I just couldn’t take this winter anymore – I needed a day of sun and warm weather. Last Thursday night, under additional stress from work, I snapped and booked a flight to Miami and a hotel on South Beach for myself and a friend. The total monetary cost was $10, or $2.50 for each of the four flights. The hotel was free. So how’d I do it and how can you? Keep reading.
I’m guessing that Super Bowl weekend isn’t a big travel weekend for most folks – I know it usually isn’t for me. Saturday is food and drink preparation day and Sunday, of course, is the game. So, I wasn’t suprised to see availability on British Airways award search tool for roundtrip flights from New York and Washington, D.C. to Miami this past weekend. However, I was incredibly surprised to see that American Airlines had released 7 award seats, or the maximum available to oneworld partners, on virtually every single flight from 6:30 AM to 5PM from either city to Miami.
(Pro tip: British Airways and American Airlines are in the oneworld alliance, which means that you can use miles from either of their award programs to book flights on any airline in oneworld, like Iberia, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, or Finnair and vice-versa. As such, I use British Airways’ award search tool to find out availability for oneworld partner flights, like with my upcoming Cathay Pacific first-class flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong!)
Anyway, the availability was unbelievable news – it meant I was going at whatever time of day I wanted to Miami for $5 and 15,000 Avios, which is what British Airways calls their miles. Usually, a domestic US flight on a carrier like Delta or United starts at 25,000 miles, but I wasn’t using miles from a domestic carrier. British Airways reevaluated their award chart a year or two ago to make the cost of a flight dependent on the distance traveled and the amount of segments.
Here’s what the British Airways chart looks like now, per AwardGuru:
Since NYC-Miami is a little less than 1100 miles, an economy award is 7,500 Avios oneway, making a roundtrip award 15,000 Avios. While there can be fuel surcharges, award taxes and other fees that can sometimes run in the hundreds of dollars when redeeming Avios, for domestic flights on American, there’s only a $2.50 fee for each ticket segment. Since both sets of flights were direct, the roundtrip monetary cost was only $10 or $5 per roundtrip.
I just went on Expedia and found that tickets from NYC to Miami this upcoming Saturday start at $458. Yikes. DC isn’t much better; tickets start at $438. So, I saved $455 on my ticket and $435 on my friend’s ticket by using Avios. That’s almost $900 for a one-day vacation and we paid $10.
So, how did I get the Avios for this trip?
I had signed up for the Chase British Airways credit card when there was a 100,000 Avios bonus in late 2011 (I think right now it’s 50,000 Avios, which is still a great deal). I had to spend $20,000 in the first year of card membership to unlock the signup bonus, which is a lot of money, but I used lots of manufactured spending tricks to accomplish my goal.
The American Express Membership Rewards (MR) program is also a transfer partner with British Airways – this means you can transfer 1:1 MR points to Britsh Airways Avios in blocks of 1,000. I had signed up for a business AmEx Gold Premier Rewards credit card in 2012 with a 75,000 MR signup bonus after spending $10,000 in the first four months of card membership. Due to manufactured spending, work reimbursals and paying (and getting refunded for) my coworker’s 50th birthday party, the required spend wasn’t a problem. There was also a 50% transfer bonus to British Airways back then, which meant I turned 85,000 MR points into 127,000 Avios. So, I had a lot of Avios. I’ve since spent a lot of my stash, but basically, two credit cards in 2 years allowed me to achieve over 240,000 Avios.
Ponder this next sentence for a second. 240,000 Avios is equivalent to sixteen NYC-Miami solo jaunts at the cost of 15k Avios per roundtrip. The monetary outlay would be $5 x 16, or $80. Imagine going to Miami every single weekend for 4 months during the winter doldrums. Obviously, this is insane – no one wants to go to Miami solo for 16 weeks in a row. Instead, you could spread the love and go 8 consecutive weeks with 8 different friends and actually save money – you would only pay $40, since each friend would pay the $5 for their ticket. Of course, this is bonkers, too, but it’s definitely plausible. 80 degrees and sunny trumps 15 degrees and windy 364 out of 365 days a year (I like Christmas to be snowy and cold).
Basically, the signup bonuses from two credit cards have lasted me over 2 years worth of redemptions, including this most recent one to and from Miami as well as trips to Toronto and Montreal in early 2012, among many others.
South Beach hotels aren’t cheap. Half the rooms at the high-end hotels, like the Fontainebleau (lord love me, this place is beautiful), don’t even list the prices on their websites; you have to call (of course, if you have to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it ).
I didn’t want to stay at a hostel or some beat inn from the 1970s, so I looked for chain hotels, specifically Starwood. I’m a Gold member of the SPG, or Starwood Preferred Guest, program and appreciate the room upgrades, free internet and other amenities that come my way when I book stays at SPG hotels, whether they are booked with points or cash.
SPG has two hotels on South Beach – the W South Beach and the Four Points by Sheraton Miami Beach. W hotels are sleek, showy and sexy; expensive rooms for expensive people. Four Points establishments, on the other hand, are solid mid-level hotels that offer a quality experience without the slick ambiance and nightlife of a W. The differing visions are reflected in the price – a room at the W was starting around $760 or 30,000 SPG points a night and the Four Points at $330 or 10,000 points a night.
I didn’t need to have a super-nice room – as long as we were on the beach I would be happy. Plus, I would have to get a room valued at 3 x $330, or $990 (plus hotel tax and the like), at the W to really justify spending 30,000 SPG points. That wasn’t going to happen, so I booked a basic room with twin beds at the Four Points. The room ended up being fine – comfortable beds, plenty of toiletries and towels and on the 10th out of 11 floors. The hotel was connected to the boardwalk that runs along the entire beach and we were able to walk from the lobby to the beach in about 70 seconds.
So, how did I get the points for the room?
There’s only one way to get SPG points – you have to apply for either the personal or business SPG credit card from American Express. The signup bonus for each card is 10,000 points after the first purchase. Then you get an additional 15,000 SPG points if you spend $5,000 in the first 6 months of card membership. That’s 30,000 points, total, if you don’t spend any of the points before you reach the full signup bonus. Remember, 30,000 points is the cost of 1 night at the the W South Beach or 3 nights at the Four Points Miami Beach. In my opinion, taking 3 nights at the Four Points is a much better deal.
The flight costs were $455 and $435 and the hotel was $330 plus tax, so figure $370-400. That’s $1,260-1,290 and we paid $10, or .007% of the actual cost. Savings like this allow you to spend money in other, better ways, like on food, which is what we did.
All I did was signup for 3 credit cards, although all I needed was only 2 – either of the Chase British Airways or American Express Premier Rewards Gold and either of the SPG cards. That’s it. Of course, I pay off the bill, in full, monthly, because interest payments are exorbitant. Paying the interest charge is like paying cash on top of the points for the hotel room.
I hope this was enlightening – if the weather gets you down and you need to get out of Dodge, or hell, you just want to hit the beach, I hope this post gives you some ideas on how to accomplish those goals for literally less than 1% of the price of normal vacation costs. You can also read my posts about credit if you aren’t too familiar with the concept or opening multiple credit cards. All I can say is that I cannot wait to return to Miami – what a wunderbar vacation destination!