Tag Archives: musings

Cashback Dominates Miles for Most People

Whenever people find out about my involvement in this “hobby”, one of the first questions that comes up is, “what credit card should I get?”, or some variant of that.

And really, my advice to almost everyone is that they should just focus on cashback credit cards. 2% cashback is probably a better value for 95%+ of people I talk to than trying to accumulate miles. (Of course, the best strategy is to apply for lots of credit cards and get the sign-up bonuses and then close the cards after a year so you don’t have to pay the annual fee, but many people are unwilling to apply for lots of credit cards.)

Reasons why cashback dominates miles for most people:

  1. Cash can be used to purchase any flight that’s available. Miles are subject to the whims of award availability. While this might not be a problem for those of us with extremely flexible travel schedules (and/or those of us willing to fly circuitous routings), many people are beholden to strict vacation schedules. It honestly is not that feasible to rely on miles to travel to popular destinations during popular travel periods (e.g., summer, New Years), particularly if you have specific destinations in mind or specific dates you must fly on.
  2. Similar to #1, but it’s significantly harder to fly on miles if you’re looking for more than one ticket.
  3. Redeeming miles can be extremely complicated, particularly if you want to get lots of value out of your miles. Unless you are willing to invest a lot of time in terms of understanding how different programs work, what routes are likely to have availability, the best times to book, etc., (or you are willing to pay someone else to do this for you) you will likely be frustrated when trying to redeem your miles.
  4. Miles can be devalued at any point in time. Cash does devalue, but not nearly in the same way. You can start saving miles two years in advance for your honeymoon, but then a program announces a devaluation, and then you realize you need twice as many miles as you thought you did.
  5. Airfares are increasingly affordable, even in business class. It is increasingly common to see things like sub-$600 airfare to Asia and sub-$500 airfare to Europe. At these cash prices, it is very hard to justify using miles for economy class.

This calculation changes if you’re looking to fly business class or first class, as using miles makes these much more attainable than paying cash, but with the devaluations that we’ve seen in the main US frequent flyer programs, this is becoming harder to take advantage of unless you are a business traveler who earns tons of miles or are willing to manufacture lots of miles.

Of course, I will continue to accumulate and redeem miles, but I have an extremely flexible schedule, usually don’t have specific places I need/want to go, am usually only booking for one person, and have already invested a lot of time in terms of gaining the knowledge needed to redeem miles. But there are very, very few people I encounter in real life who I think would get more value out of accumulating miles instead of 2% cashback, particularly when you take into consideration all of the time and effort needed to learn enough to earn and redeem miles effectively.

2017 Year in Review

In 2017, I flew 99,238 miles, which is the first time since 2012 that I haven’t crossed the 100k miles mark. Surprisingly, in spite of using miles for many of my long-haul trips, I somehow qualified for American Airlines Platinum status (thanks mostly to the Qatar business class fare out of Vietnam). This isn’t really anything to get too excited about–and I’m definitely not specifically aiming for status on any airline in 2018–but I recently went to the new Flagship lounge at ORD, and I have to say I was pretty impressed. I’m looking forward to AA opening up a Flagship lounge at PHL and being able to use it on international itineraries out of PHL.

Photo courtesy of Great Circle Mapper

There were many travel highlights in 2017. Some that immediately come to mind include visiting Petra (and visiting Jordan in general), canyoning in Dalat, hanging out at a bunny cafe in Seoul, and going on a durian tour of Malaysia.

In terms of new products, I flew Korean Air, China Airlines, and EVA Air in business class for the first time, so I hope to get those trip reports out before the end of 2018 (ambitious goals–I know!). Korean Air business class window seats on the upper deck of their 747-800s are probably the single best business class hard product I’ve ever flown, and I loved the China Airlines lounge at TPE. I’m not nearly as familiar with SkyTeam airlines as I am with oneworld and Star Alliance, but given that Chase UR transfer to Korean and SkyTeam seems to have much better availability, I think I’ll be flying SkyTeam much more.

I only got two new credit cards this year: the Chase Ink Plus and Chase Sapphire Preferred. I’m sitting on decently healthy points balances that don’t restrain my travel habits, so I haven’t felt very compelled to apply for more cards. I also canceled my Chase Sapphire Reserve, so the only “premium” card I’m holding onto is my Citi Prestige (which only has a $350 fee).

In 2018, the only international trip I have planned so far is a trip to Chile (I booked one of the cheapish Aeromexico business class fares to SCL), but I’m looking forward to seeing what this year of travel will bring!

2016 Year in Review

2016 has been a great year, but relatively quieter for me in the travel department. I only flew 106,505 butt-in-seat miles, and I’ve stopped chasing status on airlines. While Alaska maintains an interesting loyalty program, many of the ways I (ab)used the other frequent flyer programs are no longer that accessible, which drastically changes the value proposition of status and loyalty. Business class is still attainable via miles, but international first class is further out of reach, and I feel less of a desire to fly first class given how much I’ve already flown.

Courtesy of Great Circle Mapper

Courtesy of Great Circle Mapper

That being said, I did get to sample two fancy new products this year: Qatar’s A380 in first class and Etihad’s A380 in first class. I also had the chance to visit Qatar’s and Etihad’s first class lounges at their hubs, which were both great in different ways. The travel highlight of the year, though, was spending a couple of days on a durian farm in Penang, where I ate durian nonstop.

I don’t currently have much travel planned for 2017, but looking at the map, I’d love to explore the continents that I didn’t touch this past year: Africa, South America, and Australasia (Antarctica will likely have to wait until I’m much wealthier). Looking forward to seeing what 2017 brings!

Now, even the NYTimes is writing about the CSR…

You know it’s bad when even mainstream media outlets like the New York Times are writing about a credit card and the buzz it’s generating. (In full disclosure, I applied and was approved for a Chase Sapphire Reserve card)

All I’ll say right now is that you should get on the gravy train while it lasts. The CSR offers some ridiculous value with the 3x points on travel and dining and 1.5 cent redemption rate, which essentially means 4.5% back on those categories. I don’t see that rate of cash back as sustainable over the long run. If you think that something is too good to last, it probably is.

In recent years, one prominent example was the Club Carlson credit cards. 5x earning plus 1 night free on any award stay, and you could book two award stays back-to-back with a personal and business card to get 4 nights for the price of 2 award nights. Ridiculous value, so it got gutted.

More recently, the Citi Prestige credit card offered 1.6 cents back when buying American Airlines flights. If you had an old Citi Forward card, that meant 8% back on dining. They quickly gutted the Citi Forward. But the Citi Prestige card still meant 4.8% back on travel and 3.2% back on dining by itself, but they’ve lowered that to 1.25 cents per point. And of course there was the wonderful Admirals Club access (with guests), but that benefit is going away too.

Granted, there’s no ancillary benefit that I see as unsustainable with the Chase Sapphire Reserve (like the Admirals Club access afforded by the Citi Prestige), so maybe I’m wrong. Priority Pass membership really isn’t that useful unless you live in the Northwest (and have access to Alaska Airlines Board Rooms) or travel internationally, so I don’t think most cardholders will use it that much. But a 100k bonus is quite tempting, especially for a relatively low minimum spend requirement.

What Distinguishes Good from Great from Outstanding Customer Service?

I’m currently staying at the Danna Langkawi, a hotel that–at least according to its Trip Advisor reviews–should have outstanding customer service. I haven’t had what I consider an outstanding experience so far, which has made me think a bit about what I think makes service good vs great vs outstanding.

First, there’s a matter of expectations. This is true of most any experience, but often our enjoyment is based on how reality compares to our expectations. When expectations are exceeded, we’re generally happy; when expectations are not met, we’re generally unhappy. One reason why people (jokingly) say Danes are so happy is because they have low expectations of life! So coming into this hotel stay, I had very high expectations of the service, both because of the reviews I had read online as well as the price of the hotel (the cheapest rooms start at around $250-$300 per night, which is super pricey for Malaysia, and you can’t redeem points for it!).

But then there’s defining different levels of service itself. For me, good or competent service means that there generally shouldn’t be any basic lapses in service, and any lapses that do occur get addressed immediately and do not occur again. For example, if you’re sitting in first class on a plane or having a meal at a restaurant, your glass should never be empty, and you shouldn’t have to remind people to refill your glass. If you do have to remind people, then you shouldn’t be waiting for a long time for your refill, and the service should be more alert to make sure that it doesn’t happen again (if you do end up waiting, or your glass is repeatedly empty, I would not define this as good or competent service).

Great service is when there aren’t any lapses in service. There should be nothing that I can fault, and I should never have to bring anything specifically to the attention of the service unless I have unusual or special requests. I find that Cathay Pacific, for example, consistently offers great customer service.

Outstanding service means that there are no lapses in service, but there are special things about the service that delight you. Examples might be things that happen that you didn’t even know that you needed, but you appreciate once they’ve occurred (e.g. waking up from a nap on a plane to find your slippers repositioned so that you can slip them on more easily; greeting you by name the next day after only a passing interaction and remembering your preferences and proactively offering up something that you might like). Personality also plays a role in offering outstanding service, as some people are just absolutely delightful to interact with.

At the Danna, I’ve experienced multiple lapses in basic service, but they’ve all been addressed relatively quickly and haven’t reoccurred, so I’d describe the service here as good or competent. But I’m curious to hear how other people distinguish good from great from outstanding service and what examples others have of outstanding customer service.

How Much Trouble Should I Endure to Fly a Specific Product?

I’ve got a trip to Southeast Asia planned for later this summer, and I was planning on flying Qatar’s and Etihad’s A380s in first class on the way back. I’d fly BKK-DOH-AUH-JFK, giving me a chance to hit up Qatar’s and Etihad’s new first class lounges as well.

But Qatar keeps changing the aircraft for my BKK-DOH leg. They fly the A380 on the route, but not for all flights, and the other aircraft they use on this route (a Boeing 777-300ER) doesn’t have a first class cabin. I already switched flights once to chase the A380 (and now have a ridiculously long layover in DOH scheduled), but today I noticed that they’re not flying an A380 on that flight that day either. I’ve already flown Qatar in business class on the 777-300ER from DOH to BKK, so that wouldn’t be a new product for me.

So now I’m contemplating what to do. I’ve got some date flexibility, so I can potentially move things around and try to get back onto the A380 (flying from Southeast Asia to the US via the Middle East is two award for American, so I can potentially have an actual layover for a couple of days in Doha), but there are also no guarantees that Qatar won’t continue to switch aircraft. These awards were also booked pre-devaluation, so I imagine that I’m limited on how many changes I can make at the old rates. And of course, there’s not currently award space on either Etihad or Qatar for the dates that would be ideal…

How much trouble should I go to to fly Qatar’s A380 in first class? Should I just wait to see if they swap aircraft again? Should I start swapping things now, even though Qatar might change aircraft again? Should I just suck it up and fly business on a product I’ve already flown?

2015 Year in Review

2015 was a year of big changes for me: I quit my job, moved across the country, and started the next chapter of my life.

Because of these changes, my travel patterns changed pretty drastically, but I still had the opportunity to travel quite a bit. I flew 137,179 miles this year, although over 80% of those miles came in the first half of the year! I also spent 101 nights away from my bed, with 71 of those nights being for international trips. While my new line of work does require a small amount of travel (my previous job did not), it will essentially all be domestic travel. It’s also simultaneously much more restrictive and lax in terms of my leisure travel, so I don’t know if I’ll be taking any crazy trips to nowhere any more.

Photo courtesy of Great Circle Mapper

Photo courtesy of Great Circle Mapper

I did not requalify for AA Executive Platinum status for 2016. I ended up with about 64k EQMs on American and a smattering of miles in other programs. Given my work changes and the impending changes to AA’s loyalty program, I felt that it didn’t make sense for me to pursue top-tier status. I did status match to Alaska MVP Gold 75k, and I’m curious to see how that works out for my travel patterns and how much longer before Alaska devalues their program as well.

My credit card strategy has become much more boring as well. Given that I’ve built up pretty healthy mileage balances for my travel patterns, I didn’t apply for many new credit cards since I didn’t have specific uses for the miles. The main card that I added to my wallet was the Citi Prestige card, which I imagine I’ll keep for the foreseeable future. It’s a pretty decent card on its own right (particularly if you can get it with a $350 annual fee) given the airline credit and Priority Pass membership, but what makes it a keeper in my mind is that it makes Thank You points worth up to 1.6 cents. Combined with my Citi Forward which gets 5x back at restaurants and bookstores (including Amazon), the Citi Prestige allows me to get 8% back on two of my most common purchasing categories. Unfortunately, the Citi Forward card is no longer available to new applicants.

 

I’m super grateful for all of the experiences and opportunities that this hobby has afforded me, and 2016 looks to be a great year as well. Onward!

On Transaction Utility or the Benefits of Feeling Like You Got a Good Deal

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Imagine that there’s a hotel that retails for $500 a night. Alternatively, you can pay 15k points a night to cover the cost. These points are flexible points and could otherwise be redeemed at a minimum value of 1 cent per point as a statement credit. Now, let’s also say that you know that–ignoring the possibility of using points, reference prices, and everything else–you would only pay $100 per night for this hotel. Since you only “value” a night at the hotel at $100, you clearly would not pay $500 per night in cash, but should you pay 15k points per night?

The seemingly obvious answer is no, you should not, because those 15k points are otherwise worth $150, and $150 is greater than your $100 willingness to pay. But I’d argue that it’s not quite so straightforward, and this is partly due to the utility or benefit your derive from making the transaction itself. You can derive utility (i.e. or become better off) from feeling like you are getting a good deal, and this makes the utility calculation much fuzzier.

From a “rational” standpoint, you shouldn’t use 15k points because that would make you strictly less well off in monetary wealth (i.e. you are paying $150 for something you only value at $100). But paying points could make you feel great (e.g. “I’m such a good travel hacker! I’m so smart! I was able to get a $500 per night hotel room for only 15k points!”), and this could be worth the $50 that you’re “giving up” by using points. From that $50, you could get a story that you’ll repeatedly tell others (e.g. through blogging, watercooler chats, humblebragging), you could improve your self-image (e.g. thinking that you’re really good at travel), or you could just feel good that you got something at a discount. All of these are perfectly valid things/feelings to derive utility from, and it’s up to the individual to figure out how much he/she values these feelings.

In the past, I’ve gotten annoyed when people claim things like, “I got 20 cents per mile for this redemption!” when their monetary valuation of the redemption is probably closer to 2 cents per mile, but if thinking that they got 20 cents per mile of value vastly increases their transaction utility, then who am I to judge? Provided that people are conscious that this is one of the tradeoffs they’re making, it’s entirely possible that paying the 15k points for a $500 hotel room that they only value at $100 is the utility-maximizing decision.

On Bloggers’ Intentions and the Adversarial Nature of this Space

Apparently, one of my posts has consistently reappeared on the BoardingArea front page over the past couple of months.

First, let me say that I have no direct control over what appears on the BoardingArea front page. My blog is not even a BoardingArea blog (I am a lesser Prior2Boarding blog), so the only times when I get the ability to have my posts on the BoardingArea front page are when I’m a “featured” blogger, which only happens about once every six months.

Second, do people really think that I’m intentionally reposting the exact same content over and over again? If you take a second to think, this seems highly improbable:
1) The post only appears once on my blog.
2) The post retains its original timestamp in its url, and all of the comments are retained.
3) If you follow this blog in any method (e.g. Feedly), this post is not reappearing.
These three facts (the first two of which are apparent to any visitor of the blog) indicate that no, this post is not being reposted. I do not know why it is reappearing on BoardingArea repeatedly.

More generally, I don’t understand why so many people in this space assume malicious intent on behalf of bloggers, particularly for those bloggers who do not blog as a primary source of income. There is huge variance in BoardingArea blogs in terms of readership, the amount of time devoted to the blogs, and income, and by and large, most people are not intentionally malicious.

Yes, there’s lots of bad content out there. But if you don’t like something on the internet, it’s really easy to not click on it/stop following it/not read it. If I didn’t like Thai food, I wouldn’t go to a Thai restaurant every day and complain loudly about why the restaurant is so terrible and out to get me because they serve Thai food and Thai food is terrible (for the record: I think Thai food is delicious).

So if you don’t like a blog, don’t read it–my life is certainly better for no longer reading a number of the most “popular” blogs. It’s sad that the miles and points community has become so adversarial that hordes of people seem to be waiting to pounce on bloggers and assume the worst in them. The next time you feel this way, I encourage you to stop reading whatever it is that’s making you angry, go outside, and do something more productive. And if you find that a certain source is continuously doing this (my blog included!), you should probably stop going to that source.

Why I Think SPG Points Are Overrated

The SPG Amex card has long been a staple in the travel hacking world. People love their SPG points, as well as their Starwood status. SPG points are one of the hardest points currencies to accrue given that you can only earn points either by staying in hotels or earning 1x on the credit card, but people laud the numerous airline transfer partners of the program and the fact that 20k SPG points gets you 25k miles. Thus, many say that SPG points are some of the most valuable points around.

SPG points are definitely valuable, and I would happily take them if someone were to offer them to me. The category 1 and 2 hotels can often be an incredible redemption value (e.g. Le Meridien Chiang Mai), and the flexibility in terms of airline partner transfers can be very helpful. But I don’t think it’s correct to think of earning 1 SPG point as equivalent to earning 1.25 airline miles, which is one of the reasons why people love the program.

You only get the transfer bonus if you transfer SPG points in increments of 20k points. This is a huge drawback in my eyes. 20k SPG points is a lot of points for the layperson to earn (of course, if you’re actively MSing a lot per month, 20k SPG points is nothing, but at that point, you’d probably prefer cash back to points). You can get 25k-30k as a sign-up bonus, and then that’s about it. If you travel for work frequently, you can supplement your points there by staying in their hotels, but otherwise, it’s a long slog to get to your next 20k increment.

And since you only get the bonus if you transfer in 20k increments, I imagine that a lot of people don’t want to transfer unless they have 20k points to transfer at a time, which means that their points will likely sit there unused when they could be put to better use. The numerous airline partners is one of the biggest benefits of the program, as you can “top off” a program when you’re close to an award, but the structure of the incentive means that people probably don’t use it this way as often as they should.

Yes, SPG points are valuable, but given how difficult they are to accrue as compared to other transferable points currencies like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Thank You Points, I don’t think it’s right to take the 25% transfer bonus to airline partners at face value.