Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Reflection (page 1 of 4)

6 Years Since our First Miles and Points Trip

On the first day of July my wife and I celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary. It’s crazy to think that we have already been married that long. Six years and three kids later, things are very different than they were when we were first married. But I’m sure that is the story of most married couples.

A honeymoon to remember

Today I find myself reminiscing about our honeymoon, a two-and-a-half week adventure where we spent thousands of miles on a train and saw the majestic mountains of Colorado, the sleepless streets of New York, and enjoyed fresh seafood and live music in laid-back New Orleans. It was a trip that we could not have and should not have afforded, save for one small detail: it was the very beginning of my travel hacking. You can read some of my original retelling of how the trip came to be in a previous post.

I do regret a couple things. Well…regret isn’t the right word; I just wish I would have had a better understanding of how eager issuers were at the time to sign anyone with a good credit score up for new credit card products. Hotel credit cards were off my radar. If I’d only picked up one, we may have had a much nicer stay in New York.

Rest in Peace, amazing Amtrak deals

The heart of our trip was made possible by two cards: the Chase Amtrak Mastercard (no longer issued) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred. In the “good ol’ days”, Amtrak was a Chase transfer partner, and a lucrative one at that. This was back when Amtrak still issued awards based on zone and not based on the cash cost of a ticket.

We were able to get $3,500+ worth of first-class train travel for all of $70. It’s rare that I can pull that much value from two card offers these days, but some trips come close (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia).

These deals are long gone. You can still get an Amtrak card, sometimes with an elevated 30,000 point bonus. That is still a recipe for a decent trip in a sleep car on a long-distance train, but it is nothing like it used to be.

Looking forward to when my wife and I can get away again

One of the most difficult things about jumping into parenthood has been the lack of time as a couple. This also translates to the inability to get away as a couple. We know this will change eventually as the kids become more grounded and we feel comfortable leaving them with our parents for a couple days, but we are not quite there yet. And even then, we won’t be able to do it often. My wife and I do fondly remember the trips we were able to take as a couple and how glad we are that we had those opportunities. I know we will have them again someday.

Traveling is fun…but there is no place like home

As I wrap up a week of work followed by a weekend visiting good friends, I can’t help but reflect on how eager I am to return home. This is not the first time I’ve felt this way. Work was engaging and enjoyable. The weekend was full of fun and laughter with friends a bunch of crazies that I wish I could see far more often. But it is high time to get back. I miss my wife and kids, and I can’t wait to hug them and see their happy faces this evening.

The pros and cons of work travel

It’s no secret that I enjoy traveling. Walking out the door on a new adventure is still accompanied by exhilaration (especially when I get to fly first class). Even when traveling for work. Consulting has it pros and cons, and one of the pros for me is occasional work travel.

If I was a weekly road warrior, flying out every Monday and back every Friday, work travel would likely go in the opposite category. Being gone once once or twice a month for several days is plenty. It would also be hard if it was for a project or job I didn’t really enjoy. Fortunately, that is not the case. Our work out of state is engaging and keeps me on my toes. Getting the chance to do some interesting and enjoyable work across the country is an opportunity I can hardly pass up.

The other plus is being able to earn valuable airline miles and hotel points for our own adventures. This time I was able to perfectly match my hotel stay in Virginia to my Q2 2018 IHG Accelerate promotion, earning 42,000 IHG points in the process (worth about $250). These will be carefully guarded for our own adventures.

But it’s not all upside. Saying goodbye is still difficult. It was hard at times when it was just myself and my wife, and it has become even harder with kids. Yet even if saying goodbye is difficult, I can always look forward to that sweet moment when I return.

If I didn’t ever leave, I wouldn’t ever experience the joy of coming home again. There is nothing like being greeted by a shower of hugs from my kids and kisses from my wife. My completely amazing wife. She is an absolute wonder woman, handling the kids on her own for a week at a time. I’m thankful every day that I get to share this adventure of life with her.

Just a little while left

As I write this from the Denver airport, my one hope is that my flights will actually be on time this afternoon. United has a way of consistently being late. I know delays are simply a fact of air travel, but United is worse than most. Especially when flying in or out of Arcata. But if all goes as planned, I’ll be home tonight before the kids go to bed. And I can’t wait.

Europe, Take 2

A few weeks ago I called off a trip to northern Europe with our older two kids (SEE: Walking away from a trip – lessons learned). It was a hard decision, given the investment and excitement we had all put into it. But it was the choice that was needed.

My wife and I talked a lot that week after we got back from our adventure-that-wasn’t-meant-to-be. The older two kids talked a lot with us, too. More than a few times they asked where we would have been and what we would have been doing, had we gone. I tried to keep my mind off it.

After a couple days, we came to the decision that a trimmed down version of the original plan would still work for all of us. I soon found an appropriate window and started the cement in plans once again.

Why we decided to re-plan the trip

The long and short of the matter was that the length of the previous trip was the biggest hurdle. It was originally going to be ~12 days, but turned into 15 based on when I found the cheapest tickets. Then we changed the plan to include a couple days in the Bay prior to our flights out, so the grand total came to 18 days. It was just too long.

So, once we found a window that trimmed the total length down to 8 days, my wife and I were far more settled. Fortunately, the kids tickets were reusable (cash value, although paid with points). Mine actually was, too, but I didn’t get the memo in time for it be of any use for this trip (SEE: Two weeks later, Air France responds to my service request). Prices had gone up since it wasn’t the great sale I’d caught before, but they weren’t terribly more. Luckily, I had a small stash of Delta gift cards (thank you Amex airline credits) that I used to cut much of the additional cost.

The main reason we desired to re-plan an abbreviated version of the trip was how awful of a letdown the last experience was for the kids.

Setting the kids up for disappointment

Life will brings its disappointments. Part of maturing is learning how to handle disappointment, and it is not my plan to shield my kids from this. Experiencing disappointment helps build confidence and resilience. Kids have to learn how to overcome setbacks.

But directly causing significant disappointment to your kids as a parent is a bit different to me. This was all my fault. I’d gotten the kids all geared up to go. We even traveled to the Bay Area to get passports, as the post office was less-than-helpful when it came to figuring out everything we needed to process them (the fact that the kids are internationally adopted was the main complicating factor). I’d set their sights on something, built up their hopes, and then crushed everything at the last minute. Holding my crying kids that day tore my heart out.

I know I’ll fail the kids at times. It’s inevitable. But they also need to know that I’m not going to play games with their emotions. If forces outside my control change our plans, they will have to cope with that. And I hope they understand.

What I want them to understand is that I will follow through on what I tell them we will do. We are also still in a phase of building trust. The kids have progressed by leaps and bounds over the eight months they have been with us. Our relationships are so much different than they were a matter of months ago. We are closer. We understand each other better. Communication and affection continue to grow. But we still have some distance left. I hope that being able to still take them on this adventure will help mend any breach of trust I caused.

Is it worth going overseas for “only” a week?

This is always a question in my mind. Quite a while ago, I would have quickly said “no”. To spend all that time and money (or miles) to head over to another continent for just a week seemed silly. That was at least how I approached our trip to France, Italy, and Ireland last year (SEE: Thirty Days in Europe).

But slowly my mind has changed. An analogous change of mind is whether it is worth spending miles to fly in a premium cabin. I used to think there was no way that was worth it. In most instances, you can fly twice for the same number of miles.  Both of these previous opinions were left in the dust when I planned a five night trip to the land down under (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia).

That trip ended up being very much worth it. In any other circumstance, I would have wanted to spend a minimum of 3 weeks to make the trek “worth it”. But given that I spent ~$300 out of pocket for the whole five days, it was a win all around. When you’re not spending a ton of cash for airline tickets, a week trip overseas is actually within the realm of reason. You can easily spend more on two days at Disneyland as a family.

As we are currently on our adventure, I can say that a week will be perfect. It is long enough that we can see a couple different places, yet short enough that they won’t get burnt out. By the end of our 8-day road trip, the kids were definitely ready to get home (although this was most likely a function of how much we had to drive during the last couple days).

Looking forward

With summer upon us, there is not a lot planned on the travel front. June will be the month of dance, then the kids will attend a couple vacation bible school programs and camps during July and August. We will likely pick things up again this fall.

With a pocket (er…AwardWallet account) full of miles, a lot is possible. I’m currently working on a rough schedule of trip ideas for the next couple years. This’ll give us more concrete goals on the earning side, as well as let me burn through points that have been aging for a while. But more on that later. For now, we will enjoy France.

Featured image courtesy of Eric Chan under CC 2.0 license

Walking Away from a Trip – Lessons Learned

I’ve been pretty silent of late, which has been primarily because of how busy work has been over the past month and a half. But added to that has been two weeks of deliberation over whether we would take a trip, or simply walk away from it. But now I finally have a bunch of thoughts to pen.

The travel hacking hobby allows us to do so much more than we otherwise could. My wife and I have had the ability to travel often during the past couple years, and I have started taking our older kids on quick getaways now and then, our most recent being to Sacramento. We also visited Disneyland, and while there is really no way to make a trip like that close to free, we were able to cut a good chunk of the cost.

Sometimes this means I try to plan “once-in-a-lifetime” trips at a fairly regular pace. I’d say we could do it on the order of once per year if I play the points game well.

Planning a trip to Europe

Back in February I broached the subject of taking the older two kids to Europe. In our initial conversations, my wife seemed supportive of the idea. It would give her needed time to plan a few aspects of our household that we hadn’t gotten to since the kids had been home.

I was initially looking at a 12 day adventure, but then upped it to 15. Our previous longest trip was four full days, so this is definitely a step up. After locking the flights in for a grand total of $0, the hotels easily fell into place over the next several weeks, all on points. We were looking at a completely free vacation in terms of lodging and air travel.

Fast-forward to a mere 2 weeks before the trip, and the misgivings are setting in. My wife is feeling conflicted about us all being apart that long. I had already told the kids, and the ball is rolling to get passports before we go (having adopted kids delayed and complicated things paperwork-wise, so we ran out of time). I decided to play things out and see if we would both come to consensus on the idea.

The departure day finally arrives and we say goodbye in Santa Rosa. The older two and I finish the journey to the city by bus. I’m feeling conflicted at this point, but I had other pressing concerns (work in the City being one of them), and decide to press forward and keep discussing things as we go.

Walking away at the last second

After spending the weekend in the Bay with the kids (while also working…definitely a difficult mix), we came down to the very day of travel. We woke up in a hotel with amazing views of planes taking off and landing at SFO, and the kids were super excited. I was not.

I’ve rarely felt so conflicted about anything. The trip was a big mess of various concerns. I had pragmatic reasons for planning it, those being giving mom time with the little one and time to get a bunch of household stuff done that she has wanted to do for literally months. But my wife wasn’t 100% in agreement with the idea. It was simply too long a time. That should have been enough to easily call it off, except I kept coming back to the big factor on the other side: the disappointment the older two would inevitably feel. How could we bring them this far along and then pull the rug out from under them? I simply didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set with them. At the very bottom there was the personal reason of me loving to travel, plus the fact that I knew we would lose some miles and cash should we cancel.

In the end, I finally pulled the plug. There was no other option. The moment of clarity came way too late.

What was the damage? Well….it could have been much worse than it was. I didn’t know this would be the case, but I got the two kids’ tickets back in the form of a Delta voucher for $464 each that is good anytime in the next year. This salvaged the roughly 66,000 Ultimate Rewards points I burned on them. I’m still waiting to hear back about my ticket (booked separately), but my guess is that it is a total loss. The 13,100 points I spent on the Norwegian Airlines intra-Europe flights are a total loss.

We also have to factor in the cost of getting expedited passports, the last minute cost of traveling home, and one hotel cancellation that may result in a charge (remains to be seen). I was technically a few hours after the cancellation deadline. All in all, the loss will be about $700 worth of points and maybe $300 cash.

The real damage was having to tell the kids we weren’t going to go. Getting them excited and working toward that goal as a family for the last two weeks just made it all that much harder. This was the main reason I had deliberated so much, since I didn’t want to face them and tell them this. There were tears, of course, and questions about why. I cried with them. The trip didn’t really matter to me at all any more. Seeing them hurt did. I had set them up for major disappointment. My heart still aches.

But in the end, I believe it was the right choice. This was simply too much for all of us.

Lessons learned

With fare sales, transient award availability, and other deals in constant flux, the typical motto of those who like to travel hack (or just cheaply) is “jump now and figure the rest out later.” While possibly good in some cases, this isn’t always the best advice. Our initial discussions about the trip idea had been during a period where I could take advantage of a great fare sale, and they were far more abbreviated than they should have been.

Our takeaway from this is that both of us need to be completely sure about something before I go ahead plan it. Especially a mostly non-refundable plan. And more especially if there is any way we could let the kids down. I know this isn’t always avoidable, and life will bring disappointment, but this could have been avoided in our case.

My wife and I are in agreement on most things. She and I both want her to have a break from time to time, and she needs time to plan things for our house. She is a very “all or nothing” person, and needs large chunks of time to be able to accomplish some things. Kids, especially our very needy adopted kids, make this nearly impossible. She was looking forward to an open week in which she could get a lot done. What she wasn’t looking forward to was being apart for so long. It took me too long to face the reality that I need to honor her emotional needs above all other concerns, even pragmatic ones and the emotions of the kids.

We’ll have another chance

This was my attempt at a consolation for the kids. The Eiffel Tower will still be there. We can ride the canals of Amsterdam and walk the streets of Bruges a different time. We may have an opportunity fairly soon, or it could be years from now. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to go other places as well. This didn’t stop the tears, but I made them a promise that I would take us to Paris some day, and hopefully all five of us will go.

The beauty of this hobby is that making a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip is not as hard as someone trying to save cash to do it. Walking away from one doesn’t hurt quite as bad, either. I’m thankful this wasn’t a case of shelling out $4,000 on a non-refundable trip and then having to pull the plug. It hurts to lose point and miles, but at the end of the day, my forfeited ticket was free. Completely free. I didn’t even pay a credit card annual fee for the points.

Conclusion

Everything about this was an important lesson. We have other trips in the works, which I’ll lay out in a separate post, so we also have something to look forward to. We may pencil a couple more in this summer, but right now my wife and I are reassessing our next couple months. I’m also taking a much needed week off since that was already the plan. It’ll just be the first time embracing the stay-cation.

Reflecting on Our 2017 Travels

Twenty-seventeen has been a year of immense change for us. The most profound was going from a couple to a family of five. Instantaneously. Life is a whole new adventure now. But we had been waiting for this for years.

I’ve already written about how much different family travel will be, and how much harder it will be to travel hack for 5 rather than for 2 (SEE: Travel Hacking with Kids: A New Frontier). But we’ll do it. I have the resolve to make it work, and by all observations, our kids will shape up to be great little travelers (SEE: Our First Time Flying with kids.

We’ll see what the future holds. Here are the trips that highlighted 2017:

 

Australia in summer

Winter here is actually summer down under, so my favorite summer trip was a quick 5-night stint in Sydney and Canberra. I had a blast. From Sydney Harbour to the Blue Mountains, it was a fantastic experience.

I spent two nights in Sydney and one in Parramatta, in the suburbs.

In Canberra I stayed at the Park Hyatt (my review). It’s a beautiful building, but I honestly wouldn’t do it again. Everything else is out of my price range. High tea for $62? No thanks.

Vancouver in winter

Here we go visiting Canada again when it is a frozen wasteland. Actually, Vancouver is much milder than Quebec, so winter wasn’t all that bad of a time to visit.

Plus, there were some fun experiences to be had. One of my Christmas gifts to my wife was going to Bright Nights in Stanley Park. Sure, we didn’t need to go that far to see a big Christmas light display, but it was reason enough to head north.

We had some unique experiences here, including walking along a beach with snow on top of the sand. Our day drive to Whistler was also one of my favorite things we did.

Banff in spring

Spring is Canada is basically still winter. Actually, it’s even colder than our mild California winter. But that didn’t keep us from planning a trip to Banff National Park in April.

The pros were that there were very few people and the snow-capped peaks are spectacularly beautiful. The cons were that we couldn’t do much hiking and that we got to walk on top of Lake Louise instead of gazing at its gorgeous turquoise waters. No matter when you go, Banff is utterly picturesque (SEE: Banff, Alberta in 14 photos).

In any case, our stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs was unforgettable. It’s my favorite hotel at which I’ve ever stayed. And we did it all for $99.18 for 3 nights in a huge suite! Major travel hacking win. Banff (and Jasper) are on our list for a return trip, this time in early autumn.

Solar Eclipse in Summer

This was spectacular. If you ever get a chance, go see a solar eclipse. Another will be passing over the United States in 2024. Don’t settle for anything other than 100% totality. A 98% eclipse is still a partial eclipse. The two minutes of totality is worth the effort to experience.

Costa Rica in autumn

The culmination of our 2017 travels (and of over 3 years of waiting) was our adoption trip to Costa Rica. My wife and I were matched with 3 beautiful kids in June, and we traveled in September to meet them.

Even though there is a ton to do in Costa Rica, the bulk of our focus was on bonding with our kids. We only took 2 overnight excursions, one to the Pacific coast and the other to the Caribbean Coast. We also did a day trip on the last week with grandma so that she could see monkeys.

Parenting in hard. I’m sure every parent knows that. But there are some unique challenges that come with adoption. Not to mention the fact that most parents don’t go from 0 to 3 kids literally overnight. Life has been fun, but boy has it been hard and exhausting at times.

The nerdy statistics

Since I’m a geek and track both my hotel nights and flights, here are some of my stats from 2017:

  • Flew over 36,000 miles and stayed over a quarter of the year in hotels (yikes!)
  • Added my third continent, Australia
  • Added 13 new airports, 2 new countries, and 2 new states
  • Flew my first long-haul business class and long-haul first class products
  • Adopted 3 kids! Oh, I guess that isn’t a travel statistic.

Final thoughts

Overall, 2017 has been a year of firsts and changes. It was our final hurrah as a traveling couple, and also the beginning of a new era of family travel. Now that we have kids, I guess it finally makes sense for me to write for Points with a Crew. Except having kids means I have way less time to write, so it is a catch-22.

Here’s hoping 2018 brings some great first family travel experiences!

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