Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Luxury for Less - Book Ahead

The Prescott Hotel, Post Street, San Francisco

When I first started planning this trip to Northern California back in June one of the first offers I spotted was for the 4 star Prescott Hotel. Travelzoo was offering a rate of just $119 plus taxes for a Deluxe Queen room. Unlike most offers like this the room could be cancelled at 24 hours notice without penalty, and it booked directly through the Kimpton chain's own website, so I went ahead and booked the two blocks of nights I needed. In 8 subsequent weeks of research I never found a deal to come close, the standard rate for the Prescott is usually between $229 and $269. The tip is definitely if you see a good deal, grab it. The hotel is located within minutes of Union Square and while the rooms are not enormous I knew that thanks to reading all the reviews posted on Tripadvisor.

I also joined Kimpton's In Touch loyalty programme ahead of checking-in and emailed the hotel with my membership number. Some reviewers had commented that they had been slipped passes for the club level lounge which offers complimentary breakfast and snacks. When we arrived the clerk's first comment was that they had added my membership to the reservation. As she issued the plastic keys I asked which floor we were on - the third. I asked if there was a higher floor (other Tripadvisor reviewers noted it was quieter higher above the street) and she moved us to a corner room on the sixth. I don't know for sure whether joining the Kimpton loyalty scheme helped, but it sure didn't hurt. So thanks for the wisdom of all the previous Prescott guests and for sharing their views with me.

Today we're picking up a car from the Dollar office around the corner. I didn't book with Dollar, checking their website yesterday the rate for my 11 days was $485. I booked through autoeurope.com. They are an online broker, so you don't know who your reservation is with until you complete the booking (but you can cancel without penalty). Autoeurope's rate yesterday for the intermediate size car I've booked, with a tank of fuel and 3 additional drivers, full insurance and zero excess was $516. Logging in as though I was in the UK the rate shown in pounds was £243. I booked back at the beginning of the month, while still in the UK, when the rate was just £189. But before I finalised the booking I discovered that by clicking through from the Travelsupermarket site it was £5 less (bizarre given that Autoeurope has a best rate guarantee). I can cancel the booking up to 24 hours ahead without penalty. So by planning ahead the saving is at least £58. Of course if the rate had dropped I could have cancelled the booking and made a new one.

The tip for the trip so far is that planning ahead is paying off, and shared tips are invaluable.

Monday, 25 August 2008

First Class Reward Flight with British Airways

British Airways First Class Cabin from seat 1A

On Saturday we flew First Class British Airways from London's new Terminal 5 to San Francisco. The return flight cost the same as an economy round trip, but this wasn't some fluke upgrade.

I wrote about how I was collecting BA Miles and a Companion Voucher on their Amex card.
Spend £20,000 in a single year on BA's Amex card and they give you another flight for you companion when you redeem your miles. You just pay the taxes and charges on both flights.

I have to point out at this stage that you do really need to have accumulated some BA miles by flying with BA to travel First Class. However you could in theory collect miles on the Amex card forever and then only use the voucher when you had collected sufficient miles (spending £20,000 a year this would take 7.5 years. You could alternatively under the rules buy a maximum of 19,000 BA miles each year at just over £300, which would reduce this to 4 years).

We didn't actually have sufficient miles for a First Class ticket to the US - 150,000 BA Miles. But we did have 112,000. This would pay for a seat in business - but there were none available. BA allows Executive Club members to buy 19,000 miles each year. This costs just over £300. By each buying our full allocation and pooling them in our household account we made the 150,000 mile target. The taxes and charges were £242 each so each seat cost a little under £550. The day I booked an economy fare was £545.

So was it worth it? OK so we had to spend £20,000 on an Amex card. But we divided this in 2 as well, by getting a second card on my account and using the card instead of cash every time we could (even a couple of quid spent in Tesco went onto the card).

But was the hassle worth it? The flight was wonderful. We got to eat breakfast in the brand new Concorde lounge dining booths, the cabin was only half full, the food was delicious, the flat bed and duvet sumptuous, and the flight well... (excuse me) flew by.

But come on, was it worth it? Well each First Class fare was on sale for £2449 the day I booked them. An economy fare was £545 - virtually the same as we paid. So less the charges the reward was worth £2000 each (£4,000 reward for spending every penny possible on Amex). A couple of weeks before we travelled the fare had risen to just under £10,000 each. Today, checking the BA website for the return leg of the fare a single First Class ticket is available for £5243 (the fare must be sold in dollars - it's $9771).

Of course there are more rewarding things in life than First Class air travel. But this has got to be one of the most satisfying loyalty rewards around - if you have the patience to learn all the rules.

The rules you need to qualify for this reward.
To benefit you'll need to:
1. Become a BA executive club member (do this for free by applying for the Amex card).
2. Preferably work with your partner - by creating a BA Household account to pool your miles (all family members at the same address can do this).
3. Spending every penny you can on Amex (ensure you set up a direct debit to repay the full balance every month, or this 'free' reward will cost you a fortune in interest).
4. When you have enough miles for your destination make sure you qualify for the companion voucher by spending £20,000 in 12 months on the card (there is also a premium card available with an annual fee which has a lower threshold).
5. Plan your reward flight a long way advance and pick routes with regular flights (I couldn't find any available reward flights in First to glamorous destinations like Mauritius).

Friday, 22 August 2008

Sneaky Debenhams

Debenhams eyecatching reductions - the lesson today - don't change your mind

I was with my partner today when she returned a dress she'd brought her mother from Debenhams. It was reduced by 70% but still cost £22.50. At the desk the assistant puzzlingly pointed out the discount shown on the sales tag. Then her explanation became clear. 'We can't give refunds on items reduced by more than 50%' she announced 'only an exchange'.

I intervened and pointed out that on the front of the receipt was printed the legend:

Please note your last day for a full refund is 07 September 2008.
Exclusions apply.

Of course as with so much in modern life it was the words 'exclusions apply' not 'full refund' which carried most meaning. The assistant turned the receipt over and pointed to a box headed 'About Returns' then followed a whole host of minuscule print - which even now I can't read with the naked eye.

On items reduced by 50% or more we offer an exchange only for product or onto a giftcard.

So unreadable and not great English either. Unable to read this at the time, and taking the assistant's word, my partner began to ask about a credit note instead of an exchange. 'No we can't do that'.

You'd better call your manager I said. 'It's too sneaky for words to disqualify the big print - individual to this transaction - with teeny weeny print on the back'. The manager was summoned - and agreed to issue a gift card. Which, now I have my reading glasses, I can see was a valid option from the outset.

Shops are getting less and less generous with discretionary refunds. Clearly more and more of us are taking back the purchases we later regret. It's not only shoppers feeling the squeeze. But trying to mislead shoppers won't win Debenhams repeat business - especially at sale time when they're anxious to shift all that unsold stock.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Not a Penny Less...

When saving a Penny costs dearly...

My trip to Scotland ended with a visit to Edinburgh's World Famous Fringe Festival. Every type of act performing in any kind of venue. Choosing a worthwhile show is a challenge but we finally pinned our comedy hopes on stand-up Stephen Grant. Reviewers mentioned his obsession with the efficiency of second class post – which definitely sounds like my kind of show. Stephen's routine recounting his own consumer adventures didn't disappoint.

Stephen Grant has spent the last couple of years taking his consumerist frustrations to levels even I wouldn't dare. He once inadvertently wrote a cheque payment for 1p less than the actual bill. Amazed by the tenacity and escalation of threats to collect the outstanding penny (bailiffs sent to collect goods to the value of...) Stephen concocted an elaborate experiment to see just how much money utility companies would spend to pursue a debt of 1p . Purely for comedic value you understand. He wrote all his bill payment cheques out for the full amount – less one penny. Much hilarity ensued as his essential utility providers failed to see the funny side of his comic genius.

Unfortunately for Stephen his comedy cheque capers ended in fiscal failure. When he went to the bank to apply for a mortgage he discovered to his horror that his credit score was in tatters. After a frenzied day dispatching numerous cheques for 1p – all sent by second class post 'I'm not stupid' he hoped his retarded reputation would be repaired. It wasn't. As the bank manager was at pains to point out, a credit score indicates not only wealth, but financial responsibility. While he may have the former, he had proved himself completely lacking in the latter. A lesson to us all when we fool with the Big Boys.

The Royal Mail was the subject of Stephen's second experiment. He'd noticed that there didn't seem to be any discernible difference between the speed of arrival for letters carrying first class stamps and those displaying second class stamps. So he mailed himself a series of letters to test his theory. In fact he discovered that the use of the correct post code had more impact on the speed of delivery than the money spent on the stamp.

Finally he decided to see what happened when he mailed letters without a postage stamp. Instead of payment he drew a little apology in the top left of the envelope declaring 'sorry no stamp'. On the back he wrote the senders address – which as his test involved sending letters to himself was the same as the address on the front of the envelope. The Royal Mail failed to see the funny side of his 'Sorry no stamp' plea and promptly returned the letter to the sender. Of course the brilliance of Stephen's ploy was that the sender's address was the same as the addressee.

While great sketch material, Stephen's thrifty postage tip may prove less than profitable in real life. In his act, Stephen boasts that this priceless postage advice is worth the ticket price alone. At £12 the trick has to successfully work almost three dozen times to recoup the admission price. Don't worry Stephen the show was worth the money – even just as a salutatory warning never to underwrite cheques to utility companies!

Megabus / Megatrain Runs Off The Rails

Glasgow by Megatrain for £1. But is it standing room only?

Last time I wrote about my Megatrain journey of discovery. I wondered why Virgin Trains was unloading cheap tickets to the consolidator Megatrain for as little as a pound when the trains were full to bursting. Today I took the return leg of my Glasgow to Birmingham bargain fare. There were plenty of Megabus bargain hunters aboard. I saw the train manager's print-out of reference numbers and she even made an announcement especially for us. Apparently today's train (where I'm typing this - thanks at least for the onboard electrical outlet Mr Branson) has no carriage for customers without a seat reservation. 'Please find a seat where you can' announced the Train Manager. Fortunately I'm one of the first aboard and eventually locate one of the precious few unreserved seats. So is Megabus designed to equal 'standing'? Perhaps that's why the seats, sorry aisles, are so cheap.

To compound matters the train is running 51 minutes late. I know this because I've just asked the train manager to validate my fixed price connecting ticket so that I'm not forced to pay again for my non-flexible Birmingham – London Euston leg. After a 60 minute delay passengers can usually reclaim their fare. It's unlikely even I will bother to submit a claim for £1. As it is we arrive in Birmingham just 22 minutes late – but 2 minutes after my connecting train departed. So I reach London 30 minutes late. I don't think I'll be in any hurry to repeat my Megatrain experience – especially when an advance single airfare from BMI Glasgow to London Heathrow starts from as little as £41. The off-peak standard return rail fare is £101.90. Oh the absurdities of Britain's public transport.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Train to Glasgow for Just £1

Virgin Trains before departure at London Euston

Yesterday I made my cheapest ever journey from London to Glasgow. Actually my headline tells a lie. It didn't quite cost a pound, but there's nothing straightforward about rail ticket prices in the UK, as I'm about to find out.

A month ago I noticed an offer on Travelzoo co.uk for the Megabus. Confusingly the Megabus also sells tickets for the train. There was an offer to travel by rail from Birmingham to Glasgow for just a pound.

The British train booking system is incomprehensible. A scandal actually. The government wants more travellers to use public transport - but the cost of long distance peak time rail travel is usually outlandishly expensive. Booking a ticket for immediate travel is a mugs game. So booking a 300 mile journey for just £1 was simply too good to miss.

Of course I still had to get from London to Birmingham. I checked thetrainline.co.uk and a single fare booked a month ahead was available for just £10.50. It slightly took the gloss off my £1 fare to Glasgow, but the total was still only £11.50.

When I arrived at London Euston the Virgin Trains 08.46 service direct to Glasgow was due to depart. There are 12 different types of single advance tickets available for this train. The cheapest (The Standard Single Advance) costs £40.50 it arrives 1 hour 39 minutes earlier than going via Birmingham. Turn up on the day and buy a single ticket for this train and it costs £101.90 (single saver).

If you make the mistake of buying a single when you want to come back as well, your mistake will cost dear. A return fare costs just £1 more -£102.90. so if you didn't know this and make the mistake of buying 2 walk up single tickets your return journey will set you back £203.80. No wonder travellers find the train service bewildering and prefer to get in their cars and drive.

So I was slightly nervous my roundabout trip via Birmingham might go wrong and I would be charged a full fare at some point. My tickets were all only applicable for specific times. In fact I didn't even have a ticket for the £1 journey - just a reference number.

The first leg was uneventful. I got a table seat and made use of the handy plug-point provided for laptops. The connecting train was already sitting at the adjacent platform when I arrived on time in Birmingham, so I was able to bag another prime seat. This was the most satisfying leg of the trip - it was the longest ride, yet cost just £1.

As we headed North the train rapidly filled up, until passengers were standing in what the train manager announced to be 'the vestibules'. Left standing for 4 and a half hours on a £101.90 ticket you might feel like you'd been landed one in the vestibules too. Painful. Quite why Virgin had offloaded tickets for a £1 when passengers were standing is a mystery to me - unless we were all enjoying their generosity (which I very much doubt).

The train arrived in Glasgow just 4 minutes behind schedule - not bad for a 438 mile journey via Birmingham - costing a total of just £11.50. But as I've discovered there's nothing straightforward about low cost train travel on Britain's railways.

The journey in numbers:
The tube from West London to Euston cost £2.50 (10 miles = 25p per mile)
The Train from Euston to Birmingham cost £10.50 (116 miles = 9p per mile)
The train from Birmingham to Glasgow cost £1 (290 miles = 0.35p per mile)
The taxi from Glasgow Central station to my meeting cost £5 (2.5 miles = £2 per mile)

Monday, 11 August 2008

Taking My Own Insurance Advice

Even worse than the Admiral Insurance logo - the Columbus Direct Dog

After writing my last post about insurance company inertia - the fear of changing policy, or at least the time it takes to source new quotes - I realised that I was guilty of not heeding my own advice on one of my policies.

My annual travel cover is due to expire in a few days and I have a trip at the end of this month. The renewal quote is a not unreasonable £45 for a worldwide multi-trip individual policy. However Travelplan Direct, the provider, annoyed me considerably the year before last when I came to claim - remember you only discover whether your insurer is any good when you make a claim.

A couple of Christmases ago British Airways grounded all flights for several days due to a prolonged spell of fog at London's Heathrow. The chaos was nationwide headline news. My flight to Scotland was repeatedly cancelled but when I claimed £100 for delayed departure the insurer said the policy wording was mistyped. Not my problem I replied - the printed policy is a binding contract. This didn't satisfy them, they wanted a letter of proof from British Airways - even though all they had to do was read a newspaper or watch the news to see the grounded planes. Eventually they coughed up - with the additional £10 due under their customer charter which I insisted on because they had incorrectly denied my claim

I promised not to renew the policy with them, but last year it slipped through again on an automatic renewal. So after completing my last blog posting I decided to have a look for a new quote. Moneysavingexpert.com is always a good first call. In fact my current insurer was one of the best picks. But the site also links to moneysupermarket.com where I found a special on a Columbus Direct policy for £29. Comparing the 2 policies line by line they were almost identical - with Columbus providing more cover for baggage. As I'm flying from the notoriously careless Terminal 5 luggage cover is important to me.

This morning I called TravelPlan Direct to ask if they could improve their quote. They couldn't, so as they are 50% more expensive than Columbus Direct they lost my business. The only thing I don't like about the new policy is that logo. Quite why insurers are so keen on the guard dog idea I can't imagine. Cynically you might guess it's because insurer's dogs are friendly - until they bite you. Let's hope Columbus Direct's dog's bark is worse than its bite.

Comparing available travel insurance policies saved me 50% of the premium - OK only £15 but it only took 15 minutes, which is equivalent to an hourly labour rate of £60 or £480 a day. So worth comparing quotes - unless your income is £480 a day.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Car Insurance Renewal - Be Cheeky!

The Admiral Insurance logo
Wasn't it actually Pirates who kept Parrots?

I spend almost a thousand pounds a year insuring my house, car and foreign travel. The law says I must have car insurance. I'd be taking a big risk if I didn't insure my house and in any case mortgage providers insist on it. Foreign Travel without health insurance is idiotic - an air ambulance home costs upwards of £25K.

I haven't claimed on any of these policies for at least 2 years. The only claims I've made in 10 years are for 2 broken windscreens and £100 for delayed travel. So not great value for money then, although I'm not complaining that I haven't had to claim - frankly I'd rather not be involved in car wrecks, burglary, fire or worse.

The only sensible way to limit the insurance burden is to work at minimising premiums - while attempting to ensure your policy is with a provider who won't let you down. Its a sad fact that the only time you discover whether your insurance is any good is when you claim. There's no excuse not to compare premiums - when all you have to do is type your details into an online comparison site - but apparently a lot of people don't bother.

I just received my car insurance renewal quote from Admiral Insurance. Personally I think Admiral's logo is a bit cheesy and their Daytime TV ads even more so. But when RAC Glass let me down when it came to replacing my windscreen Admiral waived the excess and I was impressed with their personal service and apology. So in my book Admiral are going to be tough to beat on service - but what about price? Well the renewal quote has reduced a few pounds, which in itself is a welcome surprise, but then I haven't cost them any money either.

So I checked the comparison sites and Admiral's policy is unbeatable. But their inclusive breakdown cover struck me as expensive, so I phoned them up and asked if they could improve their package - taking into consideration my claims history. They amended the value of my car, reducing it by £2000 (even though cars decrease in value at an alarming rate insurers seem to carry on with the last value you gave them) and the operator went away to ask a manager if my quote could be improved. When she came back my quote had shrunk by £47.94 - just over 10%. Not bad for a 12 minute phone call.

A few years ago I received a house insurance renewal from Norwich Union. I requested a fresh quote online, as though I was a new customer, but using the name and address they already held on file. The new customer quote was £200 cheaper.

Insurance companies operate on the principle of inertia. If you keep renewing they generally keep increasing the premium. Only if you ask, threaten to change provider, or actually change provider is your premium likely to reduce.