16 Percent Cash Back at 150+ Stores, Plus Travel Deals

16 percent off online purchases via Ebates today

16 percent off online purchases via Ebates today

Ebates, the cash back online shopping portal, is celebrating its sixteenth birthday by offering sixteen percent cash back on purchases from over 150 online stores.

Most of the sales run all week, but the sixteen percent cash back on Priceline Express Deal hotel rooms is today only.

Not to be outdone, FatWallet, another cash back portal owned by the same company, is matching the sixteen percent offer at Priceline and is offering additional bonuses on travel purchases originating at their site, today only.

This post contains affiliate links.  Thanks if you choose to use them!

2 Free Movie Tickets from AAA Mid-Atlantic

Get 2 Free Movie Tickets at AAA Mid-Atlantic

Get 2 Free Movie Tickets at AAA Mid-Atlantic

I was at the local AAA office today to purchase a couple of fee-free ViSA gift cards.

The Mid-Atlantic chapter of AAA typically sells fee-free VISA gift cards in May and June of each year as a courtesy to their members.

With graduations and June weddings, lots of people are purchasing gift cards.

Travel hackers may find gift cards useful if to meet the minimum spend requirement on a new credit card, or to rack up spending to earn points.

Fee Free VISA Gift Cards at AAA Mid-Atlantic

Fee Free VISA Gift Cards at AAA Mid-Atlantic

While I was a AAA, I took five minutes to take advantage of another offer.  By learning about the benefits of membership, I earned two free tickets to the movies.

I had my choice of tickets to Regal, Cinemark, AMC, or Bowtie Cinemas.

AAA also sells discounted movie tickets.  You can see the complete list of eligible theaters here.

We maintain an AAA membership for the roadside assistance.  We also take advantage of the 10 percent discount on Amtrak tickets and on hotels.

Do you remember the days when you could request a custom Trip-Tik in advance of a road trip?

CITIbank AApologizes

Citibank apologizes

Image Copyright Uris (English Wikipedia)

I don’t really get the bloggers who claim to earn gazillions of frequent flyer miles by shopping via online shopping portals.

Sure I try to rack up a few extra points when shopping online, but more often than not I find that bonus offers are not honored, probably due to some fault of my own.

For instance, if you enter a coupon code found elsewhere your bonus points will not be credited.  If you already have items waiting in your shopping cart, you might not earn the extra points.  If sales post after the promotion closes, you may be out of luck.

CITIbank Apologizes for Shopping Portal Payout Error

The AAdvantage shopping portal was offering a holiday promo some months back.  I never received the bonus points, but past experience has taught me that it might not be worth the effort to try to straighten it out.

Today I received a surprising email from Citibank.  Here’s what it said:

We didn’t give you the correct incentive
You recently enrolled in an offer to earn 3X AAdvantage® miles for eligible online purchases through March 31, 2015. After reviewing your Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Visa® card account, we found we didn’t give you the correct bonus incentive for the qualifying purchases made during the offer period.

What we’re doing to fix this
We added 562 AAdvantage® miles to your card account. You’ll see this adjustment on your card statement within two billing periods.

The email is referring to this offer for 3x extra points for purchases made via the AAdvantage shopping portal:

Bonus AA miles  for Shopping Online

Bonus AA miles for Shopping Online

Well CITIbank, apology accepted.

Many of the online shopping portals are run by a company called Cartera.  You can read more about their business model here.  There is a whole thread on Flyer Talk discussing the ins and outs of online shopping portals.

Do you ever find that you are not credited what you expect from your online purchases?

Burn Your Club Carlson Points at Melbourne Beach Radisson

Mermaid fountain at entrance to Radisson Suites Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach, Florida

Mermaid fountain at entrance to Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach, Florida

If you have Club Carlson points to burn and you need to burn them fast — consider  the Radisson Suite Hotel  Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach, Florida.

Melbourne Beach — where’s that?  

That’s the question I was asked repeatedly whenever I mentioned our Spring Break trip to Florida.

Melbourne Beach is on a barrier island about half an hour south of Cape Canaveral.  This area along the eastern seaboard in Florida is known as the “Space Coast.”  Melbourne Beach is a low key beach town.  There’s no boardwalk or amusements — just a broad sandy beach, the wind, the waves, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Melbourne Beach is a quiet residential area with four high rise hotels, some condos and and garden apartments, and single family homes.  The beach is very clean and not crowded at all.  Day visitors will find free beach parking at a municipal park next door to the Radisson.

The view from my balcony at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront

The view from our balcony at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront

Burn Your Club Carlson Points at the Radisson Suite  Oceanfront in Melbourne, Florida

The Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront is a gem of a property, and is especially well suited to families traveling with kids.  It was built in 1984 as condos, but was immediately purchased by Radisson for use as a hotel.

The view from my balcony at the Radisson Suites Hotel Oceanfront

We used 44,000 Club Carlson points to stay for two nights at this magnificent property where every room is a suite and has a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  Through the end of May 2015, holders of the Club Carlson credit card can get a second night free when redeeming award nights.

As a Club Carlson Gold member (due to having the credit card), I landed a top floor suite. The welcome gift was a bowl full of fruit and pastries.

The “rooms” are actually more like one bedroom apartments.  Both the bedroom and large living room have floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ocean, and all the rooms have an oceanfront balcony.  The decor is modern.  Each room has a king sized sleep number bed in the bedroom, and a queen-sized sofa bed in the living room.  I especially loved that the floors were travertine tile, which is so much cleaner than carpet.

I didn’t take any pictures of our suite because the panoramic photos on the hotel website are so drop dead gorgeous.  But I can tell you this:  every single room in this hotel is has a full oceanfront view.  Every room is a large suite — modern, clean, and comfortable.

There is a pool, hot tub, sundeck, and poolside bar.  Two beach chairs and an umbrella rent for $20 a day, but beach toys are free to borrow.  My only concern:  no lifeguard on the beach.

If you make your reservations before the end of May 2015, you can have a two-night stay in a gorgeous oceanfront all-suites hotel for just 44,000 points.  Award room availability is wide open through December 2016.

The view from my balcony at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront

The view of the bay from the room entrance at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront

There is a shopping center with a Walmart and a supermarket across the street from the hotel.  The Walmart features a large selection of beach items at the front of the store.  There’s also a pizza place, a Thai restaurant, and a Friendly’s.

Did I mention that there are laundry machines at the Radisson?  That is a necessity for our family when traveling with kids.

I am grateful to The Deal Mommy for introducing me to this place.

Everything is super easy, relaxed and convenient.

Where to Eat in Melbourne Florida

If you love seafood you can’t do better than Shells of Melbourne, which features about a dozen different kinds of fresh fish and seafood daily.  Shells of Melbourne is a family style restaurant located inland, near the Melbourne Mall.

Another place we tried was Squid Lips, located just over the bridge on the mainland.  It’s a rambling bayside bar and restaurant, with a view of the fishing pier.  The virgin coladas are highly recommended!

 

Which Hotel Chain Has the Most Hotels in Paris?

"Paris is Always a Good Idea'  Audrey HepburnNow that our plane tickets to Paris are booked, I need to make some hotel reservations.

To the extent possible, I’d like to leverage my hotel points to book as many free nights as possible.

To that end, I started by exploring availability in the the two programs where I have the most points:  Club Carlson and IHG.

Not surprisingly, award availability for our travel dates was hit or miss.

Which Hotel Chain has the Most Hotels in Paris?

There are quite a few Holiday Inns and other IHG hotels in Paris, but only 4 Club Carlson Radisson Blu hotels.

Are these the best loyalty programs if you are looking for free nights for your Paris holiday?

If you read a number of other travel blogs, you’ve probably heard about the Park Hyatt Vendome, and how you can stay there for free by opening a Chase Hyatt credit card.

There are 2,400 hotels in Paris.  Why do all the bloggers stay at the same place?

On the one hand, I’d really love to stay in a boutique hotel on the Left Bank or the Marais.  On the other hand, I need to economize.

I went to Award Mapper to get a rough count of which chains have hotels that you can book for points in Paris.  I was surprised by what I found.

Best Western Has 42 Hotels in Central Paris

Best Western Hotels in Paris

Best Western Hotels in Paris via Award Mapper

Here are the tallies I came up with for the major hotel chains:

Best Western:  42

Choice:  15

Club Carlson:  4

Hilton:  1

Hyatt:  4

Intercontinental (IHG):  14

Marriott:  9

Starwood (SPG):  4

Wyndham:  2

Best Western has the most properties — 42 hotels in many different neighborhoods in Paris.  Hilton has the fewest — just one hotel.  Hyatt, Starwood, and Club Carlson each have four hotels.

Are you surprised by these results?  Were you able to book award stays in Paris?  

Aviation Fans: View Aer Lingus Airbus Inaugural Flight into Dulles

Aer Lingus Inaugural Airbus Flight into IAD

Discover Dulles: Watch this A330 land on May 1, 2015

The Aer Lingus Airbus A330  is making its inaugural flight from flight from Dublin, Ireland into Dulles International Airport (IAD) on May 1, 2015.  

45 lucky people will be invited to view the landing and get a behind the scenes tour of the Ramp Control Towers and Operations at IAD.

I attended one of these “Discover Dulles” events last summer and it was a blast!

Click here to enter the contest for a chance to be a part of this historical event.

Continue reading —>

Where to Stay Within Walking Distance to Universal Studios, Orlando

Hogwarts Castle

Hogwarts Castle
Photo by Rstoplabe14 at en.wikipedia

A visit to Harry Potter World was on the agenda for our recent spring break trip to Florida.

Onsite hotels at Universal Studios Orlando were very expensive in early April.

I wanted to stay as close as possible in an offsite hotel, so that we could easily walk to Universal Studios.  I knew that we would be doing a lot of walking once we got to the park.

Many offsite hotels offer shuttle services, but these can be quite limited in terms of the hours and frequency of service, and their capacity is capped

Chain Hotels Across the Street from Universal Orlando

Stay with points at chain hotels across the street from Universal Orlando

Which Offsite Hotels are Closest to Universal Orlando?

A lot of hotel properties  advertise that they are within walking distance of Universal Studios.

But the Doubletree (by Hilton at the entrance of Universal Studios) is the absolute closest offsite hotel to the main gate.

The map above indicates where the hotel sits in relation to the massive parking garage at the entrance to Universal.

How Many Points Do You Need for a Free Night at a Hotel Near Universal Studios Orlando?

Several hotels are within a long block of the Doubletree.  Most of these are chain hotels that participate in the major hotel rewards programs.

Here’s how many points you need for a free night at each of these hotels:

  • Fairfield Inn & Suites — 25K points
  • Best Western Plus Universal Inn — 16K points
  • Doubletree — 20K points
  • Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites — 25K points
  • Hyatt Place — 8K points

I imagine these hotels offer similar amenities such as outdoor pools and free breakfast.

But there a lot of variability in the number of points you need for an award stay.

What’s All the Fuss About Hyatt’s Gold Passport Rewards Program

Hyatt Place Universal Orlando -- 8,000 Points

Hyatt Place Universal Orlando — 8,000 Points

At 8,000 points, Hyatt Place Orlando Universal is the clear winner in terms of least number of points needed for a free night.

A lot of travel bloggers rave about Hyatt’s loyalty program — Hyatt Gold Passport.  I never really understood the appeal.

In my mind, Hyatt Hotels are bland business class hotels in office parks or other sub-optimum locations.

Clearly, that’s an overgeneralization.

Now, after completing a stay near Universal Orlando during spring break, I finally get what all the Hyatt fuss is about.

In a word:  value.

The obvious value here was the 8,000 point redemption cost for the Hyatt Place.  Because we there on a peak travel day, the rates at the hotel were very high — $200 a night.  While the rates fluctuate according to demand, the points cost is generally fixed.  (A major exception is Starwood resorts, which sometimes jack up the points cost during high season.)

Hyatt Place Orlando Universal — My Take

Typical room at Hyatt Place Universal Orlando

Typical room at Hyatt Place Universal Orlando –2 full size beds and a pullout couch

The Hyatt Place is about a 15-minute walk to the entrance of the Islands of Adventure or Universal Orlando Theme Park.  

This hotel had very high ratings on TripAdvisor, so I decided to book it for two nights.  I transferred the points to Hyatt from the Chase Ultimate Rewards Program.

We chose a room on an upper floor with a view of Universal Studios, so we could watch the fireworks at night.  The room was well designed and functional.  The room had two beds and a pullout couch so it was perfect for myself, my daughter, and her friend.

The free hot breakfast was generous and varied, with real Starbucks coffee and Tazo tea.

The small outdoor pool was not crowded, despite the hotel operating at full capacity.

There was a convenient Universal ticket desk in the hotel lobby.

TGIF is right next door for teen-friendly meal options.

I would be loathe to pay $200 per night for this hotel, but for 8,000 points, it’s a good deal.

$1167 RT Newark to Paris — Biz Bed on Open Skies

New York to Parks on Open Skies $1167 in Business Class

New York to Paris on Open Skies:  $1167 RT in Business Class

I took the bait!  Yesterday I saw a flash sale advertised on Dan’s Deals for a $1167 round trip flight from Newark (EWR) to Paris (ORY) in lie-flat seats.

I booked the deal on Open Skies — a “luxury, boutique” offshoot of British Air.

$1167 is the price of a discounted economy fare ticket to Europe during high season!

Having missed the previous day’s hot deal of just $981 RT, I knew I had to act quickly to get in on possibly the second best bargain of the summer.

If this deal interests you jump on it quickly!

Hack this fare down to $1167

Hack this fare down to $1167

 

How to Hack Your Way to Paris in Lie Flat Seats for $1167 Roundtrip

Open Skies is running a promotion on their nonstop flights to Paris from New York’s JFK or Newark airports.  They are advertising a sale price of $1698 round trip for business class, which they call Biz Bed service.

To discount the fare further, you need to join AARP (membership is $16,) which offers a $400 discount per passenger on Business Class flights on British Air.

To lower the price by an additional ten percent, apply the promo code CARDOFFERU, which is available to holders of the Chase British Airways credit card, and possibly others.

This brings the roundtrip fare for lie flat seats in business class down to $1167, just about the same as the Open Skies price for economy seats.

Book Now, Ask Questions Later 

Please, don’t!  These are nonrefundable tickets so you need to know what you’re doing.

I had never heard of Open Skies airline before.

But the time was right for me, so I booked the tickets first, and asked questions later.

What is a Luxury Boutique Airline?

Open Skies has some slick marketing copy on their website — contrasting New York City to Paris, and touting their Biz Bed product.

With tickets in hand, I did some research, and found decidedly mixed reviews.

There are numerous reports on the web about delayed and cancelled flights, tired seats, and subpar service.  I may need to temper my expectations to avoid possible disappointment.

Our flight leaves from the Newark airport, which is pretty convenient for us because we can take the train up from Washington, DC.  

Open Skies flies nonstop to Paris Orly, which I understand is a bit closer to the city than CDG.

We will take our chances.

What is Open Skies’ Biz Bed Service?

Open Skies touts their Biz Bed class as a “uniquely premium” direct service between New York and Paris.

They claim:

  • spacious seat that converts to a fully flat bed
  • access to comfortable private lounges
  • dedicated check-in, fast track security, and priority boarding
  • if you’re travelling from New York, a gourmet meal in the lounge before your departure
  • an intimate and exclusive cabin with only 20 seats
  • soft under-mattresses, luxurious Egyptian cotton duvet, full-size pillow, and pajamas
  • exclusive and attentive service
  • the finest French cuisine with a 4-course menu cooked by master chefs
  • the finest wines French vineyards have to offer
  • the famous Ladurée macarons
  • a personal iPad, loaded with movies, music, games and entertainment
  • noise cancelling headphones
  • space for a handbag and small suitcase onboard, and three pieces of checked luggage included in the fare
Open Skies promises French champagne and macarons

Open Skies promises French champagne and macarons

It all sounds a bit over the top.  Personally, it’s the Ladurée macarons that caught my attention!

Having never travelled in Business Class, I am sure I will be grateful just to stretch out.

I am not under any illusions about the “luxury” of air travel.

Suggestions for Paris, please!

I’ve been to Paris several times, but not in the last 25 years!

If you have any suggestions of the best places to stay (e.g. neighborhoods) and things to do, please share in the comments.

We hope to take some day trips by train so I welcome any ideas on destinations within striking distance of Paris.

How I Leveraged My Bathroom Renovation Into a Spring Break Trip to Florida

Spring Break in Florida

Spring break in Florida, here we come!

Our 40-year old townhouse is in desperate need of repairs.

What with the original bathrooms, and leaks springing left and right, it was past time to take action.  Of course if you defer your home repairs like we did, you find yourself facing some major expenses all at once.

Luckily, I met Carlos the contractor when I was out walking the dog one day.  Carlos can fix anything and is super nice and flexible.  Our arrangement was that we would pay Carlos for the labor, and that we would purchase the materials.

Since I knew we would be racking up charges, I saw this as an easy way to meet the minimum spend requirements on some new travel rewards credit cards.

My Travel Rewards Credit Card Applications

My remodeled bathroom

My remodeled bathroom

It had been over six months since I had applied for a travel rewards credit card, and there were several cards with large sign-up bonuses on my wish list.

Purchasing materials for the home renovation would be an easy way to meet hefty initial spend requirements.

Warning — if you don’t pay your credit cards in full and on time every month, you should not be in this game!

Barclay’s U.S. Air Dividend Miles Card

The Barclay’s U.S. Air Dividend Miles credit card was offering 50K bonus miles after the first purchase and payment of the annual fee.  This card was on the verge of retirement due to the US Air – American Airlines merger.  I had applied once before, and was not approved, so this was my last ditch effort to rack up 50K miles before the merger.  I applied, and was denied once again, for having too many recent credit card applications.  Fortunately, the bank did not do a hard pull of my credit report, so no skin off my back.  This card is no longer being offered.

Chase’s Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card offers 40K bonus points after completing a minimum spend requirement of $3,000 within the first three months.  You can get an additional 5,000 Ultimate Reward Points by adding an authorized user.  Ultimate Rewards points are great because they are easily transferred to a variety of frequent flyer programs.  The card pays two times points on travel and restaurants.  There is a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year.  I wrote yesterday how I used 45,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points earned from opening the Sapphire Preferred credit card to finance our Amtrak Auto Train trip to Florida.

Capital One’s Venture Card

The Capital One Venture rewards card offers 40,000 bonus points to new applicants who meet a minimum spend of $3,000 within the first three months.  The card pays two times points on all purchases, and carries a $59 annual fee which is waived the first year.  After meeting the initial spend requirement, I had 46,000 points which could be used to offset $460 in travel expenses.  The Venture card is not a favorite among travel bloggers — which I think is crazy because it has a decent sign-up bonus, earns a great rate on all spending, allows flexible redemptions for travel expenses (while still earning frequent flyer miles on your purchases.)  I have read numerous reports of people having success in getting the annual fee waived, sometimes for two years in a row.

Gift Card Purchases for Home Improvement Stores

The last method I used to accrue free travel to Florida was to purchase gift cards for Home Depot and Lowes at an office supply store with my Chase Ink Bold business credit card.  The Ink Bold card earns 5x Ultimate Reward Points for purchases at at office supply stores like Staples and Office Depot and Amazon.  My contractor used these gift cards to purchase supplies for the renovation, and we used the cards to order plumbing parts, medicine cabinets, light fixtures and more.  When possible, we shopped through an online shopping portal to earn extra points and miles for our purchases.

A “Free” Trip to Florida for Spring Break

My daughter is graduating from high school this year so this was our last chance to take a spring break trip together.  She asked if she could invite a friend to come along, a request that was easy to accommodate thanks to miles and points.

Our trip was not completely free, of course.  But through the strategies outlined above, and prior accrual of points, we were able to enjoy our round trip travel on the Auto Train and four out of five nights hotels in Florida for free.

To compare current credit card offers, click here.  If you need a good contractor, drop me a line.

Catch the Auto Train to Florida Via Amtrak Guest Rewards

Amtrak Auto Train Station in Lorton, Virginia

Amtrak Auto Train Station in Lorton, Virginia

The best thing about the Amtrak Guest Rewards program is that the points redemptions have a fixed cost.  That is, the cost of a trip paid with points does not vary in accordance with demand.

There are blackout dates on popular travel days when you cannot redeem your points for travel.  But if you can work around those dates, you can find great value.

We recently returned from a spring break trip to Florida on the Amtrak Auto Train.  This was a great adventure and a lot of fun, because we were able to use our points to reserve sleeper compartments.

Travel Free on the Amtrak Auto Train with Miles and Points

The auto train departs from the Lorton, Virginia station south of Washington, DC every day at 4 p.m.  It arrives in Sanford, Florida, near Orlando, the next morning by 10 a.m.  Your car travels with you.  If you pay $50 extra for priority off-loading of your vehicle, you can be on your way within minutes of arrival.

Cost of the Auto Train: $1,435 or 4,500 ponts?

$1,435 or 4,500 Amtrak Rewards points?

I traveled to Florida in style with my daughter, her friend, and our Honda Civic Hybrid for 45,000 points.  The car transport costs 15,000 points one way, and a “roomette” sleeping compartment, which sleeps two, costs 15,000 points.  Since there were three of us traveling, we required two compartments.

I was able to instantly transfer 45,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak, to get the trip for free.  The points were earned by opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  The cash value of the points was $450.

Because we were traveling in “high season,” we received three times that value for our points.  The cost of the one-way trip paid in cash would have been $1,435.  The cost is less at other times of the year — but if you have kids in school — your vacation times are dictated by the school schedule.

I do believe I have discovered the best value in the world of miles and points for budget domestic travel.  It’s not exotic or foreign, but it is a whole lot of fun.

What’s It Like Traveling in a Roomette on the Auto Train?

Yeah Florida!

Hurrah Florida! It was great to catch some rays after the long winter.

If you are traveling in a sleeping car, you have the services of a porter to make up your bed at night, and to assist you with you bags.  You can eat in the dining car, or they will bring your meal to your room, complete with a white tablecloth.

The roomettes are very well designed.  Each compartment has a closet to hang your coat, some storage shelves, curtains for full privacy, clean towels, an electrical outlet, and a night light.  The porter makes up the lower bunk with fresh sheets, a futon like mattress pad, two pillows, and a blanket.  The bed is quite comfy, and the lower bunk offers a view of the scenery whizzing by.  I didn’t try the upper bunk, but it is fairly spacious, and certainly comfortable enough for kids.

There is a drink station in each car for free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.  The sleeping cars are double decker.  If you are on the upper deck, you will likely have to go downstairs to use the bathroom, though some sleeping cars have a bathroom on the upper level.  There is a small shower with an adjacent dressing room on the lower level, if you are so inclined.

The dining car on the auto train.

Meals are included in the ticket price. My daughter and her friend enjoyed breaking up the trip with a visit to the dining car.

There are several dining cars to accommodate guests, and a lounge car with limited WiFi passwords.

A full dinner is served in the dining car.  The dinner service offered bread, salad, ice tea, a choice of five entrees, dessert and coffee.  The food was quite decent.  There is also a continental breakfast of orange juice, coffee, cold cereal, warm muffins, and bagels.

Both meals are included in your fare.

The auto train features Disney movies in the lounge car in the evenings.

The negatives:  no WiFi in the sleeping cars; small bathrooms with tiny sinks, loud announcements in the morning calling you to breakfast.

It was great to arrive in Florida refreshed and ready to start our vacation!

Do you have any questions about the Auto Train?  Ask away in the comments!