Category: Perks

JSX Review: The Private Jet Experience

You only live once, and sometimes you have to cross an item off of your bucket list. That’s why last month, I flew on a private jet to Las Vegas for the weekend.

JSX is a revolutionary product in the air-travel market offering a “private jet” experience for 30 customers at a time. With service between a dozen cities including Seattle, Oakland, Las Vegas and Phoenix, you can take your next flight without setting foot in a major airport.

JSX’s Promotional Advertisement

The Perks

The benefits of a private jet experience over a major carrier may seem obvious, but here’s how JSX will summarize them:

  • Comfortable leather seats
  • Business class legroom
  • Power outlets at every row
  • Full flight attendant service
  • Complimentary gourmet snacks, beer, wine and spirits
  • No overhead storage bins for a more spacious cabin
  • When you arrive, simply grab your bags and get going!

The Airports

  • (BFI) Seattle – Boeing Field 
  • (BUR) Burbank Bob Hope Airport 
  • (CCR) Concord Buchanan Field Airport 
  • (LAS) Las Vegas McCarran Int’l Airport 
  • (OAK) Oakland Int’l Airport 
  • (PHX) Phoenix-Sky Harbor Int’l Airport 
  • (SNA) John Wayne Airport, Orange County 
As shown in the JSX advertisement above, rates are far lower than you might expect when you can be flexible with travel dates and destinations.

The Process

Because you’re not flying out of a major airport, you will use rideshare or your neighbor to get dropped off at the smaller airport just 20 minutes before your departure time. That’s right – JSX doesn’t ask that you arrive until 20 minutes before your departure time! Because the boarding process is simple, intimate, and doesn’t include TSA, you’ll quickly settle into a lounge while you wait to board where complimentary snacks and drinks are available.

My Experience

Arriving was simple. The OAK airport had a jet departing every ten minutes on average, which made for a quick throughput in the terminal. I arrived with my suitcase, and checked in with the front desk. Similar to checking into a hotel, they looked at my ID, and then took my bag for me and invited me to relax in the lounge just beyond the counter until my flight departed.

The lounge was comfortable, but simple. There was a machine that made freshly ground coffee by the cup and bar nuts in case you needed a small snack. There were also restrooms available. It is notable that no food or alcohol was available for purchase in the space, so you would want to ensure you arrived well nourished.

Ten minutes before your flight’s scheduled departure, you’ll hear an announcement overhead made from someone within the lounge to board your flight. Using your boarding pass, you exit through the rear of the terminal and walk directly onto your jet. Your baggage, that you previously checked upon arrival, is already on the plane.

The jets are seated 2×1 across ten rows which makes for comfortable travel regardless of if you have a partner along with you or not. Since I was flying solo, I booked the single seat. Without overhead luggage bins, there is plenty of room as you enter and find your seat. With a maximum of 30 passengers on the flight, the plane is boarded in minutes and you’re ready to go.

No matter where you’re seated, you’ll enjoy ample leg room, a large tray table, and AC charging at your seat. You may also bring a small bag to stow under the seat in front of you. While on board, you’ll enjoy a complimentary cocktail, box of water (no plastic here) and a snack such as chips or graham crackers. Again, I recommend arriving well nourished.

Upon landing, there’s no need to wait for a gate. Instead, the staff will pull the luggage from the plane before you leave your seat, and line up the bags next to each other. Since they’re located between the plane’s exit, and the terminal’s exit, you will literally grab your bag on the way to your next destination. Without having to navigate a major airport, you can be driving to your final destination within five minutes of landing on the runway.

My Arrival into Las Vegas

I highly recommend arriving to Las Vegas on JSX. We practically landed on the Strip; it was so close. I paid $6 for a ride share that I hailed from the plane upon landing, and was checked into my hotel ten minutes later. Above all, JSX offers convenience and a no-nonsense travel experience that you cannot get with a major airline. To fly without TSA or the rest of the airport experience, was miraculous.

Takeaways

JSX offers convenience, rather than luxury. I would absolutely fly this way again if I valued efficiency above all else, but I would not fly in this manner if I wanted to impress someone with a lounge or inflight experience. It is also notable that WiFi is unavailable inflight which makes this a no-go for remote work. In addition, without a loyalty or elite status program, there is no incentive to book often with JSX. Additionally, it’s worth noting that American Express doesn’t recognize JSX as an airline purchase, so you will not receive the 10% back on your purchase as you would with a major carrier. However, if the airport locations are proximate to your home base, I’d highly recommend booking with JSX the next time you’re headed to one of their destinations. It is a unique and special plane travel experience, and with rates that are often as competitive as traditional airfare, there’s no reason not to try it out.

Referral Booking Link

Interested in learning more, or booking a flight? Please visit JSX through my referral link.

London + Paris on Points!

Earlier this year, my wife asked me to keep an eye out for any opportunities for us to visit Europe in May 2020 to celebrate her milestone birthday. Accordingly, I tracked trends, and continued to save our points while I waited for a deal.

Our primary cards are the American Express Platinum, Gold and Blue Business Plus which means when we earn 4-10% back on our purchases, we earn those rewards in the form of American Express points (valued by TPG at $0.02/each). One of the things I like about these points, is the Point Transfer travel partners that allow you to convert your American Express points into various brands such as hotel points with Hilton or Marriott; or to airline miles with over a dozen airlines including Delta, Flying Blue (Air France, KLM), Hawaiian, Emirates and more.

Flexibility: The Key to Success

Flexibility is key when planning a big points redemption. Having an idea of where you’d like to travel (somewhere in Europe) rather than a specific destination, will allow you to best take advantage of sale opportunities. In a perfect world, your dates would be flexible too (sometime this Spring), but in our case, we had a very specific range of dates to work with as we balanced operational demands and advanced PTO approval with our respective employers.

Game Plan: Hotel or Airfare

With the versatility of our points, I began to develop a game plan for what we’d best pay with points. I may oversimplify this here, but I simply priced out airfare like I had to use cash to purchase it; I then mapped out lodging. In this case, the airfare was much more expensive while the lodging was quite reasonable when paying cash, so this helped shape my search.

Testing Valuation

I reminded you above that the valuation on our American Express points is $0.02/point. For that reason, this remains my goal when going into any redemption of points: Stay at or above the valuation for those specific points.

For example, let’s pretend we have 50,000 American Express points (valued at $0.02 x 50,000 = $1,000). I should be looking to receive $1,000 in value for anything I spend my points on.

You may also decide to do a dynamic review of your options: When trying to compare apples to apples, take the cost in cash for a hotel or airfare expense, and divide it by the number of points that you can redeem to pay for it instead. In the above example, let’s say we found a great flight that we could redeem 50,000 points for. When we go to book the flight on its own, we find that it would cost $500 in cash. $500 / 50,000 points = a $0.01 point valuation. In this quick fact check, we see we’re not maximizing the value of our points and should continue looking for better options since the proven valuation is at least $0.02/point.

Finding a Deal

I have a regular habit of checking for promotions on my American Express account. In early August, I logged in to find an offer for a 40% bonus on British Airways Executive Club Avios. At this time, I had just over 80,000 points saved up which means I could receive up to 112,000 Avios when transferring.

This promotion showed 1,000 American Express Points = 1,400 British Airways Avios

In order to see if this deal would work for us, I began shopping Avios redemptions online. I had never shopped with British Airways before, so I quickly created my free Executive Club account and obtained my membership ID number. Armed with my new credentials, I clicked “Shop with Avios.”

Stopovers

When redeeming your miles, many airlines will allow you to use stopovers at no additional charge. That means you can delay your connecting flight in order to enjoy some time in the connecting city before continuing on.

Originally eyeing Paris, I had searched for direct flights between San Francisco and Paris only to be disappointed that there were no direct flights available for reward travel; I had to connect through London.

I’ve booked stopover award flights before, but never with British Airways which proved to be one of the simplest user-interfaces to complete this complicated booking. As you can see in the screen below, the booking website even prompted me to book a stopover as part of my mile redemption!

With the stopover benefit in mind, I restarted my search. Rather than four days in Paris, what if we spent two days in London first since we would need to stop there anyway? Sure enough, the stopover itinerary was the same price! A total of 100,500 Avios for two round-trip tickets!

Thanks to the 40% bonus promotion, I could acquire 100,500 Avios for just 72,000 American Express membership reward points!

Points Transfer

Now that I had confirmed that I A) had enough American Express Points to transfer to Avios; and B) British Airways had an itinerary meeting our needs for that value, I began the process of moving my points!

This process of 1:1 Transfer advertises that it could take up to 48 hours to complete, but I’ve never had that experience. Though this transfer made me wait an excruciating four minutes, it ultimately was an instant transfer as my previous experiences had been.

Using the 40% bonus promotion, I transferred 72,000 American Express membership rewards points in exchange for 100,800 Avios (you are required to transfer in multiples of 1,000).

The Value

After deciding to book this redemption, I took my own advice and priced out the same exact itinerary using cash instead:

We booked this itinerary to London and Paris at a valuation of $0.05468/point; 2.7X TPG’s valuation for American Express membership reward points!!

The cost for two round-trip tickets was $4,550.96. When we used 72,000 American Express membership reward points, we only paid $613.98 in surcharges! That means that the 72,000 points paid for $3,936.98 of the trip; a valuation of $0.05468/point or 2.7X the usual valuation of those points. That made this a great redemption for us.

Note: The fuel surcharges we incurred are typical for British Airways which charges large fees compared to its competitors. For this reason, when booking your redemption you may try to avoid using British Airways if possible.

Apple’s New Credit Card

After teasing it earlier this year, Apple officially entered the credit card market in August by partnering with Goldman Sachs to release the new Apple Credit Card.

What makes this card unique is that it is primarily a digital card, designed to live in your iPhone’s Wallet rather than the one in your pocket or purse. The card has no card number, and instead initiates a different encrypted transaction code with each purchase. This is the first card on the market that’s number cannot be stolen from you.

The application process for this card is unique and innovative in many ways: First, you apply through your phone’s Wallet App rather than on the bank’s website. The application itself is one of the most visually pleasing applications out there, and only requires the last four of your Social Security Number while others require the full number. To further ensure the person applying for the card is who they say they are, the application also requires you to snap a photo of your driver’s license prior to submitting.

The Titanium Card

Apple’s game-plan here is that you will use this card wherever Apple Pay is accepted. But realizing that A) Apple Pay isn’t accepted everywhere; and B) People like me like having a sexy physical card in their arsenal, Apple offers a physical card made of Titanium that can be used at a basic terminal.

Revolutionizing Cash Back

Every credit card on the market currently requires some wait time between actually spending money on the card, and redeeming the associated awards that come from it. The Apple Credit Card is the first to instantly give you your cash back earned on every purchase as you spend it. No more waiting for a statement to close and earning your rewards in monthly intervals. Instead, the rewards instantly appear in your Apple Wallet in the form of Apple Cash. These funds can be used to pay your Apple Card, sent to friends or deposited into your checking account.

Photo Credit: Apple.com

Your New Main Squeeze?

So is this card your new go-to for everything you buy? Definitely not. The earn rate is low, offering just 2% back when you use the digital form of the card to pay with Apple Pay; you only receive 1% back when using the physical titanium card. If you’re shopping Uber or Apple with your digital card, you’ll earn 3% back. There are cards in the market, and in my wallet, that earn at least that much, if not more, on each of those categories. So while this card may not be my new primary, I look forward to being a consumer of the innovative approach when making “everyday purchases” with Apple Pay and grabbing the 2% back in a new way.

The Danger of Convenience

My biggest concern with the Apple Credit Card is its convenience. Consumers already may spend more when using a credit card than they do when using cash; the average American has over $16,000 in credit card debt! Apple’s new card carries a hefty 17.99% APR which is one of the highest on the market, and can be easily applied for by any iPhone user. Without the clear connection to a bank, young adults could easily obtain the card, run up a balance “trying out the new technology,” and find themselves in a terrible debt years later as they mature. That said, for the responsible user, this card will make a great first card for young people, and with no annual fee, my guess is that it will become the “oldest account” driving their credit score ten years from now as it continues to live in their Apple Wallet.

The Future of Apple Card

In order to be a contender in the market, Apple will need to offer more than convenience. While I worry that the future of Apple Wallet and Apple Pay may require exclusive use of their own card, the better way to grow in this market will be for Apple to make its card competitive on its own; offering a higher earn rate in a category than anyone else. We may also see a premium version of the card down the road that offers a competitive earn rate in exchange for an annual fee. But for now, we’re on the brink of something new, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Shopping with Points

Earning and collecting points with your credit cards can be a fruitful activity when done well. It may require a spreadsheet or two, but by being diligent and intentional with your method of payment, the money you are spending each year could earn you thousands of dollars worth of rewards!

But when it comes to redeeming your points, you must be careful. All points cards offer a myriad of options for redemption, but just because you have options, doesn’t mean you should use them.

Take for instance the American Express Shopping portal. Your hard-earned points can be used to buy things on Amazon, purchase gift cards, pay your bill and more. But the only option that will help you earn the full potential of your points, is to transfer them to a travel partner.

Just because you have options, doesn’t mean you should use them.

Value

When trying to quickly determine if something is a good deal, I will use TPG’s point valuations to see whether or not the value I’m considering is a smart transaction. As a rule of thumb, the “easy” redemptions such as buying on Amazon will result in much lower redemptions. The more complicated endeavors, such as transferring points to a travel partner, are more valuable.

Case Study

For a quick example, let’s pretend after our signup bonus, and efficiently targeting our spend for the last year, we find ourselves with 180,000 American Express Membership Rewards points earned from our AMEX Gold and Platinum cards.

We explore our options on our 180,000 points using the AMEX website, and find three choices that immediately interest us: 1) We can purchase anything we want on Amazon for a total of $1,259; 2) we can redeem an offer for a brand new MacBook Pro valued at $1,299; or 3) we can transfer our points 1:1 to Delta.

We’ve been considering a trip to Paris, so decide to take a look at options for flying from SFO to CDG. We find that for the 180,000 points, we can book a roundtrip ticket in Delta One; a first class cabin boasting lie-flat seats and a luxurious international travel experience; the cost of this same ticket using USD cash, is a staggering $3,792.22! By paying cash for our Amazon and computer purchases, and instead using points on our airfare through a point transfer with Delta, we redeem our 180,000 points at a value 3X of the Amazon redemption for $0.021 / point (exceeding TPG’s estimated value of $0.020 / point) and have an unforgettable flight to Paris.

By using points on airfare through a point transfer with Delta, we redeem our 180,000 points at a value of $0.021 / point and have an unforgettable flight to Paris.

Addendum: Taking advantages of promotions

So while you should almost never use your points for online shopping, sometimes using points with shopping partners may make sense if a special promotion is involved.

For instance, take this promotion below that I received from Amazon last month: In short, I would receive 20% off my purchase if I used points. But upon further examination of Term 3, we see the exciting detail: I receive the offer if “a portion” of my order is paid for with points.

Putting this theory to the test, I enrolled for the promotion and proceeded to checkout. I opted to pay for a portion of my order, a very small portion of $0.01, with points (1 point).

This worked. As a result of redeeming one point at checkout towards my overall total, I received 20% off my entire purchase while still being able to pay cash for the rest.

In closing, keep an eye out for the special promotions, but otherwise shopping online with your points is never the right decision. Instead, by capitalizing on the promotions of travel partners, and transferring your points to them before you book, you’ll be able to take your rewards game farther and build some incredible memories along the way.

Benefits of MVP Gold

As you know, I visit my wife who is pursuing her career in Nashville twice a month. So when I myself chased a career opportunity out of state, I was faced with an overwhelming amount of useless pre-booked flights. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of my MVP Gold status with Alaska Airlines to solve that problem.

Logistics

Regardless of your Elite status, Alaska allows you to cancel and change flights online without speaking to a representative. However, some of my itineraries were complicated in nature (I had used companion fares and needed partial rather than full changes), so I opted to call the MVP Gold line for assistance. The team was great to work with, and in no time, my 16 flights were cancelled or changed accordingly with the refunds deposited as a credit to my Alaska account.

Using those credits, I was able to rebook my flights as needed and when all was said and done, I was able to complete all of my changes and cancellations within an hour.

Benefits

Besides the MVP Gold line for customer service, the major benefit I received as an Elite flyer with Alaska was the waived change fees. With 16 reservations to modify, I would have been charged $2,000 in change fees! Instead, I paid nothing – and even saved money since my new flights were cheaper than my old ones; allowing me to book a few extra trips for the same price!

Loyalty

I always say I’m not a loyalist, but I am a planner. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re flying a lot, or staying in a lot of hotels, do yourself the favor of sticking to one brand when possible. Not only will you earn miles or points that are cohesive and accumulate, you may even earn Elite status! You never know what life will throw at you, and having elite status with a brand will make life’s curve balls that much easier to manage.

The AMEX Power Couple

If you’re like me, you have a credit card for each facet of your annual budget because the value is just too good to pass up. That said, for many of my accounts, the physical cards themselves have been locked in the safe for years since they are simply on record with my merchant of choice. That’s because when it comes to what cards you carry with you in your wallet each day, it is important to keep it simple. So today, I’m here to tell you why two, yes two, premium credit cards may be the perfect arsenal for your daily spending: The AMEX Power Couple – Gold and Platinum cards.

Costs Incurred

Let’s get this out of the way because it is the hardest to stomach. The annual fee on the Gold card is $250; the Platinum is $550. Yes, that’s $800 in annual fees. But keep reading: There are three reasons this annual cost is well compensated:

  1. Statement Credits
  2. Earnings on Spend
  3. Benefits

Let’s get to it.

Statement Credits

The Platinum Card grants you Uber VIP status and $200 annually in Uber credits that can be used in the United States. The credits are issued $15 per month with an additional $20 credited each December for a total of $35. Whether you utilize rideshare apps to get to the airport, or home after a night with friends, the credit can supplement your budget and become cash back in your savings. If you don’t use rideshare, you can alternatively use the credits to order from the Uber Eats food delivery service.

A newer benefit offered by the Platinum Card is the $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue (including the online store). Issued semiannually in $50 increments, these statement credits are applied to any purchase you make with Saks. Though their prices are generally higher, there are deals to be found both in clearance as well as within the fragrance department that allow you to purchase something without exceeding the $50 statement credit.

The Gold Card offers $120 in annual dining credits ($10/month) when you use your Gold card to pay for meals with Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and participating Shake Shack locations.  Personally, I find that Grubhub is the easiest way to redeem this benefit since one meal delivery a month is a nice benefit to commit to; they are also one of the only delivery services that do not charge delivery fees!

Both cards offer an annual Airline Fee Credit as well. After selecting one qualifying airline, you receive up to $100 per calendar year in statement credits when incidental fees, such as baggage fees and more, are charged by the airline to your Gold Card; you receive $200 per year on incidental fees charged to your Platinum Card. That’s a total of $300 per year that can be used on seat upgrades, baggage fees, lounge memberships and change fees!

Earnings on Spend

The average value of an American Express Point is two cents ($0.02) per point. So for the purposes of the assessment below, 1X points = 2% back; 4X points = 8% back; etc.

The Gold Card offers an astounding 8% back at restaurants worldwide and US supermarkets (up to $25,000).

The Platinum Card is worth its weight in airline purchases: 10% back. In the form of 5X points, this is my favorite earning reward because it can be used on ANY airline rather than the branded credit cards that require loyalty. So not only can you shop around for the best fare, you can take 10% off of that once you find it. Brilliant!

Both cards earn 2% back on all other purchases in the form of 1X points.

Benefits

The Platinum Card offers:

  1. A Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck. So whether you have been holding out until now, or your renewal is coming up soon, the fee credit will take care of that $85-100 expense.
  2. A Priority Pass Lounge Membership which gives you access to 1,000+ lounges across 500+ airports in 120 countries. 
  3. Gold Status with Hilton Honors
  4. Gold Status with Marriott Bonvoy
  5. Secondary Car Rental Loss & Damage Insurance

Both cards offer:

  1. No Foreign Transaction Fees: Travel abroad without incurring the 3% fee other card issuers charge when the card is used internationally.
  2. Purchase Protection: Your eligible purchases can be covered when they’re accidentally damaged, stolen, or lost for up to 120 days from the date of purchase with your Card.
  3. Extended Warranty: Can extend the original manufacturer’s warranty for up to two extra years for eligible purchases made on your Card.
  4. Free ShopRunner Account: This membership allows you to receive free 2-day shipping and returns at 140+ stores online.
  5. Premium Roadside Assistance: Not only will they cover eligible breakdowns and mishaps, American Express will coordinate response in your time of need!
  6. Baggage Insurance: Provides coverage for lost, stolen or damaged baggage when traveling on a Common Carrier when the entire fare has been charged to your Card.

Bottom Line

When looking at what a card actually costs you, we will take the annual statement credits from the annual fees and associate the remaining cost with the earnings on spend for their respective categories:

  1. The Gold Card has a $250 annual fee offset by a $120 annual dining credit and a $100 annual airline fee credit leaving $30 remaining. You will earn $30 in rewards after $375 in annual spend ($31.25/month) on dining and groceries with the 8% back in those categories.
  2. The Platinum Card has a $550 annual fee offset by a $200 Uber credit, a $200 annual airline fee credit and $100 in annual credits when you shop at Saks, leaving $50 remaining. You will earn $50 in rewards after $500 in annual spend on airfare with the 10% back in that category.

For arguments’ sake, even if you never spend enough to reclaim the $30 (Gold) and $50 (Platinum) remainders, holding the two cards only costs you a total of $80 annually and in return, you receive all of the benefits listed above.

Sign-Up Bonuses

Though the sign-up offers vary based on timing and your specific account, the acquisition of both of these cards would net you a minimum of 100,000 points worth $2,000 in travel rewards. For this reason, I always tell folks who are on the fence about whether or not they would get enough from the cards to justify the annual fees, that the first year is a no-risk trial with the sign-up bonus considered!

Referrals

My blog content is provided free of charge. If you decide to apply for one or both of these cards, please consider using my referral links below and we will both receive a reward from American Express! Thanks for reading!

  1. American Express Gold Card (link)
  2. American Express Platinum Card (link)

Why Have the Alaska Card?

If you have taken a flight with Alaska Airlines recently, you have heard about the Alaska Airlines Signature Visa card from Bank of America. Flight attendants, who receive a commission if you apply on-board, will tell you about the exclusive and remarkable benefits available to cardholders, and their inflight entertainment systems even now include commercials advertising the card too.

What is the Card?

The card itself is one of the most basic on the market. The annual fee is $75.00/year, it earns 3x Alaska Miles on money spent with Alaska and one mile for everything else. Notably however, the card offers a Companion Fare benefit that permits you to add a second ticket to your Alaska reservation for just $121 (taxes and fees) once a year.

Should I Use It Everywhere?

No!! It causes me physical discomfort to see so many people using this card as their everyday spending card; especially when dining out. The earn rate on this card is abysmal at less than 2% per transaction. Compare that with the no-fee Uber Visa Card (4% back on dining) or the AMEX Gold Card (8% back on dining AND supermarkets), and you’ll see money being left at the table each trip. Though purchases directly with Alaska Airlines would net you 6% back, this is still not competitive compared to the American Express Platinum card that offers 10% back on airfare purchases (for all airlines)! If you are most interested in simplicity, then this card is fine for you to use as an everyday card. But if you’re looking to maximize rewards on typical spend, this isn’t the one to keep in your wallet.

Worth Having?

I encourage folks to have one Alaska Card for each companion fare they need each year. Bank of America is not very restrictive when it comes approving cards; allowing folks to have 4+ accounts open simultaneously. If you will use the Companion Fare, the $75 card more than pays for itself each year. In addition to that, you will receive a sign up bonus worth between 30,000-40,000 miles after meeting spend requirements which makes each card especially valuable in its first year.

The Companion Fare

The Companion Fare is relatively straight forward to redeem, as long as you are booking a flight that is fully operated by Alaska Airlines (and not its partners). It even allows for stopovers. For instance, when we traveled from Seattle to Nashville with a companion fare, we connected through San Francisco on the return trip for 36 hours; the companion fare allowed us to book this creative trip at no additional cost.

In order to use the companion fare, the person who earned it must either be flying, or paying for the two tickets. That means if you have a family of four, two Alaska cards may make sense since you can use them to buy two tickets, and receive two for just the taxes and fees.

Wrap Up

If Alaska Airlines flies out of your airport, and you like to travel to one of their destinations each year, you need this card; or multiple. Save your bonus miles (they won’t expire as long as you have the card) for your next big trip, and don’t use the cards for everyday spend unless you can’t beat the 2% earn with another card in your wallet.

The Hotel Upgrade

Preparing For Your Trip

When planning your vacation, I hope you develop a budget: I hope you identify how you will travel to your destination, where you will stay once you get there, which attractions you wish to visit, where you will dine out, any other incidentals expenses you will incur such as ground transportation and parking and how much all of that will cost. Then as your trip progresses, I hope you reconcile your expenses against your budget and ensure you are using the credit card that gives you the best redemption for your spend-categories. Easy!

But we forgot a budget: The Hotel Upgrade Budget – $20.00.

Tipping at Check-In

Though it may seem cliché, I have had incredible success with tipping at check-in over the years. In fact, I’ve only been denied ONCE because the hotel truly had no way to upgrade me and refused to accept my tip as a result. Every other time I’ve tipped $20 at check-in, I have received room upgrades and other perks that I would not have otherwise. $20 may seem like a steep tip, but while it may be generous, it is a small price to pay for an enhanced experience on your vacation.

Execution

The last thing you want to do is be awkward during this interaction. Execution is key: Every time you check-in to a hotel, you are required to provide a credit card for incidentals and a deposit. Fold the $20 numbers-up and hand the folded bill over with your credit card as you kindly ask the staff member: “Are there any room upgrades available today?” Be prepared to tip them that $20 just for looking without receiving an upgrade: Being entitled will get you nowhere, and you are owed nothing in exchange for the request.

What’s $20 Worth?

During our recent trip to New York City, I made this request and not only received a suite upgrade ($70/night value) but two drink tickets for the lobby bar ($30 value). Because we stayed at an independent property, I did not have elite status with the property chain and the $20 investment in our stay made all the difference. Though suite upgrades are often offered (based on availability) to us as elite members with Hilton, Marriott, SPG, IHG, etc., nothing is guaranteed. And your willingness to be generous in the uncertainty not only makes a positive difference for the staff member, it increases your chances that they will make an otherwise-difficult accommodation available to you.

Calculated Risk

Especially when you have an extended-stay planned, $20 can make a big impact to the person behind the counter while making very little impact on your vacation budget. Remember: You’re not entitled to anything for asking and acting otherwise will get you nowhere. But good things come to those who put good out there and the chances of your $20 being worthless is unlikely. So add $20 to your next vacation budget, and bring it in the form of a crisp bill ready for check-in. Worst case, you will be gratuitous.

2018 Rewards in Review

Another Year Gone

2018 was a wild year for us with big changes including the relocation of my wife who is now working in Nashville completing a postdoctoral appointment while I have remained in Seattle. As a result of our anticipated increase in travel, we increased our monthly spending for annual fees this year to an average monthly budget of $187. With that, we not only supported a bicoastal living arrangement but even fit in some personal vacations as well, all thanks to our reward points.

As in previous years, I meticulously tracked every dollar in and out with regard to credit card annual fees and reward redemptions in 2018 and I’m pleased to say we more than quintupled our budget by using the appropriate mix of cards and redemptions over the last twelve months.

500% Return on Investment

By budgeting $187/month for travel, and using it to pay for the annual fees on our credit cards in 2018, our monthly vacation budget became worth five-times that: $947/month. From an annual standpoint, we redeemed rewards valued at over $11,300 in 2018! For the second year in a row, the most frequent returns were from our AMEX Platinum Card which accounted for nine transactions and nearly 50 airport lounge visits; but that’s no surprise when you consider the list of benefits. The big return in 2018 came from our combined Alaska Cards where we not only used companion fares, but redeemed miles as well.

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Trip Summary

Here’s a look at some of the ways we put these points to work: Phoenix and Peoria for Spring Training; Maui, Hawaii; South Beach Miami and Key West; Nashville and Seattle trips; Lihue, Hawaii; and two trips to Las Vegas.

Where will you go in 2019?

No matter how you plan it, you’re sure to come out ahead when you strategically manage your point and mile redemption. Use signup bonuses to skyrocket you to a top-level redemption, and ensure you’re using the correct cards on your daily spending so you never miss out on a point – don’t be afraid to label your cards to keep yourself organized!

Happy New Year!

Why I’m Using the Hilton Aspire Card

Recently, Hilton increased all of their signup bonuses for their American Express cards including the Aspire Card; the high-end version of the branded card. This piqued my interest and caused me to consider the card’s addition to my wallet in 2019. The new sign up bonus of 150,000 Hilton Honors points seemed to make it worth my while alone.

In reviewing the details of the card, I ended up applying for the card that same day. As is typical for American Express, the card was express-shipped to me and I received it just two days later via UPS. The Aspire card carries a $450 annual fee without any trial period; however the signup bonus is valued at $1,200 which more than pays for the card in its first year. Here’s what else the card will do for you, and why you may decide to renew it in future years:

Diamond Status

Aspire cardholders receive complimentary, and immediate, Diamond Status with Hilton Honors; the top tier of the membership reward program. In addition to a myriad of inherited benefits, Diamond members are guaranteed Executive Lounge Access at properties offering them; and up to 1-bedroom Suite room type upgrades (up from Executive room types offered to Gold members).

$250 in Airline Incidentals

Similar to American Express’ other cards that offer airline incidentals, you must choose a single airline each year that you will redeem your incidentals with. Since I fly Alaska Airlines almost exclusively; they’re my choice. The $250 in airline incidentals will cover baggage fees, seat upgrades, change fees and in-flight food and beverage.

$250 in Hilton Resort Credits

Don’t be tricked by this one like I was! This is not a credit that can be used at just any Hilton. It is an annual credit reserved for one of 72 Hilton Resort properties listed here. However, with locations in the continental US, Hawaii, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, you’re sure to find a resort that fits nicely into your travel plans. Personally, I’m looking forward to using it during a future trip to Las Vegas.

14x Hilton Honors Bonus Points

With TPG’s latest valuation of 0.8 cents/point, Hilton points are far from the most valuable on the market. But with 14x bonus points on Hilton purchases, you are receiving 11.2% back on your Hilton purchases; this return can’t be beat with any other card on the market. The card also offers 5.6% back on dining (7x points), but this redemption is less attractive if you’re using the American Express Gold or Chase Sapphire Reserve cards which offer a higher redemption on dining.

$100 On-Property Credit

Hilton offers a $100 credit when you book a two-night-minimum stay at select properties. This isn’t the most straight-forward perk to redeem and therefore I wouldn’t consider it too heavily when weighing the worth of the card.

Priority Pass Select

If you don’t already have it with another card, the Aspire will also offer you unlimited airport lounge visits for you and up to two guests as allowed by Priority Pass.

A Free Weekend Night

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you will receive one free weekend night each year after renewal. This free night turns into two if you place $60,000 in charges on the card each calendar year. Depending on your travel plans for the year, even a single free night’s stay could pay for the card itself.

Referral

For the reasons above, and with Hilton reservations already on my itinerary in 2019, I was motivated to add the Aspire card to my wallet. If you’re interested in applying for the Aspire card yourself, please consider accessing the American Express site by using my referral link here.