Category Archives: Musings

Travel Stories from an Asian Man #9

Links to stories #1, #2, #3, #4#5#6#7, and #8.

In Cape Town, my sister and I ended up taking a minibus to get to a restaurant that was a little off the beaten path. Every white person that we spoke to in Cape Town told us that we shouldn’t take the minibuses because they weren’t safe, but it was honestly one of the best public transportation experiences I’ve had. The other passengers were super friendly, they made sure that we got where we needed to go and weren’t overcharged, and it was super cheap. See this post about South African minibuses for more information about them.

One thing about minibuses is that they don’t leave until they’re full. And so as we waited in a minibus, a man came up to the door and started talking to me. He was slurring a bit, so I had a little trouble understanding him, but here’s the gist of the conversation.

Him: Where are you from?
Me: The United States
Him: You look pretty Asian to me
Me: …
Him: You must know kung fu!
Me: Um
Him: Yes, kung fu! You can help me get revenge on this guy. You can help me beat him up.

Question for Readers: Do You Lie Compulsively on Planes?

Instead of answering reader questions, I’m asking questions of readers this week.

I often find myself lying compulsively on planes.

Mostly, I lie because it’s easier. I find that it makes people more comfortable for me just to say that I’m flying for work, which is a reason that easily fits into people’s schemas of the world and explains why I might be flying in business or first class or I might be flying somewhere for only one or two days, rather than for me to try to explain using frequent flyer miles or mileage running.

For example, on one of my trips around the world, on one segment, my seat mate asked me where I was going, and I told him that I wasn’t really going anywhere because I was just flying around the world. He then looked at me funny and didn’t talk to me the rest of the flight. On the next segment, when my seat mate asked me where I was going, I told him I was going to ____ very briefly for work, but it’s not that bad because my company pays for business class or else I would never do it, and he quickly agreed and continued the conversation.

So I’m curious, do you ever find the need or desire to lie to people on planes rather than get into the details of our hobby?

Question for Readers: What is Good Service?

Instead of the typical answering reader questions, I’m instead posing a series of questions for readers to share their thoughts on this week.

I appreciate good service. But even as I write that, I think it’s ambiguous what I mean by “good service”. Is good service unobserved and unobtrusive? Is it fawning and obsequious? A service experience that I might enjoy another might find underwhelming for exactly the same reasons.

For me, good service is effortless and gracious. By effortless, I mean that service is so ingrained into the mentality that every request is considered and attended to (but not necessarily fulfilled) without hesitation. In the best examples, service is effortless because your needs are predicted and attended to even before you realize them. By gracious, I mean that there’s a sort of courtesy and pleasantness that makes every interaction a delight.

Here are examples of bad service that come to mind:
1) A flight attendant physically pushing people out of the way during meal service. She clearly made sure everyone knew how much of a burden her job was that she had to push people to finish it, and pushing people is definitely not gracious.
2) Flight attendants reading magazines/books or just chatting away with each other in the galley. They’re making it clear that any sort of service they provide takes so much effort because they have to interrupt themselves from whatever else they’d rather be doing instead of serving you.

Here are examples of good service that come to mind:
1) On a Cathay Pacific flight, the flight attendant noticed that I kept ordered Hong Kong style milk tea, so she proactively gave me some of the mix that they use to make the drink. This was already much appreciated, but at the end of the flight, she gave me even more as she had scoured the other galleys for their leftovers.
2) I once went to the United First Lounge at NRT instead of the ANA Suite Lounge so I could take some pictures for a lounge review. Upon checking into the United lounge, the lounge dragon told me that I was welcome to the United lounge, but I should really go to the ANA lounge instead. I made up some bs reason about wanting to use the United lounge because I liked the showers there better, and when I took the elevator up one level to the United First Lounge, the agent there greeted me and immediately offered me to take me to the shower room.

So I’m curious, what does good service mean to you? What examples come to mind of particularly good or bad service?

Why You Should Follow The Money

Whenever I’m trying to understand why things are the way they are, I often find it useful to try to follow the money, so to speak. By following where money goes and to whom, it often becomes clear why people/companies act the way they do.

A prime example in the points/miles blogosphere is why there are so many posts talking about certain credit cards on a subset of the blogs. The answer? Because these bloggers get paid money when people click on their links and apply for the credit cards that they advertise. Money is flowing from the credit card issuers to the bloggers. Thus, when evaluating the content of said blogs, it is often useful to ask yourself whether or not these bloggers have your best interests at heart, given that they make money when you apply for credit cards using their links.

On the flip side, most of the points/miles blogs out there don’t make money from credit card affiliate links, largely because they don’t drive enough traffic/applications to them. Does this make those blogs inherently more trustworthy? No, not necessarily, but I think sometimes people unfairly attack these blogs under the pretense that they’re making money via credit card links when they’re actually not.

Another example: a couple of years back (in 2010/2011), there was a company called Envaulted that offered 1% cash back if you gave them access to your credit card purchasing history (by providing your credit card website login credentials). This was in addition to whatever rewards your credit card already gave you. Supposedly, they were going to use that information to then sell to advertisers which advertisers would pay premium dollars for since they would be super targeted since they knew what you already spent money on.

A lot of people were skeptical, but I milked as much as I could out of it at the time because the flow of money was venture capitalists to Envaulted straight into the pockets of customers. I also knew that this business model wasn’t sustainable, so the company probably wouldn’t last in its original incarnation (they did pivot to other sorts of offers for a while, but then they shut down their website abruptly while lots of people had large balances of unredeemed cash back). Essentially, they ran out of funding and weren’t able to prove out their business model, so they had to call it quits.

Compare this to Amazon Payments. Amazon Payments was the goose that kept laying golden eggs, and people were quick to blame bloggers when it finally died. Honestly, bloggers weren’t the problem. The consumer product of Amazon Payments was a money loser for Amazon for years, but they didn’t really care because they’re Amazon. The money flowed from Amazon’s coffers straight to people like us, but 1) the losses were relatively constrained because of the $1,000 per month per person limitation and 2) Amazon is such a behemoth and they’re notorious for losing tons of money on new products that even a “big” blogger posting about Amazon Payments and getting lots of people to sign up isn’t enough to materially make Amazon change its strategy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that a large part of the reason why Amazon Payments was shut down was because it wasn’t popular enough, so it didn’t make sense for Amazon to keep losing money on a product that wasn’t reaching the kind of adoption that they wanted.

This tactic of following the money is often useful in our hobby because our hobby is now so dominated by credit cards and financial institutions, but it’s also a good tactic for understanding things like politics. But beware that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read on the internet, so even if people are writing about money flows and it seems reasonable, it’s entirely possible that they got everything wrong (like my examples in this post could be completely false, but obviously I don’t think they are).

Words That You Need to Stop Using in Trip Reports: “Intuitive”

I write a lot of trip reports; I read a lot of trip reports. And one of the words that makes me cringe every time I read it is “intuitive”.

I blame Lucky for it, as I’m pretty sure his was the first blog where I read someone saying that the seat controls were “intuitive”. I remember reading it and thinking, “that’s a really odd word to use, and it doesn’t really make sense, but whatevs”. But then I kept seeing it again and again and again, both in his blog and in other blogs.

If something is “intuitive”, it should be instinctual or true without regards to conscious thought, reasoning, or past experience. Really, when people are using the word “intuitive”, they mean that something is familiar or easy to use. For example, “the seat controls resembled seat controls that I have used in the past, so I didn’t have to think too hard about how to use them”. They probably don’t mean, “if I took someone who has never been in a car/bus/train/plane before and put him in an airplane seat, he would intuit that the seat controls would move the seat in these ways”.

I think a large reason why the word “intuitive” now pops up in so many trip reports is because it’s intuitive familiar to the writers and so they don’t have to think about what they actually mean to say. Again, people need to stop and think for themselves. It’s so much easier to regurgitate phrases and memes than it is to think deliberately about what you’re writing, but that contributes to the lack of originality in blogs today.

Question for Readers: Do You Leave Your Bags Unattended in Airport Lounges?

Instead of answering reader questions, I’m going to pose some questions to readers.

One of my habits upon entering any airport lounge is to find a place to dump my stuff and then traipse off to take photos for lounge reviews. I often leave my laptop, passport, boarding passes, and bags out in the open, plus whatever electronics need charging. But I’m wondering if other people feel as comfortable leaving their personal belongings unattended as I do, or if people have other concerns about security, given that there are often overhead announcements at airport warning people NOT to leave their bags unattended and to report unattended bags to security.

I believe that the overlap between people in an airport lounge and those who would steal opportunistically from a stranger is nil. You’re probably pretty well off if you’re in an airport lounge, so why would you need to steal from someone else? So I have no qualms with leaving my things at a chair while I get food, take pictures, or go to the bathroom. In fact, it’s one of the things that I appreciate most about airport lounges–instead of having to lug my stuff around with me, I can just leave it and walk around unencumbered.

That being said, when I travel with friends, many have commented that they find my behavior strange. And I don’t often see unattended belongings in lounges besides my own. So I ask my readers: do you lave your bags unattended in airport lounges? Why or why not?

Travel Stories from an Asian Man #8

Links to stories #1, #2, #3, #4#5#6, and #7.

Here are some snippets of conversation from one of my recent flights from Hong Kong (well, at least more recent than the current trip report I’m finishing). Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything malicious in what she said, and I’m writing about this merely because I found it amusing.

Seat mate: “So, are you traveling to the US or heading home?”
Me: “I’m heading home”
Seat mate: “I believe that–your accent is really good”
Me: “Thanks, I was born in the US”

Seat mate: “I had an awesome meal at the Hong Kong airport before the flight”
Me (perking up for a conversation about food): “Where did you eat?”
Seat mate: “Spaghetti House!”
Me: “…I’ve never heard of that place. What kind of food do they serve?”
Seat mate: “Italian food”
Me: “I didn’t realize that Italian food in Hong Kong would be so good”
Seat mate: “Didn’t you know that your people invented spaghetti?”

2014 Year in Review

I know this is a couple of weeks late, but better late than never, right?

2014 was my heaviest year for travel yet. I flew 189,524 miles in 2014, almost all of which were for leisure (5,739 miles were for work).

Map courtesy of gcmap.com

Map courtesy of gcmap.com

Most of my miles came from flying to Asia. I started off 2014 in Tokyo, and I would return to Asia 7 more times throughout the year.

I requalified for American Airlines Executive Platinum status this year by flying nearly 110,000 revenue miles at an average cost per mile of just over 6 cents. I didn’t miss flying United at all.

Here are some highlights:
Best flight: Singapore Suites from NRT to LAX (still to be written up)
Best lounge: JAL First Class Lounge Narita (I know many will disagree considering that I also visited lounges like the Thai Royal First Lounge in Bangkok and the Qantas First Lounge in Sydney, but the JAL lounge has a sushi bar in the lounge! With actual sushi chefs!)
Best hotel: Conrad Koh Samui
Favorite food: all of Thailand; all of Singapore; Ester in Sydney; Maido in Lima
Favorite travel experiences: visiting a maid cafe in Tokyo; Patara Elephant Farm; relaxing on Koh Samui; cruising on Halong Bay; participating in early morning exercises with locals in Hanoi; eating until I couldn’t move in Singapore; getting “befriended” by two old Chinese ladies on the Great Wall of China who proceeded to fleece me; a four-hour long brunch at Temple Restaurant in Beijing; eating at a temple in Kuala Lumpur

This year, I’m probably going to try to fly fewer miles, but spend more time abroad. There were multiple times during the year where I would be gone 4+ weekends in a row, which made it hard to be a good friend to my friends in San Francisco. Of course, as I write this, I already have over 40k miles planned before the end of February…

Myths About Travel Blogging: Bloggers Travel A Lot

On my previous post about how you shouldn’t always trust what you read on blogs, Alan made the following insightful comment:

The reality is many travel bloggers dont even travel much and are not very good at traveling.

This is true. Surprisingly true. And this is part of why I generally try to make a distinction between “travel” bloggers and “points/miles” bloggers (for the record, I consider myself part of the latter category).

There are some points/miles bloggers who travel a lot. At the most extreme, you have bloggers who travel full time and don’t have a permanent home. But there are others who hardly travel or really don’t know the first things about redeeming their miles or wouldn’t be able to manufacture spend $5,000 without a guide with giant red arrows from Million Mile Secrets.

Example: I’ve done some points/miles consulting where I help people use their miles to book awards. One of my clients was a BoardingArea blogger. This blogger didn’t know how to redeem miles for flights! I ended up booking flights for this blogger’s family, and this blogger then proceeded to write up a lengthy trip report about said trip where he/she tried to portray him/herself as an “expert” in miles/points redemptions and travel. And this was not a particularly challenging award redemption.

Now, I don’t expect people to be experts in everything. Some great blogs focus exclusively on MS (well, not really any more), and you can be an expert in MS without traveling at all. But if you’re going to be a blogger, you should probably have at least some expertise in something (a unique perspective would be helpful as well), which is surprisingly untrue for so many blogs.

This is also part of the reason why I think that certain memes get propagated through the miles/points blogosphere: so many bloggers don’t have adequate experiences or context to form their own opinions about their experiences, so they resort to repeating those things that they’ve read on other blogs. It always astounds me when I talk to people (non-bloggers too), and it sounds like I’m talking to Lucky’s parrot. Similarly, so many experiences are duplicated between blogs because many aren’t able to go beyond what they’ve already read and seek out novel opportunities.

Granted, this post might come across as hypocritical because I’m guilty of many of the things I’m complaining about. But as a reader, question if you should really believe or trust the blogger’s opinion. If a blogger eats primarily at the Olive Garden, then maybe you should discount his/her opinion about food. If a blogger doesn’t actually travel that much, then maybe you shouldn’t be reading his/her “travel” blog.

Why I’m Afraid of American Airline’s Increased Mileage Earning

Lots of bloggers have already posted about the details of AA’s increased mileage earning for premium fares. Essentially, everything stays the same, except that people booking first or business class fares earn even more. Sounds like a win-win situation, right? You can’t earn fewer miles than before, so how can you lose?

I always get nervous when it becomes easy to accumulate miles/points in a given program. When it gets easy to earn so many miles, the programs do what comes naturally, which is devalue the programs. Recent examples include Hilton and United, and we all remember those as bloodbaths.

Imagine this, if AA announced double miles for everyone, does that mean you’re actually getting twice as miles? Well, sure, instead of earning 1,000 miles, you’d nominally earn 2,000 miles, but since they’re printing twice as many miles, they’re sooner or later going to cut the value of those miles in half (or worse). It’s not sustainable for AA to just give everyone more miles.

Really, what matters is that you earn more miles than other people. But AA’s announcement isn’t good for me since I don’t buy premium cabin tickets, which means that I can only lose from this announcement. Other people will earn more miles while I earn the same number, so I effectively am earning less than I was before.

More generally, I’ve been more nervous about AA than most bloggers because it’s been so easy to accumulate AA miles recently. The Citi Exec cards were/are a prime example, but increasing mileage earning for some customers without decreasing mileage earning at all for others can fundamentally change the economics of a program, so I’d expect a future corresponding decrease in the value of miles. In addition, at some point, miles will combine between US Airways and AA, which means that there will be even more miles floating around and competition for award seats.

We’ve been shielded from a major devaluation thanks to the merger, but I would not be surprised if winter were coming…