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Travel Rewards March Madness Final Four: Cast Your Votes

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

Earlier in the month, we announced the TPG Travel Rewards 2015 tournament, and last week, I profiled the quarterfinal match-ups. The readers have once again spoken, and it’s time to reveal which benefits have earned a spot in the final four. Today, I’ll profile each of these semifinal matchups and (again) give you the chance to decide the winners. Later this week we’ll see who wins, and move on to the finals.

Here’s what the updated bracket looks like:

Since TPG readers clearly value all of these rewards, this post will not only profile each of the semifinal match-ups; I will also give you some concrete strategies for earning and/or utilizing each one. Even though only one will remain standing by the end of the tournament, all of these rewards can be valuable, and we want you to be able to take advantage of each one.

Let’s dive into the Final Four!

American Airlines plane 2
American’s off-peak awards are valuable, but can they stop the Southwest Companion Pass from earning a spot in the finals?

Southwest Companion Pass vs. American Off-Peak Awards

Our first semifinal pairs two contenders that took down their respective opponents (both hotel rewards, incidentally) with relative ease in the second round. Flight costs can make up a large portion of any trip’s budget, so it’s not surprising that these two have earned spots in the Final Four. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Southwest Companion Pass

As discussed earlier, the Southwest Companion Pass is earned by accruing 110,000 Companion Pass qualifying points in a calendar year, and is valid for the remainder of the year in which you earn it plus the entire following year. It allows you to bring a designated companion along with you on any Southwest flight, whether you book with cash or points.

110,000 points sounds like a lot, but there are several steps you can take to earn them:

  1. Open one (or more) Southwest credit cards. Chase currently offers two different Southwest co-branded personal credit cards: the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card (which also has a business version), and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Card. Sign-up bonuses on these cards have often hit 50,000 points (after spending $2,000 in the first three months), most recently in early 2014. These sign-up bonuses along with all points earned on the card count toward Companion Pass qualification.
  2. Fly with Southwest. This is the most obvious way to earn qualifying points, but is still important to mention. Southwest awards points according to the type of fare you purchase. Wanna Get Away? fares earn 6 points per dollar, Anytime fares earn 10 points per dollar, and Business Select fares earn 12 points per dollar. You could earn a Companion Pass by spending just under $9,200 on Business Select fares, though you’d need double that amount of spending on Wanna Get Away? fares.
  3. Make purchases with partners. The Rapid Rewards programs has numerous partners, so you can earn points through various hotels, rental car companies, and retailers, among others. In addition, transfers from certain hotel chains count toward Companion Pass qualification. However, transfers from Ultimate Rewards do not count.
  4. Look at Marriott’s Hotel + Air Packages. Southwest partners with Marriott Rewards, and one of the redemption options for your Marriott points is a hotel stay plus a pot of Rapid Rewards points through the program’s Hotel + Air packages. You’ll receive a seven-night award stay plus anywhere from 50,000 – 120,000 Rapid Rewards points, which count toward Companion Pass qualification. TPG used this benefit last year for a stay in Cannes, and earned a companion pass for his parents in the process.

For more details (and suggestions), check out TPG’s post on topping up your Southwest account to earn the Companion Pass.

American Off-Peak Awards

Now that American and US Airways have officially combined loyalty programs, this benefit only applies to the AAdvantage program (since Dividend Miles no longer exists). As discussed last week, this benefit allows you to redeem fewer miles to visit certain destinations during certain times of the year:

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

These discounted awards show up automatically when you search for award space on AA.com:

AA off-peak
This search for awards between New York and London shows off-peak availability until May 16th.

 

Notice that the price jumps from 20,000 to 30,000 miles one-way from May 15th to May 16th, since that’s when peak pricing kicks in (or what American calls “Level 2 SAAver Award” pricing).

Earning enough miles to take advantage of these awards is very easy:

  1. Open one (or more) American credit card. Right now, both the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard and the CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard offer 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months of card membership. In addition, just holding one of those cards gives you 10% of your redeemed miles back each year (up to 10,000 miles per year). That brings your effective cost for a round-trip, off-peak flight to Europe down to just 36,000 miles.
  2. Fly with American, US Airways, or any Oneworld partner airline. Any revenue flights on American, US Airways, or their Oneworld partners can be credited to your AAdvantage account, and remember that you can earn a ton of bonus miles in 2015 by purchasing premium fares.
  3. Make purchases with partners. Like Southwest, American has a plethora of partners, including hotels, rental cars, retailers, and more. Many offer limited-time bonuses, so be sure to check out the program’s full list of partners.

Who Wins?

View Results

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Staples gives you 5x Ultimate Rewards points on the Chase Ink Plus, but do you value stopovers & open jaws more?
Staples gives you 5x Ultimate Rewards points on the Chase Ink Plus, but do you value stopovers & open jaws more? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Chase Ink Plus 5x Bonus vs. Stopovers and Open Jaws

Our second semifinal pits two rewards that had very different Elite Eight experiences. The Chase Ink Plus Business Card and its 5x bonus category breezed through its matchup with IHG PointBreaks, but the ability to book stopovers and open jaws on award tickets barely squeezed past the distance-based awards offered by British Airways. Let’s take a closer look at this Final Four battle.

Chase Ink Plus 5x Bonus

As a reminder, the Chase Ink Plus card gives you 5x Ultimate Rewards points for yearly combined purchases of up to $50,000 at office supply stores and on cellular, landline, internet, and cable TV services. Even though it’s technically marketed as a credit card for small businesses, you can definitely apply as a sole proprietor. Both my wife and I have Ink Plus cards for our part-time (self-employed) jobs.

Here are the best ways to utilize this reward:

  1. Open a Chase Ink Plus account. The first (and most obvious) thing to do is open an Ink Plus account, if you haven’t already. Currently, the card gives you 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, that bonus alone is worth $1,050.
  2. Set-up your telecommunications bills to auto-pay on the card. I get my home internet, phone, and cable services through AT&T, while our personal cell phones are through Verizon. Both of those bills automatically pay each month on one of our Ink Plus cards, giving us an easy influx of Ultimate Rewards points throughout the year.
  3. Make purchases from office supply stores. Ideally, you can use the Chase Ink Plus to purchase office supplies for your small or medium-sized business and rack up the points even faster than I can as a sole proprietor. However, all purchases at these stores earn you 5x points, including ink & toner, technology, shipping, and furniture. Then, there’s my favorite type of transaction…
  4. Purchase gift cards from office supply stores. Both Staples and Office Depot typically carry gift cards for a variety of retailers, and this is an easy way to earn 5 points per dollar on purchases that usually only earn 1 point per dollar at retailers like Target, Petco, Home Depot, and Nordstrom. An even better strategy is to purchase electronic gift cards at Staples that are e-mailed to you (typically within 24 hours). This allows you to go through an online shopping portal like Ebates to increase your return even more.

Stopovers and Open Jaws

The final contender is yet another airline-related award: the ability to build stopovers and open jaws into award tickets. Unfortunately, this benefit has lost a bit of steam in the last several months, first with Delta removing both options (though it did add one-way awards) and then with US Airways Dividend Miles fading into oblivion. However, there are still some ways you can make use of these awards:

  1. Book awards with Alaska Airlines. Though the competition with Delta for Seattle dominance is fierce, Alaska’s loyalty program (Mileage Plan) is leaps and bounds ahead of SkyMiles, allowing stopovers on international tickets (1 for one-way, 2 for round-trip) and one open jaw. With many partners, including Cathay Pacific and Emirates, this can be an incredibly valuable benefit.
  2. Book awards with United. Though United has devalued its program a lot over the last couple of years, it still allows you to include a stopover and two open jaws on round-trip award tickets.
  3. Book one-way awards. Alaska, American, Delta, and United all allow you to book one-way awards, so you can effectively create an open jaw (or two) by booking two awards (for example, JFK-LHR and CDG-MIA).
  4. Look for overnight stopovers of just under 24 hours. Even those airlines that don’t allow stopovers will allow you to include an overnight connection on an international award ticket of just under 24 hours. I’ve used this trick in Hong Kong and Vancouver on an American award ticket, Oslo and Prague on a US Airways award ticket, and Paris on a Delta award ticket. It’s just a quick stop, but a great way to see another city!

Who Wins?

View Results

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Be sure to cast your votes, and stay tuned for the final vote later this week to help decide which contender takes home the trophy!
Ink Plus® Business Credit Card