Travel App Smack-down: TripIt vs TripCase

Wow. I really thought this would be more clear-cut, but reflecting on my comparison points, it’s going to be hard for me to uninstall one of these applications. I have been using both TripIt and TripCase services for several months in parallel. I was an early adopter of TripIt and have been using it for a couple of years now, so I have some endearment for it along with its awesome automated trip management features.

Merging travel plans into a trip. Clearly, only TripIt provides this functionality properly. This is really the “secret sauce” of TripIt and its mandatory for complex and evolving itineraries. Having to merge the individual parts of trips in TripCase is really annoying.

Conflicting plan synchronization. TripIt comes out ahead in this category, and it has the ability to detect duplicate itineraries, flag them and allow you to easily select the right itinerary by showing when the itineraries were received. For those of you who book in advance to get the best prices, or use reward points, you will appreciate the value of this – the likelihood of getting an updated itinerary e-mailed to you (i.e., because the departure time changed by 5 minutes or other such logistical minutia) is pretty high.

Look and feel. Admittedly, this is a bit subjective. I prefer the TripCase interface for its simplicity and high-contrast visual style (e.g., white on black background), and the key information is displayed more clearly on the mobile application. Both mobile applications have a select trip, and swipe left-right for individual legs or parts of your trip. TripCase enables another level of detail for each trip part with “additional information” easily accessible. I also prefer the TripCase website – the TripIt web-site is very overwhelming with additional details and advertisements, which is annoying because as a premium user I would not expect ads to clutter my screen. To be fair. TripCase also does have some extraneous menu options to up-sell you on services but they are appropriately placed and don’t clutter the mobile application flow. How hotels are shown is also better in TripCase, where it shows a more prominent card on your check-in event, and a less obtrusive one for your check-out time, unlike TripIt which treats both as travel events which somewhat clutters the visual presentation of the list.

Service Integration. I am not an Uber user, but TripCase offers this which is really cool. Also, TripCase automatically synchronizes with my Travel Agent who uses Sabre which means updates and bookings are automatically added. This is a real bonus. These two features are probably the most stand-out capabilities for TripCase.

Meta-data. TripIt allows users to add notes and photos, which is immensely useful when you are doing research ahead of your departure. Inevitably, you will find a need for adding data and notes that don’t fit within the existing data elements for your individual trip elements. Adding photos has been a handy feature for me, as I like to add photos of locations, hotels and airlines when planning vacations. TripCase does offer a cool feature where is allows you to view photos of your hotel, automatically fetching them from vfmii.com.

Notifications. Both applications offer flight notifications and both are very timely. I can always count on them arriving at more-or-less the same time. TripIt has a neat user interface feature that flags trips as on-schedule, or experiencing delays, right on the trip summary list.

Value add features. TripIt has integration with Seat tracker, which is really valuable to know where you are sitting and alert if there is a better choice. However, most of that seat selection and research occurs prior to your booking, so I have never really used the Seat tracker integration with TripIt. TripCase does offer seat maps but it never seems to work for the flights I take. TripCase has a much nicer weather forecast integrated into the mobile application, which TripIt only offers on the web-site. Both applications offer maps integration. TripCase automatically adds directions to your itinerary, which I don’t often use, and it would be nice to have this as an option. TripIt offers loyalty points integration for the Premium service user.

TripCase might be a great option for people who rely on a Travel Agency that connects directly to the Sabre booking system (so you can imagine that’s almost every business traveller out there), and changes to parts of the trip for the same reference number get updated automatically. TripIt has much better overall trip management, between merging and reconciling conflicting plans. If you are a business traveller, I recommend going with TripCase and not even bothering to look at TripIt – mainly because you’ll just end-up like me: missing the cool trip management and notes capabilities of TripIt (i.e., if you never used it, you won’t miss it). If you mix both business and leisure, I would go with TripIt – the Sabre integration is nice, but I’ve never felt too burdened by updating itineraries, especially with TripIt’s features for reconciling conflicting plans.

Up-in-the-air: Trips in the Cloud

Up-in-the-air: Trips in the Cloud

The bottom-line: I think that TripIt edges out TripCase overall, but for business travellers who use an agency and Sabre (and who have not used TripIt before), just go with TripCase.

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.

 

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.

Regional Jet Rarity: Air Canada E175

As you sit at the gate, sipping your soda and looking around at the passengers mulling about with some gloom, you are probably witnessing the glum that comes with flying on regional jets. These are not the happy and excited travellers flying to Europe. These are the either the uninitiated masses flying-off to see Aunt Gladys in Dayton, or the business traveller struggling to get home from that sales meeting in Baltimore. It’s those short-haul flights, with those puddle jumpers, that tend to wear on people. To state the obvious, I feel that this comes from a few main reasons: regional planes tend to be delayed owing to the compounded delays and conditions across having to fly multiple routes a day, small cramped cabins, often needing to take a bus out to the tarmac as opposed to a gate-ramp, poor leg room with cramped seats, bumpy rides, and finally (worst of all) gate-checking your bag. Honestly, it’s like taking a bus, and that’s no fun.

I have flown on a relatively small number of regional jets. The US Airways, Air Canada and United Airways Bombardier CRJ200, the Air Canada Bombardier Dash8-300, and even a Beechcraft 1900. I can almost excuse the prop-planes from any critique, since when you’re on such a short, low capacity flight, you’re not going to expect much. Also, some airlines have done-up the prop plane, such as the Porter Airlines Q400 planes – which take it in an opposite direction: design for luxury.

The Air Canada Embraer E175 is a rare exception to all this. I will actually go out of my way to fly on this airplane, and its current configuration has been around for years – this is not something new. The E175 offers a 70+ seating capacity airplane with a pretty decent sized cabin that alleviates the problem with gate check since the overhead bins are big-enough to fit your carry-on (albeit length-wise). This is a huge plus. A huge plus. Can you tell I hate gate check? Is there anything worse than standing on the tarmac at Dulles waiting for your bag in January? This jet is still a 2+2 configuration, which is actually pretty comfortable – not having a middle seat is always a plus. The aircraft cabin noise levels are typical for this kind of aircraft, and it’s not noticeably noisy – my impression is that it is quieter than most in this class. The leg-room is pretty good, as well. I never feel too cramped. Air Canada offers in-flight entertainment on every seat in their E175s. This is pretty unique, as even the new United and American E175s don’t offer this. Also, they have a power outlet in every row, along with a USB charger for every seat in economy class. This is immensely useful, and I can’t imagine any airplane not offering power for charging these days. Air Canada offers a business class service on this flight with nine (9) business class seats. This might seem unnecessary, but there’s something to be said about snagging your upgrade after a few days of travel on your way home. Yes! Interestingly, Air Canada runs this plane on both short and long routes, from hour-long flights to the north-east, for flights up to four (4) hours. I was stuck on multi-hour flight from Denver to Chicago on a United CRJ200, and that is not comfortable. I recently had to book flights to Denver on United, and I was pleased to see United offer service on an E175 at a time that was convenient for me to travel – it was an easy choice over the CRJ200s at the other flight times.

Carry-on fits in the overhead bin. Thank the Lord.

Carry-on fits in the overhead bin. Thank the Lord.

The bottom-line: If you have multiple flight options and have a chance to ride an E175, go for it.

Travel Adventures: Getting Real about Getting Lost

“She often winds up getting lost, but that’s part of the fun.” – says the Apple iPad advertisement featuring Cherie King who eats coal-roasted lobster in Ghana. Hmmm.

Why is going off-the-beaten path the archetype of success for travel? Why does it not always come naturally? And, are all these people snobs or am I some kind of wimp? What kind of traveller am I and why? Do I have something unique to offer others here?** I’ll start with the idea that I travel, but do not typically eat coal-roasted lobster in Ghana or stay at the Capella, and drink scotch at the roof-top patio, in Washington for $1000 per night as my in-flight magazine suggested would be awesome.

We all know that travel advertisements, blogs and the articles you read in your in-flight magazine paint a pretty romanticized view of travel. And, the themes of getting lost, and going off the beaten path, are pervasive. What does going “off-the-beaten path” mean anyway? The best definition of off-beat experiences I found say it typically means looking for isolated, special and secret sacred places, and trying to find connections with people, or a sense of uniqueness, authenticity, purpose and inspiration. And, so why is this fundamental to defining success for your travel experience? The psychology and neuroscience of this is not precise at all: “getting lost” and going “off-the-beaten path” could give a rush of adrenaline which makes the adventurous activities seem exciting, or seeking unfamiliar experiences might provide an evolutionary advantage. The natural selection argument has a more reasonable counterpoint: didn’t our ancestors who wandered into the dark woods get eaten, and is that the reason why I am hesitant about being in unfamiliar places? Maybe it’s about discovery and curiosity. The funny part of that idea, reflecting on my own experiences, is the notion that you actually discovered something yourself (i.e., despite the fact that it’s there is plain sight for everyone to see, probably for hundreds of years, is beside the point).

There are definitely a variety of people and perspectives when it comes to travel. The tourist is someone who is explores new places superficially, insulated from the experiences. A traveller is someone who independently, but sometimes cautiously, plan and seek out enriching experiences as part of their travels. And, the adventurer is someone who fully immerses themselves in the culture and wanting full cultural immersion and peak experiences. These are great distinctions. Kudos. I am definitely in the traveller bucket and line-up to “off-the-beaten path” as shooting for unique and authentic, in my admittedly limited repertoire of experiences – again, a key theme in my travel entries.

I spent some time thinking about my favourite experiences and what I learned. In re-reading this entry, I did somewhat laugh at myself: is this obvious? I think I sat on this post for a couple of weeks before hitting the publish button.

  • Bryant Park, New York (and the Open Air Library) – At this point, most people reading this are saying, “what the heck? Bryant Park is in the middle of mid-town Manhattan, at 42nd and 6th, that hardly qualifies as off-the-beaten path, gesh what a moron”. My point here is that we just happened to be walking by, not knowing or thinking about going to Bryant Park, and it end-up being the most pleasant part of a beautiful May weekend. The Magnolia Bakery is around the corner, for those with a fetish for Red Velvet cupcakes. We just happened to be walking by with cupcakes in-hand, noticed the park, with its great lawn, tables and seating along the shaded lane, books, magazines and newspapers for everyone to read. What’s better than reading the Times in a park in New York while stuffing cake in your mouth? A perfect way to kick back on a Sunday. Unscripted.  The lesson-learned here is: if something looks nice or interesting, stop and check it out, plan not to be in a rush.
  • Place Dauphine, Paris – I wrote about this in another blog entry. This discovery fits into the “what’s down this street?” part of getting lost; a nice tree-filled square, somewhat secluded, with cafes surrounding looking inward, is yet another example of a little piece of calm and serenity in a busy city. At the time, my colleagues and I were at the tail end of our walk down the Champs-Elysees in the late afternoon, in desperate need of food and drink. I think we wandered into the square fully by accident (it’s not obvious there is a square from the street), and my immediate reaction was “hey, this is cool”. This struck me because there are literally streams of tourists that walk by Point Neuf to the Louvre. The lesson-learned here is: poke your head down streets that seem interesting, actually go off the beaten path.
  • Chamundeshwari Temple, Mysore India – My colleagues and I planned a day trip to Mysore, about 140 km south of Bangalore, with the intent of checking out the palace, which is the main attraction. The drive to Mysore reminded me of a couple tracks in Mario Kart, weaving in-and-out of, and narrowly avoiding, people, animals, and oncoming traffic. Having arrived before it opened, we pondered our next move and eventually decided to head up to Chamundi Hills. Chamundeshawi is an active template, complete with sacred monkeys, cows, a market, hordes of pilgrims paying homage to their warrior goddess. Do we go in? You’d think it wouldn’t be a question, but kicking off your shoes and jumping into what can only be described as a scrum, of sorts, seemed daunting to pampered westerners. Of course, I joined the line and got into the thick-of-it and it turned out to be the most memorable part of the day. The lesson-learned here is: get-out-there, don’t hesitate, and take the plunge.
  • The Who Shop, London UK – I wrote about this in another blog entry. They have a little museum in the back-of-the-shop with all kinds of set pieces and costumes: cool. The guy poking about back there looked like he worked there (he was the owner), so I struck up a little conversation, asked him a couple of questions, and complimented his shop, resulting in a full 30 minutes of him pointing out all the nooks and crannies of the museum and his awesome stories about being an extra some of the episodes: much, much cooler.  Lesson learned: talk to people, say hello, be friendly and ask questions.
  • Taito Station Shinjukuminamiguchi, Tokyo – (OK, the name of this location is just awesome) In my stop-over in Tokyo, I wanted to make the most of my couple days there and insisted on walking and taking transit around a few key areas. In retrospect, I now recall I was looking for the Takashimaya Shinjuku Store, I turned the corner, and behold: a gigantic red three storey store facade with a huge Space Invader on it. Oh, baby. I couldn’t believe I didn’t think about visiting an arcade, but moments later I was standing amidst the action. This place is not somewhere a person who is prone to seizures should go. Not making much sense of the Japanese instructions, I spent a fun-filled hour giving up my Yen to the machines and taking in the spectacle of the experts. The lesson-learned here is: walk, ride a bike, or take transit to encounter the unexpected.
Wow. I discovered this! No, no you didn't.

Wow. I discovered this! No, no you didn’t.

The bottom-line: It’s ok to be a traveller. You don’t always need to be jumping off a waterfall or bartering in Morocco. If you want to try to be a bit more of a traveller than tourist, and you are just not wired for that, try some of the tips above.

**There are a lot of blogs about the art and value of getting lost while travelling, such as those in Travel and Leisure, Dangerous Business, other blogs, and Huffington Post and NY Times. The latter two blogs are pretty good, as they explain just a little bit about both the method and means of getting lost and the stories that ensue. Here’s a girl who has been around, and gets the idea about authentic experiences. This is not a new idea.

 

Washington Reagan Airport: DCA… It’s A-OK.

I am not a big fan of airports in the US. With the exception of Detroit Metro Airport (with the monorail, vaulted ceilings and fountains), most other airports in the United States are pretty disappointing: LaGuardia is a mess, O’Hare is ridiculously congested, Miami is making a turn-around but still sprawling, etc. However, I have been surprisingly pleased with my travel through Washington Reagan National. This is not a review of one of the new airports which is a marvel of modern western civil engineering, but rather I am thinking about this place as an airport that has aged well, has some character, with several key convenience benefits.

The following are my key objectives which result in a “thumbs-up”, which considering its age and legacy, has held-up pretty well as far as aging airports go. This list is in priority order for me.

  • Easy access to the city – it’s only six metro stops away from Chinatown-Gallery place in the heart of the city, and there are few other places you can get from downtown to the airport in 20 mins for $2.50.
  • Vaulted ceilings – it’s got very nice, albeit retro, vaulted ceilings in the Terminal B and C concourse areas; for airports that have low ceilings, my word association includes phrases like dingy, dirty, crowded, noisy, old; but despite its age, Reagan National has some pretty nice open spaces.
  • Awesome views of the city – sitting on the right side of the plane, taking off towards the north, gives an absolutely spectacular view of Washington, on the left-side a stunning view of the Pentagon.
  • Passable food options – I think, in general, that airports are improving the food options at the airport; Reagan at least has a Japanese restaurant with passable maki rolls, and a Cosi. Any airport that serves Sapporo or Kirin beer would receive some credit, in my books.
  • Death defying top-gun landing – now, there a lot’s of people (and pilots) that think Reagan is a disaster to fly in-and-out, the low-altitude maneuvering from the north approach might have the aviation enthusiasts either exhilarated or traumatized. I fly a lot and I still get the “oh, crap”, when they make that tight turn at 450 ft above the ground.

Unfortunately, I travel a lot through Terminal A, which is, in fact, horrible. Unlike Terminal B and C, this terminal is a concrete monster. I have nightmares about the echoes from the loud bellowing announcements from the JetBlue and SouthWest gate agents trying their best to get control of the travelling mob. The trick to surviving Terminal A, is to not spend much time there.

Aged well, could be worse.

Aged well, could be worse.

The Bottom-Line: Reagan isn’t that bad and for someone who wants a pleasant airport experience, they can be surprised if they put themselves in the right frame of mind.