Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: February 2016 (page 2 of 2)

Montreal to NYC on Amtrak Adirondack

Train travel has been my favorite method of transportation since I first set foot on one in Britain when I was 19. Nothing beats it if time is not an issue. I didn’t get another chance to ride one, however, until I was 22, when I traveled to San Diego and back on the Amtrak San Joaquin. This was the trip on which I hatched my honeymoon plan, figuring out how to acquire thousands of Amtrak Guest Rewards points through the co-branded Chase Amtrak Card (now gone) and Chase Ultimate Rewards. It proved to be a kick-starter to my points and miles travel hobby.

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Amtrak Adirondack in the snow. Image courtesy of New York By Rail blog.

As part of our recent trip to Canada, my wife and I rode the entire length of the Adirondack Amtrak route, departing from Montreal in the morning and arriving at New York Penn Station late in the evening. Most of our train travel experiences have been in long-distance, first-class sleeper accommodations, but this route is only a single day trip, and it was our first journey in coach since 2013. I was hoping it would be better than the Amtrak San Joaquin.

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Bye, Montreal! Sad to be leaving, but excited to see New York again!

As we boarded the train in Montreal, I immediately noticed two things. First, it was only a single-level train, and most that I have ridden have been double-decker Superliner cars. This indicated to me that the route is not especially popular. Second, I wondered for a few minutes if we were in business class since the seats on the train had more legroom than any other coach class that I had ever ridden. I half expected the conductor to come by and re-seat us when he saw our coach tickets! I have yet to ride business class on a train, though, so I really do not know what it is like and have no yardstick for comparison.

The seats were very comfortable, there were adequate power outlets, and the tray was the perfect height for me to work from my laptop while we wound our way past lake Champlain and along the Hudson River toward the Big Apple. Overall, the coach felt less cramped and more comfortable than other trains I have ridden. Coach on the Adirondack is definitely a step up from the San Joaquin, and I would venture to say it was better than our first experience on VIA Rail.

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Winding along Lake Champlain.

The scenery was exquisite along Lake Champlain. We saw men ice fishing on frozen sections of lake, snow covered hills in the distance, and beautiful winter forest landscape for many miles. The WiFi was spotty as well for this stretch, so I spent more of the time taking in the scenery and cuddling with my lovely wife than getting any work done. For a total of $16, the on board cafe provided both lunch and dinner of a packaged wrap and sandwich. I missed the dining car, a feature of long-distance trains.

One of the only complaints I have about the trip is how bumpy the ride was over a few sections. I would be busily debugging a block of code when we would hit a patch of…..something (turbulent rail?), and I would have to hold onto my laptop to keep it from flying off the tray table. These jittery sections were intermittent, but occurred frequently enough that I had to be careful with my computer.

Other than that, the entire ride was pleasant. By the time that I was wishing that we were already in New York and checked into the Element Times Square, there was only an hour of train ride left. The trip was also the best of two worlds: it was a long enough trip to enjoy the scenery and train travel in general, but it wasn’t an overnight. Overnights are fun, but only if you’re in a sleeper car.

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We de-trained at Penn Station in New York, caught a cab to the hotel (since the Uber app on my phone is ridiculously slow when I am not on WiFi), made a quick food run, and then slowly fell asleep with a view of the Empire State Building. It was a good day.

 

The Few Credit Cards Worth Keeping

To play the free travel game effectively, you must take advantage of the multitude of credit card offers out there. There are plenty. However, many of them have an annual fee. And I don’t like fees. I will pay a fee for a lucrative sign-up bonus, but typically not for maintaining a card year after year. While the bonus for keeping a specific card each year may be good (like a free hotel night, bonus miles, travel credit, free checked bag, etc), more often that not I find that it typically isn’t worth it, unless you travel more than a few times per year. I’d rather keep the cash.

If you have a large amount of disposable income and/or business cash to burn, go take a look at The Points Guy’s gigantic list of keeper cards. Knock yourself out. I can’t afford to pay nearly $3,000(!) in credit card fees per year on a huge number of cards. Pretty useless analysis for the average reader, in my opinion.

My assumption is that the average traveler looking to get into the rewards travel game is looking to save money. Real money. This means I have to choose my “keeper” cards pretty wisely. For my analysis, I set the annual fee cap at $300. Personally, I would suggest these three:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred – $95 – This one should be your top pick. The points are transferable into multiple programs, and the card is hard to get with Chase’s 5/24 rule now in place. Once you get the Sapphire, hold on to it and prioritize it’s usage.
  2. IHG Mastercard – $49 – This is one of the few hotel cards worth keeping. If you travel a lot and are particularly loyal to a different brand, their card is probably worth keeping. The IHG stands out to me, though, because it earns you a free night after each card anniversary, redeemable at any IHG hotel with award availability. This is anywhere between $100 and $1,000 in value. IHG also has great geographic coverage. Keep it.
  3. One major airline card – $95 – This should be the United MileagePlus Explorer, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum, or the Delta Gold Amex, depending on your home airport and/or airline preference. The free checked bag offered on each of these cards will offset the fee after only two round-trip flights. They also offer priority boarding (not worth paying for), and the ability to earn miles with their respective airline. If you’re pretty indifferent to airline, I would suggest United, since they are a transfer partner for the Chase points.

Technically, this leaves me with $61 in my $300 budget, but I don’t see the need to recommend any other cards. A travel card like the CapitalOne Venture Rewards card could provide value, but it is just as easy to get a no-fee card with an identical rewards rate, like the Citi Double Cash card.

The main reason I suggest these three is that it covers enough of the bases on a minimal budget. The Chase Sapphire should be the go-to card since it can be used to collect transferable points. The IHG MasterCard will provide elite status and a versatile free night with one major hotel chain, and it is a (rather lousy) Chase transfer partner. Finally, the airline card will provide enough value on two round-trip flights with checked bags, and you can earn points with your preferred airline.

There are also other cards with no annual fee that are worth keeping around, like the Citi Hilton HHonors Visa, the Barclaycard Arrival (no-fee version of the Arrival+) and the Chase Freedom. Other than the three mentioned above, I do not generally keep my cards more than a year. I may do so now and then if justified, but this is rare. I would rather have the cash in pocket. One of my favorite quotes from Drew Macomber, my favorite travel blogger, is that “you can go broke saving money” (found this in a comment on one of his posts). The point is that it doesn’t matter if you “saved” $400 in hotel costs on a trip if you still spent $800 more than you should have.

3 Reasons I Am Never Going To Bother Collecting Frontier Miles Again

Roughly six months ago I picked up the Frontier Airlines MasterCard on a whim. I had applied for the Wyndham Rewards Visa (with a decent 45,000 point sign-up offer and 15,000 annual bonus), and I figured I might try for a second card in the same day (since the credit pulls will combine into one). I was instantly approved. I met the minimum spending requirement within a month and quickly forgot about the miles.

Luckily for me, I came across a tidbit last month that clued me into the Frontier’s very short 6-month expiration policy on their miles. I could bypass this by spending on the card, but instead I decided that I would burn them on a Spring trip to visit some of my wife’s extended family. I thought this would be an easy use of the miles with a reasonable (but not stellar) return in value. But no, it had to be a booking headache.

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Frontier. “Low Fares Done Right.” Might be true….but they sure don’t do loyalty programs right. Image courtesy of Frontier.

First, though, here is a little background on Frontier. Based in Denver, the airline sits somewhere about spot #10 on the list of U.S. airlines, flying to 59 destinations, mostly domestic. The most important thing to remember, though, is that they are a budget airline. They charge for everything. Checked bag? Fee. Oh, the carry-on bag? Fee for that, too. Reserved seats together? That’ll be several dollars per person. And the list goes on.

I knew this going into getting a Frontier card. I figured it we could get away with a single large checked bag for a vacation, we could fly for $11.20 + the bag fee each way. Not bad for two people under any circumstances. For a bulk of Frontier flight options (even considering their crazy sales), we would be saving a a good amount of money on a round-trip, even after the $69 fee on the card.

Or so I thought. That’s when the booking process made me want to punch my computer and then light it on fire. The whole ordeal lasted a couple days and almost enticed me into paying cash for a United flight simply out of spite. Only reason I didn’t was because I would still be sitting on my Frontier “NeverReturn” miles. Here is why I got so worked up:

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Image courtesy of Yahoo.

  1. The “award booking fee”. This was the icing on the cake, and tops my list of complaints. I know that both United and American have “close-in” award fees, but these only take effect if you book within three weeks of departure. Somewhat constraining, but any real planning lets you work around them easily. Frontier has a similar policy, charging $15 per person, but they apply it up to 180 days before your departure date!!!!! It’s insane. And here is the devilish part: Frontier’s booking calendar often doesn’t push much past 180 days, and sometimes it doesn’t. In essence, they end up charging you $15 for each leg of your award ticket. Not sure if the fee is $30 per round-trip or still $15, but I couldn’t check since I was booking two one-way legs.
  2. Only red-eye West-to-East Coast availability. If we were going somewhere extremely cool, I wouldn’t mind a red-eye flight. But just to get across America? No thanks. Flying 7:15 p.m. to 6:00 a.m with a connection in Denver sounds awful. I was looking at going to either Miami or Jupiter, Florida, but I guess a trip to the sunshine state will have to wait. I knew Frontier didn’t offer a lot of route options, but that only red-eye routes would show up a bulk of the time was a surprise.
  3. Almost all the ‘good’ flights cost 20,000 miles per person one-way. This bugged me the most. The few better flights I found from SFO to the east were almost invariably priced at the 20,000 mile level. Charging me 10,000 miles, plus $15, plus a bag fee, for a flight with a cash price of $169 already seems to be enough. But no, that nice daytime flight back from Miami to San Francisco costs 20,000 miles. Actually, so many options cost 20,000 miles per person each way, that I would say that this is the standard cost. Really lame.

In addition to my frustration with the Frontier and the EarlyReturns program, browser issues plagued me as well. It literally took me three sessions over three days to settle on flights that fit our schedule. It caused so much mental anguish that I decided that I will never again bother with Frontier miles. The return on investment and time-frame for redemption make it totally pointless. I am not saying I will never fly Frontier…if they have a $19 or even $49 fare that gets me where I want to go, I would be all over it. But only to save my cash and earn 3 miles/$ on my Amex Premium Rewards Gold card. Not because I am interested in Frontier miles.

All in all we ended up paying $215, 40,000 Frontier miles, and ~4,000 Southwest miles for a three leg route on Frontier and Southwest from SFO -> SAN -> DEN -> SFO. The lowest flights for the same period were on United for $294 per person, and would have earned miles. Doing the math and taking into account the card fee, this left me with a terrible overall 0.7 cents/mile redemption rate. Bottom line: don’t bother with Frontier EarlyReturns. There are plenty of other lucrative loyalty programs out there.

Learning The Ropes Of Award Flight Searches

Lately I have been searching a lot of “what if” award flights….just to see what’s available. Maybe it’s because my wife and I are sitting on a decent stash of airline miles. Or maybe it is just because planning trips is like….my hobby.

I have found that there is still a lot to learn about booking award tickets. When the computer at American Airlines was rather spotty finding transpacific award seats (it is since looking better), I headed over to British Airways site to pull up the Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines availability. It’s the right tool for the job.

To look for award flights on the British Airways website, you have to sign up for their Executive Club. It only takes a few minutes. After that, you can look up anything, even if you don’t have any Avios. With minimal effort I found award availability to Tokyo, Osaka, and Hong Kong out of San Francisco. The flights are totally bookable with my AA miles. The AA computer just can’t find them.

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British Airways shows the JAL awards. There is a non-stop…but leave at 1:45 a.m.? No thanks.

But the American tool does happen to be good at finding award space on Alaska Airlines and British Airways flights. Almost too good. Often I find that the only saver options available include an Alaska or British Airways segment. Overall, I find the American tool easier to use than the British Airways tool, so I would default here if looking for BA availability (but I generally don’t ever because of their exorbitant surcharges). However, I’ve found that the British Airways site is still the best award flight search tool for Oneworld airlines in general.

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Looking up SFO-TYO award availability at aa.com.

Moving on to the Star Alliance airlines, there was the time I was trying to piece together a round-trip award to Central America, with one leg as business class and the other in economy (simply because economy saver awards out of SFO were nonexistent at the time). I didn’t know the United rules at that point…..I simply knew that I *should* be able to pay a minimum of 47,500 miles for the flights. It took me over 2 hours of guess-and-check to eventually get an award that had the routing and stopover that I wanted and was at my price point. I wish now that Drew could have explained the United intricacies to me.

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Sample itinerary using the United site to find awards to Malta, including flights on StarAlliance partner Lufthansa.

With that said, not I really like United’s award tools. Searching for an award is even easier after their site revamp a few months ago. The options provided are easily sortable, and I like the mix of award calendar at the top and subsequent detailed list award options. An award search will provide availability on a decent number of their numerous Star Alliance partners as well.

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The United interactive award chart.

The interactive award chart is also great. Rather than sort through a table (or two if an airline is in the middle of changing award prices), you can quickly pick and choose origin and destination. Subsequent changes to either immediately show the new award prices.

Having put together dozens (probably hundreds) of itineraries now, including stopovers, one-ways, and open-jaws, I feel I am finally getting to know the ins and outs of the award search engines. In a couple years I’m sure it’ll be old hat.

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