Destination Las Vegas: How to spend four days in the new Sin City without placing a single bet
Plus: 5 takeaways from those hefty airline earnings reports (no, fares aren’t going down) | The rise in premium cabins: are they worth it?
AREA 15 is home to Meow Wolf's mysterious Omega Mart experience -- Barb DeLollis
Greetings travel friends,
In between, we’ve also been listening closely to airline earnings calls, looking for clues as to what lies ahead.
For the airlines, barring a major winter resurgence of Covid, the outlook appears to be mostly blue skies. The major carriers have all posted hefty profits. And their CEOs are telling investors they’re pretty confident that consumer demand, airfares and profits will continue to rise, despite the economic question marks out there.
Of course, what that means for travelers, who’ve been plagued with bad flying experiences, is a different story. Here are our five key takeaways from this month’s third-quarter earnings calls:
Continued high fares. United reported a $942 million profit, Delta logged $695 million and American $483 million. And all three legacy carriers are predicting Q4 profits will be higher than during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, even though they’ll have fewer flights. But don’t expect fares to drop as they recover. CEOs say demand is at record highs with no signs of dipping. And remember that fares are only part of the issue.
Airlines are still flying less than in 2019. In a strong-demand environment, curtailed capacity should help keep fares high. In the October-December period, for instance, the world’s biggest airline, American, expects to fly 5% to 7% less capacity vs. 2019 levels. Yet American Airlines CFO Derek Kerr said they expect to generate revenue that’s 10% to 13% higher.
More options, more fees. Airlines figured out we’re willing to pay for things like checking bags, extra legroom – even just boarding early or having a guaranteed seat. Even JetBlue‘s ancillary revenue per customer jumped a whopping 50% year over year in the third quarter. So expect to keep paying, even if it’s just to get a guaranteed seat assignment in those crummy rows by the toilet.
New low-cost service to Europe. JetBlue this week added a third frequency between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and London. And CEO Robin Hayes told investors it plans to announce another European destination soon. One Wall Street analyst on the call, meanwhile, suggested other low-cost carriers may also launch transatlantic service.
Expanded premium options. Coming out of the pandemic, airlines have been moving fast to continue upgrading their business cabins and add more premium cabins, which sit between business and coach. Demand and prices are booming for these seats – a trend that promises to help JetBlue’s Europe play, which hinges on its Mint class. With lie-flat seats, Mint actually competes more with business than premium select. Hayes insists Jet Blue has and will continue to offer Mint at a much more competitive price. "We’re appealing to a segment that has been grossly overcharged and gauged by legacy carriers for many years,” he said.
Following the earnings calls, we also checked in with our friend and airline guru Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research for his take on the latest earnings reports and the holiday travel season ahead. Here’s what he told us:.
The rise in ‘premium’ cabins – Are they worth it?
By Jeri Clausing
If you haven’t flown much the last three years, you may be wondering what these new premium economy cabins we keep hearing about airlines adding and expanding to their long-haul routes are all about.
Not to be confused with “premium” coach seats, premium economy is a cabin class that falls between business and economy, offering slightly – and I mean SLIGHTLY (from one to four inches) – wider seats, better pitch, more legroom and some extra amenities like over the ear head seats and toiletry kits. They also have slightly – again, I emphasize slightly – better food and drink.
The question, of course, is whether this fast-expanding class – at double, sometimes triple the price of regular economy – is worth the extra money.
The answer: it depends. It depends on how much you value every inch of personal space, how long your legs are, how budget conscious you are, if you’re going for business or pleasure, if you’re traveling alone or know who you’ll be sharing a row with and – most important in the opinion of this seat-obsessed traveler – where you’ll sit.
I first flew premium economy two years before the pandemic, when I had a chance to do a last-minute upgrade on Air France from Paris to Atlanta for $500. It was a daytime flight, and there was just enough extra elbow room and space between me and the row in front of me to be able to relax and work comfortably on my laptop.
But when I flew again the next year on an overnight flight from Atlanta to Paris, I discovered that for sleeping, the foot rest and extra legroom weren’t really enough. For overnight long-hauls I get much better sleep in a regular aisle or window coach seat (I am 5'8" and I don’t do middle seats, EVER) in the bulkhead or in an exit row, where I can use my carry-on for a higher foot rest that enables me to stretch my legs out completely, and at a more comfortable height. Of course bulkheads and exit rows also usually charge a premium, unless you have the right loyalty status. (Remember, we said it was complicated.)
I’d also question the value of switching to premium if I were traveling with my husband and we could secure two seats that sit alone in other coach seats that offer a little extra legroom. Because when he encroaches on my space I can tell him to back off. I can also use him as a pillow.
But alas, most of my long-haul travels are on business trips that I take alone. And they rarely involve an expense account that covers business. That means I spend weeks checking seat maps and obsessing about whether I've secured the best possible seat in my fare class, and whether any new options have opened.
To reduce some of that stress, I decided this summer to go ahead and pay nearly triple the regular coach rate for a bulkhead Premium Select seat on an overnight Delta flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam. It was my first chance to try Delta's Premium Select class, which was rolled out broadly during the pandemic. It was well worth it. Not because it was really any different than Air France premium economy, but because I was also lucky to have an empty middle seat next to me on the overnight flight to Europe, and a petite woman next to me on the return.
In the row behind me were three big men, packed tight together. That’s when I realized how much seat choice plays into the value equation, as I would take any regular coach aisle or window seat over a middle seat in Premium Select between two large strangers for 10 hours.
So as I set out to book my annual December trip to the International Luxury Travel Market in Cannes, France, this month, I truly struggled over whether to spring for the upgrade. Over the course of a few weeks of searching, fares ranged from $1,900 to nearly $4,000 for Premium Select on Delta between Atlanta and Paris or Salt Lake City and Amsterdam. And the back of the planes looked downright empty.
Finally, I found a Premium Select fare at the lower end of the range. And knowing that those seemingly empty flights always manage to fill up, I bit the bullet – making sure of course to book directly on the Delta website so I could reserve my preferred bulkhead aisle seats before actually paying.
The decision will save me about two weeks of obsessively checking the Delta map for a potentially better coach seat. But I’ll surely regret it if I get an oversized seat mate, or if the back of the plane remains wide open with extra rows for the taking.
Cirque du Soleil’s Mad Apple at New York New York -- Barb DeLollis
Destination: Las Vegas
New fun and adventure away from the casinos
By Barbara DeLollis
Can Las Vegas be a place for everyone? I’ve traditionally been in the “no” camp.
I’ve been there a dozen times, with each trip except one centered around attending the Virtuoso luxury travel conference or other business obligations. So when I had the opportunity in early October to discover how Las Vegas reimagined itself during the quiet forced by Covid, curiosity got the best of me. What’s Vegas like after two long years of emptiness and reduced convention travel? Would a non-gambler find anything to do?
After four days and nights, eight eateries, two hotel check-ins, two shows, three daytime experiences, one helicopter ride and zero dollars spent on gambling, the answer was a clear “yes.” I found out that Vegas is still Vegas – but more appealing to non-gamblers like me than I thought it was before Covid.
During Covid, Sin City doubled down on off-Strip activities, including high-profile sports with the Raiders NFL team, for instance. There are also two new massive indoor destinations that house futuristic experiences like Meow Wolf’s quirky Omega Mart scavenger hunt at AREA15 and immersive digital experiences at the Illuminarium, where you can feel as if you're walking on the moon.
The city’s more traditional venues are also upping the ante when it comes to entertainment. You can see big-time acts like Maroon 5 that typically fill stadiums doing residencies at Vegas resorts, as well as shows like America’s Got Talent Live in a 1,000-seat theater. Or you can opt for a smaller show, such as Cirque du Soleil’s Mad Apple at New York New York or Spiegelworld's raunchy, acrobatic Atomic Saloon Show at The Venetian Las Vegas.
And there’s always new and plenty of great dining. In August, Martha Stewart grabbed headlines with the opening of her first-ever restaurant located within Caesars Entertainment’s Venetian Resort Las Vegas. (Even Snoop Dogg surprised her by attending the opening!) Designed with neutral tones like her upstate New York home of the same name, The Bedford is located just a two-minute-walk – yet worlds away – from reality TV star Lisa Vanderpump’s new opulent, Paris-themed restaurant.
Vanderpump à Paris deserves its own hype, with enormous bouquets of faux red roses hanging from the ceiling, deep red colors everywhere and accent lighting from Parisian-style fringed lamps that happen to be for sale. My favorite dish was the hedonistic charcuterie assortment that covered every inch of the three-layer, wrought iron birdcage that it was served in, overflowing with fresh figs, berries and herbs. It actually tasted as good as it looked. We also tried the “Lovelocked'' cocktail for two, dramatically served on a silver platter. Each glass came with a mini padlock in honor of the Paris tourist tradition of commemorating relationships on the Pont des Arts pedestrian bridge.
But for me, the best experiences took me above (yes above) and far beyond The Strip.
Reality TV star Lisa Vanderpump's second restaurant on The Strip lives up to the hype -- Barb DeLollis
Hands down, my favorite part of the trip was a whacky adventure experience that combined the great outdoors, desert scenery, Western history and historic railroad tracks about a half hour outside of town in Carson City. Organized by a small operator called Rail Explorers, the experience lets you take a ride on real railroad tracks in a pedal- and battery-powered, open-air rail vehicle – with no sides or doors – instead of an actual train. Think electric bicycle meets dune buggy, with each “car” seating four people who are firmly strapped and – if you’re smart – holding on to the handles for dear life. The whole experience lasts about an hour.
If it sounds confusing, it is, until trainers take you to the vehicles and give you a quick overview about what it is you’re going to do. Even then, it’s not entirely clear.
We each took a seat in the 1,000-pound rail car contraption, belted ourselves in tight and pushed the pedals with our feet. It felt enormously hard to do -- that is, until our trainer turned on the battery. We immediately felt the difference! And for a split second, it felt like I was on a rocket and could fall off. But just as quickly, my panic turned to exhilaration and I enjoyed the ride through the desert. At a point about four miles away in the middle of nowhere, tour operators were there to greet us and turn the rail car's seats around in the opposite direction so we could zoom back to the Nevada State Railroad Museum where we started.
The concept was conceived of by an Australian couple who discovered the novelty while watching a Korean soap opera. Heather Abel, a long-time Vegas tourism industry pro who runs Rail Explorers’ western region, told me the adventure is becoming popular partly because the contraption is accessible to many people, including people of all ages and abilities. Their customers include seniors, people who are blind and people with autism, she said. The eight-mile round-trip ride isn't too strenuous because the rail car is powered more by the electric battery vs. consistent peddling. For people who want to test their stamina, however, Rail Explorers offers early Saturday morning rides that aren't using battery power. (My guess it’s the ultra-marathoner crowd!)
The experience gained popularity beyond train buffs about a year ago, when a random person posted a TikTok video of their ride and the post went viral with 1 million views, immediately sparking bookings, she said.
After seeing the Vegas area from the ground, it of course made sense to see the view it from above. I did that by riding the Linq, Sin City’s 550-foot-tall observation wheel that takes 30 minutes to reach the top and come back to the ground. I’ve done it before at night with business groups (each cabin fits 40 people), but this time I enjoyed a daytime ride that let me see just how the area’s changing. For instance, you can get a clear glimpse of the Formula 1 construction site on The Strip, where the Grand Prix will take place in November 2023. The New York Times just wrote about Formula 1 coming to Vegas from a business perspective; here’s the link.
Helicopter rides over Sin City can come with a side of comedy -- Barb DeLollis
If you’re OK with riding in a helicopter (yes, they are dangerous), then taking a 10-minute trip 1,000-feet high over the Strip is downright fun. The company that we flew with, Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, began its business taking sightseers over to the Grand Canyon in 1965, so there’s a measure of comfort in its history.
The real adventure, you might say, was riding with our helicopter pilot Brian, who I’m convinced must moonlight as a Vegas comedian. He took the experience to an entirely different level, cracking what we eventually figured out were jokes the moment we met him on the runway of the nearby private airport.
You can guess what he said about ducking to get into the helicopter once the blades were whirring. And he kept going, each time with a totally straight face. Once we were safely seated, strapped in and wearing our headsets, he then gave us the photography rules.
“When we’re up in the air, you can take video and pictures all you want, but don’t use your flash. I’m 37.5% blind in my left eye,” he joked (I think).
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