spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

Leggings, Linking, London, and Lauderdale

Pre-trip prep time!  It’s down to the details now that all the big stuff has been settled.

—First thing I’ve been thinking about lately is WARM clothing.  We’re typically wimpy re: winter weather after living in Hawaii for so long.  I started an inventory of cold-weather gear and quickly realized…

im-gonna-need-cold-weather-meme

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Trip Photos: Ecuador 2014/15

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I love this logo from the Tourism Authority- it appeared all throughout the country and tied everything together nicely.

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We based our trip in Guayaquil, part of the Costa, or Coastal region. It’s the biggest city in Ecuador. Boy were we HOT- because it’s located below the Equator, it was summer during our December/January trip.

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The day after we landed, Barcelona Sporting Club and Emelec played a league championship soccer match. Unfortunately, our family’s team, Barcelona, lost. But it was cool to see the fans cheering the team on as they left the hotel on their way to the stadium.

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We’ve eaten at this restaurant on previous trips- I love the huge red crab adorning the entrance, and that’s it’s posing with the traditional board and mallet we use to eat it.

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Mmmmm…excuse me, I’m drooling. Totally obsessed with my Ecuadorian cangrejos, which you see here accompanied by salsa de cebolla (sort of a red onion/lime juice relish), and some aji (hot sauce).

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Limones are a staple of the Coastal diet. They are smaller than American limes, but much, much juicier. And quite a bit cheaper than what we pay in Hawaii!

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We took a day trip to Salinas beach, and passed many banana plantations along the way. Take a look in your supermarket produce section and see if you can even find a banana that’s not from Ecuador! We are a true banana republic.

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My daughter likes taking pictures of her feet on any beach we visit. The water was refreshing, and it was fun knowing that our home was right across that big Pacific Ocean.

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I love the way they marked the Mens’ and Ladies’ rooms at this roadside restaurant. These cute little dolls are a traditional handicraft.

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When near the ocean, eat fish! This was my dad’s dinner: a whole corvina with rice, patacones (smashed, twice-fried plantains), and an ice-cold Pilsener.

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Our next trip was up to Cuenca. This is one of the places where you see the beautiful mountainside quilted with crop fields.

 

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Here are the 3 blue domes of the New Cathedral in Cuenca. We took a double-decker bus tour around the city- easiest way to get around with our group of 21 people.

 

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It’s well-known that the so-called Panama Hat is actually made in Ecuador. There’s a Museum dedicated to its history in Cuenca.

 

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In El Tambo, we boarded a train for a short ride to El Coyoctor. This site had informative guides who led us through a small village preserved by the Cañari people. The Tren Ecuador rail system was recently restored after massive infrastructure investments and everything looked great!

 

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This is where the train turned around to go back to the station. Down the hillside, groups of indigenous people were harvesting food and plants. The air was cool, crisp, and thin. Such a beautiful place.

 

This lady was weaving llama wool at Ingapirca. It is sometimes known as Ecuador’s Machu Picchu. While our site is not as big, it’s a great way to see the amazing Inca architecture up close.

 

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Vegetarians, look away! Pig is king in Ecuador, especially near the Andes mountains. Here’s a fine-looking specimen.

 

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Some of that lovely pig was made into fritada and chicharron, then heaped on top of maiz tostado for a delicious snack. You can also see some season boiled potatoes in the shot. There are dozens of varieties of potatoes along the Andean chain.

 

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Here’s a sign written in Spanish, English, and Quechua. Quechua is a native South American language, and one of the indigenous tongues of Ecuador. Our Ecuadorean Spanish is peppered with Quechua words and phrases, as the language is still commonly spoken among the mountainfolk.

 

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My cousin took this panoramic shot of just one of the many lakes and lagoons in El Cajas National Park. You can see how thick the fog gets in the mountainous regions. Altitude here is approx. 13,000 feet.

 

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Back in Guayaquil, this sign made me laugh. We have a tendency in Ecuador to add “-ito” or “-ita” to the ends of words. The suffix can be added to signify that something is small in size, young in age, to denote affection, and for any other reason you can think of. This sign is advertising teeny-tiny mortgage rates.

 

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We took another day trip out to Puerto El Morro, about an hour away from Guayaquil. You have to drive on several dirt- and sand-packed roads to get there, and feel like you must be hopelessly lost…but then you arrive. They have several different tour options; we chose mangrove/dolphin viewing.

 

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Here’s a shot of the mangroves and a tree full of native birds. Puerto El Morro is home to the largest colony of frigate birds in Ecuador. We had an excellent guide on our boat, who pointed out the pink birds, which are a species of heron. We also saw lots of swoop-and-scoop pelican action.

 

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Dolphins! These dolphins live in the estuary, bordering a large river and the open ocean. We enjoyed watching them interact in small groups very near our boat. Though they are used to the small boats coming to observe them, I was glad to hear that tourists are not allowed to touch them or feed them. One woman on our boat complained that the guide should have brought a bucket of fish to attract the dolphins so her daughter could reach out and touch them. Our guide firmly told her why that would be a terrible idea.

 

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We made sure to be in Guayaquil for all the New Year’s celebrations! If you remember my previous post about our reasons for the timing of this trip, you know all about the años viejos that we burn/blow up at midnight. This is a small Joker located outside of a residence…

 

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Here are some larger-sized ones in the city center. Once they get this big, the creators/owners start to charge money for the privilege of taking a photo with them. A huge amount of time and work go into these, so we definitely thought it was worth the $0.50 or $1.00 it cost…

 

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And here’s an absolutely huge Batman año viejo. He was located along the Ruta de los Años Viejos in the city center. Residents and neighborhood apply for permits in order be able to build and display these massive monigotes on the city streets through January 6 (Three Kings’ Day). Unlike the personal versions, which are of course burned on New Year’s Eve, these are burned in pieces, at a location outside the city, with lots of firefighters present.

 

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We headed out for another road trip, this time north to Quito. I loved this “Chocla” statue, a tribute to the importance of corn in the Sierra. You can see the fog covering the top of the hillside to the right in this photo- it never did clear enough for my husband to see Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s biggest volcanos. Oh well, that just means we have to go back 🙂

 

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The sign says, “First Church in Ecuador, constructed in 1534.” This church can be found in Riobamba, along the Pan-American Highway. It is small, but significant. A nice little stop.

 

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And here’s the church itself. The Iglesia Balbanera has survived the many, many earthquakes that have hit this region of Ecuador. It’s made of solid rock, and has sustained very little damage over its 480-year existence.

 

Visiting Mitad del Mundo monument just outside Quito. Here we are on the Equator line, toes in the Northern Hemisphere, heels in the Southern Hemisphere! We’re all wearing black shoes because….it was a coincidence, LOL!

 

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Another tribute to food- we Ecuadoreans love to eat. This is a monument to fritada, our irresistible preparation of fried pork chunks. The paila, or pan, is big enough to sit in! Rumor has it that one of my relatives has photographic evidence of that fact…

 

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Parque de las Iguanas in Guayaquil. These guys take residence in the city center, surrounded by office buildings on 3 sides, and a church on the other. You can walk among them, and take plenty of photos, but are discouraged from feeding them. I’d also advise you to be aware of the iguanas in the trees above you! They sure know how to aim their poop, haha. We saw at least one person get hit, ew.

 

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I leave you with this stunning image of the famous quilted mountains of Ecuador. It’s been fun sharing these, as it forced me to think about the details that make a picture special, giving me an even greater appreciation for my homeland. I hope you’ve enjoyed the pictures, and may they inspire you to see your own native lands with fresh eyes!

 

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…and we’re back, baby!

So, we had a great time in South America, and visited 11 out of 24 provinces in Ecuador.  Not too bad.

On the way there, we had a tight connection in Panama City, and were delayed on the tarmac, meaning we had to run through the terminal to get onto our last flight.  We were the second-to-last group to board….the last group being my parents, who had also been delayed on their flight from NJ.  At least we made the flight….our suitcases didn’t.  But we were able to pick them up the next day, though one of my mom’s bags didn’t make it until 2 days after that.

We had a fantastic time seeing family and friends, and OMG eating the food.  I lost count of how many ceviches I ate.  SO fresh and yummy, and CHEAP.  And I didn’t have to make it myself- that was the best part.

Lessons learned on this trip:

  • Follow my own advice!  I always tell people to keep a spare shirt and undergarment for each traveler in their carry-on just in case the luggage doesn’t arrive.  I packed stuff for my kids but nothing for me or DH!  Had to borrow pajamas to sleep in and clothes to go back for my suitcases at the airport.  DH stayed home in his borrowed pajamas until I got back with the suitcases.
  • Prepare in advance for altitude sickness:  I know all about acclimating, but that wasn’t possible.  However, I could have asked for meds in preparation for our bus ride from Guayaquil to Cuenca.  Going from sea level to over 10,000 feet in less than one day had me throwing up and feeling very poorly all night.  A quick call to my cousin’s doctor and a 10-minute visit to the pharmacy meant I felt much better after a few hours.  But I would rather have avoided it altogether.  Luckily, the kids did fine.  And I learned the lesson quickly.  For the next road trip up to Ibarra, I was prepared and felt fine the whole time.  DS did get carsick, but I blame it on the curvy mountain roads, since once we got to a flat and straight area, he was fine.
  • More like a lesson confirmed: family time is great, and part of the reason we travel to Ecuador is to become enveloped into the family fold, with all the craziness, crowds, people talking over each other, 24 people trying to make decisions and suggestions and plans at the same time.  We’re used to a quieter home, so the hustle and bustle is fun.  But…we’re used to a quieter home, so sometimes the 4 of us need a break, and “4 of us” time.  I had scheduled an outing the Puerto El Morro, to do a boat ride through the mangroves and see river dolphins.  Not that I didn’t want everybody to come along, but I planned it so that it was just our group of 4, plus my cousin’s wife (who was driving), and my niece (who is the same age as DD).  It was a relaxing hour-plus ride there, a great time seeing many, many dolphins and pelicans, and a nice almuerzo (bigger lunch meal) afterwards.  A perfect break from the 4 dozen other relatives, and we were refreshed and ready to get back to the noise and fun.  I’ll continue to choose some activities on vacation that are reserved for our smaller group, should we decide to travel en masse again in the future.
  • Expect the unexpected: Remembering my last Christmas-season trip, I was prepared for an invasion of grillos, (gross flying cricket-type bugs). They come out during the summer, and especially after the torrential rains that happen in the summer.  I think I saw a sum total of 10 grillos over 3 weeks, and it only rained (lightly) 2-3 times while we were there.  Also, I expected to be able to use my credit cards at more locations…but wound up having to conserve the cash I had brought to make it last until the end of the trip, since most places either did not accept cards, or would be obligated to add the IVA tax on top of the purchase price to use the card (approx. 12.5%).  DH had brought more than I said he needed, which was good advance thinking on his part 🙂 So we were OK while there, and I even came home with a bit of leftover cash.

Overall, I think we all had a really excellent time.  I felt completely at home, and got the sense that all the traveling we did to get there and back, plus the road-tripping within the country, continued to add to the kids’ life experience and general awareness of how people live in other parts of the world.

My DD mentioned more than once that she’d love to travel back and live with family members for a time- while that’s not likely, since I’d miss her too much, I’m more willing to entertain the notion of her doing air travel on her own within the next few years because of the maturity and responsibility she showed while traveling.

DS formed a nice bond with my grandfather (his great-grandfather).  I got some great pictures of them yanking on each other’s ears!  Long story on the ear thing.  He also loved watching all the año viejo/año nuevo burning and fireworks…from the relative safety and silence of the car, lol.

DH enjoyed seeing other parts of Ecuador.  We had mostly stayed in Guayaquil, with just a short jaunt to the beach at Salinas on our last trip in 2009, since we only had 10 days.  On this trip, being able to see the Sierra (mountainous area) and visit the Mitad del Mundo monument was great for him.  Plus he got to go on a short train ride (Baños del Inca route on Tren Ecuador).

On our next trip to Ecuador, I’ll be planning to visit the Galápagos Islands.  DS will be old enough and mature enough for all the walking and touring.  DD will be in college by then (!!!).  I already can’t wait.

I’ll share some trip pictures in another post 🙂


I always say that in order to get past the “vacation is over blues” you have to plan another trip.  Now that we’re back, and I have some additional information about our physical whereabouts for the next few years, I can confidently say that we are going to Disney World this October!  Already set our trip dates, and will be rescheduling our hotel reservations tomorrow (moving them from July to October).  Also researching flights, and trying to decide which day to attend Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, and what family costume to wear!  Got many other things to plan and decide, including what restaurants to eat at, and how to organize our FastPass+ choices.  Busy, busy, busy.

love to plan

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Award travel success! Honolulu to Guayaquil

I’ve mentioned several times that I’m taking my family to Ecuador this holiday season.  It’s been a goal for a while to take my husband and tween daughter back for another visit, but more importantly, it was time to take my toddler son to South America for the first time.  I have a personal time limit for Ecuador visits- I don’t like to let more than 5 years pass between trips. Our last adventure down was in March 2009, so I’m 6 months late, but no one but me is counting, they’re just happy to see us.  We’ll be celebrating the holidays with the many, many, many members of my family that still live in Ecuador.  Adding to the excitement, my parents will be meeting us there from the mainland.  And, my baby niece will also be making her first visit to the motherland!  I hear her parents are coming along, too.  She needs someone to carry her bags 🙂

I first decided that this would be a holiday trip in 2011.  Ah, 2011.  A great year for mothering, a bad year for traveling.  We didn’t leave the island at all that year.  I was staying home with my son after moving back from Spain, and we were a bit “traveled out.”  I know, I never thought I would say that, but we had been away for 6 months and I just wanted to be in my own bed for a while.  So we didn’t go anywhere.  But that didn’t stop me from planning!

We have an awesome New Year’s Eve tradition in Guayaquil that I wanted to share with the family.  Beginning in the fall (or earlier!), artists and regular people alike create monigotes, also known as años viejos (old years), which are essentially papier-mâché figurines stuffed with newspaper, old clothes, sawdust, and explosives, like firecrackers and fireworks.  They are life-sized or bigger, and often reference pop culture in some way.  Popular movie characters, sports mascots, and political figures are all fair game.  You can stroll through the “Ruta de los Años Viejos” on calle 6 de marzo in Guayaquil in the weeks leading up to the New Year.  On New Year’s Eve, the monigotes are piled into the middle of the street or really wherever you feel like blowing stuff up.  Some sort of accelerant is poured on, like lighter fluid or, as in one particular memory from my childhood, straight-up gasoline from a car parked in front of a pool hall.  During the countdown to the stroke of midnight, matches are lit and tossed onto the figurines.  The idea is for the fire to reach the explosives precisely at midnight.

Monigotes in Guayaquil

Monigotes in Guayaquil, ready to be purchased and subsequently blown to smithereens

Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, with a population of roughly 3 million people.  Pretty much every family has at least 1 monigote, if not a few.  Some of these things are 15 feet tall.  So you can imagine the almighty BOOMS heard from all over the city as thousands and thousands of explosives go off and keep exploding for almost 15 minutes.  A very thick layer of smoke forms over the city and doesn’t dissipate until the next morning.  The monigotes represent all the events of the previous year, good or bad.  We literally blow it away to start clean the next morning with a new year.  It’s a great time.  Here’s a short video, burning action at around the 2min mark, set to catchy little music.  I wanted my immediate family to see it, so I devised my plan to get us from Hawaii to Ecuador for the holidays…..

And was promptly smacked in the face by reality.  Average fares for holiday travel to South America from Hawaii were running about $1900.  Per person.  $1750 if we were lucky.  We had committed to other travel plans for while my son was lap-baby eligible, so I knew we would have to pony up the cash for a full ticket for him since he’d be well over 2 years old by the time we traveled.  I don’t know about you, but spending $7k on coach airfare is not very appealing to me.  So I set about making sure my miles would work for me.

The first thing I did was rid myself of the notion that we had to fly down and back on the same airline.  It’s often easier to gather points and miles if you concentrate on 1 airline or alliance, but with 4 people traveling at peak time, I knew I would have to get creative with one-ways and splitting into groups of 2 or 3.

2 other things held up my planning, but gave me time to earn more miles.  The school schedule wasn’t out yet, so I didn’t know when my daughter would be going back in January 2015, and my husband would have to return earlier than the rest of us because of his work schedule, so he’d need to travel back solo.  At this point, I was about 20 months out from my projected dates for the trip.  Based on convenient routings, I decided to concentrate my miles-earning to American and United.  I had about 26K American Airlines miles and 12K United Mileage Plus miles to begin with.  My husband had 19K American miles and 5K United miles.  I knew that we would be earning more miles from butt-in-seat travel to the mainland, adding at least 10K to our American balances using the Companion Fare on Alaska Airlines.  My husband had a research trip to Spain that would earn him almost 20K United miles.  This was good, but would not be enough.

I decided on a credit card sign up bonus strategy, combined with some shopping-portal savvy and well-timed transfer bonuses to earn more miles.


Remember, only use credit responsibly, never carry a balance, and

don’t buy stuff you don’t need for the sake of earning miles. 


Both my husband and I applied for the Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer card, which at that time was awarding a sign-up bonus of 50K miles after $3000 in spending within 3 months.  In addition, I signed up for the Citi AA Platinum Visa, which also had a 50K sign-up bonus and 3K spending requirement.  Meeting the minimum spend was pretty easy: we timed some necessary big purchases to occur during our 90-day time frame, and put every single household expense we could on the cards.  Daycare, the cable bill, groceries- everything went on the cards until the required spend was reached and the bonus earned.  Note: my CC spending was linked to my frequent flyer account, and my husband’s to his.  United and American don’t allow free transfers of miles between accounts.  You can, however, buy tickets for anybody from your mileage account. 

As far as the shopping portals, they work like a mileage multiplier and can get you a really great deal at the same time.  Each major airline has a shopping site you can use to make online purchases, and you are often able to get at least 2x the miles for your online purchase.  Example: during this Ecuador-miles blitz, I needed some printer ink.  I had previously used the 123inkjets.com website, so I searched for it on the AAdvantage shopping portal  and saw that 123inkjets.com purchases were being awarded 8 miles/dollar at that time (you can see that right now, they are awarding 12 miles/dollar).  So I spent about $22 for my ink, and got 176 miles from the shopping portal, plus 22 miles from the credit card directly, for a total of 198 miles for 1 small purchase.  This really helps your progress along, though the miles don’t post instantly.  You usually see them a few weeks after the credit card statement posts, and it can take up to 12 weeks in some cases. You need time on your side for this strategy, but it will really help your balance build up.  Check Evreward to see which portal is offering the best bonus, but also check manually just in case.

In January 2014, I was able to book our award travel for the Honolulu (HNL) to Guayaquil (GYE) leg.  As it is difficult to find 4 award seats on a given itinerary, we decided that the best strategy would be to use a Standard award on United.  Standard awards cost more than Savers, but usually have a better itinerary with fewer stops.  I had been stalking the United site for weeks, and never saw any Saver availability pop up on our route, even though I explored the possibility of making separate reservations to route through El Salvador on Avianca, and had called to speak to the agents about Saver availability.  Oh well, can’t win them all.

I hopped onto the United site to put my itinerary in my cart (I would be traveling with my daughter, at 40K miles each).  Once that was done, my husband used his laptop to find the same flight #s and schedule that I had put a hold on, and booked his award travel for himself and our son on those same flights.  Finally, I went back to the United site to complete my purchase, and saw this beauty of a receipt:

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My husband had the same.  And so, we were traveling to Ecuador for $25 out of pocket.

Now, how to get back?  I had used a large majority of my United miles for these redemptions, so it was time to switch to American Airlines.  My husband still had a bunch of United miles, so he continued earning via CC spending to try to get another award ticket as soon as he could.

Meanwhile, I was looking at needing to get me and both the children back from Ecuador, requiring 105K miles (35K miles each).  Months had passed, and I finally had the school schedule available.  Good news- my daughter’s school dates meant that we could spend about 3 weeks in South America.  Now that I had a return date, I set about earning my miles.  I was able to use another miles-earning strategy in addition to the ones already mentioned.  Most airlines have a dining rewards program to complement their shopping portal.  You register, hopefully using a sign-up bonus offer, and then register any credit card.  When you dine at a participating restaurant, you earn 3-5 miles/dollar in addition to what you earn from the credit card itself.  Participating restaurants usually don’t include chains, so you are “eating local” for the most part.  The AAdvantage rewards network includes local Hawaii places like Grylt and Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, yummy.  I was able to earn a bunch of extra miles for eating out, again padding my balances.

I opted to use a standard award (called AAnytime Awards on American) again because:

  1. Mile SAAver wasn’t available
  2. I had a great choice of itineraries with fewer stops
  3. Main Cabin Extra was included for free
  4. Priority Access

But wait!  Oh, the perils of advance planning.  Before I was able to reach 105K miles, AAdvantage devalued their award chart for AAnytime awards.  The tickets I wanted would now require 120K miles (40K each) instead of 105K.  Gah.  Well, I needed to do something else to get these miles for free.  Enter the Starwood Preferred Guest Program.  SPG points are earned with the SPG Amex and with stays at SPG hotels like the Sheraton and Westin.  SPG points are valuable because you can transfer them 1:1 to many different airline partners, including American.  I was able to leverage this great transfer bonus to reach the additional 15K miles needed for my redemption.  By July 2014, I was all ready to book.  We got a great itinerary, great seats with the Main Cabin Extra, and the best part was this:

Woot!

Woot!

If you’re counting, our out-of-pocket cost was now $25 + $195.33 = $220.33.

The final piece of the puzzle was booking my husband’s flight back from Ecuador.  He’d successfully racked up many more United miles by this time (August 2014).  He’d be departing from the capital, Quito (UIO), instead of Guayaquil, and United had the best possible routing: Quito to Houston, Houston to Honolulu.  2 flights, with just one 2.5 hour layover!  They sold another Standard Award at 50K miles, and because Ecuador has an exit tax, the price was a little higher this time: $80.37.  I’ll take it.


Grand Total for 4 people traveling to South America from Hawaii and back….$300.70, or a 95% savings over the best cash booking price I could find. 

spock win

Final notes: I made some concessions with these bookings, since I much prefer redeeming for Saver awards.  However, the popularity of family holiday travel to South America means the airlines don’t really need to release much low-level award space during that time of year to fill the planes.  So they don’t, because people will pay cash for their tickets.  I still occasionally check for Saver space on our travel dates out of curiosity, and I haven’t seen any yet.  So I had to just spend the extra miles for the Standard awards.  I made sure to check for Saver First/Business awards though, because sometimes they are the same mileage price, or incredibly, lower than a Standard award! No such luck this time.

Being able to split up for travel reservations greatly increases your flexibility to book what you want.  It really worked out well with the AAnytime award- I got the better seats and expedited check-in, which will be great since I’ll be alone with both kids for that leg of our travel.

Diversification in miles and points balances helped as well, and we were able to really rack up both kinds of miles in a relatively short amount of time.

The best outcome of course, is that my little group of 4 will soon be welcomed by a huge group of relatives and get to experience my beautiful country.  Super bonus: when my parents booked their flights down from the East Coast, they chose an itinerary that put us all on the same final flight to Guayaquil from Panama City on Copa Airlines.  Family reunion in (PTY), then landing at GYE with my parents 🙂  That’s what travel is all about.

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