My Love-Hate with Aeroplan Continues

I wrote previously on this blog about some frustrations with the Aeroplan program from Air Canada. Now that the travel year is coming to a close, I find myself crossing yet another threshold of elite membership status with Air Canada Altitude program, yet somehow remain frustrated by the reward travel “situation”. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised last week when I was unexpectedly upgraded to business class for my loyalty, which is a very nice gesture (albeit the first time this has ever happened to me in my years of travelling as an elite member).

I did finally book some reward travel successfully, using a combination of spreadsheets, data feeds, advanced analytics, scenario planning, option assessment and systematic and periodic checking of websites and calls to airline reward agents. Oh, and luck. Does this sound familiar to anyone? In the end, I was very pleased by being able to get business class bookings on Japan Airlines via OneWorld and I almost feel like I won the lottery.

However, I was very much struck by the differences in fees when booking my AAdvantage travel rewards compared to Air Canada. This highlights one of my big pet-peeves about Aeroplan bookings. For the same dates in August 2015, here were the reward flight options with fees:

  • Air Canada reward travel through Aeroplan from Vancouver, Canada to Narita, Japan (Business Class round-trip) taxes and surcharges: 150,000 miles + $591.41 per ticket ($518 in fuel surcharges)
  • Japan Airlines reward travel through AAdvantage from Vancouver, Canada to Narita, Japan (Business Class round-trip) taxes and surcharges: 100,000 miles + $74.97

There have been some good blog entries on mitigating fuel surcharges, which effectively recommend trying to get bookings on a partner airline. The Air Canada and Aeroplan fuel surcharge fiasco is not new, as evidenced from some recent episodes on CBC and articles in the Toronto Star. Most explanations provided are vapid at best, citing increased oil prices and fuel costs. I think the bottom-line is that Air Canada and Aeroplan are separate entities, and somebody negotiated a bad deal between them. This is not a problem that other airlines have, as evidenced from my example above. It really is a joke.

The bottom-line: Air Canada and Aeroplan should be avoided for international travel, or at least set your expectations that your hard earned loyalty results in “cost-deferral” at best.

Congestion at Heathrow: Terminal 5 BA Business Lounge

I have been traveling a lot recently on British Airways and I have very much enjoyed the flights, and in-flight service, in business class. I have flown several times on their new Dreamliner aircraft, both from Toronto and on-ward to Hyderabad – I find it both comfortable and cozy. They have started to become my international airline of choice. Also, I do really enjoy Heathrow Terminal 5, and the Wagamama restaurant there is an oasis for me to get a warm, flavourful and fresh meal. But, I have been avoiding more and more the British Airways Club World lounges in Terminal 5. Now, in all honestly, the British Airways lounges are typically better than average and get pretty decent reviews most of the time. However, I actually prefer to sit at the Wagamama than in the lounge. I find the lounges in the main terminal extremely busy, crowded, and littered with all the leftovers from the hundreds or travellers that must pass through there daily. It just seems like they can’t clean-up as fast as the people who whirl through there. Other reviews on the web have described it as “congested and untidy”, which I think is a very concise and accurate representation of my many visits there. The food and snack options are limited and I have often struggled with the performance of their WiFi service (likely owning to all the people packed in there using it). I also seem to find that many of the Type A or B power plugs (USA-type) do not work in the lounge area, and I often find myself pulling out my German Type F adapter. If you are travelling from the B or C gates in Terminal 5, I highly recommend making your way to the lounge in the B-gates. This tends to be a lot less busy.

A world class lounge… hit by a tornado.

A world class lounge… hit by a tornado.

The bottom-line: Yeah, it’s good. But try and make your way to Terminal B or spend some more effort finding a cozy corner.

 

On the Ropes. Yes, the kind you tie stuff with.

This entry was about to turn into a buyer beware entry on the Blueline 1/4″ Utility Braided Rope, but I realized that I just didn’t know as much as I needed to about rope. I always do at least a little bit of research both before a purchase, and after I decide something is worthy of a review. Who knew there was so much to know? Prior to a recent camping trip, I found myself standing in the hardware section in front of a wall of rope. I wanted some additional rope for the tarps that I use to provide an extra layer of protection in the event of a downpour. I tie them to trees around the campsite, good and snug. I ended up with a the braided polypropylene rope: it looked fancy, came in a nice spool, and was rated to about 60 lbs. I learned that Polyester ropes are actually much better for what I was trying to do. Polyester ropes don’t stretch as much as polypropylene, resists elongation better, and has good resistance to moisture problems. Polypropylene is lighter weight and float, and does not resist elongation as much – it is also cheaper. There were a couple of really good comparisons on the Web, including some narrative that provides more chemistry for those in-the-know about the science of materials. There you have it: things you should know.

Pretty to look at. Not for camping.

Pretty to look at. Not for camping.

The bottom-line: If you want to keep your tarps taut, stick with the polyester rope.

Why Aeroplan is Horrible. Or, is it? Gesh I just can’t tell.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually like Air Canada. As a North American commercial airline company and operation, I greatly prefer them to their US counterparts.  However, I really do need to wonder about their Aeroplan rewards program. Having been an Elite or Super Elite member for several years running, and accumulating that status and points with international business-class flights, I gained the benefit of both quickly accumulating status and miles. I used these miles to fund ski vacations for the family (of course, despite often sending people on different flights to the same destination), which has worked out pretty well over the years. Owing to some unfortunate route cancellations for international flights to south Asia for their Star Alliance partners, I lost my status only to now aggressively regain it with a lot of short-haul flights.

My primary complaint is that booking rewards at stated levels is impossible. Rewards charts are bunk for most routes. The only time I ever paid the posted reward miles cost for reward flights was at the Super Elite level (i.e., requiring 100K miles or 100 segments in a year to achieve). This allowed me to get four tickets on any flight with a connection on United – like, totally awesome. When I clicked the little button that said “show me your Super Elite priority rewards”, the world opened up to me like sunshine breaking through the clouds on an otherwise stormy day. Recently, I had been trying to book a single economy class ticket to Japan, one year in advance with complete flexibility, with an Elite 35K status, and the lowest mile route options we almost double the posted reward economy rate. Really? No, really? This is a common complaint. The bottom line is, unless you are at the very highest privilege levels, your travel reward value seems extremely low. The trick is that you need to travel off-season: if I want to go to Japan in February, no problem at all. Oh, wait. Did you want to get on that direct flight? Yeah, no, that’s not available. It is common to have odd routing for reward miles, which I have experienced on American Airlines. But, is it unreasonable to have a few seats available one year in advance even during peak season?

Now, I also suppose this is the reality of our modern oil-based economy, but having to pay the taxes and fuel charges has become an extremely expensive proposition. That trip to Japan I just mentioned: $660 in taxes and fuel surcharges. Wait a minute, I can book that same flight and pay $1162. Even with flights that are shorter, I have often found that the actual cost of a ticket, with points, is about 25-45% of the actual ticket cost. You know, with my Marriott points I literally pay “zero” to redeem them. I have a colleague who has accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles with Elite status, and upon booking a getaway in business class to Italy for him and his wife, he literally gasped out-loud (I was in the office at the time) when he discovered the fuel surcharges and taxes on that ticket were over $1500 per ticket.

Again, these just seem to be the norm for airline rewards programs. I can accept that planning ahead, being flexible and travelling off-season are the best tips for avoiding some of this frustration, but it just seems that the reward-to-loyalty benefit is pretty darn low. Or, is it? What’s the typical loyalty reward benefit for any service? 1%? With this in mind, you might argue it’s not actually that bad. Consider that 25 short-haul return flights costs $13,750 at $550 per flight, allowing you to accumulate 1000 points per round-trip: the 1% benefit of this is only $137.50 even though I accumulated 25,000 points. If I can get a $600 flight for 25,000 points (a flight within the Continental US and Canada), even if I pay $200 in fuel surcharge and taxes, I have a $400 benefit on my cost which is a 3% loyalty bonus. Huh.

The expectation management around this is bad either way, consider this… you have this frustration although you diligently and loyally book the same airline, trip after trip after trip, you go out-of-your way to do that, you push all your AMEX Membership Rewards points over to your airline awards, accumulate 50 segments in 7 months, sit-in-airports, deal with all kinds of travel crap, and spend tens-of-thousands of dollars of flights. This is in addition to the fact that, effectively, I am being somewhat manipulated as a consumer, and my personal travel data in now in their hands, etc. Should I need to have a detailed plan of attack or just restrict myself to highest value uses? I know that navigating rewards is like a science. This is a total can of worms topic, but in the end I think I either need an attitude adjustment with some expectation management, or Aeroplan needs to do something better.

Looking forward to paying for fuel surcharges. Awesome.

Looking forward to paying for fuel surcharges. Awesome.

The bottom-line: You will be frustrated with your Aeroplan rewards experience, guaranteed, unless you live in the air with this airline; we clearly have a gap in expectations here somewhere.

What’s Summer without Clean Rims?

I am one of those people that believes cleaning your car is an art-form, and it is probably one of my few unique skills. I have obsessive compulsive tendencies that make cleaning my car something interesting and worth getting right – that, plus maybe some kind of pride in car ownership. It feels good to drive around in a shiny clean car. One of those simple things in life that make a guy happy, I suppose. Yes, this is a true guy thing.

Those skilled in the art of car detailing will acknowledge the importance of properly cleaning your tires and rims. These require special attention because the brake dust, and dirt, build up fast. Most cars have some intricate rims with nooks and grooves, making it much more difficult and time consuming to clean. And, gleaming rims and tires get noticed as the icing on the proverbial “clean-car cake”.

SONAX Wheel Cleaner Full Effect is a spray-on cleaner for your aluminum rims. It promises to take away all the work associated with scrubbing, mostly on your hands and knees, all the grooves and spokes. You spray on the cleaner, wait a while until it turns purple, and spray it off. Simple enough, right?

The good news is that it does generally get the wheels much cleaner, and it does appear to composed of less chemicals. A benefit here is that it washes away without any harm, such as staining, to your driveway. I have never had any problems with this product harming my rims, wheels or paint finish (i.e., in the event of a few wayward droplets). There are some products, like the one I use for cleaning the tires, which will stain the driveway and will take time, and effort, to wash away. The reviews of this product are resoundingly positive, and it is rated to be one of the best cleaners for your rims out there. However, it does not replace the need to scrub and polish the rims. It will remove most dirt and it is good for a quick wash, but it will not get every part of your rim clean. For those skilled-in-the-art of car washing, you know that the shine and gleam come from avoiding water spots – and you can’t avoid that step with this cleaner.

Keeping with the theme of needing to actually touch something to clean it, the EZ Detail Auto Wheel Brush is a much better way to scrub away dirt without risk of scratching the rims. With your car wash soap and this brush, you can scrub away most of your dirt and grime for a much cleaner rim. And, you can use the brush for quite a bit longer. You’ll be buying at least two containers of the SONAX 500mL size in a season, easily. Scrubbing also burns more calories, so there’s a plus.

Works well enough. Doesn't replace good old fashion scrubbing.

Works well enough. Doesn’t replace good old fashion scrubbing.

The bottom-line: It’s probably the best out there, and good for those wanting to get the most clean for the minimum amount of work, but you are better off with an auto-wheel brush.

 

Yes, I am Complaining about Chocolate.

What kind of a guy complains about chocolate? Me, apparently.

Having spent some time in Europe, I got accustomed to this very civilized idea that your coffee should be served with a small chocolate. The idea now seems natural: a little sweet taste on the palette nicely balances the slightly bitter taste of coffee. Just picture sitting in a cafe in Paris on a pleasant Spring morning… ahhhhh. I am apparently not the first inquiring mind to wonder about this. Now, I am not an expert in chocolate although I have eaten my fair-share over my many years. Who hasn’t, right? My preference is for darker chocolate, or semi-sweet, preferably with almond. I will enjoy milk chocolate but it will never be my first choice.

The Lindt Swiss Miniature Bars seemed like a great candidate for the goal at hand – that is, the goal of eating a small chocolate with coffee. I used to walk past a Lindt store every day with the bins filled with bulk small chocolate squares and figured this would be perfect. The store was so shiny and pretty. I had visions of me prancing around in there like Homer Simpson in his dreamy escape to the Land of Chocolate. Obviously, I was disappointed enough to spend 15 minutes writing about it. Not unlike the sampler box referenced in this paragraph, I grabbed a variety of different kind of squares from the bulk bins. I really found the flavour to be lacking. Not enough cocoa, maybe? But, strangely it was neither sweet nor bitter – just lacking in any kind of flavour. This is not really an argument about whether high cocoa chocolate is better than sweeter, it is about any kind of taste at all. And, there were at least five (5) different kinds in my bulk grab-bag. A better idea came later when it dawned on me that chocolate bars are usually scored to make it easy to break off small pieces.

This is when I replaced the crappy bag of Lindt chocolate with something a bit more refined, which was the Black and Green Organic Chocolate Bar with Almonds. It was at this time that I realized why I wanted the individually wrapped ones: I wanted a morning treat with my coffee, not an exercise in will-power.

Is this just me?

Small chocolate square. No flavour. Ugh.

Small chocolate square. No flavour. Ugh.

The bottom-line: If you want to have that chocolate treat with your coffee, don’t go with the Lindt squares. Just keep searching.

Starten sie das Wasserwerk, or don’t get hosed…

It’s Spring. And with Spring comes gardening and my annual re-assmembly of the patio furniture and the gardening tools and accessories. My garden hose in the backyard, along with the wall mounted hose rack, needed replacing – evidenced by water leaking from every joint and then the old hose actually bursting. The first attempt at using it this spring resulted in more water on me than on the flowers. This story is about all that. It should be simple. But, I have this obsessive compulsion about getting the hose assembly and sprayer to work without leaking. This just seems like something that should be possible.

I started with the wall mounted rack. You should get one that is double-coated steel with brass fittings, which won’t crack over time as easily. The installation here was pretty straight-forward, although the screws they provided are not appropriate for installation against a brick wall. The Tapscon screws are the best for this kind of installation, and the 1 3/4″ depth with the hex head worked super. With this product you need to use the template and watch the placement of where the screws will line-up on the brick – they are not an exact multiple of the standard brick height, if you are mounting against a brick wall (you don’t want to screw into the mortar).

In my first attempt at getting the back-yard hoses up-and-running, I went with the Troy Bilt 50-FT 5/8-IN Heavy Duty Contractor Hose. It looked sturdy and it had all the right words in the product title: heavy, duty, contractor, hose and this idea that it was “bilt” with some kind of quality. No, no, no. Avoid this product. My main problem was not with the hose, but rather the leaking at the male fitting end. When dealing with leaks, there is always some idea rolling-around in your head that you just didn’t put it together right. After several attempts at different gaskets, plumbers tape, reaming the heck on the fitting to get it tight, there was still a leak at the male fitting end. The design doesn’t seem to be that great because the leak occurs between the threaded head-end and the brass portion on the hose, no matter what kind of gasket type or size I used. This wasted a whole morning and practically drove me insane. This is the kind of stuff that makes me angry-enough to write a stupid blog about it – damn that hose!

My second attempt was the Waterworks 5/8″ FlexRITE Heavy Duty water hose. Remember, it’s important to buy products that have the words “heavy duty” in them, so we can re-enforce the idea that marketing people can use their psychology degrees to help their clients charge a premium for products. Of course, I bought the heavy duty hose. This worked out a lot better. The fitting had better construction although I did replace the standard gasket with another one that was a bit more snug against the thread of the fittings. Success! On a related note, I do recommend Gardena gardening tools and attachments for your hose – my “go-to” for the back-yard is the Gardena Multi-Function Spray Lance. I have never had a problem with Gardena adapters and products leaking. However, you need to remember to not leave them outside during the winter.

Avoid leaks, and raging from fury, in the back-yard.

Avoid leaks, and raging from fury, in the back-yard.

 The Bottom-Line: Say “no” to Troy Bilt hoses and “yes” to Waterworks FlexRITE hoses, and invest in a better hose with a decent fitting to avoid leaks; a solid steel hose rack with brass fittings is also a must.