May 28, 2016

The Three Best Credit Cards for Beginners

I am often asked "what is the best credit card to get."  The answer is typically "it depends."  Let's assume that you meet the minimum criteria to more aggressively apply for credit cards in order to earn points for award travel.

1)  You have a job that pays you money consistently
2)  You don't have credit card debt or carry a balance ever
3)  You desire to travel
4)  You have a high credit score (call it north of 720 - this one isn't a deal breaker but will certainly help)

Assuming you meet these four criteria,  here is where I would start:

Chase Freedom:

This is a great place to start as one of the most powerful points earnings cards comes with no annual fee.  The current bonus will net you 15,000 points after spending $500 in 90 days. The card enables you to earn 1x cash back for everyday purchases.  You'll get 5x on specific category bonuses each quarter which is an easy 30,000 points per year.  The kicker is that the cash back can be transferred to Ultimate Rewards points if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred (or another Ultimate Rewards earning card such as a Chase Ink card)  making this one of the most powerful card duos on the market.  You can then leverage the Ultimate Rewards points to transfer your points to a variety of travel partners (United, British Airways, Hyatt, etc...).  When you redeem those points for travel you're likely to earn a return far greater than the 1% cash back.

Chase Sapphire Preferred:

As one of my first posts ever, I wrote about the value of the CSP.  The value proposition remains solidly in place.  Sign up for the card and you'll receive 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after $4,000 in spend.  You'll also receive 5,000 UR points for adding an authorized user.  That makes the signup bonus worth 59,000 UR points.  You'll earn 2x UR points for spend in the travel and dining categories...which is most of my personal spend.  The 59,000 UR points can be combined with the 15,000 you earned from the Freedom card and the transferred to the partners mentioned above.  The annual fee (waived for the first year) is $95 but given the everyday earnings power of this card, I think it's worth keeping the card.

American Express Starwood Preferred Guest:

Many of you know that Starwood if my favorite hotel chain.  I've been an elite member for over ten years, I'm a current former stockholder and former employee.  I've also held this card in my wallet (and paid the $95 annual fee) for over ten years.  The signup bonus is pretty great - 25,000 SPG points after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days.

That means your total haul will be 28,000 SPG points.  That is enough for a couple of nights at a high end W or Westin.  You can also transfer the points (in 20,000 mile increments) to dozens of airline partners.  When doing so, you'll receive a 5,000 mile bonus meaning 40,000 SPG points will you get 50,000 airline miles.  While there are no category bonuses on the card (beyond spend at SPG properties and Uber) it  is worth keeping the card given the extreme value (almost 2.5 cents IMO) of SPG points.

If you and your spouse picked up these three cards each, you would have 164,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and 56,000 SPG points.  You could leverage the UR points for roundtrip economy tickets to Europe on United.  Then leverage your SPG points to get 2-5 free nights at SPG hotels.  All for free.  If you are planning a honeymoon, a special anniversary trip, or just want to get away for a bit, this combination of cards will take you VERY far.

Where Should I Stay in Tokyo?

I'm headed to Tokyo later this year for a couple of nights.  I've been looking forward to visiting the city for a long time and certainly want to get the most out of the trip especially considering it's only two nights.  The trouble is, there are too many good hotel options!  I've essentially narrowed down my search to four properties.  The trouble is, putting the points puzzle together has been a bit of a challenge.

Here are my options in order of preference:

1)  Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills
2)  Park Hyatt Tokyo
3)  Conrad Tokyo
4)  Ritz Carlton Tokyo

So I'd love to stay at the Andaz Tokyo.  Prepaid cash rates are $500 USD/night AI.  Award stays are available at 25,000 points/night (no points + cash availability at the moment) but I am short on Hyatt points.  I could book one night with cash and one night with points but would prefer to save the cash if possible.  And I generally don't recommend booking prepaid rates especially a few months out.

The Park Hyatt Tokyo is my number two choice.  Cash rates are going for $646 USD/night so that is a no-go.  At 30,000 points per night, that's a lot of Chase Ultimate Rewards points.  Points + cash is available but at 15,000 points and $326 USD/night.  So I think the Park Hyatt is out.

The Conrad Tokyo is available at 80,000 points per night but I'm short by 75,000 points.  I could buy the points which would cost me around $375 USD but the point (get it) is to use points and save cash when possible.  Emily could pick up the Hilton HHonors Reserve Card and we could use a combination of one of those nights and points to book the 2 night stay.  So that's a legitimate low cost (only $95 annual fee for the card) option.

The Ritz Carlton Tokyo is available at 70,000 points per night.  We do have the points in our separate accounts (Marriott lets you pool points from spouse accounts) but it's my number four choice and I'd much prefer to stay at the Andaz.

I realize this in the scheme of things, this is not a significant life challenge.  That said, I'm usually pretty decisive but am struggling with this one.  I'm generally leaning towards waiting on points + cash availability opening up at the Andaz or using 50,000 total points (which I should have in a couple of months) and booking two award nights there.  I know there are other options (Westin, Grand Hyatt, Hilton, etc...) but for my first time in the city, I'd love to stay somewhere really great.

What would be your decision?  Am I missing anywhere that you'd reccomend?

May 22, 2016

SPG Business Card Increased Referral Bonus

I've written extensively about the American Express SPG card.  Amex also issues a business card version (which I currently hold) which offers most of the same benefits as the personal version.  The business version also provides club access when staying at Sheraton properties which can be a useful benefit.  While I'm content with my SPG Lifetime Gold status, when I was working on achieving Platinum status, the extra 2 stays/5 nights towards elite status were super helpful.

Amex is currently offering an increased referral bonus (up from 5,000 points) of 10,000 points for each approved referral.  That is a pretty outstanding deal considering a couple of referrals could net you a night at a St. Regis.

The referral offer is the same (25,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first 90 days) as the public offer for the cardmember.  Keep in mind that you don't have to be a full time business owner to be approved for the card.  You could be an eBay seller, a blogger, or do some consulting in addition to your full time job.  I've found that American Express is fairly liberal with approvals on these business credit (vs. charge) cards.

To see if you're eligible for the offer, login to your Amex account online and checkout your offers at the bottom of the page.  If you are interested in a referral from me, feel free to drop me a line.

My Strategy for Managing Cash While Traveling

People often ask me how I manage cash when traveling internationally.  It's not possible to use a credit card in every situation (Thai massage on the beach, cabs in many countries, etc...) so it's a good idea to have a cost effective way of getting cash when abroad.  The easiest way to get cash is from an ATM.  But most US banks will charge a fee when withdrawing cash from an international ATM.  Sometimes even two fees (a percentage of the transaction and a flat fee)!  Note that this posted originally appeared in 2014 - I've updated a couple of items for clarity.

Fortunately, there are a number of checking accounts which feature "fee-free" ATM withdrawals worldwide.  My primary checking account (Schwab Bank HighYield Investor Checking) comes with this feature.  When I withdraw cash from an ATM (in the US or abroad) I'm typically charged a $2 - $4 fee.  At the end of each month, I receive a deposit from Schwab for the fees charged during my ATM withdrawals.

Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Features

Schwab isn't the only bank that provides this service.  The Points Guy has a great list of the best bank accounts for this purpose.  So there are lots of options.  Once I arrive at my destination, I typically withdraw enough cash (~$100 USD) to pay for the cab to the hotel and a few other snacks/waters/tips, etc with a few dollars left over...

Depending on where we are and what we have planned for the next day, I'll make another withdrawal.  The last thing you want is a ton of extra currency when you leave for him (although I always try to keep the equivalent of $1-$2USD as a souvenir ).  I end up making 2-3 withdrawals per country and incur somewhere between $6 - $12 in fees which are rebated at the end of the month.  Schwab has had this feature as part of their High Yield Checking account for years - hopefully it's not something they change anytime soon!

May 21, 2016

Why Buying Points at the Margin is a Good Idea

I'm working on another trip to The Maldives and unfortunately was a bit short of points to lock in the hotel (the most important part of any Maldives trip).  Especially given the challenge of finding hotel award availability along with flight awards, locking in the hotel portion when it matches with flight availability is key.

While we loved our stay at the Park Hyatt during the last visit, we wanted something a bit closer to Male to maximize our time.  There are only a handful of point redemptions at the moment and the Conrad was essentially our only other option that met our requirements.

Conrad Maldives

How Long Does it Take for Singapore Airlines Miles to Refund After an Award Cancellation?

Singapore Airlines offers some of the most lowest cost award redemption change/cancellation fees of any airline.  For a complete overview, Lucky has a great post on change/cancel fees for all airlines.

Cancelling an award booking costs $30 USD and changing one costs $20.  That compares very favorably to United which will charge (without status) $200 to get your hard earned miles back in your account in the event of a cancellation!

Singapore Airlines First Class IFE

I recently had to make a change to an award that required a redeposit of miles.  Unfortunately you can't do this online and have to call.  Singapore Airlines has great customer service (24 hours) in the US and it only took 10 minutes to process the cancellation for the $30 fee.

Dom or Krug on SQ

The agent informed me that the taxes would be refunded to my credit card in 6-8 weeks and the miles refunded back to my account within 5-7 business days.

What?  That is an eternity to wait when award availability is limited.  Well good news - I can report that the miles posted back to my account in ~36 hours.

Singapore Airlines BMW designed First Class (777-300ER)

I did process the cancellation on a Sunday so perhaps that slowed things down.  Either way, being able to rebook within a couple of days was no big deal and the new award was still available once the miles were safely back in my KrisFlyer account.

Starwood Selling Points at 35% Off

Starwood is currently selling Starwood Preferred Guest points at a steep discount.  35% to be exact.  But only to American Express SPG cardmembers.  This is the biggest discount on the price of points in a long time (maybe ever).  For context, last year they were selling points at a 25% discount.

Given that Starwood provides the ability to transfer SPG points to airline miles at a 1.25:1 ratio (for most programs, you can essentially buy airline miles through this sale for ~1.82 cents each.  While that is a great deal, I wouldn't purchase points to use for hotels or flights speculatively.  However, this can be a great way to top off an account.

Starwood ordinarily sells points for 3.5 cents so with the discount they are going for 2.28 cents per point.  Keep in mind you can only buy 30,000 points in a calendar year.  That makes the cost of 30,000 points $682.50.

While you may be able to get north of $700 value out of 30,000 points, you may actually get more value out of purchasing the points and transferring them to an airline partner in order to redeem for a premium cabin award as 1.82 cents is well below the cost that airlines typically sell miles.

Here is the direct link to the promotion.

If you haven't read my primer on buying points/miles, check it out here.  If you are interested in signing up for the American Express SPG card (personal or business) I'd be happy to send you a referral - feel free to shoot me an email.