Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

3 reasons to consider the Citi ThankYou Premier card

The Citi ThankYou Premier card is the best card in the ThankYou Point-earning family, in my opinion. The Citi Prestige has its place as a premium product, but for the average Joe, the Citi ThankYou Premier is a solid enough card in its own right. And the current offer is nothing to sneeze at. Here are three reasons you may want to make it the next addition to your wallet:

Best sign-up bonus I’ve seen

The current sign-up bonus of 60,000 ThankYou Points is the highest public offer I’ve ever seen for this card. Previous offers have included both 40,000 and 50,000 bonus points, as well as an extended period where no bonus was offered.

The $95 fee is also waived the first year, which is huge. The Citi ThankYou Premier is much like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, the card I tend to recommend as the best all-around starter travel credit card for most folks. It offers increased earning rates on travel (3x), dining and entertainment (2x). Travel also includes gas, so you earn 3x ThankYou Points (TYP) on these purchases as well.

The card also offers no foreign transaction fees, and you can use the points at 1.25 cents each when booking travel through the Citi Thank You portal, or you can transfer them to partner programs. In general, Citi’s partners aren’t quite as good as Chase or Amex, but there are a couple with great uses.

Two awesome transfer partners

While the Citi transfer partners are generally inferior to those of the other bank programs, there are a couple gems that make collecting ThankYou points a great strategy. My favorite is Avianca LifeMiles, mainly because of their short-haul award chart within the U.S. (SEE: 3 reasons I am SUPER excited for the new LifeMiles shorthaul awards).

LifeMiles awards on United metal are easy to book online, as long as they include only one connection. You can fly from California to anywhere within the western states (everything aligned with Colorado westward, with the exception of Montana) for 7,500 miles one-way. If you’re local to Humboldt County, these are an incredible value flying out of Arcata. We utilized Avianca LifeMiles short-haul awards for our flights to the Southwest in the spring (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip).

The second great transfer partner is Asia Miles. While the program saw a minor devaluation this year, there are still some great uses of the currency when flying with either Cathay Pacific or their Oneworld partners. For example, you can fly nonstop on American Airlines from Chicago, New York, Miami, Charlotte, Phildelphia or Dallas to a number of European destinations for only 45,000 Asia Miles one-way in business class.

There is also value in Flying Blue and Singapore KrisFlyer. Even Turkish Miles&Smiles has some sweet spots. But LifeMiles and Asia Miles are my top favorites. The biggest hurdle for people is learning how to use them effectively.

Diversification of points portfolio

Another benefit of picking up a Citi ThankYou Premier card is that you will have access to additional partners besides those offered by either Chase or Amex. Sure, I remarked that they are inferior to the other programs, but they are definitely not useless.

I’ve found that having a diverse portfolio of points is one of the best strategies for making trips happen. Don’t lock yourself into only one or two currencies (I always suggest having a plan). Bank programs with transfer partners are already a step above straight hotel or airlines cards. But holding more than one can make some sense. I love my American Express Everyday card as it is both free ($0 annual fee), yet earns 2x Membership Rewards points on groceries and leaves me the option of accruing Membership Rewards points. Having cards with all three currencies gives me a lot of options.

Conclusion

If you’re in the market for a new card, the Citi ThankYou Premier may be the way to go. With a $0 annual fee, you really can’t go wrong if you want to try the program out. If you find it isn’t for you, just drop it when you hit your first year.

As always, don’t apply because some guy on the internet told you to. Take a look at the offer and see if this card offers some value to you. 😉

Kings Canyon – Gould Mine Loop Hike in Saguaro National Park

On a beautiful Arizona morning in late April we headed out from the Hampton Inn in Tucson to Saguaro National Park, to the west of the city. The plan? Complete the Kings Canyon – Gould Mine Loop hike, a distance of about 2.1 miles, as an introduction for the kids to the desert.

Although we didn’t make it out of the hotel especially early to beat the heat, it was shaping up to only be in the 80s. I’m not sure we would have attempted this during the heat of midsummer!

Pit stop at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Before we started the hike, we made a quick stop at the desert museum, just to use the restroom.  Even though our time here was super brief, we encountered a rattlesnake. I hadn’t seen one in years. It was right in the parking lot!

Park staff promptly snagged him. With lots of people around, he definitely needed to be re-homed.

I used the encounter to help illustrate the need for immediate obedience from the kids. The last rattlesnake story I recall involved my dad calling my two sisters away from a picnic table at Mount Diablo. A diamondback had started to coil up underneath. Thankfully, they immediately got up and left. Dad then spent the next minute chucking rocks at the reptile until it struck.

With that story fresh in their heads, we headed a bit further down the road to the Kings Canyon trailhead.

Kings Canyon Trailhead

The Kings Canyon – Gould Mine loop hike starts just a short distance down the road from the museum. The trailhead is at a small parking lot off the right side of the road. The Kings Canyon trail starts as a gentle ascent along a dry creekbed.

Although the views from the parking lot are decent, you quickly rise even more and are offered a lovely view of the desert stretching out beyond the way you came.

Unsurprisingly, the mighty saguaro are plentiful. The giant cacti are endemic to Arizona and the state of Sonora, Mexico. This multi-armed monster has to be well over 100 years old.

We stopped frequently, mainly to take in the beautiful desert around us. But also because the kids were already hot and tired.

It’s soooooo hot!

I lost count how many times I heard this during our hike. Even though our kids are native to a fairly warm climate, they have already adopted the utterly Humboldtian disposition of melting when it gets above 85°F. Except if there is a pool around. Then they’re fine. But hiking in the desert? Not a fun proposition (SEE: 3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert).

I got at least some smiles out of them. They reminisced about the hike we took with their cousins in the Redwoods. Bit different out here, isn’t it?

We reached an intersection that lacked signage, but took the trail that went in the direction I knew we needed to go to connect to the Gould Mine trail. No more than 15 minutes later we found the sign that could take us back around the hill to the parking lot.

kings canyon - gould mine loop hike

The Sonora desert is truly lovely. I’d forgotten how enchanting the U.S. southwest can be.

kings canyon saguaro national park

Even through their complaints, the kids were doing fine. We’d finished up the last of the water, but there was less than half a mile to go.

Our hike lasted maybe an hour and a quarter to complete the 2.1-mile Kings Canyon – Gould Mine loop hike in Saguaro National Park.

Ending an enjoyable desert hike

It was an enjoyable hike for me. It was warm, but certainly not hot. We kept an easygoing pace, and there were no strenuous climbs. You couldn’t ask for a better quick hike.

The kids, on the other hand, were less than thrilled. Even after seeing some cool desert flora and fauna, they wanted to get moving on down the road.

Apparently my daughter’s feet had gotten a little hot during our excursion.

Note: normally I would not have let her do this, but there was hardly another car on the road driving through the park.

Bonus: Valley View Overlook

We drove for another 15 minutes or so from the Kings Canyon trailhead until we hit a dirt road within Saguaro National Park. I had one other point I wanted to explore before hitting the freeway: the View Trail.

view trail saguaro national park

There isn’t much to the view trail. It is maybe a quarter mile, and leads you gently from a small parking lot to a vista of the valley west of Saguaro National Park. Our panorama shot hardly does it justice.

Smiles were back at this point. It was a much easier hike.

And there were a lot more towering cacti.

Due to the ease of the hike and the view, the View Trail is a bit more popular. It certainly wasn’t crowded, but we saw maybe a dozen people during the hike (versus only 1 on the Kings Canyon – Gould Mine loop trail).

Conclusion

Fast pace road trips really don’t let you linger. We enjoyed our brief hikes, first around the Kings Canyon – Gould Mine Loop and then the View Trail in Saguaro National Park. But with the morning spent, it was time to move on. We stopped for a snack in Picture Rocks and then hit the road. Onward to the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort and time in the pool!

Why you need to master Google Flights and multi-stop itineraries

If you have more than a mild interest in points and miles, especially if you plan to travel internationally, I will suggest that you should spend some time with Google Flights (SEE: 6 reasons why Google Flights is the BEST flight search engine). It will teach you a lot. Get familiar with airports, routings, and carriers. It can help you find the cheapest deals on airfare if you know how to work things right (I’d also suggest subscribing to a fare deal website).

Using Google Flights to put together inexpensive, multiple-stop trips is what this post is all about. What if I told you that you could visit 2, maybe even 3, European destinations on a multi-stop trip for a mere $500 in airfare. Sound impossible? It’s definitely not. You just need to know a few tricks.

Let’s pick an example destination, and make it a bit harder than London or Paris. I’d like to visit Toulouse, France. Why Toulouse? It’s the headquarters of Airbus and it would be super cool to tour their factory. Now let’s find a ticket over some random dates not too far out from now.

Terrible: U.S. regional to small European regional

An initial option is to search for a ticket between our tiny regional airport and Toulouse (airport code TLS). The ticket search from ACV-TLS gives me the following over September 20-28:

The routing honestly isn’t terrible. But it is costly. The cheapest ticket I could find was $1,415. Maybe it could be worth it for one person for the convenience of flying out of our local airport, but I’d rather save the money. Situations like this are where you should search tickets from a larger airport. Flying small regional to small regional is almost always ridiculously expensive.

Okay: Major U.S. gateway to European regional

To save a substantial amount of money on airfare, many people travel to the Bay Area from here. San Francisco International Airport, by far the largest international gateway of the Bay Area airports, often has great fares to many destinations. I’ve routinely seen tickets to China in the $500s and tickets to many European destinations are often comparable.

Given the cost for the itinerary out of ACV, I expected the ticket from SFO to be better, but still high. And it totally was. And least it only had one stop:

KLM wants $976 for this itinerary. It still isn’t a great deal, but certainly better than the previous option. You’re saving $450. At least it is within the realm of reason for a ticket to Europe.

Better: Multi-stop on competitive routes, separate tickets

Now, here is where things get interesting. You might think to only check tickets between origin and destination, but there are a few other tricks you need to have up your sleeve. One is checking other area airports near your origin or destination if you’re willing to drive. We could search flights to Bordeaux or flights out of Oakland (in this case, it doesn’t help much).

But I have another trick I want to explore: making your own multi-stop itinerary. By knowing which routes are highly competitive, you can create some great, cheap tickets on your own. You just need to be okay spending a night in a city you didn’t plan on visiting and/or a bit more time in airports.

But it can be worth it. The San Francisco to London route is one of the most competitive European non-stops out of the Bay, and it routinely offers reasonable fares. I easily found this for $544:

Then I moved on to the flight to Toulouse. London has several airports (Heathrow, City, Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton), so I made sure I just search LON in the origin box to pick up them all. Turns out there is a nonstop between a few London airports and Toulouse. I decided to stick with Heathrow and found this:

The price is high, but not terrible at $98. It’s an airport change, but hey, you get a few days in London. Added to the United flight to London, you are looking at a total cost of $642. This is way better than the regional-to-regional roundtrip and quite a bit better than the simple round-trip to Toulouse from SFO.

Best: Multi-stop utilizing low-cost carriers

You may not know that Oakland International Airport offers non-stop flights on a few different airlines to more than a half dozen major European cities. This is where having good knowledge of routes and carriers comes in super handy. If you are flexible and can move your outbound and return dates a bit, you can save even more on this trip:

multi-stop-itineraries

Flying Norwegian from Oakland to London in October can be done for $411 (or less) round-trip. Now let’s add on an EasyJet flight for a mere $70 to get us to Toulouse:

A two-stop trip for under $500? Yup. We did it. I’ve been able to work out 3-stop and even 4-stop itineraries under $500 during the best Norwegian fare sales.

Conclusion

So there you have some of the tricks I use to find great multi-stop airfare deals. Over the course of a few years I’ve honed my Google Fights skills to be able to find fantastic fares to many places, especially these multi-stop trips. Being able to put an itinerary like the 2-stop Norwegian one above in less than 3 minutes is the culmination of many, many hours of research.

I’ve even challenged myself a couple times to find around-the-world tickets for under $1,000 (SEEFly Around the World for $1,000? Yes, it’s Possible!).

If you are struggling to find a good fare, you are more than welcome to send me a note via message on my Facebook page or via the Contact Me page here on the blog. I’ll be more than happy to quickly research the best options for you. Sometimes there is nothing I can do. But I may be able to offer some suggestions. 🙂

The Two-Hour Time-Traveling Flight

An odd pastime of mine is looking up obscure flights, simply for fun. Lately I’ve spent a bit exploring options in central Asia, as I’d like to visit Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan someday (among lots of other places). This allowed me to stumble upon a perplexing schedule for a China Southern flight.

We really arrive 10 minutes before we left?

The flight that goes backwards in time

The fact that some flights “go backwards” in time isn’t exactly news. Most that cross the international date line from west to east end up arriving at an earlier time than they departed. Sometimes they arrive during the previous day. My Qantas return flight from Brisbane did just that when I visited Australia for a week on the cheap. Check out this Jetstar flight from Sydney to Honolulu as an example:

It leaves at 4:25 p.m. and arrives at 6:00 a.m. the same day. It’s like Groundhog Day. You get to repeat it a second time.

What is odd about the China Eastern flight is that it has a block time of a mere 1:50 and has a scheduled arrival time 10 minutes earlier than departure. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a flight that does this outside of those that cross the date line. I’ve seen super short hops that arrive at basically the same time they left. They are simply in neighboring time zones. But losing time?

Apparently you get to travel 10 minutes backward in time if you fly from Urumqi, China to Almaty, Kazakhstan on this China Southern flight. Urumqi is at GMT+8, while Almaty is at GMT+6. The two cities are barely 500 miles apart. Even crazier is the fact that China at GMT+8 borders central Asia countries that operate at GMT+5. The flight from Urumqi to Tashkent lands exactly when it arrives.

How is that for wonky?

The odd time zones of western China

Western China drew the short straw when it comes to time zones. Actually, they didn’t really get any say in the matter. As a matter of national unification, Mao Zedong changed the country to a single time zone.

This leads to some interesting sights in the western part of the country. In Kashgar, China’s westernmost city of a reasonable size, you may experience sunset a mere hour before midnight. It could be completely disorienting if you aren’t expecting it. Plus, the extreme difference leads to two time systems being used concurrently. Talk about confusing.

Urumqi overwhelmingly uses Beijing standard time, as there are a large number of Han Chinese who have migrated there. Beijing standard time is their system; they wouldn’t conceive of using something else.

But other cities that are predominantly minority Uighur population tend to disregard the time imposed on them by Beijing. Some places will post two schedules, one in Beijing time and the other in local time. In more rural areas, Beijing time isn’t even on the radar.

Imagine for a moment if the U.S. operated the same way. The distance across China is roughly the same as across America. If everywhere had to adopt East Coast time, the sun wouldn’t come up in California until 10:30 in the winter. Sunset would be at midnight in the summer. The reverse would be just as bad. New York would have a 2:30 a.m. sunrise in the summer months. It’d be a mess.

Conclusion

I’ve probably either bored you or intrigued you by my musings on the oddities of time zones and traveling rapidly across them. One thing is for certain, though. Changing multiple zones at a time is always disorienting. We experienced utter exhaustion re-starting a day on our recent trip to Paris (SEE: 3 Days in Pars: Day 1 – Surviving the Jetlag).

St. Regis Rome Deluxe Room Review: Just too many points

Location: Rome, Italy

Overall rating: 7/10

Pros: Great location, amazingly ornate room, fun splurge for a night

Cons: Under construction at the time, cost way too many points

This review is dated now, but I wanted to wrap up this draft from our Europe adventures in 2016.

During our thirty days in Europe during 2016, my wife and I visited Rome as our last stop before moving on from Italy. For the five nights prior we had been visiting Florence, a lovely city of art and history (SEE: Hilton Florence Metropole: A Review). Even that wasn’t enough time to scratch the surface of what Florence has to offer. But we had to move on.

For our first night I’d booked the St. Regis Rome. It was very close to the train station and one of the splurges I’d settled on for the trip. Whether it would really live up to my expectations remained to be seen.

I booked a deluxe room since there weren’t any standard rooms available for our one night. The equivalent room was going for over $500 per night, so it was a fairly reasonable use of 21,500 SPG points. Reasonable meaning we got what I consider a par “value” for them, when comparing cash rates versus points rates.

Arrival in Rome

We arrived in Rome from Florence on the Frecciarossa train. Frecciarossa literally means “red arrow”. It was definitely the fastest train I’ve ridden and brought us to Rome in no time at all. First on the agenda was picking up our 72-hour Roma passes (SEE: Roma Pass vs Omnia Pass: which is better?). Afterwards, it was off to the hotel.

Although we probably could have walked to the St. Regis directly from the Termini train station, I decided it would be easier to take the metro one stop to the Repubblica station. The St. Regis Rome was only a short walk from there.

First impressions

I had remembered reading that the St. Regis Rome was under renovation. I don’t know exactly where the normal main entrance is, but is certainly wasn’t where we were checked in. I’m sure things are back to normal by now.

The hotel was very regal, and pretty much what I expected a St. Regis to be. The first thing that pops into my head is royalty. The place was over-the-top ornate. We made our way up a grand staircase to our room. The bellhop brought our luggage, something I don’t allow often.

We were in room 222. It was even named.

Deluxe Room

As I mentioned before, standard rooms were all booked during our dates, so I had to call in and book a deluxe room. The ability to book upgraded room categories for a relatively small points increase was an awesome feature of the SPG program. I’m not sure the combined SPG/Marriott program will offer the same value.

Our deluxe room was quite the sight when we opened the door.

From the wall art, to the draperies, to the furnishings, it amazes me that people design hotel rooms like this. We were really out of our element here.

st. regis rome

Our deluxe room at the St. Regis Rome wasn’t especially large, but it was more than comfortable. I made sure I got photos of it from every angle.

Maybe the Cupola di S. Rocco is in reference to the painting above the bed? That was my only guess. That’s the only dome I can spy.

At the end of the bed was a comfortable love seat and coffee table. It was a nice design of living area combined with bedroom in minimal space.

The desk was as regal as everything else. So much for chair comfort, though. There was no way I could have worked in that for more than 30 minutes without wanting to find something else.

There was a smaller table that appeared to be for the sole purpose of doing your makeup, given the lighting and mirrors.

The interior and closet doors were even decorative.

It was a lovely room, and like a couple other properties on this trip, leagues beyond any hotel I’d ever stayed at prior to this trip.

Bathroom

The bathroom was super nice, but it wasn’t the all-time best. We’d just been in the Park Hyatt Milan several nights before and that is still the winner for best hotel bathroom (and best bath amenities…the shampoo smells amazing).

Like the Park Hyatt Milan, the bathroom featured both a bathtub and a shower. If this is a typical feature of high end hotels, I’m definitely a fan.

The glassed-in shower was plenty large and had both a large overhead shower-head and a small detachable one.

The sink area was fairly large and the mirror gilded, like so many other things in the room.

Then there was the phone next to the toilet again, something I’d first noticed at the Hyatt Regency Palais du la Mediteranee.

If a toilet phone is what it takes to be a “fancy” hotel, I just don’t get it.

St. Regis Rome Butler service?

On of the hallmarks of the St. Regis brand is their renowned butler service. Turns out we needed at least an “Imperial Room” for this to be a part of our stay. It would have cost some more points, and we were already spending plenty as it was. It wasn’t like we needed that sort of service anyway, although it would have been a cool experience. I wonder if he would have brought us groceries?

I suppose he might also expect us to tip him handsomely. At $500+ per night, I’m sure whatever we could have given him would not have been satisfactory. We are peasants who can make do without being waited on.

Signature St. Regis Rome experiences

There are a couple experiences I read about that you can enjoy at the St. Regis Rome. First, there is a daily high tea that you can enjoy. You just better be made of money. Tea costs €28 per person.

In the evening there is a champagne sabering. Before our stay, I had no idea what that this is. Thanks to Google, one can look up these sorts of things if they are lacking in “culture”. At 7:00 p.m. every evening guests can gather in the Caelum Lounge and Bar to watch the opening of a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne. By saber. Yeah. It’s a thing.

I guess there is an art to it. Rather than slash the glass of the beck of the bottle, the blade slides along the seam in the bottle until it impacts the joint with the glass seam at the cork, causing a clean break, a flying cork, and a small jet of foamy champagne as an exciting start to enjoying a glass of bubbly.

If you want breakfast at the hotel, be prepared to pay a pretty penny. It would have been nice to be a Starwood Platinum member when we stayed there, but I didn’t have a way of hacking that status at the time. Breakfast for the non-elite runs €43 per person. Don’t choke on your coffee.

We pretty much enjoyed the hotel for the bulk of our stay. I had requested late  checkout, so we were able to enjoy Rome a bit the next day, but our evening at the St. Regis Rome was pretty much just spent hanging out in our lovely room. After days of walking all around Florence, we needed a break.

Conclusion

Hindsight is always 20/20. This stay in particular taught me how content we are with burning points at midscale hotels. The St. Regis Rome was way out of our league.

It was a fun night at a fancy place, but it didn’t provide us any more value staying here rather than at the Sheraton, except for maybe an hour’s worth of time savings. Honestly, we got way less value. We could have spent four nights at the Sheraton Roma for what we paid for the St. Regis. And breakfast would have been included. That would have been the winner, hands down. Our stay at the St. Regis Rome is a very clear example of Vendoming.

The St. Regis Rome wasn’t a bad hotel, it was just way beyond what we needed. In the future I am going to be far more selective with where we stay. After all, when a Hyatt House is basically your wife’s favorite hotel, there’s no need to go all out. 😉

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