Euro Trip 2019 Planning: Booking initial hotels (Part 2)

Euro Trip 2019 Planning

This is the time of year, as I plan travels in the coming months, that my thoughts turn toward Europe and strolls along the Seine or dining at a sidewalk café in a charming Italian town. Thanks to points and miles (and a good day job!), my wife and I have been blessed to take an annual trip to Europe, something we plan to continue in 2019. I have written previously about my approach to travel planning, but this year’s trip is different in a few ways which makes the planning process different as well. In fact, I encountered challenges I did not expect. In the previous installments in this series, I wrote about having a blank slate for this year’s journey and selecting our transatlantic flights. I then discussed how I decided where we would actually go once we arrived in Europe. In my last post, I reviewed my strategy for booking hotels and shortlisted candidate hotels in Milan, Italy.

Today’s article will resume the discussion of booking initial hotel stays. I will address the value of points and miles and why I prefer award nights for this trip. I use Milan as a detailed example and will close with the hotels selected for each city on our itinerary.

Point Cost vs. Cash Cost

I should note at the outset that when I started planning this year’s trip, I set a goal of minimizing our cash cost. This meant booking as many award nights as possible. While this certainly colors all the deliberations I outline below, my considerations reflect the normal analysis of trade-offs when booking hotels.

Below is a summary of the per-night costs for the short list of hotels from my previous post which are in the vicinity of the Milan Centrale train station.

Milan hotels value comparison chart (click to enlarge)

The table includes the value of each point per the Points Guy April valuations (current value can be found here). The value of the reward night in USD is shown along with the paid price of the room converted to USD. “Diff.”is the difference of the value of one reward night and the USD cash price per night. A negative number indicates that the value of the points for the stay exceeds the cash price.

The first thing that stands out is that all of the hotels “cost” more in points than they do in cash. This appears to be because these hotels charge a minimum number of points which does not vary like the cash price does for a weekend night versus a weekday night. A quick check revealed that most of the hotels had a higher Thursday night cash price while the points price was the same. Pricing theory for travel rewards programs is a topic worthy of a separate post, so I won’t dive deeper here except to say this table forces me to think about my personal trade-off between value and experience.

For now, let us assume that the Points Guy valuations are indicative of the actual value I personally experience when using the points. If I were laser-focused on maximizing point values or if I booked enough award nights that I had insufficient points to cover all those reservations, I would lean toward a paid stay. But, as a leisure traveler that makes one international trip per year and accrues points primarily to support that trip, I must ask myself how much of a premium am I willing to spend - in cash or points - for experience?

Value of Experience

One thing I love about points and miles is that they enable me to have aspirational (or near-aspirational) experiences. Such experiences are not always rational decisions. After all, the logical side of me knows that once the lights go off and I fall asleep, the differences between aspirational and run-of-the-mill hotel rooms shrink dramatically. But the emotional side of me loves living for a few nights like “the other half.” Travel rewards unlock the opportunity to stay in hotels where I can have that experience, hotels for which I would never pay the high cash rates. While I do not frivolously waste points, I will “spend” points more readily than I would an equivalent dollar value in order to attain an appealing experience.

60,000 points per night is a lot, but I am very intrigued by the Excelsior Hotel Gallía which is part of the Marriott Luxury Collection. In addition to its luxurious appointments, its location is nearly perfect - surely a factor in the pricing. However, my left-brain recognizes that, while I enjoy luxury properties, there are a few realities that lessen the experiential value of such a stay. This will be my first visit to Milan so I do not intend to spend much time at the hotel. I am not one to go to the spa or a video driving range, both of which the hotel offers. I am not likely to eat any meals on-property because I prefer local cafés when in Italy. Therefore, I must ask myself, will my hotel experience be much beyond walking through a posh lobby and enjoying attractive room decor and premium bathroom fixtures? Are those alone enough to justify burning so many points when I can stay a block away at a cheaper, yet still nice, property? In a nutshell, will the experience be worth the premium?

The Excelsior Hotel Gallía would offer a higher-end experience than most nearby properties. (Photo: Excelsior Hotel Gallía) (click to enlarge)

Effectively using hotel loyalty points

When I opt for reward nights, there are four factors I consider that I so that I can use points most effectively.

Experience for an entire trip versus a single city

Milan is only one destination of four on this vacation. In all of these cities except Colmar, France, there are hotels I can book with loyalty points. In deciding when and if to splurge, I want to be mindful of the points I am using and the experiences I am having across the entire trip rather than in a single city. For example, I might opt for a more pedestrian hotel such as the Four Points in Milan but “waste” points on an even better experience than the Gallía while we are in Paris. This means I pay less of a premium for the trip as a whole. This post won’t detail my hotel selections in Zurich and Paris, but I have already researched these cities and weighed my options there making my ultimate decision for Milan.

Free night certificates

Amex Marriott Bonvoy Business.png

I have four credit credit cards that include a free night certificate after paying the annual fee. Not all of the 2019 certificates have been issued but at least three will be available by the time we leave for Europe (the fourth will be close but may not post in time). The ability to use a certificate for one night could change the calculus of paying a premium in points.

One of these free nights comes from my American Express Marriott Bonvoy Business Card and will be available in weeks, if not days. This certificate can be used for a stay of up to 35,000 points. Obviously, this wouldn’t cover a night in the Gallía or the Westin, but I could use it at the Four Points. I will also have a certificate from IHG that will be grandfathered in for an unlimited points night. This would allow me to book a stay in a luxury hotel where I might overpay with points one night but maximize the value of the certificate for a second night. The Crowne Plaza is probably not a good property for this tactic, but I should be able to make great use of this certificate in Paris where there are numerous high-end hotels.

Award nights from multiple programs

I want to book stays across the three hotel programs in which I participate so I do not decimate the balance in any particular program. Availability of brands varies greatly depending on location. For example, when we visited Italy, we had limited choices among Hilton, IHG and Marriott (then, Sheraton). Having points available in each program ensured I could book an award night when I had the opportunity.

Versatility of Marriott Bonvoy points

Marriott Bonvoy points have a higher per-point value than those of Hilton or IHG. This reflects the versatility of these points: Bonvoy points can be transferred to a vast number of airline partners at a ratio of three points per mile. Given the option of using these points for a luxury hotel experience versus a business or first class airline experience, I will opt for the airline experience every time. Therefore, I prefer to use Hilton and IHG points for hotel stays whenever possible so that I can keep Bonvoy points to transfer to airlines.

Final Selections

After weighing all variables, I ultimately booked two nights in…drumroll, please….the Milan Hilton. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Understandable since I did not write much about the Hilton. Emotionally, I wanted to stay in the luxury hotel with perfect location. Logically, I did not want to part with 120,000 Bonvoy points for a two-night stay. Since the Hilton is literally a block from the Gallía, location was effectively the same and I knew I would not really enjoy the Gallía enough to justify the point premium. The deciding factor was the desire to preserve my Bonvoy balance. I booked two nights at 39,000 Hilton Honors points per night. (Rates had increased since I created the table above.)

The Hilton Milan and the Excelsior Hotel Gallía are located a block apart and are both close to Milano Centrale. (click to enlarge)

Using a similar methodology, I booked the following hotels for the remaining cities on our itinerary:

Lucerne, Switzerland

Since beginning this series, I learned that Lucerne, Switzerland is a better base than Zurich for exploring those cities along with Bern. For 35,000 points per night, I booked two nights in the Renaissance Lucerne a few blocks from the Lucerne central train station. I will be able to use my Bonvoy free night from my Amex card here. I will just need to rebook one night once the certificate is available.

Renaissance Lucerne - Lucerne, Switzerland (Photo: Renaissance Lucerne) (click to enlarge)

Colmar, France

Because Colmar is the only city we are visiting that has no properties which are part of the three rewards programs I primarily use, I had to book a local hotel. To be honest I prefer the unique character of non-chain properties but I get too much value from loyalty points to book such hotels often, so I saw this as a rare opportunity. In Colmar, we will will stay two nights in the Hôtel Saint-Martin for €130 per night, including taxes. This hotel was a recommendation in the Rick Steves France guidebook. [CONFIRM THIS] I have had very good luck with Rick’s hotel recommendations. The hotel is located in the heart of the city, and is so central that, due to the Christmas Market which will be open during our visit, vehicular traffic can’t access the area. To say I am excited about the property and the location is an understatement.

Hôtel Saint-Martin Superior guest room (Photo: Hôtel Saint-Martin) (click to enlarge)

Paris, France

As mentioned above, I have an IHG Rewards free night certificate that can be used for an unlimited points night. Translation: pricey luxury property here I come! This will be the last anniversary reward from my IHG Rewards credit card that can be used for an unlimited points night, so I want to squeeze every last ounce of value that I can from this stay. I will do that at the Intercontinental Paris - Le Grand, a five star hotel located adjacent to the Opera Garnier.

The five-star Intercontinental Paris - Le Grand is located adjacent to the Opera Garnier (Photo: IHG Hotels) (click to enlarge)

Bottom Line

Admittedly, I may overcomplicate booking hotels. Many people will simply search for hotels in a city, find a property that offers a good combination of rate and location and be done with the exercise. My love of analysis means I go a little deeper. However, it works for me. If you wrestle with the same tradeoffs of value, whether it be cash or points, and travel experience, I hope my approach offers you perspective when you make future hotel reservations.

I would note that, due to schedule considerations for our vacation, we have reordered our itinerary and eliminated Milan from the trip. While I won’t be staying at the Hilton Milan, the approach I used to book those nights remains valid. This highlights why I use the term “initial hotels.” All changes may not be as drastic, but they sometimes results in shifting nights or locations within an established plan.