A Personal Challenge: Texas for (almost) no money

Hamachi tacos and tamales at Distrito aka "research"

This month the boyfriend and I are presenting a joint project at a professional food nerd conference in San Antonio and I thought it would be a fun challenge (okay so I have a questionable definition of “fun”) to see how close to free I could make our five-day trip. I added the stipulation that I should avoid using miles that are most valuable to me, but rather, use leftover miles and points. So I didn’t touch our United MileagePlus accounts and I checked award availability with British Airways’ Avios program obsessively for weeks (until I gave up finding flights that fit our schedules and just dealt with the fact that I will have more Avios points than I know what to do with for a while).

So here’s what the line-up looks like:

1. PHL-SAT on American. I had JUST over 25,000 AAdvantage miles in my account. Our one-way tickets cost a measly 12,500 miles and $5 in fees each and fit our schedules almost perfectly — we’d have to fly to Texas a day before the conference or else the tickets would cost 25,000 miles each on the following day.

2. Since we fly in late, one night at the Courtyard Marriott at the San Antonio Airport (category 2) for 10,000 Marriott Rewards points. I had just over 1,000 Marriott points in my account, so I transferred 9,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (from my Sapphire Preferred sign-up bonus) to my Marriott account. The transfer took 2 days to be processed. Although I value UR points highly (which transfer 1:1 to United), I can afford to spare 9,000, especially since our tickets cost so few AA miles.

3. Two nights at the Doubletree San Antonio Downtown at the conference rate of $85 per night. As a HHonors Gold member, I’ll earn a 25% bonus on points and more points because of the More Points promotion. 1,000 bonus points per night plus 5,000 bonus points per weekend stay.

4. One night at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel San Antonio (category 3) using a cash and points award: 2,800 Starpoints and $45, which I think is a pretty damn good deal. I’ll earn 2 Starpoints on the dollar for the $45 spent and parting with just 2,800 Starpoints was not at all painful. Given that I have a Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx, I also have Preferred Plus status, the perk I am most interested in being room upgrades upon availability. Thankfully, the Gunter Hotel is near the Amtrak station in San Antonio.

5. San Antonio to Austin on Amtrak. Two ISIC-discounted tickets (normally $13 each for an adult) for a total of $22.10. The flights out of San Antonio back to Philly were too early / we would have missed part of the conference / none of the award options were that “cheap” but I found the perfect flight out of Austin. Also we’ve never been to Austin and have wanted to check it out, even if it is just for a day.

6. AUS-PHL on American. Chase Ultimate Rewards came to my rescue again. I booked directly through the Ultimate Rewards Travel site (accessible with my Chase Sapphire Preferred) in order to save 20% on points. Since UR points are not airline miles (although you can transfer them to mileage programs to turn them irreversibly into airline miles), I still earn frequent flier miles with points booked through UR as if I was booking with cash. Also there are no blackout dates. Two tickets “cost” $271.20 or rather, 21,696 UR points.

Cash total for two travelers: $247.10

For 4 flights, 2 train tickets and 4 nights in hotels and minimal damage to my mileage accounts, that does not suck.

more research: esquites at Distrito in Philly


The Neurotic Nerd’s first mileage scheme

white rock letters on the Big Island's endless lava fields

The Neurotic Nerd is getting married this summer (yes, someone is actually insane enough to marry the Neurotic; please stop laughing). Despite her crippling fear of flying, Neurotic is getting married in Hawaii, halfway across the world from where she lives. There is nothing quite so smart as deciding to combine a Huge Life Change with Extensive Air Travel when one vomits at merely the thought of turbulence. Or has panic attacks when flying over water.

Anyway, this epic trip (which includes stops in CA and the midwest) is going to involve at least 2 airlines and 9 segments. Airfare would be staggering, except Neurotic has been mentored by the Flying Nerd and has figured out how to use miles to fly free.*

Neurotic and her better half already have some American miles;** only enough for a one-way flight, however. They have no Hawaiian miles. So step one was signing up for a Hawaiian Airlines Visa and an American AAdvantage credit card. The Hawaiian card got them 20,000 miles outright; after a $1000 charge another 15,000 will post. What will that $1000 charge be? RT nonstop flights from the East Coast to Hawaii, on which they will earn double miles for the purchase. The pair also followed Hawaiian Airlines on Twitter and will get 1000 miles for that. So: very quickly they’ve gotten 35,000 miles plus approx. 5000 from the flight purchase and Twitter follow. Boom. That’s enough to cover their 6 interisland flights.

The AAdvantage card will get them 30,000 miles after a $750 purchase (hotel reservations/deposits), plus a $100 statement credit for American air travel. Those miles plus their existing combined 45,000 mean that they can cover all their domestic flights except one one-way ticket. They’ll buy that with the card and the $100 statement credit will apply, so domestic flights should be free but for approx. $100.

Of course, this is like trip-planning Jenga (It could be AWESOME or it could all topple over and be a waste of time) and it remains to be seen how quickly the miles post to their accounts and whether blackout dates will prevent this plan from working. But if it works, they could get from the East Coast to Hawaii, island-hop 3 times, fly to LA, to the midwest, and finally back east for only the cost of a ticket to Hawaii plus about $100. Not bad for a first effort.

*Not free of fear, but whatever. THAT’S WHAT THE BEVERAGE CART IS FOR.
**Neurotic has six figures of lifetime miles on AA. How has that happened with the crippling fear? She is a frequent phobic flyer, and yes that is masochism.

Chinese New Year on miles

Chinese New Year comes early this time around and this year I can actually join my bunch of wayward, America-dwelling family members on their New Year trek back to the motherland. Roundtrip coach tickets from the East Coast to East Asia can start at around $1200 but even the promise of red envelopes can make buying a ticket pretty daunting. 16 hours straight in coach on say, Continental (as opposed to Cathay), makes the prospect of the trip even more terrifying. Especially if you’re like me and spend the entire trip simultaneously trying to thwart motion sickness and dreading the obligatory criticism received upon arrival such as: “Aiya! You got fat! Are you pregnant? You look pregnant.”

I am not pregnant.

(Incidentally, I will also get yelled at whenever I fail to eat to the point of exhaustion. My family is seriously, seriously into food. And the more endangered, the better.)

New Years decorations in Yau Mai Tei

I digress. So I’m headed back to Hong Kong for Chinese New Year. (The frequency at which I am headed back somewhere causes me great anxiety. This is what happens when you’ve lived in too many places.) I applied for a British Airways visa back in April when they were offering a whopping 100,000 Executive club miles as a sign-up bonus. Hell. Yes.

The annual fee of $95 dollars was not waived the first year, but it was still totally worth it. I received 50,000 miles after my first purchase and another 50,000 after spending $2500 in the first three months (made possible in part by charging me and my boyfriend’s summer airfare to Athens, which of course I was promptly reimbursed for by our respective travel grants). Also the card has no foreign transaction fees, so I’ve used it everywhere. As mentioned in the last post, 28,000 miles went towards a trip to Hawaii, but that left me with over 75,000 miles (over because I also receive 1.25 miles per dollar spent).

Knowing that on Nov. 16, British Airways was switching its Executive Club program into a program with a new distance-based awards chart, as opposed to the region-based one, I knew I wanted to burn those Executive Club miles. (The new program is called Avios, which many have referred to as Adios, as in Adios to awesome redemptions, which is not ENTIRELY true, but more on that later.)

That is how I am flying to Hong Kong on Cathay Business class. (!!!!!!! 🙂 🙂 and I never use emoticons!!!! I think they’re dumb!!!!! 🙂 :-)). BA is partners with Cathay, my favorite airline. JFK-HKG cost me 50,000 Executive Club miles and $148 in fees. Looking up a similar itinerary for March on the BA website, I’m seeing it costing 120,000 Avios miles and $268.91 in fees. As a further point of comparison,the Cathay site is showing my exact one-way itinerary in business class at $4,352.50. I believe when I was booking in early November, I snatched up one of the last award tickets in January.

Nian gao, lai see and panda dumplings, here I come! (Just kidding, we don’t eat panda.)

Central, in the lanes

Hawaii for Christmas

At this point, you might be wondering why I’m so keen on accumulating frequent flyer miles and how I go about using them.

It can be really difficult getting to Hawaii for the holidays, especially when the whole damn world seems to want to get there, too. Flights are expensive, most obviously right before Christmas day and in the past, I’ve often flown there on Christmas day or Boxing Day. This always, always sucks. By the time I get there, I have to poke around for the leftover kalua pig, listen to everyone talk about how fun the party was and beg my grandma to turn the Christmas tree lights back on.

Christmas tree

However, redeeming miles and finding award availability for Hawaii is pretty simple and straightforward in fall, which means that’s usually when I’ll go. In September, I redeemed 40,000 United miles to get both my boyfriend and I to Honolulu (20,000 each, one-way) on saver awards and paid $10 total in fees. To get back to Philadelphia, we redeemed 28,000 British Airways Executive Club miles for two American Airlines tickets (now the program has been re-organized and is called Avios — we booked back in May) and paid $100 in fees so as not to wipe out half of our BA miles for one trip.

To get a ticket back to Honolulu before Christmas day, I had to redeem 40,000 United miles one-way (and 5 dollars in fees) on a standard award for just me. But it’s worthwhile to note, that no matter what day I flew on in December, United was asking for 40,000 miles. I like consistency and predictability, which are hard to come by when you’re trying to purchase a ticket. To get back to the mainland, I purchased a one-way on American for $384 (I stalked the fare on bing travel for a while), which is not much, especially considering roundtrip airfare for Hawaii in winter would have set me back at least a grand these days. As an added bonus, AAdvantage is now offering double elite qualifying miles for travel between Dec. 13, 2011 and Jan. 31, 2012, when my date for travel falls. Essentially, I’m going to Hawaii and back at my ideal times during the holidays for $389 total.


This year I will actually be able to see Santa coming in his red canoe and paddling on a magic sea of blue. Reindeer be damned.