Monday, July 31, 2017

A fun tool for visualizing your trips

I just gave a try yesterday and it's a fun little tool for visualizing your travel. It connected directly to my TripIt account (after I granted permission) and imported and analyzed 8 years of my travel. (TIP: you can email old airline confirmations to TripIt and it should be able to import them even though they're several years old)

They support several other types itinerary management software too.

First off – who doesn't love a map! From there it shows a bunch of stats about my travel: the types of aircraft I flew, which airports I used, international/domestic breakdown, and maybe most importantly: Economy vs. Business vs. First 😂

Rumors of my glamorous lifestyle have been greatly exaggerated…

On the disturbing news front: I've spent 58 days and 7 hours in the air! There's heaps more info to look at, so if you browse a snapshot of my data, go here.

When you're logged in there's are several other views beyond what you see in the snapshot. I really enjoyed seeing the breakdown of all the different plane types I'd flown on. The chronological view is also nice since it's much more smooth and scroll-able than the stuck-in-2004 interface that TripIt has.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Amex Offers bonanza!

UPDATE (8/26/2017): I've made 19,000 points from these Amex Offers and I'll get 3000 more from these promos next month!

The Chase Sapphire Reserve's overwhelming popularity has got Amex shaking in their boots. From the looks of things, they're spending a bunch of marketing money by coming up with Amex Offers to bribe people into using their Amex cards for purchases that are likely not in the Sapphire's bonus categories (dining and travel).

The big wildcard with Amex Offers is that they're somewhat random – there are different offers for different customers, and they're different on every card if you have more than one type of Amex. After looking over my offers, here's how I'm getting in on the action:

5000 bonus miles for spending $5000

I have lots of spending that doesn't neatly fall into any card's bonus category, so I'm stuck earning one lowly point per dollar on it. With this offer, I can essentially double it, provided I hit the spending target. I've charged a few big expenses from my business to my personal Amex (which was my only card with this offer) and then filed an expense report for myself. I've already gotten a confirmation email from Amex that I've reached the threshold once, and I'm going to try to hit it a second time.

1000 bonus points for spending $100 on cellular bills

I have the T-Mobile ONE plan right now, but it's set to auto-pay $70 a month. I went in and manually made a payment of $101 and it went through no problem. Click Pay Now, then manually enter an amount, and click to confirm that you're overpaying your bill. I got an email confirmation from Amex that the offer bonus happened a few minutes later.

Luckily this offer showed up on the same card as the previous one, so my payment here will also help me hit that $5000.

Near-instant confirmation


1000 points for paying your cable bill

Here's another offer that will stack with the first one and is also in a category where I'd otherwise only earn one point per dollar. I was really hoping that this offer would be on another of my or my husband's cards so we could double-dip (our cable/internet bill is $210 a month) by each making a half-payment on the bill, but alas he didn't get this offer. Again, I got an email confirmation from Amex that I'd earned the bonus minutes after the charge went through. 


Home Depot one extra bonus point per dollar

I need a new shower head and Home Depot stocks the one I need (our fixtures have weird color and it needs to match) so I added this Amex Offer to my card before I bought. This spending also counts toward the $5000 in the first offer, plus I'm earning 2 points per dollar on top of that. Like a bad "As seen on TV" commercial, "But wait, there's more!" – if I use the United Mileage Shopping portal to visit Home Depot's website, I'll earn another point per dollar, plus it'll count toward their Back To School bonus program

Using the United Mileage Shopping portal, I'm going to nab another 500 points on this showerhead


Kinda "manufacturing" some spending paying my ConEd electric bill

Our local utility here in NYC has a website that seems like it hasn't been updated since about 2003, but it does let you pay your energy bill online via credit card for a flat $3.35 fee regardless of the size of the payment. Assuming each mile is worth 2¢, that means this fee is "worth it" for any amount over $167. I'd read on Reddit's churning forums that you can charge up to $1500 on the ConEd website and the remainder simply applies to next month's bill. This could come in handy if you go abroad for longer trips because their website isn't accessible outside the United States. I charged $1200 and this should help me reach that second 5000 point bonus. (Also, there's some penny-wise logic in paying that $3.35 fee as few times as possible).


Martha Stewart Wine

Both my and my husband's cards got this offer for $40 off a $50 order. Most of wine offers on the various points programs want you to join some kind of club so I never bother. This one didn't. We did one order on my card, used a Coravin to sample all three and then used my husband's offer to buy 3 bottles of the one we liked most (the Ocean Breeze Pinot Noir).

Monday, July 24, 2017

What category will my transaction be?

Another useful tool that I've recently come across is a Visa search that helps you figure out what official category the charges from a specific merchant will code to on your Visa statement.

Since many cards have category bonuses (e.g., groceries, gas, dining), this can be helpful to figure out which card to use at various merchants. It's especially helpful if it's a merchant you've never been to and you don't have any historical data in your own account to look back on.

Check it out!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cool tool to search for award seats across all airlines

One of the toughest parts of the points game is actually finding the flights you want once you've gathered enough points. Most people end up with a mix of points across several carriers and maybe a pile or two of transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.

If you're just perusing possibilities, is great for showing you all of your potential options. You can filter the list so it doesn't show flights with programs you don't have points for. While this is great for brainstorming (and for choosing which new points programs to join), it doesn't show the availability of those rewards, so you'll need to use something different once you're ready to book.
Award Hacker (click to enlarge)

There are several options to look for reward seat availability. The "beginner" way is to search one airline's site and make sure it's set to also show partner flights (e.g., using can show you results for United and nearly all of their Star Alliance partners). There are a few downsides to this, the biggest is that you have to search at least 3 websites (United/Star Alliance, Delta/SkyTeam, and American/Oneworld) for availability when you're trying to use transferable points. Another is that many airlines hide available award seats from their alliance partners when inventories get low.

But if you're looking for an award seat that's pretty easy to find, say, 1 person, 10 months from now, in low season on a busy route, that's likely all you need. But if you're looking for something a bit more challenging, you'll quickly want smarter tools. Earlier this year, a new startup called launched that adds real-time seat availability to AwardHacker-style rewards searches. Yes, there are other options for this type of service (Expert Flyer, Award Nexus, FlightFox) but I've found they're almost too "pro" for most of my needs. AwardEx has a simple interface and a straightforward pricing structure pricing after you've used up your signup credits

It's a lot like searching on Kayak or Google flights. Put in your dates and cities (it automatically includes nearby airports) and other flight info and search.

Search (click to enlarge)

Results are conveniently grouped by transferable point programs first, then by individual airlines below. One feature I'd love to see here is some kind of a flag letting you know that one of these groups includes a direct flight.
Results (click to enlarge)

Once the results load, make sure you take advantage of that Sort button to find those cheap/nonstop flights.

Once you've found a flight you like, AwardEx gives you instructions for how to book.

I've spot-checked several examples and each time I've been able to actually locate the open seat it's recommended at the price point shown in AwardEx. Since seats can vanish without warning, it's helpful to know in advance which transferable points transfer instantly and which ones don't (cheat sheet here).

This seems like a great tool to have in my toolbox going forward. Since I only learned of it after planning our next big trip, I'll have to report back on how useful it is planning the trip after that.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

More competition coming for the Big 3 US carriers

Despite the PR nightmare of United's recent dragging and beating episode, United is on track to have a great quarter, and they'll likely have their highest number of boardings ever. Despite all of those Facebook comment threats about "never flying them again", it's amazing how many people still do when it's the cheapest, most-convenient, or only option. People might still hate United, but not enough to pay $50 more or take a 2-stop itinerary instead of a direct one...

This is why competition is so important. I still don't understand why the Obama administration approved the three mergers that eliminated Continental, US Air, and Virgin America. The airlines have now fully recovered from their post-9/11 financial crises, are making record profits, and yet they're raising prices, introducing "Basic Economy" fares with even fewer amenities, and treating customers worse than ever. As we drift toward monopoly, this is exactly what we'd predict would happen.

Well, there's been a little bit of good news on the competition front.
  • Frontier just announced a huge expansion – adding 21 new cities and 300 new pilots. 
  • Alaska is expanding to 13 new routes from the Bay Area, and potentially adding passenger service out of north Seattle's Paine Field
  • In somewhat shocking news, Southwest's previous booking system was so stone age, it didn't support red-eye flights, nor several other seemingly-basic features. Their new system should allow them all kinds new options to compete. 
  • The new 737-Max and A321-LR planes are giving budget airlines the ability to do transatlantic service. Norwegian is already offering transatlantic service out of JFK, Newark, and NYC-exurb Newburgh (SWF), and while they may force you to pay for your carry-on, they're at least giving you free Wi-Fi onboard
  • A new-ish low cost carrier called Primera is using new A321s to launch service between NYC/Boston and London, Paris, and Birmingham.
  • JetBlue is adding transatlantic service when they take delivery of their A321-LRs in 2018, and they'll feature the industry-leading Mint Business Class
  • Speaking of JetBlue Mint, they've also announced the Mint is being added to Seattle and San Diego and being expanded at Boston. And the Big 3 (mostly) only offer 38" recliner seats only those routes, so JetBlue has a competitive double-whammy there.
New JetBlue Mint routes

As a data point on competition: the introduction of Mint on the JFK-SFO/LAX run caused United, Delta, and American to drop their prices on these runs by $1000, so you'll likely benefit even if you're flying one of the legacy carriers.

Monday, July 17, 2017

JetBlue will status match to Mosaic

Over the weekend I got an email from JetBlue that they're bringing back status matches and status challenges. The former allows people with status on another airline to try out JetBlue's Mosaic elite status, and the latter allows non-elites to earn status through the end of next year by flying $1250 worth of JetBlue flights in 90 days.

My husband ended up earning Mosaic status largely by accident,  and we've scrutinized the benefits we've gotten from it and found that we got around $1200 of value out of it. Since people use some benefits more than others, you might want to look carefully at what it's worth before you make any decisions.

In our case, it's looking like my husband might miss making Mosaic status for next year due to fewer work trips this year, so he's planning on signing up for the challenge to still requalify for 2018. The one downer here is if you qualify via the challenge, you don't get the 15,000 bonus points (worth about $200) for making Mosaic.

You can enter the match or the challenge here. All the fine print is at the bottom. Here are the elite statuses they'll match:

  • Virgin America®: Elevate® Silver, Elevate® Gold
  • Alaska Airlines®: Mileage Plan™; MVP® Gold or MVP® Gold 75k
  • American Airlines®: AAdvantage Platinum®, AAdvantage Platinum Pro®, AAdvantage Executive Platinum®
  • Delta®: SkyMiles Medallion® Silver, Gold, Platinum or Diamond
  • Southwest Airlines®: Rapid Rewards® A-List Preferred or Companion Pass
  • United®: MileagePlus® Premier® Silver, Gold, Platinum or Premier1K®

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Big changes to Aeromexico's Upgrade plan

We started planning the annual pilgrimage to Mexico a bit early this year. We loved Oaxaca so much last year that we basically want to repeat the schedule from last year:
   NYC > Oaxca > Puerto Vallarta > NYC.
We booked last year in September and many of the food and mezcal tours we wanted to take were already sold out for our late January dates, so we wanted to book a bit earlier this year.

There are several challenges in that itinerary, but probably the biggest one is that final direct flight back to New York. United (and Delta back when they used to compete on this route) will charge you USD$1000 per person for that trip whether it's a one-way or a round-trip. I got lucky last year and found a Mexican travel agent who could book the one way for $600-ish. Sadly they couldn't make that happen again this year, so I had try several different tricks but managed to eventually land the one-way for $550 in Business (happy to share how privately).

As I discussed in previous planning posts, there are never any Saver award seats on these direct NYC-PVR flights, and very rarely are there seats at the Standard award level, either.


Goodbye, Optiontown…

Ok, so we've got a flight home, now it's time to start looking for the other legs. Unfortunately there have been lots of changes since last year so I can't just copy-paste what I did last year. In years past, you could buy a coach ticket with Aeromexico, and then enter a lottery for a $50 upgrade through a 3rd party company called Optiontown. That's now been scrapped in favor of a new homegrown Upgrade auction system. From what I've been able to find on Flyertalk, winning bids are generally in the $150 to $200 range and you have to bid on each segment of your flight separately if you're on a connecting itinerary.
New Aeromexico Upgrade system

Right now a one-way Aeromexico flight from JFK to Oaxaca is about $950 in First, and about half that price in Economy. The next-best option is a United one-stop flight via Houston, but it's more expensive, there are no Saver rewards, and a long leg of that itinerary is on a tiny regional jet with no First or Business. (The Aeromexico flight is on a 787 with lie-flat seats). Furthermore, whenever I fly into a small town, I'd prefer to be on the biggest local carrier. United has one flight a day into OAX and if there's a mechanical problem their options are limited compared to Aeromexico's.

In years past they've had quite a bit of award seats available (usually netting around 3¢ each after you transfer from Amex) but now their Saver First award calendar is completely empty throughout the winter. (This might also be related to their recent addition of Peak dates for rewards) One way or the other, it looks like we're going to have to buy the tickets this year.

Zero saver award seats in First on any days in Jan/Feb

If you book right now (i.e., July/low season), there's plenty of choices

One other thing that's changed since last year is that Aeromexico has moved to Terminal 4 at JFK from Terminal 1. Their lounge in T1 was quite nice, so I'm not very hopeful for this new one.

UPDATE: You can now use Delta upgrade certificates on Aeromexico. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

LOT Polish Airlines starting direct New York to Budapest service

Hungary hasn't had direct service to the US since American Airlines cut their flight and Malév went bankrupt in 2012, but it looks like starting next May, they're going to sponsor a new fifth freedom flight between NYC/Chicago and Budapest operated by LOT Polish Airlines.  Having a direct flight will help tourism and commerce so it makes sense the Hungarian government would want to sponsor this service. Apparently they originally planning to have Emirates operate the flight, but that fell through.

My first-ever 787 flight was on LOT Polish (their entire long-haul fleet is 787), and we had a great trip. I wrote a trip report for it over on I've always wanted to go to Budapest and I might actually take this flight when I finally get around to going. They're part of Star Alliance, and you can search/book award flights through Also, I don't know if this is typical, but I actually called their call center (push the buttons to get to the First Class support people) and they actually manually opened up another award seat for me so our friend could join us as a last-minute addition.

Lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 config
Their chef is a "taste sorceress"
Z is nearly 2 meters tall but there's plenty of headroom
We got a sneak peak at the crew rest "bump"