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Your Points & Miles Guide to the Democratic National Convention

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As the 2016 American presidential election edges ever closer, many politically minded travelers are turning their attention to the upcoming national conventions. Today, TPG Contributor Whitney Magnuson examines how to maximize travel redemptions for the upcoming Democratic National Convention. 

The Democratic National Convention will take place in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, from July 25-28, 2016. Like the Republican National Convention happening the week before in Cleveland, more than 50,000 attendees are expected, making flight and hotel availability a challenge. Below, I’ll look at what options are open, and how to get the most bang for your points and miles buck when booking your trip.

Getting There

The Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) is the primary airport for the Philly area, with domestic service provided from all the usual suspects: American, United, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, among others. The Atlantic City International Airport (ACY), which is served by Spirit Airlines, and the Trenton-Mercer Airport (TTN), which is served by Frontier Airlines, are also nearby.

A Lego Liberty Bell at Philadelphia International Airport. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
A Lego Liberty Bell at PHL. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

American Airlines serves by far the most destinations in and out of the city. With American’s regular award chart, economy MileSAAver awards start at 12,500 miles each way for economy, but are already fairly scarce. Among the 15-plus US cities I checked, only flights from Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. still show MileSAAver-level economy award availability on Sunday, July 24 (the date before the Convention begins). However, business/first saver-level awards start at 25,000 miles and are still available from nearly all major departure cities.

With the recent news that British Airways is ceasing its 4,500-mile short-haul flight awards in the US, the prospect of redeeming Avios for travel on American Airlines to Philadelphia is no longer quite as appealing.

United provides a much more limited route map, with only a handful of nonstop destinations out of PHL. As of press time, none of those routes offer saver-level award availability in either economy or business/first. As such, interested travelers will need to pay the standard redemption rate, which runs 25,000 miles one-way for economy or 50,000 miles for business/first. Currently, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card offers 30,000 bonus miles for spending $1,000 in the first three months after card issue, meaning even at the standard rate, an economy ticket is within reach.

American offers the most direct flights in and out of Philadelphia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Delta switched to a revenue-based award program earlier this year, meaning the cost of an award ticket varies depending on the current cash price of available tickets. However, at the moment, the carrier’s prices are in line with American and United redemptions, with 12,500-mile economy awards and 25,000-mile first awards available from New York and Washington D.C. Most other US departure cities are just slightly higher at 17,500 miles for economy and 32,500 for first.

Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier also run revenue-based award programs, but have yet to release schedules for next summer. Travelers hoping to book on these airlines should do so as early as possible, as rates are likely to climb dramatically once availability starts to dwindle. Super-budget carrier Spirit Airlines also serves Philadelphia from several US cities. Spirit’s “bare fares” only include one personal item, but start as low as $63 for a one-way flight on the Saturday before the Convention.

Amtrak Station Philadelphia
Amtrak Station in Philadelphia. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Finally, for those on the Eastern seaboard, it may make more sense to investigate ground travel as a means of reaching Philly. Amtrak’s Acela Express line, for example, connects the city to Boston, New Haven and New York to the north, as well as Baltimore and Washington D.C. to the south. Business-class seats between D.C. and Philadelphia range from $82-$200 or require 8,000 Amtrak Guest Reward points if booked by the end of the year.

If Amtrak looks like the best option for your trip and you’d like to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book, then you’ll need to do so before December 8, when the partnership between the two companies ends. At the moment, the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers a welcome bonus of 50,000 points for meeting the minimum spending requirement of $4,000, enough for a round-trip for two people on the Acela Express.

Where To Stay

Much like the situation for the RNC, the majority of area hotels are already booked out by the Convention Committee itself and are on reserve for traveling delegations, political staffers, speakers and press. Most of the remaining options are located slightly outside of the city center.

The Fairfield Inn Philadelphia Airport, which is only about a 10-minute cab ride from the city center, is one of the few properties with remaining rooms. The Category 5 hotel is currently available for $489 or 25,000 points per night for a sample booking from July 24-29. However, because Marriott offers travelers a free fifth night on any award booking of five nights or longer, the total points needed for a Sunday to Friday stay would only be 100,000 points. That equates to a 20% discount on points stays.

Starwood Preferred Guest's award redemption chart
Starwood Preferred Guest’s award redemption chart.

All the Starwood hotels (including the Le Meridien, Westin and Sheraton) in the city center are fully booked. For guests willing to stay in a more suburban location, rooms are still available at the Four Points by Sheraton Philadelphia Northeast. Located about 30 minutes from the Convention grounds along I-95, rooms start at $361 ($339 for AARP or AAA members) or 4,000 Starpoints per night.

With the current 25,000-point bonus for spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, you could book a six-night stay, covering the entirety of the Convention and then some, all with a single card bonus.

Hyatt’s downtown properties are already booked, but rooms are still available at the Hyatt House Philadelphia/King of Prussia (located about 30 minutes from city center) for $659 or 8,000 points per night. That equates to an excellent redemption rate of 8.2 cents per point.

Convention-goers willing to stay slightly farther out of town in nearby Princeton will find many additional options. For example, Starwood has availability at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village ($225 or 8,000-10,000 points per night) and the Element Ewing Princeton ($359 or 5,600-7,000 points per night). The Hyatt Regency Princeton ($178 or 8,000 points) and the Hyatt Place Princeton ($151 or 8,000 points) are also available.

Finally, if staying downtown is a must, Airbnb and HomeAway are both options for short-term rentals. Prices range from $30 per night for a bed in a shared room “hostel” to $7,200 a night for a 2-bed, 2-bath penthouse apartment with views of downtown. While Airbnb doesn’t offer its own loyalty program, American Express cardholders can redeem Membership Rewards points for Airbnb gift cards to offset the cost of their stay.

Getting Around

Philadelphia’s top-notch public transportation system can help ease the woes of staying in the suburbs. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) includes regional rail, trams, trolleys and buses that will get you where you need to go. Fares start at $2.25 each way or $24 for a one-week TransPass.

SEPTA's Airport Regional Rail Line
SEPTA’s Airport Regional Rail Line. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Within the city proper, Philly Phlash buses also connect to all the popular tourist destinations. Trips on the Phlash are free with a SEPTA pass or cost $2 a ride. Taxis, rideshare services and rental cars also add to the transportation options.

And if all that political discourse gets you thinking of the founding fathers, Philadelphia is awash in historical hot spots. See the Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell or even Thomas Jefferson’s grave in your downtime. If a break from government functions is more your speed, try the Rodin Museum or the latest traveling exhibit at the Franklin Institute.

Have you ever attended the DNC or RNC? Share your travel experience in the comments below!

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