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.

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.

United VIP Lounges at the Mall

A little bit ago, I received an email from United informing me about two things:

  1. I am invited to visit the Chase United VIP Lounge in the Westfield San Francisco Centre from November 25 – December 24, 11:00 am – mall closing
  2. Chase has United VIP Lounges in malls (Westfield San Francisco Centre and Short Hills, New Jersey)

 

I was excited to learn my United MileagePlus Explorer (MPE) credit card gave me access (for free) to this lounge because I was surprised there is a United Lounge in a mall. So I looked at my schedule and tried to find a day when I could visit.

I was traveling Thanksgiving weekend on Amtrak but I was going to be driven back to San Jose. Like Centurion Lounges, I was curious if this mall VIP Lounge allowed guests to be brought in and, as luck would have it, I can bring in 3 guests. That means I could show my parents and a friend all in one visit.

For those of you in the Bay Area, the Westfield San Francisco Centre is right outside of the Embarcadero BART stop. If I end up not visiting San Francisco on my way back from Thanksgiving then I will likely take BART to the mall.

As for amenities, the VIP Lounge offers complimentary:

  • Wi-Fi (I would suspect this is a separate network from the mall Wi-Fi if the mall has free Wi-Fi)
  • Bag & coat check
  • Gift wrapping
  • Snacks & beverages
  • Café seating

Flying on United to Hawaii

United sent an email to me about a sale they were having for United’s 35th anniversary so I decided to use my newly acquired United miles from my United MileagePlus Explorer (MPE) card. I ended up not flying one of the discounted flights so my flight ended up being 45,000 points and $11.20.  If I had paid cash I would have paid over $700, which made my redemption of United miles valued at 1.57 cents/point (cpp).

I flew out of SFO and used 1 of my complimentary United Club passes from the MPE to get into the lounge. This was my first time in a lounge so I was excited and nervous. I enjoyed the lounge. The food choices were nice snacks and the espresso machine made a nice latte. A bar is available but I didn’t visit it this time around.

Another benefit from the United MPE card was my 1st checked bag was free.  I saved $50 for my round trip flight because the 1st checked bag on United is usually $25. This card saves $100 for a round trip flight for two people traveling together.

The United Club lounge was nicely furnished with almost no hanging decorations, although the architecture could be considered artistic.  I arrived around 10:30 AM so I barely made it in before the breakfast snacks were changed. I got some yogurt, a blueberry muffin (my favorite), a latte (no mocha options but a hot chocolate + espresso should work), and some fruit. I was listening to music and using my laptop so I was unaware of the switch from breakfast to lunch snacks, but I grabbed some carrots and another latte shortly after finishing my breakfast snacks.

My flight to Honolulu was enjoyable. My United MPE card gave me Priority Boarding Group 2 so I was able to get into the airplane, find my seat, and store my overhead bag quickly and early. I used to only fly Southwest and their 737 airplanes so it was nice flying on a 777 for the first time. The Economy seats on this 777 were just fine for me, at 6’2″ with 36″ legs, even though the person in front of me reclined at one point.

I was thinking about buying Wi-Fi access on my phone so I could talk to people via Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, but I forgot my United password (and subsequently locked myself out) so I only used the complimentary Wi-Fi and entertainment found in the United mobile app. I originally booked my flight before I had my hotel so I needed to make a change to my flight which incurred a $75 change fee. Instead of worrying about eating up $75 of my trip money I used the airline fee credit on my Premier Rewards Gold (PRG) card to have the fee reimbursed.  By having United selected as my airline for my PRG I ordered some food (pasta and meatball) and tea which ended up being “free” because of the airline fee credit.

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Pasta and meatball dinner and black tea

When I left I used my 2nd United Club pass at the HNL lounge and I was impressed in a different way. The Club was more spacious because it was longer, but the furniture and decorations were rather dated. There were maybe 15 people in the lounge which meant there were about 4 seats for each person which meant plenty of room for everyone.

For my HNL to LAX flight I was on a 777 again, but from LAX to SFO I was on a 737 which meant de-boarding the plane in SFO took forever. Each flight I was in Economy, no Economy Plus or business for me. Seat E going to HNL was cushioned and comfortable, but going to LAX I was in seat H and that seat was not so soft.  There were plenty of open spaces if I wanted to change to a more comfortable seat but I decided not to.

A TV screen was featured on the backs of each seat during my flight from LAX to SFO so everyone on board the flight was able to either watch the Food Network, courtesy of DirecTV, or pay to change the channel.

The 777 flights were over 4 hours each and we cruised at 36,000 feet, but the LAX to SFO flight was only 55 minutes so we only had about 10 minutes of flying leveled off. My ears hurt more on the shorter and lower flight than on the longer and higher flights which I found strange.

 

You can apply for the Premier Rewards Gold card from American Express from this link and earn 25,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000.