Friday, January 18, 2013

Cheap Chicago 2013: Riding the Rails

A few posts ago, I mentioned our upcoming trip to Chicago.  Our goal is to spend almost no cash, and preferably not a lot of points and miles.  Today I'll cover transportation.

Last year, my wife and I took Amtrak to Chicago using points and miles.  Our hometown is on one of Amtrak's special routes, which used to allow for 1,000 point one-way redemptions to Chicago -- an incredible deal.  Since then, the redemption rate has gone up to 1,500 points, still an incredible deal.

I really wanted to try something a bit different this year, and started to explore MegaBus.  MegaBus directly competes with Amtrak in my city.  They even leave directly from the same corner as the Amtrak station, and arrive at Chicago's Union Station.  The trip takes an hour less than Amtrak, and they leave at more convenient times.  Their fares come in at about half of what Amtrak is charging.  They were also running a promotion giving away free tickets for my route, but the free tickets were only available on weekdays, so they wouldn't do any good for our weekend trip.

A revenue ticket?  Oh, the shame!
I suppose it would have been easy to spend the points on a free Amtrak ticket or pony up for a cheap Megabus fare, but there was one additional consideration -- hitting a $200 minimum Amtrak spend on my Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card.  $200 in annual Amtrak spend triggers a lot of additional transfer opportunities, such as the ability to convert 5000 Amtrak miles to 15,000 choice rewards points.  While there are ways to game the system by booking a refundable fare and canceling later, I feel at least somewhat obligated to play by the rules.  After all, I'm a big fan of Amtrak and I want them to keep offering great transfer opportunities.

$170 later, I had two round-trip Amtrak tickets in hand.  The tickets are cheaper than driving, but still more than I wanted to spend.  Amtrak's tickets go up in price as fare buckets are sold out, and rarely go back down, so purchasing late didn't really help matters.  By the way, there's a great site called AmSnag that will show the lowest fares over a series of dates -- it was painful!

This evening, I went back out to Amtrak's site just to check the current fares.  To my surprise, the fare had actually dropped by $20, and the friendly Amtrak phone agent explained that a large group had probably canceled and the fare buckets had reset.  She said in her 6 years working as a phone agent, she had only seen this happen one other time.  Apparently it's my lucky day!

CTA Pass for $9 on Groupon -- Excellent!
Next up, we needed a way to get around Chicago.  While Chicago Greeter is the easiest way to get a free CTA day pass, we took advantage of the opportunity last year, and I didn't want to book another greeter tour so soon.  A rare Groupon for a $9 CTA 3-day pass was a nice find, though, so I bought a couple.  After all, how often can you find coupons for public transportation passes?

So, that sums it up.  Admittedly, the price of transportation this year is a bit high, but I'm well on my way to opening new transfer opportunities from Amtrak Guest Rewards.  In this case, I feel the extra Amtrak spend is well worth it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Amex Platinum Cardholder? Cash out your reimbursements!

A couple of weeks ago, those who acted quickly got in on a rare 100,000 mile bonus for the Amex Platinum card.  It's a highly coveted card by travelers, because it provides fantastic travel benefits in addition to unlimited airport lounge visits.  The only thing is, it comes with a $450 annual fee.

Amex Platinum
One nice perk that offsets the fee is the reimbursement of airline fees up to $200, including expenses such as in-flight drinks and entertainment, baggage fees, and lounge passes.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work on airline tickets or (officially) gift cards, although some people have purchased gift cards in $50 increments and been reimbursed.

It's also worth noting that the $200 fee credit can be claimed once per calendar year, so it really amounts to $400 during the typical first year of card membership.

So, did you already sign up for the SkyGuide Executive Privilege Club?  You'll need to sign up in order to play this game.  Next, visit an airline-operated lounge that is not covered by Amex Platinum.  Priority Pass lounges are fine, but you won't want to use your Priority Pass card to get in.  Instead, pay for a day pass with your Amex Platinum.  Finally, submit for reimbursement from Skyguide Club.

In effect, you'll pay for the lounge pass, get $50 reimbursed on your statement, then get a $50 check from SkyGuide.  That's free cash, baby!

A couple of things to keep in mind:

  • You must register your airline of choice with Amex Platinum before they'll provide a statement credit.
  • Skyguide only reimburses once a month, so you'll need to do this over the course of four (not necessarily consecutive) months to get your whole $200 back.
  • If you got your card in January, like I did, you won't be able to use this strategy to cash out all $400.  You'll only be able to cash out $200 this year and $50 next January.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Best Rate Guarantees Applied - Atlantis Resort, Bahamas

This past summer, we spent some time in the Bahamas at one of the most expensive water park resorts in the world, Atlantis.  Especially when the park is crowded, the only way to gain admission is to stay at the resort or purchase an all-access day pass ($120 per person) at the cruise ship dock.  Even with a tour or day pass from a cruise ship, you may not be given access to the whole resort.

There is one other way to get in, using a little-known agreement between Atlantis and the nearby Comfort Suites hotel.  If you're a guest at Comfort Suites, everyone in your room has access to the entire resort, as if you were staying at Atlantis.  Needless to say, this can be a tremendous bargain, and once we booked a room for our whole family just to get access to Atlantis.  We didn't stay the night or even see our room, and the staff at Comfort Suites were fine checking us in and out the morning of our water park visit so we didn't even need to go back to the hotel.

What if you want to do even better, getting your entire family access to the resort for free?  Using the Best Rate Guarantee techniques discussed in my last post, you can do just that, and I'll walk you through the process step-by-step.

First, we'll pick a date and go to  We'll enter our date and number of people, and search for the "Best Available Rate".  Then we'll get a list of room types and prices, along with a list of standard amenities:

Searching for a room.

On the date we picked, the price to beat is $314 (1 King Bed, Suite) or $339 (2 Double Beds, Suite).  We'll also want to check the cancellation terms and total price by clicking through to the next page:

Room details.  Note the total price.

There are some housekeeping gratuities and an energy surcharge that are charged when arriving at this hotel.  These are like "resort fees", and there's really no way to escape them.  Either way, we don't need to worry about them now because they aren't part of the rate.

Next, search for a lower price.  This is typically pretty easy.  I typically start with,, or because they list multiple booking channels with a single search.  Sure enough, trivago shows a couple of good options for a price match!

Hotel search results for 3rd party sites.

Next, we need to click through to all the sites that offer lower rates.  Some have no room descriptions or bed types, so they likely won't work for a price match.  We're looking for sites that have an exact match  and a lower price.  Here's a site that lists the room for $311.75!

Found a lower price!

Now we'll click through to the specific room type to confirm a match.  Everything matches up word-for-word, so this is an excellent candidate for a BRG.

Checking the room description and cancellation policy.

Next, we'll double check the total price (with taxes) just to make sure the site isn't applying a booking fee.  In this case, the total price at the 3rd party site is about $9 cheaper -- excellent!

Finally, we'll book the room on, knowing that we can always cancel if something goes wrong.  Then we'll fill out the Best Rate Guarantee form.  Typically, an agent will respond via email within an hour or two, even on weekends.

For a 30 minute time investment, we've just booked a free $315 suite at the Comfort Suites Paradise Island.  Even better, most of the other people at the water park have probably paid $371 or more per night to stay at Atlantis.  Even just for water park admission, we've scored a great deal!

Note: The screens above are from actual searches for future dates and prices; however, the dates and 3rd party website offering the competing rate have been blacked out to protect the hotel.  Please use this technique in moderation and provide the hotel with good reviews if you enjoy your stay.

Free Hotels through Best Rate Guarantees

As detailed in Cheap Chicago 2013, we're currently booking a Chicago trip, trying to find the lowest out-of-pocket price possible.  Today, I'll detail how to take advantage of Best Rate Guarantees to get free hotel stays.

Chicago is a big city with an extremely competitive hotel market.  The result is that Chicago hotels are willing to do just about anything to get customers through the door, often in the form of special negotiated rates with businesses, companies, and online booking sites.  For the big corporate hotel chains, negotiated rates are not good when they make it out to consumers, since consumers will potentially bypass the corporate booking sites and get lower rates elsewhere.  As a result, the corporate chains miss out on commissions and their credibility is eroded.

Starwood's Best Rate Guarantee

Enter the "Best Rate Guarantee" concept (often referred to as BRG in the travel hacking community).  You'll find them all over the place -- hotel chain booking sites, online travel agency sites, and even your reservation confirmation page for some hotels.  While it may outwardly appear that these are consumer-friendly marketing ploys to establish trust and credibility, they typically have a more sinister purpose.  Basically, by incentivizing consumers to scour the web for lower rates, then forcing the individual hotels to pay out when the lower rates are found, the hotel chains can effectively penalize hotels for listing their rooms cheaper on competing sites.

Over the years, many hotel chains and online travel agencies have provided BRGs, typically providing room discounts or gift cards if a lower rate is found.  While these discounts can be lucrative, I'll focus mostly on the BRGs that actually provide free rooms.

Before going on, I should probably re-state that individual hotels are often penalized when you take advantage of a BRG.  They're typically going to be the ones eating the cost of the discount or other incentive.  As a result, they may be less than thrilled when you show up at their doorstep to take advantage of a heavily discounted (or free) room rate.  If you want to play this game, you should understand that you're ultimately serving as an "enforcer", and the hotel's dissatisfaction with your BRG is a price you may have to pay to get the discount.

Because of the penalty on individual hotels, I typically play by the following rules while taking advantage of BRGs:

  • Only use them for hotels I actually plan to stay at.  There are ways to get BRG incentives and then cancel the reservation, but doing so could penalize a hotel without even giving them a stay.
  • Use in moderation.  Don't nail the same hotel over and over again with the same guarantee.
  • Provide good reviews for the individual hotel following a free stay.  This lets me "pay back" my stay through positive word of mouth (assuming the hotel staff members were respectful during my stay).
  • Don't go overboard.  For example, if both a standard room and presidential suite qualify for a free room through a BRG, don't take the hotel's only presidential suite.
There are plenty of stories online detailing hotels that will not provide agreed-upon incentives, or literally go so far as to yell at a customer for taking advantage of a BRG.  I've never experienced anything like this, and I assume a lot has to do with being polite and ethical.  If a hotel does act unprofessionally, it's probably best to simply pay for the room and take it up with the corporate chain after the stay.  They'll typically pay out and bill the hotel later.

Over the years, a number of hotel chains have experimented with providing free rooms if a lower rate is found elsewhere.  Wyndham was one of the first chains to provide free rooms, and I remember the first time I was able to get a free stay at an airport Ramada.  I was so excited about the successful claim I failed to read the hotel reviews.  The hotel was basically being used as a halfway house for the local law enforcement agencies -- not exactly the "enforcer" role I wanted to play.  Fortunately, I was able to cancel my reservation and book elsewhere.  As of the writing of this post, Wyndham no longer provides free rooms.

There are currently two hotel chains that provide free rooms -- Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) and Choice Hotels.  Both chains have a number of hotel brands, including upscale properties like Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, and Ascend Collection.

IHG Best Rate Guarantee
IHG Brands
IHG's most well-known properties include Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, although they have many brands.  When you book a one night stay and find the same room for cheaper online, they'll give you the night for free.  They do not typically charge taxes or other fees.

Choice Hotels Best Rate Guarantee
Choice Hotels Brands
Choice Hotels are typically known for their budget accommodations (Comfort Inn, Sleep Inn, Quality Inn), but they also have some higher-end hotel brands.  When you book a one night stay and find the same room for cheaper online, they'll give you the night for free.  They do not typically charge taxes or other fees.

Before going any further, you should familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of each guarantee:
If you want to get a free room, it is very important that you play by the rules.  I cannot overemphasize this point.  No one likes to hand out free rooms, and if you don't adhere to the terms and conditions of the offer, your request will be denied.    This is especially important if you book a non-refundable rate, because you won't be able to cancel your room if your BRG claim is denied.  As a rule, I don't typically book non-refundable rooms unless I'm prepared to pay the full rate.

Next, you need to find the same room on both the hotel chain site and another online site.  This includes the dates, room description, bed types, number of people in the room, amenities such as free wifi or free breakfast, currency, and cancellation policy.  There is only one notable exception to this rule -- with IHG, the cancellation policy on the competing site may be less restrictive (for example, the competing site may have a $25 cancel fee while the IHG has a 100% cancel fee).

Typically, you need to book the "Best Available Rate" on the hotel chain's website and the competing website.  No AAA rates, corporate rates, coupon rates, etc.  Also, you should ensure the price difference between the hotel chain site and competing site is at least $1.  For IHG, the difference must be $1 or 1%, whichever is higher.  The difference must exist for both the published rate and the rate including taxes/fees, so watch out for competing sites that charge a booking fee.

With IHG, you also need to ensure that you're picking the lowest rate offered for the room.  In other words, if a Deluxe King Room is offered for $89 advance purchase (100% cancel fee) and $99 flexible (no cancel fee), you must book the advance purchase rate.  This restriction often forces you to select a non-refundable rate with IHG, significantly increasing the risk that you may not get a free room.

Different amenities constitute a different room, so you can sometimes get around IHG's "lowest rate offered" restriction by booking a room with breakfast, which is less likely to require an advance purchase rate.  However, you must find the same breakfast offered on the competing site.

Typically, higher priced hotels are most likely to have negotiated rates, and are more likely to be good candidates for BRGs.  Holiday Inn Express, for example, is almost never a good candidate for a BRG since their rates tend to be consistent across all booking channels.

In the coming weeks, I'll post some examples of successful BRGs.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cheap Chicago 2013

Last year, Mrs. TIL's brother found some Sprit "$9 fare club" fares to Chicago, and asked us to join him for a weekend in January.  He's the one guy I know who probably a) travels more than we do for leisure and b) always seems to find lower rates.  So, I knew the weekend would be far more than just a "visit", especially after he announced he had scored the Doubletree Magnificent Mile for around $50.  The competition was on!

Last year, two free round-trip Amtrak tickets from my hometown, a free night at the Hotel Indigo (great property!), and a free tour of the city made for a great inexpensive vacation.  We even found a couple of incredible happy hours for dinner and a bar where we were able to score free drinks.

This year, the competition is on again, and Mrs. TIL is being a bit more particular about what she wants -- two nights in a hotel on Magnificent Mile (at least 4 star), easy transportation from our hometown to Chicago (no driving!), and the hotels must be close together so we don't need to haul luggage all over the city.  Reasonable requests, for sure.

So, the challenge is on for 2013.  My goal is to get two nights in a 4+ star hotel (preferably suites or breakfast included) with no out-of-pocket expense or points spent.  I'd also like to get cheap or free transportation to and from Chicago without blowing a bunch of points.  Finally, I'd like to get free transportation within the city, and at least one free tour.  Paying for reasonable meals and drinks is okay (soup kitchens are out), but meals should not cost more than what we'd spend at home for food.

Can I do it?  Stay tuned!