Using my Barclaycard Arrival+ PIN in Italy

If you're a citizen of the United States, the Barclaycard Arrival+ card is likely the only "chip and PIN" card you carry. These cards are popular outside of the United States, but for economic and historical reasons they have not and, in my only-slightly-educated opinion, likely will never dominate the credit card market in the United States: plans by several issuers to issue chip and PIN cards have already fallen through; merchants have no interest in buying new equipment; and Americans just don't travel internationally very much!

But Barclaycard issues one, and it happens to be a card lucrative enough (because of the 10% points rebate on travel redemptions) that many travel hackers carry it.

Set your PIN online

One thing I didn't realize until I received my chip and PIN card is that the PIN is not hard-coded onto the chip. My understanding was that US-based issuers were resistant to adopting chip and PIN technology because their customers would be frustrated if they had to memorize a different PIN for each card. But with Barclaycard, you can set your PIN to the same number you use for all your other cards (and your phone, and your bank accounts, and your home security system...), and you can do it online.

Just go to "Account settings" in your online account and look for "Manage your PIN:"

Use your PIN at unattended kiosks

I used my PIN exactly twice in Italy: buying a train ticket from Milan's Malpensa airport into town, and buying a train ticket from Rome's Termini train station to Fiumicino airport. Both times were at unattended kiosks: I inserted my card, left it in the slot until prompted for my PIN, entered my PIN, then withdrew my card when prompted.

I had read a few posts around the blogosphere suggesting that the first time a card is used abroad, the cardholder has to sign the purchase in order to "activate" the card's PIN. That's completely incorrect: the first purchase I made on arrival in Milan was a PIN transaction at an unattended train station kiosk.

Sign everywhere else

I was surprised to find that every other merchant we visited in Italy had signature-compatible terminals. Some of the merchants themselves seemed surprised when the receipt printed with a blank space for my "firma," but we had no issues with acceptance.

This won't be true everywhere: I've visited Russian grocery stores that flatly refused to process signature transactions, so you still shouldn't travel abroad relying completely on your credit cards.

Bonus: Bluebird is still awesome for foreign ATM withdrawals

I mentioned this once before during a trip to the Czech Republic, but Bluebird is still a slam dunk for ATM withdrawals while traveling abroad.

I withdrew 200 euros twice at ATM's, and the total charges to my Bluebird account were $240.48 and $238.98, including all ATM fees. That gives exchange rates of 1.202 and 1.195 euro per US dollar, both within 2% of the financial market rates on the days in question (according to xe.com).

It's hard for consumers to exchange currency at the prevailing market rates, and ATM fees can add substantially to currency exchange costs, while Bluebird offers exchange rates very close to market rates, along with flat international ATM fees. Unfortunately, not all ATM's are configured to process American Express withdrawals, so it may take some trial and error to find ATM's you can use your Bluebird card at (my card was rejected at one of the ATM's I tried).

Marriott rollover nights and the hunt for Gold elite status

Last October I wrote a couple of posts about an idea I had to use Marriott rollover nights in order to earn elite status once every two years. The technique takes advantage of the principle that elite status is valid for the remainder of the year in which it's earned, plus the entire following elite membership year (which may even reach into the year after that, depending on the loyalty program).

In other words, if you were somehow able to earn elite status on January 1st, you would have that status for two full calendar years.

Marriott Rewards isn't a program I find particularly lucrative for my own travel, which is 100% leisure, but I know many business travelers love their essentially universal footprint and elite recognition.

I love digging into the nitty-gritty of loyalty programs, so I decided I'd give this technique a try to see how it works in practice. 

Elite-qualifying night breakdown

When you log into your Marriott Rewards account, you can click on your "Account Overview" and see the breakdown of all your elite-qualifying nights so far this year. It looks like this:

My Chase Marriott Rewards Premier card has an anniversary date in April, when 15 additional "Rewards Credit Card" nights will post to my account, bringing my "2015 Total" to 34. At that point, I'll need 16 additional elite-qualifying nights, or $48,000 in spend on my Premier card, in order to reach Gold elite status with Marriott Rewards. At that point I'll have exactly 50 elite-qualifying nights, and in January 2016 my total will reset to 0, since I won't have any 2015 rollover nights.

Rollover nights don't roll over!

What I didn't appreciate, Marriott Rewards not being one of my primary or even secondary loyalty programs, is that elite-qualifying nights only roll over one time.

At the end of 2014, I had 42 elite-qualifying nights: 8 paid nights, the 15 bonus nights I receive from my credit card every April, and 4 nights I'd earned through spend on the Premier card, plus 15 nights I rolled over from 2013. I assumed that I would roll over all 32 nights in excess of the 10 elite-qualifying nights required for Silver elite status.

But instead, only 17 nights rolled over: my 2013 rollover nights simply vanished.

Does it matter?

When I originally hatched this elite-qualification scheme, it was in the form of a question: if the Marriott Rewards Premier credit card earns 15 bonus nights per year, and only 10 are required for Silver status, doesn't that mean the 5 rollover nights will accumulate so that every 8 years cardholders will suddenly receive Gold elite status?

The answer to that question is "no:" each year, 5 rollover nights will "expire" and 5 rollover nights will be added, leaving the cardholder running in place towards Gold status.

On the other hand, this has no effect on the strategy of earning Gold elite status every two years using rollover nights.

  • In year 1, receive 15 annual bonus nights and manufacture $45,000 in spend to end the year with 30 elite-qualifying nights;
  • In year 2, receive 15 annual bonus nights and roll over 20 nights;
  • Also in year 2, manufacture $45,000 in spend to reach Gold elite status;
  • In year 3, receive 15 annual bonus nights and manufacture $45,000 in spend to end the year with 30 elite-qualifying nights;
  • In year 4, receive 15 bonus nights and roll over 20 elite-qualifying nights;
  • Also in year 4, manufacture $45,000 in spend to end the year with 50 elite-qualifying nights.

Using this technique, you'd only be without Gold elite status in "even" years, and only until you met that year's $45,000 spending goal.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely not.

Remember, when you manufacture spend on any credit card that earns just 1 mile or point per dollar, as the Marriott Rewards Premier card does, you're buying those points at 2 cents each, since you could put the same spend on a 2% cash back credit card. That means besides the Marriott Rewards Premier card's $85 annual fee, you'd also be foregoing at least $900 per year in exchange for Gold Elite status.

In fairness, you would also receive 45,000 Marriott Rewards points for your purchases, which are worth perhaps $450, if you're consistently strategic in your redemptions.

Who might seek Gold status in this way?

Everything I've said so far implies you never stay at Marriott properties, which would generally make you a poor candidate for Marriott Rewards Gold status! This strategy is vastly more realistic for members who actually have paid elite-qualifying nights at Marriott properties.

Since Marriott allows elite members to renew Gold elite status each year by simply paying 25,000 Marriott Rewards points, which can be transferred in from Chase Ultimate Rewards, the absolute most money you should be willing to spend pursuing Gold status on an annual basis is $250 (the cash value of the transferred Ultimate Rewards points).

A rough guideline that $3,000 spent on the Marriott Rewards Premier card earns $30 in points and costs $60 in foregone cash back would imply that you should be willing to manufacture no more than $25,000 per year on the Premier card pursuing Gold elite status. That would get you to 23 elite-qualifying nights annually (15 annual nights plus 8 nights earned through spend).

In other words, since Gold elite status requires 50 elite-qualifying nights, this strategy might be worth pursuing if you have 27 or more paid nights per year. In that case, manufacturing just $24,000 per year on the Premier card would earn you the marginal elite-qualifying nights you need to reach Gold status.

Weekend blog housekeeping

Here are a few updates I thought I'd share with my readers.

New blog subscription provider

If you were signed up for a PayPal subscription back in December, before the account I was using to handle subscriptions was closed by PayPal, you should have already received multiple communications from me about resubscribing through my new subscription provider, Moon Clerk.

If you weren't a PayPal subscriber, you may still have noticed that the PayPal subscription box in the right-hand sidebar has been replaced with a Moon Clerk subscription box.

If you enjoy getting news, analysis, and laughs from this site, I hope you'll consider signing up for a blog subscription. It's by far my largest source of income from this site.

As my small way of saying thanks, blog subscribers receive my occasional subscribers-only newsletters and access to the complete archive of past newsletters.

In case you're concerned about the security of your data, I looked into this, and Moon Clerk is an API for Stripe.com, a very reputable payments provider. Arguably more reputable than PayPal, for instance (see: account closures). You can read more about their security protocols here.

Thoughts on Google AdSense

A few months back, I got around to signing up for Google AdSense, and added a little AdSense box in the right-hand sidebar. Personally, I use AdBlock, so I never see the thing, but if you visit my website without AdBlock you might see something like this:

I don't know what a Simplify Commerce by MasterCard is, but if they want to throw a few shekels my way, who am I to complain?

After signing up for an account, I went through and blocked the "Credit Cards" ad category, since Google ads invariably offer the very worst signup bonuses, and I didn't want there to be any suggestion that I recommended the cards being served by Google:

Unfortunately, that had almost no effect on the credit card ads being served. So then I manually blocked each credit card URL as I came across it in my "Ad review center:"

 

That seems to have mostly staunched the flow of credit card ads (though let me know if you see any and I'll try to figure out what's going on).

In any case, I periodically check in on my Google AdSense account to make sure it's still chugging along. Here are my earnings from last month, for instance:

I guess no one had anything to do but visit my site on Christmas day!

What I didn't realize until I started digging into my ad "revenue" (I haven't actually received a payment yet) is that I'm not just paid when people click on my ads. Apparently I also earn a few tenths of a cent whenever anyone visits my site:

That may sound obvious, but I'm having a hard time describing the effect this realization had on me. After all, I basically don't promote my site at all. I have a Twitter account where I joke around with other travel hackers, but that's about it. But it turns out, every time a reader decides to visit my site, instead of reading my posts on Feedly or receiving them by e-mail, I earn as much as half a cent!

I don't know what I'm going to do with this information yet. Should I post more often? Start more fights with other bloggers?

In any case, the least I can do is encourage my readers to visit the site! Read the comments; there's often a ton of information there I didn't know or forgot to mention in the body of my posts. Leave a comment of your own!

The site's really an incredible resource, and I learn more from my readers every day than I could ever possibly hope to share. So stop on by! I think you'll like it.

Regional: new AAA Visa gift card daily limits

I often joke that I'm the only person left buying Visa gift cards from AAA. And before anyone complains, I understand:

  • Yes, you have to be a AAA member;
  • Yes, they're only available in some regions;
  • Yes, purchases can be pretty time-consuming if the person helping you isn't familiar with the Metabank system they have to interface with;
  • Yes, frequent large purchases with immediate liquidation can result in being blacklisted from further purchases.

But the cards are PIN-enabled, they cost $3 most of the year and are free for 2-3 months per year (around the May/June graduation season and the winter holidays), and they're coded as purchases with every credit card I've used.

Changes to daily purchase limits

When I went in for my weekly purchase at the beginning of January, the clerk who always helps me told me that there was a new limit on daily purchases. Rather than the theoretically unlimited number of Visa gift cards customers were previously able to purchase, purchases were now limited to $1,000 per day.

I didn't ask whether this is a new national policy, is limited to my AAA region, or something in between.

Analysis

It's hard to say whether this is, on balance, good news or bad news.

On the one hand, $1,000 is less than I had previously been purchasing per trip, so this means I'll be manufacturing slightly less spend with these cards going forward.

On the other hand, the "unlimited" purchases AAA was previously willing to process was a honey trap for an unbelievable number of travel hackers. I've heard the same story repeatedly: "The first day I purchased $5,000. The second day I purchased $20,000. The third day I'd been blacklisted."

If the new $1,000 daily purchase limit keeps members of the community from falling into that trap, and therefore able to continue earning cheap miles and points, I'll consider it a net positive. If the new limit is instead designed to slow people down so their accounts can be blacklisted before they can reach the total purchase numbers that were previously possible, it'll be a net negative.

Conclusion

It was about AAA Visa gift cards that I first remarked on "What you miss when you miss MS." Affiliate bloggers who pretend that it's possible to earn significant travel rewards through everyday spending are lying to their readers in order to generate credit card commissions.

For example, talking about bonused restaurant earning on every affiliate blogger's "favorite" card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, is preposterous when rather than spending $500 at restaurants in order to earn 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points, I can spend $6 at my local AAA branch.

Instead, the card you put your actual restaurants purchases on should be a card you carry anyway, either because of its annual benefits or because it's worth manufacturing spend on that card.

My 2014 in miles and points

It's still January, and that means the blogger's code entitles me to write a 2014 retrospective on the miles and points I earned and redeemed in 2014. Last year I wrote an in-depth 2013 end-of-year accounting that included detailed information about all the fees I incurred manufacturing spend. My manufactured spending has sprawled a bit too much to make that practical this year, but I'll still give the total figure for everything I classified as "fees and charges" in my Mint account in 2014.

Here are my best estimates and calculations of all the miles and points I earned and redeemed in 2014:

There are a few obvious discrepancies in this chart.

  • My Barclaycard Arrival+ miles don't quite square up, I assume because the 10% rebate is screwing with my calculations in some way; I may be double-counting some miles incorrectly, for example. I'm only 10,000 miles off, though, which is actually a pretty small margin of error, all things considered..
  • The other discrepancies are mostly related to points transfers; for example I currently have (many) more Hyatt points than I earned since I transferred some points from Ultimate Rewards that I didn't ultimately redeem.

Regarding the fees I incurred in 2014, I should note this includes things like my monthly $3 Mango prepaid card fee and $12 Suntrust checking account fee. In other words, they aren't all directly connected to manufactured spending.

Why do I travel hack?

You don't typically read about me redeeming my miles for first class flights or my hotel points for 5-star resorts. That's not because I have any objection to comfort (and I have a lot fewer objections after my 11-hour flight from Rome in economy!), rather it's because I'm traveling more or less constantly, and want to stretch my miles as far as possible.

I love being able to take a trip to Portland just to see Star Trek in the Park, to Boston to see my best friend perform in a standup showcase, or to Lexington for a long weekend of pony racing and breweries with friends, paying a fraction of retail by redeeming miles or points I've acquired cheaply.

I redeemed a bit over 240,000 Skymiles, for example, in 2014, and I redeemed them exclusively on domestic roundtrips. Instead of 2 roundtrips in Business Elite, I took a bunch of vacations to visit friends and family all over the country.

I don't think that decision is "superior" in any way to the Business Elite alternative, but it's the strategy that works for me, for now.

Thoughts on 2015

At the beginning of 2014 I was still somewhat attached to the circus of chasing high signup bonuses. Today, I'm focused on cards that provide valuable recurring benefits and those that are worth manufacturing spend on. I'd rather have 5,000 miles I made a deliberate calculation to earn, knowing I'll redeem them, than 50,000 "opportunistic" miles I have no idea what to do with.

For example, today I have over 60,000 miles in what will become the combined American Airlines AAdvantage program, and no plans or really even interest in redeeming them, a result of last year's January application cycle.

With that in mind, here are some of the cards I plan on picking up at some point in 2015:

  • Citi Double Cash. Negative 2% interest rate on a 15-month loan? Yes please!
  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. I'm tired of asking my (working stiff) brother to book my Starwood reservations for me.
  • Chase IHG Rewards Club Select MasterCard. I'll use the signup bonus (and 20,000 current points) to turn my 2 "Into the Nights" award nights into a longer vacation.
  • US Bank Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa. I already have the small business version of this card, which has a lower annual fee of $60, but I'm interested in finding out whether a second card account, linked to a second Club Carlson account, will let me redeem more than one consecutive "last night free." Even if that isn't possible, I value the 40,000 annual anniversary points at substantially more than the $75 annual fee, and will happily keep the card until that benefit is ended (or Club Carlson undergoes a massive devaluation!).

Besides those, I plan on applying for and taking advantage of the high promotional cash back earning rates that continue to be offered by a few regional and national banks.

Because cash is the one thing I'm always willing to acquire opportunistically!

Earning flexible points at gas stations

Via Doctor of Credit, the Citi ThankYou Premier card is apparently lowering its annual fee and significantly changing its bonus earning categories by including gas stations in its bonused "travel" category, while increasing its earning rate to 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent there.

This is potentially a huge deal: beginning April 19, 2015, Citi, American Express, and Chase will all offer flexible-point-earning credit cards with sub-$100 annual fees, and all three will bonus purchases at gas stations.

Since the ThankYou Premier card is currently issued as a Visa, my expectation is that in-store purchases at 7-Eleven store locations, whether or not they sell gas, will earn points at the accelerated rate.

The Cards

Here are the cards I have in mind:

  • Chase Ink Plus Visa. 2 flexible Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations. $95 annual fee;
  • American Express Amex Everyday Preferred. 2 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, with a 50% bonus during statement cycles you make 30 or more purchases (anywhere) with the card. $95 annual fee;
  • Citi ThankYou Premier. 2 flexible ThankYou points per dollar spent at gas stations. $95 annual fee starting April 19, 2015. Wait until then to apply in order to maximize your earning during your first cardmember year.

Analysis

Let me be clear that it makes no sense to carry all three of these cards on an ongoing basis. On the other hand, both the Chase Ink Plus and Citi ThankYou Premier periodically (for example, right now) offer 50,000 point signup bonuses which may entice you to apply. Once you've crossed the hurdle of signing up for the card, you may well decide to incorporate it into your manufactured spending strategy.

Only Chase Ultimate Rewards points are directly redeemable for cash, while all three points currencies can be redeemed for paid, mileage-earning airline tickets. Additionally, Citi ThankYou points can be redeemed for mortgage or student loan "rebate checks" made out to your loan holder. Membership Rewards points can be monetized by redeeming them for American Express gift cards, although you'll have to pay any costs involved in liquidating them.

Since monetizing these points will yield a maximum value of 1 cent per point, you'll probably be best-served earning these flexible currencies with the intention of redeeming them for flights through their airline transfer partners.

With that in mind, I created this chart to incorporate the relevant information about the three cards:

Conclusion

A glance at this chart suggests a few obvious conclusions:

  • All three flexible points currencies have transfer partners in all three airline alliances;
  • Only Ultimate Rewards can be transferred to United or Korean Air;
  • But only ThankYou and Membership Rewards points can be transferred to Air France KLM Flying Blue points.

Which cards, if any, you decide to apply for and use to manufacture spend at gas stations should depend on the redemptions you plan actually plan to make. But Citi's changes to the ThankYou Premier card are a big step towards leveling the playing field between these three cards.

Do this now: register for Hyatt's Stay More Play More promotion

Registration is open for the Hyatt Gold Passport Winter/Spring promotion, called "Stay More Play More." Between January 15 and April 30, 2015, you'll earn bonus points based on the specific offer you've been targeted for, presumably depending in part on your history with the program. I was targeted for up to 50,000 bonus points after staying 20 nights during the promotional period:

I don't have any paid Hyatt stays planned for this quarter, so I don't anticipate earning any bonus points through this promotion. If you are interested in directing stays towards Hyatt in order to earn bonus points, but are unsatisfied with the promotion you've been targeted for, head over to Chasing the Points to see some of the other offers available. He suggests contacting Hyatt's social media team in order to register for a different promotion than the one you were targeted for.

On the other hand, if you don't feel like spending that much energy on this promotion, you should still register now, before you forget.

How do transfer bonuses and Travel Together Tickets affect the value of Avios for long-haul British Airways flights?

Everyone knows that Avios, the awards currency used by British Airways Executive Club, can be redeemed for short-haul domestic flights at sometimes astronomical values. 4,500 or 7,500 Avios for expensive, short-haul flights is one of the great bargains in domestic travel, and makes British Airways one of the most valuable transfer partners for Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which you can quickly and easily transfer over in increments of 1,000 Avios.

The flip side of that are the huge taxes and fees levied on long-haul Avios redemptions on British Airways flights through London, which mean those redemptions, particularly in premium cabins, are almost never worth making compared to Delta or United redemptions connecting in Continental Europe.

I recently mentioned on Twitter my intention to cancel my Chase British Airways Visa, which I received last January under the fantastic signup bonus of 100,000 Avios after spending $20,000 on the card, and someone mentioned that Membership Rewards transfer bonuses (currently 40%) and British Airways Visa Travel Together Tickets might make the card worth keeping. I don’t pay extortionate taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges, and I don’t recommend my readers do either. But I was sufficiently intrigued: how do transfer bonuses, and the British Airways Visa Travel Together ticket, affect the value of Avios for flights on British Airways metal?

Membership Rewards transfer bonuses

Membership Rewards, one of the proprietary points currencies of American Express, can ordinarily be transferred to Executive Club Avios at a 1:1 ratio. Periodically, however, the program offers bonuses on such transfers so that, for example, 1,000 Membership Rewards points can currently be transferred to 1,400 Avios.

Note what this does and doesn’t mean: while the Avios cost (in Membership Rewards points) of such tickets is reduced by 28.6%, the taxes, fees, and surcharges remain the same.

The cost of every ticket can be broken down into two components: the miles and points cost and the dollar cost. Even a paid revenue ticket has a (negative) miles component (the miles you earn from flying), while a domestic award ticket will still have a low dollar cost ($11.20, for example, in taxes and fees).

There should always be some point at which you’ll prefer to book a revenue ticket over an award ticket; if a domestic revenue ticket on United costs $250, you can redeem 20,000 flexible Ultimate Rewards points for the paid ticket rather than transfer 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points to United to book an award ticket: the negative mileage cost of the revenue ticket makes it "cheaper" overall (even with gutted earning on paid United flights).

In the same way, a sufficiently high transfer bonus should make even award tickets with high taxes and fees cheaper than an award ticket booked on a more consumer-friendly airline.

British Airways Visa Travel Together Tickets

Each calendar year you spend $30,000 on a Chase British Airways Visa, you’ll earn a "Travel Together Ticket.” Travel Together Tickets expire two years after they’re issued. These companion tickets:

  • Can only be redeemed on British Airways-operated flights;
  • Must originate and terminate in the United States (no originating in Brazil to dodge fuel surcharges);
  • Can be used for any class of service, or mixed-cabin itineraries;
  • Require the cardholder to travel on the entire itinerary (no selling Travel Together Tickets online!).

Importantly, when booking a companion ticket you’re still required to pay the taxes, fees, and surcharges for each passenger; the companion ticket only discounts the Avios component of your reservation, not the dollar component.

Is it worth it?

Combining the two promotions results in a discount of 64% to the miles component of a two-person reservation (1,000 Membership Rewards points for 2,800 Avios in value), with no discount to the dollar component. Are there itineraries that make such reservations competitive with other points currencies? I compiled the following chart using the actual mileage and dollar award costs for several cities served by British Airways, American Airlines, Delta, United, and their partners.

For each award, I calculated an "imputed redemption value," which is the rate at which a British Airways Visa Travel Together Ticket redemption is buying American AAdvantage miles, Delta Skymiles (or Membership Rewards points), or United Mileage Plus miles (or Chase Ultimate Rewards points). For example, on a roundtrip economy award for two passengers between New York City and Heathrow, passengers redeeming a Travel Together Ticket would pay $999 in order to spend 28,571 Avios instead of 120,000 Skymiles. You could think of this as buying Skymiles at 1.09 cents each, or paying $999 in order to convert 28,571 Avios into 120,000 Skymiles. If you typically redeem your Skymiles for more than 1.09 cents each, you might consider redeeming a Travel Together Ticket instead.

The lower the  IRV, the better value a Travel Together Ticket redemption theoretically is. I've highlighted IRV's below 1 cent per mile in green, between 1 and 2 cents per mile in yellow, and above 2 cents per mile in red.

A few notes on this chart:

  • This chart only shows award tickets I could actually search for and find online. I've indicated where an airline offers a theoretically lower redemption cost, but where I was unable to find a single award seat at that level. We're interested in the actual cost of award tickets, not their theoretical cost;
  • This chart shows the mileage and cash cost of 2 award tickets, since Travel Together Tickets naturally only apply to 2-person reservations;
  • The mileage cost of British Airways awards is given in Membership Rewards points, since this chart shows the combined effects of Membership Rewards transfer bonuses and a Travel Together Ticket. Multiply by 2 to find the cost in Membership Rewards points without a companion ticket, or by 1.4 to find the cost in Avios without a Membership Rewards transfer bonus (or by 2.8 without either);
  • British Airways will charge more Avios, but not (much) more cash, for departures from their other US destinations. To find the cost from those destinations, add the Avios shown at the bottom of the table;
  • Finally, this is a non-representative sample of British Airways destinations. It was chosen only to illustrate the principle; calculate your own imputed redemption values using the actual cities you're interested in traveling between.

Conclusion

I find charts like this useful not because I have any burning desire to visit Johannesburg, Bangalore, or Beijing, but because using concrete figures can help evaluate generalized claims. My key takeaway from this chart is that the headline combined discount of 64% may sound impressive, but how much value you actually receive from a Membership Rewards transfer bonus and Travel Together Ticket will depend entirely on the itinerary you ultimately redeem them for.

On itineraries between the United States and London, where you'll be forced to pay the United Kingdom's Air Passenger Duty regardless of your airline, the mileage savings with Avios can substantially outweigh the increased cash outlay.

Additionally, if your alternative to using British Airways Avios is the AAdvantage program, you'll likely be booking your transatlantic travel through London anyways, and using a Travel Together Ticket and Membership Rewards transfer bonus instead was a better value on almost all the transatlantic routes I examined.

On the other hand, itineraries between the United States and China are so astronomically expensive in both Avios and fuel surcharges on British Airways-operated flights that even the Travel Together Ticket doesn't make an Avios redemption competitive with redemptions through the other three mileage programs.

Looking at this chart, I've even more persuaded to cancel my British Airways Visa. What do my readers think?

Lessons learned after a week in Italy

I don’t write trip reports because I don’t like reading trip reports. On the other hand, while in Italy I discovered a few things I wasn’t expecting, which might prove useful to readers planning their own trips. So here are my top 6 travel-hackery takeaways from my 8-night trip to Italy.

1) The Hilton Molino Stucky Venice is an incredible place to stay in Venice

I did a fair amount of research on this property before arriving, but I was pleasantly surprised at every turn:

  • It’s incredibly easy to get to. Many reviews and comments about this property point out that the hotel is located on an island, not in “Venice proper.” The “island" is just another one of the landmasses in the Venetian delta, and while it’s not connected to the other island by a bridge, there’s a simple public water transportation system that connects you there directly from the train station and, I believe, the airport as well. If you catch one of the express waterbusses it’s a ride of perhaps 15 minutes from the main Santa Lucia train station.
  • We had buffet breakfast in the restaurant included. Trip Advisor has dozens if not hundreds of reviews from Hilton HHonors Gold and Diamond members who were told they would only receive breakfast in the executive lounge, which would indeed be disappointing, since it’s basically just eggs, bacon, and yoghurt. Some of those reports are as recent as December, but as a Diamond member we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which has a staggeringly wide assortment of hot and cold dishes, salads, breads, and meats. I have no explanation for the discrepancy, but that was our experience.
  • The rooms are quiet. Some people complain about noise from the street and from the boats moving around the canals, but we found the windows to provide great sound insulation when closed. It may be much louder during the high season, with revelers coming and going all night long.
  • The views are superb. The side of the building facing the water is in the shape of a “U,” and some people with rooms in the “depressed” part of the “U” complained that they had only obstructed, not clear, views of the city. This may be a bigger problem in the corners, but we were located in the center of the depression and didn’t find our view hurt in any way by seeing the sides of the building. We had a perhaps 160-degree view instead of a “full” 180 degrees.

2) The Radisson Blu es. Hotel in Rome is a very pretty disaster

At 66,000 Club Carlson points ($13,200 in purchases on the US Bank Premier Rewards personal or Business Rewards small business credit cards) for 2 nights in a premium room, this hotel seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was.

The hotel’s owners clearly invested a great deal of money in design, but without paying the slightest attention to function:

  • The room’s outlets require a keycard to be left by the door, so it’s impossible to charge electronics during the day without leaving a key behind.
  • The entire hotel was heated to 70 degrees or so, including the bedrooms (and the minibar). To cool off, we opened the door to our room’s balcony, and tiny insects soon covered every surface.
  • Behind the bed was a “control panel” with buttons labeled with various functions, like controlling the room’s shades. None of them worked as described (our room's shades didn’t even appear to be electric).
  • On our second day, there was apparently a brief power outage and the hotel’s internet stopped working for the rest of our stay. This wouldn’t have been such a problem, except…

3) It’s preposterously hard to get online in Italy

My vague understanding is that this has something to do with Europe’s internet security laws, which require those providing internet access to verify the identity of their customers. Even with that being said, I’ve never had as much trouble getting online in any other European country as I did all over Italy.

My favorite example: the high-speed train we took between Milan and Venice had free on-board wireless internet. All you needed to do was register, and you’d receive your login credentials…via e-mail!

4) You probably don’t need to book train tickets in advance

I booked all our train tickets in advance through ItaliaRail.com, which is useful for scanning for the cheapest departures each day (and purchases are correctly coded as travel with the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard). Once in Italy, for the sake of comparison I checked the prices for same-day tickets, and found they were identical to the advance purchase prices I’d secured online.

One possible exception is if you’re able to find “Two For One Fare” tickets, which are only available on advance purchases. That’s a way to secure real savings, if you’re able to book the trains on which those tickets are available.

5) You probably don’t need to stay at the airport when departing Rome

We had a not-particularly-early morning flight from Rome to Philadelphia, and I thought it would be convenient to stay in Fiumicino, the suburb of Rome where the airport is located. This turned out to be totally unnecessary: the train from Rome’s Termini train station to Fiumicino airport takes just a touch over 30 minutes, and runs every 20 minutes. We ended up having a lovely dinner in Fiumicino on our last night, and paid just $14 for our hotel there thanks to Expedia’s Cyber Monday sale, but in general I’d suggest spending the night in Rome and having a nice dinner there, instead, unless you have a very early morning flight and want to stay at one of the two Hilton properties attached to the airport.

6) Checking in for US (and Israel?)-bound flights from Rome is an insane process

We left Rome on a US Airways-operated flight, which meant we had to check in at Fiumicino’s Terminal 5. Terminal 5 is a giant warehouse with the sole function, as far as I could tell, of handling check-in for US airlines and El Al, the Israeli national carrier.

The procedures in Terminal 5 are what you might come up with if you were taken on a 30-minute tour of a US airport and told to replicate as much of it as possible from memory.

The first step is presenting your passport. This has nothing to do with checking in for your flight; it appears to serve solely to verify your identity. The same person who checks your passport gives you a handful of plastic bags and instructs you to put all the electronics, batteries, and for some reason cables which you plan to carry onto the flight into these plastic bags for security screening.

After pulling out all your electronics and bagging them, the second step is not passing through security. Rather, now you can finally proceed to the airline check-in counters, all while juggling your plastic bags filled with electronics. I don’t know how the other airlines handle this, but the US Airways counters were being overseen by a woman who appeared to be deliberately screwing with the passengers. Before my eyes, she told a passenger to put her carry-on into the bag sizer, turned back to her computer, and then when the passenger told her it had fit replied, “I didn’t see it.” The sooner this airline vanishes from the face of the earth, the better.

Finally you can head to security, which was, after all this rigamarole, much easier than passing through security in the States. We didn’t even have to take off our shoes!

After all this, you hop on a bus that takes you to a completely normal terminal with flights departing all over the world, which is why I suggest Terminal 5 only exists to satisfy the US that some semblance of our security procedures are being followed for US-bound passengers. The fact that you could trade luggage or boarding passes with someone who checked in at the other international terminal appears to have been lost on them.

IHG Rewards Club "Into the Nights" free nights are surprisingly easy to use

Reminder: select your rewards for last quarter's IHG Rewards Club promotion

Before I get to the subject of today's post, let me gently remind any readers who reached one or both of their "Into the Nights" thresholds to log into the promotion's site and select either points or free nights as your rewards (after thinking about how you'll actually redeem them). If you don't make a selection by January 31, you'll be award points, rather than the potentially more valuable free nights.

Using free nights is easy and fun

This may be old hat to readers who have an IHG Rewards Club credit card, which gives a free night on each account anniversary, but I had no idea what a free night was or how to use it. It turned out to be easier than I could have imagined.

Once you've selected one or both free nights on the promotion's website, you can immediately navigate to your account page and find "Free Night Status" in the left-hand navigation bar:

Clicking "BOOK FREE NIGHT" will take you to a standard IHG hotel search tool with "Into The Night Free Night" selected as your rate preference:

Search any city and date and you'll see if there's free night availability. In my casual searching I found free room availability everywhere I looked. Here's Prague in June:

Here's Paris in July:

So it appears to me that IHG is not throttling availability above and beyond their usual limitations on award availability: if a room is available on points, it seems to be available using Into the Nights free nights.

Conclusion

There was some initial confusion over just how flexible these promotional free nights would be. As far as I can tell, IHG Rewards Club is allowing them to be used for any standard room that's available with points, so if that's been stopping you from selecting free nights over points, go ahead and make your selection, being sure to do so before January 31, 2015, when you'll be automatically granted the points award, instead.