Sunday, December 11, 2011

Singapore Airlines and Air China now bookable on Continental's award booking engine

I was looking around Continental's website today trying to figure out whether there's still Saver award ticketa going back to Asia this month. I am not expecting any surprise. The best I was hoping to get was a coach seat on Asiana or All Nippon Airways. But my search yielded something really interesting:

It turns out that Continental's award search engine can now show availability in Singapore Airlines and Air China!

I did some dummy search and this picture shows how amazing the routings are from San Francisco to Shanghai:

SQ 1 and SQ 832 will be worth every mile spent!

And search SFO to SIN, SQ's A380 shows bookable.

Search NRT to FRA, you will find NH's 787 also shows availability.

Well, I hope the merged United will keep this great feature.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ANA to give away 50 original baggage tags to lucky winners

In an email to ANA Mileage Club members today, the airline has offered their members to participate in their sweepstake for a chance to win an ANA original baggage tag.

To qualify, you must be a member of their frequent flyer program first. You can register in a couple of minutes. Once you completed this easy and free enrollment, click here, enter your membership number and PIN, then post your idea about their "Inspiration of Japan" service, which is coming to San Francisco on December 6, 2011.

Asiana Airlines joined disaster relief effort in Bangkok

According to an update on their Facebook page, Asiana Airlines has sent 2000 boxes of drinking water, 1000 boxes of ramen, 1000 boxes of blanket, and other necessities to those who have been affected by the flooding in Bangkok, Thailand. 

The recent flood has not only taken a toll in the city, it has also disrupted normal flight operations in Bangkok's second largest airport, Don Muang airport (DMK), which is used as a domestic airport, was hit hard. Bangkok's major international gateway, Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK), has not been affected yet, reported by The Washington Post.

Major carriers in Asia, such as Asiana Airlines, Korean Air Line, Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific, have reported no large-scale cancellation or disruption. Thai Airways has released their policies regarding reservation, rescheduling and refund. United Airlines has issued travel waivers to passengers to Bangkok.

I was in Bangkok in July. It is a beautiful city and I had a great time walking around Suvarnabhumi Airport and checking out Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines' lounges. Detailed reports on this trip coming soon.

My fingers crossed for those affected by flood in Thailand.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hotel review: The Mira Hong Kong

I arrived in Hong Kong on Easter Sunday in 2011 on Dragonair! It was a great flight, as you can read about it in my previous review. From Hong Kong, I will proceed to Singapore to attend a meeting. The flight with Cathay Pacific was scheduled at noon of the next day. So, finally, I was in Hong Kong, the pearl of the Orient, the jewel of Asia, for the very first time. I had about 23 hours to explore the city.

A little hazy out there.
While I was still planning for this trip, I put more thoughts into booking the hotel than the flights. I was not looking for a hostel, or a cheap hotel located in places that are a little bit "off". I wanted to find a place that could give me: 

1. Easy access to attractions in the city.
2. Good facility and services so that the hotel itself wouldn't become the reason I hate this city
3. And, last but not least, I wanted it to be a bang for my buck.

In terms of easy access to attractions, I was looking for hotels within reasonable walking range from MTR. It would be better if the hotel was near Tsim Sha Tsui, but InterContinental was quite expensive at the time. I actually had the option of living for free in a double deluxe room in Marriott Sky City. However, it was way off and so, I saved the option for the next time.

I had heard about other people talking about the horrible things they had experienced in hotels/hostels in Hong Kong, like rats, cockroaches, creepy people, tiny room and so forth. One of my close friends mentioned the infamous Chungking Mansions. He dared me to give it a shot at the "best" but I decided to save the "best" for the next time.

Inside Chungking Mansions. A lot of things are going on at the same time there.
I always feel it's best to save something and not do it so that I will have a good reason to return to the place. And so, for my first visit, I was surprised by myself that I was willing to spend some extra money for a better hotel.

After searching various booking engines and hotel websites, I narrowed down to two options:

a. City Garden Hotel
b. The Mira Hong Kong

Both hotels were offering decent three-day advance booking deal for the Easter weekend. The cheapest room, called Deluxe Room, in City Garden Hotel cost about $150 U.S. dollar per night for the night I wanted, and the cheapest in The Mira Hong Kong, known as Studio, was a little over $180 U.S. dollar.

Both deals were great, and both came with free Internet access and Wifi, which was fabulous. Furthermore, City Garden Hotel offered free breakfast, while The Mira is a boutique hotel and a member of Design Hotel.

So, for me, I was a very tough call. I looked at the reviews and pictures, I watched videos and I read history of both properties. I ran the pros and cons list again and again just to help me decide whether or not to spend an extra 30 bucks.

It was an extremely intense night. Long story short, I pulled the trigger and booked a night at The Mira because it's closer to many key attractions, and, it was on sale. A Studio normally costs over $210 per night, and can go up to over $250 sometimes.

In the end, as it turned out, I think I made the right move. I wanted to see as many attractions in one day as possible. And The Mira Hong Kong itself is a gorgeous attraction.

When I asked a volunteer for direction to The Mira at the information desk of Hong Kong Tourism Board, she gasped and said:"Wow! It's a nice hotel!"

And, indeed, it is.

Lobby area at night.
Lobby area during the day.
The hotel, formerly Hotel Miramar, reopened in 2009 after a renovation, is chic, sleek and modern. The décor looks very class. The lobby area is quite dark, compared to most of the hotels, but it was not a problem. In fact, I found this kind of darkness very classy.

Very comfortable, queen-sized bed
The Studio room is very small. Actually, a lot smaller than I had expected. However, I was well-aware of the fact that I was in Hong Kong and since I was traveling alone and didn't have a lot of luggage, the size of the room was not a major concern. The size of the bed was quite big.

The major drawback of the Studio is the bathroom. There is not enough space to fit in a bathtub. So only shower is provided. But again, the shower room is well-equipped. Along with the traditional shower head, it comes with a rain forest shower head.

Shower room
The size and the shower room may be a little disappointing. I felt that maybe larger, more pricey rooms and suites will be superb. So I decided to call room service and ask them what kind of loyalty membership program they have. As I was looking for a phone, I found a cell phone instead. Calling the hotel front desk is free, but if you call a local number, say, a restaurant, standard charges apply. It's a nice idea. Guests, especially those who are transiting, can carry the phone all over Hong Kong during their stay and don't have to worry about hefty roaming fees from using their own cell phone.

So I called the front desk, the staff told me that they don't have a loyalty program yet. Their only airline partner, up to that day, was Finnair.

Well, what can I say, they portrait themselves as an upscale boutique hotel. They are one-of-a-kind. Maybe a loyalty program is not needed.

Internet inside the room is very stable and fast. The room is also equipped with tons of high-tech gadgets.

Inside the mini-bar, there were an array of non-alcoholic, such as tea and coffee, and many miniature alcoholic drinks. There were also a few bags of Doritos and some chips. Bottled water is free and so I put them in the fridge and take them out later when I walked around the city.

I set out to explore in the city for most of the afternoon, evening and the night. When I came back, I had a warm, nice shower and went to bed. The bed, duvet and the pillows were very comfortable. I had a dreamless night.

I checked out early the next morning and kept my bags at the concierge, so that I can spend the morning walking around without the burden of my backpack. I found the city very interesting and worth visiting multiple times in future.

The Mira Hong Kong
To wrap up my impression of The Mira Hong Kong, I think it's a great hotel and I would definitely recommend it to people to give it a try. Next time, I would probably stay in one of their larger rooms. If you feeling size of the Studio is not a big issue, paying under $200 after tax for a chic boutique hotel with great staff, central location that gives you easy access to just anywhere, super modern, clean and awesome ambiance is totally worth it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

United Airlines open house: Family Day 2011

Earlier this month, I mentioned that I would attend the 6th annual United Family Day Open House in San Francisco. It turns out to be a great event! 

United and Continental parked four planes, one A320 in new United livery, another United A320 retro-jet, a Continental Boeing 737-900ER retro-jet and a Boeing 777-200 in the tulip livery. They also had a Boeing 747-400 in new livery making a low pass fly-by during the open house.

Here are some pictures:

The plane pull took place at about 1:30 p.m. and a group of Flyertalkers pulled this A320.

ANA departing for Narita
Retro-jets were the stars!

United 747 fly-by! Wooooooosh! And there it goes! Too fast and I wasn't able to zoom in!

Beautiful day!
In 2012, United and Continental will become one company!

The military also flew some of their front-line fighter jets to the show. There was the Blue Angels' F/A-18s, Fat Albert, and a couple of F-15s. 

These are the killers!

So damn cool.
And the Blue Angels!

Ready for the Fleet Week!
And the Army brought their work horse, UH-60 Black Hawk.

Beautiful baby
And the tulip color. Not much days left for this design.

A beauty
Later in the after noon, I checked out their engine testing facility.

For those who weren't able to make it this year, let me tell you, it's a plane freak's "wet dream" comes true. So, look sharp, when registration on opens up again next September! 

Again, I was able to make it, thanks to the generosity from United Airlines to the frequent flyer community. I hope this event gets better each year.

ANA to introduce “Inspiration of Japan” on San Francisco - Narita (Tokyo) route

This Tuesday, I attended the ANA "Inspiration of Japan" open house at San Jose City Hall, also known as, The Rotunda.
"Inspiration of Japan" Open House
The event was aimed to showcase ANA's new cabin products, named "Inspiration of Japan". This new service brand is based on three concepts "Innovative", "Original" and "Modern Japan" and will be launched on San Francisco - Narita route on December 6, 2011.

Opened to ANA Mileage Club members on Tuesday morning, I arrived early with membership card in hand and, as promised, received ANA amenity goods and a mini tote bag. Sweet!

All the good stuff!
My brand-new ANA Mileage Club card also gave me an entry to the drawing of free roundtrip ticket to Tokyo. But I have not heard from them yet. So that means I didn't win.

The economy cabin features new fixed-back shell seats, which won't recline into the passenger behind. Thus, legroom will be a little more spacious than their current economy cabin. And I found it's close to Economy Plus. IFE and other gadgets look somewhat similar to the current Singapore Airlines product, with in-seat power, USB port, iPod connector, cup-holder, footrest and a nice big 10.6" touch panel monitor.

Business class features staggered layout on their newly-designed Boeing 777-300ER, which makes sure each seat has aisle access.

Full flat seat capable of fine adjustment!
The seat is designed to maximize personal space and provide great privacy. Sliding table is 150 percent larger than before. The LCD touch panel screen is huge.

First class completely blew my mind.

ANA First Square
This is indeed a masterpiece that marries aviation comfort with Japanese culture. The ingenuity can be seen in the design of storage space.

Many little storage cabinets for personal belongings.
This is such an amazing product! On ANA's own website, they have created a virtual tour.

According to a staff at the open house, United and ANA have started to share revenue through a joint venture. Members of the both airlines can choose to earn and credit base miles and bonus miles in each other's program!

ANA has been one of my favorite airlines. I had the best airline food ever on their Osaka Kansai to Shanghai flight in July, 2011. A staff there told me that ANA actually cooks the rice up in the air. 

"We don't just heat it up in the microwave", he said. "We are the only one figured out how to cook that right mid-air."

He mentioned that ANA is considering adding a daily service between San Jose and Narita.
"With many high-tech companies in south bay and peninsula, we see a stronger growth potential for passengers from these areas than San Francisco", he said.

The San Jose - Narita route will possibly be operated with their new Boeing 787. 

"Inspiration of Japan" is a work of art, and it makes me wonder: Who is not tempted to fly with ANA?

Shanghai to Hong Kong in Dragonair's economy class

Flight: KA 859 (CX 6737)
Route: SHA - HKG
Aircraft: Airbus Industrie 330
Date: Apr. 24, 2011
Class of service: Economy
Fare: Q
Check-in at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, Terminal 1.

It was a flight scheduled at noon. I arrived at the terminal well in advance and received a NotiFly SMS while waiting in the line. It's Cathay Pacific's flight notification service. However, I later found that it does not provide updated flight information, such as delay or cancellation. (At least, not in my case.) 

I am not a member of Marco Polo Club. In fact, this was my virgin flight on a Oneworld carrier. So everything was a wild adventure. I have heard a lot of good things about Dragonair and Cathay Pacific, even for their coach product. And Dragonair was awarded by SkyTrak as the best regional airline. That's why I still have very high expectation, though the booking experience was sub-par at best.

Nearby, ANA and Japan Airlines were also checking in passengers. When it was my turn, I was ushered to a counter that checks business passengers. Great. First thing I asked was whether this flight is overbooked. Yes. KA 859 was on this Sunday, but, unfortunately, this is the only KA flight out of SHA and I had a hotel booked in Hong Kong. I told the agent to go ahead to assign a window seat for me. I ended up in 46A.

The A330 that took me to Hong Kong.
I walked around the departure level. Terminal 1 was a very old facility. It's not among one of the gleaming airports you would normally see today in Asia. In it's prime time, United 747-400 was still in grey livery. Now, Terminal 1 only serve a few international routes to Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. The rest of the facility was taken over by a local budget carrier.

It's not a facility designed for plane-spotters. Actually, it's the most photo-unfriendly airport I had had the displeasure of visiting. Lounges looked old and unappealing from the outside. There was not enough outlets for laptops and Wifi coverage is pathetic. I couldn't check my email prior to departure.

Once settled into the cabin, it was another world. Dragonair's flight attendant on this flight caught my attention. They are so gorgeous! I couldn't take my eyes (and mind, until today) off them. Their uniform is such an elegant masterpiece. I was greeted with smile, good eye contact and professional service. A flight attendant helped me with carry-on luggage.

Visibility was not great. Smog is a problem in China.
We pushed back on time, after JAL 82 to Haneda. I noticed a lot of Japanese business travelers on that flight. One reason maybe both SHA and HND are located closer to city center and, thus, give businessperson faster access to hotel/conference.

JAL Boeing 777-200 looks much cleaner than my KA bird.
Once airborne, the sky cleared up. Anyone who had been in China for awhile could tell you the same story about smog. Clear blue sky at low altitude is not guaranteed. Smog sometimes could go from bad and then straight to worse, for no obvious reason, and wouldn't clear up for a week.

En route to HKG!
Shanghai to Hong Kong and Beijing to Hong Kong are the equivalent of San Francisco and Los Angeles to JFK in terms of the importance of the route itself. Dragonair didn't named the service between these city pairs Premium Service but these two routes they operate feature new products introduced earlier this spring. And I was fortunate enough to be an early bird to try this product.
Menu for economy class. Two selections offered for entrée.

I ordered Chicken in Burgundy Sauce, Potatoes and Vegetable, then began to check the seat. It is somewhat worn. The IFE is old and the screen is small and has no anti-glare. Videos are not on-demand. Selections are okay and I am not very picky about movies in general, and the flight itself was too short for any movie. So I didn't bother watching anything. Legroom is about average.

Chicken in Burgundy Sauce, Potatoes and Vegetable
I was a part-time food critic for a publication in Shanghai at that time. So I consider myself a quasi-professional when it comes to food. In terms of airline food, this dish was not the most creative. Presentation was, well, just okay. Anyways, it still looked appetizing to me. I have seen those horrible turkey sandwich served on Continental/United flights before and, considering the fact that this was served on a two-hour flight without additional charge, I wouldn't complain. For this particular dish, before even tasting it, I would give a base score of 3.5 out of 5.

The main course was actually not bad. I finished them all. Chicken was nicely marinated and very juicy. Veggie tasted a little mild but the potato was cooked perfectly, crunchy on the outside and tender inside.

Very cute wine cup.
Time to wash everything down with some white wine. And finish it off with a dessert. Dragonair's solution is Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

No need to scream for ice-cream!
Financially, this ice cream service in coach class works favorably for Dragonair. It has actually become one of their killing public relations advantage against competitors who do not offer ice cream. Since Haagen-Dazs is among some of the over-priced western brands in China, rumor has it that there are people in Shanghai and Beijing dying to fly with Dragonair just to get a chance to enjoy a free ice cream at 30,000 feet! The same thing would cost RMB 78, or roughly $10, at sea level in a 7-Eleven in Shanghai. If KA's fare is competitive, people will fly KA for their service.

A nice, warm Easter Sunday down below in Hong Kong.
Approaching was uneventful. Announcements were made in three languages, or, to be more exact, two languages, English and Mandarin, and a dialect of Mandarin, Cantonese. I especially love the Cantonese version. Those Hong Kong flight attendants use phrases different from Mandarin to describe a similar thing. For example, aircraft is "hang-gi" (航機) , instead of "fei-ji" (飛機).

Finally, I arrived in Hong Kong!

Nathan Road, near MTR Tsim Sha Tsui Station.

Friday, October 28, 2011

e-Miles now a partner of United MileagePlus and Continental OnePass

I just got an email today from MileagePlus Partners. It offers me to sign up with e-miles, a survey website that rewards airline miles, and receive 200 miles as sign-up bonus.

For me, 200 miles is nothing. But if you have a MileagePlus account with some residue miles and you have not been flying for awhile. I recommend you respond to this offer. Getting 200 miles will extend the expiration date for your mileage balance. And, if you don't find answering a few survey a week annoying or time-consuming, it's one way to accrue frequent flyer miles without flying.

From my personal experience with such website as e-miles, E-rewards, Mypoints, Bing Rewards and so forth, I think it's better to have them than have not. Especially when you find yourself not traveling as much as before and have tons of miles in different accounts going to expire.

I found survey questions from e-miles generally easy and quick. I didn't spend a lot of time at all.

I signed up with e-miles with Delta SkyMiles as transfer partner in early 2010. I have only managed to get 1,000 miles out of it but since I don't fly Delta, it's a way to keep my account active. Though the miles won't expire anymore, I am not sure if they will close my account if it remains inactive for too long.

I will sign up with e-miles again this time with both my MileagePlus and OnePass accounts to maximize the miles I can get before OnePass termintes in 2012.

I have E-rewards and redeemed twice since I joined in April 2011. I got 1,000 Continental OnePass miles. I hope I can get 500 more by the end of the OnePass program. E-rewards is also very easy to use but the survey tend to be tedious.

I have MyPoints account but I haven't redeemed anything yet. The offer I want to get is 5,000 United MileagePlus miles but it takes 10,100 points. The good news is that points do expire so I can let them keep growing in a long time, but it's a big spammer and takes a lot of time.

Bing Rewards comes with Microsoft's search engine, Bing. It's very easy to use. So I recommend signing up with it and earn some gift cards from time to time.

Last but not least, if you don't want to have too many emails from these websites in your inbox, I recommend you use an email account for these things and check it only when you want to take those surveys. Another way to avoid a cluttered inbox is to set up filters.

Free $25 American Express Shop Small gift card from FedEx

I have a Fedex account but rarely use it for shipping.

I received an email yesterday from the company saying they are offering free $25 American Express Shop Small gift card on November 1st through 11:59 p.m. ET on November 7, 2011 or while supplies last, whichever is sooner. Limit 1 per person/email address; limit 2 per household.

It seems that to register for this offer, one has to like the Facebook page of Fedex first. I have not found any information about this offer in their fan page yet.

A thread in is discussing the details of the offer. The exact starting time on November 1st is still not confirmed from any trusted sources.

A post said it's 1pm ET, November 1st. However, there's a chance that it can start at midnight, or anytime.

Such offer won't last long though. I would recommend anyone to register as soon as it starts. Though 30,000 American Express cards sounds like a lot, it will run out in a matter of five minutes or so.

Set up a reminder for this offer in your calendar, so you will not forget.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Enter Southwest Airines' Providence 15th Anniversary Sweepstakes

The last sweepstakes offer of the day.

According to Southwest Airlines, they are celebrating 15 years of their service at T.F. Green Airport. This sweepstakes offer includes:
  • Two Roundtrip tickets on Southwest Airlines to Orlando, Florida.
  • 2-nights hotel accommodations with breakfast at Omni Championsgate in Orlando
Click through this link to enter this sweepstakes.

United "A Million Reasons to Go to Las Vegas" Sweepstakes

Here's another sweepstakes offer from United. 

According to their website:
  • Grand prize winner will receive 250,000 MileagePlus award miles and a 3-night Las Vegas vacation package, including a first-class flight and hotel stay
  • 2 winners will receive 100,000 MileagePlus award miles and a 3-night flight and hotel Las Vegas vacation
  • 2 winners will receive 100,000 MileagePlus award miles
  • 5 winners will receive 70,000 MileagePlus award miles
 I just did it. Why wait? Do it now! To join the sweepstakes, register now through this link and simply enter your MileagePlus number or booking a Las Vegas vacation package from United Vacations by Nov 7, 2011.

Enter to win United Cruises' 1,000,000 mile sweepstakes

This doesn't seem to be a targeted promotion. 

Though I generally don't believe in those sweepstakes, I still join them each and every time. The recent Cathay Pacific $100 ORD-HKG sweepstakes in July had been one of them. I didn't win but in their Terms and Conditions, Cathay Pacific wrote that they will publish a list of all the sweepstakes winner. However, I cannot find any such list anywhere on their website. Maybe you can help me?

Anyways, don't take those sweepstakes too seriously, but they are worth trying.

For those who have not signed up with United Cruises before, do it now via this link. But even if you had signed up with United Cruises, just enter your email and zip code there before Dec. 31 will also get you into the sweepstakes. So, it's easy as hell. Just do it and see if you can win!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

This weekend: United Family Day Open House 2011 and San Francisco Fleet Week

This weekend I'll be attending the 6th annual United Family Day Open House at United Airlines Maintenance Center in San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

The event will be held on Sunday, October 9th from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. I was very fortunate to be able to snatch a ticket when registration opened up on September 21. I am so excited, as it is the first time I am going to attend such a cool event!

According to an announcement made by the organizer earlier on, there will be lots of activities and exhibits, including a display of United aircraft, classic airplanes and smaller civil aircraft. Employees will be offering guided tours of one of United’s wide body aircraft, the maintenance facility and a close up look at many aircraft engines.

From what was reported from last year's United Family Day, there will be food, music and plane pull. The event will probably also feature the Blue Angels, who is participating in this year's Fleet Week in San Francisco.

Apart from that, frequent flyers from all over the nation has voluntarily organized a pre-United Family Day Gathering at United Airlines' Red Carpet Club in the International Terminal.
But, for me, I will not join the pre-party at SFO this year because I am here in the Bay Area already and getting in by purchasing a fully refundable ticket adds a lot of hassle. To make the day even better, I plan to visit San Francisco's Fleet Week for a ship tour in the morning. Some of the Navy's state-of-the-art warships, such as USS Antietam and USS Milius, are open to public for free. Aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson will not be open to visitors.

It was rainy these days. Let's just hope Sunday will be a good day with sun, a fun crowd and many beautiful planes and ships!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Trip planning: Hong Kong and Singapore on Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, The Mira Hong Kong and Mandarin Orchard

I returned from Singapore via Hong Kong on May 1st, 2011. My experience with Cathay Pacific and its affiliate, Dragonair, was hit-and-miss, but I love Hong Kong and Singapore a lot, especially both their outstanding airports. Since Singapore Airlines is always pricey, and low-cost carriers sells fast, chances are I may fly with Cathay Pacific again.

This trip was not meant to be frugal because I was there to attend a meeting, which lasted for a week, and I already saved some money for this trip. By the time I was about to plan this itinerary, I was still based in Shanghai, going to school and writing for an expat magazine. This was my first job. My monthly salary at that time was 3,000 Chinese Yuan or around $466 U.S. dollar. The costs of the trip will be partly covered by my school, but in order to get the most out of this experience, I had to save as much as humanly possible.

When the details of the meeting and the schedule got finalized, it was around mid-March. I only have about a month and a half to plan for this trip. Popular low-cost airlines such as AirAsia and JetStar were no longer a feasible option because cheap fare had sold out several months, if not a year ago. I shopped around a little on many websites, including Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, as well as airline websites, and found that my options were pretty straightforward for this simple round trip between Shanghai and Singapore:

1. Fly coach on Singapore Airlines (SQ). SQ operates this route with Boeing 777-200ER and has several departure slots from Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG).

2. Fly coach on China Eastern (MU). MU had bought out Shanghai Airlines (FM) earlier this year. There's the possibility of flying on either MU's old A300 or a FM's equipment.

3. Fly coach on Cathay Pacific (CX) and Dragonair (KA), with a connection in Hong Kong. CX and KA operates PVG (SHA) to HKG with many different types of aircraft, including A330, A320 and Boeing 777-300. For HKG to SIN, CX offers the choice of A330 and Boeing 777-300.

Now it seems that burning 20,000 United MileagePlus miles would have been the way to go. But I didn't pull the trigger because I want to save these miles for another trip I am planning. I am not sure where to go but Guam or Jakarta are on the list now.

Since I only have a little miles banked with Korean Air (KE). I didn't want to redeem them and, at this time, China Eastern is not a full-fledged SkyTeam member yet, though they will eventually join the alliance in June 2011. I used to have terrible experience flying on China Eastern. Onboard one of their A320s, the cabin pressure on this SHA-CAN flight was not adjusted to a comfortable level and my ears hurt like they were about to drop off. That was in December 2009. I searched for their fare and it was not attractive at all. 3,600 Chinese Yuan in their ancient A300? No, I decided to stay away from them.

I have not traveled on any Oneworld airlines before, hence, zero mileage. With redemption out of the picture, I bought the ticket with Cathay Pacific for 2,959 Chinese Yuan, including taxes and fees. I signed up for Asia Miles, only later to find my fare class did not qualify for any mile.

Soon, I hit another, much bigger, problem. The transaction simply did not go through. I got an email from Cathay's e-Service saying they were unable to issue my ticket because of a "technical glitch".

I was very concerned. This meant that my bank account had been debited while I got nothing confirmed. The email from Cathay failed to provide me with any useful reference, like reservation number, order number and so forth.

So I called the e-Service center. The number they listed on the website is always busy. I was put of hold for ages while listening to their theme song, Feel, by Robbie Williams. I tried to call with two different phones, one for English service, the other for Mandarin, just to pick the one that would talk to me first.

Finally, after a horrendously long hold, longer than any other hold I had ever experienced in my life, I got through the English service. I described my issue with the agent and she said that since I cannot give her any reference, she could not locate my information in their system. I asked her to give me a callback after she talks to my bank first, she said she could not do that for me.

So I had to contact my bank, which help me locate a transaction number. Again, I called Cathay and I was put on hold, same background music. Thirty minutes later, I was on the verge of going crazy with Robbie Williams when I was finally connected to an agent who was able to locate my information with the transaction number. I was worried that the fare on my canceled booking may not be honored now, for fare fluctuates all the time. Fortunately, this agent rebooked me on the same flights with the same fare. By the end of the day, I didn't know whether I was happy with them or not.

The next day, I wrote a complaint to Cathay Pacific and I got an auto-reply. It reads:

This is to confirm that we have received your e-mail. We will look into
the matter and revert our findings to you as soon as possible.

I was worried that my complaint will not get anywhere and the issue of long holding at their call center will not be addressed. But anyways, I had a confirmed flight schedule now. I have two stop-overs in Hong Kong. For the outbound leg, I have 23 hours in Hong Kong so I need to book a hotel. And for the return, I have 8 hours. The inbound flight from SIN arrives at midnight, so I might as well just spend the night wandering around the city for some street food in Kowloon.

For five nights in Singapore, I didn't need to worry about accommodations. The host of the meeting booked me in Mandarin Orchard, located in the middle of the city.

So for that night in Hong Kong, I spotted a deal for The Mira Hong Kong three days before departure and I jumped at it. This hotel used to me the old Hotel Miramar, but they renovated it and it's now a Design Hotels hotel. I booked a studio room for $180, which came with complimentary Internet! A last minute three-day advance booking plus Easter Sunday deal secured!

I have heard a lot about this hotel. On the night of its reopening, they invited Katy Perry to sing at the party. And I had never stayed in a Design Hotels property before. So I thought it would be very interesting to try out this relatively new, chic place.

Is this the end of free checking?

Bank of America has recently announced that a 5 dollar monthly fee will be charged for their debit card holders when they make purchase(s). In the wakes of new federal regulations that are now pushing the financial institutions to find ways to compensate for loss, Chase, US Bank and Wells Fargo have also announced their plans or are testing to impose a monthly fee on their debit cards.

Ron Lieber and Ann Carrns of The New York Times wrote in their Your Money column on September 30, 2011 that "Citibank did not plan to add monthly debit card fees."

But the good news will probably come to an end. I received a notice from Citibank in mail today. Basically, it now offers me two "clear options":

For statement periods starting on or after November 10, 2011:

1. Keep $15,000 in prior calendar month combined average balances - starting with your November 2011 balances - and pay no monthly service fee or non-Citibank ATM fees...


2. Pay a flat $20 monthly service fee, which is not changing, if qualifying balances are not met (non-Citibank ATM fees will also apply).

According to this letter, no matter what I choose to do, I won't pay additional fees for using my debit card for purchases or for paying bills online, which, they say, are "new types of fees that many other banks are testing or have already introduced" and they believe that by introducing an allegedly old type of "flat" fee, it will "simplify" my financial life.

Holy crap! Simplified? Really? Well, I don't see how this is going to simplify my financial life. Since I don't have that much money and would want to have that much money sitting in a low interest bank like Citibank, even if I have the crapload of money they ask for, I would probably, like many others, be forced to charge a "flat rate".

And worse still, for Citi customers who enrolled since June 10, 2011, Citibank is going to terminate ThankYou Rewards for their debit purchases starting December 9, 2011.

I have two checking accounts with Citibank. One was enrolled to ThankYou Rewards prior to June 10, 2011. The other was enrolled recently. So I believe I won't receive any points from the newer account I opened in August. In fact, opening the account was forced by a personal banker who, I assume, just want to earn a little commission.

My experience with Citibank is always hit and miss. It's now time to switch to Charles Schwab and Provident Credit Union. Paying such a steep monthly "flat rate" is the most stupid thing a person can do.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Citibank lowered APY, now at 0.05% Where to bank?

Last week, when I logged in to my Citibank online account, I noticed that the annual percentage yield, or APY, is still at about 0.08% for those accounts holding a balance lower than 24,999 U.S. dollar. It's pathetic, however, today, when I logged in again, it's 0.05%!

For god's sake, it's called a savings account. But with such a low rate, how can you earn any significant amount of interest at all? For those with a lot of savings with Citi, things aren't looking any good. The highest interest rate they offer is a mere 0.30%. What a shame!

I have always been on the lookout for anything that has a higher rate than Citibank and the likes. I tried to apply for an ING Direct Online savings account, which offers a 1.00% APY as of today, in January but was decline because it appeared that I don't have any credit history and that has a negetive impact during the automatic approval process.

Currently, I use Charles Schwab to manage most of my money. Their current rate is 0.25% for the invest checking account and 0.35% for high yield checking account. The rate used to be a bit higher but it's not too bad for a money market product to offer these rates. Charles Schwab has pretty good and professional phone service for their customers because they don't have as many branches as Chase or Citi. Their Platinium Visa Check card is quite handy, which comes with a pledge to waive all ATM fees, domestic or international. I used it to book hotel room in Hong Kong and it worked really well for me. The only downside about this product is that when you transfer fund electronically from other financial institutions, your money will be put on hold for about three day at least in your brokerage accout, which is set up together with checking and savings for free. While your money will still accure interest, it's a sad rate and you can do nothing to the money but to watch it sitting there.

I am pretty excited today because I became a member of Provident Credit Union, which will allow me to access the credit union network in all fifty states and territories. My friends have been banking with them for awhile and I am drawn to their Palo Alto branch not only because they offer a staggering 2.26% for their Super Reward Checking account if you do what they told you to do (basically, 10 point-of-sales transactions and 1 direct deposit/1 ACH transfer per month and enroll in electronic statement), but also their support of Palo Alto Weekly and local journalism. Last but not least, I like their neat coffee machine. I'll grab a hot chocolate next time there.

I hope once my federal student loan works out. I'll need this Provident account to better manage my money. Time to be provident with my personal finance now because I have read some many scary stories of student loan default.

I am not sure if there's anyone out there who actually made or are making sound returns from their loan. Not sure if this is legal in the first place because it's supposed to be used solely for educational purposes.

Anyways, I will be happy to learn new tricks to get a higher return with my money and the ways to live as frugal as humanly possible. With a $60,000+ non-dischargeabe loan, I want to start repaying with confidence. Rather than having that much money sitting in a bank with crappy rate, I would choose one that offer a decent APY.


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