Monday, April 23, 2012

Don't replicate my mistakes, learn from them.

As it stands now The Wife and either flown or booked 30K Elite Qualifying Miles for our Mileage Plus accounts. We've actually flown around 31.2K miles, but I booked a leg on Air Canada Jazz for our Paris trip that wasn't Elite Qualifying.

And that's the mistake you don't want to make. For some reason (the flights could be operated by airline A, but flying under airline B's livery, code etc.) some Air Canada flights offer 100% EQM's while some (and all Jazz flights) offer 0%. Unfortunately, with the buggy nature of post-merger what the website says is not always 100% accurate. I thought that, when I booked, the Jazz leg was showing at 100% EQM on the website, but on later bookings (one guesses these occurred after some clean-up) they appeared at 0%. Since Silver Premiers receive almost no benefits under the current system, flight change fees were in play and would make any change not worth the additional miles.

Since this is really the first year that The Wife and I have decided to buckle down and go for Gold Premier (Elite in the past) I'm willing to swallow my pride and write-off these mistakes as learning experiences. Sure, I have friends with more experience travelling who could review my itineraries, but you don't want to wear people out making sure you don't screw the pooch*. With that in mind, here are a few other things I've learned travelling with United this year....

1. Pay close attention to that booking group number on your United boarding pass

From Madrid to Newark The Wife was assigned booking group 3, I was assigned booking group 5. I did not think that it would be all that big of a deal for me to board with my wife. That would be wrong. All but called an idiot by the gate agent I was pulled out of line and required to wait my turn. Meanwhile my wife boarded and, by the time I got there, all of the luggage space above my seat was taken. I ended up finding a space 5 rows back, which meant having to wait extra time before we could de-plane. Lesson learned.

2. If you're flying coach (and, with the new upgrade rules, as a Silver Premier, or less, you'll be spending almost all of your flight time in steerage) {more on this later} it's a good idea to buy something in the terminal for dinner.

I can't say this enough: Food quality in United coach is terrible. In some cases borderline inedible. Over the first 3 1/2 months of this year I've been served chicken with a sauce that looked like vomit, rice that I had to cut with a knife, a roll that was so frozen it could have doubled as a mallet and something with pasta that I still can't correctly identify. Even my first class meal (the result of a rare upgrade), earlier documented here was almost inedible. There have been rumors that United First Class meal service is getting better, but I've yet to see it. The fact is United food is bad, real bad. Do yourself a favor and buy something at the airport before you board. Trust me when I tell you those seated around you will be looking at you longingly.

3. There's a reason this blog's called "No Upgrades".

If you are flying United, and you are a Silver Premier (as am I and The Wife) you are not going to get one. As a matter of fact, with the recent rescinding of economy plus seating rights at booking, it's questionable whether or not you're going to get out of your steerage seat. Given the new rules you're pretty much stuck with "priority" check-in**, one free checked bag and "priority"*** boarding. You can also get all of these perks with a Premier Visa card. Unless you're planning on qualifying for Gold Premier or higher, I'd apply for the card. At least then you get two Elite Lounge passes every year.

The question you're probably asking yourself now is "Why in the hell is this guy staying with United if he hates them so?"

Good question. For one, I don't hate them. I just notice them letting the little things**** slip of late.

Two, I present the following:

First, I'm staying with United because I have equity built up with them if you will. Over the last couple of years (Where The Wife and I have been serious about flying) I've built up around 200K MileagePlus miles that won't expire as long as I keep earning or using. That's real free travel for a long trip to Australia, New Zealand or somewhere in Asia.

Second, despite the merger and the paper HQ moving to Chicago, United is STILL Houston's airline. IAH is their biggest hub, and flights in and out are numerous, if not a little more expensive.

The short version of this post is to look before you book, especially with United's website and customer service being so bonkers right now. Also, verify anything that might be slightly out of the ordinary at every airport. The dual loading zone issue that was a problem in Madrid was no issue at Newark (EWR). I loaded right with The Wife and, upon saying I was with her, they didn't even bat an eye. Go figure.

For the rest of the year we have one more trip to Europe planned (Possibly Brussels) and then three up & back flights to the East Coast to top off our miles. We have 2 trips to Las Vegas & 1 trip to Puerto Rico already booked and paid for (which are included in the 30K miles number above) so the rest of the year is just going to be about reaching our goal and not spending too much more time at 43,000 feet with stale air and bad food.

*Although it's always a good idea to provide them with good deals that you've found.
**In many cases "premier" security is not. More often than not I've found myself going through the regular security line because the Premier line was too damn long. Now that almost everyone has some elite status or can get it through a credit card, the line of people not going through the Premier chutes can be much shorter. Just pay attention.
***Under the "new" booking system priority boarding can sometimes depend on the luck of the draw. As a Silver Premier I've been near the front of premier boarding and near the back end. There really seems to be no rhyme or reason to it after boarding tier two. Tier 1 is First Class, active duty military and those with young children or needing special assistance. That much is obvious. I'm guessing that Tier 2 includes Platinum Premier's and 1K. That would mean that Tier 3 should be Gold Premier and possibly Silver Premiers buying full-fare tickets. I haven't seen this. I've been slotted into to Tiers 3-5 for no apparent reason since they've gone to this and, on more than one occasion, fliers with no status (credit card purchases only) have been slotted in front of me. (On the Madrid flight I was forced out of line on, I overheard a gentleman in Tier 4 say how great the credit card was, that he got in front of someone with Premier Status despite having no status himself.) I guess it makes sense to some people, but the gate agent at Newark couldn't really explain it to me either. (All he said was that passengers were put into boarding groups according to "some sort of system"). I'm sure there's more to it than that, but either it was lost in training or wasn't effectively rolled out.
****By little things, I mean consistency of service across airports, consistency of service from plane to plane, and making sure that the in-flight entertainment systems are working. If you're not keeping track, I have terrible luck with in-flight entertainment.

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