I took considerably fewer flights this year than last, but heading to the Pacific coast – via a LCY-SNN-JFK-YVR route that adds 1200 miles or so to a LHR-YVR great circle – meant a return to more typical mileage levels. No new countries, but a smattering of new stations – JFK, RTM, SNN, YVR and the international terminal at LAX. I also had my first flight on Cathay Pacific, plus my first – and last! – flight on Virgin Little Red. Equipment-wise I added the two extremes of BA’s airbus fleet, the A318 and the A380; whilst bidding farewell to their BA 737. In addition, I was surprised to find myself on a WDL aviation BAe-146 for a short RTM-LCY hop, presumably due to too many of BA’s embraers going tech. I definitely spent a higher proportion of my time in business class than ever before, helped by the option of non-rev travel.
However, planes only tell part of the mileage story – 2015 was very much about trains for me! Whilst I’ve always used them to get around the UK, I ventured much further afield this year. Due to my environmentally conscious Dutch girlfriend, I took my first trip through the channel tunnel on Eurostar, then six more, in a mix of standard and standard premier. With the exception of one meet-in-the-middle trip to Brussels, all of those trips featured a second leg too, adding TGV and Thalys for some 2500 miles in total. For Paris or Brussels Eurostar is now definitely my prefered option, although for Holland I’ll probably mix and match between flights and trains depending on price and time.
Across the pond, I upped the distance considerably, albeit with devastating effects on my average speed: covering the 1500 miles from Vancouver to Los Angeles took the best part of forty hours! But those were happily spent first in business class on the Amtrak Cascades, and then as a sleeper car passenger on the Coast Starlight, in what I hope were just the first of many slow travel itineraries.
This year’s paid stays would have exactly matched last year’s, were it not for (an ill-fated) mattress run pushing the total nights up to 37, acros 20 stays. I exhibited essentially no loyalty for the major programmes: 8 nights / 4 stays with HHonors; 5 nights / 5 stays with IHG Rewards; 4 nights / 3 stays with Le Club Accor and 4 nights / 2 stays with Club Carlson. But the highlight was away from the chains, in the shape of three nights at the Parco dei Principi, Rome; fortunately I wasn’t paying for that one. At the other extreme, the Worcester travelodge was easily the worst place I actually stayed; and for one of the mileage run Holiday Inn Expresses I’m glad I was able to stay at home instead!
Miles, points and loyalty
Although I technically have accounts with American, Iberia, and Virgin Atlantic, my only meaningful airmile (well, avios) balance sits with BA’s Executive Club. This year I earned less than 1500 points from flying; fortunately credit cards, tesco transfers and hotel rewards (Hilton’s double dip option and Accor’s attractive earning rates via Iberia) boosted that to around 25,000 for the year. So there was rather more burn than earn – locking in redemptions before the devaluation still ran me 40,000 for BA1 and 25,000 for a business class seat on Cathay’s JFK-YVR service. As such, I didn’t even manage Bronze status, spending most of the year as an entry-level blue – the downsides of which I discovered on a rare economy-class-with-luggage-from-LHR flight that seemed to take more time for bag drop than the flight!
It’s a similar tale with the hotels – diminishing or disappearing status, and heavy inroads into points balances, albeit with the odd lucrative earning opportunity along the way. IHG was the most dramatic – trading in 85000 points for two nights in the US, and only collecting 20,000 from the accelerate promotion after a credit card signup challenge failed to track (thus locking out a 39,000 point bonus). Whilst my mattress runs were so cheap I pretty much broke even, I won’t be actively pursuing these offers in future… With Hilton it was a bit more balanced, although my year still ends with an essentially empty account. Paid stays generated about 15,000 points, with a pair of redemption nights largely financed by the generous 100% bonus on point purchases – and one of the nights earnt over 5000 of the 40,000 price straight back through promotions! My new favourite, though, is Club Carlson – two stays over the summer pulled in over 40,000 points; they gave me 10,000 more as a christmas present (as in 2014); and with this being the year I churned through the american express gold, I was able to grab another 75,000 thanks to membership reward points transferring across as 1:3. Whilst the top-end properties got a lot more expensive in 2015, there’s still plenty of value to be found and I hope to do something interesting with the balance in 2016. I also joined a very unusual loyalty scheme rewarding green behaviour, although I have little hope of ever earning enough for that one to be relevant!
Rail-wise, the demise of east coast rewards has been offset somewhat by the ability to earn Virgin Atlantic points for any UK travel booked via Virgin Trains East Coast, and I have become an almost-member of Eurostar’s Carte Classique scheme. To join properly you first need to spend £250 on a train journey – something I hope never to do! But if you send membership reward points over from Amex you’ll get an account which allows you to redeem them. Based on my experience it seems you’ll earn for subsequent trips at the usual rate too, although this may be an error. What you can’t do is manage the account online, nor even look for redemption availability. Fortunately the call centre staff are very helpful – despite the account looking odd – and not only was I able to make a decent saving compared to cash prices for one of my Belgian legs, it came with the option for same-day changes. This turned out to be invaluable as my original trip from Holland required a four hour stopover in Brussels, which became rather less appealing with the city on lockdown after the Paris terror attacks.
Which, of course, outlined how much of a luxury all of this is. Safe travels, everyone.