Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Re-booking an All-inclusive Resort for a Lower Price

Earlier this year, I booked a family vacation to an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta using a combination of miles, points and cash. We had to book two rooms for our family of five, so we used Citi ThankYou points to cover the cost of one room and Barclaycard Arrival + points to help offset part of the second room.

Our trip is still a few months away, but last week I decided to check the price of our trip on the resort's website to see if it had changed. I'm not really sure why I did this, but I guess it's just a habit. I'm used to booking flights on Southwest, and I am constantly looking to see if the price went down to get a points refund or a credit for a future flight.

Well, I'm glad I checked, because the price of our second room decreased by $270. I double and triple checked to make sure I had put in the same exact dates, room type and number of people. I was surprised at this price reduction, because I had stalked the rate for months before I booked it, and it never changed.

Room rates shown with AAA discount in red

Next, I had to see if I could get the price difference refunded. While I could not adjust my reservation for the lower rate, I could cancel it and re-book at the lower price if I was willing to pay a $50 cancellation fee. That's what I did, and I still ended up coming out $220 ahead.

I checked my husband's room reservation on the Citi ThankYou travel website, but for some reason the price of his room increased. Weird.

This situation made me stop and think...how often do we book a hotel or resort and check back later to see if the price has gone down? Or how about a rental car? Hotel and rental car prices fluctuate just like airline prices do. If there is no cancellation fee, or even a low cancellation fee, it seems like a no-brainer to check for a lower price prior to a trip. Always read the fine print before you cancel and re-book to avoid any unwanted fees.

Stay vigilant, my travel friends!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Birthday Party at iFLY Dallas

I mostly write about travel on this blog, but statistically my most popular post by far is actually about my son's birthday party at California Pizza Kitchen. So since there must be many moms out there Googling for birthday party ideas, here is another one.

First, let me back up and say that while I am frugal and budget-conscious in many aspects of my life, a birthday party is one event that I prioritize for a small splurge. Maybe it's due to my childhood experiences with birthdays, or the circumstances in which our kids joined our family...but I feel that children's birthdays should be BIG! And while that doesn't necessarily translate into spending a lot of money, I want to give my kids the opportunity to have age-appropriate friend parties while they are young.

I have a love-hate relationship with birthday parties. I love seeing how happy my kids are being with their friends and being celebrated for their special day, but I hate the stress of organizing, figuring out who is coming and dealing with drama.

My worst birthday party memory is my oldest son's party at our house in 1st grade. I bought something through Groupon which was advertised as sports-themed entertainment for at-home birthday parties. I figured it would be perfect for a bunch of 7-year-old (mostly) boys. It ended up being a huge disaster! The entertainment was not what I expected at all. The hired party entertainer brought things like hula hoops and stretchy bands, and the kids had no interest in any of the activities. The boys ended up using lightsabers to clobber themselves instead. On top of trying to keep tabs on my 1-year-old daughter, one of the moms dropped off an uninvited younger sibling to the party (who I had never met) and she needed a lot of supervision. Yikes! The kids still had fun and nobody was seriously injured, so I guess it wasn't too bad. No more at-home parties for this mom!

A backyard birthday disaster
So back to the present time...my oldest son was turning 12 and told me that he was getting too old for a "kiddie" birthday party. He wanted something low-key with just a few friends. I ran a couple of ideas by him (laser tag, a movie), but he decided on indoor skydiving at iFLY.

iFLY Dallas opened a few years ago not too far from my house (it's actually located in Frisco, not Dallas). It looked like fun but was something we had never done because it's a little pricey. When I looked online for a birthday party, the party package price was way over my budget. So I called iFLY and asked if I could buy a family package (10 flights for up to 5 people) and still bring cupcakes for my son's birthday. I was told that would be no problem, so I bought the package and scheduled the time.

The instructions say to arrive 45 minutes before your flight time to check in, sign a waiver, watch a training video and suit up. That is the time I put on the party invitations. We had one child who was running ~30 minutes late, and iFLY told me that if he didn't make it by 30 minutes before our scheduled flight time he couldn't fly. The employees were very serious about this and had to keep us on a strict schedule, so one friend unfortunately could not fly. My husband was happy to step in and take the empty spot.

After signing the waivers, we were lead upstairs to a training classroom. We watched a video (parents and spectators can also go in the classroom) and learned hand signals from the flight instructor.

Next, the fliers were fit with flight suits, goggles, ear plugs and helmets.

Soon, it was time for our group's flight. There was another group of 5 that shared the tunnel time with our group.

Flying low

I sat outside of the tunnel with my daughter and some parents to watch and take photos/videos. Each person in our group got two flights that lasted one minute each. On the second flight, they had the option to go higher up with the instructor for an additional $10. Two of the five in our group opted for that experience.

Here is a video of my son's final flight, followed by some tricks by the instructor:

It took about 30 minutes for the entire group of 10 to finish flying. Afterwards, the kids took off their suits and headed to the party room for some cupcakes (I brought cupcakes and juice--there was no food for sale there except some vending machines near the front desk). Even though I had not booked the official big birthday party package, my son's name and birthday were still on the screen, which I thought was a nice touch.

The family package included five professional videos of the flights. Each flight was recorded in its entirety and set to music, and we got to choose which videos we wanted.

I kept the party favors very simple--Mike and Ike candy (my son's favorite) with a little skydiver taped onto the box:

A few notes:

*  Buying a family package is definitely the way to go if you want to have the party on a smaller budget with fewer people.

*  Don't invite more people than can fit in your package, as iFLY was sold out on flights that day and we could not have added anyone extra. If someone doesn't show up, you can substitute another flyer (like a parent or sibling) or use the flights to give the birthday boy/girl extra flight time.

*  I suggest putting an even earlier arrival time (like 1 hour before your flight instead of 45 minutes) on your party invitations to allow for latecomers. I had no idea that latecomers would not be allowed to fly. If everyone arrives early/on time, you can always go upstairs and watch the fliers before you. It's quite entertaining.

*  In addition to the family package cost, be prepared to spend extra on the higher flights ($10 per person) and a tip for the flight instructor. Our instructor was funny and worked very hard!

One thing that surprised me was that we didn't see any young kids there that day--we were the youngest group. We saw a few older teenagers, but the rest were adults. The minimum age is 3, so I  assumed that more younger kids participated. Maybe it was an anomaly for the day we were there.

Overall, I recommend iFLY for a birthday party for tweens. It was a thrilling experience for the boys, and the party was definitely easy on my end.

Have you experienced iFLY on your own or for a birthday party? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Anna and Elsa's Boutique vs. Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Disneyland

On a recent trip to Disneyland (in California) with my 5-year-old daughter, we visited Anna and Elsa's Boutique for a hairstyle makeover. I made an appointment here because she had already experienced the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB) twice on the Disney Fantasy, and Anna and Elsa's Boutique was less expensive and offered different hairstyles.

We visited Anna and Elsa's Boutique on the day we were in Disney California Adventure Park, so we had to exit the main park gate and turn left into Downtown Disney. The walk was fairly short--maybe five minutes.

The outside of Anna and Elsa's Boutique

We were there at 2:00 p.m. on a Thursday in May, and the shop was virtually empty. My daughter was the only one scheduled for a makeover at that time.

Inside the store

The shop is full of all things "Frozen". There were makeover stations at the front of the store and also in the back.

My daughter got to pick a hair streak color and a Frozen-inspired hairstyle. There were five possible hairstyle choices. She also got to pick a tiara, nail polish color, eye makeup color and lip color.

The entire makeover took only 25 minutes because she had two stylists working on her at the same time.

When the stylists were done and pixie dust was sprinkled on her head, my daughter was turned around to the mirror for the final reveal with a chorus of "Let it go!":

The final result-Elsa's style
My daughter got quite a few compliments on her hair in our remaining hours in the park, and several people asked where she had this done because they had never seen the style before.

Great things about a makeover at Anna and Elsa's Boutique:

*  It has a wider age range (3-15) than the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (3-12).
*  It has more hairstyle choices (5) than the BBB, with cool twists and braids.
*  The price is only $34.95 for the hairstyle, tiara, nail polish and makeup. The comparable package at the BBB is $59.95.
*  Theme park admission is not required since it's located in Downtown Disney. Unlike Disney World in Florida, Disneyland does not have a BBB in Downtown Disney, so a theme park ticket is required for the BBB in Fantasyland.

On the flip side, Anna and Elsa's boutique is a lot less formal than the BBB. The stylists are wearing t-shirts vs. the Fairy Godmother in Training costumes at the BBB. The BBB gives out a sash and special BBB cinch bag with the extra makeup, but Anna and Elsa's Boutique did not have sashes or a special bag. My daughter did get to keep a comb, brush, makeup, and nail polish in a regular Disney plastic merchandise bag. There were no PhotoPass photographers at Anna and Elsa's Boutique, but they are usually present at the BBB.

Fancier decor and atmosphere at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
My daughter and I both enjoyed her experience at Anna and Elsa's Boutique. I think if we were only going to Disney (parks or cruise) one time and had only one chance at a makeover, I would probably chose the more formal BBB. But Anna and Elsa's Boutique is a great choice for a less formal makeover and/or a repeat makeover. And in my opinion, the hairstyle choices are better! My daughter kept her hairstyle in for four days.

Have you gone to one or both of these makeover boutiques? What do you think?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

5 Tips for Getting the Cheapest Price for a Disney Cruise to Alaska

Alaska Trip posts:
Booked at Last! A Cruise to the 49th State

Getting the Cheapest Price for a Disney Cruise to Alaska

Last week, I shared the news that we finally booked my bucket list cruise to Alaska! Now that I've had a week to jump for joy at taking the first step in making this trip a reality, it's time to start a game plan for paying for this vacation. But first, I want to share some tips for getting the best price on a Disney Cruise to Alaska. And would you believe that we did not choose the cheapest price for our cruise???

I've written before about how to get the cheapest price on a Disney Cruise, but Alaska cruises have some nuances that make it a little more difficult to get a cheaper price.

1. Choose to sail in a cheaper peak time. Unlike cruises to the Bahamas and the Caribbean which have much better off-season prices in winter and fall when school is in session, Alaska cruises don't really have an off-season. Cruises only sail to Alaska in the summer from about the last two weeks of May through the first week of September. But based on current prices, there are some weeks that are slightly cheaper than others:

Cheapest: End of May and beginning of September 
Next Cheapest: First two weeks of June and last two weeks of August
Most Expensive: Mid-June until mid-august

Unfortunately, for most families, pulling kids out of school in late May or early September is not ideal because the school year is just ending or just beginning at those times.We chose a cruise in the next cheapest time frame. If we were to move our cruise to the most expensive time frame of summer, it would cost us 12% more. If we could move it to the least expensive time frame, we would save 19%.

2. Forget about the verandah. On our last Caribbean cruise, we could have upgraded from an oceanview porthole room to a verandah room for about 15% more. On Alaska cruises, there is a much bigger jump to get a verandah room. These rooms are priced at a premium due to the fantastic wildlife and glacier viewing on the cruise route. 

On the Disney Wonder, my family of 5 cannot fit in the lowest category inside room, or even in one porthole room. So our options are more limited than the options for a smaller family. 

For our Alaska cruise, we would need to pay about 38% more to switch from two connecting porthole rooms to one verandah room for 5 people. For two people in one room, the jump from porthole to verandah is over 50%, or more than a 75% increase from an inside stateroom (with no porthole window) to a verandah stateroom.

For my family of 5, these are the options we had, from cheapest to most expensive:

Two category 11 inside rooms with no portholes. These are the smallest cabins that do not have a split bathroom like most Disney Cruise Line cabins. There are no category 11 cabins that connect together, so we would have to split our cabins up by gender since my kids are not old enough to have a completely separate room from us.

Two category 10 inside rooms. These cabins are slightly larger than category 11 inside rooms. They have an split bathroom and connecting rooms are available.

Two category 9 porthole rooms. These cabins have two small porthole windows or one large porthole window to see the scenery. The price is cheaper for rooms on lower decks (decks 1 and 2) vs. the higher decks.

Cabin with porthole window

One category 4 verandah room that fits 5 people. The room includes a queen bed, a bunk bed and a pull-down bed.

One category 7 verandah room (fits 4) with an inside category 11 room nearby. This is not ideal for us, since we would still be split in non-connecting rooms.

One concierge verandah room, available in a standard size or a suite. (Dream on!)

My frugal, planner self tends to gravitate to the cheapest option, but my husband is a good counter balance to me. We will enjoy this trip more if we can have connecting rooms with the kids in a room by themselves, so the lowest level inside staterooms are out. While we don't need the verandah since there are a few public decks where we can enjoy the fresh air and scenery, my husband convinced me that we should splurge on porthole window rooms. After all, this entire trip is a splurge and not something that we will repeat year after year.

3. Book a placeholder cruise with on-board booking benefits. Obviously, this will only work if you are a previous DCL guest. If you book a future cruise or a placeholder for a future cruise while you're currently on a cruise, you get 10% off the cruise fare and an on-board credit for your next cruise. The on-board credit from DCL is $200 per cabin on 7+ night cruises and $100 per cabin on cruises less than 7 nights. Since we booked two cabins (cheaper than one verandah room), we have $400 on-board credit from DCL to spend on our Alaska cruise. This is in addition to credit from our travel agent! We also saved about $1000 off the cruise fare by booking two cabin placeholders on our last cruise.

4.  Book on opening day, or soon after. Opening day is when DCL announces and releases new future cruises, and last week it announced summer 2017 cruises. 

Disney has historically priced its cruises in tiers, with the prices going up as more rooms are booked. Sometimes, it will publish last-minute discounted rates for military personnel and Florida residents. Also, occasionally there are *GT fares offered 30-60 days prior to the cruise that are discounted and must be paid in full at the time of booking. However, in looking at this upcoming 2016 Alaska cruise season, I'm not seeing many of these last-minute discounts. In fact, as of yesterday I only see one *GT discounted fare, and the price is only $42 cheaper per person than opening day prices. Even if a cheaper last-minute discounted fare opened up, it would be very challenging to book flights and schedule excursions late in the game.

The Cruisefish website tracks prices for many cruise lines, and by using the "finder" feature I can see how the prices of the DCL Alaska cruises have risen over time. It's definitely cheaper to book earlier!

5.  Use a travel agent. Many travel agents give back a part of their commission to you in the form of an on-board credit that you can use for tips, souvenirs, excursions, drinks, etc. The on-board credit we will get from our travel agent will cover the cost of the excursion we are eyeing in Ketchikan. But in addition to the on-board credit, our travel agent has provided us with great service during the booking process all the way up to our trip departure! She has done things like talked to a DCL supervisor to get us moved into cabins that were blacked out, changed our dining time and rotation, and booked on-board services like Rainforest Room.

I've always wanted to go on a Duck boat--it goes right from land to the water!
 Next week, I will be blogging about saving strategies to pay off a big trip.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Booked at last! A Cruise to the 49th State

I have been waiting for this day for a long, long time. Over six years, to be exact.

We finally booked a Disney cruise to Alaska!

Photos from Disney Cruise Line News gallery

This has been the #1 trip on my bucket list forever. From the moment I first watched a video about Disney Cruise Line, I have wanted to take that cruise to Alaska. I started planning a date a few years away when my boys would be older, and then along came our 3rd kiddo! So we delayed the Alaska trip for a few more years while we enjoyed some fabulous Caribbean cruises. But I always had in my head that we would sail to Alaska.

Ketchikan, Alaska

This week, DCL released its itineraries for the summer of 2017. We transferred our placeholders that we booked on board our last cruise to get 10% off the prevailing rate and a $200 stateroom credit per cabin. It was cheaper for us to book two lower-level cabins than it was to book one verandah room for five people, so I had booked two placeholders on our last cruise to transfer to two separate (but connecting) cabins on this cruise.

Alaska is a popular place for retirees to visit. But I don't want to wait until we retire. It is important for me to visit Alaska while we're still relatively young. I want to be able to walk, climb and fully enjoy the land before my aging body prevents me. (Also, see this post on Mommy Points).

My kids will be 6 1/2, 9 1/2 and barely 13 years old next summer when we go. I'm not sure those are the magic ages to bring kids to Alaska, but I do hope that they are interested in the nature and history of the places we visit on the cruise. 

I have lots of work to do over the next few months, including:

*  Finalizing our savings plan to pay for the cruise itself

*  Figuring out a strategy to use miles and points to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia and to stay in a hotel for a few days before the cruise

*  Researching land excursions in Alaska

*  Finding a cruise group and planning for the Fish Extender Exchange

and so much more!

But for right now, I'm just going to say:


Monday, April 4, 2016

Jumping on Southwest's Rock-Bottom Unadvertised Prices for a Summer Trip

Southwest Airlines has fare sales ALL THE TIME. You've probably seen commercials, or a web ad, or received an email about current sale prices. The current sale advertises one-way fares from $69.

But did you know that Southwest has unadvertised sale prices that are even lower???

I know this because I stalk the Southwest website. Yes, every few days I'm on there checking to see if the flights I have already booked have gone down in price so that I can get a refund. Every single flight I've booked in the past few years since I started the miles & points hobby has gone down in price at least once. Most of them have gone down twice. And it's super easy to get the points refunded back into my account online.

While I'm on the website I like to check out fares to places to see how low they go. And many flights between Dallas and other cities drop to $36 to $49 (or around 1500ish points) in the time period of 3 to 13 weeks before the flight. Usually, these low prices are for flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you have the Southwest Chase credit card that came with 50,000 bonus miles, you could afford 4 vacations for a family of 4 at those sale prices (6000 points one-way, 12,000 points round-trip) if you are flexible with your destination and time frame.

Earlier this year while I was browsing the site, I saw fares on Southwest between Dallas and Orlando in April and May for $36 each way. A major unadvertised sale! I think a few of my friends were able to snatch up tickets at this price (Hello, Disney World!). In fact, I still see a few days left in May for $36. But you never know how long those prices will last.

There are a few ways to look up rock-bottom unadvertised rates on Southwest. The first way is to use the low fare calendar.  Input a departure city, an arrival city and a month.

From there, you will see the lowest price for each day in the month of May in either dollars or points (you can toggle back and forth). This is the easiest spot to see if you can find low fares that make good timing for the both the arrival and return.

In this example, you could have a long weekend in Chicago from Saturday to Tuesday with the low fare on each end. And, both of those cheap flights happen to be nonstop (although the departure times may not be the most popular):

The other way to find low fares is to use the Getaway Finder map. Input a departure city and a date, and you can mouse over any city to see what the lowest fare is for that day. I find this method more cumbersome since you have to keep switching the dates, but if you have a very specific date to fly, this map can tell you the best deals for that day.

So while I've enjoyed finding these great low prices from January to May of this year, I haven't been able to take advantage of them because I can't pull my kids out of school (I already pulled them out of school for our January vacation). But I've been keeping my eye on the calendar for the summer months because I've been contemplating taking the kids on a solo trip when school is out. I've gone on a trip with 2 of my kids and a trip with 1 of my kids by myself, but never all 3 together. So why would I even want to attempt this?

Several reasons. My husband recently started a new job and will not be able to take much time off this summer (and for the rest of the year). So if I want to take the kids somewhere other than the trips to visit family that we already have planned, I need to do it on my own. Another reason I might attempt a solo trip is that this might be my last summer as a mostly stay-at-home mom. My youngest child will be starting kindergarten in the fall, and I'm not sure where my job search will lead me. I might not have as much time for spontaneous trips next summer if I'm working part-time. And lastly, my Southwest companion pass expires at the end of this year, and due to the stricter rules that Chase is implementing regarding future credit card sign-ups, I'm not sure that I will be able to get another companion pass in the future. So it's now or never!

A few months ago, I started to think about criteria for choosing a destination for a solo trip with the kids. Since I would be on my own, I needed it to be really easy. I wanted the flight to be short (less than 4 hours) and preferably nonstop. I don't want to rent a car and schlep around car seats, so we either needed to go to a destination resort or to a place with convenient public transportation. And of course, I needed to use hotel points for free or almost-free lodging. I narrowed the cities down to a few choices, and watched the fares every day to see if rock-bottom fares would start appearing for the summer months.

And they did! I found tickets to my top choice city, Minneapolis, for $40 each way. The flights are not direct, but we don't have to change planes. We had a $31 credit per person because our flights to Mexico (bought earlier on gift cards) went down in price, so I was able to apply those credits for me and two of my kids and pay the remaining $9 each or $27 total. For the return trip, I booked myself and 2 kids on points for 1392 each or 4176 total points. I will add my daughter as my companion on both flights for just $5.60 in taxes each way. So my grand total for 4 round-trip tickets in June from Dallas to Minneapolis is $55 cash and 4176 Southwest Rapid Reward points. That is really a steal of a deal!! We won't have any airport parking charges (since my husband is dropping us off and picking us up) or rental car charges or pet sitting charges, which will keep down the total cost of this trip.

Why Minneapolis? Three words: Mall Of America. MOA. The huge mall that has over 520 stores and 11,000 employees. If you visited each store for 10 minutes, it would take 86 hours. It's huge! You can read other nifty facts about the mall here. Both my husband and I went there separately, before kids, on business trips. But I remember thinking that it would be a dream destination for kids.

The attraction we can't miss is Nickelodeon Universe, an indoor amusement park with 27 rides and character meet-n-greets from Spongebob, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bubble Gupplies, Dora and the Fairly Oddparents.

It also has an elevated ropes course, zip line and miniature golf course attached.

The mall also has the Minnesota Children's Museum, Sea Life Aquarium, and the Amazing Mirror Maze. Opening soon is the Crayola Experience and FlyOver America (which is similar to Disney's Soarin' ride, except it goes over the entire USA instead of just California). Just outside the mall is the Water Park of America indoor water park.

MOA is located close to the airport, and many of the nearby hotels have a free shuttle that goes to the aiport and MOA. Minneapolis also has a light rail train that goes from MOA to other destinations on the way to downtown Minneapolis. We could easily visit Minnehaha Falls or take a paddleboat ride on the Mississippi River.

So...who is getting in on these rock-bottom Southwest fares? Where are you going???

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What's In Our Wallet, Part 3

If you read a lot of miles and points blogs, this post is not for you. You've probably already seen a plethora of posts about the card I'm going to write about in this post.

But if you're one of my Facebook friends that reads this blog to view my vacation trip reports and you are curious about which credit card is the best for earning airline or hotel points, this post is for you.

(See also What's In Our Wallet Part 2).

The current hot card is the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card. It currently has a sign-up bonus of 35,000 points if you spend $3000 within the first three months. The annual fee is waived the first year. According to the Amex website, this offer is only good through March 30.

Normally, I don't sign up for a credit card unless the bonus is at least 40,000 or 50,000 points. And this Amex SPG card normally has a 25,000 point bonus, so it has never made it to our wallet. However, after reading countless blogs explaining the high value in SPG points, and with the bonus at the elevated level of 35,000 points, I have been persuaded to get this card.

First, let me say that I am not an SPG expert. My family's history of using hotel points started with Marriott (points earned from my husband's work travel and one credit card) followed by Hyatt (points mostly earned by Chase Ultimate Rewards credit cards). As a family together, we have never stayed in any of SPG's brands of hotels, which include Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, W and Aloft.

The real value in this credit card, in my opinion, is to spend $5000 on it to earn 40,000 SPG points. $3000 of that spending has to be within the first three months to get the 35,000 points bonus, but the remaining $2000 could be spread out over time. Charge your normal monthly expenses (groceries, gas, restaurants, kids' activities, etc.) and pay off the balance each month so that you don't have interest charges. You can cancel the card after 11 months to avoid an annual fee.

So what does 40,000 Amex SPG points get you?

Airline miles--for every 20,000 SPG points you transfer to a participating airline, you get 5000 bonus airline miles. So, for example, 40,000 SPG points can get you 50,000 American Airline miles. Which can get you two round-trip airline tickets within the US & Canada, or one round-trip ticket to Hawaii during off-peak times. Not too shabby!

Free hotel nights--with SPG points, if you book 4 nights on points, the 5th night is free (for Categories 3 and up). I was scrolling through the SPG hotel list and found some potential great values with 40,000 SPG points!

Category 4 hotels cost 10,000 points for a free night, but since the 5th night is free, you could get 5 free nights in a Category 4 hotel for your 40,000 SPG points. Here are a few Category 4 hotels that have caught my eye:

Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort:

This hotel is across the street from the beach and also has a kids club!

Skyway to the beach!
Westin Cape Coral in Florida:

While this hotel isn't on a beach, it has a free water taxi that takes you to the Fort Myers Beach. And a kids club!

 Four Points by Sheraton Destin-Fort Walton Beach:

The Destin area seems to be very popular with my fellow Texans. This hotel is right on the beach!

Sheraton Sand Key Resort:

In the Tampa/Clearwater Beach area, this hotel fits 5 people per room with a rollaway!

Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel:

This hotel is on Disney property near Epcot! It has some of the benefits of on-site Disney resorts, including extra magic hours and transportation to the parks (but it does not have the Magical Express from the airport). According to this FAQ, the Dolphin can accommodate a family of 5 with a rollaway. Woohoo! (Note: the sister hotel to this one, the Swan, costs more points than the Dolphin).

Sheraton Carlsbad, California

Legoland, anyone? This hotel is north of San Diego in a great location.

As you can tell by now, I am partial to hotels located near beaches.

I could go on and on with other great vacation ideas based on these SPG hotel points...there are 382 Category 4 hotels to use those 40,000 points for 5 free nights, as well as many lower-category hotels that look appealing for fewer points (like the Westin Resort & Spa in Puerto Vallarta, the Westin Cancun Resort & Spa, and the Sheraton Four Points Cocoa Beach).

Hello, Cancun!
The value of 5 nights at one of these hotels will vary based on the time of year you go, but it appears that some of the beach hotels cost as much as $400 during peak times (Spring Break and holidays). That's potentially a $2000 value from one credit card sign-up after meeting the minimum spending amount of $3000 plus an additional $2000 in spending to get 40,000 points.

Is anyone thinking of getting this card while the bonus is 35k? If so, what are your plans for the points?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Using Miles and Points for an All-inclusive Resort in Mexico

Warning--this is a math post! It entails how we leveraged credit card miles and points bonuses from five new-to-us credit cards (split between me and my husband, opened in 2015) to book a future escape to Mexico in Fall 2016. This process has become a part-time job/hobby for me, and we use our credit cards responsibly by paying off the balances every month. For more info on signing up for credit cards for the travel bonuses, see this post by Million Mile Secrets, this post by Miles for Family or this post by Mommy Points.

Much of our Spring Break (after returning from Glen Rose) was cloudy and rainy, which made my mind wander to our upcoming vacation to a sunny beach in the fall. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my family has plans to try an all-inclusive resort later this year. We picked the fall because prices are usually cheaper in Mexico and the Caribbean in the off-season, and our kids have two days off school in October.

Photo credit: nowresorts.com
After much research, we picked out a city and a resort that met our needs. (Ok, in reality, I picked out the place I thought was best and my husband said, "Sure, sounds good.")

Cash price: (if we were to book this vacation without any miles or points)
* Flights to Puerto Vallarta for 5 people--$2025
* All-inclusive resort for 6 nights--$2429 (2 rooms)
* Total of $4454

Because we are saving for a big vacation in 2017, I didn't have a big budget for this trip. So I needed to figure out how to cover most of the cash expenses using miles and points.
Photo credit: nowresorts.com

From reading some of my favorite miles and points blogs (Million Mile Secrets, The Points Guy, Miles for Family, etc.), I knew that the best way to fly from DFW to Mexico on points was to use British Airways miles (Avios). Say what? Yes, British Airways uses a distance-based award chart and partners with American Airlines and Alaska airlines for U.S. domestic flights. I found direct flights for our return flights to DFW on American Airlines and used 7500 British Airways miles for each ticket (the same exact flights would have cost 17,500 American Airlines miles). (See this blog post for more details).

I couldn't find flights on AA that were available with MileSAAver awards for our trip to Mexico, so I turned to Southwest. I was able to use $600 in gift cards I got for Southwest as a "free" credit card benefit combined with a $200 gift card I got for Christmas to buy 4 tickets on Southwest (and my daughter will fly free as my companion).

How did we get those points and gift cards? Last year, my husband got the American Express Premier Rewards Gold credit card. After charging $3000 in the first 3 months, the card's sign-up bonus included 50,000 Amex Membership Rewards points as well as a $100 airline reimbursement benefit per calendar year. He was able to get $200 in Southwest gift cards for free ($100 in late 2015 and $100 in early 2016). The annual fee was waived for the first year. We converted the 50,000 Membership Rewards points into British Airways Avios.

Sometime after this, Leana from Miles for Family alerted me to a special sign-up bonus on the American Express Platinum credit card. The bonus was 100,000 American Express Membership Rewards points after spending $3000 in the first 3 months, with a $200 per calendar year airline reimbursement. The annual fee of $450 was not waived the first year, but I ended up with $400 in Southwest gift cards ($200 reimbursed in late 2015 and $200 in early 2016) as well as free Global Entry/TSA Pre-check ($100 value).

Points/Cash for Airline Tickets:
--DAL to PVR: $9 cash (used $800 in "free" Southwest gift cards for 4 cash tickets and 1 free companion ticket that only had taxes)
--PVR to DAL: 37,500 British Airways Avios + $130 in taxes (total taxes were $280, but I spent Barclay points to wipe out $150 of the taxes)
--$450 annual fee for one credit card
Total for flights: $589 and 37,500 miles
Savings: -$1436 or -70%

Next, it was time to tackle reducing the bill for our all-inclusive resort. My husband and I each signed up for a Citi ThankYou Premier credit card that offered 50,000 ThankYou points after spending $3000 in 3 months. The annual fee was waived for the first year, and we staggered our applications and spending. We ended up with over 100,000 ThankYou points that are worth 1.25 cents each towards hotels and airline tickets. That was enough to cover one of our rooms at the resort.

To help pay for the other room with points, I opened a new Barclay Arrival + card and got 40,000 points (annual fee waived). Barclay points can be used to reimburse travel expenses, and points accumulate at 2 per dollar. We are going to use this as our main spending credit card from now until our vacation, and I will be writing travel stories on Barclay's forum to earn additional points. These points will help pay for more than half of our second room at the resort, but I estimate we will still need to pay approximately $400 in cash. But that's not too shabby for 6 nights at an all-inclusive resort for a family of 5!

Points/Cash for All-inclusive Resort:
--101,457 Citi ThankYou points for one room
--76,100 Barclay points + $400 for the second room
Total: 177,557 points and $400 cash
Savings: -$2029 or 83.5%

Total Flights Round-Trip Dallas to Puerto Vallarta + All-inclusive Resort for 5 people for 6 nights:
--215,057 miles/points and $989 cash
Savings:  -$3456 or -77.8%
Opened 5 new credit cards (3 for me, 2 for my husband) in the second half of 2015. 

So we are getting this vacation for less than $1000 out-of-pocket, and we still have over 100,000 Amex Membership Rewards to use for a future trip. Can't wait!


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Texas Road Trip: Glen Rose

My kids are on Spring Break this week. Due to my husband's work schedule and our big splurge vacation a few months ago, we could not travel far or be away from home for a long time. So, we decided to see a town in Texas that has been beckoning us for years, Glen Rose. We actually had a hotel booked in Glen Rose last year during Memorial Day weekend, but we had to cancel our trip due to the flooding in the area.

Glen Rose is about a two hour drive from our house.

Historical Downtown Glen Rose, Texas

Dinosaur Valley State Park

Our first stop was Dinosaur Valley State Park. The big draw to this state park is the presence of fossilized dinosaur footprints in the river bed. The entrance fee is $7 for adults, and kids 12 and under are free.

We first stopped at the visitors center and read about the type of tracks we would see. There was a volunteer at an information booth that talked to us about the best areas to have a picnic lunch and see some tracks.

We drove further into the park to the main picnic area and stopped for lunch.

The picnic area also had a playground, which was nice since we were cooped up in the car for two hours.

Behind the playground was a Wildlife Discovery Trail with educational signs along the way. We didn't walk this trail, but we would have if we had more time.

Next, we drove further along the park road to track site #2. We parked, walked down some stairs and talked to the park rangers near the river. They suggested we follow this trail along the river bed to see some dinosaur tracks.

And we found some tracks! They are hard to see in this photo. They are only visible when the river water level is low. (The best time to visit is usually August).

We took our shoes off and walked around the river bed for a while.

One of the neat things about this trail by the river is that the sand was super soft, like a beach, and there were sea shells. According to this map, this area was once on the edge of an inland sea.
We could have spent the entire day at the park exploring different track sites and playing in the river. I wished we had more time.

We came back to the park later at night for a group campfire put on by the park rangers. The ranger told spooky stories, and we made s'mores. Afterwards, there was a group flashlight hike, but our younger kids were super tired so we didn't participate.

My entire family enjoyed Dinosaur Valley State Park more than we thought we would. There was a lot of interesting terrain, and the hiking was more exciting because we were looking for dinosaur tracks. Two of my kids said this park was their favorite part of our entire trip to Glen Rose.

Dinosaur World

Right outside the entrance to Dinosaur Valley State Park is Dinosaur World. This attraction has over 150 life-sized dinosaurs around an outdoor path as well as an indoor museum, fossil dig site and playground.

We purchased the excavation pass for our kids, which included mining for gems here:

It was a beautiful day for the dinosaur walk. We saw and read about many types of dinosaurs.

Looks like Jurassic Park!

The fossil dig happens at select times, and kids are allowed to keep three fossils.

Our kids loved this huge dinosaur-themed playground.

We were glad we visited Dinosaur World. It was a sunny 80 degrees when we were there, but we couldn't imagine going in the 100-degree weather during the summer months.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

Fossil Rim is a drive-through safari park. Our hotel had coupons for a free bag of animal food before 9 a.m., so we arrived around 8:30 a.m. (Show your AAA card or Dallas Zoo membership for discount admission).

We saw some bison and A LOT of deer.

The emus were my favorite. I love their faces!

Some of the zebras were very hungry and assertive!

This big horn sheep was very sweet.

Wild turkeys:

Half-way through the drive, there was an overlook with a restaurant, gift shop and petting zoo. The petting zoo had some goats to brush and some big tortoises we could see from over the fence.

One of the highlights of Fossil Rim is supposed to be feeding the giraffes from your hand. Unfortunately, the giraffes weren't coming over to cars while we were there, so we could only observe them from afar.

We also saw a roadrunner, rhinos and cheetas (which were fenced in). And lots of deer. It took us 2 1/2 hours to drive through the entire park.

I know that many people in the DFW area drive to Glen Rose just for Fossil Rim, but honestly we enjoyed Glen Rose's other attractions better. I'm sure it's a different experience each time depending on the animals, timing, temperature, etc.

Big Rocks Park

Big Rocks Park sits near the river near downtown Glen Rose. This was my middle son's favorite spot in Glen Rose. It's just a city park with a bunch of really big rocks near the river, but it's so different from anything we have near us. We all got some parkour practice by jumping from rock to rock.

We cooled off in the river before leaving.


We stayed at the Best Western Dinosaur Valley Inn & Suites for free using Citi Thankyou points. We had not stayed in a Best Western for a very long time, but this small town does not have a Hyatt, Hilton or Marriott. The Holiday Inn did not have any rooms available during our trip.

The hotel has a porch in the front and back with rocking chairs.

The lobby has a western feel:

My family enjoyed the free popcorn in the lobby!

The hotel has a free breakfast with waffles (in the shape of Texas, of course), eggs, fruit, yogurt and breads. The sitting area is very small, since each table only fits three people.

Our room was very spacious and had two queen beds and a sofa bed.

The outdoor pool area was lovely, with a large pool:

And a covered children's pool:

And a great big hot tub!!
The only downside to this hotel was that the mattresses were not very comfortable. I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn't get back to sleep because I was uncomfortable. We could hear the springs in the mattresses when we sat on the beds. And don't even get me started on the sofa bed mattress--I don't know how my kids got any sleep on that at all! But, some people may not be bothered by the mattresses at all...I am used to my bed at home and the nice plush beds at Hyatt hotels.

Overall, the Best Western is a great value, and the pool area must be great in the warmer weather.

The town has a few other hotels, several Bed and Breakfasts, cabin rentals and a luxury lodge. One place even has a railroad car for a room!


Since we brought food for lunches and our hotel had a free breakfast, we only tried out two local restaurants during our trip. The downtown area has a lot of family-owned unique restaurants with great reviews.

We ate dinner at The Green Pickle.

The inside had unique decor and old photos. Our table had a box of dominoes that the kids played with until our dinner arrived.
We enjoyed fried pickles, cheese sticks and burgers.

We also ate at Los Primos Mexican restaurant, but we cannot recommend it to others. The service was so slow that the table next to us walked out. Our food was bland, and we were disappointed.

I'm glad the weather and timing worked out for us to finally visit Glen Rose. It's a neat little town with a lot of charm and several interesting attractions. Would we go back? Probably not, but only because we have a long list of other Texas road trip destinations on our wish list. Glen Rose is worth not just a day trip, but a few days to explore what the town has to offer.

(For other Texas road trip inspiration, see my posts on Amarillo, Jellystone, Wichita Falls, San Antonio, Victoria and Galveston).