Monday, February 25, 2013

Disney on Points and Miles

I went out to lunch with an associate today, and we got to talking about my hobby (or perhaps addiction?).  In most cases when I explain the trips I've taken using points and miles, the other person doesn't really know where they want to go or what they want to do, and they're unlikely to ever follow through with earning and redeeming points and miles for a trip.  Although it sounds fun enough, they don't have enough interest to make it happen.

Who doesn't like Disney?
Today was a bit different, though.  The guy I met for lunch really wanted to take his family of four to Disney.  Nothing complicated, nothing fancy.  Just get from Michigan to Orlando in relative comfort.  First class if possible, but economy would be fine.

This is definitely possible, in some cases with a single well-timed credit card signup.  In lieu of any mega-offers, two simultaneous signups (either by the same person or two) would definitely fund the trip.  The only mega-offer currently out there is for the British Airways Visa, but it requires $20,000 in spend to get the 100,000 mile bonus.

1. Pick a Credit Card Signup Bonus

To narrow things down a bit, we're looking for a card that offers a nice signup bonus, preferably with no annual fee.  For a typical domestic redemption, we're looking at about 25k per person, so we want to find a card that provides at least a 50,000 mile signup bonus (assuming two card signups).

Here are some of the options currently out there:

Current Amex Offer - 50k!

  • Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card - 50k signup bonus after $1000 spend.  Transfers to British Airways (OneWorld alliance), Frontier, Delta (SkyTeam alliance), and Aeroplan (Star Alliance) for domestic flights, among others.  No annual fee for the first year.
  • Chase United Mileage Explorer Card - 55k signup bonus after $1000 spend and adding an authorized user.  No annual fee for the first year.
  • Chase British Airways Visa - 50k signup bonus after $1000 spend, 75k after $10000, 100k (!) after $20000.  $95 annual fee not waived.
  • Citi American Airlines Card (Visa or Amex) - 50k signup bonus after $3000 spend,  $150 statement credit for first AA purchase, and two free Admiral's Club passes.  No annual fee for the first year.
I'd personally recommend the Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card since it is the most flexible.  American Express Membership Rewards points can be transferred to airlines across all three major alliances and a handful of others, and left over miles can be used for hotels.

Another option is the BA Visa.  The current bonus ends on February 27, but is good for up to 100,000 British Airways miles!

2. Find The Best Flight Redemptions

For the cards above, we're looking at redeeming miles using British Airways, Frontier, Delta, Aeroplan, United, or American.  It's probably worth mentioning that just because points are redeemed with these airlines doesn't mean the flights need to be flown with these airlines.  For example, British Airways miles can be redeemed for American Airlines flights; Aeroplan miles can be redeemed for United, Air Canada, and US Airways flights.

When redeeming awards, you must redeem miles according to the redemption airline's award chart, even if you're flying on a partner airline.  For example, if you want to fly American Airlines from Chicago to Orlando using British Airways miles (which is possible, by the way), you would redeem according to British Airways' award chart.

Let's take a look at the possible redemptions in coach:

Chicago - Orlando Round Trip

One-Way Distance-Based Award Chart for British Airways 

  • 15,000 British Airways (flying on American Airlines)
  • 20,000 Frontier (flying on Frontier)
  • 25,000 Delta (flying on Delta)
  • 25,000 Aeroplan (flying on United, Air Canada, or US Airways)
  • 25,000 United (flying on United, Air Canada, or US Airways)
  • 25,000 American (flying on American Airlines)

Grand Rapids - Orlando Round Trip

One-Way Distance-Based Award Chart for British Airways
  • 24,000 British Airways (flying on American Airlines)
  • 20,000 Frontier (flying on Frontier)
  • 25,000 Delta (flying on Delta)
  • 25,000 Aeroplan (flying on United, Air Canada, or US Airways)
  • 25,000 United (flying on United, Air Canada, or US Airways)
  • 25,000 American (flying on American Airlines)
British Airways direct from Chicago is definitely a sweet spot!  At only 15k for a round trip, my associate could fly his family to and from Orlando and still have miles left over for two more flights.  Frontier is also a bit cheaper than others, but requires connecting in Denver.  Frontier's availability for redemption is also quite limited.

For redemptions, I'd probably look at using British Airways miles if possible, but fall back to other airlines if necessary.  Assuming my associate signs up for the Premier Rewards Gold Card, he can take advantage of different transfers and options based on availability.

3. Book Hotels

Without a large stash of hotel points, I'd look at a few different options:
  • Transfer from American Express to Hotel Points.
  • Use Priceline, Hotwire, or LastMinuteTravel to score a cheap hotel.
  • Best Rate Guarantees
Unfortunately, American Express hotel transfers are rarely a great deal.  Points can be funneled through Virgin America to Hilton, but Hilton's upcoming award chart devaluation would make any good Orlando properties cost-prohibitive.  Priceline, Hotwire, LastMinuteTravel and Best Rate Guarantees can all be very lucrative in Orlando.

4. Rent a Car

Orlando car rentals are crazy cheap, especially when booked through Priceline or Hotwire.

5. Find Cheap Disney Tickets

Haha, just kidding.  But I do recommend checking out Sea World or the Disney water parks while in Orlando.  Blizzard Beach is a blast in the summer!

6. Put it All Together!
  1. Apply for a couple of cards that provide British Airways miles.  I recommend the Amex Premier Rewards Gold card and/or the Chase BA Visa.
  2. Spend $1000 on each card within the first few months (time period for minimum spend varies).
  3. Once the miles post (after your first statement, usually), book four tickets on American Airlines to Orlando.  Use British Airways miles to book the flights.
  4. Book a cheap hotel and car.
  5. Enjoy!
  6. After a year, cancel or keep the cards.  Remember, annual fees can usually be negotiated.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ultimate Rewards for Luxury Hotel Stays - Excellent Redemption Value!

Okay, stay with me here.  To take advantage of this offer (and many other good Ultimate Rewards redemptions) you need to have either Amtrak Guest Rewards elite status or $200/yr. Amtrak travel spend on Amtrak's annual fee-free credit card.

If you're an Amtrak Guest Rewards member, you probably already know that you can transfer Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak Guest Rewards on a 1:1 basis.  It's a great deal in itself, since Amtrak offers first-class sleeper car accommodation (with meals) starting at 15,000 points -- for two people!

1:1 transfer UR to Amtrak

Amtrak Guest Rewards also has a couple of other great redemption options.  One is for Hilton, which transfers 1:2.  There are certainly deals to be had if you can now redeem Ultimate Rewards for Hilton points on a 1:2 basis.  The other hotel transfer option is to Choice Hotels, on a 1:3 basis.  Again, this is a great deal if you like to stay at Comfort Suites, Clarion, etc., since Choice redemptions start at only 6000 points.  You can literally stay at the top-rated hotel in Cork, Ireland (the brand new Clarion Cork) for only 8000 points.  That's only 2,667 Ultimate Rewards Points!

HHonors is good, but Choice Hotels is an even better transfer!

But, if you're like me, you like to use your points for more "aspirational" properties, and that's where Choice Hotels' partnership with Preferred Hotel Group comes in.

Choice Hotels partnership w/ Preferred Hotel Group

The Preferred Hotel Group redemptions start at 30,000 Choice Privileges points and go up to 60,000.  You need to book through the phone, and many phone agents aren't very familiar with the program.  The program was devalued quite a bit at the beginning of 2013, and a new tier was added, but there are still plenty of deals to be had.  I did some test bookings for a one night stay on an upcoming Saturday night, March 2.

We stayed at the Travaasa near Austin last year when it was still 30k.  Now it's 40k, but still a stellar deal.

40k Choice points

Retail price

The Travaasa offers complementary activities such as horse training, archery, and yoga.  Typically, you'd have to pay $482 ($450 + tax).  Or you could get the same room for 13,333 UR points.  That's 3.6 cents per point!  And, if you join the "I Prefer" loyalty program before booking, you'll probably get an upgrade and free breakfast, too.

Going to New York?  How about a night at the top-ranked Sherry Netherland boutique hotel?

60k Choice points

Retail price

Yes, it's 60k (or 20,000 UR points), which is pretty steep.  However, you're getting a $684 ($575 + tax) hotel room.  Calculated out, you're getting 3.4 cents per point!

One last example, this time in Hawaii.  For 40k (or 13,333 UR points), you can book the Waikiki Parc Hotel.  In March, it goes for $370 ($325+tax).  That's 2.8 cents per point!

40k Choice points

Retail price

In summary, there are some incredible redemptions available by transferring Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak and Choice Privileges.  Using Choice Hotels' partnership with Preferred Hotel Group, you can easily get 3+ cents per point when you redeem Ultimate Rewards points for luxury hotels.  And, you can still get perks from the Preferred Hotel Group "I Prefer" loyalty program just for signing up.

Don't forget, to transfer points through Amtrak Guest Rewards you need at least $200 Amtrak travel spend on their annual fee-free credit card, or Amtrak elite status.  And, many of the transfers discussed take a week or two, so leave yourself a bit of extra time before your trip.