Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

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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

 

Of course I HAD to Visit Snyder Lake in Glacier National Park!

This past weekend my brother-in-law flew up to visit friends in Montana. We flew into Kalispell and met our friend Sage for a few days before heading south to see other friends south of Missoula. During each of our 3 days in Kalispell, we went hiking in Glacier National Park.

Once I saw that there was a Snyder Lake on the Glacier National Park map, I knew we had to hike to it. Especially given that it was the perfect length hike for the amount of time we had during our last evening in the park.

Trailhead to Snyder Lake

The trail to Snyder Lake shares a trailhead with a couple other popular trails. You park at the Lake McDonald Lodge and then head across Going to the Sun Road to start the hike.

The trail is initially a pretty good climb. It was warm, and we took a couple breaks on the way up.

Eventually (after like 2 miles) you’ll come to a sign directing you to Snyder Lake.

The other options are continuing on further to the Fish Lake spur, or all the way to Sperry Glacier if you have the time. If we had all day to hike, heading to the Glacier probably would have been the best choice.

Snyder Lake trail

The Snyder Lake trail was a whole lot less traveled than the other trails we had been on the previous two days. We hiked to Avalanche Lake on our first evening, and then the Highline Trail on Saturday (SEE: Hiking the Highline Trail Glacier National Park). Both were spectacular, but both also had many other hikers traveling them.

snyder lake trail

Over our time on the Snyder Lake trail, we only saw two other groups of hikers. The trail was well-trodden, but the bushes around it often started to grow into the path. I started to get a bit concerned about ticks.

The trail was a gentle incline, which was perfect after our brutal 3,000 foot descent the day before. I was happy that heading back would be a comfortable gentle downhill. We also crossed several small creeks.

The further we got up the canyon, the prettier the scenery became.

Arriving at Snyder Lake

Notwithstanding all the complaining by my brother-in-law, Snyder Lake was quite pretty.

I could hear a waterfall in the distance, but even after looking across the Lake for a while, I couldn’t spot it.

The only issue with the lake was the bugs. There was a noticeable increase in mosquitoes, flies, and gnats within the last 1/4 mile of the hike, and things were even worse once we reached the lake. The lake offers primitive camping sites for backpackers, and I was quite glad we weren’t staying.

We could have continued on to upper Snyder Lake, but it was getting late and we were getting hungry, so we decided to turn around immediately.

We had only been hiking back about 5 minutes when we ran into a deer right in the middle of the trail. She made absolutely no move to get out of the way, even with the 3 of us only 25 feet away. Ryan finally blasted a bit of Lindsay Stirling as loud as he could on his phone and the deer moseyed off.

Concluding the hike

We arrived back at the Lake MacDonald Lodge parking lot after 8:00. Luckily, Jammer Joe’s was still open, so we hit the place for dinner. Heading out of the park was bittersweet, as I knew there is *so* much more to see. We’ll have to come back someday.

Just keep my gift card and let me go!

For the first night of our recent trip to Montana (SEE: First Use of the Amex Business Platinum 50% Points Rebate), my brother-in-law and I rolled into Medford a little after 9:00 p.m. for an overnight. Friday morning we flew out today to Kalispell, Montana. Staying the night was a better option than get up at 3:30 in the morning to hit the road for a 4 hour drive.

Since we were literally only sleeping in the hotel, I didn’t really care where we stayed. I initially booked a room at a random budget hotel through Priceline for $56. But then I remembered I had a Choice Hotels gift card in my desk from some promotion well over a year ago. Hello Econolodge.

“Is it a Choice gift card?”

When we arrived there was a “No Vacancy” sign on the Econolodge, which made me a bit nervous we might not get the room type I requested (which meant one of us would be on the floor for sure). The lady at the front desk took our IDs and my credit card. I also passed her my Choice Hotels gift card that would cover $75 of the $76.01 balance.

I knew trouble was afoot when she asked, “what is this?” “A gift card that I’d like to use,” I offered. She proceeded to show it to the other agent who confusedly asked, “Is it a Choice gift card?” No, it’s for Hyatt. *eye roll*

The next 10 minutes were spent trying to get the gift card to work. This process even involved waking up the manager who was sleeping(!) in the room adjoining the front desk area. She groggily gave it a go. The card ultimately didn’t work. All they could offer was “sorry”, before asking me to pay for the room in full. Since we just wanted to get to bed, they really had me over a barrel.

Calling up Choice

In the morning I gave Choice a call. After being on hold for 25 minutes, and honestly doubting they would be able to do anything for me, I gave up. I figured I would just go to the desk again and see if the card would work at checkout.

The front desk agent was more helpful this time, and actually aware that plastic Choice gift cards exist (a definite plus)! He was still perplexed, however, as to why this one wouldn’t work. After a bit of back and forth, I finally convinced him to keep the card and work things out with Choice himself. My Chase Sapphire charge was adjusted to a mere $1.06.

Was it worth the headache?

In this case, yes, but barely so. The front desk agent was graciously accommodating. My options otherwise would have been either: stay on the phone with Choice and hope they work it out, or leave the balance on my Chase Sapphire Preferred and eat the cost of the stay. I would also be one useless gift card richer.

Finding the best rental car deals: 3 reasons to use Autoslash

With the abundance of co-branded credit cards for both airline and hotel loyalty programs, “hacking” these parts of travel can be fairly easy. Earn points/miles, then burn (SEE: 3 great Starter Travel Credit Cards). However, rental car companies don’t have the same sort of arrangement with credit cards, making them a bit more difficult to come by cheaply. This is why you need to know where to look for the best rental car deals.

Some rental car deals are seasonal. If a market is seasonal (e.g. Arizona or Florida), you can often score one-way rental deals for as low as $8 per day. No one wants to be in Phoenix in summer, so after spring training is over and everyone has packed up and left, rental cars just sit idle. Thus, companies move them to more lucrative markets, like Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Rather than pay to truck them all, they’ll offer a super cheap rate to induce people to take a one-way road trip.

However, what happens if you are trying to find a deal on a car in a market during peak season? Do you just suck it up and pay $60, $80, or $100 per day? Enter Autoslash.

Where Autoslash fits into the picture

Autoslash is hands down my favorite tool for finding the best rental car deals. I used to shop through Expedia, Priceline, or directly with various rental car companies. But this requires time and effort, and often you can’t really know if you’re getting the best deal or not.

Best rental car deals

Autoslash takes all this pain away. You key in your information, hit submit, and wait for the great quotes to roll in. If your plans are flexible, you may need to submit a few different options. I’ve had such great success with them that I’d venture to say that 95% of the time you’ll be presented with the best rental car deals using their service. Here are 3 great ways Autoslash can really come through for you:

Autoslash aggregates deals from multiple sources

Unlike airfares, which are often the same across booking platform (not always, but regularly so), rental car prices can vary wildly. I’ve seen times where I can book a car through the United portal for $85 one-way, versus $145 one-way directly through Hertz. That’s a huge difference!

What Autoslash does is let you key in your information one time, and then the service searches multiple platforms for you. The results are then aggregated, showing only the best rental car deals. They are returned by email, typically only taking an hour or two at most to hit my inbox.

As an example, Autoslash saved me a ton of time and money on a recent trip to Montana. I was struggling to find a good deal on a rental car, realizing that anything I rented was probably going to cost $300 or more. Most options didn’t even offer unlimited mileage! However, once I keyed my info into Autoslash, I was presented with a deal on an intermediate sized car for $176 that included unlimited mileage! The deal was with National and booked through Priceline. Had I been searching manually, I may have never found it!

Price drop? You’re automatically re-booked

One of the best features of Autoslash is that the service searches your itinerary multiple times per day in case of a price drop. This doesn’t apply if the booking details are different (e.g. if you book through Hertz, and now there is a better deal through National). But if your exact itinerary changes price, Autoslash will lock in the savings for you!

Autoslash will also continue to send you emails with updated deals for each search. I find that I’ll get a new update roughly once a week until the time of rental. Sometimes the email has offered a better deal, but more often than not, the original deal discovered by Autoslash is still the best one.

Assurance that you’re getting the best deal

I’m not saying Autoslash is 100% foolproof. But it is the closest thing to a silver bullet for rental cars. The service has definitely saved me money over the last few times I’ve rented a car. Rather than wonder if I could be getting a better deal searching elsewhere, I trust Autoslash to come through for me. It has taken all the pain out of trying to find the best rental car deals.

The only site I routinely check any more is the United site. If Autoslash pulls a Hertz deal, I’ll check and see if United is offering the same price. This is because I would typically rather earn United miles than Hertz points for my rentals. Sometimes United even offers killer promotions. So far, however, Autoslash has always won out.

Bottom line: Use Autoslash to find the best rental car deals

For a long time I never really investigated Autoslash. Lots of travelers raved about it, but I figured I could find decent deals myself. Now I’m 100% converted. I’ll never go back to searching manually again.

Ultimately, Autoslash can save you a ton of money on a rental car. From offering the best array of deals, to automatically re-booking your rental should their be a price drop, the service is amazing. And it’s free. You can cut your rental cost even more by using a flexible points currency (such as Barclaycard Arrival miles) to offset the remaining cost of the vehicle. Even without credit cards, there are ways to hack rental cars. You just need to know what tools to use.

Header image courtesy of Erico Junior Wouters under CC 2.0 license

Best Uses of Delta Miles – the U.S. West

Delta SkyMiles have lately been derided as one of the poorer currencies to collect. They’ve even been given the moniker “SkyPesos” in reference to their lack of value in comparison to other currencies. Finding the best uses of Delta miles can be a bit tough.

At least if your MO is using miles for international premium cabin redemptions. There really aren’t many great sweet spots on the Delta award “chart” for these. Most awards require 10,000-30,000 miles more than other currencies, and you really can’t fly across an ocean for less than 70,000 miles one-way. And Delta often tacks on fuel surcharges.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Delta doesn’t even publish an award chart (but try this one). You just need to know what the lowest level prices are. But there is one use for which I find Delta miles to be a great currency.

Delta shines domestically

Compared to other U.S. carriers, Delta is one best programs for redeeming miles on domestic flights. The only one I may consider better is Southwest, and possibly Alaska. It depends where you live.

Most Delta awards cost the same as awards with any of the other big airlines: 12,500 miles one-way. But there are many awards over shorter distances that Delta prices at substantially lower rates. Unlike United or American, these aren’t stratified by distance (although longer routes will often be more). They are just an artifact of the arcane way Delta prices awards.

The floor for Delta awards appears to be 5,500 miles one-way, which is an amazing deal. There are several routes that price at this level, and many more where the price is not much more, often 8,000 miles.

best uses of Delta miles

Last time we were at PDX, we were flying Delta

Best uses of Delta miles in the U.S. West

I’ve found that the best “territory” for finding these lower-level awards is on the West Coast of the U.S. Here are a bunch of one-way options and their associated prices:

  • Sacramento, CA to Victoria, BC for 5,500 miles
  • Denver, CO to Tucson, AZ for 5,500 miles
  • San Jose, CA to Cedar City, UT for 5,500 miles
  • Fresno, CA to Colorado Springs, CO for 5,500 miles
  • Salt Lake City, UT to Reno, NV for 5,500 miles
  • San Francisco, CA to Kalispell, MT for 8,000 miles
  • Las Vegas, NV to Casper, WY for 8,000 miles
  • Medford to Idaho Falls for 8,000 miles
  • Reno to Bozeman for 8,000 miles
  • Albuquerque to Billings for 11,000 miles

And many more. Search at delta.com for routes your interested in flying.

Will prices remain at these levels?

Probably not forever, but hopefully for a while. I’ve already noticed a small increase in prices since the last time I ran a bunch of searches several months ago. The floor used to be 5,000 miles, and the next “tier” was apparently 7,000 miles. Now the floor seems to be 5,500/6,000 miles, with the second tier at 8,000 miles.

As long as Delta doesn’t devalue these awards much, they will definitely outcompete most other carriers when it comes to domestic awards (except for Alaska short-haul – SEE: West Coast Magic with Alaska Miles: A Primer).

Conclusion

While there may be other decent uses, I’ll still posit that one of the best uses of Delta miles is flying short-haul in the western United States. When you can fly a family of 5 round-trip for 55,000 miles, that’s value.

Today is the very last day to get a Delta American Express card with an increased bonus. The Gold card is offering 60,000 miles after $4,000 in purchases, and the Platinum card is offering 70,000 miles (annual fee of $195). Consider applying for one if it makes sense to you. These are the highest bonuses that we’ve seen on these cards.

 

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