Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Award Travel (page 1 of 3)

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.

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

How we stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs for 3 nights for $99.18

One of the things I love most about this hobby is finding ways to make great experiences highly affordable. My wife and I have had the opportunity to go on several wonderful trips, all for fractions of the “normal” price.

Moving forward, I’ve decided to tally up some of them (or parts of them) to showcase how useful you can make miles and points. My first was tallying up what a week(ish) trip to Australia cost me (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia).

Now I’d like to tally up what three nights in Banff set us back on our recent trip to Alberta. You can see photos of the park in a previous post.

The catalyst for an amazing stay

Our recent trip to Banff was made possible by a single card offer. That’s how lucrative a bonus can be, if you know how to use it!

A few months ago I decided to jump on the Chase Fairmont card before it was gone. Chase pulled their public application link, and it was only a matter of time until the other links died as well. I applied through one of the two surviving application links, and was approved. After meeting the minimum spending, the card gave me some free nights and upgrade certificates at Fairmont hotels, and it was the main reason we were even able to plan this trip.

Admittedly, we could have stayed at a couple other places in/near Banff using points. But using the free Fairmont nights at one of their beautiful hotels in Banff was something I really wanted to do!

Stacking all the certificates and a checking account bonus, we had an amazing 3 night stay in a one bedroom suite. The views were spectacular.

Fairmont Banff Springs One Bedroom Suite View

Above is the view through the main living area window. Below is through the second window.

Fairmont Banff Springs

Sadly, the Chase Fairmont card is no longer offered. I wish it was and that you could repeat this experience.

Breaking down our costs for the stay

With the Chase Fairmont card I was able to earn 2 free nights at any Fairmont after $3,000 in spending. The card also offered a suite upgrade certificate, two dining/spa certificates, another room upgrade certificate, and a “third night free” certificate on paid stays.

I was able to stack the free nights with the suite upgrade certificate. We paid for a 3rd night using a bonus I got from opening an account with Bank of America. We were also able to use both dining certificates during our stay.

What our stay cost us:

  • 2 free Fairmont night certificates
  • 1 suite upgrade certificate
  • 2 dining certificates in the totals of $50 U.S.
  • $445.28 CAD for 1 cash night (including taxes)
  • $75 CAD parking
  • $15 CAD resort fee (I think for just 1 night)

Converting to U.S. dollars and subtracting out a $300 checking account cash bonus that we applied to the trip, the total comes to a mere $99.18. Pretty sweet. Or should I say suite?

What 3 nights at the Fairmont Banff Springs *could* have cost

The Fairmont Banff Springs is a true 5-star hotel. It is aptly called the “Castle in the Rockies”, and it is a gem, even among other beautiful hotels in the Fairmont portfolio.

But with 5-star rooms, dining, and service comes a 5-star price tag. The going rate for a standard room during the time we stayed was $399 CAD. The going rate for a one bedroom suite was $899!

Tallying up what the stay would have cost had we paid cash (all in CAD):

  • $899 per night x 3 nights + $297 taxes = $2994
  • $25 parking x 3 nights = $75
  • $15 resort fee x 3 nights = $45
  • $60 dining

The total is a ridiculous $3,174!!

Obviously, we never would have paid that much for this stay. This is something that makes determining “value” somewhat subjective. We can’t exactly say that we saved over $3,000 on this vacation when we wouldn’t have paid that much for it anyway!

Other expenses

Many of the remaining costs of the trip were covered by miles and points as well. The nights in the Bay before the trip we using IHG “free” nights, to the tune of $98 in annual fees for 2 nights. That’s a deal in San Francisco.

Our rental car and one night in Calgary were covered by the remaining travel credit on my parents’ Chase Sapphire Reserve. Our final night at YYC airport was using a free night certificate as well.

Even the flights were mostly covered using $200 in Delta gift cards and a cumulative $200 ($125 and $75) in United vouchers. Out of pocket cost came to about $170.

Conclusion

I hope this is another great picture of the usefulness of miles and points. My wife and I had an amazing vacation in the Rockies for both a cheap overall price, and a super cheap price relative to what the experience would have cost us.

Leveraging the Flexibility of Hotel Award Bookings

Travel plans can be fickle things. Sometimes you can have a plan in place for weeks, or even months, and have it go sideways on the last day. And it makes me grateful hotel award bookings are nearly always flexible.

My wife and I have had our share of crazy travel incidents. We actually joke that we can’t go on a trip without *something* happening that throws a wrench in our plans. Our winter trip to Canada in early 2016 was botched by a canceled United flight, and our summer trip to Europe was almost completely ruined by the fact I needed a new passport!

We can’t seem to catch a break

This trip really wasn’t much different. Maybe just a couple notches lower.

A couple days before we were to head to the Bay to fly out to Alberta, there was a major slide on Highway 101. As is typical, it was at the choke point near Leggett, California where there is literally no easy detour.

So, my wife and I decided to bite the bullet and drive narrow, winding Highway 36 over to Interstate 5 and then down to the Bay. It would add at least 2 hours to our trip.

Since I was trying hard to balance work, vacation, and PTO usage, I decided to change our Bay Area plans (yet again). I had already changed them once when I realized I was beginning to hoard my points.

Instead of arriving late in the evening the night before our flight, I decided we would head down a day earlier than planned. This meant we would spend 2 nights in the Bay. I would work an uber long day out of our San Francisco office, and we would fly out early to Calgary on Thursday.

Doing the award travel shuffle

This trip was another case study on why I am glad hotel award bookings are so flexible. Unlike airline award bookings (Southwest being an exception), hotel award bookings aren’t locked in until usually 24 hours before check-in. I was able to leverage this fact to rebook our hotel plans at less than 48 hours from our check-in time.

Our initial reservation was at the Hampton Inn SFO on Hilton points. I also had booked parking at the same hotel. I cancelled all this (glad I paid the $2.99 trip protection fee for the parking), and booked the Staybridge Suites with our 2 free IHG night certificates that had just posted.

While not the best use of the certificates you could dream up, it would put us in a comfortable suite with a full kitchen for my wife. Well worth it, in my opinion. Dan Miller, who runs Points with a Crew, “wasted” his for a similar hotel in London a couple years ago.

The new parking plan was at the BART station in San Bruno. It turned out to be $25 cheaper than the other off-airport parking (before the cost of any BART tickets). If you’ve never used BART, check out why it is a great option in the Bay Area.

Conclusion

All in all everything worked out just fine. We didn’t lose any money on any pre-paid bookings. I do book pre-paid now and then (such as our upcoming night at the Aloft Calgary), but I don’t recommend doing this in general. It can make sense if you are getting a great rate, but sometimes you don’t know what will come up and it is better to have the flexibility. And award bookings give you flexibility.

The actual travel turned out to be better than I hoped as well. Yeah, it was a 7-hour trek, but we made it. My wife had an easygoing day in San Bruno while I worked my tail off in downtown SF. Now we are signing off for the weekend to enjoy all that beautiful Banff has to offer.

 

Resisting the tendency to hoard points

There are two distinct sides to travel hacking:

  1. Earn points and miles
  2. Burn points and miles

The earning is the easy part. My wife and I have been able to accumulate serious miles over the past couple years by many credit card sign up bonuses. And lately I’ve been pulling in some more from gift card reselling (SEE: My First Three Months of Reselling Gift Cards). 

Burning miles is, oddly enough, where I often run into trouble. I often end up hoarding my points and miles.

It is not that I don’t want to use my miles. I earned them with the obvious intention of using them. But too often I fall into the trap of the travel hackers “analysis paralysis”. Instead of using the miles or points for a *good* flight or hotel stay, I find myself trying to use them only on the *best* flight or hotel stay. I mean….why use them now if I’m not getting the BEST value!

Running off the “Analysis Paralysis” cliff

I recently ran straight off the cliff of travel hacking analysis paralysis this week. While trying to finalize hotel plans for our upcoming trip to Alberta (SEE: We’re going to Banff!), I couldn’t find a great use of my hotel points. We are already planning on one splurge: a cash night at the Fairmont Banff Springs. This will be covered by a checking account bonus offer from Bank of America, so it’s really not that bad.

But for the rest of the hotel nights we need, I couldn’t find a good redemption option. “Good” meaning I couldn’t get the value I expect from my points.

So I booked us at the Aloft Calgary University for 2 nights for $279 CAD. I came to the same decision on San Francisco Airport hotels. There were no “good” (read *best*) options, so I booked a night at a cheap (for SF) airport hotel through Expedia for just over $100 including taxes.

Making the conscious decision to use my miles and points

When I woke up this morning, I had a reality check. Why was I about to spend $300 on hotels when we could spend $0? Isn’t that the whole point of this hobby?

So I canceled both my bookings. I’m not thinking straight or hard enough, obviously, if I can’t find at least one option where we can use points.

I finally settled on using Hilton points for a night at the Hampton Inn SFO. Yeah, it is 37k Hilton points, but it is free. And the “value” of the stay is about $185 (which is still painful to me when are going to be there only long enough to sleep).

It also made sense because we could pay for parking at the Hampton Inn and simply leave our van there while away. Easy.

The Delta hotel at YYC is nice. And free with a certificate.

For Calgary, I settled on using a Marriott Annual night certificate for one of the nights. Yeah, it means we split our nights in Calgary, but one will be free. Plus, it’ll be an airport hotel connected to the terminal, which will make flying out super convenient.

We are still paying cash for the other. I still couldn’t bring myself to redeem either IHG or SPG points for horribly low value. But we are going to be able to now cover *both* the rental car and the single night at the Aloft with the remainder of our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit.

Analysis paralysis crisis averted

So now we will be out only the cost of gas for the drive to/from SFO and parking. The lodging is covered by free nights, points, and travel credits. The car is covered by the CSR credit. The flights were predominantly covered by Delta gift cards and United vouchers and a small amount of cash (like $60). Overall, it is going to be another cheap trip. I feel so much better about our plans, having made these adjustments.

This is yet another incident that is helping me learn to be okay spending miles and points for travel now rather than hoping to use them for the *best* possible trip later. Remember to “earn and burn” in this game. There is some wisdom in keeping a small stash of points in case something unexpected comes up, but don’t hoard. The value will only ever go down.

Header image courtesy of Lawrence OP under CC 2.0 license

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