Best Travel Camera Bag – EVER!

About 6 years ago we upgraded from a small Sony point and shoot camera that could fit in my pocket, to a big ol’ Nikon D3100.  Yes it takes great pictures, but more often than not, I would leave it at home because it was just too big and bulky to carry around.

Tamrac6

 

We were using a Tamrac backpack camera bag.  It held absolutely everything we needed to take pictures, but it was a pain to access your camera when you needed it. By the time you took the bag off of your back, set it down and unzipped the bottom compartment, the moment had likely passed.

As I was planning my trip to Romania (which was AWESOME and I am really going to try to write about it soon) I knew I wanted to take the big camera, but I was dreading the backpack.  Especially since I would not have Matthew with me to carry the load!

On a previous trip to Europe, I carried my camera in my purse, which was not the best idea.  There was absolutely no padding and the particular purse I was carrying did not even zip or snap shut.  Bad idea.

I wanted a camera bag that looked more like a purse than a camera bag.  I started researching bags, but most of them still looked like a camera bag.

Then I found the Lowepro Passport Sling. This bag is awesome.  It fit not only my big Nikon D3100, but also an additional zoom lens if I was so inclined to take it with me.  (Which I was, but did not use it even once)  The front part of the bag expands by about 30% when you open the zipper.  This was great for carrying my wallet, my Go Pro, my phone and even a light cardigan! There are outside pockets also, but they have no zipper or velco closure so you can’t put anything valuable in there.  But the outside pockets were great for water bottles and metro tickets.

The best part about the Lowepro bag was the padded insert for the camera.  It wasn’t as heavily padded on the bottom as I would have liked and I’m not sure why they didn’t pad the bottom as well as the sides.  But it made a nice little cocoon for the camera to ride in and as long as I was careful not to throw the bag on the ground, I felt that the camera was well protected.

I actually purchased the original version of the bag on amazon.com.  There are still some available here.  My main reason for choosing the older model is because of the khaki color.  Most all camera bags are black and red and I thought the khaki color looked more like a purse and would blend in better.  And well, let’s be honest, it’s almost half the price of the newest model.  But it looks like the newest model has a compartment for a tablet, which could be useful if that is something you like to walk around with.

The bag is big, but at just over 5’8″ I did not feel overwhelmed by it.  A smaller person might find it bulky, but it is very light.  Even when it’s stuffed full!

paris

The bag blends in well and doesn’t scream “CAMERA BAG!”

 

 

Australia Award Availability

A Tough One

I have been dreaming of going to (moving to) Australia since I was 15 years old.  When Matthew and I were dating, he said he would take me there someday.  25 years later, we still haven’t gone.

Australia is far away.  It’s expensive.  It’s huge.  And did I mention it’s far away?

When I first started collecting Delta SkyMiles way back in 2002, my goal was to use them for Australia.  But Australia kept getting put on the back burner and I redeemed miles for Morocco, and Europe and California and many other places.  But I still kept collecting them.   Right now I am sitting at 374,363 SkyMiles.  At 80,000 each way in Business class, I am 105,637 miles short for 3 roundtrip tickets.  There is no easy way to earn more SkyMiles with the restrictions from American Express of “one sign up bonus per lifetime”.  I have already had all the cards.

Over the past couple years, I have really started building up my stash of American AAdvantage miles.  Citi cards are easy to churn and I also took advantage of getting a (few) Citi AAdvantage Executive cards when the sign up bonus was 100,000 miles.  So I have 533,998 AAdvantage miles.  And that’s AFTER just redeeming some for 3 tickets to Paris next spring and 3 tickets to Turks and Caicos last fall.  Oh and 2 tickets to California this summer.

That is way more than enough to get 3 roundtrip business class tickets at 62,500 each way. (375,000 total miles needed)

Will Somebody Please Let Me Spend My Miles?

This is where it gets ugly.

Cathay Pacific (A oneworld partner) has terrific business class availability between Los Angeles and Australia via Hong Kong.  Trouble is, American Airlines will not let you route through Asia using their miles.  The 62,500 would take me to Hong Kong and then I would have to redeem another 35,000 mile award to get to Australia.  That’s worse than Delta’s 80,000 mile awards!

Qantas is also a oneworld partner, but they are VERY stingy with their business class availability.

Delta has lots of business class availability with their partner Virgin Australia, but like I said before, I do not have enough Delta miles for 3 roundtrip tickets with Delta.

Possible Good News On The Horizon

A few days ago, American announced it would begin its own nonstop service between Los Angeles and Sydney beginning in December 2015.  This was exciting news at first.  Surely American Airlines would allow a handful of business class award seats to be redeemed by its own members on an aircraft that has 52 business class seats. Right? Not bloody likely.

Check out these pictures.

dfwhkg

Who would pay 175K Miles?

This first one shows award availability for business class on American’s nonstop service between Dallas-Ft. Worth and Hong Kong.  There are no business class Saver Awards available at the far reaches of the current schedule.  None!

The next picture shows you the available seats you could choose from if you redeemed the 175,000 point award.

seats

D’oh!

All of them!  Sure, it’s possible that a couple tickets have been sold and not been assigned seats.  Unlikely though.  American is hoarding seats the way I hoard my miles!

What’s the point?  They would rather let that cabin go out empty, than let people redeem miles for it.

The scenario doesn’t change much when you look at the next couple of weeks.  Still no saver award seats, but 38 available business seats.

nextweek3Is there a Happy Medium?  Maybe.  I have to wait and see once they load the new flights into the schedule.

So What Are My Options?

I have to prepare for the worst case scenario.  Assuming AA does not release 3 business class seats on their new flights, I have accepted that my family will have to travel separately.  Right now, I can send 2 people on Delta/Virgin Australia roundtrip in Business.  The third person can (hopefully) travel on either American or Qantas roundtrip in Business.

I could also transfer 20,000 SPG points to Delta.  With the 5,000 point bonus, I would have 25,000 more SkyMiles and enough for all 3 of us to return on the same flight.  But I’m not sure I want to spend my SPG points for that.  Again, it is almost impossible to earn more of them now.  I only have 43,502 points and I wanted to use them for a ski trip.  Although, they are probably more valuable being used toward Australia.

I was somewhat encouraged when I saw this.  Business class availability on Qantas for 1 person.  For a while, I was having trouble finding availability for even one person!

aaavail

I want to start my trip in Cairns, so I don’t see any way around a connecting flight.  But that’s ok!

Here is Delta/Virgin Australia availability for 2 people for the same dates and almost the same time.

 

dlavail2

This isn’t ideal, but sometimes you have to do things like this to travel for free.  I’m still going to keep my fingers crossed that I can get 3 business class seats on American when they release the schedule. It is possible that they might release a bunch of award seats in the beginning.

What About Coach?

Some people might think I am being a travel snob by refusing to fly to coach.  Not at all.  I know I could easily get 3 economy class seats on Qantas at 37,500 miles each for one way.

But I have done that.  See here.

Los Angeles to Australia is a flight of approximately 15 hours.  By comparison, the longest flight of our Thailand trip, from Seoul to Chicago, was 12.5 hours.

It was not fun.

I do not want to do it again.

Call me a snob if you will, but I have no desire to repeat that.  I have done the work to earn these miles, I want to redeem them and be comfortable on a flight halfway around the world.

And Now, I Wait

I want our trip to begin on May 31, 2016.  Or as close as I can get to that date.  I am really very flexible with dates, which should help me out with securing award seats.

I do have 4 nights booked at the Radisson Blu in Sydney, June 13-17, but I’m quite sure I can fit that in to whatever flight dates I am able to book.

The schedule for May 31,2016 should load on July 6.  Hopefully American and Qantas can get the approval for the new routes by then.  I really don’t want to book anything until I see how many seats American is going to release on the new flights.

If anybody has had any experience doing this or has any advice to offer, I am all ears!

 

 

My “Last Hurrah” with Club Carlson – Plus a Mini AOR

Ahhhh….Club Carlson.  I have only had your credit card for 1 year now and in the beginning you were full of promises and Bonus Nights.

But now? Now you are like a cheating lover who has punched me in the heart and destroyed my faith in all hotel loyalty programs.

Too dramatic? Yeah.  Maybe.  But the past couple weeks I have been seriously stressed out by the looming devaluation of the Club Carlson Rewards Program.

It is crazy easy to earn Club Carlson points without ever staying in one of their properties.  You earn 5 points per dollar spent and they offer an 85,000 point sign up bonus for their Premier Rewards Visa Card.  After your sign up and initial spend, you’ve got a cool 97,500 points to redeem.  Factor in the Bonus Nights (R.I.P.) and you could spend 4 nights in a 4-star European hotel for just $75.  (that is the annual fee that is not waived for the first year)

Granted, their US properties are not the greatest (with a few exceptions) but many of their European properties are quite nice.

As you all know by now, the Bonus Night perk went away on June 1, 2015.  Between Matthew and myself we had about 350,000 Club Carlson points that would be worth half as much after June 1. (it was 337,000 but Matthew stayed at a Radisson on business and earned more points)  And to add insult to injury, they were also making a bunch of Category changes on June 1, with most properties moving UP a category.

I spent the last 2 weeks of May trying to decide what speculative bookings to make, hoping I would be able to make them all work.

What I Did

I am planning a trip to Australia in June 2016.  That much, I know.  I do not really know the exact dates, but I have a general idea of when I would like to go and how long I would like to stay.  I also know that I would like to end my trip in (and fly home from) Sydney.  So I took a big gamble and booked 4 nights at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney.  I used 50,000 miles from my account and 50,000 miles from Matthew’s account.

raddison-blu-sydney

Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney

It’s a beautiful 5 star hotel within walking distance of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the view of some kind of  futuristic looking Opera House.

Now all I have to do is hope I can secure 3 business class seats home on Virgin Australia using Delta miles when the schedule opens up in mid July!  Of course I also have to hope that I can secure 3 business class seats on Cathay Pacific using American miles to even get there in the first place!   Hopefully all the planets align and the dates I want/need will be available.

Next up – Spring Break 2016.  This was a tough one, but yet a very easy one at the same time.  I had tossed about the idea of going to Cancun to visit Chichen Itza.  I also considered Peru and Machu Picchu.  Some kind of Mayan phase I was in, I guess.  I had also seriously considered Egypt.  Parker is fascinated with Egypt right now and has had an Egyptian themed birthday for the past 2 years! But Egypt is so hard to get to! (read: it costs more miles than I am willing to spend) I could not find what I thought was a reasonable redemption to get us to Egypt so I put it back on the shelf for a while.

I asked Parker where he would like to go for Spring Break next year (other than Egypt) and, without hesitation, he said, “Paris”.  Done and done.  You really do not have to ask me twice to go to Paris.  I am going for 2 days in October of this year, but that’s ok.

paris

So.  I booked 4 nights at the Radisson Blu Paris Champs Elysees.  50,000 points for 2 nights from each of our accounts.  Now this redemption worries me just a little bit.  The 50,000 point redemption is for a “Deluxe Room” which has one queen size bed.  The 3 of us cannot really sleep comfortably in one queen bed.  With each of us having Gold Status (by renewing the Visa card for another year) I am hoping we will be upgraded to a Business Class room with a king bed or a room that will accommodate a rollaway bed.  It’s a gamble and I know that upgrades are never a sure thing.  I could have redeemed 105,000 points for the Business Class room.  But you know I would never do that.

radisson-sas-hotel-paris-champs-elysees-paris_240920100908461791

Radisson Blu Hotel Champs Elysees Paris

My original plan was to book 6 nights at the Champs Elysees, but as luck would have it, they did not have availability for 2 nights in the middle of my stay.  My solution was to spend 2 nights at Disneyland Paris.  (Euro Disney?) At 7, I don’t think Parker will have outgrown it yet.

Using 50,000 points from Matthew’s account, I booked 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Disneyland Paris.  I’m not sure what to expect of Disneyland Paris, but I do not expect an American experience.

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Radisson Blu Disneyland Paris

Matthew and I are huge geeks.  Especially when it comes to Halloween.  One of our favorite Halloween attractions is Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, FL.

My favorite time to go is early October, but I going to Romania with my paranormal team in early October.  I also have lots of things planned for later in October so my only option for Halloween Horror Nights was the last weekend in September.  I do not have any flights booked yet (I am hoping for a deal on Frontier) so I took a chance and made a speculative booking at the Country Inn and Suites Orlando Universal.  I used 28,000 points from Matthew’s account for 2 nights.

I also made a speculative booking at Country Inn and Suites Sandusky OH over the 4th of July 2016.  Matthew’s birthday is July 4 and in the past we have gone to amusement parks for his birthday (see above statement about being geeks), so why not next year? Parker has never been to Cedar Point and he is big enough for almost all the rides. Another 28,000 points from Matthew’s account for those 2 nights.

As of May 31, I was left with about 15,0oo points in my account and Matthew had about 30,000.  I could not let them go to waste!

We love California and have gone every year for the past 10 or more years.  Since I will likely buy a Platinum Cedar Fair pass next year (to go to Cedar Point on the 4th of July), if we went to California we could go to Knott’s Berry Farm.  And of course Disneyland.  I found the Radisson Suites Hotel Buena Park which is walking distance to Knott’s Berry Farm.  Big problem though! The Radisson Buena Park was 38,000 points.  Neither of us had enough points.  Club Carlson will allow Gold Elite members to transfer points to another member’s account by calling their Customer Service Center.  The Customer Service Center is closed on weekends and the reservation agents can’t (or won’t) do it.  Remember, the Bonus Night was going away on Monday, June 1.

At this point I was determined not to lose that point redemption and went so far as to install Google Voice on my phone and call the Club Carlson Australian Customer Service Center!  I waited on hold for 18 minutes (and 36 cents) before my call was answered by their Dallas TX reservation center.  What?  Apparently the Australian Service Center was getting so many calls, they were being routed back to the US.  The lady on the line wanted to know why they were getting so many calls about transferring points.  (Really?) I told her I was actually calling Australia to talk to Customer Service and the call was routed back to her.  She said Customer Service was closed on weekends and she could not understand that it was actually Monday morning already in Australia and why in the world would I call Australia??? I hung up before wasting another 2 cents.

I woke up Monday morning, sad that I lost out on one last Bonus Night award redemption.  But wait…what’s this? Notifications on my computer that Bonus Night bookings were still going through! I hopped on the phone and had points transferred from my account to Matthew’s.  As fast as I could, I logged on to the Club Carlson site to book the Radisson Suites Buena Park.  Score! And guess what else? The Radisson Suites Buena Park actually moved DOWN a category on June 1.  So not only did I get the Bonus Night, I also saved 10,000 points!

As a side note, the Radisson Blu Paris Disneyland also moved down a category and was now 6,000 points less than what I booked it for.  I thought about canceling my reservation and rebooking at the lower rate but either my computer or the Club Carlson website was acting funky and I was afraid of losing it completely.  In my opinion, it was not worth it to potentially lose 38,000 points for the sake of maybe saving 6,000.

So…my Club Carlson Tally:

4 nights Radisson Blu Paris Champs Elysees – 100,000

2 nights Radisson Blu Paris Disneyland – 50,000

4 nights Radisson Blu Park Plaza Sydney – 100,000

2 nights Country Inn and Suites Orlando – 28,000

2 nights Country Inn and Suites Sandusky OH  – 28,000

2 nights Radisson Suites Buena Park CA – 28,000

We each have just over 10,000 points left in our accounts.  Hopefully we will be able to find some use for them in the next year or two.

Mini App – O – Rama

Because I feel like I am not doing anything if I am not actively earning miles and points, and because I just finished the minimum spend on Matthew’s most recent AOR,  I decided to do one for myself.

I don’t feel like making one of my little charts, so I will just tell you what I did.

1. Citibank AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard.  I will earn 50,000 AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.  $0 annual fee for the first year.

  • Reason: you can NEVER have enough AA miles! I am using a big chunk for Cathay Pacific business class to Australia and I want to make sure I have some in the bank.

2. Bank of America Alaska Airlines Signature VISA.  I will earn 25,000 Alaska Airlines miles just for signing up.  No minimum spend required.  $75 annual fee is not waived for the first year.

  • Reason: This is not the greatest sign-up bonus but I am going to start stockpiling Alaska miles to use to get to Fiji in the next 2 years.  As of now, Alaska BOA cards are highly churnable.

3. Barclay’s Frontier Mastercard.  40,000 Frontier miles after spending $500 in the first 3 months. $69 annual fee is not waived for the first year.

  • Reason: My first thought was to use Frontier miles to get to Orlando in September for Halloween Horror Nights.  But it will depend on the fare.  If I can get a good value for the redemption, I will use the miles.  If not, I will pay cash.  I can still use the miles for a ski trip I plan to plan (“plan to plan”, I like that!) for January 2016.

I am getting 115,000 airline miles for $144.  Not the biggest or the cheapest AOR I have ever done, but I have a somewhat immediate need for these miles.

So that’s it for now! I am also working on a post about my recent Manufactured Spending experience.  Hopefully I will have that one up in the next couple days.

I know I don’t have a huge following, but for the handful of people who do read my blog – I appreciate it! Maybe if I would write more…..

Club Carlson Stress

stress-pencil-cropped

I’m sure everybody has heard by now – Club Carlson (VISA) is doing away with their “Bonus Night” perk beginning on June 1.

The Bonus Night is being replaced by a certificate for 1 free night at any US Club Carlson hotel, if you spend $10,000 in a calendar year.   The free night certificate would be more valuable to most people if it could be used outside the US.  The majority of the Club Carlson hotels within the US are nothing to write home about.  (with the exception of a few top tier hotels in major cities)  I stayed at a Country Inn & Suites in Orlando during Spring Break.  It was perfectly fine for us as it offered free breakfast and it was clean.  What more do you need when you are spending all day at the parks anyway?

At this moment I have my recent US Bank Club Carlson VISA bill sitting on the desk in front of me.  I have until June 1 (conveniently) to decide whether or not to pay the $75 annual fee to renew the card.  I am not sure I would spend $10,000 on the card in a year.  With Manufactured Spending getting more difficult, spending $10,000 isn’t so easy any more.  But if you did manage to do it, the $10,000 would not only give you the free night certificate, but also 50,000 points!

radisson-blu-resort-el-quseir-marsa-alam-egypt-holidays-2015-0

They will give me 40,000 points for renewing and  40,000 points could give me 1 free night at a Category 4 hotel.  Or 4 nights at a Category 1 hotel in Cookeville, TN or Tulsa OK! Incidentally there is a very nice looking Radisson Blu in El Quseir Egypt which is a Category 1.  It is located directly on the Red Sea, just east of Luxor with its own dive center.  If only it were easier to get to Egypt!

So Why Am I Stressed?

Because.  Because between Matthew and myself we have 337,042 Club Carlson points.  (377.042 if I renew)  I am the type of person who absolutely, positively has to get the most bang for my buck.  Just because it’s “free” doesn’t mean I will do it.  Many people will pay 32,500 or 37,500 miles for a roundtrip domestic airline ticket that should only be 25,000 miles.  Roundtrip tickets have been 25,000 miles for years! It has only been recently that all of these “levels” were introduced.  It doesn’t matter if those miles cost me $0.  I am not giving them more than 25,000 miles for a roundtrip domestic ticket.  I’m just not.

Go ahead.  Call me crazy.

So, Club Carlson eliminating the Bonus Night and basically cutting the value of my points in half has me scrambling to redeem all my points, with the best possible value, before May 31.  Or May 28, just to be safe.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I am planning a trip to Australia in June 2016.

There are all of 3 Club Carlson hotels in Australia.  2 in Sydney and 1 in Melbourne.  (There seems to be a lack of chain/award hotels in Australia in general).  I would be perfectly happy to spend 4 nights at the Radisson Blu Sydney (2 nights from my account and 2 nights from Matthew’s) but the problem is that I have no idea on what nights I will actually be in Sydney.  I won’t be able to book my airfare until mid-July and of course that will be too late to book the Bonus Night at the Radisson.

I think my best bet is to plan the trip, book the Radisson and hope that I can get business class awards on the dates I want.  If not, the room will end up costing 200,000 points for 4 nights, instead of 100,000.

And I’ll still have 137,042 left.

 

 

Planning 2016 Travel and Other Aggravations

REDbird_card_image

 

As you have probably heard, the Buzz of the day is that beginning tomorrow (May 6) you can no longer load the Target Prepaid REDcard (aka RedBird) with credit cards.  This is (as of now) a basically unsubstantiated rumor, but I’m sure there will be long lines at many Target CS desks tonight!

This makes me very sad as I have only had my RedBird for a couple months and Matthew just got his last month!  I am very conservative with Manufactured Spending, so I really haven’t done much.  I was going to start amping it up and was even going to write a post about it.  But, for right now we just have to wait and see what happens tomorrow.  Hopefully the rumor is not true.

While I’m here, I will tell you my MAJOR MS activity in April 2015.  I’m not a $50k per month MS monster (I do believe they are the ones that ruin it for the rest of us), but here’s what I did.

I purchased $4,000 in American Express Gift Cards (AGC) with my American Express SPG card.  I paid $25.80 in fees but earned $60 in cash back, so I came out ahead by $34.20.  I loaded those cards to the RedBird throughout the month.  Usually in $1,000 increments.

I also did direct credit card loads of $2250 using AA cards and the old US Air card.  WooHoo!  Big spender! Like I said, I was going to step up my game in May!

But for all my troubles I earned 4,000 SPG points and 2,250 AA miles. (actually I may have earned more AA points with the bonus points promotion that is currently running)  And $34 in cash.

Today only, there is a 2.25% cash back offer on AGC via TopCashBack.  I was about to pull the trigger on a couple today until the other shoe dropped on the RedBird.  I still might do it though.  With cash back, even if I have to pay fees to turn around and buy VISA GC with them, I still come out ahead.

Bottom line for me – if the RedBirds die tomorrow, I will probably still keep them.  Or maybe cancel one and go back to Serve with the other.  We should still be able to load both with VISA GC. (I hope!)

2016 Travel

Ahhhh…it’s that time.  Time to think about next year’s travel plans.  I know where I want to go, and when but I’m having trouble making it work.

Dive-sites

 

My son wants to go to Egypt for Spring Break.  He wants to see the Pyramids and Matthew and I want to dive the Red Sea.

I thought this would be easy to accomplish because prices in Egypt are pretty low right now.  Tourism has fallen off by an estimated 95% since the turmoil and civic unrest of the past few years.  The Red Sea resorts are doing OK, but the historical areas in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan are suffering.  So yeah, I thought it would be cheap and easy.  Not so much.

Have you ever tried to GET to Egypt?  Oh my.  The term “BFE” that we used to say as teenagers ain’t for nothing!

I could fly on Delta for 80,000 miles and $115 per ticket.  But I did not really want to burn up my Delta miles, because I wanted to use those for Australia (which I will talk about in a minute).

I was hoping to use some AA miles to get us to Egypt.  AA codes Egypt as “Middle East” , even though it is  in Africa. (I used to know a Delta agent who thought Egypt was in Europe.  But, I digress) AA also uses British Airways to get to Cairo.  So you know what that means.  Fuel Surcharges.  It would cost me 90,000 miles and $463 Per Ticket to fly from CVG to Cairo.  Yikes!

Then I thought of something else.  Spring Break is “off peak” to Europe on AA.  So I could use 40,000 AA miles to fly RT to London and then 20,000 Avios to fly RT from London to Cairo.  Of course, there are fuel surcharges which would be about $250 per ticket. That still hurts.  But it would only be a total of 60,000 miles per ticket and a total of $750 in cash.  Plus I would have to pay cash for the flights from Cairo to Sharm el Sheikh.

This Egypt trip is getting expensive and complicated.

Australia 2016

Another hassle.  Alaska Airlines has some great partners and low redemption rates.  Cathay Pacific, Qantas and even Fiji Airways can get me to Australia from LAX using Alaska miles.  In coach.  Trying to find availability for 3 business class seats is not looking good.  I have checked many dates throughout the year and nothing comes up in business class. Sometimes not even for 1 ticket.  I have not checked Cathay Pacific though, because you have to call them.

I will likely fly coach to Europe in the future.  But not over the Pacific.  No.  Never again.  Been there, done that.  It was horrible.

You know what does show availability for 3 tickets in business class on several dates throughout the year?  Virgin Australia using Delta SkyMiles.  I would gladly do that roundtrip , but sadly I do not have the 480,000 SkyMiles needed.  I have about 375,000 right now.  By doing some heavy MS and/or transferring some SPG points to Delta, I could probably manage 5 awards (at 80,000 each).  That would mean either Matthew or I would have to take a different flight on the outbound or return.  Not ideal, but we could do it as a last resort.

Trying to figure out which programs to use to make these two big trips happen is proving to be quite stressful.

And finally the last trip I hope to take in 2016 is a 4 or 5 night stay at Beaches Turks and Caicos over fall break.  That is one of our favorite places in the entire world.  October is again “off peak” on the AA charts, so it’s only 25,000 miles per ticket.

Club Carlson Devaluation

Between Matthew and myself, we have about 350,000 Club Carlson points.  Somehow, I have to tentatively book all of those before May 31.  Right.  That’s not going to happen.  There are a couple nice Radisson properties in Australia, but I have no idea what dates I will end up traveling on, so I can’t make tentative bookings.  I am assuming if I call back to change the dates, they will take away the bonus night.  That’s what Marriott does.  But I will be sure to clarify that soon.

To add insult to injury, they are raising categories on about 1,000,000 properties beginning June 1.  Interestingly, the property I want to stay at in Egypt is LOWERING from 28,000 points per night to 15,000 points per night.  So if I have to wait until after the Bonus nights go away, it will only cost me another 2,000 points for 2 nights.  But that is certainly not the case for numerous other hotels.

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Radisson Blu Sharm el Sheikh Egypt

So that’s it! That’s all I have for right now.  If you have any suggestions for me regarding Australia or Egypt I would LOVE to hear it.

Happy Travels!

 

 

 

 

Will 2015 Be A Better Year?

Let’s hope so!

When I started this blog in early 2014, I had high hopes of sharing my travel hacking skillz, my adventures in traveling with a child skillz, and my ADEPTNESS at saving loads of money while traveling the world skillz.  But 2014 was not the greatest year in this game.  It could arguably have been the worst year.  There were major devaluations and the downward spiral of manufactured spending made it hard to meet the spend requirements that come from acquiring 4+ credit cards at one time.  Those glory days are long gone I’m afraid.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! It just can’t be!

There are a few (small) things to look forward to in 2015.

  1. Evolve Money is supposed to start accepting credit cards for bill payment sometime in 2015.  I have never used Evolve, but their list of billers seems rather small.  The only one I could pay through Evolve is Duke Energy.  Using Bluebird, I can pay my small town Water and Sanitation bill and my Trash pickup.  Plus there is also the fear that credit card companies will charge a cash advance fee for bills paid via Evolve.
  2. The Target REDbird card has crept its way into my area.  I will have to schlep myself to Cincinnati to get one, but I can reload at my local store.  I will have to cancel my Bluebird to do this, but from all accounts, this seems to be a worthwhile thing to do.
  3. Delta is going to allow one way redemptions for half price.  Finally.  As you may know, I have quite a stash of Delta miles that I need to burn.  I’m hoping to use them for a Christmas trip to Germany next year.  IF (and that’s a big IF) I can find 3 business class low level redemptions.  (don’t laugh) It really hurts to pay 125,000 miles for business class to Europe when every other airline only charges 100,000 miles.  But I can just burn them and be done with them before Delta devalues them even more.
  4. Matthew traveled so much on business this year that he has Platinum status with Marriott and Silver status with American (once they merge with US Airways) and United.  Silver isn’t such a big deal to all the Diamond Elites out there, but he was upgraded to first class on his last United flight.  Without asking for it, or even knowing he was able to! That was nice.
  5. I hope to earn the Southwest Airlines Companion pass in 2015.  It would allow a companion to fly with me at no cost, whether I pay cash or book with points.  I applied for the Southwest Personal Premier card and have completed the minimum spend on that and I am waiting for my approval (I hope) on the business version of the same card.

 

Summer 2015 – done!

I finally made a decision on our summer trip for this year.  We are going to do a quick Arizona/Utah canyon tour, spend a couple days in Las Vegas and end our trip in Northern California.

ThorsHammer_BryceCanyon

Parker was excited when I told him we could go see “Thor’s Hammer” in Bryce Canyon!

This trip is actually going to be a bit on the pricey side, and I’ll tell you why.

Flights for Parker and I were booked on American Airlines using miles.  I had to pay $22 in taxes.

We are flying into Albuquerque because Matthew’s work trip ends there on the day we are starting our trip.  Since he is already there, we don’t have to pay to get him out there.

But we are flying out of San Jose 10 days later.  That means we have to do a one-way car rental.  And they don’t mess around with those drop-off fees.

We are picking up the car on Friday in ABQ and dropping it off in Vegas on Tuesday.  That 4 day rental with drop off fee started at $498!  There doesn’t seem to be any way around the drop off fee.  I recently checked again and found a better rate, so now we are at $415.  That’s better, but still includes a $250 drop fee.  If anybody knows any tips or tricks to get around that, please let me know!

I am paying cash for our room at the Grand Canyon.  I got a very good rate at the Holiday Inn Express for $112 a night.  The regular rate was $207 or I could get it on points for 35,000 per night.  I did not think that was a good use of points.  IHG points are valued around 0.7 each.  I will earn 4600 IHG points for my 2 night stay.

We are spending 1 night in the Bryce Canyon area at the Best Western East Zion Thunderbird Lodge. I’m paying cash for that one too at $98 per night.  Best Western is supposed to come out with a new credit card product this spring.  I hope it is a good one.  Best Western has hotels all over Europe and I would love to rack up some free nights for our Christmas 2015 trip to France and Germany!

Flamingo_Hotel_Las_Vegas

I love anything that’s pink!

We are spending 3 nights in Las Vegas at the Flamingo.  Again, not a hotel I can use points for.  After the resort fees and taxes, it is going to cost about $94 per night.  Although I may have enough points left over in my Wells Fargo Rewards account to cover at least one night of that.  (I’m using the bulk of my Wells Fargo points for a 4 day Disney World ticket during Spring Break!)

And finally we will use some hotel points to stay at the Towne Place Suites in Milpitas, CA.  They have a great deal at 10,000 points per night but we will each use our “Free Night in a Category 4” certificate we received when we applied for the Marriott Rewards VISA card last year.

We are flying from Las Vegas to San Jose, CA on Southwest.  The retail price was $291, but I had a $100 travel credit on my Wells Fargo Propel card that I used to buy a $100 Southwest gift card to apply to that purchase.

So, all in, I’m paying $1,446 for air, car rentals and hotels for our 11 day trip.  I know it’s not free, but the retail cost of what I’m doing is $4,645.  I doubt anybody would actually pay that for this trip and/or do all the crazy things I’m doing to make this trip work.

New Year’s Resolution

I do not normally make New Year’s resolutions because I believe that all they do is set you up for failure.  But…I resolve to write more in this blog in 2015.  I had so many great ideas and plans when I started, but somehow I lost the motivation.  I still have things rattling around in my head and hopefully I can get them written down!

I know we’re 12 days in, but I want to wish everyone the HAPPIEST of New Years! Make it the best one yet! Get out there and travel!

 

Summer 2015 May Not Be Exotic

I am almost ashamed to say that I have not booked any travel for next summer.  It’s been very hard to plan in advance with Matthew’s travel schedule being so unpredictable and now that I have a better idea of when we can go, the pickin’s are slim.

Why do I feel like I am not “traveling” if I do not go to Europe? Or Asia? That’s a mindset that I need to shake off.  Parker loves California and has talked about the Grand Canyon, so I have a feeling the Boring Rolands will be going west this summer.

I have some award tickets on hold with American until Dec 9, so I need to make a decision before then.  Matthew has a work trip to Albuquerque in late June.

Breaking-Bad

OF COURSE I would do this if I have time!

My plan is for Parker and I to fly in to Albuquerque on the last day of his work trip (June 26) and drive to the Grand Canyon from there.  

We could spend a couple days at the Canyon and then drive on to Las Vegas, with a stop at the Hoover Dam.  I’m not sure Vegas is a great place for kids, but I think it would be worth at least a day.  Parker would probably love the lights and action and I’m sure we could find some kid-friendly things to do.

From there, we would fly on Southwest to our favorite place, San Jose CA.  The Southwest fares seem to be around $75 one way, so that’s not bad at all and better than driving!

We love love love love love the Santa Cruz area.  Especially the Boardwalk.  We would spend at least 2 days there.santacruz

For the 4th of July weekend, we would head back up to San Jose to spend the weekend with family and hopefully attend Matthew’s cousin’s 98th birthday party!

My tickets on hold have us flying home from San Jose on Tuesday July 7.  Matthew would have to fly back to Albuquerque before flying home, unless he can work out his travel to allow him to fly home from San Jose.

That is more days than I planned to spend on this trip, but it was the only way I could make low level award tickets work.  I will keep checking, though, and see if anything else opens up that might let me shorten it by at least a day.

Boring, huh?  We go to California every year.  So I guess it’s all perspective.  We love it, and that’s what matters.

But I still have the itch to go to Europe.  (always) So I was checking Delta availability and I found 3 low level awards to London for July 1-July 9.  Of course you have to pay $300 per ticket for the privilege of flying out of London, but still.  Those dates are perfect and I  have been wanting to go to London and Scotland to visit my (dead) relatives.

On the bright side, I am still planning a trip to Romania in Oct 2015 with a friend, so I guess that will be my Europe fix for 2015.  Better travel plans await in 2016 – The Year of Australia!

So what travel plans do you have this summer?  What am I missing?  Do you have any suggestions of places to go where I still might be able to find low-level availability?  I know travel is “free” , but I still refuse to pay medium or high level for awards.  It’s a matter of principle.

Happy Travels!

Feeling Funky

I think I’m in a Miles and Points funk.  I need to apply for a Marriott Rewards Premier VISA card for my husband before his offer expires on Monday.  I was going to do that today, along with one or two other cards.  But I just don’t feel like it. 

I think part of this is caused by the fact that I have not booked our summer 2015 trip.  I still don’t have enough Delta SkyPesos for 3 business tickets.  Although I checked availability yesterday for some random dates next summer and actually found 3 business seats on Alitalia to Athens.  (which is our #1 choice) But when I was checking out the hotel options on some of the islands, I was disappointed to see that there were very few options for reward stays.  Except places like the SPG Mystique that wants 60,000 points for 1 night.  It’s beautiful but….no thanks.

mystique

SPG Mystique Santorini

So that leaves me looking for “budget” accommodations on Santorini.  With a caldera view, if you please.  Yeah, right.  Although I did find a rather nice one for about $130 per night in mid-July which is not bad at all.

As much as I despise cruises, I actually started looking at Greek Island cruises. I thought that would be a good way to see the islands without paying the crazy hotel prices on the fancy ones.  I only looked at a couple cruise lines yesterday but one of the itineraries said it arrived in Santorini (Or Mykonos…can’t remember now but it was one of the two) at 6pm and left at 11pm.  What’s up with that?  Maybe it’s a party island and people go mainly for the nightlife.  That’s not a great plan for a family.  Actually even without Parker I probably wouldn’t like that.

So I think I am at a point where I feel rather saturated with miles and points (a quick look at Award Wallet tells me we have about 1.5 million of them) and no ability to use them.  I feel saturated, but yet when I think of burning 375,000 Delta SkyPesos on 3 tickets I go into hoarding mode. I don’t want to let them go.

This is terrible.  I must snap out of this.  I think I will go ahead and apply for his Marriott card and perhaps a Frontier card as well.  I wasn’t going to mess with Frontier anymore but they have started offering some new routes out of CVG so it might be nice to have a small stash of them on hand.  Though I have a slight fear of a denial from Barclay’s because he has not used his US Airways card very much.   But I didn’t use mine much either and I was approved for the Frontier card.  And he has only applied for 2 other cards in 2014, so he doesn’t have many pulls.

If anybody reading this has been to Greece, please share some ideas with me! And keep in mind we will be traveling with a 6 year old so we need family friendly places and activities.

Moral Travel Dilemma

I have read many blog posts over the years about bloggers using their seemingly bottomless pit stash of miles and points to send their family and friends on posh vacations all over the world.  They fly them in first class and put them up in the luxury hotel suites.  That’s great.  And it sounds very altruistic.  But, would you do it?  Would I?

For the second time this year I find myself in this rather sticky situation.  The first time was my trip to Europe with a friend this past June.  I did not travel with my husband or my son, it was just me and a friend.  When you travel with a friend, you usually split the cost of the hotel room.  So a $180 room is $90 each, right?  If I travel with my family, the room is $180.  I could use 35,000 IHG points for that $180 room, which isn’t the best value BUT it is better than using 35,000 IHG points for the same $90 room.  Do you see where I’m going with this?

If the person I’m traveling with contributes nothing to the trip in terms of miles or points, should I feel obligated to use mine to offset their cost?  I guess, if I was a completely selfless person.

greed

And I’m not really that greedy! I sincerely enjoy helping people.  If you want to know the best credit card to sign up for to start earning miles and points, I will gladly help you.  If you want to pay for a plane ticket or hotel room and make sure you are getting the best value, I will gladly help you with that too.  But should I GIVE someone my hard-earned miles and points simply because they won’t or can’t sign up for their own?

In the case of my trip to Europe, my friend did provide me with a free plane ticket to Europe.  But we only got business class on the way back AND I had to buy a ticket to Atlanta to even begin the trip – but that’s another rant for another blog post. Now the plane tickets to Europe cost my friend nothing.  No money and no miles.  They were given to her by her employer.  But, she probably would not have taken the trip if it weren’t for me being able to go.  Anyway, because she gave me that ticket I felt more obligated to offset her cost on the hotels so I did use my free night certs and some points to cover most of our hotels.  We each ended up spending about $175 for a week’s worth of hotel stays.  Not bad for Europe.

prague

That’s me in Prague. Thanks JoJo!

Now my current dilemma.  Next spring break, a friend and I decided to take our sons to Disney World in Florida.  Crazy idea during Spring Break, I know.  But again, another blog post for that one!

I have been looking at hotels and want to get one booked before the good ones are gone.  I want the trip to cost as little money as possible because I went WAAAY over my travel budget in 2014, so I want to try to conserve next year.

After looking at all the hotel chains in which I have points, I decided the best value would be the Carlson Country Inn and Suites near Universal.  The Gold Points rate is 28,000 points per night and I could split the reservation to maximize the BOGO points redemption, (use my account for 2 nights and Matthew’s account for 2 nights) That would mean 56,000 in points for 4 nights and 2 paid nights for $208.46 total.

If we paid straight cash for the room it would be $625.38.  Divided by 2 is $312.69 each.

If we did the points for 4 nights and cash for 2 nights scenario, I could use points to cover my half and she could pay $300.

So help me out here.  What do you do when you are traveling with friends? Treat them? Or make them pay half, as if you are not using points.

I’m really not trying to be greedy.  Really.

Bucket List

I have always hated that term.  Bucket List.  I don’t know why.  I just don’t like it.  Then, I realized I had one.  Nothing official, nothing written down, just a list in my head of places I want to go and things I want to experience before I die.

bucket-listWhen I look at that picture I see “life goal” things on there.  Like “get fit”.  Well I think right now, at 46, I’m about as fit as I’m going to be.  That’s not saying I’m giving up, but I am at a healthy weight and I am in overall good health.  I’m not going to kill myself at the gym to try to look like a supermodel.  It’s not happening.

What else is on that bucket?  “Write a book.”  Yeah, right.  I can barely keep up this blog. (thanks for reading and sticking with me, BTW) “Donate blood.” I’ve done that a few times.  Passed out every time. I don’t see “sky dive” on that bucket, but I will tell you right now, I have no desire to jump out of a perfectly good plane.

My great-grandmother traveled all over the world in the 1960s and 70s and used to show me pictures of exotic places like Egypt and India.  Her stories and pictures planted a travel bug in my soul that has never gone away.

Travel has been my dream, my passion and my ultimate pleasure for as long as I can remember.  When I was a kid, we did not have much money and our annual summer vacation was to Lexington, Kentucky (about an hour south).  I loved it though because I got to stay in a hotel and eat at restaurants every day.

I never went to Disney World or the beach. I did not take my first airplane trip until I was 17 years old.  It was a good one though – Paris.  (France, not Kentucky)

Maybe I am so obsessed with travel now because I did not travel as a child.  I often think about Parker and his feelings about travel.  He took his first airplane trip at 3 months (to California) and his feet have not been on the ground much since then.  He has been to 4 continents in the past 6 years.  Will he experience “travel burn-out” before he’s a teenager? I hope not.

So, without further ado, I present my bucket list.  I am writing this mostly for myself, so I can have the satisfaction of drawing lines through them.  But I’m also writing it to hopefully inspire someone to start their own list and draw lines through it.

  1. Petra
  2. Scuba dive in the Red Sea
  3. Pyramids of Egypt
  4. African Safari
  5. Red Square Moscow
  6. Chernobyl
  7. Bran Castle & Hoia Bachu Forest
  8. Scuba dive with Manta Rays
  9. Machu Picchu
  10. Scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef
  11. Phuket, Thailand
  12. Ayers Rock
  13. New Zealand
  14. Cuba
  15. Tikal, Guatemala
  16. Fiji or Moorea
  17. Blue Grotto
  18. Loch Ness
  19. Mt. Everest Base Camp
  20. Mykonos & Santorini
  21. The Wave
  22. Northern Lights
  23. Scuba dive Truk (Chuuk) Lagoon
  24. Camel trek in the Sahara Desert
  25. Poveglia Island

So, what’s on your list?