Weight Watchers Friendly Camping Meals & Photos from Muleshoe Bend Campsite

Recently, one of my best friends decided to give Weight Watchers a try, and after seeing her success, I decided I would join in too. Of course, the hardest part about any diet is making it work around “real life” and we had already scheduled one of our bi-annual camping excursions for this past weekend.

So, there was nothing to do but figure out how to make a camping trip Weight Watchers friendly!

Luckily, with the new Weight Watchers program, this really wasn’t too hard. Here’s what we ate this weekend:

Dinner, Dinner Day One: 15 Smart Points

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2 Links of Chicken/Apple/Gouda Sausage (HEB Brand), Corn on the Cob w/ Butter & Chili Powder, and Tomato, Basil & Feta Salad with Lite Italian Vinaigrette

Breakfast, Breakfast Day Two: 3 Smart Points

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2 oz Smoked Salmon, Canteloupe, and Coldbrew Coffee with Sugar and Half&Half

Lunch, Day Two (No Picture, Sorry!): 12 Smart Points

Ham Sandwich (2 slices Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Bread, 4 oz Thin Sliced Ham, 1 tsp mayo, lettuce, and tomato, 1 serving baked bbq chips

Dinner, Day Two: 11 Smart Points

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9 Shrimp, sauteed in 1/2 tbsp butter, marinated in 1/2 tbsp Zesty Italian dressing; Foil packet of zucchini and cherry tomatoes with 1/2 tbsp Zesty Italian dressing
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For dessert, 1 apple w/ Quaker Cup Maple & Brown Sugar Oatmeal, Cinnamon, and 1 tbsp butter in a foil packet

Breakfast, Day 3: 7 Smart Points

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French Toast: 2 pieces Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Bread, battered in 1 beaten egg & cinnamon, topped with strawberries, and 3 tbsp Mrs. Butterworth Sugar Free Syrup

And if you’re wondering, but…what about her weeklies or fitpoints? Surely Whitney got a few more points than this? Yep…..we drank them. What’s camping without a little “sauce” for sitting around the campfire?IMG_4669

Of course, even though I did dip into my weeklies a bit, I don’t really feel too bad about it, because we also took a 2+ hour hike each day, resulting in my getting more than 15k steps a day, according to my Fitbit.

Not a Weight Watcher? Fine. Here’s some more photos from our camping trip:

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The view from campsite 26, at Muleshoe Bend LCRA park near Spicewood, Texas
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Sunrise over Lake Travis
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The view from inside our tent…not too shabby!
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Dinner with a view
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The hubby, pointing out the “easy” 3 mile hike, that turned out to be 5+ miles
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“Mystical Fire” – highly recommend!
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The hubby’s biggest fish…he caught 5 total over the weekend
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And me with my biggest…I only caught two, but my biggest was bigger ūüôā

Trip Review: ARIA Las Vegas Resort & Casino

This past week, I headed out to the desert for a work conference, same as I do 2-3x  a year, every year. But this time I stayed somewhere new Рthe Aria. And it was pretty damn magical, friends.

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Not only was my room super nice, but it also had what I will now consider the gold-standard in bathrooms from here on out: there was both a bathtub, and a bench, inside the stand-up shower.

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Yes, you read that right. I could shower off, then bathe, overflow the tub if I so desired, then sit down and enjoy a little steam ALL IN THE SAME ROOM. Mind = blown. #bathroomgoals

And my view wasn’t too shabby either:

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Beyond all that, though, the service really set it apart. Since I’m an MLife Platinum member, I got to enjoy priority checkin, never having to wait in the taxi line, and this free upgrade to a strip-view room. Every interaction I had with the Aria staff (from asking directions to getting breakfast room service delievered) was phenomenal.

As for the rest of the conference, I got to see IBM’s CEO and Chairman of the board, Ginny Rometty. I got to see Will Smith. And I got to see a great concert featuring Andy Grammer and the Zac Brown Band. Not too shabby for a trip paid entirely by my work.

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Even better, because of a partnership between Hyatt and MLife, the trip will actually earn me a nice little sum of Hyatt points. And, my Southwest flights that took me to Vegas (also paid through work) was the final little push needed to help me re-earn my Companion Pass Status for 2017 & 2018.

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So, in addition to just taking a very nice work trip, I’ve also set myself up for my next several vacations. That’s some #winning in Vegas that I’m definitely a fan of.

Trip Review: All-Inclusive Resort in Cancun

We’ve just returned from our first “real” vacation of the year, a four-day trip down to Cancun, Mexico. It was a fantastic little getaway, and once again, the out-of-pocket cost of our¬†trip was almost¬†entirely¬†FREE, thanks to our use of points and miles strategies.

We got our free flights, direct on Southwest from Austin to Cancun, as I’ve previously described in this post. Then, using points we earned from the sign-up bonus of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, we booked our resort via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

Booking via the portal was a great option for us, as you can can choose from nearly any property you can find on sites like Expedia or Travelocity; this meant we¬†weren’t¬†locked in to a particular hotel brand or chain. And¬†in Mexico, when you look beyond the main American hotel brands, you open up an additional option: all-inclusives!

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The hubby with our beachfront resort’s mascot.

We had just under 60,000 points left in our Ultimate Rewards account, and thanks to the enhanced redemption rate you get as a Sapphire Reserve cardholder (with each point valued at 1.5 cents per point, as opposed the 1.25 cent rate with the Sapphire Preferred or a flat 1 cent with other Chase cards) that was enough to book 3 nights at the GR Caribe All-Inclusive by Solaris in a Deluxe Oceanview room (plus free premium wifi as part of the package).

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We were just about $40 shy of covering the total cost ‚ÄĒ not bad for a little Caribbean getaway!

And the resort turned out to be a good choice for us.¬†While the GR Caribe itself is fairly small, it’s connected to the much larger sister property, the Royal Solaris Cancun,¬†and guests receive full privileges at each resort. That means we got access to a total of nine restaurants, four bars, multiple pools and hot tubs, a marina full of non-motorized activities, and plenty more that was all included in the price of our stay.

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The courtyard just outside our room was comfortable and airy.
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The light on the adobe walls at night was particularly beautiful.
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Our Deluxe Oceanview Room featured a breakfast nook area and traditional accents.
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A rose and towel animal from the housecleaning staff.

I liked the GR Caribe in particular for its traditional Mexican adobe-style architecture. Our room, a Deluxe beachfront room on the ground floor, was spacious, nicely decorated and clean. Our only complaint is that, despite making our reservation for a King bed, we received two Queens. In the end, this wasn’t a big deal, but sleeping in separate beds did put a bit of a damper on the romance element.

Still, we made the best of it, and there was plenty to do. We visited the ocean, swam in each pool at least once, tried all myriad of frozen alcoholic concoctions, and even took the bus into Downtown Cancun to visit the large traditional Mexican market, Mercado 28, for some sightseeing and souvenir shopping.

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We enjoyed morning walks and afternoon swims on the well-kept beach (despite the red flag warning; we’re both very good swimmers.)
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One of the many pools at night.
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We also took advantage of the on-site mini golf course featuring Mayan-style sculptures.

As with many all-inclusives, however, there are a few a trade offs for not having to open your wallet from the moment you arrive. The restaurants were all pretty sub-standard in our opinion; even the fancy ones that required a reservation were pretty bad. We actually thought the best food came from the pool-side snack bars and the buffet; most days I ended up just loading up on chips, fresh salsas, and guacamole.

Additionally, you have to skillfully avoid the timeshare sellers. We knew to expect the sales pitches, and after a few tries, they recognized we were a lost cause and stopped bothering us. (As it turns out, telling them that the vast majority of your vacations are free because of points and miles is a pretty good deterrent ‚ÄĒ they had no counter to the fact that their “vacation club membership” wasn’t free.)

But overall, we really enjoyed our trip, and the fact that I resisted my normal urge to schedule every-minute of every-day made sure we had plenty of time to just relax. If you’re thinking about taking a trip to Mexico, now’s definitely a great time; the exchange rate is hugely in favor of Americans at the moment with the US Dollar equaling roughly 20 Mexican pesos. And besides, who wouldn’t want to take a picture like this?

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Those are some relaxed faces right there! That one’ll make the Christmas card for sure.

Try This, Not That: An Alternative Travel Guide for Austin, Texas

After publishing my last post, about the steps and sites I frequently use to plan our vacations, a friend was surprised to learn that I don’t often look to travel guides like Fodor’s or Lonely Planet¬†for advice.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just start with one of their¬†frameworks?” they wondered.

Well, yes. It probably would. But in my experience, a lot of things that make it into the guide books are popular only *because* they’re popular. But if you follow their advice, you often will end up solely in the touristy parts of a town, without ever getting much chance to meet actual locals or experience the places they frequent.

My friend wasn’t convinced, though. So I went ahead and pulled up Lonely Planet’s Top Things to Do for Austin and showed them how a lot of the entries were pretty overrated. It’s why I’m much more apt to trust bloggers, vloggers, and ‘grammers who know a destination well.

Which got me thinking ‚ÄĒ I’ve lived in Austin more than a decade now, and been writing this blog for more than three years ‚ÄĒ yet I’ve never done a “trip review” of my good ‘ol hometown. So without further ado, here’s my alternative list of places to visit in Austin that you won’t find in a standard issue guide book.

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Round Rock Bat Bridge; Photo by Flickr user Henry Huey under a CC license.

The Round Rock Bat Bridge (instead of the Congress Avenue Bridge, as recommended by Lonely Planet & U.S. News)

Ahhh, the most touristy of all Austin activities, where on spring and summer nights, hundreds of tourists line the sidewalk of the Congress Avenue Bridge in hope of seeing a majestic show of the country’s largest urban bat colony streaming out for their nightly hunt.

But here’s the problem: over¬†half the time, the bats won’t fly until after the sun has set, and standing on top of the bridge, you’ll be looking down at dark water instead of up and the still-light sky. That makes it damn near impossible to see the small dark flecks streaming out from the bridge. Moreover, you’re looking at at least a couple hour wait to get a good spot, standing in zero shade on a narrow sidewalk, as rush hour zooms by you on one of Austin’s busiest streets.

But just up the road 30 minutes in the suburb of Round Rock, there’s a much better option. A slightly smaller bat colony dwells beneath the Highway I-35 overpass at McNeil road, and there’s a nice grassy area where you can settle down on a camping chair or blanket to wait for the bat’s arrival. Few tourists means you won’t have to compete for a good spot. Plus, since you’ll be looking UP¬†at the overpass, the bats will be much easier to see against the backdrop of the sky.

Make a trip of it and grab some happy hour wings and beers at the nearby Pluckers Wing Bar, and you’re guaranteed a better experience than you’ll get over on Congress Avenue.

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LA Barecue; Photo by Flickr use Egoiste under a CC license.

LA Barbecue (instead of Franklin Barbecue, as recommended by pretty much everyone)

Yes, we know you’ve heard about Franklins. You saw the Visa commercial. You read about it in every travel article ever. We know.¬†And if you want to get up and get in line around 8 am, go for it.

But if wasting a whole morning of your vacation¬†in line for barbecue in a town positively swimming in barbecue joints doesn’t sit well with you, there’s another option, but it’ll require understanding a bit of Texas BBQ history. LA Barbecue is owned by LeAnn (hence the LA portion of the name) Mueller, granddaughter of Taylor’s famous Louie Mueller,¬†and sister to¬†John Mueller, Austin’s bad boy of barbecue and former boss/teacher to Aaron Franklin. Moreover, the pitmaster at LA Barbecue is John Lewis, who used to work at…guess where? Franklin Barbecue.

So you can just as easily head to the LA Barbecue trailer, not wait in line for 3 hours, and still get some outstanding Texas-style ‘cue.

Of course, if you really, REALLY want to go to Franklin’s? Pro-tip: you can order a whole brisket (enough to feed 6-10 people) exactly one month in advance of the date you intend to pick it up. If you do that, you’ll get to skip the line.

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East Sixth Mural; photo by Flickr user 4ELEVEN Images under a CC license

East Sixth Street (instead of Dirty Sixth Street, as recommended by U.S. News)

Are you really excited at the prospect of drinking well liquor or mass-market domestic beers? No? You haven’t been since you were about 19? Yeah. Me neither.

“Austin’s Famous Sixth Street” aka Dirty Sixth is geared towards this kind of drinking, though. While there may be a few standouts establishments, most are there to serve a Fireball-swilling crowd while cover songs blast¬†much too loud in the background.

Try East Sixth, the part of Sixth Street east of I-35 if you’ve outgrown the former scene. You can nab good cocktails or craft beer, nice drunk food, and avoid the amateur-hour type crowds.

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Curra’s Exterior; photo by Flickr user by Chris Gallevo¬†under a CC license.

Curra’s Grill¬†(instead of Guero’s Taco Bar, as recommended by Lonely Planet)

In my opinion, Guero’s is the absolute most overrated restaurant in Austin. It’s just¬†entirely average Tex-Mex,¬†that happens to be¬†in a good location. Owing to the good location, tourists have been flocking here for years, when a far tastier (and cheaper!) alternative is only a couple blocks away.

Curra’s Grill, meanwhile, serves all the same dishes, just tastier. And they offer something you can’t get at Guero’s: the avocado margarita. Trust me, if you’re a New Yorker that spent the last year or so freaking out about Avocado Toast, you’re going to pee your pants over avocado margaritas. You’re welcome.

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Comic wall at Cap City; photo courtesy of Cap City Comedy’s Facebook page

Cap City Comedy (instead of Esther’s Follies, as recommend by U.S. News)

Austin has a really great live comedy scene, y’all. There are some damn funny people in this town. But¬†Esther’s Follies¬†is downright cheesy. If you’re 50+, get nervous when people use foul language, and don’t want a show that gets “too political”, head on over to Esther’s Follies and shell out $35 for the privilege.

But if you want to see real stand up, try out Cap City Comedy, especially on a Tuesday night for their Punch showcase (which features local comedians) and you’ll be able to use the $20 you saved on tickets to buy yourself some drinks instead.

What are the tourist “favorites” in your town that you’d actually tell people to steer clear of? Tell us in the comments.¬†

Header photo by Flickr user Katie Haugland Bowen under a CC license.

How to Maximize Your Vacation With a Well-Planned Itinerary

It’s probably not a secret to any of you who actually know me in real life, but…I’m definitely ¬†a planner. Like, intensely so. If someone tells me their grand vision for anything, I immediately start trying to work out the logistics in my mind.

And the same goes for vacations.¬†I’m not a “hop-a-last-minute-flight-to-wherever-and-then-see-where-fate-takes-me” type of vacationer. When I go somewhere, I will have researched the hell out of it before my feet ever touch the ground in my vacation destination.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I can’t be spontaneous. For our upcoming trip to Cancun, for example, I’ve booked our flights, resort, and airport transfer ‚ÄĒ but¬†that’s all. Because I know that is a trip focused more on relaxing and unwinding instead of sight-seeing, I’m happy to leave our day-to-day plan until we get there. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t extensively researched each and every bar and restaurant on the resort property, explored the tours you can purchase for nearby attractions, and read reviews of¬†pretty much everything I can find on the area.

Because to me, being prepared allows you to be spontaneous without feeling like you might be missing something. 

Generally speaking, though, I do build a more detailed trip itinerary for most trips, regardless of whether they’re 3-day weekends or 14-day international epics. Here’s an example from last year’s Las Vegas trip:

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Some things you may notice here: 1) I build these in Google Drive. That allows me to have access to it from my phone, and I always make sure to make my itineraries available offline, so I can access them even if I don’t have data or wifi. 2) I include confirmation numbers everywhere I can, and reminders for myself on where to find any needed paperwork. A lot of times you’re booking months in advance, you may not remember where things are located.

I also find that putting it on paper lets me see how everything fits together. For example, if I see¬†I have an action-packed, early-rising morning¬†one day, I can make sure to plan a quieter, low-key night the evening before. This helps make it feel like I’ve planned a cohesive trip, instead of just a series of activities that we “have to get to”.

So how do I compile these? Here’s the order I go in:

  1. First, book your flights

As soon as I book my flights for a trip, I create my itinerary document. The flights bookend the travel, so it helps create a frame for everything else that will be added later. I also like to include flight numbers, confirmation numbers, and any loyalty program numbers that I think I might need along the way.

  1. Next, hotels and any ground transportation

Once I know the dates I’ll be arriving and departing, it’s time to figure out where to stay. Generally speaking, I let my points guide where I search: if I have a lot of Hyatt points, I’ll search Hyatt first; if I have a lot of Starwood points, I’ll search Starwood points. Once I find a couple options that look promising, I read through at least the 10 most recent reviews for the property on both the hotel’s website (if offered) and a third-party review site like TripAdvisor or Yelp.

The other big question at this step is any ground transportation. Are you visiting more than one location/hotel during your stay? How will you get between them? How will you get from the airport to your hotel? Do you need to reserve a rental car, or buy any train passes? And of course, how can you maximize these bookings to give you the most points in return?

  1. Book “big activities”

After you’ve nailed down your flights and hotel situation, it’s time to figure out what you want to do. If you’re familiar with your destination, you may have some activities already in mind, otherwise I like to look at TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, Thrillist, and TimeOut for the “can’t miss” items. Once I’ve found the majority of touristy options on those commercial sites, I check out what my favorite vloggers, bloggers, and ‘grammers have highlighted about the destination as well.

Then, once I’ve¬†figured out some of the activities you want to participate in, I lump them into two categories: “big” meaning they either take more than three hours to complete and/or will require considerable physical effort or expense and “little” meaning they’re lower-key activities that I may be able to squeeze in whenever. I book “big” activities now, and save “little” activities for later in the itinerary planning process.

  1. Pick your restaurants

Next on my list is to research restaurants. My go-to sources here include Eater, Time Out (particularly in Europe), and Food & Wine magazine. I¬†like to mix it up with “fancy” restaurants and hole-in-the-wall type places. And if a particular location is really associated with a specific dish (i.e. Nashville with Hot Chicken) I try to make sure we get to try it from at least two different locations.

For fancier places, I go ahead and make a reservation in advance, if they offer one.

  1. Fill in open spaces with “small activities”

By now, your¬†itinerary should be¬†really starting to fill in. I take a look and see where it looks like we still might have room to add in another activity or two, keeping in mind where we’re likely to be tired and just want to relax. When possible, I look for smaller activities that you don’t have to book in advance, so you can blow them off if you feel like it.

It’s also important to keep in mind where activities are located in this step. For smaller activities (for example, a museum that will only take you an hour or so to tour),¬†you want to try to visit it when you’ll already be in that area of the location. Going really far out of your way for smaller activities doesn’t always make sense, especially if you can re-shuffle other activities to keep nearby activities together in the same day.

  1. Add confirmation numbers, addresses, and tips for yourself. 

Finally, once you have a fully-filled out itinerary, it’s time to make it easier for yourself when you’re onsite. I add confirmation numbers for everything that has one. For international destinations where I’m unlikely to have cell signal, I also add addresses for each location. And if I’ve learned anything during my research that may be useful (e.g. this establishment has an upstairs bar that’s often less crowded; the crab cake is legendary; you have a printed voucher for this event you need to take with you, etc.), I make sure to note that on my itinerary document as well.

  1. For longer trips, include some backup options

So now you’re done, right? Well, hold on. One final recommendation is that for longer trips ‚ÄĒ anything more than 3 days ‚ÄĒ keep a shortlist of back up options as well, particularly for small indoor activities and casual restaurants. That way, if you just aren’t feeling something you’d planned, and/or something stressful pops up (like a bad storm on the day you planned to visit the Botanical Gardens, or an hour-long wait at the hole-in-the-wall oyster bar you had planned to visit) you can sub in an alternative.

With these tips, I think you’ll find not only do you have a flaw-free vacation, but it also helps you to get more excited about your trip. All the planning and researching makes you anticipate the great time you’ll have on your trip, and further extends the joy you get from going. So enjoy!

Trip Review: Our Weekend at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

If the slight pounding in my head is any indication, then I’d say we had a very successful weekend visiting the San Antonio Cocktail Conference.¬†This was our 3rd time attending the festival,¬†and it always makes for a great little getaway with lots of fun festivities.

Of course, since San Antonio is just an hour and half or so from Austin, we didn’t need flights for this weekend trip, but we did need a hotel. Since my Hyatt Diamond elite status¬†won’t expire until February (when Hyatt resets their status levels), I opted to take advantage of all the added perks, and booked a stay using points at the Grand Hyatt on the San Antonio Riverwalk.

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King Club-Level Room at the Grand Hyatt.

The Grand Hyatt is the newest Hyatt property in San Antonio, and, at least in my opinion, was a big upgrade from the Hyatt Regency, where we stayed on our anniversary trip last year. Our 2-night stay cost us 24,000 Hyatt points (of which, 2/3 came from work travel the hubby and I had completed this year, and the final 1/3 we transferred from the points horde we earned through the Chase Sapphire Reserve card). Given that this hotel averages about $300/night, that means we got an effective redemption rate of 2.5 cents per point ‚ÄĒ¬†a good value ‚ÄĒ and saved ourselves $600.

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Bathroom in the Grand Hyatt. Pretty standard.

In addition, thanks to my Diamond status, we were upgraded from a standard room to one on the Club level, and got to enjoy the Grand Club throughout the stay. We enjoyed complimentary coffee and breakfast there each morning, as well as grabbing free bottles of water and pastries throughout our stay.

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Breakfast offerings from the Grand Club

The room itself was fairly standard, with a great bed; I often find Hyatt beds a little too soft for my liking, but these were very firm and we slept like babies each night. (Though, all the cocktails we were consuming probably helped too.)

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Fun cutouts at the Jim Beam “Kentucky Cantina” happy hour

After checking in, we went to pick up our Cocktail Conference wristbands, then headed over to a free event sponsored by Jim Beam at one of our favorite riverwalk restaurants, Rita’s on the River. There we had a few different cocktails made by the bartender of Austin cocktail bar Half Step, which is one of our favorite Austin bars.

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Appetziers at Rebelle

Once happy hour was finished, we headed over to Rebelle at the Hotel St. Anthony for dinner. Rebelle pretty much tops all the fine dining lists for San Antonio at the moment, and it was great, though we¬†didn’t think it quite topped the great meal we had at Southerleigh during our last visit.

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The goat at Rebelle

 

To start, we shared appetizers of an Heirloom Tomato Salad and Grilled Texas Quail, followed by entrees¬†of Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast and a Rosemary and Red Pepper Spiced Goat Shank. While all were tasty, the goat was by far the winner ‚ÄĒ it was rich, unctuous, and just fell apart in your mouth. Probably the best goat I’ve ever had, and I’m not one to shy away from cabrito!

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The duck at Rebelle

Knowing that the next day was going to be a start-to-finish booze fest, we opted to stay pretty low-key on Friday, and just took a leisurely stroll back to our hotel past the Alamo. (Photo at the top!) Along the way, we picked up a bottle of champagne and some chocolate truffles, and spent the rest of the night enjoying our hotel room. ūüôā

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The next day, we¬†headed over to another San Antonio restaurant I’d heard a lot of good buzz about, for lunch at the Cookhouse. I love me some Cajun food, so I was excited to try their po-boy laden lunch menu. Unfortunately, it was more hype than content. While the boudin balls we started with were promising, both the hubby’s muffaletta and my oyster-and-bacon po-boy left quite a bit to be desired. We wouldn’t really recommend it.

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Cajun lunch at the Cookhouse.

After that, it was time to get our drink on. The Tasting Suites, one of the signature events of every Cocktail Conference ran from noon – 4. The event consisted of hundreds of spirit purveyors distributing samples of their products across multiple hotel ballrooms and hotel suites at the Hotel Valencia.

We found a couple new varieties that we really enjoyed (above), and I also got to (strangely) take a picture with some monkeys. By the end of the event, despite only sampling a small sip of each variety, we were both very pleasantly sauced. We headed back to our hotel to re-hydrate and squeeze in a small nap before round two.

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One of them bit me. 

That night, the featured event was the Stroll on Houston Street, and took place at a variety of venues all up and down the downtown street. Unlike the Tasting Suites earlier, where we were primarily tasting the liquors themselves, neat, this event was all about cocktails. Throughout the venues, there were probably more than a hundred different cocktails on offer, and you could try as many different types as you wanted (or just find your favorite and keep coming back.)

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Entertainment at the various venues, tarting in the top right, going clockwise: a brass-funk band, projections and a swing band, fountains and fairy lights, and traditional Irish music.

Local restaurants also participated, serving everything from lobster bisque to street tacos at sampling stations along the way. And of course, there was plenty of entertainment too.  Great bands, flamenco dancers, traditional Irish music, and even a giant projection of Casablanca helped to define each venue along the way and make each space feel unique.

The best part of this event? The ticket was only $85. Can you believe that?!? The only somewhat comparable event in Austin is the now-defunct Le Dolce Vita, and tickets for that usually ran around $300/person. This San Antonio event was even bigger and better, and for less than 1/3 of the price. You can see why we like this conference so much! And even better still, proceeds from the event benefit San Antonio children’s charities. It’s a winner all around.

After many cocktails and some dancing, we stumbled back to our hotel at the end of night two. We attended one final event, a low-key brunch at the former Spanish Governor’s Mansion on Sunday morning before departing to come home. But all in all it was an absolutely wonderful little getaway, and a great way to kick-off our 2017 travels for the year.

Love what you read here about free travel? Now you can have it too!

Important announcement time!

As of this week, I’ve officially launched my own consulting business, Magnuson Consulting Group, LLC. Primarily, I’ll¬†offer consulting in the areas of travel planning and a mile- and points- booking service, as well as some other areas. I even have packages developed for first time campers!

Why, you may ask? Well, because you all asked me to! As this blog has grown, I’ve begun getting more and more questions about miles and points booking, no longer just from friends and family, but oftentimes from complete strangers. And I love it!

I want to share the gift of travel, as well as my other talents, with as many people as possible. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop sharing news and tips about travel hacking right here on Unintended Domesticity; it just means if you want assistance planning your own adventures, I’m at your service.

Take a look at my consulting website, and feel free to reach out via the contact page either here or there if you’d like to discuss a consulting project.

Happy Travels!

My two newest credit cards: both Southwest Airlines Visas!

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to travel more, then it’s time to jump into action and earn¬†yourself one of the best travel-hacking values on the market: the Southwest Companion Pass.

I’ve written a lot about the Southwest Companion Pass in the past, but here’s what you need to know:

  • You earn it by accruing 110,000 Southwest miles in one calendar year
  • Once earned, it’s good for the remaining portion of that year and the entire next calendar year. Meaning, passes earned in early 2017 will be good all the way through December 2018.
  • The pass allows you to to get a FREE¬†“companion ticket” for your designated companion ANY TIME the pass holder has a ticket on Southwest. It doesn’t matter if the main pass holder’s ticket was a paid ticket or free miles¬†ticket. If they have a ticket, the companion gets a ticket, so long as there is still space available on the place REGARDLESS of the current price of those tickets.
  • Points earned from Southwest credit card bonuses DO COUNT towards the points threshold.

That last point is the most important one. Because right now, and for a limited time only, both Southwest credit cards, the Premier and the Plus Visas, are currently offering 50,000 mile¬†bonuses for spending $2,000 in the first three months of card ownership. That’s 10,000 – 20,000 points higher EACH¬†than the offers they run at other points in the year.

If you were to get both cards (as we’ve just done) and complete the minimum spending for each bonus, that already puts you at 104,000 miles¬†earned towards the 110,000 needed to get the pass. You can then pretty easily earn those last 6,000 miles¬†either by spending on the credit cards, flying paid flights on Southwest, or taking advantage of items like their shopping portal.

And the best part? If you earn the pass in this way, you still get to keep the 104,000 points you earned along the way. As such, many of those first few flights for the pass holder can be absolutely FREE too, just like their companion’s.

Now, time for my common caveats: if you don’t¬†have good credit, this may not be an option for you, as it’ll be hard for you to get approved for both cards. If you don’t regularly and consistently pay off your full credit balance each billing period, you shouldn’t be messing around with high interest-rate cards like this in the first place. And finally, if you don’t normally spend at least $2,000 in credit cards over three months time, then I generally don’t think it’s a good idea to “manufacture” spending just to earn the credit card bonus.

Finally, in the past year, we’ve seen Chase (the card issuer) institute a new rule about travel bonus-earning credit cards; they’ll only allow you to open 5 maximum in any 24-month period. So if you’ve opened a lot of other cards recently, this may not be an option for you, either.

But, if you’ve got good credit and it’s just a matter of switching your current spending to a new card? Then this is a fantastic deal that lets you essentially travel the country for free for two full years with very minimal effort.

Happy flying!

4 Steps We Took to Save $700+ on Flights to Cancun

This week, after planning out our travel itinerary for all of 2017, it was time to turn to booking and making those vacations we’d planned out in a document actually come to life!

As I discussed in that last post, one of our strategies for elongating our vacations is to book over holiday weekends; unfortunately for cash-based rewards systems (in which the amount of points needed for an award is tied to the cash price of a ticket) holiday weekend are usually more expensive redemptions.

So, sometimes we have to get a little creative. We ended up booking 2 nonstop, round-trip flights from Austin to Cancun over President’s Day weekend on Southwest. The retail price of this trip was $1,012 at time of booking. But we managed to book those same tickets and only spent $276 ‚ÄĒ just about a quarter of the price.

How’d we do it?

Well, this one took a few steps.¬†At time of booking, the hubby had around 17k Southwest points in his account leftover from work travel this year. I had around 9k in my account. And perhaps most importantly, the hubby¬†had just received 2 $100 “Luv Vouchers” from Southwest for a severely¬†delayed flight experience a few weeks earlier.

Step 1: I booked the most expensive single leg using the hubby’s points stash

This was fairly straightforward. The most expensive leg of this trip was the return flight to Austin at 13,912 Rapid Rewards points. So I booked that with the hubby’s surplus of points, but I booked it in my name – not his. (Reason for that¬†coming later.)

The important thing about this step is the ORDER that I did this. Knowing that I’d be using points for my flights, I needed to book my flights BEFORE I booked the hubby’s paid flights. Because Southwest ties their awards to the cash value of the ticket, and the ticket price is tied to the remaining availability on the flight, I may have risked increasing the points-price of the ticket had I booked the hubby’s paid ticket first.

And, indeed, after booking both his and my ticket, the points price of that return leg has now risen to 17,708 points. So knowing the right order to book in saved me nearly 4k points.

Step 2: I transferred the hubby’s Chase points to my Chase account

With step one complete, my return flight was booked, so I now needed to book my departing flight. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough Southwest points to book the 13,912 point award flight with the points left in my points stash. (And Southwest doesn’t offer a free points transfer for spouses; you *can* transfer points to other people, but they charge you a hefty fee to do so.)

However, we did still have some Chase Sapphire Reserve points left, and Chase points transfer at a 1:1 rate to Southwest Rapid Rewards. Unfortunately, that card is also in the hubby’s name, and Chase only lets you transfer points to accounts affiliated with the user OR authorized users of the account. Since it costs an extra $75 to become an authorized user, and doesn’t garner you any extra benefits, I wasn’t one.

But, there’s a workaround. Since I also have a card with Chase Ultimate Reward benefits, the hubby was able to do an immediate transfer of points to my Chase account. And then, of course, I could transfer those points to my own Southwest account.

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Sunset in Cancun by Flickr user Jose Luis Cruz under a Creative Commons license.

Step 3: I transferred Chase points to Southwest to book my departing leg

So, with an extra 4,000 points recently transferred over to my Chase account, I was able to transfer those at a 1:1 rate to my Southwest account.

Combined with the points I already had in my Southwest account from recent work travel, that was enough to cover the cost of an award flight on the way to Cancun, at 13,912 points. And voila, suddenly I’m going to Cancun, baby.

Step 4: I booked the hubby’s travel with cash + travel vouchers

Now, with my travel secure, I went back to the hubby’s account. ¬†The hubby had recently received two $100 Southwest Luv Vouchers, as an apology for a very bad flight experience on a work trip where he was about 6 hours delayed. So our goal was going to be to use those vouchers on his flights for two key reasons:

  1. Southwest Luv Vouchers expire, so it’s use ’em or lose em.
  2. Southwest Luv Vouchers can ONLY be used for tickets in the name of the passenger to which the voucher was issued.

That second reason is why we used points for my ticket, but cash for the hubby’s, even though moving the points around was a little more labor-intensive. Applying the Luv vouchers, that took the price of the hubby’s RT tickets down to $261.

So there you have it. For longtime readers of the blog, though, you may be asking “but why didn’t you just use your Southwest Companion Pass for the second ticket?” Well, the reason is that our pass is expiring at the end of this year. We’re going to work towards earning it again, but it’s not certain that we’ll have the 2017-2018 pass in time for this trip.

If we DO earn the pass, though, that’s yet another reason that I bought MY¬†fare on points ‚ÄĒ that would allow me to keep my mostly free fares and still let us CANCEL the hubby’s cash ticket and rebook it for free with the companion pass. Meaning our ending out-of-pocket costs for these flights could end up being even lower, like around the $100 mark for just taxes and fees only!

In the end, all these steps did take me at least a solid hour to complete, and of course, I had to know about all these points and miles rules¬†as well. But if an hour of work can save me $700? Yeah, I’m into that! Here we come, Cancun!

Header photo courtesy of Oasis Resorts in Cancun.

Why We Plan Our Travel A Year In Advance

It’s no secret that the hubby and I travel…A LOT. And one question I get asked often is “How do you manage to get all that time off work? Do you guys have unlimited vacation days, or what?”

Well the answer is no, neither of us have jobs that afford us with unlimited vacation days. I get 20 days off a year, plus 7 company-designated Holidays. The hubby gets 14 days off a year, 1 floating holiday, plus nine company-designated Holidays.

So how do we mange to travel nearly every month, without quickly exhausting all of our vacation days? The secret lies in solid, advance planning and utilizing weekends and holidays for all they’re worth.

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On last year’s trip to Hawaii we visited Honolulu, Maui, and the Big Island

 

For example,¬†take a look at our upcoming¬†UK/Ireland trip. ¬†The entire length of that trip is 10 days. However, we’ll depart¬†on a Friday, meaning that we’ll maximize our days off by having two weekends fall within the trip proper. ¬†Additionally, we intentionally planned the vacation to fall over a holiday weekend that both of our companies recognize, so that we could¬†save yet another day off. Our 10-day trip now magically requires only 5 vacation days.¬†

Similarly, next Christmas, we’ll travel to Kansas to visit the hubby’s family (we alternate Christmas locations every other year.)¬†While it’s way too early to even buy our plane tickets for Christmas 2017, we know that our goal will be to use only 3 Vacation days ‚ÄĒ so, we’ll most likely leave on the 21st and return on the 27th. That’s a full week, 7 days of visiting family, yet because of how the weekend and office holidays line up, it’ll only require us to use 3 vacation days.

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Our trip to the Maine coast.

So, around November or December of each year,¬†I sit down and plan out exactly when and how we’ll use each and every vacation day we’re allotted. First, I plug in the big, known trips (Ireland/Christmas) and then try to squeeze in 3- and 4-day long weekend trips in the months in between. Weekend camping trips (in which we¬†work a little late Monday-Thursday, to allow us to knock off a couple hours early on Friday to drive out to the campsite) fill out the rest of the calendar, and before you know it we have a celebration nearly every month of the year.

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Camping trips like this year’s to Inks Lake count as travel too!

 

Now I know some of you are saying, “but what about spontaneity?!” And that’s true; this process just gives us a framework, once we see what travel deals become available throughout the year, and/or how work projects shape up, we may shift things around a bit. But the important part, for us, is that we never end up leaving a vacation day on the table.

Why? Well, here’s some stats to convince you.

  • Women who vacation “regularly” are 50% less likely to die from a heart attack than those who vacation “rarely.”
  • People who take all their available vacation days are 6.5% more likely to receive a raise or promotion in the next year than people who don’t use all their vacation.
  • And perhaps most importantly for taking several trips throughout the year? This Dutch study found that planning for and anticipating a vacation actually makes you happier for even longer than returning from a vacation does. So planning several trips throughout the year is a great way to reduce stress and boost happiness!

We couldn’t agree more ūüôā