Chase Ultimate Rewards: Transfer Partners to Avoid

One of my friends asked me a pretty good question regarding Ultimate Rewards point transfers into partner programs: Which one should he avoid? While I’ve gone through many of the transfer partners that provide excellent value, I haven’t really addressed the transfer partners or scenarios that provide poor value and thus should be avoided. There are also certain situations where even a good frequent flyer program won’t provide good value if you transfer Ultimate Rewards points into the program.  At the very least, you want to get a value of 1.25 cents per point if you’re using the Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) and 1.5 cents per point if you’re using the Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR). How did I arrive at those numbers? If you book through Chase’s UR portal, that’s how much value you would get. For example, by booking a flight using the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, a ticket worth $150 will require 10,000 UR points if you have the CSR. $150/10,000 = 1.5 cents per points. That same ticket would require 12,000 UR points if you have the CSP $150/12,000 = 1.25 cents per point. Here is what you should do to ensure you get the best value using your points: Make a comparison of the number of UR points required if you were to book through the Chase portal, the number of points required if you were to book through the hotel or frequent flyer program, and the dollar amount required if you were to pay with cash. For certain programs, the answer will be obvious and you will get a clear idea of what not to do. For others, there might be a tie and you won’t come out on the losing end either way.  Let’s take a look at some transfer partners and see what type of value they might provide…

IHG

I’m going to use IHG hotels, the least valuable of all transfer partners in my opinion, as the first example. Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred into IHG on a 1:1 transfer ratio in increments of 1,000. Among the brands that are under the IHG umbrella are Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Indigo, Kimpton, and Candlewood Suites. Let’s say you wanted to stay in Downtown Chicago between June 29th and July 1st at the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue….

IHGCash

This would cost $233 a night. If you were to book as a CSR card holder straight through the Ultimate Rewards portal…..IHGURRedemption

A good redemption of just over 16k points a night. This is a value of 1.5 cents per point and the litmus test you should use if you’re a CSR card holder booking through Chase. Last but not least, let’s see how many points you would have to transfer into IHG’s program from Chase if you were to use their loyalty program to book this hotel:

IntercontinentalIHGpoints

A ridiculous 50,000 points per night, meaning you’d have to transfer a total of 150k UR points for 3 nights. If you’re reading this, please don’t ever transfer 150,000 Ultimate Rewards points to make a booking like this in which you’re getting absolutely ripped off.  If you do the math, $233/50,000 = 0.4 cents per point. You read that right. You’re getting less than a penny per point value if you transfer 150,000 UR points to book 3 nights at the Intercontinental Chicago on Michigan Avenue when the cash price is $233 per night. It’s unfortunate but these types of redemptions are the norm when using IHG points to book hotel stays.  This particular redemption is so bad, you would be better off exchanging 69,900 UR points for $699 cash and then using the cash to book the 3 nights at the hotel.  For this scenario, we would book straight through the Chase portal at just over 16k points per night. The only scenario you should consider transferring Ultimate Rewards points into IHG is if you need to top off your account and you’re just 5k or fewer points away from getting an award night at a higher redemption level. For example, if you’re at 29k IHG points and 30k would get you an award night, go ahead and transfer that 1k from Chase. The more you need to transfer, the more you’re losing value.

Marriott

Another transfer partner which provides terrible value when transferring points from Chase Ultimate Rewards is Marriott. Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred into Marriott on a 1:1 ratio in increments of 1,000. Don’t get me wrong, they have a very nice portfolio of properties which include upscale brands such J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton. But when you’re redeeming points, it’s all about getting maximum value and getting the most for your redemptions.  Let’s say you wanted to stay in the Miami area from March 29th-March 31st in a location close to the airport:

MarriottCashPoints

The TownPlace Suites would cost $175/night or a ridiculous 50k Marriott points per night for a total of 150k points. This redemption is even worse than the one we saw above. Please do not, and I repeat do not transfer 150,000 UR points for this type of redemption.  $175/50,000 = 0.35 cents per point redemption (lol). To put it into perspective, 60k UR points when transferred into United can get you a round-trip ticket to Europe. 60k UR points when transferred into FlyingBlue can get you two round-trip tickets to Hawaii. If you were to book straight from the Chase portal…..

TownPlaceURRedemption

A far more palatable redemption of nearly 12k per night, giving you the baseline value of 1.5 cents per point if you were a CSR credit card holder. If you carried the CSP instead, your redemption would require approximately 14,300 points per night for a value of 1.2 cents per point. In this scenario just like the one above, booking directly from the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal rather than transferring points into Marriott is the way to go.

Hyatt

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m going to use Hyatt, one of my favorite transfer partners and one that provides excellent value as an example. Let’s say you wanted to make a booking at the Hyatt Place in Downtown Chicago between June 29th-July 1st. Here is the cash price you would have to pay per night: At the very minimum, $531 per night (!!).

HyattPlaceCash

If you were to book straight through the Chase Portal as a Chase Sapphire Reserve card holder:

HyattURRedemption

At the very minimum, you’re spending 26,509 points per night. This gives you a redemption rate of 1.5 cents per point, the value you would get when booking through Chase as a CSR card holder.  And finally, let’s see how many Hyatt Points would be required to make this booking…..

HyattPlaceHPoints

We have our clear winner. For 12k Hyatt points per night, you can find yourself in a room that would cost you $531 per night were you to pay with cash. If you do the math, $531/12,000 = 4.4 cents per point. This would qualify as a fantastic redemption and one where it would be a no-brainer to transfer your points from Chase UR into Hyatt. Prior to transferring into Hyatt, make yourself a World of Hyatt account on their website. This is free and you will get an account number which you will need to link with Chase in their Ultimate Rewards Transfer Portal.  Below is just a simple schematic showing you where to go to transfer UR points.

airlinetransfer

When you click on your point balance, this will be the first page you see. Bring the cursor to “use points” and click on “transfer to travel partners”

WorldofHyatt

Click on World Of Hyatt and transfer the total number of points you would need. Since Hyatt requires 12k points per night for our redemption and we searched for 3 nights, we would transfer a total of 36k UR points into Hyatt. The cash price for those 3 nights would have been nearly $1,600.  The only downside of Hyatt is it’s relatively small footprint. They only have about 750 properties worldwide so finding a location where you can take advantage of this value can be challenging, particularly if you’re looking at international destinations.

      Airline Transfers

Generally speaking, transferring to the frequent flyer program of Chase’s airline partners provides very good to excellent value. A prime example of this would be transferring to British Airways Avios for domestic flights on American Airlines or transferring to FlyingBlue, the frequent flyer program of KLM/Air France for a round-trip ticket to Hawaii on Delta Airlines. However, there are certain situations where you’re better off booking a ticket by redeeming UR points through the Chase portal or using cash rather than transferring the points into a frequent flyer account to book a ticket.  For this example, I’ll use a round-trip ticket from Chicago (ORD) to New York City (LGA) from April 28th-May 1st.

UACash

Pretty good price for a round-trip ticket between Chicago and NYC. Keep in mind, these are economy seats, not basic economy which can be had for $129 round-trip but with limitations such as no carry-on bags and no advanced seat assignments. Now if you wanted to use United miles for this trip…..

UAmiles

25k miles for a round-trip itinerary. How much value would you get if you transferred 25k UR points into United? $169/25,000 = 0.67 cents per point. This would be a terrible way to use UR points since you’re getting less than a cent worth of value per point. If you were to hold a Chase Sapphire Reserve and you booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, your redemption would require…..

UAurredemption

Just 11,240 UR points for a round-trip ticket. You would save yourself nearly 14,000 points, or enough for possibly another round-trip ticket by using Chase’s portal versus transferring into United. If you had the Chase Sapphire Preferred, your redemption would be about 13,500 UR points, a significant number of UR points saved.

 Recap

Prior to transferring into a program, evaluate whether you’re getting at least 1.5 cents per point if you’re a Chase Sapphire Reserve holder or 1.25 cents per point if you’re a Chase Sapphire Preferred holder. This is done by taking the cash price/the points required by the loyalty program.This should always be your litmus test prior to transferring. If you’re value matches or exceeds those numbers, transfer the points into the loyalty program. If not, then book directly through the Chase portal. The wildcard is if you happen to have status with a hotel chain. From my experience, hotels won’t extend status benefits if you don’t make the reservation through their own website or toll-free number. What what I do? I would still forego the benefits for IHG and Marriott if it means I’m going to get killed on the redemption when transferring UR points into either of those two brands. A free breakfast or room upgrade is not worth sacrificing a round-trip ticket to Europe, South America, or two round-trip tickets to Hawaii. If you want to read about the transfer partners that can provide tremendous value, you can read that here and here.

 

Review: Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

Since there are several readers who have asked me about the Maldives and my accommodations during my stay there, I figured I would just do a proper review of the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.  I have already made a post on the number of miles and points it took to book this trip and you can read about that here. The Maldives is one of the world’s premier beach destinations and there really isn’t any place like it. Crystal clear waters, an abundance of marine wildlife, and hospitality that is unparalleled regardless of the hotel you may choose. This particular Conrad is located on Rangali Island, an island that is part of the Alif Dhaal Atoll. The Maldives has 26 different atolls with some of them subdivided into two or three.

RangaliIslandMap

The atolls of The Maldives.

Getting There

The only way to get to Rangali Island is via 45-minute seaplane flight on Transmaldivian Airways from the capital city of Male. The distance between the two islands is about 59 miles or 95 km.

Since my wife and I booked with Conrad,  our experience actually started upon landing at Velana International Airport in Male. The Conrad staff guided us to an exclusive Conrad Lounge as we waited for our seaplane to arrive. It’s very rare for a hotel to have a branded airport lounge and this was our first time experiencing one. The lounge was very spacious, had a decent selection of food and drinks, and was clean and well maintained. It also offered free Wi-Fi and couches that could be used as beds. It was much better than most airport lounges we’ve visited.

About 45 minutes later, our seaplane arrived and it was time to take the much-anticipated flight to Rangali Island.

Seaplane

 

I apologize for taking this video vertically.  The plane seats around 15 people and flies at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. You get some amazing views of the other atolls and islands on your way. It’s a loud flight due to the propellers but it was much smoother than I anticipated. Once we arrived, we boarded a golf cart that took us to our villa. The staff gave us a tour of the villa, the amenities, and explained to us in detail the services that they offer. We also found a complimentary bottle of sparkling grape juice and a fruit basket that had been left for us. You can see the video of our villa below.

 Retreat Water Villa (Overwater Villa)

Sorry again for the vertical video. Snapchat and Instagram have basically programmed me to do it this way.

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The stairs lead you straight into the water. I’d say the depth is around 7 feet.

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MaldivesPath

The path to the beach area

Sunset Jacuzzi

Jacuzzi with a view

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Shower area

Spa

Private spa room

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The various colors of the jacuzzi at night. 

SunsetVilla

Majestic sunsets are the norm in the Maldives

As a Hilton Gold member, Conrad upgraded us from a water villa to a retreat water villa. The retreat water villa came with our own jacuzzi and also had a more private feel since the neighboring villas were several hundred feet away.  The villa itself was incredible. This property has won numerous awards including the best luxury resort in the world.  Each villa also included a private spa room with two massage tables. We didn’t use this service since all we wanted to do was be outside and soak in the sun. Each villa also has stairs which take you right into the water. I would estimate the depth to be around 7 feet right at the villas so if you don’t know how to swim, you might want to keep that in mind. It gets much shallower once you’re near the beach.

Dining

As Hilton Gold members, we were entitled to free breakfast, free afternoon tea at Mandhoo Spa Restaurant, and free cocktails/mocktails between 5-6pm. The breakfast had a large variety of options and I had something different every day. The afternoon tea at Mandhoo was more like a lunch since they also had sandwiches.  Purchasing meals at this property was quite pricey. I mean it is a Conrad Hotel after all.  To minimize meal costs, we would have breakfast at the latest possible time, around 10:30 am and then have the complimentary tea and lunch at Mandhoo Spa Restaurant at 4:30. Since this was pretty darn close to dinner time, we only utilized the Atoll Market for dinner once. Dinner can easily run past $120 a person so if that matters, it is something to beware of.   Conrad Maldives is also home to the Ithaa Undersea Restaurant. Unfortunately, all the daytime slots were reserved during our visit there and there was no point in making a reservation during the evening hours since you couldn’t see the marine wildlife.

Mandhoo

Mandhoo Restaurant

Conradlunch

Pastries, cookies, and tarts

ConradLunch2

The roast beef sandwich and the fruit tart were delicious.

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A wide variety of teas

LunchConrad

You can help yourself to as many sandwiches you want

Other Areas of Conrad Maldives

This property actually has a total of three islands. Two of them (Rangali and Rangalifinolhu) are used to for guests and a third is used only for employees. To get from one island to another, we just called the front desk and they sent a golf cart which got us from place to place. You can certainly walk the distance if you wanted to but it would take a solid 25-30 minutes. You will save a ton of time by using the gold cart below.

I didn’t measure the Wi-Fi speed in the villa but it was pretty fast and I had no issues with connectivity. They also have a fantastic business center within a lounge on the second floor in case you needed one. I only used it for a few minutes to print out some documents but it had everything you needed. If you’re a Mac person, they had those as well. Great job Conrad!

ConradBusiness

Lounge on the second floor

ConradBusiness2

Business center within the lounge

People have often asked what we did after sunset. We made it a point to go sleep by 8pm every day. Sunset was at 6:20pm so we woke up right at sunrise, around 6am, and made the most of our day. If you’re in a place like the Maldives, I’d strongly recommend waking up early and not sleeping in.  As far as activities, you can do excursions such as swimming with whale sharks or go scuba diving and jet skiing. If you’re used to paying a certain price for those activities, you will be paying double and triple that over here. Seeing the exorbitant costs, I just preferred to snorkel at the reef right off the island and swim in the waters right near my villa. If only they allowed to book excursions with miles. This Conrad also has two infinity pools, one on each island and all guests are allowed to use either. I took full advantage of that as well.

ConradBeach

The beach area at Rangali island. Both islands have beaches

InfinityPool2

Infinity Pool 2. The Dhoni ferry in the background is another way to get from one island to another.

MaldivesBridge

The seaplane platform which is also used to connect Rangali Island to Rangalifinolhu Island. It’s beautifully lit in the evening

ConradPatio

When I made this reservation, I informed them that my wife’s birthday would be on the second day of our stay there. They remembered and when we entered our room after breakfast during the second day, housekeeping left a nice little gesture.

BirthdayConrad

AyeshaBday

They also surprised her with a delicious cake during dinner

ConradVilla5

Night time was perfect for the jacuzzi

Final Thoughts

To sum it all up, fantastic resort, pristine beaches, excellent food, excellent service, super friendly and helpful staff, and an experience that I hope I’m able to be a part of again in the future. If you do decide to book at Conrad Rangali Island, having the AMEX Hilton Surpass card or the AMEX Platinum card and the Gold status that comes along with it will take you a long way. I estimated that I got over $700 in value just by having the card.

Departure

View of the Conrad Rangali Island from the seaplane

Some of you have asked if you could take a speedboat rather than the seaplane to Rangali Island. From my understanding, the only way to get there is by seaplane. It’s way overpriced for what amounts to a 30-minute plane ride and unfortunately, if you don’t have miles that can be redeemed for cash (Chase Ultimate Rewards or AMEX Membership points), there really is no way around it. Transmaldivian Airways has a monopoly on this route so it probably won’t change anytime soon.  If the seaplane cost is a turnoff, keep in mind there are plenty of excellent hotels that only require a seaboat transfer from Male. The cost for that isn’t cheap either but it’ll save you about $500 for two people.

 

How to Avoid Ticketing Fees on Last Minute Award Redemptions

For all you last-minute travelers/procrastinators, there are many frequent flier programs that penalize travelers if they book an award redemption close to the departure date. For example, if you book a ticket using miles on either American or United and your departure date is less than 21 days away, you will have to pay a $75 ticketing fee. Sometimes this fee will wipe out the value of a redemption and on the rare occasion, it will be more than the entire cost of the ticket were you to pay in cash. Delta doesn’t charge a ticketing fee but will charge additional 5k points per one way ticket (and even more for business class). Alaska Airlines does not charge a close-in ticketing fee and neither does JetBlue.  Southwest does not charge a ticketing fee but the number of miles required will increase significantly. If you have status with an airline, that might be enough to skirt around the close-in booking fees. There are a couple of ways to bypass the close-in fee and I’ll demonstrate how.

Using British Airways to Book on American Airlines

  • I talked about the benefits of using British Airways Avios to book on American Airlines here.
  • One valuable aspect of British Airways Avios is the ability to redeem it on American Airlines as close to a few hours prior to departure.
  • British Airways has a distance based chart so certain redemptions can be made using fewer miles.
  • If economy saver award tickets are available on AA.com, they will usually be accessible through British Airways.

Here is an example of the exact same flight from Albany, NY to Chicago (ORD) and the costs associated with the two different programs.

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ALB2ORDAA

If I were to book this one-way ticket using AA miles, the cost is $12,500 miles plus a $75 ticketing fee (the mandatory 9/11 security fee is $5.60 making it $80.60). Now let’s see the price using British Airways Avios…..

ALB2ORDBA

ALB2ORD2

No $75 ticketing fee and only 7.5k Avios as opposed to the 12.5k AA miles that would have been required. It is important to note that if you have a connecting flight, it will cost double the Avios for a trip since BA charges 7.5k per segment. I’d still rather dish out 15k Avios rather than 12.5k AA miles with the $75 ticketing fee tacked on.

Using Singapore Krisflyer Miles to Book on United

ALB2ORDUA.JPG

If I want to book a one-way flight to Chicago for this Friday using United miles, it’s 12.5k miles + $80.60

  • Similar to AA’s policy, United also charges a $75 ticketing fee for flights booked within 21 days of departure.
  • Singapore Airlines allows you to book via United up until 24 hours prior to departure if saver award redemptions are available on United.
  • Unlike the American Airlines example, this ticket cannot be booked online. You need to call Singapore Airlines reservations and they will book it for you. Just make sure you have a Singapore Krisflyer frequent flier account set up prior to calling.

Both British Airways and Singapore Airlines are transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Points, and Starwood Preferred Guest. Singapore Airlines is also a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou points. If you are booking on United Airlines via Singapore miles, DO NOT transfer any points into Singapore Airlines until you have confirmed seat availability for your travel dates on United. Transfers into an airline’s frequent flier program are not reversible.

Wide Open Award Availability to Maui on Delta Airlines via Flying Blue

Even though the cost of airfare has gotten much cheaper over the last decade to places such as Europe, destinations like Hawaii still have round-trip airfare that routinely exceeds 4 digits. Due to its location, Hawaii does not have service from an ultra low-cost airline such as Spirit or Frontier.  This, in theory, would bring down airfare from legacy carriers such as American, Delta, and United. Southwest has announced that they will start service to Hawaii later this year but the impact it will have on airfare remains to be seen. With that being said, there are still sweet spots within award travel that can get you to Hawaii for bargain redemptions. If you’re a holder of the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred, American Express Platinum or Gold, or the Citi Prestige credit card, you also have the ability to transfer those points into Air France and KLM’s frequent flier program called Flying Blue. If you search up award tickets on http://www.flyingblue.com, you will see plenty of award availability on their Sky Team partner, Delta Airlines, to Maui from coast to coast. A one-way ticket can be had for just 15k points or 30k round trip per person. Here are some examples of the award tickets I found for April and May:

 

New York City (JFK) to Maui

JFK2OGG

Plenty of dates available for 15k departing JFK to Maui with a layover in Los Angeles or Seattle

 

Maui to New York City (JFK)

OGG2JFK

Multiple days for the trip back can found for 15k points

 

Chicago (ORD) to Maui

ORD2OGG

 

Maui to Chicago (ORD)

OGG2ORD

 

Los Angeles (LAX) to Maui

LAX2OGG

Los Angeles has plenty of days for the 15k award redemption. Possibly the most of any city

 

Maui to Los Angeles (LAX)

OGG2LAX

If you have any the aforementioned credit cards and have accumulated enough points, this would be a great way to get to Hawaii. If you don’t have any of the above credit cards but you’re interested in one, make sure you apply only when you are certain you are going to be spending enough over a 3 month period to get the bonus points. For example, both Chase cards require $4k spending over 3 months to get the 50,000 point bonus while American Express varies depending on the time of the year. The bonus from these cards can put you right on the doorstep for a trip to Hawaii.

Getting the Dreaded SSSS On Your Boarding Pass

Traveling using frequent flier miles and points certainly has many advantages, such as making business class travel attainable for the casual traveler, and regardless of the ticket class you purchased, you’re saving money compared to booking with cash. However, there are instances where you might book using points from one airline in getting to your destination and use points for a different airline during your return. As far as I can remember, I haven’t ever used miles for the same airline going and coming back. For example, I’ve flown on United miles going to Europe while flying on American miles coming back multiple times. I was able to minimize the number of miles I needed to use by planning my itinerary this way. The only issue? Booking international tickets one way will often result in getting the dreaded SSSS on your boarding pass. SSSS stands for secondary selective screening selection. For me, the biggest giveaway that I’ll end up with SSSS on my boarding pass on the return trip is when I’m unable to check-in for my flight 24 hours before takeoff. The mobile app will tell me “please check in at the airport” or I’ll get an error message.  For a traveler that’s designated SSSS, the only way to get check-in is at the ticketing booth at the airport. When you receive your boarding pass at the airport, the capitalized SSSS will be highlighted by the ticketing agent. Once you are in line and the security and the customs officer scans your boarding pass, either a red light will flash or there will be beeping sound, alerting the agent of your SSSS designation.  It’s also important to note that there are other factors that may also be in play. Your name (there may be someone with the same name or similar that may be on the watch-list), the region you are traveling to and from, and your citizenship status could all play a role.

 

SSSS.jpg

My SSSS designation from Dubai to NYC last summer

Every country differs on their protocol for conducting the secondary screening. In Reykjavik, Iceland, I was taken a to a separate room and all the contents of my carry-on bag were removed. All electronics were swabbed and scanned and the procedure was completed in 10 minutes. The personnel were very friendly and explained what they were going to do in advance. In San Jose, Costa Rica, the security personnel gave me a pat down and searched my bag right at the gate. I actually hated this experience since almost everyone on my Southwest flight headed to Baltimore was already at the waiting area. I had 170 pair of eyeballs watching me as one agent thoroughly searched and swabbed my backpack and all its contents while the other gave me a thorough pat down.

There are also instances where you might get SSSS on your boarding pass when traveling domestic. This occurred in 2015 when my wife and I returned from Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul was deemed as a high risk travel area (it still might be), and anyone returning home from that area was getting SSSS on their boarding pass for the ensuing months. Upon returning, my wife and I had domestic flight from Chicago (ORD) to NYC (LGA), a flight we had taken countless times. This time, we both received the SSSS on our boarding pass, much to our surprise. The TSA officer asked if we had been anywhere recently. I told him we were in Istanbul the prior week and he explained everyone coming back from that region was being selected for secondary screening. He wasn’t wrong as even people with TSA Pre-check and Global Entry were being flagged from secondary screening. In this instance, we were both given thorough pat downs (more like a massage) and had every electronic device swabbed and scanned. Our laptops had to be taken out and powered on. Even The Points Guy had a similar experience upon returning from Turkey around that same time and you can read about that here.

If you do get an SSSS on your ticket, be cooperative and understand that the security personnel are just following protocol and doing their jobs. It will make the process easier, quicker, and you’ll be on your way a lot sooner. During my recent trip to Argentina, my wife and I did not get the SSSS (finally!). But if you can’t check-in 24 hours in advance, budget more time than you normally would when heading to the airport.

 

Travel Itinerary: 7 Days in Argentina

I’ll go over our itinerary to Argentina and Chile and the miles/points that we used on different segments. I’ll go over what we did well with regards to planning while touching upon the aspects that we could have done differently. Everyone’s purpose for a trip is different, but my wife and I had one main goal in mind: To make the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile our priority. We had 6 full days in Argentina so we had to make the most of it. So here it goes……

Getting There:

Non-stop flights to Buenos Aires, Argentina depart from NYC, Newark, Miami, Dallas, and Houston. We were traveling during the busy holiday season and we were definitely not going to use cash to book this ticket. Round trip airfare was at least $1,300 a person on American, United, and Latam Airlines. United Airlines was charging 70k miles one way from Newark or Houston for this trip. American Airlines was charging over 70k miles from JFK, Miami, and Dallas (DFW) We caught a huge break when we searched up the one way trip from Miami on British Airways. They were only charging 25k miles per person from Miami to Buenos Aires via American Airlines. Since they are One World partners with American, we were able to use British Airways Avios (BA’s mileage currency) to fly on American. Since neither my wife or I had ever visited Miami, we figured we’d use our JetBlue miles to fly from Albany to Ft. Lauderdale and escape the ensuing blizzard that was en route to Albany, NY. This allowed us to spend two days there and enjoy the city. The flight to Buenos Aires departed on the 24th from Miami during the evening.  A one-way ticket on the same flight would have cost us over $1,900 dollars per person!!! We got significant value on this redemption, possibly one of our best ever. British Airways is a transfer partner of Chase (If you hold the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred) and American Express (Platinum and Gold) so it’s one of the easier mileage currencies to accrue.

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The damage had we booked using cash. Insane.

Day 1: Buenos Aires

Our flight landed at 6:45 am and this was really going to be our only full day in Buenos Aires. I tried to sleep as much as I could have, but anyone who travels economy class knows, you can’t really sleep well when you’re sitting for that long. My wife and I were both tired and our hotel, Dazzler Polo (part of the Wyndham portfolio of hotels) was all the way on the other side of town. We just hoped that even if the hotel didn’t let us check in early, they would at least hold our bags until the 2 pm check-in time. Once we got our luggage we hailed an Uber (more on this later) and took the nearly 1 hour ride to the other side of town. By the time we got to the hotel, it was 9 am. I walked to the front desk and told the lady we just arrived from Miami and kindly asked her if there was any possible way she would let us check in early. She quickly checked her computer and said there was a room available and that she would give it to us. This was a HUGE deal.  It allowed us to take a much-needed 2-3 hour nap and still have the entire day ahead of us to explore the city. Since it was summer in South America, sunset was not until 8:10 pm.  So a huge shout out to the lady at Dazzler Polo for really helping us salvage that day. The hotel itself was awesome and I booked it using a hotels.com gift card that I redeemed using Ibotta (you can read about that app here).

Dazzler3

Front Entrance to the Dazzler Polo Hotel

DazzlerPolo

Hotel Room

The free breakfast was far better than what you would get at American hotels.

This hotel was located in the northwest part of Buenos Aires in the neighborhood of Palermo. To visit some of the main sites near the city center, we got on their subway and got off at the last stop (Catedral). Their subway system is really easy to use and if you do need help, the employees will gladly assist you.

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Once we got off the subway at the Catedral station, everything we wanted to see was a short walk away. Plaza de Mayo is a beautiful central plaza that has a pink building called Casa Rosada, the statue of San Martin, and the Catedral Metropolitana. Many picture opportunities will present themselves here. If you walk a bit further into the hip and trendy Puerto Madera neighborhood, you’ll find the Puente De La Mujer or Women’s Bridge. This neighborhood also has many restaurants and brunch spots and is very lively at night. We happened to be there during Christmas so most of the places were closed.

The best way to explore any city is by walking. Could you get around between some of these sites with a taxi or Uber? Sure you can. And speaking of Uber, I preferred using it for longer distances in Buenos Aires. The regular taxi was also an option but with Uber, you’re locked into a fare and you know approximately how much you’re going to be paying before you step into the car. With a taxi, there’s always that chance that we might be taken advantage of as foreigners. The app worked seamlessly and a one hour ride from one side of the town to the other cost about $25 American dollars. The taxi company quoted me double that price. But most of the time we walked, and walked, and walked and saw much of the sites we wanted to see.  We loved Buenos Aires and now it was time to get back to the hotel and prepare for the flight to El Calafate the following day.

Day 2: Buenos Aires to El Calafate

I booked this flight using Chase Ultimate Rewards points on Aerolineas Argentinas. El Calafate is the gateway city to the Patagonia region of Argentina. Had I used cash, the flight would have cost $450 round trip per person. Again, I was set on not paying cash for any airfare. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card holder, I was able to get 1.5 cents per point booking flights. This cost us 30k points per person for this roundtrip from Buenos Aires to El Calafate. This trip was taken from Buenos Aires’ other airport, Jorge Newbery International Airport which is located on the north end of Buenos Aires, about 1.5 miles from the Dazzler Polo. It’s much smaller than their main airport and I chose it because of the cheaper fares to El Calafate. The total flight time was about 2 hours 45 minutes. Once we got there, we booked a round trip transfer with a company called VES. It’s a smaller bus that took us to our hotel and also dropped us off at the airport when we’re flying out of El Calafate. The total for two people was 480 pesos or about $26 USD.  This was far more cost effective than taking a taxi and Uber did not offer service here. Here’s a tip: Request a window seat and sit on the right side of the plane (Any seat that is F). This side will give you some spectacular photo opportunities as you’re landing into El Calafate. You can see an example below.

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For the duration of our stay at El Calafate, I booked a hotel named Picos Del Sur. For $56 a night, this hotel offered free breakfast, free WiFi, and was located just a quarter mile away from the city center where all the shops, restaurants, and cafe’s are located. The staff was awesome and super friendly and the premises weren’t bad either. The breakfast was okay as most of their offerings were high carb items such as sweet croissants, muffins, toast, cereal, etc. Most of this hotel stay was paid via hotels.com gift card via Ibotta (man I love that app).

Day 3:  El Calafate

For any of you that might travel to Patagonia in the future, let me give you some advice: Throw the weather forecast out the window. This is one of those places where you can try to plan around the weather and it means absolutely nothing. We saw days where torrential downpours were forecasted only to see clear skies (much to our delight). The weather here changes hourly because the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are literally just a couple hours drive away.  On this day, we decided to stay in El Calafate and spend the day exploring the town and nearby places. One gem we encountered was the Laguna Nimez Reserve. This place is a sanctuary for flamingos, owls, birds of prey, and other unusual birds I had never seen anywhere else. The entrance fee was 150 Argentinean pesos or roughly $8 USD. The entire circle around the sanctuary takes about 90 minutes to walk and it offers some amazing views of Lago Argentino as well as the mountains in the background. If you’re in El Calafate, I highly recommend it. For the second half of the day, we spent walking around the city center and checking out the town vibes. El Calafate has many nice boutique shops that worth checking out.

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Day 4: Perito Moreno Glacier

On this day, we booked a tour to Perito Moreno Glacier with Hielo & Aventura. You can visit their website and see everything they have to offer right here. They picked us up from the hotel at 7:30am and off we went on the 90 minute journey to Parque Nacional Las Glaciares.  The first stop was a scenic overlook for about 10 minutes. This spot provided a glimpse of the awe-inspiring scenery yet to come. The second stop took us to the multiple viewing decks that are right in front of the glacier. We saw a few smaller chunks of glacier calve off into the lake and even that was incredible. The third thing on the agenda was the boat ride to the southern face of the glacier so we could actually hike on it. If you’re coming to Patagonia, I highly highly highly recommend doing this activity. For you Game of Thrones fans, it literally felt like we were north of the wall. The scenery is incredible and unlike anything I have ever witnessed. The ice has a nice shade of blue and even the water in certain crevasses seems like it has a deep blue color to it. This activity costs about $180 per person and that includes pickup and drop off from your hotel. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card holder, I was able to apply my $300 annual travel credit for 2018 for this excursion, effectively bringing our cost down to about $60 combined for two people.  That’s a hell of a way to use the travel credit. Something to keep in mind: There is an entrance fee to Perito Moreno that is separate from the tour cost. It’s 500 Argentinean Pesos (equivalent to about $27 USD). The park ranger will collect that fee at the entrance of the park and from what I remember, they don’t accept any other currency.  Be sure to exchange your currency before you get there. My wife and I booked the 90 minute hike for this trip rather than the 6-8 hour hike. Looking back at it, this is one the things we wish we did differently. It wasn’t  as challenging as we initially thought and if you’re physically fit and have done longer hikes before, the longer hike might be of interest to you. Just be sure to dress in layers for either one you may choose. Even though they give you snow clamps, it’s still important you have a decent pair of hiking shoes for this trek. Merrell, Keen, Columbia, etc would all suffice. They also require you to have gloves so you don’t cut yourself on the jagged ice if you fall. Sunglasses are a great idea if you’re there on a sunny day since the glare off the glacier can be blinding at times.

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The boat ride to get to the glacier is also incredible and you can view it for yourself. It does get windy and there will probably be rain at some point so it’s best to wear waterproof clothing and a raincoat.

Day 5: El Chalten

On day 5, we did a day trip to El Chalten, a town that’s about 3 hours north of El Calafate. El Chalten is known for its hiking, scenery, and Mt. Fitz Roy. Unfortunately for us, Fitz Roy was hidden by clouds for the entire day we were there. But we still didn’t pass up the opportunity to hike a few trails. Some of the trails are moderately challenging and will require a lot of steep climbing. You will get wet, muddy, messy, and if you’re not physically fit, it might be painful. But on a clear day, the reward at the end is majestic views of Fitz Roy that is postcard-worthy. The best thing about El Chalten? It’s one of the few places where you get access to the trails without paying an entrance fee. If you’re into camping, it’s a very popular spot to set up camp.

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A viewpoint from one of the trails at El Chalten

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The viewpoint at the end of the Mirador trail

Day 6: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile

A trip to Patagonia is not complete without a visit to Torres Del Paine National Park on the Chilean side. This was an entire day’s journey and the trip cost about $250 per person (including pickup and drop off from the hotel). Luckily for us, my wife is also a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card holder and we were able to apply her $300 travel credit for 2018 into this excursion. This brought the excursion down to a very reasonable $200 or $100 per person. The tour bus picked us up at 7am and off we were. The drive from El Calafate to the Chilean border was about 2 hours. Once there, you have to get off the bus twice, once before you cross into Chile to be checked by Argentinean authorities and then again when you’re in Chile. Once there, you get your passport stamped by Chilean border patrol and declare anything that is required to be declared (don’t be that person). Our tour group had about 30 people and the entire process to cross into Chile took about 45 minutes. Once we were cleared, the journey to Torres Del Paine took about 90 minutes. We were super fortunate to have a mostly clear day when we got there. If you have a clear day, you’ll be able to see the famous towers. We stopped at the first four viewpoints for pictures before stopping at another point for lunch. They provide lunch but unfortunately, they don’t provide a vegetarian option. This was my one issue with this tour operator and I conveyed to them that it’s not acceptable given the exorbitant cost of the tour itself.  Luckily we bought plenty of granola bars and gatorade and that was sufficient. After lunch, we stopped at a few more viewpoints for some spectacular photo opportunities.  Anywhere you stop in the park, there will be an opportunity for an amazing picture. The last stop was a 90 minute hike (very easy) that gave us panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. We also saw guanacos, a species that is related to the camel and llama.  I took a video of the hike which you can view below.

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The towers of Torres Del Paine were visible on this day

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Day 7: Flight Back to Buenos Aires and Flight Back to New York City. 

This was the conclusion of our trip. Our flight back to Buenos Aires departed at 11:35 am and arrived at around 2:10 pm.  To get back to Buenos Aires, we flew Aerolinas Argentinas as we did when we arrived.  For the flight to New York City, we redeemed American Airlines miles for seats on American (not British Airways Avios as we did on the way here). The redemption was 57.5k miles per person and although it wasn’t a great redemption value, it was better than United, Delta, and other options we had.  We grabbed steak at a place called Al Rawshe which was not too far from their smaller airport where we had landed. Argentina’s number one export is beef and steak is something they do really well. And trust me, the steak at Al Rawshe was phenomenal. We then took an Uber to their larger airport and were headed back home. Another tip when you’re flying out of El Calafate: Sit on the right side of the plane just as you would when you fly into El Calafate. You get incredible views of the turquoise blue Lago Argentina on upon takeoff and ascent. You can view the video below.

Lounge Reviews: Centurion Lounges at Miami International Airport and Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport

Over the last 10 days, I was fortunate to transit through two airports that feature a Centurion Lounge. You can read about the Centurion Lounge at Miami International Airport right here and the Centurion Lounge at Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport right here.

Lounge Review: Centurion Lounge Buenos Aires Ezeiza Aiport

Over the last few months, I’ve been quite fortunate to transit through airports that feature an AMEX Centurion Lounge. Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina happened to be another one of those airports. Centurion Lounge access is complimentary for those holding an American Express Platinum card. You can read about the benefits of the AMEX Platinum card right here. Cardholders are also allowed to bring in two guests so my wife also benefited.

This lounge is located in Terminal C past immigration/customs and security. Take the elevator or stairs up to the second floor right past gate 15 and you will find the lounge entrance. entranceBA

Upon entering the lounge, the staff at the front desk will ask for your AMEX Platinum card and boarding pass. Once they have that verified, you’re good to go.

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The food options were sweet croissants, wheat and white bread, cheese, pastrami sandwiches, and banana nut muffins with powdered sugar. Not quite the selection I’ve seen at other Centurion Lounges but certainly better than many non-Centurion Lounges I’ve visited. Fresh orange juice and apple juice were also available.

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The beverage cooler was fully stocked with soft drinks and adult beverages.

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Common area

This lounge had plenty of seating and did not suffer from being overcrowded when I was there. Perhaps traveling on a Sunday which also happened to be New Year’s Eve had a lot to do with that.

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Dining area of the lounge

One thing I noticed and appreciated about this lounge was the attentiveness of the staff. They would check on tables every 2-3 minutes to make sure any dishes and soda bottles and cans were removed.

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Plenty of empty seats in the common area. Big time plus

I loved these seating areas that had pseudo curtains. Nice touch

 

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The lounge was equipped with Apple iMac’s. It might be the first lounge I’ve seen featuring Apple. Being a long time Apple guy, I appreciated this.

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They had a room for the kids as well. Centurion Lounge is doing a hell of a job making their lounges kid friendly. I didn’t want to take pics in there while kids were there (that would be creepy) so I waited until it emptied out.  During my 2 hours there, it was certainly being utilized for most of that time.

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Great job by AMEX for remembering the population that may become future AMEX Platinum cardholders.

 

 

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The internet speed was very solid. Fast enough for business travelers and certainly fast enough for casual browsing.  Great job AMEX.

Overall, I’d give this lounge a 4.5/5. It could use a slightly enhanced food selection but it scored well on everything else. Plenty of seats, spacious,  Apple iMac’s, playroom for children, and solid WiFi speeds. The staff was very friendly and really worked hard at keeping the lounge free of clutter. If you’re an AMEX Platinum card holder and you’re flying out of Buenos Aires (EZE), be sure to give this lounge a visit.

Lounge Review: Centurion Lounge Miami International Airport

Prior to my flight to Buenos Aires Argentina, I had some free time at Miami International Airport. I heard many great things about the Centurion Lounge at MIA so as an AMEX Platinum card holder, I figured I might as well give it a visit.

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This lounge can be found on the fourth floor of the north terminal near gate D12.  If you have been to the Centurion Lounge in Dallas, this one offers some of the same services and amenities. It’s roomy and there is plenty of space available. First thing I did (like I do at every lounge), I surveyed the food offerings.  Since there were many people in front of me and behind me, I didn’t want to act like a first timer and take pics (I’m really sorry). But the offerings were lamb, Indian style chickpeas or chole, salad, brown rice, and apple crumble for the dessert. I sampled everything but the lamb and found everything to be delicious. Again, I wish I took pictures and perhaps next time I won’t care whether people are around me. The espresso machine had various offerings such as latte, cappuccino, espresso, etc.

 

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If you are more of a tea person, they had you covered as well

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As I mentioned above, there is plenty of seating available. Many of them give you access to USB and plug outlets. The cushioned seats are very comfortable if you need to stay there for a few hours.

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If you want to sit near a window and airplane watch, plenty of room for that as well.

 

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Shower availability is really convenient for those who have arrived from a far away destination and want to freshen up before a connection onward.

 

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You can even get a manicure and pedicure done in the lounge

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I love the family room aspect of the lounge. Keeps the kids busy while the adults can adult.  I wish more lounges would do this.

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This was my one major issue with this lounge. The internet speed is unacceptable for a brand that touts itself as business friendly. Those are some dial-up caliber speeds that I encountered and in my two hours spent at the lounge, the speed only got worse.

 

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Overall, I’d rate this lounge a 4/5. It has just about all the comfort, food offerings, and amenities you would need in a lounge. It gets knocked down a point due to poor WiFi connectivity. If that issue is addressed, this lounge would be a perfect 5. Fix it American Express!