Best Options for Maximizing a Marriott Travel Package

Today, news is spreading across the miles and points community that Starwood's SPG points can be converted at a rate of 1:3 to Marriott rewards points as a result of the merger passing Chinese regulations. This means that if you've got a stockpile of SPG points, you have a good shot at maximizing their value by purchasing a Marriott Travel Package (Hotel + Air Package).

Marriott Hotel + Air Package Strategies

These packages allow you to convert Marriott rewards points into 7 nights in a Marriott hotel plus the airline miles you might need to get there. In practice, miles and points hobbyists have used these packages to earn the Southwest Companion Pass, which is granted to those who earn 110,000 or more Southwest miles in a single year. After nearly two years with the Companion Pass I have saved over $3,000 on Southwest flights and here's how I redeemed the Marriott Travel Package.

I believed the best value for these packages would always be triggering the Companion Pass by taking Southwest Rapid Rewards miles, but now, with a second opportunity to cash in Marriott points for a Hotel + Air Package, I'm having trouble deciding between three options:

  1. Redeem 270,000 Marriott points for 120,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards (which essentially becomes 240,000 miles because my companion will always fly free) and a 7-night stay at a Cat 1-5 Marriott.
  2. Redeem 270,000 Marriott points for 132,000 United Mileage Plus points (enough to fly internationally to a place where higher quality Marriott Cat 1-5's exist) and a 7-night stay at a Cat 1-5 Marriott.
  3. Redeem 270,000 Marriott points for 120,000 Alaska Air Miles (because I find them to be easier to use for flights I actually want) and a 7-night stay at a Cat 1-5 Marriott.

Another variation of these options I'm considering is adding 30,000 more Marriott points to stay at a Category Six Marriott instead, which opens up more luxurious options. In the next sections, I will provide some samples of what's available in these two categories of redemption, including starting prices as a means of estimating savings (most of the time these hotels will cost much more, resulting in even greater savings).

Category Five Marriott Hotels

Most Cat 1-5 Marriotts in the US are nothing to write home about and even abroad, only the Cat 5 properties really have any appeal to me. Here are some of the best finds I've made for my needs at the Cat 5 redemption level:

Renaissance Curacao Resort & Casino - From $151 per night and a great option for a Caribbean getaway outside the hurricane belt.

Sortis Hotel, Spa & Casino Panama City - From $130 per night in a gateway city with lots of cheap flights. The hotel is very modern and gets phenomenal reviews.

JW Marriott Hotel Bogota - From $180 per night. One of Bogota's leading hotels, the second-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, and central to all the city attractions.

AC Hotel Cuitat de Palma - From $140 per night on the Spanish Island of Mallorca. Located right in the city center.

Category Six Marriott Hotels

In addition to a number of good international redemption options, Cat 6 on the Marriott hotel chart opens up some excellent domestic redemptions as well:

JW Marriott Hotel Mexico City - From $170 per night, well-located, and extremely highly reviewed. Mexico City has tons of tourist opportunities and is also a gateway to Central and South America as part of a longer trip.

AC Hotel Diagonal L'Illa Barcelona - From $160 per night and centrally located, although it does appear to be more of a business hotel.

Renaissance Barcelona Fira Hotel - From $150 per night with a stunning rooftop pool and easy metro access.

Courtyard Paris Boulogne - From $125 per night and very highly reviewed.

Renaissance Tuscany Il Cioccio Resort & Spa - From $145 per night, the perfect launch-point for a week of bike training in Tuscany and in day-trip proximity to Pisa and Florence.

Denver Marriott City Center - From $180 per night and well-located. An excellent value for a major US city with plenty to do for a week.

Renaissance Austin Hotel - From $185 per night and stunning. Austin has plenty to do and this represents another excellent redemption value.

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!