This past summer, I spent a glorious two weeks in Scotland.
The primary object of the trip was to partake in the incredible Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Because I also wanted to see the countryside, I signed up for a small group tour to the Isle of Skye with Rabbies.
One of the surprise stops on the tour was a visit to the Dalwhinnie distillery. Whisky isn’t my cup of tea. But who could resist sampling an intense glass of hot chocolate with a wee dram of whisky?
What’s more, as a Friend of the Classic Malts, you are eligible for a free tour of twelve Scottish distilleries, along with a complimentary dram of single malt Scotch whiskey at each stop. Basic tours at the distilleries can cost between £5 to £12.
Most locations also offer a more extensive tour that typically includes extra tastings.
The following classic distilleries participate in the program:
At your first distillery visit, show your pass and request a “Friends journal.” You can collect stamps in the journal at each distillery that you visit. If you collect all twelve stamps, you are rewarded with a Quaich, the traditional whisky sharing cup!
I loved the hotel. Would I have loved it as much if if it were a paid stay, as opposed to practically free? Probably not. As a certified cheapskate, I get some bizarre pleasure about getting something for nothing. I would not have paid 340 Euro a night to stay there.
But after agonizing about the various Radisson Blu hotels in Paris, I am very glad we selected Le Metropolitan.
Here are a few reasons why:
The Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Has a Direct View of the Eiffel Tower
There is nothing more romantic than a room with a view. Our trip to Paris was timed to coincide with Bastille Day. It was a real thrill to witness the fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower from the Place de Mexico, directly in front of our hotel.
The police had barricaded the adjoining streets, so we were in a safe, traffic-free zone. We were away from the crowds, but still had a direct, spot on view of the Eiffel Tower.
We could even catch a view of the Eiffel Tower from our room on the third floor.
The Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Doesn’t Feel Like a Chain Hotel
I prefer to stay somewhere that feels local. The Radisson Blu Metropolitan has its own modern Parisian sense of style. It is not a cookie cutter chain hotel. Rather, it is a small property with 38 rooms and 10 suites, designed by French interior designer François Champsaur. The look is elegant, clean and minimalist, with features such as all white bedding, caramel-stained wood and black stone rainfall showers.
The Small Touches at the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan in Paris
Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference. There was a Nespresso machine in the room, and the restaurant sent up a pitcher of freshly steamed milk. There was a tiny refrigerator to keep some yogurt or a few drinks cold. Also there was a free bottle of Evian water, and two free macarons were delivered to our room each afternoon. If you are lucky, you will get a couple of bonbons with the turn down service — sweet, marzipan like confections. Oh, and there is free wifi in all the rooms, and a safe in the closet.
The Entire Hotel is Nonsmoking
There is another Club Carlson hotel about two blocks away, the Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Hotel Paris Trocadero. It receives high marks on TripAdvisor, and looks charming. We considered that hotel, but the only rooms that were available on points for our dates were smoking rooms. That was unacceptable. At the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitanhotel, all the rooms are nonsmoking.
There’s a Swimming Pool and a Hamman!
There are more than 2,000 hotels in Paris and probably fewer than a few dozen have swimming pools. Le Metropolitan has a small swimming pool in the basement, along with a steam room. The swimming pool is petite, for sure, but there is nothing more refreshing than a dip in the pool after spending the day walking all over Paris. The pool and spa area is quite relaxing, with vintage jazz music piped in. The steam room, or hamman, is lined with bright green glass tiles. I didn’t try it; maybe next time.
The Neighborhood — the Sixteenth Arrondissement
Paris is a city of small neighborhoods, and I am sure most people will say they liked their hotel because the location was great. The Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan is in a quiet neighborhood of upscale apartments, professional offices, and embassies.
The nearest Metro station, Trocadero, is exactly one block away.
There are a handful of cafes and casual restaurants, but no nightlife to speak of. The nice thing about being in a residential neighborhood is that there are convenient services nearby.
For instance, there is a laundromat next door. Nothing makes me happier when traveling than a suitcase full of clean clothes.
A few doors down from the laundromat, you can find Androuet (17, rue des Belles Feuilles), which is reputed to be among the finest cheese shops in Paris. If you are overwhelmed by the choices the shopkeeper can guide you.
In Paris, there are contests each year for various baked goods, such as the best lemon tart, or the best baguette. In 2013, Boulangerie des Belles Feuilles (22 rue des Belles Feuilles) was among the top ten bakeries for butter croissants. Yup, we were staying down the street from the best croissants in Paris. The Paris Brest, a ring of choux pastry filled with hazelnut praline was to die for!
There is also a chain bakery, Paul (12 Rue De Belle Feuilles), where you can grab a quick breakfast. Chain bakery or not, they bake all their breads right there. It is located in a modern shopping mall just steps from Le Metropolitan. The mall houses a large Casino supermarket.
The Champs Elysee, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, and Trocadero Gardens are all within easy walking distance.
What I Didn’t Like About Le Metropolitan
I am sorry if this is sounding like a puff piece. Perhaps the romance of Paris has contributed to my enthusiasm.
There are some things I didn’t like about the Radisson Blu le Metropolitan. First of all the rooms were small. You expect that in Paris. On both our stays, we were kindly upgraded from “Classic” to “Deluxe” rooms. Nevertheless, the rooms were still very small, with hardly enough room to sit and enjoy a drink or a bite to eat. In the second room where we stayed, the toilet was in a separate room from the sink and the shower — an inconvenient layout. Secondly, the service was adequate but not exceptional. Small requests, such as for a second chair, had to be repeated several times.
This hotel is not for everybody. If you want to be in the center of town, or in an area with more nightlife, this hotel is not for you.
There is a full service bar and restaurant at the Radisson Blu le Metropolitan which we did not try. The restaurant was on the pricy side, but discounts are available.
Finally, the cost of a room here in Club Carlson points has effectively doubled (for holders of the Club Carlson credit card), from 70,000 points for two nights, to 70,000 points for one night.
By the way, this hotel has its own app, with tourist information. You can find it on iTunes.
P.S. Per the request in the comments, here is a picture from the cheese shop.
A room at the Charlottesville Hyatt Place is going for $259 per night plus tax. That is way more than I want to pay.
The Trouble With Orbitz Rewards
It occurs to me that I just earned over $100 in Orbitz Rewards via a recent series of contests. In my mind, that should be worth one free night.
Orbitz is showing room availability at the Charlottesville Hyatt Place at the same rate as the Hyatt website, $259. I’m thinking, after crediting my $100 in Orbitz Rewards, that $159 a night might be the best I can do.
However, it turns out that Orbitz calculates tax on the full room rate, and only then subtracts the Orbitz credits.
With tax, the room rate is $289. One night at the Hyatt Place in Charlottesville would be $184, after factoring in $105 in Orbitz Rewards. That’s still quite pricey for my budget.
A Night at Hyatt Place Charlottesville is 8,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points
The Hyatt Place Charlottesville is a Category 2hotel, which costs 8,000 points per night; or at the points plus cash rate, 4,000 points plus $55. You have to call in to request the points plus cash rate.
The hotel was sold out of points plus cash rooms. But there was still availability showing for 8,000 points per room.
Ultimate Rewards Points Transfer to Hyatt Immediately
Fortunately, I have a small stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points. These points can be cashed in as statement credits at the rate of one cent per point. 8,000 points are worth $80 in cash.
I chose to transfer 8,000 Ultimate Rewards points to my Hyatt Gold Passport account. The good thing about the Chase Ultimate Rewards program is that the transfers go through immediately.
I was able to reserve reserve a room — before the hotel sold out completely — for 8,000 points. That’s a pretty good deal in my book.
The hotel business is all about supply and demand.
Rooms in Charlottesville were very expensive on our chosen date, but the price in points of the Hyatt hotel remained static. 8,000 points might not be such a good deal on a low demand night, but in this instance we made out okay.
U.S. Bank sent me a letter today thanking me for being a loyal Club Carlson Visa cardholder.
The reward for my loyalty? 7,500 bonus points.
This is an interesting development, considering that in the last few months, Club Carlson has decimated the value of their credit card by eliminating the second night free benefit and by raising the points required for a reward night at all their best properties.
If you did not receive a similar bonus, I suggest calling U.S. Bank, at 800-236-7546.
I was all set to cancel my Club Carlson Visa business card when the $60 annual fee comes due next month.
But after reading an article by Freequent Flyer about how the new one free night annual benefit will work, I am reconsidering.
Basically, you will be awarded a one-night free cert (for use in U.S. hotels only) upon paying the annual fee, if you have spent $10,000 on the card in the prior year.
After checking my account, I realized that I have already met the spending threshold.
In August, if I pay the $60 annual fee, I will earn 40,000 points. My current balance is 30,000 points. Thus, I would have enough for one award night, and one free night at a hotel like the Radisson Martinique on Broadway which charges 70,000 points for an award night. In general, two “free” nights is worth more to me than one “free” night, because reduces the likelihood of having to pay for a second night at the same hotel on a weekend trip.
Had I not already met the spending threshold, it would not be worthwhile for me to hold on to the Club Carlson Visa card. That’s because I would rather use a 2 percent cash back card like my Venture card if I were to spend $10,000. That would get me $200 to spend on travel, and I know I could find a nice New York City hotel on Priceline for less than that. $200 plus a $60 annual fee is not a good value for one night.
Have you decided what to do? Are you quitting Club Carlson or hanging on?
I purchased the train tickets with my relatively new Capital One Venture card, which has a generous 40,000 point bonus (worth $400 towards travel) for opening a new card after meeting the minimum spend requirement.
The Venture card has a “purchase eraser” feature that allows you to offset travel purchases with points earned from the card.
You earn 2x points on all purchases, and the annual fee of $59 is waived the first year.
Capital One Venture Card is Essentially a 2 Percent Cash Back Travel Rewards Card
I am really rocking this card. It doesn’t get much love in the miles and points world, but I look at it as a 2 percent cash back card that can accumulate points in a “travel savings account.”
I hear via the grapevine that it may be possible to get Capital One to waive the annual fee after the first year. For the meantime, I am putting my everyday spending on this card.
I got to put the Venture card to the test for our upcoming trip. After purchasing the train tickets, the charge posted to my account as a travel charge which could be offset via a credit from the purchase eraser.
Erase the Same Charge on your Capital One Venture Account More than Once
I applied the bonus points to the ticket cost of $122 for two one-way tickets to Newark. I noticed that the charge was still available to be credited. So I tried again, and a second $122 credit was applied to my account.
That means that the same charge can be wiped out more than once.
Use Your Capital One Venture Points to Partially Erase Charges
The return train tickets were $163, which I eliminated via the purchase eraser. Just for kicks, I applied the remaining balance of my points toward that charge again. I didn’t have enough points to cover the full amount, but I received a partial credit on my statement for a portion of the charge.
That means that you can apply points toward partial credits on travel charges, even if you don’t have enough points to completely offset the charges.
These two features mean that the Capital One Venture Card can function as a two percent cash back card, as long as you have a few travel expenses greater than $25 charged to your account.
Have you had a similar experience with the “purchase eraser”?
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.
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.
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.
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!
A visit to Harry Potter World was on the agenda for our recent spring break trip to Florida.
Onsite hotels at Universal StudiosOrlando 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!