18 April 2014

Quest for free travel - tips and tricks hotels/Airlines don't tell you

Everybody likes a free trip or a free hotel stay. In my years as a consultant I managed to not only travel a lot for free (company paid!) but also to acummulate a lot of perks for my personal use. And I mastered the loaylty program perks, I became a real collector of miles, points, perks, upgrades and benefits of all kinds.

In this post I would like to share my tips on making the most of loyalty programs, savings and promos of all types. Some may or may not apply to you but I hope to share some of the tricks which helped me visit so many countries (73 as per the UN country list! See them here)

Be loyal to an airline

Obvious right? 

You are loyal to them and they reward you with free flights, everyone wins. I know, sometimes trying not to cheat is difficult and the airline you are favoring may not always give you the best deal, particularly if you live in the US or Europe where low cost airlines are truly cheap. In that case, whatever you get from free miles may not offset the premiums paid with regular airlines and perks. But unless that is the case, sticking to one airlline has its advantage and not just from the perspective of free flights but also all the other preferential treatment you get. 

Some of this have a relevant economic vaue. As soon as you earn a certain priority level you also have access to the lounges at airports so if you fly often that may mean savings on food before flying that eventually add up. With hotels, that may mean free breakfast or internet which in some cases is a significant saving.

I have been lucky enough to take more than 100 flights per year for the last 9 years earning the highest level with the airline of choice and have managed to use the miles to pay for almost all of the long-haul flights I have taken in Business Class. Usually, I would use the miles for an otherwise ridicuously expensive Business Classs ticket for the 10h+ flights whose price would be impossible to justify.

Compare full fare prices of a low-cost with the "free" miles flight before booking

In Dubai I used to take Emirates, one of the most generous airlines when it comes to free miles, in fact so much so that they had to review their loyalty program in 2009 because it was too good. You used to be able to get a free return after 10 flights which is a 10% pay back, around 3-5 times more than almost all other loyalty programs, airline or not. To make it even better they only charge you for airport taxes, not the surpluses, fuel surcharges and any other concept they come up with to make up for the free fare like all the rest of the airlines. These hidden charges end up costing as much as a full ticket with a low-cost airline. Compare the full fare of a low-cost flight with the theoretically "free" miles one before you use your miles, many times I have found it ti be cheaper to pay for the full fare than to get a "free" one.

Singapore airlines is also quite good although not as good Emirates. Beyond the free flights you can also use the miles to pay for taxes and surcharges not just the fare, making the flight truly free. Some airlines are strting to implement this and other cash+miles based options which are good value. Hotels also have this option. Always compare the miles/points+cash vs. the full fare before booking to maximise the value you get from points/miles

Choose the right hotel partner

Some Hotel chain loyalty programs are very stingy. Whereas SPG, Marriott and Hilton tend to be quite generous and grant points based on spent beware of the Intercontinental Hotels Group, their loyalty program trully sucks if you are going to stay at Intercontinental hotels (staying at Holiday Inn or other hotels in the chain is not as bad). 

No matter how long or short the stay or how much you spend you will get 2,000 points per stay and you will need upwards of 25,000 points for a free night, so around 12-24 stays! Ridiculous.

If you can choose, don't stay there.

To make the selection process better there are a few websites which compare the value of the various loyalty programs so that you don't have to. See next point to add another selection element to the choice

When I started a project in a new location I always used to check all hotels in the area and the loyalty programs. It is worth checking the smaller programs too which amy sometimes offer better yields to compete with the larger hotels. Chains like Shangri-La or Fairmon have appealing programs. 

Have a goal to look forward to

Conrad Maldives
Another element that I always considered when chosing the hotel chain beyond the loyalty program value is the desired hotel I wanted to spend the miles on. This gives you a goal but also helps chose the program that has the hotel in that special location. 

Although this may not be relevant to most people who will have plenty of choices of new destinations if you are a well travelled person having a hotel in mind to spend your miles on might help you choose the best program to get there.

Thalasso Spa Bora Bora
When I was working in Kenya for a long time we decided to stay at the Hilton because we could earn enough miles for a dream stay at the Conrad Maldives (see my review of the hotel's underwater restaurant here). We were willing to put up with a slightly worse hotel choice because the final reward was worth it. The value for money of using points at the Maldives was also excellent because the hotel is more than USD1,000 per night so paying for it is not really an option for most mortals. The same happens with the Intercontinental. Although their program is the worse when I was sent to Manila for work for a long time the Intercontinental was the best choice because we were looking forward to the Bora Bora hotel. I saved all my points for that dream trip.

Points multipliers and other promotions

After staying at an Intercontinental hotel in Manila for 2.5years every week averaging 3-5 nights I managed to get ONLY 800k points. This was enough for ONLY a 16 day stay at my dream destination, the Intercontinental Thalasso-Spa in Bora Bora. I am saying ONLY because should have I stayed at an SPG or Marriott property I would have got significantly more points and value for my spent.

Ironically, if I had left the points counter to its own fate I would have got even less than half of that. What did I do for the extra 400k? Here a few tricks:

  • In the case of Intercontinental there are websites which provide secret codes you can use to sign up to promotions to increase your points count. You input them into a sign-up page and then as you stay more there are bonuses that are added on top.This is an example. Most of the codes have geographical restrictions but if you take the time to sign up your points may start to multiply. These promos include double points fr two consecutive nights, extra points when you complete X amount of nights, weekend accelerators, bonuses for certain properties, etc.
  • Become Ambassador or other premium membership programs which accelerate your points. In the case of Intercontinental the Ambassador program is a paid-for USD200 a year program which provides additional perks to your usual loyalty program and also a free weekend night stay which compensates the fee. Being Ambassador also provides accelerators that will help increase your points count. Every 4 stays we used to get additional 24,000 points added
  • Rewarding the best guests with even better benefits. The privilege levels of hotel loyalty programs do not only provide late check-out or free internet but they also accelerate the rate at which you can earn points so make sure all your stays are accounted for and you get to that tier level soonest

A few years back I had a colleague who used to permanently be a nomad. When we were not on the road working (5 days a week at the time) he would spend the weekends away paid for by the company because we were in long-haul destinations where coming back home was not an option. During the breaks between projects he would use his miles to stay at hotels for free. So basically, his work miles would pay for his personal rent and he no longer needed an apartment. Although this may be a bit extreme to the regular lay man he managed to make it work. And because of all the trips and miles he had the highest tier status and was treated like a king everywhere he went.

Go direct

Avoid using thrid party websites to book your hotel stays. You will find that in an effort to control their commission costs hotel chains are more and more withholding points earnings when the booking comes from a third party. You may also be denied benefits or privileges if you don't book on the hotel site.

Additionally, booking on the site may also provide a faster way to earn points as hotel chains offer additional points earning when bookings are made with them. If possible, check it out before making a booking and weight the benefits vs. the opportunity cost.

Check last minute offers

There is a website called Pointsmaven which  collects all the points offer from each chain and will help you accelerate the earning faster. Another one is Frequent flyer bonuses

Sometimes this may mean chosing a hotel instead of another because the points earning are temporarily higher. 

Worth checking it out!

Provide honest and insightful feedback

I visited the Six Sense Con Dao a couple of weeks after opening. 

The hotel is on a small island about an hour's flight from Ho Chi Minh in the ocean between Singapore and Vietnam. 

The hotel has two storey villas with their own swimming pool facing the sea either at beach level or one level above. 

As all Six Sense properties everything feels like an eco-village. You get a butler and food is organic, eco-friendly, localy-sourced, fresh and posh. The entire place has an air of peacefulness and calmness.

Six Sense Con Dao villa
When we checked in we were very pleased: what a wonderful place! But as a very well-travelled guest I started to notice lots of small details that although not big enough to ruin the experience they were unacceptable in a USD1,000 a night hotel. 

So we decided to provide proper and detailed feedback at check-out with the hope that it would help the management improve. The feedback ranged from the menu choices to the service level at the bar, the butler, the activities, the rooms and even the level of privacy.

Because of my experience in countless high-end and luxury properties I spent valuable time providing actionable and constructive feedback. I did not do it expecting anything in return or as a way to vomit the frustration of the 5 day stay which at times borderlined annoyance but because I genuinly wanted them to improve.

We handed in the feedback form and left the hotel but a few days later I got an email from the Hotel's Manager apologising for the issues and ensuring us they would act on them. She also offered me a 5-day free stay to return to the hotel and experience it again once the feedback would be incorproated . 

This was a very smart move. I can only speculate that she might have thought I was an experienced traveller, she might have even been worried I was in the industry and might write a bad review. Her gesture turned a negative experience into an opportunity to delight. I was happy, found myself respected and valued and the free stay definitively put me in the right frame of mind. It did not cross my mind to jump onto TripAdvisor to post a negaive review. Instead, I understood they were not only taking it seriously but they were also going to work on it. I returned one year later to a fully operational Swiss-closk synchronized hotel.

With Emirates, I several times provided feedback in-flight about anything that did not go to plan and I am not talking about the food being cold, overcooked or the flight being delayed, those are penrhaps useful rants but are not insightful feedback the airline did not know about. Instead, I provided them feedback about the ground staff, the situations where the stadnards did not meet the level that Emirates usually provides. And as a status guest thhey took my feedback more seriously. Apart from getting Godiva chocolate boxes I also received very generous miles donations in a couple of ocassions to show appreciation for my feedback

So, my tip? provide insightful feedback about things that did not go according to the expected level of service of a hotel/airline or a bad customer experience beyond the obvious stuff and you might get rewarded for taking the time.

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