How the SPG & Marriott Merger Can Help You Get More Free Hotel Stays

As of this past week, SPG (the parent chain behind such hotels as W, Westin, Sheraton, and many others) is officially part of the Marriott company.

While many, myself included, predicted a bit of gloom and doom* about this merger, for now at least, the brands are playing nice. It was announced that Starwood points would transfer at a 3:1 rate to Marriott points, and that loyalty status holders would get an instant status-match between the two brands, as well as the Marriott-owned Ritz Carlton program.

Generally speaking, this is good news for Starwood loyalists who had come to enjoy one of the most rewarding loyalty programs in the game. And it’s also good news for us, former Starwood loyalists, in regards to our upcoming UK & Ireland trip.

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Albert Square Plaza in Manchester, photo courtesy of Marriott

The primary cities we’re planning on exploring during our 9-day trip will be Liverpool, Dublin and Manchester. Starwood has hotels in 2 of these cities (Liverpool and Dublin) but not in Manchester. Meanwhile, Marriott has no hotels in Dublin, but has multiple options in Liverpool and Manchester.

Looking at our respective points balances (we had a measly 1,315 Marriott points, but a respectable 40,096 SPG points), we saw that we could easily book our hotels for both the Liverpool and Manchester parts of the trip with just our existing bank of points, thanks to the recent merger.

First, we booked two nights at the Aloft Liverpool, a modern hotel in a gorgeous old building (see header photo) for a mere 3,500 points per night (btw, Aloft is an SPG brand, which is why this is a very acceptable redemption rate!)

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This left us with around 33k SPG points, so then I turned to the Marriott site, to find a high-ranked property in the downtown area of Manchester. And lucky for us, the Renaissance Manchester City Centre Hotel had availability for 60,000 Marriott points, which at 3:1 rate, translated into just 20,000 SPG points for a two-night stay. We instantly transferred the 20k points over, and booked our room.

So, that means we’ve now booked 1/2 of the hotel nights needed for our trip with just our current surplus of Starwood points — no new credit cards or spending schemes required — and still have around 13k points leftover. This translates into a savings of $688, making the hotel rooms for this section of our trip entirely free.

We’ll likely book the rest of our trip using the points we’ll gain from our brand new Chase Sapphire Reserve card to book the Dublin portion of the trip, and will only have to spend out-of-pocket for taxes, meals and ground transportation.

(*That all being said, Marriott is still terrible. I called them today, asking if they were doing any sort of status match for existing Hyatt Diamond members — the highest level of Hyatt loyalty — and got an entirely rude and unhelpful response. Our plan is to use up these last few SPG/Marriott points, and then avoid the chain entirely in the future.)

Header image courtesy of SPG.

Trip Review: Hotel Indigo Dallas & a Very USC Weekend

Hooray, football is back!  Everything is right in the world again, Saturdays have a purpose, and people can fight with each other over their favorite sports rivalries instead of politics. Yay!

In that spirit, when we learned that our beloved USC Trojans would kick off the 2016 season just up the road in Dallas at Cowboys Stadium, facing off against current-National Champions and pre-seasons #1 ranked Alabama, it was pretty much a no brainer that we’d need to be there.

So, we took a look at our current travel mile and points balances to see what we could do. And lo and behold, the hubby had around 50,000 IHG points just sitting in his account, with no intended purpose.  We jumped online, booked the Hotel Indigo Downtown Dallas, and were ready to go.

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Our queen bed room at the Hotel Indigo Downtown Dallas. (Apparently their housekeepers need an iron.)

The reason we had these 50,000 points was pretty interesting. Late last year, IHG had run a promotion in which you received a free “instant win” game every time you stayed at one of their hotels.  And, just like any contest, they were required to provide a no-purchase-necessary method of entry, which made entrants send in a handwritten entry on a notecard with various pieces of information if they too wanted a game piece.

The kicker though, was that unlike a regular contest, every “game” in this promotion was guaranteed to earn AT LEAST 500 IHG points per entry. And you could mail in up to 92 entries PER PERSON. So, I spent a Sunday last December handwriting out entries for both myself and the hubby.  And for roughly $60 in stamps, we both earned around 50k IHG points.

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The small desk area in our free room at the Hotel Indigo.

I converted my points into Singapore Airlines miles, and used them to help book our nearly-free trip to the UK & Ireland next year.  But for hubby’s points, we were able to get two-nights in Dallas for FREE, in a room that otherwise would have cost $185/night.

The hotel itself was nicely located close in the downtown area, convenient for freeway access, and across from a very nice little park. Our room was small but clean and comfortable, and the parking in a structure just across the street was vey convenient.

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The bathroom area of our room at the Hotel Indigo Downtown Dallas.

Once we’d arrived and checked into the hotel early Friday, we hurried over to nearby Klyde Warren park, where the USC Trojan Marching Band was leading a rally at noon. And let me just say, as a Trojan living outside of California, there is absolutely nothing as exciting and inspiring as seeing the FULL BAND roll into some random city and completely take over their downtown core.

After the rally, while food wasn’t the focus of this trip, we did manage to stop by a couple noteworthy restaurants; The Woolworth was our lunch stop, where the hubby’s “Pig and Pear” sandwich (barbecued pulled pork with sweet Asian pear and gruyere cheese on a toasted bun) was a real winner. For dinner, we visited the Ten Bells Tavern, where we met up with some Dallas-based friends for a fantastic beer list and delicious bar food including my impeccable “SBLT” (shrimp, bacon, lettuce, tomato) sandwich.

The next day, though, was all about the Trojans.  We had sort of unintentionally become the tailgate hosts for most of the Austin-based Trojans in our local alumni club, and so reserved a “premium tailgating spot” through StadiumParking.net.  This turned out to be a fantastic decision, as we had guaranteed parking just a couple blocks from the stadium, a shaded, grassy area for the tailgate itself, and even a concrete slab on which to set up our food/drinks tables.

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Our Trojan tailgate crew selfie (the hubby and I are top left!)  Photo by Marcelo Teson.

After several hours of jello shots and brats later, we headed into Cowboys Stadium and….well, the stadium itself is very nice.  As for the game….yeah, we’re just not going to talk about that.

The next day, we concluded our trip with a lovely brunch with some of my sorority sisters and their husbands over in Dallas’s uptown district, before driving back down to Austin that afternoon.  All in all, despite the game it was a fantastic weekend, once again made possible with points and miles.

 

Quick & Cheap DIY Project: Re-Plumping Flat Couch Cushions

I purchased our current traditional-style leather living room furniture the year before the hubby and I got engaged, which means it’s now seen a healthy five-and-a-half years of daily use.

While the material itself has held up fairly well in that time, the couch cushions themselves have not — the filler material had flattened considerably, and you were starting to be able to feel the bars of the sleeper bed below, especially when you sat on the middle seat.

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Although part of me wanted to just go out and buy new furniture, the more Mustachian part of my brain said we could easily get a few more years use out of this set with just a little TLC. So I scavenged the garage until I found the object of my current desire: a memory foam mattress topper we had used on an old bed.

Because we already had one, this step was free for us, but if you needed to order memory foam, it’s fairly cheap: you can get a twin-mattress size piece for under $50 on Amazon.

So I went to work, first measuring the cushions and marking out pieces the same size as the existing cushions on the memory foam, and used just regular old sewing scissors to cut through. Then, I unzipped the cushions and shoved the memory foam underneath the existing batting, making sure to smooth it out so that it would sit flat all the way into the corners.

It took a little wrangling, but in less than 20 minutes, all three cushions had been re-stuffed.  Swapping out the left and right side cushions in order to make sure they got equal wear was the final step, and voila – I was done. (The finished product is the top photo.)

I can’t even tell you guys how much nicer these cushions both look and feel now — it’s almost like sitting on a whole new couch! And considering this will get us a few more years out of this living room set, I’d call that a totally worthwhile weekend project.

Garden Update: September 2016

Well, it seems like we’ve finally turned a corner on the most oppressive of the summer heat.  Maybe? Knock on wood? While the humidity has been out of control, all this extra rain in August (and the subsequent lower temps) has kicked off our fall growing season even earlier than expected.

Our pepper plants continue to be the stars of the show, with a big basket full of serranos  (top picture) coming ripe every couple weeks.  The habanero has set more fruit as well, and we’ll have a second harvest of those in a couple more weeks too, it seems.

Our surprise performer has been the bush beans (lower left). Bush beans are known to not set particularly well in high heat, but I experimented with planting them in the sidewalk border garden this year, where they only get direct morning sun and are otherwise shaded by our large pecan tree. While the yield isn’t abundant, we’ll have at least a meal’s worth of beans ready to harvest from just three plants in another couple days, and I anticipate they’ll continue to produce for a few more weeks.

Based on this performance, I think we’ll try some root vegetables in the border garden this fall.

Finally, after last year’s basil-palooza, we went with container varieties for both basil and rosemary this year, and both are growing well (though not in the overwhelming qualities we dealt with last year!)  The rosemary is so wonderfully fragrant, I’m thinking I’ll try to find a way to use it in this year’s Christmas gift baskets.

The tomato plants are also flowering once again, and our dwarf cherry tree has probably shot up about two feet since our last update.  I’m excited to be able to bring in our own food again, and see what the rest of the fall brings!

 

A Love Song to PBS & my TiVo Roamio

About a year and a half ago, the hubby and I made the decision to cancel our cable service, an option many young people are taking these days more commonly known as  “cutting the cord.”

Our reasons were varied. First, there was the financial reason, motivated by wanting to live a more Mustachian lifestyle. Secondly, it was because we were pretty tired of AT&T UVerse trying to screw us over…we had come to anticipate them flat out lying to us every time we called them about our ever-rising monthly bill, and finally it just got to be too much. Third, I mean…what did we have to lose? It wasn’t like the cable companies wouldn’t be clammoring to sign us back up if we decided we didn’t like it.

So, we cut the cord, and replaced it with an over the air (OTA) antenna, combined with our streaming services, which were certainly enough to give us a steady backlog of content we wanted to watch. And in fact, other than a handful of live events (football games, the Oscars, etc.) we primarily relied on the streaming services for entertainment.

But last month, all of that changed: a friend of ours let us know that TiVo was once again offering their OTA Tivo Roamio device with lifetime service included. Having already been a fan of TiVo from the time before DVRs were standard with cable service, I was very easy to convince, and I instantly loved our ability to record things like the Olympics and our favorite network shows (and especially CBS shows, which aren’t published to any streaming services others than their own paid channel.)

However, what I wasn’t expecting? The wealth of amazing shows TiVo would start recording from PBS.

As I sit here typing this today, having had the TiVo less than a month, I’ve got nearly 40 shows in my “recommended queue”, all of which have already been culled for what I actually would want to watch or not. (Don’t blame me for the Tosh.0…those are the hubby’s!) I would say probably more than 90% of the shows are from PBS.

There are great cooking shows (my current favorite is Essential Pepin), interesting documentaries (really loved “Independent Lens: In Football We Trust”), more travel shows than I can count (Journeys through Japan is excellent), and home-improvement + gardening shows a-plenty.

In short? I ❤ PBS. Their great content (across 4 channels) has probably meant that my reliance on streaming channels has gone from 90% of our watch time to less than 30%.

I should probably also state – neither TiVo nor PBS paid me for this endorsement.  I’m just a fan. Hooray public broadcasting.  And if you love it too, ya know, they rely on donations so represent. We certainly will be donating as well.

So if you’re considering cutting the cord – I say go for it. And I’d also say don’t forget to check out what your local OTA PBS stations may have to offer.