spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

Disney T-A-G, and a personal bag

It’s been a rough time for me emotionally, though of course my suffering is infinitesimal compared to those who actually died/were injured/are missing in the Earthquake.  No new (safe) donation opportunities haves popped up specifically for Hawaii.  I sent money to my cousin’s car service, and from what I understand, it was helpful.  I will continue to send aid in that manner.  It was really great to see that communities with lots of Ecuadorians (NY, Miami, etc), were getting together Facebook Groups to organize donation drives via the airlines or local travel agencies.  There have been lots of inspiring stories of rescues, international aid arriving, and huge quantities of donations from the less-hit areas of Ecuador.  The inevitable political sniping and accusations of favoritism are alive and well, too.  There is still along ways to go towards rebuilding, of course.  Time to put those donations to work and get on with it.  Ok, Disney time! Read the rest of this entry »

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Bits & Pieces: more SPG drama, a good Amex Offer, new Citi Costco card

  • Previously on Merger Drama 2016Marriott and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) were going to merge, then the Chinese company Anbang submitted a superior bid, then Marriot counter-bid, leaving us all in suspense as to whether Anbang could (or should) increase their offer?  Well, they did!  And then, they didn’t!  So as of right now, Marriott emerges victorious.  Should be official later this year.
  • I got this good Amex Offer in my account: 10% cash back when using my Amex (this is my SPG card) to pay my wireless bill online. cell offer

According to the fine print (always read it!), the statement credit should appear within 90 days of 6/30/16, so it’s not an instant statement credit like other Amex Offers.  Also, it’s limited to $30 total that you can get back.  Make sure you don’t use a third-party vendor, as it might not trigger the credit…use the provider site directly.  This is a good offer, since we always pay the phone bill online with a CC for the points/miles 🙂

  • We also received some information about the TrueEarnings Costco Amex’s upcoming conversion to Citibank.  I was all ready to cancel the card and just use other Visas that we already own for our Costco visits.  But…they’ve improved the terms, to include 2% back at Costco, which we can’t beat with any other no-annual-fee card.  So we’ll be accepting the new card.  This post from blogger One Mile at at Time sums it up quite nicely.
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American Express stuff: Small Business Saturday and Amex Offers

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

tragedy comedy

I personally like to hear the bad news first, so I am temporarily bummed but still have the potential to be cheered up.  I’ll list the news thusly, then…

BAD NEWS: If you aren’t already aware of the American Express promotion Small Business Saturday (SBS), here’s a quick history.  They started the promotion about 4 years ago to try and give local stores/restaurants/service providers a chance for more business during Thanksgiving weekend.  Of course, Small Business Saturday was scheduled for the day after Black Friday, when many people shop the big-box stores, chain department stores, and wholesale retailers for good deals on holiday gifts.  It was also a chance for Amex cardholders to save a lot of money, because some sort of statement credit was usually involved.  Last year it was a $10 statement credit for any purchase of $10 or more, up to 3 times, on each participating Amex card.  Between my husband and I, we had the Costco Amex, we each had an Amex Serve card, and I had the SPG Amex- that meant a total of 12 different $10 statement credits available to us.  We searched the SBS site for local business and identified which we wanted to patronize.  In some cases, we just bought a $10 gift card to use on another day- free money.  In other cases, we waited to purchase something we wanted from the store, and got it at a $10 discount that day (I’m looking at you, Ono Cheese Steak).  This year, they are still promoting Small Business Saturday, but are not offering any statement credits for Amex cardholders.  Bummer!  They do still offer lots of resources for small business owners to market their services, and seem to be very supportive of local shops.  We all should, and this is pretty important in Hawaii- the whole Shop Local thing.

Now for the good news: Amex Offers are a yearlong perk to having an American Express Card.  Basically, they are targeted offers that differ depending on your zip code, spending patterns, or whatever other information Amex gleans from your credit card applications and statement.  Many times an Offer includes a statement credit, such as “spend $50, receive a $15 statement credit.”  Occasionally they will have a special offer for cardholders, such as “Omaha Steaks package for $45 with free shipping.”  You can go to AmexOffers.com to log in with your Amex card login, or FB/Twitter.

amex offers1

Scroll down, and simply select an offer that is on your list.  In some cases, the offer has a hashtag associated that will add the offer to all of your Amex accounts.  I don’t do Twitter, so I just look at my list.

amex offers2

You can click the offer to see the terms and conditions.  ALWAYS read them- they can be very specific, restricting what qualifies as a purchase for the offer, plus they contain an expiration date.  Usually, there is not problem with starting your shopping trip at an airline shopping portal, or something like Ebates, which can make your deal even sweeter.

amex offers3

Once the offer is added and you use it correctly, you’ll get a confirmation email, generally within minutes of the transaction:

amex offers4

Then you just look out for your statement credit!  A few tips:

  • again, always read the terms and conditions.
  • if you have multiple Amex cards, there are usually different offers for each card.  Check all of them!
  • check your statement- technically they have up to 90 days to post the statement credit, but I usually see them within 3 days.
  • keep an eye out for the confirmation email.  In rare cases, you won’t get an email.  You can either reach out to Amex or wait about a week to see if the credit posts on its own.
  • the minimum amount required is based on the total charged, including taxes and shipping costs if applicable.

GOOD NEWS: One of these lovely Amex offers just popped up for transactions at Undercover Tourist!  See my screenshot of the offer above- it’s a $30 statement credit when you spend $150 or more.  You may remember that we purchased our Disney and Universal tickets on the site not long ago.  They are authorized to sell tickets to all these cool places, and even more, like local whale watching trips, and even rental cars:

•Walt Disney World
•Universal Orlando
•SeaWorld Orlando
•Legoland Florida
•Kennedy Space Center
•Universal Studios Hollywood
•Six Flags Magic Mountain
•Knott’s Berry Farm
•Madame Tussauds Hollywood
•Pirate’s Dinner Adventure Anaheim
•SeaWorld San Diego
•Legoland California
•San Diego Zoo
•San Diego Zoo Safari Park
•Sea Life Aquarium

I think you know what I’ll be looking to purchase using this offer!  San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, baby!  I should know by the end of December -when the offer expires- when we can take that trip.  Looking at the (what else?) terms and conditions of the e-tickets sold for the Safari Park, for example, they are only valid “during the calendar year when purchased.”  So I don’t want to buy them too far ahead of time.

So there you have it- the highs and low of credit card perks: Amex edition.  As always, I don’t get any compensation/special stuff for talking about it.  See my disclaimer.  I just want everyone to get a good deal.  Have fun shopping!

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Theme Park Planning- Universal Studios Tickets

So I outlined my 1-day, 1-park strategy for Islands of Adventure here.  Now let’s talk admission tickets, and some ways to save money!

As with most theme parks, the price per day of admission goes down as the number of days on the ticket increases. This is because the more time you spend in the park, the more opportunity for you to spend money on food, souvenirs and extra experiences. So, the park gives you an incentive to stay longer by making days 4, 5, and beyond much cheaper than days 1 and 2.  Huh?  Here’s a handy chart if you are a visual learner:

Did I use Excel to make this chart? Of course I did!

Did I use Excel to make this chart? Of course I did!

The main thing you’ll notice is that the values along the green line, representing the average ticket cost per day of admission, get lower as the # of days admission gets higher.  It’s a powerful motivation to add more park days onto your ticket.  In my sample above, you can add another day for only $10 in some cases!  A perfect example of that classic sales tactic, “The more you buy, the more you save!”

What a lovely saying.  We all know the truth—the more you buy, the more you spend.  But as we’ve determined that travel is worth spending for, we continue on our quest to at least spend wisely!  Back to the tickets.

In the case of Universal, they only sell Base tickets (1 park only), or Park-to-Park Admissions of up to 4 days.  If you’re staying longer than that, an Annual Pass is your best bet to reduce costs, and they tell you so right on the site.  For tickets of 2 days or more, whether Base or Park-to-Park, one way to save money is buy the tickets online at the Universal Orlando Resort site.  Currently they offer a $20 discount for online purchases.  Things to know:

  • You can buy tix whenever you want in advance of your trip- they don’t start counting the days until you first use them at the gate.  You then have 14 days to use all your admissions up, and they don’t have to be consecutive days.  For a 4-day ticket, you can go the Park on a Monday the 1st, Wednesday the 3rd, Sunday the 7th and use your last day on Sunday the 13th, or whatever combination you choose.
  • No refunds on days you don’t wind up using within the 14-day window.
  • Only Park-to-Park tix can be used to enter more than 1 park per day (meaning, if you have 2-day Base tix, you can’t use 1 admission “credit” for IoA in the morning, and then use another “credit” for Universal Studios that same day).
  • Tix are not transferable, they must be used by the same person every time.
  • You can print your tix at home or pick them up at the Park’s Will Call window.  Though choosing to get into a line that won’t end in a ride is baffling to me, I realize that some people don’t have a printer or are picking up tix that someone else bought for them.
  • Be prepared to show photo ID at the ticket window if picking tix up.
  • You can also add admission to the Wet ‘n Wild Waterpark or Blue Man Group shows along with your park tix.

Well, the bad news is that there are almost NEVER discounts available on the ticket I need for my visit: 1-day Base.  I need to spend $96 per adult, and yes, my tween counts as an adult (ages 10 and up!), and $90 for my toddler just to walk into the place.  Ouch.  I’ll continue to look at possible discounts as we approach the trip, since there are various avenues that just might turn up a little bit of relief for the wallet.  Here’s my checklist of sites to consult as I prepare to buy our tix:

  1. I’ll always start at the Universal site itself.  They occasionally run promotions offering more than the standard $20 discount per ticket for direct online purchases.  Note that you have to get a few steps into the ordering process to see your true total including tax.
  2. Undercover Tourist:  this is a reliable ticket broker site that offers admission discounts along with free shipping, AND their displayed prices already include tax.
  3. AAA: again, occasional discounts available right now, they offer the same price as the Universal site, and only on Park-to-Park tix.  They do offer a small discount if you buy tix at the gate and show your AAA card.
  4. AARP: we used this site to great effect to save $80 on our Hershey Park tix.  Nothing spectacular for Universal right now.
  5. Costco: you can search the site for discounted theme park tix, check the warehouse, or go to Costco Travel for vacation packages that include hotel, rental car, and tix as a bundle.  Many of the vacation packages offer a Costco Cash card for booking.

Also, a few of these discounts may apply to some of you out there: military discount here, Florida Resident discounts here.  Those of you combining a visit to Universal with other Orlando attractions like Sea World/Aquatica/Busch Gardens Tampa Bay might look into the Orlando Flex Ticket to save on overall admission costs.  People whose employers participate in Tickets at Work or Working Advantage are lucky ducks indeed- check with your Human Resources or Benefits Dept for a password.

There is one more way to save on Theme Park ticket purchases that I know of: use some of those hard-earned credit card rewards!

cc rewards

While I would never use actual airline miles on merchandise unless I was simply overflowing with them, there are alternate points one can earn and redeem from credit cards, like Ultimate Rewards points from select Chase bank credit cards (I’ve only seen Universal tickets offered occasionally), Membership Rewards points from select American Express credit cards, Hilton HHonors points from the co-branded credit cards or Hilton Stays- redeem through the Shopping Mall portal, and Barclaycard Arrival points (Note: this card offers cash back in the form of statement credits for qualifying travel purchases.  The ticket purchase on its own would not be eligible, but if you bought tix as part of your hotel charges or with a package including hotel/air/etc, it would count).  Some of these cards have annual fees, so factor that cost into your savings calculations.

Finally, the U.S. Travel Association partners with American Express every spring (roughly late May through early June) to offer some pretty amazing travel deals called Daily Getaways. This past spring, a 2-day Universal Studios Hollywood ticket was going for about $89, a hefty savings.  They announce the deals about a week before they go live on the site, and you need to be quick, they mostly sell out FAST.  Be sure you read all the details before purchasing a deal- they are nonrefundable and I heard of at least 1 person who bought that Universal ticket without realizing it was for California and not Florida.  Bonus: if you pay with an American Express card, you get an additional 10% off the deal.

I’ll be on the lookout for any and all Universal 1-day Base ticket discounts from now until next summer!  I’ll let you know if I’m able to score a deal.


I just want you guys to know that prior to having this blog, I would talk about and debate the merits of all these kinds of options out loud to my husband.  Several times over the year leading up to a trip.  Which is all the time, because I am always planning a trip.  And usually late at night, which is when I do my best thinking (shhh, don’t tell my boss).  So, by reading, you are doing a great public service to my husband, his ears, and his REM sleep patterns.  Were he to meet you, he would thank you sincerely.

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