A Few More Helpful Hints For A Cruise…

Sadly, every vacation must come to an end. We recently got off the Celebrity Reflection and, while I’ve done over two dozen cruises in my lifetime, I rarely come off the ship without a few thoughts of “I’m glad I did it this way” or “I wish I had done it that way.” In the past, I’ve listed a few ideas that I thought might be helpful. Here are a few more.

The Suites May Be A Good Value

celebrity

The Iconic Suite on Celebrity Edge. $25,500 per person. Off-peak.

There used to be only a few types of cabins on cruises: Inside, Outside, Balcony and Standard Suites. You could opt for more space or less, and everything else was pretty much the same.

Now? The new Celebrity Edge has eight different types of suites alone, not to mention the mix of Aqua Class, Concierge, standard, etc. And some of them get pretty pricey.

The “lower-end” suites, however, may not be that much more than the popular balcony cabin, particularly if it’s not a popular time of year. And in order to justify those prices, the cruise lines offer some pretty interesting perks. For example, suites on Celebrity cruises offer the following:

  • $150-300/cabin in onboard credits
  • Free premium drink package. Get even the good stuff for free. Normally, about $60/person/week.
  • Prepaid gratuities. Tips are added at the end and are $12-15/person. On a seven-night cruise, that adds up.
  • Free internet access. It’ll be slow, but it’ll be free. Internet packages on ships are not cheap.
  • Other benefits, such as a private lounge, a butler, reserved seating at entertainment, etc.
  • A better credit from your travel agent.*

The upgrade doesn’t come cheap, but if you’re paying out of pocket for the extras anyway, you might as well look into a suite.

Can You Go in The Low-Demand Periods? Good.

Pricing for cruises works much like pricing for airlines. They have a revenue management department and software that are responsible for measuring supply and demand. Using these data, the they determine the appropriate price for the cruise.

There are periods when it is easy to fill cabins and times when it isn’t. The old philosophy with cruise lines used to be to fill the last cabin at any price, since you would make up the price difference with onboard sales. In the past few years, however, the parent companies began to try something new. Since they generated fewer onboard sales from those in the cheapest cabins (i.e., the people searching for value), they began to maximize the price that they could get per cabin. If they sailed with a few empty, so be it.

That fact doesn’t change, however, the basics of supply and demand. For example, cruises over Christmas week are always full, since families travel together. The ship always feels the most full during these periods because so many cabins have four people in them, not just two. But if you can go two weeks later, the price will be half of what it is during Christmas vacation.

Want to see expensive? Look for a cabin on any Disney cruise that spans the holidays. Then go to the bank to get a second mortgage.

Do Everything Early

cruise hammock

Wouldn’t you rather be lying here than waiting in line?

Reservations are good and lines are no fun. Here’s a cheap way to add a couple of hours to your cruise: Do as much as you can ahead of time, or as soon as you get on the ship. Get to the port an hour before they tell you to and you’ll be among the first to board. Booking a shore excursion? Do it ahead of time. Want to eat at one of the many specialty restaurants on-board? If you can’t do it beforehand, make a reservation as soon as you get on the ship. You’re not going to be doing much those first few hours, anyway. You might as well make them useful.

On the way back, get a copy of your bill two nights before you disembark. They’ll likely drop one in your mailbox the night before you get off, but if there’s a mistake, the line at passenger services will be 25 people long.

Even if you’re not naturally a planner, it’s good to do so on a cruise.

There Are Plenty Of Healthy Choices for Meals

I remember going on cruises 30 years ago, when the main dining rooms had excellent food and the midnight buffet had those little puff pastries. The puff pastries are still available, as are grills, pizza and various other forms of dangerous choices.

But the cruise lines have also stepped up their game on the healthy side, as well. For the most part, it’s a “do-it-yourself” process. They’ll have “healthy” items market on the menu in the dining rooms, but it’s the cruise line that determines what good-for-you actually means. But on the deck and at the buffet, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the offerings. The salad bar has more choices than ever, while the fruit is fresh. The ship that I was just on had a cook-to-order stir-fry station. And dishes elsewhere can be tailored to your tastes. Want an egg-white omelette with broccoli and tomato? No problem. The options may not be limitless, but at least they’re there. And the puff pastries were never that good, anyway.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve something truly interesting. So check out this video of Royal Caribbean’s Ultimate Family Suite.

 


*You are using a travel agent, right? It costs you nothing and they generally have access to deals that you don’t. If you don’t have a good travel agent, I’ll loan you mine. Nope, I don’t get any referral fees from her. It’s all just part of the service around here.

 

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Hilton Honors Points Unlimited Promotion

Remember those math questions that you got in high school, which started off with, “Two trains were heading in opposite direction.” You were then required to factor in speed, distance, etc. and determine when one of the would reach Utica? Well, I hope you were good at those, since that seems to be the model for the next Hilton promotion.

Points Unlimited: It’s Decent, Once You Understand It

hilton honors, points unlimited

Tailored for you…and all of their other guests

Hilton has stepped back from its traditional double points promotion to go in a different direction with its Points Unlimited promo. The bonus, which runs from January 4 until May 5, will work out best for those who have frequent stays or nights, as opposed to those who spend a lot of money, which is the model for their previous promotion. Here’s how it works:

  • You get 2,000 bonus points for every stay (one check-in and check-out), regardless of how many nights the stay lasts. For this piece of the promotion, a one-night stay is as good as a stay of any other duration. Reward nights do count.
  • You can also earn unlimited 10,000 point bonuses, based on your number of stays or number of nights. Here’s where it gets tricky. You get 10,000 points after either five stays or ten nights. Once you hit the bonus, though, the counter resets for both stays and nights, regardless of how you hit it. In other words, if you have five stays that total nine nights, you’ll get 10,000 bonus points when you check out after your fifth stay. At that point, though, both your stay counter and your night counter will reset to zero, so you won’t get anything extra for those nine nights.
  • There is a detailed FAQ page which will walk you through some of the math. It shouldn’t be this complicated, but Hilton is not posting a counter on its site, so it may be more difficult to monitor than it seems.

Still, it’s a decent promotion and could end up earning a lot of points for those of you who make frequent, short stays that don’t cost much.

 

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Check Your Accounts For Expiration

This will be my last post (probably) before 2019, but in the meantime, I have a homework assignment for you. It’s time to make sure that your points aren’t going to expire.

Are Your Points Still There?

points expire

Meters enforced occasionally.

As you may know, most loyalty programs demand, well, actual loyalty from you. Whether they give it back depends on the program. Nevertheless, their game, their rules, so you have to play by them.

Most companies, though, are benevolent dictators. As long as you have some sort of activity in your account, whether that’s earning points or redeeming them, over an extended time period (usually 12-24 months), your expiration clock will start anew.

Almost anything will count. Earn points by shopping through their online malls? Good. Redeeming for a reward? Good. Transferring credit card proprietary points? Also almost always good. Etc.

In other words, there’s no reason for your points actually to expire, unless you forget about them. That’s why it’s so important to check your accounts at least once per year, to make sure that you’re not on the verge of expiration. If you are, there’s usually a simple way to extend them.

Best thing to do? Set a calendar invite for once per year. Maybe every six months, if you are cautious. Here are a few of the biggest programs’ expiration policies.

Hotels

Marriott: Every 24 months. Some restriction on what defines “activity.”

Hilton: Every 12 months. If they expire, you may be able to reactivate them.

Hyatt: Every 24 months.

IHG: Every 12 months.

Airlines

American: Every 18 months

Delta: Score one for Delta. Their miles don’t expire.

United: Every 18 months

Southwest: Every 24 months

JetBlue: Hooray for JetBlue! No expiration.

Remember, you probably have other accounts that you have opened over the years. Even a few thousand points will usually get you something, so check everything, and don’t lose them.

Happy new year!

 

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WOW Air Plane Sales Show The Danger Of ULCCs

Well, this isn’t good. It’s been a turbulent year for WOW Air, the Icelandic ultra-low cost carrier carrier. After the losses got too big to handle, it announced that Iceland Air would be buying it. And when that didn’t work out, Indigo Partners, led by airline veteran Bill Franke, stepped in. Now, the airline is cutting back its growth significantly.

50% off Airline Tickets (And The Airline)

reykjavic, iceland

Iceland will have fewer flights in the new year                                                                    Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Last week, after announcing a 50% off sale on tickets, WOW announced that it would be cutting its fleet in half, as well.* The company will take its 20 planes down to 11, as it prepares for another difficult year. Sadly, it needs the money just to continue operations going forward. While no flights will be cut in December or January, there will eventually be an announcement as to which ones are being grounded.

Here’s the problem: Passengers who booked tickets on WOW will have no real recourse if it’s their flight that gets axed. They’ll get their money back from their credit card companies, but that’s it. They’re on their own for any other costs related to their vacation, and new tickets will likely cost more than they would have at the original time of booking.

That’s not to say that you should never book on a ULCC. Network carriers can go bankrupt as well, which we have seen at almost every global carrier in the US in the past 20 years. But the newer discount carriers tend to operate with less of a cushion on their balance sheets. One good ice storm or spike in fuel prices can be enough to spell the end of a poorly capitalized company. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a financial expert to determine your airline’s fate. Bankruptcies are rare, and liquidations even more so, but a Google search can generally answer any questions you may have about your potential carrier.

 


*I first saw this article on Flyertalk.

 

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Discover 5% Categories Jan-Mar: Grocery Stores

Note: Yesterday’s post reminder appears to have gotten stuck in the upside-down. You can read the post here.

Every calendar quarter, Discover It and Discover More cards offer 5% cash back on the first $1,500 in spending in various categories.

First Quarter 2019

Discover

Here’s an easy one. From January through March, earn 5% back on the first $1,500 you spend at supermarkets. They only count traditional supermarkets, but it’s a pretty heavy spending category for most people. It could be an easy $75.

Discover is one of the better credit card companies out there. Service is good and they don’t tend to charge a lot of nuisance fees. Their cash back shopping page is also excellent.

 

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Capital One Savor: Now In My Wallet

There are competing philosophies around credit card rewards portfolios. For those who want the “set it and forget it” method, the Citi Double Cash Card is probably the best solution. You get 2% on every purchase. No bonus multipliers or quarterly promotions to worry about. You may not always get the single best reward available, but you’ll do pretty well across the board. But some us who like to have different cards for different types of purchases. It’s a bit more hassle, but you can take advantage of bonus categories, based on the card.

Savor Rewards from Capital One: 4% at Restaurants

capital one savor

4% cash back on a frequently used category

Credit cards often give you bonus multipliers on categories that you use frequently, such as gas or supermarkets. They hope that it will get you in the habit of reaching for their card.

There are a few cards that offer big bucks back on dining, including some new players in the market, such as the Uber Visa. My newest card, though, is the Capital One Savor card. It offers many of the same perks as its competitors, but it comes with a rock star sign-up bonus. In particular:

  • There’s a $500 cash bonus if you spend $3,000 within the first three months of opening the card.* Even if that’s all you ever spend, that’s still a pretty good return.
  • Yes, there is an annual fee on the card, which Uber doesn’t have. That fee is waived, however, for the first year.
  • You get a free year of “Postmates Unlimited,” one of the many delivery services out there. Unlimited gets a lot of the fees waived. The downside is that you’ll need to cancel manually after the year is over. While my experiences with Postmates have been good, you’ll have no trouble finding complaints about them on the internet (including the fact that they frequently charge above menu prices for restaurants).
  • Added bonus: I generally find Capital One’s customer service to be excellent.

 

Overall, for those of you who find dining out (or dining in, including delivery) to be a large part of your overall budget, this card is a winner.

One final note: As you probably know, getting a credit card through my site generates a commission. All commissions through my site are donated to charity, so when you get a card through my link, you are doing well by doing good.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: I get occasional questions about the spend requirements. To be clear, you have to spend $3,000 in total over the first three months, not $3,000 per month.

 

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What Delta’s New Boarding Zones Mean

Once again, Delta has announced a change to the way it will board planes and, as usual, the new process will be more complicated than the old one. The meaning is simple. Delta is giving up any pretense that it is trying to find the most efficient way to board a plane. Rather, your boarding spot, like your seat, will ultimately become a function of what you pay.*

The New Boarding Process

delta, boarding zone

The new boarding pattern. Ooh, I hope I’m in “violet transitioning to amethyst!”

Delta’s new boarding scheme moves from six zones to eight and is based on “ticket type and color (Presumably, CNN means the color of the zone and not the passenger).” As they put it:

“Zone boarding, an aviation standard for decades, will soon be a thing of the past for Delta customers as the airline makes a global shift to boarding by branded fare purchased. This is the latest evolution in Delta’s multi-year work to bring consistency, simplicity and clarity to the gate and boarding experience, efforts that have driven all-time high customer experience scores. SkyMiles Medallion Members and eligible Delta SkyMiles American Express Credit Card Members will continue to receive priority boarding.”

The new method prioritizes how much you paid for your ticket. True, Diamond Medallion members (those who have earned 125,000 qualifying miles and spent $15,000 in the previous or current calendar year) will still get to board in the first zone, regardless of what they paid. But Platinum (75,000/$9,000) and Gold (50,000/$6,000) will slip from second to fourth, putting them in the position of possibly having to fight for overhead space.** Instead, they’ll be overtaken by people who booked Comfort+ or Premium Select. After that, the rest of the world boards in the same order as it had before.

So, Why?

No preboarding for you!

So why would an airline make a new, more complicated boarding process? Generally, any time that question is asked in the airline industry, the answer is, “because they can.” Priority boarding is simply another product for them to sell. Loyalty, particularly at the mid-tier levels? Now, it’s a matter of “what have you done for me lately?”

Delta is a privately held, profit seeking entity. It has every right to decide who gets to board when, and how much they should pay for it. I have no argument with the fact that they did so. And despite the way that Delta has been chipping away at elite benefits, I would argue that it still has one of the stronger programs. And clearly, Diamond status is the most valuable top-tier status in the  industry.

Where the problem occurs, however, is when every individual transaction becomes just that: a purchase made in isolation. Knocking off one, or even a few, benefits might not make a difference. And let’s not forget that the reason that boarding has become such a disaster is because airlines decided to start charging to check bags. Again, a “one-off” fee. But take all of these one-offs in isolation and you will eventually create an airline where loyalty only goes as far as your credit card bill, and you might decide that a low-cost carrier suits all your needs. I fly a lot of JetBlue, and they treat their elite members like gold. And like Southwest, you can use your points for any flight at any time. SkyMiles have become increasingly worthless over time. I’d hate for the elite benefits to go away, as well.

A casual dining restaurant executive once told me that the dirty little secret is that whenever they want to take a price increase, they just raise the price of soda. The problem, he said, was that when you raised it too much, you hit a tipping point, where customers just switched to water, and you lose $2 of pure profit. And then, they realize that they’re just fine with water and don’t go back. I don’t think that we’re at that point with the airlines, but it will come eventually. And, as is the case with restaurants, they won’t know until it’s too late.

 


*Boarding as a product is not necessarily a new concept but, in the past, Delta has at least had the good sense to pretend that boarding was supposed to be an efficient process. No longer.

**Beginner’s Hint: If you have a qualifying Delta credit card, you will get a waiver for the ticket spending requirement if you spend $25,000 or more in a calendar year. What Diamond? That’ll run you $250,000 in spending on your card(s) to earn the waiver. It’s also unlikely that Platinum members will have to worry about overhead space, given their immediate upgrades to Comfort+ seats.

 

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Delta To Offer “Pay With Miles” Upgrades

A few years ago, Delta announced its intention to “sell” 75% of the seats in first class. The airline didn’t actually think that it would get cash for those seats, but it wanted to get something, such as a payment in the form of miles. So here we go.

Delta Expands Upgrading with Miles

delta, upgrade

Just because you can upgrade doesn’t mean that it’s cheap to do so.

Delta has just announced that it is expanding its “upgrade with miles” feature, allowing passengers to upgrade their seats with miles or cash after they have booked a ticket. That’s a big step up from the previous  process, which tries to upsell you as you’re booking the ticket, but doesn’t offer you the ability to go back and do so.*

Under the new program, you won’t have to buy the upgrade at the time of booking. Instead, you can upgrade at a later point. The advantage is two-fold. First, it doesn’t set a time restriction around when the purchase has to be made. Second, it makes it easier for corporate travelers who want to upgrade. Many companies force passengers to fly coach and pay for their upgrades themselves. But when booking on a corporate site, there’s rarely a way to pay with a personal credit card for a portion of the fare. The new system will allow passengers to do so through Delta’s site.

Goodbye, Even More Free Upgrades

If the winners are people who want to buy upgrades, the losers are passengers who are used to getting them for free because of their elite status. To be clear, nobody is entitled to a free upgrade. Airlines are private companies who seek to make a profit. The airline needs to be careful, though. SkyMiles is extraordinarily profitable for Delta. If they destroy the value in the program, that money could end up going somewhere else.

 


*There are still mileage upgrade awards.. Based on the fare class of your ticket (which usually correlates to how much the ticket cost and the restrictions), you can upgrade one-way, for between 15,000 and 30,000 miles. That award also requires availability in the upgrade bucket.

 

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Southwest Credit Card: 60,000 Points. But More Importantly, The Calendar…

Southwest Rapid Rewards Card

Southwest Airlines runs frequent promotions for its Rapid Rewards Credit Card, but now may be an optimal time to get it, given that we are at the end of the calendar year (More on that later.). I don’t offer Chase cards, but that link will take you directly to Southwest’s website.

For those who are not familiar with Rapid Rewards, the Southwest Airlines loyalty program, it works a little bit differently from traditional plans. At the major carriers, the price of an award ticket in points depends on where you are flying, when you are flying and the class of service. And then, even if you have enough points, there might not be availability.

Southwest has gotten rid of a lot of those restrictions. Instead, the cost in points is based strictly on how much that ticket would cost you if you were to pay cash. Each point is worth about 1.5 cents. To get a quote, simply search for the ticket you want and select “Points” instead of “Dollars.”

southwest, rapid rewards

Toggle to points to get an award quote

The Southwest Companion Pass

The card offers some pretty good benefits just for having it (although the “bags fly free and no change fee” are somewhat disingenuous, since you get those without the card, as well.). Depending on which of the two cards in the link you apply for, you could get additional benefits that more than pay for the price of the card itself. Note that the card is subject to Chase’s 5/24 rule.*

But the card will also give you a head start to possibly the best perk in the airline industry: The Companion Pass (CP). A companion pass is just what it sounds like: for the duration of your status, which you earn by flying 100 segments or earning 110,000 Rapid Rewards points in a calendar year, you get to bring along your favorite companion, free of charge (Yes, you do have limited opportunities to change your companion if you get a new favorite person.). The 60,000 Rapid Rewards points you get from the sign-up bonus count, as do any that you earn from the credit card. You’ll earn 40,000 points for spending $1,000 in your first three months, as well as another 20,000 for spending in the first year.

Even if you’re not trying to earn the Pass, it is still an excellent sign-up bonus. Your 60,000 points for getting the card are worth approximately $900 in Southwest flights.

Which Card Should I Get

southwest, rapid rewards

Two cards, but one clearly offers more total value

You have two options for cards, and you likely won’t be able to get both. The basic card costs $69 and gives you an anniversary bonus of 3,000 points. If we value points at 1.5 cents each, the points are worth about $45. Your net cost is $24.

The Priority card, though, is the better deal. Yes, it costs more at $149, but it gives you a $75 annual travel credit and 7,500 points each year on your anniversary. Together, those two benefits are worth $187.50 in travel credit. You’ll also receive a number of other benefits, including upgraded boarding passes.

Why Now? 

Southwest offers bonus promotions throughout the year, but now is the optimal time to get it. Why is that?

The Companion Pass is based on a calendar year. By getting the card at the beginning of the year, you’ll be in a position to earn 60,000 points right away toward the 110,000 that you need for the CP. Thus, you will know exactly what you need throughout the year, meaning that you can shift spending onto or off of your Southwest card, depending on your needs. It also means that you’ll have the Pass for the maximum amount of time. If you earn it in December of 2018, you only have it for a month of the year. If you front-load your points and earn it in January, you’ll have it for all of 2018, as well as 2019.

The actual rewards for spending, which are a point per dollar for all purchases except Southwest (which are at two points) are not great, so I wouldn’t make this my primary card. But if you fly a lot of Southwest and have a companion that you like to bring, the card and its sign-up bonus are great to have.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: A few years ago, in order to reduce credit card bonus churners, Chase introduced what has become commonly known as the 5/24 rule. If you have opened five or more personal cards, from any bank, over the previous 24 months, Chase will not approve you for a personal card. There are exceptions, but not a lot of them.

 

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Chunneling One Off The Bucket List

For those who do not know, “the Chunnel” is the nickname for the tunnel that runs under the English Channel, ultimately connecting Paris and London in under 2.5 hours. And while the the experience wasn’t nearly as exciting as I hoped it would be, it’s clear that I’ll never be flying from London to Paris again. Here’s a bit about the experience.

Booking The Ticket

eurostar, chunnel

Fortunately, there’s no Basic Economy

Operated by Eurostar, the train is easily bookable online at their website. You can either print a paper ticket, or simply upload the electronic version to your phone. Or, if you’re neurotic like I am, do both.

As you can see, there are three different classes of service. Being a man of the people, I chose the standard one, which still comes with a seat assignment and two bag allowance. You can also pay up for flexibility, a better seat, priority boarding or meal service. I booked mine a week out and the train was almost entirely full (on a Thursday night), so give yourself some time.

At The Train Station

eurostar, chunnel

Gare Du Nord

The website advised me to be there 45-60 minutes ahead of time. Since no trip ends without my getting lost somewhere along the way, I gave myself the full hour, and then some. Sure enough, the cab driver took me to the wrong station, so we had to correct course to get to Gare Du Nord. I made it with about 35 minutes to go before they could, at least theoretically, tell me I couldn’t board (Plenty of people arrived after me, so I’m guessing that they aren’t always tough about the 30 minutes.

You’ll clear customs and immigration at your origination, so you can head right into the city when you arrive at the destination. There are separate lines for EU and non-EU cardholders, but neither was bad on Thursday night (I had a 10 minute or so wait when I returned on Friday night.). I didn’t want to buy food on the train, but fortunately, there are plenty of restaurants “trainside” and after you clear customs/immigration. The train was waiting for us and boarded on time. That’s the nice thing about not having to wait on the runway.

Onboard The Train

There are several different configurations, with the most common being 2X2, or a table of four. Seats were packed pretty tight, so think Economy, rather than First Class, if you are looking for a flight comparison. There’s plenty of room for luggage, either on a luggage rack at each end of the car or on the overhead.

Entertainment is pretty much “bring your own,” although the Eurostar app will give you access to a bunch of movies or shows. No wi-fi is necessary to use the app, which is a good thing, since there was barely any signal. It also took me the entire length of the ride before I figured out where the outlet was (between and underneath the seats). Two plusses to the lack of wi-fi: I was cut off from the world for 2.5 hours, which rarely happens, and I got to start watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (available on the Eurostar app).

Sadly, riding a train under the English Channel is similar to riding one anywhere else in the world, since you’re left staring at cement walls. It was so dark out that I didn’t even notice when we entered the tunnel.

Arrival

For my outbound, we arrived exactly on time in London (On the return, they apologized profusely after we arrived nine minutes late.). You will arrive at St. Pancras station which, for Harry Potter fans, is right next to King’s Cross Station and Platform 9 3/4. Should you choose to do so, you can wait in line to have your picture taken pushing a cart that is halfway through the wall.

Since you cleared in Paris, you can head right out into the streets at the station and grab a cab. Mischief managed.

Overall

Absolutely no complaints. The calmness of the journey, as well as the ease of getting to and from the stations, absolutely make the Eurostar a better bet than the airports.

 

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