Digression: On travel, in general

I’ll get back to posting about Korea and Hong Kong… probably.  Chris has been great about blogging based on notes that he wrote during the trip, so his account is more like a journal of the trip.  He’s done blogging at that trip (as well as blogging about the trip after that — we spend Christmas in Panama and I might get around to putting some thoughts to “paper” on that trip too).

But I have a hankering to write more generally about travel.  If all goes well this year, I will spend more time on the road for work and I’m looking forward to that.  I’m no expert, but I like the points/miles/loyalty programs from airlines, hotels, car rentals, etc.  It’s a game: the better you understand the rules, the better player you become.

Accommodations

In 2015, we spent about 40 days on vacation.  (We each also traveled for work, but that’s work so it doesn’t count!)  A surprising amount of that travel was in hotels: up until 2015, we usually stayed in timeshares.  (In 2000, we made the colossal mistake of purchasing one and we’ve trying to make the most of it ever since.  If you look at timeshares as another points game, it makes maximizing timeshare ownership fun.  Or at least it does for me.)

  • Jan 2015: we rang in the new year in Playa del Carmen, Mexico in a gorgeous 1-bed timeshare.
  • Feb-Mar 2015: Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu.  Some hotel and hostel hopping on this trip, swinging from cheap backpacker hostels to a luxury Starwood property (Palacio del Inka — GORGEOUS — booked using points + cash).
  • May 2015: Dublin, Ireland.  My family had a mini-reunion so we rented an Airbnb house for us to stay together.  With three generations, this worked out nicely.
  • July 2015: a quick jaunt to Toronto and Stratford, Canada to see Jonathan Goad perform Hamlet.  I’d been waiting at least 5 (maybe 10) years to see him in that role and it was worth the wait.  We spent two nights in two different hotels in Toronto (both free points reservations).
  • September 2015: another quick trip, this time to London to see Benedict Cumberbatch perform Hamlet.  What can I say: it’s my favorite Shakespearian tragedy and two of my favorite actors (in their prime) happened to be performing this role in the same year.  I had to see them both!  We spent one night in a hotel (paid night) and the rest of the time in a timeshare.
  • Nov-Dec 2015: Macau, Seoul, and Hong Kong.  I’ve written some about this trip, and I’ll write more.  We spent 9 nights in 3 different hotels (1 paid by us, 1 paid by my dad, and one paid with points).
  • Dec 2015: Panama City.  Christmas in warm weather is just glorious.  As much as I love Chicago, the older I get the more I need to spend some part of winter in warm weather locales.  Here, we divided our time between 2 hotels.  (Both low-cost, paid stays.)

Only 2 timeshares, 2 hostels (in Peru), our first Airbnb stay, and 9 different hotels.  Very unusual, but it may be the first sign of a new trend for us.  We dumped one of our two timeshares in 2015, so while we love staying in apartments while on holiday (the better to explore local markets and cook at “home”!), I’m guessing that we’ll need to use hotels or Airbnb more in the future.  While Airbnb seems great, it’s been so easy to get cheap or free points with IHG or Starwood that free hotel stays become irresistible. In 2016, we already have a number of free or low (less than $100/night) cost hotel stays booked.

My go-to hotel chains: Starwood and IHG.  I’ve got credit cards for each system, which allows me to rack up points more quickly and for IHG, it confers Platinum status.  I’ve found status handy from time to time: better rooms, lounge access, shorter lines at reception, and I earn points faster.  The Starwood card doesn’t automatically confer status, but it does provide a short-cut such that I need fewer stays or nights at Starwood to get status.  Thanks to the card, I’m Gold with Starwood this year.

But Starwood is in the process of merging with Marriott.  We’ll see if the perks of Starwood stay (they won’t) or if I’ll need to switch to another chain.  I was status matched to Hilton Diamond this year (thanks to my IHG Platinum status), so I’m going to try to focus on Hilton during work trips and see if I like it.

Flights

Using miles for flights wasn’t always a thing for me.  For a while, we used them to upgrade paid flights, but that’s getting more and more expensive nowadays (there’s almost always a co-pay fee, plus some airlines won’t let you upgrade discounted economy fares).  But the more I started looking into “free” flights, the more I became interested in maximizing our points balances.

  • Mexico was NOT an example of maximizing points.  We spent 75,000 United miles, each, to get from Chicago to Cancun.  But it was over NYE, we got the exact flights on the exact dates we wanted, and the cost of those flights were around $900.  So while there’s so much more we could have done with those points, that’s where we wanted to be so that’s how we spent those points.
  • Peru was a great example of maximization… for Chris.  Chris spent 40,000 United miles round-trip.  I had to change my flight in order to stay in Chicago for an extra day for work, so I spent 60,000 American miles going to Peru (OUCH!) and 20,000 United miles coming back.
  • Dublin was a paid ticket on American and was surprisingly expensive, but it was a family trip and so we grinned and bore it for family.  (Such a hardship, to travel to Ireland in May!  🙂  )
  • Canada was a great use of British Airways Avios points: 4500 per person, each way (18,000 total).
  • London was a great use of American miles: 20,000 per person, each way  (80,000 total).  I’m going to miss off-peak pricing during Labor Day weekend (AA is changing its award chart in March).
  • Asia was a combo of paid and points: ORD-HKG-ICN and HKG-ORD were all paid legs.  We used 40,000 British Avios points to get business class on Cathay Pacific for ICN-HKG (BA then later changed its award chart for business class, so we won’t be able to get that redemption again either!).
  • Panama was a paid ticket and the first time we paid for business/first class in over 10 years, I think, because AA has a really good premium fare to PTY.  I don’t think we’ll fly this one again though — AA doesn’t fly direct from ORD to PTY and layovers are not ideal.  Copa does fly direct, we flew them in 2013 when we went to Santiago, and we really liked them.

We flew more on award tickets in 2015 than usual, and that’s going to continue in 2016: we have award tickets booked for Paris (Chris), Seoul (me), and Berlin/Burgundy.  In total, I’ve redeemed over 850,000 points over the past 18 months:

  • Mexico: 150,000 (UA)
  • Peru: 120,000 (AA/UA)
  • Canada: 18,000 (BA)
  • UK: 80,000 (AA)
  • Asia: 40,000 (BA)
  • Paris: 200,000 (AA)
  • Seoul: 95,000 (Singapore)
  • Berlin/Burgundy: 150,000 (BA/AA/IB)

How do we get all these points?  Well, we got started with fabulous credit card offers.  50,000 UA points here, 50,000 AA points there, etc.  There’s also “general” credit card points systems: Chase’s Ultimate Rewards, American Express’s Membership Rewards, Citibank’s Thank You points, and Starwood’s Preferred Guest.  All of these points systems allow us to transfer to a large number of airlines.  Each of these systems had large sign-up bonuses and we also put our general spending on these cards.  So points keep adding up quickly.

I also try to focus my paid travel on the Oneworld alliance, particularly American Airlines.  I’ve had status on American off-and-on for about 10 years now and I know AA’s system better than most.  For 2016, AA is the only airline I have status with but the elite status program is changing sometime this year, so I’m trying to decide if I’m going to jump ship and, if so, to what airline.  I have friends who swear by Jet Blue, but Chicago isn’t a hub for that airline and so it’s not very convenient for my travels.  I have friends who swear by Southwest, but Southwest isn’t going to get me to Europe or Asia!  Thanks to all the airline mergers, my choices are pretty much:

  • American: even with the upcoming changes to its program, there’s a certain comfort level I have with AA.  I know ORD-Terminal 3 pretty well now.  I’m pretty familiar with AA’s fleet.  I’m pretty familiar with certain routes (especially flights to London).  Not to mention that no alliance beats Oneworld for access to Australia or South America.
  • United: another airline with Chicago as its hub.  There are some attractive qualities about UA: direct flights to some of my favorite cities (Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA spring to mind), Star Alliance seems to be a great network of airlines with great availability of direct flights to Europe and Asia, and there’s been enough time since the Continental merger to have smoothed out a lot of bumps and bruises.  But I’ve never been a United fan: maybe because I’ve had bad luck on UA flights, maybe because I’ve never had UA status, but I’ve never had great service and lots of late flights while flying on UA.
  • Delta: the other major airline.  Not really an option for me though: Chicago isn’t a hub and redemption of Delta points is reportedly difficult.
  • Alaska.  It’s not a major airline, it doesn’t have a Chicago hub, but it is attractive because it partners with some interesting airlines, including AA.  It would be easy to get status while flying AA and I could then use Alaska points for all sorts of interesting options.  But since Alaska isn’t part of an alliance, each partnership is up for grabs each year and I don’t have a good feeling for how stable those partnerships are such that I can plan long-term travel based on redemptions on those partners.

For the most part, my planned travel for this year is on points, so I don’t have to make up my mind immediately.  But I should decide soon so that I don’t have to make a real-time decision when work travel picks up.

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