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Is frequent flyer status everything it used to be?

Posted by George Hobica on Thursday, January 2, 2014

Is it getting less worthwhile, or at least harder, to attain “status” in airline frequent flyer programs?

These things make me wonder:

1. The days of buying a $200 round-trip mileage-run cross-country trip to get 5,000 miles aren’t what they used to be. Delta and United, starting in 2014, have added minimum spend requirements in order to get status. Delta requires a $2,500 spend to get the lowest “silver medallion” status in addition to 25,000 miles flown up to $12,500 and 125,000 miles to get the highest “diamond” status. United requires spending between $2,500 and $10,000 plus miles. Miles alone no longer cut it. American will probably follow suit eventually if they haven’t by the time you read this.

2. Airlines are selling last-minute first and business class upgrades for ridiculously cheap. That means that some “status flyers” who hang around the gate hoping for upgrades may be more disappointed than ever. American is even now allowing anyone to bid for upgrades.

3. Some new planes have fewer first and business class seats than the models they’re replacing. So there’s less availability.

4. More flyers have status than ever before, thanks to status matches. And US Air even lets you buy your way in with their “Buy up to Preferred” program (presumably your USAir status will transfer over to American when the merger is complete).

5. Some of the perks of “status,” like early boarding and free checked bags, anyone can get with an airline credit card like the United Explorer Card.

I’ve never had status of any kind with an airline, even though I fly thousands of miles each year. That’s partly because I’m not “loyal”—as the founder of Airfarewatchdog, I’d never spend $200 or $300 more to fly on a particular airline just to get the miles or points. That’s just daft. Last year I flew on every domestic airline except Allegiant, whichever was cheaper. Many of those flights I bought or upgraded with miles rather than cash. I have excellent credit, and every time there’s a 40,000- or 100,000 mile-bonus offer when you get a new credit card, I sign up, then a cancel the card after a year (usually, I’m eligible for the same offer a couple of years later). And, of course, as a travel writer I often travel on “comp” tickets that don’t earn miles or status.

I’m also pretty good at finding really cheap paid first class tickets, which are popping up more and more lately, and which are part of the reason why I wonder why attaining status is what it used to be.

Consider: in December I was able to buy first class on Delta from L.A. to Ft. Lauderdale for $349 one-way. On the return, I flew American in first nonstop from Miami to L.A. for $495 one-way.

Fewer first and business seats to begin with

American’s spiffy new A319 planes are great. They’re replacing those old MD-80’s (AA has 190 of them at last count). The 80’s have (or had) 16 first class seats. The A319s? Just eight. Since most people flying in first or business are either frequent flyer upgrades, airline employees, or otherwise freeloaders, I’m sure American figured “Hey, why not reduce the number of premium seats and actually sell them. And if we can’t sell them for the ‘list price’ then we’ll take whatever the market will bear.’” Makes perfect business sense.

And those super new cabins on the transcon flights on AA, Delta and United with the lie flat business and first seats? They sure are comfy, but guess what: they take up much more room than the old seats, which merely reclined. So there are fewer of them fleet-wide. I’ll bet you’ll be paying for those more often than getting “status” upgrades.

Cheap last minute upgrade offers

It used to be that I’d get last minute upgrade offers on the trans-con flights that were tempting but just barely. Such as a $700 upgrade from my cheap economy class seat on the United JFK-LAX service to business class, one-way. But recently I was offered a $250 upgrade from economy to business on American on a $189 one-way JFK-LAX fare. Did I buy it? You bet. Did that mean that someone hoping for a free upgrade didn’t get it? Yep.

Cheaper purchased first class and business class

As long as you’re willing to buy a non-refundable fare, you can sometimes get confirmed business and first for just twice the price of a cramped economy class seat. Recently I needed to fly from New York to Boston last minute, and fares on the shuttles from LaGuardia were something like $400 one-way. Then I saw a non-refundable first class fare from JFK on AA for $140 one-way. Naturally, I bought it. Airlines are realizing that not everyone is going to pay ten times the economy class fare for a standard first class seat (we’re not all movie stars, trust fund babies, or hedge fund moguls).

In short, airlines are managing their first and business class cabins more intelligently. Gone are the days when they’re willing to give away the very product that costs them the most to provide. They’d much rather limit inventory, and at least get something for those seats. And often that “something” is much more in line with what the product is actually worth.

Above image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

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Get bonus frequent flyer miles when shopping online!

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, December 13, 2013

In addition to making frequent flyer miles harder to spend, airlines are expiring miles, if there's no activity in your account, faster than ever.

But one easy and painless way to make sure there's activity in your account is to do some online shopping using the airlines' "shopping malls." Even if you merely buy a 99-cent iTune you'll keep your miles safe for at least another year. And in addition, if you're buying a big ticket item, such as a computer, you can add some serious miles to your account.

For example if United offers an extra mile for every dollar spent with the Apple Store, one of their shopping partners and you buy a $2500 iMac computer, you get 2500 miles. That's a huge bonus. And there are often bonus offers on top of the bonus miles. United might offer an additional 2,000 miles if you spend over a certain amount.

Generally, these online shopping partners offer at least one mile per dollar spent, but sometimes they award 10 miles or more. And if you use your airline affiliated credit card, you get an extra mile, but the credit card miles pale in comparison to the shopping miles you can earn.

Scores of well known retailers participate in these airline malls, including Crate and Barrel, Best Buy, The Container Store, Dell Computer, Drugstore.com, Sears, Target, and Walmart, to name but a few.

Keep in mind that although the airline shopping sites listed below work with many of the same retailers, American might be offering 4 miles with a particular retailer while Delta could be offering just half that, so you've got to shop around while you're shopping around.

Links to airline shopping malls:

Airtran

American

British Airways

Delta (Delta SkyMiles, for now, no longer expire, but you can still earn miles this way)

Hawaiian Airlines

JetBlue (miles don't expire but you can still earn miles)

Southwest Airlines

Spirit Airlines

United

US Airways

Virgin America

And you may also find these shopping sites useful:

Marriott Rewards

Amtrak

Above image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Strategies for flying during winter (or any iffy weather season)

Posted by George Hobica on Monday, November 25, 2013

If you have to take connecting flights, connect through warmer weather, less snow-storm affected hubs like Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, Charlotte, Houston vs. Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Newark.


Consider travel insurance. If there are any seasons that make sense to buy it, it’s during snow storm and hurricane season.



If your flight is canceled and you’re on the outbound portion of your trip, you can request a full refund of the fare paid, even on a non-refundable ticket. There’s no requirement to take a “futile” trip (i.e., you missed the wedding). Google the airline’s contract of carriage for the rules.

 

Ask to be put on another airline’s flight if it will get you there quicker. Some airlines such as Alaska have provisions for this in their contracts of carriage. Even those that do not often put delayed passengers on their competition’s flights.

 

If taking a cruise, always plan to get to the port a day ahead of sailing. In winter, I recommend TWO days ahead.



If your flight is canceled, try to get as close to where you’re head as possible if you can’t get all the way there. If your JFK to LA flight is canceled, see if the airline will fly you to Las Vegas, for example. From there you can hop on Southwest or rent a car to LA.

Hartsfield Atlanta, stormy windsock, Alaska Airlines, flight status board, docked cruise, Las Vegas images via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Hurry Up and Wait: A Layover Guide to 20 of the Busiest Airports on the Planet

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Still bellyaching about layovers? You won't get any sympathy from us, especially when connecting through these busy airports in major cities across the globe. There's bound to be more than a barren hangar in a cornfield, so buck up and enjoy the downtime.

Atlanta (ATL)

Short (1-4 hours): Nap - or just kick back in privacy – with free wireless and DIRECTV at Minute Suites ($34/hr, Concourse B). Fuel up on smart grub and great cocktails at One Flew South (Concourse E).

Long (4 hours or more): Take MARTA to the Arts District Station ($2.50, 25 min) to the High Museum of Art or go on a long walk in Piedmont Park, Atlanta's giant front lawn.

Very long (overnight): Ride the free SkyTrain one stop to SpringHill Suites (from $169), check-in, drop bags. Take MARTA to Midtown ($2.50, 20 min), dinner one block east at Hugh Acheson's very good Empire State South.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's ATL insider guide.

 

 

Beijing (PEK)

Short (1-4 hours): Walk (10 min from Terminal 3) to the five-star Langham Place hotel for a decent meal and some civilized chill time; to stay behind security lines, buy your way into the serviceable BGS Lounges ($35, Terminals 2 & 3, post-security) and take a load off.

Long (4 hours or more): Do you qualify for the 72-hr visa waiver? Take the Airport Express train ($4, 20-25 min) to Dongzhimen, transfer to the circular Line 2 Subway ($0.30, one trip around, 40 min). Exit at Qianmen for Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City; Jishuitan for a stroll around the lakes of Houhai. (Note: Avoid the trains at rush hour.)

Very long (overnight): Splurge on a stay at the Opposite House (from $411, 10 min. walk from Dongzhimen), one of Beijing's best hotels. Have the concierge set up a guided tour of the 798 Art Zone, or grab a cab for craft beers at the popular Great Leap Brewing or the new and noteworthy Slow Boat Brewery.

More info: Check out Tripadvisor's guide to Beijing.

 

 

London-Heathrow (LHR)

Short (1-4 hours): The No. 1 Traveller Lounge ($48 Terminal 3, post-security) features the usual lounge amenities, plus spa treatments and beds for an upcharge. More economical are the Servisair lounges ($29, Terminals 1 & 3 post-security). Stuck in Terminal 5? Grab a spot at Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food and grub out on dry-aged steak and chips.

Long (4 hours or more): With less than six hours, leaving the airport can be a risk, but if you're feeling bold, the Heathrow Express ($55 RT, 15 min) takes you to Paddington, where you're an easy walk to the Italian Gardens / Long Water area of Hyde Park. Before heading back, hit the park's lovely Lido Café at the Serpentine.

Very long (overnight): Don't waste a night in London at an airport hotel; check into the Paddington-adjacent Hotel Indigo (from $259) and spend the rest of your day exploring Central London via the Tube. In the morning, you're just a block or two from the Heathrow Express – the first trip back leaves at 5:10am Monday-Saturday, 6:25am Sundays.

More info: Check out Tripadvisor's guide to London.

 

 

Tokyo-Narita (NRT)

Short (1-4 hours): It's Japan. Your mission is to eat everything in sight. In Terminal 1, it's sushi at Kyotatsu, katsu (cutlets) and curry at Williams, ramen at Kagetsu Arashi and Japanese Italian food (it's kind of awesome) at Spaghetti Goemon. In Terminal 2, it's takoyaki – octopus pancakes – at Tako-Bon, affordable and fresh sushi at Gansozushi and tonkatsu at Inaba Wako.

Long (4 hours or more): Tokyo may be far away, but the Narita Express (53 minutes to Tokyo Station) is very reliable – not to worry. To see a lot in a short time without worrying about getting lost, ride the Yamanote circular line (1 hour each way) through Central Tokyo. Buy a Suica & N'EX pass at the airport station for $59 – includes round-trip fare and a $15 yen credit for subways and local trains.

Very long (overnight): Take the Narita Express to Tokyo Station. Depending on your budget, check into the Hotel Ryumeikan (from $175) or the Four Seasons Marunouchi (from $500) – both best in class and very close to the trains. From here, the shops and world-class restaurants of Marunouchi, the Imperial Palace grounds, the classic chic of Ginza and the famous Tsukiji Fish Market are all within walking distance.

More info: Check out Tripadvisor's guide to Tokyo.

 

 

Chicago-O'Hare (ORD)

Short (1-4 hours): Snag samples at Vosges Chocolate (Terminals 1, 3, 5), sip Goose Island beers at the bar – and eat Rick Bayless' special brand of Mexican street food, too – at Tortas Frontera (Terminals 1, 3, 5). For wine in a civilized setting, Beaudevin (Terminal 10 and Bubbles Wine Bar (Terminal 3) do the trick nicely, while beer lovers should hit the Berghoff Café a famed local spot with a solid draft menu.

Long (4 hours or more): If you need to grab some serious down time, you're in luck – walk across the street (from Terminals 1-3) to the Hilton Athletic Club, which offers day passes for $20, featuring access to their full fitness center, pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and relaxation area. Reward yourself for a workout well done with a tub of deliciousness from Garrett Popcorn (Terminals 1 or 3).

Very long (overnight): Check into the Hilton O'Hare (from $199, walk from Terminals 1-3), then ride the CTA Blue Line ($2.25, 25 min) to Logan Square, have dinner across street at Telegraph Wine Bar or Longman and Eagle. A few stops more brings you to Wicker Park (hop off at Damen), a walkable and lively neighborhood with some great hangouts, like Big Star, a cool bar and taco joint in an old gas station one block south.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's ORD insider guide.

 

Los Angeles (LAX)

Short (1-4 hours): Dig the retro vibe at the iconic Encounter bar and restaurant, located a short walk from all terminals – they serve straight through from 11-9, every day. The new international terminal is a great place to get stuck – try food that LA locals love at 800 Degrees, ink.sack and Umami Burger.

Long (4 hours or more): With the terminals less than four miles from the nearest beach, there's no excuse to not grab a cab and go. If you have time for just one, make it Venice Beach, obviously ($25, 15 min). Start at the pier and walk up the famed boardwalk; snag an outdoor table at Venice Ale House.

Very long (overnight): Forget airport hotels. Take a mini-vacation. Hop a cab ($25, 10-15 min) to Manhattan Beach and check into the charming Shade Hotel (from $279). Walk to the pier, check out the beach path and eat at restaurants that draw diners from all over Los Angeles, like Fishing with Dynamite, M.B. Post, and Little Sister.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's LAX insider guide.

 

Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG)

Short (1-4 hours): Hop into the massage chairs (or, if they've room, on a table) for a full work-up at the Be Relax Spa (multiple locations). Then move on to either Laduree for macarons (Terminal 1, 2A, E, F), luxe grocer Hediard (Terminal 2F) for their famous fruit jelly candies or La Maison du Chocolat (2E, F) for, well, you know.

Long (4 hours or more): The CDGVAL light rail system (free) connects all terminals to the RER B train ($13, 35 min. to Paris Nord). An hour after clearing customs, you can be climbing up Montmartre. Also touristy, but tastier: Catch the Roissybus from the terminals to Opera ($14, 50 min) and work your way through the food hall (Men's Store, Level 1) at Galeries Lafayette.

Very long (overnight): Frequent TGV trains link the airport to Disneyland Paris (from $23, 12 min) – hop off at the Marne le Vallee-Chessy station for the short walk to both park gates, Disney Village and the park hotels. To be close to your next flight, the Sheraton Paris Airport is located right above the train station, back at Terminal 2 (from $260). Note: They also offer day rates.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Paris.

 

Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)

Short (1-4 hours): Bliss out in the yoga studio (Gate D40), stroll the sculpture garden (outside Terminal D) or unwind with other in-the-know travelers at M Lounge, the all-day spot at the Grand Hyatt hotel (above Terminal D). For a memorable meal, dine like Texans do at Cajun seafood legend Pappadeaux (Terminal A), or its Southwestern cousin, Pappasito's Cantina (Terminal A).

Long (4 hours or more): The cities are far and cabs are pricey; better to hang closer to the airport. Get yourself an Express Massage (25 minutes, $85) at the world-class spa inside the resort-like Four Seasons Las Colinas, just 15 minutes from the airport via cab ($20). Once booked in, you've got unlimited access to steam, sauna, whirlpool and a spa guest-only pool.

Very long (overnight): Rent a car and head for Fort Worth, an historic city known for architecture old (The Stockyards) and new (Tadao Ando's serene Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth). Of course, Dallas is no slouch – come here with an appetite: From succulent brisket at Pecan Lodge in the lively Farmers Market to the Dr. Pepper Braised Short Ribs at Fearing's, nobody goes hungry.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Dallas

 

Jakarta (CGK)

Short (1-4 hours): Fuel up at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or Starbucks (Terminal 2) and take a walk around, stop for traditional souvenirs at Batik Keris (Terminal 2) along the way. If you're in Terminal 1, grab a bite at the excellent Food Cetera food court, a hawker center-style affair featuring cuisine from all over Asia. Need a lounge? Pura Indah will fit the bill nicely ($32, Terminal 2).

Long (4 hours or more): Even if you've got a half-day to spare, leaving the airport area is unwise. Traffic and road conditions are simply too unpredictable. Instead, play a round of golf ($60 for non-members) at the terminal-adjacent Cengakareng Golf Club, or do the spa thing at the pleasant and very affordable FM7 Resort, located at the airport entrance and accessible via hourly shuttles.

Very long (overnight): Jakarta's a gold mine of great hotels at good prices. The Mandarin Oriental, considered the best in town by many, has rates that can be sky high, until they're not – say, for example, $180/night. Check in, then arrange for a car to take you on a personalized tour to spots like Old Town for the popular night market and cocktails at Café Batavia, a legendary colonial relic.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Jakarta.

 

Dubai (DXB)

Short (1-4 hours): Grab a day room at the Dubai International Hotel ($43, 1 hr, $128, 4 hrs, Terminals 1&3) for a shower, a nap and a trip to the pool, gym, steam, sauna and Jacuzzi. (The hotel also sells very affordable passes to the fitness facility as well – pool access is included.) Refuel at Pulp Juice Bar (T3) and go people watching in the terminal, or book into one of the Marhaba lounges ($45, multiple locations) for some more chill time in the company of free wireless, food and other perks.

Long (4 hours or more): With town ten minutes from the terminal stations of the Dubai Metro (fares from $0.50), getting out is a must. Hop off at the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which has its own Metro station. Ride up to the 124th floor for the At The Top Observation deck (from $32, reservations recommended). Downstairs, you'll find the world's largest choreographed fountains and gigantic Dubai Mall, boasting Bloomingdale's, Galeries Lafayette, and Marks & Spencer department stores.

Very long (overnight): With more time, still do the Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall thing, but then ride the Metro back to Al Fahidi for a self-guided tour of the historic Bastakiya Quarter, a charming pocket in a sea of stark modernity. Restaurants in Dubai are legendary – book in at the overwater Pierchic, an seafood spot at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel. (They have a $50 prix-fixe lunch, too.) Of course, you could do worse than a meal at one of the iconic Burj al Arab hotel's many restaurants – they may be expensive, but it sure beats paying to sleep over.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Dubai.

 

Frankfurt (FRA)

Short (1-4 hours): See the planes go by – and get your fill of fresh air at the Visitors' Terrace at Terminal 2 ($6.75), play the slots at the airport's own casino (Terminal 1) or have a proper modern German meal – and do some proper German drinking -- at deutsch (Terminal 1). Massage-wise, you want the Be Relax spas (multiple locations); get your hair did at Trondle (Terminal 1).

Long (4 hours or more): Depending on the time of year you visit, tours of both the airport and out into town are available and can include everything from a visit to the airport fire department to a river cruise and a stop at the city's popular Christmas market (learn more at frankfurt-airport.com).

Very long (overnight): Explore the Main River with Primus Cruises (they'll take you up towards the Rhine as well, where you can see castles), then hit the bricks and explore the city center's mix of old and new architecture. Get tickets to whatever's on at the Alte Oper, then spend the night at the very cool Arte-Hotel Robert Mayer (from $79).

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Frankfurt.

 

 

Hong Kong (HKG)

Short (1-4 hours): Watch a movie on the world's only in-airport IMAX theater (Terminal 2), play a round on the on-site Nine Eagles Golf Course (from $45, 9 holes) and taste incredible soup dumplings at Tan Xia (T2). Or, take a shower, a nap or just hang out with food and free wireless at the swank, 24-hr Plaza Premium lounges (from $50, multiple locations).

Long (4 hours or more): A cab's about $15, the trip 15 minutes and a park ticket – which you can buy at the airport – is $58. Why not head to Disneyland? No? Fine – the Airport Express train can have you on Hong Kong Island in no time at all ($23 RT, 24 minutes). From here, you're steps from the Star Ferry docks – take a cheap harbor cruise ($0.25) to Tsim Sha Tsui and back.

Very long (overnight): Take the Airport Express to Kowloon and overnight at the best-value Hotel Icon (gorgeous harbor-view rooms from $249) or continue on to Hong Kong Island and bunk at the stylish new Hotel Indigo. Take the tram to Victoria Peak, grab some dim sum, ride the Star Ferry.

Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Hong Kong.

 

Denver (DEN)

Short (1-4 hours): Self-guide your way through the artwork and sculpture that's part of the Art at DIA program, or buy your way into the branded airline lounges – the usual steep fees apply. Or, save your money for beer – Front Range microbrewery New Belgium reps it on Concourses A and B. Fat Tire, anyone?

Long (4 hours or more): The almost-airport-adjacent Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge – a former chemical weapons production site that's now home to bison, white-tailed deer, bald eagles and prairie dogs – is a terrific place to kill some time; ideally, rent a car and drive the wildlife viewing route, but you can also cab it (approx. $45, 20 min) to the visitor's center, at the beginning of the refuge's rather vast trail network.

Very long (overnight):  If daylight is on your side and weather conditions permit, rent a car for the drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park. Otherwise, get a cab to Boulder. Once there, you'll be able to walk to everything, from beers at Avery Brewing to fine dining at Frasca to coffee at Boxcar to a brisk hike up to the iconic Flatirons on the Chautauqua Trail. Stay at the historic Boulderado (from $229) or the quaint Foot of the Mountain Motel, located (of course!) at the foot of the mountain (from $65).

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Denver.

 

Bangkok (BKK)

Short (1-4 hours): It's hidden away on Level 1 near the taxi ranks, but the Magic Food Point food court is home to some of the airport's best food – think authentic Thai dishes for a buck or two. On Concourse F, Bangkok's beloved Mister Donut has a cheerful outlet. Eat up, then retire to Louis' Tavern CIP Lounge, with six locations in the terminal. The lounge ($32) and day rooms ($77, 4 hours) are both pleasant places to wait out your wait.

Long (4 hours or more): With the LINK train connecting city and airport in 15 minutes for $5, you're almost obligated. At Makkasan and Phaya Thai stations, you're directly linked to local transit (MRT, BTS), which take you to, say, Silom, or the piers on the Chao Phraya. First, though, two essentials: Get a Thai massage – Divana, with three BTS-convenient locations, is a great bet – then eat lots of Thai food. (Pro tip: Here, they just call it food.)

Very long (overnight): Sample Thailand's legendary service without breaking the bank at the luxurious, Lumpini Park and BTS station-adjacent Sukhothai (from $197), or check into the smaller but equally beautiful Ariyasom Villa (from $156), a gem of a boutique property just around the corner from the BTS Phloen Chit station. Both make a great base of operations for a city highlights tour, whether you go it alone or have the hotel make arrangements. 

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Bangkok.

 

Singapore Changi (SIN)

Short (1-4 hours): How unlike other airports is Changi? Well, there's a pool, for starters, and $11 gets you in – Jacuzzi, showers, the works (Terminal 1). There are free rest zones with reclining loungers throughout the airport. A butterfly garden (Terminal 3). Multiple free movie theaters.   There's great food, too, everywhere (Prima Taste is a great intro to Singapore's intriguing cuisine, T3).

Long (4 hours or more): Changi and Singapore Airlines offer the Free Singapore Tours, which leave Terminals 2 & 3 throughout the day and last two hours. You'll need to register at least one hour before the next departure. For a more hands-on adventure, grab a cab to nearby Changi Village, a laidback spot on the water with a popular hawker centre that's at its best around dinner ($15, 5-10 min). 

Very long (overnight): The network of unique conservatories that comprise the city's new Gardens by the Bay is beyond worth the $22 entry fee; the collection of plant life from around the world is nothing short of stunning, as is the presentation. Ride the MRT to Bayfront Station ($2.20, 40 min). Stay over at the Marina Bay Sands urban resort next door, renowned for its rooftop infinity pool, shopping center, casino and world-class dining (from $380).

More info: Check out our list of reasons to love Singapore.

 

New York-JFK (JFK)

Short (1-4 hours): Your experience at JFK varies widely depending on the terminal. There's little reason to travel between them, however, seeing as most everything is behind security. Short answer: Hang tight. If you're at Terminal 8, head to Vino Volo (two locations) and start sampling wines by the glass; Terminal 4, get in line at Shake Shack for some of New York's best burgers. Terminal 5 is among the best places to wait out a wait, featuring a wide array of solid, non-chain restaurants like La Vie, a postage stamp-sized bistro and Deep Blue Sushi, which reels in pescophiles.

Long (4 hours or more): Manhattan and back can be done in four hours – it's a risk, but it can be done. You won't see much, though. Opt instead for a mini-adventure to Rockaway Beach, on the mend after taking a beating and a half in 2012's Hurricane Sandy. Home to the city's only legal surfing beach and a terrific spot for a walk at any time of year, you can be here fairly quickly, thanks to the fast, free AirTrain connection to Howard Beach and the A Train, which you take just two stops to Beach 90th Street ($2.75, 20 min, transfer at Broad Channel off-peak.)

Very long (overnight): Heard the one about Brooklyn? It's all true. Take the AirTrain ($5) to the Howard Beach station of the A Train; ride ($2.50, 30 min) to Hoyt-Schermerhorn, which puts you within a block or so of the nifty Nu Hotel (from $189), on the edge of the brownstone-fabulous Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods. Stroll down Court Street and end up at Prime Meats for one of the city's best dinners; also make sure to walk down to the waterfront, where the fast-developing Brooklyn Bridge Park is a striking example of adaptive re-use.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's JFK insider guide.

 

San Francisco (SFO)

Short (1-4 hours): Go for chinese food at Fung Lum or Harbor Village, sushi at Ebisu, or burgers at Lori's Diner, all in the food court (pre-security) at the International Terminal. Walk it off with a tour of the airport's public art collection, alongside an array of fascinating rotating exhibitions, all curated by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Long (4 hours or more): BART trains serve the airport (International Terminal); go for a ride to Embarcadero ($5.15, 30 min.) and crawl your way through the Ferry Building, a working terminal and one of the best public market halls in the country. For a more cutting-edge crawl, hop off the BART at 24th Street for new wave Jewish deli food at Wise & Sons and some of the country's most interesting ice creams at Humphry Slocombe.

Very long (overnight): Besides eating, take a sunset ride on one of the commuter ferries to Sausalito or Tiburon and back; overnight at the smart Hotel Vitale (from $256), just across the street from the ferries. If you want to be near the airport in the morning, the charming Inn at Oyster Point faces a marina, is linked directly to a waterfront trail and offers rates from $129 and a free shuttle for the 10 minute ride back to your terminal.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to San Francisco.

 

Las Vegas (LAS)

Short (1-4 hours): Tour the exhibits at the Cannon Aviation Museum (Baggage Claim, Terminal 1), then kick back with a beverage at one of the in-terminal video poker machines. (Don’t expect to win much, but hey, beats losing at slots.) Want some more personal space? Buy a pass for The Club at LAS ($35, Terminals 1 & 3). Two words: Free drinks.

Long (4 hours or more): Take a taxi to Bellagio ($16, 10 min), still one of the Strip's most appealing resorts. Check out the Conservatory, the iconic Dale Chihuly lobby installation, watch the fountains dance. After, hop the free monorail to Aria for cocktails at civilized Sage or great pies at the new Five50 Pizza Bar.

Very long (overnight): Cab it ($16, 10 min) over to the Cosmopolitan (from $180) and book a Terrace Studio or higher, kick back and enjoy the view of the Bellagio fountains or City Center (there are no bad views here, only good ones and better ones) from your private balcony. Have one of the city's best pizzas delivered from the in-house "secret" pizza joint and eat it in your tub.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Las Vegas.

 

Charlotte (CLT)

Short (1-4 hours): Free wireless, outlets and rocking chairs in the Atrium area of the terminal – where all concourses converge – are the ultimate free chill-out spot; also here is a giant US Airways Club, which you can book in advance for $29 or $50 on the spot. Or, take that money and spend it on wine (North Carolina only) at Yadkin Valley Wine Bar, or BBQ at Brookwood Farms.

Long (4 hours or more): The US National Whitewater Center is a short cab ride ($26, 20 min) away, $5 gets you parking and free access to 20 miles of trails along the Catawba River and a ringside seat to all kinds of action. Prefer the indoors? Taxi over  ($26, 15 min) to TEN Park Lanes, a fab bowling alley serving good drinks gourmet southern eats all day, everyday.

Very long (overnight): Uptown is a $25 flat fee cab ride from the airport. Nosh your way through the growing 7th Street Public Market, open every day, check out the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art or the central campus of the Mint Museum, a temple to craft and design. For dinner, hit Dandelion Market, a dark pub that's actually a cool American tapas bar. Overnight at the great-value Hyatt House (from $101).

More info: Read AirfareWatchdog's list of 10 reasons we love CLT.

 

Phoenix (PHX)

Short (1-4 hours): Terminal 4 is good food central, packed with great local names like La Grande Orange and Barrio Cafe (D gates), Cartel Coffee (C gates), Modern Burger (A gates) and, for those stuck in other terminals, the pre-security Chelsea's Kitchen, a Phoenix favorite. (Try the short rib tacos.) Need to chill? This is a US Airways hub, so their club (A gates) is a decent bet. Book online for $29 or buy a pass for $50 at the front desk.

Long (4 hours or more): Ride the SkyTrain from T4 (shuttle bus serves T2 & T3 for now) to the 44th Street stop (Free, 5 min). Transfer to the Metro Rail ($2, 20 min), visit the Phoenix Art Museum (McDowell Road) & Heard Museum (Encanto Ave.). Hungry? It's only a couple more stops (Campbell Ave.) to the city's best sandwiches at Pane Bianco, then kick back in civilized surroundings at Lux Coffeebar next door.

Very long (overnight): Check into the scene-y Hotel Palomar (from $249), part of a new downtown entertainment complex not far from the airport. Cab it ($25, 10 min) or take Metro Rail ($2, 15 min, exit the train at Washington/Central.) Stay close with dinner at Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, the hotel restaurant – locals love it too – or take a short walk to Nobuo at Teeter House, a lively izakaya from a James Beard Award winner.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Phoenix.

High Museum, Forbidden City, Italian Garden, Tsukiji Fish Market, Chicago O'Hare, Venice Beach,
Galeries Lafayette, Ft Worth Stockyards, Jakarta Old Town, Burj Khalifa, Alte Oper, Kowloon, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, tuk tuk, Singapore Gardens, Brooklyn Heights, Ferry Building, Bellagio fountains, Phoenix skyline images via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Hotel Hopping in Hong Kong

Posted by George Hobica on Monday, November 18, 2013

By George Hobica

Hong Kong has some of the best hotels in the world. The two Shangri-La properties, the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental—all are among the finest anywhere when it comes to room quality, amenities and service. Recently, I spent a week staying in a wide range of the city's hotels (this was my third visit over a 20 year period) and like many of you I started my selections using TripAdvisor. I was here for a family function and "vacation" (as if a travel writer ever really takes one of those).

So here are my impressions, with TripAdvisor rankings and what my stays cost in U.S. dollars. Since I've stayed in hundreds of hotels in my 25-year career as a travel writer, my comments are naturally filtered through that experience, and yours may differ. By the way, on previous visits I've always stayed in Kowloon. This time, I chose all but one of the hotels (ironically, the only one that I'd stay in on my next visit) on Hong Kong Island.


The Holiday Inn Express, Causeway Bay

Nightly rate: $168

TripAdvisor rank: 130 (out of 548)


This was the cheapest of the lot. One of three Holiday Inn Expresses in the city, the 282-room Causeway Bay is the best located, although I'd recommend the newer, much better and less expensive Soho location (TripAdvisor rank 56), which I toured but didn't stay in. Indeed, the Causeway Bay property is all about location, in the heart of the popular Times Square area, near shopping and steps from the subway. A tiny room, no drawers to stash clothes you'll be living out of your suitcases. Free wifi, but sluggish at times. A great location to be sure, but the rooms were tired. There's no fitness room, however an adequate set breakfast is included in rates. Definitely a case of getting what you pay for.

                                                           


Hotel Indigo

Nightly rate: $260

TripAdvisor rank: 17


Just opened six months ago, this stylish (some say the decor is "quirky" but in a good way) boutique property on Hong Kong Island, for $100 more per night than the Holiday Inn, had a lot going for it. The rooms are a decent size, the king-size bed was comfortable. Excellent lighting, including enough light to read in bed (a rarity these days) and enough plugs for electronics by the desk and ergonomic chair with a task light, but the slow wifi was a pain. A small but serviceable gym, and a sleek roof-top pool and bar. But what is up with the trend with frosted-glass-enclosed bathrooms and toilets, something I've seen on a few cruise ships lately as well? My room had a great shower, but the sink was in the room itself and I really prefer a solid wood door rather than a thin pane of glass. Only one glitch during my stay, but potentially a serious one: I was expecting an important call from the U.S. to my room, but the front desk/operator never picked up (the incoming call just rang and rang because it was check-out time and they were busy, but a poor service experience can ruin a trip). The location is great, just a short walk to the subway. All in all, I'd say this was the second best value of the five hotels I bunked in, but service could improve.

The Mercer Hotel

Nightly rate: $459

TripAdvisor rank: 37


My two-night stay here was a disappointment and way overpriced for what it offered. It's in an older white-brick building and most of the rooms are "suites"—but that’s an abuse of the term. My room on the top floor was no larger than the one at the Indigo, but was divided by a large glass window with a shade. Again, the bathroom/toilet was behind a glass door (not even frosted!) with a pull down shade that got in the way when I opened the door. Absolutely ridiculous, even if you're staying by yourself. I had trouble getting the finicky wifi to work (turns out it doesn't recognize Firefox, but I had to go down to the front desk to find that out). Typical poor bedside reading lights. The reception was hardly what I'd call friendly and professional. True, there's a free mini bar with some Cokes and a couple of beers and a "kitchen" with a sink and microwave, but it's barely useful. A terrible value all around.

The Icon

Nightly rate: $232 (non-refundable advance purchase rate)

TripAdvisor rank: 3


My new favorite hotel in Hong Kong. Huge gym (probably the best in the city). Free minibar. Large rooms, even the cheapest ones, 80 percent with those iconic views of the harbor and the island. Ultra-fast free wifi. Excellent lights for bedtime reading (one of my pet peeves about hotels is that too many think people don’t read in bed anymore). Six (!) pillow options, unheard of in a hotel at this price range. (I travel with my own super-soft down pillow, but staying at the Icon that's not necessary since they've got me covered). Solid wooden doors in the excellent bathrooms (hello Mercer and Indigo!). Arrivals/departures lounge to hang out in between check in/out and flights. Herman Miller task chairs and adjustable desk lamp. Two notable restaurants worth checking out even if you don't stay here (The open-kitchen Market has the best buffet in the city). The only downside, for some, is that it's in Kowloon ($10 cab ride to the island, and a bit of walk to the subway). But if this hotel were on the island it would cost twice as much.


The Upper House

Nightly rate: $745

TripAdvisor rank: 1


And then there's The Upper House. At over $700 a night, I wasn't about to spend more than a night here, but I didn't really need to linger in order to get the idea. Tripadvisor rates this as the No. 1 hotel in Hong Kong for good reason. Some reviewers say it's the best urban hotel in the world; I wouldn't argue with that. I've stayed in Four Seasons all around the world, but this is of an even higher pedigree. From the moment you approach the front door to the moment you leave (perhaps, as in my case, in a complimentary chauffeured car to my next hotel), it's a peerless experience. It's not just the quality of the sleek decor and rooms (huge, with amazing views and stunning bathrooms), all of which are on high floors; but the service and the atmosphere. When we approached the building, we were immediately pounced upon by a stylishly-dressed young man who seemed to be have been waiting just for this moment; inside we were greeted by an equally stylish young woman who we'd see throughout our brief stay (we later learned that she was Kristina Snaith, "Assistant Director of Guest Experience", a title I’d never come across. Her role seemed more akin to the lady of the house at a luxurious villa than a hotel employee). Anyway, it was, as others on TripAdvisor have noted, like staying in a private home rather than a mere hotel, and it made a marked contrast to the perfunctory reception I received at the Mercer.

What I learned

This was the first time that I'd stayed in so many hotels in such a short time period (some "vacation," right?), and the first that I made all of my selections based on TripAdvisor reviews. And one thing I will say: there was probably no need to read the reviews at all, so closely did the mere rankings correspond to my own experience. Next time I'll just choose from among the top 20 and I’ll be all set.

Note: All prices are what I paid per night including tax and service, refundable rates (except where noted) on Tingo.com in early late October 2013 for stays early to mid November 2013. Rates will vary subject to availability.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Worth The Flight: Mohonk Mountain House, Upstate New York

Posted by George Hobica on Thursday, November 14, 2013

Barely ninety minutes north of the bustle of Manhattan, New York's Shawangunk Mountains are known for their unusual look and feel - a weird and wonderful mix of almost bonsai-like scrub pines, chilly ice caves, atmospheric bogs, fragrant fields of huckleberry and wild blueberry bushes and dramatic silver-white cliffs offering endless views. The surrounding towns - each one completely different than the next - are some of the most interesting in the state; in between you'll find the oldest apple-growing region in the country.

Topping out at a mere 2,289 feet above sea level, the Shawangunks (you can call them the 'Gunks if you like) are so much more than just a run-up to the more dramatic Catskills, located just one valley - the narrow and fertile Rondout - away. For starters, those cliffs comprise the busiest rock-climbing destination in the country. And, perhaps best of all, the Gunks are where you'll find the very-Victorian Mohonk Mountain House, one of the last truly great mountain house hotels in North America.

Mohonk isn't just a hotel, not by a long shot. Now more than 150 years old, this is a world unto itself, a private preserve in the sky, the resort grounds a manicured Magic Kingdom for outdoor enthusiasts, boasting nearly 90 miles of whimsical trails, around and above the picturesque Mohonk Lake.

Inside, a never-ending effort to bring the resort into the 21st century while preserving its classic vibe means renovated rooms, strong wireless internet, a better-than-ever dining room and an excellent cocktail lounge, a full slate of classes and activities and a full-service, destination-worthy spa. Of course, you can always just cozy up by the fire and let it snow - winter doesn't get much sexier than this.

How to go There are many ways to explore Mohonk, beginning with the purchase of a day pass, which allows unlimited access to the grounds, starting at $20 per day. A popular way to go is to reserve a meal in the dining room, which includes access to the grounds and hotel for the full day (from $38.75). Ideally, you'll stay over - rates in early December begin at $186.90 per person, per night, based on double occupancy and include breakfast, dinner, afternoon tea and most resort activities. Learn more at mohonk.com.

The closest airport to Mohonk is Hudson Valley (although cheap fares are more plentiful to Newark and NYC).

More stories you might like:

Time To Visit Underappreciated Albuquerque

10 Reasons To Visit Charlotte Now

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Airport Observation Decks Around the World

Posted by George Hobica on Saturday, November 9, 2013

When I was a little boy, I begged and pleaded with my dad to bring me to Boston’s Logan Airport to watch planes land, take off, and move about the runways and taxiways. Maybe you did, too. That was in the 1960’s when outdoor observation decks were common at airports. But while once a given at many airports, these decks slowly started disappearing in the wake of security concerns and the need for more terminal space. Lately, it seems a resurgence is in the works world-wide. This chart outlines many airports around the world with observation areas, many of them in the open air, offering easy access from the terminal building. (While there are many “plane spotter” vantage points near airport, this chart covers observation decks located at or within the main airport buildings.) So rejoice fellow aviation geeks, and anyone wishing to get a whiff of fresh air—or jet fuel.

Airport
Hours
Price
Details
More info online
Amsterdam (AMS)

9am to 5pm (winter)

7am to 8pm (summer)

Free The Panorama Terrace offers excellent views of the tarmac with aircraft parked at the gates and taxiing around the airport. A Fokker 100 aircraft offers an interactive aviation experience for kids of all ages to enjoy. http://www.schiphol.nl/Travellers/Shop/BeforePassportControl2/PanoramaTerrace.htm
Atlanta (ATL) Anytime Free for those with Delta Sky Club access. A day pass costs $50. Delta's new Sky Club in terminal F features a unique outdoor terrace known as the Sky Deck with excellent views of the runway and planes parked directly in front of the lounge. It comes with the added benefit of free snacks, drinks, and wifi for those that can access the lounge. It is airside, and only passengers with a same-day flight can access it. http://news.delta.com/index.php?s=43&item=1852
Auckland (AKL) Anytime Free On the top floor of the international terminal, the views are up close and personal. An attractive display about aviation is also available for perusal. http://www.aucklandairport.co.nz/AirportInformation/International-terminal/Terminal-services-and-facilities/Spectators.aspx
Baltimore (BWI) 11am to 9pm Free Near the B/C security checkpoint, the landside, indoor viewing deck provides excellent tarmac views. http://www.bwiairport.com/en/service/things-to-do
Bangkok (BKK) Anytime Free The observation deck is located on the 7th floor, but the views are limited. They mostly survey the departure hall and a small section of the tarmac. Unfortunately, the interior windows and building architecture get in the way of taking photos. http://www.airportsuvarnabhumi.com/airport-features/passenger-terminal-building/
Belo Horizonte (PLU) Anytime Free This Brazilian airport is not as busy as Rio or Sao Paulo's airports, but still sees some interesting traffic. The glassed-in deck on the top floor of the airport is open to the public and has a small bar and café. http://www.infraero.gov.br/index.php/us/airports/minas-gerais/belo-horizonte-airport.html
Berlin (TXL) 8am to 8pm (summer) 10am to 4pm (winter) 2 euros for adults and 1 euro for children Located above the departure ring in terminal D, this observation deck offers up-close views of the planes and runway due to the airport's infrastructure. http://www.berlin-airport.de/en/travellers/the-excitement-of-airports/visitors-terraces/
Cape Town (CPT) 5am to 11pm Free The observation deck is located on the mezzanine level of the landside section of the international terminal. http://www.acsa.co.za/home.asp?pid=229
Cologne/Bonn (CGN) 5am to midnight Free Located in terminal 1 (Stern C), this spacious deck is al fresco with great views of the tarmac. For those interested in airport operations, there are guided tours of the entire facility for a small fee. http://www.koeln-bonn-airport.de/en/airport/services-for-visitors.html
Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW) 7am to 7pm Free While not at the airport itself, this convenient viewing area is great for locals that want an up-close look at airport operations. Telescopes add to the fun. http://www.dfwairport.com/founders/
Dresden (DRS) Anytime Free In the gallery level of the airport terminal, this space offers excellent views of the tarmac and even the distant Moritzburg Castle. http://www.dresden-airport.de/passengers-and-visitors/airport-fascination.html
Dusseldorf (DUS)

6am to 9pm (summer)

9am to 8pm (winter)

1-2.20 euros One ticket gives access to two observation decks at the airport that are quite large and provide views of multiple terminals and all of the runway action. http://www.dus.com/dus_en/service_o/
Frankfurt (FRA) April to November only 10am to 6pm 5 euros Located in terminal two, the Visitor's Terrace offers stunning views of the bustling tarmac. Unfortunately, it is far away from the Star Alliance and Lufthansa action, which make up a large proportion of the airport's traffic. http://www.frankfurt-airport.com/content/frankfurt_airport/en/enjoy/visitors-terrace.html
Grand Rapids (GRR) Anytime Free This charming, quiet space features an indoor seating area facing glass panels overlooking the tarmac. http://www.grr.org/Viewin.php
Hamburg (HAM) Anytime Free There are three observation decks at the airport open to the public. In addition, the Lufthansa business class lounge has a terrace that is open to travelers in warmer months. http://www.airport.de/en/observation_decks.html
Helsinki (HEL) 7am to 10pm Free Located in terminal two, the Scenic Terrace offers close-up aircraft views and the two runways. http://www.finavia.fi/en/helsinki-airport/services/free-time/scenic-terrace/
Hong Kong (HKG) 11am to 10pm Free The Sky Deck permits excellent views of the tarmac, and it is also part of the larger aviation discovery center with a museum and interactive exhibits teaching about aviation. http://www.hongkongairport.com/eng/shopping/entertainment/t2/aviat/avia.html
Honolulu (HNL) Anytime Free Honolulu's terminals are connected by lengthy open-air walkways that provide up-close of aircraft parked at the gate and the entire tarmac. http://hawaii.gov/hnl
Istanbul (IST) Anytime Free The airport's central food court on the landside section of the terminal features a tiny smoking deck that offers exceptional views of the aircraft parked at the gates below and the main runway used for landing aircraft much of the time. Smokers are the majority, but through the puffs of smoke, cameras can squeeze between the fenced gate to snap excellent photos. http://www.ataturkairport.com/en-EN/Pages/Main.aspx
Johannesburg (JNB) Anytime Free There are two viewing decks at the airport: one in the domestic terminal, and one in the international terminal. They are indoors so photos may show window smudges or reflections.
Kuala Lumpur (KUL) Anytime Free This landside space is open to anyone without charge and offers excellent views of the tarmac around the international terminal. http://www.klia.com.my/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=53
Leipzig/Halle (LEJ) Anytime 2 euros The outdoor platform is located on the roof of the administration building with excellent views. It is located landside. https://www.leipzig-halle-airport.de/en/passengers-and-visitors/airport-fascination/viewing-platform-42.html
Los Angeles (LAX) 8am to 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays only Free Located atop the Encounter restaurant in the center of all of the terminals, there are panoramic vistas of the runways and tarmac although the aircraft are quite distant. http://www.encounterlax.com/encounter_genesis.html
Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) Anytime Free Hardly anything lavish, the observation deck at MSP is tucked behind a gift shop in terminal D of the Lindbergh terminal and up a small flight of stairs. It is often used by airport employees on break and features views of the tarmac. Don't expect telescopes or fancy signs, but it is better than the ground-level views often blocked by jet bridges. http://www.mspairport.com/
Munich (MUC) 8am to 10pm Free This lengthy terrace is open to the public and stretches across the terminal and features binocular machines to amplify the views of the runways and tarmac action. Construction of the new satellite terminal can also be monitored easily from here. http://www.munich-airport.de/en/consumer/erlebnis/besucherterr/index.jsp
Nagoya (NGO) 7am to 10:30pm Free The SkyDeck (not the same as Delta's version by the same name) offers exceptionally close views of the aircraft. http://www.centrair.com/en/information/enjoy/
New York (JFK) Anytime Free for those with Delta Sky Club access. A day pass costs $50. Delta's new Sky Club in terminal four features a unique outdoor terrace known as the Sky Deck with excellent views of the runway and a global collection of airlines passing by. It comes with the added benefit of free snacks, drinks, and wifi for those that can access the lounge. It is airside, and only passengers with a same-day flight from terminal four can access it. http://news.delta.com/index.php?s=43&item=1852
Nuremberg (NUE) Anytime Free This regional airport has a wide space landside for visitors to explore the airport's movements. Telescopes are provided. http://www.airport-nuernberg.de/observation-deck
Osaka (KIX) Anytime Free by dedicated shuttle bus (public buses also run, but for a fee) While not located directly inside the terminal, it is easy to reach by a free shuttle bus from stop #1 outside. http://www.kansai-airport.or.jp/en/service/others/index.html
Paris (ORY) Anytime Free Roissy Charles de Gaulle is busier with more interesting aircraft movements, but there is no formal observation deck there. Orly South, however, has a nice deck with views suitable for photography. http://www.aeroportsdeparis.fr/ADP/en-GB/Passagers/Home/
Perth (PER) 6:30am to 7pm (Oct-March) and 7:30am to 5:30pm (April to September) Free Located on the third floor of the terminal, it offers excellent views of the tarmac area. http://www.perthairport.com.au/AboutUs/PublicViewingArea.aspx
San Salvador (SAL) Anytime Free The airport has a popular rooftop observation deck where family and friends can watch planes arriving before meeting passengers. Plans are in the works to convert it to a food court, but no details have been released. http://www.aeropuertoelsalvador.gob.sv/
Seoul Incheon (ICN) 10am to 5pm daily (4pm in the winter) Free While not at the airport terminal, this elevated observatory permits complete views of the airport. It is mostly used by locals or passengers that have enough time between flights to exit the airport. Take bus 306 ($1 and tell driver Oseong Observatory) or take a taxi ($10). http://www.airport.kr/iiacms/pageWork.iia?_scode=C2605020000
Singapore (SIN) 6am to midnight Free Located in terminal 3, there is an interesting exhibit about the airport's operations in addition to a panoramic view of the terminal's operation below. http://www.changiairport.com/at-changi/entertainment-lifestyle/changi-aviation-gallery
Sydney (SYD) 5:30am to 9pm Free It is located landside in terminal 1 before customs near check-in counter C. Unfortunately, connecting passengers cannot access it unless they can leave the airside area of the terminal. http://www.sydneyairport.com.au/find/service-categories/service-listing/service-detail.aspx?cat={8491D25E-92CD-4199-AB97-6E2E97FB1997}&ser={1503771B-2F62-4DFE-8ACD-7C167708A744}
Taipei (TSA) 9am to 9pm Free This is Taipei's domestic and regional airport so the activity is not as interesting as at the international airport. Still, the outdoor viewing deck is popular. http://www.tsa.gov.tw/tsa/en/page.aspx?id=1052
Tokyo Haneda (HND) Anytime Free Two observation decks are located at the airport, one in terminal one and another in terminal two. Now that Haneda is open to international traffic, the activity for aviation geeks is more varied. http://en.japantourist.jp/view/haneda-observation-decks
Tokyo Narita (NRT) 6:30am to 9pm (spring/summer) 7am to 9pm (fall/winter) Free One observation deck in each terminal is accessible without charge and offer close-up views of aircraft. They are located on top of the terminal permitting close-up views. http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/fun/airport/tour_index.html
Vancouver (YVR) Anytime Free The observation deck is located on the fourth floor of the domestic terminal, but still permits views of international aircraft. Since it is indoors, photos can sometimes have glare from the sunshine. Interactive kiosks give more details on the airport. http://www.yvr.ca/en/community-environment/community/community-engagement/Public-Observation-Area.aspx
Zurich (ZRH)

8am to 8pm (summer), 9am to 6pm (winter)

5 euros (adults) This outdoor deck is one of the best in Europe with excellent views of the terminal and runways. It is located in terminal B, and a second, similar observation deck located in terminal E only opens between April and October. http://www.zurich-airport.com/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-211

 

Observation Deck Image via Shutterstock

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Best U.S. Airlines: 2013 Edition

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It's that time of year again. The Airfarewatchdog team has been hard at work crunching numbers to determine the best domestic airlines. (In case you missed last year's rankings, you can see them here.) We took a look at performance in five key areas—canceled flights, on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, denied boardings, and customer satisfaction—to determine the best of the best in 2013.

 

Top Airlines for Overall Performance*

Frontier
1st Place
 Virgin America 
2nd Place
JetBlue
3rd Place
Alaska
4th Place
Southwest
5th Place
Delta
6th Place
AirTran
7th Place
US Airways
8th Place
American
9th Place
United
 10th Place 

*Rankings determined by combining the airlines' scores in all categories

 

Individual Categories

Fewest Cancelled Flights*
 Virgin America 
0.16% Cancelled
Frontier
0.29% Cancelled
Delta
0.42% Cancelled
Alaska
0.43% Cancelled
JetBlue
0.74% Cancelled
Southwest
0.78% Cancelled
United
1.27% Cancelled
US Airways
1.39% Cancelled
American
1.42% Cancelled
AirTran
 1.52% Cancelled 

*Based on Department of Transportation (DOT) report on June 2013 flight cancellations at all reportable airports

 

On-Time Arrivals*
Alaska
 87.5% On-Time 
Frontier
77.9% On-Time
Delta
76.1% On-Time
US Airways
73.0% On-Time
Southwest
72.5% On-Time
United
71.1% On-Time
 Virgin America 
70.6% On-Time
American
69.8% On-Time
JetBlue
69.6% On-Time
AirTran
65.9% On-Time

*Based on DOT report on June 2013 on-time arrivals at all reportable airports

 

Fewest Mishandled Bags*
 Virgin America 
0.95 Mishandled
JetBlue
2.14 Mishandled
Frontier
2.19 Mishandled
Delta
2.78 Mishandled
US Airways
3.09 Mishandled
Alaska
3.50 Mishandled
American
3.59 Mishandled
United
4.06 Mishandled
Southwest
4.23 Mishandled
AirTran
 5.19 Mishandled 

*Based on DOT report on June 2013 mishandled baggage reports per 1K passengers

 

 Amount of Denied Boardings* 
JetBlue
2 Denied
Virgin America
7 Denied
Alaska
32 Denied
American
33 Denied
US Airways
66 Denied
Delta
86 Denied
United
93 Denied
AirTran
136 Denied
Frontier
138 Denied
Southwest
148 Denied

*Based on DOT report on April to June 2013 involuntary denied boardings per 1MM passengers

 

 Customer Satisfaction Score* 
JetBlue
83
AirTran
81
Southwest
81
Virgin America
72
Alaska
72
Frontier
72
Delta
68
American
65
US Airways
64
United
62

*Based on June 2013 American Consumer Survey Index scores

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Excess baggage valuation chart

Posted by George Hobica on Wednesday, October 30, 2013

For most people who check bags when flying, the $3400 of lost baggage coverage offered by airlines (by U.S. law) on domestic flights is enough to cover any loss or damage (keep those receipts when you buy anything expensive however, and fragile or other "valuable" items such as electronics are always excluded from coverage, so keep those in your carryon). But if your flight is to an international destination, even if it includes a domestic connecting portion, different compensation rules apply. For most international travel departing from the U.S., baggage liability is limited to approximately $9.07 (USD) per pound for checked baggage and $400 (USD) per passenger for unchecked baggage. Different (slightly more generous) rules apply for travel from the European Community. But for almost all international travel, these protections won't cover your loss if you have expensive clothing or other items in your suitcase. That's why you might need to buy excess valuation from your airline when you check in for your flight. In addition to the airlines shown below, foreign-based (non-U.S.) airlines also offer excess valuation. Do a web search for airline + excess valuation or call your foreign-based carrier. Note that this is not "insurance"--but it is coverage in the case of loss and, in some cases, damage to your checked baggage and its contents.

 

Airline

(click link for more info)

Cost/$100 coverage Max. limit (includes standard $3400 baggage liability allowance) Includes valubles/fragiles? Loss or damage
Alaska Call airline
$5000 Fragile items, only if lost both
American $2 $5000 no loss only
Delta Domestic coverage from $3300 to $4000, $40; from $4000-$5000, $50;International coverage $1/$100 in value up to $5000
$5000 web site says "yes" both
Frontier $1 $5000 no both
JetBlue (contract of carriage, section 18) $1 $5000 no both
Southwest $1 $4550 no both
United $5 $5000 no both

In addition, many foreign carriers offer excess valuation, some for as little as 50 cents per $100 declared. Check with your airline when checking bags.

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Eating on the Fly: Airfarewatchdog Guide to the Best Airport Restaurants

Posted by George Hobica on Monday, October 28, 2013

Waiting for a flight is a task best undertaken on a full stomach – to navigate an airport, particularly these days, the last thing you need to be is worried about where your next meal is coming from. Luckily, the days of eat-before-you-go (or you'll be sorry) are slowly – ever so slowly – coming to a close. From excellent Cuban food in Tampa to a proper microbrewery and pub in Salt Lake City, nearly every major airport in the US now has at least one place to eat that won't bum you out. And there's more coming, too – Los Angeles' new Tom Bradley International Terminal is currently rolling out one of the most ambitious programs to bring local favorites into local airports; a similar program is underway in San Diego, which is slowly finishing off an almost-complete rethink of its dining options, airport-wide. Stay tuned for more. In the meantime, here's a guide to the best places to eat in the 30 busiest airports in the United States. Safe travels and happy eating.

 

Free Download: Airfarewatchdog Guide to the Best Airport Restaurants

 

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