Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Changing Flights w/o Penalty

The other day, I discussed how we were able to use a sudden NYC snowstorm to get back our $1,200 on a non-refundable international flight to Tel Aviv that we had wanted to cancel anyway. It was a bit of a small miracle for us, even though the polar vortex snowstorm probably wreaked havoc on many other travelers that day.

Some people say, "When it rains, it pours," and apparently when it snows, it blizzards!

On that same Saturday that the $1,200 was fully refunded from our cancelled TLV flights, we also received a surprise email from United Airlines. The update told us that they changed the schedule for another reservation we had with them in April.

As you may recall, we had already made plans for the first few months of 2014, and our long Easter Weekend was going to be spent in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother and I have never been to the Big Easy, and my father had only driven through it on his cross country road trip when he was back in college, so NOLA was going to be a fun new family experience for all of us.

Most importantly, that Sunday along the fabled French Quarter, there were 3 different Easter Parades (2 of which appropriate for toddlers like me, with the other parade being more suitable for what my father calls "Top Bottom Twinkie Bears").

Unfortunately, our return flight home departed New Orleans Airport (MSY) on Sunday at 2:37PM, meaning we'd need to leave our hotel at 12PM. So we'd only be able to see part of the first Easter parade that starts at 10:30AM, and we'd miss the Chris Owen's 1PM Easter Parade and the 3PM Gay Easter Parade. Furthermore, we were connecting in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio (CLE) for about an 1 hr 35 min before getting on our 7:34PM flight back to New York (LGA). Not a horrible itinerary, but we did it to save a few hundred dollars on the flights ($554 direct vs. $371 for 1 connection just on the return).

A Schedule Change We Like
As you can see here, our email from United notified us that our schedule had changed since we booked it:

1. First, our outbound flight was on a different plane that was leaving just 4 minutes earlier than the Friday 7AM we booked. No biggie.

2. On the return portion, we were still departing at Sunday 2:37PM, but apparently on another plane that wasn't quite as fast, because instead of arriving in beautiful Cleveland at 5:59PM, we were landing at 6:09PM. Not a huge deal, unless...

3. The big change was our connecting flight to New York, which now departed beautiful Cleveland at 6:51PM instead of 7:34PM.

So instead of a leisurely hour and a half between flights (with access to the United lounge), we were down to just 42 minutes. Considering that the 6:09PM arrival time tells you when the flight lands (not when it gets to the gate and lets people get off the plane) and that the 6:51PM flight starts boarding 30 minutes before scheduled departure, they were cutting it too close! And that's assuming that our first flight isn't delayed at all.

Sure, if it were just my well-traveled father flying solo, he could easily get off the first plane quickly with his simple carry-on and just walk down to the new gate for his next flight easily within 15-20 minutes. However, as we experienced when connecting in Charlotte last week on our way back from Austin, having both an independent minded 2 year old and checked luggage created more challenges than most traveling families want. So my father planned to call United to see what alternatives were available to us.

Research First
Most reservation agents are happy to help, but will often only look at the simplest option that their computer tells them. My father never takes chances like this, so he took some of the variability out of the equation by researching the alternative flight options before calling. That way, if his call was assigned to a stupid less experienced agent, that would be to his advantage, and not to his detriment.

There were a lot of options available:

1. The simplest choice would be to just put us on the next CLE-EWR flight departing at 7:13PM and arriving into Newark at 8:59PM (though we'd have preferred LGA which is closer/cheaper to get home from).

2. But if we connected in Chicago O'Hare, we'd get a better United airport lounge to rest in and a few more frequent flyer miles for the more circuitous route. In fact, there were 2 Chicago connection options, though the first one was a 60 minute connection, and the second one was on a smaller regional jet instead of a full Airbus 319 aircraft (#champagneproblems). We'd likely opt for the second flight which is scheduled to arrive at LGA at 10:21PM.

3. There was also an option to backtrack and connect in Houston, though it was going to take us to LGA (which we prefer over EWR when coming home). We'd get 500 more frequent flyer miles than connecting in CLE and fly on fully loaded Boeing 737 and Airbus 319 planes, but we'd be on a 1 hr flight followed by a long 3hr 39min flight, getting into LGA at 10:24PM.

4. And finally, the Holy Grail of them all...the non-stop direct flight to Newark. It would only be a simple 3hr 4min flight. No worries about connections to catch, long second flights or checked baggage not making it on the next flight. Plus, it departed at 4PM which would give us extra time at the Sunday parades and still get us home at 8:04PM.

Calling United
My father's plan was to ask if we might have the ability to switch onto the direct flight to Newark, but if rejected, he would think about Option #1 or Option #3. When the agent picked up, she first told my father that 42 minutes was "plenty of time between flights."

My father immediately explained that he would be traveling with a 2 year old and a child car seat. Before he got into the second part of his case (the risk of the checked bags not making the connection), she said she was looking into other CLE-LGA flights.

Realizing she would immediately head towards Option #1, my father then said, "We're actually not tied to connecting through Cleveland. I know there are some other options including Chicago, Houston and also, I see there's a direct flight to Newark at 4PM..." making sure to have his voice trail off as a subtle invitation for her to react and respond to the bait.

She then asked to put him on hold. About a minute later, she came back on the line and said as a "one-time concession," she would put him on the 4PM direct flight to Newark!

While not intentional, we were able to capitalize on a schedule change and use the system to our advantage. We successfully got on the ideal non-stop itinerary we originally wanted, but didn't have to pay $554/person ($1,662 total). That was an aggregate "savings" of about $550. That's a lot of beignets and hurricanes for my parents.

And just for kicks, my father looked up the same non-stop itinerary we now had, and it was pricing at an incredible $682/person, or $2,046 total.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cancelling Flights for A Full Refund

You may recall that back in November, my father was able to nab 3 tickets on non-stop United flights from Newark to Tel Aviv for the low, low price of just $398/person by purchasing them through a small Norwegian Airline's website that was incorrectly pricing tickets without adding the Fuel Surcharge (which amounted to $600/person). While normal United flights were ~$1,000/person, we were able to get the 3 of us for just $1,200 TOTAL! So for the past few months, we were all getting ready to fly out on January 21, 2014 and celebrate my mother and grandfather's birthdays this week in Haifa, Israel.

Then you may have read the other week that my mother was finally scheduled for her long awaited U.S. Citizenship interview on January 29th - right in the middle of our planned Israel trip! Unfortunately, we couldn't reschedule the interview for a confirmed future date (we'd just be thrown back in the queue), so we regretfully made the decision to cancel our Israel trip, meaning we'd just have to forfeit the $1,200 in prepaid airline tickets. Now for some of you $1,200 isn't a lot of money, but remember, I'm half Asian and half Jewish. I'm twice as likely to hate wasting money.

You can read more about the mistake fare and the decision to cancel here:

Wait For It...
Now, while we may have decided to cancel our itinerary back on January 13th, we didn't actually cancel the reservation at that time. Why?

We realized that it would have been much better for United Airlines if we just cancelled as soon as we decided to forego the trip. That way, they could re-sell our Economy Plus seats on the January 21st EWR-TLV flight to other passengers (likely at a more realistic price of $1,000+/person). However, we wanted to wait til the very end, because (A) we had no financial incentive to cancel early and (b) there's always a chance something would happen...

Then, as you Northeast readers will remember, last week New York City prepared for it's second Polar Vortex of 2014, scheduled to arrive on... you guessed it, January 21st (our scheduled departure date).

Getting Your Ducks In A Row
The evening of January 20th, my father immediately jumped online to see what the United.com Travel Notices website was saying for passengers traveling through the affected airports. At that time, they were offering a waiver of their Change Fees if you wanted to reschedule your flight. Had we wanted to just fly out a few days later, we could have done so and avoided the $300/person Change Fees for international flights. Nice, but not what we really wanted.

My father then called United and spoke to a live agent who confirmed the same weather related change policies (no change fees for rescheduling, but may have to pay a fare difference). Unfortunately, she said (a) there were no cancellation refunds being offered, and (b) that because the ticket was issued by the Norwegian company, she couldn't even make any changes if she wanted to.

He would have to contact the Norwegians to see what they could do. However, my father was smart enough to ask the United agent what specific protocol/policy he should reference to the Norwegians so that they could abide by the same rules. He was told "EWR Weather Waiver - Severe 1."

Of course, our specific issue wasn't the just Jan 21 departure date, it was the fact that we wanted to cancel the entire trip.
Side note: You may be thinking that we should have used this opportunity to just reschedule the entire trip to dates that would allow my mother to have her Immigration Interview, but that wasn't a viable option. Rescheduling for new dates would require United to reprice the $400 mistake fare and we would have to pay the fare difference. Trust me, my nerd father literally has nothing better to do than think through all these sorts of details and scenarios.
So here was the hand we were dealt as of January 20th.

1. We booked our United operated flight on a random Norwegian company that United wasn't really familiar with (and vice versa).

2. Our flight from Newark the next evening was possibly going to be affected, though international flights tend to depart even though domestic flights are cancelled. But as of Jan 20, it was unclear what would ultimately happen.

3. After calling United, we knew to use the term "EWR Weather Waiver - Severe 1" as our ace up the sleeve.

4. However, United was not actually offering refunds for cancellations, just waivers on their self-imposed change fees. Their typical protocol was to retain the value of your original ticket for a future flight, but you'd have to pay the change fee (which in this case would be waived).

Fire When Ready!
So my father contacted the Norwegians by online live chat (given it was 8PM in NY and afterhours in Olso). However, given that this was Norway, it was highly likely that the person on the other end of the chat would be a Norwegian (surprisingly, they generally speak fluent English), not some offshore call center in Bangladesh.

He got Merete, which based on the photo seemed to be a middle aged woman with a stern disposition. He explained the situation and while she initially said that a cancellation of the reservation would only refund the airport taxes and fees (~$80 USD/person), after invoking the "EWR Weather Waiver Severe 1" terminology and standard United Airline protocol for giving full fare credit (notice we didn't say refund), Merete relented and said she would ask for a refund of the fare as well.

To be very sure, my anal father tried to get her to confirm in writing that the "full fare" meant the $390/person (fare + taxes, but not the $5/ticket service charge). She slyly responded "you see the amount on your receipts" though that may have been to avoid specifying an exact US dollar amount (given we were dealing with moving FX rates). As the chat ended, he clicked to receive the transcript of the conversation sent to him via email, so that he had some backup in case he needed it.

So now we had to wait. On Thurs (1/23) morning, our credit card showed a refund for the $80/person in taxes. $240 back was nice, but my father went back to the online chat to see why the rest of the fare wasn't being refunded. He got Merete again. Small world.

She informed him that the fare refund was still in process by their Refund Department and that I should continue to wait. Given #4 above (United wasn't actually offering refunds) and the fact that on January 21, United Flight #90 actually successfully departed for Tel Aviv despite the winter snow storm, we were a bit nervous our refund wouldn't be approved/processed.

But then on Saturday morning (1/25), we saw that our credit card was refunded the additional $306/person.

The big lesson learned here is that there are oftentimes situations where you should wait as long as you can before cancelling/changing a reservation. There may be a schedule change or weather that may allow you to wiggle out of your original booking with little/no penalty. Until the airlines start to incentivize us for declaring our intentions early, we have little reason to do so.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Photos From My Week In Texas

After a week in Texas, I've decided that I love coming here, and more importantly, eating here!

Check out all the types of BBQ sauce they have at the grocery stores here.

Remember the Alamo.

San Antonio Riverwalk


Small Town of Lockhart, TX

Downtown Austin

South Congress

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Connecting Flights

Flight #76/77 – US Airways 
Austin (AUS) – New York (LGA) via CLT 
Sunday, January 19, 2014 
Depart: 11:51AM / Arrive: 5:52PM (Scheduled)
Duration: 5 hr 1 min 
Aircraft: CRJ 900 / Airbus 319 
Seat: Row 13A, 13B and 13C (Economy) 
Earned: 1,576 miles 
Cost: $254 / person (round trip) 
 Lifetime Miles: 142,469 miles

I'm fortunate enough to live in the BEST city in the world. In fact, it's so great that there are three well-trafficked airports serving New York City (JFK, LGA and EWR). And furthermore, EWR is a primary hub airport for United Airlines. That means that I can almost fly anywhere in the United States, most large European cities and the major Asian cities on direct non-stop flights.

However for many of us (especially those outside the main hub airport cities), there are times when the destination isn't served by a single direct flight. Connections can add a lot of frequent flyer miles and oftentimes bring down the cost of your airfare, but they can also often cause you to spend a lot of extra time in transit or worse, stuck at the airport if you happen to miss your connecting flight.

Our return trip coming back from Austin was one of those risky connecting flights where there wasn't much room for error. We were scheduled to land at CLT at 3:19PM and our departing flight to LGA was scheduled to depart at 4:09PM, meaning they would start boarding at 3:39PM (just 20 minutes after our first flight was scheduled to land on the runway (not even dock at the arrival gate)!

Normally, my father thinks through these types of scenarios before booking the flights and plans accordingly. This time, however, he decided to risk the tight connection in Charlotte, because (a) he knew that CLT was a US Airways hub airport so there were several other flights to New York that afternoon and (b) we were flying in on Sunday and still had Monday (MLK Day) as a buffer in case we somehow weren't able to get on another flight that day. An extra night in Charlotte might not be so bad (especially since I've yet to visit anything other than Gate 15 of their airport).

Flight Delayed
Around 8AM the morning of our flight, my father received an alert on his Blackberry Travel App letting us know that our first 11:51AM flight was delayed by 25 minutes and wouldn't land in Charlotte until 3:45PM at gate E15.

Even at 2 years old, I realized that we would not have enough time to (a) taxi to the gate, (b) get off our plane, then (c) run to gate C10 (an entirely different airport concourse) with enough time to make our next flight that would stop boarding at 3:59PM.

I told my father to be proactive, so he went online to USAirways.com and looked up our itinerary. Of course, US Airways still had our flight being "On Time," but my father knew better than to go against Blackberry Travel, which always seemed to have better & quicker information than what the airlines choose to publicize.

Next, my father went on ITA Matrix to search for all afternoon flights from CLT to LGA (on both US Airways and other carriers) before he called US Airways to change our connecting flight. Why? Because he wanted to know what our alternate flight options were in case the US Airways agent had less than perfect reasoning ability information. He then went back to USAirways.com to see if they were still selling 3 seats on any of those afternoon flights. Everything was sold out until the 6:45PM flight.

Armed with some viable options, he then called US Airways (which he has programmed in his phone along with all the other airlines) and inquired about the flight status of his itinerary. Upon looking closer, the agent saw that the first flight was showing Delayed and that our connection might be too tight. She then gave us a second reservation on the 5:46PM flight so that we could still try to make the 4:09PM flight, but if not, we had a reservation on the 5:46PM flight. In this scenario, we'd have reservations on BOTH flights just in case.

If you're not familiar with traveling, this "solution" may sound like it would work out, but we knew better.
  • First, having a reservation isn't the same thing as being ticketed (confirmed) with seat assignments. We'd essentially be going standby on the 5:46PM flight, meaning we'd only get ticketed if there were seats available. Assuming we weren't the only ones connecting, there may have been a mad rush for the seats on that flight, and we don't have any frequent flyer status/priority on US Airways.
  • Second, we had a some luggage with us (including my car seat) that we could choose to either (a) check in or (b) carry on. This "solution" of double reservations pretty much meant that we could NOT check-in our car seat, because the baggage team would have NO idea if we were on the 4:09PM flight or the 5:46PM flight. In fact, given the tight connection, there was no way they'd be able to transfer onto the 4:09PM flight at all. So that meant we'd have to bring everything as a carry-on, which would make it that much harder for us to transfer all the way from Gate E15 to Gate C10 (as shown on the map above).
  • And finally (and most importantly), my father already saw that the 5:46PM flight was sold out per USAirways.com.

So after confirming quickly with my mother (who always seems to see the right answer through a much simple lens than my over-analytical father), my parents decided to just take it easy and CHANGE our flight to the later 6:45PM flight.

By doing it this way, we would give up our seats on the earlier 4:09PM flight, but we would confirm our tickets and secure seat assignments on the 6:45PM flight. After a few minutes on hold for the US Airways agent to make the change, we were all set by 8:15AM and on our way to our free breakfast downstairs at the Westin Austin.

You Have Chosen Wisely
Now at the Austin airport we could check in my car seat and our larger bag (for free due to Star Alliance Gold status through his United Platinum status) and just pick them up in New York. Then we'd have about 2 hours to have an early dinner and relax at CLT airport between our flights. No frantic rushing or worrying. Plus, CLT Airport was a US Airways hub airport, so there were several US Airways Club Lounges we could access using either:
  1. Our cancelled Platinum American Express cards that we kept for this exact reason even after closing the accounts;
  2. My parents' Star Alliance Gold cards from foreign Star Alliance airlines (Aegean and Turkish); or
  3. Our two US Airways lounge passes that came free with our Barclays US Airways credit card that we applied for in Feb 2013.
And to further reinforce our decision to confirm ourselves on the later 6:45PM flight, on our drive to the Austin airport, we received another notification that our first flight to CLT was further delayed another 40 minutes so it wouldn't depart until 12:55PM (more than an hour after originally scheduled).

At the end of the day, everything went as planned. We checked my car seat and large bag and had enough time to relax in the United lounge at AUS Airport before boarding our first flight. Then in the Charlotte airport, we enjoyed some mediocre Mexican food and virgin margaritas at one of the airport restaurants before going into the US Airways Club Lounge to watch the Broncos-Pats game. Our second flight departed on time and even had in-flight wifi available for $6.95. Our bags made it to LGA safe and sound and we were home by 9:30PM.

Summary Advice
  • Use an App. It was key that we used a trip monitoring app such as Blackberry Travel that alerted us for flight delays before the airline notified us. If you're not a prehistoric smartphone user, then we recommend TripIt available on iPhones and Android.
  • Have a BackUp Plan. We knew that there were multiple flight alternatives back to LGA (and even more to JFK or EWR). These were available to us because we didn't book the last flight of the night or the last day of a long weekend.
  • Be Proactive. Checking available options BEFORE calling the airline. It's always good to know your options to feed the agent instead of relying on their concern for your well being.
  • Think Through the Implications. Switching (and committing) to the later flight allowed us to check our bags and secure good seat assignments in advance (I love my window seats). We valued those features over getting home quicker and feeling rushed to get to the departure gate all the way across the airport.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Eating in Austin

After having our sampling of our favorite Texas chain fast food restaurants (Whataburger and Cracker Barrell) as well as getting some authentic Lockhart, TX barbecue at Black's, we wanted to check out some more of the food scene in/around Weird Austin.

Of course, no hipster town is complete without an area for mobile food trucks serving overpriced dishes with odd ethnic flavor combinations. So we drove down to the South Congress neighborhood on Friday afternoon.

Unsure of where to go, we looked up our options on Yelp and found one of the South Congress food trucks aptly named, "Hey! You Gonna Eat or What?" It had a lot of positive reviews, so we head in that direction. It was located down a side street off Congress, lined up with two other food trucks beside a weekend flea market. Hey!'s truck was the only one with a line, so we made the assumption it was a better option than the others (Jamaican and Mexican) which were empty.

We decided to wait in the line (I felt like SUCH a tourist) which was moving at a incredibly slow Texas pace (it definitely wasn't Manhattan lunch rush hour). Unfortunately, Hey!'s $10 signature dish Monte Cristo wasn't worth the 45 minute wait in line and the 10 minute wait after ordering, but as a result, we ended up eating a later (3PM) lunch than we planned.

So with a few hours to kill before dinner, we decided to drive down to Salt Lick BBQ in the town of Driftwood where we heard the venue's ambiance was pure Texas. My new friend Avery's parents were Austin locals, and they warned us that the barbecue at Salt Lick wasn't that great (and it was cash only), but that we should still go for the local vibe (outdoor picnic table seating, Christmas tree lights at dusk, and BYOB). It was quite a drive out to the Driftwood boonies from South Congress, but we eventually made it as the sun was starting to set.



Despite not ordering any food, we hung out at Salt Lick (B) for a little bit to enjoy the setting (especially after making the trip down from Austin. But soon, my mother's allergies were really bothering her, so we decided to start the drive back towards Austin and our hotel (C).

We had hoped to go to LA Barbecue on South 1st Street in East Austin (downtown), but like many true barbecue places, the meat usually runs out in the early afternoon, so they weren't open past 3PM that day.

So disappointed, we started to head back to our hotel, when my father remembered that another BBQ place that Avery's parents told us about was Rudy's. Luckily for us, there was a Rudy's just a few miles from our hotel, so after calling to confirm they were open til 10PM, we went there.

Interestingly, Rudy's fashions itself as a "convenience store" similar to the ones you'd find attached to a gas station selling cigarettes, soft drinks and salty snacks. In fact, out in front, you had working gas pumps to fill up your car with.

But going inside, it was anything but a traditional gas station. While they did have a snack section with a register, your eyes were drawn to the long line of people waiting to place their order for some great barbecue brisket, turkey and pork ribs. As you snaked around the room, you walked past a full cooler of ice cold sodas and beers.

When we made it to the front of the line, the super friendly cashier asked if it was our first time at Rudy's. I suppose my Korean-Uzbek/Russian family did look quite out of place, but not in a bad way. When my father said it was his first time, the cashier said something to the staff and they all screamed a hearty welcome for us. Then the cashier brought out small bite size samplers for us to try before we ordered. My father had always been accustomed to the New York City pace of ordering food (think Katz' Deli), so he was taken aback by the amount of time we were afforded to even place our order!

We each sampled a bite size of brisket lean, brisket moist and turkey. While we had already planned to go with a 1/2 pound of brisket moist, the barbecue turkey was surprisingly amazing. My parents never really thought about ordering turkey, but after this deliciously moist turkey sample, we just had to get another 1/4 pound more. Then we topped it off with a jalepeno pork sausage followed by sides of potato salad and cole slaw. And to wash it all down, a nice ice cold bottle of Shiner Bock (a local Texas brew) and IBC Cherry Limeade.


We couldn't wait to find our seats in the massive dining area around the corner and began to devour our final dinner in Texas. And if you haven't heard something adorable lately, just imagine a little smiling 2 year old girl saying "de-lic-ious" in her cutest toddler voice as she ate.

Hey! You Gonna Eat or What?
1318 South Congress Avenue
Austin TX 78704

Salt Lick BBQ
18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX 78619

Rudy's "Country Store" & BBQ
11570 Research Blvd
Austin, TX 78759