Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 6: Slot Clubs and Positive-Expectation Promotions

This is the sixth in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"

Part 1:  Intro and Helpful Hints
Part 2:  What to Do
Part 3:  Where to Stay
Part 4:  Where to Eat
Part 5:  Deals and Finagles
Part 6:  This Page

First of all, let me get upfront about what you probably already realized:  This page covers topics you CAN'T do with your kids.  The title is very misleading and whichever blogger cavalierly posted that should be ashamed of him or herself.  Nonetheless, anyone over 21 can do the following, and any bottom-feeder worth her silt who is going to Las Vegas should know about slot clubs and positive-expectation promotions. So let your sweetie spend a few hours at the pool with the kids, and do a coupon run.  Or, since you will need a membership anyway to get the lower price on the buffet, why not just sign up while the rest of the family is waiting in the buffet line.

If you haven't already read about Don Johnson (no, not that Don Johnson), occasionally referred to as "The Beast of Blackjack," I recommend doing so.  What is important about this story, and what is relevant to the casual gambling public such as you and me, is not what you might think is important.  I don't suggest you learn to play perfect blackjack or expect to be treated like someone who bets $100,000 per hand.  First-timers can read about him in the Atlantic, and you can read a little more detail about the numbers here.

What Don Johnson got out of the Atlantic City casinos, which is relevant to the rest of us 99%, is an edge.  In his case, he was able to negotiate with desperate and naive casino managers to refund a percentage of his losses.  Blackjack has a slight edge in favor of casinos of about 1% if played perfectly without counting cards, and it may even tip in the gambler's favor depending on the rules.  (Card counters have a distinct advantage over the casino, until they are persona non grata.) If you play perfectly and you can negotiate a refund on 20% of your losses, you clearly have an edge which, over the course of a few days of playing, can and did cost several casinos millions of dollars.

With respect to comps that the rest of us would think to envy, Don put it best:  "What can they give you – a suite? Big deal. You’re not even spending any time up in the room... If they give me the right game and the right discount, they could give me an umbrella on the beach."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Big Finagle Part 3: Getting Just Beyond the Limits

This is the third in a multi-part series on getting the most of your frequent flier points for those just looking to get there in coach, and not particularly concerned about flying business or first class.

Part 1:  Award chart sweet spots
Part 2:  Using the Stopover to Bundle Trips
Part 3:  This Page

Today's topic is mixing airlines to get places that cost way too much on the airline on which you have most of your points.  If you recently found yourself with more frequent flier points than you had ever expected to accumulate, thanks to the two-browser AA trick, you can go a lot of different places with your miles.   As I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, you can get pretty far on not many miles, as long as you use them judiciously.  However, in addition to sweet spots, the award chart also has a few sour spots.  Not that there is anything sour about those places - I'm sure many of them are wonderful - but it costs an awful lot of miles to get to some of them that aren't much farther than another place which requires many fewer miles.

In particular, the Middle East is grouped with India and Central Asia at 45,000 miles each way.  This seems ridiculous - 90,000 miles round trip to get to some places that are really no farther than some places in Europe.  Similarly, North Africa requires a 75,000 mile round trip.

This is when it helps to have frequent flier miles on more than one airline.  With that and a little creativity, and a whole lot of patience (both booking and traveling), you can reduce the number of miles you need substantially.  Alternatively, you can look for low-fare airlines to get you over the last hump, as explained below.

In particular, the British Airways Executive Club program awards miles based on distance, rather than general continent-to-continent awards as American Airlines does.  You can get a BA credit card with 50,000 bonus points.  These can be advantageous when traveling between two continents that are geographically close.  Also, you can avoid the BA transatlantic fuel surcharges by using your AA miles for that part, and/or use BA miles (or "avios" as they call them - whatever) to fly One World partner airlines.

The caveat, of course, is that you have to do a lot of finagling.  You may also be subject to various departure taxes, etc.

There is an easy-to-use tool to figure out where your BA miles can fly you on these nonstop short routes, and it is here.


The no-longer-secret about BA Avio miles is that they can be used for a nonstop between California and Hawaii for 12,500 miles, about 5,000 less than a domestic airline.  You can also use BA miles to fly Alaska Airlines which has many nonstops between California and Hawaii.  

Some more examples of the use of BA miles to Hawaii and other places are discussed in the links at the bottom of this post.

Israel and Jordan

When my kids are a little older, we may take a family trip to Israel around the time of their Bat and Bar Mitzvah ceremonies.  I hope to be able to use frequent flier miles, but I'm pretty sure there is no way I'll be able to accumulate 360,000 miles.  

Granted, this is six years away, and the programs could change completely between now and then, so the exercise is largely academic in my case, but the information may be relevant for others planning to do this sooner. 

U.S. to Israel on 30,000 miles one way (off-peak) or 40,000 miles (peak)

If we can travel offpeak (for Europe- Oct 15 through May 15), we could get to Israel on a total of 30,000 miles per person one way.  This isn't that much less than 45,000 one-way using AA miles, but if going with a family, as many people might travel to Israel, you could save 120,000 miles for a family of four, which could make a big difference.  U.S. home airport (San Francisco) to Dusseldorf on Air Berlin, for 20,000 American Advantage miles, plus 10,000 British Airways Avios miles from Dusseldorf to Tel Aviv, also on Air Berlin.  Alternatively you can take an AA flight to London or Madrid, and then an Iberia or BA flight to Dusseldorf or Berlin, to catch the Air Berlin flight to Tel Aviv while avoiding the BA/Iberia transatlantic fuel surcharges.  

Jordan to U.S. on 24,500 miles one way (off-peak) or 34,500 miles (peak)

One place I'd like to visit on that trip is Petra, Jordan.  If you can fly home from Amman, Jordan - and honestly, that may not be so practical, I haven't really researched this trip in much detail - but supposing you are traveling solo and don't mind hoofing it a bit, you can fly back from Amman on Royal Jordanian which is a One World partner airline, as are BA, Iberia, Air Berlin, and AA.  If you didn't mind making an extra stop, you theoretically could fly from Amman to Lanarca, Cyprus for 4,500 BA Avios miles and then get from Cyprus to the U.S. on a 20,000 mile ticket, using a combination of AA, BA, Air Berlin, and Iberia.

U.S. to Istanbul on 20,000 miles one way (off-peak) or 30,000 miles (peak), plus taxes, plus Pegasus Airlines from Istanbul to Tel Aviv for about US$75

Pegasus Airlines is a discount carrier that, as of this writing, is offering a promotion for their new Istanbul-Tel Aviv routing for $70 round trip plus a $5 check-in fee.  Your experience may vary.  In any case, you can use to book your flight using BA and AA all the way to Istanbul, which itself is a destination that you can enjoy for a few days, and then hightail it to Tel Aviv in time for Shabbat dinner.  Note that this is a budget airline that seems to charge extra for everything, in the vein of Allegiant, Spirit, Ryan, etc, including seat assignments.  However they do seem to allow one item of luggage at no additional charge, up to 20 kg (44 lb).  Also, like many low-cost carriers, they use an alternative airport, Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW), so you will need to figure out how to transfer from IST.  And they only allow booking five months in advance, so if you are planning a big trip a year out on AA and partners, this segment will have to wait.

Other interesting routes 

To make the most of BA Avio miles, you need to think about the various partners and all of the places that are within a short distance of their hubs.  If the last flight is 2,000 miles or less in actual distance, it will cost 10,000 avio points or fewer.   If it is under 1,150 flight miles, it will cost 7,500 avio points, and if it is under 650 flight miles, it will cost only 4,500 avio points.  In particular, since you can get to the farthest reaches of Europe with relatively few points (particularly off-peak), the Middle East is a good target for relatively few additional miles.  North African cities relatively close to Spain, such as Morocco, are also good candidates, since you can get from Madrid to Casablanca for 4,500 Avio miles.  You are constrained by the flights of OneWorld partners, and these low-mileage flights need to be nonstops.  

Alternatively, you could get as far as you can and try to get a cheap flight on a discount carrier, as suggested above from Istanbul to Tel Aviv.  This could also be a good way to get to places like Egypt, Tunisia, etc.

I was trying to find a route into China for less than the boilerplate 35,000 miles but so far I haven't found one.  It's too far from Japan for a low-mile routing on JAL, and there are no nonstops on any OneWorld partner airlines between China and Korea that I am aware of.

Can I do this in conjunction with a Stopover to get two trips in one?

Sure, why not?  As long as you can manage all of the rules, of which there are many.  See Parts 1 and 2 for details.  Brag about your success and/or commisserate about your failures in the comments below.