Wild Wild Southwest, Week 3: Mesa Verde – Monument Valley – Antelope Canyon – Grand Canyon – Sedona

Mesa Verde

The drive from Telluride to Mesa Verde is short (under 2 hours) and beautiful, through the San Juan mountains. We stopped in the nearby town of Cortez to re-stock our food, then headed into the park to set up camp. After lunch we went to the visitor’s center and then made the hour long drive through the park to Mesa Top Loop, a loop road at the top of Chapin Mesa that has stops along the way of some of the ancient ruins. It shows how the people who lived there went from nomadic to farmers with pit houses, to using more elaborate masonry, and eventually how they moved into the cliffs and built huge apartment complex type dwellings. They have a pretty well appointed museum and then at 6:45 we met up with a ranger for a twilight tour of the largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace. It was incredible to get up close to the dwelling and see this city built into an alcove of the cliff. You could even look up into one of the towers and see some art that was still painted on the wall. We were truly awestruck.

I highly recommend doing at least one tour of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. It’s a great park with a twist in that you learn a bit more about human history and anthropology rather than just nature. It also has a nice campground and beautiful views along the scenic drives up the mesas.

Monument Valley

The next morning we ate breakfast and packed up the camp and drove over to the Four Corners Monument. The kids were very excited to have one limb in each state. It was pretty hot so we didn’t stay long. Driving through the Navajo reservation, we stopped for lunch at a historic little restaurant for some authentic Mexican and Navajo food (fry bread!). Then we drove up to Monument Valley. It was hot and crowded but fun to do the 17 mile car tour around the monuments. The kids felt like we were really off-roading.

Antelope Canyon

We then headed to Page, Arizona, checked into our Hampton Inn and ate dinner at an awesome sushi restaurant. The town of Page is not necessarily quaint or cool, but we thought it had really good food! The next morning we checked in to our Antelope Canyon tour. This little slot Canyon on the Navajo reservation has become very popular since photos of it became screensavers for Microsoft and Apple. You can only go through the canyon with a Navajo guide. As we waited at our tour company we couldn’t believe how many people were there – they run tours every hour and there were at least 120 people for our 10am time slot! They ran it very efficiently however, as they broke the group down into smaller groups, each with their own guide. They take you out to the canyon in pickup trucks and our guide had fun making the drive extra bumpy. They then take you through the canyon and the guides show you the best shots to take with your camera phone. It was pretty packed in the canyon but most of your pictures are looking up. It was fun to experiment with pictures. The canyon itself was amazing, I just wish they hadn’t packed so many people in. It would have been nicer to go at your own pace. It reminded me of some cave tours I’ve been on, except busier. We were lucky that at the end we caught a sunbeam coming through the top and our guide helped us snap a few pics of it.

Afterwards we headed to the iconic Horseshoe Bend, which was also so crowded!!! There were so many tourists, mostly foreign, at both places. It got me wondering if Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are listed as top spots on tour guides of the American West for international travelers. I’ve never seen so many foreign tourists at one US site. It was also ridiculously hot. After a great lunch at a burger place, we headed back to the hotel for a swim and I went to wal-mart for a last re-stock of supplies.

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In the evening, we went over to the Glen Canyon Damn and visitor’s center and watched the sunset over Lake Powell. We had made a reservation for a dinner-theater type place I read about on yelp called “Into the Grand.” It was in a warehouse and you were greeted by the owner, Hoss, who seemed to be a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and “the Dude” from The Big Lebowski. His parents were one of the first river rafting tour companies through the canyon and so the place was somewhat of an homage to that. The warehouse had paintings of the Colorado River from the floor of the Grand Canyon and old rafting boats. There was an acoustic guitar player on stage while we ate our food (Mexican and Navajo and very delicious). After about an hour, Hoss introduced some of the Navajo dancers. Several were adolescents who compete internationally. There was even an adorable two-year old who took to the stage. They all put on a fantastic show, and the finale, a Native American hoop dance infused with hip-hop music, was amazing.

Grand Canyon

The next morning we woke up very early for the 2 hour drive down to the Grand Canyon. Our campground was first come, first serve and we wanted to make sure we got a good site. We made it there around 9:30am and got a nice site at the Desert View Campground near the Desert View Watchtower on the east end of the park. We toured the watchtower a bit and the kids and my husband got their first view of the canyon. My youngest had really been looking forward to it but he said he was underwhelmed.

No matter, we next drove into the park a bit to find the semi-secret Shoshone Point, which I had learned about on a Podcast and in a couple of my National Parks books. The trail is unmarked, but not too difficult to find. We made a picnic lunch and hiked about a mile down a flat trail through the forest. Eventually we came to an area with picnic tables, a pavilion, and even a bathroom area. The view of the canyon from this spot was amazing, and even better, there were only a handful of people (unlike every other overlook at the South Rim which was over-run)! I am so glad I did some research to find this place, because otherwise we would have never known about it. It really goes to show that doing a little bit of research on a location before you go can make a huge difference in finding some of the hidden gems.

Afterwards we went over to the visitor center and watched the film about the canyon. Next we made our way to the Village, where all of the hotels are. It was so crowded! We got some ice cream and checked out the Bright Angel lodge and hiked only about 0.2 miles on the Bright Angel trail to the first tunnel. It was super hot so there was no way we were going to hike down and up more than that. After we checked out the Kolb brothers studio (2 brothers who did daredevil photography at the turn of the century in the Canyon), we started walking west on the rim trail. This got us a little bit away from the crowds and we were able to get to some of the other lookout points. We made it to Maricopa point and then hopped on the shuttle bus to go west to some other lookouts, like Hopi point, Powell point, and the Abyss. The shuttle bus system was great but again, so crowded. There was no place to sit and we were packed in like sardines. We took the bus back to the village and drove all the way back to the campground (about 25 miles), stopping at a few points along the way to catch the sunset.

The next morning we left camp early to go to a fossil walk led by a ranger. My husband LOVES fossils and fossil hunting and we had a great time as she showed us an area off the rim trail with TONS of fossils. After this we went to the supermarket to re-supply. Yes, Grand Canyon NP is so big they have their own supermarket, in addition to hotels, restaurants, and a postal service. To be honest it was a bit off-putting after going to some of the less-visited national parks. And talk about crowds, we then went to the visitor center because we wanted to rent bikes (we had looked into it the day before), but there were absolutely no parking spots in any of their four parking lots! It was like being at the mall the week before Christmas where you are stalking people who you think are leaving to get their spot. We ended up parking illegally and then went to the bike rental place to learn they were sold out! At this point we had enough of the crowds and decided to head east where it is a little less busy. We stopped at some of the lookout points along the road heading east, and then just went back to our campsite to chill. Of course, right around the time we started cooking burgers over the fire pit we had a rain shower, but we were able to cover them with foil and eat quickly during a break in the rain.

When the rain stopped we walked over to the desert view lookout and waited for the sunset talk by a local Native American. The gentleman was the grandson of one of the painters of the interior of the desert view watchtower. He played the flute, sang a Navajo song, and then talked to us about the local Native American people and some of the atrocities they have been through, such as getting sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles away, and having their land decimated by uranium mines. Apparently there are still 500 open and abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation, because the companies would declare bankruptcy so they didn’t have to clean them up.

Following Ed’s talk we watched an amazing sunset over the canyon and headed back to camp for the night. The kids worked on their junior ranger books and were very excited about completing all of the activities. They have these at all of the parks but the kids were somewhat disinterested before. Isaac did do one at Capitol Reef. It is a really nice part of the National Park system. After they do some activities in the book and go to a ranger program, they can be sworn in as “junior rangers” and they get a little badge.The next morning we broke down camp and headed back to the visitor center (much less crowded at 8:30am) so the kids could be sworn in. We took a look at the famous Mather Point and the started driving 2.5 hours south to Sedona.

I’m glad we went to the Grand Canyon so that my husband and kids could see it, and we had some incredible moments there, such as the hike to Shoshone point and the sunset talk by the Navajo gentleman. But overall it was just so crowded it turned me off a bit. North rim next time?


The drive to Sedona along 89A south goes through Oak Creek Canyon and is very beautiful! You start to see the red rocks with green foliage as you make your way down the windy road through the canyon. As we got to Slide Rock state park it started to get crazy busy! It was a Sunday and there were so many people parking along the side of the road to go to the state park and national forest. Apparently there is a nice swimming spot in the state park and I guess when it’s a hot Sunday in the middle of the desert the place gets full fast!

We got to our resort in Sedona around noon but the room wasn’t ready so we walked into town for lunch. Sedona is definitely interesting. It’s pretty touristy and of course has a bunch of crystal and new age type shops along with a “Wild West” theme. It was just really hot for walking around so we were glad to be able to check into our hotel and use the pool.

We stayed at the Kimpton Amara Resort, booked using Ultimate Reward points. I also learned online that Kimpton does a little promo over the summer that if you say the “password” you get something for free. I learned the password (out of office) from one of the travel blogs I follow and we got a free movie rental. We used that for the kids to rent Peter Rabbit and got them room service while we headed over to have dinner on the patio at the resort. It is really nice for the kids to be old enough to do this. We wouldn’t have left the resort but we were close enough to check on them and also my son could text us if they needed something.

The next morning we ate breakfast in town and headed out for a hike. A few people had recommended Devil‚Äôs Bridge, so that’s where we went. It was about 10am but already super hot in the desert. The trail follows a Jeep/ATV road for about a mile, and then another mile up the side of the rock formation to the natural bridge. It was pretty amazing. There is kind of an optical illusion so that the stone bridge looks very thin from the the side as people are walking across it but then when you face the bridge head on it is actually pretty wide. We took turns going on it and even though I knew I was an illusion, I have to admit when the kids were on the bridge my heart almost stopped. Scary!

We walked the two miles back and were soooo hot we couldn’t wait to get back to the resort pool. We scored a cabana and had lunch poolside! So nice to relax in luxury after all the camping! I made an appointment for a massage at the spa that afternoon, which was my reward for planning the whole trip. It was heaven. My body and feet were so sore after 3 weeks of hiking and camping.

We then hung out at the resort for a bit as they were supposed to have s’mores outside and someone to talk about the stars. But for some reason they only put a few, ready made s’mores in the lobby. We ate those and headed into town for some pizza. When we came back the person to do the star talk wasn’t there (maybe they cancelled due to threat of rain), so we watched TV in the room and went to bed.

The next day was our last day but our flight didn’t leave Phoenix until 11:15pm! We decided to enjoy swimming at the pool for the morning. We checked out around noon and went to see the Chapel of the Holy Cross, this really cool 1960’s style Catholic chapel built right into the red rocks. After a last meal in Sedona (expensive!) we made our way to Phoenix and stopped at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument to see another cliff dwelling.

We arrived in Phoenix around 4pm and wanted to visit the botanical gardens, we even walked up to the entrance, but it was 114 degrees out and would have cost us $75! We just couldn’t stomach being in the heat that long so we decided to bag it. Our flight wasn’t until 11:15pm but there really wasn’t anywhere else to go. All the museums closed at 5 and it was too hot to do anything outside. We went to a taco restaurant and then to Tempe near ASU for some ice cream. Eventually we decided just to bite the bullet and head to the airport because at least it would be air conditioned. After dropping off the rental car and checking the luggage we got comfortable in the terminal and just hung out in the a/c for 3 hours.

All in all, it was a trip to remember! The parks were incredible, the scenery was indescribable, and we made lots of fun memories. We can’t wait to see more national parks and I hope we have inspired you to as well!

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 2: Dinosaur – Arches – Canyonlands – Telluride

Dinosaur National Monument

After we left Capitol Reef we set off to take a 4 hour drive north to Vernal, Utah, near Dinosaur National Monument. Within the first 30 minutes I made a mistake with the GPS and missed a turn, which probably added 30-40 minutes to the trip. No biggie, we had all day to make the drive. We were just hoping to get to the hotel in Vernal with enough time to enjoy the pool and maybe go to a nice restaurant. About halfway there, we started to head up route 191 which goes north from Helper to Duchesne through the mountains. About 5 miles before the exit for 191 on Route 6, we saw a digital highway sign that maybe said route 191 was closed at mile 283, but every other letter was blacked out, so it was almost impossible to read. We took the climbing mountain road about 20 miles up only to see construction crews and wait 15 minutes in a line up of cars and then were told the road would be closed for at least another 5 hours! At this point we had no cell service to check alternate routes, and had to consult the (gasp!) paper atlas! The only thing I could see to do was go back down to route 6 and take that all the way up to Provo, and kind of go around the mountains instead of through them. There was one very faint grey line that looked like a National forest road that maybe would have taken us through the mountains, but I was worried about getting turned around again, especially if there was a fire (it turns out there was).

utah map

So we ended up taking a very long route to Vernal, and our 4 hour drive became 8! But this is what happens in the West, especially around mountains. There just aren’t a lot of roads to choose from. We were pretty exhausted from driving when we got to Vernal and were thrilled to check into our Springhill Suites, which I got with 15,000 Marriott points for two nights! The suite was large and very comfortable. We headed into town and had a delicious Mexican dinner with two large margaritas for the grown-ups. The kids were excited to take a dip in the pool and I was very excited that there was a laundry room at the hotel!!! After 4 days of camping including still rain soaked (and now very stinky) clothes from our incident at Zion, I was thrilled to be able to do some laundry (when do you ever have that sentiment at home??).

The next morning we ate our complimentary hot breakfast at the hotel and drove a few blocks down to a car service station (we were having an issue with the oil that needed to be a addressed) which was only a few blocks away from where we were to get on the bus for our white water rafting adventure. It was nice to have something so convenient (dropping the car off to be serviced and walking to our next destination) after all the inconvenience of the day before! It was about a 45 minute bus ride to the put-in, and along the way the guides stopped at a site with some pretty amazing petroglyphs for us to look at.

We were all a little nervous and excited about the trip. The kids had never gone whitewater rafting before, and my husband and I hadn’t been for about 12 years. Also the last time we went my husband fell in, which was a bit traumatic for him. All of our fears fell away as we got onto the raft and started to head into the canyon on the beautiful river. The water level was low and slow so there were mostly class II rapids, with a couple class IIIs. We ended up having an amazing time. The guides were great, and the river was awesome. We did a full day trip with lunch and we got to go swimming and my oldest got to jump off a rock! The kids were so happy they got to do this and can’t wait to go again, except they want bigger rapids of course.

After we got back to town we picked up the Audi and the issue was all fixed, yay! We headed across the street to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, which had some impressive little exhibits on the archeology and fossils from the area. We then headed across the street to a local brew pub (FYI I’ve never gotten carded so much as in Utah. They are very strict about alcohol!) and then a quick run to TJ Maxx for a couple things and back to bed.

The next morning we packed up and headed over to Dinosaur National Monument and took the shuttle up to the dinosaur bone quarry. This was super cool as they left a lot of bones exposed but still stuck in the rock and they built a building around it. You could actually touch some of the bones!!! Then you could do a short hike back to the visitor center and stop at a couple rock formations that still have dinosaur bones and other fossils in them! We saw part of a dinosaur femur and a spine in the rocks!

Arches National Park

Next we headed to Moab, Utah and had a pleasant drive, even making an unplanned stop in Highline State Park, CO for a picnic lunch and a dip in a really nice lake. Moab was way more built up than I remember. Our hotel, Expedition Lodge, was cool. It was once a 50’s style roadside motel that they updated but they kept the theming sort of vintage 50’s style. They also had a pool and a water slide that the kids loved, as well as complimentary breakfast and a game room with ping pong and free arcade games. We spend that afternoon and evening hanging out in Moab, getting a bite to eat and some awesome cryogenic ice cream!

Arches National Park is super close to Moab (like a 5 minutes drive). In order to beat the heat and the crowds we got up at 6am, ate breakfast, and were in the park by 7. We were able to hike Park Avenue, a mile long hike through a wash that has impressive rock structures (no arches yet) in either side. Then we went to the far end of the park to hike to Landscape Arch and were able to see a couple more on the hike back. We were able to see Sand Dune arch and balancing rock on the drive back to town. Arches is also like visiting another planet. I kept feeling like Luke Skywalker was going to cruise by on his hovercraft any minute.

We had lunch at some awesome food trucks in town and the kids did more swimming in the pool while I went to the store to stock up on supplies. Then we went over to the town park to listen to a free bluegrass concert! Afterwards we headed back the park for some sunset hikes in the Windows section. The light was incredible and I got some great shots as the sun went down.

Canyonlands National Park

The next day we packed up the car again and drove 30 miles into Canyonlands National Park to try to score a campsite at the first come, first serve place. We got there around 9:30 am and picked a sweet spot. The campground was right by a gorgeous overview of the canyons. Since they don’t have water (you have to bring your own), this campground is not super popular which makes it nice and quiet.

After we set up camp and relaxed a bit, we decided to pack a picnic lunch and hike some more. We picked White Rim trail, which was a great choice. At this section of Canyonlands, called (Island in the Sky), you are on top of a Mesa so you can drive or hike out to all of these lookout points to see the canyons below. After hiking about a mile along the rim, we came to the peninsular edge, where we could see 270 degree views. It was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. It was also getting hot, but we found this awesome cave formation that provided shade and looked out at the view, so we had lunch there. Did I mention we only saw 4 other hikers on the trail and had this whole amazing viewpoint section to ourselves??? Canyonlands is the largest and least visited of Utah’s national parks, and that allows for some great privacy.

After this we went to the visitors center and it was starting to become the hottest part of the day so we decided to go for a drive into town to get gas and more cryo-ice cream. We then headed back into the park and did the hike out to Mesa Arch (a little busier as this is a short and popular hike). We then made dinner at camp and we’re going to do a sunset hike at another viewpoint but as soon as we got there the rain and wind started! After what happened at Zion we didn’t want to get stuck in a bad thunderstorm on the trail so we went back to camp. Good thing we did because one of the tents had almost blown away! (It was staked!) The only thing that stopped it from blowing over into the canyon was the other tent! We went into our tents while it stormed, and fortunately it was nowhere near as bad as Zion and only lasted about an hour. My husband and I tried to stay up to see the stars but it was so cloudy we didn’t see much. Luckily, at around 3:30am I woke up to pee and the clouds had cleared. I saw one of the clearest night skies I’ve ever seen. I could see the Milky Way, Mars, and thousands of stars. I woke up my husband and we star gazed for a little bit before going back to bed.

The next morning after breakfast we packed up our camp and went for a hike to Upheaval Dome, a part of the park where a meteor hit 200 million years ago and left a cool hole and rock formation. We also got some views of the other side of the canyon. We said goodbye to Canyonlands and started our drive to Telluride, Colorado!

Canyonlands is definitely worth the trip, especially if you are already in Moab at Arches. The views of the Canyons from Island in the Sky are so breathtaking, and as I said it is the least visited of the “Big Five” parks so you are more likely to have some solitude. Just bring plenty of water! There are no services there and the only water is at the visitor center.


We arrived in Telluride, CO around 4pm and got into our Airbnb condo. It was right in town and the balcony faced the mountain and San Rafael river, which has a walking path that was very popular for people and dogs. After taking some much needed showers we walked around downtown and ate dinner at an awesome brew pub. The short ribs I ordered were divine. Following this we walked over to the free gondola, which takes you from Telluride up to Mountain Village (the ski resort area). We had fun just riding that through a few stops and picked up a few groceries in Mtn Village.

The next day my youngest and I took a little walk on the river path and we decided to have breakfast in town. As you can imagine, the restaurants in Telluride are awesome but expensive. After that we walked through town the the popular Bear Creek trail, and started our upwards descent. It’s about 2 miles of a steady incline up to an incredible waterfall, with views of the mountains as you go up. It’s a really popular trail since the trailhead is right downtown, so there were lots of people. We got back to the condo about 1pm, ate lunch and relaxed. Later that afternoon we hung out in the pool and hot tub at the condo, and then walked around downtown again and took another gondola ride up the mountain.

There was a Thai restaurant right by our condo that we had wanted to try for dinner. Even though it was a Monday the wait was over an hour! At least we could go back to the condo and my husband and I could have some wine while we waited. We finally were seated around 8:30 and unfortunately the food didn’t come until 9:30 because they were slammed. But it was super delicious.

The next morning I had my last coffee on the balcony watching the gondolas go up the mountain, and we packed up and left.

I loved Telluride! It was so nice to get out of the desert and into the crisp mountain air. The town itself is gorgeous; they have done an incredible job re-habbing the old houses to retain their original character (of course at price tags starting in the millions). The food was excellent and the people were really nice, if a little yuppie-mountain-hipster. And everyone has dogs everywhere!!! You can even bring your dogs on the gondola. I could have easily spent a week or two there. We met some people just spending the whole summer there, getting away from hotter places. Lucky!

Wild Wild Southwest, Week 1: Vegas – Zion – Bryce – Capitol Reef

Vegas baby!

We flew out of Syracuse on Delta at 6:45 am, after checking all four bags with camping gear with no problems. The flight was great and arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) early, where we had a 3 hr layover. We headed over to the Escape Lounge, which we could get into with our Amex platinum cards. This place is awesome! It was practically empty, clean, and had lots of seating. It also had a great spread of food, including these delicious little egg dishes in mini cast iron skillets. We ate breakfast here and then on our way out we went to the PGA golf store/restaurant, where our priority pass card got us a $15 credit per person to buy whatever we wanted at French Market, a bakery next door. We were full but we bought $60 worth of chips, nuts, and other snacks to bring with us, all for free! Score!

The 2nd flight was also great and we landed in Vegas ahead of schedule, around 12:30pm. We headed over to the Centurion Lounge for a quick lunch and welcome cocktail before we picked up our luggage. We could also get in here with our Amex platinum cards. So breakfast, lunch, and snacks all free with our lounge benefits from credit cards!


Once we picked up our luggage we got an Uber (using our $15 Uber credit from Amex platinum) to our hotel, Delano. The room, a suite, was great with a view of the strip. I paid cash for this room but was able to get several benefits by using my Amex platinum. When I booked it Amex was running a deal to get an extra 6,000 membership rewards for booking an MGM property. Delano is also part of their “Fine Hotels and Resorts” program, and if you have the Amex platinum you get early check in and late check out, $60 breakfast credit, WiFi credit, and $100 food and beverage credit. So I paid $350 but if you subtract the food credits it came out to $190.

We headed over to the pool complex at Mandalay Bay, since the two hotels are connected. It was so hot!!! But the pools were pretty cool. They have a giant wave pool, a lazy river, and a pool just for Delano guests. After a little swim we went back to the room and got ready for dinner.


On our way to dinner we walked through the casinos to stay out of the heat, and the kids got a kick out of seeing how they were connected but each had their own theme: Luxor, Excalibur, New York New York, etc. We decided to go to the Wicked Spoon buffet at the Cosmopolitan. I had been there before but thought the kids would be amazed at the huge selection of food. (Another little perk, we were seated more quickly through the VIP line, just for having Marriott gold status). We definitely ate our fill and then left to go see the fountains at Bellagio. Unfortunately, right as we were leaving, my 7 year old said he felt sick and I knew from the look on his face he was about to throw up. We ran back into the restaurant and were not even 5 feet from the bathroom before he started puking. He ran into the bathroom and at least got the rest in the toilet. I felt terrible for the mess but by the time we left the bathroom they had it cordoned off and were taking care of it (I did apologize). He wasn’t sick, but he has a sensitive stomach and so it’s not unusual for him to throw up sometimes when traveling. Plus he ate his weight in pizza and treats at the buffet. We tried to watch the fountains at Bellagio after that but he felt really sick so we walked all the way back to the hotel. We all felt bad for him but we also didn’t want to take an Uber back in case he threw up again. He started to perk up by the time we got to Luxor and then we made it back to the room without incident. By that point everyone had had enough of the heat and the excesses of Vegas.

The next morning we took a Lyft over to an enterprise rental car in the suburbs. I booked the car by going to autoslash.com, which found me the best deal on Priceline. I had requested a standard SUV and when we got there they said they had a Mazda CX-7. They said they also had an Audi Quattro 7 and offered it to us for a $50 a week upgrade. When I hesitated because of the price the guy said he would give it to us for $25 a week. We checked out the car and it looked awesome, so we took it! The guy said the car usually goes for $120 a day. With my deal through Priceline plus the upgrade we got it for $43 a day! Score!


Sweet ride!

We headed over to Target and bought some supplies, then back to Delano to get our bags, and finally we hit to road to Zion!

Zion National Park

When we arrived at Zion it was about 2pm and very hot. Our campsite at Watchman campground was in the new, tent-only loop and was pretty cool. We set up camp and then headed over to Zion Outfitters to ask about renting equipment to hike the Narrows the next morning. The Narrows is Zion’s iconic hike through the canyon, and for part of the hike you are wading through water so they recommend wearing neoprene socks and shoes. We rented them for the next morning and then went over to the pub next door for some cold drinks and snacks. After that we cooked some burgers, and then the sky started looking ominous and the wind started blowing. Hard. Like so hard the tents were barely staying upright. We heard thunder and lightning and then the rains came. It was a massive, intense thunderstorm. For part of it we sat in the car but it was too hot and we knew we couldn’t wait there all night. Plus we were worried about the tents blowing away and wanted to weigh them down with our bodies. We ran to the tents and my husband stayed in one and the kids and I went to another. That’s when my youngest started puking. Again. In a tent, during a thunderstorm. Awesome. The kids and I ran out of that tent, leaving a puke soaked air mattress, and into the other tent with my husband, where he kept puking into a target bag. After that he felt better. (I think he may have been dehydrated and not used to the heat).


For several hours we sat in the tent through what was the worst thunderstorm I can remember. There was almost constant thunder, lightening, and pouring rain. Luckily, our little Coleman tent held up pretty well and we stayed dry. Eventually we all fell asleep (four people on two twin size air mattresses) and the storm stopped. Of course, someone’s car alarm went off twice in the middle of the night, waking us up. Needless to say we got very little sleep. When I woke up at 5am it was still dark, and I worked on cleaning the puke off the air mattress. We ate some granola bars and then put our neoprene socks and shoes on, ready to hike the Narrows early before it got crazy crowded. Unfortunately we learned that because of the storm there were massive floods and mud slides all over the park, and most of the hikes up Zion canyon were closed, including the Narrows. Apparently it was one of the worst storms they’ve had in a while and they got one quarter of their annual rainfall just in that one night! Here is a story on their Facebook page about it and a screenshot of the news.

screen shot 2019-01-19 at 9.37.36 am

Instead we hiked Watchman trail, which was beautiful with great views. After that we hopped on the shuttle bus and made stops at the human history museum for a ranger talk, and then to the Zion lodge where we ate lunch. After that we rested at camp and spent some time wading in the river, then we went back to the museum for another ranger talk and to see the film about Zion. When the film was over and we went outside to catch the shuttle, we were met once again with torrential downpours!!! Ugh!!! We thought this was the desert!!!


We ran from the shuttle over to our campsite to secure everything and then as the rain settled down we decided to go out to dinner in town rather than cook hot dogs in the rain. We found a great little place with awesome Tex mex food. That night we slept very well. The next morning as we packed up our site we learned the Narrows was still closed but the shuttles were taking people a bit farther up the canyon. We decided to hit some of the short hikes off the shuttle stops such as Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Court of the Patriarchs. After a picnic lunch we drove about 2 hours through more rain to our Bed and Breakfast at Bryce National Park.


Thunderstorms aside, I had mixed feelings about Zion. The scenery was truly awe-inspiring. However when they say Zion is crowded, they weren’t kidding! It is so jam-packed with people, it had me feeling a bit claustrophobic to be honest. I did think their shuttle system was very well run. I would love to go back when it is less crowded sometime. Maybe I’ll finally get to hike the narrows.

Bryce Canyon National Park

When I was looking to book a campsite at Bryce, I read on the National park’s website that they would be doing lots of construction at the campgrounds this summer and therefore sites would be limited and first come, first serve. Not wanting to mess with that, I booked a bed and breakfast near the park through hotels.com. After all the storms at Zion I am glad I did, as there were still more storms in the area the days we were at Bryce and frankly we were desperate for a shower and a bed by that point. The BnB was very nice with a large room with a king size bed for us and a futon for the kids. There was a private bathroom and we all enjoyed showers and baths very much! The first night we went to dinner in town at an awesome little BBQ place.


The next day after breakfast at our BnB we headed into the park. I’ll never forget the look of awe on my husband’s face as he peered into the big bowl of hoodoos (drippy looking rock spires) for the first time. We knew there was a chance if thunderstorms around 1:30 so we did the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop trails into the canyon first thing. It was so amazing to be walking a amongst the hoodoos, although the trail was way busier than I remembered. There was a constant stream of people to walk around. It did start thunderstorming around 1 so we took a break to eat lunch, go to the visitor center, and rest at the BnB.


Later that afternoon we went back to the park to do a couple more short hikes and drive the whole 18 miles of the park highway out to Rainbow and Yovimpa points. I took a million pictures but none of them can do it justice. The landscape and rock formations are so other-worldly. It’s something you have to see in person. We did the Bristlecone trail at this end of the park which offers some incredible vistas.

We headed back to town around 7:30 and ate dinner at a great little pizza place and then crashed at our BnB. Overall, Bryce was just as amazing as I remembered it. It seemed like there were more tourists than there were 20 and 30 years ago, when I was here before, but It was definitely less crowded than Zion, which was very nice.

Capitol Reef National Park

I don’t even know what to say about Capitol Reef…it has rendered me speechless. To get there, we drove on scenic route 12 from Bryce through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This drive was incredible. The scenery continuously changed and went from sweeping vistas to an other-worldly rock-scape, to an Aspen forest, and finally to the bright red rocks and huge formations rising out of the earth as you enter Capitol Reef National Park. We had AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” playing on the stereo as we drove in, and it was oddly fitting with the huge bright red rock formations looming all around us.

Very quickly the landscape started to become greener as we drove into the Fruita historic district, where the campground sits. The Fremont River flows between the massive rocks and created a fertile valley for indigenous people and later some Mormon pioneers in the 19th century. The Mormons planted several orchards and the trees still produce copious amounts of fruit today. Our campsite was pretty close to the orchards and after we set up camp and ate lunch we were able to pick some apricots! We then headed over to Gifford House, a historic building from the old village that is now a museum, gift shop, and pie shop!!! We bought some ice cream to eat now and some pie for later. Then we headed over to the visitor center, the historic schoolhouse, the Petroglyph wall, and went on a hike to the Hickman bridge, a massive arch. The hike was great and the boys had fun finding little caves to sit in, We ate dinner at the campsite and the kids started to make friends with some of the other kids at the campground. For the rest of our time there they would find each other and have “apricot wars” in the orchard with the fruit that had dropped to the ground.

After dinner at the campsite we went to a fabulous ranger program on astronomy – they have a nice modern amphitheater right in the campground, and then we stayed up pretty late to star-gaze (Capitol Reef is designated as an international dark sky park). The stars were incredible and we could just make out the Milky Way.

The next morning we did the Cohab Canyon trail which takes you through a desert canyon with some cool slot canyons on the sides and has a couple climbs to viewpoints of Capitol Dome and Fruita. It was an awesome hike but got hot pretty quickly, so when we were done we escaped to the air conditioning of the car and went to town for lunch, more supplies, and to check email.

We were still pretty spent by the time we got back so we went to a ranger talk on the Petroglyphs and the Fremont Indians, and then did the 10 mile scenic drive which ends in a drive through Capitol Gorge, a dirt road that goes through a canyon and used to be the only way through the whole area. It was both exhilarating and kind of scary to be bumping along in the car so close to the canyon walls. That night we hiked a little of the Fremont river trail and went to another ranger talk. The next day we packed up our camp and left to drive to Vernal, Utah near Dinosaur National Monument.

I can’t say enough good things about Capitol Reef. It was so much less crowded than Zion and Bryce which made our stay much more enjoyable. At the other parks the trails felt as crowded as walking down Broadway in NYC! Crazy! At CR, there were other people hiking but you would run into them maybe every 15-20 minutes, and the rest of the time you could have a little solitude. The landscape was just out of this world. It really seemed like an alien planet at times. The park also had lots of different things to offer, from the amazing vistas, the desert and canyon trails, the rock formations, the night sky, the ancient petroglyphs, and the historic pioneer town. We went the three ranger talks and all were awesome. I could have easily spent a week just exploring this park and was sad to leave. But, onwards we went!

Wild Wild Southwest, Part 2, the packing

I pride myself on being a “carry-on” only family, as I’ve written about before. There are many reasons why I like to pack in carry-on luggage, including that you have less chance of having lost or damaged luggage issues, it saves time at the airport especially when traveling internationally with multiple leg flights when you have to get your luggage and re-check it, and it makes traveling around your destinations easier.

For this trip however, we are going to have to check some bags as we decided to bring most of our camping gear with us. We still packed all of our clothes and toiletries in probably 3 carry-ons as we usually do (one for me, one for my husband, and one for the kids to share).

So even though I’ve been “travel hacking” for some time now, I still make mistakes and don’t realize certain things all the time. For example, I have a Delta sky miles credit card, which gets me a free checked bag. Since I never check bags I almost never use this benefit (the one exception was checking one bag when I came home from Spain, and one bag when I came home from Amsterdam. Both times were to bring home the fabric I bought in Europe ūüėä). Since I never use the benefit, I just assumed the free checked bag was for me, the primary cardholder. I spent months trying to figure out how to get all of our camping gear into one checked bag (under the 50 lb weight limit), and maybe one carry-on. After that was unsuccessful, I decided I would bite the bullet and we would check a 2nd bag for $25 each way. Included in these two bags were:

  1. Two tents
  2. 4 sleeping bags
  3. 4 twin air mattresses
  4. Air pump
  5. Two burner Coleman stove
  6. 2 backpacking camp chairs
  7. Set of camping pots and pans
  8. Various camping plates and utensils
  9. Bag of rope
  10. Hatchet/hammer tool
  11. Collapsible water jug
  12. Foldable cooler
  13. 4 camping towels
  14. 4 inflatable camp pillows

We assumed we would buy some larger folding chairs when we got there, as well as some other supplies that wouldn’t fit. I spent a good couple days before the trip trying to make all of this fit in two bags and keep them under the 50 lb weight limit.

Fast forward to the day before the trip, and I go on to the Delta app to check in. When I get to the screen about checking bags, I see that everyone in my party gets a free checked bag, not just me! After a quick moment of disbelief and a humbling fact-check with my expert traveler friends (who made fun of me of course), I realize that in fact, we can check 4 bags for free!!! This was a game changer! That’s 200 lbs of camping gear! I immediately found a couple more pieces of luggage and started piling more crap in. 2 large camping chairs, aluminum foil, paper plates, a tarp, ziplock bags.

I am now just hoping it all fits in the SUV!!!

To be continued…

Wild Wild Southwest, Part 1: The Preparation

Did you know that when a child is in 4th grade they can get themselves and their families into our national parks for free? It is called the Every Kid in a Park Program, and it starts when your child starts 4th grade, through the following summer. My oldest was in 4th grade this year so about a year ago we started planning our big summer road trip to visit some of our National Parks. We decided to focus on the Southwest “Grand Circle” in Utah and Arizona this time and maybe do some more northern ones in three years when our youngest is in 4th grade. I have been to this area before, once when I was about 14 with my Dad and brother, and once right after I graduated college. My husband has never been and I have been excited for years to show him this incredible part of our country.

This first blog post is going to outline some of the prep work that went into planning our three week adventure.

How to get there

I’ll admit, there is nothing like taking a westward road trip across the US in a car. I’ve done it twice, and it’s truly amazing to watch the landscape change before your eyes. My husband and I discussed the possibility of taking our Toyota Highlander and just driving out there. We love the car and it’s big and comfortable, but in the end we decided we didn’t want to use the extra week or so it would take to drive out there and back for driving. We also thought about flying and renting an RV or campervan when we arrived, but they are really expensive! They are an average of $300 a night plus gas! After lots more discussion we decided to fly using miles, rent an SUV when we arrive, and do a combination of camping and hotels on the road. We are going to try to pack as much camping gear as we can in checked luggage and then buy a few inexpensive things, such as camping chairs when we get there.

We booked 4 one-way tickets from Syracuse to Las Vegas for 70,000 Delta skymiles, and then 4 one-way tickets from Phoenix to Syracuse for 50,000 Delta skymiles. I used autoslash to find the best price on an SUV for 3 weeks. Next, to plan the itinerary.

The itinerary

I know it seems romantic to just hop in the car and drive, figuring it all out along the way, and maybe in decades past you could do so (in fact I did in the 90’s), but in case you haven’t heard, our National Parks are experiencing a surge of tourism the likes of which they’ve never seen before. This is causing serious overcrowding problems. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I’m glad more and more people are getting out there to visit and see our country’s incredible natural beauty, on the other hand, in some places it seems that this rise in popularity is overtaxing our park system’s infrastructure. That said, advance planning is essential, especially in the summer months for popular campgrounds and tours, which can be booked 6 months in advance.

Since I was booking these things in February for a July trip, I had to create a detailed itinerary for the three weeks. Here is what I came up with:


July 10:Fly to Las Vegas, stay at Mandalay Bay. Originally I booked this room using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but then Amex was doing a promotion where you received an extra 6,000 Membership Rewards points for booking an MGM property, plus you get their Fine Hotels and Resorts perks, which includes breakfast for two and $100 food and beverage credit at the resort.

July 11: Pick up rental car, buy camping supplies in Vegas, drive to Zion, set up camp. When we get some of our camping food, we will likely hit up the local Target or Walmart to fill out our camping gear supply with cheap air mattresses or camping chairs.
Zion is one of the most popular national parks, and so camping reservations book 6 months in advance. Luckily, they just opened a new, tent-only loop at Watchman campground, and we were able to reserve a site that looks pretty nice with shade and a fire pit (they don’t all have this).

July 12: Hiking and exploring Zion, stay at campsite. Hopefully we will get to hike the Narrows or do some tubing on the Virgin river!

July 13:¬†More hiking and exploring Zion, drive to Bryce Canyon, check into hotel. Our original plan was to camp at Bryce too, however they are doing major construction to their campgrounds this summer. We didn’t want to get into that mess, so I booked a hotel/B&B that got good reviews on my hotels.com account. This way we can also arrive later if we want to spend more time at Zion, and we won’t need to worry about setting up camp.

July 14: Explore Bryce Canyon, stay at hotel.

July 15: Leave hotel, re-stock food, drive to Capitol Reef, camp at Fruita campground. Apparently this campground used to be first come, first served, but they are now reservable so we got a site for 2 nights.

July 16: Explore Capitol Reef, stay at Fruita.

July 17: Drive to Vernal, Utah, stay at Springhill Suites.¬†A while ago I listened to an episode of one of my favorite travel podcasts, Amateur Traveler, on rafting on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon (which my Dad was lucky enough to do a couple years ago). It wouldn’t be an appropriate trip for kids, but the guest highly recommended rafting trips in Dinosaur National Monument with kids. Combine that with a geology and fossil loving husband and I decided to book this. It takes us a little out of the “Grand Circle,” but not too far. In Vernal I booked a SpringHill Suites using 15,000 Marriott points for 2 nights!

July 18: White water rafting on the Green River! I chose to go with Don Hatch Expeditions.

July 19: Drive to Moab, UT, stay in Expedition Lodge. I found this cool, retro inspired hotel on hotels.com and booked 2 nights so we can check out Moab as well as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

July 20: Explore Arches, stay at Expedition Lodge.

July 21: Stay in Willow Flats campground, Canyonlands.¬†This is a first come, first serve campsite which is supposed to be beautiful in the “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands.

July 22: Drive to Telluride, CO, stay at an Airbnb. I wanted to do one Colorado ski/mountain town on this trip, and have heard great things about Telluride.

July 23: Explore Telluride, stay at Airbnb.

July 24: Drive to Mesa Verde, NP. I reserved a cliff dwelling twilight tour for this evening in the NP, and we booked a campsite at Morefield campground.

July 25: Four corners, Monument Valley, stay in Page, AZ at Hampton Inn. The kids really wanted to do Four corners, and I would like to do the driving tour of Monument Valley. Lodging in Page, AZ this time of year is ridiculously expensive! I dropped 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night at the Hampton Inn, but the cash price was $300!

July 26: Antelope Canyon tour, hopefully see Horseshoe Bend, stay at Hampton Inn.

July 27: Drive to South Rim, Grand Canyon, stay at Desert View Campground. This is also first come, first serve, so hopefully if we get there early enough we will get a site!

July 28: Explore Grand Canyon, Stay at Desert View Campground.

July 29: Drive to Sedona, AZ, stay at Kimpton. I booked this really nice Kimpton resort using Chase Ultimate Rewards, 40,744 for two nights. I’ve always wanted to check out Sedona, and I think staying at a “luxury” resort will be a nice way to end the trip.

July 30: Explore Sedona, stay at Kimpton.

July 31: Explore Sedona, hang out at Kimpton, drive to Phoenix after dinner to catch 11:30pm flight! Since it’s only a 2 hour drive to PHX airport, we should be able to have most of the day to hang out in Sedona and the resort, eat an early dinner, and still make it to the airport in time to return the rental car and catch our red-eye flight back home!

Well there it is, all laid out! You know what they say, “The best laid plans…” We will see how the whole itinerary works out in real time. In the meantime I plan on printing out all of our reservations and the itinerary itself and putting them in a binder to take with us, especially since cell service will be spotty out west. Next up, the packing!


I have wanted to check out Jamaica and specifically Negril for a while now. I had decided that Christmas break would be a good time because the kids would have off and we could fly out of a major airport after visiting our family in NJ for the holidays.

The planning

So to try to book travel during the week between Christmas and New Years on a budget (including a points budget), is very challenging. This is probably the most expensive week to travel, especially to warm, beachy places like the Caribbean. I knew it would be tough and cost a lot of points but I was up for the challenge.

Sometimes when you don’t have enough points for round trip flights you need to get creative and look at one-way flights on different airlines. I had enough Alaska airline miles to book us one-way, so I booked us on American Airlines from Montego Bay (MBJ) to Philadelphia on 12/31 for 17,500 miles each, 70,000 total. Now to had to figure out how to get to MBJ. I found flights leaving at 9am from JFK to MBJ on 12/26 Delta for $407 each. Since Delta was my preferred airline with American Express business platinum I could buy the tickets for 162,840 membership rewards (MR) points and still receive 50% back. So total MR rewards spent was 81,420 (or 20,355 per ticket).

I really wanted to stay in Negril so I started looking at lodging on the Chase ultimate rewards portal. Eventually I decided on the Traveller’s Beach Resort on Negril because it was affordable and got great reviews. I bought 5 nights for 63,858 ultimate rewards. Now keep in mind this is about twice what this hotel usually costs, however I find that most hotels triple their price for that Christmas-new years week.

So, Christmas 2017 happens and we are down on NJ at my mom and step-dad’s house, with all of our stuff packed for Jamaica. We were planning on hiring a car service to drive us to JFK the morning after Christmas and since we came back through Philly we would do some combo of the train and Uber back to my moms, no big deal since they are about halfway between NYC and Philly. Unfortunately, life had other plans. My father-in-law has a major health crisis that landed him in the hospital. He stabilized but it became clear pretty quickly that my husband would need to stay in Philadelphia to help take care of while they figured out the next steps. We thought of every possible way but in the end there was no way we could make it to Jamaica. After many phone calls on Christmas Eve with the various companies, we were able to reschedule our trip for May. For the flights there, Delta agreed to waive our change fees so I just picked the same flight in May but leaving from Syracuse and commenting through JFK. With Alaska, they charged me change fees because they said they have a rule that there are no exceptions. I think it ended up being $200 total in change fees and I booked flights that landed in Syracuse as well. At least if we were going to have to stick with the exorbitant Xmas week prices we could travel throughout home airport.

The hotel got a little tricky. I did book the room as non-refundable (on points), because that was all that was available at the time. When I called to see if there was anything we could do, they said they could refund the last three nights but we would be out of luck for he first two. I thought I would need to file an insurance claim through Chase travel (included with your Chase Sapphire Reserve card) and started that process, which was going to entail tracking down doctors who treated my father-in-law. I also called Chase travel and explained my situation and the woman on the phone (working on Christmas Eve), was so helpful she actually called the hotel while I was on the phone with her and got them to refund the points! All of the original points spent were re-posted almost immediately! When I went back on the Chase travel site to book the room for May, the price had decreased significantly and I was able to get the room for 7,000 ultimate rewards points a night, for a total of 35,000 ultimate rewards!

The Trip

We flew Delta from Syracuse to JFK at 6am and had about an hour layover at JFK. Our gate was by the Delta skylounge, where my husband and I could get in with our Amex Platinum cards but they would have charged us $29 for each kid. Instead I went in quick, wolfed down some food, and made Malk and the kids some “to go” breakfast sandwiches.

We landed in Montego Bay a little early and went to Club Mobay, which is an arrivals lounge you can get into with your Priority Pass card. They had some snacks as well as rum punch for us and lemonade for the kids. After that we exited the airport into a downpour, but found our transport which I arranged ahead of time with Joe Cool transportation, whom I highly recommend. We then had a two and a half hour drive to Negril down the west coast where we got to experience Jamaican traffic and see some small towns.

When we arrived at our hotel we had some food and played in the ocean and pool. It was still a little overcast and rainy. The next day we also spent mainly at the beach and pool, and we were able to try some local Jamaican cuisine such as salt fish and ackee, johnny cakes, patties, jerk chicken, and escoveitch fish.


The following day we were picked up by Joe Cool again for a tour of YS Falls and a Black River safari. Our tour guide was super nice and taught us about the local towns and culture. We hit YS falls first which was very cool. When you first buy your ticket they take you in a jitney up to the falls. It’s very well laid out and you climb up steps to a part of the falls where you can swim and swing on a rope swing into the water. The kids were too nervous for the ripe swing but the hubs and I channeled our inner Tarzan and Jane. They also have some really nice salt water pools throughout the property and a decent little grill. Once we had our fill of swimming we got back in the car and headed to the town of Black River, where we did a tour down the river on a pontoon boat to see the mangrove forest and several crocodiles! They also had a small nursery where the kids got to hold a baby croc.


The next day we took a glass bottom boat ride out to the reef, where we were able to snorkel for over an hour. My oldest son went right in the water but my youngest took a little coaxing because he got scared from a snorkeling trip we did in Turks and Caicos where the water was kind of rough. Eventually my husband convinced him to go in and both kids had a great time floating around. The reef looked fairly healthy here and there were lots of colorful fish and sea urchins. Unfortunately my underwater camera stopped holding a charge so I didn’t get any pictures. On the way back we cruised along 7 mile beach and were able to see a lot of the resorts that line the beach.


The rest of the day we hung out at the hotel and later that evening we headed out to the famous Rick’s Cafe. The place was definitely a tourist trap but it was cool to see some cliff jumpers dive off the high cliff.


On our last day we just swam and ate, making sure to get some last patties and jerk chicken. The following morning we headed out early and made it to the airport with some time to go to the Club Mobay departures lounge (we could get in with Priority Pass), which was very nice with a good food selection. Our flight to Philadelphia took off on time, and thanks to our Global Entry/TSA pre-check, we flew through immigration! I have gone through immigration and customs at PHL a number of time, and it is always horrendous and can take over 2 hours. We made it through in 15 minutes, mostly because of walking!!! We then headed over to the Centurion Lounge, however unlike on our recent trip to Mexico, it was incredibly crowded and we barely got a place to sit. We were able to finally find a spot and got on our next flight to Syracuse. All flights were on time without issues!


Overall, we loved Negril and Jamaica. The food and culture were great, the beach was amazing, and we loved getting out to do a few excursions off the beach. We were warned that the hustlers on the beach were very persistent and they did not disappoint. And of course, I felt like I had a contact high as the whole place was covered in a cloud of ganja smoke. I also have to give a shout out to a few of our places to eat: Hammond’s bakery in Negril (for the best patties!), Kayuba restaurant, Naila’s on the beach, Cafe Goa and Coletta’s. I also¬†loved Traveller’s Beach Resort! What a wonderful little resort right on 7 mile beach. The pool was awesome with a waterfall that the kids loved swimming under and the staff was fabulous. It’s super affordable, even without points, so if you are looking for a budget-friendly but nice place to stay in Negril, check them out.


Apparently this has been the longest winter in 40 years in Syracuse. By April 19th, it was still snowing. Thank goodness I booked a trip to south Florida for the kids’ April break!

The planning

I had a feeling we would be wanting to get somewhere warm in April, so I started looking at flights to Ft. Lauderdale so we could visit my uncle. I was able to find 3 round trip tickets on Delta for $360 each. Kind of high but they must have been jacked up because our area had spring break that week. I used my AMEX membership rewards to book using the 50% points back feature (I think this was the last trip I was able to use this before it went to 35% back), so it ended up being 54,000 MR points total for the flights.

For the room, I started looking for hotels in the Deerfield Beach/Boca Raton area on the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site, and lucked into the Hyatt Place downtown Boca Raton for 9,000 points a night! That’s really cheap and I think it was because it was a new hotel and they were running a sale to get people to book. We got a room with a king size bed and pull out sofa and free hot breakfast for 4 nights for 36,000 total ultimate rewards points.

I then looked at car rentals and was able to find one for only 9,000 ultimate rewards for the four days.

Now here’s where it started to get really interesting. A few months before the trip I received a call from Delta that they had overbooked our Saturday morning flight, and they asked us to change to a flight that was about 40 minutes later and connected in the 7the gate of Hell, AKA LaGuardia airport. I vowed I would never set foot in that airport again, however I called them back and asked if they had any other flights available, including the night before. They were more than happy to switch us to a 5:40pm flight on Friday connecting through Detroit. So we could just head to the airport after the kids got out of school and gain and extra half day in Florida! They also offered us $300 in travel vouchers or 30,000 skymiles each in compensation! I took the skymiles because I knew I could use those for flights that were worth more than $300, especially if I combined them with the “pukemiles” we earned in October and March (see my last post). So we banked 90,000 skymiles total and got more time in Florida. Winning!

The only caveat was I had to book a hotel for Friday night. When I looked at the Hyatt the points price per night had gone up significantly, so I looked at some other options. I ended up settling on a Hampton Inn for 13,000 Ultimate rewards a night.

The trip

The flights were great, and we even got mysteriously upgraded to Delta comfort (more legroom and free adult beverages, yay!) on the first leg. I have no idea how or why but I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.

We got to the hotel at around midnight and crashed. The next morning we were scheduled to take an airboat ride at 11am, so we hung out at the Hampton Inn to eat their free breakfast and go for a swim. Unfortunately the pool was gross and full of bugs, AND they had no hot water in the whole hotel! I really wanted a shower after all that travel but not enough to take a cold one. I complained to the front desk and Hilton Hhonors online, and was given 35,000 Hilton Hhonors points for my inconvenience.

After that we met up with my uncle and got to take our first airboat ride through the Everglades. It was so much fun and we spotted about 15 alligators!

We spend the rest of the day chillin at my uncle’s pool and we finally checked into the Hyatt, which was very nice and brand new, right in downtown Boca Raton. That night we went to bed early and were woken up out of a dead sleep by the fire alarm: “emergency!! Please evacuate the hotel. Do not use the elevators!” I figured it was a false alarm but still scary, especially since we were on the 9th floor.

The following day we spent some time at the hotel pool and met up with my uncle to visit Green Caye nature reserve in Delray. This was a really cool park with lots of boardwalks over the wetlands to walk and view nature. They also had a nature center with some aquarium tanks but it was closed. We had a fun walk, despite some downpours. The rain cleared up when we left so we decided to visit Sugar Sand Park in Boca. This place was the best park for kids I’ve ever been to! They had a huge playground area with a huge, multi-level play structure, water misters, and a bunch of other unique playground equipment. They also had a carousel and an indoor science center, which was as nice any science center I’ve ever been to (just smaller), all for FREE (they do accept donations)! The kids had a great time playing and after that we went for dinner at a taco place in Deerfield beach called El Jefe Luchador.

The following day we met my uncle at another amazing park (also donation only), called Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton. This place also had nature trails as well as an indoor nature canter, a turtle rescue center, and aquarium tanks. We were able to see a lot of it before they shut down the outside parts due to an impending thunderstorm. Eventually we left and the kids and I went to a fabulous restaurant for lunch, Fran’s Chicken Haven, for some legit, fresh fried chicken. This was one of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had and definitely a must-eat if you are in Boca.

We tried to go to the beach after that but there were warnings for a rip tide, sea lice, and jellyfish, so we decided to stay at the pool. For dinner we met my uncle at The Funky Biscuit in Boca, which has live music almost every night and great food and drinks (try the biscuits)! The music was great but the kids started to get tired so we went home about 45 minutes into the performance.

The Funky Biscuit

On our last day the kids and I enjoyed more pool time in the sun, and then I dropped them off at my uncle’s house while I had lunch with friends in downtown Delray Beach, which was a cute little area with lots of shops and restaurants. For dinner we met my uncle at a restaurant called Junior’s, which has New York deli style food. It was so good. We had matzoh ball soup, latkes, roast beef and brisket sandwiches, and for dessert we tried their famous cheesecake.

The next day we got up at 3am to make our 5:40 flight and headed home! All in all a super fun trip with lots of amazing parks, great food, and sun!!! And even better is we spent very little money, given that all of our outings (except for the airboat ride) were free, we had free breakfast every day and ate at relatively inexpensive restaurants, and finally ended up with 94,000 skymiles and 35,000 Hilton Honors points.

San Miguel de Allende!

Even before Travel + Leisure voted San Miguel de Allende (SMA) the best city in the world, I have wanted to visit. So for my husband’s spring break this year, I started the planning a year ago (as I usually do).

The Planning

Warning: this is a bit long and geeky, so if you want to just hear about the trip, skip ahead to The Trip.


At that time (April 2017), I had 60k American Airlines (AA) miles saved. Not enough for 4 round trip tickets, but enough to get us there (one way). I looked at all the combinations and somehow figured out if we could get there on the AA miles, we could come back on Delta using the 50% points back option I have written about before using the Amex business platinum card. The only issue was, because we had to go this exact week, I didn’t have a ton of flexibility, so the best I could do initially was flying out of Philadelphia at 5am on Tues, getting to Mexico around 3, and then flying back out early on Sat on Delta. That would only leave us with 3.5 days in SMA. Not ideal, but WTH. I booked it.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because I booked so far in advance, I ended up being able to change the flights several times (for free!) and ended up with 7 full days (8 nights) and way more convenient flight times. This is how:

For the AA award flights, I knew that AA would let me change to flights to something else for free as long as the departure and destination cities were the same and the award level was the same (i.e., they had to be “saver” Awards). At booking no other awards that week were available, but I knew there was a good chance more would open up over the 11 months until we went. Enter expert flyer. This site monitors award flights for you (for a small fee), so I entered in all the possible flights I wanted that left on Sat, Sun, or Mon of that week and crossed my fingers. Lo and behold, about 6 months later a bunch of award flights opened up. I quickly changed them to a flight that left on Sat afternoon. Again, you can do this for free on AA as long as they have the award seats and open.

For the flights home, it was a little different. These weren’t award flights per se, rather I used American Express points to book a revenue flight. So basically the flights were $482 each on Delta, for a total of $1928. That translated to 192,800 Amex Membership Rewards (MR), but when I paid that I got 50% of my points back, so total points spent was 96,400, or 24,100 per ticket. It is a lot but since it was Spring Break week everything was jacked up.

Now initially Delta had us leaving SMA at the crack of dawn on Sat. Which is tough because it’s a 1.5 hr drive to the airport! At some point though, Delta actually cancelled the flight altogether! Once I realized this (they didn’t contact me directly, which was frustrating), I called and was able to get on a later flight that left around 12 on Sat. Cool! Much better than 5:30am. But then at some point they changed the flight, to the point where the layover was like 30 mins. That’s impossible on an international flight coming home where you have to clear customs (even with global entry and TSA pre check). So I called and asked to be put on a flight on Sunday instead (my preferred departure date). “No problem!” said Delta. Once an airline makes a flight change, as long as it’s more than about 30-60 mins, you can ask for whatever flight you find is more convenient for you, and they will usually get you on it. Many times I’ve asked for flights to day before or day after to extend my trip and they’ve always obliged.

This is one of the reasons I book so early. There is a greater chance you will get a flight change to your cheap but inconvenient flight to one that is more convenient but was originally out of your price range! Also, going back to the AA flight awards (to get to SMA), I knew that 15k per person for the award was the lowest they would ever go, so I booked them even though it wasn’t “ideal,” with the knowledge that there was a good chance better award flights would open up later if I monitored for them. And it paid off! So our initial 3.5 day trip with terrible flight times became a 7 day trip with reasonable flight times, all for free! Oh and since I was given free platinum pro status from AA in January through May of this year, I could move us to the “premium seats” for free, so I got us in the bulkhead in economy, which my husband and kids prefer.

Total miles used for air: 60k AA miles and 96,400 Membership Rewards (MR).


Initially when we were only staying for 3.5 days, I booked the super-LUXE Rosewood San Miguel for a total of 115,000 Ultimate Rewards (UR) Points (28k points/night). This is a lot of points but considering that at the Rosewood rooms start at $600 a night, it’s a great redemption!

“But Deb, aren’t you always saying how you stay in Airbnbs and cheap local places?”

Yes! But I knew SMA wouldn’t have a ton of activities for kids so I wanted to book a place that had an awesome pool. Plus all the reviews said Rosewood is very family friendly. Also I don’t know if it was because I booked super early or what but when I checked later after I extended our trip to add the extra days, they had gone up significantly! Back to the drawing board.

I looked up various hotels in the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, read their reviews, and ultimately settled on a small hotel called Casa Mia Suites for a total of 12,600 points for 2 nights! (6,300 per night – Mexico prices!)

I also had to book one night in Guanajuato, and after some research I picked a hotel that was not available via Chase Ultimate Rewards, however since it was only $107 a night I used my hotels.com account to add to my “book 10 nights, get one night free” account.

The Trip

We left on a Friday evening right after the kids got out of school (and as more snow started falling in Syracuse) to make the 4 hour drive to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes on the interstate we came to a dead stop and that’s where we sat for two hours! Apparently we missed a 30 car accident by about 5 minutes (it was so recent even though we were using Waze it didn’t re-route us yet). The department of transportation closed the highway for 2 hours and we just had to wait for them to clean everything up. It was awful and frustrating to sit there for that long, but I just kept thinking he lucky we were because if we had left 5 mins earlier we could have been in it! That definitely would have ruined the trip. We arrived at the Hampton Inn PHL airport around 11 and went to bed. I booked this Hampton Inn for the Park and Fly option. We could leave our car there all week. Also, I had received a challenge from Hilton Honors that if I had 5 stays in Hilton properties between Jan and April I would get an extra 2000 HH points per stay and 10,000 HH points at the end of the challenge. All these little Hampton Inn airport stays count, so their plan to build brand loyalty worked for me!

In the morning we took the shuttle to the Philadelphia airport early to check out the brand new Centurion lounge (for Amex platinum card holders). It was nice and clean and empty! Plus we were able to eat both breakfast and lunch there (Israeli food!) and get some preflight artisan cocktails.

Our flight to Dallas took off on time and when we arrived we had about 2.5 hours to kill. Time to hit Centurion lounge #2 at DFW! This one was so crowded! We barely got a table. But they had delicious Mexican food and we were able to get the children’s room to ourselves for about 45 minutes so my youngest could play Xbox. Finally around 6:30pm we boarded our flight to Mexico!

By the time we got to Mexico around 9:30pm everyone was out of sorts. We were of course staying at the Hampton Inn at the airport, but we were too tired to understand their Spanish about the shuttle, so we took a cab. After some more miscommunication we eventually made it to the Hampton Inn BJX (only $50 US a night). We crashed and were disappointed the next morning to learn the pool was closed until the evening. The breakfast was amazing for a Hampton Inn though! Pancakes, Chilaquales, picadillo, and some other Mexican specialties. Around 10am or driver came and got us to make the 90 minute drive through the gorgeous desert to San Miguel!

We arrived at our first hotel, Casa Mia Suites, and it was adorable. Right in the center of town and we had a little apartment with a full kitchen on a lovely Mexican courtyard. We headed into town to find it vibrant, busy (it was a Sunday and we learned later SMA gets swarmed on the weekend), and beautiful. We had a delicious Mexican lunch, walked around, napped, visited an amazing folk art toy museum and then had dinner later.

The next day was similar in that we did lots of exploring and eating. We visited the craft market and soaked in the town.

The following morning we checked out of Casa Mia and were picked up to do a horseback riding excursion in the country. This ended up being the highlight of the trip. The kids were nervous as they have never ridden horses before. But they bravely got on their horses (they each had their own guide in front, holding the reigns), and off we went. The ride was about 2.5 hours through the desert with amazing vistas and down the sides of a canyon. The kids had an absolute blast and were so proud of themselves for conquering their fear! After the ride we had an authentic and delicious Mexican ranch lunch, and then were driven back to SMA, where we checked into the Rosewood hotel.

The Rosewood is the ultimate luxurious accommodation and the swankiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Truth be told, I found it a bit over the top, but the pools were great and the huge room was nice to spread out in, with big comfy beds and turndown service.

The next day we spent the morning at the botanical garden, El Charco Del Ingenio, which was another treat. It sits above SMA and has nice walking trails with indigenous desert plants. There was also a greenhouse, an observatory, and a children’s playground. After that we had some delicious fish tacos and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming at the hotel.

That evening our good friends came to meet us in San Miguel! They happened to be traveling to Mexico City the same week and I enticed them to come to SMA to hang out with us for a few days. We all went out for dinner at a restaurant that was highly recommended but ended up having terrible service. Luckily we all laughed about it and redeemed our meal by going to the churros restaurant for dessert.

The next day the six of us met at noon to do a San Miguel food tour. The guide took us on a walking tour of the city, stopping at 6 food stops to try various things including Peruvian ceviche, Yucateco pibil, enchiladas mole, a vegan taco, ice cream from a street stand that has been there for 50 years, and churros filled with carmelized goat milk. The kids did great on the tour even though a lot of it involved waiting for food. That evening we got a babysitter from the hotel and had a grown up night where we met our friends at a mezcal/tapas restaurant.

The following day some of us had a bit to much Mexico in their stomachs, so our friends went to visit a local hot springs and we stayed at the hotel, enjoying the pool. We met up with them for dinner at a delicious Peruvian restaurant that was on our food tour, and for and one last evening stroll through San Miguel.

The next day we left early to head to Guanajuato city, the capital of Guanajuato state and another old colonial town. My husband was in very rough shape this day. Luckily, even though we arrived at this hotel at 10am, they let us have our room early. The kids and I ate at the breakfast buffet at the hotel while my husband rested. He did try to go out with us and we visited Diego Rivera’s childhood home and had some drinks at a cafe. But he was too sick to continue sightseeing, so he and my youngest went back to the room and I went out with my oldest to explore the city.

Guanajuato is a beautiful place! I wish we had allotted two days to see it. It is an old mining town built into the sides of the canyon and there were cool tunnels and passageways throughout. It also houses the University of Guanajuato so there were lots of college students and coffee shop culture. They also love Don Quixote, so there were statues of him all over the city. It seemed like a very European city with circuitous alleyways and cobblestone streets. We visited an art museum and had a delicious taco lunch.

Later that afternoon my husband and other son joined us and we took a funicular up the side of the mountain to see the El Pipila statue (symbolic of a hero of the Mexican revolution, which began here) and to get some gorgeous views of the city and the mountains. We then had a tasty dinner of tacos al pastor and my husband went back to sleep in the hotel while the kids and I walked around watching all the street performers.

The next morning we got up and headed to the airport for our flights home. Getting from the Leon airport to Atlanta was fine. At ATL we got through customs fairly quickly because of our Global Entry, and we headed over “The Club,” a lounge we like there and can access using our Priority Pass. When we got to the gate for Philadelphia however, we were a little delayed. The gate agent said this was because the plane needed a little “extra cleaning.” Uh oh, someone had some kind of accident. The gate agent was trying to lighten the mood, so she had a dance contest and then she asked who could spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” I, of course, raised my hand, and I got it right on the first try! My prize was 3 drink tickets.

After another 15 minutes, they called our names up to the front. Another agent informed my husband that because of their “extra cleaning,” we would not be able to put our bags on the floor in front of us on the plane. At that point I figured it out. Someone had puked, and we were sitting in the puke seats. I asked the flight attendants and they nodded and apologized. I asked if they could move us and they said they couldn’t because the flight was full. I couldn’t believe this happened to us¬†again!¬†(In October our flight was delayed 90 mins after boarding because a drunk girl puked right in front of our seats in the bulkhead and it took them an hour and a half to get “cleaners” to do a good enough job of cleaning it up). The flight attendants asked us if we wanted miles for our inconvenience, and I said, “yes please.” So even though it smelled a little like puke and we couldn’t put our bags on the floor, we finally landed on Philly around 9:30pm, now with 3 drink tickets and 30,000 extra Delta skymiles. We got to the Hampton Inn, got our car, and drove home!


my drink tickets!

Overall it was a fabulous trip! My only regret was not staying in Guanajuato longer as it was a very cool city. The whole area is a wonderful place to explore and visit, however. It has a beautiful climate, great food, nice people, and lots of Mexican culture. I would love to go back one day!

Mom and sons trip: Turks and Caicos!

The planning

Winter in Syracuse. It’s long, it’s grey, and there’s more snow than anyone who hasn’t lived here can imagine. They also do this odd thing that so far I’ve only experienced in Central New York, the kids get off for a week in February, it’s called “February Break.” Usually since my husband has to work (his break is in March), we put the kids in a camp for a week. This year I thought, I can spend $600 on camp for both of them, or I can see what travel deals I can find so we can spend the week somewhere warm and tropical. Of course, since my husband had to work it would be just me and the boys, but he approved and so I got about researching.

For convenience the obvious first choice is Florida, but we already had a trip booked there for April break and honestly February was a little too iffy for me, weather-wise. If I am going to escape the great white north I want to make sure we’ll have lots of heat. So the next step was to search flights for the Caribbean. The easiest way to do this is to use the google flights explorer. You can’t just google this for some reason though. You have to actually type in the web address http://www.google.com/flights/explore

Once you do this you can put in an area you want to travel to, like “Europe” or “Caribbean,” and some graphs will pop up showing you different dates. As I was searching for the cheapest flights a lot of what came up were islands recently hit by the hurricane, such as Puerto Rico and Barbados. But also, Turks and Caicos popped up for $280 on Delta, round trip from Newark over Feb break. Hmmm. I hadn’t considered TCI but after some research it seemed like a great option, especially for traveling alone with the kids. It’s safe, kid-friendly, and they speak English (cutting down on the stress factor). Bingo! Since I have the Amex business platinum and I had chosen Delta as my preferred airline, if I bought the flights using MR rewards points, I would get 50% of those points back. So the total spent was 28,000×3=84,000 MR points, but with 35% back the total MR points spent was 54,600. Not bad for 3 RT tickets!

For lodging, I started searching hotels and Airbnbs. I’m not gonna lie, TCI is expensive this time of year, but I was able to find a 2 bedroom Airbnb for $150 a night. That’s about half was most hotels there cost (and don’t even think about a mega-resort like Beaches or Club Med). Now, we would not be on the beach or have a pool, but the trade off is we get a whole cottage with a full kitchen to make some of our own meals. I could have used my Chase UR points to book a hotel but I didn’t feel like spending my cache of points on lodging so we went with the Airbnb. Plus, for reasons I’ve already stated so many times, I just usually prefer Airbnbs. You get more for your money and they are usually so much better for kids. I love having our own apartment or house. It’s so much more convenient and it’s cool to live a little more “local.”

Here are a couple pics of the place. There were also two bedrooms. Nice and large and bright!

Finally, I booked a snorkeling excursion using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points. In addition to flights, hotels, and rental cars, you can use Chase UR to book lots of tours and excursions (usually the ones booked through visitor). So the $300 boat trip was also free (minus tipping the guides of course).

The trip

Our flight did not leave Newark until Monday evening of the break, so we decided to drive down for the weekend to visit family, especially my Father-in-law who just moved into a nursing home in NJ. So we drove down with my husband and he left us at my mom’s house in NJ and drove home Sunday. Monday was my birthday but my mom was sick so we didn’t do much, and we took an Uber to the airport that afternoon. After visiting the priority pass lounge there for “dinner,” (kind of gross), we boarded our flight for Atlanta. We landed in Atlanta around 9:30, but it took FOREVER to get to the hotel shuttle because the air train was broken down. We finally made it to our Hampton inn around 10:30pm (have I mentioned how I always use Hampton Inns?), but thanks to digital check in and a digital key on my phone, we got in the room and went right to bed. The next morning we got up, ate the free Hampton breakfast, and took their shuttle to the airport. OMG the Atlanta Airport is HUGE! We then had to take another 15 min shuttle just to get to the international terminal! Luckily we got there early and so were able to visit another Priority Pass Lounge (the Club at ATL), which was much nicer than the one at EWR. The flight was a few minutes delayed but they got us boarded quick and we took off right on time.

We finally landed in Providenciales around 2pm. Immigration and customs was a breeze and we went straight to the rental car place to pick up our tiny little McCar. Now was the moment of truth, I had to drive on the left side of the road! To be honest I was kind of freaking out about that since I booked the trip. But I took a deep breath, asked the kids to STFU, and hit the road! It was actually not as bad as I imagined, it just takes some extra concentration.

Our Airbnb was really nice, in a residential neighborhood so we had to drive wherever we wanted to go. They provided beach towels and chairs for us and one of the nicest and least crowded beaches was a two minute drive away. We split our time between that beach and some of the more crowded beaches in Grace Bay, especially one in an area called “The Bight,” which has a reef for snorkeling.

As far as the trip, here are my pros and cons on Turks and Caicos


  • Small and relaxed
  • Amazing beaches, gorgeous water!!!
  • Great seafood
  • Locals are super nice
  • They speak English and use American dollars
  • Easy to get to from the east coast


  • Lots of rich tourists, hard to experience local culture
  • Have to drive on the left
  • Not a lot of extra activities other than than the beach
  • Food is really expensive – bring stuff from home!

For most of the trip we just spent time on the beautiful beaches and checking out some local restaurants. We did go to the Thursday night fish fry (like a food stand market) and we did our snorkeling trip where we got to visit a little island with lots of iguanas. To be honest,  if the kids were older or I had another adult with me, we would probably have done some more adventurous activities, but I kept things pretty low key.

Here are some pics. The light was incredible so it was hard to take a bad one!

Overall it’s a nice choice for a winter getaway, especially from the east coast of the US. I would love to get to Grand Turk and Salt Cay one day, which are supposed to have a very different vibe; to get there you would take an extra little flight from Providenciales. I’ll save that one for when my husband can join us.

Why I like to book plane tickets super early

Yesterday I was in session with one of my patients and she expressed some anxiety about buying an international flight for July, wondering whether the best strategy was to book now or wait. It took everything in my power not to go into a full-on discussion of this, but unfortunately, that’s not my role as her psychologist! It’s a common worry for those wanting to get the best airline deal, and there are countless online articles about it. The bottom line is, you can never fully predict if and when the prices will go up and down so its always a gamble (although flight alert apps such as Hopper can let you know when a flight you are looking for has gone down in price, and they will also predict whether it will go up or down in the future based on historical data).

I was never one to gamble, so my preferred strategy is to book as early as possible – sometimes that means 331 days in advance, which is typically when the big legacy carriers release their flights. I know this is not for everyone, but it does work for those of us who have somewhat predictable schedules and know that there is a certain time every year when they can travel. Since I work for myself I can basically take off whenever I want, but my family’s schedules are not as flexible. My husband teaches at a college so the dates of his breaks are known well in advance, and my children’s are also fairly predictable. Given that, here are a few other reasons why I like to book early.

  1. I have been searching airline prices for a long time, and in general I have seen this pattern (not always, but usually): release a very low price when the flights are first released (331 days in advance), then go up (maybe even a day after that), then go up and down until the flight. This has served me well 9 times out of 10.
  2. If you book super early, there is a good chance that the airline will change your flight. If the schedule change is significant (usually more than 30-60 mins), you can change your flight FOR FREE to a different flight, even if originally that other flight was way out of your price range. AND that new flight can be the day before or the day after, thus extending your trip. This has served me well many times. Often when you are booking the cheapest flight (as I tend to do), you get some inconvenient times (like leaving at 5am, or having a really tight or really long layover), but the flights with the more convenient times can be hundreds of dollars more. Once the airline changes the schedule, though, you can pick which one of those more convenient flights works for you! For example, one year my husband and I were taking a quick getaway to Mexico and only had about 3 days there. About a month before the trip I received an email from the airline that they had changed the outgoing flight to leave about 8 hours later, thus we would lose almost a full day! I called them back right away, and they kept looking for flights a little earlier that day but none were ideal. I asked about leaving the day before and they were able to get us on an afternoon flight that day, so we would arrive about 9pm the day before we were originally scheduled to arrive. I had enough Orbucks (Orbitz points) to book a free room for that night, so we ended up actually gaining almost a full day on our trip, all for FREE!
  3. If you are booking Award flights on American Airlines it ALWAYS pays to book as soon as they release the award seats, 331 days in advance. The award seats have a lowest price they will go and will not go any lower, so with American, the lowest they will be is 15k one way for an international flight. If you log on the day they release and find award seats at that price, even if they are not exactly on the day you prefer, book them. The reason is this, AA will let you change award seats FOR FREE¬† on an award ticket, as long as the departure and arrival cities are the same and the “fare class” is the same (e.g, it still costs 15k miles per flight – you couldn’t change and award ticket that you got for 15k to one that was for 30k). It is fairly common that over time, the airline will start to release more low cost award tickets, so if you have a method for monitoring this (I use expertflyer, I will explain more below how this works), you will be alerted when the other award tickets are released and you can change the flight. Then you can call them and change the flight to the better one.

I recently had a fun, roller coaster experience using all of these methods on a trip we are taking to Mexico this March (are you sensing a theme? We love Mexico!). Some of you may feel your eyes glaze over as I get into the nitty gritty details, but for the one or two of you who are actually interested, read on!

I have been to Mexico five times but only to the Yucatan peninsula. I would love to see more of the country and have really wanted to visit San Miguel de Allende (recently voted most best city in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine). My husband has a certain week off in March for his spring break and for some reason my kids usually get the Friday of that week off for a teacher inservice or something. So if we went that week they wouldn’t miss as much school. When I first started looking for award flights it seemed like an impossible task. College spring break time is almost as bad as the week between Christmas and New Years for finding affordable flights, even for places that aren’t your typical “wooo hoo spring break!” locales. At the time I had about 60k AA miles to spend. That is only enough for 4 one-way tickets internationally, so I theoretically had enough to get us there, but not enough to return. I did have this great perk through my Amex platinum business card, however, which is that if you use your membership rewards (Amex points) to buy a plane ticket on your preferred airline (this is something you have to pick in January and cannot change it for a year), AMEX will give you 50% of those points back, thus giving you a 50% discount (since then it has decreased to 35% points back). So I could use those points flying Delta on the way home.

Now to find the flights. As I have said elsewhere, for international flights I often look for flights leaving from Newark, Philadelphia, or JFK because our home airport of Syracuse is very small and therefore we might have 2 layovers. I searched and searched and found one-way flights from PHL-BJX (the closest airport to San Miguel, about an hour away) for 15k miles each leaving the Tuesday of that spring break week, from PHL at 5am. This meant we would have to drive down to Philadelphia that Monday, stay at a hotel near the airport and get to the airport by maybe 3:30am? Yuck, but oh well. For the return flights, the cheapest I could find on Delta was a BJX-PHL leaving on that Saturday 8:45am from BJX and getting into PHL at 6:41pm. This was also not great because we would need to be at BJX at 6:45 am, which meant leaving our hotel in San Miguel around 5:45am. But this was the cheapest option. The one-way tickets on Delta were $388 per person which translated to 155,812 MR points, so after the 50% back I would have spent 77, 906 MR, which would be 19,476 MR per ticket. The only kind of crappy thing was that we would only be in San Miguel for 3.5 days now, given we would arrive Tues afternoon and have to leave at the crack of dawn on Saturday. Here is how that all changed over the course of almost a year, so that now we are getting 7 full days there!

  1. First flight change: A little while after I booked the tickets, Delta changed the return flight time to an hour earlier – 7:45am! This meant we would have to leave the hotel at 4:45. Are cab drivers even up at that hour? The change was not significant enough to ask for a flight change, so we may have had to suck it up, until…
  2. Flight cancellation: One day in September I pulled up my Delta app to check on a different flight, and in my upcoming trips list the flights to Mexico had disappeared! I freaked out for a minute and then called Delta. They explained that our original flight had been cancelled. I asked why they didn’t contact me to let me know, and they said they couldn’t because I booked it with a 3rd party (amex). I had a hard time believing this because my Delta skymiles # was attached to the reservation, and they have my contact info through that, but whatever. The agent was super helpful and was able to find a flight that left the same day (Sat) at 9:45 am and got to Philadelphia at 8:33pm. Woo hoo! This meant we didn’t have to leave San Miguel at 5:30am. We would still need to leave early, but it wasn’t as bad.
  3. Second flight change: Then one day in November, I was contacted by Delta (by this point I made sure the reservation was linked to my contact info) to inform me that the flight had been changed again. I can’t remember what the change was (I think the layover was something ridiculously short, like 30 minutes), but it was significant enough that Delta would allow me to change my flights again, this time to whatever was open. Since I had wanted more time in San Miguel, I asked about flights on Sunday, and they changed our ticket to leave at 9:45 am Sunday, now giving us another FULL DAY there. I had wanted to check out Guanajuato, another¬† colonial town in the area that closer to the airport, but in our original itinerary, we didn’t have enough time to do two cities. Now we could leave San Miguel on Sat morning, spend the day and night in Guanajuato, and be closer to the airport to leave Sunday morning, #winning!
  4. I wasn’t thrilled about the 5am flight from PHL to BJX on AA, but like I said, when I originally booked it, that was all that was available in the 15k award level. Enter expertflyer.com. This site offers a search engine that will search award availability for you, and if you pay for their premium service ($10 a month), they will continue to search for any award that might open up for the flights you want. This is well worth the $10 in my opinion. I had expert flyer searching for any award flights on the Sat, Sun, and Mon before that Tuesday we were originally scheduled to leave, and lo and behold! on one day on November a bunch of new 15K award flights were released! I was able to decide between several different flights, but ended up settling on one that left PHL on 3pm on Sat and arrived in Mexico at 9pm. The only problem with that was the layover in Dallas was super tight, 55 minutes! But I figured if we missed the flight we would be able to catch one the next day.¬† Now we had an extra 2.5 days there! I booked a Hampton Inn near the airport for when we arrived late Sat night for $50 (don’t worry, it got great reviews, these are just Mexico prices), and another hotel in San Miguel for 2 extra nights using Chase ultimate rewards points.
  5. Now I was very happy that we would have 7 full days in our destination, vs 3.5. The only thing that was niggling at me was that 55min layover in Dallas. So, the other day I received a promotion from American where I have “Platinum Pro” status for the next 4 months! This means I get complimentary upgrades for domestic flights and can pay a small fee for myself and my companions for upgrades on international flights. I called to see about getting upgraded to first class on the flight there – at least we would be at the front of the cabin for when we would have to run to our connection. As I was chatting with the customer service rep however, she informed me that the upgrades don’t apply for award flights. Darn! I explained my concern to her that the connection was super tight, and she offered to look for a flight that left Philadelphia earlier. Luckily, she found seat availability on the 12:50pm flight from Philadelphia, giving as a longer layover of 3 hours. But since there is a Centurion Lounge in DFW, I don’t mind that at all! I don’t know how she was able to find this, since that flight had not been available previously at the 15k award level, but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth!

So there it is, my long and winding road of being able to turn a 3.5 day trip with super inconvenient flight times into a 7 day trip with very convenient flights, with no change fees or money exchanged at all. I hope if you are still here by this point I have convinced you why it sometimes makes sense to book flights way in advance. It’s still a gamble, in that you never know for sure whether you will get a flight change that will allow you to book something else or if more award seats open up, but in my case the gamble paid off.