Normally the stamps I’m collecting are of the passport varietal. I went out of my way to get one from Luxembourg, for example. And flying 22 hours to spend only 24 hours in Mauritius could probably be seen as going out of the way a bit for that one, too. One on the small island in the Indian Ocean, however, it was a different sort of stamp collection that I got to explore.
The postal service of Mauritius has a rich and storied history, somewhat surprising for such a small plot of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Post service has been operating for hundreds of years and the local service was responsible for many developments on the island, including the establishment of rail service and air service. Plus, the island happens to have been the issuer of the most valuable stamp in the world. There are a number of stories to tell.
They are all told at the Mauritius Postal Museum in Port Louis.
The postal service on the island began in 1772 with a newspaper publisher. Subscribers to the weekly would have it delivered to their home free of charge, along with any other pending mail. Non-subscribers could pay a small fee to have the post delivered as well. The service declined late into the century and was all but dead by the time the British took over rule in 1810.
By 1834 the British had established a formal post service (they tried the newspaper gig, too) and in 1846 the initial rates for postage were established, both for "town" and inland delivery. In 1847 the island began its long history of issuing awesome collectible stamps. The two "Post Office" stamps of 1847 are considered to be the first stamps to bear that phrase and worth quite a lot these days; only 27 remain. They also kicked off a philatelic lineage that is unmatched.
Since then the island country has turned out stamps celebrating kings and queens, historical milestone and just about anything else that seems like a good idea at the time. They issue about 20 sets of stamps each year. And just like in the early days, the stamps are all printed in Britain before being transferred to the island for sale.
In addition to an impressive collection of stamps (including the famous "Post Office" stamps of which I was unable to get a good photo), the museum tells the history of the postal service and has much of the old equipment on display. Tracing the history and the development of technology and mail distribution in the nation is a great way to pass an hour or so in the Port Louis waterfront area.
They also happen to sell post cards in the gift shop, but not stamps. For those you’ll have to walk next door and buy them at the regular post office window. Pretty reasonable rates for the post card stamps, considering the isolation of the island.
Yesterday it was announced that Continental and United Airlines are aligning their award charts for flight redemption. Initial reviews were mixed (Lucky didn’t think it was so bad; neither does Gary) and ultimately I think that mixed is the best way to see the changes. There are some good and some bad. But from my view the bad ones are REALLY bad. There are a couple awards that have gotten VERY expensive. Fortunately, however, it seems that there are workarounds in many cases.
First, the background. The changes take effect for awards booked on or after 15 June 2011. Until then the old charts for Continental and United still govern. This means there is still room for arbitrage on certain awards that are higher or lower cost between the two programs thanks to the points being fungible between the two.
The changes will also remove ambiguity in the region assignments for some countries that currently exist in multiple award charts. That will be quite nice, if not necessarily resulting in lower prices in all cases.
And, on the plus side, there are a number of rewards that are actually getting less expensive. Most notably for me is that tickets in business class between the US and Europe will go down in price from 105K to 100K. Actually a lot of regions are seeing business class awards drop in price for travel to/from North America. Given that the best value in awards is often in these premium cabin tickets this is mostly a good thing. And Asia stays very attractive on the award charts.
Coach awards – where more people actually redeem – have gone up in many regions, including the US-Europe and US-South America. US-South Africa seems to be the only area where the prices went down in coach.
And then there are the scenarios that are VERY ugly in the new charts, mostly with respect to upgrades. Upgrade awards have been losing value for a while now. They used to be considered the best value for redemption a decade or so ago. And maybe they still are for some folks who have someone else buying them full fare coach seats. But if you’re buying your own tickets the value of upgrades continues to decrease. This latest award chart adjustment further hammers that point home.
First, there are the actual mileage amounts. Many categories have seen an increase in the number of points required for an upgrade. A few have remained level. I haven’t found any that have decreased in points required. OK, so it is an extra 5-10K miles round trip for an upgrade. Not a tremendous change but still annoying.
Then come the co-pay fees. The airlines basically have decided that the cheapest fares should not be upgradable. Rather than prevent such upgrades, however, they simply charge a "co-pay" to increase the fare paid to balance out the cash side of the ticket. That’s in addition to the miles required. Pegging a point’s value to a penny – the common, conservative rate – and adding in the co-pay it is actually ridiculous in many cases to buy an upgrade.
The cheapest fares between North and South America require 35K points PLUS $600 each way for an upgrade, on top of the coach fare. That’s roughly $1900 in cash + 70K points, along with the $1200-$1500 (plus taxes and fees) of airfare. Or you could just redeem 100K points for the same ticket. Redeeming for an upgrade is a losing proposition in nearly every case, even taking into account the points earned for the travel and any other benefits you’d get.
I never really considered the upgrade award a good idea. It is now probably the worst value option out there. Very bad idea.
As a parting shot, it is also worth noting that the golden goose of the legacy Continental award chart is also disappearing. The "Around the World" or RTW award from Continental is one of the best values out there at 160/220/280K in Y/C/F. The rates on that award are migrating to the legacy United numbers of 200/300/400K. That’s a 25-40% increase on those numbers. Not a surprise, really. Actually the surprise is that it lasted as long as it did. But still sad to see it go.
Things could have been a lot worse. There are definitely some bright spots on the charts. But, like always, understanding the changes and planning for them will help maximize the value of the points.
Check out the new and old charts here.
Check out part one of my day in Mauritius here.
Following a great night’s sleep at the Le Meridien in Mauritius we were up early and ready to set out to see the island. We were waylaid, however, by a 20 minute monsoon. It was actually quite pretty to watch the rain pour down over the beach but it also put us about 20 minutes behind schedule, and we were on a pretty tight schedule. We had only 5 hours from leaving the hotel to when the rental car was due back and when we had to complete our check-in for the return flight. There was not a lot of room for error.
First stop that morning was the downtown district of Port Louis. Home to a rather urban waterfront area, as well as some of the main tourist sites. The Aapravasi Ghat is one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island and is a memorial and museum to honor and remember the thousands upon thousands who migrated to the island as indentured servants. Mauritius was the first major use of such a labor force. Sadly, the museum was closed so we couldn’t walk around inside (no explanation why, either, as we were there during their posted opening hours, but such is life) but the views from along the fence line certainly gave a bit of insight into how those laborers arrived and adjusted to their new life.
Next up on our whirlwind tour was a visit to the Mauritius Postal Museum. That was actually cool enough that I gave it a whole post just for itself. Read all about it here.
A 24-hour stay in Mauritius, condensed into 5 minutes.
Read more of this article »
If you’ve traveled the twenty-odd hours on an airplane from New York City to make it all the way to Mauritius, odds are you’re going to stay for more than 24 hours. Then again, odds are you are not me, so you’ve got that going for you as well. I made the long trip across the Atlantic, across Africa and then across the Indian Ocean and eventually found myself on the ground in Mauritius for a scheduled 24 hour stay. It wasn’t a ton of time, but we absolutely made the most of it and had a blast doing so.
The inbound flight from Johannesburg was uneventful and rather empty. I even managed to squeeze in a nap between the meal and the drinks. This was useful as the jetlag was starting to kick in. On arrival we cleared immigration reasonably quickly and I learned that I had booked the rental car for the wrong day. Whoopsie. Fortunately they had cars available so that was quickly resolved and we headed out of the airport and across the island towards the hotel. It was time for a beer and a dip in the ocean at the Le Meridien Ile Maurice as we watched the sun set.
The hotel was fine, I suppose, if you’re into the isolated beach resort sort of thing. The upgraded room was nice and we were in the section of the resort that was kid-free so that helped a bit, but there was also not really much going on, particularly if you weren’t a couple. When faced with the prospect of a $60 buffet dinner we quickly realized that it was time to get out of there and to see a bit of the island.
Read more of this article »
Nestled in the heel of Italy‘s boot, Lecce serves as a great base for exploring the Puglia region of the country. The city is small enough that it is easily explored on foot and has the added advantage of mostly maintaining the original layout that it had 2000+ years ago. This leads to many narrow alleys and walkways that are not particularly orthogonal to anything and which provide a sense of being lost in history. And, if you’re not particularly careful about navigating, you can be lost in Lecce, too.
Our hotel, the Casa dei Mercanti Townhouse, sat directly on the Piazzo Sant’Oronzo at the center of town. We paid a bit extra to be this central versus some of the other options but it was absolutely worth it. From that base we were no more than a 10-15 minute walk anywhere in town. Combine that with the incredibly friendly and welcoming host and the fact that it was a full one bedroom apartment and it simply couldn’t be beat.
A video version of the tour.
There are a few museums in town worth visiting, though it is worth noting that we were there off-season so the operating hours were more suggestions than hard and fast times. In two of the cases we were apparently the only visitors that day. They actually had to turn the power on for us to see the displays. They were worth it, however, as we got a guided tour (I’m not sure if that’s standard or if the docent was just bored) and we got to see some amazing art.
Starting at our hotel (A), we walked through the main Piazzo and past a few smaller churches until we arrived at the Duomo di Lecce (B). The church is rather impressive, as most old churches tend to be. Like many in the region the church has an incredibly ornate façade and interior based on the Baroque era. Somewhat surprising to me was that much of that detail was actually in paper maché rather than carved from stone. More on that later. Definitely worth a stop inside.
Just across the piazzo is the Museo di Arte Sacra. This is the gallery where we received a private guided tour. The art on display represents several hundred years worth of the collection of the church. Everything from portraits of the local gentry to the Cardinals to a rather impressive collection of the church’s vestments. They also have a few of the figures normally placed up in the chapels in the church out where they can be seen up close. Much like the incredibly detailed façades, these were made of paper maché to keep the weight down which is important since they are also carried through the streets during various processionals throughout the year.
After we wrapped up our visit to the Duomo we made our way to the Museo Teatro Romano di Lecce (C). The art collection here is virtually nil; that isn’t why you’re visiting. They have a nifty diorama showing the city as it existed several hundred years ago and, most significantly, they have the ancient theatre (hence the name). The theatre is actually still in good enough shape that it can be used for events. There is something pretty amazing about sitting on seats that were used a couple thousand years ago for pretty much the same purpose.
Wrapping up the museum circuit in Lecce, we stopped in to one of the newest, the Museo della Cartapesta (D). Also known as the Museum of Paper Maché, the Museo della Cartapesta is housed in the old castle just off the central square. This museum shows much of the history of paper maché in the region – they pretty much mastered it here – and has a number of incredibly ornate works representing many generations of artists who called the area home. From the early masters of the art who consolidated into a school and factory up through modern times, the museum traces the history and also happens to have the displays translated into English. Really quite nice.
From there it is a short walk back into the Piazzo Sant’Oronzo where the Amphitheatre is located. Despite the signs indicating the hours for the space it was not open during our visit. Still, worth looking down into from above and probably worth paying the Euro or two for admission, assuming it is open while you’re there.
Further up the road past the Duomo are several more churches, all incredibly Baroque in their façades. At the edge of the old city is the Gate of Saint Oronzo. He is widely credited with coordinating the city’s response to the Plague during the 17th century. Assuming you’ve got time (and unless you walk REALLY slowly, you still will even after the above circuit), it is worth wandering out that way to see.
Read more of our adventures in and around Lecce, Italy, here.
Both halves of the new United, Continental and United Airlines, have had frequent flyer partnerships with Emirates for some time now. The level of the relationship has varied over the years, but there was something there. Not any more.
When Continental joined Star Alliance they announced that the few flights that used to be eligible to earn elite qualifying miles would no longer do so, making earning only for award (RDM) miles. A few months later they announced that the partnership would end completely in March 2011.
United had permitted earning of RDMs only on Emirates flights but also had permitted redemptions into Emirates’ first class cabin; Continental only permitted business class redemption. The United redemptions were on a separate chart which made them a bit pricier to redeem but they were there. Now they are gone.
According to a post by Lucky the United partnership ends on May 28, 2011. That’s not even 60 days away. The deadline is for both bookings AND travel benefits.
Not a lot of notice for the partner to disappear, though also not much of a surprise given the way the relationship has played out and the way the new United’s route map looks. And they do still have Qatar Airways as a partner, at least for now, giving them some coverage in the region.
JetBlue has been adding partners at quite a clip lately (LAN was added earlier this week) but until now all reservations for such tickets have required booking through the other partners, not directly with JetBlue. As of today the ability to book with some interline partners has arrived at jetblue.com and the JetBlue call center.
Trips that connect with Aer Lingus, Cape Air and American Airlines can now be booked directly via JetBlue. The city pick list includes a number of additional destinations:
And the booking reflects the partner carriers in the list:
Still a few more partners yet to add for some of the more exotic and fun destinations, but those are likely coming in due time.
When the Department of Transportation announced in December 2009 that they were setting a hard limit on the amount of time flights could be delayed (the so-called "3-hour rule") before the operating carrier would be subject to significant fines there was quite the debate as to its potential impact. Many lauded the government for helping protect the passengers while others (self included) raised the point that more cancelled flights is worse for passengers than being stuck on the airplane but actually getting to the destination. Nearly a year into the new program the data available suggest that, so far, customers are losing far worse than expected from this policy.
With nine months of data available it is pretty clear that the number of 3-hour or longer tarmac delays is down. The DoT is making sure to trumpet that news and many media outlets are picking it up and running with it. They even have a pretty graph showing the impact of the rule:
Seems great, right? It is not.
Yes, there are fewer folks spending entirely too long in the plane on the way to wherever they are going, but that does not mean they are actually getting where they are going. It turns out that the number of flight cancelations has increased dramatically during this period as well, both as an absolute number and as a percentage of total scheduled flights. Actually, the latter is even worse as the total number of scheduled flights has decreased since the rule went into effect.
Here’s another look at the data, compiled based on the statistics published by the same federal agency that the DoT is using for the above numbers (click the images for the source data):
Yes, the variation in the size of the lines is much more dramatic in the bottom graph, but Marshall McLuhan would not be amused. It may look like the decrease in 3-hour delayed flights is more dramatic than the rise in cancelations, and in terms of percentages it is. But most significant is that the number of passengers displaced is MUCH higher because of the increased cancelations.
Oh, and the total number of flights operating each month was lower in 2010 than in 2009 so the fact that the cancelation numbers are higher in 6/10 samples and essentially the same in 3/10 is not a particularly comforting thought at all. That’s 90% of the sample since the rule went into effect where the percentage of flights canceled was higher than the previous year.
Load factors are running at or near all-time highs. This means that once a flight is canceled it is even harder to accommodate the affected passengers as there simply are no empty seats to place them in. So increasing the number of canceled flights certainly doesn’t seem to be the way to solve the problem of inconvenienced customers.
It should be pointed out that correlation certainly does not equal causation. Maybe there is another reason that there were so many flights canceled. But there is weather every year and the impact of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption was mostly confined to April 2010. Ironically that was the one month of the past 10 that had a lower cancelation rate.
Penalizing lots of customers for the sake of a select few is a bad way to operate. The Department of Transportation needs to take a hard look at these numbers and reconsider this policy. Delays and cancelations suck for everyone. The government should not be in the position of inducing them.
A bit more coverage of this phenomena can be found here, too
It is a bit complicated to fire someone that does not really work for you. Just ask Cosmo Kramer about getting fired from a job: "I don’t even really work here!" To which the boss replied, "That’s what makes this so hard." So when Amtrak‘s Police Chief John O’Connor caught wind of an apparent rogue screening checkpoint set up by the TSA at the Amtrak station in Savannah, Georgia, firing them was all that much more difficult. But that didn’t stop the Chief. Amtrak stations are currently off limits to TSA personnel until "a firm agreement can be drawn up to prevent the TSA from taking actions that the chief said were illegal and clearly contrary to Amtrak policy."
Apparently a TSA Visible Intermodal Protection and Response ("VIPR") team showed up at the Savannah Amtrak station, posted a note that anyone entering the building was subject to search and then proceeded to make good on that promise. Skipping over the fact that one can apparently board or depart trains in Savannah without ever entering the station, it is not clear who authorized or even requested the search. It is clear, however, that the actions were not in compliance with Amtrak’s policy regarding security.
“When I saw it, I didn’t believe it was real,” O’Connor said. When it developed that the posting on an anti-TSA blog was not a joke, “I hit the ceiling.”
The TSA’s comment on the event is, typically, a non-comment that avoids the issue. They actually come close to suggesting that they might have done something wrong, but do not go so far as to acknowledge that the VIPR action apparently violates Amtrak policies.
However, after looking into it further, we learned that this particular VIPR operation should have ended by the time these folks were coming through the station since no more trains were leaving the station. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused for those passengers.
Chief O’Connor is on record as believing that the TSA’s intrusive searches are excessive for his organization’s needs and possibly unconstitutional. The VIPR searches in Savannah affected all passengers, not a random sampling as Amtrak policy dictates. The VIPR searches also included the "wanding" of passengers and isolation of "sterile" and "non-sterile" environments, a policy that Amtrak does not implement at any of their stations.
It looks like the TSA has once again messed up. Not really much of a surprise there, but certainly depressing. Watch the video. And cry a little. Next time the TSA agent groping you at the airport suggests that you have other options if you do not want to fly, remember that you really do not.
In part one of this report I recounted a great award booking – even though it was all in economy and on small planes – to the Canadian Maritime provinces. Part two will cover my exploitation of the bmi Diamond Club program and their quite flexible routing and award zone rules.
It all started with plans to visit Bangkok in July for a friend’s wedding. With Thai Air still operating their incredibly long LAX-BKK flight I figured it would be nice to get a change to fly that route. Plus I have never been on the Airbus A340-500 so that’s an added bonus. It turns out that Thai has had a TON of award inventory available for westbound travel but nothing available coming back east. Turns out that isn’t much of a problem for me as I’ve turned a long weekend in Thailand into a RTW ticket adventure.
By sheer coincidence a friend of mine is going to be in Capetown, South Africa the week after the wedding. And I have the points available so why not? Even better is that the award cost from Thailand to South Africa is pretty cheap with Diamond Club. Oh, and I am flying via Mumbai, flying in on Thai and out on South African Airways. South African operates the A340-200 on the route which is also new to me.
And then I needed to get home from South Africa. This is where the Diamond Club rules become VERY favorable if you’re willing (or wanting!) a bit of an adventure. Most carriers only permit North Atlantic crossings for that award. Diamond Club permits South Atlantic crossings, too. So I’m taking one. Award seats form Johannesburg to Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo are pretty readily available.
Seats from there back north are a bit harder but I found some availability with Air Canada from Santiago to Toronto. Getting from Toronto to New York City is pretty easy with a ton of frequencies and a couple airports to choose from. To get from Buenos Aires to Santiago there is really only Star Alliance routing. It just so happens to leave 40 minutes before the flight from Johannesburg arrives. So I have a 23 hour 20 minute connection in Argentina. That’ll be fun.
So I’ve made it back to New York City and I’m home. That’s the end, right? Not for me. Diamond Club considers Puerto Rico part of their South America/Caribbean zone. And award flights from South Africa to South America are less expensive than those to North America. Based on straight geography that sortof makes sense – it should be fewer total miles flown – but getting to Puerto Rico can only be done via North America with the existing partners and routes. So I have a stopover in New York (one stopover is free on the bmi award) and then, two months later, a flight in first class from Newark to San Juan. It was actually many fewer miles to take the extra flight. Plus, I’ve been looking for a good excuse to get back to Puerto Rico, possibly in daylight this time. Given that the flight down there is better than free, I see no reason to skip that bit.
Put it all together and I’ve got this 31,586 mile masterpiece:
And all the flights save two short ones are in business class. All but one of the lines are new and a few of the aircraft are, too. All for under 200,000 Diamond Club points. I could’ve done it as cash & points for even fewer but I’m trying to use up my stash and this is a great way to do it.
The booking process was bit more frustrating than I generally enjoy, partly because my Skype connection was flaking out but mostly because the agents at the Diamond Club call center don’t have the best grasp of geography nor of the rules of their program. They initially tried to charge me 5 separate awards rather than the three I booked and all at higher rates than I should have paid. Fortunately I was able to eventually get a supervisor to understand and put it in correctly, but that was two extra hours of annoyance on the phone that I didn’t really need. Still, at the end of the day, completely worth it for this trip. Retail value on the ticket is somewhere north of $10,000; getting it on points for the routes and dates I wanted is just phenomenal.