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Travelista Tips: Your questions answered

Boy, that Travel post got HUGE amounts of interest! I had no idea!

Ok, here’s my biggest tip ever: never ever ever ever ever just accept the price given for a hotel/plane ticket/car rental. It can always get lower somehow. I have seen the same seat on the same flight can vary by as much as two hundred dollars on different search engines. So when you find a price you like, write down where you found it and keep searching, because you can probably do a little bit better at another site. And when you find a good price, do a search for a promo code: for instance, Orbitz almost always has a 10% off promo code out there. Similarly, you can play around with promo codes when booking through Starwood, Marriott, Hertz, Avis, Dollar and Budget and basically every Vegas hotel there is. There’s no reason you should ever pay the first rate they offer, because the guy driving off in the exact same Camry next to you paid a different price than you did. It would bug the hell out of me if I knew he paid less!

Also, a lot of times, you can bundle a car rental or a hotel with your airfare for less than just the cost of the airfare (for instance, I once got a luxury car rental and a round trip plane ticket to SF for 4th of July weekend, no less, for $300 all in, while the same plane ticket alone would have been $375). Also, there are several websites that will refund you double the difference of a competitors price, so for instance, on govegas.com, if you book a hotel for $100 a night and you find it on Travelocity.com for $75, GoVegas will give you back $50, since the difference between the two prices was $25. However, that’s a huge caveat, because booking through those kinds of websites will eat your chance to earn frequent flier miles (you have to book through hhonors.com to earn Hilton points, for instance).

Basically, the motto here is that if you don’t want to do the homework and are satisfied with paying what they say is a good deal, then ok, awesome. But if you would rather have more money for vodka or shoes and are willing to spend your break at work doing some internet research, then it will pay off in sometimes crazy good deals.

For instance, last month, a friend and I happened to be in Vegas on the same weekend. She was staying at Bally’s for $89 per night, with a view of Paradise Avenue (the road that runs parallel behind the Strip) and a parking garage (not to mention a bed spread that hadn’t been changed since The Brady Bunch was on prime time). I knew that she wanted me to be impressed by her bargain hunting, a two star located near the strip for under a hundred bucks! At a different time of year and a different economical climate, anyway. I didn’t want to tell her that I had an upgraded Strip-view room at the Wynn and could actually watch the TI pirate show from my room on the 34th floor. For $70 per night.

Remember: the prices can always get lower if you dig long enough.

So many of you have sent me questions privately that I realize I have a ton more to say on the subject. Jennette suggested that I write an e-book and make some cash off of it, and while I probably have enough to fill a pretty hearty PDF file, it would take the level of organization that I really don’t want to exert when I’m still working on two different creative writing projects (those big things I’m doing, yes, now there are two. My head, she is broken), so instead, I’ll just update the blog for free when you guys ask me questions. Deal? Let’s go.

Reader Q&A after the bump!

I know this might seem like a lame ass question but where the hell do I start with the frequent flyer miles? Do I sign up with an airline? Somewhere else? All the information seems to be sort of confusing, on purpose, and the sites I do find want to charge me for the information. – Renee

No, this is a great question! Never pay money for information, by the way, as it’s all available for free on travel websites like Flyertalk or Milepoint (still in beta but will open soon).

You would sign up with them on the airline websites. I have accounts with every major airline, because sometimes the different airlines will have weird little deals where you can take a survey or watch a video and earn a few hundred miles, so I figure it doesn’t hurt to have all of them covered. I keep all of my FF numbers saved in a draft in Gmail so that I can quickly look them up via searching from any computer (but I have my American and Delta numbers memorized, just because I have entered them so many times). It shouldn’t take you more than ten minutes to sign up with each airline, and it’s something you could easily do while stuck on a conference call or something, as it’s just a case of dumping your info into a million different little forms.

Once you get signed up, you’ll probably have to independently sign up with their shopping service. Keep your life simple by using the same password for the airline website as their shopping partner (but don’t use the same password between airline websites, vary it somehow). You can also earn miles by eating at certain restaurants too (and this is even more passive than shopping, because you just register your credit card with their site and then use the card at the restaurant. Their magic elves then recognize the card and give you miles, but there are so few restaurants in my area that we like, I don’t really bother with this one). Here are some links:

American
http://www.aa.com/
https://www.aadvantageeshopping.com/
http://aa.rewardsnetwork.com/

Delta
http://www.delta.com/
http://www.skymilesshopping.com/
http://skymiles.rewardsnetwork.com/

United
http://www.united.com/
https://www.mileageplusshopping.com/

Continental (doesn’t seem to have a separate web portal for its shopping partners like the others)
http://www.continental.com/web/en-US/default.aspx
http://www.continental.com/CMS/en-US/marketing/custcomm/promotions/Pages/onlineretailpartners.aspx

I should note that United and Continental are in the midst of a buyout/consolidation so I’m not sure what will happen with the miles in either account. When this happened with Delta and Northwest, most people didn’t lose their Northwest miles (I did, by the way, but not too many) but Delta also increased the “price” of a frequent flier ticket, which basically devalued those miles that were ported over, which was totally a Gotcha! moment. I wouldn’t really put too much effort toward earning United and Continental miles until that merger shakes out.

Which airline do you recommend most for FF goodness, Wendy? A starter airline, if you will. – Jessi

Well, some people swear by Southwest and others swear by Delta. The consensus among the hardcore flier community is that you stick with the the three biggies: Delta, American and United. It really doesn’t do a lot of good to focus on an airline that isn’t convenient for you, obviously, so if, say, American doesn’t fly to the airport you use most frequently, I wouldn’t bother with it. For instance, I would love to give more business to Virgin Atlantic or Jet Blue but since they both basically shun the flyover states, it’s not going to happen. Similarly, folks in Milwaukee and Kansas City probably want to focus more on Midwest/Frontier because it hubs in their airports, while folks in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City should probably focus on Delta for the same reason. People in places like Chicago or Baltimore get a bit more freedom to be Choosy Moms.

So pick one that is the most convenient for you but cover your bases with the other airlines that service your local airport too, because you never know when you’ll find a cheaper flight on one of them and you’ll want to already have a FF number so that you can jump on that fare instantly before it’s gone.

We stayed at a Hilton property and they like charged us double on our debit card and it took several weeks to get the money back! Should I complain to Hilton? – Olivia

You certainly can, but you’ll probably find out that when you checked in, you signed something that agreed to that. The simple truth is that debit cards are AWESOME but you shouldn’t use them for things like guaranteeing hotel rooms (the credit card you hand to the desk clerk when you check in), reserving hotel rooms, and weirdly, paying for gas at the pump because you’re giving the vendor the chance to block some funds in your checking account, which can cause havoc to any checks you write against that account. Keep a credit card with lots of available credit on it for those instances, because they just need to know that they have the ability to charge you if you go all rock star and trash their hotel room. Also, you’ll need a credit card if you ever want to rent a car anyway, as I think there’s maybe only one little podunk rental car place that still takes debits in the entire nation, and then only grudgingly.

What kind of a miles adding credit card do you use? – Susan

I actually have three American CitiCards. Each one gave me 25K to 45K miles for signing up. I don’t carry a balance on them and I only use one at a given time so that I don’t have to pay three annual fees every year. Some people cancel their cards and then sign up again to get that introductory bonus mile payout over and over, but I’m not that crazy.

Can I just be a bit of a devil’s advocate here? I got swept up in the miles game one year and did manage to accrue enough miles for both me and my husband to go to the Caribbean before our daughter was born–it was great. But, I honestly believe I spent more money on stuff to get free miles than I would have on the airline tickets. Plus, I’m a big believe that credit cards are pretty much the devil, and any time you using a credit card to make big purchases, you have to be super careful to pay it in full eveyr month (and who does that?) I really think the miles game can be a bit of a money and time suck honestly. – Amy

Amy, you’re absolutely right about the spending. The trick is in NOT getting excited about a mile promotion and thinking of a reason to take advantage of it, but rather, knowing that you’re going to spend money on something and then figuring out a way to make miles off of it. For instance, I put all of my groceries, gas, car repairs and whatnot on the card. I don’t look for reasons to send flowers because there’s a very delectable potential for 25 miles per dollar.

Spending is a very emotional thing, and if you know it’s easy to talk yourself into spending money (aka Denial, something I talked about a great lengths in this post), then proceed with a big fat yellow CAUTION. Free miles are the cherry on top of a sundae. Don’t try to fill a jar of cherries by ordering four dozen sundaes!

Yeah, but you still have to spend a lot of money for several years before you actually accrue any points. Thats good if you’ve got a ton on money to spend but I don’t. -shopinchic

I can’t say this enough: You should spend no more money than you are right now. The trick is just figuring out a way to make the money you have work for you a little harder than it is right now. If you find yourself spending more money, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. Sometimes that means buying through Target’s website rather than going to the store, buying something you would have anyway. Actually, in the case of Target, it’s almost always actually CHEAPER to buy online because you can always find a promo code to take 10% off, which usually more than covers the cost of shipping, PLUS you’re getting the free miles by clicking over to Target via the airline’s shopping portal!

Somebody sent me a link to your blog post about frequent flier miles. It got me interested so I started looking into it! One thing I can’t figure out that I hoped you’d be able to explain is the difference between having a Credit Card through an Airline versus having a Credit Card through a bank. On my credit card through my bank I can gain points and then use the points to “buy” frequent flier points. Is that any different, or is there any benefit to having a card through a specific airline? Thanks! – Joel

Yes, there’s a big difference! I advise choosing a credit card that goes through an airline/financial partner (ie. Delta’s AmEx, American’s Citicard, etc) instead of something that gives you points to buy frequent flier miles (Capital One comes to mind, Flex Perks is another one I think) and here’s why: the banks are trying to compete with the Citi and AmEx programs by saying they give, for instance, 2 miles for every dollar instead of one. This is misleading, because in order to cash in those points, you end up paying double the amount of miles to buy a ticket, so really, it’s the same reward as the other cards, just spun differently.

Confused? For example: with my American Citi card, every month, x number of miles are deposited directly into my American ff account. I do nothing, the miles just show up and I can choose to use them as soon as I get to 25K miles for a free coach ticket or use the miles for something else (a super swank hotel suite in Vegas, for instance, for 7K per night, etc). When I want to book travel, I just go to aa.com and use my banked miles. Easy. I don’t even have to talk to anyone on the phone Meanwhile, my in-laws have a Capital One card, where the points get banked separately on Capital One’s tracking system. When they want to travel, they have to call Capital One’s system and then they need 50K miles to get a free coach ticket on American and only if Capital One shows it as being available. There’s some talk on the frequent flyer/traveler boards that there is a discrepancy between availability on those systems and what is actually available with the airline. For me, that’s just way too much of a headache.

The other reason I don’t do the bank cards is that I’m actually earning miles on American through other means too: using their shopping mall system, actually flying places and earning miles the old fashion way, etc. My credit card-earned miles just add to that collective pot, so I get to a ticket earned a lot faster than having to wait to earn 50K points with a bank card (and then still have and not be able to use those other miles sitting my my actual ff account).

Essentially, why limit yourself when you don’t have to?

Also, a less immediate reason to want your miles deposited as actual miles in your account is for reaching lifetime status. Some airlines allow you to earn lifetime status based upon total miles earned through whatever means. By having those miles directly deposited into my ff account, they count toward that status. The bank card points wouldn’t touch my account, so I’d lose a lot of potential miles that way.

Ok! Got a question? HIT ME. I’m totally primed on this topic and believe me, no question is a stupid question! I appreciate a chance to open a discussion on this as I have a million opinions and apparently really like sharing them with you guys! You can either leave your question in the comments below or send me an email privately at Weetabix with the at sign and then Gmail dot com or PM me on Facebook.

I’m all yours, what are you wondering?

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5 Comments

  1. Poppy wrote:

    So, I’ve got over 600,000 United FF miles (really, no shit – I’ve never used them for anything and they’ve just been piling up). Is this going to be enough to get my husband and I to Italy (business class hopefully) pay for a hotel room and rent a car for a few days for our 10th anniversary in 2012? Also – how far in advance do you recommend starting the process?

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  2. WendyBix wrote:

    Poppy, you don’t say WHERE in Italy, but short answer: should totally be yes. Business class to Europe starts at 105K per person, with first being 135K (I’d go first if I were you). You can book 330 days in advance, and with FF tickets, you should book as early as possible, because the airline NEVER releases more seats. Similarly, you should be able to book a nice hotel and car through United’s site. Play around a bit with dates, but this early, you should have more than enough availability.

    Also, you should be aware that you will have to pay cash at the airport for taxes on your fares since it’s international: there’s just no way to get around that, I’m afraid. I think we paid about $150 each way when we flew back from England.

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  3. Niki wrote:

    What a fabulous idea, thank you so much! Your post was all sorts of timely for me. I am in the middle of putting together a very tight budget (my husband and I have debt and no savings), but I think it’s important for us to have positive goals instead of simply living in austerity. My husband and I have decided that travel is important to us, and we’re going to budget for it. But I was thinking we’d be able to get one Grand Canyon trip and one Europe trip before the kiddo hits college (so, over the next 5 years), with maybe a little romantic weekend getaway once a year maybe. Your post has opened up a whole new world of possibilities! So, thank you.

    Now to my question. (I feel like saying “long-time listener, first time caller” here.) Are any hotels better than others when it comes to accruing and using ff miles? My husband’s job is starting to send him all over the place (Europe, China, North Carolina). He has to book at work-approved sites, but he often has some choice between hotel chains (Hilton, Radisson, etc.), so he’s wondering if he ought to choose one over the other? If not, then I suppose what we’d do is pick one that we like and have him choose that as often as possible so that we can stockpile miles for a visit, yes?

    Thanks again.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  4. WendyBix wrote:

    Hi Niki!

    If he has the option of picking through his employer’s travel agency, most likely the biggies will be represented there. Usually an employer has a deal with one certain hotel chain over another (for instance, he’ll be recommended to take Marriott properties over Hilton, etc), so if it looks like he won’t have a choice, then put all of your eggs in that basket and don’t look back. Marriott, Hilton and Starwood all have great bang for the ff buck, the Holiday Inn, Country Inn and Radisson are not so much, but they do have some viability. I like Hilton, personally, just because I can do something called “double dipping” which allows me to earn miles AND Hilton points toward Hilton status, and I can switch which program I’m in: so for instance, if I’m only going to be staying one night, I’ll put myself into an earning situation that rewards better per stay, but if I’m going to be staying several nights, I’ll switch over to the program that awards more points based upon nights or total dollars spent. Starwood (which owns Westins and W Hotels, among others) are also very good for rewarding miles and Starwood points.

    The thing to note here is that you’re going to need a hotel on those trips too, and you can either book a freebie hotel with that hotel’s points OR use ff miles to book the hotel. If you’re going somewhere that has a Hilton or a Westin or whatever, then it’s not a problem, but I know that I have had difficulty using hotel points in the past, so I tend to rather use my FF miles for booking hotel rooms as they don’t seem to have as many availability issues. Regardless of whether you decide to use his stays to earn actual hotel points or ff miles, your instinct is sound: pick one or get stuck with one, but learn everything you can about its mileage earning programs and decide how you want to earn those loyalty points NOW rather than months from now when it might become apparent that you lost out on earning opportunities.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  5. squandra wrote:

    Thank you so much for this post! I am finally getting started on FF miles and I have two questions:

    1) Is it possible the “miles per flight” discrepancy between airline and bank cards — has changed? I ask because the CapOne card offers 25,000 miles to sign up, which they say is worth about $250. And AAdvantage offers 30,000 miles to sign up, which they say is worth about $300. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem like it would take twice as many miles for the same trip with the bank card, but is there something I’m missing?

    2) My husband and I have separate CC accounts right now, but plan to get a joint miles card (well, unless we find it will be helpful to have one airline and one bank card, I guess). But — what about the FF accounts (and shopping network, and rewards accounts)? Do you and Esteban share? Do you each have your own?

    Again, thank you so much! It’s WONDERFUL to have expert advice I trust. đŸ™‚

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

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