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Booking Barcelona: A Hilton Points Dilemma

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It’s been a minute, but remember when I was tempted by the 75,000 Hilton points signup bonus on the Citi Hilton Visa? And then I went ahead and got it anyway?

OK, flash forward to now. I have the 75,000 Hilton points, and just booked a trip to Barcelona in January.

Those are all great things, so what’s the dilemma?

To Points & Money, or just money?

This is how life has been lately: I think one thing sounds good, then turn it over in my mind and convince myself of its opposite. Then repeat, like an annoying little hamster wheel of indecision.

Why stop now?

Here are my conflicting ideas.

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The setup

Within the image above are the raw materials for a room at the Hilton Barcelona in January. The options are:

  • The room rate at $150 a night, prepaid (AKA $935 for 6 nights after taxes)
  • 30,000 Hilton points a night (AKA 150,000 Hilton points for 6 nights with 5th night free)
  • 12,000 Hilton points + $50 a night (AKA 72,000 Hilton points + $310 for 6 nights)

Pros and cons

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One Week Left: Get 75,000 Points and No Annual Fee With Citi Hilton Visa

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I chronicled my interest, growing fascination, and ultimate cave-in about the Citi Hilton Visa.

I’ve had the card for a sec now, and really like it. I wrote about the importance of having a no annual fee credit card, and this one might be a really good one to have.

About the Citi Hilton Visa

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No Annual Fee Cards + Personal Finance: Why You Need (At Least) One

Like it or not, in this country you need good credit. It’s as avoidable as death or taxes. As in, not at all.

Starting out with credit cards, you’ll encounter a catch-22: you need good credit to get a credit card, but you need a credit card to build good credit.

No annual fee cards are NOT boring. In fact, they have some innovative rewards!

No annual fee cards are NOT boring. In fact, they have some innovative rewards!

A good place to start is no annual fee cards.

For beginners

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I Use Miles Because I Won’t Pay Revenue Prices… Right?!

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Correct me if I’m being thick because I definitely have my “forest for the trees” moments.

Meaning of value... are you in there? Oh, there you are.

Meaning of value… are you in there? Oh, there you are.

I read an article on Point Me to the Plane about a flight that got 2.5 cents per Delta mile.

Then the comments read: if you wouldn’t pay cash for the flights, that’s not how much the points/miles are worth.

But… I use points and miles for flights and hotels specifically because I won’t pay cash for them.

In fact, I’ve planned entire trips (like Hawaii, Paris, RTW/Australia, and Eurotrip 2014 in Lufthansa First Class) that I would’ve never paid for if it weren’t for points and miles.

I did NOT pay $7,243 for this flight… but I did pay 40,000 Avios + $453 in fuel surcharges. So what are the points worth?

I thought… that was the “point” of points and miles? 

Targeting aspiration AKA value

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My Top 5 Hilton Category 2 Hotels for Award Stays

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I looked through the Hilton Category 2 hotel list to see what gems I could unearth from that piece of barren internet.

I was surprised to find lots of hotels (131, to be exact) all over the US and Europe (and globally). I pulled out my Top 5 picks.

In particular, I’d like to maximize the 5th night free benefit that Hilton gives to all of its elite members.

Here are 5 Hilton Category 2 hotels where I could see myself spending 5 days.

Note: Prices are based on travel in September 2015 and are after taxes as shown on the checkout screen. Read More

Seriously tempted by the 75,000 point Citi Hilton Visa offer

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I sense an app-o-rama coming on after pondering the benefits of the Discover It card. And now the Citi Hilton Visa has its highest-ever 75,000 point bonus. I heard this offer was ending on August 31, 2015.

Some cards simply aren’t worth keeping any longer, like the POS that is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and the completely, utterly, insanely useless Chase British Airways Visa (RIP to both. I’ll bury you next to Club Carlson).

Kinda sorta semi-interesting

Kinda sorta semi-interesting

But, out with the old, in with the new.

What’s so dang special about the Citi Hilton Visa?

For one, its earning structure:

3 Hilton points per $1 at... drugstores?!

3 Hilton points per $1 at… drugstores?!

Are they crazy? 3X at drugstores is asking for it, no?

CVS, here I come!

If I max out the $4,000 limit on PayPal My Cash cards, that’s 144,000 Hilton points per year ($4,000 x 3 points per dollar x 12).

Not bad!

Maximizing Hilton points

If I’m strategic, each month I’d earn 2 nights at a Category 1 property or 1 night at a Category 2 property… and there are a lot of Hilton Category 2 hotels all over the US and Europe.

If I’m doubly strategic, I can save up some points and get the 5th night free on a 5-night award stay.

5 nights at a Category 2 hotel costs 40,000 points. So the sign-up bonus alone would be good for 10 nights at Category 2 hotels.

And 20 nights at Category 1 hotels! Useful if you want to go off the beaten path.

I already have Hilton Gold status through FoundersCard, but this card does offer Hilton Silver status automatically, which unlocks the 5th night free benefit.

I wish it offered an ongoing annual benefit for renewal, but since it’s a Citi card, you can’t rule that out. Citi is known to have generous, aggressive retention offers.

Because it’s a no annual fee card, you can get the points and throw it in a drawer if you hate it. And let it age your credit accounts.

A good deal considering it doesn’t have an annual fee – but not as good as the Amex no annual fee Hilton card.

Still, for 75,000 points… I’m thinking of pulling the trigger on this one.

Bottom line

So interesting to see the sign-up bonuses on various cards come and go, benefits get added and taken away, devaluations, and new perks… and how they all tie in together.

If you can live with Hilton’s categories, maximize the Category 1 and 2 properties, and take advantage of the earning structure, this card might be a good one to add to the arsenal.

If you hate it after the initial sign-up bonus, who cares? Throw it in a drawer and let it age your other credit accounts. And Citi is known for retention bonuses, so you might get an annual injection of Hilton points by calling and asking.

I’m thinking of doing it… 5 nights for the price of 4 at a Category 2 hotel costs 40,000 points, so the sign-up bonus on this card right now would be good for 2 such jaunts.

Is anyone else thinking of getting in on this offer? 

Thank you for using my links! (And yes, the 75K offer is available there!)

Hotel Review: Hilton London Tower Bridge

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Oh man. Talk about a blast from the past.

I stayed here in October 2013 and never got around to writing a review about it. However, I still remember it all so clearly…

It was right after I used Delta miles to fly on Virgin Atlantic. It was my first time on that airline, and my first time at the Wingtips Lounge @ JFK T4.

It was also my first time staying on the “other side” of the River Thames, as I’d always stayed closer to Soho/Hyde Park. So staying in Southwark was a totally different experience.

And I’ll never forget the wonderfully curated, breathtaking Paul Klee exhibit at the Tate Modern and walking around overwhelmed by the artworks afterward.

I went to see the Tori Amos musical “The Light Princess” at the National Theatre. Anyway, suffice it to say it was a good trip. And the Hilton London Tower Bridge was a big part of that.

Arrival and check in

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If you can have only one credit card, which one should it be?

For points and miles addicts like us, posing a question like this is not only highly speculative, but nearly impossible. But let’s give this a shot: if you can have only ONE credit card, which one should it be?

It Depends On Your Goals

This first step to whittling down the huge assortment of cards is to honestly assess your own travel goals. Don’t think about upcoming trips, but the trips you want to take in the future. This will be the foundation for the ONE credit card you should pick.

Do you like long-haul travel in premium cabins? More focused on visiting family and friends domestically? Maybe your company pays for your airfare and you value hotel accommodations more highly than free (or really cheap) flights. Or, maybe you like to take cruises or trains to travel. These are all things to consider. How do you like to travel?

Long-term benefits

Some cards have great signup bonuses, but terrible ongoing benefits. This is another factor to consider in the quest to choose just one card. I’d throw out any card that doesn’t give some kind of ongoing value. The Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®, for example, gives a 10% rebate on redeemed miles each year, up to 10,000 miles. 10,000 AAdvantage miles is worth ~$200 – well worth keeping the card for despite its $85 annual fee. The Chase Hyatt card gives cardmembers a free anniversary night in a Category 1-4 hotel. Similarly, the Chase Priority Club Visa offers a free night annually at any IHG hotel. Considering the annual fee is only $49 a year, keeping this card would be a no-brainer. 

Points currencies

There are three basic types of points currencies: some cards generate miles in one program while others offer points that transfer to a variety of programs. Still others feature fixed-value points: you’ll get the exact same redemption rate every time. This can be beneficial because you’ll know what to expect every time. Points or miles that are part of an airline or hotel program can devalue at any time, so storing them isn’t a good long-term strategy. Mileage accounts should be filled up for specific redemptions, then emptied (earn ‘n’ burn) – not treated as a savings account.

You should consider which points currency you’d like to accrue. Are you super loyal to one program? Prefer flexibility? Or maybe you just want to know exactly what you’re getting every single time. This question is right in line with considering travel goals. Which one points or miles currency will fit your travel goals the best?

Break It Down Even More

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Trip Report: Hawaii 2013

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When Jay and I were in Iceland late June/early July of 2012, I discovered I’d finally accumulated enough miles via my Chase Sapphire Preferred card to book our dream trip to Hawaii. We were effectively on one vacation and planning another.

Our excitement was through the roof. I booked us from JFK-SFO-OGG on January 10 and HNL-LAX-JFK on January 20th.

Ten days in Hawaii. Total out-of-pocket cost: $15. To book the award ticket was just $7.50 a person.

There was only a little drama. I ended up redepositing the miles and outright buying a flight from SFO-LAX-HNL on Delta because it was so cheap that I was no longer getting my .02 per mile – pretty much the only policy I hold when it comes to redemption values. But we kept the JFK-SFO leg on United.

The big day finally rolled around. It was balmy in New York, but certainly not beach weather. We woke up early to take the A train to Howard Beach, then the AirTrain to the terminal at JFK. It was one of those moments where the plane was boarding, the door would soon be closed, and we were still in the security line. It was the first time I ran through the airport in my socks. We found our seats on the plane, which was surprisingly empty. Economy seats we had. There were plenty of business and first seats available, but we had to suck it up and sit in the back of the plane. But we didn’t care. We were embarking on the first leg of our trip to Hawaii.

Flying over Colorado

Flying over Colorado? Wyoming?

When we got to SFO, we had to change terminals, which was actually pretty easy. The only thing that sucked was having to grab our bags and recheck them. There was no SkyClub in SFO (!) but we only had time to grab a quick sandwich and then it was time to board our Delta flight to LAX.

Thanks, Deltoid

Thanks, Deltoid

Once at LAX, we had a few hours to kill, so we hung out in the SkyClub, where I concocted a brilliant new drink: ginger ale and rum with a splash of grenadine. I had two. NOM!

Impromptu mixology

Impromptu mixology

I worked on my laptop and watched the sunset over the ocean from inside the terminal.

Sunset at LAX

Sunset at LAX

LAX-OGG was our third flight that day. The two before were nothing special. Economy, standard service, no food, alright seats. Small regional jet from SFO-LAX. The plane to OGG was huge though, and completely full. It always breaks my heart to watch the boarding process of a large aircraft. Oh my fuck, people are so stupid.

I chose Delta as my airline of choice for my $200 airline credit benefit with my American Express Platinum card, so treated myself and Jay to some drinks and food for purchase. We were obviously on a flight that held many attendants of a destination wedding. People were getting plastered and were so loud. Since it was a late flight, people finally konked out after about 90 minutes.

I managed to get a wink or two, and when I woke up, we were a little over an hour from OGG. I was beyond thrilled. When I saw the first flickers of lights on the ground, I knew we were close. Flying over the ocean at night is terribly boring. But the long day of flights was finally over. We were in Maui. The flight attendants made an announcement wishing everyone a pleasant wedding. We did not get lei’d.

MAUI

It was 11pm when we landed. We dashed off the plane, stretched our legs, and went to grab our bags. I was immediately struck that the airport was all open-air (they all are in Hawaii, I found out). The light jacket I was wearing was too much. It was WARM. YES.

Love that shirt!

Love that shirt!

We went out to find a taxi and were immediately scolded for jaywalking. Um, this definitely wasn’t New York. It was actually really hard to find someone who would accept a credit card as payment. Again, very NOT New York. Also, there were a lot of women taxi drivers. We finally found a lady who would accept cards. I want my Ultimate Rewards points! By this time, we were halfway delirious and wanted to be in our room ASAP.

She drove us the twenty minutes to our hotel, the Aston Maui Li in Kihei, HI that I booked using ~47,000 United miles. We got our bags, and wanted to leave tip on the credit card. She demanded the tip in cash. Jay gave her all he had, which was about $6 (still a good tip for a $20 cab ride). She glared at us as we wheeled our bags away. It was so weird. But whatever.

We went to the checkin desk where the front desk employee was EXTREMELY thorough about the property. We were both so tired that we nodded off a bit during his spiel. I perked up when he said he’d upgraded us to an Ocean View room for free. The words “free upgrade” could pull me out of a deep REM cycle, I swear.

The room was basic, but we could indeed see the ocean. It was night, we were exhausted, and we looked forward to seeing Hawaii in the morning sunshine.

The next day we got the full effect. The property, the palm trees and beaches, the ocean… it was all perfect. We spent four days lying on the beaches to recover and reenergize. Maui was amazing. The beaches were wonderful, and we got quite a nice base tan.

Right outside our room

Right outside our room

Aston Maui Lu

Our beach on Maui

Hang loose

Hang loose

There were lots of handgliders during the day on the beach. In the mornings, we had breakfast at a cafe down the street, and in the evenings we explored a few different restaurants including the most amazing taco place I’ve ever been to in my life. The fish tacos were so flavorful and fresh. YUM.

We heard of a couple of gay places on Maui. First, the Sunseeker Resort is a gay owned and operated facility, and is apparently clothing optional. We walked by on the way to a sushi place, but didn’t see any nudity. :p

Then, there is a gay nude beach called Little Beach. It is only accessible by car. Since we didn’t rent one for this leg of the trip, we missed out on the chance to get some sun on our blindingly white backsides.

Let's face it, I went to Hawaii for the Mai Tais

Let’s face it, I went to Hawaii for the Mai Tais

What I wore to the luau

What I wore to the luau

Sunset over Maui

Sunset over Maui

Then, on January 14th, we flew to Hilo. We took a different car service to the Maui airport.

HAWAII (THE BIG ISLAND)

The big island was all Airbnb and Pointshound finds. We got some great deals, averaging about $60/night. We picked up a rental car from National, booked through Ultimate Rewards for only $167 for three days, and drove to our first Airbnb in Pahoa, HI.

Black sand beach on Hawaii

Black sand beach on Hawaii

Waves crashing over black lava beaches

Waves crashing over black lava beaches

I was immediately struck by vast change in geology. The black sand beaches were rugged, and breathtaking.

Our Airbnb host was charming and kind, but we only stayed in each place for one evening. The next day, we drove north on the Hawaii Belt Road, all the way to Kona. The plan was to completely circumnavigate the island. Along the way, we saw Akaka Falls, more stunning beaches, and so much lush vegetation. We also grabbed a delicious lunch at a bakery/cafe and stopped to stretch our legs, and visit a few scenic points.

Hawaii

Hawaii

Very rugged

Very rugged. Uh oh!

Northern tip of the Big Island

Northern tip of the Big Island – it looks like Wisconsin

The change is geography was dramatic. In the higher altitudes, it was extremely foggy, and sometimes rainy. By the time we made it to Kona, it was sunny and gorgeous again. The western side of the island is very rocky and rugged, with lots of lava fields. We did make it to one coffee plantation near Kona, though.

Coffee plantation in Kona, Hawaii

Coffee plantation in Kona, Hawaii

That night, we tried to sample Kona’s gay scene, but me and Jay ended up at a bar with one other guy and a very eager bartender. Not so great. Maybe we didn’t hit up the right place(s). We were exhausted anyway, and went to sleep in our gorgeous Airbnb rental with a view of the ocean beyond the city of Kona.

The next day, we drove to Volcano to see some of the hot magma and even more lava. What we saw, I will never forget for the rest of my life. Pictures don’t do it justice. It was a complete sensory experience. I could not only see it, but hear the crackle and force, smell the sulphur, and feel the vibration of the earth. Completely stunning.

I highly recommend a visit to Volcano if you are at all interested in geography/geology, or just want to experience the power of the earth.

Pele was raging

Pele was raging

Mist and fog filled the air all around the volcano

Mist and fog filled the air all around the volcano

We stayed that night at a creepy BnB we found on Pointshound. The woman was very religious, and the decorations were horrible. It was called End of Road Bed and Breakfast. Yeah, um… if you’re a fellow gay traveler, AVOID. We did have a fantastic dinner with lovely cocktails at the main lodge in Volcano. We wished we’d opted to stay there instead. Live and learn!

The next day, we returned the car and flew to Oahu.

OAHU

We were supposed to stay with one of my college friends on Oahu, but she screwed us over so we had to make last-minute Airbnb accomodations. Luckily, they were fine. We booked another car rental for pickup at HNL, this time with Budget. It was only $125 for three days.

We were most looking forward to our stay at the Hilton Waikiki Village. In the meantime, we partied with the gays in Honolulu, stayed out till four in the morning, and got drunk for $15 at a great little bar called Bacchus. Honolulu was very gay-friendly.

Dramz in Honolulu

Dramz in Honolulu

The next day, we explored Honoruru.

Honoruru

Honoruru

We went to check into the Hilton, which I booked through American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts. It offered me a whole slew of upgrades, including early checkin, late checkout, room upgrade, free breakfast, and a $100 food and beverage credit to use in the resort.

When we finally found the checkin desk which took forever as the place is very poorly signed, I heard those magical words again. “Free upgrade.” But this time, we snagged ourselves an Ocean View Suite. It had a separate sitting area, a huge king sized bed, and a large bathroom filled with sweet-smelling coconut- and pineapple-based products. We were shown to our room by the Concierge, who made us feel very welcomed. He brought along a kit detailing all of our amenities.

Our suite

Our suite

View from the balcony

View of the Pacific from the balcony

Thanks, Hilton and Amex!

We definitely used our food and beverage credit!

We definitely used our food and beverage credit!

Kissing penguins at the Hilton

Kissing penguins at the Hilton

The next day, we laid on next to the beach until about 3pm and sipped Mai Tais. Then, we came in, showered, and packed up our things. The Hilton was wonderful! Five out of five stars.

Then, for our last day/evening in Hawaii, we had lunch at a little cafe downtown and dinner at an Italian restaurant further east, and drove around Oahu. We went down to Diamondhead and hiked down to the beach. There was supposed to be a gay beach down there, but all we could see was families with small children. We gave up and laid out to get a few last rays of sun.

Last day on Oahu

Last day on Oahu

All-in-all, a wonderful trip. A few observations:

  • Hawaii was way more religious than I expected. There were churches EVERYWHERE
  • The weather was perfect (that might warrant a DUH)
  • I felt very comfortable the entire time. Everyone was kind
  • Hawaiians LOVE Spam
  • It was no more expensive than anything in NYC
  • I would totally go back again. I think Maui was my fave! (Then the Big Island, then Oahu.)
They love it

They love it!

Bottom line

Couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Read this post to find out how I made this dream a reality. We only paid $100 per day between the two of us for hotels, car rentals, food, gas, souvenirs, AND R/T flights from New York.

This trip was my first points redemption. Safe to say I’m completely hooked!

Doesn't have to be!

Doesn’t have to be!

Hot dogs at HNL - back to NYC

Hot dogs at HNL – back to NYC

The flights back to New York were standard. We hung out in the nice SkyClub at HNL and had a couple of beers. When we got to LAX, we saw all members of the Boy Band 98 Degrees at the SkyClub. They were in business, of course. Jay and I were upgraded to Economy Comfort, which was a nice gesture. I sat right next to the door, and was the first person off the plane.

Fenwick was VERY happy to see us when we got back home to Brooklyn. I slept for a solid 12 hours to recoup from a long day of travel. A few days later, it snowed and was blisteringly cold, but I still had Hawaii on my mind as I geared up for my next trip to Madrid.

Hawaii: 10 Days and 3 Islands for $100 a Day

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card was my first premium credit card.

Before that, my credit history was full of collections, defaults, and charge-offs. My credit score was in the low 500s.

In early 2012, I resolved to finally get my credit under control. I used my tax return (in conjunction with my full-time job at the time) to pay down my credit cards to $0. I started making big payments at the end of January.

By late February, my credit score shot up to 702! Pretty amazing – but was I ready to apply for a premium card?

My relationship helped

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