I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not as deep into the weeds on this stuff as I was 4 years ago when I was planning our 2013 Big Trip. But, most of the principles are the same.
Our personal travel patterns have changed a lot in the last 2 years. The biggest change is that there are now 3 of us, one of whom takes a 2-3 hour nap in the middle of the day and goes to bed at 8:00 (No, I’m not talking about Alyce…at least not most of the time). If you’re staying in a hotel room, that makes for a very dark, quiet, and boring time during those hours. That’s a major reason why we’ve spent more time in vacation rentals – in addition to the extra space.
Secondly, we’ve been traveling in Europe. My favorite hotel brand – Hyatt – is not too prevalent in many European locations. Plus, I haven’t been Diamond for over a year, and European hotels just aren’t as impressive as the Asian hotels in general. And as I just described, hotel rooms don’t really work for us unless we have a suite. We didn’t stay in a traditional hotel in Italy at all and likely will not on our upcoming France trip.
Vacation Rental Tips
Vacation rentals have become much more popular and prevalent since we stayed in them on our big trip. The biggest addition to the vacation rental realm is Airbnb. They are definitely a rental site worth checking out. www.VRBO.com is still another good option for finding rentals. Trip Advisor is good for searching out different types of properties, just be sure to check out the “Specialty Lodging” and “Vacation Rentals” tabs to see reviews on properties other than hotels. And at least in Italy, booking.com was a good resource for finding vacation rental/hybrid rental type properties (e.g. Castel Brunello and Le Torri).
There aren’t many money saving tips on these, but there is one trick…Different sites will charge different rates for the same rental. Usually Airbnb will be the most expensive (because of the fees they charge, among other things). If you can find the same place elsewhere, you can probably get a better deal. Airbnb knows this – that is why they have places named things like “great 2BR apartment with view” or something equally generic. They also don’t give you the exact address. So if you’re interested, you can do a reverse image search if you use Chrome as your web browser to try to find the property elsewhere.
Best Rate Guarantees
This used to be a favorite technique of mine, but it is nowhere near as useful anymore. Hyatt gutted theirs, and it is now pretty much useless. Hilton’s was never that good. Marriott is still good – if you can actually get it. SPG is decent. Basically, now there are so many rules that hotels can reject just about any rate – and many of them do. [After typing, Hyatt backed off of their changes and pretended like they were never supposed to be implemented like they were, but that is just painting a rosy picture. The sentiment remains the same that BRGs are more difficult to implement these days.]
Citi Prestige 4th Night Free
This is a pretty recent development. The Prestige has long abandoned its flight companion pass that was a great deal, but it replaced it with this. And this benefit could even be better.
Essentially, you get the 4th night’s rate plus taxes back as a credit when you book through Citi. It is a little more of a hassle than booking direct with the hotel, but they can generally book any rate available on the hotel website. You can really save some serious cash with this trick, and you can do it as many times a year as you want.
Alyce and I each have a Prestige card. We booked our hotel room and Patrick and Stephanie’s hotel room on our cards on the recent Napa trip. We saved $400 per room – or $800 total. And that is real money that we actually would have considered paying (though probably not without the credit). The card also gives you $250 back per year on any air related purchase (including tickets) along with some other benefits.
As of now, it is definitely worth it…But we’ll see how long it lasts.
Many of the techniques I described in my original hotel booking post are still very useful. These include making a booking with a luxury travel agent to get extra benefits (breakfast/room credit/etc.) for usually no extra cost. Same thing with credit card programs (AMEX Fine Hotels and Resorts, Chase Luxury Hotels, etc.).
Organizational codes are still a great way to save money. AAA, AARP, ABA, etc. Some of these can be combined with the 4th night free benefit I just described above.
As everyone who pays attention to points/miles expected, American Airlines both devalued their award chart and will be switching to an earning system based on ticket cost instead of miles flown.
The award charts for American Airlines are still not too bad for many things. Economy awards didn’t go up too much. Business awards are more expensive but are generally still within reach. First class awards took the brunt of the blow. That awesome flight to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class that used to cost 67,500 miles…It’s now 110,000. That’s a painful 63% increase.
Oh well…While those first class flights were incredible, the reason for flying is to actually get to someplace. You can still pretty easily do that for free in economy, and you can do it in business class with some more advanced planning/preparation. And the silver lining to the increased first class award costs is that the people that want to pay the increased award price should have an easier time actually finding flights.
Delta…If Delta was a dog, I’d give it a pop on the nose and say “bad Delta!” For as good as Delta is when it comes to the actual in flight experience, they have the worst loyalty program by a wide margin. So what got them in trouble this time?
They no longer have an award chart. They just did away with it. Want to know how much something cost? Search some flights and try to guess. Yeah…that makes for easy planning if you’re trying to plan for something a year out. Another thing that this mystery pricing has people concerned with is pricing awards based off of how many miles you have (or some other arbitrary measure). Have a million miles in your account and are looking for 4 round trip flights – that will be 200k miles a piece. Only have 500,000 in your account, then it could be 125,000 miles a piece. Who knows? Literally…Who knows? At this point, they’re probably better off just making their miles worth 1 cent a piece; I would not be surprised in the slightest if that happens sometime soon.
United is largely unchanged since the last post. Good for economy, decent for business awards, bad for first class. If first class awards are still something you’re interested in, Alaska Airlines may be the program for you.
Otherwise, most of what I posted in the past still applies. Search way ahead of your trip to get an idea of what award space opens up far out and close to departure. Being flexible in dates and/or destination greatly increases your chances of securing a hard to find award seat. Don’t forget about alliances and partner airlines, and remember that sometimes you have to use different sites to find those awards. Search for your longest flight first, and then worry about getting to your gateway…and so on.
Transferrable points are still the best. At any time, a program can just pull the award chart without notice and raise prices by 2-3 times [cough] Delta [cough]. If you have all your eggs in that one basket, you’ll be out of luck.
Along those lines, Starwood Preferred Guest points are still my favorite because they transfer to so many airlines at 1 SPG Point to 1.25 Airline Miles (if transferred in blocks of 20,000 points at a time). If you want to fly in international first class, you need to obtain as many SPG points as you can. They transfer to Alaska Airlines, JAL, AA, and on and on…
The problem with SPG points is that they are hard to obtain in bulk quantity. The Amex card has no bonus categories (other than SPG hotels). Also, SPG was just bought by Marriott, and the programs will be combined at some point. But that is a likely a little while away, and you should have time to transfer points out as desired before the programs merge.
Ultimate Rewards are probably my next favorite because they can be transferred to United, Hyatt, and several other programs. American Airlines is just behind Ultimate Rewards after the recent devaluation. I probably value AA ahead of any of the UR transfer partners, but the flexibility is what puts UR ahead. After that, I’d group United, Hyatt, and Amex Membership Rewards together just behind American. Marriott and IHG can be decent at times. Hilton points aren’t worth much (about a third of a cent on average). Alaska Airline Miles are a valuable lesser known point currency. Delta…don’t go out of your way to accumulate Delta miles.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it…Credit Card sign up bonuses are the single best and quickest way to earn points and miles – by a wide margin.
That said, things are getting more difficult in the credit card game. As more and more people are discovering the benefits of signing up for credit cards, banks are starting to enforce rules that have been ignored in the past to stop churners or are coming up with new rules to cut back on churners.
American Express currently only allows you to receive the sign up bonus on any one card once per lifetime. This could change in the future, but it might not. So, pick your sign ups for AMEX credit cards wisely and only when they have very good bonuses.
Chase now has the 5/24 rule. Google “Chase 5/24” and you’ll see tons of information. Essentially, you cannot get a new Chase card if you have signed up for more than 5 cards in the past 24 months from any bank. They check your credit reports to determine this, so business accounts don’t count – but being added as an authorized user does. This rule already applies to Chase branded cards and is supposed to apply to all Chase cards any day now.
Citi is still better than Chase/Amex, but they limit you to one sign up bonus per credit card every 24 months. In other words, you can only churn a Citi card once every 2 years.
Barclays hasn’t cracked down (yet), but they lost their most valuable partner, US Airways, in the merger with AA. So they just don’t have that many interesting cards. Same thing for some of the other smaller banks.
If you’re just getting into signing up for credit cards, all of the above is not a huge deal because you have so many options. But you still want to be thoughtful in choosing the cards you sign up for. For example, don’t sign up for a 15,000 point Amex Gold offer because there will likely be a 50,000 or 75,000 point offer at some point.
On meeting minimum spend, Amazon Payments is dead. That was a sad e-mail to see come across my inbox. But there are still ways if you are willing to spend a little bit. I’ve been using www.plastiq.com and have not had any problems. They will charge your credit card and write a check to any biller/mortgage loan/car loan/student loan/land lord etc. for a 2% to 3% fee. I’ve paid plenty of different billers and have not had a problem. And being that it’s tax season, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can pay your taxes with a credit card for a 1.8% fee or so. If you’re self employed/make estimated tax payments, that can be a lot of spending.
On picking a card for everyday spending, assuming you don’t want to deal with numerous cards….The AMEX everyday preferred I discussed in my last post is still definitely worth considering. And the SPG card should always be considered depending on your goals.
Chase just came out with the Freedom Unlimited; it gives you 1.5 UR points per dollar on all spend. If you combine that with a premium Chase card (Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus), you can transfer those to miles or use them towards travel at 1.25 cent per point. They are also worth one cent a point cash, making it a no annual fee 1.5% cash back card. This gives you a ton of versatility.
Citi has some good cards too, but not quite the partners of Chase. I think they’ll add American Airlines as a Thank You Point transfer partner at some point (pure speculation on my part). At that point, I’d be more likely to recommend one of their cards as a stand alone everyday card. That said, if you’re up for using multiple cards and keeping tabs on bonus categories, I’d add some Citi cards.
Just promise me one thing – you will not put all of your spending on a Delta card. Even if you want Delta miles, you’re better or with the SPG card or the AMEX Everyday preferred because they both transfer to Delta miles and earn at a better rate. The only way using a Delta card could possibly make sense is if you are trying to obtain the Medallion Qualifying Miles from spend thresholds. Even then, I suggest you take hard look at your opportunity cost in that scenario.
Finishing up with a quick blog update…Blogs have helped the whole credit card game go more mainstream. Some people are upset by that because they claim the blogs ruin deals – I don’t have a problem with it.
What I do have a problem with is when blogs clearly steer people in a direction that is probably not be in that person’s best interest based on referrals and advertising. It has gotten pretty bad in my opinion, and there seem to be a million blogs out there with people who barely know what they’re talking about hawking credit cards. Some of my former favorite blogs have gotten booted from my blog reader because they have stopped giving unbiased advice.
So here is who I still have on my blog reader for points/miles (with the caveat that I probably only actually read 10% to 15% of posts):
One Mile at a Time – Ben is probably the biggest of all the points bloggers, but I still like his blog. I feel he gives honest advice that is not overly influenced by referrals/advertiser requirements.
Doctor of Credit – This may be the best blog going. He got rid of credit card affiliate links because they complained to him that he wasn’t posting about their card enough. He also posts on interesting topics you might not see elsewhere.
Deals We Like – She still posts tons of deals of all types and gives good advice.
Mommy Points – She does a good job blogging and will actually post more than “look at me in this first class seat” type posts. She’ll give honest thoughts on travelling with kids.
Live and Let’s Fly – doesn’t post often, but usually has interesting posts when he does.
Regional First – Brad also doesn’t post that often, but he talks about different/more interesting destinations than a lot of other bloggers (e.g. a Great Barrier Reef livaboard). He’s also a really nice guy I’ve e-mailed back and forth with.
Travel Codex – This used to be called something else (I don’t remember). I think it’s worth the read with good advice.
[I had actually recommended the frequent miler when I typed this, but I was on the edge about it. When I clicked his link to verify that it was working before I published, his top post was a bad spam/clickbait post…So my advice is to steer clear. There are enough other blogs.]
It’s no accident that some of the big names in points blogging are missing. I just don’t feel comfortable recommending some of them.
Also, if you really want to get deep into the points/miles game, Flyertalk has more information on it than any of the blogs.
So there’s the 2016 update. I’ve said it several times, but the whole credit card sign up/points game is one of the few things in life that sounds too good to be true….but actually isn’t. There are very few reasons not to take advantage of it.