The Trip That Wasn’t – Spain/Portugal 2017

Just about right after we returned from our Spain and France 2016 trip, I was right back into vacation planning mode.  Alyce submits her vacation requests for the year in October, so we had to think quickly.

We knew (or at least were pretty sure….) that James would be starting at St. Pius for pre-K3 in the fall of 2017.  Pulling him out of school for a 2-3 week vacation just as he was getting settled in a new school would not be a good idea.  I knew we would have to shift our Fall vacation timeline to late Spring/early Summer at some point, and it turned out that 2017 would be the year to do it.

I only seriously considered European destinations.  Southern hemisphere destinations were in the winter season and/or were too far away.  Asia was too far away as well.

Portugal has been on my radar for a while, and we had really enjoyed the parts of Spain we just visited.  It didn’t take too much research to narrow it down to those areas, but the actual itinerary involved a lot more planning.

But first, we had to settle on the length.  Initially, we were looking at two weeks.  Alyce was able to get 3 weeks off in a row again, but she was not yet convinced.  Fortunately, Samantha – who was very helpful on our last trip and James loves – was again available to join us.  That (plus the proposed itinerary) helped get Alyce on board with 3 weeks.

On what was to be our third international trip with James, I think I was finally getting pretty good at planning things that would keep everyone happy.  James loves parks and is turning into quite the beach bum.  As a result, Alyce likes places that are close to beaches/parks and that she feels comfortable walking too by just herself and James.

Of course we still love to eat out, walk around, try new wines, etc.  I think that I had found places that combined all the options we were looking for.

One complication remained: booking business class (preferably) award flights for 4 people 6 months from departure – aka not so early that you get the first award seats released, but generally too far out for closer to departure award seat releases.

I looked at a couple airlines, but ended up back with Iberia for the flight over.  Iberia uses married award segments, and flying to obscure airports like Santiago de Compostela (SCQ) actually helps your cause.  Iberia award availability can also vary day to day, so checking a time or two each day can increase your odds of finding space.  Eventually I did.

For the flight back, we just needed 3 seats because Sam would be meeting another of our cousins doing a law school summer semester abroad in Europe.  The brand new LHR-MSY route had 3 business class seats and we could get to London easily from Madrid.  Our first and last stops were set, now I just had to allocate days and pick the remaining stops.  My thought process and the itinerary ended up like this:

Spain-Portugal 2017 Itinerary

A’ Coruna – 4 Nights

I found A’ Coruna by just browsing the Northwestern coast of Spain on google maps.  Further research compared it to a lesser known San Sebastian, which we loved.  There was easy beach access, and plenty of Tapas bars and restaurants to try out.  I found a great vacation rental that overlooked one of the beaches for a very reasonable price.

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Blog Update – Fall 2017

Anyone that still has our blog on your reader may have noticed that it has been over a year since our last post.  This isn’t for lack of things to write on – I’ve just been slow to get to the posts I’ve been needing to type up.

I had hoped to have my posts on Spain/France 2016 wrapped up by year end 2016.   That didn’t exactly pan out.  But, the good news is that I now have that typed up along with wrap ups for our other trips since then (New York and Charleston).

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Wine Country Advice/Suggestions

Let me start with this…I don’t claim to be a wine country expert by any means.  But I tend to get asked a lot about it, so I figured I’d type out a post as a primer.  That said, we have been out there 4 times now and actually had another stop planned that we had to cancel.  Hopefully, this post will help you get started with planning your own trip.

I’d also recommend reading my wrap ups/retro reviews from our Napa trips: 2016, 2013, 2012, 2010.

Sonoma Valley vs. Napa Valley

One of your first decisions is on where to go because there is a mountain range between the two regions that you don’t want to be traversing on a daily basis.  It depends on a couple things…

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What sort of wine do you like?  Cabernets – you’re much better off in Napa.  Pinots and Zinfandels – you’re probably better off in Sonoma.  These are gross generalizations, but they’re true more often than not. Continue reading

2016 Points, Miles, etc. Update

It’s been a year and a half since my last points and miles update post, and nearly 3 years since my original series on points/hotels/flights/etc.  It’s probably time for an update…

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not as deep into the weeds on this stuff as I was 4 years ago when I was planning our 2013 Big Trip.  But, most of the principles are the same.

Hotels/Lodging

Our personal travel patterns have changed a lot in the last 2 years.  The biggest change is that there are now 3 of us, one of whom takes a 2-3 hour nap in the middle of the day and goes to bed at 8:00 (No, I’m not talking about Alyce…at least not most of the time).  If you’re staying in a hotel room, that makes for a very dark, quiet, and boring time during those hours.  That’s a major reason why we’ve spent more time in vacation rentals – in addition to the extra space.

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Secondly, we’ve been traveling in Europe.  My favorite hotel brand – Hyatt – is not too prevalent in many European locations.  Plus, I haven’t been Diamond for over a year, and European hotels just aren’t as impressive as the Asian hotels in general. And as I just described, hotel rooms don’t really work for us unless we have a suite.  We didn’t stay in a traditional hotel in Italy at all and likely will not on our upcoming France trip. Continue reading

Updated Points/Miles Strategy

It’s been one year since I wrote my initial post on miles and points, and a good bit has changed in the last year – such as:

*Delta has switched to a revenue based mileage earning system.  That is, you earn miles based on what your ticket costs, not how far you travel.  This is a much bigger difference than it may sound like for frequent flyers.  There is also much speculation that they will change to a revenue based redemption system in the not too distant future (e.g., every Delta mile is worth 1 cent).

*United gutted its award chart for all of its partners and increased the prices of United award flights as well.  United used to be one of my favorite miles, but they’re right in the middle of the pack now.

*United also followed Delta’s lead in changing to a revenue based mileage earning system.  This leaves only American Airlines as the sole major airline on which you earn miles based on how far you fly.  Many speculate AA will follow the other two majors at some point.

*Speaking of American, AA and US Airways have merged.  This places US Airways in the One World alliance.

*Hyatt added a new top award category for its best properties and increased prices across all categories.  This resulted in a 50% increase in award prices for most of Hyatt’s nicest properties.  That said, Hyatt was due for an adjustment.  Overall, it was not awful (see Hilton for an awful hotel point devaluation).

*Citi’s Thank You Points now transfer to several airlines (previously, they were just cash equivalent points).

So with all of that combined with questions I’ve received over e-mail, I figured it was time to update my take on points miles.  My original post still has lots of good info I will not cover here, so be sure to read that in combination with this post.

Takeaways from all the changes:

*Transferrable points are generally the best.  If a program devalues its award chart, you just avoid transferring points to that hotel/airline.

*Don’t hoard your points and miles.  Use them.  Points/miles will always decrease in value.  This can be true even in the case of cash equivalent points (Southwest airlines and Citi both reduced the cash equivalent value of points.)

*Speaking of cashback equivalent points – they can be a compelling option for many people.

In terms of my favorite points, Starwood Preferred Guest (“SPG”) points are still my favorite.  SPG points transfer to my two favorite airlines at the moment.  Chase Ultimate Rewards have gone down a notch with the United and Hyatt devaluations.  Now I probably place them on par (or slightly below) AMEX Membership Rewards points.  Citi Thank You points have improved with the addition of airline transfer partners, but they are still behind the other major transferrable points.

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General Travel Tips – Things to do before Leaving

There are always certain things I’ll do before leaving for a trip – either international or domestic.  Some you have to do, others will save you money or make your life easier.

Visas/Reciprocity Fees/Vaccinations/Safety/etc.

Most countries allow US Passport holders to visit the country for up to 90 days without having to obtain visa prior to arrival.  We have only been to one country that required you get anything before arrival – Australia, which requires a small payment for an electronic visa.

Some countries (e.g. Argentina, Chile) make you to pay a reciprocity fee.  Basically, these countries require that you pay whatever their citizens have to pay to visit the US.

I also always check if the countries require you have any vaccinations to enter or if you should receive any vaccinations for your own health.

The US government has a good site that summarizes most of these things.  I’ll also look at the UK Travel website and the Australian Travel website for second and third opinions.

Though, if you find yourself looking at all this and thinking that it seems like you don’t need to do much, don’t worry.  Many times you don’t have to do much.  Of all the countries we’ve visited, we have not had to get a single vaccination and have only had to pay one small fee (Australia).  That’s it.  Most places are visa upon arrival.

But one thing I know I’ve mentioned several times is to always have your airline/hotel confirmations printed out.  More than anything else, we’ve had to provide proof of onward travel and even that we had a place to stay once. Continue reading

General Travel Tips – Living out of a Suitcase

Another question we get a lot is “what was it like living out of a suitcase for nearly 3 months?”  Honestly, it wasn’t that bad because we were organized and didn’t overstuff our bags.

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In the past, my philosophy was that if you could get the bag closed, you were packed just fine…Let future Justin worry about packing for the return trip.  That is not the philosophy you want when moving around a lot (or really ever). Continue reading