Wednesday, February 20, 2013

American Express Gold card with 50,000 point sign-up bonus with only $1,000 spending threshold

The American Express Gold card is renowned for offering quarterly 75,000 point sign-up bonuses for 1 day.  Whereas the bonus is extremely generous, many registrants may have trouble meeting the lofty $10,000 spending threshold, which needs to be completed within the first 4 months of membership.  Via, Amex has just released a temporary promo offering a 50k point sign-up bonus with a spending threshold of only $1,000 within the first 3 months of membership, which should be easily doable even for the poor college student at a subsidized public school.

It's unclear as to how long the offer will be good for, but if history is any indicator, deals don't last long.  To sign up, go to their offer match page and enter your info.  Social security number is optional, so you can leave it blank.  The 50k Amex Gold card should be the first one that shows up.  A few of the Amex Gold card's more notable bennies:

-3X points on airfare
-2X points on gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations and at U.S. stand-alone supermarkets
-1X points on all other purchases
-Extended warranty
-Return protection
-Amex's legendary purchase protection
-Annual fee waived for the first year, then $175

Overall, this is a good card to have in your wallet because gasoline and food are a part of everyone's daily routine, so the 2X points can add up pretty quickly.  Amex Membership Rewards points also got a boost when ANA announced the end of fuel surcharges for award bookings on United Airlines.  As Membership Rewards can be transferred to ANA miles at a 1:1 ratio, 50k points can get you close to a free flight to Japan.  ANA's redemption chart for premium class travel is also really generous, so it might be something worth saving up for with your Membership Rewards account:

ANA's award redemption chart for partner airlines (aka United Airlines and US Airways)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hawaiian Airlines offering fares from select California cities for $223

If you live in a place like Sapporo, you're pretty much fed up with months of endless snow forcing you to cave into your office.  Fortunately, it's now the prime time to hit up paradise since it's the low season for the Aloha State.  Hawaiian Airlines is offering fares from San Jose or Oakland to Kahalui, Maui for as little as $223 with an affiliate discount code.  Prices haven't been this low in years, and it looks like availability is sporadic yet reasonable.

To book, go to Hawaiian Air's affiliate page and enter code AQUA to log in.  The 5% discount will be applied at checkout.  Advertised promo is good for flights through March 20th and must be booked by February 21st, but Hawaiian Air frequently extends booking deadlines beyond the promotional period.  Here is the list of other mainland cities included in the sale:

Although Hawaiian Air partners with Delta, United, and American Airlines, none of the legacy carriers credit miles for flights to/fro the mainland U.S.  It's also unclear whether or not you can accrue Hawaiian Miles with the affiliate discount applied, so if mileage earnings is important to you, burn that $9.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Maximizing the Tokyo Park Hyatt's "4th Night Free" promo

The Tokyo Park Hyatt is easily the best hotel in Japan, where 5-star hotels abound like Starbucks in the U.S.  But with an average going base rate of $543 for a deluxe room, the luxury hotel is barely affordable for even the savviest business traveler.  Even with their current "4th Night Free" promo, you're still looking at $1,629 for a 4-night stay.  Fortunately, a cheaper unadvertised corporate rate has been unearthed that can fetch you $334 for a deluxe room through the end of May 2013.  And if that's not already cheap enough for Japan's flagship hotel, the special rate is stackable with their 4th Night Free Promo, thus getting you 4 nights for $1,002!!
As always, it's important to look at how to maximize points even with a rate that's affordable for high schoolers on spring break.  Hyatt's current quarterly promo offers 3,000 bonus points for every 3 nights of stay, so you can land an additional 3k points on top of the 5x base points per dollar spent.  In the case of a 4-night stay for $1,002, you're looking at 8,010 points (1,002 x5 + 3,000), which equates to 1 free night at a category 2 hotel.

Since a cat 2 hotel may not seem appealing to the biz traveler, there's a way to further sweeten this deal with the Hyatt Chase credit card, which is renown for their lucrative sign-up bonus of 2 free nights at any Hyatt hotel.  From a points earning perspective, the card dishes out 3 points per dollar spent at Hyatts and grants Platinum status to the holder.  Platinum status includes the usual mid-tier bennies such as 15% points bonus, complimentary Internet, late checkout, etc.  Hyatt's 3k promo also grants an additional 20% bonus points to Hyatt cc holders.  So by booking the $1,002 deal with this cc, you're looking at the follow earnings:
1,002 x5 x1.15 + 3,600 + 1,002 x3 = 12,368 points, which equates to 1 free night at a category 3 hotel such as the Tokyo Hyatt Regency, Taipei Grand Hyatt, Hong Kong Hyatt Regency, etc.
A 4-night stay for $1,002 (+ taxes and service charges) at the best hotel in Japan, plus enough points for a free night at a cat 3 hotel: this is a no-brainer for anyway staying 4+ nights in Tokyo through May 2013.  I stayed at the Tokyo Park Hyatt in September 2011, and it more than lived up to its name:

1.  Huge comfy rooms.  55 square meters for a deluxe room, which is equivalent to a suite at most upscale hotels.
2.  Amazing views of Tokyo and even Mount Fuji on a clear day.  The hotel is located on the 41st-55th floors of one of the tallest buildings in the bustling Shinjuku District.
Don't look down on the wiper man as he's working to clarify your view.  Too bad the weather's not cooperating.
3.  Knowledgeable concierge staff with free cell phone rentals.  Incoming calls in Japan are always free, so use it to receive calls and you won't pay a penny.
Platinum member welcome amenity
4.  Phenomenal customer service from check-in to check-out.  This is what defines the hotel and it's actually what you're paying for.  The employees always address you by your last name and will never allow you to carry your own luggage.  And, more so than any other white-collar worker in Japan's legendary service industry, they actually appreciate your business and value you as a customer.

Even though the 4th Night Free promo runs through December 20th, 2013, the special stackable corporate rate is only good through the end of May 2013 and is only valid on a 4+ night stay.  Book through this channel and ignore the "No special offers" message.  The payment for the 4th night is supposed to be refunded after check-out per the terms and conditions, but I make no such guarantee, so book at your own risk.  As with most special offers, this deal is nonrefundable and payment is due in full at the time of booking, unlike the advertised expensive 4th Night Free promo which is fully refundable.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Merger blues: American Airlines and US Airways

American Airlines and US Airways announced yesterday to no one's surprise that their executive boards have approved a merger, thus creating the biggest airline company in the world.  Where have we heard this before?  Oh yeah, Delta, Northwest, United, Continental, etc. all claiming that their mergers would create the biggest and best networks on the planet.  As many of you may recall from last year, the merger between United and Continental was a marriage made in hell as the new United struggled with flight consolidation, short staffing, flight delays/cancellations, and system integration failures.  Top-tiered 1K elite members had to wait for over an hour over the phone just to book a flight, and elite "priority lines" spun for an eternity.  Furthermore, United severely devalued their loyalty program, thus angering their frequent flyers and sending them off on endless rampages on online forums.  It's no wonder that AA's frequent flyers, who have grown accustomed to easily the best airline loyalty program in the U.S., all have their hands on the panic button.  After all, US Air has garnered a reputation as being one of the worst airlines in America, a feat only bested by United.
As they get bigger, your wallet will get smaller with less competition resulting in higher fares
US Air expects the merger to be complete by the third quarter of 2013, which is a lofty goal considering that it took over a year for United and Continental to merge.  AA will retain the name and logo of the new airline, and the AAdvantage program should take precedence.  US Air, which is currently a Star Alliance member, will be switching over to AA's one world alliance.  Many frequent flyer pundits anticipate devaluations for elite members, which has become the norm for carriers as they struggle to maintain profits.  For example, AA currently has 3 elite tiers with top-tiered Executive Platinum members who receive 8 SWUs.  US Air has 4 elite tiers with top-tiered Chairman Preferred members who receive 2 SWUs, so expect a balancing act there with EXPs getting shorted and AA creating a 4th mid-tier elite level.  And AA elite Gold members, who currently have the best perks for a bottom tier elite on the market, should expect to see some substantial losses in the same way that Delta and most notably United dropped the bomb on their bottom tier elites.
What to do now
AA has a good award redemption chart, and their miles are arguably one of the most valuable.  US Air has a decent award chart, but it's coupled with the most incompetent phone agents on the planet who don't have clue who their airline partners are.  Nevertheless, US Air has hidden gems such as North America to North Asia in biz class for only 90k miles and intra-North Asia biz class for 30k miles (the same itinerary would cost you 110k and 80k with AA).  In other words, I don't expect much of a devaluation to their award chart as other pundits suggest since both programs have good redemption rates.  Because miles will be consolidated from your AA and US Air accounts, now would be a good time to sign up for US Air's 40k miles credit card to maximize your award miles balance.  AA doesn't have a good sign-up bonus credit card at the moment.
Bottom line
Elite benefits devaluation?  Probably.  Award chart devaluation?  Maybe.  Merger?  Definitely.  A merger made in hell?  Possibly.  Let's just keep our fingers cross in hopes that they don't pull a United, which is actually tough to beat.  Stay tuned for the many updates to come at their new merger website.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The best perk of being a oneworld Emerald flying on JAL domestically

This past week, oneworld welcomed 5-star flag carrier Malaysian Airlines into their alliance.  In commemoration of this addition, all oneworld carriers are offering double award miles for flights on Malaysian Airlines through April 15th.  In a separate though seemingly related press release, oneworld improved top-tier Emerald benefits with extra baggage allowance and fast track security lane access at select airports.  Though the latter benefit was already granted at most major airports, the former benefit is welcoming and long overdue as Star Alliance and Skyteam have been granting extra baggage allowance to their top tier elites for years.  In fact, United Airlines even offers a free checked bag for lowly Star Alliance Silver members.

Even with this benefit, Emerald status gives you nearly zilch in terms of flying on JAL domestically.  JAL already offers a free checked bag domestically and their domestic lounges are a complete joke.  Since Japanese airports are arguably the most efficient on the planet, there's hardly ever a security line, so there's little to gain with fast track security access.  However, JAL does offer an audible appreciation of your Emerald status upon priority boarding that makes you stand out above all:
*DING* You are now free to board the plane first.  The agent even included an affectionate "Hai" before raising the pitch on her normally bland "arigatou gozaimasu".  Sad but true that this is the only noticeable difference between an Emerald and a bottom feeder flying on JAL domestically.  Kind of makes you wish you were back in the U.S. flying on AA with free upgrades to first class at the expense of crummy service.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

NRT JAL domestic Sakura lounge

One World lounge tour of Tokyo Narita
NRT-LAX AA business class
LAX AA Flagship Lounge
LAX-NRT AA business class
NRT JAL domestic Sakura lounge

As the final highlight of my CTS-SFO roundtrip itinerary, I visited the NRT Japan Airlines domestic Sakura lounge before my final trip segment from NRT-CTS.  As noted in a previous post, JAL really skimps out on their domestic lounge product, particularly when compared to their international lounges.  Typically, domestic lounges are limited to complimentary drinks and basic alcohol with the occasional crackers.  So my expectations were extremely low when visiting this domestic business class lounge.  At NRT, JAL has an astounding 6 international lounges (3 First Class and 3 Sakura business class lounges) but a meager lone domestic lounge, which all serves to prove the importance of NRT as an international hub and its insignificance as a domestic airport.  Perhaps only LHR exhibits such a drastic contrast in terms of their international and domestic operations.

Shower room
There's nothing like taking a nice warm shower after a long transpacific flight.  Because the NRT JAL domestic lounge only has 3 shower rooms, I immediately put my name on the waitlist, which took about 30 minutes.
The shower room was small, which is the norm for a Japanese carrier lounge.  There was no toilet and the amenities were limited to toothbrushes, toothpaste, a shower cap, a comb, and a hair dryer.  Basically, everything you need for a shower and nothing more.
Food and Drink selection
Since CTS, HND, and especially NGO domestic Sakura lounges' consumables sections were a complete joke, I expected nothing more from the NRT domestic lounge.  To my surprise, the lounge actually had physical food in the form of mini sandwiches, buns, muffins, and crackers.
Personal workspace featuring a view of NRT's famed Terminal 2 One World check-in counters.
The 3 sandwich choices were scrambled eggs, tuna mayonnaise, and turkey.  Since they all contained at least once slice of ham, I skipped them and opted for the buns and green tea muffins.  The lounge had two beverage counters featuring the normal soft drinks, juices, coffee machine, and basic alcohol.
The lounge had two large rooms with sofa seats, a workspace room, a smoking room, and a massage chair room.  This may seem ample, but as the only One World domestic lounge in NRT, the seats filled up pretty quickly.  In anticipation of mid-afternoon international arrivals, many of the domestic connecting flights depart in the early evening, so this is the time when the lounge can get really crowded.  The seating capacity was absolutely night and day from when I entered the lounge at 4:30 pm and left at 6 pm.
Bottom line
Unlike their NGO shared lounge with ANA, which lacks even the most basic amenity of WiFi, JAL actually gets it right when it comes to their token NRT domestic lounge.  This is their best domestic lounge in terms of food offerings, but a distant second in terms of seating and alcohol from the flagship first class HND Diamond Premier Lounge.  Since the vast majority of guests are connecting from international flights, JAL probably finds it necessary to provide at least some type of food offerings to preserve their hallowed image as Japan's flag carrier.  JAL should invest in a first class domestic lounge at NRT since all One World customers connecting to Japanese cities outside of Tokyo are basically diverted to this terminal, and a flagship Diamond Premier Lounge would help ease the crowding at this lounge while providing an ambient atmosphere for passengers getting off from legendary first class cabins on JAL, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, and British Airways.