Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Flights

The Two-Hour Time-Traveling Flight

An odd pastime of mine is looking up obscure flights, simply for fun. Lately I’ve spent a bit exploring options in central Asia, as I’d like to visit Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan someday (among lots of other places). This allowed me to stumble upon a perplexing schedule for a China Southern flight.

We really arrive 10 minutes before we left?

The flight that goes backwards in time

The fact that some flights “go backwards” in time isn’t exactly news. Most that cross the international date line from west to east end up arriving at an earlier time than they departed. Sometimes they arrive during the previous day. My Qantas return flight from Brisbane did just that when I visited Australia for a week on the cheap. Check out this Jetstar flight from Sydney to Honolulu as an example:

It leaves at 4:25 p.m. and arrives at 6:00 a.m. the same day. It’s like Groundhog Day. You get to repeat it a second time.

What is odd about the China Eastern flight is that it has a block time of a mere 1:50 and has a scheduled arrival time 10 minutes earlier than departure. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a flight that does this outside of those that cross the date line. I’ve seen super short hops that arrive at basically the same time they left. They are simply in neighboring time zones. But losing time?

Apparently you get to travel 10 minutes backward in time if you fly from Urumqi, China to Almaty, Kazakhstan on this China Southern flight. Urumqi is at GMT+8, while Almaty is at GMT+6. The two cities are barely 500 miles apart. Even crazier is the fact that China at GMT+8 borders central Asia countries that operate at GMT+5. The flight from Urumqi to Tashkent lands exactly when it arrives.

How is that for wonky?

The odd time zones of western China

Western China drew the short straw when it comes to time zones. Actually, they didn’t really get any say in the matter. As a matter of national unification, Mao Zedong changed the country to a single time zone.

This leads to some interesting sights in the western part of the country. In Kashgar, China’s westernmost city of a reasonable size, you may experience sunset a mere hour before midnight. It could be completely disorienting if you aren’t expecting it. Plus, the extreme difference leads to two time systems being used concurrently. Talk about confusing.

Urumqi overwhelmingly uses Beijing standard time, as there are a large number of Han Chinese who have migrated there. Beijing standard time is their system; they wouldn’t conceive of using something else.

But other cities that are predominantly minority Uighur population tend to disregard the time imposed on them by Beijing. Some places will post two schedules, one in Beijing time and the other in local time. In more rural areas, Beijing time isn’t even on the radar.

Imagine for a moment if the U.S. operated the same way. The distance across China is roughly the same as across America. If everywhere had to adopt East Coast time, the sun wouldn’t come up in California until 10:30 in the winter. Sunset would be at midnight in the summer. The reverse would be just as bad. New York would have a 2:30 a.m. sunrise in the summer months. It’d be a mess.

Conclusion

I’ve probably either bored you or intrigued you by my musings on the oddities of time zones and traveling rapidly across them. One thing is for certain, though. Changing multiple zones at a time is always disorienting. We experienced utter exhaustion re-starting a day on our recent trip to Paris (SEE: 3 Days in Pars: Day 1 – Surviving the Jetlag).

My First Flight to Nowhere

On the heels of a miserably long day of travel (for the flight distance) after a canceled flight (SEE: My Second United Horror Story), I had another awesome experience with United. It was deja vu.

Instead of a flight cancellation stranding me hundreds of miles from the next closest airport, however, this was different. I took my first flight to nowhere.

Work isn’t the problem, travel is

After finally arriving in Las Vegas at 2:00 a.m. Friday morning, I had to be up and in Needles by 10:00 or so. This allowed me about 5.5 hours of sleep, but it was enough. My day of work went well, and I made it back by evening into Henderson.

Since my flight was middle of the day on Saturday, I got plenty of rest my second night. The morning was leisurely, and I worked a couple hours and got some blog posts written for Points with a Crew from the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas. Then it was time to head to the plane. An uneventful 2 hours later, I stepped off in San Francisco.

From the Centurion Lounge San Francisco and while walking to my gate, I was thinking about how smoothly today had gone compared to Thursday. Except it wasn’t over yet.

Flying to nowhere

It all started with some confusion at the gate. I arrived just as boarding was supposed to start, but no one was in line. Gate 84 can be confusing since United parks multiple CRJs at the gate and often boards them back to back.

The fact that it was scheduled boarding time and nothing was happening should have been my first clue that something was amiss. I just chalked it up to a typical United delay. When I finally asked a gate agent what was happening, she said that the flight was delayed due to weather. I only had to assume it was the Arcata weather.

About 20 minutes later we finally boarded. I sat in my tiny window seat on a tiny CRJ-200. This is definitely not my favorite plane (SEE: Argh! I thought I’d seen the last of the United CRJ-200). But seat 2A did give me a great view of the captain when he came back to discuss why we were sitting so long. We were playing the waiting game with the Humboldt fog.

Kudos to the captain for keeping us on the ground as long as he did. It was a serious mark of professionalism for him to come back in person to address everyone. You could tell that this wasn’t his first rodeo with the wild SFO-ACV hop.

He finally decided to depart when conditions in Arcata were “improving”. We had already sat on the ground for about an hour, and the CRJ-200 had two more flights scheduled that evening, so it had to get going sometime.

Taxi and takeoff were quick, one of the quickest out of SFO I’ve ever experienced. As we got closer and closer to Arcata, I began to figure all was fine and dandy.

Then the plane started a long, slow bank to the right, and I realized I might not be making it home that night. Back to San Francisco we went. We parked at the same gate. I had literally gone nowhere.

All’s well that ends well

After arriving back at SFO, the gate agent printed me a standby ticket and told me to run to gate 77. Which I did. No more running. I’m tired of these United games.

Out of breath, I arrived at the final flight to ACV. Which I almost didn’t take. I wanted to get a hotel and get some sleep. The idea of wasting another 2 hours trying again seemed foolish. But the next flight they could get me on happened to be the following day at 7:00 p.m., so I figured I’d give it a shot.

After a long delay, we were finally in the air and headed for Humboldt again. To my astonishment, we didn’t turn around this time, and the ERJ-175 touched down smoothly at ACV. Everyone clapped. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard anyone clap on a domestic flight.

Conclusion

I really have a love-hate relationship with our tiny airport. It’s so convenient, but it is so unreliable. The considerable delays and cancellations plus no other airline options is a recipe for disaster. United has left me in the lurch now three times with canceled flights. Two of these involved Arcata Airport. Let’s hope this is the last for a while.

Fly Around the World for $1,000? Yes, It’s Possible!

A while back I challenged myself to put together an around-the-world itinerary for $1,000. While I failed at the time (not by too much as it was only $1,300), I have been interested in trying other options.

So this is take #2 of that endeavor. I’ve gained a lot more knowledge about cheap routes, cheap airlines, and especially the best places to look for cheap one-ways in the past several months. With those tools in my belt, I decided it’d be fun to explore the cheap around-the-world idea some more.

An around-the-world trip for a grand?

Given that I live in northern California, I decided my starting point would be the Bay Area. The San Francisco Bay Area has 3 major airports. Although SFO may dominate in terms of traffic, the other have some of the best deals.

For example, I found a one-way ticket from San Jose to Shanghai on Delta for $268 a couple weeks ago. Similarly, Oakland has some deals to Europe on Norwegian. I decided to start things off with their Oakland-Barcelona route, and things just fell into place from there.

The itinerary I compiled was the following:

  • Oakland to Barcelona for $186 on Iberia LEVEL
  • Barcelona to Rome for $34 on Ryan Air
  • Rome to Athens for $35 on Ryan Air
  • Athens to Tel Aviv for $65 on Aegean
  • Ground transfer to Amman, Jordan (is this cheating?)
  • Amman to Delhi for $234 on Gulf Air
  • Delhi to Kuala Lumpur for $97 on Air Asia
  • Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong for $59 on Malindo Air
  • Hong Kong to SFO for $308 on Delta

The full itinerary is 7 destinations and only $1,016. That’s pretty insane. Catch a couple fare sales within that ticket, and you’ll be back under 4 digits.

Previously, the toughest segment to find cheaply was the one-way transpacific leg. But it appears you may be able to score a deal if you are patient and/or search thoroughly, as this Hong Kong to San Francisco segment is more than $100 less than what I found the previous time I did this exercise.

Tips for putting together around-the-world itineraries

Around-the-world itineraries are definitely possible with a number of different mileage currencies. Two of my favorite programs for these itineraries are ANA Mileage Club and Asia Miles. I’ll write more on this in another post.

But if you’re looking to put together an around-the-world trip with cash, like I was, things are a bit different. Here are four tips to help you put together a cheap around-the-world itinerary:

Do your research

This is the heart of everything in this hobby. Putting together an around the world itinerary might seem daunting. But if you have some tools in your belt and know what you’re looking for, it isn’t all that bad. It took me maybe half an hour to compile the ticket I did.

Research the low cost carriers in various areas. Know which airlines price round-trips as one-ways as the summation of two one-ways. And know those that don’t (e.g. Austrian). For many airlines, cheap one-way tickets are only available on certain routes.

Norwegian is a great airline for finding low cost long haul flights.

Find the airports that tend to have deals. Or the entire regions. Also, look for secondary airports at major destinations, such as London Gatwick or Rome Ciampino. These might not give you the full “airport experience”, but they will often have better fares.

Get familiar with Google Flights

Google Flights is my best friend. If you haven’t used it, you should spend some time trying the interface out. They are my #1 go-to for finding standard flight prices between a given origin and destination. The search speed plus intuitive UI makes it the hands-down best place to start.

I priced out my entire itinerary using Google Flights. I would open a new tab for each segment, plus in the previous endpoint, and then start searching for another potential destination. The map view is especially helpful, as it lets me quickly identify cities I can get to cheaply.

Subscribe to fare sales

This is one way to find cheap flights in general. My favorite site is Secret Flying, who typically send out daily alerts for cheap flights around the world. If you’re patient, you can often snag a round-trip flight to major destinations in either Europe and Asia for about $400. Sometimes more like $300. With fares falling in general, you can find standard fares to places like London and Beijing for $500 all the time.

Other good fare sales sites include Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal. I might even consider looking into the Mileage Run thread on FlyerTalk since people will often report great (or unique) deals.

Fill in the gaps with miles

Maybe you’re putting together an around-the-world trip, and you just have to visit Mauritius. Well…there is realistically no cheap way to get there. You could burn more on a one-way ticket to the island nation from Europe than you would flying a transpacific round-trip.

In cases like this, don’t be afraid to burn your hard-earned miles. Remember than this is your trip and not just an exercise to see if you can fly around the world for less than a grand. If you want to see an out of the way place, miles can make it happen for cheap.

Conclusion

Here are my thoughts on a cheap around-the-world ticket in a nutshell:

  • Around the world itineraries are possible, and much cheaper than you might think
  • Do your research to find which airlines and airports often have cheap fares, especially cheap one-way fares.
  • Watch for fare sales. One-way fare sales *do* happen, but they are a bit more rare than round-trip.
  • Consider filling in the gaps with miles.

Some of this advice applies to ideas beyond an around the world itinerary. For example, you can use the low cost carrier Norwegian Air to reach Europe, and then hop around on budget carrier Ryan Air to multiple other destinations.

A final note: you’ll more than likely have to travel light to save on baggage fees if you put together a cheap itinerary. Many of the airlines that you can utilize to keep costs down will charge you for checked luggage (and maybe even a carry on). So be prepared to travel with little more than your backpack. The lighter the better, in my opinion. I headed to Australia for a week with nothing but my weekender backpack, and it was perfect.

Happy circumnavigating the globe!

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for adoption flights

My wife and I are now three weeks into an adoption trip of about 6 weeks in Costa Rica. We are thoroughly enjoying both our 3 kids and their beautiful country.

But it’s definitely a long trip. We can’t wait to head home and get things back to normal, albeit a new normal.

So I couldn’t keep myself from booking our tickets home. It may seem like it’s a bit early since we don’t know when we can come home yet. But with the stellar Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now. I’ve actually leveraged their generous policy twice on this trip, so I figured I’d provide a rundown.

The fantastic Southwest cancellation policy

Southwest Airlines has one of the best cancellation policies I’ve ever encountered. Award tickets are completely refundable, up until just minutes before the flight. In a nutshell:

  • Tickets purchased with RapidRewards points are 100% refundable.
  • Tickets can be cancelled up to 10 minutes before the flight.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • Even if you “no show” your award ticket, your points are redeposited. Any taxes and fees will be added to your travel funds and usable toward future travel.

The Southwest cancellation policy for revenue tickets is good as well. Here everything depends on which fare type you purchased. For Wanna Get Away fares, the following applies:

  • Fares are non-refundable, but the funds will be saved and can be applied to purchase of future travel for the original ticketed passenger up to one year from the original flight date.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • In the event of a “no show”, the fare is forfeited. Note that if you can show up within 2 hours of your original flight time and still fly standby on the next flight as part of the unwritten “flat tire rule”.

Business Select and Anytime awards are completely refundable (or you can choose to keep the reusable travel funds). Even if you “no show” one of these tickets, your travel funds will be deposited in your account and will be usable for future travel.

Southwest cancellation policy - fare rules

Considering that many other airlines sell completely nonrefundable tickets or charge a hefty fee to refund a fare, Southwest’s policy is extremely generous.

Leveraging the policy on our way to Costa Rica

My wife and I flew to Costa Rica on one-way United award tickets. This allows us plenty of flexibility in deciding when to book tickets back. I *really* didn’t want to lock us into a date on United, since their change policy is so bad.

However, I failed to realize that Costa Rica requires proof of return flights. Oops. At the ticket kiosk in Houston we were given a final screen of “please see agent” rather than collecting our tickets. A United employee walked over and informed us that we had to have proof of return flights.

Southwest to the rescue. In only a few minutes I had award flights back to the U.S. booked on Southwest using my wife’s points. I didn’t really care that I’d only booked us back to Houston. We wouldn’t be using them anyway, and I cancelled them two days later. But it was enough to present to the agent and get us through check-in and onto our flight.

Do note that booking a ticket on another airline could have worked as well, but I would have had to cancel within the 24-hour refundable booking window.

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for our return flights

Just a few weeks later I decided to lock in our return flights. By “lock in”, I simply mean locking in a good rate. The tickets are obviously 100% refundable under the Southwest cancellation policy.

Generally, our adoption agency doesn’t suggest that people book flights back until they have their final Visa appointment. This is obviously to save adoptive parents time and headache by avoiding tickets changes. But with the fantastic Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now!

There was one more complication, however. Given that we aren’t 100% sure of what our children’s names will be on their passports, booking airfare is problematic. Name changes are typically not allowed.

I reached out to Southwest on Twitter and explained our adoption situation to them. An agent confirmed that we could change the names of the kids once we have their information. I sent our record locator over once I’d booked the tickets, and the agent added a note to our account. I was extremely happy Southwest was this gracious.

I also had to guesstimate our return date. I decided to play it safe and book a bit further out than we hoped to be here. Southwest also (sadly) doesn’t publish a SJO-HOU-OAK fare every day of the schedule, so I had to pick one of the few days this route is available.

If we do end up taking these flights, all five of us will fly home for 62,000 RapidRewards points and $290, which is a deal!

Be aware of the Southwest change policy!

Unlike the Southwest cancellation policy, the Southwest change policy is no longer as friendly as it once was. When changing a fare, you’ll be warned that the fare will become non-refundable! This kinda goes against the grain of the rest of Southwest’s policies, so make sure you keep this in mind.

If you still do want to change a ticket, you still won’t be charged a fee. Unlike most other airlines, change fees don’t fly with Southwest. You will still pay the difference in fare, if applicable.

Conclusion

The Southwest cancellation policy is definitely something to have in your back pocket. It has come in handy for us on multiple occasions, including twice on just this trip.

With Southwest, what’s not to LUV?

Featured image courtesy of BriYYZ under CC 2.0 license