Maximizing Your Travel Dollars

We LOVE to travel, so I’m always looking for ways to maximize our dollars without sacrificing our experiences. Now that we are rapidly approaching the three quarters of a century mark, some of the things we found satisfactory when we were much younger aren’t quite so appealing now. These days, we are not interested in hostels or camping, but fortunately there are many other ways to make travel more affordable. One of them is find a travel company that meets your needs and then stick with them. More and more are offering loyalty programs to encourage you to look no further than their offerings.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that Mike and I have used a variety of companies, but lately we have found that OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) has been providing maximum value for our travel dollars. We like the small group size, the itineraries, the guides, the activity level, and for us, the right balance of free time and structured activities.

It also doesn’t hurt that they have a great loyalty program. Here’s how theirs works. When you take a trip with OAT,(or with their sister company, Grand Circle) you earn a 5% credit toward a second trip, if taken within a 12 month period. If you take two trips within a calendar year, you get a $250 per person discount on the second trip.

Another way to save is to pay by check, 12 months in advance. That will earn you a 7.5% discount. Of course, if you do so, you don’t get the points on your credit card, and you may forgo some of the benefits you card offers. It isn’t hard to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. If you have one of the premium credit cards, it is worth checking out whether it offers generous trip insurance benefits. If yes, those benefits could outweigh the 7.5% savings for advance cash payments.

On your FIRST OAT trip, an easy way to save $100 per person is to be referred by another OAT traveler, so check with friends and family to discover if they have ever taken an OAT trip. When you make your reservation, you simply give their traveler number, and voila, you and your friend have both earned a $100 credit toward future trips. If you don’t have a friend who has traveled with OAT, I would be delighted to be your friend. Here’s my number: 001564068. After YOUR first trip, YOU can refer travelers, which will earn YOU a $100 credit toward your next trip. Easy, right?

More information about all of these programs is available on the OAT website.   Once you get there, click on the “Why OAT” bar at the top of the page and this is what you will see:

In addition to “Ways to Save”, you should also check out “Last Minute Travel Deals” if your schedule is flexible.

Normally, I plan our international travel MANY months in advance, usually well over a year, so we can take advantage of that prepayment discount. But there’s another reason. Because OAT groups are limited to only 16 travelers, the popular times fill up quickly. It seems we all want to travel when the weather is most favorable for our destination, but when it is not over crowded with tourists.

This year, however, we decided to do something different. A trip we have been wanting to take popped up as a “Last Minute Travel Deal” and it just happened to be the ideal time of year for us to visit South America. Sometimes, the last minute deals are for less popular travel times.

This last minute deal saved us $1,000 per person. And because we are taking another OAT trip later this year, we saved an additional $250 per person, for a total of $2,500. These savings really DO add up.

I was a little concerned that the airfare would devour all of our savings because we were booking so late. Fortunately, OAT was able to get us great seats on a direct flight to Santiago with LATAM Airlines.  Yeah, I never heard of them either, but a quick internet search allayed my fears.  It is the result of a recent merger between LAN Argentina and LAN Chile. Let’s hope it is a HAPPY union.

We are arriving a day early, just in case we get uncooperative weather –not unheard of in the New York/New Jersey area in winter. If we luck out, and arrive as scheduled, we will have an extra day in Santiago to combat jet lag and see the sights.

So, what about you? Do you have a favorite travel company? Ideas for extracting the most value from you travel dollars?

The Skies May Be Friendly, But United Sure Isn’t!

Our 40th Anniversary trip starts with a multi-day adventure, known as “getting there”.

For the first leg of the trip, OAT’s proposed itinerary included a stop in Dubai, landing in Delhi after being in transit for 18 hours.  Not what I call ideal, particularly when I saw our return flight would depart at 4 AM.

Letting my fingers flutter over my keyboard, I was thrilled to discover that United has a direct flight between Newark and Delhi for about the same price, but only (!?!) 14 hours travel time.  Best of all, the return flight departed at 11:30 PM.  So, instead of sitting miserably at the airport, waiting to board that 4 AM flight, we’d leave the night before, and would be several hours into winging our way home.  Sweet!  Not only that, but for years, I had been hoarding frequent flier miles for an occasion exactly like this.  Business class, here we come!

EXCEPT

When I tried to upgrade on line, I got a message that we were put on a “waiting list”.  How could that be? The flight was five months out, and our flight’s seat maps showed only one seat in business class was occupied.  Clearly not a lot of OTHER frequent fliers had already upgraded on OUR flight.  I thought it was strange that the same seat was occupied, coming and going, so I did a little checking.  Seat 5D  was the only one occupied on every flight that I checked.  Perhaps reserved for a member of the crew?   Well, I was confident that a quick call to United’s customer service would fix everything right up.  Did I mention that I’m a hopeless optimist?

Here’s what happened.  The customer service rep confirmed that we were indeed put on a waiting list.  Okay.  When I asked how many others were on the list, he explained he couldn’t tell me for “security” reasons.  (Security??? I didn’t want to know names or home phone numbers.  Just tell me where I am in line so I can figure the odds of getting the bloody upgrade!)  He also was going to charge me $20 for the pleasure of speaking with him, but after we exchanged “pleasantries”, he thought better of it.

Those frequent flier miles that we accumulate, expecting one day to trade in to make a long trip both pleasant AND affordable?  Well, it appears that United reserves the right to let us know at the very last minute whether or not they are going to allow us to redeem the miles, perhaps because they MIGHT be able to sell the seat we covet for the full price. They just don’t know yet.   By the way, in addition to redeeming 140,000 miles, our roundtrip upgrades weren’t free.  We paid an additional $2,400 for them.  To me, that’s a whole LOT of money!  

United took our money and deducted the miles from our account, which sure felt like we had purchased seats, EXCEPT we couldn’t choose which ones they would be.  We will find out the day of the flight whether or not we get the upgrade, and where we will sit.  There is no guarantee that we will even be next to each other.  Normally that would not be a big deal, but 14 hours is a long time.  Call us crazy, but given the price we paid (in dollars and miles) we’d like to be able to choose who we sleep with.  If we don’t get the upgrade,  United WILL refund our money and will redeposit our frequent flier miles, without charging a penalty.  (Yes, the representative actually did say that.)  If we had paid for the tickets with a United credit card, would they also refund any interest?  I think we all know the answer to that one.

As luck would have it, at the end of December, I received an email “signed” by Sandra Pineau-Boddison, the Sr. Vice President of Customer Relations, asking for feedback on a United flight we’d just taken.  Now that I had a name, it wasn’t difficult to find her personal email, so I shared my tale of woe with her.  How about that?  FREE feedback from a long time former Continental Airlines frequent flier.  No need to hire a market research company or do a focus group to find out how they are doing.

So what happened?  Nothing.  After almost two months.  Not even an automated acknowledgement.  From the SR. Vice President?  Of Customer Relations?  That speaks volumes.

Let this serve as a precautionary tale to all you Mileage Plus Members out there.  United doesn’t care a bit about you or your miles or your loyalty.  Think about that the next time you book a flight or get a solicitation for a United credit card that offers points for “free” travel.

But if anything changes between now and our flight, I’ll certainly let everyone know.  Come on Sandra, do your job!