Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Curse of the Outdated Travel Information

I don't know about you but when I need information, sometimes it can be a pain to find the the most up to date information. This is particularly true for things revolving around travel as programs, points, prices, and availability are all in a state of random flux and something could be announced or changed with or without announcement. The particularly frustrating part that I find is when I'm doing research about how a particular airline or hotel program works and the information that I find is completely outdated. This means that I have to sort through hundreds of forum posts, read through dozens of updated terms and conditions, and generally spend more time of my life going through program changes and updates than I would actually like.

I don't fault the authors or bloggers of anything, I just find it particular difficult and annoying as an end user to not have easy to understand information at my fingertips. Chalk it up to first world problems or you must be a millennial but in today's day and age it should be easier than this!

Choosing the right and first Hotel Credit Card

Choosing your first hotel credit card is always the most difficult. Why? Because most people don't know which loyalty rewards program is the best for them. Most bloggers have their opinions using redemption rates, point values, and earning structures but that doesn't necessarily equate to the best solution for your particular needs. Before venturing out and pigeonholing yourself into a loyalty program, think about your travel patterns and your stay patterns.

Choosing the Right Program
Your individual preferences will sway what program to join and what credit card you may want to apply for. Are you looking for high end redemption options? Are you looking to simply earn points for free nights? Are you looking for status? These are all important questions that help define where you want to stay and what credit cards will benefit you the most. Before even thinking about getting a hotel credit card, think about whether or not a general travel credit card may serve you better. Getting a branded credit card means that you have to be faithful to one or two programs to maximize your value whereas a general travel credit card gives you the flexibility to choose any property you wish while earning valuable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, AMEX Membership Rewards, or Citi ThankYou points.

My Two Personal Favorite Programs for my travel patterns and needs are the Hyatt and IHG programs:

Hyatt Program:
Personal opinion is that Hyatt is one of the better high end redemption programs out there. Their loyalty points are often espoused by travel bloggers to be one of the higher valued out there and the reward redemption's can be quite reasonable. With Park Hyatts, Grand Hyatts, and various higher end properties around the world...Hyatt is a wonderful program to redeem for on the high end. On the low end, there are fantastic value to be had as well. One of my favorite Hyatt partnerships is the one they have with Mlife (MGM Grand) in Las Vegas where they receive reciprocal benefits and you earn stay credits + points when you link your Gold Passport account with your Mlife account. When some of the lower end MGM properties such as Excalibur or Luxor being 40-50 dollars night, it's an easy way to earn status and points with Hyatt to be redeemed at higher end properties. 

Hyatt Credit Card: The Hyatt Credit Card is a personal favorite of mine as well with the ability to earn 2 Free Nights at any property in the world  after spending 1,000 within 3 months. Not only that but you also receive a free night at any category 1-4 property on your card anniversary. Considering most people spend roughly 1,000 in bills such as utilities, cell phone, eating out, gas, and groceries...this isn't a difficult requirement to reach. In addition to these valuable free nights, you'll also get automatic Platinum status which grants you a few perks such as late check out, dedicated lines at check in, 15% bonus points,  etc. So 2 free nights, free Platinum Status, 1 anniversary night stay at a category 1-4 property, and 3 points for every dollar spent at Hyatt properties...this is a great card and with only $75 annual fee (waived the first year) means this credit card is a great long term keeper.

IHG Program: IHG is one of my go to programs because of the various tiers and brands that are available in the program. It's easy to find Holiday Inn's, the prices generally allow corporate travelers to book without hassle from corporate daily limits, and the points are generally able to be redeemed for some really nice higher end properties. You earn 10 points per dollar spent at IHG properties (some exclusions and restrictions apply) so for the most part, you will earn a decent rate not including any status bonus points or credit card bonuses. While the properties at IHG Group's higher end properties are not as great in my opinion as say a Hyatt or Ritz-Cartlton, the redemption values cannot be understated. IHG's quarterly bonus programs can sometimes be quite valuable but most importantly their quarterly points break program is probably one of the best redemption values out there. Select properties from around the world become 5,000 points a night and cannot be understated enough.

IHG Credit Card: The signup bonus varies between 60k to 80k points for 1k of spend in 3 months. This is similar to the Hyatt's requirement and is a general standard in the industry. The biggest benefit with this credit card is the 1 free night at any property in the world on your card anniversary. Considering the annual fee is only $49 dollars....this is an absolute steal! With 5 points per dollar at IHG hotels, 50% bonus points thanks to the free Platinum Status, and 10% rebate on point redemptions the credit card is an absolute must have if you stay at IHG properties.  

At the end of the day

The main thing to remember when choosing a hotel credit card:
1) Are you going to be loyal to that brand or are you more likely to book the cheapest rate at whatever brand? 
2) Are you going to be able to utilize the benefits conferred by a branded card or would you be better off with a general travel credit card like the Citi Premier or the Chase Sapphire Preferred? 
3) The brand and program are available at the places you plan on visiting and staying most?

Examine yourself before you wreck yourself :).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

IHG and a list of the benefits of the program

Intercontinental Hotel Group, or more commonly known as IHG, is one of the largest hotel groups in the world and include well-known brands such as the Intercontinental Hotels, Crown Plaza's, and the very well-known Holiday Inn brands. Other less well known brands include the Aloft, Even Hotels, Staybridge, Candlewood, and Hotel Indigo. In Asia, IHG is trying to build a new brand called HUALUXE which so far seems to be mostly in China. In 2014, IHG purchased (for $430 Million) the Kimpton brand but we have yet to seen any type of integration as of this post. They have been slow in that regard and we don't know how the Karma (Kimpton Loyalty program) and IHG's rewards club will gel in the future.

Loyalty Program
IHG is often cited being unique in that it offers two somewhat distinct loyalty benefits/tiers within one program. The Ambassador program is a top tier loyalty program that is recognized only at Intercontinental Hotels and provides for a slew of benefits that I will get to later. The rest of the properties/brands recognize a more traditional tiered system consisting of Gold, Platinum, and their recently release tier called Spire. 

EQ - Elite Qualifying

Let's start with the Ambassador Program.

The program is broken up into 2 tiers.

Ambassador - This status is purchased for $200 or 32,000 points. Afterwards, you can renew for $150 or points.

Benefits include:
·         Guaranteed room upgrade (One step up - so regular room to view room etc.)
·         Fresh fruit upon arrival (This is pretty cool)
·         In-room water (Usually 1 large bottle of a nice branded water)
·         In-room gift (Usually local candy/chocolates)
·         Single-room rate for double occupancy
·         Extended checkout—up to 4pm (This is a great benefit)
·         Dedicated Ambassador check-in area 
·         Complimentary pay-TV film per stay (I have yet to use this...)
·         Complimentary newspaper, delivered daily
·         Complimentary weekend night certificate (BOGO certificate, 2nd night free)
·         Elite status in IHG® Rewards Club (They auto-grant you Gold Status)
·         5,000 bonus IHG® Rewards Club points (They send you a certificate w/ code to redeem online)
·         You get 10% back on award redemption's. (Great for expensive redemption's, 50,000 points becomes 45,000 points)

Royal Ambassador - Crème of the crop...usually top few % of all IHG loyalty members. To qualify, you must stay 75 nights with at least 30 of them being in an Intercontinental Hotel. That means you can't just do 75 nights in a Holiday Inn Express...30 of them has to be in their top tier hotels which means a lot more $$$. It also makes sense considering that the Ambassador program is only designed for Intercontinental hotels anyways. The other brands won't recognize your Ambassador status and will instead look at your Priority Rewards Club status. That being said, if you hit this tier, you will likely achieve the top Priority Club status of Spire anyways.

You get all the listed benefits above with the Ambassador Program plus
·         All you can drink MiniBar (Although, in certain cases, the hotels will empty out the minibar and put select items in or cheaper items)
·         Complimentary Upgrades (Two steps up instead of the one step up that Ambassadors get)

Sometime in 2013/2014, they got rid of the referral certificates which allowed a RA member to give RA status to another member. Even the referred members got referral certificates which allowed for a chain of referrals. You get the picture...they got rid of it cause it was too good to be true. In 2015, they upped the RA requirement to be 75 nights with 30 of them in Intercontinental hotels. It used to be 60 nights with 20 nights in an Intercontinental. As you can see, they are upping the game.

Tier Program

The tier program is broken up into 3 tiers.

Gold (10 nights or 10,000 EQ Points) - Priority Check-In areas and 10% bonus on points earned on stays.

Platinum (40 nights or 40,000 EQ Points) - Priority Check-In Areas and 50% bonus on points earned on stays. You also get elite rollover nights, guaranteed room availability, and upgrades (if available).

Spire (75 nights or 75,000 EQ Points) - You get everything that Platinum gets but the main difference is 100% bonus points and you get a choice benefit once you hit this status. Currently, it is 25,000 points or you can give Platinum status to someone else. I choose the points, cause unless you have a spouse who doesn't travel with you...there is no real benefit to giving someone else status.

Earning Points
You earn 10 points per dollar on “eligible” dollar spent at ICs, Crown Plazas, and Holiday Inns and 5 points per dollar at Staybridge and Candlewood Suites. Eligible usually means excludes taxes and other fees. There are often “Bonus” offers of 1,000 points or 5,000 points that you can purchase when you are booking. Sometimes they are worth it, sometimes they are expensive. Your experience may vary depending on the property and what they offer you. If you have any status, you will also earn bonus points in relation to your status.

A 250 dollar weekend stay at a Holiday Inn will equal to 2,500 points.
·        Gold will earn an additional 250 points
·        Platinum will earn an additional 1,250 points
·        Spire will earn an additional 2,500 points.

As you can see, these points can really add up quickly.

Consider some IC’s that run 300-400 dollars a night and 50,000 points to redeem, Spire status can help you attain free nights at top properties much quicker!

IHG Credit Card (By Chase)
The IHG credit card is probably one of my least used credit cards but one of the most valuable ones in your credit card portfolio. Just by having the credit card you are given Platinum status in Priority Club, 10% off point redemptions (stackable with your Ambassador 10%), as well as 5x earnings on stays and spend with IHG. Throw in the sign up bonus (anywhere between 60-80k points) and free anniversary night all for just $49 a year and you are looking at one of the best value for value credit cards available. The free anniversary night can be redeemed at any hotel/brand including their top tier ones that could go for 300-400 a night.

Example of a stay at an Intercontinental @ 300 a night for 2 nights @ Platinum Status from Credit Card.

$600 x 10 = 6,000 points + 50% Plat bonus (3,000 points) + 5x CC Bonus (3,000 points) = 12,000 points. 12,000 points is enough for 2 nights at IHG’s lowest category hotels (4,500 points/night) or 25% of the way to a top tier hotel reward for 50,000 points.

Point Breaks & Promos
One of the great thing about IHG is their Points Breaks offer properties (typically Holiday Inn’s but a few Crown Plaza’s and IC’s come up occasionally) the ability to book award nights for only 5,000 points. I can’t begin to stress how awesome that is…sure some places are out of the way and in the middle of nowhere but there are a lot of hidden gems each quarter. We also sometimes have flash sales like the Venetian/Palazzo 24 hour sale where award nights were 50% off (25,000 points)…that was a wonderful promo for those of us wanting to book reward nights at a top tier Las Vegas hotel.

IHG Alliance Resorts

IHG Alliance Resorts are properties that have an affiliation with IHG but are not branded IHG properties. My favorite example is the Venetian/Palazzo in Las Vegas where I tend to end up at least 6 to 8 times a year. There are different sets of rules that govern what you do get and what you don’t get with stays here. You typically get a flat amount of points rather than points per dollar. My last stay as an example was 2,000 points with a 50% platinum bonus (before Spire was launched) which equaled 3,000 points. I had a back to back booking, which meant I got 6,000 points rather than 3,000 points the whole weekend.

Free Wi-Fi, Newspapers, etc. are all part of the resort fee which doesn’t get waved. That being said, you still get the complimentary fruit and water (they don’t refresh it though), you do get the 4pm late checkout, and you do get the one step room upgrade which is HUGE considering the price differences of certain rooms. Your in-room gift is usually a bag of chocolates (at least the last 3 times I have stayed there), you still get the free movie, and you get to use the Invited VIP check in line. Royal Ambassadors have a special RA lounge that they can use to check in and be all special like – I have yet to be able to see what is inside.  

At the End of the Day

With a $200 Ambassador status (or 32,000 points) and a $49 a year annual fee credit card, you could earn good status with IHG with Platinum Ambassador, a buy one get one free certificate, 65k-85k+ points, and a free annual reward night.  If you value the points at .7 cents a point that would equate to over $455 in points and 2 free hotels nights at any hotel. If you redeem them even at moderately expensive hotels @ $200/night that is still $855 of value for $249 at the minimum. Not bad right?

New Blog

Blogging is Hard
I have a problem and it's a relatively interesting one. I have never been one to put my feelings or thoughts down into words, rather I have always been a reader rather than a writer. I read with the best of them and especially enjoy genre's of science fiction, mystery, and epics. However, despite my chosen career path in Marketing, blogging has always been...elusive. Whether it is the motivation to consistently write everyday or to fill more than 140 characters, I just don't think it is part of my social DNA to generate long form content outside of Press Releases and Product Requirement documents.

Let Us Learn Something
That being said, I've been playing this status, travel, and credit card miles game quite a bit in the last year or so and I want to share my experiences as a newbie to this game...what I have learned through my research and reading of a million travel websites daily. I also want to share my mistakes so others can learn from it. To date, I have applied for and been approved for 8 credit cards which is nothing compared to some travel bloggers who have over 40+ credit cards. My accumulated spend each year doesn't exceed $40,000 USD, so unfortunately I'm not able to do some of the things travel bloggers can do but that's the beauty of probably can't either :).

At The End of the Day

Join me on an epic adventure as I make mistakes, lose money, and generally suck at this travel hacking game that others seemed to have mastered. Maybe we'll learn something along the way.