Disney by the numbers, Part I

So hopefully by now you’ve realized that I’m definitely not a packaged tour or resort type person. When it comes to travel I like to make my own itinerary, book my own lodging, stay in air bnb type rentals, and generally DIY. Plus you usually spend a lot less money that way. When it came time to book a Disney trip back in 2015 however, I actually let a AAA travel agent book it for us.

Prior to this trip I had been to Disney about 6 times when I was a kid in the 80’s. We stayed both on and off property. I remember back then loving the “on property” Disney hotels. They felt like an extension of the park themselves, especially with the monorail to get you there. Fast forward to 2015. A LOT has changed in Disney over 30 years, which I realized when we went. To prepare for this trip I did my due diligence and read countless WDW blogs, which all seemed to say the same thing: 1) stay on property if you can and 2) get the “meal plan,” because in the long run you’ll save money on food. I will be discussing each of these points in detail shortly, however since this post is “Disney by the numbers,” I want to break down how much that costs (vs going “off property”) and then in part II, once we get back from our recent trip, I will compare and contrast the two types of trips (both in cost and quality of experience).

So since the blogs told me we should stay on property with a meal plan, the only thing to do next was to give Disney more of our money by calling a Disney travel agent and having her book a package (room, tickets, meal plan). That takes all of ten minutes (and for me, all the fun out of planning a vacation! Although then I could turn my attention to obsessing on our minute-by-minute daily park attraction itineraries – more on that in part 3).

This experience of having everything completely packaged for you is quintessential Disney. As we arrived in Orlando and were shuttled right onto our “Magic Express” bus to our hotel (again, a service Disney provides if you stay on property). They literally get you on a bus as soon as you land, and then you do not leave the “Disney Bubble” until you get back on the plane to go home, as your only mode of transportation between the parks and various WDW hotels is on Disney buses, trains, and boats. I joked to my husband that Disney is making sure to take all the anxiety out of traveling for you. Which is funny to me, because I actually think one of the most valuable experiences of traveling is learning how to manage anxiety. 

But I digress. So, to get back to the numbers, I am going to break down for you what we spent that year. Here is the breakdown:

Disney 2015:
Flights: $220 each for 4 people
Lodging (Wilderness Lodge), meal, plan, and tickets for a 7-day vacation (6 days in the parks): $5,484.66
Incidentals bought off our magic bands: $600+*
TOTAL: $7,000

*another typical Disney feature is just like an all-inclusive hotel, they don’t want you to carry around any money (for the illusion that you have a unlimited amount of it?) and instead link your credit card to the “magic band” you wear on your wrist, that they can simply scan at all the shops and restaurants. I can’t find my original receipt but I think when we checked out the total was a little over $600 for souvenirs, tips at the restaurants, booze (not covered on the meal plan), the kids club (babysitting!) and other incidentals.

Anyway, this year we really wanted to go back to Disney, but I just couldn’t stomach spending that much money and having Disney curate everything for us. For one thing, I was really annoyed by the meal plan. Here is why. The typical meal plan that most people get (and most Disney blogs recommend), gives each person 1 “quick service” (like fast food); 1 table service (sit-down restaurant), and one “snack” per day. Here are 5 reasons why I hated the Disney meal plan.

  1. What about breakfast? I am a huge proponent of eating a big breakfast with lots of protein, especially on a vacation where you are going to be walking around a lot and need lots of stamina. On Disney’s meal plan if you want a real breakfast at your hotel (like eggs and bacon), you have to use one of your QS credits and then have nothing left for lunch. A lot of people use their “snack” credit to get like a muffin, but that is NOT going to cut it. Even though you get 1 QS, 1 TS, and 1 snack per day, you don’t have to use them all that day, you can save or “bank ” them. So then you have to spend half of your trip solving a puzzle in your head, like “if we use a QS service credit for breakfast and one for lunch today, we can have a TS for lunch tomorrow but then we won’t have a TS credit on Thursday…” etc. It is exhausting.
  2. The food sucks. Ok I may be slightly exaggerating here, but as one blogger put it, if you like Burger King every day for lunch and Applebee’s every night for dinner, the meal plan is for you. We were constantly underwhelmed with the food at Disney (with a few exceptions). Now, they do have some amazing, award-winning restaurants, but here is the catch: for these places, other than having to book them 6 months in advance, you have to use TWO TS credits for one meal (which means you take one away from your other days). Again, this takes a bit of finagling in your head (and you can’t use your kid’s TS credits because their meals are counted differently), you can make it work. Nonetheless, I was able to save 2 TS credits and make a 6 month advance reservation for California Grill, one of their premier restaurants at the Contemporary Resort for myself and my husband. We do say that was one of our best meals, not just at Disney, but ever, so there’s that. But I would say I was pretty “meh” about the food at the other TS restaurants.
  3. The service sucks. This seems contradictory to the “amazing customer service” that Disney is known for, but other than at maybe two restaurants that we visited that trip (California Grill and Tusker House in Animal Kingdom), the service was awful. For example, we ate at an Indian-themed restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge one night and my husband and I had to wait probably 90 minutes to get our main course. Our kids ate their main course and dessert before we got our food. And it was just curry! I’m sure they had a big pot of it sitting somewhere. This kind of thing was status quo at almost every restaurant.
  4. I don’t want a dessert at every meal! The Quick Service credits and the Table Service credits include a main course, entree, and dessert. Which means in order to “take advantage” of what you paid for the plan you feel compelled to get everything, so that means two desserts per day. We really don’t need a brownie at lunch and then cake at dinner, but you end up eating this because of the plan. Plus the kids figure out pretty quick that they always get a dessert, so good luck telling them no sometimes.
  5. It’s too much math. At the risk of sounding redundant, I felt like I spent a huge amount time and energy trying to plan out when we were going to use which credits for which day for what meal. In the end it all worked out but it was too much to keep track of.

So why do people do it? The main reason people seem to buy the meal plans is because the food is so over-priced in the parks and hotels, that if you eat all your meals only in the parks, you are getting a deal. Believe me, there are many blogs that actually have calculated out how much you would spend on meals in the park out-of-pocket vs how much you would spend on the meal plan, and it always comes out to be a better deal with the meal plan. Disney bloggers also find amazingly creative ways to use the plan to get the most bang for their buck, including publishing a list of places to use your snack credit that might be more like a meal, for example getting an egg roll or chili cheese fries (which count as a snack credit, but don’t seem like a full meal to me). That said, all of these blogs count on one thing, that you will be eating all of your meals in the park! This makes sense because if you stay on Disney property, it’s virtually impossible to leave the Disney bubble, lest you should invest your money elsewhere. So yes, if you are staying on property it does make sense to get the meal plan, but since this left me feeling trapped and annoyed, I decided to try  off-park lodging for our next trip so that I could have some more freedom of choice. Because the thing is, once you are off property, you don’t have to settle for Applebee’s type food at every meal. You can actually leave the Disney bubble and visit the many fine dining establishments (I hope!) in the greater Orlando area. Also the off-site hotels often offer free breakfast (and in the one where we are staying, free dinner on weeknights). In part II of this blog post I am going to actually log the costs of all of our meals and do a review of eating off property vs eating on, so that you can see the differences not just in cost but also quality and experience.

As far as the lodging goes, it’s pretty clear that you save mega money staying off-site. Disney properties often cost 2-3x as much as an equivalent, off site property. The hotels off property (of which there are many), are often relatively inexpensive and offer deals and perks such as shuttles to the park and free breakfast to try to lure people out of the Disney bubble. The main benefit (as I see it) of staying on site, is the transportation to and from the park. But honestly, unless you are paying MEGA BUCKS to stay at one of the poshest resorts (Contemporary, Grand Floridian, or Polynesian, where rooms start at $400 a night) to catch the monorail to Epcot and Magic Kingdom, you end up taking a bus back and forth to the parks, which can be annoying and frustrating with all the waiting around and stops that the buses make. The other reason to stay on property is that, because they are Disney, the hotels have all these “magical” touches (like a geyser that goes off every 90 minutes at the Wilderness Lodge) and really nice pool complexes. The employees are all Disney so they do have that amazing customer service, and some hotels, including where we stayed, have “kids clubs” where you can pay for your kids to stay for the night so you can go out and enjoy the parks without them.

A major downside is the cost and size of the rooms. In 2015 stayed at the cheapest of the high end resorts, The Wilderness Lodge. It was a beautiful resort, with amazing attention to detail. There was a humungous Christmas tree in the center of the lodge, a stream that ran from the lobby to the pool, and a great pool with a waterslide for the kids. You also did get to take a boat from the hotel to Magic Kingdom, which was a lot of fun. BUT, at $300+ a night the rooms were TINY. You barely had enough room to maneuver around the two double beds. When we travel we like to stay in a suite, but at over $1000 a night that was just not an option to stay on property at Disney. So we made do with out teeny tiny room at the beautiful resort.

For these reasons, and because I wanted to try to use points and miles to save money on our next trip, we decided to stay off property in 2017. Here is a breakdown of what we spent so far. I will then explain how I accrued enough points and miles to get there.

Disney 2017:
Airfare: FREE with 100,000 Delta skymiles (25,000 per ticket)
Lodging: FREE at the Homewood suites, Lake Buena Vista, with 238,000 Hilton HHonors points.
WDW tickets: $1700 park hopper tickets for 5 days
Universal Orlando tickets: FREE with Bankamericard travel rewards points
FOOD: Total will be forthcoming.
Rental car for 7 days: FREE with Ultimate Rewards points
Parking at the parks:

Airfare: Delta is the main carrier for MCO so I knew ahead of time that we would likely be using them to fly. I therefore took out an Amex sky miles credit card with 50k bonus points and had my husband do the same. Voila! Within a few months after reaching the minimum spend to get the bonus points we had the tickets booked.

Lodging: This was a little trickier and took a lot of advanced planning. First I looked at the off-park resort properties that are part of rewards programs (most hotels are part of some larger hotel group such as Hilton, IHG, or Starwood), and looked at the reviews on tripadvisor. I wanted a place that offered free breakfast, had a decent pool, had a suite with a kitchen, and free parking. I ended up settling on a few that use Hilton Hhonors points. I calculated how many Hilton Hhonors points we would need for a week and I think it was about 240,000. Now to get to work. I took out the Hilton Hhonors amex for 60,000 bonus points and then the citibank hilton hhonors card for 75,000 bonus points. In bonus points alone that got me to 135,000 points. For the rest, I simply kept trying to rack up points any way that I could. That included booking a couple stays at Hampton Inns for other trips for double points (they are part of the Hilton Hhonors group), using my card at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations for 6x points per purchase, and referring a friend (e.g., my husband) for another 10,000 points. It took a few months but as soon as I hit the magic number I booked the 7 nights at the Homewood Suites. I liked this hotel because they got good reviews, it’s a suite, they have a free hot breakfast and they have a manager’s reception Mon-Thurs with a hot dinner and free wine and beer! What parent couldn’t use that after a day at the parks?

Tickets to the parks: I’ve done a lot of research on this, and there seems to be only one way to get free tickets to amusement parks such as Disney and Universal. That is to take out a Bankamericard travel rewards card and use the bonus points to pay for the ticket. This is because this is the only travel card that will code “amusement park tickets” as travel. I knew that for the four of us a 5 day park-hopper ticket to WDW would be about $1600 and I couldn’t conceive of any way to earn enough bankamericard points to pay for that (I now think it’s possible, but you would have to use that card for every single purchase you made for probably about a year to cover it). So I figured we would just pay for the WDW tickets ourselves, and set our sights on getting the Universal tickets for free. For this trip we definitely wanted to hit Harry Potter world at Universal Orlando because the kids are into HP this year and it’s supposed to be amazing. Of course, Universal knows that this is their main attraction so they take advantage and make sure you have to buy the park-to-park ticket to get to all the HP attractions. I figured out ahead of time that one day park hopper tickets at Universal will cost $600 for all four of us. I know. It’s crazy. Which was why I was determined to get them for free. I had my husband and I each take out a Bankamericard travel rewards card, which as no fee and gives you 20,000 bonus points once you reach the minimum spend, and then 1.5x points per purchase after that. To redeem the points for travel you just buy the purchase (in this case the tickets) on the card, and then once you have enough points to pay for it (in this case it would need to be 30,000 for each of us, if we each bought 2 tickets), you apply it to the purchase and get a refund. Since we got the 20,000 bonus points we just have to keep using the cards for everything to get another 10,000 points. Easy peasy. The cool thing about this card is that you have 12 months from when you make the travel purchase to ear the points to erase it. So we could buy the tickets in December 2016 and have until December 2017 to keep accruing points to cover it. If you use the card for every purchase you make, you would be surprised at how fast those points add up.

Transportation: Because we are staying off property this time, we need to rent a car. Many of the off-site hotels do offer a shuttle (including ours), but after doing a bit of research you will find that their timetable is a lot more limited than the Disney bus system, so you would really need to be beholden to their schedule. I like the idea of being able to come and go when we wanted, so we decided to rent a car. Car rentals in Orlando are pretty cheap – about $120 for 7 days, but I wanted to challenge myself for this trip to see how much I could get for free, so I used my Chase Ultimate Rewards to book the car rental. That cost me about 13,000 UR points. But I have over 100,000 (and my husband has over 70,000), so I figured I could afford to use some. The Chase UR system is one of the best points and rewards systems out there and most travel hacking bloggers recommend starting with their cards first. If you plan on travel hacking with cards where you are going to take out a lot of cards, you MUST take out all of your Chase cards FIRST before you get any other cards. This is because Chase has a 5/24 rule, where they won’t approve you for any card, no matter how good your credit score is, if you have taken out 5 new credit cards in the past 24 months (with ANY company – amex, citi, etc). So if you take out their cards first you will at least get them before the 5/24 rule will apply to you. There is more of a system to understand with the Chase cards, including how to maximize points with the “trifecta” of the Sapphire, Freedom, and Ink, but if you want to read more about that I recommend you google “chase trifecta” and start there.

Food: I will have to report on what we spend on food post-trip, but I am hoping it won’t be that much. We will have breakfast at the hotel every day for free and plan on taking advantage of their free dinner a few times in between visits to the parks. We have a full kitchen in the suite so we can get some stuff at the grocery store and make our own lunches a few days and bring them in. I’m usually not that cheap but honestly the lunch places in the parks are really just fast food burgers and such. You end up waiting on line for an hour that you could be going on rides! No thanks. I would also like to go off-site to some restaurants that I have been reading about on Yelp and tripadvisor, which seem to have better food for much cheaper than Disney prices. We are going to have a couple meals in the park because we did love one restaurant at Hollywood Studios and I feel like we should at least eat one meal at World Showcase. I will report back a full meal report with total cost in Part II.

I will also be buying Disney gift cards at BJs or Staples before we go because with my Chase credit cards I can get 5x points per dollar at either place (and at BJ’s you get $5 off a $100 gc). We will use those for food, souvenirs, and parking. So even though we can’t pay with points, we will be earning them on our purchases.


I decided to go to Amsterdam this fall to attend a conference for the organization of the type of psychotherapy that I do. Since the entire trip could be written off as a business expense, I decided not to use points and miles but use it as an opportunity to collect them.

The flight was of course very expensive, even in off season. Why is getting to Europe so damn expensive? Grrr… Well since I had to bite the bullet and pay for it I wanted to make sure I got the most bang for my buck, miles-wise. Here is an example of how far in advance it helps to plan accruing points and miles for a trip. I want to take my family to Costa Rica, but decided we probably won’t go until Jan 2019. We want to wait until the kids are old enough to do some of the eco-adventure activities like zip-lining and whitewater rafting. I did some research and found that United offers a direct flight to CR out of Newark, which is generally an easy airport for us to get to. So that means I need to rack up a bunch of United miles for 4 tickets. Fortunately I have a couple years to do so (although remember when booking award flights you should do so as soon as the schedule comes out, which means I’ll have to have enough miles to book the flights in February 2018). So I picked a United flight to get to Amsterdam, which will give me United miles for the trip.

I decided to just go through the conference travel booking site for my hotel, since they offered a good price for a hipster boutique hotel near the conference. So no points awarded there but the hotel was really nice and only 109 Euros a night plus hot breakfast. For the last night I decided to moved closer to the city center and booked at Hilton Doubletree through rocketmiles.com. This is a site that will award you airline miles of your choice for booking your hotel through them. For booking this stay I received 7,000 more United miles, bringing the total for this trip to around 19,000.

Some other perks I got to use from my various credit card reward programs: 1) Amex platinum gives you a $200 credit for airline incidentals. I used this to upgrade to economy plus seating in the bulkhead so that I had more room to stretch out on my flights. 2) I have free PriorityPass lounge access with my Amex platinum so I could use this lounge (free food and drinks) before and after my flights. 3) I have Hilton HHonors gold status which I used at the Hilton where I stayed the last night. Since I booked the room through rocketmiles and not through Hilton I didn’t get any points (which is fine because right now I’d rather have the United miles), but I let them know at check in and he put me on the Hilton HHonors floor. That got me free wifi and maybe a better view (I was on the 9th floor)?

So between the included breakfast at the Hilton (which was a huge spread), and my two visits to airport lounges, the day I flew home I ate and drank a ton of food and booze and paid NOTHING all day (and it was a long day due to time zone changes).  I also could have gotten a refund for the global entry pass thing they are doing to get you through immigration faster, however I would have had to drive 3 hours to Buffalo for the interview so I never did it.

Traveling with kids

The hot topic: how to travel with young kids. Even the most laid back of folks can dread it. A lot of friends that I’ve talked to with young kids are like “ugh, my kids are so annoying they would ruin the trip, why should I take them anywhere?” Ok fair enough, kids can be super annoying. But this argument to me is a bit like being really hungry and wanting a filet mignon, but the restaurant only has a hamburger. Do you say, “never mind, I’ll go without,” or do you re-orient yourself and take the hamburger even though it’s not what you really wanted. In other words, is your trip going to be like it was in the glory days when you and your spouse could wander through a beautiful foreign city all day, stopping for a bottle of wine and a leisurely two hour lunch while you stared into each other’s eyes? Ha! No way.  But if you re-adjust your goals and expectations for a trip, travel with kids can be really amazing too, just in a different way. Will they be super annoying? You bet. But aren’t they super annoying at home too? It’s not like you can escape this. I find that sometimes my kids are better behaved on a trip because they are excited and stimulated by all the new things. And if not, there’s always ice cream!

Ok so here are my top tips for traveling with kids (although you can find many more on all sorts of blogs out there on the interwebs).

1) Flights. Yes, this is the part most of us dread. Three words: electronics, electronics, electronics. Now is not the time to enforce “screen time” regulations. If they want to play Minecraft for 6 hours straight on the plane, I say go for it! I try to bring as many electronic gadgetry as I can and that usually helps.

My other tip has to do with seating. If you are 2 adults and 2 kids, sometimes it helps to have a 3 and 1 seating arrangement. So your partner sits with both kids and you get to sit by yourself (yay!). Then you switch so that you each get a chance to rest and recuperate from the annoyance. I also try to sit near the bathroom, which I know is smelly, but the little ones like to get up and use it frequently which is super annoying but at least if you are right by it it will be easier to go back and forth a hundred times.

2) Lodging. Always try to get a suite or Airbnb type apartment dwelling. I shop around to see which is the better deal, but having separate rooms and a kitchen is so helpful when traveling with kids. My kids go to bed super early and wake up super early, so we like to be able to put them to bed in one room and then we can hang out in another. And when they get up at the crack of dawn they can watch TV while we get a little more sleep.

Having a kitchen so that you can buy some familiar foods and cook at home sometimes is a great thing for traveling with kids. If the kids are exhausted from sightseeing all day and you cannot fathom taking them to a restaurant, give those little gremlins some chicken nuggets and put them to bed early while you send your spouse out for take-out and a bottle of wine to enjoy once they’re asleep.

Staying somewhere with a pool is always a good idea. My kids perk up whenever they can go swimming.

3) Sight-seeing. Have a plan. Look up all the kid friendly things to do ahead of time and make an itinerary. Wandering around aimlessly is not going to work well with most kids. Also don’t feel like you have to stick only to children’s museums and zoos. Most museums and other exhibits have some kind of children’s activity, so keep an eye out for those.

Also, if you have memberships to any of your local zoos or science centers, most of them have reciprocal memberships with places all over the world, so make sure you bring your membership cards with you and look at the list of reciprocals (also zoos often have aquariums as reciprocals). One year we had a family membership to our local science center and even though ours is pretty unimpressive, that year we got free admission to about 4 other science centers around the country – totally worth it!

Take breaks. It’s a good idea to make a morning plan and an afternoon/evening plan and take a break in between. If you can get back to your lodging to rest, watch TV, or go for a swim, you will all be better able to go back out for the afternoon and evening.

4) Food. Don’t be afraid to take your kids to cafes, bars, and restaurants. It seems like a uniquely American idea that we should only take our kids to places like Applebees. When you travel to most places you see that people bring their kids everywhere. So if you want to stop and get a cocktail at a local cafe, just find one that has hot chocolate or some kind of treat for the kids and enjoy! Also bring some kind of small activity or game for them in case they get bored.

5) Babysitting. Once in a while, if you really put your mind to it, you can find a trustworthy babysitter to use where you are traveling. Think really hard about where you are going and which of your friends might live there, used to live there, or have friends and family there. Scan your Facebook friends list to jog your memory. Reach out to them and see if they have someone they recommend for babysitting. I realize this might be controversial but you can always connect to that person ahead of time (do a Skype interview or ask for references if you are really nervous), set something up and enjoy your night out! Don’t forget to pay for your babysitter’s transportation to and from your lodging.

I think it boils down to have a plan but be flexible! Give your kids a little more leeway and expect that they will be whiny and annoying sometimes. We all get anxious and frustrated when traveling. Your kids are just more vocal about it. Remember that when they are whiny they probably need a snack or a break, and you might too.

My travel-hacking history, pre-2017…

So here’s a little bit about what I have done so far using points and miles. The first travel card I ever signed up for was the Capital One Venture Card. This is a great travel card for many reasons, including that every purchase gives you 2 points and you can use your points to simply “erase” any travel expenses. So for example, let’s say you bought a $200 plane ticket with the card. Once you had 20,000 points (you always just divide by 100), you could “erase” the purchase and CO would refund you the cost. I used this card for almost every purchase for probably about 6 or 7 years, and I got some great travel discounts from it. For example I accrued enough points to pay for a $1000 round trip ticket to Kenya when I went with a colleague to do a training. Over the years I used points to reimburse things like rental cars, train tickets, and motel rooms. Eventually I realized that since I had already used the sign up bonus, if I started using other cards as frequently as the Capital One Venture I could acquire even more points. So I put it to rest but still do use it occasionally to pay for things like rental cars that you can’t usually use airline miles and hotel points for.

Future posts in this blog are going to focus on one trip at a time where I paid for all or almost all of the trips using points or miles. But here are some trips that I took over the past few years where I did some travel hacking, before I got really serious about it (there’s more prior to this but I can’t remember so I’ll start about a year ago).

1. Clearwater, Florida, Oct 2015. As stated, used Capital One points to pay for 3 nights at a motel and rental car, so all we paid for was plane tickets to Tampa (about $200 each) and food.

2. Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, January 2016. My family and I rented a car and drove through the Yucatán for almost two weeks, stopping and staying in Merida, Chichen Itza, and Tulum. I planned this trip before I got really into travel hacking so we did pay for a lot out of pocket including plane fare and hotels. I was able to pay for the rental car that we had for 12 days using Capital One points. That said, I did use hotels.com to book some of the hotels (also since it is Mexico, even the really nice hotels are cheap by our standards, so we only paid between $70-130 USD a night, excepting our splurge on a beach bungalow in Tulum). The upshot is that I accrued several stays on my hotels.com account that got me closer to their promotion of book 10 nights and get one night free (which I used later in the summer). Food was super cheap because it is Mexico, so overall the trip was not very expensive.

3. Las Vegas, May 2016. This was a trip planned as a ten-year reunion with my internship class! We had a blast and booked an Air BnB suite in the MGM signature, which seemed to save use money over going directly through the hotel. To fly, I used American Airlines points that I had acccrued years ago after applying in-flight for an American Airlines mastercard. Unfortunately they didn’t have any coach award seats available when I went to book (you have to book these super early to get what you want, like 11 months in advance). So I had to book First Class. But, I felt this was only fitting for a glamcation like Vegas. I used about 50k American Airlines miles for the first class ticket and it was really worth it for such a long flight. The free cocktails, great service, and food were wonderful.

Another perk I got to use on this trip was being able to use the Centurion Lounge at the Las Vegas airport. American Express platinum holders get in for free. It’s a pretty posh lounge with an open bar and free buffet. I was able to use it after I landed and was also able to get in another friend for free. So we had a great time enjoying breakfast and mimosas while we waited for our other friends to arrive.

A third perk was when I rented a car for us with National, since I have the Amex Platinum I have automatic executive status, which means I can book and pay for a mid-size car, but then take any car  I want off the lot. So we were able to find a nice 6 passenger van (since there were 6 of us) and pay only for a mid-size car.

4. Legoland and Clearwater Beach, Florida, June 2016. As a surprise end-of-school trip for the kids we booked tickets on Allegiant Air for Clearwater/St. Petersburg out of Syracuse. Allegiant is a discount airline based out of Florida and they just started offering some direct flights from Syracuse (Clearwater/St. Pete, Ft. Lauderdale, and Myrtle Beach). We didn’t use a lot of points for this trip, except again to pay for the rental car. We did stay at a Hampton Inn, which helped me accrue Hilton HHonors points that I used to book a future trip.

5. Letchworth State Park and Niagara Falls, July 2016. Again, not a lot of points were used, but this was a pretty inexpensive trip given that we camped two nights at the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park, in Western New York. I was able to use my hotels.com free night at the Best Western in Niagara Falls, so overall the trip expense was minimal.

Up next…Amsterdam! Again, not a lot of points and miles were used but some were accrued for future trips…

What’s “travel hacking?” and how I got in the game.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to travel. A lot of people travel in their twenties before they get tied down to jobs and families. I spent all of my twenties (from age 22 to age 30) in graduate school, which made travel kind of difficult because I was broke and I always had some kind of academic thing going on (I did manage to take some trips tied to academic conferences, including one to England). Since I kind of feel like I “missed out” on the twenty-something travel experience, I have been trying to make up for it in my thirties and forties. Of course, now I have kids and a job so it’s not so easy. Although, the one good thing about my husband and I spending an average of 8 years in grad school is that it afforded us the type of jobs that make travel possible; him because as an academic he gets lots of time off, and myself because I can work for myself which means I get to work as much or as little as I damn well please.

My family and I take at least one big trip and several small trips a year. While I usually do so in a budget-conscious way, those trips can add up. Last winter I started to wonder if there was a way we could continue to travel around the world to see amazing places for less. I started to research this online and fell into the huge online community of travel hackers. 

Travel hacking is basically finding ways to travel for free or very cheap. There are countless blogs that explain the process, but a large part of it is signing up for credit cards that give you sign up bonuses or points and miles, and using those strategically to take the trips you want. The whole process takes a lot of tracking and a lot of planning. You kind of need to be a little (or a lot) OCD, which I can be. And it goes without saying you a) need decent credit and b) have to pay off your balances each month to avoid interest. For most of the credit cards I take out I use them for EVERY expense until I hit the minimum spend needed to get the bonus points, and then I stop using them (except for a few that continue to offer good deals for spending). Most of them will waive any annual fee for the first year so I will cancel them before the year is up. Others are worth it to keep for the annual fee because of the perks you get. A lot of people ask whether this affects your credit score, and the honest answer is that if you do it responsibly your score will go up! This is because you will have more credit available but will not be using most of it, showing you are a responsible user. For example I have probably 30 credit cards but I only utilize 1% of my available credit and so my FICO score is usually between 810-830. There is so much information out there on blogs such as millionmilesecrets.com, pointsaway.com, thepointsguy.com and countless others if you want to learn more. For now I am just going to use this blog to chronicle my family’s adventures in travel hacking to show how it can be done, even with a family of four.