Emani Fenton is a senior consultant with PwC and a very frequent flyer
Q: What experience do you have with rewards programs, and which ones do you subscribe to / take advantage of?
A: I travel a lot for work. Last year I took over 175 flights and stayed over 175 nights in a hotel. I usually take advantage of Delta, Starwood, Marriott and Hertz reward programs, and I've picked up a few good tips along the way.
Q: What recommendations do you have for the casual traveler for earning awards?
A: Reward programs are a little like a 401k (minus the smaaaall part about preparing you to be financially ready for retirement). I compare it to a 401k, because each year so many people leave a lot of free money on the table. The first thing any traveler should do is remember to use their reward account and sign up if they don’t already have it. You should always collect your rewards points when flying or staying at a hotel - it’s free money.
Before I started traveling with Delta regularly, I unexpectedly had enough miles to use on a free flight. Delta miles never expire, so it was a pleasant surprise that accumulated from random trips I took in college.
Q: Should I be loyal to one airline/hotel brand or switch around looking for the best deals?
A: I typically recommend picking one airline and one or two hotel brands, but for the casual traveler, it may also make sense to align with a travel site (i.e. Expedia) and be more focused on accumulating miles that way. This way you can have the travel site look for bundle deals, which is typically not something you can do with hotel/airline points. You typically cannot earn airline or hotel points on bundle deals through travel sites and can only earn travel site miles. You may, however, be able to earn airline or hotel points when not booking bundle deals.
Q: If I am not traveling much, should I worry about my points expiring?
As mentioned above, Delta miles never expire, which isn’t the case for every airline. No one wants to do the hard work (because it truly is hard work) of sticking to an airline only to find an empty miles bank when you’re looking to redeem. The table below shows a few reward programs and when points expire if there is no account activity:
Use your points or generate some activity in your account before your rewards expire
Q: Are there other ways I can earn points if I don’t travel that much?
A: There are various ways for travelers to earn points outside of flights or hotel stays. I link my uber account to my Starwood account, and I am signed up for SkyMiles Dining, which is Delta’s program that allows you to earn points when eating at restaurants. I have never looked at what restaurants earn points, but every once in awhile I get an email letting me know I ate at a place that qualified. Keep in mind you likely won’t eat your way to a first class dream vacation, but every little bit counts, right?
Q: What should travelers consider when choosing an airline?
A: For me, convenience is key. As a primary airline, I would first consider airlines with a lot of routes in/out of your nearest airport (including international options). I would also keep an eye on whether or not flights are often delayed. These days I’m also looking at how airlines treat passengers (i.e. recent issue with Delta and a black doctor) and the corporate response to bad treatment of passengers on their flights.
Some airlines have cool options, such as JetBlue having DirectTv on all flights. If I had to travel during the SuperBowl, I would happily share (yes, I mean share) a middle seat near the bathroom on JetBlue, as long as I could watch the game.
Q: Where do you search for hotel deals?
A: Your company is an underused place to search for hotel deals. A surprising amount of companies have worked out deals with hotels for when their employees travel. These deals are usually with the larger brand (i.e. Marriott) and not just individual hotels. Our company allows us to use this benefit when traveling for personal reasons too. There is usually a discount, and it’s perfect when planning for trips several months out - when using my corporate code, I often get great cancellation options (i.e. day of or 24 hours before) and free internet, which allows me some flexibility. It’s worth checking to see if the company you work for has this benefit and allows use on personal travel.
I have also had success a few times booking hotels through Priceline’s name your price tool. My approach is that I start by searching small areas at a time (see left side of image below). For example, in San Francisco, using the name your price tool, I may start by only looking at 4-star hotels in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. At the same time, I will use the normal hotel search (see right side of image below) and use the same search filters. This allows me to see all of the 4-star hotels in that area and takes away some of the mystery behind the name your price tool. If I’m comfortable with all of the options, I will then use the name your price tool and select a lower price. You sometimes have to be patient and repeat a few times with different filters, but I have found this to be a good last-minute/day-of option. Note: I recommend reading the details on Priceline’s name your price tool before booking through this option.
Use Priceline's name your price tool along with the conventional hotel search
Q: Where do you search for flight deals?
A: My top place to look for flight deals is secretflying.com. I don’t bookmark a lot of websites, but this one makes the cut. It’s very simple to use and find a good list of US deals. Deals and error fares typically go fast, so you have to be willing and ready to book while still available.
Secret Flying is the best site for finding flight deals
I also like Google Flights. You can enter a departure city and dates and see easily find prices around the globe.
Q: What’s your best tip/advice for using rewards?
A: For me, it’s about maximizing value when I am redeeming points/miles. I only use points/miles when I am getting great value, otherwise, in the long-run it makes sense to pay cash now. For example, my wife and I recently used points to stay at the Palacio del Inka in Peru. It was the holiday season, so prices were ~$350/night. Points redemption didn’t rise during the holiday period and were 10,000 points per night at this hotel. This is a good value, so we decided to use points for the entire stay. In comparison, the Westin Cadillac Detroit hotel is 10,000 points for a typical weekend in January, but only ~$150/night. I wouldn’t use points in that situation.
Q: Are there any other travel sites you use to see good deals or tips/tricks?
A: In addition to SecretFlying (mentioned above). I also use The Points Guy. He always has information on how to maximize points or any deals reward programs are offering to earn bonus points.