you to a discount of 150 euro on a minimum spend of 500 euro on the American Express travel website. Now I cannot say that I'm a huge fan of that site. It will take some effort to get a good deal out of this as other websites often provide better fares and better hotel rates. 
  • A sign-up bonus in Amex points. Now their value can vary considerably, so it's hard to put a price tag on it, but some 80 euros for 20,000 points seems to be safe.
With approximately 10 trips a year and some 30 hotel nights per year it doesn't pay to be loyal to a particular airline or a particular hotel chain (it usually doesn't pay anyway, the only reason people are loyal to an airline or hotel chain is that their employer pays the bills). Getting the instant statuses and lounge access pays out, however, especially with this home-grown 'bring your friends' travel hack.

The second platinum card holder - my wife - gets most of the benefits as well, without an additonal fee. So she has her own card, but also her own Priority Pass, which entitles her to take a guest into the lounge for free, and she has her own gold status at Hilton, which hopefully gets us two room upgrades with free breakfast, free lounge access on our next trip to Venice in January together with friends. Enter: easyJet and the Hilton Molino Stucky, a huge property on Guidecca with a very interesting story that can be read here

How about the second year of membership? I don't think it will be there. And some part of me hopes that the benefits at Priority Pass and the hotel chains will trail a bit - current information on membership suggests they will. 

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Stay in Venice for less

This post is dedicated to one of our favourite hotels in Italy: the MGallery LaGare Venezia. Why is it so great? It has good staff, beautiful rooms and can be great value. The MGallery in Venezia is actually on Murano, so not on the main island. This need not be a problem. First, they have a free shuttle boat that can collect you at the airport and takes you to the hotel in some 20 minutes. Book well in advance, it's a popular feature.

Second, near the MGallery there is a tabaccheria where you can buy 1, 2, 3 or 7 day passes for the waterbus (cash only). Right before the hotel, there is a waterbus stop where you can catch a boat to either the Santa Lucia central station (west side of the main island) or Fondamente Nove at the north east side of the main island. For a longer boat trip along the east side of Venice, reserve an hour or so. It's worth to do at least once because you also get to see the more industrial side of the main island.

That will pay out, because a single ticket on board will set you back 7,50 euro. For 3 days of unlimited waterbus travelling you pay 40 euro per person. If you're planning to visit Venice a lot, consider heading to the main waterbus terminal at Piazzale Roma, where you pay 50 euro for a personalised travel pass which entitles you to load single journeys for only 1,50 euro (90 minutes validity). You need to reserve some time for this; for the clerk it's a lot of paperwork.

Now here's how to get a maximum value deal out of the MGallery LaGare Venezia. First, if you plan to visit hotels of the Accor hotel group more often, you can get yourself instant gold status in their loyalty programme by buying an IBIS business card. Rest assured, I have not slept in an Ibis hotel in at least 10 years but this card costs 89 euro a year and entitles you to instant gold status for the entire Accor hotels network. Main perks: early check-in, late check-out, welcome drink, room upgrade. Most of these advantages are not guaranteed though.

Once you have your status, remember that you'll have to book directly through the chain's own website to enjoy the benefits. If a room can be booked much cheaper elsewhere that might be the way to go. I myself never bother about lodging 'price guarantee' claims but you might also try that. Before you book, though, go to https://www.topcashback.co.uk (yes, I get a referral fee), make an account and make sure to find Accorhotels there.

You'll get either 10,5% or 15% cashback on the complete booking. There's no catch, it will just take time (some three months after you stayed at the hotel the cashback will become payable). It will also require a UK bank account because Accor only pays through BACS, a UK payment system. Difficult? Well, here's where you can get a free UK bank account number: www.revolut.com (no referral fee). Ignore all the upsell attempts during the sign-up process, you won't need them - at least not to get your money into, e.g., a Dutch bank account.

Now, how about the deals? There's regular Accorhotels actions that claim to get you 30 to 40% discount. This is usually in comparison to refundable rates so it's mostly 'optical', but sometimes the rate includes free breakfast. However, the Accorhotels site has a price calendar view that enables you to see rate fluctuations year-round.

Room rates in Venice are very sensitive to supply and demand - obviously. So if you don't mind staying there in January (bring your boots for acqua alta) or March, or if you book well in advance, you can stay in a four star hotel in a room much larger than your average Venice room for below 100 euro a night (without breakfast) or slightly above 100 euro per night (including breakfast).

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Kickback country

Little did I realise that the name I had coined for my blog - opaque travel - is actually a concept in the travel industry. It refers to the selling of 'opaque travel inventory': hotel rooms for hotels that you do not know when you purchase the stay. In the Netherlands, it's also known under the slightly debilitating 'bingo' concept. You just get to know the number of stars and get a discount, not knowing in what kind of place you will be dumped - with all due respect. At the other end, some of the opaque offerings are so easy to identify that they are not opaque at all.

Anyway, this is to introduce this blog, that does not necessarily attacks the opacity of the travel industry, but rather celebrates it. Opacity came as an alternative to the slightly beside the truth 'the blind traveller' - my eyes are pretty bad. But despite my poor sight I have learnt to appreciate the opacity of the travel industry as an opportunity to get discounts, earn (or buy) 'status', get the best (no, not the best, just optimised) fares and hotel prices. I decided: if you can't beat them, join them. I consider the travel industry as a more positive version of Egypt (as a tourist destination).

In Egypt, when you pay the outrageous price, not entirely voluntarily, for that souvenir, some of that price goes to the driver of the taxi that brought you there, some of it goes to the guy at the door step luring you in, some to the guy (yes, it's mostly guys) waving to the taxi when it was on its way, anyway, you catch my drift. It's kickback country. So, here's the honest purpose of this blog: I decided to join kickback country. Because it's fun. Because there's too many serious travel hacking blogs around that take this matter way too seriously. Because travelling is so much fun that I'd pick any chance to do it more often.

You have been warned: I share my tips with you but some of the links provided might provide me with a kickback. I promise that I won't misuse that principle to put you up with stuff you don't want or don't need. You can always decide not to click and search yourself.