Getting to Europe via Flexible Rewards and Airline Miles

My recent post announcing I’m going to Europe mentioned I will be flying business class on Brussels Airlines. I booked that flight with Membership Rewards (MR) points I earned from sign-up bonuses. However, that flight is from the East Coast and I live on the West Coast of the USA.

Getting to New York could have been done multiple ways:  a long road trip; flying an early morning, direct flight from SMF to BWI then taking a bus or Amtrak to New York; swimming through the Panama Cannel; and many others. I wanted to keep things simple, and comfortable, so I chose to fly Delta from Sacramento (SMF) to New York (JFK) with a stop in Minneapolis (MSP). This splits the cross-country flight into two 3-hour flights in economy, something more bearable for someone with long legs.

However, I could have picked a flight with American Airlines using the points from the sign-up bonuses from the Aviator Red and AAdvantage Platinum cards. We would have flown into a different airport, but still in the same area a day early so it would have worked out.

Or we could have used United miles from either the United MileagePlus Explorer card or Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United’s program from the Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP). Another option could have been transferring my MR points to Alitalia and flown from SFO to Amsterdam for 80,000 points roundtrip.

What I’m getting at is there are so many options. And there are probably more than 1 that will be a great choice for any one trip.

The biggest reason I chose to fly Brussels Airlines from the East Coast is because I didn’t want to be on a flight for half a day if I flew out of California. I also wanted to try out a few different “products.” “Products” meaning the type of airplane, seating arrangement, seats, and in-flight service offered by an airline.

Flying Delta from Sacramento to Minneapolis to New York (SMF-MSP-JFK) allows me to be more comfortable flying cross-country and trans-Atlantic, while experiencing lounges (which can reduce my cost of food) in MSP, JFK, and Brussels (BRU).

My reasons for not flying American Airlines to get to New York include not being able to visit a lounge in my layover (or not having a layover), and saving my AA miles for another big trip, either with both of my parents or a solo trip in a business or first class cabin to Asia.

The biggest take-away anyone should get from this is that regardless of what points (or how much cash) you have, there are countless options, including some you may never have heard of yet.

I always check Google Flights for cash prices, and I track prices for a flight to be notified if a flight increases or decreases in price. It also gives me the flexibility to search several Departure airports and multiple arrival airports to find the cheapest flight for a trip.

Flight to San Diego #1: SMF – SLC

I chose to run the Rock ‘N’ Roll San Diego for the first weekend of June. To get to San Diego, I chose to fly on Delta. My chosen route with Delta was Sacramento (SMF) → Salt Lake City (SLC) → San Diego (SAN) so I could check out the Delta Sky Club in SLC.

The Delta credit cards from American Express currently have their highest sign-up bonuses being offered, 60,000 points for the Delta Gold card with the annual fee waived the first year. These points are good for 1 or 2 round trip tickets for longer flights, like SFO – JFK, or roughly 5 or 6 short one-way segments like SFO-LAX.

To the Airport!

The trip to SMF was smooth without any congestion on the drive to the airport. Once at the airport, security was not busy at all so I spent maybe 10 minutes going through TSA. Delta flies out of Terminal A which is also used only by United and American which might account for the speed of security compared to Terminal B which has 7 airlines.

The Airplane

My flight to SLC was on an Airbus 319-100 which seats 126 people and has 2 cabins, First and Comfort+/Economy. Having only 2 cabins meant boarding went quickly, first Pre-boarding, then First Class and Diamond Medallion members, with Sky board followed by Group 1, 2, and 3 to finish things off.

The overhead storage bins were like buckets that came down from the ceiling and we dumped our luggage into them. I recently got a carry-on suitcase with a battery from Away called “The Bigger Carry-On” and it fit just fine in the overhead bin. Seating was 3 on either side of the aisle, so a 3-3 configuration.

 

This airplane felt new because the light and air vent controls looked like a WiFi router, which it might have been since there was an illuminated “WiFi” icon during the flight. The In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) also seemed updated because even though there was a screen in the back of the headrest on each seat, the screens were independent of one another and they were touch screens.

What impressed me was not only the touch and independence of each screen, but the fact there were hours of modern movies (like Moana, Hidden Figures, and Rogue One), TV series, and full albums all for free.

On the underside of the IFE screen was a headphone jack and a USB port. Each of these inputs had a blue light illuminating them but the light would switch off and on without any known reason. I couldn’t tell if my camera was charging or not, so I used the universal power socket that was on the near the floor of the seats in front of me.

Being about 6’ 2”, leg room is of great importance to me. With that said, I chose the window because SMF-SLC is just over an hour.

I didn’t have much to complain about in terms of legroom. My knees were about an inch away from the seat in front of me while my feet were directly below my knees and the seat was upright. Even the tray table was well above my knees when my legs were in the same position.

The short duration of this flight meant I didn’t find using the available GoGo WiFi worthwhile to use, but I did take a water and pretzel snack when the food cart came through. Another consequence of such a short flight was not being able to tell if the seats were comfortable. They weren’t uncomfortable and they looked new, but I couldn’t tell if they would hurt during a 2+ hour flight.

Landing in Salt Lake City went smoothly and I had a 3 hour layover so I headed from Gate D13 to the Delta SkyClub located between the D and C gates. The review of my flight from Salt Lake City to San Diego will be published in a few days, and videos of my flights can be found here.

If you think it’s as awesome as I did to have a battery for charging various things while sitting around with a carry-on suitcase, and you’d like $20 off your order of an Away suitcase, you can use my referral link and I will also get $20.

Amtrak in California – The Variations

I’ve written about the Amtrak credit cards from Bank of America so I think it’s time I talk about options for riding Amtrak. Specifically, I will be discussing the routes for Amtrak found throughout my home state of California.

Amtrak has 8 routes which travel through at least some part of California. These 8 routes are the:

  • California Zephyr;
  • Capitol Corridor;
  • Coast Starlight;
  • Pacific Surfliner;
  • San Joaquins;
  • Southwest Chief;
  • Sunset Limited; and
  • Texas Eagle

Most of my travel is on the Capitol Corridor and every now and then I take the Coast Starlight. This is because I travel on Amtrak between my home town and university, Sacramento and San Jose.

Without further ado, “Where do these routes go?” The major cities served by each route listed on Amtrak’s website and duration from end to end are:

  • California Zephyr – 51 hours 20 minutes
    • Chicago
    • Denver
    • Glenwood Springs
    • Sacramento
    • Emeryville (San Francisco connection)
  • Capitol Corridor – 3 hours 15 minutes
    • Auburn (mostly by thruway bus)
    • Sacramento
    • Emeryville
    • Oakland
    • San Jose
  • Coast Starlight – 35 hours
    • Seattle
    • Portland
    • Sacramento
    • San Francisco Bay Area
    • Los Angeles
  • Pacific Surfliner – 5 hours 45 minutes
    • San Luis Obispo
    • Santa Barbara
    • Los Angeles
    • San Diego
  • San Joaquins – 6 hours 15 minutes
    • San Francisco Bay Area
    • Sacramento
    • Bakersfield
    • Southern California
  • Southwest Chief – 40+ hours
    • Chicago
    • Albuquerque
    • Los Angeles
  • Sunset Limited – 48 hours
    • New Orleans
    • San Antonio
    • Tucson
    • Phoenix
    • Los Angeles
  • Texas Eagle – 32 hours 25 minutes (Chicago to San Antonio) 65 hours 20 minutes (Chicago to Los Angeles)
    • Chicago
    • St. Louis
    • Dallas
    • San Antonio
    • Los Angeles

These travel time are slower than driving (San Jose to Sacramento is only 2 hours without congested traffic) and much slower than flying. However, there’s no need to worry about going through security like TSA at an airport, riding a train can be more scenic without as much trouble with changing pressure messing with your eardrums, and it can be cheaper than flying.

But there are times where time cannot be spared. In the end, how you travel really depends on what your preferences, needs, and options are.

What to do When Annual Fees Post

Many credit cards with annual fees waive the annual fee the first twelve months. Twelve months have passed since I got my first credit cards with an annual fees (AFs) so my twelve months of waived annual fees have ended. This means I have to decide what to do with these cards.

My three options are:

  1. Cancel the card and not pay the annual fee;
  2. Keep the card and pay the annual fee; or
  3. Keep the card, but product change the card to a no-AF version

Keeping a budget for the entire year has meant I budgeted enough money each month to be able to pay any annual fees (AF) once it came time to pay up. However, a year of use has helped me learn more about my spending habits, and how much I value each of the cards I have acquired.

So what am I doing with these cards?

The biggest reason I’m okay with signing up for credit cards is knowing I am building credit history, so I prioritize options 2 and 3 from above.

Now, I could cancel all of my cards and the accounts would continue to increase my Age of Credit History for 10 years until they fall off my credit report (10 years from now), but I’d rather keep them forever and have 30+ year old accounts. Plus, keeping as many accounts open helps me build a relationship with banks.

Product Changing

I wrote about flying to Hawaii using points from the United MileagePlus Explorer card and flying to the east coast to visit family using American Airlines miles from the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card last year. And I decided to product change these two cards instead of canceling or paying the AFs.

By product changing (PCing) these cards within 30 days of the AF posting, the $95 annual fees were refunded to my accounts. If the cards did not have fee-free versions, I would have canceled the cards and still been refunded the annual fees.

Canceling

Another card mentioned in the post about flying to Hawaii was the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card. I am still unsure of what to do with this card because it offers good category bonuses, but I’m not sure if I would benefit from earning Membership Reward points since I don’t spend enough to accumulate enough for a full trip. Fortunately, I have a couple more months to decide whether I will cancel the card or pay the AF.

A third card I used during my Hawaii trip was the Barclaycard ArrivalPlus. This card allowed me to redeem points to zero out the cost of the GoCity Card I bought to hit all the tourist attractions. These points are very flexible, but the ArrivalPlus requires a minimum of 10,000 points ($100) to redeem against a travel expense. I could have changed the card to the no-AF version, but I had too much trouble with the card so I ended up canceling it.

Keeping and Paying the Annual Fee

At the other end of the spectrum, I am planning to keep the Hyatt and IHG credit cards from Chase and pay the annual fees because I get a free 1-night stay from each card every anniversary. The Hyatt certificate restricts use to category 1-4 hotels. However, the IHG annual certificate has no restrictions on hotel categories, so I could spend the night in Times Square for the $49 annual fee on the card.

IHG PointBreaks Official Hotel List For April-July

IHG has published their list of PointBreaks hotels after publishing a preview list on Friday.

These hotels are only 5,000 points/night but they’re also generally not the most popular hotels. One hotel I’m looking at is the Holiday Inn Express Karlsruhe City Park which is normally 20,000 points/night or about $120/night in July.

Chase offers an IHG credit card which has an offer of 60,000 points which amounts to 12 nights of PointBreak stays. If you don’t want the IHG credit card, you could transfer Ultimate Rewards points to IHG if you have either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Sapphire Reserve.

I’d recommend getting the IHG credit card because you get that big sign-up bonus (sometimes the bonus can be found for up 80,000 points) and every card anniversary you’ll get a free 1-night stay at any hotel.

IHG PointBreaks Hotels: April – July 2017

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) offers select hotels every 3 months at a discounted rate for reward stays. These are called PointBreaks and stays can be booked for just 5,000 points/night. IHG released a preview of the list for April 24 – July 31 today which can be found here.

With the current sign-up bonus of 60,000 points for the credit card from Chase, someone could stay at a single PointBreaks hotel for 12 nights OR 12 hotels for 1 night each.

PointBreaks hotels typically won’t be for the fancy luxurious hotels that typically cost $400+. They are, however, more for a road-trip or a quick overnight visit to a nearby city.

This means the list isn’t going to include the InterContinental New York Times Square during New Year’s Eve, but it does include hotels like the Holiday Inn Express Karlsruhe City Park which runs for about $120 in July.

I’m still making my reservations for my upcoming Europe trip this summer so that Holiday Inn Express in Karlsruhe could be a nice overnight stop on my way through Germany.

Again, the list found above and here are only previews. Trying to book the Holiday In Exress for July before Monday will still show reward nights as 20,000 points/night. Starting April 24, the hotels listed will have a lowest possible price of 5,000 points/night.

Changes to the American Express Platinum Charge Card

A week ago, on March 31st, American Express made some changes to their Platinum Charge card. Some simple and small, others more dramatic.

Here is a list of all the changes, in no particular order:

  • Card is now made of metal
  • Increased annual fee to $550
  • 5x rewards category for hotels booked through amextravel.com
  • Monthly Uber credit, max of $200/year
  • No annual fee for Gold cards for Authorized User cards

The biggest change was increasing the annual fee from $450 to $550. However, the Uber credit was added to make up for this increase while also, potentially, competing with the Chase Sapphire Reserve‘s $300 annual travel credit. The airline fee credit and the new Uber credit brings the Platinum card “travel credits” up to $400.

I feel the card being metal was long overdue considering the Chase Sapphire Preferred has been made of metal since it’s release (in 2011 I believe) and only has a $95 annual fee. Another small change that I think is great, the removal of annual fees on Gold cards for Authorized Users (AU). Previously, AU Gold cards were either $45 or $50, and a separate Gold Card has an annual fee of $160.

The Platinum card still doesn’t have bonus categories for food like the Gold and Premier Rewards Gold cards I discussed in my Introduction to American Express Charge Cards post. Now you can earn – 5x points on flights and hotels with the main Platinum card, and earn 2x points on restaurants with the Gold AU card.

With that said, the 5x points on hotels are not as simple as the 5x points on flights. For flights, you can book on amextravel.com or directly with the airline. Hotels have to be booked through the amextravel website, and they have to be qualifying hotels.

Qualified hotels are prepaid bookings which includes hotels from The Hotel Collection (HC), but not the Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR). I am disappointed with requiring pre-paid bookings being these tend to go through 3rd party sites.

The Platinum card gives complimentary Gold status with Starwood Preferred Guest. However, booking a stay at an SPG property through the amextravel site prevents you from adding your SPG number to the reservation and earn rewards or get the benefits of having Gold status.

So this new reward category forces people to choose whether they want the benefits of any potential status they might hold (like Gold at SPG or Hilton) by booking directly with the hotel or earn 5x points through amextravel.com.

If you’ve read my post about A (Hypothetical) Weekend in Seattle, you’ll know some hotel reward programs allow you to earn points very easily which can equal a free reward night pretty quickly.

Earning points with a hotel program will be better than earning 5x Membership Rewards with the Platinum card most of the time. If you tend to go to which ever hotel is cheapest, instead of sticking with a single hotel program, then 5x points would make more sense for you.

Overview of the Changes and Final Thoughts

Some of these changes I like, such as no annual fee for Gold AU cards, and some were overdue, like the card being made of metal.

I don’t buy airplane tickets, and AirBnB is usually cheaper than a hotel, so the 5x categories aren’t worth much to me if I had the Platinum card. A generic travel credit or travel bonus category like the Chase Sapphire Reserve would serve me much better since I usually buy train tickets.

Do you like these changes, or would you rather not have the higher annual fee and a generic travel category?