Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Using Chase Ultimate Reward Points for a Trip to Hawaii

Last year we took a 7 night trip to Hawaii that was funded almost entirely by Chase and their Ultimate Rewards program along with two free hotel nights from the Chase Hyatt Card. We used 50,000 Ultimate reward points (+$22 in taxes) for flights on Alaska Airlines from Oakland to Maui, 100,000 Ultimate Reward Points for 5 Nights at the Hyatt Regency Maui, and two extra nights with free night certificates from the Chase Hyatt Card.

While this was not the most valuable use of these points, it was one of the easiest free trips you can take if you are on the west coast (CA: SFO, SJC, OAK, LAX, SAN, SMF OR: PDX, WA: SEA, BLI AZ: PHX AK: ANC). Since we have had a few people ask about how this works, I thought I would make a post explaining the process and how you could also make this trip work. As you can certainly find a better deal on a vacation rental or even less expensive hotels, I will focus just on the flights for the purpose of this guide.


Chase Ultimate Reward Points (UR) are not the only points you can do this with, but with the introduction of their new Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred cards it can be exceptionally easy and quick.

Stage 1: Yes you need to get a credit card... 

If you already have the cards or points, you can skip this stage!

This is where a lot of people give up immediately. They are either worried that getting a new credit card will hurt their credit score, or that they wont qualify for the card, or that the credit card company will somehow "get them" in the long run. Yes your credit score will drop temporarily by 10-15 points (90 days or so), but depending on your overall credit, it will likely go up higher than where you were before you got the card. I currently have *gasp* 17 open credit cards and we will check in on my credit to see how that worked out. 

Credit Scores: If you aren't sure that your credit is good (700+ FICO), we can now go over to Discover or a number of other free sites to check our scores.    
  

Within about 2 minutes of answering a few questions we are able to see our FICO credit score. Here is how it looks for me as of today.





If you find you are over 700, you should have no problem, people have picked up these cards at 650, but I would recommend waiting.

Annual Fees:  This is the next big turn off for people. Most of these cards have an annual fee, however for several of them the fee is waived the first year and after 1 year you can either cancel the card, or downgrade to a no-fee version and keep the account active (which is why I have so many open accounts).

Minimum Spending: So you are ok with getting a card, you don't mind dealing with the annual fee, now you have to commit to spending a large chunk of money in a relatively short period of time. Typically $4000 in 3 months. I hear a lot from people that they cannot possibly do this, but with some planning, its very achievable. Below are a list of ways you can accelerate your spending.

  1. Prepay your utilities (TV, Cell Phone, Internet) Comcast will happily take your money!
  2. Time your application with large expenses (upcoming trips, holiday shopping, Car Insurance)
  3. Buy Gift Cards for future purposes (retail gift cards are usually fee free, such as Amazon)
  4. Pay your rent, mortgage, or property tax with a credit card using Tio.com, RadPad, or your local tax assessors website. These come with a fee, so we only recommend using for minimum spending you cant otherwise meet.  
OK, you are still with me, lets take a look at the cards available for this particular purpose.

Each of these cards offers the option to redeem your points for travel bookings, which generally is not as good of a deal as transferring the points to an airline or hotel, but it gives you an idea of the minimum value you get for each card. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred - 50,000 points after $4,000
Annual Fee - $0 First Year ($95/year after) 
Cashback Value - $625 (1.25 cents/point)

Chase Ink Plus Business - 60,000 points after $5000
Annual Fee - $95
Cashback Value - $750 (1.25 cents/point)

Chase Sapphire Reserve - 100,000 points after $4000
Annual Fee - $450 (Minus $300/ Calendar Year for any travel purchases)
Cashback Value $1500 (1.5 cents/point) 

It is important to note that if you hold the Reserve card and another card, your points will all be worth the minimum 1.5 cents per point. The cards each come with various valuable benefits as well, but I am not here to sell you on a card! 

Stage 2: Pick your Dates, Find your Flights

Now if you just wanted to use your cashback value you would go to UltimateRewards.com, log in, and hit "Book Now" 

Here I have entered some sample dates just like any travel site.

My results include a dollar price, or the equivalent in miles. In my case I have the Preferred card so I am getting 1.25 cents per point in value. 


To make sure they arent trying to overcharge I go over to google.com/fights and check the same flights and everything looks fine (both sites want $438). 



The convenient thing about booking through ultimate rewards is that if you dont have enough points, you can pay some with points and some with cash. 


I would only recommend going this route IF you have the Reserve Card (would only be ~29,000 points for this), find seats on sale for under $350, cant find award seats for your dates, or if you need to book on a flight that someone else is already on. Also its unlikely you will find 4+ award seats on any flight very easily, but finding 2 or 3 and using pay with points for the rest might work out. 

On to the real Value! 25,000 points per round trip ticket on Alaska Airlines Nonstop to Hawaii (or 12,500 one way)

OK, so you want to get the best deal and you are ready to jump through some hoops. 

The first thing you need to do if you have not already is go over to britishairways.com and sign up for their rewards program called Executive Club. You will get a membership number that is quite long and impossible to remember! 

Once you have your membership number, you will head over to Ultimaterewards.com and find the Use Points Tab and the Transfer to Travel Partners option. 



Under Airlines, you will find the British Airways Executive program and link your account by entering your name and member ID. But we are not transferring any points just yet! 




Point transfers are instant and non-reversible, so we don't transfer anything until we have confirmed that flights are available. 

Checking flights is relatively easy, but this is where it starts to get very un-intuitive. We are going to book with British Airways miles, To fly on Alaska, with points we got from Chase... So where do we search? AA.com! Yes we are going to use American Airlines website to check for seats. 

You enter your dates, your number of passengers, and be sure to click on "Redeem Miles"


 Once I get to the results page, I will want to narrow down my search by selecting Non-Stop flights only (this deal only works on non-stop flights) and "Economy MileSAAver" category. 

Now, I am sticking with the dates I used in the first search, but as expected my options are a bit more limited. There are no available seats on the day I want for 3 people for this particular route (AA will search nearby airport pairs for you). 

When I open up the "Full Calendar" I do see that later in the month there are some flights and if I move my dates out to end of October and into November I see this. 

Outbound

  
Return



Ok so I am going to pick the first set of dates that work for me. Out on the 27th and Back on the 3rd and continue. 

On the 27th I see the only flight available is the Alaska Airlines Flight AS 811


And on the 3rd I see lots of flights, but remember we want Alaska and we want Non-stop so we pick AS 840



Stage 3: Call to book your flights

Now, that is the end of our work at AA.com, we write down our flight numbers and its time to transfer our points. If you really want to be safe, because the transfers are instantaneous you can wait until you are talking to a human before you make that transfer. 

Call British Airways Executive Club Daily between 4:30AM - 5:00pm Pacific Time
1-800-452-1201

This call center is notoriously bad for wait times, but eventually you will get a human. They close at 5pm, so I would really call in by 4pm to make sure you get someone. Once you finally have someone on the phone you let them know you want to make an award reservation and you have the flight numbers and dates already. If you can see them on AA.com and they cannot, you may need to hang up and call again! 

Each ticket should be priced at 25,000 miles round trip and about $11 in taxes. They may tell you that you need to pay a $25 booking fee for using the phone, but they should waive it if you ask as these cannot be made online at this time. 

Now, before you hangup. Ask if they can give you your Alaska Airlines record locator this should be 6 letters long. You want this to take over to alaskaairlines.com or call up alaska and get your seats selected as the phone rep wont be able to help you with this! 

Thats it! 

If you have questions or want to know more, leave a comment, or send me an email. 




Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Europe 2014: Getting to Rome - Austrian Airlines Business Class

Introduction
Getting to Rome - Austrian Airlines Business Class
One Night in Rome - Intercontinental de la Ville & RomeCabs Tour
Norwegian Jade - 11 Nights, 5 Countries, and 14 Cities... Whew!
Waffles, French Fries, Chocolate and Kriek  - A Stopover in Belgium
Getting Home - Brussels Airlines Business Class and United Global First

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hilton Europe Flash Sale - Ends March 13th



This is my first time sensitive post, but it was a decent enough deal that I thought I should post it just in case someone stumbles across it.

Hilton is offering up to 35% off on hotels across Europe. The rate is prepaid and non-refundable and is good for stays from March 11th - July 3rd 2016. You must book by March 13th.

We don't normally stay with Hilton, but we recently took advantage of the status match offer they were running and we were instantly matched to Hilton Diamond through 2016. Even with Diamond status I had not had a reason to move any of our stays over from Hyatt. However, on our next big trip we are stopping over in London for 1 night before we catch a cruise ship from Southampton. We had a great deal on a Suite at the Andaz in London, but we are traveling with a toddler this time and the logistics of getting from the airport to the hotel with all our bags and then headed back in the opposite direction to get to the cruise the next day we decided it would be better to stay by the airport.

At London Heathrow, there is only 1 hotel that is directly connected to the terminals and that happens to be the Hilton at Terminal 4. I booked a refundable rate of  ‎£125 ( ~$178 ouch!), but I knew it would be far less expensive than the travel back and forth to the city with all our stuff and a baby!

Luckily I caught on to this flash sale last night and I immediately booked a new room at only ‎£90 (~$128). As Hilton Diamond members we will have guaranteed access to their club lounge for breakfast and evening snacks as well as an upgrade based on availability, which looks to be pretty open.



Looking at the website, the hotels on the list the discount varies a lot, but it came out to a 28% discount over the already discounted HHonors rate we had booked. The only downside is that it is prepaid, but with our travel plans that was not an issue and is just one less thing to worry about when we get there.

I look forward to sharing more about this trip, but I still have quite a few posts to catch up on from Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Europe 2014: Introduction

Introduction
Getting to Rome - Austrian Airlines Business Class
One Night in Rome - Intercontinental de la Ville & RomeCabs Tour
Norwegian Jade - 11 Nights, 5 Countries, and 14 Cities... Whew!
Waffles, French Fries, Chocolate and Kriek  - A Stopover in Belgium
Getting Home - Brussels Airlines Business Class and United Global First

Friday, February 19, 2016

Cruising in Asia: Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco
___________________________________________________________________

This by far was the portion of the trip I was most excited about. At the time, Cathay Pacific First Class awards were probably one of the most reviewed flights around. I was quite happy when I found availability for two on their 777 flight from HKG to SFO for 135,000 American AAdvantage miles and about $136 in taxes.

One minor drawback to this cabin is that 1-1-1 seat arrangement does not offer any convenient seating for couples. Seats 1A and 2A on the left are quite private as the center seats can only be accessed from the right hand isle. 1D/1K and 2D/2K allow you to see the passenger in the opposite seat, but only if you both lean forward and into the isle. Not exactly romantic, but everything else in the cabin makes up for that. The 747 configuration of the cabin which has 3 additional seats in first does have 2 seats in the very front that are quite close together and is definitely the best option for traveling with someone if you can get these.

Just a few days before our flight home, I checked the availability for alternate flights and found there was an opening on the earlier 747 flight. I jumped on this right away both because the flight was leaving in the afternoon, rather than around midnight, and because I doubt I will ever have the opportunity again to sit in the very front of a 747. I was also really hoping we would be able to get the 1A/1K seats together, but apparently there was a family already on that flight that had taken these seats. We ended up selecting seats 2K/3K which worked out great for us as I will explain below.

On the day of our flight we took a taxi from the Grand Hyatt to the airport. As we did not fly in, I did not realize just how far out the airport is from the city. Even with all the tolls and miles, I was very happy with the ~$40 cab fare. We headed inside where I knew there was a dedicated first class check-in area. At this point, we had been traveling for two weeks and we were down to just about the last clean clothes in our luggage. I am quite sure I was wearing something ridiculous looking at the time. The man at the check-in desk kindly let us know that this was the check-in area for first class. While not rude, it definitely had the tone of "are you sure you are in the right place?" As soon as we provided him our confirmation numbers though he could not have been more helpful. Little did we know, we would also be seeing him quite a few more times that day.



Now, if I was by myself, I would probably have run around the airport checking out all of the various lounges that CX offers to First and Business passengers, but I thought I would spare my wife and head to "The Wing" which was just beyond security and extremely easy to get to. To our surprise, the same man that had checked us in just a few minutes earlier was now stationed at the entrance to the lounge. He checked our carry on baggage at their luggage desk for us and welcomed us to the lounge. Although we were not particularly hungry, we could not pass on trying out a few of the menu items.

We decided to leave our things at the lounge and go take a look around the airport. One store immediately grabbed our attention, the Disney Store! Even though we did not make it to Hong Kong Disney, we could not resist buying a few souvenirs to bring home.


























It was soon boarding time, we went back, collected our bags and headed to the gate. We cleared another small security checkpoint and were soon called to board. I definitely enjoyed boarding and turning left into the nose of the plane.


This seat is huge! There is no way around it, it is the widest seat I have ever been in.







Upon entering the cabin we found our seats already had complimentary pajamas, amenity kits, and fresh flowers in every seat. However, this is where things started to go from perfect to very wrong!

We noticed it was a bit warm on the plane. As the rest of the plane continued to board, it just kept getting warmer. The captain informed us they were working on the air and as soon as we closed the main doors they would get things sorted. 15 minutes later, we were roasting. Everyone was sweating. One fellow first class passenger had already changed into his pajamas, but he was sweating so much he had soaked them. I  assume he was a paid passenger on this flight (potentially a $12,000 one way ticket!), he was absolutely floored by the situation and demanded that they fix it or let him off the plane.

After another 5 minutes, the captain comes on and says that there is a problem with the plane and we will need to change planes! Although we had priority boarding getting on the plane, getting off turned into a zoo! We had to fight our way off the plane practically. Once we were on the ramp though, airport staff insisted that we were not allowed to re-enter the terminal! After quite a a lot of angry passengers complaining, we were eventually allowed back into the secure boarding area we had passed into earlier. Another 10 minutes here and they finally decided that there would be a new departure gate and we could re-enter the terminal. The same airline representative that had checked us in found us and let us know we could go back to the lounge and they would let us know when and where the new flight would be boarding. That was fine with me, but we overheard that they were passing out $10 food and beverage vouchers for the other passengers. My wife who had plans for these insisted we grab a pair. Before heading back to the lounge to wait we headed to Starbucks where we purchased my wife's favorite new treat that we haven't been able to find since, Green Tea Red Bean Muffins! Unfortunately we have not had another since.



Thankfully, being Cathay's home airport, they had a new 747 ready to board again in under 2 hours. Boarding went smoothly again, but it seemed a little less special this time. The fresh flowers were not present, we had to bring our amenity kits and pajamas from the last plane as they would not be handing them out again, but luckily the cabin was nice and cool this time!

Three windows per seat! but not flowers :(
Everything went smoothly from here on out though. We were soon airborne and ready for dinner! I had really been looking forward to the option to dine with my wife at our own table. Although a little tight, she was able to fit in the buddy seat opposite mine, complete with its own seatbelt. This would be our only time together for the duration of the flight.
Hand written welcome note for each of us
Setting the table
Caviar and Salmon appetizers
Delicious!
Nicer spread than most restaurants we eat in!
My wife had the chicken
and I had this ridiculously massive steak!
and some fine chocolates to finish the meal. 
After dinner we made our beds and checked out the IFE which was nice, but was nearing the end of its life as the cabins were just about to be renovated a few months after our flights. 


At this point we also figured out that the easiest way to communicate was over the back of our seats. I am sure it looked funny, but apart from the very front seat, we were the only people seated on the right half of the cabin.

Before landing we had the option of a light treat and breakfast. My wife went with the fruit and traditional breakfast and I tried out the dim sum.







Overall this was the best food I have ever had on a plane. The food on our JAL flight was good, but we got a little too adventurous with the Japanese dishes. Additionally the presentation and place settings were wonderful.

The flight went by quite fast. I maybe slept for 3 or 4 hours, which for me is a record on any flight. As always seems to be the case, they kept the cabin quite warm and the bedding although very comfortable was quite warm also.

Comparing the flights, I definitely enjoyed Cathay over JAL. This could be partially due to the ground service at their home airport, but primarily due to the different approach from the flight staff. On JAL the crew was very wonderful, but they mostly leave you alone until you ask for anything. On Cathay anytime they saw we were awake or caught their eye they insisted on checking if they could do anything for you.

Both flights were great, and who knows how long it will be until we get to enjoy first class again with prices going up and with our family growing in size!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cruising in Asia: Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!

Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco
___________________________________________________________________

This was our first time in Hong Kong and we had debated over staying at the Grand Hyatt or the Hyatt Regency TST. We ended up choosing the Grand Hyatt because it was only a few thousand more points per night and because I had heard such good reviews of the club lounge. Expecting full well that I would only be a Hyatt Diamond for 60 days with little chance of completing the challenge, I also wanted to get the most out of the Diamond Trial (which at the time I thought would be a once per lifetime trial, but more on that later).

Arriving at the hotel was easy and check-in was quite quick. I recall that we had booked a Grand King, but were upgraded somewhat to a Harbor View Grand King on the 32nd floor and given access to the Grand Club. As we were not actually in a club room, We had to take an elevator down 1 floor to enter the club on the 31st floor.

Looking back now 3 years at these pictures, I have to laugh at how poorly/hastily they were shot and framed. They should still give you an idea of how "Grand" the building is.
The room was laid out to maximize the view from any point you were sitting or laying, but wow it got hot when the sun was going down. 







I had let the hotel know we were celebrating our Anniversary (a bit late, but close enough!). and they had sent up a bottle of champagne and strawberries.


I have to agree with some other reviews, that while luxurious, the bathrooms are a bit gaudy with the black marble and gold fixtures, but definitely nothing to complain about. 


The best part of the room was the view of course.








We could see the Sun Princess we arrived on docked across the harbor.


We even watched it sail away the next day on its way to Singapore.



My favorite part of the hotel though, definitely the grand club. Somehow I only have one actual photo from the lounge with a plate of dim sum breakfast, I will have borrow from some other traveler's photos here to give you a better idea. Also, since our stay here, the grand club has undergone a major renovation which you can check out in another review here.




Courtesy of One Mile at a Time
Courtesy of One Mile at a Time
The breakfast and evening food offerings were plentiful to the point that we ate nearly all our meals here. The rest of the time, not entirely by choice, we ended up eating at McDonald's. Why would we do that??? It actually had nothing to do with the food, we really are not big fans of McDonald's at all. It just happened to be that the dates we were in Hong Kong lined up perfectly with a promotion that was running at all the McDonald's in Hong Kong. We just happened to notice Hello Kitty plastered all over the windows of one of the restaurants and we had to go in to check it out.  


Each of the restaurants was selling special edition Hello Kitty plush dolls for 25hkd (~3usd) IF you bought any food item. So, needless to say, we bought a lot of food items, even some we didn't eat!


The trick to this whole thing of course was that each restaurant only had 1 of the 4 individual items, and if you could find it in stock, a 5 piece set that came with an additional limited edition! It turns out there are quite a few McDonald's in the city that you can easily walk to. Seriously, look at this map of locations in Hong Kong.



Within two days we had visited 10 McDonalds, and picked up entirely too many Hello Kitties, that still are in the bags they came in! How Cute are these though!?



Luckily, as a break from all the McDonald's we did find time to have High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel in TST.





























While a bit expensive at ~$70 for two people for tea and pastries, it was a fun experience. We did show up about 30 minutes early as the line was about 100 people long by the time afternoon service started.

I would do it again if we had more time, but on a 2 day stopover, I would probably not give up valuable time waiting in line for tea.