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Old Sep 8th 2012, 11:46 am   #1
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Default Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

Over the past few months a few members have been prodding and poking me to start my own thread about travel, as I keep posting little bits and bobs that grab people's attention now and again but then don't follow up with the detail. It does make sense to start a thread though, as if there's one group of people who could particularly benefit from some of this knowledge then it's expats who have family and friends located in other parts of the world.

I like to travel. I like it a lot- but more to the point I like to travel well, far, far beyond my means, flying in business or even first class and staying in some very nice hotels.

I wouldn't get very far trying to do this with my own money, but I do very well through taking the maximum possible advantage of frequent flyer miles and hotel points programmes, with some of those points earned through actually traveling (I do 4 or 5 business trips per year, mostly to the UK) but mainly acquired through non-travel means by milking many, many promotional deals etc. that are available in the US.

For the sake of full disclosure, these miles and points don't come for free. Some of them look like they came for free, but really they didn't. Firstly I've poured a lot of my time into this - it became a hobby and then a bit of an obsession. I probably spend up to an hour a day most days on this, researching and applying for new deals and nursing along ones I have on the go at the minute. Then there are the fees. You shouldn't go into this thinking that you'll get miles for free. You will sometimes, but a better expectation would be to think of it as buying miles very, very cheaply.

I've been doing this since I applied for a Chase BA card in late 2009 when I saw that it offered 100,000 free BA miles when you spent $1,500. I got one of these for myself and then Mrs tonrob got one too. After that, my interest was peaked - what other things could I do to top up my BA account? I am currently sat on top of a pile of miles/points totaling approx 2.75 million (of which 800,000 are BA), spread across 46 different accounts that I'm managing - despite having already used miles to do some of the following examples:
  • AA first class Hartford-San Diego and back for $5 each
  • BA business class Boston - Frankfurt and back for $400 each
  • Amtrak sleeper Springfield to Seattle for free
  • Lufthansa first class Seattle to Frankfurt for $78
  • Lufthansa business class Frankfurt to Boston for around $100 each

And there's hotels too (examples from a much longer list):
  • Park Hyatt in Hamburg for $23 a night
  • Candlewood Suites Times Square for $90 a night
  • Marriott Monterrey for free
  • Starwood and Hilton resorts in Scottsdale for around $10 a night
  • Hyatt villas in Sedona for $75 a night

In a few weeks the three of us are flying AA flagship first class from JFK to LAX, spending 14 nights split across hotels and resorts along the southern California coast and Palm Springs, for a total out of pocket cost (excl. meals) of around $1,000.

I mention all of this not to brag - I worked hard to bring these miles in - but to illustrate the scope of what's possible. If you're interested, you can scale your efforts accordingly of course, the rewards seem to be directly proportional to the level of time invested - I could easily go further with this if I had more time myself.

So, with that, I'll cease this rambling opener, but I'll be back as and when I have time to post some hints, tips and ideas and answer questions - and of course feel free to chip in with your own.
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Old Sep 8th 2012, 11:58 am   #2
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

I acquired a good deal of miles and points using credit cards. If you have a reasonable credit history then it's quite possible to apply for a number of cards that offer (a) good sign-up deals and (b) miles for every dollar you spend afterwards.
  • Make sure you know a good deal when you see one. This involves a bit of reading and keeping on top of what's out there. Many cards will have a crappy deal through most of the year but bump it up - sometimes by a lot - to grab new card-members during a short time (could be over several weeks or just for one day). One example would be AMEX, who usually offers paltry 25,000 (or even zero) sign-up deals for some of its Membership Rewards earning cards, but then will offer blitz deals for 75,000 or even 100,000 2 or 3 times a year.
  • Don't obsess about annual fees. It's nice to get the first year free, but for many cards the value of the points earned far outweighs the cost of the fee.
  • Some cards are keepers and some are just for the sign-up bonus. Example - the AMEX Starwood card is a keeper because Starpoints are valuable travel currency and you earn those with every dollar spent, whereas I apply for the Citibank Hilton card purely for the sign-up bonus as ongoing spend nets points that really aren't the best use of my spend.
  • Many card issuers only seem to report applications to the credit agencies once a day, so a strategy of applying for multiple cards in one day seems to be quite effective. I built up slowly, one at a time then two at a time, but now apply for 4 or 5 in one hit, usually every 3 months or so.

A number of blogs keep fairly accurate and up-to-date lists of current card offers. I will always check more than one before deciding which card to apply for, as invariably each list will contain an error or two (e.g. an old, or a sub-optimal offer). Good lists that I turn to are on Frequent Miler and Points Guy.
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Old Sep 8th 2012, 1:59 pm   #3
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

Great thread TonRob. You've helped me immensely. I got the first BA/Chase card when you mentioned it, in hubby's name, and took a trip to Germany, and a few other countries with the BA card. Hired a car on that trip with Amex Blue Sky miles. Took a trip to Ireland later in summer, and mostly paid with Amex points.

Took a trip to UK in July 2012, with points with a BA/Chase card opened in my name. Got upgraded seats, Set up a family points system with BA Executive club, and closed hubby's card. Paid for hire car with Amex.

Planning a trip to Hilton Head, SC in October (for birthday), and will pay with points from local bank card. Was offered a Marriott card (should I take it?). We have been upgrading our house, and used a 0% credit card from local bank, which also provides lots of points!

Opened hubby another BA card recently, and will be taking another trip to UK next summer. Even though it hadn't been long since we closed his original card, he got instant acceptance!

Thanks again for all the info.
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Old Sep 8th 2012, 2:22 pm   #4
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

Tonrob,
this is a bit off topic but did you take the little one on the amtrak trip? We really want to do this trip but I am not sure its feasible with 2 little ones?
Can you transfer your miles between cards so you have them all in one pot?
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Old Sep 8th 2012, 5:30 pm   #5
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

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Originally Posted by Mallory View Post
Planning a trip to Hilton Head, SC in October (for birthday), and will pay with points from local bank card. Was offered a Marriott card (should I take it?). We have been upgrading our house, and used a 0% credit card from local bank, which also provides lots of points!
We've been twice to Hilton Head and both times stayed at Marriott Vacation Club resorts - Grande Ocean the first time and Surfwatch the second. Had spacious 2-bedroom villa units each time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Tip: They contact most guests to offer a timeshare presentation in return for either points or a credit off your stay. The presentations are 90 minutes and the reward seems to vary depending on the length of your stay (longer stay - higher reward - even though you only attend the presentation once). We were offered a $200 credit off our bill, which we took, although while we were waiting for the presentation to begin we heard much lower offers being made to other couples. The presentation is in a private room, one couple at a time, and isn't particularly offensive as far as these things go.

Regarding the Marriott card - there are two kinds - the Premier and the non-Premier. I'd go for the Premier one if the sign-up bonus was at least 70,000 points. Marriott points aren't worth that much and get devalued at least once a year, so I wouldn't take the hit to my credit score for less. The Premier card also comes with a free category 1-5 night issued annually on the anniversary of the account opening, which more than makes up for the $85 annual fee in my opinion. Marriott points are worth so little I'd just get this for the sign-up bonus and the annual free night - I don't spend any money on mine in-between unless they write to me with an incentive (which they do from time to time).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mallory View Post
Opened hubby another BA card recently, and will be taking another trip to UK next summer. Even though it hadn't been long since we closed his original card, he got instant acceptance!
Careful with this one. Chase hardly ever grant a sign-up bonus twice to someone for the same card - it's usually a once-per lifetime deal. It doesn't stop them from granting a card for a second time - but don't be surprised if the Avios don't appear. That said, I have my fingers crossed for you.
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Old Sep 8th 2012, 5:41 pm   #6
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

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Originally Posted by Adnams View Post
Tonrob,
this is a bit off topic but did you take the little one on the amtrak trip? We really want to do this trip but I am not sure its feasible with 2 little ones?
Can you transfer your miles between cards so you have them all in one pot?
I didn't take the little one - just me, a friend, and a shedload of beer. That said we did see other families on the train, including one with a small baby.

Amtrak sleeping compartments come in various sizes - see here. They're priced using fare buckets and can be eye-wateringly expensive during the more popular months. Luckily for me - Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer 1:1 to Amtrak, are very easy to obtain in quantities so I used these to pay for my trip in its entirety: 35,000 points (I think it was) for two people in a sleeping compartment all the way from here to Seattle. Billy bargain.

Regarding your second question - some points can be converted to other types of points and some cannot. Generally speaking, airline miles can be converted to hotel points and vice versa, but airline miles can't be converted directly to other airline miles and the same applies to hotel points. There are also generic programmes such as AMEX Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, which can both be transferred to a number of different airline and hotel partners as and when you need them, making the very flexible indeed. Note that exchange rates between programmes can sometimes be quite unfavourable, and at other times bonuses are offered meaning you get more points or miles from the deal than you otherwise would have.

This site is quite good for working out exchanges.
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Old Sep 9th 2012, 3:58 am   #7
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

I'll delete this question if its getting in the way of useful stuff but can air miles be claimed afterwards and if so for how long?
I don't understand how air miles work but nearly every flight I've been on over the last 5 years have been with BA or one of their partners. Thanks for any help you can give
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Old Sep 9th 2012, 10:38 am   #8
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

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I'll delete this question if its getting in the way of useful stuff but can air miles be claimed afterwards and if so for how long?
I don't understand how air miles work but nearly every flight I've been on over the last 5 years have been with BA or one of their partners. Thanks for any help you can give
According to BA's website you can claim them up to 6 months after flying. Other airlines may vary but there will be a cut-off point in the past beyond which you cannot claim.

If you're going to start collecting BA miles (which were re-named last year to Avios in a triumph of marketing wank-speak) then here is one of a list of useful articles on how to go about what they are worth and how to go about using them.

Note that even an economy return flight from Boston to Heathrow (with no 'elite' frequent flyer status and no other promotions involved) earns enough miles for a short one-way flight of up to 650 miles in distance on American Airlines (the most likely local BA partner you'd use being in the USA). Fly more often, take advantage of promotions or upgrade to a higher cabin (e.g. premium economy, BA's "World Traveler Plus") and they'll rack up even faster.
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Old Sep 9th 2012, 10:51 am   #9
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Default Don't let your airline miles expire!

People often lose their airline miles because the airline sets an expiry date that's easy to overlook sometimes. Airlines differ from one another in terms of the duration, BA - for example - is 3 years whereas some others can be 2 years, or maybe even less.

While terms and conditions vary - a typical one is that all of the miles in your account expire if you do not have any activity on that account for X years.

This means that any activity at all re-sets the clock and keeps your miles safe.

While some may find it a bit of a drastic step to jump on a plane and fly just to save their miles from expiring, there are other ways to create activity in your account very cheaply and very easily.

Many airlines have online shopping portals (Google to see if yours' does). These portals display a long list of partner retailers that, when you shop on their sites after clicking through the airline portal first, you will earn X miles per $ spent. The list of retailers will likely include many of the places you tend to shop online anyway, so it's easy to find something to buy. The cheapest way to refresh all your miles for another few years is to navigate through the portal to iTunes and buy a song for 99c (if your choice of portal has iTunes as a partner).

Here are a few links to shopping portals:

British Airways

American Airlines
United Airlines
Hawaiian Airlines (THE only airline shopping portal where it's currently possible to earn miles for Amazon purchases).
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Old Sep 9th 2012, 3:34 pm   #10
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

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Originally Posted by tonrob View Post
According to BA's website you can claim them up to 6 months after flying. Other airlines may vary but there will be a cut-off point in the past beyond which you cannot claim.

If you're going to start collecting BA miles (which were re-named last year to Avios in a triumph of marketing wank-speak) then here is one of a list of useful articles on how to go about what they are worth and how to go about using them.

Note that even an economy return flight from Boston to Heathrow (with no 'elite' frequent flyer status and no other promotions involved) earns enough miles for a short one-way flight of up to 650 miles in distance on American Airlines (the most likely local BA partner you'd use being in the USA). Fly more often, take advantage of promotions or upgrade to a higher cabin (e.g. premium economy, BA's "World Traveler Plus") and they'll rack up even faster.
I've signed up to the Executive Club on the BA website and put everything in to claim my Avios points but it says "We are unable to process claims for travel taken on BA more than 3 months prior to joining the Executive Club".

Annoying but at least I'll know for the future.

Thanks for your help
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Old Sep 9th 2012, 4:55 pm   #11
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

Thanks for this thread...great
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Old Sep 9th 2012, 5:08 pm   #12
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

Thanks for starting this thread, you have helped me out a few times in the past and I really appreciate it.

I've been doing this for about 3 years now. I have been travelling back to the UK about 3 times a year the last few years. I am now sitting on about 500,000 BA miles ( Avios ) , plus I have a couple of other programmes I am slowly building up.

Primarily I use the miles to upgrade on BA, generally from World Traveller plus to Club World, so I nearly always buy a ticket which would cost more than economy, but much much less than business class.

I just spent a ton of miles, ( 168,000 ) for 2 First class tickets from San Francisco to London to Dublin. I had a two for one coupon via the BA chase card, otherwise I would have needed twice as many miles. We do have to pay taxes and fees which came to $1040.00 each, but well worth it ! The cost of First Class is around $10,000 return

About a month ago I signed up for the Amex 70,000 points deal, you can transfer these points to BA who are currently offering a 40% bonus , so voilĂ , there's another 100.000 Avios back in the bank My missus is applying for the Amex also as they have a 50,000 point deal on right now.

We are also taking a trip to Hawaii this winter for about 25,000 miles each plus $10.00, you can redeem Avios on both American and Alaska airlines.

Redeeming Avios on US carriers is a great deal as you you pay very little tax !

I only wish I had started doing this years ago. So start now would be my advice, it gets a bit complicated working out the terminology and reading the fine print but well worth the effort.
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Old Sep 10th 2012, 4:49 am   #13
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

tonrob
is there any particular card or scheme you would recommend to someone whose unlikely to build up points by traveling - and would be primarily looking to make points to subsidize flights to blighty? Is that even worth the effort? ie would any discount be on such a limited availability 'expensive in the first place' flights and still end up costing me so much that it would be cheaper to but a ticket direct?
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Old Sep 10th 2012, 1:54 pm   #14
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

Quote:
Originally Posted by coastieexpat View Post
Thanks for starting this thread, you have helped me out a few times in the past and I really appreciate it.

I've been doing this for about 3 years now. I have been travelling back to the UK about 3 times a year the last few years. I am now sitting on about 500,000 BA miles ( Avios ) , plus I have a couple of other programmes I am slowly building up.

<snip>

About a month ago I signed up for the Amex 70,000 points deal, you can transfer these points to BA who are currently offering a 40% bonus , so voilĂ , there's another 100.000 Avios back in the bank My missus is applying for the Amex also as they have a 50,000 point deal on right now.
I did the exact same thing, but in hindsight not sure if I'd do it this way again.

I'm currently sat on a pile of BA miles (can't bear to call them Avios) of 800,000, many of which were acquired through AMEX Membership Rewards transfer promos. Assuming I continue earning 2-4-1 vouchers by spending $30,000 on Mrs tonrob's Chase BA card every year then this is the equivalent of 1,600,000 BA miles - far more than I will need for many a year.

I also did all of this while having close to 500,000 AA miles in the bank due to some (long-expired) excellent Citi card promotions, but with both airlines in one alliance - One World - it made me realize that I wasn't diversifying enough, as when coming to try to use the miles I was at the mercy of the award availability of just a handful of airlines.

It was at that point that I became determined to collect more miles to use on Star Alliance carriers and (heaven forbid) Sky Team.

I'm sticking by my principles too - despite the 40% AMEX to BA transfer promo on now, Mrs tonrob and I are sitting on our 300,000 Memebership Rewards points rather than converting them to another 420,000 BA miles that will take us years to use.

Great job on your first class redemption, by the way - that's they way to burn those miles!


Footnote: I'll try to insert useful links when I post so that those less familiar with the mileage scene can click around and read up on the background to come of the conversations on this thread.
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Old Sep 10th 2012, 4:16 pm   #15
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Default Re: Traveling cheaply and well using miles and points

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tonrob
is there any particular card or scheme you would recommend to someone whose unlikely to build up points by traveling - and would be primarily looking to make points to subsidize flights to blighty? Is that even worth the effort? ie would any discount be on such a limited availability 'expensive in the first place' flights and still end up costing me so much that it would be cheaper to but a ticket direct?
It's a very broad question... Almost all the strategies I employ are to build up miles and points without traveling. The cost of traveleing using miles however is not usually tied closely to the cost of traveling using cash (some cheap flights can be "miles expensive" and vice versa).

What airline(s) are the best for you from a routing perspective? (So we can narrow down the schemes to focus on).
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