As with airline frequent flyer programs, hotel companies offer their own loyalty programs with elite membership levels to reward their most frequent guests. Among such programs, Marriott Rewards offers several elite membership levels: Silver, Gold, Platinum, Platinum Premier, and Platinum Premier with Ambassador. Each elite level comes with additional benefits during hotel stays at Marriott (including SPG and Ritz Carlton) properties. These benefits may include bonus points, guaranteed rooms, upgrades, welcome gifts, free breakfast, lounge access, early checking and late checkout. To earn Marriott elite status, you earn the required number of elite night credits during a calendar year. Elite night credits are earned for each night stayed at a Marriott hotel, whether for a paid or an award stay.
Gold Elite benefits include 25% bonus points (for a total of 12.5 per dollar), enhanced room upgrade (higher floor, club level, improved view, larger room), 2PM late checkout and a welcome gift of points (250 or 500 depending on the hotel brand).
You earn Platinum Elite status after staying 50 nights, including award stays, in a calendar year. If you have an American Express Starwood Preferred Guest or Chase Marriott credit card, you only need 35 moreElite Night Credits. Some of the benefits of Platinum Elite benefits include 50% more points (for a total of 15 per dollar), room upgrades (including select suites), welcome gift (points, breakfast, or other amenity), 4PM late checkout and lounge access. When you reach 50 nights, you can choose from five Suite Night Award certificates, five Elite Night Credits (for the current year), or several other options. For 2018, I chose Suite Night Award certificates that I will use for our trips to Hawaii or Europe. Certificates are applied to specific room bookings – one per night. They do not guarantee a suite upgrade but in my experience from the original SPG Platinum benefit they work most of the time.
As a Platinum Elite member, room upgrades and late checkout benefits are very useful for vacation stays. I have been fortunate to be upgraded to some amazing suites, such as Wow Suite at W Paris Opéra.
Platinum Premier Elite
You earn Platinum Premier Elite status after staying 75 nights, including award stays, in a calendar year. If you a Marriott (or SPG) co-branded credit cards, you need 60 more Elite Night Credits. Some of the benefits of Platinum Premier Elite include 75% more points (for a total of 17.5 per dollar), room upgrades (including select suites), welcome gift (points, breakfast, or other amenity), 4PM late checkout and lounge access. When you reach 75 nights, you choose from an additional five Suite Night Award certificates, five Elite Night Credits (for the current year), or several other options.
With the recent introduction of a partnership with Hertz, Marriott Platinum Premier members who register wtih Hertz Gold Plus Rewards receive Five Star or President’s Circle status. Benefits include car upgrades and bonus points.
platinum premier elite with ambassador
When you stay 100 nights you earn Platinum Premier Elite with Ambassador status. In addition to receiving Platinum Premier Elite benefits you are assigned a Marriott ambassador to assist you with reservations, award bookings, and provide help during stays. Another amazing benefit (Your24) allows you to select your check-in and check-out times – useful if you arrive early morning after a red-eye flight, or to extend your stay into the evening of your departure.
You earn Lifetime Silver Elite, Lifetime Gold Elite or Lifetime Platinum Elite by staying a total of 250, 400 or 600 nights combined as a member of Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). There are also requirements for the number of years of elite status. For example, to earn Lifetime Platinum Elite you would need to have stayed 600 nights and been a Platinum Elite member for at least 10 years. You check your personal Lifetime Status within the Marriott app on your smartphone.
Hotel elite status benefits may include room upgrades, free breakfast, and more, plus faster points earning. One of my favorite hotel companies is Marriott, from my original membership in the Sheraton loyalty program that eventually became part of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). I am fortunate to have earned lifetime Gold Elite status, and Platinum Premier Elite for 2019 by owning an American Express SPG card and staying more than 75 nights with a combination of paid and award stays during 2018. When we stay at Marriott/SPG hotels we enjoy the benefits of upgraded rooms, free breakfast and late check-out. If you have a favorite hotel company, I’d love hearing how you earn elite status and the benefits you enjoy.
UPDATED 12/30/2018: Marriott’s previously announced plans to combine their three loyalty programs (Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest) into one (name to be announced) have now been implemented.
In the early 1990’s, I signed up for Sheraton’s loyalty program. At the time, I paid $20 per year to upgrade my membership to their Gold level. As a result, I often received free upgrades and access to the Sheraton Club lounges for free food and drinks. Sheraton was one of the first hotel chains acquired by Starwood. In addition to Sheraton, Starwood brands included Westin, The Luxury Collection, Four Points, W Hotels, St. Regis, Le Méridien, Aloft and more. Since 2016, Starwood merged into Marriott International. Starwood’s loyalty program was called Starwood Preferred Guest, or SPG as it is commonly known. As an SPG member, you earned Starpoints on hotels stays and related spending. While many hotel chains offer similar loyalty programs, most of my personal experience has been with Starwood so that’s the primary basis of this post. I updated this post recently to include updates to the newly combined Marriott Rewards loyalty program but check the Marriott site for up to date information.
Earning points WITH HOTEL STAYS
To begin earning Marriott points, sign up for Marriott loyalty program membership. As a basic member, you earn ten points per dollar spent at Marriott’s 29-brand hotels and resorts worldwide. It’s worth noting that not all dollars spent at the hotels will earn you points – some exclusions includes taxes and fees, including resort fees, but there are others. You earn more points as an elite member, Silver (+10%), Gold (+50%), or Platinum (+75%) (see my post on Earning Marriott Elite status for details). Whenever you book a room, and at check-in, give your Marriott loyalty membership number to make sure you earn points for your stay. You also earn points for most restaurant, bar and activities charged to your room (some hotels have exclusions so be sure to ask). When you charge your hotel stay to a Chase Marriott or American Express SPG card, you also earn six additional points per dollar. As you can see, if you are a high elite member of Marriott’s loyalty program and you use one of their partner credit cards to pay for your stay, you can earn over 20 points per dollar. I value one Marriott point at just under one cent so that’s around 20% return on your spending.
Tip #1: I prefer to book my Marriott hotel rooms using the Marriott website (www.marriott.com) or one of there phone apps. I check available hotels, room rates and award pricing quickly as I plan for trips. I give more information to the hotel via notes in the reservation to improve the chance of upgrades to a room with a better view or bigger size, or to specify a request for early check-in or late check-out. Be aware that, although you may find lower prices at third party online travel agents (OTA), you may not earn points or elite benefits. One exception I use several times a year is the Citi Prestige “4th Night Free” benefit by contacting their “concierge” to book four or more nights. I give my Marriott number to the concierge and they contact the hotel to add it to the reservation. In this way, I earn points for my stay and also get the elite benefits provided by the hotel.
Tip #2: I often choose Marriott’s Your Choice program to skip housekeeping services during short stays. You earn up to 500 points for each day you opt out of housekeeping services. The hotels typically offer door hangers to show you are opting out of housekeeping services the following day. You can also “opt out” for your entire stay by setting a preference in online reservation, or ask at the hotel during check-in.
Earning POINTS WITH Credit Cards
Charge your restaurant, bar and spa bills to your room and pay with a Marriott or SPG branded credit card to earn six points per dollar. American Express offers three versions of their co-branded card, two personal cards and one business card:
American Express currently offers 75,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 in the first three months. I value the bonus at around $700. American Express waives the $95 annual fee in the first year for their basic personal and business cards. While the Luxury card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee it has several travel benefits that help to reduce the impact:
$300 statement credit for spending at Marriott hotels each cardmember year
$100 Global Entry or $85 TSA PreCheck fee credit
Priority Pass Select membership for airport lounge access (for cardmember plus two guests)
Annual free night award up to 50,000 points
Marriott Gold elite status
Ability to earn Platinum elite status after spending $75,000 in a calendar year
15 elite night credits towards earning higher elite status during a calendar year
For details of each card, I suggest reading the terms of each offer at the American Express site.
TIP #3: You earn an annual credit of 15 nights towards Marriott elite status with an open American Express SPG or Chase Marriott credit card. The credits appear in your Marriott account at the beginning of each year. Therefore, to achieve Marriott Gold you need to earn 10 more nights for a total of 25 in a calendar year, or 35 more nights for Platinum (50 nights total). You cannot earn more than 15 nights from owning more than one American Express or Chase credit cards.
American Express offers several credit and charge cards that earn Membership Rewards points. Charge card balances are paid off every month, but otherwise are similar to credit cards. Some examples are:
American Express Platinum Card – 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. If you transfer the Membership Rewards bonus points to Marriott, you have enough points for a couple of free nights at category 4 hotels (25,000 points per night). The annual fee is $550 but the card comes with many benefits to reduce the real cost, including annual $200 airline fee credits, monthly Uber credits, airport lounge access and more.
American Express Gold Card – a recently relaunched version of this classic card. New cardmembers earn 50,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 in the first three months. By transferring bonus Membership Rewards points to Marriott you have enough points to book one free night at a category 5 hotel (50,000 points per night). Annual fee is $250 but the card includes a $100 annual airline fee statement credit that is available on a calendar year basis.
Chase offers two Marriott co-branded credit cards
Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Plus – 75,000 bonus Marriott points with $3,000 spending in the first three months. You earn six points per dollar spent at Marriott hotels, and two points per dollar on other spending. The annual fee is $95.
Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Business – 75,000 bonus Marriott points with $3,000 spending in the first three months. You earn six points per dollar spent at Marriott hotels, four points per dollar spent on gas station, restaurant, shipping, internet, cable and phone service purchases, and two points per dollar on everything else. The annual fee is $99.
Both cards come with a Free Night Award certificate worth up to 35,000 points (category 1-4 hotel) after each account anniversary.
Chase Sapphire Preferred – 50,000 bonus points with $4,000 spending in first three months, $0 introductory annual fee, after that $95. This is a great starter credit card for anyone wishing to earn points for free travel with a variety of airlines and hotels. You earn two Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and dining at restaurants, and one point for everything else.
Chase Sapphire Reserve – 50,000 bonus points with $4,000 spending in first three months. This is the premium Chase Sapphire card and comes with an annual fee of $450. However, there are many ways to cut the real annual cost of this card, including the annual $300 annual travel credit, Priority Pass Select airport lounge access and more. You earn three Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and dining worldwide and one point for everything else.
Chase Ink Business Preferred Card – 80,000 bonus points with $5,000 spending in first three months, $95 annual fee. Earn three Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and select business categories, and one point for everything else. You can apply for Chase business cards even if you are a sole proprietor, operating from your home, with no IRS EIN.
Ultimate Rewards points transfer to Marriott points at a 1:1 ratio.
Earning points with Airline Flights
You earn bonus Marriott points when you register with Marriott’s airline partners and buy flights. However, you must have Marriott elite status to receive these bonuses.
China Eastern – earn three Marriott points for every four China Eastern Miles on China Eastern flights. Marriott Platinum elite members enjoy priority check-in, boarding and luggage handling; and access to China Eastern business-class lounges and an excess-luggage allowance. This partnership is not currently open for new registrations. If you linked account prior to July 15, 2018, you’ll continue to earn points and receive priority benefits.
Emirates – earn three Marriott points per dollar spent on all eligible Emirates flights in addition to Emirates Skywards Miles. Marriott Platinum elite meambers enjoy priority check-in and priority boarding. This partnership is not currently open for new registrations. If you linked account prior to July 15, 2018, you’ll continue to earn points and receive priority benefits.
United – United and Marriott offer reciprocal benefits to their members via the RewardsPlus program. United’s MileagePlus elite members (Premier Gold and above) receive complimentary Marriott Gold status. Marriott Platinum elite members receive United Premier Silver status. The partnership also enables transfers up to 50,000 MileagePlus miles per calendar year to a linked Marriott Rewards account at a 1:1 ratio. Marriott members get 10% more miles, in addition to the bonus of 5,000 miles for every 60,000 points when transferring points to MileagePlus miles. Thus, 60,000 points convert to 27,000 miles.
Earning starpoints with Car Rentals
Hertz – earn 2,000 Marriott points on rentals of two to four days, and 3,000 points on rentals of five days or more. In addition, Marriott Platinum Premier and Platinum Premier with Ambassador status can register with Hertz for complimentary Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Five Star or President’s Circle respectively.
Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Five Star and President’s Circle status offers upgrades and bonus points.
Sixt – earn 750 Marriott points for every rental with Sixt worldwide. Members also earn 1,000 points for Sixt Limousine Service and three points per dollar spent with Sixt mydriver.
Earning points by Hosting MeetingS
When you host a business meeting or other event, including a wedding, at a Marriott hotel, you earn up to 60,000 points per event on eligible room, food, beverages and A/V charges at a rate of two points per dollar. Platinum members earn up to 105,000 points per event. In addition, you earn 10 elite nights credit for your first meeting and one elite night credit for each additional 20 room nights you book, up to 20 credits per contract.
Marriott occasionally offers promotions to earn bonus points via challenges throughout the year. Check for the most up-to-date offers on their website. The current promotion is called MegaBonus. You earn 2,000 bonus points on all stays of two or more nights and 1,000 points per brand, starting with your second brand. Stay at all 29 Marriott brands to earn an additional 29,000 points, stay at 10 brands to earn 10,000 points. Register for the promotion by January 7, 2019. The promotion runs until January 31, 2019.
Buying MARRIOTT points
Members may buy up to 50,000 Marriott points per calendar year. The price is $12.50 per 1,000 points, so 50,000 points costs $625. This may be useful to top up your Marriott account for specific hotel award redemptions, but otherwise is an expensive way to accumulate points.
There are many ways to earn Marriott points. I recommend registering for Marriott Rewards and apply for one of the American Express or Chase co-branded SPG or Marriott credit cards to earn points from your hotel stays and regular spending. If needed, top up your account using airline mile transfers and earn bonus points from Marriott car rental partners. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can earn tens of thousands of Marriott points to book free hotel rooms at Marriott’s 6,700+ hotels. Next: Check out my post on how to book free hotel rooms.
The introduction of the first web browser, Mosaic Netscape (better known as Netscape Navigator) in 1994 kickstarted a massive boom in electronic commerce (e-commerce) sites. Was it a mere coincidence that today’s largest e-commerce company, Amazon, was founded in 1994? Of course, in the early days, Amazon sold only books and their site looked primitive compared to their content-rich pages today. E-commerce sites are enabling a new “hobby” (or is it a “sport”?) – online shopping. They provide an easy way to research and buy almost everything for everyone in your life – and, of course, for the “occasional” spending spree. Among key enablers for online shopping, credit cards give a fast and relatively secure method to pay for goods and services on e-commerce sites. While earning points or miles from your online shopping should be a key ingredient in your travel rewards strategy, most credit cards offer minimal rewards for online shopping purchases – often only one point or mile per dollar spent. Of course, some cards offer bonus points or miles for specific categories such as airline flights, hotels, online services, etc. Fortunately, there are easy ways to boost your reward earning from online purchases made via airline, credit card and hotel shopping portals.
The good news is that many airline and hotel companies, and a couple of credit card providers (Chase and Barclays), offer bonus points or miles when you sign up for their shopping portals and click to a store and not going directly. Any subsequent purchases made at the store’s site earns you bonus points or miles – these are in addition to points or miles earned using a rewards credit card. Make sure you sign up for multiple shopping portals with all your favorite airline and hotel loyalty programs before you start shopping online. The various shopping portals often have different earning rates for the same store so a little more research is needed before clicking the buy now button. Further, shopping portals often offer special rewards for certain products or stores throughout the year. For example, United Airlines may offer one mile per dollar at Apple.com, whereas American Airlines may have a special limited-time offer earning two miles per dollar.
Deciding which of the many shopping portals to use depends mostly on your travel goals and, in a related way, the points or miles “currency” you are trying to collect for an award redemption. Even if you don’t have a current travel goal, it is worth collecting at least one airline and one hotel “currency” so you have a stockpile ready for your next trip or stay. I mostly collect miles for United and Alaska Airlines since I live in Los Angeles and they give me a lot of options to travel throughout the U.S., especially to Hawaii and to the U.K. and New Zealand, where my extended family live. I also stockpile Starpoints in my Starwood Preferred Guest account for hotel stays. If you have one of the Chase Ultimate Rewards cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred credit cards, you can also earn extra Ultimate Rewards points via their shopping portal.
TIP #1: An important part of your online shopping strategy should include the use of a “shopping portal aggregator”, such as evrewardand CashbackMonitor. These great sites give rewards earning rates for multiple airline, hotel and credit card shopping portals. Before making a purchase, use one of these sites to search for the store you may wish to buy from and click on one of the links to transfer you to the right shopping portal.
TIP #2: You don’t need to use a credit card to earn points or miles when shopping online – debit cards, gift cards or PayPal work just as well. However, it usually makes sense to use a credit card to give an extra layer of security and to tap into special benefits to protect the items you buy from loss, damage or theft; even to extend your product warranty. Combining the points or miles earned via shopping portals with those earned from credit card spending is a smart way to boost your earning rates.
Earn United MileagePlus miles for every dollar you spend at over 850 online stores. Sign into the United MileagePlus Shopping portal using your MileagePlus number and account password. The site’s home page displays top stores, sponsored deals and limited time offers. Most of the time, you use the search function to find specific stores and products. The MileagePlus Shopping site includes many of my favorite brands and stores, including Apple, New Balance, Expedia, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy and Samsung. For example, if I am buying a new iPhone I earn two miles per dollar, although as I mentioned earlier, earning rates change often so it is always worth double checking. Clothes, flowers, and many other categories earn even higher mileage rates.
TIP #3: Remember to use shopping portals for purchasing flowers for special occasions, such as Mother’s Day or birthdays. I have used 1800flowers.com or FTD.com. Earning rates of 20 points or miles per dollar are not unusual.
United offers an excellent smart phone app (Apple and Google), MileagePlus X, that provides “on the go” mileage earning, up to five miles per dollar, by purchasing eGift cards to make payments at local stores and restaurants. In addition, if you have the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card, you earn a 25% bonus. The MileagePlus X app can also be used to buy and store eGift cards in your smart phone digital wallet or store accounts. To setup the app, log into your MileagePlus account and the app syncs with any payment cards stored in your united.com profile. You search from a list of nearby stores, or via the online catalog with categories such as Entertainment, Food, Home & Garden, etc. If the app supports the store, you buy an eGift card for the total price (be sure to include sales tax) of the item you are buying, or the restaurant bill (include a tip too) you are paying. Within a store or restaurant, you show your smart phone with the open MileagePlus X app, displaying the store’s eGift card number and PIN, to the cashier or server for them to complete the purchase.
I often use this app to pay for meals at local restaurants, including P.F. Chang’s. For online shopping, you buy an eGift card for the total amount of your purchase, including sales tax and shipping/handling fees. Then, you enter the eGift card number and PIN in the site’s payment form (usually under Gift Cards) to complete your purchase. The MileagePlus X app has a feature to mark an eGift card as redeemed (on the app menu click on Purchases to display a list of previously bought eGift cards) to help you keep a list of active (with an unused balance) cards. The MileagePlus X app has a number great options for local shopping and entertainment, including AMC Theatres, Apple iTunes & App Store, Domino’s, Google Play, Starbucks and Uber. Currently, I earn two miles per dollar spent on Apple iTunes eGift cards, and five miles per dollar with AMC Theatres, in addition to credit card spending points or miles.
TIP #4: If you regularly pay for music, movie, app downloads/subscriptions, visit your local cinema, restaurants or coffee shops, pre-purchase eGift cards and store them on your smartphone for quick payment. I keep a few eGift cards for AMC, Apple App Store & iTunes and Starbucks on my iPhone and use them via the Apple Wallet app to pay for movie tickets, Apple iTunes downloads, and cappuccinos!
As with the United MileagePlus shopping portal, American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping portal rewards you with AAdvantage miles for shopping at your favorite stores. The portal supports over 950 stores. Unlike United’s portal, you need to register for AAdvantage eShopping separately from your AAdvantage frequent flyer account, although the accounts share a common AAdvantage number. The list of stores is similar between all shopping portals although, as I mentioned earlier, they may offer different earning rates and special offers throughout the year. For example, at the time of writing, I notice AAdvantage eShopping has a limited-time offer of six miles per dollar spent with Apple.
Tip #5: A recently introduced feature of the AAdvantage eShopping portal is a button installed as an extension to the Google Chrome browser. Once you install the button, you log into your AAdvantage eShopping account and Google search results include mileage earning offers. After selecting an offer and making a purchase, a pop-up displays your mileage earnings.
Alaska’s shopping portal, Mileage Plan Shopping, offers mileage earning opportunities at over 800 stores. As with American’s AAdvantage eShopping portal, Alaska recently introduced their Mileage Plan Shopping button extension for Google’s Chrome browser.
Once installed, Google search results include miles reward rates for each store for comparison purposes. If you also installed the American AAdvantage eShopping button you see both Alaska and American earning rates displayed, if the store is supported by both portals. After selecting an offer and making a purchase, Mileage Plan Shopping displays the miles you earned.
Additional Airline and Hotel Shopping Portals
Other major airline and hotel brands offer point or mile rewards for online shopping. Here is a brief, but not complete, list along with links to their sites.
TIP #6: Points and miles earned with airline and hotel loyalty programs typically expire within a specific time if there is no activity in your account. For example, United MileagePlus miles expire 18 months from your most recent activity. To keep your MileagePlus account active, you earn or redeem miles before their expiration date. Even if you do not expect flying with United in the coming months, earning miles via United’s MileagePlus Shopping portal is a simple way to keep your account active and avoiding the loss of miles you have already earned. Another method, is to apply for and use a United MileagePlus Explorer Card. As long as your card account is open, your MileagePlus miles will not expire.
Stacking Rewards – My Shopping Example
In this example, I describe the process I used to earn points and miles for a wedding gift I bought from Williams-Sonoma. As you may already know, soon-to-be-wed couples select desired products from one or more stores and list them under their registry services. Invited guests buy items from the registry, thus avoiding unwanted or duplicate gifts.
First, I check the evreward site to search for Williams-Sonoma. The site displays a list of Frequent Flyer Miles & Hotel Rewards programs offering shopping rewards. I notice British Airways is offering six Avios per dollar. I click-through to their Avios eStore site and login to my Executive Club account. The portal passes me to the Williams-Sonoma store.
I search for my friends’ wedding registry and scroll through the list of their selected items. I find some good quality stock pots and pans, since I know they like to cook, and add them to my shopping cart. I continue through the checkout process, select the couple’s registered shipping address and enter my contact details (billing address). Not one to pass on an even better deal, I notice a free shipping discount code at the top of the page and enter it in the Promotion Code box and apply it to my order. At this point the Order Summary displays the Item Total, Shipping & Processing (less discount for free shipping code) and Sales Tax for a total price of $228.85.
I open the United MileagePlus X app on my iPhone to buy an eGift card. I search for Williams-Sonoma within the Home & Garden category in the app’s Catalog. I note United is offering three miles per dollar at Williams-Sonoma. I click on the Williams-Sonoma line at the bottom of the store listing and the app displays the store details, including locations of nearby “physical” stores. I click on the Pay now button at the bottom of the screen. The next screen asks me to enter the value of the eGift card I wish to buy, so I enter $228.85 (note: there are limits set for each eGift card type so you may need to buy multiple cards if you need to pay for items over the limit). The app also asks me to select the form of payment or use award miles (you can set a default method if you wish to use the same card each time you use the app). The app synchronizes with payment cards stored in my united.com account. I select my Chase MileagePlus Visa card and click on the Pay now button. I earn 686 + 171 (25% bonus for owning the MileagePlus Visa card) miles for a total of 857 miles. In addition, I earn 229 miles from Chase for using my MileagePlus Visa card. I copy the eGift card number and PIN over to the Williams-Sonoma site to complete the wedding registry gift purchase. Since I linked from the BA Avios eStore first, I earn another 1,260 Avios (6 x 210) – they don’t pay rewards for sales tax or shipping fees. Although thus may seem complicated, it only takes a few minutes extra to follow the other steps to earn bonus points and miles from this purchase.
In summary, for the gift purchase I made at Williams-Sonoma’s online store, I earned the following points and miles:
857 United MileagePlus miles with the MileagePlus X app
229 United MileagePlus miles with my Chase MileagePlus Visa card
1,260 BA Avios with the BA Avios eStore link (via evreward) to the Williams-Sonoma site
A nice total of 2,346 miles towards my next free flight award redemption.
TIP #6: Points and miles are not all worth the same. Their value varies depending on how you use them. For example, if you use them to buy products or gift cards you may net less than 1 cent per point or mile. However, if you use redeem them for travel rewards, such as hotel stays, airline tickets or upgrades, you often get higher value from them. For comparison purposes, I apply a relative value to each point and mile “currency”. For example, I value United miles and BA Avios at 1.5 cents each. In the above example, my reward for shopping online netted me about $35 in relative value, or just over 15% of the total price.
TIP #7: If you plan to make significant purchases online over the next 2-3 months, consider applying for a new credit card that offers a sign-on bonus of points or miles. Thus, when you use your new card for purchases you already intend to make, you hit the spending requirement to earn the sign-on bonus faster. For example, when you open a Citi ThankYou Premier Card account and spend $4,000 within three months of account opening you earn 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points (worth $625 when redeemed for airfare on any airline through Citi’s ThankYou Travel Center, or $500 for gift cards redeemed from the ThankYou Rewards collection). Paying regular bills (auto, home or health insurance, TV or streaming/music services, Internet, cell phone and utility bills) with day-to-day spending (groceries, gas, travel, dining, gifts, etc.) throughout the month with your credit card, you earn the sign-on bonus even faster. But, please only apply for a new card if you have little or no existing debt and are able to pay off your monthly credit card statement balances to avoid interest charges.
I shop online for many types of products and services. I spend a few minutes extra each time to research points and miles earning potential. The use of shopping portal aggregators, such as evreward and CashbackMonitor, helps me to quickly find current reward rates and links via airline, credit card and hotel shopping portals to stores I regularly use. The use of credit cards earns me “stacked” rewards to boost my points and miles balances. And, often, I combine them with the United MileagePlus X app to buy eGift cards to make payments and earn more bonus miles.
Redeeming points for a well-earned vacation gives you a nice warm feeling and keeps dollars in your wallet. Cash you save on hotel rooms is useful for spending on meals, drinks and other activities. I also love booking free hotel rooms with points since it gives me more flexibility than paying with cash. Unlike free flight awards, hotel reservations made with points can be canceled or changed without penalty before your arrival. When you book with cash, especially via third-party sites or prepaid rates, you may be stuck should your plans change.
Starwood have some great opportunities for saving money with their SPG Starpoints. Hotels are grouped into seven categories ranging from basic Category 1 hotels (e.g. Four Points Kansas City Airport) to Category 7 luxury hotels and resorts (e.g. The Gritti Palace, Venice). The categories are based on multiple factors, including location, amenities, average rate, time of year (high/low seasons) and nearby hotels. One free night at a Category 1 hotels costs 2,000 – 3,000 Starpoints per room, for a standard room. At the other end of the spectrum, a free night at a Category 7 hotel costs 30,000 – 35,000 Starpoints. Specialty resorts, such as those offering only suite or villas, cost more and must be booked via Starwood’s service centers. For a complete list of SPG hotel categories click here
TIP #1: An added benefit of booking rooms with Starpoints is you do not pay any taxes. However, you still pay resort fees direct to the hotel or resort, if applicable.
I try to get the best value from my points by researching room rates for the dates I want to visit a destination and comparing them to award rates for free stays. Firstly, I log into my SPG account or SPG smartphone app on my smartphone. In either case, I enter my desired destination – city, airport, or hotel name – along with arrival and departure dates. Also, I make sure to add the number of guests who will be staying in the room, including children. This is especially important if I am booking a hotel at an international destination since the maximum number of guests per room is often lower compared to U.S. hotel. This avoids potential issues and extra costs at check-in time.
Booking Free Hotel rooms with points
Here’s an example of a hotel search I made for a visit to San Francisco in December:
Clicking on SEARCH, displays a list of available hotels along with the lowest rates and the cost in Starpoints per free night.
For example, in this display I see The Westin St. Francis on Union Square, a property I’ve stayed at many times, is offered at $265, or 20,000 Starpoints, per night. This hotel is an SPG Category 6 hotel. Occasionally, an SPG Cash & Points rate is shown, but this is not always offered for all selected dates. SPG Cash & Points provides a way to stretch Starpoints over more nights by combining a lower Starpoints rate with cash. For example, in this search, an SPG Cash & Points rate is offered for 10,000 Starpoints plus $180 per night plus taxes. Further down the list, I also see The Park Central hotel, a more reasonably priced hotel located near the Moscone Convention Center – it is an SPG Category 5 hotel. This hotel is offered at a rate of $163 or 12,000 Starpoints per night. Based on my experience, these hotels are offering relatively low cash rates for the selected dates, so if I were to book these I would likely pay cash rates with my Amex SPG card, and earn more Starpoints. When researching free hotel stays, I use a Starpoint value of 2.5 cents. Thus, if I can snag a free stay with a value of over 2.5 cents I am happy. However, for this example I select the SPG Free Nights rate, and check the Bed Type I want to reserve, usually a King Bed. I click on Book Now and check my personal information, such as name, address, SPG Number and email address are correct. As a Platinum elite member, I can select my room upgrade options, such as Largest Room, Best View or Highest Floor and more. I can also request early check-in and late check-out times and more. Finally, I click on COMPLETE RESERVATION and look for an email confirmation of my reservation. On the SPG smartphone app, I also check the reservation details under My Stays and Reservation Details.
TIP #2: Reservations made with Starpoints may be cancelled without penalty before the date specified in the Cancellation Policy section of your reservation confirmation. In this case, Starpoints are returned to your account.
TIP #3: Book five nights or more with Starpoints and get the fifth night free at Category 3-7 hotels! For example, if the SPG Free Nights rate is 12,000 Starpoints per night, you can book a one week stay for 72,000 Starpoints. I often use this benefit to stay at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. For a recent stay in January, I booked seven nights for 120,000 Starpoints (one night is typically 20,000 Starpoints) with one night free. If I had paid cash, the lowest total price was around $3,500. As an SPG Platinum elite member I also received an upgraded ocean view room and daily full buffet breakfast for two (regularly over $30 per person per day), saving hundreds more dollars during our stay.
upgrading your free hotel room
After you earn SPG Gold or Platinum elite status, you often receive an upgraded room at check-in. I review my reservation, using the SPG app on my iPhone, a couple of days before I am due to check into a hotel to see if they have pre-assigned an upgraded room, or even a suite. Within the Room Features section of the Reservation Details I often find the room type is upgraded from my original reservation. If you aren’t too bothered knowing in advance it can be a nice surprise to hear that wonderful news “we thank you for being an SPG elite member and your continued loyalty and we have upgraded your room to a suite…”! Believe me, it does happen more often than you might think.
The SPG program states a benefit of being Gold or Platinum elite is an upgraded room (Platinum upgrades may include standard suites), subject to availability at check-in. However, this is far from a guarantee, especially if you are visiting a popular destination at a busy time. If you prefer to book into an upgraded room, you can call SPG at 1-888-625-4988 and ask about the rates. If you prefer to redeem Starpoints for an upgraded room, including suites, you may call Starwood Reservations. Ask the customer service agent for the Starpoint (or Cash & Points) rate for upgraded rooms at your selected hotel.
Here are the point rates per hotel category for upgraded rooms and suites:
These points are in addition to those required for standard award redemptions. Typically, booking a suite with points costs double the standard rate. However, you can also use these rates to upgrade a room you booked with a cash rate. In order to use points in this way, you must book a flexible rate that’s eligible to earn points and is also eligible for elite nights/stay credit – make sure to book rooms via the Starwood site since rooms booked via third-party sites aren’t upgradable.
If you have earned SPG Platinum elite status by staying a minimum of 50 nights in a calendar year, you’ll receive the option to select an added benefit of Suite Night Awards. These are used for both cash and award stays to upgrade to request an upgrade to a suite. This includes:
Award reservations using Starpoints
SPG Cash & Points reservations
Flexible and prepaid rates
Each Suite Night Award is used for one night, but you can use multiple awards for a longer stay. Once you’ve made your reservation, check the reservation details and you’ll see a link to apply upgrade requests using your available Suite Night Awards. You’ll receive an email notification when the upgrade request clears or not a few days before your arrival. In some cases, the hotel will upgrade you to a suite as a benefit of being SPG Platinum. In this case, your Suite Night Awards are deposited back to your account. Suite Night Awards expire, usually the end of the calendar year after the year you first received them.
As a reminder, you can start each calendar year with five nights toward elite status when you have either of the American Express (Amex) SPG credit cards. If you have both cards, you only need to stay 40 more nights at Starwood properties to earn Platinum elite status for the rest of this year and the next year. You can also link your SPG account with Marriott Rewards and receive an elite status match to Marriott Platinum too.
To apply for the Amex SPG cards, click one of the links below (I do not receive any referral fee from these links).
While there are several ways to earn SPG Starpoints, the easiest are to book and stay at Starwood hotels, and use one of the Amex SPG cards for your regular spending. Booking free hotel stays is easy – check out the redemption rates for your destination and dates using either the Starwood web site, or the SPG smartphone app. You can top up your SPG account using airline mile transfers, and earn bonus Starpoints from SPG partners, such as Hertz. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can earn tens of thousands of Starpoints for a free or upgraded vacation stay at thousands of hotels and resorts worldwide.
For many years, earning miles required buying tickets and sitting on real flights. I could easily estimate the miles I would earn from a trip by looking up the flight distance. If I flew more than 25,000 or 50,000 miles with one airline in a calendar year I would earn elite status. At that point, I could use elite bonus multipliers to calculate how many more miles I was earning for a trip. Ah…the good old days! Unfortunately, over the past few years, major U.S. airlines have moved to a revenue-based system, using the base fare, to calculate earned miles. Base fares do not include airline or government-imposed surcharges or taxes. Travelers who have no elite status in an airline’s program typically earn five miles per dollar. However, elite members continue to earn bonus miles. For example, United MileagePlus Premier Gold members earn an extra three miles, for a total eight per dollar spent. In addition, airlines are devaluing their miles by steadily increasing the redemption cost of awards. As a result, it is more difficult earning miles for free flights. But, this is really the old way of earning miles. Rather than spending cash to buy tickets and sitting for many hours in cramped planes, there are easier methods – one of which I’ll discuss in this post.
What’s Your Travel Goal?
Even if you eventually earn tens of thousands of miles, it may still be difficult to spend, or redeem, them for award travel. You may find your favorite airline doesn’t have award seats available on the dates you want to travel. Or, you may discover the redemption cost is double what you have saved for. Why is this the case? One of the reasons is you are competing with thousands of smart travelers, with more experience than you. They have plans for earning miles to meet their travel goals, and book early – often up to a year in advance. In addition, airlines are quite clever at limiting award seats on popular routes since they would prefer to sell tickets for as many seats as possible to boost their profits – after all, isn’t that what their shareholders expect? If you need to fly at short notice or to a popular destination with few flight options you should prepare to redeem miles for higher cost standard awards than the early-bird specials, or saver awards.
Making a Travel Plan
So, let’s take a look at travel planning step-by-step. Firstly, set your goals for destination and timeframe that match your interests and availability. If you can fly during an off-peak season, or even a less popular day during the week, you will have an improved chance to score lower cost award seats. Are you traveling alone, with a partner, or with a family?
Secondly, research flight routes from your local airports to your target destination. One great search tool I like to use while researching flights for a trip is Google Flights. By entering my nearest major airport, Los Angeles International (LAX in airport code language) and the city nearest my target destination I can get a quick list of potential airlines that serve the route I want to take. In the example for this post, I set my destination for London (LHR). Next, I enter target dates for travel. For this trip, I have flexibility to avoid the Summer peak travel season so I enter October 1st to October 15th as a baseline. Below, you’ll see the first results displayed by Google Flights.
I typically look for airlines that offer nonstop flights and I note the general range of ticket prices. Nonstop flights from the West Coast to Europe help to cut to likelihood of connection issues due to bad weather or incoming plane delays. Next, check how many miles you will need to redeem for an award ticket with these airlines. Here are links to some of major U.S airline award charts to start your research. Note: Delta doesn’t publish an award chart but you can get an estimate by doing a Google search, such as “Delta award chart”.
In my example, I’m going to research American’s award chart (see below).
I find a range of award redemption prices for Main Cabin (aka Economy) travel for my target destination region, Europe. Yes, I know the UK is now Brexiting from the European Union (EU) but, geographically speaking, it is still technically in Europe. Most airline award charts only give you the cost for a one-way trip. You’ll need to double the number miles to get the total cost for a roundtrip flight. In my example, I am able to travel to and from London for as low as 45,000 AAdvantage miles to as many as 130,000 miles. From my experience, I’ll most likely be able to find MileSAAver awards for off-peak travel a few months in the future at a cost of 60,000 miles roundtrip. For this trip, that’s a reasonable target for earning miles. If for some reason, you have earned miles for many years, especially via business paid travel, you may already have enough miles to redeem your award ticket already. Super cool – go get ’em cowboy! Or, you may want to consider the fares at this time are actually quite low – I would typically pay for this trip by credit card and not use miles. There are a couple of benefits buying the ticket with a credit card: first, I don’t need to wait to earn enough miles for the trip; and, secondly, I’ll earn more miles toward future free travel.
Earning Miles FROM CREDIT CARDS
In the case of American Airlines, we have several options for earning miles from credit card signup bonuses – via co-branded credit cards, or indirectly through points transfer partners.
At the time of writing this post, Citi and Barclaycard both offer 60,000 AAdvantage bonus miles. However, they have different methods of earning signup bonus miles. Firstly, with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard (try saying that fast) you earn bonus miles after making $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. Citi is waiving the annual fee of $95 for the first 12 months. On the other hand, the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard (just as difficult to say fast) offers bonus miles when you make your first purchase in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee of $95 with your first statement. Bonus miles are deposited to your AAdvantage account at the end of each monthly billing period. I received bonus miles from Barclaycard only 22 days after I applied for the Aviator Red card – I made my first purchase within a few days of receiving the card. In the case of Citi, I received bonus miles almost seven weeks after I applied for the Platinum Select card, even though I met the minimum spending requirement within a couple of weeks of receiving the card.
With both cards, you earn 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases. All other purchases earn you 1 mile per dollar spent. Neither card is the most flexible card in terms of earning miles for multiple airlines or hotels but, in terms of signup bonus and annual fee, for a targeted free flight with American they are among the best options to begin. In addition to the bonus miles, I also like the following benefits that come with both cards when traveling with American:
First checked bag free for the primary cardmember and up to four companions on eligible bags when flying domestically. Fortunately, for our target destination to the UK, American doesn’t charge a baggage fee for the first bag. But, if you are planning to fly to Hawaii, such as, this card benefit is valuable and will likely pay for the annual fee in one roundtrip. American’s regular domestic baggage fee is $25 per bag. So, a family of four with one bag per person needs to pay $200 to check their bags roundtrip. Compared to the annual fee of $95, this is an easy decision.
Preferred boarding for the primary cardmember and up to four companions on their reservation. Why is this important? If you are traveling with carry-on bags, such as wheelies, or get stressed out waiting in long lines, this benefit makes your travel a bit more enjoyable. Since many travelers do not check their bags, above-seat storage space is often limited on crowded flights. If you can board your flight earlier you have a better chance of finding space for your carry-ons directly above your seats.
25% savings on in-flight purchases – for example, food, beverages and headsets.
10% redeemed miles back per year – up 10,000 miles are credited back to you AAdvantage account when using miles for award travel when you have either of these cards. For example, if you use the 60,000 bonus miles for an award trip, your account is credited with 6,000 miles – that’s like getting a 10% discount on your awards!
Another important benefit for your international trips is:
No foreign transaction fees when you make purchases outside the U.S. While many credit cards in the U.S. now offer this benefit, it’s best to check what’s in your wallet otherwise you may find yourself being charged up to 3% of purchases made while traveling internationally. Since our target trip is to the UK, I highly recommend taking a credit card that has this benefit with you and making as many purchases on your trip using this, or similar, card. You will also earn more miles to use on future free or upgraded trips – getting the hang of this miles and point game?
There are other travel benefits with each card. I recommend you to check out the offers yourself and decide which works for your circumstances. In particular, read the benefit descriptions for Trip Delay and Trip Cancellation coverage. The Aviator Red card offers $1,500 trip cancellation coverage for when an illness or other covered reason forces you to cancel your flight or trip purchased with the card. The Platinum Select card offers $5,000 trip cancellation coverage and trip delay coverage up to $500 for lodging if you experience a flight delay of 12 hours of more.
Note: I do not receive compensation for recommending these cards.
The Amex SPG card is one of my favorite credit cards for general spending. I can typically receive the best value using my Starpoints for hotel stays at Westin, Sheraton, W and other Starwood branded hotels. I can also transfer Starpoints to Marriott Rewards at a rate of 1 Starpoint to 3 Rewards points. However, for the purpose of my example I am looking at the transfer value of Starpoints to American AAdvantage miles. Starpoints transfer at a conversion rate of 1 point per mile, but you also get a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer. This is an insufficient number of miles, in itself, to redeem for a free flight to Europe. However, you may consider using this as an option to top up your AAdvantage miles, if you are running low for an upcoming trip.
Other American AAdvantage Partners
As mentioned in my earlier post, American Airlines is a founding member of the oneworld global alliance. As such, you can redeem free award flights via American’s airline partners. Each airline has its own redemption award charts and partner award travel inventories. In addition, several premium credit cards have established their own travel points that are earned and redeemed within their travel portals to buy airline tickets and book hotels and rental cars. I’ll be covering these topics in future posts.
I joined two frequent flyer programs in 1990, shortly after arriving in the U.S. from the U.K. I was flying with American and United with my job as a technical consultant. Fortunately, both airlines survived despite many mergers in the industry. Many airlines offer frequent flyer programs. You can find comparisons of these programs on various frequent flyer discussion group web sites, such as FlyerTalk. However, just as with wine, where many experts will tell you “drink what you like”, I say similarly about frequent flyer programs – “fly with who you like”. There’s no cost to join a frequent flyer program, so why not join as you book flights? Earn miles when you fly and earn more for dining, shopping, staying at hotels, renting cars, using credit cards, and more. Many airlines have frequent flyer program partnerships with other airlines via one of the three global alliances or with other cross-marketing agreements.
The primary airline frequent flyer programs I use are American AAdvantage. United MileagePlus. I joined other frequent flyer programs for specific regions or routes where the airlines are not members of the three global alliances. For example, I often take Southwest flights to San José and San Francisco, so I’m also enrolled their Rapids Rewards program.
Global Airline Alliances
Alliances provide expanded networks with more destinations, while enabling me to earn miles with my primary frequent flyer programs. Through my elite status with American and United, I can also upgrade my travel experiences with their partners. Priority check-in and boarding, free checked bags and, for international flights, access to airport lounges. I can also redeem miles for flights operated by alliance partner airlines. This is very useful when my primary airlines do not offer flights between my preferred departure and destination airports. It’s important to note that some airlines are joint marketing partners with other airlines, even though they do not work within one of the major alliances. In these cases, the partnership may include reciprocal benefits in their frequent flyer programs, code-share flights or other joint activities. And, there are some airlines, such as Southwest, that do not include any airlines within their frequent flyer programs.
American Airlines, British Airways and Qantas launched their oneworld alliance in 1999. It is the third-largest global alliance in terms of passengers. Here is a list of the alliance’s current members and their respective frequent flyer awards program (with links):
Star Alliance was the first global airline alliance formed in 1997. It is now the largest alliance by passenger count. Founder members are United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Thai Airways and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). The alliance’s current members include:
SkyTeam is the most recent major airline alliance, and the second largest by passenger count. The original members of the alliance are Delta Airlines, Air France, Aeromexico and Korean Air. The alliance’s current members are:
Several airlines in the U.S. are not in any of the alliances. However, several of these airlines are partners with other major airlines. As such, you may earn and redeem miles within their respective frequent flyer programs when flying with these specific airlines or with their partners.
Bottom line: I recommend that you join an airline’s frequent flyer program when you book your flights. I add the airline contact information, including website link and phone number along with the frequent flyer number in my phone contacts app. This makes it easier to find your membership number when you book later flights. You should always include your membership number when make travel reservations. Some airlines offer travel benefits only to their frequent flyer members. You do not want to miss earning valuable points and miles. You should also book your flights with a credit card to earn extra points and miles. Most credit cards also offer extra travel benefits, such as free checked bags, travel delay and lost baggage insurance. I’ll be covering some of these other benefits in subsequent posts.
In 1990, my wife and I moved from the U.K. to the U.S. with our two young children. I remember being asked by our travel agent what date she should use for our return trip. I said “never, it’s a one-way trip”! A high technology company hired me as a technical consultant in Silicon Valley. As part of my job, I traveled often – domestically at first and then, within a few years, internationally. My manager was well versed in the American Airlines AAdvantage travel awards program. He traveled much more than I did, living in Southern California and attending company and customer meetings across the U.S. As a result, he was an AAdvantage Platinum elite member. His generosity was outstanding and would treat me to First Class using upgrade coupons he received. With colleagues like this, I was in heaven – literally! He encouraged me to sign up for AAdvantage membership during a visit to the airline’s Admirals Club lounge in San José airport. I joined United’s MileagePlus program the same year. This is how I got started on a fun hobby my wife and I refer to as #upgrademylife.
So, after almost thirty years I should be a points millionaire by now, right? Well, collecting miles and points during the early nineties was tedious. I had to actually get on a plane and travel somewhere – what an inconvenience. There were airline credit cards available, but I had no one educating me how useful they were. I used my bank’s no-fee Visa card for business expenses and checks for everything else. It took a lot of time to collect enough miles to get free flights for all the family members. So, I just kept saving miles and not taking much interest in them. We eventually spent most of them on a trip to Disney World traveling first class with American.
One frequent flyer benefit when you travel a lot with one airline is you can earn elite status. Traveling as an elite flyer comes with benefits that you can use on every flight you take. These benefits may include priority check-in and boarding, upgrades, free checked bags, and free food and beverages. Also, you earn miles at an accelerated rate based on combinations of flight distance, ticket class and amount spent. Traveling for business, I regularly attained AAdvantage Platinum and Premier Gold elite status. This definitely improved my travel experience when flying. By the late 90’s, I had traveled enough with American to earn Million Miler status, and recently achieved United’s Million Miler stats too. I’ll discuss this aspect of airline awards programs in a future post.
A related aspect of business travel was getting to stay at many hotels around the world. Hotel chains have their loyalty programs too. Each program comes with varying points earning and redemption rates. And, of course, multiple levels of elite status and related benefits. Unfortunately, during my early career I wasn’t able to focus my stays on just one or two chains. My corporate travel agent booked my business travel. I could only stay at specific hotels per place. So, it took a lot of trips to earn enough points to get a free hotel night. But, I remember you could buy Starwood Gold membership for $20 per year in the early 90’s. Today, that takes 25 nights or 10 stays in a calendar year to achieve. However, with improved planning, I have now achieved Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum status over the past few years. The benefits of this status include regular upgraded rooms, free breakfasts, and lots of bonus points.
Now if all the above sounds like a very bleak environment for collecting miles and points, it wasn’t really. Flying was a lot less stressful due to lower levels of security requirements. Another reason that it wasn’t the Dark Ages of Frequent Travel was that airline awards programs were simpler. It’s a more complex environment today, with airline award programs shifting to revenue-based models. Changes in the hotel industry, for example Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood, is causing uncertainty for loyal fans of their respective award programs. In addition, frequent devaluations within award charts are being announced regularly. Fortunately, there are many good strategies to improve your earning and redemption power to counter these changes.
So, you may ask, what is the point of all this nostalgic time travel? I want to give you a sense of my early experiences collecting miles and points. From this background, I will fast forward to today and share my experiences from the past few years. The environment for collecting miles and points for free travel has never been better. Financial and travel companies are in a heated battle for your business. They are willing to deliver rich rewards for your loyalty. In future posts, I’ll discuss how credit card sign up bonuses can supercharge your miles and points balances. Also, I’ll share with you some tips I’ve learned about smart use of credit cards for shopping and bill paying. In addition, I’ll cover how to use your airline, credit card and hotel miles and points effectively. Along the way, there will be reviews of places, hotels and restaurants that we visit. And, more…
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So remember, #upgrademylife is the name of the game – play well my dear readers!