Growing up in the states, a common question was to ask others what their summer travel plans were. By June, kids are done with school, weather is beautiful, and the NBA season is finally over (Dubs in 6!!).
I haven’t left SF in 6 months and I’ve just spent two weeks running around the country. Unlike most of my trips, this one was planned only a week in advance and with the nature of my work schedule recently, I couldn’t use any points from flexible currency programs (i.e. Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards). Not to mention, there have been many complaints with Chase’s customer service lately. I’ve been reading and hearing stories around issues with flights being improperly booked, travel credits not being issued, or double charges being incurred.
So, given the unpredictability of my schedule and the likelihood that I might need to change itineraries, dealing with Chase was simply not worth it. Instead, I used a combination of travel credits and existing airline miles. For every itinerary I had back-up flights and alternate routes pre-planned just in case.
In this post, I want to talk about my travel experience, how I leveraged my credit card perks, and thoughts/opinions that I’ve had the past couple of months.
My first flight was SFO to IAD. For this reservation, I had to get a little creative. The SFO to IAD flight was $529, but SFO to EWR via IAD was only $295. I’ll let you fill in the dots :)
I arrived at SFO a little over an hour prior to boarding. I got to the TSA Pre-Check line and was surprised to see a long line. I debating getting Clear in the moment since my Amex Platinum card pays for the membership, but decided not to because I’m still not comfortable sharing my retinal scan. After 20 minutes, I got out of security and headed for the Centurion Lounge. True to the complaints about over-crowding, I had to wait another 15 minutes to get in.
In my opinion, the changes to the entrance rules and expansions that Amex has planned out for 2023 should alleviate this problem. Moreover, Amex has made significant investments in customer acquisition, so there’s an unprecedented number of people with the Platinum. I’m sure we will see downgrades and cancellations as annual fees hit, people realize the complexities of the Amex MR system, and the impending recession becomes a reality.
I was cutting it close to boarding, but risked it because I didn’t eat anything in the morning. Thankfully, I got in and quickly nibbled on some sweet potatoes (really need to get the recipe) and ran to my gate. The terminal was so crowded that going to another lounge or Priority Pass restaurant wasn’t even an option.
Once we took off, I purchased Wifi (reimbursed from the Ritz-Carlton’s airline incidental credit — not gonna mention this again, but safe to assume I did this for every flight) and started writing this blog post. As I was landing, I received a text from my roommates that they had to pay overweight baggage fees for their flight. Luckily, they used the credit as well.
Conveniently, the plane gated right outside Chef Geoff’s Grab & Go, a Priority Pass restaurant, so I grabbed $27 worth of Kind bars and Chobani (up to $28 is covered by Priority Pass).
Setting up Authorized Users
You probably know I have the Ritz-Carlton card by now, either from my previous post or the sentence above. I have been considering downgrading the card or cancelling altogether because I’ve been obtaining marginal value from it and with the Marriott devaluation I find using the annual certificate night much more difficult (the past couple months I’ve become a Hyatt loyalist and think it’s the best hotel program).
Ultimately, I decided not to cancel the card because of my family. One of the super-powers of the Ritz-Carlton card is being able to add authorized users for free (which is exceptionally rare nowadays with high annual fee cards) and each authorized user gets their own Priority Pass membership. The rest of my family doesn’t have lounge access cards, and I know how much my parents and my sister have enjoyed it when traveling with me.
More on this card and my overall credit card strategy later…
Heading to Philadelphia
What I love about the northeast corridor (Boston to DC) is how connected it is via rail. I booked an Amtrak from DC to Philly for $25 and didn’t think twice. Also, shout out to the free wifi on Amtrak!
Quick tangent. Back in 2017, I interned in the area and would always use Amtrak to go home or get to New York. I accumulated a ton of Amtrak points, but unfortunately they expired due to inactivity after I moved to Bay Area.
For my stop in Philly I had two options. Initially, I wanted to use the Hotel Credit from the Amex Platinum but there wasn’t a good option and the cheapest option (ironically the Ritz-Carlton) required spending an additional $265 ($465 total). Instead, I used my annual certificate night from the World of Hyatt card to book at night at the Bellevue Hotel, it would have been $320.55 otherwise.
I’m thankful the hotel let me check in early, but after arriving I was a bit underwhelmed. Aesthetically, it’s clear that the hotel is old. The WiFi wasn’t the best, the business center is really a closet, and the lighting in the room was atrocious.
There was another Hyatt hotel down the street that I had the option of picking instead of Bellevue, but decided against it because I’ve never been to an Unbound Collection property, so it helped me hit a new property for Hyatt’s Brand Explorer challenge.
Next Stop NYC & NJ
The next day, I hopped on NJ Transit and was off to NYC. Unlike last time, I didn’t book a hotel and crashed at a friend’s apartment.
I was originally going to leave immediately for Seattle, but decided to stay with friends in NJ for a few extra days. Yet again I was shocked at the TSA Pre-Check line in EWR. It took me 15 minutes, and I didn’t think a terminal could be so packed on a Tuesday evening.
My original plan was to hit the British Airways lounge because 4 British Airways lounges joined Priority Pass (EWR being one of them) at the end of June. Unfortunately, found out that PP holders can only get in before 2PM.
I did get upgraded to Economy Plus, the upgrade came with extra legroom and a crying baby — highly recommend, really enhances the experience.
What’s in Seattle?
After my stint in NYC/NJ, the plan was to spend the July 4th long weekend in Seattle with my undergrad friends. I arrived a few days early to see my sister and other friends in city.
Our original plan was a lake-side cabin trip. After looking at different Airbnb and VRBO options, we actually found a 2-bedroom condo unit at the Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum at the same price point. I wanted to stay here a few years ago, so I was pretty happy when things worked out. The cool thing is that the resort is actually a Hyatt property, so it helped me get another property for the Brand Explorer challenge.
The condo was amazing! It was a fully equipped unit with a full kitchen, washer & dryer unit, and two bathrooms. There were two super high-quality air mattresses (that didn’t deflate) which was perfect for our group. What surprised me the most were the heated tiles in the bathrooms and the closet full of board games.
The first evening we got wood-fire pizza from a food truck nearby and ended the night with some light drinking games and board games.
Everyone got up super early the next morning. One friend made eggs & croissants while another friend and I made PB&J sandwiches for lunch and we left for rafting.
After coming back we showered and cleaned up for our next activity, wine & charcuterie at a restaurant on the resort property. Despite making reservations a month in advance we still could not get an ideal time-slot since it’s very highly rated and it was a long weekend.
Afterwards we made s'mores (complimentary), strolled through the resort, and passed out.
To get to the SEA airport I took the Link light rail from Capital Hill. I got there a few hours early given the experience from the other airports and to my surprise I walked straight through security. I went directly to N Gates to pick up food at Bambuza, a Priority Pass restaurant. I got a Banh Mi sandwich and topped of the order with Kind & Cliff bars.
My original seat was in the back of the plane, so for someone who is impatient to de-board this is a problem. Also it was a full flight, so I knew that I would be required to check-in my carry-on bag, which I always avoid because I don’t like waiting for my bags at baggage claim. Once I got to my gate, I spoke with the attendant and was able to move my seat to the front of the plane — she upgraded me to Main. Thank You Alaska :)
While traveling, Amex announced an important change to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card. It carries a $450 annual fee and has two main benefits that offset the annual fee (there are other monetary benefits but they are redundant from other cards).
- $300 credit towards a Marriott stay
- Annual Certificate Night up to 50,000 points
The $300 Marriott credit is changing to a $300 dining credit in September. With this change, I strongly considered applying for it because I can actually use the credit and having a certificate night for $150 is great value, especially when combined with my Ritz-Carlton card. With both, I’ll have two certificate nights which is ideal for a weekend getaway.
I’ve decided against applying right now because the sign up bonus is pretty low and, at this time, I’m considering dropping Amex altogether (see next section). More importantly, my weekend getaways are with large groups, so a single hotel room doesn’t make any sense (let’s see when this changes).
Potential Airline/Amex Strategy
Currently, I don’t have any airline cards. I’ve considered the Southwest cards in the past because I flew Southwest frequently and took full advantage of the 2 free checked bags. My loyalty has always been to the cheapest flight never to a single airline.
After moving to SF, I’ve been flying 80% United and 20% Alaska. United flights have the most nonstop options between my destinations and are consistently cheap. I’m starting to think cancelling my Amex Platinum & Gold and opting for the United Infinite Card would be smart. I’d have full access to the United lounge network and with the Ritz-Carlton card I’ll have all of the Priority Pass lounges covered too. Plus, I’ll get checked bags for free and it would be a significant savings on my annual fees
Here’s the pro/con list I’ve been pondering:
- The Platinum credits are nice but I’m not obtaining outsized value beyond what I’d spend anyway. With the Schwab devaluations in Sept 2021, my points have been sitting idle. I’m not traveling internationally or business/first class anytime soon either.
- The Gold doesn’t have any value because of my BOA Preferred Rewards loyalty bonus.
- Getting rid of both means that I don’t have to worry about using the monthly credits. For me this doesn’t really a feel like work/a chore like it does for other people but it’s nice to have one less thing to think about.
- I’d save a minimum of $350 in annual fees (assuming I get the United Infinite Card)
- The pizzazz of American Express is really wearing off. The feeling of dropping a shiny metal card over the practicality of my 8yr old BOA isn’t worth it. (Many people are shocked I have 3 BOA Customized Cash Rewards)
- Last year I was grandfathered into the old $550 annual fee and I received a 55,000 retention bonus to keep the Platinum, so after honoring my commitment there’s really no reason to keep it. I’m currently at 5/24 due to the Bilt Rewards card from April 2022, so I have to wait till September 01 before applying for a new Chase card.
- I would get the Alaska Airlines credit card but honestly it doesn’t make sense until I can properly use the Companion Fare.
- Overcrowding of the Centurion lounges. For the destinations I’m flying there’s always a United lounge. I agree they do not have the same quality as Centurion lounges, but getting into a lounge is better than being turned away. Despite my opinions about this earlier, access to the Centurion lounges isn’t worth paying the annual fee again due to the nature of my travel.
- The extended warranty and return protection on the Amex cards are amazing. I used it to replace a shoe after the laces ripped. Although, similar protections exist on my Ritz Carlton card and will exist on the United Infinite card, the only problem is that these cards do not earn in flexible currencies and are restricted to Marriott/United…unless…
- May 2023 my four year lock on receiving a Sapphire bonus is up, so I will be applying for either the Preferred/Reserve at the time. In which case it’s even more unnecessary to have the Platinum & Gold.
When I started writing this list I didn’t think it would be so long. Anyway, I’ve convinced myself on what needs to be done and will execute at the end of the summer. Hopefully you can use some of this logic for your own wallet.
Overall I’m really satisfied with this trip. I didn’t take many pictures but trust me, there were nights with little sleep, days with too much fun, and many many couches & guest beds. As I was leaving Seattle I was overwhelmed with emotion. Over two weeks, I got a chance to catch-up with friends and family I haven’t seen in 6 months all the way to 6 years. Usually there’s a known “next time,” but this time I genuinely did not know. People are moving, traveling across the world, transitioning to new chapters in life and it’s only getting harder to coordinate. A part of me wishes everyone was in college again, all in one place and life was much simpler. No matter how much I enjoy this stuff with credit cards at the end of the day the people in my life make traveling worth it :)
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed and learned something new.
P.S. Some Extra Nuggets
- Ever wondered why airlines always promote their credit cards? Well Wendover Productions has a great video on it.
- After Alaska Airlines joined the One World Alliance you could book Alaska flights on American Airlines. Unfortunately, it’s very clear that the flights on American’s website are marked up in comparison to the flights on Alaska.
- Bilt Rewards is the gift that keeps on giving. They launched a travel portal that lets you redeem points at 1.25 cents/point.