It’s old news that airfares go up and down all the time.
Alongside these “dynamic pricing” trends, though, there are new ways to shop for travel. The frequent flyer miles-and-points schemes are essentially a new currency that travelers can use for trips. Also, a trusted retail brand offers big benefits for travelers.
In a world of “hobbyist” frequent flyers and mileage point collectors, Gary Leff is something of a grandmaster.
Although Leff has a “real job” working at a university, his passion is travel. Over the years, he’s had an opportunity to hone and refine his expertise in the area of frequent flyer miles and points. More specifically, he’s an expert on the benefits travelers can glean from credit cards.
Leff started writing his blog, “View from the Wing,” in 2002. Leff is the only writer on the blog, which he said gets “about five million” visits per month.
But Leff’s pedigree in the frequent flyer world goes back further to a partnership with Randy Petersen, who started the popular “FlyerTalk” frequent flyer forum. Leff was a long-time senior moderator on the site.
When Leff called last week from his home in Austin, I had to ask him that question: “What’s in your wallet?”
After listening to him, I’m thinking he has a fairly thick wallet with a lot of credit cards. But Leff has a strategy and he’s willing to share his insight.
“Credit cards provide three values,” he said.
“First, there are cards that offer generous upfront bonuses,” he said. On his website, he currently highlights several cards offering signup bonuses between 60,000-80,000 points.
“Next, there are cards that offer great benefits that might be worth more than the annual fee,” he said. “Benefits might include lounge access or baggage fee waivers.”
Leff’s third category is to find a card that offers ongoing rewards in the spending categories that matter to you, such as groceries, rent, internet or digital services.
“I want a card that earns the most points for the spending I do,” said Leff. “For example, the American Express Gold Card offers four points for every dollar spent on groceries or at restaurants.”
One of Leff’s current favorites is Chase’s Ink Business Unlimited, which offers a $900 cash-back bonus after spending $6,000 in the first three months. There’s no annual fee. If you’d rather accrue points, they can be combined with other Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
“Think of this as a 90,000 point offer,” writes Leff. You can combine or “stack” this offer with the Ink Business Cash card from Chase. Like the Business Unlimited card, there is no annual fee for the card. But for the cash-back offer or to get the points, you do have to spend at least $6,000 per card within three months.
Leff was bullish on a new card from Wells Fargo called Bilt.
“The Bilt rewards card allows you to charge your rent, up to $50,000 per year,” said Leff. “Plus, there’s no transaction fee.”
Bilt offers a double-points bonus for travel-related charges — and one point per dollar for other charges.
“But Bilt is the only card that allows point transfers to both American and United,” said Leff. There are other programs in the rewards portfolio, including Turkish Airlines, AirFrance, Cathay Pacific and Emirates. Hotel plans include Hyatt and Intercontinental Hotel Group, or IHG.
The standout benefit of the Bilt card, though, is the ability to earn points for your monthly rent.
Thirty-three years ago, Chris Hendrix took a part-time job at Costco in Lynnwood, Washington. “I was a cart-pusher,” he said.
Over the years, Hendrix took on a variety of jobs at the retail chain, eventually signing on with Costco Travel in 2013.
Hendrix is not a travel agent, though. Instead, he oversees “buyers” who negotiate contracts with cruise companies, hotels, rental car companies and tour companies.
“Costco Travel started in 2000 and it was a very slow build,” he said. “We concentrated our efforts at places like Orlando and Las Vegas.”
Instead of offering vacations and tours at every property or destination, Costco only works with a limited number of suppliers.
“We look at every item to build the best product,” said Hendrix. “After all, people pay to shop with us.”
After starting slow, Costco now works with 11 global cruise lines. The company also has developed programs in Hawaii, Mexico and the South Pacific.
“We sell more over-water bungalows in Tahiti than any other travel wholesaler,” said Hendrix.
Hendrix and his team works to get traditional perks for its members, including resort credit, free breakfasts, spa credits and other goodies.
One key benefit with car rentals, is a free additional driver. And for both car rentals and hotels, the prices displayed include all the mandatory fees and taxes.
There also are a couple of extra benefits if you play your “cards” right.
Members who upgrade to an executive Costco membership card can receive a 2% rebate. Further, if members have the Costco credit card with Citibank, they qualify for an additional 3% back.
Further, on many packages, including cruises, members receive a Costco shopping card at the end of their cruise. The amount varies depending on the cost of the cruise.
Although Costco Travel can include airfare as part of a custom vacation package, they company does not sell stand-alone airline tickets.
According to Hendrix, there are more than 1,100 employees at Costco Travel.
“There may be cheaper travel packages out there,” said Hendrix. “But we work to individually curate and negotiate the best value for our members.”