Bart Lapers

20K *A miles + 3Y The Economist for 352 euro

I’ll be up-to-date with World Economic news for the next three years, all because of my quest for more Lufthansa Star Alliance miles

Collecting airline miles can be tough.  My latest Turkish Airways flight Istanbul – Brussels (booking class Q) was ‘rewarded’ with 125 status miles.  The amount of Star Alliance miles for many discounted fares is just ridiculous.  Next time, make sure to check the booking class of an airfare.  You might have the option to select a different flight which is slightly more expensive but offers you a lot more miles.

If flying alone doesn’t offer you enough miles to obtain that First Class award you’re looking for, alternative options might help you out.  Unfortunately, we Belgians can’t rely on Credit Card sign-up bonuses of tens of thousands of miles like our US travel friends.  There’s only the MasterCard or American Express card by Brussels Airlines Miles and More (part of Lufthansa, Star Alliance).  They earn you 1 0r 1.5 miles per euro spent and come with a maximum sign-up bonus of 3000 miles.  In comparison, our US travel companions can count on sign-up bonuses of up to 150,000 miles!

If you take a look at the miles earning opportunities on the Brussels Airlines Miles and More website, you’ll notice none of the offers are really appealing.  You’ll realize saving miles as a frequent non-business traveler is hard.  But sometimes an acceptable offer comes along, if you look hard enough.

One of the offers on the Brussels Airlines website is 5,000 miles for a three-year “The Economist” subscription.  That same three-year subscription via the German Miles and More website offers you 20,000 miles (offer valid from March 1 to May 31, 2011) As the terms and conditions do not state you have to be a German citizen, Miles and More members worldwide can enjoy this offer.

Now how valuable are those 20,000 miles?  If you’re going to use them for an economy reward flight, they are definitely not worth 352 euro.  On the other hand, if those 20K miles are going to be used to top-up your balance to obtain a business or first class award, it might be money well spent.  At least it’s a better option than buying miles directly for Lufthansa Miles and More.  You can buy a maximum of 12,000 miles per year for 290EUR.  Even with the 20% bonus which was offered 1Q2011 on buying miles, you would still only get 14,000 miles for 290 euro.

As I’m saving miles for a First Class award, I signed-up for this miles boost.  My Brussels Airlines Miles and More credit card was charged 352 euro and 20,000 miles were posted 6 days later on my Miles and More account.  Oh yes, almost forgot, for the next three years I’ll receive a weekly issue of The Economist too.

Planning: City trip London

  • What? An overview of the workflow used to book flights and hotel for a London city trip.
  • When? Wednesday May 25 – Friday May 27
  • Why? Gumball 3000 Launch Party & Start Grid

Brussels – London: By plane or train?

For most travelers the cheapest (fastest?) way from anywhere in Belgium to London is by train.  B-Europe.com is the recommend starting point to book your Eurostar (and Thalys, TGV, ICE) tickets for departures from any train station in Belgium.  People living near Antwerp can also rely on Cityjet.com to connect to London for reasonable prices.

As Brussels airport is only a 5 minute drive away from where I live, I prefer to fly.  That’s not the only reason though, travel by air just feels more comfortable and enjoyable to me.  Brussels Airport is a paradise compared to the train stations of Brussels.  Not to speak of the security issues at Brussels South (aka Bruxelles Midi/Brussel-Zuid)  Earlier this month, I had to chase two guys who had stolen my camera bag at this station!

A British Airways newsletter reminded me I still had 6000 miles sitting on my sleeping Executive Club (One World) account.  Now, 6K miles doesn’t buy you much, but a short-haul flight like BRU-LHR could offer opportunities.

Flight awards cover fares only, you still need to pay taxes and fees.  This results in economy class rewards being the lowest value for your hard-earned miles.  The taxes and fees for a return economy class reward flight with British Airways would be a staggering €109.11  The full fare for my return ticket BRU-LHR would be €175.11  That’s a €66 discount in exchange for your 6000 miles, Sir.  No way.  After making all kinds of cash+miles/economy class and business class combinations, I figured out the highest value for my 6K miles.  The inbound flight LHR to BRU in Business class (called ‘Club Europe’ by BA).  The full fare €559.20 euro.  My miles+cash+taxes+fee fare €112.80  That’s a €446,40 value for my 6000 miles!  Of course, business class on a one hour A319 flight won’t be that impressive, but still, I’ll enjoy champagne at take-off and maybe a business class meal.  More importantly, I’ll have the opportunity to experience a business class treatment at the new Terminal 5 of London Heathrow and have access to the British Airways lounges.  A nice topic for a travel.bart.la blog post!

My inbound flight was booked, still had to figure out a way to get to London.  A one way train ticket would be €56, a one way flight €57 (BMI).  Easy choice.  Once again Bravofly.com demonstrated it’s power.  It not only combines regular and low-cost airlines, it also makes combinations of oneway tickets to find the cheapest fare.  Using this kind of ticket search engines, you might noticed intriguing pricing policies.  Example: That €57 one way BMI flight is in fact operated by Brussels Airlines.  Brussels Airlines sells the same flight for €88.  The base fare is €26 for both airlines, but there’s a €31 difference in taxes.  The reason behind this is the difference in fuel surcharges: a €36 fuel fee at Brussels Airlines versus a €5 fuel fee at BMI.  Both airlines have an additional fee for credit card payments: €6 at BMI and €7.5 at Brussels Airlines.  As BMI is a Star Alliance partner, I should be able to collect some miles on this flight too. (we’ll see about that)Picture: Bravofly.com screenshot shows Brussels Airlines flight sold cheaper by BMI

Final price comparison:

  • Cheapest round trip airfare €154 (BMI)
  • Cheapest Eurostar ticket €142
  • Cheapest CityJet ticket €202

I paid:

  • BRU – LHR British Midland Airways economy class €63,24
  • LHR – BRU British Airways business class €112.80 (+ 5900 miles)
  • Total: €176,04

Hotels in London

Hotels in London are incredibly expensive.  The timing of my trip made it even worst.  UEFA Champions League final 2011 at Wembley stadium on May 28. All luxury hotels fully booked or showing astronomical room rates, also on the days before the final.  Have a look at this HotelsCombined.com screenshot:

Picture: InterContinental London Park Lane – Lowest room rate per night for stays May 25-27,2011 = €707

As a budget traveler you would try to avoid planning trips at this time.  As a loyalty traveler it feels like time to cash in a reward.  So I did.  I used two free nights which I earned during last year’s PriorityClub.com Sweet Dilemma promotion to book the InterContinental London Park Lane.

Total cost of London 5* accommodation: €0 Value on March 29,2011:  €1404

Remark: I had to spend 4 nights (4 stays) at IHG properties to earn those two free nights in 2010.  So I did spend around 250 euro on 4 hotel nights of which two were mattress runs.

Radisson Blu Bucharest

Enjoyed a one night stay at Radisson Blu Bucharest last weekend.  Had checked the hotel’s public areas on a previous trip and was overwhelmed by the impressive Bla lobby bar.  I stayed on a Family and Friends rate (see Bucharest planning for details) which was 80 euro per night including breakfast for two and a 25% discount at the all-day-restaurant Caffe Citta.

Picture: My (small) King Size room at Radisson Blu Bucharest.

Overall, I was very impressed by this hotel, both infrastructure and service wise.  Modern high quality interior design and well trained friendly staff.  No wonder this hotel is rated #1 for business (and #2 for leisure) on Tripadvisor.

Advise for your airport transportation: book the Radisson shuttle service (43 lei/10 euro).  Every hour a shuttle leaves for the airport.  With a bit of luck you’re the only guest going to the airport which means a hotel’s Mercedes-Benz E-Class will drive you. (normally 160 lei/40 euro)

Data roaming for Belgians

Jan Henckens (@Jannemans) asked me to share some info on voice and data roaming.  I’m not an expert on voice roaming. I just know it’s important to use ‘partner’ networks of your domestic operator to avoid outrageous charges.  This post will be limited to advice on data roaming.

Belgium has three major operators: Proximus, Mobistar and Base.  All three of them offer data roaming packages.  Similar to voice roaming, it’s important to use partner networks of your domestic operator when you’re abroad.

Proximus offers a Vodafone Mobile Internet subscription which covers 34 countries at a cost of 20 euro/month for 50MB or 75 euro for 500MB.  If you want data roaming coverage for almost every country in the World, you pay 95 euro for 150MB. Note: There’s a list of all countries covered by the ‘Mobile Internet World’ subscription on the Proximus website, but no indication on which networks to use in each country.

Mobistar offers a 50mb subscription at 20 euro/month for use in the European Union, Switzerland, the US and China or  95 euro for 500MB.  If you want roaming internet Everywhere in the World,  Mobistar charges 95 euro for a 100MB monthly subscription.  There’s no indication on the Mobistar website which countries are covered nor which local networks to use.

Base makes a distinction between ‘ Challenger’ and ‘Advantage’ networks.  Challenger networks are limited to 11 countries.  Advantage networks (which include the Challerger networks) cover 64 countries.  The Base website offers a PDF with a clear overview of all countries covered and which partner networks to use.  Base offers a 10 MB monthly subscription at 4.13 euro for Challenger networks and 8.26 euro for Advantage networks.  500MB on Challenger networks cost 41.32 euro and 74.31 euro on Advantage networks.

At the time I signed up for my data roaming package (more than 1 year ago) Base (part of the KPN group) was the only mobile network provider with data roaming packages for countries outside Europe.  Today, I noticed both Mobistar and Proximus are now also offering data roaming packages covering many countries outside Europe.  With 500MB at 74.31 euro/month (90 euro incl VAT) for 64 countries, the BASE Advantage subscription still looks the best choice for frequent travelers with high data usage.

Of course, there’s the much cheaper solution of using local sim cards for mobile internet and voice calls.  Only disadvantage is the hassle of buying those sim cards, keeping them topped up and the need to use two cellphones to remain available on your regular number.  Here’s an overview per country of ‘pay as you go’ sim cards with data. (via @Jannemans)

Note: All prices mentioned in this blog post are without VAT.


InterContinental Bucharest

For info on how to get the lowest room rates at InterContinental, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and Hotel Indigo, scroll down.

I’m currently staying at the InterContinental Bucharest in Romania.  The IC Bucharest has 4 published room types: Superior, Deluxe, Club IC and Junior Suite.  During my first stay in November 2010, I was upgraded from a Superior room to a Junior Suite thanks to my InterContinental Ambassador membership.  Earlier this month, I had booked a Club IC room.  Again, I was upgraded to a Junior Suite but with access to the new club lounge at the 21st floor.  If you’re unfamiliar with hotel industry terms like Club room, Club floor and Club Lounge,  read this USA Today Travel article.

As this was my third stay, I was looking for a new experience.  I spotted some pictures of the new Club rooms browsing the IC Bucharest facebook page.  So rather than be upgrade to a Junior Suite I requested to be upgraded from a superior room to a Club Room.  When arrived in the room, I realized there were still ‘old’ Club rooms too.  As the hotel was fully booked on Friday night, I requested to move to a new Club room Saturday.  So here we are today in this lovely contemporary IC Bucharest Club room:

How to get the lowest room rates at InterContinental Hotels?

  1. Determine which IHG hotels are available for your dates and destination at the IHG website.  By default the results will show the Best Available rate.
  2. Use HotelsCombined.com (or similar) to determine if a third party website is selling the same hotel room at a cheaper price. If that’s the case, submit a Lowest Internet Rate Guarantee claim.  If your claim is valid (make sure to read the terms and conditions) IHG will offer you the lower rate – 10%!
  3. Check for IHG promotions.  FrequentFlyerBonus.com has a nice overview of all current promotions (even per country).   Example: 2 Nights for the price of 1: when staying on the best flexible rate at one of hundreds of hotels around Europe including Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Express by Holiday Inn hotels.
  4. Use the Friends and Family rate.  If available, this will most likely be the lowest rate but you won’t receive PriorityClub points nor is the hotel obligated to provide you with any of your status privileges (Ambassador upgrades, PriorityClub perks, etc..)  You don’t have friends or family working at IHG?  No worries, we’re all friends of Doug Castor (Global Sourcing Manager with IHG)  He’s sharing his personal link to the IHG Friends and Family rate on his twitter account (which I used successfully in the past)
  5. Enjoy your lowest rate!