Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 1

New York, NY (USA) - Reykjavik (Iceland)

Stopovers in Iceland and other stopover possibilities on flights to and from the USA

Season 30 of The Amazing Race started with the cast members having to fly from New York City to Reykjavik, Iceland.

The teams of cometitors in The Amazing Race around the world all took the same flight on Icelandair, one of two Iceland-based airlines that flies to and from the USA. So the winner of this leg of the race was decided by what happened after they arrived at Keflavik Airport near Reykjavík. The key task for the racers required them to arrange letters spelling out the name of a plaza in Reykjavík, Ingólfstorg. Several of the racers were slow to realize that "Ingolfstórg" is not the same as "Ingólfstorg".

English is written without diacritical marks. Diacritical marks aren't even listed in the index of my copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and "accents" get only a passing mention at the end of the essay on alphabets and writing systems. In English, "accent marks" are used, if at all, as optional aids to pronunciation that help indicate the sound of the underlying letters.

In many other languages, diacritical marks aren't optional. They are not regarded as "modifiers" but as symbols used to distinguish between what are thought of as different letters. In Icelandic, "ó" is not considered to be the same letter as "o". As a rule, you should assume that if a word is written with diacritical marks, you need to include them when you write the word, or it might not be understood.

I'll have more to say about flights on Icelandair next week when the racers continue on to Europe.

But while the racers are stopping over in Iceland, let's talk a little about stopovers in general.

Along with Dubai and Singapore, Reykjavík is one of the quintessential "stopover" destinations: a place that most visitors probably wouldn't have gone to at all except that it was "on the way" to their "real" destination. If you have to change planes there anyway, why not stop over for a few days and check it out?

That doesn't mean that you might not find Reykjavík, Dubai, or Singapore worth the trip as a destination in their own right. (Or you might not. But that's a matter of taste, not of intrinsic touristic value, a concept about which I'm extremely doubtful.) Increasing numbers and a growing percentage of visitors to each of these places are visiting them as their destination rather than merely as a stopover en route to somewhere else.

For government ministries of tourism, and sometimes for airlines, promoting stopovers is a problem of making lemons out of lemonade. How do you turn, "To get a cheap ticket on Icelandair, you have to change planes in Reykjavík, instead of taking a direct flight from the USA to Europe," into, "On an Icelandair ticket to Europe, you can stop over for a few days in this really cool place that would otherwise be expensive to get to, Iceland, for no extra charge"?

Many fares requires a change of planes but forbid stopovers longer than 24 hours or longer than until the next flight to your final destination (which might be more or less than 24 hours). For an airline, it's a tricky judgement call whether potential ticket buyers' perceptions of its hub (this is all about perception, which may have nothing to do with reality) are such that offering free stopovers is a way to sweeten an otherwise unattractive-seeming routing, or whether its hub is perceived as a desirable and valuable additional destination worth paying extra for.

That makes it almost axiomatic that the places where free stopovers are offered are not the first places you would think of as places you would expect to transit and/or want to stop over. The interesting stopover possibilities are in places where there is a disjunction between perceived attractiveness as a destination and your particular tastes and interests, as well as in the hub cities of airlines that are less well-known, or offer a better combination of price and routes than their reputation for quality of service (which reputation may also have little relationship to reality).

Unless I'm in a hurry, I generally welcome opportunities for stopovers, especially in places that I haven't been before, that I wouldn't otherwise be likely to get to, and that are inexpensive.

In 2008, I spent a week in Yemen on an unplanned stopover. We were scheduled to change planes in Sana'a and continue to Asmara, Eritrea, on the same day. But because of complications with our visas for Eritrea, we ended up staying in Sana'a for a week. We wouldn't have chosen to go there, but I'm very glad we had a chance to see what it was like, and meet some people there, before the start of a war in which the US government, acting in our name, has been an active participant.

How can you find out what stopovers might be possible, where, on which airlines?

The simple answer is to ask an expert travel agent. That's not a useful answer any more, however, since there are so few remaining travel agents with this kind of expertise. Too few travellers recognize the value of their expertise and are willing to pay enough to keep them in business.

Finding stopovers on your own requires luck, guesswork, or learning some of the skills and paying for some of the tools of a do-it-yourself travel agent. There's no easy way around this. Don't say I didn't warn you! But if you think it might be worth the effort, here's some guidance:

There's no automated search for flights or fares that will show you which fares allow stopovers, where stopovers are allowed, or how much (if anything) they will add to the price.

Even if you see a price on a travel agency or airline Web site for a set of flights that includes connections in a particular airport, there's normally no way to find out whether a stopover is allowed in that city, or how much it might cost, without making a new query for a multi-stop set of flights on specific dates with such a stopover.

Guess-and-check is unreliable. You might get a prohibitively high price for flights with a stopover because the fare only allows travel, or some of the flights only operate on that routing, on different dates than you requested, or because you asked for a longer stopover than the fare allows (some fares allow a stopover for a maximum of 3 or 7 days or some other duration), or because seats aren't available for that fare on those days (although they might be available on other days). Most airline and travel agency Web sites exclude multi-stop itineraries, including stopover itineraries, from "best fare finders" that show the prices available on a range of dates. And it would be prohibitively time consuming to submit a separate query for the price with a stopover at the hub of each airline with a promising through fare on each possible set of dates.

Online travel agencies could choose to provide this sort of stopover search functionality, but they don't choose to do so. Unlike a travel agent to whom you pay a service fee to work for you against the airlines, online travel agencies are agents only of the airlines. They don't work for you, and they are not trying to serve your interests. Their legal, fiduciary duty is to maximize the profits of the airlines for whom they act as agents. Do not mistake their salesmanship for help.

In the absence of automated stopover search tools available directly to consumers, you have to read the rules of individual airfares to find out what is allowed. Only then can you try to construct a routing and search for availability of seats on flights that will satisfy those fare rules.

On international routes to and from the USA, each airline is required to publish a "tariff" of fares, and is prohibited by U.S. Federal law from selling tickets except at the prices specified in its published tariff. That's an essential element of "common carrier" law, and an important protection for consumers against extortionate personalized pricing.

A "published" tariff should be available to the public, and regulations of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) used to require each airline to make each tariff available for public inspection at each place where its tickets were for sale. In the Internet era, that should have been extended to require each airline to make its tariff available on its website. Instead, the systematically anti-consumer "consumer protection" office at the DOT has rescinded the requirement for airlines to make their tariffs available in any particular manner or locations.

In practice, the only way for ordinary travellers to get useful comparative access to airlines' tariffs, including fare rules such as those governing stopovers, is to pay to subscribe to a commercial service that provides this information through a gateway to one of the major computerized reservation systems such as Sabre, Amadeus, or Travelport.

Since I stopped working full-time for a travel agency with Amadeus and Sabre terminal emulators on my workstation, I've been subscribing to ExpertFlyer.com as a source of airfare information. It's not a travel agency or booking Web site, only an informational resource to help you figure out what to ask for from an airline or online or offline travel agency.

A subscription to ExpertFlyer.com costs US$10/month or US$100/year. I find it well worth the price not just because it enables me to find cheaper fares (although it does that), but because it enables me to find interesting routes and stopover possibilities that I wouldn't otherwise have known to consider.

ExpertFlyer.com presents fare information the same way it is presented in the CRS, which isn't intended to be intelligible to consumers. Many of the words used in fare rules have technical meanings in this context which are different from their everyday meanings. On the other hand, if you know what it's like to access a CRS from the command line as a travel aegent, you'll find ExpertFlyer.com frustratingly incomplete in its functionality. But it's the best publicly available service I know of for the purpose.

If you search for fares between your origin and destination cities or airports, you'll see a list of one-line summaries of fares, in order by "base fare", indicating the two letter airline code and with links at the end of each line to detail pages for the full rules and allowable routing.

"Base fares" are deliberately deceptive and do not indicate actual ticket prices. I just bought a ticket for my next trip to Europe with a base fare of US$41 and "surcharges" of US$300. But the actual price of a ticket will never be less than the base fare, so you can use the base fares as an initial filter to identify which airlines have prices that might be low enough to be of interest.

Airlines are more likely to match base fares or prices than to match rules. You may find that dozens of similar looking-fares, only a few of which allow stopovers at a reasonable price.

The only way to tell which fares allow stopovers, where, or add what (of any) additional charge is to click through to the rule and routing details for each fare of potential interest.

To make that a manageable task, it helps to recognize airline codes, know where their hubs are (so you can assess whether you are interested in possible stopovers in those places), and know which airlines are likely to allow inexpensive stopovers on inexpensive fares.

Newer planes have longer and longer range, permitting nonstop flights almost anywhere in the world. With increasingly rare exceptions, US airlines fly nonstop from US gateways to destinations abroad, and prohibit stopovers on any but their most expensive fares. You can generally ignore US carriers if you're looking for interesting stopovers on flights from the USA.

On transatlantic routes, almost all of the prestigious Western European airlines with hubs in major centers of business and tourism forbid stopovers or charge fees that make stopovers unattractive except for business travellers. British Airways, Air France, KLM, and Lufthansa, for example, are currently all charging US$500 for stopovers in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Munich. No doubt they would say that this coincidence of prices is the result of competition, not collusion.

Which airline codes should you be looking for as you run your eye down the column of lowest base fares, if you are interested in stopovers along the way to your final destination?

There's a short list, summarized in the table further down in this article, of airlines with relatively inexpensive fares from many places in the USA to many places in Europe and/or Asia that allow stopovers. My main goal in compiling this list is to help make you aware of possibilities you haven't considered.

Airline pricing is complex and reflects both political and economic choices, especially when airlines are government owned and influenced by government policies. The list below could change at any time. But as of the start of 2018, the best airlines on northern hemisphere routes from the USA for budget travellers interested in stopovers are Turkish Airlines (THY), Air Portugal (TAP), and any of the airlines based in China that fly to the USA. Runners-up, not quite as cheap but with stopovers that some travellers might prefer, are Icelandair, WOW Air, Aer Lingus, Virgin Atlantic , Ethiopian Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), and any of the airlines based in Korea or Japan.

Some notes on the pros and cons of these options:

Stopovers at mid-Atlantic islands -- Iceland or the Azores -- are somewhat sui generus. I'll talk more about flights via Iceland on Icelandair and WOW Air in my next column. The airline of the Azores, SATA (IATA code S4), has through fares and flights from Boston (but only Boston) via Ponta Delgada or Terciera to mainland Portugal (but not beyond Portugal or to anywhere else in Europe). But SATA's prices aren't generally low enough to be interesting unless you put a high priority on visiting the Azores.

I wrote about my trip to Europe with a stopover in Istanbul on Turkish Airlines a year ago. Turkish Airlines (THY) continues to offer the lowest prices from any of their U.S. gateways to anywhere they fly in Europe, with free stopovers in Istanbul. It's really too good an opportunity to add a stop in Istanbul to a trip to Europe or the Middle East to pass up.

For several months last fall, Turkey and the USA suspended normal visa procedures for each other's citizens. But as of 27 December 2017, the diplomatic dispute was resolved sufficiently that U.S. citizens are once again able to get visas for visits to Turkey of up to 90 days at a time through a simplified online application for a US$20 fee per person.

Both the prices and the stopover opportunities currently being offered by mainland Chinese airlines on routes from the USA via China to the rest of Asia are equally outstanding. I represent the writers of the world on the Board of Directors of IFRRO, which held its 2017 annual meeting in Tokyo in November. The cheapest round-trip tickets from San Francisco to Tokyo on direct flights or flights via Seoul would have cost around US$900. I paid US$657 (including all taxes) for tickets to Tokyo via Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines, including a stopover in Shanghai -- one of the world's great cities, but which I hadn't seen since 1989 and had been eager to re-visit. The savings in airfare was enough to cover the cost of a hotel in Shanghai (much more spacious and comfortable than any hotel I could afford in Tokyo) for my six-day stopover.

Some things to know about Chinese airlines: There are more of them, flying to more places in the USA, via more places in China, to more places beyond China, than you probably realize. The service is better than you probably expect, if you haven't flown on one of them lately on a long-haul flight. In the course of a fascinating series of blog posts about a recent trip from Los Angeles to Kunming, Seth Davidson (whose blog I mostly read for his commentary on bicycling, but who earns his living as a lawyer and met his wife while he was living in Japan), notes that regional Chinese carrier Sichuan Airlines had, "better in-flight service than any US carrier I've ever flown on" on their trans-Pacific flight from LAX.

If you aren't sure if it's worth the price of a visa (US$140, for US citizens, the same price as Chinese citizens have to pay to apply for a U.S. visa) for a longer visit to China, a stopover is an inexpensive way to check out whether you might want to travel more in the new China: U.S. citizens can enter China for up to a six-day stopover in Beijing or Shanghai without a visa. There's some paperwork to fill out on arrival and departure, but it was pretty straightforward albeit slow, and the entry permit for a six-day stopover in Shanghai or Beijing is free.

Air Portugal (TAP) is the next cheapest airline after Turkish Airlines on most routes from the USA to Europe, and the only European airline that's actively (and very successfully) promoting stopovers in conjunction with the government tourism office. In the USA, TAP serves Boston, New York (JFK), and Newark, but offers through fares from all over the USA using JetBlue feeder flights to Boston.

I've flown Air Portugal from Brazil to Portugal a few years ago, and from the USA to Europe and back last year. The service isn't great (not as good as on Turkish Airlines, or as on Chinese airlines) and Lisbon isn't a great hub airport. But Boeings are all Boeings, Airbuses are all Airbuses, the service on TAP has always been quite adequate -- and Lisbon and Porto are wonderful places for stopovers, not to mention some of the cheapest cities in Western Europe. This is also the next best routing to those via Iceland if you don't like long flights and want to break up your journey into shorter legs. TAP's flight from Boston to Lisbon is the shortest scheduled flight, in time and distance, currently operated by any airline between the USA and anywhere in continental Europe.

Aer Lingus isn't quite as cheap, but offers the least expensive stopovers in the British Isles. If you really want a stopover in London, though, check through prices on Virgin Atlantic. In Europe, Virgin Atlantic only flies to the U.K. But Virgin Atlantic publishes through fares from the USA via London, with stopovers, too many cities in continental Europe, using British Airways flights from London to the ultimate destinations on the continent. These fares are published but not advertised, and you can't book them on the Virgin Atlantic website. You have to book them through an online or offline travel agency, and often you'll only find them if you specifically request flights on Virgin Atlantic. Virgin Atlantic is often more expensive than British Airways, if you are just going to London, but cheaper if you want a London stopover on the way to or from the continent. Note, however, that regardless of airline there's a departure tax of more than US$100 on long-haul flights from London or most other U.K. airports. The difference in departure taxes is sometimes enough to make it cheaper to take a Eurostar train from London to Brussels and fly back to the USA from Brussels rather than to take a flight from London.

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) doesn't allow stopovers on many of its lowest fares, but offers slightly higher fares to many destinations that do allow stopovers. So don't give up if you check the rules of the cheapest SAS fare, and it doesn't allow stopovers. Check the rules of the next higher fares, or check the price for an itinerary with a stopover. Copenhagen is a little closer to the center of Europe than Lisbon, and likely to be a cheaper stopover (airfare-wise; it's an expensive city for food and lodging) than Paris, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt.

Ethiopian Airlines is one of the best airlines in the world (to say that it is the best airline in Africa, while true, is insufficient to do it justice), flies to more places in Africa than any other airline, and is one of the only airlines to offer direct flights between the USA and Africa without having to connect through Europe or Asia. You can sometimes find cheaper tickets to destinations in Africa via Istanbul or West Asia, but I think Addis Ababa -- the seat of the African Union and one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the continent -- is a more interesting stopover.

Korean and Japanese airlines continue to offer interesting stopover opportunities. My first visits to both Korea and Japan were short stopovers en route to other places in Asia, and each of those visits quickly convinced me that I wanted to go back and spend more time in the country. These don't make the top of my current list only because the prices are so much lower at the moment on Chinese airlines, and because of the new rules permitting up to six days visa-free stopover for US citizens in some of the key Chinese aviation hubs that are also top tourist destinations.

The list below of airlines offering interesting stopover possibilities on cheap tickets from the USA is in vaguely geographic regional order of their hub airports, from west to east across Eurasia:

IATAAirport
CodeAirlineHub(s)Code(s)
North Atlantic:
FIIcelandairReykjavikKEF
WWWOW AirReykjavikKEF
EIEir LingusDublinDUB
VSVirgin AtlanticLondonLHR
Continental Europe:
TPAir Portugal (TAP)Lisbon, PortoLIS, OPO
SKScandanavian Airlines (SAS)CopenhagenCPH
Europe/Asia:
TKTurkish Airlines (THY)IstanbulIST
Africa:
ETEthiopian AirlinesAddis AbabaADD
West Asia:
EKEmiratesDubaiDXB
EYEtihadAbu DhabiAUH
QRQatar AirwaysDohaDOH
Southeast Asia
SGSingapore AirlinesSingaporeSIN
China:
CAAir ChinaBeijingPEK
CZChina Southern AirlinesGuangzhouCAN
HUHainan AirlinesBeijingPEK
MUChina Eastern AirlinesShanghaiPVG
East Asia:
BREVA AirTaipeiTPE
CIChina AirlinesTaipeiTPE
CXCathay Pacific AirlinesHong KongHKG
HXHong Kong AirlinesHong KongHKG
PRPhilippine AirlinesManilaMNL
Northeast Asia:
KEKorean Airlines (KAL)SeoulICN
OZAsiana AirlinesSeoulICN
JLJapan Airlines (JAL)Tokyo, OsakaNRT, HND, KIX
NHAll Nippon Airlines (ANA)Tokyo, OsakaNRT, HND, KIX

Feel free to post other stopover suggestions in the comments. But please don't flame me that this is an incomplete list of airlines and hub airports. Many of the airlines listed above also have through routings that allow stopovers in other, secondary hubs that I haven't listed. I've listed the names of the main cities, rather than exact airport names or locations (e.g. Seoul rather than Incheon). I've listed only airlines that have extensive route systems including flights between North America and destinations in Europe, Africa, and/or Asia, and that generally allow stopovers even on cheaper fares. There are many other stopover options between Europe and Asia on airlines that don't serve the USA, and this list doesn't try to address stopover possibilities on flights to and from Latin America or the South Pacific. I've omitted airlines that generally forbid or impose prohibitive fees for stopovers on their cheaper fares.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 3 January 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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