Travel Rewards Credit Cards

Aug 23

Triple-Dipping On Gift Cards (Travel Included)

Most of the time, I discuss ways to get more miles for whatever you do. Today, however, I’m going to take it the opposite direction and talk about a way to save some money while doing so.

Triple-Dipping on Gift Cards

gift card

But they do fit in a stocking..                                                      Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Gift cards serve one purpose in life: They serve as a present when you can’t think of anything else. What to do with them is the recipient’s problem. They’re the modern day Sharper Image.

But somebody has to figure out what to do with those gift cards, and that’s where resale sites come in (I’ll discuss them below). They’re just what they sound like: The owner of the gift card puts it on the site to sell at a discount and the site takes a cut. Discounts are very small for popular gift cards (A $100 Amazon card, for instance, may cost you $99.) but there are some great values, including restaurants and department stores that are frequently available at 20% or more off the face value. Everyone’s happy: You get $50 at your favorite restaurant for $40, the site gets its cut and the seller has $35-40 that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Your role in this transaction is as the buyer, picking up gift cards at a discount. Everything is for sale, from Amazon to Zales, with plenty of travel providers (Marriott, Delta, etc.) thrown in, as well. But the discount from the reseller isn’t the only one. The strategy below is stackable* for triple dipping.

There are a number of gift card resellers out there, but some are bigger than others. You’re probably best off sticking with the major ones, such as Cardpool, Gift Card Granny and Raise. I will discuss them below. But no matter which gift card site you use, make sure that your card comes with a guarantee that the value you bought will be the value that you get.

First, Pick Your Credit Card

Your credit card is the first opportunity for a “discount,” or a reward, depending on what you choose. It’s like any other purchase where you earn cash back or points. In the absence of a better idea, I recommend the Citi Double Cash Card, which pays you 2% on every purchase. That knocks a couple of percent off the price up front.

Second, Access The Reseller Site Correctly

Here’s the step that most people miss. You should always access the various gift card resellers through a cash back shopping site. A cash back shopping site simply directs you to a retailer. Because that site links you, the retailer gives them a commission, which the shopping site shares with you. It’s the equivalent of getting a discount at the mall because you entered at the west entrance instead of the east entrance, and is as simple as clicking on the shopping site and then typing in the name of the store that you want to shop at. They’ll tell you how much money you will get back. In this case, you visit the shopping site, type in “Raise” or “Cardpool” or “Gift Card Granny” and they’ll send you to the chosen reseller. You’ll pick up another couple of percent by doing it this way.

And Finally, The Purchase

cardpool

Options for Delta at Cardpool

Now it’s time to buy your gift card. Let’s say that you are booking a trip on Delta and decide you want to save a few percent. You’ll use your 2% cash back card from Citi (or whichever card you choose). Easy enough. Then, look for a gift card reseller. The best one for this particular deal (at the moment) is Cardpool. So you head straight to your favorite cash back shopping site (In this case, the best return comes from BeFrugal. You can sign up here.).**

Here’s the process:

  • Go to befrugal.com and search for “Cardpool.” That will get you an extra 2% back. Then, once you click on Cardpool, you search for Delta, where you’ll see a list of available gift cards like the ones above.
  • Buy the gift card, use it immediately at Delta.
  • You’re done. You’ve saved up to 6.5% on that portion of your flight (depending on which gift card above you buy), not to mention the 4% you get from your credit card and BeFrugal.

And what did it cost you? Exactly the time it took for one extra click, when you started your search through BeFrugal instead of accessing Cardpool directly. Even better, you can then repeat the process to save money on your hotel!

Enjoy the big bucks!

 


*Beginner’s Hint: “Stackable” means that multiple discounts can be used at a time. An example would be when you go to the supermarket and use both a manufacturer’s and a store’s coupon. Double discount!

**There are several different cashback shopping sites. In most cases, it’s worth it to stick to one that you know and trust, rather than trying for an extra 1/2% at a site you’ve never used before.

 

 

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Aug 22

A Few Updates On JetBlue

Nothing Earth shattering, but let’s take a look at what’s going on with my favorite airline that was named after a primary color.

Watch Your Redemption Rates

As a rule of thumb, assume that each TrueBlue point is worth about 1.5 cents. In other words, it costs about 10,000 points to buy a $150 ticket.

The exception to that rule, though, is when you are buying Mint, JetBlue’s premium long-haul cabin, the rate is much lower. For example, here are a couple of options:

jetblue

The cash fares

jetblue

The points fare

While prices aren’t fixed on JetBlue, the 1.5 cents ratio is generally a good one. But look at those Mint fares. $1,149 in cash is equivalent to 126,000 points. If the 1.5 cents ratio held true for Mint fares, that flight would only cost about 80,000 points. To buy the premium fare, you are getting less than a penny per point. Not all premium fares are that bad, but keep an eye on your exchange rate.

Win Travel with JetBlue. And Juice.

Airlines are always running one contest or another and I don’t have time to write about every single one, but how often does the prize include juice? That’s right, enter here to win two RT tickets on JetBlue, a $1,000 hotel credit and a case of mocktails. That’s a good thing, right?

Truthfully, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more of these sponsorships in the industry, although I can certainly understand a product not wanting to be associated with airlines. Still, it’s a pretty good way to generate a lot of revenue.

No word, though, on whether you’ll be able to get the juice past the TSA.

TrueBlue Points for Shopping on Amazon

amazon

Earn points with Amazon

Until recently, Amazon did not associate itself with cash back shopping sites, which can be a consumer’s most valuable tool to get back a few dollars when you spend.

That changed, though, when JetBlue launched its partnership with Amazon. You’ll earn three TrueBlue points per dollar spent at Amazon, and all you need to do is to access the shopping site through your link at JetBlue’s site. Bookmark your link, use it whenever you want to shop at Amazon and you’ll be earning miles.

 

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Aug 21

Thanks Again: Yet Another Rewards Program

While I thank you all for reading and taking advantage of the blog, in this case, the title refers to something different. That “something different” is Thanks Again, a credit card linked rewards program.

Thanks Again

thanks again

Thanks Again

Thanks Again is a partner-based program linked to your credit card. Spend money at their partners and you will earn points based on your spending. Simple enough, and similar to many other programs. Thanks Again itself has actually gone through several iterations and never struck me as the most valuable offering.

The “hook,” so to speak, is that most of their partners are located at airports, and only certain airports participate. There are partners not located at airports, and you can search by zip code to find them, but those partners are few and far between. For example, a search of my metro area gave me 16 partners, and six of them were branches of Kung Fu Tea.

The program isn’t great, but it has a lot of redemption options and it’s free, meaning that there is nothing to lose by signing up.

Free Hilton Points

Having said that, you can start off with 1,000 points for free by signing up through the Hilton link. You may be locked into Hilton as a redemption option (I haven’t been able to get through to customer service to determine if you can change your rewards.), so you can always sign up on the general page and be eligible for all prizes.

So what would improve this program? More spending partners. The value of these programs is tied to how easy they are to use, and this one doesn’t have a lot, particularly outside of the airport. And even the airports need help. Several major ones, such as Boston Logan and La Guardia, don’t have any offerings.

 

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Aug 18

More Weird Weekend Travel News

One of the great joys of the travel industry is that there is always something weird, wacky or simply stupid going on. Here’s what I’ve gotten to read about this past week.

Minnie Gets The Boot

minnie mouse

Yes, Minnie, that means you.                                                       Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Technically, most airport lounges have a dress code, but I’ve never actually seen anyone denied access to the lounge because of it. The tacit understand is to keep your feet and armpits covered and don’t do anything unsanitary.

Sadly, the lounge in Manchester wasn’t the happiest place on Earth for a family that got booted because of their Minnie Mouse t-shirts. The Aspire Lounge does appear to have a dress code and, while I understand the desire to boot families who have matching shirts with their names on them simply because it’s tacky, there’s nothing on the list about them (although use of the term “family moon” should also be banned; It’s as obnoxious as adding the term “-gate” onto every scandal). Besides, who would turn away little Quinn? I mean, look at that face.

One other note: The family paid 700 GPB for eight passes into the lounge. Ouch. I’m a big fan of lounges, but I have yet to meet one that is worth $100 per person. That’s almost as disappointing as the spokesman’s misuse of the word “myriad.”

Taking Air Rage Down A Notch

Such a lounge experience might drive a family to drink, which may also be more difficult in the near future, particularly if you are flying Ryan Air.

The airline wants to implement a two-drink maximum on pre-flight alcoholic beverages, in theory, to cut down on air rage. I’m not sure on how they plan on policing their customers, but it sounds like an intriguing idea until you remember that the airline also sells alcohol on-board. Now, call me cynical, but this is the airline whose CEO also suggested (jokingly, I think) charging passengers to use the lav, so I’m not ruling anything out.

Delta Needs More Drivers-Ed

Delta Airlines

The wings look okay.

Do you know what’s worse than a plane causing a wingtip collision? Two planes causing two separate wingtip collisions within a 24 hour period. I bet you can guess what’s worse than two wingtip collisions.

Yup, this week, Delta planes had three wingtip collisions, all within a 24 hour period. Granted, JFK is a tight airport while on the ground, but I’m baffled as to how this can happen so frequently in such a short period of time. Somebody really has to teach these guys how to parallel park.

 

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Aug 17

Sun Country: Hey Jude, Don’t Make It Bad…

Newly appointed Sun Country CEO Jude Bricker has announced a new direction for the discount carrier, and it might not be one that its current passenger base cares for.

Sun Who?

Sun Country

The Sun Country route map through Minneapolis; Anchorage is off the map

If you’ve never heard of Sun Country, you’re not alone. The discount carrier plays an important role, however, in not only servicing the local hub but also connecting east-west traffic.

The airline suffers from the “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome. It actually has a better coach class than many legacy carriers, with 31-33 inches of pitch and offers a first-class product for those who so choose.

Sun Country has a couple of factors working against it, though. Most of its traffic comes from leisure passengers who are unwilling to pay the higher prices that business passengers will for non-stop flights and frequent connectivity. Unless your origin or destination is Minneapolis, chances are that you’re going to be connecting there. Very few cities on the map have service to an airport other than MSP.

The other problem is costs. An airline with so many connecting passengers will necessarily have planes spending a lot of time on the ground, waiting for those passengers to come in from another city. As the old saying goes, a plane at the gate generates no revenue. A major carrier like Delta or American can afford such inefficiencies, since they have passengers who are often paying more. Sun Country, though, needs better utilization* from its fleet, since its fare base is lower.

Where We Go from Here

The new CEO has decided that the airline can no longer be a “tweener.” It has to go full we network carrier, like Delta, or full ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC), like Spirit. And it has decided for the latter.

Over the next several months, you will probably see several changes at the airline which will be good for its bottom line, but possibly bad for passengers. While the owner has spoken out against nickel-and-diming customers while maintaining a high-touch service, that statement is inconsistent with the ULCC model. ULCC carriers generate revenue by charging ancillary fees and have a less-tenured workforce, which increases revenue and cuts costs, respectively. And those 31-33″ seats? Think more like 29-30″ in the future.

The airline has another problem, though, and that’s its route map. Above, I showed you the route map for Sun Country. Here is the route map for Spirit Air:

spirit air

Spirit Air: Say what you will, but those little lines go all over the place

If you were flying anywhere, except to or from Minneapolis, which would you be more likely to choose? Exactly. Spirit was built from the ground up to be a ULCC, which focuses on point-to-point flights (no connections), which are less costly to operate and tend to generate premiums, since non-stops have fewer competitors.

Sun Country is going to have a hard time doing that. So much of its network is already devoted to Minneapolis that it will take years to build up critical mass anywhere else. Sun Country may not have that much time.

It’s too bad that a carrier that delivered good service on a decent product is going to be forced into change, but such are the times.

 


Beginner’s Hint: “Utilization” refers to the number of hours per day that a plane is actually in the air. High utilization is important for low-cost carriers, because you are paying expenses whether the plane is on the ground or in the air. Might as well have it in the air, generating revenue.

Utilization is the “secret sauce” that allowed Southwest to become the dominant force that it is. The airline was able to offer lower ticket prices because its planes spent more time in the air, meaning that it could complete more flights than its competitors.

 

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Aug 16

Airberlin Goes Bankrupt. Should You Still Book Them?

Yesterday, airberlin, the airline known for its somewhat odd frequent flyer program and lack of capital letters, declared bankruptcy. Given the airline’s debt levels, it was not exactly a surprise, and it became the second Etihad-backed airline to file this year. Maybe Etihad should look into another business.

Airlines file for bankruptcy so many times* that they should be running for president but, in truth, it’s not a joke. Bankruptcy leads to job losses, particularly at the smaller carriers who don’t have a niche. AB has tried to be all things to all people at different times, first competing as a standard carrier, then as a low cost carrier and then as a low cost carrier that flew across the Atlantic. None of their efforts succeeded.

What Now?

airberlin

airberlin; Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Fortunately for passengers, there is minimal risk in booking a flight on a bankrupt carrier. As I mentioned above, airlines are, sadly, used to operating in bankruptcy. They need to fly to generate cash to pay their bond holders. The last thing that their creditors want is for the airline to shut down altogether, since they’ll likely end up with the planes. And you don’t have to worry that they’ll cut corners on safety to save euros. Mechanical issues will be the first use of cash.

Likewise, you are almost certainly protected by your credit card company. If the airline shuts down, you will almost certainly get a refund. And if flights are cancelled, Germany’s major carrier (Lufthansa) will likely pick up the pieces. The last thing that Lufthansa wants is a viable low cost carrier (easyJet, Ryan Air, etc.) getting a toehold in their home market.

The Bottom Line: Don’t worry about booking a ticket on airberlin, but maybe be a little extra nice to the employees. It’s toughest for them.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Typically, airlines file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows them to continue operating while they get their finances together. Airlines that have filed multiple times are said to have filed Chapter 22 or Chapter 33.

 

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Aug 15

Earn American Miles On Your Hotel Bookings

We’re undergoing a bit of a face lift around these parts, so this post, like the next several, will be a bit on the shorter side. Actually, that’s probably a good thing.

Get AAdvantage Miles for Hotel Bookings

hotel

American Airlines Hotel Promotion

There is a certain advantage to booking all of your travel in one place, which the airlines hope that you recognize. American Airlines, for instance, allows you to earn points by reserving a hotel through its site. The site is powered by bookings.com, which means that you may not earn hotel points or elite amenities for it, but that may not be a concern of yours, or you might be staying at a property that doesn’t offer points (shame on you). And at up to 10,000 miles per night, you may not care.

Earning Your Miles

  Note the AAdvantage label along the bottom

It’s easy. Simply book your hotel through the above link and the miles will be yours. Be careful that the hotel actually has that AAdvantage tag and tells you how many miles you’ll get.

Added bonus: They’ll price match, which not all online rewards sites will do. That way, you don’t have to worry that you are paying extra for your miles.

Bottom line: If hotel points are not in your future, you might as well get some miles.

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Aug 14

Hotel Commonwealth: The Best Hotel In Boston

I’ve decided to do something a little different today, and that’s do a hotel review. This one is an update of one that I did last year, but the hotel deserves it. Hotel Commonwealth may be the best hotel in Boston and you’ve likely never heard of it. Enjoy.

For years, I drove by the building in Kenmore Square with the red awning. I had no clue what it was and never really paid attention, despite the fact that it was street level at the Kenmore Square MBTA stop and a few hundred yards from Fenway Park. Welcome to the Hotel Commonwealth, possibly the best hotel in Boston that you’ve never heard of.

Location

If you’re a Yankees fan…stay somewhere else. Hotel Commonwealth is located in the middle of Kenmore Square and a baseball’s throw from the home of the 2017 MLB Champions, the Boston Red Sox. It’s a very popular hotel for BU students and parents, with the school located nearby. If you’re coming in from Logan Airport, you’ll have about a six mile drive or can take the T, switching from the Blue Line to the Green Line at Government Center. Downtown Boston is only a few subway stops away but, if the weather is nice, I’d recommend the 1-2 mile walk down Commonwealth Ave.

Arrival/Check-In

hotel commonwealth

Smooth. You’ll arrive at the hotel and have doormen waiting for you. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to meet Terry the Bear, the hotel mascot. We were at the hotel for a family-friendly event*, so they were waiting with bags of swag for the kids. While that’s not standard, they do go out of their way for families. Nice touch: About five minutes after we checked into our room, they called up to make sure that everything was okay.

Room

hotel commonwealth

A few years ago, the rooms were one of the weaknesses of the hotel. They were looking old and tired, badly in need of a renovation.

A 2015 remodeling changed that, though, and the rooms are now far superior to the standard Boston room. They have always been spacious, but the renovation modernized them and a new color scheme made them attractive. If you don’t want to pay up for pricey local restaurants, there is a mini-fridge in your room. There are still a few issues: The lighting is poor and the free internet is very, very weak. Overall, though, it is a pleasant place to spend time.

hotel commonwealth

Facilities

Overall amenities range from good to excellent, depending on what your needs are. The fitness center is on the smaller side and could use a little work, but there’s enough equipment to go around. Business travelers will find plenty to their liking, however. It has all the standard services, including a 24-hour business center, concierge and valet parking. The hotel throws in a few extras: Staying for a while? Laundry service and complimentary shoe shines are available. Don’t feel like taking the T? They offer a free car service during rush hour on weekday mornings.

Service

hotel commonwealth

Outstanding. I felt as if the employees couldn’t do enough for me and they genuinely seemed to enjoy interacting with guests. Everyone throughout the hotel had a smile on their face at all times. What particularly impressed me is how the staff transitioned seamlessly from working with a family to helping a business customer. When people were waiting in line, the concierge or another staff member stepped in to help. I would happily compare the service here with some of the nicest hotels that I’ve stayed at.

Value

Very high, but it depends on the time of year. During the spring and fall, you are going to be paying $350+ per night. Summer is also high. Winter is a bargain, though, with prices occasionally dipping below $200. If you’re looking for a great experience for your dollar, Hotel Commonwealth is hard to beat.

Cover photo from Hotel Commonwealth website

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*Hotel Commonwealth gets bonus points for its community involvement. Every February, they hold their “Bedtime Stories” event. It’s targeted to families and includes a storyteller, magician and Terry the Bear, not to mention hot chocolate and goodies. In the morning, the kids help the chef cook a pancake breakfast. You know you’re at a luxury property when they serve freshly squeezed orange juice at a kids’ event. The hotel room cost us a bit over $200 and there was a $20 recommended donation, with all event proceeds going to ReadBoston, a non-profit that focuses on children’s literacy. If you have kids, this is a fantastic event for a good cause. It is still under review for 2018, but I’m hoping that they bring it back.

 

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Aug 11

When First Class Is Almost As Cheap As Coach

It’s the first thing we do when we book a flight: Look in the left-hand columns at the cheapest coach fares (Skip Basic Economy, where you are required to surrender most civil rights.) and pick the one that gives you the best fare at the time you want to go. Not too many people swipe right.

Surprisingly, though, the fare differential between coach and first is not what it used to be. Revenue management systems have gotten smart enough to price first class fares on many routes at levels that even leisure travelers will consider them. Sure, you could charge an extra thousand dollars for the first class ticket, but if nobody buys it, you just end up upgrading elite travelers for free. Cut that premium down to $100 and you might get a few people to bite.

So how do you determine what flights to target? Simple. Just check the differential on every flight that you book. But some are more likely than others. Here are just a few:

“Shuttle” Routes

A $70 difference between coach and first

 

And by shuttle, I mean any flight that has numerous round trips each day. The classic is the Boston – New York shuttle, which departs hourly at American and Delta, plus gets competition from  JetBlue, who flies into JFK, as well. I’ve seen the difference be as little as $50, but it’s rarely higher than $100. That might be what you’d end up paying just to check bags in coach (Remember, they’re free up front.)!

So why would you want to spend anything to upgrade on 42 minute flight? Because it’s rarely 42 minutes. Sure, that might be the actual time in the air, assuming no ground holds in either of the two overcrowded cities, but door-to-door, you could easily be looking at two hours. Want the 6 pm flight in the middle of January? Get comfy, it could be a while.

In addition to free checked bags, your new seat will give you priority boarding (guaranteed overhead space), multiple snack and beverage services and extra room to spread out and do your work. You are also likely to get extra miles toward elite status, which may get you that upgrade for free next year.

Short And Mid-Haul, Highly Competitive Markets

virgin america

Yes, that’s the domestic product on Virgin America

Here’s where it becomes a guessing game. 2-3 hour flights in a city with multiple dominant carriers will often get you a better price at the front of the plane.

Example: Denver to San Francisco is a highly competitive market, with United trying to protect its Denver hub, Virgin America trying to protect San Francisco and Frontier trying to claw its way into both. Thus, the market is subject to excess capacity, as each carrier tries to win share from the others. Thus, you will likely find cheap fares at the front of the plane.

See the seat above? That’s what I got on Virgin America for a measly $70 premium. “Time on Plane” was well over three hours and my bags got to fly for free (Virgin America gives you one free bag in the main cabin and then charges for the second.). Those seats have 55″ of leg room and 21″ of width, as opposed to the main cabin, which is 32″ and 17.7″, respectively. The flight also came with full meal service, a cool amenity kit and swanky headphones for some take-home swag. Sadly, those seats will disappear soon after the merger with Alaska is consummated.

Keep your eyes open for these types of fares. If an airline has too much capacity in a market, it has to sell those seats somehow.

Off-Season Leisure Routes

Want to fly from the northeast to Orlando over Christmas break? Expect to pay a small fortune, regardless of where you are sitting on the plane. Willing to play with the dates a little? You could easily get lucky and upgrade for $75 or so. The airlines know that they won’t have business passengers on those flights. They likely won’t even make a pretense of trying to price at “true” first class levels.*

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Coincidentally, it works the opposite way with award tickets. If you use miles during a busy vacation period, the first class ticket might even cost fewer miles than the coach ticket. Why is that? Some airlines manage their space in first and coach independent of each other. If there is very heavy demand in coach, as frequently happens over the holidays, prices will go up in that section. Meanwhile, there is very little demand in first class, which keeps prices lower.

 

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Aug 10

Seniors, Get Your National Parks Lifetime Pass Now

They tell me that there’s no inflation these days, but that’s not going to be true for much longer as the National Park Service increases the price of its senior lifetime pass from $10 to $80 on August 28. If you don’t have one, now’s the time.

See The Country for $10

national park

Get the pass before the price spikes

The National Park Service is one of the country’s great treasures and always a destination for international visitors. The lifetime pass covers entrance or amenity fees at over 2,000 sites, including not only NPS sites but Forest Services, Army Corps of Engineers and other locations. Sadly, the parks aren’t all free, but fees tend to be modest for all but the most popular sites.

The national park system is not just Yosemite or Yellowstone. Many people don’t know, for instance, that much of downtown Boston is a park, known as Boston National Historical Park. In fact, most major cities have at least one urban national park in them. Rangers will give tours of the sites to help you understand why it is important, or “interpret” history.

Sadly, the price is going up for those who are 62 or older. It will move from $10 to $80, although there is also a $20 annual pass available (Four annual passes can be traded in for one lifetime pass).

The bottom line: Get your pass now and save yourself $70 down the line.

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