spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

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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Tales from Home Moving

As I mentioned before, we just recently moved.  As in, 13 days ago.  And yet, we’re completely unpacked except for the last few boxes of the kids’ stuff.  The boy’s stuff used to be mostly in the living room, so we need to work out what is going where now that he actually has a bedroom.  Everything else is in its new home.  There are some projects left:

  1. I need a piece of furniture to house my photo albums.  I counted 34 of my albums, plus my husband has another 4.  I’m debating what kind of item to get, since our windows are kind of funky.  The panes above waist level are solid and don’t open, the bottom portion has the typical jalousies of Hawaii.  So if I put a solid bookcase there to house the albums, it’ll block all the fantastic breeze/light that comes in.  Plus I’ll be super paranoid that it’ll tip over due to those same winds…it’s been very windy lately!  I’m sure I’ll think of something.
  2. I need some lighting for the kids’ room.  There is no overhead light, and I hate floor lamps in a bedroom.  I’ve been looking at battery-operated wall sconces, but the reviews are mostly terrible relating to battery life.  Lots of light comes into the bedroom during the day, so at most the sconces would be on for a few hours at a time in the evening.  I might have to break down and get a very bright table lamp- at least it won’t be on the floor.
  3. I must change out the bulbs in the living room ceiling fixture.  They are that horrible “cool white” industrial light of garages and bad department store dressing rooms.  Everyone looks like a zombie movie extra.  So I ordered the “warm white” bulbs and will make my husband tippy-toe on the ladder to change them out for me.
  4. I plan to recover the glider/ottoman we got for free from some friends who were moving back to the mainland.  We’ve had them for about 2 years, and the cushions are stained, but with a toddler in the house, it didn’t make sense to invest in steam cleaning or reupholstering.  Now that’s he almost a school boy (!), I can use one of those online tutorials to recover the cushions with upholstery fabric.
  5. Along those same lines, I’m going to make some covers for a “student” or “task” chair that belonged to my daughter.  She never sits at her desk to do homework, so she put a pull-out table with all her nail art supplies into the chair space of her desk.  That means mama gets a chair to dedicate to her jigsaw puzzle table!  Of course, the chair’s seat cushion has marker stains, etc., so I’ll be covering that.  Thinking of a subtle Disney fabric for that small project.

Anyway, how did I organize my move?  Well, first you need to know some details.  We moved just a few miles away from our old place, and the landlord said we could start moving boxes in ahead of our “big furniture move-in” date.  This meant that we could reuse our boxes and bins several times each, which of course isn’t always the case when you are changing homes.  Second, we were rearranging bedrooms:  in the old place, my husband, son and I were in the master suite w/attached bathroom, while my daughter had her own room and used the full bath that was also accessible to guests/visitors.  In the new place, the kids are sharing the master suite w/attached bathroom, and my husband and I are in the smaller bedroom and using the full bath off the hallway.  We decided to give the kids the bigger space because my husband and I spend relatively little time in our bedroom, preferring the hang out in the living room with its big TV and recliner sofa 🙂  My moving box/bin identification system had one big label, plus colored dots on all sides of the box so you could tell which room it belonged in (prior to moving day, I would have taped a piece of paper to the entry points of each room as a color-coding reminder).  The idea was to group like label-colored boxes together in the center of each room so furniture could be placed along the walls when it arrived and rearranged at our leisure.  BTW, I totally love rearranging furniture.  Really!  I find the Tetris aspect of it very relaxing. My system worked fine for the most part.

That blue bar is covering up our last name.

Here’s the label I made up.  I used Avery Shipping Labels, sized 3 1/3″ x 4″.  Item # 8164.  That blue bar is covering up our last name.

But- once my husband starting making boxes on his own during my work day, and then taking them over to the new place without my fancy labels, I lost the color-coding benefit.  He still labeled the boxes of course, but he wrote directly on the cardboard and only on one side, and he did not use any of the colored dots.  Further complicating matters, we didn’t put any of the kids’ boxes in their room at first because we did some wall painting in there and needed the floor to be clear for the dropcloths- so we got some “living room red” stuff mixed up with “kids’ room yellow.”  Still, if my husband hadn’t been so motivated to get stuff over to the new place, we would’ve had to make a lot more trips on moving day, so I’m grateful for that.  I’m also grateful for his previous experience working at a moving company- we only lost 2 items to breakage, and they weren’t due to poor packing.

Here's the label "in action."

Here’s the label “in action.”  This bin had the label on one side, then yellow dots on every other side of the box except the bottom.

These labels corresponded to a spreadsheet.  Here’s what it looked like as a list in progress.  The highlighted cells indicate that the items in the box are fragile- I highlighted the actual “content” section of the physical label with a yellow highlighter as well once it was on the box.  Finally, you can see the other color-coded tabs on the bottom.

label spreadsheet

Another aspect of moving is having to change your address with everyone and their mama.  I don’t want to miss any important mail, so for 3 months before the move, I recorded the mail that came in and made note of the sender.  I used that list to make a (what else?) spreadsheet:

change of address checklist

And then, about 10 business days before the move, I started changing addresses.  I began with the Postal Service, and I did that manually.  It is possible to do it online, but the USPS has to verify identify when doing it online, so I would have had to enter a credit card, etc, and I didn’t feel like doing that.  The form takes 10 seconds to fill out, plus, the packet comes with some handy coupons.  Hello, 10% off at Lowe’s!  We did one for each person in the house.

The, my husband and I started to do our lists, mostly online and via phone.  You’ll see on the spreadsheet that some cells are grayed out- that means the only one of us holds that account or membership.  You’ll also see some cells that are “merged & centered.”  That meant that either of us could handle changing the address on that account.  I’m glad we started when we did, because we got some address change confirmation letters sent to our old address.  I guess that’s a security measure?  Anyway, if you can believe it, the changes that took the most time were my daughter’s schools!  She’s finishing up middle school within the next month, so we needed to keep our address updated with them for receiving her graduation information and final report card.  It stands to reason, then, that we needed her new high school to have our new address as well, for information on the 1st day of school and registration day.  There’s a formal process with the Department of Education involving copies of the residential lease, utility bills, etc.  It took several days.  I’m happy to be done with all that.

We also did old-fashioned moving announcement for relatives/friends who send birthday cards and invitations.  We used this pattern and have gotten several compliments on them!  The link is from Snapfish, but I found the exact same ones at Costco and was able to use a coupon.

So this is my first post from the new place 🙂  Here’s a dorky fact: we changed cable providers, and now our package includes such high-technology things as digital cable and DVR, plus a bunch of channels we didn’t have before. A long time ago, I used watch a show on the Discovery channel that I loved, but then it stopped showing and I forgot about it.  Well, lo and behold, while scrolling through the huge list of channels, I saw the Science Channel- and my long-lost show was listed in the guide!  I’ve been binge-watching How It’s Made and loving every minute of it.  The items are random (today I saw chemical tanker trucks, frozen pizza, and portable solar panels amongst the various episodes,), the puns are awful, and the narrator is Canadian.  What more could a girl want?

As for the décor in the new place…in the wise words of Ron Burgundy:

Stay classy, internet.

Stay classy, internet.

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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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