Promo: Squeeze More Value From Your Starpoints

I normally try to cover loopholes and tricks that other blogs don’t, but this is a pretty good promotion I’d like to be sure my readers don’t miss. American Airlines is currently offering a 20% bonus on points transfers from the Starpoints program. If you have the right strategy, this promotion can represent very good value.

Starwood Preferred Guest is a points program operated by the Starwood hotels chain. It’s generally considered to be the richStarwood Preferred Guest logoest points currency (although the program is also subject to some notable limitations, such as an aggressive points expiration policy). The points can be redeemed for rooms at Starwood properties, and this is generally the best redemption. However, they can also be exchanged for a very wide variety of points in other programs. And unlike many points currencies, exchanging Starwood points can often be at more than a 1:1 ratio.

Under the current promotion, which expires August 7th, you can receive an additional 20% bonus. This means that if you transfer blocks of 20,000 Starwood points into Aadvantage miles, you ordinarily receive a 5,000 mile bonus. However, you get an extra 20%. This means that you will receive a total of 30,000 Aadvantage miles for every 20,000 Starpoints that you transfer.

American Airlines logoShould you do this? A qualified maybe. I certainly wouldn’t do it on speculation; have a flight that you want to take in mind, and be aware that it could disappear before your transfer clears. This is because the availability of cheap Aadvantage points in the past has sometimes foreshadowed devaluations, which occurred without prior notice last time. Additionally, it has become a lot harder in recent months to book Aadvantage awards–so don’t assume it’ll be easy. Some availability opens up at the last minute, but American nails you with a $75 last-minute fee if you book less than 3 weeks in advance. And with Delta, Southwest and United now basing their loyalty programs on money spent rather than miles flown, the Aadvantage program might head the same direction. Or maybe not. After all, American invented the airline loyalty program, and given that Aadvantage is one of the largest such programs in the world, they might choose to leave it as-is. Nobody really knows except for American, and they’re not saying.

Where can you go for 30,000 miles? One-way in economy class between Europe and North America during the peak summer period, which is one of the best redemptions for Aadvantage miles (if you can find availability). You can do this with low to nonexistent fuel surcharges if you fly on American, Iberia or airBerlin. These are tough flights to find, but I have had relatively good luck looking at less popular routes (such as Dusseldorf-Chicago on American or Dusseldorf-Los Angeles on airBerlin). Or if you look ahead to the winter months, consider an austral summer sun break in Chile. Whatever you do, if you take advantage of this promotion, don’t sit on the miles. Have somewhere in mind that you want to go, have flexibility on your dates, times, airports and airlines, and book right away.

 

The Open Jaw Jam

I’m getting ready to embark on another crazy itinerary. Next week, I leave for Europe. Hopefully everything goes according to plan.

A few months ago, in the frequent flier program of a small airline, there was an incredible sale fare on flights to Turkey. You could book flights to one specific airport for the same number of points as a domestic trip within the US would cost. I happened to have points with this small airline, so I booked two trips. The last trip I took apparently got me added to a TSA watch list, but it did get me to our office in Zagreb cheaply. Well, glutton for punishment that I am, I’m doing it all again.

Unfortunately I ran into a snag this time. I wasn’t able to find any availability back to the US from Zagreb on points. It’s incredibly challenging to find transatlantic award availability. This is the type of scenario in which you want as many options and as many different kinds of points as possible. Unfortunately, the only points that I had in any significant quantity, which didn’t involve fuel surcharges originating from Europe, were Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. And these only didn’t involve fuel surcharges if I booked on American Airlines, a nearly impossible task.

A ton of searching later and I found a way back–but it was awful. I’d have to fly from Milan to Miami, stop over for two days, and then I’d be able to continue back to LA. 30,000 miles and some money. It wasn’t perfect, but it’d work. The alternatives were to pay a ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly British Airways (more than half the cost of just buying a ticket) or to pay a ridiculous award price and an even more ridiculous fuel surcharge to fly KLM and Delta using my Delta points. I had US Airways Dividend Miles, but these didn’t help because they only worked for roundtrip itineraries. So, I gritted my teeth and booked it. I guessed I’d figure out a solution. I always do.

By chance, I reconnected with an old friend who lives in Miami. He offered to let me stay in his condo, which would soften the blow of the bad itinerary somewhat. A month or so later, he contacted me. “You know, I forgot that you’re coming during Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “You really don’t want to be in Miami Beach then. It’s an absolute zoo. Everyone who lives here gets out of town because it’s absolutely overrun with insane tourists.” Ugh. That definitely wouldn’t do, but I also wouldn’t be able to cancel my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award ticket without paying a ridiculous award redeposit fee. Unless……..

Late last year, Delta ran a challenge for Seattle-based SkyMiles members to go for gold status. Nominally, I live in Seattle–I still have a house there, my mail is sent there, and I’m there enough to maintain legal residence. The promotion involved taking two Delta flights at full fare (anywhere in the Delta system), whereupon Delta awarded 25,000 bonus miles and Gold status for a year. I had two short-haul flights from Los Angeles that I needed to take anyway, and it only cost about an extra $150 to book in the fare classes that Delta required. Status didn’t really matter to me, but the 25,000 bonus miles made it an easy calculation. Even though Delta SkyMiles is an awful program, 25,000 bonus miles are worth at least $250. So, $100 free, just for filling out a form online? Sure! I booked on Delta, and was awarded Gold status. Little did I know that this would save me a bundle of dough later.

Now, Alaska Airlines is running a status challenge for Delta SkyMiles members. You can see where this is going. Just ask Alaska to match your Delta status, and they’ll do it. I sent in the request, and was granted MVP Gold within 2 days. And guess what? MVP Gold waives award redeposit fees! So, I went about searching for alternative flights across the Atlantic. In the interim, my US Airways Dividend Miles account had been consolidated with my American Airlines Aadvantage account, giving me access to one-way awards. What’s more, my US Airways Dividend Miles card–which I scored a few weeks before the program ended–netted me a 10% discount on award redemption. Still no availability from Zagreb, but an airBerlin flight was available from Milan on the 25th with an easy connection back to Los Angeles. No fuel surcharge! I wouldn’t get any work done in the US over a holiday weekend anyway, so why not spend it in Italy? I quickly booked the flight, for a total of 27,000 Aadvantage miles. Honestly, I have had nothing but uncomfortable flights and bad luck with American Airlines on transatlantic legs. I know most other bloggers love them, but they haven’t been good to me and I was happy to avoid them this time.

A quick call to Alaska Airlines later, and as a newly minted MVP Gold, my horrible itinerary through Miami with a holiday weekend stopover was cancelled and the miles were back in my account. There is one thing that can be said for status with frequent flier programs: it gives you more flexibility when booking awards, and you can get a lot of expensive fees waived. It’s rare that I will incur enough such fees in a year to make status even remotely worth chasing, but this year, I have avoided hundreds of dollars in checked baggage fees and award redeposit fees through maintaining status with airlines.

So, now I had a (more or less) free ticket to Turkey and a (more or less) free ticket back from Milan. But I needed to close the gap. And I don’t know if you’ve ever booked flight tickets to and from Zagreb, but just try to find a cheap one. Go ahead. I’ll still be here when you get back. Couldn’t find any, could you? So, that’s where Air Serbia came in.

LAX-FRA-IST

A free ticket to Istanbul…

 

mxp-dus-lax

..and a free ticket back from Milan. But I was actually going to Zagreb.

 

air serbia logoYou might be thinking “Wait, what? Air Serbia? You mean, the flag carrier of Slobodan Milosevic’s former regime? The flag carrier of the country that had a civil war with Croatia, and the country that still refuses to acknowledge Kosovo?” Yes, that Air Serbia. As of late, they have repaired relations with their western neighbor, sort of, to the point that there is commercial air service between the countries. By that, I mean one flight a day. And as it turns out, Air Serbia is part owned by Etihad Airways, so it might even be sort of safe. Most importantly, Air Serbia has a very interesting idea of what constitutes a “roundtrip.” They allow an open jaw under some circumstances. All I needed to do was use a hidden cities itinerary.

Oh yeah, hidden cities itineraries. You know, the thing that I warn people never to do because they can horribly backfire. Well, in this case, if I somehow ended up in Istanbul instead of Frankfurt (my connecting city) it would cost me 90 euro to fix the problem. Air Serbia is remarkably flexible when it comes to changes and cancellations, even on non-refundable fares. So I went ahead and booked the flight. FRA-BEG. 23 hours on the ground. BEG-ZAG. Then ZAG-BEG, 4 hours on the ground, BEG-MXP. Less than half the price of pretty much every airline. Why? This was considered a roundtrip.

Ridiculous Air Serbia itinerary

Does this look like a roundtrip to you?

Why was it cheaper? This is considered a round-trip flight, rather than a series of one-way flights. Where flights to Zagreb are concerned, this ends up being cheaper. A lot cheaper. And when viewed from a certain angle, it is a round-trip flight. Frankfurt to Zagreb, with a layover (not a stopover, because it’s only 23 hours) in Belgrade, then turning around and returning to… Milan.

Wait, what? How is a city in Italy considered the return portion of a roundtrip ticket from Germany? Because this is an open jaw itinerary. Normally, fare rules don’t permit open jaws. However, Air Serbia has extremely liberal routing rules. All the crazy things that you can normally only do with frequent flier tickets are possible with their paid fares. Which is how, for less than $200, I was able to visit two additional European cities I haven’t previously visited (Belgrade and Milan), and enjoy a round-trip flight to Europe for free.

This all assumes that everything works out as planned, and I don’t end up in Turkey unexpectedly. If that happens, it’s going to suck. I don’t have any miles that will get me out of Turkey cheaply or easily. Fortunately, Air Serbia flies to Istanbul, and they will–for a fee–allow me to apply my ticket toward another one departing from Istanbul. So, I’d lose about $200 in the worst case scenario–still less than a British Airways fuel surcharge.

So, there you go. This is how to use the Open Jaw Jam. Keep in mind that while it’s generally difficult to do this with paid fares, you can often use open jaws on award tickets. This is where things get really interesting, particularly on intra-Asia award tickets. If you play your cards right, you can potentially visit multiple cities with vast distances between them, all on a single low-cost award.

Stay In A 5 Star Hotel For A Budget Motel Price!

I’m writing this from a JW Marriott hotel room. This is a 5 star property. It’s one of the most expensive hotels in town, as JW Marriott properties often are. There are multiple restaurants that are absolutely phenomenal, along with the best nightclub in the city which attracts top DJs from all over the country. It’s everything that you would expect from one of the very best 5-star hotels in a city of over 8 million people in size.

Naturally, I didn’t pay cash: I paid with Marriott Rewards points. And I got those points for free, by signing up for the Marriott Rewards credit card. In points terms, this cost me about the same as a Fairfield Inn in a distant California suburb. Let me repeat this for emphasis: I paid basically the same as I would pay for a budget motel in the US. I’ll get to how I managed this in a minute. But this is definitely not the typical Seat 31B experience. Just check out these pictures, they speak for themselves:

queen bed, JW Marriott

A comfy queen size bed. I got two, so can try them both.

me in the mirror

Obligatory dorky tablet selfie in the spotless full sized hallway mirror

bathroom, jw marriott pune

Walk-in shower, tub, and toilet in a room of its own

So, now that we have established that I am actually, really, comfortably ensconced in a five star hotel (which is totally unlike the normal Seat 31B experience), and you know there’s no way I’d ever pay full price, I’ll tell you the secret. I’m in Pune, India, a delightful university city on a pleasant plateau located a few hours inland from Mumbai. This property is normally 10,000 points per night (still a fantastic value), but it’s currently on a PointSavers special for 7,500 Marriott Rewards points per night. Or you can pay cash, the equivalent of about $150 per night. It’s a phenomenal value.

I also spent 3 nights in the excellent (and more centrally located) Courtyard by Marriott in central Pune. This is also an amazing value, a Category 1 property also costing only 7,500 points per night. It’s not what you’d expect from a Courtyard property in the US. In Asia, Courtyard properties are solid 4 star hotels. I was overall very pleased with this property, although the value isn’t quite as good redeeming for points because paid rates are considerably less than the JW Marriott. For paid stays, at rates of about $80 per night, the Courtyard is an incredible value.

One other advantage of redeeming points here? When you redeem your Marriott points in India, you don’t pay taxes. Taxes are charged on the actual room rate, so on a $0 room rate, you won’t pay a cent. Imagine how you’d feel in one of the best rooms in town, in a tropical city full of universities and temples, enjoying this spectacular sunset and knowing that you could have had the equivalent of a suburban Motel 6 for the same price.

sunset photo, pune, india

Phenomenal sunset view with temple in the distance

How I Claimed 2,500 Alaska Airlines Bonus Miles

Alaska Airlines has, in my opinion, one of the most valuable frequent flier programs of any airline. So when there’s an easy opportunity to earn 2,500 bonus miles, I jump at the chance!

On a recent flight to Seattle, my bag arrived on the belt 25 minutes after my flight. With most airlines this would be pretty fast, but with Alaska it’s 5 minutes later than their 20 minute baggage service guarantee. No kidding: Alaska guarantees that you’ll have your checked bag at the carousel no more than 20 minutes after your flight, anywhere in their system. What does Alaska give you if your bag shows up late? Either 2,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan bonus miles, or a $25 discount certificate good toward a future flight. This effectively refunds your checked baggage fee and you can even come out ahead if claiming the miles, because those are more valuable than $25.

image of bonus miles delivered to my Alaska account.

Bonus miles for late luggage, delivered!

To claim your miles, just see the baggage service representative. They’ll give you a voucher that you can use to either claim the discount or the bonus miles. It is fast and hassle-free, provided that your bag really was late. They do actually check. All bags are scanned as soon as they show up on the belt, and the time is compared with the published flight arrival time. So, no claiming the bonus unless your bags really are late.

The best part? I didn’t even pay for the checked bag! Alaska Airlines is running a promotion for the month of January where checked bags are free. So, checking a bag paid off more than simply avoiding the hassle of fighting for space in the overhead bin. All I had to do was pay attention to my watch and make an easy claim!

 

HOT! Save $80 On China Flights With Hainan Airlines

Hainan Airlines is offering an $80 promo code on flights to China. You can click here to get your own promotion code, and in fact, you can get up to 3 of these per day (maybe, I was only able to retrieve two). The promotion codes can be redeemed throughout the entire year for flights on Hainan Airlines. There are a limited number of promotional codes available. Go grab some right now if you think you might travel to China within the next year.

They fly nonstop to Beijing from Seattle, Chicago, Toronto and Boston and onward from there to most major Chinese cities. If you’re coming from another city, they can sell you a flight that includes connections on American Airlines. Given that Hainan typically has some of the lowest fares to China from the West Coast, this could be a steal of a deal. On a typical fare of $800 between Seattle and Beijing, you will save 10%.

Hainan_Airlines_Boeing_737-800_B-2158_CTU_2011-7-7[1]Hainan isn’t a member of any frequent flier alliance, and they do not offer miles and points with any US airline. However, the value of points you can earn from Delta, their primary competitor on this route, is now negligible on low fares. You can earn points in Hainan’s own program, which isn’t particularly good, but can offer good value if you redeem the points for flights with their partner Hong Kong Airlines.

How’s the service? Very good, actually. They have the highest SkyTrax rating (for what it’s worth) and fly new modern aircraft with excellent inflight entertainment. Crews are friendly and the food isn’t bad. Hainan Airlines has to meet all the same safety standards as any other airline operating within the United States, so I wouldn’t worry about that either. I have helped many friends from Seattle fly to China on Hainan and most people have been surprised in a good way.

Most people need a visa to visit China. Here’s how to apply by yourself and save agent fees!

1 Star Hotel Review: Greenwich Inn, San Francisco

It has been a super busy couple of weeks as I’ve been attending startup events around California. However, I was able to squeeze in some stays at one and two star properties thanks to the Visa Checkout promo with Orbitz. For those of you who missed it, over Black Friday, Orbitz and Visa ran a joint promo that gave $100 off a booking of $100 or more. I snapped up 9 hotel rooms, although I ultimately ended up having to cancel 3 of them. This covered two of my nights in San Francisco, and I spent 3 more nights with relatives, who were kind enough to let me stay through the crazy weather and help me avoid a commute to the conference.

Today, my friends invited me to a party in San Francisco at the last minute, but I’d already left my relatives’ house and it isn’t really appropriate to stumble in drunk late at night anyway. So, I needed a place to crash. In San Francisco. On the weekend. This is the kind of place where a couch in a living room on airbnb goes for $80 a night–plus tax! So, I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered that Orbitz and Visa ran another promo through their Hotel Club affiliate: AUD $50 off an AUD $100 or greater booking.

SF Marina neighbhood

You can’t get in a much more central SF Marina location than this.

I found the one-star Greenwich Inn listed for the low, low price of AUD $104. Unfortunately, Orbitz lists the rate before they add on taxes and a bunch of fees, and the discount is off the base rate, not the all-in price. So, the price actually worked out to AUD $70.59 after the discount, which is about USD $58. Still, this is the same all-in price as a hostel bunk in the worst part of town, and it’s is a standalone property in the Marina District with free parking and WiFi. You get your own room and the Internet even sort of works. Split with two or more people, you’ll pay less than you would for hostel bunks. The property seems popular with backpackers.

What does this buy you, though? A property built in the 1960s motel style that has undoubtedly seen a lot of terrible things happen between its walls, but has been spruced up to look semi-respectable. Here are a few photos of what life on the road looks like Seat 31B style. The Greenwich Inn is a typical one star experience, although I had much more a vibe here of something being very wrong just beneath the surface than most other properties. It definitely falls in the “creepy motel” category.

bed at greenwich inn

Queen sized bed. This was advertised as a king. Some tripadvisor reviews complain of bedbugs, so check carefully.

Bathroom, Greenwich Inn

Something bad happened in the bathroom. The door looks like it was previously kicked in and the mirror is broken. However, the bathroom was clean and smelled like bleach.

Bathroom amenities, Greenwich Inn

A nice set of amenities in the bathroom, resembling those you’d get in a 4 star hotel

Room amenities

Old tube TV, a battered mini fridge, and free in-room coffee.

Coffee table book, Greenwich Inn

Coffee table book mostly full of ads for shopping and tourist traps. Some of the pages were stuck together.

Heater, Greenwich Inn

The wall heater is broken so the hotel provided an industrial shop style electric heater.

 

How I Save Money Renting Cars In Europe

I’m off to start a round-the-world trip on Saturday. As you might remember, a few months ago I landed a phenomenal deal, and the trip is costing me under $219. One problem, though, is that it’s not taking me exactly where I want to go in Europe. I could only get the deal to Budapest, and I’m actually going to Zagreb. Now, you’d think that this would be a relatively small problem. After all, it’s only 343km between the two cities, and they’re two of the most major cities in the region. So, I figured I’d just buy a cheap ticket on a low cost airline and take the 55 minute connecting flight down.

Well, my brilliant idea that would have been perfectly rational in western Europe totally didn’t work between Budapest and Zagreb. There are lots of cheap flights to and from Budapest on low cost carriers, but none headed to Zagreb. Low cost flights tend to go to the Croatian holiday destination of Split, a few hours away from Zagreb. However, these flights are also seasonal. The Dalmatian coast is beautiful but it’s pretty cold in the winter, and there is essentially no demand for leisure flights. Sure, you can fly between Budapest and Zagreb, but it’ll cost you. The flight was actually pricing out at more than the rest of my entire round-the-world trip. Obviously, this was impractical.

“OK, fine then, I’ll take the train” I thought. Except that isn’t really an option either. There is only one train a day, which isn’t particularly reliable and it takes a circuitous route that takes nearly 11 hours to complete. It’s also a surprisingly expensive ticket. Ultimately, I couldn’t get the times to line up at all with when I needed to be in Zagreb, and I wouldn’t have wanted to pay the price anyway.

Picture of Croatian train

Trains in the Balkans are slow and infrequent.

I started looking for bus options, with some trepidation. In this part of Europe, bus travel makes riding Greyhound in the US seem fancy. Usually, people won’t get on the bus with a live chicken (which is pretty common in some parts of the world) but bus travel seems to attract elements of society you don’t really want to interact with if you can possibly avoid it. There is one bus company operating between the two cities, but the way that you buy a ticket–from all the research I was able to do–is to find the driver and buy a ticket directly from him. No way to buy the ticket online. And there is one bus approximately every other day. While this would have worked for me, these arrangements tend to work best when you know the local area really well, and I don’t.

Ultimately, the best option was to rent a car. However, this is usually a very expensive proposition in Europe. You have probably heard that fuel is more expensive (costing as much as $11 per gallon, depending upon which country you’re in), but it’s also a lot more expensive to rent a car, particularly if you’re in eastern Europe and you intend to cross a border. If you plan to do this, your car needs to have a “green card” and it’s a virtual guarantee that the rental rate you’re quoted doesn’t include this. Add an extra 20-30 euro a day to the rate in some cases.

European green insurance card

You need a “green card” to go across borders with your European rental car. It specifies the countries in which you’re allowed to drive.

Unlimited mileage, also typical on car rentals in the US, also isn’t a typical option. Distances tend to be shorter and you won’t want to drive much inside city centers (where a car is more of a liability than an asset), but you can still get stung by overage charges if you’re not careful. And this is before you get into fines for missing vignettes in postage-stamp sized countries (I was fined $250 in Slovenia for this–it’s a complete and total scam) or questionable traffic violations. Overall, it’s enough to make you never want to drive in Europe, ever.

Still, there are occasions where this will be necessary and I recommend that you never pay retail if you can possibly avoid it. Two companies consistently offer very good “voucher deals” where you pay in advance and receive a voucher for the car rental. These are Economy Car Rentals (a Greek company not to be confused with the generally scammy rental agency using the same name in Latin America) and UK-based Travel Jigsaw. These companies technically operate as tour companies selling tour packages, so they can sell special rates on rental cars. With either of these agencies, be sure to read the fine print! You can cancel your reservation, but you won’t receive a refund if you cancel less than 48 hours in advance. Also, they email you a voucher and you actually do need to print it out and present it when you pick up the car. In exchange for prepaying, you can get some pretty good deals. You won’t always know the company you’re renting from in advance, but I have typically gotten cars from Sixt and Enterprise. In Budapest, my car is coming from a smaller local company.

The upshot? I am paying 139 euro for a 1 week car rental from Budapest including the notoriously difficult and expensive to arrange “green card.” This is about half the price that I was able to find anywhere else. I also get unlimited mileage. I’ll enjoy the convenience of getting around Zagreb easily and my overall cost will be about half what I’d otherwise have paid for a flight. It’ll also take about the same amount of time, all things considered; the Zagreb airport isn’t particularly convenient to the city center and transportation connections are slow.

I’m almost fully packed for my second trip around the world this year. It’s going to be an interesting month of November!

Saving At Budget Motels In California

As I write this, I’m enjoying the spectacular weather in sunny southern California. Nothing beats 78 degrees and breezy at the end of October, but as you probably know, California isn’t a very budget-friendly destination. Even a campground will set you back as much as $35 per night! Most brand-name hotels in the downtown areas of cities start around $200 per night, which is strictly unaffordable for the average Seat 31B traveler.

Many travel blogs encourage you to play elaborate points games in order to stay in expensive hotels. Even if you do this, you’ll still end up spending as much as $100 per night. You have to consider the cost of credit card annual fees, the opportunity cost versus earning other types of points, and the taxes you have to pay (which are often billed based on the retail cost of the room). “Free” isn’t really free when it comes to this stuff.

Alternatively, you can look at lower cost options. California is the world’s seventh largest economy, and it’s well known for having unique local businesses. In addition to famous local fast food chains (such as In-N-Out Burger), there are three local motel chains offering clean, comfortable and decidedly budget-friendly rooms throughout California. I’d like to introduce you to Good Nite Inn, EZ-8 and Premier Inns.

Good Nite Inn has locations throughout California, and often advertises in coupon books that you can pick up at rest areas and Denny’s restaurant locations throughout the state. These coupons will almost always save you money. It’s worth picking up the book. They also occasionally have deals on their Web site. You’ll usually pay about the same price for two people as you would for a single room at Motel 6, and you’ll usually find a Good Nite Inn near a Motel 6 location (in Sylmar, there is a Motel 6 next door). Rooms typically look like they are from the mid-1990s, with a tube television and funky carpet. However, the beds tend to be comfortable, everything works, rooms are somewhat clean and there is air conditioning. Like Motel 6, Internet service isn’t available at all locations and it’s not free if it is available. Coin laundry facilities are typically available on site and there is an ice machine available as well. Motel 6 locations fill up fast (being some of the only reasonably priced accommodations in many parts of California), so Good Nite Inn is a good alternative.

Good Nite Inn room

A typical 1990s-inspired room at Good Nite Inn

EZ-8 Motels and Premier Inns are another good alternative. They don’t advertise at all, have no coupon specials, and they only offer a small AAA discount. Their Web page pretty much says as much. As well, these motels are typically located a little off the beaten path. In the Bay Area, you won’t be staying in the center of San Francisco. Instead, you’ll be staying in a bedroom community like Concord or Newark, but you can quickly and easily take the BART from there to San Francisco. When a room in San Francisco will easily cost you $200 or more per night, it’s worth staying a little out of town.

Image of E-Z-8 motel room

E-Z-8 Motel room – basic but comfortable

How much could you save? A lot! A room for a single person this weekend will cost you just $35 per night in San Diego. The W, not far away, has rooms starting at $170 per night (for the most heavily restricted, prepaid, non-refundable rate) and doesn’t even include parking! If you cashed in points for your stay at the W, you’d pay nearly as much just for parking and taxes as you would for an entire room at the E-Z-8.

Budget motels don’t offer frequent guest programs, concierge service or fancy amenities. Some offer watery coffee in the lobby, served in a Styrofoam cup. However, how much of your California vacation do you really want to spend in your room? Get out and enjoy the sun! That’s why you came, isn’t it?

Scrutinizing Southwest Part 2: Rapid Rewards

In the first part of this two-part series, I wrote about the US low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines. There are considerable differences in how they operate versus other carriers, from their focus on smaller airports to their surprisingly flexible change policies. In this part of the series, we’ll take a look at the Rapid Rewards program.

Southwest Airlines logo

A few months ago, Southwest and Chase ran a credit card promotion that offered 50,000 points and waived the annual fee for the first year. This was a very good promotion so I jumped on the deal. However, I then needed to learn the ins and outs of the Rapid Rewards program. It’s quite a bit different than most frequent flier programs and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.

Southwest actually operates three frequent flier programs, but two of them are old legacy programs bound for retirement. I think it’s important to cover the old programs because so much is still being written about them. This is because you can sometimes gain a slight advantage playing games with transferring points back and forth between the Southwest and airTran programs in an elaborate series of steps. However, these opportunities aren’t all that good in the first place and they evaporate in a month anyway. Unfortunately, blog articles about this will likely live on forever. So, this is mostly just to give you a historical picture of the Rapid Rewards program’s evolution, and bring you up to speed on the current program if you’ve been reading about Rapid Rewards on other blogs.

Under the legacy Rapid Rewards program (no longer active), you would earn one Rapid Rewards credit for each flight. After earning 8 credits, you could redeem them for an award flight voucher. This was a pretty sweet deal because you could earn your credits taking cheap short-haul flights, and then cash in your award flight for an expensive long-haul flight. However, Southwest eventually started to play games with capacity controls.  It became as difficult to redeem awards with Southwest as it was to redeem frequent flier seats on other airlines. And let’s face it, Southwest was giving away the store. If you have existing flight credits under the old program, they can be converted to the new program at a rate of 1,200 points per credit (which is a better deal if you plan to redeem your points for short-haul flights planned in advance, and a worse deal if you can live with capacity controls and plan to redeem them for long-haul flights or flights not planned in advance).

AirTran A+ Rewards Program logo

Southwest Airlines also owns airTran Airlines. The airTran A+ Rewards program will be discontinued on November 1, 2014, along with the airTran brand name. It is more or less identical to the legacy Southwest Rapid Rewards program and points are actually transferable between programs. Existing A+ Rewards accounts will be converted to the (current, not legacy) Southwest Rapid Rewards program when the A+ Rewards program is discontinued, and legacy credits will be converted to points at the same rate of 1,200 points per credit.

The current (as of 2011) Rapid Rewards program is the one that you’ll be signing up for if you’re new to Southwest Airlines. This program (at least until the beginning of 2015) is different from most other US airlines because rather than earning points based on the distance you travel, you earn points based on the fare you pay. There are different earning rates depending on the type of fare, but most readers of Seat 31B will be buying the lowest-priced “Wanna Get Away” fares. These earn 6 points per dollar spent (note that you earn points on the fare you pay, but not on the taxes).

Points can be redeemed for any seat that Southwest is selling, with no capacity controls and no blackout dates. Want to fly during the busiest peak periods around the Christmas holiday? No problem. Want to fly to sunny California in the winter? Sure. Obviously, it will cost you more points than an off-peak flight to an unpopular destination would, but it won’t cost you silly prices like you would have to pay with other North American airlines, presuming that they even offer any award inventory at all. Keep in mind that many airlines black out awards during peak seasons and/or to peak destinations, even at the highest redemption rates. Southwest doesn’t.

How much do awards cost? Contrary to many articles you’ll read online, it’s actually variable (Southwest doesn’t disclose the factors that influence this variability). In general, the cost in points will not be less than 50 points or more than 60 points per equivalent fare dollar redeemed. Note that points can be redeemed for the base fare only. You will still have to pay the tax on your ticket in cash. You can expect that Southwest may conduct stealth devaluations in the future, because there isn’t a fixed formula for how fares are converted to points. Additionally, you can currently redeem points for any fare type (including the deeply discounted “Wanna Get Away” fares Southwest offers), and this could change in the future, along with adding a whole host of ancillary fees that Southwest currently does not charge.

At the end of the day, Southwest Rapid Rewards can provide startlingly lower redemption rates than even British Airways Avios points (usually one of the best options for short-haul flights), depending upon where you are flying and what the fares are. For example, I am traveling roundtrip from Los Angeles to Seattle in late October for just 9,638 points. This would require 15,000 Avios points or 25,000 miles in almost every other US airline’s frequent flier program. Granted, this is a fare that would have cost me a little under $200 if I had paid cash, and it would have earned triple points under the current Southwest targeted promotion I’m enrolled for, but it’s still a great value. Keep in mind, there is always a justification to pay cash for a fare and earn more points. However, if you don’t spend your points, they’re going to eventually be devalued–you can bank on it! Southwest has even built in a “stealth” way to easily do this, given the variability in redemption rates. So, if you find a redemption that is good value (under 60 points per $1), I think it’s worth paying with points instead of cash.

There is another huge advantage to Rapid Rewards points: there are no fees whatsoever and surprisingly few “gotcha” clauses. Redemption fees? None. Even for seats booked at the last minute. Cancellation fees? Zero, as long as you cancel your ticket at least 10 minutes before the flight leaves (you’ll get your points and your money back). Change fees? None, and actually, you can even come out ahead on changes! If a fare goes down and requires fewer points, you can ask Southwest to reissue the ticket at the lower fare. They will do so and deposit the balance back to your Rapid Rewards account (and yes, this can easily be done online). Close-in booking fees? None of those either. Bag fees? Southwest doesn’t have them for up to two checked bags. The only “gotcha” that I can find so far is that your points will expire if you don’t have activity in your account at least once every 18 months.
Should you switch to Southwest for the Rapid Rewards program? It’s definitely not for everyone. Southwest doesn’t have a first class section. Many travel bloggers wouldn’t even think of going near an airline that doesn’t serve caviar on fine china, and would never sit in economy class. There is barely any semblance of elite status with Southwest, and it doesn’t get you much anyway. After all, with no first class and no airport lounges, the only thing they’d really have left to give away is free bags, except they give those free to everyone. If you’re primarily an international traveler, Southwest has very limited utility. I think, however, that Rapid Rewards will be a lot more attractive than the legacy airline frequent flier programs in 2015. Although they play the same games with mileage earning as other airlines will, they’re a lot better when it comes to redemption. And if, like the vast majority of Americans, you redeem your points for economy class domestic travel, it’s hard to ignore that it takes fewer Rapid Rewards points and a lot less hassle to get somewhere versus points travel on most other airlines.

Riding Ordinary Trains In China

Although you can fly a lot of places in China, you can’t fly everywhere and flights to many remote destinations are extremely expensive. Additionally, flight connections aren’t necessarily convenient. If you’re in the densely populated eastern part of China, the extensive network of high-speed trains can quickly and efficiently get you to your destination at a very reasonable price (a typical route is Beijing to Tianjin, a distance of about 220km, which takes about 30 minutes and costs $8). However, if you’re traveling in more remote parts of China, you may be stuck with traditional, ordinary trains as your only option.

With high-speed trains there are three classes: executive class, first class, and second class. There isn’t really much difference between the classes so I always recommend taking second class, which is considerably less expensive. There is, however, a very large difference between the classes on ordinary trains and a substantial difference in fare.

While high-speed trains have fares that are relatively close to discounted airfares on routes where airlines compete, the fares for ordinary trains are very cheap. For example, traveling between Kunming and Dali, a 6 hour journey, costs as little as 61 RMB (about $10). However, the cheap fare will (theoretically) buy you a spot on a bench in a non air-conditioned car sitting with Chinese farmers, who will likely be playing cards and spitting sunflower seeds on the floor. Your seat may be covered by sacks of rice that the farmers refuse to move. This isn’t very comfortable for most Western travelers, or even Chinese people who live in urban areas. Both tend to steer clear of the “hard seat” class. There is sometimes also a “soft seat” class, which buys you a bucket seat in a crowded coach which may or may not be air conditioned. This typically costs 20% more than the “hard seat” class, but is also not particularly comfortable and best avoided except for very short journeys.

The best part of older Chinese trains is the classes that offer lie-flat beds. There are two classes: “hard bed” and “soft bed.” The “hard” and “soft” designations don’t refer to the firmness of the mattress, which is quite firm in both classes, but the configuration of the car. The “hard bed” class offers bunk beds stacked in a 3-bed configuration, in an air conditioned car, with no privacy. This typically costs about 50% more than the “hard seat” class; you will pay around 100 RMB between Kunming and Dali. This class is mostly populated by Chinese middle-class people. As a foreigner, you can expect friendly and garrulous Chinese people to make simple English-language conversation with you and you may be invited to a game of cards. This is a perfectly reasonable and comfortable way to travel if you are a little adventurous.

For another 50% on top of the “hard bed” price, you can enjoy “soft bed” service. This class of service is in an exclusive car, and you will be assigned a bed in a private compartment with a door that closes. However, there isn’t really any privacy unless you buy all 4 beds in the compartment, because the railway will sell the remaining beds to other people. People who travel in “soft bed” class tend to be other foreigners and relatively wealthy Chinese people. Because there is more privacy and the noise is less, you will get a better night’s sleep. Many of the “soft bed” compartments also have a power outlet so you can charge your electronic devices (as long as you bring a power splitter, because otherwise you’re going to be fighting with everyone else in the compartment over the single outlet). Additionally, there is sometimes a Western-style toilet in the “soft bed” compartment.

Slow trains in China aren’t clean and modern like their high-speed counterparts. They are old, and the cars aren’t being replaced or upgraded because high-speed railways are gradually taking over these routes. It’s almost like being transported in a time capsule back to an earlier time in China. I can still remember my first visit, in 2004, riding the slow train from Beijing to Shenzhen, and how different a country China was then compared to now.

It is nearly impossible for foreigners to buy train tickets in advance, and you will need to know some basic Chinese to purchase a train ticket at the train station. If you cannot speak Chinese, it is best to have a Chinese friend buy the tickets for you online (foreigners cannot easily do this because you need to pay using a Chinese bank account), or to arrange tickets through your hotel (this can almost always be done for a small delivery fee, usually about $3). However, traveling by train in China is a great way to see places off the beaten path without spending a fortune!