MIA/IAH Centurion Lounge – Review

On a recent trip I was fortunate enough to fly out of two airports with AMEX Centurion Lounges. This was my first time visiting a Centurion Lounge, and it certainly won’t be my last! Holders of an American Express Platinum Card or Centurion Card from anywhere in the world are eligible for entry, with guests (make sure to check the latest guest policy).

The first Centurion Lounge was in the Miami Airport (MIA). This was a very nice lounge with airside views, a well stocked bar, and complimentary massages. Though the lounge was no where near my gate it was worth clearing security twice to get access as I was flying out of another concourse. Due to the need to re-clear security I wasn’t afforded much time in this lounge, however my overall impression was it’s an above average lounge.

My second Centurion Lounge was in Houston (IAH). Again, I found this lounge a little bit out of the way, but I was able to stop by on the way to my gate for my connecting flight. I was able to spend a good amount of time in the lounge as my flight arrived earlier than scheduled. The lounge on the outside is two blue doors at the end of a plain white hallway, but once inside this lounge is anything but plain. I immediately headed to grab a bite to eat and was pleasantly surprised with the spread. The selection included the usual foods you see in lounges. Salads, a quinoa dish, vegetables, and eggs. However, then I saw what made this lounge stand out, there was freshly baked Salmon Fillets and other more hearty meal items. At this point I was already impressed with the lounge but it only got better. Just as I finished my meal servers started flowing out of the kitchen with portions of freshly made Beef Wellington for everyone in the lounge. There were two AMEX staff members meeting beside me in the lounge planning future menu items so maybe this isn’t an everyday occurrence. However, even if Beef Wellington isn’t a regular staple in this lounge the other food available exceed typical lounge standards by far.

I would highly recommend both these lounges to anyone flying though these airports. I may even go as far to say plan your connecting flights in order to stop by these airports to visit the lounges!

Though the American Express Platinum Card comes with a significant annual fee, the longer I have the card the more I feel it’s worth it. It takes a bit of attention to detail, but it’s definitely possible to extract significant value from the Platinum Card Benefits.

It’s things like traveling and being surprised with decadent food at a Centurion Lounge that keeps my wanderlust burning. I hope on your next trip you’re surprised and delighted by some decadence in your travels. Here’s to keeping the passion alive!

5x Aeroplan Miles at Amazon

It was announced earlier in the month that Amazon and Aeroplan were entering into a partnership. You can now go through the Aeroplan eStore to earn Miles on your purchases. As a kick off to this partnership a bonus offer is currently running to earn 5x the miles on purchases until April 30th.

I think the really exciting part of this offer is that you could stack it and get 5 Aeroplan Miles and 5 AMEX Member Reward Points per dollar. If you use your AMEX Cobalt Card at your local grocery store to purchase an Amazon Gift Card to use through the eStore portal you’ll earn 10 points per dollar spent.

It’s time to start browsing Amazon for a few items that I’ve been meaning to order, happy shopping!

My first trip to Hawaii

Last week I took my first trip to Hawaii, it was a quick trip as I only had 4 full days on the island of Maui. I was able to find some cheap flights and a mid tier hotel, so I thought why not see what the island is all about. I also rented a car while there, something I would highly recommend. The island had many sights to see and things to do, however they were quite far apart.

The snorkeling on the island is plentiful and beautiful. I was shocked at how many beaches there area to enjoy. One thing I dislike when traveling is a crowded beach. Thankfully the plentiful supply of gorgeous beaches on Maui meant none of them were all that busy. Additionally, the snorkeling at many of the beaches I went to was quite good. I was able to see a plethora of fish species, a few eels, and some sea turtles.

On my last day on the island I drove to Hana, which is an isolated community on be eastern side of the island. The road to Hana is an experience in and of itself. I took the better maintained route in, the one Google Maps will direct you down. There is another more adventurous route, but I was running short on time and had a flight to catch that I didn’t want to miss. The route I took is paved the entire way and is well maintained. That being said, the road zig-zags along the side of the mountainous coast and is somewhat challenging. This trip won’t be your relaxing Sunday afternoon drive, your full attention is required to navigate the twists and turns of this road. The trip is well worth it though as you pass by several waterfalls, gorgeous views and spectacular plant life.

As I mentioned, Hana is a small community without all that much there to see and do. There is a beach and a number of shops and restaurants you could enjoy. As well, you can visit Waianapanapa State Park. You’ll find a gorgeous beach, ferocious surf, and spectacular natural spectacles. On the beach you can find a Lava Tube leading down to the water through the near by cliff. Further along you can watch water spray high into the air through a natural blowhole in the rock face. These two beautiful natural features paired with the already breath-taking beauty make Hana and the State Park a must-see for me.

I found Hawaii to be gorgeous, though fairly expensive. As you can expect, it’s popularity with tourists and isolated locale drive up the prices of everything on the island. I would classify Hawaii as a trip that’s well worth it, but I wouldn’t put it on my list of somewhere I want to visit annually.

Airline Ticket Price Changes

As we all know, airline ticket prices are constantly fluctuating. Most airlines and third party booking sites offer some kind of price drop guarantee. I would always suggest checking your ticket price after booking to take advantage of a price drop.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about how I maximized my point accrual on a flight booking, you can find the post here. As this was a recent booking, I’ve been keeping an eye out for price drops. Well, it just so happens the price dropped, 48 hours after my booking. As I had booked directly with Air Canada I was outside their 24 hour price drop guarantee. Though I wasn’t able to directly take advantage of the price drop, I was able to get myself into a higher booking class. I had originally booked Economy Standard fares, and now the Economy Flex fares were cheaper than what I originally paid.

The only barrier to me getting the higher fare class was going to be the possibility of a change fee. I’ve been able to upgrade a ticket to a higher fare class before without a change fee applying as there was a fare difference and it meant I’d pay more to the airline. However, this time I would be getting more from the airline for the same price. I was fully expecting I’d be told it wasn’t possible, but thought it would be worth trying. I knew the only chance I had at swinging this was to call in, and get the representative to confirm that there would be no change fee for an upgrade before he or she had a chance to look into my booking. I made my call and it went perfectly, for me at least, I was able to naturally insert my question about a change fee before she had all the information on her screen. The representative definitively answered that their would be no change fee. After trying to alter my booking the system blocked her, I assume because of the price decrease, however the representative quickly called a manager over to do an override and I’m now in a higher booking class for free.

What does this all mean for me? Extra points accrued on my flight as well as advanced seat selection. My original booking would have got me 3,510 Aeroplan Miles, now I’ll accrue 5,616 for the same flight at the same price. It took me a 5 minute phone call and a bit of ingenuity but it was worth it. This change puts me closer to hitting Altitude Elite 50k status for next year at no additional cost.

Though you may have missed out on a price drop guarantee that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for you. It’s always best to keep an eye out for this type of situation, it could have happened 48 hours after booking, or 48 days after.

Brazil Part 2 – São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was in Brazil during December of 2017. My other post Brazil Part 1 – The Pantanal describes the middle section of my trip. This post is going to focus on the brief amount of time I spent in São Paulo and the 5 days I spent in Rio de Janeiro.

After spending almost 23 hours in transit to Brazil I arrived at the airport having slept a bit, but feeling exhausted. Thankfully the one day I had nothing planned for my one day in São Paulo . I had anticipated being exhausted so left myself one day to catch up on sleep and acclimatise. About a year before this trip I had churned the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa, which is no longer available. After hitting the minimum spend on the card I immediately converted the points to Aeroplan Miles and promptly used them. However, the card also came with a certificate for a one night stay at a category 5 or below property. It just so happens the Marriott Hotel at the São Paulo airport is a category 4 property.

I wasn’t expecting much out of this stay, but it turned out to be phenomenal. Upon arrival the front desk clerk was incredibly friendly, and welcome me to the property. He quickly located my reservation and started to process my check in. Like many travellers standing at a check in desk I was hoping for a room upgrade. Now I did have a better shot at an upgrade than most would because I have Marriott Gold status through my American Express Platinum Card. After informing me I was going to be upgraded the clerk explained to me where I could find the executive lounge and wished me a pleasant stay. While in São Paulo I didn’t see much of the actual city as I was there for just over 24 hours and was catching up from my jet lag. However, the amenities and service provided at the hotel were superb. I spent most of my time in or around the hotel and thoroughly enjoyed the complimentary food in the lounge. After this short stay I flew to the Cuiaba to start my tour of The Pantanal.

After my adventure in The Pantanal it was time for some more rest and relaxation in Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, on my way down to Rio my luggage got lost due to a hiccup in the airline ticket booking. As I had booked through a third party website both the airline and the website customer service blamed the other, and I was left on the hook to go pick up my luggage from the airport when it arrived later. Thankfully this was the one, relatively minor, hiccup of the trip. My hotel in Rio was right on Copacabana Beach and I spent the majority of the next several days relaxing on the sand and playing in the surf. When I wasn’t perfecting my body surfing technique I was exploring the ‘must sees’ of Rio. One of the things I love to do most when exploring a city is to just walk around and see the sights. I was able to walk all along Ipanema and Copacabana Beach while exploring the first few blocks up from the beaches. I, of course, made it to Sugarloaf Mountain and visited Christ the Redeemer. Both of these locations provided excellent views of the city, though as you would expect they were incredibly busy.

The view down Ipanema beach

This trip took a lot of planning and preparation, as I needed a Visa, but it was well worth it and ranks among some of my best trips to date. I plan on returning to Rio at some point, though next time I’ll enjoy the beaches before getting covered in mosquito bites in the jungle.

Maximising Your Point Earnings

Yesterday, I booked a flight for an upcoming trip and I think I got pretty good value back in points for this booking. When deciding how to book flights I typically first look at the chance of flight disruptions, and if that could impact connecting flights. Why do I do this? One of the credit cards in my wallet comes with great trip interruption insurance. If there is a chance I could have a significant interruption, I want to make sure I’m covered. When I was booking my flights to Thailand for this October a flight interruption was a real concern of mine. Therefore, I put the flights directly onto my credit card. Booking directly onto the card meant that I lost out on some points, however if anything were to interrupt my trip the insurance coverage would greatly outweigh any point value I had earned. The flight that I booked Yesterday is a direct flight in the summer months, so I see it as having a very low chance of significant delay and no possibility for missing a connection, as it’s direct. This type of flight is perfect for maximising how many points I can earn.

My flight with Air Canada cost $820 and when all is said and done I will have earned 4,100 Membership Reward Points and 3,510 Aeroplan Miles. If I use the point valuations provided by The Points Guy each mile and point is worth 1.9 cents and 1.5 cents respectively. That works out to a total of $130.55 back in point value from this purchase and flight.

American Express Cobalt Card

How do I get this kinda of value back you ask? The majority of it comes from my American Express Cobalt Card. Not only does this card look absolutely beautiful, it earns a whopping 5 points per dollar spent at restaurants and grocery stores. Last time I checked Air Canada wasn’t listed as a merchant in either of those categories, but my local grocery store does have Air Canada gift cards. I quickly price out the flight then stop by the grocery store and get a card with the value needed to purchase the flight. The rest of the Aeroplan miles earned come from taking the flight, and the bonus miles I’ll earn as I’m a frequent flyer in Air Canada’s Altitude program.

Though it can take some creativity and a little bit of your time I feel it’s more than worth it to utilise these travel hacks. Travel can be expensive, however when you maximise the return on your spending it becomes much easier to indulge your wanderlust!

To Lounge or not to Lounge

Yesterday, I mentioned one of my travels musts is lounge access. Now I realize everyone has their preferred way of traveling, but if you haven’t used an airport lounge you should at least experience the difference once. Airports are hectic places with a lot of noise, people and commotion. When I travel, I find spending any extended period of time in this type of environment draining. Compounding the environmental factors of an airport with long haul flights and jet lag makes me one very unhappy traveler.

Plaza Premium Lounge at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport

If you’re anything like me, you will thoroughly enjoy airport lounges! My experience with most lounges is that immediately upon entering the constant din of the airport fades away. Couple the serenity of the lounge with some refreshments and my mood starts to improve immediately. I find lounges especially nice when taking longer multi-segment flights as it allows me time to recharge between flights. Last December when flying to Brazil I was able to enjoy the Plaza Premium Lounge at the Toronto International Airport before boarding my 10 hour flight to São Paulo. Having just flown in from Vancouver it was nice to be able to stretch my legs, refuel, and relax in a large comfortable seat for a couple hours before boarding my flight.

I’m able to enjoy lounge access with my Priority Pass Membership which is one of the benefits on my American Express Platinum Card. The Priority Pass Membership that comes with the Platinum card includes unlimited access for myself and a guest travelling with me. This is one of the major perks of the card and one of the main ways I can justify it’s hefty $699 annual fee. Many credit cards have a Priority Pass Membership as one of the perks but it’s important to read the fine print. Some cards give you the membership but you still pay per visit while other include a limited number of free visits per year before you are charged for access. Priority Pass isn’t the only way to get lounge access but it is one of the more common.

Having extolled the virtues of lounges, I must admit I’ve been in lounges that still feel like I’m sitting in the terminal of the airport as it’s so busy and nearly at capacity. However, at times like this I can at least try to find a corner to sit in while I sip a complimentary drink and wait to board my flight.

Air Canada – Comfort Fare

Yesterday Air Canada announced a new fare structure for North American flights. The fare structure now has 5 fare classes. The new additions are Basic and Comfort Economy fares. Recently we’ve seen competition heat up in the Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC) market within Canada, and Air Canada has come to the table with it’s Basic Economy Fare. Though I don’t anticipate most Air Canada routes having Basic Economy fares for awhile as it seems they are only being used to compete with Flair Air and Westjet’s Swoop. I’ve never been a fan of a race to the bottom, so I’m not going to discuss Basic Economy fares at length in this post.

Air Canada Unveils Expanded Economy Fare Structure to Satisfy Every Customer-s Travel Needs (CNW Group/Air Canada)

The interesting change I see here is the addition of the Comfort Economy fare. It sits between the existing Flex and Latitude fares. The Comfort fare includes a checked bag, advanced seat selection, 115 percent Aeroplan miles accrual, and free alcohol. Now, I’m not sure which segment of the population this new fare is aimed at as it sits between, what I would consider, two fares aimed at business or frequent flyers. I don’t see a company opting to send their executive on a Comfort Fare which one of the distinct perks of the fare class is free alcohol. It’s also interesting to note this fare class doesn’t include a meal on the flight, just alcohol. Perhaps Air Canada has some market research I’m unaware of which has informed their decision to create this fare class.

One of the subtle perks of this restructure is a redesign of the booking system on the website. The new layout clearly shows what class you’re booking into and simplifies some of the terminology used. The former Tango fare has been replaced by the Standard fare. Though I don’t see much value in the Comfort fare, given my traveling habits, I do appreciate the simplified terminology. When it comes to comfort while traveling I do have some musts and one of those musts is lounge access. My next post will discuss the value of lounge access and some of the more common ways to obtain membership.

My First Travel Card

My wanderlust was ignited when I took my first trip with the reward miles from a travel rewards card. The first travel card that I got was the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card. When I signed up, this card had a hefty sign up bonus attached to it. The sign up bonus I received was 2/3 of the miles that I needed for my trip so it didn’t take me long after that to accumulate the rest of the miles. In the following 4 months after receiving the card I put every purchase I could on it and I made sure to utilize the Aeroplan Store Portal when possible to maximize my miles earned. A great way of earning additional miles or points is setting up automatic billing to your credit card. Many companies offer automatic billing and it’s a great way to make minimum spend amounts or just accrue miles and points on a regular basis with expenses you already pay. I was able to accrue the 60,000 miles I needed for my multi-city reward flight just by signing up for a credit card and spending on it for approximately 4 months.

Though I started with the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card I wouldn’t suggest it currently. Since Air Canada has announced it’s going to launch it’s own loyalty program, I haven’t seen many good offers for the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card. In fact, I just received a new card, due to my old one expiring, and the new card only has 2 years before it’s expiration date. The new expiration date coincides with the end of the relationship between Aeroplan (Aimia Inc.) and Air Canada. I suspect this card won’t be around after that relationship ends.

Regardless, I wanted to highlight that travel can be inexpensive when you apply a little ingenuity. However, it’s important to remember that to make earning miles or points on a credit card worth it you must pay off the balance every month. Depending on how you value Aeroplan Miles the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite returns approximately 1.5% of your spend in miles. If you start paying interest at the posted rate of 19.99% you will quickly obliterate any value you had returned to you in the form of miles or points.

By reaping the benefit of a credit card sign up bonus, maximizing accrual through store portals, and regular spending it’s not hard to amass the points necessary to book your first reward flight. You now know which credit card ignited my wanderlust, which card will ignite yours!

Brazil Part 1 – The Pantanal

As you’ll come to know, I like to take a vacation in the first 3 weeks of December. I do this for various reasons, however the main reason is the reduced price of trips just before the holidays. I find most people are busy preparing for the holiday season and not traveling. This means plenty of hotel and flight availability at lower prices for me to capitalize on. The added benefit is that with reduced number of guests I find it easier to get upgraded to a better seat or room.

This past December I decided my annual pre-holiday trip was going to be in Brazil. I spent 11 days there in total with 4 of them being in the Pantanal, which this post will focus on. In a later post I’ll delve into the details of the other cities I stopped in. The Pantanal is a large wetland that floods during the wet season, I arrived while this flooding was taking place. The Pantanal is a truly gorgeous area and I would highly suggest booking yourself into one of the many eco-lodges that operate within the Pantanal. While in the Pantanal I stayed at the Pousada Do Rio Mutum. The property is on the bank of the Mutum River, which allows for great access to the waterways of the wetlands.

Shortly after arrival a herd of capybara took a lunch time stroll across the property

One of the things I liked most about the eco-lodge experience was it’s all-inclusive nature. Booking the lodge included transfers to and from the airport, the room, meals, and activities. The itinerary I booked was jam packed with activities:

Day 1: Transfer to the lodge, check in and orientation to the property, and evening reception.

Day 2: Ecological tour on foot of the surrounding fields and jungle, motorized boat tour of the Mutum River, and nocturnal jungle tour in a Jeep.

Day 3: Horseback tour through the jungle and wetlands, and canoe tour of the wetlands.

Day 4: Sunrise paddle on the Mutum River, and transfer back to the airport.

We frequently saw this little stunner around the property

When being picked up from the airport I met the group of fellow travellers I would be sharing my experience with, all of us had booked the same itinerary and would be sharing the experiences together. The combination of activities allowed us to see the area from a variety of perspectives. While on the motorized boat tour we were able to cover a larger area and see many bird species, aquatic animals, a variety of plants, some tree dwelling mammals, and a village on the riverbank. Later on when we took the canoe tour of the wetlands we were able to move around much more quietly and therefore saw some new species. While paddling we were able to follow along with an otter for awhile then shortly after came a matter of feet away from a caiman resting on a mass of floating foliage. Each activity I partook in allowed me to see a different facet of the beautiful region I was in.

Between activities we had the freedom to do as we saw fit. You could return to your room to rest, explore the property and animals that lived on it, or have an afternoon by the pool and catch some rays. As i’ve always been irresistible to mosquitos I did not spend time lounging by the pool. I later realized the time that I was there was a time where the mosquito population goes unchecked as the frogs are still in the tadpole stage and not feeding on mosquitos. Though this was something I hadn’t expected the pousada staff were gracious enough to provide me with a multitude of products to help in my predicament. Though I was warned about the need for repellent, I wasn’t expecting the mosquitos to be as plentiful as they were and was underprepared.

Overall, the staff and guides that I interacted with were all pleasant, helpful and incredibly knowledgeable. This was a jam packed 4 days but it felt relaxed and seamless, I attribute this to the expertise and experience of the pousada staff. Whether we were heading out to bird watch on the river or enjoying a traditional meal prepared on site every part of the day was filled with intrigue and delight. Next time you’re in the area indulge your wanderlust and book into an eco-lodge, where else will you be able to get this close to a wild caiman while in a canoe.