Anatomy of a not-really-award trip; what should I do in the Balkans?

While most of my travel is domestic, I try to plan at least one big international trip every year. When my partner and I were both on academic calendars, that trip usually fell during the summer, but this year my planning kept getting pushed back, to the point that if we were going to go anywhere at all, I needed to just pull the trigger. What we decided on was a 12-day trip to the Balkans.

Getting there: good award space, but cheap flights

Since I was sitting on a few hundred thousand Ultimate Rewards points, I first checked out award availability using United Mileage Plus miles. Economy award space (30,000 miles in each direction) was great, and there were several business class seats that would work for the outbound flight (60,000 or 70,000 miles depending on carrier).

There were a few obvious advantages to booking award tickets: we wouldn’t have to fly in and out of the same city, which would help us plan our travel around the Balkans. It would also save Ultimate Rewards points, since we each already have a starting balance of Mileage Plus miles, in my case about 25,000, which I would love to redeem down to zero.

Unfortunately, to maximize that strategy would also mean booking two separate reservations, topping up each of our balances and redeeming miles out of each account separately. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as nothing goes wrong, but for long international trips I’m more comfortable staying on the same reservation as my partner.

Ultimately, I decided to save the Mileage Plus miles for another day and redeemed about 110,000 Ultimate Rewards points directly for 1.25 cents each.

There are two ways to look at this decision: on the one hand, 110,000 points is fewer than it would have cost to book round-trip economy flights (120,000). On the other hand, 110,000 points is more than it would have cost me to book round-trip economy flights because I already had a Mileage Plus balance I could have topped up with a 95,000 point transfer.

Note that I also could have booked a free segment under United’s new routing rules, but that wasn’t relevant for this trip.

Staying there: still working on it!

Hilton has properties in Sofia, Belgrade, and what looks like a gorgeous old hotel in Dubrovnik where I’ll redeem a couple free weekend night certificates, but other than that the region is pretty light on the hotel chains I’m active with. So if there’s a property or destination you love in the Balkans, let me know in the comments and I’ll probably take your suggestion!

Getting around: hopefully mostly trains?

I’ve visited the Balkans before and had fun traveling between Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Belgrade by train, but for some reason in a couple hours of light Googling I’ve been unable to find any current information on train schedules, so at this point it looks like there’s going to be a certain amount of improvisation involved once we’re on-site. I understand there are some cities served only by bus but ideally I’ll be keeping that to a minimum.

Share your recommendations!

We deliberately built a lot of flexibility into this itinerary to give ourselves plenty of time to get around and explore, but that also means we will have a lot of time on our hands, so any and all recommendations are welcome from folks who love, hate, or are indifferent to the Balkans!

The great, good, weird, and apologetic about the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort

What a week! I bring you alohas (that means “hello”) from Maui, the second largest island in the state of Hawaii (or as the locals call it, “the aloha state”). As a reminder, I organized this trip as a belated honeymoon taking advantage of a few interlocking opportunities:

  • Hilton Honors offers the fifth night free on award stays to all elite members (everyone, in other words), which is naturally most valuable on stays of exactly 5 nights at top-tier 95,000-point properties;

  • the new American Express Hilton Honors Aspire card offers a $250 statement credit for charges made at “participating Hilton Resorts;”

  • there’s also currently an Amex Offer for a $70 statement credit when you spend $350 at Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts in the US, Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Paris and Conrad Hotels & Resorts in the US;

  • and the Bank of America Alaska Airlines companion ticket can be used to book moderately complex multi-city itineraries with a stopover, so we were able to use it to fly from my partner’s family in Indiana, to my family in Oregon, onward to Maui, and back to the East Coast, all for the price of a single Alaska Airlines ticket, plus taxes and fees.

There are a few ways the deal could have been stretched a little further. For example, I booked all five nights from my Hilton Honors account, including this weekend, while it would have been technically optimal to book a 5-night stay ending on a Friday night, then use the Aspire card’s free weekend night certificate to book a free 6th night and my Ascend free weekend night certificate for a 7th night, but that would have required my partner to take a lot more time off work, and we’ve already been traveling since before Christmas. As a rule I try to avoid organizing my travel around stunts unless I think I’m going to get a particularly good blog post out of them, and the free weekend night certificates will certainly get used, hopefully at a good redemption value.

The Grand Wailea breakfast mystery, solved

When I first wrote about this trip, I explained that I’d been told the Diamond breakfast benefit was “a daily $15.00 per day up to 2 person a in room dining credit. Unfortunately the $15.00 in Only for in Room dining” [sic]. But I’m now happy to be able to share the actual letter describing the benefit I was handed when checking in last Wednesday:

Breakfast, revealed!

Now, a civilian might think this letter is as clear as day: a $30 per day credit for food and beverage. But if you’re a travel hacker, you know this raises just as many questions as it answers. What’s a “day?” We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and departed on Monday; do we get six $30 credits, one per “day,” or five $30 credits, one per night of our stay? Is the credit “use it or lose it,” so we have to spend $30 per day, or can we splurge on one day?

I asked all these questions to our check-in clerk, and was told, “I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just take $150 off your bill when you check-out.” And sure enough, when we checked out yesterday the front desk agent was happy to remove $150 from our room charges (although I did have to remind her, possibly due to the chaos the night before — see below).

The property is spectacular, but starting to show its age

Before arriving, I requested a quiet room, and we were given a ground floor king room in the “Chapel Wing,” with a balcony overlooking one of the resort’s many koi ponds. The room was indeed quiet, except for in the mornings when housekeeping carts rattled by on the tiles outside and the sprinkler system turned on to water the gardens. The room had a small refrigerator instead of a minibar, which was great for storing food, leftovers and drinks, which we found very convenient.

While everything in the room was great, it was the first place we started to notice wear and tear on the property, which opened in 1991 and underwent a major renovation as recently as 2017. At some point the door handles were replaced with longer, curved handles (possibly as an ADA compliance measure?), but the raised decorative designs on the doors were not taken into account. That means our door handle didn't have a full range of motion, and the bolt didn't fully withdraw when we turned the handle from the inside. Nine times out of ten, this doesn’t matter and the door closes anyway. The tenth time, the bolt catches against the doorframe and the door stays open. We noticed this happen one time and pulled the door shut on our way out, but the second time it took a a security guard to notice it, who promptly scared the daylights out of us when he walked into the room to make sure we were ok! Other than that, we mostly noticed small things like missing tiles in the swimming pools and chipped paint on the waterslides, but nothing that interfered with our fun.

Speaking of fun, the main attraction at the resort is its network of swimming pools and hot tubs, most of which are connected by waterslides, so you can start at the top level and slide down from one level to the next, or take one long fast ride all the way to the bottom. I don’t know why some people don’t like resorts with kids, but if you’re one of them, you are not going to like this place. There is one "adults-only” pool, but it’s right in the middle of all the other pools so there are still kids walking through all the time to get between the waterslides and the guest rooms. I guess they’re just not allowed to actually get into the water. Compare that to the Hyatt Zilara, where it was someone’s full-time job to keep kids from stepping over a rope onto the “adults-only” portion of the beach.

The adults-only Hibiscus Pool

Paying for (and eating) the food

I had my partner sign up for an Aspire card before this trip, so we had a $250 American Express credit (remember: this is a cardmember year, not calendar year, benefit) to spend in addition to the $150 food and beverage credit. Plus, since she had the $70 off $350 offer on her card, if we spent a total of exactly $500 we’d end up owing just $30 after the $150 property credit, $250 Aspire resort credit, and $70 Amex Offer credit.

Based on our experience at the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall in Jamaica (an all-inclusive resort, so we didn’t actually spend any money there), I assumed we’d be spending a lot more than that, so I planned to charge any amount over $350 to my own Hilton Honors Ascend American Express to trigger another $70 credit. That ended up not being the case, for two main reasons: the food at the Grand Wailea isn’t very good, so we didn’t eat very much of it, and the Grand Wailea isn’t nearly as isolated as the Zilara.

In fact, there’s a shopping mall with a pair of grocery stores (same company, but with slightly different selections) just next door, so we were able to stock up on drinks, snacks, and even things like salads and sandwiches there and pay perfectly reasonable prices. Many of the prices didn’t even seem inflated compared to prices on the mainland, and Hawaii has a state sales tax that’s less than half what we pay at home.

Ultimately, when we woke up Monday morning, we still had over $50 left to spend to get up to $500 total, but we went for a morning swim and managed to run up a bill poolside to cover the difference.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that it’s perfectly possible to spend as much as I had expected to at the Grand Wailea. Importantly, we didn’t take advantage of the four luxurious options on the property: the fine dining Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the Sunday brunch at the Grand Dining Room Maui, the Luau, or the “sunset cabana dining” option. We also didn’t order room service, which has both a $7 delivery charge and a 20% service charge. If you do any combination of those things, you’ll have no trouble triggering as many statement credits or minimum spend requirements as you please; entrees at “Humuhumu” are between $34 and $95, and sunset cabana reservations cost between $685 and $2,235 per couple (which at least is inclusive of taxes and tip). I don’t have anything to say one way or the other about whether you should try one or all of those options, I can only say I didn’t save $8,000 on my stay in order to spend it on food and drink; I saved $8,000 on my stay because I don’t have $8,000.

With that out of the way, we did eat at three on-site restaurants:

  • Café Kula. This was our go-to for breakfast, and we also ordered one lunch and a couple dinners there, all of which were basically a mixed bag. The "avocado toast” was guacamole on stale bread and the “kale burger” was a vegetarian burger patty on a bed of raw kale leaves. On the flip side, the "Wailea burger” was the best thing I had at the resort (I ordered it again our last night just because I was tired of being disappointed), and the “wild mushroom pizza” was very weird but not in a bad way at all, and if we return I’d happily try out some of their other pizzas.

  • Bistro Molokini. We had our only sit-down dinner of the trip here, and my partner thought her tofu dish was pretty good, but the real stars were the sides of asparagus and mashed potatoes we ordered. My “Hamakua Springs Bibb Lettuce” salad was a disaster, first because they gave me the identically named salad off the regular menu instead of the vegetarian menu, which wasn’t a problem, except the chef also forgot to put avocado on it, which was literally the only ingredient costing more than $0.50 in the whole $20 dish. When I pointed this out to our server she first tried to tell me that “sometimes the chef cuts the avocado so small people don’t know it’s there," but finally had to concede that there was obviously no avocado on my salad and took it off our bill.

  • Hibiscus Pool. Our final morning we ordered some onion rings off the adults-only Hibiscus Pool menu, and not only were the onion rings pretty good, once I’d taken a look at the menu I decided it might be the best “restaurant" at the resort! On the flip side, one day at the pool I overheard a waitress enthusiastically apologizing to another guest because his burger had tomato on it, which he had asked to be left off.

And that’s the vibe I got from virtually all our interactions with staff during our stay: enthusiastically apologetic. The security guard was apologetic our door was broken, the maintenance guy was apologetic our door was broken, our waitress was apologetic my salad was broken, the bartender was apologetic my cup was broken, the morning of our departure the housekeeper was apologetic for barging in on us (the one time I almost lost my temper pointing out the privacy sign on the door to her), and everyone worked hard to try to make things right.

And of course everyone was apologetic on our last night when a nearby transformer exploded and wiped out power to the entire area, with the convenient exception of the Grand Wailea’s Chapel Wing, where we were staying. When we walked up to the lobby bar for a nightcap we discovered folks were making the most of it, and the hotel was accommodating everyone with some portable emergency lighting equipment, seen here:

Desperate times = desperate measures

A note on transportation

I bounced around several times when deciding on what to do for transportation on the island. My preliminary plan was to rent a car for our entire stay at the airport and pay for parking at the hotel. Ultimately things ended up a lot simpler than that:

  • I paid $49.50 for a “shared” SpeediShuttle reservation for two from the Kahalui airport to the resort (although we were the only passengers);

  • On Friday, we paid about $34 each way to take a Lyft to and from Wailuku for the Friday Town Party;

  • On Sunday I paid $150.20 to rent a Jeep for the day from the Enterprise rental car desk at the Grand Wailea to drive up to Haleakala National Park;

  • Finally, on Monday I paid $38.13 for an Uber back to the airport.

There are two tricky things to note here. First, Lyft and Uber can drop off at the airport, but can’t pick up passengers there, so you slightly overpay for a shuttle to the Grand Wailea compared to the ride back.

Second, as convenient as it is to be able to pick up a rental car directly at the hotel, be careful when making an Enterprise reservation. The desk opens at 7:30 am, so I made a reservation for 7:30 am each morning we were there, assuming we’d only end up using one or two of the reservations. On Saturday we stopped by the desk around 9:30 am and were told they’d given our car away (which I was expecting) and that they’d have to give us a different vehicle (which I was expecting) and that they’d have to charge us $60 for the upgrade to a Jeep (which shocked me). I turned down the offer, went back to the room and changed my Sunday reservation to 9:30 am (for the same price).

Sunday morning we went by the desk at 9:30 and not only did they still have the car we reserved, but offered to upgrade us to a Jeep for $20, which I gladly accepted. I know rental agencies famously operate on slim margins, and I’m not even really upset they tried to gouge me on Saturday, but my word of warning is to make your reservation for the time you actually expect to get going in the morning, instead of the time the rental desk opens, so they don’t have an opportunity to rip you off.

One fun thing about myself I learned on this trip is that I thought I hated driving, but it turns out that was just because I’d never driven a Jeep before. They’re extremely fun.

We be wrangling


I hope this doesn’t sound like a “negative review” or anything like that. Our room was great, the weather was perfect the entire time we were there (until it started to drizzle on our way to the airport, just in time to help the firefighters working on the blaze started by the aforementioned transformer explosion), and we got to spend hours swimming, reading and playing in the resort’s terrific waterpark. But, we also made some obvious mistakes (“kale burger”) that hopefully this post will help readers avoid if they ever decide to check out this top-tier Hilton Honors redemption for themselves.

I’m not a tour guide, but we did spend a couple days exploring outside the resort, so I’ll try to write up a few brief suggestions for other things to consider checking out if you do find yourself at the Grand Wailea anytime soon.

Just another day in paradise

Gaming out my Waldorf Astoria stay

As I wrote last month, this January I’m heading to Maui for what I’m expecting to be an unusually-for-me expensive vacation, so I’ve spent some time in the past few weeks gaming out what the options are to save money on the trip without annoying my partner too much along the way.

Shorter car rental

Since we plan to drive around and explore Maui, I had initially planned to rent a car at the airport and drive to the Grand Wailea. I quickly realized this made no sense: not only would I pay for 5 days of car rental, but I’d also pay for five days of valet parking, since the Grand Wailea doesn’t have a self-park option.

By taking a cab or shuttle from and to the airport, I’ll save on both daily rental costs and daily valet parking: a roundtrip shuttle for two from the Grand Wailea’s preferred vendor costs just $99, and I may be able to shop around to bring that down even lower.

Amex Offer of $70 off $350

I was targeted for the current Amex Offer of $70 off $350 spent at “Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts in the US, Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Paris; and, Conrad Hotels & Resorts in the US.” While such promotions sometimes exclude Hawaii, this one doesn’t seem to, so I’ll use my Hilton Ascend American Express card to check in and put the first $350 of room charges on that card.

As I wrote in my original post, the Grand Wailea currently claims to give a $15 per person daily in-room dining credit as their Diamond breakfast benefit. Readers quickly pointed out in the comments that with a $7 delivery charge and 20% fixed gratuity, that works out to about $19 in actual food if you’re trying to spend the exact amount of the credit.

Instead of trying to game the room service menu to spend exactly $19 per day, I figure we’ll just order what we want and let the excess count towards the $350 threshold for my Amex Offer.

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card Referral

Thanks to American Express’s “universal referral” system, I can refer my partner to an Aspire card despite not having one myself (you can find my universal referral links on the Support the Site! page). I’ve written about it before, but it’s worth spelling out again just how good this deal is:

  • I receive 20,000 Hilton Honors points for referring my partner;

  • My partner receives 150,000 Hilton Honors points after spending $4,000 within 3 months;

  • My partner gets a $250 airline fee credit in 2018 and another $250 airline fee credit in 2019;

  • We already have an eligible stay planned where we’ll be able to use the $250 Hilton Resort statement credit (a cardmember year, not calendar year, benefit);

  • And she’ll get an unlimited Priority Pass membership that allows up to 2 guests, so if I ask nicely she might take me with her into lounges when we travel.

182,000 Hilton Honors points (after earning 3 points per dollar on $4,000 in spend) are over half the points cost of our stay at the Grand Wailea, which I jokingly valued at $8,500 but realistically value at around $2,000. Valuing the airline and resort statement credits at half of face value, this works out to roughly $1,375.

I don’t like paying $450 annual fees. I’ve never paid a $450 annual fee. But this is a no-brainer for us since we already have a stay at an eligible resort booked.


There is one interesting question you might have after reading this: my Ascend card will get a 20% discount on exactly $350 in spend, while my partner’s Aspire card will get a 100% discount on up to $250 in spend, so which card should the first Grand Wailea room charges go on, and which card should be the backup?

In part, the answer is that we don’t have to decide until we know the final room charge. If it’s less than $350, we’ll put the entire charge on the Aspire card and get $250 back. If it’s more than $600, we’ll put $350 on the Ascend and the remainder on the Aspire, maximizing both opportunities (and the higher Hilton earning rate on the Aspire).

But for final charges between $350 and $600, what’s the right order to place the charges in? I think my preference is to put $350 on the Ascend and receive $70 back, then put the remainder on the Aspire, because the remaining cardmember year Aspire credit will remain available for later use.

But there’s a good argument, an argument I might even agree with depending on the day, that the Aspire resort credit is available at such a limited footprint of properties that maximizing that credit when we do have the opportunity is a much higher priority than triggering a piddling 20% discount, the kind of discount I can beat 365 days a year through manufactured spend.

Sound off in the comments if you feel strongly about it one way or the other.

Anatomy of a (partly) award trip: France, Switzerland, Germany

This week I'm on my first big vacation since last summer's Club Carlson-financed trip around Central Europe, which means it's time for one of my patented anatomies of an award trip. You can find previous entries in the series here.

Getting there: United to Munich

Booking this flight was the occasion for a post in August about never finding a good enough excuse to redeem points for premium cabin travel. After writing that post, the price of our nonstop flights from Dulles to Munich fell even further, and I ultimately redeemed just 30,000 Flexpoints for a $599.76 roundtrip ticket.

Total cost: 30,000 Flexpoints. Total value: $599.76. Value per point: 2 cents per Flexpoint.

Getting around (1): train tickets to Lausanne

We arrived in Munich on Saturday, and don't have to be back in Germany until Thursday, so we decided to visit a friend currently working in Lausanne, Switzerland. After taking the Munich subway to the main train station, we popped into the "traveler's assistance" room to buy tickets.

Interestingly, at the Munich train station there were automated kiosks that sold tickets within Germany, but our itinerary required us to travel to Zurich, then switch to another, Swiss rail company for the second leg, and the kiosks wouldn't accept Lausanne as a destination (I believe they would have sold us tickets to Zurich if that were our final destination).

However, in the "traveler's assistance" room we walk up to the extremely friendly, extremely fluent English-speaking counter and were able to buy the exact tickets we wanted in a matter of minutes.

Total cost: $236.02. Note that we expect to pay this amount, or somewhat more, on the return trip to Zurich and then back to Munich.

Getting around (2): taxi from Lausanne to Evian-les-Bains

Once in Lausanne, it's easy to get from the train station to Evian-les-Bains, where we're staying. It's easy, that is, if you arrive before the last ferry across Lake Geneva leaves for the night. In our case, we were arriving on a Saturday, so we needed to be on board by 8 pm. Our train was scheduled to arrive at 7:40 pm. This was, obviously, cutting it pretty close, but it's not like we had any choice: we had to cross Germany and Switzerland after all, and we were on the only train that would get us to Lausanne that night.

Ultimately, our train arrived a few minutes late, at 7:47. We sprinted through the station looking for signs for the Lausanne metro, jumped onboard without paying (sorry, Lausanne), and managed to make it to the dock just in time. Just in time to see the last ferry pulling away from shore, that is.

At that point our hands were tied. We'd been traveling for 24 hours, we had no internet connection or hope of an internet connection to call an Uber (if they even have Uber) or research bus or car transportation. So we dragged ourselves up from the dock to the nearest taxi stand, where a car was waiting.

I asked the driver if he could take us to Evian-les-Bains, and he shrugged and said, "oui." Assuming this was a fairly regular occurence at 8:01 pm every night, I asked him how much it would cost, and he said he didn't know, but he would use the taximeter. Figuring I couldn't do much better than that, I finally asked if he could take credit cards, and he said he could. We hopped in and were on our way.

Now, I don't mean to be critical. Maybe it was his first day on the job. Maybe no one has ever missed the last ferry before and needed to be driven to their hotel on the other side of the lake. Maybe Swiss and French tourists carry hundreds of dollars in cash as a matter of course. But this is what happened next.

We drove along for 5 or 10 minutes, when the driver was suddenly struck by a realization: "I'm not sure my card reader will work when we get to France." I remind him I had asked if he could take cards, and he repeats that the card reader works on Swiss Telecom, and he doesn't know if it will work on the French mobile network. He says he'll drive me to an ATM, and I politely decline. Finally, he comes up with the idea of estimating the fare based on the distance to Evian. This seems sensible, and we settle on 220 CHF for the ride, which he charges me while we're still in Switzerland. We get back on the road, and I tell him to turn the taximeter back on. He agrees to pay me the difference it the fare ultimately ends up being less than 220 CHF.

The taximeter ultimately ended up around 260, so I guess the guy's confusion saved me 40 francs. I never did find out whether his credit card reader worked in France.

Total cost: $224.44 (two one-way ferry tickets would cost $42.85, so I "wasted" $181.59 on this part of the trip).

Staying there (1): Hilton Evian-les-Bains

For our first three nights, we're staying at the Hilton Evian-les-Bains, which is one of the only two properties in the area that participates in a loyalty program (the other is a Best Western Plus in Lausanne). The Hilton Evian-les-Bains is a beautiful, well-maintained spa/resort hotel a very short walk from the ferry terminal. They have a big, comfortable executive lounge where breakfast is served during the summer high season, and which offers desserts in the afternoon and hors d'oeuvres in the evening (you read that right, dessert first, then hors d'oeuvres). In the evening they also set up an open, unsupervised bar in the lounge, from which you are definitely not supposed to fill up the takeaway coffee cups with the liquor, wine, or cocktail of your choice.

During the low season (right now) Diamonds can take breakfast in the restaurant, which has an extensive buffet they call "continental" but that struck me as a pretty good take on an English breakfast, right down to the grilled tomatoes.

Total cost: 99,000 Hilton Honors points. Total value (comparable stay): $401.89. Value per point: 0.41 cents per Hilton Honors point.

Staying there (2): Park Hyatt Zurich

I don't always stay at Park Hyatts, but when I do, I redeem suite upgrade awards. In this case, I actually redeemed the suite upgrade attached to my customer service case number after the Hyatt Regency Lexington gave my "confirmed" suite upgrade to a bridal party instead (and refunded the entire cost of my stay back to my account).

The Park Hyatt Zurich is one of Hyatt's 13 Category 7 properties, and the first Category 7 property I'll stay at (I hope to visit at least the Park Hyatt New York before my Globalist status finally expires in March).

Total cost: 60,000 World of Hyatt points. Total value: $1202.31. Value per point: 2 cents per World of Hyatt point.


As you can see, the cost of this trip hasn't really been hacked at all.

For our hotel stays, I used the balances I had to guide where to stay during the trip. For example we're staying in Evian instead of in Lausanne, where our friend lives, because of the presence of the Hilton here, and at the Park Hyatt Zurich in order to try to wring some value from my Globalist status and Hyatt points balance.

While that means I didn't have any out-of-pocket expenses for my hotel stays (except 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points I had to transfer to World of Hyatt), on the other hand if I were absolutely focused on cost I probably could have spent far less by simply booking far in advance and staying at the absolutely cheapest properties in each city. The flip side, however, is that then we'd be staying at the absolutely cheapest properties, and not at this lovely Hilton or at the Park Hyatt Zurich.

Additionally, I got somewhat less value than I generally hope to from my Hilton Honors points: just 0.41 cents per point, meaning my grocery store spend with the Hilton Honors Surpass American Express earned just 2.46% in rebate value. I didn't hesitate to redeem points anyway since having already earned them, they were worthless until redeemed. However, if I find myself consistently redeeming for less than half a cent per Hilton Honors point, I can use that information to adjust where I allocate my manufactured spend.

My US Bank Flexpoints redemption, on the other hand, was just a few cents away from the maximum possible value, making me feel great about the Flexpoints I earn throughout the year (and bad about the upcoming devaluation).

Anatomy of an Award Trip: Spring Break in San Francisco

If you follow me on Twitter (as you should!) you know I spent last week in San Francisco. It was only upon returning that I realized I hadn't posted an anatomy of the award trip. Better late then never!

Getting there: Amtrak's California Zephyr

This was my last long-haul Amtrak sleeper cabin redemption before the December 8, 2015, revenue-based Amtrak Guest Rewards devaluation. I transferred 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak Guest Rewards points for a 2-zone bedroom reservation between Chicago and San Francisco on the California Zephyr.

Total cost: 40,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points, transferred from Ultimate Rewards. Total value: $1,246. Value per point: 3.12 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

Staying there: Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf

As a newly minted Hyatt Diamond, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about and booked a 5-night Points + Cash reservation at the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf, and applied one of my 2015 Suite Upgrade Awards.

Total cost: 37,500 Hyatt Gold Passport points and $582.25. Total value: $1,769.96. Value per point: 3.17 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

I then earned 3,250 of those points back, bringing my final value per point to 3.47 cents per Ultimate Rewards point. Note that this value is based on an ordinary room reservation, not a suite reservation, since I could have applied a Suite Upgrade Award to either type of reservation.

Getting back: Delta first class tickets

To get back, I employed a strategy I use increasingly often: I booked my partner on an award ticket and myself on a paid ticket using a Delta voluntary denied boarding voucher. My partner doesn't play the game at all (besides traveling with me) so I don't make any attempt to get her elite status or earn bonus miles in her accounts.

Total cost: 37,500 Delta SkyMiles and $5.60, plus $729.10 in voluntary denied boarding compensation. Total value: $1,458.20. Value per point: 1.93 cents per SkyMile.


From my point of view, this award trip was quite close to ideal: I redeemed points I earned extremely cheaply for relatively expensive reservations.

In the case of Ultimate Rewards points redeemed at 3 cents or more per point, I earned close to 15% back on spend I manufactured with Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards in their 5-points-per-dollar bonus categories.

In the case of Delta SkyMiles earned at 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar spent with my American Express Delta SkyMiles Platinum credit card, I earned roughly 2.7% back when redeeming those miles for my partner's first class ticket, which is quite strong for unbonused manufactured spend.

And of course when redeeming Delta voluntary denied boarding vouchers for my own travel, I came out ahead simply by being able to redeem it at face value.

Tune in tomorrow for some reflections on the train ride, hotel stay, and my impressions of a 5-day visit to the bay area!

Anatomy of an Award Trip: Summer in Europe

I've written a few times about this trip before (as recently as yesterday), but now that it's locked down, I thought I'd share one of my patented Anatomies of an Award Trip!

Getting there: Turkish Airlines to Budapest

Turkish Airlines economy award space is wide open for next summer, so I transferred 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points from my Ink+ account to United Mileage Plus, where I already had 10,000 orphaned miles. The ticket is booked out of Chicago, since there's never any award space on United from our hometown to O'Hare, so we'll pay an additional $60 for two bus tickets, which I included in the total cost below.

Total cost: 60,000 Mileage Plus miles and $81.80. Total value: $2,449.20. Value per point: 3.95 cents per Mileage Plus mile.

Getting back: Air Berlin to New York City

Air Berlin award space isn't as good as Turkish Airlines award space next summer, but I didn't have too much trouble finding two economy award seats, which I booked using a combination of Avios and cash. I actually don't have our tickets home from New York City yet, but I assume I'll just throw some Delta Skymiles or US Bank Flexpoints at that problem eventually.

Total cost: 26,000 Avios and $358.18. Total value: $1,539. Value per point: 4.54 cents per Avios.

Staying there (1): 9 nights in Central and Eastern Europe

I pieced the bulk of this trip together by first booking 3 pre-devaluation pairs of nights at Club Carlson properties in Central and Eastern Europe, then filling in the gaps with post-devaluation points, plus one paid night. Here are the totals:

  • 3 nights at the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel, Budapest. Total cost: 45,000 Club Carlson Gold Points. Total value: $294.54. Value per point: 0.65 cents per Gold Point.
  • 3 nights at the Park Inn Danube, Bratislava. Total cost: 18,000 Gold Points and $2.12. Total value: $239.05. Value per point: 1.32 cents per Gold Point.
  • 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna. Total cost: 50,000 Gold Points. Total value: $475.53. Value per point: 0.95 cents per Gold Point.
  • 1 (paid) night at the Hilton Vienna Danube Waterfront. Total cost: $146.

Staying there (2): 6 nights in Germany

From Vienna, our plan is to spend 6 nights in Germany, split between Berlin and the home of my partner's relatives in Bavaria. I recently orchestrated a complicated trade for 2 free Hyatt credit card signup nights, so I'll likely redeem those for two nights at the Grand Hyatt Berlin, a $458.05 value.


Looking over the awards I booked to piece this trip together, I see that I'm consistently getting more value from my miles and points redemptions than I would by booking my flights and hotels with fixed-value points like Barclaycard Arrival+ miles and US Bank Flexpoints. That's the kind of ongoing feedback I continually use while deciding whether to collect airline and hotel loyalty currencies, versus more flexible fixed-value points.

Avios and cash followup: booking that Air Berlin flight

Last month I wrote about an Air Berlin flight from Berlin to New York City, for which I was planning to redeem British Airways Avios. I had 24,000 Avios in my account, but since British Airways allows cash to be substituted for Avios at relatively favorable rates, I had to decide how many Avios to redeem (including transfers in from Chase Ultimate Rewards) and how much cash to pay for the two tickets I wanted to buy.

Here were my Avios and cash options for purchasing the tickets:


As I wrote then,

"ultimately, I fall on the side of redeeming my Ultimate Rewards points for 1.5 cents each. That's because I'm points-rich and cash-poor: if I "saved" my points by redeeming 20,000 or 14,000 of them against the Air Berlin itinerary, instead of transferring in 16,000 Ultimate Rewards points, I would then redeem the corresponding Ultimate Rewards points for cash at just one cent each."

Not so fast!

My decision was based on the best alternate redemption of the Ultimate Rewards points I already had, which was just 1 cent each for cash redemptions. However, I still wasn't sure how I was going to fly outbound from the United States to Budapest.

So before transferring 16,000 Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways, I first checked for award space between Chicago and Budapest, and sure enough the calendar was wide open for economy award travel on Turkish Airlines, United's Star Alliance partner. Suddenly, my alternate Ultimate Rewards redemption wasn't 1 cent each for a cash redemption, but a little over 3 cents each when transferred to United for a transatlantic flight redemption.

British Airways charges variable amounts of cash per substituted Avios

A close look at the Avios and cash chart above reveals something odd: the intervals between the Avios redemption levels are irregular. Here's the same chart, rearranged to illustrate the point:

Now, if I already had enough Avios in my account, I would certainly have redeemed the maximum 40,000 Avios and paid just $178.18 in cash.

But I didn't have enough Avios, which is why I had to ask the question of how many Ultimate Rewards points I was willing to transfer in.

  • Since I had 24,000 Avios in my account, the first 2,000 were a no brainer: I would get the full $60 in cash savings value but pay just $20 in Ultimate Rewards points.
  • The next 6,000 would give me just 1.17 cents per Ultimate Rewards point, less than the points' value when redeemed for paid travel and barely more than their cash value.
  • Finally, an additional 8,000 transferred points would yield 1.38 cents per point, which would be worth considering, except that in my case it would first require the above 6,000-point transfer, averaging out to just 1.29 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

Since I already have a planned redemption that offers more than twice as much value per Ultimate Rewards point — my Turkish Airlines flight to Budapest — I ended up transferring just 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points and saving the remaining 14,000 points for my transfer to United Mileage Plus.


The lesson here is that the value of points and miles varies, not just between people but for the same person over time, depending on their points balances and plans for redemptions.

In my earlier post, I was fully ready to redeem 16,000 Ultimate Rewards in order to save $240 (1.5 cents each). When my plans developed further and I settled on a 3-cent-per-mile Turkish Airlines award, my calculus likewise changed and I became unwilling to transfer more than a nominal number of Ultimate Rewards points.

I was right both times, but the more information I had about my future plans, the better my decision became.

Anatomy of an Award Trip: City of New Orleans

As teased in yesterday's housekeeping post, I'm headed to New Orleans for a week! Here's the scoop:

Getting there: a family bedroom on Amtrak's City of New Orleans

Amtrak operates a daily service between Chicago and New Orleans stopping in, among other places: Champaign-Urbana, IL, Carbondale, IL, Memphis, TN, and Jackson, MS.

Since both Chicago and New Orleans are in Amtrak's "Central Zone," a roomette award costs 15,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points while a bedroom award costs just 25,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points. Importantly, such awards include the fare for up to the maximum occupancy of the room. In other words, up to two people can travel in a roomette on a single, one-zone 15,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards award redemption.

Since my partner and I have already experienced the "roomette" (on the Empire Builder) and "bedroom" (on the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight) room types, I decided to redeem my points for a "family bedroom." Here are a few key things to know about such redemptions:

  • They cost the same number of Amtrak Guest Rewards points as a regular bedroom award;
  • They include up to two adults and two children;
  • They have windows facing out both sides of the train (roomettes and bedrooms are lined up along each side of the wagon, looking out one direction or the other);
  • They do not have en-suite facilities. My understanding is that the family bedroom is on the same level of the wagon as the public showers, while bedrooms have private showers and toilets directly off the sleeping quarters.

Since the ride is just under 20 hours, my expectation is that the roomier accommodations and better views will make up for the lack of a private toilet and shower, but on a longer, cross-country trip that may become increasingly inconvenient.

Total cost: 25,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points (transferred instantly from Ultimate Rewards).
Total value: $637. Value per point: 2.55 cents.

Staying there: Club Carlson and Hilton HHonors

Since we'll be in New Orleans for 7 nights, there were a few decent options for hotel redemptions:

  • There's a category 6 Marriott downtown, the AC Hotel New Orleans Bourbon/French Quarter Area, where I could have redeemed 230,000 Marriott Rewards points for a 7-night Hotel + Air package and received a rebate of up to 55,000 United Mileage Plus miles or, more realistically, 50,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. That would have involved transferring 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $1,800 in cash. Since 7 nights at a 4-star hotel downtown cost (very roughly) $1,300, even generously valuing the Alaska miles at 2 cents each I'd only be getting about 1.28 cents per transferred Ultimate Rewards point. I felt I could do better.
  • There's a Club Carlson property downtown in the French Quarter, the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson, New Orleans French Quarter, LA. As a Category 5 property costing 44,000 Gold Points per night, I could theoretically book 7 nights for the price of 6, or 264,000 Gold Points. Using the same $1,300 valuation as above, that would yield 0.49 cents per Gold Points. Since the Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa earns 5 Gold Points per dollar spent, that would yield a return of 2.46% on the spend I manufacture with the card, which isn't terrible for non-bonused spend.
  • There's also a category 7 Hilton property downtown, the Hilton New Orleans/St. Charles Avenue. It ordinarily costs 50,000 HHonors points per night, but due to weird Hilton premium award pricing is available for 44,519 HHonors points during our stay in New Orleans. The wrinkle is that as an HHonors elite, I can book 5 nights for the price of 4, or 200,000 HHonors points, but unfortunately that benefit only applies to standard room awards, not premium room awards, which is where "weird" award pricing comes into play! Nonetheless, 280,000 HHonors points for a 7-night stay, $1,300 stay would yield 0.46 cents per HHonors point, or a 2.79% return on gas station and grocery store spend with my American Express HHonors Surpass card.

Ultimately, I split the difference: since the last night is free on all Club Carlson award reservations separated by at least one day, I booked our first two and last two nights in New Orleans at the Country Inn & Suites, and the middle three nights at the Hilton New Orleans/St. Charles Avenue, taking advantage of "weird" premium award pricing. In total, I paid 88,000 Club Carlson Gold Points for four nights (0.84 cents per Gold Point at $185 per night) and 133,557 HHonors points for three nights (0.42 cents per HHonors point at $185 per night).

However, if standard rooms open up for five consecutive nights at the Hilton, I'll cancel the first or last Club Carlson redemption and rebook using 200,000 HHonors points instead, saving the Gold Points for another day.

Getting back: US Bank Flexpoints for Delta first class (credited to Alaska)

For our return, I noticed that Delta was selling first class seats on the perfect itinerary home for just a hair under $400: $392.10, to be precise. Since I'm sitting on a constantly-growing stash of US Bank Flexpoints, it was a no-brainer to book us in paid first class for 20,000 Flexpoints per ticket. I'll credit the flights to Alaska, which will net me 3,922 Mileage Plan miles and get me 2,139 elite-qualifying miles closer to MVP status for next year.

Total cost: 40,000 Flexpoints.
Total value: $784.20. Value per point: 1.96 cents.


We're thrilled to be headed back to New Orleans, and I'm excited to try out a new Amtrak accommodation type on a new route. So until next week, I'll leave you with this:

Have a great weekend!

Anatomy of an award trip: Winter jaunt to Italy

This is another entry in my occasional series, "anatomy of an award trip."

Background: the fuel dump

Back in May, an apparently-longstanding fuel dump broke into the open on Flyertalk. Low base fares on Alitalia-coded flights meant it was possible to book tickets from New York City to Milan for between $100 and $250, as long as you added a leg at the end of the trip from one of a number of European cities to Asia. The fuel dump was bookable for a huge range of dates through the end of the flight schedule, so folks rushed to book summer, fall, and spring trips before the mistake was caught and fixed.

Since my partner abides by an academic's calendar, my only options were to book something in January or speculatively for next Spring. I booked a few one-ways for various available dates and waited for her to get home.

We ended up settling on an early-January flight that priced out at $233.20 each.

Once we settled on a date for the outbound flight to Milan, I naturally had to put together the rest of the trip.

Getting there: Upper Midwest to New York City

Since the fuel dump was booked out of New York City, first we had to get there.

This part was easy, since there was low-level award availability on American Airlines through Chicago, so I booked 2 tickets for 12,000 British Airways Avios and $5 each. While Avios are rightly praised for short, non-stop flights, I found that even with the connection in Chicago, the flight priced out cheaper than it would have using any other currency (plus I still have too many Avios from my January credit card application).

It's true I could have saved 9,000 Avios by driving to Chicago instead, and if our connection looks hazardous due to weather conditions we may still end up having to do that. But if the skies are clear, I'd much rather fly than drive.

Total cost: 24,000 Avios and $10. Total value: $300. Value per point: 1.2 cents per Avios.

While this would be considered by some travel hackers as an embarrassingly low redemption for Avios, I had way too many Avios in my account and was eagerly searching for a way to redeem them. Remember: the least valuable mile will always be the one you don't redeem.

Getting back: Rome to Chicago

While I briefly considered popping up to Budapest and making the second flight to Tokyo, my partner needs to get back and I realized that I'm already locked into a potentially expensive 9 days of eating and drinking all over Italy, so I started looked for return flights from Milan and Rome.

There were a lot of options for the return, but I ended up settling on a non-stop flight on US Airways from Rome to Philadelphia followed by a short hop up to Chicago. Since there was low-level availability and the flights are during American Airlines' "low" European award season, I was able to book the tickets for 20,000 AAdvantage miles and $69.60 each.

I briefly considered using Iberia Avios to connect in Madrid, but while Iberia charges lower fuel surcharges on their own flights than British Airways does, they're still not cheap: $352 compared to BA's $506.

Total cost: 40,000 AAdvantages miles and $139.20. Total value: $3,707 (the price of the cheapest flight that doesn't involve overnight stays). Value per point: 8.91 cents per AAdvantage mile.

Note: this is the kind of absurd award valuation you get when you value particular awards independently of the trips they're a part of. A round-trip flight to Milan in January costs $1,162; the fact that one-way flights are outrageously priced is interesting, but not dispositive when deciding whether to purchase a round-trip flight or redeem miles for a one-way.

Using that $1,162 price, you can arrive at a much more realistic 2.67 cents per point (saving $854.20 while spending 12,000 Avios and 20,000 AAdvantage miles per ticket).

Staying there: Italian vacation

I've done Italy before, but this is my partner's first time so I'm still in the process of putting together a trip that's going to let her see as much as possible. Here's the rough outline so far — it would be great if readers could chime in with their own Italian experiences!

  • Park Hyatt Milan, 1 night. 30,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, located right in the center of town at the Duomo;
  • Hilton Molino Stucky Venice, 1-2 nights. 50,000 Hilton HHonors points per night, and I've heard great things from a reader about this property;
  • AC Hotel Bologna, 1 night. 1 Category 4 Marriott Rewards certificate;
  • Hilton Florence Metropole, 1 night. 30,000 HHonors points;
  • Radisson Blu es. Hotel, 2 nights, 66,000 Club Carlson points (for a premium room award – why not, I have the points);
  • Renaissance Naples Hotel Mediterraneo, 1 night. 1 Category 5 Marriott Rewards certificate;
  • Hilton Sorrento Palace, 1 night. 30,000 HHonors points.


It turned out that I was able to build a very reasonable award trip around a very cheap flight between New York City and Milan. But that won't always be the case, and it's worth pointing out that once you've booked a mistake fare like this, there's no shame in walking away from it if you can't put together an itinerary that makes sense for you and your travel companions.

Anatomy of an award trip: weekend in New York City

One piece of feedback I regularly get from readers is that while I write a lot about the earning side of miles and points, they'd like to hear more about the redemption side. To be sure, I've written about how I booked vacations to Prague and Philadelphia, and commented on specific things like the weirdness of Alaska Airlines' long-haul first class cabins.

But frankly, while I do more leisure travel than most people I know, or most people my age, it mostly follows a familiar pattern: visiting friends and family or taking a long weekend to visit a new or beloved city.

And when booking those trips, I mostly follow a few simple steps:

  1. Look at my points balances;
  2. Check award availability;
  3. Book an award ticket, if available;
  4. Book award nights, if available;
  5. Charge everything else to my Barclaycard Arrival.

You might ask where point valuations come into play in this system, and the answer is they don't. That's because as I never cease to remind people, by the time you're making reservations, it's too late to change the number or type of points you have. Only once you know how you in fact use your miles and points can you know what they're worth – that is to say, how much money they save you.

I took an award trip to New York City last weekend that illustrates this point nicely.

Getting there: low-level Delta award ticket

My partner and I were able to book two low-level award tickets leaving Thursday evening on a non-stop and returning Sunday morning with a connection in Detroit. We booked the trip less than two weeks before departure, when tickets were pricing out at about $460 each.

Total cost: 25,000 Delta Skymiles, $10. Total value: $460. Value per point: 1.84 cents.

In fact, the exact itinerary we booked would have cost $651, but there's no way we would have paid that much, so the lowest available fare for those dates is a better point of comparison.

Whether you're earning 1.4 Skymiles per dollar, 1.5 Skymiles per dollar, or generating boundless Skymiles with the Suntrust Delta Skymiles Check Card, 1.84 cent-per-Skymile redemptions will make that spend competitive with either a 2% or 2.22% cash back card. Of course, at high levels of spend the Delta Platinum and Reserve American Express cards have other benefits, as well.

Staying there: Hilton Points and Money award

We spent our first night in Manhattan at the Millenium Hilton on a Points and Money award, paying $118.25 and 32,000 HHonors points. For all three nights, the best alternative rate I was able to find was $206 after tax at the Ludlow Hotel.

The Millenium Hilton was a terrific property, and was the first Hilton property I've stayed at that allowed us to take the complimentary Gold Elite continental breakfast by room service. Lots of digital ink has been spilled over taking the Andaz Wall Street's Diamond breakfast benefit by room service, but I hadn't realized that benefit was offered by some Hiltons as well. This was my first time ever ordering room service, and I thought it was a very nice touch.

Total cost: 32,000 Hilton HHonors points, $118.25. Total value: $206. Value per point: 0.27 cents.

While 0.27 cents is well over my money cost of acquisition (0.13 cents), it's well below my opportunity cost of acquisition, since rather than earning 6 HHonors points per dollar (1.62% cash back) with my American Express Surpass card at bonused merchants, I could be earning 2% or 2.22% cash back at the same merchants.

The crucial point here is that this wasn't a "bad" redemption just because in retrospect the spend used to generate the necessary points could have been used more profitably on another credit card. That ship already sailed.

What it does mean is that before I earn any additional HHonors points, I need to take a hard look at my upcoming travel plans and decide whether those plans are better financed with cash back or HHonors points. Having done so, I know I have some 0.45-0.5 cent redemptions coming up, so I'll happily continue to use my Surpass card at bonused merchants.

Staying there: Club Carlson last-night-free award

For our last two nights, I redeemed 50,000 Club Carlson Gold Points for two nights at the Radisson Martinique on Broadway.

Total cost: 50,000 Gold Points. Total value: $412. Value per point: 0.82 cents.

Redemptions like this one are why I argued Club Carlson points can sometimes be worth as much as a penny each. Since my US Bank Club Carlson Business Rewards card earns 5 Gold Points per dollar spent everywhere, the dollars spent on the card in order to make this award redemption earned about 4.1% cash back. Since I have other high-value award redemptions coming up soon, I know I'm on the right track continuing to manufacture spend on that card.


The only value that miles and points could possibly have is the value you get for the redemptions you make. By looking at your past and future award redemptions (and the cost of your paid travel) you can determine which cards deliver outsized returns over a 2% or 2.22% cash back card.