2018 had a mostly familiar flavour travel-wise, with no new countries visited and deliberate repeats of some favourite locations: Brussels, Seattle, Malta. But I did top these up with some new destinations, such as Valencia, Portland, and Eugene; and continued to explore the Netherlands beyond Holland. Here’s how all that added up.
Although my 14 flights this year is a fairly typical number, a return to the US west coast meant over 16,000 miles – the most since 2013, and almost 10 percent of my lifetime total. This figure would have been even higher had we not favoured trains for trips to Brussels and the Netherlands, as well as travel within the US. In fact, I didn’t step aboard an aircraft until July, so this only represents half a year of flying!
The only new airport I visited was Valencia (VLC), and the only unfamiliar airline was Alitalia. Thus for novelty I have to look to routes: MLA-FCO-AMS, AMS-VLC-AMS and SEA-LGW all adding to my unduplicated mileage. Given these, Schiphol was my most used airport – somehow even more than my home base of Bristol.
Also of note was the end of my five year ‘strictly business’ streak for long-haul travel, with our return from the US in Norwegian’s premium economy product. Whilst I enjoyed the chance to experience a 787 from rather further afield than Madrid, I will have to think about paying for a flatbed service if I actually want to sleep…
At 44 nights I suspect this was a record year for paid nights away – certainly it’s the most I’ve logged since starting these reviews, albeit with fewer stays than last year. In part this was due to a pair of extended holidays with friends (in the UK and Netherlands); but I also racked up three work trips across 2018.
Brand-wise this year saw my first experiences of Melia, Kimpton and Bloc; I’d happily use all three again! My loyalty (or lack of) was fairly evenly divided between IHG and Hilton Honors at seven nights each, but I also made use of smaller chains, independents and even AirBnB after a three year break.
The highlight has to be our triple-upgrade to a suite at the Kimpton Hotel Vintage, Portland; but there’s strong competition from the Arctic Club Seattle thanks to our remarkable welcome. Less glamorously, but more practically, I was very impressed with Bloc at Gatwick. I went in hoping for something comparable to Yotel, but found a rival to CitizenM – for a fraction of the price!
Miles, points and loyalty
As hinted at – and paid for – last year, my largest ever avios redemption was this summer’s trip for two to Seattle in Club World. Unfortunately even with 100,000 points and a Lloyds upgrade voucher, we could only afford to travel one way – and even then incurred close to a grand in taxes, charges and seating fees.
My only other avios spend was tied to the travel-hacking event of the year: Iberia’s brief offer of 9000 points per booking, no matter no cheap, and without any requirement to actually board your chosen flights. With Santander-Madrid winter services rapidly identified as around £20 each way, the maximum allowance of 90,000 avios could conceivably be had for barely £200. Of course, there was a long list of caveats, not least of which was that the points came with a short expiry date and had to be redeemed via Iberia rather than the Executive Club. Their IT systems and support are also somehow less effective than BA’s, so my choice to take a more measured approach turned out to be prudent.
I booked two flights I actually intended to take – although that was contingent on attending the Skyteam MegaDo to Barcelona, which ultimately clashed with a group holiday – plus four more purely on price. Of the six, only five ever credited, despite two rounds of complaints and reassurances on the last; for a return of 45,000 avios on £179. These I was able to turn into a £360 three night hotel stay: admittedly not one I was planning to make (and hence not a genuine saving), but still a solid if not spectacular doubling of my original outlay.
In a not-unexpected move, Lloyds pulled the plug on their avios duo card; I’ll miss the winning combination of points earning and no fees on foreign currency transactions, but managed to put enough spend through for another upgrade voucher before my account shut down. For non-amex spend I picked up the free Virgin Atlantic mastercard during a promotion for an easy 10,000 miles. However, with the Virgin/KLM tie-up moving slower than I imagined these remain speculative for now; the trickle of points I received from travel still had to be routed to Flying Blue. Here’s hoping – once again – for linked programmes next year.
On the hotel side, I finally received an IHG Accelerate promotion that made sense, and diligently set about optimising my travel to cover all the targets with just five nights across two stays, both in places I needed to be anyway. That relative simplicity meant a less impressive haul, though, of around 44,000 points including the base spend. Meanwhile the combination of double points plus the 80% bonus from gold status meant I pulled in over 50,000 HHonors points from our stay in Seattle, no hoop-jumping required! Before the avios e-store shut down, that yielded several thousand avios via booking.com; and it turned out that a night in a Yotel pod is good for 100 miles with Virgin Flying Club too!
My only redemption (besides those Iberian avios) was an IHG points break for a night we needed to stay in London. Whilst the Holiday Inn Express Wandsworth might not be too exciting, getting over £16 of genuine value per thousand points was! I am happy with the expansion of points breaks to 10 and 15K levels, since it increases the chance of actually finding an offer at somewhere you need or want to go. I also discovered that I could still use part payment with cash against these already discounted rates; favouring £45 and 5K points over 15K points or the standard room rate of £127.
This may have been my last year travelling as an EU citizen, and it’s hard to see past the event horizon of Brexit: certainly, I’ll not be booking in any European trips for 2019 until things become clearer. But I may also be making some changes that impact my travel opportunities, so stay tuned…