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2012 has been a pretty busy year in the travel world – between airline mergers, airline “operational” challenges, elite status program changes and a slew of new credit cards and bonuses, here are the 15 things in the miles/points universal that I’m thankful for this year. (Check out my 2011 list to see what I was jazzed about last year).
1. Bluebird/ Vanilla/ Prepaid Cards: Probably the biggest news in the points world this year – and certainly the one that’s been creating the most buzz lately was the recent launch of a new prepaid card called the Bluebird, which allows users to load it with cash using Vanilla Reloads, which you can purchase using points-earning cards, and then use the Bluebird to do things you can’t with a credit card, like use it at ATM’s to withdraw cash, send checks to companies and individuals, and link it to a checking or savings account – all of which help you earn points and miles on transactions you weren’t able to before. This has changed my entire points-earning strategy, and you can take a look at these posts to find out why. Even though Vanilla Reloads may be hard to find these days in certain areas, you can still buy pre-paid cards at office supply stores and use them for everyday spend- essentially earning 5 points per dollar spent on everything.
2. New Starwood Elite levels: Although frequent flyers and hotel elites often cringe when points programs and elite perks change, Starwood actually surprised their most loyal customers by introducing a slew of new perks for its uber-elites including new points-earning potential, lifetime status, free breakfast, 24-hour check-in and more. That’s why I worked hard this year on my earning strategy to qualify for SPG elite status at the 75-night level and if I play my cards right, 100-night ambassador level.
3. American Airlines Double EQM Promos: In addition to the ongoing double EQM promo American is currently holding and which can be a huge opportunity to achieve an elite level that you’ve never historically been able to hit, as well as targeted double EQM promos from Boston, Dallas, Chicago and the West Coast, I took advantage of a similar promo this January to hit Executive Platinum status on the airline almost within the space of a single month, and I’ve been enjoying the perks ever since…and have all of 2013 to look forward to.
4. US Airways Mileage Fire Sales: This year has been a veritable bonanza for folks looking to rack up US Airways miles – even if they weren’t flying. I’ve personally accrued hundreds of thousands of them by taking advantage of repeated 100% purchase bonuses and 100% transfer bonuses as well as a savvy use of the airline’s Mileage Multiplier a few months ago. I always say US Airways is looking to practically give away its miles and this year proved it…to my benefit!
5. Airlines Adding Partner Availability to Searches: One of the most frustrating aspects of actually redeeming those hard-earned points and miles is finding award availability. Luckily, several airlines upped their game this year and made partner award availability searchable on their sites, so that now, for instance, you can find Virgin Australia and Korean Air availability on Delta.com, and you can use American Airlines’ website to search for award seats on British Airways, Alaska and Hawaiian.
6. Amex Transfer Bonuses: While we haven’t seen anything like the 67% transfer bonus from Amex to Delta from last year, it has been a good year for Amex transfer bonuses to British Airways, with a 50% bonus in May and a 40% bonus in September, as well as a recent 50% bonus to Virgin America. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that Chase Ultimate Rewards will start offering some transfer bonuses to their travel partners.
7. Elite Status Match and Challenge Opportunities: I took advantage of some strategic travel plans to status match not only to American Airlines Executive Platinum this year, but also to United Platinum this year. I was also happy to see Virgin America, which only recently launched its own elite status program in July, already offering a status match to United and American flyers.
8. Continued Great Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses: This year was another blockbuster for credit card sign-up bonuses, and though I’ve yet to take a tally of just how many points and miles I’ve reaped from my applications, it’s well into the hundreds of thousands. This year, I got in on one of limited-time 75,000-point sign-up bonuses for the American Express Business Rewards Gold card; both the Ink Bold and Ink Plus for 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points each, both the Starwood Amex Personal and Business cards for 30,000 points each back in August, the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card with its two free weekend nights, the Hyatt card with its two free nights in a suite (because I’m a Diamond member), and the Chase Freedom card, which I maximize with the 5x quarterly spending bonus categories and through Chase Exclusives bonuses.
9. TSA Pre- Check!: Getting through airport security, as well as customs and immigration, can be some of the biggest hassles when it comes to travel. Last year, getting Global Entry (which came free since I got a $100 rebate on it with my Amex Platinum card), this year, TSA PreCheck is my fling of the moment since it means I don’t have to remove my jacket, shoes, belt or wallet from my person, or take my laptop or iPad, or my liquids out of my carry-on bag. It saves me so much time (when it works) that I can cut it even closer than usual when heading to the airport!
10. Mistake Fares: Some of the most exciting travel deals this year were amazing mistake fares like the 4-mile award fares to Hong Kong on United, the Hong Kong, the recent Alitalia Japan fare code debacle – which the airline ended up honoring for the most part – and dirt-cheap first class fares on ANA and Swiss originating in Myanmar. While too good to be true, some people were still able to take advantage of them before the mistakes were discovered, and even though I wasn’t one of them, I still applaud those who were able to make some amazing travel happen out of them.
11. Frequent Flyer Events: I love meeting my fellow frequent flyers and points enthusiasts at events such as the Chicago Seminars, the Oneworld and Star Alliance Megados, the Freddie Awards, and Frequent Traveler University – and I’ll continue to meet more of you there, including this April in Tyson’s Corner.
12. Social Media: One of my favorite ways of interacting with friends and readers as well as airlines and hotels is via social media including Facebook, Twitter and, most recently, Instagram. All these means provide cogent, direct and up-to-the-minute ways to interact with those around me and those in the world of travel, as well as providing me and my readers with instant, valuable feedback on what’s going on in the world. I look forward to spending a lot more time in the social media sphere, and to talking with a lot more of you through it!
13. Online Shopping Portals: What can I say, I love to shop! Lucky for me, credit cards are the single most lucrative way to rack up points and miles (responsibly!) and going through the online shopping portals of various airlines and hotels earns me multiple points on every dollar I spend. It’s going to be a great holiday shopping season!
14. Free Money, Miles and Points: From scoring “free points” through social media campaigns like Starwood’s current “Travel Wish” promo, 500 free Hilton HHonors points with their Hamptonality Moments Facebook campaign, to earning rebates and statement credits through programs like Amex Small Business Saturday, it’s nice to know that our loyalty is valued at various levels and I don’t feel bad about cashing in on all of them.
15. My Wonderful Travel Experiences: One of the things I’m most thankful for this year is all the places I’ve been able to go and the flights I’ve been able to take due to my miles and points. At the end of the day, this isn’t just about getting value or “beating the system” for me. It’s about being able to travel well, and in a way that makes it attainable. This year I’ve flown (mostly in business or first) to these cities (plus some I forget!): Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Seoul, Tokyo, Madrid, Paris, London, Zurich, Dublin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Miami, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Maui. Next year, I’m planning to visit a ton of new countries and regions (stay tuned!), all of which is possible due to my ability to not only accrue miles and points, but use them wisely and I thank readers for their amazing suggestions which help enrich my experience, and hopefully others as well. I look forward to another happy, healthy (though perhaps a little jet-lagged) year with all of you.