Thursday, September 27, 2012

Barclays NFL credit card with $400 sign-up bonus

As the NFL welcomes the return of their hallowed original referees, the Barclays NFL credit card is seemingly celebrating by offering a 40,000 point sign-up bonus after $1,000 in spending within the first 90 days.  40k points = $400 statement credit or $400 credit towards travel (airfare, lodging, car rentals, cruises, etc).  For all of you NFL fans out there, points can also be redeemed for NFL team jerseys for 12k and two regular season game tickets for 25k.  The card also offers a 20% discount at and 2X points on NFL purchases, whether online, at team pro-shops, or in-stadium.  Whereas NFL points aren't worth nearly as much as American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards points, this card carries a much lower $1,000 spending requirement and no annual fee.  So this is a good card whether you care about the NFL or not.
Which team logo are you going to select to have on your card?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Tokyo Haneda to Sapporo on Japan Airlines

This is the second and final installment on my trip to Tokyo last weekend for the "Keirō no Hi" holiday.  For my return flight, I flew from Tokyo Haneda (HND) to Sapporo (CTS), which is the busiest air route in the world with 9 million passengers carried last year.  This is due to the fact that Sapporo is the only major city in Japan that is inaccessible via Shinkansen, Japan's renowned Bullet Train.  So what could be done in as little as 3 1/2 hours on the Sinkansen is extended to 10+ hours on conventional trains.

HND airport check-in
HND is the busiest airport in Japan and the second busiest in Asia.  It serves as the main domestic hub for ANA and JAL, Japan's two legacy carriers.  Both carriers operate an astounding 34 daily flights between HND and CTS mostly on jumbojet Boeing 777 and 747s, combining for 68 planes flown.  Although my flight was full, I was able to secure a bulkhead aisle seat with expanded legspace, so I didn't bother to pay the extra 1,000 yen to upgrade to J class.
I arrived at HND 45 minutes before my departure time and headed for JAL's First Class check-in counter.  Normally, this would spell danger, especially for a primary hub like HND.  But as usual, I was the only passenger in line.
JAL's exclusive first class check-in "room"
JAL not only has a First Class check-in counter, but an actual First Class check-in "room" dedicated to domestic first class passengers and Oneworld Emerald members.  The room exits right into a security checkpoint, which had no line and took all but a minute to pass.  Upon passing the security checkpoint, you are greeted with escalators taking you up to JAL's Sakura Lounge and the Diamond Premier Lounge.

Diamond Premier Lounge
The Diamond Premier Lounge is JAL's exclusive flagship domestic lounge dedicated to first class passengers and Oneworld Emerald members.  Although it doesn't come even close to comparing with JAL's international lounges, it still offers a unique environment with exclusive amenities such as sofa suites, massage chairs, and French pastries.

Although the Diamond Premier Lounge was significantly better than the Sakura Lounge @CTS, it still serves as more of a place to relax and catch up on email since the food and drink offerings don't excel.  In other words, go to one of the ramen restaurants in the terminal if you're hungry.

Flight experience
Since it was a Monday night at the end of a long weekend, the terminal was an absolute madhouse.  There were over a hundred people in line at the gate before boarding even began.  This is where elite status comes into play as I got to cut in front of everyone as one of the first to board.
The bulkhead aisle seat was better than what I expected.  Instead of facing a wall, it's the first row behind J class, and you're afforded with double the seat pitch as a normal economy class seat.
The seat even featured underseat storage, which is usually a sacrifice that emergency exit and bulkhead passengers make.  Looking behind me, this was by far the best economy seat in the house.

I was glad I didn't upgrade to J class as this was one of the best economy seats I've ever sat in.  Along with expanded seat space, you're also the first to be served in your cabin.  As usual, JAL makes their check-in and boarding process seamless for their elite passengers, which is amazing considering how it's the airline's biggest hub in the second busiest airport in Asia.  Facing a saturated terminal was actually the last thing I expected upon exiting the lounge as the check-in room and lounge were nowhere near full.  For a domestic airport, HND is joy to fly out of as it maintains the elegance and efficiency of the Japanese service industry.
Back in Sapporo, where the flower fields roam . . . in July

Friday, September 21, 2012

Best credit card sign-up deals

I frequently receive requests from travelers wishing to maximize credit card sign-up bonuses.  Needless to say, credit card bonuses are the best, easiest, and cheapest way to churn miles for your next trip to Asia or Europe.  For example, with its 50,000 point sign-up bonus, the American Express Gold Business card will land you enough miles for a roundtrip flight to Japan with the sign-up bonus alone.  A consolidated list of the best credit card offers is available on Lucky's blog with Boarding Area.  My personal picks are the following:

Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card
40,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3,000 within three months; no annual fee the first year

Chase Hyatt Visa card
Two free nights at any Hyatt worldwide after first purchase; one free night each year at category 1-4 hotels; $75 annual fee the first year

Chase Ink Plus Business card
25,000 Ultimate Rewards points after your first purchase, and 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $10,000 within three months; no annual fee the first year

American Express Gold Business card
50,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 within three months; no annual fee the first year

With all these valuable offers and churning opportunities, which credit card is for you?  It's a difficult question to answer, and it depends mostly on where your destination is.  Obviously, the Chase Hyatt card means little to anyone who's staying at their grandma's place in China.  But to anyone flying to a destination with a flagship Park Hyatt hotel like the Maldives or Dubai, then the Hyatt card can yield a value in excess of $1,400.  If you're flying to Japan, then you'll want the Amex Gold biz card since points can be converted to ANA miles at a 1:1 ratio.  A roundtrip ANA award trip from SFO to Tokyo can be redeemed for as little as 40k miles, so the 50k sign-up bonus gives you more than enough miles for the trip.  However, if you're planning a trip to Athens with a stopover in Stockholm, then Chase Ultimate Rewards will be more valuable since United miles (transferable at a 1:1 ratio) allows you to go anywhere in Europe with a free stopover for 60k miles.

All said and done, there isn't a card that can be deemed "the best" because they all offer different perks and transfer options.  For advice on which card is best for you or if I'm simply missing anything, please comment below.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

AMAZING flight deals to Asia from $546 roundtrip!!

@TheFlightDeal has posted some INCREDIBLE flight deals to Asia from select U.S. cities starting at $546 roundtrip!!  Check out their post for the full details including city pairings and date availability.  Among some of the notable routes:

Oakland, California:
  • Hong Kong – $601
  • Singapore – $666
  • Tokyo – $796
  • Bangkok – $783
  • Taipei – $640
  • Manila – $670
  • Osaka – $804
Los Angeles:
  • Hong Kong – $587
  • Singapore – $652
  • Tokyo – $782
  • Bangkok – $769
  • Taipei – $546
  • Manila – $656
  • Osaka – $797
New York:
  • Hong Kong – $587
  • Singapore – $633
  • Tokyo – $782
  • Shanghai – $784
  • Bangkok – $769
  • Taipei – $626
  • Manila – $511
  • Osaka – $783
Valid Travel Dates:
  • Limited travel dates — this applies for ALL city pairs:
    • Outbound: September 25th or 26th
    • Return: October 2nd, 3rd, 9th, 10th, 16th, 17th, 23rd, 24th, 30th, 31st. November 6th, 7th, 13th, 14th, 20th, 21st, 27th, 28th. December 4th or 6th.
  • So you must leave the US in September and return in October, November or December, bu if you have flexibility, this is a great fare
  • Must purchase by September 21st — this does not mean the fare will last until then

Please note the very limited travel dates and the fact that it must be booked by September 21st.  This is an excellent trip opportunity for those of you who can be flexible as fares haven't been this low in years.  Use Google's ITA Airfare Search to find the deal, then visit the airline's website to book the flight.  Available carriers include United, Delta, and American Airlines.  HURRY, as these fares will end SOON!!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sapporo to Tokyo Narita on Japan Airlines "J" class

I flew to Tokyo Narita (NRT) on Japan Airlines this past weekend for Japan's "Keirō no Hi" holiday.  Although Sapporo (CTS) to Tokyo Haneda is the busiest air route in the world, CTS to NRT undergoes exponentially less fanfare due to NRT's hefty distance from Tokyo's city center.  Most flyers traveling to NRT have onward connecting international flights.  So instead of operating 17 jumbo Boeing 777s per day between CTS and HND, JAL only flies 3 narrow-body 737's daily between CTS and NRT.

CTS airport
This is where Japan Airlines exhibits the epitome of airport efficiency for elite travelers.  As a top-tier Oneworld Emerald member, I am given the privilege of checking in at the first class counter.  As usual, there was no line and check-in took all but a minute.
The Sakura Lounge is located adjacent to the left of the first class check-in counter.  But what's truly amazing is that the lounge has its own security checkpoint.  As usual, there was no line for the security checkpoint, which took all but another minute.
The Sakura Lounge, itself, was subpar.  The only snack offerings were small crackers.  Soft drinks and juices were plentiful, but only beer off the tap was offered.  In other words, no premium alcohol or snacks to fill your stomach.  If anything, the lounge is more of a place to relax and check your email with free WiFi before your short flight.  The lounge's exit is neatly positioned right in front of the boarding gates, so you leave right into your gates.

Because the flight was full and I wasn't able to secure an emergency exit seat, I paid 1,000 Japanese yen (~$12.72 USD) to upgrade to J class, which is JAL's domestic business class product.  J class offers wider, more comfortable seats with expanded pitch space.  The pitch space and seat recline is in line with U.S. domestic carrier first class seats.  However, no food or alcohol is offered, so you're paying up exclusively for the hard product.
As a Oneworld Emerald, I was amongst the first to board the plane, which makes a significant difference in terms of locating overhead storage space.  However, it also means getting repeatedly smacked in the head by boarding passengers' bags as they make their way to the end of the cabin.

NRT arrival
On landing, you feel like a mouse amongst giants.  As Asia's busiest international hub, NRT is stockpiled with widebody and jumbojets like the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380.  In fact, NRT domestic flights don't even have actual boarding gate causeways, so you're taken to/fro your plane via bus.
The poor old lady needs an escalator
JAL @CTS has got to be one of the most efficient airport experiences for elite travelers.  A 3-minute check-in to boarding gate progression is far from being a pipe dream.  JAL has this process down to a science, and it works miracles for their elite travelers.  A 30-minute check-in to boarding gate progression is wishful thinking even for elite U.S. domestic travelers at major hubs.  A 1,000 yen seat upgrade is reasonable for a 1 1/2 hour flight.  It'd actually be more justifiable for longer 2+ hour domestic flights such as CTS to Fukuoka since JAL charges the same regardless of the domestic destination.  NRT is definitely not a prime domestic traveler's destination as it's tailored towards connecting passengers.  I can't imagine what it would be like disembarking the plane on a rainy or snowy day.  So unless you're visiting your friend in Narita, which was my case, HND is, by far, the better and more convenient option for passengers wishing to travel to Tokyo.
View from the wing

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

$50 off Alaska Airlines flight - California residents only

Alaska Airlines is handing out $50 discount codes for signing up with their free Mileage Plan frequent flyer program.  Discount is limited to California residents departing from a California city to any Alaska Air destination.  Travel must be completed by November 10th with a minimum $100 fare.  Since Alaska Air has matched United's $299 West Coast to Hawaii sale, this discount could get you a roundtrip flight from Oakland to Lihue (Kauai) for $246.  Note that very few weekend slots are available in terms of the sale.  Alaska Air flies to Honolulu, Kahalui (Maui), Kona (Big Island), and Lihue out of San Jose and Oakland.

OAK to LIH for October:
SJC to HNL for October:
If you can be flexible, you'll be able to get to Hawaii for a fare that hasn't been this cheap in years.  To top it off, Alaska Air partners with Delta and American Airlines, so you can earn either Delta or AA elite qualifying miles when flying with Alaska Air.  Jump on this deal while it lasts as Alaska Air's sign-up bonus ends on October 26th and these low fares to Hawaii will be pulled soon.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

United Airlines: $299 roundtrip from the West Coast to Hawaii

Well, Alaska Airlines' amazing $329 first class deal to Hawaii with Icelandair has ended.  But United Airlines is now offering roundtrip fares from the West Coast to Hawaii for $299.  Eligible travel dates vary, and the deal seems to be going on from now until mid-December.  Doing a quick search for a 4-night stay, I found these timeframes for a roundtrip flight between SFO and Honolulu (HNL):
Good to see plenty of availability for weekend travel, so this could be your next weekend getaway.  The $299 fares are also available for SFO to Maui (OGG), and $323 fares are available for SFO to Kauai (LIH) and Big Island (KOA).  However, SFO to HNL seems to yield the most availability since it's the most competitive route.  Delta Airlines has matched the $299 SFO-HNL fare, which includes all taxes and fees.  I would book soon as there is no telling how long this sale will last.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Part 3: Taipei to San Francisco in business class

This is the third and final installment of my multi-city trip to Asia last October.
San Francisco to Tokyo
Tokyo to Taipei
Taipei to San Francisco

After 3 weeks in Japan and Taiwan, it was time to head home.  Currently, Star Alliance doesn't offer any nonstop flights between Taipei (TPE) and San Francisco, so my option was to either stopover in Narita with United or in Seoul (ICN) with Thai Airways.  Because I have yet to fly on Thai Airways and have never been to ICN, I opted for the Seoul stopover.

TPE to ICN on Thai Airways business class
My flight was delayed by 45 minutes, which would cut my connecting flight in ICN very close as I only had a 1 1/2 hour layover.  Thai Airways scales down on their hard product for short-haul flights.  Whereas long-haul flights from Bangkok to LAX will have premium flatbed seats, 2 1/2 hour flights such as mine were nothing more than large recliner seats.
Thai Airways is famed for their service and food.  The appetizer presentation was good for such a short flight.
After this, I expected a grand main course presentation.  Boy was I in for very a disappointing surprise.
The food tasted as good as it looked: unsatisfactory.  This "main course" was hardly better than what United offers to its economy passengers on long-haul flights.  I don't even want to know what the economy passengers in my flight were offered (if anything).  The dessert, on the other hand, was small but acceptable.
Despite offering sound service, Thai Airways missed the mark on this one.  Perhaps I was expecting too much out of a 2 1/2 flight.  It would appear that Thai Airways garners its exquisite reputation from their long-haul product.

ICN to SFO on United Airlines business class
Thanks to Thai Airways' delayed flight, I nearly missed my connection and arrived at the gate just minutes before boarding began.  This was a bummer as I missed out on Asiana's Lounge at ICN.  Surprisingly, United Airlines' business class is one of the better transpacific hard products.  The seats were long and offered 180 degrees of true flatbed.  The biggest gripe about the seats is the lack of any type of storage.  United expects any and all carry-ons to be held in the overhead bins.
The audio and video were on demand, meaning that you could watch whatever and whenever you wanted.  12" screens are conveniently placed right in front of the seat, negating the need to comprise your sitting position to find the best viewing angle.  The downside is that you end up watching everything your neighbor is watching as the seats are all closely positioned adjacent to each other.
As expected, United's food offerings and service were horrible.  Flight attendants were barely attentive, valuing the letter of the law over the spirit of comfort and hospitality.

I saved the worst for last.  If anything, I learned that food and service are more valuable than having a good flatbed seat.  Subpar service kills any flight experience, and United really hits the mark on that one.  If you're planning on using your award miles for transpacific travel in a premium cabin, go for the legacy Asian carriers as United almost never fails to disappoint.  Eva Airlines, which offers nonstop service from TPE to SFO, LAX, and New York, is scheduled to join Star Alliance by mid-2013, and their new business class suites are sure to impress.  United Airlines will initiate nonstop service between SFO and TPE in March 2013, but no thanks.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cathay Pacific bans shipping of shark products

Thumbs up to Cathay Pacific, Oneworld's top-ranked carrier!  In an unprecedented move, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's famed flag carrier, announced that it will ban any and all shipments of shark products on its cargo flights.  The announcement was met with praise from scores of international environmental organizations as Cathay Pacific, the world's largest air cargo carrier, is estimated to ship between 20-50% of the world's harvested shark fins.

China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, consumes 95% of the world's shark fin soup trade, which has been attributed to decimating shark populations around the globe.  Recently, the states of California, home to the largest shark fin soup market outside of Asia, and Hawaii have banned restaurants from serving shark fin soup, a move that many Chinese restaurant owners have decried as an abasement towards their cultural heritage.  However, as the detrimental environmental effects of shark finning become unshrouded, amounting support of shark fin banning has brewed across the world.
A scalloped hammerhead, a globally listed endangered species, is finned alive before being released back into the ocean.
Typically, the carcass of a shark has little to no market value, so shark finners just cut off the fins and release the shark into the ocean, where it suffers a gruesome death via suffocation and loss of blood.  The cruel practice has lead some species, like the scalloped hammerhead, to decrease in population by 95% within the past 3 decades.  In fact, an estimated 73 million sharks are harvested annually for shark fins, and, of those killed, 30% are estimated to be listed as threatened or endangered species.
Popular Chinese celebrities such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan have taken to the stage in an effort to ban shark finning.  Cathay Pacific is the first major corporation to partake on such an endeavor, a move that the air cargo giant said will take 3 months to implement.  This is all the reason more to support and fly with Cathay Pacific, which has consistently ranked as one of the top 3 carriers in the world with their exceptional all-around service and unparalleled on-board food, seats, and amenities. 

First class to Hong Kong, anyone?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Part 2: Tokyo to Taipei in business class

This is Part 2 of a multi-city trip to Asia last October.
Part 1: San Francisco to Tokyo
Tokyo to Taipei
Taipei to San Francisco

One of the benefits allotted on United Airlines award bookings is the addition of a free stopover.  Naturally, I chose Taiwan as my stopover due to my relatives.  So after touring Tokyo and the East Coast of Japan for 10 days, which included formidable stays at the Tokyo Park Hyatt and the Kanazawa Crowne Plaza, it was time to head over to Taiwan on ANA business class.
~66 lbs: heavy checked bag filled with gifts for my relatives.  I would have had to pay an overweight baggage (>22 kg) fee had I not been flying in business class.
ANA Lounge @ HND
Like entering a heavenly gate, the name says it all.
All travelers flying in first and business class on a Star Alliance carrier are invited to the ANA Lounge.  ANA is known for its international lounges that trump all lounges in the U.S.  The challenge here is whether to eat a good portion of noodles and sushi rolls in the lounge or to save my appetite for the plane.  If I were flying with a U.S. carrier, this would be a no brainer since U.S. carriers are infamous for lousy food selections.  Nevertheless, the ANA lounge food was too attractive to pass on, so I dug right in.
Too good to pass up
Inari, rolls, and onigiri
Soba soup
Since HND is the busiest airport in Japan and the second busiest airport in Asia behind Beijing Capital, you'd expect the lounge to be filled to capacity for a weekday.  But as you can see, it was quite the contrary as ANA doesn't believe in sacrificing seating space:
As if the food and seating weren't already good enough, the lounge also offered stunning views of the HND tarmac and the city of Tokyo.
HND to Taipei Songshan (TSA)
For short to medium-haul intra-Asia routes, carriers are known to skimp out on amenities and seating.  This definitely wasn't the case with ANA for this 4-hour flight.  With a 60" seat pitch and a video screen larger than the one on my LAX-HND route, these seats rank amongst the best for intra-Asia business class travel.
I think she's jealous.
When I viewed the menu options, I knew that I had ruined my appetite in the lounge.  As usual, I opted for the Japanese meal set.
By far superior to the lounge food; I should have known better.

This flight marks perhaps the only time that I haven't been able to finish my meal within the past 20 years, and I didn't even ask for seconds.  Amazing how a short-haul flight can have better food than a long-haul flight, but this is likely due to better catering at HND than at LAX.

While this flight segment was a complimentary addition to my award itinerary, it would have normally cost 10k and 20k award miles for economy and biz, respectively.  Normally, I would say that it's not worth expending twice as many award miles to sit in biz class instead of economy for a 4-hour flight.  But as always, there are exceptions to the rule and this is definitely one of them.  ANA never ceases to amaze me with their quality of service and food when slated against U.S. carriers. This route has also got to be one of the most convenient non-stop intra-Asia routes in terms of airport location.  HND is twice as close to the center of Tokyo as NRT, and TSA is in the drop dead center of Taipei, making your travel effortless.  If you have 20k United miles to spare, save them for this.

Next up: Taipei to San Francisco in business class