The Art Of Vacationing

Travel Tips and Dates

A Bigger Bang for Your AMEX Points

Pam Keystone - Monday, February 06, 2017

Yes, you can book airline tickets using your American Express Membership Rewards points. If you call AMEX direct, they will recommend using your points to buy an airline ticket through them, for a penny a point. That would mean a $5,000 business class airline ticket to Europe costs 500,000 points. But there’s another option. A better option.

 

American Express partners with many airlines. It’s possible to transfer your points to those airlines’ frequent flyer programs to book an award ticket using fewer points. However, finding seats on an airline for “saver” miles is challenging and time-consuming, and sometimes impossible. But that’s what we do—and doing it our way, we often use 125,000 AMEX points for that same $5,000 ticket. That’s a savings of 75%! Or, putting it another way, instead of using 500,000 points for 1 business class ticket, we can book 4 business class tickets, valued at $20,000. Now that’s providing value for your points!

Contact us to learn more about we can maximize your American Express Membership Rewards points.

Marriott to acquire Starwood

Pam Keystone - Saturday, January 31, 2015

Marriott announced its plans to purchase Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.  The deal, which will be completed in mid 2016, will create the world’s largest hotel company, with a total of 5,500 properties and 1,100,000 hotel rooms located in over a 100 countries. Also notable is the combination of award programs which will result in 75 million loyalty account members—Marriott reward members total 54 million and Starwood’s Preferred Guest program includes 21 million members.

Members of both companies’ award programs wonder how the merger will affect their point accounts. Marriott’s Arne Sorenson, who will be leading the new Marriott/Starwood, states that Marriott was especially attracted to Starwood’s award program. But he has not revealed how the two award programs will operate going forward. According to Sorenson, “We will take the best of both of these programs and make sure that those bests are preserved and that the program is enhanced.”

The positive news for Marriott reward members is that they will have access to Starwood’s portfolio of higher end properties. While Marriott members would certainly benefit from a 1:1 transfer of Marriott/SPG points (SPG points are considered more rewarding), it’s unlikely that Marriott will adopt SPG’s redemption policy since it no longer needs to appear competitive against Starwood’s SPG program.

According to some online comments, Starwood SPG members are worried that their points will be diluted in the merger and are considering  a switch to Hyatt’s award program. (Back in October, there were talks of a Starwood/Hyatt merger). Since news of the Marriott acquisition, Starwood stock has fallen 7.8%, Marriott fell 2.1% and Hyatt rose 2.8%.

In addition to its award program, Sorenson states that Marriott hopes to acquire Starwood’s share of the younger demographic, with it’s hip, modern W hotels and its user-friendly Starwood app.  The CEO also said this acquisition would give the mega-hotel brand a better chance at edging out non-traditional competitors like Airbnb.

How this merger ultimately affects award program members is yet to be seen but we will continue to monitor the situation and will keep you informed in the coming months.

Make the Most of your Miles with a 'reward trip specialist'

Pam Keystone - Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Click Here to Download PDF Copy of Article.

David GrossmanTraveler loyalty programs have grown increasingly complex in recent years. Most frequent travelers belong to multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs and now most large banks and credit card providers are offering their own points reward systems redeemable for travel and other prizes.

Tracking and managing your points and miles in this constantly evolving world is challenging, and redeeming those points and miles can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience. Perhaps that's why many frequent travelers seek help in managing their portfolios of points and mileage accounts.

Using a mileage/points tracking program

Mileage tracking and management services have been around since frequent traveler programs began, but more players continue to enter this arena. USATODAY.com's Miletracker, GoMiles, MileageManager, mileBlaster, Points.com, Traxo and TripIt are some of the many websites offering mileage/points tracking/management capabilities.

Mileage tracking programs can consolidate all your frequent traveler awards programs into a single place for better tracking and visibility to be certain the correct number of points have been deposited in or debited from your account. Many of these systems can claim missing points or miles on your behalf. Some programs will tell you when travel suppliers are running special offers that might substantially boost your miles or decrease the cost of award redemption. Most programs can also alert you when you've reached a new award level and warn you when your mileage expiration dates are approaching.

Some mileage/points tracking programs are free to use, others exact a modest annual fee. You generally need to provide these programs with the passwords to your mileage/points accounts in order to utilize their services.

Hiring a mileage manager

Another way to manage and maximize your points and miles is to hire a "Rewards Trip Specialist" like Pam Keystone. Keystone's company, The Art of Vacationing.com, specializes in rewards trip planning. "My business is to help people maximize the value of their points," she says. Keystone is just like a travel agent though she only arranges award travel using miles or points.

Keystone came up with this idea when she worked for the Marriott Vacation Club, where timeshare property owners earn millions of points in the Marriott Rewards program. Keystone says those mileage millionaires often struggled with the redemption process.

Travel loyalty programs can be quite complex, particularly those offered by hotel chains and credit card vendors that partner with many travel suppliers. For example, Marriott Rewards points may be redeemed on 30 different airlines.

To further complicate award redemption, once you've converted your hotel or credit card points into miles on one airline, you can often use those miles on that airline's partner airlines. For example, if you convert Marriott Rewards points to United Airlines Mileage Plus miles, you can use those miles on 27 additional Star Alliance carriers. This may help you find award seats when those seats are not available on United flights, but it also greatly increases the time, effort and knowledge required to find and book that award travel.

Keystone says many travelers give up when the airline tells them no award seats are available, but she keeps calling until she finds an airline with open seats. Keystone says she enjoys the challenge of trying to help her clients get the greatest possible value from their reward program points.

Keystone charges a flat rate for her services based on the number of flights, the length of hotel stay and the number of travelers. Her fee for a typical one-week trip for two is $295. She has been in business for a year and a half and currently has about 200 regular customers. Though many of her initial clients were Marriott timeshare owners, she now handles customers with points in many awards programs, like Starwood Preferred Guest or American Express Membership Rewards.

About 85% of the trips Keystone books are international, with many in first or business class. London, Paris and Prague are currently the hottest international destinations. Hawaii, Phoenix and Palm Springs make up most of the other 15% of her award travel requests.

Keystone always explores options with partner airlines, multiple travel dates, different routings and alternate gateways to locate the best deal. Most airline telephone agents don't know or won't check these options when a customer calls to redeem miles, says Keystone. "Even when I am on the phone with the agent, I have to tell them the routes to check."

Most airlines now offer a multi-tiered award redemption schedule. This often eliminates blackout dates and allows travelers to book award travel on any flight though they may pay double miles for that flight. Keystone says the airline agents often don't tell a customer they could pay half that amount of miles if they flew a day earlier or later. Keystone's goal is to book all award travel at the lowest tier.

You may also get a different story from every agent, according to Keystone. "You can call three times and two will tell you there are no seats and the third will tell you there is a seat." Sometimes Keystone will hang up and call back again to get a different person. "I'll call many, many times until I find that one agent who will really look and try to find the seats."

For most people, the time spent on hold waiting to reach an airline agent can be very discouraging. John Drewes, a Keystone customer who runs a financial planning firm in St. Petersburg, Florida, says it's too time-consuming to run his business and spend many hours on the phone booking a trip. Drewes says he would often be up till 3 a.m. talking to airlines to get the right seats before he hired Keystone. Now he just makes one call.

"Pam does all the legwork," says Merrill Cohen, an attorney in the Washington, D.C. area. "It's much easier to rely on an expert to book your award travel and it is well worth the fee."

Pam's Program Favorites

Domestic Airline: Keystone feels Continental Airlines offers the best customer service and the airline will hold your tickets up to 72 hours until your points from Marriott, Starwood or another program have transferred into your Continental OnePass account. 

International Airline: Keystone says Air France, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways consistently offer the best customer service and Lufthansa and Thai Airways are generally best for locating available award seats.

Airline Alliance: Keystone believes the Star Alliance offers the most award travel seats because it is the largest alliance, with 28 airline members including three domestic airline partners (Continental, United and US Airways). 

Hotel Program: Keystone likes the Marriott Rewards program best because it offers award redemption on 30 different airlines and 2,200 hotel properties worldwide.

Credit Card: Keystone prefers the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express which lets you accrue points in Keystone's overall favorite awards program.

Best Overall Award Program:Keystone prefers the Starwood Preferred Guest program overall because it stretches the value of your points by offering a part cash/part awards redemption option for hotel stays and an airline award redemption program that adds a 5,000 mile bonus to all points transfers.

Click here to Download PDF of Article

US Airway and AA Merger

Scott Robbins - Tuesday, April 08, 2014
On March 31, US Airways is leaving Star Alliance and joining the oneworld alliance.

The good news is that you will still be able to redeem US Airways miles on some Star Alliance carriers:
  • South African Airways
  • Turkish Airways
  • Air New Zealand
  • and many others
The bad news is that the US Airways and American Airlines mileage programs will operate separately so you will not be able to merge your miles in the two programs until sometime in 2015.

Important Upcoming Dates and Info

Pam Keystone - Friday, July 26, 2013

RewardsPlus
Marriott Platinum members are invited to link their United MileagePlus account to gain immediate Silver Status with United.

In addition to complimentary access to Economy Plus seating at check-in, priority airport check-in and boarding and one free checked bag...

Soon you will enjoy a 20% discount when you convert your Marriott points to MileagePlus and a 10% mileage bonus on travel packages. Perfect for getting those business class tickets to far-away places!

Sept. 30th, 2013
Last day to elect 2014 ownership weeks for Vacation Club points

December 31, 2013
Last day to turn your weeks in for Marriott Rewards points (which can be used at hotels and for airline tickets)

Marriott Trust Points Purchase

Pam Keystone - Friday, July 26, 2013

Now that most owners have enrolled in the Destinations Club program, Marriott is turning up the pressure for you to purchase "Trust points". If all you have is access to points converted from your deeded weeks, they will tell you that you need to spend more money and purchase "Trust Points" in order to enjoy all of the benefits of the program. You may also be told that you need more points in order to rise to a Premier or Premier Plus level. Does this sound familiar to you?

From our experience in managing hundreds of owners weeks and points, I have been unable to substantiate most of the benefits the Sales Reps are extolling. Below are just a few examples:

"You will be able to use your club points to book 13 months in advance for stays of 7 or more days at an MVCI resort."

Yes, BUT, at 13 months there is rarely any inventory. We have contacted MVCI hundreds of times to book 13 months out for our clients and we are told to call back at 12 months. If it is still not available at 12 months prior, then we have the option of going on a wait list with all owners, regardless of status. I wouldn't pay extra for this benefit.

"You will be able to use your points to book in to Ritz Carlton Club properties."


Yes, BUT, when are the Ritz's available? We have tried many times to book our clients into a Ritz property, even during off-season times, and there is rarely any availability. I would say that this is not much of a benefit.

For a list of other Marriott points to be aware of, please click on this link.

Marriott Rewards Points Changes

Pam Keystone - Thursday, February 28, 2013

Marriott Rewards will make dramatic changes to the category levels of many Marriott hotels on May 15, 2013.

A few hotels will drop in category but most will increase. They have also introduced a Category 9 requiring 45,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. The best hotels in Paris, London and New York will be upgraded to category 9.


As long as you book your hotel stay prior to May 15, 2013 (even if your check-in dates are past May 15, 2013) you can take advantage of the current points required.

Click here to download a copy of the 2013 Marriott Rewards Hotel category changes list.

Marriott Reward Points Dec. 2012 Deadline

Pam Keystone - Wednesday, August 01, 2012

December 31st, 2012 is the last day to turn your weeks in for Marriott Rewards points (which can be used at hotels and for airline tickets).

Continental - United Merger and Points

Pam Keystone - Friday, March 02, 2012
On March 3rd, 2012 Continental and United will finally merge.

These two airlines are major partners of Marriott Rewards and this merger will have a negative impact on booking award seats as more travelers will be vying for this limited inventory.

If you are thinking of taking a trip using your Marriott points, start planning now. You can book 11 months ahead of your travel dates.

Contact Us Today for help with setting up these travels.

Click here to read the latest on the merger.

Destination Club Exchange Program - June 14th, 2012 Deadline

Pam Keystone - Thursday, March 01, 2012
Marriott is now putting on the pressure to enroll in the Destinations Club Exchange Program. Today, the enrollment fee starts at $595. On June 14th, the fee will increase to $2,395--a 300% jump in cost. I was expecting to see an increase soon but not 4x's the price!

Click Here for more information about the Destinations Club Exchange and a break down of the Pro's and Con's.


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Dreaming about upcoming vacations is always fun. Then the frustrating tedium of transferring points, black out dates, rules and regulations, innumerable contacts... the fun is gone. Thanks so much, Pam, for listening to our dreams, and then doing the hard part, so we could anticipate the fun

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