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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
$3,256 $40 189,430 .017