Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Trip Planning (page 1 of 3)

Our Adoption Trip – Sorta Nailing Down a Plan

I’ve previously written a couple times about the planning that has gone into our upcoming adoption trip. Previously, we didn’t have a match *or* a travel timeline. But I’m sure you know by now that my wife and I are officially adopting 3 beautiful kids from Costa Rica, and that we only have a matter of weeks until we will be leaving to meet them!

This leaves me desperately wanting to plan the trip, yet still unable since we still do not have official travel dates. However, I’ve boiled things down to essentially Option A and Option B for our flights and hotel.

Flights to Costa Rica

I’ve had several ideas on what points or miles to use to fly to Costa Rica (SEE: 4 airline award options for our adoption trip…which do I choose?). Previously, I had saved AA miles for this purpose. However, given the dearth of AAvailability, this has become a less than stellar option. Plus, we’d have to drive to the area to fly (a good 4-5 hours). Ditto for Delta.

We’ve also considered Southwest, but I’d like to save our Southwest RapidRewards points for our flights back. This pretty much leaves us with using United miles. The plus here is that we don’t need to drive to the Bay to fly out. Well…as long as we trust United to get us out of Arcata (SEE: Our First “United Horror Story”).

Backup plan…there is always cash or the Chase UR portal. Not sure I want to do either.

Lodging in Costa Rica

No matter what, figuring out how to “hack” a month of lodging is extremely difficult. My wife and I did this on our trip to Europe, but we were changing location every few nights, and we burnt over 400,000 hotel points in the process.

Not to mention we were two people, and now we will be five! And there is no way we will be hotel hopping with the kids during our first weeks with them.

Our agency has suggested an extended stay hotel (including multiple bedrooms and a kitchenette) that looks nice. It is relatively affordable at $75 per night, which comes to $2,250 per month. I’ve also considered renting an AirBnb if I can find a good one for less than $1,500, however.

The plus with the hotel option is that it’s a place our agency has housed people over many trips. The staff know the drill. There is also free breakfast and a pool. The plus with the AirBnb (or other rental option) is the potential cost savings.

We’ll see which we end up choosing. The jury is still out on this one. But I have a clear Option A and Option B.

Flights back from Costa Rica

Here we have two main options: (1) Southwest from San Jose to Oakland, via Houston, or (2) Alaska Airlines from San Jose to Los Angeles, and then cheap cash flights back to the Bay (or a one-stop Alaska ticket). I’d be using the 50% “pay with points” benefit on my American Express Business Platinum to cover the latter (SEE: First Use of the Amex Business Platinum 50% Points Rebate).

Both options have pros and cons. The pros of the Southwest option is that option are that is should require fewer points, plus we would have plenty of free checked baggage. The cons are that it is via Houston and a longer journey.

The pros of the Los Angeles option is that it is direct to California. We’d probably overnight in a hotel, and then fly out late morning on the short hop to SFO/OAK/STS. The cons are that I’d be burning an awful lot of valuable Amex MR points.

Conclusion

So…we kinda have a plan for our travels to Costa Rica. I can’t wait until we get an official travel date so that we can finally lock in the outbound flights and lodging. This may not happen for a few more weeks, however.

The trip can’t come soon enough. We already long to meet our kids. Things are a mix of excitement and nervousness. I just want to be off and away. Work has been busy (which is probably a good thing), but I can’t wait to drop it all and spend time with our children. It will be the beginning of an amazing adventure.

Header image courtesy of Arturo Sotillo under CC 2.0 license

 

First Use of the Amex Business Platinum 50% Points Rebate

Back in February I decided to pull the trigger on applying for the Business Platinum card from American Express. This was the first premium card that I had ever applied for, and deciding to swallow the $450 annual fee took some careful consideration. But with a $200 offset (I was able to cash out the airline incidental credit as gift cards and sell them), it seemed worth it. Plus the card was offering a bonus of 100,000 Membership Rewards (MR) points.

One of the biggest perks of the Business Platinum card is that it gives a 50% rebate on flights when you use the “Pay with Points” option. This has recently been decreased to 35%, but I have a year to use the benefit due to when I got my card (SEE: Reminder – Last day to sign up and get the 50% points rebate on the Amex Business Platinum). By paying with points, you don’t have to worry about award space. You just use points to pay for a cash ticket.

Normally, you only get 1.0 cent per point out of your MR points using the “pay with points” option. But the 50% rebate perk of the Amex Business Platinum card essentially gets you 2.0 cents per point. This makes booking revenue flights with “pay with points” a much better deal.

Note that you do only get to pick one airline each year for which you can use this perk on economy flights, but the benefit works on all premium cabin flights.

Visit Montana? I think yes

With barely 48 hours of mulling the idea over, I pitched a Montana trip idea to my brother-in-law. We have a friend who is interning in Kalispell this summer, and more who live near Missoula. I figured we could fly to Kalispell for several days, visit them, and see Glacier National Park. Award space was basically nonexistent, so I used “pay with points” option. This allowed the plane tickets to be completely free, plus it gave me a solid redemption value for my MR points.

Less than a day after that, the entire trip was all booked. Flights are 100% covered, and the hotels are 90% covered (I booked one points & cash night).

To top things off, I got a fantastic deal on a rental car using Autoslash, plus I can use Arrival miles to cover the majority of that cost. My brother-in-law will cover the cost of driving to Medford and parking at the airport, so all said and done we’re down to maybe $70 each plus food. It’ll be a super cheap 5 day vacation.

What to do in Kalispell

We obviously want to visit our friend Sage while we’re there. We also hope to spend 2 days in Glacier National Park. He has the weekends off, so hopefully we can see the park for a couple days. I’ve heard only good things about Glacier National Park, and I cannot wait to visit!

On Sunday or Monday we’ll visit our friends near Missoula. For various reasons we need to play things by ear, but that is a-ok by me. Tuesday we’ll fly back to Medford, and then drive the 4 hours home.

Conclusion

I hadn’t planned on taking another vacation so soon, but hey, that is one of the beauties of using points and miles. Even last-minute travel in the height of summer can be made affordable. If I didn’t have a stash of points, we’d be paying about $2,500 out of pocket for the 5 night trip. Now we’re looking at $400 or so, split between two of us.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

One of the most frustrating things about traveling is watching all your well-laid plans go completely out the window. Hours of planning and preparing, all for nothing. This is why you should actually *keep* preparing for reasonably foreseeable problems that may arise.

I am constantly reminded how unpredictable travel can be. My wife and I have had our share of incidents, from minor delays, to unpredictable driving conditions (read: landslides), to completely canceled flights. Two of the worst incidents include our recent detour around the 101 slide (SEE: So close, yet so far), and being completely hosed by United on our trip to Quebec (SEE: Our First United Horror Story).

Planning for FT4RL

When I booked my recent flight to Orlando for the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference (SEE: Invaluable Disney travel hacks and other things I learned at FT4RL), I was poignantly aware that I had chosen an itinerary with only a 35 minute connection in San Francisco. The ticket was the best I could find to fit my $500 budget with my Merrill Lynch points that only had one connection. It also had good departure and arrival times.

Normally, this would be everything I’d want in a flight. Except I understand all too well United’s track record flying between Arcata and San Francisco. That route may have the worst on time performance of any in the whole U.S. I’m serious. Delays are pretty much inevitable on the route.

My “worst case” plan

Because the late morning flight from Arcata has such an abysmal on time performance (it’s one of the lovely options in Google Flights that gets the “often delayed by 30+ minutes” designation), I made sure I researched some alternate flights. Rather than simply let an agent rebook me into whatever makes sense to them, I like to understand all my options. Being prepared in the event of a delay could save me substantial time and headache.

For example, I knew I would prefer flying part of the way on a connecting flight rather than take the next nonstop flight to Orlando. If I had missed the 12:55 p.m. departure out of SFO, I would have been stuck waiting until a 10:40 p.m. departure! This would be an awful red-eye,  arriving at a little after 7:00 a.m. eastern time. There is no way I wanted that flight, even if it is a nonstop.

Instead, I would prefer to fly to one of United’s hubs. I specifically identified Houston as the best one, mainly because hotels are cheap (in case United wouldn’t comp me), and because there are a LOT of flight options, both from SFO to IAH and from IAH to MCO. More options = less chance of significant delays.

Chicago was a secondary option to Houston. There are just as many flights to Orlando each day. But it would be a slightly longer trip. Either way, I’d given myself enough travel time that an overnight delay wouldn’t kill the trip.

I jotted down some preferred flight numbers for both options, in case I missed the flight to Orlando. I wanted to be able to feed the agent the exact flights on which I desired to be rebooked.

The final precaution

The last thing I ended up doing was changing my reservation in Orlando at the Country Inn & Suites. If I missed my flight and couldn’t make it, I would be out the points. Instead, I planned on either booking an IHG hotel on points at the last minute, or using cash if rates were decent. Orlando was actually one of the best options for earning at least a small number of bonus points from my Q2 IHG accelerate offer, so I opted for cash.

Ultimately, everything turned out fine. The flight out of Arcata left a mere 5 minutes late, which is unheard of. We landed a few minutes late at SFO, and I literally walked off one flight, down the terminal, and onto the other. It was the closest connection I’ve ever had that I’ve actually made.

In this case, planning for “the worst” wasn’t necessary. But I know that things won’t always go that smoothly!

Leveraging the Flexibility of Hotel Award Bookings

Travel plans can be fickle things. Sometimes you can have a plan in place for weeks, or even months, and have it go sideways on the last day. And it makes me grateful hotel award bookings are nearly always flexible.

My wife and I have had our share of crazy travel incidents. We actually joke that we can’t go on a trip without *something* happening that throws a wrench in our plans. Our winter trip to Canada in early 2016 was botched by a canceled United flight, and our summer trip to Europe was almost completely ruined by the fact I needed a new passport!

We can’t seem to catch a break

This trip really wasn’t much different. Maybe just a couple notches lower.

A couple days before we were to head to the Bay to fly out to Alberta, there was a major slide on Highway 101. As is typical, it was at the choke point near Leggett, California where there is literally no easy detour.

So, my wife and I decided to bite the bullet and drive narrow, winding Highway 36 over to Interstate 5 and then down to the Bay. It would add at least 2 hours to our trip.

Since I was trying hard to balance work, vacation, and PTO usage, I decided to change our Bay Area plans (yet again). I had already changed them once when I realized I was beginning to hoard my points.

Instead of arriving late in the evening the night before our flight, I decided we would head down a day earlier than planned. This meant we would spend 2 nights in the Bay. I would work an uber long day out of our San Francisco office, and we would fly out early to Calgary on Thursday.

Doing the award travel shuffle

This trip was another case study on why I am glad hotel award bookings are so flexible. Unlike airline award bookings (Southwest being an exception), hotel award bookings aren’t locked in until usually 24 hours before check-in. I was able to leverage this fact to rebook our hotel plans at less than 48 hours from our check-in time.

Our initial reservation was at the Hampton Inn SFO on Hilton points. I also had booked parking at the same hotel. I cancelled all this (glad I paid the $2.99 trip protection fee for the parking), and booked the Staybridge Suites with our 2 free IHG night certificates that had just posted.

While not the best use of the certificates you could dream up, it would put us in a comfortable suite with a full kitchen for my wife. Well worth it, in my opinion. Dan Miller, who runs Points with a Crew, “wasted” his for a similar hotel in London a couple years ago.

The new parking plan was at the BART station in San Bruno. It turned out to be $25 cheaper than the other off-airport parking (before the cost of any BART tickets). If you’ve never used BART, check out why it is a great option in the Bay Area.

Conclusion

All in all everything worked out just fine. We didn’t lose any money on any pre-paid bookings. I do book pre-paid now and then (such as our upcoming night at the Aloft Calgary), but I don’t recommend doing this in general. It can make sense if you are getting a great rate, but sometimes you don’t know what will come up and it is better to have the flexibility. And award bookings give you flexibility.

The actual travel turned out to be better than I hoped as well. Yeah, it was a 7-hour trek, but we made it. My wife had an easygoing day in San Bruno while I worked my tail off in downtown SF. Now we are signing off for the weekend to enjoy all that beautiful Banff has to offer.

 

Resisting the tendency to hoard points

There are two distinct sides to travel hacking:

  1. Earn points and miles
  2. Burn points and miles

The earning is the easy part. My wife and I have been able to accumulate serious miles over the past couple years by many credit card sign up bonuses. And lately I’ve been pulling in some more from gift card reselling (SEE: My First Three Months of Reselling Gift Cards). 

Burning miles is, oddly enough, where I often run into trouble. I often end up hoarding my points and miles.

It is not that I don’t want to use my miles. I earned them with the obvious intention of using them. But too often I fall into the trap of the travel hackers “analysis paralysis”. Instead of using the miles or points for a *good* flight or hotel stay, I find myself trying to use them only on the *best* flight or hotel stay. I mean….why use them now if I’m not getting the BEST value!

Running off the “Analysis Paralysis” cliff

I recently ran straight off the cliff of travel hacking analysis paralysis this week. While trying to finalize hotel plans for our upcoming trip to Alberta (SEE: We’re going to Banff!), I couldn’t find a great use of my hotel points. We are already planning on one splurge: a cash night at the Fairmont Banff Springs. This will be covered by a checking account bonus offer from Bank of America, so it’s really not that bad.

But for the rest of the hotel nights we need, I couldn’t find a good redemption option. “Good” meaning I couldn’t get the value I expect from my points.

So I booked us at the Aloft Calgary University for 2 nights for $279 CAD. I came to the same decision on San Francisco Airport hotels. There were no “good” (read *best*) options, so I booked a night at a cheap (for SF) airport hotel through Expedia for just over $100 including taxes.

Making the conscious decision to use my miles and points

When I woke up this morning, I had a reality check. Why was I about to spend $300 on hotels when we could spend $0? Isn’t that the whole point of this hobby?

So I canceled both my bookings. I’m not thinking straight or hard enough, obviously, if I can’t find at least one option where we can use points.

I finally settled on using Hilton points for a night at the Hampton Inn SFO. Yeah, it is 37k Hilton points, but it is free. And the “value” of the stay is about $185 (which is still painful to me when are going to be there only long enough to sleep).

It also made sense because we could pay for parking at the Hampton Inn and simply leave our van there while away. Easy.

The Delta hotel at YYC is nice. And free with a certificate.

For Calgary, I settled on using a Marriott Annual night certificate for one of the nights. Yeah, it means we split our nights in Calgary, but one will be free. Plus, it’ll be an airport hotel connected to the terminal, which will make flying out super convenient.

We are still paying cash for the other. I still couldn’t bring myself to redeem either IHG or SPG points for horribly low value. But we are going to be able to now cover *both* the rental car and the single night at the Aloft with the remainder of our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit.

Analysis paralysis crisis averted

So now we will be out only the cost of gas for the drive to/from SFO and parking. The lodging is covered by free nights, points, and travel credits. The car is covered by the CSR credit. The flights were predominantly covered by Delta gift cards and United vouchers and a small amount of cash (like $60). Overall, it is going to be another cheap trip. I feel so much better about our plans, having made these adjustments.

This is yet another incident that is helping me learn to be okay spending miles and points for travel now rather than hoping to use them for the *best* possible trip later. Remember to “earn and burn” in this game. There is some wisdom in keeping a small stash of points in case something unexpected comes up, but don’t hoard. The value will only ever go down.

Header image courtesy of Lawrence OP under CC 2.0 license

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