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?