Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Planning for a fall trip to Japan

Since our extended-remix trip there last year, we've been yearning to go back to Japan. It's tough accruing much paid time off (PTO) given that we literally went into a PTO-hole to make last year's trip happen. First we thought we'd chain together the "free" Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Years work holidays with PTO and a bit of remote working to pull off another 3 month visit. But it's been a rough year for us and we ultimately decided we didn't want to spend all of the winter holidays away from our friends and family. So we're shooting for a 3 week trip in October instead.

The dream, of course, would be to repeat our ANA First experience but using the Virgin Atlantic "trick" to do it for way fewer miles. Unfortunately the big travel bloggers have been flogging this option for the past few months and availability is basically zero now. 😠

What we ended up doing

  • Used the "Combine Points" option on Chase.com to move points from my husband's account to my Chase account
  • Transferred 306,000 Chase points to top off my United account
  • Used United.com to book a partner award for two round-trip tickets on EVA Airlines JFK-Taipei
  • I'm now looking at various fun Sanrio plane options for the short flight on to Tokyo


Here's the breakdown of how we chose that…
 

Buy?

As I've mentioned in my intro guide, you should always check the price before looking at points options. I looked at various dates in Google Flights and all of the direct options in Business were $6500 or higher, most of the one-stops were high $4000s. 

The only thing remotely interesting in the $3000-or-less realm was a Finnair flight connecting in Helsinki on their new A350 plane. I'd go the 'long way round' to try out this new plane, but for the life of me I can't get a cheap seat on the direct NYC-Helinki leg, only a 2 stop itinerary that also stops in London. I tried pricing out an itinerary to Osaka (also an A350) and found a decent 1-stop option that lets us have a 23 hour layover in Helsinki on the way back. I've never been to Finland so having a day to explore is actually a plus.
Finnair A350... I'd use their new partnership to credit this trip to my Alaska Airlines account

To be fair, there are a couple of other options that are in the sub-$3000 range: China Eastern and Air China. I might end up considering these if nothing else comes up. I've read several trip reports and while the lie-flat seats are nice, the onboard experience doesn't sound particularly pleasant. Also, both are 777 flights so no airplane geekery to be had there.


 

Points

My general rule is that I'm always aiming to get above 2¢ per point. Given that the Finnair flight looks like something I'd realistically buy, that means I need to spend 150,000 points or less to hit that 2¢ number. Most Business Saver reward seats are in the 150k-200k range, so I'm barely going to hit my target even if everything goes well.

I like to use AwardHacker so I can see if there's points options I'm forgetting. It's a great tool for seeing all of the mileage options and transferable points for a given itinerary. (It doesn't filter the list for available seats, though).


With that in hand, here's a look at our current mileage balances. It's pretty clear that most of this trip is going to need to come through a Chase Sapphire transfer partner. I really dislike flying on separate tickets for a long list of reasons, so I avoid it unless there's a really big reason.


Sidenote: the lion's share of our Sapphire points came from the 100,000 point Reserve card signup bonuses we got last year

 

EVA

We flew EVA last year and loved it. Plus, we'd love to spend more time in Taiwan en route to Japan. An added plane-geek bonus is that EVA has Sanrio-themed planes flying between Taipei and Japan so we could potentially experience the Gudetama plane, assuming their isn't an operational plane swap like last year.

We could transfer Sapphire points and use 160,000 United points to fly EVA from NYC to Taipei (per person, round-trip).

OR, I could save a whopping 65,000 points and use 95,000 ANA points to take this same flight! But there's a few problems with that plan:
  • ANA isn't a Chase transfer partner, and I only have enough Amex+SPG points for one of us.
  • ANA only does round-trip rewards so I can't book two one-way flights on a single ticket
  • Amex points transfer instantly, but SPG points take a week. Given how quickly I'm seeing the award inventory vanish, I'm almost certain our ideal flight will be gone 7 days from now... *sigh*

 

Korean

We could transfer 125,000 Sapphire points to Korean and fly Korean via Seoul (hopefully on their 747-8i like we did last year). I spot-checked availability and WOW! What used to be a wide-open reward calendar is now pruned back to what we're used to seeing on other SkyTeam carriers. Sigh. I totally blame Chase Sapphire for this – Korean is the only SkyTeam transfer partner for the card. Sadly there are no seats on their amazing 747 on the dates we want to fly.

 

Air China

We could also do a SkyTeam partner redemption on Korean to fly on Taiwan's China Airlines. We've never flown them long-haul (just short haul) and their 777 service gets rave reviews. We've been in their lounge in Taipei and it's one of the nicest lounges I've ever seen. It's pricing out at 155,000 points through the Korean portal. Delta.com wants 190,000 points for this redemption so they're not even under consideration unless all other options fail.

 

United

transfer Sapphire points to United and fly via SFO to try their new Polaris plane (130,000 points per person, round trip). But then again, I'm not really excited enough about Polaris to spend 15 hours on any US-based carrier unless there are literally no other options.

 

Cathay

We could also transfer SPG points to Alaska and fly via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific for 130k, but Alaska's website likes to hide Cathay awards, plus, again, we don't have enough points for two people.


Final thoughts…

While we were both hoping to get a higher redemption rate, there were a couple of things that made us pull the trigger on this option:

  1. While we really would like to try out an A350 on Finnair, we both absolutely loved Taipei and were itching to go back, if for no other reason that to eat more hu jiao bing 😜 
  2. Since we're blowing a year's worth of PTO on this trip, we won't likely have another big trip for a while. Ergo, there will likely be yet another point devaluation before we'd be shopping for those flights.
  3. There's always a fuzzy math to calculating how many cents per point you got - should I calculate it against the flight I would have taken if I'd had no points ($3100 on Finnair = 1.9¢) or the cost of actually buying the flight I'm on ($4700 on EVA = 2.9¢)? There's no objective answer, it's just a helpful exercise to make sure I'm not doing completely foolish with my points
  4. Most importantly: I'm super excited about this trip! I'm also excited that this little hobby means that the lion's share of these $9000 flights was paid for with free Chase signup bonus points. 



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Delta bonus promo

If you haven't done so already, you should sign up for the Delta partner bonus promotion.

Once you're registered, you'll earn 1000 bonus SkyMiles for each new Delta partner you earn miles with until June 30th. A list of the partners is here
UPDATE (14 June): So far we've netted 7,000 bonus points on this promo with another 2,000 pending!
I fly Delta fairly regularly for domestic travel, and I generally avoid United at all costs. But United's miles are still so much more useful that I pretty much only use the United Mileage mall and United Mileage Dining websites when I'm shopping or eating out.

That turned out to be perfect for this promo, since I'm both a Delta SkyMiles shopping AND a SkyMiles Dining virgin. Once I was signed up for the Delta SkyMiles shopping program, I used it to buy a few things from Walgreens.com and collect my first 1000 point bonus. (Do note the dates – the bonus takes 6 weeks to post).



Last month when we needed to take an emergency trip to Seattle, I transferred Starwood points to Delta to pay for the flight. Lo and behold, that also counted as new partner earnings and I got another 1000 points for that.

But even if you're a big Delta fan and have already used most of their partners to earn miles, you can still sign up for their new Lyft partnership and hopefully land yourself another 1000.

Delta says it qualifies 😀
















Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bye-bye Aeroplan!

Big news today that Air Canada is dropping its 3rd party Aeroplan mileage program in favor of an in-house solution in 2020.

I don't normally fly Air Canada, but here's why I care: Aeroplan one of the few Star Alliance transfer partners for American Express points. Of the other two partners: ANA still only allows round-trip rewards, and Singapore doesn't permit partner reward booking online - you have to call in.

We used Aeroplan miles for ANA Business Class to Tokyo in 2015

Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and Iberia have a similar setup where a separate company (Asia Miles, Avios) administers their points program. Air Canada sold their program off to a company called Aimia after 9/11 to earn some cash in a tough economic climate, but times have changed and this is a multi-billion dollar business they want to repatriate.

My recommendation:
  • Spend any Aeroplan miles you have before 2020. The miles are NOT going to roll from the old plan into the new one, and everyone is predicting a massive devaluation
  • Unless you're chasing Air Canada elite status, I'd start crediting all of your future Air Canada flying to United (or other Star Alliance airline).
  • Or at least have a plan to spend most of miles you earn before the cutoff date.

Six or seven years ago Aeroplan used to be a great place to redeem for Star Alliance Business Class flights, but like so many other programs they've devalued their points multiple times and added high fuel surcharges to awards. The other maddening aspect of their program is that it almost never offers you the option to redeem for a direct flight. Despite assurances that their site shows unfiltered Star Alliance availability, on multiple occasions I've seen a direct flight available on United.com or ANA.co.jp but not on Aeroplan.

Once the transition is complete, let's hope they have a USA credit card with a big signup bonus and that they stay an Amex transfer partner!








Tuesday, May 9, 2017

OMG Shoes!

It's unfortunate, but American department store and malls in general are on the verge of dying. In an effort to stay relevant, many old school retailers are making various kinds of online offers to lure you to their website instead of Amazon.com or specialty online shops like Bluefly or Jet. The bonus points from my last big shopping portal victory just cleared (5400 United points and 1100 Amex points for a pair of shoes!) and I thought I'd share a few tips.

Airline shopping portal tips:
  • Be patient. High markup retailers have specials in the 8-12 points per dollar range
  • Low markup retailers (Amazon, Jet, BestBuy) rarely have specials
  • Stack promos whenever you can (Amex offer + portal + portal bonus!)
  • Don't buy anything you wouldn't have bought otherwise (this is the hardest part!)
  • Comparison shop so you know if you're overpaying (have you seen Wikibuy?!)
  • Utilize free shipping options whenever possible
  • Turn off adblock before using the shopping portal
  • Use shopping portals to generate activity and keep miles from expiring
  • Spend 2 minutes a week reviewing Amex offers and shopping portal bonuses when you have a big purchase in mind. 
  • Use EVReward.com to compare the rate each portal is currently offering (but know that they generally don't update for daily specials)

My 6600 mile shoes

I've wanted these super cute Gucci shoes for a while now but I was holding out for Neimans or Bergdorf Goodman to have a good shopping portal bonus before I bought. Normally these high-markup retailers offer 2 points per dollar through the United, Delta, or Alaska shopping portals, but I know they run specials for 10 or 12 points per dollar several times a year. Besides, it was cold out and these are very summery shoes so I wasn't in a hurry.
So cute!

On a separate front, I periodically check my Amex Offers to add deals to my card and I spotted this gem: an extra Amex point for shopping through Bergdorf Goodman's website. I added it to my card and waited... 



A few days later, yet another bonus popped up: United's shopping portal sent me an email saying I could earn 1000 bonus miles on top of anything else I earn if I his their spending target by Friday. Luckily this email also showed that Bergdorf was having a special: 8 points per dollar. It was time 👟


I purchased the shoes through United's shopping portal (yes, they're expensive shoes but I would have bought them anyway!) and once all of the bonuses had cleared I made 5400 United points and 1100 Amex points.

While I rarely fly United, I still think they have the best mileage plan in the US, so I happily collect their points and then spend them on ANA, Asiana, Lufthansa, Singapore, LOT, etc.








Saturday, May 6, 2017

You can now earn JetBlue miles flying Iceland Air

One of the weakest things about JetBlue is their mileage program – they have very few options for earning and redeeming miles beyond their own flights. 
 
You can earn TrueBlue points when you fly on:
  • Emirates
  • Hawaiian
  • JetsuiteX and Silver Airways
  • Singapore
  • South African
  • and now Iceland Air!
To celebrate Iceland Air being added to the family, they're running a special double-miles promo through July 7th. If I were flying soon, I'd probably take the 2x credit to JetBlue, but once the promo is over and it's back down to 1x, I'd probably choose to credit any Iceland Air flying to my Alaska account. They have lots of great redemption partners, whereas JetBlue doesn't.

 
 
When you want to redeem your TrueBlue points, you still only have two options: JetBlue and Hawaiian. When you redeem for JetBlue flights you get a fixed value of around 1.4¢, which works out to a 4% rebate on the purchase price of your flight. (If you have their credit card, attain Mosaic status, and hit all of their bonuses, you can bring that up to 13%).

Redeeming for Hawaiian airlines flights can only be done over the phone, and yields you around 1¢ per TrueBlue point. More information about that over at TPG.
 
I hope this is part of a series of enhancements to JetBlue's loyalty program. JetBlue (and the combined Alaska/Virgin) is on the cusp of becoming a real nationwide carrier and stepping up the value of their TrueBlue program is an essential part of that.