Most bloggers on BoardingArea focus on credit card sign-ups as the route to premium travel on airlines and high-end hotel stays. Being pampered is not my style of travel. I am satisfied with economy flights and hotels that I can book for under $100 per night, usually with points. I have airport lounge access through a 24-year-old Diners Club credit card and Star Alliance Gold elite so I can drink and eat in a lounge before most of my flights. I don’t need to stuff more rich food in my face on the flight. Of course, a more comfortable flight in a reclining seat is desirable, but that is a far more costly way to travel for someone on a middle class income who does not have the means or the desire to churn tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards.
There was a time I traveled regularly sitting in the front of the plane in the early 90s when I traveled for business and early 00s after I earned millions of miles through the growth of shopping portal sites like ClickRewards and MyPoints, along with lucrative frequent flyer promotions like the LatinPass million miles promotion in 2000 and Star Alliance 5th Anniversary frequent flyer promotion of 2002 (Kelley and I earned 500,000 miles).
On a Delta Air Lines mistake fare in 2007 between Buenos Aires and New York JFK, I found myself in Business Class on Air France flying from Buenos Aires to Santiago and had a breakthrough realization as I read an article in the Air France magazine about climate change and the outsized impact in terms of emissions to use so much space on an aircraft to fly passengers in business and first class compared to economy class.
Is your travel dream really to take a shower on a plane?
Since 2007 I have relegated myself to the back of the plane with my only business class flights taken using upgrade certificates I earned from OneWorld Sapphire status (2015-2017) and most recently with Aegean Airlines for two intra-Europe flight segments in the past month.
My current strategy for air travel involves maintaining Aegean Miles+Bonus Gold elite for Star Alliance benefits.
When the three major U.S. airlines of American, Delta, and United went to a revenue based model for elite status, my attention turned to Aegean Airlines of Greece for a route to cheap elite status. There are good arguments for Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles and Asiana Club (South Korea) as offering better benefits, but given I prefer to focus my travel in Europe, going to Greece every year is not an obstacle for me to maintain Star Alliance Gold elite on the cheap.
Kelley started from no status last summer and earned Aegean Gold elite last month on about $2,300 in flights. I requalified for Aegean Gold elite with 2 round trip United tickets from SFO to Gdansk, Poland ($450) and Oslo to SFO ($370) and $225 in Aegean flights last month from Oslo to Rhodes to Prague. Aegean Miles+Bonus Gold gives us Star Alliance airport lounge privileges and free checked bags on United Basic Economy fares and most Star Alliance flights.
My current strategy for hotel travel is primarily buying IHG and Choice Privileges points during discount sales.
The introduction of the IHG credit card with 4th night free reward stays has been a terrific deal for our travels over the past year. My travel planning strategy usually starts with finding hotel deals in places and those opportunities for rate savings generally influence my airline travel plans. For example, I initially looked at traveling to Europe in September 2023, but I saw IHG hotel reward rates drop each month throughout Europe. InterContinental Hotels in many cities across Europe are generally pricing 50,000+ points per night for September 2023 stays, then drop in price each month with several InterContinental Hotels pricing at 16,000 to 25,000 points per night in low season months from November to February.
We stayed 40 nights with IHG hotels in 2022 earning the IHG Milestones of two suite upgrades, valid for up to 5 nights on a paid stay, and IHG lounge access through Dec 31, 2024. We did not get an upgrade at Hotel Indigo Krakow and that has been our only paid stay with IHG in the past year. We did have lounge access at Crowne Plaza Amsterdam South. Our next two trips to Europe in autumn 2023 and winter 2014 will focus on InterContinental Hotels with lounges to use that benefit more, especially since I will likely lose IHG Diamond status at the end of 2023.
Choice Privileges points have provided great value for me in Europe over the past ten years. The ability to redeem Choice Privileges points in Denmark, Norway and Sweden with points I purchased every year through Daily Getaways for around $5.00 per 1,000 points has allowed me to save over $10,000 in hotel room rates when visiting Scandinavia. In 2023 we stayed six nights at The Thief Oslo for about $625 when nightly room rates at this 5-star hotel were $350 to $400.
The other great benefit to Choice Privileges points are some hotels offer suites for the standard reward rate. We stayed 9 nights in suites in Czechia on our trip this past month for 8,000 points per night. My cost was $42 to buy 8,000 points through Daily Getaways.
Suites with standard reward rate points used to be the case using loyalty points at Best Western and Wyndham hotels too, but those two chains eliminated that benefit several years ago. Best Western Rewards now charges more points for higher category rooms. Based on my hotel searches over the past two years I have seen junior suites offered at some hotels for higher points, but not full suites.
Best Western Rewards points generally do not offer much more than $20 to $30 per night savings compared to Flexible Rates at the many hotels I have checked. Still, we are looking at a trip across northern Germany and there are Best Western hotels in many of the smaller towns we’d like to visit. I have my eye on buying Best Western points during Daily Getaways next month.
Accor Hotels ALL is another loyalty program to consider for hotels in European cities where other major hotel loyalty programs are not found or where Accor hotels has more competitive rates. The periodic promotion to earn 6,000 bonus points (120 EUR value) with three 2-night stays can be a great deal. I completed that promotion in 2019-2020 during a Christmas trip to Amsterdam and Krakow, Poland. Then, the points expired during the pandemic, but they were proactively reinstated in late 2021. I was able to redeem 6,000 Accor points in November 2022 to pay $30 for a lovely suite at MGallery Hotel Rezydent Sopot, a Baltic Sea beach resort town near Gdansk, Poland.
In summary, I don’t think about credit cards much. Although, over the past year I have started acquiring new credit cards every few months when the annual benefits I use cover the annual fee for being a cardholder.
Air travel has actually become cheaper for us over the past six years with Basic Economy fares since I am willing to sit in the back of the plane and play seat roulette with no seat assignments until check-in. Kelley, on the other hand, wishes for a lie-flat bed. We have enough Aegean miles to grant her wish.
Since President Biden slammed airlines for separating families on flights, Kelley and I have been seated together on every United Airlines flight after summer 2022. The European carriers have always kept us seated together. As a Star Alliance Gold member with free checked bags and airport lounge privileges, I am fine sitting upright for 10 to 12 hours on a long-haul flight and watch movies and maybe get an hour or two sleep. Our first day in Europe is always planned as a hotel rest day anyway so Kelley can have her lie-flat bed.
IHG upper upscale hotels are my focus for the next year. As long as Nordic Choice Hotels becoming Strawberry does not eliminate the opportunity to use Choice Privileges points for reward nights, then I will still plan many of my trips to Europe routing through Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm on SAS Airlines. Those cities have generally been where the deals are found. Poland looks to be a competitive cheap airline fare destination for 2023 too.