Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Making the Most of Travel Reward Points

I am continuing my series of posts on affordable travel. I do a fair amount of travel and rarely pay full price. If you missed my first post which was an overview with 6 big tips for affordable travel you can read it by clicking here. The second post was about the Reward Credit Cards that I use and you can read it by clicking here. Today I am sharing how I get the most of my reward points. You may be surprised at what you read!

Antwerp 1

I am always shocked at the number of people who travel a lot but who tell me they have never booked a flight using airline miles or points. Several commercials on tv state that the seats are never available and you can never use the miles. I beg to differ. Here are two tips for using your airline miles.

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Book as early as possible! The sooner you book the more likely you are to get a reward seat. However, reward seat availability is based on demand for travel so I’m sure that there are fewer seats around major holidays so plan accordingly.

Amsterdam windmill

Flexibility is crucial! When I’m trying to book a reward seat I always try to book from the 4 airports nearest our home. If no seats are available I look for a seat on days before or after my target travel date. For example, if I would like to fly to New York on December 15 and no seats are available I check for seats on the 14th and the 16th. When my daughter and I were booking our reward seats to Europe, our dates were flexible and our arrival and departure cities were flexible so we kept searching for reward seats on various dates in or out of one of the cities that we wanted to visited. We searched for reward seats in and out of Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and London. We ended up flying into Amsterdam and out of Paris. Once before when our family of 6 was traveling to Europe we called the airline very late and night with a list of dates and cities. The agent on the line was not busy since it was very late at night and he worked until he found 6 seats into one of our cities and 6 seats out of our selected cities. Once you get to Europe, train travel is very affordable for getting from place to place. It’s getting across the ocean that is the biggy.

1627 building 

Another option is getting a seat for the biggest part of the trip. For example, when we were traveling to China for the Olympics in 2008 I was not able to find any reward seats to Beijing. However, I was able to find reward seats to Seoul, Korea. I took those seats then purchased a ticket from Seoul to Beijing for a couple of hundred dollars each. The savings still amounted to about $2000 per ticket.

Finding a reward seat does require time and patience but they are out there. You just have to find one that you can use.

nice canal view

One of the unpublished benefits of the Platinum Delta American Express Card is the ability to “pay with miles” on some flights. When you “pay with miles” you use skymiles to pay for the price of the ticket. You can pay for part or all of the ticket.  When we went to New York in December for my birthday we used “pay with miles.”  We usually stockpile our miles for big trips, sometimes saving them for years before cashing them in but this year we did something different. When I looked for reward seats to New York they were available but for 32,500 miles each. I usually use the miles for expensive tickets and didn’t want to use 32,000 miles for a ticket that was $218. Luckily for us, these tickets were eligible for “pay with miles.” I used 20,000 miles for each ticket and paid the remaining $18 each. With this option you can certainly bring the price to an affordable option. Again, if you didn’t read my previous post on credit cards, you can read it here. Remember, you should always pay it in full every month.

train station

I also stockpile our hotel reward points to use when we are visiting an expensive city. I usually save them to use for New York since we usually go there every other year and hotels in the city are very expensive. This year I only had enough points to use for 2 nights instead of 3. The price of the room varied a lot while we were there. The rate for Thursday night was $299, for Friday was $339 and the rate for Saturday night was $419. I used the reward points for Friday and Saturday and put Thursday night on my Capital One card. I then used my Capital One points for  my “purchase eraser” to get a credit for Thursday night. Another option of my Capital One Venture Card is to get cash back. However, I get half of the value for cash that I would get for travel credit so I always take the travel credit instead of cash.

Amsterdam panoramic

I know this has been a lot of verbiage but I tried to give enough details that it made sense. If you have questions on something that isn’t clear, please leave a comment and let me know or send me an email phaney@lydiashouse.com.

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I’m linking to Grace at Home at Imparting Grace.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Affordable Travel: Reward Credit Cards

While I am waiting for spring to arrive, I often spend time planning travel for the year. I am sharing how I keep our travels more affordable. By using these tips, we have been able to do a significant amount of travel. Grab a drink and try to take this in. If you missed my first post you can read it here. As I stated in that post, we use reward credit cards. Financial guru Dave Ramsey advises folks to avoid all credit including credit cards, especially reward cards because he doesn’t think you can ever reap the rewards. I could not disagree more on this topic. Let me share how I use mine.

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1. We charge everything that we can to our credit cards in order to accumulate miles. We pay the balance in full every month. We have never paid an interest fee for our credit card. This means that you can’t charge stuff that you can’t pay for. If you are not disciplined enough to do this then you should not use a credit card.

2. So what do I put on the credit card? Gasoline for our cars, groceries, all household purchases, restaurant purchases, auto insurance, homeowners insurance, utilities, telephone, cable, clothing purchases, auto service and repairs, medical care, property taxes, and even college tuition! Yes, college tuition! I just put it on the card, then moved the money from savings to pay for the tuition.

3. If you are nervous about paying in full every month you can do what my kids do. When they make a purchase, they go home and make a payment on their credit card right that minute. That way they don’t run up a bill that they can’t pay.

4. Our church has online giving available but we do not put our tithe on the credit card because the church would have to pay a 3% fee. This is one of the few exceptions we have for using our card.

 5. We use two different cards. Both have an annual fee but we feel that the benefits are more valuable than the fee.

Bruges Clock Tower from the canal

So, which cards do I use?

We use the American Express Platinum Delta Skymiles Card. We earn one mile per dollar with double miles on Delta purchases. The annual fee is $195. Yes, that is a lot but with that fee we get a complimentary companion ticket each year. That equates to one ticket for $195. There are very few tickets that can be purchased for $195 so that makes it a good deal alone if you take at least one flight per year. In order to use the companion ticket, you must purchase a ticket using your credit card so you could purchase a ticket for someone else and use the companion ticket with that purchase but you could not just give the certificate to someone else to use. Other benefits of the card include priority boarding, one free checked bag for up to 4 people in your party on every flight, 20% discount on in-flight purchases in the form of statement credit, no foreign transaction fees, reduced fees for Sky Club entry at airports, 10,000 bonus miles for $25,000 in purchases in a single year, and an additional 10,000 bonus miles for $50,000 in purchases in a single year.

Another favorite benefit of the American Express card is the consumer protection. Purchases made on the card include an additional 1 year of warranty protection and purchases are covered for accidental damage or theft for up to 90 days from purchase. We have used this feature twice. We purchased a new camera for our daughter for her birthday and  it fell out of her pocket onto the street and got broken a month later. American Express refunded the purchase price of the camera so that we could replace it.  Also, I once purchased a large floor length mirror and broke it putting it into the car! I was still in the parking lot of Homegoods! I simply filed a claim with American Express and received a credit for that purchase!  This is a great benefit!

Another benefit of the Delta American Express is the ability of “paying with miles” for Delta purchases. I will talk more about this in another post but it is an option of using miles for part of the purchase price and paying for the remainder when a reward ticket is not available.

If you go to the AmEx website to research the benefits of each card, you probably will not find the complimentary companion ticket listed, at least I could not find it, nor does it state anywhere about the option of paying with miles but I called and verified that the companion ticket is still a benefit and I recently used the pay with miles option.

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We also have another card because we have found that American Express is not accepted everywhere. Our other card is the Capital One Venture Card. Our annual fee is $59 and we receive 2 miles per dollar spent. We use it for all of our purchases where AmEx is not accepted. The best benefit of this card is that we are not tied to one airline. You can make any travel purchase on this credit card and then use the “purchase eraser” redeeming miles for statement credit. The reward rate is 100 miles per dollar which is 1%. However because we get 2 miles per dollar spent that translates to 50 miles or dollars spent per 1 dollar credit which makes it 2% return. Stay with me here while we do the math. In order for this card to pay for itself, you would need to acquire 5900 miles which would require $2950 in purchases. I’ll talk more about how I use these miles in another post.

My next post will give you some specifics of how I have redeemed these cards for travel. These tips only refer to these two specific cards. About a year ago my husband was trying to use his business AmEx card to redeem points for travel and we were appalled at the experience. The “points” did not equate to one point per dollar and the redemption rate was unbelievably high. What should have been a ticket for 120,000 miles required 274,000 points! While it was still a perk for the business the rate of return was a fraction of what it should have been. I would not recommend that card.

Keukenhof Gardens 6

My daughter and I used our Skymiles for our tickets to Europe last year. You can read about that trip by clicking here,here,here, and here.

If I have convinced you that you need the Delta Platinum American Express card I would love to refer you. I would get 5000 miles for the referral if you are approved and accept the card. You would receive 5000 bonus miles upon acceptance and an additional 35,000 bonus miles if you make $1000 in purchases in the first three months. You will also receive $100 in statement credit after a Delta purchase within the first 3 months. That’s one free ticket quickly!! In order for me to refer you, you must email me at phaney@lydiashouse.com so that I can send the “official” email offer.

Don’t forget to send me a postcard!

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I’ll be sharing with Wow Us Wednesday at Savvy Southern Style and to Grace at Home at Imparting Grace.


Monday, February 9, 2015

6 Tips for Affordable Travel

My friends often comment about how often I travel. It doesn’t seem that often until I sit down and tally it up. I spent 9 weeks in hotels last year. That’s was a lot of travel for someone who does not work outside of the home! Years ago my husband and I decided that we were going to enjoy life now. We are not going to wait until “someday.” I call it living in the land of “someday.” You know, “Someday I am going to …….” We realize that “someday” never comes for many people so we decided to start checking off our bucket lists. Over the years I have developed some skills in planning affordable travel. I will be sharing this wealth of information in 6 posts in order to break it into manageable pieces. Here are my first tips.

Travel planning is a great activity for gloomy days of winter. I hope you’ll use these tips to plan a great trip. Don’t forget to send me a postcard!

Tulip Field w text

1. Driving vs flying

To determine if we are going to drive or fly, I calculate flying time, add time to the airport ( 1 to 3 hours depending on which airport we use) add 2 hours pre-departure at airport and add 1 hour for arrival at the airport for getting to the hotel. If that total travel time is within 2 hours of diving time we usually drive. Even with the price of gasoline it is considerably cheaper to drive and we have our own car eliminating the expense of a rental car or taxis. (And if we drive I have room to bring home any “treasures” that I may find!!)

Bruges from the canal 1

2. Get a travel reward credit card. We actually have two credit cards with travel rewards. Dave Ramsey and I disagree on this one. Dave does not like credit cards and says you can never use the points. I disagree as I have had great success using the points. In my next post I will tell you which cards I have and how I get the most use from them. As with any credit card, the balance should be paid in full every month. We always abide by this rule. It is non-negotiable. Now that my children are adults, they have reward credit cards too so that we can combine rewards. They also understand the importance of paying the balance in full every month.

Antwerp 1

3. Enroll in loyalty programs. Enrollment is free for loyalty programs with hotels, airlines, and rental car companies. Many offer discounts just for being a member. Others allow you to accumulate points. The perks are worth giving an email address for enrollment. Many loyalty programs send emails with discounts for members. I’ll also be sharing an additional post on making the most of loyalty reward points.

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4. Double dip. Add days to business or conference travel. Most conferences offer hotel rooms at a “conference rate” which is significantly lower than rack rates. Also, most hotels will allow you to add days on either end of the conference at the same rate if there is availability. My husband and I have been to Hawaii five times. On four of those trips he had a business meeting. His airfare and hotel room were paid for. I went along and the only expense we had was my airfare and meals. On another trip we were able to use “buy one get one free” certificates with a major airline. Since my husband’s ticket was paid for by his business, this allowed us to take 6 people for the price of one airline ticket! Yes, 6! My husband took one child with his ticket and I took another. Our 2 children under the age of 2 were allowed to fly free! That will probably never happen again but it was a great trip for our family!


5. Compare prices. I always use travel websites to compare prices. Make sure to read the fine print and watch for add-ons such as fees, resort fees, parking, internet, breakfast, etc. Some travel sites include all fees with initial airfare quotes while others add them on at check out. Make sure that you are comparing the same thing before you click “buy.”

Whenever we are taking a first-timer to New York, I get a limo to pick us up at the airport. It is a splurge but it’s always fun and exciting. When comparing prices this past December, the prices ranged from $85 to $225. The $225 was all inclusive. The $85 had add-ons for indoor meet and greet, parking, tolls, gratuity, taxes, and fuel surcharge! That’s a lot of add-ons. I ended up using NYC Rich Limo for $159 inclusive. All seven of our party could ride in one limo and the price for 2 taxis would have been just under $100.

Whenever I use online services for booking travel I always have my confirmation information handy. If I am traveling where I have cell service the info is on my phone, but I usually print a copy of all bookings and confirmations and keep them with me in a small portfolio. That has helped solved check-in problems in many instances!


6. Flexibility can save a bundle. I understand that travel dates are not always flexible if you are traveling for a particular event but even then, adjusting your date by one day can save you a bundle of money. On our trip to NYC this past December, the rate for one hotel room was $299 for Thursday, $339 for Friday, and $419 for Saturday. That’s a pretty big difference. Had I been attending a Friday event, it would have been much more affordable to add Thursday night instead of Saturday night.

Also, when we are flying, I always check prices from at least 3 airports. The airport closest to our house is almost always more than $100 higher than the others! $100 is not that much if you are buying one ticket but when you are buying four or five it makes a pretty big difference! I’ll talk more about flexibility in my upcoming posts on Reward Cards, Making the Most of Reward Points, and Booking Hotel Rooms.

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I understand this is a lot of information. I have more details in the upcoming posts. If you are not already a “follower” of this blog, you can click on the “Follow me on Bloglovin” button on the upper left corner of this post and you will be notified by email when the next post is up.

If you would like to read my other posts on travel I have taken, click on the word “travel” at the top of the post!

Ok start making your travel bucket list because I hear we are in for several more weeks of winter weather!

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I’ll be linking to Metamorphosis Monday at Between Naps on the Porch.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mail Order Fiddle Leaf Fig

I may be the last decorator in America to get on the Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree train! I have searched high and low for years and could not find one. I looked at every big box store and even at high end garden centers to no avail. Then one day as I was reading the Copy Cat Chic blog, there was a copy cat room that included a Fiddle Leaf Fig tree and there was a link for a tree by mail order from none other than Home Depot!!!! It was less than $20 so I decided to take a chance. I am so glad that I did.

fig tree on porch in summer a

It has done very well.

fiddle leaf fig tree delivery a

It was very well packed when it arrived at my door.

fiddle leaf fig tree delivery b

fiddle leaf fig tree delivery c

The new plant was probably 18 to 20 inches tall above the soil line.

fiddle leaf fig care tag a

fiddle leaf fig care tag b

unpacking the fiddle leaf fig

It has been easy to care for. I keep I on the dry side as opposed to over watering. I have left it on the porch for 2 weeks while we were on vacation in the middle of summer and it did fine.

new fiddle leaf fig

I sat the pot inside a $10 Walmart olive bucket.

fig tree 8-14 a

The photo above was taken a year later.

fig tree on porch in summer b

IMG_8096fig tree 8-14 b

You can see from the comparison shot above how much it grew in one year.

fiddle leaf fig tree winter b

During the winter months, it stays next to the fireplace in our sun room.

fiddle leaf fig tree winter a

It is doing very well in this spot too.

fiddle leaf fig tree w yardstick

I took one picture next to a yardstick just for reference. I don’t know that I have ever ordered a plant online before but I have been more than happy with this purchase.

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I’m linking to Wow Us Wednesday at Savvy Southern Style and to Grace at Home at Imparting Grace.