Tag Archives: Alaska Airlines

Lounge Life (Part 1)

Aside from a trip to the Admirals Club when I was in high school, I had never been to an airline lounge before this year. What a year of firsts! My current lounge credentials are obtained through credit cards: Priority pass lounges and American Admirals Club access through the Citi Prestige and Delta Sky Club and Centurion lounge access (plus a redundant and guestless Priority Pass membership) through the Amex platinum. I also get two United Club visits per year via the annual free passes that are included with the Mileage Plus Explorer card. You want reviews? I know you do. Every travel blog reviews stuff – I even found a review for a fucking bag of snack mix the other day. Conclusion: if you want readers, you gotta review. So here you go.

Overall, I think lounges are funny, in that (at least in the US, and I haven’t visited any of the fancy international lounges yet), their only value is determined relative to the rest of the airport. Most lounges would make shitty hotel lobbies, for instance. Pretty much any mid-level hotel will have nicer seating and furnishings in its lobby than you’ll find in the average airport lounge, but given that waiting out a 2-hour delay in a crowded terminal is a soul-suckingly awful experience, even a shitty hotel lobby is preferable. Therefore, I’m not reviewing a random Admirals club as it compares to the Emirates first class lounge in Dubai. Instead, my ratings are based on the following criteria, each worth ten points: furnishings, cookies, other non-cookie snacks, alcohol, views, bathrooms, outlets, and other amenities.

Alaska Airlines Board Room, SEA
Furnishing
s: worn down and could use a refresh, but overall comfortable for waiting out a layover. 6/10
Cookies: cinnamon animal crackers. Will do in a pinch, but disappointing. 2/10
Snacks: pancake printer is nice for the novelty, but it prints fairly rubbery pancakes. Maybe it needs new toner (AKA dough). Salads always look gross. Haven’t tried the soup, because I’m not generally a soup fan, AND WHY DO LOUNGES ALWAYS SERVE SOUP? 4/10
Alcohol: actually I haven’t had any alcohol here, but you get good beer and cocktails for free, so I’ll give this one a high score. 9/10
Views: great tarmac views, although you only see Alaska’s planes, so it gets a little repetitive after a while. 7/10
Bathrooms: clean, fairly private. Didn’t smell like piss the few times I’ve used it. 8/10
Outlets: most seats have outlets available. Why every lounge isn’t just a sea of power strips is beyond me, but whatever. 10/10
Other amenities: nothing really jumps out at me here. I’ll give it a few points for having a good division between the quiet area downstairs and the party atmosphere upstairs. 3/10
Final score: 49/80

I couldn’t find any pictures of the United Club at SFO, so you get this graphic instead. The United Club SFO is not this nice, so don’t get excited.

United Club, SFO (International Gates)
Furnishings:
worn down and could use a refresh, but overall comfortable for waiting out a layover. (Yes, I copied and pasted this from the last one. It’s a pretty universal description of most lounges.) 6/10
Cookies: some weird brownie crunch stuff. Not bad, but still lower-tier. 4/10
Snacks: Good hummus, and I like that there are Skittles. Don’t Skittles seem like the kind of food that kids eat? It’s fun watching all these distinguished looking business people chomp down on some Skittles, reminding them of the childhood they lost and will never get back. This gets a high score for that alone. 7/10
Alcohol: Piss beer for free, everything else you pay for. Don’t insult me with your Coors Light, United. $600 per year for a membership and you can’t even give me Sam Adams? Fuck you. 1/10
Views: some good angles, but heavily obscured by its position in the terminal. 5/10
Bathrooms: Didn’t use, but this lounge gets really crowded, so I’m skeptical. 6/10
Outlets: One section has good access, the other doesn’t. 6/10
Other amenities: The lobby of this lounge is really nice. In fact, the first time I went to this lounge, I was really excited for what I’d find simply due to how nice the lobby is. The resulting disappointment could either be viewed as a positive or a negative. 4/10
Final score: 39/80

Unlike the United Club banner, this actually is the Admirals Club at SFO.

Admirals Club, SFO (International Gates)
Furnishings:
 Newer than the other two, but surprisingly worn given that it was refreshed recently. Looks like it gets a lot of use, even though it was pretty empty while I was there.  7/10
Cookies: Excellent chocolate chip cookies. Not “artisanal” or anything fancy, but a good, utilitarian cookie can really hit the spot. 9/10
Snacks: Not great once you’re done with the cookie. Yogurt pretzels and dry fruit mix abound, and the food for purchase is way worse than what’s out in the concourse. Also, the dried fruit has a really high banana chips to everything else ratio – personally, I hate banana chips and adjusted the score accordingly, but you may want to take this into account. 7/10
Alcohol: Same deal as United. 1/10
Views: Very nice, and a good amount of window seating, too. Although you mostly look out at United planes (ironically), you can still catch the big boys taxiing by. I saw an Emirates A380, which was pretty impressive next to a bunch of 737s and the like. 8/10
Bathrooms: Pretty decent, but Terminal 2 at SFO has strangely clean bathrooms, so it isn’t a huge benefit. 6/10
Outlets: Good overall access. 8/10
Other amenities: From an ambience perspective, I like this lounge. They tried to do something different with the fake trees and the circular layout in the middle, so it doesn’t feel as generic as some of the other lounges. Especially given some reviews I’ve read of other Admirals Clubs, I have a feeling this is one of the nicer ones around. 7/10
Final score: 53/80

Stay tuned for more lounge reviews in part two of this gripping post!

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: What’s YOUR least favorite lounge in the US?

What do Alaska, Hong Kong, New York, and Vancouver Have in Common?

EDIT 1/18/17: This post is pretty outdated now… like how I talk about crediting miles to AAdvantage instead of Alaska? What a moran! Oh, and I never did end up taking the NYC-VAN flight on Cathay with my younger brother, although I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Anyway, now that this post has been linked from higher-traffic pastures, I figured I’d mention this at the beginning so you know that I’ve matured as a Windbag Miler in the year and a half since this was originally written.

Disclaimer: I wrote most of this post longhand while I was flying last weekend, since the guy in front of me reclined his seat, and I didn’t have enough room to open my laptop. Due to my issues with flying (which I’m sure I’ll talk about at some point), my mind is kind of weird when I’m on a plane, and that’s reflected here… although I swear I kind of meant this to be tongue-in-cheek. Enjoy!

Looking at all the airlines, popular routes, mileage programs, and credit card options for earning points, a complex tapestry emerges. I’m reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s essay on smooth vs. striated space, and how points/mileage enthusiasts find themselves wedged between the two (or, more accurately, lost in the fluidity between the two). It’s tough to think of any space smoother than the sky, but the way we traverse it in direct lines overseen and organized by a vast traffic control infrastructure converts what was previously thought to be smooth into striated space. In the same vein, the rules, terms, conditions, charts, redemption amounts, and everything else I try to memorize (or at least familiarize myself with) takes the freewheeling act of travel and imposes a rigid set of steps I have to follow in order to undertake a trip. However, in the sheer volume of information, including counterintuitive or contradictory rules and policies — that’s where the fun lies. And so, the mess of numbers, programs, the whole ball of wires that makes up “the hobby” starts to feel like Deleuze and Guattari’s famous quilt, which simultaneously consists of the orderly arrangement of fibers at the same time that it expands outward until the wide-angle view reveals a structure that doesn’t seem to follow any defined rule or pattern.

See what I mean? I wasn’t on drugs or anything, but my mind was going in a bizarre direction. Sure, it’s a great book, but I’m not convinced it belongs here…

Okay, that was a long, probably boring way to make two points. First, it’s really fun to dig into all these programs to try to find hidden gems, and second, you’re never going to know all there is to know, so the best thing to do is just to never stop digging. With that in mind, I started digging into Alaska’s Mileage Plan program, since I fly to Seattle on Alaska at least a few times a year. (I choose Alaska mostly for the occasional $50 upgrade and the fact that Alaska flies out of SFO’s international terminal, so the plane spotting opportunities are much better.) I always credit my flights to Amercan, since one of my longer-term plans is to bank AAdvantage miles slowly and then augment my balance with a big sign-up bonus before using my miles for a long-haul business class redemption of some kind. It goes against the conventional wisdom of earn and burn, but truthfully, I’m not earning enough for the inevitable devaluation to really hurt that bad.

But, I wanted to see what I was missing out on with Mileage Plan, since it’s so highly regarded in the points and miles world. Plus, it was on my mind after writing that post about Starpoints. Most of Alaska’s more interesting redemptions are on carriers I don’t really have occasion to use, specifically because I don’t have any immediate plans to fly to Asia or the middle east. However, when looking through their partner award chart, a particular redemption caught my eye:mileageplan

Cathay Pacific first class is one of those products that gets reviewed amazingly well from just about everybody. They don’t have an on-board bar or shower suite, but the seat looks divinely comfortable, and the service is supposed to be pretty good too. (Also, I know everyone raves about the novelty of showering on a plane, but I’m severely put off by the not-unlikely prospect of hitting turbulence and sitting belted-in on the shower’s safety bench nude and dripping wet while the plane lurches to and fro.) Plus, true first class is kind of a forbidden fruit for me, since I have very eurocentric travel goals, and one of the bummers about flying to Europe is that first class is tougher and tougher to come by… and when first class cabins do exist, it’s either difficult or prohibitively expensive to book awards in them.

So, imagine my delight when I found that Cathay Pacific runs a fifth freedom route (a route on which neither the origin nor the terminus is in a carrier’s registered country) between JFK and Vancouver. Cities I love and would happily travel to in order to enjoy a premium cabin I otherwise wouldn’t get to experience. (Fifth freedom routes are pretty cool in general, and at some point my goal is to fly in first class on both Emirates (NYC to Milan) and Singapore (NYC to Frankfurt).)

You know what I just realized? None of these premium cabins have overhead bins!

After some more research, I realized that both Lucky and The Points Guy have written about this route, but I missed it – again, due to the sheer volume of information that’s out there. Then, once I realized that the route exists, I found out that I can book it with Asia Miles (for 40,000 miles), which I can earn via transfers from Citi or Amex (meaning that the whole detour into Alaska miles wasn’t even necessary). Given the ease of earning Thank You/Membership Rewards points, it’s probably easier to book this way, although I’m hoarding points in those programs right now. As a result, I decided to do a Mileage Plan blitz and found myself with 39,000 Mileage Plan points almost overnight. (How did I do this? 25,000 points came from getting the Alaska Airlines Visa card, which awards the miles without requiring a minimum spend. Then I got the other 14,000 from my Chicago hotel stay, which I booked on Rocketmiles. Almost 40,000 Alaska miles in a weekend, and nary an SPG Amex in sight!)

I’m planning the trip for next June, and I’ll be traveling with my younger brother, since he’s the only person I know who appreciates premium cabins as much as I do. He’s based in Chicago, so we’ll meet in New York (which I’ll probably fly to on a paid Jetblue ticket so I can check out their Mint class), travel to Vancouver on Cathay, and then hang out in the Pacific Northwest for a while before returning home. It seems kind of crazy to fly to Vancouver via New York, but I’m the guy who started a blog post on points and miles by talking about French poststructuralists, so crazy is more or less the unifying theme here.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: What’s the most ridiculous routing YOU’D take just to fly a product you’ve never tried before?

Starwood Lust

Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. Every time someone talks about Starwood points, all I can think about is the episode of Broad City where Abbi accidentally gets super high and charges $1000+ of groceries at Whole Foods to her Starwood credit card that she got because she thought it would make her feel more like an adult. To be honest, it seems weird that all these serious points blogs write endlessly about the Starwood card, because I associate it with Abbi’s giant blue imaginary friend named Bingo Bronson.

Anyway, aside from strange pop culture associations, I guess I don’t really get the big deal about this card. I understand all the benefits – chief among them that you get a 5000 point transfer bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to airlines (for an average earning rate of 1.25 points per dollar), and I realize that they have really good transfer partners, including Alaska and American. Still, though, the card is kind of weak in a lot of ways, isn’t it? First of all (and the Devil’s Advocate guy on Travel Codex already mentioned this), you aren’t *really* earning 1.25 points per dollar, just like points aren’t *really* worth actual money. You have to get 20,000 points first in order to get the 5000 point bonus, and since the card only earns 1 point per dollar, that’s gonna take a long time. You’re “earning” that extra 1/4 point per dollar in the form of a futures contract on a transfer that you’ll make at an unspecified point. You don’t have it until you hit the 20,000 threshold, which means your entire earning and redemption strategy has to conform to 20,000 point increments. And the minute you top off an account with an odd number of Starpoints, you just blew up the entire value proposition people cite with this card.

Here’s the thing: last month, I earned well over two points per dollar on my Everyday Preferred card, meaning that I could earn 25,000 points on this card WAAAAAY faster than I could earn 20,000 Starpoints. It’s not as if Amex’s travel partners are super shitty either – you get reasonable business class awards to Europe via Aeroplan (though some – but not all – include fuel surcharges), other Star Alliance awards with ANA or Singapore, OneWorld redemptions via British Airways, and even competitive partner awards with Delta (which still has some value for Skyteam partner redemptions). Everyone’s all up in arms about Amex’s British Airways devaluation, but when they make it *so* easy to earn points, it doesn’t sting that bad. I could stick with Starpoints or Ultimate Rewards if a 1:1 transfer rate were important to me on principle, but given the earning potential of an Amex card portfolio (especially if you combine the Gold and Everday Preferred cards), you’ll earn circles around either of those other cards, more than offsetting the devaluation.

I suppose I sound like a Membership Rewards fanboy, and I should admit that I am… and also that I recognize that part of that might be due to being very heavily invested in MR right now, meaning I may have an instinct to defend it. I’m not denying that fact, especially since it’s really easy to find bitter message board comments about how MR has lost a lot of value as a program. But I don’t think that makes any of my arguments untrue (such is the advantage of having a blog with no readers).

But anyway, back to Starpoints. I think it’s significant that the sign-up bonus kinda sucks. You get 25,000 (or [GASP] 30,000 for the next month), which means that after your first amazing transfer bonus, you’ll have 5000 orphaned points for months while you build up another 15,000 points. Compared to a farily-easy-to-find sign-up bonus on the Amex Gold Card of 50,000 points, I can’t see how this card stacks up. Are Starpoints really worth 2x Membership Reward points? For big spenders who want to have skin in multiple programs, it certainly doesn’t make sense to ignore the Starwood program, but for most people making less than $100,000 year, it’s just too hard to put enough spend on the card to get meaningful rewards (unless you’re aggressively manufacturing spend, which most people don’t do – and the people who tout the Starwood card don’t just recommend it for MSers). The most common argument for this card is that it’s best for spending that doesn’t fit into other bonus categories, but (big surprise) I still don’t agree with that. Most point valuations peg the Starpoints as around 10% more valuable than MR points. So if you’re earning 1.25 Starpoints per dollar, that equates to 1.375 MR points, which is still less than the 1.5 minimum earning rate on the Everyday Preferred.

Purple is the new black?

Okay, okay – the transfer partners. They’re the best. I’m not going to argue that point… but if you can’t earn enough points to redeem, what’s the use? There’s more water in the ocean than there is in a lake, but if you can’t drink saltwater, what good is it? And one other thing: if it’s so damn important to be able to transfer to American and Alaska, why not just sign up for their co-brand cards and collect a bunch of miles that way? You can get 25,000 Alaska miles just for opening the card (plus a $100 credit), and Citi has an offer for 75,000 miles on their American Airlines premium card. What’s more, those bonuses are recurring, whereas you only get your precious 30,000 Starpoints once between now and when you die.

Okay, so obviously every program has its high and low points. I just don’t agree that Starpoints are the best currency for most people, given that anyone who isn’t a big spender is going to have a super hard time racking up points the way it’s possible to do in other programs. Lucky had a curious argument about the value of Starpoints recently, saying that the difficulty of earning them actually makes them more valuable due to laws of supply & demand. I’m not sure I agree with that (and I’m a bigger fanboy for Lucky than I am for Membership Rewards), since Starpoints aren’t tradeable like other commodities whose values are dictated by supply and demand. In the world of points, “value” doesn’t mean what something is worth in a resale transaction; instead, a point’s value lies in what it can get you, and unless you’re putting over $100,000/year spend on your SPG card, it ain’t gonna get you much. I’m not anti-SPG by any means, and I’ll probably pick up the card at some point in my life if I need 25,000 miles quickly for a program that doesn’t have other transfer partners. But the way people talk about this card, you’d think it could give you a reach-around from your back pocket, and I just don’t see it.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: Do YOU think Abbi made the right choice to use her SPG Amex at Whole Foods when she was high out of her mind? 

Thoughts on Premium Cabins

The thing about reviews is that most reviewers almost have too much experience for their experiences to be relevant to people like me who just don’t have enough time off to try every product in the sky. I realize that the point of most reviews is to be as in-depth as possible precisely because people who take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in first class want to make sure they aren’t wasting their money (or miles). Still, some of the “bad” reviews I read make me laugh, given that they really don’t sound that bad to me.

I really have very little experience with first class – the first time I sat up front is when I had food poisoning and upgraded to AirTran’s first class because it was only $100 and I thought that sitting in Economy while trying not to barfpoop would just be too miserable. For anyone who never got that opportunity before AirTran disappeared, my review is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. Definitely worth $100 given the circumstances, but not exactly “premium.” I’ve also flown Virgin America first class a few times, since their same-day upgrades used to be really cheap. I think I paid $150 to upgrade BOS to SFO (almost 7 hours in a headwind), and that flight was probably awesome. I say “probably” because I took too many sleeping pills while waiting at the gate, and I barely remember the flight. I was so zonked that, despite sitting in 1A, I was the very last person off the plane.

My wife and I flew “business class” on Norwegian from OAK to OSL last summer, which is more or less premium economy on most carriers. My review of that flight is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. (I’m being snarky, but Norwegian is actually one of my favorite airlines, and that flight was amazing. Seeing the Hudson Bay and Greenland during the midnight sun from the Dreamliner’s oversized window was incredible. I’ve flown Norwegian both long haul and short haul, and their planes are spotless, their staff is always friendly, and Gardamoen airport in Oslo has the best candy selection of any airport I’ve ever been to. However, their planes are painted to look like dog penises, which is odd.)

That’s a plane in the photo, not a Samoyed getting excited.

Other times I’ve been in first class were just on short legs, so nothing to write home about. I flew Alaska Airlines first class from SEA to SFO a few months ago on one of those $50 upgrades I bought myself as a treat. My review of that flight is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. (A quick aside – a friend of mine had asked if I could bring back some of Alaska’s bloody mary mix, since it’s supposedly really good. I hate bloody marys so I wouldn’t know. Anyway, I asked the flight attendant for some, and she very politely declined, explaining that it comes in a big carton, not individual bottles. But, after the flight as I was deplaning, she poured some into a lidded cup for me. I thought that was really nice, and it makes me like Alaska Airlines just because a flight attendant has never been that nice to me before. Once I got off the jetbridge, I stood over the garbage can right by the gate and decanted the cup of bloody mary mix into an empty Aquafina bottle… I can’t even imagine what the other passengers on the plane thought I was doing as the saw this upon deplaning.)

Alaska is going to run this plane on their new Seattle to Tulsa route just to fuck with little kids.

Okay, so anyway, back to my original point about reviews… I’m taking a trip to New York in a few months, and I used 50,000 United miles to book it in first class. Normally I wouldn’t waste the miles, but SFO – EWR on United is on their fancy “premium service” trans-con 757, so I thought it would be worth it. This will definitely be the nicest hard product I’ve ever flown, and I’m pretty excited. Plus, 50,000 miles for a $1200 ticket is over 2 cents per mile, which isn’t bad for a domestic redemption… especially when I don’t have a spare $1200 sitting around (or even really a spare $400 for economy).

Once I booked the flight, I excitedly looked up reviews of United’s trans-con premium service, ready to read how mind-blowingly amazing it is… and most reviews aren’t very positive. The gist of them is that the seat is nice enough, the food is meh, and the service is blah. Picky picky. First of all, I’m vegan, so I won’t be able to eat the food anyway. Second of all, I have a lot of social anxiety and don’t enjoy when people go out of their way to talk to me, so I don’t really care if the service is aloof. Maybe I should ask them for some extra bloody mary mix as a sort of controlled experiment. One review I read even criticized United’s snack bar, saying something to the effect of “hopefully you like Milano cookies and pretzels.” My response when reading this was to say, “Yes, I do like Milano cookies, and you’re telling me that there’s a snack bar where I can get Milano cookies whenever I want?” Different expectations indeed. (I realize Milano cookies aren’t vegan. I should have said I’m mostly vegan – don’t tell PETA.) My only concern about this flight now is that I booked a window seat, and if the person on the aisle goes to sleep, he’s going to be annoyed with me crawling over him every half hour to get Milano cookies.

I don’t really plan to review travel products on this blog, but I’m sure I’ll talk at length about how great United’s trans-con service is, since it will have been the first and only time I’ve been on a flat bed seat on a plane. This is like the Emirates shower suite for me, seriously.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: Do YOU like Milano cookies, and do you know what flavors United offers?