Monday, June 29, 2015

Travel Hacking a Trip to Florida

My family of 5 is about to take an 7-night vacation to Florida. This trip was made possible by travel hacking--using miles and points to greatly reduce the price of a trip.

Although we have been to Florida many times and we love it there, the destination wasn't our idea this time. We are part of a group of adoptive families participating in a group reunion that is scheduled at Walt Disney World and on a 5-night Disney Cruise to the Bahamas. When we first heard about the plans, we started adding up the costs of the reunion to see if we could fit it into our travel budget.

Preliminary list of costs:

*  Disney Cruise--around $7500 including tips (summer prices are significantly higher than when school is in session)

*  3 nights at Deluxe Disney Resort with a fantastic group discount-- $807

*  Airfare for 5 people--$1000 is typical from Dallas to Orlando if we watch for sales

*  Tickets and food at Disney World--at least $1000 depending on number of park days

Total: Easily over $10,000 for one week

My husband and I actually wavered on this trip a lot. Since I don't currently have a full-time job, a $10,000 vacation would be very difficult at this time. In order to go on the trip in its entirety, we would have to forgo our previously-scheduled trip to Hawaii on miles and points (which even though our airline tickets and hotel were mostly free, we still spent money on food and entertainment) and delay our future plans to visit Alaska.

But since I had such a great time at the last reunion 2 years ago, I started the process of travel hacking to see if I could come up with an alternative that would allow us to experience the reunion at a reduced cost.

The first decision we made was to not go on the cruise portion of the reunion. Summer prices on Disney Cruise Line are very high, especially for a family of 5. And since my whole family is nutty about Disney Cruises, there was no way I could just take part of my family. We have a longer Disney Cruise planned next winter during school for a fraction of the cost, and we were comfortable dropping the summer cruise knowing that we would go on one next year.

Airfare was easy to get for (almost) free using Southwest miles with the two companion passes that my husband and I both have right now. We just had to pay $5.60 in taxes for each one-way ticket and only needed miles for 3 people instead of 5 due to our companion passes. Total: 33,969 miles and $56 in cash round-trip.

Next we needed to figure out how to save money on our hotel. We had enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points to convert to hotel points to stay off-site near Disney for free. However, this is one of those cases where free isn't always better. From attending the last reunion, I knew that there were a lot of opportunities to spend time with families in between the organized events. Hanging out with other adoptive families at the pool and in the hotel lobby is priceless. Besides, the group organizers were able to negotiate a deeply discounted group rate at a deluxe resort on property, and this would give us a chance to try out a Disney resort that we would probably never get to stay at otherwise. So we opted to stay at the group hotel for 3 nights, with 1 free night at a hotel near the airport since our incoming flight arrives in the evening.

We opted to buy 1-day park tickets and spend the other 2 days at the reunion and enjoying the amenities of our resort (pool, camp fire, fire works viewing area). Our kids have been to Disney World before and they will go again, so we didn't feel the need to be in the parks for all 3 days. Plus, going to the parks in the heat of the summer is not our favorite time to visit.

We could have just flown back home after attending the reunion, but instead I started looking for other hotels in the area where we had points to stay for free so that we could venture outside of Disney World. I found one directly on the beach, so we booked it for 3 nights to make our entire vacation one week in length. We plan on relaxing on the beach, playing at a local science museum (free with our Dallas Perot Museum membership), touring a chocolate factory, climbing a lighthouse, visiting a marine science center and going on an air boat ride. I can't wait to try some new things in Florida!

So our hacked trip consists of airfare for 5, 7 nights of hotel (1 near the airport, 3 at Disney World and 3 on the beach), 1 day at a Disney park, a rental car and off-park entertainment including an air boat ride for less than $1600. Not too shabby!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Using Dallas Perot Museum Membership for Denver Museums

We have a family membership at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. The museum is part of the network of Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) which offers free reciprocal admission to over 350 science museums worldwide. We decided to take advantage of our Perot membership to try out 2 museums in Denver during our recent visit.

Denver Museum of Nature and Science:

I visited this museum several times as a kid growing up in Denver. It's in Denver City Park, which is a gorgeous park to visit before or after the museum.

The museum itself has changed so much since I last visited. It has become much more interactive, which is a great thing for both kids and adults.

Near the entrance:

The lobby:

It looks like the museum added on to the original building and left all the brick walls in place.
Inside the original building are all of these diorama displays that I remembered as a kid.
We started our visit in a temporary exhibit called "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids." Each display had information on the origin of these mythic creatures.

While my kids liked looking at some cool dragons, unicorns and mermaids, their favorite part about this section was the puppets. They played with their own mythic creatures for a while.
And they each created their own mythic creature using stencils.
There was a green screen at the end where visitors could get a photo with a dragon or unicorn.

Next we visited the Discovery Zone kids area, which had a dinosaur bone graveyard, water play area and several other contraptions.

We also watched a kids' show called "So You Think You Can Fly."

Next, we went to a Russian gem carving display. Since our kids were born in Russia, this was a priority.

We walked through the Prehistoric Journey section and then decided to call it a day. We had been there for over 4 hours and were wiped out. Unfortunately, we didn't have a chance to see many of the other exhibits at the museum, like the Space Odyssey and the Egyptian Mummies. There is also a planetarium and an IMAX theater. Maybe next time.

The next day, we visited the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. This museum is located in a hangar at the old Lowry Air Force Base.

We enjoyed this museum much more than we thought we would. We visited a similar museum in the Dallas area where nothing was hands-on, and my kids had a hard time with that. While there were many things that we couldn't touch here, there were still some interactive elements.

The kids each tried this Wright Brothers airplane simulator.

And they got to sit in a few planes:

We enjoyed checking out some uniform and helmet displays. The museum had a lot of information about the history of the Colorado National Guard.

The museum has a model of the Star Wars X-Wing:
And the Star Wars pod racer:

I liked this model of an airplane from the 1960s that showed the large seats of the plane and the formal attire of the passengers.
The hangar has an upstairs viewing area to see the tops of the planes. We could also walk under many of the planes.
There is a small kids play area near the movie theater up front:
An airplane bike:

We saw a 10-minute video about flying over the Rocky Mountains narrated by Harrison Ford, who apparently flies in Colorado often.
We spent about 2 hours in this museum, and it was well worth the visit.

Admission for our family into both of these museums would have cost $99.75, but was free with our Perot Museum membership. We have plans to use our Perot Membership at other museums in Florida and New York later this year. Can't wait to explore some new museums on our future trips!

Have you used a local museum membership in other cities or states?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Denver on Miles and Points

My family of 5 just returned from a 2-night/3-day trip to Denver. I grew up there, and this was just a quick trip to see family. We have driven the 14-hour drive from our home to Denver before, but it was torture for all of us. Thanks to airline miles and hotel points, we were able to fly for less money than it would have cost us to drive there even when we factor in the cost of our rental car (and we saved a lot of travel time, too).

Here is a run-down of the miles:

Since my husband and I each have a Southwest companion pass (see here and here), we just had to use miles for 3 tickets instead of 5. I booked our tickets on the day that Southwest made the schedule available, and I checked the website daily to see if the prices went down. I was able to adjust our tickets down in price three times, so it pays to check.

Price in miles: 18,345 round-trip for 3 tickets
Price in dollars: $5.60 each in taxes or $56 for 5 round-trip tickets (companion tickets still have to pay taxes).

Part of the reason why this trip didn't cost many miles is that I booked undesirable flight times. We had a 7:00 a.m. departure to Denver on our first flight and didn't return to Dallas until midnight on our return flight. But my kids were troopers for this trip despite the early and late travel times.

On the train at Denver International Airport:

And next to this flower inside the airport that my daughter loved:

Since we arrived in Denver around 8:00 a.m. local time, we didn't go to our hotel right away. Instead, we spent some time at Grandma and Grandpa's condo and then met my extended family for lunch.

We used Hilton HHonors points to stay 2 nights for free at the Hilton Garden Inn Denver South/Meridian. My husband and I each had some Hilton points leftover from some previous trips, and this hotel was one of the cheaper Hilton points hotels near my family at 20,000 points per night. The hotel room only fit 4 people, so my oldest son got to spend both nights at his cousins' house.

The room is a standard hotel room:

The hotel had a small indoor pool and hot tub:

Since my husband and I were Hilton HHonors Gold members when we reserved the room, we got a free breakfast and bottled water on both days. Bonus.

If you are staying in Denver on Hilton points, I do recommend this hotel. The staff was very friendly, and the hotel is conveniently located near I-25 right next to a light rail station.

Since our return flight didn't leave until 9:00 p.m., we had 3 full days to enjoy Denver and visit with my family (more to come in future blog posts).
Denver City Park
Most people think of traveling to Denver during the ski season, but I feel that Denver is such an under-rated summer travel destination. The weather is comfortable, and there is so much to do around the city and in the nearby mountains.

Is Denver on your travel bucket list?

Next up: Museums in Denver