Is the American Express Rocketmiles deal a dud?

If you followed the instructions in this post, all your American Express cards, including authorized user cards issued by American Express, should now be enrolled in an offer for $50 off Rocketmiles reservations of $200 or more, valid for purchases processed by Rocketmiles by October 30, 2015.

What is Rocketmiles?

Like Pointshound, a service I've written about in the past, Rocketmiles allows you to pay rates which can be comparable to those offered directly by hotels, while earning airline miles instead of the hotel loyalty points you'd earn by booking directly.

Is Rocketmiles a good deal at chain hotels?

If you're booking at chain hotels, which don't participate in the near-constant promotions being run by the big online travel agencies like Expedia and Hotels.com, then you have a straightforward choice. Will you get the most value:

  • earning airline miles using a portal like Rocketmiles or Pointshound;
  • earning an OTA's proprietary currency, like Orbucks through Orbitz or free hotel nights through Hotels.com;
  • or earning a hotel's proprietary currency by booking directly through the hotel's website?

Keep in mind that in the latter two cases, you also have the option of earning cash back by clicking through a portal like TopCashBack.

For all the dates and properties I searched, among these choices Rocketmiles is strictly inferior to the others.

At the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, for October 22, 2015, here are my search results:

  • Pointshound. $214.06 rate, $31.04 taxes and fees, $245.10 total. 1,700 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles (2,300 if you're Level 3 with Pointshound). Net rate (valuing Mileage Plan miles at 1 cent each): $228.10 (Level 1) or $222.10 (Level 3).
  • Hotels.com. $229 rate, $33.21 taxes and fees, $262.21 total. 17% back clicking through TopCashBack and earning a Hotels.com Rewards night. Net rate: $223.28.
  • Hilton.com. $218 AAA rate, $31.61 taxes and fees, $249.61 total. 4% cash back clicking through TopCashBack, 2,180 base HHonors points, plus any elite, "Points & Points," and promotional bonus points (up to 2,180 additional HHonors points). Net rate (valuing HHonors points at 0.35 cents each): $229.44 (general member) or $225.63 (Diamond elite member).
  • Rocketmiles. $229 rate, $54.96 taxes and fees, $283.96 total. 2,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. Net rate: $263.96.

Note in this case that Pointshound is both cheaper and earns more Mileage Plan miles (for Level 3 members).

Is Rocketmiles a good deal at non-chain hotels?

Once you've decided to stay in a non-chain hotel, you're suddenly eligible for the fantastic discounts the online travel agencies are always offering, and Rocketmiles will simply never be able to compete with those massive, upfront savings.

Here's the hotel we stayed at in Florence, the C-Hotels Club Florence, for the same October 22 date as above:

  • Pointshound. Net rate: $153.90 (net 700 Mileage Plan miles).
  • Hotels.com. Net rate: $109.54.
  • hotelclubflorence.com. Net rate: $139.79.
  • Rocketmiles. Net rate: $175.34 (net 1,000 Mileage Plan miles).

Does the American Express Rocketmiles promotion make Rocketmiles a good deal?

Obviously in the above two scenarios I haven't taken into account the $50 American Express offer this post is supposed to be about!

The best use case for this Rocketmiles offer seems to me to be the following:

  • individual nightly room rates very slightly above $200, and
  • Rocketmiles room rates that are the same or only slightly more expensive than the cheapest option otherwise available.

In this precise situation, your $50 American Express offer will bring the net price below the otherwise-cheapest option, and you'll be rewarded with a handful of airline miles for your trouble.

Price compression strikes again

Unfortunately, all of the above analysis ignores the single most important thing about travel hacking: price compression.

Price compression is a term I coined to describe two related benefits of generating miles and points through manufactured spend (and to a lesser extent, through credit card signup bonuses):

  • More expensive trips don't cost more miles and points;
  • Even when more expensive trips cost more than less expensive trips, the difference is smaller in absolute terms — the prices of the two trips are compressed.

You can see this at chain hotels, like the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, where rooms cost 30,000 or 40,000 HHonors points per night, depending on season. Buying HHonors points at 0.35 cents each at grocery stores buys you a night for far less than any of the OTA's are asking.

But you can also see it at non-chain hotels, like the C-Hotels Club Florence. Even if Rocketmiles did have the best rate for the nights in question, the $50 discount off a $200 room rate requires you to pay with an American Express card, and therefore forfeit the ability to redeem Arrival+ miles against the reservation. In other words, it requires you to pay with cash (albeit at a steep discount).

Conclusion

This post isn't meant as a promotion or indictment of Rocketmiles in general, but rather to show how I think about these periodic promotions that come along (like the generous resale opportunity Marriott offered late last year).

This specific Rocketmiles offer may pose an opportunity: if you pay for rooms with cash; and you don't have an Arrival+ card; and Rocketmiles rates are competitive with other OTA's; and nightly rates are above, but only slightly above, $200.

In that situation, it would be well worth considering making Rocketmiles reservations with all your American Express cards (one per card!).

Pointshound, Amtrak, Skiplagged, Updated signup bonuses

I'm heading to Chicago for a long weekend tomorrow, so updates might be spotty for the next few days. There's one newish technique I'll be checking out while I'm there, so watch for that update this weekend or early next week. In the meantime, here's a rundown of some quick hits which probably don't deserve their own blog posts, but which I wanted to bring to my readers' attention.

Pointshound Points Posting

I wrote a few posts back in July when Pointshound first launched their "double up" rates, which allows you to earn both bonus airline miles through Pointshound and elite qualifying nights and regular points with many of their hotel partners. These stays also qualify for hotel promotions

My feeling was that if you were planning to book through your hotel's website, and Pointshound offered the same nightly rate with the same cancellation policy, you may as well also earn a few hundred airline miles for your booking as well. I also was the first to reveal a simple technique for instant Pointshound Level 3 status, earning around twice as many miles per night on "double up" bookings, and somewhat more than that on standard (non-double up) bookings.

I haven't written about Pointshound recently because, frankly, my airline miles didn't post, and I wasn't interested in sending any more business to a sub-par operation. It was a good idea, but if they couldn't implement it correctly, I was fine waiting for someone who could (Rocketmiles is currently making a run at part of their market segment).

Imagine my surprise when I got a stream of e-mails on November 7 notifying me that my points had posted for 5 separate reservations. To be clear, these were "double up" reservations for August 30 - September 2, 2013. By my math, that means my points posted 9.5 weeks after checking out (in fairness, I did receive my "double up" hotel points and elite night credits for the stays immediately; just not my Pointshound airline miles).

So who knows, maybe Pointshound has managed to get their act together. File this under developing...

Amtrak Bonus Points with Google Wallet

I love Amtrak Guest Rewards points, which I value at between 3 and 6 cents each, depending on my planned redemptions (making them easily one of Chase's most valuable transfer partners). So I can't help but pass along this opportunity to earn 500 Amtrak Guest Rewards points for linking your AGR number to a mobile Google Wallet account.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell you do need to own a smartphone, download the Google Wallet app, and add Amtrak Guest Rewards as a loyalty program to the app. All this takes a few minutes and is about as much fun as you would expect. You can unlink your AGR account once your points post, however, and they are worth between $15 and $30, depending on your redemption. To put it slightly differently, you would need to spend $250 on Amtrak or book 5 one-way tickets to earn the same number of AGR points.

Skiplagged for Hidden City Ticketing

There is a whole world of travel hacking that I simply don't have the time or patience to master. It involves things like fuel dumping and "hidden city" ticketing. The former technique is too complicated to explain here, but the latter is simple: sometimes it's cheaper to book tickets to places you have no intention of visiting, which happen to have stopovers in the city you actually intend to visit. As long as you don't check bags (which would be checked to your final destination) you can just leave the airport at your "intermediate" destination.

You can save real money doing this, but domestic airline tickets typically aren't expensive enough for me to spend time checking every possible permutation of hidden city ticketing.

Skiplagged is a new website that aims to take care of all that mindless searching for you, and it's going to become a regular stop for me, along with Kayak and ITA Matrix when I'm searching for paid flights. Their homepage has some examples of hidden city ticketing that you can book today, if you're so inclined, that offer (in some cases) substantial savings.

Updated Signup Bonuses

Here are a few updated signup bonuses you'll find on the site:

As my readers know, I don't receive any kind of bonus, referral credit, points, recognition or anything else of value if you sign up using these links, which are not connected to me in any way, shape or form. I provide them only as a service to my readers.

On the other hand, if you find the blog helpful, consider buying my ebook, The Free-quent Flyer's Manifesto, leaving a review on Amazon.com, and telling your friends and family about the site! It's the only advertising I have and it means the world to me.

Know your hotel promotions

For those travelers who are truly loyal to just one airline or hotel chain, and those whose booking decisions are made by a corporate travel department, there's not much that can be done to squeeze out the maximum value from paid travel: register for promotions, always give your membership number with your bookings, and if possible, use a co-branded credit card or one which bonuses travel purchases.

For the broad swathe of leisure and business travelers, however, who do have the ability to control or influence which travel providers they use, maximizing the rebate value of the points earned during paid stays is an essential part of the travel hacking lifestyle. And if you don't know your hotel promotions, you will miss out on opportunities for big savings.

Here's an example I ran into just yesterday. Taking advantage of my new Level 3 status with Pointshound , I was searching for an upcoming one-night stay in Pittsburgh.

The cheapest room on Pointshound was a $64.11 Travelodge.  I naturally scrolled down to the first "Double Up" eligible room, which was a $92.75 Four Points by Sheraton, which would earn 158 Starwood Preferred Guest points (2 points per dollar on the $79 base rate, since I don't have elite status with Starwood) and 250 United MileagePlus miles through Pointshound. It's unclear to me whether I'd also earn 79 Delta Skymiles through their "Crossover Rewards" benefit with Starwood, but I wouldn't count on it, since I find that benefit rarely posts correctly.

The point is, this isn't a very tough call: 158 Starwood points are worth maybe $3, 250 United miles are worth maybe $5. But I would be paying $28.64 more in order to earn them! If I were on my honeymoon, I'd splurge for the nicer hotel, but I'm just staying the night in Pittsburgh on a road trip west.

However, before I made the booking, I checked out my Hotel Promotions page to see if there were any Starwood promotions that would change the value proposition. And sure enough, I found that I had written:

Earn double Starpoints on all eligible stays from May 1 through July 31, 2013, at more than 1,000 participating Starwood hotels and resorts worldwide.
Plus, get 500 additional bonus Starpoints for each eligible booking made through our spg.com mobile site, the SPG App for iPhone, or the SPG App for Android — and that's at all our more than 1,100 hotels and resorts in the SPG program.
Register here, and find the (long) list of non-participating properties here.

So instead of earning 158 Starpoints on my base rate, I'd earn 316, plus a 500 Starpoint booking bonus. Suddenly I'm looking at about $16 worth of Starpoint earning, plus the Delta Skymiles I'll earn by booking through Starwood. And I was even able to reserve a AAA rate through Starwood that saved me a couple bucks on the reservation (sometimes these rates are also available through Pointshound). If I were on the hunt for elite status with Starwood, I'd also value the elite night and stay credits I'll earn.

In short: hotel promotions can radically shift the value proposition when comparing hotel prices. 

I'll give just one more example. Marriott is currently running one of their regular promotions whereby you can earn a free night after 2 paid stays, and another free night after another 2 paid stays. Those free nights can be redeemed at any Category 1-5 property (details may vary slightly depending on which version of the promotion you are targeted for).  That means that for your first 4 paid stays with Marriott, you have to consider any "premium" you're paying over a non-chain hotel the cost of 50% of a free night. If a stay with Marriott were $40 more expensive than my next hotel choice, I would book that Marriott stay in a heartbeat: $80 all-in for a night at a Category 5 Marriott is an absolute steal (unfortunately the cheapest Marriott in Pittsburgh was $126: only $39 more than the Starwood property I booked, but I'd be forgoing 816 Starpoints and a handful of Skymiles – too high a price for 50% of a Marriott free night certificate.

Know your hotel promotions: it might just save your money. 

 

(Accidentally) hacking Pointshound

I wrote about Pointshound once before, when I booked my terrible, Soviet-era business hotel in Prague through them back in March.  Since then, the site has improved considerably, especially with the introduction of "Double Up." Essentially, at some major chain hotels in some major US cities, you can earn airline miles through Pointshound and earn hotel loyalty points and elite night and stay credits. These stays should be eligible for quarterly/seasonal promotions as well.

When "Double Up" rewards are available, you'll see a small icon next to eligible hotels in your search results:

Before I get any further, let me throw some links out there. A lot of bloggers have been posting their reactions to Pointshound and signup links that offer various bonuses, so to get a full range of reactions, some bought and paid for, others not, check out these posts:

Mommy Points (500 miles with first reservation, Level 2 for 60 days)

View from the Wing (Level 2 for 60 days and 500 miles with first reservation; see comments in this post for a good comment war)

New Girl in the Air (I assume 250 miles with first reservation)

The Wandering Aramean  (Level 2 and 250 miles with first reservation)

Free-quent Flyer (just 250 miles, as far as I know, with first reservation) 

With that out of the way, let me get to the point of this post. I was using Pointshound to survey some hotel availability for a family reunion over Labor Day weekend, when I saw that there was "Double Up" availability at a Towneplace Suites I was considering in Indianapolis. I had already booked a bloc of rooms directly through Marriott, but Pointshound had the same rates, and would let me earn 1,200 United miles per room (700 base miles and a 500-mile June booking bonus), in addition to Marriott elite nights (which I don't need) and Marriott Rewards points (which I can always find a use for).

The thing is, Pointshound only allows you to book one room at a time Which, ironically, is how I discovered that your "Level" with Pointshound is determined by the number of nights you've reserved through them, not the number of nights you've stayed through them. I accidentally bumped myself from "Level 1" to "Level 2" with my first reservation. Naturally, I then booked several more, and meanwhile canceled my first, "Level 1," reservation.

What it Means

Since Pointshound offers refundable reservations, and some properties only charge your card when you check-in, you can achieve Level 3 with Pointshound instantly by making a long, refundable reservation in the distant future. Then make the reservations you intend to keep with your new, more lucrative, Level 3 staus.

Here's what you need to know: 

  • Normal reservations made through Pointshound are charged to your credit card immediately.
  • You'll need to make a refundable, "Double Up" reservation, which is billed by the hotel directly. Experiment to find a hotel that doesn't charge your credit card until you check in. Otherwise you'll need to pay off your card to ensure you don't pay interest on the cost of your "fake" reservation.
  • Pointshound may be having a problem with their Double Up server at the moment: while researching this post I couldn't find any Double Up availability at any properties on any dates in any of the cities I checked. Hopefully this problem will be resolved soon (it may be fixed already by the time you read this).
  • Most importantly, remember to cancel your fake reservation within the property's free cancellation period!  Otherwise you'll be charged anywhere from the cost of one night to the cost of your entire stay.

As a reminder, here are the nights required and mileage earning rates associated with each Pointshound "Level:"

Since I'm the first person to break the news of this hack, I'm looking forward to seeing it appear soon on Million Mile Secrets. Place bets in comments on how long it'll take Darius to copy this post word-for-word...

Anatomy of an award trip: Spring break in Prague

This March I spent my Spring vacation in Prague, my favorite city in Europe.  Every part of the trip had a miles and points component, so I thought it might be useful for readers to get some insight into my thinking when putting together an award trip.

Getting There: Star Alliance

This award ticket started as a summer reservation between Portland, OR and Prague, with a return flight to New England (PDX-PRG-BOS).  Since my preferred airline is Delta, however, I continually monitored Skyteam award availability until I was able to find a low-level Business award ticket on Delta and KLM.

Having booked my summer trip on Delta, I then had to decide what to do with my United award reservation.  It would have cost $150 to cancel the trip and re-credit the miles to my account, since I don't have elite status on United.  However, changing only the origin city cost just $75, and changing the date was free, so I decided to pay the $75 and turn the ticket into a Spring vacation.

My transatlantic flights were originally scheduled to be on Lufthansa on my outbound leg and Tyrolean Airways, an Austrian carrier, on my return flight.  However, my Tyrolean Airways flight was canceled due to a schedule change, and I was rebooked into United Economy for my return flight.  I hate flying United, and that goes double for flying United in Economy, and that goes triple for flying transatlantic flights on United in Economy.  The United reservation desk, however, was unable to rebook me on a partner airline, like Lufthansa, which operates a good international product, even in Economy, unless the partner airline had award availability.  Since the cancellation happened so close to my departure, no award seats were available and so I was stuck on United.

Total cost: 60,000 United miles, $181.80 ($106.80 in taxes and fees, $75 award change fee). Total value: $1,150-1400. Value per point: 1.61-2.03 cents per mile.

Staying There: Hilton, Club Carlson, PointsHound, Marriott

Hilton Prague Hotel

I spent two nights at the Hilton Prague Hotel, which is now a Category 6 hotel.  You can use the HHonors Points Search Tool to see that a standard room award costs 30,000 HHonors points every month except June, when it jumps to 50,000.  In March, when I stayed there, it was a Category 5 hotel, costing 35,000 points year round under the old award chart.  This is a good example of how the March 28 Hilton devaluation reduced the cost of some mid- and low-tier properties (while increasing the cost of top-tier properties).  As a Hilton Gold member I was pretty sure I'd be upgraded to an executive floor, but to be sure I spent 4,129 points one night and 9,178 points the second night to guarantee an upgrade.  Since I value HHonors points at about .4 cents each, this was about $53 in points to guarantee the upgrade for two nights, which I found very reasonable, given how much value I got out of the Executive Lounge.

Total points: 83,307. Total value: $420.  Value per point: .5 cents per point.

Park Inn Prague

Next, I spent three nights at the Park Inn Prague, a category 3 hotel costing 28,000 points per night.  Even as a non-elite "Red" member of the Club Carlson program, I was still upgraded to a "Residential Room" with a small sitting area, one full bathroom and one half-bath.

Total points: 84,000. Total value: $420. Value per point: .5 cents per point.

PointsHound reservation at Hotel Aron

PointsHound is a relatively new online hotel booking portal.  Most online travel agents, or OTAs, pass along a portion of their commission on hotel reservations in the form of a rewards program like Expedia Rewards, or through cashback portals like TopCashBack. Instead, PointsHound passes along part of their commission in the form of airline miles in one of their partner programs, including all four of the major US domestic airlines.  The complete list of partners is:

  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Delta Skymiles
  • United MileagePlus
  • US Airways Dividend Miles
  • Virgin America Elevate
  • HawaiianMiles
  • BalticMiles
  • Etihad Guest Miles
  • Club Premier KmP
  • Best Buy Reward Zone

If you're staying at non-chain hotels, or hotels where you don't collect that chain's loyalty points, and you redeem your miles for high-value awards, like intercontinental premium cabin awards, you'll get more value by booking through PointsHound than through a traditional cashback portal.

I made a PointsHound reservation at a very small business hotel in the Žižkov neighborhood of Prague, Hotel Aron.  The hotel was horrible; my "non-smoking" room stank heavily of smoke, the reception insisted on keeping my key when I left the hotel, and there was no security worth mentioning.  However, my 431 Delta Skymiles did recently post to my account, which at 2 cents each is about a 7% rebate against the $122.50 I spent for two nights.

Courtyard Prague Airport

Since I was leaving early Sunday morning, I spent my final night at the Courtyard Prague Airport, a Marriott property.  As a Category 2 property, I spent just 10,000 Marriott points for the night.  The hotel was located immediately across the street from both Terminals 1 and 2, the non-Schengen- and Schengen-zone terminals, respectively.  The convenience was incredible, but the morning I was leaving was the same night that the Czech Republic moved to "summer time," and since I had no idea whether my iPhone would automatically adjust, I ended up staying up all night anyway in order to make sure I made my 6 am flight.

Total points: 10,000. Total value: $79. Value per point: .78 cents per point.