The Points Guy Wed, 05 Aug 2015 11:46:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Deal Alert: Dallas, Phoenix and SLC to Hawaii on United for $395 Wed, 05 Aug 2015 11:39:08 +0000 Airfare deals are typically only available on limited dates. We recommend that you use Google Flights to find dates to fly, then book through an online travel agency, such as Orbitz, which allows you to cancel flights without penalty by 11pm Eastern Time within one day of booking. Remember: Fares may disappear quickly, so book right away and take advantage of Orbitz’s courtesy cancellation if you’re unable to travel.

Last night we shared an awesome beach deal for folks at the other end of the country, and if you live near Dallas, Phoenix or Salt Lake City, now it’s your turn. You can fly United from all three cities to Honolulu for just $395 round-trip. This fare is available nearly every week from late August through the end of May 2016. You can even travel over Thanksgiving at this price!

You can also find low fares from Chicago and D.C., but a double connection (via DFW) is required in both directions.

Here are a few examples of what you can book:

Dallas to Honolulu for $395 in August on United (earns 8,014 PQMs):

Dallas to Honolulu for $395 in August on United.

Dallas to Honolulu for $395 in May 2016 on United (earns 7,582 PQMs):

Dallas to Honolulu for $395 in May 2016 on United.
Dallas to Honolulu for $395 in May 2016 on United.

Phoenix to Honolulu for $395 over Thanksgiving on United (earns 6,098 PQMs):

Phoenix to Honolulu for $395 over Thanksgiving on United.
Phoenix to Honolulu for $395 over Thanksgiving on United.

Salt Lake City to Honolulu for $395 over Thanksgiving on United (earns 5,994 PQMs):

Salt Lake City to Honolulu for $395 over Thanksgiving on United.
Salt Lake City to Honolulu for $395 over Thanksgiving on United.

Maximize Your Purchase

Don’t forget to use a credit card that earns additional points on airfare purchases, such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold or Citi Prestige (3x on airfare) or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x on all travel purchases). Check out this post for more on maximizing airfare purchases.

H/T: The Flight Deal

If you’re able to score one of these tickets, please share the good news in the comments below!

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Using Plastiq Online Bill Payment to Boost Rewards Wed, 05 Aug 2015 10:58:34 +0000 Everyday purchases are a great way to earn travel rewards, but paying with a credit card isn’t always the best option. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr introduces the bill payment service Plastiq, and explains how you can take advantage of new promotional rates to boost your loyalty account balances.

If you’re like me, the thought of making a purchase with cash or check makes your stomach sink. Any points and miles I leave on the table after a cash transaction stay in the back of my mind for the rest of the day. Even if you don’t put as much thought into maximizing your purchases as I do, it’s important to have a strategy that allows you to earn travel rewards on as many of your expenditures as possible.

To that end, many award travel enthusiasts look to online bill payment options to help boost spending on rewards cards. By using these services to pay for expenses that often can’t be paid with a credit card, you can more easily meet spending requirements for the best sign-up offers and annual spending bonuses. However, these services aren’t free, and the added fees can negate the value of any rewards you earn.

In this post, I’ll explain how a new promo rate from the online bill payment service Plastiq can get you off the hook for some of those fees, and I’ll analyze a few spending scenarios to help you determine when using Plastiq makes sense.

Online bill payment site Plastiq is offering 0% fees on Utility payments.
Online bill payment service Plastiq is offering 1.99% fees on American Express and MasterCard payments.

Promotional Offer

Plastiq is currently offering lower rates for TPG readers. The following rates are available beginning today:

  • American Express and MasterCard – 1.99% service fee for payments using an American Express or MasterCard
  • Visa – 2.5% service fee for payments using a Visa card (standard rate)

TPG worked closely with Plastiq to bring you these discounted rates. Note that as part of our business relationship, the site receives a small commission on transactions.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 9.01.44 PM
You can opt to send payments by mail or bank transfer.

About Plastiq

Functionally, Plastiq is similar to many other online bill payment options, as funds from your credit card are sent to the payee either by bank transfer or by check (in the mail).

I registered without issue, and after quickly verifying my email address, I was able to add my first payee. The payee search function is a bit unwieldy — it doesn’t seem to recognize any mainstream utilities, banks or mortgage companies, and instead populates a list of obscure (to me) Canadian businesses in the search results. However, you can skip the results and manually enter your payee by adding basic contact information and an address to mail a check, or routing and account numbers to pay via bank transfer. After adding contact information, you manually select from nine payment categories to describe the business of the new payee.

Other bill payment services like Evolve, Radpad or RentPayment have limitations on which payees are eligible. However, Plastiq lets you send payment to any business or person in any industry/category (within the US and Canada) and for any amount so long as there is a good or service being provided. Payments to savings accounts, trust accounts, retirement accounts, health savings accounts or similar accounts are not permitted. You cannot pay yourself.

Plastiq's interface, imbedded organization tools, security, and ability to pay anyone make it a pleasure to use.
Plastiq’s interface, embedded organization tools, security and ability to pay anyone make it easy to use.

When Using Plastiq Makes Sense

The difference between Plastiq and other online payment services is the flexibility to pay anyone for any good or service. This means you can use Plastiq to pay rent, mortgage, personal loans, taxes, college tuition, a friend who is selling you something or your local car dealership (if they’re willing to accept a check or bank transfer).

Paying a fee to earn rewards isn’t always a good idea, but there are certain scenarios where it makes sense:

1. You need to boost spending to earn a sign-up bonus — Most credit cards that offer sign-up bonuses require you to meet a certain minimum spending threshold (though there are some notable exceptions like the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, which offers 25,000 miles upon approval). Some spending requirements are fairly easy to meet, but others can be daunting, especially if you open multiple cards at the same time. If paying a modest fee will help you earn a bonus, it’s likely worth doing.

2. The rewards you earn are worth more than the fee — You can consider the fee as a transaction in which you’re buying points or miles. If you qualify for the 1.99% fee by using Plastiq’s service with a MasterCard or American Express, then earning points that are worth more than 1.99 cents apiece will yield a net profit. You can use TPG’s most recent valuations or your own; once you know the value of your points, the math is pretty simple.

For example, if you paid a $1,500 mortgage for six months with a 1.99% fee, you’d end up paying $179.10 to earn at least 9,000 extra points (possibly more depending which card you use). With the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (which earns 2 miles per dollar), you’d earn 18,000 miles worth 1.1 cents apiece, for a total value of $198 and a net profit of $18.90. That won’t pay for your next vacation, but every bit helps.

TPG values Starpoints at 2.4 cents, meanwhile, so if you use Plastiq with the Starwood Preferred Guest Card or the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card, you’ll earn one point for every dollar spent. Assuming the same six months of mortgage payments at $1,500 a pop, you’ll have 9,000 Starpoints at the end of that period, worth a total of $216. Subtracting the $179.10 you’ll pay in fees will leave you with a $36.90 return. Sure, your take on this one expense is nothing to write home about, but the points can quickly add up.

3. You need to boost spending to hit an annual bonus — Many credit cards offer perks for spending a certain amount during the year. Much like sign-up bonuses, these spending bonuses can be pretty lucrative, so incurring a convenience fee might be worthwhile.

For example, the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card and Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express both offer Hilton HHonors Diamond elite status to cardholders who spend $40,000 within a calendar year. In his valuation of Hilton HHonors status, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen listed the Diamond level at over $1,300, so paying to boost your elite level would make sense for a 1.99% fee.

This can help with airline status as well. United, for example, waives the Premier-Qualifying Dollar requirement when you spend $25,000 on a co-branded credit card in the same calendar year. You can earn 30,000 MileagePlus miles with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card after spending $1,000 in the first three months, and if you pay an additional $24,000 worth of expenses via Plastiq, you’ll have enough to waive the PQD requirement for elite status, excluding 1K. Note that the United card is issued by Visa, so you’ll be subject to a 2.5% Plastiq fee in this case.

Earn Hilton HHonors Diamond status with $40,000 of annual credit card spend. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Maximizing the Promotional Rates

Digging through the site led me to the discovery that Plastiq accepts American Express Gift Cards for payments. This is useful because select shopping portals routinely offer cash back for buying Amex gift cards, and you can use a rewards credit card to buy those gift cards to begin with. You can get as much as 2% cash back a few times a year, meaning you could actually earn points or miles and make money when paying bills through Plastiq.

To see how the math works out, suppose you purchased a $2,000 Amex gift card, which is the maximum allowable denomination for cash back. You would earn $40 from a 2% shopping portal offer. Each card has a $3.95 fee, and each order entails a shipping fee of $8.95 (note that you can often find promotional codes to waive fees, but those codes may prevent you from receiving cash back, so you’re better off just paying).

Suppose your mortgage is $1,000 per month, and you use your Platinum Card from American Express to buy three $2,000 gift cards to pay your mortgage for 6 months with Plastiq. Your purchase of $6,020.80 (three card fees and one shipping fee) will earn $120 through a portal offering 2% cash back. You then use the $2,000 gift cards to pay your mortgage for 6 months, incurring a 1.99% fee totaling $119.40. Your net profit would be 60 cents plus 6,021 Membership Rewards points, which is worth roughly $120 according to TPG’s valuations.

The more $2,000 gift cards you buy per order, the less the shipping fee affects your profit margin. However, there is a limit of $10,000 in consumer gift cards and $100,000 in business gift cards in any 14-day period. Naturally, you should consider the effect this strategy may have on your personal finances, as you’ll need to have the cash on hand to pay your credit card bill even though the mortgage payments won’t come due for months.

Cash back through online shopping portals can earn you a profit when paying your bills with Plastiq.

Bottom Line

Plastiq’s special offer for TPG readers of 1.99% is a significant discount on what most competitors charge for online bill payments. Large tuition, tax or mortgages paid with American Express or MasterCard will also incur a 1.99% fee, so you’re still likely to come out ahead if you’re working toward a sign-up or spending bonus.

This is a good alternative for earning rewards on expenses that might not count normally. As always, you should run the numbers for your own circumstances to make sure you’re coming out ahead.

How would you use Plastiq to help you earn travel rewards?

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Deal Alert: Philly/Newark to Costa Rica on United from $193 Wed, 05 Aug 2015 01:45:09 +0000 Airfare deals are typically only available on limited dates. We recommend that you use Google Flights to find dates to fly, then book through an online travel agency, such as Orbitz, which allows you to cancel flights without penalty by 11pm Eastern Time within one day of booking. Remember: Fares may disappear quickly, so book right away and take advantage of Orbitz’s courtesy cancellation if you’re unable to travel.

If you opted not to pull the trigger on yesterday’s $321 fare to Costa Rica, you’re in luck. Fares from at least one major US city have dropped below $200 round-trip. You can fly nonstop from Newark to Liberia, Costa Rica for just $193 in January and February of 2016, but there’s a catch: You may need to begin your travel at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Amtrak Station (ZFV) — which is great if you live in Philly, but could through a wrench in the works if you’re planning to depart from NYC, instead.

You might not be familiar with ZFV — it’s the airport code for Philly’s Amtrak hub, and if you use this as your origin, United will pair Amtrak segments with nonstop flights from Newark (included in the fare). To begin travel, you need to take Amtrak from Philly to Newark Airport and transfer to your flight, but you can generally call United to drop the Amtrak segments whenever there’s an Amtrak schedule change — and with these flights not available until early next year, there will almost certainly be an Amtrak schedule change before you depart — at which point you can simply drop that segment and begin travel at EWR.

As a reminder, Liberia (LIR) is the gateway to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, located just 30 minutes from hotels in Papagayo, including Westin and JW Marriott resorts. Or you can fly to San Jose for $250 round-trip.

Here are a few examples of what you can book:

Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to Liberia, Costa Rica for $193 in January on United (earns 4,372 PQMs):

Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to Liberia, Costa Rica in January on United for $193.

Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to Liberia, Costa Rica for $193 in February on United (earns 4,372 PQMs):

Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to Liberia, Costa Rica for $193 in February on United.
Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to Liberia, Costa Rica for $193 in February on United.

Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to San Jose, Costa Rica for $250 in January on United (earns 4,402 PQMs):

Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to San Jose, Costa Rica for $250 in January on United.
Philadelphia (Amtrak station) to San Jose, Costa Rica for $250 in January on United.

Maximize Your Purchase

Don’t forget to use a credit card that earns additional points on airfare purchases, such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold or Citi Prestige (3x on airfare) or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x on all travel purchases). Check out this post for more on maximizing airfare purchases.

If you’re able to score one of these tickets, please share the good news in the comments below!

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Flight Review: Etihad 777 First Class (Jet Airways), Abu Dhabi-JFK Tue, 04 Aug 2015 20:30:19 +0000 The “ME3″ Middle-Eastern airlines — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar — are known for their premium products, especially in first class. All three of these airlines even provide a decent economy experience, which has rankled US carriers so much they’ve launched a crybaby coalition to complain about “unfair” competition.

Until last month, I had only had an opportunity to fly first class on Emirates, but a few weeks ago I decided to complete the ME-3 trifecta. Even though I was coming from Paris, I realized I could make my return a tad more interesting with Qatar’s A380 flight to Doha from Paris, and Etihad’s 777 flight from Abu Dhabi to New York (operated by Jet Airways) — definitely a roundabout way to get home, but one that allowed me to fly in style and even enjoy 111-degree Abu Dhabi for a day!

The Qatar experience was as expected — quite amazing, especially on the A380, which is how’d I’d prefer to be flying home if it was currently being offered on Etihad’s US flights. Fortunately, that is coming later this year, but for now we’re stuck with the 777.

Booking Etihad First Class

I was able to book my first-class seat for just 90,000 AAdvantage Miles plus $39 in taxes and fees for the one-way flight to New York, while the rate for business is 67,500 miles and 45,000 miles for economy. Paying cash, this one-way flight would have run me $8,150, or $11,050 for a round-trip from New York.

The one key point to note is that these awards must be booked over the phone. Etihad isn’t in a major alliance and sometimes it can be a pain to book them via American, but as such the availability on award tickets is pretty great. If you don’t have a lot of AAdvantage miles to burn, check out our guide on booking Etihad award flights for more ways to purchase an award ticket.

Look for available seats in the “GuestSeat” column.

You can call AA to check Etihad availability, but you can also do it yourself by searching for a flight on Etihad’s website and looking for “GuestSeat” availability. Unfortunately, flights that have Saver and Freedom availability aren’t available to book via AA. After you find availability on your preferred flight, you must then call American to book your ticket if you’re redeeming AAdvantage miles. Luckily, I find Etihad to have pretty solid availability in premium cabins, especially on the airline’s Jet Airways 777s.

The Deal with Jet Airways

The real notch on your belt is flying Etihad’s A380, which is absolutely gorgeous — but for me, that flight will have to wait until the airline launches JFK service in December, at which point you’ll be able to fly The Apartment or The Residence all the way from New York to Sydney.

Instead, I flew on one of Etihad’s two daily 777s flying between Abu Dhabi and New York-JFK. One of these flights is operated by Etihad’s own plane, while the second (and the one I flew) is wet-leased, meaning that Etihad leases the plane from Indian carrier Jet Airways and nearly everything on the plane is Jet-branded. Nonetheless, the food and crew are still provided by Etihad, so you can expect the traditional Etihad experience you paid for, regardless of the aircraft you happen to be flying. Award availability tends to be better on the Jet 777 than what you’ll find on an Etihad-branded aircraft.

My flight was on a Jet Airways plane, rather than an Etihad-branded one.
My flight was on a Jet Airways plane, rather than an Etihad-branded one.

Airport and Lounge

After arriving at the airport in Abu Dhabi, I was welcomed to a special first-class check-in area. Instead of standing in the normal queue, I had the chance to relax a bit in comfy chairs while waiting. Following check-in, I proceeded to the dedicated first-class immigration area.

Abu Dhabi has a US Customs preclearance facility, so you actually go through US immigration before you even get on the plane (unfortunately photos are not allowed). This allows you to arrive in the US as a domestic passenger (no need to deal with immigration queues at JFK), but it also means another round of security before getting to the gate. Ultimately, it’s worth the hassle — it’s really nice to be able to hit the ground running when you land back at home.

Luckily, I was able to use Global Entry on the ground in Abu Dhabi, although the experience was pretty weird. The line is actually shared with handicapped passengers, meaning I was eyed for “cutting in line.” Overall, it wasn’t quite efficient and could use some improvement. In fact, I think I actually prefer New York-JFK customs for Global Entry passengers. At JFK it feels like a more legitimate process, with a dedicated Global Entry lane and almost no wait each time.

Etihad's first-class lounge entrance.
Etihad’s first-class lounge entrance.

Unfortunately, the facilities are a bit limited after going through US immigration, but since that process can sometimes take quite a bit of time, you’ll still want to head through the preclearance facility long before boarding. Etihad recommends passing through US Customs and Boarder Protection no later than 60 minutes before the scheduled departure time. Note that you need to check in for US flights at least two hours before departure as well.

Some of the food choices in the lounge.
Some of the food choices in the lounge.

There is a cute little lounge right after preclearance in Abu Dhabi, but unfortunately there’s no alcohol apparently “because of US regulations.” I didn’t have a ton of time anyway, so that wasn’t a problem — I had a plane to catch.

Cabin and Seat

Jet Airways’ 777 consists of eight first-class seats spread across two rows, then just behind that are 30 flat-bed business-class seats spread across eight rows.

Etihad's business class features some cool-looking seats.
Etihad’s business class features some cool-looking seats.

Immediately after boarding I was given the opportunity to check out the empty business and economy class cabins. The business cabin has herringbone-style aisle-facing seats that lie completely flat — think Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. Personally, I prefer the 1-2-1 configuration found on Cathay Pacific and American’s new 777-300ER.

Etihad’s economy class.

Economy looked pretty normal and comfortable, but nothing special. The cabin has 308 seats in a 3-4-3 configuration, though Jet’s other configuration has 3-3-3 coach seats. The 7-across configuration isn’t great, but at least you can count on Etihad’s above-average service to make the trip a little more comfortable than on some other airlines.

A look at the middle seats in first class.
A look at the middle seats in first class.

On the other hand, the first-class cabin is quite spacious with suites that are closable (though not nearly as luxurious as Singapore Suites). If you’re traveling in a pair, the middle seats are quite good because the partition between the seats is optional.

A look at the middle seats from the side.
A look at the middle seats from the side.

When I first checked in, it was just me and another person, so I thought that it’d be a near repeat of my Qatar flight where I was the only person in first class. However, at the very last minute, a family of six, with two young children, sat down in the remaining first-class seats. This flight is actually what inspired my controversial post on children in first class. As it turns out, it’s not the kids you have to worry about, but the adults.

Food and Amenities

My pre-departure wine.
My pre-departure Champagne.

As the rest of the passengers were boarding, the flight crew began serving some Champagne and snacks to get started, and I got ready to spend the next few hours in luxury.

Etihad’s pajamas were pretty comfy.

Along with the food, I also received Etihad’s rather basic amenity kit and some pajamas to prepare us for our flight. I was a bit bummed that I didn’t get pajamas on my Qatar flight earlier in the week, so I was pleased to be able to change for this 13-hour haul, though I do always have a pair of Lululemon shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt in my carron-on just in case!

Etihad’s amenity kit was fairly basic.

While on the ground I was served some Champagne, Arabic coffee and dates. I opted to skip the coffee as to not keep myself up the rest of the night. This flight actually leaves at 3am, so it’s a bit of an odd time to do much of anything. However, since first class has individual suites with doors that close, there’s excellent privacy.

My made-to-order chicken was delicious.
My salad was a great start to the meal.

At the beginning of the flight, the chef actually came over and spoke to me about the dining options for the flight. He gauged my food tastes and preferences, and gave me a few recommendations and said that he could make me a custom meal based on my preferences. I started off with a mixed salad and a piece of bread.

My made-to-order chicken.
My made-to-order chicken was definitely the best course.

I ultimately ended up with some amazing tandoori chicken. In addition to my chicken, there was a long list of other food choices, including:

– Lamb kebab served with kachumber salad and mint chutney
– Potato and spinach soup
– Stuffed courgette and pepper with kesari pulao and maa ki dal
– Grilled vegetable stack with buffalo mozzarella and basil pesto on a bed of rocket salad
– Slow cooked chicken curry with kesari pulao and maa ki dal
– Panna cotta

Etihad also has a fairly extensive on-board wine collection:

– Chardonnay, Louis Latour, Pernand-Vergelesses 1er CRU, Burgundy, France. 2011. ($33/bottle)
– Nautilus Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2013. ($18/bottle)
– O’Rosal, Bodegas Terras Gauda, Albarino Spain 2013. ($22/bottle)
Cabernet Sauvignon Blend, La Croix de Beaucalliou, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France 2011. ($19/bottle)
Shiraz. MSV. ‘Gomersal Vineyard,’ Barossa Valley, Australia, 2008. ($80/bottle)
Line 39. Pinot Noir, Central Coast. California, 2013. ($11/bottle)
Valpolicella. Fattori, Col de la Bastia, Veneto Italy. 2012. ($32/bottle)
Bodegas Roda Sela, Rioja, Spain 2009. ($25/bottle)

For Champagne, there were two options, including a Rosé, which is always a nice touch.

Champagne Bollinger La Grande Annee, France, 2005. ($98/bottle)
Champagne Duval-Leroy Rosé, France. NV ($51/bottle)

Etihad’s food was absolutely fantastic and I loved my meal, but while this aspect of the service was excellent, the crew’s service overall didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It was good — just not as attentive as I was expecting. Then again, they had a somewhat demanding family of six to attend to, including a man who was so pushy he interrupted the flight attendant several times as she was serving me.

My bed turned out pretty well.
My bed turned out pretty well.

Anyway shortly after my meal, the sun started to rise, so I decided to get some sleep. The attendants made my bed and I took advantage of the closable doors, just like on Singapore’s flights.

Settling in for a long, comfortable sleep.
Settling in for a long, comfortable sleep.

The plane itself is a bit older, but it was still quite comfortable. I basically slept from Iran to Maine, which I think is testament to the comfort these seats offer. The seats are 30 inches wide — not the most spacious, but you could definitely do worse, and the pitch is 80 inches — enough for even me to feel comfortable.

The closed suite is super cozy on a night flight.
The closed suite is super cozy on a night flight.

One of my favorite parts of my individual suite is the privacy that it affords. Being able to close the door, rather than lower a small partition, goes a long way in feeling comfortable — especially on longer flights like this one.

A look at Etihad’s entertainment system.

I slept so much that I didn’t really test out the entertainment system, but the screen was decent and it had plenty of entertainment options — though many foreign films and TV shows, so I’d recommend taking your own movies with you, just in case.

The bathroom lights are a nice touch.
The bathroom lights are a nice touch.

The cabin lighting also added a nice ambiance. During the flight, the ceiling has small lights that look like stars overhead. That, paired with colored LEDs, made for an overall cozy, Virgin-esque atmosphere.


The cabin changed colors several times throughout the flight. Purple was more relaxing than, say, the bright orange color that the crew used during boarding. It made the plane feel a bit more modern, even though this particular aircraft is a bit older than the 777s in Etihad’s fleet.

Etihad's breakfast was a delicious end to a long flight.
Etihad’s breakfast was a delicious end to a long flight.

After sleeping, I got up for breakfast. The scrambled eggs and chicken sausage were good. Of course, it’s hard to create a restaurant-quality breakfast feast on a plane, but given the limitations I was pleased with the dish.

After that, the flight was set to land — we got in on time and I was walking directly into the terminal in no time since I had already passed through US customs many hours earlier in Abu Dhabi.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the flight was really nice. Obviously it’s no comparison to Qatar’s A380 or Etihad’s A380 Apartment (check out TPG Editor Zach’s review on that), but ultimately this is a great option for redeeming AAdvantage miles to the Middle East and beyond, especially considering how much first-class award availability there is on Etihad. Etihad is my top pick for flying between the US and Abu Dhabi — and I’m sure it’ll be even better when A380s are introduced to the route later this year.

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Ohio Couple Scores First Delta Private Jet Upgrade Tue, 04 Aug 2015 19:51:36 +0000 Last week, Delta announced that it would begin utilizing “empty legs,” or unused capacity from its Delta Private Jets division to provide upgrades to SkyMiles Medallion members for a fee.

Last Friday, an Ohio couple was the first to take such an upgrade, on a leg from Cincinnati to Atlanta. They were SkyMiles Medallion members, as is required as part of the upgrade program, although Delta has not said how much the upgrade fee was. The upgrade was to a Falcon 2000, a jet that can seat up to 10 passengers.

This Cincinnati couple became the first to ride on a Delta Private Jets upgrade.
This Cincinnati couple became the first to ride on a Delta Private Jets upgrade.

The flight still had a flight attendant, and the couple received Champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries and lunch during the flight. Delta Private Jets President Erik Snell and COO David Sneed were also on the first upgrade flight.

The program helps gets paid passengers onto otherwise empty private jets that need to be at a different airport to pick up a passenger, and can help alleviate overbooking on commercial planes.

Delta says that the upgrade fee includes catering for the flight, as well as transportation between the private terminal and commercial check-in.

H/T: One Mile at a Time

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The Airport Restaurant Pricing Scam Tue, 04 Aug 2015 19:01:47 +0000 For this month’s installment of “Fly&Dine Tuesday,” a series that explores the intersection of food and travel, TPG Contributor (and expert food writer) Jason Kessler of Fly&Dine explores the shadowy world of airport restaurant pricing. 

We pay extra for just about everything when it comes to traveling. When we book our tickets, we’re paying more to buy them over the phone and even more if we have to change our flights. On airplanes themselves, we’re shelling out for extra legroom seats and the privilege of having our luggage ride along in the cargo bay.

At airports, we pay for access to lounges and priority boarding (unless you’re smartly following The Points Guy’s tips to earn elite status), but the hardest fee to swallow is the ridiculous price we pay for eating at the airport. We don’t pay different prices at McDonald’s based on its address outside of airports, so why are we putting up with surcharges on our Big Macs after we get through the security line?

If you're hungry while stuck at LAX, you can save a bundle just by leaving the airport and heading to the nearby In-and-Out Burger. Photo courtesy of LAX on Facebook.
Hungry while stuck at LAX? Save a bundle by leaving the airport and heading to the nearby In-N-Out. Photo courtesy of LAX on Facebook.

According to a survey by the Airport Council International-North America, 49% of the airports in the United States charge more just because you’re eating at the airport. It’s the same insulting price-gouging that occurs at stadiums and concert venues — and the worst part is, we don’t have much of a choice. Sure, you can choose to stay home from that Taylor Swift show, but if you’ve got a flight from JFK to PDX with a layover in LAX, you don’t really have any alternatives (unless you brought a snack, have access to an airline lounge or leave the airport to go over to In-N-Out). You’re stuck paying a whopping 18% extra just because your journey took you to the City of Angels — and that’s officially not fair.

Photo courtesy of Portland International Airport on Facebook
Photo courtesy of Portland International Airport on Facebook

It’s not all bad news, though. While the majority of airports use this “Street Plus” pricing model, 43% require their food and beverage tenants to charge the same prices at the airport as they do landside. The Pacific Northwest seems to be especially good in this regard. At PDX, street prices have been in effect since the mid-’80s, making them true pioneers in terms of US airport restaurant pricing. “For us, street pricing is the right thing to do,” says PDX airport spokesperson Kama Simonds. “Travelers are happy, they are eating good meals and purchasing quality products — all while paying a fair price.”

Photo courtesy of SEA-TAC International Airport on Facebook
Photo courtesy of SEA-TAC International Airport on Facebook

The same can be said about Seattle’s SEA-TAC Airport, where flyers have been enjoying street pricing since 2004. Deanna Zachrisson, Manager of Concessions Management at SEA-TAC, says there’s actually a major benefit to keeping prices level with the outside world. “The greatest positive effect of street pricing is a traveler’s willingness to incrementally spend more,” she says. “For example, if a latte is $3, a traveler may choose to purchase a muffin with their latte — which he might not do if the latte cost $3.30.”

I’m not an economist, so I can’t dig deep into theories about markets setting prices, location variability, etc. What I do know is that I get legitimately mad when I see a menu at an airport and the prices are noticeably higher than what I can pay on the outside. With all of those extra fees we’re already used to paying, wouldn’t it be nice to see a little price break when it comes to dining at airports? That’s why I say that the airport food pricing scam needs to stop and it needs to stop right now. If major airports like PDX and SEA-TAC can do it successfully, so can everyone else.

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Deal Alert: Business Class NYC to London/Paris from $1,250 on La Compagnie Tue, 04 Aug 2015 18:26:09 +0000 La Compagnie is a French startup airline that flies all-business-class flights between Newark and Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Luton Airport in London. The airline launched last summer with 4-5 weekly flights with its first aircraft, and took delivery of a second bird back in December. The airline has run cheap deals before, and now they’re back. You can book round-trip flights on both routes for $2,500 for two passengers, or for $1,500 if you’re traveling by yourself.

Cheap business-class fares to Europe are back with La Compagnie.
Cheap business-class fares to Europe are back with La Compagnie.

While some might scoff at the idea of taking a non-major airline and earning La Compagnie miles instead of rewards with your preferred airline, it’s still a cheap way to get to Europe without being crammed in coach. (Click here to read TPG’s review.) And, last time around the larger carriers matched La Compagnie’s low fares, leading to some truly excellent deals. Hopefully the same will happen this time!

Promo fares are back! Book business-class for $625 each way per passenger.
Promo fares are back! Book business-class for $625 each way per passenger.

Your flights must be purchased by September 30 for travel between now and December 15, 2015. Though these fares are promotional, it looks like they are available pretty much every day the airline will be flying this route. As you can see from the price breakdown, the fare itself is $1,096 and the taxes/surcharges amount to $1,404.

By comparison, the cheapest nonstop economy tickets for two people between New York and London are $2,198 from other carriers — so this is definitely a great deal!

Economy fares are barely less expensive than the business-class fares.

La Compagnie flies 757-200s with 74 seats in 19 rows with four across in a 2 x 2 configuration. Seats have 62 inches of pitch and are 26 inches wide. They also have a reading lamp, personal compartments and a power outlet. The airline touts the seats as reclining 180 degrees, but these seats are actually angled-flat, and an older model than what you’ll find on most other airlines flying across the Atlantic. Still, it’s better than being crammed in coach for the trip.

La Compagnie flies 757-200s.
La Compagnie flies 757-200s.

Travelers are given pillows, duvets and a Caudalie travel amenity kit. Entertainment comes in the form of handheld Samsung Galaxy Pro tablets, and Wi-Fi is available for free on the flight. Menus are created by chef Christophe Langree.

At Newark, the airline has an “Art & Lounge” space in Terminal B near the check-in counters with snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, red and white wine and premium beer.

The seats have gotten mixed reviews.

While reviews of La Compagnie have been mixed, you can’t deny the appeal of these cheap fares for travel to London or Paris business class in (albeit a very outdated) business class. And if you have reason to fly to Europe between now and the end of 2015, this is a great option to have in your back pocket. If the other carriers decide to match this fare, we’ll be sure to let you know.

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U.S. News and World Report Releases Rewards Program Rankings Tue, 04 Aug 2015 17:37:23 +0000 U.S. News and World Report just released its annual award program rankings. Today, TPG intern Kevin Song digs into the results.

U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of travel rewards programs today. Each year, USNWR ranks both airline and hotel rewards programs — and while you might not want to give these ratings too much weight, they offer an interesting perspective.

This year, Alaska Airlines MileagePlan topped the airline frequent flyer list, and Marriott Rewards maintained its seat at the top of the hotel rewards program list. Let’s find out why.

American Airlines rose three spots this year to number 2 on USNWR's frequent flyer program rankings.
American Airlines rose three spots this year to number 2 on USNWR’s frequent flyer program rankings.

Airline Frequent Flyer Program Rankings

USNWR explains that its ranking system is based on an unbiased methodology “that takes into account each program’s earning and redemption values, benefits, network coverage and award flight availability, among other features.” New to this year’s airline rankings is network coverage — a measurement of the breadth and diversity of routes offered.

In that regard, non-alliance member Alaska Airlines actually does exceptionally well, with its many major partners that include Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, KLM, Korean Air and Qantas.

Rank 2015 2014
1 Alaska Airlines MileagePlan JetBlue TrueBlue
2 American Airlines AAdvantage Southwest Rapid Rewards
3 Southwest Rapid Rewards Alaska Airlines MileagePlan
4 JetBlue TrueBlue United MileagePlus
5 HawaiianMiles American Airlines AAdvantage

Notably, USNWR only ranks US-based airline rewards programs. The weights used in determining the rankings were:

  • Ease of Earning Free Round-Trip Flight (45 percent weight)
  • Additional Benefits (25 percent weight)
  • Network Coverage (10 percent weight)
  • Award Flight Availability (10 percent weight)
  • Number of Daily Flights (5 percent weight)
  • Airline Quality Rating (5 percent weight)

TPG’s favorite program, American Airlines AAdvantage, rose from number 5 last year to number 2 this year. Likely due to the airline switching to a revenue-based earning scheme, United MileagePlus dropped from number 4 all the way to number 8, followed closely by its newly minted revenue-based competitor, Delta SkyMiles at number 9.

These rankings, however, have one major flaw: They blend in non-elite status general flyers with all other types of flyers. Perks earned at each level vary drastically, so someone who doesn’t fly enough to earn elite status, but enough to earn a free flight or two a year will have very different results. Different, too, are the elite status levels — I’d never want to become a JetBlue Mosaic elite, as it gets you very little, but I love being American Airlines Executive Platinum, and I’d pay a great deal to retain that status.

Ultimately, the airline rewards rankings aren’t too helpful, and you’ll need to make your own determination as to which frequent flyer program is best for you.

The Scrub island Marriott is just a private ferry ride from St. Thomas. Marriott Rewards topped this year's list of hotel rewards programs. Photo courtesy of the resort.
The Scrub Island Marriott is just a private ferry ride from St. Thomas. Marriott Rewards topped this year’s list of hotel rewards programs. Photo courtesy of the resort.

Hotel Rewards Program Rankings

Unsurprisingly, USNWR’s rankings of hotel programs holds a similar algorithm.

  • Ease of Earning Free Night (45 percent weight)
  • Additional Benefits (25 percent weight)
  • Geographic Coverage (15 percent weight)
  • Number of Hotels in Network (10 percent weight)
  • Property Diversity (5 percent weight)
2015 2014
1 Marriott Rewards Marriott Rewards
2 Wyndham Rewards IHG Rewards Club
3 Best Western Rewards Best Western Rewards
4 Club Carlson Club Carlson
5 IHG Rewards Club Starwood Preferred Guest

I’m disappointed to see my personal favorite, Starwood Preferred Guest, fall completely off the top-five list, all the way down to number 8. In particular, USNWR didn’t like how “a free night at a luxury hotel requires a large number of Starpoints in most cities.” Strange, considering SPG redemptions max out at 30,000 Starpoints, while luxury hotels can easily run 70,000 points or more per night at some of the other programs on the top-five list.

It is, however, great to see Wyndham rising on the list, since you can how redeem 15,000 points for any property in the world. It’s rare to see a program undergo a “revaluation,” and good on the chain for being recognized for that.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, rankings are certainly to be taken with a grain of salt, and, like applying to college, you definitely shouldn’t base your decisions on this one. Be sure to consider your individual travel habits, elite status desires, desire to travel internationally in premium cabins and hotel style preferences.

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US Airlines Now Banning Big Game Trophy Shipments Tue, 04 Aug 2015 15:03:52 +0000 Yesterday, a handful of US airlines decided to jump in and ban the shipment of hunting trophies worldwide as freight. The New York Times has confirmed that South African Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa and British Airways started their bans earlier this year; then, following the outrage over an American dentist killing Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, Air France, KLM, Iberia, IAG Cargo, Singapore Airlines and Qantas have declared bans this week.

Delta was the first of the US carriers to prohibit hunting trophies, and United announced its own ban yesterday as well. Then, last night, this ran through our Twitter feed, from American:

Delta’s statement reads as follows:

Effective immediately, Delta will officially ban shipment of all lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo trophies worldwide as freight. Prior to this ban, Delta’s strict acceptance policy called for absolute compliance with all government regulations regarding protected species. Delta will also review acceptance policies of other hunting trophies with appropriate government agencies and other organizations supporting legal shipments.

Frankly, there’s little financial downside and a lot of PR love to be had from these bans, but today, we’re not going to play the cynic. Anything that curbs this disgusting hobby is a win.

With more attention rightly being paid to the issue, people are going to be looking more closely at their African safari vacations. TPG Editorial Intern Danielle Truglio shared a list of safari camps for sustainable, eco-friendly and lion-focused travel — and a few foundations where your contributions will directly help lions.

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Amazing Deal Alert: Delta to Belize from $196 Tue, 04 Aug 2015 14:20:47 +0000 Airfare deals are typically only available on limited dates. We recommend that you use Google Flights to find dates to fly, then book through an online travel agency, such as Orbitz, which allows you to cancel flights without penalty by 11pm Eastern Time within one day of booking. Remember: Fares may disappear quickly, so book right away and take advantage of Orbitz’s courtesy cancellation if you’re unable to travel.

We found some great fares to Costa Rica on United from a few different cities starting at $321 earlier this week, but today’s deal to Belize on Delta is even more compelling. You can fly from Baltimore (BWI), Boston (BOS), Dallas (DFW), Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK) to Belize City (BZE). The cheapest fares appear to be from Dallas (DFW), starting at $196 round-trip. Flights from Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK) start at $218 and $257, respectively.

You’ll find the best deals for flights next spring, specifically in March, April and May, although slightly more expensive flights are available in the fall and winter. If you’re willing to add a couple connections to your itinerary, you might also be able to save a few more dollars on certain routes. The discounted fares don’t appear to be limited to just these cities, so check the deals for your local airports (although you might not be able to find fares as low as those listed above.)

Here are a few examples of what you can book:

Dallas (DFW) to Belize City, Belize (BZE) for $196 on Delta (earns 3,730 MQMs):

Dallas (DFW) to Belize City, Belize (BZE) for $196 on Delta.

Los Angeles (LAX) to Belize City, Belize (BZE) for $218 on Delta (earns 5,257 MQMs):

Los Angeles (LAX) to Belize City, Belize (BZE) for $218 on Delta.

New York (JFK) to Belize City, Belize (BZE) for $257 on Delta (earns 3,788 MQMs):

New York (JFK) to Belize City, Belize (BZE) for $257 on Delta.

Maximize Your Purchase

Don’t forget to use a credit card that earns additional points on airfare purchases, such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold or Citi Prestige (3x on airfare) or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x on all travel purchases). Check out this post for more on maximizing airfare purchases.

For more on Belize, check out our guides on sailing and scuba diving destinations.

H/T: The Flight Deal

If you’re able to score one of these tickets, please share the good news in the comments below!

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