Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: June 2017 (page 1 of 2)

First Use of the Amex Business Platinum 50% Points Rebate

Back in February I decided to pull the trigger on applying for the Business Platinum card from American Express. This was the first premium card that I had ever applied for, and deciding to swallow the $450 annual fee took some careful consideration. But with a $200 offset (I was able to cash out the airline incidental credit as gift cards and sell them), it seemed worth it. Plus the card was offering a bonus of 100,000 Membership Rewards (MR) points.

One of the biggest perks of the Business Platinum card is that it gives a 50% rebate on flights when you use the “Pay with Points” option. This has recently been decreased to 35%, but I have a year to use the benefit due to when I got my card (SEE: Reminder – Last day to sign up and get the 50% points rebate on the Amex Business Platinum). By paying with points, you don’t have to worry about award space. You just use points to pay for a cash ticket.

Normally, you only get 1.0 cent per point out of your MR points using the “pay with points” option. But the 50% rebate perk of the Amex Business Platinum card essentially gets you 2.0 cents per point. This makes booking revenue flights with “pay with points” a much better deal.

Note that you do only get to pick one airline each year for which you can use this perk on economy flights, but the benefit works on all premium cabin flights.

Visit Montana? I think yes

With barely 48 hours of mulling the idea over, I pitched a Montana trip idea to my brother-in-law. We have a friend who is interning in Kalispell this summer, and more who live near Missoula. I figured we could fly to Kalispell for several days, visit them, and see Glacier National Park. Award space was basically nonexistent, so I used “pay with points” option. This allowed the plane tickets to be completely free, plus it gave me a solid redemption value for my MR points.

Less than a day after that, the entire trip was all booked. Flights are 100% covered, and the hotels are 90% covered (I booked one points & cash night).

To top things off, I got a fantastic deal on a rental car using Autoslash, plus I can use Arrival miles to cover the majority of that cost. My brother-in-law will cover the cost of driving to Medford and parking at the airport, so all said and done we’re down to maybe $70 each plus food. It’ll be a super cheap 5 day vacation.

What to do in Kalispell

We obviously want to visit our friend Sage while we’re there. We also hope to spend 2 days in Glacier National Park. He has the weekends off, so hopefully we can see the park for a couple days. I’ve heard only good things about Glacier National Park, and I cannot wait to visit!

On Sunday or Monday we’ll visit our friends near Missoula. For various reasons we need to play things by ear, but that is a-ok by me. Tuesday we’ll fly back to Medford, and then drive the 4 hours home.

Conclusion

I hadn’t planned on taking another vacation so soon, but hey, that is one of the beauties of using points and miles. Even last-minute travel in the height of summer can be made affordable. If I didn’t have a stash of points, we’d be paying about $2,500 out of pocket for the 5 night trip. Now we’re looking at $400 or so, split between two of us.

5 Reasons to Visit San Marino

San Marino is one my favorite places I’ve ever visited (SEE: San Marino in 11 Photos). Our few days in the tiny country were some of my favorite of our entire month in Europe (SEE: Thirty days in Europe). Ever since getting The Encyclopedia of World Geography as a teen (which I basically read cover to cover), the tiny country has intrigued me.

So when we were planning our trip to France, Italy, and Ireland, stopping in for a couple days was a must. Here are 5 reasons you should visit San Marino:

It is the oldest republic in the world

The history of San Marino is rich for such a small country. Founded in 301 A.D., the country’s history can be traced back to the construction of a church by Saint Marinus. The recorded history begins to pick up in earnest in the ninth century A.D.

For  century after century, the country has retained its independence, even through major events such as the Napoleonic wars and World War II. During the unification of Italy, it thumbed its nose at the rest of the Italian territories, even housing political refugees during that period of turmoil.

All this to say, the history is rich for such a tiny country. You should absolutely visit the museums, public palace, and other historical features of the city during a visit.

The old city is UNESCO-listed

While UNESCO-listing doesn’t necessarily mean a place is a *must* visit (unless you track those things), it is definitely a good indicator of either a rich cultural site or a pristine natural area.

The old city of San Marino is small, but incredibly cool. And it’s cheap to enjoy. Out hotel offered us coupons for 50% off tickets to the main historical sites in the old city. I think the total came to $15 each for everything, including the Palazzo Publico and the towers.

The streets of the old city are pedestrian-only the majority of the time. My wife and I had to navigate around delivery trucks at 8:00 a.m. (which I guess is early in Italy/San Marino?) when most of the streets were deserted. During the middle of the day, you will likely encounter numerous tour groups and plenty of pedestrians. Make sure you stop for lunch in one of the great cafes!

The views from Monte Titano are spectacular

Seriously. Even with a bit of haze, looking eastward we could see the Adriatic Sea out over Rimini. On the other side, we were greeted with views of Tuscany to the west. There was nothing quite like walking up to the towers on Monte Titano in the morning and simply taking in all the beauty.

Definitely take a walk in the nature park when visiting the second and third towers. The trail snakes along the top of Monte Titano for a good distance, giving you wonderful views to the west and south.

It’s easy to add to a larger tour of Italy

Italy is high on many people’s travel lists. The typical stops, however, are Rome, Florence, and Venice. Now you know better than to skip San Marino.

From either Florence or Venice, it’s barely over a half day of travel to or from the tiny country. You’ll probably have one train connection, and then a connection to a bus in Rimini. We came from Milan, and it was an easy day of travel, with a 10:00 a.m. departure and roughly 4:00 p.m. arrival. Two nights in enough for a visit, so add it on to a visit of the rest of Italy!

It is a true enclave

Ok…this may be something only for geography nerds. San Marino is located fully within Italy, making it a complete enclave. There are numerous examples of enclaves and exclaves (check out this PWaC post on some unique borders) in the world.

Until our visit, however, I had never been to a country that was an enclave. We would go on to visit a second  one that trip: The Vatican City.

Conclusion

If your considering a trip to Italy, make sure you plan a day or two in San Marino. You won’t regret it! Just pick a better hotel than we did (SEE: Hotel Joli: A Review) ūüôā

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

One of the most frustrating things about traveling is watching all your well-laid plans go completely out the window. Hours of planning and preparing, all for nothing. This is why you should actually *keep* preparing for reasonably foreseeable problems that may arise.

I am constantly reminded how unpredictable travel can be. My wife and I have had our share of incidents, from minor delays, to unpredictable driving conditions (read: landslides), to completely canceled flights. Two of the worst incidents include our recent detour around the 101 slide (SEE: So close, yet so far), and being completely hosed by United on our trip to Quebec (SEE: Our First United Horror Story).

Planning for FT4RL

When I booked my recent flight to Orlando for the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference (SEE: Invaluable Disney travel hacks and other things I learned at FT4RL), I was poignantly aware that I had chosen an itinerary with only a 35 minute connection in San Francisco. The ticket was the best I could find to fit my $500 budget with my Merrill Lynch points that only had one connection. It also had good departure and arrival times.

Normally, this would be everything I’d want in a flight. Except I understand all too well¬†United‚Äôs track record flying between Arcata and San Francisco. That route may have the worst on time performance of any in the whole U.S.¬†I’m serious. Delays are pretty much inevitable on the route.

My¬†“worst case” plan

Because the late morning flight from Arcata has such an abysmal on time performance (it’s one of the lovely options¬†in Google Flights that gets the “often delayed by 30+ minutes” designation), I made sure I researched some alternate flights. Rather than simply¬†let an agent rebook me into whatever makes sense to them, I like to understand all my options. Being prepared in the event of a delay could save me substantial time and headache.

For example, I knew I would prefer flying part of the way on a connecting flight rather than take the next nonstop flight to Orlando. If I had missed the 12:55 p.m. departure out of SFO, I would have been stuck waiting until a 10:40 p.m. departure! This would be an awful red-eye,  arriving at a little after 7:00 a.m. eastern time. There is no way I wanted that flight, even if it is a nonstop.

Instead, I would prefer to fly to one of United’s hubs. I specifically identified Houston¬†as the best¬†one, mainly because hotels are cheap (in case United¬†wouldn’t comp me), and because there are a LOT of flight options, both from SFO to IAH¬†and from IAH¬†to MCO. More options = less chance of significant delays.

Chicago¬†was a secondary option to Houston. There are just as many flights to Orlando each day. But it would be a slightly longer trip. Either way, I’d given myself enough travel time that an overnight delay wouldn’t kill the trip.

I jotted down some preferred flight numbers for both options, in case I missed the flight to Orlando. I wanted to be able to feed the agent the exact flights on which I desired to be rebooked.

The final precaution

The last thing I ended up doing was changing my reservation in Orlando at the Country Inn & Suites. If I missed my flight and couldn’t make it, I would be out the points. Instead, I planned on either booking an IHG hotel on points at the last minute, or using cash if rates were decent. Orlando was actually one of the best options for earning at least a small number of bonus points from my¬†Q2 IHG accelerate offer, so I opted for cash.

Ultimately, everything turned out fine. The flight out of Arcata left a mere 5 minutes late, which is unheard of. We landed a few minutes late at SFO, and I literally walked off one flight, down the terminal, and onto the other. It was the closest connection I’ve ever had that I’ve actually made.

In this case, planning for “the worst” wasn’t necessary. But I know that things won’t always go that smoothly!

5 reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the Best Starter Travel Credit Card

While many people have been singing the merits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card ever since it debuted last year, I still consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred to be the best starter travel credit card in the business.

If you’re new to this hobby, you really cannot go wrong with the card. It certainly made my list of best¬†starter cards (SEE: 3 Great Starter Travel Credit Cards).¬†Here are 5 reasons I will still recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred as the best starter travel credit card around:

Great sign-up bonus

When looking for a good travel credit card sign-up bonus, you should be looking in the $500+ range if possible. There are certainly some good cards out there with bonuses worth somewhat less than that and others that offer valuable ongoing perks. But $500+ is what I try to look for. The Chase Sapphire Preferred definitely calls in this range.

The standard 50,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards (UR) points offer for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is worth at minimum $500. That is a value if you simply cashed out the points. The same 50,000 points are worth $625 when redeemed through the Chase travel portal, and you can often get even greater value by transferring to travel partners.

In short, it is a solid sign-up bonus.

No initial annual fee

Some people new to this hobby may be turned off by the idea of paying an annual fee “just for a credit card.” I’ve actually written a post about some of the best no-fee credit card options out there (SEE: 5 of the Best No Fee Credit Cards for Travel).

The Chase Sapphire Preferred gives you the best of both worlds. Since the fee is waived the first year, getting the card doesn’t cost you anything up front. I’m hesitant to say it is “risk free” since credit card can indeed be risky if you don’t manage your finances responsibly! (SEE: 5 Commandments of Travel Credit Cards).

If you do, however, this is a perfect card that gives you a great sign up bonus, yet lets you put off deciding whether you want to pay a fee for the product. It gives you 12 months to decide if the card is a good one for you.

Flexible points

One of the best features of having a “premium” Chase Card (Ink Preferred, Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve) is the ability to use the points in multiple ways. The fact that the Chase Sapphire Preferred has no annual fee out the gate and has flexible options for using the points is a major reason I consider it the best starter travel credit card.

First, you can always cash them out for 1 cent per point, but I do not recommend this.

The second option is to use them to book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards travel. You can book flights, hotels, and rental cars. You’ll receive greater value this way as each point will be worth 1.25 cents. For Sapphire Reserve cardholders it is 1.5 cents. But let’s focus on the Sapphire Preferred.

Last, but certainly not least, is the ability to transfer points to an array of partners. This is where most of the best value is found.

High-value transfer partners

Of the three major bank programs that have an array of travel partners to which you can transfer your points, I’ll readily argue that Chase is the best. American Express Membership Rewards isn’t all that far behind, but I still consider¬†Chase to be top dog.

Chase has several high-value partners, including United, Hyatt, Korean Air, FlyingBlue, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, and Virgin Atlantic (SEE: 5 Best Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners). The ones that are both exclusive to Chase and  high value are United, Korean Air, and Hyatt.

best starter travel credit card

We had a great stay at the Hyatt House Portland for only 12,000 UR points transferred to Hyatt!

Hyatt is by far the best hotel transfer partner of the Ultimate Rewards program, often giving you twice the value from your points as either Marriott/Ritz or IHG.

Ability to transfer points from other Chase cards

The ability to transfer points between UR-earning cards¬†is another¬†great perk of the Ultimate Rewards program. This isn’t exclusive to the Chase Sapphire Preferred, but it comes in especially¬†handy.

To transfer points between Ultimate Rewards accounts, you must either transfer them to one of your own other accounts, or to an account of someone who is a member of your household.

For example, I have transferred points several times from my Chase Freedom card to my wife’s Chase Sapphire Preferred. Given that I don’t have a Sapphire Preferred, this lets us use the points I earn from my Freedom card for travel and for transferring to partners.¬†If I didn’t have this option, I could only cash the points out at 1 cent each. For a full rundown on transferring UR points, see this article.

Convinced that it’s the best starter travel credit card?

There are certainly other cards that offer a bigger sign-up bonus or better perks. But few have all the qualities that make the Chase Sapphire Preferred the best starter travel credit card.

In case you think I get paid to push this product, I have no affiliation with Chase. I don’t make money from credit card referrals (but who knows…I may someday). This is solely my own personal opinion, and still my recommendation after 5 years of being in this¬†hobby.

If you’re interested and want to support me, send me a note via the contact me page and I can send you a referral link! (Yes, this is different than an affiliate link, as it is a personal referral).

6 Best Amex Transfer Partners

Recently, I wrote about the best Chase transfer partners with the hope of pointing people in the best direction for burning their hard-earned Ultimate Rewards points. I figured I could follow up by outlining the best Amex transfer partners from their popular Membership Rewards program.

Basics of Membership Rewards

If your unfamiliar with the Membership Rewards (MR) program, here is a quick rundown: Amex has a flexible points program, just like Chase, with an array of transfer partners and the ability to cash out your points.

In general, the program is inferior to Chase’s Ultimate Rewards, but *not* a whole lot. There are still some great reasons to earn Membership Rewards. You can definitely get a lot of value out of Amex transfer partners. There are a couple partners that overlap both programs, but in general they are different.

Using your membership rewards points is as easy as navigating through the website, entering your loyalty number from the partner program, and then inputting how many you want to transfer. Transfer times for various programs range from instant to several days.

Additionally, American Express offers a credit card with no annual fee that earns transferable Membership Rewards points, something that is no possible with any Chase card (SEE: 5 of the Best No Fee Credit Cards for Travel).

The 6 best Amex transfer partners

The following are the best Amex transfer partners, in my opinion. My reasons include generally best value from your points, potential for some specific sweet spot awards, and general ease of understanding and using the programs (though not necessarily in that order):

Flying Blue

Flying Blue is the award program for both Air France and KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines). It is one of the best programs among SkyTeam airlines, which generally aren’t all that hot when it comes to award programs.

FlyingBlue routinely offers promo awards. Promo awards are select routes on which you can save anywhere from 20% to 50% of your miles. This can let you really stretch your Flying Blue miles, and by extension, your Amex Membership Rewards points. FlyingBlue promo awards are where most of the best value is at, although the following economy awards are also good:

  • North America to Hawaii for 15,000 miles.
  • North America to the Caribbean and Central America¬†for 15,000 miles.
  • North America to French Polynesia for 30,000 miles.

You will pay fuel surcharges with Flying Blue awards, so be prepared to shell out a little cash along with your miles. Flights to and from Europe are on the order of $150 each way.

Aeroplan

Aeroplan is the frequent flyer program of Air Canada, a Star Alliance member. Unlike United awards, Aeroplan awards pass on fuel surcharges for some carriers. This is generally a bummer, and actually makes using Aeroplan miles on Air Canada flights a generally poor proposition. Here are some of the sweet spots for partner awards:

  • U.S. to Europe on Turkish via Istanbul in business for 55,000 miles one-way
  • U.S. to Europe in Lufthansa first class (if you don’t mind high fuel surcharges)
  • Other flights to Europe in business class on¬†carriers with no fuel surcharges
  • Awards within North America that include stopovers

Aeroplan is also the go-to for cheap travel to the Arctic. Air Canada has a couple very unique transfer partners, including First Air. Only bummer with these partners is that they cannot be mixed with other carriers besides Air Canada.

ANA

All Nippon Airways is one of the two major Japanese carriers. The airline has a great international business class and first class product, and a great award chart. It is just a bit difficult to use, and there are some restrictions.

For starters, you can only book ANA awards round-trip, which lessens the flexibility. But the award prices are phenomenal. Here are some options:

  • U.S. to Europe in business class for 88,000 miles round-trip
  • U.S. to Asia for 95,000 miles round trip in business class on a “StarAlliance” award.

These *easily* beat most other award charts for those same awards.

You can also book “around the world” awards with ANA. These can offer insane value. You can have up to 8 stopovers, and the trip must be at least 10 days in length (but c’mon….who would want a RTW trip less than that). There are a couple other rules, but if you have the savvy and flexibility, you really can’t beat an ANA round the world ticket.

For trips of total length less than 29,000 miles flown, you can fly around the world in business class for 170,000 miles. If you restrict yourself to Asia and Europe and clock in under 22,000 flow miles, you can do it for a crazy low 125,000 miles in business (85,000 in economy).

Seriously, if you are looking for value from your Membership Rewards, ANA is where it is at. They take the cake when it comes to best Amex transfer partners in my opinion.

 Singapore KrisFlyer

Kris Flyer made some changes to their program recently, but they still offer great value.

Singapore Airlines offers one of the most aspirational award redemptions available: their iconic Singapore Suites. Only available on their A380 aircraft, ¬†you can only book Singapore Suites awards using KrisFlyer miles. The airline doesn’t open them to partner programs (i.e. you can’t use your United miles to book Suites, even though both airlines are Star Alliance partners).

Here are some of the best options for using Singapore KrisFlyer miles:

  • New York to Frankfurt in suites-class for 76,000 KrisFlyer miles
  • Singapore to Johannesburg in business for 45,000 KrisFlyer miles.
  • San Francisco to Hong Kong in First for 82,000 KrisFlyer miles.
  • United domestic business for 20,000 KrisFlyer miles one-way.

In addition to being an Amex transfer partner, KrisFlyer is also a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou.

Asia Miles

Asia Miles is the frequent flyer program of Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon. Like some other programs for Oneworld airlines, Asia Miles operates on a distance-based chart. There are a multitude of possibilities here.

Asia Miles has two award charts: one for single-carrier awards or Cathay + 1 partner awards, and the other for multi-carrier awards. Both offer stopovers, which is a huge plus.

Many awards assess fuel surcharges. Steer clear of British Airways, and try instead to fly AA, Air Berlin, and Cathay itself. Some best uses:

  • Around the world ticket with 5 stopovers for 160,000 miles in business (for flights totaling less than 25,000 flown miles)
  • NYC¬†to Europe on AirBerlin from JFK for 60,000 miles in economy round-trip
  • U.S. to Europe Oneworld awards of less than 10,000 flown miles

Do note that the one-way prices are higher than 50% of the round trip price. This lessens the value of one-way awards, but they can still make sense in some cases.

Delta

If your familiar with award charts and loyalty programs, don’t laugh. Delta can be a great option in many instances. Yes, it is true that they have gutted their award “chart”, including tossing the chart itself, and many awards cost way more miles than they do in other programs. Recently, Delta even hiked the price on partner awards.

But Delta shines in two ways: U.S. domestic awards and the abundance of award space. Their program is the complete antithesis to American Airlines AAbysmal AAward program. Here are some great uses of Delta miles:

  • Sacramento, CA to Victoria, BC for 5,500 miles
  • Oakland, CA to Tucson, AZ for 5,500 miles
  • San Francisco, CA to Pocatello, ID for 8,000 miles
  • San Francisco, CA to Jackson Hole, WY for 8,000 miles
  • Charlotte, NC to Mobile, AL for 9,500 miles
  • Little Rock, AR to Orlando, FL for 10,000 miles
  • Chicago, IL to Bismark, ND for 10,500 miles

And many, many more one-stop regional flights that routinely cost $300-$500. It might just be what I’ve searched, but award prices seem to be better in the west than the east. Another plus with Delta is that finding award space for the whole family is often fairly¬†easy.

Other partners

Although the previous programs are the best Amex transfer partners, you can get decent value transferring to others as well. British Airways or Iberia, depending on the award in mind, can offer decent value, but wait until they offer promotional transfer rates. The normal rates are nothing to get excited about.

I’m pretty unfamiliar with the programs for Alitalia, El Al, Aeromexico, and Emirates. I’m sure there are some awards that make sense, but you’ll have to do your own research for now.

Virgin America has a poor transfer rate, in my opinion, although you can use the transfer to top up Alaska miles (by then transferring VX miles to Alaska) if you need to. Virgin Atlantic and JetBlue can offer decent value, but I find them less attractive in general.

I don’t see much value in transferring points to SPG. If the rate was 2:1, it might make sense, but at 3:1 it’s pretty poor value. But…there can be situations where it makes sense, such as needing to transfer points to miles¬†ASAP for a specific award.

Hilton and Choice also offer generally poor value, unless you are topping up for an award or have a specific redemption in mind where you are getting good value out of your points. The Choice program in particular is not to be completely overlooked.

As far as Plenti points go…don’t bother.

Conclusion

As with any loyalty program, you’ll get the best value out your¬†points or miles the better you understand each program. I hope the examples above have given you some ideas for great “sweet spot” awards.

In terms of earning Membership Rewards points, the Amex Everyday card is a great place to start. It is one of the few cards with no annual fee that can earn flexible, transferable points. Hit me up for a referral through the contact me page if you’re interested.

Featured image courtesy of Kentaro Iemoto under CC 2.0 license. 

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