Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Leveraging the Flexibility of Hotel Award Bookings

Travel plans can be fickle things. Sometimes you can have a plan in place for weeks, or even months, and have it go sideways on the last day. And it makes me grateful hotel award bookings are nearly always flexible.

My wife and I have had our share of crazy travel incidents. We actually joke that we can’t go on a trip without *something* happening that throws a wrench in our plans. Our winter trip to Canada in early 2016 was botched by a canceled United flight, and our summer trip to Europe was almost completely ruined by the fact I needed a new passport!

We can’t seem to catch a break

This trip really wasn’t much different. Maybe just a couple notches lower.

A couple days before we were to head to the Bay to fly out to Alberta, there was a major slide on Highway 101. As is typical, it was at the choke point near Leggett, California where there is literally no easy detour.

So, my wife and I decided to bite the bullet and drive narrow, winding Highway 36 over to Interstate 5 and then down to the Bay. It would add at least 2 hours to our trip.

Since I was trying hard to balance work, vacation, and PTO usage, I decided to change our Bay Area plans (yet again). I had already changed them once when I realized I was beginning to hoard my points.

Instead of arriving late in the evening the night before our flight, I decided we would head down a day earlier than planned. This meant we would spend 2 nights in the Bay. I would work an uber long day out of our San Francisco office, and we would fly out early to Calgary on Thursday.

Doing the award travel shuffle

This trip was another case study on why I am glad hotel award bookings are so flexible. Unlike airline award bookings (Southwest being an exception), hotel award bookings aren’t locked in until usually 24 hours before check-in. I was able to leverage this fact to rebook our hotel plans at less than 48 hours from our check-in time.

Our initial reservation was at the Hampton Inn SFO on Hilton points. I also had booked parking at the same hotel. I cancelled all this (glad I paid the $2.99 trip protection fee for the parking), and booked the Staybridge Suites with our 2 free IHG night certificates that had just posted.

While not the best use of the certificates you could dream up, it would put us in a comfortable suite with a full kitchen for my wife. Well worth it, in my opinion. Dan Miller, who runs Points with a Crew, “wasted” his for a similar hotel in London a couple years ago.

The new parking plan was at the BART station in San Bruno. It turned out to be $25 cheaper than the other off-airport parking (before the cost of any BART tickets). If you’ve never used BART, check out why it is a great option in the Bay Area.

Conclusion

All in all everything worked out just fine. We didn’t lose any money on any pre-paid bookings. I do book pre-paid now and then (such as our upcoming night at the Aloft Calgary), but I don’t recommend doing this in general. It can make sense if you are getting a great rate, but sometimes you don’t know what will come up and it is better to have the flexibility. And award bookings give you flexibility.

The actual travel turned out to be better than I hoped as well. Yeah, it was a 7-hour trek, but we made it. My wife had an easygoing day in San Bruno while I worked my tail off in downtown SF. Now we are signing off for the weekend to enjoy all that beautiful Banff has to offer.

 

Resisting the tendency to hoard points

There are two distinct sides to travel hacking:

  1. Earn points and miles
  2. Burn points and miles

The earning is the easy part. My wife and I have been able to accumulate serious miles over the past couple years by many credit card sign up bonuses. And lately I’ve been pulling in some more from gift card reselling (SEE: My First Three Months of Reselling Gift Cards). 

Burning miles is, oddly enough, where I often run into trouble. I often end up hoarding my points and miles.

It is not that I don’t want to use my miles. I earned them with the obvious intention of using them. But too often I fall into the trap of the travel hackers “analysis paralysis”. Instead of using the miles or points for a *good* flight or hotel stay, I find myself trying to use them only on the *best* flight or hotel stay. I mean….why use them now if I’m not getting the BEST value!

Running off the “Analysis Paralysis” cliff

I recently ran straight off the cliff of travel hacking analysis paralysis this week. While trying to finalize hotel plans for our upcoming trip to Alberta (SEE: We’re going to Banff!), I couldn’t find a great use of my hotel points. We are already planning on one splurge: a cash night at the Fairmont Banff Springs. This will be covered by a checking account bonus offer from Bank of America, so it’s really not that bad.

But for the rest of the hotel nights we need, I couldn’t find a good redemption option. “Good” meaning I couldn’t get the value I expect from my points.

So I booked us at the Aloft Calgary University for 2 nights for $279 CAD. I came to the same decision on San Francisco Airport hotels. There were no “good” (read *best*) options, so I booked a night at a cheap (for SF) airport hotel through Expedia for just over $100 including taxes.

Making the conscious decision to use my miles and points

When I woke up this morning, I had a reality check. Why was I about to spend $300 on hotels when we could spend $0? Isn’t that the whole point of this hobby?

So I canceled both my bookings. I’m not thinking straight or hard enough, obviously, if I can’t find at least one option where we can use points.

I finally settled on using Hilton points for a night at the Hampton Inn SFO. Yeah, it is 37k Hilton points, but it is free. And the “value” of the stay is about $185 (which is still painful to me when are going to be there only long enough to sleep).

It also made sense because we could pay for parking at the Hampton Inn and simply leave our van there while away. Easy.

The Delta hotel at YYC is nice. And free with a certificate.

For Calgary, I settled on using a Marriott Annual night certificate for one of the nights. Yeah, it means we split our nights in Calgary, but one will be free. Plus, it’ll be an airport hotel connected to the terminal, which will make flying out super convenient.

We are still paying cash for the other. I still couldn’t bring myself to redeem either IHG or SPG points for horribly low value. But we are going to be able to now cover *both* the rental car and the single night at the Aloft with the remainder of our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit.

Analysis paralysis crisis averted

So now we will be out only the cost of gas for the drive to/from SFO and parking. The lodging is covered by free nights, points, and travel credits. The car is covered by the CSR credit. The flights were predominantly covered by Delta gift cards and United vouchers and a small amount of cash (like $60). Overall, it is going to be another cheap trip. I feel so much better about our plans, having made these adjustments.

This is yet another incident that is helping me learn to be okay spending miles and points for travel now rather than hoping to use them for the *best* possible trip later. Remember to “earn and burn” in this game. There is some wisdom in keeping a small stash of points in case something unexpected comes up, but don’t hoard. The value will only ever go down.

Header image courtesy of Lawrence OP under CC 2.0 license

5 Best Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners

Chase Ultimate Rewards is my favorite flexible points program. The points are redeemable for 1.25 cents (1.5 cents if you have a Sapphire Reserve) each in travel through the Chase travel portal, or redeemable for cash at 1 cent each.

Or you can transfer them to travel partners, which is where some of the greatest value lives.

Best Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners

I consider the following five transfer partners to be the best among the bunch. This is primarily because of the value you can get out of your points plus the availability/flexibility of the awards you can book with them.

  1. United MileagePlus – United miles are hands-down my favorite way to use my Ultimate Rewards (UR) points. As a Star Alliance partner, United miles can be used to fly pretty much anywhere. And nearly all awards are bookable through the website. They are also the best miles for Humboldt-based travelers, in my opinion. United awards also never pass on fuel surcharges, which is another reason I like them so much.
  2. HyattHyatt is the one good hotel program among Chase’s partners. I find that I can typically redeem my Hyatt points for at least 1.7 cents each, as they have a favorable award chart. Hyatt doesn’t have quite the number of properties that Marriott and IHG have, but their hotels are top notch. They certainly have plenty of coverage is most major international destinations.
  3. Korean Air Skypass – This is not a program that I am terribly familiar with, but it is one that some people use to great advantage. Their award chart has some great sweet spots, including East Asia to North America for 80,000 miles one-way in first, and North America to Hawaii for 25,000 miles round-trip. The trick with the latter is that Korean Air doesn’t treat Hawaii as different than the rest of the United States.
  4. Singapore KrisFlyer – Singapore recently made some changes to their awards, effectively increasing the price of many awards, but reducing fuel surcharges. Their points are still quite valuable, however, especially for aspirational redemptions like flying Singapore Suites, as they are the only effective way to attain them.
  5. FlyingBlueFlyingBlue is the loyalty program for both KLM and Air France. The program has some great sweet spots, including North America to Israel and North America to Hawaii/Caribbean. Do some research. The program treats some interesting places as “Europe” for award price purposes, including Israel and North Africa. FlyingBlue also offers promo awards that change every couple months. Promo awards reduce the points cost of specific redemptions by 20% to 50%, which can really let you stretch you UR points!
Best Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners - United Award

I recently topped off my United miles using some UR for a ticket to Australia

For all partners, points are transferred at a 1:1 ratio in increments of 1,000. To transfer you points to Chase’s partner’s, log into Ultimate Rewards using your Chase credentials and click ‘Use Points’ and then ‘Transfer to Travel Partners’.

From there you can transfer your points to any partner, and even save your loyalty numbers so you don’t have to input them in the future.

What about the other partners?

These are the best 5 partners across the board. I’m not saying you can’t find value in transferring to British Airways Avios, Southwest RapidRewards, and Virgin Atlantic FlyingClub, but it’s a bit tougher, in general.

As far as the other hotel partners go, I would avoid transferring UR points to them. It *might* make sense in Marriott’s case, if you are really close to a specific redemption or travel package.

In IHG’s case, I don’t really see an upside. You will nearly always get better value by doing a “points and cash” night rather than converting some UR points to get the last few you need for a full redemption.

Conclusion

Take some time and become familiar with the Ultimate Rewards partner loyalty programs. It will help you immensely in the long run since you’ll be better able to maximize the value of your points.

If you don’t already have a Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card, I highly recommend that it be your first travel credit card. If you want to apply, shoot me an email and let me send you a referral link. 🙂 The points are valuable, and you can maximize their value by transferring them to any of the best Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners above.

Steven Curtis Chapman sings the “Flight Delay Blues” on a recent trip

Well known Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman sang an impromptu song on Facebook Live on Thursday when his travel plans went awry. He was headed home to Nashville from Oklahoma City with a connection in Dallas, but the trip didn’t go as planned.

The plane he was on required maintenance. After a delay of an hour, everyone ended up having to deplane. Chapman then composed and sang the “flight delay blues” on the spot. You can watch him here.

It’s a good thing he didn’t check his guitar!

I’m wondering if he quickly came up with the lyrics and scratched them down, or if the song was completely off the cuff. If it was the latter, I’m quite impressed!

Hyatt House Portland Review

Overall rating: 9/10

Location: Portland, Oregon

Last fall my wife and I met my in-laws for a few days in Portland. It was actually a surprise for my brother and father-in-law. Because of limited award availability from Arcata, I opted to arrive a day early (’cause who wants a 6:00 a.m. flight?). I picked the Hyatt House Portland for our one night.

I used 12,000 Hyatt points to cover the night. Cash price was $205, so we were getting 1.7 cents per point. This has since become my base valuation of Hyatt points. Others peg them at 1.4 or 1.5, but everything depends on location, season, day of the week, etc. The Hyatt House Portland often goes for as low as $130. Redeeming points wouldn’t be as lucrative at that price point.

One thing I noticed when booking was how few reviews the hotel had. This was because it opened only 3 months before we stayed.

Arriving at the Hyatt House Portland

I knew my in-laws were renting a car that could fit the 5 of us, so we used public transportation to reach the hotel. It is located just to the south of downtown, near the University.

Hyatt House Portland review - transit

Public transit to the hotel is easy. We had to make a single transfer from TriMet light rail (leaves from PDX airport) to a Portland Streetcar. There is a streetcar stop literally next to the hotel.

The other cool thing was that the hotel is kitty corner to the Marriott Residence Inn, at which we would be staying with my in-laws when they arrived. Super convenient.

Hyatt House Portland Review - from trolley stop

Hyatt House Portland from the trolley stop

Check in was easy. We didn’t receive an upgrade, but I didn’t really expect to as a lowly Hyatt Platinum. Anyhow, from what I knew of Hyatt House hotels in general, every room is an upgrade since they all have kitchens and are considered “suites”.

Hyatt House Portland studio kitchen suite

Our points got us a standard studio kitchen suite. You can also be booked into a den guest room. Luckily the suite was available for our dates.

Walking into the room, it was love at first sight. The suite had a full kitchen, sitting/living area, bed area, and large bathroom. Everything was new, clean, and modern.

Hyatt House Portland - Living Room

The kitchen was fully stocked. It contained a stove, cookware, flatware, dishes, and more. It even had a dishwasher. We felt spoiled. The stove was even the modern induction type, which is probably to make it easy to clean, more than anything.

Hyatt House Portland - Kitchen

The dining area was an island adjacent to the kitchenette.

Hyatt Hours Portland Review - Kitchen

The “bedroom” and living areas were cleverly designed. The TV was situated within an open section of the wall, at it would swivel, depending on whether you wanted to watch it from the couch or from the bed. I thought this was brilliant.

Hyatt House Portland - Bedroom

The bathroom was spacious and clean, and included a shower only, which I generally prefer. Everything was super new and clean, and it was plenty spacious.

Hyatt House Portland Review - Bathroom

The view was okay. The location of the Hyatt House doesn’t really make for good views in any direction. If you pressed your face against the glass, you could get a view of some of the taller buildings in downtown Portland.

Overall, we loved the room. Everything was new and modern, and the layout was wonderful.

Lobby and other facilities

The common area was clean and nice, if a bit clinical. The hotel could have done a better job breaking up the space. There was plenty of seating, but it was so orderly it began to remind me of a cafeteria. There weren’t any great places to sit and have a more private or quieter conversation.

Maybe this just stood out since I immediately contrasted the Hyatt House Portland with the Marriott Residence Inn we stayed at the following nights. The Residence Inn broke up their common space into smaller sections, allowing a bit more privacy and an overall better feel.

I also used the gym in the morning. There were enough machines and free weights to accommodate what most people would want in a work out. There is also a pool, but we didn’t use it.

Breakfast

I have to say, the Hyatt House Portland breakfast was one of the best free breakfasts I have had at a hotel. And its always free.

Hyatt House Portland Review - Breakfast

The best part was the made-to-order omelets. You pick a couple filling options, and a cook makes you an omelet in just minutes. There are also the typical continental breakfast options of bagels, muffins, yogurt, fruit, juice, and coffee. All of that was overshadowed by the omelet.

Location and getting around

While the Hyatt House Portland is not right in the middle of downtown, it is plenty close. And the trolley stop makes most places very accessible. You can be at the main food pod between Washington and Alder in 20 minutes or less.

Essentially, anything within the trolley or TriMet system is easily accessible. I won’t deny that a car made visiting several places much easier, including our trip to Multnomah Falls and attending a glass blowing class.

The riverfront is within easy walking distance, as is the aerial tram to the OHSU campus.

Issues with the final bill

Check out at the Hyatt House Portland was quick and easy. The desk staff put our “bill” in an envelope and sent us on our way. I don’t typically receive an final bill for an award stay, but some hotels seem to give it out anyway.

By the time I read it, we were on the streetcar, and it immediately puzzled me. The bill showed a room rate of $57 + tax. This made no sense. I knew there had to be a mistake.

We returned later and asked the manager what the issue was. He apologized and told me that I wasn’t supposed to receive that bill. It was a record of what they bill Hyatt corporate for our stay. It was no skin off my teeth since we had to return anyway (to the Residence Inn) and it actually gave me an interesting insight into how hotels are reimbursed for award stays.

Conclusion

Overall, we had a fantastic stay at the Hyatt House Portland. It still ranks as my favorite hotel brand. My wife was in heaven. Because she has some tummy problems that require a restricted diet, being able to easily and comfortably cook on vacation is extremely important to us. The Hyatt House gave us everything we needed.

Hyatt House Portland Review - Downtown View

If we ever return to Portland, I will certainly be looking at this hotel again.

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