Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Introduction

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions
Review:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro


As I landed in Istanbul last Valentine’s Day, I received an e-mail alerting me to an inordinately low fare to Rio de Janeiro on United for pretty much all year.  I just happened to be on this trip to Istanbul with a bunch of travel friends, so the only logical thing for us to do was to immediately book a trip together to Rio!

So there we were, drinking free alcohol from the Club Level of the Grand Hyatt Istanbul – just blocks from Taksim Square.  And what were we doing?  Planning out what to do in Istanbul that weekend?  Nope.

We were trying to book the most insane routings you could think of to get to Rio de Janeiro over Labor Day weekend and rack up as many miles as possible.  At the time, this was a great idea since I was gunning for United Premier 1K status.  Now, having achieved that status a few weeks ago, this routing looks pretty silly — even to me.Screen shot 2013-08-28 at 4.09.22 PM

Thursday morning, I will be flying to Orlando — and then Houston to catch my Thursday night redeye flight to Rio de Janeiro.  On Monday evening, I’ll be on the overnight flight back to Houston and then will be connecting to Denver, back to Orlando, and finally home to DC.  It’s a total of 14,812 miles in an airplane — a perfect way to spend the weekend, right?

This may not suck Courtesy:  JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

This may not suck
Courtesy: JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

There are at least a dozen travel / miles enthusiasts who are making this trip, and we have a bunch of events planned.   I’m slated to stay at the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro — smack-dab in the middle of the famed Copacabana Beach.  I will be staying a total of four days and three nights in Rio – a perfect getaway for Labor Day weekend.  During my time here, I will be spending some time on the beach, touring various sights including Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer, and the beach neighborhoods of Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana.  I also plan on sampling a ton of Brazilian food including dinner at Porcao – one of the more famous churrascarias (Brazilian-style steakhouses).

Sunday, I’ll be attending a futbol (soccer) game at the famous Marancana Stadium — the future site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.  I especially can’t wait for that, as I love going to sporting events in other countries.

I’ve been to Rio before, but was only there for a few hours on Ipanema Beach during a layover to start out my crazy 15-day adventure this past June.  I’m definitely looking forward to spending some more time in Rio.  Who knows?  If I love it, I may just go back for the 2014 FIFA World Cup — I’ve already got award tickets booked just in case!

Does anyone have any suggestions for some other things to do or places to eat while in Rio?  If so, I’d love to hear them!

A Weekend Trip to Alaska

Two weekends ago, I booked an impulsive, last-minute weekend trip to Anchorage, Alaska on a Wednesday night — my flight was scheduled for first thing on Friday morning.  After a late Thursday night out in DC, I found myself at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport for an early-ish 7:45am flight to Chicago.  Before I booked this trip, I was sure that all my segments would upgrade to first class by using some Regional Premier Upgrades that I had on United.

The path of my journey

The path of my journey

My flight to Chicago and then on to Anchorage were both uneventful, but about as good as it gets for domestic first class on United.  The Chicago to Anchorage leg was a cool 6.5 hours, but DirecTV and movies, along with a proper meal and ice cream sundae helped pass the time pretty well.

I arrived at Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport at around 1:30pm and immediately took a cab downtown for about $20.  I planned to do this trip without a rental car, since the prices on rental cars were astronomical, and I was trying to do this trip on a low budget.  Another cheaper option to get from the airport to downtown is Anchorage’s People Mover Bus system.  The 7 Bus runs hourly between the airport and downtown (and vice-versa) for only $1.75.  This takes about 30-35 minutes instead of the roughly 15 minute cab ride.  Keeping with the low budget theme, I planned to stay in a hostel in Anchorage given the notoriously high Anchorage hotel prices.

Humpy's Halibut n Chips with a flight of Alaskan Brewery Beers

Humpy’s Halibut n Chips with a flight of Alaskan Brewery Beers

I arrived at my original hostel — The Alaska Backpacker’s Inn — and had an immediate, terrible first impression.  It was several blocks away from central downtown, it was filthy, and the girl at the front desk advised me that check-in was not allowed for another couple hours.  So I stored my bag, and briefly considered just booking a hotel for the weekend, but cooler heads prevailed and I just walked to a bar instead. Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse in downtown was highly recommended by some friends, so I went there.  I had some great halibut fish n chips, as well as several beers from their solid beer selection.  I also go to talking to some folks at the bar who advised that I check out the Bent Prop Inn, Downtown — a hostel just a block or so away, which they said was much nicer.

So I did just that — the guys who run the Bent Prop Inn could not have been any more kind.  The place was much cleaner, and they were able to accommodate me for the weekend.  It has a fantastic location right by the Marriott, and the price was right — $30 for the first night, and $25 for the second night for a bed in a 8-bunk bed dorm.  By the time I’d gotten my things and settled down back at the Bent Prop, it was past 10pm Alaskan time (2am Eastern), and I needed some sleep.

I was up early the next morning for breakfast at Snow City Cafe.  This place is a must for breakfast in Anchorage.  The line was out the door at 7:15am, but I was able to get a spot at the bar after about ten minutes.  I ordered the Kodiak Eggs Benedict, which featured King Crab, and was freakin’ amazing.

For the day, I’d arranged a trip out to the Alyeska Resort in nearby Girdwood, Alaska.  As previously mentioned, I did not have a rental car, so instead I booked a round-trip on the Alaskan Railroad for about $46 each way.  This provided a relaxing 90-minute train ride along Turnagain Sound to Girdwood.  Once in Girdwood, the Alyeska Resort has a shuttle that picks passengers up and takes them to the resort.

Above Girdwood and the Turnagain Sound in the distance

Above Girdwood and the Turnagain Sound in the distance

The Alyeska Resort is the premier ski resort in Alaska.  With it being Summer time, it was prime for hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoors activities.  I decided to give the mountain a climb.  There are very defined hiking trails up Mount Alyeska, and since there was a race going on that day, there were  a good bit of people making the climb.  Because of this, my concerns about bear encounters were significantly diminished, and I managed to hike up to the mid-mountain tram station where the uber-popular Seven Glaciers Restaurant is located.  I had lunch at another location, since Seven Glaciers is only open for dinner.  Everyone I’ve talked to highly recommended Seven Glaciers, and it did indeed look amazing.

After lunch, I proceeded to hike up as far up the mountain as I could.  I made it quite a ways up when the hiking trail basically ended just short of the glacier atop Mount Alyeska.  I was ready to stop hiking at that point due to exhaustion and the fact that at this point I was the only one up there — it was a tad creepy, and I couldn’t help but worry a bit about bears.

So down I went back down to the mid-mountain tram spot.  I went ahead and trammed back down the mountain and hopped the shuttle to the nearby town of Girdwood, where I had lunch and some drinks at one of the resort bars called the Sitzmark Bar & Grill.  This was a ski-lodge type bar at the base of a couple ski runs that were being used as mountain bike tracks that day.  After several beers, I again hopped the shuttle back to the Girdwood station for my return train ride to Anchorage.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening

I really enjoyed the Alaska Railroad, and found it an very relaxing and scenic way to travel around.  Though a car would have been twice as fast to Alyeska, one was also much more expensive.  I arrived back in Anchorage at 9:45pm, and of course the sun was still up.  That didn’t matter much to me, as I was exhausted and headed to bed.

Sunday morning I once again headed to Snow City Cafe, but this time ordered the Crabby Omelet.  Again, it was amazing.  As I said before, this place is a must visit breakfast place in Anchorage.  It was rainy that morning, and I had several hours to kill before I had to return to the airport for my flight back home.  I spent that time walking though town and observing the Anchorage Marathon, which was happening that morning.  As lunchtime was upon me, I headed to F Street Station for a helping of beer battered halibut and some beers.  Wow, this halibut was fantastic — highly recommended.  Apparently F Street Station is also quite the hangout late night for locals.   After a quick nap at the hostel, I hopped on the 7 bus to the airport and then boarded my United Airlines redeye flight back to Chicago and then to DC on Monday morning.  Being the good employee that I am, I proceeded directly from Dulles Airport to work.

Overall, this was a helluva way to spend a weekend.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  As my third trip to Alaska, it was the first time that I got to spend some time in Anchorage.  While there honestly isnt’ much to the city itself, the surrounding area is absolutely beautiful.

My Current Strategy to Earn Miles and Travel Often

In early 2012, I started to really understand how to seriously accrue a ton of airline miles, and I began to travel on a regular basis using many of the things I learned.  That year, I flew over 96,000 miles on a variety of trips.  This year, I’ve already eclipsed 2012, by traveling over 100,000 miles before the beginning of July.

How do I travel so often?

1.      Actually Flying — and doing so with a form of “Miles Arbitrage”
2.      Earning miles from Credit Card sign-up bonuses and spend

“Miles Arbitrage”

As detailed in an earlier post, I actively hunt cheap airfares.  Many times, my goal is not to go to a certain place – it’s to go wherever, whenever — as long as it’s a relatively long distance, and it is cheap.

Why would I engage in this madness?

Simple:  I get to travel some in order to earn miles and travel even more!

Hunting for ridiculously cheap airfares allows me to take quick, weekend trips to a lot of really cool places where I otherwise would probably never really bother to go.  Additionally, these trips earn valuable Premier Qualification Miles and Redeemable Miles for at a very cheap rate.

  • Premier Qualification Miles (PQMs) are the miles that determine one’s status in an airline’s frequent flyer program.  In my case, I primarily fly United and its Star Alliance partners.
    • The more PQMs one flies during a calendar year, the more perks one gets – perks such as:
      • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights
      • Upgrade certificates for international travel
      • Priority boarding
      • Free checked baggage
      • Reduced change fees
      • A miles multiplier to which you can earn redeemable frequent flyer miles.
        • For example, a Premier 1K member with United earns 2 miles for every 1 mile flown.
    • Generally speaking, the only way to accrue status on an airline is good, old-fashioned flying – you must hit the status threshold for segments or miles flown within a calendar year.
    • In the future, the quest for airline status will get much more complicated, as Delta and United have recently introduced an additional criterion for Premier qualification– minimum dollar spend.  This will likely kill my current strategy.
  • Redeemable miles (RDMs) are traditionally what people think of when one mentions “airline miles.”  These miles are ultimately redeemed for future travel.

By collecting miles cheaply on flights across the country and internationally, I accrue a hefty balance of miles.  I prefer this method to straight up buying the miles, since these provide me a pretty fun weekend getaway while earning them.  These miles, in turn, enable me to take major, long vacations to even more exotic locations in international business or first class – tickets that I never would have otherwise purchased.

Miles got me this -- First Class on a Lufthansa A330 from Munich to Washington

Miles got me this — First Class on a Lufthansa A330-300 from Munich to Washington-Dulles

Essentially, it’s miles arbitrage – I’m earning miles for a low price, and redeeming them at much, much higher values.  I am generally earning miles at a rate of $.02 – $.035 per mile, and redeeming them on tickets that cost in excess of $.12 per mile.  That’s a pretty decent return on investment right there!

Credit Card Sign ups and Spending

Last year, I was heavy in the credit card sign-up game.  Co-branded travel and bank credit cards are some of the easiest ways to get a bunch of miles quickly.  Through a few credit card sign ups, I was able to quickly accrue over 400,000 miles over the course of the year.  Before employing this strategy, you should see if this tactic is right for you.  Applying for new credit cards does take a temporary, small hit on your credit, but the long-term effects of building a good credit history of paying your bills on time, and in full will do nothing but help you credit going forward.  The important thing to remember is to make sure you pay off your balance in full every month to avoid any interest fees, as interest on owed amount negates the value of the miles.  In future posts, I plan to get into a little more detail on credit card sign-up bonuses, but since this is not currently part of my strategy, I will save it for later.

This year, I have stayed away from credit cards and focused my effort on earning miles organically – by flying.  With that said, the majority of all my spend is on one of two or three points-earning credit cards.  This ensures that every dollar I spend is earning valuable miles that I will later use for travel.   I will go into greater detail on credit cards in future posts.

Though the quickest way to compile a serious bank of frequent flyer miles is through credit card sign ups, I enjoy taking quick trips on the cheap to earn my miles the natural way — by actually getting on a plane and flying somewhere!

An Impulsive, Last-Minute Weekend Trip to Anchorage

What happens when I have a wide-open long weekend, $1,300 in United eCertificates, and the desire to not do the same-old, same-old in DC?

Why, I book an impulsive trip to Alaska for the weekend, of course!

A previous expedition to Alaska

A previous expedition to Alaska

So I’ve been thinking about this for a while, as the fare has been out there for a bit.  But I finally pulled the trigger on things last night.  There’s a pretty nice deal on United and other carriers right now to Anchorage, Alaska that I found thanks to The Flight Deal.  Now, I wouldn’t normally just blow that amount of money to go to Alaska for a couple days on a random weekend, but like I said, I have a pile of United “play money” that I’ve acquired as compensation for mishaps here and there.  There was also plenty of “upgrade-able” space available on flights to Anchorage this weekend, which I figured would be a good use for a couple of my Regional Premier Upgrades.

As a result, I’ll be making my third trip to Alaska — but this time, it’s not by cruise ship.

I’ll be leaving for Anchorage on Friday morning from Washington-Reagan airport via Chicago.  My flight will arrive into Anchorage early Friday afternoon, and I will be there all weekend until my return flight on Sunday evening.  It’ll be a red-eye flight back to Chicago, and then on to DC first thing Monday morning.

My upgrades to first class cleared on all segments, so I’ll be comfortable as possible.  United is also operating B737-800s with DirectTV and Power Ports on all segments too (as of now), so that’s a major win.  Staying in the major win category — this sequence of flights will allow me to achieve United Premier 1K Status — United’s top achievable frequent flyer status!!!

The path of my journey

The path of my journey

Though I’ve been to Alaska many times, I have not gotten the chance to spend much time in Anchorage.  I’ll probably spend some time on a hike in nearby Chugach State Park, as I don’t think I have the time or the money to do a quick trip to Denali.  Maybe I’ll go fishing, or fight a brown bear with my bare hands… everything is on the table!  A meal of halibut and chips is definitely in the works, that’s for sure.

So, I’ll ask you– the reader… what should I do with two days in Anchorage?

Getting Started With Miles — Flying

I hear it from people all the time:  “I can’t earn enough miles to do anything!”

Well, what these people generally don’t know is that there are a myriad of ways to earn miles.  And odds are, they don’t know how to effectively redeem miles in a way that offers the maximum value for those miles.  There are so many ways to earn frequent flier miles, and I try to maximize my earning to the greatest extent as possible.  In future posts, I will highlight various ways to earn more airline miles with a variety of frequent flyer programs.  Furthermore, I will detail some tricks of the trade for getting the most out of your miles.  Redeeming miles takes a keen understanding of each airline’s award charts in order to maximize the value of your hard-earned miles.  With that being said, each airline has its own caveats and “sweet spots” that one can exploit for maximum value.

In this post, I will detail what one should do, at minimum ensure that they’re getting credit for the miles that they’re actually flying.

In order to begin the whole mileage game, one needs to start with the basics:

  • Establish frequent flier accounts on the airlines that you typically fly
  • Track your miles online with a spreadsheet or an online resource such as AwardWallet.com
  • Remember:  Not all miles are equal!  Miles are only as valuable as the costs at which they can be redeemed – some programs offer much more lucrative value propositions than others.
  • Always credit your flights to a frequent flyer account – even if it’s not your primary program.  Every little bit of miles count.
  • Know your airline partners and alliances and try to stick to the airlines who partner with your primary carrier.
  • It is helpful to have a goal – what do you want to accrue miles for?  A first class trip to Europe?  A round-trip to San Francisco?  Knowing what, exactly you’re gunning for can help you focus on which airline best suits your needs.  For example, if your goal is for overseas, international travel, Southwest is probably not the airline for you, since you cannot redeem Southwest miles for travel outside the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean.  It is; however, an excellent option if domestic travel is your goal.
  • Know that redeeming miles is an art itself.  Every airline frequent flyer program features a different award chart, and has its own little caveats.

To figure out your strategy, it’s important to know how often you plan on flying.  If you fly enough to achieve elite status (generally at least 25,000 miles per year), then  it would be beneficial to pinpoint one airline where you focus your flying.  Elite status on airlines generally carries with it benefits such as priority boarding, no baggage fees, complimentary upgrades, and reduced fees for other services.  If you’re going fly enough during a calendar year to earn elite status, you should:

  • Try to stick to one airline’s mileage program.  Your hometown airport may have a significant say as to which airline you choose.
    • The major airlines in the US with connections to major, global alliances are:
      • United (Star Alliance)
      • Delta (Sky Team)
      • American (OneWorld)
      • US Airways (Star Alliance until November, and then OneWorld).
  • Know your airline partners and alliances and try to stick to the airlines who partner with your primary carrier.  For example, if you’re a United frequent flier, credit your miles to United when flying partners like Lufthansa, US Airways, or ANA.

If you are an occasional traveler, it makes more sense to simply hunt for the cheapest fares available on any airline.  You should still credit these flights to each individual airline’s frequent flier program, but since you aren’t trying to achieve status with an airline, the carrier does not matter as much — you just want to travel for cheap.  A good starting point would be my previous post on hunting for cheap airfares.

These are merely some tips to get you started.  In my next series of blog posts, I will detail some strategies for increasing your mileage balance through a variety of ways, including miles arbitrage, credit card sign ups, spending habits, and more.  Of course, I will also cover ways to derive maximum value from these miles.