Off To Europe

I’m leaving for Europe tomorrow morning so I will not be writing any new posts for the nest week.  I notice many bloggers post while they are on trips, but why waste your time doing that?  Enjoy what you worked so hard to go see!

I am going with a friend of mine from Georgia.  We used to work together at Delta.  She finally decided to use her “One Great Team” pass and asked if I would like to tag along.  Sure! A free flight that won’t even cost me miles? I’m there!  I thought for sure with a pass like that we would get business class but now it doesn’t look like we will.  I am beyond disappointed.  After the horrendous trip to and from Thailand in coach, I vowed to never do that again.  No more economy class tickets on flights lasting more than 4 hours! I thought I could do it, but I can’t.  I thought taking 2 trips in coach was better than 1 in business.  It’s not.

The Positive Space passes she has, are put on the standby list in the order of check-in time.  She had me buy a ticket to Atlanta so we could leave from there and she wouldn’t have to fly back and forth.  Well…if she had come up here today, we could have left at 7am tomorrow and checked in BEFORE the 4 people that checked in at noon today.  It also would have saved me $225 for the ticket to Atlanta.  Oh well.  Whaddya gonna do? Live and learn.

Nice, Free (almost) Hotels

In exchange for the free business class (ahem) ticket to Europe, I agreed to use some hotel points for rooms.  I ended up having to pay for a couple of them, but not much.  For 6 nights in hotels in expensive European cities, we are paying a total of $185 each.

I redeemed 1 Chase anniversary night, 25,000 miles and paid $170 for 3 nights at the Holiday Inn Munich City Center. (retail value $569)

I redeemed 20,000 Starpoints for 2 nights at the Sheraton Prague Charles Square Hotel (retail value $398)

And we are spending 1 night at the Ibis Munich City hotel for $110 total because there is a convention in Munich on our last night and I was unable to get a room there.

So $1077 for a week’s worth of hotels for $370 total is not bad.  I would have preferred to not pay anything, but it’s not so bad because I am splitting the cost with a friend.

I hope nothing “bad” happens while I am gone.  Seems every time I go away some change occurs with gift cards or Bluebirds or Walmart or….something!

Please “like” my Facebook page and follow me on Twitter(@lauraroland) and Instagram (zinnia7).  I will probably post a few pictures while I am gone.

Happy Travels!

 

 

My Experience With Frontier Airlines.

Frontier Airlines began service to CVG in the spring of 2013 and I was excited about a low-cost carrier finally entering our market. Last fall I read a blog post about Frontier Airlines and their “great award availability”.  This seemed like a great opportunity to open a Frontier Airlines credit card! Frontier awards start at only 20,000 miles for roundtrip and you can redeem one way awards for 10,000 miles.

I added a “free one way” from CVG to LAX on the end of our Thailand tickets and I needed to find a way back from California in June 2014.  So I signed up for the Barclay’s Frontier Airlines Mastercard, which was offering 40,000 miles after spending $500 in 90 days.  Easy peasy.

TRYING to Book

So….I had 40,000 miles in my account in September 2013 and wanted to get busy booking a one way flight from LAX to CVG in June 2014.  The first thing I found out was that Frontier, like most low-cost carriers, does not release their schedule until 5-6 months out.  In Frontier’s case, it was 5 months.  And a few days.  I called every day starting on December 16 (6 months before my return flight from LAX) asking when they would release the schedule.  Every agent I talked to said they did not know exactly what date the schedule would be released.  It finally came out some time in mid January.  At this point I was very nervous because if this didn’t work out, I would be scrambling to find one way award seats on another carrier.  I like to book award tickets a year in advance, so doing it 5 months out was nerve-wracking.

Frontier serves 10 cities in California and I decided that I would be willing to fly out of any one of them.  We have family in Northern California that we could visit, so driving up for a few days would not be a big deal.

When the schedule finally opened, I looked at LAX and Orange County and award seats were 20,000 miles for one way tickets.  They did not release any 10,000 mile award seats and I was ON IT the day it was released.  I called Frontier and all they could tell me was that low level awards were not available.  I checked every city in California within a 3 day window and found NO 10,000 mile award seats.  What happened to that “great availability” the other blogger was talking about?  I waited a few days and nothing changed.  Every award seat from every city was pricing out at 20,000 miles.  I suppose it is possible they could have released some 10,000 mile seats a month or two down the road, but I was scared to wait that long.  I had to get home from California.

I could have used American AAdvantage miles for 3 one way tickets at 12,500 each.  But I value those American miles A LOT more than I value the Frontier miles.  Though I suppose a smarter Travel Hacker would have used the American miles for the better “value”.  But I just wanted to be rid of the Frontier miles because I felt they were useless.

I decided that we would drive up to San Jose to visit family for the last 4 days of our trip and fly home from there.  Since I now had to buy a one way ticket, I had to start looking at prices.  One way flights on Frontier from San Jose were over $500!  Low cost carrier you say?  The cheapest flights were out of San Francisco and I was able to book a one way  for $175 on the same flight as our award tickets.  It was not in my plans to pay for a ticket, but that’s what happened.

Since my award was 20,000 miles, it was a “Choice” award, rather than a “Standard” award.  The Choice award gives you Stretch seating with 5 to 7 more inches of legroom! This is awesome when you have a sleepy child!

frontierleg

Look at all the room!

Frontier Airlines charges for things that other airlines do not.  Like drinks, snacks and carry on bags.  With the Choice award we were given all of those things for free, plus our one checked bag was also free.

The ticket I paid for was my husband’s and I did not buy a “Classic Plus” fare that gives you all of those free amenities.  He was seated back in row 14 and would have had to pay $2 for a Coke.  And by the way, I would not mind paying $2 for a Coke if my fare was discounted hundreds of dollars less than a ticket on the Big Boys.

Baby Let Me Upgrade You

A week or so before our trip, I got an e-mail from Frontier about a schedule change.  Our original departure time was 6:10am and had now been changed to 5:55am.  The big problem was that our seat assignments were changed and I was no longer sitting next to my son.  I went online to try to change the seats back and kept getting an error message.  (Frontier’s web page is very buggy and seems to constantly freeze up) I called the Customer Service number and asked them to get our seats together.  While I had the very nice agent on the phone, I asked if it was possible to have my husband sit with us since all our seats had been changed.  Without any questions or hesitation she moved him up to Row 2 with us.  Incidentally, during the flight when the beverage cart came around the flight attendant knew he was on a standard fare and not eligible for the free Coke!

Would I Fly Frontier Airlines Again?

Possibly.  I would still try for the “cheap” awards and I would miss the amenities that come with the “Choice” awards.  But you get what you pay for.  If you want to fly for free for only 10,000 miles one way, you have to suffer a bit.  Although having to sit in a regular coach seat on Frontier would not be much different from a regular coach seat on any other airline.  And it could be even better.  The Frontier planes were very nice.  Each seat had it’s own video screen with Live DirecTV.  Yes, there was a fee, but the point is – it was available.

Barclay’s cards have historically been churn able, so I may try for another one for my husband and also get one for myself.  Here is the link for the Barclay’s Frontier World Mastercard.  I do not receive a commission if you use that link.

The only thing I don’t like is the charge for not only checked bags, but carry on bags as well.  I mean, you have to travel with Something!  There is no way ’round that with Frontier.  So is it worth it to pay $20-$50 for a checked or carry on bag to only save 2,500 miles on a one way ticket? That’s for you to decide.

Happy Travels!

How To Leverage The Timeshare System For Free Travel

Or, at the very least, extremely cheap travel.

Over the years, my husband and I have sat through many timeshare presentations.  They were usually offered to you when you signed up at the mall to win a “free car”.  Once you dropped that entry form in the box, you could usually expect a call in a couple weeks from a timeshare company.

Back in the 90s, the “giveaways” were pretty awesome.  We scored a 4 night Carnival cruise to Mexico for sitting through a 2 hour presentation.  (and that’s about the only way you will EVER get me on a cruise ship – if it’s free!)  We also got many restaurant and hotel gift cards and some free airfare and hotels.  The airfare and hotels were difficult to book, but if you are flexible you can work it out.

Nowadays, the hotels have gotten in on the timeshare game and most of the majors have their own vacation clubs.  They will usually contact members of their loyalty programs and offer you a “vacation” at one of their timeshare properties in exchange for sitting through a 90 minute presentation.  In my experience, the hotel timeshare sales people are not nearly as aggressive as the independent timeshare brokers.  What I call “independent” are ones like BlueGreen Vacations and Diamond Resorts.  These are ones that are not directly affiliated with a hotel brand.  There are many more, but those two come to mind because I have recent experience with them.  My father-in-law is a Diamond Resorts owner and we have stayed in several of their properties and they have all been very nice.

If you are interested in taking advantage of the hotel Vacation Club offers, I encourage you to sign up for the loyalty program of each hotel.  Even if you don’t have the co-branded credit card.  But I think it will help you get contacted if you earn some points in their program one way or another.

Marriott Vacation Club

About a year ago I received a call from the Marriott Vacation Club.  I was surprised that the call came to me and not my husband.  He had many more Marriott points than I did, and makes a lot more money! But nevertheless, the call was for me.

They offered me a 4 night stay at one of their top Vacation Club resorts for $499.  I don’t remember all the destinations they offered me, but most likely Orlando and Las Vegas were included.  After searching online while I was on the phone with them, I found the Marriott Newport Coast Villas in Newport Coast, California.  Rooms at that resort range from $400-$600 per night and it is a Category 7 hotel (35,000 points per night!)  I thought the resort looked absolutely beautiful, sitting high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

marriottnewport

Marriott Newport Coast Villas

I was planning a trip to Disneyland for the following summer, using the “free one way” I added on to the end of our Thailand award tickets.  Newport Coast is about 25 minutes from Disneyland, so there are closer places to stay, but….how could I pass this up?

I knew we could never afford to stay at a hotel like this any other way, and $125 a night was a pretty good deal!  Since it was SUCH a good deal, I added 1 extra night to my stay for $199.  So in the end, I paid $698 for 5 nights.  That is a lot more than I like to pay for a hotel these days, but still, at $140 a night it’s not a bad deal.

The Resort

In a word, beautiful.

We were given the standard 2 bedroom, 2 bath villa (I believe that is the only room type they have) with a view of the road.  Ocean view would have been nice of course, but those rooms are booked years in advance by Vacation Club owners.  And to be honest, even our view of the road was nice.

road

Our view of the road

Our villa was huge.  We had 2 bedrooms on opposite ends of the unit, each with their own private bathroom.  The bathroom in the master bedroom had a large bathtub and a huge shower with 2 shower heads.  We had a large living room with a pull-out sofa and 2 chairs.  There were a total of 3 flat screen TVs with DVD players.

The kitchen had everything you could possibly need to prepare your own meals and save on the cost of dining out in uber-expensive Newport Beach.  Although to be honest, the last thing I want to do on vacation is cook.  I don’t even want to cook at home most of the time! So we used the kitchen to store milk in the fridge and donuts on the counter.

There was also a washer and dryer in the room and they provided the detergent.

kitchen

The only picture I took of our room

I really don’t need to say any more about the accommodations.  They were superb.  The room was clean, well designed and properly maintained.

The property has a “Kid’s Club” that in my opinion is not really a “Kid’s Club”.  They have activities for kids throughout the day, but you have to stay with your child at the Kid’s Club.  We like to use Kid’s Clubs at hotels to get a break for some “adult time” while Parker has some fun “kid time”.  My husband and I were looking forward to having a quiet lunch together one day and were very disappointed that we were unable to.

Location Location Location

Newport Coast is located about 22 miles from Disneyland,  5 miles from Laguna Beach and is about an hour south of LA.  The lovely town of Newport Beach and Balboa Island is about a 10 minute drive north.

Directly across the street from Marriott Newport Coast Villas is Crystal Cove State Park. My son loved playing in the tide pools on the beach and climbing on the rocks.  He also thought it was super cool to be in Scooby Doo’s “hometown”!

rocks

We were even lucky enough to spot a pod of dolphins swimming right offshore!

The hotel runs a free shuttle to Crystal Cove every hour during the day.  This is a huge convenience because the parking area is quite far from the beach and you have to pay a $15 parking fee!

heavenly

 

On the cliff overlooking Crystal Cove is Ruby’s Shake Shack! It’s a bit of a climb up the hill, but the delicious food, chocolate shakes and view are totally worth it!

 

 

The Dreaded Presentation

This is the part of the trip that nobody looks forward to.  Sitting through a timeshare presentation can be boring and sometimes very intimidating.

I had originally scheduled the 90 minute presentation at 9am on Wednesday, but then I decided Wednesday would be a better day to go to Disneyland so I changed it to Tuesday. The only time they could offer me on Tuesday was 2pm.  Not ideal to cut your day in half but it ended up not being that bad.  We spent the morning at the beach, took the 90 minute “break” and then went out for shopping and dinner.

The sales area has a proper kid’s club with supervision.  Of course! They want to make sure they have your undivided attention.

Our presentation started promptly at 2 and the salesman was very polite and nice to talk to.  About halfway in, he found out about my little hobby of collecting miles and points.  He still didn’t really understand it and had never heard of “travel hacking” or “churning credit cards”.  In fact, at one point he pointed out that this particular Marriott property was 35,000 points a night and at 1 point per dollar on my Marriott card, I would have to spend $35,000 for one night.  I didn’t really bother trying to explain it to him in much more detail.  The clock was ticking and I wanted to be out of there at 3:30!

After the tour we went back to his office for the hard sell.  I love how they tell you this is a “one time offer” and the “prices are going up soon”.  Yeah right, like if I really wanted to buy this next year, you wouldn’t sell it to me!

car

Newport Beach loves their cars! Even tiny ones!

I don’t remember all the numbers and they of course don’t let you keep the paper they are scribbling numbers on.  But I do remember something like an $18,000 buy in at 15% interest.  Holy Moly! He pointed out that, of course, I could do my own financing and probably get a lower interest rate.  Sure.  Say I financed at 7% for 5 years.  My payment would be about $350 a month.  For 5 years! That’s $4,200 a year! Not to mention the maintenance fees, which I believe were about 43 cents per point.  At 3,500 points that’s $1,500 a year! Plus club dues which are a couple hundred a year.  So right now I’m in for about $6,000 a year for the next 5 years.  After that, it would be a more reasonable amount per year and he kept pointing out that this is “deeded property” that I can put in my will.  Parker: “Thanks Mom for the monthly maintenance payments!”  Plus, by the time you pay off that initial buy-in, you will usually be tempted to buy another package of points and then the financing starts all over again. My father-in-law has done this and so has the salesman.  The salesman was up to the highest level of something like 20,000 points a year! He logged into his Marriott Rewards account (you can convert the Club points to Reward points and use them at any hotel) and my heart skipped a beat when I saw he had about 800,000 Marriott Rewards points.  800,000!

Timeshares just make no financial sense to me.  But you probably didn’t need me to tell you all that and that’s not what this blog is about anyway!

fountain

Marriott Newport Coast Villas

My point here is – take advantage of one of these offers if it is presented to you.  Sit through the presentation. Tell them you NEVER pay for travel, but thank you for the cookies and lemonade and the tour of your beautiful property!

pool

The main pool at the Marriott Newport Coast Villas

If the bottom ever falls out of the miles and points game (heaven forbid!), I would maybe consider something like this.  Maybe.  But I would NEVER buy directly from the resort.  You can get a much better deal on the secondary market. (when people sell their timeshares once they realize they were conned)

I will leave you with one last look at the view from the resort.

Happy Travels!

view

 

Making and Meeting Spending Goals

Time to make a plan

I will be the first to admit that my spending, both regular and manufactured, has always been rather erratic.  I have written a lot about my “mad organizational skillz” and ability to keep track of multiple accounts, but when it came to setting a goal and then spending to meet that goal, I wasn’t doing it.  So I decided to write this post, not only to help my readers better understand the POINT of doing all this, but also to help myself to better organize my spending.

First I want to list the active, open credit cards in my binder for both myself and my hubby.

  • American Express Delta SkyMiles Platinum (me)
  • Chase Marriott VISA (me and hubby)
  • American Express Starwood Preferred (me and hubby)
  • Barclay’s US Airways Premier World Mastercard (me and hubby)
  • Chase IHG Holiday Inn (me and hubby)
  • Citibank American Airlines Visa (me)
  • Barclay’s Frontier Mastercard (me)
  • Bank of American Alaska Airlines Visa (hubby)
  • US Bank Club Carlson Visa (me and hubby)
  • Citibank American Airlines Executive Mastercard (me and hubby)
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred (me)

That’s 17 active credit cards.  See why organization is so important?

I am about to cancel three cards:

  1. My Barclay’s Frontier card.  Frontier awards proved very hard to redeem.
  2. Hubby’s American Express Starwood Preferred.  He has used all the points in the account and there is no benefit to renewing this card.
  3. Hubby’s Chase Marriott Card. He has earned Gold status on his own this year and next year he will apply for the Marriott Premier Rewards card which offers better benefits than the basic card he has now.

That will leave me with 14 cards to spread out my spending.

Credit-Cards

 

My (Immediate) Plans

And by “immediate” I mean within the next 2 years.

Summer of 2015 I want to take a trip to Europe.  I’m thinking most likely Croatia and either Italy or Greece.  I want to fly (business class) to Australia in 2016.  Those are my 2 big ones.  There will be some domestic trips thrown in that I will most likely just pay the airfare for (I save my miles for expensive international travel), and possibly a Caribbean or Hawaii trip on miles.  It is going to be harder to travel now with my son entering 1st grade later this year.  We will be relegated to summer travel with the masses and maybe a Christmas ski trip.  I am not opposed to pulling him out of school to travel, but I will try to keep that to a minimum.  However I do plan on taking a January or February ski trip to Whistler in the next couple of years and I will pull him out for that.

So, having said that, I need to take a look at my inventory of miles.  Between the two of us we have:

  • 384,000 American and US Air miles (that will become “one” with in the next year)
  • 51,000 Alaska Airlines Miles (these can be used on American Airlines and Delta)
  • 308,000 Delta SkyMiles

To fly Business class to Australia using American Airlines Miles, we will need 375,000 miles.  As you can see, we have more than enough to do that after the merge.  But AA miles are probably the most valuable miles out there right now, so I want to concentrate on building as many of them as I can. Especially since we have so many American Airlines and US Airways cards.

information_australia

I will use my American Airlines miles to fly my family to Australia in business class!

My trip to Europe next year will be on Delta and most likely in coach (ugh, I know), which will require 180,000 miles for 3 tickets.  Again, I have more than enough.

I want to build more Alaska miles to supplement my American and Delta totals.  I can’t combine them, but I can get one ticket from the Alaska account and the other two from the American or Delta account.  To that end, I will probably apply for an Alaska card for myself during my next round of apps this fall.

Organized Manufactured Spending

The real goldmine in Manufactured Spending (MS) is using a Chase Ink or Bold card at office supply stores and earning a 5x point bonus.  If you bought $2,000 worth of Visa gift cards per month, you would be earning 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points.  Do that for a year and you have 120,000 points.  That right there is the bread and butter of most miles and points junkies.  And some (most) do way more than $2,000 a month.

Those 120,000 (or more) Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to United, Southwest, British Airways, Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Ritz-Carlton and even Amtrak.

There are some of us, however, who cannot get the Chase Ink or Bold or other business cards because we do not own our own business and do not feel comfortable lying to get one.  I have a part-time job that would probably qualify me for a Business card, but I applied for a Chase Ink last summer and was denied.  That really spooked me, especially with Chase.  So I am going to lay low with Chase for awhile – at least until next year, and then I might try again.

So where does that leave me and others like me without business cards? It leaves us to only earn 1 mile/point per dollar on most cards.  That can still be worthwhile though, and is better than earning Nothing.  So basically $2,000 a month in gift cards for one year will earn you 24,000 miles/points.  That’s a lot less than 120,000! But again, still better than Nothing.  You also have to factor in the cost of doing this, which is approximately $240 on $2,000 worth of gift cards.

By the way, I am using $2,000 because that’s what *I* do, on average.  That is just enough to pay my mortgage and utility bills.  Every once in a while I will do amazon payments or money orders with gift cards, but I try not to game the system too much and risk getting myself shut down or contributing to shutting down the entire system.

So here is my plan

For the months of June through December 2014, I have made a rotation of 4 cards per month, buying one $500 gift card on each card.  The cards I will rotate are both Citibank American Airlines Executive Cards, my Citibank American Visa, Hubby’s Alaska Airlines card, my Delta SkyMiles American Express and both of our Barclay’s US Bank Mastercards.  By doing 4 different cards per month, I can spread out the spend between 4 different banks.  And notice I am avoiding Chase on all MS activities.  Flyertalk threads like this one and this one really make me stop and think.  And if I want to eventually get that Chase Ink or Bold card, I think it is in my best interest to avoid them for now.

So by the end of the year I will earn just under 10,000 American/US Air miles, 2,000 Alaska miles and 2,000 SkyMiles.  Many people will say that is not worth it.  It’s not worth the $140 I will spend on fees or the trips to Walmart.  You would have to make your own decisions on whether or not it’s worth it to you.  I do not go out of my way to go to Walmart to do this.  But chances are that at least 4-5 times a month I am going to be near a Walmart and it takes me about 10 minutes to run inside and do the deed.  I don’t see that as a big inconvenience.  When you could still buy Vanilla Reloads at CVS, the Miles and Points junkies were running around to every CVS within a 50 mile radius of their home, only earning 1 mile/point per dollar spent on them.  The difference was that they didn’t have to go to Walmart to load them.  So really, that is the only thing that has changed.

The bulk of my “everyday” spending will probably go on my Chase Sapphire Rewards card.  Except for gas and groceries which will go on the Chase IHG cards (2x points in those categories) But of course I will throw a few charges here and there on the cards I am using for MS, just for good measure.

Recurring Charges

Before I go, I want to point out that I have several recurring charges each month that are automatically billed to different credit cards.  Our Chase IHG cards are charged for our Netflix account and our cat’s Wellness Plan at the vet.  The Chase Sapphire Preferred gets Direct TV and our cell phones (for now).  And the US Bank Club Carlson card gets my son’s karate class.

I also have certain credit cards assigned to different accounts such as Groupon, iTunes, and Paypal.

The good thing about setting up these recurring payments is that I can change it any time I want to.  Usually when I get a new card and have to meet minimum spending, I will change the Direct TV and cell phone payments (since those are the highest) to go to the new card until I meet the spending requirement.

So that’s it.  That’s my Master Plan.  Do you have a Manufactured Spending or Travel Planning strategy?  If so, please share it in the comments.  I, for one, am very interested in learning more about how other people reach their goals!  I know many people are loath to talk too much about MS in public forums.  But I think the cat is long out of the bag by now and there is not much classified information left.

Happy Travels!

One last personal note…because he’s just too darn cute not to share.  We got a new dog last week! He is a 2 year old Goldendoodle that we named Bodhi.  I occasionally foster dogs through the Stray Animal Adoption Program and this boy came up needing a foster home. We love Doodles so I grabbed him up and we decided within about an hour that we wanted to keep him forever!   Welcome to the family Bodhi!

bodhi1

Bodhi