Charged Up! podcast: Strategies for business travel

Episode 58 with general manager Molly Fergus


Get tips on strategizing rewards for business travel

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Charged Up! with Jenny Hoff




If you travel for business, then make sure you’re getting the most out of your miles and maximizing your rewards. Molly Fergus, general manager of the TripSavvy website, shares her tips for the best hotel chains to stay at, how to get upgrades and what credit cards are the best for those who are on the road for work.

So, let’s get Charged Up! about getting savvy with our travel!


Jenny Hoff: Molly, thank you so much for joining me today.

Molly Fergus: Happy to be here. I really appreciate it.

Hoff: So your site TripSavvy gives a lot of great advice to travelers including business travel done right. A lot of people travel for business, and I want to help out both the corporate traveler and the small-business traveler when it comes to maximizing rewards to help fund personal travel and which hotel chains, airlines and cards they should concentrate on to make their travel more comfortable.

So let’s start with corporate travelers – what should they be thinking about or requesting in order to earn some great rewards that they can use later?

Fergus: Sure, so before we dive right in, I just wanted to mention a little bit more about TripSavvy and sort of provide some context around why I’m excited to be here today. We’re a travel site that just launched in May, and we have these in-depth guides to the world’s best destinations, and our goal is to always help readers’ vacation like pros. And so that’s why really excited to hear from you, because miles and points are a huge part of that from a pleasure and corporate travelers.

So back to your question, the most important thing is to figure out where the value is for you as a traveler. And that might sound like an obvious question, but I think there are sort of three ways you can go here. There’s the luxury traveler, this is someone who wants to use their points travel big, fly first class, stay at an over water bungalow in Tahiti, they want to get these experiences that they might not get otherwise or might not spend their money on.

Then there’s sort of what I call the efficiency traveler, that’s someone who wants it to be super easy, you don’t want to wait in line for security, you want to pop into an airport lounge, get on the Wi-Fi, get your work done, like just get in and out as quickly as possible.

And then there’s sort of a leisure traveler, so that someone who wants to travel normally for free, you’re happy flying coach, you’re happy staying at a midlevel hotel chain. You just want to get a little more bang for your buck the next time you go on vacation.

Hoff:  Exactly.

Fergus:  Yeah, so once you know where you sit within those three buckets I think you can really strategize and have a great plan for maximizing those rewards.

Hoff:  OK, so let’s say then you are in the bucket of leisure, I want to concentrate on that for the moment. What do you need to start thinking about? Let’s say you just got a corporate job, you’re going to be traveling a lot for it, you have a corporate card, what should you be thinking about from the very onset so that you make sure that you are setting yourself up for being able to enjoy rewards later on and take your family on trips, etcetera?

Fergus:  Sure, absolutely. So I say the first thing is to really figure out your company’s policies for booking. Some companies they make you book through specific portal, you might be able to just book like a normal person on Expedia or on Orbit. I know here at TripSavvy and Dot Dash we use Egencia. But there are all these different systems out there. So you want to know what you’re allowed to do, what you’re able to do, sort of the first step.

And then secondly, do you need to use a corporate charge card? Some places require that you use one. Other places will let you actually sign up for your own personal card, and then just reimburse those expenses. That sometimes is may be a little bit cumbersome but it will allow you to really maximize points and also have those rewards at the ready for you.

Hoff:  OK, so one thing you should maybe ask if you want to be able to use the rewards, because if you’re using the company card and the rewards are going back to the company, then that’s obviously not going to really do much for you. So one thing you could ask is to say, “Can I just use my own card and then be reimbursed for that?”

Fergus:  Exactly. That’s a really good strategy. So if you’re able to use that then what you also want to think about is – what will you actually be charging on that card. So for a lot of folks if you’re traveling that’s going to be for flights, hotels and dining.

But say if you work for a construction company and you’re going to be purchasing a lot of material in different cities, you might want to find a card that can prioritize those points and give you a little ore bang for your buck there.

Hoff:  What kind of card would you be looking for there?

Fergus:  Sure. So for instance if you travel and got to eat a lot, and that’s what you’re spending most of your money on on these trips, then something like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve gives you double points on travel and dining. So that’s a great card, because everything you spend you’re going to get double the points instead of maybe just one point per dollar.

Hoff:  So think about what you’re going to spend that money on and then get the right card. Now if you have a corporate card and you’re not able to get your own card what are some strategies that you’ve seen, do people ask if they can get the points or is it really choosing the right hotel chains to stay at so that you become a member, you get gold status, etcetera? I mean, what would you say to somebody in that situation?

Fergus:  Absolutely, so one, yes, you can always ask, it never hurts to ask to find out if there is a way for you to get those points if you have a charge card that you have to use. And then secondly, correct, you want to start streamlining and using brands to work with. So if you’re staying at a lot of hotels, you want to choose the hotel brand that you can stay at all the time, and then you end up getting elite status, the hotel gives you perks. So even though you may not have those points every time you travel it’s going to be a little bit better.

Hoff:  Is there a hotel chain that is more ideal than others that you should concentrate on, let’s say if you’re traveling for business a lot, the Marriott or Hilton, which hotel chain kind of has the best variety of hotel brands under it that you could then use later if you wanted to go more budget or whatever if you’re traveling with family?

Fergus:  Sure, so if you’re traveling with family I actually really recommend Wyndham. Wyndham has a great program where you earn points for every stay. I believe it’s about 1,000 points for every stay. And then it’s actually to 15,000 points per night when you’re going to book with their rewards. And that’s for any room in their inventory at any property, no blackout dates.

They also even have a condo and a home rental arm. And those are also 15,000 points per night. Yeah, so that’s really great for families, for big groups of friends. You can just spend the same amount that you would on a normal double bed, and you get maybe a whole condo or a cottage in the woods.

Hoff:  So Wyndham, if you have your choice of hotels to stay Wyndham is what you would suggest, because if you’re not using let’s say a Marriott card or something, but just if you’re choosing a brand you’re saying Wyndham because first of all that’s pretty cheap 15,000 points for a room.

Fergus:  Absolutely.

Hoff:  Because I think Marriott and Hilton both charge around 30,000 or something sometimes. And then 15,000 for a room, it could be a condo or just a hotel room. And you only really need to stay 15 nights on work travel to get one free night already.

Fergus:  Correct.

Hoff:  So that’s if you’re not getting any points credit card because you’re using a corporate card, that’s a great strategy so at least you have a lot of free hotel nights booked up.

Fergus:  Exactly.

Hoff:  What about airlines, is there an airline that you prefer that you think can in the long-run benefit you more personally that you should concentrate on using so you get that elite status and you get the more perks?

Fergus:  Sure, so the airline is even a little more complicated I would say. It’s going to depend on three factors. So are you looking for luxury perks or leisure perks? And then two where you live and where do airlines go from your home airport? And then where do you travel most often for work? You probably want nonstop routes to that destination if possible. And then where do you want to go personally?

So if you’re interested in really luxury, getting upgraded, you have to go with a legacy airline, that’s someone like a United, an American or a Delta. My personal preference is United because I can combine those points with my own Chase rewards, and so I get my credit card rewards and then also my United points. But if you’re based in Atlanta maybe Delta makes more sense, because they’re there.

I think one thing that folks don’t always think about as well is just Southwest. So, if you’re traveling domestic a lot for work, Southwest is actually a really great airline. They’re super friendly. I believe you still get two free checked bags for everyone, which is sort of unheard of at this point. There are no change fees; they even sometimes give out free drinks on board on the holidays.

But they also have this benefit called the Companion Pass that’s fantastic. So anyone who takes 101 two-way flights in a calendar year earns that Companion Pass. So that’s just 50 round trips. And what that means is if I were to earn that I could pick one person to put on my itinerary, every time I travel they could come with me for free.

Hoff:  And you can also earn the Companion Pass through points on your card, so if you have a Southwest card and you get let’s say 50,000 sign on bonus points, and then you get maybe the Southwest business card and get another 50,000 sign on points, then you’re only 10,000 points away again from that Companion Pass, I think it’s 110,000 points. Do you know if you can combine trips and points from a card to get to that Companion Pass faster or does it have to be really one or the other?

Fergus:  I believe it can be both, but I wouldn’t quote me on that.

Hoff:  OK, yeah.

Fergus:  I would have to double-check, yeah.

Hoff:  People could check on that themselves, yeah. So ,Southwest you say if someone’s going to be doing a lot of domestic travel or maybe travel to Mexico, Cuba, I think they fly to now those kinds of places, then Southwest, because you can get a really good bang for your buck there.

Fergus:  Absolutely.

Hoff:  I mean, you can get some very, very good well priced flights if you book ahead of time.

Fergus:  Absolutely. It’s a great vacation airline, I like to call it.

Hoff:  And is there one legacy airline that you feel gives the best upgrades when you accumulate a lot of points there?

Fergus:  I think again it depends. I know that elite status has become a lot more difficult to get on most airlines. Most of them have switched from sort of a distance-based metric or distance-based chart to revenue and distance or money spent and distance.

So, when you’re doing that, the one airline I know in the states that doesn’t operate on that anymore is Alaska Airlines. They’re still strictly distance based. So if you’re in Seattle or on the West Coast that could be a really great option for getting there a little quicker.

Hoff:  Okay, so people just kind of look at how often they’ll be traveling, how much they’ll be spending, etcetera. And like you said maybe looking to see if they can combine it with their credit card points without having to lose any value of points when you start switching them over.

Fergus:  Exactly.

Hoff:  What about which card to choose? So if you do have the option let’s say to choose a card and you’re going to use that for work, travel, what would you suggest?

Fergus:  Sure, so I really love the Chase Sapphire, and I’m sure you’ve heard that before, I’m not the only one. But I’ve been sort of evangelizing this since well before the Chase Sapphire Reserve came out last year. And that’s because for what most people are doing on business trips it’s fantastic, you get like I mentioned double or triple points depending on the card that you have in both travel and dining.

So for me, I’m in New York, every time I buy a subway pass, every time I take a cab, every time I buy a sandwich in a Bodega I end up getting double or triple points. So it’s really great for accumulating.

But then on top of that the points are also super flexible. So I believe Chase has 13 different hotel and airline partners, so you can do the trick I mentioned, taking all of my points from Chase combining them with all those great United miles I’ve earned, and then I have even more to choose from when I’m planning a vacation. So that’s really useful.

Hoff:  And do you prefer the Preferred or the Reserve?

Fergus:  Well, funny story, I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred; I had too many credit cards when the Chase Reserve came out to get it. So I was not able to get the Reserve, but I am jealous of all my friends with it.

Hoff:  Well, I know if you use those points for travel I think that it becomes like one and a half, so they then increase again and you can I believe with the Reserve you can use your other Chase points from your other credit cards, and if you put them up into the portal, into the travel thing with your Reserve you will increase the value of those points. So I think you can just accumulate a lot of points really quickly with that card.

Fergus:  Exactly. And that portal’s great for again for families or maybe you don’t want to work with a specific partner, you just want to search the same way you would on Expedia or Orbitz and you can find more boutique hotels or maybe a slightly better deal in there, and then also bang for the buck with your points.

Hoff:  Awesome, and then I think you’re about to mention another card.

Fergus:  No, I was going to actually mention the portal, so you lead me to it.

Hoff:  OK, perfect. So you got to book through the portal to use your points there, but that’s pretty easy and they offer a lot of different flights. And I’ve also heard from people that you can just give them a call if you find a budget airline flight that doesn’t show up on the portal and a lot of times they might even honor that.

Fergus:  Yes, exactly.

Hoff:  OK, so the Chase Sapphire is one of your favorites there?

Fergus:  Absolutely.

Hoff:  Now how about lounges? If lounges are a big deal to somebody which ones are the best ones and how do you get access to them?

Fergus:  Sure, so I won’t say it first, but the best lounges are definitely not the domestic lounges in the U.S. If you’ve been in one, I mean, they are often just crowded and you have to pay for a lot of things that maybe you don’t pay for in the international lounges. In the international, I mean, the best ones are just overseas. I don’t know how many you’ve been in, but I once booked the flight on Cathay Pacific’s first class, and I used my points to do that.

And so I was able to spend four hours in the amazing lounge in Hong Kong, and I got to book this private spa room, it had a bath, it had a shower, it had this rock garden with frosted windows so it sort of mimics sunlight. And then I was clean and felt like I’d been outside in a spa instead of in an airport.

Hoff:  Nice.

Fergus:  It’s kind of amazing. So yeah, if you’re into lounges those are the ones I think you want to work on getting into.

Hoff:  If you could be in Hong Kong where other kind of lounges or what lounge maybe line, whether it’s Centurion or whatever it is, would you say are kind of have the best lounges? And then how should you get access to them?

Fergus:  Sure, so I would say I know Cathy Pacific, a lot of Asian airline lounges, and then even Swiss and some of the other international lounges have really great ones. They’re very reliable. And there’s sort of a few ways that you can get into them.

The first one is like I said just booking a first class flight. It’s sort of worth noting in the U.S. if you’re on a first-class flight that’s going domestic you probably won’t get into the lounge on that boarding pass, so you can check but usually you don’t. Those are for international flights.

And then second is like we talked about you can get elite status on an airline. Every airline has sort of different thresholds for that, so you want to just make sure you research that before you go all in on one airline or on one alliance.

And then third I think this is the way most people are getting into lounges now is to get a credit card with access to lounges. So we mentioned the Chase Reserve earlier that comes with a yearlong priority pass membership. And priority pass has this network of lounges around the world. Some of them are airline branded, some of them are other lounges in different airports, and you can use that card to get into those lounges.

A lot of those are actually getting really crowded I started to notice, because so many people applied for the Chase card in the last year. So, sort of a lesser known option is the United Club card, and that’s another credit card that you can apply for. And when you get it, it comes with access to any Star Alliance business lounge around the world.

Hoff:  OK, and then what about the Centurion lounges from American Express, have you checked those out yet?

Fergus:  You know what? I’m not super familiar with those, but I know that they used to be on priority pass, and when they left a lot of people are pretty disappointed, so they have a great reputation.

Hoff:  But the Centurion I have heard at least from the people who work with Americans Express that the Centurion lounges are supposed to be pretty spectacular. So I have an American Express Platinum. I’m excited to try one out and see if they live up to the hype.

Fergus:  Yes.

Hoff:  How about small-business travelers? If someone owns their own business and they need to travel what card should they choose that can help them get the best rewards? And I’m assuming you’re probably going to say the Chase Sapphire, right?

Fergus:  I’m going to say, well, actually so Chase Ink.

Hoff:  OK.

Fergus:  And the Chase Ink Business Preferred is what I would recommend actually. So this card is in the Chase family, and it currently has an 80,000-point bonus after you spent 5,000 within three months. So I believe that’s one of the highest offerings on the market right now.

You also earn triple points on categories that you’re probably spending money on as a business owner anyway. So that’s travel, but it’s also shipping, it’s your cable and phone bills, it’s ad purchases for things like maybe Google Ad Words or sort of SEO efforts that you might be spending money on online. So it’s super valuable.

And then the great thing about being a small-business owner is that you can take that card and combine it with your personal Chase card, so you get to pull and accumulate points really quickly.

Hoff:  OK, so you think that that card is the one that will give you the best rewards quickly?

Fergus:  Absolutely.

Hoff:  What are some inside scoop tips that you have for small-business travelers in order to get upgrades and perks to make travel more enjoyable?

Fergus:  Sure, so I think a great perk about being a small-business owner is that often you’re going to be a little more flexible than someone who’s a corporate traveler, right? You don’t have a boss to answer to because you are the boss. And the first thing I say is to be really open to last minute bookings.

We actually have a great article on this in our miles and points site, but essentially weeks before a flight takes off airlines tend to open up award availability. I’ve done this a few times for myself when I’m going on vacation the next week or hoping to, I’ll check the award availability and I’ll oftentimes have flights in maybe first or business class that weren’t available a few weeks before that.

So if you can just be a little bit flexible and just trust that there is going to be some openings last minute, you can go ahead and book that way and end up in a first class instead of coach.

Hoff:  OK, fantastic. Any other things that you think small business travelers should really pay attention to especially if let’s say they’re a one person business or they only have a couple employees and they’re not going to be the high-flying corporate traveler necessarily, but things that they can do to really stretch their rewards and also spend as little as possible in the long run on travel?

Fergus:  Sure, so I think this is where you should really consider maybe an airline branded credit card. I haven’t talked a ton about those because I personally really value flexibility and I think most folks do. But if you decided, “All right, I’m flying United all of the time. I have my Chase card,” then you might want to get that United card as well because that’s going to give you things like free in-flight Wi-Fi so they can keep working on the fly. It might give you discounts on checked bags if you have to travel with a lot of materials. And then you might even get discounts on snacks and drinks on board.

Hoff:  OK, now as you mentioned you do have some interesting articles on your site such as will dressing up give you a better chance for a free upgrade. I didn’t read the whole article to find out if it will or not, but what are some general observations that you’ve made that can make traveling easier and maybe get little things like that, get those free upgrades or just make traveling a little bit more fun and luxurious?

Fergus:  Sure, so one of my favorites there is, this isn’t luxurious, but it’s super helpful is to just travel with the surge protector. I think we can all relate to never being able to find an outlet to plug in our various items, and I would say that this goes double for business travelers. You probably have two laptops – your personal and your business. You might have two phones, you might have a Kindle and an iPad, so does everyone else in the airport.

So if you travel with a surge protector it doesn’t take up that much space, you can plug it in and kind of be the hero at the gate and maybe even make some friends if you want to.

Hoff:  OK, and what about dressing up? Will it help you get an upgrade on a flight?

Fergus:  It depends. I think there’s a slim chance, but getting upgraded at this point really is based on sort of your elite status or at least with the airlines, but it’s not an impossibility.

Hoff:  I noticed when I traveled and I had my first child and he was really little, I kind of gotten the priority line, they let me get through kind of faster lines even though I didn’t have Global Entry and those kinds of things. Are there some observations you’ve made that you think are tips that maybe some people could be paying attention to, to kind of travel a little easier even if they don’t have necessarily all the points or the statuses that they need yet?

Fergus:  Sure, so I think one that sort of feeds into the dressing up, but it’s just be really friendly to flight attendants. The number of people I have sort of argue or get grumpy or just frustrated because flying can be a frustrating experience, but when you express that to a flight attendant you’re not really doing yourself any favors. A flight attendant could always kick you off too, that’s something I think people sort of forget, like they have the right to say, “No, you can’t be on this flight.”

But if you’re really nice to them and they like you and you smile and say thank you and sort of appropriate their service, the odds of you may be getting a free drink or maybe even getting that upgrade in the rare instance that there is availability really increases.

Hoff:  Is there a time to book flights that there’s more of a chance of getting kinds of upgrades and perks, like are there certain times of the week? Are there certain times of the year that you could be kind of looking like at? Like should you look to see how many seats are available in a flight and try to book that one if there’s a lot of seats available assuming that it’s not going to be a sold out flight? What are some things that you do if you strategize on when you’re flying?

Fergus:  Yeah, I think you can always book during the off season and you want to base that on your destination. If you’re going to maybe Florida you know what the big seasons are, right? Because it’s when schools are out of session, and so if you do the book right after maybe the New Year because all the kids are back in school, you can know that the flights to Orlando are probably going to be a little bit emptier. And then yeah, you can always look at seat charts and see what available and sort of play that the rest of the day.

Hoff:  So what are three things that every business traveler should be doing?

Fergus:  OK, so three things, if I could say this 10 times I would, but sign up for Global Entry sort of immediately. If you haven’t done it already do it yesterday. For folks who aren’t familiar with the program, it’s hundred dollars for five years, and you get both PSA Pre-check which is that expedited security screening when you’re flying domestic and the expedited customs.

So I have it. I’ve had it for three years and I’m still sort of amazed at how much time it’s saved me and how much frustration it’s saved me.

Hoff:  OK, and you can get that also with a lot of credit cards will even pay for that if you get a high-end credit card that cost quite a bit per year. But one of the things that they’ll often include is paying for that. OK, so Global Entry, get that. And then?

Fergus:  Absolutely. And then sign up for an award management tool. So something like Award Wallet is really great. That’s what I use, but it lets you categorize all of your logins, it lets you keep your points up to date, and then they’re all in one place.

So when you’re only working with one airline and one hotel that might not be that confusing. But if you end up signing up for a lot of different reward programs or getting a bunch of credit cards, you can lose track of what you have and even end up letting miles and points expire, which is the worst case scenario.

Hoff:  Yeah, worst case scenario. Great idea. And then the third thing that every business traveler should know.

Fergus:  Just learn to pack and carry on really well. It’s hard, but I don’t, I’ve traveled at this point for two or three weeks in a carry on. That’s what I’ve figured out how to do. It can be challenging but it’s well worth it to know that your luggage is right above your head and it’s not in someone else’s hands, especially if you’re flying for important meetings, you don’t want to land and not have the right clothes or some material that you need on the ground.

Hoff:  All right, fantastic. And our show is called Charged Up!, what gets you charged up about educating people on how to be a savvy traveler?

Fergus:  Sure, well, personally I love sipping Champagne on the front of the plane, that’s always fun. But then to educate people there’s so much, you can take advantage of so much in the world of travel and it’s not as hard as people think. And so I love being able to help other people get better travel experience.

Hoff:  Fantastic. All right, well, thank you so much, Molly. Great conversation. There’s a lot to know if you’re a business traveler, I’d say the first place people should start is like you said really kind of assessing what kind of a traveler they are, what kind of perks they’re looking for and then making decisions based on that. And I think your top tips were if you want to have flexibility for family focus on the Wyndham Hotels, you’ve got the Chase Reserve card or Preferred which is great for turning into something that you can use and using those points quickly. And then also that Chase Ink card which is great for small business travelers.

I really appreciate it, Molly thank you so much.

Fergus:  Absolutely. Thank you.

See related: Charged Up! podcast: Mastering your credit card rewards, Our best business credit cards of 2019, Our best airline credit cards

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