Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hotel Review: Hyatt Place Flushing/LaGuardia Airport, New York

Last weekend, my family of 5 traveled to New York City on a quick "miles and points" getaway. I could not find a hotel in Manhattan for a reasonable amount of hotel points that would allow 5 of us to stay in one room, so I booked the Hyatt Place in Flushing (Queens) near LaGuardia Airport. It cost 12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points a night (or it would have cost around $230 in cash per night). This is a bargain compared to the hotels in Manhattan that start at ~$600 a night for a room that fits 5.

This hotel just opened last year. It's located in Queens' original Chinatown.

Image from asianfusion-mag.com

When we arrived at LaGuardia Airport, I called the Hyatt Place for a free shuttle to the hotel. It arrived in ~10 minutes.

We ran into a major traffic jam leaving the airport, so the ride to the hotel took closer to 30 minutes. Check-in went quickly, and we headed up to our room that had 2 queen-size beds and a sofa bed.

Our room was on the 7th floor, and we could not hear any airport noise and hardly any street noise. When we looked outside our window to the left, we could see Manhattan.

Our view of Manhattan in the morning:

The hotel offers a free breakfast buffet that is standard at all Hyatt Place hotels. In addition to the standard breakfast fare of eggs, sausage, oatmeal, cereal, fruit, yogurt, toast, etc, the buffet also has an Asian food section. The breakfast seating area spans across two levels.

One of the coolest things about this hotel is the rooftop pool and lounge area. We went up to look on our first morning.

The pool is enclosed and heated and has a view of the city. (After two long days on our feet, we really wished the hotel had a hot tub!)

The hotel is located very close to a few baseball stadiums. This is the view from the window near the elevator.

The hotel is located just a 5-minute walk from the subway station (the 7 line) that goes directly to Times Square. It's about a 40-minute train ride. Easy peasy.

In addition to the numerous Asian restaurants nearby, there is also a shopping center 5 minutes away with an Applebees restaurant and a Subway restaurant. A McDonald's and Burger King are located right by the subway station. Plenty of food options nearby for picky kids.

During our stay we had a minor housekeeping issue. The housekeeping staff took away all the sheets and blankets from our beds, and they were still gone when we came back from Manhattan. When we returned from dinner, the two queen beds were put back together, but the blanket was missing from the sofa bed. We called down to the front desk to get another blanket. After 30 minutes went by, we called again for the blanket. It never came. I didn't want to keep calling because my kids were really tired and wanted to sleep. I turned up the temperature in the room and hoped for the best. Of course, my son who was sleeping on the sofa bed woke up in the middle of the night complaining of being cold. All of our towels were wet, so I covered him in his jacket and a small hand towel. Needless to say, I was up for 2 hours in the middle of the night and was grumpy the next morning.

I talked to the front desk staff about it in the morning. They were not sure what happened, but they sent a blanket up right away and gave me some hotel points and free drinks for our inconvenience. I really wasn't expecting anything except a new blanket, so I was really impressed with the customer service there.

The hotel's free airport shuttle runs back to the airport once every hour, so we reserved our time slot the evening before our flight.

If you have a family of 4 or less, you will probably find it more convenient to stay in Manhattan. But if you have a family of 5 or 6, the Hyatt Place Flushing/LaGuardia Airport is a great choice in terms of comfort, space and price. The 40-minute subway ride is really easy to do, but it does become cumbersome after a long day walking around Manhattan, and it makes it difficult to go back to your room to change for an evening show.

I'm glad we could stay at this hotel on points for free on this trip to New York City, and I would stay here again on a future trip.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What's In Our Wallet, Part 2

Earlier this year, I wrote about What's In Our Wallet, which at the time was a card we applied for in January that got us 100,000 American Airline miles. I normally stick to writing about trips we take instead of specific credit cards that help us earn miles and points for our trips, but I am often asked what credit cards we are currently using for miles. (Note: We do not carry balances on our credit cards and mostly use cards with no annual fee for the first year).

So...here are some of the new credit cards currently in our wallet for this year that we use as tools to help us earn free travel:

Chase Sapphire Preferred--My husband got this card in the Spring. The annual fee is waived the first year, and after meeting the minimum spending requirement of $4000 over 3 months, he earned over 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (40,000 bonus, +5000 for adding an authorized user plus over 5000 points on spending in the first few months). Chase Ultimate Rewards points are so valuable because they can be used for cash back (1 cent per point), or they can be transferred to travel partners like Hyatt, Southwest and United.

We ended up transferring his points to Hyatt, and combined with some existing Ultimate Rewards points I already had, we had enough to book a Hyatt resort mini-vacation next year that has a cash price of ~$1600. (The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card and other Chase cards are now harder to get if you apply for and change credit cards frequently--see this blog post for details).

Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort

American Express Premier Rewards Gold--Based on advice from a few bloggers about checking out credit card offers on the CardMatch tool, we discovered that my husband (not me, can you tell who has the bigger income??) had an offer from American Express for the Premier Rewards Gold card. The offer included a bonus of 50,000 Amex Membership Rewards points after spending only $1,000 in 3 months. (Note: the normal bonus is 25,000 points). The card's annual fee is waived for the first year. The card gives a $100 airline credit each calendar year, so based on the timing of getting this card in the middle of the year, we will be able to get a $100 airline credit in 2015 and another $100 airline credit in early 2016 before cancelling the card (to avoid the annual fee in the second year).

What can we do with Amex Membership Rewards points? We can use them to offset travel expenses or transfer to airline partners. We chose to transfer the points to British Airways. Sounds odd, right? Well, British Airways is a partner of American Airlines, which has a hub in Dallas. We can fly on American Airlines flights using British Airways Avios and in many cases use fewer points than if we used American Airlines miles. British Airways has a distance-based award chart. We can fly to Denver on an American Airlines flight for 4500 British Airways Avios miles one-way (vs. 12,500 American Airlines miles). Or to Cancun our Puerto Vallarta for 7500 miles each way (vs. 17,500 American Airlines miles). We are tentatively planning to use the points to fly to Mexico next Fall. The tricky part is finding award seats for a family of 5!

Future cards:

Citi ThankYou Premier--My husband and I both plan on applying for the Citi ThankYou Premier card before the end of this year. It offers 50,000 ThankYou points after spending $3000 in 3 months. The annual fee is waived for the first year. We can combine our points together (100,000 bonus plus 6000 for the minimum spending) and get 1.25 cents per point for travel booked through Citi. That's $1325 that we could use toward an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. ¡Que bueno!

This looks lovely.

Cards from last year that we've kept:

Barclaycard Arrival Plus--We use this card when we're not working on spending towards a bonus on a new credit card. It gives 2% back on all purchases that can be used as statement credits for travel.

Chase Ink Plus--This business card gives 5% Ultimate Rewards points on internet and cell phone bills as well as purchases from office supply stores (like Staples and OfficeMax). Since this is my second year with this card, the annual fee of $95 came up this summer. I called Chase to inquire about any retention offers for me to keep this card, and I was offered 10,000 points (which basically offsets the $95 fee). I'm glad I called!

I earn a lot of points on this card by buying gift cards at Staples. I buy gift cards that I use during normal monthly spending (supplies/groceries on Amazon, pet food at Petco, etc.) We will transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt for hotel stays over Spring Break.

So that's the scoop.

For more information on points and miles, see Miles For Family, Mommy Points, Million Mile Secrets, Points With A Crew, The Points Guy...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Greek Food Festival of Dallas

Most of the time I write about free or inexpensive travel and entertainment on my blog. That's not the case today. The Greek Food Festival of Dallas is a fundraiser for the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, so everything has a charge. But we had a blast and it was money well spent.

First a little background: My husband and I LOVE Greek food. There are several local Greek restaurants that we frequent. Before we had kids, we had planned a trip to Greece. Then, life happened and we postponed the trip, thinking that we would be able to go in a few years. Then more life happened and we still haven't made it to Greece due to other priorities. Someday we will make it there!

We've known about the Greek Food Festival of Dallas for many years but have never made it there. We don't watch the local news much, so we never hear about the dates and times of local events. By the time we remember to look up the dates of this festival, it has usually past.

Not this year! I wrote it on the calendar. We had considered going as an adults-only date night, but in the end we decided to take our kids and make it a family affair.

We arrived around 4 p.m. on Saturday. The festival is way more popular than I imagined. We parked across the street on the grass in a $5 lot (make sure to bring cash). I bought tickets and some food coupons online prior to leaving, so we picked those up at the Will Call booth and bypassed the ticket lines. Entrance tickets are $6 for adults/teens ages 13 and older and free to kids 12 and under. Food tickets are $1 each, and drinks started at $2 and many food items were $5.

We decided to start with a tour of the church. There was a formal tour happening when we entered, but based on our kids' attention spans, we opted for a self-guided tour.

The church is beautiful.

Then we started to sample the food. We started with an order of loukoumathes, which are dough puffs topped with honey, nuts and cinnamon.

There were some food booths outside and under the huge tent.

We tried the appetizer sampler plate and fried feta bites (yum!)

We also had a Greek salad, Greek potato fries and a gyro sandwich.

And for dessert, baklava sundaes!

There was a small kids area with a playground and a few fundraisers (balloon animals, sand art, face painting). We killed some time on the playground until the next round of dancers was scheduled to go on stage.

We also took some photos with the Greek soldiers:

We went over to the stage area about 10 minutes prior to the scheduled performance time to get a seat. Good thing, because once it started there was standing room only!

Prior to the performance, kids ran around/danced on stage to the Greek music playing. My kids said this was their favorite part of the festival! Dance like no one's watching! (Except for the 100s of people in the audience).

The high-school-aged dancers went on at 6:30 p.m. and danced for about 30 minutes. All I have to say is...Greeks sure now how to party! They look so joyful when they dance, and it got really loud with all the hoopla from the audience! Opa!

After the performance, we got some balloon animals for two of our kids:

And bought some sand art (self-made) for our oldest:
We left around 7:30 p.m. and the crowd was getting thick. More dancers and live bands were scheduled throughout the evening. As we were walking out, the kids asked us if we could return next year. Umm...let me think about it....Yes!

Have you been to this festival?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Preparations for "A Whole New York"

We are leaving soon for our trip to New York City! (See here for the scoop). The kids are super excited. My 4-year-old daughter apparently cannot get the song from Aladdin out of her mind ("A Whole New World"), so she keeps calling New York City "A Whole New York." I've corrected her a few dozen times and explained that it's just New York City, not a whole New York, but the name has stuck and now I'm stuck on it, too.

Our first month of school has been a tough adjustment for the kids and for me, so thinking about our trip and doing some preparations gives us a welcome reprieve from the daily grind.

We found a ton of kids' books at the library about New York City, both fiction and non-fiction. 

I've been studying the subway grid to get an idea of our routes and the most economical tickets.

The kids have been dreaming of which toys they will get at Nintendo World.

I've been fretting about losing our kids in the crowd and researching how to find a bathroom quickly. Luckily, I'm not the only mom who is afraid of not finding a bathroom for her kids, and I've discovered some handy information on this very topic from Mommy Poppins.

I think this trip is going to be brutal on the parents...but a trip we will always remember.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Heritage Association of Frisco Third Sunday Open House

This summer, my kids earned free passes to the Frisco Heritage Museum through the Frisco Library summer reading program.

We have been to this museum before a few times and the museum is good for all ages (see my previous write-up here). Outside of the museum are some historical buildings and replicas maintained by the Heritage Association of Frisco that are only open to the public on the third Sunday of every month. We had never made it to the museum on a third Sunday before, so we decided today would be the day.

In addition to the buildings being open for tours, some other activities were advertised on the website:

SEPTEMBER 20. Third Sunday Open House. Go Team! A spirited event featuring cheerleading demonstrations, face painting, and football toss with local high school athletes. Make a megaphone at our craft table. Enter the coloring contest, watch the blacksmiths work and tour historic structures. Frisco Heritage Center, 1-4 p.m.

The historical buildings and the activities onsite are free to the public during the Third Sunday Open House each month. (The indoor Frisco Heritage Museum charges an admission fee if you don't have the library passes.)

We arrived about 1:30 p.m. and started in the old church. Frisco ISD cheerleaders stood outside of each building explaining what was inside. A Heritage Association volunteer was inside the church to explain its history.

Next, we moved on to an old Victorian house from the late 1800s. Again, we were welcomed by cheerleaders.

The tour guide inside walked us through the downstairs rooms and explained some features of the house (a fireplace in every room, an ice box in the kitchen).

Next, we headed inside another house to the craft table where the kids made some megaphones. More Frisco ISD high-schoolers were on-hand to help.

In a different historic house, we enjoyed an animal presentation by Grisham Farms. We met a bunny, hedgehog, guinea pig, python, chinchilla, two birds and a bearded dragon.

Outside, a cheer team was demonstrating cheers, and high school boys were available for football tossing.

A face painter was inside another building.

The blacksmith shop was open with ongoing demonstrations.

And the jail--the ceiling is only 5'8" high! The location on this site is very close to its original location in Downtown Frisco.

The kids enjoyed playing school in the schoolhouse:

And we spent some time by the trains.

We spent so much time in the historic buildings and doing the activities that we decided to skip the indoor museum and save it for another time.

I was surprised at how few people were at this event! Usually if there is any event that advertises free face painting for kids, the line is out the door.

Check out the free events here in the coming months:

OCTOBER 18. Third Sunday Open House. Pets & Pumpkins! Join us for pumpkin decorating, pumpkin bowling and other games and crafts. Watch square dancers in the old train depot and blacksmiths at their forge. Hear the story of the Crozier house ghost read aloud on the second floor of this Victorian home. Frisco Heritage Center, 1-4 p.m. Animal rescue groups will have adoptable pets that are looking for a home.

NOVEMBER 14. SHAWNEE TRAIL COWBOY DAY. Gather the Herd and come to this rootin’ tootin’ annual event. The good guys and bad guys shoot it out in a dramatic mock gunfight; stagecoach rides; entertainment; petting zoo, and everyone’s favorite ARMADILLO RACES. 11-4pm, Frisco Heritage Center.

NOVEMBER 15. Third Sunday Open House Mayor Maso Mayor Maso will Pardon Tom Turkey at 2 p.m. in the Depot. Join us for hayrides; seasonal games and crafts; live animal show & tell; fiddle music and more at the second annual “Pardoning of Tom Turkey” 1 – 4pm at the Frisco Heritage Center. A lively, fun and FREE event for the whole family.

DECEMBER 20. Santa & Cider. Third Sunday Open House, 1-4pm, Heritage Center. It’s not too late to tell Santa your Christmas wishes. Kids can help make a paper chain to decorate the Heritage Center Christmas tree, and don’t forget the Grinch Dust to be sprinkled in the yard on Christmas Eve. Visitors can enjoy hot apple cider and music in the old Lebanon Church.

Have you been to any of these Third Sunday events at the Frisco Heritage Center? We plan to return for more fun.