Friday, August 31, 2012

Part 1: San Francisco to Tokyo in business class

Introduction
Last October, I had the privilege of flying in business class for a roundtrip transpacific itinerary from San Francisco to Taipei with a layover in Tokyo.  What normally would have cost $7,400 was doable for 120,000 United award miles, which came as a result of my credit card churns.  I will be covering this trip in full with 3 separate posts:
San Francisco to Tokyo
Tokyo to Taipei
Taipei to San Francisco

SFO to LAX on United first class
First class domestic travel on United and most U.S. carriers as a whole is always a joke.  With their limited recline and crampy legroom, these seats would barely pass for premium economy seats on Asian and European carriers.  Add that to rude flight attendant service and disgusting food, and you get United "first class".  Nothing to brag about here:
LAX Star Alliance Lounge
My lengthy 4-hour layover in LAX was mitigated with access to the Star Alliance Lounge, which is a benefit afforded to all travelers flying in international business or first class.  The LAX Star Alliance Lounge ranks as amongst one of the best business class lounges in the U.S.  The food, beverages, and service completely blew all domestic United Clubs out of the water.
The lounge had a good selection of premium alcohol and snacks.  With ample seating capacity, the lounge didn't appear to be full despite having 6 long-haul Star Alliance flights depart within hours of each other.  The service was phenomenal as flight attendants would walk around with signs notifying passengers of pre-boarding and final boarding for their respective flights.  An ANA customer service agent approached me and asked me if I was flying with ANA.  When I answered affirmatively, she took my boarding pass and checked to ensure that my checked bag was properly transferred from SFO to LAX and onto HND.  Four hours go by quickly when you're subjected to superb amenities and service.

LAX to HND in ANA business class
This 12-hour segment would prove to be the definitive hallmark of my trip.  I was amongst the first to board onto the Boeing 777 and was quickly personally greeted by my primary flight attendant, who handed me a menu and took my order.  The seat had a generous seat pitch of 62", though the width was subpar for longhaul business class seats.  The seat next to me was empty, so I had plenty of room for my belongings without the need of continually accessing the overhead storage bins.
Electronic seat controls.  Seat can be adjusted to upright, relax, and bed.
First on the menu was the appetizer and beverage.  The appetizer consisted of premium warmed nuts, a shrimp cocktail, and fruit.  I opted for champagne.
Because this was a redeye flight departing LAX at 1 am, a full breakfast meal wasn't served until 2 hours before landing.  However, the menu had snack items that can be ordered at any time in any quantity, resembling basically a buffet menu.  I ordered udon, salad, and a cheese plate for my midnight snack.
Midnight snack consisting of udon, premium salad, cottage cheese, and plums
After a movie and a nice 4-hour nap with my seat in lie-flat mode, it was time for breakfast.  Between the choice of a Western omelet meal set and a Japanese fish set, I opted for the fish meal set.
Of course, since everything in Japan is small, the meal wasn't enough to fulfill my appetite.  So I topped it off with snack menus: udon, ice cream, fruit, and more champagne.
Not enough for breakfast?  Then top it off with an udon, ice cream, and, of course, champagne.
You can never get enough fruit and drinks
Ever been on a flight and wish that you could stay on the plane for longer?  Unlikely, but this was an obvious exception.  With unlimited food and beverages, a sleeper seat, a vast movie on demand selection, and superior service, I wish this flight were twice as long.

ANA Arrival Lounge @ HND
After landing at 5 am, there's nothing like a nice warm shower at the Arrival Lounge.  Though less than spectacular, the Arrival Lounge was still a suitable place to rest, catchup on email, and enjoy a cup of coffee.  Perfect way to top off a formidable trip in business class.
Shower stalls
Not much in terms of snacks besides onigiri, but who needs food after a 12-hour buffet in business class?
Conclusion
This was a grand entrance into Tokyo and Japan, where I would soon be living.  There's nothing like the service, food, and amenities afforded in a premium cabin with an Asian legacy carrier.  Though the hard product could have been better with wider and fully flatbed seats, ANA actually takes pride in their service and offerings, which put U.S. carriers to absolute shame.

Next up: Tokyo to Taipei in business class

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

American Express SPG credit card now with 30,000 point sign-up bonus

American Express is offering a sign-up bonus of up to 30,000 points for the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card through September 4th.  10k points are awarded after the first purchase and an additional 20k after spending $5,000 within the first 6 months of cardmembership.  You earn 2 points per dollar spent at SPG hotel properties and 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else.  Annual fee of $65 is waived for the first year.  Although this may not seem like much of an offer with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card handing out 40k points after only $3k in purchases, Starpoints (SPG points) are easily the most valuable point currency in the market.

Starpoints to miles conversion
Starpoints can be converted to miles at a 1:1 conversion rate with 31 airline partners.  A 5k bonus is awarded to any conversion of 20k points to miles, so 20k Starpoints equates to 25k miles with most partners.  It should be noted that there is a 2:1 conversion rate with United miles, so this card isn't the best if you intend on earning UA miles with it.  However, the conversion rate to LAN Airlines is a generous 1:2, so you're looking at 45k LAN miles for 20k Starpoints, which is almost good enough for a roundtrip flight to South America and Brazil.  A good 1:1 conversion value is ANA miles, which are valued at 2 cents each.
Free hotel nights
The best bang for the buck for your points is with free nights at SPG hotels, which include St. Regis, Le Meridien, W, Westin, Sheraton, Four Points and more.  Hotels are ranked in terms of categories 1-7.  Generally, cheaper hotels like Four Points will be category 1-3, and luxury hotels like St. Regis will be within the 5-7 range.  A hidden point redemption gem is their "Cash & Points" redemption option.  At category 5 hotels, which regularly go for $350+ per night, your points can yield a value of over 5 cents each.  The 5th consecutive night is also free for hotel redemptions, enabling your points to take you even farther.
Amex unparalleled purchase protection benefits
This is what I love about Amex.  With complimentary accidental damage and theft protection within the first 90 days of most purchases, the hardest full on concrete, the dirtiest oil spill, the cruelest trip to the washing machine, and the sneakiest pocket-picking thief are all covered.  Amex usually requires no more than an online claim form and a picture reflecting the damage to your Macbook Air or Prada purse, and the full purchase price will be refunded back to your account, usually within days.  Add that to extended warranty, which effectively doubles your purchase's manufacturer warranty, and you're looking at easily the best purchase protection benefits of all credit cards.  Visa and MasterCard, on the other hand, require an array of claim forms, receipts, police reports, and repair estimates, spanning the process for months and negating the purpose of it.

Bottom line
Due to their flexible redemption options and high yields with free hotel nights, I value Starpoints at 3 cents each.  This puts them well ahead of the 1.7 cent valuation of Chase Sapphire points, though double point earnings make the Sapphire card a better option for restaurant and travel purchases.  30k Starpoints = $900 and 40k Sapphire points = $680, giving the SPG card a much better sign-up bonus than the Sapphire card.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jetstar offering intra-Japan flights from 2,290 JPY (~$29 USD) each way

As part of their summer special sale, Jetstar is offering intra-Japan flights from 2,290 JPY each way.  These routes include Osaka to Okinawa and Fukuoka.  Other popular routes such as Tokyo to Sapporo (2,990 JPY) and Osaka to Sapporo (3,490 JPY) are also discounted.  Check out the entire route list included in their special sale.  Website to view the specials fares is only available in Japanese, but you can switch the website to English and then search and buy the tickets.

HURRY!  Sales ends at 11:59 pm Japan time (7:59 am Pacific Standard Time) on 8/26.  Travel date requirements vary by routing.  Most special fares appear to be only available for weekday travel.  Please note that like other discount carriers in Japan, Jetstar has small seats and charges fees for checked bags, seat selection, and on-board drinks.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bay Area gets its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight

The Bay Area will be getting its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight when ANA commences its Tokyo (NRT) to San Jose (SJC) route on January 11th, 2013.  This is a long delayed inauguration as ANA had originally planned to begin flying this route on April 1st, 2012.  SJC, once an American Airlines hub and a major transit point during the golden dot-com era, has been reduced down to mostly regional and discount carrier routes since the the dot-com bubble imploded.  Since American Airlines discontinued their SJC-NRT route in 2007, the city of San Jose has been courting ANA for years to return transpacific flights to the estranged airport.  Home to behemoth tech companies like Adobe, eBay, Cisco, and Intel, San Jose hopes that this new route will bridge their businesses and residents with Asia.

ANA's confirmed flight schedule:
NH1076 DEPART NRT 17:35 – ARRIVE SJC 1010
NH1075 DEPART SJC 11:45 – ARRIVE NRT 1610+1

Booked Equipment: Boeing 787-8
Operate Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday
 
It should be noted that this flight only operates 5 days a week.  ANA is a Star Alliance carrier and will likely be partnering with United Airlines and US Airways to provide domestic connections.  However, Star Alliance flights out of SJC are currently limited to Denver, Houston, LA, and Phoenix, so don't expect a whole lot of domestic connections beyond SJC.  As a result, I anticipate extensive mileage award redemption availability on this flight.

Interior configuration
ANA was the first carrier to fly Boeing's long anticipated and delayed 787.  Consisting of mostly carbon fiber materials, the 787 is 25% more fuel efficient than comparable models.  Its sturdy structural integrity also allows for 30% larger state-of-the-art windows equipped with dimmers instead of sliding shades.  The 787's advanced electronically-driven compressor system produces an internal cabin pressure equivalent to an altitude of 6,000 feet instead of 8,000 feet for conventional jet liners, thus mitigating altitude sickness for prone customers.  ANA's 787 has an interior to be reckoned with:
Business class cabin with mood lighting.  Direct aisle access from every seat.
Fully flatbed seats with 180 degrees of recline, amongst the best hard products in the industry.
Business class self-serve sake bar
Economy class seats with larger windows and state-of-the-art electronic dimmers.  Each seat features expanded 34" seat pitch and audio/video on demand with outlet charging ports for your iPhone and electronic devices.
Expanded overhead storage bins with deeper compartments to accommodate rollerbags.
Economy class on-board bar with complimentary alcohol
Bidet toilet sprays: a Japanese signature product
Bottom line
Fares should be announced soon.  If you're using United MileagePlus award miles, economy and business class roundtrip fares should cost 65,000 and 120,000 miles, respectively.  A good redemption value considering the amazing hard product that ANA has to offer for its flagship plane.  Flying out of SJC also lessens the likelihood for weather-related delays and aircraft congestion that SFO flyers commonly face.  If this route excels, it could initiate the return of long-haul international flights out of SJC.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card now with lower spending requirement

Chase has relaunched their highly touted Sapphire Preferred credit card with a lower spending requirement for their 40,000 point sign-up bonus.  Originally at $3,000, the spending requirement has now been decreased to $2,000 within the first 3 months of card approval.  The annual fee is waived for the first year and $95 thereafter.  Ever since its inception last year, the Sapphire Preferred card has quickly become one of the most highly sought after credit cards given its protection benefits, point-earning potential, generous sign-up bonus, and point redemption flexibility via Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Full earning potential

Point valuation
With the 7% annual points dividend, you're essentially earning 2.14 points per dollar spent on travel and restaurants and 1.07 points for all other purchases.  Chase points can be converted to cash at a rate of 1 point per penny, with a 20% bonus redemption towards travel.  Thus, Chase advertises the 40,000 point sign-up bonus as a "$500 value" towards travel, valuing points at 1.2 cents each.  However, despite the 20% bonus, this method of point redemption results in one of the lowest redemption yields.  The Ultimate Rewards program allows 1:1 point conversions to frequent traveler programs such as United Airlines (Star Alliance), British Airways (Oneworld), Korean Airlines (Skyteam), Southwest, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, and Amtrak.  United Airlines miles and Hyatt points, valued at ~1.7 cents per point, are considered the most valuable amongst the Chase partners.  Thus, you're getting potentially 3.64% (1.7 cents x 2 points/$ x 7% dividend bonus) cashback on travel and restaurant purchases, and 1.82% cashback on all other purchases, which is much more valuable than the 1.2% travel bonus.

Benefits
Chase has partnered with Visa to offer a wide array of benefits.
Verdict
This card is hard to beat given all of its benefits, from point earnings to purchase protection.  If you don't already have one, now would be the time to apply for it.  Be sure that you can meet the minimum spending threshold of $2,000 within the first 3 months of approval, which isn't that hard especially since Visa is accepted virtually everywhere.  This is also an excellent card to complement with the Chase Freedom card as points can be exchanged between the two cards, resulting in astounding point yields with the Chase Freedom's quarterly rotating 5% cashback categories.

40,000 points = 40,000 United Airlines miles = free roundtrip flight from New York to Hawaii
Where will your points take you today?  Apply here.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Free $25 American Express prepaid card w/$200 Amex prepaid card purchase

American Express is offering a free $25 prepaid card for those who purchase and load $200 onto an Amex prepaid card.  Amex prepaid cards are near synonymous to Amex credit cards in terms of usage and benefits, so you're basically getting $25 for free.  There is a limit of 3 prepaid card purchases per person, so if you buy three prepaid cards and load $200 onto each of them, you're looking at a free $75.  Deposits can be done via direct deposit, a bank account, or with cash, though the $200 must be loaded at the time of the prepaid card purchase in order for you to be eligible to receive the free $25 card.

Amex prepaid cards can be used anywhere Amex is accepted and carry no transaction fees, monthly fees, annual fees, customer service fees, expiration date, or overdraft fees.  No credit check is required and they even offer one free ATM monthly withdrawal from your prepaid card.  Best of all, prepaid cards carry Amex's signature purchase protection and roadside assistance at no additional charge.  And unlike gift cards, Amex prepaid cards carry complimentary protection against card theft and fraudulent charges, so you won't be liable for any unauthorized purchases and Amex will deposit the money back into your card.


Seeing how the card carries virtually zero fees and zero liability, Amex is basically giving you $25 for 5 minutes of your time.  Offer expires on August 31st.  What do you think?  How many prepaid cards are you going to get?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Fly Alaska Airlines first class for only $329

Yesterday, Gary Leff posted an incredible deal with Icelandair that can get you a first class seat on Alaska Airlines for $329 + taxes.  Icelandair, an Alaska Air partner, allows you to book a roundtrip economy or first class ticket on Alaska Air for 20,000 and 30,000 award miles, respectively.  25k miles costs $329, and Icelandair is offering a 20% purchasing bonus through September 28th, thus topping you off at 30k miles.  The remarkable thing about this deal is that not only is 30k miles Icelandair's standard redemption rate with Alaska Air (not a glitch), but it'll get you a roundtrip first class award ticket to ANYWHERE Alaska Air flies, including transcontinental routes and Hawaii.

The first class cabins on Alaska Air's 737s may be nothing to bark over, but it's in line with all the other domestic carriers' narrow-body first class cabins.  Before purchasing miles with Icelandair, be sure to check with Alaska Air to make sure that an award flight booking is available for your desired trip.  It should also be noted that Icelandair has a roundtrip requirement for award travel on Alaska Air, so 15k won't get you a 1-way segment in first.

Alaska Air first class seats

Transcontinental routes out of Seattle, Portland, and LAX may be difficult to find in terms of award availability.  However, non-hub routes like San Jose or Oakland to Honolulu, Kahului (Maui), or Lihue (Kauai) show up with extensive award availability.  Considering that a roundtrip first class flight from SJC to HNL costs ~$1,330, this is a superb deal.

Questions?  Where would you like to fly on Alaska Air first class?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Singapore Airlines A380 coming to SFO this winter

Singapore Airlines will be giving SFO flyers a chance to experience their flagship Airbus A380 this winter with nonstop service to HKG, continuing onto SIN.  The super jumbo jet will be making its appearance for 3 months, following suit with seasonal SFO A380 flying by Air France and Lufthansa.  Most frequent flyers can only dream of sleeping in one of SQ's A380 first class suites, which blow all U.S. carriers' premium cabins out of the water.  Unfortunately, as expected, SQ is blocking all partner award redemptions for their premium cabins.  Economy, biz, and first seats are currently showing up for $1188, $6335, and $12540, respectively.  So unless your boss hands you a luscious year-end bonus, you'll probably want to sit with the peasants in the lower deck economy cabin.

What do you think?  Worth the bonus expenditure?


SQ's A380 super-sexy exclusive first class twin-cabin suite


Business class: still in a league of its own









   
Where the peasants roam   






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