Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: January 2016 (page 1 of 5)

Summer Mission Trip to Guatemala

Last summer I was presented with the wonderful opportunity to be a part of our church’s mission team to Guatemala. I was blessed beyond words by the experience, and I already long to return. Our church supports a few different fellowships in Guatemala, and we try to send a team down once per year to do outreach and to be an encouragement to our fellow believers.

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With the kids in Los Ocotes. Image courtesy of Mrotzek Photography.

For this trip I was both short on cash and short on time off. From the beginning, I wasn’t sure if it would work out. I had already planned a summer vacation for my wife and myself, and those plans were locked in. The Guatemala trip would begin a mere two weeks after our vacation. Providentially, everything worked out. I was able to get my boss’ approval to go, sacrificing roughly a week of pay, and I used United and Southwest miles to cover the trip. What is typically about a $1,100+ round-trip from Arcata-Eureka to Guatemala cost me only $450, all said and done, including a night of hotel on an overnight layover and rental car back from the Bay Area. It was not the best use of miles from a $/point perspective, but it was the perfect use of miles considering the experience and fellowship that I had.

The beginning of the trip was an awful red-eye flight leaving SFO at 1 a.m., but it was also in business class. Award availability was slim pickings for the summer when I booked, and I was lucky to even get that award out of SFO. The ticket was actually a partner award flight, and this was my first time in the skies with Avianca and Copa. After a one hour layover in San Salvador, I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, my first destination.

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Nicaragua. I was too exhausted to remember to take many pictures.

I purposely planned this 2 day stop to see a friend. He runs a ministry that helps both rescues women and children from sexual slavery, and also helps many of them get on their feet with a sustainable business. He also boldly preaches the gospel to them, as the only true change is by the grace and power of God. Previously, during three different trips to Mexico, God was able to use my friend as a mentor and agent of change in my own life. He had since moved onward to Nicaragua, and it was so great to see him. A movie is coming out soon that explains a lot of his work.

After the two days in Nicaragua, I was sorta caught up on sleep. My friend drove me to a nearby gas station which is a taxi hub, and I caught a ride in a taxi for like $8 the rest of the way to the airport. Two hours later I was in the sky on my way to Guatemala. It was a fairly short flight. As we were on our final descent into La Aurora Airport, I was awed by the sight of a volcano cone beyond the city. It was already obvious that Guatemala was an exquisitely beautiful country.

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Guatemala City. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

I met the team at the airport, arriving just an hour before they did. Clearing customs was easy, and I waited just outside the arrivals area but still inside the airport, per instructions. They were all exhausted after an overnight series of flights that had started at 8:00 p.m. the previous night. We were soon off to lunch and then to our lodging near the small church in Los Ocotes.

Even amidst the exhaustion, we had a great first night sharing and helping in the church service in Calvary Chapel Los Ocotes. The church is in a very poor area about 45 minutes from the middle of Guatemala City. We had three full days of ministry in the community. The mornings were filled with preparations, worship, and home visits and prayer outreach to families in the community, and the afternoons were filled with a VBS program for the kids.

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Manolo and a friend. Image courtesy of Mrotzek Photography.

The three days tore my heart out. I made friends with some of the kids, communicating in the Spanish I know, and was reminded of how much we have and how little they do. Yet so many were so happy. I was reminded of how little we really need in life materially.

And we were there to share with them the only person we truly need in this life: Jesus Christ. It brought me great joy to spend time with kids and their families, sharing with them from the Bible, and telling them about Christ and God’s grace toward us. I realized just how much Christ transcends nationality, culture, and station in life. Here we are, just arrived from one of the wealthiest countries in the world to one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere, hardly speaking their language, belonging to a very different culture, and yet we had great fellowship with the believers their simply because we share a common faith in our Lord. It always amazes me.

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Me teaching (or attempting to in Spanish) the kids in Capilla Calvario Los Ocotes.

Our brief time in Los Ocotes ended and we moved on to visit the small fellowship in Pasabien. I fell equally in love with the place and people, and I am desperately yearning to go back. We ministered in the local schools, met many people in the community, and encouraged the youth who faithfully attend the classes and church led by Pastor Francisco. It was wonderful to see his heart toward the community and the work that the Lord is doing through him.

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The kids who attend after school lessons at Pastor Francisco’s house in Pasabien. Image courtesy of Mrotzek Photography.

Two days was nowhere near enough. As the bus was headed back to the hotel for our final night in Pasabien, we watched as the last of the kids walked away, still waving, down the road and into the darkness. I couldn’t hold the tears back. It all passed so quickly.

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Lake Atitlan. I missed the day of rest there. Image courtesy of Mrotzek Photography.

Returning home wasn’t easy. I wished with all my heart that I could stay, but work and life in the U.S. were waiting for me. As it turned out, I had to leave the team before their extra day at Lake Atitlan, intending to be back at work by Friday night. As things would have it, I missed a connection in Los Angeles and showed up hours late. But by the end of the day I hardly cared. It had been a wonderful trip. I know will be back in the Land of the Mayas again soon.

 

 

IHG Award Night Changes For 2016

Most hotel chains tend to change award prices at least once per year, so a change by IHG is not all that unexpected. The new prices take effect starting Ferbuary 17th. The last change came in May of 2015, and it was roughly the same in scope, although there were no new categories created.

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Banner for the 2016 IHG award changes. Prices are changing by up to 10,000 points per night. Fortunately, this is no program overhaul, just some typical adjustments. Image courtesy of IHG.

As always, there is some good and bad. The bad is….IHG has added two new categories onto the top of the award chart, pricing nights at 55,000 points and 60,000 points. Most of the hotels that will be at the 55k and 60k levels are Intercontinental hotels at popular destinations (e.g. Paris, Bora Bora, Hong Kong). The good news is, a award prices for many other places are going down, typically by 5,000 points (a 1 category drop). The full list is here.

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The Intercontinental Hong Kong is one of the properties going up to 60,000 points per night.

Overall, this doesn’t surprise me much. Most of the changes are pretty reasonable. A personal laugh for me is that a large number of the SF Bay Area hotels went up in price. Figures.

Pedal To The Metal On The IHG Accelerate 2016 Promotion

IHG runs some fantastic promotions. PointBreaks is arguably the best, but some of the earning promotions can be great. Starting on New Years Day, IHG began to run the Accelerate 2016 promotion. Like many other IHG promotions, it is customized for each individual account. There are a lot of different offer combinations being reported on this one, and it is kinda a crap shoot which you will get.

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The speed at which accelerate moves you into bonus points depends entirely on your custom offer. Image courtesy of IHG.

Some people are reporting underwhelming Accelerate offers. Most of these remind me of the one I was given last Fall, which simply required a lot of paid stays. My wife and I stayed once at a Staybridge Suites on a trip to the Bay Area, which netted us 10,000 bonus points. The trip was planned anyway, so it just worked out. The rest of the promotion (e.g. stay 3 nights, stay 7 nights, stay 10 nights, etc.) simply wasn’t worth it.

This time around, though, I found my IHG Accelerate offer to be more tempting. I personally think Lucky’s is the best (since you can earn almost everything on one stay…insane). However, I think mine is still pretty good. It offers 5000 points for a stay in January, 6,000 points for any 1 stay, 10,000 points for 5 stays, 8,000 points for staying at two different Holiday Inns, and 3,600 points for staying on a points and cash rate. Plus, if any 3 of the last of 4 are completed, an extra 22,400 bonus points can be earned.

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My custom IHG Accelerate 2016 offer.

The most efficient way of completing the promotion that I could see was completing the following: 3 nights over 2 or 3 at two different Holiday Inns, with one stay in January and one cash and points night. This would earn me a total of 45,000 bonus points. If each cash night is ~$100, and the cash and points night costs $40 and 10,000 points, that would net me 35,000 points for $240. Not great, but I’ll take it.

I originally did not think that I would be able to complete more than the Stay Once or the Points & Cash night. My wife and I were already on a Winter trip, and I didn’t think we would be headed anywhere for a couple months. But then work called, and a trip to our Bay Area offices provided the perfect opportunity to complete the required stays (and it was easily scheduled back-to-back with our Winter trip).

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San Francisco, my home away from home last year. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

I typically try to stay at my boss’ apartments when I am working in San Francisco, but all the units were occupied that particular week. This left me with the “unfortunate” option of having to book my own hotel room. Normally, I don’t even consider staying at IHG hotels while in the Bay Area. Most are $200-$300 per night all the time, and often more. I’ve seen the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway go for $599. It’s insane. San Francisco is out of control.

To my utter surprise, the rates for Thursday and Friday were good at IHG across the board. Actually, they were the best I’d seen in ages! The Intercontinental Mark Hopkins was going for $187 after tax. An Intercontinental. In downtown SF. I almost booked it, but I think I would have raised an eyebrow or two when I turned in my expenses (for the record, it was technically within budget).

I was able to book the Holiday Inn Civic Center and Holiday Inn SF Airport for a total of $250, taxes included. I felt good about my expenses, and I was able to fulfill 2 nights (both in January), completing 3 offers out of 6. Fantastic. I am even $0 out of pocket.

With that trip behind me, I was considering booking a stay with my wife at the Holiday Inn Resort Klamath Falls (with nearby ice skating!) to fulfill the Cash and Points night, thus completing the final two offers I wanted to pursue. We are fresh out of extra travel cash after our Winter trip, though, so I was a bit hesitant.

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Stay #3 to finish off my Accelerate 2016 promotion. Image courtesy of IHG.

Enter work again. This week I took over coordination of a utility project, and the project manager called a meeting in Sacramento with our client. Since I am 5 hours away, she gave me the go-ahead to stay in Sac overnight. Bam. The final night will be completed as a cash and points night at the Holiday Inn Express West Sacramento (spending 5,000 of my own points for the stay is totally worth it….I net 23,000+ on the exchange) and I will be $0 out of pocket for all but one of the promotion offers! Win on all counts. I’ll be taking home 40,000 IHG points free of charge.

If you haven’t already, sign up for the Accelerate 2016 promotion and see what kind of offers you have. You may be offered some very easy bonus points.

Travel Planning For Our Adoption Trip

Adoption is something that my wife and I have both wanted to do for years. Even before we were married, we talked about the possibility of adopting children someday. We both desired to open our home and our hearts to children who do not have a loving family. Currently, my wife and I are waiting for foreign country approval of our dossier. Afterwards, we are simply waiting for to be matched with the kids! And, yes, we hope that it will be kids plural since we have have articulated our openness to a sibling group of two children of either gender.

There is also a heavenly parallel in adoption. For those who are in Christ, God refers to us as adopted sons (and daughters). Even though we were not naturally born into the family of salvation, when we trust in Christ, God adopts us in. He loves us unconditionally, no matter where we came from. We both want to love our kids with that same unconditional love and want our own family to be a picture of this heavenly truth.

One thing you should note is that adoption costs a lot of money. Really, an inordinate amount of money. Currently without children, we have been very well equipped to save money towards this endeavor, and my wife has accumulated many thousand dollars of saved tip money in the last two years. The travel costs of adoption can be steep as well. We are adopting from Costa Rica, and the in-country stay for the process is 7-8 weeks. Although this length of time varies widely between countries, Costa Rica has determined that this is the time it usually takes them to work through all the necessary legal actions associated with the adoption, and it allows a gradual time of introduction and bonding between parents and children.

As one of the presenters in our adoption education said, from a child’s perspective, adoption is a lot like alien abduction. We, strangers to them, literally take them from everything they know, put them on this noisy thing that flies through the sky, and arrive in a place that is completely foreign to them and live in a house that has never been their home. To expect that a child will adjust quickly after adoption is asking too much.

Which brings me to the fact that I think a roughly two month stay in Costa Rica is a brilliant idea. It will give us direct access to our agency’s workers and to the orphanage or foster home from where we are adopting our kids, and it will allow for the first period of bonding between us and or kids to be in their familiar surroundings. Not ours. It will also give us a fantastic opportunity to explore the our children’s native country and to experience their culture!

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San Jose, Costa Rica. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

However, a stay of this length will be costly. The adoption agency already has our lodging location selected, and we have a pretty good idea on the price. Food costs are fairly easy to estimate, and since I will be working from Costa Rica for the duration of the stay, our normal food budget should hopefully cover things. However, the total for lodging and transportation will still be substantial, and we won’t exactly get a respite on our bills back home.

Which brings me to the point of this post: over the past year I have been madly collecting airline miles with our adoption trip in mind. Currently, I am looking at Southwest, Delta, and American miles as our best options. Southwest generally has very good prices, and redemption rates to San Jose, Costa Rica are generally better than other major U.S. carriers, mile for mile, and…they are still my favorite airline. Delta routes a lot of flights through Los Angeles, so this could minimize travel time, which could be a plus with kids. American miles are simply a better value than Delta since we would require 10,000 (or more) fewer each way, and a lot of options give us an overnight layover in Miami that would be long enough for us to book a hotel and get some rest. I have lots of time to decide. I just want to have multiple options.

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Man, what a beautiful ocean.

It never hurts to plan ahead, though, and we are doing the planning that we can with so much unknown ahead. We have no idea how the kids will react to flying. One thing we do know: we cannot wait to meet our two beloved Tico children!

An Unimpressive Spring 2016 IHG PointBreaks List

Every quarter IHG runs a new PointBreaks list. PointBreaks are a limited supply of award nights that offered at 5,000 points per night at a select group of hotels for the given quarter. Once the unknown number of PointBreaks nights are booked at any given hotel, it is pulled from the list. It is also my understanding that cancelled award nights do not go back into the pool, but I may be wrong on that point.

Needless to say, I was very excited for the Spring 2016 list to come out. Typically an Intercontinental hotel will be on the list, several Crowne Plazas, and a Hotel Indigo or two. The bulk are Holiday Inn Expresses and Holiday Inns with a few of the other brands mixed in. The entire list is here. Booking opened up yesterday.

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Holiday Inn Resort Batam is on the Spring 2016 PointBreaks list. Image courtesy of Hotels.com.

Usually there are a few gems on the list, and they tend to get snapped up very quickly (typically the Intercontinental on the list and any hotels in/near major vacation destinations). This quarter, however, I found the list to be completely unimpressive. There are no Intercontinental hotels on the list, and there are very few other hotels that even caught my eye as good options. If there is a U.S.-based hotel located in a place you are already going, sure, take advantage of it. Actually, do that anywhere. Overall, though, the offerings are meager, and I would not go out of my way to specifically book a vacation around one.

I’ll offer a brief list of slight stand-outs. Candidly, I have not been to any of the hotels on the list, and I am mainly basing this on the appeal of the destination or hotel to me personally.

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Bucaramanga, Colombia. Image courtesy of Colombia En Un Solo Punto.

  • Holiday Inn Express Bucaramanga, Colombia – This very new hotel only recently opened at the end of 2013. Most of Latin America is on my “would love to travel to” list, and Colombia is no exception. I would love to visit Bucaramanga, Bogota, or Cali.
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Toyama, Japan. Oh, those mountains! Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

  • Crowne Plaza Toyama, Japan – Maybe because I have been very interested in using our 4 Hyatt free night certificates at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, Japan has been on my radar lately. Toyama is located on the northwestern side of Honshu and has an amazing mountainous backdrop. It looks like an appealing place to visit, but maybe I am just a sucker for mountains.
  • Holiday Inn Resort, Batam – Batam is located across the Singapore Strait from Singapore. Cash rates are only ~$65 in March, so maybe still not the best use of points if you need a stay for a promotion.
  • Crowne Plaza Greater Noida, New Delhi, India – Looks like a very nice hotel. India is a wee bit far to go.
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Crowne Plaza West Hanoi. Impressive hotel. Image courtesy of IHG.

  • Crowne Plaza West Hanoi, Vietnam – Hotel looks great, and it’s outside the city center. Value is quite good as well (cash rates are ~$120/night). Probably the most interesting option in Asia on the list.

Here’s hoping to a better list next time. I don’t think I am going to pull the trigger on any PointBreaks offerings this quarter.

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