Tuesday, January 31, 2012

$39 For $100 Toward Round-Trip Airfare On Virgin America

This is a great offer from Groupon! Pay $39 and receive a $100 promo code for use on a round-trip Virgin America flight between San Francisco (SFO) and Chicago (ORD), or Los Angeles (LAX) and Chicago (ORD). Tickets must be purchased at least three days in advance of outbound travel, prior to 11:59 pm CST on February 29, 2012. Travel must occur between February 3 and March 31, 2012, with blackout dates on February 17 and 20, 2012. In addition, free in-flight WiFi from Gogo (one-way) is included (a $12.95 value).

This offer is only valid for non-refundable Main Cabin fare classes in S, L, M, U, E, H, B, or V. Limit one per person. The promo code may only be used once and is valid for a single guest round-trip itinerary. Full terms and conditions.

EDIT: Wow, that went fast. This deal is already sold out on Groupon!

Monday, January 30, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - Exploring Milford Sound

***This post is part 9 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Milford Sound is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand, yet ironically, there are very few facilities nearby for overnight guests. There are only two hotels (the Mitre Peak Lodge and the Milford Lodge), one small supermarket, and one restaurant in the entire area.

Plane spotting at the Milford Sound Airport

We completed the Milford Track on Christmas Day, which was a great way to celebrate. Unfortunately, that also meant everything in Milford Sound was shutting down early... leaving us with nothing to eat besides what was left from the hike. We were extremely lucky that the only restaurant in town, the Blue Duck Cafe, was still open when we arrived around 3:00 pm. Naturally, after four days of eating nothing but freeze-dried food and trail mix bars, we gorged ourselves on whatever we could order!

The Milford Lodge is the nicer of the two hotels in town. It has a wide range of rooms available, from shared dormitories to the newer standalone chalets right next to the Cleddau River. We decided to splurge a little and book one night in a chalet, which was a great idea after four long days of backpacking. I can't even begin to describe how amazing that first shower felt! While expensive (around $250/night), it was definitely worth it just for the extra privacy and convenience of an ensuite bathroom and mini-kitchen. The rooms were very modern and comfortable, and the floor-to-ceiling windows afforded some fantastic views of the scenery outside. Note that the lodge is actually a 10-minute walk from Milford Sound though, so you can't actually see the famous landmark.

Chalets next to the Cleddau River

Friday, January 27, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - The Milford Track

***This post is part 8 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The Milford Track is one of the most well-known hikes (or tramps, as they would say in New Zealand) in the world. As such, several regulations have been put in place to ensure that the trail remains pristine. During the summer peak season of October through April, access is highly regulated. A maximum of 90 hikers (40 independent, 50 guided) are allowed to start the trail each day, only in the northward direction.

Absolutely no camping is allowed anywhere on the Milford Track, so there are three huts along the route to house independent hikers (guided groups stay at private lodges with better amenities). They are the Clinton Hut, Mintaro Hut, and Dumpling Hut. Each hut has basic facilities that include bunk areas, restrooms (flush toilets but no showers), and gas cookers, but hikers must carry in all of their own food and cooking equipment.

Whether you are going independently or with a guide, booking your reservation in advance is absolutely essential as spots fill up quickly, especially during the holiday season. We made our reservations on the Department of Conservation website exactly six months in advance on the day they became available, and even then, we had to move our schedule back one day because space was already gone. During the winter season, the trail and huts are not maintained and it can be extremely dangerous to do the hike. You can read more about winter hiking here.

Throughout our four days on the trail, we didn't experience a single drop of rain, which is highly unusual. Since the Milford Track cuts through temperate rain forest, there is typically heavy precipitation at least two out of every three days. Every ranger at the huts mentioned how rare it was to see such clear, sunny weather for more than two consecutive days. We were indeed very lucky, as I had read many horror stories online about how wet the Milford Track can get, with flooding and helicopter evacuations a real possibility.

The hike starts off with an easy first day. After disembarking the ferry at Glade Wharf, a quick 2.2 mile walk leads to the Clinton Hut. Be sure to do the side trip around the wetland board walk, as the scenery there is rather sublime. There is a bit of free time that evening, so exploring the nearby swimming hole or going on a night hike to see the small patch of glow worms are all good options.

Wetland board walk

Clinton Hut

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - Exploring Queenstown And Getting To The Milford Track

***This post is part 7 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***  

Getting into Queenstown from the airport is very easy with the Connectabus service. It costs only 6 NZD and runs every 15 minutes directly into the downtown area. Once there, it is walkable to most of the main tourist sights, although there are also many hotels and backpackers lodges on the outskirts of the city where a taxi might be needed.

We had booked two double rooms at the Aspen Lodge Backpackers, which is about a five-minute walk from the center of town. The setup was very basic, but at the very least our units had a shared private bathroom. The lodge also has dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds and community bathrooms. The Aspen Lodge Backpackers was perfectly comfortable for our one-night stay, and I was especially happy with the high-pressure shower and plentiful hot water.

Aspen Lodge Backpackers

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chase Freedom 30,000 Ultimate Rewards Bonus Points Promotion Revived

I posted about the Chase Freedom card in October of last year, when they ran a 30,000 Ultimate Rewards bonus points offer ($300 cash back) after spending $500 within the first three months. The old link died mid-December, but it looks like a new working link for the same offer is back today. You can read a detailed analysis of the Chase Freedom card in my previous post.

In general, I would say this is one of the best cash back credit cards out there with no annual fee. You earn 5% cash back (5 UR points per dollar) on rotating categories that change every quarter (activation required each quarter), though this is limited to the first $1,500 in purchases within the bonus categories. All other purchases earn 1% cash back (1 UR point per dollar), with no limits on those earnings. For 2012, the categories are: 

January 1, 2012 March 31, 2012 
      - Gas stations
      - Amazon.com 
April 1, 2012 June 30, 2012
      - Grocery stores
      - Movie theaters
July 1, 2012 September 30, 2012
      - Gas stations
      - Restaurants
October 1, 2012 – December 31, 2012
      - Hotels
      - Airlines
      - Best Buy
      - Kohl's

No word yet on when this offer will expire, so apply soon!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Changes To Airline Fare And Fee Rules Coming Tomorrow

Starting tomorrow January 24, 2012, new rules from the Department Of Transportation will take effect, changing the way airlines advertise their fares and bundle their fees. Here are the most important changes that will happen:
  • All mandatory per-passenger taxes and fees must now be rolled into the advertised price and will be clearly disclosed so passengers can more accurately compare prices across airlines. Hence, we will no longer be seeing those $39/$49/$59 base fare commercials with a small asterisk saying "plus taxes and fees".
  • Ancillary services that incur extra charges such as baggage fees, on-board food, and priority seats still do not have to be included in the advertised prices. However, a list of all optional fees must now be clearly disclosed through a link on the airlines' homepage, upon booking, and on e-ticket confirmations. Undoubtedly, airlines will tack on these disclosures in fine print at the bottom of the page, but I suppose a fine print disclosure is better than no disclosure at all.
  • What's more helpful, in my opinion, is the rule stating that airlines must now provide a 24-hour window for passengers to hold or cancel a reservation without payment or penalty for reservations made a week or more in advance. This gives passengers more flexibility to price compare or plan out their itinerary without having to worry about fare increases.
  • Airlines are now required to give prompt notification of delays of more than 30 minutes, cancellations, and diversions. It is not clear how these notifications will be distributed to passengers.
  • Baggage allowance and fees must remain consistent throughout a passenger's itinerary. While this sounds great on paper, I'm not sure how well it can be implemented, especially with complicated itineraries that includes multiple codeshares and partner airlines.
On the whole, I think these are positive changes that will help passengers understand the full price they will be paying for their tickets. While there may be sticker shock initially as airlines begin to advertise fares that include taxes and fees, the added transparency will be a benefit in the long run.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

25,000 Bonus Membership Rewards Points With The American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card

Let me preface this post by saying I never post any credit card links on my blog that earn me any referral fees or commission. All of the links that I post here are the best offers currently available, and more importantly, they are public links with no benefits for myself. I've never viewed this blog as a means to make money, and I never will.

However, every once in a while, credit card companies will give existing cardholders the opportunity to refer family and friends to offers that are not publicly available. If these offers are worthwhile, I will post about it on my blog, and I will make clear the amount of referral points I will receive as well.

With that out of the way, a new American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card referral offer has been making its way around the blogosphere lately, so I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring as well. The regular offer for this card is 10,000 bonus Membership Rewards points after spending $1,000 within the first three months. There is also a 15,000 bonus points offer as well. However, with this referral, you will receive 25,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 within the first three months. This is the best current offer for the Premier Rewards Gold Card. The annual fee of $175 is also waived for the first year.

While 25,000 bonus points isn't that much (they can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to several airline and hotel programs), this is still a decent offer if you have an upcoming need for a specific award redemption. Last year, the Premier Rewards Gold Card had targeted offers for 50,000 and even 75,000 bonus points. However, those of us who were not targeted could only get in on the deals by "bumping the bonus" - a practice that has now been completely shut down by American Express. Do I expect to see those mega-offers again this year? It's possible, but more than likely on a targeted basis only. If you are not targeted, then you're out of luck. As far as "public" offers are concerned, I believe this 25,000 bonus points referral is as good as it'll get!

For each approved referral, I will receive 10,000 bonus Membership Rewards points. Referrals must be submitted by February 13, 2012, and referred individuals must apply through the email link by February 28, 2012. This offer is valid for first time Premier Rewards Gold Card members only.

To apply, just email me your first and last name, along with your email address. I will send out your referral right away and you should receive an email from American Express within one day. You may not get the email if you have previously opted out of receiving marketing communications from American Express, so double check your online account settings.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - Air New Zealand 619 Economy Class (AKL-ZQN)

***This post is part 6 of a full trip report. The index can be found here*** 

We decided to catch the Airbus public transit back to the airport since the pickup point was fairly close to our hotel. Also, at 16 NZD per person, it was the cheapest option! Unfortunately, we had booked a flight departing AKL at 7:10 am, so we dragged ourselves out of bed before sunrise and arrived at the bus stop by 5:00 am. I must say though, it was kind of serene walking the empty streets of Auckland in the wee hours of the morning.

Queen Street at 5:00 am

Domestic check-in for Air New Zealand is entirely self-service. Even the baggage tags are printed out at the kiosks and self-applied. There were only two employees next to the bag drop area in case any issues arose. It always amazes me how quick and easy security check is outside of the U.S. No need to take out the toiletries, remove shoes, or even belts. We arrived at the gate fairly early, and I was able to do some plane spotting - although it was clear that this was Air New Zealand territory :)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hilton HHonors Any Weekend, Anywhere 24-Hour Facebook Event Starts Today

Don't forget that from 12:00 noon EST today through 11:59 am EST on January 18, 2012, you can take advantage of the Hilton HHonors Any Weekend, Anywhere 24-hour Facebook event. Carefully go over the details of this offer on my previous post here, as it is a little complicated. The general steps are:
  • Book a weekend stay through the Any Weekend, Anywhere promotion website within the 24-hour period
  • Head over to the Hilton HHonors Facebook page to enter your booking confirmation and membership numbers
  • After you have completed your weekend stay, you will receive 2,500 bonus points in addition to the normal 1,000 bonus points you already receive through the general Any Weekend, Anywhere offer
A maximum of 10,000 bonus points can be earned through the 24-hour Facebook event, which translates to four stays. Remember, all rates associated with this promotion are non-refundable and require prepayment. Also, don't forget to stack this offer with Hilton's Q1 2012 More Points promotion, as well as the various bonus airline miles promotions I've detailed in my previous posts!

Monday, January 16, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - Exploring Auckland

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here*** 

Getting into central Auckland was fairly easy with Airbus, the public bus that runs every 10 minutes from both the international and domestic terminals with limited stops. The charge is 16 NZD one-way, but that's actually quite a bargain since it can be a good 45-minute ride into town. Taxis can run up to 100 NZD!

Based on TripAdvisor reviews, I had booked a two-bedroom suite at the Celestion Waldorf Apartments Hotel. I was traveling with three other people, and that made it a little harder to find a decently priced hotel that wasn't also a dump. Surprisingly, all the Waldorf hotels in town are very reasonably priced, yet also modern and comfortable. We ended up paying only $128 per night split among four people! The best part about the hotel was its walkable location to Queen Street as well as the bustling harbor area. There was also a very convenient grocery store only a few blocks away. The only negative thing about the hotel was the complete lack of WiFi, and they charged for internet usage on the one computer in the lobby as well.

Celestion Waldorf Apartments Hotel


Living room and kitchen

For some reason, we got the "accessible" unit

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hilton Any Weekend, Anywhere 24-Hour Bonus Facebook Event, Plus Club Carlson Joins In

Hilton HHonors is really piling on the promotions this quarter! Add this one to the list. Read very carefully, because it gets a little confusing.

First off, be aware of the Any Weekend, Anywhere Sale that has been going on since the end of December. The sale is described as follows: between December 27, 2011 and January 31, 2012, book a minimum two-night weekend stay for any weekend throughout 2012, and receive up to 33% off your stay using the Any Weekend, Anywhere rate. Plus, earn an additional 1,000 bonus points per stay. A weekend stay is defined as any night Thursday through Sunday.

On top of the regular sale, there is now the Any Weekend, Anywhere 24-Hour Bonus Event exclusive to Facebook that was just announced yesterday. This "bonus event" is for HHonors members and Facebook users who take advantage of the Any Weekend, Anywhere sale within a specific 24-hour period. Starting on January 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm EST and ending on January 18, 2012 at 11:59 am EST, you can book a weekend stay through the Any Weekend, Anywhere sale website. Then, you must return to the 24-Hour Bonus Event Tab on the Hilton HHonors Facebook page to enter your booking confirmation number as well as your HHonors number by 11:59 am EST on January 18, 2012. Doing so will earn you an additional 2,500 bonus points for each weekend stay you book during the 24-hour event, up to a maximum of 10,000 bonus points (four stays). The 2,500 bonus points will post after you have completed the corresponding stay.

Now here's where is gets really confusing. If you only want to stay for one night, you can still book the discount rate (up to 33% off), but your stay must occur between Friday and Sunday. You will not receive the normal 1,000 bonus points for a one-night stay. However, you will receive the 2,500 bonus event points if you complete the terms on Facebook. If you require a Thursday check-in, your stay must be at least two nights in order to book the discount rate, earn the normal 1,000 bonus points, and earn the 2,500 bonus event points. Got that? :)

All Any Weekend, Anywhere bookings are non-refundable, prepaid rates, and must be booked at least seven days in advance. Existing reservations booked prior to the 24-Hour Bonus Event will not earn the 2,500 bonus event points even if it is booked under the Any Weekend, Anywhere rate.

These offers can be quite lucrative, especially when stacked with the Hilton HHonors More Points promotion I detailed last week and the various bonus airline miles promotions I wrote about on January 9th. Here's an example: for a two-night weekend stay completed before March 31, 2012 at $100 per night (assuming you booked the Any Weekend, Anywhere rate during the 24-hour event period), you would receive 2,000 base spend points, 1,000 bonus points for the Any Weekend, Anywhere promo, 2,500 bonus points for the 24-hour bonus event promo, 5,000 bonus points + 2,000 bonus points for the More Points promo, plus an additional 2x or 3x bonus airline miles (depending on which offer you register for). That's a grand total of 12,500 bonus points for a two-night weekend stay plus additional bonus airline miles! Not bad at all.

Finally, Ric Garrido over at Loyalty Traveler details Club Carlson's Triple Points promotion for Q1 2012. He calls it the best offer so far of 2012, and I'd have to agree... even though I haven't stayed much at Carlson Hotels. Essentially, you will earn 60 Gold Points per dollar spent at all Carlson Hotels worldwide for stays between January 10 and March 16, 2012. It doesn't get much simpler than that (compare this to the Hilton mess above hah)! Register here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - Air New Zealand 5 Business Premier (LAX-AKL)

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here*** 

Air New Zealand 5
Boeing 747-400
Los Angeles (LAX) - Auckland (AKL)
Saturday December 17, 2011
Departure: 10:00 PM (scheduled) / 10:00 PM (actual)
Arrival: 7:50 AM (scheduled) / 7:40 AM (actual)
Duration: 12h 50m (scheduled) / 12h 40m (actual)
Seat: 5A (Business Premier)

I entered the Boeing 747-400 behind row 15 and immediately made a left into the Business Premier cabin. The first section consisted of a 1-2-1 configuration. Despite being the older business seats (newest versions can be found on their 777-300ER), everything still looked quite modern and immaculate.

I walked through the forward galley and made my way to seat 5A in the nose of the 747-400, my favorite part of the plane! This Business Premier section is noticeably roomier and more private. I specifically chose 5A because it has the most space in front of the seat, and is also far enough away from the galley and lavatory. Amenity kits and menus were already placed on the footrests.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Priority Club Joins The Q1 2012 Promotions Party

InterContinental Hotels Group and Priority Club just opened their Q1 2012 promotion for registration. From January 23 through April 30, 2012, earn double points or double miles on every qualifying stay, starting with your second stay. All hotels in the IHG brand worldwide are participating in this promotion. If your stay occurs at a Staybridge Suites or Candlewood Suites, however, you will start earning double points or double miles on your very first stay.

You must register for this offer prior to your first stay, as no retroactive bonuses will be given. See the registration page for a full list of the participating airlines.

In addition, Priority Club has a standard promotion running that we see quite regularly year-round. From January 1 through March 31, 2012, you can earn a set amount of bonus points after staying a set number of nights. There are three options to choose from:
You can only register for one of these offers, and after you register, you cannot change your selection. Choose wisely, and pick the number of nights you are 100% sure you will achieve, otherwise you will receive no bonus points at all!

Neither of these Priority Club promotions are rather lucrative, so I wouldn't load up on IHG stays just to earn bonus points/miles. Out of all the Q1 2012 hotel promotions I've covered in the past few days, I would say that Marriott's MegaBonus is the most worthwhile offer to take advantage of, followed by the Marriott's MegaMiles. Take advantage of Hilton's More Points offer if you have lots of two-night weekend stays coming up, and SPG's Better By The Night if you have stays that are three nights or longer. Also don't forget to stack up the Hilton promotion with even more bonus airline miles! Finally, if you are a Priority Club devotee, then I would say go for the offer detailed in this post.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Stackable Airline Miles Promotions For Hilton

A few days ago I posted about the Hilton HHonors More Points promotion, where you can earn 1,000 bonus points for every night you stay between January 1 and March 31, 2012. In addition, you can earn 5,000 bonus points for every weekend stay of two nights or more.

Well, it looks like Hilton has quite a few other offers running concurrently, where you can earn bonus airline miles. Remember, you must have your earning preference set to points and miles (variable or fixed), and you must have the respective airline selected as the earning partner. Your stays must occur between January 1 and March 31, 2012. All of these offers are stackable with the More Points promotion, except for the Lufthansa offer.
Remember that the Hilton HHonors program offers three methods of earning points/miles you can choose from:
  • HHonors Points and HHonors Points: 10 base points + 5 bonus points per eligible dollar spent
  • HHonors Points and Variable Miles: 10 base points + 1 airline mile per eligible dollar spent
  • HHonors Points and Fixed Miles: 10 base points per eligible dollar spent + 500 airline miles per stay (100 miles per stay at Hampton Inns & Suites and Homewood Suites)
So for all of the airline bonus miles promotions above, if you select the variable miles option, you will earn two airline miles per eligible dollar spent. If you select the fixed miles option, you will earn 1,000 airline miles per stay (200 miles per stay at Hampton Inns & Suites and Homewood Suites). There is no limit to the amount of bonus miles you can earn on any of the offers above. Remember to double check the participating hotels list before booking your stay (there are many that have opted out)!

More Hotel Promotions for Q1 2012

A few days ago I posted about Marriott's MegaMiles and Hilton's More Points promotions. Here are two more that may be worth a look:

  • For Marriott Rewards members who choose to earn points instead of miles, they are concurrently running a MegaBonus promotion that gives you one free night after every second paid stay. Register for this promotion by March 31, 2012, and paid stays at any of the 3,500+ Marriott brand hotels between February 1 and April 30, 2012 will qualify. A maximum of two free nights can be earned, and the free nights can only be redeemed for category 1-4 properties between February 1 and September 30, 2012. Since only two free nights can be earned, four paid stays within the promotion period will maximize your earnings. Also, hotel hopping with one-night stays is the quickest way to earn your two free nights. Members must select Marriott Rewards points as their earning option in order to qualify. Rewards nights cannot be transferred or gifted. Register here.

  • Starwood Preferred Guest's Better By The Night promotion begins today. Register by March 15, 2012, and for every paid stay of two nights, you will earn 2x Starpoints, and for every paid stay of three nights or more, you will earn 3x Starpoints. Paid stays must occur between January 9 and April 8, 2012. However, if part of your stay begins before or ends after the promotion period, your entire stay amount will still count for the bonus offer. Be aware that there is a very long list of non-participating hotels, so double check to make sure your stay will actually count prior to booking. Starwood Preferred Guest members earn two Starpoints per eligible dollar spent on a paid stay. With this promotion, members will earn four Starpoints per dollar spent on a two-night stay, and six Starpoints per dollar spent on a three-night or more stay. Elite members will earn one additional Starpoint per dollar spent, regardless of the bonus earned. There is no limit to the amount of bonus Starpoints you can earn during the promotion period. Register here.

Given a choice between the two, I would opt to take advantage of the Marriott MegaBonus promotion first. If you need to have further hotel stays after, then take advantage of the SPG Better By The Night promotion. Since the SPG offer rewards longer stays and higher rates, the return on investment is quite a bit lower than other Q1 2012 promotions out there right now.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

New 60,000 Bonus Miles United MileagePlus Explorer Card

Towards the end of 2011, many United elite members were offered a 60,000 miles sign-up bonus for the new MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase. Unfortunately, those of us with no status were left out in the cold. Well it looks like just a few days ago, United started making the 60,000 miles offer available to almost all Mileage Plus members, with or without status.

There appears to be a few kinks in the system still, but once you log into your Mileage Plus account, you should see the 60,000 miles offer on the front page. If you still see the general 40,000 miles offer, it could be because your account has a zero balance. One solution is to transfer some of your Continental OnePass miles over if you have any. Transferring miles is easy and can be completed here. If you still cannot see the 60,000 miles offer, try logging off of your account, clearing your history and cache, logging back in, and clicking on this link. A FlyerTalk member seems to have found this workaround for those who continuously have trouble accessing the 60,000 miles offer page.

While the offer is good for 60,000 bonus miles, technically it is really for 50,000 bonus miles after your first purchase (which is pretty amazing already). The last 10,000 bonus miles requires you to spend $25,000 within your first calendar year of cardmembership. Other benefits include:
  • Annual fee waived for the first year, a $95 value
  • First checked bag is free for you and a companion when you fly on United/Continental-operated flights
  • Priority boarding privileges
  • Two complimentary United Club passes every year
  • Earn 2 miles per dollar on United/Continental purchases, and 1 mile per dollar everywhere else
This offer will expire February 29, 2012, but my personal feeling is that another 60,000 bonus miles promotion will most likely make an appearance again sometime later in the year.

New Zealand December 2011 - Air New Zealand LAX Koru Club Lounge

***This post is part 3 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

After arriving at LAX, I made my way over to Terminal 2. Despite having my LAX-AKL boarding pass already (printed by United), I headed to the Air New Zealand check-in counter to request a real one. There was a premium check-in area to the right, but I decided to go to the regular line since it was completely empty. It ended up being a good idea to get my boarding pass reprinted because Air New Zealand actually requires proof of your return flight prior to departure - something United failed to inform me of when I checked in at SFO.

There was no premium security line that I could find, so I joined the regular queue with everyone else. Luckily it moved fairly quickly. Once through, I made my way upstairs to the mezzanine level where all the T2 lounges were located. The entrance to the Air New Zealand Koru Club was fairly nondescript, although the sign outside did indicate that Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passengers were also welcome. Inside, the lounge was nicely decorated with Christmas trees and plenty of reminders of New Zealand, such as a giant kiwi stuffed animal, and All Blacks paraphernalia.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - United Airlines 274 First Class (SFO-LAX)

***This post is part 2 of a full trip report. The index can be found here*** 

I arrived at San Francisco International Airport a full two hours ahead of my departure time, a lesson well-learned from my previous departure debacle while leaving for Tokyo last year. I entered Terminal 3 and found my way to the premium check-in area. Unfortunately, this was the start of several slightly unpleasant situations I found myself in throughout the day.

Being that this was my first time flying out of the United terminal in first class, I was a little confused by the setup. All the way to the left was premium check-in for 1K and international first/business class, and next to that was premium check-in for domestic first/business along with Premier Executive, Premier, and Star Alliance Gold/Silver. Further to the right was Premier Access check-in.

I suppose logically, I should have just started at the international first/business class line since I was planning on checking in all the way to Auckland, but I made my way over to the domestic first/business line (reasoning that I was flying to LAX), only to find that there was nobody working the counters. Then I made my way over to Premier Access line and waited a few minutes, only to find that this was a self-service line with just one baggage handler working the counters. Finally, I walked over to the international first/business line and was checked-in by an actual United agent. While this was completely my own idiotic mistake, I was somewhat surprised that there was not a single agent working the domestic first/business or Premier Access check-in lines. I noticed several other people who had issues to resolve besides checking in luggage also playing musical chairs with the three lines until they finally headed over to the international first/business line as well.

Once at the counter, I was able to get myself and my large backpack checked-in all the way to Auckland. The friendly agent handed me the boarding pass and told me that I could enjoy access to the United Club a little ways past security. I was a little surprised, and I even asked her again because I was pretty sure I shouldn't have access to the lounge at SFO since this wasn't my international departure point. She assured me that I did.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Up To 25% Off United Award Tickets To Europe And Africa

United Mileage Plus is offering a 10-day award sale right now, reducing the amount of miles needed to book an award ticket from the continental United States (including Alaska) to Europe or Central/Southern Africa. Book your tickets by January 16, 2012 for travel between January 27 and March 22, 2012, and you can save 20% on peak travel days (Thursday-Sunday) or 25% on off-peak travel days (Monday-Wednesday).

This promotion is only valid for round-trip travel on economy saver awards, but you can combine peak and off-peak tickets on one round-trip itinerary. Stopovers are not permitted, but an open jaw is allowed within the same region. In addition, a Saturday stay and 21-day advance purchase is required.

Reduced mileage award apply only to travel on United and United Express-operated flights, and not on flights operated by other airlines. However, this sale also applies to Continental and Continental Express flights, as long as you use miles from your OnePass account. Miles can be transferred between your Mileage Plus and OnePass accounts here.

As an example, if you are traveling from Washington Dulles to Accra, Ghana, the typical mileage requirement is 80,000 in economy. If you take advantage of this sale on off-peak days, however, you will only need 60,000 miles round-trip. Similarly, if you travel from Los Angeles to London, you will only now need 45,000 miles instead of 60,000 when traveling on off-peak days. Click here to see the full United award chart. This is a great sale to take advantage of if you have short-term plans to travel to Europe or Central/Southern Africa!

Hotel Promotions For Q1 2012

There are a couple of decent hotel promotions running right now for stays through the first quarter of 2012. While not as lucrative as some of the free nights promotions we saw in the past few years, these offers are still relatively worthwhile if you have a couple of stays coming up in the next few months.

  • Marriott Rewards is running a MegaMiles promotion right now, where you can earn up to 50,000 bonus miles for stays between January 1 and April 30, 2012. Book your reservation at any of the more than 3,500 participating hotels across all Marriott brands (including Ritz Carlton), and beginning with your second stay, earn 2,000 bonus miles per stay. This is on top of the usual base miles you already earn. Marriott Rewards members must have already chosen miles as their earning option and selected a participating airline prior to registering for this promotion. To maximize your earnings, you should hotel hop whenever there are multiple Marriott brands within one area. Since the bonus is given per stay, the more one-night stays you have, the greater your earnings. With the 50,000 bonus miles limit, you can have a maximum of 26 stays (with 25 of those earning bonus miles) during the promotion period. Register here.

  • Hilton HHonors is running a More Points promotion right now, where you can earn 1,000 bonus HHonors points for every night you stay between January 1 and March 31, 2012. Plus, for every weekend stay, you can earn an additional 5,000 bonus points. A "weekend stay" is defined as at least two consecutive nights between Thursday and Sunday. There is no limit to the points you can earn during the promotion period. Click here for a list of non-participating hotels. You will only receive bonus points for the nights completed during the promotion period, so if part of your stay occurs before or after this period, those nights will not earn bonus points. Register here.

Depending on your stay and earning habits, either of these promotions can be rather lucrative. If you have long stays planned for the next few months, the Hilton HHonors More Points promotion would be a great way to earn an unlimited amount of bonus points. For example, a 10-night stay encompassing two weekends would earn 10,000 bonus points for the 10 nights, plus another 10,000 bonus points for the two weekends, resulting in a total of 20,000 bonus points on top of the usual base points earned. 

If you prefer to earn miles or have multiple short stays planned, it would be a better idea to take advantage of the Marriott MegaMiles promotion. This is a great way to earn some extra United Mileage Plus miles since they are one of the participating airlines as well. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Zealand December 2011 - Introduction

***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I've written a couple of posts (here and here) about my adventures in booking award tickets to and from New Zealand, so I won't bother recapping how nerve-wracking it was to not see any award space available as the departure date quickly approached. Luckily, my patience (and ExpertFlyer) paid off and I was able to snag Air New Zealand Business Premier seats on both the outbound and inbound flights. Booking was easy using my OnePass miles, and one of the best things about the Continental website is that it not only displays most partner award seat availability, but you can also book your complete itinerary online without having to pay the $25 phone fee.

In total, I used 135,000 OnePass miles plus $51.38 in taxes and fees. This saved me quite a bit of money, since the cheapest tickets to Auckland during the Christmas holiday hovered around $1,300 minimum for the six months or so I kept track of prices, and the direct Air New Zealand tickets never dropped below $1,800 - in economy! For domestic New Zealand flights, one of the best advice I came across online was to book Air New Zealand tickets through the New Zealand portal (http://www.airnewzealand.co.nz/) instead of United States portal (http://www.airnewzealand.com/home). Prices for the exact same flights were sometimes hundreds of dollars cheaper on the New Zealand website, and anyone could book the tickets without proof of NZ citizenship.

Planning for the itinerary began in May 2011, when a few old college friends and I all agreed on New Zealand as the destination, and more specifically, on doing the independent Milford Track hike. It's extremely important to book your space on the New Zealand Department Of Conservation website as early as possible (up to six months in advance) during the summer season because only a maximum of 40 independent hikers are allowed on the track per day. No camping is allowed at all, so everyone must stay in the three designated huts along the route. I will go into more detail regarding the huts in the Milford Track installment of this trip report. Doing the Milford Track independently is not cheap, as we each paid approximately $315.00 USD for the four-day hike, although that did include boat and bus transport before and after. If you go with a guided tour however (up to 50 people allowed per day split among different outfitters), expect to pay upwards of $1,800!

We decided early on that we wanted to focus more on the South Island since many of the famous national parks are located there. Due to time constraints, we couldn't see everything we wanted, but ultimately, we were able to fit in a three-day road trip up the west coast of the South Island, hitting Westland, Paparoa, and Abel Tasman National Parks. We ended the drive in Picton, where we took the InterIslander Ferry across the Cook Strait to Wellington, and from there, flew back to the States via Auckland.

For accommodations, we booked mainly backpackers lodges since this wasn't really a luxury-type trip, but we did have a few "splurge moments" such as our night at the beautiful Milford Sound Lodge chalet, and our last night in New Zealand at the InterContinental Wellington. It struck a good balance where we could minimize our cost, yet also have a few nights of real comfort.

Overall, this was probably the most tiring vacation I've ever been on; at least it's the most hiking I've ever done on a trip! But it was more than worth it in the end, as the scenary in New Zealand was absolutely stunning. I was telling my friend that the entire country is so beautiful that you almost become desensitized to it... "oh there's another open green field with snow-capped mountains in the background and grazing sheep", "oh there's another perfectly clear river winding its way past a lush forest", "oh there's another expanse of sandy beach framed by wind-swept rocks"... you get the idea ;)  Hopefully some of that beauty will translate over in the pictures I post throughout this trip report!