2015 was a big year for me. I turned 50. 50!!!! And I still hadn’t been to Europe. So I went to work on changing that. Family vacations are getting tougher. My two older kids are in college. They have busy lives, jobs, internships, and social lives that limit their ability to travel with us. My youngest child is in high school, so we are tied to the school calendar. BUMMER. Not to mention that my husband is locked in perpetual “We’re broke” mode. Challenge accepted.
First step was getting tickets. I do the points and miles thing virtually unassisted. I had gotten the Citi Executive card over the summer, met the hefty spend requirement (thank you, college tuition bills!), and received 100,000 AA miles. My AA balance was hovering around 118,000–enough for 5 one way off peak tickets to Europe at 20,000 miles each. My husband had around 63,000 AA points gathering dust in his account. So I could get 5 of us there and 3 of us back without too much effort. I found availability (ten months out) from Dallas/FtWorth to Frankfurt. I held those tickets so I could think (5 day hold, no charge) and come up with a plan to get everyone home. I found five return tickets and held those on my husband’s account as well. I planned on booking our outbound using my miles: 5 tickets, 20,000 miles each + $5.60 each = $28 for our outbound flight. Since I wanted to get a rebate on my redeemed miles (plus get another 50,000 miles), I applied for the Citi Platinum card and was approved after calling in to shift available credit around on my other Citi products. Now I would get a rebate of 10% of my redeemed miles (max of 10,000 per year) on my booking. I put those 10,000 miles together with my remaining balance and was able to buy a return ticket for my eldest son for 20,000 miles + $112.80 in taxes. I purchased three return tickets on my husband’s account for 60,000 miles + $338.40 in taxes. Big D also held a Citi Platinum card at that time and received 6,000 miles back as a rebate. That left us short a return one way ticket. I read so many blogs from people who have WAY more experience than me, and I remembered reading about Alaska Airlines miles and their great versatility. Bank of America had sent me a credit card offer for an Alaska Airlines Visa with a 30,000 mile offer–no spend required, just pay the annual fee of $75. I held my 5th return ticket, applied online, and had the Alaska miles available in plenty of time to use to book my last ticket home for 20,000 miles + $125.30 (an extra $12.50 fee for a partner award). The best prices I found for Christmas travel on that route were $1774 PER TICKET, for a total of $8870. My cost was $604.50 ($679 if you factor in my “buying” 30,000 Alaska miles via the annual fee). Right off the bat, I save my family $8265. Who am I kidding?!?!?!?!?!? If I had to pay cash for those tickets, we would never have gone. Thank you EVERYONE who has ever posted about points and miles! I owe you a solid.
Next step was where to sleep? I couldn’t find an available timeshare for my entire dates anywhere in Central Europe other than in Hungary (not where I wanted to go this trip). I also looked for hotel point redemptions, and weighed whether we should employ a credit card strategy for hotels since we had very few (closer to no) points. I knew I could get ANYWHERE in Europe from FRA, so I was flexible in my plans. You have no idea what it takes for this Type A, list making over-planner to go with the flow. But that is actually the secret to my maximizing travel–flexibility. Besides, I had 10 months to figure out the details. Fast forward to the summer, and I still had no idea where we were staying. I started an ongoing search on RCI for Germany/Central Europe. I got a couple of ‘matches’ that were too far off the beaten path, so I passed. Then I got the almost golden match–a 1 BR condo (sleeps 4) at Gemunder Farienpark Salzberg in Germany. I booked it, but didn’t really want to be that crowded for my birthday trip. I saw that Booking.com offered a rental at the same resort for 58 Euro/night with no cancellation fee. I booked that but kept watching RCI. RCI had offers for extra vacations that would have cost me $440/week for the extra unit, so that was a no-go. Finally, another 1 BR became available for trade, so I took it. I paid $209 for each trade, essentially saving $478 over the cost of renting two units through Booking.com (although I still think that their offer was a bargain). The resort put us in units next door to each other. We had plenty of room and privacy. I would highly recommend this location (however you book it) if you are traveling to NW Germany.
So we now had a timeshare, but that left us with two nights unaccounted for. I researched where to stay (love me some Rick Steves’ travel guides), then started checking on where I could spend some points or score some great deals. First off, let me say European hotels don’t fit a family of 5 adult size people. At the very least, we would need 2 rooms. I had SPG, Club Carlson, Marriott and Hilton points. Thanks to my much loved American Express Platinum Card ($450 annual fee and worth every penny), I had SPG and Hilton Gold status. I didn’t decide until Thanksgiving week that we would spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Munich. The third person in a room charge really put the kibosh on using SPG points. I got quoted $440 PLUS 20,000 SPG points for a 3 person room, and $130 plus 10,000 SPG points for the parents’ room. No thanks. I have better things planned for 30,000 SPG points. I value those points too highly to waste them that way. Hilton had a cyber Monday sale that I decided to jump on: $94 per room per night, all in, at the Hilton Munich Garden on the English Garden. I booked regular rooms and was offered the chance to upgrade ONE rom either for free (Deluxe room) or club level (54 Euro per night). Since I needed two rooms, I reached out to Hilton via Twitter (love Twitter for things like this). They forwarded my request to the hotel, and viola! 2 upgrades to Deluxe. A few days prior to our trip, I emailed the hotel acontact about the possibility of upgrading to club level. After they confirmed that I didn’t require connecting rooms, we received club level upgrades for both rooms. Score! These rooms were going for 214 Euro/night each on cyber Monday. I paid 376 Euro total for our stay, saving 480 Euro. Club level was great for us: free full breakfast in the club OR restaurant (2 days x 5 people) saved us 150 Euro. Happy hour snacks and drinks for 2 ½ days saved us an additional 120+ Euro when you figure the cost of Voss bottled water, beer, wine, champagne and snacks our family consumed. THANK YOU Hilton and AmEx (gold status came in handy!)!
Getting around in Germany
So now that I knew where we were staying, I planned an itinerary: Munich, Neuschwanstein, Cologne, Bruges, and Amsterdam were all on my list. I looked at train tickets for Benelux. Affordable, until you multiply by 5. It would have cost our family $1500+ for 7 days of train tickets, plus some routes would require additional reservations. Not to mention, then we would have to be ON TIME or on someone else’s schedule. That was ruled out. I looked to redeem some Avios miles for short hops. Availability was good, but again–scheduling was tight and too restrictive for our tastes. So it came down to renting a vehicle that could hold 5 people and luggage (basically only needed that luggage space three times, but we DID need it!)
I have a deep love for SIXT, but they unfortunately didn’t have a vehicle available that would fit us. Thanks once again to my wonderful AMEX Platinum, I have status with Avis and National. I managed to book a 9 person Mercedes van with GPS for $404 all in. I used my premium car rental insurance from AMEX Platinum ($24.95 TOTAL vs $16/day at the counter), saving $103. When we got to FRA, Avis didn’t have a 9 passenger van, so they offered us a 7 passenger van instead. We got refunded the difference, and after opting for pre-purchasing the fuel, adding a (free) second driver, getting a diesel vehicle (free), GPS (already paid for with original rental), and unlimited miles, we were credited $40, bringing our rental cost down to $360.
Here’s a breakdown of our cost vs value (all in USD)
FULL PRICE MY COST
$8870 Tickets $604.50
$933 Hilton $409
$294 Hilton Club food/drinks $0
$696 Gemunder timeshare $418 (+ trade)
$404 Car Rental $360
$128 Car Rental Insurance $25
I’m just an average person. If I can travel like this, so can you! I could have cut the timeshare cost in half, had a 2 BR unit been available. I’ll make that my goal for the next trip!