ITA matrix is a great tool with variety of advance search features available. This features are useful when you are trying to search for flights with specific criteria and want to quickly look what is available. They also help determine the fare for upgrade-able tickets using upgrade instruments provided to their loyalty program member elites by United Airlines, Delta Airlines or Alaska Airlines. The few of them are listed below:
  • Search specifying price per mile by default by using the link "http://matrix.itasoftware.com/?showPricePerMile=true"
  • Search specifying or restricting Airlines
  • Search specifying alliances
  • Search specifying flight numbers
  • Search specifying or restricting booking class
  • Search specifying minimum/ maximum connect times
Some of these features are described in flyerguide twiki as well as excellent post series by HackMyTrip, the important thing is you cannot book these fares directly on ITA Matrix. You will need to either search the specific flights displayed by ITA matrix on either airlines websites or other OTA. Fortunately, you could use much of the ITA matrix coding language on Hipmunk which would show the bookable flights with a direct link to Airlines Websites or other OTA.

Let's look at an example below for a flight from San Jose (SJC) to Philadelphia (PHL) in Virgin America through some snapshots below on ITA matrix. You could look up the 2 letter IATA code for airlines here

Fig 1: ITA Matrix Search for SJC-PHL on Virgin America with 0 to 2 days length of stay
Fig 2: ITA Matrix Showing availability for $248 on May 5,6 & 7
As you can see from above that the Virgin America flights are available for $248 on few dates. Now let's see how can we replicate the same using Hipmunk from snapshots below. Hipmunk does not allow wide range of dates, so having a search done on ITA matrix helps us narrow down on potential dates which we feed to Hipmunk. You can see the results in below snapshots.
Fig 3: Flight search on Hipmunk
Fig 4: Search results on Hipmunk where you can select the flight desired
Fig 5: Final selection of flights which can be "book" on Virgin America Website
As you can see from above ITA matrix helps to narrow down the dates for cheaper fares and dates for San Jose (SJC) to Philadelphia (PHL) flight which in turn could be fed to Hipmunk for quick reservation. Of course not all features supported by ITA matrix could be directly used by Hipmunk, as well as there is limitation on how many segments could be fed in Hipmunk, but you could do lot of stuff by plugging in similar "coding language" from ITA matrix to Hipmunk.
Broadly Speaking there are three kinds of Hotel Stays:
  1. Revenue Hotel Stay paid with Cash/Money.
  2. Award Hotel Stay paid with points.
  3. Hotel Stays Paid with Points + Cash.
I would be discussing useful sites for the (1.) and (2.) kind of Hotel Stays as those are the one's most often booked for hotel stays. In general the decision for booking a hotel with Cash or Points depends on couple of factors:
  1. Are you doing the stay as part of promotion for which it has to be a paid stay through Hotel Website?
  2. Or are you looking to stay at any good hotel and just want to pay the lowest price and want to evaluate is it worth paying the cash or better booking with points?

Let's assume your intent is to "pay the lowest price". In that case this article would give you various resources which will help you making that decision better and faster (Hopefully!). Below are few websites/tools which will quickly allow you to narrow down your search to few of the hotels in your desired area.
Award Mapper:
This is a pretty useful tool where you can enter your desired hotel location and it will quickly show up the hotels and the points required to stay there. Since, it uses Google Maps as the backdrop, it is very easy to map the hotels with your desired place of stay. Currently the website supports following Hotel Chains:
  • Best Western
  • Club Carlson
  • Choice Hotels
  • Hilton Hotels
  • Hyatt Hotels
  • Intercontinental Hotels (includes all Priority Club Hotels)
  • Marriott Hotels &
  • Starwood Preferred Guest's Hotels

All you need to do is to enter your "Destination" in the search box and it will pop up hotel property names and price in award points for them. This makes it very easy to short-list the hotels and gives estimate on price you would have to pay (based on your valuation of the points) if you chose to stay on "award". For e.g. I have searched "Bali, Indonesia" below and as you can see that there are several options to select from based on where I want to stay and price I am looking to pay. Of-course there are certain limitations of this tool, as it does not list the "exact rates" for your dates as well as it does not specify the availability of award for your dates, but you at least get to know available properties and the points required which makes your selection easier.

Award Mapper Hotel Awards for Bali, Indonesia
Wandering Aramean Hotel Tools:
This tool gives specific information about the hotels as well as comparison between the "cost of award stay" and "cost when payed with cash". The comparison does require your "Fair value of points input", but it is pretty neat in that it will only show hotels with availability on your dates. It requires you to create your "login ID" before performing the search and currently supports Rates comparison for following Hotels:
  • Wyndham Hotels
  • Intercontinental Hotels (includes all Priority Club Hotels)
  • Marriott Hotels
It does have support for "Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG)" awards, but the search is limited to availability check on "points" or "points+cash". There is no price comparison function for SPG hotels. As an example I did search for hotels in "Bali, Indonesia" for 1 night stay at Intercontinental group hotels from 3rd May 2014 to 4th May 2014 and the results show that the best value I would get from my points is for staying at "Intercontinental Bali Resort" whereas if I am looking to stay at cheapest cost then I should stay by paying cash at "Holiday Inn Express, Bali Kuta".
Wandering Aramean Hotel Search for IHG
Now you have done your reward stay research it's time to check if there are hotels available (may or may not be brand affiliated hotels) which are better bargain then redeeming your points. HotelsCombined is hotel aggregate site which searches for the hotels in your "desired location" and gives you whole bunch of criteria to narrow down or refine your search. The best part is it will show various "OTA as well as hotel websites" where you can book online along with their price comparison. For e.g. searching for hotels with only "5 stars" gives us prices ranging from $21 for a shared dorm to a price of $2299 for a resort room. You can further filter down on brand name and other bunch of criteria to get best bang for your buck.
HotelsCombined Price Search
Enter TripBam! This is a useful tool once you have done the search through HotelsCombined and have booked a "refundable room" for your stay. You can use this "TripBam" to send you alert if the price of your reserved hotel goes up or down on your desired dates of stay. You can also set the criteria if there are other hotels of your interest where you can possibly stay if the price is within the desired range of the price you paid for the current reservation. TripBam can send you an email alert about the price changes for your set of desired hotels so you do not need to keep searching for lower price once you have booked your reservation. For e.g. you can select the set of hotels you are interested in as shown below and you are on your way to savings if the price drops below your price paid or desired price.
TripBam Hotel selection for price check
Although there are numerous other sites which can help you search Hotels such as Kayak, but the above are just a few gem of tools which would help you make your hotel search better and faster. 
In Getting Best Value out of hotel loyalty points - Part 1 we looked at Hyatt Gold Passport, Hilton Honors and IHG (Priority Club). In this article we will look up below hotel brands:
  1. Marriott Hotels
  2. Club Carlson Hotels
  3. SPG
Marriott Hotels:
Most properties belonging to Marriott Hotels group belong to Mid-Tier level except Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott and BVLGARI brand hotels. The hotel night starts at 7,500 points in Category 1 and goes all the way up to 45,000 points for Category 9 redemption. There is separate reward chart for Ritz-Carlton hotels where reward night cost goes from 30,000 points in Category 1 to 70,000 points in Category 5. If you redeem your points for 5 night stay at the same hotel, the 5th night is free. The reward chart for Marriott brand hotels can be found here. There is one more unique thing about Marriott, where the reward night can be had at a cost of 1-tier less than their usual cost and this is called as "PointSavers". The list is updated every week and can be found here. Below is the current Marriott redemption chart for your reference.

Marriott Reward Night Chart
There is one more redemption type which is called as "Travel Packages". These packages allows to redeem Marriott Points for "Air + Hotels". Essentially speaking you get Specific amount of Airline Miles credited to your Frequent Flyer Account in addition to 7 night stay in your selected category of hotel depending on package you select. These are good value if you are planning to stay anywhere from 5 to 7 nights in any of the Marriott hotels at a stretch. In additon if you hold United MileagePlus Premier Gold Status then you get 10% additional Miles for "Air+Hotel" redemption into United MileagePlus Program. More details on this RewardPlus program can be found here.

Club Carlson Hotels:
Club Carlson brand do not have strong presence within USA but have lot of properties around Europe. That being said the top tier brand of Club Carlson is "Radisson Blue".  The redemption for reward night at Club Carlson starts at 9,000 points for standard room in Category 1 hotels and goes up to 70,000 points for standard rooms in Category 7 hotels. You could also redeem points for premium root at 1.5x the standard room rates. The reward chart for Club Carlson can be found here. There is also "Points+Cash" option available if you do not have enough points for "points only" redemption which just starts at 5,000 points and goes up to 20,000 points. The catch with this kind of redemption is that the "cash" portion varies according to the properties and may or may not be a good deal. The reward chart for Club Carlson is shown below for your reference.
Club Carlson Reward Night Chart
The sweet spot of Club Carlson program is for folks residing in the USA and having one of the co-branded US Bank Club Carlson Credit Card which gives 1 night free for every redemption of 1+ nights. So essentially for 2 night stay you get the 2nd night stay for free. You can get 50 such free nights in a year which is great if you plan to make short reward stays. As mentioned earlier the best values are to redeem for free night in their European Hotels, specially in Paris where the downtown hotels usually sell upwards of 200 Euros.

Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG):
SPG is a great program mainly for two reasons.
  • They partner with number of airlines to which you can transfer SPG points at 1:1 ratio. In addition with each transfer of 20,000 points/miles in that program you get 5,000 bonus points/miles. The airline partner list can be found here.
  • They have great brand hotels in their portfolio such as St. Regis, Westin, Aloft and Le Meridien where you can redeem points for reward nights.

Despite the above you will find that redeeming SPG points for Top-Tier hotel is usually a bad choice as the points required for stay at these hotels would be equivalent in terms of cash paid. There are few exceptions here and there but usually the points pricing is similar to what you would expect paying in cash. The redemption starts for 3,000 points for Category 1 hotel and could go up to 140,000 points per night for certain resorts. The reward chart can be found here. The good part is you can use "Cash+Points" options to pay for the reward nights if you do not want to use away all your points which sometimes gives better value than just booking with points. You could also redeem points for "Nights & Flights" for Category 3 & 4 hotels which is similar to what Marriott offers. You can find the reward chart for SPG properties below:
SPG Reward Night Chart
As you can see from above chart the Category 1 to 4 redemption are real value for points in SPG program apart from airlines partner transfers.
Well, the next IHG Point breaks is already out as you would have seen all over the place. In short, the Point Breaks let you stay for 5k IHG points/night. You can find the list here. This list is valid from 03/24/2014 to 05/31/2014. So, if you see any property listed where you would potentially want to stay you might want to get going right in the morning at 7 a.m. PST of 03/24/2014. Usually the number of such awards in each participating hotels are limited, so they dry up pretty soon. The best way is to book speculatively for dates where you possibly think you will be staying on those properties. 

The important thing is if you are looking for points there are tricks to buy them for 0.6 cent/points. But if you are not in a rush and have few future planned stays or can find a cheap IHG property to stay at; you could easily get 10k to 20k points with just 1 stay. Just register for whichever possible codes you could by looking up lists here, here and here. Ohh and yes, do not forget to register for current IHG BIG WIN to pocket some additional bonus points. Enjoy!!

Note - HT to bart.la, loyaltylobby and of-course flyertalk.

After the recent devaluation of United Award chart, the awards in premium cabin on partner airlines has gone quite expensive. But the new award chart has a sweet spot created for visiting "Down Under" from quite a few Asian countries that too in premium cabin on partner airlines. To begin with look at the United award chart below:
New United Award Chart for partners
As you can see from the highlighted section above, visiting "Down Under" from South Asia is just 30k miles one way in business or 40k miles in First. You could even do a return trip with a stop-over or 2 open-jaws and still pay 60k/80k in business/first. That is an incredible deal knowing how large is South Asia. Just to get an idea look below on countries classified under "South Asia" by United.
United "South Asia" region
The gist is you can get to fly incredible Singapore Airlines, or Thai Airways to visit "Down Under" and go as far as Bangladesh (Dhaka) which is essentially very close to India/Pakistan. Below is the map of what you can do for 80k miles in first class for which US Airways would charge you 120k miles.
As you can see from the map you could potentially get a stop-over in either of DAC/BKK/SIN or for that matter any of the United classified "South Asian" country and get to travel "down under" for 80k United miles in First!! Hope this helps folks planning their trip from South Asian countries.
Well this post is not related to miles but more on how to make some profit by spending few minutes of your time. Although I am late to the party you could still got on this deal as it is valid till 02/28/2014 with limit of 1 per person. (They use your driving license to determine if you have already done this before or not). Currently Radio Shack is having a promotion where you can trade in electronic items (mostly portable electronics) for $5 in Radio Shack gift card value for each item with a maximum of $25 in Radio Shack gift card in lieu of 5 items. Do note that all of the trade in items should be in working condition. Below is the list of eligible trade in items:

So, now to the interesting part on how you can get $25 gift card for $5. If you do not have any of the above items to trade or you value them much higher than $5 a piece, there is more better or effective way to maximize on this. Here we go:
  1. Buy headphones from any local Thrift store for cheap. You can usually get them for $2 a piece. If you are not able to find one the other way is to buy headphone from Dollar Tree store. You can usually find them at the check out counter for $1 a piece.
  2. Buy 5 of them for a cost of $5+tax and go to Radio Shack store with your Driver License ID.
  3. Trade them for a Radio Shack gift card of $25 value.
If you are thinking you never purchase anything from Radio Shack you could sell the $25 gift card usually for 75% of the card value to bunch of gift card re-seller sites. You can compare the rates at Gift Card Granny. Taking 75% of value you would earn ~$13.75 as profit ($18.75 - $5 [cost of 5 headphones]. Hurry.. You only have until 02/28 to get advantage of free money. Enjoy! 

(HT - mrcouponer)
Wishing all the folks around the world a Happy New Year. May you travel more and enjoy best things in life. As a quick update there are lot of AMEX offers which are ending tonight on Dec 31st 2013 or Early January 2014. So kindly check back your Amex Sync offers remaining and take advantage of them before they are gone. If you not interested in really buying any stuff, you can make miles and money by buying Visa/MasterCard or buying and later selling merchant gift cards. Below is the list of interesting offers which you could do online before the year turns to 2014.
  • Walmart - Spend $79+ online and get $20 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> You can buy Walmart e-gift card or Visa gift card online
  • BestBuy - Spend $250+ in store, at bestbuy.com or BestBuy Mobile and get $25 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> You can buy BestBuy visa gift card online
  •  JC Penny - Spend $50+ online or in store and get $10 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> You can buy JC Penny gift card online.
  • Costco.com - Spend $115+ online and get $15 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> Buy Costco gift card online.
  • Land's End - Spend $100+ online and get $25 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> Buy Land's End gift card which could in turn be used in Sears stores to buy Visa/MasterCard gift cards.
  • Amazon.com -- Spend $75+ online and get $25 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> Buy Amazon.com e-gift card online.
  • Macy's - Spend $50+ at Macys.com and get $10 statement credit, Expires Dec 31st. --> Buy Macy's gift card online.
  • Sony - Spend $100+ at sony.com and get $25 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> Buy Sony gift card online which can be used to buy Play station online or in-store.
  • Kohl's - Spend $50+ in store or online at kohls.com and get $10 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st. --> Buy kohl's gift card online.
  • Toys R Us - Spend $25+ in store or online at toysrus.com or babiesrus.com and get $5 statement credit. Expires Dec 31st --> Buy Toys R Us gift card online.

Also one of special interest to me is "Neiman Marcus" which expires on Jan 6th 2014. The offer is to spend $200+ online at Neiman Marcus and get $50 as statement credit. You could buy Neiman Marcus virtual e-gift card online and earn miles from various shopping portals for this purchase. This e-gift card resells for 83% of face value as of this writing so you could end up making ~$16 on this. 

Enjoy and have fresh start to 2014!!

There are two promotions going on currently which can help you earn United Miles at ~1.8 cpm (cent per mile). Although this might not be a cool way to earn united miles, but if you are short of miles for you next award and want to get there quickly this could be for you rather than buying it directly from united at a cost of ~3.5 cpm.

There are currently two promotions going on which both co-incidentally run till November 30th, 2013. 

Earn 25% more United Miles when you transfer partner hotel points
20% more bonus points for Wyndham points purchase
Wyndham points can be purchase in the blocks of 1000 points with each 1000 points costing $11. So let's say you purchased 20,000 Wyndham points you would essentially pay $220 for 24,000 points (20,000 + 4000 [bonus]). Wyndham points convert at ratio of 2.5:1 to United Miles. Thus you would trade 24,000 Wyndham points to 9600 United Miles. Since United will give you 25% bonus on received miles which is 2400 additional miles (9600 x 25%). Thus you get 12,000 miles (9600 + 2400) for a payment of $220 which is ~1.833 cent/mile.

There is one more way of earning United Miles for same price as above if you do not mind renting a car at Alamo if it is available for cheap (This is YMMV and thus proceed with caution). For details of this promo offer which earns 1000 miles for 1 day rentals check here.

As you keep collecting hotel program points for reward stays it's worth understanding the value you are getting out of your investment. Everyone has a different value on points they hold and in which program the points are available. But knowing what value you can get of those points is of importance. The intend of this post is to highlight different program "sweet spots" so you know your choices and where to look before deciding to use your points for hotel award night stay. The loyalty programs we will be looking at are listed below:
  1. Hyatt Gold Passport
  2. Hilton Honors
  3. IHG (Priority Club)
  4. Marriott Hotels
  5. Club Carlson Hotels
  6. SPG

This article will focus on Hyatt Gold Passport and Hilton Honors. For IHG (Priority Club) refer to my post on IHG Big Win. The value proposition for IHG (Priority Club) comes from Point Savers Award. For details on Marriott, Club Carlson and SPG do check my next article in this series.

Hyatt Gold Passport
Most hotels in Hyatt brand represent high tier and luxury class hotels. Hyatt award night starts from mere 5k points for category 1 hotels and the highest category 6 hotels cost 22k points for standard room. The reward chart representing the hotels in different categories can be found here. The category 6 hotels include Park Hyatt Tokyo, Park Hyatt Maldives and Park Hyatt Sydney that retails upwards of $900+. Thus redeeming 22k points for standard room at this hotels is extremely awesome value proposition if you are looking for Style and grand experience. On the lower end of it you could redeem 5k points for hotels such as Bali Hyatt which goes for ~$120+. So if you are looking to stay at decent to good brand hotel, I would suggest looking at Category 1 & 2 hotels to see if any hotels exits for the destination you are planning to visit which provides great redemption value for award nights rather than paying cash.

Hyatt Award Night Categories
Hilton Honors
Although Hilton has massively devalued their program in recent time by increasing award night redemption cost's almost 2x and introducing variable points reward rate based on seasonality; there are still quite a few value hotels for budget conscious travelers who want to experience Hilton brand. You should use this useful tool here to determine how many points are required for standard room stay at the location you plan to visit. Once you know the points, you can visit the brand hotel website and scroll all the way to the bottom to see the award night rate for your stay. Look at the example below for Double Tree Hilton Goa. The Hotel's average night cost is INR 11,000 which would roughly equate to ~$180 but the points cost is only 5k points. That's awesome value proposition for Hilton Honors points.
Hilton Points Category
Hilton Goa for 5k Points in November and December
As you can see from above it is still a good value proposition redeeming Hilton Honor points for lower category hotels and thus maximizing value of your points for free award night stays.

So in short if you are looking for value from above programs look for lower or mid category hotels in Hyatt and lower category hotels in Hilton Honors program
In a previous article on "Raising miles at Walmart" I had shown how you could you potentially reduce the fee portion of Visa/MasterCard to even less than "zero". In that article the focus was on "Raise" as that was one of the gift card site where you could easily find the Walmart gift card at 2 to 2.5 % discount. Since then I have seen similar discounts offered by Cardpool as well as Ebay although I prefer Cardpool because of ease of use. The important thing to note is if the "gift card resale" site you are about to use provides any cash-back rebates through any rebates portal. Cardpool is also one of the Gift Card Resale site which provides cash-back through bunch of portals, one of which is TopCashBack. You could also check out other rebate portals and a good place to start your search for best rebate portal would be to search for the merchant at "Cashbackholic". Make sure you read through the terms of the cash-back portal as each one of them operate differently and have some limits of minimum amount of rebate you need to accrue before it becomes payable. 

Walmart gift card at Cardpool:
Cardpool consistently provides the Walmart gift card at 2.5% discount in addition to 2% cash-back rebate going through TopCashBack ( Note: The rebate is only available until you reach $1k in purchases so make sure you read the terms through). You can combine upto 4 walmart gift card to make a purchase of Visa/MasterCard. A purchase of $200 in Walmart gift card would cost $195 and provide a rebate of $3.9 (2% of $195). Thus you get a $200 Walmart gift card at a cost $191.1 out of pocket cost thus having a discount of $8.9. Considering that a $200 Visa/MasterCard gift card costs $6.88 in fees you would still be ahead by  $2.02 on this one. So by going through this route you would have purchased 195 points/miles and made a small profit of $2.02 as well on your credit card spend.

Walmart gift card at Ebay:
Another approach is to purchase the Walmart gift card from Ebay. Generally you would be able to find "Buy it now" deals for 2.5% discount and on top of it you would get 2% back from Ebay bucks. As you can see that you would save almost similar amount of money as you do from Cardpool but there are few problems you should be award of as mentioned below:
  • The first problem is the lead time for shipping is generally 2-3 weeks on Ebay and personally I would not like to wait so long. 
  • There is quite a amount of fraud done specially with regards to gift cards on Ebay, so make sure you read the details and ratings of the Ebay seller before you commit to your purchase.
  • The 2% in Ebay bucks need to be used on Ebay only and within a stipulated time so its not a real rebate.

So, go ahead and accumulate those miles without any fees and enjoy your award travel.

(Note: If you open your TopCashBack account using above mentioned links, I would get a small referral bonus. I do appreciate your support. Thanks.)