Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why I Disagree with this Anti-Disney Blog Post

This morning I read an article on The Humbled Homemaker titled Why We're Not Saving Up to Take Our Kids to Disney World. And while I completely understand that not everyone likes Disney World and wants to go there, I think that some of her reasons for avoiding Disney World are based on incorrect assumptions.

Here are some of the reasons why The Humbled Homemaker and others argue against a vacation at Disney World:

1. "Our kids won't remember the vacation or appreciate it at such a young age." 

The Humbled Homemaker writes, "Yes, we do want to take them one day (when they are much older and will hopefully create real memories and appreciate it more."

I disagree with this logic. First of all, kids DO remember experiences at a young age. Especially if you take video and photos of an event or trip. My daughter still talks about her cruises on the Disney Magic when she was 2 and 3 years old. Does she remember every detail about the trips? Probably not. But she recalls the experience as a whole and associates the trips with happy memories.

I also think that when kids are young on trips, the adults experience joy in watching their kids experience something for the first time. And that creates precious memories for the parents!

There is something so magical about watching a young child at Disney World who believes she is really meeting Cinderella and Mickey Mouse!

My oldest son's first time at Disney World

2.  "Disney World is all about consumerism and materialism."

The Humbled Homemaker says that "Disney is big money." And while that is mostly true, it doesn't have to be.

So many people who are thinking about going to Disney World or going on a Disney Cruise will look up the all-inclusive price on the Disney website (that includes on-site accommodations, tickets, and the meal plan) and faint at the price tag. But that's not the only way to experience Disney.

In 2010, we spent 8 days at Disney World on a small budget. We used airline miles to fly to Orlando for (almost) free. We shared a 4-bedroom off-site condo with extended family members, and our cost was less than $60 a night. We ate breakfast and dinner in our condo to save money, and brought snacks and our own water into the parks. We took two rest days where we didn't go into the parks at all, and instead relaxed and played at the resort. We all still had a blast, despite not spending a ton of money on that vacation!

Our last two times at Disney World were very short trips--two days at the parks in 2012 and one day in 2013. Not over-the-top expensive and still a pleasure. A Disney vacation doesn't have to last a whole week.

To cut down on the cost of "stuff" at Disney, we have asked for Disney gift cards for Christmas for our kids. We found that when our kids have their own money and budget for souvenirs, they make better choices. Disney doesn't make it easy with a gift shop at the end of every ride, but with a little planning ahead, it doesn't have to break the bank.

My kids don't remember most of the toys or souvenirs they have purchased on our vacations (well, except for that build-your-own light saber, that was pretty special.) They remember the experience as a whole.

On our last big vacation, a cruise on the Disney Fantasy, we were open with our kids about the cost of the vacation and the sacrifices we were making to afford the trip. We explained that we couldn't go to the movies every weekend, or go out to eat all the time, if we wanted to take the vacation. After having these discussions, I think my kids really started to understand about budgeting and saving.

(See my tips on finding ways to save money on a Disney World vacation and a Disney Cruise).

3. "Disney World isn't educational and doesn't expose my kids to other cultures."

I see and hear this argument often. The Humbled Homemaker's blog states that she wants her kids to have a "passion for embracing other cultures and learning other languages."

I argue that kids do get exposure to other cultures and languages at Disney World, to an extent. The Orlando Sentinel reports that 18 to 22 percent of visitors at Disney World are international. That means 1 out of every 5 people in line is from another country. Talk to them!

On our last cruise, we met and spoke to several families from other countries. Also, most of the crew members are from other countries and have a wealth of knowledge.

I remember a specific instance on a trip to Disney World when I was about 10 years old. My family was at EPCOT for the day, but we waited too long to make a dinner reservation. The only sit-down restaurant available was the one in Morocco. My parents made the reservation there, and I was not looking forward to it. However, much to my surprise, I actually liked the food and the whole experience at the restaurant. And I remember that my family talked to our server and asked her a lot of questions about her country (the cast members in each EPCOT country are from their respective countries on a short-term contract with Disney).

Disney World can also be as educational as you make it. Do you want your kids to learn about the physics and engineering behind the rides? Enroll them in one or more of the Disney Youth Education Series (YES) classes. Even without the classes, you can learn about animals, animation, science and other countries at the parks.

4. "We don't want our children to view a trip to Disney World as the pinnacle event of their childhood."

This is one of the main points on the Humbled Homemaker's blog post. I guess if a family never left home and the only time they did was a trip to Disney World, then yes, maybe the kids would remember Disney World as the pinnacle event of their childhood.

While my kids would love to go back to Disney World or on a Disney cruise any day, they also ask us if we can go back to that small cabin we visited a few years ago. And they ask if we can go to our neighborhood pool.

I went to Disney World several times as a child, but I certainly don't view any one trip as a pinnacle event. I do, however, remember our family vacations as a whole and have very fond memories of them. Some were better than others, true. But what I remember most is spending time with my family and having adventures.

An encounter with Eeyore

Disney World (and Disneyland and Disney cruises) are not for everyone. And my kids won't grow up with Disney as their only vacation destination for sure. I understand the Humbled Homemaker's desire to visit Costa Rica instead (I've never been there, but would love to go someday).

But my opinion on Disney or any other destination is this: Don't knock it until you're tried it! Or at least researched ways to make it more affordable/enjoyable, etc. (And please don't visit Disney at a peak time without getting any fast passes or research of crowd levels and peak might never try that again!)

What's your opinion???

Yes, we do want to take them one day (when they are much older and will hopefully create real memories and appreciate it more! - See more at:
Yes, we do want to take them one day (when they are much older and will hopefully create real memories and appreciate it more! - See more at:
Yes, we do want to take them one day (when they are much older and will hopefully create real memories and appreciate it more! - See more at:

Friday, December 26, 2014

A sprinkling of pixie dust from American Airlines

A few days ago I was reading an article on one of my favorite travel blogs, Mommy Points, titled 10 Tips for Easier Family Holiday Air Travel. It has some great tips for trips any time of the year. Point #2 was "double-check your seat assignments", and it reminded me to check out our seat assignments for our upcoming trip to Hawaii to make sure we were still seated together. We were ticketed on a flight to the west coast on American, and then a connecting flight to Honolulu on a partner airline.

I logged in to my husband's account, only to see some messages at the top of the screen about flight times changing and that our reservation could not be accessed at this time. I scrolled down and saw that our second connecting flight was moved a few hours earlier, and our first flight to the west coast was moved out 3 hours, making it impossible to get to Honolulu on those original flights.

I admit, at first I panicked. What does this mean??? Why hadn't American Airlines changed us to flights that would still get us to Hawaii? Is it because we booked the super-saver award seats on frequent flier miles and we were the last priority to change?

I decided to call American Airlines, even though it was the day before Christmas and I was sure the phone lines would be swamped with current travelers. We had several presents under the tree that required us to be in Hawaii, and I wasn't comfortable giving those out without being 100% certain we were on a flight.

After waiting on hold and being transferred, I finally got through to an agent and explained the situation. The agent said she would try to find us different flights, but she didn't sound very hopeful. After about 15 minutes, she said our only option was to fly out the night before our original departure date, have a 6-hour layover at LAX in the middle of the night and depart on an early morning flight.

I was both relieved and horrified at the same time. The agent said if we didn't agree to this flight, we would be refunded our miles, which would mean our trip to Hawaii would be canceled. So I was relieved that she found us a flight. But at the same time, I was horrified that  we were now flying on a red-eye flight with a middle-of-the-night layover at LAX (my least favorite airport) with 3 kids who don't sleep on airplanes. And I was confused why they couldn't put us on different flights, since there were many flights to Hawaii at more normal times that were not sold out. The agent explained that those other flights had no more award space available, which is what we needed.

To be clear, we would totally do the red-eye flight and night layover in order to get to Hawaii. We have flown on longer flights in way worse conditions with newly-adopted kiddos, and somehow we survived. But not without many tears of frustration and grumpy parents and kiddos.

I asked to be transferred to a supervisor and tried to remember those old words of wisdom, "You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."  I politely explained my situation to the supervisor, who immediately said she was going to take some steps to get us on a direct flight to Honolulu during daylight hours. Yay! Really??? She said she had to work with another department to request more award space on a flight, and then we would be re-ticketed to the direct flight.

Hawaii or bust!
It took a few days for our tickets to be fixed and changed. During those days, my husband wondered if the phone agent just said that to get me off the phone, LOL! But she came through for us, and now we are on a daytime flight to Hawaii on our original date of departure. Our flight is even better than the one we had originally booked with miles, since it's direct and not as early in the morning.

So I guess the moral of the story is...don't forget to check your seat assignments, and be nice to the phone agents!

Has anyone else experienced an involuntary flight/schedule change on an award ticket? What was the outcome?

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
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 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!!


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.

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 Citicard 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.