Best Ways to Use Airline Miles

Few things are as frustrating to travelers as a huge bank of frequent-flier points and not being able to use them. With fewer seats and routes available, airlines are making it more difficult to trade miles for free flights, knowing they can sell more tickets at a premium price. They’re gambling that customers with large banks of points will stay continue to stay loyal for fear of losing the miles they’ve worked so hard to accumulate.

So if you can’t cash in your points for flights, what can you do with them?

Donate Them
At a former job years ago, a colleague needed to fly home for a family emergency but didn’t have the money. A few employees quickly pooled frequent-flier points that allowed him to make the trip. Another time, some extended family members used their combined miles to send a cousin and her new husband on a honeymoon.

If you don’t have a needy co-worker or family member, you can always give them to an organization that will use them to help others. The Fisher House Foundation’s “Hero Miles” program has provided more than 40,000 tickets to wounded, injured and ill service members and their families over the years, while Mercy Medical Airlift provided almost 10,000 free airline tickets to patients in need, thanks to generous mileage donations. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has need of more than 2.5 billion miles in order to send kids and their families to their desired destinations around the world.

Trade Them
On, you can either trade your miles from one airline for another carrier’s points or even exchange them all together for various products or gift cards from retailers like Amazon or Starbucks. But the exchange rates for miles are fairly high in many cases, and should only be used if you have a large block of miles that are going to expire soon. My friend Tim Wozniak exchanges expiring miles for magazine and newspaper subscriptions.

Use Them For Other Travel Needs
The Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney posted an excellent piece this week on redeeming airline miles for hotel rooms, rental cars and more. Not surprisingly, the elite-level traveler is going to score much better deals than your average flier — the amount of American Airlines miles needed for hotel stays and car rentals is 40 percent less for platinum-level frequent fliers than the rank-and-file. A penny per mile is the typical exchange for domestic flights, car rentals and hotels for most higher-level loyalty programs. One travel expert McCartney spoke to believes mileage programs will eventually evolve into package deals, encompassing flights, hotels, cars and travel insurance.

What Would You Do With One Million Loyalty Points?

That’s the question 10 lucky winners will need to decide in Best Western International’s Loyalty Millionaires promotion, a part of their 25th anniversary celebration. Two randomly selected winners will be chosen each week through July 14, each winning one million bonus points to redeem in any way they like, and not just on hotel rooms either.

“Whether it’s a trip with the family or that special something you’ve been saving for, we hope our 10 lucky loyalty millionaires get their summer off to a great start,” said Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Best Western International in a Broadway World article.
With more than 60 redemption options starting at 8,000 points, including free hotel nights, retail gift cards like Starbucks, Target, Home Depot and Amazon, BWR members have countless options to redeem their rewards points. One BWR member recently redeemed their points for retail partner gift cards and used them to buy a tractor.
Redemption options include free hotel nights as well as retail gift cards like Apple, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Busch Gardens.

But what, exactly, might one million Best Western points get you? We did some calculations for a variety of stuff Gadling readers might want to have or do.For starters, a million points will get you about four months in a Best Western Hotel. But it will also enable buying 200,000 air miles on American, Delta, US Airways or Alaska Airlines. You could also get $3,846 in gift cards from Starbucks, Disney, Outback Restaurants or Dunkin Donuts. Want to spend those million points on gear? You could walk away with a Canon PowerShot A2600, some Beats by Dre Studio High-Definition Headphones, a Samsung 8GB Galaxy 2 Tablet 7″ Screen and tickets to see 400 movies at an AMC Theater with some change leftover.

Read more about Best Western Re
To enter, sign up for the free Best Western Loyalty program then register on the Loyalty Millionaire tab on their Facebook page.

Video: Amazon Ants Transform Into Life Raft

If you’re still haunted by the sight of spiders raining down on a Brazilian city, as we brought to your attention last month, this heartwarming nature video might be a palette-cleanser. Captured by the BBC, fire ants in the Amazon adapted to a flood by ganging together and turning themselves into a raft for their queen. Braving all manner of threats (speedboat on your left!), the colony clung to each other for dear life in the shape of a lily pad for the queen to glide down the river like Cleopatra. Add a Morgan Freeman voiceover and these little troopers could inspire the next Pixar hit.

Accusations Fly Over New Honduras Guidebook

The new edition of Moon Handbooks’ guide to Honduras and the Bay Islands, published in December, already has 49 reviews on Amazon. That’s 15 times more than the previous version of the book. But 39 reviewers gave it a one-star rating, the lowest possible. What happened to warrant such an unusual trashing? Did the author confuse Honduras for an entirely different country?

No – in fact, the writer, Amy E. Robertson, lived in Honduras for nearly five years and co-wrote two earlier Moon guides to the country. It’s safe to say that she knows the place well.

But one hotel owner, Bobby Durette of D&D Brewery (a budget-conscious hotel/hostel/microbrewery in the Lago de Yojoa region), found his listing to be outdated and believed Robertson and Avalon Travel, Moon’s publisher, whiffed on the reporting. He asked his Facebook followers to post low ratings of the book on Amazon. Dozens of them did, calling the book – not just D&D Brewey’s listing – unreliable and disappointing.

Then the author’s supporters rallied by posting five-star reviews (some based on their satisfaction with Robertson’s previous Honduras guides) and tagging the one-star reviews as “unhelpful.” Online democracy at work.

Unfortunately, both sides made too strong and possibly not fully informed accusations about the other for millions of Amazon users to see.Among the negative reviews, one claimed that Roberson “refuses to visit or verify the places and businesses that she critiques so harshly.” On the flip side, another Moon author characterized Durette’s actions as a “vicious smear campaign.”

Durette says, “Our call-to-action was not an impulsive, angry move. It came after weeks of frustration and e-mailing the author back and forth, asking her to correct the mistakes in the online version of her [previous] book, which has yet to be updated. We’ve taken some heat for our call-to-action on our Facebook page, but we still feel we did the right thing.”

We contacted Robertson, Durette and Avalon Travel to get to the bottom of the spat, and in the process learned a few things about guidebooks – and Honduras.

Durette objected to about 20 pieces of information in Robertson’s description of his facility, which spans half a page. Some were matters of characterization or word choice, others factual. Some of the verbiage is unchanged from the 2009 edition of the book, despite the fact that Durette had since bought and renovated the place, he says.

Of the “saggy beds” mentioned in Robertson’s description of D&D, Durette says, “They aren’t ever since I replaced all of them.” Of the statement that only one room has double beds and the rest have two twins: “NONE of my rooms have two twin beds.” Of the mango and coffee brews in rotation: “I’ve never made mango or coffee beer in my life.” Of D&D’s listing as “lakefront lodging”: “We aren’t, and we don’t market that we are lakefront, which leads to unhappy guests arriving.” (The photo at the top of this post is of the Lago do Yojoa region, not D&D Brewery.)

Compounding Durette’s frustration about the errors is that he says his message to Avalon about D&D’s renovation went unanswered. “I believe D&D did contact about the web copy from the previous edition. But reference to his specific complaint was not in the web copy,” says associate publisher Donna Galassi.

Robertson (pictured) acknowledged the errors, but disagrees that she was negligent or sloppy in her reporting. In her account about the romance and realities of guidebook writing, she says she spends hundreds of hours on the ground for each edition. She researched the Lago de Yojoa region in the latter half of 2011, before Durette upgraded the place. Because it had gone downhill under the previous owner, she removed D&D’s “Top Pick” designation in the book.

Robertson says she tried to contact Durette via Facebook for updates on the hotel but didn’t get a reply. She submitted the manuscript in early 2012 and the book was published in December.

Robertson says Avalon will correct its information on D&D Brewery in the digital version of the Honduras guide, due for release this spring.

Amazon didn’t respond to an email asking if it has an algorithm to detect dubious review patterns, but Galassi said, “Amazon typically does not remove reviews and so far they have not done so in this case, either. Avalon Travel did contact Amazon in response to the reviews posted by D&D Facebook friends. Avalon Travel is confident that Amy Robertson did a good job researching and writing her book. We know her to a conscientious, hard-working travel writer.”

So what are the takeaways from this situation that can help travelers?

First, don’t trust a glut of similarly phrased bad reviews on Amazon, Trip Advisor and other user-review sites. The same goes for glowing reviews thin on details of a personal experience and posted by people with only one review to their name. The red flags are obvious. (Yet however plainly dubious a string of bad reviews is, it’s not harmless; the low ratings drag down the average total rating and unfairly push the listing down on the search-results page.)

Remember that there’s a lag time in publishing – even digital publishing – because high-quality research and editing takes time, especially a book on an entire country. Most guidebook authors don’t revisit every place they wrote about in a previous edition; the logistics and cost are unrealistic. It’s also not feasible to constantly update digital editions at this point – Avalon says the technology doesn’t exist. And, hey – mistakes happen. Who hasn’t made several errors on the job? The solution is to check for the most current details online.

Robertson maintains a Facebook page with updates to her Moon Honduras book. That qualifies as going the extra mile. Perhaps other authors do, too. It’s worth checking next time you travel somewhere with a guidebook in hand.

Also check the guidebook publisher’s website for updates. Avalon does not update e-books in real time, but it does make an effort to update information on as necessary – although Galassi says this process has been suspended lately for technology upgrades.

Robertson also articulated a reminder on why guidebooks are still valuable in the Internet age. “In countries where the use of internet for business is not as widespread as it is in the U.S., guidebooks can be especially helpful in leading travelers to places that they might not otherwise find,” she says. Guidebooks are also often written by locals, not visitors, another advantage over many online travel resources.

Lost amid the kerfluffle is that Lago de Yojoa appears to be a beautiful, underrated destination, and D&D Brewery sounds like a terrific place for budget-minded travelers. Hammocks for $3. Cabins for around $30. Hikes to waterfalls. Guided bird-watching tours.

Let’s all be friends and go to Honduras.

[Photo credit: Mixedeyes via Flickr]

Gadling Gear Review: Kindle Fire HD

There is no doubt that tablet computers have had a dramatic impact on travel over the past few years. These lightweight and versatile devices provide us with all kinds of entertainment options while keeping us in contact with friends and family back home. Of course, the iPad is the 900-pound gorilla in the tablet space, but over the past year or so some real competition has arrived on the scene giving consumers some new choices. Take for example the Kindle Fire HD from Amazon, which is a powerful and affordable alternative to Apple’s device.

The Kindle Fire HD is available with either 16 or 32 gigabytes of storage and in two models: one that is ad supported at a slightly reduced price and one that is completely ad free. It features a 7″ HD display with a resolution of 1200×800, dual-speaker Dolby audio and high-speed Wi-Fi. It is powered by a 1.2 Ghz dual-core processor and has a built-in, front-facing HD camera for capturing photos or making video calls. In short, it comes with just about everything you would expect in a tablet all in an attractive, compact and lightweight package.

Amazon chose to use the Android operating system on the Kindle Fire, although you would hardly recognize it at first glance. The online retail giant has modified the OS to fit their needs, giving it its own look and feel. Not unlike Apple’s iOS, stock Android provides a desktop-like interface with folders and app icons all over the screen. But Amazon has simplified that interface greatly providing users with the “Carousel” and a series of straight forward, easy to understand menus. The Carousel occupies the majority of the display, providing access to your favorite and most commonly used apps. But when you need to dig deeper into the Kindle experience, the menus let you find your books, videos, photos, music and more. It is a simple, yet effective design that takes only a few minutes to learn.Since the Kindle is running Android there is already a large library of apps ready for download. The Kindle app store isn’t quite as large as Apple’s, but there are still plenty of options to choose from and most major apps are available. For instance, Netflix, Hulu, Skype, Facebook and Twitter are all here, just waiting to be installed. The one area that seems to have fewer choices is games, although rest assured you’ll still be able to find all the versions of Angry Birds and most other major releases.

Performance on the Kindle Fire is, for the most part, quite good. The OS is tuned nicely to the device and the interface is slicker and more intuitive than previous generation Kindles. Being an iPad owner, I occasionally found the experience to be not quite as smooth as what I am typically used to, and tapping on some selections were unresponsive at times, but if this is the only tablet you’ve ever owned, you’re not likely to notice these things quite so much. Reading books or watching videos on the Fire HD’s clear, bright screen is a joy and listening to music with a pair of headphones is a wonderful experience as well. Most games played without a hitch too, although I did notice some slow down and frame rate drops while playing Real Racing 3. To be fair, that is one of the best looking games available for any tablet at the moment, so I wasn’t surprised to find the Kindle struggled with the high-end graphics a bit. But for the most part, apps and movies ran very smoothly, which travelers are sure to appreciate on long flights.

One of the most impressive aspects of using an iPad is the entire ecosystem that Apple has built up around it. Between the app store and iTunes, iPad owners have access to tons of content including magazines, books, movies, television shows and music. Amazon has built a similar ecosystem for the Kindle, which provides all of those same entertainment options to their customers as well. Owners of the Fire HD won’t have any need to feel jealous of their friends who can watch the latest films on their iPad because chances are it’ll be available to the Kindle too. In fact, I’d say the strength of the Amazon ecosystem is one of the best selling points of the device with a wide selection of every form of entertainment available. Amazon Prime subscribers also gain access to a larger library of videos absolutely and gain the ability to borrow one book per month absolutely free.

Amazon lists the battery life on the Kindle Fire HD at 11 hours, although I was never able to quite eek out that much time. In typical day-to-day use, watching movies, surfing the web, checking email, reading a book and listening to Pandora, I found that my test unit needed a recharge about every 7-8 hours. That’s a solid amount of time out of any device this small and versatile, but it is quite a long way off from the advertised battery life. Most tablets have a hard time meeting their listed specs when put to use in the real world, although the iPad gets a lot closer than most. You can go longer between charges by adjusting screen brightness, turning down the volume and switching off Wi-Fi when not in use, of course, so it is all about compromise and striking a balance.

I wasn’t quite so impressed with some of the Kindle’s built-in apps. For instance, the email app wouldn’t recognize my Gmail account even though it comes pre-programmed with a Gmail options. I eventually got it working by manually entering all of information, but it took longer than it should to set it up. The email client also doesn’t seem to check for mail when it isn’t open, which is a bit disappointing as you can easily configure the iPad to check for mail on preset intervals. I searched for a setting to have the Kindle do the same thing, but was unable to discover such an option.

Similarly, I wasn’t very impressed with Amazon’s Silk browser, which the Kindle uses to surf the web. It passes most web traffic through the company’s own servers in an effort to reduce load times, although I couldn’t really tell if it made any difference. I didn’t find the interface particularly user friendly either, although others may find it to be a perfectly serviceable way to browse the web.

Coming from an iPad, I also found the Kindle Fire’s 7″ screen to be a bit too cramped at times. When reading web pages or scrolling through emails, I often wanted to see more than it could display. Don’t get me wrong, the screen looks great and is definitely bright and clear, but it was a bit on the small side for my taste. For day-to-day use, I preferred the iPad Mini’s 7.9″ screen, at least in terms of size, over the Kindle’s. But this is again a personal preference of course, as a larger screen comes at the expense of added size and weight.

If there is one area where the iPad has no chance of competing with the Kindle Fire it is on price. The ad-supported model is just $199 and the regular version is $214. I’d recommend coughing up the extra 15 bucks to get the version without the ads, but quite frankly the “special offers” that Amazon displays are not intrusive in any way. They appear on the lock screen when you first power up the device but they are not in any way obnoxious. The budget conscious will barely notice them for the most part. Amazon also offers the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″, which as the name implies comes with a larger 8.9″ display. That device has recently been reduced in price to just $269, which is well below any version of the iPad as well.

If you’re looking to buy a full-featured, well built tablet for travel, but don’t want to shell out a lot of cash, the Kindle Fire HD is a great alternative to the iPad. It does make some compromises along the way, but overall it is a high-quality product that will satisfy consumers on a budget. Travelers especially will love all of the options that the Kindle Fire brings to the table, delivering a compact yet powerful device that will make travel easier and more enjoyable.