A few weeks ago my partner asked me what my favorite non resort hotel was. “Easy,” I said, “The Metropole in Hanoi. That was like staying in a museum.” Incidentally, resort hotel would be The St. Regis in Bali. That place was heaven on earth. When my partner reminded me that it had been exactly a year since Vietnam, we began reminiscing about all the places we’d been to in the past year: New York, Chicago, Mexico City, Sydney, London, Singapore, The Philippines and of course Macau. “Hey!” I said. “We’re jet set.”

We laughed and then I said, “Oh my God, we are.”

I’m very lucky to have found a great guy who has a good job that requires him to live and travel internationally. First it was Tokyo, now Hong Kong and soon it will be London. But having that luck and ability to travel isn’t everything. You’ve got to make it work for you.

First, join an airline loyalty program. We’re on American Airlines which is part of the One World Alliance. This includes Japan Airlines, Cathay and British Airways, very convenient airlines for us. You have to choose the program that is right for you, where you live and where you want to travel. And it doesn’t have to be an airline that uses your airport as a hub. Check out an airline’s website, see if it flies or easily connects to the destinations you’d like to visit.

We chose American simply because they had this deal whereby you could fly to Europe for free provided you flew twice to either California or Florida from New York. This was not long after the terrible tragedy of 9/11. The airline industry was still reeling and making very attractive offers to join in order to boost sales. My partner and I signed up for the American Advantage program and booked a trip to San Diego. He later had to go to Florida to see family so I decided to a fly to San Francisco for the night. I literally arrived in San Francisco, went to a cabaret show, had a very late dinner and then hopped into a cab back to the airport. Done. Free ticket to Europe.

After moving to Tokyo, we continued to stay loyal to American and One World. One day at Kennedy airport loyalty paid off. I was told by the American agent that I had reached Gold status which meant that I could go through the much shorter security line and would be accumulating 500 mile upgrades thereafter.  Soon, I reached Platinum status and was enjoying Admiral’s Club access, partner airline lounge access too. Now I use my upgrades domestically to travel first class and my miles internationally to travel business class. I get to have a glass of bubbly before the flight and sleep horizontally over oceans.

My partner is now Executive Platinum at American–the bastard. This means they actually smile when they kiss his ass. I joke but I am a bit jealous. His tier means a lot of perks for me too as his traveling companion. Four free international upgrades. The bonuses, like gravy.

Second, join a hotel loyalty program. Again, choose a program that is right for you and where you want to travel. I suggest doing some online research. For example, the Hyatt brand does not have many beach resorts or properties in Europe or Asia but it does have some key city hotels and even a few marque properties–the Park Hyatt in Tokyo is simply amazing.

My partner and I decided we would join the Starwood program. Starwood hotels include W, The Westin, Sheraton and the St. Regis. We chose the program because it was easy to use accumulated points towards free stays. There are few restrictions or blackout dates. And given the names of the hotels in their portfolio, you can always count on finding a Starwood property on a beach or in a city. And they have a number of hotels and resorts in Asia too.

Now I know the Sheraton isn’t anyone’s idea of living the high life, but I must say the Westin does a good job. Their “heavenly bed” is well, heavenly. And the perks you get for keeping your gold level status mean you get free room upgrades, late check out and lounge access. W hotels are great if you are in your 20s, early 30s or are desperately trying to be hip in your 40s and 50s. That  ship has sailed for me. I prefer the St. Regis. Classy, elegant and sophisticated, the St. Regis does it right. It’s on par with a Four Seasons or a Ritz Carlton. The more expensive the property, the more points you accumulate. The more points you accumulate, the more nights you have free. We paid quite a bit for our four wonderful nights at the St. Regis Bali but then used the accumulated points towards a free weekend getaway at the Westin Macau–our preferred non casino hotel. Peaceful, with views of the South China Sea and within walking distance to Fernando’s restaurant, the Westin Macau is the perfect weekend retreat from hectic Hong Kong.

While I suggest being as loyal as possible when flying, I recommend being a whore when staying. If you are not staying at a hotel in your program, join that hotel’s rewards group too. You’d be surprised the number of incentives they give you. Of course, only join if it’s a hotel brand that you could see yourself staying at in the future. In addition to the Starwood program, we are members of the Shangri-la and Hyatt programs. Shangri-la because we currently live in Asia and they have many properties here. Hyatt because our preferred hotel when we’re back in New York is the Grand Hyatt or the Andaz. Incidentally, the Andaz is a great, fairly new Hyatt launch. We were upgraded to a swanky suite in September. We had a group of friends over for drinks to share the space. It was a perfect night.

Third, get the right credit card. I know some people like to bray, “Oh, and I have no annual fee!” I say, “Yeah, then you have the wrong card.”

Get an airline or hotel credit card that compliments your airline or hotel program of choice. These are mostly free and your charges translate into points. I have a credit card linked to my American Advantage account. The points ad up quickly and it’s very straight forward. No questionable moves on the part of either the bank or the airline.

American Express is one of my best friends. You pay for it, but it pays you back. I have a platinum card. Do I have to pay $450 a year for the privilege? Yes. Do I get free travel, concierge, insurance, premium access to special events, lounges, etc? Yes. It is amazing the number of perks AMEX gives you.

First, you get a $200 credit in airline incidental charges. And we all know the airlines love to charge for their incidentals. Second, you get access to the airline lounge corresponding to the airline you are flying, even if you are traveling coach. Third, you get access to the AMEX travel website. If you book your hotel through them at one of their “fine hotels and resorts”, you get free upgrades, breakfast, dinner, lounge access, late check out, hotel credits (usually totaling $100) and sometimes a free massage. You even get free nights. For example, a hotel might be running an exclusive AMEX special whereby you stay three nights and get the fourth free. We’ve taken advantage of that perk many times.

The hotels listed in the American Express “fine hotels and resorts” are choice hotels in choice markets–Four Seasons, St. Regis, Mandarin, Peninsula, St. Regis. When the weather is cool, our preferred Macau hotel is the newish Mandarin near the historic center. We stay three nights, pay two. In St. Regis Bali, we stayed four, paid three. In the Four Seasons Mexico City, stayed seven, paid five. In Tokyo…

AMEX pays for itself. And no, I’m not an employee of American Express.

Lastly, check the internet for hotel deals. The Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Ritz Carlton often run their own stay four, pay three schemes on their respective websites. Some hotels like the Four Seasons and The Peninsula are not owned by a larger, more accessible brand (Marriott owns Ritz Carlton, Hilton owns Conrad, Sheraton owns St. Regis). For these hotels in particular, it’s best to check their websites for deals. Why pay full price for five nights at a Marriott when you can pay four and stay five at a Mandarin?

I rarely travel coach, rarely stay at average hotels and have cashed in points for free international biz class tickets and luxe hotel rooms. I’m not special and my last name is not Warbucks. I just know how to work it. It upsets me when friends and family don’t pick an airline or hotel awards program. You are literally throwing money away if you don’t. Hell, I recently flew round trip biz class on Cathay from Hong Kong to New York for free. Free.

And remember, always have the glass of champagne they offer you on the plane before departure. If things go boom in the sky, you don’t want your last thought to be, “I should have had that glass of champagne.”

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