Did Barclaycard drop Arrival Plus travel statement credit redemptions back down to $25?

Back in November, 2015, Barclaycard devalued their Arrival Plus card in two ways:

  • they lowered the rebate on points redeemed for travel statement credits from 10% to 5%;
  • and they raised the minimum travel statement credit redemption amount from $25 to $100.

Since then, they have also quietly improved the card, adding a trip delay benefit in 2017.

But it appears they have also very quietly rolled back one of the 2015 devaluations.

I redeemed 2,630 miles against a $26.30 purchase today

Since I made a big purchase with my Arrival Plus card today, I logged into the Barclays mobile app to see if they'd fixed the annoying feature where you could only see your eligible travel purchases if you had 10,000 or more miles.

Sure enough, not only could I see all my eligible travel purchases, but three of them were also shown in bold, i.e., available for redemption: a $26.30 cab ride, a $49 shuttle, and a $61 Uber trip. Thinking the app had simply fixed one error and replaced it with another, I then logged onto the desktop website and saw the same thing: all three purchases were eligible for redemption (I had about 7,000 miles at the time).

This is either a glitch or an unannounced change

At the top of the "Travel statement credits" page you can still find the following text:

"Redemptions for travel statement credits, with the exception of your account annual fee, start at 10,000 miles for $100. Redemptions for your account annual fee start at 2,500 miles for $25. Please note, only qualifying travel purchases made in the last 120 days will display, and you may only redeem against a travel purchase one time."

But I was still able to redeem 2,630 Arrival Plus miles against a $26.30 purchase.

It's possible only "full" redemptions are allowed

Normally when redeeming Arrival Plus miles against a travel purchase you're offered several options. So, for example, when redeeming miles against your $89 annual fee, you might be given the option of redeeming 8,900 miles, 7,500 miles, or 5,000 miles (I happen to forget whether Barclaycard normally offers 3 or 4 redemption options). Due to the 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel statement credits, it's typically ideal to redeem the smallest number of miles possible, in order to trigger as many rebates as possible (and asymptotically approach a 2.105% return on your unbonused spend).

But for the 3 travel purchases I had enough miles to redeem for, I was only offered a single option, to redeem my miles against the purchase in full.

It's possible only surface transportation is allowed

It was an odd coincidence that all three of my over-$25 and under-$100 travel purchases in the last 120 days were various taxis, shuttles, and Uber rides. As a result of that coincidence, I don't know if the new lower minimums only apply to surface transportation expenses, or if all travel purchases over $25 are now eligible for redemption again.

Conclusion

Barclaycard relaunched their overall US brand as Barclays and relaunched the Arrival Plus specifically earlier this year, and it's possible that the changes I've noticed have been in place since then, or they may have been introduced more recently.

Whether the changes are intended and just haven't been publicly announced yet, or are an unintended consequence of some legacy piece of code being reactivated is an open question, but I haven't seen these changes reported anywhere else, so if like me you only log into your Barclaycard account when you have 10,000 miles or more, it may be worth checking to see if you suddenly have some smaller redemption amounts available.

More great Atlantic City status match promotions (up to 6 free nights?)

All the way back in November, 2016, I took advantage of an Atlantic City Borgata promotion for free slot play and made a few hundred dollars during a weekend trip to Philadelphia.

Last night I saw over at Frequent Miler two more potentially lucrative status match promotions are available for another few weeks.

Up to 4 free nights and $150 Bonus Free Play at Hard Rock

The problem with these casino loyalty status matches is that unlike airline or hotel status matches, they invariably have to be done in person, usually at a "loyalty counter" somewhere on the casino floor. That means you have to either take a day trip in order to get your status matched and then another trip to actually use your free nights, or cross your fingers and hope free nights are available once you arrive.

After reading Frequent Miler's post I called up Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City (at 833-448-8436) to see how the status match would work in practice, and the receptionist volunteered to book me two complimentary nights independent of the status match (though with $22.31 per night in "resort fees").

Then she told me to find a loyalty counter when I arrive in order to request the status match and get another two complimentary nights (which can only be used through September 3, 2018). You can find the terms of the status match promotion here.

This is ideal for me since I should be able to use the $150 in Bonus Free Play immediately, and I'll probably let the 2 additional free nights expire worthless.

Check your Mlife tier status

When I took advantage of the short-lived status match that was available to Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond status, I was also able to request my Mlife account be upgraded to Platinum status. That was all the way back in January, 2016, and my Mlife status is still Platinum (I did requalify for Diamond status in 2017 so this is not quite as strange as it sounds, although it is strange).

Mlife Gold, Platinum, and Noir members are eligible for the more generous Rock Royalty status match at the Hard Rock, so if you're not sure what status you have, it's worth logging into all your hotel loyalty accounts to make sure you aren't sitting on a more generous match opportunity.

As Stephen Pepper pointed out at Frequent Miler, all Hyatt cardholders are eligible for at least Pearl status with Mlife, which is still good for the less-valuable Hard Rock Elite status.

Stack with Ocean Resort Casino Premier status match

While you're in town staying at the Hard Rock, take a walk up the boardwalk to Ocean Resort Casino and request another status match (your new Hard Rock status should work) to Ocean Premier Platinum or Black status, and get another one or two free nights, plus $50 or $100 in free play.

The current status match promotion runs through September 30, 2018, although I'm not sure if the complimentary nights are also only valid through that date.

Conclusion

I don't know how widely available the "two free nights just for calling" Hard Rock promotion is, but it's certainly worth a try if you want to stay in Atlantic City during your status match and don't want to take any chances on complimentary night availability.

If you want to spend 6 nights in Atlantic City in the next few months, triggering all three of these promotions would mean you only have to pay out of pocket for resort fees. In any case, up to $250 in free play is worth something if you have any reason to be in the area.

If I were starting a travel hacking blog today

I started this blog (and wrote my always-soon-to-be-bestselling e-book) because I was frustrated at the state of the travel hacking blogosphere. A tiny amount of actual information trickled out over and over again, mixed in with enthusiastic praise for credit cards that no one, let alone a travel hacker, should ever carry.

It hasn't gotten any better since then, but the landscape has changed. Many blogs that had a single author when I got started have either hired more writers or been consolidated into the ever-growing credit card affiliate empires, in both cases with the goal of being all things to all people.

I haven't changed though and, realistically, at this point I never will. I write about manufactured spend, about minimizing the price I pay for the trips I want to take, and about gaming loyalty programs, because that's who I am.

But if I were 25 again and frustrated at the state of the travel hacking blogosphere, I think the blog I'd start would look very different from this one, because the problems in the travel hacking blogosphere look different than they did back then.

Organize content differently

Actual travel hacking practices are fragmented between a bunch of different techniques, while blogs are almost all organized chronologically. On omnibus blogs like Doctor of Credit (who covers topics that can range very far afield from travel hacking), that makes it tiresome to scroll through pages and pages of posts to find out when the latest Kroger gas promotion ends, or the next Giant gas promotion begins.

If I were creating a website from scratch, I'd organize my posts differently. For example, Safeway Visa gift card discounts, Kroger fuel rewards promotions, and Giant fuel rewards promotions are all "grocery store" promotions: they're interesting to people who want to manufacture spend at grocery stores, and they're boring to people who don't.

By separating different kinds of content into separate sections, you could make the most relevant content immediately available to the people who want it. When was the last Office Depot gift card promotion? What are the best IHG Rewards Pointsbreak destinations (if any)? How about American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards? These aren't exactly secrets, but it's information that would be much more valuable if organized in a coherent, persistent way by someone who knew what they were talking about, instead of in the chronological, stream-of-consciousness way we see on blogs today.

Keep timely content visible

Likewise, high-interest bank accounts and new account bonuses are variations on a theme: putting excess cash in accounts where it earns the most interest. But on a site like Doctor of Credit, which I rely on for such things, posts like "[NY, NJ] Northfield Bank $350 Checking Bonus" just disappear between "The Amex Offers Multi-Tab Trick is Dead, There’s Now a Hard Limit of One Offer per Person" and "Get $5 Amazon, Target, Home Depot Card with Verizon Up Rewards Program [YMMV]." These are all perfectly good posts, but they don't have anything in common with each other. Not to pile on DoC, but even the post category classification isn't intuitive. The assigned categories of those posts are, respectively, "bank account bonuses," "deals," and "loyalty programs."

Purely for my own benefit, I try to keep my Hotel Promotions page updated, so if I have a last-minute stay or unexpected layover I can quickly check my site to see if there are any promotions I have the opportunity to maximize. The opposite of that are the Loyalty Lobby hotel promotion pages (this is Hilton's, do yourself a favor and don't open it), which are inscrutable and unusable, besides consuming all your browser's memory to render.

How does it really work?

The question I got frustrated asking after reading travel hacking blogs for over a year, before starting my own, was "how does it really work?" Not "how is it supposed to work," or "how do people say it works," but "how does it really work?" So I do frankly nutty stuff like getting on a train to Philadelphia in order to buy a Momentum prepaid card to find out how the attached high-interest savings account worked (spoiler: it didn't).

That basic question, "how does it really work?" is the same question I ask today, and it's an incredibly powerful question, because almost nothing works the way it's supposed to. Sometimes the error works in your favor and sometimes it works against you, but to this day, almost no one is writing about the way things really work, and telling people about the world as it really is will always be an opportunity to build an audience.

Work for your readers

The one thing that hasn't changed in all the years I've been writing here is that the only way to serve your readers responsibly is to work for your readers. If you work for anybody else, you have no choice but to put your readers second, third, or last.

I'm absolutely open-minded about revenue models: I make money (enough to keep me writing at least) from blog subscriptions, from Google Adsense ads, and from Amazon Associates purchases. Somebody even once bought ad space on the site, which is very much for sale, if anyone is interested.

But the one thing that's impossible is adhering to content restrictions imposed by the people who pay your bills while giving your readers the best possible information they need to succeed. No one has ever explained to me how a person can both accept money from a credit card company, accept content restrictions from that credit card company, and plausibly hope to serve their readers' needs. If they ever do, I'll update this post.

Stupid or liar: why does Ben Schlappig keep telling his readers things that aren't true?

I'd like to briefly enter five pieces of evidence into the record.

On April 2, 2018, Ben Schlappig wrote for the first time about about Hyatt's "Hyatt Prive" travel agent partnership. He wrote:

And added:

On May 19, 2018, he wrote about a publicly-available deal at the Park Hyatt St. Kitts for 25% off paid stays of 4 nights, and a $300-per-person stay credit.

On May 22, 2018, he wrote another post observing that Hyatt Prive benefits can be combined with the publicly-available deal in order to get free breakfast, room upgrades, and other benefits, adding that:

On May 29, 2018, he wrote a generic follow-up post about the deal, including:

On June 25, 2018, he wrote a final post about the deal:

This timeline is important, because on May 19, May 23May 24, and May 29, readers commented on Ben Schlappig's blog that they were, in fact, able to combine the Citi Prestige 4th-night-free benefit and the Hyatt Prive offer, an opportunity that Robert Dwyer at Milenomics spelled out in detail just this week.

That means 3 of the posts linked above were written after Ben Schlappig:

  • knew or should have known the original information he gave his readers was wrong;
  • did not correct the original information;
  • and continued to direct his readers towards his travel agent partner who earns a commission on stays booked at a higher rate based on the misinformation Schlappig originally provided.

I don't know why Ben Schlappig does this. I don't know if he actually holds his readers in contempt, or if he thinks they get so much value from his trip reports they owe him vacation reservations made through his travel agent partner.

Someone even suggested to me he might be doing this in order to generate Citi Prestige applications after he "discovers" there's an even better version of the deal available. That's possible; I can't say and am not prepared to speculate.

But if you're a Citi Prestige cardholder who's booked a stay in St. Kitts through Ben Schlappig's travel agent partner (or any other Hyatt Prive travel agent), please rebook your reservation taking advantage of the 4th-night-free you're already paying a $450 annual fee for, cancel your reservation with Ford, and tell him FQF sent you.

How looking at reservations in isolation makes me overpay for travel

There is a mistake I consistently make in my travel hacking practice: I compare every travel purchase I make to its lowest-cost alternative in isolation. For example, take an airport like LAX with nearby properties in multiple hotel chains. Glancing at a site like Awardmapper, you can compare these locations:

  • Hilton Los Angeles Airport (32,000 — 40,000 points);
  • Hyatt Regency Los Angeles International Airport (12,000 points);
  • a couple of Wyndham properties (15,000 points);
  • Four Points by Sheraton Los Angeles International Airport (10,000 points);
  • and Holiday Inn Los Angeles - LAX Airport (30,000 points).

You can do a quick calculation based on your own travel hacking practice, but using my values I'd come up with a cost of $160, $120, $150, $200, and $210, respectively, as the imputed redemption value for each of those properties. That's not the out-of-pocket cost of acquiring the points, but rather the foregone rewards on a 3% cash back card in the case of Hilton, a 2% cash back card in the case of Wyndham and Sheraton, a 1 cent cash back redemption of Ultimate Rewards points in the case of Hyatt, or a 0.7 cent-per-point purchase of IHG Rewards points in the case of the Holiday Inn (although you can almost always do a bit better than that).

So far, so good. If the cost of a suitable hotel were less than $120, I'd book with cash, and if more, I'd book with points, in this case probably 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points transferred to World of Hyatt.

This makes me too hostile to rewards gimmicks

I've written plenty of times about how much I dislike the annual companion ticket that comes with my Delta Platinum Business American Express card. The problem with it is simple: you have to pay for the primary passenger's ticket (and the taxes and fees for the companion) with an American Express card, and that means paying cash. If you'd otherwise buy your ticket with US Bank Flexpoints, for instance, then a sub-50% discount (with only one ticket earning flight credit) just isn't that impressive compared to the roughly 58% discount I'd get on a pair of Flexpoint redemptions, both of which would be eligible for earning and upgrades. Adding in the $195 annual fee makes the companion ticket an even worse value.

Likewise I have no use for annual free night certificates at chains I wouldn't otherwise stay at, since the additional cost of staying more than one night would eat up any potential savings on the first night.

This is fine, as far as it goes, but is also the source of the mistake I'm talking about: I also have to pay with cash if I don't have enough points to redeem for my airline tickets, or hotel rooms, or car rentals, or whatever. Now, I can put the charge on my Arrival Plus card and get trip delay insurance, and maybe redeem $100 in rewards as a statement credit against the purchase sometime in the future, but that's no substitute for an up-front 58% discount.

Travel hacking ideally reduces your total out of pocket costs

That brings me to the point of this post, and what I'm sure is a better way to ultimately implement a travel hacking strategy than mine: getting the biggest discounts on the expenses that are hardest to hack, and accepting smaller discounts where necessary in order to reduce your overall travel costs.

Some stylized facts demonstrate this clearly:

  • Two $400 roundtrip tickets booked using a Delta Platinum companion certificate would cost $405.60 (depending on connections), plus a $195 annual fee, for a total of $600.60, a 25% discount.
  • The same two tickets would cost 53,333 Flexpoints, representing $26,667 in grocery store spend, costing roughly $337 in activation and liquidation fees, a 58% discount.

If your only travel expense during the year is buying two $400 Delta tickets, then you're obviously better off redeeming Flexpoints and realizing a 58% discount than using a companion ticket and saving just 25%. And indeed, this is my main argument against companion tickets that require you to pay cash.

The problem with this logic is that the 58% Flexperks travel discount can be applied to a whole range of travel expenses, now even including travel expenses made directly with the vendor under certain circumstances.

If you had unlimited access to manufactured spend, you would always have enough points to redeem and pay the lowest possible amount out of pocket. Whenever Hilton, or Hyatt, or IHG offered the largest discount, you'd book with those points, and book flights with miles, Flexpoints, Ultimate Rewards points, or whatever other currency offered the lowest out-of-pocket cost.

But if you have finite access to signup bonuses, manufactured spend, airline credit, etc., then misallocating those currencies can mean paying cash and realizing no discount at all on some expenses. To return to the example above, if in addition to your $800 in airfare you also need an $800 hotel room, then you'd be better off taking the 25% discount on your flights and applying the 58% discount to your hotel, instead of taking 58% off your flights and 0% off your hotel: $937 is less than $1,137.

Framed in this way the solution is obvious because both expenses are connected to the same trip. Over an entire year, that won't be the case: sometimes you'll fly American instead of Delta, you'll fly internationally instead of domestically, you'll have sub-$500 hotel stays that won't qualify for Real-Time Rewards redemptions, etc.

It's that inter-temporal coordination problem that causes my sloppy thinking and leads me to pay more than I would if I optimized my redemptions across longer planning periods.

Conclusion

I don't think there's any shame in being wrong, but you do tend to run into problems when you refuse to admit you're wrong, so I fully admit this is something I'm wrong about: I try to redeem miles and points as aggressively as possible, even when it leaves me holding the bag and paying cash for tickets or hotel rooms I could have gotten a better deal on if I sorted my redemptions by value ahead of time.

I'm so resistant to paying cash that I deliberately book my Delta companion ticket on the cheapest flights possible, even if that means redeeming far more Flexpoints or Ultimate Rewards points on more expensive flights in the future.

But you don't have to be as dumb as me! By planning ahead and creating even a crude demand schedule, you're much more likely to lower your out of pocket costs by using the right rewards tool for the right job.

How Prague has (and hasn't) changed in the last 12 years

I first visited the Czech Republic for a semester in the spring of 2006, and I've returned frequently ever since then, completing my English-language teaching certificate, enrolling in three summers of Czech language study, and vacationing there whenever possible. This does not, I think, give me any insight into the Czech soul, but it has given me a little perspective on how the country has changed in the last 12 years.

Now that I'm back from this summer's adventure, I thought I'd share a few reflections.

Central Prague is an amusement park

This has been true as long as I've been visiting, but the amusement park has been increasingly professionalized over the years. To give a very simple, very absurd example, there's a traditional Czech (or possibly Slovak) dish called a "trdelník," which is a grilled bread tube rolled in a crushed nut mix. When I first started visited Prague, trdelník was sold in the Christmas markets for a month or two every year. Today, trdelník is sold on every street corner, year-round, and is adapted in all sorts of ways for the tourist market, rolled in sugar, and stuffed with ice cream.

We had one very bad trdelník and one very good trdelník during the trip, so I'm not claiming the quality of trdelník has dramatically declined, only that the market for it has changed over the years as it has become more of an amusement park treat, so the mass-market trdelník today resembles a kind of Czech-inspired churro more than anything else.

The neighborhoods are still distinctive

The amusement park basically extends west from the main train station across Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, and I think the amusement park is well worth visiting. But stepping even a little bit outside of the amusement park gives you immediate access to a completely different vision of the city.

Minutes outside the city center we stumbled onto Štvanice island and walked around and relaxed by the river totally undisturbed by the city surrounding us on all sides, enjoying the 2018 Landscape Festival exhibits that had been installed there.

It's just a short hike up from the city to Letná, where you can sit all day at a sturdy beer garden overlooking the city.

Another hike up to the National Monument in Vitkov is a way to explore Czech history with barely another soul in sight.

Vyšehrad is the site of the Slavín, where prominent Czech artists and cultural figures are interred, and the cemetery surrounding it is well worth exploring, along with the grounds and statuary.

None of this is to disparage the amusement park at all, since I love it there, but rather to suggest that Prague is the kind of city where stepping just a few feet off the beaten track can be incredibly rewarding.

The National Museum is still closed

This is more of an inside joke for me, since as long as I have been visiting Prague the majestic main building of the National Museum has been closed for renovations. I take it they're finishing up soon.

However, the new building of the National Museum is open, and typically offers several exhibits, at least one of which draws on the collections of the National Museum. We enjoyed the current exhibit on the Celts, who apparently settled Bohemia long before they made their way to Britain.

Prague has always been hip, but it's getting hipper

Taking advantage of the fifth-night-free benefit of booking an award stay with Hilton, we stayed at the Hilton Prague Old Town for our last five nights in the Czech Republic. Out for a walk our first evening in town, we discovered just a few blocks away something called "Manifesto."

Literally a pop-up beer and food truck space built out of repurposed shipping containers, Manifesto wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Brooklyn, Austin, Seattle, or Portland. But here it was in the Czech Republic, constructed in the shadow of a freeway overpass.

Prague has featured hip institutions like Radost FX, the vegetarian restaurant and music club, almost since independence, and the city has attracted like-minded entrepreneurs and customers ever since. But it seems to me the pace has somewhat accelerated, with more farmers markets, local crafts, and microbreweries than existed even a few years ago.

Visit Prague, and give it some time

My main recommendation for any visit to the Czech Republic is to give yourself enough time to both enjoy the main tourist attractions and to explore further afield, either by foot, streetcar, or subway. You can pack a lot into a day or two, but I think Prague is a place that uniquely rewards stepping away from the tourist groups and letting yourself breathe in the myriad nooks and crannies of the city.

Reflections on Karlovy Vary and my first film festival

Having concluded the first part of this trip, and safely ensconced in the Executive Lounge at the Hilton Prague Old Town, I thought I'd share some reflections on the Karlovy Vary and the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Getting to Karlovy Vary

This was the easy part. We booked bus tickets with Student Agency ahead of time, and they took us directly from the airport to the main Karlovy Vary train station in about 2 hours. If you are leaving from Prague, you can also take the train, which takes 3 hours 15 minutes, and according to wikitravel has excellent views.

The original plan was to take that train back from Karlovy Vary to Prague, but the Czech railway website was showing a strange error message about requiring a bus connection so out of an overabundance of caution we decided to take the bus back to Prague as well, which ends at the main bus station Florenc.

Staying in Karlovy Vary

An important thing to know about Karlovy Vary is that it is built into a fairly narrow valley or canyon, and the city climbs out of the valley up the adjacent hillsides. I bring this up because if you don't inspect a topographical map, you might find yourself staying at the very top of one of those hills, like we did.

This didn't matter once we had settled into our hotel (except that we got a lot of exercise walking up and down the hill multiple times every day), but if I had known in advance that we'd have to walk our suitcases up multiple flights of stairs and steeply inclined streets, I might have ordered a taxi or booked a hotel on the floor of the valley instead. If you have mobility issues, you'll want to stick to the area immediately surrounding the Teplá river, ideally between the Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp. Even a block away could represent several hundred feet in elevation change or dozens of stairs.

There are no chain hotels in Karlovy Vary, but there are a lot of hotels, lining virtually every street in the city, mostly stately 4-6 story buildings that appear (to my untrained eye) to date back to the height of the Austo-Hungarian empire. Virtually all of them are available through one or more online travel agencies, but be sure to shop around since availability and price can vary enormously from one site to another. I used Booking.com for our reservation instead of Hotels.com because the price difference was much greater than the better rewards the Hotels.com reservation would have offered.

Our hotel was called "Villa Charlotte," which does not even seem to have its own website. The price was right and the breakfast was pretty good, so I don't have any particular complaints, but if you've ever stayed at a boutique European hotel you've stayed there: thin, useless towels, confusing plumbing, two double beds shoved together to make a "queen" bed, etc.

Eating in Karlovy Vary

There are a ton of replacement-level Czech restaurants in town, but I'll point out a few places that stood out:

  • Yeleny Skok is about a third of the way up the Southwestern canyon wall, and has great views of the valley floor and a solid venison goulash. You can hike up there by foot (the trail conveniently started across the street from our hotel), or take a funicular from immediately behind the Grandhotel Pupp.
  • Ristorante Italiano da Franco is a tiny hole in the wall where we had our "nice" meal of the trip (i.e. $15 entrees instead of $4 entrees — the Czech Republic is very cheap). It's a little off the beaten path but had some of the best Italian food I've had in Eastern Europe. It's unclear to me if the owner, who along with his wife seemed to be the only person working, speaks any language other than Italian, but the menu was descriptive enough in several languages.
  • When you want to really get away from the crowds, Kebab House on náměstí Dr. M. Horákové seemed like a popular choice with locals and offered straightforward kebabs with lots of fresh veggies, which are not exactly a staple of Czech cuisine so made for a nice change of pace when you'd like something besides bread, meat, and cheese.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

KVIFF is a really big deal in Karlovy Vary, but it seems like it's a pretty big deal in the movie industry as well, serving to both exhibit the world premier of movies that (I assume) weren't accepted into the more famous festivals and as another stop on the festival circuit, with producers continuing to shop their films around for distribution.

The operation of the festival is a bit curious, at least to me (maybe all festivals work this way). Each morning at 8 am, the box offices (located at Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp) open and you can purchase tickets for showings taking place the next day. If you have a properly configured mobile phone, you can also text your ticket order for the next day's screenings starting at 7 am, which seems to give Czechs and other Europeans an hour's advantage in booking the most in-demand tickets since most (all?) American phones won't have this functionality.

The most popular option seemed to be festival passes, which is what we bought. Passes include 3 tickets per day, and also allow you to stand by for seats 5-10 minutes before screenings begin.

We arrived Monday, and by the time we worked our way to the Hotel Thermal in the evening to buy our passes, there was only a single screening with tickets still available for Tuesday, a French heist movie directed by Romain Gavras called "Le Monde est à toi." We tried to wait in line for another movie Tuesday morning ("Putin's Witnesses"), but they ran out of seats just as we got to the front of the line. Having wasted 90 minutes on that, we didn't try last-minute seating again.

We got a full set of screenings in Wednesday:

Thursday morning before leaving town we also saw the 1967 Russian film "235,000,000."

So, we paid 600 Czech crowns each, about $27, for 5 movie tickets, which seems like a pretty good deal even if we didn't get the maximal film festival experience.

There is one final wrinkle: between 10 am and midnight on June 25 (four days before the start of the festival), KVIFF also released 10% of the tickets to each screening for online reservation. So if you have particular screenings you're particularly interested in and don't want to take your chances competing against everyone else at the festival, you could log in at 10 am (4 am Eastern time?) and frantically book tickets until the extremely limited supply is exhausted. This also might be worth doing for screenings the day of your arrival, since most screenings will have already sold out the day before.

Conclusion

If you're interested in the film festival experience but can't afford to spend a week in Cannes or Venice, then KVIFF is a very affordable chance to see movies that haven't been released theatrically (and may never be released theatrically at all!). Karlovy Vary itself is tucked into a beautiful landscape and offers lots of options to hike and, of course, take the waters that are the original reason for the town's existence.

For fun, check out some of the gag reels that were shown before the screenings we attended, featuring Casey Affleck, Zdenek Sverak, Milos Forman, and John Malkovich.

If you're reading this, hopefully I'm in the Czech Republic

I've heard that our top scientists, in their wisdom, have determined that people enjoy the anticipation of a holiday even more than they enjoy the holiday itself. I'm no scientist, so I'm prepared to believe that they've crunched the numbers accurately.

On the other hand, I've anticipated this trip long enough, and I can't wait to spend the next 10 days in the Czech Republic.

I expect I'll have access to the internet much of the time I'm there, but unless something dramatic happens I'll mostly be posting about weird train-riding practices and whatnot.

If you want real-time updates from the trip I'd suggest following me on Twitter at @Freequentflyr, where I'm sure I'll be posting photos and cracking wise whenever I get a Wi-Fi signal.

Marriott Travel Packages are getting more expensive (also maybe more valuable)

I saw Spencer Howard post on Twitter a seemingly-official (or at least well-spoofed) document listing the new prices of Marriott Hotel + Air packages when the combined Marriott, Starwood, and Ritz-Carlton program goes into effect on August 1.

Let's talk about it.

Marriott Hotel + Air packages today

Today, Marriott Hotel + Air packages offer a discount of roughly 24 to 38% when redeeming Marriott Rewards points for 7 consecutive nights and a variable number of miles transferred to one of their partner airlines:

  • The smallest package offers 7 nights at a Category 1-5 property (worth up to 150,000 Marriott Rewards points since the 5th night is free in any case) and 50,000 miles, worth 120,000 Marriott Rewards points (since that amount can be converted into 40,000 Starpoints and transferred to many of the same airline partners, although the Starwood transfer ratio to United is much worse), but costs just 200,000 points, a 26% discount.
  • What seems to be the most popular package among travel hackers offers the same 150,000-point, 7-night stay plus 120,000 miles, worth 288,000 Marriott Rewards points using the same calculation above, but costs just 270,000 points, a 38% discount (giving rise to the odd situation discussed here).
  • Finally, the largest package offers a 7-night Tier 5 Ritz-Carlton stay, worth 420,000 Marriott Rewards points, plus the same 288,000-point mile transfer, but costs just 540,000 points, a 24% discount.

Again, these calculations are based on the current Hotel + Air award chart.

Marriott Hotel + Air packages after August 1, 2018

Now let's apply the same logic to the Hotel + Air chart Spencer posted for redemptions after August 1, 2018.

  • At the low end, you can redeem 255,000 points for a 7-night Category 4 stay plus 50,000 miles, which would otherwise cost 270,000 Marriott Rewards points: 150,000 points for the 7-night stay, and 120,000 points for the mileage transfer, a mere 5.6% discount.
  • The same stay certificate plus 100,000 miles costs 330,000 points, raising the discount to 15.4%.
  • At the high end, a 7-night Category 8 stay (starting in 2019) plus 50,000 miles costs 675,000 points and is worth 630,000 points, a 7% premium over making the two transactions separately!
  • Transferring 100,000 miles instead raises the value of the package to 750,000, which is, in fact, what the most expensive package costs.

This pattern repeats itself for the other packages as well: discounts are small or negative at the 50,000-point redemption level, and range from 5% to 15% at the 100,000-point level.

Marriott Hotel + Air Packages after January 1, 2019

While losing an opportunity to book hotel stays and buy airline miles with a 38% discount is unambiguously a devaluation, I think the explanation is not what will happen in August, but what will happen next January, when Off-Peak and Peak pricing goes into effect. These 7-night stays make no sense at almost category property during Off-Peak periods (an Off-Peak Category 6 redemption would cost just 360,000 points booked separately, but Marriott charges 415,000 points!).

But during peak periods, the discount can be noticeable even at Category 8 properties, where a 50,000-point package will cost 675,000 points but is worth 720,000 points (6.3% discount) and a 100,000-point package costs 750,000 points but is worth 840,000 points (10.7% discount). Note also that these Category 8 properties will include Starwood's current top-end properties in addition to Marriott's.

And if you book a Peak Category 4 hotel with a 100,000-point package, the discount rises to 21.4%, which is at least in the same ballpark as the existing packages.

However, these are still much lower discounts than those offered by the current Hotel + Air packages, so you should certainly book any packages you're interested in before the August 1 changes go into effect. There's been a lot of speculation about how unredeemed stay certificates will be treated after August 1, but given the discounts currently available I think it's largely irrelevant: getting back any points at all from unredeemed certificates will make them an even better deal, and updated points-based certificates would still be able to be used at the much larger joint Marriott-Starwood hotel footprint.

Not too many Ultimate Rewards points angles

Since I get any Marriott Rewards points I need through Ultimate Rewards transfers, I'd like there to be some way to take advantage of Hotel + Air packages that way, but the fundamental problem is that Ultimate Rewards points can already be transferred to programs in each airline alliance, Southwest, and Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio, while Marriott Rewards points can only be transferred at a 3:1.25 ratio.

That means while Hotel + Air packages are good redemptions of Marriott Rewards points (improving their value over individual stay redemptions and individual airline transfers), they're bad redemptions of Ultimate Rewards points.

The exception is if you already have a large Marriott Rewards balance you're considering transferring to Starwood Preferred Guest in order to make an airline transfer. In that case, you should consider instead transferring over Ultimate Rewards points in order to redeem a Hotel + Air Package. For example, 240,000 Marriott Rewards points are worth 80,000 Starpoints, which can be redeemed for 100,000 miles. But transferring 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points over to Marriott will allow you to receive the same number of miles (or more in the case of United MileagePlus), but also a 7-night Category 1-5 certificate.

No matter what Marriott decides to do with those certificates on August 1, it's virtually guaranteed to be worth more than 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points.

Hotel benefits by length of stay

The other day I was looking at hotels for an upcoming weekend trip with flexible dates. I settled on a convenient Hilton property, and was immediately annoyed that I only really needed 4 nights, even though the fifth award night would be free. I vented on Twitter and Milenomics contributor Robert Dwyer pointed out that if I had a Citi Prestige card I'd be sitting pretty with that card's fourth-night-free benefit.

That got me to thinking about the connection between length of stay and optimal booking options.

One-night stays

One-night stays are great because they're opportunities to redeem free night certificates at chains where you don't otherwise have any points or status. For example:

  • Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier cards offer an anniversary free night certificate good at properties costing up to 40,000 points;
  • the new suite of Marriott and Starwood credit cards will offer anniversary free night certificates good at properties costing between 35,000 points and 50,000 points, depending on the card;
  • Chase Hyatt credit cards offer anniversary free night certificates good at category 1-4 properties (up to 15,000 points per night).
  • For stays within the United States, the US Bank Radisson Rewards ($50 annual fee) and Radisson Rewards Premier ($75 annual fee) cards offer up to three anniversary free night certificates valid only at Radisson Rewards properties in the United States when spending $10,000, $20,000, and $30,000 on the cards each cardmember year. If you're going to spend $30,000 on one of these cards my general feeling is that you may as well pay the extra $25 annual fee and get 75,000 additional points annually between the two additional points per dollar the Premier card earns and the 15,000 additional anniversary points.

For longer stays, I don't like free night certificates because they force you to overpay for the nights that aren't covered by the certificate, or move between properties during your trip. But for one-night stays they're ideal, and I often use them for things like airport properties before an early morning flight.

Another option for one-night stays, depending on the property, is booking through one of the luxury travel portals:

  • the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection offers a package of benefits including free Wi-Fi, breakfast for two guests, and a $25 food and beverage credit. If the price is the same as through other booking channels, then on a one-night stay the food and beverage credit can handily offset things like resort fees (which would also be owed on award stays), while on longer stays, the resort fees continue to mount while the food and beverage credit can be used only once.
  • likewise American Express offers a Fine Hotels and Resorts booking channel to their Platinum cardholders, which offers a more generous $100 food, beverage, or spa credit at some properties. Just as above, on a one-night stay that credit naturally goes further than on longer stays.
  • Finally, you can use a Virtuoso travel agent like classictravel.com to secure similar benefits while booking with the card of your choice.

Two- and three-night stays

This is the real wheelhouse of hotel points and fixed-value points, especially if you're able to redeem cheap fixed-value points like US Bank Flexpoints against your stay (if the total cost is above $500), since you'll also earn points on the room rate you pay. If you'd otherwise pay cash, redeeming points is usually a good idea in this window, since easily-earned points like Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, and (under certain circumstances) IHG Rewards Club points don't offer any advantages, and the resort fees at luxury properties eat up the potential value of the food and beverage credits discussed above.

Some third-night-free offers may also be available through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, but unless you've done your research in advance I wouldn't sign up for a Platinum card just in hopes of capitalizing on third-night-free offers.

Four-night stays

At the four-night mark, three additional opportunities open up:

  • fourth-night-free booking options through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts. These are somewhat more common than third-night-free offers, so for four-night stays in cities served by Fine Hotels and Resorts this may be worth checking since the free night and on-property benefits may lower the total cost below any points redemption you'd otherwise consider.
  • the Citi Prestige fourth-night-free benefit allows you to book four-night stays while only paying the room rate on 3 nights (although taxes and fees are still owed on the fourth night).
  • the Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier card fourth-night free benefit on award stays, which means that otherwise-marginal redemptions may be worthwhile, if the free fourth award night boosts you well above your points' imputed redemption value.

Five-night stays

Presumably because their Top Men told them that virtually no one books five-night award stays, Hilton Honors, Marriott Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest all offer the fifth night free on awards stays (Hilton only in the case of elites, but if you're not a Hilton elite I don't know what to tell you).

Seven-night stays

Finally, if you actually have a seven-night stay with Marriott planned at a Category 5 or higher Marriott Rewards property, you should consider booking it with a Hotel + Air Package before August 1, 2018, in order to receive 120,000 or more airline miles alongside your hotel redemption.

Conclusion

I give most people the benefit of the doubt that they understand their travel needs better than I do, so I try not to tell people what they should or shouldn't do. The flip side of that is that you should take the time to assess your own travel needs and figure out which configuration of airline, hotel, and credit card programs works best for you.

For example, if you take the occasional five- or seven-night international trip, but are putting your manufactured spend on a Radisson Rewards credit card, that's not an indictment of the program, it's a mismatch between what you're doing and what you need to be doing to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

Likewise, if your travel consists of taking the occasional road trip to Chicago, you may well want to be earning free night certificates and points you can redeem at the Radisson Blu Aqua, one of the few really great hotels in the Radisson Rewards program in the United States.