Best Ways to Use Airline Miles

Flickr user dasnake

Few things are as frustrating to travelers as a huge bank of frequent-flier points and not being able to use them. With fewer seats and routes available, airlines are making it more difficult to trade miles for free flights, knowing they can sell more tickets at a premium price. They’re gambling that customers with large banks of points will stay continue to stay loyal for fear of losing the miles they’ve worked so hard to accumulate.

So if you can’t cash in your points for flights, what can you do with them?

Donate Them
At a former job years ago, a colleague needed to fly home for a family emergency but didn’t have the money. A few employees quickly pooled frequent-flier points that allowed him to make the trip. Another time, some extended family members used their combined miles to send a cousin and her new husband on a honeymoon.

If you don’t have a needy co-worker or family member, you can always give them to an organization that will use them to help others. The Fisher House Foundation’s “Hero Miles” program has provided more than 40,000 tickets to wounded, injured and ill service members and their families over the years, while Mercy Medical Airlift provided almost 10,000 free airline tickets to patients in need, thanks to generous mileage donations. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has need of more than 2.5 billion miles in order to send kids and their families to their desired destinations around the world.

Trade Them
On Points.com, you can either trade your miles from one airline for another carrier’s points or even exchange them all together for various products or gift cards from retailers like Amazon or Starbucks. But the exchange rates for miles are fairly high in many cases, and should only be used if you have a large block of miles that are going to expire soon. My friend Tim Wozniak exchanges expiring miles for magazine and newspaper subscriptions.

Use Them For Other Travel Needs
The Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney posted an excellent piece this week on redeeming airline miles for hotel rooms, rental cars and more. Not surprisingly, the elite-level traveler is going to score much better deals than your average flier — the amount of American Airlines miles needed for hotel stays and car rentals is 40 percent less for platinum-level frequent fliers than the rank-and-file. A penny per mile is the typical exchange for domestic flights, car rentals and hotels for most higher-level loyalty programs. One travel expert McCartney spoke to believes mileage programs will eventually evolve into package deals, encompassing flights, hotels, cars and travel insurance.

What Would You Do With One Million Loyalty Points?

Loyalty
the Italian voice/Flickr

That’s the question 10 lucky winners will need to decide in Best Western International’s Loyalty Millionaires promotion, a part of their 25th anniversary celebration. Two randomly selected winners will be chosen each week through July 14, each winning one million bonus points to redeem in any way they like, and not just on hotel rooms either.

“Whether it’s a trip with the family or that special something you’ve been saving for, we hope our 10 lucky loyalty millionaires get their summer off to a great start,” said Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Best Western International in a Broadway World article.
With more than 60 redemption options starting at 8,000 points, including free hotel nights, retail gift cards like Starbucks, Target, Home Depot and Amazon, BWR members have countless options to redeem their rewards points. One BWR member recently redeemed their points for retail partner gift cards and used them to buy a tractor.
Redemption options include free hotel nights as well as retail gift cards like Apple, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Busch Gardens.

But what, exactly, might one million Best Western points get you? We did some calculations for a variety of stuff Gadling readers might want to have or do.For starters, a million points will get you about four months in a Best Western Hotel. But it will also enable buying 200,000 air miles on American, Delta, US Airways or Alaska Airlines. You could also get $3,846 in gift cards from Starbucks, Disney, Outback Restaurants or Dunkin Donuts. Want to spend those million points on gear? You could walk away with a Canon PowerShot A2600, some Beats by Dre Studio High-Definition Headphones, a Samsung 8GB Galaxy 2 Tablet 7″ Screen and tickets to see 400 movies at an AMC Theater with some change leftover.

Read more about Best Western Re
To enter, sign up for the free Best Western Loyalty program then register on the Loyalty Millionaire tab on their Facebook page.

New Loyalty Perks for Smartphone Shoppers

Budget Hong Kong: The City Of Blinding Logos

budget hong kong

The streets of Hong Kong have a way of accosting you with neon lights and ostentatious logos. Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani lay claim to the Central District, while Tiffany & Co. and Burberry dominate Tsim Sha Tsui. Causeway Bay is a cacophony of luxury labels from around the globe, and let’s not forget the lesser brands that sit on every street corner: McDonald’s, Starbucks, 7-11. It’s enough to make your head spin.

And indeed, it made mine, at about 4 p.m. on my first day in the city. From the moment I had arrived in Hong Kong, my senses had kicked into overdrive. I walked faster, talked faster, flitted my eyes from one new sight to the next. Everything was new, big, bright and exciting.

But after several hours on the town, I began to feel the effects of sensory overload. The crowds became claustrophobic. The pollution started to choke me. The tik-tik-tik of the crosswalk signs drummed an endless circle in my head. And everywhere, lit-up advertisements and shop signs taunted me, tempting me to buy, use and consume. It was enough to drive any sane person to the brink of madness.

Thankfully (and ironically) I managed to find sanctuary at a nearby Starbucks.

%Gallery-173824%Hong Kong is a magical city. But it’s also an intense one – even for a downtown Manhattanite like myself. The special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China is one of the world’s most densely populated parts of the world, with seven million people crammed into an area of just 426 square miles. It is one of the world’s most expensive cities, by many indices. The Atlantic reports that it is the priciest place to buy a home, while the Savills World Cities Review concludes that it is the most expensive city to locate ex-pat workers.

Hong Kong is also a city largely driven by consumption. Just this year, it surpassed New York as the world’s costliest retail location, according to Bloomberg. For the luxury traveler, it is somewhere this side of paradise, with 62 Michelin-starred restaurants and extravagant boutiques representing nearly every high-end brand on the globe.

But I am not a luxury traveler. Far from it, in fact. My mission in Hong Kong was to experience the best of the city, on a shoestring. And once I recovered from the assault on my senses and stepped off the main tourist drags, I discovered how. My two-day trip was filled with fascinating cultural activities, unique discoveries and awe-inspiring sights.

And then, of course, there was the food. I’ll save that for the next post.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Hong Kong on High Time-Lapse

Travel Keepsakes: My Love For The Starbucks Mug

starbucks mugsOne of the best parts about going on vacation is bringing back keepsakes from the places you’ve traveled. Airport kiosks and souvenir shops alike make their rent on this business, hawking everything from “I (heart) New York” T-shirts to magnets and branded hot sauces.

I, too, used to enjoy travel related tchotchkes – until I became a travel writer. Were I to pick up more than a postcard from every place, I’d be buried under a pile of crap, and broke to boot.

Hence, my guilty traveling pleasure: the Starbucks mug. It all started back in 2006, when I was visiting a friend in Honolulu. An orchid-adorned mug emblazoned with, what then was my farthest-flung travel destination seemed a great keepsake for my trip. At $10, it wasn’t exactly bank-breaking, either.

Funny enough, I’m not even a huge Starbucks fan. I’ll take a local latte or tea any day, but I’ll never miss the green and white sign in my travels.

For more than six years, I’ve been grabbing mugs in locations from around the world, creating a collection that not only spoke to my nomadic lifestyle, but a useful tool as well. I’m a nasty person before I’ve had coffee in the morning.

I could begin my day in Chicago, Geneva or even the Hamptons (my current favorite, due to its cheery blue interior). The mugs were affordable, large enough to fit nearly a Venti coffee, and fit easily in my cabinet. To make life easier, a Starbucks could be found in most any airport or city street – I didn’t have to go hunting or out of the way to get my memento.

I’ve now set rules for the collection. I have to have visited the destination (my cabinets are reaching capacity) and I prefer the colored collection mugs to those with just the blue and white cityscapes. Where possible, I’ll grab a mug bearing a city name (Toronto) versus just the larger country name (Canada).

Perhaps my collection is a bit ordinary, particularly for a writer interested in luxury travel (perhaps you’re not shocked, but diamond-studded mugs are hard to come by) but they’re a great way to keep the travel memories going at home.

What’s your favorite travel keepsake?

[Flickr via irmaloveslife]

10 Tips For A Southern Road Trip

On my trip through the new industrial South, I drove more than 4,000 miles, visiting 10 cities and nine factories in 10 days. The scenery ranged from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, from live oaks to pines. Along the way, I sampled gourmet cuisine and boiled peanuts, gas station cuisine and outstanding fast food. Here are my top 10 tips for planning your Southern road trip.

1) Be ready for weather extremes. Southern heat is muggy and it continues into the fall. The cool air that marks a summer or fall morning in many parts of the country just isn’t there. It starts hot and gets hotter and danker until, crash! there’s an afternoon thunderstorm – or worse. My trip took place just two weeks before Hurricane Isaac, and as the storm hit, I checked the map to see how my towns made out. None of the factories were damaged, but there has been flooding, power outages, and plenty of downed trees. Isaac aside, you might want to front load your driving so you’re off the road by about 4 p.m., just so you won’t have to pull off and wait it out, the way I had to more than a few times. And keep an eye on radar: I was driving between Memphis and Tupelo in May when a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere (my flight from Detroit to Memphis had been smooth as silk).

2) Think about staying in a central spot. Since I was visiting the new industrial South, it made sense to use Birmingham, AL, as my home base for several nights during the trip. I took road trips of an hour, two hours, up to four hours from there, but it was nice to unpack once and sleep in the same place a few nights in a row. You might pick Atlanta or Mobile or Nashville, and go off on short trips from either place. Believe me, there’s plenty to see, and it’s nice to have a hotel staff welcome you back at the end of the day.3) Make a list of what you want to eat. The South isn’t just southern food these days – I found a fantastic penne bolognese in Birmingham, and exquisite sushi in Lexington, Kentucky. There is tons of Mexican food all over the south, including The Taco Truck in downtown Birmingham. But for the most part, you’re here and you’re going to want to eat southern food. So make yourself a list: barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, grits, crab, gumbo, peach cobbler, whatever your heart fancies. Then, find it. And if you discover a restaurant you like, don’t hesitate to go back again. I did that with Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and the Market By The Bay in Fairhope, Alabama, because I liked both menus so well. Likewise, you might find a fast food chain that appeals to you such as Zaxby’s, Backyard Burger or Krystal. Go ahead and indulge!

4) What do you want to do? Some people visit car plants, the way I did. Others want to see minor league baseball parks. Some folks like the beach, others want to play golf, still more like to shop. The variety is endless. You can plot a route around all those things, just do your research ahead of time. Southern states’ tourism websites are an amazing source of tips and routes. I particularly like 100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama.

5) Prepare for some challenging driving. Along with weather extremes, the South is much more hilly and even mountainous than people expect. Cities like Birmingham and Chattanooga are full of hills. Greenville sits not far from the mountains. Atlanta’s traffic is legendary. This isn’t like driving through the west, where you can put on cruise control and let your mind wander. You’ll have to pay attention.

6) Watch out for daredevil drivers. When I left Greenville for Atlanta, I noticed highway signs imploring motorists to allow more space when passing trucks. They might as well have said, “please don’t cut people off.” It’s startling to have a car pass you and wind up inches from your front bumper. It’s also a little disconcerting when you’re already going the speed limit and someone roars up and tailgates you. In New York City, they honk; in the South, they move.

7) Take time to go off the beaten path. Southern states do an admirable job of pointing out historic attractions; just look for the brown signs along the highways. And keep your eyes open for in-town signs, too. I found the delightful Ty Cobb Museum in Georgia that way, I discovered Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace, and I discovered the sign for the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald’s Montgomery, Alabama, home while I was looking for something else. Likewise, you can do a driving tour of sites from The Help near Greenwood, Missouri, and visit the state’s outstanding Blues Trail (there’s even an app). These places exemplify the richness of the Southern road.

8) Go ahead and be a tourist. I’ve been to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and the beaches near Mobile. There is a reason why people visit these places: they’re part of American history and culture. Don’t turn up your nose because there are school buses parked outside. You might learn something you forgot from school.

10) You don’t have to give up Starbucks. In fact, I think there may be more Starbuck’s per highway exit across the South than in any other part of the country. There’s a branch of the Christmas Tree Shops in Birmingham, for homesick New Englanders, and college football loyalty is every bit as deep in Tuscaloosa and Auburn as in South Bend and Columbus. (When I showed up in navy, orange and white for a meeting, someone remarked, “You’re wearing your Clemson colors today.” That was news to me.) The South is more like America than the north, Midwest or West suspects – in fact, it is America, writ colorfully and large.