In my last post I talked about the notion of the tail wagging the dog – we are bombarded with trip reports and lifestyle recommendations that are considered best in class, but it is money talking here, and its telling you where to go and how to do it. Mr Dimon has his hand up the backside of credit card bloggers, and soon you will believe that if you aren’t flying Suites to the Vendome your life is a waste.
Makes sense right? If you find a place that looks amazing, but isn’t immediately connected to an airport, that is immediately connected to an airline, that is immediately connected to a co-branded credit card, it becomes a harder sell. I personally like to keep a mix of points in transferable currencies (Amex MR, Chase, and Amex SPG), and keep my other balances low, this allows me to not be attached to a specific airline/hotel when booking travel.
OK, time to get off the soap box and onto the matter at hand. How to book to your destination of your choice, the process has several steps.
Step 1 Where the hell is it?
Sometimes you see things that just make you go WOW – recently someone emailed me the following video of a place called the Socorro Islands, west of Mexico:
As a diver, this video blew my mind. This is bucket list material without a doubt.
My first port of call when searching this out is to plug it into google maps and just get an idea for what ‘West of Mexico means’ because technically, if you go far enough Finland is West of Mexico. It’s pretty fun searching for this place, because you have to zoom out, and out, and out again to find out it’s location! As it happens its in the middle of nowhere, and trouble is ahead….
Step 2 Wikipedia
You can go straight here if you are ‘one of those people’ personally I need to look at something visually hence my Step 1 maps search. Wikipedia tends to give you a bit more color on a place, but doesn’t seem to list airports (pretty important!) Here’s the listing for Socorro for those out there that might be getting excited by the video above.
Step 3 Getting there
Once I have an idea of where this place is, and what its all about, I start hunting for airports. Spoiler Alert – there aren’t any! My geography skills are a bit weak, so I can’t always list all the airports or even cities in a region, but from the first step we know that we are close enough to a couple of cities I know the names of – I know them because I worked on this Baha coast for about 8 months, but sometimes that little bit of knowledge can limit us. With that in mind I like to turn to the airport route mapper tool (PC based, for Macs you can use Flightconnections.com ). This allows me to center in to the Baha coast and find ‘options’.
This approach is somewhat like a search and rescue mission, you start as close as possible and start working outwards. Sometimes the first airports you find nearby won’t be a fit as direct flights might not be an option with them.
Step 4 – Pick up points
This is a point in my own process that I might need to refine. I’ll often identify (in this case) Cabo or Puerto Vallarta as viable airport gateways, then discover that the destination will only pick up from Cabo… but it’s good to have options, and worst case at least I can consider getting a short hop flight between PV and Cabo. I like to have a couple of routes, and a couple of award partners and pricings to consider when deciding such things.
Step 5 – Hotels
There aren’t any hotels here, the location on my bucket list is so remote that there aren’t any hotels on the island, and it is only accessible via live aboard dive boats. That’s still OK though, because despite this you can offload some costs to points, in this case I would suggest that this would be hotels on mainland Mexico at the beginning or end of the trip. A good tool for that is AwardMapper.com
Beginner or Expert?
For me, I personally find it easier to recognize alliances, with that in mind I might actual mix up the steps above, for flights I might go straight to an OTA (online travel agency) and do a revenue ticket search, and likewise I might go to hotels.com for hotel options. I would say that while both can be quick, I have notice that my default sites for these types of searches have weaknesses. Hotels.com will not list every hotel available, it will list every hotel available that gives them a kick back. It’s still a great list, but not exhaustive.
Without doubt though, one of the greatest skills you can learn in booking both hotels and flights is knowing the alliances. This allows you to spot ‘viable’ hotels and flights based upon your points balances (or to target a points acquisition strategy towards). It will be rare, particularly on International bucket list trips, that your co-branded credit card will match your airline rather than its alliance. For example, for my next trip to Europe we are flying Iberia, outbound using AA miles, inbound using BA Avios. Recognizing these partnerships will make all the difference to your success rate.
There is nothing wrong with a popular bucket list destination
It could well be that the place you most want to visit is already an established tourist destination – an example of that might be Siem Riep in Cambodia, that has become so popular that there is now a Hyatt there. Awardmapper tells me there is a Best Western also. These are places you could use points, and if you have enough then why not stay in the Park Hyatt Siem Riep? Personally I probably wouldn’t since there are so many cheaper options to pay for with cash. Hotels can be a good option to pay with your Barclaycard Arrival (referral link) as you get 10% of your points back when redeeming on travel. However, if you start going off the beaten path, such as that liveaboard to the Socorro Islands you might encounter operators that you think count as travel categories, but are classified incorrectly. Getting Barclay’s to honor these can be troublesome, so book with caution.
I also recommend specialist forums for research, as much as I think our Forum is excellent, for a depth of knowledge on a place like Socorro I’d be inclined to check out Scuba specific forums to get reviews on the various service providers for boats and if I wasn’t ‘Scuba’d out’ by the end of the trip ideas for some more diving from mainland Mexico.
I’m not sure if this search method is the same process that Kenny used, but if you look at his excellent post on booking travel to the US National Parks you can see some really spectacular ideas – starting by honing in on a location that you want to go to, then researching it further. The opportunities are endless.
Note, that is an affiliate link in the post, I am slipping them back in as I am trying to raise money for our Charity, we are nominating Q4 Charities until Monday 9/15 on the forum, to add your suggestion for the theme of Hunger, go here. Even though we haven’t selected one yet, any Credit Card income is earmarked towards that goal.