Travel Guru

Earlier this month United made some changes to its mileage program, adjusting (mostly higher) the number of miles needed for an award ticket. The good news is that the most used awards – trips within the continental USA – have not changed; for a one-way flight these trips are still 12,500 miles for coach and 25,000 for first. The bad news is that the awards I chase – trips to far flung destinations in partner airlines premium cabins – have been devalued, in some cases quite severely. That said, the United program remains my go-to program going forward but the devaluation should be a reminder that hoarding miles for the long term is a bad idea. Points hardly ever appreciate in value and are almost always worth less over time. Earn and burn.

What’s changed
Before February 3, United had one award chart for travel on it and its partner carriers. Going forward, United has two award charts – one for mileage redemptions on United flights and another for mileage redemptions on partner flights; an itinerary that contains both United and partner flights will in most cases be priced at the partner award rates. For coach redemptions, this isn’t a problem because the United award rates for coach are the same as the partner award rates in coach; those mixing and matching United and partner flights for an international coach redemption will not be penalized for doing so. For business and first tickets this is not the case — this is where it starts to get ugly.

The partner award chart is almost always more expensive than the United chart for redemptions in premium cabins. A one-way flight to Europe in business on United costs 57,500 miles, but the same flight on a partner airline costs 70,000 miles; a one-way flight to Europe in first on United costs 80,000 miles, but the same flight on a partner airline costs 110,000 miles. That’s a huge premium in miles for flying on a partner carrier.

How to get around the higher rates
As I mentioned before, when combining United and a partner carrier on an award ticket, the partner price will generally apply. But there are a few ways to get around this. As posted by a United Airlines representative on frequent-flyer resource site “Flyertalk”:

Originally Posted by UA Insider
Updated handling for mixed UA-Partner United/partner award itineraries: As we shared with the initial announcement, the Star Alliance/Partner partner award pricing will apply to Business or First awards for itineraries that include at least one flight segment operated by a MileagePlus partner carrier in Business or First.

However, as a customer benefit we have made an exception for most itineraries which require connecting onto a MileagePlus/Star partner in First or Business for a short distance. Specifically, if a United/Copa award itinerary contains a connecting segment on a MileagePlus/Star partner that is wholly within one MileagePlus award region, then the United award price will apply.
• For example: IAD-FRA in United BusinessFirst connecting to FRA-FCO in Lufthansa Business, will be priced at the United mileage award amount.
• Note that this exception will not apply to a few specific regions and routings, such as intra-Africa connecting segments and certain fifth-freedom routes (e.g. BKK-KUL operated by Lufthansa)

For award tickets to Europe, that means so long as the overwater segment is flown on United, flying the short intra-region connecting segment in a partner premium cabin will not cause the ticket to price at the higher partner level. A flight on United to Frankfurt in business that connects to a Lufthansa flight to London in business will be priced at the 57,500 mile United level rather than the 70,000 mile partner level. Flying Lufthansa the entire trip in business would price at the 70,000 level.

In general, frequent flyers with United points who want to fly internationally in premium cabins should look to fly on United operated flights when using their miles, only using partner carriers for short connecting, intra-region segments.

Why I’m sticking with United MileagePlus
Yes, the changes are mostly bad. But for my uses the United program is still extremely lucrative. MileagePlus is one of the few programs that allows for a stopover in Europe on an award ticket from North America to Asia. Even under the new award prices, a roundtrip award ticket in coach from New York to Bangkok – stopping over in Paris along the way – is just 80,000 miles. (Remember coach award tickets are the same mileage price even when combining United and partner airlines.) Should the same trip be taken in business class, the ticket would cost 160,000 miles roundtrip – the partner price would apply here because getting from Europe to Bangkok would require travel on a partner airline, and since Europe to Asia isn’t intra-region, there is no way to avoid paying the higher mileage price. That may seem like a lot of miles, but 160,000 miles to travel in flat-bed seats from the US to Europe to Asia and back to the US is still a pretty spectacular value – this award is essentially 2 trips in one and the paid ticket would be in the  thousands of dollars.

This is worth highlighting: if anyone out there with United miles — who lives in the US and is planning to redeem for a ticket to Asia – make sure that you take a stopover in Europe on either the outbound or the return; it’s a free add so why not! (For those that don’t know, a stopover is a connection longer than 24 hours, and the United program allows one stopover in addition to the destination.)

To see the new charts, click here.

Today Marriott and United announced a new joint-venture of sorts, RewardsPlus. Other than a clever play on program names, what on earth does that actually mean?

Screen shot 2013-07-16 at 6.24.18 AM

Essentially, Premier Gold and above on United (50,000 miles/year flown) qualify for a match to Marriott Gold, and Marriott Platinums (75 nights/year stayed) qualify for a match to United Silver.

United Premier Silver offers the following benefits:

  • 25% mileage bonus
  • Eligible for space-available, complimentary upgrades – 24 hours out
  • Free Economy Plus selection at 24-hours prior to departure via online check-in
  • Premier Access: Priority checkin, security, and boarding.
  • Reduced fees for award redemptions and changes
  • 1 free checked bag
  • Priority reservations line

Marriott Gold offers the following benefits:

  • 25% points bonus
  • Eligible for space-available, complimentary upgrades – at checkin
  • Complimentary lounge access
  • Complimentary continental breakfast

Though the marketing brands differ, the status levels are quite equal in terms of benefits–though I’d argue United Silver offers slightly more than Marriott Gold. An upgrade to a nicer room might be nice, but priority check-in, security, boarding, and free extra legroom seating at check-in (with the shot of an upgrade to first class) seems much more appealing to me.

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United Economy Plus offers up to 5 inches of extra legroom

Either way, a great program. Eligible members should definitely match. For those without United Silver, I suggest the United Club credit card, which offers many of the benefits (some excluded–including upgrades and free E+) and more (United Club access, 2 free checked bags, for example ), for a relatively reasonable annual fee.

United Boarding groups. Premier Silvers board ahead of the crowd with “Group 2” and can use the lane as a bypass at any point in the boarding process to board at their leisure.

Update:

The interwebs are still abuzz about this offer, with United frequent fliers generally happy and Marriott members (especially Golds) mostly unhappy. Marriott Golds who earn the status the hard way (50 nights/year), are about to compete against far more United-matched Gold members for benefits. Lounges might be more crowded, and upgrades to a better room at check-in might be available less. My view on this is that most frequent flyers are hotel elites anyway, and the few that aren’t are not for a reason. Then again, my loyalties lie with Hyatt, but as a United 1K (100,000/year flown) this offer does mean that I’ll consider Marriott more often.

In retrospect, it does seem like Marriot Golds are getting the shaft here. They are competing against more members who are “matched,” but they aren’t getting anything in return; only Marriott Platinums are eligible for the status match to United Silver. Marriott should have at least offerred Marriot Golds “Premier Access” on their United itineraries; priority check-in, security, and boarding. But short of full “Premier Silver” status as reserved for Marriott Platinums. It probably wouldn’t have been that hard to implement, seeing as United Club credit card holders are entitled to a similar Silver “lite” status.

And finally, I shared a link to the United Club card that offers benefits that approximate Silver status; it turns out Marriott offers a similar card, but through their co-branded hotel chain, Ritz Carlton, which is part of the Marriott Rewards program. See here for a great overview (and for general points advice in general). The Ritz Carlton Rewards credit card (issued by Chase bank) offers Gold status the first year, which can be maintained through credit card spend year over year. In addition, the card offers a few free upgrades to the Ritz’ Club level, which is by far the best lounge offering worldwide–free food and drinks all day.

Ritz Carlton Club Level

Also, it offers a $200 airline fee credit, which can be used to offset any airline charges up to that level (think checked bag, drinks, club access, change fees, for example).

Through the end of the month, US Airways is offering up to a 100% bonus on purchased miles. Specifically:

  • Buy/gift 5,000 – 9,000 miles, get a 25% bonus
  • Buy/gift 10,000 – 19,000 miles, get a 50% bonus
  • Buy/gift 20,000 – 29,000 miles, get a 75% bonus
  • Buy/gift 30,000 – 50,000 miles, get a 100% bonus

Why should we care? For all its faults, US Airways has one of the most reasonable award charts out there and some of the most generous award routing rules. And as a Star Alliance carrier, US Airways miles can take you very, very far. Couple that with the ability to buy miles for pennies on the dollar, the potential for a trip of a lifetime at well below market prices becomes very real.

US to North Asia (with a Stop in Europe)
A sweet spot in the redemption chart is United States – North Asia (includes China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan) for 90,000 miles in Business and 60,000 miles in Coach. The best part is that US Airways allows routings to Asia via Europe, and it also permits one stopover in addition to your final destination.

The funny thing is that US Airways prices a roundtrip to Europe in Business at 100,000 miles, but by continuing to Asia, you’re essentially getting a 10,000 mile discount.

Consider the following itinerary on Star Alliance carriers:

  • NYC -> Frankfurt (connection) -> Hong Kong (destination for x days)
  • Hong Kong -> London Heathrow (stopover for x days) -> NYC

This itinerary prices at 60,000 miles in economy and 90,000 miles in business. And given US Airways is effectively selling miles through this promotion at a rate of .0188 cents/mile, the cost is around $1100 and $1700 respectively. Now, there is the potential for around $300 in taxes and fees on top of that, but even at $1400 and $2000, this is still a phenomenal deal for a close to round-the-world trip in international Business class.

For those who don’t want to take a stopover in Europe, US Airways will also allow routings the traditional way: over the pacific. Take a stopover en route to Hong Kong, for example, in Thailand. But if it were me, I’d personally go for the itinerary I outlined a couple paragraphs above, choosing to purchase a roundtrip ticket from Hong Kong to Thailand as they’re pretty cheap. In my experience, it generally makes more sense to take the stopover in Europe and pay for intra-Asia flights with cash. That’s the best way to truly unlock the value in the miles.

Plan, Hold, Buy, Ticket
US Airways allows itineraries to be placed on a 3 day hold, even when the redeeming individual has no miles in his or her account. This allows for a risk-free purchase. Plan the desired itinerary ahead of time, then buy the miles after the fact.

(1) Searching for availability: I like to use united.com to search for availability on Star Alliance Airlines, as US Airways doesn’t show partner availability via their website, but they have the same access as United does to that availability. Search point to point on united.com via the “one-way” option and select “award travel.” You need to find flights at the “saver” level (in blue). Look for economy saver or business/2-cabin saver, depending on the award type you want (you can’t mix/match economy/business with US Airways, so the flights need to be all saver economy or all saver business). Also, ignore the mileage costs as they don’t matter; remember, we are only looking for availability through united.com. It might take awhile to piece together an award, but it’s always doable with a certain degree of flexibility. Take screenshots or copy down the flight numbers/dates/cities as you’ll need that next.

(2) Call US Airways: Since partner awards can’t be booked on usairways.com, you’ll need to call reservations to piece together your reservation. Relay the flights you found on united.com, flight by flight, to the US Airways agent. I usually tell the agent that I found the flights with another US Airways agent earlier in the day but am now ready to book. The process might take awhile, but the agent should get it done. If he or she seems incompetent, just hang up, call back. When the reservation is assembled, ask US Airways to put it on hold. You have 3 days to ticket. Just keep the confirmation number. You should be able to see the reservation at usairways.com immediately.

(3) Buy the miles and ticket: Once you’ve had a couple days to mull it over, buy the miles. Call US Airways and quote your confirmation number. They’ll deduct the miles from your account and charge any applicable taxes and fees (usually under $300).

That’s it! Just remember that this promotion ends on May 31st. I expect these deals to end when US Airways merges with American Airlines later in the year. I’d also advise against buying miles speculatively. If you can find the award space now, put the reservation on hold, and then buy the miles. There is nothing worse than being stuck with miles that you can’t use.

For any questions and help with booking a ticket like this, please do email me at travelguru@planelypoints.com

A couple of months ago, I discussed Virgin America’s new partnership with UK-based Virgin Atlantic, and specifically highlighted the ability to redeem for Upper Class between New York/DC/Boston and London. It turns out Virgin America wasn’t done; it now has a partnership with Singapore Airlines that could be hugely lucrative.

Singapore Airlines is Virgin America's newest partner. And it's a good one.

Singapore Airlines is Virgin America’s newest partner. And it’s a good one.

Backstory

As I touched upon in my last post on the topic, Virgin America points are tough to earn–especially when compared to the ease in which traditional ‘air-miles’ are banked with ‘legacy’ airlines. Rather than earning miles for distance flown, Virgin America awards points based off the cost of a ticket alone. And rather than offering ‘awards’ at fix-priced levels, Virgin America prices redemptions as a function of ticket price. While that last ‘point’ might make sense intuitively, it’s a restriction inherent to revenue-based programs like Virgin’s. I don’t particularly want to earn and redeem points at ratios tied to cost; the real value in these point/mileage programs are at the aspirational end–where things tend to get pretty expensive.

New (and Exciting) Developments

With these new partnerships, Virgin America is now offering fixed-point redemptions for travel on the partner airlines. This is huge. And pretty ironic. Virgin America points are worth ~ 2.2 cents towards travel on Virgin American flights, but through this partnership, they can be worth more than double (or triple).

For 35,000 points roundtrip, one can travel to Singapore on Singapore Airlines from the mainland United States.

Use Virgin points for Singapore Airlines flights

USA to Singapore. (JFK shown as an example.)

The same rates apply for flights to/from London to Singapore:

Heathrow to Singapore

Heathrow to Singapore. (You can thank the British government for the higher taxes/fees.)

It gets even better. Once you’re in Singapore, flights are only 16,000 points roundtrip to the vast majority of Singapore Airlines’ destinations in Southeast Asia.

For comparison purposes, the majority of American airlines charge about 65,000 miles for a roundtrip from the US to SingaporeBritish Airways is even worse out of London; it charges 70,000 miles + ~$800 in taxes/fees. (Horror!)

So should we all be flying Virgin America?

Probably not. Even though the redemption values are great, the points still need to be earned. Earning the 35,000 points for the Singapore redemption still requires $7,000 worth of spending on Virgin America tickets. That’s a lot.

The ‘opportunity’ here involves Virgin America’s credit card issued by Barclays. The card offers a signup bonus of 15,000 points, and earns 1 point per dollar on all spend.

Again, for comparison’s sake, if you put $20,000 on the US Airways credit card, you end up with 20,000 points–not even enough for a domestic roundtrip on a subpar American airline. But why do that when you’re forgoing an opportunity to fly the world’s best airline to one of the most difficult to get to destinations?

Singapore Airlines coach product is unbeatable.

Singapore Airlines coach product is unbeatable.

If you put that same spending on the Virgin America card, you’ve got a free return flight to Singapore if you account for the initial sign on bonus. Considering those flights are routinely $1600 roundtrip, you’re essentially getting a ROI of ~ 8% cash back, which is just ridiculously huge.

I know how I’m paying my rent over the next few months…

Update: Completely forgot to mention it, but if you have an Amex, Virgin America is a Membership Rewards transfer partner–definitely something worth exploring. Just make sure the availability is there before you transfer.

I hadn’t been meaning to write about hotel programs just yet, but given Trendy Girl’s recent stay at a Starwood Hotel, the Le Meridien in Split, I figured it made sense to provide a quick introduction.

While my favorite hotel program his Hyatt, Startwood comes second. While I like Hyatt for the relatively ‘cheap’ point redemptions (their top tier hotels are only 22,000 points/night), I value Starwood for their Cash + Points redemptions rather than their outright point redemptions.

SPG Brands

SPG Brands

The Basics of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Progam

There are two ways to get SPG points: (1) through spend at SPG hotels and (2) through the SPG American Express.

Many in the frequent traveler community absolutely adore the SPG Amex, mostly because SPG points are some of the most fungible points out there; they can be transfered to almost every imaginable frequent flier program at extremeley favorable rates. (All other hotel programs offer terrible transfer rates, and I highly recommend against that option.)The Amex earns 1 point per dollar on all spend, which isn’t fantastic, but given the flexibility of the earned SPG points, it’s a great card.

If you frequent Starwood Hotels, I’d definitely consider signing up for the program. As a non-elite, general member, one earns 2 point per dollar spent. These points can then be redeemed as follows:

(1) ‘Pure’ Point Redemptions

As you can see in the chart below,  Starwood’s rates are not all that high (especially since the 5th night is free if you redeem for a 5 night stay). But, remember that one only earns 2 points per dollar spent at Starwood hotels. I’ve found that the Starwood hotels actually worth redeeming at are those in Category 4-7, so that means that on would need to spend $5000 at a minimum for a free night! This is an insane amount of money. Obviously, if you have the Starwood Amex, it’s far easier to rack up the points given you get 1 point per dollar on all spend.

Point Redemption

Pure Point Redemptions

(2) Cash + Point Redemptions

These redemptions unleash the full value of the SPG Program. As you can see, a Category 4 hotel only costs 5000 points + copay. This effectively halves the amount of points needed to redeem via SPG. Yes, there is a copay, but given that hotels in Category 4 can routinely be $350, it’s a bargin.

I’d say that the ‘sweet spot’ for Cash + Points is at Category 4 and 5 hotels, given the relativley low number of points and copay.

Disclosure: Cash + Points do not offer unlimited availability like ‘pure’ points redemption, though Starwood offers a handy calendar at their SPG website to search for the availability. Availability changes all the time, so keep an eye out if it isn’t available when you book. (You can always pay cash and then cancel if Cash + Points opens up later.)

Cash Points

Cash + Point Redemptions

The Point Transfer Aspect of the Program

As I mentioned earlier, another great value of the Starwood Program is the ability to transfer points to airline partners. The hidden gem of this program is that Starwood will add a 25% transfer bonus for every 20,000 points transfered to an airline program (that’s 5000 free points for doing nothing!).

The SPG Amex then, makes a great companion to the various Chase Ultimate Rewards cards. If you remember (Ultimate Rewards transfers to United, Hyatt, Amtrak, Southwest, British Airways, and Marriott…plus a couple others), but that doesn’t help if you primarily fly American Airlines, for example.

I personally don’t have the SPG card, but if you value Starwood’s hotels and fly a non-Ultimate Rewards transfer partner airline, I’d say this card is your absolute best bet. (I fly United and redeem those points on Star Alliance carriers; I stay at Hyatt and redeem those points for top-tier hotels with the program. Ultimate Rewards best covers me here.)

For a list of Starwood’s transfer partners (not all airlines offer the most favorable transfer rates, click here).

As an aside, the Le Meridien Split is currently a Category 4 hotel. Other than building up Starpoints through hotel stays, the SPG Amex offers a 25,000 point sign up bonus. That would give you 5 nights at the hotel at a $75/night rate (given the copay).

Look out for more posts around Hotel Programs, including Hyatt Gold Passport.

 

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the basics of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, which in my opinion is the most rewarding credit card program. In my overview, I also referenced the two Chase credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Chase Ink Bold. Today we are going to talk about the former card.

Credit Card: Chase Sapphire Preferred

While many people consider American Express cards to be be-all-end-all of credit cards, Chase has recently been giving Amex a run for its money. There is no doubt that the Amex cards still offer tremendous value, I just believe that the value proposition of these cards has decreased in recent years.  Together the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Ink Bold are, in my opinion, the best two cards out there right now. And the Sapphire Preferred is the King.

Why is it so good? Well, as we discussed last time, the flexibility of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program is unmatched. Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred into a number of airlines, hotels, and even a train program (Amtrak). No other rewards program is so flexible.

The Sapphire Preferred earns ultimate rewards points as follows:

  • 1X points on general spending
  • 2X points on dining (think restaurants)
  • 2X points on travel (airlines, trains, taxis, rental cars)
  • 7% annual point dividend

The first three bullets are self explanatory, though many don’t understand the Dividend. Essentially, at the end of the year Chase calculates how many points you have been awarded in total, and then they add a 7% bonus to your total! It’s pretty easy to see how these points can rack up quickly.

I routinely spend around $1000 per/month on my Sapphire Preferred card. With the double points that are offered I end up with about 25,000 points annually just from my everyday spending. I usually transfer the 25,000 points to United as that’s enough for a roundtrip domestic ticket. (I could have also transferred the points to Hyatt for a free night in one of their top-tier hotels, or transferred to Amtrak for free trip across the country–something we just did!) If I can get enough points for a free domestic ticket a year based off my spending patterns, I’m sure that many of you could get many, many more.

Finally, this card costs $95/year to keep. I don’t mind paying that fee at all because I routinely get a free flight every year from the card; I think of it as a $95 roundtrip. Not bad!

Sign-Up Bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred

While the real value comes from using the card for your everyday spending, let’s not forget the sign-up bonus! As of now, if you sign up for the Sapphire Preferred, you get 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points to help start off your account. In addition, the first annual fee of $95 is waived. To get the points, you just need to be sure to spend $3000 in 3 months–not to hard at all.

Those 40,000 points can be transferred over to Hyatt for almost two nights in a top-tier hotel, say the Park Hyatt Sydney; alternatively, that’s enough for a flight to Hawaii on United. Not bad for just getting the card!

Feel free to contact me at travelguru@planelypoints.com if you have any questions!

 

A couple of weeks ago I introduced the Chase Ultimate rewards program. This post profiles the Chase Ink Bold card.

Card: Chase Ink Bold

As I continue to say over and over again, the flexibility of the Chase Ultimate Rewards points is unparalleled. Your points are fungible and can be transferred with ease into a variety of different rewards programs (airline, hotels and Amtrak). The Ink Bold is another card that earns these great points.

The Ink Bold earns ultimate rewards points as follows:

  • 1X points on general purchases (no limit);
  • 2X points on hotels and gas (per $1 on the first $50,000 spent annually at gas stations and for hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel);
  • 5X Points on office supplies and utilities (per $1 on the first $50,000 spent annually at office supply stores, and on cellular phone, landline, internet, and cable TV services).

The first three bullets are self explanatory, but the last requires some further examination–as this is the real value proposition of this card. I use my Ink Bold to pay all of my utilities charges, including my AT&T iPhone plan, my Verizon iPad plan, and my cable, electric, and water bills. Since I’m single, I generally spend about $200-250/month on these items, which means I’m earning up to 1250 ultimate rewards points every month. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but over the course of the year it amounts to enough for a one-way domestic miles redemption on United (12,500 miles). Think about how many points you’d earn with utility spending for a family of five!

Alternatively, you can transfer the points to Amtrak, and you’ll have enough for 3 one-way tickets up and down the North East corridor (at 4,000 each). Another option would be to transfer to Hyatt for a free night (starting at 5,000 points) or to Southwest (where 12,500 points gives you around $200* of value).

* Southwest’s rewards program doesn’t offer fixed-price mileage/point redemptions; instead the number of points a flight costs varies directly with the actual dollar value of the ticket. To find out how many points you need, be sure to check out Southwest.com before transferring your points, but a quick estimate can be had by multiplying the current ticket price by 60.

For those people with small businesses, this card is built for your needs. Office supply store purchases also earn 5X points/dollar spent. It shouldn’t be a surprise where I buy my printer ink. One thing we haven’t mentioned is the 2X on gas purchases as well.

This card costs $95/year to keep. A lot of people will cancel after the first year, but it really makes sense to pay the fee and keep the card. The truth is that the points you earn are worth more than the cost to keep the card so it makes sense. If you’re like me and spend around $250/month on utilities, the 15,000 points you earn in a year is easily worth around ~$300 in value and maybe even more. I know I transferred my points to United to redeem for a last minute ticket that was currently selling for $650.

Note: it’s important to note that the Ink Bold is a charge card, meaning the balance must be paid off in full every month. For those who want a credit card instead, go for the Ink Plus. The benefits are exactly the same. The only difference between the two cards is their charge versus credit status.

Also, the Ink Bold is a business card. What most people don’t realize is that nearly everyone has a legitimate ‘business,’ but they simply do not know it. I, for one, help people book award flights for a fee. That is my business. When applying, just use your social security number in the place of  a ‘tax ID.’ I confirmed with Chase that this is completely kosher and is something many people do. Since it’s business card, it may not be for everyone, but for those who do have a need, this is definitely a card you want in your wallet.

Sign-Up Bonus: Chase Ink Bold

While the real value comes from using the card for your everyday spending, the Ink Bold offers a generous signup bonus! As of now, if you sign up for the Ink Bold, you get 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points. In addition, the first annual fee of $95 is waived. To get the points, you need to be sure to spend $10,000 in 3 months.

The $10,000 number my have some people worried. But if you have some big purchases coming up, hold off until you are approved for the Ink Bold. It’ll be worth it. Those 50,000 points that you’ll receive are enough for a one-way ticket in business class to Europe on either United or British Airways (or a roundtrip to London in BA economy). Alternatively, those points can be transferred over to Hyatt for 2 free nights at their top-tier hotels, like in the Maldives, which retail for over $1000/night.

If you’re wondering, I did something different with my 50,000 points. I transferred some to Amtrak to travel cross-country by train. Having flown so damn much, I decided it was time to see the country from the ground.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be detailing specific redemptions that maximize the value of your ultimate rewards points–program by program. I’ll also be reviewing the Sapphire Preferred and the Chase Freedom card, which can be cleverly used to build your ultimate rewards point balances even further!

Feel free to contact me at travelguru@planelypoints.com if you have any questions!

For $600, you can fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class from New York/Washington/Boston to London (or vice versa).

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class

Recently Virgin America established frequent flyer relationships with the other big ‘Virgins,” those being Virgin Atlantic in the UK and Virgin Australia in, well, Australia.

While I think Virgin America is a great airline, their frequent flyer program is pretty horrible. But, as always, there is some fun to be had with it. Here’s what I’ve found so far: For 25,000 Virgin America points + $550 in taxes/fees, you can get a one-way flight in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class between New York (or Washington/Boston) and London.

Virgin America’s Chart for Travel on Virgin Atlantic between JFK and London.

Since Virgin America’s frequent flyer program is revenue-based rather than mileage based, getting those 25,000 miles is far harder than simply flying 25,000 miles (as you would on United and others). Essentially, on Virgin America the passenger earns 5 points per dollar spent, so 25,000 points would require $5,000 in spending. That’s a lot.

It turns out that Virgin America and Barclays USA have a co-branded credit card that’s available to US residents. The card has a $49 annual fee, but it comes with 20,000 bonus Virgin America points on first use.

So that gets us to 20,000 points, but what about the extra 5,000?

Here we have 2 options. #1, spend $5000 on the Virgin America credit card. #2, transfer $5,000 in balances from another credit card to your new Virgin America card for a one-time 5000 point bonus (see here). I’d probably opt for strategy #1, but strategy #2 also works, though be aware a $150 fee will apply.

So we now have our 25,000 points. Now what? Create a “Flying Club” account with Virgin Atlantic via their website. Then search award availability by selecting “spend your miles.” When you find something available in Upper Class, call Virgin America, relay the Virgin Atlantic flight that is available, and they should be able to see it on their end. Then agent will then take the 25,000 points in your Virgin America account and ask for a $550 co-pay.

Total cost here is $49 for the card’s annual fee and $550 for the copay. If you go the balance transfer route an extra $150 would have been spent on the transfer fee. So you’re talking $600 best case, $750 worst case all-in. Not bad for one of the best flat bed business class products out there (the onboard bar is particularly awesome).

Don’t forget you’ll also have access to Virgin’s Club House lounge at the point of origin, which are the best lounges hands down (Heathrow’s is the best).

Club House: Heathrow

So what about your New Virgin America card? If you enjoy this ‘trick’ and can put $25,000 of spending on it each year, it may make sense. If you do cancel it, make sure you wait at least 6 months before doing so to be sure that the banks don’t claim back the points (this is a pretty standard timeframe).

It’s also worth noting that a round-trip from NY to London in Virgin’s Upper Class is only 35,000 points total (but still $550 each way in fees). So if you get this card for the 20,000 points and think you can put $15,000 of spending on it, I’d definitely opt for the roundtrip option rather than the one-way.

I, for one, will be applying for this card mid-January and shift my spending to it until I hit $5,000 in purchases. That’ll give me enough points to get to London in Upper Class. I’ll use my Ultimate Rewards points to get me home in United Global First. Or maybe I’ll do it the other way around. Either way, should be a fun trip.

If you’ve been following the blog lately, you’re probably wondering how on earth have we been able to travel as much as we have. The truth is that traveling is expensive. Luckily, we have a resident ‘Travel Guru’ within our inner circle who has helped us keep our traveling costs down–big time. The Travel Guru will be posting every two weeks, giving you ideas on how to utilize your points to make travel more affordable.

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Hi Everyone,

Welcome to the first installment of Travel Tips by Travel Guru. Today I am going to introduce my two favorite credit cards for earning and subsequently redeeming points. But first, a brief introduction about myself.

Like most upwardly mobile professionals, I have always sought to travel more than my means have allowed. After depleting my bank account, I have to find a way to continue to travel without bankrupting myself. A few years back I received an offer to sign up for a Continental Airlines credit card, for which I would receive 25,000 bonus miles. The rest is history.

Over the last four years I have earned over 250,000 points in credit card sign-up bonuses alone. What was once a means for me to get from the west to the east coast every other month quickly led to much more. Just recently on study abroad in Asia, I was able to visit Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Qatar, and the Seychelles for a total of $120 in taxes. Not bad if you ask me.

My friends and family don’t know how I do it. But the truth is that it is extremely easy, and through these series of posts my hope is to enable you to do the same.

Here’s the secret: the easiest way to obtain points is neither through flying nor by staying at hotels; its through credit cards. And today, the undeniable champions of credit cards (in my estimation) has to be two issued by Chase Bank: the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Chase Ink Bold. The cards offer a 40,000 and 50,000 point sign-up bonus respectively.

The best thing about these cards is that they take part in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. For every dollar spent on the cards they earn at least 1 Ultimate Rewards point.  I say “at least” because these cards offer specific category bonuses. For example, the Sapphire Preferred offers 2 points per $ at restaurants and on travel-related purchases; the Ink Bold offers 2 points per $ at hotels and 5 points per $ on cable/internet-related expenditures. You can bet these points add up pretty quickly! My next couple of posts will talk about these two cards in more detail (see here, and here).

Chase Ultimate Rewards points are extremely valuable because they can be transferred into a variety of different loyalty programs. This is key because it gives you far more flexibility when it comes to redemption options. Why be tied to a particular program? What if you want a hotel instead of a flight, for example?

Here are the Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners (all at a 1-1 ratio):

Airlines

  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines (a Star Alliance Airline)
  • British Airways (a Oneworld Airline)
  • Korean Air (a SkyTeam Airline)

Hotels

  • Hyatt
  • Marriott/Ritz Carlton
  • Priority Club/Intercontinental

Train

  • Amtrak

In my estimation, the best transfer partners are definitely United, Hyatt as this is where you’ll get the most value for every point transferred. For example, it’s only 25,000 points for a round-trip flight on United (anywhere within in the US/Canada), and 22,000 for a night at a top-tier Hyatt Hotel (anywhere in the world).

For more details on point redemption levels for United/Hyatt, see here:

  • Hyatt: click here.
  • United: click here.

I’ll be talking about each of the transfer options more in coming posts. For example, while United is the best transfer partner, British Airways also has a tremendous value when it comes to short-haul reward redemptions. (I flew to Taiwan for only 4,500 British Airways points–saving me $550 in airfare that I definitely did not have.) In addition, it is important to keep in mind that these point transfers are immediate and irreversible. Therefore, I advise keeping the points in Ultimate Rewards, then–and only then–if you find something that suits your needs (like an award flight on United or a free night in a Hyatt), go ahead and transfer the points. That gives you the most flexibility, which is the whole value proposition of the Ultimate Rewards program in the first place.

While this is all a hell of a lot to take in right now, don’t even worry about it. This post was merely an introduction, though admittedly a long one. As I have mentioned, I will be breaking all of this down in the coming weeks to give you tips on how to save a ton money on your travel. In the meantime, if you ever find yourself bored and in need of something to do, feel free to check out Chase’s website regarding the Sapphire Preferred and the Ink Bold.

Feel free to contact me at travelguru@planelypoints.com if you have any questions!