I recently completed a First Class transcon flight aboard American’s new A321T aircraft. It was a great flight, and I posted a trip report here. One thing barely touched on was the first class amenity kit. It’s a perfectly sized little bag with the things one might need on a flight. As far as I can tell, it’s the same kit they hand out in Business Class on their international flights.

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Inside the kit are socks, eye shades, ear plugs, tissues, lotions, lip balm, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a small pen. Just what one needs on a flight.

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It’s a pretty basic kit, but I can’t think of anything else I’d want, so I’ll call it perfectly serviceable. Knowing that many readers like to collect things like this, I thought I’d give the kit away. It is unused other than taking the contents out for the photo above. All you have to do is comment to this post with anything travel related, and can even be your own thoughts on the A321T service, amenity kit, etc. Just keep it clean. I’ll pick the winner via random.org tomorrow at noon EDT here in Atlanta.

CONTEST CLOSED – Winner TBA

I’m traveling today, and I was right at the point where I needed to decide, lunch at Fridays or just snacks in the club. Knowing that Delta has recently upgraded its food options in the Sky Club, I elected to just head straight for the Sky Club. The T Sky Club in Atlanta has always been a favorite of mine. It still has the old-school Crown Room feel and furnishings (not that there’s anything wrong with the more modern Sky Club decor), is quiet (usually), and happened to be next to my departure gate. While this wasn’t my first visit since the new food rolled out, it was the first one where I had the time and inclination to sample.

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One of my favorite bartenders recommended the chicken salad last week, so seeing that it was available today, I went for it. The bartender was correct – the cranberry chicken salad was quite tasty! I rolled with that, cheese spread, veggies, and the Italian Wedding Soup. Turns out, it was a pretty good lunch, all for the price of admission that is included with my Amex Platinum Card!

A few observations – I was in the club the morning after the new food options were rolled out. There was a manager in the club training staff on the new food. I’ve been in the Sky Club 4 times since, and each time, someone on the staff has asked me what I thought. I’ve been honest – it’s improved, and I appreciate it. It isn’t foreign airline lounge class, but it’s certainly tops for complimentary lounge food for the big legacy US airlines, I think. Have you tried the new food? What did you think?

-MJ, August 27, 2014

I’m going to tip-toe into the subject that blew up the blogosphere on Sunday/Monday. You won’t find the next big thing in these comments, but will find a reiteration of what I’ve been saying for a long time. Just a little history at a very high level:

  • Sometime Sunday (as far as I can tell), news hit the interweb of a potential major devaluation of BA Avios based on an award chart posted by Iberia
  • The world lights up
  • Many trips were booked (I hope so after all that noise)
  • Turns out that Iberia just made public an award chart that had been unpublished
  • A sense of calm ensues, and the world is declared right again

For the record, I have no idea if BA is going to change anything with Avios or not. I do have my doubts that 4,500 point one-way short haul awards (a sweet spot that has literally saved me thousands of dollars) are going to last forever, but that’s neither here nor there. What I do know is that along with death and taxes, a certainty in life is that the value of miles and points will not remain the same forever. I’d be lying if I told you that I don’t have an aspirational redemption or two in mind over the next year or so, and the points sitting in my pocket to pay for them when I am ready. That said, in general, I am burning miles and points the moment I can find a use for them that does not involve a toaster or new iPad.

Miles and points are easy enough to earn for now, and while I can’t deny that I like my miles, I try not to be overly emotional about them. Now, more than ever, don’t hoard, burn ‘em. It’ll make the inevitable shocks to the system like the recent Avios scare a lot more tolerable, and probably save you a few bucks on your travels too. YMMV.

-MJ, August 26, 2014

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It’s been a busy week here at MJ on Travel. This week, we’ll have two hotels to review, a quick trip to take, and more. Last week, I was able to complete my trip report on the first class experience aboard American’s A321T, which I broke into two parts, ground services and boarding, then inflight services. One of my better uses of US Airways miles in a while. I just wish I could do that every weekend! Here’s a look at our weekly recap of posts at MJ on Travel.

And this week at MJ on Travel -

  • Hotel Review – Marriott Marquis, Washington, DC
  • Commentary – Airlines Are Complicated Businesses, but the Relationship With Their Customers Should Not Be

These travel topics, and no doubt more, this week at MJ on Travel.

-MJ, August 24, 2014

Trip Report – The AA A321T First Class, JFK-LAX (Part 1 – Ground services and boarding)

Trip Report – The AA A321T First Class, JFK-LAX (Part 2 – Takeoff and inflight services)

Not only did we push back on-time, but we enjoyed a fast taxi to the runway as well. Within minutes, we were taking the runway and blasting off for Los Angeles. I took a little video of the takeoff. Lots of plane porn to enjoy during the takeoff roll.

The takeoff and climb out were smooth, and I decided to experiment with AA’s 3D flight map. Pretty cool stuff. I should have closed the window shade before I took that shot.

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Within a few minutes, the flight attendants were starting service. Menus had been distributed on the ground, and the purser checked in with me to verify that I had pre-ordered my meal. This was the first opportunity I’ve had to test pre-ordering meals on AA, and based on this sample size of one, it worked. Here’s a look at the menu.

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Gone are the days of caviar and lobster in the tossed salad served seat side, but fairly respectable choices. Service began with wine, and the ever-popular ramekin of warm mixed nuts.

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I should have made a point to take a look at the wine label. I’m not convinced it was the red wine choice featured in the menu as the Purser referred to it as merlot. No matter – it was quite good for airline wine, and our great crew never let my glass get below half full until I finally gave up towards the end of the flight.

Dinner service began with a smoked salmon and seared tuna starter, which I enjoyed a lot.

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This was followed by a salad – spinach and romaine with hearts of palm, strawberries, and pecans. Dressing choices were Caesar or balsamic vinegar. I apologize for being a bad blogger and half devouring the salad before I realized I had not taken a picture!! It was fresh, tasty, and accompanied with a choice of breads. I went with cheese bread.

Next up was the main course. I had pre-ordered the gorgonzola crusted beef filet with red wine beer sauce. It was accompanied by roasted potatoes and broccolini. It was served medium. I don’t know why I order steaks in the air when they’re available. I didn’t love it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. I enjoyed the meal, however, I usually find that steaks in the sky are over cooked for my tastes. That’s just me, but I think I’ll try the chicken next time.

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The beef had a decent enough flavor, and the accompaniments were tasty too. But we all know what we’re really waiting for….. the world famous ice cream sundae!!!

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The sundae was good. Enough said.

Flight attendants were frequently in the aisle throughout the flight checking on customers, refilling wine glasses, etc. One of the better AA crews I’ve had in a while, so good that I sent a note to American about them. The inflight entertainment system has an extensive library of options, but I had brought my own entertainment so I did not partake. Headwinds were lower than forecast, and we were making great time towards Los Angeles. Our flight was passing all too quickly! Towards the end of the flight chocolate chip cookies were served.

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Weather looked great in LA as we smoothly descended towards an early arrival at LAX.

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We blocked into a gate immediately across from the LAX Admirals Club. I decided to drop in for a quick break before heading to my hotel. I was again offered Flagship Lounge access. I went in for a quick look and found a pretty decent spread of food and drink, not unlike what I had seen at JFK earlier. With that, my AA A321T first class adventure came to an end.

The Bottom Line

I’m so glad I finally made the scheduling work so I could experience the only true 3-class transcontinental service by a US airline. It was obvious that things weren’t the same as they used to be from a meal service perspective, but the product is still nice. The seat was truly comfortable. A great way to spend 6 hours, and even more on my next 777-300 flight with AA to Europe. In the end, the crew made the flight a great experience and everything else was just gravy.

Speculation abounds that the new AA management team will not continue this 3-class service now that the competition has dropped their 3-class cabins in the market. I’ve been guilty of buying into that, and it may eventually become true. On the other hand, the only true first class cabin in the market might be a strong marketing advantage for a certain set of well-heeled customers. Only time will tell. I’m actively looking for reasons to fly the A321T again! :)

-MJ, August 23, 2014

Last weekend I took my first United mainline flights in several years. At least 3 years…maybe 4 or even 5….the memory is fuzzy. I think the last one was a reroute from AA Eagle to UA from Raleigh to Washington. I’ve had an interesting relationship with United over the years. After working for their primary competitor for so many years, I found flying them to be interesting. I like to compare and contrast airline operations, and the differences (and similarities) between United and my ex-employer were always curious to me. There really weren’t that many, but it was just different enough to be novel at the time. It didn’t hurt that they had a good number of flights to where I needed to go at the time either.

I’ve held both Premier and Premier Executive status in the then Mileage Plus program. I’ve flirted with United on and off since 2004. It was always interesting, but never quite real. For whatever reason, I’d find myself flying someone else after a flirtation with United. I liked their mileage program just fine, but something about the airline itself always bugged me. And being the kind of guy who finds that the airline matters more than its mileage program, I always wandered away. The final parting came when I was spending more time flying US Airways, but crediting to Mileage Plus. Probably not a bad plan, but I was flying enough that upgrades began to matter – even on 2 hour flights. I made the final switch to Dividend Miles and spent most of my MileagePlus miles in late 2012 on a Lufthansa First Class trip. With that as background, I thought I’d share some details of recent flights given the drubbing (at times deserved I think) that United has taken from some circles.

The Trip

I needed to get home from LAX, and studied my options – money, miles or walking. I went with miles as I had some MileagePlus miles leftover that were burning a hole in my pocket – just enough for a domestic first class award. I found a one-way itinerary from LAX to Atlanta via SFO and booked it. I thought the 737 transcon experience might make for an interesting experience as United has been flying nonstop from SFO to ATL for a several months now. When the time arrived, I checked in via United’s fairly functional iPhone app the day before, and enjoyed my evening. As I was getting ready the next morning I got a little push notification from United letting me know that my flight from LAX to SFO was delayed. I couldn’t help but think I was about to get Jeff’d. I selected my routing with purpose. First, it assured me mainline jets all the way, something of which I found to be challenging with UA. Second, I wanted to check out the transcon service on the 737-800. I elected to get out to the airport and try and standby for an earlier flight even though it did not look promising on ExpertFlyer.

I checked in with an agent, and she placed me on the standby list. The flight was booked solid, and I wasn’t very hopeful. However, I stuck it out at the gate, and what do you know? I cleared – 32D in an A319 was not the same as 2A on the A320 I was originally scheduled or, but I would make my connection with ease. This flight left right on time, arrived SFO early, and I wandered around the terminal a bit. It’s been years since I’ve flown United but portions of their terminal are clearly improved. I burned a day pass for the United Club, camped out and got some work done. In no time it seemed, I was walking down to board my flight home to the ATL. We were a tiny bit late boarding, but things went smoothly, and we pushed right on time. I was looking forward to the flight, partially thanks to an email I received from United the day before:

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The Seat

I surmised that it is such an event to actually get wi-fi on a United flight that they need to send you an email to let you know you’ll have it. :) Funny thing is, both of my United flights that day were wi-fi ready. I boarded, and took my assigned seat 3E, on the aisle. The seats were a tiny bit old school, but comfortable, and I enjoyed catching up on a little news via DirecTV while we boarded. Legroom was plentiful. Perhaps they felt extra roomy because I was waaaay back in coach on my first flight of the day. Let’s compare…here’s 32D:

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And 3E.

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To tell you the truth, I found the coach seat very comfortable until the person in front of me reclined into my lap. But I’ll take 3E, thank you very much. Soon enough, we were airborne and winging our way towards Atlanta. I did try out United’s satellite wi-fi. I found it to be sufficiently speedy for my needs (4mbps download speed when I tried), and I liked the pricing plan very much. Basically, you buy as much as you want in 1 hour blocks for $2 per hour. I don’t know if that is a test phase price or not.

The Meal

Dinner was served during our flight. Our choices were chicken cacciatore and some kind of spinach filled thing that didn’t sound all that great. I went with the chicken with red wine for my beverage. Service began with hot towels, beverages, and my eternal favorite, a ramekin of warm mixed nuts.

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While the pre-dinner services were going on, I began to explore the entertainment offerings. DirecTV offered a LOT of channels, and I found myself surfing a bit. My eyes settled on VH-1. Yes, I said that. Why? The movie Purple Rain was playing. The rest of the flight was made as I enjoyed the music of Prince at FL370. But alas, dinner did eventually arrive so here ya’ go.

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If you’re counting, that’s approximately 1/3 of a chicken breast under some sauce with veggies and something resembling pasta. It doesn’t look like much, but it actually tasted OK. The salad was fresh, if skimpy (1 olive, 1 chunk of tomato, lettuce). A bread basket was offered as well. Dessert was a cranberry and white chocolate cookie. The meal was good enough, but I’m not sure it would have passed muster with Delta, much less American, and I’m not talking about the A321T First Class meal I had the day before. The first class F/A, on the other hand, was ever present, frequently offering refills of beverages and routinely checking on passengers. She absolutely made the flight. Well, other than Purple Rain on the TV, she absolutely made the flight.

The Bottom Line

I viewed the idea of flying United again with some trepidation based on a bit of media attention they’ve been receiving. Even though my original flight was delayed, I stood by for an earlier trip, and everything worked out fine. The agents and crew I interacted with were all uniformly polite, smiling, and helpful. Two flights doesn’t mark a trend, and living where I live, it’s not likely that I’ll go out of my way to fly United. That said, I won’t actively avoid it either. I enjoyed my flights.

-MJ, August 19, 2014 (OMG, I took my first airplane ride 34 years ago today!)

A great week of travel talk, and a long sought travel experience is the story this week. Yesterday’s ride aboard the A321T 3-class airplane in First with American Airlines was a highlight of the week. I’ll have a full trip report up later this week. Here’s a look at the weekly recap.

And this week, at MJ on Travel -

  • Trip Report – The AA A321T First Class
  • Trip Report – My First United Flights in Years
  • Hotel Review – Renaissance LAX

These topics, the weekly cruise deal, and no doubt more, this week at MJ on Travel.

-MJ, August 17, 2014

A friend of mine forwarded this article by Chris Elliott, lover of loyalty programs. I kid, of course, about loving loyalty programs. The premise of the article is that business travelers are finally wising up and parting ways with loyalty programs in the face of recent changes. For sure, some travelers, perhaps a lot of travelers are reflecting on what it means to be loyal and taking a hard look at what next year will bring, especially if they tend to fly Delta or United. But quitting?

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I’m the first to say that one should take stock of where they are with their loyalty programs from time to time. Travel needs change, company policies change, the world changes. It’s a fact of life. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the article -

“I will definitely be loosening up my allegiance to Delta,” she says. “Value and convenience are now my top priorities.”

Here’s my thing. Why is it that it took the shift to a “revenue based” program to make anyone’s priorities “value and convenience?” For sure, living where I live, Delta is always the first airline I look to for my travel needs. I have Platinum Medallion status (upgrades, free bags when needed, priority boarding, etc). I don’t want to miss those things if I don’t have to, and the benefits of status add real value for my travel dollars. But I won’t fly Delta at all costs. Notably, it did not take the coming arrival of SkyMiles 2015 to help me reach that conclusion.

Yes, change is coming to loyalty programs, but it’s not the end of life as we know it. If you have to fly, there is still value in joining your program of choice. You might be better off participating in a partner program and crediting your miles there, that’s an individual decision. Do your homework, take stock of where you are every now and then, but don’t just leave value on the table because it feels good “sticking it to the man”….temporarily.

-MJ, August 11, 2014

 

I never have been, and likely never will be the enthusiast who has 75 (OK, I’m making that number up, but I’ve heard of having 75 active accounts) different credit cards rolling at one time. Just not my thing. In fact, I probably have fewer credit cards open than the majority of BoardingArea readers. Right now, I’m taking a little break from spending strategies to obtain miles. In fact, I was on a break when the vaunted 100K Citi AAdvantage Executive offer came out. After a bit of pontificating, that one proved to be too much for me to ignore. However, after hitting my goals there, I returned to my respite from credit cards.

Believe me, I haven’t sworn off capitalizing on mileage bonuses from credit cards forever. It’s just that I have some financial goals in mind over the next year that I really need to focus on….and they have very little to do with credit cards. While I’m capable of doing more than one thing at a time, I know myself. I needed to take a little respite from some of the things I had been doing. I wasn’t trekking to Wally World to save money. I had the points balances I needed, so the time was right. And just a word to the wise – while I’m no financial advisor – if you’re carrying card debt, don’t even think about playing for any miles and points opportunities until card debt is in your past.

With all this said, it never hurts to take a look at where you are with what’s in your wallet. A little house cleaning every now and then is a good thing. Inventory time it is. Let’s take a look at what’s staying, and what’s going. Note: cards with a* are those that I keep in my “walking around” wallet and see most of my spending. The rest are in my travel wallet or in my sock drawer.

Bank of America Travel Rewards Visa – Keep

I carry this card for one reason, it serves as overdraft protection for my Bank of America checking account. I use it rarely, the occasional charge to let them know I still have it. On the other hand, it’s free of an annual fee or foreign transaction fees. Since it’s free overdraft protection for me, it stays. I should probably replace it with an Alaska Visa. :)

Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex – Keep

2 percent cash back….on all purchases. The sun may rise on a day when this becomes my primary credit card, but for now, there are too many other opportunities out there that I value more highly. It’s not costing me an annual fee, so it stays…..for the day I give up on all this card drama. :)

Chase Sapphire Preferred – Keep*

I love Ultimate Rewards. That is all. The $95 annual fee on this one makes it a candidate for cancellation, but for now, it’s a keeper. The recent change in rental car coverage from secondary to primary make this one more likely to be a keeper for the long term.

Citi Executive AAdvantage – Keep for now

I haven’t had this card for very long. Unless something changes in my flying patterns, it’s not likely I renew it. I don’t foresee a scenario where I move a lot of flying to AA while I live in Atlanta….but hey…who knows what the new year will bring? If I were a regular AA flyer, I’d probably renew it.

Marriott Rewards Premier – Keep

This card rarely leaves my wallet, but the annual benefits it provides (Cat 5 certificate and 15 nights elite credit) more than pay for the reasonable annual fee in my book.

Chase Ink Bold – Keep*

This is my primary card for business expenses. Bonus Ultimate Rewards points for things I buy plenty of – cell phone service and cable/internet are great. Not to mention, since I only have the Bold, I’ve got opportunities to capitalize on the other Ink products when the time comes.

United MileagePlus Explorer – Cancel

What can I say? The last 50K mile offer sucked me in. The 2 club passes get used next weekend on my first United mainline flights in at least 4 years. Then I’m saying goodbye to this card when the annual fee is due. The only reason I could think of for keeping it was the primary insurance coverage for rental cars. With Sapphire Preferred now offering that, I am parting ways with this card.

Amex Platinum – Keep

Sky Club access for MrsMJ and me are reason enough on their own to keep this card. The $200 fee credit, Priority Pass Select, Global Entry fee waiver, car rental status, SPG Gold status, and cruise privileges are just gravy and add up to why I call this card still “the one in the one-two punch for travel.” This card pays for itself. Not to mention, it’s the card I’ve carried the longest.

SkyMiles Platinum Amex – Keep*

MQD waiver, 10,000 bonus MQMs and redeemable miles for $25K in spending. Enough said. The annual companion certificate saved me $600 this year. Changes in travel patterns could see me part ways with this card, but as long as I’m flying Delta as much as I am, it stays.

SPG Amex – Keep

I’d parted ways with this card, but applied again before the May 1 changes on bonus points. It’s modest annual fee is a downer, but SPG points are so flexible. It’s not seeing a lot of spend at the moment, but it could in the future. For now, it stays…and likely for the long term.

Delta Reserve Business – Cancel

While the bonus MQMs are a thought, along with the first class companion certificate, I just can’t justify keeping two cards with annual fees of $450. I have Sky Club access by other means. This just wasn’t worth it anymore. Maybe someday I’ll change my mind.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® – Keep*

This card shares a space in my wallet with the Sapphire Preferred card. If I’m not getting 2x Ultimate Rewards or 5X with my Ink Bold, I usually reach for this card. It’s a great all around card…better than great…. IF you redeem the miles for travel.

Conclusion

While I think there’s potential here for further consolidation, right now, I’m only dropping two cards, and then a third when the Citi Exec comes up for renewal. I’m still paying more in annual fees than I would like, but I’m comfortable that the card which I’m planning to keep with the biggest fee, the Amex Platinum, pays for itself in my case….and then some. Looking at my current inventory, it’s most notable to me that I’m missing out on Membership Rewards opportunities. That might be my next move, or it might be the US Airways card before it closes to new applications. In closing, it’s a good idea to take the occasional inventory. It can serve as a good reminder of where you are and perhaps show you a way forward for future spending and points earning opportunities.

-MJ, August 10, 2014

 

Do you ever find yourself reminiscing? It’s Throw Back Thursday, #TBT, and I was thinking about some fun scenes from my traveling past like my first trip in Lufthansa First Class. I know those were the old seats, but I really didn’t care.

And then there was this….the cigar lounge. Yes, I was excited….even at 9am.

But there was more, and it had nothing to do with Lufthansa other than they were the airline who brought us to this beautiful ship, Celebrity Reflection.

Taken as we left to explore Venice on 11/5.

Which we then sailed to beautiful and historic places like Ephesus, Turkey.

Celsus Library. I love the blue sky!

And Dubrovnik, Croatia.

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Yes, I’m feeling a little nostalgic this #TBT. The best thing about all of this, I got to experience it because of miles and points. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

-MJ, August 7, 2014

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Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.