I Finally Met the Caspian in the Caucasus: A Week in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, 10 – 17 September 2018

Baku

Seeing the Caspian has been an obsession of mine since I read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. I visited Iran after the book, but not the Caspian Sea, due to time constraints. I did get Azerbaijan’s view of the Caspian on this trip. It wasn’t too glorious; I probably went to the wrong place. I will try again from another spot.

Having said that, do visit the Caucasus. I experienced amazing hospitality in my week-long visit. Here goes:

Total Cost

Flight

8,000 UR + $31.50: Air Azerbaijan from Istanbul to Baku, booked through Chase portal ($131.50)

Hotels

23,000 UR points (as statement credit): 2 nights, Hyatt Regency Baku ($230). It’s a Cat 3 Hyatt, so transferring to Hyatt made no sense. I also needed the night credits for requalification, so I didn’t book through the portal

20,000 IHG points: 1 night, Holiday Inn Tbilisi

8,000 UR points (transferred to Hyatt): 1 night, Hyatt Place Yerevan (I wanted to stay here all three nights, but they weren’t available for the other two nights)

60,000 Hilton Honors Points: 2 nights, DoubleTree Yerevan

Others

Local Transportation (train, mashrutka, metro): $42

Food: $46 (food is actually cheap there, I just went to some nicer restaurants)

Azerbaijan Visa on Arrival: $20

Total: ~$140 + 39,000 UR + 20,000 IHG + 60,000 HH

Itinerary

10 September 2018: Istanbul to Baku on Air Azerbaijan, Hyatt Regency Baku

11 September 2018: Baku, Hyatt Regency Baku

12 September 2018: Baku to Tbilisi, Overnight Train

13 September 2018: Tbilisi, Holiday Inn Tbilisi

14 September 2018: Tbilisi to Yerevan by Mashrutka, Hyatt Place Yerevan

15 September 2018: Yerevan, DoubleTree Yerevan

16 September 2018: Yerevan, DoubleTree Yerevan

17 September 2018: Yerevan to Kiev to Almaty on Ukraine International Airlines

Baku

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To the Islands: Guam, Palau, Tokyo – the Non-Survivor Edition, 29 Jan – 07 Feb 2017

Palau

I’ve actually never watched Survivor, but Palau is on my list, because it’s a miles&points redemption dream. It’s one of those places that’s so close (~2000 miles from Singapore as the crow flies), yet so expensive (over 1000 USD) and hard to get to (multiple stops).

Enter United miles. Palau is in the same region as Japan and Korea, making it a cheap redemption (12,500 miles one way for economy saver). It’s not often that one can get over 500 usd for a 12,500 mile redemption. Ok, in reality I paid 50,000 United miles because while waiting for my friend to confirm, economy saver availability went away, and I ended up taking business class saver one way, and economy standard the other way.

Anyway, here goes my island-hopping itinerary!

29 January 2017: Singapore to Haneda (on Japan Airlines Business Class redeye for 25,000 Alaska Miles)

30 January 2017: Narita to Guam (on United Airlines Business class, priced as a free stopover, 25,000 miles)

31 January 2017: Guam

01 February 2017: Guam to Palau (on United Airlines Business class)

02 February 2017: Palau

03 February 2017: Palau

04 February 2017: Palau to Narita (redeye, United Airlines)

05 February 2017: Tokyo

06 February 2017: Tokyo

07 February 2017: Tokyo – Singapore (Delta, I paid for it, and got 5,000 Alaska miles from the flight)

Chile, Santiago to Argentina, Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo, Brazil, 27 July 2016

Santiago Aerial Shot

Award travel comes with its drawbacks. Sure, I’m flying business class, and paid a grand total of 40 dollars for this itinerary, but this itinerary also involves sitting 10 hours in Buenos Aires, and arriving in Sao Paulo at 2am.

This portion of the trip will be covered in individual reviews of various business class products, airport lounges, and hotels. One observation – there’s really nothing that I’d like to eat in the Buenos Aires airport. Sigh! It does make it easy for me to decide on free (lounge) food, in that case.

This ends the narrative version of my South America trip. Thanks for sticking with me, as I added three new stamps to my passport!

AC92 SCL-EZE Air Canada Santiago to Buenos Aires Business Class

Double-Dipping with Uber: Earning Starpoints and Amex Membership Rewards

I’ve recently started following threads in reddit/r/churning, and you really learn something new everyday – the Uber double-dip with Starpoints and Amex Membership Rewards points.

If you take Uber (or order from UberEats), there are several ways you can make the most out of it:

  1. Earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on the Chase Sapphire Preferred
  2. Earn 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent on the Citi ThankYou Premier Card

These can be double-dipped with earning SPG Starpoints, after you register, and make one qualified stay each calendar year (award stays count, too!). Depending on your status, and whether you are staying at a SPG property on day of Uber usage, you can earn from 0.5 – 4 Starpoints per dollar spent on Uber.

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What I learned from Reddit today is, if you register any of your Amex Membership Rewards-earning cards (e.g. Everyday, Gold, Gold PRG, Platinum), and pay for Uber with that card, you can earn x2 MR points. You can also pay for your Uber ride with MR points.

How do you do this?

  1. Go to “Payments” page, add your MR-earning card.
  2. After you do that, click on said card, and be sure to slide the button to “enable”. You’ll then see this screen.
  3. You should also get an e-mail “Thank you for enrolling with Uber”, and in those e-mails, you’ll see the MR-earning cards registered to earn with Uber.

IMG_1916

Now you have the option of earning SPG Starpoints, and any combination of MR, UR, or TY points as you may need!

One Year of Credit Card Sign-Ups

Eva Air wingtip

It’s been a year since I started signing-up for credit cards. When my friends ask me how many credit cards I got in the last year, I do get rather embarrassed (it’s a stack!). But at the end of the day, mild embarrassment aside, it lets me do what I like to do – travel.

I am not new to mileage accrual, but I have always done this the hard way (i.e. flying). Prior to all my sign-ups, these were my balances:

United: ~55000 miles

Delta: ~35000 miles (what was I thinking? Sky pesos?? Wait, I didn’t know better)

Starting in February 2015, these were the cards I signed-up for (I got a Freedom back in Dec 2014, but used it for cash back – rookie mistake)

  1. Delta (Feb) – 30000 miles + $50 statement credit (didn’t read enough back then to know this wasn’t the best sign-up bonus)
  2. United (Feb) – 30000 miles (same as above)
  3. Amex Hilton HHonors (May) – 40000 points
  4. Citi Premier (May) – 50000 TY points
  5. Chase IHG (May) – 70000 points
  6. Citi Hilton Reserve (Jun) – 2 weekend nights anywhere in the world
  7. Amex PRG (Jul) – 50000 MR points + $200 airfare credit
  8. Citi Prestige (Jul) – 50000 MR points
  9. Amex SPG Personal (Aug) – 30000 Starpoints
  10. Discover IT (Aug) – $100 sign-up bonus + $500 (I made 5 referrals)
  11. Amex Everyday (Sep) – 25000 MR points
  12. Citi Hilton Visa Signature (Sep) – 75000 points
  13. Chase Southwest Plus (Oct) – 50000 WN points
  14. US Bank Club Carlson (Dec) – 40000 points (the bonus is for 85000 if I spend $2500, but I couldn’t get myself to spend that after Serve died)
  15. Chase Southwest Premier (Dec) – 50000 WN points
  16. Amex SPG Business (Jan) – 25000 Starpoints
  17. Chase Ink Plus (Feb) – 60000 UR points

Points are just points. They have no value until you use them. So, how did I use these points, and where else will I go?

Jul – Sep 2015: Cuba, Colombia, Panama

Delta: 35000 Skymiles took me to Panama

Hilton: 40000 Hilton points for 8 nights of hotels in Panama and Colombia

Sep 2015: Tampa, San Francisco

Tampa – Delta: 25000 Skymiles to fly my boyfriend to watch his favorite baseball game. My flight $350 flight was offset by the $100 airfare credit from the Amex PRG sign-up. The other $250 came from my Prestige airfare credit.

San Francisco – Delta: 10000 Skymiles. Delta had a sale, so I took a day trip, and managed to use all my sky pesos!

[Bye bye, Sky Pesos!]

Oct 2015: NYC

2 nights of hotels in NYC: 60000 IHG points (not awesome as I was hoping to use IHG for point break, but between parting with 60000 points, and parting with over $600, I chose to part with 60000 IHG points)

Dec 2015: San Francisco

Another day trip – ~10000 TY points, and I got mileage too.

Dec 2015: Morocco, Portugal, Spain

1 night of hotel at Le Meridien – 3000 Starpoints

Jan 2016: Louisiana

One-way ticket on American – ~8000 TY points

Feb 2016: Boston

Airfare to Boston – $100 Amex PRG airfare credit + $100 Prestige Airfare credit

Mar 2016: California, Costa Rica, New Mexico, Arizona

Southwest: ~70000 SW points, and with the companion pass, I can take my boyfriend with me

Hilton: 3 nights in Costa Rica for 50000 points +$45

SPG: 1 night in California (10000 points), 1 night in New Mexico (3000 points), 1 night in Arizona (3000 points)

Apr 2016: Baltimore

Southwest: ~ 26000 SW points – dragging the boyfriend again

Hilton or IHG: I haven’t decided yet. I either part with 20000 IHG points, or part with 20000 Hilton points + $70. I’m leaning towards Hilton, because we’re going to watch a baseball game, and Hilton is literally beside the ballpark.

Apr 2016: Chicago

Airfare: Used the remaining of my Prestige flight credit to fly the boyfriend. Paid for my own ticket.

SPG or Hyatt: Still undecided. I can use 3000 SPG points, or pay for a Hyatt using eBay bucks.

Apr – May 2016: My friend is visiting!

I’m flying my friend out from NY to Seattle as his belated birthday treat. I used 12500 United points, and JetBlue points, which was a combination of me doing a lot of surveys, and transferring 8000 MR points.

May 2016: Denver

Southwest: 15000 WN Points

SPG or Hyatt: Undecided once again. 10000 points for Westin or C+P for Hyatt Denver.

May 2016: Anaheim

Southwest: 9000 WN points transferred from UR.

Hyatt: 2 nights of hotels using C+P with 12000 UR points.

July 2016: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile

American to Brazil: using points earned from Europe 2015 mileage run for a one-way business class ticket

Intra-South American flights: Using my UA miles. Turkish airlines flies business class there, and I plan on trying it out (20000 – 30000 UA miles)

Singapore Airlines from Brazil to Singapore: 95000 Krisflyer miles from TY & MR points, good value for a 20hr flight in first class.

Hotels: nothing set in stone, but I’ll be covering a lot of this with SPG points (I still have 43000), IHG points (I still have 90000), and Hyatt C+P rates with UR points, and paying when it makes sense (some five-star Hiltons are just $80 a night).

Aug 2016: Maldives

Singapore Airlines: 16000 Krisflyer miles from TY points, one-way. It makes sense for me to either fly budget airline, Tiger, back to Singapore, or fly business class on China Eastern to Colombo and business class on Emirates from Colombo to Singapore.

Conrad Maldives: 2 weekend nights from Citi

I will still have a stash of points sitting around after these trips, and plan on visiting Brunei and Palau with these points. These are two oddball places that are actually close to Singapore, but yet, airfare is just disproportionately high.

Maximizing Returns on Your Online Purchases

I actually don’t buy much, but the few times that I do buy things online, I try to ensure that I get the maximum value for every dollar that I spend, be it in cash back, or in points. In the more recent past, I have also been reselling things online, mostly to try and meet minimum spend on credit cards. Nothing drives me crazier than watching my friends make offline or online purchases, without maximizing their returns on purchases.

So, how do I maximize returns?

I personally find Cashback Monitor to be the most reliable website for monitoring Cashback/Points for online purchases.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.47.40 AM

The site is very easy to use, and generally very up-to-date with portals.

So, say for example, you wanted to buy something from “Sears”. You just search “Sears”, and you will get a screen like that:

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.55.40 AM

From there, you can make a decision – would you prefer to get more cash back? Or are you trying to hit a certain threshold for a hotel/airline redemption?

Another thing that I personally find very useful, is the “Best Rate History” (two lines below “Sears”). If there’s something that you want to buy, but is not time sensitive, you can check out the “Best Rate History”.

In the case of “Sears”, there have been instances of 18% Cashback, or 10 miles per dollar spent, and these bonuses come around often enough, so you probably can time your purchases.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 12.00.01 PM

Do your wallet/mileage accounts a favor. Maximize returns on your online purchases!

Miles & Points: Points I earned visiting Spain, Portugal and Morocco

Madrid

In my previous trip to Cuba, Colombia and Panama, I saved 1055 USD on a trip that could have cost 2029 USD. I did not save much on this trip using Miles & Points (only saved 100+ USD by redeeming 4000 Starpoints for Le Meridien N’Fis), but I actually earned a lot of miles on this trip for a future trip I have planned to South America.

Costs

Airfares:

1070 USD: Seattle to Madrid round-trip in British Airways and American Airlines business class (yes! Business class was cheaper than coach!)

110 USD: Madrid to Lisbon round trip on Iberia

94 USD: Madrid to Morocco round trip on Ryanair

Total: 1274 USD

Hotels:

330 USD: Most were non-loyalty program hotels, because I scored a deal, but I stayed at Crowne Plaza Madrid Airport because it was a great points-earning opportunity

Miles & Points Earned

Miles: ~43000 AA Miles

A number of OneWorld airlines were having a deal celebrating five years of trans-Atlantic flight partnership. Hence, they were giving a bonus for transatlantic flights taken on American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, and Finnair from 22 September 2015 to 31 January 2016 (you do need to register for this promotion to get the bonus). They were giving 2000 bonus miles for discount economy fares, 7000 bonus miles for premium economy or select full-fare economy fares, and 25000 bonus miles for first or business class fares for round trip transatlantic flights.

The round trip from Seattle to Madrid earned me 15662 miles, but with the above bonus, stacked with another premium fare bonus, earned me over 43000 bonus miles. This is actually enough for a round-trip economy ticket to central America, but I plan on using it for a one-way business class ticket to South America (it is not quite enough points, but it gets me 80% of the way). So, my 1000 USD ticket did not just buy me a round trip business class ticket to Europe, but it also paid for a one way business class ticket to South America.

Points: ~7500 points

After clicking through Topcashback, the real rate of my stay at Crowne Plaza Madrid airport is close to 60 USD. But because of the different promotions, I obtained some 7500 IHG points, which is good for either 1 night at a points break hotel, or almost enough for a category 1 IHG hotel.

Costs vs Miles & Points

The fixed costs of this trip was 1600 USD, and I saved over 100 USD using 4000 Starpoints. While I do prefer money in the bank, I also do not have an endless supply of miles and points. So, when the right opportunity presents itself, I do replenish these miles. For the amount I paid, I earned ~43000 AA Miles and ~7500 IHG points, which I think is good value.