Travel Logistics – The savvy traveler

Travel Logistics

Becoming a savvy traveler and knowing how to work the various systems to get the best deal doesn’t happen overnight. But you have to start somewhere.

One of the first steps is to obtain a passport. If you already have one, you can skip this paragraph, but I’m betting that some of you don’t have one yet. Passports are required if you wish to travel outside of your country of origin. The exception to this rule is if you are a citizen of a country that participates in the Schengen Agreement, in which case you can travel to other Schengen countries with just your national identity card. Passports are not just useful for traveling; they act as a second piece of government-issued documentation verifying your identity. Even if you don’t plan on traveling abroad, I would still highly suggest applying for one. Be advised that it can take between 6-8 weeks to receive once you file the requisite paperwork and that they are valid for 10 years, after which time you’ll have to renew.

The next step in learning how to travel smartly and within your budget is to become familiar with the various internet tools available for free that can assist you in your searches. While each airline has its own search tool, which may or may not list flights with partner airlines, there are a few sites that will perform a multi-site search. Kayak is a great tool for domestic and international airline searches. It can also search for hotels and rental cars. The ITA Matrix is another website, which many frequent flyers prefer, that will search for flights. It’s one of the most comprehensive tools out there for flight searches, but you cannot book flights with it. Once you find a flight you like, you have to use another website—either Kayak, Travelocity, Orbitz, or the airline directly—to purchase the tickets.

One of the main goals of traveling and earning frequent flyer miles is to earn free flights. And you do have to earn them; they aren’t given to you. If you already have a particular airline with which you earn frequent flyer miles, you should stick with that particular alliance, whether it’s Star Alliance, Skyteam, or oneworld. Starting from scratch with another alliance can seem defeatist in some ways. But if you know you’ll be taking many flights with a particular alliance or if you take a couple of business/first class flights within a calendar year, you can build up miles and elite status relatively quickly. Otherwise, I would suggest maintaining your loyalty to the airline you already fly.

If you don’t already have a loyalty to a particular alliance, there are several factors to consider when choosing one. First, are you traveling outside the U.S.? If not, you can pick an airline at will. If you are, you need to know in which regions each airline specializes. For example, United has more flights to Asia, American has more flights to Central and South America, and Delta flies to many cities in Europe and Asia. While no airline excludes a particular region, a quick search of airline route maps will give you a better idea which airline is better for you.

Second, do you have a co-branded credit card with any airline currently? If so, you are most likely already earning miles thru your purchases and should continue doing so. If you don’t have one, this is a must-have to make the most out of your daily purchases. There’s no reason not to earn miles, even if it is a 1:1 match, for the purchases you are going to make anyway. Some credit cards offer a 2:1 match for certain purchase categories, such as gas, groceries, and airline tickets. For example, if you have the American Express Delta Skymiles card, any purchases done on Delta’s website for Delta or Delta-coded flights earn you 2 miles for every 1 dollar spent. This is in addition to the actual miles you earn by taking the trip. If you bought a Delta business class ticket from the U.S. to Europe for around $2,500 and put it on your Delta co-branded American Express, you would not only earn the approximately 10,000 miles for the actual trip, but another 5,000 miles just for using that card.

There are some credit cards that let you earn reward points which can be transferred to various airlines or redeemed for credit on your credit card statement. These can be beneficial if you don’t have a credit card that earns you double miles on airline tickets purchased directly with airlines.

Most of the major airlines also have online shopping malls through which you can make purchases, earning you even more points. If you keep up to date with their monthly specials for bonus miles, purchases you would have made anyway can bring in the points quickly.

Once you’ve chosen which airline alliance you want to join, the next step is learning how to get free hotel stays. Many hotel chains have loyalty programs, and some even have co-branded credit cards to help you earn points quicker. Similar to airline loyalty, hotel loyalty can earn you free nights. One of the trade-offs with this system, however, is you may be paying more for your hotel nights than is necessary. Sometimes similar quality hotels can be found at a lower price, but in order to earn more loyalty points with a particular hotel, you may have to pay more to stay there.

One way around this is to use a travel site to book your hotels while earning rewards from the site itself, not the specific hotel chain. One way to do this is through, which uses a money value instead of a points system. For every 10 nights you stay in hotels, you earn 1 free night equal to the aggregate value of what you’ve paid. For example, if you stay 10 nights in a hotel at $110 per night, you earn 1 night worth $110. This money can be applied to a future stay, even if the next hotel costs more. You will just pay the difference between the two prices for that one night. For us, this system works better than being loyal to a specific hotel chain since we prefer quality hotels at cheaper prices outside of towns. In just 2 years of membership, we have earned 3 free nights and will get a 4th from our next vacation in May. The key to this system, however, is to always redeem your money value in full. Using the above example, if you have $110 available, don’t book a hotel costing less than this. Any unused portion, when redeemed, is forfeited. You also cannot combine 2 free nights to pay for one more expensive night.

Now that you have a specific airline alliance and hotel system chosen, it’s time to book a flight. The cheapest days to fly are Monday-Thursday, but if your vacation time is delimited by calendar weeks, this isn’t an option. But if you are flexible with your travel dates, many websites have a multi-day search function. For example, Kayak will look + or – 3 days of your chosen date. Delta’s online system will look for 5 weeks at a time, but has limitations since it only searches for Delta flights on Delta planes. No co-shared flights will come up in this particular search. Also, if you change the duration of your vacation, the price of your flight may go up or down. Some airlines offer lower prices if you stay over a Saturday night. Some may offer lower pricing on domestic red-eye flights since the airlines know people don’t like taking these since they are usually too short to get a normal amount of sleep, provided you can sleep at all on planes.

There are peak seasons to visit certain regions. Flights to Europe are always more expensive in summer since airline companies take advantage of the fact that people with children in school are most likely to travel only while school isn’t in session. Flights to Japan are most expensive during cherry blossom season, and the airlines play on this knowledge to extract more money. It used to be that booking international airfare was something you had to do well in advance to get the best deals. While this is still true when redeeming reward miles, the best prices are not found that far out now. Current airline philosophy is to offer discounted international fares anywhere between 2 and 4 months out. For domestic flights, lower fares can be found between 4 and 6 weeks out. For the traveler who likes to plan everything, this new system can be frustrating, but it also offers people with more flexible dates the chance to snag low fares.

Once you decide on a destination, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to lock yourself into a specific airport. I’ve been guilty of this when I first started, but not anymore. If you are traveling to a large city such as NYC, Los Angeles, or Chicago, there are multiple airports from which you can choose. Don’t lock yourself into JFK airport if you want to go to NYC; there is also Newark and LaGuardia airports. One way to avoid this problem is to enter alternate codes into your search engine. For example, input NYC instead of JFK, LGA, or EWR. Enter TYO for Tokyo instead of just NRT or HND. London has 5 airports, all of which have international flights. So enter LON the next time you search flights to London. Some search engines have a radio button to search nearby airports automatically. Don’t be afraid to use it. You may be surprised at what you find.

Another trick I’ve learned over the years is to look at alternative airports when flying to Europe. This may seem counterproductive, but it can save you a lot of money. Flying into the main airports can be expensive, especially London-Heathrow, London-Gatwick, Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles de Gaulle, and Frankfurt. Due to the EU’s deregulation of European airlines, cheap puddlejump flights can be found all over Europe. Instead of the main airports many people use, try flights into Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Milan, and Barcelona. Yes, it requires backtracking and extra checkins. But it can save you upwards of $500. Our last trip to the Netherlands and Germany would have been over $1,100 round trip per person if we had flown into Amsterdam directly, but we flew into Copenhagen and only paid $650 round trip per person. The short flight between Amsterdam and Copenhagen to return, because we had to fly back to the U.S. From Copenhagen, only cost around $80 per person. Even with the extra flight, we saved over $350, got to visit a city we weren’t planning on seeing, and got extra miles. We are doing the same type of trip in May when we go to Oslo before spending 10 days in the Netherlands. Round trip to Oslo was again around $650 per person, and the round trip between Oslo and Amsterdam was $140. If we had booked directly into Amsterdam, this trip would have been over $1,200 per person. So it clearly pays to search alternative airports.

Trains in the Netherlands

The principal Dutch train company is called Nederlandse Spoorwegen [Dutch Railway Company], or NS for short. For those who don’t read Dutch, most of the website is also available in English. The sections that are only in Dutch mainly apply to residents of the Netherlands and the various discounts they can purchase. These discounts are not available to tourists since they don’t have a Dutch bank account. The NS runs frequent trains between the main cities, usually every 10-15 minutes on the main routes, and a train every 30 minutes on local routes. There are two types of trains—intercity and sprinter—and contrary to its name, the sprinter is the slower of the two. Intercity trains, which are duplex trains (an upstairs and a downstairs), stop at the main rail stations, and sprinters, which are only one level, stop at all stations. On some routes it is actually quicker to connect via 2 intercity trains than to take 1 sprinter train.
In addition to the two types of trains mentioned above, there is also a special route called the Intercity Direct. This train travels from Amsterdam Centraal, via Schiphol Airport and Rotterdam, to Breda, and vice versa. There are two trains per hour in each direction, with extra trains during rush hours Monday thru Friday. This route can be classified as an express route between these stations, cutting travel time by around 30 minutes. However, if you take this route between Schiphol Airport and Rotterdam, in either direction, you have to pay a supplement (toeslag) of €2,40 for the convenience. You can take this train between Amsterdam Centraal and Schiphol Airport or between Rotterdam and Breda without paying the supplement; the cost is just the same as other trains. This supplement can be pre-purchased at automatic ticket machines or at cash desks. If you have either version of the OV-chip card (see below), just touch your card to the supplement post on the platform to pay.

Tourists can opt for one of two options when traveling by train in the Netherlands. This first option is to purchase an OV-chipkaart [OV-chip card], which is a plastic card with an electronic chip embedded inside it. These cards come in two variations—personal and anonymous—and cost €7,50. Both of these cards are valid for 5 years, after which you will have to buy a replacement card (also valid for 5 years). To purchase these types of cards, you have to go to one of the cash desks at any major station. The second option is to buy a single-use OV-chip card, which is a paper ticket with an electronic chip embedded inside it. The single-use cards have a €1 supplement in addition to the price of the trip, which can be a disadvantage to using this option. These tickets can be purchased from automated ticket machines or from cash desks. Be advised that if you use an automated ticket machine, you must have a credit card with a chip in it. Most American credit and debit cards now have these chips. Also, the automated machines do not accept American Express, which can run up your foreign transaction fees if your Visa or MasterCard charges these types of fees.

If you are planning on taking more than 7 train trips, it would be more economical to purchase an OV-chip card since you won’t have to pay the €1 supplement on each ticket, which quickly adds up. If you plan to vacation in the Netherlands at least twice within a 5 year period, it is well worth the investment to buy the OV-chip card in the long run because any value left on the ticket is valid when you return.

NS offers its customers a fantastic journey planner via its website or its free mobile app. This planner, available in Dutch and English, allows users to input their starting point and destination and when they want to travel. It will provide multiple train options, and connections if necessary, as well as from which track (spoor) the train leaves and the trip’s price. As with any mode of transportation, reconfirm all information at the station once you arrive.

There is also another travel planning service in the Netherlands called 9292. Available online and as a mobile app, this site includes not only the trains, but other modes of transport, including tram, metro, bus, and ship. Like the NS service, 9292 will show the journey’s price and train track, if applicable. If your journey is not solely on the train, I recommend this service as a one-stop site for your complete trip.

Types of Flights

So what is the difference between non-stop, direct, and connecting flights? And why does this matter?

People are probably most familiar with non-stop flights, which as the name implies, takes you from point A to point B without stopping. For most people, these are the flights they try to find since they want to get to their destination in the most efficient way possible. For example, American Airlines operates non-stop flights to many cities in the Caribbean and South America from their Miami hub.

A direct flight is a flight between point A and point B, but it has one stop along the route at point C. Airlines list these flights under one flight number, and passengers may or may not have to change aircraft at the intermediate location. For example, Singapore Airlines operates a direct flight from New York JFK to Singapore Changi with a stop in Frankfurt, Germany. Both segments of this route are listed under the same flight number (in this case SQ 25 eastbound and SQ 26 westbound), and passengers do not have to change planes in Frankfurt. Another example is Delta Air Lines flight from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, South Africa, with a stop in Atlanta (DL 200). In this case, passengers do change planes in Atlanta, but keep the same flight number for the entire journey.

Connecting flights differ from direct flights in that the segments of the journey have different flight numbers. This usually happens when you need to get from one city to another and have to pass through one of the multiple hub cities that airlines have. The 3 major airlines in the U.S. have multiple hub cities throughout the country. For example, if you travel on United from Orlando to Paris, you will most likely connect through Newark Airport, and the two segments of the trip will have separate flight numbers. Also, sometimes, but not always, a trip with connecting flights is cheaper when compared to a non-stop flight. Why? Airlines know people want to get to their destination as quickly as possible and will raise the price of a non-stop flight as a business tactic. A lower price on connecting flights will help fill smaller planes and make those flights more cost effective. It also has to do with inventory management since fares fluctuate constantly, and it pays to monitor your desired trip prior to booking it.

Why does this distinction between direct and connecting flights matter? It matters for people who are trying to earn elite status with a specific airline. To earn Silver Medallion with Delta, one of the two tasks you have to complete within a calendar year is either to fly 25,000 miles or take 30 flight segments. While this requirement can be met by flying 15 round trips in one year, it can be achieved quicker if you opt for connecting flights on a given route. For example, if you want to go from Los Angeles to Miami on Delta, you have the option of choosing a non-stop flight or a connecting flight through Atlanta. Where the non-stop option 

would earn you 1 flight segment, the connecting option would earn you 2 segments. In addition, there can be more than 1 connection on a particular route. Another example is Orlando to Hanoi on Delta connects in Detroit, Seattle, and Seoul, giving you 4 flight segments on the outbound and another 4 on the inbound flight. Are there quicker ways to get between Orlando and Hanoi? Yes, but if elite status is your goal, you may opt for multiple connections in order to achieve that goal faster.

Airline Loyalty Programs

Airline loyalty programs offer consumers rewards such as free flights and free upgrades depending on how many miles one has earned and one’s status level. But the most difficult decision is which one to choose. There are many factors that can inform such a decision, but ultimately you will have to fly in order to accumulate miles and to reap the rewards.

For the casual traveler who flies once or twice a year, it takes a long time to earn enough miles for reward travel, especially if the flights taken are under 500 miles. There is also the issue that miles will expire if you don’t travel frequently enough. Depending on the airline, some miles expire after 18 months of inactivity; others are more generous with a 36 month window. This means that if you don’t take a qualifying flight within this timeframe, all the miles you have earned disappear forever.

There are ways to retain your earned miles without flying. This involves applying for and being approved for an airline-branded credit card. Each of the major U.S. airlines has at least one branded credit card, some have multiple, which allow you to earn miles for daily purchases. While most of these do carry an annual fee, you should consider this fee the cost of doing business. The fee is usually less expensive than if you had to buy more plane tickets to make up for the expired miles.

The decision of which program to join can seem daunting, but there are some significant factors to consider. First, is your home airport (the one from which you will depart most) a hub for any of the major carriers? For example, if you live in or around Atlanta, you might choose Delta. If you depart from Denver, you might choose United. Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, are hubs for multiple airlines. Thus, you have a choice in those cities. If your home airport is not a hub or you choose an airline whose hub is elsewhere, chances are that you will need to connect to get to where you are going. And depending on the airline, that’s not always a bad thing as it allows you to earn more miles and segments flown.

Second, which airlines fly to where you want to go? Not all airlines serve all airports. There’s no reason to pick an airline if it doesn’t fly to the cities you want to visit. Within the U.S. this is rarely a problem, as the majority of airports are served by at least two airlines. International travel is another story. While all major carriers serve the main international cities, some airlines specialize in certain regions. For example, American has many flights to Central and South America, while United has many flights to the Asia Pacific region.

Once you decide while loyalty program fits your needs best, you should maximize your daily spending by getting the airline-branded credit card that corresponds to your airline. Most of these credit cards offer one mile per dollar spent and two miles for every dollar spent on airline websites. I say websites because airlines, in addition to booking travel, will also allow you to book hotels and rental cars on their websites. Therefore, eligible purchases made directly with the airline and paid for with the airline-branded credit card count for double miles. As always, check with the credit card company for its current offerings and terms. The miles earned

with these credit cards count toward reward travel, which is the ultimate goal of many travelers. These miles, however, do not count toward elite status, which is solely earned by flying.