The past few weeks have seen two hotel loyalty programs shake up their award charts in a big way. For members of the Marriott Rewards and Hilton HHonors programs, the points tucked away for some future plans were suddenly a much different asset, and mostly not in a good way (though I maintain there are still some gems in the HHonors reboot). And, while I can sympathize with people who have been squirrelling away points, saving up for "the big one" at some point in the future who have now seen their plans change significantly, I’m also rather bemused by their plight. Call it schadenfreude, if you will. It isn’t because I take joy in the setbacks they’re experiencing; it is because I think more and more people are finally discovering the truth: The value proposition of hotel loyalty programs is crap for many travelers.
I used to be a traveling consultant, on the road for work 2-4 nights per week for 35+ weeks a year. That’s how I first got in to the point and miles game. And I accrued a lot of points and miles. I also had top-tier hotel status as a function of all those nights on the road with an expense account. I got upgrades on occasion and the other elite benefits the programs offered. Then I quit my job to travel more. I had hotel loyalty back then, or so I thought. After my first few trips I realized that I was losing that game. BADLY. Once I had to pay for the rooms myself rather than getting reimbursed the math changed dramatically. Skipping out on hotel loyalty was a phenomenal way to save money, it turns out. At least for me.
There are two main types of benefits I see that come from hotel loyalty: on-property benefits and point redemption. It turns out that I cannot really find value in either. Here’s how I came to that conclusion based on my travel patterns.
"Free" upgrades to a suite, "free" breakfast and "free" internet are the main areas where loyalty programs provide benefits on-property. For some there are also lounges with snacks/drinks in the evening. And, with very few exceptions, it turns out that none of these are actually worth much to me. Finding a hotel which offers free breakfast and internet to all guests rather than to only elites isn’t very hard to do, it turns out. As an added bonus, these hotels are often available at a lower price than the properties where the benefit has "value." On the off chance that the breakfast is not free, I’ve yet to find myself in a scenario where the on-premises breakfast was a better choice than walking around in the neighborhood for a few minutes and finding a local shop. Whether it is dumplings in Beijing, sushi in Tokyo, noodles in Bangkok or pastries across most of Europe, getting breakfast out rarely breaks the bank and it provides a much better sense of place than being holed up in the hotel.
Suite upgrades are another area where I just don’t get the value. Maybe it is because I live in a small apartment when I’m home so I’m used to it, but the idea of a huge suite for my sleeping needs is one that I struggle with. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t turn them down – but the value of a suite upgrade to me is roughly nil. Especially when I’m traveling solo. I spend so little time in the room; I actually somewhat prefer one I cannot get lost in.
And the snacks/drinks in the executive lounge as a replacement for dinner is something I just do not understand. I have read far too many trip reports of people taking their meals in the lounge, "because it is free." I’ve cringed when traveling with a group and hearing that some were doing the same and suggesting that their partner join them rather than going out for the local fare (we actually invited the plus one out in that instance). Even in Europe or Asia where the lounge spreads are generally rather more impressive they still are not necessarily local food nor are they free, just included in the rate. For this category I almost see the value as negative. Failure to get out and actually experience the local dining scene should count against travelers; I know it does on my scorecard.
Somewhat surprisingly, it turns out that with all my travels the number of nights I’d even consider redeeming points for a stay are pretty low. I don’t actually go places where the redemptions are such great value. My travels this past year probably had me in towns without a western-branded hotel more than 30-40% of the time anyways. So even if I wanted to redeem points for a hotel that wouldn’t have been an option. Even where there are such hotels available the cost to acquire the points is, generally, more than I’m willing to pay. The Hyatt in Kiev, Ukraine, for example, is a lovely property. But we needed four nights in town and it was cost-prohibitive to stay there as a revenue booking. Even on points it was rather costly, far more expensive than taking a room at another hotel not far away. Sure, a credit card may have helped offset the points accrual costs but that’s not a long-term strategy for realizing 75+ nights in hotels annually.
Cash is king
At the end of the day I’ve found that realizing ~15% back on my bookings – 10% as credit towards any future hotel stay and 5% in cash – is a better value for me. I’m able to book in at less expensive properties to begin with, hotels that I’d rather be staying at thanks to the local flavor. They offer the free breakfast and internet that I want and, with very few exceptions, are perfectly suited to my sleeping needs. And when I add up the amount I save per night, multiplied across the 75+ nights and combined with another 15% off, well, I just don’t know why I’d care about points or status.
I realize that rate of return by using hotels.com and their Welcome Rewards program. That covers the 10% back (after every 10 nights). It is a direct credit and there are minimal hoops to jump through. Of the booking engine-based schemes it is the best I’ve come across so far. For the extra 5% cash back I use a cash-back booking portal. I happen to be partial to my own travel rebates site, but there are others available, including TopCashBack, ebates and more. Check the rates on those sites; they can vary and different sites may offer better or worse deals on any given day.
If you really are committed to getting the hotel points – something that a hotels.com booking will preclude – these cash-back booking portals can still work for you. I know that Marriott, SPG, IHG and Accor participate in many of them (I have Accor on mine). Just make sure that your brand loyalty isn’t costing you more money in the long term.
The past week or so has been quite glorious for anyone looking to get into South America from the United States on the cheap. Both American Airlines and United Airlines had crazy sales from Orlando to Rio and now there is another sale available – in business class no less – from New York City to Chile on either AA or LAN metal for the long-haul segments. We’re talking about <$1000 fares to just about anywhere in Chile in business class, and Easter Island is included! And they are still available as of this morning. Needless to say, I’ve got a couple more flights booked now than I expected to have at this point in the year. But all in a good way. I think.
Considering that I started the year without any major trips planned I think that I’ve filled out my dance card pretty nicely so far. Between late April and Labor Day I have the following southern hemisphere flights booked:
And I still have to figure out how I’m getting home from Johannesburg. I’m hoping that a routing via South America works. Those are fun lines.
And, lest there is any confusion, I am not actually averse to traveling anywhere, including the southern hemisphere. It just seemed like a decent post title.
UPDATE: The fare was pulled with the 1pm feed.
Rio is an awesome city, well worth a visit to experience the beaches, culture and people ((see links below for details from my prior visit). Earlier in the week American Airlines apparently wanted to help Floridians visit, offering up ridiculously cheap fares. I’m not seeing those fares still on offer right now but United Airlines is now following on American’s heels. They have apparently decided that they REALLY want people to visit Rio, so long as you are starting in Orlando. There are fares available right now for less than $500 all-in between Orlando and Rio, with no minimum stay requirements and reasonably wide open availability.
If you are feeling particularly creative and looking for a mileage run out of these fares it is not too hard to make something around 3.3 cents/PQM on United, thanks to routing rules which permit Denver to be used, at least on the outbound segment. Even without Denver getting 3.5 cents is pretty easy; just focus on the Houston routing as it is more miles than the Newark or Dulles options. The following is what I would earn as a 1K with a Denver routing:
There is generally better availability on slightly shorter and more reasonable routings but the ability to route the return via Newark has some other, unintended benefits for me in terms of positioning costs.
One caveat to the earning potential is that the United N fare is the lowest they offer and, as such, does not earn credit in several partner programs. Asiana, US Airways and United all will give 100% credit for these segments. Lufthansa‘s Miles & More, Aegean and TAP Air Portugal will not accrue points for this trip.
The fare is valid on a pretty wide range of dates as well. Here are the United fare rules:
Do keep in mind that Brazil requires a visa for visitors traveling on a US passport and it is not cheap to acquire. Still, the fare is awesome and the visa lasts 10 years, covering multiple future trips.
This is a great fare available for visiting a wonderful destination. And it probably won’t last long. I’ve got a couple on hold already and I’m looking at a few other options.
The airport of Lebanon, New Hampshire is one of many small airports supported via federal funding. The flight operations – to White Plains and Boston – are subsidized as are the airport’s general operating expenses. And, thanks to a quirk in the way those subsidies are calculated, the airport and the airline are running a massive promotion for the next few days in an effort to boost their passenger count to the next threshold. For the next 3 days fares between Lebanon and White Plains or Boston are only $12. The flights to/from White Plains also include transportation to Manhattan in that rate. So many passengers are booking that the airline – Cape Air – has added additional flights to get more passengers moving.
The push comes as Lebanon tries to pass 10,000 passenger departures for the year. That’s a tiny number of passengers and seems like a rather arbitrary threshold to strive for. But in the world of federal subsidies it makes a HUGE difference. Hitting that number should see the airport’s funding jump from $150,000 to $1,000,000. With that much at stake it is rather easy to see why they’re making the push.
I’m pretty sure another airline did this a few years ago in the UK or Ireland and they caught a bit of flak from the local subsidy provider for not meeting the spirit of the subsidy. Still, I think they got their money so hard to complain too much there. UPDATE: Here’s the story I was thinking about: Getting paid to fly, plus an open bar.
Oh, and the lines are pretty awesome. If I were not on my way to Asia right now I’d be booking these.
Crazy cheap fares tonight on Air Berlin from Los Angeles to Europe for winter travel. Many destinations being reported on MilePoint, FlyerTalk, Facebook and twitter for <$500 round trip, including Copenhagen, Vienna and more.
These aren’t the greatest as a mileage run as they book in to a very low earning fare bucket (at least if crediting to AAdvantage) so don’t expect this to be a great start towards your EXP earning for 2013. And flying Air Berlin longhaul in coach is something of a self-hating exercise, but it is a great fare.
Get ‘em while they’re still around. The flexible dates search on ITA is your friend here.
I wasn’t out too early this morning for Shop Small Saturday but I have successfully completed my shopping efforts, getting my freebies courtesy of American Express. A couple of the stops I made were just general errands – I’m not the type to buy extra junk just because it is free – but there was one stop I made specifically to restock on some travel gear. I figured I’d share what I got since I think they are goodies which make my travel experience significantly better every time I head to the airport.
My shop of choice was Flight 001 in Manhattan. They aren’t always the cheapest price-wise but they have some awesome travel gear and the staff is generally quite nice. Plus, today’s purchases are free anyways so why not.
I picked up a few extra GoToob bottles for my liquids. These are refillable silicone containers which I use for sunscreen or body wash. They seal well and pack even better. Plus, they are 3 ounces or smaller, making them TSA-safe. Amazon sells them as well and I cannot recommend them highly enough. My only problem is that the 2oz version comes with a suction cup on the back which I have a habit of sticking to the wall of the shower in my hotel and then leaving there when I depart. Whoopsie. Good thing I could pick up a few more for free this afternoon.
In addition to needing to replace my liquids tubes it turns out that I have a habit of leaving my eye masks on the plane. I know that the airlines give you one in business or first class on the long-hauls but those are generally crappy and not so comfortable; I think that spending a few bucks is well worth it for a more comfortable sleep. I just really need to stop leaving them on the plane. In this case I needed not one but two of them as I’ve also managed to borrow – and lose – my wife’s eye mask on a recent trip having previously lost mine. Ouch.
Historically I’ve purchased the Lewis N. Clark Comfort Eye Mask and I’ve very much enjoyed it. The one caveat is that the velour cloth is a bit heavy, feeling like a blanket on my face. If the plane is too warm that gets very uncomfortable to me. There was another option next to them on the shelf today that I’ve decided to try, the Bucky 40 Blinks Mask. It is even lighter than the Lewis N Clark one and the nose cutout seems to block out the light even better based on my limited in-store testing.
I spent WAY more time than necessary in the shop, checking out the other travel gizmos, bags and books they had in stock. I managed to avoid buying anything more than what I initially planned, though I did have to buy one extra piece to get over the $25 mark because the store was also having a 20% off sale all weekend. Still, I’m quite happy with my purchases and look forward to using them on future trips. The prior versions were always nice on my past trips.
FYI: The links to Amazon for these products are affiliate links. If you shop through them I get a few cents back. I use the Amazon links because they’re available to pretty much everyone and the prices are cheap if not the cheapest. If you’ve got a better place to buy ‘em have at it.
In-flight internet provider gogo has a few attractive promos out for getting online during your flights over the coming Thanksgiving week and beyond. The first option is a 2-pack of all-day passes valid from November 17 – November 25, 2012. Basically you get to be online all day both to and from your Thanksgiving weekend for only $14.50, roughly half price versus buying it one at a time.
The second offer is a 3-pack of all-day passes. The validity on these runs through January 3, 2013 so they can cover Christmas or New Years trips as well. This pack is priced at $19.50, a discount of more than 50%.
Pack number three is similar to pack number one – two all-day passes – but is it for the Christmas-New Years timeframe. The pack will be valid December 22-January 3 and it will go on sale December 10th. It will be priced at $14.50, just like the Turkey 2-pack above.
Both of these are pretty good deals and actually bring the price of the connectivity down to a level where I can actually see paying for it, especially on transcons or other long trips. That said, free is generally better than paid. I have been fortunate to accumulate a handful of promo cards from gogo over the year and I’ve got a few I won’t be using which I’m giving away. So, if you want a free session for use before the end of 2013 leave a comment below about what route you’ll be flying to use it on and I’ll pick three winners to get a free day code. Entries will close at noon EST on Wednesday, November 21st based on the server time and I’ll pick the three winners after that and email the codes out straight away. Good luck!
The first debate is now behind us and we’re just over a month away from Election Day 2012. For a thousand people that means just a month away from winning a free trip out of the country on JetBlue. This isn’t the first time JetBlue has gotten in on current events. Last year it was $4 flights during "carmageddon" in Los Angeles. This year they’re giving 1,006 people (2012 seats) free trips to leave the country after the presidential elections. The catch: You only can win if your desired candidate loses.
We’ve all heard it said before: if my candidate does not win, I’m leaving the country. Fun is one of our five founding values, and in this spirit we decided to give people a chance to recover from the political noise and follow through on their claim to skip town if their candidate comes up short… Most importantly, we want to highlight the freedom we have as Americans to exercise our right to vote and encourage everyone to do their part on November 6. Live Free or Fly!
That’s how said Marty St. George, senior vice president marketing and commercial strategy, sums up the offer.
Oh, and they’ve taken over a number of subway cars in NYC with their ads:
They’re also going to be pushing the promo on the streets in NYC later in the month, including a voter registration drive as part of the effort.
The prize covers only the base fare for the trip; the winners will have to cover the taxes and fees. And the travel window is rather narrow. From the fine print, "Each Travel Certificate may be redeemed between November 8, 2012 and February 13, 2013 for eligible travel between January 8, 2013 and February 13, 2013." And they will be capacity restricted like all free flight awards. And it requires connecting to your FaceBook account; at least you can set the posts to private and remove the permission it asks for to post on your timeline if you want. At the end of the day, free is better than not, so there’s that.
The real question, at least to me, is how to vote. Do I choose based on who I want to win or who I think is going to lose. After all, there’s a free ticket to be won here.
How about 30 chances? Here they are!
Most everyone in the Boarding Area group of bloggers is participating in a promo this week. There are two seats to be won – next to Randy Petersen, no less – and entry is simple. Each of the individual blogs will have a post about the contest. Find it, answer the question posed and hopefully you get lucky and win. Each blogger will pick a finalist and then, of those, Boarding Area will pick two winners. There are more rules out there but those are the important bits. Check out homepage for the contest here for more details.
As for winning an entry from my blog, just answer the following question in a comment below:
Would you rather take more trips in economy or fewer trips but in premium cabins with your points (assuming points don’t exist in an infinite, free supply) and why?
Answer this week (contest ends 7 October at 11:59pm Mountain Time per the server clock) and I’ll pick a winner from the entries to be a finalist in the bigger contest.
The annual cycle of business class fare sales for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has started once again. Tickets much be purchased in the next 10 days or so and all three alliances are participating, as are the non-allied carriers. Fares start around $1600, depending on the city pairs. SkyTeam is running about $100-200 higher than the others on many the dates and cities I checked.
The available city pairs this year seem more restrictive than in previous years and only London is really cheap as a destination. And with the Star Alliance carriers the flights book into P, the new discount business class which isn’t upgradable and earns limited points in most programs. Still, these are pretty good fares to Europe if that is your thing for late November.