UPDATE: The fare was pulled with the 1pm feed.
Rio is an awesome city, well worth a visit to experience the beaches, culture and people ((see links below for details from my prior visit). Earlier in the week American Airlines apparently wanted to help Floridians visit, offering up ridiculously cheap fares. I’m not seeing those fares still on offer right now but United Airlines is now following on American’s heels. They have apparently decided that they REALLY want people to visit Rio, so long as you are starting in Orlando. There are fares available right now for less than $500 all-in between Orlando and Rio, with no minimum stay requirements and reasonably wide open availability.
If you are feeling particularly creative and looking for a mileage run out of these fares it is not too hard to make something around 3.3 cents/PQM on United, thanks to routing rules which permit Denver to be used, at least on the outbound segment. Even without Denver getting 3.5 cents is pretty easy; just focus on the Houston routing as it is more miles than the Newark or Dulles options. The following is what I would earn as a 1K with a Denver routing:
There is generally better availability on slightly shorter and more reasonable routings but the ability to route the return via Newark has some other, unintended benefits for me in terms of positioning costs.
One caveat to the earning potential is that the United N fare is the lowest they offer and, as such, does not earn credit in several partner programs. Asiana, US Airways and United all will give 100% credit for these segments. Lufthansa‘s Miles & More, Aegean and TAP Air Portugal will not accrue points for this trip.
The fare is valid on a pretty wide range of dates as well. Here are the United fare rules:
Do keep in mind that Brazil requires a visa for visitors traveling on a US passport and it is not cheap to acquire. Still, the fare is awesome and the visa lasts 10 years, covering multiple future trips.
This is a great fare available for visiting a wonderful destination. And it probably won’t last long. I’ve got a couple on hold already and I’m looking at a few other options.
Access to Sao Paulo for US Airways was part of the deal they struck to trade slots with Delta at LaGuardia and Washington’s National airport. Now US Airways has finally announced their intended schedule of service for the route. Starting on May 5, 2013 the carrier will offer daily service on their 767-200 aircraft.
|Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) – Sao Paulo-Guarulhos (GRU)
|Sao Paulo-Guarulhos (GRU) – Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)
So, ummm, yeah…about those flight times.
The 4:30am arrival in Sao Paulo is just over an hour before the bus service into town starts up. Most days they’ll be vying with the TAM inbound from Madrid to see which is the first international arrival of the morning. That could be good in the form of shorter immigration and customs lines or it could be a mess with limited service available. The plane sits on the ground for a few hours at that point before turning around back to North America that same day. Most carriers fly both to and from Brazil as an overnight flight; US Airways is choosing to not leave a plane on the ground all day to make that happen. American Airlines and TAM both also have daytime flights but those two carriers offer both daytime and the overnight options (and more destinations at both ends).
And the 8:25am departure on the north-bound flight is mighty early. With the traffic in general and the distance from GRU to town that means a 5:30ish departure from the hotel in the morning to get going. Maybe 6am if you’re feeling a bit aggressive.
I can only assume that the 4:30am arrival time is dictated by the slot requirements. Otherwise there is nothing stopping the carrier from leaving an hour later and having a more reasonable arrival time in Brazil and better inbound connections in Charlotte. At least for the return it would seem that they need the aircraft to continue on to Europe at some point that same night, necessitating the earlier departure.
Unlike some previously announced longhaul routes US Airways is actually going to run this one it would seem. Perhaps not the best timed flights, but having the service at all is a pretty big step.
Brazilian airline Gol is struggling. They reported losses last week of BRL 201 million (~$96mm) for the quarter, the fifth loss in six reporting periods. And the outlook for the company doesn’t look particularly promising. They’re seeing huge cost spikes in their fuel and aircraft rental/leasing costs and continued pressure on currency exchange due to foreign debt. But they have a glimmer of hope: an IPO for their Smiles loyalty program.
Gol is the latest carrier to consider such an approach to raising capital. And, by most accounts, spinning off the loyalty program is a great way to raise cash. The programs are generally profit centers in the companies and their value is not fully realized so long as they’re just another cog in the bigger company. But can they maintain their profitability once separated?
Aeroplan, the program spun off from Air Canada seems to be doing a reasonable job of remaining profitable since that transaction but even there it hasn’t been a particularly smooth road. The stock price is still 4% below where it opened trading in October 2006, and that’s after dropping to less than half the initial pricing in late 2009. Then again, relative to the airline itself, the performance of Aimia is actually tremendous:
And that’s the real risk associated with these spin-offs: What happens if the airline falters? What happens if the ability to redeem the points for the primary reward opportunity disappears or changes dramatically? The value of the programs is based mostly on the ability to sell the points to 3rd parties – banks in the United States for their credit card portfolios – and those points are only valuable to the 3rd parties if the customers believe they can be redeemed for something useful. There may be a bit of a lag on the timing of the issue but the general concept works pretty well. So while spinning off the program can create an influx of capital for the airline, that only can last so long. The airline must also be able to right itself long-term. Air Canada seems to be reasonably stable, at least for now. It is not clear if Gol will be able to achieve such stability.
As for the spin-off becoming a trend, it isn’t just Gol looking at the possibility. Management in Brazil says they’ll decide in Q2 2013 on whether to actually have an IPO for the Smiles division. Jet Airways of India will be in action before then based on their announced plans. They are pursuing a similar path with their JetPrivilege program. And some private investors are looking at the Qantas program as another where the spin-off could make for a quick return on investment for shareholders. The current challenging economic conditions and the profitability of the loyalty programs make them ripe targets for quick cash. And the fact that handful of airlines have completed such a transaction successfully is emboldening to others considering the same path.
Hopefully they don’t have to go back to that well again, because this is generally a one-time cash infusion.
For residents of a few countries, those which have the most visitors to the United States, visa application and processing appears to be improving. The US Department of State is reporting that wait times for a visa interview in China is less than a week in most consulates, even as they have issued more than one million visas so far in this fiscal year, an increase of 43% from last year. In certain limited situations the agency has even been willing to waive the interview process.
Brazilian visitors are also applying in record numbers. The nation is also up more than 40% in application numbers over last year and is vying to be the third country to hit the one million annual applications level (Mexico is the other). And it looks like things will be getting better sooner than not for Brazil visits in both directions. Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, was in Brazil this past week for a series of meetings. One of the many things coming out of this visit was the signing of "a Statement of Intent to establish a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) Working Group." OK, so they’re just intending to form a working group to see if adding Brazil to the VWP country list is possible. Real progress on this front is a long time out. But it is definitely better that they’re moving in that direction. Assuming it goes through it should also see an end to the reciprocal visa charges for US citizens who want to visit Brazil (currently $160 for a 10 year visa). Considering that Brazilians are near or at the top of tourism spending this should be a welcome effort for large swaths of the US tourism industry. Plus, Brazil is an awesome place to visit.
Every little bit helps. In both directions.
In a move which has been anticipated for several months now, both Copa and Avianca/Taca have joined Star Alliance today. This move give the alliance an overwhelming grip on access to the Central America market and also significant access to South America. It also means that the alliance will almost certainly be losing Brazil-based member TAM in the very near future.
The Star Alliance website is now running a loop on their homepage announcing the new membership and the member airlines have also announced that today is the day, though the official press release from the alliance is not yet online.
Because of conditions set by the Chilean anti-trust officials TAM will not be allowed to complete their merger with LAN and have the combined carrier remain in the same alliance as Avianca/Taca. Today’s announcement further cements the theory that TAM is on the way out of the alliance.
Adding five new hubs in Central and South America (PTY, BOG, SAL, LIM and SJO), the Star Alliance route map is going to grow significantly.
While not all the destinations are truly new to the alliance, a number of them will be lost when TAM leaves so getting them back in is a great benefit. This adds a number of connections between North and South America (though the timing of the Copa flights is somewhat questionable in terms of convenience) and it adds additional trans-Atlantic connectivity, too.
Lots of fun to be had with this update. Lots of fun.
After spending my first several hours in Rio on the beach it was time to expand my horizons. Literally. There are two main attractions other than the beach – Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer. I didn’t have time to do both so I made the choice to go with easy and convenient. I hopped in a cab and headed to Sugarloaf to ride the tramway up to the top and look out over the beaches and skyline. Not nearly as high in elevation as Christ the Redeemer, but way more convenient to get to. And I managed to get a bit of both in anyways.
The cable-car ride up to the top of Sugarloaf is split into two sections. The views from the first base station are pretty impressive in their own right and there’s another bonus available. The lower station also happens to have a heliport built in allowing for tours of the area ranging from a 7 minute trip up to Christ the Redeemer and returning along the beach to hour long trips that cover the whole region. I had the conversion rate wrong in my head so I miscalculated the price of the short trip and thought it incredibly cheap (turns out it was just a fair deal) so I went in to ask about taking a ride.
A trip requires a minimum of three passengers and a maximum of four. I wasn’t going to be able to go just on my own. Fortunately for me, however, there were three women who had purchased a tour and there was an empty seat still on that trip. I was booked within moments and headed out to the helipad, hopeful that the clouds would clear and that we’d actually get up to Christ the Redeemer; it was iffy and no guarantees. Once again the timing worked in my favor and as we were loading up the helicopter the clouds cleared enough that we would be able to make the flight.
Moments later we were circling above the statue, looking down at the statue, the beaches, the city and the people of Rio. It was awesome.
Not surprisingly the 7 minute tour lasted exactly 7 minutes. And as we landed the next group was queued up and ready to go. I headed off to the next stage of the cable car and up to the top of Sugarloaf.
I was sold on Sugarloaf with the promise that every time you turn a corner the views are even better than the past ones. Ygor couldn’t have been more right about that. There was a small jungle at the top station and I wandered through, coming out at the edge of a cliff overlooking the downtown airport, with planes coming and going. Back out the other side were vistas of the beaches and the skyline, depending on which direction I turned (like the first photo in this post).
As I started to head down from the peak the weather quickly worsened. The wispy clouds that earlier threatened our flight up to Christ the Redeemer quickly switched to a full-on rain storm. I was soaked by the time I got in to the taxi at the bottom (the cable car is enclosed but there was some outdoor time between the rides) but I got a cab and made it to the airport without any trouble at all.
It was a tremendous finish to a wonderful day. Sure, the commute is a bit of a pain, but a day on the beaches and in the skies of Rio definitely didn’t suck. I’m quite happy I made the trip.
It is quite easy to see why sitting on the beach in Rio is a compelling way to pass the day. Both the Ipanema and Copacabana beaches were bustling on the Saturday I visited, filled with locals and tourists alike. My day started, as I like to do in any destination, with a local malted beverage and pastry. In my case a reasonably light beer and cheesy-bread (pao do quiejo) fortified me for the bus ride in to town and my morning of beach time.
The bus from the airport into town takes 30-40 minutes and pulls up right on the beaches, providing easy access to living the local dream. Before long I was wandering on the sand, occasionally dipping my toes in the Atlantic Ocean and watching families and friends enjoy the sun.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time on beaches filled with hawkers. I cannot ever remember enjoying the experience. Both Ipanema and Copacabana had hawkers everywhere. Everything from snacks to drinks to a new bikini (and, yes, even those guys were actually selling their wares) was on offer and there was a decent amount of action for the vendors. Maybe because they were generally doing OK without harassing people things seemed easier. Or maybe because I didn’t speak a word of Portuguese I just didn’t notice the annoyances. Either way, watching the waves roll in and out as hawkers and pretty people strolled by was a great way to spend a few hours.
Ask anyone who has spent time in Rio which beach they prefer and you’ll most certainly get an answer. It is not a question about which many folks are indifferent. I spent about 2 hours on each beach. For my time and money, Copacabana is the place to be. I’m not entirely sure why I feel that way – both were fine – but Ipanema felt a bit more hectic and active to me, I think, and I generally want my beach time to be down time. Even within Copacabana the eastern end (closer to Ipanema) is more active, but by the middle of the beach things thin out pretty quickly, making it really easy to relax.
When the time comes to sit down and relax on the beach there are plenty of vendors with chairs and umbrellas available. Just a couple bucks for the day and way better than dealing with schlepping your own gear out to the beach. Most also offer bar and snack service, though that is also quite easily secured from the hawkers.
Of course, it is also important to partake of the local goods while enjoying the beach time. In addition to the hawkers selling bikinis on the beach there are plenty of options for buying gear, including a nearly endless variety of flip flops, surf boards and other goodies.
Oh, and local beverages, too. Walking the promenade, coconut in hand, is a an awesome way to cool off in the sun. Reasonably priced, too, around $1.50 each. The view alone is probably worth that, not to mention the cool sweet nectar.
And, as the afternoon rolls on and the happy hour spirit kicks in to gear there is arguably nothing better than an ice-cold caipirinha served up on the beach. I certainly had my share.
I also had lunch just off the beach at Devassa. It is both a brewery and a restaurant, with the different beers named for the women the represent – blondes, brunettes & redheads – and they were quite delicious. The food was decent, too. It is definitely a touristy place to eat, but the beers made it worth a visit for me.
Not a bad way to pass a few hours, soaking up rays. And this was only part of the day. With about 3 hours left before I had to head to the airport I shifted elevations, up into the sky to see more of the city.
My trip to Rio was pretty ridiculous. I was scheduled to be on the ground only about 12 hours in total, with a travel time of about 16 hours each way. Probably not the most rational trip, but that just means it makes more sense to me. Flying via Houston in both directions I was fortunate to be on one of the United Airlines 767-400s that has been retro-fit with the new lie-flat seats up front and AVOD and E+ in the back. I was seated in coach for the long-haul segments (the short-haul upgrades did clear, but nothing particularly remarkable there) and I was very much looking forward to giving the new seats a try.
For the southbound segment I was seated in the bulkhead window seat and I had an empty seat next to me. The bulkhead offers up plenty of legroom and I generally prefer the fixed arm-rest in between the seats. The main drawback of this seat, as seen in the photo, is that the window is missing. It is possible to lean forward an look out, but that isn’t particularly comfortable for very long.
The food was rather awful – long-haul coach meals have suffered greatly in my recent trips – but it was enough to hold me over until the movie was over and I was ready to sleep, something that I did reasonably well with the space I had available, along with the pillows and blankets from both my seat and my unoccupied neighbor.
Speaking of the movies, I was very impressed with the selections available on the system. There were roughly 150 titles listed. Filtering out the multiple language listings of the same films there were still around 100 to watch and the collection spanned a broad range, from true classics (e.g. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Casablanca) to more recent classics (e.g. The Princess Bride & Ferris) to a decent smattering of recent releases. It isn’t the absolute broadest collection I’ve seen on a plane, but it was more than enough to keep me entertained. I was also quite happy to see that there is a USB plug attached to the video screen. Charging my phone from there while I slept meant waking up with a full battery, ready to attack the day.
The return flight was roughly the same. I was still in a window seat in the E+ section but not the bulkhead. To me it felt like about the same amount of space overall, with the obvious difference of having a seat reclining into me. The food was similarly awful and the sleep similarly coach-induced.
I had a bunch more photos to share of the in-flight experience. Alas, I left my laptop on the plane at the end of the trip and when I returned 3 hours later it was gone. If anyone sees a used red Asus eee 10" with a gouge in the top cover on sale somewhere please let me know. I’m in the market for one.
Also, keep an eye out for a couple more posts from this trip covering the time I spent on the ground in Brazil. I may have only been there for 12 hours but I packed a whole lot of fun into the trip.
As 2011 comes to a close it is time once again to look back at all the crazy I’ve managed to experience in such a short period of time. This was once again a banner year for me, with plenty of new experiences. It also had a number of repeats, however, and those were mostly good, too. And so, without further ado, some of the highlights of my 2011 travel numbers.
It was a personal best for me in terms of total miles flown at 217,781. That is more than eight times around the globe (though I only did that as an actual trip once) or 87% of the way to the moon. The miles were spread across 103 segments for an average of over 2100 miles/flight; apparently this was the year of long-haul for me. That said, I also managed to grab some really short flights, like a 93 mile hop from Carlsbad, CA to Los Angeles. Awesome views of sunrise on that one.
It was also the year of one million actual flight miles. I actually know there are many more from other trips as a kid that I cannot properly document so I’m not counting them, but I definitely became a millionaire this year.
Of the 104 segments there were 54 routes I had previously not flown. There were also 54 in coach. That’s right, more than half the flights (though only 47% of the total miles flown) were in coach. It isn’t always champagne and caviar for me, though there is plenty of that, too. Oh, and only 5 of those segments were work-related, making up less than 1% of the total mileage flown. Only 19 of the flights were on regional planes of fewer than 90 seats.
Speaking of airplanes, I flew on 33 different aircraft types, including 7 I had not previously flown on. I finally got to fly on an A380 (though I had been on one a few times prior) and I got to fly the 787 in its first week of commercial service. I also got the A345 and A342, a Dash8-100 and an E35, completing my collection of all the Embraer RJs. That’s something of an ignominious accomplishment, but there it is.
I flew on 17 different carriers, of which 5 were new to me. SriLankan, AirOne, South African, ANA, Austrian and Alaska Airlines were the new ones and all but AirOne were quite pleasant.
As for where I traveled, there weren’t as many new countries for me this year – only 7 – as last. Austria, South Africa, Mauritius, China, Brazil, Argentina and Sri Lanka are the new entries in that collection, bringing my total number over 50. I managed to enter a foreign country 20 times through the year, plus all the returns to the USA. No wonder I needed extra pages in my passport. Again. Two of the trips had 3 countries in them; I’ll best that mark early in 2012 with a six-crossing week in January.
Perhaps the most surprising number to me, however, was the total spend I had in consular fees. I paid for new pages for my passport and for my wife. There were also the visas required for India, China, Brazil and Argentina (though I ended up getting out of that last one). Overall I spent nearly $1,000 on consular fees alone. No regrets there at all, but the numbers can add up in a hurry.
I didn’t count how many nights were in hotels or on airplanes (something to add to my list next year, I suppose) but my best guess count based on my TripIt records is nearly 100 nights spent not at home.
There was a trip derailed by an earthquake (I ended up in Guam/Hong Kong instead of Tokyo) and then two more trips later in the year to Tokyo to make up for it. I had an airline try to charge me more while at the gate and I managed to take a VDB in a foreign language. I got to drive a jet bridge, load baggage, make boarding announcements and walk a plane out on pushback (all appropriately supervised, of course).
I got to join three different couples in celebrating their weddings all over the world and narrowly missed out on crashing a couple more wedding parties here in India towards the end. I got to relive a bit of history with TWA and a ride in a helicopter over the tip of South Africa.
I saw penguins, went diving in the Pacific and pet an elephant in India. There were also giraffes, cheetahs and antelopes. Plenty of wild in my life.
Indeed, it was a good year, maybe even a great year. And 2012 shows no signs of that letting up. Happy new year to all; may your upgrades clear and your flights on time.
The proposed merger of South America’s two largest carriers, LAN and TAM, precipitated many questions. Perhaps the most significant from frequent fliers was the future of the loyalty program. LAN is a member of the oneworld alliance while TAM recently joined Star Alliance. A merged program will have to pick one of those with the decision having great significance in the South American travel market.
Thanks to the Chilean government it appears that the decision has been made and that the carrier will be remaining in oneworld.
The Chilean Tribunal de Defensa de la Libre Competencia (Court of Defense of Free Trade) handed down their approval for the two carriers to merge this week with a laundry list of conditions attached. Here are details on a few of the most significant conditions:
Numbers 1 & 4 require that LATAM give up 4 landing slots in Sao Paulo to allow another carrier to establish service on the Sao Paulo – Santiago route in order to maintain a competitive fare environment on that route. Additionally, LATAM is prohibited from dumping inventory onto that route within 15 minutes of the newly scheduled service once the new entrant has declared their interest in operating the service. Rule 13 also prohibits the new carrier from raising fares on the route versus their aggregate historical averages for one year.
Number 9 requires that LATAM not oppose any foreign carrier’s application to operate with additional freedoms on domestic Chilean routes or to provide service that would otherwise be seen as cabotage. This would effectively allow tag-on flights for long-haul carriers or regional flights within Chile for other airlines in South America. LATAM is required to endorse such requests without demanding reciprocity.
And then there is number 6:
Latam deberá renunciar, dentro de un plazo que no exceda 24 meses contados desde la fecha en que se materialice la Operación consultada, al menos a una de las dos alianzas globales en que a esa fecha participan sus partes, LAN y TAM. En ningún caso podrá pertenecer a aquélla en la que también el grupo Avianca/Taca sea miembro o asociado, o se encuentre en proceso de ingresar.
Within 24 months of realizing the merger the airline is required to resign from at least one of the two global alliances in which is currently participates. Moreover, the carrier must not be in the same alliance as Avianca/Taca, the other powerhouse merging carrier in South America. With Avianca/Taca moving rather quickly down the path of joining Star Alliance this clause leaves oneworld the only rational result.
The other options are to go independent, a tough move to make in that region, or to try for SkyTeam. But with Aerolineas Argentinas set to join SkyTeam it doesn’t seem likely that the competition courts would be too happy to see such a move. They could also try to thwart the entrance of TACA/Avianca from Star Alliance if they want to stay with the group. That would be a most interesting political move and a most unlikely one as well.
The court ruling lays out a pretty clear framework for the carriers to work within and a reasonable timeline through which the changes must be made. Unless the Brazilian government comes up with a major surprise on their conditions for the merger it looks like this one is ready to happen in early 2012 with all the details finally falling into place.