1.15.2012

TRAVEL! how we do it: the nitty-gritty-details.

Preface

I hope this comes across as helpful more than it does like I’m on a soapbox? People ask us all the time how we travel as often as we do- I think people judge us. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Sometimes. And then, I remember that this is something we love- we don’t ski or boat. We aren’t foodies. We don’t drive fancy cars, or have car payments. We lived in less than 864 sq. feet for the first 8 years of our marriage.  We make certain, deliberate, sacrifices. I moved around a lot growing up, maybe it’s one of the lingering side-affects? I get hives at the concept of living in one state consistently, so Mike & I made the deal that if we stayed here in Utah, we would be frugal and travel as often as possible. We don’t spend $1 without checking in with the other (really.)- call us weird, but it works for us! We don’t go into debt for anything- cars, gadgets, etc., let alone for travel. We have a separate “travel” savings account. We cut back in other areas to make this hobby work for us. A lot of people have asked how we still manage to travel, so I wanted to share some tricks.

I am a strategist through and through. I am cheap. I am always thinking of what’s efficient. It’s a sickness, really. Mike says that as long as I can channel these compulsions in fun ways, he’ll leave me alone:) Every trip we make, we know we are extremely fortunate, and we repeat, “This could be our last for a while!” Here is what we’ve learned…

1. Flights

We choose where we go based on what we can afford... and we 100% utilize travel credit cards!! We don't say, "Let's go to Paris in August!" We choose the priority- the location, or the dates. A few years ago we chose to go to Cancun because we only had 5 vacation days, and we could fly there on a direct flight, fast! We frequently choose destinations closer to the west coast because there are often better deals, and travel-time is cut waaay down.
(Paris, 2005)
(Cancun, 2008)

Award Miles

Best. Trick. EVER. Two years ago I discovered we had unused SkyMiles on Delta. I also discovered that I could sign up for an American Express card, get bonus miles, and have the annual fee was waived for first year. Promos change often and vary. I signed both Mike & I up for the cards, and after 2 months we had enough miles to travel, free. The redemption of miles was the same for a flight to Washington as it was to Honolulu- this is a key piece- be strategic! We booked our trip almost 9 months out to get direct flights in the lowest mileage bracket. We chose the location that fit the mileage we had. Success! Two roundtrip tickets to Hawaii cost about $25 if I remember correctly (a few taxes/fees).

 SkyMiles can be used for hotels and cars as well (rates are high, however). I will say that although Delta waived Mike’s annual fee the next year, they wouldn’t budge on mine. We renewed both our cards to get companion tickets, but I regret it. They are sitting in a file unused for the time being. I doubt we’ll renew our cards next year. (If you're interseted in a Detlta by AmEx card let me know- I have some really good specials laying around.) **Update, we cancelled our cards, but signed Mike up again a year or so later. We scored another free flight, just because he got a mailer! Sweet.

We signed up for Southwest CC’s, again, on a promo. The three of us flew free to Ohio in December to see family, and will fly almost-free to Florida soon (our 2012 “trip"). We chose the slowest season to travel, waited for a sale, and got 11 free one-way tickets- all we paid for our upoming Florida trip was Mike's return ticket (about $175). Not too shabby! The SW CC’s required the annual fee payment up front ($70ish, each), but that’s ok. We’ve gotten our money’s worth! We also get great deals (and bonus miles) on rental cars. I’d recommend Southwest in a heartbeat! We’ve spent about $300 to get over $2500 in free airfare. Again, this is a huuuuge piece- we base travel on when and where it is the cheapest. Holidays are holidays for a reason. Don’t travel over them. **We've flown to Florida and Hawaii again using points since this was first posted.

Accruing Miles

We put all our expenses on CC’s and pay them off weekly. This way, we get points/miles for every dollar we spend. Beee caaarefuul. It takes some serious babysitting (and compulsive organizational tendencies) to keep things in-check, and paid-off, but it works for us. This is how we accrue miles so fast.
(As a side note, I’ve seen very little of a negative effect on our credit- we both have kept “excellent” credit scores- never below 810- and so far so good?) I also love this site! 

2. Hotels

Value-season, value-season, value-season. I could say this a trillion times. We go to Vegas in July. It's tradition! It’s scorching, but we stay at the Mirage (our fave) for about $70/night. We could get a cheaper hotel… but we love their pool! And it’s July... so we go to the pool a lot:) Generally, we plan this annual Vegas trip in the summertime, and choose specific dates based off when fares are at their lowest. We avoid travel the night before a holiday, or over a Friday or Saturday. We are at a hotel we know we love- great food, pool, location, etc. It may cost a bit more, but we save on other things by staying here.
(Vegas, 2011)

Summer is generally an insanely expensive time to travel (other than Vegas I guess:). Let’s take Disney World since that's where we are headed next, it’s on my mind! I know people are off school in the summer, but I would never in a million years go to Disney World in the summer. Never. It’s blazing hot, busy, and expensive! Paying four times for the exact same hotel room? No thanks. I literally found out the cheapest days to go in the entire year, and that’s when we’re going! In addition, I booked through Disney directly and got a free meal plan for the 8 days we’ll be there. That saves a ton. We wouldn’t have done the meal plan since we are cheap-o’s and bring our own food (more on this below), but who can pass up free? As a side note, we also chose Disney when Elle is 2 because she’s free! Once they hit 3… you pay. She’s young, but I think she’ll have fun, and I know we will. I love Disney World! We’re staying at one of their Value Resorts since they are… cheapest… but also because they have the best variety of food and lots of fun pools for Elle. Toddlers don’t understand luxury- they understand fun, right? I worked at Disney for a while, and have visited probably 50 other times, so I’m pretty familiar with the hotels. Disney hotels are incredible, and I’d recommend on-the-park anyday! It’s completely worth any extra money you may spend. Disney is a whole ‘nother beast, so if you have questions... let me know.

Never ever be afraid to cancel and re-book a hotel. I cancelled and rebooked our 2011 Hawaii trip hotel rooms probably 5 times. Sometimes companies will price-match theirs/others rates, other times you have to cancel and rebook entirely. I don’t mind. I’ll do it to save $20… oftentimes, much more.

This past trip to Hawaii, we booked a cheaper hotel in Oahu since I was more familiar with the area, and knew we’d be in the hotel very little. I went to a travel site and got a post-trip rebate; I sent in our 3-night hotel receipt and got a $60 voucher. That made our hotel even cheaper! We purposely went cheap-cheap in Oahu so we could splurge in Maui. We booked the cheapest room at the Sheraton Maui (I check reviews constantly on Oyster.com & TripAdvisor)- why the Sheraton? Because I read that they were great at upgrading! Because we went during non-peak season, the hotel was slightly quieter. I asked at check-in if we could be upgraded, and sure enough! They moved us from a Standard Room (parking lot view) to a Deluxe Ocean View. No joke, folks. It was heaven. All we had to do was forego a king size bed for 2 queens. SOLD! $600/night for about $275 (although it was even less because we bought a hotel/flight package deal)? Hawaii is fab, but know that oftentimes, you get what you pay for. Hotels in Hawaii are pretty pricey. We’ve tried other alternatives, but I think hotels are still at the top of our list (vs. rentals, B&B’s, etc.).
(View from our Lanai - Maui)

Thanks to friends who’ve let us stay with them a night or two when we travel- it’s great to spend time with people you don’t see very often, and a lot of times, that night or two of hotel savings means your trip cost drops substantially. While we’re on the subject, we LOVE meeting up with friends and asking them for lists of their favorite places to see, eat, etc. Locals know what’s best! Travel is verrrry personal- we aren’t big on museums and historical locals (sorry). Give us shops and beaches, and we’re happy campers! Remember this when you’re looking at/budgeting vacation activities. Do what you like to do!

Hotel Promos

Recently there was a Club Carlson (Radisson) promotion- if you stayed by 12/31/11 you received 50,000 points- I signed both Mike & I up for the promo, and when we went to Ohio to visit family, we purposely picked out a Radisson hotel. We made TWO reservations for two nights (meaning we had to check-out and back in again), but when we got home, I transferred my 50,000 points to Mike’s account, and we were able to get three free nights in Florida (we saved about $350)! We extended our Florida trip a few days for practically nothing. If we would have stayed somewhere not-so-touristy, or farther away from the parks, we could have EASILY racked up a 5-10 free nights. And we still have some points to spare. (Yes, I know I made a speech about Disney hotels being the best, but we extended our vacation and will spend a few extra days bumming Orlando around post-Disney).

3. Food

We’ve come a long way. We aren’t as cheap as we used to be- the first time we went to Hawaii we were poor. We spent $1300 TOTAL. That’s for airfare, hotel, food, everything. We know we could never do that now! We’re not that dedicated. We ate Ramen packed in our bags from Utah for 5 days straight. That being said, we still strategize.

We always share food (not just when we travel- we always do this- Mike and I can count on ONE hand how many times in 7+ years we have spent more than $25 eating out. Seriously. This is a golden rule for us).
When we travel, we try and save restaurants for a once-a-day event.
We eat out at lunchtime (it’s cheaper than dinner).
We try and go to “quick” or local places (non sit-down) where we don’t have to leave a tip (those tips add up fast, fast!).
We bring our own snacks.
We drink tap water (ok, he totally sneaks at least 1 fun drink/trip).
Mike always says, “When you’re full, you don’t remember if you’ve eaten steak, or canned soup. Full is full!”
We budget every dime before we leave, and after we come home we add up all our receipts to make sure we’ve stayed on budget (or under. That’s my goal!).

Another tip? Get a room with a fridge, and grocery shop at a local store! We do this alllll the time, especially at breakfast! Breakfast foods are uber cheap at the supermarket, produce stands, even convenience stores! Breakfasts at hotels/restaraunts? Much, much, much (much) pricier. Spend $15 on groceries when you arrive- if you're committed, you can save tons!
(Fruit stand on the North Shore - Oahu; Bread, cheese, papaya, and ramen from home = dinner! Hawaii, 2011)

If you have great travel tips & tricks, do share! I'd love to hear.

Here’s to traveling!
(Hanauma Bay)

5 comments:

  1. hey! i dont know if you remember me, I'm kathys friend from utah state but I saw your blog a couple times a while ago and I stopped by again, glad I did! i like this post a bunch! super informative! our new years res is to save up for a great post grad trip- cant wait try some of this info out :)

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  2. Loved this post! You guys rock!

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  3. Thanks for the super helpful info, Manda! I admit I am one of those people who have thought "How do they travel so much?" but not in a judgmental way... in a i-wish-i-lived-like-them kinda way. We're planning to go to Disney when Matt graduates (not til Aug 2013) for our 10 year anniversary. So I might need to harrass you for more tips and help!

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  4. I love that you did this!! I have always been jealous of how much you guys travel (and kid-less at that! But not judgy at all :)) and I'm so glad you shared your tips!

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  5. This is great. I'm so glad you posted this. This will help us immensely!

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