spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

13, 437 miles and 4 different airlines later…

…I’m back!  I successfully made it from Honolulu to Guayaquil, had my surgery, recovered really well, and traveled to my parents’ place in NJ for 2 nights before flying back to Honolulu.

This was a nice trip in that I got to spend a lot of one-on-one time with my mother, without husbands or kids!  Plus, since she was helping me after the surgery with everything from scheduling medical appointments to getting dressed, I felt like a little girl again ♥. She flew down to Ecuador a few days before I did, and then did the whole trip back with me, first to NJ, and then to Honolulu.  She stayed about a week to hang with my babies- her grandchildren, and is now, after a month away from NJ, comfortably back in her own home.

We had some airport adventures, and you know what that means…lessons learned.

  • my itinerary to Guayaquil was as follows: Honolulu (HNL) to Phoenix (PHX), Phoenix to Miami (MIA), Miami to Guayaquil (GYE).  Three flights in a row, which I was fine with because I was traveling solo and with only carry-on luggage.  I booked this trip using Alaska Airlines miles, though all 3 flights were on American Airlines.  Because I hold the Barclay Aviator AAdvantage card, I had Priority Boarding, which was AWESOME in Miami when I finally got on my flight.  The first 2 legs went like clockwork.  I was supposed to have a 2-hour layover in Miami before boarding the flight to Guayaquil.  Well, we boarded, left the gate, taxied to the runway, and the captain mentioned some “weather” nearby that was causing some takeoff delays.  We sat on the runway for a bit.  When we were next for takeoff, the captain announced that the weather radar on our plane was not working, and we had to return to the gate to have the mechanic look at it.  Back to the gate for about 30 minutes, then the captain announced that it was not fixable and we needed a different plane.  Off the plane.  They announced a new gate, so we all trooped over.  Waited another 45 minutes.  Gate agents announced that we had a new plane.  Waited some more.  They announced that our new plane was at yet another gate.  Trooped over.  Plane was not there yet.  They provided free sandwiches, chips, and drinks 🙂 Waited some more for the crew to arrive.  The captain finally showed up once the plane was there, and proceeded to grab the gate area microphone and say that this “plano es muy bueno.”  Listen, I don’t need him to speak fluent Spanish, but he should at least know the word for airplane!  It’s ‘avión,’ sir. Anyway, a bunch of people were upset and confused about the new boarding process and clogging up the gate entry, so I took advantage of the Priority Boarding benefit, sailed by all those folks, and calmly took my seat.  We finally took off after we should have landed- 5 hours late, landing at 3am Ecuador time.  As a cherry on top, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a harder landing.  Whatever, I was grateful to finally be there.  I had a moment when I thought the passport control lady would make a stink about the fact that my Ecuadorian National ID card and my passport have slightly different last names (because I got married in the US and the name change doesn’t transfer over to the Ecuadorian Government’s records), but nothing happened.
  • what did I learn from all this? Basically, patience.  I half-heartedly checked the AA app for other flights to Ecuador that night, and there were two: one to Quito (no thanks), and another to Guayaquil scheduled to depart 1.5 hours after my original flight, but was disrupted in much the same way ours was (I later found out they landed 3 hours after my flight did, so good thing I didn’t jump ship).  So I ate some yummy food from Lorena Garcia’s quick-service kiosk near the Bacardi Mojito bar and chilled, thankful that I alone was inconvenienced by the delay vs the whole family.
  • On our way from Guayaquil to Newark, we had a short layover in Panama City, for which I needed wheelchair assistance.  The wheelchair helped our case when we realized that our seats were not together anymore- we were 2 rows apart!  My mom spoke to the gate agent, who saw me sitting there looking positively green (the breakfast sandwich they gave us on the Guayaquil-Panama City leg on Copa Airlines did not sit well), and moved some stuff around so we could sit together on the United flight to Newark.  Lesson learned: none- I knew that since we had booked separately, our reservations weren’t linked, and could be subject to seat changes.  Luckily, my condition helped us to change it back.
  • Traveling back to Honolulu, we had a very long layover in Seattle- about 8.5 hours.  These flights (Newark [EWR] to Seattle [SEA], then SEA-HNL) were on Alaska Airlines, for which I had used my Alaska Airlines Visa companion fare.  I had the airport agent wheel me to the Board Room, Alaska’s lounge.  I was able to purchase 2 day passes ($45 each) for me and my mom to be comfortable during the layover.  It worked well, we had Ivar’s clam chowder and various other snacks and drinks.  Happily, that’s the last time we will ever have that superextended layover on the Newark to Honolulu journey- Alaska announced a 3rd daily flight from Newark to Seattle starting in the next 6 months, which should cut the layover down to 4.5 hours, enough time to pop out to Pike Place market and back before going home to Honolulu 🙂  Lesson learned: the day pass is a great option for very long layovers.  Keep in mind, if the club is full, they will only accept full members of the lounge.
  • Alaska Airlines finally did something wrong!  We used the Self-Tag Express program, where you print your own bag tag and slide it into a reusable plastic tag holder, then attach it to your luggage.  At the airport, you just drop your tagged luggage at the kiosk and head to the security area.  Well, with the Alaska Visa we were each entitled to one free checked bag, and additionally, the website gave me the option to check a carry-on for free as well.  So we had a total of 3 bags.  2 made it to Honolulu just fine, but the 3rd (my mom’s!) somehow went to Portland and Anchorage.  The Alaska agent here in Honolulu was quick to make a report and issue me a customer service voucher towards a future flight (he was so quick to do it in fact, that I didn’t get a chance to say that I would prefer to have Alaska miles instead of the credit, per their Baggage Guarantee.  Oh, well.)  Unfortunately, it took them 2 days to deliver the bag to my house.  So I am waiting on the reimbursement for clothing we bought for my mom on the meantime.  Lesson confirmed: always keep those baggage claim tickets safe, we needed the # on them to identify the bag and for them to deliver it to us.

I’m now back at work, and still a bit sore, but doing just fine considering I had major surgery.  I missed my babies something fierce.  I had handwritten them each a note to read every morning that I was gone, so they could start the day with some words from Mama, and talk to her every night via FaceTime.  I was able to send regular pics and updates to my husband, and he did a great job doing all the things he already does, like keeping the house clean, the children alive, and his cool during situations like this:

crayons

Last, some highlights:

  • I got to see my grandfather again, daily for almost 3 weeks.  Bliss.
  • More time in Ecuador is always good for me.  The language, the culture, my relatives, etc.  Plus, they sell ceviche in the mall food court, you guys.
  • My doctor found something major that my Hawaii docs missed, and was able to repair it during the surgery.  Dodged a bullet there.
  • I got to see my niece during my very short stay in NJ.  Now she’ll for sure recognize me more easily when we’re at the Quince in November.
  • Laughed with my mom SO MUCH.
  • Played cards with my Aunts a bunch of times- competitive and hilarious.
  • My new carry-on backpack.  10/10, would recommend.  My sister said that if I were transformed into a bag, I would be that backpack.
  • My health was greatly improved by the procedure, and I can now publicly shout that MY HUSBAND WAS RIGHT, and we needed to spend the money on my surgery rather than on another vacation.

Still planning on that post re: Unaccompanied Minors, I promise I didn’t forget.  Talk soon!

 

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Bits & Pieces: Alaska/Virgin America surprise and Daily Getaways

  • Wow- in a surprise move, this week Alaska Air Group (which is the holding company for Alaska Airlines) announced that it was acquiring Virgin America, with the deal announced now, the purchase (hopefully) officially approved by Jan 2017, and the 2 airlines flying under a single operating certificate by 1st quarter 2018.  See the combined route map below.  Of course, there might be some consolidation to the map over time.  What does this mean for us in Hawaii?  On first glance- not much.  Adding Virgin America to Alaska’s route network doesn’t open up any new routes/cities to/from the islands directly.  But I do see some new connection cities, like Fort Lauderdale (where JetBlue announced directs flights to Quito from last year).  Here’s the full press release, and some handy FAQs.

Alaska Virgin America combined route

  • Virgin America currently has a referral bonus for joining their frequent flyer program, called Elevate.  If you are already a member and want to get some points for referring others, start at flightswithbennies.com.  Both the referrer and the referred get 500 points.  You can also leave your referral link in the comments for any reader to use.  I’m currently assuming that any Elevate points you currently have will be converted into Alaska Airlines miles by 2018, so it’s a good idea to stock up where you can.
  • Finally, the U.S. Travel Association is currently offering their yearly month of travel-related offers, called Daily Getaways.  I didn’t see anything that would work for me this year, but last year I was able to take good advantage of the $50 Alamo gift card for $25 offer that will be up for grabs soon- I wound up purchasing 3 certificates and paid very little for my rental from Pittsburgh to Newark.  I was intrigued by the Busch Gardens ticket offer, for a trip to Washington DC/colonial Williamsburg/Busch Gardens Williamsburg I hope to piece together for 2017.  $45 + tax per person.  Pretty good deal, considering rack rate prices are $77 + tax per adult, a bit less for kids.  But when reading the fine print, <dead horse> I learned that the tickets would expire before the projected date of our trip, so it was a no-go.  Also, the Busch Gardens site has various vacation packages available, which have nice value-added options like free parking or even free food.  So I’ll look into those once I can lock some more dates/details in place.
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Award travel success…completed!

Happy New Year!

So far, 2016 is looking great! We are now booked to return from NYC after my daughter’s party.  It took a bit of shuffling around, and separating my party of 4 into 2 reservations ( me + the kids on one reservation, husband on another), but we are all returning to Honolulu on the same day, and arriving within 30 minutes of each other, albeit on separate airlines.  And the kids will only miss 2 days of school 🙂

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Award travel success…so far

We’re going to NYC in November 2016…but I don’t know when we’re coming back.  Let me explain:  most airlines release their award availability about 330 days in advance.  Since we’re wanting to travel for Thanksgiving next year, the time to book is now!  But it’s still too soon to book the return…

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Disney World October 2015 Trip Report Part 1: flights and arrival

All you need is faith, trust, and pixie dust.  Here we go!

Cast of Characters:

Me: Disneyholic and planner extraordinaire, 6 trips to the World, 2 Disney Cruises, 1 trip to Disneyland, 1 stay at Aulani

DD: teen daughter, Disneyholic planner-in-training, 4 trips to the World (1 in utero!), 2 Disney Cruises, 1 trip to Disneyland, 1 stay at Aulani

DH: husband, happy to leave the vacation planning to me, 1 trip to the World, 1 stay at Aulani, 1 Disney Cruise

DS: toddler son, loves the characters, 1 stay at Aulani, 1 Disney Cruise

116

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The Junk Drawer: bits of pieces of a bunch of different stuff

This is appropriate post, since I’m right in the middle of moving house and have a bunch of stuff that needs a new home.  For now…they go in the junk drawer.  Or in my case, “junk box.”  My fellow island dwellers know that bugs get into everything, and a bunch of loose items in a drawer is irresistible to roaches.  So I keep my extra screwdriver, birthday candles, and take-out menus in a clear plastic shoebox.   Anyway, since I’m up to be elbows in moving boxes, no time for a good write-up.  Here’s my “junk drawer post” of varying travel/organization/Disney items.

united hawaii promo

  • Alaska Airlines is offering a checked bag promo, 1000 Alaska MileagePlan miles if you Self-Tag at homeYAY…..maybe?  While our Alaska Airlines flights to Orlando are within the promo period, the rules stipulate that you must credit the flight to Alaska to get the bag bonus.  We always credit our flights on Alaska to American Airlines, as they are more valuable to us.  But now that I think about it, we can probably have my little guy credit his flight to Alaska and get a miles bonus for him!  My kids have their frequent flyer numbers and earn miles for flying, but we don’t redeem their miles for family travel- mom and dad do the heavy lifting there.  Let those miles accumulate and they’ll have a nice stash to use for trips to Grandma’s, study abroad, etc.  What I’m saying is, he has plenty of time to earn more American miles before he’ll have a need to redeem them, so crediting this one flight to Alaska makes sense if it earns him some miles.  YAY, YES!
  • Disney has released its Free Dining Promo for 2015.  Our trip fits neatly outside of the eligible dates, sigh.  Not that we would have been able to take advantage of it anyway- as has been the case the last 2 years, the Free Dining Promo cannot be used with the Standard (Little Mermaid) Rooms at the Art of Animation Resort.  Oh well- at least it eliminates the worrying over how to get the biggest value out of each and every snack/meal credit.

That’s all for now!  Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s back to packing I go!

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Using the Alaska Airlines Low Price Guarantee

The eternal question: buy air tickets right away when you see an acceptable price, or wait to see if the price comes down?  Unless you have elite status with an airline, and can therefore eliminate the Change Fee, it’s generally not worth the financial hit to make a change to your non-refundable reservation to take advantage of a price drop.

Cancelling/rebooking a flight due to a price change usually falls into the “change” category.  Here is a handy chart outlining most major airline fees, as well as information on how/when to cancel or change your reservation.  Southwest doesn’t have any change fees, but they don’t fly to Hawaii so that benefit is of limited use to us.  I agree wholeheartedly with this blogger’s approach to leaving cancellations until pretty close to the departure date (tip #3).  If the carrier changes the flight schedule by ~5 hours or more (for American; other airlines use anything from 3-8 hours as the criteria), you can usually request a different route to your destination or cancel your ticket altogether without cancellation fees (even for a nonrefundable ticket) because the airline itself changed the schedule by an unacceptable amount.  You generally want to call them to see your options- be aware that they may charge a phone fee if you make changes, something nominal like $25.  Still better than $200!

On that topic, Alaska Airlines has a good benefit that I took advantage of last week.  They advertise a Low Price Guarantee.  This means that you can get a refund of the difference if you find a lower fare for your exact itinerary (including flight #s).  You can find a lower fare on a competitor’s site within 24 hrs of booking on alaskaair.com to claim a refund, or you can find a lower fare on alaskaair.com before your travel date to claim a credit into your “Wallet.”  Make sure your flights qualify, there are some restrictions (notably, it’s valid only for flights on Alaska metal and some little regional services they use).  But if your reservation fits the specifics, it’s pretty easy to go through the process using their online form.  To be clear, you can’t use this process to change your flights dates/times, only to take advantage of a price drop with your same itinerary. Here is my original receipt:

Before...

Before…

And here is my new receipt after submitting the claim:

and After!

and After!

As you can see, I was actually charged $0.45 for my Companion Traveler’s tax difference.  They used my credit card on file…I hope my credit score is OK after that 45-cent hit 🙂  More importantly, I got a credit of $84.99 into my online Wallet to use on any future Alaska flight.  I must use the funds to book travel by late January 2016; actual travel can take place whenever.

Finally, a note about change fees in general.  Many complain about having change fees at all, citing Southwest as an example.  This airline apparently can absorb the “extra administrative costs” (rolling my eyes, it’s an hourly worker clicking a few thing into a computer) incurred by having a passenger change their itinerary, flight dates, etc, while other major airlines pass the cost along to the customer.  Non-change-farers actually want the airline to track the price and refund them automatically as the ticket prices drop.  To them I say, well, you wouldn’t want to continually be charged more if the ticket price goes up, do you?  Slippery slope, that.

Others protest that having some change fee is fair, but the actual cost is outrageous (I agree, $200 is not insignificant to a travel budget).  I fall into this second camp.  Life happens, and plans sometimes need to change.  If the airlines want to foster some goodwill with a traveler and their family in order to keep them as a customer, they’d bring these costs down.  Charging a flat $200 to change a $180 fare or $1800 fare is madness.  I’d love to see a sliding scale change fee structure, based on a percentage of the base fare cost.  Anyone? Bueller?

BTW, totally thinking of using up my flight credit on a family trip to……

Never been, always wanted to.  Nonstop flights, woo!

Never been, always wanted to. Nonstop flights, woo!

 

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Delta adding SEA-KOA route in late 2015

So, Delta and Alaska are locked in this crazy war over domination of the Seattle airport market.  This is surely meant to be another direct blow.  When airlines compete, travelers usually win- in the form of improved access, increased bonus miles, and lower prices.

Delta announced several new routes out of Seattle coming in the next year, but the one that interests us is the new route from Seattle to Kona.

I went ahead and added the flight to my Delta information page.  Happy flying!

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Disney Pre-Trip Report: flights are booked!

Q: SpreadsheetsandSuitcases family, you’ve just confirmed the school/work calendar for the next year, what are you going to do next?

A: We’re going to Walt Disney World!


Yes, indeed, we have official trip dates set for October!  My Disney2015 spreadsheeting activities are in full swing, and I’m crossing things off my lists left and right.  Super exciting, especially once I remembered that not only would Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party be going on at Magic Kingdom during our trip dates, we’d also be able to partake in the Epcot Food & Wine Festival.  But in order to enjoy all this fun, we must first travel the 4,747 miles from Honolulu to Orlando.

First order of business was to research flights.  Honestly, I have been tracking flight prices for both trip date options (July/August and October) for months already.  So I knew what the prices would be like, and I knew that, barring any sudden 80% off fare sales, our best bet would once again be using the Companion Fare benefit of the Alaska Airlines Visa.  I did fresh research, and came up with the same answer.  Using the Companion Fare will save us quite a bit- here’s the breakdown on my reasoning and calculations.  Warning: itinerary minutiae ahead!

  • the least expensive (non-Alaska) RT fare on our trip dates in October 2015 was $897 on Delta.  Itinerary is OK, both outbound and inbound flights get us to/from Florida in the one day over the course of 11-14 hours with brief stops in Los Angeles (LAX), eliminating any need for layover hotels.
  • the least expensive Alaska RT fare came in at $843.  This itinerary included overnight layovers both ways, in San Diego (SAN) on the outbound and Seattle (SEA) on the inbound, requiring airport hotels.  When I looked at the options, I decided that a different return flight was a better option for us, which added $20 to the fare, so the final price was $863.  Let’s put our Comparing Caps on!~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  • the Delta itinerary includes arriving at Orlando Int’l (MCO) at 5:35am EST…this means our first day in Florida is kind of a wash: nothing will be open, the resort room may not be ready for hours, the parks don’t open until around 9am, and we’re unlikely to have slept enough on the flights to handle a day of activities.  By the time we got into our room, I think we would all just crash and be useless for the rest of the day trying to get off of HST.  In contrast, because of the overnight layover in SAN on the outbound Alaska itinerary, we’d arrive at 6pm EST, giving us time for a hearty dinner and some exploration of the resort before hitting bed fairly early to prepare for Islands of Adventure the next day.  In both cases, we’d be looking at 2 days of travel/adjustment, but the Alaska itinerary is definitely more appealing.
  • on the return, the Delta itinerary leaves MCO at 7:00am.  Since we’re using Magical Express to get to our resort, we’d be looking at a pick-up time of 4:00am. They want you to be at the airport 2 hours early, and sometimes stop to pick up guests at a few different resorts, so they pick you up 3 hours before flight time.  EWWWWWW, and it messes up our last night at the parks.  Either we go to bed super early and miss fun evening activities, or we try to stay up all night.  In contrast, the Alaska itinerary has us leaving at 6:55pm, leaving us most of a day to sleep in, relax at the resort, and have a good lunch before being picked up at 3:55pm.  Side note: Disney’s Magical Express is a complimentary bus service to/from MCO, and is available only to WDW Resort guests staying on-property.  It includes luggage transportation as well- they pick up your luggage at MCO for you and deliver it to your resort room a few hours after you land. Very convenient.
  • finally, with the Delta itinerary, we arrive at HNL at 5pm HST (since we’ll still be on EST, it’ll feel more like 10pm), and we’d need another “recovery day” before going back to work and school.  With the Alaska itinerary, we land at HNL at 1:16pm HST, and can get unwind/unpack with time for a full nights’ sleep and not miss anymore work and school.  DD will be in high school, so I’d prefer to limit school days missed (even though travel is educational, of course :))
  • alright, let’s talk numbers!  Delta itinerary price is $897/traveler, no layover hotels, luggage fee of $25 for 1st checked bag since we have no status (I’ll assume 2 bags each direction, each one assigned to a different family member, 4 flights total): = (897*4)+(25*4) = $3688.  Alaska itinerary price is $863/traveler for 2 of us, and $99 + tax/traveler for 2 of us, 2 layover hotels averaging $115/night each, luggage fee of $25 for 1st checked bag (I’ll assume 2 bags each direction, each one assigned to a different family member, 8 flights total because we have to repay the luggage fee after picking up the suitcases for the overnight layovers- Alaska STILL charges CC holders checked luggage fees, gah), the $75 annual fee for the Alaska Airlines Visa for both of us, and some taxis to the layover hotels since we arrive later at night: (863*2)+(166.08*2)+(115*2)+(25*8)+(75*2)+(50) = $2686.16, a savings of a little over $1000, even with all the extras.  That averages $671 per person for RT transportation, not too shabby.

We bought the flights this week!  If you’re curious about the taxes breakdown with the companion fare, here is my detailed receipt section.

Total transportation cost averages $671/person, round-trip!

Both sets of taxes include: US Alaska/Hawaii Departure Tax $of 17.80, US Flight Segment Tax of $16.00, US Passenger Facility Charge of $18.00, and US Sept 11 Security Fee of 11.20. The difference in totals comes from the US Transportation Tax, which is $24.11 on the Base Fare of 775.89 and $3.08 on the Base Fare of $99.

Now I have to research airport hotels.  I have to tell you, I’m baffled by the lack of airport-only hotels in San Diego based on my research so far.  They’re mostly called Sea World/Airport, or Zoo/Airport…and none of them seem to be within 1 or 2 miles of the airport.   That’s why I factored in the cab rides in my transportation estimate- we’re looking at $25 cab rides to airport hotels in San Diego, because we’re landing near midnight and most of the airport shuttles have stopped running by then.  That’s crazy talk.  I’ll keep looking.  Any recommendations for San Diego?

And will October get here already?!  I have new magnets to buy!

 

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New SAN-KOA route on Alaska Airlines

According to yesterday’s press release, Alaska Airlines is adding a new nonstop route from San Diego (SAN) to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (KOA) beginning March 2015.

Details:

  • the route will run 3 times per week (Monday, Thursday, Saturday)
  • flights begin on March 5, 2015
  • They have an introductory fare sale: Alaska is offering an introductory fare of $219 one way for tickets purchased by Oct. 28 for travel between March 5 and June 6, 2015.  The fare sale applies to Monday and Thursday departures only.

Great news for our Big Island friends in general, and a great deal on the tickets if you move quickly!  I’m updating the Travel Strategies- Alaska Airlines post to reflect the new route 🙂

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