Travel Tuesday: I’ve Lost My Mind

travel on the mind“Honey?”

“Yes, my darling?”

“Do we need a two-day rental car for any reason?” I ask. “I can get it for $5 total, but I’m not sure if we’d actually need it any time soon…”

“Oh, brother,” Lance sighs with an air of defeat.

This is my life lately.  While I’ve been otherwise lazy as shit (no, really…that’s about as apt a simile as I can come up with), I’ll keep myself up at night, my brain doing (probably really poor) arithmetic, calculating percentages off, points transferred, miles gained.

2013 was supposed to be our “good” year.  Be frugal, save some money, pay down some debt, line the coffers and such.  Of course, a huge expense of ours last year was traveling, so when Lance and I sat down to trim our expenses, that was the first to go.  No more spontaneous overnights to Disney World ::sadface::

This also meant no “major” traveling.  We like to do at least a weeklong vacation somewhere–Vegas (ugh), Hawaii, Tokyo.  As I’ve discussed before, we alternate who picks these annual vacations because there’s no way we could ever agree to one place.  2013 was Lance’s year to pick, but by agreeing to punt his vacation into 2014, Lance became frustrated and mighty sad.

Only a few weeks into this new status quo, and it was already driving me nuts.  Though this is the first-worldiest of problems, I couldn’t imagine going a whole year without a vacation.  In fact, I may love piecing together the elements of a vacay more than actually going on vacation.  I love getting the best hotel deal, getting the cheapest flight, arranging an itinerary.

So…I looked at our frequent flyer accounts through American Airlines.  Though neither of us are super-fans of AA (we’ll get to the Cookie Incident another time), we accumulated a nice chunk of miles through our first two trips to Hawaii by flying American, so we are kinda stuck with them.

We were both somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 miles; too little to redeem for a roundtrip to Europe (what I’d been saving the miles for), but just enough for a roundtrip to Hawaii.  Instead of spending $800+ each on plane tickets, we’d pay $5 a piece for taxes and fees.

I heroically offered up the miles I alone had amassed so that Lance could take his vacation.  Please, no applause.

The only problem was the dates available to book flights either allowed too short of a vacation, or one that was 10+ days.  I wasn’t going to spend 11 hours on a plane to only go to Hawaii for four days, but the 10-day vacation scared me.  Hotels in Hawaii ain’t cheap, and eating in Hawaii is like going out to eat all the time in a big city: we’re used to those kind of prices, but doing it for 10 solid days adds up quickly.

But, the thought of going for double-digit days appealed to Lance. “Let’s do it!” he proclaimed, forgetting our whole “financially responsible” charge.

So, we booked the flight; now we needed a hotel.  A nice one.  And a cheap one.

We’d previously stayed at the Hilton Waikiki Beach, and loved it, but it was going for over $200 a night; the goal of this trip was to save money, not spend $2000 on a hotel room.

So I began looking elsewhere.  Thankfully, around the corner from the Hilton is a brand-new Hyatt Place, which was going for $169-$212 a night.

In this case, Hyatt is preferable to me for two reasons:

  1. They offer a better best rate guarantee than Hilton does, where, if you find a cheaper rate elsewhere, Hyatt’ll not only match it but take 20% off.
  2. I have a Hyatt credit card, which I got primarily for the “no international fees” feature, but it also allows me to rack up Hyatt hotel points to redeem for free nights.  Plus, I get a free night dumped into my account on my cardholder anniversary, which will be in July (and we go to Hawaii in August.)

So now I’m in the process of coming up with every possible scenario for using our free nights and paying for nights.  I already have one night booked with points, and I estimate I can earn enough points via my credit card before we go to redeem for a second free night (this only requires, like, $12,000 spent on my card. You know, whatever).  So there’s the scenario for one free night and nine paid nights, two free nights and eight paid nights, etc.

I’m hoping to get it down to where we’re only paying for seven nights out of the ten; I’ve already used Hyatt’s Best Rate Guarantee to bring the hotel cost down to $120 a night (from $169-212  a night).  This required me scouring the internet for a cheaper advertised rate, and then calling up Hyatt and trying to convince them that all the terms and conditions are exactly the same (really, they try to find the tiniest discrepancy so that your “claim” isn’t valid).

I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent calling Hyatt trying to get them to match rates; oftentimes, if they find a minuscule difference, I hang up and shout, “It is TOO valid, you sonofabitch!!” and shake my fist in the air all dramatic-like. And then I cry.

But it’s worth it.  I love doing this stuff, and it makes going on vacation financially feasible where it wasn’t otherwise.  Instead of spending $1700+ a person on a flight-hotel package deal through American, we’re aiming to spend about $450 a person on paid nights.

So that’s basically what I’ve been doing instead of writing blog posts.

 

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All Aboot Points, Eh

Next week, a few colleagues and I will be flying an aeroplane beyond Castle Black and the Wall to the Great White North, land of maple, moose and Molson.  You got that right: MINNESOTA!

Just kidding. I wouldn’t wish Minnesota on my worst enemy (I’ve actually never been there, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the mom on “Bobby’s World”, which is the only thing I’m basing my opinion on.)

No, silly, we’re going to Canada!  POUTINE! (That’s Canadian for “Yay!”)

As some of you know, I’ve turned into a bit of a hotel/airline points fiend in my old age, and a business trip is a great way to build up some points on somebody else’s dime.  No downside there, right?

Welllll…maybe.

(more…)

Plane Crazy

I have made it no secret, my love for frequent flyer miles. Some people have their fantasy football, others their rock collections.  Well, my hobby is miles.

It wasn’t until after a trip to Hawaii, where Lance and I both racked up nearly 10,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles in one trip, that we began paying attention to miles (I mean, a one-way domestic ticket on AA is only 12.5K miles! We were SOOO close!).  Then I started getting e-mails about signing up for Netflix (3K bonus miles on AA), or downloading the AAdvantage add-on toolbar (another 1K bonus).  Pretty soon (and another trip to Hawaii later), Lance and I had accumulated enough miles for two round-trip tickets for our impending trip to Tokyo.

I mean, nearly free* tickets to Tokyo! The retail price for one of the same RT tix as of today is $1700.

(*In most cases, you’ll still get charged applicable taxes and 9/11 security fees and all that. Our trip was $110 in taxes between the two of us.)

A lot of people ask how to play the FF game (read: it breaks my cold, stone heart when I hear of people throwing away miles because they didn’t join that airline’s loyalty program, so I usually sit them down and lecture them on how to set right their negligent ways).  So, let me give you a primer:

  1. Join the loyalty clubs…for everything. This is your first step, usually doesn’t cost you anything and new memberships are usually incentivized with bonus miles.  Even if you don’t use the program, it’s good to have in your back pocket (and, honestly, you join every new Pinterest and Gilt; why not add something else?)
  2. But…pick a few airlines and focus on them. While you’ll inevitably fly pretty much everything in your search for the cheapest fare, you’re likely to fly a few more often than not depending on who services your airport. (It’s essentially pointless for me to try and earn a bunch of JetBlue miles, for example, since that airline doesn’t fly to/from PHL). I like to play a three-tiered system, with a legacy airline like AA, a PHL-hub airline like US Airways, and a low-cost carrier like Southwest. I’m most likely to fly these guys, given my home airport; also, between the destinations of AA and US and their partner airlines, I can get to pretty much anywhere in the world.
  3. Don’t spend any more money…and still earn miles.  Nearly every e-retailer has an FF incentive, if you take an extra step. If you go to your airline’s “shopping portal,” you can then get a specialized link to your retailer of choice, most offering anywhere from 3-5 miles per dollar spent.  For example, we bought our new furniture from CB2 through the AAdvantage eShopping portal, and earned enough miles for a one-way domestic ticket that we wouldn’t have received otherwise. Granted, when awards tickets cost 12.5K, it’s gonna take you awhile to get there, but this is good way to build your miles balance over time.
  4. Earning FF miles with other partners. Most hotel chains will offer FF miles with your stay (for example, you can get 600 Southwest points per Best Western stay); same with rental car companies. This is another reason to sign up for loyalty programs, and if you travel for work, all the better!
  5. Stay up-to-date: Some of the best ways to get miles is through contests or promotions run by the airlines, though you probably won’t find out about these unless you follow those in the know on Facebook or Twitter.  I recommend @GlobeTrotScott, @OneMileAtATime, or @ThePointsGuy for staying in-the-know.
  6. Be patient. By choosing to play the miles game, you’re requiring of yourself a Monopoly-like time commitment.  There are really only a handful of ways that you’re going to earn miles quickly without going broke: traveling a lot for work, having a good credit card rewards program like Chase’s Ultimate Rewards (which allows you to transfer your UR points to FF or hotel points on a 1:1 ratio), and signing up for a bunch of airline credit cards.  Otherwise, be prepared to see those miles build up slowly.

Now, I don’t play the credit card “churning” game (which is where you apply for a new miles-bonus credit card every 3-6 months), since it’s not only a lot to keep track of (when to open, when to close, annual fees, etc.), but I’m suspicious of its effect on my credit.  Churning is a beloved method amongst your most die-hard of miles collectors, though, so if you’re curious, I recommend you check out this article on FlyerTalk on the rationale and strategy behind it.

I’m in envy and awe of those who have the resources and the time to amass huge amounts of miles and who can essentially travel anywhere at the world on a whim.  My ideal job would be to travelogue on free miles, bouncing from one country to the next like some exotic game of hopscotch.

Lance can stay home and watch Kitty.