spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

Paris to Seville UNbooked! And Newark-Honolulu finally booked!

Why would I UNbook something when the cancellation/change fees are crazytown?  Trust me, all will be explained.  I had all my price alerts set and had been manually checking prices as well…and it paid off!  I used my trusty Alaska Companion Fare to make some travel magic…and I was able to stay (sort of) on budget.  Here’s how I did it… Read the rest of this entry »

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Confession: I just bought 4 tickets…with cash

I KNOW!  It’s so rare for me to pay for anything but taxes when using miles/points, or pay for 1 or 2 fares and use miles/points/companion fare for the rest.  But this time it made a lot of sense.  I still have some tickets to buy for the European trip, but I’ll discuss some nice updates from Chase Ultimate Rewards that may just help me out with those. Read the rest of this entry »

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Award travel success- transatlantic flights

I plugged our voyage  into the Great Circle Mapper, an excellent site to determine flight miles between destinations, potentially very useful in the near future (see Flights to Spain and Flights within Spain further down).  This is what came back!

europe trip route map

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Some lighting, some watching, some planning


Lighting: I hope everyone had a Happy Hanukkah if your family celebrates the Festival of Lights.  This year, my son was finally old enough to remember the candle-lighting prayer from one night to the next.  He previously would just hum along with big sister and dad, but now he knew the words and sang more confidently.  This bodes well for the future, since my husband’s family tradition is that the youngest family member leads the singing, and my little guy will have to step up to the musical plate once DD leaves for college.  I received some fun Disney-themed gifts for Hanukkah this year, including this trading pin jigsaw puzzle and Mickey sanduche-caliente maker.

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Bits & Pieces: Laptop ban update, Alaska CC, Southwest to HI, Referral links

    • Here’s a long article from Bloomberg News about the possible laptop ban from Europe into US airports.  They….didn’t make a final decision, and are still fighting it out.  The prediction is that they will try to implement it, get a lot of ire over it, and  retract it.  Sounds good to me.

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Flights and Mice- Part 1

Hello, there! Something exciting: my sister has graciously agreed to share the details of her experience traveling with my favorite niece.  It’ll be her report of the travel TO Hawaii, then I’ll interject an Aulani Report and some reviews of other local activities, and then it’ll end with her travel FROM Hawaii.  These are her words- any comments I add will be in RED.

and away we go

And away we 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:



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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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!



Strategies for Hawaii residents- Alaska Airlines

Let’s face it- Hawaii is an extremely popular destination.  Most travel blogs love to highlight how people can get TO “paradise” for that dream vacation using mistake fares or miles.  Inevitably, these people live near an airline hub with plenty of competition that keeps prices low, or they are redeeming miles for only 1 or 2 people.  Guess what, everyone?  Almost 1 million people live in the Hawaiian Islands, we’re limited in airports (no driving 1-2 hours to get a better fare), and we tend to travel in family groups.  Those tips don’t work for us.

So I’ll talk about traveling FROM Hawaii, and using any benefit that is available to keep costs low.  The title of this post indicates “strategies for Hawaii residents,” but really they apply to any travel originating from the Islands.  To date, I haven’t found any permanent airline/miles discounts specifically for Kama’aina (residents), though if anyone knows any I’ve love to take advantage of them!

Note: in keeping with the focus on my blog, I’ll only discuss travel options to the US mainland, South America and Europe.  There are many worthwhile destinations outside of those regions though, especially to Asia from Hawaii.

Let’s start off by discussing Alaska Airlines.  Alaska flies 25 non-stops on Alaska Airlines metal (AS) from the Hawaiian Islands: 7 from Honolulu-Oahu (HNL), 8 from Kahului-Maui (OGG), 5 from Kona-Hawaii (KOA), and 5 from Lihue-Kauai (LIH).  Here is a list of nonstop destinations by island:

  • from HNL: Anchorage, Bellingham, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, San Jose
  • from OGG: Anchorage, Bellingham, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle, San Diego, San Jose
  • from KOA: Anchorage, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, San Jose, San Diego (beginning 3/5/2015)
  • from LIH: Oakland, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, San Jose

Of course, after landing in any of these cities you can connect to hundreds of other destinations.  On our recent east coast trip, we flew to Seattle from Honolulu, and continued to Newark (EWR) from Seattle. Note that you may have to have an overnight layover if you are making a connection due to the time zone differences and limitations in the flight schedules.  We did an overnight layover in SEA on the way to EWR, but had both flights in one day on the way back to HNL.

Alaska has some spiffy new planes and seats, and most of our recent flights did indeed have the USB/115v power ports at each seat.  Their onboard food is OK, though I prefer to bring my own snacks from home, or get a Caesar sandwich from Great American Bagel Bakery at SEA to eat on the plane, yum.

Alaska’s frequent flyer program is called Mileage Plan.  This airline is a bit unique in that it is not part of any alliances such as oneworld or Star Alliance.  You can, however, redeem Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles in other programs, including American Airlines, AeroMexico, Air France, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, Fiji Airlines, KLM, Korean Air, Pen Air, Qantas, and Ravn Alaska.  You can also book on Cathay Pacific and LAN, though those awards are not bookable online- you have to call in.  So there are many options to redeem if you have Alaska miles!  Obviously, many more nonstops from the islands open up when taking these partner airlines into account- too many to list.  It can get overwhelming.

First, let’s figure out how many miles you need to get from Hawaii to the mainland and back, on AS metal:

Award Type One Way Round Trip
Money and Miles – 50% Discount up to $100 10,000 10,000
Money and Miles – 50% Discount up to $200 20,000 20,000
Coach 20,000 / 30,000 40,000 / 60,000
Refundable Coach 40,000 80,000
First 40,000 80,000
Refundable First 80,000 160,000

And here’s how many you need for American Airlines, which allows one-way award redemptions: UPDATE: for clarity, even though the chart below only states, “North America to Hawaii,” the mileage required is the same from Hawaii to North America as well.

Class of Service Region One-Way
Award Level
Award Level
Coach North America to Hawaii 22,500 45,000
Business/First North America to Hawaii 47,500 95,000

And finally, here’s how many you need for Delta Air Lines, which DOES allow one-way award redemptions, but charges the same # of miles as though they were round-trip redemptions when all the flights are on Delta: UPDATE: if one of the flights in your itinerary is on AS metal, the mileage required could be lower.

Class of Service Region One-Way/Round-Trip
Award Level
Coach Lower 48 U.S., Alaska, or Canada to Hawaii
for tickets issued through May 5, 2014
Coach Lower 48 U.S., Alaska, or Canada to Hawaii
for tickets issued on or after May 6, 2014
First/Business Lower 48 U.S., Alaska, or Canada to Hawaii 80,000

So, you’re seeing what I’m seeing, right? For a family of four to get to the mainland, you need at least 80,000 miles if you are using the Money and Miles option, or 160,000 if just using miles!  It seems completely out of range for most folks.  Unless you travel for work and are able to keep the oodles of miles you earn (not me), you need another strategy.

A while back, I stumbled across information about the Companion Fare benefit for Alaska Airlines Visa Signature cardholders.  It’s an annual benefit in the form of a discount code.  Cardholders receive a code in their Mileage Plan accounts entitling them to pay just $99 plus applicable taxes for another passenger on the same reservation.  Caveats: Trips must be round-trip, in coach/economy, all on AS metal, cannot be combined with any other discount codes (including Customer Service credits) and the Companion must have the same itinerary as the cardholder.  So, my husband and I both applied and were approved for the cards.  Here’s how it worked for us as cardholders, using the children as our Companions:

  1. We researched and made a note of the itinerary we wanted, including flight #s and times.  Let’s say the base fare for 1 adult was $1000, plus $100 in taxes, for a total of $1100.
  2. I went online and purchased tickets for just me and my daughter, and applied the discount code.  I would pay the $1000 for my base fare, the $100 in taxes for my ticket, $99 for my daughter’s base fare, and $100 for my daughter’s taxes.  Total: $1299.
  3. My husband went online and purchased tickets for himself and my son (same flight #s and times), again applying the discount code. Total for them: the same $1299.
  4. Once we had our tickets confirmed, I linked our reservations together so we would be bumped/moved or whatever as a group in case of delays or cancellations.
  5. Our total airfare cost in the example above would be $2598 instead of $4400, a savings of $1802 🙂  The cards have an annual fee of $75, so taking those into account, we saved $1652.  This more than makes up for the annual fee!
  6. Here’s my favorite part: these are considered regular tickets for the purposes of mileage-earning.  They are not “awards,” so they earned us about 10k miles each, getting us that much closer to our next flights.  I credited the flights to American Airlines, since we’ll be using AAdvantage miles to fly back from Ecuador later this year.

Note: I do not receive any type of compensation from talking about airlines or credit cards. Do not get credit cards for any kind of benefit unless you are committed to paying off the balance in full every month- paying interest cancels out any kind of rewards you get.  I love this thread on FlyerTalk outlining the best offers for many airline and travel-related cards.


Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial Part 1

This post (and blog, really) assumes a basic knowledge of Microsoft Excel.  If the terms cell, value, formula, tab, column, and function mean nothing to you, perhaps look into one of those Office tutorials before diving in.  They’re kind of mesmerizing.

Not surprisingly, I am all about spreadsheets when it comes to organizing a trip.  Our June 2014 adventure was a trip to the East Coast, where we visited with various family members, attended an excellent Broadway show, road-tripped from NJ to PA to NY and back to NJ, attended a Yankees Game, and went to the Bronx Zoo.  On our road trip, we visited Hershey Park, went to State College (PA), and saw Niagara Falls from the Canadian side.  So…we were busy.

We stayed on course, on schedule for the most part, and mostly within budget due to diligent spreadsheetingOxford Dictionaries agrees that this is indeed a word.  Love it!  I wish it were an Olympic sport- this would be a collision of various things that I love.  I digress.

For this trip, my spreadsheet included 6 different tabs: Budget, To-Do Timeline, Details, Itinerary, Carry-on Packing List, and Packing List.  This post focuses on the first, and often most important planning tab, Budget.

Column headers include: estimated cost, actual cost, booking date, and confirmation #

Column headers include: estimated cost, actual cost, booking date, and confirmation #

I like to have a kicky font and fun name for the trip.  I can’t say this was my best work on the “trip name” side.  OK, I also need the trip dates to be nice and big at the top for easy reference.

The categories in Column B break down specific kinds of expenses.  This is the Transportation category:

Pro-Tip: I have 2 sections for Transportation, because some are Advance Expenses, and some are Variable expenses

Remembering the column headers I outlined above: in the Advance (incurred before the trip) expenses, I estimated our airfare for 4 from HNL to EWR to be $2500, and wound up paying $2831.34.  Over budget, but this is an amazing RT price for 4 people, and it was all thanks to the Alaska Airlines Visa Companion Fare benefit.  More on that in another post.  Then of course I have the booking date, and the confirmation #s.

In the Variable (incurred while on the trip) expenses, my Actual Cost for luggage fees was $100, which was $50 over my Estimated Cost of $50.  I have the spreadsheet set up to highlight the cell if the value in the Actual Cost cell is higher than in the Estimated Cost cell (via Conditional Formatting).  This helps me see where we need to adjust budget categories for the next trip.  This particular expense was annoying, because all of my other airline cards have free checked luggage as a benefit, but the Alaska card doesn’t.  I knew that going in, but it still bugs.

My other categories included Advance and Variable breakdowns for the  Pennsylvania and New York portions of the trip, with specific attractions and Misc road trip costs.  You’ll notice no other lodging cost beyond our Seattle airport hotel, our Hershey Park Hotel, and our Niagara Falls hotel.  This is because we stayed with my fantastic parents the rest of the time.  They have a great view of the NYC skyline!

Each category has a subtotal in the Estimated Cost column (highlighted a mint green), which feeds into either an Advance expense Grand Total, or a Variable expense Grand Total (highlighted in light blue for Estimated Cost, and pink for Actual Cost).  Finally, those 2 Grand Totals feed into the GRAND TOTAL at the top (highlighted in gray).  Below each GRAND TOTAL is a Variance, or the difference between the Estimated costs and the Actual costs.  Whew!

Close-up of Advance expenses section

Close-up of Advance expenses section

If you’re still reading, congratulations on your excellent attention span!  I arrived at this method of budget planning long ago, and it works for the way my brain processes information.  Feel free to customize to your heart’s content.  If there are requests, I can make a sample spreadsheet on Google Docs with the formulas, etc. all ready to go, and folks can download and enter their own categories/amounts.  Just be sure to pick a better name for a NY trip than “New York, New York.”

The next post in this series will focus on the To-Do Timeline tab.