Friday, March 18, 2016

Book IHG hotel rooms a day before everyone else!

IHG hotels open reservations a bit less than a year in advance.  If you're trying to reserve a hotel room during a big event, you know how important it can be to book right when availability comes online.

Here's a quick trick to book a day ahead of everyone else.

First, let's say you want to book March 3-4, but March 4 isn't open yet.  When you select March 3 as your start date, you hit a dead end and get an error when you try to submit the form.


The trick is to select another date; for example, March 2.


Now, when you hit the results screen, click on "Change Search".


Then you can select "March 3" as your check-in date and your check out date will be set to March 4.



Enjoy!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Holiday Inn Resort Montego Bay - Staying Like a VIP for $49/nt.

Mrs. TIL and I just got back from a weekend at the Holiday Inn Resort Montego Bay.  For $49/nt. all-in, it was seriously one of the best travel deals we've ever scored!  We loved the Jamaican hospitality, the authentic food, and the non-pretentiousness of this resort.

$49?  Really?

The Chase IHG Credit Card often offers great sign-up bonuses.  The points you earn when you sign up for the card can be redeemed for approximately two free nights at all-inclusives like the Holiday Inn Resort Montego Bay.

35,000 points, or just use your free annual night with the IHG credit card.

We didn't use points this time.  That's because each time you pay the $49 annual fee on the card, you can reserve a free night at ANY hotel or resort operated by IHG worldwide.  While the Holiday Inn Resort may not be the most expensive hotel in IHG's portfolio, I love being able to book a truly comped night each year without worrying about meals, drinks, taxes, surcharges, extra person fees, etc.

Livin' the VIP Life!

So, now that you know how to score a room, the IHG credit card offers one other awesome benefit -- Platinum Status.  At the Holiday Inn Resort, that's also the key to getting a VIP arm band.  As a VIP, you get access to their adults-only club with premium liquor, free restaurant reservations, and room upgrades.  So, not only are you getting a room for $49 each year, but you're getting an upgraded room and VIP treatment.

We loved the view from our upgraded top-floor suite.

While the base room at this resort is an oceanview room, we were upgraded to a top floor junior suite, which we loved.  We could even watch the sunset from our private balcony each evening.

Visit Like a Pro

Here are 15 tips and tricks for your visit!

1. If you like to snorkel, there's a great reef straight out from the resort.  If you take a glass bottom boat from the HI or another resort, there's a good chance they'll stop at the same reef -- but you can swim out for free.  First, walk/swim to the little island and put on your fins.  Then, from the right side (facing out) you'll see a few small buoys past the breaking waves.  Swim straight out from the right side of the island toward the buoys, past the swimming ropes, staying over the sandy/deeper sections, until you get to the breaking waves.  You'll see some shallow rocks and it will look like you can't go any further, but carefully swim across the shallow section and you'll start to see tons of fish, living coral, sea fans, and big underwater canyons.  Even if the visibility isn't good near the beach, it'll be great once you get out to the reef.  Stay safe and watch out for occasional boat traffic.

2. If you want to see fish within the roped-off swimming areas, I recommend snorkeling under the pier in front of the adult pool or near the right side of the little island.  We saw a color-changing squid, lionfish, porcupinefish (blowfish), crabs, perfectly camouflaged flounders, sea urchins, a small barracuda, and a small eel -- all without going outside of the designated swimming area.  Don't touch the lionfish or other spiny critters!

3. Join the (free) IHG Club loyalty program before your visit.  If you have elite status (which comes free with the IHG credit card in the US) you'll get VIP check-in and a VIP wristband which gives you access to the private club in Building 7 and pre-booked restaurant reservations.  As IHG Platinum members, we were treated like royalty.

4. Ask for Appleton!  The well liquor selection is mediocre, but you can request Appleton rum (by name) at any of the bars, and they'll gladly top off a rum punch or Pina Colada with extra rum.

5. Ask for stronger drinks!  Most drinks don't come very strong unless you ask, but it's simple to ask and the bartenders are happy to add extra liquor.

6. If you forget about #5, just order a shot of Appleton straight up and add it yourself.

7. Bring your own tumbler.  Your drinks will stay cold longer, and you'll take fewer trips to the bar.  The bartenders are happy to fill 'em.

8. Eat lunch at the Jerk Hut.  Always.  Just believe me on this one -- the food at the Jerk Hut is absolutely top notch and the best you'll get at the resort.  Most people don't even know about it!  If you like fries with your Jerk Chicken, be sure to get a plate of fries at the burger place on your way over.

The Jamaican Restaurant at the resort, The Terrace, had excellent authentic dinners like esccoveiched fish.

9. If you have a VIP wristband (see #3 above) be sure to visit the club on floor 2 of building 7.  It's open late and the bartenders serve better alcohol and mixed drinks than the regular bars.  Order up some freshly fried plantain chips to snack on, which aren't on the menu but taste great.

10.  Use the left side buffet line when the buffet is crowded.  While the two lines serve the same food, we noticed that Americans/Canadians were lining up on the right, while English/Jamaicans were lining up on the left.  Needless to say, when we were there the lines on the left were shorter and the food was less likely to run out.

11. For souvenirs, go out of the resort and walk across the street.  The shopping center is filled with friendly (and just a couple of not so friendly) local shop owners, and prices could be negotiated down to about half the marked price.  There's also a small Indian/Jamaican grocery store that has a good selection of essentials at reasonable prices.

12.  Save seats. Whether you approve of the practice or not (we hate it, personally), the only guaranteed way to get a good chair on the island or under a shady palm tree is to get up early and put a towel on your favorite chair.  By 9am, you'll find that almost all the chairs are claimed.  We just set an alarm for 7am, claimed our favorite chairs, then went back to sleep.

13.  Get fresh towels the night before (by 6pm).  That way you don't have to wait for the Towel Hut to open before reserving a chair (see #11).

14.  Set reasonable expectations.  This isn't a 5 star resort, and it certainly isn't luxury.  That being said, the mix of friendly, laid back, and unpretentious staff and visitors really set the Holiday Inn apart from its more upscale competitors.  If you're the type of person who prefers a local dive bar to the newest and fanciest chain restaurant, this is probably the resort for you.

15.  Be kind to the staff and tip your servers!  A little bit of formal politeness can go a long way in Jamaica.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Making Dubai and Oman Cheap

We just returned from an awesome trip where we flew from Chicago and drove around the UAE and Oman for 11 days.  The people were friendly, the food was great, and the attractions were top-notch.  We loved our trip!

Lonely Planet recommends setting an absolute minimum of $200 aside, per day, for a two person trip to the UAE and Oman.  That would get most people a shared room in a guesthouse and self-catered food from the supermarket.

Mrs. TIL and I stayed in 5 star hotel suites, drank for free at open bars, ate gourmet meals, purchased souvenirs, and rode camels through the desert.  In the end, we did everything we wanted to do, in style, for $92 out of pocket per day -- all in.  Even with paid round trip flights from Chicago, we came in at a mere $129 per day for two people.

While a lot of this was made possible through points, we also took advantage of an ultra low airfare special and a number of deals at hotels.


Points
  • We got an overnight hotel at O'Hare for just 5000 IHG points thanks to the IHG PointsBreaks promotion, and the hotel even provided us with an upgrade to a two room suite and snacks in the evening!  The hotel shuttle was quick and easy, and -- of course -- also provided as part of the room rate.
  • We booked two nights at the Radisson Blu Deira Creek in Dubai for 50,000 total Club Carlson points using the buy-one-get-one promotion that used to be attached to their credit card.  We were upgraded to a large room with a great view of the creek.  Now, a booking at the same hotel would be 70,000 points per night.  :(
  • We used 2000 Accor points, earned through an online promotion, to bring the price of a room at the Mercure Grand in Al Ain down to just $46/nt.
  • We used two Hyatt free night certificates, earned through credit card renewals, to book the super-expensive and super-fancy Grand Hyatt in Muscat.  For paying two $75 annual fees, we got a room for two nights worth almost $400 per night.
  • We used 30,000 IHG points for a night at the Crown Plaza Sohar.  This was a lot of points given the typical rates at this hotel, but we weren't disappointed -- they upgraded us to a massive two room suite on account of our Platinum Status (provided by the IHG credit card), and the service and amenities were top-notch!
  • We spent 39,000 SPG points for a night at the Al Maha (Luxury Collection), a hotel that was going for $2000+ per night.  The hotel was booked full the night of our stay, so we were lucky to get a room on points.  The experience was incredible, with activities and gourmet meals provided for our entire stay!
Cash
  • We got almost-free access (worth $100 per person) to airport lounges in Chicago and Abu Dhabi through the SkyGuide Executive Privilege Club.  After 14 hours of flying, a shower at the Admirals Club in Chicago was awesome!
  • We paid about $200 per person for round trip Etihad flights from Chicago to Abu Dhabi.  What a fare!
  • We paid about $90 per night for access to the club at the Radisson Blu in Dubai, which provided us with an extensive breakfast buffet each morning and a happy hour each evening.  Although they can be expensive, paid club room upgrades are becoming one of our favorite ways to save money on meals and drinks!
  • We paid $100 for a club room upgrade at the Grand Hyatt in Muscat, which provided us with a continental breakfast each morning and an extensive buffet and drinks each evening.  We saved ourselves the cost of breakfast and dinner for three days!  Plus, due to the kindness of the person who checked us in (and recovery from a minor service flaw), we also ended up in a two room suite with a guest bath, two balconies over the pool area, and a great view of the sea!
  • We got a third bed in the room free, almost every night, just by asking.  This allowed a friend to join us and take advantage of all the other amenities (club, buffets, etc.).
In addition, we utilized public transportation, ate at truck stops and small local restaurants, and kept admission and tour fees low by visiting inexpensive attractions.  Of course, we also splurged at Ski Dubai and bought a Gold Cappuccino at Emirates Palace, but the savings elsewhere allowed us to spend some money on these only-in-the-UAE experiences.

Hope this helps give some inspiration for your next trip.  I thoroughly enjoyed planning, and we had a blast on our trip!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Advanced Delta Award Booking - Married Segments and Fare Buckets

After spending many, many hours fighting with agents and trying to book Delta awards that look like they're valid, I'm convinced (like most others) that Delta does everything in their power to make awards price as high as possible.

That being said, there is a method to the madness, and their award calendar and agents typically price Skymiles awards according to the same rules.

Understanding Delta's Award Fare Buckets

Delta prices each class of award in five different buckets.  For example, an economy segment can be booked in N, NL, ND, NS, or NK.  N is the cheapest level, formerly known as Saver.  NK is the most expensive level, formerly known as Peak.


Conveniently, Delta's search engine displays the fare bucket in their search results.


Finding the cheapest flight or segment is easy!  As long as you're book a flight in a single-letter bucket, you know you're getting the best price for a flight or segment.

Married Segments

With most airlines, you can go online, search for each segment of your flight, then simply string together the lowest priced segments to get a cheap flight.  Delta won't let you do that.  As a matter of fact, if you try to string segments together on Delta's website, the pricing will always be additive.

Instead, Delta flights are often priced using Married Segments.  What this means is GRR-DTW-JFK may price out as a Standard award even if you can book GRR-DTW as a Saver award and DTW-JFK as a Saver award.

Here's a real-world example.  Say I want to fly from MBS to ATL via DTW.  First, I look up the segments individually and find both at the N (Saver) level:



I should be able to string these two segments together and book them with 12,500 miles, right?  Wrong!  Actually, this flight will be priced at the Married Segment price of 20,000 miles:


If the flight is operated as a Married Segment, you must book it as a Married Segment, or you'll need to add the two segments together.  In this case, Delta might let you book it as two segments, but you'd have to pay 25,000 miles (12k+12k).  I'll take the Married Segment for 20,000, thank you.

Partners Don't Use Married Segments

Fortunately, most (all?) of Delta's partners do not use Married Segments, so if you're booking on a partner you can piece the flights together exactly how you'd expect with other award bookings.  Just keep in mind that any connecting Delta flights will price out using Married Segments.

The best way to avoid Married Segment pricing is to avoid connecting Delta flights altogether.

Voluntary Downgrades and Safely Breaking Married Segments

Earlier, we talked about the fare buckets Delta uses for award travel.  Here's the same chart with domestic award pricing as of 2015:


Delta will typically allow voluntary downgrades on award tickets.  A voluntary downgrade involves taking one segment of a higher class trip in a lower class of service.  This is great for a couple of reasons.  First, Delta's domestic availability is terrible, so downgrading a domestic segment is often your only option for finding a Saver Award.  Furthermore, downgrading a segment is often a great way to break a Married Segment price and find Saver level availability.

The thing to remember with downgrading is you must stay at the same level to avoid additive pricing. In other words, you can combine R, O, and N segments and pay 25,000 miles.  Or you could combine RD, OD, and ND segments and pay 37,500 miles.  Once you break this rule, Delta's engine starts adding things together.

Downgrading a segment will break Married Segments, pricing at the highest segment cost instead of adding the segments together.

Here's a real-world example from Delta's site.  Can you guess the price in first class?


Because the flight segments are booked in NK, OK, and RK it prices at 55,000 miles.


This one in RD, OD, and RD will price at 37,500 miles.


Just to reiterate, if you don't stay at the same level, things get bad.  The example below of a similar itinerary has a segment in RD and two in RK.  However, because I'm no longer staying at the same level, it combines the price for the RK segments and adds on the RD segment for a whopping 92,500 miles (55k + 37.5k)!


The other difficulty here is that Delta's website won't let you string together segments, so you really need to call and hope someone is willing to help you.  However, I've had good luck calling and combining segments in different classes at the same level.

How to Avoid Additive Pricing

Again, all you need to do is stay at the same level to avoid additive pricing.

All partner flights book at the Saver level (R, O, N), so be sure to book your domestic flights or Married Segments in R, O, and N class as well.  This one in R, O, and O books properly at 70,000 for an international flight to Seoul on Korean Air and Delta:



As soon as you combine levels, things get nasty.  Here's a similar flight in RL, RL, and O.  The first two segments get combined and the final segment gets added.  Therefore, this flight adds up to a massive 102,500 (32.5k + 70k) miles:



Can Additive Pricing be Good?

The only good news here, if there's any, is that additive segments are each priced based on their segment regions.  So, if you combine a Saver Korean flight in O with Peak Delta domestic flights in NK, you'd pay 102,500 (70k + 32.5k) instead of having everything bumped up to the Peak level which would cost an insane 325,000 miles!  Yes, there are plenty of times when it makes sense to utilize additive pricing.

You can always force additive pricing by using Delta's online search engine and putting in the segments you want, however I've found that their search engine usually prices this way by itself without any prodding.

Summary

In summary, when booking Delta awards, keep an eye on the level.  You must stay at the same level to avoid additive pricing.  If you combine segments from the same level and you don't break any Married Segments, you'll simply pay the price of the top priced segment.  However, if you combine segments from different levels or break Married Segments, you'll pay the additive price of all segments.

In some cases, voluntarily downgrading a segment is a good way to stay at the same level or break a Married Segment without making the price additive.

In some cases, it makes sense to invoke additive pricing.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Making Australia Cheap

Mrs. TIL and I just got back from Australia, and it was an incredible trip.  We managed to visit Sydney, Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Katherine, Darwin, Cairns, and Port Douglas all in a two week period, yet rarely felt "rushed".

Needless to say, for an American like me, Australia was a really expensive destination, with many meals costing $30+ for the two of us.  Yeah, their dollar isn't worth quite as much as ours; however, everything is priced much higher, especially in the cities and tourist zones.

So, how can a trip to Australia become affordable?  Here's a quick sampling of some of our Australia "wins", which were free or nearly free:

  • 2 Qantas First Class suites on the direct flight from Dallas to Sydney (the longest commercial flight in the world), along with connecting flights on AA
    • Price: 145k AAdvantage miles + tax (72.5k each)
  • 2 entries to the Centurion Lounge in Dallas, including a dinner buffet, premium cocktails, and a chair massage in the spa
    • Price: Free, reimbursed through SkyGuide Executive Privilege Club
  • 2 walking tours of Sydney
    • Price: Free + tip with I'm Free Walking Tours
  • Round trip transportation to/from Sydney airport
    • Price: Free bus, because the train lines weren't running the day we were there
  • 2 dinners w/ drinks at the Qantas Club Sydney
    • Price: Free with incoming boarding pass
  • 2 Qantas Business Class flights from Sydney to Melbourne
    • Price: Free using 24 hour international "free stopover" rule.
  • Night in an upgraded "room with a view" at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
    • Price: Free using credit card free night award
  • 2 walking tours of Melbourne
    • Price: Free + tip with I'm Free Walking Tours
  • 2 nights in a garden view room at the Radisson Melbourne
    • Price: First night 44k Club Carlson points; second night Free with credit card 
  • 2 nights in a river view room at the Intercontinental Adelaide
    • Price: Free with credit card free night award ($45 annual fee)
  • Private walking tour of Adelaide
    • Price: Free with Adelaide Greeters
  • 2 Qantas flights from Darwin to Cairns
    • Price: 20k AAdvantage miles + tax (10k each)
  • 2 dinners with drinks at the beautiful new Qantas Club Darwin
    • Price: Free entry with AA credit card
  • Night in an upgraded room and breakfast buffet at the Doubletree Cairns
    • Price: 12k HHonors points and $43 copayment.  Free breakfast with gold status
  • Hertz rental car to drive from Cairns to Port Douglas
    • Price: 500 Hertz points (free from a promotion) + $8 tax
  • Night in a lagoon view suite with private beach access at the Sheraton Port Douglas
    • Price: 10k SPG points
  • Dinner and drinks at the Reef Lounge in Cairns
    • Price: Free with flight
  • 2 Cathay Pacific business class tickets from Cairns to Hong Kong
    • Price: Free using 24 hour international "free stopover" rule
  • Dinner and drinks at the Cathay Pacific arrivals lounge in Hong Kong
    • Price: Free with flight
  • 2 round trip transfers from the Hong Kong Airport to the Intercontinental Hotel
    • Price: $14 ($7 ea.), one of the best deals around!
  • Night in an executive suite overlooking the city/harbor at the Intercontnental Hong Kong
    • Price: Free using credit card free night award ($45 annual fee)
  • Breakfast and drinks at Cathay Pacific's first class lounge
    • Price: Free with flight
  • 1 Cathay Pacific first class suite to Chicago
    • Price: 80k Alaska Airlines miles + tax
  • 1 Cathay Pacific business class flight to Chicago
    • Price: 60k Alaska Airlines miles + tax
  • 2 flights back to our hometown on AA
    • Price: 9k BA Miles (4.5k ea)
We literally got thousands of dollars of free flights, hotels, tours, and meals by using our miles and points wisely.  The "annual free night" awards provided by our credit cards were especially lucrative on this trip (and often overlooked in a points/miles strategy), especially when used at expensive hotels.

I should also point out that we got nearly a dozen free meals (mostly in lounges and airplanes) as a result of our planning.  With food being so expensive in Australia, it was great to be able to offset our meal costs with miles and points.

Looking back, the trip was still expensive, but we were definitely able to maximize our use of miles, points, and other deals to make it as cheap as possible.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Seat Assignments on OneWorld Award Tickets

For those of you booking flights with AAdvantage miles, BA Avios, or other Oneworld award currency, you've probably experienced the recent trend of certain airlines charging for seat assignments or withholding seat assignments until the last minute.  For example, AirBerlin is now charging $16 to pre-select a seat on an upcoming paid European flight:


Unlike with a paid reservation, booking an award ticket should get you a seat assignment.  Depending on the operating and ticketing airlines, you may or may not be able to to select a seat when you book your flight online.  However, if you are unable to select a seat upon booking, you can typically call the airline who ticketed your reservation and request a seat, and they'll put the request through for you (free of charge).

So, what should you do if the agent can't put your request through, or you simply don't want to call and wait on hold?  Here's a step-by-step guide:
  1. First, you need your Amadeus record locator.  In many cases, this will be provided when you book your ticket, or you can ask the agent.  For Avios bookings, the 6-charater BA record locator is your Amadeus record locator.  For AAdvantage bookings, you may need to ask for any alternate record locators because AA will use their own.
  2. Go to http://www.oneworld.com/ and look at the tails across the top of the site:




    Almost all of these airlines will allow you to pull up your reservation by simply entering your Amadeus record locator and last name.  Here's an example from Sri Lankan airlines' site (coincidentally, the last "tail" on the list):

  3. Put in your record locator and last name to pull up your reservation.  Typically, you'll find that you're redirected to Amadeus.  In some cases, you'll be given access to modify your reservation or select seats:
  4. Select your seat and confirm it went through - easy peasy.
Important: This trick typically does not work with Sri Lankan airlines' website (or AA or BA, for that matter).  So, which airlines' site should you use?  I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader -- a bit of a "treasure hunt", if you will.  What I will tell you is that at least two OneWorld partners allow seat selection across all OneWorld airlines.

Also Important: Calling for a seat assignment is still the safer way to get a seat, and (as stated above) you should not be charged for seat assignment on partner award tickets.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Free Book from PointsAway - Good Comprehensive Intro!

I've been busy giving presentations for people and helping friends book trips.  For many just getting into the hobby, it can seem daunting.

This morning, Casey Ayers from PointsAway posted his $10 ebook for free on Amazon.  Scanning through it, it's a very nice comprehensive introduction to the miles and points game.  I recommend picking it up today!


Get it here:
http://www.amazon.com/PointsAway-Definitive-Budget-Travel-Points-ebook/dp/B00KWIE7MM

HT: A80GL @ Slackdeals