Travel Tuesday: Hawai’i On The Cheap

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We weren’t even supposed to go on vacation this year.  We were supposed to “be good,” save up some money, find enjoyment in everyday things instead of dashing off to Florida or Chicago or, well, Hawai’i.

But, when Lance employs his puppy dog eyes and dimples…well, how could you deny him a vacation?

Still, we had to find to a way to take a vacation cheap.  I’d been slowly building up my reservoir of American Airlines frequent flier miles to redeem for a trip to Europe, but since we’d redeemed our last bulk of miles for a trip to Japan (my choice), I (somewhat begrudgingly) decided to bequeath my miles to Lance, and that’s how we’re flying to Hawaii for free.*

[*plus $5.00 per person transaction fee.]

The Flight(s)

There are lots of ways to build up your frequent flier miles balances, the easiest being signing up for an airline-branded credit card, but this kind of behavior makes me nervous because of the pings to your credit score and trying to manage that many extra cards (my brain just doesn’t work that way.)  Still, one card sign up will probably net you enough sign-up bonus miles to get you to Hawai’i.  Easy peasy macaroni cheesy.

Still, that game makes me a little uncomfortable, so I play a longer one (think Monopoly instead of Connect Four).  There are a lot of little, free ways to collect miles, usually through online promotions or through online survey sites like e-Rewards.  You can also keep up to date with the latest promotions via some useful blogs like Mommy Points, View from the Wing, and One Mile at a Time.  By using e-Rewards, earning miles for hotel stays and car rentals (for both work and personal travel)  and cashing out my hotel loyalty program points for airline miles, I was able to slowly grow my frequent flier mile balance to just what we needed for two roundtrip, off-peak tickets from Philadelphia to Honolulu (35,000 miles each.)

Later, when we decided to split our Hawai’i time between O’ahu and Kaua’i, I redeemed another 5,000 miles a person for one way tickets and had to pay $90 each for a ticket back to O’ahu since there weren’t any award seats available for the day we wanted to travel.

So now we’re at $190, for two roundtrip flights from the mainland to Hawai’i and two roundtrip inter-island flights.

The Hotels

The trouble when we booked our frequent flier mile trip from Philadelphia to Honolulu is that the frequent flyer award availability was limited; there were no flights that allowed us to stay for seven nights, so we’d either have to stay for four or five, or stay for ten or longer.

Of course, since this is Lance and Hawai’i is his ultimate favorite place, we chose to stay for ten.

This then posed a significant challenge to our “budget” trip to Hawai’i.  Waikiki is not cheap, especially when you want to stay in a decent hotel (Waikiki is chock full of crummy, old, run down hotels that can charge an arm and a leg because it’s Waikiki).

Since I got a Hyatt-branded credit card last year (for the no-international service charge), I’ve been accumulating Hyatt points which can be redeemed at one of the two Hyatt properties in Waikiki.  Our “target” hotel was the Hyatt Place Waikiki, since it’s newer and requires fewer points per night to redeem.  Over the past year, through various bonus points promotions (spend $6000 on your card and get an extra 6000 points) and basically putting all of my expenses on the card (and, of course, paying them off immediately), we were able to get three nights for free.

Via the Hyatt Best Rate Guarantee, where Hyatt will match a lower price from a third-party website and give you another 20% off, I was able to get the rest of our nights at the Hyatt Place Waikiki for $437.61 after tax for three paid nights.  I use hotel search aggregator sites like Room77, Kayak, HotelsCombined or Trivago to search for the lowest rates; these search sites pull rates from dozens of other booking websites, including Expedia, Priceline, and others.

Once we knew we were going to Kaua’i, I booked four nights at the Courtyard Kauai at Coconut Beach, part of the Marriott family of hotels.  Marriott also has a Best Rate Guarantee, so I was able to get our four nights on Kaua’i down to $374.00 after tax.

Our hotel costs for ten nights, then, end up being $811.61, or about $81 a night, a steal on Hawai’i.

The Total

Between the flights and the hotels, we’re just over a thousand bucks for the two of us: $1001.61.  That’s cheaper than the per person cost of our first trip to Hawaii back in 2010, when we only stayed for seven nights and only visited one island.

Granted, this total isn’t including rental cars or food, and we’ll need a little bit of both.  And it doesn’t truly represent how free your trip to Hawaii could be, if you saved your hotel points up longer or played the game a little more intensely to rack up points faster.  But to get a flight and hotel to Hawaii for around $500 a person is a pretty good deal in my book.

 

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Travel Tuesday: There And There And There And Back Again

Lance and Jeff on a plane!

**WARNING: Major first world problems discussed in this post.

As I alluded to yesterday, my upcoming plans for Disneyland were sorta dashed, oddly enough, by the high temperatures in Philly and our own indulgence in the absurd.

But Disneyland isn’t the only vacation I’m planning for the near future.  In fact, Lance and I recently plotted out our vacations (we loosely define these as requiring at least 5 days off from work) and long weekends (4 or less days off) for the next two years.  Eep!

Here are our travels, big and small, for the next two years:

  • Big Island, Hawaii, June 2013 (me alone, business)
  • Michigan, July 2013 (me alone…again! ::sob!::)
  • O’ahu (and maybe Kaua’i?) Hawaii, August 2013
  • New York, New York, September 2013
  • San Diego and Los Angeles (and Disneyland!!!), December 2013
  • Orlando, Winter 2014
  • Las Vegas, Spring 2014
  • Western Caribbean on the Disney Cruise Line, October 2014
  • Paris, Spring 2015

We had meant to keep our traveling light this year (after it became a decent chunk of our expenses in 2012.)  Yet I have the itch and, try as I might, I lack the willpower not to scratch.

So then the challenge shifts from “resist going places!” to “how do you travel–and travel well!–and still make it affordable?”

Thankfully, most of our trips are fairly far off, which is good, because it gives me the time to shop around for the best hotel deals, wait for good airfares, save for certain activities.  While the waiting and waiting for a trip can be a killer, there’s a satisfaction in having time to put together a well-thought-out itinerary and be confident you got a decent price.

Doing things cheap does mean making a sacrifice sometimes.  

For example, in order to save $200+ on airfare, I’m flying out of tiny-ass Trenton-Mercer Airport in New Jersey (which doesn’t even have a bathroom after the one metal detector in the terminal) instead of Philadelphia International to get home to Michigan.  It’s an extra half-hour away by train, but the savings are worth it to me.

Doing things cheap also requires time for you to rack up loyalty program points.

For our August 2013 Hawaii trip, we booked the airline tickets with frequent flyer miles (free!) back in December 2012…which is good, because it gives us time to save up for the hotel, and BONUS!, we’re getting two nights for free because of Hyatt points I earn from my Hyatt credit card. So for this 10-night trip, we’re only paying for eight nights and we didn’t have to pay for airfare.

Had we only 2-3 months to plan for the trip, we wouldn’t have been able to earn Hyatt points fast enough for any free rooms, and the availability for frequent flyer award seats (which are limited on most airlines to a handful per flight per day) would’ve been nonexistent.

The same vacation is going for over $1800/person right now; we’re going to end up paying around $500/person for a ten-night vacation in Hawaii.

Doing things cheap means being diligent…and a little crazy.

With our Disneyland plans thrown for a loop, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to go at all.  I was banking on the frequent flyer miles from my business trip to Hawaii to be enough to put me over the top so I could redeem for free tickets to L.A., but that’s still a month out and frequent flyer award ticket availability could all be gone by then.

Since I’m crazy, I regularly stalk FlyerTalk.com’s message boards, where people much craftier than I post the airfare deals they find online.  You have to know your airport codes to begin to decipher what they’re all talking about, but it’s worth it!

Just this past weekend, I found what I was looking for: early December flights from PHL (Philly, natch) to SAN (San Diego, not quite LA) for $175 round-trip on United.  Virgin America it ain’t, but we’ll get to California for half the cost of a normal round-trip, and we’ll be able to spend a day in San Diego (where Lance has never been) before driving (rental cars are cheaper out of San Diego than LAX anyway) or Amtrak-in’ it up to Anaheim.

AND…I can keep my frequent flyer miles to redeem on flights to other places!

I hope that gives y’all a sense of what you can do with a little…well, yes, craziness.

Adventure is out there!

Travel Tuesday: I’ve Lost My Mind

travel on the mind“Honey?”

“Yes, my darling?”

“Do we need a two-day rental car for any reason?” I ask. “I can get it for $5 total, but I’m not sure if we’d actually need it any time soon…”

“Oh, brother,” Lance sighs with an air of defeat.

This is my life lately.  While I’ve been otherwise lazy as shit (no, really…that’s about as apt a simile as I can come up with), I’ll keep myself up at night, my brain doing (probably really poor) arithmetic, calculating percentages off, points transferred, miles gained.

2013 was supposed to be our “good” year.  Be frugal, save some money, pay down some debt, line the coffers and such.  Of course, a huge expense of ours last year was traveling, so when Lance and I sat down to trim our expenses, that was the first to go.  No more spontaneous overnights to Disney World ::sadface::

This also meant no “major” traveling.  We like to do at least a weeklong vacation somewhere–Vegas (ugh), Hawaii, Tokyo.  As I’ve discussed before, we alternate who picks these annual vacations because there’s no way we could ever agree to one place.  2013 was Lance’s year to pick, but by agreeing to punt his vacation into 2014, Lance became frustrated and mighty sad.

Only a few weeks into this new status quo, and it was already driving me nuts.  Though this is the first-worldiest of problems, I couldn’t imagine going a whole year without a vacation.  In fact, I may love piecing together the elements of a vacay more than actually going on vacation.  I love getting the best hotel deal, getting the cheapest flight, arranging an itinerary.

So…I looked at our frequent flyer accounts through American Airlines.  Though neither of us are super-fans of AA (we’ll get to the Cookie Incident another time), we accumulated a nice chunk of miles through our first two trips to Hawaii by flying American, so we are kinda stuck with them.

We were both somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 miles; too little to redeem for a roundtrip to Europe (what I’d been saving the miles for), but just enough for a roundtrip to Hawaii.  Instead of spending $800+ each on plane tickets, we’d pay $5 a piece for taxes and fees.

I heroically offered up the miles I alone had amassed so that Lance could take his vacation.  Please, no applause.

The only problem was the dates available to book flights either allowed too short of a vacation, or one that was 10+ days.  I wasn’t going to spend 11 hours on a plane to only go to Hawaii for four days, but the 10-day vacation scared me.  Hotels in Hawaii ain’t cheap, and eating in Hawaii is like going out to eat all the time in a big city: we’re used to those kind of prices, but doing it for 10 solid days adds up quickly.

But, the thought of going for double-digit days appealed to Lance. “Let’s do it!” he proclaimed, forgetting our whole “financially responsible” charge.

So, we booked the flight; now we needed a hotel.  A nice one.  And a cheap one.

We’d previously stayed at the Hilton Waikiki Beach, and loved it, but it was going for over $200 a night; the goal of this trip was to save money, not spend $2000 on a hotel room.

So I began looking elsewhere.  Thankfully, around the corner from the Hilton is a brand-new Hyatt Place, which was going for $169-$212 a night.

In this case, Hyatt is preferable to me for two reasons:

  1. They offer a better best rate guarantee than Hilton does, where, if you find a cheaper rate elsewhere, Hyatt’ll not only match it but take 20% off.
  2. I have a Hyatt credit card, which I got primarily for the “no international fees” feature, but it also allows me to rack up Hyatt hotel points to redeem for free nights.  Plus, I get a free night dumped into my account on my cardholder anniversary, which will be in July (and we go to Hawaii in August.)

So now I’m in the process of coming up with every possible scenario for using our free nights and paying for nights.  I already have one night booked with points, and I estimate I can earn enough points via my credit card before we go to redeem for a second free night (this only requires, like, $12,000 spent on my card. You know, whatever).  So there’s the scenario for one free night and nine paid nights, two free nights and eight paid nights, etc.

I’m hoping to get it down to where we’re only paying for seven nights out of the ten; I’ve already used Hyatt’s Best Rate Guarantee to bring the hotel cost down to $120 a night (from $169-212  a night).  This required me scouring the internet for a cheaper advertised rate, and then calling up Hyatt and trying to convince them that all the terms and conditions are exactly the same (really, they try to find the tiniest discrepancy so that your “claim” isn’t valid).

I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent calling Hyatt trying to get them to match rates; oftentimes, if they find a minuscule difference, I hang up and shout, “It is TOO valid, you sonofabitch!!” and shake my fist in the air all dramatic-like. And then I cry.

But it’s worth it.  I love doing this stuff, and it makes going on vacation financially feasible where it wasn’t otherwise.  Instead of spending $1700+ a person on a flight-hotel package deal through American, we’re aiming to spend about $450 a person on paid nights.

So that’s basically what I’ve been doing instead of writing blog posts.

 

Travel Tip Thursday: How to Stay Like a Prince But Pay Like a Pauper

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I used to be of the opinion that traveling was all about experiencing the local culture, and the quality of the hotel was inconsequential.

However, after a series of seedy stays in hotels, ranging from the classic flickering-light drug-den in Miami to the Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan, where an Eastern European lady emerged from her room in a muumuu and curlers to ask me for help in opening her bottle of champagne (apparently she lived there), I decided to re-frame my approach to hotels.

Also, Lance is generally a snob and will sleep fully clothed on top of the covers if the room doesn’t suit him.  Oh, and he’ll involuntarily make this face the entire time:

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My new philosophy is this: traveling is about having a great overall experience, which includes where you stay.  It’s like going to out to eat; the food may be great, but if the restaurant looks like it’s the after-hours meeting place for our impending rat overlords, then that tarnishes your experience.

So when planning for your trip, how do you know if your hotel is up to your lofty standards? And how can you stay somewhere that’s within your budget?  Here are some tips for newbies:

TripAdvisor is your friend. TripAdvisor, for the uninitiated, is like Yelp, but for all things travel, particularly hotels.  Two things are great about TripAdvisor.

  • First, many of the listings include photos taken by travelers themselves, not just the gussied-up professional photos you get from the hotels; this way, you’re getting a taste of what it’s really like to stay in these places, as opposed to the image that the hotels uses to sell itself, which could be vastly different.
  • The second great thing about TripAdvisor is their review system (0-5…circles? Owl eyes?) is a more honest representation of their quality than the B.S. star-system you see on Expedia or Orbitz.  Guess what? That star rating you see on hotel sites is totally bogus and is established by the hotels themselves! I’ve recently come around to semi-pro traveller Paul Carr (highly recommend his book The Upgrade for this and other useful travel tips infused with dry British humour), who sticks to the rule of only staying at places that have earned 4 or more TripAdvisor owl eyes; anything else isn’t worth your time.

Subscribe to yet another e-mail alert! Sign up for the weekly e-mail alerts from Travelzoo and Sherman’s Travel.  These sites have staffs that pull together some great deals on vacations, flights, and hotels from all over the world, and every once and awhile they’ll announce that the hotel you want to stay in is having a great promotion.

A little legwork will pay big dividends on your room rate.  The worst part about wanting to go to a place like New York or San Francisco is that, daaaaayyymn, hotels are ‘spensive. But, there’s a way you can sometimes beat the system and stay somewhere nicer than the Tenderloin.

Almost all of the major chains (Hilton, Starwood (which includes Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, etc.), Hyatt, Best Western) have a price-match guarantee, so if you see the same room on the same night cheaper than what’s listed on their own company website, they claim they’ll match and also give you a bonus, like an American Express gift card (Hilton) or a credit for your next stay (Best Western).  Unfortunately, most of these chains have a trick in their process so that you’ll almost never be able to match: for example, Hilton, Starwood, and Best Western require that you fill out a form online and give their customer service reps (CSRs) 24 hours to get back to you; if the lower rate is still available at the time they check, then they will match.  Keep in mind, though, that most hotel sales through sites like Expedia or Hotels.com only last for 24 hours, so the likelihood of that lower rate you’ve found being available by the time the hotel CSR checks is slim.

I’ve had the most luck with Hyatt’s Best Rate Guarantee. Unlike the other chains, you can actually call and get a real live person on the phone to check if your price match is valid at that very second. Not only that, but if it is valid, they’ll match, and then give you an additional 20% off on the room rate!  This is how we were able to stay at the Andaz Wall Street last year for $120 a night, a steal in Manhattan and definitely the nicest hotel…shower I’ve ever experienced.

Now, things to consider here: these best rate guarantees are VERY particular about a few things, especially that the room type be listed as exactly the same, word-for-word, on their website and a competitor’s.  You also can’t use sites with “auction” features (i.e., paying for the room before knowing exactly which hotel you’re staying at), like Priceline and Hotwire.  Lastly, they won’t honor any vacation bundles (like, if your flight and hotel price are combined on a site like Travelocity)–it has to be the room all by itself.

When looking for a possible price-match, I with check the following sites to make sure I’m covering all possible options: aggregate sites like Room77 and Kayak, but also American Airlines Vacations, which isn’t usually included in sites like those above and can often surprise with lower rates than you can find elsewhere.

Lastly, dealsdealsdeals.  Besides Groupon and LivingSocial, which rarely offer nice hotels in desirable locations at a rate I would consider a steal, there are often deals going on through the hotel chains themselves, or through other vendors, that can be worthwhile.  For example, for the next few weeks, American Express and the U.S. Travel Association are running some solid travel deals through their annual Daily Getaways promotion.  Earlier this week, I bought 32,000 Wyndham Rewards points for $110, which I was able to redeem for a Friday and Saturday night stay at the Wingate Manhattan Midtown. That’s $55 a night for a room that’s currently going for $335 a night on Expedia and Orbitz!

You can usually find out about these deals from sites like The Points Guy or Mommy Points, so I suggest liking them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter so you can keep abreast of the latest deals.

All right, so now that I’ve shared some of my tips with you, share some with me! Particularly, where are some non-sucky places to have dinner in NYC?  No matter how many times we go, Lance and I always seem to get stuck at really terrible over-promise/under-deliver restaurants.  Recommendations in the $ to $$$ range?