Travel reward perks that pay off

Our typical vacation includes relaxing on a beach located along the beautiful coastline of our home state of North Carolina. Travel reward perks rarely come into play, so I haven’t spent a lot of time accumulating them or joining programs and applying for credit cards that offer perks and rewards. I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Europe and found out just how much I would have enjoyed some of these benefits.

Travel perks we have

Hilton Honors Program

For this trip the best perks came from our participation in the Hilton Honors program. We used points for our hotel room in Barcelona which took the same number of points as a stay at a Hilton in a small city in North Carolina. The difference is the Hilton Barcelona was beautifully appointed with sleek, new furniture and while the rooms were smaller they were much more luxurious. The hotel also had a special floor for its Honors members that could only be accessed be swiping your keycard on the elevator. We were served breakfast in the morning and tapas and cocktails in the late afternoon.
We’ve enjoyed the Hilton program for some time and have been very pleased so far with the benefits. With one in college and one heading off this year we often find ourselves in need of a room for one night while traveling back and forth and it is great to stay free. Most of the time you will need to plan your travel in advance, especially in popular destinations. Hotels only set aside a certain number of rooms to be used free. Another thing to keep in mind is that many of the properties are for business travelers and may not be located in the trendiest tourist sections of a city. This has never been a problem for us. We’ve been enrolled in the Hilton Honors program for at least 10 years and we’ve always been happy with our room and extra perks.

American Express Gold

American Express is the only charge or credit card I use. This isn’t an endorsement for Amex as much as an admission that I don’t use credit cards. I’ve always kept this card for emergencies but it has great travel related benefits like accident insurance, lost baggage insurance and car rental loss and damage insurance.
The customer service is excellent. When I called to notify Amex that I would be traveling, the agent made sure to point out the toll free international number on the back that I could call at any time and emphasized that I could use the card to purchase traveler’s cheques in Euros. 

Travel perks I wish we had

Priority boarding

Priority boarding is a must-have perk for domestic flights. Far too many passengers are bringing overstuffed suitcases as their allowed carryon bag to avoid the checked baggage fee. With the limited overhead storage of most domestic flights some of those boarding last find there is no room left for their carryon bags. This isn’t as much of a problem for overseas flights since the overhead bins are larger. On our flight to Spain and from Rome I noticed empty overhead bins.
Many of the branded airline reward cards offer priority boarding as a perk for their customers. We fly US Air more than any other airline and their US Airways Premier World Mastercard indeed offers First Class check-in and priority Zone 2 boarding as a perk of ownership.

Priority deplaning

There’s nothing like getting off a long flight and having to wait in a long line at customs. Exhaustion leads to impatience and impatience to anger as customs agents ascertain our danger to society with a quick glance and a question about how much alcohol we’re bringing into the country. The air conditioning was off in both Barcelona and Charlotte which didn’t help our moods as we pushed and pulled luggage a few steps at a time through a maze of ropes. While it might not be worth the $6000 total price tag to avoid that line, it is worth the time to figure out if there is a cheaper way to gain First Class passage.
Priority deplaning is a bit trickier than priority boarding with US Air. Zone 2 boarding has less to do with where you are sitting on the jet than the programs in which you’re enrolled. Sitting in First Class or Envoy seating is the only way to ensure priority deplaning. Some rewards cards allow you to trade in points for a First Class upgrade and branded airline cards sometimes offer periodic free upgrades when First Class seats are available. One interesting fact is that flying First Class from the U.S. was more than $3000 per ticket while flying first class home from Rome was an additional $900 per ticket. It’s still very pricey, but in certain circumstances might be worth the price.

Visa…just about any Visa 

As I mentioned above, my backup plan was to use my American Express card if I hadn’t prepared properly and ran out of cash. Unfortunately that plan didn’t work as well as I thought it would because very few small local merchants accepted American Express. I was never once prompted for a Mastercard either. I learned that I could make purchases fluently in Spanish, French and Italian as long as I had a Visa card.