Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Today is a good day to book your summer trip

Today, Southwest Airlines released its schedules and prices for June and July flights. While most airlines release these 11 months in advance, Southwest releases them only 6 to 8 months in advance.

Does this mean that you get the best prices if you book Southwest airfare today? Maybe, maybe not. From what I can tell by reading people's experiences, sometimes the best price is on opening day, and sometimes not. But the good thing about Southwest is that if the price goes down in the future, you can call and get a credit for the amount to use for a future flight. Or if you booked on miles, you can get the miles refunded to your account for no charge.

Since we have Southwest miles that we were hoping to use for trips this summer, today I felt like I was Christmas shopping with no bills! I found summer flights from Dallas to Denver for $73 (or 3777 Rapid Rewards points) one-way. I will be surprised if the fares go much lower than that, based on what I've been tracking. However, I'll still check the Southwest website a few times a week to see if prices go down before our trips. (Note: this same route would cost 12,500 points one way on most other major airlines).

Denver--photo credit Pinkmag.com
Is anyone else excited about summer flights??? Where are you going this summer?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another golden ticket!

In early 2013, I applied for two Southwest credit cards (a business and a personal card). I met the minimum spending ($2000 in 4 months) to receive a bonus on each card (50,000 miles  x 2) and continued to charge our normal monthly expenses to the cards while paying off the balance each month. In mid-2013, I had earned enough miles to get a companion pass (my golden ticket!) on Southwest Airlines. (See my original blog post here).

Photo credit AARP

My companion pass allowed my husband to travel for free with me on 3 separate round-trip flights, which saved us around $700-$800. The miles I accumulated in the process sent my family of 5 round-trip to Florida twice, along with a NYC trip for 2 for our 10th anniversary and two one-way flights for me to Denver and Orlando (again!). All of these flights were free except for the security tax of $2.50 - $5.60 per ticket. My companion pass expires at the end of 2014 and my miles are all gone...but we got some really great use out of the miles.

But the free travel isn't over yet...my husband just earned his own golden ticket! He just finished the requirements for his own companion pass that will expire at the end of 2015. He applied for his own Southwest credit card earlier this year to help us travel for free from the west coast back home after our upcoming Hawaii trip. In November, a different version of the card offered another 50,000 mile sign-up bonus, and it only took him a few weeks to get his companion pass.



These miles and free companion pass are HUGE for us as a large family. Flying for free reduces the price of our vacations by at least $1000. Today, we signed up one of our kids as his companion. Our son will fly for free in 2015 (no $, no miles) on at least two trips we have planned.

The higher sign-up bonuses are no longer available for these Southwest credit cards, but based on history, Chase will most likely offer them a few different times next year.

Let the vacation planning begin!


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Texas Road Trip: Amarillo

This Thanksgiving, my family of 5 took a road trip to Amarillo, Texas. Actually, we were a family of 6 in the car because my sister flew down from Indiana to join us on this road trip. The reason we went to Amarillo is because it is roughly the halfway point between Dallas and Denver, where the rest of my family still lives.

I know most of you think that we only take Disney vacations, but we usually explore Texas at least once a year on smaller trips (see my blog posts on San Antonio, Wichita Falls, Galveston, Victoria and Jellystone).  

We had passed through Amarillo before on a trip to Colorado, but we only stayed one night. This trip, we were staying for 3 nights.

The car trip to Amarillo takes 6-7 hours from either Dallas or Denver, depending on traffic and the number of rest stops. We brought our lunch and ate at rest stops each way. There are 2 rest stops on Highway 287 with kids' playgrounds. We love these!

Before our trip, we also stopped at a Family Video store and rented 8 movies for $2.17. Yes, that's right. The store has many kids movies for $1 and many that are free to rent.

Getting out some energy at the rest area playground


A bigger playground on the way back
After roughly 6 1/2 hours, we made it to our hotel, the Holiday Inn West Medical Center.
My brother and sister-in-law chose this hotel because they could stay on points and it was the only hotel in Amarillo with a water slide. 12 of us would occupy 3 different rooms.
Texas stonework in the lobby
We had reserved one of the few rooms that would sleep 5. It had 2 queen beds and a sofa sleeper.

The room also had a sliding table, refrigerator and microwave that came in handy for eating some meals in the room.
And the highlight of the hotel....the pool.
My kids love to swim, so getting to play in this pool for 3 days was a really big deal for them.

Small kiddie pool

Hot tub
If you ever plan on staying in Amarillo, I recommend this hotel if a nice, indoor pool is important to you. Because the pool was really the highlight of the hotel. Our sofa bed was so uncomfortable that none of my kids would sleep on it, and my parents reserved a handicap accessible room months in advance that for some reason was unavailable when they checked in. The water slide was only open on Friday nights and select hours on Saturday. (Also, the west side of Amarillo had a strong cow manure smell that we didn't experience on the east side of town on a previous trip).

My family arrived on Wednesday around 4:00 p.m. The kids immediately changed and played in the pool for an hour before we had dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant (El Bracero, it was so yummy). My parents and my brother's family didn't arrive until later that night, but we waited up for them and the kids got to swim with their cousins before the pool closed down for the night.

The next day was Thanksgiving. We had 1:00 p.m. reservations at The Big Texan restaurant for the Thanksgiving buffet. You may have seen this restaurant on the show Man vs. Food. It is famous for it's 72 oz. steak challenge....if you can eat a 72 oz. steak within an hour, it's free. (We also ate here in 2011 when we passed through Amarillo on the way back from Colorado).

The restaurant was decorated for Christmas.

This was the first time EVER that my parents and all of their kids and grand kids have gotten together around the holidays. Ever.


The timers for the 72 oz. steak challenge
The kids got free cowboy hats with their meal.
We explored the gift shop and some of the restaurant's unique furniture.
The big chair
The kids enjoyed these haunted pictures that changed when you walked by....


And 3 cheers for a Thanksgiving meal that nobody in our family had to cook or clean up!

After we were stuffed, we drove out to Cadillac Ranch. There were several cans of spray paint left behind by previous users, so the kids took turns making their mark on the cars.



The rest of the day included more swimming and family visiting.

On Friday morning, all 12 of us went to the Don Harrington Discovery Center. This science museum had several exhibits as well as a planetarium.





And live animals!!

Snake

The tarantula

The museum had a Sherlock Holmes mystery that was good for the older kids and adults. It also had a prehistoric animatronic animal exhibit and a lot of hands-on science stuff. There was a special section for kids age 6 and under.

We spent about 3 hours at this museum. It was a good place for all 12 of us to explore together.

We ate lunch back in our hotel room, and in the afternoon we split up to go to different locations. My brother and his family went to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, while my family went to Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Palo Duro Canyon was about 30 minutes from our hotel. While it was nowhere near the size of the Grand Canyon and it doesn't have quite the "wow" factor, it was pretty cool to see this canyon appear suddenly in the middle of the flat land.

We took a small hike in the canyon and drove the loop on the inside (which takes 30-45 minutes to complete).

The thing that impressed my kids the most? Driving through the water, since the river crosses the canyon road in 7 places but only has a bridge in one of those places.

On Friday night, all of us met up for dinner and chatting. My kids spent some time in their cousins' room again playing games. We said our goodbyes at breakfast on Saturday morning before driving our separate ways.

I'm not sure that I can persuade anyone that Amarillo is a "must-see" in Texas. But we really didn't go there for the sights. Meeting up in Amarillo gave us the chance to have some special moments like these:

All the cousins in the pool

Playing Sorry! with Aunt Eileen

Joshua and Grandma

Are we sure we're in Texas? Oh yes, the decor and the Texas-shaped waffles confirm this.

I would love to meet up with my family in Amarillo again sometime. It seemed that we were not the only family at that hotel that did the same for Thanksgiving.

Have you been to Amarillo? What did you think?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Training for the Next Event

Most people train for a 5k or marathon...we are training for our next vacation!

One of the memories I have from our honeymoon in France (10 years ago) is that we spent one day miserably sore. We had done a lot of walking the day before and climbed the steps of the Arc de Triomphe (284 steps to the top) and Sacre Coeur (270 steps to the base and 300 steps to the dome)--what were we thinking doing both of those in the same day???

We will be hiking the Diamond Head volcanic crater on our next big vacation. I can't wait to see the views! But I would like us to be in reasonably good shape for the hike.


Diamond Head Crater from the side


Diamond Head from above
Diamond Head hiking trail

While the hike is less than 2 miles long, it has 225 stairs, part of which are inside an old military bunker.

Stairs
And now that the hot temperatures of summer in Texas are past us, we can resume our hikes around North Texas. (See Hiking in North Texas Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

Our training today wasn't a traditional hike; this time, we were practicing stair climbing. I found this run of 75 stairs with a gorgeous view overlooking a lake, so we climbed it 3 times and back.


And then as a bonus, we ran up this nearby hill and rolled down. Well, the kids rolled down, multiple times. There was a small playground at the bottom.
Let's see how our legs feel tomorrow.

Have you ever "trained" for a vacation? Are you glad you did?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hawaii for 5 on (Mostly) Miles and Points

After my interview was published last month on Million Mile Secrets, several people have asked me to explain how I am getting my family of 5 to Hawaii next year on miles and points.

While I'm not comfortable sharing specific flight or hotel information until after our trip, I can shed some light on how we are making it work:

American Airlines Aadvantage miles for free airline tickets, and a combination of cash-back credit cards and travel reward credit cards for (hopefully almost) free hotel nights.


Our Southwest Rapid Reward miles and companion pass have served us well for travel within the continental U.S. But I wanted to start planning a bigger trip to somewhere farther away and have a goal to attain...we had talked about France, Russia, Hawaii and Alaska. We narrowed it down to France and Hawaii, and after much deliberation, decided on Hawaii.

For starters....I asked the miles and points travel experts. And I'm not one of them. My friends at Miles for Family, Mommy Points and Million Mile Secrets were all happy to answer my questions and offer suggestions.

The biggest task was to get enough miles for 5 round-trip airline tickets. And while there are many good options for getting to Hawaii on miles, we pursued American Airlines Aadvantage miles. We live near Dallas, the hub of American Airlines. And Aadvantage miles can be used to get tickets to Hawaii on partner airlines like Hawaiian Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines. Tickets during the off-season require 17,500 miles each way, which is lower than Delta and United. When the tickets are booked with miles on an American Aadvantage credit card, you receive 10% of your miles back.

In 2013, I applied for a Chase Aadvantage credit card that offered 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3000 in 3 months. A few months later, I applied for the business version of the same card (I do freelance work that qualifies me for business credit cards) and received another 50,000 bonus miles. My husband had received an offer in the mail for the same credit card but with a 60,000-miles bonus. He already had around 20,000 Aadvantage miles in his account from business travel.

We spread out these credit card applications and charged our normal monthly bills on the credit cards. (We pay them off every month to avoid interest and other charges). Soon, mostly because of the credit card bonuses, we had nearly 190,000 Aadvantage miles, which was enough to get us all to Hawaii.

Accumulating the points was the easy part; finding flights for 5 on the week we wanted to go was harder. For about a week straight, I got up in the middle of the night to see if flights were available with miles. Unlike Southwest, most airlines have very limited tickets for award travelers. My husband thought I was crazy, I thought it was hopeless. But sure enough, one day early in the morning, I saw 5 flights available on miles. For our return, we could not find tickets all the way back to Dallas, so we booked a flight that landed in a Western state. We are using Southwest miles to get us back to Dallas the next day. 

Each ticket would have cost us around $1000. We only paid $50 total in taxes, so we saved $4950 by using miles.

Next, we had to think about our hotel strategy. As I was researching hotels in Hawaii, most of them did not allow 5 in a room. Now some people would argue that we should sleep one child on the floor, but many of the hotels require a wrist band for the pool area and would not permit 5 people registered to one room, so squeezing 5 people in a room would not work. Saving up enough points at any hotel chain for 2 rooms a night would not be the easiest option. And there was a certain hotel on the west side of the island that we had to visit, at least for a few nights...that doesn't accept traditional hotel points.



So a cash-back credit card or travel-reward credit card was our best option for lodging. My husband and I each applied for the Barclay Arrival Plus credit card (at different times of the year). We completed the minimum spending of $3000 on each card over a period of several months and received $400 in travel rewards as a sign-up bonus on each card ($800 total). These dollars can be used to offset any expense on the credit card that is coded as travel, like hotels and airline charges. The card earns 2% rewards for every dollar spent and gives 10% of the reward points back after redemption. The Barclay card also has an online travel community that pays travel rewards for writers to share photos and travel stories, and I have enjoyed writing about our travel adventures on that site for extra money. With the bonuses, extra points for writing and charging our normal monthly expenses, we anticipate having the majority of our hotel expenses covered before our trip.

Food and entertainment are the other two major expenses of any trip. We have free breakfast for 7 out of 8 nights of hotel, and $100 food credit (which we will purchase with points) for one hotel. We have a full kitchen in  one of our hotel rooms, so we will buy some groceries for lunches and dinners. Of course, we will splurge for meals out a few times.

To save on entertainment costs, we will search for discounts and coupons before our trip. While we plan on doing a lot of free or lost-cost things like hiking and enjoying the beach/pools, we do have a few excursions in mind that will cost more money.

Kualoa Ranch


So that's how we are going to Hawaii with 5 people on (mostly) miles and points.









Thursday, October 23, 2014

Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 10: Bloopers, Tips and Favorites

Trip Report Links:

Part 1--Getting There
Part 2--Embarking the Disney Fantasy
Part 3--First Sea Day
Part 4--Second Sea Day
Part 5--St. Maarten
Part 6--St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
Part 7--Royal Court Royal Tea
Part 8--Day at Sea
Part 9--Castaway Cay

Part 10--Bloopers, Tips and Favorites

Bloopers:

Let me assure you that we were not always as happy as we appear in the video or in the photos. Most of the time, yes. But with 3 kids, there is sure to be some arguing multiple times a day.

Brian thinks I should make a vacation video someday of the tantrums, meltdowns and arguments. But that's not how I want to remember our vacations. Over time, we forget about that stuff and remember the good times.

When I'm on vacation, I delete photos as I go to ensure I have enough room on the camera's memory card, so I don't have too many "bloopers" to share. Here are a few:

"Get your hand OFF my shoulder!"
"Check out my new glasses!"

"Is it time for dinner yet?"

"Dinner has lasted way too long--we are gonna stir up some trouble!"

"I will not look you in the eye, Captain Jack Sparrow."
 

Tips:

*  Talk about what you want out of your vacation before your trip, and work to make it happen. Do you want to see all the characters and shows? That could keep you busy every day with not much time to relax, but that might be fine for some people. Do you want to relax and reconnect with your spouse? Then skip some things and make it happen.

*  Read the daily Personal Navigator (especially the one on embarkation day), and pay attention to events that require a ticket or signing up in advance.

*  Don't show up to dinner early; you will just be waiting in a big crowd until the doors open. Arrive a minute or two later, and you can just walk right in to your table.

*  Skip an evening show and go to the pools and Aqua Duck at night! Or go on a port day. Avoid the pools on sea days in the afternoon.

*  Ask DCL crew members to take a family photo with your camera in addition to the professional camera at character greetings. It's much cheaper than buying a ton of professional photos. (This service is not available at the professional photo backdrops).

To get more tips, visit www.disboards.com or a Disney Cruising Facebook group.

Favorites:

I asked each member of my family what their favorite thing was about our vacation on the Disney Fantasy.

Nathan (age 10): The pools and the Aqua Duck.
Joshua (age 6): The pools and the Aqua Duck. (Both boys were also very fond of the hot tubs near the family pools that had a view over the ocean).
Alyssa (age 4): Meeting the characters.
Brian:  Disconnecting from technology (phone, email, etc.).
Nancy (me): The moments of tranquility (eating at Palo, casual drinks at the Vista Cafe, reading on deck, the Rainforest Room, our entire day at St. Thomas)

Least favorite thing about our vacation:
Nathan: Alyssa's tantrums, waking up early in the morning because of his siblings.
Joshua: The long dinners.
Alyssa: Arriving very late the night before our cruise (she didn't say that specifically, but I am saying it on her behalf).
Brian: The sleeping arrangements (kids woke everyone up early).
Nancy: Getting sick!

Favorite Ship:
We have sailed on the Disney Dream, the original Disney Magic, the re-imagined Disney Magic and the Disney Fantasy. The only one we haven't sailed on is the Disney Wonder (which is very similar to the original Disney Magic). It's really impossible to pick one favorite Disney Cruise Line ship. They all have great things to offer. So my family talked about which ships were better in some areas. This is totally subjective and based solely on our experience.


Best Kids' Club:
The re-imagined Disney Magic. Everyone in the house agreed on that. The Avengers' Academy is spectacular, and the new Andy's room with the slinky slide is a lot of fun. Since the ship is smaller than the Dream and Fantasy, our kids seemed to participate in more of the programs in the kids' club on the Magic.

Andy's Room on the Disney Magic

The Avengers' Academy on the Disney Magic


Best Pools and Water Features:
The Disney Fantasy. It has 3 additional pools/water features that the Dream does not have--the funnel puddle pool, Satellite Falls (for adults only) and the AquaLab splash area. My 10-year-old said he prefers the Aqua Dunk (on the re-imagined Magic) over the Aqua Duck (Dream/Fantasy) because it is more of a thrill slide.

Satellite Falls on the Disney Fantasy


Best Decor:
The Disney Dream. Totally subjective, but I liked the red and blue nautical colors in the atrium. On the Fantasy, the carpet and chandelier are decorated to look like a peacock. Just not my taste.

Disney Dream Atrium

Disney Fantasy Atrium



Best Restaurants:
The re-imagined Disney Magic and the Disney Fantasy, only because these ships have the Animation Magic show at Animator's Palate restaurant. This is the show where all guests draw a character and then see it animated on the screens at the end of dinner (but it's only available on 7-night cruises).

Best Adult Nightclub Area:
The Disney Fantasy. Not that we've spent a lot of time in this area (maybe on a future cruise), but the Fantasy has a bar that looks like a carousel! And one that looks like you're on the London Tube. And bathrooms modeled after some caves in Spain.

La Piazza on the Disney Fantasy
The Tube on the Disney Fantasy


Best Staterooms:
The Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy, just from our perspective of a family of five. These newer ships have lower category cabins that fit 5, whereas the classic ships do not. Cruises are usually cheaper for us on the Dream and Fantasy because of this.

Category 8 Stateroom on the Dream/Fantasy--room for 5


Best Ship Size:
The Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder. They are smaller and easier to navigate. However, it's a trade-off, because they don't have as many amenities as the larger ships.

Best Characters:
The Disney Fantasy. Our recent cruise had the most number of characters on board. I compared the navigators from our cruise vs. the Magic (7-nights the same week), and the Fantasy had 31 characters vs. the Magic with 22 characters. (I didn't compare the Wonder and the Dream because right now they are sailing shorter cruises which would have fewer characters).



That is the conclusion of my Disney Fantasy trip report. Thanks for reading. We will not be going on a Disney Cruise next year (shocking, I know!). We hope to go again in 2016, because at this phase in our lives a Disney Cruise is a good fit for our family.

Please let me know if you have any questions.