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:
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:

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).