Update: Hotel award nights still available for Lollapalooza

Note: This is an update to a post I wrote in January.  Now that the incredible line-up has been released, the mad dash is on to score hotels near Grant Park.

One of the best things about music festivals in large cities is that there are so many hotels for concertgoers, you can get away with booking award nights a bit later than in small markets.  Chicago, for example, is used to hosting huge conventions and has a booming tourist trade.  So not surprisingly, there are still a few hotel award options left for you music fans within a few blocks of the venue, even with up to 300,000 attendees expected this year.

Lollapalooza takes place this year from August 1 to August 3 in Grant Park, and passes go on sale in the spring.  Line-ups are typically announced shortly before the sale date.  So what if you don’t like the line-up?  Well, that’s the beauty of award stays.  Just cancel your reservation and you get all those points back, with no fees or penalties (as long as you cancel before the date your stay begins).  And in the meantime, you can feel secure spending the dough on the festival passes (which aren’t cheap!) knowing you have a free hotel room at least.

So what are your remaining award stay options within a few blocks of Grant Park?  Here you go.

Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel (221 North Columbus Drive)
Located just a few blocks north of Grant Park, this hotel has beautiful views of the lake, the parks, and even north toward the river.  The hotel imposes restrictions over the Lollapalooza weekend, stating that customers need to wear hotel issued wristbands (thereby restricting friends from coming up to party in the rooms). I stayed in the hotel in spring 2013, and absolutely loved the location and hotel design.  Award stays are available through Club Carlson for 50,000 75,000 points per night (the top of the scale, for a luxury room and extra amenities).  Those of you who have a Club Carlson Signature Visa enjoy additional award discounts, getting your last night free (after at least two consecutive award nights).  Note: unlike some other hotel chains, Club Carlson considers this weekend ‘special’ and may not refund points if you cancel your reservation (so be careful).

View from my Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel room, looking toward Grant Park.

View from my Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel room, looking toward Grant Park on a stormy April day.

Best Western Grant Park Hotel (1100 South Michigan Avenue)
Also on Michigan Avenue, and located at the southwest corner of Grant Park, the Best Western Grant Park is one of the best-placed locations for the south stage area.  Just a block from the gates, it’s about as close as you can get without sleeping on a park bench.  Want to book Lollapalooza weekend?  It’s 28,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.

W Chicago – City Center (172 West Adams Street)
Surprisingly, availability has opened up for W Hotel Chicago that wasn’t there in January.  And even better, it’s a reasonable 12,000 SPG points per night.  This is one of the closest hotels to the main entrance in the middle of Grant Park.

Westin Chicago River – North (320 North Dearborn Street)
Located just north of the river, the Westin is within walking distance of the north side of Grant Park.  This could be a good pick if the closer W Hotel sells out of award nights, as it is also 12,000 SPG points.

Chicago has some amazing transit options, and the further away from the festival you get, the better the availability (and lower the points).  So consider taking transit to the festival to save even more!  A reminder: with 300,000 attendees, transit systems will be crowded.  So plan accordingly and have a great time!

Have any tips about staying in Chicago during Lollapalooza?  Please share!

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Thinking Spatially for SXSW

We’re leaving in a few days, and I must say I’m very excited.  But also there’s a bit of trepidation lingering around.  Although I scored two great hotels in the downtown area, the festival is pretty far-flung, so I’m overwhelmed about how to approach my first trip to Austin, let alone my first trip to SXSW.  Thanks to my transverse myelitis, I can’t walk really long distances without severe neurological discomfort.  So couple that with lots of standing and warm weather, and I’ll be out of energy in no time.  I’m too proud for a handicapped sign, but sometimes I know it would make things easier.

First I tried to tackle planning for the festival by using the favorites feature on the SXSW Go app to keep track of the bands I want to see.  It’s pretty crazy how much programming is out there, and how difficult it is to figure out where some of these far-flung bars are located.  I know I’ll love the vibe of the city and the music spilling out of doorways, but I’m worried I’m setting myself up for disappointment when I run out of energy on Day Two.  I’ve read a baker’s dozen SXSW virgin to do and tip lists, and it’s making it all more confusing.  But I have a plan.

I know I have difficulty walking long ways, and I’m assuming taxis will be impossible to hail.  So I’m going to take a neighborhood approach to the festival, by learning about the different venues on a spatial basis. I’m a city planner, so what can I say.  My hotel for the first half of the week is the Austin-Town Lake Holiday Inn, which is convenient to the river pathway system and also the Rainey Street neighborhood.  Being on the far southeast corner of Downtown, it also seems like a good way to visit the East-side neighborhoods.  I’m hoping a good way to get between neighborhoods will be Uber (who is running a deal through RSVPster for a free first ride).  So I’ll try Uber at least once (since it’s free), and hopefully that will be better than hailing a taxi. 

Now that I’ve figured out how to look at schedules by location, I’ll be able to group them spatially and try to wander around one neighborhood at a time.  Of course, if some crazy gig is announced at the last-minute that will all be out the window.  But here goes the theory.  I’ll do a few neighborhood spotlights in the next few days as I pull my own research together.

Points collecting: where to start

I’ve written a few posts now about award nights available for various festivals or events, yet I’ve neglected to start with a primer for the uninitiated points fiend.  And well, I’m still not going to write one.  Because quite frankly there are true experts out there, and there would be no point in putting in that time and effort to create yet another points primer.  So instead I’m going to make a few points about where to start, and then list a few links to the best primers for the collecting newbie.

1.  Figure out which airline and hotel programs you want to collect points with.  If you travel for business and your company pays for only certain hotels or airlines, go with those (free points!).  If you have certain aspirations that you want to start saving points for, then pick a hotel or airline that will get you to that place.  It’s all about making the points work for you, and that doesn’t mean changing your whole life because of point collecting.

2.  Start looking for opportunities.  Look at your spending habits, and then look at ways you can make points from that spending.  Does your grocery store have a point programs, or partner with an airline (like Safeway in Alaska, with Alaska Airlines)?  Or do you do all your shopping online?  There are tons of online stores that partner with airline and hotel programs through their online shopping portals.  Do you go to restaurants regularly? Because many restaurants also are part of the Rewards Network program.

3.  Look at your credit cards.  Do you have good credit and can pay off your credit card monthly?  I only ask the second question, because you don’t want to get in a dangerous credit situation.  If the answer is yes to the two questions, you may want to consider getting a points-earning credit card.  Once you do, follow a blog of someone who writes about deals on that credit card and to learn about tips and bonuses.  Credit card bonuses can be quite lucrative in the States especially.

4. Learn from the best.  Once you figure out the first two things, you are really home-free. Is there more to figure out and learn?  Uh, yeah… but start slowly by finding a few blogs that align with your interests and follow them regularly (the most informative blogs have multiple posts per day).  I will provide suggestions below.  Also, consider joining a frequent flyer forum.  For the newbie, the most friendly site out there is MilePoint.  Flyer Talk is the most popular, but it is haunted by both experts and know-it-alls (and unfortunately there is little patience for newbie questions).  

So have a look at my resource list, and go to it!  If you have a particular interest and you need help finding resources, please comment and I’ll give suggestions.

INTRODUCTIONS TO ALL THINGS POINTS

  • The Points Guy has an awesome Beginner’s Guide.  I think opening up an account with EVERY airline/hotel is a bit over-doing it, so I would skip that suggestion he gives.   But he has an extensive list of programs with explanations under each.  He also details how to manage your accounts with sites like Award Wallet.
  • One Mile at a Time‘s recent post “How to Choose a Frequent Flyer Program” is also a good place to start if you need help figuring that out.  Especially if you don’t fly too often but want to enjoy perks from a credit card.

ONLINE SHOPPING

  • One Mile at a Time has the best rundown on the shopping portals and how they work in this post.
  • The Points Guy’s Beginner’s Guide also has a comprehensive list (after you read One Mile at a Time’s blog, that is).

CREDIT CARDS

You will probably find more resources about credit cards than anything else (well, sometimes it feels that way).  Let’s be honest: bloggers make money off credit card links.  Well, not me.  I wish.  Until then, pick your favorite blogger and choose a link on their page to help support their work.  Here are my favorites:

  • The Points Guy: ‘Top 5 Credit Cards‘ has the best current deals for the US.
  • View from the Wing’s ‘Advice: Credit Cards‘ page is a compendium of individual posts that cover just about everything you should know about credit cards.
  • Rewards Canada is THE PLACE to get any info you want about, well, anything you need to know about points collecting in Canada. And that includes their analysis of Canada’s best credit cards, and their Guide to Choosing a Credit Card (complete with table AND flowchart… *swoon*).

DINING

  • The Points Guy has a good article with the various links.  He’s also a bit of a foodie it seems, so it would be fun to follow him if you like your chow.

KNOW YOUR TICKET

Just because you have a reservation, doesn’t mean you have a ticket.  Know the difference, because it may save you someday.

TRAVELLING WITH KIDS

Other blogs try to address the subject, and there are some good articles out there on many blogs.  But hands down, there is only one great points website with a focus on family.

  • MommyPoints has you covered.  Everything from your child’s first flight to strategies of making travel as comfortable for your child as possible.  She gives reviews of hotels from a parent’s perspective as well, and covers a myriad topics about family travel.

So that’s a good place to start.  By all means, if you need additional resources, please feel free to comment.

My points collecting philosophy

I like to think of points collecting as ‘travel futures’.  Like investing in the stock market or in commodities, I try to make small investments (through credit card spend, flights or hotel stays) that will lead to big travel payoffs later.  So just like the ‘buy low, sell high’ mantra of stockbrokers, points collecting is a game of ‘spend small, experience big’.

I live in Canada, where the gains from credit card opportunities are pretty few and far between.  And I’m not sure how much I can get behind the credit card churning (signing up for credit cards and then cancelling after receiving the sign up bonuses) that occurs more commonly in the States.  So you won’t hear me changing out my credit cards all that frequently.

So what’s my strategy?  I have two main credit cards: the SPG American Express card and the MBNA Alaska Airlines card.  We put everything we can on these cards for the points, and pay them off as quickly as possible (though admittedly we don’t pay them off completely each month like many in this hobby).  The SPG Amex is one of the most flexible cards out there, with transfers to most airlines at a 1:1 ratio (and a bonus of 5,000 points with any 20,000 point transfer).  It’s all about flexibility with SPG.

The Alaska Airlines card, however, I mainly have as a back up (not everyone accepts Amex).  But it’s also great because it gives you a companion ticket for approximately $110 on an annual basis.  When you live in a market like Edmonton, where it takes over $450 just to get out of the province, that $110 ticket comes in super-handy.  We tend to use the ticket for high price travel times, like visiting my parents in California over the holidays.  This year, we paid $110 for what was $1,000 in flights over Christmas.

When it comes to hotel loyalty, we typically look for clean, centrally located hotels.  We don’t need really fancy places, but occasionally like a little luxury.  We only stay in hotels perhaps a total of 20 to 30 days a year, which by frequent traveler standards is pretty paltry.  So to me, it’s all about trying to get the most points for the best value.  I that puts  IHG brand hotels at the top of my list.  Most people associate IHG with Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, but they also have some lovely boutique hotels (Hotel Indigo) and luxury options (InterContinental). They also have stackable promotions (you can earn multiple points promotions on one stay), which makes staying with IHG pretty lucrative.  And in the past year IHG have had some really fun earning games, which really hook me (such as Crack the Case and the Big Win promos).  But mostly, I find the hotels clean, affordable, and well-located.  Other than IHG, we do also stay at the occasional Starwood and Club Carlson brands, especially during games or promotions.

My last statement: free is good! Duh, right?  But there are so many ways to earn free points, why wouldn’t someone want to?  There are survey companies like e-miles and e-rewards, which do take a bit of time.  But then there are also really fun games, like La Quinta’s Stay and Play.  Free is a no-brainer.  In Canada you can earn Aeroplan points for groceries, gas, pharmacy purchases, etc.  And all these little things add up.

There are a ton of blogs out there that tout the high-end hotel brands (in fact most of them).  But I find the more expensive the hotel, the further I get from the ‘real people’ and places I’m trying to experience.  I’d rather spend my money in a open-air market or on a unique experience than in a luxury hotel when in a foreign country.

So that’s my philosophy.  I’m not a points guru, as I don’t look at every program and every opportunity.  But I do spend enough time on points collection to make my own travel go further, and I will tend to focus on those opportunities in this blog.

Hotel award nights still available for Lollapalooza

One of the best things about music festivals in large cities is that there are so many hotels for concertgoers, you can get away with booking award nights a bit later than in small markets.  Chicago, for example, is used to hosting huge conventions and has a booming tourist trade.  So not surprisingly, there are still a few hotel award options left for you music fans within a few blocks of the venue, even with up to 300,000 attendees expected this year.

Lollapalooza takes place this year from August 1 to August 3 in Grant Park, and passes go on sale in the spring.  Line-ups are typically announced shortly before the sale date.  So what if you don’t like the line-up?  Well, that’s the beauty of award stays.  Just cancel your reservation and you get all those points back, with no fees or penalties (as long as you cancel before the date your stay begins).  And in the meantime, you can feel secure spending the dough on the festival passes (which aren’t cheap!) knowing you have a free hotel room at least.

So what are your remaining award stay options within a few blocks of Grant Park?  Here you go.

Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel (221 North Columbus Drive)
Located just a few blocks north of Grant Park, this hotel has beautiful views of the lake, the parks, and even north toward the river.  The hotel imposes restrictions over the Lollapalooza weekend, stating that customers need to wear hotel issued wristbands (thereby restricting friends from coming up to party in the rooms). I stayed in the hotel in spring 2013, and absolutely loved the location and hotel design.  Award stays are available through Club Carlson for 50,000 points per night (the top of the scale).  Those of you who have a Club Carlson Signature Visa enjoy additional award discounts, getting your last night free (after at least two consecutive award nights).

View from my Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel room, looking toward Grant Park.

View from my Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel room, looking toward Grant Park on a stormy April day.

Comfort Suites (320 North Michigan Avenue)
Also just a few blocks to the northwest of Grant Park, this hotel’s right in the thick of Chicago attractions on Michigan Avenue, just south of the Chicago River.  One of the more affordable options by way of points, you can book this hotel for 30,000 Choice Privileges points per night.

Best Western Grant Park Hotel (1100 South Michigan Avenue)
Also on Michigan Avenue, and located at the southwest corner of Grant Park, the Best Western Grant Park is one of the best-placed locations for the south stage area.  Just a block from the gates, it’s about as close as you can get without sleeping on a park bench.  Want to book Lollapalooza weekend?  It’s 28,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.

Hilton Chicago (720 South Michigan Avenue)
Just across the street from the main entrance, this iconic luxury hotel is toward the top of the HHonors Points scale at Category 7, but is probably the best located hotel for Lollapalooza (along with the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, which has no award night availability).  Literally just a block from the park up Balbo, you can also get some amazing views of the festival from any of the east-facing rooms and the sun deck. (Note: Hilton’s Palmer House no longer has award availability, so this is your best option using HHonors Points within walking distance, even at 50,000 per night.)

A map of the hotels can be found at this link.

Chicago has some amazing transit options, and the further away from the festival you get, the better the availability (and lower the points).  So consider taking transit to the festival to save even more!  A reminder: with 300,000 attendees, transit systems will be crowded.  So plan accordingly and have a great time!

Have any tips about staying in Chicago during Lollapalooza?  Please share!

Few hotel award nights still available for Coachella

Although the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival sold out in just a few hours (!) on Friday, there are still a few hotels available on award nights for those lucky enough to have available points.  Not surprisingly, there are fewer hotel rooms available for Weekend 1 than Weekend 2, so those with passes for the former better get crackin’.  There really are no hotels within walking distance of the Empire Polo Club, where the festival is held, so you will either need to drive or take one of Coachella’s shuttles from the hotel.

Weekend 1: April 11 to April 14 Availability

Weekend 2: April 18 to April 21 Availability

Good luck, and let me know how your Coachella adventure goes!

Using points to make festivals affordable

I’m the first to admit that I’m no spring chicken anymore, and living with neuropathy means no more roughing it by camping.  I have a real passion for new music that hasn’t waned as I’ve grown older.  But I’m not a general admission kind of girl anymore.  So last year I took a risk and decided to go to my first outdoor festival in over a decade: my husband and I headed to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.

The Coachella Snail

Moving art at Coachella.

I don’t deal well with heat, as it really affects my condition and sometimes makes it difficult to walk.  So spending a full day out in the sun, on my feet, would be a challenge.  And it is imperative I get a good night’s rest in an air-conditioned room.  While I can walk long distances now under good conditions, I can’t rely on that ability when traveling.  So it was worth it to me to order VIP tickets to the festival to ensure a short(er) walk from the parking areas to the gates, and to have some shade during the day.

VIP tickets are admittedly expensive.  But I had a trade-off: free accommodations.  The beauty of Coachella is the bounty of hotels and resorts in the area.  I was lucky to find great availability with points for the Holiday Inn Express Palm Desert (20,000 pts/night), which beat paying over $250/night.  The property was easy to access, only about 10 minutes from the festival, and just far enough away that it wasn’t a madhouse.   So really, all we paid for that weekend was the VIP passes, some food (fairly cheap) and the rental car.  The rest was all points.

Social D

A lazy Sunday watching Social Distortion on the main stage.

The weekend worked out so great that we are trying our hand at festivals again in 2014.  This time we are attending the SXSW Music Festival.  While I tried in earnest to find Starwood, Hyatt and other chains in the downtown Austin area as soon as dates were announced, I was once again only rewarded by IHG properties.  We will be staying a few nights at the Town Lake Holiday Inn, on the edge of downtown, but still within walking distance of most of the venues (plus, they do have a shuttle).  The last few nights we found availability right in the heart of the action at the Intercontinental: Stephen F. Austin hotel.  The convention center is literally right around the corner.  Since this is our first time at SXSW, we really don’t know what to expect, so we are going to try to go with the flow as much as possible.  What I do know is without the free hotel, there would be no way we could afford the music badges or attend the festival at all.

I hope to highlight other festivals throughout the year and share any availability I come across with major hotel chains.  If the Olympics is more your thing, you might also want to take a look at the MommyPoints blog, as she has highlighted her adventures in securing hotels for both London and Sochi.

Have you used points for accommodations for arts or music festivals, or for major sporting events?  If so, I would love to hear how it worked out for you!

It never hurts to ask

When I get the time, I’m going to write an entry detailing all the reasons I use Alaska Airlines as my primary airline, as well as my catch-all frequent flyer collection account (although I did mention some of the reasons in my AA/US Airways post).  But for this post I just wanted to put it out there that if you are unsatisfied with an experience, it never hurts to tell the company or ask for some kind of compensation.

On December 23rd, I had a less than stellar experience with Alaska Airlines (or more specifically, Horizon Air).  First off, they knew they had an issue with the cargo doors when they were unloading baggage from the previous flight, (which came straight from the Captain’s mouth), but proceeded to board the plane (without a mechanic even on-site).  This resulted in more than an hour on the tarmac on a Bombardier Q400 (think narrow plane, uncomfortable  seats).  This is Edmonton.  In the winter.  And that’s just cruel.  But things really went downhill when we arrive in Seattle.

Let me jump in here and explain that Alaska Air has a progressive Baggage Service Guarantee, stating that if your bags are not at the carousel by 20 minutes after arrival to your gate, you are entitled to either a $25 discount code or 2,500 Mileage Plan Bonus Miles.  But here’s what happened: technically our bags got to the carousel within 20 minutes, but Alaska put the wrong carousel number up on the screen.  So that means that a bunch of people from our flight were standing around a completely different carousel filled with bags from Delta flights for about 45 minutes.  We all did the two-step of annoyance while looking at each other in confusion, until suddenly our flight dropped off the baggage claim screens altogether.

It was Christmas, I was trying to be patient.  But when the flight dropped from the screen, I lost it and walked over to the baggage customer service area.  I immediately saw my bag being taken off a different carousel by a porter and thrown onto a cart.  I asked the porter what was going on, and when he explained all the bags had been circling for a half-hour, I let him know that the screens were displaying the wrong carousel number.  Within seconds an announcement went out about the carousel change and other passengers migrated over.

After the delay in Edmonton and the delay in Seattle, I was pretty cranky.  This was a short hop of a flight that had now taken over twice as long as usual. I really didn’t want to get into the huge customer service line-up to collect my 2,500 points.  I sent out an admittedly snarky tweet to @AlaskaAir, not really expecting much of it.  I left the airport and also put a comment on the Alaska Airlines page.  While I have yet to receive a response from the website, Alaska’s twitter crew were great and ended up giving both my husband and me 2,000 Mileage Plan Bonus Miles as a goodwill gesture.  This is less than the 2,500 in the policy, but my husband didn’t have a checked bag, so we’re ahead.  Plus, with the snarky tweet, I felt a little bad anyway.

2,000 Bonus Miles for inconvenience... I'll take it!

2,000 Bonus Miles for inconvenience… I’ll take it!

So I learned two things: 1) be polite, but do contact customer service if you are not satisfied with a product and 2) Twitter is now the best way to reach almost any company when you have issues.  It never hurts to ask or comment, as hopefully the company will learn from its mistakes.

Have you had customer service issues when traveling that were resolved in a positive way?  I’d love to hear how it went.

Why I’m excited by the American Airlines/US Airways merger

Source: American Airlines

Source: American Airlines

I’ve read a lot of whiny posts on forums like FlyerTalk and Milepoint over the last several months, as well as on a number of blogs, about the (now approved) merger of American Airlines (AA) and US Airways.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll miss the stupid cheap award tickets you could buy with US Air’s many Dividend Miles sales, and the world of travel they bring (if you can plunk down that kind of cash).  But unlike the many bloggers that live near an affected hub or are bemoaning the downgrade of the their elite status, I could give a crap about that stuff. Me? I’m excited about the merger.

You see, I live in Edmonton.  That’s Edmonton, Alberta (not Kentucky).  A city that hasn’t been served by AA, other than whatever codeshares they have with WestJet.  Edmonton did have one US Airways route, from YEG to PHX, which is also served by WestJet (and on codeshare with AA).  With this redundant routing, it appears the US Airways route will be dropped, but that is no skin off my nose.

So why am I excited?  Because I love Mileage Plan, the Alaska Airlines frequent flyer program.  I’m sure that makes a lot of you think, “uhhhh…ok.”  But I’ll explain.  With most of my destinations lined up and down the West Coast, Alaska Airlines has been my primary airline for well over a decade.  And they have probably the best frequent flyer program for those of us who have trouble with airline loyalty, as you can earn elite status and miles on partners like Delta, KLM, British Airways, and yes… American Airlines.  While the Mileage Plan program is awesome (and getting better it seems), I have found the Alaska Airlines product to be slowly falling behind its competitors.  The only way to get from YEG to SEA is on a very uncomfortable Bombardier Q400 aircraft, so I really don’t enjoy the very start and very end of every trip I take with them.  And sometimes it just feel unproductive to be backtracking to Seattle when heading to East Coast destinations.

With the AA/US Airways merger, there is now an additional route straight from YEG to DFW, which means no more having to drive to Calgary to enjoy the super-discounted off-season awards from North America to Europe, or having to fly to Seattle first.  For just 40,000 points, one can fly roundtrip from Edmonton to major hubs like Paris, Madrid and London.  And that works with both AAdvantage miles and also Mileage Plan miles.  Similar routes on Delta are 60,000 Mileage Plan points (if you can even find availability).  AA has similar off-peak awards to many other locations, which I will be looking into more closely in the next few months (and will likely report on).

Also, AA has fantastic fare sales to places like the Caribbean, which are usually quite costly on Air Canada and WestJet from Canada.  A particularly good destination is Puerto Rico, which is also now an inexpensive cruise port for southern Caribbean routes.  Another boon for those of us in the Great White North.

I’m also a big fan of the British Airways Executive Club (Avios) program, which I collect through an RBC Avion credit card (to take advantage of the Avion –> Avios transfer bonuses).  AA flights are redeemable through Avios right on the website, whereas you have to phone the call center to redeem Avios for Alaska Airline flights.

So while I (almost) feel bad for all of you AA devotees in Washington DC or New York that may see some minor inconvenience or watering down of your elite perks, I’ll be enjoying more options in my little part of the world and hopefully at a lower cost.

Anyone else seeing the bright side of this merger?  Please comment and share your thoughts.