Three Tips to Maximize Award Travel to Ireland
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Saint Patrick’s Day is just over a week away, but if a few days of green beer and bagpipes doesn’t satisfy your craving for things Irish, award travel to the motherland isn’t too hard to come by. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr offers three tips to help you reach the Emerald Isle.
There are few destinations in the world we all equally appreciate and get excited about. Ireland is often considered in this category as people from all over long to visit and experience the island. The depth of natural beauty, history, and proud culture contained in one country is an attractive lure to all. I visited when I went to high school in the United Kingdom in 2002, and have been pining for 13 years to try and get back. Today, I’ll present tips to maximize your reward points and miles on a trip to the Emerald Isle.
1. Avios Rule the Day
To reach Ireland from North America, one of the best award options is flying from the East Coast for 12,500 Avios one-way. By utilizing British Airways Avios partner Aer Lingus, you can book flights from Boston to Dublin or Shannon at the bargain round-trip price of 25,000 Avios. Flights from New York to Dublin/Shannon or Chicago to Dublin on Aer Lingus will cost you a still great price of 40,000 Avios round-trip. Aer Lingus also flies Dublin to Orlando direct, which will cost 25,000 Avios one-way.
Fuel surcharges are very reasonable on Aer Lingus, but there’s a downside: Aer Lingus is not bookable on BA.com. That means you’ll have to use ExpertFlyer or Aer Lingus partner United.com to find award availability, and then call the British Airways desk to book. British Airway’s U.S. call center is notorious for long wait times and slow agents, so I recommend using a voice over IP service to make a foreign call. Living in Asia, I’ve had great success with the Hong Kong and Singapore Executive Club call centers.
You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, and Starwood Preferred Guest points to British Airways if you’re short on Avios. Likewise, you can sign up for the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of cardmembership (that’s 2 free round-trip flights from Boston to Ireland in economy).
Another great option for reaching Ireland from North America is to redeem AAdvantage miles during Mile SAAver Level 1 off-peak dates. From October 15-May 15, round-trip economy travel to Ireland will cost you a mere 40,000 miles. AA.com currently shows plenty of availability to Ireland, but the majority of dates have flights on British Airways, which means steep fuel surcharges. Look for dates with availability on American Airlines flights, or find availability on Oneworld partner Iberia (connecting in Madrid) to keep your out of pocket costs low.
2. Cheap Stays with Choice Hotels
Often overlooked in the U.S., Choice hotels may surprise you with its properties and locations across Ireland. Exploring Ireland with more prominent chains like Starwood or Hyatt doesn’t offer many options. Starwood currently has 2 properties in the whole country, while Hyatt has none (despite a rumor of one coming to Dublin), Marriott only has 2, and Hilton has 4 (all in Dublin). IHG does a bit better with 6 properties across 3 cities in Ireland.
On the other hand, Choice Hotels has 8 properties in 7 cities throughout the country. Most free nights start at only 8,000 Choice Points, with reasonable revenue rates as well. Compound the rates with the current 11 year low of the Euro versus the dollar, and Choice Hotels makes for a smashing chain to stick with for your Irish vacation.
Make sure you understand how to maximize the Choice Privileges program and take advantage of status match offers, which will allow you to book award nights further out from your intended travel date. You can also get great value out of transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards to Choice Privileges (via Amtrak Guest Rewards) at a 1:3 ratio, so you only need 3,000 points for free hotel nights in Ireland.
If you’re short on Chase points or want to build up your Choice Privileges balance, Barclaycard offers the Choice Privileges Visa card. You earn 8,000 points after your first purchase, and another 24,000 points after your first paid stay at a Choice property. That’s enough for 4 free nights in Ireland, so it’s a good deal if you find a cheap night at a Choice property in the U.S.
Best Western actually has more properties across Ireland than Choice, and free nights range from 12,000-24,000 points. However, your only transfer option to Best Western Rewards is American Express Membership Rewards (at an unfavorable 1:1 ratio), and there are much better uses for Amex points. However, the rates at Best Western are very reasonable if you’re looking to pay cash.
3. Get Around the Country on Miles
Many of Ireland’s main attractions are spread across the countryside, but Ireland lacks an extensive public transportation system compared to its European neighbors. The trains that do offer service can be rather expensive, just as renting taxis from your base of the day will add up. There are regular buses that can take between cities, but the most convenient way to see all the sites is to rent a car.
What do all these transportation options have in common? You can cover them with miles from cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. You can redeem Arrival miles for 1 cent apiece to erase eligible travel expenses from your statement, and you’ll receive a 5% refund on redemptions. You must pay for the expense with your Arrival Plus card, and there’s a minimum redemption of 2,500 points ($25). Venture miles function similarly, though there are some small differences.
If you’re nervous about driving on the left, try bus rides on companies like GoBus. If you want to try an authentic farm stay, you can also use Arrival miles for Airbnb stays. However, note that you cannot pay your Airbnb host via Paypal if you want the expense to be eligible for Arrival Plus reimbursement.
So what should you actually see and do during your visit to Ireland? There are as many options as there are sheep in the country, but highlights include driving the Wild Atlantic Way, visiting the Cliffs of Moher, receiving the gift of gab from the Blarney stone at Blarney Castle, Newgrange, the Giant’s Causeway, Burren National Park, and of course, drinking a Guinness in a Dublin Pub with preferably as many Irishmen as possible to show you how the locals have fun.
Ireland’s Heritage Card gives you access to more sites and attractions than you could ever see on a single trip for just 25 Euros per person, or 60 Euros for a family of “two adults and a reasonable number of children.”
I enjoyed touring the House of Waterford Crystal and seeing replacement panels for the latest rendition of the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball being created. These options only scratch the surface of possibilities for visiting Ireland, so share your favorites in the comments below.
How have you used points and miles for award travel to Ireland?