AAdvantage and Dividend Miles Are Now Officially Combined

As I’m sure you have seen by now, American Airlines and US Airways have officially merged their mileage programs.

It looks very pretty!

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that’s half a million, baby

 

Together we have 508,360 miles!  Love it!  I am hoping to use those for 3 business class tickets to Australia in 2016.  Actually, my plan is to use American miles for one direction and some of my 375,000 Delta SkyPesos for the other direction.  But I will do whatever it takes to make it work.

This is just a quick post to share my happiness over the combined miles.  We are leaving for Florida at 1pm today.  Well…technically we are leaving for Louisville at 1pm today.  Our flight to Orlando leaves at 5pm from Louisville.

Were you happy to see your AA and US miles combine?  Tell me your plans for them!

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.

 

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.

khaolak10

 

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.

khaolak11

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.

khaolak2

 

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.

khaolak3

 

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.

khaolak6

 

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!

khaolak8

 

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.

khaolak12

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.

khaolak13

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.

khaolak15

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!

 

 

Does Applying For Credit Cards Hurt Your Credit Score?

I know, I know.  Most of the big guy blogs will tell you that it does not.  *I* have even said it does not.  And that is mostly true.  But other things you might do in addition to applying for multiple credit cards can (and likely will) affect your score.  And not always in a positive way.

Before I go any further I want to stress that I am not an expert on credit, credit scores, financial management, banking, mortgages, lending, or veterinary medicine.  If you have serious questions or concerns about your financial situation or credit PLEASE consult a professional.  I have just recently noticed some things in our personal credit profile and I wanted to share that with you.

Various Credit Cards

Prior to Barclay’s offering free FICO credit scores with their credit cards, I did not have access to my score.  I relied on the FAKO score via Credit Karma when applying for cards.  That isn’t necessarily bad, but it also isn’t necessarily accurate.  For example, my FAKO score in May 2013 was 781 while my FICO score was 816.  That’s quite a difference.  But how accurate is a FICO score anyway? You still don’t really know which scoring model or bureau a lender is pulling from.  It all gets quite confusing.

Our Story

My “heaviest” years applying for credit cards was between 2011 and 2013.  Unfortunately, at that time I relied on Credit Karma for my credit scores and did not know what my actual FICO score was.  But, during my first small round of applications in 2014 I had access to our FICO scores and was quite pleased to see that mine was 816 and Matthew’s was 800.  Not bad, considering all the credit cards (and miles and points!) I had accumulated in the past few years!

credit-drop

 

In 2014, things started to change.  Both of our credit scores started falling and right now they both sit exactly 16 points lower than they did 1 year ago.

LaurascoreMine was a steady, gradual decline.  Matthew’s had a pretty big dip in the fall.

matthewscoreSo what happened?  What changed in 2014?

Well…a few things.  The biggest being that we refinanced our house in June 2014.  This hit our credit as a “new” loan rather than the same loan with changes in terms.  We also took some cash out of the refinance to have hardwood floors installed.

Other than our mortgage, the only other debt we have is a Wells Fargo financing account from Mattress Firm.  We bought a Tempurpedic bed a few years ago and used their 5 year “same as cash” financing offer.  It is almost paid off and has a minimal affect on our credit score.

When it comes to credit cards, I have 24 open accounts (this includes being an “authorized user”) and I am using 2% of the available credit.  Matthew has 21 open accounts (also as “authorized user”) and is using 3% of the available credit.  All of our bills are paid in full every month.  We have no late payments, delinquencies or collections on our credit report.

So let’s look at the churning we did in 2014, as I think this is responsible for the drop in credit scores.

Matthew applied for only 3 cards in 2014.  A Citi Executive card in Feb 2014, another one in June 2014 and a Chase Marriott Visa in Sept 2014.  This was $55,000 worth of credit extended.   In May 2014 he canceled his SPG American Express card ($23,000 limit) and in August he cancelled his original Chase Marriott Visa ( $18,900)  That means his total available credit decreased by about $13,000 while his debt increased with the refinancing of the mortgage.  I’m GUESSING this is what caused the big drop in Sept 2014 and then the rebound when things shook out a bit.  But then in January he cancelled his Bank Of America Alaska Airlines card (and $18,000 credit line) and the score fell again.

I think Matthew needs to apply for a few cards, stat!

I had a slightly more busy year.  I applied for 7 cards (1 was a business card):

  1. Citi AA Executive  March 2014(+19,000)
  2. Chase Sapphire Preferred May 2014 (+16,000)
  3. US Bank Club Carlson May 2014 (+22,000)
  4. Wells Fargo AMEX June 2014 (+6,900)
  5. AMEX Skymiles Gold Business Aug 2014 (+20,000)
  6. Chase Marriott Premier Aug 2014 ($20,000)
  7. Chase Southwest Premier Personal Dec 2014 ($5,000)

I cancelled 4 cards:

  1. Capital One Venture Apr 2014 (-20,000)
  2. Chase Marriott May 2014 (-20,000)
  3. Citibank AA Visa Sept 2014 (-16,500)
  4. Barclays Frontier MC Sept 2014 (-14,000)

So I gained an additional $38,400 in available credit.  Though some of that was transferred from other accounts.  The Chase Southwest card, for example.  I have a lot of open accounts with Chase so I had to get them to move some credit around to open that Southwest card with the small $5,000 limit.

I really can’t explain the steady decline in my credit score, unless it has something to do with the mortgage, as it is a joint account.

The Take-Away

Your payment history and your amount owed vs utilization are the 2 biggest factors in determining your credit score.  I think it is important to keep track of the credit limit on each of your accounts and make sure things even out when you are canceling and applying for new cards.

Obviously this game is not for everyone.  Fortunately we could afford this dip in our credit scores and still be in the “excellent” range.  Although Matthew is getting close to the edge of excellent, but I think if he gets some more available credit, his utilization rate will go down at least 1% and bump his score up.  At least, that’s what I’m hoping!

I read somewhere that not having a car payment negatively affects your credit score.  I don’t believe that. (where do people get these ideas?) I have not had a car loan in over 6 years! I am really dreading the fact that one is likely in my future in the next 12-18 months.  I love the idea of a new car, but I hate the idea of a payment.  I am going to try (I said TRY) to put some extra in my savings account each month for the next year to hopefully offset the amount of the loan.  The more cash I can pay for a new car, the better!

I am going to take a small break from applying for credit cards this year and let Matthew have all the fun.  I may get a business card or if a really great deal comes along I will jump on it.  But I am going to let my credit rest and see if it bounces back at all.   We do not have a shortage of miles and points at this moment.  According to AwardWallet (< my link, please use it!) we have 46 accounts and 2,031,189 miles and points.  Yay.

Australia 2016!

 

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!

If They Blog About It, It Will Die

How many times has this been true?

I seriously miss the days when travel hacking, credit card churning, manufactured spending was all underground.  There were a few message board sites where people would talk about it using aliases and lots of code words.  Not anymore! Now we scream it from the rooftops in Big Guy Blogs and Frequent Traveler University gatherings.  We tell you how to game the system and rake in millions of miles by doing things the banks probably don’t like.

For years I never talked about it.  I didn’t even tell my family and friends what I was doing.  (mainly because I didn’t want to get lectured about ruining my credit score.  Yeah whatever, Mom) I just always said “I never pay for travel”, with a smile.  I still say that.

Well…I don’t do that.  I won’t.  Which is part of the reason I do not regularly write in this blog.  I will still post about my trips (promise) and give you some tips on travel but I’m not going to be one of those blogs who posts about every Chase sign-up bonus and every airline mileage program devaluation.  (though I reserve the right to complain about such devaluations)

So here is a little known money saving/mileage earning deal going on this month.  Thornton’s gas stations (located only in the midwest with a few scattered in FL)  are offering 20% off third party gift cards to places like amazon.com, iTunes, restaurants, stores etc.  It is not well advertised, but I found out about it through a Big Guy Blog.  I wasn’t even going to blog about it because I wanted to keep it a SECRET! Especially in my area – more for me!

Thornton-20-Gift-CardsIf you have a credit card that earns a category bonus for gas station purchases, you are not only saving money, but earning bonus points.

There are 3 Thornton’s in my general area.  The first one I went to was just about completely wiped out of gift cards and the guy behind the counter told me that he did have amazon gift cards, but someone bought 20 of them the day before and now they are gone.  I bought one $25 Buffalo Wild Wings gift card for $20 and paid with a credit card.

I went to the 2nd Thornton’s and all they had was Bass Pro Shops and iTunes. I’m kicking myself now for not buying the iTunes.

I did not make it to the 3rd Thornton’s until yesterday.  Still no amazon or store cards, but I did select a Darden restaurant card and an iTunes card.  When I got to the register the girl said “I don’t think you can pay for those with a credit card”. I told her I bought some at the Erlanger location with a credit card just a couple days ago.  She tried and the payment was not accepted.  I gave her my bank debit card, but that did not work either.  Another girl came up and said they had “problems” with accepting credit cards for gift card purchases and so it is now their policy not to.

Of course I never have cash, so I had to return the gift cards, put my tail between my legs and leave.  Brought back memories of trying to buy Vanilla Reloads with a credit card at CVS.  Thornton’s did have a big selection of Vanilla Reloads, by the way.  They sat there – taunting me.

So.  The Big Guys post about Thornton’s gift card discount.  People run out in droves to buy them all up.  There are none left and Thornton’s wised up to the credit card game.  (or somebody was buying massive amounts of them with a stolen CC)

If you are interested in saving money, this could still be a good deal for you using cash.  In fact, it IS a good deal for you.  You are still saving $5. I would not go out of my way to do this, but if you have a Thornton’s in your area and they actually have some gift cards left – go for it!

It is still possible, in a roundabout way to pay for them with a credit card.  You load your Bluebird or Serve with a credit card (or gift cards purchased with credit cards) and you can withdraw $100 cash from a Money Pass ATM with no fee and then buy $100 worth of gift cards for $80.  Is it worth your time to run around all those places doing that? I doubt it, but if it’s convenient for you, it’s a good deal.

Bottom line, it’s still a money saver if you pay cash.  Christmas is coming, ya know.

I have slowed down considerably on my Manufactured Spending.  Right now I am only doing enough loads on Serve to cover my mortgage payment each month.  I can load Serve with my credit card from the comfort and warmth of my office chair (shhhhh! don’t tell anybody!). I don’t mind that at all.  It’s free and I don’t have to run to Walmart all the time.

In 2014 I spent $149.49 on gift card fees.  I got into the cash back on American Express gift cards late, so I only earned back $90.50.  That means I spent $58.99 to Manufacture enough Spend to get 795,000 miles and points in 2014.  Was it worth it?  Was it worth it  to spend $59 to get 795,000 miles and points?? Yeah…I think so.  Well…to be fair I should probably account for annual fees I had to pay that were not waived for the first year.  And it gets a little ugly there.  (damn you 3 Citi Executive cards! ) $975.  But still.  Just over $1,000 for 795,000 miles and points?  Sure.  But I am done for a while. I have decided it is just not worth the hassle.

Likely by the end of the year I will apply for a couple cards if they offer good “end of the year” sign up bonuses.  Chase Southwest is a big contender.  They are currently offering 50,000 points per card and they have 4.  Even though I am a bit gun-shy with Business cards, I might give it a go.  I’m also hoping British Airways offers a 100,000 mile sign up bonus at the end of the year as they have done for the past couple years.  I am keen to use Avios for a trip to Ireland.

So that’s all for now.

 

 

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.

10507019_10204370934486135_4552947716042756060_o

 

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.

dog

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.

cadillac

$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.

players

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.

wtc

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!

tourists

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.

blackout

Gatekeeper Paranormal survives Blackout:House 2014

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

katz

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!

 

I’m Still Here, Just Quiet

I have taken a short break from Manufactured Spending (and apparently from blogging as well).  I wanted to let my money “shake out” and see if I was still in the black when it landed.

ibank

….this is not my account…..

I have an interesting system for keeping track of my MS in iBank.  If you are familiar with iBank, you know you can keep track of multiple accounts in the register.  In my iBank register I have my “Checking”, 2 “Savings” and then 23 credit card accounts.  Yeah…it’s a lot to keep track of.  But I have a system!  When I make a purchase I enter it into both the “Checking” account and the “Credit Card” account.  For example, if I go to Target and buy $25.68 worth of Halloween candy (just sayin’) using my Citi Executive 2 (I have 3 of them),  I will come home and enter $25.68 as a WITHDRAWAL in my checking account in iBank.  On the “Payee” line I will enter “Exec 2”, which is my code for that particular card.  I have codes for every card that differentiate if they are mine or my husband’s and what version of the card they are.

Then I will go to the “Exec 2” account in iBank and list Target as the payee and list the amount as a WITHDRAWAL.

When my Citi Executive 2 bill comes, I go through my iBank Checking account and confirm the withdrawals with “Exec 2” as the payee and then I DELETE them from the Checking account register.  I then go through the Exec 2 account and “clear” all the charges that appear on the bills.  Once that is done, I deduct the total amount of the bill in my Checking account as a Payment to “Citi Exec 2” and ADD the total amount of the bill as a “Deposit” in the “Exec 2” iBank account.

And now its even.

But can  you see where this is going in regard to what iBank thinks is my total net worth?

At the bottom of the iBank screen is a “Summary” of your net worth.  When I decided to take a break, mine said this:

Money you have:     $2,432.22

Money you owe:      $7,247.33

Total:      ($4,815.11)

Yikes!  Yet when I logged into my Credit Union checking account, it showed I had about $13,000 in there!

I decided it was time to take a break, pay off all the bills and see where I stood financially.  I’m happy to report that all is well.  All the credit card bills are paid off and I am still a few thousand in the black.  Shwew!

Now that the Cashback portals are back to offering payouts on American Express gift cards, I may get back into it.  The payouts aren’t great right now, 1.5%, but it’s better than nothing.  My property tax bill is due at the end of this month.  I hate to pay out a couple thousand dollars and not earn miles for it!  But my Bluebird account is empty so I would have to make several trips to Walmart in the next week or so to get enough in there to pay the bill.  And you know how I hate going to Walmart!

My Blogging Break

I got a bit disillusioned with the whole Miles and Points blogging thing when I noticed a trend among the “Big Boy” blogs.  (TPG, MMS, MP, FTG…you know the ones)  I mean, how many times and in how many different ways can they push Chase cards? I know it’s their bread & butter, but come on!  Is that what it takes to be successful in this world?  I wanted to share my experiences of free travel with a child! Not pound you on the head with a Chase Ink! But yet, that’s what these guys are doing.  And they are wildly successful (in this limited world).

You know the Miles and Points blogs I enjoy the most? And the ones that I think offer the best information?  Travel is Free and Hack My Trip.  I strongly suggest checking them out.  They focus more on how to travel for free, rather than shoving credit card links down your throat.

I still want you to read my blog, of course.  And I am going to work harder at writing and sharing my experiences with you.  I still love to travel and I still love to travel for free! We just got back from a fabulous week at Beaches Turks and Caicos!  There is nothing free (or even cheap) about Beaches!  It’s a splurge that I feel is worth every penny!

Trip report coming soon! Promise!

So…thanks for coming back and checking out my post.  Tell me…how do you keep track of your manufactured spending?  Do you have an easier, less complicated method than I do?  I’d love to hear about it!

Happy Travels!

Amazon payments – last hoorah

I only have 2 weeks and 2 days before the end of the Amazon Payments ride.  Technically it doesn’t end until Oct 13, but I only have until Oct 7 because I am leaving for Turks and Caicos on Oct 8 and who wants to mess with sending Amazon Payments when they are here?

beaches-turks-caicos-resort-villages-spa-4-lgNot me! So I have to get $3,000 transferred between my husband and me and back before Oct 7.  Normally that is a big NO – NO, but at this point who cares?  What are they going to do?  Shut down my Amazon Payments account?

I still need to earn about 5,000 more miles on my Delta SkyPesos account so I have enough for 3 business class tickets to Europe.  (although I am still questioning that decision)  I have heard of American Express opening financial reviews on people using AMEX cards for Amazon Payments and I don’t want to risk that.  So, since I have free shipping on AMEX gift cards through 10/12 and a code for no purchase fees (which I could not use and get cash back), I have decided to order three $1,000 gift cards and liquidate those through Amazon Payments.

I actually may buy a couple more before my free shipping expires and use them to buy VISA gift cards at Walmart and liquidate the VISA gift cards through Bluebird.  Then I should be finished with Delta.

Have you heard that you can now withdraw cash from your Bluebird (via MoneyPass ATM) with no fee?  You can! Up to $750 per day and $2,000 a month.  That makes recycling the money very easy.

I have been withdrawing cash from Serve and depositing it into my checking account, but the bank tellers always seem to have something to say.  Like “That’s the first cash deposit I’ve had all week” or “Wow…you never see cash anymore”  I’m sure they’re just innocent comments, but because I have always felt slightly dirty doing this, I don’t like it.  I always have a story ready like we sold our jet ski or had a yard sale.  I’m not doing anything wrong.  (repeat 100 times)

Is the demise of Amazon Payments going to affect your Manufactured Spending strategy?