Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Trip Planning (page 1 of 3)

2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip

After deciding to abort my planned trip to Europe, my wife and I had a long discussion about how to approach my two weeks off. It would have been fairly easy to go back to work (I have been putting in a little time this week), but we decided to see if there were other options on the table. We ultimately settled on the idea of me taking the older two kids on a road trip for a week.

At only six days out, there wasn’t much time to plan. And awards can be expensive. But luckily I have a couple tricks up my sleeve….

Tip #1 – Understand how award space works

Last-minute awards can be a either a big ouch, or they can be a gold mine. It all depends on the loyalty program. Any revenue-based program (i.e. Southwest, JetBlue) will be a big ouch if you need to book a ticket a week out. Delta is usually awful as well. American is meh. United, on the other hand, is a stellar choice. In my experience, United tends to release a lot of award seats close-in. They are my go-to if we are looking for a last-minute award deal.

Not looking too bad for 4 people just a few days out

There is just one big hurdle: the utterly ridiculous close-in booking fee. It’s basically extortion. I can’t decide if I hate it more or less than hotel resort fees.

Booking tickets for the three of us from Arcata to Tucson would cost 37,500 miles and $241.80. Not fun. And not worth it. The space is there, but booking through United is a less-than-ideal option.

Enter Avianca Lifemiles

Avianca LifeMiles are a fantastic alternative. And we have a small pile of them right now from when I signed up for the Avianca Vuela Visa (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca Lifemiles credit cards). You can also get Lifemiles by transferring your Citi ThankYou Points to that program.

Avianca rolled out a short-haul award chart for the United State last year that divided the USA into 3 regions. All intra-region travel is only 7,500 miles each way, and this includes connections. We can head nearly anywhere in the west for either 2,500 or 5,000 miles less than what United charges! My only word of warning is that the system chokes on awards with more than one connection. And good luck if you have to call an agent (better brush up on your Spanish).

One critical piece of this puzzle is the fact that Avianca doesn’t charge extortion a close-in fee (but they do still charge an annoying $25 award booking fee). I managed to book our tickets out of our local Arcata airport (SEE: The Upstart Arcata-Eureka Airport), a rare treat for personal travel. It cost us a total of 22,500 miles plus $91.80 for the three of us.

Last minute tickets were going for $866 round-trip, so this yields a return of 5.3 cents per mile. In all honesty, we wouldn’t be taking this trip if it wasn’t for miles, so calculating redemption value is a bit silly. What really matters is that we are saving a lot compared to using United miles for the trip.

Tip #2 – Know when it is one-way rental season

A trip like this has been at the back of my mind for some time. Every spring, rental car companies will give you rock bottom rates to get their cars out of the desert, and every fall they will offer you deals to take them back. Why do they do this? Trust me, it has nothing to do with cutting you a deal on your family trip.

This annual cycle is summed up in two words: inventory management. Car rental companies need more cars in certain locations during different times of the year, so instead of paying top dollar to truck them from state to state, they’ll simply cut you a deal to move one for them.

So…in essence I am helping Alamo move a car from Tucson, where nobody wants to be in July, to Sacramento. Whether that is really a better summer destination is up for debate, but Alamo would rather have the car in California than in Arizona. For this I am paying a whopping $101 for an eight day rental.

Similar deals are available from Florida, where you can take cars at a discount back to summer markets in the Northeast. An even better tip: some systems won’t differentiate between the deals offered. On other words, even though the company says “rent in Florida and return in New York” and “rent in Arizona and return in California”, you can actually drive a car all the way across the country! I priced out a two week rental from Miami to San Francisco for $228!! I’ve paid that much for a four day work rental!!!

Stop. I’m getting all excited again. Let me finish up with our trip details…

Planning our time through the Southwest

The hotels easily fell into place for the trip. I have points with most major chains, and there were plenty to pick from at most destinations. The harder issue for me was maximizing value. Do I use the Hilton points? Or do I book with IHG? Or do I pay $55 cash for a nearby Quality Inn and save the points for a better use? I think I got the cost down to ~$100 cash for our 8 nights.

The plan is to make our way from Tucson to Sacramento day by day, averaging 3-4 hours on the road. Sightseeing stops are planned at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the Harrah Collection in Reno. I’ve also thrown in a couple of cheap resort hotels where the kids can spend a day in the warmth and water.

I’ve honestly never put together a trip so quickly. Thirty-six hours is probably a record. But I decided that I could salvage the vacation time, and this seemed like one of the best options. More importantly, I hope to make up for how utterly disappointed I left our two older kids after pulling the plug on our Europe trip.

Featured image courtesy of Kentaro Iemoto under CC 2.0 license.  

Braving Back-to-Back-to-Back-to-Back-to-Back Trips!

Yes. There are 5 backs in there. Looks like we’re going to start 2018 off with a bang!

This wasn’t the plan, trust me. It sorta just happened. We planned one major trip for January, thinking that was plenty. But then the rest slowly got penciled in, so here we are. It all starts with a fury this week.

Work trip to Needles

This one was the second-to-last addition. The company I work for was recently contracted for a small project in Needles, so I get to fly in and out of Las Vegas for a single-day site visit. Due to the flight schedule between Arcata and Vegas and the 2-hour drive to Needles, I have to make it a 2-nighter.

Work isn’t my concern. That part will be easy. It’ll just be the first time I am completely away from the kids for even one night. I’m a bit nervous to see how they’ll do.

And it starts later today. I’ll be on my way to the airport after lunch.

New Year’s celebration

I took advantage of the Best Western promotion to plan New Year’s Eve away with our older two kids. Originally, I was eyeing the first weekend in January, but we have relatives coming up then. Honestly, New Year’s works even better.

If you know me well, you know I shut down about 10:00 p.m. Sometimes 9:00, or even 8:00 p.m. Staying up late is not my thing. But I already know the kids want to party til midnight, so I’m trying to make this as painless as possible for all of us.

And taking them to a hotel with a pool where they can have fun, eat (a little) junk food, and stay up late sounds like the best plan. My wife can put the little guy to bed and welcome 2018 by getting some quality shuteye.

MLJK Weekend with the older two

This one is still tentative. Given the busy schedule of the rest of the month, it may get axed. But it may be a necessity to give mom some time to catch up around the house. And continue potty training the youngest.

My first little weekend getaway with the older two went really well. They didn’t really care for the 5-hour car drive, but they enjoyed the flight. So what’d I plan? You guessed it: another 5-hour car drive. Yeah…haven’t told them yet.

I decided that it wasn’t worth burning miles for a trip that short. Either we’ll find a good points deal in the Bay, or we’ll stick with my plan to maximize my IHG Accelerate promotion at a Holiday Inn in the Sacramento area. I can offset some of the out of pocket cost with cash back, but not the whole thing. The latter (and preferred) option depends on how our January budget looks.

Disneyland!

This was the big surprise trip for the kids for Christmas, and the original one on the schedule. We didn’t expect to take them so soon, but I have an “in” that can get us a steep discount on the tickets. Since this is the biggest cost (free flights and hotel is cake), it made the trip much more doable.

back to back trips disneyland

My mother-in-law did chip in as well, so we are staying at a Disney hotel for part of the trip, which will be a first for me. I am no Disney guru. Travel hacking Disney is a whole new level of obsession.

And then right back to LA

This time it is mom’s turn. It’ll be the first time that my wife has done a solo trip since we’ve been married, if I recall correctly. Maybe ever. She has done a few with her mom, but I can’t think of a single time she has flown or stayed in a hotel solo.

So what is the impetus for this? A day of exercise and dancing with Derek and Julianne Hough was enough to make her jump. It looks like that her first extra cash from starting work again will be put to good use for a one-day intensive in Los Angeles.

The only tricky part is how close it is to the other trip. If only we’d picked the next weekend for our Disneyland trip. Kinda locked in at this point. Looks like we’ll be heading home Wednesday and turning right back around to Oakland on Saturday.

What’ll the kids and I be doing? Good question. I not 100% sure yet. I booked a hotel (for free with Wyndham points) in SF for two nights in case we want to stay there. We may just go back home to Ferndale for Sunday, but that would mean even more time on the road.

After that?

Our kids don’t know it yet, but I’ve asked my parents to watch them for two nights in February so Kels and I can have a romantic weekend. Well…mostly romance. We’ll also be headed to Global Entry appointments. In any case, I’m definitely looking forward to this.

We have one more trip that is in the works, but I can’t spill the beans on that yet. Hopefully I have it all finalized sometime next month.

Final thoughts

Are we crazy? Probably. Do I think we can make it through these with flying colors? Absolutely. Lack of confidence is rarely my issue.

But in case you start wondering if I’m still sane, feel free to drop me a note once we’re on the other side. 🙂

Fly Around the World for $1,000? Yes, It’s Possible!

A while back I challenged myself to put together an around-the-world itinerary for $1,000. While I failed at the time (not by too much as it was only $1,300), I have been interested in trying other options.

So this is take #2 of that endeavor. I’ve gained a lot more knowledge about cheap routes, cheap airlines, and especially the best places to look for cheap one-ways in the past several months. With those tools in my belt, I decided it’d be fun to explore the cheap around-the-world idea some more.

An around-the-world trip for a grand?

Given that I live in northern California, I decided my starting point would be the Bay Area. The San Francisco Bay Area has 3 major airports. Although SFO may dominate in terms of traffic, the other have some of the best deals.

For example, I found a one-way ticket from San Jose to Shanghai on Delta for $268 a couple weeks ago. Similarly, Oakland has some deals to Europe on Norwegian. I decided to start things off with their Oakland-Barcelona route, and things just fell into place from there.

The itinerary I compiled was the following:

  • Oakland to Barcelona for $186 on Iberia LEVEL
  • Barcelona to Rome for $34 on Ryan Air
  • Rome to Athens for $35 on Ryan Air
  • Athens to Tel Aviv for $65 on Aegean
  • Ground transfer to Amman, Jordan (is this cheating?)
  • Amman to Delhi for $234 on Gulf Air
  • Delhi to Kuala Lumpur for $97 on Air Asia
  • Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong for $59 on Malindo Air
  • Hong Kong to SFO for $308 on Delta

The full itinerary is 7 destinations and only $1,016. That’s pretty insane. Catch a couple fare sales within that ticket, and you’ll be back under 4 digits.

Previously, the toughest segment to find cheaply was the one-way transpacific leg. But it appears you may be able to score a deal if you are patient and/or search thoroughly, as this Hong Kong to San Francisco segment is more than $100 less than what I found the previous time I did this exercise.

Tips for putting together around-the-world itineraries

Around-the-world itineraries are definitely possible with a number of different mileage currencies. Two of my favorite programs for these itineraries are ANA Mileage Club and Asia Miles. I’ll write more on this in another post.

But if you’re looking to put together an around-the-world trip with cash, like I was, things are a bit different. Here are four tips to help you put together a cheap around-the-world itinerary:

Do your research

This is the heart of everything in this hobby. Putting together an around the world itinerary might seem daunting. But if you have some tools in your belt and know what you’re looking for, it isn’t all that bad. It took me maybe half an hour to compile the ticket I did.

Research the low cost carriers in various areas. Know which airlines price round-trips as one-ways as the summation of two one-ways. And know those that don’t (e.g. Austrian). For many airlines, cheap one-way tickets are only available on certain routes.

Norwegian is a great airline for finding low cost long haul flights.

Find the airports that tend to have deals. Or the entire regions. Also, look for secondary airports at major destinations, such as London Gatwick or Rome Ciampino. These might not give you the full “airport experience”, but they will often have better fares.

Get familiar with Google Flights

Google Flights is my best friend. If you haven’t used it, you should spend some time trying the interface out. They are my #1 go-to for finding standard flight prices between a given origin and destination. The search speed plus intuitive UI makes it the hands-down best place to start.

I priced out my entire itinerary using Google Flights. I would open a new tab for each segment, plus in the previous endpoint, and then start searching for another potential destination. The map view is especially helpful, as it lets me quickly identify cities I can get to cheaply.

Subscribe to fare sales

This is one way to find cheap flights in general. My favorite site is Secret Flying, who typically send out daily alerts for cheap flights around the world. If you’re patient, you can often snag a round-trip flight to major destinations in either Europe and Asia for about $400. Sometimes more like $300. With fares falling in general, you can find standard fares to places like London and Beijing for $500 all the time.

Other good fare sales sites include Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal. I might even consider looking into the Mileage Run thread on FlyerTalk since people will often report great (or unique) deals.

Fill in the gaps with miles

Maybe you’re putting together an around-the-world trip, and you just have to visit Mauritius. Well…there is realistically no cheap way to get there. You could burn more on a one-way ticket to the island nation from Europe than you would flying a transpacific round-trip.

In cases like this, don’t be afraid to burn your hard-earned miles. Remember than this is your trip and not just an exercise to see if you can fly around the world for less than a grand. If you want to see an out of the way place, miles can make it happen for cheap.

Conclusion

Here are my thoughts on a cheap around-the-world ticket in a nutshell:

  • Around the world itineraries are possible, and much cheaper than you might think
  • Do your research to find which airlines and airports often have cheap fares, especially cheap one-way fares.
  • Watch for fare sales. One-way fare sales *do* happen, but they are a bit more rare than round-trip.
  • Consider filling in the gaps with miles.

Some of this advice applies to ideas beyond an around the world itinerary. For example, you can use the low cost carrier Norwegian Air to reach Europe, and then hop around on budget carrier Ryan Air to multiple other destinations.

A final note: you’ll more than likely have to travel light to save on baggage fees if you put together a cheap itinerary. Many of the airlines that you can utilize to keep costs down will charge you for checked luggage (and maybe even a carry on). So be prepared to travel with little more than your backpack. The lighter the better, in my opinion. I headed to Australia for a week with nothing but my weekender backpack, and it was perfect.

Happy circumnavigating the globe!

Planes, Planning, and Potty Training

Yes, my already limited blogging frequency has taken a nose dive. But life has been a bit different of late. With the combined demands of three kids and a full time job upon me, I’ve hardly had time to keep up any writing, either here or for Points with a Crew.

If you recall, we finally arrived home after seven weeks away in Costa Rica on November 5, 2017, now a family of five. Our trip home on Southwest Airlines included a great miles and points angle. You can read our adoption story here if you’re interested (although our family blog suffers from lack of attention as well).

But now back to the title. You might be wondering what planes, planning, and potty training have to do with each other. Let me connect the dots.

Planning my first trip with the kids

Yup. That didn’t take long. It took me less than three weeks being home to plan our first getaway. I honestly thought I’d make it a bit longer. I’ve actually partially planned three trips, but I can’t reveal the other two quite yet. When you have over a million points and miles in the bank, they kinda burn a hole in your pocket.

The idea started from one simple desire: I think it’d be cool to fly Boutique Air. Never heard of them? Yeah, I hadn’t either until earlier this year.

Boutique Air is a small carrier that flies entirely Essential Air Service routes. They fly primarily Pilatus PC-12 aircraft. Simply taking a flight in one of these planes is the main draw I have to them.

I’m used to flying on mostly Boeing 737s and Embraer E175 aircraft, both of which are of reasonable, unremarkable size. The biggest plane I’ve flown on is the A380. The smallest plane in which I’ve ever flown is a Saab 340 on PenAir between Arcata and Portland (sadly, the route  has been discontinued). It has about 34 seats.

But the Pilatus PC-12 is substantially smaller than that, with a mere nine seats. Awesome, right?

So what does potty training have to do with this?

As I hesitantly broached the trip idea with my wife, she was surprisingly behind it. I only wanted to take the older two kids, and just for a weekend away. One of her immediate thoughts was that it would be the perfect time to start potty training our three-year-old. Boom. That settles it.

So I booked myself and our older two on a round-trip flight on Boutique Air from Oakland to Merced. We’ll drive to the Bay, park, enjoy a super quick flight, visit my grandparents for two nights, and the fly the short hop back and head home. Meanwhile my wife will be reading enthralling titles to our little one, such as “Where’s the Poop?“. Honestly, she is looking forward to only having one kid for a couple days, even if much of the time will be spent with him in the bathroom.

We haven’t told our kids any of the plans, but we plan to this weekend. The older two aren’t crazy about long car trips, but I am hoping to drive the morning leg super early so that they can sleep through half (or more) of it. My parents always did this with my siblings and me when we were little. I’m really looking forward to our little getaway.

The closest I’ll ever come to flying private

I figure that flying private is something that’ll never be a part of my future. So flying on a tiny 9-seater Pilatus, often used as a corporate aircraft, will be about as close as I can get. Look for a review of the experience on Points with a Crew in about 2 weeks.

Given that our bank account has taken a hit after spending almost two moths out of the country, planning a trip that is free or close to free is a must. But this is the beauty of miles and points. Given that a round-trip between Oakland and Merced is as low as $37 on Boutique Air, you really can’t beat the price.

I covered our $111 airfare (total for three people!) with the remainder of our Arrival miles, and I’ll use some cash back earned from gift card reselling and manufactured spending to cover most of the cost of parking and gas. Lodging is covered since we’re staying with family. Easy peasy.

Restraining myself from planning more

Like I mentioned above, I already have two more trips in the works, one of which is pretty nailed down. Given that we’re now free from waiting for our adoption to happen, the schedule is wide open. Which ends up being a problem. Since I follow fare and award deals pretty closely, every time I come across a new one, I want to pull the trigger. We need to wait a bit more. Our kids definitely need some time to adjust. We’ve only been home a matter of weeks.

Eventually, I do hope our kids will enjoy travel as much as my wife and I do. They were champs on our first flight, and my daughter remarked that she much preferred flying to driving. But we still need to get them into a rhythm at home, and taking frequent trips, even just for a weekend, might hinder this goal.

So I’m content now looking forward to our quick weekend blast down to the middle of the state and back. Here’s hoping our youngest potty trains in a weekend. 🙂

Featured image courtesy of Boutique Air under CC 4.0 license.

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

 

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