Thursday, March 29, 2012

[Travel] Planning the Trip: Hotels, part 1

I've decided to break the hotel planning up into posts over the next few weeks. For those of you who have found your way here through posts on Flyertalk, Chowhound or the DIS and are wondering when the "trip" part of trip report will begin - travel starts in a little over a month. I'll make sure to update my threads on those sites in case you don't feel like reading the rest of this. For the friends and family who feel an obligation to humor me, read on...

When I sat down to start booking hotels I put together - what else - a spreadsheet with all of my various hotel points. There were a ton of random things on there. I had 120,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, 70,000 Membership Rewards Points, 33,000 otherwise useless Citi ThankYou Points (ThankYou for sucking, Citi points), and anywhere from 4000 to 80000 points in any number of hotel chain loyalty programs.

Heck, I still have a wayward 4000 points sitting in my Wyndham account from the good old days before Top Guest banned me for abusing their Foursquare Check-in promotion. Hey, just cause I've never been to the Holiday Inn in my town where I am still the Mayor, doesn't prove anything.

Unlike the airfare, which was really fun to play around with, this part just gave me a headache. By the time I considered all the places I could book in Paris with my points I was up to 30 or 40 hotels. And that was just for one stop of seven on the trip.

For this post I want to focus on how I decided when to use points (and/or points + cash) and when to just pay for a stay. The benefit to using points is obviously that the stay is somewhere between completely free and much, much cheaper (when using the points + cash method).

Paying for stay means that I (a) earn points on the stay and (b) will often get a bit more recognition for any hotel loyalty status that I might have with that chain. Some chains ::cough cough IHG cough cough:: promise nothing in terms of recognizing your status if you are staying on an award redemption. Others, like Hyatt, are much better about it.

The main consideration is clearly cost. There was just no way that I could justify using hotel points on a stay in Anaheim near Disneyland because hotels are very cheap. I booked a few nights at a hotel in the Disneyland area that was located close enough to Disney to walk, which will save on a car rental.

I often use Priceline or Hotwire and I've had some fun staying at the Sheraton in Garden Grove but it's about two miles away and at the end of a long day in the park walking two miles is just painful. So instead I found a Hilton MVP rate for one of the Anaheim-area Hilton family hotels. If you have no idea what the Hilton MVP rate is (or if you don't know about the IHG Friends and Family trick), check out Gary's invaluable post here.

The only other part of the trip where it made sense to pay entirely with cash was at Disneyland Paris. The park is located far enough outside of Paris that staying in the city and taking the train out every day seemed inefficient. And the only chain with a property near the parks appears to be Marriott, with whom I have basically no points. So I found a great nonrefundable rate on for one of the Disney partner hotels and have kept my fingers crossed that plans did not change.

In the next few posts I will talk about some of the other destinations and how I settled on places there. I'm aiming for one post a week from now until the trip starts. We shall see how that goes.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

[Travel] Planning the trip: Airfare

There is a certain type of person who enjoys planning things. I am one of those people. I often joke that I see life as a series of spreadsheets waiting to be created. It's both a blessing and a curse. For the purposes of planning this trip, it was a huge blessing.

As one of my best friends can tell you, planning the airfare for this trip took something like 100 hours of my life last summer. Did it have to? Not really. I could have found an award ticket that gave me a stop-over in Europe and a destination/turn-around in Tokyo in about 2 hours. But where is the fun in that?

The thing is, I'd never flown in first class before I booked this ticket. Since then I've gotten a few lucky upgrades on domestic on Delta which has been pretty sweet, but from other trip reports I've read it's clear that domestic first class and international first class are like comparing high school football and the NFL. Leagues apart. If I was going to cash in 120,000 Membership Rewards points (minimum cash value on those is at least $1200) then I was darn well going to get my money's worth.

I have about seven excel worksheets full of routings I tried out. That doesn't even include the two or three from when I was trying to book this as to separate trips (one to Europe, one to Asia). Once I'd consolidated it to one trip I had some parameters to work with.

Membership Rewards points can be transferred to Air Canada's frequent flyer program (run by Aeroplan) on a 1:1 basis. 120,000 Aeroplan miles at the time I booked would get you a roundtrip ticket in first class from North America to North Asia with a stopover in each direction. Technically you could even go across the Atlantic in one direction and the Pacific in another, creating what many folks called a mini-round the world ticket*.

The best part was that as of the time of the booking there were virtually no fuel charges if you avoided flying on Air Canada flights. Those of you who aren't into miles and points might be confused about that last sentence - redeeming miles on Air Canada but not flying Air Canada? The best part of using miles is often to redeem points on one airline (Air Canada) for flights on their partners (in this case the other 20+ airlines in the Star Alliance).

The dirty secret of most airline frequent flyer programs that aren't based out of the US, though, is that your "free" trip to Europe will often cost you 50,000 miles AND $600 in fuel surcharges. British Airways is notorious for this. You've earned your miles and you want to redeem them to fly from, say, New York to London. You'll pay nearly as much in fuel surcharge as you would if you'd bought a cheap coach ticket.

When I booked my trip back in July you could still avoid this fate on Air Canada. Sadly a month after I booked they changed their award chart such that the trip I took would cost quite a bit more in miles. And in November they started adding fuel surcharges on most partner redemptions. Such is life.

Anyway, I went through tons of routings. The one I finally ended up with had me going from Tampa to Anaheim to Chicago on my own dime (combination of cheap Delta ticket + a few of those British Airways miles which turn out to be great when used for booking short flights within the US on American Airlines - like I said, it's a weird world!). Then the first class Air Canada ticket kicked in and I was supposed to go from Chicago to Montreal to Zurich to Paris to Bangkok to Hong Kong to Tokyo to Seoul to Frankfurt to Chicago. Then back home on another small BA award ticket.

A reasonable person would ask why the hell I was flying through all those cities as I wasn't going to stop in most of them for more than a few hours. Surely there was a more direct way? Absolutely there was, but each of those cities was added so that I could try out something "special" - either an awesome first class airport lounge or an airline that supposedly had a great first class product. I'm smart enough to know that the chances that I'll get to fly like this again are pretty slim even with more credit card sign-ups. I'm probably better off flying in coach or business and getting a few extra free trips out of it.

So I decided to maximize everything I could. The original itinerary as laid out would have gotten me first class flights on Swiss Air, Asiana, Lufthansa and on a Thai Airways plane that had something approaching private rooms for each passenger in first class. It would also have included two of the three or four coolest first class lounges in the world - Frankfurt and Bangkok (which comes with a free hour-long Thai massage).

As originally ticketed it was actually an incredibly stupid itinerary. I can admit that now. It would have had me stepping on a plane in Chicago early on a Wednesday morning and then going between plane and airport for the next 54 hours before I got to Hong Kong. Thankfully the most insignificant leg of the trip (a quick flight from Switzerland to France) got cancelled - thank you Swiss Air - and I was able to pick more logical flights for free.

The final routing is now set and hopefully nothing more will change. Air Canada seems to have a bit of a reputation for messing around with passengers' itineraries so I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed!

* - The same best friend who had to listen to my hours of rambling about itineraries remains upset that I am going over the Atlantic in both directions. He insist that I not call it an around the world trip since I am not crossing the Pacific at all. I tried to argue that I am going more than around the world. He wasn't having it. Keeping me honest!

How the @&#! Can You Afford That?

This post has a ton of minutia about points and miles, as will the next few posts. I am writing these because a lot of the people I meet - including friends and family - have no clue how I'm going to be able to pay for this trip. My approach isn't for everyone but I thought I'd lay it out there and let the reader decide.

I just had an e-mail from someone about how I managed to get enough miles and points to pull this trip off. I am not a road warrior. If I travel three times a year for work and two or three more for pleasure then that's a lot. So I'm not earning a lot of butt-in-seats miles or, um, butt-in-beds (is there even an acronym for hotel nights?) points. And I don't have massive reimbursable spending for work either to help me get there. My points and miles come primarily from credit card sign-ups and random promotions throughout the year.

For example, on this trip I accrued points in the following manner.

Airfare: The flights are paid for through points from credit card sign-ups. Most of the flights are part of one giant award redemption - details to follow in another post - through American Express's Membership Rewards program. 50,000 of those points came from signing up for the AmEx Platinum Card. They then advanced me the rest of the points for the award redemption with the understanding that if I didn't earn those points in the next year I'd have to pay for them. I earned the rest by opening up an AmEx Gold Business card which came with a 75,000 point sign-up.

Hotel: Hotels were a bit trickier. My stays on the trip span five hotel chains: Starwood, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG (the Holiday Inn folks) and Carlson (Radisson and a few others). The Starwood points came from signing up for the SPG AmEx card - truly an awesome card regardless of sign-up bonus. I also received a bunch of extra points for a well-timed weekend stay during a promotion they were running.

The Hilton in Anaheim I paid out of pocket because Anaheim hotels are cheap. The Hyatt stays are a combination of two free nights in the Park Hyatt Tokyo (that's the one from Lost in Translation) from a Chase Hyatt card and then points transferred in from the current king of travel credit cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Finally the Carlson stays were basically free as Carlson gave away 50k points per person for making one cheap stay last November. So my friend and I found the cheapest Radisson in Orlando, had an awesome time at Disney, and I laughed all the way to the points bank. I also picked up a bunch of points here and there through random other things like "liking" certain properties on Facebook or making a brief one-night stay when a great promotion was going on.

So the bulk of the hotel points came from signing up for five credit cards. A lot of you out there are likely appalled right now. Doesn't signing up for all these credit cards hurt your credit score? Actually, mine's gone up significantly since this all started because the maximum amount of credit extended to me has gone through the roof and therefore my utilization percentage - the percent of credit I am currently using - has dropped. That's more than compensated for all of the extra inquiries.

BUT this isn't a game for folks who (a) don't pay all of their credit card bills on-time every month (b) might need a car loan or a mortgage in the next two years or (c) are disorganized.

If you're intrigued, I'm happy to answer questions but I'll also list below some of my favorite bloggers in the miles community. There are some great forums out there (Flyertalk and Milepoint being the two biggies) but they can be intimidating if you don't already know some of what is going on. I list these in the rough order that I discovered them, not in any specific preference-ordering. There are also lots of bloggers who cover their niches really well (Delta Points for Delta, Loyalty Traveler for hotels, Frequent Miler for maximizing the points you get for spending online) but these are the best general blogs:

One Mile At A Time - Ben writes One Miles At A Time. I've never met Ben before even though I think he only lives like 45 minutes from me. He's the only person I've heard of who might possibly drink as much diet soda as I do. Ben just seems like a cool guy who is relatively close to me in age and outlook on life. Does that matter in a blogger? To me it does. He's got great info on how to earn and redeem miles and his trip reports are inspirational. He also posseses a degree of humility and a sense of humor which comes through in his posts. For example, this.

The Points Guy - Brian writes as The Points Guy. Brian has a an awesome series of posts on how to maximize the value of your miles on different airlines. He also has some great contacts in the travel community who provide him with some good insight. Much like Ben, Brian strikes me as someone I'd love to have a drink with even if, in his case, it probably wouldn't be Diet Coke.

View From The Wing - Gary at View From The Wing has been in the travel business for quite a while now. He has an understanding of the economics of the industry that I find impressive. When I want analysis on future trends he's usually the first source I turn to. He's also never afraid to call it like he sees it, which I value.

Million Mile Secrets - I love Daraius because I always feel like he's looking out for his readers' best interests. That is certainly true of everyone else on the list too, but if Daraius had a referral link to a credit card application that earned you 20,000 miles and someone else had one that got you 20,001 he'd tell you to use theirs even if it cost him some referral money.

Mommy Points - While Mommy Points sometimes focuses on something that I don't anticipate ever needing (travel with a child), she also has a very approachable writing style that is personal and that I connect with. When all sorts of crap went down with an AmEx promo this year she was the blogger I wrote to vent to.

The Itinerary

A warning at the top: I talk about money and costs quite a bit in this post and will continue to throughout. This is slightly awkward since friends and family are reading this but then one of the reasons I'm doing this trip report is so that people realize that trips like this are possible with the wonders of the miles and points world. I am not a wealthy man by any means. In fact with student loans and continuing depreciation in the Florida housing market I'm probably worth more dead than alive. I'm also a public school teacher so you can guess my salary. I have two dreams in life: one is to become a skipper on the world famous Jungle Cruise (get paid to tell corny jokes? Hell yes!) and the other is to start my own financial planning business because damnit no one talks about money the way they should. So here's one step to demystify it.

At the beginning of 2011 I sat down and drew up a list of places I really wanted to visit. I was just about to turn thirty, I'd comfortably settled into a job I love and, if I hadn't quite found the love of my life, I was pretty happy with where things were. But I had also just been through a period in which several people I knew and cared for were diagnosed with cancer* and I thought "well, if I'm going to go to these places I may as well go now". I've hit many of the domestic ones since but the international ones prominently included:

• visiting friends in England and seeing Arsenal play
• visiting as many Gothic castles & cathedrals in France & Germany as possible
• Tokyo
• going to any and every Disney park that I could get to

Originally I was going to spend last winter in England and then try and visit Tokyo in the spring. This had the advantage of cutting down on costs as I have friends to stay with in England. Except who wants to visit England in December? Not this Floridian. Especially with airfare that was surprisingly expensive for non-holiday winter travel.

At about the same time I had started one of my most fervent hobbies: collective airline miles and points. I had miles in a few different programs and I was trying to see how to make it work. And then one day I was reading one of Ben's posts at One Mile At A Time and it hit me: for the same number of miles to go to Tokyo I could hit England and Tokyo in the same trip with England being a stopover. Within the next 24 hours a planned formed. I was going to go to every Disney park in the world in one trip and I was going to do it without going broke.

The final itinerary involves stops in Anaheim, Chicago, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, England and the Rhine Valley in Germany**. Oh, and probably a day in Orlando at the end because otherwise I'm not really going to every park, am I? And for those who worry, ::cough cough brother cough cough:: I am not planning on spending even half the trip in Disney parks. It spans over six weeks with most of the trip being in first class and with most of the stays happening in far nicer hotels than I usually stay in. Best part is that the hotels + the airfare came in for less than $1500 out-of-pocket.

In the next few posts I will go through the planning in a bit more detail as I think that's one part that's often missing in blogs about frequent flying. Redeeming the miles intelligently is a lot harder than it should be.

* - thankfully everyone diagnosed has recovered but it reinforced for me one of the lessons of collecting miles and hotel points: use them because you never know at what point you won't be able to anymore.

** - technically the itinerary is a lot more convoluted than that. For the FT'ers out there or anyone else who loves airport codes, it's: TPA-ATL-SNA-ORD-YUL-ZRH-HKG-NRT-ICN-FRA-CDG-LGW-FRA-ORD-TPA. Or, to put it graphically:

28000 miles on airplanes. Ought to be interesting.