Category Archives: Musings

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.

International vs Domestic Mileage Running

Some say that mileage running is dead, and to that, I say that I don’t really know what I’m talking about since I’ve never done mileage running like people did it back in the day. But I have done a number of very short trips over the past couple of years where one of the primary considerations was the miles (both redeemable and elite qualifying) that I would earn.

But if you are going to go on a mileage run, should you do domestic trips or international trips? Here are some of the pros and cons of both.

Domestic mileage runs:
1) Flights are shorter. This means that you can potentially do multiple mileage runs in the same day.
2) If you qualify on segments, this is probably the way to go.
3) If you already have status, then you can potentially get free upgrades to make the mileage runs more comfortable.
4) You can likely do a same-day turn, so you don’t need to miss work if you go on the weekend.
5) Domestic planes are more likely to be equipped with wifi, so you can be productive in the air.
6) You don’t need to worry about visa/immigration issues.

International mileage runs:
1) Longer flights mean more miles earned. This means it can make more sense if you’re qualifying on miles rather than segments. You also can do fewer trips to get the same number of miles.
2) You probably aren’t going to get any free upgrades, although if you do upgrade (either via miles and copay or other instruments), the experience is significantly better than domestic flying.
3) If you have status, you can potentially get free lounge access.
4) International tickets often have fuel components in the ticket price, which means opportunities for fuel dumping.
5) You potentially have to deal with visa/immigration issues.
6) Saying that you spent your weekend in China is waaaaaay more bad ass than saying that you flew to Toledo three times this past weekend.

Personally, almost all of my mileage running has been to international locations. Since I generally qualify on miles, international destinations are better for me since it means that I can bust out 15k miles in a long weekend, I get to go somewhere awesome and eat interesting food, and I can potentially use a SWU to get upgraded (or even get an op-up).

Are Travel Hackers Parasites?

Travel hacking seems like a particularly parasitic hobby to me. And by that, I mean that we primarily find ways to benefit at the expense of others.

Take credit card churning, as an example. The only reason why these credit card companies offer such ludicrously large sign-up bonuses is because it’s overall profitable for them to acquire customers at such a cost. But if all people were like us and just signed up for credit cards continuously and 1) didn’t continue using the cards and 2) didn’t pay any fees or interest, then the credit card companies would no longer find it profitable to offer such large bonuses (hence, the current trend toward higher barriers to churning). Even when you take into account things like annual fees and minimum spend requirements, essentially all of the credit cards that people talk about in this space must be net negative for the banks if you don’t keep spending on the card.

Or think about frequent flyer miles. Part of the reason why we’re able to get such outsized returns on our miles is because so many people don’t use their miles in these ways. As long as most people are redeeming their miles for things that don’t cost the frequent flyer program very much, we don’t really need to worry about devaluations, even if lots of miles are being created.

We benefit from people who pay late fees. We benefit from people paying ridiculously high interest rates on credit cards. We benefit from people who only sign up for one new credit card every couple of years. We benefit from people who redeem their miles for blenders.

This parasitic nature of travel hacking is particularly problematic as the hobby has grown in popularity and magnitude. While it might be okay for a small percentage of a bank’s customers to be lifetime value negative, we’ve seen multiple times over the past several years how publicity “kills” deals, as the size of the travel hacking parasite grows and attaches itself more quickly than ever.

Have You Ever Been Hit By a Stranger?

Not hit on, but been the victim of a random act of violence?

The other day, I was riding a bus in Vienna. I was standing in the bus, and a woman hit me in the arm as she walked by. It was clearly intentional (although not particularly painful).

I was more surprised than anything else–why would a stranger just hit another stranger? But then I thought back and it’s happened to me before, and it’s happened to friends that I’ve been with. One time, I was walking down the street with a friend, and a man punched her in the arm as we walked by. No explanation. The only commonality to these stories is that I’ve only heard of this happen to friends who are also minorities when they are in Europe.

Of course, it’s possible that I was unconsciously violating some social norm in Austria and the woman was trying to shame me. Or I could just have a really annoying face/body that just screams to be hit. But I’m curious: have you ever been hit by a stranger for no apparent reason? If so, what was the context?

Frequent Flyer Miles Aren’t for Everyone

And by everyone, I mean most people.

Don’t get me wrong–I love my miles, and they’ve enabled me to do lots of awesome things that I’m super grateful for. But for the average person, focusing on frequent flyer miles doesn’t make much sense.

In my mind, there are two main reasons why you should collect miles:
1) You value premium cabin travel
2) You have a lot of flexibility, mostly in terms of time, but also in terms of where you’re willing to go

In the first case, frequent flyer miles are the obvious choice, given that you can get access to first class or business class travel for a much cheaper price using miles than by paying cash. In some cases, it’s even cheaper to buy frequent flyer miles using cash to book an award than paying for the ticket in cash outright (I’m looking at you, Alaska Airlines). This is the main reason why I pursue miles.

In the second case, frequent flyer miles generally can get you where you need to go, provided that you have flexibility in your dates and a willingness to take perhaps circuitous routings to get there. That being said, frequent flyer miles can be awesome in that they can allow you to visit many more places than a normal cash ticket would. United roundtrip awards are a great example of this, given that they allow you to have one stopover and two open jaws, which means you can potentially visit five different places on a single ticket (assuming you count your origin as a place).

But most people don’t fall under either of these buckets. I have gotten so many requests IRL along the lines of, “I want to go to Paris in June and need four tickets and just want to fly in economy class and it has to be on these exact dates because I want to maximize my vacation time and I want to take nonstop flights–how do I do this using miles?” And the answer is you don’t. You pay cash for that ticket because what you’re asking is completely unreasonable from a miles perspective. And if you’re going to be paying cash for that ticket, then you should be accruing points on a 2% cash back card instead of a miles credit card.

Of course, you should still collect the miles that you’ll naturally accrue by flying, but you shouldn’t keep spending on your Chase United card or Chase Sapphire Preferred or Citi AA card or whatever unless you have a good reason to, since you’ll almost always be better off with 2% cash back.


Travel Stories from an Asian Man #10

Links to stories #1, #2, #3, #4#5#6#7#8, and #9.

This story is from a while ago now, but I spent a little bit of time in Berlin with a Vietnamese American friend. This story comes from one night at a reasonably nice restaurant.

Waiter: “Where are the two of you from?”
Us: “America.”
Waiter: “Where are you really from?”
Us: “Well, our parents are from Taiwan and Vietnam respectively.”
Waiter: “Ugh, Vietnam. There are too many Vietnamese people in Berlin, and they all open flower shops.”

An Update on Blogging

I know I have been bad at posting. My life has been pretty hectic over the past couple of months, so blogging has been on the backburner. Perhaps I will have a bit more time to devote to posting a couple times per week in the coming months, but please do not expect any sort of consistency in the future.

I have over 50 posts about trip reports to write alone. I’ve got my trip to Sydney and Kuala Lumpur to finish, as well as trips to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bali, Penang, Singapore, Jakarta, and more.

I also have a number of commentary posts I want to write about travel hacking and the state of blogging as a whole. I’m sad to see George at Travel Blogger Buzz stop posting, although I felt like reading his blog and following him on Twitter over the past year was a bit like witnessing a descent into madness.

If you’re despondent about my lack of posting and need something to fill the void in your heart, here are some current blogs I like:
Point Princess: she loves durian. What more do you need?
Hungry for Points: I feel like our blogs are pretty similar in some respects (and not just because he’s another Asian blogger).
Rapid Travel Chai: his weekly roundups are great (and possibly the best replacement I’ve seen to George’s posts).
PointChaser: I particularly like the on-the-ground look at MS.
Rocky at Upgrd: I find his posts much more useful than typical titans.

Also, I finally removed VFTW from my Feedly, and I’m glad that I did. I just couldn’t anymore. So now the last titan I have left on my Feedly is Lucky…

The Most Disappointing Fruit Ever: Dragon Fruit

Dragon fruit looks like it should taste awesome. It looks exotic and beautiful and so tantalizing that you think it must be delicious inside. And it has an awesome name.

The outside looks so good (picture taken from the public domain)

The outside looks so good (picture taken from the public domain)

But dragon fruit doesn’t really taste like anything. It’s super bland. It’s not sweet, it’s not sour, it’s not tart, it’s not refreshing–it just kind of… is.

Eating dragon fruit is like meeting a man or woman who’s really physically attractive and you’re really into it and then you have sex for the first time and he/she just lies there like a dead fish and it’s terrible. Attractive exterior, but can’t back it up with the real goods.

During my time in Bali, though, I found out that there’s more than one type of dragon fruit, and the other types are better.

Dragon fruit with red flesh (picture taken from public domain)

Dragon fruit with red flesh (picture taken from the public domain)

The dragon fruit that you normally find is red on the outside, has white flesh, and tastes like nothing. There’s also a version that looks the same on the outside, but the inside has red flesh, and this version is decently tasty. I’d still choose most other tropical fruits over the red flesh dragon fruit, but at least it’s sweet and tastes like something.

So if you ever get the chance, try the red flesh dragon fruit. It won’t blow your mind, but at least it helps justify dragon fruit’s awesome name and exterior. Be warned, though, that it will turn some of your bodily excretions red if you eat enough (similar to what beets do, so don’t freak out).

Question for Readers: What Do You Like to Read in Blogs?

Instead of answering reader questions, I’m asking questions of readers this week.

Personally, I like reading trip reports. This is a large part of the reason about half the posts on my blog are trip reports. I find trip reports helpful from a logistics perspective (e.g. are there ample food options that will appeal to me on this flight? do the lounges have good showers?), and there’s also something fun about living vicariously through the aspirational experiences of others (at least to an extent). On the other hand, I have been consciously trying not to let other people’s trip reports limit my own experiences, if that makes sense.

Beyond trip reports, I’m always interested in new redemption tips or award availability trends or manufactured spending techniques, provided that they’re applicable to my desired travel habits. This seems harder and harder to find just because I’m already intimately familiar with almost everything that is applicable to my desired travel habits.

Finally, I’m always on the lookout for voices that either challenge how I view things or else provide a voice for things that have been bouncing around in the back of my mind but I haven’t yet articulated.

What do you like to read about in points/miles blogs? Do you have favorite bloggers that you think should get more love?

Question for Readers: When Do You Change Into Airplane Pajamas?

Instead of the usual answering of reader questions, I’m posing a series of potentially (or in today’s case, severely) inane questions to readers instead.

I really appreciate airplane pajamas. My favorite airplane pajamas are those from Cathay Pacific made by PYE, and I regularly wear the bottoms as pajamas even when I’m not on planes. I’ve actually started to take CX pajama bottoms with me on most overnight flights, just because I’d rather wear those with a comfortable t-shirt than most other airline pajamas. Not only is wearing pajamas comfortable, but it helps prevent the airplane smell from building up on your other clothes.

Anyway, my question for readers today is when do you change into pajamas? From reading other people’s trip reports, it sounds like many like to change into pajamas immediately upon receiving them, so before pushback, and almost certainly before the first meal service has commenced. But personally, I almost always wait until after the first meal service is complete before I change (the exception being if I’m skipping the meal service to go to sleep immediately).

I wait because to change because it seems odd to me to eat dinner in my pajamas. I don’t (often) do that when I’m at home, so why do it on a plane? It’s the same reason why I stopped watching movies on the IFE while eating. In general, I try my best to resist the infantilization of passengers in premium cabins, although it seems that that’s partially what people are paying for.

Somewhat relatedly, I also don’t like eating while the seat is in bed position on airplanes…