Get close (enough) to the inauguration

You want to witness the dawning of the age of “hope” and “change” first-hand. You want to be their in person when President-Elect Barack Obama drops the second half of his current title. But, there’s a problem. You’re not alone. In fact, as many as two million people are expected to attend the inauguration, and hotel rooms are disappearing as far away as Pennsylvania, according to the latest from the Wall Street Journal. Airlines are adding flights. To make sure your trip to Washington goes smoothly, however, you’ll need to do more than grab a room and arrange travel to our nation’s capital. Heed the WSJ‘s tips, and you’ll start this new era without a hitch.

Whether you get a great spot close to the Capitol for the ceremony or a street-side view along the parade route, bring a sandwich – and nothing else. Umbrellas and strollers, it seems, are particularly prohibited. Metal detectors will be in abundance, and I suspect that patience will be in short supply. So, be prepared for some degree of inconvenience. I’m not talking the mild irritation of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (to draw an example from my neighborhood). This is serious, much-worse-than-holiday-flying aggravation.

A lot of people are excited to attend the inauguration and related events. After the jump, you’ll find a video that shows the level of excitement involved, as well as a few tips on finding a hotel room (yes, it is possible).

Your chances of finding a reasonable hotel rate are pretty slim. Hotwire, everyone’s favorite anonymous deal website, is tapped out. The hotels have no excess inventory to move. But, you can find some action on You may have to be a bit flexible, especially in regards to how far you’ll have to stay from the festivities. And, it won’t be cheap. The closest hotel with rooms open is the Doubletree Hotel Bethesda, with rooms fetching more than $900 a night.

Maybe it would be easier to visit his old hometown instead …

[Thanks, Wall Street Journal, for the story and Fox News for the video]

Get more mileage out of your miles: upgrade

Before you book your next award ticket, think about what you’re giving the airline. Yeah, you read that correctly; think about what you are giving them. In the Wall Street Journal, that font of all things financial, the secret to screwing the airlines a little harder is revealed: upgrade.

Apparently, the most common use of miles is the bland, vanilla domestic coach ticket. That’s it. While you delight in your free ticket and lament the absence of a meal, the airline truly gives you as little as possible. You get a whopping 1.2 center per mile for the basic domestic coach flight. At 30,000 miles (the average price of an upgrade in miles), which is usually the price of admission, that translates to around $360. Depending on where you want to go (and when), your $300 in “free” travel could be more expensive than just buying the ticket.

According to “experts” cited by WSJ, you can get four times as much bang for your virtual buck by upgrading instead of just cashing in. shell out the cash for the coach ticket, the Journal advises, and use those miles for the upgrade. You could pick up a few thousand dollars in value … and that’s just on the domestic side. Fly overseas, and you could shaft the airlines to the tune of almost 8 cents per mile!

Of course, the party isn’t going to last forever. Airlines are beginning to add “co-pay” fees to upgrade awards. United is planning to pull the trigger on this starting July 1, 2009. You already take it on the chin with American, which can slam you for $700 to upgrade a discount coach seat on a flight to Europe. On Continental, it can reach $1,000. Nonetheless, upgrading still delivers the most value per mile.

And, there’s one more factor that tips in your favor. If you haven’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a nasty economic climate. All those large, faceless corporations are forcing more of their employees – even those more accustomed to having a bit more legroom – to ride with the proletarians. That means more seats will be open up front, and you can cash in.

What does the Delta and Northwest merger mean for me, the one with the frequent flier miles?

As Grant reported, today the Justice Department has cleared the way for the merger between Northwest Airlines and Delta. Here’s a brief blurb from the Wall Street Journal that my friend at WalletPop, Tom Barlow E-mailed me.

Back in April, Grant wrote a post about why to be happy about the merger. Hmmm. I’m not sure about that given my future plans. Grant wasn’t too sure either.

I’m wondering if this merger will affect my trip to Denmark in a month. I have a Northwest flight to Copenhagen through Memphis and Amsterdam on December 2nd. My ticket (actually two of them) is thanks to 100,000 frequent flier miles (50,000 each). If my trip is messed up–the one I am taking with my daughter, I’m going to be sad. I actually have a stronger word in mind, but I’m being polite. From what I’ve read, we may not be affected. We’ll see.

As for the other Northwest frequent flier miles I have, I’ve a strong urge to book tickets now just in case. On the other hand, there are places that Delta flies that Northwest doesn’t, so perhaps I’ll hedge my bets. Frequent flier programs seem more and more like gambling ventures–or the stock market.

The time that it has taken for the Justice Department to decide if the merger is kosher or not has probably cut down the number of decisions the airlines might have to make. For example, perhaps with fewer amenities, Delta and Northwest won’t have to figure out which snacks to merge –or which type of pillows to use.

Wall Street Journal: What to expect from rising jet fuel prices

Here’s an arresting fact: The increase in jet fuel costs from a year ago that airlines are currently dealing with totals around $25 billion in additional costs for carriers, which is about five times more than the airline industry has ever earned in a single year (1999 was a record year for the industry, with profits topping out at about $5 billion).

That comes via the Wall Street Journal, whose Middle Seat column yesterday puts some good perspective on just how much the airline industry is hurting (as Grant posted yesterday, American is to begin charging money for your first checked bag in June). Airlines are faced with staggering expenses even as they know that countering them would mean having to make more money than they ever have before.

What can they do? Scott Mccartney, the WSJ‘s Middle Seat columnists, says to expect airlines to begin severely cutting capacity, eliminating money-losing routes, which in turn will increase ticket prices. “The price of flying has to go up if airlines are to survive,” he says. Also, expect some carriers to head to bankruptcy court beginning next year, which isn’t such a bad thing, Mccartney says. With fuel prices hitting $130 a barrel and airlines faced with major shortfalls, bankruptcies would be healthy for the industry, as the weakest carriers bow out and the market consolidates.

Expat married life rocks (the boat)

Anyone who has ever decided to move abroad knows that expat life brings its challenges (I am lonely. I hate the food. I don’t understand anything.) and advantages (I just met the hottest guy/chick.) For married people who decide to move abroad, it brings a whole different set of issues as well.

In a Wall Street Journal’s column titled “The marital strain of life abroad,” Alan Paul shares his experience moving to China with his wife. He says that different schedules, extensive travel, lack of friends and pre-existent marital problem are not unusual reasons for expat marriages to fall apart.

“Furthermore,” he writes. “Some people move abroad and go a bit haywire, in light of the easy availability of prostitutes, the ability of Western men to draw young, attractive girlfriends and, some would say, a culture more open to infidelity. The same impulses and sense of freedom and adventure that lead some of us to form bands or buy motorcycles, send others reeling into darker corners.”

I have seen this happen “more than once” in Prague.