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Current Strategy: Exactly What I am Doing! Stop Everything You are Doing and Act Now! Hint Southwest Companion Pass!

Here’s a link to the 50,000 point offer!

Let’s face it, with the internet there is always a deal to be had.  Many times it’s extremely difficult to determine where a “deal” falls on the spectrum of “meh” to “stop everything you are doing and act now (SEYADAAN)!!!”.  The problem with this scale that I just created is that a deal that is “meh” to you may be “stop everything you are doing and act now!!!” to another geyser.  If a hack existed to save $25,000 on a new BMW M3, this would mean nothing to the majority of us because we are not in the market for a $40,000 car, even if it is normally $65,000.  However, to the guy who is pulling up to the BMW dealership with $65,000 in $20 bills in his lap, this is a “stop everything you are doing and act now” moment.  If pulling over and doing this imaginary deal would save this bloke 25 grand he would be a fool not to use it.   This is a problem with many blogs, deal sites and other resources that are out there.  In an effort to reach more readers you must create broader content and post things that do not appeal to everyone equally.  This is not a good thing or a bad thing really, it’s just something you must be aware exists.  Sometimes I will post an opportunity that you will want to jump on and sometimes you will sit out.  One way that I am going to attempt to clarify great all around deals is to let you know which opportunities I am using myself or those that have me grabbing the ear of family members trying to get them to join my cult.

The first opportunity is one that I have already started acting on, but is a process over the next 3 months.  As you may already know my Southwest Companion Pass is set to expire on 12/31/2014.  You can click to read more about it, but in summation anyone holding a “Southwest Companion Pass” gets a free flight for their named companion anytime they book one.  It doesn’t matter if you book with cash or points any ticket you book instantly offers the opportunity of adding a companion. Since you are only allowed to change your companion twice it is not as useful for the tinder and grinder set that would like to have a different companion at the drop of a hat. This is the perfect deal for families or couples (couple does not need to be romantically involved) that travel together.  Once you earn your companion pass it is good for the rest of the year you earn it and the entire following year.  Therefore, if I earned the pass on October 31, 2014 I would be able to use its benefits for November, December and the entirety of next year, 14 months of the perk not expiring until December 31, 2015.  That’s a hella sweet deal, but if I can hold off just 2 months and instead earn the pass in January of 2015 it will be good for all of 2015 and 2016 which gives 24 months of use.  So, what am I doing to achieve this benefit?

Currently, Southwest is offering 50,000 rapid reward points to sign up for their credit card, all you need to do is spend $2,000 in 3 months to earn the bonus.  On the application you simply fill in your rapid rewards account number from Southwest.  If you don’t have one go sign up for one, it’s free and you do not need to fly or be flying anywhere soon.  Fill in that account number on the application.  After you spend your $2,000 you will get 52,000 points (50,000 bonus and 1 point per dollar spent).  These 52,000 points will be good for over $700 worth of airfare!  Keep in mind that you do pay a $99 annual fee for the card (which does not count toward the $2,000 spending requirement so make sure the balance in 3 months is at least $2,099), so in essence you’re getting over $600 worth of airfare for free and this is without even scoring the companion pass.  The trick is to hold off hitting your $2,000 until January 1st.  If your points hit in December the points needed for a companion pass will reset on January 1st.  In order to get the companion pass you need to earn 110,000 points in one calendar year.  So we get 52,000 points from a credit card where will the other 58,000 points come from to earn this?

The way I will do it is to sign up for the business version of the Southwest Credit Card which is offering the same terms.  It will cost another annual fee up front, but will earn you an additional 52,000 points.  Just be certain that when signing up for the second card you put the same Rapid Rewards account number on the application.  If you don’t do that you will be sorry.  If you leave the account number off of the application one will be created for you.  Now that you have earned 104,000 points you will still be short by 6,000 points.  In order to earn these you could do a number of things including using your Southwest credit card to charge another $6,000.  You can go to southwest.com and use their portal to earn points.  Booking a hotel or rental car through their website can also earn additional points.  If you get to the 104,000 point mark it would be nearly criminal to not figure out a way to get the other 6,000 points you need.

This is a deal that I am already acting on currently and have advised my parents to look into as well.  If you’re thinking, “our family doesn’t fly” well it’s likely because it costs too much.  At minimal, even without the companion pass these cards offer value.  Keep in mind that with the companion pass we were able to fly our family of 4 to California for just over 60,000 points.  That’s only slightly more than you receive from signing up for one card.  As always, with Southwest, even when shopping using points always wait until sales are best and fares are lowest.  On their sale last week their shortest distance flights were $49 each way, which meant a roundtrip ticket would only cost < 5,000 points.  Assuming you had 110,000 points you could take 22 roundtrips, if you earned the companion pass that would translate into 22 roundtrip tickets for you and 22 roundtrip flights for your companion.

 

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How We Bought 4 Plane Tickets, 7 Nights Hotel and 7 Nights SUV Rental for $40

Anyone who has read previous entries to this blog knows that two of my favorite things to do are spending time with my family and getting good value. This year for our fall trip we decided to, once again, fly to California. This is usually a trip that would be beyond our grasps financially due to the immense expenses involved with flying across the country. To make this trip a reality I relied on various points and miles programs offered by hotels.

IMG_3710

 

Itinerary

 

The trip included flying into San Francisco then looping around to Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Monterey and back to San Francisco. This itinerary required 4 round-trip tickets from Louisville to San Francisco, 7 day SUV Rental and 7 nights of lodging. The total cost for only these expenditures would have been $3,256. If you were pricing this out you probably could have searched for better deals and alternate lodging, but the prices I included were for the exact same flights, rental car and hotels that we used. This MSRP value assumes that you just booked the going rates without using other discounts. If you are not interested in the details of each portion of the itinerary scroll to the conclusion section where I will outline all the details including points used and the price without points.

 

Flight

 

We flew Southwest using Rapid Rewards Points, which are tied to the actual cost of the flights. Therefore when flying Southwest whether purchasing tickets with cash or using points it is extremely important to purchase tickets at the lowest fare (which also means the lowest points). Since our youngest child is 25 months old he is over 2 years old his ticket costs the same as an adult fare. This required us to purchase 4 tickets. As soon as the month of October opened up for booking I started checking Southwest on a weekly basis (at least). They offer new sales every Tuesday, some sales are great and some sales are pretty weak. The great thing about Southwest is that there is no fee to cancel your flights, so if you book at one price and the next sale is better you can cancel those tickets and book again.

 

In June the price of tickets round-trip dropped to $350 each (plus $10 for taxes and fees). If I had not prepared for this then the cost for tickets alone would have been $1,400 (plus $40 for taxes and fees). Since I qualified for the Companion Pass, any ticket that I book on Southwest allows me to add a companion to travel with me free of charge. Anyone reading this who has the companion pass, but not enough points to book tickets that way would have paid $1,050 for the tickets (plus $40 for taxes and fees). Since we had the Companion Pass and enough Rapid Reward Points I was able to book this flight for 61,734 points. Alternatively Chase Ultimate Reward Points transfer to Southwest at a 1:1 ratio meaning I could have transferred as many points as I needed from Chase Ultimate Rewards with no cost.

 

Car Rental

 

Since our itinerary required a great deal of driving renting a car was a necessity. Since we have a stroller and a few bags I decided to go with an SUV for this trip. I used carrentalsavers.com to look up rates and found that Alamo offered the most value. I then went to my Chase Ultimate Rewards account to book through them as they offer a “pay with points” option which gives these points a value of 1.25 cents per point.

 

We rented a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee which would have cost $433.68 for 7 days booking directly through Alamo after taxes and fees were applied to the total. In lieu of this I was able to book the week using Chase Ultimate Reward points. The total was 20,696 Chase Ultimate Reward Points which actually ended up getting me 2.1 cents per point. To put this into perspective my wife and I both got 25,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points when we signed up for the Chase Freedom card which has no annual fee. So that amounts to about $500 worth of signing bonus for each card.

 

If you are considering this particular itinerary keep in mind that we drove the rental car over 1,000 miles. We spent $152 on fuel that we paid for using point earning cards, but did not pay with actual points.

 

Hotels

 

When creating an itinerary involving multiple destinations the hotel accommodations are the most difficult and arguably the most important of the trip. Using Google Maps I plotted out the trip to the best of my ability. We arrived in San Francisco, saw some sights in the city and headed toward Yosemite. I found that the Modesto and Turlock area was about half way between these two locations. Finding lodging near a national park is very difficult and you pay dearly for the location and often give up a lot in quality of hotel (unless you pay much more). I decided that Comfort Suites worked well for our night in Turlock. We booked a double Queen suite which had two queen beds and a pullout couch. This room was one of the bigger hotel rooms that we have stayed in and it was very nice. The normal cash cost for this room was $139 plus tax per night. It cost us 16,000 choice hotel points. If you sign up for the Choice Hotels Visa you get a 32,000 point signing bonus which would cover 2 nights.

SimplisticSaving.com Comfort Suites Turlock

 

After visiting Yosemite we made our way toward Fresno which is almost directly between Yosemite and Sequoias. Our plan was to have 2 nights in Fresno, one night between Yosemite and Sequoias and another night spent after our day in the Sequoia National Park. Using Club Carlson Reward Points we were able to stay in a Country Inn & Suites which worked out quite nicely because when you have the Club Carlson credit card you get your last night free on a stay of 2 or more nights. Obviously there is more value if you only stay two nights. Normally a room costs $92.50 per night or 15,000 Club Carlson points. Since we have the Club Carlson Visa we used 15,000 points for 2 nights which is 7,500 points per night.

 

After our second night in Fresno we headed to Monterey. This is the only portion of the trip that I did not book in advance. We could have stayed using points for the night, but instead we opted to use Hotel Tonight. Hotel Tonight found us the Best Western Plus in Monterey which is directly on the beach. The normal cost for this is $160 per night plus $18 per night parking. On hotel tonight it was $132 plus $18 parking. A total of $150 for the night. Using American Express Membership Reward Points to wipe out this charge cost 22,000 points.

SimplisticSaving.com 17 Mile Drive Monterey17 Mile Drive in Monterey, CA

 

After our day in Monterey we traveled back to San Francisco. I decided that stopping halfway between Monterey and San Francisco would not only be more economical, but it would allow for us to get to the hotel a bit earlier and relax. We stopped in Silicon Valley at the Four Points by Sheraton – San Jose. This hotel usually runs $180 per night, but I was able to book a room for 4,000 SPG points. My wife and I both have an SPG Credit Card which awarded us a bonus of 25,000 points for signing up. This offered a great value. Although this was a lower category hotel for the chain it was still beautiful. Starwoods Hotels include W, Westin, Sheraton and many high end brands.

SimplisticSaving.com Four Points Sheraton Lobby

Picture of the Four Points by Sheraton Lobby

 

Our final stay was for 2 nights in San Francisco. We stayed at the Radisson in the middle of Fisherman’s Wharf. The location was superb and the hotel was updated in 2012. We were very impressed with the accommodations. The normal rate at this location is $299 per night and parking is an additional $50 per night. Like Country Inn & Suites, Radisson is also part of Club Carlson and we were able to use 50,000 Club Carlson Reward Points for this stay. The normal charge for points is 50,000 points per night, but having the Club Carlson Visa allows your last night of a 2 night (or longer) stay to be free. Along with this huge benefit you are given Gold Elite status which we found very beneficial at this hotel. When we arrived at check-in they told me that as a VIP member my room had been upgraded free of charge to a balcony room on the top floor. As a Gold Elite member they also waived the $50 per night parking charge. When we arrived in our room there was a “welcome gift” of a bag of kettle corn waiting for us in the room. Attached to the gift was a card thanking us for choosing to stay at their hotel for our trip. My children and I went to the pool while my wife got comfortable in the room. Someone stopped by the room during that time to bring us extra towels and a couple bottles of water to welcome their “VIPs”. The sign up bonus for the Club Carlson Card is 85,000 points, plus you get the last night booked with points free and are automatically upgraded to Gold Elite status. On this stay alone we used 50,000 points, but managed to save $299 per night on the hotel, plus $50 each night on parking. So for this stay 50,000 points equaled over $700 in value! That’s not even considering the free upgrade to the balcony room closest to the bay with a tremendous view of Alcatraz.

 

IMG_5123                                                                                                                    Actual Unobstructed View From Radisson Balcony – Blue Angels Flying Over Alcatraz

 

Conclusion

 

All told we received $3,256 in value but paid only $40 for flight, lodging and SUV rental. I put a valuation of dollar per point received. Many of these calculations depend on how they are used. For instance, American Express Membership Reward points used for this stay were worth less than a penny each, but can be used much more beneficially when transferred to another program. SPG points were worth 4.5 cents each used at this particular location. The value of hotel points can be a bit skewed because if I had not had hotel points I would not pay $180 or $350 per night for a hotel room. I would probably sacrifice a bit of quality for a lower price. However, using points allows the user to splurge and afford things that normally would have been out of reach.

 

Retail Price                   Actual Paid               Points                $/Point

 

Southwest – Louisville to San Francisco                                          $1,440                                $40                61,734                   .023

Southwest Rapid Rewards

 

Alamo Mid-Size SUV Rental (7 Days)                                                 $434                                  0                  20,696                   .021

Chase Ultimate Rewards

 

Choice Hotels- Comfort Suites Turlock                                             $139                                   0                  16,000                   .009

Choice Priveleges

 

Country Inn Fresno (2 Nights)                                                           $185                                   0                 15,000                    .012

Club Carlson Rewards

 

Best Western Plus Monterey Beach Resort                                    $178                                   0                  22,000                   .008

American Express Membership Rewards

 

Four Points by Sheraton – San Jose                                                $180                                 0                    4,000                    .045

Starwoods Preferred Guest

 

Radisson Fisherman’s Wharf                                                         $700                                  0                   50,000                   .014

Club Carlson Rewards

 

Total

$3,256                             $40                   189,430                   .017

 

 

 

 

 

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How we did our California Vacation on a Budget (across the country)

Flight

In June of this year planning commenced on a 6 day fall vacation.  We had initially planned to fly from Louisville, KY to Orlando, FL, but Southwest had a special sale for flights into San Diego for the same price.  Since we had never been to California we decided that a California Vacation would be the best choice for us.  I purchased the plane tickets using points earned from signing up for Southwest Airlines.  I booked a flight for daughter and me, which cost about 36,000 points total.  At the time of booking I had only earned 105,000 Southwest points and had not yet earned my “Companion Pass“.  Once I earned the additional 5,000 points to reach 110,000 I earned my companion pass and simply clicked on my flight to “Add a Companion”.  At this point my wife was added to the itinerary.  Total out of pocket for our cross country flight was $15 round trip.

Car Rental

I knew we would need a car to get around California.  I wanted to rent a vehicle that would be big enough to accommodate our car seats and luggage.  With these options in mind we decided to get an SUV, although my wife was really pushing for a convertible.  I searched online coupon codes and used CarRentalSavers.com .  I found this website to be the best because it included the best coupon codes.  I looked at many different sites and found this one to be at least $30 cheaper for the week. Other sites may have been comparable or even cheaper if we had a normal rental, but ours was one way.  This meant we picked up the car in San Diego and dropped off our car in Santa Ana as we flew out of John Wayne Airport.  The car included unlimited miles and was a very nice car.  We had no trouble at Alamo and even used the kiosk when picking up the car, which allowed us to forgo getting hassled about all of the extra insurance and other upsells.

Lodging

IMG_6042First Hotel 

Obviously we needed to find a place to stay each night of the trip.  Since we were staying 3 days in San Diego, 1 day in Anaheim, 1 day in LA and 1 night near our departing airport a condo or house were out of the question.  Finding an area in San Diego for our home base was not a problem at all.  We stayed near La Jolla and Torrey Pines as it provided better prices, access to La Jolla and was only a 20 minuted drive back to San DIego Zoo.  We knew we needed a hotel close to Disneyland in Anaheim so that was not much of a problem either.  Our day in LA proved to be a bit more difficult because the city is so big and traffic is not great to drive through.  I ended up booking a place that was vouched for by my cousin.  It was near Burbank, supposedly close to Universal Studios, but actually ended up closer to North Hollywood.  The last night we stayed in Huntington Beach which was a quick 15 minute drive back to the airport.

IMG_6696View from Country Inn Room

We stayed at a Country Inn and Suites in San Diego which I highly recommend.  It was in a beautiful location with a nice view of the mountains out our window every morning.  They also had an excellent breakfast which really worked well to save us money on food as one meal was included in the price of our stay.  Most travel blogs emphasize staying in really expensive hotels.  One of my problems with sites such as Priceline is that their rating system puts no value on free breakfast.  I strongly disagree with this valuation because if we were to go out for breakfast and get eggs, waffles, sausage, juice, yogurt and milk it would end up costing us at least $20.  Sure we could go to a fast food place and the 4 of us could eat for less, but it would be far less substantial.  We ate breakfast in our hotel 5 out of 6 days.  The last day we had to be at the airport before breakfast was served.  We ended up buying breakfast at Carl’s Jr. and it cost $9 and that was just for my wife and daughter.  My daughter was complaining that she was hungry 2 hours later.

In Anaheim, our hotel was literally across the street from Disneyland.  Probably 5 blocks if we walked, but since our Disneyland tickets included parking we just drove to the lot.  This ended up being a great idea since by 11:00 PM Pacific Time both kids were passed out.  Which would have made the extra 5 blocks perilous.  I booked our room through getaroom.com which advertised a rate $20 less than booking through the hotel itself.  Unfortunately they add taxes and unnamed fees which put the total at only $2 less than booking directly with the hotel.  I did book through TopCashBack.com which earned me 10% cashback on the stay, which was pretty nice.  The hotel was the Best Western Plus Stovall Inn, which had very nice updated rooms, but they also charged $10 for parking.  The breakfast there was acceptable, but there were so many people that the staff couldn’t really keep up even with the large dining area.

Best Western Stovall's INN Pool Area

Our 5th night was spent in a Comfort Inn near Universal Studios.  The area was in North Hollywood, which is a bit grittier than we would like.  My daughter looked out the window of our room and asked, “Why would they build a hotel here with this terrible view?”  The view out the window was a local mechanic shop, so we did have an excellent view of oil changes.  This room was also recently updated and seemed clean.  It’s not exactly a hotel I would rave about, but for the price and a place to sleep it was okay.  The breakfast area was very nice and clean.  They had cheese omelets, juice, sausage and typical hotel breakfast items.

Our 6th night took us back south to another Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach about 10 miles from the airport.  It was updated, nice and looked (and smelled) very clean on arrival.  The area is also very nice just a few miles from the ocean.

Activities

Many of the activities that we did on the trip were very low cost or even free.  Walking along La Jolla in San Diego was not only free, but it was among our favorite parts of the trip.  The seals on the beach were amazing to see and the views were breathtaking.

IMG_6124

The San Diego Zoo is how Disney would do a zoo.  I know, you are thinking, Disney basically did a zoo, it’s called Animal Kingdom.  Having been to both the San Diego Zoo and Animal Kingdom I believe San Diego Zoo is superior.  That being said, I’m sure that Animal Kingdom will be pretty great in their 97th year as well.  There was something to see every step of the zoo.  Whether it was an animal exhibit or just the assortment of botanicals.  If you enjoy zoos it is definitely worth seeing.

We also visited Torrey Pines State Reserve which offers a beach and beautiful overlooks.  We paid $15 for parking and that was it.  The only problem is for some reason the restrooms and water were all turned off.  This is problematic when you play in the ashy sands of the Pacific and need to get back into your car.

 

We decided to go to Disneyland on Tuesday for “Mickey’s Halloween Party”, it’s a special event that is ticketed separately from the rest of the park.  Disneyland closed on Tuesday at 6PM and Mickey’s Halloween Party took place from 6-11, but you could enter at 3.  We arrived at the park at 3 and enjoyed it immensely.  Instead of the normal price of admission Mickey’s Halloween Party only costs $59 per person.  They only sell a certain amount of tickets, you can trick or treat throughout the park and most attractions are still open.  There were characters out in full force even when we were leaving.  More things for guests to do means that any one line will be shorter.

IMG_7052

In LA we went to the Getty Center, which is fantastic.  It’s a billion dollar art museum that opened in 1997.  The museum was free which I did not know going into it.  Parking is $15, but that is definitely a bargain price even if you were going by yourself.  It’s not exactly the most entertaining for small children as it is not a hands on science museum.  If my wife and I had gone alone we could have spent nearly the entire day touring the massive collections, but with our kids a few hours was ample.  Just seeing the building itself was worth it to me.

We went to Hollywood to check out the sights and typical tourist type things.  We paid $7 to park at the Hollywood and Highlands Center.  It is a very ornate shopping center built around its view of “The Hollywood Sign”.  My daughter wanted to see Hollywood, hoping she would be discovered.  She looked at the sign for about 30 seconds and said, “cooool” then was ready to see the next thing.  We followed the Hollywood walk of fame.  Saw that TCL Chinese Theater and had fun comparing our hands to the stars.  My daughter was a bit disappointed because she wanted to have her footprints and handprints immortalized in the cement, but alas that will have to wait.  I guess seeing Hollywood is worth the $7 parking charge, but otherwise the experience was ruined by the vendors, celebrity impersonators and people in cheap costumes hoping to hustle tourists out of money.

Huntington Beach was a nice way to end our trip watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.  They charged $15 for parking, but only $13.50 if you used a credit card.  Since I was going to use a card anyway this worked out perfectly.  The beach was huge over 100 yard from the parking lot to the ocean.  We were also basically alone on the beach which was nice for pictures.

Food

One way we save money on a trip is to minimize our food costs. When we arrived in California we were expected to be absolutely blown away by the prices for food.  I fully expected that if I went into a Subway asking for a $5 footlong they would oblige me with, “Okay sir, that’s one $5 footlong, that will be $28.75.”  This was not even close to reality.  The first night we went to a nice Mexican restaurant that was having huge frozen Margaritas, 5 flavors to choose from for $3 each.  We ordered a margarita, beef nachos, pepsi, and 10 tacos and paid $19 plus a $6 tip.  $25 is cheaper than we eat at the Mexican restaurants in Kentucky.

We try to eat breakfast in our hotel which saves an immense amount of money.  If we had stayed in a condo or rented a house we would have tried to prepare meals at home which would provide huge savings.  Ultimately though, my wife and I value food in much the same way.  I fell like food only gets so good.  Meaning that a $100 meal is not 4 times better than a $25 meal.  We have gone out to very expensive restaurants, but usually feel that they could not live up to expectations.  We might splurge for a meal or two on vacation, but for the most part we try to keep our spending in line with what we spend on food normally.

Total Spent

Flight (3 paid tickets and 1 lap child)                               $30

SUV Rental                                                                      $287

Gas                                                                                  $86.37

Travel Total                                                                  $403.37                                 AVG. $67.23 per day

Food Total                                                                    $166.40                                 AVG. $27.73 per day

San Diego Zoo (2 adults, drink, child free October)     $116.30

Disneyland (3 tickets)                                                   $177

Getty Center                                                                  $15

Torrey Pines                                                                  $15

Hollywood                                                                       $7

Huntington Beach                                                          $13.50

Total Activities                                                             $343.80             AVG.  $57.30 per day

Country Inn & Suites (3 nights)                                      $236.40          The best hotel we stayed in, great staff, great pool, great breakfast.  (78.80 per night using discount, normally $105 +tax)

Best Western Stovall’s Inn (1 night)                              $133.43           Paid for the area near Disney.  Nice Rooms, Awesome pool and topiary area, Adequate Breakfast.  ($10 parking, worst value)

Comfort Inn Universal Area                                            $110.88           Nice room, good breakfast, terrible parking lot, not a very nice area

Comfort Inn Huntington Beach                                       $61.94            Great room, very clean, did not eat breakfast (left too early).  Best value.

Total Lodging                                                                $542.65              AVG.  $90.44 per day

Total Miscellaneous                                                     $66                     AVG.  $11 per day

Trip Total                                                                        $1,522.22          AVG.  $253.70 per day

We could have done the trip for cheaper, but we would have sacrificed some things.  We could have gotten a smaller car and saved a hundred dollars or so.  Driving less miles or having a fuel efficient vehicle could have saved gas.  We could have saved more money by only buying tickets at the zoo ($88), but I am not going to avoid spending at the cost of fun.  We had also budgeted to go to Sea World, but we were enjoying San Diego too much to sacrifice a day doing that.  All around there’s not too much I would change.  Although the Best Western and Comfort Inn were both pricier than I would like and neither was as good as the Country Inn and Suites or the Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach, both about half the price of the Best Western.

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How I earned 6% Cashback and 20 points per dollar on Spending this year

 

“Daddy, can we fly on a plane someday?” A simple question set forth by my daughter January of this year. As a father and husband I wanted nothing more than to book a flight to some beautiful destination at that moment. Unfortunately, in my capacity as the personal financial planner I am much less flexible. Absent a wealthy philanthropist deciding to sponsor our family sometimes we will not be afforded certain luxuries.

 

 

A few days later my brothers returned from a ski trip and my mother suggested that we take a big family ski vacation during Christmas Break. In the same way that my daughter’s idea to fly on a plane sounded fun, this also sounded great. However, my mind slipped back into the “how can I make this happen” mode. Obviously to even consider this kind of endeavor we would need to tighten our purse strings and save as much money as possible. We would need to purchase at least 3 plane tickets, which would cost at least $300 each. At this point I stumbled upon credit card offers that may help my family out.

 

 

I have been a long time user of a couple different cashback reward cards and feel that these are fantastic. The first card I signed up for was an American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card that would earn me $200 sign up bonus and 6% cashback on any grocery purchases. At this point I figured that I would buy gift cards from Kroger and use the extra $200 bonus to pay for these. This card also has a 0% intro rate for 12 months so it was nice. This card is very nice, but is only part of my overall spending strategy. It seemed that the more I looked into credit card offers the more benefits I found.

 

 

After that card I found the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card which has a 40,000 point signing bonus which can be used as a statement credit and be worth $400! I signed up for this card as well, met the spending and got the bonus points.

 

 

My biggest score of the year I will be writing in more detail about in a few days, but I was able to sign up for 2 Southwest credit cards. This netted me 106,000 points which are good toward about $1,908 worth of flights, but it actually gets better. When you earn 110,000 points in one year you earn a “Companion Pass”, this allows me the opportunity to bring a companion (my wife) along with me for free on any trip I book. Even if that flight is booked and paid with points. This effectively doubles the value of my points.

 

 

So far this year, as of 7/30/2013, my wife and I have racked up many miles, points and cashback. These have been earned through cashback portals and credit cards. In cashback alone we earned more than $775 in cashback. Even after paying the $75 annual fee on my AMEX we have earned over $700 cashback this year on our AMEX, Discover, Gas Reward Card and TopCashBack. We earned nearly 6 cents back on every dollar spent. We used this money to purchase a computer, which I built.

 

 

Even more amazing is our return on points and miles! We have earned over 400,000 miles! Even if you value these at only 1 penny each this means we have $4,000 worth of travel in our future. However, 235,000 of these miles can be used toward Southwest, which means they are worth about 1.8 cents per mile (doubled to 3.6 cents per mile with Companion Pass)! If we used all of these for flying Southwest we could get as much as $8,460 worth of travel on those 235,000 miles. Most of these points and miles came from bonuses and they all came from spending money normally. We earned nearly 20 points per dollar spent. That is like getting a 20% (or more) discount on everything we bought, even after finding the lowest prices.

 

 

In order to maximize our points per dollar spent we focus our credit card spending on those cards that provide the biggest payoff. I have a 6% Grocery Card, 5% Gas Card, 2 points per dollar on restaurant and travel. Even with these bigger returns my focus is on meeting spending limits on individual cards that offer big bonuses. If I need to spend $5,000 in 3 months to earn 60,000 points this is far more lucrative than the 5% or 6%. So if I am at the grocery and have not hit my $5,000 amount I will use the card with a spending goal rather than a 6% grocery card.

 

 

Using credit cards has been very lucrative for us this year and we look forward to taking many enjoyable trips at a deep discount. The use of credit cards inappropriately can be very dangerous. If you do not have the money to spend in cash, then using a credit card for spending is out of the question as well. We pay off our bills every month and have not paid any credit card fees over this amount of time. Also be sure to not bite off more than you can chew. For instance if you spend $1,000 a month normally do not sign up for cards that will require you to spend $4,000 each month in order to get the bonus.

 

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Reward Miles and Points Valuation

Trying to decide how to top off the extra 5,000 miles I needed to attain a companion pass I tried to do some evaluation of valuations.  I looked around to see different ways to transfer miles to Southwest that will count toward the companion pass.  I have some Ultimate Reward points from Chase, which transfer to Southwest at a 1 to 1 ratio, but do not count toward the Companion Pass.  However, transfers from Hyatt to Southwest do count, but the transfers from Hyatt to Southwest are at a rate of 10,000 Hyatt points to 4,800 Southwest points.  I would transfer 10,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards to Hyatt and then get 4,800 points.  How could I even consider such?  Afterall Chase Ultimate Rewards are worth 2 cents per mile and with this valuation I would be getting only 48% of the possible value.  A poor value proposition by any standards.  This got me thinking, what is a point worth to me?

Ultimately I did not decide to go this route, but it did make me further examine valuations that I have seen on other blogs.   The most baffling valuation to me comes from Starwood Preferred Guest points and their SPG AMEX card with a 25,000 point bonus.  It seems like many bloggers push its benefits and some say that it’s worth 2 cents per point.  Making the sign up bonus worth at least $500.  I have not signed up for this card, because it does not seem very valuable to me. Many people argue that you take the retail price of a room and divide it by the number of points needed and you come up with value.  Thus, if you spend the night in a room that is normally $900 per night and you spend 30,000 points you are getting 3 cents per mile of value!  I wholeheartedly disagree with this kind of valuation and reject the premise entirely.  Simple economics suggests that something is only worth what someone would pay for it.  I would never actually pay $900 to stay at any hotel so believing I got $900 worth of value from 30,000 points is a bit silly.  What is my opportunity cost of using these points?  Are there other options that would offer more nights?  I would be much happier staying 5 nights in a 5,000 point per night room that usually costs $100 per night even though my value is 2 cents per point, I am much happier.

Another favorite move of bloggers is to overvalue a first class award ticket.  I understand the desire to have bigger seats and more leg room on a plane.  I would also love to fly first class if anyone is interested in proving to me why it is worth doing.  However, I have read many accounts of trips stating, “I used 125,000 miles to fly first class roundtrip on a flight that would have cost $7,500 I maximized value by getting 6 cents per mile!”  Certainly telling your friends that you took a $7,500 flight for free is remarkable.  Again, this kind of valuation ignores the opportunity cost.  Let’s assume that instead you could book an international flight in coach for 50,000 points, but that flight only costs $1,500 normally this is only 3 cents per mile, which is pedestrian compared to the first class flight.  My first thought is that a plane is for transportation.  The goal is to get from point A to point B, if I want to sit in a comfortable chair I would just stay home.  I would never pay the $6,000 fare difference to ride first class so why would I sacrifice 75,000 more points?  What is my opportunity cost of doing this?  Instead of one first class flight I could (assuming award availability) invite a friend along and pay their way and still have 25,000 points to spare.  Many people use Chase Ultimate Rewards to top off their travel, but these 25,000 Ultimate Reward points are minimally worth $250 as a statement credit.  Which sounds like the better scenario, flying alone across the ocean or flying with a friend and arriving with $250 of free money to start?

When it’s all said and done only you can decide what is important to you.  I like to get more value out of my miles by purchasing more happiness and creating more memories.  Sure, I would probably love 1 night at the W. in Washington, D.C., but if I could get a week’s worth of hotel stays instead I am doing that.

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Walt Disney World on a Budget (Part 2 – Lodging)

Walt Disney World simplisticsaving.com

 

“You HAVE TO stay on site!”,  “You’ve GOTTA get the Disney Dining Plan”, “If you do not buy a souvenir at every shop you hate your kids”

As soon as you express plans to visit Walt Disney World you will get a myriad of advice on how to have a great trip.  If you follow every piece of advice you are obviously quite wealthy and I would suggest that you bring me along next time.  While many of these tidbits are excellent on an unlimited budget, they are quite unproductive when planning a trip on a realistic budget and salary.  My brother recently got the insider advice to stay at the “W” when visiting Washington D.C.  While this advice may be excellent I would assume that a $500 per night hotel room would be pretty good.  I can only assume that this local preferred the accommodations found at the “W” to what you might find at “The Lincoln Bedroom”.

Keeping in mind when reading advice that every family is different and we all enjoy different things.  Stating an opinion on lodging is even more divisive than most opinions. While some people might think a $20 motel is a great value another family would refuse to stay in such a place even if they were paid $20 (or $2,000) per night.  As I have stated before, I feel that maximizing value based on your own valuation is most important.  This also goes for time spent in planning such a trip.  I enjoy putting time into the planning stage and minimizing costs while maximizing my value.  Sometimes I have trouble pulling the trigger for fear of a better deal passing me.

Disney Resort Hotels

In 2011 we went to Orlando and I did all of the research online.  I first looked to stay onsite because the accommodations at Disney’s lodging options are excellent.  I visited my cousin staying at the Wilderness Lodge and it is gorgeous.  All of the options staying on the property are fantastic.  If money is no object we would stay at Disney World, in the future we will also likely stay at one of the resort options.  I think that staying at the resort is much more valuable when you fly to Orlando rather than drive.  Staying at a resort allows you free transportation to and from the airport, which also means no rental car is an option.  I have not done this myself, but the minimal research I have done thus far this seems like a viable option.

Off-Site Rankings

The first thing I did was to take a look at all of the hotels in the area.  I found many different “deals” around the area, but it’s really hard to evaluate a property that you have never seen.  One of my favorite ways to check out a property is Trip Advisor because their rating system is based on actual experiences by hotel guests.  Other rating systems sometimes have a vested interest in ranking certain properties higher than reality.  One problem with all of the available discount sites such as Hotwire, Priceline, etc. are the huge price differences between each hotel guest.  The price you pay on a hotel room will definitely influence your ranking.  If I pay $300 per night for a room my perspective will be different than if I only pay $300 for the week.  So even on Trip Advisor it will seem like some people will have higher or lower expectations.  Another flaw is that sometimes ratings might be different if there is a recent renovation.

List

On my list of things I needed in a hotel was pool, high ratings and free breakfast.  I figure if all other things are equal and one place offers breakfast I will pick that place. Since we are going to eat in the morning anyway, if we can get it included in the price of the room that’s added value.  For 3 people that saved at least $8 per day if we just went to McDonalds.  I then evaluated all of the hotels that met our needs.  After that I checked out which one had the lowest price.  After narrowing them down is when the fun begins.  I did not pick the cheapest hotel on my list of acceptable hotels because I estimate value differently than lowest dollar amount.  I like to get the most bang for my buck.  I finally decided on a Country Inn and Suites – Calypso Cay, the pictures online made it look like a five star destination resort.  I searched around and found the room for $55 per night through EasyClickTravel.com.

Price Match

When you find a great price online there are often ways to make the price better.  I found the discounted price of $55 per night online, but when I went to countryinns.com I found that the same room was going for $75 per night.  However, I saw on their site that they guarantee that booking through them will get you the lowest price or else they will match it then discount the lower rate 25%!  I called the hotel and let them know that I had found the lower rate and they told me that I had to book through them first and it would be adjusted.  Much like mail-in rebates I am skeptical of offers like this, but I believe the best protection is backing up any claim.  So I took multiple screenshots of the discounted rate through every step.  I then booked the room and then immediately put in the price match request.  The first time I sent over a basic email stating that I had found the lower price and been told it would be matched.  I received an email saying, “Unfortunately we are unable to process your request”.  I then sent over another email with the direct link to the page and about 10 screenshots.  I got an email back saying “We have confirmed your lower price and have beat it by 25% your new price will be $39.90 per night”.  That was about as easy as possible.  Took just a bit of time and minimal negotiation. Not only is booking with the hotel superior because they beat the price, but I was also able to get 6,600 Club Carlson Gold Points.  I still have not used them, but if I get the Club Carlson Visa card, which currently offers an 85,000 point bonus, These points might be nice.

Cashback 

If I were booking this hotel right now doing the same method I would save even more money.  Using Cashback portals is so easy and can be quite lucrative especially when used in conjunction with a cashback credit card.  First you would click through TopCashBack then type in Country Inn and Suites, then simply click through there and get 5% cashback on the booked rate of $526.50 so I would have gotten $26 into my TopCashBack account.  Even if I did not get the extra cashback, it would be worth it.  I also booked with a Discover Card which had travel as a 5% cashback category so I saved another $26 in Cashback.  Basically those two cashback amounts paid for at least one night.  It is possible that they would catch on that the cashback was calculated using the higher amount, but either way it’s a nice bonus.

Blind Pricing

Priceline famously has a “Name Your Own Price” option which can be very good or very bad.  I have had both experiences and it goes back to the rating systems I spoke about earlier.  In my experience it appears that Priceline inflates some of the substandard hotel ratings in order to offer a really low price on a hotel.  If you take a bit of time it’s sometimes possible to figure out which hotel is being offered by either Priceline or Hotwire.  You can also go to BetterBidding.com and get some help on how to purchase a hotel.

Credit Card Sign Up Bonus

There are some very lucrative hotel sign up bonuses that can really help in paying for your trip.  You can get a credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred which gives a 40,000 point signing bonus.  Then use the $400 as a statement credit to cover your travel.  You could also sign up for different hotel reward cards.  For instance, if you plan on staying at a Starwood hotel you can sign up for a SPG card which gives 25,000 bonus points.  A husband and wife could both apply for the card and have 50,000 points by simply hitting the minimum spend amounts.

Conclusion

Take your time when booking a hotel and make your decision based on things important to you.  Keep looking for deals and remember that many hotel chains offer to beat a price offered by an online booking agency.  Take advantage of reward programs, reward credit cards and shopping portals to add more discount to your prices.

 

 

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Going to Walt Disney World on a Budget (Part 1)

Walt Disney World

 

In February of 2011 my wife and I started discussing taking a trip to Walt Disney World.  This trip would be the third trip for me and the first for my wife and daughter. Our goal was to have a quality vacation while going to Disney World on a budget.  A trip to Disney World will never be cheap, but there are ways to incorporate more value into the proposition.   Initially our interest was sparked by low priced fares to Orlando, but eventually we decided that we had better options.  The biggest part of saving money is taking the time and energy to slow down before making financial decisions.  Spending $350 to fly 3 people to Disney World seems like the obvious best choice.  Then we needed to evaluate all other expenses that exist based on the flight.  In order to get the discounted pricing we had to fly into Orlando’s Sanford Airport which is located further form Disney World, thus requiring transportation.  If we flew we would need to either take a shuttle or rent a car in order to move around the world.

Ultimately, we chose to extend our existing June road trip to Panama City Beach.  In total, this would be an 1,800 mile round trip, compared to 1,200 miles to simply drive to Panama City Beach.  We decided that the extra 600 miles driving would be the more affordable option.  We stopped on the way down and visited my cousin which really worked out well.  With this option we drove our own car, packed everything we needed and spent a little more than $100 in gas.

The most important part of the transportation aspect is figuring out how much each decision is costing you on your trip.  Even if the cost of flying and driving was exactly the same there are other factors that must be considered when making a decision.  Bags may cost extra on some airlines, but as long as your automobile is big enough you can pack whatever you want.  No need to rent a car or rely on shuttles.  One warning about relying on shuttles if you are staying off property at Disney World be sure to check the shuttle schedule.  We had considered taking a shuttle to the Disney Parks every day, but it turns out that the shuttles only run at about 4 am and noon.  So you either need to be the kind of person that arrives at the park super early or super late.  I love to get to the park before it opens, but during our time there I did not find it necessary to arrive too early.

Although we loved driving and found it very convenient for us  especially when we arrived we are still evaluating our options.  Just to drive from our house to Walt Disney World is 1,700 miles round trip.  If we get 17 miles per gallon in the SUV, that works out to 100 gallons of gas or between $350 and $400.  The most interesting way that I am considering for our next Disney trip is to fly Southwest.  They offer flights for about $220 per ticket, which is $660 for the 3 tickets we would need.    Another way to do this is by using Southwest Rapid Rewards for 13,600 points per ticket, which is 40,800 points for the 3 tickets we would need.  Unfortunately for me I have not flown in years, my wife and daughter have never flown.  How would such a limited traveler even consider using frequent flyer miles?  This is where using a credit card bonus comes in handy.  I signed up for a Southwest Airlines card from Chase with a Bonus of 50,000 points!  This means by simply applying for a card my family will be able to take a trip to Walt Disney World.  Sounds like a pretty great trade.

Even if we fly for free we will need to make arrangements.  We will need to rent a car making sure to use a shopping portal and searching for any promo codes.  An inexpensive car can be found for the week and cost less than driving to Orlando.  Another great method is if you stay at a Disney Hotel you get free transportation from the airport.  This includes picking up your bags and delivering them to your room for you!

In Part 2 of Disney on a Budget I will evaluate how we decided on our lodging in 2011 and the ways in which we might change our methods going forward.  Should we stay at the park or out of the world?  Should I buy the dining plan option?

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