Month: May 2016

The really easy way to get free access to some of the best lounges in the world for at least a year

The really easy way to get free access to some of the best lounges in the world for at least a year

At one point in my life, I used to think that airport lounges were only for business travelers who flew every week, and figured it was something I would probably never get to experience.

I finally did get to experience my first airport lounge several years ago, when I was able to use one of the lounge passes that came with my United MileagePlus Explorer card to experience the Singapore Airlines lounge at the Taipei-Taoyuan airport. (I would not actually recommend applying for the card through that link, as there are routinely higher offers of 50,000 miles).

Unfortunately, having two lounge passes a year with limited use wasn’t really going to cut it with my travel schedule.

Thankfully, I discovered the American Express Platinum Card from Ameriprise. Now, some of you may have heard of the AMEX Platinum Card before, given its reputation as a fancy, high-end card. But you may have been turned off by the annual fee of $450. Luckily there are several different types of Platinum cards, and the Ameriprise-branded one does not come with an annual fee the first year (and despite the terms and conditions saying otherwise, you do not need to have an Ameriprise account to be eligible for one).

Now, the Platinum Card is awesome for many reasons, but let’s focus on the lounge access for this post. With the card, you get access to:

All American Express Centurion Lounges, which have kitchens run by high-end chefs that will prepare buffets with amazing gourmet food (like the braised chicken and other items below, from the lounge in Las Vegas), and a bar with incredible mixed drinks.


All Priority Pass lounges, a global network of over 900 lounges in most major airports in the world, including 13 of the top 15 airports in the US (sorry Denver and Charlotte). Now, to be fair, these generally aren’t as nice as the Centurion lounges, and can vary widely in quality. The Priority Pass lounge at the Seymour Airport in the Galapagos consists of just a couch with free chips, coffee, and juice (though the fact that this airport even had a lounge was shocking to me). On the other hand, the Airport Wellness Oasis Lounge at Singapore’s Changi Airport offers complimentary fish spa massages (definitely try it if you haven’t) in addition to a wide range of food and drink. But for the most part, a Priority Pass Lounge will usually give you complimentary soft drinks, juices and certain alcoholic drinks, hot and cold food that doesn’t require much preparation, and free wi-fi (like the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge at LAX pictured below). And even the most limited lounges are still often better than the noise of the airport terminal where nothing is free.


All Delta Sky Clubsif you’re flying Delta. Out of the three major US carriers (United, American, and Delta), I find that Delta generally has the best lounges. Again, they’re no Centurion Lounge, but they’re generally very modern, clean, and offer a decent selection of food and drink. (I’m quite excited to try the one at JFK next week which has a roof deck).

All Airspace loungesa weird network of four fairly subpar lounges at SAN (San Diego), JFK (New York), BWI (Baltimore-Washington), and CLE (Cleveland). When you enter, they give you a $10 credit that you can use, as nothing is free. The one at the San Diego Airport is nice enough, especially as you can watch planes taking off, but I’d avoid the one at JFK in favor of the much nicer Priority Pass lounges there in other terminals.


Now as you may have noticed in the title, I said “at least a year” of free access. Yes, if you hold on to the card for more than a year, you will be billed a $450 annual fee. However, one of the other benefits of the Platinum card is that you get $200 in airline credit per calendar year (i.e. if you get it now, you would get $200 now, then be eligible for $200 again on January 1). So if you spend at least $400 on airfare per year, the annual fee almost pays for itself the next year (though actually getting the credit can be a complicated process with very specific requirements, well-detailed on FlyerTalk). On top of that, you get a $100 one-time Global Entry credit, which is also good for TSA PreCheck. Essentially, you have no annual fee the first year and $500 of benefits, which will more than cancel out the annual fee the next year. Not a bad deal. And once you start regularly flying with TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and frequent lounge, you’ll realize you don’t dread airports as much as you used to, and it might be hard to go back to old ways.


One important caveat though is that other than the Centurion and Airspace lounges, you will have to pay for any guests you bring with you to the Priority Pass lounges. If you regularly travel with guests (like a family) and want to make sure they can also get in for free, you might want to consider the Citi Prestige card, which allows you up to two guests for free (or more if family) at all Priority Pass lounges and American Airlines Admirals Clubs if you and the guests are flying American. Of course, it is good for many other reasons too.


Have a question about something? Feel free to email me or post in the comments.


Pictured above: The Virgin America Loft at LAX, a lounge which looks very nice, but overall lacks substance.

Everything you need to know to go to Tibet

Everything you need to know to go to Tibet

Last summer, I continued my trend of going to off-the-beaten-path places and visited Tibet, an amazing place that feels as far away as you can get from China,from a political, geographical, scenic, and cultural standpoint.

However, since the defeat of the Tibetan army in 1950, Tibet has been considered part of the People’s Republic of China, albeit as an autonomous region, despite continuous pleas for independence. Furthermore, it’s no secret that China has been actively trying to erode Tibetan culture at the expense of human rights and make it more in line with the rest of Chinese culture. And herein comes the difficulties with visiting it.

Note: This is not intended to be a guide to what to see in Tibet or an overview of attractions; this will come at a later point.

Booking a Tour

Unless you’re a Chinese citizen, you will be required to visit Tibet as part of a tour. While there is no official resource (that I know of) that lists all Tibet tour operators, you should of course research any organization before booking with one, and try to find one actually based in Tibet, rather than outside of Tibet (in order to ensure more money goes to the Tibetan people).

I booked with Budget Tibet Tour as their price was affordable and had good reviews. The tour was $780 (not including tips), included a Tibet visa (mandatory to fly into Tibet), lodging, guides, national park entry fees, and transportation. Food was not included. Unlike certain other countries, you will have a fair amount of independence and freedom, as you will be free to roam around and explore at night, and be given a time and place to meet the next morning. Obviously, like any guided tour, the sky is the limit for cost, depending on how luxurious you want it to be.

Getting there

While your tour company will often offer to take care of this for you, it is far cheaper to handle it yourself. You basically have two options: take a train there, or fly there. Though I can’t speak from personal experience, if time is not an issue, the train is supposed to be an incredible experience, and you can say that you’ve been on the highest railway in the world (so much that they will pipe in oxygen during high altitudes). The only downside is that it can take up to 48 hours from many major cities in China.


For those of you on a tighter schedule, you will want to fly into Lhasa Airport (LXA). As the only major carriers flying here are Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern, your route will most likely be either on Star Alliance or SkyTeam (sorry oneworld!) The good news is that Air China always has a plethora of award seats available, so if you have United miles (or miles with another Star Alliance carrier), it’s actually not too hard to book an award flight here, as I did last year.

Getting a Chinese Visa

As Tibet is legally part of the People’s Republic of China, you will also need a Chinese visa (assuming your country of citizenship requires it). However, if you’ve done this before (but now have an expired visa), it may be a little more difficult this time. Typically when getting a visa for China (or any other country requiring a visa), the process is to fill out an application, attach proof of airfare and lodging, and give or send it to your closest embassy/consulate.

But when it comes to Tibet, China does not want to encourage Tibet tourism, and therefore if you put Tibet on your China visa application, it will most likely be denied. Therefore, I would strongly recommend booking a fully refundable ticket to somewhere (else) in China, printing out the confirmation, and then canceling your reservation (if you don’t want to put that much on your credit card at once, as refundable tickets can be quite expensive, you can also cancel a nonrefundable for free within 24 hours of booking your ticket if you book on a US-based carrier). You can then do the same for hotel lodging.


Tibet is part of China, and therefore uses the RMB. Major banks and ATMs can be found in bigger cities like Lhasa, less so in other parts. Credit cards are not very widely accepted.


As you will be with a guide for most of the tour, you will also have a translator for all your needs. While older residents only speak Tibetan (a fairly difficult language to learn which will not have much use to you otherwise, though the alphabet will help slightly in Bhutan), younger residents also can speak Mandarin, and if you can speak a little Mandarin, you will be able to converse slightly with local residents. Very little English is spoken, and even tour guides’ English can be difficult to understand at times.

Politics/Sensitive Topics

Avoid discussing any of the following topics with your tour guides: Tibetan independence, political status of Tibet, exile of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government, the relationship between the Chinese government and Tibet, decreased human rights for the Tibetan people, and so on. The police state is even more prevalent in Tibet than in the rest of China, and if you ask about one of these topics, at best you will get nervous laughter from your guide, at worst, a stern lecture. Many guides are constantly operating under the assumption that the Chinese government is monitoring them, and they can be severely punished for speaking out.


As is often the case with police states, there is practically no risk of any violent crime happening to you. On top of this, Tibetan people are among the friendliest in the world, and are thrilled to have non-Chinese visitors (and may constantly ask to take photographs). Your bigger concern is the air. And I don’t mean air quality, which would normally be a concern in many other parts of China. Rather, Tibetan air is incredibly pure and clean. The issue here is elevation. When you land in Lhasa, you’ll be at an elevation of 11,710 feet, and regularly be at elevations far higher than that throughout your trip. If you have any breathing issues whatsoever (such as asthma), bring all necessary medication and more. On top of that, it may be a good idea to buy some of the canned air sold at most stores in Lhasa in case of an emergency. Be careful of doing anything that exerts too much physical effort at once; I had to catch my breath after 15 seconds of playing soccer with some kids in town.


Most restaurants serve traditional Tibetan cuisine, though there are some restaurants serving Sichuan, Nepalese, and Indian cuisines, all reflecting their proximity to Tibet. Yak meat is especially prominent in Tibetan cuisine, though thanks to the Buddhist influence, it’s not impossible to get by as a vegetarian. What will be hard is if you only like eating “Western” food, as there is very little Western influence or restaurants in Tibet (though there are some knockoff versions of popular Western snacks sold in stores). Make sure to try butter tea at least once! Most meals will cost around $5-$6 USD.


Fried yak momos (dumplings)

So is Tibet for you? If you don’t mind getting out of your comfort zone, sacrificing some of your autonomy and exploring somewhere that doesn’t have the amenities you may be used to (but has more than enough culture, history, and beauty to make up for it), then yes. And more importantly, you may walk away being able to say you’ve seen a Tibetan mastiff in Tibet!


How I managed to get top-tier elite status with Hilton without ever paying for a hotel stay at any hotel

How I managed to get top-tier elite status with Hilton without ever paying for a hotel stay at any hotel

Even after I started getting into the points and miles game, earning “status” was never something I cared about too much. Despite it now being very easy for me to fly anywhere I want for free using frequent flyer miles (thanks to years of studying!), I don’t earn any miles on those award flights, nor do they count toward earning status on any airline (if it did, it would be very easy to earn status for free with just one or two award trips). Sadly, airlines want you to actually be paying for your flights with them to get status (which makes sense, as frustrating as it is). Given that my biggest priority has always been flying for free, this never appealed to me.

However, as I’ve recently learned, earning status with hotels is a very different ballgame, and much easier. As I mentioned in my last post, many co-branded hotel credit cards will offer you a lower to midrange level of status as long as you hold that card. But given the fierce competition for loyalty among both airlines and hotels (especially with a particularly beloved brand being recently bought out by a less beloved brand), airlines and hotels will often offer what’s called a “status match”, where, if you present proof of holding a certain level of status with one brand, they will automatically match that status to an equivalent level with their own brand, incentivizing you to switch over. (Alternatively, some will offer what’s called a “status challenge”, where they will match your status after staying a certain amount of nights with their brand).

Note: While I do not encourage forgery or deception, if you’re wondering, yes, you can sometimes be matched by photoshopping proof of status in the hopes that they don’t verify it. However, results have been mixed, and consequences can be severe if caught.

Recently, I got word that Hilton was doing a status match which required proof of elite status with another hotel program, and proof of stay with yet another program in the psat year. While I already was Gold status with Hilton (which comes automatically with the American Express Platinum card, as does Starwood Gold status), I figured it would be fun to see how high I could go.


As I already held the second-highest level of status with IHG (thanks to the IHG credit card), I figured I would submit that, though in retrospect I could have also used my Platinum Hyatt status (thanks to the Hyatt credit card) or Starwood Gold status (thanks to the American Express Platinum card). For my proof of stay, I submitted the reservation I made last year at a Marriott hotel using my annual free night certificate from the Marriott credit card (which also gave me Silver status).

The next day, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Hilton informing me that I had been matched to their highest status level, Diamond. I felt a little bit like the “One Red Paperclip” guy, having gotten there without paying anything:


Now, to be fair, the top-level status varies from program to program. In reality, Diamond status with Hilton doesn’t offer much more than the next-highest status, Gold, other than the fact that I earn 50% more points per reservation rather than 25% more points. My first stay as a Diamond member (at a suburban Homewood Suites) yielded only a welcome bag with two bottles of water, two Milano cookie packages, and a letter welcoming me with 250 bonus points, almost worthless:


Where this kind of elite status can come in handy is at nicer hotels with luxury suite options. For example, in the Penthouse Suite at the Conrad Bali (pictured at top), one night costs $1,377:


This is more than 10 times what the cheapest room there would cost:


But if you have top-tier status, you just might be able to swing this upgrade for free (and while obviously nothing is guaranteed, there have been successful reports of this happening).

Of course, I didn’t just stop once I received Diamond status with Hilton. I proceeded to email Best Western, Club Carlson, and Choice Hotels to politely ask them to match my Hilton status, attaching the email from Hilton as proof of my Diamond status. Best Western is known for having one of the most generous status matches, and they emailed me back the next day letting me know I had been upgraded to their top-tier status (which again, isn’t too different from their second-highest tier other than more points). Club Carlson is a little stingier with status matches, only matching me to Gold Elite status, though still good for upgrades. Choice Hotels matched me to Elite Platinum, which, sadly, is not good enough for an upgrade.

Regardless, as a result of smart credit card utilization as well as making other hotels compete for my business, I now have mid- to top-tier status at eight different hotel chains – despite never once paying for a hotel stay! Even though I rarely stay in hotels when traveling for personal reasons, this still is extremely useful as I travel a few weeks a year for work, not to mention often stay in hotels when attending weddings.

In short, if you’ve managed to earn elite status with a hotel or airline (regardless of if you do it the old-fashioned way or with a credit card), don’t just stop there. Make other airlines and hotels compete for you and see just how far they will match you. But no matter what status you get, don’t be this guy: