This is the last post in my TRAVEL MORE series. Make sure you read at least Part IV before this one, as it is a continuation of the discussion there. This post was a bit late coming; hubby typed it as I drove a small portion of our 12-hour drive on Sunday, and I organized it and added my two cents. What with his work and Thanksgiving going on, I didn’t want to bug him too much about putting this together. But I think it’s worth the wait and I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Thanks to hubs for the help! If you found these posts valuable and would like more travel tip posts in the future, please let me know in the comments!
(cont. from Part IV)
Goals: Economy vs Business/First
If I was in camp #2, which I am, then your miles/points strategy changes a little. The biggest difference is that cash back becomes a lot less valuable. In last post’s comparison between outright buying an economy plane ticket vs using miles/points, it was clear that just buying the ticket with cash was the better option. That isn’t the case with business and first class tickets. In most cases a business or first class redemption requires about twice as many miles as an economy ticket, but if you were to purchase the ticket with cash they would easily cost 5-10x the amount of money. For example: United charges 40/70/80 miles for economy/business/first respectively, which means that first class requires double the miles as economy. If I were paying cash, I could buy an economy ticket from the US to Singapore for 800+ right now, whereas first class would cost well over $10K. So you see that in cash it costs over 12x as much, whereas in miles it’s only twice as much. You would have to spend $500K at 2% cash back to buy a $10K first class ticket. Basically, because first/business tickets are so cost prohibitive, cash back doesn’t really help out. You will find the above situation to be the case in pretty much all airline loyalty programs.
Better in Business
We think that business and first class are well worth the points and effort needed to acquire them when it’s for a flight that’s at least 7+ hours. Some reasons: lay-down beds make it substantially easier to sleep and cut down on jet lag, there’s better food and service, private space, access to nice lounges with more good food and sometimes showers or beds, priority check-in/boarding, and of course the amenity kits and in-flight entertainment are pluses. For us, we normally use our miles/points to book on business/first for international flights, but never for stateside. Some tips when choosing business/first: pay attention to the plane you’re booking your flight on. Newer planes will offer a better experience than older model planes. And not all business/first are created equally. For example, first class on Cathay Pacific will be much better than on United. So it might be worth it to do a little research on your airline. Again, if you would like to see a future post expounding on this, or on any other topic, let me know in the comments.
To be honest, we haven’t really splurged when it comes to hotels because we just don’t feel like a $500/night room is worth it. We’d rather use our points for nice flights and stay at a perfectly adequate hotel at a much more reasonable rate. But if you want to stay at high end resorts, the same strategy as flying first/biz applies (to an extent). Like airlines, all hotel chains have a loyalty program and divide their properties into some sort of tier or level. Hotels charge points per night based on the level/tier of the hotel you are staying at. This can range all the way up to 80K points per night at top Marriott and Hilton properties, and 30Kish at Hyatt properties. This leads us into the topic of not all points being created equally. For example, I can transfer Chase points to Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton, all at a 1:1 rate. And if that’s the case, why would I transfer 80K to Hilton to stay at a luxe resort in say the Maldives when I could transfer 30K to Hyatt and stay at an equally luxe resort also in the Maldives? If you’re interested in using points for hotel stays, then Hyatt will give you the best value.
But here’s the caveat: hotel loyalty points are almost always worth less than airline miles or any transferable point currency. Because of this, I’ve never transferred points from Chase, Amex, or Citi (if I had a Citi card) to a hotel chain. The only one I could see being worth it would be Hyatt, because you could transfer 30K Chase points to stay at a 600+ per night resort. If I really wanted to stay in a luxe hotel I would get a hotel credit card that offered increase earnings. Some good examples:
Ritz Carlton by Chase offers a sign-up bonus of 2 free nights, as well as 5 points per dollar spent at Marriott/Ritz hotels. Hilton and Marriott usually offer up to a 100K sign up bonus with their credit cards and 5 points per dollar at their respective properties. I would use those sign up points, plus the extra points earned at hotel stays to build up for luxe hotel vacations. But again, unless you have so many points/miles that you don’t know what to do with them, I maintain that your points are better used on airfare.
Building Miles for Business or First
So what are the best ways to amass miles/points? Here are four key strategies:
1. Sign-up Bonuses. Regardless of what your travel goals are, lucrative sign-up bonuses will help you achieve them faster than any other way.
Here are some examples:
- Amex platinum 100K bonus
- Chase Sapphire Reserve 50K bonus
- Sapphire Preferred 100K
- Ritz Carlton by Chase 2 free nights (can easily be $800+ value)
- Hilton/Marriott credit card with 100K bonus
- Delta Amex with 80K bonus
Credit card companies want your business, so they offer large sign-up bonuses to entice you. You just have to meet their minimum spending requirement in the requisite time to get that bonus (usually $3k-$4k in three months). Don’t forget though, the clock starts ticking when you are approved for the card, not when you actually get it in the mail. Check the bottom of this post for our overall favorite cards.
2. Choose the Right Card for the Category of Spending. It’s a simple principle: if you want luxe hotel stays at Marriott, then use your Marriott card when you stay at a Marriott hotel. But don’t use your Marriott card at the grocery store because you’ll only get 1 Marriott point per dollar and Marriott points aren’t actually worth a lot (compared to an Amex or Chase point). Basically, always think before you use a credit card: which one will give me the most amount of points for this purchase?
3. Use Shopping Portals. We buy a lot of stuff online; you probably do as well. If you are just typing in a store’s URL to buy things, then you’re doing it wrong. Many airline and credit card loyalty programs offer a shopping portal where you can earn extra points or miles by accessing stores through them. I recently bought a GoPro from Backcountry.com, and just by accessing their site using United’s shopping portal, I earned an extra 15 miles per dollar spent. It’s that easy. So before ever purchasing something online, check each shopping portal (for each airline and credit card loyalty program you belong to) to see what bonus points each offers.
4. Be Creative when Maximizing You Earnings. Here is our real-life example: every quarter the Chase Freedom has a 5x bonus on certain categories of shopping. It could be groceries, drug stores, wholesale retailers, gas, etc. This quarter the offer is on drugstores and wholesale stores. While in San Francisco a couple of weekends ago I saw some dishes I liked at CB2 (Crate & Barrel sister store). Instead of buying them on the spot, I walked to a nearby drug store, used my Chase Freedom to buy a Crate & Barrel gift card, and went back to make my purchase. By doing that, instead of getting 1 point per dollar spent, I received 6 points for each dollar.
5. Pay Attention. Pay attention to ways your cards or loyalty programs offer extra earnings. Visit your card’s site and opt to receive emails so that you’re always informed. Examples: every so often we enjoy spending a weekend in San Francisco. One day we saw that by staying in a certain hotel there we could earn 7,000 points. The nightly rate wasn’t much more than our normal hotel, so we made the switch and got 7,000 points out of it. Or our Amex Platinum is currently offering a deal where they give back $100 if you spend $500 or more on a single flight purchase with one of their partner airlines. It can really pay to keep yourself informed.
Best Credit Cards for Building Miles
We’ve mentioned a lot of credit cards over the course of this series. There are just so many cards out there, and since no one person is the same, their wallets shouldn’t be either. But here are the cards that we deem the best, aka the ones we recommend to all of our interested friends and family, and why:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: 100,000 sign-up bonus if you spend $4,000 in the first three months and 3x points on all travel and dining among other benefits. It has a $450 annual fee but you also receive $300 in travel credit every year.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: before the Reserve came out a few months ago, this was our go-to card. 50,000 sign-up bonus if you spend $4,000 in the first three months and 2x points on travel and dining. It’s free the first year and $95 after that. We both got the card and after one year downgraded one of them.
- Chase Freedom: this is the card I downgraded my Preferred to. It’s free and has quarterly bonus categories that earn you 5x points. Some examples of past bonus categories they’ve offered: restaurants, grocery stores, drugstores, wholesale stores, department stores, etc. It’s a cashback card so if you don’t have another Chase account (like the Preferred or Reserve) to transfer your points to, then you’ll only be able to get cashback.
- Amex Platinum: 100,000 sign-up bonus. The normal bonus is 40,000 but every once in a while they offer a 100,000 sign-up bonus. Those deals are very short-lived so you have to be paying attention and sign up quick. This card is $450 per year but offers 5x points on airfare (booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel), access to a variety of lounges, and $200 in airline fee credit among other benefits. The airline fee credit is for things like baggage fees, etc. but through a loophole can be used to buy an Amazon gift card.
- Citi ThankYou Premier: 40,000 sign-up bonus after spending $3,000 in the first three months. It has a $95 annual fee but offers 3x points on travel including gas, and 2x points on dining and entertainment.
All of these cards except the Freedom have no foreign transaction fee.
With a little goal-setting and creativity you can really up your vacation game. Instead of sitting in a tiny seat for 10+ hours you could be eating gourmet meals in a giant chair sipping on cocktails and snacking on caviar. Remember in my introduction post when I talked about our past year of travel and how everything cost us less than $1500? Hopefully if you made it through this whole series you have a good idea of how we did it, but let me break it down for you:
- San Francisco –> Singapore, then Jakarta –> Tokyo were all on United First and Business. We used miles amassed from credit cards (at the time we had the Chase Sapphire Preferred and United Mileage Plus credit card). It cost us a whopping 320,000 miles and we paid $100 each in fees.
- From Singapore –> Bali, and Bali–> Jakarta we flew on Air Asia which probably cost no more than $40 each time.
- Utah and Las Vegas: not sure how many times we’ve flown to each of these spots, but almost every time we use the occasion to spend our airline credit. Some airlines are better than others at gifting credit to make up for mistakes and such, and hubby has ended up with a small stockpile. Also, sometimes if you end up on an overbooked flight they will offer credit if you’re willing to take a later one. United says that they offer a minimum of $200 worth of credit in those instances.
- Hawaii: we flew economy on Alaska Airlines using American miles amassed through the AAdvantage Aviator Red and Silver Barclay cards as well as some bought miles.
- Seattle + NYC: this was to take photos for my brother’s engagements, so he paid for my flights.
- Korea: used a deal that was posted on The Flight Deal (check out my post on finding cheap flights). It was in Singapore Airlines’ economy and cost $500 including taxes and fees.
- NYC again: I won a contest to attend a blogging conference, so this was paid for by them.
- San Francisco –> London, then Rome –> San Francisco was all using miles on American’s first and business and cost $100 each in fees.
- Paris –> Florence was on Air France and cost maybe $70 per person.
I hope you enjoyed this series. If you have questions or would like to see more posts like these in the future please tell me in the comments. And if you found our advice on credit cards helpful, please reach out to my email so that we can send you a referral code! Thanks for reading~