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.

Trip Report: Khao Lak, Thailand

Thailand Trip Reports

 Sunday March 30

khaolak1

 

We had an 8am flight on Air Asia from Bangkok to Phuket, followed by a 90 minute drive north to the town of Khao Lak.

I was getting tired of crowded cities and was so happy to see the ocean when we landed.  We were ready for some beach time and …… scuba diving.

I had arranged taxi service in advance from Boss Cheaper Than Hotel Taxi.  Weird name, I know.  But his prices were quite a bit cheaper than regular taxis and he had excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.  We paid 1300 Baht (about $41) for the trip from Phuket Airport to our hotel in Khao Lak.

There was a bit of drama when we arrived at the airport because Boss was not there.  I was really surprised, considering his reviews and the fact that he has a huge fleet of taxis throughout Phuket.  I walked up and down the sidewalk in front of the airport for about 30 minutes looking for a “Boss” taxi.  I was followed the entire time by at least 4 taxi drivers asking me if I wanted a ride.  I kept telling them I was waiting for Boss, but none of them seemed to know who he was.  They were offering me rides for 1800 Baht, which is only about $15 more.  I had not paid Boss in advance and was just about to take one of them, when he appeared.

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No explanation was really offered and we were just glad to get out of the blistering 10am heat.  And after our previous week of scary tuk-tuk rides, it was nice to be in a nice, clean, air conditioned vehicle!

 

 

We had booked 5 nights at the JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort using 100,000 Marriott points.  I used 25,000 points per night and got the 5th night free.  The room rate was about $250 per night and it is now a Category 6 hotel requiring 30,000 points per night.

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Happy to finally get some pool and beach time!

We spent the rest of the day at the pool and ordered a very expensive lunch from the pool bar.

Later that afternoon we checked out the Kid’s Club at the hotel.  I was a bit disappointed with how small it was, but the minute we got there, Parker wanted to stay.

They had a small ball pit with a slide, a room to do crafts and a TV room.  Not much, in my opinion, but kids are easy to please.  Use of the club itself is free for guests, but you have to pay for their meals and any crafts they want to do.  You also have to pay to have them open early.  They seemed kind of taken aback when I asked about this.  As if, nobody has ever done it before.  They open at 9am and the dive boats leave at 7am  – so nobody with kids has ever dived there before?  At any rate, we worked it out and the babysitter was scheduled to pick Parker up at our room at 6:50 am on Tuesday and take him to the hotel restaurant for breakfast and then to the club.

Monday March 31

We spent the morning in the ocean with Parker.  He loved it.  The pool is actually rather deep and it’s hard for him to relax and have fun when he can’t touch the bottom.  The hotel gift shop was selling swim rings for $15.  You know I would never pay that.  We’ll just swim in the ocean instead.

In the afternoon we took the hotel shuttle into the town of Khao Lak to check out the Tsunami Memorial and the market.

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Khao Lak was the coastal area of Thailand hardest hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Most of the coast was completely destroyed.  They have rebuilt a lot in the past 10 years, but evidence of the tsunami is still all around.

Police Boat 813 was washed inland and beached 2km from the ocean, across from the Bang Niang market and has become a memorial site for the tsunami victims.

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We decided to eat a late lunch at a restaurant across the street from the market.  They had some good chicken satay with peanut sauce!

khaolak5And, of course, Parker got chicken nuggets and fries.  He was starting to really get back to his “old self” so I was happy to see him eating.

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The Bang Niang market is pretty big with lots of stalls.  We found all sorts of things for sale.  Including an Iron Man swim ring for about $2!

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Although their display of “knock off” handbags left much to be desired.

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Sad

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Bang Niang market

It was a really hot afternoon and we were anxious to get back to the hotel pool.  Instead of waiting around for the hotel shuttle to come back, we decided to catch tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

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A great way to spend the afternoon

Tuesday April 1

Today is the anniversary of our first date – 25 years ago!  Wow.  And what a day this will be.

All week I have been nervous about diving and my sinus congestion.  I loaded up on Sudafed and thought my head felt clear so I was ready to go.

The babysitter showed up promptly at 6:50am and we were off to the dive shop to catch the 7am shuttle to the dive boat.   It was a 25 minute drive to the pier and then a 2.5 HOUR boat ride to the dive sites of Koh Tachai and Koh Bon.  My fear slowly slipped away and I was excited about our first dive at Koh Tachai.

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The beginning of the dive to end all dives

The first thing I realized I should have done before the trip was learn how many kilograms 12 pounds is.  I had no clue and nobody else could figure it out either.  I ended up being underweighted for the dive, which could have been a big part of my problem.  I went in with only 4.5kg which is just under 10 pounds.  Believe me, that 2 pounds makes a HUGE difference.

I was surprised that I had no ear issues on my descent.  Like, none.  I also saw more fish on this dive than I have ever seen on any Caribbean dive, probably combined!  I saw my first clown fish! (Nemo!)  But the best/worst part was the end.

As we were ascending and approaching our 3 minute safety stop at 15ft, I started feeling pressure over my right eye.  Terrible pressure I had never felt before.  At the same time, due to my tank now being quite empty and only wearing 10 pounds of weight, I was not able to control my ascent.  I did not shoot up out of control, but I did ascend faster than I should have.  If I could have gotten my dive buddy’s attention I could have held on to him! But he (and everyone else) was distracted by the most beautiful site I have ever seen.  Not one, not two , but THREE  manta rays and a whale shark swimming right past us!  Absolutely incredible.

Wow.  I completely forgot about my ascent, my ears, my squeeze – everything.  I was completely in awe of these beautiful creatures.  Below is our video, shot with our Go Pro camera.

Worth an ear blowout?

When we got back on the boat,  the squeeze was gone and I was feeling a little fullness in my right ear, but I didn’t think it was that bad.  We had almost an hour on the surface so I thought I would be ok after that to do the 2nd dive.

The 2nd dive was Koh Bon.  We were told that sometimes the Green Monster makes an appearance at Koh Bon.  Yikes.  That doesn’t sound good.

Again, I had no problems equalizing on the way down.  This dive was rather anti-climatic after seeing the whale shark and manta at Koh Tachai.  But there were still loads of fish and clear blue water…until….The Green Monster.  The Green Monster is a dense, cold cloud of plankton that that surges in from the deep.  It’s COLD, it’s murky, it reduces visibility.  Just all around horrible.  The upside is that the plankton sometimes attracts mantas and whale sharks, but not today.  I tried as hard as I could to swim away from it, but that’s impossible.  I was freezing and so ready to get back to the boat, but at the same time I was afraid of another squeeze.  I had added some weight to my belt, so I knew I could go up as slow as possible.  And I did.  I felt some squeeze but not nearly as bad as the first dive.

When we were back on the boat, my nose started bleeding.  This has happened to me before, so I wasn’t overly concerned, but it was still scary.  I also started getting that full feeling in my right ear and made the wise decision to sit out the 3rd dive.

We got back to the hotel around 5pm.  I was happy to see Parker, but really just wanted to go to bed.  I was exhausted and my ear was starting to throb.

Wednesday April 2

Woke up to terrible pressure in my ear. We took Parker to the kid’s club and went to the town to try to find a doctor.  We passed a couple closed clinics (most doctors spend their days at the hospital and have office hours at night) and after about 10 more minutes of walking in the 100 degree heat, we found an open one.   You have to take your shoes off before entering the building and all the patients and the doctor are barefoot.  There is also no air conditioning in the building.

The receptionist and the doctor spoke minimal English, but we managed to communicate.  Dive, ear, owie.  He looked in my ear and said I had a middle ear infection.  I actually had a middle ear barotrauma…but who’s splitting hairs?  He gave me some amoxycillan and pseudo and sent me on my way.

To jump ahead a bit, when I got home I went to an ENT who discovered I had a cyst on my adenoid on the right side.  This was partially blocking the eustachian tube and not allowing air to pass through during the dives.

I spent the day in the room watching Netflix (thanks to Spotflux) and sleeping, while Matthew took Parker to the pool.

Thursday April 3

We had originally planned to dive the Boonsung Wreck today and I told Matthew he could go on and do it, but he decided to stay with me.  I was in considerable pain and I could not hear at all out of my right ear.

We went to the pool for a while, until it started to rain.  We took Parker to the kid’s club and we walked down the beach to a massage hut.  Matthew got a $12 massage that I thought looked incredibly painful, but he said was awesome.  I got a $5 blue manicure.

The ibuprofen was helping a bit, but I had to keep on top of it or the pain became unbearable.  I was looking forward 8 days…would I be able to fly home?

We ate most of our dinners at the restaurants just outside the Marriott on the beach.  They are mostly small shacks, but they served good and inexpensive food.

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Phen restaurant. My favorite.

This was our last night in Khao Lak.  I wish I could have enjoyed it more.  It was really a beautiful place.  I hope someday to go back.  I still want to dive the Similan Islands – once was not enough!

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Here is a list of expenses for this part of the trip:

  • Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Phuket for 3 people – $0  ($169 erased with Capital One Rewards Purchase Eraser)
  • 5 nights at JW Marriott Resort Khao Lak $0/ 100,000 Marriott points
  • Boss taxi from Phuket Airport to Khao Lak $41
  • Marriott Pool Bar lunch – $36 (ouch!)
  • Babysitting on dive day – $15
  • Parker’s meals on dive day – $25
  • 1 roundtrip and 1 one way trip on hotel shuttle bus – $11
  • 3 tank dive for 2 people, Koh Tachai, Koh Bon, Premchai Wreck – $420

There were many other charges for meals and massages that I paid cash for and did not write down.  But as you can see, the diving was the most expensive part of this trip!

 

 

New York City 2014

This was a Gatekeeper Paranormal team trip, rather than a “family trip”, but I wanted to share with you some of the fun things we did and ways I saved money!

For the past year we have wanted to experience Blackout , an intense, adults only theatrical “haunted house”.  When they announced the dates for Fall 2014 in New York City, we decided to go for it.

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Airfare from Cincinnati to New York can average anywhere from $350 to $550.  Most of those flights will involve a connection, likely in Charlotte or Chicago.  Delta has a nonstop flight from Cincinnati to LaGuardia, but the fares were around $450.  We didn’t decide to go until about 4 weeks before the event, so the likelihood of finding a low level award ticket was pretty low.

Two of my Gatekeeper team members work for airlines so I decided to use a buddy pass.  Flights from CVG to LGA are pretty easy to get on as a non rev and they looked good for our dates, so I took a chance.  I used to work for airlines myself and non rev travel was always a gamble, but it seems to be much worse now.  But in the end, this worked out great for me.  I paid about $115 for a roundtrip ticket and even got first class on the way home.

Finding a hotel was probably the most difficult part of the planning process.  We were 4 girls who wanted to share one room.  Not easy to do in Manhattan, especially on a budget!  Most of the rooms I could get in Manhattan with points only had one bed.  We wanted this trip to be as cheap as possible since it was relatively last minute, so I expanded my search outside of Manhattan.

A couple years ago I won 22,000 Hyatt points from a contest on Million Mile Secrets.  They have just been sitting there because I have never applied for a Hyatt credit card and honestly have never stayed in a Hyatt before!

I found the Hyatt Place Flushing/LaGuardia available for our 2 nights at 12,000 Hyatt points per night.  I transferred 2,000 points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account (which was super fast and easy to do) and used the 24,000 points for 2 nights.  I reserved a room with 2 queen beds and a sofa bed.

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The hotel is brand new and within a 7 minute walk to the subway station.  The #7 train will take you directly to Times Square in about 30 minutes.  Again, not as convenient as staying right in Times Square, but sometimes to save money, you do what you have to do.

The hotel is in downtown Flushing, which is the largest urban center in Queens and the 2nd largest Chinatown in New York City.  The hotel caters to a mostly Chinese clientele and is also mostly staffed by Chinese.  The staff though, could not have been friendlier.  I was very pleased with the service we received.  Two of us arrived early (9:30am) and the girl at the front desk was very accommodating in getting us a room so we could relax and wait for our friends to arrive before heading into the city.

On our first day, we took the subway all the way down to Canal Street because one of my friends is a bit obsessed with knock-off handbags.  The knock-off trade isn’t like it used to be back in the day.  Back in the 90s, they had bags displayed on the street and then would hustle you into back rooms to look at the “really good stuff”.  But the police have cracked down on this and now it’s all secret back room dealings.  Ladies on the street will ask you if you want bags and then take you a couple blocks away to meet a guy who gives you a laminated cardboard sheet full of pictures of bags.  Most of them are in the $125 to $140 price range and the guys are not very interesting in haggling.  We walked away empty-handed and it was almost a wasted trip except for getting our $1 dirty water dog.

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We came back uptown a bit and walked around Macy’s – who already had their Christmas windows set up and decorations out.  On November 6.

Our 4th friend, Mandy, finally arrived around 6pm and we went to visit her friends who live in the Hell’s Kitchen area.  We had dinner plans to meet my friends at Dos Caminos on Park Avenue at 8pm.  Riding the subway was becoming a bit of a chore so we decided to check out Uber.

Uber is a ride-sharing service that operates like a taxi service – but much cooler.  They were (and maybe still are) offering a promotion where your first ride is free (up to $30).  After your ride, you are given a promo code that you can give to a friend for them to get a free ride.  Once they use their free ride, you get another.  There were 4 of us on this trip…you see where this is going?  No more subway!

Uber uses a cool smartphone app that lets you request a car, get an estimate of the fare and even track your driver’s location on GPS, and the fare and tip is automatically charged to your credit card on file or your PayPal account.

We requested a car to pick us up on 51st Street and take us to Dos Caminos on Park Avenue.  That is a distance of just about 2 miles.  The total Uber fare was $10.83, but cost me nothing because of the promo.  Looking back this was not the best use of my promo code because I could have gotten a $30 value ride.  But…it was still free, so I was happy.

Dos Caminos has some of the best guacamole I have ever tasted.  There was a bit of sticker shock to those of us used to paying midwest restaurant prices.  But it was a lot of fun to eat at a hip NYC restaurant instead of hot dogs on the street, and to visit with my friends.  Incidentally this was the largest expense of my trip, coming in at $65 for just me.  And no…I do not eat a lot.  But I did have two $15 Cadillac margaritas.

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$15 in a glass

After dinner, we met back up with Mandy’s friends at The Player’s Club.  The Player’s Club is a private, members only club for people of the theatre.  It is located in a townhouse that was built in 1847.

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photo credit: Mandy Loftis

 

We were given a tour of the entire building, including Edwin Booth’s private room that contains a human skull.  A fascinating experience.

We took a Yellow cab from The Player’s Club back to Flushing and the fare was about $45.  Wow.  Not bad when you split it between 4 people, but still quite a hefty fee.

On Friday we took the subway back into Manhattan and visited One World Trade Center. I have been to the site several times since the Sept 11 attacks, and it looks different every time.  I was there in December 2001 when there were still massive piles of rubble.  I was also there 3 years ago when they were just starting to build the museum.   It looks like the plan now is to complete a huge retail space in the next year.

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photo credit: Angela Johnson

We took a (free) (freezing) ride on the Staten Island ferry so my friends could see the Statue of Liberty.  I have seen Lady Liberty several times, so I stayed inside and tried to stay warm!

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Notice I am missing from this picture

The rest of our afternoon, before hitting Blackout, was spent shopping and eating.  We had pizza at Joe’s Pizza (my fave) and got some crazy delicious mini cupcakes at Baked By Melissa.  (the Cookie Dough ones are To Die For)

We then headed over to Central Park which was still awash in fall colors and absolutely gorgeous.

park

photo credit: Mandy Loftis

We grabbed another Dirty Water Dog here.  Remember the one on Canal Street that cost $1?  The same dog up here is $4.  Location location location.  Eat your dogs downtown!

We took another Free Uber ride down to Houston Street for Blackout.  If you are interested in my review of Blackout you can send me an e-mail.  This is a family travel blog and there really is nothing family-friendly I can say about Blackout.  It is a crazy, intense experience and definitely for adults only.

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Gatekeeper Paranormal survives Blackout:House 2014

After Blackout we walked down the street to Katz Deli to warm up and eat some comfort food.

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We took our last free Uber ride back to our hotel in Queens.  Remember the yellow cab ride back to the hotel that cost $45?  The Uber ride was free…but came to $20 with tip.  Not a bad deal!

All together, my weekend trip to NYC set me back about $320.  Not bad!  Here is a breakdown

  • Airfare – $115
  • Two $10 Metro cards – $20
  • Cupcakes – $21 (yes…and I ate them all)
  • Chocolate Babka – $12
  • CVG airport parking – $20
  • Dos Caminos – $65
  • Blackout – $40
  • Cash spent on dogs, pizza, pop and souvenirs for Parker – $30

Up next – my trip report on Beaches Turks and Caicos and hopefully the rest of my Thailand trip reports.

I have taken a break on Manufactured Spending for the moment.  The $30,000 spend required for the Executive card kinda burned me out for awhile.  Too many trips to Walmart.  I will probably get back into it next month.

Happy Travels!