Over the past week, Greg and I have had a blast on our Passing the GUC trip and done some awesome activities. I stacked the booking of those activities to get the best deals I could find. That doesn’t mean the activities were “cheap”, just that I endeavored to make them as reasonable as possible using points. The best deals I got were by stacking cash back on bookings at Viator (and later paying myself back with points), but I’d be hesitant to ever book with Viator again after I learned that tour operators can cancel and change the price at any time – even a couple of days before a scheduled activity. Here’s how I booked and saved and what I would do differently next time.
Yas 3000 Driving Experience at Yas Marina Circuit
Greg wrote about his perspective of our driving experience here. I didn’t expect this activity to be at the top of Greg’s to-do list but rather I saw an opportunity to stack for a pretty good deal on something that is a “bucket list” type of activity for many. And while I am not an F1 racing fan, the idea of driving an open-topped open-wheeled race car around a real F1 track just seemed like the kind of opportunity you won’t have too many times in life.
I stacked this one several ways for the best deal. The most obvious options were:
- Book via Chase Ultimate Rewards. This experience would have been $500 per person or approximately 33,333 points with the Chase Sapphire Reserve (at 1.5cpp). It was available for easy booking in the Ultimate Rewards portal.
- Book via Viator. The price here matched Chase — $500 per person. While both were the same on the surface, I noticed a third option:
- Book directly via the Yas Marina Circuit website. Yas Marina had been offering a discounted price of $400 (presumably due to some combination of the extreme heat in September and sharply pandemic-reduced tourism).
One potential problem with booking directly via the Yas Marina Circuit website is that they did not mention any ability to cancel for a refund. It sounded like if we booked directly with Yas Marina and needed to cancel, we would receive a voucher that is only valid for 1 year. Viator allowed free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.
I created my own “fourth” option by using #2 & #3 with some stackage:
- I clicked through from Capital One Shopping for 10% back at Viator ($50 back).
- I used a credit card connected to the Dosh App (dosh gives 2% back but only up to a $10 maximum per day)
- I immediately emailed Viator to invoke their best rate guarantee. Much to my surprise, they emailed back within a couple of hours to confirm that they had processed my refund ($100 per person).
Also to my surprise, the best rate guarantee did not prevent me from earning the 10% shopping portal return on the full original purchase amount (the $50 from Capital One already posted to my shopping account and I redeemed it for a gift card).
In the end, that’s a net cost of $340 (not including the points earned from the credit card used to pay). To cover this, I could:
- Redeem 22,667 points via Chase Pay Yourself Back with the Sapphire Reserve (buying stuff at the grocery store that’s worth $340 in cash in my pocket to offset this purchase).
- Redeem 34,000 “penny points” (points worth $0.01 each). In my case, I chose to redeem Point Debit Card points for $340 in cash. This will be roughly the same number of points as what Chase would have charged at 1.5cpp.
Personally, I’m happy to trade in 34K of my Point Debit Card points for this. In the end, I’ll have used roughly the same number of points that someone booking through Chase would have used and I’ll keep my (much more valuable) Chase points. On the flip side, a net 22.7K Chase points certainly isn’t bad either — I’d probably trade a free night at a Cat 5-6 Hyatt for an experience like that. To be clear, I’m sure that some people wouldn’t. That’s fine, too! The purpose of the exercise here was to try to get great value for points and stacking did the trick.
One more note that’s worth knowing: after you book an activity, Viator emails you a coupon good for 10% off another activity that is valid for something like 13 days. If you’re booking an expensive activity like this, it might be worth first booking a cheap tour of some sort to get that 10% coupon. I don’t know whether shopping portal cash back will still stack if you’ve used a unique coupon code, but it could be worth a shot.
In the end, Viator was far and away the best deal. In the time since booking, I’ve seen Viator at 15-18% back via my Capital One Venture card login (different from Capital One Shopping). Stacking that with the Best Rate Guarantee might be even better, but I haven’t had great luck with those Capital One login offers. I intended to separately test the Capital One credit card portal with my next booking anyway.
And I did just that by using a Capital One link within my Venture card login to book a tour via Viator. Based on that experience, I’ll probably never book anything through an independent tour operator on Viator again.
Booking the Hot Air Balloon Ride (a.k.a. why I’m not inclined to use Viator ever again)
I booked the hot air balloon ride weeks ago. Here’s how I did it:
- There were many operators. I settled on one that was $530 for 2 passengers through Viator for what it said was a private tour (side note: I didn’t believe it was actually a private tour, but that’s what it said). Chase had roughly similar prices (most balloon tours were around $600-$700 with a couple of options under $600 for two passengers) but I didn’t see this same operator through Chase.
- I started in my Capital One Venture card login which was showing 18% back ($95.40 back)
- I used a card connected to Dosh for $10 back (2% back up to $10 max)
- Net expected cost = $424.60 (just over 14K Chase points each if cashed out via Chase Pay Yourself Back which beat what Chase was charging directly by a handy margin). And at that price — 14K Chase points – it was a roughly comparable price to a domestic US flight. That seemed totally worth it for a far more unique experience.
However and here is a huge “however”, just 3 or 4 days before the scheduled hot air balloon ride, I got an email from Viator saying that my booking was cancelled by the operator. The email said that I could search for a time to rebook or I could request a refund. If I didn’t make a selection, a refund would automatically happen in 5-7 days.
My disappointment changed to annoyance when I saw that my tour operator did not cancel the tour, they just cancelled my booking and then increased their price. Suddenly the same hot air balloon departing at the same time with the same tour company was $620 — an increase of $90.
I contacted Viator figuring that they would make this right. I expected that they would either rebook me on the same tour and eat the $90 difference in price or offer to book me with another operator. I was totally wrong.
Viator’s response was that they have no control over pricing and that prices can change without notice. I could rebook for $90 more or take a refund. They offered no resolution at all.
I thought that was nuts. Imagine if you booked a Marriott hotel and 4 days before your stay they cancelled your booking just to resell it at a higher walk-up price and Marriott said, “I’m sorry. Our franchisee sets prices, not us. Prices are subject to change.” That just doesn’t happen in the travel industry: once you book a hotel or flight (or tour as far as I knew), it’s a done deal.
Except with Viator it’s not. Someone in Frequent Miler Insiders pointed out that this type of situation is covered in Viator’s policy. They explicitly say that a tour operator can cancel and re-price your booking any time they want. This comes directly from Viator’s Terms & Conditions:
“Other Modifications and Cancellations16.1 Occasionally a Supplier may make a change to a Product after your purchase, including but not limited to the date, price, inclusions, coverage, age requirements, and/or any other Product features and/or requirements. As a result, Viator (acting on the Supplier’s behalf), reserves the right to cancel, change or substitute any Product that you have purchased, at any time, for any reason. If the change proposed by the Supplier is material (for example, a change in dates and/or a significant change to the itinerary), and you are dissatisfied with the alternative that is offered, you will be entitled to a full refund of the original purchase price.”
Again, that’s crazy. Imagine if you have a full vacation with a bunch of stuff booked — and then suddenly prices start rising and you get unlucky and some operators increase their prices. How ridiculous would it be to have to rebook your entire vacation at higher prices at the last minute?
A member of Frequent Miler Insiders who is more familiar with Viator from the vendor side explained that Viator recently instituted some mandatory fees on their end without notice that likely led to the increase in the rate from the operator. Essentially, it sounds like the price that Viator charges them might have gone up by the $90 that they increased the rate — so the tour operator may not have been seeing any of the money from the price increase (and may have increased so as not to lose money on the tour thanks to those unexpected Viator increases).
At the end of the day, I know that the pandemic has been hard on everyone in the travel industry, but as the customer I didn’t enjoy being put in the middle between Viator and the operator. It was suggested by some on Facebook that I contact the operator directly to rebook with them directly instead of booking through Viator because they may have been willing to extend the original price (since they wouldn’t be giving Viator a cut). However, it wouldn’t have been my original price since I had stacked with the portal cash on the Capital One side (and Dosh). Since my challenge here was to get good value for points, that didn’t immediately appeal to me, nor was I thrilled with either side — Viator or tour operator — to be put in the middle (and put out of my tour) so I didn’t rebook with the same operator.
I did still book via Viator. Based on the recommendation of several readers in Frequent Miler Insiders, I first took the time to look up some of the tour operators with the thought to perhaps book directly with an operator. My initial hesitation with that was not knowing which operators were reputable when Googling “hot air balloons in Dubai”, but I was able to work that out by Googling names of well-reviewed operators I found on Viator and Trip Advisor. I found one operator that was offering 20% off until September 30th when booking direct and their online videos looked terrific, but when I called they said that they were not starting their hot air balloon season until September 17th. A number of other operators similarly were not yet running tours for the season.
As I was quickly striking out when trying to book direct, I went back to Viator. Capital One was now offering 15% back at Viator in my Venture card login (lucky since I was scrambling to rebook this on our day of departure from the US). In this case, I really did think Greg would enjoy this experience and I thought I had a perfect set-up in telling him that we had to leave the hotel at 4am. I really wanted to do it so I sacrificed some value and went with a tour operator that had great reviews and that seemed to be currently operating tours. The price was now $660 for two people — a bit more than the company I had originally chosen, but better reviewed.
After 15% back from Capital One ($99) and $10 back from Dosh, the net cost should be $551. That’s $275 each — we can either redeem 18,333 Chase Ultimate Rewards points each via Pay Yourself Back or about 27,500 of your favorite “penny points” per person. This tour included breakfast, riding a camel, and holding a falcon. Next time, I’d book a package that didn’t include breakfast as it wasn’t very special and we had free breakfast at our hotel (thanks to Hyatt Globalist status.
Confusingly, I received an email from Viator the day after booking balloon tour #2 saying that my hot air balloon tour was cancelled. It turns out that it was just the email confirming that they had indeed cancelled my original booking and processed the refund. Still, this activity was well worth it.
In the future, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to book something like the Formula 1 driving experience since I imagine they are less affected by the type of situation that happened with the balloon, but I’d be more hesitant about booking with a small tour operator via Viator (to be clear, I’d be more confident about booking direct since that avoids any issue with Viator changing their fees).
Food tour in Dubai
The food tour was very simple: I booked this via Chase Ultimate Rewards at value of 1.5c per point. Getting a private tour appealed to me over a group for COVID precautions (we had to eat one way or another but I didn’t want to do it with a big group and chance getting hit with an expensive quarantine in the Maldives).
The second thing I wanted to do was pick a food tour with stops that Greg would enjoy. I know Greg tends to prefer protein-packed snacks (over the brownies that I’d otherwise choose) but that he does love ice cream. I also know he loves coffee. Thus, I picked a food tour with 10 stops that included:
- Camel meat burger. Got to be lots of protein I guess, right?
- Saffron ice cream: This is a flavor I’m sure Greg has never had in ice cream.
- Coffee museum: I figured maybe we would learn something new about coffee and share a sample of something. This might be needed to keep us awake for our late-night (2:30am) flight to the Maldives.
Unfortunately, the only of those three stops that we did on the tour was the camel burger. I didn’t ask about those missing stops because by the time it hit 10:15pm on our 3-hour tour that started at 6pm, I wasn’t going to push for any more stops. It was nice of the guide to give us some extra time (and meet us near the tour ending point so that we could park near where we’d end). Our guide was very enthusiastic and constantly welcomed us to ask questions. I don’t know if we just had a low energy level after a few days of constant activity, but neither of us had many questions and this experience just reaffirmed for me that I’m not really into guided tours. I don’t regret doing it, but I don’t know that I’d do it again.
Actually, on second thought, maybe I do regret it a little bit. It was about 17,000 points total (8.5K each). It wasn’t worth all that — but that’s more of a reflection on the tour itself and its planned stops rather than on the tour guide or the method of booking.
Sea plane in the Maldives
The final “activity” of sorts that I’ll address is the sea plane ride in the Maldives. Many people have asked about the cost to get from the Maldives airport to Le Meridien and if there are ways to reduce that cost.
Sea plane transfers in the Maldives are expensive. Most major resorts charge anywhere from $400-$700 for the transfer from the airport to hotel (whether by sea plane or in cases where it is possible by boat). Le Meridien Maldives charges $420 plus $6 in tax for a total of $426 per passenger. For a 25-35 minute flight, that’s not cheap. However, you can save some money with Marriott gift cards.
Le Meridien Maldives, like almost all Marriott properties around the world, accepts Marriott gift cards. We sometimes see Marriott offer gift cards on sale for 20% off of face value. When that offer happens, scooping up discounted gift cards could save you $85.20 on that sea plane transfer. It’ll still be expensive, but $340 per passenger sounds a lot better.
Alternatively, we’ve seen a lot of Amex Offers for Marriott. The percentage of the net discount can vary, but we often see an Amex Offer for something like $40 back on $200 or $50 back on $250 at Marriott properties. While offer terms exclude gift card purchases, any purchase made at the front desk of a hotel (including a gift card purchase) has historically triggered those offers. You should be able to come out with a similar discount to when Marriott puts points on sale.
In my case, I have an old Capital One Venture One card with a grandfathered “Special Hotel Offers” redemption that allows me to redeem 64,250 Capital One miles (ordinarily worth $642.50 toward travel) for a gift card for select hotel chains. One option is Marriott. A few weeks before the trip, my wife transferred miles from her Venture card and cash back from her Spark card to become miles in my VentureOne account and combined with the miles I already had that gave me enough for a $900 Marriott gift card. In short, I got 1.4c per Capital One “mile” by redeeming for a Marriott gift card and using it to pay my folio at Le Meridien — which included the cost of the sea plane. That means the sea plane transfer cost a net 30,000 Capital One miles which is a solid deal indeed.
Many readers asked how we booked various parts of our “Passing the GUC” trip to get good value. While the activities we did were far from free, points made them easily possible. The thing that stood out most to me was that I felt pretty satisfied when using points for experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise purchased. I’ve passed on previous opportunities like the hot air balloon or F1 race track, but when I looked at it from the context of how they compared to the joy of redeeming for a premium-cabin flight, I felt pretty good. We were able to take a pretty incredible bucket-list-type trip using what felt to me like a reasonable investment in points and miles. Again, my purpose with these activities wasn’t to give one cohesive example of how someone else should use their points but rather to show that whatever your interests, you can pave a path to pretty awesome experiences using your points.