Category Archives: Ultimate Rewards

AMTRAK’s South West Chief

We were finally on the last leg of our three part train trek around parts of America.  We enjoyed almost all aspects of the trip so far, perhaps with the exception of one of us having to climb into the upper, narrow bunk bed and the train whistles at night when going pass a crossing.  The South West Chief was originally  operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway until AMTRAK took over passenger rail service in 1971.

southwest chief

Los Angeles, along with Chicago, has a lounge of first class passengers and we took full advantage of it.  When you enter the front of Union Station, walk straight back and near the rear, turn right and then go up the escalator.  There are chairs, a few tables and chips and soft drinks as well as coffee. There is an attendant sitting at the desk to help us with any questions you might have.

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As lounges go, or at least as compared to airline lounges, this wasn’t too much but it was a nice place to hang out and eat the few snacks that they had.  Because of the way that the station and tracks are laid out, when it was time to go to the track to board our train, we were driven there in multi-row golf carts.  If we had chosen to walk, we would have had a long way to go including going under a tunnel to get to the other side of the tracks.

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We weren’t sure if we would get dinner since we weren’t scheduled to leave Los Angeles till 6:15.  As we boarded we found out that we would get dinner and as the attendant came around, we signed up for one of the first sittings at 7:00.  Same menu that we had on both the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight.  Blogger Hubby was quick to let our table mates know how good he thought the seafood cakes were, which he had again!

We went to bed early because one of the stops in Arizona, early in the morning around 5:45 AM was Winslow, Arizona.  It seemed like I was humming the Eagles song” standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” all night while I was trying to sleep.  Unfortunately, I woke up about 5 minutes after we passed it.  At breakfast we met a couple who had just gotten on the train.  The did the option of going to the Grand Canyon through the Grand Canyon Railroad.  Although they had a good time, they were exhausted because they had to leave their hotel at 3:  AM to be at the train station at 4:00 AM – unfortunately, the train was late and they had to wait about an hour for the South West Chief to come by.  Although they loved the canyon, they wouldn’t recommend going by train other than the convenience of being very close to the rim.

For us, we enjoyed seeing the change in scenery across America.  Here are a few scenes that we passed on our last day on our train trek.

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IMG_1042As I mentioned, our train, unbeknownst to us, was running late but what we found out on every line is that they build time into the schedule so they very rarely arrive late at the station at the end of the line.

Our final stop was Albuquerque.  Our train trek was over but now our New Mexico part was beginning.  It was 11:00 in the morning, the sun was shining and we were excited.  We gathered our bags, left the train and walked out front to get a taxi to the airport to get our rental car.  Problem was – there were no cabs.  I tried calling one cab company but no answer.  I tried Uber but it was surge pricing very high.  Finally got a cab company who would send a cab out to the train station in 10-15 minutes but no guarantee that we would get it.  After half an hour, one came but there was a little disagreement on how got to ride.  The other couple and us came to an agreement that we would share it since we were both going to a car rental at the airport.IMG_1047

We closely examined the car, loaded our bags and headed north to Santa Fe.

Would we do this again – yes!  We’d like to do the California Zephyr route which is San Francisco to Chicago traveling through scenic Colorado and the Rockies.

This entire train trip took 65,000 of my Ultimate Reward points that I had transferred over to AMTRAK (no longer available to do it) and remember, traveling first class included all of our meals.  I used points to stay at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Chicago the night before our train trip, also for the Weston Bayshore in Vancouver, points for our night at the Hilton Doubletree Checkers hotel in Los Angeles.  We paid for our night at the Seattle Grand Hyatt and used a Diamond upgrade for our Emerald Suite.

Up next, Land of Enchantment – exploring Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque and its environs.

REMINDER: I’m getting together a group for a cruise around the southern tip of South America.Come join us on March 5, 2018 (that’s right – 2018) on Holland America’s Zaandam, a vessel with about 1450 passengers as we board in Valparaiso, Chile as we cruise among the fjords, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, visiting the southernmost town in the world, Montevideo, Paraguay and disembarking in Buenos Aires, he home of fine leather and the tango.  With a group, basically in name only, we received the lowest rates and amenities. .  Leave a comment and I’ll respond privately to you about this cruise or contact my travel agent, Michelle, at michelle@mccabeworld.com and tell her you are in Jane’s group!

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Expiring miles and how to extend them

As I mentioned before, one of my very good friends has about 500,000 UAL miles.  She was concerned this fall because she knew that her points were going to expire at the end of the year.  She had me over her house to try to book a trip for her so her miles wouldn’t expire.  She didn’t need to go to that extreme.

If you are close to having your miles expire, there are several easy ways to save your miles without having to take a trip.

To keep your airline miles from expiring you must have some type of activity within your account.  If you have a co-branded credit card and use it at least a few times a year, that is sufficient activity to keep your airline miles from expiring.

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You can also go through your airline shopping portal (AAdvantage, United Mileage Plus, Delta Skymiles Shopping)  purchase something like flowers for your mother, significant other and it is a win-win situation – you get points for sending flowers as well as extending your miles 🙂

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Another way is by dining.  You can also earn miles when you register your credit card on your airline’s dining  site (American, United, or Delta).  All you need to do is to pay with that credit card at a participating restaurant, and you’ll receive miles in your account.  You can register your card with all three and get miles with both United, American and Delta.  Again, a win-win-win situation.

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You can also transfer miles into your airline accounts from either Ultimate Reward points you have, AmEx Membership Rewards or even hotel points from  Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, Priority Club, and Starwood Preferred Guest.  You do not need to transfer a lot into your account – remember you just need some activity in your account to keep it active.

You can fly on a partner airline and credit it to the airline of your choice that is in your alliance.  When we flew US Airways, I credited the miles to United – kept those miles current.  I did not have many miles on US Airways so I wasn’t losing anything on US Airways.

Hope this has helped you in keeping your miles current.

 

My Award Booking Trip to South Africa and…….?????

Let me begin by saying that  I could have never put this trip together without hiring Andrew from the Point Pros (Andrew@pointspros.com).  If you are looking to hire someone to help you book a complicated award ticket or any kind of an award ticket, I would HIGHLY recommend Andrew.  Andrew works under Ben (aka Lucky) who writes One Mile At A Time

What I had thought would be a simple trip to South Africa with a free stopover in Scotland on our way home turned into so much more.  Getting to Scotland was very difficult and costly with UK passenger and landing fees.  We had hoped that if we deleted that portion of our trip it would be easier to book, but it wasn’t.  We’ll save Scotland for some other trip.  Deleting Scotland has allowed us to think about adding in a different stopover city.  Remember, on long haul trips, you get a free stopover for as long as you want.

Apparently South African Airways hasn’t released any award booking seats from the United States to South Africa during the time period we wanted to go.  We needed to patch together an itinerary to get us there on the 16th as we were flying from Johannesburg to Nelspruit for our safari on the 17th.   Unfortunately, the closest we could get  to Johannesburg on an award booking was on the 14th. With award booking you have to remain flexible – you most likely will not get what you want with more exotic destinations.  Though Blogger Hubby hates to waste money on hotels I’m rather happy about it – it gives me time to adjust to the time changes before we go on safari on the 17th.

Put on your seat belt and get comfortable as you read about these flights.

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We will be flying from Detroit to Washington Dulles where we will have about a six hour layover (any friends want to pick us up and take us out of the airport for the afternoon?).  From Dulles we’ll fly in business class overnight to London Heathrow and where we have a (gasp) 14 hour layover.  Rather than stay in the airport that long, we’ll probably take a train into London – a place I have never been.  We’ll actually have two overnight flights, like we did flying into Sydney.  We’ll  return to Heathrow and take an overnight flight down to Johannesburg on South African Airways.

After spending a few days in Johannesburg and meeting our son, our daughter-in-law and baby to be, we’ll go on two different safaris in Kruger.  Looking forward to this but a little concerned about the 4 AM guided safari tours – that’s very early!

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For the return home, and this is the part that gets ugly, we will be returning from Cape Town (an Open Jaw flight).  Using award miles to get out of South Africa was not easy.   The choices were either EgyptAir (which had poor reviews) or Ethiopian Airlines in economy but on the new Dreamliner.  We’ll fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then onward to Addis Abba, Ethiopia.  We’ll have a layover and then fly on to Rome, on Ethiopia Airlines in Business.  From Rome we’ll fly to Copenhagen, Denmark on Scandinavian Airlines.  What a day of traveling.  We’ll spend 6 nights in Copenhagen.  We’re open to lots of suggestions including whether it is worthwhile to take the train or ferry over to Sweden.

copenhagen

For our flights home from Copenhagen we’ll fly into Toronto on Air Canada’s Executive First Class suites which have a 1-1-1 configuration.  Click on the link and you’ll see what I am referring to.  A short hop to Chicago and then a shorter hop to Detroit and we’ll be back from where we started from.  I guess you can see why we needed help.  Through Expert Flyer we have listed several other flights that we’d like to be on if seats become available.

All this for 240,000 miles total (Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United)  and $212 per person.  If we were to pay cash for this exact itinerary, it would be over $21,000.  Granted there were shorter ways to fly (direct from Dulles to Johannesburg) but that cost more money and since we are retired, we have time plus I get to fly into Ethiopia.  We will fly 22,439 miles on this epic journey.  We can pay and make changes to this itinerary but if we make any changes after February 1st, that will put us into the new award chart and would end us costing us many more points.

Finally, again many thanks to Ben and Andrew from the Point Pros and I would HIGHLY recommend them.

Here is what our trip will look like:

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Planning the Trip to Hawaii with Points and Miles

As some of you know, we recently had an opportunity drop into our lap – a friend of Blogger Hubby offered us their timeshare in Oahu for a week at the end of September.  I have never been to Hawaii and Blogger Hubby had been there a L  O  N  G time ago.  This offer was made to us a few days before Labor Day so we needed to get our act together and fast.

First, since we were still in Michigan we needed to find flights on our points.  None of the small airports near us had flight the times that we needed for a connection in Detroit.  Our next option was to drive the 4 1/2 hours south to Detroit Metro Airport.  I was saving our UR and UAL points for our trip to South Africa for next summer and therefore needed to use our American Express Membership Reward points.  Looking at many of the airline schedules and using the ITA Matrix, United appeared to be our best bet.

American Express membership points do not transfer to United Airlines though they do transfer to Singapore Airlines which is in the Star Alliance with United.  UAL requires 80,000 points to fly in Business Class to Hawaii; Singapore Air, through their award chart only requires 60,000 points.  To me, a frugal point saver, that is a significant difference.  Miles were transferred to Singapore Air (I did it online, you can do it online or by phone).  A quick phone call, once the points were deposited into the KrisFlyer account that I had previously opened, and my seats were booked.  I had spent some time on the UAL award site choosing my flights that had award availability, and those flight numbers were given to KrisFlyer.  Seats were booked!  A tool to help you find the number of award miles needed from many airlines is Milez.Biz

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Next up….planning what to do and where to go after our week in Oahu.  We knew we only wanted to go to two islands but the three that came to mind was Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.  Before we made that decision, we needed to see where our hotel points would take us to.  We seemed to have more options for Kauai and the big Island so that made our decision process a little easier.  In Kauai, it was a no brainer for us.  We had opened the Chase Hyatt credit card last fall and when you do, you get 2 nights free at ANY Hyatt worldwide.

I had heard so much about the Grand Hyatt Kauai that I wanted to spend two nights there.  We arranged an early morning flight on Hawaiian Air (7:40 AM) so we could maximize our time in Kauai.  We were able to stay here since we had opened a Chase Hyatt credit card last year and you get two free nights at any Hyatt in the world.  Since these would expire in November, we thought this was a good use of those two free nights.

Next up, where to stay on the Big Island.  As I had mentioned in a previous post, Blogger Son #2 had WWOOF’ed in Kona and he suggested that we stay around that area.   I had lots of Hilton points so we booked the Hilton Waikoloa Village for three nights.  We had arranged a late afternoon flight from Kauai to the Big Island so that we would have almost 3 full days in Kauai and since we were flying home from Kona at 9 PM, we would have almost 3 full days on the Big Island as well.  We used our points from the Hilton American Express card – about 50,000 per night.  I had lots of points as I had just purchased a number of Vanilla Reloads at a grocery store and as most of you know, you get 5 times points at a grocery store when you use this card.  Knowing your bonus categories really help.  I had also opened last year a Bank of Hawaii and a Hawaiian Airline credit card where I received 35,000 from each card.  Nothing spectacular but they transferred over to Hilton at a 1:2 ration – for every Hawaiian mile, I received two Hilton points.  Did all this for a total of 140,000 points.

Next up, it becomes a reality and you’ll read about the flight to Oahu.

Chase Freedom 4th Quarter Bonus Categories

For those that have the Chase Freedom card (one of my top 3 cards) you can activate the 4th quarter bonus categories today.  From October 1st though December 31 you can earn 5 times points on purchases made with these merchants.  Go to your Chase site to activate your card.

They have some very attractive stores in their bonus category for the 4th quarter where you can earn 5 x points.  Some of the stores are Amazon, Macy’s, Nordstroms, Bloomingdale’s, Loehmans, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Ave and Off 5th, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Sears and more.  For the complete list click here.

As a reminder, if you go to the Ultimate Rewards mall, with some merchants you’ll get additional points plus the 5 times points from using your Freedom card.  This is how I bump up my points.

Freedom

Riding the Rails – AMTRAK

Did you know that you could accumulate points on AMTRAK like you do with airlines and hotels?  Well, you can!  I was happy to read when I received my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card that AMTRAK is a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards. Currently,  AMTRAK is running a Double Points promotion with travel now through October 31, 2013.  That’s twice the point earnings!  You must first become a member of Amtrak Guest Rewards and then you need to register here for this promotion!

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When I was a kid, my mother and I always took the train to wherever we were going on vacation because she had a phobia about airplanes. I’ve taken the train to southern Florida numerous times as well as to the West Coast – all from Boston.  Now as an adult, I’ve continued to ride the rails though not as often as I would like – probably a combination of time and the cost.  I found it relaxing to board the train and then just…….relax.  It was the time period between leaving work or your home and the start of your vacation.  I was able to decompress, take a deep breath and arrive at my destination fully relaxed and ready to begin my vacation.  I fondly remember the time we left Boston and went to Chicago on an overnight train.  After arriving in the morning we spent the day in Chicago before we had to go back to the train station to get our train to the West Coast.  The train, the Super Chief,  had the Vista Dome

photo: wikipedia
photo: wikipedia

feature where we could go up the stairs and there would be a glass dome over us so we had an unimpeded view of the countryside.  The interesting part of this trip, and I “think” they still do it or at least a version of it, is that we were in the last Pullman car and in the middle of the night in Arizona, our car was unhitched from the train.  We waited for another engine to take our car up to  the Grand Canyon where we awoke.  We spent the day touring the area and it is a day that I have not forgotten in the decades since. Later that day we boarded our Pullman again and were taken to the same spot on the tracks where we were unhitched the night before.  This time we would be awaiting another westbound train to “pick us up” and continue our journey. Click here for some information on trains in the Grand Canyon.

When was the last time that you rode the rails?

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