Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Making a Case Against Travel Loyalty Programs

We enjoy the challenge of traveling well at the lowest possible cost, and when things go well we genuinely enjoy the travel experience itself, rather than viewing it merely as a necessary means of getting from Point A to Point B.

To that end, we are members of airline, hotel, and car rental loyalty programs. We earn miles and points in these programs by buying their services, and by ancillary methods such as credit card spending on a variety of credit cards. Brian has been an active member of FlyerTalk  since 2002, and we follow a number of travel bloggers regularly.

We continue to think that the benefits we’ve gained from these efforts greatly exceed the money we've spent; however, it’s always good to look at anything involving expenditures clearly and objectively.

We couldn’t imagine a more appropriate person to make the case against loyalty programs than Christopher Elliott, the well known travel guru. He writes columns for the Washington Post, Forbes, and USA Today, and is the founder and head of Elliott Advocacy, a non-profit organization that "empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those that can't." He is also well known - notorious? - in the miles earning-and-burning subculture for his outspoken opposition to loyalty programs.

Elliott has just published his updated "ultimate guide to travel loyalty programs."

It’s well worth reading. Parts of it we largely agree with, including most of his opening discussion of who should – and who should not – collect miles and points. We disagree with other parts, sometimes strenuously. For just one somewhat trivial example, he objects that “loyalty programs have created an entitled class of consumers” who “refer to people who sit in economy class as ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ and act as if they own the plane.”

Where to begin with that one? For one thing, it’s true that the FlyerTalk glossary defines “Kettle” as “used on FT to describe inexperienced traveler [sic].” We're old enough to have watched TV reruns of some of the many successful 1940s-50s  Ma and Pa Kettle movie comedies. Ma and Pa Kettle travel far afield from their Washington State farm in several of the movies, for example, Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki. When they travel, they carry mounds of baggage with them, just as some inexperienced travelers tend to do, behavior that is conspicuous and admittedly annoying when standing behind them in TSA lines, in boarding queues, or in the aisle of the plane itself. It has nothing to do with who is sitting in which class.

Like many other "frequent flyers," we've helped other travelers whenever we can, whether lifting bags into or out of the overhead compartments or giving them directions. When we're sitting in Business or First, we feel fortunate to be there and can't imagine sneering at those sitting in Economy.

Elliott has deeper and more rational reservations. He believes that credit cards increase costs for everyone and that it's often poorer consumers who get victimized. Well, yes. Again, we're old enough to remember when credit cards were only issued for use in gas stations and were to be paid in full when the bill arrived in the mail. Brian recalls the day in the mid-1950s when his father first used his new Diner's Club credit card in a restaurant, confusing and even annoying the hostess ("Sir, please wait while I deal with the cash customers"). How times have changed, and perhaps not completely for the better, compared to the bad old pay-as-you-go days.

Ultimately, it seems to us that Elliott is overlooking - or at least discounting - the concept that travel is an activity that can actually be enjoyed along the way, rather than simply endured, and that it's a goal worthy of investing some time, effort, and expense, within reason of course.

Some travel bloggers are more outspoken in their disagreement with Elliott. See, for example, Gary Leff's 2015 column: "Could This Be the Dumbest Christopher Elliott Column Yet? Why Does Anyone Publish This Dreck?" Why not tell us how you really feel, Gary?

As for us, we continue to appreciate the words of author and traveler Robert Louis Stevenson that we feature on our front page: "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

If our research and planning enable us sometimes to move in first or business class, and to have access to an upgraded hotel room with lounge access when we arrive at our destination, so much the better. We'll continue to strive for that, to pay our credit cards automatically when they come due every month, and to continue to be understanding of the Kettles.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Our Stolen Wallet in India


A few readers have already sent us emails or commented on our blog about our recent post, Pickpockets: Perils and Precautions. We always appreciate and enjoy the feedback!

We had mentioned in passing our 2012 experience in Delhi, India, in which Kathy's mesh shoulder bag was surreptitiously cut and her wallet removed. We'll recount that here in greater detail.

It occurred during the first of three trips we've made to India, this one in the very congenial company of Kathy's younger brother, sister-in-law, and niece. We had endured an arduous day of train travel, riding the rails from Agra to Delhi after visiting the Taj Mahal the day before. Notice in the photo that the two of us are wearing our SCOTTeVests. Ironic!

We only noticed when we were about to leave our Delhi hotel the next morning that the mesh had been cut on Kathy's small shoulder bag and her wallet had been removed. 

We suspected it occurred at the security checkpoint which we had to traverse at the train station to board the subway to our hotel. Women were searched separately from men and segregated for modesty in private booths, Thus, while the bags are separated from the passengers there are ample opportunities for crooked employees to spot the wallet on an X-Ray or else to quickly rifle through the belongings of tourists (we always dress modestly, but we definitely look like we're from out of town in India!). 

Kathy was carrying very little cash, a couple of plastic cards, her Washington State Driver's License, and a restaurant gift certificate. Still, momentary panic ensued as we were scheduled to leave for the airport soon to catch a flight.

Even in 2012 we were storing online a list of the credit cards, ATM cards, and IDS we carry in our wallets.  We called our son via internet and asked him to cancel Kathy's cards, even though we know our liability is limited. We managed to make it to the airport in time to catch our flights to Goa. 

That trip included an annoying episode when we had to re-clear security while connecting at BOM (Mumbai). It seems our travels within India, whether by car, train, or plane, always tend to be grueling. We then carried on with the trip that encompassed most of the Golden Triangle and Goa.

A week or two after we returned home the US Embassy in Delhi emailed us that somebody had turned in Kathy's ID at the embassy, and that they would be shipping it to us. Not long after that, we received a certified cover letter and package containing her driver's license, the restaurant gift certificate, and a long-expired Continental Airlines Platinum Elite card.

All Kathy lost of any value was her leather wallet, and she didn't have to go through the nuisance of obtaining a new driver's license. It could have been worse!

After all that, maybe in fairness we should revisit a few of our many positive and downright amazing experiences in India, but that will have to be another day. 

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Pickpockets: Perils and Precautions


We’ve been fortunate in our travels in more ways than one. Since retiring in 2001, we’ve flown about two million miles, visited 76 sovereign countries, and cruised nearly 400 days. We've visited 9 of the supposedly 10 worst cities in the world for pickpocketing, and we're visiting the 10th, Florence, Italy, later this year. While we've been scammed by taxi drivers on several occasions, we've seldom been victimized by criminals.

Kathy had a shoulder bag slashed and her wallet stolen in Delhi, India, and experienced another wallet stolen out of our hotel room in Venice, Italy. Brian and an acquaintance we were traveling with escaped a pickpocketing attempt a few years ago as we boarded a train in Citavecchia,  Italy.

Our long streak of good fortune ran out in Paris this past July, when thieves lifted a wallet from Brian’s front pocket in a very crowded Metro car. We described the incident here.

It was way too hot for Brian to wear one of his travel vests, and he was wearing the travel pants he’d brought with a zippered hip pocket that might have provided some protection. That contained his main wallet, It was his “dummy” wallet, into which he'd stuffed Euros from a recent ATM withdrawal, so the pickpockets earned themselves a several hundred Euro windfall. Ironically, it was the dummy wallet that tripped him up.

Lessons learned – or re-learned – include the following:

  • Don’t carry all of your money in one place;
  • While the hip pocket is the single worst spot for a man to carry his wallet, stowing it in the front pocket does not guarantee safety, despite the advice given in articles like this one and this one.
  • Keep track of which credit cards, IDs, etc. are in each wallet, with an accessible list. In this instance, Brian's dummy wallet was returned by an innocent (?) bystander on the Metro, but we already knew it contained neither ID nor valid credit cards.

Once safely back home, Brian decided it was time to augment his wardrobe with purchases from two companies that specialize in travel clothes featuring hidden pockets. He bought a hoodie and a pair of pants from SCOTTeVEST, He ordered a pair of jeans from Clothing Arts. We haven't worn money belts in years (we do have them), even though Rick Steves and some other travel experts still recommend them. Frankly, these days with widespread credit card acceptance we don't ordinarily feel the need to carry a lot of cash. It just so happened that the Euro was dropping to parity with the US dollar in July and our inclination was to stock up, when we knew we were returning before the end of the year.

The only tricky part, when you're wearing clothing with as many as 21 hidden pockets, is that it sometimes takes a real effort to remember where you've stashed your wallet, your passport, or your cell phone. We'll have to redouble our efforts in that regard.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

A Funny Thing Happened on Our Way to Bellingham

Our flight home from our Colorado trip started with an 8:00 AM departure from ABQ. Alaska had upgraded us to First, so we enjoyed their rather filling continental breakfast.

We landed at SEA punctually, giving us a comfortable amount of time to take the train from the N Terminal to C to catch our short hop to BLI.

We boarded the Q 400 and settled in to our favored Row 2 emergency exit seats. 

Greeting us was a friendly employee attired in an orange "flak jacket" rather than the usual flight attendant uniform. 

He also gave us our emergency row briefing quite competently. We came to find out he was a flight attendant scheduling supervisor who was filling in while awaiting the arrival of the F.A. who would actually be working the flight.

We waited, and waited some more as ongoing apologies ensued from the pilot. At one point we were told "he's in the airport" and "it won't be long." However, the phantom F.A. never materialized, and eventually the supervisor filled in to fly with us up to BLI. When we thanked him, he replied he'd be happy as long as he got back home in time to watch the Seattle Seahawks opening game on TV that evening.

We landed about 45 minutes late, virtually doubling the total flight time, but since virtually nobody takes a connecting flight at BLI, there was little or no harm done.

The Chevrolet Spark roller skate that proved to be the Hertz “manager’s special” was still waiting for us, and the back seat fortunately held our cooler, now packed with frozen Colorado ground beef, courtesy of Kathy’s brother.

It was a good trip that ended well, despite the logistical challenge of carrying frozen food in both directions.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Sign Spotting in Farmington, New Mexico

We took this photo Sunday morning, no less, across the road from the Hampton Inn & Suites, Farmington, New Mexico.

We think no further comment is needed.

We’re not alone. A quick internet search revealed that others have previously noticed the juxtaposition of these two signs.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Visiting a Southwest Colorado Paradise

We just finished the better part of a week at Tres Piedras Ranch, a few miles west of Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

The entrance, past two locked gates, lies at one end of the Lower Piedra Campground in the San Juan National Forest.

Kathy’s family has owned an interest in the ranch for many years, along with two other families. We think of it as a 330-acre timeshare and finally got around to spending several nights there.

The accommodations are somewhat rustic.

The setting is spectacularly beautiful.

The 40-mile long Piedra River runs through the ranch.

Kathy’s nephew gave us a tour of the property on his ATV, a Yamaha Rhino. Chris was brave enough to let Brian drive part of the way.

Chris kindly lent us the key for the rest of our stay. We did enjoy driving ourselves around the property to explore in our final two days of just-the-two-of-us solitude.

Ben, the ranch caretaker, mows hay every year and was busy with that project during our visit. We’d heard he was reclusive, but we chatted with him frequently. He told us he’s learned to enjoy talking to people. An EMT, business owner, and avid outdoorsman for many years, he’s a very interesting individual.

Other than the occasional sound of tractor and ATV engines, it was a relaxing week of solitude, with no TV or internet. We played cards, read books, and enjoyed the scenery in every direction.

A truly recreational time. And, thanks to Kathy’s brother Tom, we dined exceedingly well, as did the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, when he visited the ranch in 2001.

That’s roughing it in style.

Lunch at Albuquerque’s Nio Szechuan

Recommended by Kathy’s brother, and rated highly by Yelp users, we just had to try this little strip-mall joint out before returning our rental car at ABQ and settling in at the airport Hilton Garden Inn.

At 2:00 PM Sunday, we were greeted enthusiastically and found ourselves the only diners in the place.

That's a two-sided menu with a lot of choices. Sometimes it's a dangerous sign when a restaurant takes on too much, but that fortunately isn't the case here.

The food impressed us. We started with tasty steamed wontons.

Our second dish, garlic shrimp, was equally delicious.

Our third and final order was a spicy fried chicken.

We thanked the chef and asked for a photo with him.

He apparently worked in Las Vegas (Monte Carlo, etc.) before coming to Albuquerque.

Kathy’s brother has recommended several Albuquerque eating establishments over the years. This could well be the best of them.

Szechuan spicy with great flavors coming through. We’d love to come back. Just don’t go for the atmosphere.

Go for the food. You can check out their website here:

Sunday, September 4, 2022

The Further Joys of Labor Day Weekend Travel

Joys? They ain’t hardly any.

No, that’s unfair. We’re currently inflight, ensconced in First Class on AS 738, SEA-ABQ. It wasn’t even that much of an ordeal, other than a couple of moments.

The fun started at the 24-hour checkin window for this flight, just as our neighbor Carmen was about to drive us to the airport for the BLI-SEA hop.

We had been 1-2 on the upgrade list, and Kathy noticed we’d  suddenly… disappeared!

A phone call to Alaska ensued. When Kathy explained, the rep put her on hold for at least 20 minutes. She returned to confirm we were back on the list, that the problem was at Alaska’s end, due to a “hiccup” that affected “several of you.”

At some point later we were both upgraded, even though we were utilizing our annual credit card Companion Fare and thus could not split our itineraries. Kathy is in 1C and Brian in 2D, perfectly fine for a 3-hour flight.

The dry ice son David provided last night held up very well overnight, confirming that blocks are preferable to pellets / cubes.

We used our Diamond credits to order a very light breakfast in the Doubletree restaurant. Then came one of those moments. Kathy went upstairs to pack while Brian stood in line to check out and to retrieve the two cold packs the hotel had stored in a freezer for us.

There was one desk clerk on duty. Yes, this 850-room airport and conference hotel, stretched over 14 floors and apparently filled to capacity, had one clerk on duty. That’s a good example of the current state of travel. Expect delays! She was efficient, unflappable, friendly and apologetic, but we very nearly left the cold packs behind.

She called a bellman to retrieve them from a freezer, but bellmen (bell people?) were in short supply.

Brian finally abandoned his cold pack quest, asked the clerk to try to have them ready for us, and rushed up to the room.

Kathy by now had everything packed up and ready to go.We made the five-minute trek back to the lobby, where our cold packs were now awaiting us, complete with the clerk’s unnecessary apologies. She was doing her best.

This gave us five minutes leeway to catch the 10:00 am airport shuttle. It was a good day to have status when arriving 90 minutes before a flight and needing to (ugh) check luggage.The airport was absolutely packed with passengers. Why couldn’t all these people stay put on Labor Day Sunday and give us some space to travel?

Fortunately, Alaska was staffed more fully than the Doubletree. We checked in our two food containers at Alaska’s  elite counter, we utilized the TSA PRECHECK line, which stretched out a bit,  and we sailed through the line today without any extra inspection of our carry-on insulated bag and its suspicious cold packs.

We had to take the train to the North Satellite, and arrived at our gate a comfortable 20 minutes before boarding. Whew!

We have the usual great AS flight attendant who makes a mean Bloody Mary, and all is well.

 And lunch too…

Saturday, September 3, 2022

A Labor Day Weekend of Travel

It was a beautiful day to fly from Bellingham down to Seattle on Horizon.

Adding greatly to the pleasure was the airline’s willingness to check a cooler full of our Dungeness crab packed in dry ice (5.5 lb maximum) and a box full of other foodstuffs.

Our David and two granddaughters met us at our SEA hotel with a fresh supply of desperately needed dry ice, and then we all went out for dinner at Grazie, a Southcenter favorite for many years.

Tomorrow we fly onward to Albuquerque, rent a car at ABQ, and drive up to Durango. Why the food?

We’re staying at a ranch in the Colorado high country near Pagosa Springs for several days, and should have some photos to share, at least when we’re back within range of data or WiFi.

We’ll hope things go smoothly tomorrow. We’re not fans of checking luggage, but so far so good.