2013: A Year of Travel in Review

I set myself a very high bar this year, and while I did not succeed at all my goals, I am still very pleased with the results. Let me provide some context. I first began taking a serious approach to miles and points on December 26, 2006. That’s the day I signed up for a MileagePlus account with United Airlines. I was booking tickets for medical school interviews and decided that if I was going to do all that travel I may as well see if I could at least get 25,000 miles for the lowest level of elite status. Before this point I was a member of Southwest Rapid Rewards but only earned enough for a free flight maybe every other year.

Over the next three years I worked my way up from Silver, to Gold, and eventually 1K. I am now Premier 1K for the third year in a row. Not much compared to some people, I know, but still quite an accomplishment for someone who just graduated and still pays for all of his travel. And last year I also added Diamond status with Hyatt Gold Passport, the first hotel elite status I actually earned rather than getting through some promotion or credit card benefit.

So in 2013, I decided it was time to go big. In addition to United 1K and Hyatt Diamond, I would go for Alaska MVP Gold, SPG Platinum, and Kimpton Inner Circle. My plans were something like this:

  • United Airlines: 100,000 miles
  • Alaska Airlines: 50,000 miles (including partner credit)
  • Hyatt: 25 stays
  • Starwood: 50 nights (to get the 10 suite upgrades)
  • Kimpton: 15 stays

I already had Premier 1K status with United and Diamond status with Hyatt. I did not do a Platinum challenge with SPG because I never had enough nights in a row to complete it. I didn’t qualify for Platinum until my second-to-last stay, reaching 25 stays just before I hit 50 nights. I did, however, get status matches to Alaska MVP Gold and Kimpton Inner Circle. That made the journey more enjoyable. Ironically, those are also the only two programs in which I failed to meet my elite status goals.

United Airlines — 100,007 Miles

I requalified for Premier 1K status with only 7 miles to spare. Kinda cool. I was originally predicting 36 miles, but a serious of unexpected events changed that. Hey, as long as I passed the finish line, right?! The vast majority of this travel was on domestic routes, one reason I have always focused on the value of complimentary upgrades rather than United’s more restrictive systemwide upgrades. However, I’ve made no secret of my dissatisfaction with United Airlines, and I have no plans to book more travel with them. My Premier 1K status may seem to be pointless. Why get status I won’t actually use?

UA Metal (79350)

I flew 79,350 miles on United or United Express flights.

Because there are still some opportunities to use elite status without actually flying on that airline. I have a couple hundred thousand United miles that I can still use to book award tickets, and my status will save me from some award booking and change fees. It has also greased the wheels of my transition to my new carrier of choice: American Airlines. I groveled — literally — asking them for a second chance at Executive Platinum status and was presented with a challenge to earn 25,000 Elite Qualifying Points in two months. And no systemwide upgrades until I do.

American doesn’t normally offer EXP challenges, so I’m quite relieved. But for those who aren’t familiar, EQPs are based on fare class, so trying to satisfy them by flying deep-discount mileage runs would require 50,000 miles butt-in-seat. In two months. Ouch. More discussion of this in a future post.

Alaska Airlines — 17,212 Miles

I didn’t get anywhere near the number of miles I needed to keep my MVP Gold status match. In fact, I didn’t even get close to keeping MVP status. I earned about 11,000 miles on Alaska itself and another 6,000 miles from travel on American Airlines. I loved every single flight on Alaska, had a very good upgrade percentage, and wish I could fly them more. But this year it just didn’t work out due to the large break I took from travel during late summer and early fall. Even my United account statement shows no flights credited during that period.

Non-UA (48321)

I flew 48,321 miles on United’s Star Alliance partners, Alaska Airlines, and American Airlines. Despite the large number, this is mostly award travel.

Alaska’s membership year only goes through 2013 without any spillover to early 2014 like most programs. If I did decide to try to keep it next year, I would probably have to fly several mileage runs to LAX during the double EQM promo, which is still ongoing. But if I flew enough to earn the status back, I would already be done and wouldn’t need to fly with them anymore — I wouldn’t actually benefit until 2015. Thus the conundrum. I think I’ll just have to wait and see if my travel picks up in 2014 now that I don’t have a wedding to plan around. I may still start booking more flights with Alaska and earn it for real this time.

Hyatt — 25 stays (35 nights)

No way was I going to get 50 nights with Hyatt this year. I book a lot of short trips, so 50 nights would mean staying every other weekend with Hyatt. But I did enjoy the times I spent with them. My experience earning SPG Platinum status side-by-side has provided some good opportunities for comparison. Overall I have preferred my Hyatt stays with the exception of a few very luxurious visits to St. Regis properties.

Requalifying for Hyatt Diamond was harder than I expected in 2013, but I made the effort precisely because of how much I’ve come to value it. I usually get some kind of suite or junior suite upgrade even though its not a defined benefit. I really, really love a full breakfast. And the service is typically top notch. But booking stays at Starwood hotels distracted me from booking at Hyatt hotels. Even after spending $40,000 on my Hyatt Visa to earn a few bonus nights’ credit, I still had to book five cheap mattress runs. I probably would have requalified easily had I been more focused.

Starwood Platinum — 50 nights (26 stays)

I view SPG as competitive to Hyatt Gold Passport in many ways. They both have relatively small portfolios, but they also have fairly generous and well-defined benefits for their top tiers. I thought it was worth giving them a try, and if I was going to try to get Platinum status I knew that I wanted to get it with 50 nights rather than 25 stays in order to earn an additional 10 suite upgrades. And though I spent many more nights with Starwood than Hyatt, it was relatively easy because award stays count, too.

Because I only had SPG Gold status for much of the time I was trying to reach this goal, I can’t really comment on the value I’ve received as a Platinum member. But I can say that there are some serious issues with brand standards that have given me pause. I used to think of Westin as a luxury brand, for example, but I’ve had far better experiences at Sheraton properties. I have always preferred interesting experiences to good ones, so here’s to an interesting 2014 exploring my new status with SPG!

Kimpton — 10 nights (5 stays)

I gave up on Kimpton very early in 2013. Not for any fault of their hotels. Far from it! I think Kimpton has some amazing properties and are generally on par with some of the better Hyatt hotels (they could be compared to some Andaz properties). But with that premium experience comes a premium price. A big reason I have not stayed with Kimpton more often is that I couldn’t afford it with all the other travel and wedding expenses I had. Maybe 2014 will be different as I shift priorities.

It didn’t matter much because I also learned early on that my status match is good through 2015. So I can make another go at requalifying in 2014 without losing my Inner Circle benefits. My one annoyance is that the free nights Inner Circle members receive at new properties have been very difficult for me to redeem. It seems that whether I call three months in advance, three weeks, three days, or three hours there is never anything available. I viewed this as one of Kimpton’s biggest elite benefits when I joined, so if I don’t have better luck next year it will significantly detract from their appeal.

Conclusion

It amazes me that I traveled this much in 2013. I am not a business traveler, nor am I some single guy with no home to come back to. Megan doesn’t like it when I leave her alone for more than a few days. I have friends here in Seattle, favorite haunts, and look forward to each return trip. I still somehow managed to spend a quarter of the year at hotels and circumnavigate the globe over five times.

What I need to do in 2014 is focus. Traveling as an AA Executive Platinum will allow me to credit flights from Alaska Airlines, so I can still fly them without worrying too much about getting elite status with them. I probably need to choose at some point between Kimpton and Starwood, and Starwood will probably win. But I may need to also choose between Starwood and Hyatt. Considering how easily I earned Platinum status with Starwood this is not such an easy call.

I don’t mind the lack of focus in 2013. I knew I was being aggressive and trying things out. One thing I did succeed at this year was using my miles more wisely. I booked a lot of award travel — just not for me. I booked tickets for Megan and also for family and friends; probably over 250,000 miles worth. This meant I could pay for my own tickets and earn status while still using the miles I earned to save money, whether it was actually our money we were saving or if we were helping out people coming to visit us. And strategizing between those trips you buy and those trips you redeem is what this blog is all about.

About 

Scott created Hack My Trip while traveling on a budget during graduate school and continues to share his thoughts on better travel. He maintains elite status with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hyatt, and Starwood.
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  • Joey

    What an amazing year you had, Scott! Similar to you, I am not a business traveler (in fact, I’ve never flown on my company’s dime.) This ‘hobby’ is forever changing with mergers, devaluations, promos, etc. that I think it’s a challenge to focus on your original goals each year (though that’s also what makes all of this exciting!) I look forward reading more of your blog posts (and Amol’s) in 2014!

  • shortstack

    Thanks for this review. Very interesting to see where you went and your strategies. Would you be able to share approximately what you spent out of pocket vs. what you earned or received back as rewards and what that was approximately worth? The message seems to be that you’ve got to spend money to earn status and rewards which pay back in great benefits. But what sort of investment does it require?

    • Scottrick

      I haven’t calculated my out-of-pocket costs yet. It’s usually something I get to around the time I do my taxes (though not all of my travel is tax deductible).

      I don’t think there is a certain “required” investment to get specific rewards. The numbers would be too dependent on the particulars of each individual’s situation, including travel preferences, home town, destinations, and various opportunity costs. But these are all factors to consider when you make your own evaluation of whether it’s worth it. I strongly suggest sitting down with a pad of paper to plot where you think you might visit, how important it is that you visit those destinations and not others — which might be cheaper through occasional sales — and what kinds of rewards you think you would earn and how you would value them.

  • Aptraveler

    You certainly traveled far and wide this past year. The visual of the map makes it obvious. I too will have to focus and strategize regarding the 1K that I earned earlier this year and how to maximize it. Although all my travel plans are on hold until after my leg surgery next month. So, once I am able to take off again, I may hit you up for advice on transitioning to AA while hopefully finding some interesting MR to do. Keep up the good work and happy 2014.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks! I’m hoping to do more international travel in 2014. It’s something I always say, but maybe this time it will actually happen.

  • datkidjones

    The ability to transfer Starwoods points to miles 1:1 on American (or 1:1.25 if you transfer 20,000 points) would be an added benefit too.