Miles, Points, and Elite Status Save the Day!

This spring, we received an invitation to our good friends' wedding in mid-May. We had been excitedly anticipating this wedding for a long time, but also knew it could prove a challenge for our schedules and pocketbooks. The challenges were several-fold: the wedding was across the country in North Carolina, Johanna couldn't get a day off work, flights were already getting expensive by the time we had the date, and Nascar had a big race the same weekend. Here's how miles, points, and elite status allowed us to have an excellent trip celebrating our friends' marriage!

Challenge #1: Flying Cross-Country and Back in 48 Hours without Breaking the Bank (and Our Bodies!)

Johanna wasn't able to take a day off work on Friday and the wedding was Saturday at 11am, making a red-eye flight an absolute necessity. Many actually like this flight, because it wastes no day-time hours and saves a night in a hotel. Unsurprisingly, this flight combined with a return on Sunday was going for $500-$600 per-person.

Instead, I looked to use American Airlines miles to get us to Charlotte (an AA hub) from LAX. While I didn't find anything in economy, I did find availability in first class and given the need to sleep on the plane, gladly accepted those seats at 25,000 miles per-person (we slept nearly every minute of the 4.5hr flight). Instead of spending another 50,000 miles on the day-time return flights, I was able to utilize our Southwest Companion Pass and airline credits we had from Johanna's Citi Prestige card to reduce our return flight to $130 total.

Since we were flying American and had the Citi Prestige card, we were granted access to the AA Admiral's Club at LAX before our trip began and the Admiral's Club in Charlotte after our arrival. This helped us take care of dinner and breakfast for free and gave us a comfortable place to hang out while in the airports. We also visited the Korean Air Lounge at LAX with our Priority Pass Club Cards, but weren't particularly impressed. Airport lounges aren't a necessity, but they do make travel more enjoyable and came in very handy during this trip!

Challenge #2: Hotel on a Busy Weekend + Early Check-In

Since we would be at the wedding all day and have to leave fairly early the next morning, I was hoping to avoid spending too much on our night in a hotel. At the same time, it was important to be close to the wedding and after-party locations. After spending a bit of time searching for nearby hotels, I realized that it was Nascar Weekend; most of the hotels were booked and most of those that weren't were charging $150-200 per night...ouch!

Instead, we took advantage of my Hilton Honors Diamond account (top-tier elite status) to book a Hilton Garden Inn at preferred pricing. In the event that all hotels had been booked, Diamond Status means we are guaranteed a room within 48hrs of arrival, but there were a few still available anyway. 

We spent $120 after tax and earned 4,000 HH points in the process (valued at $20). Another reason I booked a Hilton is that Diamond status included free cooked-to-order breakfast (valued at $20) and early check-in (priceless!!!) as benefits. The hotel had our room ready at 8am so that we could shower and even get a little extra sleep before heading to what was a beautiful and enjoyable wedding.

The Bottom Line

  1. Instead of spending $1,000-$1,200 on flights, we used 50,000 AA miles + $130 in cash.
  2. Instead of paying exorbitant airport prices for food and drinks, we used free lounge access for dinner, drinks, and breakfast on the way to Charlotte (estimated savings: $50), while enjoying quiet, comfortable seating instead of waiting by the terminal.
  3. Instead of spending $150-$200 on a hotel room we wouldn't even be able to access before the wedding, we parlayed Hilton Honors Diamond status into a $120 - $20 (points earned) - $20 (free breakfast) = $80 hotel room that we checked into at 8am!

Utilizing miles, points, and elite status to travel hack our way to and from our friends' wedding in North Carolina, we saved between $990-$1,240. For those not yet taking advantage of the miles and points game, that's a significant sum of money to spend on a 48-hour trip, during which nearly half of those hours were spent in-transit. Utilizing our travel-hacking skills allowed us to fully appreciate the special occasion without suffering over the cost of getting there. Win!

7 Trendy Bars and Clubs in Budapest for Summer 2016

In researching Budapest for our summer trip through Central Europe, I was reminded again why we loved Budapest so much five years ago on our honeymoon trip. The city is chalk-full of trendy places and the low prices mean it's easy for those on the USD to go high-end without breaking the bank, particularly with food and drink in beautiful settings. Here are seven cool places I'm hoping to get us to on our upcoming trip!

1. Raqpart

Located right next to the famous "Chain Bridge" of Budapest, Raqpart offers a great view and excellent drinks. TripAdvisor reviews suggest that service is not particularly attentive, but when you want to sit and watch the world go by from an ideal perch, slow service just prolongs the experience!

Raqpart.png

2. 360 Bar

This bar is impressive enough to have been included in the Forbes list of Europe's Best Rooftop Bars. Bars at the top of buildings are a very recent trend in Budapest and 360 Bar is in the vanguard of this movement, which means it gets to be a busy place around horizon-hour. Forbes recommends getting there around happy hour to avoid being disappointed by the queue. We used this strategy to great effect in Montreal, when we visited the trendy Terrasse Place d'Armes rooftop bar as part of our summer bike tour.

3. Fellini Romai Kulturbisztro

In 2011, Johanna and I rode rental bikes through Romai Shore, a summer hangout for city-dwellers looking for a little separation from the downtown area. Fellini Romai Kulturbisztro occupies a central position in this bohemian encampment along the riverbank, serving grilled meats, Belgian beer, and ice cream. Romai Shore is accessible by bicycle by following the Danube bike path that leads north to the town of Szentendre or by taking a 20-minute ride on the suburban railway line (H5) from the Buda side.

4. Tesla Budapest

No, I'm not visiting a new wing of the electric vehicle-makers European sales department. Tesla is one of the top places to get the club scene in Budapest. It makes it all the more enticing when shots of premium liquor are under $3-5 and craft drinks like a moscow mule are in the $5-7 range. When's the last time you found those prices at a trendy nightclub?

5. Kuplung Ruin Bar

With all drinks half-price, this is a good spot to find some adventure on a Monday night. A classic example of a Budapest "ruin bar," this place sprung up from an abandoned building to once again find relevance. Kuplung means clutch, a reminder of the properties former life as a auto-repair shop. Now, the young and hip grace the space, enjoying the warm summer air and people-watching.

6. Csendes Tars

Csendes Vintage Bar & Cafe is Budapest's most popular ruin pub. Seeking to expand, this second location was developed in a more outdoor setting on the edge of a park called Karolyi Kert. It's very popular and looks like a great spot for an afternoon people-watching session with an ice-cold drink.

7. Rio Open Air Club

Okay, this one's kind of different, because we've already been to Rio. Five years ago we had an awesome time (arguably, too awesome) experiencing one of Budapest's "summer only" nightclubs and I hear they've done some renovating and upgrading since that time.

Stacks on Stacks: Using Travel Hacking Know-How to Reduce the Cost of Other Items

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know that I'm all about stacking multiple avenues of savings together to make travel as inexpensive as possible. Today, we'll take a look at how to do the same with other expenses, all in accord with the site motto: "do more and love every minute."

AMEX Offers - $25 statement credit after $100 spent at Staples

If you have an American Express credit or charge card, you have access to "AMEX Offers." Once you click on these offers (to add them to your credit card), they give you the opportunity to earn a statement credit after completing a transaction with AMEX-affiliated vendors. Today, an offer for Staples popped up:

My wife and I have several AMEX accounts between us, so I quickly added this offer to every account it popped up on (3 of our 4 AMEX accounts had the offer available). Once added, the stacking fun began in earnest.

Using discounted gift cards to buy discounted merchandise + topcashback.com rebate

First, I used the topcashback.com portal to access the Staples website, earning a 3% rebate on anything I spent there for the next seven days (more info on topcashback.com and other portal sites is available in my miles and points e-guide). Savings: $3

Once on the Staples website, I looked to see what gift card options were available to me and discovered that Banana Republic's gift cards were 20% off. I found the most perfect-fitting shirt there recently and have been wanting to buy a few more in different colors, so this was a perfect opportunity for me! I quickly snapped up $125-worth of BR gift cards for $100. Savings: $25

Immediately after my gift card purchase, I received an email from AMEX showing that the terms of my offer had been fulfilled, earning me a $25 statement credit on my next credit card bill. Savings: $25

Finally, I headed over to Banana Republic, where I noticed several of the shirt I wanted on sale for 40% off ($30 instead of the usual $50). After tax, that put four shirts at almost exactly the $125 in gift cards I had purchased. Savings: $80

The Bottom Line: Huge Savings Through Stacking

Let's walk it all back in reverse. The shirts were originally 4x$50+tax for about $215 total. I purchased the Banana Republic gift cards for $100. After subtracting the $25 statement credit and the $3 topcashback.com rebate I'll be receiving, I spent $72. By quadruple-stacking my discounts, statement credits, and rebates, I ended up saving 66% off retail for shirts that I'm really excited to have.

This was a particularly good stacking opportunity, but these types of opportunities are out there all the time. I still have two more accounts to use this AMEX Offer on, so I will end up saving even more. Staples sells Whole Foods gift cards, so I will probably by $200-worth of those for $150 after receiving the statement credits. That will net me $50 in free groceries, allowing me to shop at a place I normally avoid because of price-shock! I feel a celebratory craft beer coming on...

 

Get Matched to Hilton Diamond Status for Free

If you've been following along at Thorpe Travel, there's a decent chance you picked up an IHG credit card from Chase (I blogged about an opportunity to earn 110,000 points and IHG Platinum status in January). In this post, I'll show you how to parlay that status into top-tier Hilton status, which will give your stays at Hilton-owned hotels some extra sparkle!

How to get matched to Hilton Diamond status

First, let's start with the offer: Hilton has just recently made a page on their HHonors Loyalty Program site, which provides the opportunity to match status from another hotel chain. Basically, you just screenshot proof of your status with the competing hotel chain and provide another screenshot showing a stay within the last 12 months with that program. Diamond usually comes after 30 stays or 60 nights in one calendar year, so getting it for free is a pretty big opportunity!

Here is the relevant conversation over at Reddit, which includes a datapoint suggesting IHG Platinums are being matched to Hilton Diamond status. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that Hilton is even accepting future stays booked with IHG as proof of a stay within the last 12 months, although this may be a YMMV situation.

UPDATE: Hilton has been inundated with requests and many are not getting a prompt response after filling out this form. Consider a follow-up email to hhonors@hilton.com if you want to move things along. More information on this available at this Reddit thread.

Why do I want Hilton Diamond Status

Hilton Diamond provides a number of benefits, some of them uninspiring, but a few are really quite useful. Here's the short story:

  • 48-hour availability guarantee - If you call the hotel two days out, even if they are fully-booked, they 100% promise to find a place for you.
  • Access to the executive lounge where available, which includes free food and beverages throughout the day.
  • 50% elite bonus on base points - Earn an additional 50% in bonus points on top of HHonors points earned from your stay.
  • 5th night free - If you book four nights with points or free-night certs, you'll get the fifth night free.
  • Guaranteed discount - When you go to book online as a Diamond, you will see a special rate only available to those with top-tier status. Think of it like a AAA discount on steroids.
  • Digital Check-In - Some hotels now have the tech upgrade to do digital room-keys and mobile check-ins for Diamonds. You can even pick your own room from a floorplan, instead of hoping the front-desk clerk gives you their best available.
  • Late Check-Out - Basically, hotel staff will accommodate an early arrival and late departure, giving you more flexibility on travel days.

In addition to these and a few other benefits of Diamond status, room upgrades are common, though not expressly a member benefit. Getting a nice room upgrade is usually one of the biggest perks to top-tier status, so you'll want to skim through this post on how to make that happen on a consistent basis.

The short story is, if there's a nicer room or even a suite available, Hilton should be looking to keep their elite members happy, which makes them likely to oblige an upgrade request. The best thing you can do is ask, followed closely by making sure to ask nicely!

The Bottom Line

If you've got the IHG credit card (or top-tier status with another major hotel chain), you've got an easy route to Hilton Diamond status all the way through March of 2018. If you think you'll need hotel stays at any point in the next two years, why not grab hold of some extra benefits?

Hilton's brands are everywhere and with the Diamond discount price, they'll be an attractive option even if you don't care about the other posted benefits and aren't counting on a room upgrade. If you stay at one with an executive lounge, you'll have free breakfast and snacks throughout the day, a great place to work, and some complimentary drinks during cocktail hour. Seems worth the two minutes it takes to fill out a form and attach some screenshots, right?

I received Diamond status through matching a few months ago and we've got a 3-night stay at the Hilton Vienna. I'll leave you with another blogger's detailed review of that hotel's rooms and executive lounge to get the ideas flowing!

IHG Priceless Surprises Results: Mostly Good News!

In January, I wrote about a great way to stack IHG offers to earn approximately 110,000 points per person. One part of this equation was participating in IHG's Priceless Surprises Sweepstakes Promotion, which involved mailing in up to 94 entries. These entries would earn a minimum of 500 points each, sometimes more, which meant that each person could earn at least 47,000 points. Here, I will discuss how the promotion turned out for us and what you can do if you did not receive all of your 94 game-plays.

Breaking down our haul of IHG Priceless Surprises points earned

Trevor's Total: 69 of 94 entries were recorded for a total of 37,000 points

  • 5,000 points were earned through 5 entries that received 1,000 points each.
  • 32,000 points were earned through the remaining 64 entries that received only the minimum of 500 points.

Johanna's Total: 82 of 94 entries were recorded for a total of 57,500 points

  • 19,000 points were earned through 5 entries that received more than the minimum 500 points (3x5,000 + 2x2,000).
  • 38,500 points were earned through the remaining 77 entries that received only the minimum of 500 points.

Trying to claim our missing entries

Like us, many participants in this promotion did not receive the full 94 game-plays despite sending in 94 entries. We have put out feelers in several directions to correct this (emailed HelloWorld and messaged IHG on Facebook), using tips from others who have had success getting the rest of their game-plays after contacting IHG or HelloWord (the promotion management company). Here is a link to the reddit post we are using to seek out those missing entries.

If we are successful, we will earn an additional 18,500 IHG points, which would bring our haul to 113,000 total points and I will be sure to update this post with any useful information.

The bottom line

In total, we earned 94,500 IHG points, which is very close to what we thought we'd earn, although the circumstances are different. Johanna did very well with three 5,000-point entries, which helped to pick up the slack from the missing entries.

My guess is that we probably won't see anymore points from this promotion, but at an out-of-pocket cost of approximately $110 for 94,500 points (0.116 cents per point earned), I still feel it was worthwhile.

For example, we'll be staying at Hotel Indigo Alexanderplatz in Berlin for three nights this summer at 20,000 IHG points per night instead of $150 per night. In essence, we "bought" 20,000 points for $23.28 (0.116x20,000) so we could stay at this great hotel for 85% off retail. Instead of paying $450 to the hotel for our three-night stay, we paid $70-worth of postage fees to the USPS.

Hacking Hertz Points for Exponential Value + Why the Other Bloggers are Wrong

beach.jpg

Recently, a lot of miles and points bloggers have been writing about transferring Hertz rewards points to Southwest Miles. The new transfer option is 600 Hertz points = 1,200 Southwest miles. I have to say, I don't think this value is anything to get to excited about. This post will give you the math to prove it and provide better alternatives.

Assessing the value of Hertz points transferred to Southwest

Let's operate under the assumption that I have 5,500 Hertz points. If I transferred 5,400 points I'd receive 10,800 Southwest miles, which is definitely enough for some roundtrip flights. For example, I managed to snag a one-way fare from PDX to LAX for 2,500 Southwest miles over spring break week.

Theoretically, that's up to four segments of flying for free! Sounds good so far, right? Well, not exactly. Southwest miles have a relatively fixed value of about 1.5 cents-per-mile (since you got two Southwest miles per Hertz point, that's 3cpp in value for your Hertz points). At that valuation, 5,500 Hertz points is worth $162 in Southwest flights. Most flights are more than that amount, just for one segment, so unless you're flying short-haul or you jump on a great sale price like I did, you're unlikely to get anything appreciable out of this transfer unless you have a TON of Hertz points.

Now let's assess some regular Hertz redemptions in the US and see what values they yield

Beginning assumptions: We will only redeem Hertz points for "standard" as opposed to "everyday" redemptions. Finding obscure routes that offer good value is less important than creating good value from common routes.

  • Premium car for a one-week rental: 2,750

One great redemption value is the week-long rental of any compact through premium vehicle. In this case, a week rented from SFO later this month would cost $640 when all is said and done. Even the compacts were going for over $400 per week.

Instead, use Hertz points and you can have a week of these cars for free...twice! That's a value of up to $1,280 or 23 cents-per-point. 

  • Premium car for a one-way, one-day rental: 1,325

Let's say you booked a cheap international flight for a family of four, but you need to reposition from SFO to LAX after you land. A one-day, one-way rental would cost $325, which is much cheaper than four short-haul tickets between the cities. Instead, use 1,325 points from a premium rental and get 23.6cpp. Don't forget to stop in Santa Barbara along the way!

  • Premium car for a one-way, one-week rental: 5,500

The cheapest car I could find for a trip down the California Coast from SFO to LAX would cost $1,100. Instead, use those 5,500 points for a value of 20cpp. You'll also get a premium car instead of a compact, making your journey much more comfortable.

  • Convertible car for a one-week rental: 4,000

Even using the "pay now" option, which puts you on the hook should your plans change, means shelling out nearly $900 for a week in a convertible. Instead, use 4,000 Hertz points for a value of 22.5cpp. My wife and I did something similar on the California Coast a few years back!

  • Hertz Prestige/Adrenaline Collection for a two-day weekend rental: 3,300

After you make it down to Los Angeles, you'd still have enough points left over to splurge on a sexy vehicle from the Hertz Adrenaline or Prestige Collections. Although some cars are excluded, this 435 horse-power Mustang GT looks like fun! At 3,300 points for the weekend, this point redemption is less efficient (like the 5.0 liter engine under the hood), but still produces a value of more than 10cpp.

UPDATE 3/16/16: Reader "Bin" brought up an excellent point that had previously escaped my analysis. We must factor in paying for tax and fees out-of-pocket, as Hertz points only cover the vehicle cost. This changes our numbers, but not the initial premise. For example, the Mustang GT example was the lowest redemption value for Hertz points, but would still yield 9cpp, which is more than the best-case-scenario with Southwest transfers.

Why you shouldn't follow bloggers blindly

Having more options for redeeming points is always good, so yes, of course, we should be aware of the Southwest transfer option. However, let's take an example from the blogosphere to show the perversion of this particular idea.

Every spring, the US Travel Association puts on an event called "Daily Getaways," whereby a limited number of travel packages are put on offer at a discounted rate. The Hertz package has consistently been hyped as one of the better options (and I agree). Here's what was offered last year:

Using the prevailing blogger advice on this Daily Getaway and the Southwest transfer option would result in purchasing $162-worth of Southwest flights for $252. Thanks, but I'll pass.

The Bottom Line

We're all looking for creative ways to manipulate points and miles for valuable travel benefits, but this one just doesn't really make much sense unless you never rent a car (in which case, you probably don't have Hertz points). Even the least-efficient example of redeeming hertz points directly still worked out to be 9cpp versus the 3cpp for Southwest flights.

Let's go one step further and mention that, since I have the Southwest Companion Pass, my wife flies free. This effectively makes the Southwest redemption 6cpp, but still comes nowhere near the 20cpp+ we can do with a smart car rental redemption.

Beyond the inefficiency of using Hertz points for flights instead of travel, there are many more opportunities to earn free flights than there are to earn free car rentals. I haven't paid straight cash for a flight in almost five years, but at least once or twice a year I pony up for a car rental.

My goal is to create a balanced portfolio of miles, points, and other cost deferring options that will eventually allow my wife and I to go "cost-neutral" on our vacations. We're already getting tantalizingly close to this reality and to really make it happen, Hertz points are just too valuable to squander on flights we can get with other methods.