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People are constantly griping to me how expensive travel has become and how difficult it is to use their frequent flier miles and other travel rewards points. And they are often shocked to learn that that’s only true for those who don’t take the time to learn a few tricks, which I’ve outlined below:
1. Sign up to newsletters/blogs
I always recommend that people should subscribe to a bunch of travel newsletters to learn the different tricks of the trade. The sites/newsletters you should follow, besides my own (I hope you receive my weekly newsletter and daily travel tips!), are Gary Leff’s View From The Wing, Ben Schlappig’s One Mile at a Time, Summer Hull’s Mommy Points and Chris McGinnis’ TravelSkills, just to name a few.
2. Use miles/points in advance or last-minute
Either use your miles/points way in advance or at the very last minute. For example, for me to use my American Airlines AAdvantage miles to fly from Los Angeles to Toronto for Christmas was not possible unless I wanted to spend double miles in advance. Since I’m not interested in wasting my miles, I purchased the ticket. Usually, ticket prices, especially to and from Toronto, go up in price but after monitoring the Los Angeles to Toronto flights, I learned the opposite happened! The week before Christmas, American opened up economy saver award space so the one-way ticket would be just 12,500 miles in coach (or 25,000 for business class) and the price went down by over $100. Last-minute tickets, including same day, were going for $189.
3. Get the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express
Get a credit card like the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express. That’s because Starpoints can be redeemed in a variety of ways to make travel easier on your wallet, including transferring Starpoints to 30 frequent flyer programs for flights or using Starpoints to book at one of the 1,100 Starwood hotels that are in almost 100 countries.
Full Disclosure: I’m part of SPG AmEx Stars program and have been for the past few years. They partnered with me since I’m such a big fan and a run this popular travel site. Because of this, I have been invited to some really cool, exclusive cardmembers-only, behind-the-scenes events like attending the past four US Opens and having a meet-and-greet with tennis legends Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Billie Jean King and Andre Agassi (my sister and friend attended the last one for me). Then in August, I went on a trip around the world to highlight the card’s newest benefit: no foreign transaction fees on international purchases. My wife Natalie and I traveled to multiple countries and the highlight was spending four nights at the St. Regis Bali.
Use 70,000 Points
Obviously, one of my favorite parts of this program is that SPG allows me to bring a guest along so I get to show a loved one the card benefits as well. For this “assignment”, I was tasked to use 70,000 Starwood points just like regular cardmembers would during the prime travel season of the holidays. My job was to book a room for two nights without any special help and then write about the experience. I could choose any Starwood hotel (St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W, Westin, Le Méridien, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft and Element) in the United States and book my stay before December 31, 2015.
Past Holiday Challenges
The whole purpose of this challenge is to show off one of the best things about SPG points and that is that there aren’t any blackout dates. If they have a room to sell, then you can use your points, which is why using Starpoints over the holidays is a great way to offset your costs – especially during this high-priced period. Of course, I chose the most popular destination during their busiest time of year … Hawaii! My wife, Natalie DiScala, has been the lucky beneficiary and has come along the last two years. In 2013, we went to Kauai (The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort) and last year, we went to the Sheraton Kona for our Holiday Challenge. Since Starwood Corporate has always deposited the points into my account in October and our first choices was always sold out by that late in the year, I used my own points and booked our first choice, the Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa, Waikiki Beach, back in April.
To book the room, I first logged onto Starwood’s website and saw that the Moana Surfrider showed rooms available for $545 a night or 25,000 points. 25,000 points is a lot of points but this hotel is right on the beach and is absolutely gorgeous. I could have booked a room at one of their other hotels for a lot fewer points but it was across the street from the beach. I ended up booking three nights for a total of 75,000 points.
Book 4 Consecutive Nights Get One Free
Then I remembered that if you book four consecutive nights at any Starwood, you get one night free. So I canceled my three-night reservation and booked four nights, earning me an additional free night. I had 94,000 points in my account but the website indicated I was 6,000 points short. Just before I was about to spend $210 for 6,000 points, I called Starwood’s toll free number (1-888-625-4988) since they will usually do a courtesy hold for seven days.
Called 800 Number
The agent I spoke to said I only needed 95,000 points (not sure why it was cheaper over the phone) so he said if I went over to points.com and spent $35 for 1,000 points, the reservation would be confirmed, and once I made the purchase they would show up instantly in my account. He waited 30 seconds while I bought them and then he booked the rooms. He also told me that the points didn’t include the $30 a night resort fee, which was a bummer (I despise resort fees). He also informed me that if I wanted to cancel, I would have to do it by October 29th (two months in advance since it’s a resort), or I would be charged $645.
What’s a huge bonus is that SPG covered coach plane tickets for two. If I didn’t care about miles, I would have chosen to fly Hawaiian Airlines, since I think they are hands down the best airline to Hawaii. They not only serve free food in coach but they have a lot of Hawaiian products like guava juice and the staff is usually so friendly. Here are my top 10 reasons to fly Hawaiian Airlines.
Flying American Airlines
But since I do care about my AAdvantage miles (not sure how much longer I will), I had SPG book us tickets on American Airlines. Last year, American flew an old 757 to the Big Island and I was gripping my seat the whole time in fear. This year, Natalie and I flew to Honolulu on a new A321S, which was way nicer and because of my elite status (Executive Platinum), we got upgraded to first class. That made the five-hour and 34 minute flight easy. On top of that, the flight crew were really cool but they weren’t dressed up in Hawaiian attire or wearing leis and flowers like the Hawaiian Airlines crew does.
Food In First Class
American’s flights to Hawaii are pretty much like their mainland flights except they serve tropical nuts in first class and had a coffee topping for the vanilla ice cream sundaes. For lunch, the choice was cheese lasagna or beef teriyaki. I preordered my meal (beef), which you can do in advance up until 24 hours before departure. It was a good thing because the beef was the first dish they ran out of. BTW: The lasagna was much better than the beef.
HNL Airport to Waikiki
To get to the hotel, we took Uber Taxi. What’s nice about them is that you don’t have to wait in any long taxi lines, it’s the same taxi as you would get if you waited in line and you don’t have to pay cash or spend the time paying with your credit card. The price is the same too but Uber does include a 20% tip. The ride without traffic takes 24 minutes and cost $45.70 (including the tip). Here are other Honolulu transportation options.
The Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa
The Moana Surfrider will always be a special hotel to me since I used to stay there back in the late 1990s when I first started to travel to Hawaii. Back then, it was a Sheraton but in 2007, Starwood re-branded it into a swanky Westin Resort & Spa. What’s even better is that it underwent a $21 million renovation so there are new guest rooms, a snack shop and beach club.
The hotel has 552 guest rooms and 36 suites and is comprised of three distinct buildings: the Diamond Wing, the Banyan Wing (the historic section) and the Tower Wing. We stayed in the Tower Wing, which used to be the Surfrider Hotel before they merged. What’s great about the Tower Wing is all their guest rooms have a balcony. Obviously, the one with a view of Diamond Head is the best but both views will take your breath away.
The whole hotel is inspired by contemporary Hawaiian design with modern touches. All the rooms have unique Hawaiian artwork, 32″ new flat-screen televisions and of course, Heavenly Beds, like all Westin Hotels. Heavenly Beds are super comfortable and Westin was the first hotel chain to start the top-of-the-line beds and bedding trend—so much so that they sell them…and a lot at that matter!
The Beach Club
This was the first time we had access to the Beach Club. It’s a club level room on the ground floor where Platinum SPG members get in for free. For Gold members, it’s $60 a day. For SPG members, it’s $80 a day and for guests who aren’t signed up to Starwood’s rewards program, it costs $100 a day. Entry includes two adults and two children under 12. They have a deluxe continental breakfast, snacks and beverages throughout the day, and evening appetizers with your choice of beer and house wine.
Good to Know about Moana Surfrider:
- March 11, 2016 will be the hotel’s 115th anniversary and they will have all kinds of special events.
- Get up early and walk to Diamond Head, then hike to the top for sunrise. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, go to Bogart’s for delicious acai bowls for breakfast. Here are the details.
- Book a table along the railing of the hotel’s Veranda Restaurant. Do it in advance since those tables go quickly.
- Across the street at the Hyatt Hotel, there’s a farmers market every Tuesday and Thursday from 4pm to 8pm.
- Heading to Hawaii? Here are 12 reasons to stay at the Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa.
Tips for using your SPG Starpoints:
- If you book four consecutive nights with your Starpoints, you automatically get one night free!
- It’s very important to ask the operator when the cancelation deadline is and set multiple alerts just in case you need to cancel. For this hotel, the cancellation deadline was two months in advance but at some Starwood hotels, it’s just a few days before arrival.
- When using your SPG Starpoints for Hawaii, especially during peak times, book as far in advance as possible (the same goes for reserving a car)
- If you can’t get the hotel you want, call back every couple of weeks to see if anything opens up
- If you don’t have an SPG Amex card, check out all of their benefits (including free in-room, premium internet access) and know that you can earn 25,000 bonus Starpoints® after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
Our Social Media Handles
This holiday challenge is still going on so if you want to follow us in real time, our social media handles are below.
Happy 2016 from one of the most beautiful places on earth! Hau’oli Makahiki Hou or Happy New Year!