Thursday, February 7, 2013

AMEX Platinum and my newest frugal adventures

As many of you know, over Christmas break we went on a HUGE, REALLY BIG, family vacation:
(at the Great Wall of China)
(drinking Red Bull energy drink in the country of origin: Koh Sumui, Thailand)
 We travelled by cruise ship, plane, train, tuk-tuk, taxi, rickshaw, bicycle, ferry and bus. We visited 7 countries in 21 days: Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore. We visited Saigon, Bangkok, Beijing and a myriad of other smaller cities. Even though I saved about 40% overall on the trip, I actually spent a lot of money--all paid for up front, of course. I may delve into the psyche behind all that in future posts, including the reasons why I would most likely NOT do what we did again, but today I wanted to share a little bit about my newest frugal hobby: "earning" free travel.

I have known for quite some time that there is a whole frequent-flyer community out there whose lives are totally consumed with accruing points to use for travel. I'm sure you have heard the stories of folks who take extravagant trips around the world all for "free" using airline and hotel rewards. I was always intrigued, but with a family of six, our travel for many years consisted of 24 hour van-rides to visit family. Earning enough points to fly us all for free seemed all but impossible. And the bottom line: it is. Most bloggers who do the point thing for a living are either single or have no kids. They are minimally subsidized by companies who advertise on their blogs. There are exceptions, but they are rare.

Until now, my forays into the point world had consisted of using earned points to stay in Microtel, Motel 6 and the like and flying the family to Florida (almost) free. Recently, I earned enough points to fly my daughter to HK round trip and fly her to Maine for her BFFs wedding. Not shabby, but not great either.

Now that we are living in Hong Kong and my daughter is off to college, I have much more of an incentive to spend as little money as possible on trips back and forth to the US and I also have much more potential to earn FF points. Hence my new found hobby. It's like taking couponing to a whole new level. As with my other money saving strategies, the end result is having not only more money for things I want, but also having the ability to give more away.

I haven't done much yet in the point world, but I have been doing a great deal of reading. My current goal is to NOT pay for 2 of our 5 tickets home this summer. (This seems achievable; that's the thing about goals, they need to be realistic and achievable.) Maybe next year, when I know more, I can shoot for a bigger goal. So, what is my current strategy? Glad you asked.

There are a myriad of credit cards that have great sign on bonuses, and back in the fall I did a lot of research. At the end of the day, the cards you sign up for should align with your goals (for example, a Hyatt card won't do me much good if I don't ever stay at Hyatt). So, in September I signed up for an American Express Platinum card. (Let me just say up front, you have to have a really good credit rating to get this card.)  This was a pretty big deal for me because this card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee that is not waived for the first year. Am I nuts?? But, I knew it would pay off in this case, and it has. The sign-on bonus was 25,000 points. I knew I would use the card to pay for our cruise, and I was given a $600 credit back to my account after signing up for the (already discounted) cruise, plus double points on the money spent. That, along with the bonus points, will give me almost enough points for a free ticket home this summer; I shouldn't have any trouble accruing the rest of the needed points (so there's one of my free tickets home!) Approximate worth: over $1700.00 total.

There are lots of perks that come with this card. I can get $200 a year waived in fees for any airline, and you can change the airline after the start of every year. In October, I chose American Airlines and bought a $200 gift card online. The money was credited back to my account in 3 days and I used the gift cards to pay for my daughter's last leg from Chicago to Cleveland. I will switch airlines to whichever  we choose to fly this summer and get another $200 to spend on anything from baggage fees to food purchased. There's another $400.

You also get lounge access at almost all airport lounges, with perks like free internet, sleeping space, showers and everything from snacks to full buffets, many for the whole family. This will equal some free meals for us, and possible a few quiet nap sessions: Priceless.

Along with these perks, I will get free upgrades on car rentals and hotels and lots of shopping discounts, should I choose to use them. They offer great travel insurance and purchase protection, even on items that you lose! An added bonus is that here in HK, platinum status has a whole myriad of perks separate from my US card,  but so far, I have been able to use them all here! I get BOGO free movie tickets (nice, because movies are so expensive here), and 50% off at many restaurants. Nice. I've already saved about $50 USD.

As you can see, my initial $450 has already "saved" me over $2100, well worth it, IMHO.

What's next? An App-O-Rama. Goal: 10 free hotel stays, another free international flight, and hopefully a week long van rental this summer. Intrigued? Stay tuned for the details!

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