Travel Hints and Tips – Hotel Loyalty Programs

In this section, I’ll discuss different things you can do to save money, time or headaches while traveling. Hopefully these tips will make your travel experience more enjoyable. Whether you’re going on vacation, or traveling constantly like we are, it should not be stressful. These hints and tips are things I have learned along the way In all of the years I traveled the world for work and the last 16 months traveling the USA. Hopefully they help you too.

Become a Point Junkie

This first tip is a must if you travel a lot now or you’re trying to save for travel later. By point junkie I mean, no matter what you buy in your normal day to day life, no matter where you stay, where you eat or what mode of transportation you use when you’re traveling, make sure you are getting some kind of reward for these activities.

  • The first tip in this category is get one or more credit cards and use them as much as possible
    • You want cards that will give you points or cashback
    • Ideally get card(s) that don’t require an annual fee, but an annual fee can be justified if you remember to use the card religiously and get great rewards.
    • While most of these cards give you rewards on everything you use them for, some give you more points for certain kinds of activity (like travel related or gas purchases)
    • Use these cards for Everything you can instead of cash. Remember, you’re using these cards for things you would normally spend the money for anyway, but this way, you’re getting points or cashback which maximizes the purchase
    • Extremely Important: Make sure you pay off the credit card(s) each month or you dilute the benefit of the reward. The insane interest rate that these cards carry with them only comes into play IF you carry a balance over to the next pay period. If you pay them off each month, no interest is applied to your charges
    • Don’t use them for cash advances. You will NOT get points and you WILL get charged the interest rate compounded from the first day you take the advance. In this one instance, the credit cards all act as little loan sharks.
    • If you’re looking to sign up to get a credit card
      • Check the sign up bonus. Sometime it pays to procrastinate and get a good point bonus when signing up
      • Check if the card waives the first year of annual fee. That can be a bonus right there
      • If you plan to travel a lot, check out cards that give you more for travel activity (for example Chase Sapphire Reserve gives you 3 points for a wide range of travel related charges AND if you use the points through their travel portal, they will give you 50% more for your points instead of transferring to an airline for example)
      • Check the interest rates if you think you might carry a balance (some have 0% interest for a period and some are in excess of 24%!)
      • Check what other benefits they have (like rental car coverage, travel insurance, purchase protection/warranty extension, etc.). These are added benefits that can also save you money.
  • One site I look at religiously is The Points Guy. He and his team have many articles on travel and are constantly up on the latest credit cards. Here’s the latest article from the Points Guy  The Points Guy Credit Cards Analysis for 2020
  • The bottom line, credit cards are a great way to get points you can use to save money on travel. Just choose wisely and make sure you pay them off each month.

Hotel Loyalty Programs

Continuing on from the previous post on becoming a points junkie, let’s talk about Hotel Loyalty programs. Not all programs are created equal just as not all hotel chains are the same. Generally you’ll pick the loyalty program for the hotel chain you use all the time. When you’re traveling all over the US, you sometimes need to have all of them (at least the majors) in your pocket to maximize the benefits. Some claim to have great benefits, but in my experience, those benefits are hard to come by at times depending on the program.

  • The first thing to think about here is your preference of hotel when you travel.
    • If you’re staying at mostly Marriott branded hotels, don’t sign up for Hilton Rewards right away. You want to get to the highest status for the hotel brand you frequent as quickly as possible to get the benefits. You can play one program off the other to rapidly go through the statuses….more later.
  • Don’t just sign up right away.
    • The same advice applies for hotel loyalty programs as it does for credit cards, look for the promos that will either give you a great start on points or a bump in status right away or with just few stays
    • If you’re reading this and planning to travel almost immediately, sign up regardless of a promo. You want to start getting points as soon as you stay.
    • If you want to jumpstart your status, the first credit card to get is one of the ones for that brand. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy card will give you immediate Gold Status will give you a great start at getting more points and some perks.
  • One of the best sites I use when looking for promos for both hotel, car, credit card and airline loyalty programs is Frequesnt Flyer Bonues  …This one site stays up with them all. You’ll even find ones that are specific to a country, part of the US or a portion of the brand.
  • Once you’ve signed up
    • Update your profile making sure to add your loyalty number to the profile
    • If you have any pending reservation, update those reservations with your loyalty number (you can also do this when you check in, but if you do it ahead of time on the site, you won’t need to remember)
  • If there was a status bonus when you signed up, make sure you read the conditions. These programs can be very picky when it comes to following the rules. If even one thing was not followed, they can deny your eligibility for that promo.
  • Each status level bump gives you more benefits. For example
    • Most of the programs start with 10 points per $1 spent. As you progress through the status levels, they give you a percentage more points per dollar spent. The higher in status you are, the higher percentage of points they give. Marriott goes as high as 75% more base points and Hilton goes as high 100% more base points
    • These points are not always equal though. Later on in this post I’ll explain
    • Statuses are the pecking order of these loyalty programs. The higher the status, the more perks you may see and the more likely you will get some of these perks.
    • All of them usually provide the “upgraded room” perk.
      • Upgrade does not always mean a suite. Sometimes they view an upgrade as a larger room, a higher floor, or a better view. Don’t expect a suite all the time.
      • They always say “if available” and this is the catch. They are not always available. Some, have a certain amount of suites they will give out as upgrades while others, like Marriott, claim no blackouts. In a higher demand market, that number may be lower than in a lower demand market.
      • They’ll say they will automatically upgrade you before you check in. I’ve found that true….sometimes. It is always good to ask if an upgrade is available when checking in. But go in armed with knowledge of what is available. When you get there, go online with your phone and try to book the room you want for the duration of your stay. If it’s available for booking, it “May” be available for an upgrade.
      • When you check in, ask if there’s an upgrade available AND by all means be polite! Nothing turns off the people at the desk than a person being arrogant and flaunting their status. They can see your status on the screen if you’ve added your loyalty number to the reservation. Ask politely and smile. You’d be surprised at how that works most of the time. If they say no, politely thank them and say thanks for trying.
      • I have often used this method especially when the hotel has a club level. The club level has free breakfast and usually finger food and drinks at night (the drinks are not always free, but sometime they are) Call the hotel right after making the reservation and politely tell them you just made a reservation (have the number handy so they don’t have to find it) and ask if it’s possible to get an upgrade to the club level. If they say no, you can mention your status and that you thought you might be able to. If you have a high status like Titanium with Marriott, they may confirm an upgrade on the spot. If they say no, politely thank them saying you’re looking forward to your stay and please add a note to the reservation that you are looking for an upgrade if available. They may think twice later and remember you were nice and upgrade you anyway.
    • Some will give you free breakfast.
      • Yes almost all of the lower end hotels for the various chains have some kind of free breakfast. But there’s breakfast and then there’s a real breakfast. Some leave a lot to be desired and some are pretty damn good.
      • When you get to the mid to high level offerings for these chains, breakfast is not included unless you have a higher status. Hilton is a great example. If you stay at the Home2Suites, Hampton Inn or Homewood Suites, “breakfast” is free. If you stay at a Hilton Garden Inn, Doubletree, Hilton or higher, it is not…unless you have status. In those cases, breakfast for you and a guest will be provided in the onsite restaurant.
    • Again check the rules for these programs to see what each provides as perks.
    • What can I use the points for?
      • You can use the points for stays, transfer to airlines, shopping or even get perks at various hotels (like spa treatments).
      • Obviously you want to get the best bang for the buck and not all points are created equal. Spending them for things like Spa treatments is one of the worse values for these points.
      • As stated almost all hotel loyalty offer 10 base points per dollar spent at the hotel, but lower end hotels in the chains are only 5 points per dollar….check the rules.
      • They are not all valued the same either. The value of these points is what you can get for them. For instance
        • Marriott has different categories assigned to their hotels, but it’s not all based on the brand. I’ve stayed at Residence Inn just outside San Francisco for 10 nights for 100,000 points because it was a category 3 (at that time each night was 12,500 per night and the fifth night was free). I’ve stayed at other Residence Inns on Points that were Category 4 and that same stay would have cost me 140,000 points (17,500 points per night with the fifth night free)
        • The category in this case is purely Marriott’s discretion and usually based on a variety of factors like location, age, etc. You need to look at reviews to see what others are saying about a hotel before you book
        • I find Hilton brand hotels have a much higher point redemption then Marriott’s brands, so I tend to stay more at Marriott branded hotels and get most of my points with Marriott.
      • You can use points at the spas at the higher end hotels and even transfer them to airlines for more miles. I have found redeeming them for hotel stays the biggest bang for your buck.
      • One thing to note, when redeeming your points for stays, THE best value is when you stay 5 nights. Most of these programs give you the 5th night free. So the number of points you need to redeem for 4 nights is exactly the same as 5 nights. You might as well plan for 5 nights if you can.
    • Just because you have the points doesn’t mean you have to use them right away.
      • Sometimes paying is your best option especially if you are travelling like we are. If we had to eat out every night, we’d be way over budget. Sometime you have to cook in.
      • Example, we like staying at Residence Inns or Towneplace Suites because they have full kitchen setups with a stove (sometimes even an oven), dishes, silverware etc. If I can stay at one of these in an area we want to visit and the price is in my budget, I’ll pay and get the points. But if it’s expensive to stay, points may be better and help with my budget
      • Last year when we visited Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, I noticed that the hotels in the area were super expensive. The Towneplace Suites got great reviews, but even at the Senior rate, was $365 a night! When I checked the Marriott site, it was labeled a Category 3 but at peak season levels. We stayed 2 nights for 35,000 points total (17,500 per night) and it saved us $730 plus tax (there are never any taxes when you use points either). THAT was a great use of points vs cash. The place was very comfortable and their breakfast every morning was great!
    • Points DO expire. Check the rules for each loyalty program. They’ll tell you how long they will last (Usually 1.5 years). But the expiration clock can be reset to get a fresh 1.5 years.
      • Any activity for the account will reset the expiration clock to day 1
      • Stay at a hotel
      • Redeem points
      • Transfer points
      • Join Rewards Network and get points or miles for just dining out. You have to check which restaurants participate. Once that activity hits your account, your expiration clock resets
      • Get a hotel branded credit card. When you use this card to charge your stay at the hotel chain it’s branded for, you get more points even for everyday purchases. Each statement period, your expiration clock resets. The normal Marriott Bonvoy AMEX card gets 3x the points for charging your hotel stay and anything spent at the hotel. Everyday purchases are 1 point for every dollar spent.
  • Once you build up loyalty in one program, you can now use this for a Status Match with the others to catapult you up the status chain of the others
    • These status matches are not always available so you’ll need to check with each hotel program
    • They always have a minimum amount of night or stays within a set period to keep the status they match
    • If you’re traveling a lot like we are, it’s easy to make these matches
    • One comes with an extra match. If you do the match for Wyndham, you get an additional match for Caser’s entertainment group. They have casinos all over, so if you’re planning a casino trip AND have status in one of the major chains, do a match with Wyndham to get more match for your buck.
      • We recently did this and immediately were comped a room at Harrah’s in Biloxi

The Bottom line is, sign up for all of the hotel loyalty plans for the hotels you may be staying at. Look for the promos to augment the points you’ll be earning and get your status up there. The higher the status, the better off your stay can be and you can make your travel dollars stretch. Remember, anytime your spending money, get points and make the points work for you. Travel Smarter!

Travel Hints and Tips – Credit Cards

Travel Hints and Tips       

In this section, I’ll discuss different things you can do to save money, time or headaches while traveling. Hopefully these tips will make your travel experience more enjoyable. Whether you’re going on vacation, or traveling constantly like we are, it should not be stressful. These hints and tips are things I have learned along the way In all of the years I traveled the world for work and the last 16 months traveling the USA. Hopefully they help you too. Become a Point Junkie

This first tip is a must if you travel a lot now or you’re trying to save for travel later. By point junkie I mean, no matter what you buy in your normal day to day life, no matter where you stay, where you eat or what mode of transportation you use when you’re traveling, make sure you are getting some kind of reward for these activities.

  • The first tip in this category is get one or more credit cards and use them as much as possible
    • You want cards that will give you points or cashback
    • Ideally get card(s) that don’t require an annual fee, but an annual fee can be justified if you remember to use the card religiously and get great rewards.
    • While most of these cards give you rewards on everything you use them for, some give you more points for certain kinds of activity (like travel related or gas purchases)
    • Use these cards for Everything you can instead of cash. Remember, you’re using these cards for things you would normally spend the money for anyway, but this way, you’re getting points or cashback which maximizes the purchase
    • Extremely Important: Make sure you pay off the credit card(s) each month or you dilute the benefit of the reward. The insane interest rate that these cards carry with them only comes into play IF you carry a balance over to the next pay period. If you pay them off each month, no interest is applied to your charges
    • Don’t use them for cash advances. You will NOT get points and you WILL get charged the interest rate compounded from the first day you take the advance. In this one instance, the credit cards all act as little loan sharks.
    • If you’re looking to sign up to get a credit card
      • Check the sign up bonus. Sometime it pays to procrastinate and get a good point bonus when signing up
      • Check if the card waives the first year of annual fee. That can be a bonus right there
      • If you plan to travel a lot, check out cards that give you more for travel activity (for example Chase Sapphire Reserve gives you 3 points for a wide range of travel related charges AND if you use the points through their travel portal, they will give you 50% more for your points instead of transferring to an airline for example)
      • Check the interest rates if you think you might carry a balance (some have 0% interest for a period and some are in excess of 24%!)
      • Check what other benefits they have (like rental car coverage, travel insurance, purchase protection/warranty extension, etc.). These are added benefits that can also save you money.
  • One site I look at religiously is The Points Guy. He and his team have many articles on travel and are constantly up on the latest credit cards. Here’s the latest article from the Points Guy  The Points Guy Credit Cards Analysis for 2020

The bottom line, credit cards are a great way to get points you can use to save money on travel. Just choose wisely and make sure you pay them off each month. Travel Smarter!

New Mexico International Balloon Fiesta – 2018

When we started this epic cross country retirement trip in 2018 by making our way to New Mexico to for our first major bucket list item, the Albuquerque NM International Balloon Fiesta. While we have been developing and changing this list along the way, this has always been something we wanted to see first hand. It was, in a word, amazing!

We wanted to spend the week up in Santa Fe, so we based there at one of the properties included in our timeshare, the Villas de Santa Fe. The Villas are located about 45 minutes from the Ballon Fiesta at Balloon Fiesta Park, 4401 Alameda Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM. I was excited and wanted to get a good vantage point, so we were up early (can you say zero dark early) and left for the festival at about 3:45 AM. The gates open at 4:30 AM and we wanted to beat the traffic. Since we planned to do the morning and evening sessions all in one day,  it cost us $20 each for the 2 sessions and $15 to park for the day (yes we left and came back). We were lucky as each session went off without a hitch with no weather issues. If you do go, dress warmly especially for the morning session. At 4:30 AM it was about 42 degrees. In that dry climate at 5000 feet elevation, 42 feels a lot colder. If you’re there driving like us, bring your lawn chairs.

The people manning the gate are super friendly and will help you with any questions. The person who we talked to (I think her name was Donna) not only told us where to go for the best vantage point for the mass accession, she also gave us a collectible pin because this was our first time there. They give them a very limited few of these pins to give out so I felt honored to get one. At her suggestion, we took a right immediately inside the gate and set up on a hill overlooking the 80 acres of field. It was a great overall view of the 550 + balloons that launched that day. If I were to do it again though, I would trek to the hill at the other side of the 80 acre lot. It would be closer to the dawn patrol balloons and the mini glow they do (see below for more info on the Fiesta).

After setting up, we headed down to the food trucks for hot coffee (hot yes, coffee, questionable) and breakfast burritos. These were very good and hit the spot. All the ones I saw started with eggs and cheese and either red or green salsa (I’ve been told the green salsa is hotter, I got the red). You can get all kinds of fillings from veggies to meat. They were much better than the coffee. Bring a thermos of your own if you want decent coffee. At 6:00 AM the Dawn patrol started inflating. Since it was still dark, it’s a great sight because they light up the night like huge candles. You can follow them along their path easily as the launch and test the winds for the other balloons. By 7:00 AM, the rest of the field comes alive with action. Balloons of all kinds come to life while some crews are still coming in and setting up in the assigned areas. As they inflate, crews struggle with the ropes to keep the balloons in place and not encroach on the other balloons next to them. It seems like a losing battle since they are so close, some balloons are touching each other as they grow larger and larger. Then, you see the first one launch! Applause starts as people notice. Then another and another until they are launching all over. People are applauding, some jumping and shouting. A small group starts singing the Fith Dimension’s Up Up and Away. Chaser trucks start moving and heading for the exits to follow their respective balloons for eventual pick up. Watching these balloons fill up and start launching just sends chills of excitement through your body (OK it was in the 40’s so maybe it was the cold….no, it was the excitement mostly LOL). I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole 2 hours. And they go in all directions. Many of them flew right over our vantage point. I took hundreds of pictures. If you want to see more of my pics, you can view them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/glenn.montigny/media_set?set=a.10215576385259561&type=1

A bit about the Balloon Fiesta. It all started in 1972 and hosted 13 balloons. It has now grown to more than 600 balloons and nearly 1000 balloon operators. It’s held starting the first full week in October every year for 9 days. To give you an idea of how big the park is, the grassy are is over 80 acres! The entire property is approx 360 acres! Every morning, weather permitting of course, there’s the Dawn Patrol at 6:00 AM (yes that’s in the morning). A small group of balloons put on a mini balloon glow and launch in the predawn light. It’s an important grouping since they not only provide entertainment for the people attending, but they are also reporting conditions back to the next batch to go up in the Mass Ascension. This tells the other pilots what to expect for wind speed, direction and sheer. It gives the “chasers” an idea where to head for the pickup (what goes up must come down). At 7:00 AM is the awesome Mass Ascension. It takes approx. 2 hours to launch over 600 balloons and they go in 2 waves! There are balloons of every shape and color. There are special shape balloons like Darth Vader, Yoda, cartoons, etc. If you’ve seen the pictures, it is nothing like being there. You can roam the field during these launches, talk to operators and take up close pictures. Thursdays through Sunday they have the Balloon Glows. These are tethered balloons that light up at night. Some sessions are a limited number of balloons (like the Glowdeo of special shape balloons) and others are all of the balloons that want to participate. It’s like fireworks on the ground without the noise. Do you want a balloon ride? Well there is a group called The Rainbow Ryders that will provide these for a price. There are live bands on site (for an extra fee if you want to sit closer) and plenty of food trucks to fit every taste.

Tickets for the current year go on sale sometime in April. General admission is $10 Each Session (12 and under are free). Parking is $15 each day. So if you want to attend the Dawn Patrol and Mass Ascension in the morning, it will cost you $10. If you want to attend the evening Balloon Glow sessions, it will cost you another $10. So if you are attending all events for the 9 days, figure $20 per person over 12 per day plus $15 for parking for each day, but if your a group of 5, you can get a $45 package per session. If a session is cancelled due to weather, you can get a rain check for another session. If you want a more comfortable experience, there’s the Gondola Club and Chasers club. They are more expensive, but provide reserve parking, seating and food. For more information, you can go to this website https://balloonfiesta.com/ . If you are going, General admission tickets can be purchased closer to the event. Specialty tickets like balloon rides, the Gondola Club and Chasers Club sell out early….like months in advance! I strongly suggest you get tickets early for those.

Toojay’s Original Gourmet Deli – Lady Lake FL

One of the things I’m looking for on this epic trip is who makes the best corned beef hash around the country. Obviously, I don’t have the budget the actors and chefs do on the Food Channel, so I have to do a little research on the internet to find others reviews, look at menus, etc. So on our trek home from Fort Meyers, we were in the vicinity of Ocala and I did a simple search for “homemade corned beef hash near me”.  One of the first restaurants it showed was Toojay’s Original Gourmet Deli in Lady Lake FL. So we set the GPS to 990 Delmar Dr Lady Lake FL and took a little detour. What a great surprise.

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Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, Orlando Florida

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum 
Is part of the Orlando Eye complex on International Drive. It was … OK. I’ve been to these before and they always impressed me as a lot of hype with little substance. This one at least dressed things up a bit and had interesting facts about each of the celebs that were exhibited.

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The Orlando Eye, Orlando, FL

The Orlando Eye
is a huge anchored Ferris wheel that takes about 27 minutes to make a round trip. It is actually part of a complex that houses a few attractions. While the cars can hold up to 10 people, business was slow enough on this weekday afternoon to accommodate individual parties (even if you only had 2 people). Continue reading “The Orlando Eye, Orlando, FL”

Oceanside Beach Bar and Grill – Flagler Beach FL

My wife and I stopped here on our way from Jacksonville to Daytona on A1A (beach front avenue….OK, now you have that song stuck in your head). We were looking for seafood and a view. We selected the Oceanside Beach Bar and Grill because the view was awesome and there were a lot of cars in the parking lot (almost always the sign of a good restaurant). We were seated right away and we ate out on the lower deck.

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The Nautilus Diner – Lutherville Timonium, MD

We stopped at the Nautilus Diner on our way south without looking at reviews. It was a stab in the dark and diners are generally good food and often a great find. This was just so so.

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South of the Border

When we were kids, we traveled to Florida by car and used  a pop up tent trailer for the 5 of us. On the way, we saw signs for miles and miles for South of the Border in Hamer, South Carolina. You saw so many signs you just had to stop. And the place was packed! We went to the gift shops, had something to eat, rode some rides and had a great time before moving on.

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