spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

Award travel success so far, European hotels

Yeaaaaaaaaaaah buddy! We currently have 4 of 7 hotel nights needed covered with points, with 2 of the remaining 3 hopefully covered by certificates later this year.  I shall now regale you with my recent adventures in hotel booking.

Um, have you ever noticed that European hotels (even American chains) rarely sleep more than 2 people?  I’ve had quite a time setting up 4-person rooms in London, Paris, and Barcelona.  We are lucky to be able to stay with family or friends in our other 3 stops (North Carolina, Seville, and New Jersey).  My chart:

Location # of nights needed # of nights booked on points # of nights paying OOP % nights covered
North Carolina  3-4  3-4 sister points  0  100%
London 1
Paris 3
Seville 3  3 friend points  0  100%
Barcelona 3
New Jersey 2  2 daughter points  0  100%

Read the rest of this entry »

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Quinceañera Trip Report Part 1: HNL to JFK

Me upon hearing/seeing the name “JFK airport”…

disgust

This is because, despite it being only 20 miles away from where I grew up in NJ, it can take over 2 hours and nearly $30 in tolls to get there.  Plus, the most direct driving route takes you through midtown Manhattan, so you need nerves of steel, a healthy rage-vocabulary, and catlike reflexes as well.

Here’s what I knew in advance: the party was going to be the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I would stay at a hotel because a bunch of relatives were coming from all over and I didn’t want to inconvenience anybody by taking up all the space at Hotel Mami/Papi with my people and a fluffy dress.  I would need a car to go back and forth to the hotel, to arrive early at the party, etc. Read the rest of this entry »

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2017 trip…what to do?

 Warning: This is a very first-world problem.

I’ve been putting all of my organizing energy into my daughter’s Quinceañera coming up later this year.  I set up the flights: outbound, and return.  I was able to use IHG points (accumulated from good-old credit card spend and a recent bonus promo) to book 4 nights at a hotel near the venue for us so that visiting family from Ecuador could use my parents’ guest room.  I redeemed my husband’s last Barclay Arrival + points* for a $100 gift certificate for Budget Rental Car, and will be combining the cert with a great price I got from Costco Travel, which has historically been my go-to place for low rental car deals.  I recently booked a fabulous DJ/emcee/lighting service, and my next project is to firm up the invitation design.  Still lots to do after that, too! Read the rest of this entry »

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Disney Pre-Trip Report: let us in! let us in!

Did you know that some people do “resort-only” trips, where they stay in a new (to them) Disney resort, and just enjoy the facilities, restaurants, and Downtown Disney?  It apparently makes for a very relaxing vacation.  They avoid all the craziness of the Parks, and save a lot of money.    Perhaps I should consider….

<brakes squealing Yeah, right.  No way am I traveling 5000 miles for a hotel, even a Disney one.  Bring on the rides, shows and characters, baby!  Bring on the heat, and the crowds, and the potential for blisters!  Bring me that horizon! (tm Capt. Jack Sparrow)

To experience all that, I need tickets.

I reviewed my choices for Universal Islands of Adventure tickets in that planning post.  After 10 months of looking, I haven’t found any other applicable discount to those darn Universal 1-day-1-park tickets that I need.  But I found a way to get them for free and then some using credit cards…and it’s all totally legitimate.  Explanation to follow 🙂

On the Disney side of the equation, I settled on 6-day Magic Your Way Park Hoppers.  Park Hoppers will allow us to go to any park at any time, for 6 days over the course of our whole vacation (the 6 days don’t have to be consecutive).  Here is a great explanation on the Disney ticket options, including a handy calculator- this is the official site for the Unofficial Guide people.

In the end, it made most sense to purchase all the tix at the same time, in one order, from UndercoverTourist. This is a valid Disney and Universal ticket broker.  Nothing shady here.  I’m on the MouseSavers email list, which entitles me to the special link to UndercoverTourist for additional savings over the standard UT discounts.  Not huge, but every Disney Dollar counts.  Still, I was looking at a large chunk of change.

Hours of research led me to conclude that the best way to buy almost $2k worth of admissions was to charge them on a credit card.

I know, I know.  Let me explain...

I know, I know. Let me explain…

Duh!  But it’s the specific card used that matters.  We haven’t gotten a new credit card in a little while, and I was itching for a fresh sign-up bonus that would help us out with this significant cost…I found it in the Barclaycard Arrival Plus Mastercard.  This card allows for point redemptions on eligible travel purchases over $25.  You get 2 “points” for every 1 dollar in spending.  Cash back (what they are calling “redemptions”) comes in the form of a statement credit.  The 40k point bonus (worth $400) comes after spending $3k in purchases within the first 3 months of getting approved for the card.  This means that you wind up with more than 40k points when you have reached the spending threshold, since you earn points for the spending, too.  Technically, you have at least 45K+ points to redeem against your travel-related purchase after reaching the spend.  You see where I’m going?  We timed our spending on some other household stuff to coincide with the purchase of the tickets so that we reached the $3k spend in the first billing cycle.  Then, when the bonus points were posted, we applied all the points to the Undercover Tourist charge, and received a $450 statement credit.  Boom!  Our total charge for both Universal and Disney tickets was $1996, and we will only have to pay $1545 of that.  Our Universal tickets were completely covered by the statement credit, and then some.

Now, you don’t have to follow this particular strategy of completing the spending all in one billing cycle.  You can redeem for travel-related purchases up to 120 days after the day the charge posts.  But I never carry a balance, and didn’t feel like shelling out the cash now only to reimburse myself later, so we did it this way.  And the extra bonus on top of that bonus?  You get 10% of your redeemed points back, so we now have 4,500 points back (worth $45) to redeem against a different travel-related charge.

The Arrival+ is a great everyday card since you always get the 2 points/dollar, and still have the flexibility of cash in the form of the statement credit- you are not tied to a particular loyalty program.  It carries a $95 annual fee, which is waived for the 1st year.  It’s good for people for whom price is the bottom line on any travel decisions, and people who don’t travel enough to earn lots of miles in one frequent flyer/hotel/rental car program.  It’s hard to justify the annual fee after the 1st year, though.  We’ll see if we keep it long-term.  But for now, thanks for the free tix, Barclay Bank!

thanks bro

I know what you’re thinking…she’s only spending 6 days in the Parks?!  Yes and no.  We’re not doing Parks on the arrival or departure days, and are spending the 1 day at Universal. That leaves a max of 8 Park days, and I always insist on a total non-park day to rest my weary bones.  That still leaves 7 days and you only have a 6-day ticket, you say?  Well, we are attending Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.  It’s one of the only times adults can wear costumes inside of a Disney Park, and it considered a “hard-ticket” event- so your ticket counts as admission, no need to use up a Park Hopper day! The party starts at 7pm and ends at midnight, but party-ticket holders can get in beginning at 4pm.  So we’re really in the Parks for 7 days 🙂

On our Party day, we’ll sleep in, do some laundry, and eat lunch at Downtown Disney before heading back to the hotel to get our sorta-costumes on!  We’ve decided to “DisneyBound” (dressing inspired by the signature colors of a Disney character without using a literal costume) as characters from Finding Nemo.  I’m Dory!  Getting inspired by these images:

dory1 dory2 dory3 dory4 dory5

I saw Jurassic World, and got totally re-pumped for the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride in Universal.  There’s a new Raptor Experience, too!

We’re getting close to Double-Digit Dance Day (aka 99 days left until the trip)!!!  SO. MUCH. EXCITEMENT. 

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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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