Trip Review: Weekend in Seattle at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue & the USC Trojans!

This weekend we took a quick fun trip for one reason, and one reason only: to watch the USC Trojans play the spoiler for the University of Washington’s (as-yet) “perfect” season. And we got to see just that!

But of course, a fun football Weekender requires transportation and a place to stay, and (being me) I wanted to make sure we got the best versions of those things that we could, with as little money out of our pocket as possible.

For the flights, we once again relied on our Southwest Companion Pass to get us two tickets for the price of one. And in this case, the “price” was nothing – we used 15,390 Southwest points to book Carl’s flight, and yet mine was still free. This saved us in the neighborhood of about $600 alone.

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When it came to the hotel, between the hubby’s account and my own, we had roughly 10,000 points accrued from work travel throughout the past year, so I used Hyatt’s free transfer form for spouses to move his points over to my account. That was enough for me to book two nights at the Points + Cash rate at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, located in a trendy neighborhood in East Seattle. Of course, since we had already stayed downtown and done the “touristy” stuff during our last trip to Seattle, we were ok with being outside of the downtown core.

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The living room area of our corner suite at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue
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Another angle of our corner suite

Even better, because I still had Suite Upgrade certificates available for paid Hyatt stays because of my Diamond status for 2016, I was able to upgrade our room from the most basic room available to a Studio Suite, again, for free. However, due to a delay for not being able to checkin to our room when we arrived, the front desk upgraded us further still to an executive view corner suite, which was absolutely wonderful.

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The bathroom was fairly standard.
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But it did have a bathtub, of which I’m always a fan!

That same room, had we paid fully in cash, would have run us in the neighborhood of $552 for the weekend (had we booked early!) As such, for 12,000 total Hyatt points, plus $150 out of pocket ($75 + 6,000 a night for the points + cash rate), we had a redemption rate of around 3.35 cents per point — a very good redemption rate.

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The view from our Executive View Suite, at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency

Of course, with my Diamond status, we also had access to the Regency Club, where we received free breakfast each morning. The breakfast spread was quite lavish; there were bagels and pastries, smoked salmon with all the fixins’, oatmeal, various fruit, cereals, cheeses, and a few hot options as well. The first day, there was a delicious quiche as well as bacon, and on the second day there were scrambled eggs and British-style breakfast sausages. And of course, this being Seattle, the coffee was phenomenal.

We estimate this breakfast amenity probably saved us about $40 a day as well, not to mention the free wi-fi, water bottles, and other perks of our Diamond status. (Hyatt stole my loyalty from Starwood early last year…and I’m pretty sure Starwood’s never getting it back!)

Overall, we had a great stay at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue. The staff was fantastic, the Regency Club was outstanding, and the room was comfortable and well appointed. Had we known that we’d end up spending most of the weekend in Ballard — on the West side of Seattle — we may have chosen another property, but all in all we were very pleased with this stay.

Of course, we also had a few hijinks around Seattle. Friday night, we visited the Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard, and did a full sampler of all 12 of their beers. (Personally, I thought their Wildflower Honey Wit was by far the best.) We also had dinner at the Ballard Annex Oyster House, where the hubby’s Cornish Game Hen was phenomenal, but my own Crab Gnocchi was just “meh”. After the game on Saturday night, we returned to Ballard, and had a late dinner at Patxi’s Pizza, where we sampled the quite delicious (but rather salty) Prosciutto & Arugula pizza as well as the Tre Porcellini (three little pigs) pizza.

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Standing in front of Husky Stadium, trying not to freeze in high winds!

But, as I said earlier, the main point of this visit was the game! We tailgated all day Saturday near the stadium, though, sadly, the hubby’s “sailgating” trip was cancelled due to high winds. Still, the stadium, right near the waterfront, is gorgeous. It’s one of the nicest college stadiums I’ve ever been to.

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A few of the docked yachts still managed to “sailgate”

And better yet? We won! USC stepped up and did what it was incapable of doing earlier in the season: showing up for all four quarters of a game. The Huskies were unable to keep up, and it was a great cap on a nice, quick trip to the Pacific Northwest.

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Trip Report: 48 Hours in New Mexico

With our current Southwest Companion Pass set to expire at the end of this year, we’re all about maximizing the value of our remaining Southwest points while they still essentially count for double. So when we surveyed our points balances at the end of August and noticed we had about ~15k points still remaining in the hubby’s account, it only seemed sensible to book a quick weekend getaway.

Plus, as Southwest recently added a direct flight from Austin to Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of one of my best friend’s from high school, it seemed like a great excuse to go for a visit.

Logistics:

With Southwest flights starting at just 5,300 points each way, we were able to get both of our flights (round trip for two, using the companion pass) for just 10,600 points, for a redemption rate of about 5.2 cents per point, given what flights were going for at that time. Pretty great!

For our hotel, we booked the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque, where a one-night stay cost a mere 5,000 points per night. Combined with my Hyatt Diamond status, which gave us free hotel parking, premium internet, and daily breakfast, this was a fantastic deal.  I had earned enough Hyatt points at my recent MGM hotel stays through work to cover it, and was able to snag a free room for 2 nights, saving us $228, for a redemption rate of 2.3 cents per point. (Not to mention, an additional $80 saved through use of my Diamond-status perks.)

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The hotel was fine, though definitely an older property.  If we were planning a longer trip, we’d probably have preferred to be closer to the University district, where most restaurants and nightlife in the city is found, but for a 2-night stay, this Convention Center-adjacent property was perfectly acceptable.

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Our high-floor king room at the Albuquerque Hyatt Regency
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The bathroom at the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque…nothing special.

Finally, because we knew that we also wanted to visit nearby Santa Fe on this trip, we decided to rent a car. Booking in cash through one of the deals on Southwest.com, we were able to reserve a Hertz vehicle for just $56 total for the whole trip.  Going through the Southwest special rates also means we’ll receive 600 Southwest bonus points for the booking, in addition to the 3 points per dollar we’ll earn by using our Chase Sapphire Reserve card to pay.

Plus, because I currently have Hertz Gold-Star service (obtained via requesting a status match to my National Car Rental status, after getting premium status with National through a special free promotion last year) we were able to skip the line at the rental desk and were given a Hyundai Sonata that was plenty spacious and comfortable, and even came with a free gps unit.

Total cost of the trip logistics-wise? $22 in airline fees + $56 for the rental car = $78 for an entire weekend getaway. #winning

Itinerary:

We arrived on Friday, just after 2pm, and promptly got our rental car and checked into the hotel. Once settled, we took a stroll down to the Albuquerque old-town plaza, stopping along the way at a craft beer bar called “Draft Station” where we tried our first local beers of the trip.  I ordered a Double White Ale from the Marble Brewery, and Carl had an Amber Ale from the Chama River Brewing Company. Both were surprisingly good.

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The hubby welcomes you to the Old Town Plaza.

Temporarily satiated from our pit stop, we continued to the Old Town area, where art galleries mixed with souvenir shops to form a solid core all the way around the central church. Once we’d seen our fill of native pottery and turquoise jewelry, we headed back to our hotel to freshen up before joining some friends for a dinner at their house. After dinner, we headed to Zacatecas, located along in the Nob Hill neighborhood for a night cap of tequila and mezcal based cocktails.

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New Mexico: more than just deserts, apparently.

The next day, we woke up early and headed out to the Paseo del Bosque trail, where we explored the forests and beaches that break up the otherwise desert and mountain landscapes. The ubiquitous cottonwood trees proudly displayed their yellow and orange fall foliage, giving us quite a show for our hike.

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The hubby admires the forests of Albuquerque.

Having worked up an appetite on the trails, we met some more friends at the hubby’s favorite Albuquerque establishment, El Modelo, which has been serving up Mexican cuisine to locals near the railroad tracks since 1929. Immediately upon arrival, I could tell we were in for a treat. The long line of locals waiting for their orders inside were a good omen, and we decided to split the “tamale plate” for a mere $8.

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The result was an overwhelmingly generous serving of some of the best pork tamales I’ve ever encountered, covered in a traditional New Mexican red chile sauce. The single order (which, like all food here, comes via counter service in a takeaway container, but can be enjoyed in the adjoining outdoor patio space) probably weighed about 3lbs. Still, it was delicious, authentic Mexican food, and we left stuffed but very happy.

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Greasy, messy, delicious Mexican food. 

Next on the agenda was to drive the “Turquoise Trail” up to Santa Fe, stopping at whatever points of interests caught our attention along the way.  This route is a little longer than just taking the highway, but if you have the time it’s definitely the way to go. The drive itself is beautiful with great views and little traffic.

 

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One of the scenic vistas from the Turquoise Trail.

Even better are the small towns you encounter along the way. We decided to stop in Madrid (pronounced Mad-rid, not Muh-drid, as we were quickly corrected) where we explored several local galleries and tasted some local artisan chocolate.

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We ended up purchasing a dark chocolate with red chiles and cashews.

We also stopped in at the Mine Shaft Tavern, a burgers-and-beers type place re-built on the site of the original tavern that served workers in the surrounding coal mines in the early part of the 20th century. The panels above the bar reflected the history of the former company town, making for a nice view as we sipped our local brews.

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He found it! The Mine Shaft.
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Panels atop the wooden bar reflect the town’s history. 

On our way again, we made it into Santa Fe, and headed for the downtown area to explore. We stopped by the Georgia O’Keefe museum, which, despite not having any of her most famous flower paintings on display, we felt was still well worth our $12/person admission fee. (Pro-tip, definitely check out the short film near the entrance on O’Keefe’s life, it sets the stage for the order you encounter the artwork in the rest of the gallery.)

After the O’Keefe museum, we headed to The Wine Spot, where we were planning on doing a tasting of New Mexican wines. Unfortunately, we found it closed, but stumbled instead into nearby “HQ” which was having a grand opening party that weekend. At HQ, they only carried one brand of local wine, Gruet, but we decided to go ahead and construct our own flight with the vineyard’s Brut, Brut Rosé, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir varieties. (Verdict: stick with their sparklings; the chardonnay and pinot were nearly undrinkable, we left both nearly full on the table.)

img_4118Next, we wandered to the Santa Fe Plaza, a slightly larger version of the Albuquerque Old Town area, which is similarly anchored by a large, historical but still functional church, and otherwise surrounded by galleries and trinket shops. The difference here though was that much of the work in Santa Fe was really, really good. Either that, or the hubby and I just have really expensive tastes in art — most of the things we liked had price tags in the 5-figure range. Needless to say, we didn’t come home with any new pieces, but the scenery was still worth the visit.

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The many visitors to the Santa Fe Plaza.
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The blocks surrounding the Plaza are filled with traditional style Southwestern adobe architecture.

As the sun and the temperature began to fall, we headed off to our evening activity, a visit to the “House of Eternal Returns” at Meow Wolf. Meow Wolf is an art collective and complex, partially funded by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame. And the House of Eternal Returns is their permanent exhibit, which combines elements of a haunted house, escape-the-room puzzle, circus, maze, museum, comedy act, and even an arcade to be something completely one-of-a-kind.

Visitors are encouraged to explore the exhibit in any order they like to help “solve the mystery” and can interact with all sorts of visual, auditory, and tactile artifacts along the way. Going places you “shouldn’t” is heartily encouraged — for example, you just might find the refrigerator is a portal to a whole new world. Actors and performers of all types also add to the fun, helping to create the slightly spooky and very entertaining world they’ve constructed inside. Unfortunately, the few pictures we bothered to take at Meow Wolf don’t even begin to do the exhibit justice, so I’ll leave those off and just give my enthusiastic recommendation instead.

Finally, we headed off for a late dinner at the Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe, for our last dose of true New Mexican cuisine before we left the following day. Here, I encountered the “Alien Burger” which consisted of a beef patty topped with a chile relleno, smoked bacon, green chile queso, guacamole, crispy fried onion strings, and chipotle mayo. It was certainly a mouthful —a fatty, spicy, delicious mouthful.

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After dinner, we drove back to the hotel and called it a night.  The next day, we enjoyed an early breakfast with some friends at a healthy spot called The Grove, which is also apparently a frequent filming location for NM-based movies an tv shows, before heading to the airport.

This trip was a blur, but New Mexico was fantastic.  I look forward to being able to come back when we can take our time and really explore all the excellent stuff our neighboring state has to offer in more detail.

How We’re Saving $1,200 on our Five-Star Dublin Hotel

If you’re a fan of the blog, then you’ve likely been following our planning for next year’s UK & Ireland trip, including how we saved $6,500+ on our business class flights using Citi & Chase points on Singapore Airlines, and how we saved ~$600 on our hotels in Manchester & Liverpool using Starwood points.

The next item up for us to book was going to be the hotel for the bulk of our stay, in Dublin. The hubby wanted to stay right in the heart of the city centre, where (in his own words) “we could try a new pub every night and eat all the things.” And I mean..who could argue with that logic?

As we’d recently earned 100,000 new Chase Ultimate Rewards points for meeting the minimum spending requirements for the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, we were happily sitting atop roughly 114k UR points, and given the improved redemption rate for Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders, we knew we could turn those points into $1,700+ of free travel through the Chase travel portal.

The only real question was whether that would be the best use of our points. In the past, we’ve frequently transferred UR points over to Hyatt, because of the great value of the Hyatt loyalty program. Unfortunately, Hyatt doesn’t have any hotels in Dublin, and so this time that wasn’t an option.

Another option was paying outright with our Citi ThankYou Prestige card, and using the 4th-night free benefit to get a reimbursement for the cost of the 4th night. However, with this method you don’t get the reimbursement until after you complete your stay, and we’re not sure right now whether it’s worth it to keep our Citi card for another year, given the steep $450 annual fee.

So that had us back to booking via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. From here, I just needed to research what hotel was best for us. After looking at reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and several other sites, I had narrowed it down to either The Morgan or The Fitzwilliam. Both hotels were five-star properties with overwhelmingly positive reviews, but a slightly lower price and the fact that it’s allegedly Beyonce-approved pushed us towards ultimately deciding on the Fitzwilliam.

One thing I really like about booking through the Chase portal is that, unlike is often the case with award nights booked directly with the hotel chains, you can usually book any available room through the portal and not just the lowest-category room.

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The lowest tier room at the Fitzwilliam.

As such, we reviewed the Fitzwilliam’s offerings and opted to upgrade from the “Executive Double” room to the “Signature Room” for just 3,000 additional points total; I mean, after all, it is our vacation — worth a little splurge. And in my experience, you’re also much more likely to be upgraded from a higher starting point room than if you book the bottom of the barrel.

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Yet for just 3,000 more points, we could upgrade two full categories!

Taking a look at this room category through the hotel’s website, we would have had to pay €1146, or roughly 1,257 USD across our entire stay.  But using the Chase portal, we were able to secure our stay for four nights in a Signature room for just 80,910 UR points. That’s even slightly better than the stated redemption rate of 1.5 cents per point; closer to 1.6 in fact.

If you’re keeping track, that means that the total value of our trip to date is $9,598.44, and we’ve only had to pay $941 of that ourselves, meaning 91% of this trip so far is ABSOLUTELY FREE to us. 

Next step: positioning flights, trains, and ferries to get us from city to city along the way!

Header image courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Hotel Dublin, a member of the Preferred Hotels and Resorts group.

Easy Low Carb Meals for Campfire Cooking & Photos from Inks Lake State Park

Well, we’ve just returned from yet another camping weekend, our 4th since the hubby convinced me I might not actually hate the great outdoors a few years back. This time, we ventured to Inks Lake State Park, just about an hour outside of Austin.

And while I’ve talked about my “glamping” mindset in the past, you might like to know that also extends to the meals I make over our campfire. You won’t ever see me packing generic hot dogs and s’mores for our camping trips. I like to treat the outdoor setting, lack of gadgets, and campfire cooktop as a real-life Top Chef challenge of sorts, and this time we added in an additional bit of difficulty: we wanted to stay relatively low-carb.

So, I dug deep into my own recipe stash and Pinterest boards, and came up with a meal plan that really worked well. (Note – if you don’t care about food stuff, just scroll to the bottom for more camping pics!)

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Night One: Link Sausage, Elotes, and Tomato Salad

For this meal, we upgraded from a basic hotdog with a nice pork and venison sausage link that just went directly onto the grill grate over our fire. I then paired it with my absolute favorite grilling side-dish: elotes, aka Mexican-style street corn.

To cook elotes, you shuck the corn and rub it with butter + salt + pepper, before wrapping it in foil, and sticking it in the coals of your fire for about 5-6 minutes to warm.  I then removed the corn and brushed each side with mayonnaise, then transferred it to a large-size ziploc bag that I had pre-packed with crumbled cojita cheese, chili powder, paprika, and cilantro.  Shake the cheese/spice mixture until well coated, then squeeze a bit of lime on and enjoy!

Finally, we also paired dinner with a nice, fresh tomato salad. I simply picked the ripest tomato from my garden, chopped it into bite sized pieces on-site, topped it with some chopped green onion, and a Greek-salad style vinaigrette. Yum!

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Breakfast Day Two: “Breakfast Charcuterie” — Salmon Toasts, Cheese, and Dried Fruit

A lot of time camping at a busy campground means a pretty early wake-up call, thanks to lots of sunlight, loud children at nearby campsites, and/or the engines of the fishermen that wake up super-early to catch the biggest fish. Because of this, sometimes just an easy breakfast that doesn’t even require the use of your campfire is ideal, so that’s what we went for.

Granted, this was sort of a splurge on the carb front b/c we each had a slice of bread, however the bread we picked (Pepperidge Farm Pumpernickel) also had 3g of protein, and 2g of fiber, so we allowed ourself this little indulgence, since we were going to be doing a rather long hike shortly after breakfast.

For the toasts, we just did another light dab of mayonnaise (left over from the elotes) and then topped with smoked salmon and a sprinkling of dill. The cheeses were a delicious rosemary asiago that we’re fond of, and a smoked gouda. The fruits (in limited quantities b/c of carbs, but again, we were trying to power up for hiking) were dried apricots and dried cranberries (not Craisins, though, which have a ton of added sugar!)

Lunch Day Two: Snacks from the Cooler

Alright, no fancy photo of lunch. But I had made a batch of my curried chicken salad, and we paired that with almonds, beef jerky, and some of the leftover dried fruit from breakfast.

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Dinner Day Two: Foil Packets with Chicken, Artichoke, Mushrooms, Tomato & Pesto

OMG, guys, this meal was so good it’s going into the regular rotation — not just for camping meals, but also for our everyday eating. And it was incredibly simple: before we left, I cut up raw chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces and then combined with jarred and rinsed artichoke hearts, sliced tomato, and sliced mushrooms. A couple dollops of homemade pesto provided the “sauce”, and we folded them up into foil and were ready to go.

If you’ve never made foil packets before, the key is to keep them relatively flat; you don’t want things stacked on top of each other, but more like in one single layer, so that it all cooks evenly. We cooked our packets about 10 minutes on each side, which was perfect to get the chicken bits nice and crispy, while also letting the veggies steam in the sauce.

Breakfast Day Three: Breakfast Scramble with sausage, green onions & mushrooms

For our final campfire meal, I pulled out the trusty cast-iron skillet. If you’re planning on cooking over anything that requires a skillet over an open flame, you’re going to want to invest in some good quality cast iron, because fire will totally destroy your everyday cookware.

I forgot to get a photo of this one because we were too busy packing out all our gear, but it was just a basic scramble…eggs, breakfast sausage, and the leftover chopped onions and sliced mushrooms I’d used in some of the other recipes. I topped mine with a bit more cilantro that was left from the elotes. Simple and delicious!

So there you have it.  That’s how we managed to stay low-carb even while camping this weekend, and it all managed to fit into a single cooler to boot. And never fear, more low-carb recipes from my current recipe series are coming later this week!

In the meantime, how about a few more photos from our camping trip?

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The scenic view from our Saturday hike. We did various trails that combined to be about 4 miles round trip on the West side of the campgrounds.
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Our noisy neighbors! We also spied several cranes, turtles, and even a rogue crawfish.
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Campsite 236, with our tent set up. This was a drive-in spot that came with a water and electricity hookup.  Being right on the water was fantastic. 
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We took a class on “Fishing with a Ranger” that was free through the park itself.  The hubby caught a bluegill during the class, and then several other little guys over the next few days! 
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And later on in the weekend, I followed suit.  Here’s me with a green sunfish – my first catch ever! A great thing about the Texas State Parks – no fishing license is required as long as you’re fishing from the shore.

There were plenty of other fun things to do at this park as well; you could rent kayaks or walk down to a popular swimming hole nearby, and the view of the night sky was fantastic as well. We had a great time! What’s your favorite camping locale?

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.

 

How We’re Saving $6,500+ on a Trip to the UK and Ireland

Well, we finally did it.  After a little bit of heartbreak, and a little bit of confusion, we finally booked a trip for early next year with all those points we’d transferred over to Singapore Airlines a couple months back.

To recap: after earning more than 200,000 points across our Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards accounts, largely thanks in part to credit card bonuses and strategic bonus-category spending, we’d earned enough transferrable points to book a first class trip on Singapore Airlines Houston – Moscow route. Unfortunately, just as we were ready to book, Singapore Airlines discontinued the route, leaving us scrambling to find an alternative destination for a similar amount of points.

In the end, we’ve booked a trip to Manchester, England, which will be our jumping off point for a trip across central England and Ireland. We’ve had to settle for business class instead of First (at least, for now) but Singapore’s business class still comes with lie-flat seats, their famous “Book the Cook” feature, and all the champagne we can drink both pre- and mid-flight.

So what will this fancy trip set us back, you might ask? If we’d been paying out of pocket, quite a bit:

singaporeair

But luckily, thanks to our points, we ONLY paid the taxes and fees – in other words, the two of us will get a full trip to Europe, in business class on the world’s top-rated airline, for only about $1,200.

We didn’t stop there, though. We put the taxes & fees on our brand new Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which gives us a $300 statement credit each year for travel-related purchases. So the total cost of the flights out of pocket was just $941, or ~$235 per person, per flight. That’s less than many domestic economy flights!

Putting the purchase on that card will also help us earn more points — namely  the 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards we can use towards hotels, positioning flights or activities, by meeting our spending requirement for the bonus offer on that card. And since this was a travel purchase, we’ll earn 3 points per dollar on the spend, or an additional 3,600 UR points, worth roughly $54 in future trips, as well.

As we continue planning, I’ll post about how we’re also saving money on our positioning flights, hotels, and activities as well, so stay tuned. And in the meantime, if you have any recommendations, especially in Manchester, Liverpool or Dublin, let us know in the comments!

Header image by Flickr user autumnal_fires under a Creative Commons license. Image has been cropped.

Introducing the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card!

We just got a new credit card! It’s always exciting in the miles and points game when you’re approved for a new card and can start dreaming about all the benefits that go along with it.

Today, it was the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. The card comes with a $450 annual fee, which is quite hefty, but look at all you get:

  • 100,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points for spending $4,000 on the card in the first three months of card ownership. This benefit is made even more attractive by the fact that cardholders will receive a value of 1.5 cents per point in the Ultimate Reward travel portal (as opposed to 1 cents for most Chase cards, or 1.25 cents for the Chase Sapphire Preferred), making this benefit worth AT LEAST $1,500 in travel benefits.  Of course, through transferring to travel partners, you can get even more value here.
  • $300 statement credit for travel expenses per calendar year.  Yes, calendar year, not cardholder year. Meaning you can get it now, and then again in January, without needing to pay another annual fee.
  • $100 statement credit for Global Entry. We already have Global Entry, but it makes a great gift, meaning we can save $100 from our Christmas budget
  • Priority Pass lounge access.  This was pretty much the only remaining useful benefit on the Citi Prestige card, which we’ll be cancelling as soon as we close out this whole Singapore Airlines booking debacle. But now we’ll still have that access as well. I value this at around $60 a year in value for us.
  • Lots of other consumer & travel protection benefits and concierge type services.

So, we’re going to pay $450 for this card, and get a minimum of $2,260 in value.  This is why we travel hack!

One worthwhile side note though – this card, like all Chase and Citi cards – is governed by the 5/24 rule.  This rule states that they’ll only approve you for a new card if you have less than 5 cards opened in any 24 month period with that bank. So if you’re already pretty heavy into travel hacking…this may not be an option for you.

For anyone just starting out though, these are pretty amazing benefits. Just remember to cancel the card before your 1-year mark, or be prepared to pay the $450 annual fee once again. Happy travels!

The Singapore Airlines Booking Saga Continues…

About a month ago, I posted about how after transferring all the points we’d saved over a 2-year period over to Singapore Airlines, they did away with the route that we were planning on booking.

Since then, I looked up EVERY single route that Singapore Airlines flies out of the US for the March – June 2017 time frame.  After considering our options, it seemed like the newly announced IAH – MAN flights that replaced our original route (IAH – DAM) were probably going to be our best option.

Only one issue: Singapore Airlines doesn’t seem aware this route even exists. You know you’re not going to have good booking luck when you’re having to educate customer service about their own press releases…

singapore

Le sigh. Still no trip planned for us.

When Points & Miles Bookings Don’t Work Out

So I talk a LOT on this blog about all the travel we do as a result of travel hacking, otherwise known as using credit cards and other means to acquire lots of airline miles and hotel points and explore the world on the cheap.

Well, we were in the midst of planning our BIGGEST TRIP EVER. We had acquired around 130k points on our Citi Thank You account, 85k points on our Chase Ultimate Rewards account, and about 75k IHG points. And thanks to the fact that all of those currencies can transfer to Singapore Airlines, we were planning to book a First Class trip from Houston to Moscow, and spend 10 days exploring Moscow and St. Petersburg next May.

For those uninitiated, Singapore Airlines has regularly been named the best airline IN THE WORLD. Their first class cabins are legendary. And if you’re not using points, you should be prepared to shell out roughly $12k a ticket just for the honor. But we were going to get to do it, a $24k value round trip flight, for roughly $750 or so in taxes only, and nothing else. It was ultimate bucket list for me.

I had done the research, we had the points, and the first class saver awards were available on several dates that we could take advantage of. I was so excited, y’all.  I took a deep breath, set the points transfers in motion, and then started the impatient process of waiting for them to post to our Singapore Airlines account.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited some more. The Citi and Chase transfers occurred within a few days, but the IHG points took nearly 3 weeks to post to my account. But once they were finally in the account…

…the award availability was no longer there.

Disappointed but undeterred, I “waitlisted” six different round trip options on different dates that I was interested in, to see if anything opened up.  And then I started the process of checking the website and calling the U.S. Singapore Airlines office daily, to see if anything could be done.

Until today. Today, I read that as a result of lower oil prices drying up the business between Russia and Houston, Singapore is canceling the route entirely as of October.

moscow

Heartbreak.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a happy ending to this story, or at least not yet. Our points are now all stuck in the Singapore Airlines bucket, so I’ll have to hunt and peck to try to find some availability on another route or partner airline…perhaps Manchester or Frankfort in Europe.  Or, we can double-down, transfer even MORE points over to Singapore Airlines, and try to book a trip to Singapore, Seoul, or Tokyo.

I share this, though, because it’s good to know the risks of this hobby — to share the heartbreaks as well as the insane wins.  We very well may have just wasted 2+ years of points hoarding on a gamble that didn’t work out.  But, if that’s the case; c’est la vie.  We won’t stop travel hacking, we’ll just get started building our next points surplus.  It’s what you do.

Updates to come, hopefully. :-/