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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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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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