Trip Review: Grand Cayman Island

During the second week of July, my wife, 9-month-old son, and I took a trip to Grand Cayman Island. Rather than do a separate hotel review, I’m going to combine everything into one post since there are a few relevant details which many of you may benefit from. We chose Grand Cayman Island for a few reasons. First of all, it’s about a 3.5-hour flight from Chicago and that’s approximately the maximum time for my son to be confined to an airline cabin before he really starts getting restless. When he was 5 months old and we took him on an 8-hour flight to Hawaii and he was perfectly fine. Once he hit the 7-month mark, even a 2-hour flight wasn’t easy. So with those considerations in mind, Europe, Asia, and Hawaii were out of the question. The second reason we chose Grand Cayman is that their beaches have been spared from the seaweed problem (sargassum) that has plagued destinations such as Cancun, Dominican Republic, Barbados, and even Florida. Most of these destinations are doing their best to remove it every morning but despite their efforts, it’s still noticeable. The third reason we chose Grand Cayman is that it is infant/toddler/kid-friendly.

Booking

For this trip, I was able to find saver level award tickets (tickets which require the least number of miles for a given route) on American Airlines for 30k miles per person round trip. Since my son is a lap infant, his ticket was free. The cash price for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Grand Cayman was $455 per person. Redeeming 60k miles for $910 worth of airfare was a decent redemption.

Owen Roberts International Airport does not have jet bridges so you have to walk down the stairs and onto the tarmac before getting into the airport terminal. The minute you land, you’re greeted by a musical band playing local music. It’s a perfect way to get the vacation vibes going.

   Sunshine Suites Resort

We stayed in a boutique hotel called Sunshine Suites Resort. It’s a 3.5-star hotel that is clean, comfortable, and very reasonably priced (usually between $140-$180/night). I saw its 4.5-star rating on Trip Advisor with over 2,000 reviews and that was good enough for me. Now, if you need luxury accommodations with an ocean view, this hotel is not for you. The main reason why I booked this hotel is we got to use all the amenities of the 5 star Westin Hotel which is a 5-minute walk down the street. Their pool, beach, beach towels, lounge chairs, gym, and access to its restaurants and bars are all included as part of the mandatory $35/day resort fee. The nightly price of the Westin was 3x the price of the Sunshine Suites. Since we were going to be out at the beach for a majority of the day anyway, all we needed was a comfortable place to sleep, shower, and get dressed and Sunshine Suites provided all that and more including complimentary breakfast. You can click on the video below to get an idea of the rooms and the property. FYI, if you don’t want to make the walk to the Westin, you can go to the front desk at Sunshine Suites and request a driver to drop you off in their golf cart. It works the same way if you want to come back from the Westin. Just let the front desk at the Westin know in that case.

 

SunshineSuitesNight

Sunshine Suites at night

SunshinePool

The pool at Sunshine Suites at night

The breakfast offerings were decent. A nice variety of pastries, pancakes, cereal, parfait, boiled eggs, toast, oatmeal, bananas, muffins, coffee, tea, orange juice, and apple juice. Sunshine Suites also had a restaurant on premises called Sunshine Grill which served lunch and dinner. This is not complimentary and does not come as part of an “all-inclusive” package. The fish tacos they served were delicious. If I can go back and have one meal in Grand Cayman, the fish tacos would be it.

Tacos

 

The Westin Hotel

Since we had access to all the amenities of the Westin, we would have breakfast and make our way there for the majority of the day.

SStoWestin

WestinEntrance

If you don’t want to walk here from Sunshine Suites, go to the front desk of Sunshine Suites and request to be dropped off via golf cart. This was a very convenient way to move around with our son.

WestinGCpool

The pool and swim-up bar at the Westin

WestinLobby

The Westin Lobby

WestinBack

View of The Westin from the beach area

WestinPools

The pool has a pedestrian bridge that crosses over to the beach. You can swim underneath to get to either side.

ZaynMePool

First pool experience for Zayn 

Seven Mile Beach

Once you cross over the pool to the beach area, you will be greeted by Westin employees who will direct you to lounge chairs and open up the umbrellas if you choose to have them open. Towels are available to the right of the pool and they must be checked out with your last name and room number of the property you’re staying at. Seven Mile Beach is simply amazing. Among all the beaches I have visited in my life,  I would rank it right behind the Maldives for water clarity.  There is no seaweed, no litter, it’s perfectly maintained, and waves are calm for water activities.

 

Sevenmilebeach (2)

The lounge chairs get occupied pretty quickly. The earlier you claim one in the morning the better.

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7milebeach

ZaynBeach3

The water clarity makes it perfect for snorkeling at Seven Mile Beach so be sure to bring an underwater camera and snorkeling gear. You can also rent the gear from the hotel. Seven Mile Beach faces west and if the horizon is clear, you will be treated to some spectacular sunsets.  Even if the horizon isn’t 100% clear, the sun reflecting off the clouds will make a for a beautiful and colorful sky. SunsetGrandCayman

CaymanSunset

A point of interest which might be worth visiting if you’re reading this is Stingray City. It wasn’t age-appropriate for a 9-month-old but if you have kids a bit older or you yourself want to experience swimming with stingrays, it’s only a 10-minute drive away.  Keep in mind that when driving in the Cayman Islands, you drive on the left side of the road as it is a British territory.

Some of you have asked if the food, water, and snacks are expensive and for the most part, they certainly are expensive. If you purchase from the hotel or even convenience stores right next to the hotel, it will cost you 3 to 4 times would you are used to paying for bottled water. I asked a local where I can just buy a case of water and he directed me to a large wholesale club called ‘Cost U Less’ which was just a 7-minute walk away. If you’re familiar with BJ’s Wholesale Club on the East Coast, this was basically their sister store. It even had the Wellsley Farms brand which is the store label for BJ’s. You don’t need a membership and while the prices aren’t U.S. wholesale club cheap, it’s far cheaper than any other place you will find on the island. If you’re staying at an Airbnb and decide to cook rather than eat out, this is a perfect place to shop for your ingredients since they also carry fresh produce, seafood, and meat.

CostUless

 

Concluding Thoughts

We had a great time at Grand Cayman Island and the service and hospitality at both the Sunshine Suites and Westin were top notch. I’ve never seen two hotels so well coordinated when it came to transporting passengers between the two properties and accommodating each other’s guests at their respective restaurants. If there is one other important tip you take from this, BRING MOSQUITO REPELLANT and bathe yourself in it. They are relentless and if there any parts of your body that doesn’t have the repellant touching it, they will find it, guaranteed.  As always, thanks for reading.

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Rum Point, Grand Cayman Island as seen from the ascent on American Airlines.

 

 

 

 

Chase Adds JetBlue as a Transfer Partner, Loses Korean Airlines

Chase added JetBlue as an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner today, a few days after losing Korean Airlines. JetBlue is one of my favorite U.S. airlines and one of the few that isn’t packing their planes with seats at the expense of leg-room. They provide free in-flight Wi-Fi, free cable TV, and serve gourmet snacks on the flight. I have not flown on their transcontinental premium cabin called Mint just yet.  It is a product which many travel enthusiasts have rated as the best business class service for domestic flights in the U.S. JetBlue routinely has flash sales and when the cash price of a ticket is cheap, so is the redemption using their frequent flier miles for that particular flight. If you’re based in the Boston, NYC, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles areas where JetBlue has a vast network, you will benefit from this partnership the most. You can transfer UR points into JetBlue if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Sapphire Preferred. If you have the AMEX Platinum or Gold, you can also transfer AMEX Membership points. Most of the time, the transfer rate is 1000 AMEX points for 800 JetBlue TrueBlue miles (right now its 1:1 as a promotion) so I would advise against using the AMEX option at the non-promotional rate. Chase has it as 1:1 but also remember to use the Chase Portal and see if you can get a better redemption if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You get 1.5 points per mile by booking through their portal and it’s certainly possible that the UR travel portal may be the better redemption option versus transferring to JetBlue.

TrueBlueChaseUR

Unfortunately, this comes a few days after the news that Chase has dropped Korean Airlines as one of their transfer partners. For international and long-haul travel, this was a very valuable SkyTeam transfer partner as you were able to get great travel redemption’s on SkyTeam alliance partners such as Delta, KLM, Air France, Alitalia, Aerolineas Argentinas, and non-alliance partners such as Emirates. From the continental U.S., it was possible to fly from the East Coast to Hawaii for 25k miles round-trip, a bargain when you consider the cash price frequently tops $1k. Here is to hoping that Chase adds another transfer partner that has a vast international network such as Korean Airlines.

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.

 

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.

United and Delta Devalue Their Miles

DeltaUnited

Airline devaluations are one of the guarantees in life.  Some airlines will devalue their mileage currency annually and some will do it every three to four years. This hurts the consumer since it often takes more miles or a larger fee has to be paid in the form of a “surcharge” for an award redemption. Delta is known to devalue their Sky Miles frequently and without warning. Some in the frequent flier world refer to their miles as “Sky Pesos.” United doesn’t devalue as often but this particular devaluation will hurt travelers regardless of cabin class.

 

                               United

Prior to November 1st, the most you would ever use for a domestic one way ticket in economy was 25k miles . Now if you want that one way ticket during the holiday season or any other holiday, there are some days where you won’t have an option that’s cheaper than 32.5k miles. Here is an example for a one way ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles:

UnitedDevaluation

Business class transcontinental award tickets will also jump up to 35k miles for saver economy and 60k miles for everyday or peak times. The same holds true for an international award ticket.  Business class tickets originating in the U.S. will see a 5k to 10k increase in miles on just about every route.

 

                                    Delta

Delta on the other hand is starting to devalue their Sky Miles by rolling out fuel surcharges on flights to Europe. You won’t see it on every route just yet but here is an example of a one way flight from Paris to Seattle:

DeltaDevaluation

As you can see, the surcharge for this one way flight is a ridiculous 215 euros. That’s in addition to the 50k miles at minimum that are needed for this redemption. Whether Delta rolls out this surcharge for all flights into and out of Europe or only those are departing or landing on the West Coast remains to be seen.

Regardless of which airline program you participate in, frequent flier miles always depreciate over time. Sometimes, the devaluation occurs without warning. Use them quickly because you just might need a whole lot more if you wait.

 

 

Image source: http://www.trendler.com

 

Lounge Review: United Club O’Hare Terminal 2

IMG-8546

 

On my way back to Albany, NY, I had about an hour and change of free time at O’Hare International Airport. As a United Explorer credit card holder, United gives me two complimentary passes to the United Club lounge every year during my cardmember anniversary. Without the passes, I’d have to pay $50 out of pocket for a day pass. In essence, the two United Club passes make up for the $95 annual fee even if I never used any other benefit from the card. So I figured I’d give it a shot.

 

IMG-8529

The United Club lounge in Terminal 2 is located in the F concourse. Once you enter the lounge, the staff at the front desk will take your pass, verify your boarding pass, and direct you to the escalators that lead to the concierge. There are many factors that I’ll look at when evaluating any airline lounge. The most heavily weighted factor in determining how I’ll rate a lounge is food. If the food is good, it can make up for shortcomings in many other areas. It happened to be breakfast time so off I went to check out the offerings……

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As you can see from the pictures, cantaloupes, honeydew melon, grapes, yogurt, and oatmeal.

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Bagels, white bread, and whole wheat bread with cream cheese, butter, and strawberry jam or grape jelly.  The fresh fruit was pretty good. The bagels? dry with the texture of sandpaper. They also had an espresso machine (not pictured) which gave you a few different choices of latte’s, cappuccino, hot chocolate, and mocha. I had the latte and it was pretty decent. There was also orange juice and watermelon infused water. In terms of the food selection, it was nothing special and certainly nothing that was memorable. So let’s move on to other areas of the lounge…..

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The common areas were very spacious and the decor was pretty nice. The lounge was clean, perfectly lit, and didn’t suffer from overcrowding that routinely plagues the United Club lounge in terminal 1.

 

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There is an abundance of power outlets and it seems that just about every seat has access to one. This is certainly not the case at the United Club lounges in Terminal 1 so good for United in addressing that here.

 

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The bar area was quiet at 8am as expected.  Very spacious, clean, and an appealing ambiance.

 

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This lounge also had free wifi with very good speeds. Perfect place to get work done if you have a layover or you’re there a bit early and have time to kill.

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I really want to like this lounge more than I do. It was comfortable, clean, spacious, great ambiance, not overcrowded, great wifi speeds, and had a very friendly staff. But the food was mediocre at best. And even that’s putting it kindly. I can’t justify or recommend paying $50 for a 1-day pass if the best thing they have going for them is great coffee and wifi. The only way I’d ever return is on a complimentary pass or if I booked an award ticket on business class and complimentary access came with it. On a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best, I’d rate it a 3.2. If the food is ever on par with AMEX Centurion lounges, it would easily be a 4.5 or higher.

It is important to note that these passes do not work at United’s Polaris Lounge in Terminal 1 or any of the Polaris lounges that are due to open at Newark, San Francisco, Houston, D.C., Los Angeles (LAX), Hong Kong, Tokyo (Narita), and London (Heathrow) over the next year. For those lounges, you need to have a business class or first class ticket on a long-haul international flight. I’ve heard a lot of great things about that product and if I’m ever fortunate to experience it, I’ll share my review here.

Credit Card Review: American Express Platinum

AMEXPlatinum

The AMEX Platinum currently has a 60k membership points bonus if you spend $5k within the first 3 months of opening the account. This card also has a steep annual fee of $550 (not waived the first year) so it’s not for everyone. The 60k points could easily net you $1,200 worth of travel and cover your annual fee for 2 years if you didn’t derive any other benefit the card offers. AMEX membership points can be transferred to a multitude of airlines and hotels.  I received an upgrade offer from AMEX a few months back that offered 60k points and I jumped on it. I still rate the Chase Sapphire Reserve as the best among the premium credit cards. However, the  AMEX Platinum might actually be of greater value for some of you. Here are some of the benefits you can get with the AMEX Platinum:

1) 60k bonus points after spending $5k over the first 3 months

AmexmembershipRewards

AMEX Membership Rewards points have a lot of value because of the multitude of airlines and hotels they have as transfer partners. Among the airline partners: Delta, Etihad, Emirates, Singapore, British Airways, Iberia, Air France/KLM (via Flying Blue), etc. Hotel transfer partners include Starwood, Hilton, and Choice hotels.

 

2) Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre-check

global entry      tsaprecheck

AMEX will reimburse you the $100 fee for Global Entry or $85 for TSA pre-check. If you are in a major metro area, Global Entry is the way to go since it automatically gives you TSA pre-check. I’ve had TSA pre-check for about a year now and saves you from the inconvenience of taking off your shoes, removing your laptop/electronics from your carry, and going through X-ray machines.  Plain and simple, it saves a lot of time. Both of them are good for 5 years.

 

3.  $200 in annual airline fee credits

For this benefit, you have to select a particular airline and you would get reimbursed for incidental fees such as checked bag fees, in-flight internet, and in-flight food purchases. It’s not nearly as valuable as Chase Sapphire Reserve’s $300 travel credit, which covers everything from airfare, hotels, tolls, parking fees, etc. However, there is a way to get around this if you desire credit towards airfare instead. If you use this card to purchase $200 worth of American Airlines gift cards from AA.com, AMEX will treat it as an incidental purchase and credit you back the $200. Here is a screen shot below:

AMEXAA

It only took two days for them to reimburse me and I was able to put the gift cards to use a month later. I don’t think this trick works for any other airline. This was far more beneficial in my opinion since I don’t end up checking-in $200 worth of bags in any given year.

 

4. $200 Uber credit annually

uber.jpg

This is a really nice perk that can really help offset the annual fee for those who find themselves using Uber on a regular basis. AMEX gives you $15 Uber credit for each month and in December, they give you an extra $20. Just link the AMEX card with your Uber account and use that as the method of payment.

 

5. Complimentary Boingo Hotspot

boingo

We still live in a world where many airports still don’t offer complimentary wifi access for more than a half hour.  If you don’t find yourself transiting through one of these airports often, this perk may not be a huge deal. However, if you’re frequently traveling or connecting through airports such as Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway, NYC’s LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark, or LAX in Los Angeles, this might be of great value. These airports offer complimentary low speed wifi for 30-45 minutes. By the time your website is done loading, you have half the time left. This perk allows you to have complimentary access to Boingo’s higher speed internet, which would usually costs $7.95 per use.

 

6. Complimentary Access to AMEX Centurion Lounge

CenturionDFW1

If you are a traveler that routinely transits through New York’s LaGuardia, Seattle-Tacoma, Miami, Dallas (DFW), Houston (Bush Intercontinental), San Francisco, Las Vegas, or Philadelphia, having Centurion lounge access is an awesome perk to have. You get complimentary drinks, snacks, meals, massages (DFW), really high speed wifi, and a place where you can unwind between flights or just get some work done. You can also bring two guests free of charge. To get an idea of what the Centurion Lounge is like, you can read my review of the lounges at LaGuardia and Dallas-Fort Worth right here and here.

 

7. Complimentary Access to Priority Pass Lounges

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Here is another valuable perk to have if you find yourself at airports that have lounges that are part of Priority Pass.  Priority Pass has over 1,000 lounges at airports all over the world. There are even restaurants such as Timberline’s Steak and Grille (Denver International Airport) that are a part of Priority Pass. At Timberline’s, each guest gets $28 worth of credit towards food. So you and two guests can actually get $84 off an entire check.

 

8. Complimentary Access to Delta Sky Club (When Flying on Delta)

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If you fly on Delta frequently,  add this to the list of perks that comes with the Platinum Card. You would have access to Delta Sky Club lounges from coast to coast. Just show them your boarding pass and AMEX Platinum card and you’re in.

 

        9. Gold Status for Hilton and Starwood Hotels

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If you play your hand right, this benefit can cover the entire cost of an annual fee and then some. Having Hilton Gold status makes you eligible for free upgrades at any Hilton Hotel. You also get complimentary breakfast and high speed WiFi.  A couple of months back, my wife and I took a trip to Maldives and stayed at the Conrad in Rangali Island. Hilton gave us a complimentary upgrade from a water villa to a retreat water villa during our 4 nights there. The value of our upgrade was over $500. This doesn’t even include the complimentary breakfast, lunch, and mocktails we enjoyed as Hilton Gold members.  Add that to the value of the upgrade and we derived well over $700 worth of value simply by having Hilton Gold status.  I haven’t put the status to use at any Starwood hotels just yet, but I’ll keep you posted if I do.

 

10. Earn 5X Membership Rewards Points on Flights Booked Directly with Airlines or via AMEX Travel

This is the highest earning credit card for booking flights. You also earn 5X the points for booking a hotel through AMEX Travel. For the flights, you can’t book it via Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, or any other third party site. For the hotels, it has to be booked via AMEX travel.  I’m really hoping in the future they just give you the 5X for all travel related purchases. Chase Sapphire Reserve gives you 3X Ultimate Reward points on anything travel related. It doesn’t matter if you booked on Expedia or directly from the hotel/airline.

 

 

 

If you are going to apply for the the card, do it during a time when you know you’ll be spending $5k over 3 months. Due to its exorbitant annual fee, this card isn’t a long term keeper for a leisure traveler who only travels once or twice a year or an individual who doesn’t travel for work. If you find yourself in a scenario where you can derive the benefits and perks routinely, this card can be extremely rewarding.

 

U.S. to Barcelona for Under $350 Round Trip Between November and March.

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For those of you who are interested in traveling to Barcelona between November and March, Norwegian Airlines has plenty of dates for airfare as low as $313 round trip from Boston and $344 round trip from Newark. Norwegian does charge to check in luggage and they do not serve complimentary meals on international flights so that is something to keep in mind. But even with the added cost, it is still a great deal to one my favorite cities in Europe and one that routinely lands on TripAdvisor’s top 25 cities in the world. Norwegian has a relatively young fleet and utilizes the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on these routes. I flew on this plane on the Norwegian metal two years ago and had a pretty comfortable experience in economy.   If you conduct a search on Google flights, you will get a calendar that shows you the low fares on various dates. Below is a sample itinerary from Newark (EWR) from January 21st to January 29th.

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Unlocking Value with Chase Ultimate Rewards: Part II

Chase Ultimate Rewards

In an earlier post (you can read it here ), I went over the benefits of having the Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) or the higher end Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) when paired with the Chase Freedom and/or Chase Freedom Unlimited. You are getting the same rewards currency (Ultimate Rewards Points) and you can combine the points into a single pot. When you combine them into the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve account, you now have the ability to transfer to airline and hotel partners. You can also use the points to book straight from Chase. In this post, I’ll demonstrate when you’re better off using the points to book straight from Chase and when you are better off using a transfer partner.

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A list of all the transfer partners for Chase Ultimate Rewards

For this example, we’ll do a round trip from Chicago (ORD) to Honolulu (HNL) from October 2nd-October 9th.  United is the only airline that flies this route non-stop from Chicago. If you’re sitting on 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points and assuming you have the CSR or CSP, these are your options:

  1. Book the trip with cash and avoid points altogether. This will cost you $913.40 per person

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 2. Book the trip straight from Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal.

If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, this will cost 60,893 points per person. (Your redemption is 1.5 cents of value per 1 point). If you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, this will cost you ~73,000 points per person (Your redemption is 1.2 cents of value per 1 point).

3.Transfer Ultimate Rewards points to United’s MileagePlus frequent flier program on a 1:1 basis.

This redemption is only 45,000 United Miles per person. This is obviously the clear winner. By avoiding Chase and booking this trip via United MileagePlus, you saved yourself 15.9k -28k Ultimate Rewards points. The savings can now be used towards a future trip.

Here is an example when it is more advantageous to book from Chase’s portal rather than transferring the points into MileagePlus.

For this example, we’ll use a round trip itinerary from NYC (LGA) to Chicago (ORD) from October 17th-24th. Assuming we have sufficient Chase points, here are our options.

1.Book the trip with cash.  This would cost $99 on American Airlines (that’s actually a really good deal paying with cash).

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2. Use the Chase portal to book with Ultimate Rewards Points. Since we’re using Chase’s portal, we can use the points on any airline that’s listed. For this trip, American Airlines happens to be the cheapest redemption since they happen to have the cheapest airfare for this itinerary. If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve (pictured below), 6,560 Ultimate Rewards points is all it takes for a round trip ticket. If you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you would still get an amazing round trip redemption of 7,872 points per person. Also keep in mind, when you use Ultimate Rewards points to make a redemption, these flights are eligible to earn miles. Just add in your American Advantage frequent flier number and you would earn miles for this trip. It’s free to sign up so you have nothing to lose.

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3. Transfer the points into a Chase transfer partner such as United

For this itinerary, It would require us to transfer 25,000 points from Chase to United to book this trip via MileagePlus miles. Among the three options, this would be the worst. Booking with Chase we’re getting 1.5 cents of value per 1 point. With this redemption, you are only getting 0.4 cents per point. Unless you have elite status with United and you’re confident you’re going to get upgraded to first class, this is a redemption you should avoid. It will end up saving you ~18k+ UR points that you can use for something of greater value.

So, the take home message when redeeming UR points is check the redemption rates on Chase’s transfer partners as well as Chase’s portal itself. By doing so, you might save yourself hundreds of dollars in points.

Earning JetBlue Points on Emirates

For those of you traveling overseas on Emirates, don’t miss out on an easy opportunity to earn JetBlue points. You can make an Emirates Skywards membership and earn points  for Emirates but unless you’re traveling frequently or making multiple trips on business class, it will take a while to accumulate anything meaningful. Instead, you can enter your JetBlue number and earn miles for a program that doesn’t require a ton of miles for travel.  The number of JetBlue miles you earn is based on distance and class of booking. You can see the chart below

 

 

If you end up booking the cheapest fare on Emirates, economy saver, you will get 1 point for every 2 miles in distance that you have traveled. If you’re wondering how many JetBlue miles that will earn from your departure city, use a website such as http://www.webflyer.com and enter your departure and arrival city. I’ll use a round trip from New York City (JFK) to Dubai (DXB) as an example.

 

The round trip distance is 13,660 miles. Were you to book an economy saver fare, this would earn you half of that or 6,830 JetBlue points. If you booked economy flex, you would receive 13,660 JetBlue points and the amount increases as you increase your booking class. The most valuable aspect of JetBlue’s frequent flier program is that they allow a 2 adults and 5 children to combine their miles into a family account free of charge. The individuals do not have to be related so you can also share the points with a friend. If you have parents that are traveling overseas via Emirates, you can sign them up and have them earn points as well. And if they don’t intend on using them, they can book you an award ticket on JetBlue under their account.  So when you’re booking your ticket on Emirates, just remember to click the drop down tab under “frequent flyer program” and click JetBlue. Enter your TrueBlue number and those points will be credited to you in about 10-14 days after the conclusion of your trip.

When booking on Emirates.com, select JetBlue and enter your TrueBlue number on this screen.