Wednesday, January 30, 2013

An Epiphany about Alliances (Skyteam, Star, and One World)

     In talking with friends and family about frequent flyer miles, I find that many are neither aware that "their" airline is a member of a multi-airline "alliance," nor aware that this fact offers great flexibility in getting from point A to point B.  They simply are not aware (or are only vaguely aware) that you can use one airlines miles to book flights on another airline.  In fact, I myself recently had a bit of an epiphany regarding airline alliances.

    For some time I've had the Chase Ink and Ink Bold cards (both of the blogs on my sidebar discuss these cards extensively and can offer links to the applications).  I've accumulated a lot of Chase Ultimate Rewards points that I intend to use to pay for an upcoming vacation.   In essence, I'll be redeeming them for 1 cpp.  That's the bare minimum value that can be extracted from them, but I didn't think about it too much because UR points can only be transferred into United Miles, Korean Miles, Southwest Points (ugh, Southwest) and British Airways Miles (ouch, taxes and fees).

     Delta and US Airways tend to be my mainstay airlines because Charlotte and Atlanta are direct flights from my home airport.  As a result, I've focused  my non-flight miles earning on those airlines.  Despite Delta's reputation (Skypesos) I've scored some nice TATL business flights on Delta.  Their Business Elite service isn't all that bad when TATL coach is your frame of reference.  US Airways has (at least in the past) been very generous with promotions and I was able to build a healthy balance there.

     Due to my focus on these two airlines, my thinking about alliances has been "one way," i.e. what can I use my Skymiles and Dividend Miles for?  Where you earn miles is where you burn miles, after all.  Delta is a member of Skyteam, and that opens up Air France, Alitalia, and KLM for TATL travel.  US Airways is a member of the Star Alliance (sounds like science fiction) and that opens up Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian, and a number of others.  But recently, in thinking about all these Chase points, I realized that the street runs two ways.

    Previously I wasn't interested in transferring UR points to Korean miles because I have little interest in visiting Asia.  But then I looked at Korean's award chart for Skyteam awards.  There I found that TATL (US to Europe) business class travel priced at a mere 80,000 miles.  That's 20K less than Delta.  Apparently award booking with Korean isn't particularly easy, but it's looking like I may have to open up a Korean Air Skypass account.  The only problem is that now I'm going to feel like a sucker when I use my UR points at only 1cpp value. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Priority Club Award Chart Revision- Alternative uses of PC points

As you've probably heard Priority Club is "enhancing" it's award chart.  Gary's post on this, along with another of my favorite bloggers Mommypoints, prompted me to do some thinking about the Priority Club Program and some alternate uses for PC points, including some potentially useful gift card redemptions.

As many bloggers have lamented, PC is a great program for earning points, but can be frustrating on the redemption side if you have status in the program.  Mrs. Pointsninja and I have been fortunate enough to have Royal Ambassador status for several years, but officially, RA status is almost worthless for award stays.  Many Intercontinentals go above and beyond the official requirements, of course, but you can't count on it.

In the past that has left me with a bit of a dilemma when booking IC award stays, my most common use of PC points.  Should I book on points or should I pay cash?  One common tactic is to pay cash for the first night and book subsequent nights on points.  This will usually result in your status being honored for the entire stay. 

But what if you are as averse to shelling out cash as I am?  Well that's where the alternative uses of PC points come in.  It's not well publicized, but PC has one reward option that is, to my knowledge, unique.  The Anyhotel Gift Card.  These are Amex branded gift cards that can be used at any hotel that accepts Amex.  The problem is that the cards are generally a poor value.  Full breakdown after the jump:

Friday, January 4, 2013

Amex Sony Cashback

I just want to point out to folks that the Amex/Sony offer that I discussed here is still alive.  It now also appears on the Facebook "Amex Sync" page.  Remember that Amex only allows one credit per card (including authorized user cards) across all media channels.  That means if you have already redeemed the deal through Twitter, you can't get it again on the same card.  Still, if you have multiple cards/authorized users, there's an opportunity to make approx. $11 per card.

Referral Policy

Okay, my blog is less than a month old and TravelBloggerBuzz has already called me out the crime of trying to "build my passive income."  I am guilty, guilty, guilty.  I admit it and throw myself upon the mercy of the court.  But I'd do it again.

Why?  Because bare links to those sites would not benefit my readers (of whom there are very few).  By contrast, referral links could, in theory, provide a very modest benefit to me, the blogger.  Is that bad?  I don't think so.  [ed.: Of course you don't!]  The question in the end is where the balance of benefit to me vs. benefit to the reader rests.

If I were to continue this blog with nothing but endless reiterations of "remember to use shopping portals and use my referral links, I'm sure that my pageviews (tens of views per day!) would drop to nothing.  But I want to offer something that's worth reading to the public in general, and my friends and colleagues in particular.  I'll never hide the fact that a link may benefit me, and I'll never knowingly steer my readers away from a better deal.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Alternatives to Status- FHR, Virtuoso, Luxury Hotels

So in my last post I discussed a stay in which I benefited, in part, from having top tier status with the chain.  There are some services that provide significant benefits without the need for status, particularly for "aspirational" hotels and vacation destinations. 

First, there is American Express' Fine Hotels and Resorts program.  It's a benefit of having the Amex Platinum card and offers benefits at a pretty wide range of upscale hotels across the world.  Benefits typically include early check-in/late check-out, breakfast, a room upgrade, and some other on property benefit (such as a food & beverage credit, afternoon tea, spa package, etc.)  The FHR rates typically track with a hotel's Best Available Rate.

Chase Bank offers it's own program for Chase cardholders, the Luxury Hotel and Resorts program.  Chances are that if you're reading this blog, you have a Chase card.  According to Chase, the benefits include: 
  • Breakfast for two daily
  • A room upgrade, if available at check-in
  • Early check-in and late check-out, if available
  • A very special amenity unique to every property
 I haven't used this program, so can't speak to it's virtues

Finally, there's Virtuoso travel.  This is a program that many travel agents participate in.  Virtuoso rates also track pretty closely with Best Available Rates and the benefits vary from hotel to hotel.  They typically include breakfast, room upgrade, and other benefits.  During a stay at the Intercontinental Le Grand in Paris, our Virtuoso benefits included access to the club lounge, which was a fantastic benefit.  There are Virtuoso travel agents all over, but if you're like me, you probably want to check on rates ahead of time.  Classic Travel is the only site I know of that allows online searching of Virtuoso rates.  The problem is, that for some reason they don't include all Virtuoso hotels.  For instance, the Le Grand is a Virtuoso hotel, but Classic Travel doesn't include it in their list.  Still, booking through a Virtuoso agent isn't difficult at all.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the rates bookable by these services typically exceed prepaid rates available through hotel websites, but they are usually cancellable and seldom exceed the hotel's Best Flexible or Best Available Rates.

UPDATE:  Two other programs are worth a look; 1) Visa Signature Hotels which offers benefits including upgrades, food & beverage credits, etc. to holders of Visa Signature cards, and 2) World Mastercard Luxury Hotels & Resorts, which offers similar benefits to World Mastercard holders.  You can tell if you have a "Signature" Visa or "World" Mastercard by looking down at the corner of your card where the Visa/Mastercard logo is.

Willard Intercontinental, Washington D.C.- FHR rate

I was in Washington, D.C. recently and stayed at the Willard Intercontinental.  Washington isn't a particularly cheap city, but I was able to minimize expenses by combining elite benefits with a booking under the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts rate.

Amex's Fine Hotels & Resorts program can provide great value in the right situation.  In my experience their rates track pretty closely with a hotel's "Best Available Rate."  The BAR is something of a term of art, because it's not actually the best rate available.  Frequently prepaid rates are available at a discount.  Also, by booking through FHR, you lose out on the ability to get cashback for the stay.  In this instance, though, the FHR rate made sense to me.  At the Willard, the FHR rate includes:
- Noon check-in.
- upgrade, space-available, upon arrival
- Breakfast for two at Cafe du Parc.
- 4 P.M. check-out
- $100 food and beverage credit per stay.

Full review continues after the break:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Never Pay Full Price

My personal enthusiasm [ed: Obsession!] for points rose out of my inherent frugality [ed: Cheapness!].  I like to travel, but hate to pay for it.  Well, I also like to buy things, but I hate to pay full price.  The good news is that you usually don't have to.

I've written a little about cashback through webportals like Mr. Rebates, Topcashback, and Big Crumbs.*  Those are great for online shopping, but sometimes you have to go out into the real world to buy things.  That's where gift cards come in.  Say you need to spend $300 Home Depot for a project.  You could just drive there, pick up the items and leave.  Simple, easy, costs $300.

But, with a little planning, you can whittle that cost down.  First, you could go to Topcashback.  From there you link to where you can buy Home Depot gift cards for 7% off.  Bam!  Your cost just went down to $279.  But wait, you also get 2.5% cashback for purchasing the gift cards.  That brings your cost down to $273.  Is an approximately 9% discount worth a little foresight and planning?  It is to me.  This can be particularly valuable for larger projects.  Cards from some merchants are discounted considerably more.

There are also some good tools for locating discounted gift cards. does a pretty good job of covering what cards are available and telling you what the discount is.  They don't sell the card themselves, but rather point you to PlasticJungle, Cardpool, or one of the other gift card malls.

*If you sign up for one of these sites through my link, I'll earn a referral bonus.

I wanted to edit this post to give a tip of the hat to The Frequent Miler who does yeoman work with researching the best ways to obtain and use gift cards.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Platinum Benefits change

Since I've got the Amex Platinum on my mind right now, I'll share one other piece of information.  According to Amex, the Platinum card will soon lose one of its benefits.  For some time now, Amex has given Platinum cardholders a 20% rebate when they used Membership Rewards points to pay for travel through the "pay with points" feature.  Well, as of February 1, 2013, that benefit is going away.

I'm not too worried about it, since I've never used the "pay with points" feature myself.  For those who do use it, though, that's a significant benefit reduction.

Amex Platinum

The American Express Platinum card is worth of being a "dresser drawer" card for frequent travelers, but for the rest of us the $450 annual fee just isn't worth it.  So why do I have two of them right now?

Well, I've been "suckered" in by their upgrade offers.  You see, Amex will often offer bonus Membership Rewards points to customers who have their Premiere Rewards Gold personal and business cards.  In mid December I accepted an offer of 25,000 Membership Rewards points to upgrade from PRG business to Platinum.  That's a minimum value of $250.  Plus, by upgrading in December I was able to use one of the card's most valuable features, the $200 per year airline fee credit, in 2012.  The credit will be available again in 2013.  So, by upgrading, I've gotten effectively $650 in benefits.  That more than pays for the cost of the annual fee, so I'll probably keep the card after paying the pro-rated annual fee for my current cardmember year.

Of course, I'll probably cancel my personal Platinum card.... but not until January when I can get credit for $200 more in airline "fees."

Cancel your card?

I had a conversation with a family friend yesterday about whether or not she should cancel a particular credit card before the annual fee comes due.  She mentioned that she was also considering signing up for another card immediately thereafter and I had a "they grow up so fast" moment of pride.

You see, for the average person, credit cards are simply a tool for spending.  Most people acquire a card and keep it for years, paying the annual fee each year without considering whether they should be doing so.  For the aspiring student of the points/miles game, however, that's not the approach to take.  Considering the lucrative rewards for signing up for new cards, keeping old ones "just because" doesn't make sense.

Now, there are reasons to keep your older accounts.  I keep my two oldest accounts because they serve to stretch out my "length of credit history", a major (15%) factor in determining your credit score.  And a good credit score, young grasshopper, is what allows you to get all those nice sign up bonuses on the new cards.

Also, some cards are worth keeping and paying the annual fee on.  A good example is the Chase Priority Club Visa Platinum.  The annual fee is $49, but each year you receive a free night at any Priority Club property.  That's easily worth the fee.  Gary @ View From the Wing calls cards like this "dresser drawer" cards.  Even if you don't use them often, they are worth keeping around.

Some cards are useful, but carry a fee that's a bit high.  The Citi American Airlines card, for example.  In that case, you can always try calling when the fee is about to come due and asking if there's anything they can "do about it."  Often banks are willing to waive the fee, give you a statement credit, or give you points/miles to keep the card.  See this thread at Flyertalk for examples:

Finally, there are the cards that you signed up for purely for the bonus.  In those cases you may want to cancel at the end of your cardmember year to avoid an annual fee.  Just think of it as thinning out the herd and making room in your wallet for the next one!