Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Things I Will Not Do to Save Money on a Vacation

I'm all for saving money on vacations. Sometimes, getting the price down is the difference between going on a vacation and staying home. I'm sure some of you are thinking that there's nothing I wouldn't do to save money on a vacation. Not true! There are some things I won't do.

But first, here is a list of things I regularly do to save money on vacation:

Things I will do:

Use Credit Card Rewards. Of course I will do this! But slowly and responsibly. Our upcoming trip to Hawaii took a few years of strategizing with several credit cards.

Fly on discount airlines. Yes, I've flown on Spirit and lived to tell about it. Flights to my hometown are super cheap! But I know enough about the airline to avoid flying it right before a cruise or another major event, since Spirit doesn't have reciprocal agreements with the other major airlines in case there is mechanical trouble.

* Fly in coach. This seems like an obvious thing, but I'm always amazed by how many people will fly only in first class or business in order to go on a trip.

* Cook meals. We have stayed in condos and rental houses with full kitchens, and to save money we have gone to the grocery store and cooked breakfast and dinner in the condo. It saves a ton of money on going out to eat. I have no problem doing this, but I admit I also love NOT having to cook on a cruise!

Kitchen at Wyndham Bonnet Creek condo close to Disney World

* Bring lunch. Most theme parks allow you to bring in food, and sometimes we pack our own lunches. I recently read a trip report from a family that ate PB&J while they were sightseeing in Hawaii, and that's going to be us! We do like to splurge on some meals, though, but sandwiches for lunch is no big deal to me or my kids.

Eating a packed lunch of PB&J at The North Pole amusement park in Colorado

* Ask for and use discounts and coupons. If we know what attractions we're visiting ahead of time, I will research online to find discounts and coupons. Recently, I called a surfing school to ask if they had any coupons or discounts, and I was given a discount over the phone just for asking.

* Go during the off-season. Usually, this involves pulling my kids out of school, which so far has not been an issue. Crowds and prices are lower when school is in session. As my kids get older, this may no longer be an option.

What I Will Not Do: (and no judgement from me if you do any of these things! :) )

* Sleep overnight in an airport. At least not by choice. My whole family would be a mess if we had to do this during a layover. We had the chance to do this on our way back from Hawaii if we would have taken the earliest flight back with a 5-hour layover in the middle of the night in the Las Vegas Airport. But, no thanks. We opted to take a later flight and stay the night in a hotel. I realize that people without kids or people who sleep better in public places might not think this is a big deal to do.

* Listen to a timeshare presentation for a gift. Not while we're on vacation. My time is just too precious on a trip, the presentations always take much longer than they say, and we know we're never going to buy a timeshare (well, maybe a Disney Vacation Club one day.....)

* Buy discounted tickets from a questionable website. I saw a post a while ago on a message board about a website selling deeply discounted tickets to Disney World. Disney does not sell deeply discounted tickets, so there was no way I was jumping on that bandwagon. I read the site was shut down hours later. Not sure if people ended up with their tickets.

* Haggle/barter with vendors selling souvenirs. I know in some countries, this is standard practice. We were advised to haggle with vendors at the straw market in Nassau to get the prices down. But I'm just not too comfortable with this, especially since I feel the prices are already so cheap! I spent a few months traveling in Guatemala during college, and everything involved haggling--including taxi fares. It was exhausting and uncomfortable for me.

The Straw Market in Nassau, The Bahamas

Obviously, my choices of what I won't do to save money on vacation are based on my personal experiences and are very subjective. What are things you refuse to do to save money on a vacation???

Monday, February 16, 2015

$35 Balance and Other Hawaii Pre-trip Excitement

I wrote a post last fall about how we are taking our family of 5 to Hawaii for (almost) free using airline miles and points that we accumulated by reading and following advice from several travel blogs. At the time I wrote that post, it was looking like we would just have to pay $50 total in taxes for our airline tickets and a few hundred dollars total for 8 nights of hotel.

I'm excited to report that our current hotel balance is only $35.56! And it's looking like we are on track to pay off 100% of our hotel expenses through travel credit card rewards before our departure in a few weeks. Woohoo!

We can thank Discover card and Ebates for this extra "free" money. Over the holidays, Discover card sent me a letter offering an extra $120 in cash back bonus if I spent a total of $1000 on my card over a period of 4 months. It was easy for us to switch our normal monthly spending over to this card until we had accumulated enough for the extra cash back. I also used the Ebates portal for some online purchases of Christmas gifts, which gave us more "free" cash for our Hawaii hotel fund.

In other pre-trip news....we have spent the past few months learning about Hawaiian history and culture with our kids. We do this prior to every vacation, and there was a lot of accessible information for Hawaii at the library and online.

We checked out some kid-friendly books from the library:

And we watched some videos on Amazon Prime and YouTube about Hawaii and Oahu specifically.

But can you guess what my kids' favorite pre-trip activity has been??? Watching 3 episodes of The Brady Bunch where the family goes to Hawaii.

The Brady Bunch in Hawaii

My boys thought this show was HILARIOUS! And it actually shows a lot of the sights on Oahu. (See this post for The Brady Bunch Guide to Hawaii). They even asked to see other episodes of the show that were not Hawaii-related. I might have to download some on an iPod for airplane viewing.

So what's left to do before our trip? Buy new water shoes and sunscreen, figure out what we're going to pack and find things to occupy our kids for 9 hours on the airplane.

I can't believe this trip is really happening!

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Longest Flight Ever!

I read a lot of travel blogs that focus on collecting airline miles and points, and recently a few of them have had lively debates on flying overseas in business class seats vs. coach seats. And I seem to be in the minority of those blog readers who feel that traveling in coach is an acceptable option for long flights.

When it comes to vacations, I'm more in the camp of "it's the destination, not the journey." I'll fly Southwest, Spirit or any other low-budget airline if it gets my family safely to our vacation destination.

With that in mind, I'm going to share my longest/worst flight experience. The year was 2009. My husband, 4-year-old son and I had been in Russia to complete the adoption of our newest family member, 17-month-old Joshua. Due to cost and my husband's work obligations, we decided that my husband and oldest son would fly home to Dallas after our court hearing and I would stay the remaining 2 weeks in Russia by myself to complete the adoption process. This meant that I would fly home by myself with my new son.

Before our journey home, I was already exhausted. I had gotten a nasty sinus infection while in Russia and had been through some interesting medical procedures in the days leading up to our departure. I wasn't sleeping well due to my sinus infection and due to my new son's sleeping issues.

Our journey home was over 30 hours, door to door. That included 16 hours of actual flight time and time spent in the Vladivostok, Russia and Seoul, South Korea airports.

Waiting at the airport in Vladivostok, Russia

Our first flight from Vladivostok to Seoul was less than 2 hours in length. To board, we had to go down some stairs and board a bus that would take us to the airplane. My son was already screaming before we boarded the flight because we were stuffed into a crammed, padlocked waiting area for about 30 minutes prior to getting on the bus. Our flight was 45 minutes late taking off. Still screaming and crying.

At one point during the flight, I took Joshua to the bathroom to change him and noticed there was an empty row of seats at the back of the plane. I asked if we could move back there, and the flight attendant said yes.

Moving to our own row helped some. Keep in mind that my son did not speak or understand English and I was communicating to him with my limited Russian language skills.

We landed in Seoul at 11:00 p.m. and went straight to Burger King. I ate the best tasting Whopper I've ever had!

Our flight to Dallas didn't leave until the next morning, so I rented a room at the hourly hotel inside the Seoul airport. It's not as shady as it sounds. In the morning before our flight, we stopped at this airport playground to get some energy out.

But next was our big flight--over 14 hours straight from Seoul to Dallas. The plane was configured in a 2-4-2 arrangement, and Joshua and I had a row of 2 by the window to ourselves. I had high hopes that he would sleep for a good chunk of our long flight.

But of course I was wrong! But at least he wasn't screaming like on the earlier flight. The only way to keep him happy was to constantly feed him cheerios and Gerber puffs. I almost had him asleep on my lap at one point, but a flight attendant came over and started talking loudly to be and he immediately opened his eyes.

A 14-hour flight with a toddler is very, very long.

Early into the flight, my son had a big diaper blowout. It was so bad that I wound up throwing his outfit away. No problem, I had extra changes of clothes.

But the little girl in the row next to us was not feeling so well. She was throwing up about every 20 minutes all over the floor and her seat. The flight attendants would come around spraying air freshener after each round.

Joshua slept for 45 minutes, and that's it. I guess it's better than nothing!

One of the things that kept my spirits up on this trip was I knew that the moment the wheels touched down in Dallas, my son would become a U.S. citizen and our family would be complete! (Except, of course, that God had other plans!)

When we landed in Dallas, I carried Joshua in a baby carrier for 2 hours while we waited in the customs line (because otherwise he kept running all over the place). But we survived! I look back at this long flight now with humor and a sense of accomplishment.

We are taking our 3 kids on a 9 hour flight in the next few weeks, and we have plans to fly them to Europe someday. Most certainly in coach. And we will all survive and still enjoy our destination regardless.

What is your longest flight ever? Would you do it again?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What's In Our Wallet

Edited to note that this credit card is no longer available.

It's no secret that I read several miles and points blogs to help me figure out how to achieve our family vacations for the least amount of out-of-pocket money. I do not profess to be an expert at collecting miles and points, but I've been asked by a few people what credit card we are currently using to collect miles and points.

And it's this: US Airways Premier World Mastercard by Barclay. We were really not considering this credit card because we were working on accumulating Southwest miles through Southwest credit cards, but so many bloggers were talking about the tremendous value of using the airline miles of this card:

The Points Guy--50,000 US Airways Dividend Miles and 10 Great Ways to Use Them
Mommy Points--US Airways MasterCard Increases Offer to 50,000 Bonus Miles!
Million Mile Secrets--Limited Time 50,000 Point US Airways Card Sign-up Bonus
and even potentially using the miles for hotel stays by Miles for Family.

The deal with this card is when you pay the $89 annual fee and make your first purchase (could be as small as a pack of gum), you get 50,000 US Airways Dividend miles. If your spouse also applies for a card and does the same, that's 100,000 US Airways Dividend miles for $178 in annual fees. And since American Airlines is merging with US Airways, in the second quarter of 2015 those US Airways miles will become 100,000 American Airlines Aadvantage miles. We will likely cancel this card within the year so that we don't pay another year of annual fees.

Most airline credit cards require a larger minimum spending over the first 3 months in order to qualify for the bonus miles, so just purchasing one small thing and paying an annual fee is a great offer for that many miles.

So what will we do with our 100,000 American Airlines miles? We aren't sure yet, but we will most likely use them for a trip in 2016 or 2017.

These miles could pay for 3 round-trip tickets to Hawaii during off-peak months:

Snorkeling near Maui??
Or 4 round-trip tickets to Vancouver, Canada to take a Disney Cruise to Alaska:

Or 4 round-trip tickets to the Caribbean or Mexico during off-peak months:


Or 5 1-way tickets to Europe during off-peak months:

It's fun to dream about where these miles could take us.

And that's what's in our wallet.

(Note: We pay off our credit card balances every month. Please don't consider applying for new credit cards before you read Mommy Point's Beginner's Guide or Million Mile Secret's Beginner's Guide.)