1. Do this now: Register for Radisson Americas’ current promotion, which is a free night certificate for each two nights you stay on points between now and December 31. The free night certificate is valid between January 17 and May 23 of next year and you can earn up to 5 free certificates. The certificate you earn is based on the award category:

  • Stay in a category 1, 2, or 3 hotel and receive a category free night 1-3 certificate
  • Stay in a category 4 or 5 hotel and receive a free night certificate for any hotel

2. Simon has another promotion for 40% off of fees with code SEP21FS40, and this applies to their $1,000 Visa Gift Cards. These are great for ginning up spend on your Citi cards for other shenanigans, just make sure you have a liquidation path fleshed out before you spend a bunch, and don’t use an AmEx because you won’t earn points.

3. Capital One has a new travel portal. Normally, I’d say something like: “Who cares? Booking through a third party travel portal is almost always a terrible idea. With hotels, you won’t get benefits from the rewards program and you’re likely to get one of the crappiest rooms at the property, and with flights when something changes you’re going to have to deal with the portal’s terrible customer service to make something happen.”

My response? “That’s all true, self, and great points too I might add.” However there’s a minor reason to book a flight with this portal: they say that they’ll automatically refund the fare difference if the price of the flight drops. If true, that’s pretty cool. They do use weird language “Did you book a flight to visit loved ones based on Capital One Travel recommendations? If the flight price drops, no problem.” I have no idea if that means there are only certain “recommended” flights to which this applies. If so, they’re a bunch of louses and they should feel bad about themselves. If not, this could be a nice feature. (Thanks to DDG via reddit)

A grey squirrel.
I was talking to myself about third party travel booking and then… squirrel.

Today is your day-off between Kroger’s promotions for 4x fuel points on gift cards. I hope you’re taking advantage of it, I know I’m excited to not step foot in a Kroger for the next 24 hours. In case that’s not exciting enough, here are a couple of items that will hopefully make up for it:

1. American Express has a 15% transfer bonus to LifeMiles, as I’m sure you already knew. Well, LifeMiles also as its own 15% incoming transfer bonus for Membership Rewards transfers until September 30, which gives you a total bonus of 32% (EDIT: Thanks to Vince for pointing out that a 15% bonus on a 15% bonus is effectively a 32% bonus, not a 30% bonus as previously written) . This is huge, it means:

  • First Class (Lufthansa) US-Europe or vice-versa for 66,000 Membership Rewards, no fuel surcharges
  • Economy US-Africa or vice-versa for 31,000 Membership Rewards, no fuel surcharges
  • Business Class US-Europe or vice-versa for 49,000 Membership Rewards, no fuel surcharges
  • Economy continental US-Caribbean for 10,000 Membership Rewards, no fuel surcharges

There are other great redemptions too. You’ve probably read on this site multiple times that one of Avianca LifeMiles’ sweet-spots is its loose definition of a region. That US-Caribbean deal is a prime example. (Thanks to TheSultan1 for digging up the LifeMiles bonus link)

2. American Express Platinum card retention offers in September have finally caught up with the new, increased annual fee. There are reports of 60,000 Membership Rewards or $650 statement credits being offered. Whenever I call for a retention offer, I say something like: “I’m thinking of closing this card because its annual fee is huge. Before I make a decision though, I was wondering if there are any spend bonuses or retention offers available?” It’s worth a shot with all of your AmEx cards at these offer levels, so don’t put this one off.

Taking a break between Kroger 4x fuel points promotions.

Introduction

It’s time for another punch in my series on travel hacking with ITA Matrix. As a reminder, ITA Matrix great for hidden city ticketingfuel dumpsfree one-waysforced fare bucketsaircraft selection, multi-class cabin bookings, and avoiding married segments just to name a few. Today I want to tackle a fun one: Gaming elite upgrades.

One of the tropes you’ll find brandished in the mainstream media is that dressing nice, letting the gate agent know that you’re on a honeymoon, or uttering the words “revenue management” will score you a free upgrade. Of course you probably know that’s all a bunch of crap. Airline upgrades don’t work that way and gate agents who play those kinds of shenanigans are disciplined and may end up losing their job.

At a hotel you can usually use the $20 trick for a an upgrade, but trying that at the gate just won’t work. Trust me. So how do you get an edge? Spoiler alert, there is an airline equivalent to the $20 trick that doesn’t involve a crooked gate agent. Let’s call it the “jump-the-bucket” trick. Catchy right? Right? Ok, I know it’s not.

Elite Upgrades in the US

All major US airlines with a first class cabin onboard have some sort of upgrade program for their elite flyers, and there’s a well defined order to which elites are upgraded to the big seat upfront and with what priority. Just because it’s well defined doesn’t mean that airlines publish specific terms and conditions though. Rather, airlines speak about priorities in generalities and as a result it can be a trick to suss out how it really works. To compound the complexity, each airline has slightly different policies and sometimes upgrade instruments get into the mix too.

The major US carriers do share one thing in common for elite upgrades: different ticket fare buckets have different upgrade priorities, and you can hack your way into a higher upgrade priority with the “jump-the-bucket” trick.

Fare Buckets

Ok, so fare buckets matter for upgrades, but WTF is a fare bucket? The boring definition is that each bucket is a letter (like S, or J) or pair of letters (like OW) that corresponds with a given fare on file in their systems. There isn’t a standard for buckets on all airlines, but they do share a lot in common. First class fare buckets are often Z or F, and economy buckets are often S, L, Y, and B for example. Typically there are around 20 fare buckets per airline.

Fare buckets also have a hierarchy. F > Z, and Y > B > M. See the pattern? Nah, me neither. That’s ok though. You don’t need to memorize the hierarchy, just know that it exists and how to find it.

Jumping-the-Bucket

And now my friends, you’ve got enough background to understand how to game the upgrade lottery. When airlines process upgrades, one of the universal tie breakers is your segment’s fare bucket. To win that battle you just have to make sure you’re in a higher bucket than the other guy. Unfortunately that’s not free, but it’s usually less than $20 or so to jump to the next bucket when you book a ticket. Even better, it’s almost a certainty that no elites on your plane have booked into anything other than the cheapest bucket that was available when they bought their ticket. (There’s a small wrench here, sometimes government contracts and big business contracts will book into high buckets per the specific terms of their agreement with the airline. That usually doesn’t matter if you’re not going to or from DC though, especially during peak leisure travel.)

Now, let’s talk about how to jump-the-bucket with ITA Matrix:

1. Search ITA Matrix for your desired flight
2. Pick your desired itinerary
3. Look at which fare buckets the itinerary has

Example: I searched for a Delta direct flight between Los Angeles (LAX) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) on Sept 10, and picked the cheapest flight that wasn’t basic economy since those fares aren’t upgrade eligible. In this case, it was an economy flight in fare bucket V, which you can see in my example ITA Matrix search at the end of the line in parentheses after the word “Economy”:

A sample itinerary. Note the V booking code embedded in Economy (V) at the end of each leg.

Now I need to find which bucket has a higher priority than V. On Delta, that would be X. (See the next section for priorities. I don’t memorize this and I bet you don’t want to either.) So, to continue with the prior steps:

4. Determine the next higher fare bucket (see next section) — in my case X
5. Return to the main ITA Matrix booking page
6. Enter your desired cities and dates again
7. Click “Advanced controls” to turn them on if they’re not already on
8. Tell ITA Matrix that you want a specific fare bucket (booking code) by entering “f bc=X” in the “Outbound extension codes” and “Return extension codes”. Replace X with the appropriate fare bucket as needed.
9. Click through to find your itinerary
10. Cut and paste your itinerary into bookwithmatrix.com to book

Side tip: Remember how I glossed over searching for a flight that wasn’t basic economy in my example? Well, basic economy on Delta is fare bucket E, and you can enter “f ~bc=E” to tell ITA matrix to ignore any fares in the E bucket. The tilde means “not”.

In this particular example, an X bucket fare was $145.20 which is exactly $13 more than the V bucket. If I book this itinerary, I’ll be ahead of similar leveled elites that booked the cheapest fare they could, which is probably all of them provided the bucket was available when they booked.

The same itinerary after jumping-the-bucket. The higher bucket with a better shot at an upgrade costs an extra $13.00.

Cool eh? Cheaper than the $20 trick, and personally I’ve had great success with this technique in the past.

One last gotcha: Sometimes different segments each have their own fare bucket. That’s ok too, just use the Multi-city tab on ITA Matrix and enter fare codes segment-by-segment and you’ll get what you’re after.

Airline Fare Bucket Priorities

How do you know the order of fare buckets for a given airline? First answer: Ugh. Second answer, visit cwsi.net. To save myself the hassle I’ve written them out and I guess I’ll share them with you too (ordered highest to lowest):

  • Delta: W, Y, B, M, S, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X, V, E (highest first, lowest last, E is basic economy)
  • United: O, A, R, Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G, N (highest first, lowest last, N is basic economy)
  • American: Y, H, K, M, V, Q, S, N, L, O, B (highest first, lowest last, B is basic economy)
  • Alaska: Y, B, H, K, M, L, V, S, N, Q, O, G, X (highest first, lowest last, X is basic economy)

Caveats

A few things to watch out for:

  • As flights get closer, lower fare buckets may sell out or get zeroed out by the airline, pushing close-in bookings into a higher fare bucket. So if you book 5 months in advance and jump-the-bucket at the time, you may not be ahead of everyone by the time you fly
  • There are other criteria for upgrades too, and they vary by airline. Your status level for example is almost always a higher priority than your fare bucket. (Unless it’s a special Y-up bucket, but that’s beyond today’s post)
  • Using certain upgrade instruments trumps all fare classes. (SWUs on AA, RUCs on DL, GPUs on UA)

Conclusion

There’s an airline cousin to the hotel $20 trick, and it’s called the jump-the-bucket trick. For a few extra bucks you can often up your chances for an elite upgrade. #winning #twirlingtowardfreedom

A rusty bucket.
The United “basic economy” fare bucket. Or, is that the Economy+ bucket on an ERJ-145? It can be hard to tell.

1. The Citi ThankYou Points (TYP) 25% transfer bonus to Avianca LifeMiles has been extended through August 27. LifeMiles have a few sweetspots that involve strange definitions of regions, and other good deals like Central or Eastern US to Europe in economy. If I’m headed to Europe or Asia I’m going to do it in a lie flat bed like a diva though. So allow me to illustrate how I think about this bonus:

  • 60,000 TYP = 75,000 LifeMiles = One way business class between Europe and North America
  • 64,800 TYP = 81,000 LifeMiles = One way business class between Asia and North America

Those rates aren’t bad, especially given Avianca’s Star Alliance partner availability. Just avoid those old United Business class 2-2-2 configs.

2. Clip this coupon in all of your Meijer MPerks accounts for a $10 Meijer GiftCard with $50 in Happy Gift Cards. I’d buy a Happy Treats card and use it online or in-store at GameStop to buy a Steam gift card for resale. I wrote a quick Happy gift card guide a few weeks ago that may be helpful if they’re new to you. (Thanks to GC Galore)

3. Check your Kroger digital coupons for 300 fuel points when buying a Visa or Mastercard gift card. These coupons often work multiple times, just make sure you clip it before buying the first one. (Thanks to co_trout_slayer)

Pictured: United’s old 2-2-2 business class configuration.

Introduction

As part of my series on travel hacking with ITA Matrix, I’d like to talk about another use for my favorite tool for airfare searches and related travel hacking: Forced routings. As a reminder, ITA Matrix great for hidden city ticketingfuel dumpsfree one-waysforced fare bucketsaircraft selection, multi-class cabin bookings, and avoiding married segments — though I use it for more than that too.

For this one, let’s tackle forced routings.

Why Forced Routings?

A forced routing is one of the simplest travel hacking concepts out there. All it means is that you want to buy an airline ticket, but you only want to pass through certain hubs or use certain carriers to do it.

I use forced routings to the following airports at times:

I use forced routings to avoid:

  • ORD in the late summer and early fall (delays run rampant)
  • SFO most of the year (delays run rampant when the fog sets in or a runway is under construction, which is approximately always)
  • PHX in the summer (aircraft are often weight restricted and have to kick people off to meet reduced takeoff weights)
  • ATL in the late fall and in January (delays run rampant)
  • ATL the rest of the year (I really dislike the airport)
  • MIA/PHL/CLT when traveling to Europe (I want my time in the wide-body plane to be long enough to sleep, not just a short hop so I’d rather connect further west)
  • United when I know they’re flying a regional jet on a particular route

Forcing Routings in ITA Matrix

How do we use forced routings in ITA Matrix? It’s actually really simple.

  1. Turn on “Advanced controls” if they’re not already enabled
  2. Enter the airport abbreviation in “Outbound routing codes” as appropriate:
    1. Enter “ATL” to force routing through ATL
    2. Enter “~ATL” avoid routing through ATL (the tilde means “avoid”)
    3. Enter “DEN,ORD” to route through one of DEN or ORD, either way is fine
    4. Enter “~DEN,ORD” to avoid routing through either DEN or ORD
    5. Enter “DEN ORD” to route through two hubs, DEN and ORD in that order
  3. Enter the rest of the data as needed for the trip
  4. Click “Search”

Here’s a screenshot showing a trip that avoids passing through DEN or ORD (scenario 4):

Sample forced routing from San Diego to Orlando, avoiding Denver or Chicago O’Hare as layovers.

Forced Routings and Carriers in ITA Matrix

Not bad, eh? Let’s get a little more complex though. With a little elbow grease you can force yourself to be on specific carriers and route through particular hubs. Let’s say I want to fly Delta to ORD and United to ATL on the same ticket. No problem, carriers just go before and after the hub as carrier codes.

Let’s look at this example:

  1. Turn on “Advanced controls” if they’re not already enabled
  2. Enter carriers and hubs in “Outbound routing codes” as appropriate:
    1. Enter “DL ORD UA” for a direct flight on Delta to ORD, then a direct flight on United to the destination
    2. Enter “DL+ ORD UA” for a direct or connecting flight on Delta to ORD, then a direct flight on United to the destination
    3. Enter “~F9 ORD UA+” to fly a direct flight on any airline but Frontier to ORD, then a direct or connecting flight on United to the destination
  3. Enter the rest of the data as needed for the trip
  4. Click “Search”

The carrier codes for the major US airlines are: Delta: DL, United: UA, American: AA, Frontier: F9, Southwest: WN (though Southwest is different and doesn’t show fares through ITA Matrix, so that one is just trivia for now). Also, in case you didn’t glean it above, the “+” means “one or more legs”.

My example (Delta to ORD then United to ATL) will look like this:

Forced routing through O’Hare on Delta from SLC to ORD and United from ORD to ATL, all on the same ticket

Booking the Results

Ok, so you’ve now got your convoluted, forced routing itinerary priced out. How do you book it? Simple, copy the results page and paste it into bookwithmatrix.com, which will then let you forward the itinerary to several booking agencies (in this case my options were Delta or Priceline, but that varies based on the itinerary).

The “I hate my in-laws” routing. Just enter “IAD JAX” as your advanced routing codes in ITA Matrix to book this one.

Fun fact: Once I really did connect in JAX between IAD and MCO on purpose. The ground crew was incredulous that anyone would connect in JAX.

I’m going off-brand with today’s post, but stick with it, it’ll be worth it I promise.

Introduction

I use ITA Matrix essentially every single time I’m looking at airfares and often for reference when I’m searching for award travel. Not only that, but it’s quite possibly the most powerful tool that exists for an advanced travel hacker when dealing with airline tickets: It’s great for hidden city ticketing, fuel dumps, free one-ways, forced fare buckets, aircraft selection, forced routing through a particular hub, and avoiding married segments to name a few. There’s so much to this tool, and I’m going to make this post the first in a series about ITA Matrix for travel hacking, starting with Delta companion tickets.

There are two types of Delta companion tickets: 1) The domestic Main Cabin variant that you get with the Delta Platinum card, and 2) the domestic Main Cabin, Comfort+, or First Class variant that you get with the Delta Reserve. There’s a lot of nuance to where you can use these tickets, but for the most part just assume that you can use them on any round-trip Delta route within the continental US’s lower 48 states.

Fare Codes

When you purchase airfare or redeem miles, you’re booking into a specific fare class which is potentially different for each and every leg. Delta companion tickets require specific fare bucket availability for your itinerary:

  • Platinum: L, U, T, X, and V
  • Reserve: I, Z, W, S, L, U, T, X, and V (and W & S have further restrictions that in practice don’t really matter)

So, to look for Delta Companion ticket availability, you need to be able to look for specific fare buckets. This is child’s play with ITA Matrix. It also gives you better results than Delta’s booking engine will, and often lets you find cheaper tickets that qualify for the companion fare than you’ll find on Delta.com or by talking to an agent and having them search for you.

The Actual Search

  1. Visit matrix.itasoftware.com
  2. Make sure “advanced controls” are enabled (the link to enable them is right under the destination city)
  3. Enter your “Departing From” and “Destination” airport codes (e.x.: LAX and ORD)
  4. Enter DL+ in both the “Outbound routing codes” and “Return routing codes”, which forces the engine to return only Delta flights (bonus tip: enter DL without the ‘+‘ if you want only direct flights)
  5. Enter the fare buckets for a companion certificate in both the “Outbound extension codes” and “Return extension codes”. This one is rather obtuse, so cut and paste the following:
    1. Platinum variant: f bc=L|bc=U|bc=T|bc=X|bc=V
    2. Reserve variant: f bc=I|bc=Z|bc=W|bc=S|bc=L|bc=U|bc=T|bc=X|bc=V
  6. Enter your dates
  7. Choose 2 adults
  8. Click “Search”

I’m going to break my “one picture per post” rule in this series because I know some of you are visual learners. My search box for a Reserve companion ticket will look like this:

Sample search for Delta Reserve companion ticket

Booking

Normally I use bookwithmatrix.com for booking anything from ITA Matrix because you just cut and paste the booking results table into that website and it’ll forward you to Delta (or another OTA if you choose) with the exact flights and fare buckets already pre-filled. With companion tickets though, Delta doesn’t let you do that; instead, you’ll have to start your booking at delta.com/redeem and go from there.

If you can’t replicate the results ITA Matrix produces with Delta’s booking engine, first try setting up your airfare using a multi-city search. If that doesn’t work, you can call and give the agent each of the exact flight dates, flight numbers, and fare codes and they can manually book it for you. I’ve only had to do that a single time though, so it’s likely a rare occurrence.

Fin

I use all of my Delta companion certificates every single year, and they’re really valuable.

A final travel hacking tip: Delta says you need to use your co-branded Delta American Express card to pay for airfare when using a companion ticket. Don’t trust them, they lie. Any American Express will do, like the Personal Platinum which awards 5x on airfare.

Delta’s companion ticket rules aren’t always, uh, rules.

Happy Thursday.

Simon

Simon has a promotional code for 48% off of all fees when ordering Visa and Mastercard gift cards online, use code FS48JUL. Don’t use an American Express to buy these; sure, it’ll work but you won’t get any points or meet any spend thresholds.

I usually prefer to MS just about everything on my American Express cards so I in turn tend to ignore Simon, but now I have a need to run up a bigger balance on my Citi card portfolio and some of my normal methods aren’t currently cutting it. And no, this isn’t because of the AA mileage transfer partnership.

Southwest

2. Southwest is having a decent fare sale that ends today. Yes, they have those a lot, but this one is interesting because it encompasses the Thanksgiving holiday season and it’s likely that the free change window will pass over Thanksgiving in the next several days. So, let’s get hacking!

For a quick primer on the Southwest free change window, see Spring Break, Southwest Style.

Kroger

3. Kroger 4x Fuel Points on gift cards is back, and yesterday I saw Best Buy gift card rates jump as high as 97% for about 12 hours. Let me tell you, I dropped what I was doing and made a run to several Krogers in my area. If your gift card buyers weren’t offering at least 96% yesterday, consider whether you should seek another buyer?

Just don’t forget to add the coupon to your Kroger account and make sure you use the right Alt-ID. I don’t know why I was off of my game yesterday but I managed to do each of those once. 🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️

Bonus

Bonus content: Delta seems to have devalued domestic SkyMiles award prices yesterday. Hopefully it’s a glitch, but if not, you can always get at least once cent per mile with Delta’s Pay with Miles as long as you have at a co-branded Delta American Express card, so always do the math!

Maxwell’s Equations can be used to figure out SkyMiles redemption values. Don’t see it? You’ll have to trust me on that one, or just assume they’re worth a penny in the worst case.

For the second time this year, Flyertalk had a unique find that I haven’t seen anywhere else. What even is 2021? I used to read Flyertalk every single day, and now I’m lucky to visit once a week. Anyway:

1. There is a Hyatt Globalist status challenge available to anyone right now, and you’ve got through November 30th to register. This one is slightly harder than normal because you’ll have to call a full service Hyatt’s sales department and ask to register, so you can’t just clicky-clicky your way to status. When you register you’ll get Explorist status through 2021 no matter what. But you can earn status through February 2023 pretty easily:

  • Stay 10 nights to keep Explorist
  • Stay 20 nights to earn Globalist

My usual advice is that Globalist is absolutely worthwhile and valuable, and lower status with Hyatt is barely worth mentioning and you can replicate most of it with a nice “please” to the front desk at check-in. (Why yes, I have been called cynical before. Why do you ask? Actually, maybe they just called me apathetic, I can’t be bothered to remember which.)

2. Meijer has a $5 reward for every $50 spent on gift cards, up to 10 per account through August 14. I hope if you live in Meijer land that you’ve gotten a few MPerks accounts by now. Make sure to add the offer to your account UPDATE: MJ let me know that there’s no need to add the offer to your account on this round.

Do note that several gift cards are ineligible, but Home Depot and Best Buy are both eligible so there’s lots of juice to squeeze. (Thanks to Stephen at GC Galore)

I’m also too apathetic to create funny caption.