Travel Tips

Paying for Travel: Update

Best Travel Credit Cards Revised

In our previous post on paying for travel, we outlined some of the tricks we used to get $600 towards travel from our travel rewards credit cards. After using both the Capital One Venture card and the Delta Skymiles American Express travel credit cards for over two years now, we have some updates on what we’ve learned, and which card we are dropping.

Why We Dumped American Express

The Delta Skymiles American Express seemed great on paper – we prefer flying Delta/KLM/Air France, after all we moved to Cape Town and these three airlines offer our favorite route at the best price (typically). The extra perks such as free checked bags on domestic flights, access to priority boarding and the sky lounge, and rental car insurance all seemed like a no brainer, plus the 30,000-mile sign on bonus. These perks seemed great, but in practice, the rewards really don’t add up.

Booking Reward Flights with SkyMiles

Problem number one came when we wanted to use the 70,000 Skymiles we had saved up. Booking a reward flight from Cape Town is impossible. The Delta search engine never returns any results. Furthermore, even just a single one way ticket from the U.S. to Cape Town costs an exorbitant amount of miles. While rewards miles within the U.S. were relatively cheap, and almost always better than paying outright, finding international flights is next to impossible.

We finally found a solution, we scored two one way flights from Detroit to Munich for 30,000 miles each, but that’s as far as we could get. We had hopes of getting at least one of our long flights from the U.S. to Cape Town covered by rewards, or at least some great vacations from Cape Town, but that simply wasn’t possible. The SkyMiles are great if and only if you will be flying from a Delta hub within the U.S. Departing from a foreign airport, even one frequented by partner airlines, will leave you with no available rewards flights.

Using American Express Abroad

Our next issue with the Delta Skymiles Amex came when we quickly discovered that next to no one in South Africa accepts American Express. It’s difficult to earn rewards when you can’t spend any money. For this reason, we will be sticking with Visa or MasterCard travel credit cards henceforth. It’s not a great travel card if most the world does not accept it.

Priority Boarding

A well touted perk of the Delta Skymiles card is access to priority boarding. What they don’t tell you is that this only applies to flights operated by Delta. Chances are, if you fly international from the U.S. on a Delta Flight, only one of the legs will be operated by Delta. Despite being on a partner airline, Air France, we didn’t get priority boarding in the Paris Airport. We were turned away even after showing our card.

Rental Cars with SkyMiles

The most use we found for our Delta Skymiles American Express in South Africa was rental cars through Hertz. You do get great deals for Hertz car rentals when you book through Delta.com, but you must be willing to go to the International Airport (either Cape Town or Johannesburg). Prices are typically 20% less (before they nickel and dime you as Hertz loves to do, but more on that in another post). On top of the savings, you earn miles quite quickly in this way, as even a single day rental gives you 500 bonus miles (so for a $30 car rental, we’d earn as many miles as if we’d spent $500). Another perk is that the rental car is supposedly insured if you deny coverage when picking up the vehicle. Seems great on paper, but again, in practice, not so great. Hertz put an almost $10,000 hold on our card for the vehicle (so you better hope your limit is more than $10k) because we denied the insurance. I’d be willing to bet that had we required a claim to American Express, it would have been a lengthy process with that $10k stuck in purgatory. I think you’re better off paying the one time R100 (~$7) for coverage through Hertz.

Why We Switched to Chase

Due to the reasons above, we have decided to switch to the Chase Sapphire Preferred travel rewards credit card. They offer an even better 50,000 bonus miles with sign up – worth $625 towards travel if you book through Chase – but can also simply be used to erase travel purchases booked through other areas. With the Delta Skymiles Amex, you are limited to booking through Delta with your rewards miles – Chase Sapphire gives us flexibility. Better yet, the miles are transferrable to other rewards programs – so if there is a good Skymiles or Flying Blue rewards flight, we simply transfer our rewards 1:1 to our Skymiles/Flying Blue account (which are not dependent on having the Amex) and book that way. Better yet, we can now double dip on rewards. We will now book directly through Delta (SkyMiles) or KLM/Air France (Flying Blue Miles) to earn rewards directly through their frequent flyer program plus rewards (2 miles for every dollar spent) on travel purchases through Chase. Finally, the Chase Sapphire is a Visa card, so we can use it everywhere. It also has the added perk of being a metal card – surprisingly a great benefit with its added durability (my Capital One Venture card is destroyed).

Final Thoughts on What We’ve Learned

A surprisingly frequent problem we have run into with our Capital One Venture card in South Africa is that the numbers are not embossed on the front. When renting cars and a few other activities, the business has wanted to make a carbon copy of the card, and they will not accept (they say legally) the card because the numbers are not embossed on the front. Perhaps a lack of foresight on Capital One’s part. Equally annoying, every single time we try to log in to Capital One, we go through the same security process of having a code emailed before we can get in. This is a TRAVEL CREDIT CARD, it should be assumed that we will be using it abroad. More often than not I find all the extra security a hindrance. I guess I may be naïve since I’ve never actually needed the security to protect me from fraud.

One Final Note

Our final thought on paying for travel, please, never, under any circumstances, bring US dollars abroad. The idea of exchanging cash either prior to departure or upon arrival is antiquated. You will lose money. Get yourself a travel credit card with no foreign transaction fees. 99% of everywhere take credit cards, and you can even use your travel card at an ATM to take out money. If you try to exchange cash locally, the banks or exchange place take way too much. For example, say the Rand is currently trading at $1 = R14. If you exchange cash, they will only give you R12 for every $1. You lose R2 per dollar exchanged. Use a travel credit card, and they take nothing, plus you earn rewards. Seems like a no brainer to me. The year is 2017 – cash is dying, even in a place like South Africa.

Despite giving this advice on cash countless times, it still seems to fall on deaf ears. Don’t bring cash. Even your regular old debit card at an ATM upon arrival is a better way to go.

~Max

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