7 Things I Loved About the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan in Paris, and 2 Things I Didn’t

View of the Eiffel Tower from our room at the Radisson Blu Metropolitan
View of the Eiffel Tower from our room at the Radisson Blu Metropolitan

If you are sitting on a free night worldwide, courtesy of the Club Carlson credit card devaluation, I can recommend the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan hotel in Paris.  

The hotel is not fancy, nor is it in a neighborhood popular with tourists.  But for me, it had a certain charm to make our stay in Paris comfortable and enjoyable.

We spent five nights of our summer vacation at the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Hotel, Paris Eiffel.  Four nights were courtesy of Club Carlson points and the fifth night was partially paid by a Radisson gift card I won in a contest.

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

Bastille Day Fireworks viewed from Place de Mexico
Bastille Day Fireworks viewed from Place de Mexico

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

viewed from Place de Mexico
Our small but functional room at the Radisson Blu le Metropolitan

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 Metropolitan hotel, 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

It's an easy walk from Le Trocadero Metro station
It’s an easy walk from the Trocadero Metro station

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.

Laundromat right next door
Laundromat right next door

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.

Le Androuet, one of the best cheese stores in Paris
Le Androuet, one of the best cheese stores in Paris

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 few of the cheeses for sale at Androuet
A few of the cheeses for sale at Androuet

Charlottesville, Virginia on Miles and Points

Charlottesville, VirginiaWe are making a last minute excursion to Charlottesville, Virginia.

I’ve never been, and am really looking forward to it.  Charlottesville should be very pretty this time of year.

There’s no football game on the calendar, but the town seems to be completely sold out.

I am finding availability however, in a relatively new hotel on the outskirts, a Hyatt Place.  The rooms look pretty nice, just like the Hyatt Place Universal Studios we stayed at in Orlando.

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

I don’t have any points in the Hyatt Gold Passport program, but it is worth checking how much this hotel goes for on points.

Hyatt Points and Points Plus Cash Chart
Hyatt Points and Points Plus Cash Chart

The Hyatt Place Charlottesville is a Category 2 hotel, 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.

Ain’t No Cure for the Radisson Blu(es)

Is it worth it to keep the Club Carlson credit card?
Is it worth it to keep the Club Carlson credit card?

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?

Redeem Capital One Venture Points Multiple Times

Erase Your Travel Charges , Then Erase them again
Erase your travel charges. . . then erase them again

We are taking the Amtrak train up to Newark (EWR) airport in order to catch our Open Skies flight to Paris.

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”?  

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?  

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.

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!

The Real Reason I Collect Miles and Points

My sister and daughter at Herald Sqaure in NYC
My daughter and sister at Herald Sqaure in NYC

My sister lives in Helena, Montana (HLN) the capital of the Big Sky State.  The population of Helena is less than 30,000 people.

The airport there is really tiny.  Long-term parking is $15 per week; you leave your payment in the drop box when you exit.

There are only about six flights per day out of HLN.  The flights are not only scarce, they are also expensive.

My sister wanted to come east for our Mom’s 90th birthday and our Uncle’s 95th, so I offered to buy her a ticket.

Well there was no way she was going to let me buy a ticket.

But she would allow me to pay for her ticket with frequent flyer miles — miles that I had accrued largely through credit card sign-up bonuses.

That’s the reason I collect miles and points!

Extreme Travel Hacking for the Sandwich Generation

When I attended my first frequent flyer meet-up a few years ago, one of the old timers informed me that frequent flier miles should not be used for domestic flights.  Excuse me?

I was told that I could get a much higher value if I redeemed points for international first class travel.

Over the past several years, I have redeemed hundreds of thousands of miles for flights — and all of these flights were economy class domestic travel.

Most people think of family travel as traveling with children.  Our family travel is traveling to see family, or flying family members in for a visit.  To me, that is maximizing the value of frequent flyer miles!

I don’t care whether I have to spend 25,000 miles or 50,000 miles for a roundtrip ticket.  The “point” is that we use the miles to get where we need to go.  

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