Category Archives: Musings

Things I Don’t Get: Sundaes on Airplanes

One thing (of many) that I don’t understand is why so many travel bloggers seem to like sundaes on airplanes. The sundae is particularly pervasive on US carriers (well, at least UA and AA) who serve them as the only choice of dessert in premium cabins.

The offending dessert

The offending dessert

The biggest issue that I have is that the sundaes generally aren’t very good. Maybe I’d be happier if I were a 5th grader going to an ice cream social, but I really don’t want to be eating bad quality ice cream with my choice of hot fudge, caramel, nuts, fruit syrup, and whipped cream. Especially since ice cream served on planes is often served rock hard.

I guess there’s the larger issue of food quality on US airlines, but so many bloggers seem to rave about these bad quality sundaes while simultaneously complaining about all of the other food choices. Would you seriously pay for this sundae at a restaurant? If you’re going to provide ice cream, I’d much rather get higher quality, more interesting ice cream like the Humphry Slocombe ice cream offered on Virgin America.

There’s also some odd element of the infantilization of premium class passengers. I admit that I am a total pajama-on-airplanes convert, but it’s strange how some elements of premium class travel seem to encourage reversion to younger states of life (another example: cookies and milk on AA).

NYTimes Article About MoneyPak and Fraud

The NYTimes posted an article about MoneyPak, discussing a lot of the ways that it’s used for fraud. A typical example is fraudsters getting victims to load money onto MoneyPaks at CVS or Walgreens and then sending the reload codes to them where they then disappear with the money. It’s also discussed as a way for criminals to move funds through the financial system in a way that’s hard for authorities to trace (i.e. money laundering). While most miles/points schemes haven’t focused on MoneyPaks specifically, we’re all familiar with Vanilla Reloads, which operate very similarly and are also mentioned in the article.

Articles like this are helpful to better understand the ecosystem in which manufactured spending operates. While we were all saddened by the demise of buying VRs with credit cards at CVS, it makes more sense if you consider the high risk of fraud that CVS was taking on, even if you gave them your ID (you can still dispute the charge as a consumer with your credit card company, even if it’s your fault for falling for a scam).

In general, people doing manufactured spend have nothing to worry about, since there’s nothing illegal about the practice. Assuming you’re not involved in other criminal activity, you’re not doing anything to integrate bad funds into the financial system or intentionally layer money. But you should be aware that most people don’t really understand what we do and have a right to be suspicious given the potential for fraud on all of these prepaid devices. So don’t raise a fuss if people want to record your ID or if they want more information from you, since you’re not doing anything wrong, and failing to provide that information can just make you look more suspicious.

Things I’m Meh About: Credit Card Churning

I have a confession to make: I’ve only applied for one new credit card in the past 9 months. Last year, I got 11 new credit cards for nearly 500k miles and points and 4 free nights at hotels. This year, I’ve only gotten the Citi Executive AAdvantage card once for 100k miles.

I’m not sure exactly why I haven’t been more active in applying for credit cards, as they’re one of the easiest ways to accumulate lots of points. Part of it is due to not having particular uses in mind for the points. A lot of my previous credit card churns were very targeted to specific trips that I was planning (e.g. getting a Chase Hyatt card to use at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, getting the Hawaiian Airlines cards to transfer to Hilton for the Conrad Koh Samui when that was still a good deal), but I currently have relatively healthy miles balances on Alaska, US Airways, and American, so I don’t really need more airline miles (although I guess I’m no longer diversified with the US/AA merger), and I don’t care that much about nice hotels.

Miles and points are only useful if you use them (I guess there is some benefit to having a stash for emergency trips), so I don’t really see that much of a point in accumulating miles from credit cards just for the sake of it. And while credit card sign-up bonuses are a really great deal, they’re not completely free: even if there’s no annual fee for the first year, you’re paying with a credit score check, and meeting minimum spending requirements takes a non-trivial amount of cognitive overhead for me since I don’t really spend that much money naturally. There’s also the fact that banks seem to be increasingly clamping down on the actual churning part (i.e. getting the sign-up bonus for the same credit card multiple times), which makes me think that I should save future apps for when I really have a need for them. (On the flip side, a lot of cards are much more churnable than people think, and part of this misconception is due to the credit card salesmen aka points/miles bloggers perpetuating false information on behalf of the banks).

Just goes to show that I must be a pretty bad miles/point blogger.

Musings from China (Not about China)

I’m currently in China, which has made it very challenging to do some very basic internet things like blog or check gmail (gmail blocking is a relatively recent phenomenon in China), so pardon the sporadic posts.

I think there’s a lot of mysticism around points and miles bloggers and how we accomplish the things that we do. There’s obviously a lot of variation: some people are really heavy in manufactured spending (think $40k+ per month), which combined with some recent credit card offers means that they actually don’t need to pay for anything out of pocket (lots of cash back MS) and instead pay with their time; some travel a lot for work; some make tons of money from their blogs and can pay cash for premium travel; many don’t travel much at all.

For myself, I don’t do anything special. I don’t travel for work, but I have a job that provides a flexible work schedule, and as a single twenty-something with a minimalist non-travel/non-food lifestyle (i.e. I rarely spend money on non-consumable goods; I think I’ve bought one thing from Amazon in the past year, and that was shaving soap), I choose to spend my discretionary income on travel. This means that I often travel in coach and do things like stay in capsule hotels as I don’t naturally generate enough points and miles to pay for everything that way, and I don’t mind “roughing” it. While I have had the fortune to travel pretty extensively in premium cabins, I probably do more flying in the back of the bus than not.

For this current trip to China, I flew AA coach through DFW (I was lucky enough to get a 5-seat row to myself from DFW to PVG as the flight was not very full), routing this way to get more miles and help me requalify for AA Executive Platinum. I stayed at a super crappy hotel in Shanghai, and I’m now at a hostel in Beijing. For many of my meals, I’m eating street food (super delicious in Shanghai, not quite as delicious in Beijing). The flights were a little pricier than I would have liked, but I’m spending about $25 a night for lodging (I’m traveling with a friend, which helps lower the cost), and we probably ate for less than $10 a day in Shanghai.

I’m probably not going to write a 20-part trip report about this trip because it’s not that novel. As far as I know, people don’t want to read a post about a flight in AA economy or read about a crappy hotel. But trips like this are enjoyable in their own right, and they enable the more luxurious trips that I am likely to write about.

Inefficiencies in My Life: American Airlines Systemwide Upgrades

I call myself Efficient Asian Man, but there are really a number of inefficiencies in my life that I’m aware of but haven’t really understood. Here’s one such inefficiency.

I qualified for AA Executive Platinum status last year thanks to an overly generous promotion that should have been targeted but wasn’t for a short period of time. Along with this status came 8 systemwide upgrades, which are great as they can be used to upgrade a ticket purchased in any fare class. So not only do you get 8 of them, you can buy cheapo tickets and upgrade those cheapo tickets. It’s great! (so great that I doubt they’ll last given the merger, or we probably won’t get 8 of them).

Here’s the inefficiency: if presented the offer at check-in, I would almost never pay $250 to upgrade my seat to business class, but I have happily used 5 of my 8 SWUs for the year. I am willing to endure 10 hours of international coach instead of pay $250 to get those 10 hours in business class, but I could also sell my SWUs (ignoring the fact that you’re not supposed to sell them) for roughly $250 each, which means that I shouldn’t be using them on myself.

Perhaps I’ll feel differently after flying AA’s 77W in business class (which I’m slated to do in September), but I’m honestly fine with coach most of the time. Sure, you might not sleep as well, but I find that my ability to sleep on planes is mostly a function of whether or not I’m actually tired and not so much a function of seat comfort. Plane food isn’t great either way, and I could instead pay $20 at the airport to buy better food (good thing AA flies out of Terminal 2 at SFO); I could also pay $20 for IFE that I truly want; service isn’t necessarily better in business class (as seems to be common for domestic carriers, many of the flight attendants in business class seem to be more “experienced”–to put it euphemistically–with widely varying levels of how much they give a s***); and I already get first class lounge access via my Executive Platinum status. I guess availability of power ports is one thing that doesn’t really exist in AA coach, but I could always be ghetto and camp out in the bathroom and use the power port there.

Granted, as I said before, you’re not allowed to sell SWUs, which is perhaps the best reason to justify my usage of SWUs on myself, but it looks like I’ll requalify for AA Executive Platinum this year, which means I’ll have 8 SWUs to use next year, and it’s apparent to me that I’d strictly prefer trading them for cash rather than use them on myself. Hmmm…

The Worst Part About Being an AA Flyer Out of SFO

I’m generally quite content flying AA out of SFO, and I’m much happier flying AA than I ever was flying UA (although I’m sure that the devaluations will come soon for AA and we’ll all be fleeing to nowhere).

But the worst part about flying AA out of SFO for me is the fake red-eyes from SFO to ORD or DFW. I’m sitting in an Admirals Club at DFW as I write this, having just come off AA 1052 which departs SFO at 12:15am and arrives at DFW at 5:35am. Total flight time in the air is just under 3 hours, and taking into account departure and arrival proceedings, it means that you can’t get more than 2.5 hours of sleep on the flight. This does not make me a very happy camper.

Granted, it’s my choice to take these flights. It enables me to connect to morning international departures out of ORD and DFW, and you get so many more miles than connecting through LAX, but I always kind of hate myself when I fly these things. And getting an upgrade to first doesn’t really make it any better.

Oh well, maybe I’ll learn better for next year and stop booking itineraries like this

On My Blogging Hiatus

If you’ve been following my blog, you probably noticed that I went from posting about 5x per week to not at all for a couple of months. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, posting to a blog regularly is a pretty sizable time commitment. I’d estimate that I spent a minimum of 10 hours a week coming up with content. Given that I have a full-time job that often has crazy hours (80 hours per week isn’t unheard of, although that’s thankfully no longer the norm), I increasingly started to view this blog as a burden rather than something that I did for my pure enjoyment of it. I also make approximately $0 from this blog (I think I may have made some money from it VERY indirectly, but that’s another story), so it’s not like there’s any monetary incentive to keep on posting.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there just wasn’t that much in the miles and points world that I was excited about. Flying first class is fun and all, but there’s something strange about chasing products or these “luxury” experiences when really most people just try to replicate the experiences they’ve read about on blogs (I find it hilarious how certain bloggers can propagate descriptive words or terms that aren’t particularly apt). I’m completely guilty of the onslaught of over-reviewed travel products (Lufthansa/Thai/Cathay Pacific First Class and the Conrad Koh Samui? how unoriginal), but there’s honestly not that much original content out there any more (Travel is Free is a notable exception–go read them!) anyway, so I don’t feel that bad since at least I’m not pumping credit cards (or pumping anti-pumping rhetoric).

Anyway, I’m now joining Prior2Boarding, which is an outcrop of BoardingArea. Effectively, this means that I should be making approximately $3 per month via ads (sorry!), but it also means that this blog won’t cost me anything out of pocket to maintain. A side effect of this transition is that I’m going to give this blogging thing another good try, so expect more regular posts once again (cue cheers). Yes, there will still be 30-part trip reports as it’s good for SEO (I also honestly find other people’s trip reports helpful–although maybe not the thousandth LH F report), but I’ll try to be more interesting than just that. And by interesting, I mean expect more ranting, less censorship, and of course, lots of over-entitled millennial BS.

As always, I appreciate any thoughts or feedback. Comment here, or email me at efficientasianman at gmail dot com.

Quick Thoughts on 3/31/2014

Here’s some of what I’ve been up to with regards to miles/points/travel/gluttony recently.

1) Hammering out the details of my trip to Southeast Asia with my sister at the end of May. We were trying to figure out the best way to get from Hanoi to Siem Reap since one-way flights on Vietnam Airlines were pricing out at over $250 per person. I was thinking to transfer Amex Membership Rewards to Air France Flying Blue to book the flights for 10k points each, but Flying Blue charges fuel surcharges and the flights weren’t showing up online, which means dealing with the call center and paying a call center fee. Ended up finding flights for $170 per person roundtrip, so I booked that and we’ll just throw away the return. $170 is still a lot for such a short flight, but Siem Reap is such a touristy destination so it’s no unexpected. Also, just an example of how roundtrip flights can be cheaper than one-way flights for international itineraries.

2) Because we’re flying Vietnam Airlines, I’m trying to get a status match to a SkyTeam carrier. I’m trying China Airlines, but I haven’t heard anything back from my request. Anyone know of a SkyTeam carrier that will status match from oneworld Emerald?

3) Amex Platinum lost American lounge access on March 22nd, but that was also the date for $200 in additional AA credits for me. So I bought 2 $100 gift cards on March 22nd, saw that they were credited by Monday, and called to cancel my Amex Platinum. The first guy on the phone was perfectly nice, but the retention specialist that he transferred me to was awfully mean. She kept saying that I was getting an additional $200 airline credit so that should offset the annual fee for me since I already had a $200 airline credit from earlier this year. I couldn’t tell if she knew that I had already used up both credits, and she was offering $200 in addition to the $400 that I already had credited, but I didn’t think so. She then offered me 7,500 Membership Rewards points to keep the card, and I declined. I asked about getting the annual fee pro-rated, and she said that I could transfer the credit to my Amex SPG card, so I agreed to that.

Anyway, turns out that they’re not pro-rating the fee and instead are refunding me the full $450 (I have not yet received the check, but this is what I saw on my account). This means that for 1 $450 annual fee that I paid last year, I received 100k MR points as a sign-up bonus, 10k MR points to sign-up for pay over time, Priority Pass and other lounge access (which I used many, many times, as evidenced by the many Priority Pass lounge reviews on this blog), and $600 of airline credits. And I think I charged less than $5k on that card last year. Should I feel bad for Amex?

4) I booked my last US Airways Star Alliance trip. I’m headed to China for a week in July, which may or may not be miserable. 90k miles in business class, and I’ll be flying Air China on the way there and within China and EVA on the way back.

5) Manufactured spending has become much, much harder for me. This is mostly because I don’t own a car, and my office moved away from a CVS that stocked VRs often enough, so there’s no convenient source for me any more (I don’t think it’s worth it to spend 40 minutes to go to a CVS when the chances of it being stocked are maybe 1 in 4). I also think that it’s just much more competitive in a city like San Francisco, and there are no Walmarts within any reasonable distance.

Random Thoughts on 2/25/2014

1) American Airlines Executive Platinum status is awesome. I’m already 5/5 on systemwide upgrades, and I’ve cleared all domestic upgrades except for a Monday morning JFK->SFO flight that was booked one week in advance. This is making me want to maintain my ExPlat status more, but it still seems a little silly to me to try to do so.

2) You should always register for mileage promotions, even if you don’t think you’ll satisfy the requirements. I registered for AA’s double miles promotion to Tokyo and Seoul a long time ago, and what do you know, I’m currently in Tokyo and earned double miles on my flight from LAX to NRT. I’ll happily take an extra 10k AA miles, thank you very much.

3) Speaking of Tokyo, I really don’t understand the craze for popcorn here. Some of the longest lines I’ve seen in this city are to buy popcorn.

4) Club Carlson announced their devaluation last week. It could have been much, much worse. In fact, to me, this devaluation is largely a non-issue, since they didn’t really change redemption levels that much, and they didn’t touch the 5x earning on the credit card and free award night on any stay of 2 or more nights. Even at 70k points for the top tier, that’s 14k of spend to get two free nights on the credit card. What other hotel program can you get that kind of bang for your buck? Granted, the hotels maybe aren’t as aspirational, and the hotels are mostly concentrated in Europe, but Club Carlson is a great hotel program for people who don’t stay in hotels much and instead get points from credit cards.

5) I’ve got a trip planned to Vietnam and Cambodia later this year, and I’m trying to figure out how to get from Hanoi to Siem Reap in a reasonable amount of time. I think the answer is to either pay cash for a one-way ticket on Vietnam Airlines (~$240, which is more than I want to pay), or else to transfer some Amex points to Flying Blue to redeem for a one-way award (10k points). Unfortunately, the Flying Blue website isn’t displaying space on any of the Vietnam Airlines flights and instead wants to route me through Guangzhou, which means I’d have to call in to book and deal with the Air France call center and incur a phone booking fee. The phone booking fee and fuel surcharges would also seem to make the points redemption not as good of a deal. Anyone have experience booking on Vietnam Airlines or have an alternative that I haven’t considered?

Quick Thoughts on Thailand

I’m about halfway through my trip to Thailand, and it’s been incredible so far. Here’s are some quick thoughts so I don’t feel like I’m completely neglecting my blog (although I am).

1) I was initially worried a bit about the demonstrations throughout Bangkok, but as a tourist, it’s easy to avoid all of the protests. I’ve been following Richard Barrow on Twitter, and his feed is a great resource for anyone traveling to Bangkok.

2) The Grand Palace seems extremely overrated to me as a tourist destination. But perhaps I wasn’t a fan precisely because it was swarmed with tourists.

3) Chiang Mai feels like it was built for tourists. Walking around the city, it seems like the majority of people are tourists, and you can’t even walk a block without finding a store selling tour services. All of this makes it very easy to navigate, and the weather is much more pleasant than in Bangkok, but it feels a little bit sterile to me. Bangkok was much grittier and sweatier.

4) I can definitely see why people retire to Thailand. Cost of living seems super, super affordable, and I love that you can get a delicious bowl of noodles for about $1 (maybe not quite as delicious as Yang’s Fry Dumpling).

5) I don’t understand why khao soi isn’t more popular in the US.

6) I flew Cathay Pacific first class on their 747 to get to Thailand. I loved the hard product–great seat, comfortable bed, seats 1A and 1K are perfect for traveling with a companion, the pajamas are probably my favorite airline pajamas to date–but the service was honestly not very good for international first class. Yes, I know you’re supposed to ring the call button, but one of the flight attendants looked like she wanted to kill someone, and she did things like forget courses that I ordered and serve my entree to another passenger and not have any left for me. Of course, these are all major first world problems.