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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Did

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

raddison-blu-sydney

Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney

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

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

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

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

paris

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

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Radisson Blu Hotel Champs Elysees Paris

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

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

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Radisson Blu Disneyland Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…my Club Carlson Tally:

4 nights Radisson Blu Paris Champs Elysees – 100,000

2 nights Radisson Blu Paris Disneyland – 50,000

4 nights Radisson Blu Park Plaza Sydney – 100,000

2 nights Country Inn and Suites Orlando – 28,000

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

2 nights Radisson Suites Buena Park CA – 28,000

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

Mini App – O – Rama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

 

Moral Travel Dilemma

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

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

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

greed

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

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

prague

That’s me in Prague. Thanks JoJo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is It Worth Keeping the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card?

A few months ago, American Express announced it was increasing the annual fee on the Platinum Delta Skymiles card from $150 a year to $195, effective May 1, 2014.  That is quite a jump! And what were they giving us to justify the fee increase?  Not much.  The only noticeable change was that they are getting rid of Foreign Transaction Fees, which were 2.7%  There are plenty of other cards out there that do not charge a Foreign Transaction Fee so that alone is not enough to keep my business.

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Is this card worth $195 per year?

Smart Chip Technology

All new Delta American Express cards issued after May 1, 2014 will have the Smart Chip technology.  If you don’t know what a Smart Chip is, read this.

Eventually all US issued cards will convert to Smart Chips, but again this is not a justifiable reason (in my opinion) for a $45 annual fee increase.

Incidentally, on our recent trip to Thailand we used our Citibank AA Executive card with a Smart Chip.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  I was dismayed at the lack of credit card acceptance across Thailand in general, the Smart Chip not working at places that did accept cards, just made it worse.

Companion Certificate

The biggest benefit of the card, for me, is the free companion certificate you receive every year upon renewal of the card.  Of course, it’s not “free” is it?  It costs $150 (or $195 after May 1, 2014)  However, with domestic airfares hovering in the $300-$500 range, you could look at it as a “discounted companion ticket”.  I have used the certificate every year and never let it go to waste.

I have already started thinking about Spring Break next year.  There is a strong possibility we will take a domestic trip.  Grand Canyon and The Keys are two places I’m kicking around right now.  I prefer to save my miles for international travel so I will probably purchase at least 2 tickets for next year’s Spring Break trip.  Right now, fares to PHX are around $555 and MIA is around $288.  I would get a better value on the PHX companion ticket, so Grand Canyon is looking like a strong possibility.  But…sometimes it’s nice to go to the beach.

Whatever we decide, I think I will hang on to the card for one more year.  I will, however, call them and try to cancel.  Hopefully they will offer me something to keep the card and then I will “change my mind”, but I have to be prepared to follow through on the cancel if they don’t try to offer me anything.

I consider Delta to have one of the worst and most difficult to use programs out there, so miles earned on this card are of little value to me.  I have plenty of Delta miles already that I need to burn through.  I have been an American Express card member since 2002, which helps my credit score, but I think it might be time to let this one go.  I will still keep my Starwood American Express card, which is a much more versatile card.

Happy Travels!

Starwood Hotel Category Changes Coming Tomorrow

starwood-preferred-guest

Starwood is changing the number of points required for some (20%) of it’s hotels tomorrow, March 4, 2014.  56% of the hotels will be moving down and 44% will be moving up.

The Starwood collection of hotels includes: The Luxury Collection, St. Regis, W Hotels, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Aloft and Four Points.

The award chart is not changing, but some hotels are switching categories and may require fewer or more points.  Here is the Award Chart listing categories and how many points are required to redeem in each category.

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Less Points

I’ll start with the good news first.  Some hotels are moving down a Category.  One that is of particular interest to me is Le Meridien Angkor. It is moving from a Category 3 to a Category 2.  3,000 points for a weekend night? I’ll take it!

meridienangkor

Le Meridien Angkor

 

We are heading to Thailand in 3 weeks and were scheduled to stay in Bangkok for 3 days.  With the recent political turmoil and the “Bangkok Shutdown” I was thinking about skipping Bangkok and heading over to Cambodia for a couple days instead to check out Angkor Wat.  Bangkok has since settled down and is back on our itinerary, but I will definitely keep this Le Meridien hotel on my list for the future!

A couple other noteworthy hotels moving down a Category are in Orlando.  The Four Points Sheraton Orlando Studio City is moving from a Category 2 to a Category 1.   I have never stayed at this hotel, but I have seen it many times.  It gets good reviews on Trip Advisor and you can’t beat the location on I-Drive!

The other Orlando hotel is the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista, which is moving from a Category 3 to a Category 2.   Another solid hotel choice, only 1 mile from Disney!

Neither of the Orlando hotels are 5 star luxury resorts.  I’m not going to focus very much on luxury properties unless they are a terrific bargain on points.  But these Sheratons are good choices for a family vacation to Orlando.

More points

And now the bad news.  44% of the hotels moving categories are moving up.  These moves hurt a lot more at luxury hotels like the St. Regis Rome which is moving from a Category 6 to a Category 7.  Sure, it looks amazing.  But I would never spend 30,000 Starpoints to stay there for one night.

Of more relevance to my upcoming travel is the Four Points by Sheraton Munich Olympiapark.  I am going to Germany with a friend in late June and considered staying at this property.  Tomorrow it moves from a Category 3 to a Category 4.  That’s a difference of 3,000 points per night and we are staying 3 nights.  We have not nailed down a location to stay in Munich and while this one is a bit further from the city center, it is near a metro station to get us to the center in a few minutes.  I think I will go ahead and book this property before it changes categories because Starwood will allow me to cancel, without penalty, up until the day before arrival.

The other hotel in my future, and one that is making the biggest jump is the Sheraton Baltimore-Washington Airport Hotel. It is jumping from a Category 2 to a Category 4!  That is 7,000 more points per night! We are going up for a wedding in Baltimore in August and I booked this hotel at the fantastic Starpoint rate of 3,000 points per night for weekend nights!  Hubby wants to stay at the Holiday Inn where everybody else is staying.  But I like to stay where I can get the best value! Since I haven’t convinced him of that yet, I will hold on to the reservation I have because I can cancel, without penalty, up until the day before arrival.

So – if you are thinking about planning a trip and staying at a Starwood property, check out the full list of changes here.  If you see one you want to book that is going up in points, book it today! If you change your mind, you can usually cancel without penalty prior to the arrival date.  But be sure to check the cancellation policy on each reservation!  

If you have already booked a property that is going to go down, wait until after the changes take effect, book a new reservation at the lower category and cancel your existing reservation.

I hope you have found this post helpful and I hope you will share it with your friends and family.  My blog is still too new to have affiliate links to apply for credit cards, but if you are interested in applying for the Starwood American Express card to take advantage of some of these great deals, please e-mail me and let me send you a referral link to apply.

Happy Travels!