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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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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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