Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cash or Credit in London (Part 2)


So a few notes about using credit cards abroad. Each credit card company will charge you an exchange fee. The fee for my Visa, American Express and Mastercard runs a little over 2% of the foreign charge. Think of the fee as a convenience. To purchase theatre tickets for the plays I would be seeing I did not wait for the last minute by purchasing them in London and end up with undesirable seats.  Instead I purchased these online while in the states and these foreign transactions fees already begin to apply with each charge of a credit card.

Also for Visa and Mastercard holders, always call each credit card company to let them know you will be traveling abroad. If you make unusual charges outside of your country of residence or even state, they may put a hold on your card until they can verify you are still in possession of your card. If you forget and find charges are refused, it's nice that each company allows you to call collect using the long-distance number on the back of your card.

For American Express customers, unusual charges will be placed on hold until Amex is able to contact you.

It's best to check with your bank or credit card company if you intend to make cash withdrawals abroad. Obviously there will be fees from both the foreign bank and your bank or credit card company for each withdrawal. These vary depending on the financial institution.

IMPORTANT ADVICE: Make copies of all your credit or bank cards and make a copy that you keep secured or leave a copy at home with a family member. Obviously if you lose these cards you will have the telephone numbers on the back to call the card company in addition to your credit card number.

Cash or Credit in London (Part 1)

Information in this post and the next has been covered before. But it warrants repeating for the hopeful traveler that is planning to take a trip abroad.

It's always a challenging task to determine how to pay for things abroad. Do you exchange currency at home, use the credit cards, find foreign ATMs. Each method has pluses and minuses so the best suggestion is a combination to be safe and will depend how far you may be from a major city.

For this 2010 London visit, I opted to purchase currency in Honolulu. The best rates are at banks and note that each bank does not have the same rate, the time to receive your currency will vary and there may be fees for the exchange service. After researching, the best was to purchase currency from a bank other than my own. Even though they charged a ten dollar service fee for non-bank customers, this with their buy rate was still less than if I purchased the currency from my own bank.  In addition the currency was available the next day rather than three days later from my bank.

Since I have to catch a taxi upon arriving in central London and there will be tipping of hotel staff upon arrival, some cash was necessary to begin with.

I have to say that when I exchange US dollars in British pounds, I do have the odd feeling I end up with very little cash.  This has to do with the exchange rate. For about $1,000 US dollars, you would receive roughly about 650 in British Pounds.

One important note of purchasing foreign currency. The more often you exchange the money, the more value it loses and that is because the buy and sell rates are leveraged to benefit the bank or a currency exchange service. So for example it you do not spend any of the 650 British Pounds and re-exchange them back in to US dollars, you will receive less than $1,000 in return. Bottom line budget carefully.

Travelers Checks I feel are more of an inconvenience.  Sure it does offer full security if you every lose them. But it was a hassle to show my passport in order to cash them, difficult to use them at smaller retailers, increasingly expensive to purchase with an unfavorable exchange rate and a constant effort to track each number of check being used.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ten Nights in London - What Does it Actually Cost?

This would the very first time I would stay at the London Renaissance Chancery Court. I never considered staying at the centrally located London Marriott hotels because the rates per night were just too expensive. My hotel of choice has been in the Radisson Edwardian chain with most of them located in the heart of London's West End.

So like the airfare, I wondered what would it actually cost if one were to pay to stay at the Chancery Court for ten nights. Again my guess was underestimated. Before you say that the amount of 3,590 is expected for London, please note that the price is in British Sterling Pounds. In US dollars, the amount is $5,385. Ridiculous. Even though I'm using award points, this stay better be good.

Related Review Links to the Renaissance London Chancery Court Hotel:

Marriott Rewards - Redeeming for Ten Nights

I've been a point hoarder when it came to the Marriott Rewards program. The problem is that Marriott changed the award requirement that did not benefit the person trying to save for a two-week vacation in some of the most popular visitor destinations in the world. First of all the point value per night increased. Secondly Marriott added another tier of hotel award level which included the most desirable properties. Prior to this there were only seven levels.

The biggest loss for the faithful traveler is the point value system. They increased significantly because under the old chart, the more nights you stayed the less points were required. Now the point value per night was higher and the same for every additional night.

Despite these changes Marriott uplays that fact there are no blackout dates (but you may be denied a stay if the allotted rooms for award is not available) and for every fourth night, a fifth night is awarded free. In other words, the point value for four and five nights is the same.

So bottom line, my 300,000+ Marriott points allowed me a 10-day stay at a level seven property rather than fourteen. Marriott did announce the change in the spring of 2009 that any awards redeemed prior to end of the year would be honored at the old award chart. But planning a two week European vacation is probably not what most working people can normally do on the fly.

My consolation was the hotel I finally chose was the Renaissance Chancery Court in London which fell in category seven. I had planned to stay only seven nights but with the 5th night free offer, I added an eighth night and my total stay would now be ten nights. A lot of points but there was no way to go back to the old chart so I just dealt with it and booked my stay.

So which hotels are in Marriott's elite hotel category 8? The entire list is below the reward chart.


Marriott Hotel Rewards
Marriott properties are grouped in eight categories by location and hotel type. The table below indicates points required for free nights in each category. Point amounts are based on a standard room.

*Point values are based on a standard room and may vary by length of stay and hotel category. Upgrades may be available for extra points.
ViewMarriott Hotel RewardPointSavers Hotel Reward
Hotel
category
Points Reward for 1 Night Stay
17,500Redeem 4 Nights.
Get the 5th Night
FREE!
210,000
315,000
420,000
525,000
630,000
735,000
840,000
Marriott Vacation Club resorts do not participate in No Blackout Dates.

Category 8

First Class to London: What Does it Actually Cost?

About $1,200 would be saved on economy fare by redeeming miles for a round trip to London. However since I am using miles for first class from Honolulu to London, what is the actual price if one were to pay for such a ticket? On that note what is the cost for business class? My guess was largely underestimated. Below are printouts applying the dates of my travel to London along with the hefty price tag.

$21,524 Cost of round-trip first class from Honolulu to London
$11,871 Cost of round-trip business from Honolulu to London

American Airline Awards Chart

Few would argue that the distance alone from Honolulu to London would be a good reason to finally redeem miles. But which class of service? It's always been a dream of mine to fly round-trip first class to Europe but I've always been overly cautious thinking that it would be a waste. For the same miles value I could fly at least twice in economy. But then again after a long tiring 10-hour flight, I can't help to admire the first class suites that I pass by from my economy seat.

Miles redemption has always been difficult from Honolulu. But this time rather than despairing over it further, it would cost 120,000 AAnytime miles for each way and it was a done deal. I have to mention that a round-trip economy ticket to London is roughly about $1,200-$1,600 roundtrip based on the best fares in July 2010.

For comparison, below is the current redemption chart for American Airlines. One creative way to use miles is to fly in one class of service one way and then another on the return. Fly first going and economy coming back or vice versa. It's your choice.

By the way as much as I tried, I could not find dates for a MilesSAAver Peak Award which would have reduced the miles redemption to 62,500 miles each way. These dates are few and more likely abundant more than six months prior to travel.

Also be warned about being a miles hoarder. Many passengers fail to redeem miles in a timely manner only to be subject to higher minimum miles when they do decide to travel.



ONE-WAY AWARDS ON AMERICAN AIRLINES, AMERICAN EAGLE AND AMERICANCONNECTION
AWARDS MAY BE USED ONE WAY OR COMBINED FOR ROUND-TRIP OR MULTI-CITY TRAVEL




To / From




To / From




Award Type



Economy Class



Business/First Class*



First Class†



Miles Required



Miles Required



Miles Required

Wholly Within Continental U.S.§/Canada



MileSAAver
AAnytime



12,500
25,000



25,000
50,000



32,500
65,000



Within and Between the Continental U.S./Canada/Mexico/The Caribbean



MileSAAver
Off-peak

----------- MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



12,500


17,500


35,000






30,000


60,000






40,000


80,000



Continental U.S.§/Canada/ Mexico/Caribbean**



Hawaii



MileSAAver
Off-peak

----------- MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



17,500


22,500


45,000






37,500


75,000






47,500


95,000




North America§§





Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Venezuela



MileSAAver
Off-peak

----------- MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



15,000


17,500


35,000






30,000


60,000






40,000


80,000



North America§§




Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile or Uruguay



MileSAAver
Off-peak

----------- MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



20,000


30,000


60,000






50,000


100,000






62,500


125,000



Wholly Within South America
(Valid only on AA flights wholly within South America)



MileSAAver 
AAnytime



12,500
25,000



22,500
45,000



30,000
60,000




North America§§




Europe



MileSAAver
Off-peak

----------- MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



20,000


30,000


60,000






50,000


100,000






62,500


125,000




North America§§




India



MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



45,000


90,000



67,500


135,000



90,000


180,000





North America§§





Japan



MileSAAver
Off-peak

----------- MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



25,000


32,500


65,000






50,000


100,000






62,500


125,000




North America§§




China



MileSAAver Peak
-----------
AAnytime



35,000


70,000



55,000


110,000



67,500


135,000
View Upgrade Awards
View AAdvantage Partner Airline Travel Award Charts

Off-peak dates:
Hawaii: Jan. 12 - Mar. 8; Aug. 22 - Dec. 15
The Caribbean and Mexico: Sep. 7 - Nov. 14
Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela: Jan. 16 - Jun. 14; Sep. 7 - Nov. 14
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay: Mar. 1 - May 31; Aug. 16 - Nov. 30
Europe: Oct. 15 - May 15
Japan: Oct. 1 - Apr. 30
*Valid for First Class on flights with two classes of service where applicable and Business Class on all other flights.
Valid for First Class on flight offering three classes of service.
§Continental U.S. includes Alaska.
**Caribbean includes The Bahamas and Bermuda.
§§North America is defined as the U.S. (including Hawaii and Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, The Bahamas, and the Caribbean.
AAdvantage award travel is subject to governmental regulations.
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