Peak summer + United TP mess + SFO’s best food + Virgin at SJC

PRICEY SUMMER. This is expected to be the busiest summer travel season since before the recession of 2008. The peak of the peak summer travel season, which runs from roughly June 21 through August 10 this year, is now upon us. Summer got off to a slow start at SFO this week, with the rainy weather resulting in ground stops and delays of up to 2-3 hours, while Oakland and San Jose Airports were operating normally.  Airlines say that the busiest days of this summer will be Thursdays and Fridays, so avoid those if you can. Since this is THE most expensive, most crowded time of year to travel, try to postpone trips until late August if you can, and you may get through this summer with your wallet and sanity intact. (Check out the above video, which is part of a summer travel project I’ve been working on with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.)

United flight attendants improvisation when toilet paper ran low. (Credit: Unknown)

United flight attendants improvised when toilet paper ran low on an London-SFO flight (Credit: Unknown)

UNUSUAL TP ON UNITED? By now you’ve likely heard about United flight 931 from London to San Francisco that somehow took off… without enough toilet paper. United uses a 747-400 on the 10-hour daylight flight from Heathrow, which has nine lavatories. Over the last week, the story has gone viral. A quick Google news search using “United Toilet Paper” shows at least 28 stories have run so far.While it appears that the Bay Area’s KGO Channel 7 scooped this story locally (which was originally posted on FlyerTalk), here’s our favorite take on it, from the Daily Beast: “Is it us, or does flying keep getting crappier? Every airline seems to be cutting back on something, but United took it to a whole new level by taking off for a ten-hour flight without [enough] toilet paper on board. Some quick thinking flight attendants stocked the bathrooms with cocktail napkins, but the effort didn’t sit well with passengers. In a statement, United said, ‘We apologize to our customers on this flight for the inconvenience and would like the opportunity to welcome them back.’” Another good headline from USA Today: “United is wiping up after a customer service mess.” CNN confirmed that the lavatories lacking TP were in the coach section, not in business or first class. Thoughts please! Leave them below in the comments section. 

Precheck logo TMPRE-CHECK AT SFO TERMINAL 1. The TSA’s super-popular PreCheck lanes are coming to Delta’s gate area at SFO’s Terminal 1, boarding area C, by mid-July according to SFO spokesman Doug Yakel. This means that PreCheck will now have lanes in all three domestic terminals at SFO; however, PreCheck will NOT have a lane in Terminal 1, boarding area B used primarily by United Express, Southwest and US Airways. PreCheck is one part of the No Hassle Travel Trifecta that every frequent traveler in the Bay Area should be a part of!

BEST FOOD AT SFO?. One of our favorite foodie blogs, Eater SF, recently chose the top 5 dining standouts at SFO. Do you agree with the following assessment? What’s your favorite place to grab a meal at SFO?

  1. Piq.  Italian influenced café and bakery in Terminal 1
  2. Ebisu. Hard-core sushi in the International Terminal G-side (United side).
  3. Burger Joint. Above average burgers in Terminal 2
  4. Yankee Pier. Good ole standby seafood house located near security lanes in United’s Terminal 3
  5. Cat Cora’s Kitchen. Upscale comfort food (like lobster mac and cheese) in Terminal 2

SUMMER DEALS TO ASIA. Singapore Airlines launched an interesting “Early Bird” sale for late summer and early fall travel this month. Every week, it puts a new Asian destination on sale. It started out with Singapore at $999 round trip, and has followed with Thailand and Vietnam at $1100 round trip. You must book tickets by June 29th and travel between August 18 and November 15. Singapore Air also posts last minute deals for trips as soon as July 16 to its stopover cities (Hong Kong and Seoul) for $784 to $964 roundtrip. (Fares are “all in”- including all taxes and fees.) These deals are not bad considering a roundtrip nonstops from SFO to Europe are in the $1,500 range for late August trips.

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TAKE BART TO THE AIRPORT? You may want to start thinking about alternatives starting next week as a strike looms. SFgate reports: With a BART strike appearing increasingly possible, Bay Area transportation officials are urging commuters to start planning for the gridlock and chaos that could be unleashed on Monday morning. Labor agreements with BART and its five unions expire at midnight Sunday.”

WILL YOU MAKE PREMIER? Based on our recent poll, BAT readers are split regarding the impact of United’s recently announced spending thresholds for Premier status. Over half of you (57%) said that you’ll be able to maintain status (easily or just barely) while 43% said that you would not be able to meet the new spending requirements. See the poll (and vote!) here.

VIRGIN WINNING SJC-LAX. Remember when Virgin America announced that it would enter the San Jose-Los Angeles market with new nonstops on May 1? As soon as Virgin made that move, other airlines pounced, adding new service or beefing up existing flights, making the route one of the most competitive in the country with multiple daily flights from Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest and Virgin. At a recent Bay Area/Silicon Valley Business Travel Association meeting, John MacLeod, Virgin’s SVP Planning & Sales, told The BAT that according to ARC data (which does not include Southwest), Virgin already has the highest share of passengers on the route. However, MacLeod is not resting easy, adding, “Despite our low costs we’ll need it to be even higher to make a profit on the route. It’s very competitive.” Where’s all the biz coming from? MacLeod says that more Silicon Valley travelers than expected are driving to San Jose International and then flying Virgin to LAX to connect to transcon flights instead of facing the traffic-clogged 101 north to SFO.

United employees in new duds (Photo: United Airlines)

United employees in new duds (Photo: United Airlines)

NEW DUDS FOR UNITED. United employees will don new uniforms today. Here’s how a United press release describes them: Flight Attendants: The uniform includes a core wardrobe of black trousers, skirts, sweaters, vests and blazers with two rows of silver braid on the sleeves. Female flight attendants will also wear sweaters, vests, short sleeve jackets and two styles of dresses, including a signature blue dress with a black stripe detail. Outerwear for male and female flight attendants includes a black all-season coat and an optional gray double-breasted wool coat. Customer Service Agents: The uniform includes a wardrobe of black blazers, trousers, sweaters, vests and skirts. Agents will also wear colored shirts and distinctive neckwear that vary depending on their job responsibilities. What do you think? Please leave your comments below. 

NEW PLANES FOR UNITED. At the Paris Air Show earlier this month, United announced that it would order 35 of a “stretch” version of the new Airbus A350, the 350-seat Airbus A350-1000. A350s are new super-efficient composite aircraft introduced to compete with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Deliveries of the new plane will not begin until 2018. United already has 65 Dreamliners in the pipeline—20 of which will be the newer, larger 787-10 stretch version. All of these new planes will be used for long-haul international flying.

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NO MORE RENO-OAKLAND. Southwest Airlines is eliminating its 2x daily nonstops between Reno and Oakland this month due to lack of interest. However, you can still fly to Reno from San Jose (on Alaska) and SFO (on United).

The apple-sized Beacon Phoenix wireless speaker in my NYC hotel room (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The apple-sized Beacon Phoenix wireless speaker in my NYC hotel room (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

PORTABLE BLUETOOTH SPEAKERS. Last month Beacon Audio sent me one of their new, fist-sized, Phoenix Bluetooth speakers ($49-$99 depending on where you buy it) for a test drive. I’m no audiophile, but this tough, rubberized, rechargeable and travel-friendly speaker packs a wallop of sound that’s great for jamming on iTunes in the hotel shower—it also adds a deeper dimension to watching videos on my iPad. I plan on bringing it to the beach later this summer. Do you pack a portable speaker for your listening pleasure when on the road? What’s your speaker of choice? Why? Please leave your comments below.

MORE MEGA-MILE BONUSES. Remember when I wrote about Rocketmiles and Pointshound—two new hotel booking sites that offer mega-mileage bonuses at select hotels? Well both have some out with news this month. First, Rocketmiles has teamed up with Virgin America, and is offering Elevate elites a big 5,000-point bonus for the first hotel booking; regular members get a 3,000-point bonus. Details on the bonus here. Pointshound is offering a 500-point bonus on Virgin America, United and several other carriers, but only for bookings made by the end of June. (Note: We have posted affiliate links to these sites and earn bonus points, too, when readers book trips. So help us out!)

United's new half bottles of wine. Would you?

United’s new half bottles of wine. Would you?

BIG JUGS ON UNITED. Have you seen the new 375 ml half bottles of wine that United is serving on p.s. flights? Each bottle (2.5 glasses) costs $15.99. Currently on offer: Meiomi Pinot Noir 2011 or St Supery Sauvignon Blanc 2012. Both rate 91+ on Wine Spectator. In a related story, Spirit Air is now selling canned wine onboard—in white or strawberry moscato at $7 per can. The press release says, “This new category is defined by delectable wine products in a convenient, environmentally-friendly container with six percent alcohol content.

NEW STAR ALLIANCE PARTNER. Taipei-based EVA Air has officially joined Star Alliance, which means you can earn and burn United miles, albeit at reduced levels, when flying on EVA’s Boeing 777 SFO-TPE nonstops. United’s planned nonstops between SFO and TPE, which were to have cranked up this past April, have been shelved until (at least) next March.

EMIRATES A380 TO LAX. SFO? Emirates announced last month that it would begin flying a double-decker, 489-seat, Airbus A380 between Los Angeles and Dubai starting December 2. As soon as I heard that, I wanted to know when it might bring the big bird in to replace the current B777s on SFO-DXB, but received the following non-committal answer from Emirates PR reps, “Emirates has not announced plans to bring the A380 into any additional US destinations but continues to review destinations as more A380s are delivered. Emirates, the largest A380 operator in the world, has 34 A380s in service and an additional 56 A380s on order; receiving one A380 delivery per month, on average.” While having an Emirates A380 at SFO would be great, keep in mind that the behemoth with have to dock at the far end of the international terminal, which would mean elimination of allowing business and first class passengers to board the plane directly from SFO’s enormous 9,500 sq ft Emirates lounge (which is located in the middle, not the end of the terminal).

-Chris McGinnis


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5 travel fees worth paying

The evening spread at the Park Royal on Pickering in Singapore is substantial. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The evening spread at the Park Royal on Pickering in Singapore is substantial. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The whole country seems to be making a collective groan when it comes to planning summer vacations.

And why not?

An early look at airfares (especially to Europe) shows some painful peak pricing, especially in July and early August. For example, nonstops from San Francisco International to cities such as London, Frankfurt and Paris are already running $1,400+ roundtrip. (And if you don’t book now, you’ll likely pay close to $2000 round trip later this summer.)

United made us all go bug-eyed when it announced that it was raising change fees on nonrefundable tickets to an egregious $200 last month. Our eyes popped even more when American, Delta and US Airways quickly matched the higher fee.

Then Frontier Airlines announced that it would begin charging $2 for in-flight beverages (including water) and $100 for gate-checked bags that don’t fit under the seat.

While I think that bag fees and change fees are rotten, the airlines love them—last year they collected nearly $6 billion in baggage and change fees alone. Fees, which now comprise nearly 30% of airline revenues,  are what’s been keeping them in the black in recent years.

But airlines aren’t the only ones playing fee-for-all. By now nearly every frequent traveler has been hit by a surprise “resort fee” or overpriced wi-fi fee at hotels. (Beware of those evil “per device” vs per room wi-fi fees, especially when traveling with others!) Rental car companies pile on all kinds of extra “concession” fees or hit us with obnoxiously high per-gallon fees when we don’t have time to fill up the car on the way back to the airport.

United Economy Plus seating usually provides enough room to work on laptops. (Photo: United)

United Economy Plus seating usually provides enough room to work on laptops. (Photo: United)

But all fees aren’t bad. As a matter of fact, I’m happy to pay fees that can truly improve my travel experience.

Here are five fees I don’t mind paying:

>Roomier seats. Elite level members of airline frequent flyer programs get free access to “premium economy” seats near the front of the cabin and by exit rows. However, non-elite travelers can pay a fee for access to these seats. Airlines determine such fees by the length of the flight and demand, and can range from $10 to $100. But on a long flight, a few extra inches can provide enough space to open up a laptop and be productive inflight. It can also make a big difference in comfort if you are tall like me, so it’s a fee I’ll pay when I have to.

>Early boarding. One of the most cherished benefits of elite status with airlines is the ability to board first and lay claim to overhead bin space. However, I spread my airline business around, and I’m not elite on every carrier I fly. So, for example, I’m happy to pay Southwest a $12.50 “Early Bird” fee to get me near the front of the boarding line—especially in the heat of the summer when planes are packed and overhead bin space scarce.

>Inflight wi-fi. When inflight wi-fi from Gogo or Row 44 works well (which seems increasingly rare), it’s definitely worth the fee to me, especially on transcontinental flights. This year, United is installing satellite-based wi-fi on its international fleet. It helps pass the time, keeps me productive and eliminates arriving at my destination to a full email box. $20 for a good connection on a five-hour flight? Sure. That’s money well spent to me.

Tip: To help sooth the sting of high fees, consider this: When you charge these travel related fees on credit cards linked to rewards programs, you are earning points you can use for free trips down the road. For example, with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, I earn two points per dollar spent on travel (including most fees). Eventually, all those charges will add up to points I can redeem to help cut the high cost of future trips.

Inside the nice new Club at LAS near the Virgin America gates at Las Vegas McCarran Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inside the nice new Club at LAS near the Virgin America gates at Las Vegas McCarran Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>Airport Club access. Have you ever been stuck in Chicago, Dallas, Houston or Atlanta during the summer thunderstorm season? Hordes of summer vacationers milling around…air conditioning systems straining to keep things cool…then the clouds roll in and gum up the works for hours. That’s the time it’s worth the $50 fee for a day pass to airport lounge. But get there early—once the lounge fills up, it’s open to members only. Also, be on the lookout for new non-airline, pay-to-play lounges such as The Club at SJC, Club at LAS (Las Vegas) or others like it- the per use fee is just $35 and definitely worth it during a long layover!

>Hotel Club Floor. When you know a trip is going to be all business all the time (and you don’t plan to get out much), a hotel club, executive or concierge floor is almost always worth the extra cost. When you pay the premium, you’ll likely get breakfast, snacks, booze (sometimes) and heavy hors d’oeuvres at night, free wi-fi, gym and business center access. Rooms are usually slightly larger and likely to be on upper floors offering better views. Plus, you can check in and out in the lounge and not have to wait in lines that can form in the hotel lobby. If I’m not planning to get out much, I’m usually happy to pay the premium of 20% or 30%.

Do you agree? Which travel fees seem most onerous to you? Which are you happy, even eager to pay? PLEASE leave your comments below. 

-Chris McGinnis

HAVE YOU READ THE CURRENT ISSUE OF THE BAT: New 787 Dreamliner flight at SFO, Mileage Plus ranks highly, Sour Milk, SFO Airport Tiff, Virgin America loss, Tito’s vodka, dream of a new Terminal 1 at SFO.  Let’s catch up on Bay Area Travel news right now>>>

Disclosure: My company, Travel Skills Group, Inc, has a commercial relationship with Chase Card Services, which is mentioned in this post.


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Late summer fare sales require fast action

Southwest’s California flag-themed B737-one of my favorites- at SFO. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Several airlines have launched a pretty good fare sale for late summer trips- starting as soon as late July and lasting into fall months. However, you must act fast- the good deals are available for the next one to three days only.

For example, Virgin America is offering round trips of $156 (all in) for SFO to LA, San Diego or Las Vegas. Chicago is $378 round trip. Washington, DC and Philly are running at about $400 round trip. The popular SFO-JFK run does not seem to be included in this sale…nearly all fares, even on those awful red-eyes are in the $500 range. The sale fares are only good for travel Monday-Thursday from July 31 through September 12. If you fly on Tuesday or Weds, JetBlue will take you down to Long Beach for $130 round trip. To get these fares, you must book by this Wednesday, July 18 at midnight.

Southwest is offering a pretty good fall fare sale, but the deals don’t kick in until August 20 and are good for travel through December 14 (minus some blackout dates around holidays.) I found SFO-Atlanta for as little as $300 round trip (good on Southwest or AirTran). SFO or OAK to Chicago Midway is about $350. There are plenty of other cities on sale from the Bay Area, so just click on the link above to see them. Sale fares on Southwest or AirTran are available on all days except Sunday, and must be booked by this Friday, July 20.

United has Denver or Austin on sale for about $250 round trip (all in) during August and September. New York JFK and Chicago are in the low $400′s all in. Boston for $360 round trip is not bad for August. You can still buzz over to London (everyone I’ve talked to says that it’s as polished and ready as ever) for just $880 round trip in September or October when the crowds have gone home and the weather is at its best. How about SFO-San Juan, Puerto Rico for just $315 round trip? I’ve rarely seen fares from the Bay to the Caribbean as low as that! Midweek trips from the Bay Area to Honolulu are down as low as $450 which is not bad for mid-August. United has not published an end date for booking, but it’s likely similar to other airlines… which are running for the next 24-48 hours only.

Most other major carriers have matched these fares so shop around if you can’t find what you are looking for. Please keep in mind that I checked these fares on Tuesday morning, July 17, so they are subject to change.

It is interesting to see airlines discounting fares for travel during August- typically one of the busiest and most expensive times of the year for air travel. Clearly, demand for summer trips has not met the airlines’ expectations, which is a signal to me that consumers are becoming increasingly skittish.

What about you? Are you up for a late summer vacation? Or are you making plans for business trips this fall? Are these fares low enough to make you jump? 



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Summer fare sale shockers


American's fare "sale?"

Have you checked out the latest round of summer fare “sales?”

I’m shocked! Not because fares are so low…but because the so-called fare “sale” rates are so…sky high.

Blame it on the high cost of fuel, declining capacity or increasing demand, but these fares hurt!

If you are planning to fly this summer, you better start saving now. Or start mapping out a summer road trip, which is looking more and more appealing with the price of gasoline declining.

A few examples of roundtrips from a “fare sale” trumpeted by American Airlines today:

  • SFO>St Louis: $538
  • SFO>Houston: $512
  • SFO>Ft Lauderdale: $480
  • SFO>Los Angeles (LAX): $186

Also today Virgin America trotted out a special introductory fare on flights to its newest airport, Washington National: $400 round trip! Ouch! And that’s only if you can fly on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday after August 14th. Those flying on other days will pay about $550 round trip. United, which just started flying nonstop between SFO and Washington National this month, is currently asking for a whopping $674 round trip for travel in late June. Double ouch!

Thinking about a July trip to Hawaii? Right now, you can’t find a seat on a nonstop for less than about $728 roundtrip between SFO, Oakland or San Jose and Honolulu.

Got some business to take care of in NYC? Get ready to pay up! Even in this hypercompetitive market, the lowest fares for nonstops from SFO in mid July are now in the $400-$500 range.

Thinking about Europe but you have not bought your ticket yet? Air France will fly you round trip between SFO and Paris nonstop for a mere $1,679 in July or August. Nonstops on United or Lufthansa to Frankfurt are now about $1500 round trip. How about SFO-London for a little pre-Olympics action in July? British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic will get you there for about $1,400 round trip.  If you would like to fly in for the Games, fares are $2,000+ for economy class round trips.

My best advice for those on a budget is to try and schedule your trips before about June 15, or after about August 24—a cheaper period outside the peak of the peak summer travel season. If your schedule can handle it, choose one-stop flights or red-eyes, which tend to be cheaper. Most times, you’ll find cheaper fares on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Saturdays.

Have you searched summer fares yet? Please provide any highs or lows (or onerous restrictions) you’ve found in the comments boxes below. 


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Brouhaha boils re: early boarding for babies


Here’s my opinion (via interview on CBS news last night) about that brouhaha brewing about United’s new policy not allowing families with kids to board early. Do you agree or disagree? Is the new policy fair to families? Or to frequent travelers?

My take: Airlines have lost control of the boarding process. There are so many people with “special” boarding privileges that the entire plane can fill up before general boarding (Zone 1) ever begins.

For example, United now offers special early boarding to those who have paid for its new Explorer credit card. They also offer early boarding to their best customers, such as Global Services or 1K members, or Star Alliance partners with status. Then there are those who’ve actually paid significantly more than everyone else on the plane for business or first class seats. United also offers early boarding to military in uniform and passengers using wheelchairs or crutches.

Until now, it’s allowed families with children to board early, too. Well, during summer travel season, families traveling with children can comprise half the passengers on the plane. (Flown to Orlando lately? You’ll see…)

So by the time “general boarding” starts, the plane is almost full- and nearly all the precious overhead bin space it taken. It’s crazy…and it irritates United’s best customers… those who have paid more for their tickets, or shown their loyalty as elite leve members of Mileage Plus.

So while it might appear that United’s policy change is an “anti-family” move, I think it brings some sanity back to the boarding process. And I also think that frequent travelers should be on the lookout for moms and dads boarding with them who need a little extra help when getting on the plane, and offer a hand getting settled.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.