Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gone for the holidays

What does a travel editor do on vacation? Travel!

Here's the view from my room on this snowy night. Guess where I am?

Looking for tips on traveling this holiday season? See our Holiday Travel Survivial Kit at

Have a great holiday!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Home again, home again

At 6:30 this morning I left home. By 9 p.m. I was back. Thank goodness I didn't route through any of the places that got buried today in snow.

Was it worth it? I think so, and I guess the other half-dozen mileage runners I saw on my return might agree.

Tell us what you think by voting in the poll at right.

Already, I'm trying to figure out my likely flights for next year. Best guess is that I'll run short again. Next time, though, I'll look for a longer haul. Sure could use the miles.


To see my original story from The Miami Herald, click here.

Heading east

LA was sunny and slightly cool. The sunny I could see. The slightly cool came from that brief moment on the jetway when I whiffed feel real air.

Now I’m back in the confines of my beloved flying tin can. And yes, I’m in the back of the bus.

When you fly back here all the time, or your upgrade comes at the end of your itinerary, you don’t really notice how cramped economy can be.

Having just come from biz class, believe me, I can tell a difference.

The guy in front of me has reclined onto my laptop, which now has ketchup on it after my dinner with The King – the only grab-and-go food near my gate at LAX. I did get lucky and land a seat with a power plug, but typing in these close quarters seems likely to land me a bout of tendonitis before I get back to Miami. A baby is crying nearby. My seat-back TV doesn’t work.

Good thing I brought Aleve.

On the plus side: My plane is on time, and there are a few familiar faces aboard … familiar from my flight out to LA this morning. Other mileage runners.

They’re obviously already Platinum, because they’re all sitting up in Business. Next year, I will be too.


PHOTOS: Business vs. economy: You know which is which.

Another mileage fiend

I’m not the only mileage-running fiend doing the Miami- LA dash today. Also on my flight: Evie Hirschhorn, who works in the law firm of her husband, Miami lawyer Joel Hirschhorn.

She’s flying to ensure she’ll be Platinum again next year. Since her children moved from New York to Miami, she’s flying less, she finds.

“I’ve been Platinum for several years, but I’m about 7000 miles short,’’ she said. This one, plus another holiday trip already planned, will put her over the 50,000 mile mark.

Husband Joel is also short of his Executive Platinum requirement, so he’ll be making a six-leg mileage run late in the month.

The draw: Free upgrades.

“I travel an awful lot, and the comfort is very important when you’re on a plane a lot of time. ‘’

She, too, got an upgrade for the first flight. “It’s been very relaxing. No one can call me, and I’ve slept and read a book.’’

Yup! I made it!

Yes, I made it to LAX...and soon will be heading back to Miami on exactly the same plane!

Getting an upgrade looks dubious. There are already 10 people on the upgrade request list ahead of me, so I'm not all that hopeful. But we'll see.

Here, at least, the Wi-Fi works. My posts from the first flight appear below. Photos to come soon!

Using those FF miles

One of my closest colleagues, who also works in Travel, allowed the other day that she’s never used her frequent flier miles.


Well, she and her husband can’t plan far enough in advance. And you can’t get the seats during prime time, anyway, she explained.

That’s the rap, sure enough, but it doesn’t have to be true. In the past decade, I’ve used miles to go to Africa (thrice), Bali, Bangkok and Europe – even in Prime Time seasons like mid-summer and at Christmas.

The Husband and I have a method, and along the way we’ve picked up a few extra tips.

1 – Plan as early as you can. Each airline allows a different window for advance award bookings; at American, where I’m a member, you can book free tickets up to 330 days in advance of travel.

2 – Can’t book early? Give it a shot anyway. Some people snag award tickets, then cancel them…and the seats come open. Or bookings aren’t as strong as the airline had hoped, and they release extra seats. (This is more likely to happen when it’s low season in your destination.)

A couple of cases in point: This fall, I sent The Husband to Ireland on a free ticket that we booked just 60 days in advance. Another year, we snagged two free tickets to Calgary, Canada, by traveling on Christmas day.

3 – Use your miles for the most expensive flights.

If you fly only on the least-expensive economy tickets, you’re probably paying less than 10 cents for every mile you earn. If you use your miles for a ticket you can buy for the same price – say, my Miami-to-LA ticket today for $302 – you’re just getting an even trade. But if you use them for a ticket to Asia or Africa that costs thousands of dollars, you’re getting a deal.

Steve Becker, a government chemist in Washington, D.C., doesn’t travel at all for work. But each year he makes “mileage runs,’’ searching out cheap flights that will rack up lots of miles. His average price per mile earned was 1 cent last year, and 1.61 cents this year. This fall, he used miles to snag a business class ticket that enabled him to visit multiple cities in Asia and Australia for 150,000 miles – or a cost of around $1,500, given the price he’d paid to fly his mileage runs. If he’d purchased his Asia/Australia ticket, he would have paid more than $10,000. Now that’s a bargain.

4 – Don’t book award tickets online. Yes, you’ll pay an additional $15 fee for using a phone agent. But a good airline agent can find you routings that will never show up if you’re booking online.

5 – Call back often. This can be a pain – but worth it.

In July, we’re going with a group of friends on a Baltic cruise. All are from Miami, so the competition for the free seats is tough. And because cruises begin and end on set dates, we’re facing competition from the thousands of other Americans sailing on our ship.

About two weeks ago The Husband called. We were able to secure two free tickets to Copenhagen a day earlier than we really wanted to go, but we couldn’t find a return flight. So we asked the agent to hold the outgoing seats for the period allowed – in this case, two weeks – while we hunted for return seats. Sure enough, a few days later, another agent found us a way back.

Becker told me that to get his free Asia/Australia ticket, he called back almost every day for six weeks. The last four weeks, he spent two hours every night on the phone with his airline’s award desk.

OK, that’s pretty extreme (though Becker’s was an extremely complex itinerary.) People with less time and patience can get a travel agent to do the work for them … for a fee. At TraveLeaders in Coral Gables, for instance, clients are often happy to pay $150 to get their office to handle the hassles of snagging a frequent flier ticket, I was told recently by Nina Meyer, the firm’s leisure travel manager.

6 – Find an experienced airline agent to help you.

How? One method is to call back until you get someone on the phone who really likes doing this. It doesn’t take but a minute of chat to figure out that the agent you’re talking with thinks finding you a free seat is a big snore. We end the call by saying, “thank you very much for your help,’’ hang up and call right back (you nearly always get a different agent.) By the second or third call, we’ve got a winner.

Other tips: When The Husband snagged the Europe ticket, he was told that the best time to call is on a weekday morning. More experienced agents get first choice of work shifts, he was told, and those agents are more likely to find you that free routing.

Becker, an American Airlines flier, says he’s been told to call in early afternoons, when the company’s Tucson office opens. That office, he says, is supposed to be the best at finding free seats.

7 – Be flexible. We’ve often paid for a hotel room to make a free ticket routing work. For instance, our last trip to Bali was possible with miles only if we stayed overnight in Tokyo. A hotel room near the airport cost us $100 – far, far less than two tickets to Bali at Christmas time.

8 – Be prepared. Becker checks out every conceivable routing through all of his airline’s partners and puts them on a spreadsheet. When he calls the award agent, he suggests various options instead of expecting the agent to know them all.

For his Asia trip, for instance, he decided he wanted to fly on American’s partner British. But British doesn’t fly west toward Asia from the U.S., and ticket rules wouldn’t let him fly first to Europe, then to Asia. So he routed first to Toronto, which offers a BA flight to Asia.

The Husband and I aren’t quite that organized, but we do try to figure out basic possibilities for partner airlines and routings before we call the awards desk.

Still, we never came up with the routing we finally got: Copenhagen to London, then to Nassau – and then to Miami. For that, we needed an agent.

Never go out in dirty underwear

Your mother told you: Always put on clean underwear; what if you’re in an accident and have to go to the hospital? (Moms never did focus much on the fact that if you ended up at the Emergency Room, the cleanliness of your undergarments was going to be the least of your worries.)

The corollary to this dictim -- never dash out in a grubby T-shirt, because you’re sure to run into someone you know (and they invariably are dressed better!) – is undeniably true.

Now, with a 10-hour-plus day of flying on my agenda, a business suit was out of the question. (And hey, my T-shirt is clean!)

But of course, I did see Miamians I knew. Lawyer Bob Parks and wife Lyn are heading to Vegas via L.A. (“we couldn’t get seats on the direct flight,’’ Bob said.) And art collector Rosa de la Cruz, barely finished hosting 2,000 Art Basel Miami Beach visitors who visited her collection at home, was dashing out to Los Angeles to work with an installation by a favorite artist at LA MOCA, the museum of contemporary art. She’s returning on my flight … but a day later.

Upgrade: Yes!

I’m a back-of-the-bus flier. When I’m traveling on business, the Herald pays for discounted Economy Class tickets. When I’m traveling personally, I pay for discounted Economy Class tickets. And while many of my friends use frequent flier miles to upgrade to Business Class, I use my miles to visit far-away places like Africa and Asia.

The only time I get to ride in the front is when I get a free upgrade. And the chances of that go way up if you’re an elite-class frequent flier…which helps explain today’s trip.

This past year I qualified for Gold, American’s lowest level of elite reached after flying 25,000 miles in a single year. The good news is that I earn free upgrade credits (and I can buy more at a right price) that can be used to upgrade one class of service within the U.S. The bad news is that I hardly ever get to snag a space; the Platinums and Executive Platinum fliers get them first.

Today my requested upgrade hadn’t come through before I got to the airport, and because I was arrived at the gate only 30 minutes before take-off, I figured I was out of luck. But the LA flight rates a wide-body Boeing 707, and just minutes before take-off, hooray! I snagged a biz class seat.

The big plus to biz class is space; your chin doesn’t even come close to your knees. Another bonus is a guaranteed power outlet at your seat (important for a working person like me; I’ll spend the entire 10 hours writing.)

The quality of business and first-class service varies with the plane itself; if you’re on a smaller plane, you end up with a slightly bigger seat than economy, free cocktails (irrelevant if you’re working) and not much more. But on wide bodies, you also get an individual video screen and program (standard in economy on some airlines, but not American), a leg rest, duvet and pillow (often rare in economy), hot towels for cleaning your hands, and coffee served in an actual ceramic mug.

And did I mention food? In business and first class, airlines actually serve hot food, accompanied by real stainless flatware.

This morning’s menu options include a choice of cheese omelet “accompanied by a red pepper hash and roasted peach half” or cereal and fruit with yogurt “served with a banana and fresh seasonal berries.’’ If one is so-inclined, one can wash it down with a Domaine Ste-Michelle Columbia Valley sparkling wine, a Wente San Francisco Bay chardonnay or St. Francis Sonoma County merlot.

Fearing I’d be stuck in economy, I’d already wolfed down Cuban toast and cafĂ© con leche from an airport Versailles outlet. In the back of the plane, you can buy a few cholesterol-infused snacks to stave off starvation, but believe me, you’ve got to be ravenous before you can bring yourself to eat them.

Go early to airport, or you could be MIA

Don’t laugh, but I got lost on the way to the airport this morning.

Never mind that I was there yesterday to pick up a visiting sister, or that this year I’ll fly a total of 80,000 miles on various airlines – with most of my flights originating at Miami International Airport.

The problem: The airport access coming south from Lejeune Road has changed in the past few weeks, and I missed the cut-off. (I came from a different direction on yesterday’s airport run, so I didn’t see the change.)

To make matters worse, the police have set up a checkpoint near the airport’s entrance. While this might be good for security, it’s lousy for traffic, creating a pinch point and causing slowdowns.

And if that’s not enough, there are the monstrous security lines.

The average TSA security wait at MIA is 25 minutes, the local TSA spokesperson told me a few weeks ago. I beat that record by 5 minutes this morning, but it took dodging my entrance gate – at Concourse E – and running back to Concourse, D, where the queue was about 2/3 shorter than the boa wrap at D. What with running back and forth, the security gauntlet took more than 30 minutes (though I did get my daily dose of exercise!)

Moral of this story: Get to the airport early early early!

We’ve got more tips online in our Holiday Travel Survival Guide at

Jane's on the plane

The good news: Jane is on the plane to L.A., and she got upgraded to Business Class.

The bad news: The wi-fi at MIA is MIA -- so she asked us to post for her. She'll start posting again when she reaches Los Angeles.

Her tip: Get to the airport EARLY. The longs are long and the traffic is terrible.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Getting the most miles

Tomorrow, Thursday, I'll be making a "mileage run'' -- a trip just to snare the miles that will push me into the next level of elite status.

I'm already Gold on American -- which means I've flown 25,000 miles already this year. And being Gold comes with my favorite reward: Instead of standing in the Economy Class lines for check-in, I get to stand in the Business Class line.

Now, you might think that's not so important in an age of electronic check-in, but I travel a lot internationally, which generally involves checking luggage. And I have to show my passport to an agent even if I check in online. So not standing in the hours-long economy line really matters.

So why bother with Platinum? Well, last year I let myself slide 5,000 miles short -- and I was sorry.

On American, being Platinum means you're much more likely to get upgraded.(Those electronic upgrades you earn by flying aren't worth anything if the Platium and Executive Platinum fliers have snagged all the Business seats.) And, you get double miles ... a worthy bonus if you use your miles for snagging free long-haul flights, like I do.

Of course, actually using your miles to get free tickets can take some perserverance. I'll share tips about that in this blog tomorrow. I'll have plenty of time to write....10 hours and 25 minutes in the air, fying from Miami to Los Angeles and back.


PHOTO: Who wouldn't want to go Business? New business class seats on the Airbus 380; photo by Getty Images.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Do you travel just for the miles?

In December, frequent fliers take a look at their mileage statements and, finding them a bit shy of elite status, sometimes make mad dashes just to rack up the miles.

Do you do this, or does someone you know do it? If so, I'd love to speak to you for a story! Please e-mail me at

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Traveling to Art Basel

This week, my travels will be geographically close at hand ... but intellectually all over the place ... as I dash from art fair to gallery to party to exhibition at Art Basel Miami Beach.

Officially speaking, Art Basel Miami Beach is a single fair showcasing modern and contemporary art from 200 galleries worldwide. It takes place Thursday - Sunday at the Miami Beach Convention Center. From Picassos to Dubuffets, everything here is for sale, though for those of us who are financial mortals, the joy generally is in the viewing and dreaming.

Art Basel Miami Beach is an offshoot of the prestigeous Art Basel fair held annually in June in the medieval city of Basel, Switzerland. (That's Basel, as in Basil Rathbone, not BA-sel, as in the herb.) Because the town is small, and because the lifestyle in Europe is more reserved than that in Miami, the Swiss fair is more contained.

In Miami's physical and mental sprawl, Art Basel spreads out, stretching from Miami Beach to the Design District. So, too, does its influence. This year's Art Basel season comes with 24 side fairs, nearly all unrelated to -- but spurred by -- events at the convention center.

You can learn more them, the main fair and daily happenings at the Miami Herald's Art Basel website.

Come along; everyone is welcome. Word of advice: Wear comfy shoes. When it comes to feet, this week is a killer.