Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: January 2017

Sydney, Australia in 13 photos

Two days of my little trip down under were spent enjoying Sydney. As Australia’s largest city (20% of the Aussie population lives in Sydney or its suburbs), there is a lot to see. I barely scratched the surface. Here are my favorite photos:

Circular Quay

Opera House from Royal Botanic Garden

Eastern Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Sydney Harbour Bridge

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Manly Beach

Sydney CBD from the Opera House steps

Entry to the NSW State Library

The iconic Sydney Opera House

Royal Botanic Garden

Western Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Coastal cliffs east of Watson’s Bay

Flying in to Sydney Kingsford Smith airport

Getting the full pat down from the TSA at Arcata Airport

Thus far in my flying career, I’ve had very few notable incidents with the TSA. Sometimes the giant millimeter wave machine will erroneously say I have something in my back pocket or on my chest, and the Mr. TSA man will have to make sure I’m not carrying a hidden box cutter. Lately, security has actually been fairly painless when I’ve traveled.

But that all changed yesterday morning. I started things off with a full pat down from the TSA.

Of course my bag appears suspicious

I was headed off for a 5-night stint in Australia, eager to experience my first flights in a true international premium cabin. I had even managed to book seat 1A in the nose of a Boeing 747-400 (so geeky, I know). I was flying SFO to Seoul Incheon (ICN), and then ICN to Sydney, Australia (SYD). To start it all off, though, I had to make a quick connecting hop from our local Arcata-Eureka airport.

I arrived at Arcata-Eureka airport with about 50 minutes until our scheduled departure, and about 20 minutes until boarding. Security at the airport is a single line for the single departure gate, and is usually very quick and easy.

But not yesterday. I put all my stuff in the bins as usual, careful to leave my laptop in a bin by itself. The first TSA agent asked if I had any liquids, and I said yes, and that they were really tiny. She said that was fine and ushered me through.

I had no problems passing through the metal detector, but I knew something was up with my bag. The lady manning the x-ray machine stared at it for a long time. When it did come out, another agent promptly took it aside. Not good.

No, I don’t have explosives in my bag

After identifying it as mine, the TSA lady opened up my bag. My wife had packed me a substantial amount of homemade snack food, and she asked what a few items were. It was understandable, considering the homemade fruit roll ups do look a little suspicious.

She did an explosives swab of one of the bags, and I could tell it came back negative by the sound the machine made. After pulling out a second paper, she did a swab of the interior perimeter of the bag and inserted it into the machine.

Which set off a series of beeps a few seconds later that I had never heard before. Great. That can’t be good.

Another TSA agent came by, explains that my bag had tested positive for explosive residue, and informed me that he had to give me a pat down and that my entire bag would have to be searched.

At this point I was screaming inside my head, “Really, people?!?! This is the tiny Arcata Airport! Do I honestly look that suspicious to you?”

But instead I just said, “OK,” keeping my explosive reaction to myself. I wanted to say, “OK, whatever, this is why I can’t stand you guys,” but I kept my feelings to myself.

So I just stood there, holding my arms straight out to each side while TSA man gave me a full pat down while TSA lady searched my entire bag for the explosives that I supposedly had stashed in their somewhere. If there were any, I wasn’t aware of them. Maybe my wife makes explosives in her spare time and somehow forgot to inform me of her strange hobby.

The entire ordeal lasted about 12-15 minutes. A few people were staring at me, but by the time my full pat pat down from the TSA man was over, I didn’t care. I just wanted my bag back with enough time to pack it neatly before having to run onto the plane. It was almost boarding time. I hadn’t expected to burn this much time or have this much difficulty getting through security.

Fortunately, we were soon airborne, leaving my TSA troubles far behind.

Ok, I guess I should be thankful for the TSA

I do understand the need for airport and aircraft security. I really do. But the methods of the TSA often boggle my mind. And their statistics on what gets through them are less than stellar. Undoubtedly, they were just following protocol, but I didn’t have to like it. This is the first time I had ever set off the explosives scanner, and I hope I never do it again.

I have heard so many stories of people’s hands causing false positives for the explosives screening, especially if they have been on or near a farm. The whole thing is really a farce, anyway, since the TSA doesn’t even check everyone’s hands, just a random sample.

What about you? Do you have any crazy TSA stories?

My First Best Rate Guarantee: Initial Experiences

Ever since Travel is Free wrote an awesome rundown on his experiences using best rate guarantees to save significant money on hotels (also see his complete guide), I have been itching to make a claim of my own. I have looked for opportunities many times, but nothing has ever presented itself in terms of timing and need.

Until now. While planning a crazy one-night trip (just to use a lounge pass I won and burn a United voucher), I was able to try a best-rate guarantee for the first time. Actually, I was able to try two.

But let’s pause for a moment so I can clarify what exactly is a  best rate guarantee. A “best rate guarantee” (BRG) is a policy outlined by a hotel chain that guarantees that the best publicly available rate that you can find for their hotel is on their website. Typically, the hotel chain offers to match any lower, publicly available rate, and then reduce the even more by a given percentage. In the case of IHG, they simply offer you the first night free, which is incredible for single night stays.

Finding Best Rate Guarantee Targets

I was headed to the Bay Area for work, and I noticed that the Hilton Garden Inn Emeryville was advertised at a lower rate on Expedia than on Hilton’s website. I quickly booked 2 refundable nights and submitted my first claim.

Then I started shopping for my one quick night near Denver airport. Almost immediately I had a target: the Marriott Airport Gateway. It as an Expedia daily special, and the refundable rate was less than $70. At Marriott’s website, the refundable member rate was about $80.

Both inquiries were responded to within 24 hours. Of course they couldn’t find either. The Marriott deal had about 8 hours left on it when I found it, so all they really had to do was wait it out. Somehow the room types didn’t match on the Hilton BRG. Meh. Technicalities. I can easily find other Bay Area options. I canceled the Expedia reservation and moved on.

Pursuing the Marriott Best Rate Guarantee

But I didn’t want to give up on the Marriott at Denver Airport. I quickly replied to the email, including a printout of my hotel confirmation. It was still just under 24 hours from when I had submitted my initial claim, and I had hung on to the original Expedia reservation since it was refundable.

I sent a message back to the customer service rep who had emailed, explaining that the rate was a timed Expedia special. I sent an image of my confirmation and hoped for the best.

Within just a few hours, I received an email back from the rep, stating that while they couldn’t find the rate that I had quoted, they had found a different one. It was even cheaper, and they were taking the liberty of matching it and then reducing the price by 25%. Sweet. The final price came out to about $60 after tax.

I was honestly surprised Marriott offered this. While I had expected that they would honor the rate I had booked, as I had submitted my claim within the time specified with an eligible rate, it was totally unexpected that they would match me to a wholly different rate.

Thus, I really chalk this up to both good luck and a sympathetic (or overly eager) customer service representative.

Due to a slight delay, I didn’t do much more than sleep and shower at the hotel when I finally arrived for my brief single night. I covered the cost with Arrival miles and raked in an extra 5,000 Marriott points for the stay from a Fall promotion. Not a terrible trade-off and an interesting first best rate guarantee experience.

Header image courtesy of Marriott. 

Finally, $69 Transatlantic Flights are Coming!

Back in 2015 Norweigan Air Shuttle CEO Bjørn Kjos told interviewers that he hoped to sell $69 transatlantic flights as early as 2017. Well….it looks like his prediction will be true.

Norwegian has gotten permission to operate out of a few smaller, regional airports in the northeast U.S., from which it will offer budget transatlantic flights using the new 737 MAX jets. The first airport on the list is Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, New York. The main draw of utilizing “secondary airports” is the lower fees these airports charge. The efficiency and size of the revamped 737 jets will also significantly cut costs for Norwegian.

Although Stewart International Airport is roughly 5x further from Manhattan than JFK and Newark airport (and even further from La Guardia), the significantly lower prices will likely draw plenty of travelers. Currently, reasonable round-trip fares between New York and the British Isles hover around $500. With any luck Norwegian will soon be offering r/t fares for less than $150. That’s honestly insane. You can easily pay that much in fees on an award tickets.

I’ve written before about my hopes for both Norwegian and WOW (Iceland’s budget carrier) to provide enough U.S. competition that legacy carriers will follow suit with great pricing. With better and better technology, and barring any oil crisis of other disaster, I think that we are entering an even more accessible era of air travel. Bring on the $69 transatlantic flights!