Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: May 2016

Maximize your return from travel points & miles

Many of us have travel reward program cards and dutifully bank our award points or miles but  very few participate in an active way opting instead for the passive approach but in doing so fail to maximize the potential return which could be achieved. Having long been an avid member in dozens of loyalty programs I wanted to share some ways that have helped me work the system.

  • Know the rules of the game. All award programs have fine print that’s essential reading to learning the terms & conditions on earning and redeeming miles or points. Outlined in the rules, for example, is the bare minimum amount of activity required to keep your account open and active and is usually at least one credit or redemption per year and failure to do so will see all your accumulated miles forfeited which could equate to losing hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of value. Also determine if or when your banked miles/points may expire as there are some programs who have limits as to how long you have to spend the. Air Miles for example added a five-year expiry policy back in 2011 which sees all miles earned before then lost if unused by 31st December, 2016. There’s more on that in this Toronto Star article.
  • Use your miles wisely for the biggest return. Rather than redeem 25,000 for an economy ticket within North America, for example, that may cost $500 to purchase redeem instead for business class for twice the miles but whose value may be five times as much. Award travel in economy within North America is generally a poor return on your investment, especially on airlines such as Air Canada as their fees and surcharges can add up to half the cost of a paid ticket
  • Likewise consider buying business class seats on routes where they are often discounted and save your miles for another destination that rarely goes on sale and whose cost for premium cabin seats can be several times as much. For example, redeeming 100,000 points and $400 miles in fees for a Europe award ticket is a relatively poor return if the route often has paid business class seats for $2200 with taxes so save those miles for a trip to Asia as paid business class seats to that region can run up to $5,000 per person
  • Don’t hoard your miles for long periods as loyalty programs periodically raise their award levels making your banked miles/points worth less
  • Plan early and be flexible with dates to find the lowest award levels
  • If you have a loyalty program credit card charge everything you can to it to maximize your earning. This doesn’t mean spending more than you normally would but rather don’t divide your focus and pay for some things with cash or debit. Credit cards are accepted in more places than ever before so use them as much as possible
  • Decide whether the points chase is a game you enjoy playing because if it isn’t then just you might as well dump your points or miles and get a cash back credit card which offers as much as a 1.5% cash back for everyday purchases with effort required. Getting the most value from a loyalty program requires effort so ask yourself whether you are willing and able to put forth an effort to play the game and if not consider cashing out as passive playing yields limited results

There are many excellent online resources to help those interested in taking a more hands-on role in the point/mile game including RewardsCanada.com which has been publishing newsletters since 2001, a website I’ve been a long-time member of Flyertalk.com as well as The Points Guy which recently had a story about is publisher flying Delta Airlines business class to Africa for a next to nothing:

TPGtv Episode 1: Flying Delta Business Class to Africa for 90k Miles and $5.60

For those sitting on the sidelines join those of us who go the extra mile for an extra mile.

 

 

Ways to avoid expensive fees on “free” frequent flyer flights

Hotel Review: the Royal Lahaina Resort, Maui

The anticipation of a travel day often prevents me from getting a full night sleep and so it was with my trip to Maui as while upgrading to WestJet’s Plus seats on the outbound flight (more on that in this blog post) allowed me to catch a few winks in-flight I still arrived tired. That fatigue however fell away upon I opening the door to  my 11th floor deluxe ocean view room at the Royal Lahaina Resort and soaking in this stunning vista.

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All photos by author

The sweeping ocean views with the island of Molokai in the distance, the golden brown sand of Kāʻanapali Beach and the rolling Maui hills proved the perfect cure for jetlag and offered hours of peaceful viewing during the six night stay.

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The balcony, or lanai as they are known in the islands, while not huge does offers enough space for two guests to enjoy the scenery with a small table for books or beverages.

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The rich wood highlights in the room include the headboard, bed frame and sliding louvered doors used in place of drapes. As an early riser I rarely closed these sliding doors preferring instead to leave them open along with the balcony door to be lulled to sleep and awaken to the gentle sound of waves slapping on the beach.

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The wooden bed frame does stick out an inch or two so takes a little getting used to but the bed itself was very comfortable and wrapped with quality Egyptian cotton linens. The bedside alarm clock and MP3 player with docking port was handy and I liked it’s low glow instead of the bright red light of most hotel digital alarm clocks.

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The 350 square foot room features separate vanity and closet storage from the bathroom and shower stall with the vanity area having the same louvered wood doors for some privacy.

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Extensive room renovations in recent years added some quality touches in the room including the vanity sink faucet which was a faux bamboo stalk with water flowing on open top tube but this wasn’t to my liking as it didn’t generate enough water pressure at times for shaving or brushing your teeth. The shower stall was fine but a new shower head would make it even better but in the grand scheme of things these are quite minor nitpicks. The room offers plenty of storage space in drawers below the vanity and directly behind in a tall wardrobe with an ample supply of hangars rarely found in most hotels these days. The large safe will hold a laptop, camera and travel documents with ease and a mini-bar rounds out the vanity & closet area just off to the side of the door into the room.  Speaking of electronic devices it should be noted the room is well laid out with handy bedside and desk plug-ins to recharge all your essential gadgets.

The room was cool and quiet as I didn’t hear guests in neighboring rooms though knew they were there having exchanged a polite nod while on our respective balconies so the sleep quality for this light sleeper was excellent.

This is more than just a room with a view as while the stunning scenery is a highlight it’s the casual comfort of the furnishings that make for a very pleasant stay.

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The Royal Ocean Terrace Restaurant & Lounge is a focal point of the resort as breakfast, lunch and dinner are served on terraced levels overlooking the main pool and ocean. The big buffet breakfast is available for USD$25 per person but being an early riser opted for the much less expensive ‘Breakfast Sunrise Special’ served daily from 6:30 – 7:30 AM for USD$8.99 and features two eggs made to order, choice of breakfast sausage or bacon and choice of rice or hash browns.

On my first Maui morning I was enjoying breakfast and staring out to the ocean when a few whales started ‘breaching’ or playfully leaping out of the water miles offshore and while a few other diners happened to spot the natural wonder playing out before us sadly most had heads bowed entranced with their handheld devices.

The staff was another highlight of this dinning space as most would offer a warm welcome or call you by name whether you were passing through or stopping for a beer during happy hour. I appreciated being able to sign charges back to my room as it saved having to carry cash or a credit card around during afternoons at the beach or pool.

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ʻanapali Beach is a beautiful golden brown sand beach that stretches for miles on either side of the resort and became a favorite spot for an hour-long walk just after sunrise each morning as to me there’s nothing like a long walk on an almost empty beach in the still of the dawn to begin a day in paradise. For those wanting to get their morning exercise off the sand there is a winding pedestrian-only corridor called the beach walk that runs for miles steps off the beach between the various hotels and resorts so look for the signs and mind the joggers.

Adjacent to the Royal Lahaina’s main pool is the beach activity hut offering a long list of tropical rentals including fancy cabana loungers, snorkeling and watersport equipment. The local ABC store has most of the items for sale cheaper than renting a few times but that’s a decision each traveller can make for themselves. I rented a snorkel set just after 2PM one afternoon and happily splashed around for 90 minutes without seeing too much before returning the fins, snorkel and mask.

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prices

The resort’s second pool is smaller and seemed popular with the younger children staying in the ocean front cottages nearby.

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There is a beach bar to the side of the pool and it’s a nice place to find some shade, consume a cool cocktail or two and mingle with other guests.

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The lobby is just off the main driveway and is an open, airy space with a good supply of chairs to perch on while awaiting a shuttle or ride to appear.

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At check-in guests are given a schedule for both the free Kāʻanapali Trolley that runs a route amongst the hotels and resorts and Whalers Village, a shopping complex next to the Westin Maui Resort, as well as the Outlets of Maui shuttle which for $2 one way takes guests to the outlet common located a few blocks off Lahaina’s bustling waterfront avenue aptly called Front Street.

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As I wasn’t wanting to rent a car on this trip and explore more of Maui having the shuttles to go the roughly 5 miles into Lahaina for some light sightseeing was convenient. There is self-parking with in & out privileges for USD$10 per day or $15 per day for valet parking.

Right next door to the Guest Services office with its free 15 minute computer terminals and help yourself individually wrapped cookies is the Royal Scoop serving locally made ice cream, specialty coffees, snacks and sandwiches.

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While I was staying in a room in the Lahaina Kai Tower there are cottages spread around the 27 acre resort with a number being completely renovated this year to add more modern furnishings and amenities. These one and two storey cottages are connected to accommodate larger families and are popular for their relative value and proximity to both the beach and adjacent golf course.

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The Royal Lahaina Resort’s Myths of Maui Luau is the longest running Polynesian luau on the island and is held beachfront nightly. Included in the admission is a buffet meal with traditional island food, open bar, and the big stage show with Hawaiian hula dancers and performers from Tahiti, Samoa & New Zealand with the big fire juggling finale. The line-ups can be long so arrive early.

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My first visit to Maui went by all too quickly but I thoroughly enjoyed it because of the really relaxing time spent at the Royal Lahaina Resort and look forward to my next visit to this hotel and to this island.

 

Flight review: WestJet Plus seats on Boeing 767

Value like art is subjective and what is a reasonable cost to one consumer is an impossible extravagance to another but there can be few who would disagree on the overall affordability of last minute upgrades to WestJet’s roomier economy cabin called Plus as it’s a fraction of the regular price with almost all the perks.

The airline made me an offer I couldn’t refuse when I checked in online for a recent nonstop flight Edmonton to Kahului, Maui, namely a $150 one-way upgrade from my economy seat to a Plus seat for the duration of the 6.5 hour flight which after a refund for the $20 economy seat assignment I’d paid months before, the complimentary in-flight meal and drinks worth $30 dropped the total spend out-of-pocket to $100 or roughly a quarter of my original ticket cost and a fraction of the regular price of Plus seats as my seatmate lamented when we exchanged pleasantries upon boarding. The choice however is completely the passenger’s as paying the regular Plus seat pricing in advance is the only way to guarantee your travel in this seat type as there are no guarantees these seats will be available when online check-in opens 24 hours prior to departure. It should be noted that the price to upgrade to a Plus seat at time of online check-in will vary depending on the length of the flight as shorter hops under 300 miles will only cost $15,  $50 for routes 301-1000 miles,  $100 for 1001-2000 miles, $120 on 2001-3000 mile flights and $150 for flights over 3000 miles.

Unlike WestJet’s Boeing 737 aircraft which has one cabin with Plus seats in the first few rows the larger and longer-range Boeing 767 the airline recently introduced into its fleet has a separate cabin for this upgraded category with two seats in the left, center and right rows.

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Photo by Author

The room between rows and the seat width was quite comfortable compared with economy but it isn’t the full-on business class pods found on other airlines. WestJet has however created a neat amenity kit for the Alberta – Hawaii routes with socks, eye mask, toothbrush and tiny toothpaste tube and ear buds.

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Photo by Author

I’m sure I’ll put the light cloth amenity bag will be put to good use storing odds & ends on future trips such as cords or flight accessories like ear buds and eye masks.

As there aren’t seat-back TV’s WestJet encourages passengers to download their Westjet Connect and watch in-flight entertainment on their iPad or smartphone. A limited number of rental iPads are available for a low $8 rental fee and I considered renting one but as I’d downloaded the app to my Samsung Galaxy 4 phone I did try and watch the movie The Martian but gave up after half an hour as I found the screen too small and tired of having to hold it up and at the right angle to make viewing possible.  As I travel prepared I whipped out a good book and enjoyed that old-fashioned form of in-flight entertainment.

Plus tablet

Photo by Author

After settling in to my comfortable Plus seat the friendly flight attendant handed out the morning menu.

Plus breakfast

As tempting as the Traditional meal was having already had a large breakfast earlier in the morning instead opted for the lighter Continental for this mid-morning flight. The yogurt with granola, croissant and fruit plate were pretty standard fare but the meal’s star was the moist and delicious banana bread.

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Photo by Author

Snacks were offered before landing and included a choice between a small can of Pringles, cookies or a more substational Spicy Italian sub sandwich. As alcoholic beverages were included as part of the Plus perks I couldn’t resist having a local Hawaiian beer, the Kona Brewing Company’s Longboard Lager, or two to get into the holiday mode.

WestJet’s in-flight service was outstanding on this flight as it has been when I’ve flown them in the past and helped add to the overall very pleasant experience validating my small splurge to upgrade to Plus which I would definitely recommend for anyone offered it at time of online check-in but especially on the longer flights onboard the Boeing 767-300ERW aircraft. For a look inside this aircraft there’s an excellent video here.

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Photo by Author

 

 

New York’s subways under the microscope

Central Park

As one who has explored New York City by subway on many occasions it was with great interest that I read about a research study conduct by the Weill Cornell Medical College which sampled DNA from all 466 subway stations to create an accurate map of the microbes and bacteria that live in this underground network. The results of the first study of its kind while generally reassuring include some that are a little surprising.

The study, published in Cell Systems, found that the majority of the bacteria found was the benign kind normally present on the hands and body of any of the 5.5 million commuters who use the subway every day.  Perhaps unsurprisingly traces of mozzarella cheese were noted on swabs taken from door handles, hand rails and vending machines as New Yorkers love their pizza. In a quarter of the samples however antibiotic-resistant bacteria were discovered while 12% showed some connection to diseases.

The pathogen map – dubbed a “PathoMap” – was created after the results from the 17-month study were analyzed and may serve as a reference for future disease tracking, guarding against bio-terrorism and large scale public health management.

Source: Wall Street Journal Video

On the heels on this study comes another that determined New York’s public transportation system was the fifth best in the United States. The SmartAsset study used census data of the major metropolitan cities comparing a number of a factors including overall public transportation use, average commute times of public transportation versus private cars and the incomes of transit riders. One interesting statistic of note was that once New York’s 2014 subway and bus total ridership was combined it added up to 2.5 billion!

My own informal survey finds the New York City subway system to be one of the best travel values of the major world capitals as an unlimited 7-day MetroCard is USD$31 which considering the per-ride fare is $2.75 makes a week long pass a steal.

That MetroCard is valid on all Brooklyn-bound subways including the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, F or R line all of which feature stops close to the New York Transit Museum housed in a decommissioned historic 1936 subway station in Downtown Brooklyn.

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A number of subway cars of different eras are open to visitors however these cars never leave this platform.

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New York Subway Map

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