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11 Tips for Flight Sales, Mistake Fares and Maximizing Free Hotel Nights

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TPG Contributor Mitch Berman offers 11 tips that allowed his family to work around 2015’s school-break times to put together mistake fares, deep discounts and credit card sign-ups into six international trips to eleven countries (and five more transcontinental trips). Visit Mitch and his son Kofi’s photo blog here.

2015 was a great travel year for my family and me, with mistake fares, airfare sales and credit card perks providing plenty of opportunity for us to explore cities around the globe. To help you get started on a new year of travel-planning, I’ll share 11 tips for making the most of cheap airfare and credit card benefits like free hotel nights.

1. Check for Deals on TPG and Other Websites Often

You’re exactly where I’ve been coming for years — this is a one-stop-shop for travel and credit card deals. Honorable mention goes to Flight Deals for the latest cheap fares. Whichever site(s) you choose, visit often because great deals are snapped up within hours.

2. If You’re a Couple and See a Great Credit Card Deal, Get It Twice

When a sign-up bonus offers 100,000 miles on American Airlines or British Airways — both of which we’ve doubled up on for 400,000 miles — grab it with all four hands!

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Our room at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa wasn’t overwater, but it had a standalone villa one step up from the beach with its own private infinity pool. Image courtesy of the hotel.

How about four free nights anywhere in the Hilton, Hyatt or Fairmont systems? The Hyatt Credit Card (with a minimum spending requirement of only $1,000 per card in the first three months) got both of us two nights in the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa. Getting to the hotel’s private island (surrounded by one of the best house reefs you’ll ever snorkel) is more than worth the flights and boat ride. Four nights there are a great deal, bearing in mind that the Hadahaa goes for $553-$2,117 per night. The Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card also gives you two free nights — albeit restricted to weekends.

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Sunset over the desert near Dubai. Image by the author.

Similarly, when we got the Fairmont Visa Signature Cards, we built a Dubai-Abu Dhabi trip with four nights at the Fairmont the Palm Dubai. You’ll get a free suite upgrade, which we unfortunately missed during the stay because suites weren’t yet available at the property. Breakfast is sensational, but nothing can beat a trip to the desert.

3. Roll with the Punches

This applies not only to actual travel, as surprises happen all the time, but to the trip-planning process itself. Case in point: An incredible offer that surfaced last February. For only $130, you could get to a variety of Asian destinations via Milan and then onward from Prague. You even earned miles for the trip. The catch? You had to get from Milan to Prague yourself, and then you had to find your own way home from Asia. But this deal was so good that it was well worth cobbling all that together.

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Of course you get to Asia from NYC via Milan (above) and then Prague — isn’t that the way everyone does it? Image by the author.

We enjoyed Milan and Prague, but Tokyo was the reason we went. Two free weekend nights at the Conrad Tokyo, courtesy of the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, was a great way to kick it off in comfort. Buffet breakfasts are superb, especially the full cooked-to-order Japanese menu with grilled fish and homemade tofu.

Japan: where you just walk in off the street and eat some of the best food you've had in your life. Photo by the author.
Japan: Where you just walk in off the street and eat some of the best food you’ve had in your life. Image by the author.

Long before we took off for this mid-winter trip — in fact, right after I’d booked the NYC-Tokyo leg — it had occurred to me that something was missing. What was missing was another trip to AsiaHow could we forget Hong Kong? Which leads to our next trip, and my next tip.

4. That Tip About Doubling up on Credit Card Bonuses? Ditto for Deals — If It’s Unmissable, Get It Twice

On the Prague leg, this time during spring break, Czech Air experienced delays and asked us if we minded routing through Paris instead of Amsterdam. Did a seven-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) give us enough time to train into town, see a friend, eat a meal and get all the way back to the airport? Not reasonably. But, well, roll with the punches. We did it anyway.

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Chungking Mansions, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In Hong Kong, we like to stay in Kowloon, and this time we stayed at the Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui by putting together our single free nights from our second year of the Hyatt Credit Card. The Hyatt is only a few steps and a world away from Nathan Road and Chungking Mansions, the groaning, teeming, multilingual and entirely infamous mess that epitomizes Hong Kong. Explore this labyrinth of luggage vendors, Indian sweets stands, money changers, watch-repair counters, tailors and Bollywood DVD-sellers.

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The Cathay business class that TPG rated above American’s first class.

Plus, by doubling up on the British Airways Visa Signature Card, we racked up 200,000 British Airways Avios. Stopping first to enjoy showers and custom-made noodle dishes at Cathay’s Wing Lounge in Hong Kong International Airport, we took Cathay’s “stellar business class,” with Jurlique amenities and a hospitable crew.

5. Never Check Luggage Unless You Absolutely Have to

Picking luggage off of baggage carousels tacks on travel time at the most inopportune moment: Right when you’re either exhausted or champing at the bit to see a new destination. Not to mention, it puts you at the end of the immigration line. Talk about a rotten deal — sometimes you even have to pay for that dubious privilege. Did I say “sometimes”? We recently reported that domestic airlines collected over $1 billion in baggage fees in the third quarter alone.

Even if it’s free, we usually don’t check bags unless we’re away for a month. But there are exceptions — for flights with tight connections, for example, it could make sense to have the airlines handle your luggage.

6. Always Travel with a New Credit Card

The best feature — twice as nice for a couple — of the whole credit card business is the sign-up bonus. Generally, the easiest way to meet minimum spending requirements on new cards is simply to make enough purchases in the given time frame.

Fortunately (or not), travel always gives you (too) many opportunities to spend. Don’t waste them on a card you’ve been carrying for years; get one of the new offers listed in our “Hot Deals” sidebar to the right, and make sure to check out TPG’s top 10 rewards credit card offers post each month.

7. Don’t Reject Any Cheap Destination out of Hand — Look into Short Hops to Nearby Airports

I’d snagged an August sale fare to Cancún for $200 round-trip and intended to go to Cozumel. Only after booking did I find that you could take a left turn from Cancún and be in Havana in an hour. We’d been dying to go to Cuba — a banned destination — all our lives, and TPG had further whetted our interest with several recent rave reviews.

Photo by the author and Kofi Lee-Berman
Pyramid El Castillo, Tulum. Image by Kofi Lee-Berman.

But with this route you can stop first in the Yucatán. In Tulum, visit the pre-Columbian Mayan ruins at the ocean’s edge and go for a swim in the bathtub-warm shallows. Nearby at Taqueria Don Beto, a generous meal of tacos and tortas for three comes out to about $10.

You can also visit Cozumel, which unlike its charmless neighbors Cancun and Playa del Carmen, still retains its small-town island flavor. I recommend the great Yucateca cuisine at Las Tortugas — like its definitive xochitl (a Mayan soup with avocado, chicken, tomato, cilantro and crispy tortilla strips).

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Better than new. Image by Kofi Lee-Berman.

And then there’s Cuba. Only a one-hour flight on Interjet from Cancun — but so untouched for so long it seems like another world — Havana is an amazing slice of frozen history. Like every other American who’s been there, I marveled at the number and condition of the vintage cars and the way they came in hues never seen in nature. My favorite wasn’t one of the lollipop-colored tourist convertibles (those are nice too), but instead the sleek taxi in the photo. For different views of Havana, see our photo-essay, 10 Photos: Havana.

8. Luxury is Great, but Don’t Invariably Insist on It

Sometimes the cheapest stuff is the most fun. I’m not slamming the Conrad Tokyo when I say that you can’t beat strolling Havana’s Malecón at sunset, staying in a Rio de Janeiro favela or taking Hong Kong’s Star Ferry.

9. Book as Far Ahead as You Can

At the beginning of 2015, we had two free nights in the Fairmont system and I discovered that the only way I could use those at the Savoy in London was to book nearly a year ahead. So our last trip of the year would be to London, and since saver redemptions were tough to come by, we booked both ways on Norwegian and saved about 20% by buying in krone.

On the other hand, last summer I didn’t book ahead and by the end of May, I still had no idea whatsoever where we were going, or if we were going anywhere at all. All the good airline redemptions had long before been snapped up, so I got lucky when Rio de Janeiro was posted on TPG for $488 round-trip. TAM (earning miles on American) ran a great flight with amenity kits in economy and a superb flight crew.

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Morro Dois Irmãos over Rocinha. Image by Kofi Lee-Berman.

We spent two weeks in Rio, the first in the wonderful old neighborhood of Santa Teresa above the main part of the city. We spent the second across town in Vidigal, which is still regarded as a favela, but in reality it is a well-functioning neighborhood within walking distance of some of the greatest beaches in the world, Leblon and Ipanema. For a different set of views of the city, see our post, 10 Photos: Rio de Janeiro.

10. Grab the Fare and Make Your Plans — but Keep an Eye Out to See Whether the Airline Will Cancel It

So you’ve got your great sale or mistake fare. Will the airline cancel it? Can the airline cancel it? We’ve reported here that United and American were cracking down in different ways on mistake fares, and Eric Rosen broke down the Department of Transportation’s new interim policy on mistake fares. As I wrote recently, airlines can now cancel your mistake fare, but if they do, they must reimburse you for both the canceled fare and all out-of-pocket expenses you’ve made in expectation of that fare. In fact, just recently, the DOT answered several of my questions.

Michael Spelfogel reported recently that American offered settlements to passengers whose flights had been canceled after placing a $400 business-class US-China flight on 24-hour hold (you put that deal on hold?). Passengers who’d actually paid for that flight did get to fly it. TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig made clear that the offer from American “was part of a DOT settlement.”

Our conclusion? Grab the fares — and pay for them on the spot. Spend a week or two checking the forums over on FlyerTalk to get an idea if you’ll actually get to take that flight. When you do make the rest of your arrangements, be sure to save your receipts. If your flight is canceled, you should get all your money back by following the steps outlined in my recent piece.

11. Let the Deal Send You There

Now, just go! The deal is king — more important than your former plans or even the destination.

I used to pick a destination and see what a fare consolidator would charge me to get there. Not anymore. My strategy has become much more opportunistic, and it has to be because there are so many deals out there. And we go wherever the best deal sends us. It’s like the way I play Monopoly — just buy every property you land on (well, except the utilities). And in this world-scale version of the game, you’ll never get a monopoly because no matter how well traveled you are, the world is full of amazing places you haven’t been to.

For example, our travel year began and ended with a couple of unbelievable JetBlue sales to places we hadn’t been actively considering. In January, JetBlue published a sale fare of $32 JFK-Nassau, and we moved quickly to grab the fare.

These JetBlue deals give you only an outbound flight; we returned via Miami using British Airways Avios on American Airlines. Such BA short-hauls were arguably the world’s best award travel deal for years, and despite a major recent devaluation, they remain BA’s sweet spot.

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Put your footprint in the surprisingly deserted sand of Paradise Island. Image by the author.

Next up was s $31 trip to LAX, which required traveling on Halloween. I jumped at the chance to cross the country on what I feel is the best domestic economy carrier, JetBlue. As a tall man, I appreciate that JetBlue’s cabins always offer at least 32 inches of seat pitch. The leather seats on the Airbus A320 gave me a luxurious 34″ of pitch, and a new mid-cabin self-serve station full of beverages and its signature Terra Blues had just been installed.

With two free nights (including suite upgrades and breakfasts) at any Fairmont courtesy of the credit card sign-up bonus, we went with the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica, where Marilyn Monroe and JFK used to hang out (not necessarily together, though with those two you never know).

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Still life: Potatoes and Governator. Image by Kofi Lee-Berman.

Sunday brunch at the hotel’s Fig Restaurant is included with the Fairmont card — and it came with a side dish.

And that’s it for our tips and our year, because eventually you run out of days. Here’s to an even better 2016 full of great travel for you and yours!

What’s the best travel deal you ever snagged?

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