Celebrating The 4th Of July With Travel Independence

Jul 4, 2013

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Happy 4th of July everyone!

In celebration of our country’s Independence Day, while you are all hopefully at the beach, BBQing or enjoying time with friends, I wanted to share my thoughts on how travel symbolizes independence to me. Knowing I can go almost anywhere in the world – all at an affordable price – makes my life richer in so many ways, and I always value the opportunity to share that wealth with you.

4th of July DC
Maybe some of you will be in DC today watching the fireworks.

Along with all the other amazing things about our country, we Americans are especially lucky because we have access to extremely lucrative credit cards that not only provide huge sign-up bonuses, but also valuable bonus spending categories, anniversary bonuses and other valuable perks.

Our frequent flyer programs are also among the most advantageous in the world – aside from a couple non-US programs that I love to leverage, of course! – so on this day of independence, I thought I would recap some of my favorite things about living the frequent flyer/travel “hacker” lifestyle, all in groups of four in honor of the special date.

1. Top 4 Frequent Flyer Programs

United Airlines
United Airlines has one of the most valuable mileage programs out there.

United: I often say that United miles are among the most valuable mileage currencies out there and that’s thanks to features like low fees on award tickets, being able to book one-way awards, a user-friendly site with good award searchability, and great airline partners including those in Star Alliance.

American: I like the AAdvantage program because of its great stopover rules in gateway cities that basically can include a “free” one way since I live in a hub city so I can essentially do things like tack on free flights to Hawaii, low level Off Peak awards including just 40,000 miles down to South America in economy, and great first class products on partners like British Airways and Cathay Pacific.

British Airways: Although people sometimes pan the Avios program, I get great values out of particular redemptions like expensive short- and mid-haul flights, using Avoids to upgrade, and using the Avios and cash option to save some miles.

US Airways: There are some great sweet spot awards in this airline’s chart including just  110,000 miles for roundtrip business class, which I took advantage of for my trip to South Africa, 90,000 miles in business class to Asia, and flexible routing.

2. Top 4 Credit Cards For Everyday Spend

Chase Sapphire Preferred: I’ve extolled the benefits of this card many times and I firmly believe this is the best overall travel card on the market right now – at least for the savvy points collector thanks to earnings such as 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel (including taxis, subway, dining, with 3x on every first first Fridays). It also has the benefit of great transfer partners, no foreign transaction fees and a good shopping portal.

Chase Ink Bold: Again, one of my favorite business credit cards as among the many benefits, it earns you a whopping 5X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on office supplies (and gift cards!), and 2X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on gas and hotels. It is another great card to travel with as there are  no foreign fees and the Lounge Club Program offers you two free lounge passes a year. There is also the added advantage that your credit sits on a business credit report so there is less personal utilization.

Chase Freedom: As I’ve mentioned before, the Chase Freedom card can be a great weapon in your points-earning arsenal, especially because of the rotating list of quarterly spending bonus categories that earn cardholders 5 points per dollar spent up to $1,500 per quarter at various types of merchants. If you have a Chase checking account, you are eligible for an additional Freedom bonus of 10% on all purchases plus a10 point per transaction bonus.

Amex Premier Rewards Gold: There are many cards and ways of maximizing your airfare purchases, but I choose to put most of mine on my American Express Premier Rewards Gold card because it gives 3 points per dollar spent on airfare (4x if booked through Amex travel). You also get 2 points per dollar spent on gas or groceries, and an appealing a 15,000 point bonus if you hit $30,000 in spend within a calendar year, essentially bringing your earning to 1.5 points per dollar.

3. Top 4 Places I Have Traveled Using My Miles 

My South African Safari was a breathtaking experience especially seeing this leopard.
My South African Safari was a breathtaking experience especially seeing this leopard.

South Africa: One of my top trips this year was to South Africa in January, and there were so many things I loved about it – from the exotic wildlife and the rich food, to the impeccable service and infectious national pride of everyone I met. When you factor in that I could use my US Airways miles with Star Alliance partner South African Airlines for a Business Class flight from JFK to Johannesburg, it really was a TPG experience of a lifetime.

Seychelles: My 2010 trip to the Seychelles was made all the better because I booked the Le Meridien Barbarons using Starwood Cash and Points, which is my preferred method of redeeming Starwood points. We paid $90US and 4,800 points a night for a $312/night room. So basically, 24,000 Starwood points saved me $1,082, or 4.5 cents each. I flew Business Class on Delta via two days in Paris for just  for 120,000 miles and $245 in taxes.

Southeast Asia: Last year for my birthday, I decided to treat myself to a trip to Southeast Asia including the longest commercial flight in the world on Singapore Airlines’ Newark-Singapore route in business class, and returning on Cathay Pacific in first class from Hong Kong to New York via Vancouver. I earned and burned points at the Intercontinental Singapore, the Le Meridien Bangkok, Le Meridien Angkor, the W Hong Kong – and I even booked a Priority Club Point Breaks award at the Intercontinental Phnom Penh for just 5,000 points. It was an amazing experience all around.

Mother/Son bonding with Easter Island Moai
The Easter Island Moai is a view I had dreamt of seeing.

Easter Island: This past Mother’s Day I wanted to do something truly special for my mom, so I bought us both business class tickets down to Chile on LAN and then used British Airways Avios to book tickets for us out to Easter Island – a place I’ve dreamt of visiting for a long time now. Both my mom and I had a great time and I’m looking forward to traveling with her again soon!

4. Top 4 Places I Want To Go

This is a view I dream of seeing before the year is out.
This is a view I now dream of seeing before the year is out.

Australia: Believe or not, I have never been down under! As I have said before, the best strategy to get to Australia with miles is to focus on US Airways, which charges only 110,000 miles for roundtrip award tickets in business class to the South Pacific/Australia, or 80,000 in economy or 140,000 in first class. With so many places I am still dying to see from the Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve to the Great Barrier Reef, I should start taking my own advice and book a trip, especially if I can use my  Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa fore half-price award redemption there.

Antarctica: Also south of the equator and on my bucket list is Antarctica, I figure if I can survive a New York winter then I can make it down there as long as I pack a few more layers!

New Orleans: While I have flown over it countless times, I have never landed in New Orleans as my final destination. With so many excuses to party there from Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to a voodoo-inspired Halloween, I really need to add it to my social schedule – especially as I can now fly on Southwest from Newark.

India: Another exotic locale that I have never visited is India, but I hope to one day soon take advantage of United’s partnership with Jet Airways, which flies London-Mumbai-Bangalore.

5. Top 4 Hotel Programs:

Starwood: One of the best aspects of the Starwood Preferred Guest program is their valuable Starpoints, which you can transfer to any of 31 airline partners, making them extremely versatile both for topping up account balances, as well as giving you a 25% bonus when you transfer in increments of 20,000 points to most partners. Starwood Cash & Points has to be one of the best hotel redemption values, especially as you can use it at over 1,000 properties around the world. Starwood also rewards loyal members with elite status on point stays, so it is well worth striving to meet Gold or Platinum status.

Hyatt: With outstanding Diamond status benefits such as four confirmed suite upgrade certificates a year and a new partnership with MGM Resorts in Las Vegas, the Hyatt loyalty program comes close to perfect for my needs. As a hotel transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, I can get a room at a top-tier hotel like the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome for only 22,000 points.

Carlson: The appeal of the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa is boosted by profitable perks such as half-price award redemptions, a sign-up bonus of 85,000 Gold Points points and bonus award nights. With the current summer promo, you can earn 10,000 bonus points for each stay of two nights or more.

Do you want to check out a Kimpton hotel soon, Miles?
Do you want to check out a dog-friendly Kimpton hotel soon, Miles?

Kimpton: Surprisingly, I have never stayed at a Kimpton hotel, but I plan to with Miles very soon as they are renowned for great customer service  and being extremely dog-friendly. Their InTouch Loyalty program is simple and solid, with welcoming gestures such as rewards nights and $30 spa credits InTouch members also have exclusive permission to “Raid the Mini Bar.”

6. Top 4 Websites I Read Every Day

The Flyertalk iPhone app keeps me updated on the go.
The Flyertalk iPhone app keeps me updated on the go.

Flyertalk.comThis is the online bible for points and miles. I’ve been a member for over 5 years and learn something new every single day, often from their iPhone app.

View From The Wing: Founder Gary Leff shares my miles and points obsession and stays up-to-date on frequent flyer deals and news.

One Mile At A Time: Packed with tips, tricks and fun travel reviews, One Mile At A Time is one of the sites that I make sure to click on.

Skift: This dynamic website is a great resource for travel news, deals, features and the scoop on whatever is trending around the world or the web.

7. Top 4 Credit Card Perks That Make Traveling Easier

Amex Platinum Lounge Access: When you have a valid ticket for same-day travel, the Platinum card will also gain you access to Delta, American and US Airways lounges – potentially saving you membership fees of up to around $500 each per year if you were to join each separately – and you can even bring two guests or your spouse and any children under 21. Add three additional cardholders for an annual fee of $175 and you’re getting an even better return on your spending.

Hilton Diamond status on the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card: Although you get Gold status just for carrying this card, one of its best perks – aside from the two free weekend night certificates it carries as a sign-up bonus – is the fact that you can attain Hilton’s top-tier Diamond status by spending $40,000 in a calendar year. Diamond status, which normally takes 28 stays, 60 nights or 100,000 base points per year, provides a host of perks including a 50% bonus on all base points, free WiFi, a dedicated reservations center, room upgrades, access to the executive club lounge regardless of whether they are upgraded to a club room, 1,000 bonus HHonors points on each stay, complimentary continental breakfast daily for two, and other welcome amenities.

Global Entry application fee refunded.
Global Entry is a very time-efficient asset.
Global Entry Refund For the Amex Platinum Card: I love Global Entry – it saves me tons of time when transiting internationally and also gives me access to TSA PreCheck, which is a great way to get around huge security lines at major airports. But even better than expedited security is the fact that you get it for free if you’re an Amex Platinum cardholder since the $100 application fee is refunded as a statement credit ($85 for TSA PreCheck).
Amex Platinum $200 Airline Fee Rebate: Another great feature of the Amex Platinum card is that each year you can designate an airline, and then when you charge things like baggage fees, lounge passes, seat assignments or even vouchers in some cases, you get up to $200 in statement credits per year. It’s a great way to save on travel and one of the reasons I pay the card’s $450 annual fee.

8. Top 4 Items I Don’t Travel Without

I don't go anywhere without my Bose headphones.
I don’t go anywhere without my Bose headphones.

Bose QC15 Acoustic Noise-Cancelling Headphones: These drown out both that plane drone and the voices of your neighbors, one of whom always seems to be hacking up a lung on the flight. I also always carry along some extra AAA batteries, because there’s nothing worse than when your batteries die mid-flight and you can’t replace them.

British Airways First Class Eye Mask: Though you can usually depend on an amenities kit in business class, I always carry my thick British Airways First Class eye mask with me (even when I fly economy) because it’s super comfortable, blocks out all the light, and helps me sleep better.

Macbook Pro with LCD Screen: Even with all the in-flight entertainment options on premium international airlines these days, I’m a control freak when it comes to how I spend my time on the plane and I like to make sure I’ll have everything I need to keep me distracted, from movies and TV shows to music and e-books. Plus with so many airports and inflight WiFi options nowadays, it means I can catch up on work and e-mails as well.

Passport: Even when traveling domestically, you never know when a good fare will come up so you have to always be ready to go. Be prepared!

9. Top 4 Travel Resolutions I’m Still Working On 

Work out on the road more: Being away from my regular gym and personal trainer, I easily fall out of my exercise routine and am determined to take more advantage of hotel gyms and fitness programs, or the great outdoors such as hiking, swimming or a run through the city.

Explore less traveled destinations: While it is always fun to go to popular destinations like Paris, Madrid or the Caribbean – because there is a reason why they are a hit with millions of travelers – I aspire to visit some more remote places in the globe, such as Antarctica, the outback of Australia and more off-the-beaten-path areas of Africa.

Do more service work while traveling: It is always fun to travel for pure pleasure, but a trip that is also helping others adds an extra element of fulfillment. Programs like Pack For A Purpose, which encourages charitable travelers to take life-changing items such as stethoscopes, band-aids, or deflated soccer balls to their destination for those in need there are a great way to give back when you getaway. For more information on how to focus less on first class and more on the big picture, read this post.

Checking in with mom for our trip to Chile!
Family trips like with my mom to Chile are provide the most valuable memories imaginable.

Travel with my family: My Mother’s Day trip to Chile with my mom made me realize how much I love vacationing with my family. A trip is the best way to bring people together and seeing as I got my dad a Mercedes-Benz Platinum card with Global Entry for Father’s Day, he can travel more easily with me next time. My niece is now five, is that too young for a trip to Paris?

10. Top 4 reasons America is awesome for a miles/points enthusiast

Delta has announced a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic.
Delta recently expanded its partnership with Virgin Atlantic.

Low fees on awards: With the rock bottom award fees such as those on United awards, which I can bolster by transferring in points from my Ultimate Rewards account, or the now lower taxes and fees by booking Virgin Atlantic flights through Delta thanks to their new partnership – there are now even more reasons so say “God bless America!”

Lucrative credit card bonuses: From recent all-time highs on the Chase Ink cards, to the current offer on the Amex Business Gold Rewards card, or the Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card, it seems that every week I am writing about a new bonus that we can all get in on.

Relatively low airfare: Although we always complain about the rising cost of air travel and fees, there is still a lot cheap ways to fly if you know when and where to look, such as American Airlines Choice Fares or Southwest’s Wanna Get Away deals.

Competition: Even with an increase of airline mergers such as the US Airways and American Airlines union, we still have choices over who we fly, especially with the burgeoning number of boutique and low-cost carriers like JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest, and Frontier.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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