Looking for a frequent flier ticket? Here’s the latest trick

People often complain that they can’t use their frequent flier miles. When it comes to finding free flights, I’m usually successful — but it

INDIA: Frequent flier tickets often come with hassles including time-consuming searches, oddball routings and overnight stays at airport hotels. But when the destination is a place like India, Africa or Europe involving an expensive air ticket, the hassles are worth it.

takes some serious work and creative approaches.

Just this week I snagged two tickets for travel in May to Asia. What I quickly found is that booking the legs separately — instead of as a round trip — secured a ticket that “didn’t exist” when I tried to book it as a single itinerary.

Airlines steer you to their websites for booking by imposing a whopping fee if you book frequent flier tickets with a live person. If I’m saving $5,000 — as in this case — it’s still a good deal to pay $40 per ticket to use an agent. But not every agent is patient and savvy, and so I look up the options online before I make the call.

In this case, I wasn’t able to find tickets from Miami to Darwin, Australia — but I was able to find them from L.A. to Darwin. The Miami-to-LA leg was also available, but not as a “through” ticket from Miami to Darwin.

My return, from the relatively obscure port of Kota Kinabalu on Borneo, took a bit more digging. I’m buying inexpensive tickets ($50 each) from KK to the nearest major airport, Kuala Lumpur. I’m buying another cheap ticket ($100 each) from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, where I pick up my frequent flier tickets back to Miami.

True, getting free seats on the most convenient, direct flights is nigh impossible. Every other flier is competing for those same seats, and even trying to book them the minute an airline releases its first batch of free seats doesn’t necessarily work. (Airlines release seats at varying schedules, about a year out, but most add seats throughout the yearbased on the volume of paid bookings they get.)

But if the savings are significant enough — for an expensive ticket to Asia, Africa or Europe — the inconvenience of oddball routings and overnight hotel stays can be worth it.




Tribute to Maine’s Elephant Man

The Hope Elephants are something of a marvel. Their name comes from their location — in the tiny village of Hope, Maine, population around 1,500, about 20 minutes west of the tony hamlet of Camden. But the meaning fits as well. Former circus residents, Rosie and Opal, two post-menopausal Asian elephants, were brought here two years ago by Dr. James Laurita.

Labor Day Weekend, I went to one of the thrice-daily presentations at the Hope Elephants barn. It sounds like a touristy thing to do; it was anything but. For 30 minutes, Laurita talked about his student days working with his brother at Carson a&Barnes Circus as an jugglers and elephant tenders; how the circus led him to become a vet; how he went back to visit Rosie over the years. In 2011 he and his brother raised the money to build Rosie and Opal a state-of-the-art barn, complete with radiant heat beneath the sand floor.

His passion spilled out as he talked about the elephants’ injuries — at the trunk and feet of other female elephants in a matriarchal battle for dominance — took them through simple exercises designed to strengthen Rosie’s damaged trunk and Opal’s stiff leg. Both leaned in for a spray of the hose, then the hose went straight into thirsty throats and mouths. Six more circus-retired elephants are on a waiting list to come to the Hope refuge, but the massive tech-savvy barns they need don’t come cheap.

So it was with surprising sadness that I learned last week that Laurita, 56, died just days after my visit. Tending to the elephants late one night, apparently he fell and was stepped on by one of his charges. No malice, just an accident.

One of the great gifts of traveling is the things you don’t expect…the gourmet shop plopped unexpectedly in the middle of the countryside, the general store selling both guns and wedding gowns. The passion of a man who battled the forces of economics and what would seem to be common sense to make his odd dream come true. That’s worth celebrating, even at such a cost.

Scanning for an air deal? Grab a map

Amsterdam in spring, copyright Jane Wooldridge 2014

Amsterdam in spring, 2014

Just when you thought airline travel was getting oh-so-slightly easier (thanks to TSA pre-check lanes), the airlines have become even more difficult.

In the wake of the American Airlines – US Airways merger, schedules have rearranged in ways that benefit the airlines but often slam travelers.

And as anyone who has tried to fly recently knows, airline rates have gone, well, sky-high. We could explain the business case of why, but unless you’re an institutional-sized stockholder of an airline, you probably don’t care about the why. You just care about how you’re going to cope.

The answer: Invest some time in looking at the alternatives.

Multi-search engines like kayak.com  and online agencies like Expedia and Travelocity are great for checking the obvious to find airlines and routes that might be cheaper than the travel plan that first comes to mind. But finding the best deals often requires human creativity.

Amsterdam 2014 / copyright Jane Wooldridge

Amsterdam 2014

For a recent trip to Amsterdam, the fares on our usual airline-of-choice bordered on ridiculous. With map in hand, we started looking for nearby cities served by lower priced airlines and hit on Dusseldorf — two hours away by car or train, and served by Air Berlin. To figure out our total costs, we added in the price of a car rental, estimated gas (which always costs more in Europe than we remember) — and found we could save hundreds on each ticket. Better yet, we were able to snag frequent flier tickets via a partner arrangement, which cut our costs to a fraction of what we’d paid if we’d flown directly to Amsterdam.

Planning an upcoming trip to Malta, Sicily, Nuremberg and Amsterdam proved more confounding. Many of the flights we would have found most convenient didn’t fly the day of the week we need to travel. Some of the routes were torturous — and time-consuming. Others were just more than we wanted to pay.

So out came the atlas. With the map on the table and the computer at hand, we looked first for low-cost airlines that fly into Malta or Sicily. Ryanair, Easyjet, Air Berlin, Germanwings and Meridana were all possibilities. (Some we already knew about, some we found through European low-cost website Opodo, and some we found by checking the airport website to find out which airlines serve them.)

Working backwards, we figured out that Ryanair flies to Malta on the date we need. (Easyjet’s service ends at the close of summer.) We looked at all Ryanair routes to Malta and searched from flights from Miami to those cities. The best deal and schedule, we concluded, was to Milan. Then we repeated the process for our other travel points.

End of the day, we’re flying Miami to Milan, with enough time to go into town for lunch, before flying on to Malta. Our trip with friends includes Malta and a ferry ride to Sicily. From Palermo, we’ll fly back to Milan on a supercheap flight, snag a cheap overnight hotel and fly on to Nuremberg. We’ll cruise from Nuremberg up to Amsterdam, then fly back to Miami.

Sounds complicated and time-consuming. You got it. But when you balance out more than $2,000 in savings, it was time well spent.

As for the those airline schedule changes, let’s just say that my old airline and I are undergoing a sort of trial separation. After sorting through all the options, I found a cheaper and easier way to get to Boston, where I go often. Turns out breaking up isn’t that hard to do after all.


Real customer service — and a smart survey to back it up

Far too often these days, ‘customer service’ is a sad joke. Take the cable company that took three visits, 12 hours and four guys to hook up our pre-wired house earlier this week…and was accomplished only after three-plus hours on the phone with dispatch. Or the estate sales company partner who bailed on us last minute with a raft of spurious excuses (but had bandwidth to handle another estate sale elsewhere in the neighborhood on the same date that was arranged far after ours.) The city official who insisted that a previously accepted permit application be reprinted in a different order — at a cost to the tax-paying applicant of $275. The off-shore digital “help” function that can rarely provide more than additional frustration. Or the mechanized answer system at … you name the company, it doesn’t much matter. It all amounts to “dis-service.”

So it is with surprise and delight that I report an airline customer experience that was not only pleasant, it was actually helpful.

This morning I was alerted by a computer call to my cell phone that my long-booked flight would be sadly delayed. Since my trip is a short one — less than 48 hours — to a professional conference, this was not good news.

I immediately phoned for a reservation agent, a process that involved a maddening digital phone system and, even at 5 a.m., a 10-minute wait. When the system asked if I would be willing to take a short survey at the end of my call, I punched yes, figuring I’m be on a tear about another dreadful experience.

Then Scott got on the phone. After a frantic plea for help, he actually … helped me. He told me he was going to investigate the issue, came back on the line to explain it was a mechanical delay but he was looking for alternatives, came back on the line again to explain he was trying to rebook me on a competitor airline that would get me to my conference around my original arrival time, and came back on the line to tell me the mission had been accomplished and he’d need just a few more minutes to be sure my ticket was properly reissued.

Wow. Wow. WOW. Was this some early morning fantasy?

The survey at the end of the call was, as promised, blessedly short. The single question: On a scale of 1 to 5, with five being ‘absolutely’ and one ‘no way,’ would I hire the person who had just helped me?

You betcha!

I’d not only hire that person, I’d hire that company … and will likely do so next time they and I are flying the same way. And, because good service should be rewarded, it’s only fair that I give the company name: Delta. After having suffered a raft of discouraging service issues with Delta some years back, I turned my back on the company. Now, I’m likely to at least check out their schedule and fares next time I travel.

Other companies should take note. As service providers of all types get bigger and more complex, they often assume they can dominate the marketplace regardless of how poorly they treat customers. It’s a foolish assumption. Competitive products often arise out of dissatisfaction with the status quo … that’s how Southwest, for instance, came into being. And with rapid advances in technology, today’s monopoly can be tomorrow’s legacy leave-behind. For proof, you need only look to VOIP phone providers, alternative parcel carriers and e-mail.

Good customers service might not stop technological advancement, but customer loyalty can staunch the impact of change.

Good customer service is also a form of living up to commitments…something our society could use a whole lot more of.

Opaque websites more useful, less scary

Opaque websites are intentionally mysterious. Hotels, rental car companies and airlines often have “express inventory,” which means bookings aren’t going as quickly as they’d like. But they don’t want to put out a super-cheap price attached to their names to avoid denigrating their brand. This allows travelers to snag cheaper prices than they might otherwise find, but without knowing the supplier’s name until after they’ve made a non-refundable purchase. The best known of these are Hotwire and Priceline; Travelocity and Expedia also sell “secret” hotels. Autoeurope offers a similar service on cars, though unlike other “secret” deals, these are refundable.

For years I’ve used opaque sites for car rentals with superb results. Because I don’t rent that often, I’m not racking up loyalty points with one particular car company. And all of the opaque sites work with major suppliers, so there’s no danger of getting saddled into a car from a local no-name company with no road support.

Hotels and airlines are a different matter. Days off are precious, and when it comes to airlines, I care far more about the airline I’m flying (those FF points have taken me worldwide more times than I can count) and the exact times I’m flying than I care about saving a few dollars.  As for hotels, though I don’t adhere to a strict loyalty program, I’ve  never felt comfortable without knowing the name of the hotel, along with its exact location.

I’ve now changed my mind — at least where hotels come into the picture.

Recently we arranged a trip over a high-season weekend to Amsterdam. It’s one of the glaring holes in my travel resume, despite a number of previous efforts to get there (including one trip that was whited out by a London ‘snowstorm of the century’). In cities I know well — London, Hong Kong, New York — I have strong opinions about my precise location. But in the case of Amsterdam, I only know the neighborhoods I’d find convenient. What I do know is that my credit card screamed every time I looked at the hotel choices. Once I added in taxes, the cost of just about every hotel at any star level was heading close to $300 per night — meaning a tab of $900 for a three-night stay. Ouch.

Following the old adage that looking is still free, I went to Hotwire and found it has improved significantly since the last time I booked a hotel there. On the site, Amsterdam is segmented into tight areas, so you get a pretty decent idea of neighborhood. Information about each of the “secret” hotels offered includes a rating by previous Hotwire customers about whether they would recommend the hotel. Better yet, it also includes the 4-out-of-5 rating from Trip Advisor. (The two companies previously were held by the same ownership group.)

Still, all that might not have been enough to tempt me alone. The price was. Instead of paying $300 per night for a 2- or 3-star hotel, we found a price of $180 per night for a 4-star hotel in a good neighborhood. Even when we threw in a $40 cancellation insurance add-on, the price for our stay came down to just above $600 — a good 33 percent discount.

Click! Now that we had paid, the name was revealed. It turned out to be a chic brand hotel that I’d seen elsewhere online for $325 per night…more than we would even have considered booking out right.

It will be a couple of months before we actually travel; I’ll report back then on the experience. For today, I can say that we’ll be checking out the opaque sites next time we’re heading to a major city. It’s at least worth a look.


Former Vistafjord to become floating luxury hotel

The former Saga Ruby will now be a floating hotel in Myanmar.

Long-time cruisers will remember the Norwegian Vistafjord, considered one of the most luxurious cruise ships afloat at her 1970s debut. In the 1980s the Norwegian America Line was bought by Cunard, and in the 1990s the ship was renamed as the Coronia. In 2004, the ship was sold to Saga Cruises as the Saga Ruby.

Now she’s moving to Myanmar (the former Burma), where she will become a luxury hotel, according to Dania Beach, Fla.-based QPS Ventures, the brokerage arm of Nautical Ventures Group. The 561-passenger ship, which sold for $14 million, will be refurbished and used as a stationary luxury hotel, according to a QPS statement.


Maine in winter? Let them eat pie!

Pies on Parade, Rockland, Maine 2014

Fruit tarts at Capt. Lindsey House

The bell rings, one of the Berry Manor Pie Mom calls for the raising of the forks, and the call comes out. “Let’s eat some pie!” And off we go onto a calorie-laden three-hour forage for crust and filling, 40 flavors in all, at 27 bed-and-breakfasts, galleries, shops that on regular days serve up spa treatments and gourmet olive oils and yarns.

Though this is the 10th annual Pies on Parade festival in

Downtown Rockland, it is our first romp through a glorious feast of tarts, pies, quiches, pizzas, pastry shells and cobblers in just about every sweet and savory combination imaginable. pecan, raspberry, blueberry, cinnamon, pumpkin,

Pies  on Parade, Rockland, Maine, 2014

Savory pie with balsamic vinegar at Fiore.

artichoke and spinach, goat cheese, roasted turkey, bacon and apple, seafood, lemon meringue. Cornish lamb with rhubarb chutney. Shepherd’s pie. Even blue barky pup-pies for the canine set. And of course, this being Maine, whoopie pies.

Though the Berry Manor moms, Capt. Lindsey’s Ken and Ellen Barnes, and Bobby Flay-nemesis Lynn Archer posed tough competition, our favorites came from the Artspace cooperative, where five artists turned their talents to a yummy pair of pastries, one made from apple, sausage and cheese, and the other of apricot and almonds — Yum! — serving up 50 pies in all.

Pies on Parade, Rockland, Maine 2014

At Rheal Spa

The pie parade is a fundraiser for the local food pantry. This year’s event was a sell-out, with more than 600 buying the $25 tickets, and a not-a-prayer waiting list.

Yeah, I can hear you thinking. But really, is this reason enough to leave your home in warm-and-sunny Miami for wicked cold (that would be 18 too-cold-to-snow degrees) in Midcoast Maine?

Really, once you pull on long johns, jeans, and four layers of arctic wear and down courtesy of L.L. Bean, Icebreaker and Uniglo, it’s not bad.

If you REALLY want cold, come up the weekend after the Super Bowl for the annual National Toboggan Championships. (The year we went, it was so cold that even the Flaming Hot Menopausal Mamas sledding team members huddled by the bonfire and hid out in the Chowder Competition tent.)

For that, you definitely need to fortify yourself with a hearty breakfast at Home Kitchen Cafe and dinner at Shepherd’s Pie, our favorite local restaurants. Or heck, you could just burrow in front of the fireplace at the Camden Harbour Inn and sip a Winter’s Wrath at Natalie’s restaurant and bar. A couple of cocktails, and you won’t care about what’s happening outside.

Celebrating winter in midcoast Maine (near Rockland and Camden, by Penobscot Bay):

Pies on Parade, Rockland, Maine 2014

Pies on Parade

  • Pies on Parade: Last Sunday each January in Rockland; 2015 date is Jan. 25. Tickets go on sale the day after Thanksgiving and cost $25; proceeds go to the Area Interfaith Outreach food pantry.
  • Winterfest Carnival: Ice-carving, snow games and snowboard and ski competitions are part of the fun at this annual week-long event, this year beginning Feb. 1.
  • National Toboggan Championships, Feb. 7-9, 2014: The culmination of Winterfest held annually the week after Super Bowl, this three-day celebration of athleticism and insanity features costumes, tailgate parties and teams from around the globe and benefits the Camden Snow Bowl, the local public slope.
  • Camden Conference, Feb. 21-23, 2014: This annual conference focusing on world events offers a more intellectual approach to winter. This year’s topic: the global politics of food and water.
  • Smelt fishing: Several camps rent out shacks complete with a wood-burning stove and electric lights so you can the fish in the hole. Experienced anglers suggest asking for a flat-top stove and bringing a skillet so you can fry the fish soon as you snag them. Well-known camps include Baker’s Smelt Camps, Worthing Camps  and Jim’s Camps
  • Maine Restaurant Week, March 1-10, 2014: Fine restaurants around the state offer prix fixe meals. Midcoast faves include Natalies and  Hartstone Inn
Midcoast Maine information:


Book 21 days out for best airfares

In the old pre-recession, pre-last-minute-sale days, airlines offered their best fares for tickets booked in advance. Those days — sadly — are back with a vengeance.

Most airlines will tell you they require a 14-day advance purchase on their sale fares. With a heartier economy and less competition in the skies, I’m finding that after the 21-day mark, fares go up substantially.

On American, prices can jump as much as 30 percent on that magic day between the 21-day advance and the 20-day advance. And the prices go up again at the 14-day mark.

Another change for AA fliers: The “free hold for 24 hours” function used to hold the price until 11 p.m. the next day. Now that function is “up to” 24 hours…which means after a much briefer period you can find that your great fare has skyrocketed. Beware.

Traveling this spring? Look for deals now

You’re just ambling back to work after the holidays, and you’re still sorting through your December bills. Buying a ticket for a spring trip to Europe or a summer cruise isn’t really on your radar.

And that’s exactly why airlines and cruise lines usually announce fare sales just after the holidays. Bookings typically slow as we all trudge back to work and try to keep those New Year’s resolutions about financial caution.

This year’s airfare sales may be delayed until after the current Arctic vortex clears. (Marketing dollars aren’t terribly effective when the airwaves are splattered with images of stranded air travelers.)
But cruise lines are already offering deals. (January and early February are their ‘wave’ period, when cruise companies try to jump start spring and summer bookings. For instance, passengers who book between January 6 and 8 on Norwegian‘s European summer cruises qualify for a $200 onboard credit and a stateroom upgrade. Celebrityis offering passengers who book Alaska cruises by Jan. 28 their choice of one of three upgrades: a $300 onboard spending credit, free gratuities or a free beverage package including wine and spirits.

When the airfare deals do kick in, they will likely be for tickets to Europe with traveling beginning before April 1 and tickets to frigid destinations.Those looking to escape the chill with a Florida trip may find deals are few. Still, if your toes are turning blue and your nose has frostbite, it might be worth the price to get someplace warm


Best small town Fourth of July?

A reader wants to take her young children to a great, small-town Fourth celebration. Larry Bleiberg, travel writer and my co-author on 100 Best Affordable Vacations from National Geographic Books, recommends Bristol, R.I.’s annual celebration. I don’t know if it qualifies as best, but I love the hometown parade in Thomaston, Maine.

If you’ve got a suggestion, I’d love to hear it!

And speaking of 100 Best Affordable Vacations, I’ll be talking about the book and sharing some of my personal travel slides today at the Miami Book Fair. 2:30 in Room 7128; join us!