My friend Matt from Saverocity went on a rant about using miles to fly first class and then using points to stay at what are basically American standardized chain hotels. I really like Matt’s blog, it combines discussion of both travel hacking with miles and points and personal finance. I find these topics inevitably intertwined. Using miles and points is all about reducing the personal cost of travel so an obvious connection there in that this hobby appeals to the frugally minded. And much of what we do in this miles and points hobby relies on finding arbitrage or value opportunities, much as it does in the world of investing. So it’s a good combination that works well side by side.
Anyway the post raises issues that have been discussed many times before in this community. Though frankly I think he is making two very distinct points neither of which are particularly related, so I will discuss them both individually. First off, first class. I should start out by saying I am a big fan of first class. I have found some of the best first class products available in the sky including Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, Lufthansa, British Airways and so on. Matt makes the argument that we only fly first class to feel superior to those sitting in the back of the plane. Indeed he goes one step further and argues that even flying business class is all about ego and a waste of mileage over and above sitting in the back of the plane, other than maybe on short trips where you don’t have “time” to recover from a painful coach ride. Let’s look at this from the ground-up. First of all let’s make no bones about it – travelling in coach is not fun at all. I regularly fly coach on short one hour flights, but even then I love being able to sit in “first class” not to feel better than the rest of the population but because a comfortable seat, a drink and a snack are not too much when sat in a metallic tube for an hour. Now of course the amount I would “pay” either in USD or points for such an upgrade is quite minimal, but it’s not zero either so I place some value on it. Now at the other extreme, a couple of summers ago I took our family on a fantastic vacation to Mauritius, Seychelles and Paris, all in business class. That was flying with kids who were aged 7 and 9 at the time. There is absolutely no way we would ever make that trip in coach. Apart from being prohibitively expensive, with flights alone around $2k each for such an itinerary, it is just too much time to be spent in real discomfort in a cramped up environment with young kids. A seven hour trans-Atlantic flight followed by a twelve hour flight to the southern hemisphere is simply something we would not do. So the option to go in business class actually opens up the world for us. It means I can take my family to places otherwise we simply wouldn’t bother with. I want to take my family to Asia, I’d love my kids to explore China, Indonesia, Cambodia, I want to go Australia and I want to go on safari in Africa. We have to fit that in with a normal family life including school and soccer and swim club schedules. It’s just not feasible – or at the very least not fun – to fly around the world in cramped, uncomfortable conditions for a week or two vacation. Better off just sticking in the USA and it’s amazing national parks (not that there is anything wrong with that either)
Given going in business class just makes sense if you can do without incurring huge costs, what about the need to go one step higher and put yourself in first? Well this is where the ice gets thinner, but there are often many good reasons to go in first rather than business class. One of the simplest reasons is simply availability. I am taking the family to the Maldives (I know I can hear y’all yawning already!) next March and we are flying Etihad there and back. I would very happily have us all in business class there and back, but the fact is Etihad only generally opens up two seats in business and two in first on any flight. So the four of us are splitting up and going two by two between first and business. My flight earlier this year on British Airways was in first class while business class flew out full with no availability. There are many other instances where getting first class awards can actually be easier than getting business, largely because cash demand for business class is high in the corporate world, and first not so much. So those first class cabins can be quite empty at times.
And then there is the question of incremental cost. In most cases the difference between first and business class is not that great. For our recent Emirates flight, we could have gone in business class for about 17.5k miles less. While that is not nothing, it’s really not that much, certainly not in this day and age of credit card sign up bonuses and easy manufactured spend. With a small incremental cost I will choose first class over business. In some programs like BA Avios the cost difference is prohibitive, and in those cases I agree first is an extravagance. But most of the time it’s only 20% or so more miles to go in first. And then, much like our amazing Emirates experience, the flight itself becomes a part of journey, all part of the experience.
Of course the argument against my view is that you can just go more places by only redeeming in coach. But that really does not work. Even flying first class, in today’s environment I still manage to earn more than I can burn by travelling as often as we can within the confines of regular family life. Sure if you are single, independent, don’t need to work, are a full time blogger etc then maybe you can get away with spending half your life travelling. But for the vast majority of people, travel means Christmas, Spring Break a week or two in the Summer and maybe some weekends in the interim. Now if we were talking about cash then you could argue that you should travel coach and save the cost difference for future use. But that REALLY does not work in the miles and points world. You could skimp out on a business class redemption today hoping to make it into two coach flights one this year and one next, only to find the cost of the coach ticket next year go up to the price the business class one was this year. There is absolutely no sense whatsoever in saving a deflationary currency. You should spend spend spend!!!
And then my last point on coach redemptions is that they really just don’t provide the kind of out-sized value this hobby can bring. Frankly if you really want to travel mostly coach, you should be only minimally involved in this game. You are better off just focusing on cash earning mechanisms so you have complete flexibility in booking what you want, when you want, and paying for any other expense. The first and business class tickets are the opportunities that you simply cannot obtain economically through other means.
So what about the next point Matt makes relating to where you stay? Well again Matt is making two points here disguised as one. The first point he makes is essentially that most hotel redemptions are in generic branded hotels. The Park Hyatt Sydney is the same as the Park Hyatt Paris is the same as the Park Hyatt Tokyo is the same as the Park Hyatt Washington DC. Then the second point he makes, taking it one step too far in my view, is that staying in these luxury properties takes away from the experience, and you really need to “slum it” to get the real experience. Let’s take each point individually.
On the homogeneity of globalized brand hotels, I have to say this is where I largely agree with Matt. Many of the hotels available from the major points promoters are largely standardized and are indeed designed to look and feel the same no matter where you go in the world. While the Park Hyatt may be a higher end brand, it is still a brand and it is not substantially different than going to Tokyo to eat at a McDonalds. You will have certain expectations of the brand that will be met wherever you go. While the hotels will obviously have regional influences (just the same way McDonalds does), there is still a corporate drive to make the experience consistent and familiar. Now for me personally this is not much of an issue if I am interested in visiting the place where the hotel is located. A trip to the Park Hyatt Sydney is a trip to Sydney, with a comfortable and familiar room and nice views of the Opera house for breakfast when we are not actually out and about exploring Sydney. Where I see this breaking down is when people travel great distances to places where the hotel itself seems to be the attraction. Somewhere like Conrad Koh Samui springs to mind. I appreciate this one is a little controversial, and is partly because I am no fan of Thailand, but most reports indicate there is little to do outside of the hotel. You’re just going because you get to stay at an expensive room with a private pool. I can find plenty of other ways to do that without having to travel all the way to Thailand. The Conrad Koh Samui flying in first class on US Airways redemption does somehow fit a mould of doing it just because you can.
But on the flip side finding the local touch is not always as easy and straightforward as it may seem. Let’s take my favorite Maldives destination as an example. When we went in 2010 I had initially booked the W. We were paying cash, and I chose the W because of good reviews and the fact I’d at least earn a huge stash of points. But my wife was just not happy at the idea of staying at an American brand in the Maldives. So we started hunting around for the best option in that price range regardless of brand. We quickly found and settled on a very interesting new property, far from the majority of the current resorts and with a very eco-friendly vibe with a desire to utilize local products and integrate better with the local community. It was a property called Alila Villas Hadahaa and it we ended up loving it. While it was a resort experience, we did visit local islands several times with our fun local dive crew, got to meet some of their families, and got what felt like a truly authentic and unique experience. Of course as y’alll know about 6 months later that property was taken over by Hyatt and is now … the Park Hyatt Maldives. On our subsequent visits all that changed is that service standards were significantly improved. So maybe that branding is not necessarily always bad.
The second major point he makes boils down to you have to “rough it” to really experience a place. Well frankly I just call BS on this one. Roughing it can be fun. I’ve hitch-hiked rides in Holland. I remember paying $1 to sleep on the floor of a youth hostel in Vegas because that was all I could afford (and only used said floor for about 30 minutes “sleep”). But frankly I am too old for all that. I’m happy to explore any area that I am visiting, but at the end of the day I want to come back to a comfortable room. You can’t rough it with kids. And frankly when I travel with my wife on a break from the day to day realities of life, it’s nice to be in pampered luxury. Having fun with the local riff-raff in Hong Kong was fun when I was 21, not so enticing now I am 41.
So has Matt convinced me it’s time to give up the first class flying and luxury hotels? Eff no!!!
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