Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Travel Year In Review

Well, it's the last day of 2013, and wow, I've had an amazing year. Since my father's an Asian math nerd, according to his excel spreadsheet, I have:

1. Flown approximately 84,860 miles this year.
2. Taken 48 flight segments (14 of which were 5-13 hours long).
3. Flown out of 32 airports.
4. On 12 different airlines.
5. Traveled to 10 foreign countries.
6. Earned 0 frequent flyer miles!

Of course, our #1 airline this year was United Airlines (14 flight segments), and we flew through Newark and JFK Airports most often (9 times each). My father earned United Gold Status and Aegean Airlines Blue Status for 2014, while my mother earned Aegean Airlines Gold Status and United Silver Status through 2014.

Most of our flights were paid for with out of pocket cash, though we did:
  1. Save on my fare since I flew as a lap child for most of 2013;
  2. Save $1,721 by using our Citi Thank You points for free flights to LA, Memphis and Phoenix;
  3. Save another $1,348 by using British Airways Avios miles for our recent trip to Puerto Rico;
  4. Taking advantage of mistake fares, such as the time we flew to Argentina on TAM for just $400/person (vs. $1,200/person normally); and 
  5. Capitalize on United MileagePlus Awards for some of our long haul international business class flights (Thailand, Germany/France and Israel).

On the hotel side, we have:

1. Stayed 129 nights in hotels this year
2. Across 34 different cities
3. In 21 unique hotel brands

The hotel brands with the most stays was a tie between #1T Sheraton and #1T Hyatt Place (15 nights each) followed by #3 Westin (14 nights) and the #4T W Hotels (12 nights) and #4T Park Hyatt (12 nights, including the amazing Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires seen here). This year we earned Starwood Platinum Status (50 nights) for 2014 and benefited from Hyatt Diamond Status (ending Feb 2014), Hilton Gold Status and Marriott Gold Status.

Now, while many of you may just assume we're millionaires, let me be clear - we are not! Because of the crafty use of hotel branded credit cards, sign up bonuses and seasonal promotions, we've been able limit the out of pocket cash expenditures. From the 129 nights spent in hotels this year, 28 of those nights were for work related travel and reimbursed ($5,060 spent for an average of $181/night). The remaining 101 nights were for "leisure" travel and cost us an average of $83/night in out of pocket cash from using free night awards and Cash & Point discounted rates.

A quick recap of some of our favorite photos from 2013.











Monday, December 30, 2013

American Airline Perks on BA Avios Awards

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we took advantage of a transfer bonus to transfer 100,000 of our American Express Membership Reward points to convert into 135,000 British Airways Avios Miles.

Then we redeemed 80,000 of those BA Avios Miles for 4 free flights on American Airlines. The reason we could do this part was because both airlines are partners within the same alliance, OneWorld.

Basically, BA Avios can be used to redeem flights on just about any OneWorld Airline. We've only done this for our AA flight from New York to San Juan, but it's been a great way to redeem our Amex MR points from our Amex Platinum cards before we close them next month before their $450 annual fees hit.

In addition to finding great awards for domestic short haul flights, using BA Avios gets you a handful of useful extra benefits as well. Now, these are not officially stated benefits, so you should not expect to be entitled to them, but multiple people have also corroborated their own similar experiences from BA Avios redemptions on American Airlines.

1. Free Checked Bag. After checking our online reservations on AA.com, we confirmed we were able to check 1 bag each for free, saving us the $25/bag that regular passengers need to pay. Unfortunately, we didn't get a bright orange tag on our checked luggage. Not sure if that was an oversight or if we're not entitled to that privilege, but we didn't make a fuss. Truth be told, though, my father forgot to check/ask. Also, you also definitely get this benefit if you have the American Airlines co-branded credit card from Citi.

2. Priority Security Lane. For both our flights at JFK and SJU, the regular TSA security line was really long. Fortunately, our boarding passes printed out with "PRIORITY AACCESS" on them, so we were able to bypass the regular passengers and go into the much shorter line. With that extra time we saved, we went to get some food for our flight since it would go through our regular dinner time and land way too late to eat anything upon arrival.

Interestingly enough, my grandmother (who had no status with American or British Airways) and wasn't a U.S. citizen received "TSA Pre-Check" clearance on her boarding pass. That meant she had access to an even more exclusive line she could enter with basically no one in it. And when it came time to x-ray her carry-on luggage, she didn't have to remove anything from her bag nor take off her shoes. I wasn't around then, but my father says Pre-Check today is like how flying was in the 1990's before 9/11.

3. Priority Boarding. And when it was time to board the plane, the first call was for First Class/Uniformed Military passengers, followed immediately after by Priority AAccess, then Group 1, 2, 3... I think technically, Priority AAccess passengers should be after all the American Elites, but we weren't complaining. If you have the American Airlines credit card, then you get Group 1 boarding privileges.

Aside from the childish urge to be "first," boarding early has it's distinct advantages, because when the airline charges extra fees for checking your bag, everyone tries to bring a carry on. Then oftentimes there's not enough overhead bin space for everyone. So getting on early means securing your overhead bin space. A petty victory, but a victory nonetheless.

4. No Lounge Access Though.  Unfortunately, access to American Admiral's lounges was not a part of the BA Avios package. However, we were able to get in anyway by flashing our American Express Platinum cards.

Seems like it all starts and ends with the American Express Platinum card.

Friday, December 27, 2013

American Admirals Club Lounge

The San Juan Airport is the busiest airport in the Caribbean region. Most of the airlines, however, operate out of 2 of the 5 concourses (A and D). Concourse A is dominated by Jet Blue while D is shared by American, Delta, Southwest, Spirit, United and US Airways.

Fortunately for us, we were flying on American Airlines (using our British Airways Avios to book the award) and had American Express Platinum Cards. While the benefit is going away in March 2014, for the time being, Platinum card holders get complimentary access to AA airport lounges for themselves and 1 extra person. Between my two parents (who each had their own cards), we could guest in the four of us. The lounge entrance is actually not easy to see if you're not looking for it (as you can see from the photo). Thankfully, my father knew where to find it.

At check in, the desk agent was very familiar with the Platinum Amex benefit and didn't even have any issues allowing all of us to enter under just my father's card. As soon as we walked in, we saw a 10 foot Christmas tree and tons of open space.

The lounge was actually quite nice and had a bar offering complimentary beer, house wine and coffee (as well as premium spirits and wine for a charge). You could also order sandwiches for cash. There were tons of seating (with or without tables) and free WiFi access. We found some empty seats without any other travelers right in front of the 60" LCD flatscreen TV showing the new Spiderman on BlueRay.


There were stairs leading to another floor, but they seemed to have closed off that area since they were significantly under capacity on the first floor. In fact, going around the corner, you found complimentary snacks as well as another seating area with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the tarmac.

We had about an hour to kill before we were scheduled to board. While they had complimentary snacks (crackers, cookies and dried fruit) and soft drinks (water, sodas, juices), we decided to leave a little early and find ourselves some more substantive meal options to take on the flight with us. Sitting in economy seating for 4 hours, we weren't going to be served meals on our 2PM flight, so we wouldn't have a chance to eat anything until at least 7PM by the time we drove an hour from JFK Airport to our Manhattan apartment.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

InterContinental San Juan

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: InterContinental San Juan
Dates: December 17-19, 2013
Rate Paid: $181/night (incl. taxes and fees)
Stay Points Earned: 6,630 IHG Points
Regular Promo Points: 6,000 IHG Points
Big Win Promo Points: 74,700 IHG Points

For our final two nights, we went back to the InterContinental San Juan where we first started our Puerto Rican vacation a week earlier after first arriving on a late flight from New York City.

While we could have had Starwood benefits if we stayed at the Sheraton Old San Juan, we had read that Sheraton property was in quite shoddy condition, even if it were located ideally in Old San Juan. Having already achieved Starwood Platinum status for 2014, we didn't really need any more Starwood stays this year, but IHG (InterContinental Hotel Group) had an attractive promotion going on for Q4 2013 called The Big Win, where my father would earn up to 91,700 IHG points (worth up to $900 to him). So booking two nights at the IC San Juan was a no brainer.

As mentioned in another post, my father's customized Big Win promotion (from August to December 2013) was structured as follows:
  1. Try 1 & Done: 1,000 points for staying at any IHG hotel
  2. Stay More & Earn More: 6,700 points for staying a total of 5 nights
  3. Explore Our Brands:  22,000 points for staying at 3 different IHG brands
  4. Book With Us: 2,400 points for booking 2 stays on IHG's website/mobile app
  5. Survey the Win: 100 points for taking a 5 minute online survey
  6. Live the City Life: 12,000 points for staying in 2 of select city/metro locations
  7. Spend It To Get It: 1,500 points for paying for 1 stay on your IHG credit card
  8. Big Win: 46,000 points for completing all 7 tasks
By the time we were heading to Puerto Rico, he already had completed 3 nights at a Holiday Inn Express and a Hotel Indigo, thereby completing #1, #4, #5, #6 and #7. He also had partially completed #2, #3 and #8. Upon completion of the 2 nights at the IC San Juan, he would complete all the tasks and earn the rest of the bonus (a whopping 74,700 IHG points).

Location of the IC San Juan was ideal for a stay the night before your flight as it's a 5 minute taxi drive to SJU Airport (fare is fixed at $12 + $1 fee/bag). In fact, you can see flights landing on the runway from your room if you're facing the lagoon side.

The hotel is located right next to the El San Juan Hotel (a Hilton hotel) and Casino and a 10 minute walk down Isla Verde Avenue to reach the glamorous Ritz Carlton San Juan (a Marriott hotel). There's plenty of small restaurants, bars and shops along that street, including a convenience store and a decent diner right across the street.

To get to Old San Juan, you can either take a $21 taxi or take the public bus (just $0.75 per person). We decided to take the bus into town and then a taxi back. Thankfully, the IC Hotel concierge informed us we needed exact change, so we exchanged $3 for 12 quarters before we left.

Check In
We arrived early from our Vieques flight/drive from Ceiba Airport, so it was only 1:30PM when we arrived to the InterContinental. Official check-in wasn't until 4PM, but they accommodated our early arrival (perhaps due to my father's IHG Platinum status) and checked us into a room. The front desk agent had my father sign a few things and initial our rate and departure dates and then handed him the room keys.

Unfortunately, the room that they assigned us was a King Bed and we needed Double Beds. After going back down, the front desk agent seemed confused and flustered, but eventually talked with a supervisor and told us we could just relax in that King Bed room until a Double Bed room became available.

Also due to my father's Platinum status with IHG, we received a few coupons to welcome us to the hotel. First, we received a 10% off coupon for dining at the hotel restaurant (no thanks!). Second, we received a $25 Match Play coupon for their casino downstairs. While my father originally thought it was $25 worth of free gambling, it was actually $25 in MATCH, meaning if he bet $25, he could double the bet to $50 using the coupon.

Wireless internet was free for everyone. Though we had the option of paying extra for "High Speed," the regular wireless was just fine for our needs (and much much better than the wifi at the W Vieques).

Since our actual room wasn't going to be ready for a while, we left our luggage in the temporary room and went to have a quick lunch at Mi Casita across the street. After a traditional Puerto Rican lunch (pork chops and beef mofongo), my father and I decided to check out the InterContinental pool and beach scene.

Pool & Beach
Unlike the W Vieques which really catered to young couples on a romantic luxury vacation, the IC was more accommodating of all traveler types, including the four college women's basketball teams that were staying at the hotel. The place was full of giant amazon women from Oklahoma State, Michigan State, Georgetown and Georgia Tech. Thankfully, the players didn't hang out by the pool because that would have made my abnormally short father feel even more inadequate.

As you can see from the photos, the pool area is massive and there were plenty of seats for everyone to enjoy without having to play the "put your towel down" game. However, the weather was slightly too cold (only 80 degrees) to truly enjoy an unheated pool. We did spend a lot of time laying on the beach and in the hot tub though!

The property is more kid friendly than our W Vieques was. In fact, they have a playground right by the pool area as well as a Kid's Club, though it was closed and only for kids 4+ years old.

Our Room
Around 3PM we received a call from the Front Desk letting us know that our Double Bed room was available. We went upstairs and moved our luggage to the new room. As you can see, it was pretty basic and clean. The hotel wouldn't be my first choice for a vacation getaway with so many other (better) properties nearby, but for our 2 night stay to earn our IHG Promotional points, it was just fine. In fact, our AAA rates were pretty attractive ($97 for the first night and $171 for the second), but after taxes it ended up averaging $181/night all-in.

We did have a chance to check out the casino (but no photos allowed). It was rather basic - as if they never planned to have a casino, but realized all their competition did, so they retrofitted one into the property. They had 8 tables (including blackjack, roulette and poker) and a lot of slot machines. To be honest, we don't really enjoy gambling (well, I'm only 2 years old, so I'm speaking for my parents). But if we did, the InterContinental's casino isn't where we'd go unless we wanted an airport casino type of experience.

We didn't try the hotel restaurant (given we had Mi Casita for cheap breakfasts), but we did have dinner at the attached Ruth's Chris Steakhouse just outside the lobby. Fortunately for my father, he could put the Ruth's Chris tab on his room, so he earned hotel points for his steak dinner.

The lobby was quite nice and welcoming. Despite the amazon women all over the place with their over-sized baggy shorts and ginormous sneakers, the hotel had a beautiful Christmas tree and nice bar areas as well as a wine bar on the side.

Check Out
We did have an issue with our bill on the final day. Instead of using the $171 rate we booked, they applied a random $333 rate, which made our bill a lot higher than expected. Upon checking on the cards that my father initialed/signed when he checked in, the agent confirmed that our rate should have been $171 for the final night. She adjusted the bill, but thankfully my father was anal enough to check the bill carefully and also sign/initial for the correct rate when he checked in. Though, to be honest, he didn't really look at the details when he initialed the rate.

And when we arrived home, my father got an email from IHG. Now, we were 74,700 IHG points richer!

For booking the 2 nights (that we'd need anyway) at the IC San Juan (as opposed to other hotel chains), we will now earned enough points to stay almost 3 free nights at a $250-300/night hotel like the InterContinental Berchtesgaden that we stayed at this past May.