Tuesday 21 March 2017

In praise of being a travel geek

I am over the Pacific somewhere. Bumpy. Our affable captain has just drawled that there might be a little chop… Typing has momentarily become more challenging, but these are the kind of sacrifices I make in order to bring you this. I am on my way to Maui, there to have a second crack at I'iwi, and to see lots of brightly-coloured fish, though hopefully not in the same place, convenient though that would undoubtedly be.

Remember last year some time I did a completely ridiculous trip out this way, more of an experiment in how to accrue a massive number of air miles in a very short space of time? Well it turned out I enjoyed it immensely as I suspected I might, and I didn’t even see an I'iwi! Nonetheless the fun factor was such that when the next European sale that made it possible turned up I didn’t hesitate and booked it up immediately.  As per last time the routing is fiendlishly complicated - this is one of those fares that when you’ve gone through all the legs with the sales agent and the price pops up on their screen there is a small pause at the other end. I like that pause a lot, but it is also indicative of my supreme sadness. You probably know this already, but I take more than a passing interest in flying. Before you say it, this is not full-blown plane-spotting. Proponents of plane-spotting go and sit in cul-de-sacs near airports with short-wave radios and notebooks, collecting lists of planes that fly overhead like, er, twitchers collect birds. I would of course never do anything like that, jeeesh, I still have a little self respect thank you.

No, my interest is dominated going to fun places and seeing the world, but along the way I have become ensnared by exploiting frequent flyer schemes. So whereas a normal person would fly to Los Angeles and then on to Hawaii in the most convenient manner possible, I work out which way will be cheapest and earn the most miles, convenience be damned, and do that. Actually a normal person wouldn’t go to Hawaii for two days even if there was a direct flight, so yet again I find myself propping up one end of a spectrum, and not the cool end…. Look, I’m just saying it could be worse. No anorak, no beard, no notebook. I don’t need a notebook, I’ve got a spreadsheet….
Yes, like all good hobbies there is a master spreadsheet. I’ve got one for birds which is genuinely a masterpiece, and now I’ve got one for travel. With pivots and everything. The most recent entries show that I flew to Zurich after work on Thursday from City Airport, and after a night in some faceless hotel that I flew back to Heathrow, and then on to Miami where I spent a day in the Everglades. It also tells me that the means of travel to Zurich was an Embraer 190 that I’ve travelled on seven times before, and that the return trip was on an Airbus A319 that was entirely new to me. In birding speak this is a “Tick”, and in my opinion is probably one scale up in the tragic stakes from that. However thankfully this is where it peaks. Well, mostly. I can also recognise different sorts planes, just like someone who is interested in cars can spot different models as they drive past. Or like twitchers can identify rare birds. Oh, wait…..

Talking of rare birds, here is something I don't think I could ever bring myself to twitch, a Double-crested Cormorant

Anyway, Airbus A320 or Boeing 737, there’s no fooling me. So with that confession out of the way, what’s the point? I’m sensible enough, ish, to realise that it is ridiculous circle, as generally speaking the only thing you can do with airmiles is use them flying places, and my shiny loyalty card is of precisely zero use outside of airports. Airlines know this of course, hence why these schemes exist, but at the cost of some research and a little inefficiency you can game the system and see the world at the same time. Let me give you an example that is somewhat more rational than flying to Hawaii for the weekend.

Famille L is going on holiday to California this summer, a trip we have talked about for years but never quite managed for one reason or another, mostly cost. As always when it comes to school holidays the dates are a bit restrictive, and the airlines know this too, and so to fly direct to Los Angeles on the dates we need would cost a minimum of £1,176 per person right down the back of the bus on pretty much any airline you can think of. Were that a realistic option for a family of five (which it isn't), we would simply leave London for LA on Saturday afternoon and arrive there on Saturday evening. Easy, but also nearly £6,000, not exactly chump change. 

Instead we’re getting up early on Saturday morning and flying to Stockholm on British Airways on a portion of the miles I am currently racking up on the way to Maui. After what I hope will be a nice and enriching family day out in Stockholm, we start our trip to America by flying back to London in the evening and going home to Wanstead to pack. Bear with me, as whilst it is as stupid as it sounds there is also method in the madness. On Sunday morning we return to the airport and fly to Dallas with American Airlines (which in something called Main Cabin Extra has far better leg-room than any competitor, and which thanks once again to frequent flying I can book for free for all of us) and after a short layover, from Dallas to Los Angeles where we arrive in the evening. So far we have lost a day of holiday in California, but equally we will have had a good sniff around Stockholm, which is not to be, er, sniffed at.

On the way back the direct option leaves Los Angeles on Friday afternoon, and arrives on Saturday morning, whereupon we could go home, unpack, and use Sunday to recover ready for work on Monday morning. Pah!! Not for us! These intrepid travellers leave on Friday morning via Chicago, also arriving in London on Saturday morning, albeit ahead of the direct LA flight. We also go home and unpack. The big difference is that instead of flopping about at home on Sunday, we’re off to Gothenburg for the day which thus deposits us in our starting location of Sweden and meets the criteria of the ticket. We could somehow “forget” to go to Gothenburg, all be struck down by a mysterious illness etc, but that’s cheating and does carry the small risk of a gigantic ticket reprice. On the assumption we do go, I’ve bought some tickets home with Norwegian for under a hundred quid for the whole family.  So the return trip has cost us half a day in California, and rather than a nice relaxing day at home wondering what time it is, we are exploring another Swedish city whilst wondering what time it is. We will be totally knackered and it is highly likely that the last thing any of us will wish to do is be in Gothenburg, but tth sweetener is that rather than the unaffordable £6,000 of the direct option, this way costs under a third of that. A third!! No, I don't really get it either, but I am happy to go with the flow. 

Frankly this is a triumph for OCD, and I’ve just ‘saved’ a huge amount of money, even once you include getting to Sweden and back. This will pay for our Californian camper van for two weeks, all the petrol, camping at Yosemite and other good places, all the food, as well as side-trips like Whale watching out of Monterey should I be so lucky. We’ll probably even have a fair bit left over for another trip. It’s not remotely enough for lunch in Stockholm or Gothenburg of course so we’ll have to take sandwiches with us on those legs, but even with the considerable extra faff it is a complete no-brainer, and all made possible by embracing my inner nerd. In fact it is the difference between doing this trip we’ve talked about for so long and not doing it at all. And not forgetting that all five of us earn a pile more airmiles for the combined family stash, enough in fact for another couple of family day-trips to European cities. I suppose we could have all gone to Bournemouth or wherever, but I want the kids to have far broader experiences. Taking nothing away from Dorset, but we all know where having a narrow world view leads…

So, Hawaii then. Indulgent. Yeah. Stupid. Absolutely. Crazy? A little, and when I first read about this type of trip I thought all of these things too. Then I did it for myself in August last year, and whilst I still think all of these things it worked out perfectly (lack of I'iwi and a knee injury excepted) and was complete blast. Like all trips there is joy in the planning phase as well as the execution phase, and this itinerary was eeked out over the course of a couple days of trial and error until I finally hit upon the route that worked. The day in the Everglades not counting as a stopover was if I don’t say so myself, genius, especially as it connected with a flat bed to the west coast. I hired a car for the day for about 20 quid, nipped down to Homestead, and spent the day in a massive swamp seeing tons of spectacular birds, alligators, snakes and fish. Returning to Miami I got on a plush 777 and snoozed in comfort to LA, waking up only for an ice-cream sundae, and now I’m about two hours inbound from Maui. I’ve only got a couple of days and the rough plan is on arrival to go and buy snorkelling gear with which to while away the afternoons, and to spend the mornings and evenings looking for endemic birds, enjoying sensational views and taking photos. It is a hard life I know, but that is the price I pay for being a spreadsheet-obsessed gimp. Fair is fair, and so when I am sat on a tropical beach on Monday evening watching the sun set over the Pacific with a cold beer in my hand, I will remind myself of all the ridicule and shame that comes with it.