Two to Travel (And Tango)

Travel Tips and Inspiration From Millennials, For Millennials

Month: April 2014

The Best Travel Apps For Your Phone

Note: This blog was picked up by The Huffington Post after publication here. Check it out in The Huffington Post Travel section!

Apps have changed the way we travel. They allow us to connect more easily with loved ones, find restaurants and hotels on the go, and as you’ll see below, they can also make navigating a new city a breeze, while helping you find the best happy hour or the best place to get a free drink in an airport!

There’s of course the obvious. Google Maps, Taxi Magic, and Uber (Note: If you’re new to Uber, use a link like ours to get a free ride credit or search for a similar referral code on Google) are hard not to have on your phone if you’re traveling somewhere. Maybe you’ve even added Yelp and TripAdvisor. But we like to get off the beaten path a bit, and give some suggestions about a few of our favorites that maybe you aren’t so familiar with! Let us know what we’re missing.

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The Basics on Hotel Reward Programs

It’s hotel 101 time. But be warned, this isn’t your typical 101. I think we’ll actually stray greatly from what would usually be spoken about here in travel blogging communities. Are you ready? Let’s get to it, and then let us know if you agree or disagree.

First things first: if you’re a millennial, it’s a lot harder to be loyal to a hotel program than an airline. In frequent flyer 101, we discussed the value of loyalty. Loyalty equals elite status and elite status translates into bonus miles, priority check in, upgrades to first class, faster customer service, etc…

For hotels, that’s theoretically true but the payoff (to us at least) is not as big. An upgraded room is nice, but personally, we feel all that’s needed in a hotel is a good bed, awesome pillows, and a great shower. What’s more, much of the travel Laura and I do takes advantage of one of two things:

  1. We have friends in the city we’re visiting, and crash on their couch or in their spare bedroom.
  2. We’re not too picky in our travels and don’t mind paying dirt-cheap rates for rooms that are nothing more than adequate.
  3. And with my job, I spend about half of my travel sleeping on floors everywhere from Tijuana to San Jose!

But all that being said, there’s still a way to maximize stays and points. The most simple strategy would be to sign up for the following programs: IHG Rewards, Hotels.com Rewards, and then Marriott and perhaps Starwood Preferred Guest. If you really want to kick butt, well then sign up for the Hyatt Gold Passport program as well as Hilton HHonors. But here’s why we suggest what we do.

IHG Rewards

IHG by far has the most properties around the world at an affordable price point. Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, Crowne Plaza, and CandleWood are just a few of their properties. They also have a higher-end chain, InterContinetal. The elite benefits for IHG aren’t great, but here’s what we really like about this loyalty program:

  1. Points don’t expire. No need to get points every X months before losing them. For the non-frequent traveler- this is a nice benefit.
  2. They often have cool bonuses they will send to you.
  3. IHG has a great quarterly promotion called Points Break, where selected hotels worldwide are available for as little as 5,000 points (which is very little).

 

Hotels.com Welcome Rewards

We actually use hotels.com a lot. Often, we find the best rates in boutique hotels on the site. What’s more, we enjoy staying at such hotels for a more personalized and intimate touch. Finally, hotels.com has the best rewards program out of all the third party booking websites (e.g.,Expedia, Hotwire, Priceline, etc) … Hotels.com Welcome Rewards works like this: Stay ten nights, get one free night. They average the amount you paid across the 10 nights, and whatever the average is, you have that credit toward a future stay.

But the real secret is this: With hotels.com and similar travel engines, your student loans can earn you quite a bit of points. I’ve still got some outstanding student loans, and my loans are with Sallie Mae. If you’re in the same boat, go to www.upromise.com and set up an account right now. Even if you’re not, it’s worth considering starting up their high interest savings account, which we also have. It’s got a great APR, and they match 10% of your Upromise earnings at the end of the year provided you meet a few simple requirements. Start any online shopping you ever do by first logging on through this Upromise portal and you’ll earn a small percentage back on your purchases. This is incredibly advantageous with hotels.com, where the earning percentage is 5%. So when I booked hotels for work as an admission counselor (first logging on to the Upromise portal and then going to Hotels.com), I was getting 5% of every purchase back AND earning rewards to redeem for personal travel later on. This is great anywhere, but it really was a nice bonus when staying in cities like New York or San Francisco where the nightly rate was much higher!

Marriott 

I am not a huge Marriott fan. Have nothing against them, but I also feel no allegiance toward them. What they have going for them is a large amount and a diverse group of properties, meaning you can almost always find a Marriott property where you are going.

Starwood

I just love Starwood. As we referenced in an earlier post, people under the same roof (or sharing the same PO Box even) can transfer points back and forth, which is rare for any type of a loyalty program. The properties are usually pretty good and elite status, even the lowest, has some good benefits like bonus points, being upgraded to a club floor (free breakfast and more), and late checkout at 4 pm when available. But the prices usually are a little bit higher. They aren’t the most expensive properties, but they also aren’t the cheapest. Redemption is easy, and you can transfer Starpoints to a number of airlines, receiving a 25% bonus when you transfer at least 20,000. So transfer 20,000 Starpoints to American Airlines, and you in fact get 25,000 miles!

What about the others? It’s all about the number of properties

I hear nothing but good things about Hyatt, and the elite rewards are probably the best. But the properties are usually more pricey, and as of December 31, 2013 they only had 549 properties around the world. Compare that to the over 4,600 hotels that IHG has, and you see why it is easier to find IHG while on the road. For the real travel hackers, Hyatt is a no brainer. For the casual traveler, we tilt toward the strategy we outlined above.

What about Hilton? I mean, they’ve got DoubleTree and DoubleTree gives you a warm chocolate chip cookie at check in! Hilton has some cool properties, but the problem is simple: Their points are the equivalent of Delta SkyMiles (read: the most devalued currency in the industry). So Hilton simply isn’t for everyone or some might say- anyone.

In a nutshell

Find a way to get Upromise, whether it’s through your student loans or a high-yield savings account. Sign up for hotels.com Welcome Rewards, IHG Rewards, Marriott, and Starwood. And at the end of the day, stay with friends when you can. Check out airbnb.com which is quickly becoming the largest “hotel chain” according to Fast Company. The coolest stay experience I ever had was on a houseboat, in Hong Kong. Sometimes the hotel brands, nice as they may be, inhibit us from really connecting with people and exploring a city.

What’s the best hotel experience you’ve had or the best experience you’ve had with a hotel loyalty program?

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The Death of a Legend and Lessons Learned

2012 is when it all really began for us. Sure, we’d traveled a bunch. Laura found a way to hang out in the Olympic Village in 2008. Patrick found a way to score tickets to President Obama’s Inauguration that same year. But 2012 is when we decided to go from casual travelers, to people who took advantage of the loopholes at our disposal.

We booked a OneWorld Explorer. July 2012 we found ourselves seated in Business Class seats like this-

Business Class in Cathay Pacific

When your seat turns into a bed, 12+ hour flights become nothing

wining and dining in nice airport lounges (when not taking advantage of the free massages), and traveling from Los Angeles to the beaches of Honolulu, to the great ramen hunt in Tokyo, to the dim sum fest in Hong Kong, to the serenity of Bali, and then on to the beautiful chaos of Bangkok, ending with a leisurely train ride throughout Thailand and Malaysia that ended in Singapore before bringing us back to LA. All this for some airline miles and $400.

Just this month, we decided it was time for round two. We again took advantage of this distance based award called the OneWorld Explorer, and recently booked the following: A return to Hong Kong, one of our favorite cities in the entire world. This time, we’re using hotel points earned from a few tricks to stay at the Intercontinental, a hotel I must say with some spectacular views.

View from the pool at our next hotel stay at the Intercontinental in Hong Kong

Then, we’re flying on to South Africa, where we’ll enjoy a Christmas safari with Laura’s family after we relax in the beautiful city of Cape Town with some good family friends. Finally, after a quick stop in Doha (routing takes you to some crazy places) we’ll end up in Chicago to ring in the New Year with my family. Total cost: 150,000 miles each and $399. With hotel point redemptions, we’re also looking at no lodging fees in Hong Kong and Doha and the majority of our time in South Africa.

So it was with disappointment that we learned this week of American Airlines termination, literally overnight, of my favorite little known travel award- The OneWorld Explorer. Gone just like that are the days where 150,000 miles and $399 could buy you a plane ticket worth several thousand dollars.

The lesson is simple: Don’t sit on your miles and points. Airlines and hotel points redemption, much like college tuition, never somehow get better for the end-user. Tuition will always go up, as will the cost of using your miles and points. At the same time, you won’t get any younger. Travel is a gift. A hard one to open up at times for certain, but a gift nonetheless. Don’t waste it. Spend your miles, spend your points, because tomorrow, it may become that much more difficult and expensive to do so.

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