Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thinking Strategically About Burning Hotel Points

In order to get maximum value of your points and miles, it's important to think strategically about when and how to use them, because every program has its own strengths and weaknesses. Every situation is a little different, depending on where you live, where you want to go, what level of interest you have in premium cabins, etc, etc, etc. What follows is what works for me - and I hope you can find some pieces that are useful for your situation as well!

Let's start with deciding which hotel points to burn for a given trip:

Starwood
Starwood is my primary program, primarily because I love their hotels, but also because it's the preferred program for many of my colleagues - which makes it much easier to earn and maintain elite status. I currently have Platinum status, which affords some great perks like bonus points every time I check in, extra points for every dollar I spend, free breakfast, free internet, upgrades to suites (my hit rate is pretty good here), and more.

The Moana Surfrider in Honolulu

Where it's good
Starwood also has a few redemption options that really help you get the most out of your points:
  • 5th Night Free - at most of its hotels (all but Category 1 & 2, the cheapest hotels), when you redeem points for 5 nights, you get the 5th free. It's essentially a 20% discount on 5-night stays (or slightly less of a discount for stays of 6+ nights, since you still just get 1 night free)
  • Cash and Points - all hotel categories have a special option, that's lets you redeem points for nights at a steep discount. Cash and Points redemptions require only 40% of the points normally required (50% at category 7 hotels) + a copay that varies with the hotel category. It can end up being pretty significant for a "free night" ($150 for category 6 hotels, $275 for category 7), but the combination of cash and points still presents a discount over regular redemptions, and even over 5th Night Free redemptions. Unfortunately, Cash and Points is capacity controlled, so it isn't always available.

Where it's not so good
Starwood is by no means perfect though, and there are some situations where I just don't think it presents great value:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - Hilton vs. Starwood Edition

There's a running debate going on between One Mile at a Time and View From the Wing about the value of Hilton points vs. Starwood points (and about the notion of valuing points in general, but I'm going to leave that bigger question alone for the time being). The question basically comes down to whether 3 Hilton points are worth slightly more or slightly less than 1 Starwood point. The reason why this supposedly matters is because there is a new Hilton credit card that offers 3 Hilton points for every $1 spent on "every day expenses" (anything that doesn't fall into their spend bonus categories - airlines, car rentals, Hilton hotels), while the Starwood Amex offers 1 Starwood point for every $1 spent on "every day expenses" (which in this case includes anything that isn't a Starwood hotel).

 

The fact of the matter is it doesn't really matter. What we're talking about here is a difference in value of about 0.2 cents per dollar. Scale that up and it is 2 cents for every $10 spent, $2  for every $1000 spent, or $20 for every $10,000 spent.

I'm all for maximizing the return on each and every dollar I spend, but if you're earning and burning your points strategically, a difference of this magnitude is basically rounding error. I'll be sharing tips on exactly how to do that in a future post, but in the meantime, what is your favorite hotel program? Cast your vote in the poll off to the right!


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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer of Travel 2012: Italy (Part 3 - RomaMilano)


(Don't forget to check out Part 1, Hotel Eden Rome here and Part 2, Exploring Rome here)

After a quick trip to Rome, it was off to Milan for an even quicker trip. There's no semi-reasonable Star Alliance routing between Rome and Milan, so once again it was time for Alitalia (and a few more Delta SkyMiles in the "bank").

We took a cab to the airport, and then proceeded to bumble through the check-in process. In case you're flying from Rome to Milan in the near future, and would like a guide on how NOT to do it efficiently, just follow these simple instructions:
  • Step 1: Attempt to check in at the international check-in area. Wait in line for a few minutes, only to be told by the agent that you are flying to Milan, and would therefore need to go to the other side of the terminal
  • Step 2: Proceed to the domestic check-in area. Wait in line for a few minutes, only to be told by the agent that you are are flying to Milan, and would therefore need to go to the special MILAN check-in area of the terminal.
  • Step 3: Proceed to the MILAN check-in area. Finally find an agent who can check you in and print your boarding pass!
  • Extra credit: Complete steps 1-3 while carrying your suitcase in your arms because the handle is stuck, thereby eliminating the usefulness of the "roll" feature of your "rollaboard". (Damn you, Travelpro!)
Now to be fair, we discovered at the very end of the ordeal that Alitalia's RomaMilano service provides an express experience for passengers flying between Rome and Milan, including expedited check-in and expedited security screening. It's actually a really nice service - similar to the shuttle that USAir and Delta run in the Northeast, but classier. I just wish I'd known about it beforehand!

Monday, August 13, 2012

SkyMall: Oh How I've Missed You

Everyone likes to have a good laugh about the crazy and ridiculous items that are available for purchase in SkyMall, but it had been a while since I'd taken a ride on the bus to crazy-ville.

I decided to take a quick peak during my flight down to Greensboro earlier today, and much to my surprise as expected, there were some real gems:


Here we have a piece of stainless steel that somehow acts like deodorant and provides 24 hour protection. You just rub a piece of metal on your armpits while showering and voila! On the very same page, we also have Justin Bieber toothbrushes - so you can listen to the Bieb's greatest hits while brushing your teeth!

I thought I'd found the best SkyMall could possibly have to offer, until I flipped a few more pages and found this:


Yep, that's a 5+ foot tall Velociraptor statue for your yard (or wherever else you'd like to put it). Why anyone would want a near-lifesize statue of a prehistoric predator in their yard is beyond me - but in case you were looking for one, SkyMall's got it!

What's the craziest thing you've ever seen (or God forbid, purchased) in a SkyMall catalog?


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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Summer of Travel 2012: Italy (Part 2: Exploring Rome)

(Don't forget to check out Part 1, Hotel Eden Rome here)

I only had one full day in Rome, but since it was my first time visiting, I definitely wanted to make sure to take in as many of the historical sites as possible. The Hotel Eden - where my colleague and I were staying - is just a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, so we started our walking tour there:

View from the Piazza di Spagna, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps

The Colosseum was at the top of our list, so we made our way over there next:


The line was really long, but it moved pretty quickly - I'd say it took maybe half an hour to get in (and well worth the wait!). It's hard to put into words what it feels like to be inside such an iconic structure. Suffice to say, it's so awe-inspiring that I consider the Colosseum to be one of my favorite sights to see around the world! If you're planning to visit, I'd recommend buying tickets ahead of time or getting them at the Foro Romano or the Palatino (the ticket covers all three) instead of the Colosseum itself. That'll cut out most of your wait time.

After the Colosseum, the most impressive sight we saw was unquestionably Il Vittoriano. I'd never heard of it before visiting Rome - but it was pretty hard to miss when walking through the city.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summer of Travel 2012: Italy (Part 1: Hotel Eden Rome)


After a fantastic time in Munich, it was off to the airport to head down to Rome. I'd never been before, so was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about!

Despite being in one of their hubs, flights to Rome were exceedingly expensive on Lufthansa, so we ended up flying Alitalia (actually Air One - their low-cost carrier subsidiary). It wasn't a complete loss though, as Alitalia is one of Delta's SkyTeam partners, so I was able to earn a handful of Delta SkyMiles for the trip. Not quite as many as I got via the PetCareRx deal from a few weeks ago, but every little bit helps!

The flight itself was pretty uneventful, though I was disappointed to find out at the last minute that they had changed planes on us, and the exit row seat I grabbed by checking in 24 hours before the flight was no longer an exit row seat. It was a short flight though, so I didn't really care all that much.

We arrived at Fiumicino airport, and hopped in a taxi to head to the Hotel Eden in Rome. The Eden is a very nice, very old hotel in Rome - located a few minutes away from the Spanish Steps. It is a Le Meridien hotel, and therefore part of the Starwood program (of course).

Front entrance at the Hotel Eden in Rome

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

300,000 Starwood Points Up For Grabs!

UPDATE 8/8 - I just added the giveaways from Loyalty Traveler, Johnny Jet, Go Green Travel Green, and Ordinary Traveler. That brings us to 10 in total, and over 500,000 Starwood Points up for grabs! Good luck!

UPDATE 8/14 - I'll be graying-out the various contests as they close (a few have closed as of today)

To help promote the newly-improved sign-up offer for the Starwood Amex, Starwood / American Express are partnering with a number of blogs to give away a LOT of Starwood points.


Here are the details...

View From the Wing
  • Prize amount: 60,000 Starwood Points
  • 2 Winners (30,000 each) chosen at random
  • Enter via the blog
  • CONTEST OVER

The Points Guy
  • Prize amount: 60,000  Starwood Points
  • 2 Winners (30,000 each) chosen by virtue of proving you can get the most bang for your buck out of 30,000 points
  • Enter once for the best Cash & Points redemption, and once for the best Free Nights redemption
  • CONTEST OVER

One Mile at a Time
  • Prize amount: 50,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen at random
  • Enter via Twitter and the blog
  • CONTEST OVER

Vagabondish

  • Price amount: 50,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen at random
  • You can enter via Twitter, Facebook, or on the blog
  • CONTEST OVER

The Vacation Gals
  • Prize amount: 50,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen at random
  • You can enter via Twitter, Facebook, or on the blog
  • CONTEST OVER

Loyalty Traveler

  • Prize amount: 50,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen at random
  • Enter via Twitter, Facebook, or on the blog
  • CONTEST OVER

Johnny Jet
  • Prize amount: 50,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen via photo caption contest
  • Enter on the blog
  • CONTEST OVER

Go Green Travel Green
  • Prize amount: 30,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen at random
  • Enter in a number of different ways (and some provide multiple entries automatically)
  • CONTEST OVER

Ordinary Traveler
  • Prize amount: 30,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen at random
  • Enter via combination of Facebook and Pinterest
  • CONTEST OVER

Passive Panda
  • Prize amount: 25,000 Starwood Points
  • 1 winner chosen at random
  • Enter via Twitter
  • CONTEST OVER (though no winner announced yet)

(Ok technically I rounded up - it's only 295,000) Up to over 500,000 now with the latest additions!


There are reportedly 10 blogs running giveaways, but these are all the ones I've been able to track down so far. Make sure to bookmark this page for an easy access point to each of them, as many allow you to enter on a daily basis. I'll also be updating this post as I come across new giveaways, so check back often to make sure you're not missing out on any!

Caveats!

#1 - Many of these contests have a LOT of entries already, so the odds of winning are pretty slim - but apart from The Points Guy's contest, entering requires very little effort.

#2 - Entry is limited to US residents, and American Express is mandating that all winners fill out a W9 - which means that the points are likely going to be considered taxable. From reading the info provided in the blogs, it looks like they're assigning a value of 2.5 cents / Starwood point (which is a fair valuation, by the way). This means that winning one of the big ones (like a 50,000) is going to increase your tax burden by $1,250, and therefore leave you owing ~$400-$500 in taxes, depending on your income bracket. $500 is a steal for 50,000 Starwood points, but it's also not nearly as good a deal as $0 for 50,000 Starwood points!

The St. Regis Princeville Resort, Princeville, United States of America
The St. Regis Princeville in Hawaii - my favorite Starwood property!
(20,000 points per night)


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Monday, August 6, 2012

Big Starwood Amex Sign-Up Bonus Returns Tomorrow!

I don't often post about credit card deals, but this one is worth sharing.

View From the Wing just broke the news that the 30,000 point sign-up bonus for the Starwood American Express card returns tomorrow (8/7)!


30,000 is as big as it gets when it comes to this card - which is still to this day one of my favorites. I'll provide more information once the full offer details are released, but suffice to say, hold off on applying for any new credit cards until further notice!

Are you a Starwood fan? If not, what is your hotel program of choice? Cast your vote in the poll to the right, and let's see who the people's champion is!



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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Revisiting Priority Boarding for Families

A few months ago, United announced that they were ending pre-boarding for families. This caused quite a stir, and while I generally agree with the decision, I figured I'd throw it out to you all to see what the general consensus was.

Well the votes are in, and here's what you all had to say:

Question: Should families with small children get to pre-board for flights?

  • Yes, they should get to board after frequent flyers, first class, etc., but before everyone else - 39%
  • Yes, they should get to board before everyone else - 33%
  • No, they should board along with their designated boarding group - 27%

Mixed results, to say the least.

Practically speaking, I don't know that these families would notice much of a difference between boarding after frequent flyers, first class, etc. and boarding with their designated group, but I could be wrong. Family travelers who fly United, have you noticed much of a difference since this change came into effect?

Oh, and make sure to cast your vote in the next poll, which you can find on the right hand side of the page.

Another Reason to Fly With a Frequent Flyer

My friends and family have often said that the enjoy traveling with me, because I tend to know my way around the airport, I can get them in the priority security and boarding lanes, and (on rare occasion) I can sometimes snag a companion upgrade.

With that in mind, View From the Wing just shared several interesting facts about United from this piece written by Christopher Elliott. The one that really caught my eye reads as follows:
The number of elite passengers on a flight factors into the flight's priority during weather and air traffic delays
While it almost certainly doesn't trump passenger counts or connections, it's still a nice little perk that I'd never heard anything about before. No need to thank me, just doing my part ;)

My Top 5 Worldwide Sights to See

My worldwide travels have only just begun, but I've already seen some pretty amazing sights. Here my top 5 so far:

#5 - The Dom in Cologne, Germany


Date of Visit: October, 2011
I've seen a number of Gothic Cathedrals in my travels around Europe over the years, and the Dom in Cologne was the most impressive by far. Construction on the awe-inspiring structure began in 1248, but was halted over 200 years later in 1473. In 1880, over 400 years later, construction was finally completed - and until 1884, the Dom was the tallest building in the world. In addition to the mind-blowing facade, the Dom is also traditionally believed to hold the remains of the Three Wise Men.

Visit Wikipedia to learn more about the Dom.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer of Travel 2012: Germany (Part 4 - Exploring Munich)

(Don't forget to check out Part 1, Getting to Hamburg here, Part 2, Hamburg here, and Part 3, Le Meridien Munich here)

My colleague had family in Munich, and on their recommendation we had dinner at Weisses Bräuhaus - a beer hall that was just a short walk away from the hotel. The menus didn't have any English on them (which I take to be a good sign of the quality of the food), but I recognized at least one word: "Schweinshaxe". It's a crispy pork "knuckle", and was my favorite dish from the last time I had visited Germany - it's also a very typical Bavarian dish, so I figured when in Rome Munich...

Schweinshaxe - not for the faint of heart

The menu offered beer pairings for every dish (by tap number, so we were able to figure that part out), and I ordered a Hopfenweisse to wash down my dinner. It was a wheat beer, but was somewhat IPA-like in terms of its spiciness and 8.2% alcohol content. A great pairing indeed!

Hopfenweisse served in a special glass