News: Royal Caribbean Cruises orders sixth Oasis-class ship

News: Royal Caribbean Cruises orders sixth Oasis-class ship

http://bit.ly/2tsnqmM

Royal Caribbean Cruises has entered into an agreement with French shipbuilder Chantiers de l’Atlantique to order a sixth Oasis-class ship.

The vessel is set for delivery in the autumn of 2023.

“It is such a pleasure to announce the order of another Oasis-class ship,” said Richard Fain, chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises.

“This order is a reflection of the exceptional performance of this vessel class and the extraordinary partnership between Chantiers de l’Atlantique and Royal Caribbean Cruises.”

This order is contingent upon financing, which is expected to be completed in the second or third quarter of this year.   

“This is the twenty-third cruise ship that RCL will be building at our shipyard, and we are especially proud of it,” said Laurent Castaing, general manager, Chantiers de l’Atlantique.

“The order reflects the confidence our customer puts on us, based on the exceptional quality of our long-term co-operation between the two companies and on our capacity to bring innovative solutions to meet our customers’ expectations.”

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class includes Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, which were delivered in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and Symphony of the Seas, which was completed in 2017.

Two additional unnamed ships are currently under construction and are expected to be delivered in 2021 and 2023 respectively.

The are considered the largest class of passenger cruise ship currently in operation.

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February 19, 2019 at 09:33AM

Sailing into Doubtful Sound

Sailing into Doubtful Sound

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Daily Photo – Sailing into Dusky Sound

I did a fun overnight trip with Real Journeys into Doubtful Sound. It’s a very difficult fjord to reach because you have to take a series of smaller boats and a bus to actually reach the destination. But, once there, it’s really nice! You’re on a boat with about 30 people or so and you end up eat and sleep on the boat for one evening. The weather was absolutely terrible when we were there, but it did clear up for a few moody shots like this.

Sailing into Dusky Sound

Photo Information


  • Date Taken2018-05-09 08:40:40
  • CameraILCE-7RM3
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/500
  • Aperture4
  • ISO250
  • Focal Length27.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramManual
  • Exposure Bias

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February 19, 2019 at 08:10AM

U.S. Airline Earnings Show Race Between Rising Costs and Higher Revenues

U.S. Airline Earnings Show Race Between Rising Costs and Higher Revenues

http://bit.ly/2DN5GqU

A sharp drop in fuel prices midway through the fourth quarter of 2018 was welcome. But it didn’t prevent U.S. airlines from paying 24 percent more for their fuel this fourth quarter versus last. So once again, industry margins declined. But not much.

The country’s nine largest scheduled airlines that have reported (Frontier hasn’t yet done so) collectively earned a 9.7 percent fourth quarter operating margin, down just slightly from 10.4 percent a year earlier. Full-year margins fell more substantially, to 10.4 percent from 13.1 percent.

But by the second half of 2018, industry fares began firming, helping to offset much—but not all—of the steady fuel inflation that persisted through mid-October. Better pricing helped mitigate ongoing labor cost inflation too. In the second and third quarters, not one major U.S. airline managed to increase its margins year-over-year. But by the fourth quarter, a few—led by Spirit—did.

The big story last quarter was indeed stronger revenue trends, aided by firmer pricing. As airline executives often say, revenues eventually catch up to higher fuel prices—it just takes time. But maybe too much time. Because remember that 10.4 percent operating margin for all of 2018? Well, it was the worst industry figure since 2013.

That said, anyone with memories of last decade will feel supremely pleased with double-digit industry margins of any kind, even if just 10 percent. Sure, 2015’s 17 percent operating margin was nice. But replicating that every year is hardly the measure of success. Maybe a better measure of success is comparing U.S. airlines with their counterparts abroad. In that regard, they’re still big winners, still benefiting from the consolidation that European airlines now seem eager to mimic.

U.S. consolidation is done, albeit with some synergies from past mergers still left to harvest, most importantly at Alaska Airlines. United and American too are just now realizing benefits from fused flight attendant workforces. That’s not why revenues were so strong last quarter, though, rising 7 percent on just 5 percent more available seat miles capacity. Every U.S. airline except Hawaiian, in fact, grew revenues more than capacity, some substantially more.

What are the reasons why revenues were strong, beyond just a firmer pricing environment?

13 Takeaways

For the U.S. Big Three, demand was strong both at home and abroad, and both for business and leisure. But more specifically, they benefited enormously from flourishing long-haul premium demand, even more specifically in three key markets: Europe, Asia and domestic transcontinental. JetBlue also benefited from the latter.

JetBlue was likewise among the carriers benefiting from strong domestic short-haul business demand—this was most helpful for Southwest. The Big Three benefited as well, to be sure, if not quite with as much satisfaction as they got from the long-haul premium bounty. Alaska was a winner here too, although its top business markets from Seattle and California came under heavy competitive fire.

Thank heaven for Florida: Ultra low-cost carriers keep piling into the sunshine state, with seemingly endless success. The trend applies to the Caribbean too. And it helps JetBlue, Southwest and the Big Three as well. What makes Florida and the Caribbean thrive, of course, is strong inbound tourism from economically booming cities across the eastern U.S.

Originally designed as an ultra low-cost carrier repellent, basic economy fares are helping airlines upsell to higher fares, thereby increasing revenues. Now Hawaiian is preparing to offer a basic economy fare option—and it doesn’t even compete against ULCCs. JetBlue is adopting it. Alaska now has it. And the Big Three are spreading the concept far and wide, even across the Atlantic.

The basic economy phenomenon stems from a broader segmentation effort that clearly and concisely markets different sets of products to different groups of customers with different needs and wants. Southwest, the most highly bundled U.S. airline, is not playing the basic economy card.

To really get the most out of their segmentation efforts, U.S. carriers need to achieve consistency in what they offer customers across all booking channels. Unfortunately for them, this has not been the case.

They’ve been running full-speed ahead with advanced merchandising and customizing on their own websites and mobile apps but have been hobbled in their ability to do the same through travel agency channels. That’s changing, however, and providing yet another revenue tailwind.

IATA’s standards for its New Distribution Capability are helping, as third-party booking sites increasingly can offer a wider selection of an airline’s products from preferred seating to early boarding. So do evolving relationships with global distribution systems. There’s more work to do, though. As a United-Expedia dispute shows, moving ahead sometimes involves confrontation, not just cooperation.

Some once-trendy initiatives like seating densification have largely run their course, further reconfiguration work at JetBlue, American and others notwithstanding. What’s still very much in fashion, by contrast, is partnering with airlines abroad. Some newish partnerships, such as Delta’s joint venture with Korean, are still just ramping up.

And many more await regulatory clearance, including Delta’s proposed joint venture with WestJet and its bid to unify its transatlantic joint ventures with Air France/KLM and Virgin Atlantic. Heck, it might even buy a piece of Alitalia to keep it an ally. American has its own set of promising partnerships with LATAM, China Southern, Aer Lingus and perhaps Qantas.

United hopes to fortify its Latin American credentials with an Avianca/Copa joint venture. Will it next—finally—share transborder revenues with Air Canada? Hawaiian is giddy about forming a JV with Japan Airlines. Alaska is doing interesting things with Qantas and might even affiliate with the Oneworld alliance. Might even Southwest opt for cooperation with airline partners abroad?

Ancillaries are still a growth area too, thanks to success in raising bag fees, bundling offers, revenue-managing fees and more effective distribution and customer targeting. Loyalty plans, too, remain massive cash cows, supporting lucrative credit card deals. There’s some long-term concern, though, that airlines might be reaching peak co-branded credit card revenue, with future rounds of negotiations perhaps less fruitful. Spirit, for one, is revamping its loyalty plan.

Behind the scenes, airlines are getting better at revenue management. How? Through experience, in part, but also better revenue management science and better data. Southwest took a big leap when installing its new Amadeus reservation system, which enabled revenue management optimization by origin and destination rather than just an individual flight leg, accounting for connecting traffic. JetBlue says it doesn’t really need that (because few of its passengers connect). But it’s shopping for a new reservations system anyway.

New airplanes are more cost efficient, for sure, but can also help with revenues. United’s new B787-10s, for example, are the right planes for certain transcon and transatlantic routes. American is aggressively adding 787s. Delta is re-fleeting with twin-aisle A330-NEOs and A350s. Everyone except Allegiant is adding MAXs or NEOs. And the A220 is on a roll, entering service with Delta last week and winning big orders from JetBlue and David Neeleman’s new startup.

Also interesting are things carriers are doing with older planes, i.e., United turning 70-seaters into plusher 50-seaters. Will JetBlue take A321-NEO LRs for Europe? Yes, it seems, if it can get Heathrow slots. One final note about U.S. fleet strategy: Carriers haven’t been afraid to defer or cancel orders (i.e., United no longer wanting A350-1000s). They haven’t been shy about switching (Hawaiian dumped A330-NEOs in favor of B787s). And they’ve refrained from the biggest wide-bodies—no A380s or B747-8s, that’s for sure, but no B777-Xs yet either.

There’s a new appetite for growing in places where growing is physically difficult, in other words, at gate-constrained airports. Spirit, for one, is ready to move when gates become available. American’s single biggest revenue initiative is growing at new gates it will get in Dallas DFW, Charlotte and Washington DCA.

United focuses on it most, but it applies to American and Delta too: enhancing regional connectivity, especially at mid-continent hubs. It certainly seems to be working at hubs like Houston, Chicago and Denver. The idea: Put more two-class regional jets in small cities, creating new demand for other flights via hub connections.

But there’s a problem: Pilot scope clauses limit regional jet outsourcing, and one thing the Big Three will never do (for cost reasons) is fly regional jets with mainline pilots. Delta uses mainline pilots for B717s and A220s, which works well in many markets, but not the smallest of markets. United, for its part, wants pilots to accept scope clause changes.

U.S. airlines are achieving revenue growth by investing in better planes, better punctuality, better seats, better food, better lounges, better technology and so on. Anyone crammed in a middle seat on a densified plane might react with disbelief. And a growing chorus of antitrust scholars say the U.S. airline industry is too concentrated, citing poor service as a manifestation of consumer harm.

But it’s true: Even as airlines like Spirit choose to aggressively compete on price—evidence perhaps that the sector is not over-concentrated—others are spending enormously to compete on service. Showers in first class like Emirates? Not quite. But direct-aisle access, lie-flat seats? They’re now standard for premium fliers on American, Delta and United. Ditto for high-speed Wi-Fi, in all classes on most airlines.

The final point on revenues is that they really do respond to movements in costs. With a lag? Yes. But over-concentrated or not, the U.S. airline sector adheres to some measure of cost-plus pricing. When fuel prices remain depressed for long enough, fares will fall. And vice versa. They achieve this, more precisely, primarily through capacity moves—when fuel prices fall, airlines grow more quickly (because the unit-cost benefits of growth are more attractive when fuel is cheap), and fares fall in response to the additional supply of seats in the marketplace.

And… well… vice versa. The question now: Will Q1 fares and revenues fall in response to the late-2018 fuel price drop? Fuel prices, to be clear, have come up a bit in early 2019. Demand, meanwhile, is still super strong. And all those airline self-help revenue initiatives are still doing their part. There might yet be some revenue growth momentum left.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Feb. 11 edition of Skift Airline Weekly.

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Photo Credit: In the second and third quarters, not one major U.S. airline increased its margins year-over-year. But by the fourth quarter, a few—led by Spirit Airlines—did. Bloomberg

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February 19, 2019 at 07:04AM

Travel Megatrends 2019: Consolidation Creates Travel Brand Bullies

Travel Megatrends 2019: Consolidation Creates Travel Brand Bullies

http://bit.ly/2IjpCqT

We recently released our annual travel industry trends forecast, Skift Megatrends 2019. Download a copy of our magazine here and look for us to highlight individual trends in the coming days.

The last 20 years have been an unprecedented period of consolidation for the travel industry, particularly in North America.

The tangle of major U.S. airlines was whittled down to three following a period of economic contraction a decade ago, while hotel chains Marriott International and Hilton Hotels & Resorts have scooped up competitors in an unprecedented manner. International investment groups, likewise, have bought up and sold off various hotel assets during the same time period.

The quest for scale has only intensified in markets dominated by few players with the wherewithal to push for financial and geographic domination. How these companies choose to deploy their market-shaping power, however, causes frustration and angst for consumers. It also limits resources devoted to developing new solutions that could ease the travel booking process and improve the travel experience itself for customers.

These bullies tend to move in lockstep, one-upping each other in ways that drive revenue and geographic expansion at the expense of consumer experience. If travelers have no choice but to use your travel services, making them pay more for less becomes a competitive imperative. It also becomes less important to create powerful, disruptive services if the corporate focus is on incremental revenue and usership growth.

The airline sector, in particular, shows a follow-the-leader mentality where competition leads to increased costs and reduced amenities for customers. Since customers are so price-sensitive, airlines turned to fees and stripping inclusions from fares to artificially decrease the cost of flights on booking sites. The rise of basic economy fares among the big three U.S. airlines has increased complexity and confusion for travelers in order to extract additional revenue from flyers. At the same time, the muscle deployed by airlines to lock down gates at their primary airports has led to less choice for flyers in major cities.

Make no mistake: increased segmentation ends up costing consumers more and driving more revenue for airlines. It also forces flyers to adopt an aggravated state of constant vigilance during the booking and travel process that is at odds with the stated mission of the airlines to provide comfortable and timely travel service.

Get Your Skift Travel Megatrends 2019 Download Here

The global proliferation of low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers has worked to reprogram consumers to expect discomfort in exchange for the blessing of an affordable flight. Now that larger carriers are emulating the low-cost pricing model in order to compete, most travelers don’t have a choice but to deal with the unpleasant reality of surcharges and bag fees.

Airline loyalty programs, too, have been tweaked to correspond to the money spent by a traveler instead of miles flown or other considerations. The most valuable customer to an airline is the one spending the most money, leaving the average economy passenger at a loss. Force the most frequent flyers to choose your carrier more often, and forget about fighting for the customer who only comes to you once or twice a year.

For hotels, consolidation has been accompanied by a fundamental shift in business models. Hotel chains don’t own hotels anymore; they simply franchise out brands and their distribution networks for a cut of a property’s profit.

Thus, brands have proliferated with confusing names and unclear identities. Motto, Aiden, Sadie, Clarion Pointe, and Voco are just a handful of the generic brands announced by hotel chains in the last year. None bring new concepts or amenities to the table.

It’s not a coincidence that resort fees are finding their way into the hospitality mainstream at this moment. A recent report from New York University’s Bjorn Hanson found that more urban hotels and hotels in secondary cities will begin adopting resort fees as a way to drive revenue by charging for elements of a stay that are normally included. Instead of paying for Wi-Fi and a bottle of water, hotels are now forcing guests to pay for amenities they don’t use. Travelers now end up paying for access to the pool or gym even if they don’t plan to use them.
There is also the reality that in travel markets with a few major players, much of the investment and effort is put toward competing effectively instead of developing new products and innovations for travelers.

In online travel, the competition between Expedia Group and Booking Holdings in recent years has revealed a quest to muscle consumers into using their platforms.

In its attempt to compete, Expedia Group has expanded into homesharing, vacation rental administration, and metasearch. Booking Holdings acquired OpenTable and Kayak, furthering its offerings without developing anything truly new. The struggling TripAdvisor has developed a form of travel inspiration social network for its users without altering its core product offerings, aping countless efforts over the last decade to create an Instagram for travel. It’s more of the same, all over.

Google, meanwhile, has steadily added travel services to its digital platform and is poised to make a major play for the wallets of consumers, selling them flights, hotels, and activities before they can even click a link to an Expedia or Booking site. It’s already expensive for the online travel giants to acquire customers through search advertising, and the price is likely to go up as Google pushes its own options instead.

By investing in acquisitions and marketing instead of developing new features for users, a certain sameness has settled in for travelers regardless of which service they use. It’s just a matter of which connected blob of brands offers whatever you need at any given moment instead of any company offering an interlocked, indispensable set of services. The quest for scale has led to an erosion of differentiation between the major global players in online travel.

Even companies like Airbnb seem to have substituted innovation for competition on a larger scale. The company’s announcement of a new strategic roadmap to commemorate its 10th anniversary was heavy on new product categories that compete against Expedia and Booking as intermediaries instead of interesting new services or digital tools for travelers.

As Airbnb bends to the financial necessities to back its push towards an inevitable initial public offering, it seems that the innovative spirit that built the platform has faded and been replaced with practical growth strategies.

Travelers have no choice but to tolerate the effects of consolidation on the travel ecosystem. The good news for smaller and emerging travel companies, though, is that while big competitors are focused on beating each other, there is fertile ground below to work on the technology and products that will push forward the more stagnant segments of the industry.

For now, though, global travelers are going to feel the pressure from brands that don’t care about their comfort.

Download Your Copy of Skift Travel Megatrends 2019

Photo Credit: If travelers have no choice but to use your travel services, making them pay more for less becomes a competitive imperative. Bing Qing Ye / Skift

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February 19, 2019 at 06:36AM

First Confirmed Speakers Announced For Skift Tech Forum

First Confirmed Speakers Announced For Skift Tech Forum

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Our speaker lineup is heating up for the second annual Skift Tech Forum in San Francisco on June 27. You will hear from the digital and e-commerce heads of travel’s biggest consumer brands, the leaders of industry giants, and the entrepreneurs and investors vying for opportunities to disrupt incumbents in a fast-paced series of conversations with Skift editors and our audience.

Only 8 SUPER EARLY BIRD TICKETS ARE LEFT so don’t wait to register!

claim your discounted ticket

I’m excited today to reveal the initial hard-hitting speaker lineup:

The impetus for our Tech Forum comes out of Skift Research, which has been exploring these deeper tech subjects in its subscription reports and across the larger Skift Research canvas. Tech Forum 2019 will interweave original Skift Research work and industry surveys into its discussions throughout the day.

Who will you meet at the event? CMOs, CIOs, and other tech decision makers at large travel brands… CDOs in charge of the digital transformation of their businesses…Travel tech startups… VCs, investors, and buyers of tech disruptors… Consumer and enterprise tech companies, distribution tech companies, and so many more innovative, passionate, and hungry-for-information professionals looking to make an impact.

Don’t believe us? Check out the list of companies who attended last year.

You don’t want to miss out on this unique opportunity  Act now to secure your super early bird ticket — only 8 remain then the price increases!

Register now to be a part of this epic event

If you’re interested in sponsoring Skift Tech Forum, email us at forum@skift.com.

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February 19, 2019 at 05:18AM

7 Places to See Cherry Blossoms Bloom This Spring Across North America

7 Places to See Cherry Blossoms Bloom This Spring Across North America

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Soft pink and white petals create a magnificent cherry blossom display in Washington, DC. Beyond and among the blooms are the majestic monuments and memorials dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. and our heroes from the Vietnam and Korean wars and World War II.


DC Cherry Blossoms (Buddy Smith / The Points Guy)

Stroll along the Tidal Basin, Hains Point and the Kenwood section of the city — like TPG contributor Grandpa Points (Buddy Smith) did last spring — and you’ll have a lifetime supply of memories and photos for your family greeting cards. The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival is held for three weeks from late March to early April and includes a joyous parade; a high-flying kite festival where children can make and fly kites on the grounds of the Washington Monument; and a 10-mile run, 5K run-walk and a kids run, among other activities. (March 20–April 14, 2019)

But the nation’s capital is not the only place to enjoy cherry blossoms. You can find cherry blossoms along the East and the West coasts. And because there’s a slight variation in blooming time from north to south, you may find one that’s at a more convenient time and location for you and your family. And, of course, if you’ve got a nice stash of miles and points, you should always take your family to Japan to see stunning cherry blossoms in Tokyo and Osaka. Though note that while the tips for planning a trip to see DC cherry blossoms are loosely applicable for all of these destinations — Mother Nature is hard to predict and plan around.

Japanese pagodo with cherry blossom view.
Japanese pagoda with cherry blossom view.

Georgia Has More Than Peaches

(Photo courtesy of Central City Park)
(Photo courtesy of Central City Park)

Macon, Georgia’s International Cherry Blossom Festival lasts 10 days. More than 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees bring clouds of pinkness to springtime, which could easily make Macon, Georgia, the cherry blossom capital of the country. The Central City Park Festival started as a three-day event in 1982 under the auspices of the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission; the family-friendly celebration features hundreds of events. Among the highlights are a K-12 art contest, free nightly concerts, cherry tree sale, lantern light tours, a pink pancake breakfast, wiener dog race, a bed race, heroes day at Central City Park and a parade. (March 22–31, 2019. Admission is $5 for adults and free for kids 10 and under.)

Where to Stay: Homewood Suites by Hilton Macon – North from 30,000 Hilton Honors points. Homewood is one of TPG Family‘s favorite hotel chains for families.

Vancouver Has Cherry Blossoms, Too

(Photo by Kim Rogerson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kim Rogerson/Getty Images)

The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival highlights about 50 different varieties of more than 2,500 cherry trees that reach peak bloom throughout most of April. The family-friendly fair explores traditional and Japanese cultural arts, with loads of vendors and performers. Among the activities are a Haiku Invitational Contest, the Big Sing choral eventthe Big Picnic (April 13 from noon to 3pm), tree talks and concerts. The Spring Lights Illumination takes place April 11–13 at the Stanley Park Japanese Canadian War Memorial, where the trees in Stanley Park are illuminated with vibrant projections created by local artists. If you want that perfect photo op, check the website for the trees’ location and stage of bloom. It’s best to take public transportation to Queen Elizabeth Park. Ticket prices will be announced in March. Children under 3 are free. (April 4–April 28, 2019)

Where to Stay: The Category 5 Delta Hotels Vancouver Downtown Suites is available during the festival from 35,000 Marriott Rewards points. Here you could use an annual 35k award night from the Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card or Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.

Head to Philly for a Riot of Blossoms

(Photo courtesy of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia)
(Photo courtesy of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia)

In the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, the annual Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival has celebrated the return of spring since 1998. Among the weeklong citywide cultural celebrations include film screenings, kimono dressing, traditional dance and martial arts, ceremonial taiko drummers from Tamagawa University, a tea ceremony and two stages with live entertainment that culminates in Sakura Sunday at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park (one of the country’s largest urban parks). The near-forest of 1,600 sakura (flowering Japanese cherry trees) was planted in 1926 as a gift from the people of Japan in honor of our sesquicentennial. (Various locations, including Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, Lansdowne and Horticultural drives. April 6–14, 2019. Mostly free, though Sakura Sunday costs $15 for adults with children under 12 free.)

Where to Stay: Kimpton Hotel Monaco Philadelphia, right across the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, from 55,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night. Be sure your kids know the secret password to get a surprise at check-in if one is available during your stay.

Enjoy Japantown’s Floral Display

(Photo courtesy of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival)
(Photo courtesy of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival)

The Japantown neighborhood of San Francisco is home to the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival that draws more than 200,000 people each year over two weekends in April. Included in the festivities, started in 1968, are traditional music, dance and other cultural activities. Try Japanese and Japanese–American culinary treats (sushi, tempura and chicken or beef teriyaki) and revel in the Grand Parade (Sunday, April 21, 2019) that starts at 1 p.m. City Hall on Polk Street near McAllister and ends about two hours later at Japantown near the Peace Plaza. Most of the events take place on Post Street and include taiko drumming, tea ceremonies and traditional Japanese folk dancing. The Sanrio Kids Corner has Hello Kitty and her friends entertaining children. (April 13–21, 2019)

Where to Stay: The Holiday Inn San Francisco – Golden Gateway is a 15-minute walk to Japantown and can be booked with IHG Rewards Club points (from 50k per night). The IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card offers 80k bonus points after spending $2,000 in the first three months from account opening.

Japanese Culture in the Pacific Northwest

(University of Washington Quad in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Greg Vaughn /VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images)
(University of Washington Quad in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Greg Vaughn /VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images)

At the three-day Seattle Cherry Blossom & Japanese Cultural Festival, you can explore and experience the cultural roots and contemporary influences of Japan through free live performances, visual arts (shodo ink paintings, origami demonstrated by the Puget Area Paperfolding Enthusiasts Roundtable, temari silk threading, kibori woodcarving and more), foods and games. In 1976, then-Prime Minister Takeo Miki of Japan gave the city 1,000 cherry trees in honor of the country’s bicentennial. The festival is the largest and oldest of its kind in the Northwest. If you just want to see pretty blossoms, try Green Lake Park, the University of Washington Liberal Arts Quadrangle, Washington Park Arboretum and Mount Baker Park. (April 26–28, 2019)

Where to Stay: Embassy Suites Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square. With Wi-Fi and breakfast included, it’s a great deal for families. Reward nights during the festival are available between 67,000 and 70,000 Hilton Honors points per night. Before your stay, read up on which Hilton credit card is best for family travelers. There are also some solid Hyatt options in Seattle.

Brooklyn’s Sakura Matsuri Festival

(Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden)
(Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden)

While you can find Kwanzan and Yoshino cherry trees and blossoms in several places in New York’s Central Park in late April and early May, the big festival is the weekend-long Sakura Matsuri festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. More than 200 trees in 26 varieties set the frame around the 60-plus family-oriented activities. You can participate in various workshops, visit the puzzle plaza, watch samurai sword master performances, Japanese dances, taiko drumming, ikebana flower arranging, cooking demonstrations, tea ceremonies, craft demonstrations, puppet shows, calligraphy art, displays of geta shoes, a kimono fashion show and meet manga artists as you learn about Japanese culture and history. (April 27 and 28, 2019. Admission is $15 for adults and $8 for seniors 65+ and students 12+ with ID. Kids under 12 and members are free; advance ticket purchase recommended.)

Where to Stay: TRYP New York City Times Square South is just 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night (that even includes a room that accommodates up to eight people!). Or, here are some other top picks for families in NYC. And, learn how your family can enjoy New York City without hitting the usual tourist traps.

Bottom Line

Cherry blossoms can be seen across the country (and world), but timing your trip correctly can be a challenge. But it is a challenge well worth it if you can make it work! Has your family gone in search of cherry blossoms? Where did you visit?

Featured image by Buddy Smith / The Points Guy

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February 19, 2019 at 01:14AM

Thank You for Being a Friend: ‘Golden Girls’ Cruise to Set Sail in 2020

Thank You for Being a Friend: ‘Golden Girls’ Cruise to Set Sail in 2020

http://bit.ly/2X6Kqpf

The TV show that won four Golden Globe Awards and more than a dozen Emmys is back, but not on your television.

More than 25 years after signing off the air, the Golden Girls are set to take to the sea. In February 2020, the Celebrity Infinity cruise liner will host a five-day themed voyage centered on iconic best friends Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia. Appropriately, it will leave from the girls’ hometown of Miami, Florida.

The list of onboard activities is very much on brand, including a Rusty Anchor Karaoke Party, plenty of Golden Girls Trivia and cheesecake. Plus, thanks to a costume contest, there will be hundreds of people dressed up in Golden Girls garb. One of the organizers, Chad Kampe, noted in a recent interview that in addition to the contest, there will also be a special costume dinner.  As the article confirms, you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen 200-300 people dressed up in Golden Girls garb.

And, of course, a Golden Girls cruise wouldn’t be complete without a stop in St. Olaf, Minnesota, the fictional hometown of Rose Nyland, who was played by Betty White. Onboard, guests will enjoy the St. Olaf Dance Party and a game of Ugel and Flugel, Rose’s version of tag from her hometown.

The price of the cruise is on par with other five-day cruises departing out of Florida.  A balcony room is going for about $1,000 per person, based on double occupancy. Other five-day cruises on the Celebrity Infinity in the same time period are a bit cheaper, weighing in at about $900 per person, all-in. But, the organizer’s website for the Golden Girls cruise has a promotion that runs through March 5, 2019, where folks who book early receive a $300 onboard credit, a free Classic Alcohol package and a choice of prepaid gratuities or free Wi-Fi.

The cruise is scheduled to leave Miami on Feb. 24, 2020, with stops in Key West and Cozumel along with some time at sea.

Will you be onboard?

Featured photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

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via The Points Guy http://bit.ly/26yIAN2

February 19, 2019 at 12:03AM

FAA Investigates Southwest for ‘Significant Mistakes’ Calculating Luggage Weight

FAA Investigates Southwest for ‘Significant Mistakes’ Calculating Luggage Weight

http://bit.ly/2SZdwY7

The Federal Aviation Administration has spent the past year investigating Southwest Airlines for “widespread failures” to accurately track the weight of checked passenger luggage.

Government officials and internal FAA documents show a trail of “systemic and significant mistakes with employee calculations and luggage-loading practices,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Between employee oversights or errors, Southwest’s range of weight discrepancies range from a few dozen pounds to more than 1,000 pounds per flight above the pilot-reported takeoff weight, according to the federal agency, with some rare flights that clocked in at more than 2,000 pounds over the stated weight.

Airline pilots strategize takeoff speed and thrust based on the total aircraft weight. Under extreme circumstances such as engine failure during takeoff, those calculations can be thrown off by a number of variables including the weight distribution of passengers, checked and carry-on baggage, cargo hold content and fuel reserves.

With these considerations in mind, some FAA inspectors have expressed concern over the airline’s inconsistent weight reporting. Some officials have publicly estimated that up to 33% of the airline’s 4,000 daily flights may have operated with inaccurate weight reporting during certain periods, according to investigation documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

However, Southwest strongly disagrees with the officials’ statements. A spokesperson for the airline told TPG, “There is no current information to support the estimate that one-third of Southwest flights are dispatched with a weight and balance inaccuracy.”

While many larger US carriers utilize computerized scanners to track passenger baggage by weight, Southwest doesn’t do so. Rather, the Dallas-based carrier relies on its ground crew to manually count luggage as it is loaded onto Southwest’s more than 700 Boeing 737 planes. However, all airlines utilize average bag weights to determine overall weight of checked baggage, regardless of the calculation method.

Documents from Southwest Airlines to the FAA stated that discrepancies of 1,500 pounds above reported takeoff weight should be considered within acceptable safety limits; in some correspondence, the airline stated that anything up to a 10,000-pound mistake would be considered a minor risk by the carrier’s standards. But several current and former Boeing 737 captains have stated that they felt the larger weight discrepancy would be “dangerous” to rely upon for takeoff calculations, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The documents, submitted by Southwest to the FAA, repeatedly state that the “pattern of failures to comply” with standard reporting requirements fall “well within operating safety margins,” with distracted baggage handlers and last-minute bag checks cited as one of the leading causes of of loading discrepancies, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Southwest also maintains that its baggage calculation system carries “less than minor risk” for passengers. And no Southwest accidents have been linked to any issues with planes that have reported weight discrepancies.

Southwest Airlines told TPG that the airline itself is the reason for the FAA inquiry. “As part of our FAA-approved Safety Management System, Southwest identifies and voluntarily reports safety-related topics to the FAA to improve our processes and procedures,” a Southwest spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also said that there is “no enforcement action against Southwest Airlines regarding our weight and balance program. There is an open Letter of Investigation (LOI) which is a common mechanism for the FAA to document and share safety interests or concerns with an airline. In this case, the LOI addresses an issue that Southwest voluntarily reported to the FAA last year.”

Finally, Southwest said that it has implemented updated “controls and enhanced procedures,” including computerized bag scanning technology on the tarmac, which will be standardized for all Southwest aircraft by the end of 2019, according to a Southwest spokesperson, noting to TPG that it is confident its various new procedures adequately resolve the reported issues. As a result, the airline has requested that the FAA close the investigation in light of “our efforts and responsiveness to your office.”

Meanwhile, FAA documents disagree that the airline self-reported its own weight calculation issues. According to a document reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, FAA inspectors said that the agency began investigating the situation partially based on “separate allegations lodged by a whistleblower and received on an agency hotline for safety complaints.”

A spokesperson for the FAA told the Wall Street Journal that “the FAA will not close its investigation until it is satisfied that Southwest’s corrective actions are consistent and sustained.”

But the airline spokesperson told TPG that it plans to “continue our stringent monitoring of operating systems and procedures and always voluntarily report things that we believe can be improved to enhanced aviation safety.”

TPG reached out to the FAA for comment but did not heard back at the time of publication due to Monday’s federal holiday.

Featured photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images. 

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February 18, 2019 at 11:50PM

Here’s When Hoarding Your Points and Miles Could Make Sense

Here’s When Hoarding Your Points and Miles Could Make Sense

http://bit.ly/2SZcThd

It’s a struggle as old as the points and miles game itself: should you use your points for a given redemption, or hold for something grander in the future? We’ve argued before that it’s not wise to stockpile points without a goal in mind.

Instead, you’re better off cashing your points and miles in for a desired trip, flight or hotel stay as soon as you have enough. Given that airlines and hoteliers have devalued their currencies with little to no notice, holding miles unnecessarily could leave you wishing you would have sprung for a trip while values were higher.

But, what if you dream bigReally big? What if you’re okay stockpiling points for years, knowing that valuations will change, in hopes of cashing in for that once-in-a-lifetime adventure? I’m in that camp, and I think it’s perfectly OK if you are as well. In fact, I routinely coach those new to the points and miles world to practice patience, and to consider saving their points for a trip that they would never pay cash for — even if money was no object.

The Importance of Goals

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

What’s not wise is to aimlessly collect points and miles for years with no idea of how or when you’ll use them. You wouldn’t save cash for years without directing it to an investment or at least having a long-term reason for maintaining liquidity, and you should think of your various points and miles collections similarly.

When the Chase Sapphire Reserve® launched with a now-legendary-but-dead 100,000-point welcome bonus, I wasn’t tempted to use them right away. Instead, I calculated my annual spend on the card and plotted a trajectory of roughly how many points I’d earn over the next couple of years.

At the same time, I eyed my growing balance of Delta SkyMiles — accumulated through hundreds of thousands of flight miles thanks to my job — and did likewise.

park hyatt hadahaa maldives overwater bungalow walkway
Worth saving points for years to walk down this for a week? Totally.

I then sat down with my wife and asked: “What’s a trip that would be atop our bucket list that we would never pay cash for, but would love to go on if it were free?” The answer was a business class trip from the United States to the Maldives, with as many days as we could afford in an overwater bungalow. Conservatively, a trip like that (for two) would cost around $20,000 if flying on Delta and its SkyTeam partners and staying in a top-tier property like Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa.

You can’t execute on a trip like that with just one credit card welcome bonus, but if you stack a few together over the course of two years and add in everyday spend, impossible dreams suddenly seem feasible.

Patience is a Virtue

park-hyatt-hadahaa-maldives-pool-villa-paradise
This Park Hyatt Hadahaa Maldives pool villa was a free upgrade on my award stay thanks to my top-tier Hyatt status

While Delta has unfortunately done away with its public award charts, there was a time where you could exchange 120,000 SkyMiles for a round-trip business class award from the United States to the Maldives — assuming you could find availability, of course. It took me over 3 years to earn 240,000 total SkyMiles by flying, but I could’ve shortened that by signing up for a Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American ExpressDelta Reserve for Business Credit Card or Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express.

During that span, I had many opportunities to cash out SkyMiles for shorter, less exotic trips. Instead, I bit the bullet and paid cash for every single trip, using those paid tickets to maintain my Diamond Medallion status while also building upon a pile of points that was slowly but surely getting us ever closer to our Indian Ocean paradise.

Korean Air A380 Atlanta 2014
This stellar business class seat aboard a Korean Air A380 took me to Seoul, where I continued to the Maldives

Once I had the miles, I needed even more patience. I called Delta’s reservation line and could only find business class award availability through SkyTeam partner Korean Air some 10 months out. In other words, even when I found the right dates to exchange miles for confirmed tickets, I had to wait nearly a year to actually fly.

That 10-month window wasn’t wasted, though. Thanks to my frequent work travel, I managed to secure Diamond elite status with Hilton. As a TPG reader, I knew that one of the best redemptions in the Maldives was the Park Hyatt — a chain where I had no status, and thus, no points balance. I also knew that you could transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio.

With award nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa running 25,000 points per night, I’d need 175,000 Ultimate Rewards points for a weeklong stay. (By the way, this property is soon moving up a category and will therefore demand 30,000 points per night.)

Park Hyatt Maldives overwater villa (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)
Park Hyatt Maldives overwater villa, achieved with a base level award booking and a paid uncharge upon arrival

I managed to spend my way to those added 75,000 Chase points over three years, and during the 10 month window between booking both the flight and hotel using points, I plotted a plan to status match from Hilton to Hyatt a few weeks prior to our stay. I knew top-tier Hyatt status would make me eligible for a room upgrade, provide free breakfast for myself and my wife (valued at over $100 per day in the Maldives) and free snacks during an evening manager’s reception.

Status matching to Hyatt is once per lifetime, and I knew I’d never maintain that status after the trip, but I calculated it to be worth having for that single week in one of the most remote, expensive places on Earth.

Bottom Line

hadahaa-sunset park hyatt maldives
A sunset I would’ve never experienced without saving points and miles for over 3 years

While we could’ve embarked on many more trips while we were patiently saving for years, the wow factor of a free week in the Maldives was worth it for us. A long weekend in Miami or visiting family in California, while certainly a factor in one’s budget, is typically doable by dutifully saving cash. Saving enough to purchase a four-door sedan, then diverting those funds for a a single week of frolicking, isn’t just more difficult — it’s probably a terrible financial decision even if you can swing it.

After a decade of earning and burning, my most satisfying redemptions are those in which I know I would never execute on without points. While I wouldn’t judge someone for dropping 10,000 miles for a quick visit to Austin from Los Angeles, it’s extremely difficult to ever save enough for the most aspirational of holidays without a high degree of self-control.

I’m OK with risking devaluations for the hope of a trip that simply wouldn’t be possible without points and miles. Case in point: I saved SkyMiles for another three years to book yet another business class ticket to the Maldives for later this year. Delayed gratification never felt so good.

Want to see the latest flight deals as soon as they’re published? Follow The Points Guy on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to text message alerts from our deals feed, @tpg_alerts.

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

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February 18, 2019 at 11:34PM

Deal Alert: Flights to Italy From $344 Round-Trip

Deal Alert: Flights to Italy From $344 Round-Trip

http://bit.ly/2tpxOM8

Want to see the latest flight deals as soon as they’re published? Follow The Points Guy on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to text message alerts from our deals feed, @tpg_alerts.

Airfare deals are typically only available on limited dates. We recommend you use Google Flights to find dates to fly, then book through an online travel agency such as Orbitz or Expedia, which allows you to cancel flights without penalty by 11pm Eastern Time within one day of booking. However, if you’re using The Platinum Card® from American Express, you’ll need to book directly with the airline or through the Amex Travel portal to get 5x MR points. Remember: Fares may disappear quickly, so book right away and take advantage of Orbitz or Expedia’s courtesy cancellation if you’re unable to get the time away from work or family.

There’s an assortment of cheap flights from New York (JFK), San Francisco (SFO), Miami (MIA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and Boston (BOS) to Rome (FCO) and Venice (VCE) with prices starting from $344 round-trip. Some of these flights are in basic economy, so be aware of fees on checked luggage and seat selection — a co-branded credit card can help get around some of these extra costs.

Check out Get Your Guide’s list of the best activities in Rome.

To search, head to Google Flights or Fare Compare’s Deal page and enter your origin and destination cities. Scroll through the calendar function on Google Flights to find dates and prices that work for you or enter ‘Anytime’ with Fare Compare to find the absolute cheapest dates. Note that Fare Compare may recommend booking with a smaller OTA for the lowest price — be aware that lesser-known OTAs may be difficult to deal with if you want to make changes to your trip. If you want to minimize any potential headaches, you’re likely better off booking directly with the airline.

Airline: American, Alitalia, United, Swiss, TAP Portugal
Routes: JFK/SFO/MIA/FLL/BOS to FCO/VCE
Cost: $344+ round-trip in economy
Dates: February-May, September-November
Pay With: The Platinum Card® from American Express (5x on airfare booked directly with the airline), Citi Prestige Card (5x on airfare plus excellent trip delay insurance), Citi Premier CardChase Sapphire Reserve CardAmerican Express® Gold Card (3x on airfare) or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x on travel)

Here are a few examples of what you can book:

New York (JFK) to Rome (FCO) for $344 round-trip on American:

Boston (BOS) to Venice (VCE) for $371 round-trip on TAP Portugal:

Miami (MIA) to Rome (FCO) for $399 round-trip on Swiss via CheapOair:

Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Rome (FCO) for $414 round-trip on Alitalia:

San Francisco (SFO) to Rome (FCO) for $427 round-trip on United/Swiss:

Maximize Your Purchase

Don’t forget to use a credit card that earns additional points on airfare purchases, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express (5x on flights booked directly with airlines or American Express Travel), Citi Prestige Card (5x on airfare on plus excellent trip delay insurance), Chase Sapphire Reserve CardAmerican Express® Gold CardCiti Premier Card (3x on airfare) or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x on all travel purchases). Check out this post for more on maximizing airfare purchases.

H/T: Fare Compare

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter here: https://thepointsguy.com/mailing-list/

Featured image by Rory McDonald / Getty Images.

Travel

via The Points Guy http://bit.ly/26yIAN2

February 18, 2019 at 11:04PM