Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Great Wolf Lodge for Christmas--Using Miles and Points

We live close to Great Wolf Lodge. If you're not familiar with this resort, it's part of a chain of lodges with indoor water parks. The great thing about Great Wolf Lodge is that most of the rooms fit larger families of 6 or more. Woohoo! The one in our area has been open for 8 years, and we've only been there once. We went when we had just one kid...he was 4 years old and we were about to adopt our second child. Since our son had recently learned how to swim and we knew it would be hard to bring a younger child there, we decided to go right before Christmas in 2008. The lodge had only been open for a year.

We had booked just a regular room, but we were upgraded to a Wolf Den suite with bunk beds.

We stayed just one night, but used the water park on the day we arrived and the day we left. 

Our son tried to play the MagiQuest game--$70 later, we discovered it was over his head.

Over all, we had a great time at Great Wolf Lodge.

We had talked about going again over the years, but as soon as our second son was getting to be a good age for it, we had a baby. But our middle son has seen photos of our trip and has persistently been asking when we can go there. Our youngest child started swimming like a fish this summer, so we figured this would be a good year to go.

My husband and I decided to give the kids a night at Great Wolf Lodge for a Christmas present. I like the idea of opening less "stuff" on Christmas and instead focusing more on giving the gift of a family experience. I looked at Groupons and Living Social deals for the resort, but most of those were only good during the week and had hidden costs (like a resort fee and taxes) that were on top of the discount price. We needed to go on a weekend due to our school and travel schedules, and we wanted to go during the Snowland activities.

I ended up booking directly with Great Wolf online. Literally two hours after I booked our room, I received an email from Great Wolf with a larger discount code. Aggghhh! I called Great Wolf and the representative adjusted my room to the lower price with no issues. (Tip: sign up to be a member on the website, and you will receive extra discounts not available to the public).

Miles and points redemption: I charged the room on our Barclaycard Arrival Plus credit card, which earns 2 points per dollar on all spending. We had enough reward points accumulated to completely wipe out the expense with a travel statement credit.

The kids will each receive a Paw Pass as a Christmas present from their grandparents, which will cover a MagiQuest game, a stuffed animal and some other fun extras.

Great Wolf Lodge has added quite a few things since we were there 7 years ago. I can't wait to see it snow in the lobby!

PS--this is going to be a surprise for our kids, so if you see them between now and Christmas, don't spoil the surprise!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Global Entry/TSA Pre√ Reimbursement

My husband travels for work, and earlier this year he applied for and received Global Entry membership. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Global Entry is a "program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States." Essentially, when you travel out of the country and arrive back in the United States, you can skip the regular customs line and scan your passport at a kiosk.

With Global Entry membership, you also get TSA Pre√, which expedites your screening at TSA security checkpoints when entering US airports. When you have TSA Pre√ on your boarding pass, you can keep your shoes, jacket and belt on and leave your laptop and liquids in your carry-on bag. Usually, the line is shorter. Also, kids ages 12 and under can accompany parents who have TSA Pre√ in the shorter/faster queue. (Not all airports and airlines are compatible with TSA Pre√--for example, Spirit Airlines).

I never really had much of a desire to go through the process of getting Global Entry or TSA Pre√ because the security line at Dallas Love Field (where we fly out of most frequently) has been really kind to families. Almost every time we have flown, we were ushered to the TSA Pre√ section and breezed right through security. Apparently, we were deemed low risk and were able to go through TSA Pre√ as part of a "managed inclusion" program.

However, in September, the TSA announced that it was discontinuing the managed inclusion program and only paying Global Entry/TSA Pre√ customers would get to use the TSA Pre√ screening (see this blog post). Bummer, no more shortcuts for us!

My husband convinced me that I should apply for Global Entry so that our whole family could continue to go through TSA Pre√. After all, we fly around three round-trip flights per year, so that is six times a year to go in the expedited line. And Global Entry is good for five years.

But what really sealed the deal for me is that one of my current credit cards, the American Express Platinum card, offers free reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Pre√ fees once every five years. So how could I say no? I decided to apply for Global Entry with a $100 fee (vs. $85 for TSA Pre√) since Global Entry includes TSA Pre√ (and maybe sometime in the next five years I will leave the country and utilize Global Entry).

Here is the timeline for my process:

October 17--filled out application online and charged the $100 application fee on my Amex card
October 22--reimbursement for $100 application fee from Amex
October 28--conditional approval from DHS and an invitation to interview
November 7--interview at DFW and final approval

So the entire process for me was only three weeks from start to finish.

Global Entry Enrollment Center at DFW

DHS is testing Saturday interview hours during November at certain airports, so that might be why I was able to schedule my interview and complete the process so quickly.

During my on-site interview, I was only asked two questions: Have I ever been arrested? And have I ever violated customs? The officer took my photo and my fingerprints, and I was in and out in less than five minutes. In fact, I showed up early to my appointment because DHS called me and encouraged me to come in early (I had the feeling they wanted to leave early on a Saturday).

I should receive my official membership card shortly, but I already have my known traveler number. I can enter that into my frequent flier accounts for future airline tickets, and I must call Southwest to add my known traveler number to tickets I have already purchased.

If I didn't fly so often, or if I lived farther from a DHS enrollment center, I probably would not have made the effort to get Global Entry. But, my process was relatively painless.

Can you get reimbursed for Global Entry fees with your credit card? Here are a few cards that offer this benefit. You can also use cashback cards, like Discover, to apply a statement credit for your fee with points.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Using Walmart Savings Catcher to Save for a Vacation

Since I quit my job in the corporate world, I've studied various strategies for saving money on groceries. I've shopped for basics at Aldi and cut coupons from the newspaper. I've used online grocery coupons and comparison shopped at every major grocery chain in the area. Sometimes, I spent more time getting my savings strategy to work than it was worth.

In the last year or so, I've settled on one grocery savings strategy, and it's simple: I get my groceries at Walmart. I've done enough comparison shopping to realize that Walmart's prices are usually the lowest. And I don't have to spend time cutting coupons or driving around to different stores.

I heard about the Walmart Savings Catcher app from a friend on Facebook, and I finally got around to downloading and using it. Walmart has a policy of matching sale prices of competitors (if you bring in the ad and show the cashier). I've seen people do this, and honestly it's too much of a hassle for me. But the Walmart Savings Catcher app does it automatically for me now.

After each grocery shopping trip, I take a photo of my receipt and enter it into the app. I've gotten in the habit of doing this in my car in the parking lot immediately after exiting the store, just don't I don't forget.

If you don't have a smart phone, don't worry--you can manually enter your receipt number online at the Savings Catcher Website. The app then checks sale prices from local competitors (which takes a couple of days), and if a lower price was found, it gives you the difference back in the form of a Walmart store card. A few caveats: you are limited to 7 receipts each week, and it doesn't work on store brands, bakery and produce items.

I just started using the Walmart Savings Catcher in mid September, and I've uploaded 12 receipts over the span of about two months. My refund account just spilled over $25, so I decided to cash out. I transferred my loot to a Walmart store egift card:

And then I printed it out and purchased a $25 Disney gift card at my local store.

While my local Walmart has a lot of gift cards, the ones that interest me most are Disney and Southwest, since I can use both for my favorite pastime, vacations.

I realize that using the Walmart Savings Catcher is not going to pay for an entire vacation, but it is like grabbing "low-hanging fruit." So easy. I didn't have to change what I was doing--I was already shopping at Walmart for my groceries.

Based on the money I was refunded in two months, this could add up to be around $150 a year in "free" money. $150 could get you a round-trip ticket to Denver by purchasing Southwest gift cards, or a free night at Disney World by purchasing Disney gift cards.

 Are there any other Savings Catcher fans out there? What do you do with your rewards?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The next round of DCL FE gifts

As our next Disney cruise approaches, I'm in full planning and anticipation mode. As with our prior cruises, we have signed up to participate in the Fish Extender gift exchange (which is like a Secret Santa gift exchange with other families--see this post for a more detailed explanation).

I'm not crafty at all, so my gifts are never home-made. Kudos to the people with the patience and skills for crafts! I like to give out something practical that people can use either on the cruise or back at home that will remind them of our vacation. On past cruises, we have given out pens, post-it notes and magnetic clips imprinted with our cruise name and date. We've also given out Mickey head cookie cutters, Disney glow wands, and themed movie theater candy.

This time, my family will be handing out something new as a cabin gift: souvenir travel laundry bags.

The bags are almost 3 feet tall and have a shoulder strap, but they fold up small for easy packing. I'll include a small supply of Tide Pods and dryer sheets for each cabin.

Of course, I imagine that the kids in our group won't be as excited about the laundry bag, so we are also planning on putting some Star Wars treats in their Fish Extender pockets.

On our last cruise, we signed up for two FE groups for a total of over 40 cabins. For this cruise, we signed up for just one group with 15 cabins. I'm looking forward to the scale-back because it took so much time to find 40+ cabins, and my goal is to have more free time on this cruise.

Monday, October 19, 2015

NYC Trip Report Part 3: Statue of Liberty and Intrepid

NYC Trip Report:

Music Video
Hotel Review
Amex Centurion Lounge Review
Part 1: Intro and Getting There
Part 2: Times Square and Rockefeller Center

Part 3: Statue of Liberty and Intrepid

Sunday, October 11, 2015

This ended up being the longest day ever with some really great times and some really frustrating times.

I woke up tired and grumpy due to my son's blanket issue that I mentioned in the hotel review. We had to set our alarm for 6:10 a.m. and eat an early breakfast to be out the door by 7:15 a.m. We had reserved a 9:00 boat to the Statue of Liberty.

Our morning view of the city:

Ok, I need to mention our issues challenges with the subway. Based on information we read about the best way to get subway tickets for all of us, we purchased a reloadable Metro card and calculated how much we needed to load based on our estimate of number of subway trips. The card could be swiped four times at each station, and since my daughter was under 44 inches, she could ride for free. She is supposed to just duck under the turn style. Well, on this morning, she decided she did not want to be treated like a little kid and she refused to go under the turn style (even though she did it the day before). After much fuss (loud screaming and crying!), my husband decided he would just swipe our Metro card and pay for her to go through the turn style. What he didn't realize is that then the Metro card would not let him in because we had reached the maximum per station of four people. So he had to go back around and wait in line to buy another individual ticket. And then his credit card wouldn't work because the company had flagged our activity in NYC as fraudulent. Anyways, we all eventually made it on the subway, but we were a little grumpy from the morning's events.

To make it to Battery Park, we rode to Grand Central Station and then transferred to a subway line heading south. It took us about an hour to get to the boat launch.

We boarded soon after going through security and sat on the top of the boat. It was a little chilly.

We arrived on Liberty Island around 9 a.m. since our boat left a little early. We had pre-purchased three tickets to go to the crown and pedestal, and two tickets for just the pedestal (since my daughter did not meet the height requirement of 48 inches to go to the crown). Tickets to the crown sell out months in advance, so buy early if you are planning to go.

There is an indoor museum that is accessible with the pedestal ticket.

We all walked up the stairs to the pedestal together (215 stairs). The stairs took us to the top landing of the pedestal, but then we could walk down to a few different levels below.

The pedestal has a great view of the city.

Brian and the boys then climbed up 167 more steps to get to the crown. I nagged my husband many times to take photos, because I am usually always the one to take pics. Thankfully, he remembered!

They said it was very cramped up there!

And quite a view from the crown!

While the boys were climbing to the crown, Alyssa and I went back to the museum that is included with pedestal tickets.

There was a lot of good information in the museum and a few life-size replicas of parts of the statue.

Life-size replica of the ear:

We took photos before heading back to the base.

Note: You are not allowed to bring a backpack or any bags to climb to the crown and pedestal. We had to get a locker for our stuff. Only cameras allowed.

After we arrived back at the statue base, we met up with my brother and his family who also happened to be on vacation in New York City. We got a few photos of the cousins together.

The kids just played for a while in the trees while the adults chatted.

We went our separate ways, and my family visited the gift shop and ate lunch on Liberty Island. We debated on whether we should take time to do the National Park Service Junior Ranger badges with the kids, but we all voted to move to the next thing since time was passing quickly. We ended up being on the island about 3 1/2 hours.

It was 12:30 p.m. and we got in line for the ferry to Ellis Island. We were going to spend some time there before returning to the city, but the lines for the ferries were long and we realized we had to start making some choices as to how we would use the rest of our time for that day. Everything we wanted to visit closed at 5:00 p.m., so the clock was ticking.

We decided to skip Ellis Island and stay on the boat back to Battery Park. On our return trip, we sat on the lower level of the boat.

We got a photo with this statue dude after landing back at Battery Park:

We saw some artsy globes in the park:

And we were so close to the World Trade Center that we could walk there.

We almost went there, but then realized we would have no time to do anything else that day. So we decided take a taxi to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum. We wanted to take a taxi to save time and avoid the subway drama with my daughter. We figured we just had to find a minivan taxi that would fit all of us.

Well, we couldn't find any available minivan taxis at all. We were walking north trying to get out of a busy area, but it just didn't happen. We decided to call Uber to request a ride. And then it turned out that the Uber car wouldn't allow 5 passengers. So then we had to cancel that and call Uber XL (because apparently my family is Xtra Large). From the time we got in line to get off Liberty Island to the time we arrived at the Intrepid Museum, it was 2 HOURS. We didn't expect to take that long to get there. One of my kids was a little grumpy at this point. "Another science museum? I don't want to go to another science museum." He just wanted to go back to the hotel to swim and play with his new NYC toys.

While we were in the Uber XL car, we saw the Highline Park (elevated park on an old subway line). That was something we were going to visit if we had the time, but we never made it.

Ahhh, the Intrepid. We got in free due to our membership at the Perot Museum in Dallas.

We started our visit by watching a short film about the history of the Intrepid.

Then we made our way to the top deck to see some airplanes.

We saw a Lego model of the ship:

The Intrepid had a lot of areas to explore on the inside. We climbed ladders and ducked our heads through hallways to see the bridge areas.

We all had a fantastic time at the Intrepid, and I'm glad we prioritized it. We liked it more than I thought we would. Even my grumpy son was so happy we went there. We only left because it was 5:00 p.m. and the museum was closing.

At this point, we were all thoroughly exhausted. However, we were only a mile from the famous Ellen's Stardust Diner, so we decided to call an Uber XL to take us there.

This restaurant does not take reservations, and the line was already around the block, but we decided to wait. And we got seated in only 20 minutes.

This restaurant has a singing waitstaff, and they put on a show. They are always performing. They did a few songs that my kids appreciated (like "Let It Go") and some Broadway tunes. I'm glad we were able to make it here. It was a very entertaining dinner.

We still had to get back to our hotel in Queens. We had a phone app called Transit that instructed us to walk to a nearby subway station on a line we were not familiar with. I decided to carry my kicking-and-screaming daughter over the turn style. We walked in the tunnel maze and then when we got to the platform, there was a sign that the subway line was closed for the weekend. Ugh! And then my daughter started doing "the dance". You know the one. So we had to go back up all the steps and try to find a bathroom. I ran into a deli that didn't have one, we walked in circles for a while, and then I saw a Hampton Inn hotel. We were racing for the lobby and found the bathroom, only to be locked out of it because it required a guest room key to get in. We ran back to the lobby to see if any guests could let us into the bathroom, and we only found people who did not speak English. Fortunately, one of them recognized my daughter's dance and rushed us to the bathroom JUST IN TIME. It was so stressful!

So by that time, we had all had it. We called Uber XL to take us to Grand Central Station so that we could catch the 7 line back to our hotel.

That night was the only decent night's sleep I had.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and went to the rooftop terrace for one last look at the city before hopping on the hotel shuttle to the airport. You can read about our airport lounge experience here.

My daughter fell asleep on the plane before take-off.

One thing that had us laughing on the way home: We purchased this landmark playset at the Statue of Liberty gift shop that has little figurines of popular NYC attractions.

My daughter kept asking me, "Mom, is this a toilet?" Ha! It's the Guggenheim!

I asked my kids what was their favorite part of the trip.

Nathan (age 11): "The big buildings, the sights and sounds of the city."
Joshua (age 7): "The shops!" (Who could blame him? The stores were very cool).
Alyssa (age 5): "The statue of liberty." But she is insisting we go back in a few years when she is tall enough to climb to the crown.

Truth be told, the trip was exhausting and really trying at times. There was no down-time for Mom and Dad. But our adventures outweighed that, and I'm so grateful that we could give our kids this experience for (almost) free because of my miles and points hobby!

Based on our survival in New York City, I do believe that my kids could handle a trip to Europe right now. However, we don't have any plans to go across the pond in the near future. Because while I think we could handle it, I believe a trip to Europe will be a little more pleasant if we wait a few years.

When I plan our trips, I try to achieve a balance between relaxing/pampering trips where Mom and Dad get to reconnect (a cruise or an all-inclusive with a kids' club) and the more adventurous go-go-go trips (like this one). And right now I can't wait for our next vacation in a few months where I will get to relax more.