Flying to Costa Rica Kind of Stinks

I love a good long flight. Put me in an economy class seat on a decent airline for 14 hours, and I’m perfectly happy to pass the hours watching movies and devouring books on my Kindle.

Notice the key phrase: a decent airline.

Decent airlines are scarce in the U.S., with an avalanche of nickel-and-diming paired with increasingly cramped airplanes. Then put that on a route that just long enough to be international, but not quite long enough for U.S. based airlines to consider bringing their A Game.

Our recent trip to Costa Rica really brings that into focus: We flew there on two of the three big U.S. legacy carriers – American Airlines and United Airlines. Both flights arrived safely and relatively on-time. At this point, that seems to be the only aim, with on-time more than negotiable.

So what exactly is the problem?

takeoff sky harbor
Takeoff from Sky Harbor

First of all, we live in Phoenix. That means that direct flights to Costa Rica are seasonal, and our flight wasn’t scheduled for the right season. We connected in Dallas via American Airlines. Connections always make things a bit tricky. Fortunately, nothing ran late.

But let’s talk a bit about the seats: The first flight was an Airbus A320, with the second let being a Boeing 737. Both had slimline seats that were absolutely jammed into the seat in front. I’d guess a 30-inch seat pitch. Fortunately, my wife and I had a 3-year-old passenger between us, so we were able to steal her legroom. The seats on the United planes – a 737 from San Jose and an A320 from Houston – were slightly better.

Then there’s the baggage fees. I’ve never flown on an international flight that charged for checked baggage. These "short international" flights seem to get treated like domestic flights, which is really odd to me.

Then there’s the cabin service. American Airlines came out way ahead of United by providing a cold sandwich on the flight from Dallas to San Jose. United had buy on board options on their menu. But apparently they’d sold out on the previous flight. We shrugged it off at the time: Houston has some great food options in the concourse, and we allowed just enough time to pick something up. But, no: An aircraft that was late to push back from our scheduled gate cost us at least 15 minutes. That piled on top of having to go through Immigration and re-check out baggage. We arrived at our gate seven minutes before pushback. And even though there was a grab-and-go restaurant right next to the gate, the gate agents waved us onto the plane as if we were the last ones who would board (we were actually far from it). Fortunately, a brewery near our house was still serving pizza once we got out of the airport (Thank you, McFate, for always being awesome!). Oh, and did I mention that United managed to leave my wife’s backpack in Houston?

Second leg on American Airlines – the night flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.

As for the flight attendants, they varied from flight to flight. The first United crew seemed entirely disinterested in their self-loading cargo. The second was far better, with one flight attendant getting some water to our thirsty 3-year-old before the beverage service (we didn’t have a chance to fill bottles on the mad sprint through the terminal).

What’s to be done about this? My hope is that carriers like JetBlue or even foreign carriers start putting the screws to airlines like American and United. I’m perfectly happy to pay slightly more for airlines that don’t charge for checked luggage on international flights, that have good schedules and that offer decent, consistent service in the cabin (that last one is possible – I’ve seen it in airlines abroad).

It would be nice to see a U.S. airline say "air travel can be awesome, and we’re going to make it so."

It’s a long shot, which is why I always try to book international flights on foreign carriers (Asiana is amazing, with Qantas, SAS and Lufthansa also being pretty solid). Foreign flag carriers seem to realize that they’re often a visitor’s first impression of our country, or a resident’s welcome home. It would be awesome to see an US-based airline make it their mission to act accordingly. Flying can be fun, but our country’s legacy carriers seem determined to make it a drag.


How Airfares Can Drive You Crazy

Straight answers are pretty rare when it comes to airfares. Just look at my recent search for flights to Auckland Airport. I priced out airfares for two adults and an infant just to get the conversation of our next trip started.

As usual, I started searching for airfares with a pretty broad Google Flights search – any airline, any alliance, pretty much any anything. This gave me a pretty good idea of what was out there. Hawaiian Airlines came out on top.

airfaresNow, I’m one of those guys who likes to maximize his frequent flier mileage haul. So once I find a flight that works, I check to see if it shares an alliance with an airline where I have a good chunk of miles. In this case, Hawaiian Airlines is in a bit of a weird state – it doesn’t seem to be a member of an airline alliance; its website lists American Airlines as a partner, but that status seems iffy, as well: The website says “**Important information on our partnership with American Airlines: The last day to earn HawaiianMiles on eligible American Airlines flights was December 31, 2015. Flights with travel dates after December 31, 2015 will not be eligible to earn HawaiianMiles.**

So, flying Hawaiian won’t let me use any miles that I have, and it won’t earn me anything. That’s a bummer. If Hawaiian was still an American partner, I could’ve presumably booked through to get on a Hawaiian flight and still earn some AAdvantage miles. I did a flight search, though, and Hawaiian wasn’t an option. And the less said about American’s options, the better – it’s the only airline that isn’t set up to get me to Auckland with one stop. I’d have to fly to Australia first.

This is all a disappointment because flying Hawaiian Airlines would let me skip visiting LAX, which is yet to win me over, humongous redesign or not. Its airfares are also reasonable.

So, what about other options?


Air New Zealand is also a solid choice and offers decent pricing through its own website. About $3,500 in airfares for a family is pretty good, and Air New Zealand gets solid reviews from customers.


airfaresNow, if I try booking on the United Airlines (one of Air New Zealand’s Star Alliance partners) website, the airfare shoots skyward. The price for an infant is $1,819! The price through the United Airlines website is nearly $3,000 than booking through the Air New Zealand site. I just cannot fathom this.

Delta Air Lines also couldn’t get us to Auckland with one stop, so I skipped them, too. Their airfares were also a few hundred dollars per ticket off the mark.

Clearly, booking through the Air New Zealand website is by far the winner here. It makes me really question the benefits of the airline alliances if you have the huge of a price variance even among member airlines for the same flight.



What I Learned From a Cancelled United Airlines Flight

cancelled United Airlines flights
I love the view, taken aboard a replacement flight or not.

A cancelled United Airlines flight gave me plenty to think about the day I returned to the U.S. with my family. We’d been in Europe for more than two weeks – a great trip, but we were ready to be home (just try finding a good West Coast-style IPA in Germany!).

The TSA made sure my homecoming was less than friendly.

And then United Airlines boarded its flight to Phoenix – a Boeing 737 that has seen better days (the carpet was battered, and my window shade hung at a diagonal – yet it had seem enough shop time that it had split-scimitar winglets). Still, it had DirectTV; I swiped my credit card and was happily watching soccer -- then the flight attendants alerted the pilots that they heard a banging noise in the rear of the plane. They delayed the flight, delayed it again, delayed it again for good measure. They tried to find a replacement plane, and then they cancelled it.

Here’s what I learned from this cancelled United Airlines flight.

airline choices
United Airlines is modernizing with planes like the 787 Dreamliner. They generally have decent short-haul flights, too, but there’s still some old beaters in the fleet.

Pilots Wisely Listen to the Flight Attendants

You might think they just lecture you about electronic devices and bring you drinks. But flights attendants spend a lot of time in the air. They know when something isn’t right. And I’d rather they cancel a flight than ignore a warning sign and put me into the air aboard an unsafe aircraft. I have to give props to the cooperation between the United pilots and flight attendants. Yeah, a delay or cancellation is a pain for passengers. But it’s nowhere near as bad as flying an unsafe aircraft. I give absolutely unequivocal kudos to United Airlines for the flight deck-flight attendant cooperation.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight
I flew a United 777 to Brazil, and it the Economy Plus upgrade was well worth it. Yet another positive data point for United.

Passengers Need to Chill Out

"This is why I never fly United," a guy behind me said. He told me about his double-secret-unobtainium status with American Airlines. He didn’t exactly seem thrilled when I replied that this was the first problem I ever encountered with United. I also overheard a surly passenger telling a United customer service employee to "call me ‘sir’" and "you owe me your undivided attention." That is so unnecessary. A cancelled flight is a giant pain for everyone involved – yelling and being demanding does nothing for anyone. And no, the cancellation won’t get you a first-class upgrade on the next flight. There were about 160 people on that airplane -- and only a few first-class seats.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight
Oof, I’m a bit squeezed here.

Customer Service People Could Do Their Part, Too

Here’s where I had a problem with spending a night in Chicago because of our cancelled United Airlines flight: The customer service rep booked us at a hotel 30 minutes away for a 5:30 a.m. departure. For some people, this might not be a big problem. But we’d just gotten off a 9-hour flight with a 9-month-old. She was a trooper, but there’s only so much you can expect -- we promptly returned to the airport, grabbed an on-site hotel (for less than the advertised rate of the place where customer service booked us) and gained some extra sleep. Why the customer service person didn’t put us there in the first place, I just can’t say. Still, he was personable in the situation, and he knew a serious flogging was in the offing from the other passengers.

The Return Flight – Not So Great

Our plane for the 5:30 am flight was a decent 737 with the cool Boeing Sky interior. It unfortunately had a seat pitch not designed for a person who stands 6’2: My knees were up against the seat in front of me the whole way. The flight also left an hour late, and with the WiFi and DirectTV out of order.

United Airlines Made Things Right

When we returned, I wrote an email to United Airlines summarizing this situation. I asked them to pick up the hotel bill, along with my DirectTV payment (I’d paid my $7.99 for the flight) and the cost of our Uber ride back to O’Hare. I also asked for a chunk of air miles for my wife and me. I skipped the "I’m never flying United again" because it’s counterproductive – and I’ve had too many positive previous experiences with United to be hostile like that (though I admitted losing my patience with them on Twitter).

They agreed and have since credited our account. We also received a check for our expenses.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight Still Made Them Look Good, Ultimately

United Airlines cancelled the flight because the plane seemed to have a mechanical problem its team couldn’t sort out. So they made the safe choice.

They also recognized the shortcomings in how they handled the hotel situation and did their part to make things right. That’s all I can ask – sometimes, in air travel, things won’t go according to plan. Someone, somewhere, will make a mistake. And when it’s airline making the mistake, you have to wonder how well they’ll respond. United Airlines handled it every bit to my satisfaction.

I can no longer say I’ve never had a problem with United Airlines. But I can say that, the one time I did have a problem, United made things right.

Now, let’s say United received my email and said "forget about it, pal." Well, they probably could’ve gotten away with it. And the amounts are just too small to any other way, and I’m not willing to let something like that waste my time on general principal.

But with American Airlines now the biggest operation at my hometown airport, a bad and unresolved experience with United could’ve pushed me toward them. Instead, I’m sticking with United Airlines as my first-choice domestic airlines because it did its best to fix a very difficult leg of my trip. It looks like United understands that empowering employees to take a relatively small step to help a customer can pay dividends.

Read more about my previous experiences with United Airlines. And if you want to read about a long-haul flight on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I’ve got you covered.


How I Found Good Flight Deals to Vietnam

787 Dreamliner flight deals to Vietnam
A United Dreamliner will be our ride back from Shanghai.

I haven’t said much about my latest upcoming trip. So here’s the news: This time, we’re headed to Vietnam. It will be our first time in Southeast Asia.

Sarah and I had some intense conversations about our possible destinations – Vietnam and the southern part of Australia. The good flight deals to Vietnam swayed us (tickets came to about $1,200 US each from Phoenix to Ho Chi Minh City, and then from Hanoi back to Phoenix).

So, how did I score such good flight deals to Vietnam?

I logged into all my existing frequent flier accounts to see whether they offered flights to the cities I wanted. Being based in the United States, my air mile accounts are with U.S.-based airlines -- none of which thrills me for intercontinental travel. But some share airline alliances with my favorite carriers like Asiana Airlines.

flight deals to Vietnam.
Our travels will give us a look at Vietnam Airlines.

The options from Asiana Airlines were challenging. The layover was tight for the flight to Incheon, South Korea, that would connect to a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. It was also on an Airbus A330, which I don’t much like (see my review of Scandinavian Airlines).

The price I got while logged into my account with a fellow Star Alliance airline didn’t impress me.

Working My Flight Options

I usually avoid airline aggregators like Orbitz. I booked on one once, and didn’t have a great experience. But they’re great for finding other airline options you might not normally consider.

Here’s where I struck gold: I plugged my preferred dates into a Google search. I got a bunch of good flight deals to Vietnam cheaper than I could find logged into my frequent flier accounts.

flight deals to Vietnam
One of the reasons I worked to find good flight deals to Vietnam – the caves!

Here’s what I came up with: Phoenix to San Jose – from there, we take a All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 to Tokyo Narita, where we connect to via an Air Japan 767 to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m very interested in the first outbound flights since ANA is a SKYTRAX 5-Star airline: The last 5-star airline I flew was Asiana, which is still the airline to beat in my book. On the way back, we have a Vietnam Airlines flight to Shanghai, where we have a United Airlines 787 back to Los Angeles and then on to Phoenix.

Good Flight Deals to Vietnam – and Easy Booking

The booking link for my flights took me straight to the United Airlines website, where having my account made short, easy work of the process. That means no sweating over frequent flier points – and the booking info goes straight to my smartphone. There, I can access it through the United Airlines app.

flight deals to Vietnam
We’re also hoping to find some tasty food in Vietnam.

Should anything cause us to miss a flight, booking from an airline’s website has – in my experience – also made getting back on-course run quite a bit smoother.

Expect some honest reviews from the economy class after this is all over. We’ll have a lot of flying to do (including two trans-Pacific Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights), and I consider it a big part of the fun.

And yes, watch for some first-hand accounts of caving, hiking and exotic food-eating in Vietnam, too!

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American Airlines Review – 4 Domestic Flights

American Airlines review
English: DFW American Airlines Departure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve never done an American Airlines review – I don’t live in one of its hub cities, so I rarely fly it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I needed to grab a last-minute flight to Washington, D.C. United and American Airlines were dollars away from each other. From there, my choice came down to fleet versus flight times. And the American Airlines schedule worked in my favor, so it was my choice for these flights (PHX-DFW, DFW-BWI – BWI-ORD, ORD-PHX).

Here are a few thoughts that should give you an American Airlines review that covers more than a few bases, from social media to check in.

The American Airlines Fleet

As I mentioned earlier, fleet is often a deciding factor. And American Airlines does not have one of my favorite fleets; its MD-80 planes are long in the tooth at best – American Airlines may call it the Super 80, but there’s little super about it. I poked some fun at the Mad Dog-80 with this Twitter message.

Justin Schmid ‏@wandering_j23h

.@AmericanAir should dress its flight crews in steampunk clothes to match its raggedy MD-80s. #travel #airlines #avgeek

American Airlines responded with this tweet:

American Airlines ‏@AmericanAir23h

@wandering_j Justin, our fleet is evolving! Check here for more info:

American Airlines review
I still haven’t flown a shiny American Airlines 777 for an intercontinental flight. Fodder for a future review?

Fair play to American Airlines for the response, and a friendly exchange of follow-up tweets. I’d like to think that anyone involved in social media got a giggle out of the notion of steampunked flight attendants. Bottom line, though, my recent domestic flight on a United Airlines Dreamliner was a big difference from the American Airlines Mad Dog. Planes change the game for some people, and a few hours of difference in schedule could’ve made American Airlines lose this booking. On the plus side: It’s easy to avoid middle seats on an MD-80 because of its 2-3 seat configuration. It’s also a quiet ride if you’re up front, but a roaring beast in the back.

Where American Airlines Gets Technology Right

When I boarded my flight, I peered into the all-analog cockpit of the MD-80 and noticed that the first officer had an iPad docked on the instrument panel (the captain may have, too, but I didn’t have the angle). I guessed it was a supplement to paper charts. I was close: The iPad is a complete replacement for paper charts and manuals. An article in American Way, the American Airlines inflight magazine, gives some interesting stats:

  • 400,000 gallons of fuel savings from reduced weight
  • 24 million fewer pages printed
  • Electronic updates save hours versus hand-written updates of paper manuals

Before flying, I also downloaded the American Airlines Android app. I hadn’t gotten an email confirmation for my flight, and I wanted to cover all my bases. The app worked beautifully, which scores some points in my American Airlines review. It presented no problems for the TSA agents, nor for the gate agents. It reminded me of last year’s flights in Scandinavia, when upwards of 90 percent of passengers on my flights boarded with smart phones. Also, American Airlines updated the (admittedly paltry) miles in my account quite quickly.

In the Air

I didn’t interact much with the flight attendants. There was no meal service on any of my flights, and I filled my 24-ounce water bottle before boarding each leg. It was mostly just a nap-and-read affair for me. The flight attendant on the flight from BWI to O’Hare managed to get some chuckles for his wordplay during the safety speech (I’ve noticed a pattern lately – some really good FAs on regional jets).

American Airlines Review Bottom Line

The fleet renewal can’t come soon enough for me. American Airlines scores points with a website that I find easy to use, even when cashing in frequent flier miles. A few years ago, I snagged a first class upgrade for AAdvantage miles – and the transaction was smooth as a curling rock’s bottom. Better planes can give American Airlines a leg up against the shiny United Airlines fleet that I’ve enjoyed so much for domestic trips.

I have mixed feelings about the potential merger with US Airways, my current hometown airline. I like the US Airways Star Alliance airlines far better than the oneworld counterparts.

Wrapping it up, I haven’t flown a long-haul flight on American. I have a hard time handing my cash over to a US-based airline for an intercontinental flight when I have a wealth of evidence that foreign carriers trounce them in Economy-equivalent class: Qantas and Asiana Airlines brutally pasted United Airlines in my recent intercontinental flights. Even the relatively so-so SAS comprehensively outperformed United Airlines. So, I can’t say much about what American Airlines offers those riding in the back. Who knows, though? Maybe that’ll be the topic of a future American Airlines review.

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787 Dreamliner: Regular Guy’s Review

787 Dreamliner
A United Dreamliner preps for a flight from Houston to Phoenix.

(UPDATE: I now have a more thorough 787 Dreamliner review for a nice, long US-to-Japan flight.) By now, just about every elite blogger has scored a free ride on the 787 Dreamliner. But what’s the Boeing wunderflugzeug like for a regular guy who pays for a cheap seat? Find out!

How I Caught a Flight
I needed to be in Chicago, and I was on my own for the flight. I could’ve caught a direct flight on any number of airlines, but I picked United Airlines since it flies a 787 Dreamliner from Houston to Chicago O’Hare. I paid marginally more for the flight than I would have for a direct flight. But hey -- I had to find out what’s up with the 787 Dreamliner. (If you want to fly the Dreamliner, check this list of airlines and routes using the 787.)

Step 1 involved a flight on an Embraer regional jet from Phoenix next to a couple of guys who sounded exactly like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. The flight had a particularly good flight attendant. This is just a small thing: She saw that I emptied the tiny cup of water from the beverage service into my 24-ounce sports bottle – and she offered to give me a second cup. I thanked her, but said I didn’t want to hog all the water. She promised to return if she had some left over. She stopped by awhile later and topped me off. Again, it’s just a small thing. But it was a nice thing to do.

787 Dreamliner
An unstaged look inside a working Dreamliner cabin. Notice the windows?

Boarding the Future of Aviation?
The 787 Dreamliner will catch your eye if you have any interest in design at all. Its nose is sleek. The wingtips rake up, but are not quite as dramatic in person. The engines are huge. The total package just looks modern and built to fly.

When I boarded, there was a "new plane" smell along with a very J.J. Abrams-era Star Trek flavor to the interior – clean white bulkheads, soft-colored lighting, smooth lines everywhere, a touch-screen on-demand entertainment system. I had to pass through first class on my way back. I got a bit envious, but I think the main cabin is the real test of any airplane or airline.

I noticed the on-demand system had a USB port – I presume you could charge gadgets from it. A label on the seatback said there was another outlet between the seats. I couldn’t find it, but I didn’t look very hard (a more thorough search may have seemed creepy to my neighbor).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the upswept wing and cool raked wingtips.

Oh, and how ‘bout those big windows? The 787 Dreamliner windows are notably bigger than any airliner window. It makes it easy to gaze out the window – especially for tall guys. The dimmer function is cool, too: Rather than a window shade to pull down, there’s a button to control the window’s opacity. Nice!

What about comfort? Well, my 34-inch inseam legs had a good bit of distance from the seat next to me. The adjustable head rest was also a nice touch. I managed to fall asleep for awhile and woke up refreshed.

Getting in the Air
The calm, automated voice for routine announcements adds to the Star Trek flavor of the 787 Dreamliner.

Then there’s the engine start and its high-pitched, electronic-sounding whine. It’s noticeable – but even sitting in the first row forward of the wing’s trailing edge, I could hear every word my two neighbors said to each other (Every.Single.One.Of.Them.).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the sleekest nose flying.

Boeing has a lot to say about one aspect of the 787 Dreamliner: its carbon fuselage allows it to have more humidity, plus the air pressure feels more like 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 feet of most other airplanes. As much as I like flying, my head often feels fuzzy after flying. I had none of that feeling when I landed – I’d love to see if this holds up on a longer flight.

The beverage service was pretty efficient. The cabin crew was nice enough – nothing to stand out either way.

I didn’t get up to wander the cabin, so there’s one crucial bit of long-haul knowledge I didn’t acquire: Does the 787 Dreamliner have a place to refill water bottles like the Qantas 747 and the Asiana Airlines 777? I love being able to refill on my own during intercontinental flights.

What About Those Problems?
The 787 Dreamliner has had some niggles. But think about this: What if the 747 or DC-10 launched during an age when the news cycle never ends and every disgruntled customer could use social media as a cudgel against any perceived wrong? Yeah – it would be a lot like what the Dreamliner is going through.

The 787 Dreamliner and its technology will change the way we fly in some small but important ways. More fuel efficiency is good for the airlines. Lower carbon emissions benefit us all. And more comfort in the cabin is great for the passengers.

I’d happily sign up for a Dreamliner flight again knowing everything it’s gone through, whether it’s headed to Albuquerque or Auckland.

And here’s something else: If I have a choice between a 787 Dreamliner or any other plane, I’ll pick the 787 first.