Planning a Mega Trip-Part 1

OK, so what is a “mega trip”.  For me it is a 3.5 month trip to Australia and New Zealand.  So, where to start?

I started by looking at some packaged trips to see where they went and how they got there.  In this case I looked specifically at the 28 day Australia and New Zealand trip offered by Overseas Adventure Travel

I had planned to be gone for two months, one month in Australia and one month in New Zealand. This was until some friends in Australia pointed out that Australia is as big as the United States. Oh my!

I looked at the weather in the different zones and studied when would be the best time to travel. I decided that Spring would be a good time. This was until some fellow travelers from New Zealand, said, “Oh you don’t want to come in November, you want to come in January or February.” Oh my!

So the trip had to morph from Spring (September to November) to Fall/Winter (February to June 2014).

At this point I just had a rough idea of the areas I wanted to visit and no specific locations decided.

My next step was to lay out the specific locations to stay and how long to stay at each location. I was fortunate that the New Zealand couple we had met on a cruise in Mexico, graciously offered to help edit my itinerary.

The next step was to book my flights. I was hoarding United Airline miles and planned to use those. I will post about that process in the next part of this Mega Trip post.

Happy travels.

10 Travel Tips

Wanted to share these travel tips with you from a fellow blogger.

10 Travel Tips.

Car Rental 101

Car REntal

This last week two different people asked me how to find the best car rental deals, so here goes.

When I book travel I have two great starting points, Kayak.com and tripadvisor.com. I use Trip Advisor to check reviews on places to stay and things to do. I use kayak for airfare and car rental, mainly, but sometimes for hotels also.

I love Kayak.com because it searches all the carriers at once. You can even check the boxes at the bottom and let it search Expedia, CarRental.com, priceline and other options. It is, in short, a ONE STOP shop for travel prices. If you create a user ID and save trip information, it will then “watch” for low fares and email you suggestions for your destination.

That said, as I stated in my post about Airline Credit Cards (https://travelbug1950.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/credit-cards-with-airline-miles/), I prefer to book directly with the vendor, rather than a third party like carrental.com or travelocity. I use kayak to see who is the cheapest vendor with the best routing, in the case of airlines. I then click the link on kayak to take me to the vendor’s website.

Back to car rentals. At this point, I have rented enough cars and checked enough prices to fall back on two discount websites. Costco and American Automobile Association (AAA).

Costco Travel (http://www.costcotravel.com/Rental-Cars): This web site used to be difficult to use because you had to pick a car rental company and discount coupon and then search, which sometimes required several tries to find the best deal. They have, in the last few months, changed their web search. It now searches all the car rental deals and gives you multiple search results in one screen so it is simple to compare. They call it their “Low Price Finder”. You do have to create a user ID with your Costco membership number to access this process.

AAA: I’m not including the web link because AAA reroutes you to the club for your area, by zip code. As example my AAA website is for Northern California, Nevada and Utah. Be aware that AAA has an “exclusive partnership” with Hertz. When you initiate a search it will take you to results for Hertz ONLY, but at the bottom of the screen there is a button that says “Search More AAA Rental Car Partners”. If you push this button, you will get a side by side comparison of multiple car rental options.

Both of these search engines take you to the car rental booking engine to book your rental. Be aware that you don’t provide a credit card number as with a hotel. You don’t get charged until you show up and take possession of your car. In fact I changed my mind at the airport in Denver once because the rental car kiosk for my reservation was unmanned and when I asked at another companies manned desk they offered to beat the price on the spot.

It is also wise to check at different points in time, like book the car six months in advance but recheck prices, at two months and two weeks. Sometimes you can get better deals at the last minute, so then simply cancel your old reservation and make a new one.

As with hotels and airlines, I join the car rental company travel perk programs. This usually means at an airport location you don’t have to go and stand in line, your car will be waiting for you with the keys in the ignition and your name on it. Took me awhile to figure this one out, after waiting in a line at San Diego for 30 minutes to rent a car I had already reserved.

NEVER NEVER NEVER show up without a reservation. I did this ONCE when my mother was hospitalized and I had jump on a plane on short notice. They gave me a terrible price when I showed up at the rental car place late at night and told me they had no compact cars, when there were at least 30 compact cars on the lot and lot attendant said I could just take one if I wanted, at the full size car price.

Now lets talk about car rental insurance. I would prefer not to, but it is a necessary evil. If you go to the desk they will push hard for you to take the insurance, threaten you with having to pay for “lost” rental days if your car is damaged and has to be repaired. Most credit cards offer some form of coverage, along with your personal auto insurance, but you have to deal with irritating rental car adjusters.

I speak from experience here. We rented a car in Sacramento simply to get us to the airport in San Francisco for our first EVER European vacation. When we got home we found a bill for $890 for damage they said we caused on this three hour drive from point A to point B. I was able to talk them out of it, but it was frustrating and not easy.

We travel enough and rent enough cars that I wanted an alternative option. Since, as stated above, we belong to Costco, we carry a Costco American Express card. American Express has a car rental insurance option. (https://www295.americanexpress.com/premium/car-rental-insurance-coverage/home.do?extlink=ps-cardserv-cZHadMNC_dc&pcrid=2991259228&pmt=e&kw=american%20express%20car%20rental%20insurance). You have to pre-register for the program. There is no cost until you use your American Express card to rent a car and then there is a $24.95 charge ($17.99 in California) per rental, not per day. It is good for up to 42 consecutive days of car rental (30 days for Washington State members).

I have had this option for about ten years and have used their services twice. Once where I was hit by another car in a parking lot and once when the car had prior damage, that was alleged to be mine. Both times I called the folks at American Express. Both times they dealt with the rental car company. Both times nothing was paid, and both claims were dropped. These people deal with rental car companies all the time. They know how to do it. The cost is WAY cheaper than the car rental company insurance and, in my opinion, worth the peace of mind. This is also your primary coverage, so you don’t have to notify your personal vehicle auto policy.

Oh one last thing, don’t take the fill up your tank option, unless you are comfortable running on empty. They charge you for a full tank of gas, so if you turn the car in half full, you just bought an unnecessary half tank of gas. When I leave the car rental place I look for a nearby gas station to fill up prior to turning in the car. If I don’t see one, I use Yelp to find one on the last day.

So, that’s all for Car Rental guidelines. I hope you find this helpful.

Credit Cards with Airline Miles

I should start by saying there are people who will tell you that credit cards with airline miles are the wrong way to go.  They will say that it is better, from a financial perspective, to go with a card that gives you cash back.  Let me comment here, that I pay my credit cards off every month, so I incur no finance charges. 

We travel enough that I prefer to use cards that give you airline miles and other perks.  Generally when you apply for a card and use it once they give you enough miles for one round trip flight.  My husband and I apply for the cards under our own names so we get two round trip flights when we get a new card. 

Be aware that the airlines all have partner airlines. Examples include Alaska is partnered with KLM and American Airlines, among others. United is partnered with Lufthansa and New Zealand Air, among others. You can earn and use miles on these other partner airlines. You just need to make sure you enter your preferred airline miles program when you book your flights.

We just came back from a river trip in Eastern Europe. The tour provider booked our flights with KLM and American Airlines. I went online to KLM and American and entered our Alaska Mileage account numbers. The 9,000 miles each way were added to our Alaska Air Mileage balances.

It is best to limit the number of programs you participate in as transferring miles from one airline to another generally involves a fee.

Here are the cards I have and why. 

United MileagePlus Explorer Card with Chase Bank:  Priority boarding, one free checked bag and no foreign transaction fees. 

We have had a United Mileage Card for sometime. About a year ago they offered the new Explorer Card and the offer included enough miles for a round trip ticket. We both applied and got these new cards along with our round trip miles. We then cancelled our old cards. 

Alaska Airlines: I have used the Alaska Airlines card twice to get free round trip tickets to Alaska (that is four tickets in total).  We applied for the card back in 2004 and used the application incentive miles for a trip to Alaska in 2009.  I then cancelled the cards.  When we decided to return to Alaska in 2012, we both reapplied and were given the application incentive for a second time.  We used these miles for our trip in 2012. This card also gives you a coach companion ticket each year for just $111.

Chase Sapphire Proffered Card:  No foreign transaction fees.  This cards current application incentive is 40,000 points.  I was initially skeptical about the points instead of miles. 

I am no longer skeptical because I recently used our points to book a flight and hotel in Australia via the Ultimate Rewards web site.  It works similar to Kayak.com (which I love).  You put in your flight, car or hotel needs and it gives you a long list of choices and the number of points you will need.

I also transferred points from Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak for my husband to take a train trip coast to coast for free.  Had we booked the same trip with Amtrak the cost would have been $1,200. Before I transferred the points I had to register my husband for the Amtrak rewards program, which is free. I then had to calculate how many points he would need for the trip. I then went to the Chase Ultimate Rewards site and transferred the points. It turned out I had miscalculated and we had 6,000 points left over in the Amtrak Rewards. For 6,000 points I could get a $50 gift card to several restaurants and other businesses, so I used the points for a $50 gift card to Macaroni Grill.    

I am in the process of booking a 3.5 month trip to Australia and New Zealand for 2014. I have been hoarding my United Airline miles to use for this trip. I was able to book six flights for free in most cases or for a small amount of taxes that were required. I had never really used my miles, since this trip has been on the horizon for several years now. I learned a valuable lesson.

The plan had been to have enough miles for us to fly Business Class from San Francisco. The United web site is great because when you put in your selected date it gives you a calendar that highlights the dates where mileage flights are available. Flight schedules are opened 330 days prior to the date of travel. If you want something specific, like Business Class, you need to book as soon as the flights are opened. I checked and there was a Business Class flight I could have booked for our San Francisco to Auckland route, but I waited two weeks and the flights were all gone. For the return flight I booked as soon as the dates I wanted were available and got Business Class from Sydney to San Francisco. So, although booking early is not required it is advisable.

If you have any questions about this, just leave me a comment and I will respond.

Lost Luggage

I believe it is not a question of “if your luggage will be lost”, but “when your luggage will be lost.” I have first hand experience. A missed flight on Thanksgiving weekend, resulted in an unplanned two night stopover in Atlanta, while our luggage winged its way home without us.

Now I believe in an ounce of protection. So here is how we pack now. An important part of this packing plan means using packing cubes. I use the Medium Size packing cubes from eBags.com http://www.ebags.com/product/ebags/medium-packing-cubes-3pc-set/48439?sourceid=ONLTELLPT1

This plan works for two people travelling together. We each assemble four outfits. One to wear on the plane and three to pack. I assemble a packing cube that consists of one outfit, underwear, and socks. In the end I have six packing cubes, three for each traveler. The packing cubes also hold miscellaneous odds and ends, like a pair of gloves, hat, etc.. One packing cube goes in each traveler’s carry on. Each checked bag gets one packing cube for each of the travelers, a cube for Traveler A and a cube for Traveler B. This way if one bag gets lost, you each have two packing cubes with clothing. One cube from your carry on and one from the single checked bag.

Of course, since I put this plan in place we have never experienced lost luggage. We did have a situation where the airline staff put our tag for Mexico on the bag of a woman bound for Chicago. The mistake was realized when there was no tag to put on our bag. The airline was able to retrieve her bag, but she thought her bag might have had more fun in Mexico, than Chicago.

Another tip I have is to be sure to pack a change of clothes in your carry on for the return trip. Had I done this we would have had a change of cloths for our unexpected two nights in Atlanta.

So, take the extra time and pack smart.

Colorado in Mud Season

The Perils of Mud Season

In the Colorado Rockies they will tell you there are three seasons, Winter, Summer and Mud Season.  Mud Season occurs twice each year and anywhere else would be referred to as Spring and Fall.  We have travelled to the Rockies in both Mud Seasons. 

The pros of Mud Season are all related to the lack of people.  No need for dinner reservations.  No crowds to fight off.  The paid parking is free.  Time share exchanges require minimal points.  Hotels and resorts can be booked at cheap rates. 

The cons of Mud Season are all related to business closures.  Many businesses close for all or part of mud season. 
Open and Closed for Mud Season
So while there is no wait for dinner, the choices are limited. 

There are, however, still many things to do during Mud Season. There are literally miles and miles of paved bike trails that can afford long or short walks or bike rides.  White water rafting can be booked in the fall Mud Season.  Jeep and 4×4 tours can be booked.  You can self drive a scenic tour.

Jeep Tour Mud Season
So, it is up to you. Personally I will continue to travel during Mud Season.

“Sun” Day Drives

Pass opened at 2 PM and we arrived at 2:15 PM, perfect.

Pass opened at 2 PM and we arrived at 2:15 PM, perfect.

My parents used to take us for Sunday drives.  We would go into the “backcountry” of San Diego County, past the Burma Shave signs and just meander down country roads. 

When I travel I like to take “Sun” day drives when the weather is nice and just explore with no particular destination in mind.  I prefer to be able to make a loop so we don’t experience the same view twice, but that is not always possible. 

I had planned to tell you that an old fashioned paper map works better than Google for these drives, however, I am amending that advice.  I had planned a Sunday drive today from our base in Beaver Creek, Colorado to Aspen via Independence Pass.  I went to Google maps last night so I would know about how long my planned loop would take.  Google REFUSED to give me a route via Independence Pass.  A check of the Colorado Transportation web site revealed that it was scheduled to open today at 2 PM. 

Based with my new Google info I reversed our loop so we headed to Aspen for lunch and got to the Pass at 2:15.  The pass was open. 

I still believe that a paper map is the best place to start.  The AAA maps indicate the scenic routes.