Sunday, 30 September 2018

On the road with my new 'travel privileges'

Yes, it's kickback country here, so I'm extremely grateful if you sign up to the Dutch AMEX Platinum card via this link. Currently the sign-up bonus is 22,000 AMEX points, worth 88 EUR, but potentially much more when transfered to different loyalty programs. Also there is a 50% discount on the first year card fee - but that's a permanent offer. 22,000 points can almost put you in a 5 star hotel in Bangkok for two nights, so there can be true value in them.

So when my wife and I arrived at the Lisbon Marriott hotel, and we were asked if we wanted to book breakfast, I was surprised. I do have Marriott gold status, right? And that gives you free entrance to the executive lounge, and thus, a free breakfast? Well, we were there on September 1 and this privilege seized to exist exactly 14 days earlier, on August 18. So the gold status deflated right around the time that I joined the loyalty program and acquired gold status thanks to my AMEX card.

The hotel was so kind to honour the privilege after all, since I had booked prior to August 18 and altough I read quite a few travel blogs, I completely missed this announcement. As far as I know, Hilton is now the only hotel chain offering free breakfast to its 'mid tier' loyalty customers. Which brings me to the subject of inflation. Remember the Weimar Republic? Sometimes the same seems to happen with points inflation: hyperinflation.

For instance, for years, Qatar Airways has had actions doubling, tripling or even quadrupling points when you flew business class with them. In combination with their very regular sales for business fares, this could be a tremendous source of points. But, what to do with them? You would still have to fly a decent number of returns before you would have earned a redemption.

When the Qatar boycot began, I decided 'to be first' (see this movie clip for what I mean by that) and transfered my points to Accor Hotels. Although the conversion rate was poor, my wife and I stayed 3 nights in Venice for free thanks to this. And although Qatar has not gone bankrupt yet (and probably will not as it is an object of prestige for Qatar), their program has changed and now redemptions have become significantly more expensive, essentially depreciating the points' value.

As I personally regard points to be only slightly more 'real' than Bitcoins, I tend to convert them into something substantial as quickly as possible. Once used for a reward booking, only bankruptcy can spoil the party. And of course, that's also a real possibility, considering the recent end of AirBerlin and its loyalty program Topbonus. Remember, points are just a vague promise to get something in the future against a rate that is entirely up to the issuer.


SPG/Marriott sweetspot redemption in Bangkok

I have to be honest with you. I'm slightly proud of myself, because I finally managed to get some value out of my hotel points. I'm used to the revenue based Accor hotels program, where you just earn a 7,5% effective cashback if you're a gold member. My first adventure with Marriott points started with a 4 nights stay in Lisbon, which earned me 6,744 points - no idea of their value back then.

Then I ventured on transferring my newly earned 21,000 American Express points to my SPG account, under the completely false assumption that those points would be turned into 3 times that number of Marriott points because of the merger of SPG and Marriott. Because that only happened with 'old' SPG points prior to August. So then I was stuck with 27,744 Marriott reward points - still no idea of their value.

I started searching for redemption options in Bristol, where we'll visit the Bristol balloon festival next year. Yes, there was a redemption option which seemed to be attractive, translation a single Saturday night stay of some 144 GBP into 25,000 Marriott points. But when I took a closer look, a three night stay (and that would be the actual length of the stay) was available for approximately 300 GBP, so 100 GBP per night, getting value essentially back to the original American Express cash value.

And then, finally, I thought of the Bangkok option. Luxury hotels for generally reasonable prices, what would be on offer there? So I used the SPG reward search and found some three hotels offering 12,500 points per night redemptions. One of them is for the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers, a 5 star property selling its rooms for approximately 127 EUR per night (no breakfast, cancellation allowed).

So 25,000 points translate into 254 EUR of 'value' in this case, a 150% increase to the original value of the AMEX points (20,000 points for 80 EUR of cash value). Now I'm quite sure that a real travel hacker could find much better deals, but I'm quite happy with the actual cost reduction on our trip to the far east, which we will end by this two night stay in Bangkok.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Why 'lounge experiences' are similar to all inclusive holidays

My wife and I had lounge access in Amsterdam airport, Lisbon airport and in the Lisbon Marriott hotel. When you've never been in a lounge before, you might imagine business people in suits with the more premium brands of cabin bags. Think again. The Amsterdam Aspire lounge was full of people when we arrived, which should be fine. But they had huge stacks of luggage. Some were just lying on couches trying to sleep (saving on a proper hotel room) while very much resembling the larger specimens of whales.

From observing the people in the Marriott lounge one would be tempted to derive a few rules:
- it's obliged to wear sneakers or flip-flops
- it's obliged to wear shorts
- it's obliged to take two bottles of water on leaving the lounge

In regard to the third rule, I can definitely state that it didn't exist. What's more, the hotel information specifically mentioned a request not to take items from the lounge.

I started realising that lounges are merely the not so exclusive 'exclusive' form of all inclusive holidays. That would explain why the red wine was served from a fake wine vessel containing a large bag of wine. Nothing wrong with the wine, but the overall experience somewhat diminishes towards all inclusive wristbands...

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Booking bus tickets online

I'm in favour of getting the lowest price for tickets, but not at any expense. For instance, if you use comparison sites such as momondo.com, you will find online travel agencies with low prices but also with less than optimal terms and conditions. I tend to use airlines' own booking engines or I revert to booking sites that I'm quite certain are financially healthy, such as the ones that are part of the Dutch company Travix.

When trying to book bus tickets in far away countries, you might encounter unsecured sites that provide an English interface - until you reach an error message that's just in Thai. I just found the decent looking 12go.asia which actually let me book my Chiang Mai - Chiang Rai bus tickets on Green Bus Thailand in a decent way. I don't know their mark-up, but getting two 'VIP bus' returns for a more than three hour journey for two persons under 40 euros won't break the bank.

It seems that they don't have these tickets available 'real time' so I have to wait a few weeks before I get the final confirmation, but I prefer this to getting to a local travel office and seeing if seats are still available. I understand that other people regard this as part of the experience, but I'd rather spend my time on sightseeing than on making local arrangements.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

New summer schedule for Transavia bookable from September 18

Transavia is a Dutch low cost airline which has an interesting network and hubs in both the Netherlands and France. On Tuesday, September 18, they will publish their summer 2019 schedule. That's always a good way to grab low ticket prices - although you should note that Transavia has frequent sales where ticket prices may be even lower. But if you don't mind booking well in advance, this is an excellent way to make your summer holiday cheaper, or to plan some brief trips over the rest of the season.

One of the most interesting new destinations is Beirut, although Transavia already starts flying there from this autumn. Ticket prices can be very low for this 4 hour flight. Do yourself a favour and book an emergency exit seat - they are very fairly priced with this airline. Transavia is a 'low cost' airline but it beats many of the competitors in that segment in terms of service, punctuality and pricing for additional items such as premium legroom seats.