Travel Rewards March Madness Is Here: Cast Your Votes

Mar 17, 2015

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.

Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen indulges our love for crowning a champion, as he kicks off the first round of the TPG Travel Rewards 2015 Tournament.

This week marks the official start of March Madness, one of the most exciting competitions in all of sports. To mark the occasion, the team here at TPG is running our own tournament, but instead of focusing on basketball, ours will involve (not surprisingly) travel rewards. And best of all, you get to help decide the winner!

Here’s how this will work. We’ve come up with a list of 16 popular (and lucrative) travel rewards covering a variety of points and miles-related topics. These 16 rewards were then randomly assigned spots in a single-elimination bracket. Every week (beginning today), I’ll profile each match-up and ask you to vote on whichever redemption you value most. The reward with the most votes moves on, while the one that comes up short heads home.

Here’s the 2015 Travel Rewards March Madness bracket:

Let’s crown a champion!

Both Delta and United had rough seasons, so as you may have noticed, they didn’t earn spots in this year’s tournament. We wish them luck in the NIT; there’s always next year!

Let’s get started with the first round!

The Southwest Companion Pass is one of the most coveted travel rewards; can Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts match up?

Southwest Companion Pass

  • What it is: The Southwest Companion Pass allows you to designate a companion who can travel with you for free on all Southwest flights, including those you book using Rapid Rewards points. To earn one, you must collect 110,000 Companion Pass-qualifying points in a calendar year through Southwest flights, partner purchases, or credit cards (like the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card).
  • Why it’s valuable: The pass basically gives you buy one, get one free travel on all Southwest flights, and the fact that you can use it on award flights adds even more value. If you time it right and earn the 110,000 points early in the year, the pass is good until the end of the following year, giving you almost two full years of free companion flights!
  • More information: See Earning the Companion Pass16 things to know about the Companion Pass, and Companion Pass FAQ and maximization strategies.

American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts

  • What it is: If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express (or the exclusive Centurion Card) in your wallet, you can use the Fine Hotels & Resorts program to book rooms at over 600 luxury hotels around the world with a number of valuable perks included.
  • Why it’s valuable: In addition to offering some incredible properties, FHR gives you additional benefits like early check-in/late check-out, room upgrades, and free breakfast.
  • More information: Read about TPG’s experience using Amex FHR to book the St. Regis Bali.

[poll id=”51″]

You can use free night certificates at properties like the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa.

British Airways Travel Together Ticket

  • What it is: When you spend $30,000 or more on the British Airways Visa Signature Card in a calendar year, you’ll earn a Travel Together Ticket that allows you to bring a travel companion when you redeem Avios for a British Airways-operated flight that departs from the U.S.
  • Why it’s valuable: Even though you’ll still need to pay taxes and fees (including BA’s notoriously high fuel surcharges), the Travel Together Ticket is still a great way to get from the U.S. to London (or another European city) without a huge outlay of miles.
  • More information: See TPG’s posts on maximizing the Travel Together Ticket and his recent redemption to Paris.

Hilton/Hyatt Free Night Certificates

  • What it is: Both the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card and Hyatt Credit Card from Chase currently offer sign-up bonuses of two free night certificates in any of their respective properties around the world. For the Hilton card, you must spend $2,500 in the first four months, and the certificates are only valid on weekend nights (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). For the Hyatt card, you must spend $2,000 in the first three months, and you can use the certificates any night of the week.
  • Why it’s valuable: Top-tier Hyatt and Hilton properties can easily set you back over $1,000 per night, and even lower category rooms can be quite pricey.
  • More information: See my posts on maximizing free night certificates for both Hyatt and Hilton.

[poll id=”52″]

Use off-peak awards to fly between North America and Europe for 40,000 miles round-trip. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

American/US Airways Off-Peak Awards

  • What it is: Both American Airlines and US Airways have off-peak economy class awards to specific destinations. The US Airways options are relatively limited, but American gives you a wide range of dates and destinations, including Hawaii, Europe, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Japan, and Korea.
  • Why it’s valuable: These awards will save you at least 2,500 miles on a one-way flight, but in some cases (like American’s off-peak awards to Europe), you can save up to 20,000 miles for a round-trip ticket!
  • More information: See TPG’s post on maximizing off-peak awards.

Marriott Hotel + Air Packages

  • What it is: In addition to redeeming your points directly for hotel stays, Marriott Rewards offers flight and hotel packages that give you 7 free nights plus a certain number of miles in your favorite airline’s frequent flyer program.
  • Why it’s valuable: Marriott Rewards points can be transferred directly to airlines, but at a very poor rate. This redemption option brings the transfer rate much closer to 1:1, and it can also be used to help you qualify for the Southwest Companion Pass.
  • More information: See TPG’s post on using Hotel + Air packages for his trip to Cannes last year.

[poll id=”53″]

If your honeymoon plans include Fiji, the Radisson Blu on Denarau Island is a great property at which to enjoy Gold benefits.
You can use the Club Carlson bonus award night at properties like the Radisson Blu on Denarau Island.

Club Carlson Bonus Award Night

  • What it is: If you have the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card, or one of the other co-branded Club Carlson cards from U.S. Bank, you get your last night free when you redeem Gold Points for two or more consecutive award nights.
  • Why it’s valuable: This dramatically decreases the cost of awards for short stays. Top-tier Club Carlson properties will set you back 70,000 Gold Points a night (though many top Radisson Blu properties still cost just 44,000 – 50,000 points per night). On two-night stays, you only need to redeem points for one of the nights!
  • More information: See these posts on the U.S. Bank Club Carlson cards and Top 10 half-price redemptions.

Airline Fee Statement Credits

  • What it is: Certain premium cards give you credits to help offset various airline purchases like checked bag fees and lounge passes, including the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card ($300), Amex Platinum ($200), and the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express ($100). The Citi Prestige Card even expands its $250 credit to include airfare.
  • Why it’s valuable: Airlines have become addicted to fees, but these cards give you a way to avoid paying them. The credits also help cover a large part of the high annual fees charged by these premium cards.
  • More information: See Jason Steele’s post on Top Cards that Offer Credits for Airline Incidentals

[poll id=”54″]

Save up to 50% on select flights with Flying Blue Promo Awards.

Flying Blue Promo Awards

  • What it is: Each month, Flying Blue (the loyalty program for Air France, KLM, and more) releases a list of awards for specific routes and travel classes that are discounted by up to 50%.
  • Why it’s valuable: While Promo Awards only apply to certain departure cities, they usually include a mix of both economy and business class, giving you some great options to cross the Atlantic for fewer miles.
  • More information: See TPG’s post on promo awards for May & June and the promo awards page on the Flying Blue website

IHG Rewards PointBreaks

  • What it is: Every few months, the IHG Rewards program releases a list of “PointBreaks” awards, which offer a changing list of properties worldwide for just 5,000 points per night for a limited time.
  • Why it’s valuable: The lowest tier of IHG properties usually cost 10,000 points per night, so this promotion offers at least 50% off at the bottom end of the spectrum. However, your savings can be much greater for higher-tier properties like the InterContinental Lhasa Paradise, which usually requires 35,000 points for a free night, but is on the most recent PointBreaks list.
  • More information: See last month’s post on PointBreaks hotels through May 31.

[poll id=”55″]

Chase Ink Plus 5x Category Bonus

  • What it is: The Ink Plus Business Card offers you 5x Ultimate Rewards points on up to $50,000 in combined yearly purchases at office supply stores, and on cellular, landline, internet, and cable TV services.
  • Why it’s valuable: TPG’s most recent monthly valuations list Ultimate Rewards points as among the most valuable rewards out there at 2.1 cents apiece, so you’re earning an effective return of 10.5% on these purchases (or more, if you go through an online shopping portal like Ebates). The 5x bonus even applies to retailer gift cards (like Target or Amazon) when purchased at Staples or Office Depot.
  • More information: See posts on Maximizing the 5x Spending bonus on Retail Gift Cards, and Top Chase Ink Plus Benefits.

Starwood Transfer Bonus

  • What it is: When you transfer points from your Starwood Preferred Guest account to any of the program’s 32 airline partners, you receive a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred.
  • Why it’s valuable: Starwood Preferred Guest offers almost as many airline transfer partners (32) as the other three major transferable points programs combined (33), and the 5,000 mile bonus will help pad your account for your next free flight.
  • More information: See TPG’s Ultimate Guide to SPG Airline Partner Transfers and SPG’s transfer air miles page.

[poll id=”56″]

Airport lounge access can be a blessing on layovers and delays.

Distance-Based British Airways Avios Flights

  • What it is: British Airways is one of the few programs that uses a distance-based award chart to determine the number of Avios required for a given redemption. As a result, you have several “sweet spots” when using your Avios, including short-haul flights (less than 650 miles) at just 4,500 Avios each way.
  • Why it’s valuable: While complicated multi-leg journeys can get quite pricey in this model, non-stop flights that fall within a specific range can offer you tremendous value. Keep in mind that a devaluation is coming at the end of April, so be sure to plan your travel accordingly!
  • More information: See posts on maximizing distance-based awards and awards to book before April 28.

Credit Card Lounge Access

  • What it is: Many credit cards grant you automatic access to airport lounges. Some are specific to an airline (like the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express or the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard), while others offer more general lounge access (including The Platinum Card from American Express and Citi Prestige).
  • Why it’s valuable: Lounge access can be invaluable during a long layover as an oasis from the airport, but it can also help significantly when you encounter flight delays or cancellations.
  • More information: See prior posts on How to Get Free or Discounted Lounge Access and The Best Way to Get Lounge Access.

[poll id=”57″]

Open Jaws and Stopovers can make award flights much more valuable.

Fifth Night Free Hotel Awards

  • What it is: Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood all have a “fifth night free” policy for award stays. However, keep in mind that you must be an elite member with Hilton to use this benefit (which is as simple as applying for a co-branded Hilton credit card), and the SPG policy only applies to Category 3-7 properties.
  • Why it’s valuable: This is a great way to extend a trip without spending any additional points, and with each of these programs, the discount is given immediately when you book your stay.
  • More information: See the relevant pages on each program’s website: Hilton HHonors, Marriott Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest.

Stopovers/Open Jaws

  • What it is: When you book an award flight, some airlines allow you to stop in a city for more than 24 hours (stopover) en route to your final destination, while some allow you to fly to one destination and return from a different one (open jaw).
  • Why it’s valuable: These two strategies are a great way to extend your miles even further by adding a destination (or two) to an award flight without redeeming any additional miles.
  • More information: See my post on Maximizing Stopovers and Open Jaws on award tickets

[poll id=”58″]

Stay tuned for next week’s post, where I’ll announce which rewards advance and take a deeper look at each of the quarterfinal match-ups!

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.