How Much Did My “Free” 3 week trip to the UK Really Cost?

The UK, and London in particular, is a very expensive vacation destination.  But it’s also one of my favourite places in the entire world.

My son’s current obsession with all things Harry Potter and the fact that 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, meant that we simply had to make the UK our “big trip” of the year.

I always tell people “travel does not have to be expensive”. And it doesn’t.  There are plenty of ways I could have made this trip much cheaper than it ended up being, but it would not have been as fun.  One place we definitely could have saved money was food.  We could have hit Pret A Manger every day, shopped at the grocery store for picnic lunches and food to eat in our room – but we were in Scotland and England! I love love love the historic pubs from the 1700s and I wanted to hit as many of them as I possibly could!  And who doesn’t love a good Sunday roast?  And Nando’s?

So what should the food budget be for 2 adults and 1 child for 3 weeks in the UK?  Good question.  I guess it depends on how much you eat and what kind of food you like.  It is easy (very easy) to spend $100+ on dinner every night.  When planning the trip I set a food budget of $80 per day.  That’s $1600.  Wow.  I am happy to say that I ended up only spending an average of $47 per day for a total of $947 for the 20 day trip.  I think I may do a separate post about the places we ate on the trip because there were some really good ones.

Another big expense that miles and points don’t usually cover, is attractions.  We went crazy on a couple of these like the Harry Potter Studio Tour (of course), the London Dungeon, the London HoHo Bus, Tower of London and Stonehenge.  The last 2 are very expensive and to be perfectly honest, my 9 year old son was unimpressed.  I also thought he would enjoy the HoHo Bus a lot more than he did.  Lesson learned.  As a family of 3, we spent $970 on attractions.  I did find Groupons for a couple of tours we took, which saved us some money.

The final big expense of the trip that miles and points won’t cover, is souvenirs.  We went way overboard here.  But there was so much Harry Potter stuff to buy! My son earned almost $200 selling a boatload of his “baby toys” at our yard sale a few months ago.  I told him he could spend $100 of that on the trip.  We still ended up spending another $350 on top of his $100.  Actually $100 of that was gifts for my husband’s birthday on July 4.  He loves golf and we just so happened to be in St. Andrew’s the day after his birthday, so I let him go a little crazy in the gift shop there.   So then really $250 on souvenirs doesn’t sound so bad.

We had a rental car for the first 10 days of the trip.  I reserved a compact car through Hertz, picking up in downtown Edinburgh and dropping off in London on Edgware Rd.  I was pleasantly surprised to be given a Vauxhall Mokka, which is a compact SUV.  It was quite roomy for the 3 of us, our 3 suitcases and 3 backpacks.  The cost of the 10 day rental, including the one way drop off fee was $302.  The car was a manual transmission which was significantly cheaper than an automatic.  I didn’t find it that hard to drive (shifting with my left hand), but Matthew didn’t care for it.  It just added to the stress of trying to remember to drive on the wrong side of the road.  I used miles from my Barclay Arrival Plus card to “erase” the $300 charge, making my car rental cost $0. Gas, however, was another story.  We spent $291 on gas over 10 days.  A necessary evil.

RETAIL COST: $302
I PAID: $0  
(I used 30,000 Barclay Arrival points for a travel statement credit)

So now for the nitty-gritty of how much I spent on airfare and hotels.  This is the part of a trip that you HAVE to do.  You HAVE to get there and you HAVE to have a place to stay.  The food, the attractions and the souvenirs can all be done on the cheap – even in London there are plenty of FREE activities.

AIRFARE:  We flew into Edinburgh and out of Dublin.  Dublin was not initially part of my itinerary.  But once I saw how expensive it was to fly out of London (even on miles), I decided to add 1 night in Dublin and fly home from there.

I used 90,000 Delta SkyMiles for 3 one way economy class tickets from Cincinnati to Edinburgh via JFK.   I paid $17 in taxes.  Our flight was uneventful; I don’t remember much of it.  I think I managed to sleep for a few hours.  People put down Delta a lot (myself included) mainly because their SkyMiles program is …well…just horrible.  But honestly when it comes to service and in flight comfort, I think they have the other US carriers beat.  Especially American.

For our return flight from Dublin, I used 81,000 AAdvantage miles (90,000 – 9,000 miles back as a benefit of having the AAviator credit card) for 3 one way economy class tickets from Dublin to Cincinnati via Philadelphia.  I paid $138 in taxes.

It’s hard to say what the retail cost of these flights would be.  When I price them as individual one ways, they come to around $3,000 each.  Of course it’s unlikely anybody would book them like that.  It’s more likely that these flights would cost around $1,300 per  ticket, so for our retail cost we will say these tickets have Retail Value of $3,900.

This return flight on American was not as uneventful as the Delta flight.  The flight attendants were just this side of rude.  I ordered a kid’s meal for my son, double checked it several times prior to our trip to make sure I had requested it, but lo and behold, no kid’s meal was provided.  The flight attendant was less than apologetic and just said “so does he want chicken or pasta?”  He is the world’s pickiest eater and ended up with nothing to eat. Later in the flight he had to go to the bathroom, but both of the bathrooms on our side of the plane were occupied.  Being a 9 year old with a sense of urgency, he asked the people in the bulkhead if he could cross over and they allowed him to.  They also allowed him to come back through after using the lav, but he encountered a drink trolley blocking his path back to our seats.  He went back across the bulkhead (I realize that is getting out of hand) and tried to cross over through the first class galley.  He was met by a male flight attendant who yelled at him for “running around the plane” and ordered him back to his seat immediately.  He knew the bulkhead folks would yell at him if he went through again, and this guy was blocking his way to cross over so he got scared, stood in the middle of the aisle and started crying.  I was not aware of any of this until I heard him crying.  I had absolutely no idea what was going on or why he was crying.   I pointed toward the back of the plane and told him to go that way.  When I got there, I saw there was a bulkhead row of seats and he could not cross over.  The lady sitting in the bulkhead decided to tell me how tired she was of him crossing over and stepping on her feet.  I still had no idea what was happening.  I pointed toward the front of the plane and told him to go that way.  I went through the first class curtain and through the galley to be met by the male flight attendant, who again started yelling at Parker and me.  Still not knowing what happened, I told him I was absolutely crossing over to get my crying child and we were going back to our seat.  Later, that flight attendant came by and apologized for yelling and said he thought Parker was running around playing.  Another passenger who saw what happened told him that he was only trying to use the bathroom.

So…wow…this was supposed to be about flights and hotels!   Let’s move on.

Back in November, Ryanair had a “Trump sale” on airfare.  Whatever…it was a sale so I bought it.  3 one way economy class tickets from London to Dublin.  I paid $150.  This was still much cheaper than the $150 per person tax I would have had to pay to use my miles to fly home from London.

AIRFARE BOTTOM LINE: 

RETAIL VALUE: $4,050
I PAID: $305

HOTELS:

We spent 3 nights at the Radisson Blu in Edinburgh which sits right on the Royal Mile! 

As a Club Carlson Gold member, I was upgraded to a business class room.  Normally, the business class room includes a buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant but we were not given breakfast because we were given a “complimentary room upgrade”.  Very strange.

The room itself was quite nice, we had a pretty view from the window and they gave us a rollaway bed for Parker at no additional cost.

For 3 nights:  Retail cost $1,386
I paid $0 
( I used 70,000 Club Carlson points per night)

After we left Edinburgh, we drove up to Loch Ness and spent the night at The Inch Hotel in Ft. Augustus.

I booked this hotel through American Express Travel because I had a few leftover Membership Rewards points that I could put toward the rate.  I booked a family room that was actually quite spacious.  It had 2 bedrooms, one with a queen bed and one with 2 twin beds. Unfortunately breakfast was not included in the American Express rate, but we left quite early in the morning anyway.

The Inch Hotel Family Room

The Inch Hotel Family Room – the kid’s room

RETAIL COST: $276
I PAID: $138

Our next stop was on the Isle of Skye for 2 nights.  This was definitely our “splurge hotel” on the trip.  We stayed at the beautiful Viewfield House Hotel.

This country home sits on 20 wooded acres above the town of Portree.  The house was built over 200 years ago and is still owned by the Macdonald family.   We had a lovely room with a queen bed and a huge window overlooking the garden.

Our room at Viewfield House Hotel

I slept with the shutters open each night – even though it didn’t get dark until almost 11:30pm and the sun came up before 4am!

Our first laundry day fell during our stay at the Viewfield House.  I thought I was going to have to take our laundry down to the Portree Youth Hostel launderette, but fortunately the Viewfield House had a washer and dryer available for guest use.  Score!

We also finally had a proper fry-up B&B breakfast each morning in the beautiful dining room.

RETAIL COST: $414 for 2 nights
I PAID: $0 (I used 40,000 Barclay Arrival points as a travel statement credit)

After leaving the Isle of Skye we drove down to the beautiful Loch Lomond area.  In the middle of all the great hill walks (including Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles!) sits the town of Crianlarich and the Ben More Lodge.  The Ben More Lodge was…how do I say this?….cozy.

This was our room.  Seriously.  That’s it.  This picture was taken standing in the front door.  The door directly in front of you goes into the wee bathroom.  (with a very wee shower)  Miles and Points travel is not always 5 star luxury hotels!  But to be fair, the people running this lodge were some of the nicest people we met and they made us feel welcome and cooked a great breakfast (included in the rate).

The view of our room from the parking lot

My plan was to use some Barclay Arrival points to get another statement credit for the cost of this room.  The problem is, you can only redeem Barclay Arrival points in increments of 10,000 (or $100) and this room was $90.  So before we left we bought a bunch of snacks and drinks for our road trip and added them to the bill to get us over $100.  But guess what?  Because the Ben More Lodge is a tavern, the charge coded as a “restaurant” and not “lodging”, so I had to pay for this one.  Live and learn.

RETAIL COST: $90
I PAID: $90

The Ben More Lodge was our last hotel in Scotland.  We headed into England and spent our first night at the Sunderland Marriott hotel.  This was a typical business class Marriott hotel, but it sat directly on the sea and our room had a beautiful view.

Can’t see the view in this picture, but I just wanted to show the room itself. They provided a rollaway bed for Parker at no additional cost.

Exterior of the hotel as seen from the beach

We arrived fairly late after touring castles all day and stopping at carvery in Sunderland for a yummy Sunday roast.  After we checked in, we took Parker to the indoor pool for awhile.  The pool area was full of locals who have a membership to the pool and exercise facility.  They were all surprised that we came to Sunderland on holiday.  I explained that this was the only hotel on our route from Scotland to England where I could stay for free!

Platinum status gave us buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

RETAIL COST: $188
I PAID: $0 (I used an “Anniversary free night in a Category 5 hotel” certificate that Matthew earns each year that he holds the Chase Marriott Credit card)  We also earned 1,250 Marriott Rewards points for the stay.

From Sunderland we drove about an hour and a half south to York.  York is a beautiful city and I would love to go back and spend more time there.  Parker was in heaven when he found “The Shop That Must Not Be Named” , Harry Potter shop.

We stayed at the York Marriott Hotel.  I was unsure how I wanted to pay for this room.  It is a Category 7 hotel, which is a whopping 35,000 points per night, but I was able to reserve a room at the government rate for $124.  I did not feel that was a wise use of points.  There was also the option of using the Barclay Arrival Plus points to credit the cost of the stay, but paying for it and using the Marriott credit card seemed to be the best option.  Using the card pays 5x points and counts toward elite credit.  So in the end, that’s what we did.

The hotel is beautiful and backs up to the York RaceCourse, which you can walk out on.  I am not a fan of horse racing, but it was beautiful and I appreciate the history of the course.

I was disappointed that we were not offered an upgraded room for Platinum status.  They have balcony rooms that overlook the race course and most of them appeared to be vacant.   We were given a standard room with a view of the parking lot.

Platinum status gave us buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

RETAIL COST: $182
I PAID: $124 (government rate and Matthew earned a total of 5,025 points for the 1 night stay)

From York we drove towards the Costwolds (with a stop to visit a friend in Milton Keynes) and spent in the night in Faringdon at The Old Crown Coaching Inn.

This was, by far, my favorite hotel of the trip.  The Inn was built in the 1500s and of course it’s haunted!  My son and I had a great time looking for ghosts in the courtyard and the bar (that was closed when we were there).  The lady working at reception (Sharon) showed us around the hotel, including the secret rooms and underground tunnels.  It was amazing. We were in Room 109, a triple room with 3 twin beds, stone walls and a wood beam ceiling.  I felt like I had stepped back in time to the 16th century, but with wifi.

Our rate included a cooked to order breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

RETAIL COST: $102
I PAID: $0 (I used Barclay Arrival Plus points for a travel statement credit)

We spent the next 2 days driving through the Cotswolds and spent 2 nights at the Hilton Doubletree in Swindon.

Absolutely nothing special about this hotel or the city of Swindon. (sorry)  We were given a  Queen Family Room with a queen bed and a sleeper sofa.  No room upgrade was offered, but a Diamond Welcome gift of points was given at check-in.

Diamond status gave us free buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

RETAIL COST: $378 (which seems high, but that’s what they were going for in mid-July)
I PAID: $0  (I used 30,000 Hilton Honors points)

Our last stop before London was Stonehenge and I booked a room 15 minutes away at The Coach House through Air BnB.

This was literally a small apartment with 2 bedrooms above the coach house and horse stables.  Located in Cholderton, the farm was beautiful and a peaceful way to end our hectic 10 long days of driving.  Peaceful if you don’t mind peacocks hollering at all hours of the day and night.  Honestly though, I loved it.

Our hosts provided all the ingredients for a cook your own breakfast.  Farm fresh eggs, bacon, bread, butter, juice and milk.

RETAIL COST: $126
I PAID: $126 (I booked this early in the planning stages of my trip and meant to credit it with Barclay Arrival points, but I forgot)

Finally! London!

The London Marriott County Hall

Yes – that giant building next to the London Eye is County Hall and Marriott occupies a large chunk of it.

This Marriott was not my first choice.  For the longest time I had the Marriott Park Lane on hold.  But a couple of my travel hacker friends told me how wonderful the County Hall Marriott is.  To be honest, I have never liked that area of London. But things are different now. I have a child and there is an awesome playground next to the County Hall Marriott.  Plus the London Eye is right there, the London Dungeon, Shrek and the Aquarium are in the same building.  I kept my eye on Trip Advisor reviews and saw that people were regularly upgraded to rooms with views of Big Ben and Parliament.  I thought  that would be a lovely view to see every night, so I changed my booking to County Hall.

When we arrived we found a German company called Karcher had taken over the hotel for a convention.  They had the entire hotel booked for the same 5 nights that we were there and had taken all the rooms with views.  No upgrade for you! We were given a room on the side of the building with a view of Jubilee Gardens (basically a view of the support posts of the London Eye). The room we were given was a 5 minute walk from the elevator.  Seriously.  I’m not being lazy. We were walking 7-8 miles a day in London, the last thing I want to do is walk another 200 miles to get to my room!  And finally – a couple weeks before we arrived I sent the County Hall Marriott a Facebook message informing them that it was Matthew’s birthday and I was wondering if they could do something special for him in the room.  I even offered to pay for it.  They said “Sure no problem.  We would be delighted to set something up for him”.  When we checked in, there was nothing in the room.

All of that was too much.  I went down to the desk and asked if I could switch my reservation back to the Park Lane Marriott.  After explaining to the manger on duty all of the concerns I mentioned above (and also the black stains I discovered on the towels and comforter) she not only agreed to switch our reservation but offered to pay for the taxi to take us over there.

After some more discussion with her and her checking the computer several times to see if a better room was available, she (apparently) moved a reservation around and offered to move us to a room with a view of Big Ben being blocked by a Shrek banner.

No joke.

In the end, we were given a room about 10 steps from the elevator with 2 queen beds, a view of the river and Matthew’s birthday gift.

I realize that complaining about not being upgraded might sound entitled and petty.  But Matthew did not earn that status from credit card signups.  He earned it from being loyal to Marriott and staying in them on every work trip for the past 5+ years.

Platinum status gave us free breakfast and evening appetizers in the Marriott Executive lounge.  The new M-Club lounge concept allows the Platinum member to bring one guest to the lounge.  Children of said Platinum guest are expected to pay 40pounds ($52 US)!! for lounge access and breakfast.  Can you believe that?  $52 for a child to eat breakfast! When the manager was changing our room she asked if we were aware of the new lounge concept and told us what it was.  I just looked at her like “You must be kidding me”.  She quickly told us we would not be charged, but that Marriott was cracking down on all hotels with lounges to enforce this new “concept”.  Hopefully enough Platinum members will complain and they will drop that “concept”.  I understand that some people may abuse the lounge access, but I’m betting most do not.

RETAIL COST: $2,800
I PAID: $0  
(I used 180,000 Marriott points – 45,000 per night with the 5th night free)

Our last night was spent in Dublin.  We paid $150 to fly over to Dublin to avoid paying about $450 in taxes to fly out of London.  I had a Holiday Inn free night certificate that was going to expire in April.  Even though the stay was not until July, I booked it before it expired and was able to use it.  If for any reason I cancelled that reservation after the expiration date, I would lose the certificate.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Dublin City Centre, which was a basic Holiday Inn but within a 10 minute walk of the Temple Bar area of Dublin.

Platinum status gave us free buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

RETAIL COST: $212
I PAID: $0 
(annual free night certificate from Chase IHG credit card)

 

So that’s the entire trip and here’s the bottom line.

TOTAL TRIP RETAIL COST: $10,506
I PAID: $783

Of  course as I said at the beginning, I paid a lot more than that when you add up food, attractions, and souvenirs.  But all of those charges can be as much or as little as your budget allows.  What matters most is how cheaply you can get there and how cheaply you can stay there.

AAdvantage Aviator Card Promo – Will I Make It?

In late November, I received an email from Barclaycard to register for a promotion offering 30,000 miles for spending $2,500 each month on my AAdvantage Aviator Red MasterCard.  The promo runs from December 2015 until May 2016.  So essentially I would earn 45,000 miles after adding the 2,500 a month for 6 months.

promo

$2,500 is a lot to spend each month without doing any Manufactured Spending.  At least, for me, it is a lot to spend each month!

I got through December pretty easily thanks to a couple VISA GC purchases at Walmart.

And then this happened.

BB

Ahhhh that dreaded e-mail that we all knew was coming.  Don’t say you didn’t know.  This could not go on forever.  Eventually AMEX would wise up and realize they were losing money.

I got that e-mail on January 8 and I’m totally kicking myself for not buying a gift card the first week of January.  But I have always been very conservative in this hobby.  I don’t buy $40K worth of gift cards every month!  So my plan was to wait until the end of each month and see how short I was.  If I was within $1,000 of the $2,500 (likely) I would buy a couple gift cards to make up the difference.  That’s pretty much what I have always done.  I usually bought $1,000-$1,500 a month and paid my mortgage with it.  I rarely used Bluebird to pay off the credit card I used to buy the gift cards.  I think I did that once.  And I didn’t pay the whole balance.  I would usually pay $378.55 or some other odd amount.

So again. I am really surprised that I was shut down by Bluebird.  I have heard that some people are still going at it.  I’m not sure how they managed to stay under the radar, but at this point, I hope they ride it hard.  I know I would.

Yesterday I got this e-mail from Barclaycard.

aacard

That’s very nice.  I was wondering how (if) they were going to keep track of the monthly spending for this promo.  I WISH they had some kind of calculator on their web page so you could track your monthly purchases.  You can look up your month to date purchases, but you have to whip out the calculator to get the total.

According to my calculations, I am at $1829.26 for the month of January.  And that is with a large $1,000 purchase that I would not normally make.  So in reality I have only spent $800 so far this month.  That is probably about average for us, unless it’s Christmas time, someone’s birthday or we are on a trip.   So at $1829 for this month, I am $670 short.  I don’t see myself spending that much in the next week.  Maybe another $100-200.

Unless I buy a gift card.

I’ve been thinking about this.  People are still buying the Visa GC and then buying money orders.  I have only done that once, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.  But I might give it another try.  Worst case, I am stuck with a $500 gift card that I will have to liquidate by regular spend.  And at that point it won’t matter because I will not be able to complete this promotion.

Do you still do any manufactured spending?  Do you think the end is nigh?

My Pretty Redbird AND Saving Money at Disney

RIP Serve

serve-1As I’m sure you know by now, Serve will no longer allow credit card loads beginning on April 16.  Boy, that was fun while it lasted.  The limits were low (only $1,000 per month), but I could do it from the comfort of my home.  I didn’t have to put on my PJs and go to Walmart to buy gift cards and hope that Kate was not ill.

I will finish out my $1,000 for March and get $1,000 more loaded before April 16 and then I will bid adieu to Serve.   We had a good run, you and I.

But, wait, what’s this?  A pretty little red bird on the horizon?  Unfortunately, I live in an area that does not sell the Target Prepaid RedCard (aka RedBird) and when I was looking through the list of states that sell them, I could not think of anybody I knew who lived in one.  Apparently, I forgot about my niece in Maryland! Well…my nephew’s wife.  Technically, my husband’s nephew’s wife.  My niece-in-law? In-law?

Anyway! I explained to her what I wanted and she had no problem stopping at Target on her way home from work to pick one up for me.  She even loaded it with $5!  She then sent me a picture of the card showing the number and the 4 digit code on the front of the card.  I used that information to register the card online, in my name.  Within 3 or 4 days I received a personalized, permanent RedCard in the mail.

REDbird_card_image

I was a bit nervous going to Target to load the card.  Since my local Target does not sell them, I wasn’t sure they would know what they are and/or what to do with them.  Visions of WalMart danced in my head.

It was a rather busy Sunday afternoon at Target, but the express line had no wait.  I walked right up to the register and said “I’d like to load my RedCard please”, like I had done it a million times.  She looked at me with a smile and said, “Of course!”

I loaded $325 with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card with absolutely no issues.  It was the easiest thing ever.  I was in and out of the store in about 5 minutes. (Confession…I was having Walmart flashbacks when swiping my credit card, trying to keep it out of her sight so she wouldn’t bark at me “Cash or debit ONLY!”.  When she asked to see the card for the last 4 digits, I had a mild panic attack.  But she entered them, handed it back to me and I was done)  As my son would say “Easy, peasy, lemon squeezey”

So now, where do I go from here? I need to have some sort of strategy for loading the card.  I don’t have any minimum spending requirements to meet, so I need to beef up an account that I plan to use soon.  Ultimate Rewards points are ultimately the most valuable in my opinion, so I think I will focus on them.  But I can’t get too greedy and have Chase wonder why I am suddenly spending so much money at Target.  In even amounts.  I can fix part of that by loading, say, $432.67 to make it look like an actual purchase.  As I have said before, I am not a HUGE manufactured spend(er).  I usually do only a couple thousand a month to pay bills with.  The RedBird limits are $2,500 per day and $5,000 per month, so I can’t go too crazy anyway.  I read blogs of people who do $15,000 or $20,000 a month (and I’m sure you read them too) and honestly, I think those are the people who ruin this for the rest of us who play conservatively.

Right now I only have 1 RedBird, but when Serve dies I think I will close it and open a RedBird in Matthew’s name.  That will give us $10,000 of MS availability each month.  Not that I would use that much.

I also might buy a few American Express Gift Cards through cash back portals.  I will likely use my SPG Amex card for that.  Right now I can get $30 back for buying a $2,000 Amex gift card.  The gift card will cost $12.90 in shipping and fees, so I will make a $17.10 profit.  Better than nothing.  And then I can load the GC on to my RedBird for no fee.  Less Target purchases appearing on my credit card accounts.

We’ll see how this goes.  I’ll keep you posted.

Saving Money at Disney

We are going to Walt Disney World for Spring Break next week.  Yes, I know we are crazy.

walt-disney-world-news1

 

I have done a pretty good job saving money on the trip.  I booked our rental car way back in October for the great rate of $136 for the week! The same car at the same company booked right now is $299.

We are staying at the Country Inn & Suites by the airport.  It’s not fancy, but it has decent reviews and who spends that much time in the room anyway?  I am using Club Carlson points for half of the stay (with the BOGO deal for having the Club Carlson VISA card) and my friend is paying cash for the 2nd half of the stay and I got a great rate at 30% off for 3 nights.

I used 34,000 reward points from my Wells Fargo Propel American Express card (40,000 point sign up bonus) to get my 5 day adult park ticket and bought my son’s 5 day ticket on Undercover Tourist.   With my leftover Wells Fargo Propel rewards points I got a Best Western hotel gift card that I will use on our trip to Bryce Canyon this fall.

But here is the most recent Disney money saving deal I found.

Do you know about AMEX Offers or AMEX Sync?  For Sync, you connect your Amex card with your Twitter account and follow the American Express Twitter feed to take advantage of money saving offers.    You can also just log in to your Amex account to see “Offers for You” and have them added to your card.

Since the Wells Fargo Propel is actually serviced by Wells Fargo, it does not appear when I log into my American Express account.  My SPG, Delta SkyMiles Platinum and SkyMiles Gold Business card are on my American Express account page online.  You can usually add each offer to only one card.  BUT since the Wells Fargo card is separate, I can get the offer added to that card as well via AMEX Sync on Twitter.

So how does this save money at Disney?  Well, one of the Amex Offers is $10 off a $50 purchase at Lowe’s.  Lowe’s sells gift cards, including Disney Gift Cards.  I bought two $50 Disney gift cards at Lowe’s and got two $10 statement credits from American Express.   I added the offer to my SPG card and my Wells Fargo card and got $100 worth of Disney gift cards for $80.  In my book, this is a 20% discount on food.  That should buy at least one meal, right?  My husband wanted me to use the offers to buy mulch.  Yeah…that sounds like fun.

 

Black Tuesday and other thoughts

So about 2 weeks ago I wrote a post about my “new” discovery of buying American Express Gift Cards through shopping portals and earning cash back.  Earning cash back on these cards really helps defray the cost of buying VISA gift cards to load on to Bluebird.

Since I started churning credit cards and playing the miles and points game I am ALWAYS waiting for the other shoe to drop.  And this past Tuesday, it did.  At least as far as cash back on American Express Gift Cards is concerned.

American-Express-Gift-Card

As of Tuesday afternoon, all shopping portals (for cash back or miles/points) pulled American Express Gift Cards.  If you read Flyertalk, there is all sorts of speculation as to why this has happened.  Everything from a re-negotiating of contracts between AMEX and merchants to too much Manufactured Spending has been speculated.  Some suggest the cash back offers may come back in the next month or two, as a similar blackout happened last fall.  Only time will tell.

I got one last $2,000 American Express Gift Card purchase in under the wire on Monday morning.  I hate that I can’t earn cash back anymore, but I’m happy with what I earned this month and that I came out ahead!  Since early August I have spent $46.43 on fees to buy VISA gift cards BUT I have earned $100.50 for purchasing American Express Gift Cards via BeFrugal (<– my link) so I am actually $54.07 ahead of the game.  We won’t talk about what I have spent on fees for the past couple years.  But I worked those into my yearly travel budget so they didn’t hurt my daily budget at all.

App-O-Rama 2014

I haven’t really done any big App-O-Ramas this year.  I did a couple small ones for myself, but all Matthew has done this year is get two Citi AA Executive cards.  (but those are very substantial)

Here’s a breakdown of what we have earned and spent for the first 9 months of 2014

Matthew

  • Citi AA Executive Mastercard Feb 2014 – 110,000 miles – $250
  • Citi AA Executive Mastercard Jun 2014 – 110,000 miles – $250
  • Chase Marriott Premier Rewards  Sep 2014 – 72,000 points  – $0

Laura

  • Citi AA Executive Mastercard Mar 2014 – 110,000 miles – $250
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa  May 2014 – 48,000 points – $0
  • Club Carlson Premier Visa  May 2014 – 87,500 points – $75
  • Wells Fargo Propel Amex May 2014 – 43,000 points – $0
  • Delta Skymiles Amex Gold Business  Aug 2014 – 52,000 miles – $0
  • Chase Marriott Premier Rewards  Aug 2014 – 72,000 points – $0

So all together we earned 330,000 airline miles, 231,500 hotel points, 48,000 Ultimate Rewards points (that I will probably transfer to United next year) and 43,000 points that I am going to use for Disney World park hopper tickets in March 2015.

To get all those points and miles, we spent $825.  I know…that’s a lot.  But, like I said, I work that into my yearly travel budget, so it doesn’t really hurt.

I am going to take a break from applying for cards for a few months.  Unless something comes along that is too good to pass up!  No reason for this really, other than giving my credit score a rest.  Both of our scores are still above 800, so all this credit card churning has not hurt us in the least and probably has even helped our scores to go up.

My plan is to apply for the Southwest personal and business card in early 2015 to earn the companion pass.  Unfortunately we don’t live in an area that Southwest serves, but it would be worth driving to Louisville for all those free flights.  Heck, people from here drive to Louisville when they are PAYING for flights!

Summer 2015

I’m ashamed to say that I still do not have anything booked for our summer vacation in 2015.  I don’t have enough Delta miles yet! I am still about 8,000 miles short.  I may end up buying the remaining miles I need since the plug has been pulled on the American Express gift cards.  I will still try to push out some MS in the next month so I can have close to enough by October and book then.  If anything is left.

We have no idea where we want to go really and at this point, we will probably just spin the Delta wheel and see where it lands.  Where ever I can get 3 business class tickets to, is where we will go.  I am going to try for Greece, Italy or France.  But who knows where we will end up!  And actually we may stay in the US next year! Imagine that! But I have always wanted to explore the west – Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Utah.  2015 may be the year to do that!

Happy Travels!

 

I did it! My first Business card!

Finally!

I have long been jealous of the bloggers and travel hackers who get so many extra miles and points by getting business cards.  Unfortunately, stay at home moms do not qualify as “business owners” because nobody actually pays us for our services.  (hmmmpf)

Several years ago, I was a Realtor and could have easily gotten multiple business cards for my real estate business.  But I was not into this game then and let my license expire back in 2007.

So, here I sit, letting millions of miles pass me by because I do not have a business.  But do I?

I live in a subdivision that has a community clubhouse that residents can rent out for parties and meetings.  I am in charge of renting the clubhouse and BUYING SUPPLIES for it.  I am paid a modest fee for every party that I book.  A modest fee, yet still a fee.  I am sent a 1099 tax form every year by the HOA and I have to pay taxes on that modest money that I earn.  Do I have a business?  I thought I might.  So a couple years ago, I applied for a Chase Ink card using that business description.  I was denied.  That broke me.  I was scared of Chase then and stayed away from them until my recent Chase Sapphire Preferred card.  Not sure what went wrong with the Ink card.  Maybe they didn’t like the fact that I only made about $2,500 a year and spent less than $100 a month on supplies.

Gatekeeper Paranormal

 

For several months now, I have been getting letters from American Express OPEN Business credit card, addressed to Gatekeeper Paranormal.  I have no idea how they got our name and my address linked to it.  But they did.  We do not charge a fee for our services so we are a “non-profit”,  but have not registered as such because that costs money and if we don’t make money, we don’t have money.

Recently we started working with Bobby Mackey’s Music World.  This has given us a good deal of exposure and as such we have started investing more in our “business”.  Ordering t-shirts and banners, buying new equipment and vendor tables at conventions.  Unless we get our own “Ghost Hunters” type TV show, we are not going to make much money doing this BUT we are making a small amount and still putting out money and providing a service.

The American Express OPEN card was offering me 50,000 Membership Rewards points for spending $5,000 in 3 months AND an additional 25,000 points for spending another $5,000 in the same 3 months.  That’s A LOT of spend.  Especially considering I want to apply for new Marriott Premier VISA cards this month.

I really need some Delta miles though! I want to go to Europe next summer (!) in business class and I only have 310,000 SkyMiles.  (I need 375,000.  which is ridiculous. but it is what it is)  So I started looking at some other business card offers this morning and saw that the Delta SkyMiles Gold Business card was offering 50,000 miles for spending only $1,000 in the first 3 months!  Wow.  If I had to, I could BUY the remaining 15,000 SkyMiles for about $500.  But hopefully I can manufacture some spending in the next month to lower that significantly.

I was nervous, but I applied for the card using Gatekeeper Paranormal information.  It was quite painless actually.  They asked what kind of business and I marked “other”.  They asked my annual income and provided a drop down box where the first option was “$0-$49,999”.  OK.  That’s honest.

60 seconds later:

first biz card

 

Wow.  I was over the moon.  This opens up a whole new world for me!

And that brings me to this blog.  Most of the BIG guy bloggers have affiliate links for credit cards and make a nice little commission every time somebody clicks on one and is approved.  (I just gave Million Mile Secrets some money this morning.  You’re welcome.)

I do not have any such links and I honestly have no idea how to go about getting them.  Part of me doesn’t want to pimp credit cards all the time and another part of me doesn’t want the banks controlling (or trying to control) my content.   But the opportunity exists that I could get affiliate links.  And of course I want to make money.  So even if I don’t have any now, I could apply for a business card for this blog with the intention of getting paid for advertising credit cards.  I could.  But should I?

So apparently I have 3 businesses that technically should each be eligible for their own business credit card.  Will I do that? I doubt it.  But I will be exploring the business side of this game a bit more now.  I’m still very conservative, both in manufactured spend and credit card churning in general.

Do you have any business credit cards?  Have you tapped that well yet?

I heart you American Express.  Thank you.

American Express Gift Cards

Just a quick post so you know I’m still alive and to share my recent experiment.

American-Express-Gift-Card

I have heard of people buying American Express gift cards online through cash back portals, but I had never done it myself until last month.  I tested the waters by buying a $200 gift card using the AMEX Sync offer of $10 back on the purchase of AMEX gift cards.  I went through BeFrugal (<that is my link)  and also earned $5 cash back.

I signed up for a 3 month trial of free shipping from American Express, but I still had to pay the $3.95 purchase fee. I paid $203.95 for the gift card.  I was almost immediately issued a $10 credit on my American Express statement and I have $5 pending at BeFrugal.  I liquidated the card via Amazon Payments because I didn’t want to go through the hassle of trying to buy gift cards with it.  (and spending more money to do so) So…after my credits, I paid $188.95 for a $200 gift card.  Not bad.

A couple days ago, I got a bit braver and went for a $1,000 AMEX gift card.  I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which wasn’t the best decision.  I’m trying to build Delta points to burn on a trip to Europe next year and those Ultimate Rewards points won’t help me do that.  But, nevertheless, I did it.  I paid $1003.95 for the card and used my free shipping.

For the $1,000 gift card, I earned $27.50 cash back via BeFrugal. I will use this AMEX gift card to purchase 2 $500 VISA gift cards at Walmart and load them to Bluebird.  Stay tuned for an update or a new post to see how that goes.  I hope to do that today or tomorrow.

I will pay $4.94 for each VISA gift card.  Plus the $3.95 purchase fee on the AMEX card.  I have spent $13.83 in fees BUT I am getting $27.50 cash back.  I am $13.67 ahead of the game.

I just made $27.34. Why didn’t I start doing this years ago?

As long as I do not have any hassles buying VISA gift cards with the AMEX gift cards, this is going to be my “new thing”.

Do you buy American Express gift cards online through shopping portals?  Let me know in the comments!  I would love to hear your experience.

Of course none of this is helping me meet my minimum spend on the last Citi Executive card.  (DO NOT use Citi cards to buy American Express gift cards or you will be charged a cash advance fee!) I’m still a couple thousand short on that minimum spend, but I have until Sept 26, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

I am going to write more.  I am going to write more.

I keep telling myself that.  And I will.  Now that Parker has started 1st grade, I have about 8 hours of “free” time every day.  I have a lot going on.  My paranormal group Gatekeeper Paranormal just started doing tours of Bobby Mackey’s Music World, so I am busy scheduling and conducting those.  I am also trying to plan our spring break 2015 trip to Disney World.  And a trip to Europe next summer.

I also plan to apply for a few cards at the end of this month so I need to sort out which ones are the best.  I know for sure we will each be getting a Marriott Premier Rewards card (not my link) offering 70,000 points after spending  $2,000 in 3 months.

I’m also working on the rest of my trip reports from Thailand! It really was an incredible trip and I want to share all the details!

**UPDATE** I just returned home from Walmart where I purchased two “Birthday Candle” VISA gift cards for $495 each – using the $1000 Amex Gift Card.  I then loaded the VISA gift cards to Bluebird with no problems!

Possible Regret and A Couple Good Bonuses

I hope I don’t regret this

Until midnight last night, you could transfer SPG points to American Airlines or US Airways and receive a 20% bonus.  This was on top of the 25% bonus you already get for transferring SPG points to airlines.  I have just over 40,000 points, so I could have turned those into 58,000 AAdvantage miles.  (or Dividend Miles)

Conventional Wisdom in this game tells you not to transfer miles unless you have immediate plans to use them.  I don’t.  Plus I am pretty flush with AAdvantage Miles and Dividend Miles right now thanks to 3 Citi Executive cards and Matthew’s recent bump in business travel.  I have more than enough for my planned trip to Australia (in BUSINESS class) in 2016.  But this was a heck of an offer to pass up and one that may not return for some time.

I have lots of hotel points in other programs, so I don’t necessarily NEED SPG points for hotels; although you can sometimes find some Great Redemptions.

I would also probably not transfer the points to any other airline.  Except maybe Delta if I needed some points to redeem some of their ridiculously over-priced awards.

Too late now to do anything about it.  It’s just something I decided to think about this morning.  I will probably end up using my SPG points to stay at the Westin in Whistler, which is why I got the card in the first place.

westinwhistler

The Westin Resort & Spa, Whistler

Rooms at the Westin Whistler are 16,000 SPG points per night during Christmas break and most of ski season, but you can find rooms for 9,000 points per night in late ski season.  As long as I have my SPG American Express card open, I will get the 5th night free when I book 4 on points.  So, I still need to earn 24,000 points to get enough points.  SPG points aren’t easy to earn, but if I concentrate some MS on the card over the next year, I should be able to do it.  (then I will watch for the inevitable devaluation)

A Couple Good Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses

Right now, Chase is offering the United Explorer card with an increased sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $2,000 in 3 months.  I would love to get this one, but Matthew and I just canceled our previous United Explorer cards in July of 2013.  The wait time for churning Chase cards is generally 24 months.  So hopefully next summer they will offer a similar bonus.  But if you have not had a Chase United Explorer card in the past 2 years-go for it!

Chase is also offering the Marriott Rewards Premier VISA card with an increased sign up bonus of 70,000 points PLUS 1 Free night at a category 1-4 hotel after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months.

Matthew and I will definitely be signing up for the Marriott card.  We both just canceled the basic Chase Marriott Rewards card, but this Premier card is a different product so we are eligible for the sign-up bonus even though it has not been 24 months.

Incidentally, I do not earn any commissions if you use the links above.  Those are just public links that I copied and pasted.

Happy Travels!

Amazon Payment Fail – and subsequent heart failure

Jumping On A New Bandwagon

I know of many bloggers who regularly buy American Express Gift Cards (AGC) via online shopping portals and earn cash back.  I figure I spend roughly $250 a year buying gift cards and I would rather that NOT be part of my travel budget.  So I needed to find a way to offset that expense.  Hello online shopping portals!

WARNING: Always read the fine print when going through any online shopping portal and make sure you understand the terms and conditions.  Also some credit cards will code AGC purchases as CASH ADVANCES, and you don’t want that.  It’s usually just Citi, but check this Flyertalk thread for more information.

For my first test I went through Be Frugal and bought a $200 American Express gift card.    There was a 3.95 purchase fee BUT I earned 2.5% cash back.  So I actually made a $1.05 profit! Woohoo!  Not much I know, but this was just a test to see how it goes.

I signed up for a 3 month free trial of American Express Premium Shipping Service so I did not have to pay a shipping fee.  If you use any kind of free shipping code when placing your gift card order, you will NOT earn your cash back from the shopping portal.  UNLESS it’s a promo code offered by the shopping portal.

Normally the shipping cost is $8.95.  So $8.95 shipping plus $3.95 is $12.90 and with my $5 cash back, I would be PAYING $7.90.  I think you can figure out, that is NOT a good deal.  However, if you bought a $1,000 gift card at 2.5% cash back you would get $25 and therefore make a $12.10 profit.  So if you have to pay shipping, it is best to buy high denomination gift cards.  But I plan to take advantage of the free shipping for the next 3 months.

American-Express-Gift-Card

What To Do With An American Express Gift Card

The easiest thing to do is just use it for everyday spending.  But that isn’t earning you more points for using another credit card for your everyday spending.  You can also use the AGC to buy VISA gift cards and then load them to Bluebird.  But you have to keep in mind that you will be paying a fee to buy that VISA gift card, which eats into your cash back profit.

The last option is to liquidate it through Amazon Payments. You are limited to $1,000 a month with this option, but it is the easiest way to liquidate gift cards.

Uh Oh

I ordered the gift card yesterday and it arrived on my doorstep at 9am this morning.  I don’t feel like getting dressed making a trip to Walmart today and since I only made $1.05 profit on this card, I didn’t want to spend another $4.94 on a VISA gift card.  So I decided to send it to my husband via Amazon Payments.  I have never had an issue doing this in the past – but I have never used an AGC!

I logged into Amazon Payments and entered the gift card number and expiration date and set it up to send $200.  About 5 minutes later, I got this email.

Greetings from Amazon Payments,

Your payment of $200.00 to ********* has failed.

Thank you for using Amazon Payments.
For further information about Amazon Payments, please visit our Help pages

No explanation of why.  Just….failure.  Of course I totally freaked out and thought for sure I was being shut down by Amazon Payments.

shwew

 

I did a frantic google search and found this post.  Basically, if Amazon Payments recognizes your card as a gift card, it places a $1 hold on the card.  So my payment of $200 failed because it was over the limit.  So I went back in and sent him $175 and it went through with no issue.

 

 

Wow.  One of my biggest fears in this game is getting “shut down”.  By anyone.  I have said it many times, I am very conservative when it comes to Manufactured Spending. And I think there are people out there who would raise many more red flags than I would, but you just never know.

Be careful out there, peeps! And tread lightly! Especially if you are a newbie!

Happy Travels!

AMEX Sync Offers and Walmart Gift Cards

Shop on Amazon for Free!

American Express Sync is giving targeted members some pretty great deals right now.  The best offer is the $20 statement credit for spending $20 at Amazon.

Unless you check your account regularly or read several miles and points blogs, you may not know if you have been targeted for this offer.  I don’t think American Express sends out e-mails letting you know about these offers.  At least, I didn’t get one!

To find out if you were targeted, log into your American Express account and click on “Offers For You” near the bottom of the page.  Scroll through the offers and “Save” the offer you like to one of your American Express accounts.

I checked my account and found that I was offered the $20 statement credit for spending $20 at Amazon (apparently some people are offered $20 for spending $40).   I have an SPG card and a Delta SkyMiles Platinum card.  Once I saved the offer to my SPG card, it no longer appeared on my SkyMiles card.  I was hoping to get the offer twice (as some folks have been reporting they are able to do) but once I saved it to a card, it disappeared.

This information would have been useful to me YESTERDAY when I purchased a new vacuum on Amazon! But if I can’t find something else to buy on Amazon before August 31, 2014, I can always buy a restaurant gift card. I bet you didn’t know that Amazon sells gift cards! Well, they do!  You have to watch the gift cards though.  Some offer free shipping and some offer free shipping only with a $35 purchase.  Of course, if you have Amazon Prime, this is not an issue.

AMEXsync

 

As you can see, I also saved the Bonefish Grill offer and the Sally Beauty offer.  Those are just like really great coupons!

There is also a Costco offer, but we do not have Costco in my area.

Gift Cards Are Not Dead!

Every morning I try to read as many of my favorite blogs as I can.  And almost every day there will be a post about the death of the gift card/money order/Bluebird/Manufactured Spending game.  “Oh…I tried to load gift cards at Walmart and it didn’t work, the game is over”  “Oh….I am stuck with $6,000 worth of gift cards that I can’t unload.” “Oh….the Walmart cashier would not let me buy gift cards with a credit card” “Oh…the cashier at Walmart told me they won’t accept debit cards to load to Bluebird anymore”

First of all….stay away from the Walmart cashiers! I avoid them like the plague!  I am fortunate that the 2 Walmarts in my area have kiosks that work about 75% of the time.  This morning I stopped by Walmart and bought a $500 Happy Birthday gift card, went straight to the Bluebird Machine and loaded it, no problem

See?

bluebirdscreenshot

 

You will also see that I only have $900 in my Bluebird account.  As I said in my Million Mile Secrets interview, I am very conservative when it comes to Manufactured Spending. I don’t do it every month and I don’t pay off credit cards with other credit cards.  I also have never bought more than one gift card at a time! I just don’t want to raise any red flags!  Maybe I’m too cautious.  I’m sure I could earn a lot more miles if I did more.  But I don’t.

Over the next 3 weeks, I will buy two more Happy Birthday gift cards at Walmart and raise my Bluebird balance to about $1,900 which will pay my August mortgage, electric bill, and water and sanitation bill.  That’s it.

I have said this many times before.  Don’t get into this game just because I do it.  Or just because the other, more popular bloggers do it.  Do it because you want to travel.  Do what you feel comfortable doing.  If you don’t feel comfortable buying gift cards and using Bluebird, then don’t do it!

To be honest, I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with the gift card/Bluebird thing.  My stomach starts churning when I walk up the cash register to buy the gift card and expect the cashier to say “Sorry, you cannot buy a gift card with a credit card.”  Then once I get past that, it starts again when I wait for the Bluebird to say “YOU LOSE” and spit a “declined” receipt at me.  But fortunately, neither of those things has ever happened to me.  (except when I bought the wrong kind of gift card)

So…don’t believe everything you read on the other blogs.  Gift cards are alive and well.  I plan to keep drinking from this well until it dries up!

Happy Travels!

Laura’s May 2014 App-O-Rama

App-O-Rama Results: 170,000 points

If I haven’t mentioned this before, I am a very conservative App-O-Rama’er.  (is that a new word?) If you are unfamiliar with what an App-O-Rama is, see this post.

Most people do five or six cards at one time, I usually do three or maybe four depending on how good the offers are.  At this time, we seem to be in sort of a drought of good offers so I only applied for three. Continue reading