Cheap Flights and Creative Routing

I was recently contacted by Amber from CreditDonkey regarding my post a few years ago regarding the mobile app OnTheFly and the ITA Matrix which it interfaces with. Amber reminded me that with both Thanksgiving and Christmas quickly approaching, it might be helpful to remind folks about these handy tools to navigate the complex task of finding cheap flights.

CreditDonkey recently posted a very friendly refresher article on using the ITA Matrix website to find the flight you want. The article goes on to explain how to use flags to designate a carrier, allow or disallow long layovers, even the airport changes (for cities like New York where there are multiple airports in relatively close proximity).

To give you an idea of just how powerful this application is, Google went out of their way to purchase it and use it as the underlying engine for their Google Flights website. Though Google Flights is much faster, and in many cases allows for direct booking of flights, there are certain features that are only available in the original application. The good news is that you can still access the ITA Matrix to get exactly what you want out of your travel.

Amber also pointed out that while you can’t book the flight you find from the ITA Matrix website, you can leverage tools like OTAs (Priceline, Kayak, Flight Network, and so on), or use BookWithMatrix. BookWithMatrix offers not only a website, but a handy browser add-on (I have used it with both Firefox and Chrome).

BookWithMatrix Options

What’s your preferred search option to find the flights you want at the prices you want?

Paris Trip Report – Louvre & Musée d’Orsay

Paris Trip Report – Arrival and Eiffel Tower Paris Trip Report – Notre-Dame de Paris, Catacombs Paris Trip Report – Louvre & Musée d’Orsay Paris Trip Report – Versailles Paris Trip Report – Departure

The Louvre

It should come as no surprise that the line at the Louvre was quite long. Thankfully, skip-the-line tickets are readily available and allow holders to pick a time to visit the museum. This allows the museum to control the flow of visitors and it is the same price as buying a ticket at the museum itself. There is no reason to not buy a ticket in advance, and every reason to do so! Nobody likes standing in lines when they could be seeing things, instead. To those not aware, the Louvre is actually three separate buildings that have been connected. This leads to a lot of “walking down stairs to walk up stairs”. Snag a map and plan your route ahead of time to avoid getting lost or not being able to see something you really want to see. Also be sure to check what areas are closed prior to your visit – this was a mistake we made, as we were unable to see a lot of French artists because the exhibits were closed for maintenance on the day of our visit.

Musée d’Orsay

Though the Louvre had a large number of informative exhibits, Musée d’Orsay was much more my speed. A large number of impressionist and post-impressionist works, as well as other styles, are on display there – including Van Gogh! Similarly, if you are interested in seeing Monet’s Water Lilies, you should make it a point to visit Musée de l’Orangerie – near the Louvre. It is definitely on my list for my next visit to Paris. Adding to the fun: it is much less crowded than the Louvre, making it easier to take time with pieces that you might be particularly interested in seeing. There is also a lot less shoving about and ample seating. All of these combine for a much more enjoyable visitor experience. This is by no means diminishing the contents of the Louvre; it is an amazing experience for those interested in its exhibits.

Paris Trip Report – Versailles

Paris Trip Report – Arrival and Eiffel Tower Paris Trip Report – Notre-Dame de Paris, Catacombs Paris Trip Report – Louvre & Musée d’Orsay Paris Trip Report – Versailles Paris Trip Report – Departure Ah Versailles… when I was purchasing tickets to visit, I saw the two-day option and was honestly confused as to why someone would want to do that instead of focusing on what they wanted to see in one day. And then I visited the gardens, and I knew. I sincerely regret not moving this excursion sooner in the trip so that I could take advantage of the two-day ticket. (On a related note: walking upwards of 22,000 steps the day before you fly is not the smartest idea.) As with other attractions, buying a “skip-the-line” ticket is almost mandatory given the volumes of crowds that Versailles draws. It also helps to know exactly what you want to see prior to the visit. Both my girlfriend and I knew we were more interested in the gardens than the palace itself, so we spent most of the day wandering them. In addition to letting us focus on what we wanted to do, it allowed us to bypass many of the large groups that were wandering the palace. If you are interested in seeing the Queen’s Hamlet, be sure to enter through the Petit Trianon. We made the mistake of trying to enter from the secondary entrance but found it to be closed. Given how tired we were at that point, we wound up dropping it from our visit this time. 🙁 Next time, though, it’s going to happen. While we were in the Enceladus Grove, a group of fighter jets flew over us. I wish I had brought my camera and telephoto lens to get a better shot!

Palace Exterior

Ladies’ Chambers

The Gardens

The Queen’s Hamlet

Paris Trip Report – Departure

Paris Trip Report – Arrival and Eiffel Tower Paris Trip Report – Notre-Dame de Paris, Catacombs Paris Trip Report – Louvre & Musée d’Orsay Paris Trip Report – Versailles Paris Trip Report – Departure The end of a vacation is always bittersweet. On the one hand, they are never long enough and there is so much left to do… but conversely, you tend to miss things at home, like your pets. Our flight from CDG to JFK was scheduled to depart at 10:20 AM Central European Time (UTC+2), and as it was an international flight we were supposed to be at the airport three hours prior to departure. We were unable to check-in to the flight at T-24 hours through the FlyDelta app as usual because the check-in process was operated by Air France not Delta. Adding to the frustration, upon arriving at CDG, the agent was unable to check us in because we were wait-listed for upgrades (using two more Global Upgrade Certificates). An artifact of the wait-list process is that a duplicate reservation is created on the same PNR. This in turn led to us being asked to go from the SkyPriority line to the general check-in line to hunt down a Red-Coat who told us that he didn’t know why we were asked to come down at all, because we were shown as checked in. Because Air France was in charge of all ground operations at CDG, we were unable to verify any of this through the app, but we were given boarding passes and were able to check our bags to JFK. Another hiccup due to this process is that the FlyDelta app didn’t accurately represent the upgrade space available on the flight. At this time the app showed four seats available, but the Air France agents let us know there was only one seat unclaimed. After reaching out to Delta on Twitter, they confirmed that this can happen when the inventory is updated locally (in Paris) and not communicated back to update the app. I’m not entirely sure how this level of disconnect can exist between two partners, especially when the flight itself was Delta marketed and operated. As we stood in line to board we mentally prepared ourselves for the eight hour flight in Comfort+ (let’s face it – you can’t have the same seat as Economy and call it Premium Economy), a gate agent ran down to us and asked us if we were still interested in upgrades to Business Class, though they would not be next to one another. We jumped at that opportunity and found ourselves in seats 1G and 7G.

CDJ-JFK

DL405 (CDG→JFK) and DL404 (JFK→CDG) are both operated by Airbus 330-300s, so we knew what to expect from our seats and in-flight experience from our trip over. Since this was a last-minute upgrade, we couldn’t reserve our meals in advance, but we were not worried at all: Delta has never disappointed us with their meals. It was on this flight that I treated myself to some desert wine: De Bortoli Vat 5 Botrytis Semillon. Though too sweet (for my tastes) for regular drinking, it was the perfect way to end my meal after the ordeals of the day. Upon reaching JFK, we found ourselves back at gate B38 – the same gate we left from! After navigating customs, grabbing our bags, and dropping things off for our next flight — I didn’t want to try asking more from the Air France folks at CDG after the difficulties we experienced simply checking in and have our bags checked directly through to RDU the way the Delta agents were able to do for me. It wasn’t a big difference since the agents in JFK were right next to the bag drop. While waiting for our next flight, I happened to look out the window and noticed not only the infamous Pink Plane, but also a group of F-15s, and KLM’s Orange Plane! On take-off, we were able to see a “State of Kuwait” Boeing 747 (confirmed to be 9K-GAA, which was flying between Andrew’s and JFK), so I’m not sure if it was related to that at all.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the trip was an amazing experience, and I can’t wait to go back to France. I would like to spend more than a week there on my next week, and see more than just Paris: Nice, Marseilles, Lyon, and Normandy all come to mind. If you have an opportunity to travel, take it – there is so much to see, and so little time!

Paris Trip Report – Notre-Dame de Paris, Catacombs

Paris Trip Report – Arrival and Eiffel Tower Paris Trip Report – Notre-Dame de Paris, Catacombs Paris Trip Report – Louvre & Musée d’Orsay Paris Trip Report – Versailles Paris Trip Report – Departure

Notre-Dame de Paris

Making use of our Navigo passes, we hopped on the RER and found ourselves deposited right across from Notre-Dame de Paris. Being a place of worship, admission is always free and the line to enter the cathedral itself is fairly quick moving. There is, however, a fee to climb the towers (and this has a much longer line). I am not a religious individual, but I appreciate the skill and dedication displayed throughout the cathedral. Seeing the morning light come in through the stained glass windows was truly magical. A short walk from Notre-Dame is Sainte-Chapelle – another cathedral with stunning stained glass windows. Unfortunately we weren’t able to duck in on this outing, but we were able to appreciate it from the outside.

Catacombs of Paris

Hopping on another train, we made our way to the Catacombs of Paris. Seeing the line here, we were very glad we purchased tickets in advance! The line wrapped around the central island and was starting to make its way toward the metro stop. While the experience was amazing, it is definitely not something that is recommended for people with limited mobility or taller individuals (you will be bending your neck forward if you are more than 68 inches tall, and if you are more than 72 inches, it will be thoroughly uncomfortable). It is also a great deal of walking on uneven ground and the stairs leading both down to the catacombs and back up are spiral – not great for people that get dizzy easily.

Paris Trip Report – Arrival and Eiffel Tower

Paris Trip Report – Arrival and Eiffel Tower

Paris Trip Report – Notre-Dame de Paris, Catacombs

Paris Trip Report – Louvre & Musée d’Orsay

Paris Trip Report – Versailles

Paris Trip Report – Departure

As I wrote about earlier, I managed to score a couple of inexpensive (relatively speaking, of course) tickets to Paris that I managed to confirm upgrades on from Economy to Delta One by using my Global Upgrade Certificates. Out of curiosity, I looked at what Economy vs. Delta One tickets would go for across another holiday — the 4th of July. Two tickets in Economy cost almost as much as one ticket in Delta One; not a bad savings, eh?

Business Class over 4th of July (1 pax)

Economy over Fourth of July (2 pax)

A few days before it was time to depart, my girlfriend and I received an email to pick our meals prior to departure. I opted for the bass while my girlfriend opted for the beef.

Meal Selection

JFK SkyClub and SkyDeck

Since we were flying on an international flight, my girlfriend and I were able to visit the JFK SkyClub in Terminal 4 on status alone (my Diamond and her Gold). This offered us a chance to get a quick bite to eat and see the planes come and go from the SkyDeck.

Whenever I route through JFK or ATL and weather permits, I make sure to take a detour to the SkyDeck. As an AvGeek, it is a wonderful experience!

JFK-CDG

Finally, it was time to make our way out of the club and to our gate. Thankfully it wasn’t a long walk (B38, with the club being at B32), and we grabbed another snack before boarding.

The Delta One cabin on the Airbus 330-300 is configured in a reverse herringbone configuration. I prefer this to the Boeing 767-300 configuration – not only are the seats more comfortable, you have much easier access to personal temperature control and a more user-friendly tray table.

Though the LSTN headphones are not active noise-cancelling, keep in mind that you need to use an adapter if you want to use your own headphones with these seats.

Once we were situated, the purser greeted us and distributed menus. Not all passengers pre-selected their meals so she collected orders and double-checked that nobody wanted to change their minds. Thanks to a helpful tailwind, we made the flight in just over 7 hours.

Icing on the cake: the flight was equipped with GoGo’s Ku (not 2Ku) WiFi.

The food was excellent, as I’ve come to expect from Delta, and the flight itself was smooth and we arrived without any issues at CDG. Though there are a variety of mass-transit options available from CDG to the hotel we were staying at, we opted to grab an Uber because of the number of bags we were traveling with. The route took us right by the Concorde, though!

Hyatt Regency Paris Etoile

Hyatt reached out to me a few months ago to inform me that the hotel that I was planning to stay at would be undergoing renovations and wouldn’t be ready for my stay. They were kind enough to rebook us at the Hyatt Regency Paris Etoile, however, and I was able to modify the booking to a club-level room.

The hotel is attached to the Le Palais des Congrès de Paris, a major exhibition center, and also had easy access to the mall there. It also offered ready access to both the Metro (line 1) and RER (line C). One of the first things we did was pick up a pair of Navigo cards for easy access to all public transport in Paris – since we were staying through Sunday morning, it worked out perfectly.

We knew we would be taking a chance since our flight was arriving at 7 AM and check-in time was 3 PM, but we were very pleasantly surprised that not only was a room available, but it had a view of the Eiffel Tower!

Not a bad view, right?

The Regency has two restaurants: Mayo and Windo, as well as a Regency Club. Thanks to the Club access upgrade I purchased, we were able to visit it for snacks in the evening as well as breakfast.

The Room

The room we got was on the 33rd floor of the building, with the Regency Club and Windo located on the 34th floor. Given the height of the building, the Hyatt Regency has an innovative elevator solution. The elevator alcove on each floor has a series of touchscreens where you enter your floor number before you get on an elevator. The screen will then tell you which elevator will take you there. This way, the work is more evenly distributed between the elevators and riders get to their destinations in a more timely manner. I hope more buildings take a page from their book and implement similar systems!

A word to the wise: these rooms are fairly tight fits for two for an extended period (particularly for storing clothes), and the bed might be a little firmer than what travelers are used to at American hotels. Overall quite a nice room, though!

The Regency Club

The Regency Club offers breakfast, snacks, and Aperitifs throughout the day, so once we were functional, we knew a visit was in order. Needless to say, we were thoroughly spoiled by the convenient access to excellent meat and cheese.

The Fitness Center

The fitness center at the hotel was more comprehensive than any I have seen. Not only were there treadmills and bicycles, there were also rowing machines, weight machines, free weights (dumbells as well as kettlebells), and a cable cross machine!

Arc de Triomphe

Though not visible from our room, the Arc de Triomphe is a short one mile walk from the hotel. We passed it on our way to the Eiffel Tower, though we never ascended to the summit.

Eiffel Tower

Before arriving, I noticed that virtually every visitor to Paris recommended buying skip-the-line tickets to attractions. I cannot emphasize the importance of this. Though not as long at the Eiffel Tower, lines at other attractions (like the Louvre and Versailles) can easily eat up hours of your day. Don’t make that mistake – buy tickets in advance and walk right in!

From the summit, we were treated to expansive views of the Paris skyline. They also offered champagne! Warning: they only take cash.

Back at the room, we managed to see the Tower lit up – truly a marvelous sight.

Experiencing @WestJet as a @Delta Frequent Flyer

Over the recent weeks I have had the opportunity to fly WestJet from Toronto-Pearson (YYZ) to LaGuardia (LGA). On these flights, I was able to experience both their Boeing 737-800 and Boeing 737-600 cabins, as well as the check-in process.

Check-In and Perks

Since I purchased these tickets through Delta, the Passenger Name Record (PNR) from Delta was not the same as the one that WestJet sees. Because of this, I had to reach out to Delta ahead of time to get my WestJet PNR to check-in. If you purchase the ticket directly from WestJet, this step won’t be necessary.

As WestJet is a “low cost carrier” (LCC), seats are not assigned prior to check-in unless you call in and purchase the seat in advance. This was a pretty big change from what I was used to from flying with Delta – granted, I was fairly spoiled by Delta. On both my flights, the WestJet Plus (the premium economy cabin, similar to an inter-Europe business class cabin) cabin was completely booked, so I wasn’t able to purchase an upgrade at the time of check-in.

Though no Delta representative was able to offer details on what benefits are available to Delta Medallion flyers on WestJet flights, even with the widely publicized “transborder joint venture”, WestJet support on Twitter was helpful enough to explain that I would receive free checked bags if I provided the agents at the counter with my Delta Medallion information to show my status. I was slightly disappointed that free seat selection for preferred seats was not available for WestJet operated flights as with SkyTeam partners (AirFrance, for example).

In-Flight Experience

YYZ-LGA

A curious fact – with how short my flights were, liquor purchases were not allowed. The beer and wine were offered complimentary, however, which was a nice touch. I sampled both of the white wines offered  between my flights and was pleasantly surprised by their quality.

On all WestJet flights, you will be asked to remove all headphones and pay close attention to the safety demonstration prior to take-off, so don’t be surprised if you are asked to take yours off when they start to demonstrate things.

B737-600

WestJet currently has 13 Boeing 737-600s in service. This and the 737-700s (of which there are 54) make up the bulk of WestJet’s fleet. Both the -600 and -700 share similar layouts within the cabin with no seats having any power. Thankfully, my flight was a relatively short 350 miles, so it wasn’t a huge issue. This would be rather frustrating on a longer flight, though. With how common USB outlets are on planes, I have definitely been spoiled.

The satellite television was a little spotty because we were crossing the border, but I was able to catch the tail-end of an episode of Murdoch Mysteries before we lost signal.

B737-800

In stark contrast of the smaller -600, the -800 (non-MAX) variant offers individual power in every seat. This is very different from what is available on most planes in the US because each seat has their own 110V outlet, instead of having to share two between three seats. This was a very nice surprise. The downside is that there were no in-seat screens for entertainment, but with available power it is much less of a concern. There was also more under-seat storage on this plane than the -600. As I have been traveling with two laptops and associated accessories, this has become a major concern for me, and was also a very pleasant surprise.

Closing Thoughts

Overall I quite enjoyed my WestJet flights and I can see myself using them again in the future. I will be paying close attention to the further developments for the joint venture between Delta and WestJet for any new perks for elites of both programs (particularly around seat selection). I look forward to giving WestJet’s Plus cabin a go, as well!