Saturday, 27 April 2019

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

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

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

Singapore


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Marriott sweetspot reward booking: Brescia, Italy

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 April 2019

Fighting hidden forex charges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for something positive on British Airways

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

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

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

Brief review of Lufthansa short-haul business class

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

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

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