Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: May 2016 (page 1 of 3)

Why The Best ‘Value’ Redemptions Might Not Actually Provide The Best Value

A common mistake that some reward travelers make is focusing too much on the cash value of an award redemption. While I agree that you should maximize the value of your points and miles whenever possible, I don’t think this should always be the driving force behind a given redemption. There are many different factors that contribute to the actual value of an experience, and I sometimes have to convince myself that redeeming my points for an option of lesser cash value is the better choice.

I understand the ‘value’ appeal. If I have 25,000 hotel points, and I can spend them for night at a Crown Plaza with a going rate of $300 per night, why would I use them for a Holiday Inn Express with a going rate of $180 per night? There is always a part of me that wants to book the more expensive hotel, simply because the return on my points is higher.

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If a Holiday Inn Express will suit your needs better, why be tempted by another option, just because the cash value of redemption is higher?

Honestly, the real value of a given hotel or airline redemption is always determined by the individual traveler. People’s tastes and budgets vary greatly, and so do their needs. Is there a logical reason why I should book a Crowne Plaza when the Holiday Inn Express meets my needs better? Honestly, no. Yet a part of me still wants to maximize my points!! Dan at Points With A Crew has some similar thoughts on ‘wasting’ his IHG free night certificates.

I would like to offer six questions I think travel rewards enthusiasts should ask themselves when navigating through the competing interests of a award hotel booking:

  1. Does it fulfill my needs? If it doesn’t, move on. This is probably so obvious that the question doesn’t need to be asked. If you need a hotel with a pool, don’t consider hotels without one. Simple.
  2. Is the location convenient? This is a big one for me. Most of the time I don’t really care if a hotel is a few miles away from my meeting venue or our vacation destination, as long as it provides easy access to mass transit. If I am renting a car, this may be moot. It’s the ease of access that often makes or breaks a place for me. On the flip side, if I am trying to immerse myself in a destination, staying at a downtown location may be high on the priority list, even if it costs a few more points. In any case, it makes no sense to book a place that inconveniences you simply because it provides the best value for your points.

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    In Vancouver I would consider the Element over the Westin Grand because of its free breakfast and kitchenettes, even though the return is 2.7 cents versus 3.4 cents per point (over sample dates).

  3. Does it save me money beyond the nightly rate? Consider potential costs beyond the nightly rate that you are covering with points. Does the hotel offer free breakfast? If yes, then this is even more money that you will be saving. Will I require additional transportation to the hotel? If yes, then this will subtract from the value that you are getting. Do they charge for parking? If staying at the Crowne Plaza in the above example means that you will spend an extra $25 on parking and $30 on breakfast per day, then the actual return for your points is not as good as initially calculated.
  4. Would I pay cash? If the answer is likely yes, then consider the merits of booking an award stay. If the cash rate is attractive enough, it may be a good choice to pay for a stay rather than redeeming valuable points. You will both earn more points and save those which you would have spent for a future trip. If the chain is running a promotion, the earnings could be well worth shelling out some cash. However, if the answer is solidly no, then you may be getting the opportunity for an experience beyond what you could normally afford. This may make the cost in points a little less relevant. Personally, I would never pay cash for a night at the Park Hyatt Milan, for example, so an award night is the only way we would ever stay at that hotel. Using the ‘cash value’ of a redemption as a metric begins to mean less at this point (although I still think it is cool we are getting a 590 € hotel room for free this summer). You can’t really say you ‘saved’ money you wouldn’t have ever spent. You can, however, say you were able to take a trip you otherwise couldn’t afford.

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    I booked a paid Staybridge Suites stay in 2015 because our return in points was 65% of the cash rate.

  5. If I paid cash, would the return be worth foregoing an award booking this time? This is sometimes a hard decision to weigh. I try to limit most of my paid travel (especially hotel nights) to my work trips, but sometimes a paid night during a promotion is the better option if we can afford it. I think of it as an investment. If a $100 hotel night can earn enough points for ~$60 in future rewards, it is like getting the hotel for $40. Yes, I am out $100 cash up front, but I know that we will use the points later. We booked a paid stay at the Staybridge Suites Napa Valley-Fairfield in 2015 because the return was so good from an IHG promotion, that we recouped 65% of what we spent in points. They also upgraded us significantly.
  6. Does it provide a good rate of return for my points? Again, I am not saying that the cash value of an award redemption should never come into the equation. I just don’t think it should be the main focus. But you have to draw the line somewhere. For instance, I would never redeem 10,000 SPG points for a hotel I could get for $68 (search midweek in Vegas). That would be a terrible value.

These questions can help determine whether or not a given award redemption really provides value. I struggled with this sort of decision recently while planning our summer trip to Italy. As I looked through all our points currencies, I kept coming back to Hilton as the best candidate for our stay in Florence.

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The Hilton Florence Metropole where my wife and I are using our HHonors points this summer.

But even then, I had two options: the Hilton Florence Metropole and the Hilton Garden Inn Florence Novoli. The Hilton Florence Metropole should be the nicer hotel, but it is going for 109 € while the Hilton Garden Inn is going for 130 € over our travel dates. There is part of me that wanted to book the Hilton Garden Inn simply because it is the better ‘value’. I had to convince myself that the Hilton Metropole was really the better value because it sounds like a better hotel, and my wife’s Diamond elite status gets us both bonus points and breakfast, rather than bonus points or breakfast. Plus, the Hilton Florence Metropole boasts better views, a greater likelihood of getting a room upgrade, and a complimentary shuttle into the center of Florence. We are barely getting 0.5 cents per point for our Hilton points, but the extra perks, location, view, and cash savings make it a solid award redemption in my mind.

Again, the ‘value’ of an award sometimes comes down to several competing considerations, and it is entirely decided by the needs and preferences of each individual traveler. Getting a good return for your points should certainly be part of the equation, but it shouldn’t always be the biggest factor. So don’t let people tell you that you wasted your points (unless you book that $68 hotel in Vegas for 10,000 SPG points).

Swappable Is Shutting Down

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Several months ago Swappable was launched by marketing service MyPoints as a unique gift card mall. Gift cards from a decent number of retailers in multiple denominations were offered for purchase, and the service even had its own reward system. You could earn reward dollars (redeemable for more Swappable card purchases) for buying gift cards from a select number of retailers (but not all). The real unique feature of the platform and associated mobile app was that gift cards were truly ‘swappable’ between users. You could gift, swap, and purchase cards for other people, and the goal of the service was to allow users to exchange gift cards they didn’t want for someone else’s gift card in a mutually beneficial transaction.

While the service offered by Swappable wasn’t really anything that I got excited over, I found the real value to be in the promotions offered by MyPoints. For those of you unfamiliar with MyPoints, it is a marketing service that allows you to earn rewards points through a variety of activities, including watching videos, taking surveys, clicking on ads, and making purchases with retailers advertising through the site. The rewards offered are not typically very lucrative, but sometimes there are some decent deals. Rewards points are then redeemable for gift cards, with one awesome exception: you can redeem points for United miles.

This is where I found the real value. For several months MyPoints offered bonus points for purchasing gift cards through Swappable on almost a weekly basis. The return was typically 500 points for $25, or 1,500 points for $50, or 2,500 points for $100. I am typically not a major gift card user, but Amazon was among the retailers available through Swappable, and I was able to leverage this. Whenever I anticipated making purchases at Amazon, I would stock up on a gift card or two.

The return was a significant number of United miles. Assuming that I purchased a $100 gift card during each promotion, I would net 2,500 MyPoints on each transaction, a rate of 25 MyPoints per dollar (the rate for purchasing the $50 gift cards is actually better). I would then save the points until I hit a total of 13,000, when I would redeem them for 5,000 United miles. The effective return was 5,000 United miles per $520 spent on Amazon gift cards, all of which we would have bought anyway for both normal needs and Christmas shopping. Valuing United miles at 1.5 cents each, the return was a whopping 14.4%!

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The email message I received yesterday from Swappable.

Swappable will now unfortunately be shutting down as of May 31st. Any remaining gift cards in users’ wallets will remain available through July 31st. I had noticed that their promotions had become much less frequent during the early part of 2016, and then they seemed to dry up completely within the last two months, so I am not really surprised. Somewhere in that time-frame the Amazon gift cards were pulled from the store as well. If others had found the same value that I did using the Swappable mall, I doubt it was a sustainable business. Still, I am sad to see it go.

United Is Targeting MileagePlus Members With A Personalized Promotion

United is currently running a personalized promotion that has targeted some or their MileagePlus members. Bonus miles are being offered for meeting various premier qualifying dollar (PQD) thresholds, and the most common thresholds that I have been hearing reported are $1,000, $1,500, and $2,500. At $2,500 the final bonus threshold falls just short of the incremental $3,000 PQD required for each premier level. It could be that United is trying to coax its frequent flyers into qualifying for the next tier.

You can check for a personal offer at United’s promotion site. Just enter your MileagePlus number to see if you are targeted and, if so, what your bonus offer is. Do note that the it only premier qualifying dollars count toward the total, which do not include ticket taxes or fees, and also do not include dollars spent on partner flights marketed by United. You must fly on United metal.

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My offer gives me the potential to earn an additional 36,000 additional United miles. I was mildly surprised that I even had an offer, considering that I have never qualified for elite status with United. My membership with MileagePlus began in 2013, and I have had only a few revenue flights with the carrier. The offer certainly sweetens the deal for trying to qualify for Premier Silver, but it is extremely unlikely that I will even attempt to qualify. I do not foresee myself on more than one United flight through the end of 2016. But maybe work will step in and make it possible.

So far my job has sent me on two flights in 2016, both with United, for a premier qualifying dollar total of just over $1,000. I don’t have any more business trips on the radar that require air travel, but maybe more will materialize before the promotion ends in November.

The Grand Italy Plan

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Summer is calling. If you recall my 2016 travel wishlist, I had two main international destinations in mind for an expended trip this year: Italy and Japan. After waffling back and forth for several weeks on the pros and cons associated with arranging a trip to either one of those countries, a real plan started to form around visiting Italy, and I decided to roll with it.

Before actually making any semi-concrete plans, I had to make a good guess regarding the timing of our adoption trip. My wife and I submitted our dossier to Costa Rica at the beginning of January, expecting to hear back from the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia (PANI) by the end of February. That date came and went, and when communication from PANI finally arrived around the end of March, it wasn’t quite the approval we had hoped for. You can read about it on our adoption blog. We are still very hopeful, and my wife and I pray daily that we will be united with our children this year. But it is not looking like it will be in very near future. We have just finally submitted our responses to PANI’s inquiries, and we hope to have an approval by mid-June. Even if we were matched with out children immediately, we wouldn’t have to travel until mid-August.

Thus, a summer adoption trip is looking almost certainly implausible at this point, and this left the door wide open for another option. Over a few weeks in March and April, the “Italy Plan” began to coalesce. Some very good award options were available in northern Italy and along the French Riviera, and the plan we were putting together made far more sense than what I was piecing together for Japan. But booking award travel is never really easy. There are too many variables in play. As I began to nail down an itinerary, I found that I had two main struggles:

  1. It is often hard to settle on a plan when you have too many options. This problem plagues me. I like to maximize the value of our miles and points, but there are so many competing interests. Is this the place we really want to see most? Should I spend the points for one very nice hotel night or three nights at a standard place? Which points currency provides optimum value? Will we have easy transportation options to and from the hotel? Will we encounter any problems finding food for my wife? And on and on. This makes settling on any plan hard. I basically had to force myself to decide on one general idea, book the award flights, and then begin to build the itinerary from that starting point. Which brought me to point #2…
  2. Summer award flight availability is abysmal. I should have been prepared for this. Last summer when trying to book a flight to Guatemala to join our church’s mission team, I had extremely limited options. My only option came down to a business class ticket (not a lie-flat seat) on a 1 a.m. flight out of SFO. Definitely less than desirable. As I researched options for our trip this summer, I literally watched both Delta and United award seats get snapped up day after day. American’s award space to Europe was nonexistent to begin with, and unless we wanted to pay exorbitant fuel surcharges on a British Airways partner redemption, my AA miles were pretty useless. I pulled the trigger on the award flights near the end of March, afraid that we might lose out entirely.
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We tacked the Emerald Isle on to our trip due to limited award options headed home!

But that gave us the starting point, and now our current itinerary is pretty well settled. All the hotel bookings are locked in, the flights home are booked, and we even tacked a stint in Ireland to the tail end of the trip. My wife is beyond excited. If she had things her way, we would have left yesterday. Two or three times a week she asks if we are heading to Italy yet. But I really can’t blame her. Our itinerary includes Milan, Florence, San Marino, Rome, the French Riviera, and Ireland! It’s yet another dream trip, made entirely possible by miles and points. Now for the numbers…

All said and done, we are using a total of 120,000 airline miles, 367,000 hotel points, and 6 “free” night certificates for the trip. A meager 4 nights will be paid for by cash, mainly because there were no hotels in any of the chains we utilize at those locations (i.e. San Marino). Even after all the bookings, we are still sitting on 260,000+ hotel points and various airline miles. I am also pleased that there is only one booking where we are not really getting optimum usage out of our points. Sometimes saving cash is more important. Value is subjective anyway. When we can save $600 on a 5-night stay at a nice hotel in a place we really want to see, I have to remind myself that it is a good redemption. The travel hacker in me still screams, though.

Now all we have left is to put together a travel manual (more on this in a future post). This is something I like to do for every big trip we take. Our winter trip to Canada was the first trip for which I failed to do this, and I definitely regretted it. We missed out on some attractions and wasted time traveling across Montreal on multiple occasions because I hadn’t done my legwork. There is no way I want to let that happen this summer!! It is another trip of a lifetime.

Getting To See Brian Kelly, The Points Guy

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The Into The Blue photo contest banner. Image courtesy of The Points Guy.

Last week I was sent an invitation to the TPG Reader Meet Up in San Francisco, which would be the culmination of the TPG “Into The Blue” photo contest. The venue was the Fort Mason Firehouse. Five contest finalists would participate in a scavenger hunt all across the city. The grand prize? A whopping 1,000,000 JetBlue miles! The Points Guy has been raving lately about JetBlue’s Mint Class, so it was little surprise to me that JetBlue was partially sponsoring the event. The other major sponsor was BarclayCard, who is the issuer of the new JetBlue MasterCard.

I managed to nail down an award stay and reserve a rental car for the trip with barely more than 24 hours until the event started. Talk about a last-minute invite! I even managed to find a friend who could tag along.

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The Fort Mason Firehouse as seen from the pier.

We arrived early in San Francisco, mostly to make parking less stressful. As I have told several friends of mine, I don’t mind driving in San Francisco, but parking is where I draw the line. We spent at least twenty minutes looking for a decent parking spot that was near enough to Fort Mason to easily walk. Many of the areas were timed, but we were arriving just late enough that T+2 hours would put us a few minutes after 6:00, and the 2-hour limit would no longer be in effect. Unfortunately, there was never an opportune moment to snag any of the spots we saw; we were either in the wrong lane, or didn’t see it in time to stop. I finally settled on the first decent spot we found….which happened to be metered. I decided $8.55 was easily worth ending our parking headache right then and there.

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The view out over the Bay from a path through Fort Mason.

My friend David and I had a nice walk through Fort Mason down to the Firehouse (which was a little hard to find), and had an hour to kill before the event. We could see people hurriedly setting up, and we decided to give them some space until things started. It was a absolutely glorious day in San Francisco. Besides an arm of fog that was beginning to creep over the Golden Gate bridge off to our west, the skies were clear and visibility out across the Bay was fantastic.

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One of the tables of small bites. Every different food I tried was absolutely delicious.

Soon enough it was 6:00 and the party started. There was a delicious selection of small bites and an open bar. I must have been offered a cocktail at least a dozen times, but the hardest thing I ordered was a Sprite. Things were slow to really get going; when we walked in just before 6:00, we were two of only about 20 people. By 7:00, however, the place was packed, and we were in the middle of an extended miles and points conversation (of the rather geeky sort that I don’t get to have often) with a guy named Andrew.

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Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, is under the left set of balloons in the blue and green plaid.

Finally, at a quarter after seven, Brian Kelly (The Points Guy) and the crew of finalists arrived, fashionably late. After a beeline for the bar, he gave a brief, but great, speech. He thanked his awesome readers in attendance, gave a shout out to members of his staff and the event sponsors, and warmly introduced his dad to all of us. He also informed us that the festivities would be extended to 8:30 because of his tardiness.

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The “Into the Blue” winners, with Brian Kelly towering over them. Image courtesy of The Points Guy.

David and I got in line to say hi, shake Brian’s hand, and maybe snap a couple pics. We waited about five minutes as the line barely shortened, and I then realized that I was really quite content to leave anytime. We had seen The Points Guy, and I was satisfied. While it might be cool to shake his hand, he would certainly not remember me. Being able to actually chat uninterrupted for even a few minutes would be really cool, but this venue was not the place. The music was blaring, and I decided that catching the sunset from Coit Tower would be a better option to finish off our evening. It did mean we left before the grand prize of 1,000,000 JetBlue miles was awarded, but I didn’t mind that either.

As David and I were driving back to the hotel that evening, I was reflecting on one statement that stood out to me. In the middle of his speech, Brian mentioned that he was ‘living a fantasy’. That really hit me. I have often had a small measure of envy when I see where he has taken his blog, the success he has had, and his ability to travel literally all the time at the drop of a hat. Yes, it is his ‘job’, but it truly is a dream life. The world is at his fingertips. But the thought that had flooded my mind tonight was different: I wonder if he feels completely empty.

The thought saddened me. Brian has the best of what this life can offer, but that will never be enough. It made me rethink my own priorities. There are times that I find myself getting caught up in my travel ‘hobby’, and in those moments I remind myself what really matters: my wife, my current and future family, being a blessing to others around me, being productive for my boss, and, above all, my Savior Jesus Christ. Without the hope I have in knowing Him and being known by Him, life would truly be meaningless. I would love to see the world ten times over, but not at the cost of the truly important things. Eternity is at stake.

My wife often gently reminds me of this. We have greater goals than just traveling or being financially successful. We hope to adopt. We want to raise a family. We want to have a marriage that gets stronger year after year. We want to share our hope in Christ with others.

My wife once said that we should give back from the travel rewards that we accrue, and I have kept this in the back of my mind ever since. I think it is a great idea. We were able to send a friend of mine to teach at a pastors school for a couple days in Guatemala, and I extended a similar offer to the wife of a Guatemalan pastor who would like to come to a conference in the States. As long as the opportunities present themselves, I pray that God will always open our hearts to give.

This bit of clarity was entirely worth the quick trip to the TPG meetup. Seeing Brian Kelly in person and having a quick getaway were just bonuses. Would I do it over? Absolutely. Would I likely consider it again in the future? Maybe. I would much rather catch Brian in person in some airport, away from a crowd of guests, and have a ten minute chat over a cup of coffee. Could that actually happen in a world of over 7 billion people? Hey, you never know.

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