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Travel Rewards March Madness Elite Eight: Cast Your Votes

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card

Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen indulges our love for crowning a champion, as he continues with the second round of the TPG Travel Rewards 2015 Tournament.

Last week, we announced the TPG Travel Rewards 2015 tournament, which pits some of the most popular redemptions and benefits in the travel industry against one another. Thousands of TPG readers have spoken, and we now know which rewards have moved on to the quarterfinals. Today, I’ll profile each of these second round matchups and (again) give you the chance to decide the winners.

Here’s what the updated bracket looks like:

Let’s dive into the Elite Eight!

SW companion pass
Will the Southwest Companion Pass earn a spot in the FInal Four, or are Hilton & Hyatt certificates a better reward?

Southwest Companion Pass vs. Hilton/Hyatt Free Nights

Both the Southwest Companion Pass and free night certificates offered on the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card and Hyatt Credit Card breezed through their first round matchups, each earning at least 80% of the respective votes. Clearly TPG readers value both of these rewards very highly, and for good reason!

The Southwest Companion Pass is unique among travel rewards, in that it isn’t a one-time benefit (like the companion tickets offered on the US Airways Premier World MasterCard or the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express). Instead, once you earn it, you can bring a designated companion with you on all Southwest flights, even ones that you book with Rapid Rewards points.  Here are the important details:

  • You must earn 110,000 Companion Pass-qualifying points, through Southwest flights, Southwest credit cards, or purchases with Southwest partners (like car rental companies, hotels, 1-800-FLOWERS, and others).
  • The pass is valid for the remainder of the calendar year in which it’s earned, and the entire following year; thus, it’s most valuable to earn it as early in the year as you can.
  • You can change your companion three times during the validity period of the pass.

It’s hard to put a value on this card, because it really depends on how much you utilize it. My wife and I abused utilized the companion pass numerous times during the 2+ years I had it, traveling to Philadelphia (three times), Baltimore (twice), Nashville (twice), Providence, San Antonio, Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Raleigh-Durham. The Companion Pass effectively doubles the value of your points, so if you were to redeem all 110,000 points for Wanna Get Away flights and add a companion to every one, you’d get $1,540 of value out of it (given TPG’s most recent valuations, which peg Rapid Rewards points at 1.4 cents apiece).

You can use your Hilton certificates at top-tier properties like the Conrad Koh Samui.
You can use your Hilton certificates at top-tier properties like the Conrad Koh Samui.

Of course, free night certificates can also be quite valuable. You can currently earn 2 free weekend night certificates when you get the Citi Hilton Reserve card and spend $2,500 in the first four months. In addition, when you spend $10,000 in a card membership year, you’ll earn another free weekend night certificate.

Meanwhile, the Chase Hyatt Visa gives you 2 free night certificates valid at any Hyatt property worldwide when you spend $2,000 in the first three months. You also earn another free night certificate each year just for holding the card, though you’re limited to Category 1-4 properties with those.

Award nights at top-tier Hilton and Hyatt properties usually cost 95,000 and 30,000 points, respectively, so based solely on TPG’s valuations, these sign-up bonuses are worth $950 and $1,080, respectively. However, you can definitely get even more value at properties like the Conrad Maldives or Park Hyatt Paris, where room rates regularly top $1,000 a night. Even Hyatt’s anniversary certificate can be valuable, as some Category 4 properties can easily reach $300 or more per night. For more suggestions on where to use these free night certificates, see my earlier posts on top Hyatt redemptions and Hilton redemptions.

Who Wins?

  • Southwest Companion Pass (66%, 329 Votes)
  • Hilton/Hyatt Free Night Certificates (34%, 167 Votes)

Total Voters: 496

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Off-peak to London for just 40,000 miles round-trip is a great deal, but is it better than TBD?
An off-peak award to London for just 40,000 miles round-trip is a great deal, but is it better than Club Carlson’s Bonus Award night?

AA/US Off-Peak Awards vs. Club Carlson Bonus Night

Another benefit that won its first round match-up easily was the off-peak award option offered by both American and US Airways, earning a match-up with the free last award night from Club Carlson, which barely eked out a win over airline fee credits in the first round. Both have some clear value to TPG readers, so let’s take a closer look!

Since the AAdvantage and Dividend Miles programs will be combining soon, and since American’s off-peak awards are almost always a better buy (and available on more dates), I’ll focus on those options. Here are the current details:

Destination

Dates Mileage Savings (one-way)
Hawaii January 12 – March 13, August 22 – December 15

5,000

Caribbean and Mexico

September 7 – November 14 5,000
Central America, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela January 16 – June 14, September 7 – November 14

2,500

Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay

March 1 – May 31, August 16 – November 30 10,000
Europe October 15 – May 15

10,000

Japan and Korea

October 1 – April 30

7,500

As you can see, there are a lot of deals to be had, and some are available for more than half the year! In addition, if you hold the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard, you receive a further 10% discount when you redeem miles for these awards. Unfortunately, there are no off-peak business or first class awards.

The Club Carlson Bonus Award Night benefit is exclusive to cardholders of any co-branded credit card from U.S. Bank, including the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card and Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa. This benefit is very simple: when you redeem Gold Points for stays of two nights or longer, your last night is free. This can easily save you hundreds of dollars every year, depending on how frequently you use it. On two-night stays, it works as a Buy One, Get One Free!

Racking up Club Carlson points to take advantage of this benefit is relatively easy. Thanks to the automatic Gold Status offered by the Club Carlson cards, you can earn 37 points per dollar spent on eligible stays when you use your card to pay, and you also earn 5 points per dollar everywhere else (making this a great pick for everyday spending). Finally, you get 40,000 bonus points each year on your cardmember anniversary, enough for a two-night stay in a Category 4 property.

Who Wins?

  • AA/US Off-Peak Awards (61%, 272 Votes)
  • Club Carlson Bonus Award Night (39%, 175 Votes)

Total Voters: 447

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The Intercontinental Phnom Penh is one luxury property on the current IHG PointBreaks list, but does it beat out the 5x bonus category on the Chase Ink Plus?
The Intercontinental Phnom Penh is one luxury property on the current IHG PointBreaks list, but does it beat out the 5x bonus category on the Chase Ink Plus?

IHG PointBreaks vs. Chase Ink Plus 5x Bonus

Our next quarterfinal is a match-up of two completely different benefits. IHG PointBreaks gives you limited-time (but sometimes massive) discounts on specific properties that change several times a year, while the bonus category on the Ink Plus Business Card is always available to cardholders. So which one is better?

A new list of IHG PointBreaks hotels came out last month, giving you an opportunity to redeem just 5,000 IHG points for a variety of properties that usually cost double or more. You can make these bookings now for stays through May 31, 2015; unfortunately, you’re limited to only two reservations per property (though you can book as many nights as you’d like). Availability is extremely limited, and most properties are on the lower end of the spectrum. Still, if your travel plans take you near a participating property, it can be an absolute steal!

As a reminder, IHG Rewards is a 1:1 transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards, and the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card comes with a sign-up bonus of 70,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months. That would be enough for 14 PointBreaks nights! You can generally purchase IHG Rewards points for 0.7 cents apiece, so that would be like paying $35 for a free night! Even better, today only you can buy IHG points for under 0.6 cents apiece.

The business version gives you double miles for purchases at office supply stores, including gift cards to a variety of retailers.
You can use your Chase Ink Plus card to earn 5x Ultimate Rewards points on gift card purchases at office supply stores.

The Chase Ink Plus bonus category is also a compelling value proposition, giving you 5x Ultimate Rewards points on purchases at office supply stores and on cellular, landline, internet, and cable TV services (up to $50,000 in combined spending every year). A small business can easily reach these limits, but for individuals, this can also be a huge influx of Ultimate Rewards points. Spending $250 per month on these telecommunication services gives you 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points in a year, worth $315 according to TPG’s valuations.

Office supply stores are another fantastic opportunity for taking advantage of this bonus. While you may not spend a lot on office supplies, you can pick up gift cards at stores like Office Depot and Staples to a variety of retailers, including Target, Home Depot, and Petco, allowing you to earn 5 points per dollar at these locations instead of the standard 1 point/mile per dollar that other cards offer. Personally, I like purchasing eGift cards from Staples and going through a shopping portal like Ebates to earn additional cash back. Just be aware that some shopping portals (like Ultimate Rewards) do not award bonus points on the purchase of gift cards.

Who Wins?

  • Chase Ink Plus 5x Category Bonus (72%, 315 Votes)
  • IHG PointBreaks (28%, 125 Votes)

Total Voters: 440

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Distance-based redemptions using Avios can be lucrative, but you may prefer adding a free stopover or open jaw with other programs.
Distance-based redemptions using Avios can be lucrative, but you may prefer adding a free stopover or open jaw with other programs.

Distance-Based Avios Awards vs. Stopovers and Open Jaws

The final quarterfinal matchup includes two rewards that sailed through the first round, and both come from the same overall category: flight redemptions.

Despite its upcoming devaluation on April 28, 2015, the British Airways Executive Club program still has some terrific deals, mainly because it utilizes a distance-based award chart to determine the number of Avios needed for a given redemption. In addition to implementing new peak and off-peak pricing, long-haul first and business class awards are increasing across the board.

However, economy awards will either stay the same or be even cheaper than before. This can be especially valuable when looking at short-haul flights within Europe or within the U.S. from an American or US Airways hub. Any flight of 650 miles or fewer is just 4,500 Avios each way. This means you could fly from Miami to Montego Bay, Jamaica, New York-JFK to Toronto, or Chicago to Atlanta, all for just 9,000 Avios round-trip.

Unfortunately, since British Airways charges you on a segment-by-segment basis, its opponent in this quarterfinal match-up gives you a completely different way to maximize your points and miles. Certain programs allow you to build in a stopover (generally defined as a stop for more than 24 hours en route to your final destination), an open jaw (arriving in and departing from different cities), or both! I covered these options in depth back in 2014, but some things have changed since then, so here’s a quick summary for the major carriers:

  • Alaska — stopovers allowed on international tickets only (1 for one-way, 2 for round-trip) and one open jaw.
  • American — none, though the ability to book one-way tickets allows you to create an open jaw.
  • Delta — none (as of 2015), though it did add the ability to book one-way tickets.
  • United — one stopover and two open jaws, though only available on round-trip tickets.
  • US Airways — one stopover or one open jaw.

Who Wins?

  • Stopovers and Open Jaws (52%, 230 Votes)
  • Distance-Based British Airways Avios Flights (48%, 213 Votes)

Total Voters: 443

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Be sure to cast your votes, and stay tuned for next week’s post for detailed analysis of the Final Four matchups!
Ink Plus® Business Credit Card