The Best Ways to Use Miles and Points to Get to New Zealand

My number one bit of advice to someone planning on making it to New Zealand on miles and points would be to plan as far in advance as possible and to stay as open-minded as you can about taking longer routes through other continents, such as Asia. Yes, that means more flying time but it will also make your booking experience much easier given the difficulty involved with getting to New Zealand on award flights. With that said, here are the best ways to use miles and points to get to New Zealand.

Limited direct flights 

The first thing to be mindful of is that there are only a handful of direct flights to New Zealand from the United States.

These include:

  • Houston (IAH) to Auckland (AKL) – Air New Zealand
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Auckland (AKL) – Air New Zealand and American Airlines
  • San Francisco (SFO) to Auckland (AKL) – United and Air New Zealand

Unfortunately, award spots on these flights are extremely hard to find. This is why you need to be open to routing through Asia or Australia to get to New Zealand.

Economy vs business class 

If you want to get to New Zealand in economy, it’s not very difficult to find flights. In fact, your experience with finding award tickets will be much more pleasant than looking for business class routes.

However, if you want to get to New Zealand in business class or first class (at the saver level), you’re going to have to really plan ahead (7 months plus) and be open-minded about jumping on longer routes. Instead of flying directly to the home of the Kiwis, more than likely you’ll be routing through Australia or Asia (or both) so that your final route might end up looking like: US -> Asia -> Australia -> New Zealand. That might not sound like fun, but because you’ll be in business class it should be a lot more bearable. 


  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 75,000
  • Business class: 120,000

United Airlines

My preferred method of getting to New Zealand would be to book a roundtrip with ANA miles on United Airlines since they don’t pass on fuel surcharges and your total fees would be minimal. The problem is the abysmal open award space. At the time of this article, April 2017 had one of the best months for availability and for Saver business class seats and you can see how limited it was to Sydney in April/May in the image below.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 5.33.48 PM

When I searched for availability from the US to Auckland with United on Aeroplan’s website, I found a lot of United award availability for flights 5+ months out and decent availability for flights only a couple of months out but it wasn’t the kind of availability I liked. The major issue with these flights is that the business class redemptions were mostly mixed-class fares, often with economy being the longest leg. If you search long and hard enough (for flights 6-7+ months out) you might be able to find itineraries with business class for the long-haul legs but it’s probably still going to come down to getting a little bit lucky. 

Thus, while getting to New Zealand via United with ANA miles would be terrific,  I definitely recommend expanding your searches to routings via Australia and Asia that involve other partners. Awards seats in business class may still be a little hard to come by but by getting creative with your routes and combining alliance partners, you should eventually be able to piece something together.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand offers the most routes from the United States to New Zealand but the problem is that the award availability is very limited and historically has been. You might get lucky and come across some good availability here and there but for the most part I wouldn’t count on there to be open seats on Air New Zealand.

ANA (plus Asian airline partners)

Using ANA to book ANA plus Asian airline partner airlines to get to New Zealand can be a great option but will obviously require you to connect through Asian airports to get there and back. A lot of the routing through Asia include partners: Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Air China, and Thai Airways. For example, take a look at this sample itinerary from IAH to AKL utilizing ANA and Air China. 

Routing through Asia is probably the easiest way to find awards to New Zealand.

One of the issues for business class redemptions is that the business class fares are often mixed with economy on long segments. For example, most of the routes involving Singapore Airlines options included a long economy leg from Singapore to Sydney or Auckland. The key again is try to book as far in advance as possible, search routing options day-by-day, and experiment with routes through Japan, China, Southeast Asia, etc. If you are relentless with your efforts, you should eventually be able to piece together an all-business class itinerary. 

ANA routing rules regarding connections are a little complex so if you want to try to learn more about them check our this article. If all of that seems a bit over your head, you can just play around with the search function on ANA’s website and try to find connecting flights that work for you based on what they provide.

The total fees at about $465 for a roundtrip is a little high, but you can’t forget that you’re getting an awesome redemption rate of 120,000 for your roundtrip, or if you book with ANA’s own metal, just 105,000!

Stop over and open jaw possibilities

Don’t forget that you’re allowed a stopover and open-jaw with ANA as well. If you’re routing through Asia, it might make sense to book your stopover there in a place like Tokyo or Beijing to help break up your flights. 

Many people who make the trip all the way down to New Zealand like to combine their trip with a trip to Australia or perhaps an exotic destination like French Polynesia.

If you wanted to include a stopover in Sydney you could do the following:

  • Outbound: SFO -> AUK
  • Inbound: AUK -> SYD [stopover] -> SFO

Or, if you wanted to hit up Australia and still make your trip even more exotic by stoping over in a place like French Polynesia you could go with the following:

  • Outbound: SFO -> AUK
  • Inbound: SYD [open jaw] -> Tahiti (PPT) [stopover] -> SFO

You’d have to take care of your flight from AUK to SYD and your fees might be a little higher since your flights might not include just United, but for 120,000 miles, getting to New Zealand, Australia, and French Polynesia is superb, even if you have to shell out a little in fees.

Alaskan Airlines

Alaskan Airlines offers great redemption rates to a number of destinations around the globe and New Zealand is one of those places. As usual, the rates differ depending on the partner, so here are a few of the best ways to use Alaskan miles to get to New Zealand.

Cathay Pacific B777-300
Cathay Pacific is a great use of Alaskan Miles to New Zealand, Photo by Alvin Law.


  • 85,000 in economy
  • 110,000 in business class

The 110,000 is business class roundtrip to New Zealand (via Australia) and sounds exceptional, right? The problem is that almost all of the search results you find for business class redemptions will be mixed-class cabins, with the long legs from the States being in economy or at best premium economy. Unfortunately, much like Air New Zealand, business class award availability with Qantas is one of the hardest to come by. Every once in a while they roll out with more open dates but for the most part if you want to find open business class seats, you’ll have to do a lot of searching and will probably struggle to find suitable options for a roundtrip (though it can be done).

However, if you’re interested in economy you should be able to find plenty of open seats; it’s just that the deal isn’t quite so sweet at 85,000 miles roundtrip.

Fiji Airways

  • 80,000 in economy
  • 110,000 in business class

Fiji Airways offers more outstanding rates to get to New Zealand but it’s got the same issues as Qantas in terms of very limited business class availability. I searched for months on Alaskan’s website and only found a couple of days with open business class seating but others have had more luck finding business clas availability (via Fiji). Much like Qantas, economy had wide-open dates, however.

Korean Air

  • 85,000 in economy
  • 125,000 in business class

Booking business and/or first class on Korean Air’s metal with partner miles is extremely difficult because they have been known to limit their inventory to partners, sometimes with only one business class seat. I searched through months on Delta and Alaska’s website and only found a seat here and there for business class and economy wasn’t much better. Therefore, while the redemption rate with Alaskan miles is tempting, this isn’t a very practical option for getting to New Zealand for the time being.

Cathay Pacific

  • 80,000 in economy
  • 120,000 in business class

You’ll need to search for award availability with British Airways or Japan Airlines since Alaska often doesn’t show Cathay Pacific award availability. A quick search for availability about 7 months out showed many open business class seats (sometimes up to 5 seats open) between Hong Kong and Auckland and so you’d just need to find Cathay Pacific flights from departure points in the US (SFO or LAX).

The product level on Cathay Pacific and redemption rates make it one of the best ways to get New Zealand and definitely one of the best ways to use Alaskan miles. While award availability is not phenomenal it’s still better than many of the other options for getting to New Zealand, so if you have Alaskan miles then consider Cathay Pacific as a primary choice.

Remember, Alaskan Airlines has a very generous stopover policy allowing one stopover on one-ways and two stopovers on roundtrips. A route through Asia to Oceania is a perfect time to take advantage of these!

United Airlines 

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles:  Chase Ultimate Rewards, Chase cards, SPG (2:1)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 140,000

As stated, award availability for (saver) business class to New Zealand on United is not great and you’ll need to book far in advance if you want to even have a chance to snag redemptions with business class seats between the US and Australia/New Zealand. On the other hand, if you’re searching for economy flights, you should be able to find plenty of flights 6+ months out and decent availability for flights under 6 months out.

The same logic applies from the ANA bookings: you want to explore routing options with Star Alliance partners through Asia and Australia to New Zealand. United will not allow you to route through Europe, the Middle East, or Africa, to New Zealand (or Australia), so you’ll be primarily looking at bookings through Asia with Star Alliance partners, such as ANA, Singapore, etc.

Another routing rule for United to be aware of is that when routing from North America to the South Pacific, you can only have 3 connections, which means 4 total segments one-way. So keep that in mind when piecing together your routes through Asia. 

United allows one stopover on roundtrips although there appears to be some changes rolling out

Delta Airlines

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, American Express Delta cards, SPG

Virgin Australia

  • Business class: 160,000
Virgin Australia Boeing 777-300ER in LAX (VH-VPH)
Photo by wilco737

Delta has some pretty horrible redemptions to Australia and New Zealand and the lowest I found when I searched was 300,000 miles roundtrip. However, Delta has access to non-SkyTeam partner Virgin Australia which has the largest inventory of business class awards to Australia even in peak times and no fuel surcharges. You may have to route through cities like Brisbane or Melbourne but you should be able to connect to New Zealand with Virgin Australia or SkyTeam member China Airlines. These routes are as low as 160,000 round trip and the business class product looks pretty great on Virgin Australia.

My issue is that I wasn’t able to find these awards on Delta’s site but it’s good knowing that this option is at least offered on occasion and/or that you have the possibility of tracking down these awards.

Another option for getting there with Delta but via Asia is China Eastern. 

Singapore Airlines

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thankyou points, SPG

Singapore Airlines is a bit of a pricey option for getting to New Zealand but it still makes the list since it’s a transfer partner to the major reward programs (and thus easy to accumulate miles for) and it offers one of the best business class and economy products out of any airline.

Photo by Bruno Geiger

Singapore airlines with online 15% discount factored in

  • Economy: 85,000
  • Business class: 170,000

Singapore’s award booking still confuses me, however, when it comes to getting to New Zealand. First, when I input routes from the West Coast to New Zealand, like SFO -> AUK, I get an error message that states:

The Origin and Destination you have selected constitutes a backtrack routing. Backtracking is not permitted except as required by routing restrictions. Backtracking occurs when a journey does not continue in the same direction as that in which it was begun.

I don’t know why their system defaults to that. To work around that error, I searched for award availability in segments, SFO -> SIN and SIN -> AUK.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 9.50.26 AM
Singapore showing 110, miles needed from SIN to AUK

The rate that pops up for SIN -> AUK (seen above)  is 110,000 in business class, which is the amount stated on the award chart for Zone 9 Australia “excluding New Zealand.” So that doesn’t makes sense to me but I guess that is the requirement for getting to New Zealand.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 9.44.42 AM

The biggest issue with Singapore Airlines (besides fuel surcharges sometimes) is that availability can be terrible. For business class, though, it’s not always that bad and I found a decent amount of open seats for the SIN to AUK segment for dates about 6 to 7 months out. The segments from SFO and LAX to SIN (via oneway or connecting Asian flights) can be a little harder to obtain but with enough flexibility and planning, you should be able to find something. And as usual, economy redemptions are much easier to find.

Remember, you’re given one complimentary stopover when you book a Saver roundtrip on Singapore Airlines.

Star Alliance partners

  • Economy: 110,000
  • Business class: 195,000 

The redemption rates on partner awards are much worse than on Singapore’s own metal. Thus, I personally would avoid trying to book Star Alliance partners with Singapore and try to do such bookings with ANA, United, Aeroplan, etc.

American Airlines 

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Ways to earn miles: SPG, Citi credit cards

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 160,000

Unfortunately, American doesn’t allow you to transit 3rd regions subject to exceptions and North America to South Pacific (Australia and New Zealand) is not given an exception. This means that routing through the Middle East with Qatar and Etihad or through Asia with airlines like Cathay Pacific will cost you additional miles. Therefore, I’m leaving them and others off the list.

American + Qantas

American Airlines runs a direct flight to Auckland from LAX but as you’d probably expect it’s very difficult to find open seats on that flight. However, if you route your flights through Australia and take American Airlines from LAX -> SYD you can find some pretty good business class SAAver availability at times, although you’ll need to searching for about 9 to 10 months out. Check out the SAAver seats below for business class from LAX -> AUK flying American to Sydney and then Qantas to Auckland.

Great business class availability about 10 months out.

Also, although American Airlines does not allow stopovers, the fees are very reasonable and for the roundtrip business class seats found above, you’d be paying about $73 in total fees!

Only $73 in fees!

You could also try to find other Qantas routes that depart from the United States but as already stated when it comes to business class, those can be pretty difficult to find. However, there are routes from LAX, SFO, and DFW you could at least look into.

Final Word 

Getting to New Zealand with miles and points in economy is not very difficult with sufficient planning but getting there in business class requires: 1) ample planning often 7-10 months out; 2) relentless searching; and 3) flexibility with routing connections through different regions of Asia and/or Australia. If you can handle those three things, you should be able to eventually put together routing to New Zealand; otherwise, you might just have to get lucky and come across sporadic award space. 

Cover photo byDarren Puttock via Flickr

The Best Ways to Use Miles and Points to Fly Domestically Around the USA

A lot of my “best use of miles and points” articles focus on international destinations but what about getting around the USA? There are basically three different ways to book award flights domestically: 1) revenue-based awards with Southwest, JetBlue, or Virgin America; 2) distance-based flights with British Airways Avios; or 3) traditional region-based award redemptions with domestic airlines, such as United, American, Delta, and Alaskan (or any other alliance partners). These three options are ordered in my preference for getting around the country and this article will discuss how to best utilize these options below.


Revenue-based award systems determine the amount of miles needed for your redemption based on the price of the airfare. This means that they will fluctuate and that you might see wildly differing mileage requirements for the same flight on the same day. While the higher redemptions are usually a way to get gutted for miles, the redemptions that fall on the lower end of these revenue-based programs can be extraordinarily low when compared to region-based programs, such as United and American Airlines.


  • Alliance: None
  • Ways to earn miles: Chase credit cards, Chase Ultimate Rewards,

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with revenue-based system

Headed for Idaho
Photo by Thomas Hawk

While they don’t belong to an alliance, Southwest Airlines offers the best opportunities for getting around the US in my opinion. On Southwest, you won’t find first-class seating or premier in-flight entertainment and meals, but you will get superb customer service and many options for finding cheap redemptions to get to many places around the US. Also, if you can plan out your trip a few months ahead of time, availability for the cheap “Wanna Get Away” routes can be great on Southwest.

Here are some examples of great round trip Wanna Get Away rates:

  • New York (LGA) to Los Angeles (LAX) – 16,660
  • Dallas (DAL) to Orlando (MCO) – 17,163
  • Chicago (MDW) to Houston (HOU)  – 21,284

If you’re not able to catch some of the cheaper Wanna Get Away airfares, then you’ll probably be looking at 25,000 to 35,000 for routes around the US, though it will always vary depending on the cash price of the ticket. I don’t ever book Anytime awards as I find those to typically be 2 to 4X more expensive than Wanna Get Away awards, which just isn’t worth it to me (even with the added flexibility).

What really makes Southwest the top choice in my opinion is the ability to use the Southwest Companion Pass, where you can designate a partner to fly for free with you (on paid or award tickets) for up to two years! This allows you to essentially double the value of your points. So going with the example above, I could fly with Brad roundtrip from New York to Los Angeles and only drop about 17,000 points total for both of us, when most other region-based programs would require up to 50,000 points for that trip! That’s an amazing deal.

Also, there are three Chase Southwest cards allowing you to earn up to 150,000 Rapid Rewards just from credit cards. When you combine a Companion Pass with the earning potential of the Chase Southwest credit cards, you can effectively double your Rapid Rewards, allowing you to bank tons of value from Rapid Rewards. The quick accumulation of points + Companion Pass along with 2 free checked bags and tons of routing options across the US, make Southwest a top choice for getting around domestically for me.  


  • Alliance: None, but partners with the below:
    • Emirates
    • Hawaiian Airlines
    • Silver Airways
    • South African Airways
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, SPG, JetBlue credit cards (Barclays)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with revenue-based system

Photo by 787 Dreamliner

JetBlue is similar to Southwest in a lot of ways, starting with the fact that they both offer revenue-based awards. Jet Blue isn’t as established as Southwest and doesn’t have nearly as large of a fleet that Southwest has but it does offer a large network of routing around the East Coast and even to the Caribbean. And like Southwest they have a strong focus on offering superb customer service and offer a free checked bag (although Southwest allows for two free checked bags and JetBlue charges fees on its cheapest fares).

A lot of people prefer the in-air product of Jet Blue over Southwest for longer flights since it has tv’s, free wifi, more leg room, business/first class “Mint” cabins, allows you to pick your seat, etc. but both airlines constantly rate among the best for award availability, making them both solid choices for getting around the country, in terms of finding award seats.

I’ll save the full debate of Jet Blue vs Southwest for later, but here are some examples of great round trip rates:

  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) for 20,000 miles
  • Boston (BOS) to Las Vegas  Las Vegas (LAS) for 20,400 miles
  • Chicago (ORD) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL) for 23,500 miles

After searching around, I found that Southwest often edged out Jet Blue with lower mileage requirements but both seemed to offer some cheap options that beat out other competitors. If you’re located somewhere in the Northeast and value things like being able to choose your own seat, have in-flight entertainment (tv’s), etc., Jet Blue is a great choice.

Virgin America 

  • Alliance: None, but partners with the below:
    • Emirates
    • Hawaiian Airlines
    • Singapore Airlines
    • Virgin Atlantic
    • Virgin Australia
  • Ways to earn miles: Citi Thankyou Points, SPG, Virgin America credit cards (Comenity)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with revenue-based system

Virgin America Mood Lighting. Photo by Binder.donedat

One of the youngest domestic airlines, Virgin America is another revenue-based program but one that offers a swanky product that some consider to be an experience on its own. The routing network and fleet of Virgin America is nowhere near the same level as Southwest or JetBlue, although they are growing each year. In fact, the routes are so limited you can make them all out with the map below.

Virgin America route map

Despite having such a small network, the redemptions aren’t bad at all. Take a look at some of the roundtrip redemptions I found while researching.

  • San Francisco (SFO) to Chicago (ORD) for 10,062
  • Dallas (DAL) to Los Angeles (LAX ) for 12,113
  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) for 15,677

Like JetBlue, Virgin America will offer all of the amenities that are superior to Southwest, including in-flight entertainment on tv’s, meals, seat selection, option for first class, ambient lighting, etc. These products along with their very reasonable award rates make Virgin America a tempting option, but ultimately their route network is so limited that you’ll only be able to take advantage of it for certain routes. If you’re based in or near its hub at SFO, however, Virgin America can be a very practical and worthwhile option. 


Distance-based awards offer redemptions that depend on the total distance of your flight. For getting the around the USA, the one distance-based program that sticks out is British Airways.

British Airways 

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Ways to earn miles: SPG, Chase credit card, Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards (10:8 ratio)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with distance

British airways 747
Photo by Jon Osborne.

British Airways used to be right up there with Southwest when it offered ridiculously low redemption rates for short haul flights. You could get flights for 9,000 miles round trip for trips under 650 miles. Although that option is now gone, British Airways still offers one of the best ways ways to get around the United States with partner American Airlines. Below are the rates you’d likely be choosing from to get around the country.

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)

The option for short-haul flights at 15,000 round trip is tied with American Airlines’ short-haul mileage requirement but the difference is that you can use this redemption for trips up to 1,150 miles! That’s over twice the distance of what American uses for their short-haul requirement. Furthermore, you can redeem flights up to 2,000 miles for 20,000 Avios which is the short-haul requirement for United, but British Airways  allows you to travel 1,300 more miles for the same redemption amount (20,000 miles) than what United allows! Therefore, British Airways Avios is one of the best ways to get around the country, especially if you live near an American Airlines hub and you can utilize direct flights for flights under 2,000 miles.


The standard rate for redeeming miles across the continental United States is right at 25,000 miles for the saver awards (or their equivalent). Generally, I try to avoid redeeming miles for domestic flights with these programs, because as mentioned I’ve got the Southwest Companion Pass and can get Brad and I around the country for very cheap with Southwest. However, sometimes that just won’t be an option, so here’s a look at the mileage requirements for some of the major US airlines.

American Airlines 

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Ways to earn miles: SPG, Citi credit cards

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 25,000/15,000 for flights shorter than 500 miles one way

I searched for various routes across the US for both dates just weeks out and several months out, and I found lots of saver availability for American Airlines. It’s lower redemption rate of only 15,000 roundtrip is an excellent way to redeem for cheap and though the short-haul requirement is 200 miles fewer than United’s requirement, it also requires 5,000 fewer miles to redeem so it balances out. Personally, I’d try to stick to booking American Airlines flights with Avios, especially if my flights are under 1,150 miles or even 2,000 miles, but if your trip is under 500 miles, it comes out to the same as it would with Avios (15,000 miles).

United Airlines 

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles:  Chase Ultimate Rewards, Chase cards, SPG (2:1)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 25,000/20,000 for trips shorter than 700 miles oneway 

I found decent award availability with United as well for domestic flights. Again, the 20,000 for trips shorter than 700 miles is nice, but those trips could be cheaper if you’re able to book with British Airways Avios, since you’d only need 15,000 miles.

Delta Airlines

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, American Express Delta cards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Milage requirements vary

25,000 miles would probably be the standard redemption for Delta but they sometimes have specials (like right now in September 2016 where you can find cheaper redemptions for short-haul routes like the 11,000 miles I found for a roundtrip from Los Angeles (LAX) to Las Vegas (LAS) or even routes as low as 10,000 roundtrip if you’re able to piece it together. I find Delta to be one of the least transparent airlines so when it comes to planning domestic award trips, I’m not sure that I’d count on Delta to be offering great deals, but stumbling upon such cheap award flights would always be a tempting option for me if it actually worked with my schedule.

Delta special redemption rates

Alaskan Airlines 

  • Alliance: Partners include American Airlines and Delta and smaller regional airlines 
  • Ways to earn miles: Alaskan Airlines credit cards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 25,000 (15,000 for intra-state travel)

Alaska offers the standard 25,000 roundtrip mileage requirement for getting around the US. You can book this rate with Alaskan Airlines, which serves much of the West Coast or book the same rate with American or Delta (roundtrip only with the latter). Alaskan offers the lower 15,000 roundtrip rate when you book intra-state airfare. So for example, if you flew from Seattle to Spokane on Alaskan Airlines, you’d be able to take advantage of the lower 15,000 fare. This lower rate can also be used with regional airlines PenAir and Ravn Alaska.

Alliance partners

Several alliance partners to the major alliances of OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance all also offer 25,000 redemption rates to get around domestically. Some of them, such as Flying Blue and Singapore Airlines are partners to all three programs Citi ThankYou Points, American Express Membership Rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards, so they might make easy options for booking domestic flights with United or Delta.

A word about domestic travel

When it comes to redeeming miles for domestic travel, the importance of evaluating whether or not to use cash or points becomes even more necessary to determine. It’s relatively easy to find low airfares around the country and there are often promos going on with at least one airline to certain destinations. Thus, even if you find a low fare on a any type of program, you should still evaluate if your redemptions are valuable based on the cents per point you’re redeeming for. 

Final Word 

Getting around the US by flying for cheap can actually be pretty easy if you give yourself enough time to seek out the best rates or come across great promos. I personally, would consider getting the Southwest Companion Pass if you travel with a partner because I think it offers the best value and it’s really easy to rack up tons of Rapid Rewards with credit cards. However, if you want to fly with a little more comfort then look to JetBlue and Virgin America. Finally, don’t forget about the great short-haul redemptions still found on British Airways and other discounted rates found on other airlines. 


Exploring Famous Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the premier art museums in the world and to some, it’s arguably the top art museum in the United States. The museum boasts several famous art pieces from some of the most legendary artists, such as Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. It’s definitely a top destination to see while in Chicago and so here’s a look at some of my favorite works I saw on my recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.

American Gothic – Grant Wood (1930)


In 1930, Grant Wood was inspired by the “structural absurdity” of a Gothic-style window in such a “flimsy frame house” in Eldon, Iowa. He decided to paint people in front of the house who would be the “kind of people I fancied should live in that house.” So he turned to his sister and dentist to model as the subjects for the painting. There’s debate as to whether it’s a wife and husband depicted or father and daughter, but many believe that due to the age difference, it was meant to be the latter.


Wood entered his painting into a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago and earned the bronze medal and $300 cash prize. The painting then appeared in newspapers around the country, steadily gaining in popularity. Many midwesterners despised their depiction as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers” but Wood stated this was not his intention at all. In fact, by living in Europe, Wood supposedly grew fonder of the Midwest and its simpler ways and was even quoted as saying “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”

Today, the painting still evokes an often-parodied, satirical interpretation of the rural ways of life but also signifies the American spirit to persevere through the tough times of the Great Depression. If you’re ever road tripping through Iowa, you can actually visit the house made famous by this painting. 

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – Georges Seurat (1884)

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – Georges Seurat (1884)

Seurat used a technique known as “pointillism” to complete this renown masterpiece. Inspired by scientific research at the time, Seurat believed that by painting small dots of contrasting colors, he could produce the “boldest and purest” forms of colors that the human eye could perceive. This approach allowed Seurat to lead the neo-impressionism movement, where artists refined concepts of light and color in their works and implemented a new calculated approach to art that abandoned the spontaneity of the impressionists and consequently resulted in harsh criticism. The scientific theories with respect to luminosity and color on which the neo-impressionists relied were likely off-base, but their works nevertheless sparked a movement that caught on quickly.

Close-up of strokes evidence of pointillism.


It took Seurat two years to complete this painting, which he finished at just the young age of 26. During those two years, he completed over 30 preliminary drawings and oil paintings, focusing meticulously on crafting the detailed landscape portrayed in the final work. There’s much debate over the interpretation of work but one of the most poignant interpretations comes from from Ernst Bloch:
“This picture is one single mosaic of boredom, a masterful rendering of the disappointed longing and the incongruities of a dolce far niente [idleness],” Bloch wrote. “The painting depicts a middle-class Sunday morning on an island in the Seine near Paris…despite the recreation going on there, seems to belong more to Hades than to a Sunday…The result is endless boredom, the little man’s hellish utopia of skirting the Sabbath and holding onto it too; his Sunday succeeds only as a bothersome must, not as a brief taste of the Promised Land.”

Paris Street; Rainy Day – Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Paris Street; Rainy Day – Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

This is Gustave Caillebotte’s most famous piece and it depicts urban life in Paris at a newly built boulevard near an intersection called Place de Dublin. The painting is said to be inspired by photography and you can see this in many of the painting’s elements. There’s a shift in the sharpness of the figures and structures, which is meant to mimic the effect of a camera’s focus. Also, the center of the image appears to bulge and the man on the right is half-cropped out, much like you might find in a photograph. Finally, the image is composed almost like a snapshot of a street scene, although Gustave is said to have spent months crafting this scene.

The Old Guitarist – Pablo Picasso (1903-1904)

The Old Guitarist – Pablo Picasso (1903-1904)

The Old Guitarist came near the end of Pablo Picasso’s “blue period.” Affected by the suicide of a close friend, this was a period where Picasso focused on the downtrodden and the misery of the impoverished. This particular painting captures the sorrowful theme with its monochromatic color scheme and slumped guitarist figure who appears sickly and perhaps blind and close to death. The sole contrast in color is the guitar, which is said to symbolize the life and meaning brought to the impoverished by art, or conversely, the solitude that is often the life of an artist. 

Many people aren’t aware, but there are several hidden images within The Old Guitarist. Most prominently, there’s a woman hidden hauntingly behind the neck area of the guitarist. You can faintly make out some of her facial features with the naked eye, such as her jaw line and eyes but it took x-ray and infrared technology to uncover her full details.

Infrared scan of The Old Guitarist – Image by AIC


In addition to the woman, they discovered a bull and a calf and a small child in the background — the same scene described to a friend by Picasso in a 1903 letter. Some experts believe that there could even be another scene depicted, meaning that two different paintings may lie beneath The Old Guitarist.

A few other works of Picasso are below.

The Red Armchair (1931)

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910)

Bedroom at Arles – Vincent van Gogh (1889)

Bedroom at Arles – Vincent van Gogh (1889)

From 1888 to 1889, Vincent van Gogh created three versions of one of his most renown paintings. He completed the first version just after moving into his “Yellow House” in 1888. However, after water damage threatened the preservation of his first work, he decided to paint another version, although this time he would be painting from the confines of the asylum in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh’s smaller third version (housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris), was given as a gift to his mother and sister only a few weeks after creating the second version.

Van Gogh lived in 37 places in his 37 years, often living with friends, his parents, or in small rooms above cafes but never had a place to call his own.  To many, this painting of his bedroom signifies the importance and yearning van Gogh had for home. The colors are bright, evoking tranquil emotions and the details in the room, the paintings (van Gogh’s own work), furniture, and nightstand were meant to create a sense of welcoming for other artists. Interestingly, many of the original colors have gone through discoloration, making the originally purple walls and doors now appear blue.

The Drinkers (1890)

The Drinkers – Vincent van Gogh (1890)

Van Gogh took inspiration from a prior work of art when created The Drinkers. At a time when he lived in the asylum, van Gogh focused more on interpretation rather than creating his own works. He remade Honoré Daumier’s version (seen below) into his own. The “four stages of man” depict the cyclical nature of alcoholism and it’s thought that the green used by van Gogh is an allusion to absinthe, a drink that was well known at the time.  Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 3.27.51 PM

Self-portait (1887)


Van Gogh created many self-portraits but this one came early on, only a year after his first known published self-portrait in 1886. When van Gogh began painting self-portraits he adopted a style similar to Rembrandt but in as little time as a year, he’d shifted his direction to the Parisian avant-garde in favor of bright contrasting of complementary colors. Below, you can see how different the style is that Vincent van Gogh first adopted with one of his first ever known self-portraits.

Wikipedia – Creative Commons

These famous paintings are of course only the tip of the iceberg for what you can admire at the Art Institute of Chicago, but I try to limit my photography when I go into such renown museums to avoid disturbing others and to give myself time to relax and enjoy the art while I’m there. Even if you’re not a major fan of art, if you’re heading to Chicago, you should mark this down as a must-visit attraction, as not many museums offer you the chance to see so many renown works in one visit.

The Best Ways to Use Miles and Points to Get to South Africa

South Africa is a bucket list destination for many. The only problem is that it’s not very easy to get there because there aren’t as many options as you find for getting to places like Europe or Asia. However, contrary to what you might think, there are some ways to get to South Africa that offer decent availability, superb products, and minimal taxes and fees. Here’s a breakdown of the best way to get to South Africa with miles and points


  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 65,000
  • Business class: 104,000 miles

Although you have to book roundtrip fares with ANA, they offer ridiculously low redemption rates for getting to South Africa with miles and points at only 104,000 miles roundtrip! Heading from North America, you’ll likely be utilizing a combination of United and Star Alliance partners like Turkish Airways and South African Airways to get to South Africa. Since United does not fly to South Africa, you’ll have to pay fuel surcharges if you want to get there with ANA miles.

South African Airways

There are two ways to use South African Airways: finding availability on the one non-stop from JFK to JNB or by piecing together flights from connecting flights from other regions.

When I searched for flights, I found most South African Airways routing connecting through Sao Paulo (GRU) or somewhere in Europe like London. However, they also fly to Asia and Australia, so you could potentially route through just about anywhere (subject to higher redemption requirements, of course).

As usual, hefty surcharges will be likely when you book with ANA. My searches showed total fees of approximately $580 when booking South African Airlines with ANA from North America to Johannesburg, South Africa, which seems to be pretty standard with all partners not named or associated with United. 

I’ve never flown business on South African Airways but based on reviews, it looks like a decent product and has fully lie-flat seats, which is a plus. You can find a review on one of their business class cabins here.

Turkish Airlines

Turkish Airlines has some decent availability as well. They fly out of many different U.S. cities including, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, NYC, San Francisco, and Washington. If you go through ANA, you’ll often find Turkish Airlines itineraries lumped together with United and South African Airways but the fees generally end up being the same, somewhere close to $580.

Other partners

United, Air India, Egypt Air, Swiss, Ethiopian, Lufthansa, and perhaps a few other Star Alliance partners may help complete your journey to South Africa with ANA, so be on the lookout for such flights. 

Total miles and fees for using ANA to book South African Airways + Swiss roundtrip.

The important thing to remember with booking partners with ANA is that you’ll need to book a roundtrip ticket and that you’ll have to pay some fuel surcharges. If you can live those things, ANA is a hard option to not go with. 

The view from Table Mountain, South Africa.

Asiana Airlines

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles: SPG and co-branded credit card
  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 120,000

Asiana Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance and the second largest carrier out of South Korea, behind Korean Air of the SkyTeam Alliance. Asiana has an award chart for its own metal and a separate chart for partners. One great thing about this program is that they allow you to book one way awards on partners.

Fuel surcharges will be imposed on many partners but you can get around them with certain airlines like United and I believe Air Canada. You can also avoid surcharges on Etihad — here’s the  award chart for Etihad. (Qatar is a partner too but they’re not listed on the partner award chart link like Etihad is.)

Asiana does not allow you to book partner awards online. You’ll need to call in to their call center which is open during normal business hours (Pacific time) and can be reached at 1-800-227-4262. There should be no fee for making a booking over the phone.

Singapore Airlines

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thankyou points, SPG

Partner airlines

  • Economy: 104,000
  • Business class: 174,000

As already shown, South African Airways and Turkish airlines offer a number of ways to get to South Africa. You can book these partners by calling in to Singapore Airlines and take advantage of their very reasonable redemption rates but you will have to pay fuel surcharges, since Singapore Airlines charges them on every partner airlines except for United.  Fuel surcharges may be close to $300, although they could vary depending on market conditions.

Update: Singapore is rolling out booking partners online!

These awards used to be more competitive but Singapore Airlines recently devalued many of their awards and this route took a hit and left us with the prices we have now.

Singapore Airlines

  • 161,500 (online discount factored in) Online discount no longer offered
  • Economy: 104,000
  • Business class: 204,000

Singapore Airlines is a decent way to fly to South Africa if you don’t mind shelling out a lot of miles and you’re departing from the west coast (LAX or SFO). They have one of the best business class products out of any airline, so you’ll be flying in style and very comfortable.

While the recent devaluation increased the prices of some redemptions, it also came with a decrease in total fees. So now you only have to pay roughly $100 in fees for both economy and business class flights to South Africa!

Miles and points to South Africa
Total miles and fees for a roundtrip economy flight.

miles and points to south africa
Total miles and fees for a roundtrip business class flight.

The biggest knock against flying business class on Singapore Airlines is availability. In order to find openings, you may have to do a lot of searching and continuously check up on what’s available. This is especially true if you’re traveling with multiple people. It’s not quite as difficult as finding first class Singapore Suites availability but don’t be surprised if you’re forced to waitlist for a business class fare you really want. 

United Airlines 

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles:  Chase Ultimate Rewards, Chase cards, SPG (2:1)

Miles needed for Star Alliance partners:

  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 160,000

Booking through United to get to South Africa can be a solid option. The same Star Alliance partners for ANA will likely be used: South African Airways, Turkish, etc., but the difference will be that you won’t pay nearly as much in fees.

A lot of the business class roundtrip bookings I tested had about $100 or less in total fees. While it’s nice to save a few hundred bucks on fees, I’d personally take the nearly 60,000 savings in points by booking business class with ANA and just shell out around $500 for my award ticket on most occasions. 

Hangin’ out with penguins as Boulders Beach outside of Cape Town, South Africa.

American Airlines 

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Ways to earn miles: SPG, Citi credit cards

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 150,000

After planning my own trip to South Africa and trying (for months) to find opportune routing options in all sorts of different ways, I think that using American Airline miles is one of the easiest ways to use miles and points to get to South Africa (and to arrive there in style). As long as you plan well in advance, you shouldn’t encounter many issues finding availability on airlines like Qatar and Etihad, two quality airlines that require you to pay only modest fees. 


Qatar flies to several U.S. cities including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Francisco, St Louis, and Washington. Searching for award availability with Qatar can be an issue with the American Airlines website, so I usually use British Airways to find open award availability.

Once you’re able to search for seats, you’ll probably find availability for business class seats to JNB to be pretty good, especially if you’re looking to book several months in advance. I think for many routes Qatar opens up four business class seats for awards but even with this limitation, I found plenty of flights with open seats between American cities and DOH and between DOH and JNB.

Qatar business class is a great product and to go along with that great product, you also get low fees. Expect to only pay around $80 in fees, which is a much better bargain compared to what you’ll pay with British Airways.

Etihad (Increased mileage requirement)

Etihad has several routes to the United States, including Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington. The business class product on Etihad is highly touted and if you’re flying from JFK, you can always look into booking a first class redemption on the A380 to experience the Etihad Apartment — perhaps the most luxurious cabin in the world at the moment.

I suggest searching on the Etihad website for availability. You’ll search for “Guest” seats and then call in to American Airlines to book them. (I’ve had to call the American Airlines center in Australia the past few times I’ve booked Etihad, because for some reason the agents in the U.S. were having trouble finding the seats.)

In my experience, availability for business class is decent with Etihad but can sometimes be difficult to find when searching for JFK to AUH routes. For other routes, it’s usually not as much of an issue when you book far in advance. I recommend searching for the flights segment by segment on Etihad’s website to maximize the results that will be shown. Expect fees to be very reasonable and similar to those imposed by Qatar.

British Airways

It’s easy to find availability on British Airways to JNB but you’re going to be absolutely b—- slapped by BA fuel surcharges. Take a look below at the required fees for one roundtrip business class…. $1,700 just for one passenger! That’s a lot and with options like Etihad and Qatar available with AA miles, I’d only consider BA if that was my only option. And even then…. 

Flying Blue 

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thankyou points, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 200,000

I think that the potential for quick accumulation of miles is an important factor to consider and that’s why I like to include Flying Blue in many of my lists since it’s so easy to rack up miles with them from the different programs.

With that said, getting to South Africa can be very pricey with Flying Blue, since it requires you to drop 200,000 for roundtrip business class tickets. And if you’re not able to find availability on a Delta flight to South Africa (which seemed impossible when I searched)  you’ll also be paying over €800 in fees and taxes!

Thus, unless you’re booking an economy flight to South Africa with Delta, I don’t really recommend Flying Blue since there are much cheaper options. Remember, Singapore Airlines is also a transfer partner of the same programs that Flying Blue is partner to (all of the major ones) and they’ll require 30,000 fewer miles to redeem for this route!

Helicopter ride over Cape Town, South Africa.

Delta Airlines

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, American Express Delta cards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Milage requirements vary but you might be able to find: 
  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 190,000

Delta is the only U.S. carrier that offers a direct flight to South Africa (ATL to JNB). For that reason, it might be tempting to think about going with them. However, their rates for getting to South Africa can be very ridiculous. If you search far enough in the future, however, you might catch some cheap award flights that start at 40,000 one-way. 

My issue with these cheap rewards is that they often have multiple stops which can be a PIA, though it’s possible to find these cheap routes with one-stop flights as seen below.

The good new is that the total fees paid can be as low as $139 for the entire roundtrip. Below are the total fees and mileage requirements for two people flying roundtrip. (One segment was priced at 50,000). Still,  90,000 + $139 in fees for a roundtrip ticket to South Africa isn’t bad.

Even though the pricing can be extremely ridiculous with Delta you can sometimes get a little lucky and run into some decent deals.

Cage diving with great whites in South Africa.


  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Earn points: Membership Rewards

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 120,000

If you’re determined to go the SkyTeam route to get to South Africa then consider using Alitalia. They offer some of the best redemption rates for getting to South Africa. They can be a bit of a pain to deal with due to the fact that you’ll have to call in to book awards and customer service can be a bit shoddy. Also, you’ll have to pay some hefty fees to book with partner airlines. However, if you’re able to pull it off, the mileage requirements are among the lowest available.

Korean Air 

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: Chase Ultimate Rewards,  SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 80,000
  • Business class: 120,000 miles

Korean Air offers the same redemptions as Alitalia. It also requires high fees and surcharges unless you book with certain airlines, such as Delta, making this a great option. It’s got many of the same negatives as Alitalia, however, in that you must call in to book and you have to deal with some odd and cumbersome logistical hurdles to get your booking done (update: you can book online now). However, if you really want a cheap redemption, I think it can be worth it. Korean Air is a great alternative to Alitalia if you want to book with SkyTeam partners but have Ultimate Rewards instead of Membership Rewards to spare.

Note that Korean Air only allows for roundtrip redemptions on partners. 

Cape Town market.

Alaska Airlines 

  • Alliance: Partners include American Airlines, Iceland Air, Air France
  • Ways to earn miles: Alaskan Airlines credit cards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Milage requirements vary depending on partner

You can use Alaska Airlines miles to get to South Africa with partner airlines: Flying Blue, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta and Emirates. After looking at the different award charts for the partners, I saw two redemptions that stuck out to me and both of them are on Cathay Pacific. 

Cathay Pacific

  • 125,000 in business
  • 140,000 in first class

125,000 in business on Cathay Pacific is very good considering the product level of Cathay Pacific and how low that redemption is to some of the other premier airlines.

You’ll need to search for award availability with British Airways or Japan Airlines since Alaska often doesn’t show Cathay Pacific award availability. A quick search for availability about 7 months out showed many open business class seats and even some first class seats between U.S. destinations like LAX and HKG (Hong Kong) and JBN. Thus, I think that if you’re able to book well in advance, this is a very legitimate way to get to South Africa (and don’t forget Alaska allows for stopovers on your routing, too).

Final Word

Getting to South Africa doesn’t have to be as daunting of a task as it might seem. There are some very cheap redemptions available for business class on some solid airlines and there’s decent availability with award flights. The key to is to try to plan these bookings months in advance and try to be versatile with your miles and capable of making a booking with one or more alliances. It can really be advantageous if you’re able to split up your outbound and inbound routes with different alliances, as you’re offered maximum flexibility. 

Cover photo byAlan Wilson via Flickr

The Best Ways to Use Miles and Points to Get to Scandinavia

There are a number of options for getting to Scandinavia (or northern Europe) with points and miles. What’s more, you can often find booking options with little to no fees so that you’ll be able to book roundtrip  business class tickets and pay as little as $90! But you’ve got to know which partners are best to utilize in order to make such a booking. Here’s an overview of some of the best ways to use to miles and points to get to Scandinavia. 

Aeroplan (Air Canada)

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 60,000
  • Business class: 110,000 miles roundtrip

This is one of the best ways to get to Scandinavia from North America if you think that you might be flying business class on a Star Alliance flight.

The following airlines do not carry surcharges when you book them through Aeroplan:

  • Air China
  • Brussels
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian
  • EVA Air
  • Scandinavian
  • Singapore
  • Swiss
  • Turkish
  • United
  • LOT (has small surcharges)*

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)

One of the best ways to use Aeroplan is book with alliance partner Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).

SAS is the flag carrier of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and the largest airline in Scandinavia. The have direct routes to different airpots in Scandinavia from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Washington.

It shouldn’t be difficult for you to find routes to Copenhagen (CPH), Stockholm (ARN), or Oslo (OSL). In fact, SAS availability in my experience is pretty exceptional and far outnumbers the availability from other airlines that flight into the region.

And the great thing about SAS is that if you’re wanting to catch a connecting flight to smaller Scandinavian cities they’ve got you covered. For example, for routes to places like Tromsø, Norway (one of the top places in the world to catch the northern lights), SAS offers many flights. A lot of times the only other airline offering flights to those cities is Norwegian Air, which is not a partner to any of the big three alliances. This is a great advantage to going with Star Alliance partners over booking with another alliance since you would have to pay out of pocket for your flight from a place like Oslo to Tromsø and those flights can be a bit pricey sometimes.

Another major reason to book with SAS is that just rolled out a fantastic new business class product. Check out a review of the newly launched business class cabin here.

And finally, when you book SAS with Aeroplan the fees are very low. You might pay up to $80-90 for a roundtrip business class with SAS! Other partners listed above and discussed below will offer you very small fees as well, but none of them can compete with the availability that SAS offers, in my experience. Therefore, SAS is my preferred option to getting to Scandinavia. 

Swiss Airlines

Swiss Airlines is a solid second option for using Aeroplan miles to get to Scandinavia. They fly out of the following cities: Boston, Chicago, Newark, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco. Fees might be a little bit more than SAS but they are still very reasonable, often around $130. When I searched for flights for my Norway trip I didn’t find a lot of Swiss Airlines flights so you might have to do some extra work if you want to fly with Swiss.

Turkish Airlines

Turkish Airlines flies out of the following cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington. I’ve found more award availability with Turkish Airlines than Swiss, but still pretty limited overall.

United Airlines

United flights directly to Scandinavia are few and far between, and I definitely did not see much if any availability when searching. If you do end up finding a transatlantic route with United, you’ll most likely land somewhere in Europe and then connect to Scandinavia with SAS or some other Star Alliance partner. That’s not a bad way to do it, but if you can swing the straight shot with SAS (which should be much easier to find), I see no reason to not go with them instead.


  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 55,000
  • Business class: 88,000 miles roundtrip

ANA is very tempting with its ridiculously low 88,000 miles requirement for a roundtrip business class ticket to Europe (with stopover allowed). The issue with ANA is that it will pass on pretty significant fuel surcharges if you book with partners, such as SAS. These fees for a roundtrip ticket will be about $500 or more.

ANA will not pass on heavy fuel surcharges if you book with United but it’s going to take some extra effort to get to Scandinavia since you’ll likely have to connect with a Star Alliance partner that passes on more expensive fees, such as Lufthansa or Brussels Airlines. If you end booking a United flight through a city like Amsterdam and then connecting to a city like Oslo, you can expect to pay around $300 to $500 in fees for business class.

Thus, in some instances it may be worth it to book a business class United flight from the US to a random city in Europe, such as Amsterdam and pay the small fees incurred (usually less than $90). And then, you could pay for a budget airline to take where you want to get in Scandinavia for as little as $150-$175 round trip. Such a routing could end up saving you a couple of hundred bucks and allow to capitalize with points by booking such a low fare to Europe.

American Airlines

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Ways to earn miles:  SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 45,000
  • Business class: 115,000 miles roundtrip

If you’re not able to make it to Scandinavia with Star Alliance partners, OneWorld does offer a few decent redemptions to get there. The issues I ran into with One World partners were limited availability and the fact they they didn’t offer many connecting flights to smaller Scandinavian towns like Tromsø. Still, even with some limitations, the redemptions to get there at 115,000 miles roundtrip is very competitive.


One obvious choice to go with when trying to get to Scandinavia is Finnair (I’m just gonna roll with Finland being considered a part of Scandinavia). They have flights out of Miami, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, though flights do not depart everyday of the week. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find open seats on the direct flights to HEL and the awesome thing is that you can redeem these routes for less than $80 in total fees! Thus, if your final destination is within Finland, this is a great option.

If you’re wanting to get somewhere else in Scandinavia like Norway, Sweden, or Denmark, Finnair can still be a solid choice. The issue is just that your routing options are going to be a bit limited. You’ll find fewer flights to fewer locations than you would with SAS but it’s still a smart way to get your connecting flights covered with miles and points and although there are fewer flights, the availability can be great. 

American Airlines

American Airlines is a great way to get to Scandinavia if you can find SAAver availability. Most of the options found searching the American Airlines website will probably be British Airways flights routing through London but if you look hard enough you can also find American Airlines flights to other destinations in Europe. Try to find connecting flights to Scandinavian destinations with Finnair or Air Berlin to avoid going through London and you can minimizes the fees. 

Air Berlin

The fees for booking with Air Berlin are very reasonable and can be under $100. Air Berlin flies directly from its German hubs to and from New York, Ft. Meyers, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Find out more about their routes here. I found the availability from North America to Europe very poor for business class but very good for economy. If you want to book with Air Berlin, it might take some extra effort but it will likely be worth it.

British Airways

Of course, there’s always British Airways to get you where you need to be. Availability for British Airways usually outnumbers every other airline when searching on sites like the American Airlines site. The issue with BA is always the fuel surcharges. In my experience, you can sometimes mitigate the damage by only booking BA to get back to the US from Europe. However, if you book a round trip business ticket you’re likely looking at over $1,000 in fees.

Korean Air 

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: Chase Ultimate Rewards,  SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 50,000
  • Business class: 80,000 miles roundtrip

Korean Air’s 80,000 mile redemption to Europe (roundtrip) is an absolute steal. Korean Air will slap you with some decent fuel surcharges unless you’re able to book with Delta. Thus, I highly recommend trying to find Delta over any of the other partner airlines to Europe because you will likely be forced to pay hefty fees that make that great redemption rate of 80,000 less appealing.

The major issue with Korean Air is that it’s a logistical headache to book award flights with partners. You have to call in to make the bookings and submit special applications for your tickets. You can read more about booking award tickets with Korean Air here. If you’re willing to deal with the extra legwork, however, the 80,000 business class redemption is very hard to compete with. 

Flying Blue

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thankyou points, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 50,000
  • Business class: 125,000 miles roundtrip

Flying Blue is a very solid option for getting to and sometimes even getting around Scandinavia. If you can find availability with Delta to get to Europe, the fees will be very manageable, and maybe around $130. I was able to find Delta availability getting back to the States in business class but struggled to find open spots for getting to Europe. If you fly over the Atlantic with an airline like KLM, you’re going to pay significant fees totaling close to $500, so be aware of that.

The strategy for Flying Blue is the same for the previous airlines in terms of avoiding fuel surcharges. That strategy is to find availability to Europe with the low-fee airline (in this instance Delta) and then focus on finding your connecting flights.

Alaskan Airlines

  • Alliance: Partners include American Airlines, Iceland Air, Air France
  • Ways to earn miles: Alaskan Airlines credit cards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 40,000 (off peak) to 65,000
  • Business class: 100,000 to 125,000 miles roundtrip

American Airlines

Alaskan Airlines is one of the best ways to book American Airlines flights since you can get to Europe in business class for as low as 100,000 miles and in economy for as low as 40,000 miles.

The issue with using Alaskan miles to book American when getting to Scandinavia is that you can’t book multiple partners together (American gateway cities aside). Because American Airlines doesn’t fly to Scandinavia, you’d be left with the option of hopping over to Europe and then finding a budget airline to get to Scandinavia, which isn’t a horrible option considering the low fees and mileage requirement but it is an extra hassle. 


I found a lot of availability with Icelandair and it’s a lower redemption rate of only 110,000. The biggest knock is that its business class seats are not on the same level of quality that you could get when you book with other airlines to Scandinavia and most Icelandair routes found on Alaskan depart from the west coast (Seattle). Moreover, many of the itineraries are mixed-class, meaning that you might be flying in economy from Seattle to Scandinavia! Thus, the comfort factor may come into play and may not make this option for business class as appealing as it appears to be at first.

Final Word

Overall, my favorite way to get to Scandinavia is to book SAS business class through Aeroplan. The availability is great and the fees are non-existent. My next favorite option would be using ANA miles to book a United flight to Europe and then connecting to my desired city in Scandinavia. American Airlines, Korean, Flying Blue, and Alaskan all also offer decent options but they don’t seem to offer quite as many attractive (and practical) options for getting to a bunch of locations throughout Scandinavia.  

Cover photo by Mariusz Kluzniak via Flickr

The Best Ways to Use Miles and Points to Get to South America

South America is full of natural wonders and history but it’s also full of great options to get there while redeeming miles and points. In some instances, you might be able to get anywhere in South America for as little as 75,000 miles for a round trip business class ticket! Here’s a look at some of the best ways to use miles and points to get from North America to South America.

A quick note: South America is normally divided by airlines into two regions: north and south or upper and lower. Not all airlines define the upper and lower regions of South America the same, so it’s very important to make sure you’re clear on how the airline you’re going with defines them. For that reason, I’ve included how each program breaks down (or doesn’t break down) South America into regions. 

Asiana Airlines

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Earn points: SPG, co-branded Bank of America Card

Asiana Airlines is the second largest carrier out of South Korea. It’s not very well known to a lot of travelers but it offers some of the best redemptions to South America on Star Alliance partners and you can book those awards with no fuel surcharges. Here are the rates.

Latin America 1

  • 35,000 roundtrip in economy to northern South America
  • 55,000 roundtrip in business to northern South America

Latin America 2

  • 50,000 roundtrip in economy to southern South America
  • 70,000 roundtrip in business to southern South America

Read more about the program here.

Alaska Airlines 

  • Alliance: Multiple Partners (AA, Delta, LAN, etc.)
  • Earn points: SPG, Alaska Airline cards

You can use your Alaska Airlines miles to get to South America by booking with partners: American Airlines, LAN, and Delta Airlines. Alaska Airlines uses a special chart for each partner when determining the milage requirements as well as the region definitions for upper and lower South America.

Using Alaska Airlines on American Airlines

The mileage requirements are just slightly better for economy flights to upper South America when you book them off-peak. For business class, the redemptions are the same for upper South America, but you end up saving 15,000 miles if you book business class to deep south America.

Below are the milage requirements for Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, all upper South America countries.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 2.19.55 PM

Now take a look at the redemptions for a round trip to deep South America. That’s 15,000 fewer miles in business class and 20,000 fewer miles in economy than what American Airlines requires for their SAAver Award. I think this is among the best use of miles to get to deep South America.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 2.25.21 PM

Using Alaska Airlines on Delta Airlines

Using Alaska Airlines on Delta doesn’t get you any better mileage requirements. The economy rates aren’t horrible but the business class routes aren’t too great. 

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Using Alaska Airlines on LAN

When you book Alaska Airline miles on LAN, there’s no distinction between zones. This means that redeeming with LAN is a great deal when you are booking awards to lower South America where awards can be as low as 90,000 roundtrip in business class.

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Japan Airlines (JAL)

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Earn points: SPG

JAL operates on a distance-based award chart. The major difference between its chart and other distance-based programs like British Airways is that it can be much more lucrative in business class and getting to South America is one such example. JAL offers some of the best business class redemptions to South America. Take a look at some of the round trip redemptions below:  

Houston to Santiago, Chile 

  • Economy: 50,000 
  • Business: 80,000

New York to Lima 

  • Economy: 39,000 
  • Business: 63,000

The major knock against JAL is that it’s a bit hard to accumulate miles with them. That, and because they are a distance-based program, sometimes you won’t be able to take advantage of their amazing routes. Still, if you can take advantage of routes like 80,000 miles roundtrip to lower South America locations like Santiago, Chile, then this program can be one of the best for exploring Latin America.    

Flying Blue 

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Earn points: SPG, Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thankyou Points Flying Blue

Photo by Can Pac Swire via Flickr

Flying Blue defines its South American regions by the following:

  • Latin America 1 (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela)
  • Latin America 2 (Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay)


The economy rates to upper South America with Flying Blue are among the best. Although not quite as much of a bargain as Alaska Airlines, they still offer solid redemptions at 50,000 roundtrip to lower South America.

  • Latin America 1
    • 35,000 roundtrip
  • Latin America 2
    • 50,000 roundtrip

Business class

Unfortunately, the business class redemptions with Flying Blue to South America are not very good at all and you can do much better if you can book with other airlines.

  • Latin America 1
    • 87,500
  • Latin America 2
    • 125,000


  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Earn points: SPG, Membership Rewards 

ANA makes no distinction between upper and lower South America for its partner awards.

Their redemption rates are:


  • 50,000 roundtrip

Business class

  • 80,000 roundtrip

Since ANA doesn’t bother to distinguish between upper and lower South America, it makes no surprise that the bargain lies with bookings to the lower parts of South America. 50,000 miles roundtrip to lower South America in economy is pretty good but 80,000 in business class is an absolute steal. However, as stated, if you’re planning to fly out to the upper parts of South America, ANA is not going to offer you the best bang for your buck.

While ANA does pass on surcharges to many airlines they do not pass them on when booking when United. Take a look at the booking below, where a round trip in business class with United is booked with only $87.66 in fees! And if you wanted to add a stopover you could still work that in.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 4.42.45 PM

Korean Air

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Earn points: Ultimate Rewards

korean air plane

Photo by My16SidedOffice via Flickr.


Korean Air is another airline that doesn’t distinguish between regions in South America. Like, ANA Korean Air also does not allow for one-way awards, so you’ll have to be booking a round trip.

Their redemption rates are:


  • 50,000 roundtrip

Business class

  • 110,000 roundtrip

Obviously, ANA has the better deal all around compared to Korean Air but if you don’t Membership Rewards to transfer to ANA and are headed to lower South America, Korean Air is not a bad option. Also, it’s pretty easy to avoid surcharges with Korean Air when you’re flying from North America to South America with airlines like Delta, AeroMexico, etc.


  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Earn points: Membership Rewards

Alitalia divides South America into two regions:

  • South America 1: Colombia,Ecuador,FrenchGuyana,Peru,Suriname,Trinidad&Tobago,Venezuela
  • South America 2: Argentina,Bolivia,Brazil,Chile,Uruguay

Their redemption rates are:


  • Latin America 1
    • 35,000 roundtrip
  • Latin America 2
    • 50,000 roundtrip

As you can see, the economy redemptions are very competitive compared to the other airlines.

Business class

It is the business class redemptions where Aitalia stands out, however. Just take a look at these rates. 60,000 is right on par with Alaska air lines, but 75,000 for a round trip in business class to lower South America is pretty phenomenal.

  • Latin America 1
    • 60,000
  • Latin America 2
    • 75,000

There are just a few issues with Alitalia. For one, they pass on fuel surcharges on their partner award flights and I’m not sure how much those fees can be. Second, their customer service can be a bit hit and miss when requesting things like holds, so make sure you do your research. Still, that redemption rate of 75,000 miles for roundtrip business class is pretty hard to pass up.

Aeroplan (Air Canada)

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Earn points: Membership Rewards, SPG

Aeroplan is a decent option for making your way down to South America as well.

They divide South America into northern and southern regions:

This breakdown is a bit different from many of the other airlines since Peru is lumped into the southern region. 

Their redemption rates are:


  • Northern South America Region
    • 50,000 roundtrip
  • Southern South America Region
    • 60,000 roundtrip

Business class

  • Northern South America Region
    • 75,000
  • Southern South America Region
    • 110,000

I would typically only consider the business class redemption to Southern South America for 110,000 miles. However, if you’re considering transferring your Membership Rewards to Aeroplan, I’d definitely reconsider and think about using those miles to book via ANA since the deals to southern South America can be so much sweeter. The benefit to Aeroplan, however, is that you can book one way awards, which can make your life a bit easier. Like ANA, surcharges with Aeroplan can be minimized when booking with the right partners, such as United.  

American Airlines

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Earn points: SPG, Citi AA credit cards American Airlines

Photo by ERIC SALARD via Flickr.

(Manaus is a city located along the Amazon River in northern Brazil.)


  • South America Region 1:
    • 35,000 roundtrip (off-peak award)
    • 40,000 roundtrip MileSAAver
  • South America Region 2:
    • Off-peak award not available
    • 60,000 roundtrip MileSAAver

Business class

  • South America Region 1:
    • 60,000 roundtrip MileSAAver
  • South America Region 2:
    • 115,000 roundtrip MileSAAver

United Airlines

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Earn points: Ultimate Rewards, Chase United credit cards, SPG (2:1)

They divide South America into northern and southern regions:

This breakdown is a bit different from many of the other airlines since Peru is lumped into the southern region. 

Their redemption rates are:


  • Northern South America Region
    • 40,000 roundtrip
  • Southern South America Region
    • 60,000 roundtrip

Business class

  • Northern South America Region
    • 70,000
  • Southern South America Region
    • 110,000

There’s nothing really special about United Awards compared to some of the other programs but their redemption rates are at least in the ballpark of being competitive, so I think they are worth mentioning.

British Airways Avios

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Earn points: Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards (10:8), SPG, Chase BA credit card

London Heathrow U.K. - British Airways Flag carrier

Photo by Daniel Mennerich

You can’t forget about using distance-based programs, such as British Airways Avios. Since they are distance-based they don’t recognize regions within South America. Using Avios can be a great way to get to northern South America from airports in the southern United States. 

Here are some examples: 

Miami to Quito, Ecuador 

  • 20,000 roundtrip in economy
  • 40,000 roundtrip in business 

Miami to Bogota 

  • 20,000 roundtrip in economy
  • 40,000 roundtrip in business 

As your flights get longer, the flights become less appealing, especially in business class. 

Dallas to Santiago 

  • 50,000 roundtrip in economy (not bad)
  • 150,000 roundtrip in business (not good)

Thus, I wouldn’t forget about British Airways as an option if I were departing from an airport like Miami or DFW to South America. However, if I were flying further and especially if I were flying business class or higher to South America, I’d consider other options well before going with Avios. 

One thing to keep in mind is that Avios are a great option for getting around South America once you make it to the continent.

Final word

Overall, there are several great options for getting to South America. For business class to lower South America, I’d look into JAL, Alitalia, and ANA to see if I could take advantage of the awesome round trip redemptions. And for other routes, I’d try to see if I could book American Airlines or LAN with Alaska miles for the best bang for my buck! 

Cover photo by Calmuziclover via Flickr


Guide to TSA Pre-Check

TSA Pre-Check is a relatively recent program launched by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) back in 2011 to enhance the pre-boarding security screening process. It started off as a bit of an experiment found in only a handful of airports and utilized by only American and Delta Airlines, but in 2013 it opened up to the public so anyone could apply. Now it’s found at over 180 different airports and involves 16 different airlines. Here’s what you need to know about TSA Pre-Check in order to decide if you should apply. 

What are the benefits of TSA Pre-Check?

TSA Pre-Check offers passengers expedited security screening that comes in the form of two main benefits. The first major benefit is having access to much shorter lines and the second benefit involves having fewer restrictions to abide by when you make your way through those shorter lines. 

Expedited line

In almost all cases, the line for TSA Pre-Check will be shorter than the standard security line. Thus, you’ll often be able to breeze through security and stress less about getting through a long, snaking line of nervous passengers. Notice I said in “almost” all cases. Sometimes the TSA Pre-Check lines get backed up just as bad (or worse) than the standard security lines so you can’t take this benefit for granted 100% of the time.

Also, sometimes, such as very early in the morning or very late, the Pre-Check lanes will not be open at some airports. However, during these times, the lines aren’t usually a problem so it’s not a major deal.

And finally, some airports don’t implement proper TSA Pre-Check lines. At some airports you may find that terminals that don’t serve the hub airline have no TSA Pre-Check or a “dumbed-down” version of it where you get to keep your shoes on but still have to abide by some of the standard rules like taking out your liquids and laptop. 

Despite the occasional exception, I’ve found the TSA Pre-Check line to be shorter the vast majority of the time when going through airport security, so I definitely think the expedited line benefit is worthwhile.

Fewer restrictions

The other major benefit is that you’re able to enjoy fewer restrictions when going through security. You often only have to pass through a traditional metal detector (as opposed to the full-body scanners) and you also get to enjoy the following benefits:

  • Shoes can stay on
  • Belt can stay on
  • Light jackets can stay on
  • Laptops allowed to stay in bag
  • Liquids (3-1-1) can stay in bag

On occasion, if your shoes or belt contains too much metal or your jacket is too bulky, you may have to remove them. 

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Is it guaranteed each time I fly? 

Unfortunately, getting TSA Pre-Check is not guaranteed every time you fly. However, your odds of getting Pre-Check once you are approved are somewhere close to 97% each time that you fly, so you can rest assured that you’ll be enjoying the benefit almost every time that you fly.

The application process is very simple

Compared to Global Entry, the application process of TSA Pre-Check is a breeze. (I finished the TSA Pre-Check application for both of my parents in about 10 minutes.) All that is required is very basic contact information and verification about any previous run-ins with the law and you’re done. You can find a link to the application here

Scheduling an appointment

There are many more enrollment centers for your appointment compared to Global Entry, which means that you can schedule an appointment and get approved much quicker. There are some reports of applicants having a hard time finding openings, but TSA has made recent attempts to provide more staffing and locations for appointments so hopefully that’s less of an issue now.

At the appointment, you’ll provide some form of official identification (e.g., passport) and the agent will take your fingerprints in order to complete the background check. You then pay the non-refundable $85 fee (good for five years) and then it’s all over. For many, the appointment only takes a few minutes and is a pain-free process.

After your in-person interview, you should receive your approval decision within 5 business days, likely by email. You’ll be able to check your status online and pull up your Known Traveler Number (“KTN”) but will need to wait up to 48 hours for it to be activated. If you don’t check your status online, a letter will arrive in the mail after about 10 to 21 days after your appointment.

Add your KTN to frequent flyer accounts

It’s very important that you remember to enter in your KTN number into all of your frequent flyer accounts. When you log into your accounts online, you should see an option to input your KTN number somewhere in your profile.

Once your KTN is saved into your frequent flyer accounts, you are often automatically eligible for TSA Pre-Check each time you fly but it’s not guaranteed that your KTN will be added to your future itineraries. Thus, you should always verify that your KTN is in your itinerary each time you fly — this is especially true if someone else is booking your ticket as part of their itinerary.

Tip: if you have pre-existing reservations when you get approved, I recommend calling into the airline before you show up to the airport to make sure that your KTN is on your itinerary. Also, have your KTN handy every time you check in at the airport to so that the agent at check-in can add in your number just in case it isn’t showing up.

How do you know you’ve been cleared for TSA Pre-Check for your flight? 

When you print out your boarding pass (or view it online), you’ll see “Pre-Check” somewhere on the boarding pass if you’ve been cleared. If for some reason you don’t see it, always check with an airline agent to make sure your KTN was in your itinerary. If it was, then you simply were unlucky and didn’t get cleared in that instance.  

What airports participate? 

There are over over 180 different airports that participate in TSA Pre-Check. You look up what airports are part of the program here.

What airlines participate? 

The number of airlines that participate in TSA Pre-Check is growing each year and is now over 30. Some of the airlines that take part in the program are:

  • Aeromexico
  • Air Canada
  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • Avianca
  • Cape Air
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Emirates 
  • Etihad Airways
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • JetBlue Airlines
  • Seaborne Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Spirit Airlines 
  • United Airlines
  • Virgin America
  • Virgin Atlantic 

Not all of these airlines offer TSA Pre-Check when flying internationally, however. I recently flew Southwest to Mexico and it was confirmed to me that Southwest did not offer TSA Pre-Check for international flights as of that time. Update: Southwest offers TSA Pre-Check on international flights now! 

Membership is good for five years

Your membership will continue for five years. After that point, you’ll need to return to a TSA enrollment center to renew your application.

Use credit cards to cover the application fee

I mentioned the fee is $85 (non-refundable) for five years worth of membership, which isn’t bad at all. However, many credit cards offer statement credits that you can use to get TSA Pre-Check for free. Some of these cards are:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve 
  • Platinum Card from American Express
  • Citi Prestige
  • Citi Executive AAdvantage Card
  • Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card 

These cards offer credits for both TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry. Thus, you need to arrive at a decision about which one is better for you to apply for before utilizing your credit. 

Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check?

I’ll write a little more in depth on this decision at a later time, but many people are not sure which program is better for them to apply for. It’s actually a pretty easy decision to make, considering that if you get Global Entry, you also get the TSA Pre-Check with it. 

Thus, the question is do you need the additional benefits of Global Entry? The factors you should consider are: 

  • Do you fly internationally? Global Entry is allows for expedited entry into the U.S., so if you never fly internationally, this benefit will not be needed. 
  • Do you have a checkered criminal history? The standard for approval are much higher for Global Entry with respect to having a criminal history. If you have things on your record (e.g., DWI, possession, etc.), you might not be able to get approved for Global Entry but might still have a shot with Pre-Check. 
  • Are you near an enrollment center? If you’re very far away from a Global Entry enrollment center and aren’t crazy about the expedited entry into the U.S., you might not feel it’s worth it to travel that far when you can likely find a TSA Pre-Check center much closer. 

All things considered, if you’re not interested in Global Entry, TSA Pre-Check is worth the little bit of time it takes to apply. And considering that you can get this benefit for free with certain credit cards, it definitely makes sense to look into applying and making your travel experience a little less stressful. 

Intro to Hotel Loyalty Programs

This article is part of the multi-part MTH (“Make Travel Happen”) series designed to provide beginners with all the information needed to reach their travel goals. 

Most hotel loyalty programs have a tiered loyalty system where you are given more perks and benefits as you spend more nights at their hotels and are awarded higher tiers of status. Some of the loyalty programs have 3 tiers, while others have a 4-tiered system. Many of the benefits are standardized across tiers but some of the programs offer certain benefits that others don’t at similarly ranked tiers. Here’s an overview of the different tiers offered by five of the major hotel programs and a look at how you could earn status with these hotels.   

Entry-level tier

Typically, the first tier is “earned” as soon as you sign-up for the loyalty program. It’s a sweet deal because just for the few seconds it takes to put in your contact information, you can get benefits like free internet, 5th night free benefits, and sometimes even late check out. The free internet and 5th night free benefits can be quite valuable especially when you consider that you’re getting those benefits just or signing up with the program. 

Example of entry-level tiers include:

  • Hilton HHonors Blue Member
  • Hyatt Gold Passport Member
  • IHG Rewards Club “Club” Member
  • Marriott Rewards Member
  • SPG Preferred Member

As I’ve stated before, another benefit of signing up for these programs is that you might become eligible for targeted credit card offers, so it’s always a good idea to sign-up. 

First tier

The next tier is the first “true tier” since it will actually require you to have hotel stays at the hotel. These tiers typically require around 10 stays to qualify for them, although some programs like SPG don’t even have an easily obtainable first tier. On occasion, you might get randomly granted first tier status, as last year IHG randomly bumped me from Club to Gold Elite after I had transferred points and made a booking with IHG (but hadn’t stayed a single night). 

These benefits may include:

  • Priority check-in/late check-out (as opposed to guaranteed)
  • Bonus rate of earning points with reservations (around 15 to 20%)
  • Discounts on certain bookings, gift shops, etc.
  • Complimentary internet (usually standard speed)

Example of first tiers include:

  • Hilton HHonors Silver Member — 4 stays or 10 nights 
  • Hyatt Platinum Membership — 5 stays or 15 nights 
  • IHG Rewards Club Gold Elite Member — 10 nights 
  • Marriott Silver Elite Member – 10 nights 

Credit cards that will automatically offer you these statuses include: 


The mid-tiers are those levels achieved just before you reach the highest level. At this level, the benefits start to become much more attractive. This is the level that I think interests the average traveler the most since there is usually good value in the benefits and the tiers can often be obtained automatically with credit cards (with no stays or nights required). 

These benefits may include:

  • Complimentary breakfast for you and your guest
  • Lounge Access
  • Late check-out (up to 4pm)
  • Upgrade eligibility 
  • Gifts/bottles of water
  • Enhanced (high-speed) internet
  • Bonus rate of earning points with reservations (around 25%)

Examples of mid tiers include:

Credit cards that will automatically offer you these statuses include: 

Highest Tier 

The highest tiers offer enhanced benefits from the mid-tier levels, but many times the benefits aren’t necessarily going to blow you away compared to what’s offered by mid-tier status.  

These benefits may include:

  • Guaranteed reservation if made before 48 hours of booking
  • Better or more frequent room upgrades
  • Complimentary gifts
  • Increased bonus rate of earning points with reservations (50% to 100%)
  • Dedicated reservation lines
  • Complimentary status with airlines (Marriott and United)

Personally, I find that the value to obtaining the highest status to only be of high value when the benefits serve a specific purpose. 

For example:

  • If you’re a frequent business traveler the increased bonus earning rate of up to 100% can create substantial additional earnings over time.
  • If you frequently find yourself in positions where you’re attending events last minute and struggling to find availability at hotels, the guaranteed room benefits can be invaluable.
  • If you frequently fly with an airline like United then the complimentary Silver status can provide you with many potential upgrades on your flights. 

Of course, it’s always nice to have a better shot for better upgrades and the little gifts or exclusive deals that are offered at times due to your status, I’m just not sure that these benefits would motivate me to obtain elite status without an additional specific benefit. 

Examples of top tiers include:

  • Hilton HHonors Diamond Member — 30 stays or 60 nights 
  • Hyatt Platinum Passport Member — 25 stays or 50 nights 
  • IHG Rewards Club Spire Elite Member – 75 nights 
  • Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite Member — 75 nights 
  • SPG Platinum Member — 50 nights 

You’re probably not going to be able to find a credit card that will offer you automatic top elite status. Instead, credit cards will usually offer you “elite credits” that can be used to jump-start your way to top elite status, or in some cases, they’ll allow you to earn top status by spending a substantial amount of money (like $40,000 annually) on their card

If you don’t travel all the time for leisure or for business, spending 50 plus nights at a hotel is not easy and it might seem impossible to ever obtain top status with many of these hotel chains. The solution is usually to get on board with a credit card that offers you mid-tier status and then use hotel stays or status challenges/matches to reach top status. 

Status challenges

Status challenges are promotions that hotels regularly issue that will offer you an elevated status level if you stay in one of their hotels for X amount of nights or stays. Usually, they offer a sort of “fast track” to earn status so that you only have to stay around 10 or 12 nights to reach the next status level. Sometimes, the hotel will even allow you to experience the benefits of the elevated status tier while you’re working your way to complete the challenge.  

Status matches

Status matches are when a hotel program will grant you a certain level of status based on your existing status with another hotel loyalty program. Not every hotel (looking at you Marriott) will honor status match requests but it’s always worth a shot. Sometimes you can simply email someone at the rewards department of the hotel program you’re gunning for and request a match. Other times, you’ll utilize an official status match process that the hotel advertises. For example, you can read about our successful status match to get Hilton HHonors Diamond status here

Lifetime status

Finally, if you maintain elite status for long enough and meet a certain amount of stays within those years, many hotel programs will off you lifetime status! Lifetime status is often subdivided by tier, so for example you could earn “lifetime gold status” or “lifetime diamond status.” You’ll need to maintain status for anywhere from 5 to 10 years and accumulate a lot of nights (easily 250+) or a lot of points if you’re planning on earning lifetime status. 

These programs that offer lifetime status include: 

Final Word

If you get into MTH heavy you will no-doubt obtain a couple of cards that offer elite status and you might eventually work your way up the tiers for most (or all) of these programs if you play your cards right with status matched and challenges. Ultimately, you’ll have to experience the benefits for yourself to see if status is worth it for you but speaking from personal experience, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the upgrades, free breakfasts, lounge access, and complimentary internet at many of the properties I’ve stayed at. 

What Are The Benefits of Hyatt Platinum?

This article is part of the multi-part MTH (“Make Travel Happen”) series designed to provide beginners with all the information needed to reach their travel goals. 

Platinum status is the “mid-tier” status for Hyatt and it’s one of the easiest to obtain out of any hotel program. Since it is so easy to achieve, however, some of the benefits offered by Hyatt Platinum status are “lite” versions of what other more difficult-to-obtain mid-tier programs offer. So when you’re comparing the benefits to other programs, just remember that Hyatt Platinum status might be offering more bang for its buck considering how easy it is to get. 

How to earn Hyatt Platinum status

  • 5 eligible stays or 15 eligible nights each calendar year, you will enjoy an automatic upgrade to Platinum membership that lets you experience a premium level of benefits and rewards.

15 nights or 5 stays is very obtainable, especially compared to the other mid-tier statuses of the other major programs that require anywhere from 25 to 50 stayed nights!

You can also earn Platinum status with a the Hyatt Credit Card, which provides you with Platinum status for as long as you keep your card open. It’s a great card that offers you two free nights after spending only $1,000 and one free anniversary night. The annual fee is usually waived the first year and after that, it’s only $75, so it’s definitely a card that pays for itself over time.  

The benefits 

Below are the benefits for Hyatt Platinum status. 

Preferred Rooms

  • Enjoy a preferred room including rooms on higher floors or larger rooms, based on availability upon arrival (not valid at Hyatt Place, Hyatt House or Hyatt Residence Club).

The eligibility for room upgrades is a nice perk considering that it only takes 5 stays or 15 nights to earn this benefit. Compare that to what the other major hotel rewards programs require to earn that benefit:

  • Hilton: 20 stays or 40 nights
  • Marriott: 50 nights
  • SPG: 10 stays or 25 nights

Point Bonus

  • Achieve rewards faster with a 15% point bonus when choosing points.

Check In and Check Out Benefits

  • Expedite your check in at a dedicated area for elite members.
  • Extend your stay until 2:00 p.m. with a late check out request (late checkout is subject to availability at hotels with a casino and Hyatt resorts.

Hyatt Diamond will get you late check out good until 4pm which is the the same offered from other hotels offer like SPG and Marriott when you earn Gold status with them. But again, those programs require you to stay many more nights to earn that perk. 

Premium Wi-Fi

  • Stay connected with complimentary premium Internet access where available.

This is a great benefit considering that some other programs like Hilton only offer premium internet when you reach their highest (diamond) status and others like SPG and Marriott require you to achieve Gold status. Still, it’s not uncommon for hotels to only have one speed of internet available for all guests, so I’m not sure how much value I’d put on the premium internet.  

72-hour Room Guarantee

  • Ensure a room is always available with our 72-hour guarantee.

This is another benefit only typically offered with the highest elite status available (although some of them (including Hyatt Platinum) offer the guarantee with as little as 48 hours notice).

Exclusive Booking

  • Book your reservations through an exclusive Platinum line.

Overall, the benefits are decent for such an easily obtainable status. However, there are two major benefits missing. The first is a complimentary breakfast (you’ll have to reach Hyatt Diamond status for that) and the second is no 5th night free benefit. SPG, Hilton, and Marriott all allow you to redeem the fifth night free on a consecutive night booking but that’s a no-go for Hyatt. For those reasons, I think Hyatt Platinum offers okay benefits considering how easy it is to obtain, but I’m not too crazy about it considering how the benefits stack up to other programs.  


Swimming with Whale Sharks in Holbox, Mexico

Swimming with whale sharks has been on my bucket-list ever since I found out it was an actual “thing.” Since then, I’ve waited for the right season and opportunity to schedule a swimming date with these giants. That date finally came when I booked a tour with Here’s a review of my experience of swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Holbox Island, Mexico (near Cancun) and some tips to help you have a great experience when you decide to swim with whale sharks. 

Scheduling the trip

The communication from’s staff from the very beginning was great. If you’ve read any of my other tour reviews, you know I’m huge on pre-trip communication (especially when crossing international borders). We worked out all of the specifics for transportation and scheduling via email and everything went as smoothly as I could hope for. It always makes me a little bit nervous when I agree to let a tour company arrange for all of my different legs of transportation but with HolboxIsland, I felt I was in good hands. offers a number of different tour packages and we ended up booking the whale shark tour + air transportation option and flew in from Cancun. It’s a full day affair that starts with being picked up at your hotel at 6am and ends with you being brought back to Cancun at about 3pm.

Instead of going by private plane, you can also get to Holbox Island with a combination of taking a taxi/bus, ferry, and golf cart. We went with the plane option for the convenience and for the great views of the area. You can look more into options of how to get to Holbox here.

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The plane ride

A nice SUV picked us up from our hotel in Cancun at 6am on the dot and took us to the airport about 25 minutes away. We arrived at a small section of the Cancun airport that operates private planes. A rep from met us there and introduced us to what would be happening for the day. He also went over a lot of the ecological restrictions that the company follows to ensure the welfare of the sharks, which made me feel even better about my decision to go with HolboxIsland.

We then went through security and even though this was a small private plane, were forced to throw out our 3 water bottles. Tip: if you’re flying in from another airport, inquire with someone about purchasing water when you arrive in Holbox. While the boat will have some water, it’s always a good idea to have some of your own.

Our plane ride was a much more enjoyable than our last experience with a puddle jumper where we were packed like sardines. This time we had the cabin for ourselves and the interior of the plane was actually nice, roomy, and comfortable with plenty of room for us to stretch our legs.

Interior of private jet
Interior of our private plane.
Ocean view from private jet
Checking out the views.

The flight to Holbox from Cancun is only about 20 to 30 minutes. You’ll fly over a lot wooded areas as you leave the Cancun area but once you reach the coast of the peninsula the scenery becomes much more dynamic with different shades of blue and green reflecting from the saltwater flats extending down the coastline.

Ocean view from private jet
Beautiful scenery on our way to Holbox.

You’ll know you’re close to the Holbox airport when you notice the large plume of smoke where they burn huge piles of the island’s trash. Be ready for a little bumpy landing, as the runway at Holbox is more of a cleared out dirt path than a paved runway. Still, for being a dirt runway the landing wasn’t that bad.

Private jet on runway
The “runway” in the background.

We hopped out of our plane and within a couple of minutes one of the instructors appeared with a golf cart and told us to hop in. The ride through downtown Holbox is a bit bumpy and we worked our way through a fair amount of sludge to get to the beach, but it was actually pretty fun.

Dirt road in Holbox
Two men in golf cart
Two men in golf cart

The docks where all of the boats depart from stand over some beautiful light green water. Our boat was called the “Glendy” and it sat 10 people not including the instructors.  Thankfully, it comes with a canopy so you won’t be completely exposed to the sun while you are out at sea. However, you will still be exposed to the sun much of the time and for that reason, make sure you bring sunscreen and/or clothing to cover your neck and arms.

Boat in water
Beautiful Caribbean waters at the dock.

As soon as we had everybody on board, our captain told us it was time to head out. But first, we’d have to put on life jackets. And on top of that, we’d have to keep those on while swimming with the whale sharks. I was very bummed about my diving/photography being limited by a life preserver, but I understand why that’s a strictly enforced regulation and it’s probably better for the whale sharks in any event. So kudos to them for enforcing the rules. 

With our life jackets strapped on and everybody boarded, we finally took off.

Men in boat
Slightly bummed about the life jacket situation.

Shortly after departing, our instructor took us through the different rules for encountering whale sharks and also walked us through how the tour would be working, where we’d be sitting, etc. The most important rules are pretty simple: keep about 6 feet from the whale sharks, don’t touch them, keep your life jacket on, and try to stay out of their way if one’s coming for you.  

Finding the sharks can take a while

One thing that you have to remember about doing an activity like swimming with whale sharks is that you’re dealing with the unpredictability of nature. With that in mind, it’s hard to know for sure how long it might take to reach the sharks.

Men in moving boat
Scanning the ocean for whale sharks

Our guides told us that after about one hour and 20 minutes at sea, we were in the “feeding zone” where we might find whale sharks. At that point, everyone’s attention was piqued and we scanned the ocean for signs of these giants.

Group looking at ocean
Looking for wildlife.

One person quickly spotted something pretty big breaking the surface of the water. It took a while to get close to enough to figure out what was splashing around but as we got closer, it turned out to be two massive sea turtles just hanging out.

Sea turtle
Just a turtle.

The next guest appearance came when some other plankton-eaters came our way — huge manta rays!

Manta ray
Manta ray gliding below he water’s surface.

We saw several manta rays swimming along the water’s surface, taking in mouth-fulls of zooplankton. It’s hard to get a good look at the manta rays because they are so flat and sort of blend in with the water at times but they are magnificent creatures and their wings spanned much wider than I thought they did.

Manta ray
Manta ray

After a few meet and greets with the manta rays, the anticipation to see the whale sharks grew tremendously.

That anticipation would soon subside greatly over the next hour, however. As I stated before, when it comes to nature, you can’t ever forget that you’re on its time — not yours. Although we entered the “feeding zone” there was no sign of the whale sharks. So we continued to speed through the ocean, bouncing along as we cut through the waves.

Group of people in boat

Arriving to the shark area

After close to 2.5 hours at sea, our captain told us we were approaching the zone where all of the whale sharks were. At that point, we were pretty far out into the open ocean — I couldn’t see a single sign of land in any direction. That was my first time to ever be that far out at sea (in a small boat) and while it was a little unsettling to think about all the things that could go wrong (I’ve watched too many movies), our captain reassured us that everything was going to according to plan and I felt fine.

Ocean view from boat
Nothing but open ocean.

Once we came upon the site where the whale sharks were feeding, we saw a number of other small boats lining the horizon in the area. We stopped pretty far from the nearest boats, however, so we never felt overcrowded. Also, I never saw any of the boats (including ours) intrude too close to one of the sharks (they have to stay about 10m away) so it made me feel good that boats weren’t interfering with the sharks as they fed upon the plankton.

Putting on our snorkeling gear

Once we arrived to where the sharks were, we slipped on our snorkeling gear and flippers and got ready to jump in. 

If there’s one thing that could be done a little better it’s the distribution of the snorkeling equipment. Don’t get me wrong, everyone had snorkel gear to dive with but when it came to distributing the gear out between dives, things got a bit confusing with some using gear that was originally used (and fitted) by someone else. I simply kept my gear next to me at all times to prevent this but if you’re able to, it might be a good idea if you can just bring your own snorkel gear to avoid any potential problems.

People getting into water
Getting ready to jump in!

At one point, I’d forgotten that I was wearing a GoPro head strap and when I took my goggles off to clean them, I knocked my GoPro into the ocean! Strapped tight into a snug life jacket that I couldn’t slip out of, I knew there was no way that I’d be able to get it off in time and catch the GoPro so I just watched it quickly disappear into the blue oblivion.

But that’s when our instructor — without hesitation — dove into the water off the side of boat and after a few seconds, popped up with my GoPro in his hand! Moronic feeling aside, I was stoked he was able to get it and became all the more ready to jump in with the sharks.

Whale shark tour
Watching my GoPro reemerge from the depths!

Finally time to swim with the sharks

Swimming with the whale sharks is a little bit more difficult than I expected. That’s because while the whale sharks appear to be moving along slowly, they’re covering a lot of ground pretty quickly. Combine their speed with somewhat limited visibility and you’ve got roaming giants that can be a lot more elusive than you might expect. But once you finally get your timing right and you’re in the right spot, there’s nothing quite like laying your eyes on one of these giants.

Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming

How the swimming part of the tour works is that the captain positions the boat in close proximity to where a whale shark is headed and then he’ll tell everyone to “jump!” (slide off the side of the boat) and “swim, swim, swim!” to the shark.

Snorkeling with whale shark
“Swim, swim, swim!”

If you’re lucky, you might get a shark that is going a bit slow or that might remain slightly stationary for a short while. But most of the sharks didn’t bat an eye to us and continued on at a speed that required us to kick pretty fast to keep up. When we were able to keep up, the results were astonishing….

Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming

Our instructor did a superb job of keeping us rounded up and directing us toward the sharks. It’s not that easy to locate the sharks when you’re in the water so the guidance provided by the instructors was often crucial for getting up close to the sharks.

Holbox whale shark swimming

You’re not allowed to touch the whale sharks and I believe the recommended  distance to be kept from them is about 6 feet. Sometimes a shark will approach you and just be within a couple of feet of you, though, and in that case just remember to not touch them (it can cause infection) and just enjoy marveling at their massive bodies — they absolutely dwarf us humans and the fish around them.

Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming

The swimming session consists of about 4 to 6 attempts to swim alongside a shark for as long as possible without venturing too far from the boat. It might take a couple of attempts, but the first time you get one of the sharks to head right where you are and you take a look into their little eyes from just a few feet away, it really is quite the feeling and one of those travel moments that you will always remember with vivid recollection.

Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming
Holbox whale shark swimming

Something else that fascinated me were the streaks of light rays that danced underwater. The water was about 150 feet deep where we were and so at times you’re just looking down at endless blue abyss that adds to the mesmerization of the entire experience.

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Photographing whale sharks

I recommend using a GoPro on a selfie stick to photograph the whale sharks. I have an underwater point and shoot that takes superb reef shots in clear water but didn’t do very well in these waters which were full of plankton and huge whale sharks (and snorkelers) thrashing around. However, the GoPro footage we took came out great.

Holbox whale shark swimming
The GoPro did much better than the point and shoot.
Holbox whale shark swimming
I highly recommend going with a GoPro plus a selfie stick.
Men wearing snorkels in water

The tour continues

After sprinting about the ocean chasing these gentle giants, we climbed back onto the boat and awaited our next stage of the tour. Before we left the sharks, however, the captain made sure everyone was satisfied with their whale shark encounter. With everyone in agreement, we set off for the next stages of our tour. 

Snack break

The next stop for us was a little snack shack located right on the coast. There we could buy drinks (beer) and snacks like potato chips. The guy and kid tending to the place only took pesos so make sure you have those on you if you plan on purchasing anything.


After that, they took us to a small reef area for some snorkeling. The visibility of the brownish waters isn’t the best due to run-off from the island (my guess) but it’s still a decent side-trip to enjoy some snorkeling on your way back. Two of the highlights of the reef area were the multi-colored starfish that were everywhere and the large stingrays that patrolled the reef.

After about 20 minutes of snorkeling, you’ve pretty much seen it all and it’s time to move on to the next place.

Big stingrays out on the reef!
Orange Starfish
If you like starfish you won’t be disappointed.

Flamingos and ceviche!

We then arrived to an interesting saltwater flat with tons of birds and juvenile fish. The water is only a few inches deep at certain points and we spotted little fish like needlefish darting around. A couple of times, we also saw some large pink flamingos flying overhead, which was a first for me (I didn’t even know they could fly).

After we waded around in the warm, clear waters for about 15-20 minutes, we got back into the boat and our instructor served up some of the best ceviche I’ve ever tried. You don’t want to pass it up, either, because it’s really fresh and with some chips and a little bit of chili sauce, it’s the perfect little lunch on a boat.

Ceviche in orange bowl

Speaking of food, I suggest you take some snacks and water with you on the boat. They will provide you with some water and soft drinks but it could be a number of hours from the time you start the tour before you’re able to eat the ceviche, so I suggest eating a big breakfast before you board the boat and bringing along snacks.

Final word

This bucket-list experience went about as smoothly as I could ask for. While it required us to have a little patience out on the open ocean, the sights from our tour that day will always live fresh in my memory. If you’re considering swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, I highly recommend booking through

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