Success with manufactured spending in Providence, RI

I spent much of the past week in Providence, RI at a professional development workshop learning some new coding skills for the computer science class that I teach. During that time I decided to take a first real stab at manufactured spending and had some wonderful success.

For those unaware of the term, manufactured spending means using your credit card to somehow buy an item (therefore earning points/miles on said credit card), then somehow liquidating that item back into your bank account to pay off the credit card debt you just accrued. I have done it once or twice before in NYC and it is notoriously difficult to liquidate some of the items you can buy. The one method I have heard of working very well was using gift cards to purchase money orders, specifically at a Walmart, where fees are low and opportunity is high.

So, I took this knowledge and put it into action. While staying at the Providence Marriott Downtown, I used the fact that I have a Chase Ink Cash card that earns me 5x the points when purchasing items at office supplies stores to buy loads of Visa gift cards at the Staples just across the street. Then, I took a nice walk to the local Walmart to buy money orders with those gift cards.

The fees involved were not that bad. To buy a $200 gift card at Staples costs $6.95 in fees each and to buy a money order at Walmart is $0.88 for up to a $2000 money order. In total, I was spending $28.68 to earn 4,139 points. So, if you do the math, it cost me roughly 0.69 cents for each point that I earned. Since The Points Guy values each of them at around 2.0 cents for each point, I did quite a good job getting some new value. Not too shabby for a first real try.

The big question now is whether or not I can duplicate this process in Brooklyn. I already know where to get the gift cards (Staples nearby me) but when I’ve tried to find a source to liquidate near me I have come up short. I know there is a Walmart in New Jersey and one in Long Island that are public transit accessible, but it still adds cost. Still searching!

Using ExpertFlyer helped get us Qantas First class AGAIN

I am the kind of person that likes to plan far in advance. Getting plane tickets for trips 5-8 months beforehand is not unlikely in my life, mostly because that’s when I seem to find the best deals. Either there is a sale of some kind of I have an insight due to my frequent-flyer blog reading. So, when I tell you that my wife and I booked our flights home from Australia one week before takeoff – please know that this is not who I normally am.

That being said, it’s not completely true. While we had booked our flight to Australia on Qantas First class, it was getting particularly hard to find the same kind of availability on the return for January 1. In fact, I had been searching for two months on a daily basis and I didn’t find anything. So, my wife and I gave in and decided two things:

  1. We would book the cheapest economy (oy) ticket home and just deal with it.
  2. We would set up flight alerts on ExpertFlyer and cancel the economy tickets (eating the fees) if we found something.

So, that’s what we did. I found a relatively inexpensive ticket home from Sydney on the morning of January 1 and booked it for the two of us:

Then, I set up flight alerts on ExpertFlyer for award tickets home. For those who don’t know what that service does: instead of spending my own time searching daily on all the websites for specific flights, it does the work for me! I just set up a bunch of queries and when one is available, it sends me an email. Here are some example searches I had running:

Then, the most amazing thing happened: not only did I receive notification of award availability, but it was still in Qantas First class!

I got this email while on the train from Gold Coast airport to Brisbane so I immediately closed the Netflix movie I was watching and went on AA.com to book it (I was using AA miles after all). It turned out while there were two seats available, one was direct Sydney->Los Angeles while the other was Sydney->Melbourne->Los Angeles. Well, after talking it over briefly with my wife, we booked it and later on cancelled the United flights (getting all the money back, incidentally). Since both flights arrive in LA around the same time, we then booked a return flight home to JFK together.

It’s amazing what a little patience, flexibility, and a great award search tool can do!

Review: Qantas First Class on an A380 Part 2 – The seat and the service

After our lovely time waiting in the Qantas first class lounge at LAX we walked over to our gate for boarding. It took about five minutes to get there and we saw a new piece of technology they are using for the boarding process: some kind of entryway where your photo was taken and your boarding pass scanned before you go onto the jetway to the plane. It seemed very new but maybe was a more efficient way of getting everyone onto the plane? I’m not sure and it was a bit of a blur because I was so excited to get into our seats.

Speaking of which, once we got passed the electronic gates we saw three doorways with various jetways to the plane. We took the proper one for our first class seats and within 60 seconds were greeted by very friendly flight attendants who directed us to our seats.

Courtesy of Seatguru.com.

This is the first time I’ve flown with my wife in premium seats where we weren’t sitting next to each other. It’s not for lack of trying – the Qantas first class seat on the A380 doesn’t even have the option. Whereas most first class wide-bodies have seats in a 1-2-1 pattern, these are big enough to be 1-1-1. I tried to place us near each other in 4K and 4F but we still couldn’t see each other unless we craned our necks! So, as a compromise, I came over to her pod for some take-off champagne and our dinner later on.

Now on to some specifics about the seat: it’s huge. The chair you get is quite wide (according to SeatGuru it’s 22 inches, but it feels like more). The space you get is also massive – enough that the seat itself swivels into two different positions (one for take-off/landing and one for cruising). There is a foot rest that is usable by a second person to sit with you at any time (I imagine it’s used mostly for meals). Two storage lockers are located next to you under the fixed tray area (one contains your over-ear headphones – not noise cancelling, unfortunately). There are two remote controls – one is for the seat (moving it, putting lights on/off, even a massage setting!) and one is for the screen you have to watch shows/movies or even communicate with others!

Now, onto the main meal. Since the flight was scheduled to leave in the evening (around 8pm, although we were delayed by about 30 minutes) we were served dinner. The menu had some great options, all chosen by Neil Perry, some famous Australian chef. As mentioned before, my wife and I opted to eat together so the flight attendants set up our dinner table together in her pod. Over the course of about 45 minutes we were served our various courses, enjoying all points of the meal. While I had forgotten to sign her up for a gluten-free meal, the attendants took something from the business class menu and offered it to her instead (she still said it was tasty). Overall, a very tasty and convenient method of eating over the ocean!

 

There were a variety of snacks offered throughout the flight as well. In fact, there is a lounge on the plane with some refreshments! Yes, that’s right: if you take the staircase (!) up to the second floor, there is a small seating area with a TV as well as a counter filled with some snacks and drinks to grab whenever you want. I believe this was exclusive to the 14 first class passengers, so very awesome!

Before landing, we were offered a breakfast meal, which was also quite tasty. My eggs were cooked to order and I got to choose a variety of veggies as sides. For this meal, we chose to eat separately because one of us might have still been sleeping when the other chose to eat.

The bed, the pajamas, and the amenity kit: all great, although the amenity kit could use some more pizzazz. Since the flight was about 14 hours long, I wanted to make sure I back-loaded my sleep so I would wake up more refreshed in Sydney at 6am. I asked the flight attendants to set up my bed a little bit later than many others and went to change in the bathroom (quick note: they were larger bathrooms than in economy, which is nice, and contained a lot of amenities, including disposable razors and shaving cream, of which I took 3 to use during the rest of my trip).

The pajamas we were given are some of the best I’ve experienced! So comfy, and they come with a drawstring as well as pockets. They are thicker than the Qantas business class ones we received last year on the Dreamliner and were very good to sleep in. When I returned from changing, my bed was made. There was a great mat put on the turned-down seat which made it very soft and comfortable to sleep on. The duvet and blanket were enough to keep me warm (but not overly so, as has happened on previous flights). And, the pillow let my head sink right into it with no trouble. Finally, the amenity kit contained a high-quality eye mask, not simply one of those that rests on your head made of cloth, but something more like this. And I used the toothbrush/toothpaste before getting some needed sleep (7 hours worth!).

Overall, the seat and service were incredible. If I had to make any recommendations, it would be to upgrade the headphones to noise-cancelling versions, and put some nicer toothbrushes in the amenity kit. Otherwise, my wife and I had a great time on the Qantas A380 and I look forward to experiencing it again on the ride home!

Review: Qantas First Class on an A380 Part 1 – Check-in and the Lounge

I’ve read so many times how difficult it is to get award tickets to Australia and New Zealand yet, for some reason, I found myself returning to the sun-burnt country for the second time for less than a few hundred dollars round-trip. Last year my wife and I got to fly on Qantas’ new Dreamliner business class and really enjoyed it. While the pajamas we received don’t make it into my regular rotation, I still remember the trip with fondness.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

This time around, though, I was even more lucky. My wife and I knew we wanted to go somewhere far again this winter break so I began looking at our options. While I was trying to find something good to other parts of the world I was lucky enough to see the light purple pop up with Qantas first class award availability right when my winter break began – so we jumped on it.

For the low low price of 110,000 AAdvantage miles + $40.10 in taxes per person, we had a flight down under that would be incredibly comfortable. We booked a first class flight from LAX->SYD and then tacked on a free flight from Sydney to Gold Coast about 13 hours after landing.

Fast forward to the day of travel. We had to position ourselves in Los Angeles so we took a JetBlue flight out to get there (we love the comfy seats, the unlimited snacks, and the fact that we get 50% off all in-flight purchases with our JetBlue credit card). We brought our rental car back to the airport and then went to check in.

While there was a moderate line for the economy passengers, there was only one person in front of us so it took a minute or two for us to bring our bags up front. We discovered – much to our excitement – that our bags would be checked up until our final destination of Gold Coast (we would just have to pick them up in Sydney airport and bring them to the Domestic Baggage Transfer area).

Once through security, we went into one of my favorite places during international travel: the lounge. Qantas has a first class lounge (also accessible to other One World premium customers) with many amenities: plenty of space to sit and read, magazines and newspapers for you to take, a full bar, bathrooms/showers, and table service for a variety of meal options.

 

We sat down to have a relaxing meal with the 45 minutes we had before the flight (even though, of course, we would also eat on the plane). It’s important to remember that these lounges are basically miniature all-inclusive resorts; we could order whatever we wanted in whatever amounts. We kept it light but tasty and had some drinks to boot. My wife even liked my dessert so much she ordered one for herself when we found out our flight was delayed by about 20 minutes.

While waiting for our food to arrive I decided to avail myself of the shower facilities. It was easy enough to walk over to the receptionist desk and have someone show me to an open room. It was very clean and had all the resources I might need. The water pressure was great, the soap, shampoo, and conditioner was nice (although scented, which some may not appreciate).

The lounge staff announced when our flight was going to depart and updated us when the delay occurred. Overall, we had a great and relaxing experience at the Qantas First Class lounge at LAX. If you are departing from there anytime soon, make sure to give yourself an hour to enjoy the heck out of it!

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with Korean Air Skypass Visa

The day finally arrived and my friend and I went to go see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Due to my membership with the Skypass Visa card, I was given two free tickets, free popcorn + drinks, and an exclusive screening of the movie.

I’ll say a little about the movie first: it was entertaining but I’m glad I didn’t pay full ticket price to see it. I really thought the first Jurassic World film was good (and might even buy it on Blu-ray for $5-$8) but this one was just not at that level of quality. The storyline was a bit derivative from Jurassic Park: Lost World and it didn’t have any new pizzazz, really. So, I recommend you wait until it’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime to watch it.

Now for the experience at the theater: my friend and I were greeted by folks at a desk and given our tickets and concession vouchers. 

There were signs all over the place welcoming us to the movies and guiding us to our theater. Additionally, there was a cute photo booth wherein you could take your photo with blow-up dinosaurs. I couldn’t resist!

There were a couple of speeches by folks from US Bank (the issuer of the card) and Korean Air Skypass (the mileage program) and then the movie got started. Afterward, there were giveaways of posters and bags. I only took a bag because I am surely not going to advertise a movie I don’t think others should pay for!

Overall, it was a fun experience. Not only did I get a 45,000 mile bonus by meeting minimum spending requirements on the card, I also got this free screening. Sufficed to say, however, I cancelled the card the very next day. Since I don’t plan on using Korean Airlines exclusively and I don’t travel to South Korea often (although my wife and I will be there this summer) it didn’t make sense to keep it. Luckily, I used the points I had accumulated before closing the card, otherwise those would have been forfeit, too. Good thing I called!

ICYMI: Singapore Airlines has a very different devaluation scheduled for March 23

On March 1 I received an email entitled, “Important Changes to Flight Redemption.” In brief, it explained that Singapore Airlines will be changing their award chart for their own flights in some very important ways:

  • They are removing the 15% discount on flight redemptions.
  • They are reducing/removing many fuel and insurance charges from flight redemptions.

This is one of the more interesting devaluations as it actually might help some people get better deals at times. This has been reviewed several times already but is still worth noting. They even give an example of how this will affect long-haul flights in business- and economy-class:

This could be very major except there is a pretty big method of getting around it: use their Star Alliance award chart that hasn’t actually changed at all. Essentially, you can still use Singapore Airlines miles to book tickets that include both their own planes and others within the Alliance, at which point you will be using the other award chart that can be more lucrative at times.

It just means a bit more thought needs to go into using SA miles, but since they already have great redemption value, it’s not a huge change in my opinion.

A recent trip to Toronto

I recently took a trip to Toronto using Air Canada and was overall pleased with the service, comfort, with some oddities in how my trip occurred. Let me explain.

I booked the flight from LaGuardia to Pearson airport using my Barclaycard Arrival Plus Mastercard, a useful card if you want to get 2 miles for every dollar spent. These miles are quite versatile in that they can used for any kind of airline credit: ticket purchases, fees, etc. They are redeemed in quantities above $100, which is equivalent to 10,000 miles. So, after I paid for my trip using the card, I was able to immediately refund the money used. Here is what it looks like on my online bill:

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Very simple.

On my way there I noticed wonderful in LaGuardia: a pumping/nursing station! While I do not think breastfeeding needs to be a private thing (it’s a natural thing to do…), it is nice to have some privacy for those who want it. Apparently they were put there in May 2015 and are located in Terminal B.

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When I arrived at Toronto’s Pearson Airport I found myself on a huge and quick moving walkway. This was not the normal kind that simply rotates through – it actually extended and flexed in order to move people faster. I had never seen or experienced this before but it was fascinating! I took a video myself but the one in the article is better.

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Finally, a quick note about the actual plane travel itself. Air Canada is a professional carrier! Their in-flight entertainment aboard their small plane was quite wonderful. It was an Embraer 190 and had comfortable seats (if not an enormous amount of legroom) as well as wonderful cabin service. I got a hot tea and small snack on each direction of my journey.

The price of this airline is often more expensive than budget airline WestJet but that sometimes means it really is worth it. In this case, it definitely was!

Review: Holiday Garden Inn in Providence is surprisingly amazing

My wife and I spent Thanksgiving in Providence, Rhode Island visiting her relatives and due to a variety of factors we ended up sleeping at the Hilton Garden Inn located in Fox Point, across from India Point Park. We had booked the trip using points and got a great deal. At the time, each night would have been $144 + tax, giving us a less-than ideal valuation rate:

~$320 (for two nights) / 80,000 = $0.004/point (basically 0.4 cents per point)

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Since The Points Guy currently values Hilton at 0.5 cents per point, we were a little below, but that was offset by the fact that we have Gold Status through the AMEX Hilton Surpass card I have. With that benefit, we got upgraded to a larger, nicer room (although without a bathtub – only a large shower), and two free breakfast vouchers to use at their in-hotel restaurant, Drift.

The room was spacious and had a wonderful view of the harbor (this was important since the other side was a loud highway). There were some nice amenities inside including a refrigerator, microwave, and Keurig coffee/tea machine. The TV screen was also enormous (must have been at least 50″) and the bed was large and comfortable (with lights on both sides, but not power ports). Overall, a solidly good room.

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The restaurant is where our experience really shined, though. Of course we used our two vouchers because it was easy and convenient to get a variety of foods in the morning. What we didn’t realize going into the experience was that our experience would be incredible, our food would be amazingly tasty, and we would befriend the breakfast manager, Steven.

When you enter the breakfast area it looks similar to other hotel breakfasts you experience: there are some cold trays filled with yogurt, juices, and fruit; there are some pastries, bagels, and assorted extras; and there is a small kitchen. We found out from the server that we had some simple cook-to-order options: eggs/omelettes, french toast, roasted potatoes, and pancakes. And the drink station had a wide variety to offer, including a layered-lemon-lime water.

Put simply: the food was astonishingly tasty!

We had all the fixings at some point during our two-night stay: the pancakes were fluffy and abosrbed the (real) maple syrup well; the french toast had an amazing cinnamon-y flavoring to it; the omelettes were fluffy and made-to-order with real eggs (not from a carton), and the potatoes were out-of-this-world (paprika can do wonders!).

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Steven, the breakfast manager, was so kind and fun to chat with – we shmoozed for around 20 minutes each morning as he was in and out serving and retrieving orders. It all started because he overheard my wife and I commenting on how lovely and tasty the water was, so he responded and started a conversation. We learned that he takes his business very seriously and plays within whatever limitations he is given by Hilton to make sure the food is scrumptious and real. He also told us about his chef who, while young, has some amazing skill that benefited from immensely.

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There are some restaurants out there that really get what it’s like to provide a nice experience for their customers and Steven’s is one of them. The food was so tasty that despite him giving us a recommendation for another place he is connected to in Providence (Milk Money) we decided to stick around for another meal.

Overall it was an awesome experience in the hotel and the breakfast made it even more so. Thank you to Steven, the hotel staff, and Hilton for allowing us to use our points for this stay!

Small Business Week with The Points Guy

A few weeks ago I received notice that Brian Kelly – also known as The Points Guy (or TPG for short) – was hosting a small gathering at the WeWork facility in the Financial District in order to share points and miles tips and answer questions by local business people. Since I have recently started consulting with friends/acquaintances on how to maximize their use of points (or gather some on their own) I signed up to attend. Boy, was it fun!

When I entered I was greeted by a sign informing me of consent to be filmed and photographed as well as by some small appetizers to satiate me for a small while. The WeWork common space was fairly large and their kitchen had lots of snacks for sale (and beer on tap!).

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TPG got started with a 20-minute presentation covering topics I pretty much already knew – how to maximize credit card bonuses; which cards to hold onto and which to get rid of; what options there are for earning miles outside of flying or simple swiping of the card; etc. The new piece of information I learned was EVRewards, a website devoted to sharing with you how to maximize your points-earning based on what store you are buying from. It’s a cool site that I will add to the list I go through before making a purchase.

After that he started taking numerous questions. He probably did this for about 45 minutes. I was lucky enough to be called on and made a quip about being a math teacher so I appreciated when he said “do the math” as he often does for his monthly valuations of points. I became known as “the teacher” and even had a brief conversation with his Chief Operations Officer. There may be some relationship brewing there that becomes fruitful and interesting in the future.

Finally, before I left I got a chance to get a photo with someone I’ve been trying to meet for almost a year now. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and can’t wait to get more involved!

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Oh, and we got an awesome swag bag, too!

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The big miles post: comparing what we paid for what we would have paid

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I truly love finding a great miles/points deal. So when my wife and I started planning our honeymoon I realized this was the opportunity of a lifetime to use our points to maximize our enjoyment of flights and hotels wherever possible. While we couldn’t use them all over the places we visited (specifically, in Indonesia) we received such benefit that our honeymoon was that much better and that much cheaper.

This all started about 2 years ago when I got involved in the miles/points game. We started signing up for credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Freedom, Chase Ink Plus, and Chase Ink Cash. Each had a lucrative bonus of Ultimate Rewards points that we stored away for safekeeping. I also signed up for the Citibank American Airlines cards (both personal and business) in order to get 100,000 AA miles to supplement some I had from before the US Airways merger. I added the CitiBank ThankYou Premier card as well as Citi Prestige to get 100,000 ThankYou points as well. Finally, we signed up for a few hotel-based cards: We got the Starwood Personal and Business cards when the bonuses were 30,000 and 35,000 instead of the base level of 25,000 and we also both got the Chase Marriott cards. Sufficed to say, we had a lot of points to spend.

So, in this post I want to analyze the difference between what we paid and what we should have paid if we hadn’t used any points.

The first use of our points was our flights from New York-JFK to Denpasar, Bali. We decided to use Korean Airlines because they are a transfer partner of Chase as long as you have either the Sapphire Preferred or the Ink Plus. We took two flights to get there: one from New York to Seoul and another from Seoul to Bali. We decided to take a one day layover in Seoul so the flights below are not entirely accurate.

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The total cost using miles was 190,000 points + $166 in taxes. 

If we bought the tickets outright, the cost would have been significantly higher.

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As you can see, the tickets from New York to Seoul alone would have been $20,063.60 in total. For some reason I can’t seem to price out the Seoul->Bali ticket right now, but it likely would have been at least $2,000 each.

For our next major journey on miles we flew from Singapore to London on British Airways. We used American Airlines miles to purchase these tickets before the big devaluation it actually cost us less than quoted below: only 70,000 American Airlines miles each.

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With taxes and fees, the total cost was 140,000 miles + $588.40 in taxes and fees.

Running total: 330,000 miles + $754.40.

The actual cost would have been much more (although less than Korean Air):

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Total cost for this flight with two people: $13,057.60.

Running total: $33,121.20

The last major flight was our return home from Frankfurt to New York-JFK with Singapore Airlines. Our two tickets used quite a few miles because the saver award was not available. I had two transfer over 100,000 Citi ThankYou points and Chase points to get it, but it was well worth it.

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With conversion from the date of purchase, the total cost was 221,000 miles + $621.62.

Final total for flights: 551,000 miles + $1,376.03.

From the example below our flight cost would have been $10,183.12.

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Final total for flights: $43,304.32.

One major aspect of this travel I am not including in cost was all the lounges we visited. As a first class passenger we had access to a number of lounges at each airport and with the Citi Prestige we had access to even more through the Priority Pass network. Even in Lombok Airport – a tiny blip on the screen in Indonesia – there was a Sheraton Lounge that took it. We must have saved a few hundred dollars on food and time due to this benefit.


Now we can start discussing the hotels we stayed in because they were also heavily discounted. The first use of points was at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Singapore. As it is a newly rebranded hotel there was a discount in the price although we used our points anyway. We booked to stay for 3 nights on points instead of paying the full price.

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Total hotel points used: 30,000

If we had paid for it outright, the cost would have been around $120/night, totalling $360.

Next, we stayed at a wonderful Sheraton property in London called the Park Lane Hotel. It is a beautiful old world hotel that has been converted to a Sheraton but retains much of its charm. Since we decided to stay in London for five nights we benefited from Starwood’s 4 nights + 1 free promotion when redeeming points. Normally the hotel is 20,000 points/night but it averaged to 16,000/night due to this deal.

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Total hotel points used here: 80,000. Running total of hotel points: 110,000.

Had we booked our room and paid fully, each night would have been a whopping GBP £218. Based on when we booked the hotel (i.e. before the Brexit), that would have been $316/night. Total cost would have been: $1,580. Running total: $1,940.

In Paris we switched gears a bit and stayed at a Marriott Hotel instead since we had all those points to use. I found a great location with the Marriott Opera Ambassador Hotel. It was conveniently located to many restaurants, museums, and right on public transit lines. We stayed four nights there at a cost of 40,000 points/night.

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Total was 160,000. Running total is: 270,000 points. At this point it is important to mentioned that not all points are created equal, especially when it comes to hotels. Obviously Marriott properties require more points than Starwood ones. Just keep that in mind for the future.

Had we stayed there paying outright, the room would have been 243 Euro/night, translating to $275/night. Total cost: $1,100. Running total: $3,040.

For our last night we stayed at the Hilton City Centre Frankfurt. I had accumulated many Hilton points and even had Gold Status due to the Surpass Card I had signed up for two months prior. While the standard room rate is 50,000 points I actually found a discounted Deluxe Park View room for even less!

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So the total amount of points spent overall for 13 free hotel nights was 311,157 points.

Had we paid out-of-pocket for that room it would have cost 139 Euro, or $157/night. Total cost of hotels would have been: $3,197.


This was a truly amazing trip. The sites we saw were fantastic (and more blog posts to come in that regard). The transportation we took was lovely and speedy. And the places we stayed were welcoming and enticing. I can’t wait to do this again in the future!