Hotel chains such as Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, IHG, Wyndham, and Radisson reward loyal members through their rewards programs. Each program has different tiers of status depending on how many nights you stay. Here are some of the benefits for having hotel status:
Upgraded Rooms (Always ask the front desk about available upgrades based on your status)
Early Check-In and Late Check-Out (Always call ahead for early check-in and ask for late-checkout when you arrive at the hotel. For some hotel brands, this perk is “guaranteed”)
Free Breakfast (A huge money saver!)
Lounge/Club Access (often comes with free breakfast, alcoholic drinks, and hors d'oeuvres)
Waived Resort Fees (Hyatt, Hilton, and Wyndham are the best for this…)
Welcome Gifts (Often a snack, chocolates, or even champagne)
Extra Bonus Points
Free High Speed Internet
Guaranteed Room Preferences/Availability (critical when you book during a peak time or are in a bind)
Dedicated Phone Lines for Customer Service
How do you get status for free:
Aside from staying numerous nights each year with one brand, there are a handful of credit cards that offer free status just for having the card. Click here for an article about cards that offer hotel status for free!
Take the next step: Match your status to other brands:
I recently matched my platinum status with Marriott to Wyndham Diamond, IHG Spire, Caesars Diamond, and a free trial with Hilton Diamond. This has enabled me to enjoy many of the perks listed above even without any previous stays! Usually, this takes a simple email to the hotel brand with a screenshot of your status with a competing brand. Within a few days, hotels will often match your status with their brand in hopes that you will shift your loyalty. At worse, they will offer you a status challenge, giving you an opportunity to earn status with the company after only a few stays. Keep in mind, that the one brand that rarely allows a status match is Hyatt. For more details on how you can match your status, go to www.statusmatcher.com
How I put my status to the most amazing use:
My platinum status with Marriott came in really handy this summer at the Domes Miramare Resort in Corfu, Greece. I booked this luxury resort using only 35,000 points for the first night and my "free award night" from my Marriott credit card for the second night. Lastly, I applied my "Suite Upgrade" (earned through my Platinum Status) for both nights. Five days before arrival, the hotel upgraded me to a water-front pavilion suite with a private pool. The room had a retractable roof, heated towel racks, and a personal cell phone to call my concierge at any time! In addition, the room also came with access to the Haute Living Room, a beautiful water-front lounge with complimentary alcohol, snacks, and free local food tastings. In addition to these perks, my platinum status got me free breakfast each day (a 50 dollar/day value), early check-in, a welcome gift of fruit and champagne, and a farewell bottle of local olive oil! I saved over $2,000 on the room rate for two nights and even got most of my meals for free during my stay thanks to the lounge and breakfast perk! My total bill at the end of the two nights was only $121 (which included a fancy tasting-menu dinner). Check out a few photos of my room below!
1. Each country has its own requirements for driving permits and insurance: For example, Italy requires visitors with a U.S. license to hold an International Driving Permit. You can get one at your local AAA office for about $30. Costa Rica requires drivers to buy liability insurance, and there isn’t a way to wiggle out of it! Do your research before traveling abroad!
2. Always take photos of prior damage, mileage, and fuel level at the start AND end of the rental. Take the extra two minutes to do this, it is worth the trouble if you get into a sticky situation.
3. Signup for each company’s rewards program. Even if you only rent occasionally, being enrolled will often allow you to skip the line (a huge time saving!), get upgrades, waiver second-driver fees, and choose whatever car you want in your category.
4. Know the difference between primary and secondary car rental insurance. Many credit cards come with car rental insurance, so you can reject the expensive insurance companies try to sell you. However, secondary coverage only kicks in after a claim first goes through your own car insurance company. Avoid any hikes in your insurance rates at home by paying with a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which provides primary coverage. Also note that credit card insurance does not cover liability.
5. Never fill up gas right next to an airport. It will always be more expensive. Find a place about 10-20 miles away from your final destination to fill up gas before returning your vehicle.
6. How do you get free upgrades? Besides being very nice to the agent at the counter, certain credit cards give you free status with many of the major car rental programs. For example, the AMEX Platinum gives me Executive Status with National, where I can automatically select any car in the Executive area (usually a double upgrade from whatever I rent). The United Club Card offers free President's Circle status from Hertz! Last month in Michigan, I used this status when I rented a Toyota Corolla, and picked up the Jaguar XE from the PC area.
7. Take whatever status you earn with one company and match it to others! I took my Executive status with National and matched it with companies like Avis and Sixt. Then I saw a promotion online to match those statuses with Hertz President’s Circle! I have used my status with Hertz over 10 times to get amazing upgrades without paying a cent extra! Check out statusmatcher.com to see which companies will match to each other.
8. Negotiate your upgrade! Often, agents will try to upsell you into something nicer or faster! Make sure you negotiate the rate to get the best deal possible. I have used this tip many times when upgrading to a convertible.
9. Use your credit cards, AAA, or Costco memberships to get huge discounts on car rentals. Each car rental company is usually affiliated with one of them....
10. Use Autoslash.com for 90% of your car rentals (maybe not for exotics…). You won’t regret it and will get the best price!
All-Inclusive Resort vs. Taking a Cruise:
Travelers looking for relaxing, hassle-free vacations often look to Cruise Ships or All-Inclusive Resorts for a week in paradise. Many enjoy the unlimited food and alcohol, while others want a vacation that requires little research or choice during the trip. However, when comparing these two experiences, there are important differences to consider the right fit for you and your family. In this write-up, I will be focusing on one region of the world: the Caribbean Islands and Mexico, since that’s where the majority of All-Inclusive Resorts exist. Here are some things to consider:
ADVANTAGES OF A 7 DAY CRUISE
You get to see 3-4 different countries or islands, adding a bit of variety to the trip
You can find quieter spots on the boat including libraries if you don’t want to party
Some cruise ships cater specifically to certain age groups, which can be great for children or seniors
Cruises can have casinos, Vegas-style shows, mini-golf, water slides and other extensive entertainment
Usually the service from staff is very personal and customized
Sometimes you can score incredible deals on cruises during non-peak times
Restaurants are extremely good at catering to all dietary needs
ADVANTAGES OF AN ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORT
The rooms and bathrooms are much larger than a cruise ship.
You usually have access to the beach just steps away from your room
You can stay at an adult-only resort. (there are adult-only cruise options, but they are extremely expensive or usually not found in this part of the world)
Resorts tend to feel less crowded and more spread out
You can eat dinner whenever you want rather than at an assigned time. You also don’t have to sit with strangers like you often do on cruises
The price you pay covers just about everything, except spa treatments or water sports
You can stay in one place the whole time rather than having to exit the ship every day or two.
THINGS IN COMMON
Plenty of dining options ranging from buffets and formal dining options.
Good gym and spa facilities
Each offers the convenience of having everything you want within a 10 minute walk.
A week at a 4-star All-Inclusive in Cancun for two people starts as low as $1500 for the week!
A 7 night cruise to the Caribbean Islands from Miami starts at $1000 per week for two people. (Remember that alcohol, fine dining, and excursions are optional, but will be extra!)
1. Which countries are the best for safari?
When people usually think of an African Safari, they want to see the big 5: Rhinos, Elephants, Lions, Leopards, and Buffalo. The prime countries to view these animals are Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa. All three countries have a booming tourism industry and numerous safari companies to choose from. However, other countries such as Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana also offer unique safari’s often at a much cheaper price. There are also other exotic animals such as great white sharks, rare bird species, and Gorillas that may dictate the country you choose.
2. How to get there?
There are only three direct flights from the United States to the southern part of Africa: two to Johannesburg and one to Nairobi. A fourth flight to Cape Town from Newark is coming soon. Prices to these airports rarely drop below $1100 per person during peak season. If saving money is your objective, it is possible to fly to Africa for under $700 during off-peak season. Another trick is to use points to fly into Western Africa (Lagos and Accra) direct from the United States and then connect on an African airline to nations in the southern part of Africa. Lastly, there are many 1 or 2 stop flights from the U.S. that connect in Europe or the Middle East. Remember to book as far in advance as possible to get the best deal. I have seen deals as little at $600 round-trip to Africa!
3. How far in advance to book?
Booking a safari about a year in advance is not only ideal, but critical during high seasons such as Christmas time and during the Great Migration (around July/August). Although most companies won’t sell out 12 months in advance, the lodges and camps (where you sleep during your safari) often will. The later you book, the less choices you will have for accommodations as the best ones will be sold out.
4. How much does it cost?
Budgeting for an African Safari can definitely seem daunting. In general, an 8-10 day safari can range from $2000--$5000 per person depending on the type of accommodations you want. These include all meals and water, lodging, jeep use, and the safari itself with a guide. Tour prices do NOT include flights to Africa, gratuity for your driver (a few hundred dollars), Visa costs, laundry, and travel insurance. If you are willing to camp, you can certainly can fit in an entire trip to Africa for under $3000!
5. Finding the right itinerary and tour company:
Safari companies in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa are extremely competitive. They usually strive for perfection given that their clients have high expectations for their once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Start by finding companies on Trip Advisor that have at least 4.5 star ratings. Then go to about 10 of those company’s websites, before emailing your favorite 5-6 with an inquiry. You should hear back within 24 hours regarding your request as they usually communicate very professionally. See who gives you the maximum flexibility and the best price and know that you will rarely be disappointed. We ended up using Easy Travel Co. (after about 50 emails working on the perfect itinerary!) and absolutely loved our 10 day safari in Tanzania.
6. Other tips to keep in mind:
Many travel enthusiasts keep multiple credit cards in their wallet to maximize their point earning potential. I currently have 12 cards in my wallet with each card serving a different purpose. Although the annual fees may seem excessive, these cards have earned me over $30,000 in free travel over the past 5 years! Here is a list of all 12 cards in my wallet and when I actually use them. (hint: sometimes I don't....).
P.S. My credit score is above 800, so having that many cards doesn't have to hurt your credit score!
American Express Personal Platinum Card
Signup Bonus I got: 100k AMEX Membership Reward Points
When I use it: Airfare (5x points), Car rentals (when I rent an expensive car)
Annual Fee: $550
Main Perks: Priority Pass Lounge Access, Delta SkyClub Access, $200 airline credit, Free TSA PreCheck/Global Entry, $100 at Saks Fifth Avenue, International Business Class Discounts, Hilton Gold Status, Marriott Gold Status
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Signup Bonus I got: 60k Ultimate Reward Points
When I use it: Restaurants, Hotels, Car Rentals, and other Misc. Travel
Annual Fee: $450
Main Perks: Priority Pass Lounge Access, $300 travel credit, Primary Car Rental Insurance, Redeem each point for 1.5 cents of travel.
Marriott Bonvoy Business (formerly SPG Business)
Signup Bonus I got: 105k Marriott Points
When I use it: I don’t
Annual Fee: $125
Main Perks: Free night at any mid-level Marriott property, discounts for some business needs such as advertising, shipping, supplies, etc.
Marriott Bonvoy (formerly SPG Personal)
Signup Bonus I got: 105k Marriott Points
When I use it: I don’t
Annual Fee: $95
Main Perks: Free night at any mid-level Marriott property
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless
Signup Bonus I got: 100k Marriott Points
When I use it: I don’t
Annual Fee: $95
Main Perks: Free night at any mid-level Marriott property
Alaska Airlines Personal
Signup Bonus I got: 35k Alaska Airline Miles, plus a buy one, get one free companion ticket
When I use it: For every purchase not mentioned anywhere else. (pharmacies, Costco, Target, Amazon, etc.)
Annual Fee: $75
Main Perks: Free Checked Bag, Buy one, get one ticket for $99 each year
Signup Bonus I got: 60k Southwest Rapid Reward Points
When I use it: Rarely
Annual Fee: $69
Main Perks: 3k points every year
Signup Bonus I got: 60k TrueBlue Miles
When I use it: Grocery Stores (2x points) or JetBlue Flights
Annual Fee: $99
Main Perks: Free check bag, discount on in-flight purchases, 5k bonus points each anniversary
Hyatt Card (old version)
Signup Bonus I got: 30k Hyatt Points
When I use it: I don’t
Annual Fee: $75
Main Perks: Free night at any mid-level Hyatt property each year
Signup Bonus I got: I downgraded my Chase Sapphire Preferred to this card, so none
When I use it: On gas, pharmacies, or groceries depending on the monthly bonus category
Annual Fee: $0
Main Perks: 5x points on bonus categories that change every 3 months. Transfer those points to my Chase Sapphire account to maximum value.
Citi Double Cash Back
Signup Bonus I got: I downgraded my Citi American Aadvantage card to this card, so none
When I use it: I don’t. It’s just to keep my credit score high because it is my oldest card.
Annual Fee: $0
Main Perks: 2% cash on every purchase
Signup Bonus I got: I downgraded my Citi Premier to this card, so none
When I use it: I don’t. It’s just to keep my credit score high because it is my second oldest card.
Annual Fee: $0
Main Perks: Nothing
Avianca LifeMiles is a points currency than can be used on any Star Alliance airline including United, Turkish, Lufthansa, Swiss, ANA, and many more. During Black Friday last week, they were selling LifeMiles for super cheap! 25k miles for 330 dollars, 100k miles for 1320 dollars, etc. Because one of my dream destinations is to go to the Galapagos Islands next year (an amazing group of islands next to Ecuador known for their amazing wildlife), I bought some of these miles to help me get there for cheap! Normally, a round-trip ticket from Boston costs at least 700 dollars. With this promotion, I could fly round trip from Boston to SCY for under 500 dollars! I You need 35k LifeMiles to book the ticket, which during black friday was about $460!
Another amazing way to use LifeMiles is for tickets within Latin America. Some routes cost as little as 3k miles! I purchased Bogota to the Galapagos Islands for only 10k Lifemiles one way and later bought a ticket from Lima to San Jose, CR for only 12k miles!
To top it off, purchasing LifeMiles counts as Airline on your credit card, so I was able to buy 65k miles and also net 4k AMEX points for the purchase (about a 50 dollar value)! You know you're a travel geek, when your entire Black Friday shopping consists of buying Avianca LifeMiles!
Both my wife and I are music teachers, and when we get breaks during the year, we try to travel as much as possible. With our income, coupled with our desire to try to travel luxuriously, getting the best value from our credit card points was an amazing way to help us plan two exotic vacations without spending much money.
This year, we really wanted to vacation in Hawaii, safari in Tanzania, relax in Cape Town, and visit family in India. We were able to do huge chunks of those trips for just $2,620 out of pocket!
Let’s start with the credit cards I needed to accumulate the points that would make this trip a reality.
First, we knew that we wanted as many Marriott points as possible to help fund our entire week in Hawaii. So in late 2016, I signed up for the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Card (80k signup bonus). After adding my wife as an authorized user (7.5k points) and completing the minimum spend (3k), we had just over 90,000 Marriott points.
As the merger between SPG and Marriott was completed, I knew that accumulating SPG points was a great way to add onto my Marriott points balance. AMEX was offering a 35,000 bonus on their SPG Personal Credit Card in early 2017. I signed up first, referred my wife (which gave me an additional 10,000 points), and then had get the same card. All in all, with about 10k spend on both cards, the two SPG cards netted us 90k SPG points.
When I transferred my SPG points to Marriott (1:3 transfer ratio), my total was now at 360k Marriott points, which is exactly what I needed to book a Marriott Hotel + Air Package in Maui!
We booked 7 nights during our April vacation at the Wailea Beach Resort in Maui, a category 8 property that recently went through a significant renovation! In addition to this, we received 132k United miles included with our package! Although I tried to use those points to book airfare Boston to Maui, there wasn’t any saver level availability on our dates since it was spring break for most schools in Boston. I instead purchased one-way tickets on American for $375 to get to Maui and redeemed 22.5k Delta miles for each of us on the return flight home.
Back to the 132k United miles I had just accumulated: I knew we wanted to take a huge trip to Africa and India in the summer, and MileagePlus saver awards are plentiful to the destinations I wanted. We wanted to visit Tanzania for a safari, Cape Town to relax, and India to visit my family. Ordinarily with our budget, we never fly business or first class, but after doing some research, I learned that upgrading to business class for this entire itinerary would basically cost me about $2500 total for both of us! Our itinerary was BOS—DAR—CPT—BOM—BOS. I calculated that I needed 320k United MileagePlus miles to fly my wife and I in business class for most of the trip. This is thanks to the great United Excursionist Perk that made our leg from DAR—CPT free! (and in business class!). Unfortunately, after the recent MileagePlus devaluation, you would now need 330k United miles to complete this same itinerary.
Having 20k United miles already in my account when I signed up for the Marriott Hotel and Air package, my total went up to 152k United miles. I was 168k short of what I needed! Ordinarily, I would never think about purchasing miles, but in this case, United was offering a 100% bonus on all miles purchases, so I thought this would at least be a decent value. I purchased the maximum amount of miles you can in a year, 150k. That cost me about $2,700! Even though it felt like a lot of money, I quickly realized that it was getting me close to $19,000 worth of tickets and the comfort of a lie-flat seat for all of the long-haul flights. However, even with the 150k, I was still 18k short! My last step was to transfer 18k of my Chase points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve account to United—a 1:1 transfer that happened instantaneously. I finally had my 320k, and I was on the phone with a United representative almost immediately to book my ticket!
I ended up booking a flight on SWISS from BOS to DAR because Swiss has a lie-flat product that flies to DAR. I noticed that Turkish Airlines or Egypt Air (the other options, did not.). For the flight from DAR-CPT, the leg was completely free for both of us and connected in Johannesburg on South African Airways. The final leg from JNB—CPT was on the A340-300 with fully reclining seats! I ended up purchasing an economy ticket from CPT to BOM on Emirates for 320 dollars each, which I thought was a much better value than using miles or points. My other choice was a 2-stop flight on Air Seychelles for 260 dollars, but I chose the more reputable airline in this case. The final leg from BOM—BOS will be on Turkish Airlines. I really enjoy their catering (one of the best in the business) and am excited to show my wife the crazy, but enormous business class lounge in IST.
All in all, I was able to book parts of two vacations for my wife and I using 3 credit cards, minimal cash (for a trip this extensive), and the Marriott Air and Hotel package. This ended up saving us about $19,000 (the value of the hotel in Hawaii and all of those business class flights to Africa and India) and further demonstrated how you can totally plan extraordinary trips for a reasonable price thanks to miles and points!
Recently, two friends asked me to plan a vacation for them to an all-inclusive resort in either the Caribbean or Mexico. They provided their dates, price range, and wish list, and I did the research and presented the best options to them. I ended up proposing Le Blanc in Cancun as a resort they should consider. It is well documented as the best all-inclusive resort in Cancun (according to ratings) and Mexico provides a better value for money than most of the Caribbean. (especially since flights to Cancun are cheaper). If you use Le Blanc's website, an all-inclusive package including meals, room, airport transfers, and flights is $5,100 for 6 nights. However, since I was taking my time and researching multiple other sites, I was able to find a much lower price for the identical package on CostcoTravel for only $4,500. On top of that, anyone who books this package at Costco receives a $300 gift card to shop at Costco, further reducing your out of pocked cost to $4,200! So if you are a Costco member and looking to book an all-inclusive vacation, check out CostcoTravel. I was able to save my friends almost $900 by knowing where to look for the best deal possible!
Hawaii is an aspirational vacation for many people. The convenience of being in the United States coupled with the perfect weather and scenic geography is a unique combination for many travelers. However, flights and hotels in Hawaii are not the only expensive part of the vacation. Once in Hawaii, prices for food, tours, and transportation can add on serious costs. Most couples need to save at least $5,000 to vacation in Hawaii for a week. My wife and I recently spent a week in Maui for under $2,000. Here are some tips that helped us save money!
TIP #1: BOOK WAY IN ADVANCE or LAST MINUTE, AND KNOW WHEN THE PRICE IS RIGHT
When looking for the cheapest flights, know what a good deal is: From the East Coast or Middle of the Country, fares under $800 round-trip are available during peak times if you book way in advance. Sometimes, last minute flights are even cheaper. Flying from Detroit to Kona next month is only $373 round-trip! From the west coast, never pay more than $400 round trip. Tickets as low as $300 are occasionally found. Use google flights to track prices for a few weeks before pulling the trigger.
TIP #2: IF NOTHING CHEAP IS AVAILABLE, USE MILES
The following airline currencies are the best value for redeeming miles to Hawaii: Air France Flying Blue, Korean SkyPass, British Airways Avios (from the west coast), Alaska MileagePlan, and Singapore KrisFlyer. All of these airlines offer round trip tickets to Hawaii from the mainland for 25k--35k miles. Availability is often difficult to find, so you really need to research how to redeem these currencies and which airlines they partner with. As a comparison, Delta, American, and United offer flights to Hawaii for more than 40k round trip.
TIP #3: STAY IN A PLACE WITH A KITCHEN
Unfortunately, dining options in Hawaii are quite expensive. Each meal can cost more than $75/couple. Using groceries stores like Costco and spending time cooking at home can save lots of money in a week. My wife and I asked for a microwave in our hotel room, and only spent $150 all week on breakfast and lunch by eating in our room and packing sandwiches to go.
TIP #4: TRAVEL TO THE BIG ISLAND
All of the islands in Hawaii are spectacular. The big island (also known as Hawai'i) tends to be the cheapest for accommodations. Because the island is more spread out and less congested than Maui or Oahu, prices for Hotels and AirBnB's tend to be cheaper here, while there is more to see on this beautiful island than the smaller island of Kauai.
TIP #5: TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HAPPY HOURS
When eating out, we found amazing happy hour specials on both food and alcohol in nearly every restaurant. Food would be discounted nearly 50% and many drinks were cheaper as well. Beer and Wine tends to be much cheaper in Hawaii than cocktails. We spent two meals at Maui Brewing Company and saved over 50% on our bill by ordering pizzas before 5:30pm! Our dinner bill never went up past $75 using this strategy.
TIP #6: USE AUTOSLASH FOR CAR RENTAL
When renting a car, use the company AUTOSLASH! We were able to get a luxury car for the week in Maui for only $270. However, if you want to cut costs even more, avoid renting a car for the days you want to relax by the pool or beach. Car rental companies are available in many tourist areas around the city, not just the airport. Renting a Jeep or Convertible for a few days instead of a week could save you hundreds!
TIP #7: USE INTER-ISLAND FLIGHTS TO BE CREATIVE
When my wife and I were looking for mileage tickets to Hawaii during our spring break in Boston, we couldn't find anything available to Maui since it was vacation week! I ended up searching flights to Lihue airport on the smaller island of Kauai and found an amazingly cheap flight back to the mainland. This allowed us to use our Delta miles, see Kauai for a full day, and take a scenic inter-island flight on Hawaiian Airlines. Flexibility is usually the key when traveling during peak times.
TIP #8: THE BEACH, WEATHER, AND WATER IS FREE
The activities and tours available in Hawaii are seductive. From whale watches to snorkeling excursions, each of these activities usually costs more than $100/person and can quickly add to the cost of your trip. Hawaii has so many beaches, waterfalls, and volcanoes that can be just as entertaining. Bringing your own snorkeling equipment and snorkeling yourself can give you a similar experience to the expensive tour companies. We snorkeled with turtles and were only 20 feet off-shore in a public area!
TIP #9: VISIT PLANTATIONS AND FARMS
Another great thing to do is visit the local agricultural scene. Coffee plantations, banana farms, and other local businesses often welcome visitors to their properties without any costs. Make sure to stop at local pop-ups by the side of the road for fresh fruit, popsicles, or baked treats. The banana bread at the halfway house to Hana was the best 5 dollars we spent!
TIP #10: SKIP THE RESORT AND FIND AN AIRBNB INLAND
The prices for resorts in Hawaii can be outrageous. The dining options in these establishments can be even more shocking. The savings of staying further away from the ocean in an AirBnB can be more than 50%. If you rent a car, you can still access the water almost anywhere quickly. Using AirBnb can not only save you money on lodging and food, but can give you much for space for a family or even two! Sharing your Hawaii vacation with friends and family and renting one AirBnB can lead to huge savings on your trip! There are options as low as $40/night on the Big Island.
Ever wonder how much money one credit card signup bonus is worth? There are many websites to find the best current offers, which change constantly. Just search "best current credit card offers" to get to most updated offers. Here are some examples of current offers (as of 12/15/17) and how much free travel you can get from each of them! There are many more options than the ones listed, but this is just a start!
AMEX Platinum--Current signup bonus: 60k points (some people can get 100k points if you are targeted)