Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Trip Planning (page 1 of 4)

Bound for China!

I’ve been waiting for a number of weeks to break the news about our next trip. This summer saw a good amount of work travel, plus a couple shorter trips, each with one of the older kids. I took my daughter to visit her friend in San Antonio, Texas in July. During our flights out she got to experience domestic first class for the first time. My older son had his turn in August, when we headed to Atlanta for a few days before he started school (SEE: 3 reasons why the Delta Flight Museum is an avgeek must-see).

The solo trips with each of them were super fun, and these were on the heels of a week spent in Europe with both of them (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City). We’d previously called it off back in April, and rebooked a shorter version that was more amenable to everyone.

Right around the time of that trip, I talked with my wife about planning a second international trip with the older two for late in the year. There was award space available for a return from Beijing with a stop in Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, and I knew I could use the reimbursement I’d gotten from KLM after the cancellation on our Europe itinerary to cover most of it (SEE: Submitting an EU261 claim that could net me $1,500). The trip got the green light, and I moved ahead and planned it.

I’d been meaning to get this posted about a week ago, but a busy office move, onboarding new staff, and time at home kept me from wrapping it up. Figures that we would be en route when it is finally finished.

First stop, Beijing!

Our outbound flight is to Beijing, the capital of China. Like I mentioned above, I used the reimbursement from KLM to cover most of the fairly reasonable one-way fare for all of us. We have a total of six nights planned in Beijing, with 5 full days of sightseeing. On the itinerary are the core sights in central Beijing, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the parks nearby. We’ll also wander the hutongs and find plenty of cheap and delicious Chinese food.

Other plans include visiting the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, two other iconic Beijing historic cultural sites. We also have an excursion to the Great Wall planned. I had my eye on the Mutianyu section, and after reading about Dan’s experience with his daughter (SEE: Great Wall Mutianyu Toboggan Ride review), this became a solid plan. It’s a slightly less visited section of the wall, so you avoid some crowds, and there are some fun things to do.

We did not obtain Chinese visas for the trip. I opted to use the 144-hour transit without visa (TWOV) policy that lets tourists visit a select number of Chinese cities for up to 144 hours without a visa. This is a fairly recent change by the Chinese government to promote more tourism. Other cities offer 72-hour TWOV, and another number offer 24-hour TWOV, which is basically only ideal for an overnight layover.

The 144-hour TWOV window in Beijing is honestly more than enough to see much of the city. And even if Beijing isn’t enough, the policy actually allows visitors to travel to other locations, as long as you stay within the Tianjin and Hebei provinces during your visit. Plenty of flexibility.

Our onward flight is to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. Which may seem confusing since Hong Kong is still technically part of China, but for the purposes of TWOV, it qualifies. Hong Kong is one of the special administrative regions, and U.S. passport holders do not need a Chinese visa to visit.

Then 3 days in Hong Kong

Our final three days will be spent exploring the bustling Asian financial center of Hong Kong. Hong Kong can be crazy expensive, and hotel rooms are small, so I’ve had difficulty finding a decent place to stay during our time in the city. I’m still waiting to hear back about the room capacity for the hotel I booked (but I have a backup plan if it falls through).

Our Hong Kong itinerary includes hiking up Victoria Peak, eating dim sum, and hopefully meeting up with Jason Francisco, one of the other writers for Points with a Crew, and his wife. We’ll see if we can make that happen. We may stuff in a day trip to Macau, but I’m not sure I want to cram it in, given the time and cost required.

The school issue

We made these plans before officially making the decision to enroll our two boys in New Life Christian school. We are fortunate that the school was able to send him with the work he needs to complete. We are homeschooling our daughter, so bringing along her work was pretty easy. We’ll just have to carve out some time in the evenings to get some done.

What will mom and the little guy do? They have their own fun-filled week planned. Our four-year-old is super excited to have mom all to himself (LOL). With only one kid to wrangle instead of three, mom will also be able to catch up on projects that she has been wanting to get to for months.

Conclusion

I’m excited. This will be my first time to any country in Asia. I don’t count my 90-minute visit to Seoul Incheon airport early last year (nor do I count my unplanned stop in Anchorage – SEE: 2 people getting engaged and 1 going into labor on my crazy flight). The more I’ve read and researched about China, the more fascinated I have become with the country. I’m excited to experience the culture and people.

Featured photo courtesy of Pexels

Why you need to master Google Flights and multi-stop itineraries

If you have more than a mild interest in points and miles, especially if you plan to travel internationally, I will suggest that you should spend some time with Google Flights (SEE: 6 reasons why Google Flights is the BEST flight search engine). It will teach you a lot. Get familiar with airports, routings, and carriers. It can help you find the cheapest deals on airfare if you know how to work things right (I’d also suggest subscribing to a fare deal website).

Using Google Flights to put together inexpensive, multiple-stop trips is what this post is all about. What if I told you that you could visit 2, maybe even 3, European destinations on a multi-stop trip for a mere $500 in airfare. Sound impossible? It’s definitely not. You just need to know a few tricks.

Let’s pick an example destination, and make it a bit harder than London or Paris. I’d like to visit Toulouse, France. Why Toulouse? It’s the headquarters of Airbus and it would be super cool to tour their factory. Now let’s find a ticket over some random dates not too far out from now.

Terrible: U.S. regional to small European regional

An initial option is to search for a ticket between our tiny regional airport and Toulouse (airport code TLS). The ticket search from ACV-TLS gives me the following over September 20-28:

The routing honestly isn’t terrible. But it is costly. The cheapest ticket I could find was $1,415. Maybe it could be worth it for one person for the convenience of flying out of our local airport, but I’d rather save the money. Situations like this are where you should search tickets from a larger airport. Flying small regional to small regional is almost always ridiculously expensive.

Okay: Major U.S. gateway to European regional

To save a substantial amount of money on airfare, many people travel to the Bay Area from here. San Francisco International Airport, by far the largest international gateway of the Bay Area airports, often has great fares to many destinations. I’ve routinely seen tickets to China in the $500s and tickets to many European destinations are often comparable.

Given the cost for the itinerary out of ACV, I expected the ticket from SFO to be better, but still high. And it totally was. And least it only had one stop:

KLM wants $976 for this itinerary. It still isn’t a great deal, but certainly better than the previous option. You’re saving $450. At least it is within the realm of reason for a ticket to Europe.

Better: Multi-stop on competitive routes, separate tickets

Now, here is where things get interesting. You might think to only check tickets between origin and destination, but there are a few other tricks you need to have up your sleeve. One is checking other area airports near your origin or destination if you’re willing to drive. We could search flights to Bordeaux or flights out of Oakland (in this case, it doesn’t help much).

But I have another trick I want to explore: making your own multi-stop itinerary. By knowing which routes are highly competitive, you can create some great, cheap tickets on your own. You just need to be okay spending a night in a city you didn’t plan on visiting and/or a bit more time in airports.

But it can be worth it. The San Francisco to London route is one of the most competitive European non-stops out of the Bay, and it routinely offers reasonable fares. I easily found this for $544:

Then I moved on to the flight to Toulouse. London has several airports (Heathrow, City, Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton), so I made sure I just search LON in the origin box to pick up them all. Turns out there is a nonstop between a few London airports and Toulouse. I decided to stick with Heathrow and found this:

The price is high, but not terrible at $98. It’s an airport change, but hey, you get a few days in London. Added to the United flight to London, you are looking at a total cost of $642. This is way better than the regional-to-regional roundtrip and quite a bit better than the simple round-trip to Toulouse from SFO.

Best: Multi-stop utilizing low-cost carriers

You may not know that Oakland International Airport offers non-stop flights on a few different airlines to more than a half dozen major European cities. This is where having good knowledge of routes and carriers comes in super handy. If you are flexible and can move your outbound and return dates a bit, you can save even more on this trip:

multi-stop-itineraries

Flying Norwegian from Oakland to London in October can be done for $411 (or less) round-trip. Now let’s add on an EasyJet flight for a mere $70 to get us to Toulouse:

A two-stop trip for under $500? Yup. We did it. I’ve been able to work out 3-stop and even 4-stop itineraries under $500 during the best Norwegian fare sales.

Conclusion

So there you have some of the tricks I use to find great multi-stop airfare deals. Over the course of a few years I’ve honed my Google Fights skills to be able to find fantastic fares to many places, especially these multi-stop trips. Being able to put an itinerary like the 2-stop Norwegian one above in less than 3 minutes is the culmination of many, many hours of research.

I’ve even challenged myself a couple times to find around-the-world tickets for under $1,000 (SEEFly Around the World for $1,000? Yes, it’s Possible!).

If you are struggling to find a good fare, you are more than welcome to send me a note via message on my Facebook page or via the Contact Me page here on the blog. I’ll be more than happy to quickly research the best options for you. Sometimes there is nothing I can do. But I may be able to offer some suggestions. 🙂

Planning a last minute getaway to…Atlanta!

Before summer is over I’d been looking to book a weekend getaway for my older son and I sometime in August. In July my daughter and I headed to San Antonio to surprise a friend of hers. She was lucky enough to even experience first class for the first time.

Our middle child was a bit sad that he didn’t get to go. He expressed that he like a trip with “just papá” as well. I’ve taken the older two several places (SEE: visiting grandparents, Sacramento, southwest road trip, Paris and Luxembourg) since we adopted our three kids last fall, but the trip with my daughter was the first time I’d only taken one of them.

But I’d run into a wall trying to plan a trip. I wanted to include air travel, since he is already obsessed with planes (which is probably my fault). But this meant either forking over some coveted United miles to fly out of Arcata, or finding a decent enough fare deal out of the Bay for which we could use some travel vouchers from previous poor experiences (SEE: United’s problem is…everything).

Plus, there was the issue of timing. And the drive to the Bay. I didn’t really want to drive 5 hours each way for a trip of just 2-3 nights. If other costs could be minimized, then maybe. Things would have to align perfectly to make this work.

But then they did, thanks to a site I follow for fare alerts. Looks like we’ll be heading to Atlanta in a couple weeks!

Why Atlanta? 

Honestly, I was originally looking at Boise. It checked the most boxes. Boise offers decent summer weather where my son and I could enjoy the outdoors. Plus, it is not a super long flight, and we have both United and Alaska vouchers that could pay for most of it. It would also be both a new state and new city for me, so there was that appeal. We’d still have to get to and from the Bay, pay $50 out of pocket for airfare, and use up $500 worth of flight vouchers. That’s a lot for a 3-night trip. So I kept putting off booking.

Which turned out to be for the best. Near the end of July, The Flight Deal notified me of a fantastic sale from San Jose to Atlanta. Tickets were offered at $168 round-trip. A second check of the United website found them for even cheaper: $154. And this was *not* basic economy!

Given that we’d have to rent a car if we visited Boise, visiting Atlanta for a few days makes a lot more sense logistically. The mass transit options are a lot better. We could stay in the city center and have plenty to do.

With the tickets safely booked within the 24-hour free cancellation window, I confirmed with my wife that the dates would work. Georgia it is, then.

Putting all the deals together

The tickets cost us $307.20 for the two of us, but with a $300 United voucher, I only had to shell out $7.20 in cash. We’ll have to rent a car to get to San Jose, but I still have a small stash of Hertz points. The rental car should run us about $20.

As far as hotels go, I’m using a combination of Radisson points for our first night near the airport and then Hilton points for two more at a hotel in downtown Atlanta. We’ll have free breakfast those three days. Our final night will be at the Hyatt in midtown on a cash and points rate. I’m positioning myself to earn the 5-brand bonus free night.

The metro will cost us a few bucks, and we’ll have to pay for attractions. We’ll also need ~$60 for Amtrak tickets on our return to take us to Sacramento. My son actually has a doctor’s appointment in the Sacramento Area the day we drive home. Finally, Enterprise points will keep our one-way car rental cost home to just $28.

So, things aren’t free. But I can get them pretty close…

Cash back for the win

Given that we’ve lately been blowing through our budget (seriously…kids are expensive), I don’t have a lot of cash allocated for this trip. Luckily, I’ve been saving the cash back on my Citi DoubleCash card for months. I also have earned nearly $50 from Ebates. I should also have enough “miles” for a redemption using my Barclaycard Arrival Mastercard (SEE: Increased bonus of this flexible point travel card!).

Combined, this should be about $150 in cash back, which will put a major dent in the expenses listed above. I love being able to put together a trip to another city for a few days for next to nothing.

Anyone have ideas of where we should go?

Hartsfield-Jackson airport is the only thing I’ve seen in Atlanta, and I’ve seen it 7 times. Once I was even able to spend the night in the terminal (story for another day). So I really don’t know what Atlanta has to offer. On my list so far are:

  • The Georgia Aquarium
  • World of Coca Cola
  • Centennial Olympic Park
  • Botanical Gardens

If you have any other ideas, be sure to let me know. I’m about to break the news to my son, who I know will be quite excited!

Featured image courtesy of tableatny under CC 2.0 license

Best way to get from CDG Airport to Paris

When researching destinations, the first thing on my mind is how to get to and from the airport. For Paris, the main airport is Charles de Gaulle (CDG). It is the hub of Air France, and is primarily used by the major/full-service carriers. This is where we were flying into, so I wanted to find was the best way to get from CDG airport to Paris.

Luckily, there are a number of options. Some may appeal more to the cash-strapped backpacker, while other may be better for the time-sensitive business traveler.

Which makes it a bit hard to determine the best way to get from CDG airport to Paris center. But we’ll try. Here are four options:

Convenient: RER B Train

One convenient option is the RER B train that departs regularly from CDG. Expect to wait 10-15 minutes for a departure. The cost is 10.30€ per person (7€ for kids 4-9), and you can use the ticket machines to purchase your fare by card. The machines do have English as a language option. For myself and the kids, we paid 27.60€ for our transportation from CDG to Paris.

best way to get from cdg airport to paris

The RER B takes about 30 minutes from CDG airport and will take you to Gare du Nord as the first major stop. Additional stops include Saint-Michel Notre-Dame, Luxembourg Gardens, and Port Royal, among others.

The train does make local stops along the way to the center of Paris. At least ours did. I don’t know if this is standard. Maybe only some do this and we ended up on a local train.

From each of the stops, you can catch at least one metro line to other destinations within Paris. This is what we did, catching line 5 to Republique from Gare du Nord. You must have your train ticket to exit the train.

One detail I missed is that you can apparently use your RER B ticket to transfer to the metro for free. I wasn’t aware of this. We bought three metro tickets needlessly.

Roissybus

This was my backup option if I decided not to take the train. We were originally going to be staying at the Holiday Inn Paris Opera and Grands Boulevards, and using the bus would make more sense as it takes you to the Opera neighborhood.

If you want to take the Roissybus, you can buy a ticket at the bus station at CDG. The cost is €12. Busese run about every 20 minutes.

The transit time of the bus varies based on traffic. Generally, it will probably take 45 minutes to an hour to get you from CDG to Paris. Because we weren’t staying in the Opera area, the bus didn’t make much sense, as it is both more expensive and takes longer than the train.

Shared Van

A shared van could possibly save you a bit of transit time, but with some added cost. It won’t be as expensive as a taxi or Uber, however, since they are transporting multiple people. The plus side is that you will be taken to your actual destination and won’t need to transfer anywhere.

Prices vary depending on your destination. Transit between our hotel (Crowne Plaza Paris Republique) and the airport with Super Shuttle prices at €47 each way for three people. This is definitely more than the train, but it isn’t outrageous.

You can schedule your pick up and drop off ahead of time and pay ahead of time as well, which is convenient.

Potentially fastest: Uber/Taxi

If time is your most critical factor, Uber or a Taxi may be the way to go. Just expect to pay a whole lot more than for the train or bus. However, if you are traveling as a family, the cost differential might not end up being quite as bad.

A taxi or Uber can get you to the Paris city center in ~40 minutes, but it obviously depends where in Paris you are staying. The benefit here is that you will be taken directly to your destination rather than to a station from where you have to take a city bus or metro to your final destination.

But it comes at a cost. Uber will probably cost upwards of €50, and I’d expect a taxi to cost even more. Might be worth it if you’re traveling as a group and can pile several people into a car.

Personally, I don’t value the time savings that highly. I’d rather stick with the train, which in my opinion is generally the best way to get from CDG airport to Paris after reviewing all the options.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it really depends on your needs to determine the best way to get from CDG Airport to Paris. The train is probably the most consistent and economical for the majority of folks. I’d maybe consider a rideshare if in a group, but I probably wouldn’t consider the other options, mainly due to cost.

Roissybus photo used under CC 2.0 license

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

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