Monday, June 17, 2013

Cruise Planning - Tokyo to Hong Kong

When it comes to planning an international trip, I almost always start with the flights. I usually search using calendar features when available and make a spreadsheet of all the available incoming and outgoing reward flights (yes, I use spreadsheets for everything. would not be able to survive without google docs). Once I have my available date range, I start planning what to do once we get there.

In this particular case, we had a number of limitations. We wanted a cruise, in July or August, that included Japan, and was 7 nights or longer. To my surprise this quickly narrowed our options down to just a few possible options and once matched with the flight availability, there was really only one option left.

7 Nights on the Sun Princess, leaving from Tokyo and arriving in Hong Kong.

When your dates are not flexible, finding a deal on a cruise can be a pain. Prices do rise and fall similar to airfare, but if you wait too long, you run the risk of your desired cabin type selling out. Luckily, if you are booking far in advance, most cruise lines will either offer some form of a price drop guarantee. Some lines offer onboard credit for the difference right up to the day of departure, some will book you into a higher category for the same price, and others still will reduce your final payment amount if you are more than 90 days out. Each company is very different in their rules on this, but one they tend to stick to is this: If you book with a travel agent or 3rd party, you must go through them to request any price drop or cabin changes". If you did not book direct with the cruise line, don't spend time on hold before talking to the company you booked through. 

Generally I never book direct through a cruise line. Why? They rarely offer the best overall deal. They will always match the best advertised price, however, they may not offer the best benefits, bonuses, or perks. It is important to shop around for more than just the best price. If you are a Costco member, I do recommend checking out Costco Travel's deals, they almost always come with onboard credit. On a recent NCL booking, they also added in free soda packages ($30/pp value) even though the promotion had expired.

I also personally make use of American Express Platinum Cruise Benefits. The $450/year Platinum card is not worth getting just for these benefits, but along with the $200 airline credit, I find that we are able to more than break even every year by using these benefits. When booking through Platinum Travel Service (or a travel agent that knows how to call PTS) and paying with your Platinum Card (or any AMEX if you also have a platinum card), you get either onboard credit or category upgrades, along with additional perks like a bottle of wine/champaign, and specialty restaurant fees waived. If you do carry this card, be sure to ask any travel agent you work with if they know how to apply these benefits by calling PTS after booking.

When booking this cruise, I found that there were very few bonus offers available and that my best bet would be to book through American Express travel and get 2x points, a 2 Category Upgrade (higher floor, better location), A bottle of sparkling wine, and dinner at a specialty restaurant. It sounded fine, but I was just not satisfied. I kept digging further looking for some way to get a better deal. Somehow I came across a site called The site was pretty minimal, and seemed even a little suspicious as to if it was real. All I needed to enter was my email and desired sailing and room type. I figured there was little to lose. 

Within a few hours, offers from individual travel agents started to come in. The first few were no better than what I could have found myself, but then a few agents started offering fares $100 or more per person lower than the best rate I could find. We finally selected an agent based in Florida that not only saved us ~$200 per person, but they were also familiar with AMEX PTS and was able to get us all of the same benefits (minus the 2x membership rewards points). After selecting my travel agent I "closed" the request and only get minimal email from cruisecompete, which could easily be unsubscribed from. 

I have been happy to see that over the last few months, the publicly advertised price for our cruise has not once come close to the deal we got, and in fact many of the categories have sold out considering this is a 1 time itinerary that is also bookable as a 14 night cruise ending in Singapore. I definitely recommend trying out this service if you are looking into booking a cruise.     


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Starwood Preferred Guest - Four Points LAX

Compared to airlines, hotel chains are often much more accommodating when something goes wrong. They also have many more options to help correct a situation or offer good will gestures for unavoidable events. It does help to be a member of their loyalty program (elite or not) and keep in mind that bookings made through 3rd party sites like Priceline/Hotwire will not help your cause. 

On Monday night I was looking for an inexpensive hotel to stay at near LAX before our upcoming international flight that we cannot afford to miss. With most decent airport hotels in the mid $100 per night range, I started exploring options for redeeming points. With airport hotels in Los Angeles being seemingly high in demand, many hotels required more points than I was interested in spending. After checking Hyatt, Priority Club, and Hilton, I remembered I had a very small collection of Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points from a few years ago. Having just 3200 points, I would only have enough for a category 2 hotel. To my surprise, the Four Points LAX hotel was available and only 3000 points per night. Knowing I did not want to pass up this offer, I tried to book (from my iPad in bed at 11:30 at night), only to reach an error page before getting to the end of the booking. I figured it was just an iPad browser issue and gave up for the night, figuring I would book the next day. 

The next day, I was checking my favorite travel blogs for news and deals and I see the headline, "Starwood raising hotel category for Four Points LAX without any announcement or advance notice." My heart sank, realizing that my plans had just fallen apart. I thought perhaps this was just a mistake, but it was soon confirmed that the hotel made the change overnight. 

In the terms and conditions of the program, the hotels are allowed to change their rates at any time without advance notice. Having attempted to book the hotel at the advertised rate and having the booking fail, I felt this was worth an email to SPG. I did not mention that I attempted to book and failed, I just sent an email asking if it was at all possible to book at the old rate. Within a few hours I had a response. 

The agent informed me that they had spoken to the hotel and confirmed that the rate had in fact gone up, and they would not be able to book the room at the 3000 point value. However, as a gesture of good will, they would credit me with enough points to make the new booking at the 7000 point cost. After about 30 minutes chatting with a customer service representative, they were able to make me a tentative booking while I wait for the points to post and my plans were saved.

I have definitely had experiences with hotels that resulted in less desirable outcomes, but I think its important that you keep in mind, it does not hurt to ask (unless you are a "Diamond Guest" who needs a suite for your Giraffe). If you really feel you have been wronged and don't feel that you are getting anywhere with customer service, I would recommend reaching out through social media channels (Twitter/Facebook). They often have a stronger incentive to offer a solution.

In the end, it is up to you as to what you feel is worth asking/complaining about.      

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Is Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan a good fit for you?

In an earlier post I covered airline alliances and partnerships that allow you to earn and redeem miles between airlines. I also mentioned that there were a few programs that do not fall into the 3 major alliances, but have partnerships with other major airlines. Alaska Airlines' loyalty program, Mileage Plan, is one of these very unique programs that partners with a handful of airlines, even a few in rival alliances.

Earning Miles
You can of course earn miles by flying on Alaska, but you can also credit flights on any of their partner airlines. Some of their partners include AirFrance, Delta, KLM, and Korean Air from the Skyteam Alliance, as well as American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN, and Qantas from the OneWorld Alliance. For those of you lucky enough to be flying in paid premium cabins (Business/First), you will want to consider crediting your flights to the carrier you are flying on, or a member of its alliance as there are quirky rules about bonus miles awarded based on the class of service you fly in.

Apart from miles flown, there are a number of ways to accumulate miles with Alaska. Many of the major hotel groups offer miles in return for stays (though they often replace the hotel points you would have earned). You can also earn miles through all of the major car rental agencies. For those of you really dedicated to your mileage earning, there are also a number of ways to earn points for dining, shopping, or banking with certain financial institutions. 

Redeeming Miles 
This is where things start to get tricky. Mileage Plan is not the most difficult program to redeem with by far, but figuring out how much an award costs and checking availability can become challenging. You can at least check for cost and availability of flights on Alaska, American, British Airways, and Delta on

Flights within the Continental US (48+Alaska) and Canada
For the most part, these flights will cost 25,000 miles round trip in economy. Alaska, American, and British Airways will allow you to book one way tickets at half the cost, but Delta will require you to either book a round trip, or book one way on Delta and one way on Alaska, American, or British Airways. All of these flights can be searched for and booked via the site, so I will not go too into depth on where you can fly. 

Flights between North America and Hawaii
Not a good deal for west coast based flyers, but not terrible from the East or Canada. 
American Airlines

Flights between North America and Europe
As alaska does not fly outside of North America, these flights will have to be on their partners. You can check out the full chart here, but here are a few of the example costs. I will focus on round trip economy class in this section and dedicate a separate section to aspirational premium awards. 

Air France / KLM
American Airlines 
60,000 (May 16th - Oct. 14) / 40,000 (Oct. 15 - May 15) British Airways

65,000 (+High Fees!)
60,000 (only 90,000 in Business!)

Flights between North America and Asia
This is where you might throw your hands in the air and give up! Each partner airline charges differently and they also divide Asia into different regions. Again focusing on round trip economy tickets.

American Airlines 
Japan - 65,000 (May 1st-Sep 30th) / 50,000 (Oct 1st - Apr 30th)
China - 70,000
Cathay Pacific
Japan/China/Korea - 60,000
Japan/China/Korea - 60,000
Korean Air
Japan/Korea/China/Taiwan - 70,000

Premium Cabin Awards (The best kind!)
These awards will provide you with the absolute best value per mile. I will not cover all of these, or even the most complicated, but a few of the more common possible trips to get you thinking. I am skipping British Airways flights as they will incur up to $1000 in Fuel Surcharges on premium cabin awards.

North America to Europe
Air France/KLM Business Class - 100,000 (Possible Stopover in Paris or Amsterdam)
American Airlines Business Class - 100,000 (125,000 First Class)
Delta Airlines Business Elite - 90,000

North America to Asia
American Airlines Business Class to Japan - 100,000 (125,000 First Class)
American Airlines Business Class to China - 110,000 (135,000 First Class)
Cathay Pacific to South East Asia Business Class - 100,000 (140,000 First Class)
Delta Business Elite to Japan/China - 120,000
Korean Air Business Class to Korea/ Japan / Taiwan / China 105,000 (Possible stopover in Korea)
Korean Air Business Class to South East Asia - 110,000 (Possible stopover in Korea)

North America to Africa / Middle East / India
Air France/KLM Business Class - 120,000 (Possible Stopover in Paris or Amsterdam)
Cathay Pacific Business Class - 125,000 (Possible Stopover in Hong Kong)
Cathay Pacific First Class to South Africa - 140,000 (Amazing Deal! ~$25,000 worth of flights)
Delta Business Elite - 120,000 (Possible stopover in Amsterdam en route to Mumbai)
Emirates Business Class to India / Middle East - 145,000 (180,000 First Class)

North America to Australia / New Zealand / South Pacific
Air France Business Class LAX to Tahiti - 120,000 (Can include Alaska Airlines US Flight)
Air Pacific Business Class LAX to Australia/New Zealand Via Fiji - 110,000 (Can Include Alaska Airlines US Flight)
Cathay Pacific Business Class to Australia / New Zealand Via Hong Kong - 120,000 (160,000 First Class)
Delta Business Elite to Sydney - 105,000
Qantas Business Class - 110,000 (First Class 140,000, Possible Stopover in Australia en route to New Zealand)

Who is this program is best for?
If you fly somewhat frequently within the continental US, but never seem to accrue more than 25,000 miles flown on an individual airline each year, Mileage plan may be a good fit for you. It is also much more effective if you are based on the west coast as this gives you the option of spreading your flights across 3 domestic airlines (Alaska, American, and Delta), while still accumulating miles in only one program. If Hawaii is also a favorite destination, Alaska frequently offers sub $400 round trip from the west coast that earn you nearly 5000 miles per ticket and offer a decent in flight experience (and possible $100 upgrades to First Class each way).