The Servepocalypse And How To Budget Your Miles

Serve card
Reminiscing about all the great times we had together

 

The Servepocalypse:

For those of us who eat, sleep and breathe the points game the news that American Express was killing the Serve card was a bit like hearing that they were going to have to amputate our right arm. In terms of easy avenues for manufacturing spend, the Serve card was indeed just as indispensable as our dominant hand. The ability to liquidate $5,000 per month in gift cards in a fairly easy way has long been the backbone for many people’s mileage earning strategy (myself included), especially when it enhances your usual spending to allow for higher rates of credit card churning.

To provide a concrete example, if you and your squeeze spent about $5,000 per month on your credit cards, you could burn through about $60,000 per year in spending, which if every penny went to meeting minimum spends could translate into 15 to 20 credit card signup bonuses (assuming a $3,000 spending requirement). If we use an average bonus of 50,000 miles/points, then we are looking at a cool 750,000 to 1,000,000 miles/points per year. Not a bad haul.

If you both had a Serve card and were willing to invest the time and effort to max it out each month, then you could add another $10,000 in spending per month ($5,000 each). This would triple your total spend and bring your annual credit card spending to $180,000. While I don’t actually think that most couples could or would get 45 to 60 new credit cards each year (though this dude signed up for about 140 new cards per year), the potential for earning tremendous amounts of miles and points was very real. With a moderate amount of effort, you could rack up millions of points per year.

Some enterprising individuals would manage Serve cards for their parents, grandparents, children, cousins, neighbors and anyone else who they could convince to let them open a prepaid financial product in their name. These individuals were moving six figures through their credit cards each month, racking up huge point balances and most likely eroding their sanity, as I know from first hand experience that trying to liquidate large amounts of gift cards can be a frustrating experience. Still, at the very least, the ability to essentially “purchase” points at $0.01 per piece, by purchasing gift cards and then loading to your Serve card, was a really nice way to top up point balances without having to pay the $0.025 to $0.035 rates that airlines typically charge for buying miles.

Those days are over for most of us though. While some of us mysteriously avoided the chopping block (inexplicably, I have yet to receive a shutdown notice, while my wife’s account was closed), the time for easy manufactured spending is clearly drawing to a close.

What this means in practical terms is that going forward our potential to earn points will be more closely tied to our actual spending. In light of this, we should be thinking about our actual travel needs and how to make sure that our rates of earning are sufficient to meet those needs.

128,516 miles traveled since November 2014.
128,516 miles traveled since November 2014.

Last year I flew over 100,000 miles almost exclusively on points and burned through over 1 million frequent flyer miles on our various adventures. Considering the loss of manufactured spending options and the devaluations that either occurred in 2015 or are slated for 2016, it may be time to fine tune my burning rates to match my earning capabilities.

Now that the heady days of seemingly limitless mileage earning potential belong to the dusty annals of travel hacking history, I am taking a good long look at how I earn and burn frequent flyer miles.

Budgeting Your Miles:

I budget my money using the principle that each dollar needs to be assigned a task. Whether it be rent, groceries, vacation or retirement, every little dollar is given a purpose and this helps me to manage my money. If you have more tasks for your money to do than you have dollars to do those tasks, then you have a problem.

The same concept applies to frequent flyer miles. If you have more travel planned than you have miles with which to book the flights, then you need to figure something out to make sure that your mileage spending matches your mileage earning.

First things first, assess your travel needs:

  • How many trips will you be taking?
  • In what class of service?
  • How many miles will be required?

Now, look at your mileage earning capabilities:

  • How much spending can you direct through credit cards?
  • How many credit cards can you sign up for?
  • How many bonus miles will you get for signing up and meeting the spend?

If you plan on doing two trips from the US to Asia in the next year and you wish to fly in business class, then you can estimate that each round trip will put you back between 100,000 and 160,000 miles, for a total of 200,000 to 320,000 miles per person, depending on which frequent flyer program you use.

If you wanted to do those same trips in first class then you should estimate that you will need 280,000 to 440,000 per person. That would translate into 6 to 9 credit card signup bonuses and would require $18,000 to $27,000 in spending on these credit cards just to meet the minimum spending requirements to get the bonuses.

If we took our hypothetical couple that spends about $60,000 per year on their credit cards, then we can see that $54,000 ($27,000 each) in credit card spending is sufficient to handle the minimum spend requirements for their caviar at 39,000 feet lifestyle.

If, however, this same couple only had enough time or spending to manage 10 new cards between the two of them, then they would have to reconfigure their travel plans to match up with their earning rate. Ten cards would get them 500,000 miles between the two of them, which is roughly enough to do two international trips in business class or one in first.

Alternately, they might consider adjusting their travel plans to match their earning rate. Maybe instead of two trips to Asia, they might consider one to Asia and another to Hawaii or another cheaper award destination. Another strategy is to pump up their mileage balances by purchasing miles from the airline to ensure that they have sufficient miles to book award tickets for both of their trips.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 1.03.54 PM
Cathay Pacific first class ticket costs

To be certain, the fact that our hypothetical couple can still take two trips to Asia in first class each year, despite the end of manufactured spending and the award devaluations, is insane in a very good way. First class tickets run between $18,000 and $26,000 on many of these routes, so if they were to pay for those tickets with cash instead of miles they would be spending more on the tickets than they did on all their other expenses for the year! To put it another way, using miles and points to book premium air travel is still an incredible deal.

The death of the Serve card is one of the biggest negative changes to the miles and points game in the last several years. While it eliminates an easy method of manufactured spending, with careful budgeting and planning, we can still earn huge sums of miles and points per year and turn those miles into incredible travel experiences.


 

Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

Do you need some assistance figuring out which credit cards are going to get you to your destination in your preferred class of service? Learn more about my personalized credit card consulting services here.

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.

 

 

 

In The Air: JAL First Class Chicago to Tokyo, Narita

Flight du jour:

JAL 009

Chicago (ORD) to Tokyo (NRT)

September 6, 2015

Departs: 12:35 PM

Arrives: (Next Day) 3:35 PM

Duration: 13 Hours 15 Minutes

Jal First Class Seat
Jal First Class Seat

I love JAL first class. After the mediocrity that is domestic first class on American Airlines, what a lovely feeling it is to get settled into my JAL first class suite.

When boarding it is common for first class passengers to board through one door while the rest of the plane boards through the other. This time everyone boarded through the same door and first class passengers broke left, everyone else broke right. We were lucky enough to get the window seats on the right hand side of the plane; seats 1K and 2K, and were escorted there by one of the very friendly flight attendants who would be making the next 13+ hours a really wonderful experience.

JAL First Seat Controls
JAL First Seat Controls

JAL’s first class seats are 33 inches wide and fold flat into a 78.5 inch long bed with a mattress pad for extra comfort. The seat has lots of controls to help you get the seat setup just right and the controls are fairly intuitive. With the full size pillows that they provide, you can generally get quite comfortable.

I might like Cathay’s seat a bit better, because the back of the seat goes higher, giving more neck support, but both products are excellent. In terms of appearance, JAL’s seats seem like they are meant to look as though they should be occupied by a Japanese guy smoking a cigar and drinking scotch, perhaps while berating his employees on speaker-phone. They definitely have a “big boss” look about them and considering that they retail for over $20,000 for a round-trip flight, it’s probably an appropriate aesthetic.

JAL first class cabin
JAL first class cabin

The first class cabin is a good size. Eight seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, with retractable privacy barriers between the two middle seats. Everyone has direct aisle access, and each window seat gets 3-4 windows all to themselves.

JAL first overhead bins
JAL first overhead bins
Controller.
Controller.
JAL first in seat storage
JAL first in-seat storage
JAL first in seat storage
JAL first in-seat storage

One thing that JAL first clearly rocks at is storage space. Each passenger gets their own full-size overhead bin as well as plenty of storage in the panel next to their seat. Pro-tip; don’t forget your ipad in the surprisingly deep storage compartment in the side panel.

JAL First New Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones
JAL First Class New Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones
Slightly Hidden Headphone Port
Slightly Hidden Headphone Port

This flight had brand-spanking new Bose noise cancelling headphones. I find that the peace and quiet afforded by good noise-canceling headphones makes the flight much more enjoyable. It took me a second to find the headphone jack as it is a little hidden and resides under the reading light.

JAL First Legroom
Plenty of leg room
Headlines.
Headlines.

I love reading foreign newspapers on international flights. They always have the most interesting articles.

JAL First Slippers
JAL First Slippers

There were slippers waiting for me at my seat and there is a special little shoe compartment under the bench opposite to my seat where you can stow your kicks for the flight. It’s great having slippers so you don’t have to put your shoes on when you head to the rest room.

Japanese bidet-style toilet in JAL first class bathroom.
Japanese bidet-style toilet in JAL first class bathroom.

Speaking of rest rooms, the Japanese bidet system in the first class bathroom is awesome.

JAL First Class Pre-Departure Champagne
JAL First Class Pre-Departure Champagne

JAL keeps the champagne flowing in the first class cabin from the moment you board the aircraft until just before landing. They brought over a hot towel and a glass of Champagne Salon 2002 just as I was settling into my seat. Champagne Salon is my favorite champagne by far and it is one of the many aspects of the JAL first experience that I look forward to.

2015-09-06 16.20.15
JAL First Pajamas

I finished up my initial glass of champagne and they took my glass and wet towel away and we were off! The takeoff was smooth and once we reached cruising altitude the first class cabin attendant came over to take our drink orders. I told her that we would like to dine together and so she set up our table and soon returned with our drinks as well as our amenity kits.

JAL First Amenity Kit and Shiseido Mens Kit
JAL First Amenity Kit and Shiseido Men’s Kit

In addition to the unisex Loewe amenity kit, they also bring you a men’s or women’s care kit.

JAL First Women's Cle De Peau Beaute kit
JAL First Women’s Cle De Peau Beaute kit

The Amenity kit included:

  • Eye Mask
  • Dental kit
  • Face mask
  • Agua De Loewe perfume/cologne
  • Agua De Loewe lip balm
  • Agua De Loewe Revitalizing towel
  • Tissues
  • Folding comb and brush combo
  • Earplugs

The face mask  is something that I have never used before, but this time I gave it a shot. What a difference it makes! Instead of feeling like a piece of beef jerky upon landing from having spent 14 hours in the moisture-free cabin, the face mask completely eliminated the dryness that I usually feel. Never again will I pass up using the face mask while sleeping on the plane and I would go as far as to say that this tiny little piece of fabric secured over your face will make one of the biggest differences for how you feel after an ultra-long haul flight (next to sleep of course). Even if you are stuck in coach, do yourself a favor and bring a face mask along with you.

JAL First class Wine List.
JAL First class Wine List.

Now on to the main event! While I thoroughly enjoy champagne Salon and nothing goes better with caviar, I do love wine an inordinate amount. So each flight I look forward to working my way through the wine list. On the ground, such behavior is prohibitively expensive. But that’s the joy of flying first class, your not on the ground and at this exclusive restaurant they won’t be bringing you a bill.

JAL First class Wine List.
JAL First class Wine List.
JAL First class Wine List.
JAL First class Wine List.

2015-09-06 13.04.32

2015-09-06 13.04.47

2015-09-06 13.04.54
JAL First class Royal Blue Tea.

The Royal Blue Tea served in JAL First is something unique to JAL first class as far as I know. It is smooth, delicious and comes in a wine bottle. I highly recommend it.

JAL First class Wine List.
JAL First class Wine List.
JAL First class Wine List.
JAL First class Wine List.

One of my favorite treats in JAL first class is the Graham’s tawny 30 year port. I tried it on our previous trip in JAL first and it was like liquid heaven. So imagine my dismay when I learned that they had neglected to load any onto the flight in Chicago! Clearly, the cabin crew has yet to try it, otherwise they would have triple-checked to make sure that it was on board. You could be forgiven for pulling away from the gate without half the passengers on-board, but leaving without ensuring that the port is secured is borderline criminal.

JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.

Now on to the food. While 13 hours in the air won’t put this flight within the top 10 for longest flights in the world, it is still plenty of time in the air. This makes the ability to dine across from your traveling companion one of my favorite perks that JAL offers to their first class passengers. Spending 3 to 4 hours of the flight drinking and dining together makes the flight much more enjoyable and the time just fly by.

JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.

The Western dinner options for this flight looked quite good and I was happy to see that several of the options didn’t involve fish/seafood.

JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.

The Japanese menu is rather impressive as well and includes 14 different items in addition to rice.

JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Food Menu.
JAL First Class Amuse Bouche.
JAL First Class Amuse Bouche.

Before the meal festivities began they brought out an amuse bouche with three options to enjoy. I enjoyed the one involving the prosciutto. If you are into fish I think that the smoked fish with caviar and creme fraiche topping would be a hit. The third option is a mystery, both in its ingredients and in its appeal.

2015-09-06 13.35.43
JAL First Class Snack.

A little snack before the meal. I find natto to be an acquired taste that I have yet to fully acquire (though I do eat it on occasion while in Japan). On the other hand, the lotus, beet and sweet potato chips were yummy.

JAL First Class Hors D'oeuvres.
JAL First Class Hors D’oeuvres.

There was a lot of seafood action happening with the hors d’oeuvres but I gave them a shot anyhow. I tried the Cauliflower veloute with black truffle nantua and bay scallops(not really my thing), scampe escabeche with spiced greek yoghurt (swing and a miss) and brioche egg custard with sauteed foie gras, fig jam and balsamic vinegar (I found the seared foie gras to be unpleasantly chewy and the rest of the dish to be mediocre). So the Western option for hors d’oeuvres wasn’t my favorite.

JAL First Class Japanese Hors D'oeuvres.
JAL First Class Japanese Hors D’oeuvres.

Em enjoyed her hors d’ouevres; minced duck cake, grilled black cod “saikyo Miso” flavored crab meat rolled with radish, Prawn pumpkin and spinach dressed with tofu sauce, poached mushroom and spinach, warm Conger eel “sushi”.

2015-09-06 14.12.31
JAL First Class Lobster Soup.

The lobster soup with mushrooms was very light and also a hit.

JAL First Class Caviar Service.
JAL First Class Caviar Service.

Now for someone who doesn’t like fish or seafood much (yet spends 9 months a year traveling in Asia), it strikes me as odd that I enjoy caviar so much. I had yet to even taste caviar until the first time I traveled in Cathay Pacific first class (the taxes and fees I paid on that ticket were less than cost of the jar of caviar I ate) and I was shocked at its unique deliciousness. I hope caviar is my gateway dish into liking fish and seafood more broadly, as it seems like half the cuisine in the world involves fish to some extent and I do feel that I am missing out on a ton of good food because of my aversion.

JAL First Class Caviar Service.
Champagne Salon 2002 and caviar. It doesn’t get much better than this!

But enough about me, back to the caviar! The caviar service this time was much improved from the last time I flew JAL first. While previously it was served with a ceviche, proving too fishy for my liking, this time it was served with the classic accompaniments (red onions, chives, egg, blini, boiled potato, lemon wedge and creme fraiche). It was delightful. There is a certain complex earthiness to caviar that is unlike any other food I have tasted and I always look forward to a little caviar before my meal on my first class flights.

2015-09-06 14.23.21
JAL First Class Japanese Food.

The next round for Em involved stuffed shiitake mushroom/shrimp with sesame soy jelly, herring roe/salmon and egg yolk “sushi” style and miso-marinated zucchini. She commented that the herring roe was the most insanely strong fish flavor she had ever encountered and the texture was somewhat more coarse than expected. Other than that, this course was not remarkable.

JAL First Class Japanese Main Dish.
JAL First Class Japanese Main Dish.

Em went with the Japanese main which was the simmered eel served with vegetables and ordered the miso soup and steamed rice as well. She said it was delicious.

2015-09-06 14.46.16
JAL First Class Western Main Dish.

The Western main that I went with was the veal and it was incredibly tender and delicious. The vegetables and the potatoes au gratin made an excellent pairing to the veal and  I would have been extremely pleased with this meal on the ground, and was doubly so having it in the sky.

JAL First Class Dessert.
JAL First Class Dessert.

The dessert was mango mousse and it was almost like a light mango cheesecake. It was excellent. Sweet, but not overly so and very light on the tongue. The mint reduction, and fresh mint leaf complimented the mango flavor perfectly. Very nice.

JAL First Class Dessert.
JAL First Class Dessert-thingy. Still not sure what it was…

The Japanese sweets were slightly more paradoxical. The light, perfumey flavor and the mochi-like texture were alright, but not my favorite. Em is a big fan of mochi, a Japanese sweet, and enjoyed the Japanese dessert.

JAL First Class Snack and Night Cap.
JAL First Class Snack and Night Cap.

Just in case you got thirsty on your way to the rest room, they provided more nibbles and a night cap adjacent to the galley.

JAL First Class Dessert.
JAL First Class Dessert.

Personally, I prefer my desserts to be liquid and alcoholic in nature. The only thing that wasn’t spectacular on this flight was that they forgot to load the Graham’s 30 year tawny port!

Anyhow, they brought us some Baileys and truffles which were tasty, but not the exquisite treat that I had been looking forward to.

JAL First Class Bed.
JAL First Class Bed.

After dinner it was time to get comfortable and ready for bed. While I was in the bathroom grooming my mustache they made my seat into a bed and put down the mattress pad and comforter. They are the only airline that I know that has an Airweave dual firmness mattress pad on their flights. One side of the mattress pad is firm while the other provides a softer sleeping surface, making for a more customized snoozefest.

JAL First Class Dine Anytime Option.
JAL First Class Dine Anytime Option.

I woke up with about an hour and a half left to go before our landing in Tokyo. Just enough time for a little something to eat prior to landing. I ordered the “Healthy Ramen Noodles” and they were indeed “persist of good taste” just as the menu had promised.

We touched down at Narita airport smoothly and taxied to our gate and we were through immigration and on our way to our hotel in no time. Sadly, there is no arrival lounge at Narita, so there is no opportunity to freshen up prior to heading to the hotel, which isn’t a huge deal, but it is something to note if you are planning on heading out immediately after landing.

Narita
Time for a nice long walk in Narita.

I love the landing time for this flight, 3:35 PM, as it means that there is just enough time to head out for a couple hour walk before we grab dinner and then we just have to stay up a little longer to get a head start on punching jet lag in the face!

 

Hard Product: 3_stache

Food and Drink:3_stache

Service:4_stache

Overall:3.5_stache

I find JAL has impeccable service in their first class cabin and this flight was no exception (4 ‘staches). While I find their seat and bed comfortable in general, I find Cathay’s first class seat to be more comfortable, even without the mattress pad (3 ‘staches). The food is very good in JAL first class, and their caviar service is greatly improved since my last flight, if I was into fish perhaps I would find the menu to be incredible (3 ‘staches). The crew was really lovely on this flight and, despite the lack of quality port, we had an excellent journey overall and would fly JAL first again without hesitation (3.5 ‘staches).

Cheers to another flight in JAL first class.
Cheers to another flight in JAL first class.

I look forward to my two additional trips in JAL first class this coming year and am a little saddened that the American Airlines devaluation will make this particular reward redemption very expensive. I guess I will just have to give Korean, Singapore and Emirates first class a shot, as all 3 of those options will be similarly priced, if not cheaper, post AA devaluation.


Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.

 

 

 

Quick PSA: Redeem Aeroplan awards today!

Just a quick Public Service Announcement that as of Decemeber 15th, 2015 award prices for Aeroplan awards will be going up. This chart shows some of the more important increases for travel originating in the US (full chart Here).

Aeroplan Award Chart Devaluation
Aeroplan Award Chart Devaluation

In this chart a black dot represents an increase in the price of an award and an orange dot represents a decrease in price. As one might expect, there are more black dots than orange dots. It’s all black dots from North America and Canada, while if your are traveling from Africa to New Zealand, then good news, first class and coach tickets just got a little cheaper!

Asia 1 award devaluation
Asia 1 award devaluation

The absolute best redemption on the entire Aeroplan chart is set to die when the clock strikes midnight. That is the Asia 1 to Asia 1 business class award for 30,000 miles round-trip. Considering that the Asia 1 region currently includes Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, North Korea, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and Japan, that presents some pretty incredible award opportunities.

Aeroplan Asia 1 region definition
Aeroplan Asia 1 region definition

Today I plan to personally book a couple of awards in business class between Thailand and Japan for travel next year because tomorrow the price for two round-trip award tickets in business class will jump from 60,000 to 160,000. Ouch!

There are a number of flexible points currencies that you can use to transfer points into your Aeroplan account, but at this point most of them would take too long for the miles to post and you wouldn’t be able to book in time to avoid the devaluation. Your only real option is to transfer American Express Membership Rewards points into your Aeroplan account, as this transaction should be instant. Points transfer from Amex at a 1:1 ration, in 1000 point increments. Aeroplan does charge fuel surcharges on flight awards, so don’t be surprised when you have to cough up $200-$300 or more per ticket.

Seize the day, for tomorrow shall be more expensive!!!


 

Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.

182,135 reasons why I hate Hilton

Hate is a strong word and so I reserve it for use only on truly egregious programs. Despite being granted Hilton Diamond status this week via the widely reported status match opportunity, I find myself with nothing but hard feelings about the hotel chain.

Hilton status match
Raise your glass only to realize it’s empty…

Them giving me status is not what’s rubbing me the wrong way, or the fact that Paris never returns my calls (just kidding!), it’s their loyalty program. Like many of you, I save points up with the hope of redeeming them for out-sized value. I get excited about aspirational products and experiences and if an airline/hotel/program can’t offer that then I simply put my spending on a 2% cash back card.

What sense would it make to earn points worth a fraction of a cent when you can earn 2% cash back on all your spend and then use that cash to purchase anything you like?

Now on to my specific gripe (cue tiny violins); I have been saving up HHonors points to redeem at the Hilton Grand Niseko, which is right at the base of the Niseko ski resort in Hokaido, Japan. I went snowboarding there last year, and booked my flights to Japan using US Airways miles (those were the days!), and had a blast. So I am eager to go back and get a little quality shred time at Niseko.

Snowboard!
Powder-fest!!!

My tiny little brain being oriented towards not paying hilarious sums for accommodations, my first thought was to sign up for some credit cards to build up some points and then use those points to stay and shred in Niseko. There is only one international hotel chain in Niseko, so the choice was easy, I would get some Hilton cards and use the points to book a room there.

Getting the cards was easy. Citi and Amex are both very generous about approving applications, so that part was a cinch. Now comes the ugly part.

Hilton Niseko Village
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, may I call your attention to exhibit A.

The Hilton Niseko Village is supposed to be a category 7 hotel, which means that it should cost 30,000 to 60,000 points per night. When I first looked at this property many moons ago, it was pricing out at 35,000 points per night. Combine that with the 5th night free for silver, gold and diamond elites and you would be looking at 5 nights for 140,000 points. Not too shabby!

HHonors Standard Room Rewards
HHonors Standard Room Rewards

Even if all hell broke loose and they applied their “seasonal pricing” it should be capped at 60,000 per night, which isn’t brilliant, but combined with the 5th night free, it is still an alright value for a hotel that routinely sells rooms for $500 to $800 per night during the ski season.

Seasonal pricing is rubbish.
Seasonal pricing is rubbish.

Yet, lo and behold, Hilton has created a pricing scheme wholly unique to this property. Instead of the 35,000 points that I had seen some months earlier for the same dates, or the 60,000 point category cap, they are pricing the rooms at 266,036 points per night for my dates! Nearly eight times what it was pricing at before!

Hilton Category 7 hotel for 266,036 points per night.
Hilton Category 7 hotel for 266,036 points per night.

Despite Hilton labeling this hotel as a category 7 hotel, they are pricing the rooms using their “Premium Room Rewards” scheme, which allows them to slap any price they wish on the room. With standard room pricing for a category 7 hotel you would be getting between 1.2 and 2.4 cents in value per point (depending on whether it was at the bottom or top of its price range) for this room versus its cash price. With their “Premium Room Rewards” they are offering $0.0028 per point. Under this scheme, the 140,000 point which I could have previously used for 5 nights at this property is instead worth about $393, or half of one night at the resort! Talk about a devaluation!

Terrible Hilton award rates
Ouch!

It gets better! I searched through every single date on their award calendar for this property and I found that, despite some rooms occasionally pricing out within the Category 7 point range, all of the rooms for all of the days were priced as premium rewards. This means a couple of things: 1) You can’t get the 5th night free (which is the same as increasing the point cost by 20% on a 5 night stay) and 2) that of the 499 rooms across 365 days, not a single one, on any day, is offered at the standard category 7 rates. Of the 182,135 possible room nights (499 rooms X 365 days) not a single standard award is available! Not a single one!

This is the kind of move by a loyalty program that makes me crazy. They promise one thing (that the hotel costs between 30,000 and 60,000 points per night) and then suddenly they renege. The Hilton Niseko village is a category 7 hotel, yet it is pricing out at three times their category 10 hotels and doesn’t offer a single standard room redemption ever! Hilton has created a sort of flexible, rolling devaluation that allows them to price out a hotel at exorbitant rates the drop the value of my Hilton points ten-fold (from about $0.026 to $0.0028 for a 5 night stay).

This is why Hilton has earned my ire and urge you to voice your opinion on twitter and/or from the rooftops about them breaking their promises to their loyal HHonors members. Loyalty programs like Hilton’s get to set their own rules and change them at will, so the least they can do is follow their own rules.


 

Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.

Amex Offers: $50 off $100 purchase from AirBNB

AirBNB website
Airbnb website

I know that there is more to travel than just drinking champagne and watching Despicable Me 2 while hurtling through the sky in an aluminum tube, which is why I like to keep you guys in the loop when a really killer deal that pertains to travel pops up. One such deal has appeared over at Amex offers.

Amex Offers AirBNB
Amex Offers: $50 off a $100 purchase from Airbnb

The deal is $50 off of a $100 purchase from Airbnb, a site that lets you rent other people’s homes, rather than  hotel rooms, while traveling. I use this service often when traveling and I strongly recommend it, especially in more expensive cities like Tokyo or Hong Kong. Hotels are usually in rather touristy or business hub-type areas while you can find tons of really nice condos and homes to rent through Airbnb that give you a true neighborhood experience and often at a substantial discount to nearby hotels.

If you haven’t signed up for Airbnb yet (or perhaps you haven’t yet created separate accounts for all of your email addresses [wink]) you can get even greater value from this deal, as those signing up through a referral link are eligible to get another $20 credit on their first stay of $75 or more. So really, if you managed to book a place with a total cost of $120, you could use the combination of the referral credit stacked with the Amex Offer to pay only $50 for your stay. That is a mighty fine deal indeed! (note: If you sign up through my referral link we both get a $20 credit on your first stay, you don’t need to use my link if you don’t want to, but If you do, know that I am sending you a virtual high-five, because you are awesome.)

Amex Offers Homepage
Amex Offers Homepage

In case you didn’t already know, Amex Offers is a great little perk for American Express cardholders that provides discounts and rebate offers from participating retailers. All you have to do is register for the offer from your Amex account and then use the registered card to complete the transaction. Both my cuter half and I have Amex cards and I wasted no time in signing us up for this offer (though this particular offer didn’t show up for my business card or her SPG personal card).

AirBNB Gift Card
Airbnb Gift Card

All you need to do to take advantage of this offer is register through the American Express site and then make a purchase from Airbnb totaling $100 or more by December 31st, 2015 with your registered Amex card. You can either log into Amex Offers by using the link or log into Amex account and then you should see “Amex Offers For You” somewhere towards the bottom of the page. Your offer lives there.

The simplest way to make sure to take advantage of this offer even if you don’t have any plans to book before the end of the year is to simply purchase a $100 gift card from Airbnb and then send it to yourself. There is a trick to this though, the system will not allow you to send the gift card to the same account that you purchased the gift card from (in other words, you have to send the gift card to another account). In order to send yourself the $100 gift card you should create an alternate account and then purchase the card from this new account and send it to your main account. Boom! $100 worth of travel for $50. Stack it with the Airbnb sign up bonus and you bring that number up to $120. Not bad for 10 minutes worth of work.

This offer has a limited number of signups, so don’t procrastinate and miss out!


Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.

How To Punch Jetlag In The Face

Punch Jet lag square in the face!
Hong Kong punching Jet lag square in the face!

Traveling the world is awesome. It’s so awesome that it’s worth a little suffering for and that suffering usually comes in the form of jetlag (unless you are flying coach, in which case it comes in the form of a tiny, upright seat, followed by jetlag).

I tend to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Asia at least a few times a year and I find that the full 12-hour timezone flip is the worst for jet lag. I’ve been doing this long enough to have picked up a few tricks that will help you karate-chop jet lag in the throat so you can get out and enjoy your destination!

  1. Choose a flight that lands in the evening or late afternoon

This is one of the most important things that you can do to help get your body adjusted. Landing in the evening means that you don’t have to spend a long time trying to stay awake at your destination. This is important because even traveling in first class takes its toll on your body and exhaustion will be making your life more difficult. So landing in the evening means that you are that much closer to some well deserved rest.

2. Sleep On The Plane

Whenever possible, try and get some sleep in on the plane. First class helps with this. I like to use alcohol and sleeping aids as well (disclaimer: I am not a doctor and you should not do anything I do or listen to anything I say). If I can get 4 solid hours of sleep on a flight I consider this to be enough to get me through the subsequent day. Especially if I land in the afternoon or evening.

3. Go for a walk

Sitting in your hotel room because you’re tired is a sure fire way to fall asleep at the wrong time and ensure that your jet lag will be making your life suck for several days. Drop your bags in the hotel. Hop in the shower quick (if you haven’t already showered in the arrival lounge), get out the door and start walking. Nothing helps quite as much as a nice long walk. I usually try and walk around for at least a couple of hours and I find that this resets my schedule and restores my energy level after a long flight.

4. Eat your meals at the appropriate times

Your body needs a schedule and it’s up to you to set your body to your new schedule. One of the most important parts of your schedule is eating. So eat your meals at the time that is appropriate for your time zone. Eating dinner at midnight is just making it harder for your body to adjust.

Hopefully these four simple tips will have you deftly defeating jet lag so you can get out there and enjoy the hell out of your trip!


Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.

Getting to India for less

There are still plenty of bargains to be had out there in the miles and points game, but India ain’t one of them. Coughing up your hard earned miles and cash to be crammed into coach for such a long flight seems like a terrible idea. Thankfully, a man with a handsome mustache has some tricks on how you can get there in style for fewer miles than you might normally pay.

AA Award Chart
AAdvantage Awards to India

The AAdvantage award chart has the Indian subcontinent at 67,500 miles for business class and 90,000 for first class each way. That is the second most expensive U.S. based award on their entire award chart!

To make matters worse, they specify that awards to the Indian subcontinent must route over the Atlantic ocean. That means that they will attempt to route you through London on British Airways, which carries huge fees; $763 in fees on a one-way first class fare from New York to New Delhi! Barf!

Award surcharges and fees to India
Award surcharges and fees to India

You could always try and find seats on Qatar airways via Doha to avoid the surcharges and fees that British Airways imposes, but they are pretty stingy on releasing premium cabin awards. So unless you have tons of flexibility and are traveling solo, you’ll want a different option.

Getting To India For Less

So let’s look at a way to get to India without burning through all of your miles and tapping into our 401k to pay the ridiculous surcharges.

The first place you might be tempted to look is at other airlines’ award charts. That’s a good idea, except that they all charge more than American Airlines.

United business class award prices
United business class award prices

United awards run between 70,000 and 80,000 each way for a business class Saver Award, depending on whether the trans-Atlantic segment is on United or a partner airline.

United first class award prices
United first class award prices

First class Saver awards to India are about as common a sighting as conjoined twin unicorns and will set you back 140,000 miles each way.

I may not be a mathematician but I feel fairly confident in my assessment that 140,000 miles is more than 90,000 miles. So we can see that United is too expensive miles-wise and AAdvantage awards have hilarious amounts of fees tacked onto their awards. So is it time to give up on our dream of getting “Delhi belly” at the Taj Mahal?

AA Partner Award Chart
AA Partner Award Chart (Old Graphic)

To add a little perspective to the 90k/67.5k India award pricing, it only cost me 67.5k miles to fly first class on JAL to Bangkok (via Tokyo) two days ago and it would have been only 55k to do it in Business class (but they don’t serve caviar in Business class!).  That’s a premium of 22.5k miles one way or 45k miles roundtrip (25k difference for Business on a round trip).  I value my AA miles highly and 45k is nearly enough for a one way business class ticket from NYC to Japan, so if at all possible I will do what I can to keep those miles in my account.   That means that it’s time to do a little sleuthing on the AAdvantage partner award chart to see if there might be a way to get there for less.

Through a quick little check of the award chart I see that the Asia 2 region (which includes SE Asia) includes Sri Lanka.  For those of you like myself who are geographically challenged, Sri Lanka is an island just off the SE coast of India.  The distance between Sri Lanka and India is only about 20 miles at its nearest, so by traveling just a little bit out of the way I can get my trip to India for the Asia 2 award price of 67.5k each way for first class or 55k for business.  Now we’re talking!

Cathay Pacific First Class Cabin
Another Trip In Cathay Pacific First? I can live with that.

Now seeing as I can fly nonstop on Cathay Pacific between NYC and Hong Kong, I usually choose Hong Kong as my connecting city in Asia.  From Hong Kong Cathay runs daily flights to Colombo, Sri Lanka via Bangkok.  Time to head out to check award space.

As luck would have it, there is plenty of First and Business award space between NYC and Hong Kong for my dates as well as Hong Kong to Colombo in business class.  So I am feeling good about getting to Sri Lanka on my beloved CX First Class and going from Hong Kong to Colombo in Business sounds not bad at all.  Now I just need to figure how to fly those last few miles and do so without needlessly decimating my miles balance.

Avios To The Rescue

This type of short flight is where British Airways Avios distance based awards really shine.  If I wanted to use my AA miles to cross over into India I would be looking at spending 22.5k miles each way just for economy, that’s 45k round trip.  The distance between Colombo and Chennai, a decent sized city in India from which I could start my India adventure, is a mere 425 miles.

Using Avios for a flight betweeen Colombo and Chennai.
Using Avios for a flight betweeen Colombo and Chennai.

Avios would allow me to cross over into India for 4500 each way in coach or 9000 in business class.  Considering that the taxes and fees come out to $90 for the one way flight or $111 for round trip, regardless of whether it’s in business or coach, I am going to book it round trip to minimize fees.

Round trip itineraries save on taxes and fees.
Round trip itineraries save on taxes and fees.

So I would have to spend 9000 Avios and $101 in taxes and fees to get from Sri Lanka to India and back.  That’s a whole lot better than 45k AA miles for that short flight.

So all together I am looking at spending 135k AA miles and 9k Avios to get to India and back, in Cathay Pacific First and Business classes with a quick flight in coach to get me from Sri Lanka to India.  That is 36k less miles than it would have been if I had booked the award straight to India in first class using the AA region based awards alone.

By combining a sweet spot in the region based awards of the AAdvantage program with the distance based awards of the Avios program I can really make the most of my miles and fly with a level of comfort that I would never be able to afford without them.


Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.

Quick Post: Amex 50k bonus offer!!!

Amex Gold Card Offer
Amex Gold Card Offer

Babies! I’m on summer vacation!

But a strange and wonderful thing happened to me this morning while doing some research. So wonderful in fact that I interrupted my regularly scheduled program on mustache grooming to fire off a quick post bringing you kittens in on the deal.

Amex just pumped up their offer on the personal gold card to 50,000 Membership Rewards points (usually a 25,000 point bonus)! Not only that, they still offer the $100 airline fee credit and they waive the $195 annual fee for the first year. You need to spend $1000 within the first 3 months to get the bonus, which is again, really low when compared to most cards that come with a 50,000 point bonus.

In case you forgot, those Membership rewards points will transfer to a whole bunch or airline partners.

Amex MR Transfer Partners
Amex MR Transfer Partners

Basically, they are giving you $100 to spend at the airline of your choice and 50,000 Membership Rewards points for free! This offer was so good that I couldn’t resist and ended up grabbing one for myself. I have no idea how long this will last, so get while the getting is good.

Here’s the link! (Note: make sure to cut and paste the link into a private browsing window)

https://www.americanexpress.com/us/credit-cards/premier-rewards-gold/25330?linknav=ProspectHP-MostPopular-PRG-LearnMore

Amex Gold Card Approved!
Amex Gold Card Approved!

Paying Your Rent With A Credit Card

RadPad Payment Page

Despite the fact that we (you and me, baby!) are clearly awesome and that our tenancy invariably increases the property value of wherever we choose to live, many landlords still insist on charging rent. In light of this, we might as well transform the crappiness of paying rent into the awesomeness of traveling first class. We do this by signing up for credit cards that reward us with big bonuses for our mandatory rent payments.

For many sane people, one of the most nerve wracking parts of the travel hacking game is making the minimum spend when you sign up for a new credit card.  The fact that you won’t get the bonus miles unless you successfully meet the spending requirements means that you definitely need to pay attention to how you can “make the spend” when you get a new card.

Until recently there was a great service called WilliamPaid that allowed you to pay rent with your credit card for a 3% processing fee. Sadly, WilliamPaid was discontinued some months ago and so, it seemed, was the ability to easily pay rent with your credit. That is until today, when I came across a new service that will once again allow you to pay your rent with your credit card.

The service is called RadPad and it will allow you to use a credit card to pay your rent for a 2.99% processing fee.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Click on the “Pay My Rent” tab.
  2. Put in the amount you would like to pay and enter your email address.
  3. Specify whether your landlord is a company or individual and then enter their info and where to mail the payment to.
  4. Enter in your name and billing address.
  5. Put in your credit card info and then click “I’m not a robot” to make sure you are indeed not a robot and then click “Confirm Your Account.”
  6. Enter in your details and phone number to create an account and then click “Wrap It Up.”
  7. Confirm that all the details are correct and then submit your payment!

They should send you a confirmation email that the payment completed successfully and then send your landlord out a physical check via USPS. I would make sure to set things up and send out your payment a couple of weeks ahead of time when first using this service, just to make sure that your landlord receives your payment on time and that if there are any issues you will have time to get them sorted before your rent is due.

I did encounter a problem when I tried to make a payment to my “landlord” when my address and the landlords address were the same location. So if you wanted to try and use this service to send money to yourself or your spouse (unless they have a different address than you), it very likely wont work.

Many people have mentioned on Flyertalk that they will sometimes require verification in the form of either your rental invoice or a state ID card when setting up the initial payment, but others didn’t encounter any additional verification when setting up their payments. Either way, if you have a minimum spend to make and have rent to pay, it may not be a bad way to take care of it.

Should you use this service to pay rent every month with your credit card? Probably not. Three percent adds up pretty quickly and considering that most airlines sell their miles for that price or less (American AAdvantage miles are currently on sale for 2 cents per mile until 4/30/15), it doesn’t really make sense to pay that fee unless you are working towards a minimum spend. They don’t charge a fee to pay with your debit card though, so that isn’t a bad option if you aren’t into that whole “writing a check” thing.

So the next time you are feeling in a pinch to make the minimum spend on your shiny new rewards card, the option to pay your rent with your credit card is back on the table! Happy Hacking!


Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.
 

 

Showering at Thirty-Five Thousand Feet, Emirates Style

First class shower onboard Emirates A380

Showering at 35,000 feet is a sort of “holy grail” for many of us in the travel hacking game. First class travel is often incredibly luxurious to begin with, but being able to take a hot shower on a plane is equal parts awesome and absurd.

Where things get really crazy is that not only can you take a shower on a plane, but you can book that experience using your award miles! Only a couple of airlines, both based out of the middle east, have been thoughtful enough to offer their first class passengers showers on board. Thankfully, each of these airlines has one US based partner with which you can book awards.

First class shower onboard Etihad A380
First class shower room onboard Etihad A380

The two airlines that currently offer you the opportunity to join the “7-mile high shower club” are Emirates and Etihad. Both airlines offer a hot shower to their first class passengers aboard their A380 aircraft.

Emirates is based out of Dubai, where gold ATMs are a thing.

Cash may be king, but is it shiny?
Cash may be king, but is it shiny?

While Etihad is based out of Abu Dhabi, which is most famous for being where the cartoon cat Garfield would routinely ship his kitten arch-nemesis, Nermal.

Next stop Abu Dhabi!
Next stop Abu Dhabi!

For brevity’s sake, I will cover awards on Emirates in this post and then cover Etihad awards in a follow up post; “Showering at Thirty-Five Thousand Feet, Etihad Style”.

In order to get the shower experience you will need to make sure that the award flight that you are booking is aboard an Airbus A380 aircraft. The A380 is the largest commercial passenger aircraft currently in use and the only model that features showers on board.

Airbus A380 aircraft
Airbus A380 aircraft

To start the process we head out to the Emirates website, so we can find the routes where they fly their A380s, and thus the routes where we can book a first class award and get to shower in the sky.

Emirates A380s departing JFK
Emirates A380s departing JFK

From New York it looks like they have 3 daily flights that have showers on board. There are 14 first class seats on each A380 aircraft, which means that there are 42 first class seats departing New York city each day. In theory, award availability should be great on this route, but in practice it can be challenging finding award space, though they do tend to open up more seats within 2 weeks of departure.

Emirates Skywards award cost
Emirates Skywards award cost

You can book an award on Emirates with either Emirates Skywards miles or with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles (you can use JAL Mileage Bank miles to book as well, but that’s a story for a future post). Considering that it costs 136,250 Emirates miles to fly one-way from New York to Dubai when using Emirates Skywards miles, versus only 90,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles, I would aim for redeeming Alaska miles for this particular award. Additionally, if you use Emirates miles to ticket this award you will be hit with exorbitant fuel surcharges and fees that can set you back over $1000, as compared to Alaska Airlines’ more reasonable $20 in taxes.

Alaska Mileage Plan award on Emirates
Alaska Mileage Plan award on Emirates

If you wanted to really maximize your shower-power you could book an onward flight from Dubai to South East Asia as part of your award and surprisingly the cost of the award increases by only 10,000 miles. Then you would have 2 flights and 2 showers on the A380, for 100,000 Alaska miles and $20. Considering my fondness for both fine caviar as well as SE Asia, I am much more likely to go with this second option.

Emirates availability from New York to Bangkok with Alaska miles
Emirates availability from New York to Bangkok with Alaska miles

Using the Alaska Airlines award search we can see that availability is actually not too shabby for the rest of the month of April. I did a search for one seat in first class on the New York to Dubai route and this is what I found (Emirates Awards are the ones priced out at 90k + $20):

Emirates first class availability with Alaska miles
Emirates first class availability with Alaska miles

After April award space gets pretty stingy until about September, when it starts to open up again.

Emirates first class availability from New York
Emirates first class availability from New York

A similar pattern emerges when we do a quick search for flights between Dallas and Dubai, another route where Emirates flies their A380s.

Emirates availability out of Dallas for April 2015
Emirates availability out of Dallas for April 2015
Emirates availability out of Dallas in September 2015
Emirates availability out of Dallas in September 2015

Holy crap that’s a good amount of Emirates first class award availability out of Dallas in September (18 days)!

Award space out of San Francisco is similar, but not quite as good as Dallas.

If, on the other hand, you live in Los Angeles…

Emirates award space out of LAX for April 2015
Emirates award space out of LAX for April 2015
Emirates award space out of LAX for October 2015
Emirates award space out of LAX for October 2015

Then you are going to have a tougher time finding award space for Emirates flights. October looks pretty good, but most of the other months aren’t looking so hot for award space out of Los Angeles. But don’t start crying into your locally foraged “Mother Grain” salad just yet! I have a solution!

Angelinos might want to consider trying to take a connecting flight to Dallas or San Francisco so that they can utilize the great award availability out of those cities. Considering that Alaska will allow you to do that at no charge (just additional taxes, if any), it’s a deal that can’t be beat.

The way to find that space is simply to check the “multi-city” box in the Alaska award search engine and then to enter in each segment individually.

Alaska multi-city award search
Alaska multi-city award search

With any luck, the search will return your Emirates first class segment along with connecting Alaska Airlines segments.

Alaska award routing
Alaska award routing

You can also use this trick to build in a stopover in the gateway city. Just set the departure date for your next segment for however many days you would like to stopover. Here is that Los Angeles to Dubai itinerary with a 6-day stopover in Dallas added:

Stopovers are sexy
Stopovers are sexy

This is a really nice perk of booking awards with Alaska Airlines; no other US based airline allows you to add stopovers to one-way awards, let alone at no extra charge.

Why is there a singing pirate in Emirates first class?
Why is there a singing pirate in Emirates first class?

So pack your rubber ducky in your carry-on and get ready for some flying shower action!


Hit me up with all your questions and comments!

If you’ve already got all the miles and just need some help finding space and booking the award, I have an award booking service that will get you all squared away. Find out more about it here.