Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Don’t be Afraid to Call the Bank!

I have a bad habit of putting off bank calls. For instance, I still haven’t called Banco Popular to unfreeze my Avianca Vuela Visa card (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca LifeMiles Credit Cards). Goes to show how much I use it. The one time I went to make a large purchase out of area, the bank declined it. I got a letter within a week asking me to call. Over two months later, I still haven’t.

Bank calls can be intimidating. And long. And often frustrating. I hate being placed on hold for more than a few minutes.

Today’s call was different. I had a bit of time to kill this evening, so I figured I’d contact American Express regarding my Starwood Preferred Guest personal card. I’ve been considering canceling it, simply to make room for another card. Ever since I got my business SPG Amex (SEE: Getting My First Business Credit Card), I have hardly used the personal one.

Canceling a card turns into free money

I was pleasantly surprised when I was on hold for maybe a minute before getting a helpful agent. Since she didn’t specialize in card cancellations, she transferred me to another specialist who did. He was competent and helpful.

After expressing my desire to cancel my personal SPG card, he asked me to hold for a minute. In no time at all he was back with an offer for a $100 statement credit. This was a pleasant surprise. I had expected a small number of Starpoints to be offered. But $100? I’ll take it.

He went on to explain that there were no strings attached. American Express was basically offering me $100, free and clear. He went so far as to mention that if I canceled my card come July (when me fee is due), I’d still keep the credit. I’m not sure if American Express would want him explicitly alerting me to that fact…

Conclusion: call the bank more often

My takeaway is that I shouldn’t shy away from calling the card issuer. Banks try to do what they can to keep customers. I’ve put a good amount of spending on my American Express cards in the past couple years, so that may be one of the factors that triggered the offer.

In any case, don’t be shy about calling, especially when an annual fee comes due. The bank may work with you to either reduce it (by a statement credit offset) or make it worth your while in other ways, such as extra points. These are called “retention offers”. I’m going to do my best to capitalize on more of them!

Featured image courtesy of Infrogmation under CC 2.0 license

Join Me for a Second Travel Hacking Seminar!

Back in March I offered a free seminar to friends and family (SEE: Reserve a Seat at the First Humboldt Travel Hacking Seminar). A few people asked me if I would hold a second one, and the answer was “most likely yes.” Originally, I had hoped to plan a second one during early May. Although that window has now come and gone, I have now arranged it for early June. Here are the details:

  • Date: Monday, June 5, 2017
  • Time: 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (might run long…last time did)
  • Venue: Ferndale Pizza Company (607 Main Street, Ferndale)
  • Format: Presentation will run about 90 minutes, then Q&A (as well as some Q&A mixed in).
  • Other: Hopefully we’ll have refreshments like last time (cookies and coffee/water)!

The seminar is free, not because the info isn’t valuable, but I don’t want to charge for a starter-level event like this. I really enjoy helping people save money on travel!!

Please *do* RSVP via this link, if you’re planning on attending. Please feel free to contact me with any questions before the event.

Hope to see you all there!!

West Coast Magic with Alaska Miles: A Primer

One of my favorite things in this hobby is figuring out how to maximize my miles. Earning miles via credit cards is easy enough, but they are only as valuable as you make them.

Alaska MileagePlan is one of my favorite award programs. Back in late 2016, they rolled out new distance-based awards, both reducing the price on many awards and raising the “cap” on others in high demand. The new awards are called a hop, skip, jump, and leap, based on the distance traveled. Here’s the chart:

Overall, I think consumers came out slightly ahead. Especially if they know how to maximize Alaska’s award routing rules. Here are some great options to explore with your Alaska miles:

Scenario 1: The one-way “round-trip”

One of the most unique things about Alaska Airlines award tickets is that they offer a stopover on a one-way award. Granted, the stopover has to be in one of their hubs, or a hub of a partner. I’ve found a few awards that break this rule, but it generally holds true.

However, if you’re interested in traveling to one of their hubs (think Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Anchorage), you can often use this to your advantage.

Consider for a second that you want to visit Seattle from the Silicon Valley. At a distance of 696 miles from San Jose, a one-way flight *barely* qualifies for the lowest level Alaska award of 5,000 miles. But you can actually book a “round-trip” on a one-way ticket, if you’re willing to get creative.

Instead of booking a round-trip award to and from San Jose for a total of 10,000 miles, use the multi-search tool to add a different, but (sorta) close return airport, say Reno, Nevada. Looks like you even get to fly through Boise, for a total flight distance of 1,696 flown miles.

You’d expect this ticket to price out at 10,000 miles, given the flight distance. But it turns out Alaska prices award tickets on their own metal simply by distance between origin and destination! Because Reno and SJC are much less than 700 miles apart, this award will price out a 5,000 miles at the lowest level!

Now you just have to get yourself home to San Jose from Reno.  You could easily catch a cheap flight back, or maybe take Amtrak.

Sure, this may not be a desirable trip for many people, but what if you wanted to see Tahoe for a bit before heading back to the Bay? It could be just the ticket for you. You’re only looking at 5,000 miles and $70 for a two-stop vacation!

I’m mainly using this example as an illustration, although my wife and I did fly a “one-way” award from Arcata to the Bay Area, with a convenient stop in Portland to meet up with our in-laws (SEE: The Pacific Northwest Stopover Trick).

Scenario 2: The two-stop hop (aka the “in-laws”)

I’ve definitely had my in-laws in mind when considering some of the potential in the Alaska program. My mother-in-law often visits family in San Diego, typically flying out of the tiny Sonoma County (STS) airport. Since the route is under 700 miles, it prices out at 5,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles one-way.

But what if she and my father-in-law want to visit, say, Seattle for a few days, before heading to sunny southern California?

Utilizing Alaska’s amazing stopover on one-way tickets, you can actually book STS-SEA-SAN as a one-way ticket for the same 5,000 miles!

This is especially crazy given that the SEA-SAN flight distance is 1,050 miles and rings in at 7,500 award miles when booked by itself. Again, Alaska actually prices it based on the STS-SAN distance.

Tack on a cheap one-way, or another 5,000 mile award flight back to STS from San Diego, and you have a two destination vacation for a mere 10,000 miles. Not sure you can beat that.

Like the San Jose to Reno example, all you need to find is a cheap ticket back to Santa Rosa. Or you can burn another 5,000 miles, which will probably be worth it in this case. It’s still 10,000 miles for a two-destination vacation!

Scenario 3: The home “stopover”

Things get even more creative if you live in one of Alaska Airlines’ main hubs. Especially Seattle or Portland. The award routing rules are extremely advantageous.

Consider the scenario where you are taking two vacations in the western U.S. in the next several months. Say, one to San Francisco and the other to Las Vegas.

Instead of booking two round-trip awards, book a one-way for your first leg. Cash tickets for this route are competitive, so they may be the way to go instead.

Next, book your return, but combine it with your outbound to Las Vegas on the same one-way award (use the multi-city search tool). Bingo. Your “stopover” is now your several weeks at home between trips. And it is a crazy cheap 5,000 miles!

Now all you have to do is book your final leg and you’ve saved yourself up to 7,500 Alaska miles, the normal price of a SEA-LAS flight! Maybe later in the year you have a trip to Denver and another to Salt Lake City. You can pull this stunt again!

Scenario 4: Hawaii and a transcon on the same one-way

Let’s take the home stopover one step further. While useful before, this trick becomes even more lucrative if you combine a Hawaii trip with a transcontinental flight. For this example I still have to assume you live in an Alaska hub.

Imagine for a moment that you’re booking an award to Hawaii. If you’re located on the West Coast (I’m assuming you live in Seattle), hopefully you’re considering using British Airways Avios. They are generally the best currency for flying West Coast to Hawaii.

But what if you have a trip planned to the Big Apple a month after your Hawaii trip? Hold those Avios for a moment. Alaska miles will get you further, again with their amazing stopover.

If you plan this right, you can essentially get *both* one-way tickets on the same award, spanning two different trips.

Plan your outbound as a one-way with Avios (12,500 per ticket), and then plan your inbound as a one-way Alaska award for 17,500 MileagePlan miles. Add in a stopover in Seattle that spans your time at home.

Voila. You now have a one-way ticket back home from Hawaii, and then a one-way ticket to NYC, all for the less than a single flight to Hawaii would cost with many other mileage currencies.

Is it an awful red-eye? Yes. But for 17,500 miles, you can’t really complain (I’m sure you can find better flights if you book far in advance). Here’s another:

Honolulu back home to San Jose, before taking off for Alaska on another adventure.

Scenario 5: Rural Alaska

Flying to rural Alaska doesn’t really require any interesting “hacks” per se, but I find it is a fantastic use of Alaska miles. You can head to Barrow to experience 24-hour daylight, or maybe go hiking in Nome.

I mention rural Alaska since cash tickets are often super expensive. Consider this round trip between the Bay Area and Dutch Harbor. You’ll almost certainly spend over $1,000 on a cash ticket, if not closer to $1,500. You can fly the same trip for a mere 25,000 MileagePlan miles round-trip. Consider hanging out in Anchorage for a few days as well with your free stopover.

Frustratingly, there is far less award space available at the lowest level than there was last year. Because Alaska offers variable award pricing, you’ll probably end up paying more like 20,000 miles for the ticket. Still, this can make sense for destinations in rural Alaska that cost a ridiculous amount in cash.

A few issues

Annoyingly, Alaska Airlines still doesn’t recognize Bay Area airports as a “hub” for award routing stopover purposes under most circumstances. Given that the airline has bought Virgin America, I wish they would change this.

The system also knows some airports are co-located. You can’t book a “one-way” ticket from SFO to Oakland with a stop in Portland. Nor can you even return to Sacramento or Santa Rosa from the Bay. MileagePlan would be a gold mine if their system allowed these tickets.

Conclusion

I hope this has been useful in showing you how to unlock the potential of Alaska miles. Overall, the award price changes to the Alaska program have been good, but there are some quirks. Personally, I wish they would price awards on PenAir out of Arcata airport better.

If you’re not interested in domestic travel, there are a number of possibilities for using Alaska miles for some great premium products, like JAL and Cathay Pacific to Asia, and AirFrance and KLM to Europe. Business class awards to India on Emirates are also a decent deal.

Header image courtesy of Frank Kovalcheck under CC 2.0 license

A Day Exploring Orlando

Last weekend I flew to Orlando on a whirlwind trip to attend the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference. The event is held twice a year, and it was my first time going. More on that later.

I gave myself an extra day to get to the conference since you never know what United is going to pull when you fly out of Arcata (SEE: Our First United Horror Story). The ticket was booked using Merrill Lynch “miles” (actually flexible points worth up to 2.0 cents each toward travel), so I wasn’t beholden to United award availability.

My connection time at SFO was 35 minutes, which is asking for trouble. Amazingly, I made the flight no problem, literally walking off one plane and onto the next. If I hadn’t, I had a back up plan in place.

Waking up in Florida

I arrived late and got to my hotel after 10:00 p.m., but didn’t get to sleep until after midnight (still on California time). I didn’t set my alarm, so I slept in until 8:37, which is ridiculous. Until you realize that is only 6:37 back home.

It was late enough that I missed breakfast, however, at the Staybridge Suites. I guess I could have headed downstairs un-showered, but I wasn’t going to do that to everyone. An hour later I checked out and hit up Starbucks, and then figured out what I wanted to do for the day.

Looking at my options

Orlando is home to a TON of stuff to do. They have Disney World, of course, as well as Universal Studios, water parks, and other attractions. Without my wife (or future kids), though, I saw no point in heading to Disney for the day. It would be pretty costly, and I doubt I could make the day worth it since I had to be back at 5:00. Plus, I am finding more and more that I dislike crowds, and Disney parks are the epitome of crowds.

Another option was the Kennedy Space Center. But at $50, I didn’t really want to spring for it, even though I was extremely interested. It would be pushing noon by the time I got there, and I wanted to be checking into my hotel around 4:30 in time to meet up with the group  and head to dinner.

Settling on a cheap easygoing day

So, I figured I would instead split the day between the beach and a quick visit to downtown. I was already paying for a rental car, and this seemed like a fine way to both enjoy Florida and save money. Unfortunately the car ended up costing me much more than I anticipated (SEE: The ONE rental car mistake I often make).

The beach at Cape Canaveral was the closest, at about a 45 minute drive. The weather was glorious. A cold front had passed through during the night, and the temperature had dropped an easy 15 degrees since the time I landed the night before. I’m not sure how long it rained, but I slept through all of it.

My time at the beach consisted mainly of walking through the surf, taking pictures, and trying to relax and let my mind rest. I’d had a long chunk of work sandwiched between two trips, which meant I worked over the weekend.

The Atlantic Ocean in Florida is *so* nice compared to the ocean at home. The water is actually pleasant instead off frigid. This may start changing my mind when it comes to destinations.

Back into the “city”

Lunch was Cold Stone (yes, lunch), and then I headed back toward the city. Orlando has a good amount of sprawl, and it took longer to get to downtown than I anticipated.

Orlando isn’t really a “city” per se. I mean…it is, but it is nothing like New York, Los Angeles, Denver or even Calgary or Montreal. It has a totally different feel to it. I’m not sure what I can compare it to from my previous experiences.

I parked in a garage and took a walk to Lake Eola. There wasn’t much in particular I wanted to do, but I try to find parks in a new city as the first place to explore, as long as they are close to the urban area.

My remaining time consisted of a leisurely walk around the lake. I snapped some photos of both the city and the huge geese at the lake.

Off to the pre-conference dinner

I headed back to the other airport hotel (a Club Carlson hotel booked on points) directly across the street from the Hyatt Place where the conference was located. I met up with some of the other attendees and we headed out to dinner at a barbecue place.

Dinner was a good distance away in Winter Park, but we’d been told the barbecue place was good. Turned out it was Cinco de Mayo, so we ended up getting some fusion cuisine. A brisket taco and conversation with fellow travel hackers was just the beginning of a great experience.

Best-Ever Hilton American Express Card Offers

Credit card sign up bonuses routinely fluctuate. It is good to understand when you are getting in at the top of the wave rather than the bottom. In general, most airline cards should turn your head when they have an offer of 50,000 miles or more.

Hotel cards, however, are all over the map. You just need to understand each program and the value of its points currency. But…the good thing is most bloggers will let you know when the offers are at their best. And now is one of those times for the Hilton American Express cards.

Hilton Amex Card offer

The offer on the Hilton Card from American Express is 80,000 points after $2,000 in spending within the first 3 months of card membership. Features of this card include:

  • No annual fee
  • Earns 7x Hilton points on Hilton stays, 5x points on gas, groceries, and restaurants, and 3x points on everything else.
  • Hilton Silver status and ability to earn Gold status after spending $20,000 on the card in a calendar year.

The no-fee Hilton card is one of the “keepers” in my wallet. Because American Express only offers a sign-up bonus once per lifetime on their products, getting the Hilton card with this increased bonus is ideal. Once you have it, there is no reason to drop in, in my opinion, since you can’t ever get the sign up bonus again.

Link here (or hit me up via the contact me page for a referral).

Hilton Surpass Amex Card offer

The offer on the Hilton Surpass Card from American Express is 100,000 points after $3,000 in spending within the first 3 months of card membership. Features of this card include:

  • $85 annual fee
  • Earns 12x Hilton points on Hilton stays, 6x points on gas, groceries, and restaurants, and 3x points on everything else.
  • Hilton Gold status and the ability to earn Diamond status after spending $40,000 on the card in a calendar year.

The perks of the Hilton Surpass Card over the no-fee American Express Hilton card are slightly better since it grants you automatic Gold status with Hilton, and the earning is better as well. But there is a fee. However, if you have paid Hilton stays several times per year, you’ll probably come out ahead with this card.

Link here.

Both offers end 5/31/17.

The value of Hilton points

While these bonuses might seem huge in terms on the number of bonus points, they really aren’t all that spectacular. Don’t get me wrong, now is definitely the time to apply. But Hilton points don’t go as far as you might think.

Hilton hotels require anywhere from 5,000 to 95,000 points per night, which mean you could actually get over 20 nights out of the 100,000 point bonus offer (Hilton also offers a 5th night free benefit)! But the 5,000 and 10,000 point hotels are few and far between.

Honestly, I’m not even sure you can find them anymore after Hilton killed their award chart. But I haven’t really checked. In general, you should expect to pay anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 points per night on a “typical” hotel.

At this point, just view your Hilton points as worth about 0.5 cents each. This makes the bonuses worth roughly $400 and $500, respectively. This is a good card bonus, but nothing groundbreaking.

Again, if you’re interested in the no-fee Hilton card, shoot me a note via the contact me page and let me send you a referral link.

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