Creative Frequent Flyer Awards

A friend of mine sent me an email today—should he spend USD1,000 for a ticket from Tokyo to New York, or redeem 50,000 American AAdvantage miles? Using the rule of thumb that a frequent flyer mile is worth about USD0.015-0.02, this is something of a close call—certainly not a bad redemption of miles, but not a superb one, either. My advice, nevertheless, was to use the miles, because it seemed to me that there was room for a creative frequent flyer award.

The true value in frequent flyer miles and the award flights for which they can be redeemed, in my opinion, comes not only from the ability to fly from point A to point B for free, but the additional flexibility that a frequent flyer award can offer relative to an average discount ticket. The flexibility can come in the ability to do date changes (both American and United allow free changes to dates and times on award tickets, a feature you are unlikely to find on a discount coach fare) or freedom to add openjaws and stopovers (almost all programs permit the former while the rules for the latter can be complicated).

The ins and outs of each program are different of course. To do my research I use the airline’s website and the definitive site for frequent flyers—FlyerTalk. (I should note that while I have posted to FlyerTalk, I do not consider myself to be on the same level of expertise as the true FlyerTalk regulars.)

FlyerTalk’s American AAdvantage forum contains this handy posting summarizing the routing rules applicable to AAdvantage awards. By reviewing it, I learned that when redeeming an international ticket on American Airlines between Japan and the U.S. using AAdvantage miles, a stopover is permitted at the North American gateway in each direction. I could not find a handy list of which U.S. cities act as American Airlines gateways for Japan flights, but a quick search for departing flights on the website for Tokyo’s Narita International Airport showed me that American flies to at least Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and New York from Tokyo.

My friend needed to fly only from Tokyo to New York. However, given that he is permitted a stopover in New York in each direction (and the rules do not seem to prohibit two stopovers in the same city), he could actually book a ticket from Tokyo to some third destination, stopover in New York twice and essentially end up with a free roundtrip ticket from New York. A look at the award rules available through AA’s Redeem Miles page shows that 50,000 miles gets you a ticket from Japan/Northern China to anywhere in “North America,” which is defined as “the U.S. (including Hawaii and Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, The Bahamas, and the Caribbean.” The only question remaining is where my friend thinks he would like to fly sometime in the next year (the usual validity of an award ticket). Perhaps he has a friend or relative in some city in the U.S. or Canada that’s relatively expensive to fly to, or maybe he wants to go to the Caribbean next winter. Most aggressive, perhaps, would a ticket to Hawaii. (Some airlines may not permit a Tokyo – New York (stopover) – Maui – New York (stopover) – Tokyo ticket, but I bet American would, as they seem to be the most forgiving of creative routings.) He can check out all of American Airlines’ destinations on Wikipedia. How about Mexico City? or Barbados?

To get even more creative, he could add an openjaw. Generally, an openjaw can be added either at the origin or the destination of an award ticket. An example of an origin openjaw would be Tokyo – New York (stopover) – Jackson Hole – New York (stopover) – Beijing, while an example of a destination openjaw would be Tokyo – New York (stopover) – San Diego – overland to – San Jose del Cabo at the tip of Baja California – New York (stopover) – Tokyo.

Because date changes can be made at no cost, he can use his New York – City X round trip any time he wants, which makes it even more valuable than a purchased ticket. Of course, if he flies the New York – Asia portion of any of these routings, he will have to find a way get back to the U.S.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Lushan

The QuickTrip is a regular feature I would like to post. As I read in a book called Vagabonding, time is our only real commodity. Derek and I joke that the only ways to extend our lives (or, rather, alter our perception of time so that our life appears to last longer) is through travel and opera. Indeed, there’s nothing like travel for heightening our senses, altering the way we perceive and interact with the world around us and teaching us so many new things in every short block of time. While some of this additional awareness of living may be achievable simply through a frame of mind that one can adopt at home, as Rolf Potts suggests in the book, removing yourself from your usual surroundings is a sure-fire method. Such experiences, however, need not come in months-long breaks of time, or even a week-long vacation—with careful planning, flexibility and a little daring, an inexpensive two-day weekend can provide a travel experience that is perspective-altering and feels like a genuine escape. A QuickTrip.

For my first QuickTrip posting, I am choosing a trip I went on earlier this month, to Lushan (庐山, or Lu Mountain) in Jiangxi Province. I actually didn’t think too much of Lushan as a destination, but I do feel that it illustrates well some QuickTrip methods.

I’d traveled now to some of the big cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou), but not yet any of China’s mountain tourist attractions, which are many. I was eager to see what exactly these mountains were like, as well as to enjoy cool mountain air during the hot Hong Kong summer. While I would love to travel to Emeishan, Huangshan, Taishan, Huashan or Zhangjiajie in the near future, all of those destinations are a bit tricky to reach on a short trip from Hong Kong. I believe Hengshan (or Nanyueshan) in Hunan Province to be the closest mountain destination, but descriptions of it always seemed unremarkable to me, and so I never made plans. Recently, I learned of Lushan, which is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also not too far from Hong Kong.

Transportation is the most important part of a QuickTrip. In order to maximize the time you have at your destination, you want to ensure that the destination you choose can be reached in a time efficient (yet economical) manner. Unless your QuickTrip destination happens to be fairly close, this usually means taking a flight (in the case of a weekend trip, hopefully departing Friday night and returning Sunday night) or if possible an overnight train. If such transportation options are not available, the destination simply is not suitable for a QuickTrip. From my research online and maps, Lushan appeared to be approximately one hour from the train station at Jiujiang and a bit over two hours north from Nanchang’s airport. I checked for train schedules and eLong for flight schedules, both from Shenzhen. Departing from Shenzhen is a must for almost all China QuickTrips from Hong Kong, as domestic flights from Shenzhen are far more frequent and economical than China flights from Hong Kong (the exceptions being the most popular destinations, such as Beijing or Shanghai) and essentially no QuickTrip-worthy trains depart Hong Kong for China (the one exception being the KCR Intercity to Guangzhou East).

On, I found that train T186 from Shenzhen to Shenyang North (all the way up in Liaoning Province) departs Shenzhen at 8:40PM and stops in Jiujiang at 8:35AM—a nearly perfect schedule as it allows plenty of time after work to get to Shenzhen’s train station at the Lowu border with Hong Kong (a process, after immigration, I estimate at 90 minutes) and a restful night’s sleep. The flight schedule on Friday night was not as good, as they left too early (the amount of time from Hong Kong to Shenzhen International Airport is no greater than 90 minutes, but of course flights require one to arrive at the airport in advance, whereas one simply hops onto a train before it departs) or too late (a late night arrival would mean either a night’s sleep in Nanchang or near Nanchang Airport, or a middle-of-the-night arrival in Lushan). I also favored the train as 1) I love trains, especially sleeping on them and 2) the train would prove cheaper, especially because I may not be able to negotiate a great fare for the relatively long drive from Nanchang Airport to Lushan (public transportion would require a detour into Nanchang proper or Jiujiang, time I did not want to spend).

The return trip was a closer call. There were evening flights from Nanchang to Shenzhen, which would allow me most of the day in Lushan, that were relatively cheap. While this would still require hiring a taxi to take me from Lushan to Nanchang Airport, one usually has a little more bargaining power hiring a taxi to an airport than from one. The best train was K115, which originates at Jiujiang (minimizing the chance of delay) at 4:00PM and arrives in Shenzhen at 5:50AM. This was a bit early, but ensured that I arrive to work on time even if the train ran a little late, as they sometimes do. However, the train option would not allow me as long on Lushan. In the end, I opted for the train because 1) I love sleeping on trains and 2) it was a bit cheaper.

On previous QuickTrips, we had learned that long-distance train tickets from Shenzhen, especially on the weekend, can sell out days in advance. We were eager to avoid this mistake, and so were prepared to either 1) travel up to Shenzhen to buy the tickets in advance or 2) pay an agent in Hong Kong to book the tickets for us. Mistakenly, we headed first to CTS, which has many locations but provides mediocre service with often poor English language skills. While CTS is able to book China train tickets for a charge, as long as you approach them a few days in advance, we found the process frustrating. Giving up with CTS and heading up to Shenzhen to buy the tickets ourselves, we happened to find an office of the China Railways in Hung Hom Station (there is also one in TST). Not only can the office book tickets for you up to ten days in advance (at a charge of approximately HKD100, or USD12, per ticket), but, unlike CTS, they are directly connected to the China Railways reservations system and can print them for you right then and there, and speak good English to boot. We found that the service justified the commission cost, and purchased our train tickets there rather than heading up to Shenzhen. Unfortunately, for the trip to Lushan, we were forced to purchase rather expensive tickets to a more distant destination (RMB400, or USD52), as tickets for the Shenzhen-Jiujang sector are not sold on the T186 long-distance train. The China Railways office wrote us a little note to give to the conductor explaining that while we have tickets for a further destination, we wish to be dropped off at Jiujiang, where the train would stop anyway to pick up passengers.

As I mentioned, the trip itself was unremarkable, and the weather on Lushan cool but otherwise horrible (as it often is, I believe). The only thing I will mention, in case you want to go, is that one needs to take a RMB5-10 (~USD1) taxi ride from Jiujiang train station to the bus station to catch a bus to Lushan, or a taxi may be commissionable for around RMB50-60 (~USD6-8). Lushan admission is a steep RMB180 (USD24) per person. But one other anecdote: For the return trip, I was only able to secure a hard seat, rather than a hard sleeper berth. (For those not familiar with the Chinese train system, overnight train reservations usually come in hard sleep, hard sleeper and soft sleeper, with hard sleeper being both comfortable and economical and soft sleeper the second choice.) I had taken hard seat very briefly once and felt that it would not be bearable for a long-distance ride, especially one after which I would need to head directly to the office. I explained when I got on board that I would like to upgrade, and was instructed to put my name on a very long list of passengers seeking sleepers. I had nearly given up when, a couple hours later, the attendant came to me (understanding that I would not understand the announcements instructing me to come to the service counter on board) and offered me a hard sleeper berth. I gladly paid the fare difference, which was not much, and slept comfortably to Shenzhen, crossing the border by foot when it opened at 6:30AM.

Medical tourism

24 AUG HKG-BKK EK386, taxis

Our flights from Hong Kong to Bangkok were about USD500, and hotel costs would of course add some more. How to get value out of the trip, other than by mere enjoyment? Of course, there are many ways to save money by spending money in Bangkok, including buying clothes or housewares or paying for massages, all of which are much cheaper than in Hong Kong or the U.S. But those are items that, strictly speaking, one may not need—and so the value proposition is a dubious one. We had a better excuse to go to Bangkok: the dentist.

My Hong Kong dentist on my last visit had suggested that I get a small filling in one of my molars, and a night guard to prevent some damage I may do to my teeth by clenching at night. As skeptical as I can be of medical professionals, it appeared sound advice, as I have felt of late some tension in my jaw. Derek, a few days previous, had a chunk of one of his molars chip off while eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup. He’d been to the dentist recently, but we both needed dental work. Between the two of us, our necessary procedures/appliance would have cost easily in excess of USD1,000.

After some quick googling, I found Dental Hospital Bangkok, which seemed safe and reliable. Their responses to my email enquiries increased my confidence level. We made some reservations and popped in first thing Saturday morning, after arriving late Friday night. Great facilities, efficient service and English-speaking doctors who seemed knowledgeable and competent. Because it was a huge facility with many more staff than at, say, my Hong Kong dentist, I also felt that the level of specialization may lead to additional expertise that my Hong Kong dentist simply doesn’t have. All at about a third to a half the price. Even including the trip we’ll have to make to go back to pick up my night guard—a nice excuse to return to Bangkok—some savings, and fun to boot.

Also got some glasses at V. Siam Optical, which provided rapid service. [There were some quality issues with this pair of glasses, and so I cannot recommend them, although my incident could have been an isolated incident.]

Terminal 2 is a fraud!

Going through Incheon International Airport recently, Derek heard the opinion of a Korean pilot that Incheon is the best designed airport in the world. Incheon, of course, is fairly new and pretty nice, but living in Hong Kong, one develops quite an appreciation for the sheer simplicity and beauty of design and, moreover, efficiency of Hong Kong International Airport. No other busy airport in the world feels so spacious and relaxed, and for no other airport its traffic capacity is it easier to get from city to airport to gate. The public transportation is seemless (no need to take even an escalator from leaving Airport Express through check-in and immigration), and immigration (for residents, both local or expat) automated through biometrics.

It is worth noting, though, the patriotic pilot’s complaint—Hong Kong airport, for all its otherwise streamlined passenger flow, forces everyone to walk through a mall between immigration and the gates. Now, I will acknowledge that most airports do this in some form. After all, the government, in building and operating an airport, needs to generate revenue through leasing, and some amount of restaurants and shopping is an expected amenity for travelers. But what makes Hong Kong somewhat unusual is that not only do stores line a hallway that you would otherwise walk along, but the route to your gate seems designed slightly to confuse and visually lead you to as many stores as possible.

Terminal 2 of HKIA takes this to a new level. When I started seeing signs go up for Terminal 2, I was a bit puzzled because I didn’t recall seeing extensive construction at the airport. But I was relatively new to Hong Kong, and so who was I to say that HKIA was not in the midst of a big expansion project—it would certainly makes sense if it were opening a new terminal, given that air traffic in Asia will no doubt explode over the coming decades. When Terminal 2 opened, I noticed that it was sometimes referred to as SkyPlaza, to distinguish its retail offerings from Terminal 1’s SkyMart. But that didn’t seem remarkable either. Nor did it seem odd that Terminal 2 only serviced three airlines—the international budget Oasis Hong Kong Airlines, Qantas-owned Singapore-based budget JetStar Airways and Emirates.

Flying Emirates this weekend to Bangkok, I as a slight public works junky was excited to check out Terminal 2. The first sign that something was wrong was when we saw that there were only three rows of check-in counters (N, P and Q), compared to Terminal 1’s 10 (A-K, no I). The few check-in counters seemed like an afterthought, lost in a sea of stores, in the place, say, Sunglass Hut would be in an American mall (all of the blue boxes in the picture below being retail). The final answer came to us as we approached our gate. HKIA has a little train that goes from the area after immigration and security to the more distant gates. Terminal 2 also has a train after immigration and security, which goes to “All Gates, 1-80.” It hit us then that Terminal 2 is not an entire terminal at all, in the sense of, say, JFK or most airports in the world, where each terminal is a sort of self-contained mini-airport, which its own check-in counters and gates, nor is it like the Concourses/Satellites of Sea-Tac Airport, which are in essence sets of gates fed by a unified set of check-in counters. No—Terminal 2 is a shopping center, which happens to have a few check-in counters moved from Terminal 1, along with immigration and security, which then is connected by train to the gates in Terminal 1.

All there is.

Unlike other frauds, there are no victims here, but for perhaps the tenants of Terminal 1, whose precious foot traffic is being rerouted through the Terminal 2 SkyPlaza. The Terminal 2 tenants knew what they were getting into (though I can’t imagine that the 4D Extreme Screen Cinema is going to do very well). It’s a minor inconvenience for passengers of the budget airlines (Emirates operates as a quasi-budget airline in Hong Kong, at least with respect to the HKG-BKK runs), but the whole process is still pretty efficient.

That said, isn’t something happening here that is violating decency? Isn’t there enough shopping in Hong Kong, what with each subway station serving as a sort of mini-mall, often connected to a big mall? Even at the linguistic level, Terminal 2 is wrong, as it’s not a terminus at all—your flights always “terminate” in Terminal 1, which contains all of the arrival facilities. Does Terminal 2 even create extra capacity for the airport?