Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: December 2015 (page 1 of 3)

Montreal Here We Come!

Early tomorrow morning my wife and I start our three-leg flight from our local airport across the continent to Montreal, Canada. And by early I mean really early. Like, we have to get up at 3:00 a.m. It will be awful. But we used miles, and the award flights were slim pickings by the time I started booking things. I am lucky we even got a flight at all. Tuesday was the only day left in a 2 week window with any award availability. Our economy flights are on United on the first two legs, and Air Canada on the last. Cost us $11.20 in fees in total. We even get two checked bags free since my wife has the United MileagePlus Explorer card, and winter apparel is rather bulky.

Mount_Royal_Montreal_Lookout

Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Albeit the overly early wake-up call, we are extremely excited about the whole trip. Tuesday will probably be fun once we are in the air, but I expect that we will get tired of flying (and just in general) somewhere about the middle of the United States. This is why on Wednesday I plan to let my wife rest at our hotel near Montreal Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport while I try to get some work done. Our next day will be spent seeing an overview of Montreal while staying at Le Centre Sheraton Montreal. We are then off to Quebec City that evening (but will return to Montreal for 4 more nights at the Hyatt Regency, all on points!).

As I mentioned in a previous post, we wanted to get away this Winter to experience real Winter. Not this half-hearted attempt that northern California offers. Enter Canada.

IHG Priceless Surprises Promotion

Hotels often try to lure you into staying with them by running promos that offer bonus points, free nights, free breakfast, and a host of other things to get you in the door. Most of the time the promos are only really useful to me if I am already planning a paid stay somewhere. If IHG is running a promotion, I may be more likely to stay there than at another hotel, all other things being equal. Sometimes the promos even tempt me to spend real dollars rather than staying on points, if the return is really good. As an example, my wife and I are staying at the Aloft Montreal Airport in a few days, and we will earn over 4,000 points for the stay due to two stacking promotions, which is more than enough to stay another night for free at that hotel! But I digress. Back to the Priceless Surprises promo.

prciceless-promo-ihg-mc

Banner at the Priceless Surprises Promo page. Image courtesy of IHG.

IHG and MasterCard teamed up and started running “Priceless Surprises” last month. I had not heard of it until I ran across a post on a travel blog talking about some unique “fine print” of the promotion. Unlike the new IHG accelerate promotion for early 2016, where extra points can be gained from stays with the chain, the Priceless Surprises promotion has two methods of entry: 1) Stay the night at an IHG hotel, or 2) Mail in an entry card. Mind you, the mail-in entry is pretty specific on the information you must include, the size of the card you write it on, and has a few other caveats. However, the potential payoff from this one got my attention.

Each entry into Priceless Surprises gives you a play in a game with a chance of winning points, gift cards, free nights, and, as grand prizes, fantastic trip packages. Usually I don’t like gambling with real money, but this one really isn’t a gamble. By the odds that I have calculated, there is a 97.5% chance of winning some points from every play, and most people are reporting getting at least the minimum 500 points from every time they play (supposedly the odds may actually be 100% of getting something)! Getting 500 IHG points for mailing in a entry card for about 50 cents is a great deal. The same 500 points are easily worth $3.00 of redemption value, by my estimation. It’s like making a $50 investment in $300 of future hotel.

priceless-surprises

My giant stack of envelopes ready to take to the post office.

I finished filling out all the notecards and envelopes last night and stuck the whole stack in the mail this morning. There is supposedly a six week turnaround at this point. Stay tuned to find out how things work out.

My First Credit Card Denial

I really turned the heat up on the credit card rewards game in 2015. Previously, I was only applying for about 2-3 cards per year. I applied for 4 in the first half of 2015, and then for 4 more in September, putting a total of 7 inquiries on my Experian credit report. Not too bad, in my mind, and the total take in sign-up bonuses this year was about 300,000 airline miles and 115,000 hotel points, plus 2 free Hyatt nights. Not bad. My wife’s numbers are 125,000 airline miles, 215,000 hotel points, and 2 free Hyatt nights.

It has been three months since I my last applications, and I settled on three new ones: the Hilton HHonors Surpass Amex, the Mariott co-branded Chase card, and the Citi ThankYou Premier. I have been wanting to get into either Amex Membership rewards or the Citi ThankYou rewards, but since there wasn’t a good Amex EveryDay offer and the Hilton offer was currently better than usual, I decided to go for the Citi card.

Citi-ThankYou-Premier-Card

The Citi ThankYou Premier Card provides good returns and has some decent transfer partners, although not as good as Chase’s partners. Image courtesy of MyFico forums.

I filled out and submitted all three applications yesterday, and much to my surprise, both the Chase and Amex ones went straight through to instant approval, but the Citi one was flat out denied. This is the first time I have gotten an instant rejection, and I was stunned. My FICO score is about 755, and I have a impeccable payment history. However, neither of these were the reason for rejection. I called the automated help line and the computer kindly told me that Citi’s reason for rejection was “too many recent applications.” Dang. I had waited over 90 days since the last round, and although 7 applications is pretty high, it’s not 12-20 that I know some people often have on their report.

citi-logo

Here is my Citi sad face.

At this point my plan is to wait for the notice in the mail, and then give the reps a call. I am not expecting much, but it gives me some hope that maybe I can talk them into giving me a card. My plan was to actually keep this card, or to downgrade it to a Citi ThankYou Preferred, which has no annual fee. This whole experience will make me way more cautious about applying for anything in another 3 months.

Why Southwest Is My Favorite Airline

swa_exp_why_fly_southwest_header

Southwest Airlines

Ok. Candidly, I have only flown Delta, United, Avianca, Copa, Air Canada, British Airways, Porter, and Southwest, so my airline experiences are nowhere near comprehensive. Also, I have flown business class only once (on Avianca), and the rest of the time has always been economy like normal people. Even though some write it off as a “budget” airline (and it certainly is no-frills), Southwest has always stood above out above the rest of the competition, in my opinion. Here are my reasons:

southwest-heart

I really DO heart Southwest!

  1.  No bag fees! Ok, that’s not 100% true, but no other airline offers two free checked bags per person plus a carry-on. I can’t imagine ever bringing more luggage than that. My wife and I don’t often get away with just the free carry-on allowance other airlines offer, and even then, we often bring things that aren’t allowed in a carry-on, so we have to check those bags anyway. Flying Southwest has saved us literally $100s.
  2. Great staff. I have yet to meet a Southwest employee that I really didn’t like. On the whole they are very helpful, attentive, and often quite funny.
  3. Same day stand-by. I am not as familiar with this from airline to airline, and this really calls for some more research on my part. However, I know Southwest’s policy now due to a missed connection in LAX. I was flying in on United internationally and the plane arrived 40 minutes later than I anticipated. I called Southwest to see what they could do, and the lady said as long as I checked in within two hours after my normal check-in time, I could catch the next flight to Oakland.
  4. Phenomenal cancellation policy on award travel. They blow all other airlines out of the water. Most charge insane fees to change an award ticket or refund the miles. Southwest will literally allow you to cancel your award travel up until 10 minutes before your flight!!! There is no other cancellation policy like it. I don’t ever agonize over booking award travel with them, and I can also easily change my redemption to a cheaper option if it opens up before I travel. It paid off this summer when I was able to rebook a one-way ticket from LAX to OAK, saving myself 2,000 miles.

The business-class and first-class flyers out there have names such as “cattle class” for Southwest Airlines. The name for them, though, is “snob”. If you take economy travel across the board, you can’t beat Southwest. They have the great policies I mentioned above and good coverage to U.S. destinations. They are opening up a few new routes each year, and I hope they eventually fly to destinations across the Atlantic and in South America.

The Westin Harbour Castle: A Review

Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Overall rating: 7/10

For the final three nights of our “second honeymoon” summer 2015 trip, my wife and I stayed at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto, Ontario. Unknown to her, her brother had shown up in Toronto to surprise her, and it made for a perfect moment of surprise on a street corner. After recovering from her shock, we all took a streetcar down Queen’s Quay West from Billy Bishop Airport to the hotel, where Ryan had already checked in. The Westin Harbour Castle is right on lake Ontario, affording great views of the Toronto Islands and providing perfect access to downtown Toronto. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Westin is an upper-tier Starwood brand, and I had pretty high expectations heading into our stay there.

2015-07-06 09.54.02

Across Queen’s Quay from the Westin Harbour Castle

Maybe that was a problem. I am usually pretty low-key when it comes to hotels. It doesn’t take much to keep me satisfied. My wife is the same. But some part of me was expecting this to be different since it was our first stay at a Westin hotel (I think I’d been fooled by the grandeur of the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, which has a beautiful lobby and mezzanine level). During our stay, I had a few observations:

  1. Front desk queue time is overly long – This was after multiple trips to the front desk. I probably waited 15 minutes to check in for our three-night stay (using SPG points at 11,000 per night for a lake-view room). This is long, in my opinion. Three more trip confirmed this: one regarding our malfunctioning refrigerator, a second for a new key-card, and there was finally checkout. Four trips in total. None of which took less than 5 minutes, and probably averaged about 10 minutes. Granted, that is not forever, but that is the longest average wait time I’ve ever had at any hotel front desk. In my opinion, they could have used one or two more staff. I also saw the line even longer than we had experienced at other points.
  2. Calling concierge to get the front desk – Unless I am a total dunce and missed the front desk number on the phone receiver, there was no direct line to the desk, adding to the front desk frustration. A couple times I called concierge to connect me, but the wait was often a few minutes, and it was honestly faster for me to walk downstairs to the desk. But then there is the issue observed in point 1. This system just seemed awkward to me. What hotel doesn’t have a dedicated line from every room to the front desk? Maybe a lot of hotels operate this way…but none had in my experience. I am curious to know of other people’s experiences.
  3. The new mini-fridge – My wife has a restricted diet, and we often need easy access to store fresh food for her at the hotel. Thus, a functioning mini-fridge is a must. The one initially in the room didn’t seem to be operating correctly, so I walked to the front desk, and they said they would have someone bring another one up right away. Fast forward over an hour, and it hadn’t arrived. Mind you, it was after 9:00 p.m. at this point, and we were thinking about getting to bed fairly soon. The fridge finally arrived, but this was not our interpretation of “right away”.
  4. So, so busy – I am chalking a lot of our issues up to us simply coming to Toronto at the wrong time. The PanAm games started the day after we left, and is was extremely busy at the hotel the entire time. I am guessing they simply didn’t add enough extra staff.
wes1084gr-172800-Dbl-dbl-Lakeview-Guest-Room

Double Bed Lakeview Guest Room – Courtesy of: Westin Harbour Castle

Overall, we really did enjoy our time there, and the room was very nice. We had a good view of the lake and islands, although it was a bit hazy the first two days. The location was fantastic, in my opinion, and this often is a large part of why I choose a hotel. If in Toronto again, we would likely stay somewhere else (since I am all about new experiences), but I would also like to give the Westin Harbour Castle another go someday to see if things could be a bit better.

Older posts