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.
Apparently this has been around for a few months now but I hadn’t seen it previously. Now that I know it exists, however, I’m a huge fan. For customers with flexibility in their travel plan JetBlue has the ability to search for flights over a month-long period rather than the default display of only one week (which is still better than what most other airlines offer on a default search result page). Pick a city pair and month and you get something which looks like this:
Adding in the holidays is just an added bonus over the quick view of fares across the schedule. Oh, and it works for TrueBlue award redemptions, too:
Not revolutionary by any means, but a great option in the flight search interface. A very nice update to the JetBlue site. Check the tool out here: http://jetblue.com/bestfarefinder/.
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!
I have to admit that I feel a bit guilty about how easily I made it through the ordeal which was Sandy last week. A big part of it is that I got lucky – just a few more feet of storm surge and my apartment would likely have been flooded and I’d be ripping out sheetrock and destroyed possessions right now. But I got lucky. The flood waters stopped at 10th Avenue, just a couple hundred yards from my front door. And even suffering four days of no power, we got power back last week; many more in the region still have no power. I had easy access to mid-town Manhattan and further north, where power, heat, food and friends were easy to come by. Thousands upon thousands did not have that and do not have that still today, a week later.
Hardly the worst of it, by far.
Things are slowly getting better around here. Power is coming back, the transit system is getting back online and where things are still broken the support from the community is incredible. In the travel world the response from JetBlue is nothing short of tremendous. They’ve been at the front of the industry in allowing for changes to travel plans for customers affected by Sandy and they’ve also been on the ground in New York City, supporting the NYC Food Truck association’s efforts to distribute 25,000 hot meals to city residents affected by the storm.
And now a group of us here on Boarding Area are stepping up to crowd-source some additional support. As a group we’ll be donating $1 toward the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts for each comment on our Hurricane Sandy posts (like this one), up to a combined $1,800 total between the participating blogs.
We’re encouraging everyone to donate points, time or dollars. Or just take a few seconds to comment on this post. EVERY little bit counts. Many of us in the miles and points community are fortunate enough to have the time and resources to travel (I escaped to Hawaii for the day over the weekend), so let’s help those who are still struggling to get life back to some semblance of normal.
From a previous post I made, here are the hotel and airline programs I’m aware of offering points or matching donations made by members:
- JetBlue is matching customer donations up to the first $50,000 donated to the American Red Cross and also offering 6 points per dollar to their TrueBlue members. JetBlue is also making their presence felt on the ground in New York City, paying for meals from the Wafels & Dinges food trucks to be distributed to residents.
- Delta is donating $100,000 to the American Red Cross relief efforts. Additionally, SkyMiles members can also donate miles or money to the Red Cross; there does not appear to be any miles promo associated with it at this time.
- United Airlines is matching up to $100,000 in donations to three charities: the American Red Cross, Feeding America and AmeriCares. As of this morning their member have already donated more than $300,000 to the charities so the match is maxed out. Additionally, members who give a minimum of $50 will receive 250 bonus miles. Donations of $100 or more will receive 500 miles. The company will issue up to 5 million miles as part of the effort.
- American Airlines is offering 250 AAdvantage miles to members who donate $50 and 500 miles to members who donate $100 or more.
- Hilton is offering 10 HHonors points for every $1 donated (through their GlobalGiving site) through the end of the year.
- Starwood Preferred Guest will match points donations made to the American Red Cross through November 30th. Donations start at 2,000 SPG points.
- Salvation Army accepts donations of United and Delta miles with a minimum of 1,000 miles.
- When you make charity donations using your US Bank FlexPerks card, you earn 3x for your donation.
Please consider donating through one of these programs (or another, if you are so motivated) if you can.
Leave a comment on this post stating how you like to help others in need, and it will raise $1 toward the hurricane relief efforts (one comment per person, please). Then head to the similar posts at View From the Wing, Deals We Like, Mommy Points, GhettoIFE and Very Good Points. The deadline to get your comment counted is 11:59PM Eastern on Thursday November 8th (so we can get the donations out by the end of the week). Thanks so much for taking the time to participate!
Alitalia has shifted position on their most recent mistake: some tickets will actually be honored. The carrier initially indicated they would cancel all flights issued after a JPY 25,000 discount for flights departing from Japan was found to be available on all tickets worldwide. The company indicated that the execution on the coupon code was a "malfunction" and that the code working on flights other than those from Japan was erroneous. But they also have agreed to let some customers fly on the mistakenly issued tickets. From their Facebook page:
However, since Alitalia intends to protect clients who have committed a, albeit minimal,amount with their credit card, we confirm the validity of the transactions requested on the Japanese site with a value greater than 1 euro cent. Those clients will soon receive an e-mail with their ticket.
In other words, customers who booked anything more than JPY 25,000 and then applied the coupon will actually get to fly while those on cheaper flights will not. In some ways this makes no sense. Why would you choose to honor only the more expensive fares? In many other ways, however, it makes a lot of sense.
For starters, when there is actually an exchange of money rather than a zero-dollar transaction the contract rules change a bit. On top of that, it is quite likely that the number of zero-fare tickets issued was far higher than the number of discounted fares issued such that the net impact to the carrier financially might actually be much more reasonable this way.
In the end I’d say that the decision is a reasonable one. Customers willing to pay something for their flights get to fly and the company doesn’t get completely screwed for the mistake.
Lots of folks got all sorts of excited over a discount code for JPY 25000 off Alitalia flights available on the carrier’s Japanese site. There was a similar (though less lucrative) offer on the Russian site. They were supposed to be for tickets originating in those countries but someone managed to program the codes incorrectly and they actually worked for all flights. Many, many were booked. And now, not too surprising, the flights are being canceled. The surprising part, in many ways, is that the company managed to actually kill the mistake on a Sunday morning.
The outrage is being heard on FlyerTalk and there are plenty of people suggesting avenues of recourse. Back when the exposure on a mistake like this was relatively small it was easy for the airline to handle the costs of the error. With some claims suggesting the impact in the millions of dollars it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the airline is at least going to try to bail on this one.
It is somewhat interesting that they are suggesting the tickets are being canceled due to fraud systems:
Our anti-fraud systems have suspended transactions with credit cards or I.P addresses from countries other than the site where the reservation was created. For all uncommitted transactions, the system has sent an email to the address used for the reservation. Please try again taking advantage of the discount of 25% off by using the code shown in the e-coupon facebook page.
If the tickets were not actually issued then it will be much harder for anyone to force Alitalia’s hand on this. And it will not surprise me if the various regulatory authorities side with the carrier, assuming they can show transactions were never completed. Showing that may be a challenge, but it could happen.
I’ve got my popcorn ready.