Which are the best airlines for redeeming frequent-flier air miles and points? If you think they’re all the same, think again. They’re drastically different.
We were planning a trip earlier this month (decided on Copenhagen!) and looked at United/Continental, American Airlines, and Delta, and found drastic differences. United was great, and Delta was terrible. I thought these were just my personal experiences, but the Wall Street Journal just posted research from Switchfly – Best Airlines for Redeeming Miles, which supports that as an overall trend. Southwest was the best.
The worst among U.S. airlines: Delta Air Lines and US Airways. Those two had no seats available at the lowest mileage level on about two out of every three inquires, or worse
In our search, United was great, with tons of flight times and flights to CPH for just 30k miles. American Airlines had the same mileage threshold for some times but not enough . They made you burn a day on each side of the trip by flying to London at inconvenient times and not being able to leave same day. In the below chart, you’ll notice AA towards the bottom of the list. Delta was dead last:
What it means for you:
If you have a choice on where to accrue miles, this visual is clear where your “miles” go farther (terrible misnomer. How have we let airlines get away with calling their loyalty programs as miles?).
Assuming you don’t fly enough to get preferred treatment, here’s what you need to know:
United (which recently bought Continental, and thus merged OnePass into their MileagePlus) is easily the best choice for international rewards from the United States.
Avoid US Airways, Delta, American Airlines.
Southwest is the “gold standard.”
JetBlue lives up to their lofty reputation as well.
“We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L1011. It came off the line 20 months ago. It carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?” – Toby Ziegler, West Wing
We’ve all heard the pre-landing announcement asking that we turn off electronic devices, and most of us have thought it sounded ridiculous (each time reminded me of the above rant from the West Wing pilot episode). But a new airline industry report says perhaps there’s a possibility there’s something to it. Yes, seriously.
The International Air Transport Association studied survey responses from 125 airlines from 2003 to 2009 and found … “75 incidents of possible electronic interference that airline pilots and other crew members believed were linked to mobile phones and other electronic devices.” Twenty-six of them, a tad more than a third, “affected the flight controls, including the autopilot, autothrust and landing gear.” Another 17 hit navigation systems, with 15 affecting communication systems. It’s all according to an industry investigation shared by ABC News. The iphone just got that much more dangerous.
Scariest quotes from the report:
“Autopilot disengaged by itself”
“left GPS is not reading correctly”
“rapid changes in cabin altitude and altitude control”
Note – the report stresses that it is not verifying that the incidents were caused by cell phones, but it includes a sampling of the narratives provided by pilots and crewmembers who believed they were experiencing electronic interference.
I’m still skeptical, and so is ABC’s John Nance, a former Air Force and commercial pilot:
“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but it’s not evidence at all. It’s pilots, like myself, who thought they saw something but they couldn’t pin it to anything in particular. And those stories are not rampant enough, considering 32,000 flights a day over the U.S., to be convincing.”
Also, Boeing and Honeywell Aviation just released a statement about the March’11 report about Wi-Fi interference: Phase 3 Display Units used by pilots in Boeing 737 aircraft are susceptible to “blanking” in the presence of Wi-Fi equipment. Scary!
Can using your Iphone really cause THIS??
How serious is the wifi interference issue? Alaska Airlines distributed iPads to its pilots to replace paper flight manuals, but they’re not permitting its pilots to use their new iPads to access the Internet in the cockpit after witnessing the Wi-Fi interference with Honeywell Phase 3 display units (also it’s an FAA rule). OK, but that’s still not cause for fear. The media’s big on scare tactics to get your attention but it sounds like it’s an issue with one specific module, and only at elevated power levels (not typical power levels).
Boeing, meanwhile, says: “Current testing by Boeing and Honeywell has determined that blanking may occur when a DU is subjected to testing procedures specified by the FAA requirements (AC-20-164) during installations of Wi-Fi systems on the airplane. Based on testing that has been conducted, Boeing and Honeywell have concluded that actual EMI levels experienced during normal operation of typical passenger Wi-Fi systems would not cause any blanking of the Phase 3 DU. This issue does not exist with the Phase 1 or 2 DU’s.”
Honeywell says that, during recent ground testing “at elevated power levels”, the company observed a momentary blanking on the ‘flat panel’ liquid crystal displays that it developed and pioneered for Boeing.
“The screens reappeared well within Boeing’s specified recovery time frame. The screens have not blanked in flight and are not a safety of flight issue. Honeywell is working to ensure the problem is addressed and fixed and that our technology will continue to exceed specifications,” says Honeywell.
Link to ABC’s story, and the earlier ZDnet story on wifi causing interference and potentially a plane crash is here, with the FlightGlobal (aviation blog) here.
Here’s the West Wing episode that I referenced at the top:
FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
[approaches Toby] Sir, I need you to turn off your computer.
FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
I need you to turn off your laptop, sir. It interferes with our navigational
You know when you guys say that, it sounds ridiculous to most people, right?
FLIGHT ATTENDANT 3
Mr. Ziegler? A message was just patched up to the cockpit for you. I'm not sure
I've got it right. POTUS in a bicycle accident?
[stops typing and looks up] You got it right. [reaches for his cell phone]
FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
You can't use your phone until we land, sir.
We're flying in a Lockheed eagle series L-1011. It came off the line 20
months ago and carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still
flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?
Here’s the link to the full transcript from that West Wing episode (pilot episode, aired Sept ’99). It was the best show on television and we miss it!
If you ever fly, this is disturbing. It might make you want to take a shower right now. Did you think the water the flight attendant served you was clean? That pillow that came wrapped in plastic might be gift-wrapped bacteria. This article addresses those, as well as tray tables, seat pockets, and even the food.
We dug deep to identify the major germ zones on planes (and tips to avoid them). No, you’re not likely to contract meningitis, but better safe than sorry, right?
GERM ZONE: seat pocket FOR: Cold and influenza A, B, and C viruses
There’s a familiar routine to settling in on a plane: Store your luggage in the overhead bin and deposit any personal items you want to be readily available in your seat pocket. But reaching into that pocket is akin to putting your hand in someone else’s purse and rummaging among their used tissues and gum wrappers. Toenail clippings and mushy old French fries are even nastier surprises that have been found in seat pockets. Consider that cold and influenza viruses can survive for hours on fabric and tissues, and even longer (up to 48 hours) on nonporous surfaces like plastic and metal — and you realize that you might pick up more than that glossy flight magazine when you reach inside.
GERM ZONE: tray table FOR: MRSA, a deadly superbug
Flight attendants have witnessed many repulsive misuses of the tray table, from parents changing dirty diapers to kids sticking their boogers underneath. Research confirms that the handy tray table is a petri dish for all kinds of health hazards, including the superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), which is often fatal once contracted. It kills an estimated 20,000 Americans annually. In 2007, University of Arizona researcher Jonathan Sexton tested tray tables from three major airliners, and an alarming 60 percent tested positive for the superbug. That’s quite a revelation considering only 11 percent of his samples from the New York subway found traces of the bug.
TIP: Bring disinfectant wipes to clean off your tray table before and after use, and never eat directly off the surface. CDC guidelines tell you what to look for in a disinfectant and recommend checking a product’s label to see if MRSA is on the list of bacteria it kills; Lysol disinfecting wipes is one reliable choice. And be sure to protect any cuts with Band-Aids—the most common way of contracting an MRSA infection is through open skin.
GERM ZONE: airplane meal
FOR: Listeria, a microbe known to cause gastrointestinal illness and meningitis
In-flight meals have long had a bad reputation for consisting of bland, barely identifiable dishes. Then, in 2009, the meals made headlines when FDA inspections of the Denver location of LSG Sky Chefs — the world’s largest airplane caterer with clients including American Airlines, Delta, and United — found the kitchens crawling with roaches too numerous to count and employees handling the food with bare hands or unwashed gloves. Test samples from the food preparation area also found traces of Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause gastrointestinal illness and meningitis, as well as cervical infection in pregnant women. Your likelihood of contracting illness from the microbe is very low, though it should be noted that one fifth of the 2,500 annual cases are fatal. LSG Sky Chefs, to its credit, responded accordingly after the news broke and passed the FDA’s follow-up inspection in January 2010.
TIP: It sounds like LSG has cleaned up its act, but you’ll never really know where your meal has been. If you’re concerned, eat beforehand and bring your own snacks onto the plane. Check out our article on how to make a sandwich that will still be appetizing once you’re in the air. For starters, choose a well-cured meat like prosciutto or salami.
GERM ZONE: Airplane pillow and blankets FOR: Germs like Aspergillus niger that cause pneumonia and infections
Talk about sleeping with the enemy. You’re snuggling with a blanket and pillow that have likely been used by many drowsy, drooling passengers before you. Unless visibly soiled, pillows and blankets are often reissued because of the frequency of flights. A 2007 investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed that airlines cleaned their blankets every five to 30 days. And don’t assume your blanket is new just because it’s wrapped in plastic. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees made a big stink in 2000 when it accused Royal Airline Laundry — which supplies pillows and blankets to clients like American, United, and US Airways — of repackaging pillows and blankets without cleaning them properly. Its research found blankets with traces of Pseudomonas paucimobilis, known for causing lung and eye infections, and pillowcases with Aspergillus niger, which can lead to pneumonia and gastrointestinal bleeding. In the decade since, airlines like Southwest and Alaska Airlines have removed pillows and blankets completely, while JetBlue, US Airways, and American now charge for them.
TIP: There have been no documented reports linking airlines to these infections. But if you’re worried about staying warm — and want to avoid potential germs and airline fees — wear layers and thick socks, and consider bringing Grabber Warmers, small disposable hand and foot warmers. A travel pillow and compact blanket will help you sleep in comfort.
Related: Vote for America’s Coolest Small Towns
GERM ZONE: airplane lavatory FOR: A smorgasbord of threats like E. coli or fecal bacteria
After a mid-flight nap, you wake up to nature’s call and must face the airplane’s biggest germ zone: the lavatory. With hundreds of people using the commode daily, the small boxy space is a natural haven for all kinds of germs and viruses, especially on the door handle (do you really think every passenger washes his or her hands?). And that thunderous volcanic toilet flush doesn’t exactly help the situation, spraying water and releasing potential germs into the air every which way. The CDC cited the lavatory as a major danger area for the spread of disease during the H1N1 flu and SARS epidemics.
TIP: Use a paper towel to close the toilet lid before flushing — and then leave without washing your hands. Remember that cloudy tank water we described above? The sink water comes from the same source. You’ll come away cleaner if you skip the sink and reach for hand sanitizer instead.
One of the big challenges about traveling are the things you miss from home. My New York Jets (American football) were in the playoffs, but I was in Malaysia! I was excited to learn that my NY Jets playoff run took them all the way to the AFC Championship game. Unfortunately, I was set to arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one day before the game. It’s a region of the world without any NFL fans. None!
KL is a major city, so my plan was to investigate if there’s any tiny sports bar that might have it (spoiler alert – there’s not). So I was thinking it would be a challenge, but imagine my reaction as we landed right next to this:
That’s right – This is an Air Asia plane, with a custom Oakland Raiders wrap/paint job. At first I thought it was just Raider colors, but a closer look revealed that the side of the plane featured the name, the logo, and even images of the Raiderettes!
Why would a discount Asia carrier have a jet that’s decked out in Raiders colors? My first fleeting thought was hopeful, incorrectly thinking perhaps there’s a small NFL fanbase here that they’re catering to. There’s not. They don’t even fly to the United States.
As it turns out, Air Asia’s trying to break into the U.S. market, starting with Oakland. This WSJ article explains the situation best.
This could be GREAT news for the U.S.! I’m a big fan of Air Asia. Good experience at a cheap price. Yes! The airlines in the U.S. are lackluster, so perhaps this could push them to step it up a notch. Air Asia, we’re rooting for you!
After the craziness on my first flight on Gulf Air, they redeemed themselves with this wonderfully comfortable and uneventful flight.
This plane was modern and the seat design seemed very innovative – there was plenty of leg room because the area for the tray table and magazines was set higher than most airplane seats. Why doesn’t every airline do it this way?
The next post will be from Jordan – so excited for Petra!
For those of you keeping score at home, at this point of the trip I’ve been on 7 flights with 5 different airlines (Air Canada, China Air, Garuda Air, Air Asia, Gulf Air), and been through 8 airports (Newark, Vancouver, Beijing, Hong Kong, Denspasar/Bali (Indonesia), Surabaya (on Java, Indonesia), 2 in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Bahrain. Compared with our domestic airlines in the US (I’m talking to you AA & Delta!), when you fly international airlines the experience is typically sooo much better, even for comparable distances. So maybe this past one was my lucky #7.
This was my first time heading to the Middle East, and the flight from KL to Bahrain was easily the worst international flight I’ve taken. Please pardon the upcoming rant. Like many flights, this was a packed plane with seats crammed together like cattle in coach. The guy in front of me reclined so much that the seat slammed against me every time he repositioned. There was no room to even open my tray table if I wanted to. This creates a chain reaction where everyone reclines just to have room, but do so at your own peril since people sitting behind tend to fight back. There was no support on my seat either. My seat kept getting kicked, pushing me forward into the one in front of me. As people walked down the aisle they’d grab and pull the seats next to them for balance, which would jerk the whole seat back.
There were people coughing on all sides of me, and perhaps the custom is different but NONE of them covered their mouth. Does anyone reading this know if there’s something to that? Maybe I’m more of a germophobe, but I can’t remember the last time I was in a confined space and the majority of people coughing didn’t cover their mouth – not with their hand, their sleeve, their arm, nothing. Every time I started to fall asleep my seat got violently kicked from behind or yanked backward. But it’s a flight, all of these things happen. Then they went from bad to worse.
At this point of the flight I thought I smelled smoke. It can’t be, that’s ridiculous. Perhaps I’m hallucinating from lack of sleep. I took a moment to confirm. I asked the people seated near me, and apparently everyone around me only spoke Arabic (or didn’t want to hear from me?). The smell was getting stronger. I had a brief panic thought of, it’s probably nothing but… I’m on a flight to the Middle East and there’s smoke. Ahhhh! What would you do?
The flight attendant came over, confirmed, and she started playing detective. It was coming from the lavatory, and as the door opened a small cloud of smoke came out, and the guy said it was like that when he got in. There was some brief commotion and finger pointing and they tracked down the culprit. Fortunately it was just cigarettes in the lavatory, and not a another 911 moment. Hasn’t smoking been banned on airplanes for two decades?? In all my years of flying I’ve seen the no-smoking sign lit the entire flight, and wondered why it’s still necessary.
Apparently there’s no fine or punishment – she just explained to the guy that it’s not allowed and he played dumb. She said it in English and Arabic.
Perhaps they should have made that a teachable moment for the flight, because an hour later…the exact thing happened an hour later. Different guy. Where am I?? Welcome to Gulf Air. Welcome to the Middle East.
[note – the flight back on Gulf Air was actually on a modern plane and lived up to the reputation that you’d expect from highly rated international airlines]
After an 8-hour layover in the Kuala Lumpar airport, it was time to head to Bahrain, a small country bordering Saudi Arabia. Among the many security policies I find to be annoying are the policy for liquids. I finished my water, passed through security, and bought more water for the flight after passing through security. Then came the surprise – the gate had their own security check with the same no-liquid policy. Really? Is that needed? After passing through, you’re basically quarentined at the gate, with no access to water or bathrooms until you can get on the plane.
We’re heading to the Middle East, so I guess two security checkpoints feels like a great idea. But it’s a long flight so not being able to have water is a challenge. They’ll bring you a little 6oz cup of water when they offer drinks. Awesome. Thanks Gulf Air! Eck. I had looked them up and they actually came highly rated online so we’ll see.