Affordable Luxury is a Real Thing….

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View from the villa porch
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Master bedroom porch
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We each had a couch to stretch out on!
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Master suite
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Morning view
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We had the first floor. Upstairs is a separate bedroom/bath.
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Every morning was this beautiful

My best friend and I turned 50.  Not on the same day.  Not even in the same calendar year.  But we decided to celebrate in style with a trip.  The only problem:  Holli is a (very educated and underpaid) teacher + I have two kids in college = limited disposable income.  I’m supremely lucky to have Holli in my life.  But in this one travel planning instance, she is lucky to have me!  We weren’t doing no stinkin’ road trip to no budget motel for this milestone birthday!

First off, I convinced her last summer to apply for the US Airways master card from Barclay’s (no longer available) so that she could easily pick up a bunch of miles to be used on American Airlines with the sign up bonus, opening up our travel area.  We wanted to go somewhere neither of us had ever been.  Holli had never left the country before, but I’ve done a good amount of traveling.  We settled on Belize:  easy three hour flight, no state department warnings, second largest barrier reef in the world, and we are both fluent in their national language (English).  She booked her ticket via AA for 30,000 miles + $62.50: I booked! the same flight via British Airways site for 20,000 Avios + $62.50.  First step, done.

Did you ever find a place with deals so good you almost hate to share them?  I mean, what if a zillion people find out (and actually jump on) this site and all my great possibilities go the way of the dodo bird?  Well, if you’ve read this far, you deserve to know about this gem:  www.luxurytraveldiary.com  This is a blog site, and on this page, there is a golden banner that says “grab a deal in our travel auctions”.  Do yourself a favor and click on that.  Then sit back, close your gaping mouth, register on the site, and BID!  The offerings change, you bid in GBP (Great Britain Pounds–check the exchange rate so you know how much you are actually bidding) and you have to be aware of availability dates, but OMG!  Let me tell you, these are the real deal.  I grabbed a Belize bargain for me and Holli, costing us $75 USD each for four nights at Hopkins Bay Resort, including daily breakfast and a cooking lesson.  All for far less than I would have paid for one night at a Super 8.

I kid you not.  Holli and I had a 2BR/2Bath LUXURY villa, facing the beach.  The resort has kayaks and bikes to borrow, free wifi (with NO resort fee for any of this–I’m looking at you, Florida hotels).  The bartender doesn’t skimp on the alcohol (tell King I said “hi” when you go!)  The restaurant is open air and authentic–and delicious!  The staff (and everyone we met in Belize) is incredibly friendly and goes out of their way to accommodate you.  Case in point:  we wanted to set up some tours–snorkeling, Mayan ruins, etc.  For snorkeling, we were asked if we minded sharing our outing with another group.  ????WHAT????  Usually I hear that X number of people are required to “make” a tour.  Not at Hopkins Bay.  We ended up with three other women that we bonded with.  And the snorkeling was fantastic (thanks Capt Jack and Mr Santos!).   Our Mayan ruins tour was me, Holli, our guide, and a guide in training.  They took us to lunch afterwards at a local restaurant, and we enjoyed truly getting to know them.  (Kudos, Greg and Paul!)  I can’t say enough positive things about our Hopkins Bay experience.  I might even pay full price to go back here.  (High praise, indeed)

So the secret is out there.  Luxurytraveldiary.com is the shizz.  I’m going to go bid on more travel–they have some African safaris right now–and maybe I’ll be victorious once again!  Let me know if you bid on something and win it.  Good luck!

 

Yet ANOTHER Alaska Airlines Credit Card…..

I opened an Alaska Airlines Visa through Bank of America last year in order to get enough miles to bring my daughter home from Europe on American Airlines.  One extra benefit this card offers is a yearly companion certificate.  (Buy a coach ticket and get another ticket on the same itinerary for $99 + taxes–ends up being around $121 R/T.  Both tickets earn frequent flier miles and are upgradable.)  I was unsure if I would even use this.  But remember, I’m frugal (i.e. cheap), so I hate to not use a great discount.  The certificate expired on February 8.  I knew there was no way I would take a trip by then, so I took to Twitter to ask Alaska Airlines some questions.  (If you aren’t using Twitter as a way to get excellent customer service, you are missing out!)  The AS rep let me know that I just had to book a ticket by 2/08 for flights within the next 300 days.  And with Alaska’s very generous ticket change policy (best one I’ve experienced–no charge for changes 60+ days prior to flight), I knew I could make it work.  Now, where to go?

This is typically where I run into problems.  Not in finding somewhere to go, but rather in finding TOO MANY places to go!  I could fly DFW-SEA-SFO-HON on ONE ticket, spending a few days at each location.  I could fly direct to Hawaii.  I could go to Cabo or Juneau.  I could pick a single location in the Pacific Northwest.  SO MANY OPTIONS!!!!  Then it came down to “How many tickets?”  If  I decided to keep the credit card another year and pay the $75 annual fee, I’d have another companion fare certificate deposited to my account.  So, in effect, I could take 4/5 of my family somewhere by purchasing two tickets.  Decisions, decisions….(According to my Twitter conversation with AS, so long as I travel/pay for the fare, I’m golden.)

After looking at this from every angle, I decided to book a trip to Portland for me and my husband to celebrate our anniversary.  Why Portland?  The PNW is on my ever growing list of places I want to go.  PLUS, when I googled it, there are an impressive number of waterfalls in the area.  Big D loves waterfalls.  There are also wineries (woohoo!) and whale watching along the coast.  BOOM!  Winner!!  Booking was incredibly easy through the Alaska site.  I found direct flights both ways for a grand total of $500.83:  $366.20 for me, $134.63 for D.  I could have found a cheaper flight, but flying direct and at reasonable times means more to me than saving $75.  I filled out all the info, was about to click “pay”, and then magic happened.  An “Apply for an Alaska Airlines Visa, get 25,000 miles and $100 statement credit” offer appeared, with a “get approval in 60 seconds” button.

But remember:  I already have this card.  That’s why I’m here in the first place.  I’m not a card churner–someone who opens up several of the same cards just to max out bonus miles.  But 25,000 AS miles that can be redeemed on A LOT of great partners across multiple alliances?  PLUS a $100 statement credit after spending $1000?  AND, if I’m approved, I can use it on this ticket purchase, getting me halfway to the spend requirement?  What the heck.  I clicked apply now, filled out the forms, and one minute later got my approval!

So now I have a new AS credit card with another companion certificate.  Do I keep my original credit card when the annual fee comes due in March to get another companion certificate?  Or do I cancel that one and just hold the new AS credit card?  I don’t use these cards on a regular basis, although I’m not opposed to using them if there are some bonus categories offered at some point.  What would you do?

 

Trip Report: Amsterdam (OR Hide yo’ Children, Hide yo’ Wife)

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A windmill!
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A relatively open space
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Not sure what it was, but it tasted ok
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Seven Bridges, as seen from canal cruise
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Herring. Just saying.
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Dam Square

Amsterdam was our last stop in Europe.  EVERYONE was sooooo excited.  I don’t know what everyone else was looking forward to, but I had a short list of things I considered “must-do’s”:  Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, see a windmill, people watch at the canals.  Not a long list, but I’m willing to let other people have a say in what we do on vacation.  Not that they ever do, since my family likes to just sit back and let me plan everything.  Hey, whatever works.

We drove our mighty Caddy van toward Amsterdam, and were almost immediately rewarded with a windmill sighting!  I was so thrilled to point it out to everyone, much to their amusement.  This was going to be a great day!

And then we got to Amsterdam.  Immediately, I felt myself tense up.  We were in our first overly crowded area of the trip.  Traffic backed up, and we inched along the main street looking for parking.  Bicycles whizzed by, narrowly missing cars (ours included) and pedestrians.  People were walking shoulder to shoulder everywhere I looked.  We inched along, finally finding a parking garage after 40 minutes and maybe 1 mile.

The unfortunate truth is, I struggle with anxiety.  Everything about this stop so far was making me anxious.  This was looking like a bad idea.

We walked around for a bit, trying to get our bearings in the city.  All I have to say about that is:  Good luck!  Amsterdam is a confusing place to try to find your way.  Maps (paper or online) didn’t help.  Asking directions didn’t help.  Looking for a tall landmark (my usual go to this trip) didn’t work.  More on this later.

We finally decided to take a canal tour.  Surely we could find the (right) canal!  We booked tickets in advance, then went in search of food.  Being budget minded, we went to a local grocery store and bought sandwiches of unknown ingredients and drinkable yogurts.  FYI, these markets are cash only, so come prepared.  We walked in the direction of the canal cruise near the train station, sat on the benches, and people watched while we ate.  A flashing billboard warned us to beware of pickpockets.  Cool.  I sat on my bag the whole time.  Good luck, pickpocket!

The canal cruise was fine.  We got to see the city and listen to a taped tour.  I saw the exterior of Anne Frank’s house and made a mental note of how to get back there.  After the cruise, we went in search of a herring stand.  (Tip:  Look for an enormous amount of flocking seagulls and the herring stand will be right under them.)  I’m all about trying the local food, but let’s be real here–NO ONE in my family was going to eat an entire herring sandwich.  So we bought two and split them 5 ways.  Those 2 1/2 bites we each had were plenty.  But now we needed a beer to wash them down.  We found a nice local bar that featured Amstel (the adult kids dissed Heineken), and enjoyed some quiet time with the locals.  Lovely people.  Probably should have stayed in the bar.

Out on the street, we went wandering, looking for Anne Frank’s house.  I’d since narrowed my musts down to this single place.  We walked shoulder to shoulder with the zillion tourists, getting a contact high from the pot being smoked on the street.  Seems like many tourists come for this aspect alone (haven’t they heard of Colorado?).  That certainly wasn’t my focus.  (Seriously, AA has flights to Denver right now for $90 R/T.  Why waste Europe time?)  We asked no fewer than 6 people how to get to the Frank house.  We got redirected with conflicting directions 6 times.  We logged about three miles walking in circles on our search.

One lovely woman who tried to direct us was a health worker on her way to check the prostitutes for HIV.  The bio hazard gear should have been a heads up to us, I guess :).  In fact, she invited us to go with her to the Red Light district, as “It’s great family fun!”  Thanks anyway.  We went our own way and kept looking.

I thought it would be smart to cut through an alley instead of staying on the main road.  Bad idea.  Green lights strung between the buildings invited us to “live porn”.  Giant dildos and other sex toys were positioned to entice us into shops.  And hey, what was that?!?!  Women in storefront windows bathed in red light.  Shit.  I had led my family right into the Red Light district.  I wanted the earth to swallow me whole.   My kids found this hilarious.  My husband stopped to marvel that “they really are standing in red lights!”.  And in case you are wondering:  no matter what your tastes, there is someone for everyone in the Red Light District.   Oh well, now we have a great story to rehash at every family event for the rest of eternity!

Needless to say, we never found Anne Frank’s House.  We did find a billion murderous bicyclists, Dam Square numerous times, the flower market, the flea market, and some incredibly kind people.  And we held on to our belongings.  Not every trip is a win, but this one is definitely a story!

How I Got Started in Miles OR 100,000 British Airways Avios and No Way to Use Them UNTIL…

I am relatively new (a couple years in) to the points and miles scene.  Everyone has to start somewhere!

Being from Dallas, American Airlines has always been my airline of choice by default.  I mean, I KNEW there were other airlines, but my inexperience led me to buy into their “Based here, best here” motto.  And I do like them and fly them more often than competitors (although Virgin Airlines was such a great experience, I plan to fly on them whenever I can!).  So I would fly AA, accumulate miles, and would eventually (it seemed to take forever) earn enough miles to redeem for an average price flight to an average type place.  Fast forward twenty years.

I am a deal finder in all aspects of my life.  Before I buy ANYTHING, I look for a discount code, price match, or just a better deal in general.  And 9 times out of 10, I find it.  One site I use is BradsDeals.com.  LOVE THIS SITE.  Brad even published a book that I bought outright:  How to Do More and Spend Less.  Because I love Brad, when he posted about Chase offering a British Airways Visa with 100,000 Avios bonus several years ago, I jumped on it.  I got the Avios miles, but I had no idea how to use them.  So they sat in my account for years, while I would occasionally check the BA website to try to redeem them.  Oh, I could find a ticket, but BA charges taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges that are huge.  I’m not seeing the value of getting a “free” ticket to Europe for $1,100 in fuel surcharges and taxes.  In Economy, no less!  PBBBTTTHHHHHH!!!!!!  So I let them sit, and I stupidly kept the credit card open, paying the $95 annual fee.  (Side note:  Airline miles and hotel points earned from co-branded credit cards post to your loyalty accounts.  You don’t have to keep the credit card if it offers no additional value to you.)

I even emailed BA to complain.  (Avoid calling–I hear their phone system sucks more than a Dyson.)  No help.  But Google came through for me!  I  searched “how to redeem BA Avios” and found a blog by The Miles Professor.  She outlined how to use BA Avios for super cheap mileage redemptions on domestic American Airlines flights (plus $5.60).  I was able to fly my son home from Austin for 4500 Avios each way (sadly, the rate is now 7500 Avios) on American, booked on the British Airways site.  Sweet!  I also booked a trip to Denver with my youngest via BA–4500 Avios each way plus $5.60 ( again, now 7500).  Suddenly, I was LOVING my Avios!  I had gone from baffled/annoyed/angry to joy and bliss!

When it came time to plan a family vacation, I was able to use Avios to fly from DFW to Cancun in Business for 15,000 Avios pp/each way.  So for 30,000 Avios +$25 per person, we flew AA business class to Cancun, vs 35,000 AAdvantage miles each in economy!  Much better deal!  We did have to get creative in terms of scheduling in order to find tickets:  I flew down early with two of my kids (the sacrifices I make); my husband flew later from DFW and arrived around the same time as my son, who flew from Austin.  We all flew home on the same flight, and had Matthew catch a flight from DFW to Austin for an additional 4500 Avios.

I still find Avios to be useful, but recent unfavorable updates to their award chart make me less interested in accumulating them without a plan.  I transfer miles in from American Express Membership Rewards points and from Starwood Preferred Guest, but there are other sources.  Google it!  Bottom line, don’t feel tied to any one airline.  JUST START SOMEWHERE!

How I took my family on an $11,000+ trip to Europe for under $2000!

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

__________________________________________________________

$11,325.00                                                                $1,816.50

 

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!