Travel Tuesday: More Bang For Your Buck

blog 5.3.12
(Yes, I am reusing this doodle since it’s fairly appropriate.)

Sure, sure, this isn’t a travel blog, it’s a relationship/marriage/humor/pet hijinks blog. However, one of the things Lance and I love to do is travel; it’s a core element of our relationship.  We’re also extreme-coupon’ers-in-training, so when it comes to travel, I will search high and low for the best deal, the biggest bonus points offer, etcetera, etcetera.

Since Lance and I have a few trips planned on the horizon, I’d been looking for good deals on hotels for Hawaii and Southern California, our next two destinations.  The goal of this game I play is to get the nicest product for the cheapest price.  At this point in my life, I’m not looking at Days Inns or Holiday Inn Expresses if I can avoid it; my target hotels are Hyatt, Hilton, and, sometimes, Marriott (which tend to be a little older fashioned, decor-wise, than what I like, but they have nice amenities).

Marriott has a pretty solid Best Rate Guarantee, which will match any lower price you find from a third-party website plus an additional 25% off.  I had successful matches at the Courtyard Marriott Kauai at Coconut Beach (bringing a nightly rate of $179 down to $86 a night) and the Anaheim Marriott down the street from Disneyland (original rate: $139/night; updated rate: $72.15/night).

Four nights in Hawaii for under $400 after taxes and four nights in Anaheim for under $350 after taxes, both at pretty decent hotels, are some good deals, right?

Wait; it gets better (™, Dan Savage).

Marriott is currently running three different promotions (one with United Airlines, one with Amtrak, and one with Southwest Airlines, though I’ve only utilized the latter two). on their own gift cards.  You know how these things work: around the holidays, Ruby Tuesday will offer to give you a $10 coupon if you buy $50 worth of Ruby Bucks (or whatever they’re called).  This is something similar.

Marriott’s promotion with Amtrak will get you a 10% bonus on any gift card purchase over $25 using promotion code AMT (more detailed information about this promotion can be found at LoyaltyLobby).  I purchased $310 worth of Marriott gift cards for our trip to Anaheim, and got a $31 bonus, which covers the cost of our stay.  This bring our effective out-of-pocket cost for four nights from $340 down (again, for a room that originally cost $556 before taxes) to $310.

LoyaltyLobby also featured another Marriott gift card deal:  with gift card amount over a certain dollar amount, you’d get bonus Southwest Airlines points, called “Rapid Rewards.”  As I’m pretty close to the amount I need to redeem for a flight to Orlando on Southwest, I took advantage of this deal to pay for our hotel in Hawaii.  I already had some Marriott gift cards from another promotion, so I only needed $250 worth, and was able to get 3000 bonus Southwest Rapid Rewards.  Granted, I could’ve opted to use the above promotion to save myself about $25, but I figured since the 3000 Rapid Rewards will get my Southwest account up to where I can redeem for an airline ticket (which would probably cost $125+ out of pocket otherwise), I figured it was worth it.

I hope y’all who like to travel out there can take advantage of these deals. The gift cards don’t expire, so if you see yourself staying at a Marriott family hotel (Courtyards, Fairfield Inns, Residence Inn, etc.), it might be worth stocking up on some of these if you’ve got the cash lying around.

Then you just need to be careful not to lose them!

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Travel Tip Thursday: How Shopping Can Net You Mega Miles

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Apologies for the lack of updates, LEG+JCBphiles, but, you know, DOG.

Anyway, quick update today on how to make sure you’re getting the most out of regular purchases.  I mean, why buy $100 in pet gates when I can buy $100 in pet gates and get 400 frequent flier miles?

You can purchase products from almost every major retailer online and earn miles or hotel points, as long as you make sure to go through an extra step or two (and, honestly, if you’re spending money so fast online that you can’t slow down enough to take these extra steps, then you should speak with a professional).

Now, how do you find out if, say, the infant chinos you want to buy from BabyGap for your creepy human doll will qualify for miles? There’s a really useful site out there call ev’reward, where you just enter the URL for the website you want to purchase from, and it will produce a list of programs like American Airlines AAdvantage or US Airways Dividend Miles that will award miles for that purchase, and how many miles you’ll earn per dollar spent.

Just to reiterate what I said in a previous post: you’re probably only going to earn 3-5 miles per dollar spent, so this is not going to net you a first-class round-trip to Paris anytime soon, but it’s a nice way to keep a steady stream of miles flowing into your account, and they do add up over time.  Sometimes, too, retailers will offer higher amounts during promotions.  You can also earn lots of miles through subscription-based products like The New York Times (where I earned 1761 AA miles for home delivery), magazine subscriptions (23 miles per dollar on Magazines.com), or Netflix (1000+ miles for new subscriptions).

I also wanted to give a quick shout out to a really useful miles tool for which I’ve been late to the party: AwardWallet. If you are new to the miles game like I was until recently, you may find yourself checking a dozen different websites to keep track of how many miles you have with United, then Delta, then hotel points with Hyatt, Starwood, and so on.  Not only that, but you’ve probably signed up for so many rewards programs over the years that you probably don’t remember log-in info across all of the different sites.  Well, timesuck no more!  AwardWallet allows you to keep track of all of your rewards programs on one site. Super simple and convenient!

Happy travels, everyone!  We will be living vicariously through you, since we are now house-arrested with Ripley, the world’s cutest ankle bracelet.

Travel Tip Thursday: Spring Training for U.S. Airways’ Grand Slam

[This one’s for you, Alix!]

I detailed in a post a few weeks ago some beginners’ tips on how to start racking up points/miles for airline and hotels stays.  Now, I’m gonna show you guys how to step it up a notch through one of the best (and most fun!) airline miles promos out there.  All it takes is time and effort (and in some cases, some cold hard cash).

For the past couple of years, US Airways has run a fall promotion called the Grand Slam, a cheap and fast way to score thousands of miles.  It’s essentially a promo to encourage business with their various partners (hotel chains, SkyMall, rental car companies, etc.) via a baseball-themed, escalating bonus miles incentive.  For every 4 partners you did business with, you not only received the normal amount of miles you would get from those transactions, but you would also get a bunch of bonus miles as well.

Last year, it went a lil’ somethin’…like this:

4 “hits” = 3,000 bonus miles

8 “hits” = an additional 7,000 bonus miles (10,000 total)

12 “hits”= an additional 5,000 bonus miles (15,000 total)

16 “hits”= an additional 10,000 bonus miles (25,000 total)

…and so on and so forth, with the maximum amount of “hits” (or individual transactions with those partners) capped at 40, 40 hits getting you a total of 110,000 bonus miles!

The good news? Several of the hits are free, which I’ll go into as we get closer to September (when the Grand Slam has started in the past), so you can gain 10,000 bonus miles with just a little bit of elbow grease. Some hits are cheap or require you to spend money you would’ve spend anyway, which is how I got to 25,000 miles last year. The bad news? Some are expensive or nearly impossible to complete, like last year’s LasikPlus surgery hit (no joke!)

But why am I bringing up a promotion that won’t even start for another 4-5 months? (If it happens again at all!)  Because some of these “hits” require a little bit of advanced planning.

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Travel Tip Thursday: How to Stay Like a Prince But Pay Like a Pauper

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I used to be of the opinion that traveling was all about experiencing the local culture, and the quality of the hotel was inconsequential.

However, after a series of seedy stays in hotels, ranging from the classic flickering-light drug-den in Miami to the Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan, where an Eastern European lady emerged from her room in a muumuu and curlers to ask me for help in opening her bottle of champagne (apparently she lived there), I decided to re-frame my approach to hotels.

Also, Lance is generally a snob and will sleep fully clothed on top of the covers if the room doesn’t suit him.  Oh, and he’ll involuntarily make this face the entire time:

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My new philosophy is this: traveling is about having a great overall experience, which includes where you stay.  It’s like going to out to eat; the food may be great, but if the restaurant looks like it’s the after-hours meeting place for our impending rat overlords, then that tarnishes your experience.

So when planning for your trip, how do you know if your hotel is up to your lofty standards? And how can you stay somewhere that’s within your budget?  Here are some tips for newbies:

TripAdvisor is your friend. TripAdvisor, for the uninitiated, is like Yelp, but for all things travel, particularly hotels.  Two things are great about TripAdvisor.

  • First, many of the listings include photos taken by travelers themselves, not just the gussied-up professional photos you get from the hotels; this way, you’re getting a taste of what it’s really like to stay in these places, as opposed to the image that the hotels uses to sell itself, which could be vastly different.
  • The second great thing about TripAdvisor is their review system (0-5…circles? Owl eyes?) is a more honest representation of their quality than the B.S. star-system you see on Expedia or Orbitz.  Guess what? That star rating you see on hotel sites is totally bogus and is established by the hotels themselves! I’ve recently come around to semi-pro traveller Paul Carr (highly recommend his book The Upgrade for this and other useful travel tips infused with dry British humour), who sticks to the rule of only staying at places that have earned 4 or more TripAdvisor owl eyes; anything else isn’t worth your time.

Subscribe to yet another e-mail alert! Sign up for the weekly e-mail alerts from Travelzoo and Sherman’s Travel.  These sites have staffs that pull together some great deals on vacations, flights, and hotels from all over the world, and every once and awhile they’ll announce that the hotel you want to stay in is having a great promotion.

A little legwork will pay big dividends on your room rate.  The worst part about wanting to go to a place like New York or San Francisco is that, daaaaayyymn, hotels are ‘spensive. But, there’s a way you can sometimes beat the system and stay somewhere nicer than the Tenderloin.

Almost all of the major chains (Hilton, Starwood (which includes Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, etc.), Hyatt, Best Western) have a price-match guarantee, so if you see the same room on the same night cheaper than what’s listed on their own company website, they claim they’ll match and also give you a bonus, like an American Express gift card (Hilton) or a credit for your next stay (Best Western).  Unfortunately, most of these chains have a trick in their process so that you’ll almost never be able to match: for example, Hilton, Starwood, and Best Western require that you fill out a form online and give their customer service reps (CSRs) 24 hours to get back to you; if the lower rate is still available at the time they check, then they will match.  Keep in mind, though, that most hotel sales through sites like Expedia or Hotels.com only last for 24 hours, so the likelihood of that lower rate you’ve found being available by the time the hotel CSR checks is slim.

I’ve had the most luck with Hyatt’s Best Rate Guarantee. Unlike the other chains, you can actually call and get a real live person on the phone to check if your price match is valid at that very second. Not only that, but if it is valid, they’ll match, and then give you an additional 20% off on the room rate!  This is how we were able to stay at the Andaz Wall Street last year for $120 a night, a steal in Manhattan and definitely the nicest hotel…shower I’ve ever experienced.

Now, things to consider here: these best rate guarantees are VERY particular about a few things, especially that the room type be listed as exactly the same, word-for-word, on their website and a competitor’s.  You also can’t use sites with “auction” features (i.e., paying for the room before knowing exactly which hotel you’re staying at), like Priceline and Hotwire.  Lastly, they won’t honor any vacation bundles (like, if your flight and hotel price are combined on a site like Travelocity)–it has to be the room all by itself.

When looking for a possible price-match, I with check the following sites to make sure I’m covering all possible options: aggregate sites like Room77 and Kayak, but also American Airlines Vacations, which isn’t usually included in sites like those above and can often surprise with lower rates than you can find elsewhere.

Lastly, dealsdealsdeals.  Besides Groupon and LivingSocial, which rarely offer nice hotels in desirable locations at a rate I would consider a steal, there are often deals going on through the hotel chains themselves, or through other vendors, that can be worthwhile.  For example, for the next few weeks, American Express and the U.S. Travel Association are running some solid travel deals through their annual Daily Getaways promotion.  Earlier this week, I bought 32,000 Wyndham Rewards points for $110, which I was able to redeem for a Friday and Saturday night stay at the Wingate Manhattan Midtown. That’s $55 a night for a room that’s currently going for $335 a night on Expedia and Orbitz!

You can usually find out about these deals from sites like The Points Guy or Mommy Points, so I suggest liking them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter so you can keep abreast of the latest deals.

All right, so now that I’ve shared some of my tips with you, share some with me! Particularly, where are some non-sucky places to have dinner in NYC?  No matter how many times we go, Lance and I always seem to get stuck at really terrible over-promise/under-deliver restaurants.  Recommendations in the $ to $$$ range?