How To Transfer SPG Points Without Waiting 30 Days

Brad recently tried to transfer a few thousand SPG points to my account but we got hung up in the process because we realized our addresses didn’t match. This is a big problem when transferring SPG points because there is a 30 day waiting period when changing your address! Luckily, we were able to get around this requirement and here’s how we did it.

Starwood Preferred Guests transfer policy

Their official terms state that:

SPG Members Who Reside at Same Address. In Starwood’s sole discretion, an SPG Member may be permitted to transfer Starpoints in 1000 point increments only from one SPG Member account to another SPG Member account under specific conditions. Generally, Starpoints may transfer if both SPG Members are active, consent to the transfer, and share the same residential mailing address that is not a P.O. Box, APO or SPO address for a minimum of 30 days prior to requesting the transfer.

I think one of the first things to keep in mind is that Starwood is reserving discretion to permit these transfers. Discretion can always work against you but also can work in your favor. In our case, the discretion definitely worked in our favor and allowed us to circumvent the 30 day requirement.
So the terms state that the addresses need to have been the same for a minimum of 30 days before requesting the transfer. As mentioned, when Brad tried to transfer SPG points to me recently, I didn’t realize that I still had my old address on my account and so I had to speak to a representative to confirm a change of address. The representative wasn’t sure if the transfer would work or not but told me that I would be finding out in a few days either way.

Our attempt to transfer

Unfortunately, after about 6 days we got an email telling us that the transfer would not be able to go through due to the recent address change. It stated specifically:

Dear Mr. Darnell,

Thank you for your Starpoint transfer request.

Regrettably, due to an address change within 30 days of the request on [my] account, I was unable to process the transfer at this time.

To complete your request, please provide us with a current document such as utility bill, driver license or household bill, showing [my name] and residential address, within 10 business days.

If you are unable to send documentation, you will be required to wait a minimum of thirty days before entering a new transfer request on your SPG account. Be sure to include your SPG number and reference number when replying to us. Our fax number is 1-519-633-3658 or you may email us at [email protected].

We appreciate your participation in the SPG program. 

Best Regards,


SPG Program Services – Internal Transfers Specialist

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide

We sent in a photo taken from my iPhone of my ID and within an hour the points had been transferred into my account and we made our booking!
Thus, we were able to get around the 30 day requirement by simply sending in address verification. If you have a pressing need to get points over to someone and you just realized that your addresses don’t match, I highly recommend sending in documents to expedite the process and save you a few weeks of waiting time!

The Best Credit Cards with Lounge Access

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There are a number of credit cards that offer airport lounge access, but they all come with pretty hefty annual fees (which are almost never waived) so you want to make sure that you’re going with the card that will benefit you the most before applying for them. Which card will be best for you will depend on factors such as what airline you frequently fly with, which airports you frequent, and how much you value additional benefits that the card offers. Here’s a breakdown of my top 5 credit cards that offer airport lounge access.

Platinum Card from American Express


  • Annual Fee: $450

The Platinum Card from American Express offers you the “Prestige” level membership to Priority Pass  — worth $400 a year. This grants you access to over 850 airport lounges worldwide and you should be able to find a lounge at just about every major airport. Most of the lounges provide complimentary alcohol, refreshments and/or meals, free wifi, comfortable and quiet spaces to relax, a selection of magazines, power outlets, and some even have showers, spa, and bed facilities.

The Platinum Card also provides you with access to American Express Centurion Lounges for yourself and two guests or immediate family members. Centurion lounges are among the best lounges that you’ll find at U.S. airports. They currently have locations at SFO, SEA, LAS, LGA, MIA, DFW and coming this year (2016) they will have one in Houston (IAH).
The Centurion Lounge at SFO.

Photo by Mighty Travels via Flickr.

What’s really nice about the Centurion lounges is that with the Platinum Card you’re allowed to bring in immediate family members or up to two guests for no additional fee. Thus, if you frequent any one of the above airports with Centurion lounges with travel partners or family, you may want to seriously consider the Platinum Card. 

Also not to be forgotten is that the Platinum Card provides access to Delta Sky Club lounges; however, you will need to be flying with Delta that day in order to gain access.

The Platinum card allows up to three authorized users to be added for the total price of $175 and each of the authorized users will be offered full benefits like Priority Pass and entrance into the Centurion and Delta Sky Club lounges. If you can max out the authorized users there’s a potential for huge value as you’d getting well over $1,200 in value a year for a mere $175.

Other benefits include:

  • $200 annual airline credit (essentially reducing the annual fee to $250)
  • $100 statement credit for Global Entry/TSA Pre-Check (a Godsend that’s good for 5 years!)
  • Gold status with Hilton and Starwood
  • Free Boingo Wifi subscription (worth $120 per year)
  • Rental car benefits like express check-in, free upgrades, and discounts with status.
  • Concierge service

The standard sign-up bonus for the Platinum Card is 40,000 Membership Rewards but you can come across targeted offers for as high as 100,000 Membership Rewards making the potential value of the Platinum Card very hard to beat.

Citi Prestige


  • Annual Fee: $450

The Citi Prestige also offers Priority Pass but with the Citi Prestige, you can take up to two guests with you into the lounge for free. Compare this with the Amex Platinum which requires the guests to pay $27 each time for lounge access. If you and your partner do all of your traveling together then this essentially operates as a free membership for them, which means you’re getting about $800 in benefits!

The Club lounge
The Club Lounge at MCO accessed via Priority Pass

With the Prestige, you are also offered access to the Admirals Club lounges when you fly American Airlines on that day. Unfortunately, this benefit is not offered to authorized users and can only be utilized by the primary cardholder.

You can add an unlimited number of authorized users to your Citi Prestige for $50 each. Authorized users for the Prestige aren’t given the 4th night free, Admirals Club access, or the Global Entry Credit, but they do get the Priority Pass membership, which means they’re getting a $400 benefit for only $50, so it’s still a sweet deal!

Other benefits include:

  • $250 airline credit (which can be used for broader expenses, such as airline tickets)
  • Complimentary night at any hotel of your choice after a minimum 4-consecutive-night booking (Probably the most valuable benefit)
  • $100 Global Entry credit
  • 3 free rounds of golf through GolfSwitch
  • Rental car benefits like express check-in, free upgrades, and discounts with status.
  • Concierge service
  • Bonus category spending:
    • 3X on air travel and hotels
    • 2X on dining and entertainment
    • 1X on all other purchases

The Citi Prestige also comes with a solid sign-up bonus at 40,000 Thankyou Points and can even be as high as 100,000!

To read up more on the Citi Prestige vs the Platinum Card from American Express read here.

Citi® AAdvantage® Executive

card-executive AMERICAN

  • Annual Fee: $450

This card will provide you with access to over 40 Admirals Club® lounges and access to other airline lounges, such as Qantas lounges. It also allows you to bring in immediate family members (spouse or domestic partner and children under 18) or up 2 guests traveling with the primary cardmember or authorized user. 

A newly added benefit is that authorized users are allowed access to the Admirals Club® lounges, though it comes with some restrictions. For example, the authorized user benefit does not provide: (i) access privileges to the Arrivals Lounge, Flagship Lounge facilities, or other airline lounges or clubs with which American Airlines may have reciprocal lounge or club access privileges, including lounges operated by members of the oneworld alliance. Still, even with some limitations, with no fee to add authorized users, this can be a tremendously valuable benefit. 

Other benefits include:

  • First Checked Bag Free
  • MileSAAver discount for on MileSAAver awards to destinations selected every other month
  • Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® Application Fee Credit
  • 25% savings on in–flight purchases of food, beverages, and headsets on flights operated by American Airlines
  • Priority check-in, airport screening, and priority boarding privileges when traveling on domestic flights
  • The primary cardmember will earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after spending $40,000 in purchases that post to cardmember’s January through December billing statements

The annual fee is $450 but it’s cheaper than what you’d pay for Admirals Club membership without status ($500).

The sign-up bonus for the Executive Card is 60,000 miles but offers have been as high as 100,000 in the past.

United MileagePlus® Club card


  • Annual Fee: $450

This card provides you with United Club membership but authorized users will not receive their own United Club membership and are only eligible for United Club access if they are traveling with the primary cardmember, as two guests or one guest and dependent children are allowed access to the lounge with the card. With the Club card, you’ll also have access to hundreds of Star Alliance lounges when departing from those airports on a Star Alliance partner (but be limited to one guest).

IAH united lounge
IAH United Lounge Terminal D

Other benefits include:

  • Designated check-in lines, priority security lanes, priority boarding
  • Free 1st and 2nd checked bag, priority baggage handling
  • Close-in booking fee waivers on award tickets booked less than 21 days before departure
  • Earnings of 1.5 miles for each $1 on purchases.
  • Primary Cardmember is eligible for Platinum status in the Hyatt Gold Passport program.
  • Use your miles to book any available seat, any time, on any United-operated flight. If seats are available for sale, they can be redeemed at the MileagePlus Standard Award level

The annual fee is $450 but it’s $100 cheaper than the $550 that you’d pay for United Club membership.

There is no sign-up bonus for miles with the card but you are given a $100 statement credit after your first purchase with the credit card.

Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express


Annual Fee: $450

This card offers you complimentary access to Delta Sky Club lounges and a discounted rate ($29 per person) for up to two guests, so guests cannot get in for free. Authorized users can be added for $175 per card. As of yet, the Delta Reserve Credit Card does not allow access to SkyTeam partner lounges. (You can use this tool to find lounges where you’d be allowed entry with the card).

Other benefits include:

  • Get 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMS) after you reach $30,000 or more on purchases on your Card within the calendar year and if you spend $60,000 or more, you will be awarded an additional 15,000 bonus miles and 15,000 MQMs.
  • You and up to eight more passengers in your reservation can board your flight with Zone 1 priority boarding
  • You can check your first bag free on Delta flights booked with your Card
  • Delta Reserve Companion Certificate
  • 20% savings on certain in-flight purchases of food, alcoholic beverages and audio headsets, and movies, shows, etc.
  • Delta Reserve Companion Certificate upon renewal of your card good for a round-trip domestic flight.

The sign up bonus is currently get 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 10,000 bonus miles after your first purchase on the Card.

Final Word 

Always consider the airlines you’ll be frequenting and the airports you’ll likely be visiting before jumping on a card for lounge benefits. In addition, some of the additional benefits, especially for the Platinum Card and Citi Prestige can be add up to save you thousands, so always factor in those benefits as well. 

Snorkeling in The West Bay, Roatan, Honduras

The West Bay in Roatan, Honduras is arguably one of the best snorkeling locations in the world. The coral reef extends to the beach and offers easy and safe access for snorkelers and it chockfull of marine life. While the reef is beautiful and accessible, there are some things you should know about snorkeling in the West Bay to ensure that you’ll have a safe and memorable snorkeling trip.

Interested in finding out the top travel credit cards for this month? Click here to check them out! 

The West Bay is a protected area 

The first thing to note is that this area is part of a protected marine reserve. This means that you are not to take, touch, or harass any of the inhabitants of the reef system. This is particularly important to remember in the West Bay because much of the reef is located in shallow water and if you are not careful, you can easily damage portions of the reef by coming into contact with it.

West Bay snorkeling map

Below is a map of the coral reef published by As you can see, there are three different zones to the reef. The area with the red flags receives a high amount of boat traffic so you won’t want to snorkel in that portion of the coast. The yellow flags indicate shallow waters that might be impassable due to the reef and the finally the green flag sections indicate waters deep enough to pose no problems.
Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 4.07.36 PM

In real life you will only see white cylindrical buoys bobbing in the ocean and not colored flags. I’m not sure if the buoys directly correspond to this map but they can be good markers to help you remember where you entered the reef from.

Because there are a lot of shallow reef areas you need to be extra cautious about your snorkeling route. Some of the reefs crest so close to the ocean’s surface that you will surely destroy some of the reef by trying to traverse it and will also likely scrape up your body in the process. Thus, I recommend you have some sort of routing strategy in place before you head out.

Roatan, Honduras
Shallow reef waters.

I’d start out in the middle of the reef where there is a channel that opens up. This channel extends out to another channel that runs parallel to the beach and opens up to the 25-feet deep portion of the reef. I’d follow that channel going parallel to the beach, poking in and out of the reef as it’s pretty easy terrain to navigate. An example of that route is below. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 4.07.36 PM

I like swimming over channels like that because you get a wide view of the ocean and can often spot large fish in those areas coming in and out of the reef. Moreover, you don’t have to worry about knocking into the reef since you’ll have plenty of room to swim around.  

Roatan, Honduras
The channel with waters as deep as 25 feet emerging.

If you don’t feel comfortable swimming out to the “deep end” (or after you get through experiencing the deep end) then another good route is just to meander in and out of the inlets along the reef, eventually making your way towards the “wall.” Your route would look something like below.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 4.07.36 PM

If you’re not very confident in your swimming abilities, the trick is to never swim too far into the reef. As you wander, you’ll probably make your way through some tight/shallow passageways between coral that will allow you to get further out from the beach.

Doing that is a fun way to explore the reef but the problem is that once you’ve navigated a maze of numerous tight passageways, it can become very difficult to retrace your route and you might end up getting stuck in very shallow coral reef waters with no apparent exit. By meandering back and forth as seen in the image above you never go too deep into the labyrinth of coral reef and so it will be easier to retrace your steps when needed.

If you’re comfortable with your underwater route finding capabilities and swimming skills to get through shallow reef water, this probably won’t be necessary but for inexperienced snorkelers, I think it’s a great way to avoid trouble.

The currents and water temperature

I can’t speak conclusively on the currents at West Bay but based on what others told me and what I experienced, the currents are usually not very strong due to the topography of the island blocking strong winds coming from the east. Of course, we experienced the usual back and forth “tug effect” (surge) at the surface the water but overall, it was very manageable to navigate around the reef.

As for temperature, the water felt just a tad bit chilly when entering in early in the morning but we became acclimated very quickly. In the afternoon, we barely noticed the water temperature, although you’ll likely get jet streams of cool water blowing in from time to time.

The wildlife

Now for the exciting part. I’m certainly not a diving pro, but I’ve snorkeled in a handful of famous snorkeling locations like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Belize, etc., and I can honestly say that I was blown away by the marine life we found snorkeling at the West Bay. As soon as we dipped our heads under the water, fish greeted us and once we got into the actual reef, the fish started putting on a dazzling display.

The West Bay is like a breeding ground for parrotfish and they seemed to be everywhere and come in all different sorts of varieties. We saw rainbow parrotfish, stoplight parrotfish, blue parrotfish, the list goes on…. If you’re not familiar with these fish, they’re gorgeous fish that have powerful jaws that can break up coral and rock. They continuously eat away at the coral and excrete the rock by essentially turning it to sand. It’s a sight to see and you can often hear them knocking away at the rock underwater.

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Stoplight parrotfish

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

The highlight of our snorkeling experience was probably seeing a huge rainbow parrotfish that had to be almost four feet long! It came in lurking in pretty shallow water and when it hammered away at the coral, it was pretty loud. All of the parrotfish I’d seen up to that point had been at the most, about 12 to 15 inches long, so when this heavyweight showed up, we were pretty shocked.

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Giant parrotfish.

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Many Cowfishes and trunkfishes made appearances, too. These fish have an odd, boxy shape and move about slowly making them easy to find and admire. If you watch them long enough, you might witness their spectacular color change  that they rely on for camouflage.

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

The colorful scrawled cowfish below was about twice the size of the juveniles and we got to witness it color change as it hid in the coral. The small horns on the front of the fish are how it got its name as they resemble horns found on cattle. 

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
scrawled cowfish

Another memorable encounter came when we were all of a sudden face to face with a barracuda! Barracuda attacks on divers are extremely rare but they can happen. This particular barracuda appeared to be sizing me up after I got some shots of it, so just to be on the safe side, I backed off after a minute or two but it was still an amazing encounter and recalling its gaze still gives me goosebumps.

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Keep your eyes out for lionfish, whose toxins can be potentially fatal to humans of young or old age or who have pre-existing health conditions. We saw two of them while snorkeling and both of them were suctioned to the coral, with one of the lionfish positioned upside down.

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
The lionfish

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

These fish are not known to attack offensively but you should always remain alert in case they are in the area. Their (invasive) presence is another reason why I don’t recommend trying to hover closely over the shallow reef areas — you never know what might be hiding out.

In addition to the fishes pictured above, we saw tons of other species at every corner. Here’s a rundown of some of the other marine life we spotted.  

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Foureye butterflyfish
Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Queen Angelfish
Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Crab munching on a sea urchin.
Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Blue tang, I believe.
Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling
Sergeant majors.

The fish weren’t the only attraction, either. We found several sections of the coral to be filled with vivid colors and beautiful shapes and formations. 

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

Roatan, Honduras West Bay snorkeling

The only things we didn’t see were sea turtles or sharks. I’ve been told that sharks, even nurse sharks, are really rare in this area of the reef but I’m not sure about sea turtles.

Overall, the West Bay in Roatan, Honduras is definitely one of my favorite snorkeling locations in the world. There’s so much wildlife to see and it’s so easy to access that I think this spot can compete with just about anywhere else. If you keep a good awareness of your surroundings, you should have the time of your life snorkeling here.

The Food Report: Four Places to Eat in Chicago

We recently had the privilege of trying some of the Chi-Town classics like deep-dish pizza and Chicago dogs on our latest trip to the Windy City. I’d never tried deep-dish pizza or a Chicago dog before so I couldn’t wait to be officially introduced to these novelty foods while in Chicago. While there, we also stopped by a famous BBQ place and a little donut shop that still leaves my mouth watering just thinking about it. So here’s the Food Report for some places to eat in Chicago.


Giordanos, along with Gino’s East, is one of the places that you must go to for Chicago deep-dish style pizza — you’ll find their names on just about every list of deep dish pizza restaurants in Chicago. (We wanted to try out both restaurants to compare the two but it just didn’t happen.)

The one and only Giordano’s!

Giordanos will almost certainly have a long wait if you are visiting Chicago on a weekend or during a holiday but you can reduce your wait time by doing two things. One, try to arrive in between lunch and dinner around 3 to 4 pm, and you’ll likely beat the evening crowds. Second, you’ll want to pre-order your pizza after you check-in. This will save you the time it takes to be tended to by your waiter later on (which can sometimes be a long time.)

We arrived about 3:45 and had to wait about 30 minutes to get a table and considering it was Memorial Day weekend, I didn’t think that that was too bad. However, if you have a bigger party, odds are you’ll be waiting a bit longer as I heard some folks mentioning over an hour wait time. 

Chicago pizza
Giordano’s deep dish stuffed pizza.

We ordered a deep dish stuffed pepperoni pizza and while I enjoyed it there are a few things I have to say about it. For one, the deep dish pizza is put together like an upside down pizza (at least here it is). For example, they place the “toppings” on the bottom of the pizza and then cover them with a thick layer of cheese and then layer tomato sauce on top of the cheese. It was completely different from any pizza that I’d tried but I guess that’s how a “stuffed pizza” is properly done. 

Tip:  if you’re a pepperoni fan, you may want to tell them 2X on the ‘roni because there weren’t very many “stuffed” in our pizza.

Stuffed pizza slice.

The second thing I have to say about the pizza isn’t so positive. That’s because when we were served our pizza, it was barely even warm (first world problems, I know). I wasn’t sure if that’s just how they do it in Chicago but by the time I worked through my first slice, everything else was already cold. The odd thing is that when we ordered delivery from Giordano’s the next night (everything else was closed around 10pm Sunday night), that pizza actually arrived hotter than the one we ordered inside the restaurant!

Consider getting delivery or even take out.

Thus, my suggestion is that if you don’t want to hassle with the lines, just order delivery. It’ll be just as good and might even be warmer. Plus, while it’s a cool experience to dine inside the restaurant, there’s nothing particularly unique about it (compared to a place like Gino’s).  

Gold Coast Dogs

We had to try a Chicago dog while there and we ended up trying one from Gold Coast Dogs. (Had I realized there was a Gold Coast Dogs in the airport at MDW, I would’ve probably tried another place and saved Gold Coast for right before we departed Chicago.) In any event, the Chicago dog didn’t disappoint.

Authentic Chicago dogs.

I’d never tried one before since I’m not really a hot dog person and always thought Chicago dogs just looked ridiculous because they had a little too much going on with all of their toppings slopped all over the place. However, I was very pleased with our char dogs from Gold Coast and am now officially a fan of the Chicago dog without question. 

So many toppings!

It’s hard to pin down the flavor with so many things happening in your mouth but the sport peppers, mustard/lack-of-ketchup, and relish gave it a unique blend of tastes with just the right amount of kick that makes you feel satisfied, despite choosing a lowly hot dog for your meal. They also did a great job of charring the dog just the right amount of “char.” If your stomach’s really rumbling you may want to go with two of them or a single jumbo dog.

Smoque BBQ

I’d read about this place having the best bbq in Chicago. And while I don’t know if that’s the case, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. As a native Texan, I know (and of course respect) quality BBQ and Smoque BBQ got a big two thumbs up from me.

Chopped brisket plates.

We went with the chopped brisket with a side of the St. Louis style ribs along with macaroni and cole slaw. I’ve never cared for cole slaw so I didn’t dig into it too much but everything else was completely delicious. They brought out different bbq sauces and I loved all of them. I didn’t even realize the sauces were different until after I had mixed both together by drizzling them all over my meat so I’m not exactly sure what each one tastes like — I just know that they combined forces to produce one heck of a hybrid BBQ sauce that this Texan couldn’t get enough of. The only knock I had was that they didn’t have potato salad but the macaroni made up for that for me.

Brisket sandwich loaded to the max.

St Louis style ribs.

Before the restaurant even opens there’s a line forming outside but you can get around that by showing up about 15 minutes before they open. We got the “insider” tip from our Uber driver and just walked right in to the restaurant before they officially opened. Apparently, nobody else got the memo because we had already ordered, sat down, and filled up our drinks when a long trail of people entered, gawking at us two confusingly.

Although this place is about a 20 minute drive from Wrigley Field (with traffic), it’s on the north side so it’s a perfect place to load up with a heavy lunch before heading over to the Wrigley Field area, especially if you’re going to indulge in some adult beverages as many do.  

Glazed and Infused

We visited the Glazed and Infused locations tucked away inside the Raffaello Hotel, but there are several other locations around Chicago. The location we visited may be a bit smaller than the other shops so they might not have offered as many options as we could’ve found at other locations. 

Glazed and Confused at the Raffaello Hotel.

Their donuts are very rich and if you’re not very fond of sweets you might not be able to finish some of them. We had one of their chocolate donuts which was even more rich and chocolatey than expected. I’d put it on par with those ultra-sweet lava cakes they serve at restaurants that are infused with many forms of chocolatey goodness. 


The red velvet donut was something I’d never had or even heard of for that matter. It’s topped with cream cheese, sprinkled with red velvet crumbs and is definitely one of the most memorable breakfast items I think I’ve ever tried.

Red velvet donut.

I took turns alternating biting into each donut — a chocolate bite here and red velvet bite there. About midway through, I could feel the sugar coma becoming imminent and it was time to put the donuts away. Perhaps next time I’ll go with the mini donuts. 

Final Word

Obviously, Chicago has tons to offer in the food department and I can’t wait to get back to try out more places and properly experience the culinary scene. If you’re wanting to knock out some of the must-eat foods like deep dish pizza and a Chicago dog, I really don’t think you can go wrong with the above! 

The Best Helicopter Tour in Chicago: Chicago Helicopter Experience

There’s simply no better way to take in the renowned skyline of Chicago than to be swooping over and around its many super-tall skyscrapers in a helicopter. Sure, there’s the Willis Tower Sky Deck and the John Hancock Center Tilt 360 that offer unique experiences for viewing the city but none of those can compare to the thrill of exploring an urban landscape like Chicago from the sky.

The Chicago Helicopter Experience is a first-class operation that will leave you with unforgettable memories (and tons of stunning photos) of your visit to Chicago. The staff, pilots, and everyone else involved will do everything to ensure that your’e able to comfortably enjoy a scenic (and exciting) flight around some of the most prolific skyscrapers in the world. Here’s a review of a recent tour Brad and I did with the Chicago Helicopter Experience (CHE). 

The facility

Chicago Helicopter Experience
The entrance to the facility

We arrived to the facility about 30 minutes prior to our take-off. Right now, I believe CHE is planning some massive renovations for a new facility so you might not be too impressed with the exterior of the facility. But don’t let that fool you, the experience of actually flying with CHE will be nothing short of excellent. 

From the moment we walked in, I got a an immediate sense of the of the laid-back vibe at CHE. Inside, we found a large open area with bar stools, comfy seating, tables with various games to occupy your mind like Jenga, Connect 4, etc., indoor corn hole (bags), and even a flight simulator to play around on. For the slightly anxious passenger, these are perfect distractions to put your mind at ease. For everyone else, it’s just a great way to pass the short time you’ll be waiting for your flight.    

Chicago Helicopter Experience
Waiting area inside

Chicago Helicopter Experience
Corn hole to pass the time!

As you wait to board, you’ll see helicopters take off and land every 20 minutes or so. This was my first time inside of a chopper, so I was very intrigued just watching these big red machines come in for landings, hover around for a bit, and literally ride off into the sunset. It was also reassuring to see everyone hopping out of the helicopters after their tours with smiles on their faces and it just added to the excitement of getting up in the air as our time for departure grew nearer. 

Chicago Helicopter Experience
Watching helicopters land and depart from the heliport.

Getting ready

After a short wait, we were told they were ready for us (others were called by their “flight number” printed on their boarding pass). We were taken to a locker room where we stored all of our belongings that we were not taking on the flight and used a custom combination to lock them safely away. (We brought my Canon 6D and GoPro along with us for the ride.)

From that point, we went through a metal detector and then proceeded to the prep room, where we were placed in a violet-lit room that contained the same seat arrangement that we’d be riding in.

Chicago Helicopter Experience
Inside the prep room.

I’ll be honest, I got a bit nervous when I first noticed the seat belt was pretty much the same type you’d find in an automobile, just with a slightly different clasp. I reasoned that since I’d be up in a helicopter a couple of thousand feet high, with the doors off, I’d need some form of extra harnessing or something. Turns out, I’d be just fine and once we got in the air, I wasn’t even thinking about it.

Once we were seated and strapped into the seats in the prep room, we watched a short, roughly 5 minute safety video. It goes over a lot of common sense stuff but you should make sure you pay attention to the parts regarding getting into and out of the helicopter. You don’t want to be standing in the wrong place beside a helicopter and you don’t want to look like a moron trying to take selfies while putting yourself at risk.  

Chicago Helicopter Experience
The safety video at Chicago Helicopter Experience.

After the video, we stepped out into the hallway and were led outside. It was time to board! We did a photography tour so before we got in, the crew removed the side doors so we would have optimal views for photos. Riding with the doors off added a whole new thrill to the ride, so if you can swing it, I’d definitely consider booking a doors-off tour as well. 

Chicago Helicopter Experience
Taking off the doors for our photography flight.

The crew confirmed our tour and then ushered us to the front of the helicopter for our keepsake photo. As soon as they snapped our photo, we hopped into our seats, snapped on our seat belts, put on our headsets, and were ready to go.

One great thing about a private photography tour is that you can customize your options and focus on the parts of the city that you want to see. For example, we’d just spent the afternoon at Wrigley Field, and so rather than spend a chunk of our time hovering on the north side of Chicago, we decided to just loop around the downtown area multiple times as the lighting changed.

Taking off

I’d never ridden in a helicopter before so I didn’t know what to expect at all when taking off but to my surprise it was a graceful experience. 

As we began slowly floating above the CHE facility and gliding over the river, I felt the same rush of giddiness that instantly hit me the first time I went SCUBA diving — a euphoric reminder that I’d just discovered a new addiction. In this case, it was flying on a chopper with the doors off!

As we crossed over a wide interstate, wide spans of green fields came into our line of sight. Beyond those, the imposing Chicago skyline rose into view.

Chicago Helicopter Tour
The Chicago Skyline

Chicago Helicopter Tour

Our pilot, speaking through our headphones, told us that we’d be swinging over Lake Michigan to take in the views of the waterfront and then looping around the skyline multiple times. Before flying out over the lake, we got a unique glimpse of “The Bean” from above, with the rest of of Millennium Park surrounding.

Chicago Helicopter Tour The bean
Aerial photo of “The Bean.”

Chicago Helicopter Tour sunset
Buckingham Fountain and surrounding park areas.

Once over the lake, we descended to a lower elevation to catch a closer view of Navy Pier, where just beside it, large streaks from the golden sunset happening above us reflected on the water.

Chicago Helicopter Tour
Navy Pier

Chicago Skyline and Navy Pier

From there, we ascended back over the skyline where we caught striking views of the Willis Tower, Aon Center, and Trump Tower. I’d already been quite impressed with the Chicago skyline from the time we rode in from the airport but seeing the skyline from hundreds of feet in the air added more immensity to the skyline and gave me better appreciation for the high concentration of skyscrapers that Chicago is home to. 

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline

The lighting was beautiful to look at and admire, but at times almost impossible to deal with from a photography standpoint. If I could’ve gone back in time, I probably would’ve opted for a midday tour or a ride about an hour after sunset. If you’re just wanting to soak in some great views and take some pics from your phone to remember your trip, sunset tours are great — but if you’re trying to capture detailed shots of the buildings, the ever-changing lighting at sunset (especially with very few clouds present) can present a number of challenges that could otherwise be avoided. 

Chicago Helicopter Tour
Sunset lighting can be tricky.

After our first loop around downtown our pilot asked us what we’d prefer and offered his own ideas on routing options. We decided to mix-up our route to ensure that we’d see downtown from all different angles. This took us right over the Chicago River and we got great aerial shots of the riverwalk, lined with high rises, such as Trump Tower.

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Riverwalk, modeled after the riverwalk in San Antonio.

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline
Trump Tower in the middle.

One of the coolest moments of the tour came when we approached the Willis Tower. As we circled around the tower, we were eye level with the dozens of tourists in the Sky Walk who were looking out at us as we photographed them. I’d thought about venturing up to the Sky Walk before but now that I was about 1,300 feet up in the air, roaming over the city, I was content to experience the Sky Walk from the outside.

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline
The Willis Tower sky deck from the outside.

After waiving back at the tourists behind the glass walls in the Willis Tower, we caught one of my favorite views of the entire tour. All four of the tallest Chicago skyscrapers stood in view, with the Willis Tower positioned prominently in front, and the other big three towering in the background.

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline Willis tower Sears Tower
My favorite view

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline

Later, once we pushed northward, we got another view of the big four but this time reversed with the John Hancock Center jutting up in the foreground from near the waterfront of Lake Shore Drive.

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline John Hancock Center
The John Hancock Center on the bottom left.

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline
The John Hancock Center

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline John Hancock Center

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline John Hancock Center

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline John Hancock Center
A view with the Lake Michigan waterfront.

Finally, with the tour coming to a conclusion, we made our way back towards Navy Pier over Lake Michigan and noticed that the sun had dropped a few more degrees over the horizon and was now casting a brilliant purple over the city.

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline John Hancock Center

Chicago Helicopter Tour Chicago Skyline Willis Tower

We took in the view for a little bit and then made our way back. Once we touched down, the staff ushered us back inside where we were given sharpie markers to leave our mark along with hundreds of other previous riders. After signing the wall, we checked out, purchased our commemorative framed photo, and then we were off the head back into downtown Chicago, only this time it would be via automobile.   

Final word

This tour was definitely the highlight of our trip to Chicago. From the moment that we first contacted Chicago Helicopter Experience over the phone to book the tour, everything was taken care of smoothly and effeciently. They always promptly responded to my inquiries and gave me assurance regarding any of my concerns. The operations on the day of the flight were just as smooth — CHE does a great job of balancing professionalism with its laid back atmosphere so you feel at ease but not too at ease about getting in a helicopter.

I think a helicopter ride is the ideal way to experience Chicago and its world renown architecture — no other viewing experience can compare. If you’re looking for a legit helicopter tour then definitely consider booking with CHE, you will not be disappointed! Tours start at $148.   






The Best Ways to Use Miles And Points to Get to The Caribbean

Getting to the Caribbean with great deals is actually very easy because you have plenty of options with tons of different routing opportunities. If you plan in advance and are a bit flexible with routing, you can really stretch your miles with some of these programs. Here’s a breakdown of 6 of the best ways to use miles and points to to get to the Caribbean.

1. Southwest Airlines 

Southwest airlines
Southwest has a growing presence in the Caribbean.

Photo by Pieter van Marion via Flickr

Southwest now has an emerging presence all over the Caribbean, including Mexico. Their award rates are based on the ticket fare so there’s no standard award chart for their redemptions. However, some of their routes are exceptionally cheap and if you’ve been fortunate enough to pick up the Companion Pass, you can hop all around the Caribbean for extremely cheap.

For example, below is a redemption from HOU to CUN for 4,248 points for a one way award. For a round trip, that’s about 9,000 points. If you’ve got the Southwest Companion Pass (which I highly recommend), then that means you’ve got two round trip tickets for merely 9,000 points

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 4.09.26 PM

Now that I have the Companion Pass, Southwest is my go-to for Caribbean destinations for the most part but even if I didn’t have the Companion Pass, I’d always be sure to give Southwest a look for trips to the Caribbean.

Here are some other examples of great redemptions from Southwest:

  • 20,000 Rapid Rewards BWI to SJU
  • 22,000 Rapid Rewards MDW to MBJ
  • 25,000 Rapid Rewards DEN to CUN

Use the Southwest Route Map to search where you’d like to go and you’ll see there are plenty of options for getting to the Caribbean. If you schedule your trip in advance and are a bit flexible with the routing, you shouldn’t have a problem finding cheap routes like the ones above.

Southwest Rapid Rewards can be accumulated very quickly with three Chase cards:

  • The Southwest Plus Card
  • The Southwest Premier Card
  • The Southwest Premier Business Card

All three of these cards offer 50,000 sign-up bonuses at different times and can make obtaining the Southwest Companion Pass extremely doable.

Southwest is also a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.

2. British Airways Avios

Using Avios to get to the Caribbean is one of the best uses of Avios, in my opinion. Avios is distance-based meaning that your mileage requirements will depend on how far you’re going to travel. For getting around the Caribbean with Avios, you’ll likely be making bookings with One World partner American Airlines.

Thus, I suggest that you follow these steps to find the flight for you:

  1. Locate American Airline hubs you might fly out of .
  2. Then use this extremely helpful American Airlines route finding map  to see what kind of direct routes go out of those airports to Caribbean destinations. You can do this by selecting “Destinations” and the inserting the airport into the “Leaving From” field.
  3. Uncheck the boxes in the image below for “AA Connections” and “AA Partners”

Doing that will allow you to see only the non-stop flights from that hub. You can then use the Great Circle Mapper to measure the distance for these non-stop flights and then use the British Airways Award Chart I made to determine how many Avios you will need to book that flight.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 6.46.32 PM

Once you start playing around with the map and looking at the British Airways Award Chart, you’ll be able to know exactly what the mileage requirements will be for different trips. Anything under 3,000 miles be 25,000 Avios for a round trip and will likely be a good redemption. Once you go over 3,000 miles the redemptions jump up to 40,000 round trip and you’d probably be able to find better deals with other programs. 

I’ve included some examples of redemptions below.

From Miami 

  • 15,000 MIA to MBJ, SJU, AUA (Aruba)

If you depart from Miami, you can hit many of the Caribbean destinations for only 15,000 round trip. Going from Miami to Aruba (1,133 miles) is just under the 1,150 mile threshold for the next Avios zone, so it’s a great sweet-spot to hit.

Here’s a look at what the American Airlines route finder will show you when looking for direct flights out MIA — it can look a bit messy, but it’s an easy way to check if non-stops go to your desired destination.

Direct flights from MIA on American Airlines

From ORD

  • 20,000 Avios ORD to MBJ, CUN, (Cancun), PUJ (Dominican Republic)

The flight to to PUJ from ORD is just 19 miles under 2,000, although straight shots appear to be somewhat limited.

From JFK

  • 20,000 Avios JFK to CUN, SJU, STT, ANU

From DFW

  • 15,000 Avios DFW to CUN, CZM
  • 20,000 Avios DFW to BZE, NAS, MBJ, GCM

Some of these redemptions can be pretty valuable. For example, for the DFW to CZM flight you’d spend $27.74 taxes, fees and carrier charges. Factoring in those fees to the lowest cash rate for this flight with American Airlines (seen below), and that 15,000 Avios redemption is worth 4.2 cents per point, which is very good. 

Cost of flights from DFW to CZM

You can earn British Airways Avios in the following ways:

  • American Express Membership Rewards (10:8)
  • Starwood Preferred Guests
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Chase British Airways Credit Card

3. American Airlines

  • American Airlines: 25,000 to 30,000

Off-peak SAAver Awards will only cost you 25,000 miles to get to the Caribbean. It’s not always easy to find these off-peak awards, however, so realistically you might be looking at booking the standard SAAver award of 30,000.

Many of the redemptions aren’t as lucrative as the Avios, however. For example, if you booked the same DFW to CZM flight with 25,000 American Airline miles and paid the fees, you’d be spending 10,000 more miles and redeeming at 2.5 cents per point, almost 2 cents less per point than with Avios. That’s still not horrible, it’s just not great when you know you could book the same route for cheaper with Avios. However, if you don’t have any spare Avios, American Airlines is still a solid choice to get to the Caribbean.

You can collect American Airlines miles with cards like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard® and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Card. Citibank also often offers targeted promotions for opening up bank accounts to earn AAdvantage miles, but we’ll see is those continue to roll out with recent changes.

4. Flying Blue Flying Blue

Photo by Can Pac Swire via Flickr

  • Flying Blue: 30,000 North America to the Caribbean

Flying Blue is a solid option for getting to the Caribbean, especially if you leave near a Delta hub.  Take a look at the booking all the way from Seattle to San Juan below that came out to only 30,000 miles and about $40 USD flying via Delta. That route would cost about $566 in cash flying Delta and so this redemption comes out to 1.7 cents per point, which again, it not bad at all. 

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 2.02.10 PM

The great thing about Flying Blue is that it’s now a partner of the four major rewards programs:

  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards (new)
  • Starwood Preferred Guests
  • Citi Thankyou Points

Thus, it shouldn’t be very difficult for you to put together enough points to cover a trip to the Caribbean considering how many options you have. And don’t forget, Flying Blue allows you to add one stopover. You’ll have to book it over the phone but it’s a great way to see more of the Caribbean!

Also, if you’re flying to the following destinations, the 25,000 redemption rate applies for Flying Blue making it an even better deal:

  • Mexico
  • Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, etc.)
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

5. Alitalia Millemiglia

Alitalia Millemiglia

Photo by Roberto via Flickr

  • Alitalia: 30,000 North America to the Caribbean

The Italian airline Alitalia, a member of the SkyTeam alliance, requires only 30,000 miles for SkyTeam redemptions from North America to the Caribbean (as well as Mexico, Central America and Hawaii). Alitalia is a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and SPG, so it’s pretty easy to build up a balance of their miles.

The only issue is that Alitalia can be pretty difficult to deal with. Their website can be confusing, you’ve got to call in to book awards (which can be a process), and if something goes wrong while you’re trying to book your flights, it might be a pain to trying to get it to work out. Thus, while Alitalia offers some nice redemptions at 30,000, if I were trying to book a SkyTeam award to the Caribbean, I’d just go with Flying Blue.

Alitalia is a transfer member of SPG and American Express.

6. LAN (LATAM Pass kms)

LAN Airlines business class
LAN business class

Photo by alobos Life via Flickr

  • 12,000 LATAM Pass kms MIA to NAS

LAN is another distance-based award system similar to Avios. They are also a member of the One World Alliance so you can use them to book flights with American Airlines. Their partner award chart is not as generous as the Avios chart is for the majority of distances you’d use for destinations in the Caribbean, except for very short flights, such as those under 500 kms like the one above.

However, when you transfer from SPG the ratio to LATAM is 1 to 1.5, so you get an extra 50% on top of an extra 5,000 points if you transfer 20,000 SPG points.

So for example, let’s say you wanted to redeem an American Airlines flight going from ORD to MBJ.

This would require 28,000 LATAM kms versus the 20,000 Avios required. Avios would look like the better route here but if you are transferring from SPG, it’s actually cheaper to go with LAN. That’s because you’d only have to transfer 18,666 SPG points to reach 28,000 LATAM kms with the 1:1.5 ratio.* That would come out to about 2.1 cents per point which isn’t bad (but I know a lot of people may not be interested in using their SPG for such a redemption). 

(*I’d actually only use SPG transfers for transfers of 20,000 or more to get the 5,000 point bonus but the point is just to show that using SPG points to LATAM can be a cheaper way to redeem with the 50% bonus transfer ratio than Avios.)

Thus, if you are looking to book American Airline routes to the Caribbean and are interested in transferring your SPG points to get there, you should consider LATAM.

LATAM is a transfer member of SPG.

Caribbean airport fees

I feel obliged to mention that many (if not all) of the airports in the Caribbean impose fees that often times seem disproportionate to the value of the redemption. There’s nothing you really can do about these except pay them. Some of them are included in the booking process so you pay them upfront with your ticket price, but others are requested in the airport.

It’s really important to research beforehand what kind of fees you might be up against and I recommend always having the local currency on hand to cover the fees, as sometimes the fees can process as a cash advance if you use a credit card. Here’s an article that goes into detail on the fees. It was published in December 2014 so some figures might have changed by now, but it should give you an idea as to what to expect with the fees.

Cover Photo by Britt via Flickr.

Chase Ultimate Rewards Adds Flying Blue And That’s A Good Thing

Chase Ultimate Rewards adding Flying Blue is great news for a lot of people. I’ll run down some of the benefits and highlight some of the best redemptions for Flying Blue. 

flying blue LOGO

It’s Progress

First, it’s good because it shows progress that Chase is adding members. I think a lot of people right now are of the mindset that most changes to reward programs are going to be negative, so it’s good to see a positive change with the list of transfer partners growing.

Here’s a new complete  list of airline partners for Chase Ultimate Rewards.



  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Flying Blue
  • Korean Air SKYPASS
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
  • United MileagePlus
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Flying Blue is now easier than ever to accumulate points 

You can accumulate Flying Blue miles from the following reward programs:

  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Starwood Preferred Guests
  • Citi Thankyou Points

That means you have tons of possibilities for earning miles from sign-up bonuses now! 

There’s a new Sky Team alliance partner 

Before the addition, in order to book Sky Team partners, such as Delta, you’d have to go through Korean Air SKYPASS. Many people didn’t like doing this because there are no one-way redemptions available and SKYPASS requires you to jump through a lot of hoops to complete bookings and places restrictions on who you can redeem award tickets for (limits to family members, etc.). 

However, now you can use Flying Blue to book Delta awards — if you live near a Delta hub, this is really good news for you! 

Best use of Flying Blue miles

Flying Blue offers some pretty solid redemptions including:

  • North America to Israel and North Africa for 50,000 in economy
  • North America to Europe for 50,000 in economy
  • North America to Mexico, Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, etc.) and the U.S. Virgin Islands for 25,000 in economy
  • North America to the Caribbean for 30,000 in economy
  • North America to (north) South America for 35,000
  • North America to Hawaii for 30,000 in economy

If you fly Flying Blue metal (KLM, Air France, etc.) the fees can be a little high and really cut into your savings, but if you’re able to book Delta with Flying Blue the fees can be as low as $5! 

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.46.16 PMOnly 30,000 miles and $5 via Delta to get to Hawaii!

If you want to find out more about Flying Blue, see my guide to Flying Blue awards for more.

Cover Photo by Can Pac Swire via Flickr

Best Ways to Use British Airways Avios: The Sweet Spots

There are several sweet spots for British Airways Avios. Almost all of them require booking with One World partner airlines but once you get the hang of booking with alliance partners, you’ll find the process quite easy and the rewards very valuable. These are some of the best ways to use British Airways Avios and if you haven’t read my Guide to Booking British Airways Avios, you might want to check it out first.  

1) North America to Europe

Avios can be one of the best ways to get to Europe. The real sweet spots are when you fly British Airways partners, because the fuel surcharges are so high going to Europe. The only caveat is that the sweet spots are reserved mostly for those departing from the East Coast. 

I’ll first take a look at economy redemptions:

A. Avios economy redemptions

Aer Lingus

  • 25,000 Avios – Boston to Dublin
  • 40,000 Avios – NYC/Chicago/Toronto to Dublin

Update: Aer Lingus now operates on a new award chart — read more here

Air Berlin

  • 40,000 Avios – NYC to Berlin
  • 40,000 Avios – NYC/Boston to Düsseldorf
  • 50,000 Avios – Chicago/Miami to Berlin
  • 50,000 Avios – Ft. Meyers/Miami to Düsseldorf

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 60,000 to 75,000 
  • American Airlines: 45,000 to 60,000
  • ANA: 55,000 
  • Delta: 60,000 to 82,000*
  • Flying Blue: 50,000
  • Singapore Airlines: 34,000 (from IAH/East Coast to western Europe and with online 15% discount; heavy surcharges likely) 
  • United: 60,000 

As you can see, Avios, when departing from the East Coast, can be among the cheapest routes to  get to Europe.

*Use the figures for Delta as estimates, as I was unable to find the cheapest fare for some routes and there is no award chart available. 

B. Avios business class redemptions

Update: Check out my article on using Iberia Avios to book business class tickets to Europe for updated information on Avios sweet spots. 

The sweet spots begin to dissipate as you look at business class, however.

Aer Lingus

  • 75,000 Avios – Boston to Dublin
  • 120,000 Avios – NYC/Chicago/Toronto to Dublin

Air Berlin

  • 120,000 Avios – NYC to Berlin
  • 120,000 Avios – NYC/Boston to Düsseldorf
  • 150,000 Avios – Chicago/Miami to Berlin
  • 150,000 Avios – Ft. Meyers/Miami to Düsseldorf

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 110,000 miles
  • American Airlines: 115,000
  • ANA: 88,000
  • Delta: 125,000
  • Korean Air: 80,000
  • United: 115,000 miles (140,000 miles if booked with alliance partner)

As you can see, the only true sweet spot would be going from Boston to Dublin for 75,000 Avios round trip. Outside of that, you’re spending far more miles than what just about every other program requires and you’re still restricted geographically.

2) North America to Hawaii

When flying from the West Coast to Hawaii, Avios offers one of the best redemptions. For this particular redemption, you’ll be flying with American Airlines or Alaskan Airlines, which gives you access to a number of departing locations all along the West Coast and Alaska.

A. Avios economy redemptions

  • 25,000 Avios – West Coast to Hawaii

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 45,000
  • American Airlines: 45,000
  • ANA: 40,000
  • Delta: 45,000
  • Korean Air: 25,000
  • United: 45,000
  • Singapore Airlines: 35,000 

Korean Air allows for a stopover so I’d have to give the edge to them for possibly the best Hawaii redemption. However, the good thing about going with Avios is that you book one-ways, they are easier to accumulate, and you don’t have to jump through the hoops that Korean Air requires you to jump through.

B. Avios business class redemptions

Getting from the West Coast to Hawaii in business class with Avios is still somewhat of a sweet spot compared to other major airlines, although you can do better by going with airlines like Korean Air, ANA, Singapore, etc.

  • 75,000 Avios – West Coast to Hawaii

Note: if you used Iberia Avios for this redemption you could get it as low as 62,500 Avios roundtrip (but you can’t book one ways on American with Iberia).

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 80,000
  • American Airlines: 80,000 
  • ANA: 68,000
  • Delta: 110,000
  • Korean Air: 45,000
  • United: 80,000
  • Singapore Airlines: 60,000

3) North America to South America

Avios can offer you some of the best redemption rates for getting to South America. You’ll usually be flying on LAN, TAM, or American Airlines.

A. Avios economy redemptions

Take a look at economy rates for getting to two popular South American destinations, Lima and Santiago Chile from Texas and New York. The distances between these destinations stays in Zones 5 and 6 for Avios so the rates are pretty reasonable but the sweet spot is getting to destinations in the southern part of South America, such as Santiago.

  • 40,000  Avios -DFW/JFK to LIM
  • 50,000  Avios – DFW/JFK to SCL

Compare these rates to other airlines:

Getting to Lima 

  • Aeroplan: 60,000
  • American Airlines: 35,000
  • ANA: 55,000
  • Delta: 60,000
  • Flying Blue: 35,000
  • United: 40,000

Getting to SCL

  • Aeroplan: 60,000
  • American Airlines: 60,000
  • ANA: 55,000
  • Delta: 60,000
  • Flying Blue: 50,000
  • Korean Air: 50,000
  • United: 60,000

If you’re wanting to get to Lima, the Avios redemption rate is competitive but you might want to consider other options to save up to 5,000 miles. However, if you’re heading straight to Santiago, Chile, Avios can get you there with one of the best rates at 50,000.

Note: As discussed later on, you should always consider booking long international trips (like those to South America) with multiple segments to maximize the value of your redemptions. More on that below.

B. Avios business class redemptions

For the most part, the business class redemptions to South American from North America are not great and a lot of them are very terrible but I’ve included them for your reference and the sake of completeness. Here’s a look at some of the redemptions and how they stack up against the competition.

  • 75,000 Avios – MIA to LIM
  • 120,000  Avios -DFW to LIM
  • 150,000  Avios – DFW to SCL

Compare these rates to other airlines:

Getting to Lima 

  • Aeroplan: 75,000
  • American Airlines: 60,000
  • ANA:  88,000
  • Delta: 150,000
  • Flying Blue: 87,500
  • Korean Air: 110,000
  • United: 70,000

Getting to SCL

  • Aeroplan: 110,000
  • American Airlines: 115,000
  • ANA: 88,000
  • Delta: 150,000
  • Flying Blue: 125,000
  • Korean Air: 110,000
  • United: 110,000

Based on these comparisons, I’d recommend going with another program if you want to fly business class to South America from North America.

4) North America to Mexico or the Caribbean

Using Avios to get to Mexico and various Caribbean destinations can be a great way to redeem. As you can tell from a couple of the examples I’ve posted, the deals can be great even if you are flying from the Northeast or Midwest.

A. Avios economy redemptions

Getting to Mexico

  • 15,000 Avios – DFW to CUN (Cancun)
  • 20,000 Avios – JFK/ORD to CUN

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 40,000
  • American Airlines: 30,000
  • ANA: 30,000
  • Delta: 35,000
  • Flying Blue: 25,000 miles
  • Korean Air: 25,000 miles
  • United: 35,000

Getting to the Caribbean (Jamaica)

  • 20,000 Avios – ORD to MBJ (Jamaica)
  • 25,000 Avios – LAX to MBJ

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 40,000
  • American Airlines: 25,000
  • ANA: 55,000
  • Delta: 35,000 
  • Flying Blue: 30,000
  • Korean Air: 35,000
  • United: 35,000

It kind of surprised me that Avios was one of the best ways to get to Mexico and the Caribbean, from places like New York and Chicago but the numbers don’t lie!

B. Avios business class redemptions

When flying from hubs in the southern part of the country, the redemptions for business class are an absolute steal to Mexico and the Caribbean, assuming you can find direct shots. Even when you’re departing from northern states, the redemption rates are still very competitive.

Getting to Mexico

  • 30,000 Avios – DFW to CUN (Cancun)
  • 60,000 Avios – JFK/ORD to CUN

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 60,000
  • American Airlines: 50,000
  • ANA: 55,000 
  • Delta: 57,500 
  • Flying Blue: 62,500
  • Korean Air: 45,000
  • United: 60,000

Getting to the Caribbean (Jamaica)

  • 40,000 Avios – DFW to MBJ (Jamaica)
  • 60,000 Avios – ORD to MBJ

Compare these rates to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 60,000
  • American Airlines: 50,000
  • ANA: 80,000
  • Delta: 57,500
  • Flying Blue: 60,000
  • Korean Air: 75,000
  • United: 60,000

5) Short haul economy flights in North America

The recent devaluation to short-haul flight redemptions with Avios was a pretty big hit to the program but there’s still some pretty good redemptions to be had. The devaluation basically did away with the first zone and made it so that the cheapest short-haul flight in economy would require 7,500 Avios, and business and first class were changed to Zone 2’s requirements as well.

Even with that devaluation, it’s still a good deal to use Avios for flights 2,000 miles and under in the U.S. because you can save 5,000 to 10,000 miles.

Getting around the United States

  • 15,000 Avios for routes up to 1,150 miles (e.g., MIA – JFK)
  • 20,000 Avios 1,151 miles to 2,000 miles (e.g., SFO – IAH)
  • 25,000 Avios 2,001 miles to 3,000 miles (e.g., LAX – JFK)

Compare these rates for getting around the U.S. to other airlines:

  • Aeroplan: 15,000 (very short-haul flights) to 25,000
  • American Airlines: 25,000
  • ANA: 30,000
  • Delta: 25,000
  • Flying Blue: 25,000
  • Korean Air: 25,000
  • United: 25,000

6) Intra-continental flights in South America

Avios can also be used effeciently to book intra-continental flights in South America. I’ve recently used Avios to book some pretty otherwise expensive flights between Lima and Santiago. The particular flight I booked costed $2,000 for a one-way business class ticket. I used 20,000 Avios for a 10 cent per point redemption, a great value that you usually find on higher-end first class suites.

These kind of redemptions can be had in other continents, too. I’d always do some research on One World partners in Africa, Australia, and Asia in order to seek out valuable Avios redemptions.

7) Creative Routings 

The final “sweet spot” is something I first discovered via Travel Is Free but if you’ve studied Avios, you’ll likely be aware of it.

Basically, sometimes it’s cheaper to book multiple legs with Avios than it is do book a straight shot. An example from Travel Is Free shows that it requires 50,000 Avios to get from LAX to Sydney, Australia. However, if you broke this up so that you fly from LAX -> Hawaii -> Sydney, the total Avios required would be 37,500 Avios due to quirks in the award chart.

These quirks can be taken advantage of with different routes all over the world and it’s something to be aware of any time you’re looking to book a long flight. I recommend using this tool from the Wandering Aremean to see possible routing options (although note that it’s limited to a single connection). 

Final Word

These are some of my top sweet spots for Avios and I think they show that despite recent devaluations, Avios can still be extremely valuable and offer some of the best redemptions available.

Cover Photo by uwe_gompf_66 via Flickr.

What is Global Entry?

What is Global Entry?

Global Entry is a program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. This means that you won’t have to wait in the usually long immigration line when entering the United States. In addition, many airports also have a Global Entry line for customs, so you don’t have to wait to have your baggage inspected.

How does it work?

At certain airports (I don’t think that list is updated),you go up to the Global Entry kiosks, scan your passport or U.S. permanent resident card, go through fingerprint verification, complete a short customs declaration, and then receive a receipt that directs you to baggage claim and the exit. Sometimes this process will only take you about 2 minutes and you can make it back to your home while others from your flight are still stuck in line.

What type of citizens are eligible?

U.S. citizens, U.S. lawful permanent residents and citizens of a few other countries are eligible for Global Entry membership. Global Entry is also available to:

  • Citizens of United Kingdom
  • Citizens of Germany
  • Citizens of the Netherlands
  • Citizens of Panama
  • Citizens of South Korea
  • Mexican nationals

How do you apply?

Applying is pretty simple. You fill out the application online (see my application guide here), schedule and attend an interview (read about my interview experience here) and then get approved. The entire process can take only a couple of weeks if you’re a bit lucky but it can also take up to a couple of months depending on where you live. The determining factor for your waiting time is how soon you can schedule your interview.

How much does it cost?

The application for Global Entry costs $100 and it is good for five years!

You can use credit cards like the Platinum Card from American Express or the Citi Prestige to cover this costs as they provide you with statement credit for Global Entry. If you are not approved for Global Entry, you do not get your money back.

Can I get approved with a criminal background?

For the most part you need a clean criminal background to get approved. This typically means even misdemeanors. There are some reports of other getting approved despite having minor charges on their record (usually from quite some time ago), but there are many more reports of other being denied for misdemeanors.

Here’s the list of disqualifying criteria listed by Global Entry:

  • Provide false or incomplete information on the application;
  • Have been convicted of any criminal offense or have pending criminal charges, including outstanding warrants;
  • Have been found in violation of any customs, immigration or agriculture regulations or laws in any country;
  • Are subjects of an investigation by any federal, state or local law enforcement agency;
  • Are inadmissible to the U.S. under immigration regulation, including applicants with approved waivers of inadmissibility or parole documentation; or if they
  • Cannot satisfy CBP of their low-risk status or meet other program requirements.

Does it include TSA Pre Check?

Yes. Upon being approved, you’ll be issued a Known Traveller Number, which you will use for TSA Pre Check. This is why I recommend most people to apply for Global Entry over TSA Pre-Check since it only costs $15 more but you obtain the additional benefit of flying through immigration and customs.


Should You Apply for The Hilton Surpass for 100K HHonors Points?

[Offers contained within this article may no longer be available]

American Express is once again offering its best offer for the Hilton HHonors Surpass Card. You can get 100,000 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within your first 3 months of Card Membership. This sounds like a whole lot of points but if you’re familiar with the value of HHonors points, you may still question if it’s worth it to jump on this offer. Here are some things to consider. 

Annual fee 

The annual fee for the Hilton HHonorsTMSurpass® Card is $75 and is not waived the first year. This is a pretty reasonable annual fee and considering the value of the sign-up bonus, I think it’s worth it. If you ever didn’t want to pay the annual fee down the line you could always inquire about downgrading it to the no annual fee version later (although some people have had issues with getting the downgrade in the past). 

100,000 Hilton HHonors sign-up bonus

Many people value Hilton HHonors points at around .5 cent per point. In my experience, this valuation is more or less accurate, which means that you would value the sign-up bonus at around $500. However, I know of others who have found better redemptions closer to 1 cent per point, so this bonus could definitely be more valuable than $500. 

Below is a chart of the different hotel categories and their redemption rates. When I try  to book rooms in major cities like San Francisco or Chicago, I usually am required to spend close to 50,000 points for a nice Hilton property. However, you can definitely make the points stretch further if you are flexible with your planning and find some sweet spots at different locations.

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Hilton HHonors Reward Chart

For more on redemptions, check out the following article from one of my favorite blogs, Travel is Free, to get a sense of the locations of different Hilton hotels around the world and their corresponding categories. (Click the box on the left of the map to toggle which categories you’d like to view.)

After checking out that map also check out another Travel is Free article that gives the low-down on the best use of Hilton HHonors bonus points. That article lists a number of different Hilton hotels in different categories all around the world. It shows you that you can get great great value out of the lower categories and easily be able to spend a couple of weeks in Hilton hotels with the amount of points earned from these cards.

Also, if you take advantage of the 5th night free benefit (given to Hilton HHonors Silver, Gold, and Diamond Members), you can get more value out of your points. (More on that below.) 

Bonus categories 

The Hilton HHonorsTMSurpass® Card earns bonus points for purchases other than just purchases on Hilton properties. It earns the following rates: 

  • Earn 12 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases charged on your Card directly with a participating hotel or resort within the Hilton Portfolio.
  • Earn 6 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your Card:
    • at U.S. restaurants
    • at U.S supermarkets
    • at U.S. gas stations
  • Earn 3 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points for all other eligible purchases on your Card.

These are great earning rates for Hilton HHonors points and compared to other Hilton cards offered by American Express and Citi, this is your best bet for earning Hilton HHonors points. 

Hilton Gold Status

The Hilton HHonorsTMSurpass® Card offers you HHonors Gold Status. Gold status is a pretty decent benefit — you can read more about the benefits of Gold Status here but the benefits most related to this card are the following:

  • 5th night free
  • Complimentary breakfasts
  • Potential for upgrades

The 5th night free benefit is a great way to maximize the value of your sign-up bonus. So long as you book 5 nights consecutively, you’re given that 5th night for free. Thus, you can often increase the value of your points by taking advantage of this benefit.

Also, once you have Gold Status, you can always look into status matches with different hotels and try to gain status with other hotel chains or you can inquire about status challenges to earn Hilton Diamond Status

Priority PassTM Select

The Surpass offers you a Priority Pass membership that grants you access to over 700 airport lounges around the world. However, this is the membership that is valued at $99, which means that all lounge visits are subject to a fee of U.S. $27 per person per visit. If you really are attracted to lounge access, you should consider other cards like the Platinum Card from American Express or the Citi Prestige to take advantage of that benefit. 

Final Word 

This offer is a good deal if you plan on having stays at Hilton properties in the near future, especially if you can stretch the value of your points by getting the 5th night free. Personally, I’d look into applying for an additional Hilton card, perhaps one from Citi, so that I could potentially come out with 150,000+ Hilton HHonors points and quickly accumulate a pretty decent stash of their points. However, even if you only go with the Surpass and come out with 100,000 Hilton HHonors points, I still think it’s a deal worth jumping on for a lot of travelers.  

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