My Travel Year in Review, and My Year Ahead
The end of 2016 and start of 2017 have been a bit busy for me, so I haven't had a chance to write an end-of-year post until now. Since it's the first half of January I figure there's still time, but I'm going to keep it short and focus entirely on travel.
Looking Back: 2016
In terms of trips, 2016 was a fun and productive year, though I certainly wouldn't have minded traveling a bit more. Over a total of 12 trips, I flew 14 segments (individual flights), and took 12 train segments (mostly Amtrak, except for one in the UK). Of course, I'm excluding local rail here. Leisure destinations included Edinburgh, London, Copenhagen, San Juan, and Boston. Work travel included Washington, D.C., Orlando, and New Orleans.
It was a decent number of trips, probably more than I've taken before in a single year, though obviously it was not enough to get elite status in any program — especially because I diversified my hotel stays among a few different programs based on which had the lowest rates. Overall, I focused more this year on non-travel earning (see below).
Most of these trips were fully paid, though I did make a few redemptions. The biggest was my roundtrip flight to Edinburgh during the summer. I also used points for a night in the Double Tree Westminster in London as part of that trip, and an Amtrak segment from Boston back to New York.
For most of this year’s paid travel, I (or Reni and I) managed to jump on cheap fares, fly on budget airlines, or have travel costs reimbursed by work since it was a business trip. Reni and I were saving most of our miles for this year, so we didn't redeem miles in some situations where we could have.
Points and Miles
2016 was my first full year staying active and on top of the points and miles game, particularly the credit card aspect. On paid fares, I made an effort to maximize everything possible. For instance, I register for every possible promotion, even if I don't have plans to take advantage of it. Thanks to that, I earned double points with Hilton during one stay after registering for the promotion and forgetting about it, which helped me redeem for the free night in London this past summer. Later in the year, after I opened my Starwood Amex during the 35K point bonus, I tried to stay entirely at Starwood properties so that I could earn double points on the credit card spend — but only when prices weren't higher than the alternatives. Remember, the brand of travel "hacking" I practice is pointless (pun not intended) if you spend more than you would have otherwise.
I got particularly lucky in 2016 with United miles, which is funny considering that until this past year I hadn't flown with the airline in a while. I use the dining Rewards Network with each airline, and received a signup bonus for each of the big three (American, United, Delta) last year, although I rarely find myself at participating restaurants. That helped add an easy 1,500 miles to my United account. I also shop through the MPX app when possible (particularly at Amazon), and got lucky with a targeted offer for bonus miles — another promotion I registered for, forgot about, and ended up capitalizing on. I’ve also earned extra miles through shopping portals for a few key purchases.
I started my strategic approach to the credit card part of the game with the Chase Sapphire Preferred in late-November 2015, planning to hit the minimum spend for the bonus with help from a trip to Puerto Rico in January. We stayed for four nights in the El San Juan hotel, which was a real treat for a long beach weekend — as an interesting side note, it turns out my grandpa used to go there back in the day!
When I started traveling for work occasionally, I timed a few more credit card applications around those trips so that I could meet the minimum spend with help from work-reimbursed hotel and per diem costs. I earned credit card bonuses with Starwood, American Airlines, and Delta, and maximized the points and miles I earned during my stays. I also earned a smaller signup bonus on a Chase Freedom, which I opened to purchase Reni's engagement ring. Because the card had a 0% APR for the first 15 months, I was able to pay for the ring over the year without paying any interest.
Looking Ahead: 2017
I already have a few trips planned this year, some bigger (see the next section) and some smaller. A weekend in Florida this month and a February weekend in D.C. for a wedding are on the calendar, and there’s always a possibility of work travel. I’ll likely head to Vermont at some point, too, once they thaw out up there. But my biggest trip for the year falls under. . .
I have two great redemptions in the books. The first, smaller one is a long weekend in London this winter with a few friends. We’re going to see one more Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur FC) match at White Hart Lane, their historic stadium which is being torn down to make room for a new, larger home. I had about 65K AAdvantage miles earmarked for this trip and while I originally planned to fly roundtrip in coach, I was able to book a saver business class seat for the outbound flight, and a low-cost Norwegian revenue fare for the return. As this will be my first international premium segment besides a lucky flight in 2010, I’m excited to fly in the front cabin, and hoping for a restful sleep.
The big redemption comes in October, when Reni and I go on our honeymoon to Japan and Hawaii! It’s still far out and we haven’t had time to plan much yet — as it turns out, planning a wedding can be distracting 😉 — but we’ve locked in our flights, and we'll be flying in style. First, we’ll fly from New York to Tokyo via Seoul in Korean Air’s first class. The airline’s A380 first class, which we’ll be in for the JFK-ICN leg, has some great reviews — and not just because passengers have access to two separate bars/lounges on board. We booked those tickets entirely with Chase Ultimate Reward points we’d been hoarding.
After spending time in Japan, we’re going to fly to Hawaii for a few days of relaxation before heading home. We booked United in Polaris First class from Tokyo to Honolulu on a 777-200, though we may head to one of the other islands from there. While it’s a little disappointing that the flight won’t be in United’s new Polaris business class, I’m excited to fly the legacy first class hard product before it’s phased out for good. This first class product is only a marginal improvement over business class, the price difference was fairly small and first class actually had better availability on this route. We booked these tickets with United MilagePlus miles topped off with more Ultimate Rewards points.
We’re both really excited for our honeymoon, and can’t wait to plan more of it. If anyone has suggestions for either Japan or Hawaii, let me know!
Cards/Points and Miles
I’m not going to detail my strategy for my card applications/signup bonuses for the coming year, partly because my approach isn't as aggressive as others in the game — I’m not planning to get to 17/24, for instance. Also, I already got the card which was top of my list: the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which I plan to keep for the foreseeable future. Instead, I have a few vague objectives based on what points I think I might have a use for in the future, what my travel and spending habits will be this year, and what cards offer historically high signup or spending bonuses.
The same, more or less, is true of my larger points and miles strategy. As we put deposits down on our wedding, we’ll use cards when possible — only paying credit card surcharges if they’ll be offset by meeting the minimum spend on a new card. I’ll continue shopping through portals when they’re useful, and I’ll keep all of my cards registered with dining rewards. I’m hoping that I can earn more this year than I did last year to build up my reserves a bit further. Delta, for example, is an area I'd like to focus on. Although many in the community dislike the Delta SkyMiles program, being in a Delta hub means they can be useful for me.
What my past year and next year show is that even if you don't travel that often, there are still plenty of opportunities to take advantage of frequent flyer programs. Diving deeper into the points and miles hobby over 2016 has certainly started to pay off. My fiancée and I are flying in first class for our honeymoon later this year, something that would have been absurdly costly without points. I’m going on a fun trip with a few friends and enjoying a flat bed on the redeye flight there, hopefully letting me rest up and make the most of a long weekend. Last summer, I got to take an otherwise prohibitively expensive trip to Europe to visit friends and explore a new city. While playing the points and miles game, I’ve also learned more tricks to find cheap fares and flight availability, all of which means one thing: I'm able to travel more! I can't wait to enjoy this year’s travels, and as always, I'm looking forward to helping friends, family, and other readers get the most out of their points and spending as well!
And again, any recommendations for Japan and Hawaii would be appreciated!