June Catch-Up

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Boeing 737 MAX Update

Southwest, who is currently the largest operator of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft announced that the they have kept the aircraft off of the schedule until at least Oct 1. Both United and American Airlines stated they would consider extending the grounding if warranted.

The reason for this grounding extension comes from new FAA findings of an additional software flaw that is related to runway stabilization. This was found as part of the testing the FAA is doing on the Boeing software enhancements and highlights the importance of these tests and checks for crew and passenger safety.

Boeing is continuing to work on a solution and airlines are ready to extend their grounding of the 737 MAXes if necessary.

Russian E-Visa and New Requirements for a US Visa

Having applied for multiple Russian visas in the past, I was thrilled to hear that they are going to be moving to an e-visa in 2021. The visa would be single entry, valid for 16 days, with an expected cost around $50 USD. My personal experience obtaining this visa in the past has been painful with multiple trips to the consulate, an inability to get clear answers, and costs in the neighborhood of $250 for just the visa (no processing or outside firm usage costs).

My firm belief is that visa fees only punish tourists and those in the tourism industry. Many times these fees are used as retaliatory measures – country A imposes higher visa fee on country B, country B in turn raises fees on country A. It is a lose-lose in my book. Seeing Russia drop their current effective $198 visa fee to $50 while also providing an easier process for travelers is fantastic.

The United States however, is now requiring visa applicants to disclose social media accounts, which as expected has brought mixed reactions. On several occasions I have been asked about my cell phone when entering a country, but I have never had to answer questions about, or show my social media accounts. On the one hand, I have nothing to hide, yet, there is so much content that could be misinterpreted.

As with most changes like this, the question of HOW they will be used is key. There are the obvious indicators, such as posts regarding ones plans to attack the United States, but then there are other items, such as an individual arriving on a tourist visa who is a member of Facebook or LinkedIn groups about working or doing business in the United States.

I do believe that we will see more countries looking to tie physical individuals to their online presence and monitor them under the guise of state security. This is already done internally in China, and I think it is only a matter of time till this is expanded.

American Express Updates

June seemed to be a busy month for American Express with some new features and updates to existing products.

First up, the American Express Hilton Ascend will revert to its prior name, Hilton Surpass. I can’t figure out much of a reason for this, beyond the fact that the name was too close to the Hilton Aspire and that consumers were confused. It seems this re-re-branding will end up being a expense that American Express would rather not make, but that they feel is worth it in the long run.

Speaking of the Aspire, American Express mildly devalued the annual $250 resort credit as it no longer can be applied towards advance purchase rates. Typically these rates are less expensive AND enabled individuals to use the resort credit at the end of the year without losing it if they planned a trip in the future. I say this is a slight devaluation as the $250 credit remains intact, only now it’ll only apply to charges run during the stay.

The personal Gold Card has been a favorite of mine after it’s revamp late last year, but a common complaint was that it only coded US restaurants at 4x. Well, that has changed as now American Express had added this feature as of June 6. Keep in mind that the awarding of 4x depends on how the card processor is coded, so be mindful of that as you look at your statement. I have had some success calling Amex when I haven’t gotten the points I felt I deserved, but as with most things in this realm, YMMV.

In what I believe is an attempt to reduce abuse of the Membership Rewards program, Amex will now not allow transfers of points to authorize user frequent flyer accounts until that AU has been on the American Express account for 90 days. This will go into effect on September 1. Related to this is that as of September 28, no longer will business card authorized users be able to have their own Membership Rewards accounts. Points accrued will all be pooled under the main account.

American Express also announced that if card members don’t pay their bill on time they will forfeit the points earned during that billing statement. While we have always said carrying a balance is the first big no-no in the points game, this really adds an incentive to make sure the bill is paid on time!

Another interesting development is that it appears Ebates is working to bring Membership Rewards earning possibilities to CURRENT Ebates members. Under the current setup of the partnership it has been impossible to convert or select whether you earn cash back or Membership Rewards. It was required to create a completely new Ebates account and then select MR as your earning preference. Ebates is currently working with American Express to be able to offer this to current members. While I don’t know what all is involved in such a move, I am glad that both companies are working to make it happen.

Last, but certainly not least, the American Express Gold Card has its limited edition rose gold option back until July 17th! The catch here is that it is only available via referral from an existing member. The good news for you all is that I am a member with a referral link. While the best public offer currently out there (of which I am aware) is a 50k sign-up bonus, this link offers 40k, BUT also the rose gold card. I will say though, I do get a lot of comments when I pull out this card, and I do believe it is the prettiest of all of the cards in my wallet. So, if you are interested, feel free to use my link!

Global Entry Interview Delays

Through September 30, it is going to be a lot more difficult to find an opening for the required Global Entry interview with a Customs and Border Patrol officer. Due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the Mexican border, staff from around the US has been re-assigned there causing delays in normal operations. As with most things it is always better to start early than to wait until the last minute. My Global Entry expires at the end of October and I submitted my renewal application back at the end of January and it is still in review. At the rate things are going there is a very good chance that I will lapse before being able to interview. So if your window to begin the renewal process is coming up (1 year prior to expiration), jump on it, as we don’t know how long the wait will be!

Citi Removes Valuable Benefits

All I can say about this one is – WOW. Citi, like many issues offers a host of ancillary benefits for holding their cards, most which are seldom used by cardholders, but when used can provide a huge amount of value and ease of mind. As of September 22, Citi is removing the following benefits:

  • Car Rental Insurance
  • Trip Cancellation and Interruption Protection
  • Travel Accident Insurance
  • Trip Delay Insurance
  • Baggage Delay Protection
  • Lost Baggage Protection
  • Citi Price Rewind
  • 90-Day Return Protection
  • Roadside Assistance
  • Travel and Emergency Assistance
  • Medical Evacuation
  • Missed Event Ticket Protection

While navigating some of these benefits can be time consuming and a tad cumbersome, there is a lot of value being stripped away from Citi’s cards with the removal of these benefits. Price rewind and 90 day return protection are two major items that really hurt.

Citi stated that these benefits weren’t being used often and effectively that is why they removed them. To me this is a cop out. IF they weren’t being used, THEN there would be no cost to Citi. Citi could claim all of this value by offering them, but not have to actually pay for it. It is a win-win. What is actually going on (in my opinion), is that a small number of people were using the benefits in a major way (within the rules of the program) and Citi wanted to put a stop to it. Like with most things, this is about cost savings. Nothing else. My prediction here is Citi may lose a handful of customers, but will see some major spending shift away from their cards and onto their competitors with the removal of the purchase protections.

What do you plan on doing with your Citi cards now that these benefits are going away? Let us know in the comments!

Other Airline Tidbits Only I May Find Interesting

You may find them interesting as well, but really these are items that are noteworthy, innovative, or generally worth keeping an eye on.

KLM opened a paid restaurant in its business class lounge in Amsterdam. I think this is great. Most business lounges don’t offer a sit down restaurant with table service, and now that option exists with an menu with a decent amount of choices. All of the traditional lounge amenities are still in place, so this hasn’t been done at the expense of the buffet. I like it when airlines innovate in a positive way and I think this is a great example of that.

Jet Blue just purchased 13 Airbus A-321 XLRs. Why is this important? This means that Jet Blue will have a fleet that easily capable of penetrating into Europe. This coupled with the London announcement heavily hints at Jet Blue working to become a larger player in trans-Atlantic air travel.

Emirates announced that it will begin to “unbundle” business class tickets on certain routes. What does this mean? Well, it means you can purchase a business class ticket that is effectively just the seat and the on-board experience. You don’t get the lounge access, the additional multiplier on your flight miles, and you can’t select your seat ahead of time. I think for a lot of flights this could be a very solid value proposition, especially if it saves a decent amount of money. The question is – will others follow suit?

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